Ear We Go!

IMG_0782 I am currently awaiting surgery for my fourth onset of a middle ear disease called ‘cholesteatoma’. http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cholesteatoma/Pages/Introduction.aspx    This destructive disease is effectively a ball of skin cells which grows inside the ear eating everything in its path, including bone.  Nice!  Although the ball of skin cells resembles a large tumour it isn’t cancerous, but it must be removed surgically.

Most cholesteatomas are slow-growing but they do cause a lot of damage.  In my case the recurrent disease has destroyed my balance organ and made me almost completely deaf in my left ear.  The surgery I’m waiting for will cure the cholesteatoma but in doing so it will make my balance worse and leave me with no hearing at all on my left side.  If untreated the disease will eventually find its way into my brain, so surgery is my only option.

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So I’m in a strange position at the moment knowing that I’ll have an operation next year which could severely compromise my mobility and independence – at least in the short term.  My surgeon told me that I will have to learn from scratch how to walk and balance, without a balance organ.  With no useful sight, and therefore no visual points of reference to help me walk, I am quite nervous about what it will be like post-surgery.  So I’m taking a proactive approach in my preparations.

At the moment my balance is quite poor, and I walk as if I’ve had three too many.  I’m often stumbling and swaying, trying to counteract the effects of vertigo.  My balance began to deteriorate in March this year.  At first it unsettled my guide dog Dash, and he lost a lot of confidence.

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He takes his work very seriously and I think he felt responsible for my tumbles and stumbles.  So I had to scale back his harness work and rely on sighted companions to get out and about.  But over the last few months Dash has adapted really well and now walks very cautiously, checking constantly to see how I am.  He no longer gets overly anxious in harness, and if the ground looks uneven he’ll simply stop and wait for me to adjust my balance before continuing.  Dash has always had amazing intuition.  My Guide dog trainer has advised that we don’t go too far without accompaniment as I have had a few nasty falls which potentially put Dash in danger as well as myself.  It’s not easy adhering to this advice because a guide dog is essentially a freedom ticket.  So restricting our walks has been tough.  In September I learned that things are going to get even worse from the mobility point of view, and this was a real knock.

But I must find a way round it.  In Summer this year I met a lady with MS who was training with an assistance dog, and she mentioned that Guide Dogs were making her dog a special harness to help her balance.  I remember wondering at the time if this might come in useful for me.  Subsequently I have done some research and discovered that in the US (and increasingly in the UK) there are ‘balance dogs’ trained specifically to help people with chronic balancing problems. http://www.keystonehumanservices.org/susquehanna-service-dogs/balance-dogs.php

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In my view Dash has already stepped up, of his own accord, and helps me in ways beyond his guide dog training.  But I am going to make enquiries about whether his harness can be adapted so that I can use it as a stabilizer if needs be, when we’re out and about.

I have spent most of today researching walking aids.  I don’t need a walking stick but I do need something to stop me toppling over when I lose my balance.  This will help Dash to stay confident and keep us both safe.   But trying to find something discreet, aesthetic and useful has been really hard!   After much hunting I’ve come up with a Sabi walking cane http://www.designed2enable.co.uk/product/sabi-roam-sport-cane  and a tri support ferrule, which I need to buy separately. The ferrule has three flexible feet to make the walking cane even more stable.   I want something that I can hook over my arm on stand-by to access quickly if I start falling.

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This situation reminds me of when my sight was starting to fail and I was not safe going out and about without a mobility aid.  I was crippled with self-consciousness and hated every second of my first journey with a long cane.  I felt so blind, even though I did not think of myself as blind.  I suspect that my first walk with a balance aid will make me feel really disabled, even though that isn’t how I define myself.  But in these situations we’re faced with a stark choice.  Accept it, embrace it and get on with living.  Or deny it, hide from it and never set foot outside the front door.  If I don’t accept that I need to use a balance aid I will not be able to go out safely with Dash, and we’ll lose our freedom.  Having had a guide dog since 2008 I am not about to give up my mobility and independence!  Absolutely no way.  Someone said to me today that using a walking aid isn’t a sign that I am disabled, it’s a tool to enable me to carry on regardless.  And she was right.  We all need to make adjustments as we go through life and I’ve always felt that obstacles are there to get around not to stop me in my tracks.  So I need to put my philosophy into practise.

