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.)

Living with Autism During a Pandemic

I know that everyone is talking about this right now and I’d rather not because it makes me so anxious but there are a couple of things I want to say and then hopefully this blog can go back to being a Coronavirus free zone. I know it’s scary for a lot of people and there’s a lot of information and advice being thrown in your face so I just want to document my experience so far and write about the things that are helping me to minimise my anxiety.

I think the first thing to say is that I hate change, as I know many autistic people do. I especially hate sudden change because it gives me no time to process what’s going on, which causes me a lot of anxiety. It also messes with my emotions, leaving me feeling unsettled and sick and empty and twisted up. I can’t really explain it properly; it’s such a specific feeling.

The first big thing to happen was Tin Pan South, the festival we were going to Nashville for, was cancelled, which meant we had to decide whether or not still to go as it could be more expensive to cancel our flights. But as the news from other countries got more serious, we decided that we didn’t want to go and get stuck there so we had to make the difficult decision to cancel. I was gutted. I am gutted (we were supposed to be flying out today). I was so looking forward to the trip and to the festival that, not only was the change stressful, it was very distressing too. And then, of course, there was the stress of getting the money back. With the travel ban, we have since managed to get everything refunded or in credit but it was incredibly stressful, in addition to all the stress coming from the news about the virus. I have family who would be in serious danger if they caught it so, even though I’m in much less danger, I was  terrified of unknowingly transmitting the virus to them. I still am so we’ve all been self isolating apart from essential trips like picking up extra medication and so on.

And then, suddenly, everything started happening. All of the concerts I was going to got cancelled, which isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things but they are the bright spots in my life that get me through when I’m in a bad place, which I arguably am right now. So that’s been difficult, especially the suddenness, as I mentioned earlier. Then one of my best friends was suddenly on a plane home, which was very upsetting (although, of course, I understand and support her in wanting to be with her family); one minute we were making plans for the next day and the next she was messaging me from the plane. That change has been hard and I’ve cried a lot about it. Plus, just as I’ve  started to get into the groove of going to therapy again, we’re having to switch to video sessions, which I thought I was fine with but turns out I’m struggling with. And then there’s just all the not knowing what’s going to happen or how long this is going to last. So there’s been a lot of change really fast.

I actually feel quite traumatised by all the changes. Stuff like this always messes with my head and with my emotions and I end up feeling like it’s causing brain damage, like parts of my brain are being permanently warped and will never recover.

The week after all of these changes happened (most of them happened over the weekend and into the Monday), I wasn’t going to go to uni. Many of my friends and classmates weren’t going, having gone back to their families abroad and within the UK, and I just couldn’t bear to be there and see it without them all with so little time to adjust. I just felt so unsettled and restless and anxious. I don’t think I’d’ve been able to concentrate if I’d been there.

My course discussed it through our WhatsApp group (we’re a small course) and ended up emailing our programme leaders to say that we didn’t feel safe and that we didn’t feel it was responsible for us all to be there, to travel in on public transport, and so on. Very few people went to the classes and I think it was later that day that it was announced that the course would be moving to online classes. I’m yet to see how smoothly that goes. They’re not moving our assessment deadlines, which many people are very upset about, something I definitely understand. There are a lot of reasons to feel an extension is necessary. My mind changes from hour to hour; I don’t know whether I’d want an extension. Yes, there’s massive anxiety affecting my life that makes it hard to work but at the same time, we don’t know how long it’s going to go on for and I’d rather just get the assessment over, if that makes sense. I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.

Me and my Mum – my household – are self isolating, apart from necessary trips out (getting the necessary supplies to stay in, getting supplies for the cats, getting what we need to allow us to work from home, and so on – making it possible to self isolate for as long as we need to). It’s weird: I usually spend days at a time inside but suddenly I’m really claustrophobic and restless and anxious and it’s been less than a week. I don’t know where that’s coming from. Maybe I’m just so full of anxiety that everything is making me anxious.

