365 Days of Kittens 2.0

A year ago today, we were unexpectedly blessed by two new kittens, Sooty and Sweep, also known as “the beans.” And what a year it’s been.

Last spring, my Mum and I were toying with the idea of a last round of kittens before we had our younger two cats spayed. The experience of raising kittens had always been such a positive one and we liked the idea of doing it one more time. Of the two cats, we thought Mouse would be the better choice and so we had Tiger spayed but left Mouse to wander. But a couple of months later, my mental health plummeted and the idea of getting attached to kittens only to have to let them go just felt too much so we took Mouse to the vet for the pre-spay check up. The vet was happy with that but said she could probably do with losing a little bit of weight. I did wonder if she was pregnant but the vet categorically disagreed and explained the spaying process to us again.

Less than a week later, my Mum and I came home from a family dinner to find Mouse pacing on the doormat just inside the front door. As soon as she saw us, she started yowling and headed upstairs, pausing every few steps to make sure I was following. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure but it was exactly the same behaviour that Lucy had displayed when she had her two litters of kittens. So I followed Mouse up to my room where she curled up in the cat bed and within a couple of hours, our two little black furballs were born. Girls was my guess and I was right.

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So that was a bit of a shock.

But, of course, they were gorgeous and I was immediately in love. Unfortunately, Mouse wasn’t the natural mother that Lucy had been to her and her sister. She’d curl around them, feed them, and clean them, but then she’d get up and leave them for fairly considerable periods of time. And since kittens can’t regulate their own body temperatures, I was worried, even though it was summer and the weather was very warm. So we had to take somewhat drastic measures: I set up camp on the floor next to the cat bed and every time Mouse went to leave, I turned her around and nudged her back inside. Most of the time, she simply climbed back in and curled up with them; it was like she just didn’t know that that was what she was supposed to do but with a bit of encouragement, she started to get the idea. I stayed there for two weeks until I was confident that she didn’t need my direction although I didn’t stray far, just in case.

To make matters more complicated, we were in the middle of a heatwave and I was worried about them all overheating (we even ended up at the emergency vet at one point). Mouse – a very fluffy cat – did have to leave from time to time, just to stretch out and cool down, although she had by that point gotten the hang of things and didn’t leave the kittens for long. I struggle with the heat and so we’d just bought a pretty expensive fan but we ended up mostly using it to keep the general room temperature down. It was a stressful balancing act.

The arrival of the kittens also changed the general cat dynamic in the house, as well as my relationship with them. The living room (where we’d moved the bed with the kittens – it was easier to manage the temperature in there and still allowed me to work while I kept vigil) had always been the central hub of the house, where we all – cats included – hung out. But suddenly Lucy and Tiger were nowhere to be found and since I was on kitten watch, I barely saw them. That was quite upsetting as I was used to Lucy always sticking close and Tiger constantly climbing all over me. I missed them. I just had to hope that things would return to normal once the kittens went to their new home (the plan my Mum and I had discussed and felt comfortable with, especially if they could go to the same home).

Then Mouse started trying to move the kittens out of the bed, into different corners of the living room. It would have been cute if she didn’t keep trying to stash them in potentially problematic hidey-holes: amongst the wires behind the TV, behind the sofa… She even got one of them half way down the stairs a couple of times. That wasn’t exactly ideal. In the end, we managed to compromise – yes, I was compromising with my cat… I built her a new nest under the TV, carefully covering all of the wires with a blanket and then another in the crate we still had from the last litter.

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The best part of having kittens is when they open their eyes and started stumbling around, exploring and playing clumsily. They’re so in the moment, all of their focus on what they’re doing. It’s so mindful and so calming to watch. And their innocence is just good for the soul. There’s something magical about knowing that you’re giving these open, trusting little creatures the best possible start in life, giving them as much love and attention and care as you can.

