Becoming a full-time catsitter

Towards the end of March I found out that I would have to move out of the shared rented house I was living in by 1st May. In response to this I decided to get rid of a load of my stuff, to make whatever move came next easier, and after contemplating different options decided to become a full-time catsitter.

Although catsitting as an accommodation solution logically made a lot of sense, initially I was more scared than excited by the prospect, but over the course of a couple of weeks I went from feeling like I was setting myself up for a mental health crisis to feeling OK about it and even a bit excited. I had to do something and the truth if I’m honest with myself is that I can’t afford to live in Bristol anymore. I was struggling to pay the rent in the place I was living and that was a lot cheaper than most places in Bristol. So although there’s a risk of the instability of having nowhere to call home and being away from my friends being negative for my mental health, I won’t have to pay rent and bills. This should mean I’m less stressed about money as it will be the difference between having not quite enough money and having a bit more than enough money. Also this means that after a while I should be able to build up a buffer, which is something I don’t have at the moment.

After several weeks of gradually getting rid of furniture and many other things I decided I didn’t really need, I still managed to fill a 50 square foot storage unit with what was left, so there’s probably still some work to be done there. When it came to working out what I needed to take with me for day to day living moving from one place to another for an indefinite period, that would be limited to what I (or my bike) could carry, I managed to get it down to two bags totalling 100 litres. After the first leg of my journey getting these actually quite heavy bags and my bike on and off trains, and on a 5 mile cycle across town at my destination, I’ve already decided both that I could stand to ditch some more stuff and that I need to replace the large rucksack that’s not a bike pannier with a bag that is. Also that as soon as I can afford to I’m going to replace my 15 year old still perfectly useful but really quite heavy laptop with something lighter.

The first sit of my full-time catsitting adventure is in Oxford. I was actually born in Oxford, but as we moved to South Wales when I was 3 I have no memory of living here and have not really spent any time here, unless you count a night out for a friend’s birthday many years ago (I didn’t see much beyond the inside of a pub). I’ll be here for 10 days and hope to see some of the sights and check out the local standup scene. Today was my first full day here and I’ve actually not left the house and it’s been lovely. After coming from a houseshare where things had become awkward, to two nights in an airbnb room, to several hours of making conversation with my housesit host along with the stress of moving, I’ve been really glad to have a house to myself. And quite a nice comfortable house at that, with four very chilled cats who are so far hesitantly friendly towards me. It’s been raining quite a bit today so seems like a good day to have not gone anywhere.

In case anyone is interested in the itinerary of my travels I’ve set up a page to answer the question Where’s Robin?.


Phone a friend

For a long time now, as part of my mental health difficulties I’ve struggled to initiate time with friends and generally keep in touch with people. There are a lot of negative thoughts that happen inside my head when I think about calling someone. It’s one of the many ironies of anxiety and depression that it causes you to struggle to maintain relationships, when having regular contact with friends is one of the most beneficial things for your mental health.

For quite a few years I regularly attended Changes Bristol peer support groups. One feature of these groups is that at the end of the meeting you’re encouraged to set a goal. I lost count of how many times my goal was “phone a friend” and I think it was rare that I’d actually managed to do it by the following week. Towards the end of 2022 I had a series of one-to-one (video) CBT sessions through the NHS. It took a few sessions to work out what were were going to focus on, and we settled on trying to get me to phone friends. I said if there was one thing I thought would make a big difference to my mental health recovery that would be it. We talked quite a bit about the negative thoughts that happen in my head when I think about contacting someone or initiating a group activity with friends. It felt helpful to have those conversations but ultimately I don’t think it made any difference to how often I was contacting people.

My latest effort to move forward with this issue followed the advice of someone I know, which was to write a list of all the people I want to be in regular contact with. This is now written on a page in the back of my Legend Planner. In addition to that I’ve changed the 4th item on my daily tracker from “Social” which would get a tick or a zero depending on whether I’d seen any friends that day to “Phone a Friend”. The other 3 items are Walk, Meditate and Journal which are all actions. Whether I have seen friends on a certain day isn’t an action I can do on that day, it’s likely the effect of an action I’ve done on a previous day. It’s the same reason why I removed Sleep (quality rated out of 10) from my daily tracker because it’s a result rather than an action.

Now I’ve made this item on my tracker a specific action I will hopefully phone people more, and see people more as a result. Using my phone to actually ring people is also something I think of more now I’ve switched to a dumbphone. If I’m sitting at my desk with just my journal and my dumbphone there are only 3 things I can do: write, text or call someone.


