A couple of months ago, Ben, a pseudonymous 29-year-old software designer in Brooklyn, sent his therapist one of the hardest emails of his life. “In our next session, can I bring someone with me?” he asked. His therapist agreed, but inquired if there was anything she should know prior to their session. “They’re not a person, exactly,” he replied.
Ben had been in therapy for about a year. He was there to better manage his anxiety and the increasing number of depressive episodes he’d experienced since his early 20s. And though his sessions had started off well, he felt that his progress had plateaued. “I was paying a lot for weekly therapy,” Ben tells me. “So when I’d leave the session not feeling that I’d learned a little more about myself, I was worried.”
He was also completely aware that the problem wasn’t his therapist — it was him. Maybe someone else, another version of himself, might be better at articulating his feelings in therapy. Perhaps, Ben thought, he needed “Christofur,” his fursona.
Ben describes Christofur with they/them pronouns, as his fursona is gender-fluid. He characterizes Christofur as “outgoing,” “kind” and “charismatic,” a creature who’s “friendly and understanding to everyone” with “boundless empathy.”
Ben has been part of the furry community since his teens, when he was an active member of online forums like Something Awful, TOTSE and Second Life. Back then, it was as much a digital identity as anything else. But over time — and as a small-town kid confused about his identity and sexuality — “the identity took on more meaning,” Ben says. “I was speaking more of my truth on the internet than I was in real life.” In his 20s, he joined fur-centric groups like Fur Affinity, among the internet’s biggest fur communities, as well as dozens of similar Facebook and Tumblr groups.
“When I was in the groups, I was speaking as a mixture of myself and Christofur,” Ben explains. “If something was happening in the news — for example, seeing stranded refugees — I’d feel upset. But when I was Christofur, those emotions were deeper, because of how much empathy Christofur has in their heart. Christofur can feel things more fully than I can. I can understand my feelings [better] through them.”
This, though, can make it difficult to engage with counselors, psychotherapists and the therapeutic process more broadly. Case in point: There are countless Reddit threads in which people express their fears of coming out as furries to their doctors and therapists. In fact, on some furry forums, members offer their own therapy services as an alternative to having to come clean to professionals they don’t believe will truly understand them. “I’ve been to a lot of therapists who see furry culture as something akin to multiple personality disorder,” says Max, a 25-year-old furry in Indiana.
Unlike Ben, Max doesn’t have a fursuit, and beyond an avatar, his fursona, “Pumpkin,” is largely acted out online. Still, he, too, tells me that his fursona has allowed him to explore his mental health more holistically. In particular, he credits Pumpkin with helping him navigate life as a queer person with autism. “In my day-to-day life, there’s a lot of discrimination, micro-aggressions and just full-on hostile behavior,” he explains. “It’s hard to know how to interact sometimes; so it’s easier to talk to people as Pumpkin.”
“Pumpkin has the charisma that I’d like to have,” he continues. “He also has a lot of confidence, isn’t afraid of who he is and has a lot of friends,” referring to other furries Max has met online.
It’s not that Pumpkin is an “improved” version of Max; rather, their identities are almost symbiotic — a kind of relationship that’s confusing to the therapists Max has worked with, he says. “My last therapist insisted my life would improve if I let go of being a furry,” he tells me. “He kept saying that being part of the fur community meant I was avoiding my real-world problems. Whenever I told him that the community was actually helpful, he’d suggest I was distancing myself from having real relationships. He even questioned whether the community was real.”
According to Sharon Roberts, a sociology professor at the University of Waterloo and one of the few researchers who focuses on identity within furry communities, Max’s therapy experience is pretty common. “There are some psychologists who associate fursonas with dissociative behavior, which by and large isn’t the case,” she explains. “In other cases, because of the aesthetic of furries — that they’re a colorful and quite loud subculture — society generally sees them as more likely to suffer from mental health issues, when the research shows that’s not true either. In a lot of cases, furries are less likely to develop severe mental health conditions because of how strong the bonds are in the community.”
To better spread (and back up) this message, Roberts co-founded the International Anthropomorphic Research Project, a collective of academics dedicated to producing evidence-based research on furry culture and providing insights about it to therapists. “Sometimes I might encourage a therapist working with a furry who has a fursuit to have them bring in their costume to the session, and use that as part of a conversation,” Roberts says. “In most cases, furries won’t actually have a suit, in which case I’d encourage them to engage with the fursona in different ways and to be interested in the relationship the [patient] has with their fursona as a way of exploring their emotions.”
Either way, Roberts believes that the emotional hardships furries go through are pretty much the same as any other young person in the West. “What we’re dealing with is a generation that’s in difficult economic times and is trying to understand how to exist when they’re physically mature but economically fragile. Lots of people turn to different fandoms and communities for support. In the case of furries, they have a lot of creative control to define who they are and who they’d like to be, which can be hugely empowering.”
Ben’s therapist was pleasantly surprised when she learned about Christofur. “She asked me a lot of questions about Christofur — what kind of things they liked to do, what a perfect day would be for them, etc.,” he explains. As such, nowadays, his therapist asks how both he and Christofur are doing, and when a difficult subject comes up, what Christofur would think about it. She even puts out two glasses of water on her coffee table when Ben arrives.
As a result, Ben has never felt more whole. “We’ve talked a lot about Christofur’s life experiences, too,” he says. “And because of it, Christofur’s just become so much more significant in how I’m living life.”