Saturday, 31 December 2011

On A Successful Year

So, we’ve now reached the end of 2011 (well, give or take an hour or so), and, in a rather unoriginal and clich├ęd way, I’m going to look back on the year just finishing (and possibly speculate on the year just starting).

For me, 2011 has been very different from the years that immediately preceded it. I spent much of 2009 and 2010 feeling very ill, struggling to cope in the world, and not really feeling comfortable in my own skin. As 2011 started, it still wasn’t clear how things would work out, and there have certainly been one or two hiccoughs along the way, but as the closing hours of the year approach, I can look back and see that things were, in fact, starting to work out, even at that early stage.

I don’t think the successes of this year have been entirely rooted in this year either. After a very shaky 2009, when it became apparent that my determination to control my own mental health (or, at that time, mental illness – bipolar disorder) wasn’t working, I made a sort of pact with myself – for 2010 I would relinquish control, take the drugs the medics prescribed, do whatever the psychiatrists and community psychiatric nurses told me to do, no matter how silly it seemed, and see whether THAT worked any better.

Of course they were right, and it did. I was still pretty ill at the end of 2010, but the actions I’d taken that year would reach into the future and enable me to start to build a better life. Instead of getting whatever job I could take, I gave up work completely, and, with the help of the community mental health team, applied for disability living allowance and employment support allowance. I accepted that I would be financially worse off, accepted whatever help I could get from friends and family, and cut my standard of living as far as I could without actually making it unbearable. The Wonderspouse and I completely gave up the idea of going on holiday, drastically cut the number of concerts and gigs we attended (in general, only going to the ones we’d already booked, and not booking anything new), discovered which “value” products were just as good as the regular ones, ignored the wealthy people on the internet who talked about Waitrose, and moved the cats from Whiskas to own-brand cat food (which probably saved more than anything else).

So, at the start of 2011, things were changing. I had the nearest thing to a “clean sheet” to start with that I could get while retaining parts of my life that I was keen to keep. I also knew that my 40th birthday was coming up, and that being 40 would be a good excuse to get my life in order. Life may not exactly “begin” at 40, but I figured that it might be a time when I was finally as “grown-up” as I was likely to get, and that it might be time to look at what I actually wanted out of life, rather than letting all the baggage from childhood and upbringing, my previous expectations and hopes of what life would be like, and the opinions of others who didn’t really know, or in some cases care, what would be best for me, affect my choices.

By the start of the year I was working with an “employment specialist” at the community mental health centre and starting to think about what kind of work I could do. It had been established that the dead-end administrative envelope-stuffing jobs that I had been doing were not only a waste of the talents I had, but didn’t actually help my mental health either. I don’t need to do EASY work, I just need to do work that suits me and that I can, to some extent, control. This fact was brought home to me sharply just before Easter – I accepted a full-time maths teaching job in a secondary school, which seemed like a good plan at the time (especially as the money situation was really beginning to bite at that stage). However, after just 6 days I was exhausted, tearful, and unable to continue. It felt like a disaster at the time, especially as I had come off my benefits, not been paid for the work I had done, and was completely without income for a month. Fortunately, my best friend kept us afloat and prevented total meltdown.

That was the final time I tried to conform to previous expectations. My new career would have to be, well, NEW, not a rehashed version of anything that had gone before. My employment specialist asked if I’d ever considered adult education – I hadn’t, but I started to think seriously about the possibilities that might offer me.

At around the same time, my relationship with the internet and my internet “friends” changed. I use the word “friends” advisedly, because, in early summer, around half a dozen or so of these “friends” decided they didn’t actually like me very much. I believe it all revolved around one particular person, who, for reasons that nobody was prepared to tell me, took against me, blocking me and unfriending me wherever he could, but since these people won’t actually tell me, I can only speculate. I had tried to be a good friend to this person, but my friendship was not, ultimately, reciprocated. He didn’t even have the manners to respond to e-mails I sent him, despite the fact that I just wanted to help him cope with various situations in which he found himself.

So, at that point I drew a line under it all. If those people didn’t care to be friends with me, then they could go. If the originator of the trouble is hell-bent on destroying himself, then there is precious little I can do about it – there is only so much of my life that I’m prepared to waste trying to help those who don’t want my help. If any of those people wish to be friends with me again, they’re very welcome – I don’t bear grudges, and will forgive those who apologise and wish to reconnect, but it’s all on my terms from now on. I am no longer a slave to the internet, partly because I now realise that living my life entirely online was actually rather detrimental to my mental health, and partly because I have lots of interesting and good things going on in the “real world”!

I also realised at that point that I had regained my self-esteem. During 2009, I’d felt hopelessly inadequate as I hung out on twitter with people who talked about books I’d never even heard of, spent hours talking about different types of computers (most of which I could never even think of affording), and I tried desperately to fit into their world, in the hope that I’d fit into any world at all. At that time I spent pounds and pounds on books that I suspect I shall never read. The Wonderspouse and I now have a good laugh about it – what WAS I thinking, spending a tenner on some tome on Indian history? Goodness only knows. But I’ve now realised that reading is, for me, about relaxation and enjoyment, and I’ve returned to what I enjoy. If others want the heavy stuff, then I’m pleased to leave them to it!

So, as my 40th birthday approached, I had started to be “me” again, and it felt good. I’d also started to swim outdoors at the local lido, and was beginning to lose some of the weight I’d put on through medication and silly eating in the previous years. As I pounded up and down the pool, I also sorted my head out, going through all the rubbish of the previous couple of years and gradually dealing with each piece, bit by bit. I also got fitter and stronger, and life began to feel easier and more manageable.

Then came one of the defining moments of the year – I finally got a pair of beautiful rats. I published a post on this blog yesterday about how I got into rats, and my relationship with them. I’d wanted rats for years, and being 40 gave me the perfect excuse finally to get some. Getting rats was something I did because I wanted to – in some ways, taking on more animals wasn’t “sensible”, but I’m now learning that if I wait until “the right time” for some things, then I’ll never do them. Furthermore, the decision I made has turned out to be a good one. Having my little rat men around has made me so very very happy!

Just after my birthday, the Wonderspouse and I celebrated 9 years of marriage. Our 8th anniversary had been overshadowed by the final illness of our beloved cat Athena, but the 9th was good. We decided around that time that we would have a party for our 10th anniversary in 2012, and started to plan it – the first time we’ve done any such thing together – it’s quite an adventure, and there’s still much to be done (planning ground to a halt in the autumn for 2 reasons I’ll mention shortly) but we’re determined it’ll be a fabulous occasion, done OUR way, and something we’ll enjoy working on together.

The other thing that my 40th birthday (and, to some extent, the 10th anniversary of the Wonderspouse and I getting together) has done, is finally enable me to put aside any thoughts of parenthood. Yes, there are all sorts of tales of people having children later in life, but since I have failed to conceive all through my 30s, it is now extremely unlikely that we shall ever be parents – so unlikely that I have now accepted that that won’t be our lot in life. Five years ago, this seemed like the end of the world, but now I’m used to the idea that we are the end of the family line. The Wonderspouse and I will be together “until death us do part” I’m certain, but we shall not have children (nor nieces or nephews) and will spend our life together doing other things and having other interests.

Along with assuming that I would work in a full-time job and achieve financial stability, I had also always assumed I would have children – but now another expectation that I held throughout my early life is gone, along with going to work in a suit, and living in a house that I owned. As well as this acceptance (and maybe also to do with the 40th birthday) the bitterness I felt for many years about my incomplete doctorate and my previous failed careers has evaporated. I’ve learnt, somehow, that academic qualifications, which seemed, for many years, to be the be-all and end-all, are actually just a tiny part of life, and that finding something enjoyable and fulfilling to do has much more to do with interacting with people and being able to offer them something they need, than it has with raw brain power.

By this stage, life was looking pretty rosy. The Wonderspouse had a new job that he was really enjoying, and was starting to bounce back after the workload of his old job and looking after an ill me for over 2 years. I was getting fitter, enjoying my rats and swimming, my benefits were all sorted out again, and I had a career plan lined up that was all starting to fall into place. I had also started practising my viola again seriously and played the Telemann concerto better than I’d done before at a concert in Wales, and my maths degree, which I’d abandoned a couple of years earlier, was back on track. I was also doing voluntary work – helping out one of the mental health charities that had helped me by playing the keyboard for their music workshops, and teaching adults who had no experience to use computers in a local library jobclub.

Then came one of the more difficult parts of the year. The Wonderspouse’s Mum had been to the doctor’s and there was talk of “a shadow” on one of her lungs. There were more tests, lots of worry, and she was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer and Hodgkin’s disease. Party planning went on hold as we spent more and more time driving down to visit my in-laws in order to try to help them through an autumn of chemo and radiotherapy that finished shortly before Christmas.

However, unlikely as it may seem, even this illness HAS had a positive side (not that I wouldn’t have preferred it not to have happened, of course). But we’ve become closer to the Wonderspouse’s parents than ever before, and have been exchanging regular letters and phone calls with them in order to keep up with how they are and to update them on what we’ve been doing. We have all valued each other much more – they’ve accepted our help, and we’ve been able to show them how much we care about them. It’s also meant that we’ve spent much more time with them and realised how much we all have in common – so much, in fact, that the Wonderspouse has said to me on many occasions “You’ve inherited that from my mother”!!! He has an interesting take on genetics!

The other big feature of the autumn was a completely positive one. My plans for a new career were put into action. I got a place on a CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teaching to Adults) course at a local college just as my time with my “employment specialist” was coming to an end. The course was “part time”, although turned out to be very intensive. Luckily, it got off to a very good start owing to plenty of preparation (practice journeys into college and so on) and a spell of beautiful weather in the first few weeks of the course!

The course suited me very well, and, apart from a couple of short episodes of ordinary physical illness, I remained well throughout. I walked around half of the 3.5 mile trips from where I parked the car at my friend Scharwenka’s house, to college, which helped me to keep fit, and, more surprisingly, I started to use the local buses on my journeys. I haven’t travelled by bus for years, after a series of debilitating panic attacks on public transport, but, it seems that I’m once again well enough to use buses for short journeys! I also saw Scharwenka more often, which was good, and spent time in town, out in the world, rather than sitting on the sofa at home.

At the start of the course too, I finally took the Open University Maths exam that I’d delayed three times through illness in the past. Once again, my degree was moving forward – I didn’t cover myself in large amounts of glory with the result, but I passed comfortably, and was delighted to have finally got things underway again!

