Living with CATS

Taking life one hairball at a time

Jeffrey Denny

My new life started when I first noticed that my bout of sneezing, stuffy nose and itchy eyes wasn’t going away. “Oh, it’s just allergies,” unhelpful people said. Claritin and the occasional inhaler snort eased the symptoms but did not address the cause.

Then when the condition became too obvious to ignore, and a CAT scan confirmed the initial diagnosis, I was bewildered and needed time to let the news sink in. And begin the Kübler-Ross process — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance.

I’m still at denial, but needed to tell my family, friends and colleagues what was going on. They would know eventually, and I didn’t want them to resent me for not telling them sooner.

So one by one, I told people that I needed to talk about something, sat them down, and said it straight out:

“I’m sorry to tell you, but … I have CATS.”

I explained there’s no cure for CATS (yet!) and few acceptable treatments. You just live with CATS, adjust and get used to it. You try to live the best life possible.

I was determined to find acceptance, and hoped those closest to me would help.

Reactions were mixed. I expected that. People often don’t know what to say. I don’t. But I wanted to make it easy on them and not feel the need to come up with the perfect response. There really isn’t one.

Some lean away from me imperceptibly, but I notice. It’s involuntary, and I understand. Many people believe CATS can be contagious. About 36 million Americans today are living with CATS and the epidemic is spreading, driven largely by an increase in men who get CATS. (Contrary to common belief, it’s not just women who have CATS. Although elderly and single women are more likely to be overwhelmed by CATS to the point their homes are virtually uninhabitable or even borderline HAZMAT sites. Men may someday catch up with women, as we’ve always struggled to do.)

While epidemiologists insist you can’t get CATS from breathing the same air as someone with CATS, there’s a lot of misunderstanding and few people want to take a chance. There’s also a lot of horrible, insensitive fake news out there about how people with CATS want others to have CATS too so they’re not dealing with the condition alone, but that’s definitely not completely true.

Most important to know, having CATS is not fatal. Yes, an estimated 2.4 billion birds are killed by CATS every year, but unlike with bird flu, the human mortality rate from CATS is statistically insignificant.

Worst case, exposure to people with CATS causes minor irritation, nausea or extreme ennui from hearing nonstop about their CATS. (That’s a joke, but as a person with CATS, I’m free to joke about it. As a comedian said, laughter is the best medicine except for medicine.)

So when I tell people I have CATS, and they lean out, I use the awkward moment to teach them about CATS, talk a bit (but not too much) about my CATS, and sneeze into a Kleenex instead of at them.

Other people I tell about my CATS know someone with CATS, so they were more understanding and empathetic. “Your life will never be the same,” they say, “But having CATS is not a death sentence. Some people with CATS actually go on to live normal, happy, productive lives.”

“But I feel so self-conscious,” I respond, “like I’m wearing a scarlet CAT on my forehead, or the scratches on my forearms give me away.”

These wise friends remind me that pre-CATS, I had no idea — whether on the bus, in a store, walking down the street or perusing an animal shelter — who has CATS, unless I knew and noticed the small telltale signs, including NPR tote bag free with $5 donation. Now that I have CATS, it’s natural to feel everyone must notice my stigmata and be pulling their children away from me, whispering about “sick man.” But I need to get over myself. Nobody notices. Nobody whose opinion I care about cares. Almost everyone knows someone with CATS, so most people understand and care. The ignorant don’t matter. They can go to hell. (Sorry, that’s the CATS talking.)

I also have solution-driven friends with a bias for action who, upon hearing tough news from a loved one, seize the problem, take the reins, and start planning. Thank god for these energetic, creative, loving and somewhat OCD people. Their condition unlike mine gets stuff done.

One such friend, upon hearing about my CATS, immediately began plotting the website, Facebook page and broader social media campaign to raise money and awareness, designing the t-shirt logo (a guy walking around with CATS), and mapping the walkathon around the block. Much discussion about the color of the ribbon, since most are taken, so we settled on calico.

So, I know you’re curious, as many are, how did I get CATS?

Some like to imagine it was the result, what I had coming, from a life of wild parties and all night raves, disco fever at corporate retreats, weekends at Hefner’s before it was icky, trenchant panel comments at Aspen, Milken, Renaissance and Davos conferences, or irresistible pickup lines at the Whole Foods vegetable aisle. (E.g., “Do you think baby bok choy is the veal of bok choy? Is how they make it cruel, so we shouldn’t eat it?”)

Nope. None of the above.

I met someone online. We went out. We liked each other. Inevitable things occurred. Then, once she got comfortable and wanted to proceed, though worried about my reaction yet still trusting me, she confessed: “I like you a lot. And I think we have a lot going on here. But I should let you know right now, before we go further, in case it’s a deal-breaker: I have CATS.”

My reaction was a mix of what I’ve heard from my friends when I told them I had CATS. Concern for contagion and my health, yet understanding about her condition because I know people with CATS, and an offer to help.

We now share CATS and live with CATS together. In spite of the challenges, we’re “feline fine.” That’s a terrible pun, but we laugh together because laughter is the best medicine except for medicine. Meow.

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer