On a day out to Palmerston North recently, we took an unexpected detour.
Most detours are tedious interruptions involving traffic cones and tortoise-paced driving.
Not this one. This one was a spontaneous decision triggered by the sight of the SPCA sign at the side of the road. Shall we go in? we said. The previous week, at the same juncture on the same journey, we’d said no. We had planned on getting a cat sometime, but it still seemed too soon, after our twenty year-old dog, Toffee, had been put down. We’d said we weren’t ready. We’d driven straight past.
Yet this time, we swept in the driveway and pulled up in a crunch of gravel. Just to look, we said, dodging rain-drops as we crossed the car-park and climbed the steps into the centre.
Just looking didn’t last very long. Ten minutes later we’d looked, liked, chosen and been chosen – the slinky black chap with the coin-sized cluster of white hairs on his chest would come home with us. The moment he put his paw in my palm, and leant his cheek against my fingers, the decision was made.
We spent the rest of our day considering names. Palmerston, because that’s where we were going when we found him. Onyx, or Liqorice, because of his colour. Rembrandt because he’s come to a family with Dutch connections, and because painter’s names are cool for cats.
When we brought Rembrandt home, he bolted for the first hidey-hole he could find – under our bed. We’d expected that – apparently it’s normal for cats introduced to a new home to hide for hours, if not days, while they grow accustomed to the new environment.
What we hadn’t expected was that he would reappear less than half an hour later.
He wandered all around the house, sniffing out other hiding-places, then came and sat next to me on the sofa, pressing up against me for pats.
We can learn a lot from cats.
Watching Rembrandt settle into his new environment has been quite an education in self-care. If he gets stressed, like when a stranger comes to visit, he takes himself off to one of those hiding spots. If he needs help, he asks – miaowing, or winding himself round our legs, or a carefully placed paw pulling our hands to the exact spot he wants scratched. If we touch his tummy or somewhere else he doesn’t like, another carefully placed paw pushes our hands away. He’s worked out which are the best windows to watch birds from. He’s sussed out all the sunniest spots for snooze-times.
He knows what he needs, and he’s good at getting it.
But how does what a cat knows about self-care help us?
We might not be able to snooze in the sun
or hang out in hidey-holes all day,
but there are human versions of self-care,
not that different from a cat’s.
If we incorporate good self-care habits
into daily life, they will make our lives easier
to manage, help us reduce stress, and manage the consequences of chronic illness and pain.
Know What You Need
Rembrandt knows exactly what he needs – kindness, cuddles, kibble and clean water, just for starters. He’s also pretty fond of playing and prowling and pouncing. Sardine suppers, and snuggles on sofas.
Our needs might be a bit more complicated – managing life/family/job when you live with chronic pain and/or illness, for example.
Make a list of your needs
e.g: I need to take a few days off work because I am exhausted.
Go through your list and rank the items in order of priority.
Figure out what you have to know, do, find out etc. in order to make the things happen.
Set achievable, time-sensitive and measurable steps for making the things happen. You are more likely to stick to these than to open-ended goals.
e.g: I will go to the library on Tuesday and get a book about building confidence.
I will read it for ten minutes every day.
Put Yourself First
Are you in the habit of attending to everyone else’s needs before your own?
Do you tend to put everyone else’s wants ahead of your needs?
It’s easy to get submerged and overwhelmed when you are rushing around looking after everyone else, but take a step back and learn to prioritise your needs against other peoples.
You don’t have to be all things to everyone – let them be some things to themselves and, even better, to you.
Be a cat – if Rembrandt wants a quiet time, he’ll take himself off to his favourite spot behind the sofa, never mind if I want to cuddle him. If he wants a chin scratch, he’ll put his head in my hand, never mind if I want to keep typing a blog post!
Ask for Help
If you’re struggling to manage everything, delegate.
Think about what people can do to help you, and ask them.
Too sick to go shopping? Write a grocery list and ask a family member or friend to go to the supermarket for you.
Too ill to take the kids to their soccer match, or even go watch them? Ask another parent on the team to take them. Your kids might want you to go, but they don’t need you. you might want to take them, but you need to stay home and get better.
When you think in terms of wants (what we’d like) and needs (what we have to do), it makes prioritising easier.
The first day Rembrandt was allowed out, he scouted out his new territory, and marked the boundaries by rolling around on the ground. We heard a few hisses and growls the next day when another cat tried to walk along our fence. Pretty sure we won’t be seeing any mice now the house smells of cat!
Fortunately, we can just use our voices!
Tell other people what you can and can’t do when you are making arrangements or sharing household tasks etc.
Be clear and be firm. If you can only manage to stay at a friend’s party for half an hour, because staying longer will cost you days in pain and exhaustion, don’t be persuaded to stay longer.
Work out what your limits of energy are, and work within them.
For many of us, saying no is difficult, and we go along with other people’s demands at the expense of our own needs.
If we are clearer about what our needs are, and know our boundaries, saying no to other people becomes easier – and you can offer alternatives if you’d really like to say yes to something, but need to say no.
Take a Nap
Rembrandt sleeps most of the day. Eat, sleep, play, sleep, snuggle, sleep, sleep, sleep, snuggle, sleep, find the sun, sleep – you get the picture. I wish I could sleep as much as he does
Dealing with pain often interrupts a healthy sleep, so taking naps during the day becomes essential.
Even if you don’t take naps, rest-times are still important.
Break tasks up into smaller blocks of time, with rest breaks between.
Relaxation exercises, Mindfulness techniques, breathing exercises and meditation are all great to help you rest or sleep.
Rembrandt has a wild-hour every evening. He loves hiding under a chair and pouncing on a crochet mouse with a long fluffy tail that we drag along the floor on a string.
You might enjoy less feline leisure pursuits!
But leisure is a vital area of self-care (and a great distraction for pain, too). Doing stuff you love makes you happy. So make time for painting or swimming or fixing motorbikes – or even just watching your cat play.
Spend Time Alone
Rembrandt loves sleeping on our feet when we go to bed at night, but some nights, he wants to stay on his own, in the quiet of the lounge. We might hear him padding about, his claws ticking the wooden floor, or crunching on a late night snack as he finishes off his dinner kibble. Or he’ll just be curled up on the sofa, his head under his paw, and refuse to budge when we call his name.
Taking the time to be alone sometimes, even if it’s only five or ten minutes a day, gives us the chance to listen to our own thoughts, or hear our own breathing. To recharge our batteries.
Do something for yourself, by yourself. A walk in the woods, an afternoon at the movies, sit in the sun in the garden, or curl up on the sofa with a book.
And if someone calls your name? Refuse to budge.