While I do kind of love the idea of having a big litter of kittens running around, there’s something really special about just having two. They were partners in crime, always  snuggled up together, playing together, or getting into trouble together. They were constantly getting stuck in ridiculous places, no doubt due to their boundless curiosity. There was one particularly memorable incident where I scraped up my arm, forcing it behind the bookshelf to retrieve one of them when she got trapped behind it. How she got behind it in the first place I have no idea. Safely rescued, she shook herself off and was off playing with her sister, no worse for wear.

We did end up naming them, for ourselves at least. It wasn’t like we could refer to them by colour since they were both ‘the black one.’ So they became Sooty and Sweep (I’d always wanted to do matching names – even if it was just going to be for a little while and just for me), Sweep being the fluffier of the two. Due to their birth order, it should really be Sweep and Sooty but oh well. You can’t win ’em all.

(In the second photo, they’re watching the TV.)

Mouse has slowly become a really good mother and to this day (spoiler alert: we kept them, as the title suggests), she’s still very close to them, especially Sweep. We often find the two of them cleaning each other or curled up together. It’s very cute. She’s close to Sooty too but more often than not, Sooty snuggles up with me. They’re both very people friendly cats, inquisitive about new people, obliging when we want affection, and downright cuddly when they want affection. They have really lovely characters, both of them.

Lucy and Tiger eventually stopped avoiding them, curiously checking them out. Sooty and Sweep were very enthusiastic, always wanting to play or snuggle. The older cats were more reserved but after a while, they formed a little pack: we call them our pride of cats. Now they eat together, play together, and contently share the cat tree.

Lucy and Tiger also returned to their normal behaviour. Lucy spends her days stretched out on what she considers ‘her’ chair, hanging out with me while I work or write or practice, and Tiger, while fairly independent, comes to lie on me every day, sometimes multiple times. That always makes me really smile-y; I’d missed that.

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They weren’t quite old enough to go to new homes when my mental health suddenly plummeted, my depression dropping to new gut-wrenching levels and my anxiety through the roof: sometimes it was so bad that I could barely speak. And in the middle of that, I started my Masters and started the release cycle of my first EP, both of which were incredibly stressful. But the kittens helped in a way nothing else did or could, their mindful behaviour very soothing.

As I said, we hadn’t intended to keep them but with the stress I was under, Mum was happy to leave the process of finding them a new home until I felt a bit more settled and emotionally stable. But I continued to struggle – having meltdowns almost everyday, leaving me physically and emotionally drained – and it turned into a landmine of its own. The thought of them going was physically painful and I couldn’t bear to bring up the subject, knowing that the conversation would just cause yet another meltdown. And with the amount I was having, I was desperate to avoid actively causing them.

Weeks after they originally would’ve gone, me and Mum had had a few brief conversations about the situation and how difficult and overwhelming I was finding it (on top of everything else) and we realised that, somehow, the decision had made itself. We were keeping them. I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed with relief and Mum held me until I was all cried out. I was exhausted but a weight had been lifted and during this awful period where everything felt wrong, something finally felt right. I don’t think either of us have regretted it for a moment (well, except maybe when it seemed to take Sooty forever to transition from using the litter box to the garden).

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I’ve loved every second with our pride of cats but they’ve truly been a life saver during this pandemic, one of the very few things that have helped with my mental health, helped calm (or at least manage) my overwhelming fears; cuddling or stroking them, even just watching them, can pull me out of an anxiety spiral. They’re completely unaware of the pandemic, of the bigger picture, and when I get lost in my panic, watching them exist in their own little world – waiting for their next meal, chasing bugs in the garden, stretching out on the cat tree, or demanding my attention – helps me rein in all the ‘what if’s and reestablish a sense of perspective. As much as possible anyway.

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And now they’re a year old. I kind of can’t believe it. Somehow it’s simultaneously flown by and been the longest year of my life. But as I said, I’ve loved every moment with them. My family of cats is one of the most precious things to me and the addition of Sooty and Sweep has been a true, if unexpected, gift.

(One second a day of Sooty and Sweep’s first year.)

What Women With Autism Want You To Know

The other day, I was just browsing through YouTube (probably procrastinating something) when I came across this video.

“Autism is not a disease, it is a developmental disability. It’s about living our best possible lives with this condition.”