2nd January

It’s 02:18 so I guess technically that makes it 3rd January.

I went to a NYE party and stayed up til stupid o’clock in the morning, getting home about 8am. I had a lovely time. There were a lot of people there. Most of them I knew, and some of them I hadn’t seen for a long time. I’m still trying to catch up on sleep and get back to a sensible pattern. The reason I’m awake right now, is that I had quite a big lapse this evening and spent about 3 hours until just before midnight swiping dating apps. So my brain was very awake and full of junk. Until a couple of weeks ago I’d managed not to go on them at all since my detox weekend in Tewkesbury in the middle of October.

I seem to have reverted to state I’ve been in before where I’m not in constant lapse but I’m flip flopping between spending half a day or a whole day abstaining to spending several hours lapsing. My intention was to spend most of my week off over Christmas off devices, but it didn’t really work. I think I managed a continuous day and a half in the middle. Maybe it’s time to plan another weekend away. I had a weekend away about a month after my trip to Tewkesbury, but at that point I didn’t need it, so it wasn’t really of any benefit. By the way, if you’re looking for a nice seaside town, don’t go to Dawlish. Because the railway line runs so close to the coast , it doesn’t really have a seafront, just a humungous sea wall that looks like the outside wall of the dystopian megacity in Judge Dredd (1995).

Tomorrow is the second meeting in recent months of the Device Addiction Support group I started to help myself and others with this issue. So in a way it seems sort of well timed that I’ve lapsed today. Last time no-one came, but sitting in a room on my own for a couple of hours without my phone is no bad thing. No-one has signed up to come this time but I’ve had a few people get in touch about it since last time so that’s encouraging. I think with a lot of things like this, you just need to be persistent and do something regularly and after a while it will work. “If You Build It They Will Come”. With my singles group, the first event I did two people came. I was pretty disheartened but kept at it and a year later about 40 people were coming every month. I think a singles group is a much easier sell than a support group about device addiction, so I’m sure growth is going to be much slower but I’m sure if I keep at it it will grow.


Outlet

I decided when I got up this morning that I was going to stay off devices all day, and until I turned on my laptop just now (10:50pm) I had, but I felt the need to get some stuff out. What I want to get out I’m not sure I just have that feeling, and the twice in the last week that I’ve written a post in the evening I felt calmer with a less jumbled brain before I went to bed.

In some ways I find it easier to get stuff out here than I do in my journal. There are a lot of thoughts I would write in my journal that I wouldn’t write here, but having spent a lot of my life on a computer I can type faster than I can write. I still prefer using a computer for a lot of things than a smartphone. Does that make me some sort of old person or luddite? Maybe but who cares. I am 42 so to a lot of people I probably AM old. I’ve always thought it’s better to try to embrace your age and get older gracefully. People who try to stay cool and try to fit in with people younger than them often embarrass themselves and draw even more attention to their age. I hope I never do that. I gave up trying to be cool when I was about 25 anyway. As an acquaintance said to me this week “You do you”.

I started psychotherapy recently. I’ve never really been sure what the difference is between counselling and psychotherapy and even professional bodies like the BACP don’t seem to be able to clearly define it. What I can say is that compared to the counselling I was having recently, firstly it’s a lot more expensive, and secondly it’s a lot more exploratory of deeper issues, which is what I felt like I needed. So I guess it’s a case of “you get what you pay for”. I’ve been suffering with depression and anxiety since my breakdown nearly 12 years ago and I’d really like to get better. I have a lot of hope

#that my new psychotherapist will help me get there. I’ve also thought for a long time that what I really needed when I had my breakdown and possibly what I still need is to go to some sort of retreat for a while where my basic needs are taken care of and my brain can have a proper rest for a while. I’ve been trying to give myself bits of that through meditation and solo weekends away, and I’ve been trying as much as possible to give my brain a rest during the current festive break. It’s the only time of year that demand for van services slows down enough that I feel like I can afford to say we’re shut, and mostly not think about it for a week. I got up around 1pm two days in a row this week and it didn’t matter. I didn’t go out of the house but the weather was awful anyway.

This has really become quite a stream of consciousness ramble, but I guess it’s what I need to do and you get to experience it, lucky you!

I’ve been sat here for nearly an hour and am quite tired so I think I’ll stop.


Time for the dumbphone

Back in October I spent two nights away in Tewkesbury without my phone. I knew I had a problem, but the very unpleasant withdrawal I experienced over those two nights made me realise how much I’d lapsed. I’d tried various blocking apps on my smartphone but whatever I tried there was always a way round it. So I decided it was time to go back to the Sony Ericsson dumbphone I had until 2019.

