Pandemic Pets; How Our Furry Friends Saved Our Sanity

Like everyone else in the country, I sat in a kind of shocked stupor when it was first announced that we would be going into lockdown. I think the biggest shock for most of us was the school closures and onset of home learning. As I write this, England is in another lockdown, though a far less strict one this time around. Mostly, life appears to be going on as normal. Of course by ‘normal’ I mean the ‘new normal’ of social distancing, bubbles, hand sanitising and face mask wearing. Isn’t it weird how quickly we all get used to things like this?

We all live such day-to-day lives now, don’t we? We really can’t plan too far ahead. Especially when it comes to things like weddings, birthdays and Christmas. We all just shrug helplessly and say; ‘we’ll see what happens.’ And that’s a weird and unsettling way to live your life, not being able to plan much, not knowing anything for sure. Young children are good at living like that; they tend to live in the moment, not looking too far ahead. Animals are the same; they have little concept of time or future and so don’t worry about it like we do.

During the first national lockdown, there was a growing and slightly worrying trend of people purchasing ‘lockdown puppies’. For anyone who already had a dog, or had been planning to get one, this was probably a sensible idea, as long as social distancing rules were adhered to etc. But for anyone who bought a puppy on a whim because they were bored, not so good, and I fully expect to see a lot of these lockdown puppies end up in rescue before long.

Having said that, I truly believe that owning pets is massively beneficial to your mental and physical health, and perhaps that was what drove some of this. As well as puppies and kittens, there was also a huge increase in people chicken-keeping for the first time too.

I’ve been an animal lover my entire life. I grew up surrounded by a much loved menagerie of dogs, cats, guinea pigs, gerbils and rabbits and I’m just the same in my adult life. We have dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs and ducks and chickens and until recently pet rats and hamsters too.

Often, I prefer animals to people, or at least I prefer their company and find them generally a lot less stressful to be around. During the first strict lockdown, in the messy middle of home-schooling and juggling work, I found myself turning to my animals even more. I spent as much time as I could outside, and we were so lucky that the majority of the lockdown weather was absolutely glorious. I felt so blessed to be sat in the sun in my large garden, with the cockerel crowing and the ducks quacking.

We were one of the families who got a lockdown puppy, though ours was planned before lockdown happened. In February, a month after I lost my beloved lurcher Skipper, I came across an ad from a lady whose beautiful lurcher was due to have puppies in March. We made contact, spoke on the phone and after she had carefully vetted me, I was put on the list. The day before the puppies were born, we went into lockdown and it became very uncertain as to whether we would get one or not.

As luck would have it, the travel restrictions were lifted just as the pups turned 8 weeks old and we were able to pick our beautiful boy Jesse up mid-May. He certainly entered our lives at the perfect time. We were starting to lag…starting to get on each other’s nerves, starting to get itchy feet. It was getting hard. But having Jesse and integrating him into our family was the perfect distraction and gave us all something positive to focus on. I will always be grateful to him for that. He is now 7 months old and a truly beautiful boy with the sweetest soul. I’ve never had such a loving loyal dog before, he is just adorable in every way, and so smart too!

Jesse at 8 weeks

But even before he arrived, I was so grateful to have my pets in my life. At the start of home schooling me and the kids fell into a routine, where we would start the day with PE, do a few lessons and then take our older lurcher Tinks for a long walk before lunch. We really looked forward to these walks, and it was lovely to have the kids with me and Tinks, when usually they would be at school. We integrated some of our learning into the walks, sometimes had picnics, played in streams, ran down hills and played hide and seek. I’m not sure we would have done all those things daily if we had not had a dog to walk.

Beautiful Tinks

My dogs are my best friends. They are my family. I love them so much I cannot bear being away from them. It’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t have a dog or who doesn’t like dogs…quite what they give you in return for a warm bed, some yummy food and long walks. What we give them is small in comparison. My dogs welcome me home with wagging tails, warm kisses and the absolutely adorable ‘lurcher lean’! They watch me, listen to me, follow me, and love me for me. They don’t expect or demand anything of me, other than the above mentioned food bed and walk! They make me laugh every day with their antics and loopy smiles. They challenge me – to keep going, to get out, to talk to people, to socialise, to train them, to get better, to be better. I would be far, far less without my dogs and I hate to imagine what lockdown would have been like without them.