Fortunately, just as I was beginning to get tired, college stopped for a half-term break, and I had a chance to catch up. I acquired Laura, the hyperactive hamstress, during the break, and Robbie the Roborovski shortly afterwards. I also did something else that I’d been determined to do for my 40th birthday.

People seem either to love tattoos or to hate them. I love them. I’ve wanted to have one for years, and decided that it was time to get one. Those who argue against them seem to say “You’ll regret it when you’re older” rather a lot. At the age of 40 I decided that I was probably old enough to have made up my mind, so, after finding a good studio on the recommendation of a friend, I went to get inked! I now have a 4 inch long picture of my viola tattooed on my right upper arm. I love it. It IS real (I’m asked “Is it real” by quite a lot of people) and permanent. It’s exactly what I wanted, exactly where I wanted it, and is a beautiful piece of artwork by a very talented artist. It didn’t hurt anywhere near as much as I expected it to, and it healed well, in a relatively short period of time.

I don’t think it’ll be the last tattoo I get. Far from regretting it, I love it every time I see it!

After the half term break I returned to college, and spent the next few weeks working really really hard on my CELTA course. I discovered that I did actually have an aptitude for teaching after all, and when I could do it in an environment that didn’t mean arguing with teenagers about whether they wore ties or not, it was much more enjoyable. I’d always found enforcing such things as uniform regulations tricky as a school teacher, especially as I, personally, don’t care at all what kids are wear to school, just whether they work hard, learn stuff, and behave politely while they’re there.

My work at college was made much easier by the arrival of a new pair of specs. Being grown-up enough to take charge of my life has been accompanied by a change in my eyesight – 2011 will also go down in the annals as the year that I started wearing bifocals. And, as is my way, I was delighted to get them. Suddenly, copying from the whiteboard became a whole lot easier (particularly for the tops of my ears, which were getting worn out because I was taking my single vision glasses on and off so often), and at home I could now see my dinner in focus, and then look up and see the telly too! Genius!!!

As the end of my college course approached, life got even busier, as I started the first course of my Open University Languages degree. I had planned to wait until I’d finished my Maths BSc before starting my Languages BA, but I knew that changes in university fees structures that will start in 2012 meant that I would be unable to afford to study languages if I waited, so I started studying the two subjects alongside each other. Most of my language study will be in French and Spanish, but since the OU offer a course in beginners’ Welsh, I thought that would be a good place to start! So I did!

Shortly before Christmas, the CELTA course results came through. I was delighted to learn that I’d got an A, the highest grade available, achieved by around 5% of students. I also got 95% for my first Welsh assignment, so 2011 is ending on something of a high, workwise.

Christmas itself was peaceful and spent at home with the Wonderspouse. We saw my family shortly afterwards, and went to visit my in-laws on the Wonderspouse’s 40th birthday – he was delighted to be able to spend it with both parents, and also seemed not to mind having his wife around! And, just to put the icing on the cake of a year that has got better and better as it has progressed, George and Henry, a couple of adorable baby rats moved in yesterday.

So, for the first time in a while, I’m looking back on a year and liking most of what I see. I’ve met wonderful friends this year (including some I first knew online); learnt not to worry about those who have turned out not to be friends after all; moved much of my life back into the real world, talking face to face with real people (even when I’ve found it challenging, for ultimately, life cannot be lived fully in front of a computer); learnt what I can and cannot do career-wise; lost weight; got fitter, and a little bit slimmer (although there’s still a fair way to go, I’ve made a very good start); got bifocals and had high blood pressure (the body is showing a few signs of wear and tear); resumed my Maths degree, started my Languages degree, and done a CELTA course; had my first tattoo; enjoyed our 5 cats, and acquired 2 hamsters and 4 rats; started to plan a fabulous party; had my 40th birthday; and, as I’ve got well again, enjoyed being with the ever fabulous Wonderspouse, who helped me so very much through the more difficult years.

Now that I’ve finished writing this blog post, the rest of the evening will be spent working on my goals for 2012. I don’t do “resolutions”, as they can be broken, and are then over, but I do like to set goals for the things I’d like to achieve in the coming year. I have so many ideas and wishes and things I’d like to do, that sorting them all out into manageable chunks may take some time - I just hope that I can sit here on 31st December 2012 and look back on another successful year!

Happy New Year everyone!

Friday, 30 December 2011

On Living with Rodents

It all began around 12 years ago. At that time, I was working on an Open University degree in psychology, which I started, initially, in an attempt to understand what had made my ex-boyfriend hit me.

I never did understand what my ex had done, and simply decided he was troubled and I was well out of the relationship. Neither did I complete my psychology degree – it all got too much when I ended up studying mental distress just as I was having a breakdown, and then child development just as I was discovering I was infertile. I moved my OU studies to geology, and then, finally to maths and languages, which I’m still working on now.

However, I did do a fascinating course called “Biology, Brain and Behaviour” and went on a fabulous summer school, where we did all sorts of practicals, and there were all sorts of lovely people who were all keen to work with me because I have some capability in maths and was therefore good at analysing the lab results!

One of the practicals we did involved training rats to press a lever to get food. I can’t remember the details of the experiment, although I think it’s one of those famous experiments that every psychology student does at some stage in their training. What I DO remember, however, is that I worked with two lab partners, and we trained 2 rats in different ways. I named the rats Norma and Sue, after my lab partners!

I also remember falling in love with Norma and Sue. They were beautiful, utterly gorgeous, and SO clever. I was astonished by the speed with which they learned what we were teaching them, and entranced by their little paws, their twitching noses and whiskers, and their lovely long tails.

After the course, the tutors told us we could take our rats home. However, at the time I knew that I couldn’t look after them. My landlord prohibited pets in my flat, I was doing a lot of travelling to conferences at the time, and I hadn’t the first clue how to look after a rat (I didn’t even know at that stage that they should be kept in pairs or groups).

But I never forgot them, and never will. Norma and Sue started something that continues to this day, and which has finally, in 2011, led to something wonderful that has become a very big part of my life.

A few years later, when I was married, and on holiday with the Wonderspouse, we wondered into a big pet shop called Pets at Home, which I’d never come across before – my only experience with pet shops had previously been a small shop in town where we got goldfish as children. We’d always had cats at home, but their food came from the supermarket and we’d never needed pet shops for them.

In this Pets at Home, they had a selection of small animals, including rats. The rats had a little sign above them saying “We like to live in groups”, which stuck in my head. I picked up a leaflet about them, and looked hopefully at the Wonderspouse. The Wonderspouse said that there was no way we could get them home (we were staying in a hotel at the time) and that we had cats in any case, so we really couldn’t get rats.

However, I STILL talked about rats, quoting “We like to live in groups” endlessly, and, around 3 years ago, the Wonderspouse (probably hoping to shut me up) eventually said “You can have them when you’re 40”! He was probably also hoping I’d forget, and that once I got to 40 I’d be into something else! It’s not that he doesn’t like rats, it’s just that we have quite a lot of cats and he didn’t want to end up with more animals than we could manage.

But, in 2011, I had my 40th birthday. This was to be the year I finally got rats. I put my rat calendar up on 1st January and posted a picture of the first rat on my photojournal, and I started to buy rat books and to read about rats, learning about them, learning about cages, bedding, and looking at endless pictures of them. I also discovered branches of Pets at Home near us, and went there often, looking at the rats and at all the things you could get for them.

And, finally, on the 8th June 2011, just over a month before my 40th birthday, I went into our nearest Pets at Home, intending to buy a cage and all the bits the rats would need so I could get it all set up and ready in time to get the rats themselves for my birthday! I asked the assistant how I went about getting rats – I didn’t know whether they always had them available or what I had to do to get one – I couldn’t QUITE believe that I would just buy them and walk out of the shop.

The assistant asked me if I’d be interested in rehoming a couple of older rats. I said I would. She asked me if I’d like to meet them. I said I would. She went to “the back” of the shop and came out with a cardboard box which she opened to reveal two of the most beautiful creatures I had ever seen. I know now that these two would probably be referred to as an agouti and a pink-eyed white (or even, perhaps fawn-hooded), but I just called them brown and white. I was told that they had been brought in by someone who had become allergic to them, that they were 18 months old, and that their names were Charlie and Moses.

I said instantly that I’d take them.

They came with their own cage, carry box, and a half-sack of bedding. I bought everything else I was advised to buy (food, spare bedding and so on), and loaded the cage into the car – with them in it!

I still have no idea how they got their names, or what their history was before they came to me. However, they were both in excellent physical condition and had clearly been well looked after, although they were quite shy at first, and I suspect they weren’t handled very much before they came to live with me. I kept the names because I had no reason not to, and, from that day, I started to learn about rats not from books, but from experience.

I discovered very quickly that I didn’t just LIKE rats, but absolutely LOVED them. For some reason, watching them going about their business in their cage, enticing them out to sit on my lap or shoulder, training them to come for treats, stroking them, and taking care of them made me very happy and relaxed. Even cleaning out the cage, which is definitely hard work, is a strange sort of a pleasure because it enables me to give back something to these marvellous little creatures who give me so much happiness.

Throughout the summer, as my life turned a corner in many other ways, my little rat men helped me along. When I was sitting at my desk working, they’d come out of the cage and talk to me. When the weather got very hot, I took them swimming in the bath, worried that they’d overheat. When Charlie sneezed persistently, I worried about him and tried to find out what was wrong – it turned out he was allergic to the bedding he was in, so I changed it, and he got better. Every morning when I came into my study, they’d be waiting for me, and every evening I’d go in after my bath and say goodnight to them. These weren’t mere pets, they were real friends and companions!

I started to get interested in the other small animals around. I had thought that Charlie and Moses were tiny (after all, I’m used to cats, who are much bigger), but then, mid-autumn, I decided to expand the rodent family with a hamster. I learnt about hamsters, and finally came home with Laura, a typical golden coloured Syrian hamstress, who was totally unlike the rats, and bit my fingers until they bled, even sinking her teeth into my thumbnail, which was exceedingly painful. I worked with her day after day after day, and she’s now a tame and delightful little pet (even though I have to surround her cage with wee-proof things because she doesn’t respect boundaries) who hasn’t bitten me for several months and likes to hurtle round inside my jumper!

Then I spotted a lone Roborovski hamster who’d been left by himself at the end of a litter in a branch of Pets at Home. When he was still there a week and a half later I could no longer resist his little tiny pleading face, and so he moved in too, by himself because he’d been alone too long to be part of a group any more. He’s utterly charming, and SO tiny and fast. He weighs only 25 grams, and I had to buy him a special mini hamster wheel because he couldn’t move the ordinary sized one. He loves his mini one though. He’s getting tamer all the time, and will now take small pieces of food from my fingers. He also loves to bathe in sand, making his fur all gorgeous and fluffy!