I am ridiculously excited that this video exists. Even a few years ago, when I was looking into Autism as an explanation for my struggles, I was still being told that women don’t have Autism or being dismissed because I didn’t fit into the stereotype for Autism (which has come from autistic boys and men). So the fact that this video even exists shows that some progress has been made. At this moment in time, it has just short of a million views. A million! That means that potentially a million people now have a better understanding of Autism in women. That’s completely amazing!

There’s so much good stuff in this video – you really should watch the whole thing. But here are some of main points and some quotes that stuck out to me:

1. Autism covers a wide spectrum.

  • “Autism is an internal thing, not an external thing. No one looks autistic.”
  • “Autism isn’t a linear spectrum of high or low. It’s a whole bunch of different traits that are on their own spectrums. It’s kind of a 3D, weird mess.”
  • “Autism is simply a different way of thinking, seeing, and interacting with one’s world.”

2. We have emotions.

  • “I would definitely disagree with the idea that we’re not emotional. I think we’re actually highly emotional. I think that we just… many times we don’t express it the way people expect… We’re feeling it. It’s there. But it just might not come out. And then, at other times, it might be overly expressed.”
  • “We can’t filter them out because we feel them so strongly so we shut down as a way of processing all those emotions.”

3. Social interactions can be challenging.

  • “It takes a lot of effort to appear [like anybody else, like someone not on the spectrum]. Like, it takes a lot of conscious awareness. Social skills are like a muscle for us.”
  • “It’s very, very draining. Even with people that I care for and enjoy being around, I have to psych myself up to be around them.”
  • “All the little things that everyone does unconsciously, autistic people do manually. So that adds up. What I’m doing with every part of my body, I am to some degree aware of and trying to do.”

4. Diagnoses can happen at any age.

  • “A lot of women, women that I know who are autistic, are not diagnosed until their twenties, thirties, or even beyond. A large part of this is because the way that we diagnose Autism is by using criteria that were created by observing boys and Autism looks different in girls and women than it does in boys.”
  • “I feel like, ‘okay, I know why I’m this way, I know why other people are the way they are, so I can bridge this gap.'”

5. The nuances of dating can be challenging… but we do have sex lives.

  • “We just may need more support in order to learn how to make [relationships and sex] happen. We don’t naturally understand the nuances that are involved and there are a lot of nuances.”
  • “People on the Autism spectrum, especially women, are more likely to experience sexual assault or some sort of violent incident than the neurotypical, non autistic population. We are very vulnerable. We definitely can be more trusting because we are very honest and upfront people so we don’t think that other people might not be so honest and might be trying to hurt us.”
  • “One of the traits of Autism is not reading between the lines in social interactions and so much of dating and sexually is supposed to be indirect and subtle and that it’s inappropriate to talk about sex in a direct way, even when you’re teaching it as sex ed.”
  • “No one is teaching the social aspects [of dating and sex]. And honestly, this is where autistic people are the canaries in the coal mine. Teaching the social aspects of sexuality would help everyone. Autistic people need it but it also benefits everyone.”

6. We have lots of different interests.

  • “There is a stereotype that everyone with Autism is into science and math and stuff, like Rain Man. But a lot of people with Autism… women actually, especially… a lot of us are into the arts.”
  • “In my experience, autistic girls are also just as obsessive autistic boys. They’re just obsessed with, you know, fantasy novels or their favourite band or whatever. Not planes, trains, and automobiles.”

7. Bullying sucks.

  • “You know, it’s like somebody making fun of a blind person only in this case you’re blind socially.”
  • “We all start from somewhere but that isn’t necessarily where we’re going to end up and you have to believe that there is going to be a future.”
  • “There’s enough misfits in the world, like, people who got picked on. There’s so many of us. So you do find your tribe.”

8. It’s getting better.

  • “I think things are going to be a lot better for the next generation.”
  • “You know, your kid might be behind their peers but it doesn’t mean they’re gonna be behind forever. Your kid is a full human being who will grow and change just like everyone else.”

