“Important Announcement!”

Now I have your attention …

This is an important announcement to let you all know that I am not taking on any more in-person clients this year. I am still open for remote zoom sessions, so please continue to contact me to help with general behaviour advice or if you need help with any specific problems.

Existing clients with in-person sessions are not affected. Thank you for your support and always remember, Think Dog Positive!

Tony


1st-year-heartversary

“It’s been a funny old year …”

1st-year-heartversary

Things never seem to go the way you think. In fact, I have no idea where this blog post will take me, and I’m writing it! This sums up the last 12 months perfectly. Oh yes, it’s been a funny old year …

In 2020-2021 I had great plans. I had left my IT role to concentrate on my Dog Behaviour business, was working part-time with a great bunch of people at Booth’s supermarket and was gearing up to be completely self employed. Then in February 2021, I found myself at home recovering from a major heart attack. It was a huge setback but I still had my ultimate goal. As I wanted to help people, I thought I could write more, not just about dog behaviour but also about my experiences of the heart attack.

It all started really well. While I recovered from the physical trauma, I finished writing a dog behaviour book, “Not Everyone Wants a Hug” and one about my heart attack, “My B****** Heart”. I also registered a domain, created an author website where I could sell my books and write regular blogs. As someone once said, “I was cooking on gas”. I’m not really sure what happened, but everything stopped after that. Suddenly the one year anniversary of my heart attack arrived and I realised that very little had changed since I finished the heart book. My writing and my goals had effectively stopped.

Actually, I think I do know – I was suffering from the emotional trauma of what happened and it changed me in ways I still don’t fully understand. In this post, I will attempt to explain. Not just to help me understand the psychological fallout, but also to help others who may be feeling similar. I guess I haven’t changed that much!

Returning to February 2021. I had been patched-up with a stent and sent home to change my life. I certainly wasn’t fixed and still had blockages. The book goes into lots of details about the physical after-effects and subsequent “recovery” (yes, written in inverted commas), and touches on the emotional impact during the first 7 months or so. Physically I felt great, changes to our diet meant we were losing weight and feeling fitter. I was raring to get up and do things but psychologically, I hit a barrier.

After the event, I lost much of the self-confidence I had gained over the last few years of running the dog business. I was worried about the remaining blockages, concerned about my aftercare and doing too much physically. After speaking with my GP, I decided I needed to give myself a break to recover “fully” from the event. I reduced my dog work to a minimum and (unfortunately, looking back) instead of keeping up with my physical exercise, I spent a lot of my day sat on the sofa. As the months went by and I no longer had the books and constant work to occupy me, my reluctance to do things (outside) got worse. I might not have become a total couch potato but there is definitely a Tony-shaped dent in my side of it. As I became physically thinner and my beard grew longer, I felt like I was turning into an old man, withdrawing into myself. After a year of waiting for the energy and enthusiasm to return, I feel like I am still waiting.

We know grief and emotional trauma are often felt after a major life-changing event (such as divorce, retirement, illness or other major event) and can lead to depression and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). I don’t like to think I might have PTSD but looking through the smiles and my jokey nature, I have no doubt I am suffering some aspects of it, as well as being depressed. To be honest, I would be amazed if I wasn’t! After all, as well as trying to process a near-death event, we were still having to deal with normal life as well (kids, money, etc.). We have never liked asking the government for help and weren’t about to start now, so keeping the finances ticking over while sorting out pensions and insurances, at the same time as trying to process what had happened certainly didn’t help matters. Part of me thought they would just tell me to “stop being a fraud and get back to work, pleb”. We didn’t want to go down that route, even though it may have reduced some of the stress.

I am fortunate to have been blessed with “some” common sense and having spent my whole working life paying into income protection insurances, private pensions and being careful with money. Once everything “got sorted”, I actually discovered I could probably retire (or at least semi-retire until the cost of living goes up even more). It may have taken the financial pressure off, but didn’t really help my emotional state (first world problems, lol). To be honest, it probably would have helped if I had thrown myself back into work (as many people are forced to do after a heart attack) but my heart isn’t in it anymore (pardon the pun). Seriously though, while I still love helping people and dogs, the business side no longer interests me. I don’t really know where that leaves me because while I could volunteer my services, to keep up with professional memberships costs money (and requires continuous professional development = more money).

So not only am I still going through a major trauma, I have suddenly gone from being the “bread winner”, the major earner and knowing exactly what I want, to … what? I don’t honestly know … what’s my purpose now? It’s like being hit with another wave of grief and a loss of identity. I am still a family man and now have more time to send with them, but what else? Sadly, it is another reminder of the lack of emotional and psychological support that is available to survivors of a heart trauma (in this country). They can patch you up and send you on your way, but some level of emotional support is desperately needed. Heart support groups and charities are great, but sometimes you need a bit more to help you navigate your new world.