So, having said that, I wanted to list for you a few of the things I’m doing to try and minimise my anxiety:

  • Keep a routine – I’m not talking about being really ambitious. If you’re like me and you struggle with Autism and/or mental health problems, diving into a really ambitious schedule just means I end up crashing and burning and then feeling terrible. So when I say ‘keep a routine,’ I’m talking about the little things. I’m talking about getting up at a reasonable time, showering, remembering to eat, getting fresh air (even if it’s only opening the windows and getting out into the garden, if you have one)… Things like that. Yes, it’s motivating to be productive so if that feels possible, go for it, but it’s also important to be gentle with ourselves during a time of such great stress.
  • Keep to a regular sleep schedule – With nowhere to go (if you’re self isolating), it’s easy to just stay in bed, get up late, and then end up going to sleep at four in the morning. It’s really, really easy. But I’m trying to go to bed at my normal time and get up early, like I do everyday. It’s much better for my mood than if I stay in bed for hours. A regular sleep schedule is actually proven to reduce stress, help you to avoid getting sick, help you think more clearly, and a multitude of other things, all useful at a time like this.
  • Stay on top of my medication – This is a fairly obvious one but if you take medication, make sure you’re stocked up and that you take it diligently. I take a regular antidepressant, a regular anti-anxiety, and then I have an anti-anxiety to take as needed. And, as you can imagine, I’m needing it a lot right now. So I’m constantly listening to my body so that I’m aware of when I need to take it as early as possible, so that I avoid the unnecessary anxiety. Of course, there’s huge anxiety going around but there’s also anxiety that we don’t need to feel and if we can avoid it, then I’m all for that.
  • Start and end the day with something calming – I’m dealing with a lot of anxiety (as we all are) so I find it helpful to start and end the day with something that relaxes me. For me, this is usually writing my diary because it empties some of the stuff out of my brain and helps me feel like I’m not trying to hold onto so much. It’s all safe, but I don’t have to actively hold it in my head. So letting some it go is like being able to breathe deeply again.
  • If the news is too much for you, ask someone in your support system to keep you up to date on the important announcements – My anxiety has always been triggered by the news and it’s even worse now so my Mum listens to it, filters out all the noise and fear and things I don’t need to know and gives me the important, relevant information. This has been so helpful since there’s been so much confusion and misinformation and fear mongering. If this isn’t possible for you, check your national news once a day and then try not to look at it again. Because there isn’t as much information as there is news time, there’s a lot of speculation and opinion and it doesn’t do any good to get sucked into that spiral if you’re already really struggling with anxiety.
  • If you have to work or study, try to do it in manageable chunks (which will be specific to you) – As I’ve already mentioned, I still have an assessment deadline. I still have an essay due. So, even though I’m really struggling to focus because of all the anxiety (which means it’s taking so much longer than it normally would), I’m trying to work on it everyday so that it doesn’t pile up and so I don’t end up overloaded and overwhelmed (it hasn’t helped that I’ve had multiple problems with my laptop in the last few weeks). It’s hard, especially since it’s now much more difficult to get help with it, but hopefully the slow and steady approach works.
  • Indulge in simple things that improve your mood – This is not a trick question. If there’s something simple that makes you feel better, let it make you feel better. Some of the things that boost my mood (even temporarily) are having the fairy lights on, burning my favourite candle, spending time with my cats, watching my favourite movies and TV shows… You’re allowed to feel good, to try and feel okay even in the face of this big, scary thing and if something really simple does the job, then go for it.

If there was ever a time for looking after yourself mentally (and obviously physically), it’s now. I hope some of these tips are helpful and let me know if there’s anything that you find helpful in stressful times such as these. As I said at the beginning, hopefully this blog can go back to being a Coronavirus free zone after this post because I know it’s triggering for a lot of people, myself included. But if I find any helpful resources for getting through this, I’ll definitely share them because I figure we could all use all the help we can get.

