The Things We Do for Cats

“Would you get me a beer, honey? I’d get it myself but there’s a cat on my lap.”

In our house, one of the things we do for cats is to give them priority seating. Often that seating is on top of us. And the person so sat upon is immune from chores or any activity that requires getting up. If the cat is sleepy, this condition can last for hours.

Other things we do for cats are less ridiculous. My husband and I, and a number of people we know, have been trained and trusted with our cats’ medical procedures. Most people can give pills or liquid medicines, eye drops or ear drops at home. (Although even these duties are not for the faint of heart. One of our cats invented the sport of projectile drooling when given a pill.)

Some go even further. When one of our beloved cats developed kidney disease, and vet visits and fluid treatments became prohibitively expensive, we were permitted to buy the supplies at cost and administer them at home.

What it takes is a dripset, a bag of fluids, and a disposable needle. You hold or hang the fluid bag higher than the cat’s head, attach the dripset (hose and controls), and carefully attach the needle. It resembles an IV for a human.

But the fluids are delivered not intravenously but subcutaneously – beneath the cat’s skin. The procedure is a little tricky. You pinch up a triangle of skin between the cat’s shoulder blades and insert the needle under the skin but above the muscle. Then you turn the little wheel and the fluids flow. You watch the bag carefully to make sure the right dose is given, and you hold the cat still.

That would be the tricky part, and the reason giving sub-cue fluids generally requires two people. Many people wrap the cat in a towel, which is supposed to be immobilizing, but isn’t. We prefer putting the cat in a pillowcase, which makes it easier to control all four paws. If kitty is feeling very poorly, she may not object strenuously, but a cat on her way back to health can be a handful.

Naturally, after the procedure, you dispose of the needle safely and give kitty a treat or let her go off by herself and sulk.

In order to do this level of cat care at home, you must have at least one person who is willing and able to stick the needle in the cat. My husband is an old softy, so I am the designated cat-poker in the family.

It’s a valuable skill. It isn’t just the cost savings that makes a person go through the sometimes distressing procedure. Ailing cats do better when they receive treatment at home from their loving, reassuring caregivers. And they avoid the stress of those extra visits to the vet.

Yes, it’s difficult (it gets easier with practice) and no, it’s not for everyone. But in our house it’s just one of the things we do for cats.

P.S. Even as I post this, I’m house- and cat-sitting for a friend whose cat needs insulin injections twice every day. I’m not suggesting this as a career, but it is nice to know someone you can trust with advanced home cat care.

Advertisements

What Kids Should Learn About Mental Health

The stigma and the misinformation surrounding mental illness are staggering.

How many adults believe that depression is “just being sad”? That the weather can be “bipolar”? That you can call yourself OCD because you’re a little too organized? That suicide threats are never acted on? That mentally ill people are dangerous? That prayer, or sunshine, or positive thinking will cure all mental disorders?

We can’t do much about educating and informing the adult population that all those beliefs are false. But we can avoid raising another generation that buys in to these misconceptions – if we start now with mental health education in schools.

Whenever someone proposes this idea, there are common objections. You want kindergartners to learn about schizophrenia. You’ll have impressionable kids thinking they have every disorder you teach about. Discussing suicide will give teens ideas.

Again, those are misconceptions. Mental health education in schools could look like this:

In kindergarten and grades 1-2, part of the health curriculum should be a unit about understanding emotions and how to deal with them. This is already being done when teachers tell kids to “use your words” or “use your indoor voice.” But more could be done in the area of teaching children how they can keep from letting anger, sadness, frustration, and other emotions cause them difficulties. Yes, this may involve techniques that resemble meditation and yes, these may be controversial, but the outcomes will be beneficial.

I also think that young children ought to be taught about autism. They will certainly meet autistic children in their classes at this age. Helping them understand the condition at their age level will, one can hope, lead to more inclusion and less bullying of kids who are “different.”

Older children can learn about mental illness in their science or health classes. This should be a unit that covers the basic facts: that mental illness is like physical illness in some ways, that treatment is available, that mental or emotional disorders will affect one in four Americans in their lifetimes, and that mentally ill persons are not generally dangerous.

