Thursday, 17 October 2019

Untangling Mental Health, Part 4: Social Anxiety

Part 1: Depression and Anxiety
Part 2: ADD
Part 3: Apathy

I’m a hardcore introvert. I also worry far too much about what other people think of me. I’m socially awkward to start with and I’m not good at picking up on social cues. Except for some very close friends, every social interaction comes with the stress that I'm going to get it wrong. That I'm going to be judged.

This includes things that you might not consider to be social interactions. Such as calling or emailing a professional service (e.g. doctor’s appointments, asking my landlord a question, etc.). Or sending out a CV.

That last one is terrifying.

When we were dealing with infertility, we went with IVF over adoption. There were multiple reasons, but one was because adoption would mean filling out an application form and letting unknown individuals judge my worth. With IVF, I only had to worry about dozens of people seeing me naked and shoving medical equipment up my vagina. So much easier.

There’s no way around the Panel Of Judgment for a job though. I do have to send out my CV, and I have to psyche myself up to it each and every time. There’s an episode of Friends where Rachel sends out something like 100 CVs in a day. Do normal people actually do that? I’m doing well if I get out three, and then I need to go and do something else to take my mind off it.

At the start of summer, I tried signing up for LinkedIn, but that was even worse. I was filling out a career profile for everybody to see: not just strangers, but people I knew. Acquaintances. I lasted a few hours before I attempted to switch my profile to private. Three months later, I'm still getting daily emails telling me how many profile views I've had and asking if X, Y or Z (who I emailed once) is a contact.

LinkedIn has become a very personal nightmare, and I've not had the nerve to go back to the site since July. I'm pretty sure an inactive profile is worse than no profile, and I should probably just delete my account, but that would mean facing back up to it, and I don't want to. Procrastination and inertia again.

(You might wonder how I can be so panicky about being judged and yet be so candid on a public blog. This blog was partly built as a way of facing up to that fear, but it's also a freeform expression where I can explain myself as fully as I need to. Besides, I'm well aware that my explanations lead to a Too Long; Didn't Read reaction and that's a shield in itself.)

On the whole, I don't actually mind what strangers think of me. And I have faith that most of my friends know and love me enough to deal with my flaws. The difficult part is the swathe between friends and strangers. The acquaintances... from the Mums in the school yard, to our vets, to the people I'm reaching out to with my CV. The ones where I don't know if they like me but I do have to interact with them.

Problem: Isolation

The stereotype of the introvert is that they prefer being alone, but that's false. I like some solitary time, particularly when "my head's full" as I describe it, but I also thrive on company. Humans are evolved to be social creatures and I'm no exception. It's more accurate to say that as an introvert, I don't want the spotlight and I can get tired out trying to sustain a conversation, but I'm often happier watching other people than I am being alone. Living alone has always been a recipe for depression.

Since having the kids, I've craved adult company, or more accurately, social interactions that I don't have to be switched on for. Social interactions where I can let somebody else be the driving force and just go along for the ride. One of my biggest regrets from my marriage is how often I told my husband that he should go out while I sat at home to save the cost of a babysitter. It made me more depressed while convincing my husband that I preferred staying at home to doing the things he enjoyed... to doing things with him.

Once my husband left and I could no longer fool myself that he was filling that social gap for me, I became more conscientious about going out regularly if not frequently. I built up my own support network of friends who were happy to take the social lead. Going out with them built up new self-images for me: I like doing this; I am somebody who does that.

I lost that support network once I left the States. My old insecurities have started hitting hard again, and I find myself spending too much time in my own head.

Solution: Make friends.

The problem I have with building up a new support group is my inability (or insecurity over my ability) to read social situations. That and my social anxiety makes me reluctant to open up to people. How do I know if I'm over-sharing? How do I know if they care or are just being polite? How do you transition from acquaintance to friend?

This has a heavy influence on how I use social media as I often find it easier to broadcast rather than address a specific person. I make a comment or ask a question on Facebook, and only people who are interested will respond. I can pour my heart out in this blog, and anybody who doesn't want to deal with my navel-gazing can ignore it—yet sometimes it resonates with people who I wouldn't have expected to be interested in my ramblings.

That doesn't help me figure out what's appropriate to dump on the neighbours or the Mums in the school yard though--especially when I know they don't need me as a friend. They have friends and commitments already. They don't need to take a depressed person on board. That's my insecurity talking, but it's not false either.

Oddly enough, I find it much easier to get a date. The beauty of online dating apps is that the intention (if not the finer details) is pre-set. We matched because we are interested in each other and we're talking because we're looking for a date. I'm less concerned about asking questions or bringing more complex subjects up, since a date pre-supposes that we want to get to know each other and our respective values. I can be less afraid of causing offence.

Solution 2: Get a hobby. And make friends.