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Recently I spent a few days at the Calvert Trust activity centre in Exmoor http://www.calvert-trust.org.uk/exmoor/exmoor  taking part in a series of outdoor challenges.  I am by no means athletic but I completed every single challenge, including rock climbing.  The great thing about going somewhere like Calvert is that it reinforces a ‘can-do’ attitude and that ‘can-do’ ethos stays put in your psyche for some time. So back home in Hereford my priority is to get back into my long solo treks with Dash and find a way of overcoming my deteriorating balance.  My Guide dog trainer is visiting in a couple of weeks time so I hope to show her what Dash and I can do!  If she sees that we are safe when we’re out together then I am on the way to freedom again.

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My operation will not be soon, given the crisis that Hereford County Hospital is in at the moment.  So I am going to use the time wisely and prepare myself for what lies ahead.  So far on my list I have: Find out about adapting Dash’s guide dog harness; Start using a balance/walking aid; Make my home environment clutter-free and safe; Learn the Alexander Technique   http://www.stat.org.uk

Talking Taboos: Should I live or should I die?

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Why is it that whilst some people are fighting to extend their lives, I am seeking to shorten mine?  Why did I fight so desperately and pray so hard when I had cancer?  I didn’t want to die then.  I wanted to live.  So why has my life value changed?  Is it a trick the devil is playing on my mind?  What do I really want?  Right now I am so close to killing myself.  That all-too-familiar feeling of a sinking heart, dark hole, bleak outlook, despair – all congealed into an emotional hell which swallows up your body, mind and soul.  So familiar, yet so hard to fight.  The conflict is painful in itself.  Should I live or should I die?  It’s like being torn in two by greedy birds of prey.
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I’m trying to tell myself that this is my illness talking, not me.  I am the person who fought off cancer, who has survived more than 40 operations, who has overcome sight loss, bereavement, rape and so much more.  So it doesn’t make any sense to want to die now when there are no such crises.  If only it was so neat and logical.  This illness takes away my reasoning.  My perspective shifts and I lose hold of the future I want to live for.  In fact the illness dilutes my world into nothing and emptiness.  It steals my feelings, kills off my plans, destroys my basic instincts for survival.  And finally it tricks me into thinking that this is what I genuinely want.  Death – so easy, so final.  Death is taking up so much of my head at the moment, and all this sensible stuff on paper is utterly meaningless.  I cannot find the true me in all of this.  I am standing on that proverbial cliff ready to jump.  Yet obviously I still have a desire to survive because I want to understand what is going on in my head.  I could have died earlier today.  Why didn’t I?  So am I in effect winning the battle even though I feel I am losing it?  Again, I cannot follow the logic.  When thoughts and feelings become blurred and memories and hopes peel off and flake into the forefront of my thinking – how can I know?  And this is why I hold on.  I hold onto that uncertainty, unsure whether it will flutter away and take me with it or land on the ground and take root.  I literally hold on to Dash my guide dog – Dash, who is physical and strong and lives for the moment.  And now my two lovely cats Hagrid and Cleopatra – they too live for the moment.
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As I write this I am listening to three animals sleeping – Dash is breathing heavily and the cats are squeaking, huffing and blowing air out of their mouths.  They let me know when they feel hungry, they are wired up to survive.  And so am I.  But this illness shakes all that up and I am left truly believing that life is not worth living, and wondering whether I can withstand yet another mental storm.   And oddly enough by writing this down and committing it to cyber space I feel a great sense of relief because I no longer feel alone.  I work hard at presenting myself well so that other people cannot see my suffering.  Sometimes people say it’s just a case of pulling yourself together, having a stern word with yourself and being grateful for what you’ve got.  Again, this illness is not founded on logic.  The only thing I am able to do is hold on, I cannot bat it away and do that British stiff upper lip stuff.  Not honestly, not inside.  And that’s why it’s such a struggle.
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Sometimes I sit at home absolutely sure that I have used up the last of my reserves.  Then an hour goes by and I realise I’m still here.  That raw, primaeval survival instinct somehow keeps my heart beating.  It’s when the pain gets too much and I start feeling guilty for burdening my friends and using up too many resources; when I see myself as one of David Cameron’s ‘parasites’ hated by the Daily Mail and the hard-working, tax-paying British public, that my life value dives to zero.  That’s when I feel I owe it to everyone to annihilate myself.  That’s the cruel trick that this illness plays, it feeds into your innate insecurities so that you can totally justify your reasons to die.  I am writing this while I have insight, in the hope that if psychosis lumbers into my thinking I will be able to read this and remind myself that there is no justification for suicide.  And my three protégés are testament to that as they lie here peacefully, not wracked by torment, but simply sleeping before they wake up seeking food, play and companionship.  Forget the past, forget the future, live for the moment.  Labradors and Ragamuffin cats do it, so why can’t I?
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Hanging Up The Harness

