Cold milk, warm cookies, & magic.

Every evening after supper, my son and I take the dog for a walk. And every evening on our walk, we have the same conversation – one of us will ask the other, “If you were at Disney right now, what would you be doing?”

No matter how hard his day was at school, or how intense his anxiety and depression, talking about Disney brightens Puck’s mood. His face animates as he tells me which park he’d be in, and which ride or attraction he’d visit. We talk about which restaurants we’d go to, and which treats we wish we could eat right now (Mickey bars and Mickey waffles are two of our favourites). We imagine which resort we’d be staying at, in which type of room. We even reminisce fondly about the Orlando airport, or the beautiful boat ride from Port Orleans French Quarters to Disney Springs. By the time the walk is over, we’re both feeling happier and have planned out a whole day’s activities for a vacation we aren’t even planning to take any time soon. And we’ll do it all over again the next night.

IMG_0170Yes, we are one of *those* families. We’ve been to Disney – a lot. We’ve been on a Disney cruise. We’ve gone on other vacations as a family, too, but it’s Disney that holds our hearts.  I’ve been fortunate to travel a fair bit. I’ve been (and lived) from coast to coast in Canada, and I’ve traveled throughout the United States. I’ve traveled to several islands in the Caribbean, and several countries in Europe. But it’s Disney that we keep returning to as a family. Some people don’t get it, and question why we go back over and over. It certainly wasn’t what I had planned. I was going to show my kids the whole world. But for us, Disney provides a dependable happiness and a retreat from reality that we haven’t found anywhere else. The rest of the world can wait. We’re searching for a world of magic.

Don’t get me wrong: my history of vacationing at Disney is not one of perfect family time or unbridled joy. We are not the happy family you see in commercials. Each trip has come with its own challenges, but also lessons. As a teen, I traveled with a mother who actually didn’t like Disney at all, and a father who wasn’t keen on most rides. I learned to appreciate everything else the parks have to offer. My first trip with children of my own was as an extended family. At the time, my father-in-law was in the early stages of dementia and was confused and prone to getting lost. My mother-in-law was recovering from a hip replacement but in her typical no-nonsense fashion, refused any help. I learned to slow down and not try to do everything. 

Other trips have been planned to balance my daughter’s “let’s do everything!” style with the ups and downs of Puck’s constellation of challenges. Sometimes, sounds were a problem for him, so we learned which attractions or places to avoid. On other trips, it was the crowds, so we learned where to watch fireworks in a less intense setting.

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Tinkerbell and Daisy in a deep fairy discussion.

Although we used a travel agent for our first two trips, I quickly became an expert at doing the planning on my own, focussing on my family’s special needs. I learned what Disney had available to help us, and created detailed itineraries that helped Puck understand what was going to happen each day, while still giving us the flexibility to have fun. I learned how to help Daisy do the things that would make magical memories while keeping Puck happy and calm.

We go back because even though Disney can be a non-stop, intense destination, it actually does a lot to cater to families like ours. Never was this more clear than on our last trip. My father-in-law’s dementia has worsened to the point where it is impossible for him and my mother-in-law to travel on their own. We knew it would be hard, but we wanted to take one last big trip together, as a family. 

I was so hesitant. I knew caring for him and my mother-in-law (who is game for anything, although frailer than she’d admit) on a cruise and then at Walt Disney World was going to be a challenge. On top of that, we had our own kids to think about – including Puck, who would turn 12 on the trip, and who had been having a terrible year with clinical depression and anxiety. I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Even though a dear friend and Disney travel specialist helped plan the details of the trip for us, I had very low expectations.

We didn’t get off to a good start. Puck’s anxiety about leaving his routine kicked in at the airport, and he was in the bathroom being sick right up until our flight boarded. My father-in-law had no idea why we were on a plane or where we were going. We spent the five hours of travel explaining to him, every ten minutes or so, that we were all going on a vacation together. 

Everyone was tense.  I was sure we’d made a big mistake.

