The DSA Process For My Masters Degree

Since the academic year is starting up again, I thought I’d write about my experience with getting support for my Masters Degree as a disabled student. The DSA (Disabled Student Allowance) process can be very difficult so, having been through it twice now, I thought I’d share my experience. I don’t know if I’ve had a good, bad, or typical experience but I thought that simply putting the experience out there might be helpful to anyone at the beginning of this process, to give them an idea of what may happen down the line. As I’ve already said, it’s difficult and tiring but that’s not to say that I would discourage someone from applying. I was just very naive going into it the first time and was blindsided by how complicated and stressful it was; I’m lucky to have had help going through this both times. Having support from sources such as DSA can be hugely beneficial but I wouldn’t want anyone going into the application process unaware so I thought I’d share my experience as I haven’t seen many accounts of the whole process…

I wrote about my first assessment in great detail here, so I suggest reading that but I’ll also sum it up here to make sure I’m sharing the full experience in one place. So… That first assessment was a complete disaster. The assessor was perfectly nice but when we got to discussing what support DSA was willing to offer me, it went downhill fast. They would offer me a laptop, but not one with an operating system required to run the programs I needed for my course because apparently that was a course specific need rather than a disability specific need despite the fact that I – a disabled student – needed them to do my course. They wouldn’t offer me any travel support towards commuting because I’d ‘chosen’ to live at home when I actually had to live at home because of my disabilities. And they have no direct contact with the universities themselves so they couldn’t offer any support through them. So, essentially, they weren’t going to offer me anything because my needs didn’t fit their guidelines, because my disability didn’t fit with their idea of disability. It was hugely frustrating and distressing and I left in tears. I felt completely let down and abandoned.

By the end of the assessment, I was so utterly distressed that the assessor told us that we could appeal, which we did. The second assessment was with a different person, a really lovely woman called Rebecca, and was much longer and in much more depth. We went through everything again in minute detail: from the necessary computer specifications to the exact details of an average university day’s travel. She went through all the possibilities and all the potential outcomes, as well as the potential roadblocks and the reasonings behind them. It was a lot of information but I did leave feeling more hopeful; I really felt like she was on the case, like she was really committed to helping me get as much support as possible. Her report went through several different people before reaching a senior SFE (Student Finance England). It was initially rejected but then, when we provided them with documentation proving I receive PIP (Personal Independence Payment), they changed their minds and granted me a new laptop, software and apps to help with my lectures, independent study, and mental health, and mentoring through the National Autistic Society (although it seems that, due to the pandemic, this service no longer exists). I didn’t get any support for the travel but I’m grateful for what I did get, plus the travel costs haven’t exactly been an issue over the last few months… From that second assessment, it was four months before I received the support I was awarded.

In my experience, the whole DSA process is very slow. It was slow when I went through it during my Bachelor’s Degree and it’s been even slower this time, presumably due to the pandemic. I started this process in January – much later than intended but my mental health was so bad that I couldn’t handle the in person assessment – and didn’t get the equipment until June. Then the laptop that arrived wasn’t the right one and so we had to spend another two weeks – and a somewhat ridiculous amount of emails proving that it was in fact the wrong one – organising the swap, insuring that I got the one that my DSA assessment had determined I needed. A couple of weeks later, the new laptop arrived but setting it up took much longer than it should have. This was due to how the people who’d previously worked on my laptop had set it up, making the transfer of all my files much more complicated and messy. It’s still not as sorted as I would like it to be but it is functional.

Factoring in all of this, had I been doing my Masters in one year rather than two, I would’ve had this equipment for less than a semester before I finished the course. Yes, this was affected by the pandemic, problems with the university Autism support person, and the late start in pursuing DSA but that was due to the reasons I was in need of support so it’s not the most efficient system in that regard: what happens if you’re too disabled by your disability to seek help?