Middle schoolers can be taught some more specifics: the names and symptoms of some of the most common disorders, the kinds of treatments available, famous people who have succeeded in spite of mental disorders and ordinary people who live fulfilling lives despite them. Speakers from local mental health centers or the school guidance counselor would be helpful.

The topics of self-harm and suicide should be brought up at the middle school level. It is sad but true that children in the middle school age range are affected by both – if not directly, by knowing a classmate who is. And suicide is the third leading cause of death for children ages 10-14. Learning the facts may help students who need it find help before it is too late.

In high school, the focus can shift to human psychology; more detail about serious psychological conditions; and the possibility of careers in mental health treatment, nursing, or advocacy. Topics of self-harm and suicide should be covered in greater detail, with discussions of how suicide affects the families and loved ones of those who die by suicide, how to recognize possible signs that a person is thinking about suicide or self-harm, and what does and doesn’t work when a person shows those signs.

The details of mental health education in schools still need to be worked out. These suggestions come from my experience as a person with bipolar disorder, who began showing symptoms while I was a child. Organizations such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) provide resources that can help in understanding the need for mental health education among school-aged children.

Understanding mental health is as important for schoolchildren as understanding physical health. Why should one get all the attention and the other virtually none? Mental health education that begins early can help children and their families in ways that will resonate far into the future.

Most adults have little to no understanding of the realities of mental illness. It doesn’t have to be the same for the next generation.

For Caregivers Everywhere

I have bipolar disorder. My husband is my caregiver. He didn’t sign up for this gig when we met, except for later vowing the part about “in sickness and in health” when we married. I could not negotiate life without him. I try to thank him daily.

My mother was my father’s caregiver when he was dying of multiple myeloma. She knew she was doing a good job of taking care of him, but she asked me to tell her that. She needed someone to tell her she was doing it right.

So this is for my husband and my mother, and for caregivers everywhere.

Thank you. Good job. We need you and we know it.

Some of you are unpaid caregivers who help loved ones for the necessity of it, for the obligation of it, or for the love of it. All of you deserve our thanks.

Some caregivers receive pay, and you deserve our thanks, too. There are many other professions or jobs you could be doing, but you chose to help those who needed it most.

All parents are caregivers, but the parents of special needs children are extra special. You share a task and a worth that few others recognize. You didn’t ask for the job, but you step up to it every day.

You work in homes, rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, schools, and group homes. Your work matters more than most people realize. You help not just the sick, but the struggling, the frail, the dying, and the trying.

Respite care workers deserve recognition too. You allow caregivers to continue their work refreshed – give them a space to catch their breath and recharge their spirits. You are caregivers as well.

The care you all give is not easily definable. It involves the physical, spiritual, mental, and emotional needs of the medically, mentally, or emotionally fragile. It provides sustenance, both literal and figurative. It keeps the people you care for going, or helps them lay down their struggles.

Recently I wrote a blog post called “Caregivers Need Care Too,” specifically about people who care for the mentally disturbed (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-wh). It talked about what caregivers need in return for the attention, care, support, assistance, and love they give.

In it I said that those who care for others need something from those they care for, and from the rest of society. They need appreciation, validation, time away to refresh and re-energize themselves, understanding, support, and recognition. Not all of the people you care for are capable of giving back, for whatever reason.

So, please accept this from me, one who has known caregivers and benefited from caregivers, and loved caregivers. Your work and your devotion do not go unnoticed, Even if the ones you care for are not capable of saying “thank you,” I say it for them.

You are appreciated. You are worthy. You are loved. You are respected. You make a difference. You have value. You are valued. Even if you never hear these words from those you care for, please accept them from me.

I am grateful.

 

 

Poor? Mentally Ill? Sorry, You’re on Your Own.

Poverty and mental illness have something in common.

There is a stigma attached to both.

Both are seen as moral failings. If only people tried harder, worked more, improved themselves, they could lift themselves out of poverty. Without relying on anyone else’s help, which would be shameful.

And if only people stopped being so negative, looked on the bright side, smiled more, thought more about others, their positive mental attitude would make all those shrinks and pills unnecessary. They wouldn’t be shooting people with assault rifles and sucking up tax dollars for disability payments, which is shameful.

Society can’t afford poverty and it can’t afford mental illness. Why should we make the effort when the poor and the mentally disturbed don’t?