We were leaving on a cruise the next day. But first, we’d have a night at a Disney resort. We got settled in our rooms and headed to the Magic Kingdom for the evening. My father-in-law had been agitated and confused, asking repeatedly where we were. Puck was weak and anxious from being sick and was popping ginger tablets like candy. The rest of us were tired and a bit defeated, feeling certain the trip was going to be a disaster. 

But when we got off the bus, got everyone through security, and walked onto Main Street, everything changed.

My father-in-law stopped and stared at the castle in the distance. “Oh!” he said, a big smile spreading across his face. “We’re at Disney!”. And he proceeded to tell us stories from visits 40 years earlier, when he’d gone there with his young children. He could remember those trips in detail, and while sitting on Pirates of the Caribbean, he marveled at how things were just as he’d remembered. He grabbed Puck’s arm and said, “Oh, the jail scene with the dog is coming up next!”

He couldn’t remember how we got to Florida or why, exactly, we were there, but somehow, he remembered what scene was coming up in a ride he hadn’t been on in years. He was smiling and relaxed and having fun — something that happens too little, these days. 

Puck, too, changed as soon as we were in the Magic Kingdom. The anxiety melted as he saw familiar sites he loves. Puck’s challenges make him a bit less mature than his age would suggest, but that doesn’t matter at Disney. Everyone – even me, who was just turning 49 — can be a child. There is no pressure to be mature, and no one judges you for acting like an excited child. He can act younger than his age. I (a grown woman) can get excited to the point of tears over hugging Eeyore. It’s all good.

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You’re never too old to hug Pooh bear.

Later that night, when we got back to our resort, my father-in-law wanted a ‘bed snack’. We went to the quick service restaurant, and my mother-in-law chose some cookies for him. At the cash register, my father-in-law became distraught: he couldn’t eat cookies without milk, he wailed. He was on the verge of tears. My mother-in-law panicked; she didn’t know where the milk was, and she couldn’t leave my father-in-law to go look. She was worried about him making a scene, and not being able to calm him down. The cashier came to the rescue.

“Of course you need milk!” she assured him. “You can’t eat cookies without milk! Let me get you some.” 

My mother-in-law was fretting, though, because she hadn’t brought enough cash for milk (and didn’t understand she could charge things to her room).  The cashier waved off her concern.

“Don’t worry about the milk,” she told her. “It’s a gift from Mickey. He wants Mister to enjoy his milk and cookies.”

When my mother-in-law told me this,  we both cried. She didn’t remember the name of the cashier, so I went to the front desk and thanked asked them to thank the restaurant staff for their kindness.

When we got on the cruise, warm cookies and a glass of milk were magically brought to my in-laws’ room every night at bedtime. Screen Shot 2018-09-29 at 11.52.44 AM.png

THAT’s why we keep going back to Disney. 

Yes, it can be a crazy, overwhelming place, but even for a family like ours (with proper planning) it can be the best vacation you’ve ever had, with people who work so hard to make magic for you. For families like mine — with parents exhausted from trying to manage and micro-manage every detail of the day, who have come to expect that people will not understand, will judge, or will let you down — this is amazing. That’s why my son and I talk about it every night when we’re walking the dog. It’s an escape, to be sure, but it’s also familiar and warm. It’s a place where burdened adults can be children, even just for a while, and where children who sometimes don’t feel confident can discover they are actually brave enough to ride Splash Mountain. 

Even though we talk and plan every day, it’s not likely we’ll be going back anytime soon (our finances don’t stretch to that, at the moment). But still, we dream. We talk. I help other people plan their vacations and live vicariously through them. In fact, I’ve actually thought about becoming a Disney vacation planner, so that I can help other families with special needs realize that spending time together on such a trip is not logistically impossible. I’ve done a lot of work in my life to improve services for people with special needs and mental health issues on a policy level. Maybe I could also create some magic for people at a family level. 

Families like mine need some cold milk, warm cookies, and a heaping serving of magic to keep going. Really, these days, we all do.

