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That Time Our Cat OD'd on My Daughter's Ritalin

Perhaps there was some breakfast grease left on my hand as I put the capsule on the kitchen counter for my tween daughter to take, just as I'd done nearly every day for four years. She was coming groggily down the stairs, taking her own sweet time. In a second, our cat leaped onto the counter and sucked up the capsule, pouncing away in little puffs of white powder.

This isn't unlike Gemma, our rescue cat. She had already been returned twice to the shelter for being "kind of a handful," and she was no longer a kitten. Jillian instantly loved her.

"We can handle her," I assured the shelter staff, looking them in the eye and unwittingly lying.

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Gemma is fearless, fast, frenetic, overly curious and whip-smart. She has leapt over the railing from the second floor, opened doors, commandeered the dog pillow and slashed through food bags and furniture like Wolverine.

Gemma and my daughter are both ADHD. Jillian had grown tolerant of her current dose, so the doctor increased it. We wanted to try it on a day that she had nothing to do, and this was the day Gemma pilfered the pill.

Gemma and my daughter are soulmates. They just "get" each other, following each other everywhere and rapidly flinging from one imaginary game to the next. I hear them playing upstairs, my daughter chirping, "Oh, you want to do that instead? Wait, what if we built a TUNNEL? Let's try the yo-yo! Or maybe if I tie a string to this bean bag ... WHERE ARE THE PIPE CLEANERS?" Thumps and running stomps rattle the lights on the first floor. Giggle-giggle-snort-squeal-meow-shake-giggle.

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Admittedly, my first thought when Gemma took the pill was that we might have some peace and quiet for a change. But my daughter said, "What if Ritalin is poisonous?" I said I doubted it, my daughter took it after all. But we asked the Internet, because that's always comforting. The Internet informed me that I was wrong. So very wrong. Gemma was now lying down, looking sort of like a bobble-head doll in a back car window.

We drove to the emergency clinic while Gemma yowled and my daughter tried to comfort her in the backseat. The vet took Gemma's vital signs. "I think she's going to be fine," she said, "but I need to get a lot of fluid in her, some activated charcoal and watch her overnight."

"Can we come back and check on her?" my daughter asked. "In a few hours," said the vet.

When we saw Gemma, she was in a private room. The sounds from the other animals had been juicing her up even more. Her eyes were dilated, and she had an IV line in her paw. She was flitting around her cage like this:


"She's kind of having a bad trip," the vet said.

"What's a bad trip?" my daughter asked.

The vet conveniently ignored her and gave the same diagnosis as before: Gemma would be fine, but she needed to be watched closely.

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My daughter talked to Gemma for a long time while Gemma raced through her routine. "Are you having a bad trip, Gemma? What's a bad trip?" she kept asking.

I finally said, "This is what happens when you take drugs you're not supposed to take. Take a good look!"

I knew then that this would be the pet for my daughter. You know, the one you loved unconditionally and fiercely with all of your heart when you were a child.

But I also couldn't help thinking, "Dear God, this is what I'm giving my DAUGHTER?" Because the vet was the only doctor available, I asked her about humans. "Geez, are you sure this is safe for kids?" She assured me that cats respond differently to the drug than humans do, and this dosage was four-times what would be considered poisonous to a cat. Criminy.

But my daughter was under the care of a human doctor, after all. And I could see the difference in her on days she didn't take the pill. I became very attuned to when she might need it and when she didn't. But this was a new dose, and I was nervous.

"How do YOU feel?" I kept asking my daughter. "Fine," she said, "Just worried about Gemma." Hyper-focused on Gemma, actually. When we finally went home, any conversation would suddenly become about Gemma.

"Do you want a taco?"

"I wonder if Gemma would like a taco when she comes home."

The vet told us we could pick up Gemma at 6 a.m. My daughter, who would sleep until noon every day if we let her, wanted to come.

"Are you sure?"


And sure enough, she was dressed and sitting in the car before I had even put my foot in the other shoe.

Gemma had calmed down considerably, although her eyes were still very dilated. My daughter again sat in back with Gemma, explaining to her that she'd had a "bad trip."

In the car, we discussed changing our drug policy to a hand-off, as if we were standing on a street corner.

When we got home, my daughter and Gemma camped upstairs. My daughter was lying on the floor next to Gemma, reading a book about Costa Rica. "She especially likes this picture," my daughter said, showing me a picture of a volcano. They read about Costa Rica until both of them had been lulled to sleep, my daughter on the floor, Gemma's head hanging over the scratch box on top of the page with the volcano.

Jillian also built Gemma her own special recovery box, courtesy of Amazon. She colored it, cut windows and doors, painted paw prints and made a "Cats Rule" sign. I had never seen Jillian put so much feeling into something. Gemma loved it.

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I knew then that this would be the pet for my daughter. You know, the one you loved unconditionally and fiercely with all of your heart when you were a child. The one she would learn to take care of, keep safe and remember forever, with both immeasurable joy and bittersweet tears. The one that would shatter my Jillian's heart when she passed on, and would take a piece of my daughter's childhood with her.

How beautiful to love and be loved like this. Such an innocent, all-consuming devotion, that one between a child and pet. Such risk for pain to which we expose ourselves, children especially, who have not yet felt that hurt and so love intensely and without reservation. I suppose it's a good segue into the more complicated relationships she will face, but for now it is absolutely perfect.

Sad, scary, wild and perfect.

Photo by Laurel Dalrymple

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