The laptop and software that DSA have provided me with has been invaluable, especially since my laptop was dying a slow death around the time I received the new one. We didn’t get everything we were hoping for but it’s definitely better to have it than to not. So, having now been through this twice, I thought I’d offer some tips that would’ve been helpful to me before going through the process…

  • If you disagree with part or all of the final assessment, ask to talk to someone else – It’s not something you’re necessarily made aware of when you have the assessment but I was so distressed by the end of the assessment that the assessor told us we could appeal. My second assessment yielded quite different results than the first one so it’s definitely worth asking if you feel that you haven’t been heard or fully supported.
  • Ask what kind of documents act as proof of a need for support – The earlier you find out what paperwork might help your case, the quicker the process will go. We, unfortunately, didn’t know that the PIP documentation was helpful and the whole thing may not have taken so long if we had.
  • Take someone with you as it can be overwhelming and tiring – These assessments can go on for hours and there’s a lot of information to both give and receive. Plus, it can be a pretty emotional experience so having someone with you can make the whole thing easier; you have someone to lean on and two pairs of ears to take everything in.
  • Ask for everything that you would find helpful – You might not get it all but you definitely won’t get it if you don’t ask and hopefully you’ll get some of it. It’s also always worth asking what you’re potentially entitled to because there may be things you aren’t aware of that could be helpful.
  • If you’re told something isn’t possible, ask why – The assessors can’t know every relevant question to ask and you can’t know every relevant piece of information to give so if they tell you something isn’t possible or available, it’s worth asking why because you may have some information or some paperwork that changes the situation and what support you can get.

I hope this post is helpful for anyone considering or going through the process. I hope I haven’t made it sound too scary. I really do recommend it but I wouldn’t want anyone to be unaware of how difficult and stressful it can be. You deserve to get the support you need and I only want to make that easier, if only by arming you with information and advice. So, if you’re going through it, I wish you the best of luck and I’m rooting for you.

And A(nother) Week In My Life (In Lockdown)

I hadn’t intended to do another of these posts so soon but again, when I looked back at my diary at the end of the week, it felt like another very different week in my experience of lockdown. I guess I’m just trying to represent my experience of this time – and the variation within it depending on both the internal and external circumstances – as accurately as possible, for myself as much as anyone else.

The week in this post started on Monday 3rd August and ended on Sunday 9th August.


MONDAY

I was up by eight thirty and already at work. I planned out my week and then more specifically my day in my bullet journal before clearing my email inbox of rubbish and attending to the rest.

Next, I got to work on the ‘Back To Life‘ music video. Richard had sent me the first draft and I went through it clip by clip, making notes on what I liked, what I didn’t, any changes I wanted to make, any suggestions I had (all against their time codes). It’s not the most fun job in the world: staring at your own face for hours can get pretty draining, whether you’re a self conscious person or not, but I got it done and sent my notes back to Richard.

My main plan for the day was a writing session with Richard but I had a bit of time before our start time so I did some work on my next blog post before setting up our Zoom meeting. We’re working on multiple projects at the moment and we’d planned to work on some of my stuff that day. There was one song we’ve been working on for a couple of sessions now but while I liked the sound of the production, it just didn’t feel like it was the right mood for the song. So I made the slightly terrifying suggestion of starting over and coming at it from a different angle. That’s what we ended up doing, using different reference tracks and instrumentation. It sounded so much better by the time we called it a day.

We also spent a bit of time working on a second song, creating the basic shape of the track and deciding what sort of instrumentation fitted the mood of the song. So it was a very productive session, a very productive four hours.

We hung up and I stretched out on the sofa, exhausted. I love writing sessions, whether they’re focussed more on the song itself or the production, but I do find them tiring and especially so when we’re working over Zoom. It’s just that bit harder to translate your ideas to the other person when the time lag complicates your communication or you can’t point to something on their screen and so on. I’m grateful that we can have our sessions at all but I do find them harder than face-to-face sessions and greatly look forward to it being safe to have those again.

I spent the afternoon and evening working on various blog posts with the TV on in the background. It was nice and gentle but I was still being productive, which definitely helps with my mental health and in turn, my ability to manage this period of time in general. Then I did some catching up with my diary before getting ready for bed.

I was just finishing up when I got a text from Richard with an MP3 attached, the song we’d spent most of our session working on. After our initial struggle with it, I was amazed by how good it sounded, how perfectly the new production fitted with the song. I went to bed, excited and proud of what we’d achieved.