Why should these two conditions both be associated with such stigma and for such similar reasons? It’s simple. People don’t want to think that poverty or mental illness could happen to them.

The truth, however, is that a vast number of Americans are living one paycheck or one illness away from poverty, and one in four or five Americans will face a mental or emotional disorder at some point in their lives. And they are afraid. So they tell themselves that the conditions only affect Other People. And those people must be stupid or lazy or unmotivated or something, or they wouldn’t be poor or mentally ill in the first place.

And that’s where stigma begins.

And what are the consequences of stigma?

Well, first of all, it means that no one wants to spend money alleviating either condition. If these Other People can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps and improve, the thinking goes, why should we pay them not to? Job training programs, child care, higher minimum wage, insurance coverage, community mental health centers, treatment programs for addiction, need to be paid for some way, but not with our tax dollars, by God!

And it means we don’t want to look at the Other People for fear of seeing ourselves. Don’t put halfway houses, group homes, unemployment offices, treatment centers, psychiatric hospitals, and other reminders in our neighborhoods. Not In My Backyard!

It’s not just a failure of compassion, though it’s that too. It’s not just a failure of the social “safety net,” though it certainly is that as well. It’s also a failure of the imagination – what would it be like if poverty or mental illness should happen to me? The reality is too unpleasant to think about, so don’t.

And while we’re talking about unpleasant, let’s mention the place where poverty and mental illness intersect – homelessness. Don’t we assume that homeless people are both poor and mentally ill? As such, spending money on them is doubly wasted. Why bother? It’s not like it’s going to help. Poverty, homelessness, and mental illness are incurable, after all. (Unless a person can cure their problems without outside help, of course.)

So what’s my stake in all this? Am I a bleeding-heart liberal do-gooder who wants to cure society’s ills and make us all foot the bill for it?

Well, yeah.

But I’m also living month to month on my income. My husband makes only a bit over minimum wage. We have both, at one time or another during our lives, been on unemployment and/or food stamps. We have no nest egg or emergency fund. It wouldn’t take much in the way of reversals to wipe us out. Even at that, we’re relatively privileged.

And I have a mental illness – bipolar disorder 2. Without insurance, I could not afford to see a psychiatrist, or buy medication (one of mine costs $800 per month), or get inpatient treatment if I ever need it. Right now my condition is moderately well controlled, but if I should suffer a setback, I might not be able to work at all. And there we are, back at poverty.

These two unfortunate conditions – poverty and mental illness – affect me directly, so I can’t look away and say they only happen to Other People. I know that they affect others more severely than they do me, and I don’t know how those people make it through.

But I do know that stigma isn’t helping any of us.

When Your Friend Is Depressed

…And by “depressed,” I mean clinically depressed – the sort that has no apparent reason and lasts for weeks or even months. Your friend is not just sad, but feeling hopeless, helpless, discouraged, defeated. even immobilized. She or he may not want to go anywhere or do anything that used to bring happiness. You may even detect a dullness – called “flat affect” – in the person’s voice, a lack of animation, often combined with monosyllabic responses.

What can you do to help your friend?

At first it may seem like the answer is “not much.” And that’s partly true. What your friend really needs is probably help from a mental health professional and possibly from antidepressant medication.

There are, however a few things you can do to help your friend – and a few things you shouldn’t do, not because they will make your friend’s condition worse, but because they simply won’t help.

Let’s start with the things you can do.

Keep reaching out. Even if your friend doesn’t respond, refuses your invitations or doesn’t show up, know that the simple act of staying in touch says that you like the person even though she’s having a hard time and that you won’t abandon her. Make no mistake, many people will. Even if your friend is unable to respond, when she finally does get some relief from the depression, she will realize and remember who stuck by her during the depths. Surely you can spare a minute or two for a phone call or email a couple of times a month. You may think it won’t make a difference, but it will.

Offer to help with practical matters. If your friend has decided to get professional help, you can make doing that easier. You may not realize it, but the simple acts of getting up, dressed, and out of the house can seem insurmountable to him. Offer to drive him to his appointments or to the pharmacy to pick up his prescriptions. Give him a pill caddy to help him remember to take his meds every day.