As the winter started, I started to worry not about keeping my little companions cool, but keeping them warm. Charlie and Moses have plastic hanging beds, known as sputniks, and I’d initially lined them with fabric for comfort, but they’d thrown the linings out. Then, following one cold night, I went into the study the next morning and found they’d dragged an old tea towel all the way to the top of the cage and lined one of their sputniks with it. I understood – it depends upon the season. Lined in winter, unlined in summer. They’re gradually teaching me what they like.

Then, first through someone I met on blipfoto, who introduced me to a rat page on facebook, and then through rat people in general, I heard of some kittens (confusingly for someone who also has cats, baby rats are also called kittens) available from a recent litter. The thought of baby rats was just too tempting to resist, and, just before Christmas, I heard that two were reserved for me (in fact from two different litters – one is from another breeder with whom the first has an arrangement). I have now gone, in less than a year, from wondering how on earth to get any sort of rat at all, and getting a “brown one” and a “white one”, to owning two rats whose parentage and even grandparentage I know. George, who is an Agouti, and Henry, who is a Russian Blue Berkshire, moved in today. They are only 6 weeks old, and absolutely minuscule compared to Charlie and Moses.

So my new challenge for 2012 is to learn about young rats and old rats. Charlie and Moses are now 2 years old and have certainly reached the “pipe and slippers” stage of life whereas George and Henry are really just still babies. I can’t imagine they will be the last rats I get either – I’m now planning cage conversions, and I have a study full of cages and various accessories to go in and with them. I have boxes of rodent food, piles of old tea towels, and a shower cubicle in our ensuite which is used as a storage cupboard for sacks of rat and hamster bedding (we’re both bath people)! Furthermore, a used toilet roll is now a valuable plaything to be chewed, and the daily routine of rinsing water bottles and spot cleaning cages is well-established. I have also learnt that the washing machine filter needs emptying more often when nibbled rat bedding is being washed!

And so I now live with rodents. I really regard myself as a “rat person” rodent wise and although I love my little hamsters too (even though I find their lack of tails very strange), it was the rats who first stole my heart. I get all sorts of negative comments when I talk about rats – mainly, I might add, from people who’ve never actually learnt anything about them or got to know one personally, but I’ve also met some lovely lovely people in the rat community, who share my passion. I’m perpetually fascinated by the way rats behave and the way they interact with both humans and each other, and they’re just so utterly cute that I find them irresistible. 2011 and my 40th birthday will always be associated with my lovely rodent companions and, subject only to constraints of space and resources (I’d never want to take on any animal I couldn’t look after properly for its whole life), I’m certain that Charlie, Moses, George and Henry will be the first of many to come .

Norma and Sue couldn’t possibly have imagined the eventual results of their training sessions and cute noses!

Sunday, 11 September 2011

On Ten Years Ago

There’s a lot of stuff going on today, remembering the events of September 11th 2001. For obvious reasons, nearly everyone over the age of about 16 can remember what they were doing that Tuesday and where they were when they heard about the terrorist attacks in America.

For me, that day ten years ago was the last day I tried to pretend that nothing was wrong. It was the day my “proper” career ended, the day before I had the breakdown which I now refer to as “The Big One”, about which I wrote a short blog post a couple of years ago.

That day I’d gone through my usual morning routine: get up, orange juice, half an hour’s crying in the bath, then eventually drag myself out to the car to go to school – I was head of music in a large comprehensive school in Haringey, North London.

It was a fairly normal school day. I taught a full day, worked a little on the slightly tricky relationship with my second in department (he’d been acting head of department before I joined the school, and I’d got the job he badly wanted), and managed, only just, to hold myself together for another day. I’d had a bit of a wobble when I played a chord wrong on the piano in front of a year 7 class and the tears started rolling down my cheeks, but I’d made it to the end of the day and headed off to the “departmental literacy coordinators’ meeting” after school.

At the end of the meeting, the school’s literacy person said she’d tried to make the meeting fairly short because we’d probably want to get home to see the news. I asked the person sitting next to me what had happened, and was told that there had been a plane crash in America. I was mildly interested, but not much more than that. I’d never been to America (I still haven’t) and I didn’t know anyone likely to be involved in an American plane crash, so I just drove home as usual, ready to collapse in a heap, as I did every evening at that time.

Once home, I put the television on to whatever the rolling news channel was in those days – ironically, I had digital tv back then (by subscription to ON digital) and had more channels than I’ve ever had since – now I’m much less well-off financially than I was and I live in a place where tv reception is very patchy.

Through my teary eyes (I cried almost all the time back then as I was so close to complete meltdown) I watched the coverage of planes crashing, fires burning, buildings collapsing and so on. To be honest, it didn’t really mean much to me – my senses were so skewed by my illness at that stage. I just about grasped that it was some sort of historic event and that I should try to take notice, but I soon lost focus on it all, as I drank more and more, and eventually slipped into unconsciousness until the following morning.

That was the last day I went into school. The next day, as I wrote in my earlier blog post, I couldn’t get out of the car to get to my classroom. I do remember sitting in the waiting room in the doctor’s surgery, listening to two old ladies chatting, hearing phrases such as “it was just like a film” and so on.

So, as the aftermath of the disaster occupied the rest of the world, I started seriously to battle the illness that has now been diagnosed as bipolar disorder. At that stage it was diagnosed as “depression”, and I’d previously been signed off for a few weeks with “anxiety”, but the day after those four planes were hijacked I took my first antidepressant pill, and began the long process of learning about my illness, changing my expectations of life, realizing that my career would not be defined by my brainpower, but by my health, and starting to adapt to my very changed circumstances.

As I hinted at in my previous blog post, things didn’t start to get better straight away, but continued to get worse for a while. The medication I’d been given didn’t work instantly, and, it later transpired, wasn’t really suitable for me anyway. I attempted suicide in the weeks that followed (by drinking a very large amount of alcohol and taking a random assortment of pills – only the fact that I fell asleep thanks to the alcohol prevented me from taking enough pills to do myself lasting harm). I don’t remember the date as my memories from that time are so poor.

But, every year, as the world commemorates the events of “9/11”, I remember that day as the last one of an old life for me. It was the last day I pretended to be “normal” and the last day I managed to earn sufficient money to support myself. As the remains of the twin towers smouldered in a foreign city, the world was thrown into turmoil, and people mourned the dead, I quite simply WANTED to be dead - as I believed I’d come to the end of what I could cope with.

However, ten years later, as I look back on the way the world has altered since the terrorist attacks that day, I’m glad I didn’t succeed in extinguishing my life. I suspect I have something in common with some of those who might have died that day but didn’t (perhaps they were late for work and were not in their offices when the planes hit, or maybe they’d missed their flights and what started as an annoyance turned out to be a blessing – I’ve heard so many such stories); I still count each day of the last ten years as a bonus, as time I might very easily not have had.

It always feels rather strange to me that the two events are so close in time. And also rather odd that even if there had been no terrorist attacks that day, if the twin towers were still standing now, and if the world had never known increased security on aircraft or war in Afghanistan, I would STILL remember exactly where I was that day and what I was doing.

And what is perhaps strangest of all, is that every year, at this time, while people mourn those who died that day and focus on what ended ten years ago, I feel more like celebrating the fact that I’m still here and still rebuilding my life.

So as people talk today of how much the world has changed in the last ten years, I marvel at the fact that I’m still alive and that the last ten years have, despite considerable difficulties, been well worth living.

I’ve heard people say today that they can hardly believe that ten years have passed since the events of September 2001.

Neither can I.

Saturday, 30 July 2011

On An A-Z Of Smiles

Turn on the TV, the radio, or even look at the interwebs, and you’ll see bad news – lots of it. You’ll see people complaining about their lot in life, people pointing out where things are going wrong, and, in some rather tasteless cases, people arguing about whether the death of a young talented musician is more or less tragic than the deaths of a group of young people shot by a gunman – these arguments usually fail to mention the deaths and dreadful conditions being suffered by an unimaginable number of people living on the horn of Africa.

There is also a whole world out there of “misery lit”, tales of awful childhoods, books complaining about how things are “going down the drain” these days, and articles in the newspapers about how society is falling apart and we’re all heading for some kind of apocalypse – be it environmental, economic, or educational!

However, I’m reading a little book on my kindle app at the moment that counteracts all this stuff. It’s called “It Is Just You, Everything’s Not Shit”, and is a rather charming collection of “things” that are just lovely and pleasurable, such as Advent Calendars, Bubble Wrap, and Cancelled Meetings (organized alphabetically, and I’m currently on “D”, hence the selection above)!

It’s true too, life has some grim stuff, granted, but it also has some lovely stuff – although people seem to prefer to focus on the grim – I once heard something on the TV saying that people complain about things they’re NOT happy with 9 times more than they tell someone about something they ARE happy with – it’s no wonder so many people think the world’s going down the drain – they often ignore the things in life that are good and run smoothly. How many times have you heard someone say, at the end of a journey, that they got held up at every red traffic light on their way? Do they also say how wonderful it was when they miss the red lights and go through green for their entire journey? Or, do they simply not notice the green ones as they speed through?

So, I was inspired by this little book to write a short blog post (which is already growing faster than I intended) outlining some of the pleasures of my life, things which make me smile – one for each letter of the alphabet. It’s been a nice exercise to do – sitting thinking of 26 nice things that make me smile. Maybe something others might like to do, just to focus on some of the good things in the world.

I’m not denying there are bad things too, just that it’s nice to focus on the good stuff from time to time – most of it doesn’t make the news, because bad news sells more papers, but there’s loads of good stuff out there if we just bother to notice it!

So, here’s the A-Z. It’s my own, yours will be different, but hope you enjoy it and I make at least one of you smile at least once – if I do, it’ll have been a worthwhile exercise! :-)

A is for Alto Clef – the clef of choice for viola players. It’s lovely having such a beautifully balanced clef, with middle C on the middle line and it also represents my viola, which nearly always makes me smile (except perhaps after practising studies!!!).

B is for Bubble Bath – what’s not to love? I adore a long soak in the bath, with a book, a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and the wonderful aroma of lovely bubbles around me. Not only do I get clean there, I mentally refocus, relax and refresh myself!

