There are dog people and crazy cat ladies but why has no one talked about wild-for-fish people?
Because I might be one of them.
You have to know I didn’t start out this way. I never cared immensely for the idea of fish as pets. After all growing up, I had a gold fish and a cat fish known affectionately as “goldie” and “whiskers”. Clearly we were an innovative and creative type family.
But I also had two cats and a dog and I was quite honestly obsessed with my dog. Her name was Charnie, and she was a black Labrador retriever. She was a bundle of energy, unconditional acceptance with a threatening stubborn streak.
The first book I ever wrote and published (because my parents ‘published’ it for me by laminating it) was in third grade. It was all about our dog, Charnie which included detailed instruction for how to care for your pet, dog.
But that’s beside the point, let’s get back to the main concept: me being a fish lady.
One morning last spring I awoke to the strongest drive to go out and get a dog. I’d been wanting a dog pretty much daily since I left the college dorms 7 years ago. But this particular morning the urge was so strong that if I couldn’t find a pet to nurture immediately I felt like I would split open and start nurturing inanimate objects.
But since our landlord didn’t allow dogs and we hadn’t saved for a pet fund yet, I had few options. Off Scott and I went to Petco. Impulsively I chose to go with a fish. A little purple redish Beta fish specifically. It wasn’t a very expensive start up fee at all, just a bowl, fish food, a net, some pebbles, a plant and water cleaner.
I named him Melvin and fell for him quite quickly. I nurtured him with baths and feeding rituals. I worried like a crazy fish lady about him when we moved and he refused to eat for 2 weeks. Scott and I greet him in the mornings and wish him good night in the evenings. When I leave on a trip I wonder how Melvin is doing and hope he doesn’t get too lonely. Sometimes he’s very active and playful and other times he’s very serene and still. We feed him gourmet shrimp because he has turned into an entitled little fish (he must know he’s the only pet around)
Our innate desire to care for someone, something, other than ourselves is so embedded in who we are as humans. I feel sheepish about my love for Melvin and a little silly. After, what exactly does Mevlin do for me? But here’s the thing; there’s reciprocity in taking care of something other than yourself. You really do get something out of it.
Whenever I assessed my clients for depression or suicide I always mentally listed their “protective factors” (basically something that is associated with lowering the risk). These things can include, family support, community resources etc but I always listed caring for something else as a protective factor. It could be a younger sibling, a pet or a plant. As long as we aren’t talking about “over-functioning” in an unhealthy way, having something to care for is essentially caring for your own well-being. It’s teaches ownership and helps create a sense of empowerment.
It’s in our DNA to care for others. It’s innate and instinctive. It’s in our deep gut. No matter how badly we want to believe we don’t need others we do. We need them and they need us.
I worked with a few younger clients awhile back who had lost pet after pet after pet throughout the years. I did a lot of things to help them grieve the loss of their pets whether it was by writing them letters, or creating a mail box for them or dreaming up where they were now. Eventually though, they moved on to different topics and weren't so interested in writing their pets letters. One day, one of these clients came to therapy and was very excited about a new game on his tablet. I was listening in the way I do about games; (because all my clients play tons and tons of games I’ve never even heard of) and because my husband is a huge game fanatic I’m pretty good at getting the gist of game rather quickly. Anyway he started talking about these dragons he takes care of, and creates habitats for. He explained how he feeds them so they will grow and he even gets to pet them. I couldn’t help but think that even if everything is ripped out of our hands, we (us little resilient humans) will find a way to care for something, someone, besides ourselves.
Those little dragons need some love too.
And so does my little fish, Melvin.
Because the truth is I need a whole lot of love and by loving something else, I am essentially pouring love back into myself. When we give love we receive love and when we receive love we want to give it lavishly away. Funny how that works.