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The Big Drop

Having my kids in my late thirties was a spectacularly bad piece of planning on my part. Just when I’m embarking on this magical journey to Menopause Land, my kids are beating down the gates to Puberty World. My house is currently the worst theme park ever: emotional rollercoasters, long queues for the bathroom, people fighting over the last chocolate treat, and a parade of characters that switch on a whim from princess to villain.

My 14-year-old daughter and I spent the summer on a happiest-place-on-earth hormone high, excited about what the Fall would bring. For her, it was a new school that will allow her to better balance academics and her professional dance training program. For me, it was a leap into full self-employment as a writer and consultant. We spent long hours writing, creating, and dreaming. We congratulated each other on how fabulous our decisions were.

Then, September hit. The hormones crashed. We went from happiest-place-on-earth to haunted house.

Like someone flipped a switch, both Daisy and I felt our internal light go out as darkness settled into the place where hope had been. Both of us, faced with meeting our goals and doing what our hearts told us was right for us, were struck down by fear. Imposter Syndrome grabbed us and buckled us in. We were on this ride for the duration, and it was headed down a big, scary drop.

Imposter Syndrome is a very real thing, and I’ve experienced it frequently throughout my life (although never quite so profoundly as I have these past few weeks). It’s the feeling that despite your gifts and abilities, despite your experience and knowledge, you are a fraud who doesn’t deserve to succeed. You worry that someone will find out you actually have no idea what you’re talking about or doing. You worry that any success you’ve had to this point was a fluke. Imposter Syndrome convinces you that you aren’t worthy of joy or success. Those are things for other people. Not for you.

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This is more than a ‘fake it ’til you make it’ feeling, and it’s not about low self-esteem. It can be terrifying and confusing, causing you to throw away the very things you’ve worked so hard to get close to. I know more than one person who, faced with actually landing their dream job or taking a big step in life, ran away in fear — it was easier to not try, they reasoned, than to fail and lose their dream. The light of their dream, up close, blinded them like the sun.

They convinced themselves it would never work.

They told themselves other people were better or deserved it more.

They said they just weren’t ready, or they’d changed their minds. They didn’t want it, anyway.

But they hadn’t changed their minds. The Imposter Syndrome had changed their ability to stay true to their dreams. It had robbed them of their courage, replacing it with self-doubt. 

The fear of not doing something well (if not perfectly) can keep us from doing anything, at all.

Imposter Syndrome can also keep us from acknowledging what we’ve already achieved. For Daisy, that means that despite being accepted into a professional ballet training program, she still thinks she’s not a good dancer. For me, it means that despite being a published author, I still feel like I’m ridiculous to think of ever being published again. As a result, both of us started September in crisis mode: she was going to quit dance. I was going to quit writing. Who were we to think we could succeed?

The fact that Daisy was faced with Imposter Syndrome at the same time I was helped pull me out of it. I spent long hours talking and counseling her, coaching her to see her potential and her accomplishments (leaving me exhausted and feeling even more like an imposter, since I couldn’t practice what I preached. Such is the life of a mama.).

These are the tips we’ve been following together:

Acknowledge it. And then tell it to shut up. That nagging voice that tells you you’ll never succeed? That’s your gremlin — your worst critic. Give it a name (the name of someone you strongly dislike is good, because you’ll be swearing at it a lot). When it sits on your shoulder and tells you that you’re going to fail, listen. Challenge it (“Really? Because I’ve succeeded at xyz before and I know I have what it takes”). Tell it off. Move on.

(Note: your gremlin is NOT the same as your gut. Your gut gives you clues about when something isn’t right. You should listen to that. But don’t trust your gremlin.)

Challenge those thoughts. Are you falling into thought traps? Is everything either good or bad? Are you constantly going to the worst case scenario? Ask yourself (and your inner critic) why you are assuming the worst will happen. Why aren’t you assuming the best will happen?

Keep a list of your successes.  It can feel braggy, but keeping a running list of projects you’re proud of can be good to keep at hand for times when you feel like you never have and never will accomplish anything. I keep a list of things I’m proud of tucked away in a journal. Daisy keeps a notebook with positive feedback from her dance teachers. 

