Animals, Anxiety and the Garden: A Heartfelt Tale

Words by
Clare James
| March 16, 2018

This year I’m learning to meditate. I’m finding it really difficult. My mind has been allowed to run wild my entire life, pulling me behind it. I sometimes feel like that poor child you see, being dragged by their rushing parent, running and tripping and barely able to touch the ground as they get tugged along by their little arm. This morning’s meditation felt good, even though I was probably doing it all wrong. It felt good because I had my friends there with me, as I sat on my old sheepskin in the garden.

Clare and Dobby the Quaker parrot. Image by Daniel Shipp.

On my shoulder sat my neurotic parrot Dobby, frantically preening my eyebrows. Right in front of me lay Hector-bear, our elderly golden retriever, exhausted by both the heat and his old age. Squeezed onto the sheepskin with me was Maggie, my mum’s Spoodle (who had had a sleepover). The entire time I sat there, counting my breath, eyes softly closed, bringing my attention back to the present moment, my darling duck Gloria waited by my side. She mumbled at me and gently prodded my bare legs, wondering what on earth I was doing.

To me, this is just about as good as it gets. When I finished and opened my eyes I smiled at Gloria and the muddy marks she’d left on my skin. I stroked Maggie’s hair, tight and curly and spongy, whilst rubbing Hector with my bare feet. He leant his head back to make eye contact, the kind of eye contact that could break my heart but which also fills me up. Meanwhile Dobby continued to ‘preen’ me and then her own feathers. I looked down at my empty teapot and favourite mug on the grass and then glanced up at the garden. My mind started to race, excitedly, into what I could do next. This is my new routine. Starting the day this way will surely help me tame my oldest friend, anxiety. Surely.

Last year I almost lost my marbles. My years of insomnia had spiralled totally out of control and had reached new levels. Despite exercising, avoiding screens in the evening, quitting caffeine, seeing countless alternative medicine folk etc., etc., I could no longer find sleep anywhere, anytime.

My anxiety had me ready to fly or fight… constantly. It knew I was in trouble, but couldn’t differentiate ‘real’ danger from everyday happenings.”

At the end of my tether, with the loving support of my family and friends, I sobbed my way to a new psychiatrist and finally ‘gave in’ to taking medication.

Over the following weeks I plundered through the yucky medication side effects, increasing my dose week by week whilst trialling different sleeping meds and trying to keep up with my role as mother, artist, florist, teacher……..and then I got two little ducklings. These two darlings delighted our family in immeasurable ways and helped me remarkably. Hattie and Gloria were able to soothe me without doing anything except being little ducks.

Every bit of my precious spare time in the following months I spent in the garden, weeding and mulching with these two funny helpers by my side. Gloria and Hattie were as much a part of my healing as the medication. At first, they slept in a bucket with a hot water bottle beside our bed.

My husband commented that he was watching his wife come back to earth with the help of two small ducks and a garden.”

Each night as I sat on Hector’s bed, stroking his golden body after tucking all of my pets into bed, I once again felt a familiar calmness come over me. Finally, my anxiety was resting enough to let me thoroughly and calmly enjoy my family, art practice, garden and pets.

Dobby's house. Image by Mike Emmett.
Gloria the duck. Image by Mike Emmett.

Animals have always played an enormous role in my life. I grew up in a house with four dogs, two cats, a cockatiel and a horny budgie. At the age of twelve I was the devoted owner and carer of a small menagerie including an overweight rat (Gooch), some mice, yabbies, a big gander (Google-oose), a male turkey (Juliette – he was meant to be a girl), one ‘free to good home’ sausage dog (my beloved Pippin, who was definitely not a sausage dog and lived until she was 17yrs old), some dear rabbits, several guinea pigs and lots of very tame chooks.

I spent all of my spare time playing with each of them, cleaning their homes or simply watching them do their thing. It always made me happy.”

Each day now I have breakfast with my two young daughters in the delightful company of our cockatiel (Rosie Boy) on the kitchen table singing into the screen of my phone, Dobby on my shoulder, Hector Bear snoring on the floor beside me and my little rabbit Basil hopping about. During the day, I work in my studio with Rosie Boy on my desk or on one of his branches, Hector sleeping under my table, Dobby on my shoulder and Gloria in the doorway calling me to come and play. I sit and feed long blades of grass to my guinea pigs for the pure pleasure of watching their little lips and mouths work. My chooks are so familiar and I know them each by their personality as much as by name. Always surrounded. Never lonely.

I cannot imagine life without animals and cringe to think how many children I would have to have to try and fill the gap. To be licked on the face, pecked on the hand, snuggled by a duck or asked constantly “how are you going?” by a mental but loving parrot who has just finished preening your eyebrows again, feeds the soul and helps to keep my whirling mind calm. These creatures seem to like my company and I definitely love theirs.

With a bit of self-reflection I seem to have discovered new parts to myself. The part who now sits comfortably taking medication after so many years fighting against it. The part that is patiently learning to meditate, whether the proper way or not. And then there’s the part of me that has always been there, but was somehow never really recognised for its importance. The part of me that needs animals in my life more than they need me. The nest, bowl or burrow that exists deep inside me that’s filled up by simply patting a dog, listening to the sound of a curious hen, watching an old guinea pig eat or being in the presence of a white duck named Gloria.

These newly discovered parts are a revelation to me. And in order to celebrate I think I might need a new/rescued rabbit or some other senior rodent that needs love… or maybe even the pig I’ve always yearned for. Perfect.

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Endnote: Tragically at only seven months of age Hattie was overcome by an unusual virus that she couldn’t fight. Despite several trips to the vet, medication and heaps of TLC she fell asleep in her nest for the final time. I miss her, as does Gloria.

Another endnote: I made a Gloria hashtag on Instagram for me to be able to look at her. You can see this glorious Pekin duck at #gloriaduck

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Image by Mike Emmett

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