Trudy's harness 2008 - 2013

Trudy’s harness 2008 – 2013

I have had my guide dog Trudy (AKA The Hereford Hoover) for just over five years, and we’ve reached the time that I’ve been dreading most – her official retirement.

When Trudy bounced into my life I was living in a residential home and had got used to the fact that I would probably be there forever.  I rarely went out on my own, and feared strangers to the extent that I could not tolerate busy streets or crowded rooms.  I spent most of my time indoors listening to music or the radio.  The big wide world was virtually inaccessible to me.

Of course the furry whirlwind that filled my small room in May 2008 changed all that.  Time for a cliché – it really was love at first sight.  I knew Trudy was special.  I knew she would radically change my life.  It was breathtaking.  Three days after that momentous first meeting we began our four weeks training together, and life has never been the same since.

Goodrich Castle 2011

Goodrich Castle 2011

Less than two years after training with Trudy I moved into my own flat and immersed myself in a new life.  With Trudy’s help I overcame my fear of people and trained as a volunteer Speaker for Guide Dogs.  Sometimes I wonder if I am the same person when I give a talk to an audience.  I remember the me who refused to go into a room if there were more than two people in it.

The fantastic Fownhope Cubs 2012

The fantastic Fownhope Cubs 2012

Before I had even met Trudy I was told that she was a stubborn dog who loved her food.  I had no concept of the Hereford Hoover then.  Trudy’s trademark is her pinkish brown snout, glued to the ground wherever she goes, sniffing, snorting, and snuffling her way forward.  IMG_3627There has been countless occasions where the Hoover has been offered cleaning jobs in various public buildings.  (And as many where she has narrowly escaped being ordered off the premises).  But despite her penchant for hoovering, Trudy was always a first-class guide dog.  She has guided me to Scotland, London, Devon, Essex and all over the West Midlands.  Together we have mastered ferries, trains, buses, trams, the London Tube and even a carousel in Hereford High Town at Christmas.  Before I met Trudy, I would have preferred to die than go anywhere via public transport.  (And I definitely never would have tried the carousel!)

Trudy testing the water at Teignmouth, Devon

Trudy testing the water at Teignmouth, Devon

Trudy stopped walking in harness about three months ago, but is due to retire officially next week.  Her guide dog harness will be taken away for good.

Five years ago I never envisaged the emotional turmoil this would throw me into.  A guide dog provides so much emotional and practical support that as a team you begin to function as one being.  Picking up the harness and fastening the buckle under Trudy’s stomach is second nature to me.  We just used to get up and go out.  Being out and about with a guide dog is a real joy.  I was forever finding reasons to go out with Trudy just to experience the unbroken communication between us.

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I loved the feel of her body bobbing up and down under the harness, the different signals she used to give me through the harness handle as we explored the streets of Hereford, and her sneaky attempts to procure food from the pavements wherever we went.  Hoovering aside, I knew that I could trust Trudy with my life.  The trust between us is mutual and it unites us.  In her guide dog heyday Trudy was a keen worker and would always fly into her harness (quite literally!).  She used to cock her head as if to ask me what our plans were for the day.  No two days were ever the same.  One day we could be in Worcester, the next in the park, the next on a coach to London and the next in the theatre.  (I regret to say that Trudy often graced musical performances with her own vocal arrangements, so I always made sure we were right at the back near the exit!)