TUESDAY

Me and Mum got up early and headed for the nearby woods for a dog walk with one of our friends. She’s just recently gotten a rescue puppy (who is utterly gorgeous) and as well as seeing each other and catching up, she wanted some advice from us as (previous) dog owners. I had been really looking forward to it but I was also anxious about going out (a constant anxiety still) and then I almost had a meltdown, triggered by difficulties with managing my mask and my glasses. I don’t know if any of you fellow glasses wearers have struggled with this but my glasses rest right where the wire of the mask is and I constantly battle with keeping them both functional and at least somewhat comfortable. I’ve since bought a mask that doesn’t have a wire as my glasses keep the top in place but for this particular walk, I ended up doing a lot of it without my glasses, which (had everything been normal, wouldn’t have bothered me all that much) just added another layer of stress because I really had to focus on where I was putting my feet – I’m so short sighted that even the ground is very blurry without my glasses.

I hate sounding so negative over what was a really lovely walk – it was just an unexpectedly difficult start. It was wonderful to see this friend again and it was so nice to have some dog time, especially puppy play and cuddles. I’ve missed our dog so much since we said goodbye to him in January but I doubt any of us will be ready for another dog for a good while so this was a nice compromise. My anxieties aside, it was a very pleasant way to start the day, although I was a bit knackered afterwards. Exercise is an area that’s really suffered for me throughout lockdown so I think it was a bit of shock to the system.

We came home and I ended up having a pretty quiet day. I mainly worked on catching up with my diary – my Moby Dick – and spending time with my Mum. We’re usually pretty independent during the day and then come together in the evenings but that evening I had a movie date with a group of friends.

At seven, we started our video call and ended up spending an hour catching up and just chatting, which was really lovely. It’s been a long time since our last date for various reasons so there was a lot to catch up on and I think we’d all just missed each other’s company. Speaking for myself, I know that I’d really missed them and was just delighted to see their faces again.

Eventually we stopped rambling and got into the movie. We’ve been binging the Studio Ghibli films and this time, we watched Laputa: Castle in the Sky. I absolutely loved it. I loved the story and it was just so beautiful – I mean, they’re all beautifully animated but this one seemed particularly stunning. It’s definitely at the top of my list of Studio Ghibli films. We talked about it a bit afterwards and while we’d had differing opinions on the last film (Kiki’s Delivery Service), we all really enjoyed this one.

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When we said goodbye and hung up, it was getting pretty late so I started getting ready to go to bed. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it already but over the last couple of months, I’ve been struggling with really bad pain in my arms, from shoulder to finger tips. That night, my right arm and shoulder were really, really hurting and even though my Mum gave me a massage, it was still really bad and made it difficult to get to sleep.


WEDNESDAY

I slept really badly because my shoulder was so painful. Every time I rolled over and put my weight on it, I woke up and had to readjust my position and then get back to sleep again. It wasn’t a restful night and I really struggled to wake up. As soon as my brain was fully awake, I felt the anxiety kick in; I just felt so overwhelmed by how much I feel like I have to get done before university starts, in whatever form that takes.

The pain in my shoulder only got worse as I used my arm so my Mum worked out a schedule of painkillers to keep the pain at a minimum and keep me using it so I wouldn’t seize up or start compensating with the other shoulder. It’s been a problem for a while but since it’s only getting worse, we decided to call my GP the next morning and try to get a Zoom appointment.

I did some admin for the upcoming release of my new single, ‘Back To Life,’ and then settled in to work on my photo albums. After finally finishing the organisation of my photo library, I’d selected the photos I wanted for my physical photo albums (which were about eighteen months out of date) and sent them off to be printed. They’d arrived that morning and so I went through them, slowly getting them in chronological order. It took all afternoon and I still had to put them into the albums but it was very exciting to be so close to finishing such a mammoth job.

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Early evening, I did some more admin work, replying to some emails, and listening to some songs a friend had sent me to give feedback on. I’d left it a bit late in the day to do the whole lot but I managed to do an initial listen to all of them to get the overall vibe and an in-depth listen of a couple, making detailed notes of my thoughts and suggestions. So it was a productive evening.

