Claire Gawne: The About Face

Claire Gawne is a Melbournite and fellow Dysautonomia sufferer. Active online in various volunteer roles as well as her biggest role, promoter and cat-mum; Claire is a positive, upbeat, funny girl.  She wrote this piece for the Meet my Peeps series, all about the benefits of pet ownership.
Meet my friend Claire and her friend, the Gremlin….

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theaboutface

My housemates stand in the door to my room. The don’t even have to speak for me to know what they’re going to say. The old arguments tumble out, and my wearied responses are rattled off. The debate over whether or not to get a cat has raged for months, the pro team enthusiastic and numerous, the anti team steadfast but alone. They showed me pictures of adorable cats (as if I didn’t already see enough on the internet anyway!) and waxed lyrical about kitten toes and purry snuggles, while I extolled the virtues of fur free home and worried about the effect a ball of fur would have on my asthma.

I could sympathise with my housemates’ position. I was a cat person who had suffered growing up in dog person household. I loved how cute and snuggly they were. I looked at pictures of other peoples’ cats on the internet, but I was uneasy about owning one. I struggled enough to take care of myself, how could I take care of another living creature? And what if all that delightfully soft fur was too much for my embattled lungs to handle? What if the cat had to be returned?

a picture of Gremlin the cat trying to catch bubbles, with quote text "I struggled enough to take care of myself, how could I take care of another living creature?" -Claire Barnier

Still, I found myself more and more fixated on the idea of a cat. I had become obsessed with a particular breed – the Exotic Shorthair. Combining the adorable squished face of a Persian with the practical short fur of a British Shorthair, it looked like a teddy bear. An adorable, living teddy bear that would provide hugs on tap.

In a complete about face, it was me that ended up buying the cat. His name is Gremlin, and he’s a ginger and white male Exotic Shorthair. He is undoubtedly the best cat ever. I was instantly in love. My ability to breathe be damned, he was staying!

Claire & Gremlin(1)

Pets in general, and cats in particular, have been shown to have huge health benefits for their owners. Improved cardiovascular health, lower rates of depression, and one I was particularly hoping to capitalise on – fewer visits to the doctor.  While I didn’t expect my new furry companion to cure me, it became abundantly clear the benefits of having a pet were varied and abundant for people with chronic illnesses.

Despite having four housemates, I often found myself home alone, or awake at absurd hours of the night; having Gremlin meant that I always had someone to talk to. I was also surprised how much I relished having someone to think about and care about beyond myself. Gremlin was a welcome distraction from my own problems. It gave me a sense of purpose and made me feel needed in a way I hadn’t for a long time, yet without any intolerable expectations on my time and health.

Gremlin was also an amazing listener. I would come home from an appointment to find him dozing in the exact same spot I had left him in two hours ago, and he would purr away while I told him about my uselessly vague test results, or the scary potential side effects of a new medication. And then at night, when the house was quiet and the last tram rumbled by, he would curl up against my legs, all snores and purrs and soft fur, and I’d sleep better with the weight of him against me.

More peer pressure, this time from a close friend, led to me starting an Instagram account for Gremlin (maybe in the hopes that I wouldn’t flood my friends Facebook newsfeed with picture of his antics!?) For those of you unfamiliar with Instagram, it’s a social media platform focused on sharing photos. I thought that at most I might garner 200 or so followers (a respectable amount for your average user) upon whom I would foist endless photos of my cat. My expectations were low, which might explain why I was so overwhelmed by the incredible experience that followed. Thorough judicious use of hashtags (the best and most direct way to engage with IG), and an investment of way more of my time than I will ever admit, I quickly amassed followers.

Two years later and I have just hit the 15, 000 mark. More incredible than that is the wonderful, genuine friendships that I have made. It’s an amazing community of people, bonded through our mutual love of cats. Everyday I get to laugh at the absurdity and charm of cats, imbued with their own personalities by their humans. I’ve seen people help each other, offering advice on pet care, digging deep to raise funds for medical treatment, and offering love and support at the devastating loss of beloved pets. It’s a weird and wonderful world, where yesterday I was admiring the bowtie collection of one account, while discussing starting a cat commune with several others.
You can find Gremlin on instagram here.