As for now, as we navigate through another lockdown and balance precariously between old normal and new normal, between hope and fear, between fragile mental health and steely resilience, I turn to them more and more because they are steady, they are sure, they are always there, just being them. Just being dogs. Living in the moment, not worrying about what tomorrow might bring. I hope that anyone who got a lockdown puppy, kitten or flock of chickens is feeling the same right now, because to have pets in your life during tumultuous times is truly a wonderful gift.

Home schooling with chickens in tow

How about you? Did you get a pet during lockdown? How is it working out? If you already had pets, tell me about them and how they have helped you during the pandemic. I’m starting this as a new guest feature so get in touch if you and your furry friends have a story to share. It can be a non-fiction piece or a story or a poem!

Time to Dig Deep

It was predictable but here we go again – heading into another lockdown in England. Like a lot of people I’d been expecting this for some time as the rate of infections has been accelerating since September. I know there are divided opinions on the best approach to tackle the dreaded Corona Virus, but I’d class myself as falling into the ‘I don’t want another lockdown but if it saves lives, okay then,’ camp.

The announcement came on Saturday night and today it will be voted through Parliament with the lockdown starting tomorrow, Thursday. It will not be as strict as last time, (which does make me wonder whether it will even work…) with schools, colleges and universities remaining open and essential shops, as well as DIY and garden centres staying open. The advice is work from home ‘if you can’, which will no doubt mean for a lot of people, life will go on as normal. Which again, makes me question what impact this will have on the spread of the virus…

For me, I once again cannot teach my writing clubs and groups in person. Instead, I am forced back online, and I suppose the only good thing about it this time is that I am better prepared. Last time, I just could not act fast enough to what was happening. I think my brain put me in survival mode and for me that meant looking after my kids and ignoring everything else. As the time wore on I did give in and purchase Zoom and I have been holding regular adult writing groups online in this way. There is no reason why my other groups cannot go online, but unfortunately children seem less keen to do this, and I have not had a good response so far to my proposed Zoom clubs.

The other positive is that having predicted this would happen, I undertook a Copy-Editing and Proofreading course and at the moment I am providing these services for free to a few authors with the agreement that they will write testimonials for my website. Editing and proofreading their work is also a great experience for me. The plan is my CIC Chasing Driftwood Writing Group will soon offer extra services to authors in the form of editing and proofreading. I hope eventually this will bring in some money to help replace what I have lost. In the long-term it gives me an income stream that can be achieved working from home.

A few days ago I felt intensely unsettled and anxious. I’m sure a lot of people did as they waited to hear whether their place of work would have to be shut down this time or not. For me, it is the uncertainty that makes me anxious. As soon as I know what is happening, I feel better and I can deal with it. I felt sad driving home from dropping my youngest at school and gave in to a few tears while alone in the car. His school have asked parents to wear face coverings during drop off and pick up time, and of course everyone has complied instantly and without complaint. But it was sad to see all these faceless parents dropping off their children and I could not kiss my son goodbye properly, which really got to me. I thought about the virus and how it has made so many things miserable and joyless. Shopping, mixing with people, moving about and now even the school run. I had my tears but I am over them now. Today I am sat here feeling thankful and positive.

I’m thankful because the schools have not closed so while that remains the case, I can get tons of work done at home without disruption. I’m thankful because I have a new business partner at last to share the load and really push Chasing Driftwood in the right direction, despite the pandemic! I’m thankful because I live in a beautiful area with glorious walks right on my doorstep. I’m thankful that so far my family and loves ones are all happy, healthy and safe from this virus. I’m thankful for my pets and my kids and my garden and all the ways I have to distract myself if I start to feel down.

Last time around, the weather was beautiful and we threw ourselves into gardening. It was a real family effort, transforming areas of the garden and making the most of what we had. It was a life saver and I know it had a massive effect on my moods. Being a woman of a certain age struggling daily with the mood swings of the perimenopause, the pandemic has been an eye opener with regards to mental health.