C is for Custard – oh how much I love custard. It’s a genetic thing – my brother loves it too. It’s yellow, and sweet, and milky, and comforting and reminds me of childhood and puddings and squabbling about who gets the skin. And it’s just plain ordinary delicious!

D is for Dyeing – I love making things change colour. One of the nice things about going grey is that I can dye my hair purple if I like, and it’s brilliant to buy a cheap pair of boring trousers, pop them into the machine, and see them emerge a bright vibrant colour.

E is for Electricity – how magical is electricity. So many brilliant things work with it – the TV, the MP3 player, the cooker, lights at night, and all those cool things we love. Now I even have a viola that uses it! And how exciting is it to watch lightning?

F is for Felines – bless them, especially Pebbles who is curled up next to me as I type this. They’re so soft, so cuddly, and so cute when they wash their faces. They’re also incredibly beautifully made creatures – their balance, poise and self-reliance is amazing.

G is for Group Theory – one of my favourite bits of pure mathematics. So far in my study it’s had a lot to do with symmetry and patterns and stuff, which is right up my street. Of course, there had to be something mathematical in my list – studying maths is great!

H is for Hammocks – I’ve recently acquired a hammock. It’s just so wonderful to lie there, swinging gently, and even better when the weather is good enough to take the hammock outside and lie in the warm sun with a book and a drink. Pure luxury!

I is for Instruments – it’s not just violas that make me smile. I love all sorts of music and musical instruments, in particular the large brass ones known as flumpophones (tubas, to normal people). Nothing quite like a nice piano or a sexy bass guitar either! Bliss!

J is for Junk – OK, I admit it, I ADORE junk. You know, all the rubbish that other people don’t want. I like to rescue it from its fate on a scrapheap, take it home, clean it and love it, and even renovate it and make it new again. If it can still be used, I’ll use it – one day!

K is for Kiddles – I was called Kiddle before I was married. Kiddle represents family and friends (even though most of them are not called Kiddle). They don’t ALWAYS make me smile, but in general, I’m lucky to have family and friends who can be wonderful.

L is for Lists – nothing more excellent than a neat and organized list, preferably organized into categories, priorities, and nicely bullet pointed! I like to be organized, put things into spreadsheets and so on – it’s very satisfying and pleasurable!

M is for Making Things – model aircraft, clothes, wooden bits and bobs, nice colours on blog sites. I also get huge satisfaction from fixing things that are broken (see J) and I like doing crafty stuff with my hands – knitting and so on. It’s also quite a useful thing to like!

N is for Nail Polish – I have over 100 pots of the stuff, in all colours of the rainbow. It gives me great pleasure to have colourfully painted finger and toe nails, especially when they’re bold or bright colours – somehow it makes life feel like it’s more fun!

O is for Octonauts – a gem of a kids TV programme, just 10 minutes per episode, but utterly delightful. It’s about a group of animal characters (the Octonauts) who live under the sea and help out. It’s also educational – last week they talked of hydrothermal vents!

P is for Pancakes – marvellous foodstuff, of which I never tire. I like them sweet, savoury, and at any time of day – we have them every weekend for breakfast!. They also represent other yummy simple foods I like – fishfingers make me smile too, as do cakes!

Q is for the Queen – I’m not really a “monarchist” but I think the Queen is fab. She’s so good at socialising with absolutely ANYBODY and still works hard well into her 80s! I’m always impressed by the way so many royals do a job they didn’t choose to do!

R is for Rats – anyone who has had ANYTHING to do with me in recent months will know that my two little fellas, Charlie and Moses, give me a huge amount of pleasure. Rats are sometimes misunderstood, but they’re clean, intelligent, and utterly FAB!

S is for Steak – actually, I could do a whole alphabet of food, but a really nice, well-cooked (i.e. blue) fillet steak is hard to beat. That wonderful “melt in the mouth” sensation is just miraculous! Fish steaks are good too, different, but also delicious!

T is for Tea – well, what else! This elixir of life is just brilliant. The Wonderspouse brings me a cup in bed EVERY morning (Earl Grey – my default tea). I like strong builders’ tea, Lapsang in the afternoon, even poncey stuff like Silver Needles! Yummy!

U is for Undressing – I make no secret of the fact I’m not into clothes and I wear as few as poss! I think we made a mistake losing our fur!!! Also, when I get undressed it is usually either for a swim, a bath, or to go to bed, all of which are great pleasures in life!

V is for Vulcan – Avro Vulcan XH558 to be precise! What a great achievement to get this wonderful plane back into the air. A group of dedicated, committed people at Vulcan To The Sky, along with their supporters made this masterpiece of engineering fly again!

W is for Wonderspouse – how could he not make me smile, from the tips of his wild curly hair, to the ends of his long unmanicured toenails, he’s fabulous! Of all the people in the world, I was lucky enough to find the very best one, AND he puts up with me!

X is for Ximenez – well, Pedro Ximenez, the unctuous wonderful sweetest sherry in the world. Actually, I love all sherry, and wine, and gin (with tonic), and beer (especially real ale), and a drop of scotch, or a mojito, and various other beverages! Many make me smile!

Y is for Yoots – which is the pet name we have for our car (derived from his numberplate – he’s a Y-reg). I love driving, and a particularly smooth gear change, or a great line through a corner, or just getting in and going where I want to go can feel SO good!

Z is for Zebra – the ultimate stripey animal. Tigers and tabby cats are also fantastic! I adore striped things – clothes, patterns, and rainbows! Spots and other geometric patterns are good too, but stripes are my favourite – every time I put on stripey socks I smile! :-)

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

On Forty Haven'ts & Haves

In less than two weeks now, I shall have my 40th birthday! I have heard people worry about turning 40, as though it’s some kind of beginning of the end or something, but I’m actually rather excited about it!

This excitement partly comes from my obsession with even numbers, numbers with lots of factors, and particularly multiples of 10. I get to spend a whole year being a nice round number, which will please me greatly!

But it also comes from the fact that there are a couple of things that I’ve promised myself I shall do when I get to 40 (one of which I’ve already done), and from the fact that I now feel that I shall be officially “old enough to make up my own mind” about these things. It feels, to me, like the right age for fresh starts, for ceasing to worry about the stuff of youth, and for taking charge of my life!

I’m also in the rather fortunate position that my health is currently improving rather than declining. I’ve spent much of my 30s rather ill, and I feel that the last couple of years have shown me that if I want to combat this illness, I shall have to keep working hard at it – one of the effects of that hard work is that I’m getting physically fitter, slimmer, and happier and more contented with life than I’ve been for many years!

In the run up to this birthday there has, of course, been a certain amount of “reviewing” my first 40 years on this planet. I was sitting burbling to the Wonderspouse the other night, and it suddenly struck me that I’m going to be 40 and will never have smoked a cigarette (or cigar, pipe, joint etc) or even a single puff of a cigarette!

So I decided to make a list of 40 things I haven’t done! Just for a bit of fun!

And since I like my symmetry, I did one of 40 things I have done!

The lists are in randomish order (really just the order in which they occurred to me) apart from the bottom items on each list.

I have not, as yet, had a tattoo. However, at 40, I may now be old enough not to “regret it when I’m older”, so I plan to have a tattoo later on this year (as long as I’m brave enough – I’m not very good with needles)! I shan’t have it during the summer months though – it will have to wait until the outdoor swimming season is over! Watch this space (or my blipfoto journal) for news sometime in the autumn!

I have, now, owned pet rats. I’ve loved rats for around 15-20 years now, and have hankered after them for ages. In a glib comment a few years ago, the Wonderspouse said I could have them when I was 40! A few weeks ago I was browsing the pet store and came across two wonderful middle-aged-men who needed a new home! Charlie and Moses have been residing in my study since then. I love them so very very much, and I should imagine they’ll get a blog post of their own sometime. You can also see pictures of them on my blipfoto journal (blipfoto.com/violamaths).

So, here are the lists! Enjoy! I’d be interested to hear what surprises you the most about me!

40 THINGS I HAVEN’T DONE

1 Smoked a cigarette
2 Had a filling in a tooth
3 Taken a recreational drug
4 Been arrested
5 Had a driving endorsement
6 Been pregnant
7 Changed a nappy or ever used a disposable nappy
8 Read Lord of the Rings
9 Been divorced
10 Owned a home
11 Owned a dog
12 Owned a tumble drier
13 Been to America
14 Flown in a helicopter
15 Broken a limb
16 Had long fingernails
17 Found my Mother-in-Law difficult
18 Done a bunjee jump
19 Cooked a Christmas dinner
20 Shaved my armpits
21 Played golf
22 Been into a betting shop
23 Been to Bayreuth
24 Worked a year without sick leave
25 Learned to dance
26 Had a same-sex relationship
27 Been to the southern hemisphere
28 Taken a GCSE exam
29 Been a vegetarian
30 Bought a brand new car
31 Had satellite television
32 Had professional makeup done
33 Been able to walk in high-heeled shoes
34 Been on a beach holiday
35 Spent more than £80 on an item of clothing
36 Eaten a tomato
37 Paid off my student loans
38 Stopped studying
39 Taken part in a pub quiz
40 Had a tattoo


40 THINGS I HAVE DONE

1 Attempted suicide
2 Been married
3 Got a first-class honours degree
4 Seen several dead bodies
5 Watched a pet euthanized
6 Been a victim of domestic violence
7 Eaten at the Waterside Inn
8 Been to Russia
9 Kissed the Blarney Stone
10 Been round Christ Church Tom Quad on a motorbike
11 Got locked in a church
12 Met the Queen & Duke of Edinburgh
13 Slept in a 4-poster bed
14 Eaten a cat treat
15 Slept with someone older than my parents
16 Been on school report
17 Flown an aeroplane
18 Been in a plane doing aerobatics
19 Driven at well over 100mph
20 Played gamelan music
21 Played a concerto with an orchestra
22 Had a police escort
23 Been skinny dipping
24 Had a book published
25 Listened to the whole Ring Cycle in one day with scores
26 Been caving, waterskiing, canoeing, abseiling
27 Seen the Aurora Borealis
28 Obtained a theology diploma
29 Preached a sermon
30 Sung "Once in Royal" solo to start a carol service
31 Been stung by a weeverfish
32 Conducted an orchestra
33 Been chair of the trustees of a registered charity
34 Got totally undressed outside in December
35 Thrown my mandolin at my teacher
36 Been mugged and also had my handbag stolen
37 Eaten a poached egg covered in sugar
38 Read A Brief History Of Time
39 Won a tray of meat in a pub raffle
40 Owned pet rats

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

On Being A Nothing

I should have started my new job today. Should have been working, properly, full-time, earning real money, and defining my place in the world. Instead, I’m at home. So far I have slept, spoken to my Mother on the phone and established that I am causing a lot of worry (and probably caused even more by being too outspoken), eaten the cut-price Easter egg I bought yesterday, and nearly fallen asleep a couple of times. I’ve also failed to get my accounts done yet, but will make a really big effort when I’ve finished this blog post.