Imagine your friend is physically ill. In a way, she is. The depression is a result of a neurochemical imbalance in her brain. What would you do if a friend were recovering from an illness or perhaps surgery, or even the death of a loved one? Bring her a hot meal once in a while or pick up an extra sandwich if you’re getting one for yourself? Offer to do laundry or another household chore? Enlist other friends to help? Pray for her healing and tell her you are doing so? None of this will make your friend magically well, but they can help her through the worst phases of a depressive episode while she’s waiting for medication to take effect (which may take as long as six weeks).

There are also some things that you shouldn’t do for your friend because they simply will not work. Here’s a brief list.

Don’t try to “fix” him. As much as you may care, you do not have the power to make it all better. Trying to do that will only frustrate both of you. Leave your psychological theories and miracle cures at home.

Don’t give “pep talks.” Telling your friend to snap out of it or to smile more or to think of others who have it worse will not alter his brain chemistry for the better. He most likely won’t be able to appreciate jokes and humor, either, even if he did before the depression.

Don’t expect quick results. Clinical depression lasts for weeks or months, or in some cases even years. It’s frustrating to see your friend suffering for that long, but if your friend sees you give up, she may too.

Don’t ignore suicidal talk. Suicide is a real risk for a depressed person, even if he is getting professional help. Most people who kill themselves give warnings – they talk about being better off dead or give away their possessions. Stay with your friend. Make sure he has the number of a suicide hotline. Call his therapist. Take him to an emergency room.

My advice for someone who lives with a depressed person is similar: Do what you can and realize what you can’t do. If you truly care about the person and stick with him or her through the bad times, you may find one day that you have your friend or loved one back – maybe not as good as new, but on the way to getting better.

That’s when you’ll find that all your efforts have been worth it. Helping a depressed friend survive and heal is an accomplishment not to be taken lightly.

Hungry Children: A One-Act Play

Sharing food with the needy

[Setting: The Halls of Power]

Guy in Suit: The media keep saying that there are hungry children in America.

Other Guy in Suit: Let them eat dinner.

Bleeding-Heart: That’s the problem. They don’t have dinner to eat. Or even breakfast maybe.

GIS: We already give them lunch at school. That’s five days a week.

B-H: Unless they’re absent or on vacation or a snow day.

OGIS: Then it’s the parents’ problem.

GIS: Why do schoolchildren have so many vacations, anyway? We don’t get all those vacations.

B-H: Uh, yes you do.

GIS: Oh. Well, never mind that now. We were talking about tax cuts…uh, job creators…uh, feeding children. That was it.

OGIS: Suppose the media are right?

GIS: The media are never right unless we tell them what to say.

OGIS: Well, just suppose. For a minute. OK? The problem I see is that it looks good for us to feed poor, hungry, starving American children. By the way, are they as pitiful-looking as poor, starving foreign children?

GIS: Probably not. You were saying?

OGIS: If there are hungry children, and we do need to feed them, how are we supposed to do that without feeding the lousy, lazy, good-for-nothing moochers at the same time?

GIS: Ah, yes, the parents. If we give the parents anything, it should be one bag of rice and one bag of beans. And — hey — they could feed their kids that too.

B-H: But children need good nutrition — fruits and vegetables and vitamins and minerals and enough to keep them full and healthy.

OGIS: Hey, we have plenty of minerals left over after fracking. Won’t those do?

B-H: No.

GIS: But if we give kids all that fancy food, what’s to keep the parents from eating it?

OGIS: Or selling it for booze or cigarettes or drugs?

GIS: Think about that! The drug dealers would be getting all the good nutrition. Then they could run faster from the police.

OGIS: We can’t have that, now can we?

B-H: But…the hungry children? Remember? Eating at most one meal a day, five days a week, when school is in session?

GIS: That’s plenty. I heard American children are obese, anyway. They could stand to lose a little weight.

[Curtain]

 

I thought it was time to revisit this post when my husband and I visited IHOP for their No Kid Hungry promotion, which raised money for www.nokidhungry.org. (You can donate at their website. I did. Besides buying all those pancakes.)

I was also reminded of a conversation I had with someone who works in the education sector. She was at a conference, talking with a group of teachers. One of them mentioned how many snow days they had that year and my friend responded, “Oh, boy! I bet the kids loved that!” There was an awkward silence. Finally, one of the teachers spoke up. “On a snow day,” she said, “many kids don’t get to eat. The only real meal that they get is at school.”

