Sunday, 23 December 2018

Coping with Christmas and Mental Illness

I’ve always been someone that has loved Christmas. The build up, adverts on TV, lights going up around my town and the day itself spent with loved ones. But for a lot of my life I have also struggled with mental health problems, so I know how difficult Christmas can be when you’re fighting mental illness at the same time. It’s the reason why, this year, I wanted to do a post on my blog with some suggestions for getting through Christmas when you have a mental health problem. Obviously everyone is different, so not all of the advice will suit everybody, but hopefully there will be something here that will help make Christmas that little bit easier. 

These tips and words of advice have come from a number of places – from when I was in hospital and received guidance from my therapists and doctors, to speaking to others going through difficulties, as well as things I have learnt myself along my journey. I’ve decided to split this post into two halves. The first half will contain general suggestions for anyone struggling with a whole range of different mental illnesses, from Depression and Anxiety to Bipolar Disorder or a Personality Disorder. But in the second half, I wanted to focus specifically on helping anyone who is currently fighting an eating disorder. Although some of the points can apply to anyone, I found through being in eating disorder treatment that I picked up specific pieces of advice around managing food and eating disorder behaviours over the Christmas period. There are quite a few points, but I’ve tried to organise them and split them up to make the post as easy to follow as possible.

Coping with Christmas and Mental Illness in general

Try not to compare yourself to others

Like a lot of the advice I’ve picked up, this one is easier said than done! And it’s something that I really try hard not to do the whole year round, not just at Christmas. But especially at Christmas, I can often feel completely overwhelmed and can feel like everyone else is having an amazing time whilst I’m drowning under wrapping paper and budgeting. Social media can be particularly difficult (as much as I love it!) when you’re scrolling through Instagram or Facebook and all these beautiful photos keep popping up of people decorating their homes, wrapping their presents or going on amazing Christmassy trips. It’s easy to think that everyone has got their lives sorted and that everyone else is having the perfect Christmas, but it’s important to reassure yourself that this really isn’t true. 

Yes, they may be posting lovely photos online, but we don’t know what’s going on behind those snapshots. The rest of their house could be a total mess, they may have been up all night just to get their presents wrapped or that Christmas cake made and decorated or they may be stressing out about money. So as hard as it is not to take those posts at face value and feel like a complete failure, I find it so helpful to remind myself that the majority of people will be stressing out about Christmas in one way or another, so I’m definitely not alone!

Plan social activities

I don’t know about you, but when I’m struggling with my mental health, the last thing I want to do is be sociable. I would much rather shut myself away at home and distance myself from the rest of the world. But in the long run, this usually results in me just feeling lower – convincing myself that no one cares and that I’m completely alone in the world. So I think it can be helpful to plan a sensible amount of social activities over the Christmas period so that you’re not isolating yourself and ending up alone with your negative thoughts. Obviously you need to make sure you are planning things that you are going to enjoy, or if you’re not sure you’re going to enjoy them, at least planning things where you know you will feel safe and comfortable. I can’t think of anything worse than going out clubbing until the early hours, so I’m much more likely to plan to meet a friend for a cuppa or to ask someone on a cinema date to see a Christmassy film. But even something as ‘little’ as asking a friend or family member over to watch a DVD will make a difference to your mood, so try and have a think about what you feel you could manage to do over the next few weeks.

But also have some ‘me’ time

As important as it is to make sure you socialise, I also think it is just as vital to allow yourself some time alone. I actually quite enjoy being on my own (as long as it’s not all the time) and as long as it’s planned, I don’t think it’s a negative thing at all. Time alone gives us the opportunity to relax and recharge our batteries, which is much needed at this time of year. So whether you decide to spend an hour or two reading a good book, watching a film on Netflix, having a bubble bath or just catching up on writing your Christmas cards, don’t feel bad about not being out and about 24/7.

Write lists

I’m a big list writer and will happily start my list with a few things I’ve already done, just so I can tick them off and make myself feel a bit better! But especially when Christmas comes round, I think it can be really helpful for our mental health to write things down. At this time of year, I can often just feel like my head is spinning with all the different things I need to get done. It sends my anxiety through the roof and then I usually end up feeling more depressed because I’m so overwhelmed that I just don’t know where to start. But writing all those things whirring round in my head down can really help me to reduce that anxiety – all of a sudden instead of all of these things going round in my head, they are now on a piece of paper and I don’t have to constantly think about them any more. It also really helps me to feel motivated as I begin to tick things off my list because I can look back and see what I’ve achieved. 

Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself

I feel like with this piece of advice, it’s do as a say and not as I do! Because I’m terrible at following this one! As Christmas comes round, we can often feel like there are so many things that we ‘have’ to do. Whether that’s writing Christmas cards for your whole address book, baking festive treats for the school Christmas bake sale or preparing Christmas lunch for the extended family – there are always things that we tell ourselves we must do. But I think it can be helpful to take a bit of a step back and actually look at all the things on our to-do list and ask ourselves if they really need to be done. Or if they need to be done in the way we are currently trying to do them. So, rather than sending Christmas cards to everyone in your address book, why not just send them to those closest to you? Or tell everyone that instead of sending cards this year, you are going to donate to charity instead. Do you really need to bake three different types of treats for the school bake sale? And if you’re hosting Christmas lunch, why not ask your guests to pitch in and bring some of the dishes with them? We tend to end up thinking we need to do 110% and to do it all ourselves, when in reality the pressure we are putting on ourselves is not necessary (believe me, I’m the worst for doing this!) There’s nothing wrong with asking others to help you or for cutting things down. People who love you won’t mind and would much rather you were healthy and happy at Christmas. 

Talk to someone

If you’re feeling worried/stressed/upset or anything else about Christmas, then please make sure you talk to someone about it rather than bottling up all those negative feelings. I know it can sometimes be really difficult to talk to friends and family about your mental health, so if you’re struggling to talk to those around you perhaps look further afield. If you’re having regular therapy, then talk about your worries there – it’s what its there for and you will feel a lot better for getting those stresses off your chest. I often found in therapy, I would bring something up that was really worrying me, and talking about it would help me put it into perspective. By the end of my session that anxiety wouldn’t feel half as bad. If you don’t currently have a therapist, there are also charities that offer helplines. I’m a big fan of Mind and The Samaritans who have both helped me through some really difficult times.

Get some sleep

Getting into a good sleep routine can make the world of different to our mental health, but like so many other things that are good for us, it can be easier said than done! Especially when Christmas comes around, it can be very tempting to stay up late and wrap presents or watch something on TV. But the next morning you end up feeling groggy, lethargic and more anxious or depressed than usual. So, if you can, try to get yourself into a regular bedtime routine to give your body the time it needs to recharge. Whether that’s having a warm bath, reading some of your book with a cup of tea and then snuggling into bed or simply turning off the computer at the same time each night, it’s amazing the difference a routine can make (this is one I am definitely trying to get myself to follow!)

Get outside

This time of year, it is so tempting to just hibernate inside away from the cold, dark and rain. But I know for me, if I spend too much time inside I can start to feel the effect on my mood. I start to feel more down, more lethargic and just generally more frustrated by life. It’s not easy when the weather is rubbish, but even if you just go out in the garden for a few minutes or open your bedroom window to feel the fresh air on your face, it can make a real difference. If I can, I like to try and get out in my wheelchair for a bit of a ‘walk’ – seeing the frosty grass or the leaves changing colour and smelling that bonfire smell just really seems to help lift my mood a bit. And when life is so busy and everyone’s rushing around getting ready for Christmas, getting back to nature and away from the hustle and bustle can really help to calm my anxiety.

Set realistic goals

This is another point that doesn’t just have to apply over Christmas. But especially at this time of year, when you feel like you need to be doing everything, seeing everyone and giving everything, it is really important to be realistic in the goals you are setting yourself. I find goal setting quite helpful for my mental health because it gives me something positive to focus on and a reason to get out of bed in the morning. But there’s no point in setting unrealistic goals that will just leave me feeling like a failure or completely burnt out before Christmas has even arrived. I try to plan what presents I want to get everybody and also roughly how much I am able to spend on each person. It’s very easy to get carried away before you realise how much money you’ve spent, and with money being one of my biggest anxieties over Christmas, setting realistic spending goals just helps reduce that anxiety a bit. I also find it helpful to look at my calendar for the whole of December so I don’t put too much pressure on myself. I look at the things I have to do like hospital appointments, then try and schedule in a few nice social activities, but also make sure I’ve got days when I can just be at home.

Have a plan of escape

Something I learnt while I was in therapy was to have a plan of escape for if things were getting too much for me in social situations. When you’re struggling with your mental health, just going along to social gatherings can be difficult. And I know I often feel like once I’m in that social situation I may not be able to leave, which just ends up sending my anxiety through the roof. So before events now, I will often have a plan in my head of what I will do if things get too overwhelming. This will depend on where I’m going and who I’m with. If I’m with people I’m close to, who really understand my mental health, then I find it a lot easier to just be open with them and let them know that I need to head off because I’m not feeling great. But if I’m with people I don’t know so well, it can be helpful to just have an excuse to leave already planned. For example, saying that you need to head off because you have an early start the next day, or you need to get home to let the dog out – yes, they can be little white lies, but if it means you are actually able to get out and do something in the first place then I think that’s OK. I know I often find that just having that escape plan is enough and that it takes some of the anxiety of going out away so I don’t end up needing to use it.

