10 Mental Health Tips I Learned from my Cats

When I was living on the other side of the country in my early 20s, far removed from friends and family, my boyfriend gave me a little grey kitten. I named him Eeyore (the kitten, not the boyfriend). The boyfriend only lasted two more years, but Eeyore was a constant for almost 15 years. He traveled across the country with me, from British Columbia to Nova Scotia, and honestly, he never really forgave me for it. 

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Little Eeyore on the Prairie.

Eeyore also traveled with me on my journey to recovery from an eating disorder. Do I sound like a loser if I say Eeyore was my best friend during this time? Well, he was. He was with me in the middle of the night, giving me head butts and chin nibbles when I’d wake up in a panic. He listened to my semi-coherent ramblings as I tried to sort out feelings between (or because of) therapy appointments. He comforted without judgment when I cried or struggled to make myself eat. He was by my side as I eventually grew healthier, married, and had babies. He always looked out for me. One of my clearest memories of being in labour with my daughter is being in the bathtub, working through contractions, while Eeyore sat in the bathroom door, growling protectively and refusing to allow either my husband or the doula into the room. He’d occasionally look over his shoulder at me, making sure I was okay, as if to say, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this.”

I’ve shared my life with a succession of cats since I was eight years old: Boo Boo Kitty, Miss Toby, Eeyore, Oedipuss, Mr. Cuddles, and Scarlett O’Hairy. These days, I share my house with Ivy and Smudge (five-year-old cowcats), and Rory, a very lively five-month-old black kitten. I also have a dog, Pippa (who thinks she’s a cat, because she’s around them all the time) who is sweet and gentle and will be trained to become a therapy dog. Pippa does wonders for my son’s anxiety. When he’s feeling especially low, she’ll cuddle next to him instinctively. When he’s sad, he says hugging her makes him feel better. When he’s lonely, he tells her she’s his best friend. I know she’ll make an amazing therapy dog.

Cats are underrated as therapy animals, though. This is too bad; they’ve been a critical part of my own mental health team (sorry/not sorry to all of my therapists and health professionals who might frown on being lumped in with felines). As I’ve gone through challenges, grown, recovered and had my own career in mental health, I’ve learned these ten key mental health lessons from my cats:

  1.  Nap

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Scarlett O’Hairy sharing her mad napping skills with the next generation.

For much of my life, napping felt like a waste of time. Even when mental distress led to chronic insomnia, I couldn’t nap. It felt like slacking off. So I would just push through, even though I was too exhausted to be productive or enjoy life. It usually made my physical and mental health even worse.

You’ll never see a cat too exhausted to enjoy being a cat. They know how to slow down and listen to their body’s cues. They feel no stigma about napping — it’s a critical part of their lives.  They aren’t missing out. They are recharging, in energy-saving mode, getting ready to play and do their cat stuff and live their best cat lives.

If you are too tired to enjoy being a human, have a nap. Recharge. You need energy to live your best life.

2.  Play exuberantly.

When my cats do wake up, they are a bit bananas. They run as if they’re being chased by demons. They pounce on things only they can see. They spin in circles chasing their own tails. They don’t care at all that I’m sitting and laughing at them. They don’t care if they look foolish, or if what they’re doing makes no sense to anyone else.

Watching my cats chase their tails reminds me of taking an adult ballet class: I stumbled. I wasn’t coordinated. I probably looked foolish to people who might know better. But I kept going, because I liked it.

Cats don’t worry about whether they look silly. You shouldn’t either.

Don’t worry that the things you love aren’t ‘cool’ enough or feel badly because other people look down on your passions. Don’t worry about looking clumsy or falling over now and then. Play is important. Finding things you love to do is a critical part of staying mentally healthy. If it makes you happy, do it, no matter how you look or what others think of the things you like.

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Mr. Cuddles confidently shows off his dance moves.

 

 

3.   There is always time for self-care.

When I became a mother, self-care got pushed way down my to-do list. Waaaay down. I remember once when my kids were toddlers, I cried because I’d been reminding myself to clean my makeup brushes for at least a year. Those makeup brushes mocked me every time I walked into the bathroom; they were a testament to my failure at self-care and a reminder of all the small but important things I used to do for myself but that now, with two small kids, I was sure I had no time to do.

