The other night a mean old feral cat snuck into our house through the doggie-door. It was a beast. All puffed up and angry, scarred by life and experince. This poor hissing and yowling animal was literally climbing the walls, shredding wallpaper, and crashing itself into windows, desperate to escape. As I watched it claw a path of destruction through my living room I just wanted to help it, to comfort it, to calm it down and let it know that I was not going to hurt it. But that cat was a lost cause. After wreaking havoc and refusing water, food and cat treats, it spat at me balefully one more time and then jumped gracefully out of a window, howling into the inky black night. That was the last I saw of it.
That feral cat was Johnny.
Johnny showed up one day at a detox center in New York. The same detox I was in trying to kick a serious pill addiction. He was pale, sweating, shaking, battered and bruised. He was in the midst of the most awful heroin withdrawal I had ever seen. In fact he was detoxing off of heroin, fentanyl, marijuana and alcohol all at the same time. This was a medical detox so the staff was doing everything they could to help him, including IV medications to decrease the chance of a withdrawal related seizure and constant monitoring of his heart rate, oxygen levels, blood pressure and temperature. But they seemed to be fighting a losing battle. He was in really rough shape. On the day he arrived Johnny was still high, having ingested a "massive" quantity of drugs, as sort of a last hurrah, before entering detox. He came in fast and furious. Violent, aggressive and horrible to the people trying to help him. Eventually the staff sedated him and it was in those hours that I got a chance to speak with him. We sat on a bench outside while he furiously worked his way through a pack of Marlboro Reds. He talked mostly about himself, his struggles, his addiction and even a time when he had once been sober. An active member of A.A. for 6 months, he’d succumbed to a case of the “fuck-its” and had gone back out. Back onto the streets.
After about 20 minutes he asked about me. Where did I live? Did I have a job? Did I have kids? I gave Johnny a rough sketch of my life and when I told him that yes, I had kids, Johnny suddenly went silent. Then, suprising me, he teared up. I asked him if he was okay and he said "Yeah, it just makes me sad. Me and my girl wanted a kid. We had our plans for a different life, a better life. But that ain't gonna happen now." I was surprised by his answer as he looked to be at least 50, a little old to be thinking about babies. I asked how old his "girl" was and he told me she was 27. I was shocked and was about to write him off as yet another creepy old guy with a too-young girlfriend. But when I asked him how old he was his answer stunned me. Johnny was 29. Yet he was so ancient looking, so battle scarred and beaten up and toothless and tattooed...how could a 29 year old man look like that? He sensed my astonishment and said "Yeah, I guess I look older than that. I gotta get some teeth." Johnny told me about his struggles starting at age 13, a life of being bullied and beaten at home and then on the streets. He had been trying to get clean for years but instead it had been a series of juvies, jails, detoxes, and rehabs. Back to back, day after day, year after year.
The next morning I went looking for Johnny. I asked his roommate where he was. "Probably dead” they replied. “An ambulance came and took him away at 4 a.m." I was stunned by the callousness of the answer. I wanted to find out where he was, how I could help, so I asked one of the nurses. She wasn’t authorized to tell me anything about him but I was a relentless squeaky wheel. Finally, in a quiet elevator, she caved, rushing through the words in a stream so fast it was hard to understand her. Johnny's blood pressure and heart rate had dropped precipitously, his breathing had become dangerously shallow and he had been slipping in and out of consciousness. Unresponsive, he was rushed by ambulance to the emergency room. And that was the last I ever heard of Johnny. He never came back to the detox center. Confidentiality clauses and privacy policies made it impossible for me to get any information. For all I know he is dead, and all those dreams of a baby with his girl and a better, happier life are gone.
So what does Johnny have to do with the cat that terrorized my house last night? Both feral to the bone, clawing and raging and spitting at the people trying to help them. Just like Johnny, I saw in that cat a terrified animal who just didn't know how to react to "normal" life. To being in a house, to being surrounded by people who wanted to help, to being warm and being fed. Underneath that cat's fierce exterior I saw a scared little kitten. A terrified being that I wanted to help. I believe that if I could catch that feral cat I might be able to rehab it. I dream that maybe with time and love and patience and commitment I could tame that cat and make it see that the life it is living, running from woodpile to the woods, living on chipmunk innards and grass is no way to live. Dehydrated and weak in the summers, freezing and starving in the winters, and always lonely. Struggling not to enjoy life but just to survive it. That cat is just like Johnny. Behind the fog of addiction in Johnny's eyes I saw something. I caught a glimpse of a handsome young man with hopes and dreams. A dulled sparkle that told me he knew he deserved a better life. Things had happened to him early on that turned him wild. But I have seen miracles in A.A. People that came in like Johnny, living on the streets. Living crazed, filthy, degrading and dangerous lives. I have seen people like that completely turn their lives around for the better. That’s my prayer for Johnny - and it will be until the day I die. That he got it. That he is living somewhere now with his girl and their baby. But I don't think that was the outcome.
I get so sad when I think about Johnny. The memory of our conversation makes my heart hurt. I would have loved to have helped him. To have seen him saved. To have met his girl and their child. I doubt I'll ever see Johnny again but I am so grateful to have had that time with him. For it was in those few hours I spent with him that I realized that in Alcoholics Anonymous we can't rescue every feral cat that wanders in, but that we sure as hell will try.