Animals, autism and health..
I have always been an animal person. Up until the age of 6 we lived in a city and so couldn't have any pets. But every school holiday we'd head out to our static caravan by the sea. Everyday we spent on the beach I'd spend the entire time, literally from the moment we arrived to the minute I was dragged away, sat by rock pools catching fish, crabs and other sea creatures with my hands. I was absolutely fascinated, and for a 5 year old my knowledge of marine life was quite impressive. At this time no one had picked up on the fact I was autistic. In hindsight, this obsession was an autism 'special interest'. I was completely fascinated, totally and utterly consumed by my curiosity and drive to discover these little animals beneath the water.
At 6 the family and I moved away from the city to the country side. Finally, I could have some pets. Our first were two guinea pigs. Quickly followed by some rabbits. I loved it. I loved to hear the happy squeaking and chirping of the guinea pigs and watch the rabbits hop about munching on grass.
At 8 years old I discovered horses. My autism brain quickly flicked into 'obsession mode' and by the time I was 13 years old I had my own pony and was representing the local area at national championships, I would ride against people 10+ years older than me on horses which towered above me and my pony, Tommy. I would work at the local yard for backing and training young horses to earn lessons. I loved it! I was quiet and weird around people, but it wouldn't phase me to be moving in and out of stables with huge competition horses, bathing, grooming, riding, mucking out, cleaning tack. I breathed, slept, lived horses. Jen, my instructor, was a strong and formidable lady. She taught me one very important lesson, which I apply to both riding and life now; if you fall, you must get straight back in the saddle.
Cross country was my favourite part of competition, the speed, the precision, the scale, it was thrilling. Tommy and I would work like a machine, as one. The adrenaline as we lined up in the start box as the countdown began, and as it hit 'go' Tommy's muscular frame would launch us onto the track. Both of us were in the 'zone', we were so in-sync we'd countdown the strides to each fence, before Tommy would propel us both into the air, clearing fences just as well, sometimes better than the thoroughbred-blooded horses. I fully 100% trust Tommy with my life, he 100% trusts me - I don't believe I will ever get that with another human being. I always joke when people mention 'love at first sight', saying that my 'love at first sight' was with a horse...but it's true, the moment I saw Tommy when we went to see him as a potential buy for me I just knew. I had owned ponies previously to Tommy and I loved them dearly, but I didn't have the connection with them like I have with Tommy.
In the meantime we had acquired more rabbits, cats, dogs, fish, a snake, some hamsters and chickens. The house was a bit of a menagerie at one point. Various animals lived their lives well and passed away, and so the 'collection' is a bit smaller now. But the dogs, cat, fish, chickens and horse are still around.
Animals have always been an important part of my life. I don't think I could cope if I didn't have animals around me. For me, the 'human world' is a totally confusing, frustrating, terrifying, uncomfortable, anxiety-provoking, stressful, full on place. I have learned how to navigate my way through. The painstaking process of masking and camouflaging my autism has literally broken me. Looking back it is clear that my mental illness has stemmed from the traumatic discovery of my 'difference' , I.e. undiagnosed autism, and the pure energy and effort I had to put in to mask and camouflage as I grew up. Around people, my brain is working at 120mph, figuring out the language being used, trying to decipher body language and facial expressions, forcing myself to make eye contact, trying to work out the complex and confusing social world. On top of this the pressure and anxiety I feel in social situations is crushing and suffocating. It is exhausting, and spending too much time around people breaks me.
I don't feel any of that around animals, I just feel a deep sense of connection. There isn't any pressure and my anxiety is soothed. It feels like I understand animals, and animals understand me. My cat, for example, knows when I am upset, even when I'm not necessarily aware of it myself. She comes and sits with me, curling up and purring quietly. It instantly calms me down and brings me back away from the nightmares of mental illness. Tommy has been with me all through my illness, he's my rock. I know I can go over to the stables and quietly groom him and my brain will respond by slowing down. Unfortunately, in the cruelty of mental illness it can be hard getting to the stables, but when I can manage to it is a little safe haven for me. The dogs, although naughty and sometimes a sensory nightmare, show unconditional love and affection and never fail to make me smile. The chickens are brilliant, their little clucks and chirps are almost comic. The fish tank is a sensory haven, watching the water swirl and the little creatures go about their business.
Animals undoubtedly play a big role in helping me through. Both the difficulties I face from autism and the nightmares of mental illness are soothed and made a bit easier because I have my little animal friends to help me along the way. I genuinely can't see a life that doesn't have animals in it.