This is something else I've been procrastinating on, partly because it would involve researching some sort of club ahead of time and making contact. I'll keep on saying "I must look into that," but in practice, it probably won't happen until I've cleared up a lot of the career research and contacting.

Full disclosure, I will make friends eventually. I know all the neighbours to some extent, and there are a couple of Mums who also often walk down my route to the school. One of those Mums, in particular, I feel like I'm clicking with. It's just going to take me some time to get a proper social circle again. Until then, all my social engagements will be with my parents, my children or a date.

And that effectively concludes this series on my personal mental health situation. I could go on, I could cover a dozen of the idiosyncrasies that make me my dizzy, impractical self, but Depression, Anxiety, ADD, Apathy and Social Anxiety are the broad strokes of why, almost four months after I moved, I still don't have a job or friends.

All of this is an explanation. It's not an excuse. I'm not trying to get out of doing this. I'm not asking for somebody else to do it for me. (Though if you do have a magic wand solution, I'm all ears.) I will get there, I'm working on it... but this is why it's going to take so much time.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Untangling Mental Health, Part 3: Apathy

I swear I didn't plan to wait three days before posting the blog about procrastination. That was not deliberate! But appropriate, nonetheless.

Apathy is the most tangible and poorly justified of depression symptoms. There's a lot of stuff I haven't done simply because I don't want to. I need to do it. But I can't bring myself to do it. It's procrastination on a chronic level.
  • A fraction of this is simple procrastination. I'd rather be doing something else, so I do something else. This is totally normal (and this is why the blog is three days late.)
  • Lack of motivation is also a minor factor. What's the point in doing something? This is the classic not-getting-dressed symptom of depression.
Neither of these are the real culprits in my situation. The second one sometimes affects self-care tasks, like meals or showers, but most of the things on my to-do list have a very obvious point, for the children if nothing else. 
  • "Planning how to do things is as good as doing them." This is an absurd bit of illogic, but I was in my mid-thirties before I realised that this is exactly how I operate. I work out the hows and whats of a particular project and get a sense of accomplishment that mentally ticks off that task. I have to be really careful to make sure that it doesn't then go onto the backburner indefinitely.
This may be an ADD thing. It's certainly an ongoing issue for me, and a significant problem. But it's still not the main contributor to my apathy...
  • Every task has inertia: the bigger (more important) the task, the harder it is to get started. The longer I put it off, the more self-loathing I have for not doing it. The more self-loathing I have, the bigger deal it becomes. The bigger a deal it is, the more afraid I am to tackle it. Ad infinitum.
This is a classic way for my anxiety to manifest. Almost twenty years ago, I had a nervous breakdown while attempting a high school teaching career. In theory, every evening, I would mark work, plan lessons, etc; in practice, I would spend up to two hours staring at my folders and weeping before I could bring myself to start work for the evening. Unsurprisingly, I failed to keep up with the workload.

Thankfully, I'm not in that state now, but because I've been so overwhelmed by the workload this summer, I've focused on the house and put off the job and friends part of the to-do list.

The job in particular has now been blown totally out of proportion in my mind. On the one hand, it feels like such a grotesque privilege to not have to get a job immediately; on the other there's a social stigma attached to not working, particularly an unemployed woman who is having a man provide for her. Oh, and that man is the kid's father and we've already covered the issues surrounding him

Being unemployed is an ever-increasing blow to my self-respect, to the point where it's almost impossible for me to address it because of the associated anxiety.

Solution 1: Keep calm and carry on.

I don't need to feel guilt over having financial provision. 
  1. The wisdom is not to count on a spouse to support you forever, in practice, it's difficult to prepare for both eventualities: the failed partnership and the successful one. In supporting my husband's career and caring for our family, I effectively reduced my income capacity. It is entirely fair for my husband to provide for me as I make the transition to being the primary earner for my household. to our changed circumstances.
  2. I'm earning my keep. I'm raising the children full-time, and that means I'm still reducing my income-capacity for the sake of my family. Put very cynically, I have freed their father from all the impacts children have on your lifestyle, but I continue to enable his relationship with them. (Obviously, this was not his intent and certainly not his wish, but it is a result of our circumstances.)
I also don't need to feel unreasonable guilt over procrastinating here:
  • As I have a form of income, the greater priority is to establish a home for my children and get them set up at school.
  • I haven't totally procrastinated. I signed up with a recruitment agency and sent my CV to a handful of local nurseries in the hopes of getting lucky without having to invest a lot of effort and time that I didn't have. I did not get lucky.
I've been telling myself that for a month, with limited effect. 

Solution 2: Finish everything else first.
Last week, I ran out of relocation Things To Do. Oh, there's still a few odds and ends to finish up, but I suddenly realized that there wasn’t anything hanging over me and causing stress. That stupefied me for a day or two, then on Thursday, I woke up and decided to sit down and look into the job. And I did.