Limit your alcohol intake and eat sensibly

I know this piece of advice is fairly common sense, but when you’re struggling around Christmas it can be tempting to turn to things that might make it feel easier, like alcohol and food. I’m not saying you need to be a saint – we all deserve to enjoy ourselves and take part in the festivities if we want to. But I know from experience that drinking or eating too much just ends up making me feel worse in the long run. Alcohol is a depressant, so as great as it might make you feel when you’re first drinking it, it’s likely to lower your mood as it begins to wear off. And as much as I love all the treats around Christmas, I also know that stuffing myself full of mince pies, Yule log and Christmas tree chocolates just makes me feel sick and lethargic for days later. I try to live by the saying ‘Everything in moderation,’ and that seems to help me enjoy these things without making myself feel worse.

Learn to say no…but don’t be afraid to say yes

I am very much a ‘yes’ person. If someone asks me to do something, I am more than likely to agree. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you start to put everyone else before yourself all the time, things can start to get too much. As I’ve got older though, I’ve learnt that it’s OK to say no to things! If your calendar is filling up and you just need a bit of quiet time, perhaps suggest meeting up with your friend after Christmas. Or if they invite you to an event that you really feel you can’t manage, why not suggest just meeting up for a cuppa instead. Saying no in the right circumstances can really help you to feel empowered and like you are taking control of your own mental and physical health. 

Although it’s good to say no sometimes, it is also important to say yes too! I know this sounds like a bit of a contradiction, but you don’t want to go from saying yes to everything to saying no to everything. It’s important to find a happy balance. Sometimes, someone might ask me to do something and my gut reaction is to say no. But then I give it some thought, and although it might scare me a bit, I try to push myself out of my comfort zone. Nine times out of ten, I come back having really enjoyed myself, which in turn has a positive effect on my mental health. I guess the moral of the story is – you need to feel like you’re in control of what you’re saying yes and no to, rather than feeling like others are dictating your life.

Look at the bigger picture

This is a technique I use quite a lot and I find it really helps to put things into perspective. When I’m feeling really stressed out about Christmas (or another event) I try to remind myself that it’s only one day. One day out of 365 other days in the year. Looking at it that way, it doesn’t seem quite so daunting, and if I can get through those 24 hours, then I’ve done it! And in a month’s time, will I still be stressing about Christmas? No, it will be a distant memory. Looking at the bigger picture just helps me to reduce my anxiety around them a bit and look at them in relation to everything else that’s going on in my week/month/year.

It’s OK not to feel excited

This final piece of advice is possibly the one I have found most helpful over the years. As Christmas approaches, everywhere we look people are telling us to get excited, look forward to the big day and go a bit crazy. So it can feel quite difficult if those are the last things you feel like doing. But remind yourself that it’s OK if you don’t feel those things – believe me, not everyone does. Give yourself permission to just feel however you are feeling at the time. If you’re worried, then that’s OK. If you’re sad, then you’re allowed to feel that way. Yes, you may not want to, but it’s important to acknowledge and talk about those feelings because they’re there for a reason. And it just takes off the pressure of forcing yourself to be happy when you just aren’t. 

Coping with Christmas and an Eating Disorder

Stick to your meal plan

Generally, if you’re in eating disorder treatment, you are likely to have a meal plan that you follow every day. So if you’re just starting your recovery, or are struggling a lot at the moment, then it’s OK to just stick to your everyday plan if that’s what feels safest at the time. You might feel a bit different if you’re not eating exactly the same as everyone else around the table, but the important thing is keeping on track with your recovery. And if that means sticking to your meal plan, then that’s absolutely fine.

But adapt your plan if you can

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sticking to your normal plan, but if you feel able to (and it won’t put your recovery back) then it can be good to change things about a bit over Christmas. There are lots of different foods this time of year, and it can feel really scary when its things you haven’t necessarily eaten for a long time. But while I was in treatment, we were encouraged to adapt our meal plans to include some traditional Christmas foods as well. So, for example, instead of our usual biscuits at snack time, we might have a mince pie instead. And for dinner on Christmas Day, we would incorporate the Christmas meal that the rest of our family were eating. It just meant that we were challenging ourselves a bit, but also that we felt part of Christmas because we were joining in with everyone around us. 

Prepare and plan

Talking of meal plans; I found it so important to make sure I had my meal plan set well in advance of Christmas. I would sit down with my family and we would go through what they would be eating around Christmas. They would then help me write my own plan, just like I would with my normal meal plans, including snacks, puddings etc. Doing this well in advance just meant that we all knew what to expect – I knew what I was meant to be eating, as did my parents, and it reduced the likelihood of arguments over food on the day. 

Eat regularly

Meal times can be a bit all over the place over the Christmas period, so it’s important to make sure you are eating regularly, especially if there are going to be long gaps between main meals. I know that I found, if I allowed myself to get too hungry I would either end up binging, or I would find it really hard to start eating again. So eating at regular intervals helped me keep on top of things like that. Having your own supply of snacks with you can be really helpful, and this is also where your meal plan will help too.

