How Accidentally Adopting a Cat Cured My Panic Attacks

I wasn't expecting to bring another kitty into my life so soon after losing my faithful companion of 16 years, but Fiona instantly healed the symptoms of my grief and depression.

Growing up, my family always had cats—but by the time I got to college, I wanted one I could call my own. So, I visited the American Humane Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan, looking for the perfect ball of fur and began playing with several cute and playful kittens through the cage opening.

A little black kitten I nearly ignored, because he was really scrawny and not even all that cute, stuck his paw through the cage, beckoning me to play. He was clearly interested in me, so I asked to hold him. He curled up on my shoulder and began purring. Our connection was immediate. I adopted him, named him Aladdin, and brought him home.

Over the next 16 years, Aladdin and I were inseparable. He was the most gentle, sweet, playful, and cuddly cat. But one night in late 2013, everything changed.

Aladdin’s last breath

It was as if one day Aladdin was still acting like a kitten, and then the next day he was vomiting frequently and no longer acting like his usual self. He’d lost weight, which I know is one of the 13 silent signs your cat is sick. I took him to the vet and the diagnosis was grim: stomach cancer. Hoping the vet was mistaken, I took Aladdin to a specialist for a second opinion—but received the same heartbreaking diagnosis. Worse yet, both vets agreed he was too old for surgery. All I could do was give him medication to help make him more comfortable, so I had to learn how to give a cat a pill. There were so many meds.

A month later, Aladdin got worse. He began vomiting uncontrollably. I took him to the emergency vet, where they kept him overnight to administer fluids. When I went to pick him up the next morning, on Christmas Eve, the vet said it was time to put him down. It was the humane thing to do. Devastated, I said my goodbyes as he went to sleep.

Melissa Wasilewski's cat, AladdinCourtesy Melissa Wasilewski

Unable to catch my own breath

Once I got back home, reality hit me hard. Usually, Aladdin was there to greet me at the door, demanding hugs and kisses. But he was gone, leaving a huge void in my life and in my home. All of his toys spread around the house painfully reminded me of him. He never let me out of his sight, so even going to the bathroom without an audience for the first time crushed me. There are 7 tips for emotionally coping with the loss of your pet.

That night, I lost it. I couldn’t believe I’d just killed my cat. I couldn’t catch my breath. I was filled with panic and hyperventilating. I felt like I was suffocating. Unsure of how to help me, my now-husband, Aaron, called my sister, who is a nurse. She gave instructions to put my head down between my legs and breathe, explaining that I wasn’t dying but instead having a panic attack. Eventually, I calmed down.

The next day, as I packed up all of Aladdin’s things, I felt a deep, dark depression washing over me. I was riddled with grief and feeling guilty about the decision I’d made to put him down. What if it wasn’t the right decision? Despite two vets telling me it was the right decision and knowing that logically of course it was, I still couldn’t forgive myself.

I suffered from panic attacks that entire week, having several each day. They weren’t as severe as the first, but I could feel the hyperventilation coming on, coupled with panic.

I told Aaron I didn’t want another cat for at least a year. And when I did feel ready to adopt another, it would not be a kitten. He agreed.

An unexpected introduction

About a week after losing Aladdin, my friend Amy called me. She rescues stray neighborhood cats and had successfully trapped a kitten she’d been monitoring. She asked if I could come over and hold the kitten while she cleaned her crate. My first thought was: “Really? There’s nobody else who can do this for you?” I reluctantly agreed.

When I arrived, I picked up the kitten and held her in my arms. To our amazement, she didn’t squirm once in the entire 30 minutes I cradled her. She was incredibly docile and calm, which is very unusual for a feral kitten. As I kept petting her, I thought “Oh my gosh.” I knew instantly I was going to adopt her.

But was I really going to? I was still very much grieving Aladdin. I went home to think about it and discuss it with Aaron. He rolled his eyes, remembering how I’d just said it would be a year until I could think about another cat. And this one was a kitten, to boot. Oh well. My mind was made up. And I was going to name her Fiona. If you’re wondering what to name to choose, here are the 50 best cat names for your new kitten.

Bringing home kitty

In a strange turn of events, the day after I brought Fiona home, there was a bad snowstorm—so bad, in fact, that I was forced to work from home that entire week. And it turned out to be a blessing because we bonded instantly with so much uninterrupted time together.

Once I brought Fiona home, my panic attacks instantly stopped. It took about three months for my depression to fully subside, but Fiona definitely helped me heal faster. I was no longer feeling completely devastated by Aladdin’s loss and instead focused on providing a good home for our new kitty.

FionaCourtesy Melissa Wasilewski

Healing and happiness

Having to care for an animal again gave me a renewed sense of purpose. Fiona began tapping my leg when she wanted attention, and tapping my face in bed when she wanted breakfast.

Fiona also made me laugh. Initially, she wasn’t able to “meow” properly, and the breathy sound that came out of her was comical. The way she attacked her toys was also funny. She even began laying in the sink while I was brushing my teeth, just staring at me. Who could be in a bad mood around her?

To this day, six years later, having her near me is very comforting and soothing—and that’s one of the 10 incredible benefits of owning a pet. A sense of calm comes over me when I hold her, pet her, and cuddle her. Whenever I feel upset, I lay my head on her, and everything feels better.