For cats, though, there’s always time for self-care. To a cat, self-care isn’t something extra you add to a to-do list. It IS your to-do list. Watch how much time cats spend grooming. They are either exceeding vain creatures (likely) or just consider taking care of themselves to be their main job. 

Why don’t humans consider taking care of ourselves to be our main job? Why is ‘important’ work something that takes place in an office? Why is it only valuable if we’re paid for it?  We only get one body and one mind. Why don’t we consider caring for them to be the most important thing we can do?

You don’t need to spend as much time grooming as a cat does (unless you’re a Kardashian), but imagine how great you could feel if you made yourself (and the things that make you feel good) a priority.  Taking care of yourself isn’t merely an add-on or something to get to if you have extra time. It’s your most important job.

 

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Even when on duty as office cat, Smudge makes time for self-care.

4.  Claim your space.

Cats aren’t shy about taking what they want. They aren’t shy about letting you know they are there and want attention. Sure, this makes them jerks sometimes. If they want your attention, they’ll sit on your damn laptop, thank you very much. I’ve learned to back up my writing constantly to avoid the dreaded butt-delete.

As a small-sized, introverted woman in a mansplaining and manspreading world, it’s often hard for me to claim my space. I can’t just sit on a laptop to get someone’s attention. But I can be fearless about making my presence felt. I can practice letting people know I’m there, and making sure I’m noticed even when someone is trying to ignore me.

Cats are persistent. They will raise their voices and howl. Women can, too. Persist. Let your needs and your presence be known.

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The bag was impenetrable. Nevertheless, Oedipuss persisted.

 

 

5.  Show affection on your own terms.

Cats are models of consent. Most of us who’ve been scratched know better than to attempt to give a cat a belly rub without permission. The cat will let you know when it’s okay to do that. And when you are permitted a cuddle, you feel honoured. 

Set your boundaries, and don’t be afraid to enforce them.

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A blurry photo of the first time we met Smudge, in 2013…still the only time he’s let us hold him. We respect his boundaries.

6.   Daydream.

Our society values productivity. Busy is the holy grail. But cats know better. Ivy likes to spend long periods of time staring at nothing at all. Frankly, this freaks me out. But she is clearly seeing things that I can’t. Maybe she’s daydreaming. Maybe she’s communicating with the mothership. 

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Ivy did not drink this wine. She likes to have a clear head for her mindfulness practice.

I am a daydreamer by nature, too. I don’t stare at the wall like Ivy, but I’ve learned the value of just sitting with my thoughts. Daydreaming and napping have proven to be a powerful combination for my creativity. The best ideas come to me when I practice mindfulness, or just allow myself to sit quietly and just be. Ideas for writing appear in my head like gifts. Answers to wicked problems become clear.

There is value in doing nothing. From our dreams come our best realities.

7.   Know the healing power of just being present for someone.

I’ve spent a lot of money on therapy over the years. And as a mental health professional myself, I am the first to say if you need professional support, get it. But as a cat lover, I can also say that at some of the lowest moments of my life, it wasn’t talking to another human being that brought me back from the dark. It was a cuddle, a purr,  a lick on the back of the hand. Cats know when you need them. They’ll find you. And because they’re so often guarded with their affection, having a little fur ball curl up next to you when you feel despair is profound. You know they wouldn’t do that unless you were very, very important to them.

They can’t talk, they can’t judge. They won’t mansplain or try to fix things. They’ll simply be with you in your struggle until you’re yourself again. They’ll like you at your lowest, and they’ll like you just the same when you’re at your best. 

They’ll like you even better when you feed them.

 

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When I spent over a week in bed with a bowel obstruction, these guys only left me a few times a day. Best nursing care I had.

8.   Embrace your body, whatever form it takes.

I have struggled with body image throughout my life. I’ve helped others work through their own struggles. At the same time, I’ve had cats of every size and shape, every colour and fur texture. They don’t care how big or small they are. They know they are beautiful.

Cats love their bodies, whether they’re slinky or voluptuous. There is no wrong shape for being a cat.

Why do we think there is a right or wrong shape for being a human?

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Gotten to big to fit into your box? Helpful hint from Scarlett O’Hairy: get a bigger box.

9.   Learn to disconnect.

Working from home as a writer, it’s easy for me to sit for long hours in front of the computer. That’s not very good for my physical or mental health, though. Depending on my frame of mind, spending time on social media might make me feel really bad about myself. Fortunately, my cats let me know when I’ve had enough. Often, they’ll shut down my computer for me. Thanks, cats.