In other words, once I eliminated other stress factors, I felt prepared to tackle this mammoth source of anxiety. Simple solution... but there were over two months of "procrastination" before I could put that solution into effect, and I'm lucky that in this instance there was a natural endpoint to the other stress factors.
I've got a multi-year career track to figure out and that's going to take me a lot of time and research, so the job is a work in progress, but it is in progress now. I’ve got some momentum going. I just have to be aware of the hurdles still ahead.

Coming soon... Social Anxiety.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Untangling Mental Health, Part 2: Attention Deficit Disorder

Part 2 of a series of blogs breaking down my mental health issues. 
Click here for Part 1: Depression and Anxiety.

Attention Deficit Disorder is something I've known I had since my teens at least, but I wasn't officially diagnosed until last year when I started therapy. Until then, I'd been in denial about just how much it impacted my life.

 Poor attention span is what we think of with ADD, but it's a lot more than simple inability to focus. (I can focus sometimes... It's involuntary, but I can get wholly absorbed in some things to the point that I don't register what else is going on around me.)
  • Difficulties focusing make me slower at a given  task than most people.
  • The effort of focusing is tiring, which means my productive periods are short.
  • Distractions mean that I leave a lot of things half-done and forget to go back to them—an inability to keep the house tidy is a sign you might have ADD.

Then there are the short-term memory issues. Again, I have a fantastic memory in many ways, but with day to day activities, it's as if my brain sometimes stops filing things away.
  • I regularly lose things that I had had in my hand just moments before. (I'm pretty intense about having specific places for things and building up a habit for leaving them there.)
  • I'll walk into a room or open a cupboard and be unable to remember why. Sometimes, my brain sort of hangs up at that point, and I'm just standing for minutes at a time, trying to figure out what I'm supposed to be doing. Those are the times it’s not just frustrating, it’s scary.
Solution 1: Mitigate the Aggravating Factors

There are ways to live a more ADD friendly lifestyle… But they’re very much of the easier said than done variety.
  • Get enough sleep: I have always had sleep issues and being tired doesn’t help my focus. Power naps resolve the midday drowsiness, but stress triggers the insomnia. The cats also disrupt my sleep overnight, but I do go through phases where I sleep well. Those are awesome.
  • Fresh air and exercise: Natural light is always good for your brain function, and thankfully we do get a lot of light in the living room and kitchen. Actually getting outside is even better. It's a ten-minute walk to the kids' school, and we do that every morning and afternoon, even in the rain. Thank god they haven't protested, because it's probably doing a lot to keep me sane.
  • Remove extra distractions: I like having company, but if somebody is doing something else, I struggle to stay productive. It doesn't matter if they're not engaging me, and it doesn't matter if I'm not interested in what they're doing... my brain is staying aware of them. Managing things so the children can help rather than hinder me is a parenting skill I'm trying hard to acquire.
  • Keep things uncluttered: it's both a lot easier to see what's out of place and it's easier on the over-stimulated mind. This was a big part of why August was so horrific… boxes everywhere and I didn’t know where to put or find anything. I did eventually clear all the boxes, but I still have children, so clutter is a rollercoaster-style issue.
  • (I know tidy kids exist. I don't have tidy children because they don't have a tidy mother because she has ADD.)

Solution 2: treatment / medication
After getting diagnosed, I tried a couple of different medications before settling on a low dose of Adderall. It's not a miracle cure (there isn't one), but it made a world of difference to my productivity. It also largely solved my sleep issues—insomnia at night and intense drowsiness in the middle of the day—I'm not sure if they're a result of ADD or if the stimulant properties of Adderall effectively regulated my sleep pattern.
Problem 1: Adderall is illegal in the UK. (Bringing in a few months' supply for personal use isn't a problem, but a doctor can't prescribe it.) So I'll have to find a different medication which will require a period of trial and error. I have yet to start that because of...

Problem 2: My diagnosis in the US isn't recognised here. In the States, I could be diagnosed via a self-assessment form, but that wouldn't be acceptable in the UK. I need to be referred to a psychiatrist. I tried to start this process in June, but I never heard back about the referral. I've since changed GPs, and I have another appt next week to again ask for a referral.

These sorts of administrative setbacks put the onus on us patients to self-advocate and keep pushing for diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, mental health issues tend to make us bad at that. I'm ADD, so I'm getting distracted by the sea of other things I have to do with The Move. Depression / anxiety issues make me fear that the doctors don't believe me, that they're judging me, so I dread having to explain myself and put off making that call, making that appointment....

Oh, look, we've reached procrastination....

I'll talk about that tomorrow.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Untangling Mental Health, Part 1: Depression and Anxiety.

It's World Mental Health day, and my own mental health has been a big issue ever since the breakdown of my marriage. Over the past two years, I've seen firsthand how mental health issues feed into each other and how the obvious solutions are never as straightforward as they seem.