Then me and Mum had dinner in front of The Mentalist, which we’ve been rewatching for a couple of weeks now. I love the show but I particularly love its second life, with the FBI team rather than the CBI team. *Spoiler Alert* We’d reached the episode where Vega dies, where they attend her funeral, and Jane and Lisbon discuss the future of their relationship when they work such dangerous jobs. It’s a heartbreaking episode and even though we’ve both seen it multiple times before, we both sat there with tears streaming down our faces. What can I say, I get attached to fictional characters. Like, very attached.

It had been pretty hot all day so it took me a while to get to sleep. I don’t do well in the heat so I was dreading the predicted heatwave.


THURSDAY

One of my cats, Lucy (or Queen Lucy as we often call her due to her being the cat we’ve had the longest and therefore the cat that rules the house), woke me up at four, yowling loudly as she played with a toy. At almost any other time of day, it would’ve been very cute but at four am, not so much. It took me ages to get back to sleep.

I got up at nine and finished listening to the songs I’d started working through the night before. I wrote down all my feedback for the remaining songs and then listened to them all again to see if any new thoughts came to me. I also included questions about various lyrics and production choices, challenging the meanings and choices so that everything would be really tight and cohesive. I was deliberately picky, as my friend had asked me to be (sorry, I’m being deliberately vague about who it is because I don’t want to announce anyone’s project before they have). As good friends, they trust my critique, rather than feeling like I’m being critical; we’ve worked together a lot so we trust each other to just want the song to be the best song possible.

That done, I spent a couple of hours catching up with my diary (I’m just so behind at the moment) and then had my therapy session at four. We spent most of the hour just catching up on the week and talking about how I’d managed the challenges and the difficulties that had come up. With the pandemic, we’re doing A LOT of distress tolerance. I do wish we could move forward and work on some of my long standing issues but from past experience, I know that when you start to unravel some of those things, you often feel worse before you feel better and I just don’t think I can handle that right now. I’m just about managing to cope day to day and I really don’t want to make things worse for myself when I’ve worked so hard to even get to this point with the pandemic going on.

I FaceTimed with one of my parents while my Mum had the Zoom appointment with the doctor. I still struggle with talking to doctors, I’m still figuring out how to do Zoom meetings with new or less than well known people, and I struggle with communication in general. So me and Mum talked about everything we wanted the doctor to know and then she did the call. She was on the computer for a long time but when she came back, she did have some good news although a large chunk of the plan does involve waiting, which I’m not super thrilled about. But my doctor has adjusted the medication plan a bit (she’ll prescribe me something stronger if it continues to get worse but for now, we’re sticking with over the counter stuff to avoid extra side effects) and referred me to occupational rheumatology where they’ll probably fit me for support braces or refer me on to physiotherapy or both. But that’s unlikely to happen for a while. So pain medication, massage, and trying to build or improve habits that at the very least don’t make the pain worse. I’m limited exercise wise by not being able to swim but we’ve set up a rough badminton court in the garden to allow for some gentle exercise, especially for my arms and shoulders.

Me and Mum had an early dinner with The Mentalist. *Spoiler Alert* We’d finally reached the final episode where Jane and Lisbon get married and it’s so lovely to see them all so happy, especially Jane, after going through so much sadness and struggle. I wasn’t convinced by their relationship at first but then I fell in love with it and watching the wedding scene usually results with me grinning like an idiot or actually crying at how sweet it is.

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I was just thinking about going to bed when Richard texted me to remind me that we were announcing the release of ‘Back To Life‘ the next day, which had somehow completely slipped my mind. I swear, the pandemic has completely messed with my head – life pre-pandemic feels a bit like a dream and the way we did things feels kind of hazy. So suddenly I was in a panic about what to say when I announced the release of the song, especially one with the title ‘Back To Life’ during a pandemic (something that’s been bothering me for a long time). So I ended up spending more than an hour (at least) figuring out how to say what I wanted to say and how to say it in the best way possible.

I finally got to bed around midnight but it was so hot that, even after I discarded my duvet, it still took me a long time to get to sleep.


FRIDAY

Lucy was gracious enough to let me sleep until five this time before waking me up, chasing a toy around my room, and then I couldn’t get back to sleep as hard as I tried. It was very frustrating.

