SEN and the art of fighting

The saying goes that one day you will look into the mirror and realise you’re turned into your mother. In my case I definitely skipped a generation. When I look in the mirror, it’s my Nana who looks back at me, only with much less vivacity than she ever had. Tired, stressed, defeated, a woman who has given up on herself, that’s what my reflection pronounced. It didn’t seem to matter, it wasn’t as if I was going anywhere anyway.

Then came the week of hell – technically probably Week of Hell 346 – and the devastating news that Lily was probably about to be expelled from college, one month into her course. After the initial shock and despondency had eased, I realised that Lily’s only chance was for us not to wait for the phone call bringing the final decision, but for me to insist on a meeting with the college head and advocate for her.

For someone browbeaten by stress, exhaustion and social anxiety, this was not a particularly welcome realisation. However, it was the only plan I could call up with – an emergency GP appointment on Monday morning to demand a referral to an autism/ADHD specialist with a view of trialling medication, followed by a trip to the city centre to speak to college.

Over coffee in a local cafe I sat and wrote down the gist of what I wanted to say, how Lily has never had any support for her autism and is then punished when she’s failed to manage. How badly her school let her down and how I didn’t realise until it was too late as I was fighting the abuse from Simon all that time. That Lily has suffered from that abuse and been left feeling angry and confused – and that Ivy has spoken of Lily and Simon having physical fights; her own father has modelled violence towards her. That she has a slow cognitive process and reacts before she can think, that she doesn’t seem to understand consequences or cause and effect. How her anxiety leads to a need to be in control at all times, and how threatened she would have felt by what her tutor was saying to her in front of everyone. That she deserves another chance, it’s not fair to expel her for messing up in one lesson when she’s been a good student until now and the problem was largely cause by a lack of support and understanding.

As I write, my own frustration grows. Listing Lily’s difficulties, it’s unbelievable that she has never had support. That for purely economic reasons, she’s been kicked to the kerb time and again, left to sink without the support she needs and then blamed for her behaviour when she’s not managed to conform to rules that she doesn’t understand or that create massive anxiety for her.

This has to stop. We’re running out of time.

It is beyond time that Lily started getting the support she’s always needed. And clearly, it’s going to be down to me to fight for it, even while I’m still having to battle Simon over child maintenance. On the way home I stand in the beauty aisle in Tesco Express, studying the hair dye. That evening Ivy smothers my head with it, while instructing me on the Curly Girl method. After I’ve washed it out, she nervously trims my hair, snipping each curl individually as the book prescribes. I keep reassuring her that no matter what she does, it can’t look any worse than it did, and after all I was made to cut Simon’s hair for years without any clue as to what I was doing.

I’m not a hairdresser per se, but I have used scissors and I do have hair, we joke, misquoting the pig from Bear in the Big Blue House. I finally find the makeup that’s stayed buried in the bottom of a packing box until now. This is my war paint. These are my battle stripes. I will not walk in defeated and beg, I will go in ready to be listened to.

Meltdown

I’m in the supermarket with Ivy when my phone goes – Lily’s college. Already I’m striding towards the exit as I answer, my heart beating faster. Last week the call from college was because Lily was having a seizure, meaning dropping everything, abandoning plans to have dinner with my parents and instead driving 90 minutes to reach her in A&E. Has she had another seizure?

Instead her tutor asks me if Lily has been in contact. She hasn’t, and he explains that there’s been an incident, and Lily has stormed out of college following a heated argument with one of the tutors. Her guitar had been slipping out of tune and he’d told her to use one of the spare guitars. I wince – this was Lily’s first day with her brand new guitar, she’d been looking forward to it. I knew that her anxiety levels would have been going through the roof if there was something wrong with it, or if she feared that she wouldn’t be able to use it. She needed things to go right, to be given enough time to tune it and continue playing, for her to keep control of the situation. But now the immediate issue was that she had run off into the city on her own, leaving her belongings behind her.

Ivy and I both try calling and texting her, but there’s no response. We realise she probably doesn’t have her phone on her, it would have been in the bag that she left behind. I call the college back and let them know, trying to reassure myself that she can’t have gone far without any money. She’s likely just sitting it out somewhere nearby, waiting for the class to finish before she goes back in for her stuff. Her tutor kindly offers to go back outside to look for her again, and shortly afterwards I get a text from Lily to tell me she never left the building and is now sitting on the stairs talking to her tutor.

The immediate panic is over, but now it’s time for the longer term consequences.

It takes me over two hours to try and calm Lily that evening, she tells me she is traumatised and becomes angry and aggressive as I try to get the story out of her. In the course of the conversation it becomes clear that she was aggressive and swearing at her tutor, and that she threw a chair – not at him, but not a good idea in a college that’s packed full of expensive musical equipment. Lily sobs as she recalls how her band went on practising without her, “They don’t need me, I’m useless,” and that she has no friends and thinks everyone hates her. To prove this, she shows me an abusive message she’s received from another student, she doesn’t even know how he got her number. She doesn’t know if she can face going back, and I make it clear that she has no choice, she has to remain in education. That she has loved this course so far, and it’s stupid to throw it away over one session that’s gone wrong.

Approaching 10.30 I tell both kids that they should be asleep by now, they need to settle down. I usually do this around 10pm every night, but I can’t force them to actually go to sleep. Around half midnight I hear Lily’s door as she goes to the bathroom, and know that yet again she’s stayed up too late. Lack of sleep is one of the likeliest causes for epileptics to have a seizure, but nothing I say can get Lily to go to sleep early enough.

