What do you do after you put your cat to sleep, and all your friends have gone home? Drink? Cry? Troll pet adoption sites? Look at photos of your dead cat on facebook? Snort some coke and write a frenzied book-long eulogy?
Whatever you decide do, that’s cool. As for me, I built a cat shrine for Ralph. Skulls, candles, incense….And at the center of the shrine was the Cat Burrito painting I did earlier that year in Mexico. (Yes, I paint portraits of my cat while I’m on vacation. Doesn’t everyone?)
I once had a dream, long long ago, that I was being held captive in a basement somewhere, along with a hundred other people. Our captors were faceless, and barked insults at us via a P.A. system. We were all starving, and insane. Then, from the ceiling, a dozen robotic claws descended. In each claw were several foil wrapped burritos.
“Food, food!” everyone climbed over each other, reaching, snatching, unfoiling.
But something wasn’t right. I didn’t trust the food. Why would they want to help us, if they’ve trapped us? Maybe this was poison!
“Hey, what’s in these burritos?” I shouted, to the faceless captors.
“Meat,” was the reply.
I grabbed a burrito, and unwrapped it. And then, to my surprise, a CAT jumped out! I looked over at my fellow prisoners, and each and every one of them were gasping as cats leapt out of their burritos too. And each cat was headed directly towards a small, previously undetected opening in the basement.
“Come on, everyone! Follow the cats! The cats will lead us to freedom!”
A dream that stuck with me so firmly, that it later morphed into a game I’d play with Ralph, called (can you guess??) “Cat Burrito”. It was, in fact, the only game Ralph liked to play. I would wrap him up in a blanket, and poke at him, while he purred and said “Ack!” (His happy sound). Sometimes I’d release him, and shout “Lead me to freedom Ralph!”
Which led, of course, to the painting I did of Ralph as a Cat Burrito, leading all trapped souls to freedom. (Spanish of course, and in a luchador mask, because duh, Mexico).
I lit the candles, and stared at the shrine for a good long while. Then, I crawled into a bed that felt, for the first time in my life, truly empty, alien, cold and unwelcoming. Nothing purring. Nothing sticking its gross furry butt in my face. Nothing barfing on my bed. Nothing, nothing nothing.
Just as I was about to blast off into sleep, I gasped and woke with a start. My heart was beating erratically, CRAZY CRAZY BEATS like a polka band on goofballs. What the….
This happened several more times throughout the week. Each time as I was drifting off to sleep. Eventually, it got so that I grew fearful of going to sleep, because WHAT IF SOMETHING BAD SHOULD HAPPEN. I was certain that my heart was about to give out. Collapsing under the weight of it’s own scabs and shrapnel.
In Mexico, I stayed in a room in an enormous house on a cliff overlooking the pacific ocean. By day, we lounged on the deck, read, drank coronas, went tidepooling. By day, The pacific would would sparkle, and dance in the sun, all smiles, all light.
But night was a different beast altogether.
“You’re gonna sleep so well here,” said my friend, who invited me on the trip. “The sea is like a lullaby.”
How very wrong she was.
On my first night, I sat up in bed, saucer-eyed, staring at the black hissing sea. The same sea that danced and played in the sun only hours earlier, in the moonlight looked oily and dangerous. I noticed a bright light in the far distance that bobbed above the horizon line. A UFO? A ghost? A supernova? I later learned (from a Marine Biologist who was staying with us) that it was a squid boat, and that the bright light was used to lure the squid to the surface. Squid love the light! They swim up to it, all “Hey guys, light! a disco party! it’s my birthday! paaartty!!!” Then, SWOOP. Death. Gotcha suckers.
The squid boat haunted me. Every night in Mexico, I would stay awake, long after everyone else went to bed, staring at that light on the horizon, knowing what it meant to thousands of stupid squid, who were only following their bliss, after all.