When Mum got up, we had breakfast and rewatched *Spoiler Alert* the wedding scene in the final episode of The Mentalist, grinning like the sappy idiots we are. No regrets. It was a nice, positive way to start the day, watching characters you love get their happily ever after.

I spent the morning working on my blog post about JK Rowling’s recent transphobic comments and how complicated it is to reconcile a childhood hero with the problematic person they are in the present. I’m absolutely not condoning what she’s said or making excuses for her – if you’ve read the post, you’ll know that I refuse to support her while she makes such insensitive, harmful statements – but I also wanted to comment on some of the other connected issues. While her transphobia is without question the most important issue here, there are multiple points within the overall problem, like how her prejudices may have bled into the books and how difficult it is to make sense of these two different versions of her. I wanted to explore as many of these thoughts as possible.

It was so hot by the middle of the day that I felt like I was melting; I didn’t want any part of my body to touch any other part. It was horrible. Thank god for the fan I bought a few years back. I was reluctant because it was pretty expensive but having had several unbearably hot summers in a row, it’s been amazing; I would’ve been unable to function without it. I’ve only just been functional with it.

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Early afternoon, I had a Zoom session with Richard and we mapped out a more detailed plan for releasing all the content around ‘Back To Life‘ before working on some of his music. We’ve always been a well matched pair because while his strengths are more musical, mine are more lyrical and so we’ve always been able to support each other really well. That’s one of the things that’s always felt really special about our working relationship.

Eventually I got too tired to do much good, so we scheduled another session and I had a rest, doing some blog writing with the TV on in the background.

In the evening, one of my parents – who, I guess, is in our bubble – came over and, while I don’t think you have to social distance if you’re in a bubble, we had dinner and hung out, still keeping a certain level of distance. The three of us are continuing to remain pretty isolated but it still feels sensible to stay somewhat distanced for the most part.

At seven o’clock, my alarm went off and I posted my announcement on my social media accounts…

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The fourth single from the Honest EP, written with the amazing @scottcolcombe (and produced by @laurend_d and @richardmarcmusic, who are both incredible), will be released on the 14th August! SWIPE TO SEE THE TITLE ➡️⁣ ⁣ Given the difficult and often distressing times we’re currently experiencing, I seriously considered delaying the release of new music, especially as we reach the more upbeat songs on the EP. But I didn’t want to leave the story half told. This song represents the upward turn after a painful chapter of my mental health and it feels important to include because while there are brutal lows, there are also wondrous highs. They’re all important and all part of the journey.

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That done, I felt able to be more present and enjoy the evening and although I was really tired, it was really nice to hang out with my parents. With times such as they are, I never take those moments for granted, especially since I’m not able to see all of my parents yet, together or apart. We don’t have to DO anything in particular; it’s just so nice to be together and talk face to face. It’s still so ingrained in me to greet people with a hug or squeeze their hand that I have to actively struggle against those automatic motions but it doesn’t make me want to burst into tears anymore. I’m just really looking forward to being able to do it again.

When she left, me and Mum settled down with Rizzoli and Isles, another show we haven’t watched in years, and I did some blog post writing. I absolutely agree with the philosophy that our productiveness isn’t tied to our worth as people – I wouldn’t debate that for a second – but I’ve also discovered that being productive plays a massive part in managing my mental health, even if it’s as simple as watching a movie that I’ve wanted to watch for a while but not gotten around to doing so. I guess it just depends on your definition of being productive – I don’t necessarily equate it with ‘producing’ something; it’s just doing something that I intended to do. If I intend to have a quiet and restful day and I do, then I have been productive.


SATURDAY

I woke up far too early, which was annoying because I was still tired and sleepy but I definitely enjoyed the cool and the quiet. It’s my favourite time of day – before the world wakes up and starts rushing around, making so much noise – and we were due for another really hot day so I relished the cool air.

I had as quick a scroll through my social media as I could manage, having not been on it for a couple of days (apart from posting about ‘Back To Life‘). As I’ve said previously – during this time – it’s been better for my mental health to stay away from social media but then I do miss seeing what my friends and family are up to. So I’m trying to find a balance and for the most part, I think I’m doing okay.