Next morning she doesn’t get up on time and I have to wake her and tell her she needs to go in. Typically, she flies downstairs at the very last minute, swallows her epilepsy tablets – I have also just discovered that she’s run out of her 500mg pills without telling me, another thing to sort out today – and grabs the decaf coffee, breakfast bar and apple that I’ve left out for her. She refuses the sandwich I’m trying to make for her – I’ve also discovered she’s been skipping lunch in order to save up money, but can’t be bothered to make herself a packed lunch instead. So basically, she’s been going into college each day without enough sleep, no breakfast and then skipping lunch. It’s disastrous for her epilepsy, and likely contributed to her seizure last week, but is also likely to be making her even more irritable and irrational. I get her to promise that she will have lunch, and remind her that she needs to apologise to her tutor, before getting her out of the door on time at 7.30.

By the time I’m driving Ivy to school an hour later, I’m fighting back tears as I try and chat to her while simultaneously mentally rehearsing my To Do list. Go to the GP surgery to sort out online access and get an emergency prescription. Call college. Call the Family Support Worker, even though I don’t have her number, how can I get her number? Does Lily need a further diagnosis, how can I get that, no one will listen? Write the cover letter to the CMS and send the evidence, hopefully the letter I requested from our previous support worker will arrive today. Call and cancel that subscription before I get charged for it. And so on, to infinity and beyond.

Driving home, I park and walk into town to sort out everything at the doctor’s. Of course, the GP doesn’t sign off prescriptions until late in the afternoon, so I will have to go back this evening and hope that the pharmacist can fulfil it without having to wait to order it. I’m walking back through town when my phone goes – it’s college. The man on the other end tells me that he has no choice but to suspend Lily. He tells me that the tutor is terrified, that Lily threatened to kill him. I ask whether it will just be a day’s suspension, whether she will be able to go back next week, or whether it may escalate further, and he admits that he will be undertaking an investigation but that Lily may well be expelled. I’m left begging him not to expel her, swallowing back my tears and my pride. “She’s sixteen,” I find myself saying, “if she gets kicked off the course, she’s got nothing, it’s game over, please don’t expel her.”

He fobs me off and I know from what he’s saying, his tone of voice that it’s already highly unlikely that Lily will be allowed back onto the course. The course she loves, that has lit her up for the first time in her life. Once again she’s not been provided with the support she needs, then been blamed and punished when she’s failed to cope; but now this is not school and the consequences are far more severe. Even I find myself blaming her, For God’s sake Lily, why can’t you behave yourself? Why would you think it was okay to behave like that? In the space of a few mindless minutes, Lily has destroyed the thing she loves most, the college course I’ve spent so much time and energy to get her a place on, the opportunity that we relocated for her to have. The pavement beneath me feels like quicksand. There are no second chances and I have no idea what happens to us now.

Of lies and money

So. With money running out and less than a third of the child maintenance being paid, the phone calls to CMS began. For each call you make to CMS, you will be on hold for over 20 minutes, guaranteed; I figure it’s deliberate, in the hope that some callers will give up and go away. They told me that Simon would be sent a letter about the missing payments, and would have “until the end of next week” to respond. “The end of next week” became a moveable feast, being cited for over a month while Simon failed to respond and the money still didn’t arrive. The amount owed crept up over £1600, my anxiety levels soaring with it.

Then the excuses started. Simon had apparently told the CMS in a phone call that he was no longer earning as much money. It says a lot that even now, I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt – perhaps he’d been made redundant, or had deliberately reduced his hours in order to free up more time for DIY on his new house. I stressed about what that might mean for us, what our payments would be reduced to, how we would manage. Yet the quiet voice of reason whispered in the back of my mind that if he was genuinely earning less money, the very first thing he would have done would be to contact CMS to reduce his payments. When I checked with CMS a month later, Simon hadn’t even put in an application to reduce his payments, never mind sent in proof – clearly this was another lie.

Next, a letter from CMS stating that they’d “been informed” that Lily was no longer in full time education and could I confirm this or send proof? Otherwise payments would be reduced. I called to let them know that Lily was attending a BTEC course which was classed as full-time. I knew immediately what must have happened; Simon had turned up in our new town the weekend before, taken Lily to dinner and asked her about her course. On finding out that she “only” attended three days a week, he’d assumed that this couldn’t possibly count as full time, and called the CMS to have his payments reduced. As he has no responsibility for the day-to-day lives of our children, he either didn’t realise that the BTEC still counted as full time, or he knew but didn’t care. It’s frustrating that instead of being happy for Lily, who is loving her music course, he’s tried to use her course as an excuse to pay less maintenance, turning it against her.

Normal reaction; I’m so glad you’re enjoying your course. Do you need anything else for it, any textbooks etc?

Abusive father; Tell me more about your course so I can try and use it against you.

Simon had not asked for our new address, nor had I offered it. Lily had talked to him only in terms of the nearest city, making sure not to give him the precise area. Yet he turned up here with Astrid, insisting to Lily that he meet her in our actual town, having managed to find out where we live without being told. It felt sickening, and took away the security that Ivy and I had been feeling, it’s all mind games and intimidation – see, we can find out where you live! But no doubt if you talked to him, he would still insist that I was the one stalking him… He spent less than 3 hours with Lily, but treated the occasion as a weekend away with Astrid, spending two nights in a hotel, meals out etc, while still claiming that he couldn’t afford to pay child maintenance.