Several months later, on the night of my 39th birthday, two weeks after losing Ralph, I found myself gasping for breath and clutching my chest as a wave of panic engulfed me completely and held me down. This was it. My time had arrived. After struggling for months, I was officially caught while swimming toward the light. Scooped up into the net. The machete glinting in the moonlight. The fisherman’s face, grotesque and indifferent as he presses my jellyhead into the hull and brings down the blade.
I clutched my chest. I couldn’t breathe.
Except, to my surprise, somehow I lived…
“I think I’m dying of heart failure,” I told my shrink.
I went on to describe all of the symptoms I’d had the night before: chest pain, difficulty breathing, irregular CRAYCRAY heartbeat AND ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY OF DEATH.
“You should definitely see a doctor to rule out a physical cause for this,” said my shrink. But what you’re describing to me sounds like a panic attack.”
Hey. Years ago, ago if you’d asked me if I’d ever had a panic attack, I would have said, rather flippantly, “Oh sure! Tons of them.” It was true that I often had “fits” of anxiety. Mostly related to my former job working in the tenderloin, and bumping into anything that reminded me of that time. (Which was why I sought out a shrink in the first place.)
What I didn’t realize, ACTUAL ANXIETY ATTACKS are like dying, but without, y’know, the death. When you are finally released, it isn’t to heaven, it’s back to the prison of your own mind. To the captors who are never seen, but always heard.
I had a battery of medical tests done at Kaiser, following the episode on my birthday, to determine what was wrong with me. Turns out, I was perfectly healthy. Leaving only one option left: INSANITY.
“I’d like to propose a more aggressive treatment for you,” said my shrink, after I reported back the medical findings. “No more regular talk therapy. You’ve been here for several months now, making very slow progress. You tell me stories, stories, stories. In your stories, you control the narrative, you control the meaning. What good is it to have me here, and throw your money away when you’ll tell these same stories anyway to your friends and to your blogs? I’d like to guide you to the roots of your trauma and rebuild those parts of your brain that are threatening you at night. It will hurt, and it will get worse before it gets better, but it will get you faster results.”
At the end of my rope, I was willing to try anything.
And so (in addition to being prescribed a low-voltage antidepressant) I began doing something called EMDR therapy. Every week, while lights flashed in my eyes, and buzzers thrummed my kneecaps, I was led on a journey to my darkest places. It was painful. I left sessions bleary-eyed.
Oh! Are you sitting down? I also went sober. The incident on my birthday scared me straight. I wanted to clear the crud from my head for the work I was doing with my shrink. Not only did I refrain from booze and bud for three whole months, but I discovered, not long after my birthday panic attack, that I couldn’t ingest caffeine IN ANY FORM (including chocolate!!!) without becoming dizzy and nauseous.
A week into my sobriety, and sleep-deprived X1000, I was hateful, dark, and daydreaming about suicide. I decided to cheer myself up by going to a day spa to soak in a tub. It didn’t help.
After the spa, I met my best friend Adriana for lunch at a trendy Vietnamese joint somewhere in the Fillmore district. It was packed, bustling. We took our seat across the table from a middle-aged yuppie couple. When my food arrived, the lady across the table clucked and said “Oh no, shrimp.”
I gave her a quizzical look.
“I’m allergic to shrimp,” she said to me, as if I should have known.
I grunted, grabbed my bowl and turned away from her. Eating from my lap. (So deferential! So quick to accommodate!)
“What are you doing?” asked Adriana. “Put your fucking bowl back down on the table, mama.”
I did as told. This only incensed the woman further, and sent her into a full kerfuffle.
“You don’t have to eat it,” joked my friend, to the woman.
“I’ll do my best to keep it in the bowl, I promise.” I said, trying for humor.
The woman clucked, and frowned. “You don’t understand. I can’t be NEAR shrimp.” she said. In a huff, she got up, announced loudly to her husband “ Well, I guess I’ll have to PACK UP MY LUNCH NOW, and leave.” And that is exactly what she did. Thank god.
“Jesus, the shrimp lady!” said Adriana, as we exited the restaurant. “What kinda waspy white-privilege bullshit is that?”
“Can’t be near shrimp,” I said.