My friend had never thought about that, and neither had I. We both came from times and places when there was always food in the fridge and a hot dinner on the table. Sometimes we forget that life isn’t like that for everyone.

In this election year, we’ll hear a lot about welfare and funding for schools and improvements in educational policy. Childhood hunger may not be mentioned, but it is intimately tied up with all those issues.

You can donate to local food banks and charities. You can work with nokidhungry.org. Or you can leave it up to the Guys in Suits, for whatever they think it’s worth.

Seven Reasons I Hate the Bloggess

Red heart, studded with apins isolated on a white background. 3d render

First, let me say that I read the Bloggess all the time. I have her books and I read them all the time too. But secretly I hate her, and here’s why.

1. She had a weirder childhood than I did. She lived in a small Texas town full of farm critters and wild animals, and weird characters, including her father the taxidermist, and has interesting poverty stories, like the one about the bread-sack shoes. I lived in a nondescript middle-class suburb with a stay-at-home mom and a dad that went to work every day smelling of Vitalis and Aqua Velva, rather than deer blood.

(This was also the problem I had trying to write country songs. You can’t get very far with “I was born an industrial engineering technician’s daughter/in the Central Baptist Hospital of Lexington, KY.”)

2. She had more interesting pets, with more interesting names than I did. She had a raccoon named Rambo that wore Jams and a delinquent turkey named Jenkins. Later she had a dog named Barnaby Jones Pickles and has cats named Ferris Mewler and Hunter S. Thomcat. We had dogs named Blackie and Bootsie and rabbits named Christina and Mittens. Our recent dogs have been Karma and Bridget, and the only eccentric cat names we’ve bestowed have been Django and Dushenka.

(Ordinarily, I don’t like cat names like Baryshnikat and F. Cat Fitzgerald. I think cat names should be something you wouldn’t be embarrassed to yell out the door if one of them wanders off, like Louise or Garcia. But I suppose the Bloggess’s neighbors are by now used to anything.)

3. She has more interesting disorders than I do. I have a bad back and bipolar disorder type 2 (and a blog about it, bipolarjan.wordpress.com). The Bloggess has generalized anxiety disorder, anti-phospholipid syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, depression, and, apparently, an obsession with chupacabras and vaginas. This gives her much more to write about. Although I do have two blogs. Two! In your face, Bloggess!

4. She’s less inhibited than I am. The Bloggess would have ended that last paragraph, “In your face, motherfucker!” I didn’t learn to cuss till I was in my 20s and no one I meet ever believes I swear until I do. Then they’re shocked. Also, I swear all the time, except in my blogs, where I’m afraid I’ll offend readers, all of whom I assume have tender sensibilities. The Bloggess knows her readers better than that.

5. She has way more readers than I do. And she’s published books and has another coming out. I have 495 followers and I think most of them want to sell me books on how to publicize my blog. I should probably study a book like that, but I’d rather read ones about emerging viruses, cloud cities on Venus, and mostly true memoirs. On the other hand, I have the distinction of being the only writer ever to have articles in both Catechist and Black Belt magazines. So take that, moth . . . Bloggess!

6. She and her husband have more interesting arguments than my husband and I do. We never even talk quietly about whether Jesus was a zombie.

7. She has a stronger voice than I do. I mean her writing voice. I had no idea what her speaking voice was like until I saw a video clip of her on the web, talking about vaginas. But when I’m going to write in my blogs, I have to lay off reading her for a day or two, because her voice takes over my weak, tiny mind and it wants to sound like her. I wish I could write like that. Or at least as well as that.jennyme

But, like the Bloggess, I am a strangeling. And that’s a start.

The Other Sex Talk

I’ve never had the “sex talk” that all people – both parents and children – seem to dread. I’m not a parent and when I was a child I received my technical understanding of reproduction from a health class film, which left a lot to the imagination, and the book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, which filled in a lot of gaps that the health film skipped right over. (The film referred to a menstrual period as “the weeping of a disappointed uterus.” Ick.)

erotic education button on computer pc keyboard keyBut that’s not the sex talk I mean. This is the sex talk for consenting adults that hardly anyone has but everyone needs to. It’s divided into two sections: The Health Chat and the Pleasure Chat. It’s best to conduct these conversations when everyone is still clothed and not engaged in heavy breathing. I would recommend choosing a time and place not conducive to sex – a park, for example. Both parties need time to consider the discussion before deciding whether to proceed.