That done, I settled into the living room and got to work, putting Friends on low for background noise. I posted my blog post about exam results and then spent the rest of the morning working on other blog posts.

By the middle of the day, I was really struggling to do anything because it was just so hot. I felt like I was melting and my brain seemed to be functioning very slowly, not unlike my laptop, which was definitely overheating with the fan whirring loudly. So I decided to take a break and work on something that required much less movement and brain power: slotting my newly organised photos into my albums. I also used the time to watch a film from my To Watch list – one of my New Year goals was to consume more new content rather than just familiar favourites and the lockdown has a good time to do that. It’s been good for me in other areas too. I’ve been challenging my songwriting skills and trying to write from the perspectives of different characters instead of just from my own life experiences and finding new characters and stories that inspire me has made it a really enjoyable practice.

I ended up watching Fantasy Island (mainly because I love Maggie Q), where a group of people arrive on a tropical island after winning a competition, their prize being to have their greatest fantasy fulfilled. I’d seen quite a few negative reviews of it but personally, I really enjoyed it. It wasn’t life changing but it was interesting and the twists and turns were cool. It was good entertainment and made for a mentally restful afternoon.

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In the evening, me and my Mum had dinner together with a couple of episodes of Rizzoli and Isles and I spent a couple of hours working on blog posts. As usual, I put off going to bed, partly because my room was so hot. Again, thank god for my fan.


SUNDAY

I slept long and deep, a welcome experience after months of restless sleep at best. I did have some strange dreams, but not disturbing ones. One included a storm cloud on fire, which was incredibly beautiful – much better than some of my previous dreams. I didn’t get up until almost ten but then I dived into the day, intent on being as productive as possible.

I finished my previous week-in-the-life post and then had a music lesson with one of my parents. We worked on the chords for two of the songs I’m working on and then had a long conversation about reharmonisation and how that works. I learnt about that during my BA by only briefly and that was several years ago so, with the Musical Language module coming up, I definitely needed a refresher. We might need to go over it again just to give me a quick reminder but I feel like I’m pretty solid on the basic principles. So that was good to do.

By the time we finished, it was so hot that I didn’t want to move. I lay on the sofa and watched the second series of Liar. It had been airing when we went into lockdown and it just slipped my mind; it only came back to me a month or so later and by that time, it was gone from ITV On Demand. I’d resigned myself to never knowing how it ended but then it popped up on Virgin On Demand. So I watched that through the heat of the day. It wasn’t the best show ever – I felt like there were quite a few inconsistencies and plot holes – but I was glad to see how it ended. Plus I used the time to continue adding the captions to the photos in my albums. So, considering the heat, I feel like I was pretty productive. Oh, and I also posted the first teaser for ‘Back To Life‘ on my social media.

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5 days.

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We ended up eating dinner outside on the deck in the cool darkness and then we went inside to watch Rizzoli and Isles with some much appreciated ice cream. I kept working on the photo album captions, making it to March 2020. I was almost giddy with glee at being so close to the finish line.

That giddiness shot through the roof when I checked Instagram to see how the teaser was being received and saw that Desmond Child (writer of Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’ and Ricky Martin’s ‘Livin’ La Vida Loca’ to name just two of his more famous songs) had liked it. I have no idea how he found it but it all but short-circuited my brain. I mean, he’s in the Songwriters Hall of Fame! So that was very, very cool.

This is the screenshot I sent to Richard…

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It took me a long time to come down from that high so I didn’t get to bed until midnight. I’m really not doing well with this whole go-to-bed-early plan.


I’m always hesitant to say stuff like this – probably because of a leftover childhood superstition that I’ll jinx things – but I do feel like I’m coping better mentally, that I’ve found a way of managing things day to day. I mean, I’m still not able to read or focus on anything involving big chunks of new information for extended periods of time but generally, I feel like I’ve found a routine that’s working for me. I’m still really struggling emotionally but I don’t think that’s really going to change until it truly starts to feel safe again. The fear and anxiety is just a constant presence in my life that I try to manage, to varying degrees of success.

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.)