As I said, it’s amazing that this video exists and that autistic women are being seen and that people are finally understanding that autism in women looks different than it does in men, and that it can look different from woman to woman. I agree with all of these points but there’s still so much to it, to living with this everyday. So, in addition to these points, this is what I, as an autistic woman, want you to know:

  • I have no idea either – Just because these behaviours and reactions are coming out of my brain and my body, that doesn’t mean I necessarily understand them. I’ve done a lot of reading about Autism and mental health but it’s just different in real life. I’m learning everyday and I hope that you’ll keep learning with me.
  • It’s exhausting – As these women said, it’s draining, even when it comes to things that you enjoy. It’s like you have to consciously process everything you do, everything around you, and that takes up so much energy. I cannot manage as much as everyone else and I find that so difficult to get my head around.
  • I’m doing my best – I promise.

Meltdowns, Halsey, Halsey, and Meltdowns

I’ve never really written about meltdowns before. Not long after I started writing this blog, I started taking Venlafaxine for my depression, which essentially numbed me to all my emotions. And since my meltdowns have always come from an emotional place, I basically stopped having meltdowns. But I couldn’t deal with not being able to feel anything: everything I do – writing, songwriting, relationships, choices – everything I do is based on emotion. So I came off that medication and my emotions (and my ability to think clearly) came back. But I hadn’t had any meltdowns until recently.

A couple of weeks ago, I was supposed to be going to see Halsey in London, something I’ve been looking forward to for years. Since I saw her in 2016. I love her songs – a masterclass in lyric writing, melody, production, songwriting in general – and she’s an incredible performer, one of the best I’ve ever seen. I particularly love the Badlands album: somehow the songs just make me feel brave. So I was really, really excited.

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you’ll know that my depression has been particularly suffocating recently and when it’s that bad, being out and around people is incredibly difficult. Sometimes talking about those emotions and the strength of them is helpful: just letting it out of my body lessens the pressure and makes it easier to cope but sometimes, like this time, it’s like a crack in the dam. It just started pouring out and I couldn’t reign it back in. I was desperate to get to this show though so I kept trying.

My Mum drove me to the station but when we got there, I couldn’t get out of the car. It was like a magnetic force preventing me from getting out of my seat, from making decisions. My Mum suggested alternative ways of doing the day but I could feel all the possible decisions and deviations spiralling away from me and I ended up shouting that I needed her to stop (all that anxiety and stress and emotion just exploded out of me). I just couldn’t. I couldn’t find the right decision but I knew when they were wrong. So my Mum said she was going to drive me to London and take me to the show. That’s the only way I was going to be able to go. So that’s what we did.

This is one kind of meltdown. There seem to be different variations of them based on the situation. Usually, I can’t do anything after having one; usually I just have to go and sleep until I feel like myself again. But my desperation to go to the show pulled me through all of that somehow. It took me over an hour to be able to think clearly and make sentences again and by the time we got to the show, I was just about functional – I could walk, I could interact with others (although I still couldn’t make eye contact with anyone) – although I felt like I was in a different dimension to everyone else: we could see each other and interact but it was like we were on different frequencies. I’m mixing my metaphors I know. Meltdowns mess with your head.

It was an amazing show. Halsey shows are unlike any other shows in my experience. She gives everything to her performance. The energy is just off the charts, her vocals were incredible, and the stage/backdrops are complete works of art. The songs I loved before, I loved even more. The songs I liked before, I loved by the end of the show. The performances and the stories she tells about them make every single song special and I will hold on to all of it forever.

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Because of the meltdown, I was in a really strange headspace: I felt far away and disconnected and kind of lost. So I couldn’t enjoy the show in the way I would have had I not had the meltdown. But I did enjoy it and looking through my photos and videos makes me so, so happy and grateful and proud that I managed to get there. And it helped somehow. I can’t really explain it but it helped. It’s like it filled in all the cracks with gold, to use a Japanese art form as an analogy.