But I take their point. When a cat sits on my laptop, I take it as sign I need to get up and move around and take a break. Somedays, I take an awful lot of breaks.

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Rory’s novel is better than my novel.

10.   Give zero fucks about what others think.

Cats really don’t. That’s why some people don’t like them: unlike dogs, who crave human approval, cats do not care what you think. They will be their exasperating and lovable cat selves, no matter what you think about it. They are authentic.

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Do they look like they care what you think? No, human, they do not.

Now, sometimes, humans do need to care what others think. Being as insouciant as a cat is probably poor advice for getting ahead in life or living in society. But maybe if we cared a bit less about what people think of our choices, and cared a bit more about living a life that feels true to our values and spirit, we’d be happier.

 

Cats know there is no stigma in being a cat. If they felt stigma, they wouldn’t wash their butts in front of important company, or shamelessly get high on catnip and destroy stuff. They wouldn’t fall into the bathtub, struggle out, and indignantly wash their wet fur while you laugh hysterically at them.

Be you. Strive to live as authentically as a cat.

 

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Sent home from school: Who is it helping?

Every time I read an article like this, I again thank my lucky stars that we’ve found an excellent school for Puck – one that understands learning differences, works with the child on social skills and self-advocacy, and supports its teachers to get the training and tools they need to make it an environment where students can do their best. I can’t emphasize enough the difference supported teachers and the right approach can make. It’s been a life-changer for Puck. A life-saver, I think.

According to the above article (which I found via Dr. Brian Goldman on Twitter), Ontario students with special needs are increasingly being asked to stay home. I know from our own experience, and those of friends, that the same is very true here in Nova Scotia.

The article, which cites a study from a special education advocacy group, also notes:

  • 58% of elementary school heads and 48% of high school principals requested a student stay home for at least part of a day;
  • Most principals said they made the request due to safety concerns (does not specify whether they are concerned over safety of students or teacher), although many also said they just don’t have the resources to address students’ needs;
  • Poor attitudes toward students with special needs may also be at play;
  • Ontario has received a $1 billion increase in funding for special education initiatives over the past 10 years. And yet, we’re still hearing stories of kids being excluded, sent home, or treated as a behavioural problem instead of a learning challenge (very often the two go hand in hand).

Safety…and/or Support

The National Post article cites one elementary school principal as saying, “If I have asked a parent to keep a student home it is almost always related to safety (the student runs, hits self/peers/ adults, or vandalizes the space he/she is in).”

Puck’s distress was always focussed inward: he would hit himself when his frustration and anxiety peaked, when learning accommodations that had been agreed to were ignored, or there were changes to his daily routine that he wasn’t prepared for. The school’s policy was to immediately phone me and send Puck home for the day. This was the only response. There was no examination of what happened in the class environment to make his frustration rise; no questioning of how to put accommodations in place to mitigate the chance of it happening again. The focus was really on what the school needed, not what the individual student needed to succeed. That’s not inclusive, at all.

(I do understand that teachers are dealing with so much – big classes, lots of students with challenging needs, students with undiagnosed needs, social issues, underfunding, etc. NONE of this makes a situation that contributes to successful inclusion. I can see how sending a child home might seem like the best option in those circumstances).

Contrast this with his current school, with its focus on kids with learning challenges: when Puck hits himself or his anxiety causes him to shut down, he isn’t immediately sent home. He is given the space to calm down and has the option of going to a ‘Chill Out Room’ where he can calm down, work through his emotions, do other quiet activities, and be supervised by a support teacher. When he is ready, he can return to the classroom. He also has an entire class devoted to learning social skills. managing emotions, and asking for what he needs. Honestly, it’s a miracle of a class, and I wish it was required in every elementary school in the province. (I know a lot of adults who could benefit from it, to be honest.)

Nova Scotia’s Situation

The issues described in the National Post article aren’t unique to Ontario. Nova Scotia’s Commission on Inclusive Education estimated that about a third of the province’s 118,000 public school students need some form of support. There are currently about 27,000 students in Nova Scotia with some kind of adaptation, and about 6,000 on independent programs.

Nova Scotia is in the throes of a major overhaul of its public education system. School boards have been abolished, and a new Education Act was introduced this spring. A report on inclusive education that also came out this spring calls for $70 million to $80 million in new funding over five years to support the changes it recommends, and an increase of 600-700 more staff positions in the education system to ensure students and teachers have the support they need in classrooms.

