Chapter 2 – *trigger warning – self harm, alcoholism, depression*
Over the next few months after leaving my call center job, I was struggling to find balance in my life. I was 34, unemployed for the first time in my life since I was 16, and it felt completely destabilizing. My wonderful family was supportive and I spent some of the extra time on my hands with them, accompanying my youngest sister on a work road trip through farmland and visiting my older sister and her husband in Moab. I was fortunate to be able to experience those beautiful places with family who loves me, but I still felt unmoored. I scoured job sites with an eye toward a new understanding of myself; I was an introvert, not an anti-social freak because I needed time away from the stimulus of other people in order to get back to myself. I continued counseling and made the decision to start an anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication, something I had tried to avoid out of fear. Would it make me feel unlike myself? I was worried about taking a substance that would mess with my brain chemistry. But then again, my brain chemistry was messing with me, and though I tried to power through it and handle it myself, I was not equipped for that fight. I needed the help and I needed to admit it and accept it.
I got a job cleaning houses until I found a position at a small background check company. By that time it was the end of summer, transitioning into autumn. I had been dating someone I met through my sister’s husband and was starting to feel a little better about my situation. My boyfriend was kind and held my hand in public, which is something I’d never had before. I was learning to open my heart and not be so protective and closed off, really for the first time in over a decade. I’d always described my twenties as a dark pit, the whole decade. Its darkness held severe depression, suicidal ideation, constant guilt and punishing myself, drinking heavily every day, relationships with men who were emotionally unavailable, making careless decisions, hurting others and myself, and being too mired in that hole to care or know how to get out. I was living in upstate New York and my family was all the way across the country, and I only saw them about twice a year for holidays. My family is small and close-knit, and essential to my well-being; it wasn’t until I made the decision to move back to the PNW in my early thirties to be near them again that I started to get my head above water.
It’s worth noting that during that black hole of my twenties, I wasn’t allowed to have pets in my apartment.
I begged the landlord to let me have a cat. They refused. So I volunteered at the local Humane Society “socializing” the cats, which meant getting to sit in their enclosures with them and pet, talk to, and generally enjoy their company. It was a great example of the emotional symbiosis I’m talking about when it comes to the relationships between humans and animals; I was receiving the peace and comfort that being with the cats provided me, and the lonely kitties without their own homes and humans received the attention and love that I brought them. I realize that I was trying to find ways back to inner peace, and animals were essential to that. It was during my twenties that I also bought an old Thoroughbred gelding for a dollar, and he was another spirit that helped me gain some measure of respite from my psychological prison, but his story is for another time. Suffice it to say, animals were always an island of peace for me when I could navigate my way to them through the darkness.
It’s not to say that there weren’t good people, good friendships, or points of happiness during those times. There were true friends along the way that were there for me when I needed them, and I will always have love for them. But I was not thriving in that place. Oddly enough, it was animals that were the final element that motivated me to get out of that place and move home with my family.
Bats in the attic above my apartment, falling behind the walls, and scratching around. Also, squeezing through the hood over the stove from the attic and flying around my apartment in their erratic way, emitting little echolocation chirps. As an animal lover, I appreciate the essential part that bats play in the ecosystem. But when they started invading my apartment, that was it. They gave me the last push that put me on the path back to myself, and for that I do thank them.
So here I was, finding a little more calm and center in my life – new boyfriend, new job with not one but THREE wonderful introvert coworkers who became dear friends, and a little more mental balance helped by the medication I was taking. Then, my boyfriend broke up with me. In hindsight, though he was a nice person, there were some red flags there that I chose to ignore to continue the relationship. I was hurt and looking for a little comfort to soothe myself. On a whim I checked out the local animal shelter website and scrolled through pictures of cats for adoption. My heart swelled. I decided to go visit the shelter the next day, a Saturday. No commitment, just see the kitties and pet them and see what happens.
