A lot of other things have happened so far in November besides the whole CATNIP escapade, and I will attempt (emphasis on attempt) to catch up to the present here. That’s more than two weeks, so this is likely to be long, but like I said: this is as much a record for myself as anything, and if it interests or benefits someone else, that’s a bonus.
The first big thing was that Jak took a mini-vacation to see his girlfriend in Mexico City. This is something he does three to four times a year, and I wholly support, even though it’s usually a bit hard on me. Even with just the three cats, I would get pretty exhausted by the end of a three- or four-day solo run. Sammy was extremely elderly and had cancer and needed frequent care and attention; Gracie has Feline Hyperesthesia Syndrome and requires medication every eight hours. There’s about an hour of flex on that, but no more, which always sets hard boundaries on when I am allowed to sleep.
Getting enough sleep has been a problem for me my whole life; only some of the reasons have changed. Unless I’m drugged, going to sleep is always too hard and waking up is always too easy. These days I have pain issues — periodic sciatica flares, and continual paresthesia (a combination itch-pain phenomenon a bit like being stung by ants) on my shoulders and upper arms as a lingering effect of my 2016 PTS attack. The paresthesia took a turn for the worse this past summer, and now the only way I can sleep at all most nights is by numbing all of the affected areas with an ice pack, which usually has to be replenished once or twice when the prickles wake me up, cutting an hour or so off the total sleep amount each time. And even if I didn’t have to dispense medication, one or another of our crepuscular animals is guaranteed to wake me up each morning with their pre-dawn activities.
That’s the baseline scenario. This time around, though, was like playing on hard mode. Sammy died this past September, so that part was easier, but Tashi took all of that time and energy and a whole bunch more. Jak left early November third, and was supposed to be gone for three nights and four days, back on Monday the sixth. My bad luck was that our housekeeper had taken the week off as well, starting three days before Jak left, so I had an additional workload before and during (mostly mountains of dishes to hand-wash). And whenever I could squeeze it in, I was desperately trying to finish writing what was supposed to be my October Nine Lives essay, but was already delayed into November.
The whole experience was a lot like single-parenting a two-year-old toddler, something that I have always known I am not capable of sustaining. The first two days I managed okay, but my sleep deficit climbed with every successive night; by day three I was ragged and by day four the tears were starting to leak out, as I desperately struggled to hold back a complete autistic meltdown/shutdown.
I was doing my best to exercise Tashi, but without Jak around to help it wasn’t enough; his behavior got worse every day, and even when he wasn’t biting me, he was physically on me almost nonstop, licking every exposed inch of skin or shoving his nose (or his toys) into my crotch and so on. Not only was I getting less than half the sleep I needed, I was ‘touched out’, the way I’ve heard mothers of babies and small children describe, especially breastfeeding ones. I suspect this is something that autistic sensory processing exacerbates; like most of my senses, touch is dialed up to eleven (if not twelve or thirteen).
I was holding on by my fingernails for Jak’s arrival that night, when I could hand off the space-invading talking puppy and the cat meds and just sleep without worries or interruptions or anything touching me. And … then his flight was cancelled, and he had to spend another night in Mexico City.
Altogether he was gone just under one hundred hours, and I was a wreck when he finally got home late Tuesday morning. I’d slept for less than twenty of those hours, and was a sobbing mess. So of course, I thought: this is a rare and perfect opportunity to add a SAD button and model it! <facepalm>
The problem wasn’t the addition of SAD per se. The other button mystery (besides CATNIP) I may have solved while Jak was gone was Tashi’s use of HURT. He had been using HURT a lot since the moment I laid it down, but not due to any actual physical hurt that I could perceive. A big chunk of it had to do with the cats, which made sense; he also used HURT a lot before or after FOOD and/or KONG. So that Sunday night it occurred to me that maybe the latter meant ‘hungry’, and Monday morning I decided to test that out by giving him a HUNGRY button.