I wanted to write a post unpicking my own mental health... the issues I face, the factors that contribute to them, and the effects they have. But that very quickly ran insanely long, World Mental Health Day is almost over, and I'm not going to help my own mental health by burning the midnight oil to get this completed.

So I'm going to run this over a few days instead. I'll start with the one that needs the least explanation:


Everything relating to my children's father continues to be one massive fallout zone of depression and anxiety. It's been almost two years since he left me, and the half-life of these emotions remains unknown. Fortunately, the panic attacks are much reduced, but the anxiety still triggers other issues, such as insomnia and ADD. I have bouts of crying, almost at random, but the more insidious effect of depression is on my self-esteem.

Solution 1: Avoidance
I've put figurative biohazard tape around the entire area of the kids' dad. I don't talk to him more than I can help, I don't ask about him, I don't talk to other people about him.

... Except my children. I kind of have to, even if they're emotionally intelligent enough to avoid the subject. And, obviously, they have to continue seeing their father. They Facetime him every night before they go to bed. He and I have to coordinate about things relating to them, including him visiting.

Inevitably, he's going to remain an ongoing presence in my life, so I still have to deal with the results of those emotions. 

Solution 2: Get on with my life
As devastating as the failed marriage is, there are many other aspects to my life. If I invest in these, they should flourish and overwhelm the negative emotions associated with the kids' father.

Our particular situation was the problem here: we were living in a country where I didn't have a work permit and would lose my visa in the event of a divorce. (Our plan had always been to return to the UK and raise the kids there.) I couldn't just get on with my life because I had to scrap it and start over: no marriage; no home; no job; no friends.

The last three have been my to-do list since The Move in June. I thought I'd be able to have them well under way by the end of summer. I wasn't even close.

In part, I underestimated how much needed to be done once we reached the UK; In part, I underestimated how much my ADD would slow me down. I'll save the elaborations on that for Part 2.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019


It's my fifteenth wedding anniversary. It's over a year and a half since my husband walked away. It still hurts.

I've been having these rage dreams lately, just every now and then. In them, I'm arguing with a family member (the person changes, and they don't seem to be triggered by actual events). I end up screaming and crying—these gut-wrenching screams and sobs—and they ignore me, utterly unmoved while I'm humiliated by my impotence and lack of control.

So, yeah... that's not good. A lot of it is probably due to current events, anxiety over the move and the things Still Not Done, but the feeling of impotence has been a theme since the end of the marriage. In many ways, I'm still in shock. Something that meant so much to me and that I would have done anything in the world to save... but I couldn't. Either I didn't get the opportunity or I missed it.

Even now, the recurring question is "Why couldn't he love me?" Of course, we talked extensively about that last year, so logically I understand why he stopped loving me. But I don't understand it on an illogical level. On the level where you love somebody just because you know them so well and they know you so well that you're part of each other. We lived together for sixteen years. For me, that's more time spent together than with anybody else. He's shaped me more than anybody else—He shaped my family.

I remind myself daily of him in little things I do and say, habits and phrases I picked up from him. As a family, we continue to tell the in-jokes he created, and our playlists are full of music he introduced us to. He had so much positive impact on us, it's impossible for me to move on from him, because there is so much of him that I should be taking with me.

So logically, I'm no longer in love with my husband. So much happened and there's been so much pain... but illogically, he's my family, he's part of me, and I'll always care deeply for him.

It's brutal then, to consider this from his perspective. How could he walk away after sixteen years of me being part of him? The simplest answer is that I'm not part of him. He adored me early on, far more into me than I was into him... but did he ever really allow me into himself? Did he always wall me out and I never realised? Or is it purely that other circumstances took over and it didn't matter. Either way, it's deeply unsettling when the person who knows you best in the world considers you dispensable.

That's really the recipe for the anxiety and depression I've had since January 2018: A combination of the ultimate rejection and of losing a huge part of myself. (The functional aspects of suddenly not having a partner in life are not insignificant either.) The therapist I was seeing in the States said I may never get over my husband, but I can accept that grief and balance it out with the rest of my life.

Sure enough, it's not all doom and gloom. I still have a family, even if the dynamic is radically different and functionality is a lot harder. For all the confidence I've lost, I've gained some too as I continue to achieve things on my own... I'm terribly insecure about the things I've yet to achieve, fearing that I just can't, and it's good for me to look back on what I have already managed despite those fears. Like driving down narrow Cornish lanes! (We'll ignore the couple of occasions this week when I made a wrong turn into too small a space and made a terrible mess of getting the car around to get out—the important thing is, I did get myself out both times, even if it took several minutes.)

Being single itself isn't bad at all, probably because I'm not looking for love. I quite enjoy online dating, even if I don't go on many dates. It's interesting to talk to other people my age who are single, who have had to shed a dream of happily ever after or who are pursuing an alternative to the traditional domestic bliss. Actually going out with somebody in a purely adult setting is a bonus... it's nice to be a woman rather than a mother sometimes.