Last week another call from CMS; now Simon was claiming that he retained shared care of Lily and had a court order to prove it. The court order was a 2017 relic from Simon trying to force Ivy into reinstating contact (and therefore not having to pay maintenance for her.) While I had been so careful to word the document in such a way as to make sure Ivy wouldn’t be forced into anything, it didn’t occur to me that I should ensure that Lily had a similar, flexible opt-out clause. In the Family Court you evidently need a fortune teller as much as a lawyer. Even though it was Simon’s choice to deviate from the court order, and Simon who had originally informed the CMS of his decision, he was now trying to claim that he had equal shared care of Lily.

At times I agonise over how this must seem to Lily. If it wasn’t bad enough that Simon effectively threw her out with a week’s notice, after having spent 10 months in court battling to force contact with Ivy. If it wasn’t bad enough that he dumped all of her belongings on the street outside her house, including even her bedlinen, making it clear she was no longer welcome. If it wasn’t bad enough that Simon then made Lily tell Ivy that he was happy for Ivy to move back in with him if she didn’t want to relocate – yet never made an offer for Lily to move back in… Now he was claiming she still lived with him for half the time, so that he could stop paying for her. To throw her out and then claim she was still there?

Even though Simon’s claims were ludicrous and outright lies, there is always the fear lingering beneath. What if they actually believe him? What if he’s managed to find a loophole and they have to uphold his claim, even though he’s not adhering to the court order? It’s no wonder I have an anxiety disorder, it’s been my constant companion these past five years. I waited over a week for the official letter to arrive to find out what the precise arguments were that Simon was using so that I’d know how to word my response, but when the letter finally got here it contained no information. Yet another call to CMS, another 20 minutes on hold.

“Yes, we get calls about this a lot,” the woman explained. “Unfortunately the letters are generated by the system, so they don’t have much information.” Then why don’t you change the letters? I wondered, given that it would save everybody more time if they just took five minutes to add a few details before sending it. If I hadn’t been told on an earlier call, I would have received the letter but have no idea what Simon was claiming. But yes, despite the fact that he saw Lily for 2 hours a month on average, and she hadn’t stayed overnight with him for almost 2 years, he was claiming that he retained equal shared care of her. Half term was rapidly approaching but with no invite for Lily to go and stay with him. It’s still difficult to believe that he could be making such an outrageous claim, that his lies have become this bold. It’s even harder to try and understand how he could do this while still apparently claiming that he is the innocent victim in all of this. But because he’s got away with it so far; lying to his solicitor, to his lawyer, to the judge, to social services, to school, to CAFCASS, to the police, never mind to me and the children, and no one has stopped it, he’s become further empowered. Because there has been no consequence for his lies, they’ve got worse.

“If you’re looking at my case on screen, you should be able to see that he gave you false information before,” I tell the woman. “He gave you false information in 2018 when he claimed that he retained equal care of Ivy, and you found in my favour. He’s given you false information this month, claiming he was earning less money, claiming that Lily was no longer in full time education. He’s lying now about this, Lily lives with me full time, he hardly sees her. It says on the letters you send out that if we send you false or misleading information then you’ll take further action, so I’m begging you, please take action. Because otherwise he’s going to keep doing this because there’s no consequence and it’s getting worse and worse. You’re failing to protect me and the kids, you’re allowing abuse to continue.”

Generally the staff at the CMS are very friendly and helpful, even if they have to stick to a fairly limited script. “I understand where you’re coming from,” is about as far as they’re allowed to go, rather than “Yes, we understand that he’s being a total bastard about this.” They have the power to take people to court, to seize driving licenses, to take payments directly from wages (although unbelievably, the receiving parent effectively pays a fine for this, losing 4% of the ongoing payments, even though it’s only possible to switch to direct collection if it’s been proven that the paying parent has been failing to pay.) Yet over £2 billion is owed in unpaid arrears, the vast majority of it owed by fathers to mothers. Because Simon paid up his arrears a couple of days before the deadline, the CMS wouldn’t switch our payments over to the Direct Collection service. The stress and anxiety he’d caused me simply don’t have a cost, nor would he be liable for any fines I’d accrued if I’d gone overdrawn or defaulted on a payment due to him not paying. What remains unsaid is the cost of all these lies, the fresh pain and confusion each lie causes; How can he do this to us? Do the kids mean nothing to him?

The realisation that it’s not over brings me crashing down again. That the abuse is set to continue, no matter what I do to free myself of it. That by taking the ultimate action in trying to free myself – relocating – all I’ve done is trigger a fresh cycle. Yet again the confusion over why is he doing this, how can he possibly think that this is okay? Part of the abuse endured several years of Simon and Astrid telling me to Get over it and to Move on – but it seems that they’re the ones who aren’t prepared to let me go.

A fresh start

Despite the challenges of moving from the House in the Sky to the Tiny Terrace, I clung to the belief that it was a fresh start. With the divorce and court over, I could take as long as I needed to settle in and rebuild my life, create a new home for my kids. However the abuse didn’t stop; now that Simon was openly living with his new partner it ranked up a level, resulting in our youngest deciding she didn’t want to see him any more. Cue another court case as he attempted to force Ivy into maintaining contact, at which point it became clear that he would stop at nothing to destroy me.

