At the darkest point of my life, I struggled to stay connected with the world. Seeking solitude, I pushed away my responsibilities; being a parent, paying the bills associated with trappings of modern living; fear of failing in my job as a computer programmer. I hated work; my children exhausted me; my partner didn’t understand what was happening. Medication seemed to numb my feelings so I didn’t care anymore. But a little black guinea pig called Piggy saved me. She had lived with Roger the rabbit until I realised he was being amorous with her. She was brought into the house and I would sit with her for hours. She let me feed her, groom her, talk to her. She slept on me, she purred and would lick me. Those moments gave me the hope I needed to believe I would enjoy life again.
But it was twenty years later that I began to explore animal assisted therapy as a way to support people recovering from mental health problems. Having retrained as a mental health nurse, I was shocked to see how many people relapsed having initially made a good recovery. Those who stayed well appeared to have found a passion or a purpose; being a parent, rock climbing, being a tree surgeon, taking care of a pet etc.
In my ten years’ experience as a nurse, I met some amazing people who had faced horrendous traumas; I worked with some of them including their pets developing interventions to help boost their self-esteem – when it seemed they didn’t matter to anyone we discovered ways that showed them how they were the most important person in the world to their hamster, dog or cat. We explored how the cat as a role model for assertiveness could teach us how to say no to people who we didn’t want in our lives.
Following a difficult period in my life, when my parents died, my dog was killed in a dog fight and my job was under threat, I took the plunge to become an animal assisted therapist. I had no idea how to do this beyond an 8-day course with SCAS and a leap of faith reinforced by several waggy tail and cuddles with my four dogs, rabbits and guinea pigs.
This journey has taught me to let go of pre-conceived ideas. For a long time, I could only envisage the end dream with the care farm in an idyllic setting, the crowds coming to see me and all my amazing animals. The dream was actually stopping me from getting started[SH1] . I had to let it go in order to move forward. So my animals began visiting the mental health wards in Tameside and I started to gain valuable experience. Word spread and in Jan 2015 I gave up my nursing career in NHS to set up Noah’s ART. We have since visited secure units, rehabilitation units, care homes and respite services. We have worked with people who are lonely, in wheelchairs, have dementia, have mental health issues or have autism and learning difficulties.
Why does it work? For two years I have been practicing mindfulness and it has struck me that the sense of calm experienced by quiet time with the animals is similar to having completed a meditation. Without words, animals draw our attention to the moment. Sitting peacefully watching a rabbit binky or guinea pig popcorn can provide a chink of light for a troubled mind. Those moments provide hope that you can still feel love, still smile or even laugh against all odds.
The real magic begins when people find a bond with an animal. While this is still achievable through monthly visits to the wards, we hope to enhance this through weekly sessions held at our new centre at Loxley House, Dukinfield. Regular weekly visits will allow stronger bonds and provide opportunity to help people develop skills in animal care. After an acute episode of ill-health, loss of confidence impacts recovery. When feeling stronger, people want to become involved but new experiences are tiring and anxiety provoking – finding a job that offers a supportive approach may be impossible. There is often a lack of opportunities to become involved in meaningful activities. But at Noah’s ART, they will find quiet spaces to reflect and enjoy animal contact. Or they can do practical tasks such as cleaning cages or health checks on the animals. There are many tasks involved in animal care and we can help people progress through levels of difficulty as confidence returns; from stroking and calming a nervous guinea pig, to grooming a rabbit, to training the dogs. And when that person confidently supports another client to enjoy contact with their bonded animal, they can see how far they have progressed.
Moving into a volunteer role, helping rescued animals and vulnerable people, developing resilience and methods of managing stress are all goals that are achievable; Noah’s ART aims to provide a platform for personal growth. Serious stuff but with a binky to inspire you it’s also lots of fun!