Shortly after I quit drinking in January 2012, I started volunteering as a cat socializer at my local no-kill animal shelter.
One of the more unsavory aspects of being hungover or drunk all the time was my extreme selfishness. I wanted what I wanted when I wanted it, whether that was another shot of whiskey, an afternoon of silence with the shades drawn instead of going to work, or six cheese enchiladas. I was often up all night. My roommates just had to put up with me singing, laughing, or crying loudly, depending on my mood.
Even after I broke the cycle of balls-to-the-wall boozing and recovery, it took me a long time to look outside of my own bell jar and acknowledge the needs and feelings of others. In fact, more than a year and a half later, this is something I’m still learning how to do.
Volunteering to help with cat rescue at the animal shelter has been an important part of that journey. They always say you learn a lot and get the warmest, most gigantic fuzzies by giving to someone who can never repay you (and by “they” I mean inspirational quote memes on Facebook). That’s why I went straight for the cats — the homeless, neglected, forgotten, abandoned kitties who longed for love and a home but were completely helpless because they lacked a voice.
Almost immediately, I knew I was in the right place. Every Sunday morning, I shut off my phone and my mind for a couple of hours and spent my time focusing on the needs of the cat at hand. Whether it was a bored kitten who needed to be entertained with a feather toy or a fearful, elderly cat who just needed to be stroked and spoken to gently, I tried to put aside my own ideas of what I wanted or thought "should" happen. Instead I responded to what the cat was telling me.
It wasn’t long before I fell in love. I’ve always had a soft spot for special-needs pets, so when I met Gretchen, a partially blind and deaf tortie with a possible neurological disorder, I was smitten. A police officer found the sweet, one-year-old kitty wandering the streets and brought her to the shelter, where she quickly became a volunteer favorite.
Every Sunday I looked forward to playing with Gretchen. She was talkative and feisty, and she didn’t let her disabilities stop her from pouncing on that feather toy and stalking away with it between her teeth like a fierce little predator. Her tenacity was contagious. She made me feel that if I just hung in there, the seemingly ceaseless negativity of early sobriety would wash over me like water around a stone.
It took several months, but eventually Gretchen found a home — at this shelter, they all do. I was thrilled for her, but her happiness wouldn’t last long. She died of a seizure shortly after going to live with her forever family.
I don’t know why the loss of Gretchen cut me so deeply. During my time at the shelter, other elderly or sick cats had been euthanized, and while I mourned their losses, I knew ending their suffering was the most humane decision. But Gretchen was different. She had become an extension of my feline family, in a sense, and after losing her I found myself volunteering less. I was afraid to grow attached to another cat — especially another special-needs cat — and have to experience another loss.
The final blow to my motivation to volunteer came after a failed job interview. I wanted to work at the shelter the moment I started volunteering, so when they called me for an interview, I was jazzed. I wanted to dance right out of my corporate cube and all the way home, never to return.
But the interview did not go as well as I’d hoped. Pretty much right away, it became clear that I was not the best fit for the job — I didn’t have the kind of experience the position demanded. They weren’t going to hire me, and I was okay with that. I just wish they’d bothered to tell me.
As anyone who has spent any time job hunting knows, radio silence after an interview is the worst outcome. Odds are you spent hours filling out an application, updating your resume, writing a cover letter, and prepping for and stressing over the interview. You might have even used your rare, coveted vacation time to attend the interview, as I did. Getting no reply feels the same as your interviewer flipping you off while laughing and eating popcorn. It invalidates all of your time and effort.
After this experience, I felt that I was not as important to the shelter as it was to me. So I stopped going.
It was only when a couple of people who assumed I was still volunteering regularly gave me cat food and bed donations to drop off that I realized I was falling back into my old patterns. I was being selfish. I was making my experience at the shelter about me instead of what really matters — the cats.
If I can provide 10 minutes of comfort to a cat whose life has been full of hardship and neglect, that is worth facing the possible discomfort of death and loss, and it’s certainly worth allowing my fragile ego to be used as a damn punching bag. That’s why, next week, I’m going back to the shelter to make some new feline friends, risks be damned.
About Angela: This not-crazy-at-all cat lady loves to lint-roll her favorite dress and go out dancing. She also frequents the gym, the vegan coffee joint, and the warm patch of sunlight on the living room floor. She enjoys a good cat rescue story about kindness and decency overcoming the odds, and she’s an enthusiastic recipient of headbutts and purrs from her two cats, Bubba Lee Kinsey and Phoenix.
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