My Cat Helped Me Get Clean

When I was doing nothing but cocaine, I couldn’t seem to look at my life and admit that a depressant like cocaine wasn’t something I should do. Because at this point, it—my partying life—felt like all I really had. So instead I’d do a more extreme version of the behavior of a girl who, depressed by a break-up, decides to spontaneously get her hair chopped off. The message that seemed to be going from my heart to my head was: do something drastic and you’ll feel better!

As any woman who’s ever had a sudden bob or pixie cut knows, this remedy always fails. But I was in denial about most things back then and one night, passed out in a bed with one of my best female friends at the time and a wannabe country singer we had both fooled around with before, it occurred to me what radical thing I could do that would help me feel better: I could get a cat. The guy—in between trying (and failing) to convince us to have a ménage a trois and trying (and failing) to play us Willy Nelson songs on his guitar—kept complaining that someone had thrown his cat in the pool. He lived in an enormous Hollywood Hills mansion with a bunch of other guys and people were always partying until all hours of the night, which means that a cat being thrown in a pool wasn’t a wholly outlandish occurrence.

It’s just a fact that a few weeks after this sweet little furball came into my life, I’d simply had enough of the late, jittery nights and realized I couldn’t bear the loneliness and depression I was living with any longer.

My life felt so empty then—I was unemployed, writing screenplays no one cared about and drowning my feelings out with chemicals at every opportunity. And every time I heard the wannabe country western singer say the words “my cat” and “the pool,” they sounded increasingly solid—like emblems of a life that had its feet firmly planted in the ground. Property, pools, pets…I recall thinking that those things sounded like evidence of a life, something that I, as a member of the walking dead, didn’t have. And I wanted a life, or at least evidence of one. And since I wasn’t likely to get a pool or substantial property anytime soon, I latched onto the most attainable-sounding item on the list the wanna-be country singer had unknowingly drawn for me.

A cat.

I didn’t ask myself if I was ready for the responsibility. I didn’t consider the fact that I’d unwittingly killed every plant I’d ever had. I don’t remember thinking it through much at all. Instead, like the heartbroken girl sitting in the hairdresser’s chair, I just sort of assumed that a little boy or girl kitten—since I really didn’t know anything about cats aside from what I’d absorbed by osmosis through Abigail and Jay, I was wholly indifferent to the prospective gender—would give me a raison d’être.

Shortly after the idea occurred to me—it may have been the next day or the next year, it’s impossible for me to figure out what happened when during those lost years—I found myself at a vet’s office in West Hollywood, where a cat that belonged to one of the vets had given birth. Again, I didn’t consider much—or anything. I just played around with a litter of male orange tabbies—nearly all orange tabbies were male, the kindly vet told me—and took what I thought was the cutest one.

Just how out of it was I during those dark years? Well, when I took my cat—who by that point I’d named Toby—back to the vet a few months later to have him fixed, I was informed by the bemused vet that he was, in fact, a she.

“Are you serious?” I responded, humiliated. The truth is that I’d never really looked: I’d been told that he was a guy and it didn’t occur to me to confirm. And by then, it seemed too late to change her name so I reasoned that Toby—like Sam, like Erin, like Chris—could easily be a girl’s name.

I guess you could say my cat mom priorities were askew. It never occurred to me to, say, teach Toby that it wasn’t appropriate to jump on the kitchen table when food was being served or to even to be too vehement about stopping her from scratching the couch. Sure, I’d yell a half-hearted, “Toby—stop!” when I heard my furniture being ripped to shreds but I never tried any of the techniques I’d heard about, like spraying her with a water bottle whenever she did it, because that just sounded like too much trouble and besides, how was I supposed to figure out, in the increasingly foggy state I was living in, where one even got an empty spray canister? By the time I happened across a spray canister at the drug store, it felt like it was too late to bother starting.

It makes me sad for Toby when I think about the chaos that surrounded her early years. Because, as my drug problem grew worse, I began having more and more crazy, chain-smoking people around. I’d throw script readings, fondue parties, Truth or Dare games and just regular old parties but increasingly, all of those gatherings began to serve only one purpose: to gather together a group of people who enjoyed doing cocaine. The more coke I did, the more random the friends became until it was just essentially a circle of people who had nothing in common besides a shared desire to snort illegal chopped up powder up their nostrils through dollar bills. Essentially, if you lived in West Hollywood and had a coke habit back then, you probably had a key to my apartment.

And sure, we’d pay attention to Toby when we weren’t snorting lines or fixing each other’s makeup or taking Polaroid photos that we were sure at the time made us look incredibly glamorous. But usually we just chain-smoked and got jittery and weird. There’s a photo I have from those days that just breaks my heart—a guy whose name I still remember and a girl whose name I don’t, each holding a lit cigarette, each looking wasted, sitting on my couch with a wide-eyed and scared-looking Toby behind them.

Alas, things got even worse for Toby during the final stage of my drug use—when even the fellow coke addicts weren’t coming around anymore and it was just me and my cocaine. I’d spend several days in a row awake and wired, trying to write screenplays, chain-smoking and chugging alcohol whenever I felt like I needed to come down, and I’d break those frantic jags up with bouts of Ambien-influenced, sleep-of-the-dead slumber. I became more panicky than a cat—jumping at every noise, convinced that whatever I heard was the sound of Them coming for me (though I never seemed clear on who, exactly, They were). I essentially gave Toby—and myself—whatever’s the opposite of a safe, serene environment.

After I’d had Toby about a year, I decided to get Lilly. Again, this was not well thought out—or thought out at all. I simply woke up one morning and wondered what the point of it all was. My life was virtually empty—I’d burned through all my friends, I’d stopped returning my parents’ calls, and I had been depressed for so long that I forgot I was actually depressed, I just thought life was one long, arduous, sad slog. Toby clearly hadn’t saved me and I still couldn’t seem to consider what really could. And so I decided that I’d just get another cat.

I ended up at a pet store in Mar Vista. Again, I didn’t have a cat selection method. I just remember that was a litter of thick, grey-haired kittens of no particular breed and I picked one. I do recall having her checked out by a male vet who worked at the pet store because I remember thinking that he was reasonably young and handsome and I fantasized that he would save me somehow.

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