The fresh start disappeared under the burden of legal documents, reports and lies that I was left defending myself against. Rather than creating a new home, I was struggling to survive. Boxes remained unpacked, furniture that didn’t fit up the narrow stairs stood mouldering outside on the patio. When I look back, I’m amazed I managed to get anything done at all, never mind setting up a home! After almost ten months of legal battles, it became clear that Simon was not going to get his way; Ivy could not be forced into seeing him. A month later, he kicked Lily out with only a week’s notice, insisting she came to live with me full time, her belongings dumped on the street outside our house.

The Tiny Terrace had never been intended for the three of us to live full time in. Less than half the size of the House in the Sky, no parking, and not on the school bus route; these were manageable compromises when I bought it in the belief that the kids would only be there for half of the time. It was the only property I’d seen that was remotely suitable while Simon was ramping up the pressure to get us out of the family home. One year on, that compromise had been stretched to its limits.

Single-parenting is hard, even harder when you’re living in fear that everything you do is being judged. Everything was on me, all of the time, spinning all of the plates single-handedly with the added fear that Simon would exact some form of overblown retribution if I stumbled. My own life had ceased to exist, I no longer worked nor socialised. I didn’t go out without the children, I lost touch with nearly all of my friends. When my own mental health challenges became unbearable, it was clear that things needed to change; move now, or stay put for at least another two years until Ivy had finished her GCSEs, knowing that our struggles were set to continue. It was time to move, and this time I would make sure that it really was a fresh start for all of us.

Although we would be bringing some of our challenges with us – autism doesn’t go away – by relocating we’d be leaving some of our problems behind. No more panic attacks in the supermarket, scared that I’d bump into Simon or Astrid. Being able to attend local events without anxiously scanning the crowd. Simon not knowing our new address meant he couldn’t spy on my home. There were positives too; a school for Ivy that had better pastoral care and was within walking distance. The chance for Lily to attend her dream college course. My family within an hour’s drive. Hopefully the fresh start would also give me the chance to not so much rebuild but create a new life for myself and begin to put the past behind me. It felt like the end of a long struggle, and I was certain that the abuse would be consigned to history, there was simply nothing else that Simon could do to me now.

Or so I thought.

Money was tight, especially as we squeezed in a last minute holiday before the move, our first in years and an important symbol marking the end of one way of life, the start of another. I overstretched myself as the first house fell through, and ended up having to borrow money from my parents to pay the removals firm. I started keeping a money diary, but as I was in the process of switching banks it was more difficult to keep track of my finances; all I knew was that there wasn’t enough money in my account and I blamed myself for overspending. However, the new banking app on my phone soon revealed the issue – Simon had not been paying the full amount of maintenance. When the statements from my old bank arrived, it showed he owed me over £1500 – no wonder I’d been struggling. The next payment date rolled around, and less than half of the set amount was paid. Simon had evidently decided to pay what he saw fit, rather than the legally-mandated figure.

Financial abuse is one of the earliest markers of domestic abuse, and withholding child maintenance falls into this category. It’s no coincidence that this happened just as I moved away from Simon – this was retaliation, an attempt to regain the control that he had lost. For the victim, it creates constant anxiety and a high level of stress – money is an inescapable reality. It has meant having to constantly check my bank balance, buying only the bare minimum, putting off the purchases that we need for the new house. Each time that I fretted over money, Simon was forefront in my mind as a constant, intrusive thought. Of course, there was no warning that the money wouldn’t be paid into my account, no time to readjust or budget for the difference. “Sorry, my ex hasn’t paid the child maintenance” isn’t an excuse that goes down well with utility companies or the supermarket cashier. If I was overdrawn, I would have to pay charges, even though it was Simon’s fault – even if I managed to get him to pay the arrears, there wouldn’t be any financial penalty for him, no compensation for the difficulties or fines that he had caused. To have this happen right when my expenditure was necessarily at its greatest – moving house – was cynical and deliberate. Depressingly, our fresh start rapidly deteriorated into more of the same.

Simon doesn’t know how much money I have coming in or going out, what financial commitments I have, whether I’ll be plunged into debt without that money. He seems not to care about the impact it has on our children, from missing out on opportunities, school trips, clubs etc. to struggling to cover the cost of the basics such as clothes, transport to school and college, even what food we eat, as well as the kids worrying about money and feeling stressed. Such issues are the permanent price of poverty; what’s frustrating is when you are plunged into poverty purely because your ex is deliberately not fulfilling his legal obligations to his children. Getting a job isn’t so easy for a single mother with a large career gap and a kid with special needs – Lily had an epileptic seizure at college last week, necessitating a panicked 90 minute drive to get to her, then a three hour stint in A&E, not something that fits in well with a 9-5 job.

The hidden cost of financial abuse is the impact it has on your ability to parent – the children have a mother who is constantly anxious and stressed rather than happy and fully present with them. The fresh start we’d hoped for, the chance to make sure that the last years of their childhood were happy, has been sabotaged yet again by Simon’s abuse. By attempting to punish and control me, he’s hurt his children. And that for me is the most painful part, having to accept that the love he once had for his kids has been suffocated by the hate he now holds for me. It’s hard to reconcile the husband and father he once was to the monster he has become. Financially I’m losing out – but ultimately, he has lost so much more.

