When instinct becomes a hazardous habit

psychogenic alopecia

example of a cat psychogenic alopecia, a behavioral compulsive disorder of excessive grooming

For the last few evenings, a scamper of a little feline has snuggled in my lap.  She is a wisp of smoke, a peripheral shadow, hard to coax out of hiding and so easy to love.  Her name is Shirley.

According to the rescue workers Shirley was abused at some time in her young life, before she appeared in ours.  She is spooked by sudden noises, flinches at sudden hand movements and ostriches her head under my armpit as if to say it’s simply too much.  Her method of soothing is, well… grooming herself.   Recently she’s groomed about half the hair off her body.  She has a low threshold of tolerance.  If I didn’t know better, I’d speculate my little bald-bottomed lapwarmer meets the criteria for PTSD.

Last night as my hands gently stroked her sparse fur, it got me thinking about abuse survivors and how we soothe ourselves when we are overwhelmed – and I thought even more about it.  Shirley is a good example that even on the most instinctual level, we will do whatever we have to do to calm ourselves when we are triggered or frightened.  Even if it means licking the fur clean off down to the bare flesh.

Self-soothing is meant to be naturally healthy for us and is critical for stabilizing emotional levels, grounding us and bringing us back to center.  It seems though even in animals it can go terribly awry.

For the human survivors of domestic violence, it’s a little more sophisticated and dangerous.  Studies show many rape and violence victims resort at some point to substance abuse, self-destructive behaviorals (such as cutting or promiscuity), binge eating, etc.. the list goes on forever.  Not every victim resorts to the list (and most of us walk the edge) but yes the potential always exists, for we are desperate.

How do you soothe yourself  when you are desperate to escape the pain?




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