Now pretty much the only things I can do on my phone are call and text. Not having WhatsApp and Signal has proved slightly inconvenient when it comes to being included in groups, but I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of it doesn’t really mean anything anyway. What’s meaningful is voice and in person communication. That’s real human connection. So that’s what I’m trying to focus on now. I’ve still got a bit of a way to go when it comes to being as connected to people as I’d like to be, but I think limiting my communication options is a step in the right direction.

I’ve come to the conclusion that compared to in-person communication, things like WhatsApp create the same illusion for me that Facebook did. It makes me feel like I’m connected to people when I’m actually not, and in reality the more I use these things the more I become disconnected from people.

A couple of people have asked me if the dumbphone is a temporary thing, but I can’t see me going back anytime soon. I still have a smartphone I have for work, and I’ve found myself increasingly using that when I don’t need to over the last few weeks which is something I need to keep an eye on and a reminder how bad for me it is having access to this kind of device. As I’m currently on a break from work for the festive period I’ve turned it off, which feels better.

It’s interesting the reactions I get when people see my phone. Some people are in disbelief as to how it’s possible for a human to function with such a device. Other people are in admiration. I got chatting to a lady on the bus the other day that was full of teenagers who had just come out of school. She commented to me on how many of them were glued to their phones, and when I told her I’d given up my smartphone and showed her the phone I’m using she shook my hand. Some people experience both bafflement and admiration. “I wish I could do that” one person said.


All the things

There’s been a lot of change since the last time I wrote here, and especially since the last time I wrote about my general life situation.

At the end of Jan 2023 I moved house. Before that I’d spent the best part of 10 years living in situations that were either temporary, bad for me, or both. Now I live in a nice, spacious house with two lovely housemates that even has reasonable rent (in Bristol in 2023, surely not!) The best thing is, I didn’t even look for the house, it just happened to me! We met at the 40th party of a mutual friend.

From Nov 2022 to March 2023 business was very slow. Slower than it has been at any time since I started in 2014 (including 2020) and my financial situation got progressively worse and more stressful. Then at the beginning of August, my van died and my full time admin assistant left in the same week. At the time I thought this sequence of events was catastrophic, but then I did the maths. I realised that without a van and a full time member of staff, my overheads were now drastically reduced. So if I did the admin myself and supplemented the commission I make from my other drivers with occasional longer distance work that it was worth renting a van for, I could just about make ends meet.

A couple of weeks later, in the middle of August I went on a bike ride that caused me to feel quite unwell. After a longer time than was sensible (definitely not nearly a week) I sought medical advice. Within 5 minutes of speaking to NHS 111 an ambulance was at my house, and because my blood pressure was insanely high they took me into hospital where I stayed for two and a half weeks. After 6 different scans, the conclusion was that I have reduced heart function (38% when 50% is considered healthy). The reason why my heart function is reduced, or why I suddenly felt ill is still unclear, but I’m now on quite a bit of medication and my blood pressure is at a healthy level. The technical term for reduced heart function is unhelpfully “heart failure” which isn’t as alarming as it sounds. Before I learnt this I would have assumed that if someone had heart failure they would be abruptly dead.

I’m still struggling with fatigue more than I was before my hospital visit but it’s a lot better than it was when I first came out of hospital. I have struggled with fatigue due to anxiety since my breakdown in 2012, so now I have a second cause of fatigue it’s hard to know where the line is as to what’s causing it.

I’ve written quite a bit on here about my device addiction. In mid October I went away without my phone for two nights to the same hotel in Tewkesbury I went for the same reason in June last year. This time the withdrawal was more difficult, and I had a pretty unpleasant time as a result, but that just emphasised for me how much I needed to do it. It really helped and I’ve been feeling much better as a result, although I have been slipping a bit the last couple of weeks, so need to watch myself.



A good day (just flip, no flop)

It’s 10:30 at night, and this is the first time I’ve turned on my laptop all day, just so I could write this. I’ve also hardly looked at my phone, and mostly been separated from it. Not that there’s much interesting I can do on my phone now thanks to my favourite blocking app.

Today I also did my washing up, went for a walk in the park, did a big supermarket shop and read a book. None of these probably sound like achievements to most people, but I’ve not managed to do a supermarket shop since I moved house over a month ago, and I’ve hardly walked in the park in that time, which when I’m doing well is an almost daily routine that’s really good for me.

