Meet Minnie. She ruled my household for the last three years of her life and here’s how she adopted me.
I had a part-time job back then, teaching people how to use Lifeline’s emergency call buttons. You might have seen the ads, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!!” Yes, those things. It was a nice job as jobs go; you helped people a lot but you also walked into many a family meltdown — as the reality of someone’s increasing vulnerability hit home.
This particular day, I’d walked into a displacement activity. Mum had just been told she was officially palliative, which came as news to the adult kids. They’d had no idea she was ill. Everyone was struggling to take in the news and they coped by worrying about the cat.
No one liked the cat, she was bad tempered, neurotic and mean. She hated the family and they hated her. She disliked kids and dogs and noise, and if she went to stay anywhere but Mum’s she registered her displeasure by peeing on the beds. Where would she go when Mum went into Hospice care? Impasse. No one wanted the cat. Mum refused to go anywhere unless someone took the cat. The conversation went round in circles.
I met the cat on my travels around the house, testing the Lifeline button in every nook and cranny. She took pride of place on the big bed, hissing at me for disturbing her peace and quiet. I made a fuss of her. She hissed again. And bit me. I took to her; I like a cat with spirit. We made eye contact and I told her that I was her only hope and to behave. I got a head butt, which was a start.
“If no one else wants her, I’ll take the cat.” I knew the only way this family stood a chance of processing what it meant for Mum to be dying would be if someone gently dealt with their displacement worry. But how did I know that?
It happens all the time. People don’t process a crisis all at once, it’s too overwhelming. As a paramedic, I’d roll up to a road accident where a motorcyclist courier was in so many bits he was being held together by his leathers…and his only concern would be the wellbeing of his bike. He was going nowhere without it. The elderly lady who had just tripped and broken her hip wouldn’t go to hospital because the dog needed feeding. Little Johnny’s piano lesson, tomorrow’s job interview, being late for a date: whatever it was, the little immediate worry would consume every spare synapse.
It is every first responder’s job to defuse the crisis, not to swoop in and dash away, all lights blazing. After all, you need permission to manhandle people. So, we learned to ease away the layers of displacement first, to edge the person’s focus towards what needed to happen next and what it meant.
“Don’t be an idiot,” just doesn’t work. What does work is a variation on, “This policeman here is going to lock your bike up safely and then bring the keys to the hospital for you.”
“We’ve called your neighbour, she will go in and see to the dog/cat/ferret/budgie.”
Or “That lady there is calling the school right now.”
Whatever it takes. Sometimes the displacements are layers deep; as soon as you sort one out, another pops up. Deal with the bike and now we have to worry about delivering the package. It can feel frustratingly like Whack a Mole, but defusing the crisis is where treatment begins. Whatever it takes.
Why am I telling you this? Apart from an excuse to put a picture of a cat at the top of the post?
Every story needs a crisis. On the TV, the hero recognizes what must be done right away and fixes it, but they need to wrap the story up before the ads. Your work is more nuanced and your characters need to grow and learn. It’s worth knowing how real people sometimes respond to challenging circumstances. It’s also great fodder for conflict! Just try saying, “Don’t be an idiot,” and see where it gets you.
Fortunately for many of us, our background is a tad short of crises to call on for guidance in how people really cope. If you are one of the lucky ones, bear the displacement worry in mind when you are putting your characters through hell.