Moving

Flurries of activity; sweeping through the house like a dervish, decluttering, cleaning, tying loose ends together with the help of the plumber and builder I’d procrastinated about hiring for a full year. Finally a working shower, a new back door. Countless trips to the charity shop, to the tip – sorry, recycling centre – with sacks of garden waste, broken electronics, two no-longer-working lawn mowers. Lily refused to give up the ancient armchair that she had utterly destroyed by squatting on during her “L from Deathnote” phase. She sat in it defiantly strumming her guitar while I asked her repeatedly to drag the bag of garden waste round to the front of the house ready to go to the tip. We were moving in a couple of days, everything had to be ready for the packers – because yes, I went all out and hired a removals firm to pack our belongings as well as shift them. It was well worth the price of my sanity, plus the house was so small that there was nowhere to put the boxes in the meantime! Ivy insisted on packing up her own room in advance, using up all the boxes we had. Lily tried to insist on doing the same, but 3 days before the packers arrive we discovered her room was a maelstrom of belongings, clothes, papers, rubbish, piled high and strewn across every surface.Thankfully she grudgingly accepted Ivy’s help in getting her room cleared (I was not allowed in her room, and too tired to argue with her), the wheelie bin crammed full of junk after a couple of hours of Ivy’s Marie Kondo style intervention. I could hear their voices through the bedroom door, Ivy patiently asking Lily to focus on whether she wanted to keep a particular book, while Lily hit distraction after distraction as she re-encountered childhood favourites; “Oh wow, look at this Corvette!”

Miraculously, the house sold within 4 weeks – after the first wave of potential buyers came through and dismissed it as “needing updating,” a young woman fell in love with the quirks of our tiny Victorian terrace. We had an offer accepted on a house near to Ivy’s new school, only for the seller to pull out the week after I’d spent £500 having a survey done. Although it was brutally frustrating, the survey then showed up major problems with the roof, and the vendor pulling out made the decision for me rather than having to agonise over whether to continue with the purchase. Moving 150 miles away meant that house viewings had to be arranged with military precision – a Folder of Organisation accompanied us at all times, potential viewings pencilled into half hour slots, my phone buzzing with return calls from estate agents. We stayed at my parents’ house, about an hour away from the town we were hoping to move to, spending several weekends endlessly driving around while Ivy clutched the Folder of Organisation and we debated the overall scores we were awarding to each house. I tried to keep it as fun as possible, and Krispy Kremes were purchased at frequent intervals, but Stress sat on my shoulders throughout, the stress of having to navigate unknown streets on a tight timescale, the stress of having to find us a suitable new home that we could move to before term started in September. When our purchase fell through, it looked as if we were going to have to put our belongings into storage and move in with my parents – thankfully my buyer decided to delay Completion by a month, and we were able to find a new home in that time. The major sticking point throughout was the third bedroom issue; the poor design of most postwar UK homes leads to 2 decent size bedrooms and one tiny boxroom – perhaps navigable with small children, but an impossible situation with teenagers, neither of whom was willing to accept such a small bedroom. In the worst cases it was hard to see how a full-sized single bed would even fit – the estate agent described one such room as a “cot” room, while I pointed out that I’d have to cut Lily’s legs off to have any chance of her fitting into it.

During the same timescale, I’ve also been navigating an EHCP application for Lily to try and set up the support she needs for college, and her PIP application, plus trying to support her through the GCSEs she steadfastly refused to study for. We had to tour the schools in the new town, then apply and appeal for a place for Ivy – an appeal which the panel refused to hear due to a technicality, even though they knew we’d driven 150 miles specifically for it, and would now have to immediately drive back again. We trialled a reduction in Lily’s epilepsy medication, only to discover that sadly, she’s not grown out of the condition and still required the full dose (thankfully she only experienced minor “absence” seizures in this time, rather than a full blown tonic-clonic seizure.) It’s been a ridiculously stressful time. I’m hoping that Autumn will be a time of settling, of being able to take time to set up our new home while we all adjust to our new life. Hoping that we can brush off some of the stress, like dust, as we settle into our new life, new town, new way of life.

Decluttering for the Truly Disorganized and Overwhelmed

Minimalism is trending; every other YouTube video or Pinterest post promises to help you declutter your way to clarity, space and a new, improved you. I think I’ve clicked on just about all of them. Even though I’ll never be a minimalist, I’m drawn to the idea of living more simply, streamlining our possessions and having a calmer, clutter-free space.

But.

And it’s a rather big but, to be honest. Just between you and me, I’ve always been messy. At this point I’m going to jump right in and blame it on ADHD, but maintaining a tidy, organised space has always been beyond me. Most of my possessions spent their lives spread across my bedroom floor when I was a child, and yet I knew where everything was. What looked like an atrocious mess to everyone else – particularly my horrified Mum – was to me a structured series of themed islands with clear stepping points in between.

I’ve always been stunned by people who have perfect kitchens, with empty, gleaming counter-tops and not an appliance nor wooden spoon in sight. I’ve gazed around in amazement in friend’s real-life Perfect Homes, literally unable to comprehend how they’ve achieved it. One thing is for sure; they don’t have as many books as I do.