The Health Chat

The easier part of the health chat is discussing birth control/safe sex. What method does each partner typically use or prefer? Barrier methods? Hormonal? Does either person have an allergy to latex? These are things it’s better to know beforehand.

So far the health chat has been fairly smooth and non-threatening. Next comes the part that too many people skip because it’s just so uncomfortable to talk about: STDs. Herpes and HIV infections are the most serious, as there is no cure for either, and both carry enormous stigma. But those are the very reasons potential partners must talk about them. They’re not just potential surprises but possibly life-changing ones.

STDs can be a deal-breaker. Talking about them in advance can eliminate the possibility of a revelation at an inopportune moment and give the other person a chance to consider the risks, the seriousness, the forms of protection, do research, or even discuss the subject with a physician.

How do you do this delicate dance? Be forthright, but not panicky. “I know we’re both thinking about having sex, but I need to tell you something. I have a herpes infection.” Explain what you’re doing about it. “I’ve been on anti-virals for over a year and haven’t had an outbreak in that time. I always use condoms, even when I’m not having an outbreak.” Then back off. “I’m sure you’ll want to think about this, maybe learn some more about it, before we decide whether to go further. And that’s okay. If you decide not to, I respect your decision.” There, that takes what? Two minutes? Three? (Working yourself up to having the conversation may take a tad bit longer.) But ethically, it’s something you need to do.

It’s also legitimate to ask if your prospective partner habitually practices safe sex. “I didn’t use condoms with my last girlfriend, but she was a very nice woman” is not a good enough answer. That nice person’s last partner might at some point have had sex with a diseased goat. The point is, you just don’t know. The safe option then is for you both to get tested. I once advised  a friend who was in this situation of what his hero Ronald Reagan said: “Trust, but verify.”

The Pleasure Chat

It can be best to check out with your partner what activities he or she finds enjoyable. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it can be very important. Again, it’s something you might want to discuss before you’re close to getting it on, to prevent knee-jerk reactions that might spoil an otherwise good time.

If both of you enjoy mainstream, middle-of-the road sex, that’s fine. But one or both of you may also like the more kinky side of things. Better to talk about it than be surprised when someone approaches an unexpected orifice or brings out an unfamiliar sex toy.

One saying in the kink community is that sex should be safe, sane, and consensual. It’s better to discuss the safety and sanity, and get the consent, before proceeding.

Also, discussing these matters beforehand gives you a chance to think seriously about what your boundaries are – what things you absolutely don’t want to do, what you might try once as an experiment, and what you’ve never done but have no objection to. You can also take time to ask yourself whether you are reacting automatically or have actually thought about the questions raised. Your instant instinct might be “Ew,” but on further reflection you might say, “I’ve never thought I’d like that, but if it gives my partner pleasure, maybe I could try it and see.” From these reflections can grow more varied – and more fulfilling – sex lives.

Talking about sex can be scary, or erotic, or sensible, or just plain necessary. One thing’s for sure. If you can’t have a sex talk with someone, you shouldn’t be having sex with that person.

 

(This is for my friend John and others who informed my thinking on these issues.)

 

The Power of the Purr

My father hated cats – until he cared for Bijou.

His feelings toward cats had their roots in his childhood. Once his mother was bitten by a stray cat that she was trying to help. For that, my father held a grudge. Bijou changed his mind.

Bijou was a smallish tortoiseshell calico, my very first cat. I picked her out of a roomful of cats at the shelter because of her gentle demeanor and because her quiet ways didn’t seem to garner a lot of attention from the other prospective pet owners. Over the years she became a cuddlesome kitty who slept curled up in one of the curves of my body, behind my knees or snuggled by my waist, safe and cozy and sharing warmth.

When my husband and I went on our honeymoon, I asked my parents to look after Bijou. I knew my dad’s feelings about cats, but I felt sure he could at least give her food and water, if not warm up to and love on her as she liked.