Keep the big picture in mind. You will get over the Imposter Syndrome. This is just a set-back. Who do you want to be? Where do you want to go? If you run away from whatever is scaring you now, how will you get where you want to be? How would your 7-year-old self feel about that?

Get your dreams out of your head. Make a vision board. Tell a friend about your goal. Make a big announcement on social media. Once your dream is out in the world, it becomes more real. It’s not just an idea – it’s the first step in a plan. And you’ll be surprised how quickly people appear to help you make your plan a reality. 

Keep calm. For those of us with anxiety, Imposter Syndrome can be like quicksand — when you get into that bog of fear, it’s easy to sink lower and lower until you’re in deep and can’t fight your way out. Practicing grounding techniques can help calm you. Daisy and I have apps on our phones that help us practice mindfulness. Another easy way to ground yourself when you feel your anxiety rising is to do the 5-4-3-2-1 Check-In.

Look around you. Name:

Five things you can see. 

Four things you can touch.

Three things you can hear (not your own thoughts!).

Two things you can smell.

One thing you can taste.

Always – be kind to yourself. Imposter Syndrome is exhausting. Working through it can be even more so. Forgive yourself. Be kind. Now’s the time to eat well, get out in nature, do things that lift your spirits and inspire you. 

Daisy’s sorted herself out, for now. She got a role she coveted in a ballet, and with it came a boost of confidence. Her light is back.

My struggle off the rollercoaster has been harder. I haven’t been able to write in weeks. I set my novel aside and haven’t been able to look at it. Work is dwindling, and I’ve been scouring job ads, convinced I’ll never make a go of things on my on. I’ve been waking up in full panic, wondering where the joy and creativity I felt this summer has gone.

But I’m still trying.  I’m hoping that the rollercoaster is going to head back up. I have to believe it will. Because I know that sometimes, we can ride this rollercoaster, scream our heads off, tell ourselves this was a stupid decision and that we’re going to die. But the ride ends, and we find ourselves laughing and breathless, proud that we did it and eager to try it again. Other times, however, we pass up the ride and miss the ride of our lives. I don’t want to miss that ride.

I’ve been keeping these lines of my favourite poem by Marianne Williamson close to me. I recite them to my gremlin. They inspire me and reassure me that I’m not alone in feeling this way.

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.

Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.

It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?

Actually, who are you not to be?

 

Have you faced Imposter Syndrome? What helped you through it?

10 Mental Health Tips I Learned from my Cats

When I was living on the other side of the country in my early 20s, far removed from friends and family, my boyfriend gave me a little grey kitten. I named him Eeyore (the kitten, not the boyfriend). The boyfriend only lasted two more years, but Eeyore was a constant for almost 15 years. He traveled across the country with me, from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, and honestly, he never really forgave me for it. 

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Little Eeyore on the Prairie.

Eeyore also traveled with me on my journey to recovery from an eating disorder. Do I sound like a loser if I say Eeyore was my best friend during this time? Well, he was. He was with me in the middle of the night, giving me head butts and chin nibbles when I’d wake up in a panic. He listened to my semi-coherent ramblings as I tried to sort out feelings between (or because of) therapy appointments. He comforted without judgment when I cried or struggled to make myself eat. He was by my side as I eventually grew healthier, married, and had babies. He always looked out for me. One of my clearest memories of being in labour with my daughter is being in the bathtub, working through contractions, while Eeyore sat in the bathroom door, growling protectively and refusing to allow either my husband or the doula into the room. He’d occasionally look over his shoulder at me, making sure I was okay, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

I’ve shared my life with a succession of cats since I was eight years old: Boo Boo Kitty, Miss Toby, Eeyore, Oedipuss, Mr. Cuddles, and Scarlett O’Hairy. These days, I share my house with Ivy and Smudge (five-year-old cowcats), and Rory, a very lively five-month-old black kitten. I also have a dog, Pippa (who thinks she’s a cat, because she’s around them all the time) who is sweet and gentle and will be trained to become a therapy dog. Pippa does wonders for my son’s anxiety. When he’s feeling especially low, she’ll cuddle next to him instinctively. When he’s sad, he says hugging her makes him feel better. When he’s lonely, he tells her she’s his best friend. I know she’ll make an amazing therapy dog.