In the River Wye

In the River Wye

Go Walkies Fundraiser 2012

Go Walkies Fundraiser 2012

Reflecting over the past five years brings home to me how much Trudy has transformed my life.  In 2010 she was runner-up in the Life Changing category of the Guide Dog of the Year Awards, and in 2011 she won the Life Changing category.  The 2011 award was in recognition for Trudy’s role in helping me to cope with Breast Cancer.  She unquestionably speeded up my physical and emotional recovery.  IMG_3621

Trudy is notoriously inappropriate on official occasions.  She nearly ruined the photo shoot in the 2010 ceremony when she dived to retrieve an apple stalk and refused to drop it.  And far worse, when we met the Duke of Edinburgh last year during the Royal visit to Hereford, she stuck her snout inside his raincoat to sniff a certain part of his anatomy…  Less said of that the better.  (For the curious among you, he remarked: “Something must smell nice in there!”.)

Our precious moment of un-glory.

Diamond Day 2012 (notice the approaching snout...)

Diamond Day 2012 (notice the approaching snout…)

It’s very hard to acknowledge the end of an era with such a character as the Hereford Hoover.  Trudy is not quite ten, and probably could have continued as a guide dog for longer had she not effectively retired herself.  About a year ago I began to notice subtle changes in her demeanour when we were out together.  She seemed fed up, and became more and more distracted.  She started meandering instead of walking in straight lines, and frequently led me up the garden path (in fact every garden path in the street!). I got the distinct impression that she was no longer enjoying walking in harness.  Eventually this was confirmed when she lay down in the middle of the pavement on strike.  (Not once, but three times on three separate walks!)  A guide dog on strike needs to be listened to.IMG_3596

So three months ago I decided to stop taking her out on harness.  Since then Trudy has found her inner puppy, and bounces through the park revelling in her well-earned freedom.  I know I have made the right decision.

Running through thawing snow in Queenswood Arboritum

Running through thawing snow in Queenswood Arboritum

But although Trudy is benefiting from the redundant harness, I am finding our new way of life quite difficult.  The guide dog harness is a freedom ticket, and without it I have lost a lot of confidence.  I still have my lovely dog and she gives me so much in the way of affection, humour and companionship.  But our roaming area has shrunk from UK unlimited to a small corner of Hereford.

The Viewpoint, Aylestone Park

The Viewpoint, Aylestone Park

I am reasonably competent at using a long cane but this way of getting around ignites my old fears and anxieties about going out.  I find using a long cane quite an ordeal, and it makes me incredibly nervous.  After being dependent on a guide dog a long cane seems clumsy and lonely.  I have tried taking Trudy with me on my various practise expeditions.  It is better than being out on my own, but the slow walking speed and numerous crashes into bins, bollards and boards continue to put me off.  In addition (and this may sound ridiculous) relying on a long cane is a constant reminder to me that I cannot see, whereas walking with a guide dog enables me to forget it.  So my current solution is to go to the park every day with Trudy, but nowhere else.  And after five years of freedom and increasing confidence, this is a set-back.  If you imagine someone who has been used to walking with a prosthetic leg suddenly losing that leg and having to rely on crutches – that is how I feel without a working guide dog.  Thankfully I still have Trudy, and she has prevented me from becoming a recluse.IMG_3613

And that brings me onto the pivotal question.  What next?  This is the question that has caused me untold agonies.  My first decision was to keep Trudy as a pet and train with a new guide dog.  Guide Dogs have been very supportive and in March they loaned me a dog for a week to see how I would manage with two dogs.  The week went well and I coped.

But I knew deep down that I would not be able to sustain it.  When you have a guide dog on harness you’re not allowed to walk another dog at the same time.  I tried to imagine myself on a really bad day where I

IMG_3617struggle to make it out of bed.  Could I honestly say that I would be able to go out and about with the guide dog and then come back and take Trudy to the park?  There are days when I just manage to take Trudy out to the grass and then to the park gate where I let her off the lead.  With a young guide dog raring to go, and Trudy needing and deserving a quality retirement, I know the pressure would get to me eventually.  Not only that, I remember so clearly my first year with Trudy.  The first year in a new partnership takes every ounce of time, patience, energy and determination.  The more I thought about it, the more I realised that it would not be fair on either Trudy or the new guide dog to have the two of them.