Try not to label foods good and bad

This was something that was drummed into us in eating disorder treatment – there is no such thing as a good or a bad food, despite what the media might try and tell us. And especially at Christmas, this can be really hard with different foods and everyone talking about weight gain, eating naughty things and the post-Christmas diet. But try to remind yourself that it’s all about moderation. If you eat a mince pie for your snack, then there’s absolutely nothing ‘bad’ about that. Yes, if you sat and ate five packets of them, then that may not be such a good idea. But eating a balanced diet and allowing yourself a range of different foods is what is most important in your recovery.

Have a list of distractions

I have always found after meals quite a difficult time, and I spent a long time struggling with making myself sick after eating. So I find it really helpful to have a list of possible distractions – things I can do once I’ve finished eating to give me something more positive to think about. These distractions can be pretty much anything that works for you. Whether it’s colouring, reading, watching a film, listening to music, knitting, writing letters – the list is endless. 

Conversation cards

It’s not just the time after eating that is difficult, as mealtimes themselves can be a struggle too. This can be made worse around Christmas, when perhaps you’re eating with people you don’t normally have to eat around. It can often feel like everyone’s eyes are on you (even though I promise you they’re not). But something that can help with this is to have conversation cards on the table. This is something people often do around Christmas anyway, just to add a bit more fun to meal times, so it doesn’t have to be specifically because you have an eating disorder. It just gives everyone things to talk about to keep conversation away from anything that you might find triggering.

Play music

Another tip for during meal times is to have music playing (and Christmas music would be great at this time of year!) When I was in Day Patient Treatment, we would always have the radio playing during our meal times and it really did help. It takes away that awkward silence and would give me something to focus on if I was particularly struggling. 

Ask a relative to speak to extended family

This is the time of year when we tend to eat around people we don’t ordinarily eat around, and this can be incredibly difficult when you’ve got an eating disorder. It may be that you have friends or family coming to your house over Christmas, or you may have been invited somewhere yourself. If possible, it can really help if someone you are close to can speak to everyone else in advance about what to avoid saying. Some people can think that commenting on weight gain or what a good portion you’re eating will be helpful, when in reality it can trigger a relapse – the last thing you want to happen. So if a close friend or relative can talk to everyone in advance, it takes away that worry that people might say something triggering on the day. And it can also help them to feel less anxious about what they’re going to say to you too!

Have a supporter

This sounds very official, but in reality it just means finding someone you trust to look out for you on the day. When I was in treatment and we went to family gatherings, I would talk to my Mum or Dad in advance and agree some signals that I could make if I was finding things too much. They could also keep an eye on me and look out for if I needed a bit of extra support. Having that safety blanket there definitely made social situations and meal times a bit less daunting. 

Continue as normal after Christmas

If you’ve changed things up a bit over Christmas or eaten foods that you don’t usually eat, it can be tempting to try and compensate in the days and weeks after. Guilt can take over and all of a sudden you feel like you need to restrict and cut things out of your plan, but believe me when I say it really doesn’t help you in the long run. If you’re struggling after Christmas, then please do talk to someone, whether it’s your therapist, someone close to you or the Beat Helpline. It’s much better to talk about those feelings than it is to start reverting back to eating disorder behaviours.

Be kind to yourself

My final point for this post is just to try and be kind to yourself. I know that this is so much easier said than done, and it’s something I still try to work on every day, but I think it’s one of the most important things we can do. Focus on all the things you have achieved this year – however big or small they are. Focus on the fact that you’re making it through Christmas, and even if you slip up, that’s OK – you don’t need to beat yourself up. Slip-ups are part of recovery and we all make mistakes. I just keep trying to remind myself that I deserve to be happy and to eat nice foods (and even if I don’t believe it, I still keep telling myself so that one day, hopefully I will believe it). 

I really hope that somewhere in this post you might find something that will help you get through this Christmas. And I really hope that the New Year will bring you peace, comfort and happiness. 

Do you have any advice for coping with Christmas when you have a mental illness?

Friday, 30 November 2018

How becoming an Auntie changed my life

On Monday 26th November 2018, my gorgeous little nephew, Noah Henry, reached the grand old age of one. I have absolutely no idea where the last year has gone, but I thought now would be a good opportunity to talk about what it’s been like to become an auntie for the first time.

Although the title of this post sounds a bit cheesy, and like I’ve gone through some monumental transformation over the last year, nothing much has actually changed when it comes to my physical and mental health. Life is still difficult; I’m still in pain; horrible new symptoms are still cropping up on a daily basis and I still struggle a lot with dark thoughts. But what has changed since becoming an auntie is that I now have an adorable little boy in my life, who gives me strength to get through the painful times. Now, I’m not saying that the rest of my family don’t give me strength and support – far from it! But I think having a nephew is a very different relationship to having parents, brothers and sisters. 

