Since our beloved cat Adam died recently, my mind has turned to all things feline. It makes me think of that curious question that celebrities are sometimes asked in newspaper interviews: ‘Cats or dogs?’ You may forgiven for wondering what connection pets have to a cycling blog that examines mental illness.
Here’s the thing. Dogs sometimes play a role in the Tour de France and other bike races, too. How? Well, it’s not unheard of for dogs to cause havoc with the peleton by escaping from their owners, running into the group of riders as they pass by, ending with an almighty pile up, as riders in the bunch are sent crashing to the ground while the canine culprit hurries off shame-faced, his tail inevitably between his legs.
Those of you who know me will be aware of my aversion to all things Tory. However, I declare a truce when it comes to the two – time Conservative British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. He suffered from severe depression, and he coined the phrase ‘The Black Dog’ to describe the malady. So, dogs have a special place in the literature. One of the best personifications of depression as a black dog can be found in Rebecca Hunt’s marvelous recent novel ‘Mr Chartwell’.
So, man’s best friend can cause fair bit of chaos. By and large dogs like company and are loyal to their owners. Cats, on the other hand, tend to have a more independent streak, they are loyal to anyone who feeds them.
Anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that as a Leo I have a natural affinity with members of the feline family, especially cats. During the fourteen and a half years that Adam lived with us I learnt a lot from him, and his ways.
Relaxation techniques are key to managing anxiety, mood swings and stress. Whether it was next to a radiator, or on the back porch in the sunshine, Adam knew how to switch off from the pedestrian cares of the world.
He knew what his needs were and how to make sure we met them. How many mornings have I been woken by him scratching at the bedroom door; or more recently by a persistent meowing from downstairs? In contrast depression stifles sufferers’ ability to identify their basic needs, their hopes and dreams.
He relished touch: stroking, holding and a good old-fashioned scratching of his forehead. While it is considered unprofessional for staff to touch people who use mental health services, (other than the occasional handshake), offering the gift of physical contact – a hug, or an arm round drooping shoulders, to use technical language – helps isolated people, bleary with despair, to reconnect.
While Adam only rarely bought us ‘gifts’of shrews, or the occasional bird, gifts, material (that remind sufferers who they once were, and who they can be once again). As well as that more difficult gift – time. I have written about the importance of listening to people suffering mental health problems. One of the most challenging, though least practised, skills it to listen to the silence that envelops so many who inhabit the well of despair. When friends and colleagues stood by me, even when I was little more than shadow. By doing so, they held the hope for me, the memory of which still makes me well up.
These lines served as virtually the only comfort for me during the first year that depression engulfed me.
What do cats remember of days?
They remember the ways in from the cold,
The warmest spot, the place of food.
They remember the places of pain, their enemies,
the irritation of birds, the warm fumes of the soil,
the usefulness of dust.
They remember the creak of a bed, the sound
of their owner´s footsteps,
the taste of fish, the loveliness of cream.
Cats remember what is essential of days.
Letting all other memories go as of no worth
they sleep sounder than we,
whose hearts break remembering so many
Brian Patten (1946 – )