Let’s see if any of the following sounds familiar;

There are so many things you’d rather be doing than tidying, and you run out of energy long before getting round to it. You’re sure you’ll put it away later, deal with it later, sort it out later… but later never comes and the mess begins to build. You can think of 101 uses for every single item you pick up, from used wine corks (stamp-carving, anyone?) to battered old books (could be re-purposed as an art journal, maybe I could even start selling them on Etsy?) – the Creative in you sees the potential in everything. Once you’ve put an item down somewhere, it’s like it ceases to exist and you don’t really see it as clutter any more, oh that’s just the old radiator that I need to take to the tip, I don’t need to worry about it. Clutter attracts clutter, more mess quickly joins the original out-of-place item and breeds until an unruly pile is formed. Nobody around you is pulling their weight and helping. You don’t have enough storage. So Much Paper, (seriously, having a child with special needs involves entire rainforests of paperwork,) what are you supposed to do with it? Sentimentality forbids you from throwing out anything the kids have ever made for you, you save every drawing they’ve ever done, keep the outgrown clothes and toys, because to get rid of any of it feels like you’re throwing away parts of your children. You just can’t be bothered, it’s so hard to get started. You feel completely overwhelmed and don’t know where to start or how to organise any of it. You have plans for all of it, eventually. You can’t get rid of things in case they come in handy – if you throw them out and then realise you need them, you’ll regret it. It seems so wasteful to get rid of things, and you can’t bear the thought of things ending up in landfill. You could probably sell some of it, but you’re not sure where – eBay, car boot sale? – and it’s such a faff to organise, but you don’t want to just give it away.

Maybe you’ve also studied the endless posts and videos about decluttering, quickly realising that they all pretty much say the same thing; get a box for Donate, one for Sell, one for Trash, one for Keep. Anything you’re unsure about, put it in a box, seal it up and leave it in the garage, and if you haven’t used it in a year then take it to the charity shop without opening it. Get a friend to help you. Stay hydrated. Tackle one small area at a time.

If you’re anything like me, none of this advice is particularly helpful. It sounds great in theory, but when you’re confronted with stacks of paper and assorted miscellany, all of which seems to have a purpose, it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps if I really did have three sets of wedding china, several coffee makers and a novelty monkey lamp, decluttering would be easy. Ah yes, we’ll keep the Limoges, junk the Nespresso on environmental grounds, and give Aunt Susan’s lamp the ceremonial burning it truly deserves. Instead I’m left wading through piles of papers about benefits claims, hospital appointments and divorce, not knowing whether it needs to stay or go; I’ve already learned that you really don’t know what you might need in the future, especially where Court is involved. Throw in brain fog, stress, time and energy constraints and it becomes easier to live with the mess.

Yet ultimately, a clearer home is so much nicer to live in. Mess breeds stress and adds to the chaotic stew of busyness and not ever feeling on top of things. A tidy home feels so much calmer and frees up the space for better things, whether that’s a creative hobby or family board games. I’m now moving into my fifth home as an adult, and I’m aware of how much nicer it was to live in those homes once they were done up, tidy, clean and buyer-ready. Unfortunately, they didn’t much look like that when we were actually living in them! Having to frantically tackle my current home to get it ready for selling has made me aware of how much can be achieved in a short time – and determined to undertake this work as soon as possible in the new place so that we get to enjoy living there from the outset, rather than once we’ve decided to sell. With that in mind, here are my top tips for decluttering for the Truly Disorganized and Overwhelmed.