Marriage was very good for me and I have often thought that I would do better by remarrying. But I have never fallen in love easily. Falling in love with my husband required moving in with him and having a nervous breakdown. (Long story.) As candid as I am, I'm always wary of letting people in, and having the children is only going to exacerbate that. Maybe it will happen even though I don't expect it, but I'm not going to try to find love again. When the kids leave home, that could change... it's only ten years before my youngest would go to university, and I've no reason to think I'll be too decrepit to enjoy a new a relationship or a new start at 51!

Until then, I'll just take fun and romance where I find it. I'll celebrate my family and continue building my life. There's a void that will never really be filled, but that grief is part of me now and I must find the value in that. I'm still looking for who I am.

Not all those who wander are lost, but since I'm lost, I may as well wander.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Making a House a Home

I've been putting off posting due to The Overwhelming Nature Of All Things.

We have our own place now—a three bedroom ground floor flat in a new barn conversion. In the end, it was really our only option after another place we applied for suddenly decided that they wouldn't take pets after all.

That said, it's a lovely place that ticked off a lot of the things on our 'want' list: a living room large enough to fit our enormous sofa, a village with a primary school and a corner shop—both very impressive—and an amazing view. We're on a hillside, with nothing but fields and valley out back, and while our garden is small, the back wall is low enough to climb on while the side walls offer some parkour opportunities!

The downsides? Well, the rent is more expensive than I was hoping and living at a brand new address poses its own problems as not everybody can find us. But the biggest issue is that there's no storage space. No loft, no garage, no cellar, no cloakroom, no broom cupboard, no linen cupboard.... Not even a utility room. We have an airing cupboard, which by default houses my laundry baskets, but it doesn't have shelves for anything else. I have an en suite shower in my room, so I'm storing the mop and bucket in there.

The first thing we did was buy and build a large shed, just so we would have extra space to put our boxes when they showed up. My father spent his anniversary building that with me, but it turned out to be a mere taster for what was to come....

A week after we left the States, a moving company came and packed up our belongings. Everything was then shipped across the Atlantic, taken through customs and finally driven down to Cornwall. They couldn't get the truck into the courtyard in front of the flats, so they drove down the field behind us, and everything was unloaded over my back wall and taken in through the patio doors.

That's when I learned that the furniture had been been disassembled.

This didn't happen when we moved to the States. It seems that the general UK policy is not to take furniture apart, while the general US policy is to disassemble and reassemble at the other end. My parents (who did the US to UK relocation ten years ago) told me that their furniture had also been taken apart, but the movers rebuilt it for them.

Nobody did any reassembling for me. The moving crew was only two people and they had their work cut out for them just unloading the container. To make matters worse, the packers hadn't provided any indication of where the hardware was. Sometimes screws were taped to the item. Sometimes... not. I picked up a towel that had been left loose rather than packed in a box, and the screws for the cat tree fell out—luckily they had 'armarkat' printed on, because there were no labels. In fact labelling was not the packers' strong suit: every box was labeled, but the labels were not indicative of everything that might be inside the box.

I complained to the shipping company which triggered a lot of arguing over whether the US or the UK side was at fault. Theoretically, it's their responsibility, so I should wait until they send somebody out to put the furniture together. Realistically, we have to live here. We need tables and shelves and beds... (Never mind the fact that I slept on a mattress on a floor for two weeks before I found the screws for my bed.)

I'm the tallest person in the family at 5'2" and the only adult. The children don't have the first clue what to do for unpacking and setting up a house. They've wanted to help, but unless I'm literally walking them through what they need to do step by step, there's precious little they can contribute. We can't even do general chores when there are boxes everywhere (and we essentially had to restock our cleaning supplies from scratch anyway.)

Therefore, for the past month, and largely singlehandedly, I've been assembling furniture without instructions, unpacking boxes into what furniture we do have, purchasing various storage solutions from Amazon, chasing down the parcels when the delivery men couldn't find our address (on three occasions, a package was dropped off at a random house in the village),  assembling those storage solutions once I found them (with instructions. Luxury!), unpacking more boxes, getting rid of things because we went from a four bedroom house to a three bedroom flat and we don't have room for everything—and basically ignoring emails, phone calls and any other forms of message because I don't have time to sort out anything else (like, um, utilities. The fairies will keep our water and electricity going, right?)

It's been overwhelming, and there were some pretty dark moments. Aside from one break for an old friend's wedding (which was lovely!), I haven't really done anything social. So much other stuff has fallen by the wayside that I do a lot of panicking that I've forgotten something vitally important. Such as the kids' school uniform which has been halfway pulled together this week. It's their first day tomorrow and they'll definitely have a complete outfit each for that, but they need more of everything and the PE kit didn't occur to me at all.