Sock Thief (Not yet rehabilitated)

Sock Thief (Not yet rehabilitated)

So the reluctant decision I have had to make is that when the right guide dog is found for me Trudy will go to live with a friend in Hereford.  Subject to approval by Guide Dogs, this would be a brilliant compromise.  Trudy will have a fantastic retirement with people she knows and loves.  I will still have contact with my Hereford Hoover, whilst benefiting from having a guide dog to help me fulfil my remaining dreams.  This way Trudy and I will both be winners.  Someone advised me recently to imagine that Trudy is going off to University rather than leaving for good.  (Look out St. John’s College, Oxford!).  Bizarre as it may seem, this has helped me with the heartache.  Trudy will still be a huge part of my life.

Pawprints in the sand

Paw prints in the sand

In the meantime, Hoover and I are spending some quality time together and I have no regrets about her retiring.  I have my fingers crossed that my new guide dog will be an anti-establishment, rule-bending and reliably subversive canine with a character to rival the Hereford Hoover.  As Miranda Hart might say; “Such fun”.

Crafty Smile

Crafty Smile

Trudy mesmorised by Ghosty the Morrisman

Trudy mesmorised by Ghosty the Morris-man

Overseeing the excavation at Studmarsh, 2012

Overseeing the excavation at Studmarsh, 2012

Fundraising at Tesco 2012
Fundraising at Tesco 2012

To find out more about Guide Dogs for the Blind, please click here: http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/scarlett3/?gclid=CI_KgorL9bcCFfLHtAodYyYAqw

Tartan Trilogy : The Journey

I was up early on January 27th 2012 – well before I needed to be.  Whenever I undertake a long journey I have a rigorous pre-travel routine, which has become more complicated since  Trudy’s arrival on the scene.  On this particular trip Trudy’s kit took up more suitcase space than mine!  (Probably my fault for packing more dog food than necessary in case we got stranded somewhere).  The motto “Just in case” unfortunately determines most of what I pack when I go away.

Sight-impaired people often find public transport a real headache.  Travelling by train in the UK has been made easier thanks to station stops being announced on the train’s PA system.  It is not very often nowadays that we have to resort to counting stops or checking the time to ascertain where we are on a train journey!  But the noisy, smelly and busy platforms, crowded trains and huge gaps in between the train and platform can be off-putting.  As for which platform to go to and which train to board, that’s another mountainous obstacle.  Booking Assisted Travel beforehand reduces the stress of an unfamiliar train journey, but nevertheless it is not easy to put your trust in a “system “.

http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/passenger_services/disabled_passengers/

Hereford Railway Station has the most expert staff when it comes to assisting passengers who need extra help.  Down to a T, they are faultless.  Even so, until I was a hundred per cent sure that I was on the right train to Crewe I could not relax.  As it was early the train was quiet and I found myself settling back very quickly.  Trudy’s agenda was to hoover up beneath the seats and wriggle as far away as she could on the lead.  After she had licked the floor and eaten all the stray crumbs, she grumbled and curled up in a big lump to catch up on some missed sleep.  Labradors have it so easy.

Crewe was where I needed to change in order to catch the train to Glasgow Central.  When I had Googled Crewe Station a few days earlier, I was dismayed to learn that the station had 12 platforms and several cafes.  In other words, it was BIG.  This meant that as the train approached Crewe I became steadily more anxious.  What if there was no staff member waiting to meet me and assist me with the connection?  What if I actually missed the connection and never got to Gourock?  Suddenly my whole  life seemed to hang on making this one train connection.  It became my ultimate goal, my springboard, my future.  Crewe Station was Rivendell, Mount Olympus, Utopia, Paradise.  I had to get there, and equally I had to leave.  The Quest was gigantic and seemingly impossible.