The eventual answer to the question posed at the end of the last blog post about what I was going to about the school job is that I resigned – completely. After much discussion and consideration, it seemed to be the only sensible course of action – to get better properly and then to make a fresh start.

So, what is this “nothing” about?

Well, you know how, at the beginning of TV quiz shows, they go round all the contestants and each contestant says “Hello, my name is BlowBroth and I’m a SuchAndSuch from WhateverPlace”? Yes? Well, I’m struggling a bit with the “SuchAndSuch” part of that sentence.

This is not to say that I’m going to appear on a TV quiz show – I’m not, mainly because I’m terrible at quizzes and would surely lose on the first round – probably because I didn’t know something about football or films or literature or something. However, I am struggling with the concept of what I actually AM.

Maybe it would be best to start with what I’m NOT. I’m not, as I thought I would be, a maths teacher, since I was unable to take up the job owing to ill health, and even though I remain in possession of a PGCE and QTS (Qualified Teacher Status), I can hardly define myself as a teacher, since I’m not actually doing the job at the moment.

So, if I’m not working, am I a housewife? If you saw the state of our house then you’d definitely say not. Furthermore, I do not have my husband’s dinner on the table when he gets home from work – he’s much more competent in the kitchen than I am and it is he who cooks the dinner each night.

Owing to some accident of biology, neither am I (nor shall I ever be I suspect) a mother. Admittedly, I take some part in the care of our cats, but, like with the food, the Wonderspouse does the main share of the work there too.

So am I a “lady of leisure”? Well, again, not really. There isn’t any way in which I fulfill the requirements of “ladyship” and leisure doesn’t accurately reflect my life either – I’m always trying to do something or other, whether it’s washing cat pee off my travel bag, or doing the laundry, or doing my accounts or playing the viola or studying maths or going to numerous medical appointments or buying groceries or whatever. It’s not work, but a lot of it isn’t exactly “leisure” either.

Neither am I a “lady who lunches” on similar principles, and also on the principle that my life is often too chaotic to include lunch. I go round to my friend Scharwenka’s from time to time, but there isn’t anything ladyfish about it – we’re more likely to behave like a couple of small boys than anything else!

So, I play the viola, but I can’t really call myself a “viola player” as a career option, since I don’t get paid to play. I often wonder what would have happened if I’d been less academically inclined and hadn’t followed the academic music path, if I’d ONLY been able to play the viola. I suspect life would have been much much better and I still long to play really, but there are so many younger, better and more confident than me that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to make a living doing it.

And I study maths, but the phrase “maths student” doesn’t adequately describe me either. Yes, I still have a Led Zeppelin poster affixed to the landlord’s magnolia wall with blu-tac, yes I still eat Ambrosia custard out of the tin and call it a “meal”, but I’m not really a “student” in the traditional sense – partly because my course is only part-time, and partly because I’m a bit long in the tooth for real studentism.

Perversely, the greatest amount of money I have so far earned this year has been the royalty payment from a book I co-authored last year, although I have never called myself a writer. And if I DO decide to call myself a writer then surely I’d better spend my days actually WRITING something?

So, we come to various phrases such as “self-employed” and “portfolio career”. The self-employed thing may be the way my future is headed, but, as yet, I’m NOT self-employed since I’m not earning anything from doing anything myself. And I can hardly say I have a portfolio career when my portfolio is empty!

And after considering all these options, I can only come to the conclusion that none of them applies.

I am reminded of a scene in one of those arty foreign subtitled films that the Wonderspouse likes. A terribly stylish Frenchwoman goes to rent a flat and is asked “what she does” by the estate agent. Her response is “nothing”! Just “nothing”, simple as that. When I watched it I thought it was deeply cool, and I’m still trying to practise saying it myself. However, she is a slim, cool, stylish Frenchwoman of independent means. I’m a stout, uncool Englishwoman who is scraping by on benefits at the moment and “nothing” sounds lazy rather than cool when I say it!

Maybe I need to work on my delivery or timing or something?

And, in the meantime, I’m grateful I’m not scheduled to appear on a quiz show, because I don’t actually know what I am. This situation has also driven me to think anew about the way that society pigeonholes people according to what they do for a living. For years I’ve been telling people I’m an admin clerk and watched them move on to talk to someone else, someone who may be a “viola player” or a “maths student” or something more interesting than any of those. I’ve grown accustomed to saying “Well, I stuff envelopes for money during the day but what I’m REALLY doing is…”.

And now, when I try to work out where I fit in to society I draw a complete blank. I know of some people who make up their jobs, who say they are something they are not in order to deal with this situation. I can’t bring myself to do that, so I’m stuck. I also believe that we SHOULDN’T be judged by the job we do, but we are – it’s one of the first things people we meet ask us.

So I’m now searching for something to do (or at least trying to get better enough to start searching again) and I realize that yes, I DO need the money rather badly, but I also need something in order to define myself and let those casual enquirers know where I fit in to society.

Of course, that’s probably the nub of the whole problem – I DON’T fit into society very well. So, I end up coming to the conclusion that, as far as society defines “I’m a SuchAndSuch” I’m not actually anything at all!

Hence: I’m a nothing! Not in that I don’t exist (I just pinched my arm and it hurt, which would suggest that I DO exist – in the colloquial way anyway, although I’m certain I could find a philosopher to argue the converse) but in that I am not an anything. Not at the moment anyway.

Again, I’m going to end a blog post with more questions than answers. My mind is misbehaving at the moment – it sometimes feels like it’s made of jumping beans that won’t keep still, and it sometimes feels as though somebody has opened up the top of my head, put in a big spoon, and stirred the whole lot up.

The result is confusion, and, it seems, a complete inability to define myself!

Sunday, 10 April 2011

On Not Managing It

Well, dear blog readers, I had gone. And now I’m back. Why? What has happened? And where do I go from here? And, furthermore, how long will it take me to write this blog post, since my brain is already refusing to play along and I’m only on the first paragraph?

So, why AM I back, and why have I reopened this blog, which I had closed down in preparation for my return to schoolteaching? What HAS happened?

As you may have guessed from the title of this post, things didn’t go exactly as planned with my return to work. And, as you may also have surmised from the reopening of this blog, I’m not currently in the world of the classroom.

Things started well enough. I’d done as much preparation as I could – spent days at home working as hard as possible, stretching myself, getting up early, giving up on the afternoon snooze that I knew I wouldn’t be able to have when I went back to work, trying to get the housework, the internet stuff, my maths degree, and so on up to date so I wouldn’t have to worry about them for the first week or so I was in school. I’d spent my last lot of benefits on buying respectable clothes to wear to work (the school has a fairly strict dress code) and had even been into school to try to get hold of the resources I would need when I started back to work properly.

However, as we have learnt before, preparation alone is often not enough. The Wonderspouse reminded me of the time we tried to do the Yorkshire 3-Peaks Challenge. We’d walked every weekend for months beforehand. We’d climbed really quite steep hills, we’d made sure our boots were comfortable, we’d gradually increased the distance we walked, and we felt like we’d done everything possible to ensure that we’d be able to do the walk. But, when the time came to do the walk, we failed. Despite all the training we’d done, we simply weren’t fit enough – we were much fitter than we had been, but nowhere near fit enough for the challenge. Furthermore, I’d had terrible anxiety problems for about a week beforehand and was stressed up to my ears by the time the day itself arrived. Added to this, the weather was TERRIBLE, and we were walking with some members of my family who were much fitter than us – as they strode off into the distance while we struggled, we felt more and more hopeless as we realized that the challenge was simply way beyond our capabilities, preparation or no preparation.

And something similar happened when I went back to work 3 weeks ago. Despite all the preparation I’d done, and despite being very very well compared to how I was throughout 2009 and 2010, when I then tried to work, full-time, alongside non-disabled people who were fit, young and strong, I couldn’t do it.

The Wonderspouse and I call this the “mobile to toilet” effect. Shortly after we were married he spent several days in hospital suffering with pleurisy. He was the only patient on his ward who was “mobile to toilet”, and therefore thought he was really rather well when they discharged him. Consequently, he got off his sofa at home and tried to walk normally to the kitchen to collect something – I had to pick him up from where he’d collapsed on the kitchen floor. How well one is depends rather strongly on who one compares oneself with.

So, as soon as I tried to integrate myself into the fully-able world, I realized that I was not as well as I thought I was. Yes, of course schoolteaching was going to be hard work – and the sort of schools that I have worked in (always inner-city, with deprived kids, and “challenges”) are particularly hard work. I expected to be sworn at, to have abuse, and to need to engage the kids and learn their names and so on before I could make real progress with them. I expected learning the new technologies that have entered teaching since I was last in the classroom to present further challenges to me and I expected to feel somewhat out of my depth for a while. I also expected to be tired and to be unable to do anything much out of school time for the first few weeks.

Ironically, although the school was rough in many ways, and there were things that I found tricky to deal with (the idea of playing “getting to know you” games with the students is rather grim for me – it’s simply not the way I work and I couldn’t hope to do it with anything like enough enthusiasm as I’m not THAT good an actress), I actually really enjoyed the work that I did manage to do (I even started to get my year 9 class on side and taught them a really good lesson) but what REALLY floored me was the exhaustion.

First, there was simple physical exhaustion. The school does not have teacher desks or chairs. Teachers are expected to work standing up and to circulate round the classroom, engaging with the pupils. Consequently, I was standing up nearly all day. When I got home on the first evening my legs, feet and back HURT. A LOT. By the time of the second evening I could hardly walk or stand up. The Wonderspouse and I had tickets to go and see Elbow, which we had to throw in the bin as I was simply too exhausted to go. Furthermore, just the distances I was walking around the school all day were bigger than anything I’d been doing on a long-term basis for several years. I simply wasn’t physically fit enough – even though, as with the 3-Peaks Challenge, I was much fitter than I had been previously.