I don’t know if or when I will ever have my own children (that’s a story for another day!) so having the responsibility of being an auntie from the very beginning of someone’s life allows me the opportunity to have some of those experiences that I feel I’m missing out on. Right at the very beginning, I was able to have snuggles and coo over Noah while he was so tiny and fragile. Living so close to Richard and Lisa has meant I have been able to learn things about Noah alongside them, from them and to help them where I can in looking after him. 

As he has grown, I have been lucky enough to see him change and develop pretty much on a weekly basis. I’ve seen him learn to roll over, to sit up, to crawl and now to start walking and talking. I honestly never thought I would get so excited to see a little human move across the floor (even if now, we spend our lives following him around to make sure he doesn’t get into any mischief!) I’ve been able to spend quality time with him playing, watching him learn and absorbing every little detail, as he’s quickly grown from a baby into a toddler. I’ve got friends who have children and I’ve enjoyed seeing them grow up, but nothing can compare to seeing the newest member of your own family grow into such a cheeky and funny little person. 

I can’t quite remember what life was like before Noah arrived, but I can say for sure that it wasn’t half as fun. If I’m ever feeling down, sad, angry or frustrated, I can always count on Noah to make me laugh until my belly hurts and happy tears fall down my cheeks. No, life isn’t perfect – far from it – but Noah has given me a reason to keep fighting all the bad stuff. Even when I am really struggling to see the light at the end of a tunnel, a cheeky giggle or a gummy grin from Noah is all it takes to make me smile and give me something positive to focus on. 

I have a lot of love for my family and I knew I would love Noah when he came along, but I don’t think I really realised just how much. It’s difficult when you don’t have your own children because I have no idea what it feels like to give birth and automatically fall in love with that baby. But I think becoming an auntie has definitely given me a pretty good insight into that feeling. From the first time I met Noah, when he was less than a day old, I just felt this overwhelming love for him and I didn’t even know him then! As he’s got older, that love has continued to grow and grow and although I feel like I couldn’t possibly love and care about him any more, every day it just seems to get bigger.

I feel really proud of the gorgeous little boy he’s turning into, and incredibly proud of Richard and Lisa because most of that is down to their amazing parenting. Things haven’t always been easy, but Noah’s happy, relaxed and cheeky personality is testament to how much love and support they give to Noah on a daily basis. I really do hope that one day I will get the opportunity to be just as good parents as they are. 

Becoming an auntie has definitely opened my eyes and filled my heart and I just cannot wait to see what the next year (and beyond!) brings for Noah and our family (although at the same time, please don’t grow too fast little dude!) I know Noah won’t read this, but I do just want to wish him a very Happy 1st Birthday and to thank him for being the best nephew I could ever wish for. I can’t imagine life without him and am so thankful to know that I can always go for a dose of Noah therapy whenever I need cheering up! 

Are you an Auntie or an Uncle? How has it changed your life?

Friday, 9 November 2018

Goodbye Jaffa - The loss of a pet

This isn’t going to be an easy to post to write, which is probably why I’ve been putting it off. But it’s a post I need to write before I can even think about talking about anything else. On Saturday 27thOctober my lovely boy Jaffa sadly had to be put to sleep. He was fourteen, so not especially old, and it all came as such a huge shock. It honestly just felt like one day he was his normal crazy self, and the next he had to leave us. It was completely unexpected. 

In the weeks before he died, we had noticed that he was drinking a lot more water than usual. We were keeping an eye on him, but apart from the drinking he was absolutely fine. Then, in the days before he died, little things started to happen that made us worry a bit more. He had an upset stomach (not abnormal for him though, as he’s always had tummy troubles) and started going outside his litter tray, which wasn’t like him at all. He’d always been so diligent about cleanliness and routine, so I immediately knew something wasn’t right. I was going to make an appointment with the vet on the Monday, but on Friday night that idea went out of the window. He had done his usual going to the toilet in the wrong place, but this time there was some blood in it. He had also started hiding afterwards and letting out a horrible cry, which broke my heart as he sounded like he was in pain. He also started to become wobbly on his back legs. It was horrible to watch and I was in tears not knowing how to help him. 

I barely slept through Friday night, listening out for Jaffa in case he needed me. He actually seemed a bit better when we woke up on Saturday morning, but I rang the vets anyway and they said they would see him straight away. The vet examined him, took his temperature and gave him a general once-over, and apart from his gums looking quite pale, everything else looked absolutely fine. The vet suggested that he do some blood tests to see if they would shed any light on what was making Jaffa poorly, so he took him off to another room to take the samples. We could hear Jaffa crying and all I wanted to do was give him a cuddle – and then it all went silent. 

