I found my Ni when I was seventeen years old. She was just a kitten, living with a pair of drug dealers out of a car. Her earliest nights were spent at raves. Her meals were from McDonald’s, Wendy’s, a local place called Sconecutter…and whatever drugs they took, she took.
They weren’t my dealers. They didn’t sell what I liked, which was opiates, but they ended up crashing with the sister of a friend of a friend. (In the junkie world, it felt like everyone is like a very distant cousin or an aunt eight times removed.) The first time I saw Ni, she was racing back and forth from a ratty sofa to a back bedroom. She stopped only when I poured myself a glass of Pepsi. I only know she stopped because suddenly there was a little grey tabby shoving her face in my glass. Then she grabbed my licorice rope and tried to make off with it.
They called her ‘Monster’ because they could never get her to settle down and she was prone to scratching–kittens do those things. Drugs, coke and meth, those tend to exacerbate it. The friend of a friend tried to point that out and they didn’t believe her. Yeah, they were morons.
I didn’t sleep that night, thanks largely to being an addict without a fix, so at dawn I went out for a walk. Ni toddled after me and I carried her in my jacket. I remember feeling this unexpected connection, like something warm and overwhelming and larger than I am was reaching out to her. I have had a lot of pets, and I’ve loved each of them, but I had never experienced anything like it before. I think it’s because it was the first time in years that I had felt that sort of unconditional affection. Love at first sight.
But I had to leave her with the dealers. At that point in my life, I was couch hopping more than I was home and the next morning I was off to school to find the next place I could spend the night. I didn’t plan on going back to the friend of a friend’s, but in lone moments I kept thinking about the kitten, about the things that were being done to her, the ways her fragile life was being hammered apart.
My girlfriend at the time asked around quietly and told me later that the friend of a friend’s mother was not pleased about the dealers crashing with her, or about the cat they’d brought–there were already three in the house, plus a dog. The mother was emphatically in favor of the kitten going to a new home. So we found a time when the dealers wouldn’t be around (I think they had to get their car repaired, something like that) and girlfriend and I returned to the house. On the drive away we decided to name her Niraug (“little demon”, because her markings looked like little horns). Over time that became ‘Ni’, as in ‘The Knights who say…’.
I knew that, just as Ni hadn’t been welcome here, she wouldn’t be welcome in the places I bounced around to every day. This meant that I took her home to my parents’ house, and I contemplated hiding her but Ni was a talker. And for a malnourished kitten, she had a set of lungs on her. So instead, girlfriend and I just walked right in and I set the kitten down for them to see.
Predictably the first words they said were, “No.”
I countered with, “But she’s a drug cat.”
She looked it, too: her fur was dull and patchy, her whiskers had been burned off, she was missing a lot of her teeth. Later on we would discover she had asthma, which may or may not have been related to the smoking and hotboxing that went on.
My parents are deeply compassionate people. They’re where I get my love of animals in the first place. As much as they hadn’t wanted another cat in their house, they wanted Ni in my life. It was a very good call, if I do say so myself. Two weeks later, I consented to therapy. A few days after I started outpatient treatment, I decided to get clean.
I could write a Tolstoy-sized novel about the hell of withdrawals. I can say that for the days and nights I spent locked in a bathroom, for the panic attacks and the physical pain and the uncontrollable moodswings, I had a little grey kitten healing with me. I saw her whiskers grow in; I saw her fur grow back.
Most of all I saw her start to settle down from the jumpy, frightened little thing she was into a cat who still couldn’t sleep without having a paw on me, but who also loved going for rides in my car. As long as I was there, she had no fears. And with her, I learned not to fear the things that had pushed me into addiction.
And she still loves French fries. In fact on one of our rides she tried to leap out of my car and into the drive-thru window of Sconecutter. She would follow my younger brother around the neighborhood like a dog or a very fond little sister, and play with his friends.
Animals can recover from so much. If you can be brave and humble yourself, you can’t help but learn from them, things you simply can’t learn from other people. They bring a richness to our lives that you can only understand by experiencing it, and I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to have that in my life. I wouldn’t be here without my Ni cat.