Love First: my cat’s final gift to me

Since late 2015, my cat Buranshe was sick from an incurable and complicated form of Feline Leukemia Virus, or FLV. At her very first diagnosis, we were told that “she probably won’t make it through the weekend.”

Buranshe, amazing fighter that she is, kept it going for another two years.

When Buranshe first became sick, I had just begun a new job that paid well enough that the medical costs of keeping my cat alive were very much within the realm of possibility, steep though they were.

But then 2017 happened, and it was a terrible year for many people. In my case it started with some huge challenges in my long term relationship, and then getting laid off due to downsizing. Because the two happened so closely after each other I found myself with a pretty serious identity crisis (and without an income). I had no idea anymore who I was or wanted to be, and especially, what I wanted to do with my life. I subsequently struggled to find new work, as I was qualified for plenty of jobs but motivated by only a few. This became a vicious spiral, and the one thing that remained absolutely consistent in my life was my cat’s love and support for me. Buranshe, sick though she may be, was always there for me.

Towards Christmas, after struggling through the entire year, I’d found myself in a pretty deep depression, and for the first time in my life I tried anti-depressants. But just when things started to look up a little, Buranshe got too sick; the blood transfusions that we’d been relying on to keep her alive and healthy were not going to work anymore.

More importantly, my cat had told me that she was ready; that her time had come.

We put Buranshe down just a few days before Christmas , and that night, I hit my personal rock bottom. I knew I had to change my life around dramatically.

The next day I began by grieving for Buranshe, and reminisced about the highly communicative relationship she and I had shared. We’d frequently chat with each other, admittedly somewhat one-sided. I would speak Dutch to her, as she understood Dutch better than English—we both grew up in the Netherlands, and I never got the hang of speaking Cattonese or Meowarin. So we’d chat, sometimes we would bicker, and sometimes we’d fight, and really yell at each other. But no matter how we’d left things between us, I realized that whenever I’d come home she would always greet me with love, first.

Love, first.

Those two words stood out to me as I’d just used them in an article I’d been writing about how exploring the foundations of polyamory—honesty, trust, transparency, self-reflection, communication—had led me to realize that all of my best times in relationships, my best work, my greatest and most innovative achievements… all of them had occurred whenever I had acted through the lens of love, first. Not through anger, pride, fear, jealousy, greed, desire, or what have you. My best experiences in life had all happened when I had acted through love, first. They had been my most creative, innovative, and courageous times in their own way, and they were all rooted in love. Specifically, a holistic form of love: for myself, for the people around me, and for humanity as a whole.

But: they hadn’t been conscious or intentional efforts. Those successful times happened because of a confluence of positive circumstances in my life making it easier for me to act through love: because things were going well and I felt excited about what I was doing or who I was with. So as I sat there, thinking about Buranshe and her love-first relationship with me, I wondered what my life would be like if I practiced this as a conscious discipline. What would happen if I intentionally acted through love first, in everything that I did?

That’s when I was suddenly overcome with a tsunami of inspiration, as idea after idea came rushing to me and I grabbed my phone to start writing them all down. Everything I’d wanted to do in life, every area I wanted to contribute to, every person I had dreamed of collaborating with… everything suddenly had a meaning, a purpose and clarity to it within this larger umbrella framework I saw in those two words, Love First.

I sat there and wrote non-stop for six and a half hours.

Towards the end, I noticed that not only was I writing down ideas, but also concrete plans on how to make the ideas a reality. And as I got more and more excited with every new idea or plan I jotted down, it suddenly hit me: I was writing my way out of my depression. I felt like all year long I’d been trying to solve a puzzle while keeping the pieces upside down, and in that moment all the pieces had flipped around. The big picture had suddenly become crystal clear: all my life I had wanted to help people, and Love First was an idea that allowed me to do so by combining my passion for art and writing stories with my interests (and expertise) in product design and  business.

After nine months of racking my brain on it, I had finally figured out the next chapter in my life.

That was Buranshe’s final gift to us.

Buranshe the cat, in a cardboard box

 

I still had a little savings left, despite her steep medical costs and my lack of income. I had my plans, I had my vision, and I was ready and pumped up to use my few months of remaining personal runway and set out on this big new chapter in my life.

That’s when the universe threw me one more curveball.

As I mentioned, I’d started taking antidepressants late in 2017 to supplement my healthy eating and exercise regimen that was no longer proving sufficiently capable of keeping my depression under control. And for a while, the Prozac seemed to be helping me feel more capable and like a “normal” human again.