On arrival, I was met by an extremely cheerful young man who took charge of my suitcase and bad me follow.  Off I went into the nether regions of Crewe Station, Trudy hoovering in the lead, completely oblivious to where we were heading.  It paid to be trusting.  In a few minutes I was comfortably established in one of the cafes I’d read about, relieved that at least I would make it over the border to Glasgow.  The chirpy lad was unquestionably sure of his trains, and that meant that I was sure too.  Ironically, I actually informed a fellow passenger that this was the correct platform for Glasgow Central – such is the ebb and flow of public transport!

The second leg of the journey felt like the real start of my adventure.  For one thing, I am so used to Arriva Trains that sitting in a train which was owned by a different company felt decidedly unorthodox.  It was like being in a stranger’s house.  This train was very crowded, and Trudy received far more attention than she had done on the way to Crewe. 

I could feel the tip of her tail thumping against my foot as one by one, people described her as “marvellous” and “beautiful”.  Her ear flaps were pinned back against the side of her head as she licked the cream off the luscious compliments.  She was the picture of stoicism  – the perfect working dog, saintly, bordering on smug. 

So when she dived into an un-manned crisp packet and virtually devoured the contents before anyone could intervene, the food crime appeared all the more shocking and unthinkable.  I was expecting a Tabloid journalist to tap me on the shoulder and berate me for “creating” a thief.  I felt the shame of a disappointed parent.  The aisle was narrow and there were people jammed in every available space, so Trudy’s intention to finish off her ill-gotten gains was harder to contain.  I succeeded in retrieving the crisp packet, only to realise that my hand and sleeve were covered in slimy, half-chewed crisp remnants fresh from the mouth of a Labrador.  I pretended I was not with her.  I was disgusted.  Trudy was disgusted too, for she wanted the crisps.  The atmosphere was a tangible bubble of bad mood.

Then we reached Preston.  I remember Preston because the train suddenly became colder.  This was my first awareness of being “on holiday”.  It was snowing outside, and I began excitedly sending texts to friends and family relating that I was at Preston, and “guess what guys?  It’s snowing!”  The PA system decided to pack up here so I rapidly tried to recall how many stations lay in between Preston and Glasgow Central.  There was a swift change of guard, and the new one was Scottish –  so we truly were on the way to Glasgow!

Having survived Crewe, I was not overly anxious about Glasgow Central Station.  I’m very glad, for this station dwarfed Crewe by far.  It was like a micro-city, with swarms of passengers buzzing hither and thither.  Thankfully the Assisted Travel was still up to the mark, as otherwise I would have disappeared into the underworld and never emerged again.  In Glasgow Station I giggled like an over-excited kid – I was actually over the border, out of England, venturing into another country!  My ears tuned into Scottish voices, some of which I could barely comprehend.  I slid about in my own  Englishness, for it felt totally inadequate in this environment.  I so wanted to add a bit of Scot to my identity!

My third train was a relatively short journey from Glasgow Central to Gourock.  By sheer coincidence I found that I was sitting opposite someone who was destined for the Murder Mystery Weekend in Dunoon.  Trudy actually introduced us and hence made the discovery  – in return for which I forgave her earlier food crime.  The Snout has its uses. 

Thus I reached my destination of Gourock Railway Station nearly seven and a half hours after leaving Hereford.  The smoothness of the journey gave me untold confidence when it came to returning home three days later.  Ironically this time I did miss the connection at Crewe which delayed my return to Hereford by over an hour.  The event was almost an anti-climax and I smiled recalling the anxiety which had plagued me just a few days earlier.  I can even whisper to the world that I think I now feel confident travelling by train.  “If there’s a railway station,” I heard myself saying to someone a couple of days ago, “Trudy and I can get there”.

The second part of the Tartan Trilogy (in progress) will recount the Murder Mystery Weekend itself – tune in if you dare!

http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/passenger_services/disabled_passengers/

http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/supportus/campaigns/talkingbuses/talking-buses-news/guide-dogs-discovers-the-forgotten-passengers/

 

The Hoover and Bag Go Forth!

I’m writing this post in some haste.  Trudy and I are embarking on an adventure early tomorrow morning which is making me feel electric with excitement and apprehension.

In November last year when life was pretty bleak I responded impulsively to an e-mail which was offering a discount on a Murder Mystery Weekend in Dunoon. 