I got home, went to bed, and got up the next day, ready to do the whole thing again, although without the meltdown (or so I thought). As an autistic person and a concert lover, I really like to go to shows twice where possible. With the lights, visuals, music, the scream, the energy expended, the energy expended getting there… I find it incredibly difficult to process everything and I get overwhelmed very quickly. It all starts to pass through me without really landing. Fortunately, the only thing I really spend money on is concerts so that is something that I am sometimes able to do.

For several days after a meltdown, I feel really, really fragile. So my Mum – my hero – said she’d come to the show again. Thank goodness she likes Halsey too.  So we drove up to London, got to the venue, and really enjoyed the show. My god, Halsey is just so good. And seeing it twice just meant that I could take in all of it and that was just so amazing. Some of my favourite moments include (I could easily list everything but I’ll try my best to just keep it to a few):

  • The opening song, ‘Eyes Closed,’ will always be special to me because of the feeling it created. The energy in the room lifted by tenfold and it was the closest thing to magic I’ve ever experienced.
  • How she left it to the crowd by shout the lyric, ‘Do you call yourself a fucking hurricane like me?’ I wasn’t expecting that and the intensity of the crowd just took my breath away.
  • The visuals for ‘Hurricane’ were the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And during the song, she shouted, ‘London, this song is a reminder that you do not belong to anybody but yourself!’
  • The little B stage that I thought was made up of LED lights but was actually covered in water (I really have no idea how to explain it) where she and her dancer stamped and kicked water into the crowd during ‘Don’t Play.’

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  • The volume of the crowd when everyone sang along to the stripped down version of ‘Closer.’
  • The way she sat and talked to us, the story she told about ‘100 Letters,’ and how she finished by saying, ‘You only get one you in this life. Do not waste it on someone who doesn’t appreciate who you already are.’ Maybe it sounds cheesy but in the moment, it almost brought me to tears. I’m tearing up even now as I write this. The shows were just one empowering moment after another and for that, they will always be incredibly special concerts to me.
  • The beautiful flower backgrounds for ‘Now or Never.’

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There are so many more moments I could name but I’ll leave it there. They were two really incredible concerts and I feel so lucky to have experienced them.

When the show finished, I was absolutely exhausted, physically and mentally. Walking down the stairs to the venue exit was physically painful. I’d specifically bought a seated ticked because I don’t have the energy at the moment to stand for such a long period of time but there were two girls who stood for the whole thing (almost everybody sat behind them ended up standing in the aisle so that they could see – they refused to sit down or move despite the disruption they were causing) so I kept having to stand up to see. My whole body hurt by the time it was over. Apparently that’s another unexplained Autism thing: fatigue and pain and so on with no obvious cause.

We made it out of the venue and were halfway across the street – standing on the traffic island – when an ambulance less than a few feet away turned on its siren. I don’t know if I can really explain it: it’s something so deeply rooted in emotions and sensory stuff that I’m still searching for the right words. I might never find them. But the sound – the high-pitched, ear-splittingly loud sound – just completely overwhelmed me in a split second. It was like it blew a fuse in my brain and suddenly I was screaming and my knees buckled and I would’ve hit the ground if Mum hadn’t caught me. At some point the screaming turned into crying and shaking and somehow my Mum got me onto the tube, back to the car, and home to my bed and my cats. It took most of the journey before my brain reengaged and I could think in complete sentences but even then I couldn’t talk. It just took too much energy.

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We got home, went to bed, and I spent the next few days recovering. In truth it took me over a week to feel like myself again and to process and commit to memory the amazing moments from the concert before the meltdown, before my brain shut down. It was a lot to make sense of. Meltdowns are traumatic and I don’t use that word lightly. I will write more about them, when I’m in a more stable, more composed place. I’m more than a bit all over the place at the moment. But this page here is an amazing resource so do have a look at that if you want to know more about meltdowns (and shutdowns).

And just in case:

Thank you Halsey (I never know whether to think of you as Halsey or as Ashley). Thank you for an amazing show and a treasured experience. It might’ve been a rough weekend but the shows were worth the meltdowns. Concerts make me feel alive, make me feel real. You gave me that and I’m really grateful.

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