But tomorrow is also one month since we got the keys and four weeks since our things arrived... and this place does feel like a home now. The bedrooms are still a disaster, the television doesn't work because I never found the apple TV or aerial, and until I figure out how to reassemble my desk, we won't have a functional printer either... but we've gone through all the boxes and the kitchen, living room, garden and bathrooms have all taken shape. The cats have their nooks and we're finding ours...

I still feel that I can't see half of what needs doing, and that's terrifying. But I'm excited and happy to be living here. After all, the view from here is pretty damn awesome.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Tales of a Middle-Aged Drop-out

One of the more ridiculous hurdles I'm trying to overcome is the fact that I can't drive. I never succeeded in passing my test in the UK, although I eventually did pass it in the US. Legally speaking, I can drive on my Virginia Licence for a year (if only on automatic cars).

  1. I am terrible at every skill required for driving: concentration, spatial awareness, sense of direction, distinguishing right from left... you name it; I'm bad at it.
  2. Virginia roads are flat, straight and wide: a narrow road is one without a passing lane. Cornish roads are hilly, twisty and narrow: a wide road is one with a lane for both directions of traffic.
  3. At no point in my Virginia test was I required to perform any sort of manoeuvre. I can't parallel park to save my life and have never dreamed of reversing into a parking space, let alone down a country lane in quest of a passing place.
These factors combined mean that I am really not capable of driving myself in the area I have chosen to live in. I knew this ahead of time, and we're already working on getting my skills and confidence up, with a view to get me driving independently before the end of the month.

Until then... well, let's recap the status quo:
I'm single, unemployed, and not only am I living with my parents, but I'm reliant on them to drive me around. 
23 years of adult life well spent, everybody! Thank you for reading; I'm delighted to be your Drop-out Guru.

Perspective, perspective, perspective...

OK, so obviously this is a transitory stage of my life, born out of convenience as part of a larger plan leading to self-sufficient adulting. (Besides, I'm doing my own laundry, I swear!)

Yet I die a little inside every time I have to select "Living with Parents" from a drop-down menu—which comes up a lot more often than I ever expected, but half of relocation is this endless reverse cascade of online forms, where you start one and then discover that you haven't got the information they require, so you have to fill out another form to set that up, and then another form in order to complete the second form, etc, etc.

I digress. This is the sort of undisciplined behaviour that has got me stuck living with my parents in the first place.

For the first week here, maybe the first ten days, I was in something of a recovery period from The Move anyway. Being totally dependent on somebody else was fantastic, because I was ready for the bare minimum of responsibility. Even as I muddled through my relocation to-do list, it mostly felt like we were on our annual summer holiday.

Two weeks in, and it doesn't feel like a break; it feels like limbo. There are many lovely things about living with my parents, but the kids are bored out of their skulls and I'm getting stressed because I can't see an end to the form-filling nor am I actually achieving my new life. (I assume I am making progress. Except during insomnia, because then my brain will only consider the hypothesis that I'm failing miserably.)

My cat, Meg, is perhaps the only one of us who is happier since The Move than before. She adores my parents' garden and loves having so many people in the house all day long. She'd prefer more freedom to bully my parents' dog, Sam, and make his life a misery, but she's going along with our insistence that the dog is entitled to exist.

The rest of us are in a funk. We need a social life—never my strong suit unfortunately, and one made worse by my inability to drive myself. We need a place of our own. We need to feel like we live here instead of just visiting. We need to feel like we belong.

But mostly, we need to suck it up and remember it's just for a few weeks. For a few weeks, I can take the humility of being forty-one and dependent on my parents. Yes, I'm not going to be activating my Bumble profile until I can drive myself to and from a date, so it's a few weeks of spending every evening drinking hot cocoa made by my Mum—

Every evening.
Hot cocoa.
Made by my Mum.

Maybe I'm winning at life after all.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Cats vs Dog

The biggest logistical hurdle of our move was easily the cats. Staying with my parents solved many of these issues as they didn't mind hosting the cats along with the rest of us while we look for a house and wait for our things to be shipped over from the States.

One minor hiccup there... my parents have a dog. A black labrador called Sam. Sam does not like cats. Meg and Trogdor don't like dogs. But the three of them are going to be under the same roof for a good month if not more.

So we planned:

The Set Up

  • Before we left, I ordered a cat tree, cat food and a litter tray to be sent to my parents. They picked up some litter and an extra scratching post. I packed the cats' bowls, a couple of toys, disposable litter trays and a scratching mat.
  • A house rule at my parents is that the dog isn't allowed upstairs, except at night when he sleeps next to my parents' bed. Because of this, Sam never goes into the two guest bedrooms.
  • In my bedroom / bathroom (luckily, it's en suite), we set up the scratching post, the cats' bowls and a litter tray, giving Meg and Trog all their needs in an area the dog never goes.
  • When we arrived, my Dad took Sam into the garden, while my Mum and I smuggled the cats upstairs and into my bedroom.