I’ve managed to get most of the way through this without mentioning the c-word. Covid has certainly not helped my recovery. The constant worry of catching it and “would it kill me now?” has had a massive impact on how much I have been willing to do. Another symptom of the loss of confidence in my body. I haven’t seen some of my family (in person) since before my heart attack (my sister and niece) and I can only imagine how hard that has been for them. Others I have seen less often than I would like, and some friends have been absent from my life since the start of the pandemic. It has been very hard on all of us.

The Future?

So, where does that leave me? Certainly not living a life of golfing and cruises! One year on and I am still in a type of limbo, trying to process the emotional fallout and work out what happens next. I am waiting for another echocardiogram to see if there are any further changes to the heart muscle. It is possible that there is some improvement, but equally possible there is no change or even some deterioration. This whole situation is unknown territory and I still don’t know what my “new normal” is. It is pure torture for a control freak like me. As always, my family and friends are still very supportive of me and my decisions, and I am forever grateful to them and the facebook groups I am a part of. I owe them a lot! In my book, I spoke about new friends Will and Jim who I met in the hospital (The Three Amigos), I am still in daily contact with them and we have a reunion coming up soon – watch this space!

I also have to thank the actor (and the Ninth Doctor), Christopher Eccleston for kickstarting a self-analysis in me. I have been listening to his autobiography, “I Love The Bones Of You”. As well as being a fellow Northerner, he doesn’t hold back when talking about his own emotional trauma (something men struggle to do). His openness has definitely made me think about my own feelings and re-evaluate my future. His book is directly responsible for inspiring me to start typing again. Thank you Chris!

I know I am not yet fully-cooked and I still don’t know how things will pan out with my health or the business. However, I do know that it will take more time to process what happened to me. Perhaps this post is the start of my emotional recovery. It’s certainly been a hard thing to write! There are still lots of things I want to do and things I need to do, and I know I have the opportunity. One thing is certain, the next 12 months are likely to be just as odd …

Tony

The Changing Faces of Tony

I thought it would be interesting to share some selfies of how my appearance changed in the last year. The first picture was taken in December 2021 (pre-heart attack) when I weighed 14st 8lb (93.98kg). By the time the far right picture was taken in February 2022, my weight had dropped to 11st (69.85kg) and I am sporting a dodgy Viking look. These photos reflect the emotional changes that are still happening. I am still cooking and not sure how I will turn out …


Let’s Talk Bubbles …

I want to talk bubbles … but possibly not the ones that immediately spring to mind. We all know about water bubbles, you know … bath bubbles, washing up bubbles, blowing bubbles and such like. Over the last couple of years we have also become very accustomed to hearing the phrase “social bubbles”, with regards to Covid-19. Today, I want to talk about a different type of bubble – personal bubbles.

You might already know that we (humans) have a personal bubble. Another name for it is personal space. Our personal space is an area around us that other people generally stay outside of. For example, When we talk to someone face-to-face, we naturally stand at a distance we feel comfortable with. The size of someone’s personal bubble is not “fixed” and it is not normally the same for two people. It can also change depending on who we are with. Taking the previous example, we may stand quite close to the other person (family and close friends) or remain much further away (acquaintances and strangers). For example, our bubble might be around 1 metre in size and this barrier should only be crossed by those we feel comfortable with. If someone gets too close, we begin to feel uncomfortable and may try to “step back” to create more space between us. We think of the other person as “getting in our face”. Have you ever been on a packed bus or train and had to stand so close to someone you can smell them? Or had a boss (or teacher at school) who didn’t seem to understand personal distance, and “invaded your space” by getting too close or looking over your shoulder?

At the start of Covid-19, the UK Government set social distance restrictions to try and prevent the spread of the virus. They told us we had to stay 2 metres apart from those we did not live with. That distance effectively became everyone’s personal bubble. Because it was our “normal” for such a long time, how many of us now feel uncomfortable if someone comes within 2 metres of us?

I know I do…

What About Dogs?

“That’s all very well, but what has all this to do with dogs?”, you might ask.

While not (yet) validated by science, it is my belief that dogs also have personal bubbles and they work in the same way as ours. Have you ever noticed how your dog might want to “get up close and personal” with some dogs, but not others? Next time you are out, just watch him (or other dogs and see how close they approach one another. It’s fascinating to witness. If you have an anxious dog, he might want to keep as much distance from others as he can – any closer and he becomes uncomfortable with the situation and his stress levels start to rise. If he is unable to maintain his personal space, his body is likely to go into fight or flight mode. His instinct will be to try and increase the distance between himself and the other. If he cannot create this distance by moving away himself (for example, if he is on a lead), he may try to force the other dog to “go away” by growling, barking or lunging at them in an attempt to scare them off.

