A few days ago we had a setback. It’s as if Archie went, “Wait a minute! We’re getting along way too well. I need to push my boundaries! Test their limits! Make them earn my fabulousness!” This is a fairly common move that birds seems to pull when moving into a new environment. It always passes, eventually. But oh lord, getting through it sometimes seems a daunting and endless task. There were moments when Cah’ya and Ernie were going through this phase that I seriously doubted my abilities as a trainer and thought I’d have to send them to a sanctuary. I laugh when I think back on those moments of despair, as now they are my two sweetest, cuddliest birds.
It started when, just a day or two after my last blog entry, Ernie was hanging out on my lap and Archie was playing on the playgym above his cage:
Chuck walked into the room and Archie flew at him, landed on his arm, and bit the crap out of him. It was seemingly unprovoked and quite a surprise, given the huge strides Archie had made in trusting and being closer to Chuck. I wanted to put Ernie away before trying to handle Archie, since I wasn’t sure how the two of them would interact in such close proximity. It took me a few seconds to do so, and in the meantime, Archie was on the floor, lunging at Chuck’s feet, and Chuck was dancing around, trying to put the trash can between himself and Archie. I asked Archie to step up, which he did calmly, and then I put him back in the cage.
Since that incident, his vocalizations went from vastly improving to being worse than ever, and Chuck has had to go back to square one with winning Archie’s trust–which is more difficult this time now that Archie has lost quite a bit of his trust, too. Needless to say, the last few days have been rough. Archie’s loud, shrill shrieks make having a conversation, listening to music, or watching TV an impossibility, and both Chuck’s and my nerves have been on edge.
Yesterday was a low point. Archie was at his worst, Chuck and I were both spiky and irritable, and the house was filthy. I was trying to get house chores done since I’m about to leave for a week-long housesit, but I kept getting interrupted by phone calls, emails, or stupid little distractions. All of the other birds were also being loud as a reaction to Archie, and when I finally got around to cleaning the Ekkie room I discovered that my cat, Lola, who shares their room, had vomited hairballs three times on my bed and peed on the floor. And Copper, Chuck’s dog, seemed hell-bent on getting underfoot, especially while I was trying to clean up the cat’s messes. He even danced through the vomit-and-pee trash bag, just for good measure.
Full disclosure: I had officially reached my boiling point. I fantasized about releasing all the animals out the front door, taking a flamethrower to the house, getting in my car, and driving away, never to return.
It’s when I reach this point of absolute frustration that I have to step outside of the situation and assess myself as the learner and my meta-self as the trainer. Clearly, the learner is overwhelmed by her environment. What can I do to set her up to succeed? How can I change her environment to change her behavior?
Here are a few things I’ve learned to do to help myself get through these moments of burnout and regain composure, perspective, and joy:
* Stop forcing myself to do something stressful and find something fun to do instead. With 11 animals in the house, the cleaning chores we will always have with us. Finding something both fun and productive to do, like toy making, will help to alleviate some of the angst.
* Retreat! When an animal is being flooded, the trainer should remove them from the stimulus. So when my environment is flooding me, I remove myself from it. Yoga classes, errands, meeting up with a friend–anything to remove myself from the stressful environment for a while, give myself some breathing room, and allow me to collect myself before heading once more into the breach.
* Making sure my basic needs are met. Almost always, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, there is a physiological factor involved. Am I hungry? Am I thirsty? Am I tired? Am I in pain? Addressing those basic needs will help bolster me for the task at hand.
* Small victories. When I was a little girl and I felt overwhelmed by the mess in my bedroom, my mom would tell me, “Don’t look at the whole mess. Just pick up on thing at a time.” I have taken that life skill into the adult world, and have learned to do the same. Yes, Archie might be screaming his fool head off, Chuck might be frustrated and threatening to eat him for dinner, and Copper might have spread Lola’s urine all over the carpet. But the bird cages are clean and the carpet is vacuumed. HOLLA. The rest will happen in its own good time.
* Learning to say “no”. Man, this one was the hardest to learn. I nearly ran myself into the ground in the first few years of my business because I didn’t know how to say no to clients, or vet clinics, or anyone, for that matter. But when I’m already maxed out and someone is asking me for more, learning to say “no” is literally the difference between a total meltdown and calm, happy productivity.
Edit: *Don’t be afraid to ask for help! I can’t believe I forgot to include this one, but a HUGE lesson I had to learn is how to ask for help when I need it.
It’s a miracle what a difference those few simple life skills can make. I went from pulling my hair out yesterday to kicking ass and taking names today. And as for Archie? I have faith–in him, in Chuck, in me. We will get through this. And someday we’ll laugh when we look back at those moments.