The instagram cat community has grown, spread and evolved since I joined. I have become Facebook friends with the people behind several of my favourite accounts, and got to know them as humans in real life, too. I have seen art projects and pay-it-forward initiatives flourish. This year the first cat convention (CatCon) will be held in LA, and I’ve seen people excitedly planning meet ups of both humans and cats!

For me it has been an incredible experience that has allowed me an identity and a focus beyond my illness. Friends of friends know me as ‘Gremlin’s mum’, and people gush with excitement about meeting him. Tonight before bed, I’ll swallow a handful of pills, and then I curl up and scroll through hundreds of pictures of cats, each one a friendly, familiar face. I’ll look down the bed at the friendliest and most familiar face of all, curled up against my leg, snoring louder than should be possible for something so small.

And I’ll be grateful for everything he has given me.

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Do you have chronic illness and a pet?
Tell us about how your pet helps you…

Sweet Home

The lights of home are a warm yellow.  There’s no strip light cold hard fluorescence blinking into life; here.  They are a soft light; home light.  Benevolent. Outside the wind is howling, it is a perfect day for turning on the lights before dark has even come. I pull all the curtains and blinds closed against the weather and tuck myself into bed.  We have a thing for flannelette sheets.  Warm snuggly cosiness. I wiggle my toes down through the sheets, they are still warm from before I got up to light the rooms and close the windows. I’m hunkering down and pulling the heavy covers over me.  Safe and secure, in my own bed.

I got myself out of hospital last night by telling a bit of a lie.
I exaggerated my progress and the house officer signed me out.  I couldn’t bear one more moment there. A lonely weekend, the frustrations of not being in control of my own treatment.  Home here, where the light is warm and the bed is mine.  This is where I can help myself. Better. But I see that I have been a little ambitious.

Healthy people are speedy people.  Have you noticed that?  They move at what seems the speed of light, whizzing around the place, flitting from one thing to another.  Barely stopping at all.  It’s exhausting to watch.  It makes you feel like you need to be rushing about, too.  So I did, for a bit. I hung out some washing.  I put some more in the machine. I climbed the stairs and made a bed.  Then my body flicked over in to ‘NO’ mode.  I felt internally shaky, weak and so tired.  The contrast between me and the speedy ones so stark. I felt like one of those figures in the midst of a time lapse scene, the world blurring past me as I sat motionless.  
I lay down.  I watched the wind out the window whip the trees and push debris up the road.  The rain slanted down on my washing; turning the reflections of the traffic lights at the top of the street into watercoloured puddles.

So I slept. The speedsters kept speeding through the day and eventually I got up again. I called my little guy over to work on some homework.  We got out the watercolours.  And got absorbed by them.  Long after he’d finished his poster, I was still playing with them.  What a beautiful distraction from the feelings in my body. I focused on the colour, bleeding out from the brush onto the paper. Filling the spaces with colour and light.  I thought about the strokes, the shapes, the way colours moved together.  I thought about my Mumma, her artsy legacy spreading out across her children and her grandchildren.  She’d like to see me there, playing with paints.  Filling my mind with colours to push out the pain, the ache, the things at stake.  I thought about her cup, the one she cradled in her hands every time she had a ‘miley’. Her cup.  Her hands.

I remembered my Dad, last week, standing there in the kitchen, holding it out to me.  That small moment when my breath caught in my throat and I realised the treasure he was giving me.  Her cup. His tears, my tears.  We could fill that cup with our bereft sadnesses. But she is not here to drink from it.  I placed it on my shelf of treasures.  I thought about that cup with the paint brush in my hand.  I painted a picture with the paints.  And packed them all away.

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I slowly make my way back to bed.  To stretch down into the benevolent yellow light.  The comfort of home. I will sleep some more and join the fast ones later.  Together in a circle of light cast onto the table from the pendant above. Food, family… home.
Sweet Home.