  • Reduce, reduce, reduce. Long before you’ve reached the bottom of the box of stuff, you’ve created a pile of things you don’t know what to do with. Stuff that feels vaguely useful, important, or that you can picture using in several projects. All too soon you reach the point of overwhelm, shove everything back into the box and give up on the whole idea. For the Truly Disorganized and Overwhelmed, the idea of completely emptying a box of stuff and either throwing it away or finding it all a rightful place is simply too much. So don’t start out with the idea that you’re going to clear away box after box. Your goal is to reduce; focus on reducing the overall number of boxes, clearing out enough stuff so that three box’s worth now fits into two, and two eventually go into one. Or streamline it so that the contents now fit a much smaller box. This allows you to begin honing your skills in deciding what to keep, and creates a more gradual, gentler process. Yes, you’ll end up having to go through your boxes several times, but it will get easier each time. For “box” you might need to substitute “closet,” “cupboard,” “drawer,” etc. Just have the aim of overall reduction rather than panicking over getting it perfect first time around.
  • Identify the big jobs and get on with hiring. Getting someone in to do the work can feel daunting – what if they turn out to be a cowboy, make the mess worse and rip you off? What about having to live with all the mess while the work is carried out? Websites such as CheckATrade can help take some of the guesswork out of hiring, but I’d still advise asking around. If you ask enough people, you’ll be able to get a personal recommendation for a reliable plumber, electrician, builder etc. Knock on doors when you see a nearby house has had work done, ask if they’re happy with it. If the job needs doing, then do it as soon as you can. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in the position of having to put up with it for years, then paying to have it fixed so that the new family who are buying your home can enjoy it. Do you deserve it less than they do?
  • Know yourself. Would it be useful to have someone helping you, or do you already know that you’ll feel panicky and defensive if someone else starts going through your possessions and pressuring you to make quick decisions? If you’re going to ask for help, choose the person carefully and make sure they realise that you find it emotionally challenging. The last thing you need is someone getting frustrated with you for dithering over whether or not to keep every. single. book.
  • Give yourself enough time. If you’re decluttering for a move then start as early as you can – yesterday isn’t too soon. Don’t pull out more than you can deal with in one sitting, you’ll overwhelm yourself and end up in a worse mess. I’m a fan of Marie Kondo while understanding that it’s simply not practical for me to gather every single item in one go. Take breaks when you need to, but set a timer on your phone so you’ll get back to it. Last Minute Panic can motivate you like nothing else, but you’re always going to regret not starting sooner.
  • If you’re hoping to sell stuff, especially on eBay, you really do need to start early as it won’t necessarily sell straight away. eBay isn’t great for books, but there’s a roaring trade in secondhand Sylvanian Families and Lego so you might be able to persuade older kids to sell their outgrown toys; try to get them to take responsibility for photographing and describing their items so that they’re really earning their money. I’ve even managed to sell bundles of magazines but this works best with specialist titles such as sewing/craft, or foreign imports. Make sure you charge enough for postage as the standard eBay rates are a little low, and don’t forget to set a minimum price so that it’s going to be worth the bother of packing and posting it. Local Facebook groups (or Craigslist in US) might be better than eBay if you have large items and furniture to get rid of. If you’ve got a sizeable number of books, DVDs or computer games websites/apps such as WeBuyBooks might buy some of them; it’s worked out at around £30 per box for me so far – not a fraction of what the books were “worth” but better than getting nothing. Look for voucher codes offering an extra 10-15% profit. You generally need over £25 of sales to make it worthwhile, then the boxes can be taken to your nearest Hermes collection point (or equivalent) so there’s no postage charge – if you have a large amount you might also be able to get them picked up at your home by a courier for no extra cost. Knowing that you’ll get financial compensation for decluttering can really help with the process!
  • Car boot sales – oh Lordy. They can be a great idea at the start of the decluttering process, when you’ve got the most to sell, including some “big ticket” items that will generate enough interest and cash to make it worthwhile. Make sure to get there early, take drinks and snacks and have a very strict moratorium on buying from other stalls because if you’re buying burgers and drinks and forking out cash to the kids to buy more junk, it entirely defeats the purpose of being there and you won’t turn a profit. It’s worth leaving the kids at home unless one of them is older and sensible enough to be actually helpful – otherwise you’re better off using the extra space in the car to load up more stuff for selling; it sounds harsh but younger kids are going to get in your way, get bored, and want to buy up everyone’s cast-off toys. Don’t be too hard-nosed about prices, bear in mind that it’s going to be more profitable to sell it than end up donating to a charity shop, but don’t be bullied by the professional dealers offering you a pittance. Take a helper so that you can nip to the loo without your stuff getting nicked (warning – put anything valuable in a “safe” display spot where you can easily keep an eye on it!). You don’t necessarily have to price everything in advance, the “Make me an offer” approach can work well, and be prepared to haggle. However once you’ve already got rid of a fair amount of stuff, you’ll reach a point where car boot sales aren’t really worth the effort, bearing in mind it costs you for your pitch; consider whether it’s going to be easier and less stressful to just donate the rest. Also – it’s only worth doing it in decent weather, pack the car the night before, and don’t forget your sunscreen.
  • Kids. Leaving aside the hellpit that is a child’s bedroom, kids seem to generate a whole new set of clutter and paperwork, particularly if they have any kind of disability or SEN. Gather up all the random paperwork, get a box file or lever arch file per child and put it all in there. It will look better in a file than it does spread all over the house, and much easier to retrieve at a later date. If you want to be particularly organised, put the oldest stuff in at the bottom and add it in chronological order with the newest stuff at the top – this makes it easier to add in new papers as they arrive.
  • Buy one large scrapbook per child – the old-fashioned kind with large, thin cardboard covers that you can pick up in places like The Works, often with black pages designed for gluing things into. Use this as a repository for their early art work and tape/glue in your favourites. If it’s not favourite enough to be in a frame and hanging on a wall, nor stuck into their Art Scrapbook, get rid of it. Get a couple of cheap frames from IKEA and have at least one picture per child up on the wall, it looks a lot better than Blu-tack, and makes your kid feel super-important.
  • Watch relevant shows/YouTube videos to inspire yourself (do this during breaks rather than using it for procrastination!) – from episodes of Hoarders/How Clean is Your House? to videos about Tiny Homes, or one of the many YouTubers who focus on cleaning and decluttering. Watching Hoarders etc makes me realise I’m not actually that bad, plus it can be inspiring to see how much can be achieved in a very short space of time. Tiny Homes show how little we really need to get by, and help you to prioritise what you’d keep if you were moving into such a small space. Cleaning videos can be played in the background while you’re working to keep you motivated, and can also inspire you by showing how nice your home could look when the job is done.
  • Make a list of everything you’ve decluttered, this helps to keep you motivated when the going gets tough as you can see how much progress you’ve made. You don’t have to specifically list every book/DVD for example, just a general note of how much you’ve let go of. Some people like to weigh the total amount they’ve got rid of, or you might want to photograph it before it leaves. Taking pictures of sentimental items can also help you to then declutter them as you now have a record of it; I’ve found this can really help kids to let go of things they’ve outgrown. It helps to document your progress in some way, find what works for you so you can take pride in how much you’ve done.
  • I’ve spent a surprising amount of time talking about decluttering with my counsellor (who I went to for entirely different reasons.) During one session we realised I’d put myself in a lose-lose situation with a lot of my “stuff,” particularly with potential projects and crafts. If I kept the items then I felt the over-bearing pressure of things I should be doing every time I saw them, from weaving a basket to sewing new clothes. If I got rid of them then I was admitting defeat, I’d failed to achieve my potential and there was an element of grief and regret over not having managed to do it. This Lose-Lose mentality literally meant I couldn’t win and that decluttering was agonising for me – no wonder I was procrastinating and going round in circles. Realising this helped me a lot, and I was able to let go of projects I knew I wasn’t going to undertake or that were perpetually half-finished, as well as saying goodbye to items I’d previously used but was realistically unlikely to use again, such as a paper-making kit. You might have a similar mindset about clothes, for example if you’ve been trying to lose weight to fit some of your old favourites, or books you haven’t got round to reading, or sports equipment that’s been gathering dust for a long time.
  • Donating is much easier if you’re able to find the right homes for your stuff. I knew I was ready to part with my collection of Selvedge magazines, but with a face value of over £200, I wasn’t going to chuck them into the recycling. When I discovered that a woman at my art class loved textile art, it was lovely to hand them on to her in the knowledge that they would be greatly appreciated. Check first though – not everyone wants your cast offs!