In a pinch, we could have left it at that. Kept the cats and the dog completely separated. But my cats are assertive and used to being free range. They get destructive if confined to a small area. So we didn't attempt to keep them in the bedroom, but we did keep a careful eye on proceedings.

Evening 1: Casing the joint
Meg immediately began exploring and left the room within ten minutes. Trogdor dove under my bed and stayed there for half an hour until I checked on him. Then he came out, but he restricted himself to eating, exploring the room, hiding under the bed at the slightest provocation and peering out of the window at this strange new world.

Yet to be convinced by this green and pleasant land.

Meg calmly took herself downstairs and into the kitchen where she got her first glimpse of Sam. Luckily, Sam did not see her—instead he stared up at us in anxious confusion as we all told him 'no!' while Meg bushed up, backed out of the room and retreated upstairs.

Meg left her scent behind and this was how Sam discovered there was a cat in the house, five minutes later.  He was... attentive.  

Days 2-3: Enemy Encounters
Both cats and dog were now aware of each others' existence, but the cats were in for a second shock: That first morning, Meg ventured into the living room only to see a herd of cows on their daily stroll past the garden fence. So far as I know, Meg and Trog have never seen an animal larger than a human. For a moment, Meg froze, looking appalled as only a cat can. Then, for a second time in as many days, she bushed up, backed out of a room and retreated upstairs.

We missed Trog's first view of the cows—most likely it was from the children's bedroom window, but they were something the cats would have to figure out on their own. We were carefully supervising any encounters with Sam every time they came downstairs.

There was a learning curve for us here. We kept telling Sam: "No!" to stop him from charging at the cats, but this left him with a complex: from his point of view, he was getting in trouble if a cat walked into the room. My parents also had a habit of talking to Meg and Trog in the same voice they addressed Sam with, which inevitably brought him running, looking for attention. We had to learn not to make exclamations over the cats and also to reassure the dog that he was a good boy.

Sam really is a good boy, fortunately, and very obedient to commands, even though he's getting on a bit at eight years old. All his life, he's charged cats whenever he sees them; the first two encounters with ours, he held his ground at a hand on his collar. The second two encounters, he held his ground at a spoken command.

We had one lapse, when Sam saw Trogdor come into the room before the rest of us did. Dog really charged at cat then, getting all the way to where Trog had been standing before we reacted and yelled at him. I'm not sure if Sam stopped because of our reaction or of his own accord, but he didn't continue the chase.

The following morning, he made a momentary charge at Meg, but we scolded him instantly and he stopped almost before he got going. That was the last time, and since then he's shown them no aggression, though he does get anxious whenever they're in the same room.

The cats were considerably more anxious about Sam after those charges though, and Trog stopped coming downstairs altogether.

The First Week: Upstairs, Downstairs

The cats made the upstairs their domain, enjoying the variety of beds and a plethora of windowsills. We never had window sills in the States; now they had a house full of perches with fascinating views. Meg spent an hour on my parents' bed one evening, her gaze fixed on the cows in the field. There are rabbits in the field as well, and birds all over the place, while the windows at the front show the neighbours coming and going along with their dogs.

Studying the enemy for its weakness.

Every evening, my parents brought Sam upstairs and Trog would leave whatever he was doing and go out onto the landing just to hiss at him. The same ritual would be repeated when Sam went down in the mornings, much to the dog's depression. Sam now looks both ways when crossing the upstairs hallway as if he's crossing a road.

Most mornings, Meg would come and sit downstairs with me before Sam came downstairs. It was the perfect time for her to sniff around, drink cheekily from his water bowl and sit in the conservatory to watch the birds having breakfast at Mum's feeders. One morning she sat with great attention watching an invading village cat; the invading cat was totally oblivious to Meg's spying as it was sat with great attention at the foot of the feeder where mice hide in the stones.

What surprised me was how unworried the cats seemed about being kept inside. They've always been allowed to range outdoors and, historically, have got very distressed if denied access to the outside—particularly Trog. (Typical behaviour is making a toilet out of something other than a litter tray; crying loudly and scratching/plucking at doors and windows.) However, as they've got older, they don't range as far and spend more time inside. In this new place, the upstairs seemed enough for them to start with and none of their usual behaviour issues appeared.

Yet while they didn't seem distressed, it couldn't be said they were behaving as usual either. Our cats are typically very social, demandingly so. Now their environment was more isolated, a storey removed from the living area and household activities. Meg and Trog became more tolerant of each other than they had for years, often napping on the same bed. The children sometimes read or played on their iPads upstairs, and the cats would join them on the bed for that too. Yet they weren't talking to us as they normally did, and Trog wasn't giving his trademark headbutts. They didn't seem happy.

This is probably one of the portents of the apocalypse...

