Of a cat, anxiety, and homecoming – May to July
The inevitability of Covid brings with it occasional bouts of excruciating anxiety and lethargy. But there’s a glimmer of hope in the form a foster cat.
We pick up Hannah from SPCA and smuggle her into our home (which isn’t without its share of trials and tribulations). She warms our hearts with her unbearable cuteness and softness. Cuddling her every morning upon waking up and after returning from work become the highlights of our day. Words may not be enough – as is always the case – so here are some pictures
You know you are loved when your cat gives you company while you grade mind-numbing tests.
Meanwhile, May brings with it, relief coupled with trepidation. The borders open for temporary visa holders and I book my tickets to visit home in June, a day after H’s birthday. Home. A part of me is in disbelief while the rest grapples with a bout of anticipatory travel anxiety. I begin jotting down my check-lists. Despite everything, I realize the pandemic is still a fixture at this point which necessitates a bunch of documents such as vaccine certificates, letters of permission from the University and my supervisor, and self-declaration forms. To top this, I find myself plagued with questions, wondering how things would be back home. Would they have changed a lot? Would the familiarity overwhelm me? Will my boyfriend and I actually come out of this visit unscathed? I see my residual resentment towards him bubbling up through the cracks occasionally. My mind is plagued with questions.
Though I find the whole process stressful, it is indeed soothing to have a cat around. Hannah sidles up to me each time she senses my low moods. H and I move onto another gripping K-drama, Beyond Evil which stays with us long after the season finale. One particular Friday, I wake up extraordinarily early and treat myself to a sumptuous breakfast at Ima, a popular Mediterranean eatery. I think it’s important to pamper yourself – if it is affordable – and let yourself off the hook from time to time. That evening, Ap and I go to the bouldering gym together. Little do I know that it would be probably be the last time we do so but more about that later.
Eventually, Hannah finds a (hopefully) loving home. It is bittersweet but H and I hope we can get her new parents to send us updates. Unfortunately, our efforts to persuade SPCA to pass on our message go in vain as we never hear from anybody. We try not to dwell on it and move on with our lives.
As my visit to home looms, I find myself getting frequently anxious. It doesn’t help that my PMS worsens with each cycle. There are increasingly vicious arguments with my partner, and no, I won’t elaborate but let’s just say – they leave me desolate and miserable. Add to this, the sudden demise of a favourite singer. I wake up to the news that KK – a musician beloved to millennials like me, whose music formed the soundtrack of our adolescence – is no more. I’m gutted to say the least.
On a positive note – a much needed therapy session helps me focus on my triggers and thoughts upon getting triggered. Engaging with thoughts is what escalates an emotion from 3 to 10 and my homework is to bring this point into awareness. Thoughts are words. They are meaningless unless acted upon. This includes false reassurances to calm myself down temporarily. A heartening realization that makes realize that I can get a grip on my emotions by engineering the thoughts behind them.
Times whizzes past and H’s birthday finally arrives. One day before, I wrap up stuff at the uni, hurriedly hug my coworkers which includes Ap, and rush home to decorate the house and keep an assortment of cakes and pastries ready. Unbeknownst to H, I have proactively organized a birthday treasure-hunt after consulting her college friends virtually, the treasure being a deluxe version of her favourite BTS album Be. H is not one to vocalize her affection towards me, but the treasure hunt proves to be a success the next day, and her joy is palpable! I film a reaction video of sorts and share it with her friends.
We eat lunch at a cosy South-African eatery on Elliot Street. As I watch H happily munch on chicken and waffles, I feel a sudden pinch in my heart. It feels gut-wrenching to leave my best friend, flatmate and sole support system in New Zealand all by herself for a month whilst I visit home. It doesn’t help that Covid is always lurking round the corner. What if I am not able to come back? The guilt of being the first one amongst us to visit home is crushing. But H, in her typical H-fashion assures me that there’s no need to catastrophize. And so with her reassurance, I embark on my visit home.
To say that I am in the best frame of mind on the flight back home would be a lie. My excitement about meeting my partner and going home is marred by a vicious argument days before my departure. And so it weighs on me heavily as I try to distract myself with movies and cups of coffee on board. I write a sombre note on my phone that is addressed to him, and to us. But I’m going to cut the suspense and jump a few days ahead – we meet for lunch where I manage to convey what’s been plaguing my mind, and hear him out as well. I feel understood for the first time in a long time.
The first time I see my father’s familiar figure outside the airport, a wave of relief washes over me. It feels surreal to be back home. The instant cortisol drop makes me gorge on the sandwiches and Lays wafers my mother has thoughtfully packed for me – washed down with two packs of Frooti. I can barely stop filming videos on our drive back to Pune. Seeing my mother at our doorstop proves to be the final force against the dread that has resided in my mind all these months. I am truly elated.
Needless to say, being home makes a massive difference to my mental health. I don’t recall being this relaxed in a long time. I realize that I was either anxious about my relationship falling apart or about having my parents fall sick. I am grateful. The familiarity of being home isn’t as overwhelming as I had catastrophized it to be. The city is eerily identical to what it looked like in Jan 2020, save for a couple of new buildings and the lack of two distinct flyovers near the university. The cat I used to play with in our compound remembers me even now! She’s hale and hearty despite having evidently aged. I am warmed and pleasantly surprised when almost all my friends make time to meet me despite their busy schedules. S flies down to Pune for a week and we spend our time together talking about everything under the sun, catching up with what had gone down in the past two years.
Meanwhile, my partner and I have several conversations about our future, calmly for the most part. I realize how brutal distance can actually get, because the man I know isn’t this villainous character that he transforms into – in my head – when he is away. It isn’t always hunky-dory though – there are days when I regress to being irate and upset due to certain plans not materializing. This includes a trip to Goa. Not only does it deeply disappoint me, but also leads me to project my disappointment on him. Gradually, things resolve as we make the most of the time we have at our disposal.
As July looms, I realize I am not ready to go back yet. Luckily, I manage to extend my visit by another week. I get a health check up to rule out fibroids and other menstrual cycle issues. My blood-work and other reports are normal save for abysmally low levels of Vitamin D and B12. I schedule a consult with a psychiatrist – known to our family – to get an opinion on my anxious moods. On her recommendation, I trial a cocktail of medications for barely three days until I realize that I am not ready yet. I am not entirely satisfied with her diagnosis which is further subtly confirmed by my long time therapist. On the latter’s advice, I decide to take a second opinion in December (when I’d be home again). In the meantime, I am put on a vitamin supplement course to be on track.
July further instills a sense of calm and gratitude in me as I spend quality time with my family and indulge in activities that give me great satisfaction. Upon invitation, I give an informal talk on my PhD journey to my old research group at NCL. I am warmly welcomed by my ex-supervisor and ex co-workers. I embrace the ordinariness of my home that I had once taken for granted until I moved out. I indulge in my favourite vegetarian dishes. I stroll around MG road. I witness Pune rains and deeply breathe in the petrichor, the lack of which is conspicuous in Auckland. I binge watch Reply 1988 with my mother.
As my visit draws to a close, it is understandably bittersweet. But I leave home with a sense of wonderment.
I have no idea why I felt like home wouldn’t feel like home. If anything, I’m relieved.