Secondly I was away from home for hours at a time. In order to take my medication, have breakfast an hour later (as is necessary), then drive the distance to work and get there at a reasonable time, we had to set the alarm for 5.15 am. In order for me to get the amount of sleep on which my body functions best I would have had to go to bed before supper each work night! I thought I’d get used to living with less sleep and I tried to work through it, but by Wednesday morning I was already exhausted and in tears on the way to work in the car, already desperate for some sleep.

Thirdly, I didn’t have enough time on my own. In a Garbo-esque way “I vont to be alone”! In fact, I do need quite a lot of time on my own. One of the reasons the Wonderspouse and I work well as a couple is that we give each other a lot of space and don’t put great demands on each other. When I am with other people I am ALWAYS, to some extent, acting. I’m not a natural “people person” and the acting I have to do to fit into the social world is, for me, utterly exhausting. Not having the time to take off my “public persona” and just relax was more of a strain than I anticipated it would be.

However, I’m no quitter. I didn’t want to back out as soon as things got tough, and I’d undertaken to work for the last 3 weeks of term before the Easter holidays. So I negotiated a couple of days when I wouldn’t be in for the 2 weeks leading up to the holidays and finished the week that I’d already started. When I felt tired, I just used willpower to get me through. I went to work, ate supper, slept, got up, and went to work again.

Towards the end of the week, things started to unravel though. I realized that there was no way I was going to be able to do this job in the 24 hours that there are in the day. I was on a light timetable, without duties, and without a tutor group, yet I STILL couldn’t manage to write a lesson plan or do adequate preparation. It didn’t help that, for example, it took me 20 minutes to work out how to get the SMART board working, or that I was using a SIMS system for taking registers and consistently pressed the wrong buttons (the challenges of the new technologies) and that I was finding it difficult to concentrate on new systems while also having to cope with the pains in my legs caused by standing up all day. Furthermore, since I’d started earlier than originally scheduled, I didn’t even have a key to get into the classroom until 10 minutes before my first lesson. I didn’t have class lists until my computer was properly set up half way through the first afternoon, and I didn’t get a board pen until around the same time. Coping with all this while wearing uncomfortable clothes, dealing with unruly teenagers, and getting more and more tired as the week went on just became impossible. When I wasn’t actually teaching a lesson I sat in the empty classroom staring at the wall trying to get my head together – although, as was pointed out to me, we were not supposed to sit in classrooms during our non-contact time – we were supposed to be working out in the corridor and keeping an eye on kids who might not be where there should be.

Since I couldn’t do adequate preparation within the school day, my only option would be to do it at home. However, once home I was hardly even capable of eating I was so exhausted. My Mum wondered whether I could “drop everything else” to manage to do the job. I already had. I didn’t even eat properly, drink enough water, or wash any clothes, let alone do accounts, buy food, take exercise, or do anything like playing my viola or doing any of the other things that usually characterize my life.

And it was only going to get worse. Once I was fully installed with duty (which would take up breaks and lunchtimes) and had a tutor group and a full timetable, I’d need to do even more.

I survived the Saturday after my full week (possibly buoyed up by Oxford’s triumph in the Boat Race) then, on Sunday morning, I went into meltdown. The “recovered” me, that had been around for all of January and February this year had gone, and my head started to go wrong again. The Wonderspouse had to e-mail school to tell them I wouldn’t be in on the Monday morning.

And so it has been left. I am due to start on contract with the school just after Easter. They arranged for me to go in for a meeting last week, but I wasn’t well enough to go in. I don’t know what is going to happen. I received a “health questionnaire” through the post a couple of days ago – I suspect they’ll send me for some sort of medical once I return it (I seem to have to fill in something on almost every page) and possibly they’ll rescind the job offer on the basis of me failing the medical. This seems likely on the showing of the last few weeks. I COULD see whether I could negotiate with them to work part-time – I could probably manage one, or at most two, days per week. However, with maths it’s difficult – each group has 4 maths lessons per week, spread throughout the week – someone who can only appear from time to time isn’t that much use from a “consistency” point of view. And, in any case, being part of a team where everyone else is full-time and where doing the job really means doing the “whole job” may not actually work very well.

So, I now need to get well enough to sort all this chaos out, since I’m now back where I was around last November health-wise. I’m meeting with an advisor at the Mental Health Centre this coming week – since I’m a good girl I came off benefits the day before I started work. I still haven’t been paid for that work, and have therefore had no income for 3 weeks now. I don’t have a GP appointment to get any sort of Medical Certificate until the week after because there weren’t any appointments. It’s all rather a mess.

In the middle of all this I’m trying to get myself well again – really I need another 3 months of rest, home, exercise and so on. I’ve dug out my “relapse prevention plan” from my psychiatrist and CPN. It tells me that I should eat and drink properly, play music regularly, take exercise, get plenty of rest etc etc etc. These are all things I can’t do when I’m working – I simply don’t have that much energy. I’m JUST about beginning to be able to think about these things now (and, in fact, one reason I’m writing this blog post is to try to get my head straight about it all as well as trying to get everyone up to date about what has actually happened).

And I’m also faced with a dilemma. Do I TRY to get back to school somehow – part-time, graded return, workplace adjustments (the DDA says I can ask for them) and so on, or do I walk away and try to find something else to do? A bit of me wants to try to make a success of the school job, a job I could do relatively easily if it weren’t for my bonkersness (or mental health disability as the powers-that-be would say).

Or should I leave that job (on grounds of ill health), spend a few months trying to get my strength back, and try for another teaching job? It is, after all, the best paid work I could get, and I have HUGE debts that are causing stress from another direction. People have suggested that independent schools might be easier, although I’m not really suited to independent schools – the confidence the students has scares me a bit, I have an accent that marks me out as a state sector product, and when I’ve applied for independent sector jobs in the past I’ve never been successful.

Or should I give up on teaching and do something else completely. Maybe private tuition, or some other work. It’s not easy to know what – my medics have told me I shouldn’t go back to the “office junior envelope stuffing” jobs because doing such jobs for years has eroded my self-esteem so much. I had JUST about got myself to a position where I felt confident enough to go back to work when I returned to school – that confidence is now gone again and I need to rebuild it.

BUT, my redundancy money from my last job is run out, so I can’t spent the next 3 months recovering to the level I was at before I returned to work or get better enough and regain enough confidence to have another go. I HAVE to do something in the meantime. The situation is bad – my current income doesn’t even cover my debt repayments, let alone food, petrol, council tax, vet bills, or anything else. Fortunately the Wonderspouse’s salary pays the rent and has a bit left over, but there’s still a massive shortfall – when they calculate benefits entitlement they look at income, not expenditure – my massive debts are not part of the equation, even though many of them were generated when I was too ill to work in the past but unaware that I could claim benefits at the time.

The teaching job was meant to solve all these problems, but it turns out I am simply not capable of doing it and maintaining my health. Every time I think about what to do I end up going round in circles. The only way I’ve found so far of not going utterly stark-staring bonkers is simply to stop thinking about it and hope that “something will come up”! When it gets really bad I self-medicate with alcohol (bought from Waitrose, since my John Lewis card is the last remaining source of credit when everything else has run out – wonder whether I can persuade the council tax people to accept it?)!!!

So, dear readers (if there’s anyone still reading at this stage, which I rather doubt) this is how life goes at the moment. For the whole of my childhood it was assumed that I’d get on well in the world because I was bright and had a talent for passing exams. I told my liaison officer last week that I’d always been told that if I was bright (I was), kept my nose clean (I do, pretty much) and worked hard (I certainly do) then I’d be successful in life. Her response was “Yes, but that was before Bipolar Disorder was factored into the equation”.

There is no conclusion to this post at the moment – I’m just going to have to stop writing because it’s already much too long. I can, however, answer the last question I asked at the top of this post – it’s taken about 3 days to write – I started it on Friday morning and it’s now Sunday evening!

If you want a shorter version, then you could always check out the pome I’ve written on the subject – it may be more entertaining than this post too!

Sunday, 20 March 2011

On Where To Find Me

I’m so sorry this is up so much later than intended – an exploding boiler at home, consequent replacement of said boiler, and then associated cleaning of prodigious amounts of dust and muck in the house have rather taken over my life in the last few days. Just what I DIDN’T need the week I start a new full-time job, but then, as one of my favourite sayings goes:

“Sometimes you get what you want, sometimes you get what you need, and sometimes you get what you get.”

And, in any case, I feel mightily lucky at the moment. We started this year with me unemployed, the Wonderspouse about to lose his job owing to his contract being finished and not renewed, and all in the middle of a recession, and things COULD have been pretty scary. However, we BOTH have new jobs – mine is starting NOW, and his starts in a couple of weeks, and we now have hot water and heating again!

Furthermore, when we look at the news from Japan and see zillions of people caught up in earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear explosions, and then blizzards, or we see people all caught up in the middle of people shooting each other all over North Africa and nearby places, then we really do feel monstrously lucky.

So, having felt lucky, here’s to attend to the real business of this post. As I explained in the last post, this blog will be locked this evening, as will my twitter account. However, here’s what’s happening.

Facebook: changed my username to my maiden name. I am still extremely happily married though, and my real name remains as before. I have also set up a facebook account for Viola Maths (facebook.com/ViolaMaths) so internet friends can find me and friend me – feel free to send a request, although the site IS somewhat under construction. I’ll find you from there though!

Twitter: @ViolaMaths will be locked from tonight.

Blipfoto: name has been changed. Commentaries have been hidden for old entries, although they are still available in a locked blog. If you want the URL and password, then e-mail tinyfish11@gmail.com

Pomes: are still available at http://violamaths.posterous.com/ They’re a bit sporadic, but I like them – and they all rhyme!

Ears: will be left up at http://ayearwithmyears.blogspot.com/ although the project is now finished! If you’re into music, you may enjoy browsing it!

ALSO:

My VERY close friend, Jasmine Shaw (known as Jaz to her mates) has just joined the internet. She’s started tweeting as @JazMShaw and has a facebook account at facebook.com/jazmshaw – she hasn’t got many friends yet, since she’s pretty new, but she’s a great lass! She’s also planning a couple of blogs at http://jazmshaw.blogspot.com/ and http://jazmshaw.posterous.com/ which may interest my blog followers – she has a lot of the same ideas about stuff as I do, which is why we’re such good friends!!! Her accounts are all pretty blank at the moment, but I’m gently encouraging her to put finger to keyboard and blog about cool and interesting stuff – she’d be well-chuffed if you followed her!

Anyway, that’s IT from here! I’ll be checking comments and locking down in around 10 hours. I have to go now because breakfast is ready – writing blog posts is fun, but not AS fun as eating pancakes!