The First Semester of my Masters Degree

Now that I’ve finished my assessments, I thought it might be an interesting idea to sit down and write about my experience of the first semester of my Masters Degree. Because I’m doing it part time (mainly to protect my mental health), I’m only doing one module rather than two, which is what the full-timers do. The module I did was called ‘Creative Process’ and it was four hours of uni time, a two hour seminar where we talked about different areas of the creative process and then a two hour workshop where we played the songs we’d written based on the ideas and concepts we’d talked about the week before. It was a really interesting module and I wish my mental health had been better so that I could’ve focussed and enjoyed it more.

I feel really lucky when it came to my group and my tutor.

My group was only about nine people (when the other groups were much larger as far as I know) and they were all absolutely lovely. We were all really different, both musically and life experience wise (but I guess that’s what happens when you get to Masters level), which was really interesting when it came to writing and socialising and… just everything. It was a completely new experience and one that I’m really grateful for. Up until now, I’ve mostly been surrounded by people my own age with similar experiences.

Everyone was so, so good, all in their own way. They all had their own style (some had particularly beautiful musical signatures, some wrote from interesting perspectives with thoughtful lyrics, and so on) and it was so interesting and exciting to see how they developed over the semester. We were and I know will continue to be so supportive of each other’s music and development as songwriters. It always felt safe to bring in something I felt unsure or insecure about and the feedback was always constructive and because the person wanted you to get better; I never once felt like someone was being mean or looking down on me. It was such a supportive atmosphere and I’m so grateful because I think that was a huge part of what helped me to grow so much as a writer.

I made two really good friends in particular, both of whom I’m still in the same group with to my absolute delight. They’re truly beautiful souls. One of them, Luce Barka, wrote this amazing song during the semester and has said she’s happy for me to share it with you guys. I really, really recommend it…

I also had a fantastic tutor, Isobel. She’s a really cool, independent singersongwriter, which I think made her an especially good teacher because she’s very immersed in the industry we’re all trying to get into, in her own, distinctive way. She’s also dealt with serious health problems (which she has talked about publicly so I’m not breaking her confidence or anything) so I felt like she was a really good tutor, especially for me. She understood, or had a kind of understanding, of what I deal with. She was a really, really great tutor, in discussions and when giving and guiding feedback. But for me personally – and this is my blog after all – she was incredible when it came to helping me manage the course against all of my issues. When my anxiety was overwhelming, she helped me adjust the tasks to make them easier while still allowing me to do the task and learn the skills. I am massively appreciative of how accommodating and generous and kind she was, even before  she received the Student Support Agreement (the document with all my information and recommendations).

Anyway, she was amazing. I learned so much, obviously from the course but also from the way she delivered it and the feedback she gave me. I feel like I’ve grown so much as a writer and I feel like she’s a really big part of that. Plus, I’ve never had a teacher who was so understanding, who helped without hesitation, with just my word to guide her. I can’t properly express how much I appreciate that. It’s never happened to me before and it felt so wonderful to be treated as if it was something you just do, rather than being made to feel like a burden or an obstacle to be manoeuvred. So, as much as I learned (and I learned a lot), that is what I’m most grateful for and one of the things that I will always remember about this semester.

The first few weeks were really, really tough. After my massive meltdown in Victoria station, I was having meltdowns every day (as I wrote about here), which was having a big impact on my mental and emotional health, also leaving me physically exhausted. That significant meltdown was triggered by an email from the Disability Coordinator (who was also an Autism Specialist), suggesting a very last minute change of plan for our scheduled meeting which still leaves me bewildered. As an autistic person, sudden changes of plan are known to be highly problematic. That, plus my existing anxiety, caused a massive meltdown that took a very long time to recover from. And it left me feeling less than confident in her ability to support me even though we had had a positive first meeting and I had left feeling cautiously optimistic that this time it might be different. It then didn’t improve as actions promised at that meeting didn’t get done, leading to more meltdowns. So that was a real complication and painful part of the semester.

