OPEN MIND: From phobia to friend

The Canadian Mental Health Association defines a phobia as an intense fear of a specific thing like an object, animal or situation. Dogs and heights are cited as being two of the most common phobias.

As a young child growing up in rural Ireland, I had a negative experience with a barnyard cat, leading to decades of phobia about cats. This influenced how I lived my life for many years. Avoiding friends with cats in their homes, losing friends who dismissed my fears by telling me their cat was gentle. Even having people laugh at my phobia.

In early adulthood it was easy to avoid situations where cats might lay waiting to harm me. I became adept at hiding my fear, making excuses, even telling people I was allergic to cats.

Once my children were older it became more difficult to hide my phobia. Yes, I knew it was irrational but couldn’t stop the panic when I saw a cat. My husband was the one person who had my back and would protect me from cats or from people who might try to lure me into a “dangerous” cat situation. 

By now I wanted my children to grow up loving all animals. My cover was blown the day a stray cat wandered into our kitchen. In seconds I was standing on the kitchen table, terrified for my life. My wise children shooed the cat out the door.

In my 50s I had become comfortable knowing I could control my phobia. Imagine my horror when one of my adult children announced they were getting a cat. I never expected that. My son knew my fear of cats and assured me they would keep the cat away from me on family visits. I started to visualize those visits; I was petrified and would it impact family visits to my home with a cat?

So began my recovery. I reached out to a friend who loved cats and she guided me through an understanding of these feline creatures. I began looking at pictures of cats, reading about cats and cat care.

Over the following months I was able to start a relationship with this kitten. At the beginning, we eyed each other warily and checked each other out from a distance. Soon I was able to stroke the kitten and became comfortable with him.

When Christmas rolled around that year, I received T-shirt that says “I love my GrandCat.” Since then, I have come to cherish that cat and his brother cat and look forward to visits, and pictures and videos of them in their escapades.

I realize now how debilitating my phobia was and am so glad that I had the strength to challenge the phobia. Yes, I lost many years of being a cat lover but I can see how many years are left to enjoy these wonderful companions.

This article was written by Elaine Griffin, psychogeriatric resource consultant for the Alzheimer Society of Dufferin County. The Open Mind column is sponsored by community partners who are committed to raising awareness about mental health, reducing stigma and providing information about resources that can help.  Contact

For local mental health resources/information, visit or call 1-844-HERE247.

Elaine Griffin