After a while, the vet came back out to see us and told us that, as they were doing the blood tests, Jaffa had collapsed. They had given him some oxygen and he had come round very quickly, but because the vet had seen him collapse he wanted us to wait for him to test the bloods there and then. More time went by, and when the vet came out again, he seemed to look fairly positive. He told us that Jaffa’s bloods had mostly come back absolutely fine. He was a bit anaemic and a couple of things were a little bit out, but there was nothing obviously wrong, which we thought was a positive sign. However, because Jaffa had collapsed, the vet decided he wanted to keep him in to run some more tests to try and get to the bottom of what was going on.

Our vets shuts at lunchtime on a Saturday, but thankfully the vet was heading over to the next town, to their partner practice and offered to take Jaffa over there to continue his investigations. It was such a nice gesture, which really made me feel like Jaffa was in safe hands. He said he would give us a ring in the afternoon to let us know what was going on; so all we could do was go home and wait. I tried to distract myself with talking to family who were round and starting to design our pumpkin carving pattern, but my mind kept going back to thinking about Jaffa.

Just as I was drawing out a design for my pumpkin, the phone rang. Initially, I thought the vet sounded quite upbeat. He said he had done an x-ray of Jaffa’s chest and that he had a few nodules on his lungs, but they weren’t too significant. But he then went on to tell me he had also x-rayed and scanned Jaffa’s abdomen and he could see that it was full of fluid. It had been tested and they found that it was blood. My heart sank – I knew this was bad. He told me the only thing that was likely to have caused this was cancer, which had started to bleed and had also spread to his lungs. As Jaffa’s blood tests had all been fairly good, the vet thought it was a bleed that had only started very recently but that had happened very quickly. 

I already knew the answer to my next question, but I knew I needed to ask – “In the vet's opinion, what was the best thing to do for Jaffa?” Hearing the vet tell me that the kindest thing to do would be to put Jaffa to sleep just broke my heart in two. We had started the day thinking Jaffa might just be having a flare-up of his bowel condition and were ending it having to say goodbye to him. The vet asked if I wanted to be there with Jaffa when it happened, to which I immediately said I did. I knew it would be difficult, but I couldn’t let him go through his last moments alone in a scary place with no one he knew. This article was also stuck in my mind, which spoke about putting a pet to sleep from a vet’s perspective, and it reinforced my need to be there with Jaffa.

My Dad was out for a walk with my brothers and nephew, so I had to phone him and ask him to come home. When he asked why, I just seemed to break down and lost the ability to speak. I had to pass the phone to my Mum for her to explain because I just couldn’t bring myself to say the words that Jaffa was going to die. My Mum, Dad, Bekkah and I went down to the vets in silence. We were shown through to a private room, and Jaffa was brought in to spend some time with us. In those last moments it is so difficult to know what to say and what to do. I was in floods of tears, but just held Jaffa close to my chest and told him how special he was to me and how much I loved him. We talked to him about some of our happy memories of him growing up and what a special part of our family he was. 

Jaffa had never been a particularly cuddly cat. Sure, he would come over to you on his own terms for a stroke and a nuzzle, but he was never a lap cat. But as I held him on my knee, he didn’t struggle or try to get away. He cuddled in close to me, purring gently and letting me smother him in kisses. It’s as if he knew that this was the end and that I needed those last cuddles with him.

My Mum and I stayed in the room with him when the vet came in, and all of a sudden it became very real. I placed Jaffa on a blanket on the table and snuggled up to him, wrapping my arms around his little fluffy body. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, but the vet was brilliant and talked us through what would happen. He then asked if I was ready for him to give Jaffa the injection through his cannula. That’s got to be the hardest question I’ve ever been asked. I was never going to be ready and I felt so incredibly guilty for basically giving my permission to let my beautiful boy die. But I knew it was something I had to do, so I nodded as a tear ran down my cheek. And within a few moments, Jaffa had simply fallen asleep.

It was incredibly quick and peaceful, although the image of Jaffa’s little head bowing down on to the table will never leave me. I held him, buried my face into his black fur and just cried. I told him how much I would miss him and that I would see him again one day. The vet gave us as much time as we needed to sit with Jaffa, told us we didn’t need to worry about sorting out payment at that point at that we could use the back entrance to leave if we needed a bit more privacy. We also discussed what I wanted to happen to Jaffa’s body, and that was all taken care of for me. I will be eternally grateful for the way the staff there that day dealt with the situation and treated Jaffa and us with such compassion and love. 

Leaving the vets carrying Jaffa’s box, empty, just felt awful. I spent the next few days continuously crying, and every time I managed to stop for a few minutes, something would always set me off again. Jaffa slept on my bed every night – he looked after me when I was ill, when I was sad, when I felt like I couldn’t go on any more. My parents gave me him when I first became ill, and he’s been there for me ever since. My bed feels empty at night now. I keep expecting to see his little face round the corner of the door, or to hear him meowing because he wants some attention. But I don’t have any of those things any more, and my heart feels completely broken.