Having said all of that, I loved the classes. We learned about songcraft, collaborating, imposter syndrome, professional practice, perfectionism, and so much more. It was fascinating and fun and the briefs, while often stressful (with only a week to write the song), were interesting and challenging. I wrote some songs that I’m really proud of and I feel like my songwriting grew a lot because the briefs were challenging.

We watched this video in one of the classes and I thought it was really good so I thought I’d share it:

I loved it – loved getting better at songwriting – even the bits that pushed me and made me feel uncomfortable.

However, out of class was another matter. We were expected to do research that would later become the foundations of our assessment essay and presentation. Except whenever I asked, they wouldn’t tell me what the assessment entailed and just said it was ‘self directed learning’ so I didn’t know what I was actually researching, which caused me terrible anxiety. I created a reading list of books, articles, and interviews about creativity and songwriting but as hard as I tried to do the work, my OCD – my need to write everything down – battled against it. And usually won. So if I wasn’t writing, I was reading. I had no downtime. I was constantly anxious, like, end-of-the-world-anxious. And I felt like I was failing.

They explained the essay and presentation in the last couple of weeks but I still didn’t really understand. The language was complicated and vague and while I understood the general idea, the grading criteria was pretty ambiguous. I didn’t know what I had to do specifically to get good grades. I need clarity. It was incredibly stressful.

It took a couple of last minute meetings with my module leader to really understand what was expected of me but I was now facing a myriad of problems. The research I had been doing had little relevance to the subject I was writing about so I’d have to redo all of that, as well as actually write the essay and prepare the presentation. Plus we were in the final two weeks of the semester and the university would soon be closed for the Christmas holidays so I would have no way of contacting anyone for any support. I was wound so tight I felt like my spine might snap. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I’m really grateful for those meetings but I just wish the assessment had been clearer earlier in the module so the research I was doing could’ve been more focussed. With all the problems associated with Autism, like chronic fatigue and chronic pain, time is something I have to be incredibly thoughtful about.

I worked every day of the entire holiday (apart from Christmas Day, which I spent with my family – something I don’t often get to do) but the assessments were always in my head so I felt like I couldn’t take a break or have any time to rest and recharge. I still didn’t feel sure that I was doing it right but still, I worked hard on it and gave it everything I had. I finished both the essay and the presentation with time to spare, allowing myself time to redraft and prepare, giving myself the best chance of doing well. I submitted the essay, despite big technical problems with the system, and I did my presentation to the best of my ability, despite finding presentations incredibly difficult. Now I just have to wait for the marks.

Now, having run through the whole semester (and having reflected a lot on the difficulties), I just wanted to share a couple of specific, positive experiences:

  • For one of the early seminars, we had a guest tutor, who works primarily as an expert in Personal Transformation, come and talk to us. Because we were such a small group, he was able to really talk to each of us about our lives and our creative struggles. Considering how little we knew each other at the time, it was amazing how open everyone was and I think it’s part of the reason we became so close and supportive as a group. It was a real bonding experience to hear all of these personal stories and I personally felt really honoured to be part of it, to have been trusted with those stories.
  • One week I brought in a song that I was really proud of. It had a repeated line in it – “it’ll get easier” – and everyone picked it up really quickly, singing along and harmonising. It was beautiful and emotional and it was one of the most special moments of the semester for me.
  • During my research, I found a quote by Paul Gardner that I’m endlessly inspired and intrigued and excited by: “A painting is never finished – it simply stops in interesting places.” There are so many things that could mean. What do you think it means? Or what does it mean to you about a particular thing in your life?

Overall, it was a very mixed bag. The good moments were great and made me feel amazing. I got a lot out of it. But I spent a lot – A LOT – of the semester in crippling anxiety and I had a lot of meltdowns. It was fucking hard. And the marks haven’t even come back yet. I’m terrified that I’ve done horribly. But I’m trying not to think about it. I’m just trying to get through this new semester. Which may be even more stressful than the last.