Turns out that the "cat therapist" is more of a human therapist than I expected.
In May of last year, I adopted a little two-week old blue-eyed tuxedo kitten who was saved just as a bunch of rats began making him their lunch outside of a factory in upstate New York.
I love Leo Ram very deeply, but in the last few months Leo Ram has not been letting me, nor my partner, sleep soundly. He routinely wakes us up in the middle of the night, normally around 4 or 5 AM, and starts digging furiously in the covers. He's not looking for anything in particular—in fact, I have no idea why he does it—but it's exceedingly aggravating. When we throw him out of the bed, or the room, he meows. Leo Ram is smart, so he knows that if he meows the same way for a long time we'll get accustomed to the sounds and fall asleep, thus he changes the pitch and tone of each meow and plagues our attempts at sleep.
A few weeks ago, after many days of shitty sleep, we decided we needed to do something about it. So we calledthe cat therapist.
Carole Wilbourn, who's in her 70s, is a self-described cat therapist. She is perhaps the first person who ever called herself a cat therapist, and likely the first person who ever even thought about the concept. Her work, however, doesn't entail getting cats to stretch out on a couch and spill their guts.
"What I do is bi-species therapy. If I get to the cat and I don't get to you, it's not going to work. If I get to you and I don't get to him, it might work, it could work, depending on the cat, but not as well," Wilbourn tells me in all seriousness.
"Cats have emotions, just like people, and they deserve the same care that people do."
"I help people with the cats, and the cats help the people. And a happy cat makes me a very happy person," she concludes, before bursting into a vigorous laugh.
She's been treating cats for almost 40 years, treating thousands of cats. "I haven't kept track," she tells me, laughing again. She has been visiting and treating cats professionally since 1978, after she and her then-husband sold their veterinary practice in Manhattan, where she complemented her husband's medical-based visits with a more psychological-based approach.
For Wilbourn, who studied psychology at NYU and is also a reiki practitioner, treating cats she believes shouldn't be much different than treating humans.
"Cats have emotions, just like people, and they deserve the same care that people do," she says.
Last week, Wilbourn came to my apartment in Brooklyn for a house visit.
"Hi Leo! I'm going to take my coat off now, ok? It's not a tuxedo coat, you know that word?" Wilbourn joked, looking at my cat. Then, she turned to me and my girlfriend, noticing our befuddled faces, and said that she was just telling Leo everything she did in advance just so that he wouldn't be surprised—so he felt part of the whole process.
When she came to visit, she was wearing pointed black shoes with gold stitching that delineated feline faces, a belt with a silver cat-faced buckle, and a sweater vest embroidered with cat faces. She pointed to one and said to Leo Ram: "See? That looks like you right there."
"They don't understand the words, but they pick up the feelings."
Wilbourn is naturally funny and jovial, but she takes what she does very seriously. When we were discussing potential solutions and strategies to get more sleep, she insisted we never referred to putting Leo in the bathroom as "locking" him in there—especially with Leo Ram around—for the same reason why she kept addressing him throughout the two hours she stayed at our place.
"They don't understand the words, but they pick up the feelings," she says while we chat on the phone a few days after her visit, when she also asks me to put it on speaker so Leo can hear our conversation too.
Throughout her visit, she made me play an audio file on loop. The 23-minute recording starts with her voice—"You are the very best cat, yes you are"—and goes on with a mix of flute music, as well as sounds of seagulls, waves, whales, and creaking doors.
"It's just like a mantra for Leo," she explained, adding that we should play it as often as possible because it will remind him of the therapy, and evoke the time where we were all focused positively on him.
In some ways, Wilbourn embodies the caricatural stock character of the "crazy cat lady." But contrary to the stereotype, she connected as much with me and my partner as with Leo Ram. Her therapy really felt like it was about all of us, and not just my cat.
"I love cats, but I love people too, and I want you all to be able to live together," she says. That's what she calls the "Wilbourn way."
"The better you feel, the better he feels," she adds.
After we described her our issues with Leo Ram, she quickly diagnosed him with "single cat syndrome." In other words, Leo Ram needs a playmate. According to Wilbourn, that's why at night he wakes us up, that's why he bothers us, he wants to bite us, chase us, and play around with us—for Leo Ram, we are cats too.
That's why at night he wakes us up, that's why he bothers us, he wants to bite us, chase us, and play around with us—for Leo Ram, we are cats too.
But this is not just about the lack of a little cat friend. We explained to Wilbourn that when we sleep at my girlfriend's house upstate, Leo Ram usually behaves better. Her explanation was that when we're out of town for the weekend, we're more relaxed, so he's more relaxed too.
"He's absolutely affected by you," she said. "Cats naturally pick up on our biological rhythms."
Apparently, they also need what she called a "good catmosphere." During the therapy, it certainly seemed like she achieved a good "catmosphere". She gave Leo Ram some catnip and a couple of new toys, which he promptly took to the bathroom, where he stockpiles toys (and occasionally fruit). Eventually, he fell soundly asleep on an armchair in the living room.
Meanwhile, Wilbourn was scribbling down her diagnosis and her recommendations for treatment on a piece of paper. Her main advice was to get Leo Ram some playdates with other animals, be it another cat, or a friend's dog. Also, we should put him in a "private space," such as the bathroom, if he bothers us at night. Both these suggestions made a lot of sense, but perhaps more strangely, she also told us to talk to him as much as possible, as well as acknowledge his presence, making him part of our conversations about him, even if it was just by saying "Right, Leo?"
The night after the session with Wilbourn, my partner and I slept better than we did in a while, and so did Leo Ram. In the week since, it's been more hit or miss, with good and bad nights. Wilbourn says it will take time, and patience, but that we're on the right path.
Last week, before she was leaving the apartment, Leo Ram was staring at Wilbourn, who turned to Leo, and joked that she didn't have more toys for him.
"I've given you so much already, you're a good boy," she said smiling.
Leo kept staring at her, and for a brief instant, I almost expected him to say something—but he didn't.
You'll Sleep When You're Dead is Motherboard's exploration of the future of sleep. Read more stories.