I am better when I am busy, and I am even better than that when I am outside getting my hands dirty. I was fascinated watching the wonderful AutumnWatch the other day, where they explained the science behind nature elevating our moods. From being near water, walking among trees and even spotting birds, all aspects of nature release mood enhancing hormones in our brains. In particular there is a microbe (Mycobacterium vaccae) in soil that when inhaled by us increases the levels of serotonin, lifting our mood and helping us to feel relaxed and happy.

I can testify to this, because whenever I spend any time gardening I finish off feeling as high as a kite – no kidding! It makes me feel amazing, it really does.

Last lockdown saw a huge rise in people growing fruit and vegetables, tending their gardens, attracting wildlife and so on. This will be harder as we enter Winter but not impossible. I have set myself a challenge. To help me through this uneasy time of reduced income and increased stress, I aim to spend at least half an hour every day in my garden. There is still plenty to do out there and I will not let the cold or the rain deter me. I need it!

So, my advice to anyone with a bit of dirt near them is to dig deep and keep digging. Gardening is productive, positive and rebellious. It reminds us where we came from and links us to our ancestors and their ways of life. It connects us to nature and to wildlife and elevates our mood, making us feel happy and content, despite the crazy world we live in right now.

We are all feeling on edge as the virus increases again, as we worry about our health and the health of our loved ones, as we isolate from the rest of humanity, cover our faces and keep our distances, as we fear a reduction in income and living standards, as we fear so many things….We got through it last time so we know we can get through it again. Talk to each other, help each other, speak up when you are feeling lost and afraid and dig deep, even deeper this time to find the resilience we are going to need to get through it.

(Image by Goumbik from Pixabay)

‘I’m Alright, I’m OK’ – Mental Health in the year of Covid 19

When someone asks you if you are all right, what is your normal response? Okay, thanks? Good, thanks? Not too bad, how about you? Something like that, I suspect. I usually say ‘I think so’. I started doing this a while back because things were shifting for me and I didn’t know how to answer the simple question. Of course, when people ask if you are okay, they expect a simple answer and they usually expect a yes. It’s not really a question of how you are – it’s a form of greeting. Hi, you all right? Hi, how are you?

We don’t really expect people to be honest. We don’t really want people to tell us the truth. We want a quick, yeah I’m fine, what about you? We don’t want them to tell us that they were just sat in the car crying, or that they haven’t slept properly in ages, or that the scars from the past have not healed and they are really just pretending the whole time.

For some reason, I always say ‘I think so’ and sometimes this makes people laugh, as if they think I am being funny. I’m not – I just don’t know the answer to the question and although I don’t want to burden them with the many ways in which I am really not okay, I also don’t want to grin and bear it and say the predictable, yeah, I’m great thanks, you?

Because the truth is, I don’t know if I am okay. Does anyone? So, I give the honest answer in that moment. I think so.

The other answer would be; ‘I’m trying to be.’ I might use that one next time someone asks me.

In the year of Covid 19, we’ve been asking each other how we are even more than usual and this time, we mean it. We don’t just say it as a greeting. We mean, are you all right? Are you doing okay? And this translates to; have you been furloughed? Have you been made redundant? Have you had the virus? Are you scared for your loved ones? Do you understand the latest government advice? How are you coping?

I expect that more of us are now answering ‘are you okay’ with, ‘I think so’ or ‘just about, yes.’ The thing about ‘okay’ is, it’s not great. It’s not awesome. It’s not bloody wonderful. It’s just…okay. Hanging in there. Surviving. That’s all of us about now, right?

‘Okay’ is also not bloody terrible, awful or about to fall apart. It’s just…okay.

Most days I am okay, I am all right. Some days I am very far from okay or all right. But something struck me today and made me want to write this post.

A few days ago I was very far from okay and it had nothing to do with the virus. It was because my perimenopausal hormones are completely insane. Short story – the next day I was better. The day after that better still. Today – okay. All right.

I went for a walk today with my beloved dogs and instead of walking them down the lane, I walked the other way along the road which flanks my back garden. Through the hedging and trees you can just about glimpse my garden and my life. You can see the washing hanging on the line. You can see the house and it’s windows and roof. You can see the lush, green grass which has grown too long. You can see the trees – the buddleia, the Oak, the sycamore and the apple trees. You can even see the fat round apples hanging on them. And this made me smile. I thought, if I didn’t live there and was just walking past, I would want to live there. And this is not an unusual thought; I think this all the time. I rent my house but I love it. It’s the best place I have ever lived in. I have always been grateful for it and I always smile when I place my hand on the wooden gate when returning home. I love returning home.