Some people might say he was just a cat, but I know he was so much more than that. He was my best friend, my baby. My blog is named after him! He meant as much to me as the other members of my family do, and that’s why the grief is so profound – I’ve lost a member of my family. Overall, I’ve been so lucky with the amount of support I’ve received from friends and family, but I have had some people tell me that he was just a cat or suggest that I can get another one. I know they are probably trying to help, but you wouldn’t say those things if someone lost a human, so why do we say these things when someone loses a pet? No new cat will ever replace Jaffa – he was unique and our bond was irreplaceable. I’m not discounting ever having another cat, but it’s important to grieve for the friend I’ve lost first. And give myself permission to really feel that grief without worrying that I’m being judged. 

I decided to get Jaffa cremated, but have chosen not to scatter his ashes like I always thought I would want to. He was a house cat and didn’t like going outside. If he went out, he would always cry to come in again, and I couldn’t bare the thought of putting him somewhere that he was never happy. The pet crematorium was brilliant with all of this though; talking me through the different options they could offer. I chose to have his ashes put in the back of a special photo frame, and a small amount of them will be made into a necklace, so I can keep my baby with me all the time. It may not be for everyone, but it felt right for me. 

I know this post has mainly just gone through the facts of what happened, but I think that’s all I can get my head around at the moment. However, I would like to write an open letter to Jaffa in another post soon, where I can talk about my memories of him and what he did for me by being my cat. Because he really did more for me than anyone will ever know and I’m missing him with all my heart. 

Sleep tight little man – I’ll meet you at the Rainbow Bridge one day.

Jaffa - Forever my crazy little man - 2004 - 2018

I’d really love to hear about your special pets and what they mean/meant to you

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

A trip to Whipsnade Zoo

I’ve been digging around in my photo archives again this week and came across another set of photos that I thought would make a nice post on my blog. Sorry for the fact I’ve done two archive posts in a row now – I’m still trying to get myself into a routine of uploading on here and on my YouTube and my health isn’t really playing ball! But I thought you might enjoy hearing about our trip to Whipsnade Zoo, which we went on around this time last year. 

Whipsnade Zoo has always held quite a special place in my heart. From as far back as I can remember, my parents would often take us to this zoo for a day out and I hold very fond memories of slightly windy days romping around the countryside in my wellington boots. With my Dad being a member of ZSL (who run Whipsnade and London Zoos), it was an easy day out for the family, and although it’s not particularly close to home, it has always been well worth the journey. Sitting in the Bedfordshire countryside, there is plenty of space for the animals to roam. It’s one of the things I particularly like about this zoo, and because of the amount of space, they are able to house animals, such as elephants (one of my personal favourites!), that can’t be kept at smaller zoos. 

We drove over to Dunstable on a slightly chilly autumn morning. I’ve been so used to going to the zoo during school holidays and weekends, so was pleasantly surprised to find we could get our tickets and go in without any queuing! With the zoo being set over such a vast area, it’s not like, say, London Zoo, where you would park your car (or arrive by train) and then just wander around. Whipsnade is more of a safari zoo – you can drive your car around between the different animal enclosures and then park up at various car parks, get out and explore those exhibits close by. Don’t get me wrong, if you wanted to leave your car in the main car park and walk around the whole thing I’m sure you could, but we found it easier to drive round to the different areas, get my wheelchair out each time and then spend time looking round before heading back to the car.

Our first stop, after buying our entry tickets and being given maps of the zoo, was to head round to the Lookout Café (which has now been renamed River Cottage Kitchen and Deli) for a warm drink. The views from this café are incredible and on a good day you can see for miles across the English countryside. From the photos on the website, the newly refurbished café looks cosy and inviting, and having partnered with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, I’m sure the food will be delicious. Still, at the time, a hot drink to warm us up was all we needed while we took in the views.

Once we’d finished our drinks, we made our way outside to see which animals we could see close by. Right next to the café was the reindeer enclosure, where they were busy tucking into their lunch. I think they’re beautiful animals with their amazing antlers, but I particularly like their little white fluffy tails! We stayed watching them for quite a while, as it was really interesting to see them munching away at the leaves and interacting with each other.

Across the road from the café was a herd of white rhinos that were either fast asleep or eating (animals after my own heart!) Their space is pretty massive, so it was a bit difficult to see them close up, but to be honest I’d prefer it that way than for them to be cooped up in a tiny enclosure. 

