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  • Writer's pictureChristine Coulson

Grief: The Greatest Test of My Sobriety

Updated: Jan 22

A cat called McTat

I am solid in my sobriety. Having now achieved 14 months with very little inclination to drink since my mindset towards alcohol changed, I have always been cautious of declaring "never again!". Instead, I've opted for saying that I don't want to drink, and I hope I won't as life throws things at me. Being honest, I have always worried about the impact a massive life event would have on me, and feared that I would reach for the wine to help me through it.

Then this week, it happened. The biggest test in my sober journey was thrown at me. One of my cats died unexpectedly.

For context, I'm a fully signed up 'crazy cat lady'. Aslan and McTat have been in my family for over 10 years; first living with my cousins in London (where I would regularly cat sit for them) and then in 2014, when I bought my current house, they came to live with me in Yorkshire. Since then, it's just been the three of us in our little home.

During lockdown, as a Radiographer I was still seeing my colleagues at work but my cats were largely my only company outside the hospital. With social distancing being taken very seriously, they were my sole source of cuddles. Even now, there are days where they are the only living things that I interact with in person.

On Tuesday of this week, McTat was at the vets. Her breathing had been a bit laboured for a couple of weeks; her abdomen was doing a lot of the work. She wasn't panting, coughing or sneezing but she wasn't in any sort of distress. The vet agreed it wasn't right, and although her bloods weren't pointing to anything specific, x-ray and ultrasound imaging was called for. This was supposed to happen on Monday, but due to vet sickness it was moved to Tuesday.

That morning, she was in good spirits. She always slept on my bed, and we always had good head rubs and cuddles before we started the day. She was no different when I dropped her off; happy with life in general but grumpy that she was back at the vets. The update phone-call in the early afternoon was expected. The news, however, was not. McTat was very poorly; it was apparent that she had serious cardiac issues going on and her heart was failing. As a result, she had significant fluid within her lungs and her poor cardiac output meant many clots had formed in her heart. The next four, then 24 hours were critical.

I'm not a doctor, but as a Radiographer I have enough medical nous to know that there was nothing good in that. It was not a prognosis conducive to life. I think it was during this conversation that I first felt the emotional equivalent of a spike going straight through my heart. Through the tears and the sobbing, the plan was agreed. She would drain her lungs, I would to collect her at 18:15, but the vet would ring me earlier if she deteriorated and I needed to get there.

My phone rang at 16:56. The vet's voice had a different, sombre tone. Shit. "I take it I need to get there ASAP?" "I'm sorry, it's too late". The rug was well and truly pulled from under me. The vets is only 400m from my house, so knowing driving in the rush hour with tears streaming down your face isn't the most sensible of ideas, I walked up to go and see her. It was an awful experience, but simultaneously lovely. I cuddled her. I kissed her little head. The vet showed me the x-rays; talked me through her day and how she was at the end. It was sudden. She did not suffer. One minute she was sitting up; the next minute she wasn't. I cuddled her some more. I said my goodbyes. As rigor mortis was kicking in, her claws were out. She clicked my jumper one last time.

It's at this stage that drinking alcohol would have been very easy. The vets is next door to a Tesco Express, with its refrigerated wall of white wine. To get home I had to walk pass my local. There's another pub at the bottom of the hill. Deliveroo is still happily installed on my phone, with the numerous grocery outlets poised to deliver alcohol to my house at the click of a button. At that point, I would have done anything to numb that pain; but I would not do that. I got home, climbed into my bed and wept.

The night was difficult. Without alcohol to wipe me from reality, I was experiencing more devastating emotions I ever recall experiencing. I had the television on; but I was not watching it. I was glued to my phone, looking at photographs and watching videos. I went onto Instagram and created a reel from a video of her purring just so it would play on a loop. I closed my eyes and listened to it, wishing it was actually her. You can see that here, if you want to hear it for yourself. I recommend it, it's delightful. I don't remember falling asleep, but surprisingly I slept well. Maybe it's easier when there isn't a 5kg cat snoozing on you.

You may remember the 1990's film Sliding Doors. A film where the story splits into two at the point where Gwyneth Paltrow catches / misses a tube train. Having not seen it for a while, I think the main difference was a haircut. That aside, not drinking on Tuesday night was my Sliding Doors moment.

In the real world, I had a quiet morning where I drank some coffee and spent some quality time with Aslan. When the pet cremation service rang me at 11am, I was able to have a teary but clear headed conversation with the owner about my wishes. We talked about what she was like, and how I was feeling. The crux of the conversation was that McTat was there, she would be cremated that evening and they would text me the following day about collecting her ashes. As she was no longer at the vets, I rang them and asked if I could collect her carrier free from the fear that I would bump into them taking her away. I hadn't wanted to walk home with the empty carrier, you see. That would have been too much.

In the parallel 'alcohol' universe, I wouldn't have woken up early on Wednesday morning. I'd have felt shocking so I would not have moved all morning. I inevitably would have ignored the call from the crematorium, potentially all day, and she would not be being cremated that evening. I would be living in a hungover anxiety over having to have that difficult conversation, and McTat's care would have been prolonged because of it. There would be no chance I'd be showering and leaving the house, so the carrier would be at the vets for longer, another practical task hanging over my hungover head. And I'd have probably thrown up. Who knows when she would have got cremated in my hungover parallel universe.

So as I type this, just three days after I last saw her; McTat's ashes, along with her paw prints, are back with Alsan and I at home and all the practical elements of her passing have been dealt with. I have been back to work on a night shift, and although I'm still having many 'moments', life is continuing.

I have known for months that sobriety has given me a calmness and clarity that I have never had in my life before, and this has really come to the fore this week. Yes, I've experienced the hurt, the pain and the grief that comes with losing a pet, but already I am finding it easier to cope with. I'm able to rationally be thankful for her distress-free, quick passing. I'm really grateful that the delay in her imaging allowed me to spend a lazy day with her on Monday; her glued to my side as I carried out various life admin tasks. Yes, it hurts and there are still tears; that's only natural. I'm riding them out, knowing they will pass.

By not drinking alcohol, I know I'm going through the smoothest (albeit still bumpy) grieving process possible. The hurt I'm feeling will lessen, but I know my love for my little McTat will never end.

Rest in peace, Sweet Pea.

A woman - Christine - relaxing on her sofa with her cat - McTat

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