I walked into the cat room at the shelter, which had rows of cages along the walls and a standing island of cages in the middle with cats on both sides. I started on one end of the wall and said hello to every cat in every cage, opening their doors and petting them. The cats were a range of all ages, but I didn’t go straight for the kittens – I knew they always got adopted quickly and l wanted an adult cat to have a chance. My heart went out to all of them; many were sneezing and had goopy eyes, remnants of respiratory illness that would be impossible to contain in a room full of cats brought in from outside that all breathed the same air in an enclosed room. I spent an hour in that room visiting all the kitties, and there were one or two who I felt might be a good fit with me. I didn’t want to make a decision until I had seen and pet all of the cats in the room. I got to the very last cage, at the very bottom of the row in the center island of cages. The name on the information card gave his name as “Titan.” He had been caught in a humane cat trap and had been at the shelter for over two weeks.
I opened the cage door, squatting with my knees together against the opening. He was a beautiful blue-grey, about a year or two old, with white paws, a white strip on his forehead, and a little milk mustache. He didn’t try to escape at the sight of the open door, but was friendly and confidently stepped onto my lap and curled up. Yep. Done.
I took his card to the front desk and asked them to hold him for me; I didn’t have a cat box or food or dishes or anything set up to bring home a cat. I wanted to run to the pet store and get all of those things before I brought him home. They agreed to hold him for me for an hour, so I dashed off on a mad kitty shopping spree and bought all the things that I would need to take care of him.
I came back to the shelter and as I was paying his fee, they informed me of one thing I had overlooked – “Titan” still had all his man parts. He had been there for over two weeks but they were so overrun with animals that they hadn’t had time to neuter him. So, I would be taking home an intact male cat, which tends to have the stinkiest and most annoying spraying or territory-marking behavior. To an apartment with white carpet. They could make us an appointment a week out for his neuter surgery, but if I wanted him, I had to take him home now.
There was no question, he was coming home with me. I wasn’t going to leave him stuck in a little cage for another week and take a chance on whether he would still be there. I just kept up the mantra in my head, “Please don’t spray in my apartment. Please don’t spray in my apartment.” He must’ve been listening, because he never even tried to.
I brought my new friend home and opened his cardboard carrier on the floor. He wasn’t skittish and he didn’t run straight under the bed to feel safe. He was bold and curious, and walked into every room, surveying his new domain. I sat cross-legged on the living room floor while he explored. After he made his rounds, he walked over to me, stepped into my lap, and curled up purring. He held on to me with his paws and hugged me. He was sick with the respiratory crud from the other cats at the shelter; he was so congested that you could hear him struggling to breathe through his stuffy nose. He would sneeze on the sliding glass door and it looked like a crime scene. But he was my new roommate, and he was so happy to have his own home to walk around in that when I moved to the couch, he hugged up next to me and purred in absolute bliss.
The next step was to find him a new name. “Titan” wasn’t quite right. I thought of a few favorite book characters like Gandalf the Grey, and my friends threw in a few suggestions. In the end I felt his name was Max, but his full name would be Maximus Decimus Meridius, after the main character in the movie Gladiator. That fit his bold, quietly confident nature.
And so began the reintroduction of laughing out loud into my daily life. Max’s personality shone through, with the conversations I could have with him where he would answer (or inquire of me, if he so felt) with a little prrrrr? sound. He was as playful as a kitten, his pupils growing huge when he chased his toys, and he would bring his foam ball to me in his mouth to throw for him. He would squeeze behind the bathroom door in some form of kitty suspended somersault, for reasons known only to him. He just made me laugh with everything he did. Man, I needed that so bad. Animals are such a gift, just by being who they are. They bring such love and light with their bright spirits. I don’t know how I had waited so long before bringing an animal back into my life, but when I needed him, there he was. He’s lived with me for four years now, and he still zooms around like a kitten and gets into crazy antics that make me laugh out loud. He is a treasure and I am grateful for the joy he brought back into my life.