Cats are underrated as therapy animals, though. This is too bad; they’ve been a critical part of my own mental health team (sorry/not sorry to all of my therapists and health professionals who might frown on being lumped in with felines). As I’ve gone through challenges, grown, recovered and had my own career in mental health, I’ve learned these ten key mental health lessons from my cats:

  1.  Nap

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Scarlett O’Hairy sharing her mad napping skills with the next generation.

For much of my life, napping felt like a waste of time. Even when mental distress led to chronic insomnia, I couldn’t nap. It felt like slacking off. So I would just push through, even though I was too exhausted to be productive or enjoy life. It usually made my physical and mental health even worse.

You’ll never see a cat too exhausted to enjoy being a cat. They know how to slow down and listen to their body’s cues. They feel no stigma about napping — it’s a critical part of their lives.  They aren’t missing out. They are recharging, in energy-saving mode, getting ready to play and do their cat stuff and live their best cat lives.

If you are too tired to enjoy being a human, have a nap. Recharge. You need energy to live your best life.

2.  Play exuberantly.

When my cats do wake up, they are a bit bananas. They run as if they’re being chased by demons. They pounce on things only they can see. They spin in circles chasing their own tails. They don’t care at all that I’m sitting and laughing at them. They don’t care if they look foolish, or if what they’re doing makes no sense to anyone else.

Watching my cats chase their tails reminds me of taking an adult ballet class: I stumbled. I wasn’t coordinated. I probably looked foolish to people who might know better. But I kept going, because I liked it.

Cats don’t worry about whether they look silly. You shouldn’t either.

Don’t worry that the things you love aren’t ‘cool’ enough or feel badly because other people look down on your passions. Don’t worry about looking clumsy or falling over now and then. Play is important. Finding things you love to do is a critical part of staying mentally healthy. If it makes you happy, do it, no matter how you look or what others think of the things you like.

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Mr. Cuddles confidently shows off his dance moves.

 

 

3.   There is always time for self-care.

When I became a mother, self-care got pushed way down my to-do list. Waaaay down. I remember once when my kids were toddlers, I cried because I’d been reminding myself to clean my makeup brushes for at least a year. Those makeup brushes mocked me every time I walked into the bathroom; they were a testament to my failure at self-care and a reminder of all the small but important things I used to do for myself but that now, with two small kids, I was sure I had no time to do.

For cats, though, there’s always time for self-care. To a cat, self-care isn’t something extra you add to a to-do list. It IS your to-do list. Watch how much time cats spend grooming. They are either exceeding vain creatures (likely) or just consider taking care of themselves to be their main job. 

Why don’t humans consider taking care of ourselves to be our main job? Why is ‘important’ work something that takes place in an office? Why is it only valuable if we’re paid for it?  We only get one body and one mind. Why don’t we consider caring for them to be the most important thing we can do?

You don’t need to spend as much time grooming as a cat does (unless you’re a Kardashian), but imagine how great you could feel if you made yourself (and the things that make you feel good) a priority.  Taking care of yourself isn’t merely an add-on or something to get to if you have extra time. It’s your most important job.

 

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Even when on duty as office cat, Smudge makes time for self-care.

4.  Claim your space.

Cats aren’t shy about taking what they want. They aren’t shy about letting you know they are there and want attention. Sure, this makes them jerks sometimes. If they want your attention, they’ll sit on your damn laptop, thank you very much. I’ve learned to back up my writing constantly to avoid the dreaded butt-delete.

As a small-sized, introverted woman in a mansplaining and manspreading world, it’s often hard for me to claim my space. I can’t just sit on a laptop to get someone’s attention. But I can be fearless about making my presence felt. I can practice letting people know I’m there, and making sure I’m noticed even when someone is trying to ignore me.

Cats are persistent. They will raise their voices and howl. Women can, too. Persist. Let your needs and your presence be known.