My house and garden reminded me again dring lockdown how fortunate we are. We have space to run, to hide and play, to climb trees, make dens, grow food, and keep chickens and ducks. We played The Floor is Lava for PE during home schooling, we had assault courses and obstacle courses. We built an army style survival den at the bottom of the garden and had mini fires there. We went on bug hunts, made mini habitats, built stone cairns, moulded clay faces onto the trees, chalked on the walls and the drive and made many, happy memories. I smiled when I saw my garden and my life from afar and I remembered those days in early lockdown, when everything closed and everyone stayed at home, when everyone was scared but brave, when another way of life was forced upon us.

And we did okay. It wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t always easy. But I was okay. I was all right. And now I seek to remind myself of this every time the dark days consume me. I survived that. I can do it again. ‘All right’ and ‘okay’ are not perfect either but they will do. Feeling okay is good enough sometimes. Maybe these are not the days in which to expect anything more.

Maybe these are the days in which we just survive, one way or another. Day by day, one day at a time. In England, we are undoubtedly approaching a second wave, just as we have been encouraged back to work, school, shops and the pub…Cases are rising again rapidly. We are also about to be forced off a cliff with an increasingly likely no-deal Brexit. We are all facing catastrophic climate change devastation if we don’t change our ways. It’s no wonder most of us are struggling to be more than just ‘okay’.

I’m a fan of the band Mother Mother, and one of my favourite songs is ‘It’s Alright.’ For me, it’s a song about mental health and not feeling too great. The verses are made up of anguished claims that suggest nothing is okay for this person…then the chorus chimes in with the refrain; ‘it’s alright, it’s okay, it’s alright, it’s okay…’ I’ve always found it comforting and I listen to it whenever I need to calm down. At the end of the song, the singer announces; ‘I’m alright, I’m okay, I’m alright, I’m okay…’ almost as if he has listened to the chorus and believed it. It’s just a nice calming song and I am going to constantly remind myself that being ‘okay’ in the year of Covid 19, Brexit and climate chaos is about all I can hope for and in its own way is a bloody miracle.

If you are just about okay, just about all right, you are not alone and all things considered, you are doing well. I don’t think we should be too hard on ourselves or expect anything more.

It’s Alright by Mother Mother – (https://youtu.be/G5-KJgVsoUM)

(Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay)

You Don’t Have To Win At This…Clumsy Survival Will Be Just Fine

In the days leading up to the lockdown, my Facebook feed became full of well-meaning posts about how to survive. The ones I paid closest attention to initially were the home schooling ones. These were, at the time, quite reassuring so I saved them to special folder marked Home Education. But of course, schools have been just brilliant at providing everything we need to keep our children happy and learning. Mix that up with some physical exercise, some art, music and general mucking around and having fun, and I don’t think you can go far wrong.

With home schooling under control, the next thing I turned to was the influx of posts, emails and links urging people to get their businesses online and keep earning. As a self-employed person who suddenly found themselves out of work on 18th March, I started saving these too. I run a writing based business called Chasing Driftwood Writing Group. It started in 2017 but 2020 was shaping up to be my best year yet, with three new writing clubs to add to the three I already had established. Everything was going well.

Instantly I started seeing other self-employed people launching online content. I had no idea how, but surely my classes could continue online in some format? If I wanted to keep earning and keep my business going, I had to do this too, right? I started looking into Zoom and Skype and Microsoft Teams but that was as far as I got…

For so many of us, actually scratch that, for all of us humans on this planet right now, life has changed drastically. If there is one thing we can say it’s that at least we all know how other people feel because we are all experiencing this together. We’re not all in the same boat, obviously. Some of us live in mansions, some of us live in tower blocks. Some of us were already poor and struggling. Some of us never will. Some of us are safe at home while some of us are on the frontline in a variety of keyworker roles. But we are all affected by Covid19, lockdown and social distancing and by the ever present fear of one of our loved ones catching it.