Tashi had consistently been very focused on announcing his emotions, so I was rolling with it by prioritizing those words; I also added HAPPY later in the day on Monday, in anticipation of modelling at Jak’s (nonexistent) arrival that night, and TIRED was also newly in place because Tuesday mornings Tashi has his regular playdate with my friend’s dog Chewie (which ended up postponed to the afternoon because of Jak’s late arrival). So when I added SAD on Tuesday morning he’d gone from five emotions to nine in just over twenty-four hours, and … it was just a mess. Too many abstract ideas too quickly, complete button craziness and incomprehension. I plead exhaustion for my poor decision making.
And I know the common advice is “never take buttons off the board”, but the advice-givers are not living here in my house, and ultimately I had to make a sanity call. I left HAPPY to actively work on but pulled the other three off again the next day. I’ve since put back TIRED, and I’m still not sure he has the proper sense of it; often he says TIRED when he does not seem at all tired, plus he’s done things like say it in combination with EXCITED, even though (by his definition of EXCITED, which is more like ‘energetic’) they’re opposites. I’m modelling based on his own behavior whenever I can, and I assume he will sort it out eventually.
With emotions, I default to assuming he’s talking about himself; he has names now but he’s not pairing human names with emotions so far. He did say FRUSTRATED PERSON a few days ago — the night Jak was unexpectedly stuck in CDMX, so there was really zero question about which ‘person’ he meant. He’d said POTTY a few minutes earlier, so I’d taken him out on leash (it was after dark, and he doesn’t get to roam OUTSIDE on his own after dark), and POTTY was revealed (not for the first time) to be a ploy to get the forbidden-after-dark OUTSIDE, because zero actual pottying occurred. We came back inside, and Tashi went over and pressed … OUTSIDE. I was extremely low on patience at that point, so I just said a single, flat, “No,” in a fairly harsh tone — full stop, no further explanation.
Tashi’s response to that was FRUSTRATED PERSON. Like I said, I default to assuming he’s narrating his own emotions, which interpretation would mean he was frustrated with me for not letting him go outside. “You’re frustrated at me? I’m frustrated at you!” is what I thought — I walked over and pressed FRUSTRATED DOG. He just stared at me; I don’t know what he thought about that. Only a few minutes later, when I was relating this in a text to Jak, did it occur to me that he might have been acknowledging my frustration … in which case my response was probably baffling.
As far as ‘hungry’ goes … I figured he could go back to HURT FOOD or whatever if he needed to … but he didn’t. I also got him weighed at the vet to make sure I was feeding him enough (I was). I dunno, maybe he had a growth spurt and was just weirdly hungry for a few days. Maybe he was worried about Jak being gone and stress eating, and (we don’t yet have a WORRIED button) HURT FOOD was the best he could do with the words he had.
Talking pets are a never-ending sequence of mysteries.
[Edit: I forgot to include that I added COME and GO as a pair while Jak was gone, on November fourth. He obviously already knew “come”; I wasn’t sure about “go”. I think that covers all of them now.]
Anyway, after backing off from the emotion spam I slowed down, since I was close to running out of buttons anyway. I had already repurposed the erstwhile CATNIP button into PRACTICE, which is what I call training sessions (now clicker training) with premium treats, so Tashi could ask for that, and then I left the board alone for five whole days.
Then I added three words on November twelfth: PUZZLE, which is concrete and he already definitely knew; INSIDE, which I thought he had likely picked up from my verbal modelling, and WORDS, which is what I use for the buttons themselves.
I thought Tashi knew ‘words’ because weeks ago I started asking him “what words?” when I needed an answer to a question (like, “what Tashi want? hmm? what words?”) and after a couple of times with me saying “what words?” while standing by the soundboard and pointing at it, he got the idea. He doesn’t always respond with pressing buttons — sometimes he picks up a toy and shoves it at me, or goes to the back door, or doesn’t answer at all — but he replies on the buttons often enough that I know he understands the phrase. He’s even gone from a different room across the house to respond to me on the board when I say it, as I related in the last post. I also sometimes say “more words” — MORE being a word he knows and has a button for — when I’m asking him to clarify something he’s said. And he usually tries to respond.