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The bag was impenetrable. Nevertheless, Oedipuss persisted.

 

 

5.  Show affection on your own terms.

Cats are models of consent. Most of us who’ve been scratched know better than to attempt to give a cat a belly rub without permission. The cat will let you know when it’s okay to do that. And when you are permitted a cuddle, you feel honoured. 

Set your boundaries, and don’t be afraid to enforce them.

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A blurry photo of the first time we met Smudge, in 2013…still the only time he’s let us hold him. We respect his boundaries.

6.   Daydream.

Our society values productivity. Busy is the holy grail. But cats know better. Ivy likes to spend long periods of time staring at nothing at all. Frankly, this freaks me out. But she is clearly seeing things that I can’t. Maybe she’s daydreaming. Maybe she’s communicating with the mothership. 

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Ivy did not drink this wine. She likes to have a clear head for her mindfulness practice.

I am a daydreamer by nature, too. I don’t stare at the wall like Ivy, but I’ve learned the value of just sitting with my thoughts. Daydreaming and napping have proven to be a powerful combination for my creativity. The best ideas come to me when I practice mindfulness, or just allow myself to sit quietly and just be. Ideas for writing appear in my head like gifts. Answers to wicked problems become clear.

There is value in doing nothing. From our dreams come our best realities.

7.   Know the healing power of just being present for someone.

I’ve spent a lot of money on therapy over the years. And as a mental health professional myself, I am the first to say if you need professional support, get it. But as a cat lover, I can also say that at some of the lowest moments of my life, it wasn’t talking to another human being that brought me back from the dark. It was a cuddle, a purr,  a lick on the back of the hand. Cats know when you need them. They’ll find you. And because they’re so often guarded with their affection, having a little fur ball curl up next to you when you feel despair is profound. You know they wouldn’t do that unless you were very, very important to them.

They can’t talk, they can’t judge. They won’t mansplain or try to fix things. They’ll simply be with you in your struggle until you’re yourself again. They’ll like you at your lowest, and they’ll like you just the same when you’re at your best. 

They’ll like you even better when you feed them.

 

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When I spent over a week in bed with a bowel obstruction, these guys only left me a few times a day. Best nursing care I had.

8.   Embrace your body, whatever form it takes.

I have struggled with body image throughout my life. I’ve helped others work through their own struggles. At the same time, I’ve had cats of every size and shape, every colour and fur texture. They don’t care how big or small they are. They know they are beautiful.

Cats love their bodies, whether they’re slinky or voluptuous. There is no wrong shape for being a cat.

Why do we think there is a right or wrong shape for being a human?

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Gotten to big to fit into your box? Helpful hint from Scarlett O’Hairy: get a bigger box.

9.   Learn to disconnect.

Working from home as a writer, it’s easy for me to sit for long hours in front of the computer. That’s not very good for my physical or mental health, though. Depending on my frame of mind, spending time on social media might make me feel really bad about myself. Fortunately, my cats let me know when I’ve had enough. Often, they’ll shut down my computer for me. Thanks, cats.

But I take their point. When a cat sits on my laptop, I take it as sign I need to get up and move around and take a break. Somedays, I take an awful lot of breaks.

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Rory’s novel is better than my novel.

10.   Give zero fucks about what others think.

Cats really don’t. That’s why some people don’t like them: unlike dogs, who crave human approval, cats do not care what you think. They will be their exasperating and lovable cat selves, no matter what you think about it. They are authentic.

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Do they look like they care what you think? No, human, they do not.

Now, sometimes, humans do need to care what others think. Being as insouciant as a cat is probably poor advice for getting ahead in life or living in society. But maybe if we cared a bit less about what people think of our choices, and cared a bit more about living a life that feels true to our values and spirit, we’d be happier.

 

Cats know there is no stigma in being a cat. If they felt stigma, they wouldn’t wash their butts in front of important company, or shamelessly get high on catnip and destroy stuff. They wouldn’t fall into the bathtub, struggle out, and indignantly wash their wet fur while you laugh hysterically at them.

Be you. Strive to live as authentically as a cat.