Fare well all of you! And thanks SO much for being fab! x

Monday, 14 March 2011

On Returning to Life

OK, so maybe the title is SLIGHTLY misleading – I haven’t actually died and then been brought, Lazarus style, back into the world of the living!

However, the way things are going at the moment, it really does feel like I’ve been in some sort of suspended animation for the last couple of years and I’m actually starting to live again!

Those of you who have been regular readers of this blog since it started will know that I am just a bit bonkers, i.e. I have bipolar disorder, and sometimes this affects my life considerably for long periods of time. During 2009 I became very ill, first with depression, then with a manic episode towards the end of the year, and then, at the start of 2010, cycling back into depression.

There were several consequences from all these extreme mood swings. First, I finally sought proper professional help from a psychiatrist for the first time in several years. I took the medication prescribed, ignoring any side effects for the time being. I listened to my Community Psychiatric Nurse from the Community Mental Health team, and I generally did as I was told.

Secondly, I finally accepted that I would have to give up on things that I’d been fiercely hanging onto in a refusal to admit that I was as ill as I was. I withdrew from all the Open University maths courses I was studying. I stopped trying to read, trying to practice my viola, trying to write blogs and so on. And I gave up my job, finally accepting that my life would have to be funded by the benefits system for a spell, and that I would be unemployed.

Thirdly, I realized that if I was going to re-enter “normal” (for want of a better word) life again, I’d have to work at it. I’d have to exercise to get physically fit enough. I’d have to swallow my pride and allow others to do things for me, I’d have to do things I found terribly frightening and uncomfortable, and I’d have to regain my self-confidence, bit by bit.

And so it was that, after a year of hard hard work, a year in which I razed much of my life to the ground, that I began to emerge, over Christmas 2010, back into something approximating real life.

Exactly how I did it is not really what I’m intending to write about here. What I will say is that it was tough, very tough. I made myself eat properly. I used every ounce of willpower to get off the sofa and go for walks rather than reaching for the chocolate. I got in the car feeling very very sick in order to go to events that I really didn’t want to go to. I made myself keep appointments, even ones which frightened me. I made myself talk to people, look them in the eye. I practiced my viola as often as I could. I started reading again – at first, just “easy” things, and now stuff that’s a bit more challenging. I started to live slightly less on the internet and slightly more in the real world. I took my meds (although I firmly believe that medication is only about one quarter of the treatment of my condition, and facing up to it, listening to those around me, exercising when I can, and using CBT techniques on myself are also very very important parts of the treatment). I did every little exercise set by my therapist, even if it felt really stupid at the time, and I talked about it. Poor Wonderspouse was bored to death, stressed out of his mind etc, but I discovered that healing comes much more quickly if the feelings aren’t bottled up and left to fester. I’m lucky in that I have someone who is prepared to listen and sticks by me whatever happens – that is something very valuable, and has certainly helped no end with my recovery.

And so, in December 2010, while we were marooned in our house in the snow, things started to improve. I’d been to play in a concert in Yorkshire, and had to drive home in bad weather and abandon the car several miles from home owing to snow. Once home, we dug ourselves in for Christmas and the New Year.

As the clock ticked over to 2011 I decided that things WOULD be better this year. I would MAKE them better. I re-read John Bird’s “How to Change Your Life in 7 Steps” (look it up, get a copy, and read it – it’s only £1.99 on Amazon and will only take you one bathtime to read). I learnt that there was no point fretting about things I couldn’t do anything about, I stopped hoping for some magical cure, and I started to rebuild my life, bit by bit.

And so, when I went back to see my psychiatrist in January this year, she declared me well and “discharged” me from the clinic. I took up the offer of a support worker from a mental health charity designed to help people with mental health difficulties get back to work. I got out my CV, and started to think about what I could do.

Around mid-January I started to think about teaching, first of adults, then tutoring privately, then, eventually wondering whether I might go back to teaching classrooms full of teenagers, as I used to, 8 years ago before I opted for a “low-key” career in administration.

The Wonderspouse and I had lots of discussions and I did a lot of thinking. I’d left teaching for a couple of reasons. First, I’d decided it was too stressful and thought that if I got a different sort of job I’d no longer suffer from mental illness. This assumption has proved to be untrue – whatever job I’m doing at the time, it seems that if the mind is going to go wrong, it does. My lunacy is caused by something chemical in my brain, which is then fed by learned behaviours, and is not the result of any particular job or career. Secondly, I thought that I’d be more likely to conceive a child if I was less stressed and I wanted to avoid children because the whole issue of them was so painful at the time. As it turns out, we haven’t been able to have children anyway and that is just the way it is. We’ve grieved for our non-existent children, been to counselling and so on, and generally moved on from that phase of our life.

I did think about returning to teaching a few years ago. However, at that time we travelled a lot. And we travelled cheaply, on budget airlines, at antisocial hours on antisocial days. A teaching career certainly wasn’t compatible with that lifestyle!

But now things have changed again. We no longer travel, partly because the cheap fares offered now come with all sorts of “baggage charges” etc these days, and partly because we now have 5 cats, two of whom are on medication, and it really isn’t feasible to ask a neighbour to take on that sort of responsibility while we’re away.

So, towards the end of January, we came to the conclusion that I would return to the classroom. Not, as before, as a music teacher, but as a maths teacher, since I’ve been doing an Open University maths degree for the last few years.

I started off by buying a Times Educational Supplement, and applying for a Return To Teaching course. I also applied for a teaching job that was advertised in the Times Ed. In the end, after much hoo-ha, I was unsuccessful in my application for the Return To Teaching course (they wouldn’t take someone who was changing subject), but, after a full-day job interview (including teaching a 50 minute maths lesson to a year 9 group), the school offered me the job to start after the Easter holidays!

Since then, I’ve been into the school a couple of times and have been communicating with them by e-mail, and life has started to move even faster. It transpires that they could actually do with a maths teacher starting even earlier, and since I’m not working out notice at another job, have offered me three weeks supply teaching before the Easter holidays. I therefore return to work on Friday of this week (I’m going in for a day to prepare and settle in before taking over classes next Monday).

Of course, and this is really the purpose of my writing this blog post, this will all have quite a big impact on my life. Yes, there will be a big impact on our lives at home – earlier mornings, me driving the Wonderspouse into work, me having holidays limited to school holiday times, fewer gigs, fewer concerts, lots of preparation and marking out of school time, lots and lots of hard work, and so on. I’ve also had to go out and get new clothes, smart ones, suitable for the job I’m going to do, although I shall also be well-rewarded – a full-time teacher’s salary is considerably more than either a part-time admin clerk’s one or the benefits I’ve had for the last few months.

But, there are also implications for my online life. I am the sort of person who is open and “out there”. I’ve never felt a need to hide my mental health problems, neither have I felt any need to hide who I am, what I look like (no matter how stout I am, for example), or where I live, etc. etc. (beyond a reasonable sense of not giving out my address on a public forum then announcing I’m going away for a month – I have no desire to be burgled and try to reduce the risks if I can).

However, things are different now I’m going back to school. I have already changed many things in my online life. I am hiding commentaries from my blipfoto account – although these are available elsewhere online now (or will be soon) and if you get in touch with me via the usual channels, I’m happy to say where. I’ve changed my facebook account to my maiden name and opened a new account in my twitter name so that online friends can find me. I’ve changed my profile pictures and “unlinked” things in various places. And now it’s time to deal with my blog.

Given what information there IS on this blog, I’ve come to the conclusion that I have little choice other than to lock it down. This will therefore be the penultimate post, for the time being, on “On Music, Maths and Moggies”. I shall leave it open for as many people to read this as possible, until Sunday 20th March 2011, which is the day before I actually start teaching again.

I hate having to do this. It’s complete anathema to me to hide things away. I spent my teenage years trying to be something “they” wanted me to be, and eventually learned that life was much easier if I was “myself” and people could take me or leave me as I was – if you hate me because my teeth stick out (they did, rather seriously), or because I wear glasses (I do) or because I’m overweight (quite considerably) or my hair is wrong, or my clothes aren’t fashionable or you don’t like my voice, or I’m mentally ill, or whatever it is, then that is your problem, not mine! I only have one life on this planet, which is short enough, and as I get older, I realize it is WAY too short to spend it playing “let’s pretend”!

However, as a teacher I have responsibilities. I am responsible for keeping myself “fit to teach” – teaching is a hard job at the best of times and I’m going to be working in a “challenging” school. I cannot afford to let the kids have access to anything they can use to get to me if I am going to keep myself sane during the difficult times. I am responsible for the children – my mental health problems are not something they should have to cope with, and neither should their parents be able to find out this sort of thing about the person responsible for educating their children. I am also responsible to the school. The school in question have offered me the job even though they know about my history and even though I’m changing subjects. They have offered to mentor me throughout my early time with them, and will do everything they can to make my career a success – they don’t need to be fighting fallout from something I’ve written on the internet.

So, dear readers, it is with a heavy heart that I shall lock this blog down very soon. I thank you all so much for reading and for all your comments over the last couple of years. This is a “farewell” from this PARTICULAR blog site, for now. I shall leave it available for reopening, possibly in the future, if things should change again.

BUT:

I am not giving up blogging. Far from it in fact. Blipfoto continues to be posted every day (albeit under a new username these days – contact me if you need to know what – friend Viola Maths on facebook if you like – facebook.com/ViolaMaths, or follow @ViolaMaths on twitter (but you’ll have to do that before Sunday too, because I’m locking that account then so I can continue to post links to blipfoto and so on up there, can continue to play freely there if I wish, and because my real name used to be linked to that account and still appears in cached searches etc)).

However, I have also set up a completely new internet identity, separate from ViolaMaths, under a name of my choosing (a name which is not random at all and is very significant to me, but is not directly linked with my own name). I have set up a couple of blog sites under that username and will be blogging from there (assuming I have time!!!). I haven’t quite worked out the whole thing yet (this is a VERY busy time at the moment – the fact that I’m writing this on my laptop while in darkest Wales, just before I rehearse for a concert is testament to that), but I’ll disseminate the information via all the usual channels and will post one, last, short post here at the end of this week (probably Saturday, so it’ll be available for about 24 hours). Maybe I’ll even reblog some of the posts from this site under the new identity or on a password-protected blog so that they’re once again available, and I’ll certainly be sorting out my own blog reading activity and following blogs I follow from here too as well as following various ones I have bookmarked, or favourited on twitter and so on!