My father had cancer – multiple myeloma – a particularly vicious form of bone cancer. It was hard for him to move about, so when he went to our house, he usually ensconced himself in the barrel-backed chair while my mother did the honors filling food and water bowls.

But then Bijou jumped up on his lap.

And purred.

She had been avoiding us a bit before we left, preferring to take up residence under the bed or behind the sofa. We thought it was just a normal reaction to all the confusion and chaos surrounding a wedding.

Actually, she had feline leukemia. She was isolating, as cats often do when they don’t feel well. Maybe the stress of the wedding preparations caused her disease to become active. Maybe it was just her time.

Whatever it was, it touched my father. He had never been one for cancer support groups with names like “Make Today Count.” But one small cat, purring her way through pain and illness that would ultimately defeat her reached him the way nothing else could.

Maybe he saw in her the tenacity in the face of suffering that he too would need. Maybe he read her purr as acceptance of her lot in life. Maybe he saw a cat with every reason to strike out at someone choosing instead to jump up and purr.

However she did it, Bijou changed his mind about cats.

Finding Balance – Literally

We always hear about finding balance – between work and home, family and career, mind and body, heart and head.

My struggle for balance is more literal. My struggle for balance is about not finding myself on the floor with new bruises on my tush.

A number of factors influence my struggle for balance. Various parts of my body are in quiet or open rebellion.

I often joke that I have rocks in my head, but really they are in my ears. Otoliths (literally, “ear rocks”) are tiny calcium crystals that live in the inner ear and bump up against the little hair cells that send information to the brain about gravity and balance – which way the head and body are moving.

Unfortunately, if the little bits of calcium start rattling around loose in the “vestibular organs” (balance centers) of the ear, the brain senses movement when there isn’t any. The result: dizziness, vertigo, loss of balance. Technically, this is called Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV).

Practically, what it means is that moving my head in certain directions – such as tilting my head backward, especially with my eyes closed – makes me wobbly and prone to falling. This makes showering and shampooing tricky, even without the slippery surfaces, water, and suds.

(An extreme version of this, particularly when there is a sinus or ear infection, is called “labyrinthitis,” which I have also experienced. It’s unpleasantly like being drunk. The room spins. Then you crawl to the toilet and throw up. Repeatedly. The usual treatment is antihistamines such as Antivert or Benadryl.)

Then there are my back and my toes. The two are not as far apart as you might think. What connects them are nerves. And my nerves are frayed.

That’s not just figurative. I have bulging disks between the vertebrae in my back. A number of years ago, some of the bone in my lower back deteriorated and the combination caused a pinched nerve. I had pain in my back, of course, but also in various areas of my legs that were served by that particular nerve. An operation relieved the pain, but there was some residual damage to the nerve.

Now I have no feeling in the three smallest toes on my left foot. You’d be surprised at how much those baby toes have to do with balance. I was. The nerves have healed all they’re going to, so this is it.

How do I achieve balance?

Sometimes I walk with a cane. I try to avoid uneven ground, which pretty much means anything that isn’t paved or as flat as a golf green. I stand with my feet farther apart than most people. I don’t stand on my toes, largely because I can’t, or stand on one foot or with my eyes closed. I would absolutely fail any drunk-driving test that involves those skills.

Indoors, I do something that I’ve learned is called “wall-walking” (which is different than climbing the walls, something I do quite well figuratively). In my own home, where I don’t usually use my cane, I try to keep a light, finger-tip touch on the wall, a door, a bookshelf, or anything else handy. I don’t lean my weight on it. It simply gives me a solid, unmoving point of reference. It’s sort of like when tightrope walkers use a long pole to help keep their balance, or when a gentleman extends a hand to help a lady step down from her carriage. (Depending on whether you’re at the circus or in a romance novel.)

So. I know what you’re thinking. You think I am a decrepit old lady and should just get over it.

But what if I told you I am only 25?

In truth, I am not 25. I am at the age when one begins to worry about aging.

But I was 25 when I started getting labyrinthitis. And even younger the first time I damaged my lower back.

The point is, mobility and balance issues are not limited to the elderly. Back operations and pinched nerves can happen at any age – for example, after a car accident. Some neurological conditions strike young adults.

Finding balance can be hard at any age.