The National Post article notes that Jacqueline Specht, Director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education at Western University, says that simply increasing special education funding or hiring more staff won’t fix the problems. The bulk of resources need to be directed toward supporting classroom teachers and giving them training and tools to help keep students with learning challenges in class.

Funding a system that has, for decades, inherently treated kids with learning challenges as problems to be fixed (or sent home) will not magically create inclusive education. More funding does not automatically equal better learning or social outcomes for students with special needs.

Is Sending Kids Home Really the Best We Can Do?

So what do we need? I don’t pretend to be an expert. I’m a social worker and journalist by training, not an educator. My expertise comes from lived experience and knowing the devastating impact mental illness and learning challenges can have on the entire family, both at home and at school. But I do know that when things go better at home, they go better at school…and vice versa.

My opinion: in addition to the changes proposed by the Commission, we need a holistic approach to inclusive education.

  • We need an approach that takes into account the determinants of health and their complex interplay that makes each student’s situation unique.

My child is a fairly privileged white, middle-class male in the province’s biggest city, and we have the means and the advocacy skills to get him the help he needs. This is not true for hundreds of other families in this province, no matter what the Education Act says;

  • We need an approach that understands successful inclusive education isn’t just how a child feels in the classroom; it’s about how the family feels supported to continue on this exhausting journey.

One aspect that is so often ignored in this discussion of inclusion is the emotional, financial and professional toll having a child with special needs takes on the family. And let’s be honest: that burden falls most heavily on women. This is a feminist issue.

When Puck started school, I was employed as the Senior Policy Advisor to Nova Scotia’s Minister of Health. I had a Master’s level education, a varied work history, and was a published author. The future’s so bright, I’ve gotta wear shades.

Flash forward to now: I’ve only been able to work part-time over the past couple of years, and that work has been through self-employment, because Puck’s needs are too great. When a school is phoning you every day to take a child home because he is unmanageable or unteachable, you are not going to be able to sustain an executive-level office-based job for very long. Self-employment gave me the flexibility I needed to be there for him, to take him to appointments, to take him to the ER when he was in crisis. But the toll this takes cannot be ignored: my career has suffered, and to be quite honest, I’m not sure where my “career”, as such, actually is now. I lay awake at night worrying about it, because in my late 40s, how do I start over? Our finances have been cut almost in half (and again, I realize we are very fortunate to even have a two-income household).

There is seldom acknowledgment that sending a child home from school repeatedly places a large economic burden on the family…on the mother, usually. In his last year at that school, Puck was only in school 20 days between January and June. He was sent home repeatedly when his anxiety was high and he was ‘unteachable’. Missing so much time meant, of course, that he fell behind and his anxiety became even worse. Eventually, it just didn’t even seem to make sense to send him. By April, he was pretty much home with me full-time.

Contrast that with this year, when he was seldom sent home and his emotional issues were dealt with on-site: his academic progress has been astounding, and he’s now performing above grade level in some subjects. When the emotional health is supported, children thrive.

If only we did the same for all kids. And their parents.

  • We need an approach that addresses stigma.

In his old school, so much of Puck’s interactions with his teachers were based on fear. The teachers didn’t have the tools or training they needed to understand how to help Puck. They didn’t have support. As a result, they treated Puck as a problem. Other students saw this, and also treated him as an outcast. Puck, of course, also picked up on the stigma, and internalized it. It was common for him to say that he was stupid, or bad, or would never be good at school. He might not have heard those words from his teachers, but he felt them in his heart.

(Now, by the way, he tells me he’s good at math, likes art, and is an excellent writer. Stigma-free teaching for the win!)

I’m hopeful that the new Education Act will give teachers more support to help kids with special needs and learning challenges…to actually keep them in school, and not to send them home as a default.

Parents and teachers need support in order to help our kids thrive. Sending them home does no favours to anyone. It may remove an immediate stressor, but it doesn’t improve outcomes. And it certainly doesn’t create inclusion.

 

Updating my Privacy Policy

Here is a science lesson: pearls are formed when an irritant invades an oyster. The oyster probably wishes it could just get rid of the irritant and go about its business. But it can’t. It has to live with it. So it hides the irritant. It excretes a fluid to coat it, glossing it over until the sand or parasite at its core is no longer recognizable. It’s become something else. What was painful to the oyster becomes beautiful and desirable to someone else. (Of course, it’s ultimately stolen from the oyster, so all that hard work of coating and hiding was for nothing.)