In a way the biggest deal of these for me is reading a book. I’ve never been a massive reader, but with my device addiction I rarely have the inclination or attention span to read a book. This has also been one of my list of healthy activities to try and do that have been part of my goals for the CBT I’ve been having, and one of a list of healthy and enjoyable activities I’ve had on my wall for years, but rarely done.

I decided a month or so ago that I want to spend all my time in ways that are one of the following three things:
– Productive
– Enjoyable
– A Rest

So that’s the benchmark now when I think about how I’m spending my time. This partly came out of the fact that I realised that spending time on addictive websites or apps, or just going into a rabbit hole on Wikipedia are none of these things. If I’m not enjoying it, it’s not a rest or a break, and it’s not useful then what’s the point of it? It’s a waste of time. And worse than that it’s detrimental to my mental health.

So today I feel like I’m winning when it comes to my addiction. Last time I made this much progress it took going away for 3 days without my phone. This time I’ve managed to do it while being at home, which I think is a good sign for me having a decent chance of being able to keep it up for a while. But I’m not kidding myself, I’ll need to stay vigilant.

I read somewhere recently (I’ll come back and add the reference if I can find it) that if you regularly flood your brain with dopamine that your body actually reduces the sensitivity of it’s dopamine receptors, meaning you get less of a feel-good boost when you get normal things done in everyday life (like doing the washing up, going to the supermarket, or just eating something) which kind of blew my mind a bit. Apparently the body does re-adjust if you go back to a natural level of dopamine-inducing activity, but it takes time. This makes complete sense to me in relation to why I feel so terrible when I try to detox, but also become a lot more productive, especially after the initial discomfort is out of the way.


Device Addiction: Blocking apps that have worked for me

Although ultimately the only thing that’s truly effective is being away from my laptop and my phone, there are a couple of blocking apps that I’ve found very useful in helping me break the cycle of addiction. The most useful of these is Quality Time, which was actually suggested to me by my previous counsellor.

Quality Time is mainly intended as an app to track your phone usage, but it also has a function for taking a break. This function works by you selecting in advance a list of apps you’ll be allowed to use when it’s in break mode, and setting a length of time you’ll have to wait to unlock it from break mode to use your phone normally. You can also schedule breaks in advance. I have it scheduled so it’s permanently in break mode. The best thing about it is that once it’s in break mode, there’s no way to get out of it other than waiting for the timer to count down. I started with it set to one minute, then two minutes, then five minutes, but I still kept unlocking it. So finally resorted to making it thirty minutes.

Home screen
App launcher
Unlock timer

One thing you might notice from the list of apps I’ve allowed myself to use is that I’ve excluded anything potentially addictive. When I first started using Quality Time I also used BlockSite to stop me using certain websites, but that’s very easily disabled, so in the end I just had to disable the browser completely. I also don’t allow myself access to email as I found myself perpetually checking it. For some reason I’ve not seemed to have a problem with YouTube on my phone, and sometimes it’s nice to send people (who don’t use Spotify) songs I’m thinking of.

The blocking app I’ve used for my laptop is the StayFocusd Chrome extension. This allows you to limit the amount of time you can spend on a list of websites you give it. Once you’ve exceeded the alloted time for the day there’s no way to extend it. Of course you can uninstall the extension, but you can add the Chrome extensions page to the list of blocked sites to prevent this. I’ve discovered as I was writing this that you can also uninstall it from it’s page on the Chrome web store, so I’ve blocked chrome.google.com as well. The best thing about StayFocusd is it’s Nuclear Mode. This completely blocks you from accessing any sites on your blocked list for an amount of time you choose. After having previously used it for a day, then a few days, then a couple of weeks, I currently have Nuclear Mode on for a month. Those swipey dating sites are just too tempting.


Flip flopping

The last couple of weeks I’ve been alternating between periods of bingeing on devices and periods of a few hours or most of a day abstaining. I was just re-reading a previous post saying it felt dangerous to turn on my laptop, and it’s the same again now.

The worst of it was Monday and Tuesday this week where Monday late morning I decided to try to abstain for the rest of the day, and while sitting with my journal I felt a wave of intense sadness come over me. I think this is what happens when I avoid my feelings by repeatedly flooding my brain with dopamine and useless information. When I allow myself to feel it, it’s intense.

Despite lapsing for a few hours Monday evening I was still trying hard to abstain on Tuesday and this was when it got really tough. I felt terrible most of the day, by which I mean I felt a distressing physical feeling in my brain, and for a period of the day, including when I was walking in the park, I was actually twitching. So if anyone tells you that device addiction is not really an addiction, they know not of what they speak.


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