Well, as soon as the word WORDS arrived, it became — and has remained — one of his most-pressed buttons. Sometimes by itself, sometimes in combos that otherwise would make sense, but the addition of WORDS left me scratching my head. I am now completely unsure whether he really understands “words” in any context aside from my saying “what words?”. After a great deal of internal debate, I had decided to put WORDS on the red tiles with the concrete nouns (because for Tashi words are concrete, actual buttons!); it occurred to me later that at the time the only other two words on that part of the board (now that CATNIP had come and gone) were FOOD and KONG. I put WORDS all the way at the other end of two tiles, but maybe at first he thought it was supposed to be some new kind of yumminess? Or more likely he’s got an off-label use for it, like he did earlier with SKRITCHES. This remains an open question as of this writing.
In what was in retrospect possibly a rookie move, INSIDE was only the second ‘place’ word I gave him, and I stuck it right next to OUTSIDE on the single orange tile. I thought he likely already knew ‘inside’ from verbal modelling, but over the next several days, I came to suspect that he thought “inside” and “outside” were the same word. He nearly always wants to be outside; for a long time, OUTSIDE was his single most-pressed word by a long shot (and half the POTTYs are actually OUTSIDEs in disguise). After I put INSIDE down, I slowly realized that not only was he using INSIDE a bunch (which usually happens with new words) but that his use of OUTSIDE had dropped to only a couple-three presses a day. Which I became increasingly certain was NOT what he actually intended. Once I realized this — about three days ago; INSIDE has been down for less than a week — I re-recorded the voice for OUTSIDE to emphasize the “out” part and downplay the “side” part. I also started talking to him a bunch more than usual about “outside” and “inside” as we went through the day.
Then a couple nights ago, in the wake of some soundboard reorganization (more on that in next post), Tashi pressed OUTSIDE and INSIDE several times while looking up at the speaker, giving every impression of listening for the difference. I suspect that was the aha! moment, but I’m still waiting for clear confirmation from his usage patterns.
Three days after PUZZLE, INSIDE, and WORDS, I continued filling in the long-neglected concrete nouns area with TOY, and a day after that (November 16) I added BALL — both known words. And that brings us current to today: forty-three words on the board.
The rest of the reason I was losing my shit during this whole time is because the day before he left for Mexico City, Jak had heard from his brother Jeff that his dad — who has dementia and was in a care facility in Texas — had started becoming aggressive towards the staff. This meant that he was likely to need a much higher (and more expensive) level of memory care in the very near future. Then on the morning Jak got home, just five days later, he brought the news that his dad had been expelled from his current care facility, effective immediately, no warning.
This left everybody scrambling and in a terrible position. Joe needs 24/7 care; Jeff urgently needed help, and Jak was the only candidate; their sister is currently living in Australia. So as depleted as I was, we were looking at the possibility of Jak turning right around and flying out again, leaving me to handle the dog and everything else solo for an unknown period of time, possibly stretching to weeks.
So yeah, there was some down-melting and more than a little despair. Even once Jak got home, I wasn’t able to recuperate or catch up on sleep, because in addition to all the normal stuff that had piled up for both of us while he was on vacation, we both had all this extra dad-related emergency logistical and financial stuff to deal with. Jak had spent his unplanned CDMX night sleeping on the floor at the house of his girlfriend and her husband, so he was also underslept, if less so than me.
Mercifully for both of us, Jak and his brother worked out a situation that left Jak here for eight days before he left again; on day five (Saturday) I was finally able to sleep — I took two separate several-hour naps during the day (attending a friend’s funeral in between) and also got a rare and blissful 7.5 uninterrupted hours overnight. By Sunday I was almost a functional human again!
Jak left before dawn this past Wednesday, which puts me at … 95 solo hours so far this time, and while I’m struggling, I’m not yet a puddle. Tomorrow, if all goes well, I’ll finish up with one more post on how the last few days have gone, some fascinating dog-conversation milestones I haven’t covered elsewhere, and what I’m looking forward to next week.