I realised today that I have been wanting to go to Scotland for thirty-five years, so this trek across the border feels momentous.  Trudy and I have been told to arrive at Gourock Railway Station by 4.30pm tomorrow.  The whole trip has such a thrilling, mystifying, alarming uncertainty about it that I am almost beside myself. 

The sense of adventure is gripping.  I have no idea what to expect – or even if we will get there.  This journey is truly putting Assisted Travel to the test!  My public transport experiences have been so varied that I am prepared for anything.

I do not know anyone in the holiday group so that too is fuelling my imagination.  Who will be there, and what on Earth am I doing?  Whether I’m experiencing some mid-life crisis or latent travel bug is immaterial now, for I am all packed and about to go to bed so that I won’t sleep past the alarm (set for 5.30am).

No time to think about the whys and wherefores.  The Hoover and Bag go forth!

Monday Melancholy Is On The Dole

 Monday – it always brings a flavour of melancholy as it peeps through the bedroom curtains.  Today’s Monday emptied an entire dessert spoon of gloom into my morning coffee.

I had to get up earlier than usual – never a great start to the day.  Trudy got up too, wondering if breakfast was going to be extra early.  After some tense anticipation she grumbled and slumped into her day-bed in the lounge.  How I envied her, lying curled up in all that fur just waiting for breakfast to be served.   

An engineer from the Housing Association was supposed to be coming to fix my shower which is slowly detaching itself from the bathroom wall.  So while it was still dark outside and the birds were feebly trying out their vocal chords, I was polishing taps and shower fixings, and almost got to the point of cleaning the floor.  But procrastination filed away that noble idea before it had time to flourish. 

I was told the engineer would arrive  “AM”.  According to the Tenancy Handbook, that can be any time between 7am and 1pm.  So I waited.  And waited.  And waited even more until AM turned to PM.  No engineer!   When I phoned to ask what was afoot, I was given no explanation, just an apology and a re-scheduled appointment for tomorrow morning.  The waste of an entire morning and the likelihood of a repeat performance tomorrow fuelled my Monday melancholy into despair. 

But today is one of those cold days with an icy sun baring its bald head in the sky.  So I decided to take Trudy to the park to give her a free run and to give me a blast of cold January air.  Even before I had reached the metal gate at the park entrance my spirits had risen in line with the sun.  The sharp breeze was flushing out my lungs and giving them new life.  I gulped like a goldfish to take in as much air as possible. 

Standing still in the open field which spans the bottom of the park, I felt invigorated.   Monday melancholy was insignificant here.  She began to lose her power and before long I could no longer sense her shadow.  Trudy was tucking into an earthy molehill, her back-end was vertical and her collar-bells were clinking rather than ringing.  When I whistled her she was reluctant to come, but eventually the prospect of a titbit was more alluring than a mound of earth and she bounced towards me with her ears flapping.

Within seconds she was off again, investigating some new scents which she had not noticed before.  If only I could learn from my Labrador and live for the moment.  No anxieties about the long-term future, no regrets about the past, just the here and now.  Something about Aylestone Park in Hereford always brings me back to the here and now.  There’s a magic in this park that stills Time, calms the spirit and frees the soul.

Minutes later Trudy came brushing by in the hope of another titbit.  I ruffled her fur, it was damp and smelt of winter grass.  Her wagging tail thumped against my legs and I counted the beats – one, two, three, four.  It was like a slow drum-roll at the start of a dance.  While we stood there together the ice on the sun began to thaw and I felt a warm glow drizzling over my shoulders.  I realised that I was truly happy.

When Trudy and I ventured home we were both transformed.  Trudy was tired and slow, and could only manage a very slight wag with the tip of her tail.  I was at peace and ready to start my Monday afresh, even though it was half past two in the afternoon.

As I write this, Monday has ebbed into the early hours of Tuesday.  Trudy is stretched out on her bed lost in Labrador dreams.  Before I start to slide into my own dream-world,  I thank God that I am alive.   

Dogs or Antidepressants?