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to recognise (or respect) another’s personal bubble and may accidentally (or sometimes intentionally) violate another’s boundary. Think of the teacher from the example above, we probably all know someone like that …

Now, consider the off-lead dog in the park who charges up to your on-lead “reactive” dog, while his human shouts, “it’s ok, he’s friendly …” . To your dog, it doesn’t matter if the other is a puppy, a friendly adult, is socialised, unsocialised or just socially awkward. The result is often the same – your poor dog’s bubble (boundary) is crossed and he reacts badly. Not only that, but the size of his bubble is likely to increase too, so the next time he is out on a walk, he may need to have more space in order to feel comfortable.

What Can We Do ..?

Of course, we don’t know how big our dogs’ personal bubbles are. They are not a fixed size and can change depending on many factors (meeting a known or unknown dog, how they feel emotionally, previous experiences etc.). So instead of “how do I know?”, the question should probably be, “what can I do to help him?”. Ultimately, we have to be aware our dog’s individual needs and ensure we act when they need it. We can do that by watching (and learning from) their body language and their behaviour. Once we understand them better, we will be in a much better place to make sure we work with them on walks, rather than forcing them into situations they are not comfortable with. After all, do you want to meet and chat to every person you see in the street?

One last thought, it is the same when it comes to dogs meeting people. Your dog may be perfectly happy to be touched by you (his family), but might not want to petted by every other person he meets. Occasionally, he might not even want to be touched by you. We shouldn’t be offended, we should respect our dog’s personal bubble and be mindful that all dogs are individuals, with their own emotional needs. They are not robots and not everyone wants a hug!

© 2021 Tony Richens-Smith with illustrations by Mandy Richens-Smith (except where stated)

You can find out more about what your dog is trying to tell you and how to understand their body language in Tony’s book Not Everyone Wants a Hug, available directly from the Books page on his website, and all good retailers.


Myths Surrounding a Heart Attack

In this post, I want to briefly cover some of the myths and misunderstandings surrounding heart attacks (there are plenty more).

Heart Attack Myths

1. They are NOT the same thing. A cardiac arrest is when the heart stops beating and can have many causes (ultimately we will all die from a cardiac arrest). A heart attack is caused by a blockage of one of the main arteries which feeds blood to the heart muscle (the heart needs its own blood supply to keep pumping).

2. All heart attacks are serious and are generally classed as either STEMI (an emergency event, needing urgent treatment) or NSTEMI (acute, partial blockage, requiring treatment). If left untreated a STEMI can very quickly result in cardiac arrest and/or major damage to the heart muscle. A NSTEMI can still result in damage to the heart muscle and could lead to a cardiac arrest.

3. Symptoms of a heart attack vary by person (not like the classic TV scene). Some people get indigestion, feel sick, sweat, back pain, left arm pain, right arm pain, no pain.

4. Anyone, regardless of their age, weight or level of fitness can have a heart attack.

5. Many things can cause a heart attack: diet, lifestyle, genetics, stress, “just one of those things”.

6. See points 4 & 5. Women are as just as likely to have a heart attack as men (but the symptoms often present differently). Many fit and healthy individuals (including vegetarians, those of a perfect weight, non smokers, non drinkers, regular exercisers, etc.) have heart attacks. An unhealthy or stressful lifestyle WILL increase the risk, but does not mean “it’s a certainty”.

7. Medical treatment can “fix” the immediate issue (e.g., opening blocked arteries with stents or bypassing affected arteries completely), but it does not “fix” the underlying problem. Life-long medication and lifestyle changes can only help to reduce the risks of further blockages. Nothing “fixes” it completely.

8. This is not a complete list …My heart attack was a STEMI event.

Many thanks to Mandy RS Art & Illustration for the graphic which shows a normal ECG reading, my heart attack, followed by the ECG reading for a STEMI. Feel free to share this post and the unmodified graphic. It can also be downloaded as apart of a free collection that can be shared across social media https://tonyrichenssmith.com/books/heart-awareness-memes/

The British Heart Foundation also has fantastic resources available for anyone wanting further information. https://www.bhf.org.uk/

Knowledge is power, and education can save lives. #heartawareness


dog-image

Who we are …

dog-image

When it became serious …

A short extract from my podcast interview with Sallie Crawley in April 2021, where I talk about the point things became serious.