Our life stories are pearls. They often start from pain, but we learn at an early age that no one wants to see the pain. So we find ways to cover it, to dress it up and make our pain socially acceptable. We drink. We alter our bodies. We use humour. We work too much. We deny ourselves, our feelings. We lie. We fit in.

There are stories you can tell, and stories that you are supposed to lock up inside you. The ones we lock inside us aren’t pearls, though. We still feel the irritant, the pain. We can see what they really are. All else is fairy tales. 

I’ve been quiet here over the past several months. So many times, I’ve sat in front of my laptop and started typing. Each time, I edited. Coated the irritant. Ultimately, I deleted.

After writing about my experience in politics in my #metoo posts back in February, many people reached out to me. Most were supportive. Many wanted to hear more or to share their own stories.

A few others, though, wanted me to just be quiet.

Sometimes, it only takes a few voices of dissent to silence us. Ninety-seven voices can tell us what we’ve said is relevant and important and helpful. Three voices can tell us we’re stupid and misguided and should just keep our stories to ourselves.

Guess which voices echo loudest in our heads?Read More »

The Island of Misfit Parents

School starts in one more sleep. Puck is excited, for the first time ever.

I am apprehensive.

His new school seems to sense the apprehension parents will feel. It offered a ‘Parent Orientation Night’ a week before school starts, to help ease our fears.

Daisy is almost 14, and Puck is 11. I’m a seasoned veteran of Parent Nights.

For the past six years, I’ve attended the Parent Information Night at Daisy and Puck’s liberal arts private school. They’re social events, held in the cafeteria of the newish, bright and cheerful, purpose-built school. Parents are served wine and beer, cheese and snacks. I usually rush to Parent Nights after work, so the wine and cheese does double duty as social anesthesia and my supper. Perfect.

The parents mingle – some, who socialize with each other regularly, mingle readily. Some Socially Awkward Penguins (like me) fiddle with our wine glasses and hope the actual information part of the meeting begins quickly.

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The past couple of years, as Puck’s behaviour deteriorated, have been increasingly awkward. His classmates’ parents give me wan smiles and drift on past. I am marked as That Mother. The one with the ‘Bad Kid’ who always gets sent home from school. The one their own kids tell them about breathlessly across the supper table.

The school Puck will go to this year isn’t bright and new. It’s a repurposed 1960s-era neighbourhood school, patched up and old-school in every sense. Cloakrooms. Blackboards. Dim, long corridors. On Parent Night, parents shuffled quietly into a gym that smelled of decades’ worth of rubber-soled shoes and floor polish. There were no refreshments, no socializing. I found a seat in the middle of the room, and looked at the families around me.

My discomfort was immediate. Some parents had brought a child with them — perhaps unable to get child care, or perhaps hoping to make the child more comfortable in the new school surroundings. These children were not like the children at Puck’s old school. They looked…different. They were 12-year olds who hid their heads in a parent’s shoulder. They were eight-year olds rocking in their chairs. They were high school students, biting their nails and tapping their feet to diffuse anxiety and energy, oblivious to the room around them.

They made me nervous.Read More »

Mental Health Week (or, “At least you’re not really sick…”)

This blog is still in its infancy, but people are asking me why I’m doing this. Why am I putting my family out on public display, even with thinly-veiled identities? Am I brave, or irresponsible, or in need of therapy?

(Well, ‘yes’ to all of those.)

But really. I can tell you why I’m doing this: stigma. I have spent decades of my life pinned down by the stigma of living with anxiety and of having recovered from an eating disorder. I have felt invisible and fake, and convinced that people wouldn’t like me if they knew who I really was.

Enough of that bullshit. This is who I am. I am not perfect. I am not particularly strong, or brave, or smart. I am flawed but surviving, and I can do that better if I tell the truth about my life. Our society, in general, will do better if we all tell the truth, and smash through the stigma that comes from living with mental illness. Mental illness is isolating enough without having more isolation imposed on you by society’s stigma. I don’t want Puck to feel the isolation I’ve felt. I am committed to working for change.

Things are better than when I was Puck’s age, for sure. Somedays, though, the stigma shows up where it’s least expected.Read More »