I have not tended my Blog for a while because I’ve been waiting for a decidedly dark cloud to lift from my mind.  It is taking its time – so much so that I have decided to wait no longer.  This time of year has always stirred up a malevolent host of demons in my world.  The darkening evenings actually seem to suck the life out of me, and I feel myself sinking into hopelessness.  Real sink or swim stuff.  Yet here I am, still alive enough to write.

When all is well I throw myself into daily life  – making plans, embarking on courses, committing to dates and appointments, acting on ideas.  Then depression strikes and within days all my excitement has died.  I can feel the demon’s claw seizing my spirit and attempting to strangle it.  Suddenly I cannot go out, I want to shut myself away from my friends, I lose the motivation to do the simplest tasks, and slowly things begin to fall apart.

So where does Trudy fit into this?  My black and white choice is to find somebody to look after her while I wallow in misery, or to stumble onwards and continue caring for her myself.  Unable to part with her, I’ve chosen to keep things as they are.  The upshot is that I have   to continue with a daily routine for Trudy’s sake.  That means getting  up at the usual time to feed her and take her outside for her “busy busy”.  More often than not I meet a neighbour and we spend a few minutes engaging in chit-chat.   Having a bouncy Labrador makes it impossible to hide away from the outside world.   Thanks to Trudy, the skeleton of my normal routine has remained intact. 

I have learned to lower my expectations during times of low mood.  My current goal is to survive this rather bleak period and to continue to look after Trudy – not because I have to, but because I want to.  The love I have for Trudy makes me glow inside, and even when my mood is dark and I can’t feel the warmth from that glow I know it’s still there.  When Trudy bounds over after I’ve popped out for a few minutes, I can feel the glow stirring, and it gives me hope.  Trudy is a gift, and the bond we have is a gift.  Being on the receiving end of the unconditional love which just spills out of Labradors is very precious. 

One of the great things about dogs is that they are so tangible.  Trudy’s warm, soft fur has an instant feel-good effect – and that’s before I get to the silky ears, and the wagging tail.  Research has proved that stroking animals can increase the levels of serotonin in the brain.  In addition it can boost your immune system, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, and decrease pain.  This is why there is an increasing number of Therapy dogs being assigned to hospices and retirement homes.  In fact when I have visited such places myself in my capacity as a Speaker, I have witnessed the positive effects that Trudy has had on some of the patients.  Trudy is synonymous with Life.  Just being around her makes life livable.

Perhaps her ability to inject humour into my bleakest moments is the thing that strikes me most.  If Trudy wants to play hide and seek with items from my laundry basket, she won’t take no for an answer no matter how depressed I feel!  And the fast-beating thump of her tail has such an upbeat rhythm that my mouth smiles without me even thinking about it.  Then there are the numerous feats of Labrador mischief that prove to me how priceless Trudy is, and before long I realise that I’m actually glad to be alive.  Sometimes I surprise myself by my own spontaneous laughter – thanks to Trudy.   Trudy ignites hope inside me, and hope is what stops people from drowning.

So despite the waves of gloom which permeate my days at the moment, I have the means to stay grounded, focussed and connected with other people.  When I’m in the park with Trudy, fellow walkers see the hurtling Labrador before they see me.  Even when they notice me and we strike up a conversation they are unaware of my inner struggle.  This in itself is a true bonus.     Antidepressants can set right the chemical imbalances in your brain, but having a dog like Trudy is a reason for living and thriving.  Merely wanting to look after a dog takes your thoughts away from your own troubles.  Actually having a dog reduces those troubles to the bare minimum.   Trudy’s role as a Guide dog at this time is secondary to her therapeutic role.  The very fact that she gives me so much makes me determined to do what I can for her.  This has prevented me from caving in on myself.

Trudy provides me with so much more than freedom and mobility.  I know she understands me as I do her, and it feels like we’re joined together by something magical.  She is not just part of my life, she has become part of me.

 Hetty is Britain’s first dual Guide dog and Seizure Alert dog http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/news/uks-first-dual-guide-dog-and-seizure-dog-graduates-with-new-owner/

Children with autism and OCD benefit from assistance dogs  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/11/giving/11DOGS.html?_r=2&partner=TOPIXNEWS&ei=5099

Therapy dogs in Psychiatric services http://drdeborahserani.blogspot.com/2010/10/therapy-service-dogs.html