We continued round through the African section of the zoo and came across the Hippo House. I know people have very mixed opinions on whether we should have zoos, but seeing all the amazing work that ZSL do to stop endangered species becoming extinct was pretty humbling. I do often wonder how many of these beautiful animals wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the work that zoos do for them. Some of the hippos were swimming about in the outside area, but we made our way inside after seeing a sign saying there was a new baby with his mother in there. I think we must have stayed in the hippo house for almost an hour, waiting for a glimpse of the baby hippo. Mum was easy to spot – basking on the surface of the water – but for a long time, baby was no-where to be seen. Then, all of a sudden, this little nose poked out of the water just behind the Mum and stayed there for a couple of minutes, taking in the new faces that had come to see him. I managed to get a couple of photos, although it was quite dark in there so they’re not the best unfortunately. And as quickly as he’d appeared, he was gone again, back under the water to the safety of Mum.

Next on our journey, as we headed towards Base Camp, was Flamingo Lake. Flamingos seem to come in so many different shades of pink, so I loved seeing all the different colours and the way they stand on one leg. I was also sporting my flamingo jumper, so, of course, had to ask my Dad to take a photo of me with the flamingos in the background!

We then doubled back on ourselves, and went back into ‘Africa’ to the giraffe enclosure. I always find it difficult when someone asks me what my favourite animal is because I like so many different ones, but I think giraffes are pretty high up my list. You can see the giraffes at Whipsnade from a few different places – we started inside their house, where a couple were tucking into some leaves and hay. You are also able to go up a large wooden slope to a tree house, which overlooks the whole giraffe enclosure. Thankfully this was wheelchair accessible, so my Mum and I made our way up there to get a brilliant view over the top of the giraffes as they ate and played outside. After a while, a couple of giraffes decided to come over to the tree house where we were standing, which was just amazing being so close to them. But if that wasn’t enough, one then seemed to take a liking to me and began licking me with his long black tongue! Although I was a little bit nervous to start with, I quickly began to laugh (along with the other people who were also up in the tree house!) and appreciate being able to get so close to such a beautiful creature. Definitely one of the highlights of my trip!

On our way back to collect the car, we stumbled across the meerkat house, which I was very excited about! Unfortunately most of the meerkat must have been hiding (perhaps it was a bit cold for them?) but we managed to spot two cuddled up together on top of one of the inside rocks. They looked so ridiculously cute – I just wanted to give them a cuddle (although I’m guessing I may have ended up being bitten, as although they look cute and cuddly, I think they can be pretty aggressive!) 

One animal I had really wanted to get a glimpse of was the lions, but I knew from experience that they weren’t always the easiest to spot, especially if they found a nice warm place to fall asleep. But we went to the African Lion section just in case we could see any, and as luck would have it, they were just being fed! I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so close to a group of lions in my life and it was difficult not to feel a bit nervous when they stared at us through the glass. Watching them eating, playing and then falling asleep just reminded me of our cats at home (albeit on a much larger, and scarier, scale!) and I was just in awe of being able to get so close to such magnificent creatures. As they lay down I caught a glimpse of the little ‘beans’ on the underside of one of their paws, and couldn’t help but take a photo – they’re just like Jaffa’s only bigger!

As well as the animal enclosures, there are also quite a few animals that can roam around freely in the park. I’m not even going to begin to guess what these are, but they look a bit like miniature kangaroos! Still, they must feel comfortable with the visitors to the zoo, as they were more than happy for us to walk right past them without even flinching. 

Unfortunately, we ran out of time to see everything we wanted to see – there’s just so much to see and do that I can’t imagine you could possibly run out of things to do on a day trip there! I think my Dad would have quite liked to ride on the train, which takes you round the outskirts of ‘Asia’ to see animals like Sloth Bears, Camels, Asian Rhinos and Amur Tigers. And I would have loved to have had time to see the penguins, European Brown Bears, Red Pandas, Squirrel Monkeys, Sea Lions and the Lemurs. But I guess it’s just an excuse to go back another day!

One last thing we did manage to do before we had to leave was to see the Asian Elephants. Their enclosure is absolutely huge and apparently, before we arrived, the baby elephants had been playing in the water fountains, which I’m gutted I missed. But I was still happy that we managed to see the herd nonetheless. There were a mixture of male, female and baby elephants living across two paddocks and it just made me realise how much I would love to see these animals in the wild one day. I can only imagine how amazing it is to go on safari and see them in their natural habitat. 

The final thing we did before we left to come home was to have a quick mooch around the gift shop (well, my Mum and I did, my Dad went and brought the car round to the exit!) They have so many lovely products on offer – whether it’s a cuddly tiger or a beautifully printed silk scarf - there were so many things I wanted to take home with me, but I managed to be restrained! Overall, we had a lovely trip down to Whipsnade Zoo and it brought back a lot of happy childhood memories. I can’t wait until we can take my nephew there for the first time and hopefully start his love for the zoo as well. And, of course, I’m looking forward to going back again too to see all the animals I didn’t get to see this time round.

Have you been to Whipsnade Zoo before? Or do you have another favourite zoo that you would recommend?