I got him by surprise. One moment my sister and I were sitting on my balcony drinking wine and mourning our recently-ended relationships, the next we were in a car driving to the suburbs to see a little black kitten. “Pets are the best therapy,” she said to me. “Just do it.” A few days later, I was in another car heading home, not with the black kitten, but with his black and white brother sitting in my lap. I chose him because he was brave and boisterous, leading the pack as I watched the tiny cats play. I named him Garfunkel and welcomed him into my world.
It became apparent quite quickly that my new friend had behavioural issues, especially once he moved past the kitten stage and was still attacking people, his pupils often dilated. Some nights I hid in my room from him and cried, scared of his unpredictable fury, of the feeling of his claws digging into me and leaving angry marks on my skin for days. I didn’t understand him, or what I’d done for this to happen – I’d followed all the rules, but he wasn’t cooperating. We’d go to the vet and they’d have to call in several nurses to hold him down for something as simple as a claw trim.
I tried expensive diffusers and buying him more toys to distract him, but nothing worked. I even paid $300 to go to a cat psychologist – yes, it’s a real thing – to get some insight into why he was behaving so strangely, and whether there was anything I could do to change it. It was clear that he was hurting, that he was anxious and needed help, but I couldn’t figure out what that was.
Caring for Garfunkel has given me a new appreciation for the challenges that my parents went through with me
As frustrated as I was with Garfunkel, after a time I realised it was a window into another life, too – my parents’. At seven, I started seeing a child psychiatrist after my parents noticed strange behaviour in me, and was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. I started taking antidepressants when I was still in primary school, and was on and off them over the next decade. I was often a difficult child, and I know my parents struggled for a long time figuring out the best way to navigate my mental health issues. Caring for Garfunkel has given me a new appreciation for the challenges that my parents went through with me, and the care in which they ensured my safety and road to “okay” – whatever that means or looks like.
But it has also made me reflect on parenting in general, and whether or not it’s something that I am cut out for. After I turned 30 in November, something that once seemed like a distant prospect is suddenly screaming at me in technicolour – from social media feeds, in café corners, people with faces like mine holding tiny faces like theirs. To some it may seem incongruous to compare having a pet to raising a child, but my difficulties with Garfunkel have made the reality of human parenthood seem so much more pronounced, and have turned the question over and over in my head constantly. Would I do a good enough job? What if my kid was beyond any help I could give? What if they grew up to resent me? And, most of all, what if my kid inherited my illnesses?
To some it may seem incongruous to compare having a pet to raising a child, but my difficulties with Garfunkel have made the reality of human parenthood seem so much more pronounced
It hangs over first dates, crawls silently into bed. I don’t want to ask anyone whether they want kids because it seems so intense, but I have to know before anything progresses and we disappoint each other. I can’t commit to a strong yes or a strong no, so I hover somewhere in the middle. I know I don’t have to decide straight away, but having gone through all of this with my cat child, I’m scared of what might lie ahead if I ever choose to have a human one.
There is no easy answer, and maybe there never will be – life is like that sometimes. Garfunkel is four now. He trialed anti-anxiety medication recently, taking a little capsule twice a day like I did as a child. It didn’t do anything for him. We’re trying something else now, and we will until something sticks. At night he curls up against my legs, purring, and I ruffle his furry head until we both fall asleep. We do our best, and I think that’s enough.
Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a freelance writer.