Sydney Hartle: I almost bought a cat last weekend

By Sydney Hartle, Columnist
Published March 23, 2015

This past Saturday morning I thought it would be nice to have a kitten, so that afternoon I went to the humane society. This is something my mom might call “impulsive decision-making,” but as it was she called it “being spontaneous” — probably because she’s the one who drove me to the animal shelter.

Adopting a kitten right now would be a bad idea for a multitude of reasons: my apartment doesn’t allow pets, I’m leaving the country in four months, and I’m allergic to cats. But I really wanted one. And that was more than good enough for my mom, because it’s the first thing I’ve actively wanted in a long time.

Let’s back up to last Friday, which is when I told my therapist that the only thing that made me feel okay was being with animals. It’d be nice, I said, to spend time with something alive and mildly social that didn’t require any conversation. I thought a dog might be good, or maybe a cat, since they aren’t as loud or such persistent mouth-breathers. “So go get one,” she said. Like it was just that easy. Animals could be very therapeutic, apparently.

When I recounted this interaction to my mom, thinking she would also laugh at the oversimplification of how to solve my problem, she surprised me by agreeing that I should just get one. She already had her car keys in hand. That’s when I realized just how desperately the people in my life wanted to help me. That they’d try anything — even jumping in the car to go adopt a cat that didn’t make any sense for me to bring into my life. It reminded me of something of which I was already painfully aware: my problem affects the people around me.

I have struggled with depression for years now, which is something that I try to be very open about. But it gets harder to discuss frankly when I’m in the throes of it. It’s a kind of recurring nightmare that I can only comfortably recount when it’s long over. So when my attention started slipping early in the semester, I just tried not to think about it. It got harder to ignore when I began barely making assignment deadlines, then handing in assignments late, then not handing them in at all. I don’t really want to talk about what depression feels like. Too many people already know the experience. But the effect is something that looks a lot like apathy, and leaves the people who care not knowing how to help.

So I got in the passenger seat of my mom’s car and my 15-year-old sister hopped into the back, immediately speculating what kind of kitten would be best for me. She thought, most importantly, it ought to be a girl. My mom said to just pick a nice one. We got to the animal shelter 15 minutes before it closed and passed the cages of anxiously yowling dogs to a room where they kept the kittens, a room where they kept a kitten. All of the cages were empty except for one, where one kitten had pressed itself to the back wall, nearly invisible in the shadows. The sign said her name was Pumpkin.

Kittens aren’t usually born until spring, it turns out, but we weren’t immediately deterred by the lack of selection. My sister cooed and wiggled her fingers inside the cage, which surprisingly did rouse Pumpkin’s interest. My mom asked a volunteer if we could hold the kitten, and she said no. It had bitten someone and we would have to fill out a lot of paper work, but there were some older cats in the front we could look at.

So we went to the front. There was a room with free-roaming cats lounging on the benches, and in a litter box was the largest cat I’ve ever seen. He was shaped like a meatloaf and took up the entire box. When we entered the room he tried to raise himself, but gave up the task when his heft proved too much to lift. I looked at my mom and grinned. “Absolutely not,” she said.

We pet some lazy cats and my sister took an obscene number of Snapchat videos, but eventually we had to leave empty-handed. I felt a little disappointed and a lot itchy (I really am allergic to cats).

When we got back in the car, my mom looked sadder than I did. “Now really isn’t a good time for me to get a cat anyway,” I said. She nodded, but I still felt badly. She said she and my sister would keep looking while I was at school, and while I realized I had gotten over the whim of getting a new pet, I still told her that was a good idea. I felt I had to let her continue the obsessive kitten search, because while she couldn’t cure my depression, she could absolutely scour the Internet for kittens for sale in Michigan.

The hard thing about recovering from depression is that it’s hard to take care of myself when I don’t necessarily feel I’m worth taking care of. Yet I allowed myself to get swept up in the cat mania because my mom hoped a cat could cure me, and if I couldn’t make myself happy, I could at least try to make her happy. The fix might not be as easy as adopting a new pet, but maybe that’s how recovery works sometimes: you try to help the people who care to help you, even if you can’t help yourself.

Sydney Hartle can be reached at hartles@umich.edu.