As usual, I’ve gone on far too long, and I’m afraid I have no time to edit at the moment (ironically, the busier I am, the longer the blog post – typing stuff out in a “stream of consciousness” style is far quicker than crafting elegantly edited text) so you’ll just have to cope!

Thank you and (almost) goodbye!

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

On Our Beautiful Bean

I can’t actually remember what I was doing on 1st February 1994. If it was a weekend day I was probably getting up late, sitting with a cup of tea in my dressing gown, and then settling down to work on the manuscript of Hans Keller’s book on the Mendelssohn violin concerto, which I was editing at the time. If it was a weekday I probably took the train into London from my flat in Dulwich and spent the day in College – probably at a seminar, almost certainly playing my viola in some sort of workshop, maybe taking the tube up to the Academy for a viola lesson.

I was certainly oblivious to an event taking place in Chicago, USA, which was to have a significant impact on my life, for several years, over a decade later!

A tiny white kitten was born that day. I don’t know the exact circumstances of her birth, or how many were in the litter, or even what her parents were like, but I do know that she was separated from her mother very early and taken to the “animal pound” in Chicago. From there she was adopted by a young academic who was just starting out in a career studying Chinese manuscripts, a career which would take him all over the world. He named the kitten Athena.

Athena and the young academic became inseparable. She travelled all over the USA with him – in a soft “sports bag” type cat carrier in the cabin on internal flights, and she lived, as I believe many cats do in the States, entirely indoors. From Chicago the pair moved first to San Francisco, and then to Maine. I can’t really imagine what her life was like in these days, since I’ve never actually been to America and my entire perception of the place is based on television programmes!

When Athena was 11 years old, the young academic took up a three-year position as a research worker in the Oriental Studies department at Oxford University. Obviously, since she was so loved, Athena came to join him in Oxford. She travelled from the States on a Virgin Atlantic plane and, having had rabies jabs and so on, came into the country via the animal reception centre at Heathrow airport. She had a giant cage for the flight, known as “Sky Kennel”.

However, events then transpired to change her life forever. The young academic had married and his wife had recently given birth to their first child. This child, it turns out, was catastrophically allergic to Athena – just being in the same room as her brought the baby out in hives and caused it breathing difficulties. Having brought her over from the States, the young academic was now in a position where he could no longer keep his beloved cat, now over 11 years old, rather overweight from years of “soft love” and only just avoiding insulin injections as a result of type 2 diabetes.

So, as happens in many academic departments, he sent a circular e-mail round to the whole department. This one was entitled “New home required for old cat”.

At the time, the Wonderspouse and I had been married for just over 3 years, and were going through the agonies of infertility and realizing that we were unable to have children. We already had two cats, and the plan had been to add more humans to the family, but despite many hospital visits and much trying, it was becoming obvious that the human tally of our family was stubbornly stuck at two, so we started thinking that maybe if we couldn’t have a baby, we’d have a couple of kittens instead and lavish all the spare love we had going on them.

However, the circular e-mail that the Wonderspouse read at work one day put paid to the kittens idea. He arrived home from work one evening with a palm-top computer with a picture of a pure white, rather stout old cat, with, rather bewitchingly, one blue eye and one green eye. He explained her situation, and, of course, I said we must take her!

I set about cleaning out our utility room (the only room downstairs in our house with a door – it’s rather open plan here) to try to make it smell of our other two cats as little as possible and to turn it into Athena’s own personal home. Knowing that the young academic didn’t have a car, I offered to go and collect her from Oxford, but he was very keen to see where she would be living so decided to hire a car for the day and bring her to our house himself.

The day she arrived I tried very hard to hide my astonishment at the amount of paraphernalia she had with her. I can honestly say that I’ve NEVER known a cat with so much stuff. She had three carriers – her “normal” one, her soft “sports bag” type one and the giant “sky kennel”. She had bowls, tins of some sort of posh catfood, packets of crunchies, blankets, towels, a scarf, her own litterbox and scratch post, her own brush, and many many toys – including a “Virgin” mouse she’d been given on the flight over, and an old sock which had been turned into a mouse. This last was her favourite thing of all – we called him Mr Black Sock Mouse!

The young academic was absolutely delighted when he saw where she would be living and ever so pleased to see that she had her own room. This would be an essential part of the “introduction” process. Since we already had two cats and Athena had not met another cat since the day she was born we knew we’d have to take things very slowly as far as everybody meeting each other was concerned. Eventually, once she’d settled down in her new quarters, she was handed over to us and the human she’d been with all her life said goodbye to her and drove off, tears in his eyes.

Then began the “getting to know you” process! It wasn’t easy!

In those days the Wonderspouse used to leave his study door open, and, the moment we first opened the utility door to say hello to the new member of the family she made her escape and headed upstairs, straight under his desk. No amount of cajoling or bullying would make her come out – she wasn’t enticed by food, nor was she “persuaded” by a water pistol. She just sat there, swore and hissed at us, and went for us with her claws if we got too close. She then did a large poo under the Wonderspouse’s desk, and, once she emerged and we managed to get her back in the utility (via her catbox), he decided he’d keep his door shut in future.

She was clearly overweight and overfed, and in order to try to get her diabetes under control we embarked on a strict regime of diet and exercise. No more crunchies left for “a volonte” snacking, no more sitting around all day. She got her two regular meals each day, and she and I got into a routine where I’d carry her to the bottom of the stairs up to 20 times a day, then go and sit at the top (at first with the reward of a single cat crunchie, and, as we began to bond, just a cuddle and a lot of fuss). In this way, over many many months, with much hard work, her weight reduced from 6kg to around 4kg, which the vet declared was a healthy weight. We noticed a change in her behaviour – she was livelier and more active. Wonderful.

We did experiment with letting her outside. At first we took her round the garden in our arms, then on a harness, letting her explore. After a week or so we let her out on her own. It was at that point she went missing! And it was winter!!!

Following a sleepless night, we put up posters all round the village – she certainly became well-known. The Wonderspouse worried that he’d have to give up his job – how could he go into work, face her former human and admit that we’d lost her! The next evening we had fish for supper, and spread most of it on the front lawn in the hope of enticing her back.

Then we heard a knock on the door – she’d tried to go to our next-door neighbour’s house. We exchanged phone numbers just in case, so we wouldn’t have to open doors and distract her. Eventually we got the phone call we wanted “the cat is in the house”! I went round with Athena’s box, and there was a joyful homecoming, complete with big meal (she was hungry) and lots of cuddles and purrs! Phew!

And so it was, that the bad-tempered stout cat became a treasured member of the family. A few months later we rehomed another elderly cat, Pebbles, from my cousin, who was moving to New Zealand. They didn’t exactly become “friends”, but were a couple of old ladies together – they both lived indoors too. In fact, when Athena died, Pebbles (@EbblePeb) became very dejected and bereft until Smudge and Dexter arrived shortly afterwards.

Since I was at home when Athena arrived, she and I bonded very strongly. She became very much “my” cat (in as much as any cat “belongs” to any person). She was also my “baby substitute”, and with her white fur, constant “crying” (she was part-Siamese), regular production of furballs and need for attention, she did a pretty good job!

She was very VERY loud in her “calling for attention”, and talked constantly. We had to put up a barricade to stop her getting to our bedroom door because she woke us up at 4 in the morning on such a regular basis. We could hear her yowling from anywhere in the house, and I’m certain the neighbours must have thought we were committing murder, the screaming noises she made when she was picked up.

She was always very nervous about being picked up, no matter how many times we pointed out to her that we had 70 years of cat-holding experience between the two of us. She loved to sit with her front paws wrapped around our shoulders though, which was terribly terribly cute. She also dribbled a bit, even after I had her teeth descaled and sorted out!

She was also very very funny! She loved being brushed and would jump onto “her” chair in the kitchen the minute I picked up the brush. She and Felix used to chase each other up and down the sitting room – him outside on the terrace, her inside, running along by the windows. They could do lap after lap this way – and it was a great way for them both to get exercise.

She also continued to be naughty! One morning we came downstairs and were alarmed to see redness on her neck – closer inspection revealed that she wasn’t actually bleeding, but covered in tomato sauce from last night’s spaghetti bolognaise! Another day we couldn’t work out why her ears had suddenly turned very yellow – jaundice? liver disease? no, just the turmeric from last night’s curry! When you’re pure white you can’t get away with these things!!!

Her other seriously beautiful feature was her eyes. She was an “odd-eyed” white cat – one blue eye that glowed red in the dark, one yellow eye that glowed green in the dark. When we shone a light the length of the darkened sitting room it really was like looking at the side of a motorway! Many people asked if she was deaf, because many white cats are – I discovered that it is those with two blue eyes who are often deaf – Athena’s yellow eye ensured that she could hear!

Like all cats in our house, she acquired a nickname, one connected either to her name or one of her characteristics. She became “The Bean” very early on (from Athena-Beana), and the name stuck. Like all cats the world over she had some crazy habits – she’d “help” with almost anything given the chance, and if she wanted attention would paw at our legs until we took notice – on the occasions we were wearing loose trousers this could result in them being pulled down as she was so forceful. She also ate string, tinsel, ribbon and so on – we had to be careful not to leave any such things around – a lesson we learnt after the first Christmas when she ate the tinsel and then left sparkly furballs all over the house!

We knew she wasn’t young when we took her on, and she was never in great health, but we were very surprised by how she thrived when she came to live with us. Her fur was the softest you can possibly imagine, and the times I snuggled my face between her ears were many and wonderful. I remember saying, which she got to about 15, that I would really miss her when she went, and as she got older we treasured every moment we spent with her.

It became clear in July last year that she wasn’t well. My blipfoto pictures of 16 July, 30 July, 1 August, and, lastly, 5 August, tell the story of her final days, which I won’t retype here because thinking about those days still brings a tear to my eyes.

The day she died I changed my facebook and twitter profile pictures to a picture of her. I haven’t changed them back since. We had a “memorial meal” for her when her ashes arrived from the pet crematorium.

The reason I’m publishing this post today is that this is the first 1 February without her since we had her. A year ago we celebrated her 16th birthday and I blipped her peacefully asleep. She had tuna for her birthday celebrations, which she loved!

I tried to write this post shortly after she died, but couldn’t, as I was too emotional. I’m not sure it’s the most coherent piece of writing even now, but I wanted to remember her, 17 years after she was born. We remember her with great fondness, and keep her ashes by our bed. She had a long and happy life, and I’m so glad we shared so much of it with her!

Happy Birthday Bean – you may be gone, but you’ll never be forgotten.

1 February 1994 – 5 August 2010