Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Power of Pets: A Street Cat named Bob and other stories

Sorry that I haven't posted for a while, I have a couple of blogs I haven't finished writing which should be up soon, one on The Knitting & Stitching Show at Ally Pally, and another on Image Theft - a subject that affects people I know and really makes me cross.

Right now though, what I'm going to waffle on about is cats.

I've just finished reading James Bowen's 'A Street Cat named Bob'

In case you haven't read it, it is James' telling of the true story of his meeting (or being chosen by) Bob the cat, nursing Bob back to health, and how Bob then returned the favour by effectively 'nursing' James back to health. James is very honest about his problems; recovery from drug addiction, estrangement from his family and his life busking and selling The Big Issue on the streets of London.
Bob's role in James' life is pivotal. The responsibility of having another mouth to feed, however small, and the love and companionship Bob provides, give James the sense of purpose and motivation to get free of his addiction and to earn a wage in a relatively safe and legal manner (as a Big Issue vendor). As a result, his attitude towards life in general and his relationship with his family improve greatly, with amazing results; he even takes a trip to Australia to see his mother for the first time in about 10 years.

I wouldn't want to be as crass as to equate my problems with James', I'm certainly not homeless or addicted, but I can identify hugely with how a cat can make such a positive change in a person's life.
After struggling for as long as I can remember with mental health problems (from at least 9-10 years old) and having been Misdiagnosed as 'depressed' for the last eight years, I have within the last month been given a proper diagnosis, and will be able to access the treatment I need to manage (it is not possible to 'cure') my condition.

The link between homelessness and mental health problems is well known (this BBC article estimates a third of the homeless have 'serious' mental health issues such as personality disorders and figure as as high as 8 in 10 can be given when mental issues such as anxiety and depression are included) and the condition I have been diagnosed with gives a built-in predilection towards addiction and substance abuse; something which I can't claim I am entirely innocent of. I also (like James and many who are homeless) have some spectacularly poor family relationships, so when I read a story like his, it really is 'but for the grace of God go I'.
I decided almost exactly two years ago to get myself a pet - against the advice of friends, one of whom said "FFS! you can't even feed yourself let alone an a bloody cat!" James had a similar reaction from a friend when he wanted to take Bob the cat in.
I can't count the number of times over the last two years when I have looked at the cat and said "It's OK, I'll find a way to keep a roof over OUR heads" or stopped myself doing something stupid or harmful for fear of what would happen to my pet if I wasn't about (being kept in a pound, starving to death, or worse - being forced to eat my dead body to survive! My brain can be very melodramatic at times).

I'm useless with money, usually something bounces, either the rent or bills, and if those do get paid then there's not quite enough money for food or I have no phone credit, and then the 'unauthorised overdraft fees' or whatever come out. I'm impulsive, reckless, sometimes downright stupid. I have a lousy temper, useless memory, Insomnia or constant drowsiness, severe depression. People often don't know about the physical effects a mental illness can have on a person, constant headaches, sickness, low immune system. I often hardly have the energy to get out of bed, and no it's not laziness. It's hard to keep a job down, even harder to organise my finances or muster the energy or enthusiasm to deal with problems like the rent or bills.

But whatever happens I always have my little fuzzball; he'll cuddle up when I'm feeling lousy in bed, or he'll tell me it's time to get up and feed him (usually by sticking a claw up my nose). I make sure that whatever happens there is always enough cat food & litter for him, and this in itself requires a sort of organisation. He's company, he's comfort, he's motivation to get up and deal with the day, he's motivation to sort myself out and keep a roof over my head. What I'm trying to say is that he keeps me going. Even at times when I would have given in and given up, my cat has given me a reason to keep fighting. Sometimes I don't think I would have done if he wasn't about.

At one point in the book James describes Bob as his 'Baby'. I feel the same about my cat, life with him makes all the difference and the bond and love is as strong as anything.

If you haven't read this book, I suggest that you do.

For another incredible story about the healing difference a cat makes in someones life, read Cleo by Helen Brown (and if you can find it elsewhere but Amazon, please do: support your local independent bookshop).
Support your local Big Issue seller - they really are helping someone help themselves. The recession has hit vendors hard so if you can, forgo 1 cup of coffee a week or a gossip magazine and buy the Big Issue instead. It's full of great stuff.

If you are local to South East Kent the Folkestone Winter Shelter is in it's 4th year and desperately needs your help. The project no longer has it's own van or storage facility and locals are fundraising for this - read Barcode1966's blog  here for more information. Fundraising events and other ways you can help will be on the first link above.

If you live elsewhere in the UK, have a look at Shelter's website for ways to help the homeless, or for help if you are facing the prospect of losing your home yourself. The Salvation Army also do incredible work in Folkestone, and up and down the country. Find out more information about their Hostel and 'Lifehouse' projects here.

This Christmas maybe you could consider making a charity donation on someones behalf instead of buying them a gift. I used homeless charity Centrepoint and the RSPCA's Animalternative last year (the RSPCA provided Bob with much needed veterinary care) amongst others, and there are a variety of virtual charity gifts you can give to different organisations. Money Saving Expert suggest a few here. It is a 2011 list but most of the links still work.


A quote from 'Cleo' by Helen Brown:

'People persuade themselves they deserve easy lives, that being human makes us somehow exempt from pain. The theory works fine until we face the inevitable challenges. Our conditioning of denial in no way equips us to deal with the difficult times that not one of us escapes.

Cleo's motto seemed to be: Life's tough and that's okay because life is also fantastic. Love it, live it - but don't be fooled into thinking it's not harsh sometimes. Those who've survived periods of bleakness are often better at savouring good times and wise enough to understand that the good times are actually great.'



  1. This is the first time I have commented on a blog but I felt I had to comment on this a very thoughtful and insightful look at the issues which lie behind the book A Street Cat Named Bob. I've worked with people who have mental health and substance misuse issues and have some understanding of how difficult it can be - and how complex recovery can be too.

    I'm happy that you, like James Bowen, have gained such support from your cat.

    The references to organisations and services is really helpful information too.

    Very best wishes for the future and thank you for posting your blog.

  2. Brilliant review. I love the fact you writes about your similarities. So it speaks to more people as well again and I am sure many readers can see themselves between those lines and could get a reall sense of hope for themselves too