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!