“Does she realize she lives in a coastal city, surrounded by shrimp? AND WHY THE FUCK WOULD SHE GO TO A VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT OF ALL PLACES?”
I thought of the shrimp lady as I brewed my special morning detox drink every morning. A drink made of boiled ginger , lemon rind, turmeric and cayenne. Sometimes I’d bring a mason jar of this concoction with me to friend houses, refusing an offer for a beer. “Oh, I’ve got my own jar with me.” I would say, while jealously eyeing everyone else’s drinks and feeling like a loser.
I braced myself for further aversions emerge. What’s next, dust? grass? Air??? SHRIMP?? Those who don’t live in the Bay Area may not be aware that we are an empire of Special Needs, Sensitivities, and Triggers. Some cannot be around perfumes or scents. Some can’t do soy, or gluten. Some can only sleep facing due East. Others can’t gaze upon the color green without going tingly in the spleen. Hell, I’ve been to some gatherings where, instead of clapping, people are instructed to “snap” because clapping can trigger migraines in some individuals.
Let it be known, If I’m going to be special, I want it to be because I have magic super powers of sexual prowess, not because I have to reverse-osmosis my urine in a special hypoallergenic organic glass jar before I leave the house.
Fuck you,Shrimp Lady.
Then, there was the scary gray poop.
Once again, trying to cheer myself up, I bought a Groupon for a massage. While in the waiting room, I received a heart-breaking email from my best friend who (lovingly, but firmly, ) laid out some issues she’d been having with our friendship. For one, I was kind of a dick to her the day of the Shrimp Lady. Not surprising. On top of that, I’d generally been disengaged and preoccupied with my own sanity struggles for the last, oh, say, three years. Her marriage was falling apart. She needed me to step up and be a better friend, and I was too engrossed to offer much in the way of support.
I layed on the massage table face down, watching tears plop down onto the floor below. My best friend! My love! My rock! How could I have been so self-absorbed?! What a dick. What an asshole. How cunty of me. While the massage therapist kneaded the stiff muscles in my back, I beat myself up good and bloody on the inside.
“You might have strange physical symptoms,” said the massage therapist, after we finished. “You had a lot of tension in your shoulders, and the toxins will need to be diluted. Drink lots of water, and relax if you can.”
Almost immediately, I felt a dull pain in my belly. I ran to the toilet, and pooped a frightening, solid gray turd. Pale, like unbaked clay. Ominous. Like a golem finger pointing to hell.
When I went home, I typed “gray poop” in a search engine and turned up many results for pancreatic cancer and gallstones. I chugged nettle tea, and prayed I wouldn’t have to go back to Kaiser for more testing.
All that night, that night I lay awake…Worrying I’d lose my best friend…Worrying about my gray poop. Certain again that I was dying. REALLY DYING NOW. Super dying. Each time I’d get up to go (and I had to go A LOT ) I’d check for a normal color, but it was always gray, always golem, always anemic.
It got so bad, after a day, that I was actually yelling at my poop, reaching a new level of eccentricity.
“Come on, let’s show some color and spirit on that bowl!” I’d shout, to the gray limp finger. “ I’ve fed you chia seeds, nettle tea, kale salads–COME ON BROWN DON’T LET ME DOWN!!!
Fortunately, the poop went back to a normal color (confession: this is the closest I’ve ever come to actually kissing one of my own turds). This happened after I stopped taking some useless (and expensive) herbal sleep supplements I bought at the health food store.
Slowly, painfully, over the course of several months, things got better and better. My gasping and panic fits subsided. My best friend and I patched things up. I began to sleep better. And now, I’m 1 week away from my 40th birthday, and three sessions away from “graduating” from my mental health treatment. Thank you.
I remain ever grateful to my close friends, family, and doctors for helping me get through this rough patch, and for encouraging me to stay strong and face the scary things that lie in the shadows. Please know that if any of you out there are lying awake at night, clutching your bedsheets while your brain holds you hostage…. Please know that there is a cat somewhere who can lead you to freedom. All you have to do is peel off the foil.