Downstairs, we had the back door open a lot, because the weather was so warm, but only when somebody was sat next to it, monitoring for cats. Both Meg and Trog did have a moment where they came down and ventured to the threshold with great interest, but neither put up a fight when we removed them and closed the door. 

Then on Sunday, Meg walked to the front door and began asking to be let out. We ignored her, but she slipped through when the kids set out to the local playground and they had to catch her. So we went to the pet store and got new tags for both cats with my parents' number on. Whether or not we were letting them outside, Meg at least was now a flight risk.

July and the Great Outdoors
Along with asking to be let out, Meg abruptly began coming downstairs more and being a little bolder around Sam. This was key, since I wouldn't let her out if she would be reluctant to come back. On Monday morning, my daughter and I took the opportunity of Sam's walk to open the back door for Meg and let her go outside.

We took it in turns trailing her around the garden, trying to make sure she didn't venture outside of it (not really enforceable when it comes to cats). She had a great time as my parents' garden is really more cat-friendly than dog-friendly, with lots of little nooks and crannies and different levels of wall to climb.

Meg becomes a fan of the English country garden.

After about twenty minutes, Meg asked to be let back into the kitchen door... Sam came in to the other end of the kitchen moments later and we had a small standoff, before I hoisted Meg onto the bench at the breakfast table and walled her in slightly with a cushion. She hissed at Sam but he was able to walk past her without any interaction between them or intercession from us.

It can't be said that Sam was happy when Meg settled down comfortably against her cushion. He wanted to go outside, to get away from this miserable presence in his kitchen, but we kept him in. We wanted to prove to him he was allowed in the room even if one of the cats were there.

So Sam lay down on the doormat and Meg lay on her bench and both sulked. My son tried to give Meg a love and nearly got his eye taken out, which was unusually cranky even by Meg's standards. But she stayed there.

Every accent pillow needs a cat glowering from it.

It was the turning point for Meg. She returned downstairs at will for the rest of the day and the next, and she went out at every opportunity—once she had shown herself willing to come downstairs in spite of Sam, I was no longer worried that she wouldn't return home. On her second trip, she managed to get out of the garden and next door, returning ten minutes later, well pleased with herself, but overall, she's preferred to stay in the security of my parents' garden.

On one memorable occasion, she was sat behind the pond under the fence to the field when the whole herd of cows went by. Meg froze, her eyes wide with horror. She didn't dare look directly at the cows, but instead flicked her gaze between us in the conservatory window and the reflection of the cows in the dining room window. Once the last cow had passed, I called to her and she cautiously crept around the pond and back inside... the moment she was through the door, she bolted to the living room, before turning around and glaring fiercely at the now safely-distant field.

While Meg's continued to go out frequently, she's become a more consistent presence inside the house. She'll still retreat upstairs for a more peaceful nap, but she's often seen downstairs now: she keeps a close eye on the dog and hisses at him mercilessly, but she has no problem being on the floor at the same time as him, and his presence will not deter her from claiming our attention. She's back to her usual self.

Success also looks surprisingly like the apocalypse
Trog, on the other hand... not so much. 

This Week: Applying... Persuasion.

Trog remained upstairs, to our increasing concern, so we gave things a nudge on Wednesday. I brought him down in the morning while Sam was upstairs, and he stayed with me for perhaps ten minutes before creeping upstairs again (Meg asked to be let out, and he did attempt to follow her, but I kept him inside. I don't trust him to return of his own accord.)

One cat down; one to go.
We repeated this when Sam went for his walk. After lunch, I took Sam for his walk and my Mum brought him down this time. When he crept back upstairs, she followed him. He had stopped halfway up, so she took him back and finally he settled down on the armchair and stayed.

When I came back, I sent Sam through to the garden where Trog could see him. He watched him attentively for a few minutes and then relaxed again. When Sam eventually came back inside (via the kitchen), Trog lifted his head, clearly listening, but he didn't attempt to move, even when Sam came into the conservatory and stood next to his chair.

It took Sam a while to notice Trog, but when he did, he simply looked back at us, dejected. We loved him, assured him he was a good boy and eventually suggested he curl up on his bed in the sitting room where he could see us but not the terrible, terrible cat.

Trog hissed at Sam, but held his ground, either too wary to move or too stubborn to give up the chair now he'd got comfortable—notably, he never so much as changed his paw position. I slow-blinked at him a few times (a cat signal for "all's safe; you can trust me") until he relaxed again. He stayed on that chair for at least another hour.

I'm still not willing to let Trog outside, but he's not asking yet either. The reassuring thing is that he's shown himself able to stay downstairs with us again, and we're going to keep encouraging that. What I'm waiting for is the moment when he jumps up next to me on the sofa and proceeds to headbutt me and my laptop to oblivion, purring at top volume all the while. That's when I'll know I have my Trog back.

There are not nearly enough pictures of Sam in this blog, but he is the Best Boy and we will take him on All The Walks.