I got some rabbits around the same time I started in private practice full-time so I’ve had not only a lot of time to sit at home with them while building up my caseload but also have been immersing myself in psychological training and reading during that time. My bunnies are Dom Pedro and Dona Maria, named for the first king and queen of Brazil. They are a bonded pair which means they already like and accept each other and don’t get into territory fights, which is a thing with rabbits, believe it or not. They were a breeding pair (fixed now) at a fur farm in Wisconsin before they were rescued by the agency I bought them from. I’m not really sure the circumstances of their rescue or how that came about, but I do know that Dona Maria was forced to have 7 litters in 5 months which would be about the human equivalent of having 7 kids in 5 years, and having babies taken away early is pretty traumatic for animals.
They’ve been in a couple of foster placements and are now adults so I think a lot about parallels between them and clients I meet who have experienced trauma and disrupted attachments. It’s easy to see what the bunnies have experienced as it translates to how they interact with my partner and I. They both run away from us if we try to pick them up and have only recently started coming up to me or my fiance when we have food – before they’d hide in their pen and only run out to eat once we were sitting a safe distance away. Dom Pedro is very food motivated and would risk his life for a treat, so he’s been somewhat easier to bond with. He actually overate and got himself sick to the point I had to take him to the vet and give him meds for 10 days so he got more used to being picked up and he is less afraid of it now.
It’s funny but I was very sad for the first couple of weeks when I realized how scared they were because I wanted them to come up to me and get petted and they wouldn’t. I had bunnies as a kid and I’ve been wanting to have them again for so long. My bunnies were really affectionate with me, and one in particular named Rascal was my best friend for a long time. He’d run to the door when I came home from school, jump up on the couch and sit with me, follow me around the house, and sit under my chair at dinner time. People say he was like a dog, I think some dogs are annoying or scary so I will say he was like a small, quiet, affectionate, and not-needy dog. Anyway, there was definitely a difference with these guys and even though I knew they were mistreated for some reason I thought trust would come faster and it’s frustrating.
Thinking about Rascal, he seems like a bunny who grew up with secure attachment. He didn’t ever wonder about who to trust and was never afraid of being picked up or brought to strange places. He knew since he was a baby that his caretakers would feed him, groom him, take care of his illnesses, and give him affection when he wanted it. People are similar in this way – if their needs are cared for, trust comes easily. Our bunnies now learned early that humans were not to be trusted so they feel a lot of fear, but still want to be close, which is why they do things like run up to us and then run away when we reach down to pet them.
I have been reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van der Kolk which is about trauma and its physical effects on the body. When Dom Pedro was sick, he hunched over and it was very subtle, because rabbits don’t show visibly they are sick as an adaptation to avoid being singled out by a predator. I think about how people go around their lives like that, trying to hide their pain through other means like success or wealth or having the perfect body. Rabbits are prey animals and have a natural fear response to a lot of things, but if they’re comfortable and safe they hop around freely and happily. I like to think that I created for my bunnies a nice and happy place that they can start to repair the things that were done to them, over time. I think the same about my therapy office for people.
Sometimes when people are confused about relationships it’s easier to use animals as a metaphor because it’s stripped down of its complexity. The core things that people want are safety, affection, belonging, esteem, and necessities of living like food and shelter. When it’s hard to figure out why someone does something, it’s easier to think about it in terms of which of these needs the action is serving. Using drugs to get over painful memories is a way of feeling safe, and having poor boundaries can be a way that someone gets affection. Sometimes it helps too, when I’m having difficulty processing what I’m feeling, to imagine myself as a gorilla or chimp and figure out where my feeling may be coming from.
It’s important to know that trauma doesn’t make someone broken. Trauma responses may be maladaptive in certain situations, but the person has learned those because at one point they were adaptive. If a person learned that zoning out was a way to not feel the pain of abuse, that was a great adaptation at the time the abuse was happening. Maybe it isn’t working well anymore because they struggle with relationships not feeling close or their partner saying they don’t feel listened to. That’s the kind of thing we can work through in therapy. I think of it as like a toolbox – there are tools there that are very useful. They work great for certain situations, but not for others. We can use what they’ve already learned and what tools they have and adapt them so they don’t cause problems. Some tools are always harmful, like violence, but we can still take some learning from those experiences. We can look at what happened in the past and transfer that knowledge to a healthier outcome.
When people come to therapy, I notice a lot of responses like my rabbits – they’re unsure if I’m a person they can trust, they want to know how to ask for and get affection from other people but there’s something that makes this hard for them. Maybe they learned to be afraid of asking for something they want because in the past it was tied together with hurt. The relationship with a therapist is a real one, we are both living, breathing people in the room and we react and respond to one another, but it’s a sort of simulation for real life that can be a safe place to fall if things aren’t working out. It’s kind of like the setup I have for my rabbits – it’s not the real world, but it’s a setup meant for their comfort and healing. Of course people have to leave therapy and go out into the real world and I’m not about to release my bunnies into the wild.