All James Bowen can remember about his childhood are the frequent moves and the mockery of the other school kids. Although he was born in a small town in Surrey, England, after his parents divorced when he was only three years old, he moved with his mother to Australia.
Because they often changed cities, he never had a chance to get attached to any place. For the same reason, he had no friends, and school was often a torment. He was diagnosed with ADHD, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder in adolescence, and dropped out of high school in his sophomore year. Out of a desire to start over, he returned to England in 1997, when he was 18, and stayed at his older sister’s place. She was married and had two small children. His rebellious behaviour was too much for his brother-in-law, so James ended up couch surfing. He could not do this indefinitely, so in the end, he landed up on the streets.
Help comes in completely unexpected ways
It’s only for a few days, he told himself back then. But, because no one wanted to hire homeless people and because he no longer had anyone’s help, days of sleeping on the streets turned into months, and it took a toll on his mental health. He soon developed depression. Months turned into years, and the desire to do something with his life capitulated. He made money from playing guitar on the subway, but soon the money began to be used to escape his reality, synonymous with cold and loneliness. Like many people living on the streets, he became addicted to heroin.
He knew where it would take him, he had seen others die of an overdose, but those brief moments of happiness and forgetfulness were stronger than fear. And because the money raised from playing was not enough to get heroin, he started shoplifting four times a day. He mainly stole meat, which he then sold at lower prices. He was caught stealing by the police, but fortunately, instead of being imprisoned, he was enrolled in a rehabilitation program. That’s how he ended up living in an apartment and receiving social work support in 2007, after years of sleeping on the streets.
He entered a health surveillance program, and his heroin was replaced with methadone in order to reduce his opioid cravings. He quickly became addicted to methadone, a synthetic drug considered less dangerous, but strict supervision kept him from overdosing. He struggled to resist the temptation; however, the lack of meaning always led him to buy heroin.
One morning, James saw a ginger cat in his neighbourhood. He didn’t pay attention to it, as he thought it belonged to a tenant. When he saw the cat again the next day, he began to ask his neighbours if they knew anyone who had lost a cat. On the third day, the ginger was still there, but it had an open leg wound. James took it to a vet, where they treated it for free, but he had to pay for the antibiotics with the only money he had left for food. He took the cat home, administered the antibiotics for a few days until it recovered, then released it back on the street. He thought he had gotten rid of it, only to be surprised one morning by the cat following him onto the bus, and jumping in his lap. He had loved cats since he was a child, so he decided to keep him, and name him Bob.
He took him along when he played at the subway, and the attention they received, thanks to Bob, who had found the perfect place to rest on James’ shoulders, was much greater. Many more people were giving them money, and from being an invisible homeless man, James had become, with the help of Bob, something of a star. At one point, he had 20 scarves and clothes knitted especially for Bob, from passers-by who came back just to see the two of them. For a while, James was no longer allowed to perform on the street due to an altercation, so he started selling The Big Issue magazine. The London organization that produces the magazine is based on a type of business created especially for street people. They buy the magazine for £1.25 and sell it for £2.50 on the street. They keep the profit and use some of it to reinvest in buying more magazines, and support themselves with the rest.
James was successful in selling magazines with Bob alongside him, so his life began to gain some balance. The care he had towards Bob taught him how to be responsible and gave him that reason to fight to get rid of methadone addiction. With Bob by his side, he went through the worst days of withdrawal, from which very few manage to escape without returning to drugs, especially those with long-term addictions. The two became famous thanks to Mary Pachnos, a passer-by who was a literary agent and wanted to know their story. She put him in touch with an author with whom she had collaborated and who was also amazed by their story. From their collaboration, A Street Cat Named Bob: And How He Saved My Life was born. The book became an international bestseller, translated into over 30 languages.
With the money he earned from selling the book, he managed to buy a house and help foundations that care for people in the same condition he was in just a few years ago. James’ confession is moving and honest, and speaks about the special connection between him and Bob and how, in a world where few people had the patience to give him another chance, he was saved by a cat: “Bob is my best mate, and he’s guided me towards a different and a better way of life. He doesn’t demand anything complicated or difficult in return. He just needs me to take care of him. And that’s what I do… Everybody needs a break, everybody deserves that second chance. Bob and I have taken ours.”
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Andreea Irimia is a teacher of computer science and technological education. A version of this story first appeared on ST Network and is reposted here with permission.