*Ping* — a new photo from mom. A pink nose, silky black fur and a fluffy tail with big green eyes peer up at me through the lit phone screen. It was my sweet Sabrina, the kitten I left at home in Florida. She was my “break up” cat that I begged my mom for after I was emotionally cheated on in high school. She was there with me through the pandemic; we’d spend every day together. Her purrs were healing, and she smelled like home. Now that I was back in Berkeley, I relied on these photos and videos for comfort.
I slumped in my sorority house facetiming my mom and the cat, shoving away my to-do list and wallowing in discomfort. I had not felt this low since before I started antidepressants. I’m not ashamed or afraid to discuss mental health. If we keep shoving mental health issues away, they build up generationally, like how I believe they did in my family. We wouldn’t talk about how my aunt’s death was a suicide, or how my mom struggled with post-partum depression. We didn’t talk about it until I was the first to crack under pressure. When I reached out for help, my mom took it personally. “What did I do wrong?” she would say. It took time and patience for her to understand that mental health is just as valid and crucial as physical health. I eventually saw a therapist and started on Prozac.
As the stress of being a full-time student and sorority president began to suffocate me, I found myself finding a new peace in scrolling through adoption websites. Just seeing the cats’ innocent eyes instantly made me feel calmer.
As I continued to struggle with getting out of bed in the mornings, I thought more and more seriously about kitty cohabitation. However, I knew that it was unprecedented to have an animal in the sorority house. As a new president, I was nervous about challenging the rules.
Then, when I was scrolling through the adoptable cats at a local cat cafe, I saw her bright eyes, gray-and-white swirled fur. She was called Princess Di, a fitting name for her regal personality. I asked in our sorority’s Slack if anyone was willing to drive with me to go see her. One of the girls in the house was more than excited to come with me. I secured a note from my therapist and psychiatrist confirming my need for an emotional support animal, or ESA. I would need this note to start the process of getting sorority’s approval for the ESA.
After meeting Princess Di, I knew we would be a great fit; she was calm, young and preferred to be in a single-cat household. One of my worries about bringing Sabrina from home was that she loved frolicking in the backyard with her brother cat Oliver. Princess Di did not like the outdoors or other cats. She also had kittens when she was just under one year old. I decided to rename her to “Baby” so that in a small way, she could regain her lost childhood years. She was made to be a mother too young, and now, she is forever my baby.
While Baby gave me bliss, I was also experiencing extreme anxiety from the bureaucratic paperwork and difficult conversations I was having with the sorority in order to bring her home. None of the sorority advisors had dealt with this before, so they were trying to be cautious by saying no. The sorority’s national organization, however, had approved my ESA. The advisors rebutted by saying that they disapproved and would not let an animal into the house. They cited our chapter’s bylaws and argued that an ESA violated their “no animal” policy. However, in the national organization’s policies, they make an exception for ESAs. Similar to the interactions between federal and state laws, the national organization’s rules take precedence.
“Try to remember that what you’re doing is not just for you and your baby cat, it’s for future generations. You are advocating for all people that need an emotional support animal,” my therapist said in a text.
My therapist advised me to find an attorney. She reminded me that I have rights when requesting an emotional support animal. I did my own research and found substantive evidence that my landlord must make a reasonable effort to accommodate me and my animal. Finally, after many messages and emails, I met with a representative from nationals and the advisors to sign a contract that allows me to have Baby. This process took over three anxiety-ridden months from beginning to reach out to the house director to finally getting Baby approved.
“I’m very proud of you for using your voice,” my therapist told me.
Baby has been with me now for just over a year. My issues with getting out of the bed in the morning subsided, as I felt a responsibility to feed and care for my new cat. I felt less detached from reality, stopped constantly looking up prices for a flight home, and felt more grounded at school. Many of the sorority members also found Baby to be helpful for their mental health. I’ve had more than a few friends stop by after an exhausting day to pet Baby. The complications of securing my right to an ESA in a sorority were difficult, but I know I helped set up a process for people in the future to follow and get the accommodations they need. Today, there’s another ESA in the house. In a way, I’m glad it was me who went through the complexities and paperwork so that the other member can feel comfortable living in the house with her ESA.