I assumed I would be able to home school and keep working. I assumed I could do what everyone else was doing. I felt the pressure instantly. All these wonderful self-employed people popping up all over the internet, moving their classes online, producing quality content they could charge for, still earning! I was impressed and inspired and thought I could do it. I felt I should. I mean, the schools are closed until further notice. I have no idea when I can get back to running my writing classes!

Last week I had to admit defeat and let people who were waiting know that I won’t be doing anything online any time soon. I felt horrible doing this, like a total failure, but once I’d done it the pressure was off and the relief was immense.

We are all dealing with this differently. I’m an introverted homebody who isn’t really missing the outside world, or shopping, or traffic very much at all. I am generally loving home schooling my 5-year-old and I am spending so much time in the garden, its really having an impact. But this is still getting to me. The anxiety doesn’t really set in until my little one is in bed and then it’s just bizarre. I think everything I try to avoid thinking and feeling in the day hits me all at once.

I am exhausted by the time I get on the laptop. Of course, with the four kids here 24/7 there is no time in the day for my own writing, let alone working on anything business related.

I had every intention of keeping my business going. I wanted to create online content and videos but I just can’t, and I am learning to be okay with that. First I had to admit that as much as I knew I ought to, I just didn’t want to. And there were many reasons for that…exhaustion being one of them, lethargy, anxiety, take your pick. I feel bad about it but then I realised you can only do what you can do. You can only deal with one thing at a time and this is a weird old time. It’s bound to mess with our heads and our hearts.

The thing is in our society we have been led to believe that we can and should ‘do it all’. This is not just felt by women, but perhaps the childcare element often still falls disproportionately on their shoulders… Before lockdown, we were all running around like headless chickens. No time to stop and chat, forever apologising for not seeing friends or relatives enough, driving from here to there and back again, grabbing coffees for fuel, pumping our little metal prisons full of poisonous, expensive gas, pulling our weight, doing our bit, working hard, paying taxes and bills and rents, doing what we were told, being good citizens, breaking our backs and drinking too much wine. Sound familiar?

On top of that we were trying to reduce our carbon footprint, drive less, eat less meat and dairy, get enough exercise and look after our mental health as well as raise happy, confident and adaptable children, all while working at the same time, don’t forget!

Was it too much? I think maybe it was. And now? We are being asked to stay at home and stay safe, yet there on the internet gleams the ever present expectation that we should also be winning at this. Learning new skills, new languages, reading the classics, doing yoga, keeping fit, entertaining and educating the children, making meals from scratch on a reduced budget, training the dog, planting a garden AND getting our business online so we can keep earning!

Just today I scrolled my Facebook feed and felt a wave of guilt at the sight of so many motivational videos and tutorials urging people like me to create online content and sell it. I have read some of these. I have watched some of these videos. And then I have turned it off and gone to find out why my 5 year old is peeing off the side of the trampoline.

I just can’t do it. At least, not yet.

I don’t want to win at this. I just want to survive. Maybe I’m just not that driven by money, maybe I’m just not that ambitious. Maybe I am just really tired.

I want my kids to survive and I want their mental health to survive. I want my garden to survive and my sanity. However clumsy it may be, survival is fine. Winning is not required here.

Maybe you are feeling the pressure in other areas. Home schooling is another can of worms if you let it be. There is so much advice. So many posts and links and articles. So many well-meaning people suggesting this and that. If it stresses you out or makes you feel like a failure, ignore it. You are doing fine. Again, you don’t have to win at this. You won’t get a certificate. You just need to get through this and come out alive. It’s not a competition. Some of us are barely holding it together but we will come out smiling, I swear.

So if you would rather dig your garden than watch a tutorial or webinar on how to build your online business I salute you.

If you would rather lie in the bath and drink wine than join a Zoom coversation, just go right ahead. Guilt free.

If you would rather do Just Dance with a 5 year old than PE Joe, don’t you worry about it. If you want to let your small child play with the hose by themselves until the garden is mud, I’m not going to judge you. And if that same child is offered the x-box as a bribe so that you can sit on the doorstep and enjoy a cup of tea in peace, you’re just human and surviving the best you can.

We won’t all come out of this as winners, and we shouldn’t aim to if that stresses us out in an already stressful situation. Survival is all that is required.