Initially, when I set out enthusiastically and excitedly working on making Love First a real thing that existed beyond the confines of my mind, people in my life were thrilled for me and supportive. But then I got really enthusiastic about it, and worked really intensely on it. And then some people started to express concerns. Then, there were even more concerns. It dawned on me that these concerns were raised by the people closest to me, who knew and trusted me enough to be truly honest with me, however confrontational it might be.

I sat down with my roommate to discuss them, but we couldn’t really identify what felt so “off” about what I was doing. So while that long discussion did not lead to any significant revelations, it led me to lay awake that night, wondering what was new and different in my life to have caused this disconnect between myself and my closest friends. That’s when it hit me: the other new and different thing in my life, besides my vision for Love First, was the Prozac.

I looked up the side effects in the middle of the night. Nothing from the common list of side effects applied, nor anything on the list of uncommon ones. I started going down the rare side effects, a list so long it was alphabetized. When I got to “Shivering or shaking”, it was the first item that resonated with me, as I’d recently noticed that my hands had become rather shaky indeed. And then: “Talking, feeling, and acting with excitement and activity you cannot control.”

Oh, shit.

I messaged my therapist about it and finally fell asleep, and woke up to her response: “Those are the symptoms of mania, talk to your doctor about your medication right away.”

My Prozac had been working too well, it turned out. It had given me a full-blown manic episode, and on my doctor’s advice I stopped taking it.

I spent the next eight weeks trying to return to normalcy, to a version of myself that I could trust. Prozac stays in your system a long time, and what’s scary about mania—particularly, about coming out of it—is that you become self-aware again in ways that you suddenly weren’t but couldn’t notice. This leads to the realization that you can’t fully trust any of your own thoughts. “Is this real and accurate, or is this mania?” becomes a game you play with your every thought.

However much progress I made, though, a lot of damage had already been done. Many of my friends and community had distanced themselves from me, unsure of what to say or do about my peculiar, erratic and seemingly uncontrollable behaviors. I don’t blame them in the slightest, mind you—as Dr. Kelsey Crowe and Emily McDowell explain in their brilliant book, There Is No Good Card For This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love , our very human nature leads us to keep a distance when we feel ill-equipped to confidently offer help, and most people never receive any training on how to helpfully support and interact with people suffering from serious trauma, loss, depression or, well, mania. (The book helpfully provides such training; I highly recommend it.)

I myself wouldn’t have known how to handle or deal with the manic version of me. I would never fault others for not knowing either.

The manic episode threw quite the wrench in my best-laid plans of mice and men. Coming out of mania also means some degree of impostor syndrome and/or paranoia sets in, but I eventually realized that none of my friends had actually abandoned me. That was the easy part of the recovery. Not so easy was untangling the mess that it had made around Love First. The mania had caused me to share random (and often painfully incomplete) parts of my long-term vision for it, with utterly reckless abandon and enthusiasm—“bad judgement over your actions” was a big part of how my mania manifested—and that had created a very distorted and convoluted picture of what it was. Not just to others; also to myself.

The process of separating out the manic parts of Love First took another two months, which brings us to the here and now.

I believe Love First is an idea that can help improve people’s lives to be more happy, healthy, and holistic. I’ve been devouring books and research on psychology, physiology, human connection, self-help and more, to further support the idea with scientific backing.

But it starts where all of human civilization began: with storytelling.

Storytelling is how we originally shared and passed on knowledge and wisdom, and it’s been part of us as a species for so long that it’s in our DNA—literally! When we tell engaging stories and convey genuine meaning, our brains synchronize between speaker and listeners . This neural process of emotional bridge-building helps us relate to one another, and helps us develop empathy.

So now I’m building a multi-media platform for Love First based around storytelling, because I believe that everyone has extraordinary stories to share. Stories in which we can discover beauty, wisdom, excitement, and a greater understanding of one another. Then from those stories we can derive a framework or “model” to help people live happier, healthier, and more holistic lives.

This platform will provide tools to help people, as well as publish stories in written form (online, ebook and print), a podcast with co-host and guests, and more things in the future.

To help me get started and stay afloat, I’ve launched a GoFundMe to recover some of the $25,000+ of medical costs it took to give her those two additional years of life. If you want to help become a part of making Love First a reality, donating any amount at all to it, however small, does a lot more than just help me recover some of the money spent saving my cat a number of times, and giving her two more years of a happy life. It also says—to me, to yourself, and to others—that you believe that stories, our unique yet also very common experiences, are one of our most essential human gifts, and contain within them the power to change the world.

 

The last photo of Buranshe and I together. Goodbye, my sweet Love First cat. 💖🐱

Last photo of Buranshe and I