Places that might appreciate donations include;

  • Schools/colleges – art and craft materials, including fabric and textiles, plus magazines to cut up and use in sketchbooks or collage (make sure they’re age appropriate!). Books. DVDs, especially adaptations of set texts such as Macbeth etc.
  • Playgroups, children’s charities – toys in good condition, books, colouring books, children’s plates, cups etc. Be aware that it can be very difficult to pass on baby items such as high chairs and cots due to safety fears, and you can’t donate child car seats anywhere, at least in the UK – unfortunately I ended up taking mine to the tip. Sometimes grandparents-to-be will welcome high chairs, changing mats, car seats etc.
  • Doctor/dental surgeries, hospital waiting rooms – coloured pencils/pens, pads of paper, colouring books, toys such as small cars, magazines.
  • Community groups, ranging from youth clubs, Scouts and Guides to the Women’s Institute – will sometimes take furniture such as a sofa or chairs if they have a space they need to furnish – we once donated a sofa to a local Scout troop who wanted to create a hang-out space for their teenagers.
  • Charity shops – as well as the obvious clothes, furniture and bric-a-brac IN GOOD CONDITION, many charity shops also welcome “rag bags” – donations of old clothes/textiles that are not in a fit enough condition to be sold in store, but which they can sell on for textile recycling. Check before as not all shops do it, and make it clear that it’s for their rag bag so there isn’t a volunteer trawling with despair through your holey sweatpants and odd socks. Some charity shops accept electrical items, and some will also take furniture for repair/upcycling as part of their on-going training schemes – again, check with them in advance. Many charity shops will collect bulky furniture from your home, but it needs to be in good saleable condition and you need to set this up in plenty of time as their vans have limited space and might only be in the area once a week.
  • Charities – as well as charity shops there can be local charities who will accept specific items. When the kids’ old bikes failed to sell on our local Facebook group, we were able to donate them to a nearby bike project that taught young people to repair and maintain bicycles. When the charity shop wasn’t able to collect Lily’s old bed in time for the move, another charity that specialised in offering furniture to low-income families was able to take it instead. Women’s refuges are often in need of furniture and clothes. Not all charities have high street shops, so do a bit of research as to what’s available in your area and what they’re looking for.
  • Freecycle – one of the easiest ways of donating, as people will generally come and collect it from your house. There will generally always be someone who is very grateful for your cast-offs; an old mattress is better than no mattress. After moving I was able to pass on our empty cardboard boxes to other people planning a house move, and even have someone collect the large cardboard sheets that had contained Lily’s new IKEA bed (great for mulching a new garden bed.)

I hope this has helped. For me, one of the things that makes decluttering easier is knowing that the items I’m getting rid of will be helping someone else out. Yet even with the worst case scenario – taking stuff to the tip – it always feels so much better to have gotten rid of the extra clutter, you feel palpably lighter on the way home. And with all the stuff I’ve gotten rid of, there are only 2 small items that I regret letting go of – a tiny baby cardigan I knitted for Lily, and an especially lovely birthday card from when I was little, neither of which is that important in the grand scheme of things. It shows that most of the stuff I really can live without and that it’s only the truly personal, sentimental items that I’m likely to miss in the long run – everything else can be replaced.

Transformation

I’m ashamed to say that this was the landing not so long ago. A plastic crate of toiletries that landed here soon after the move, a chandelier that came with us from The House in the Sky but which needs an electrician to install, a bag of Christmas gifts that hadn’t found a home, a soft toy that Ivy was throwing out, a bag of old toy cars that Lily had finally agreed to get rid of, and several large samples of wallpaper purloined from B&Q for future use. A mess, in other words – but a mess that I had gotten so used to that I’d stopped actually seeing it. Is it just an ADHD thing? My mind is very capable of cataloguing clutter and then completely ignoring it, as if it weren’t there at all, particularly if the items are destined for elsewhere like the tip or charity shop. It’s only when something else intrudes into the domestic chaos, like knowing a visitor is about to descend, or -god forbid- deciding to put the house on the market, that suddenly the mess reveals itself through fresh eyes.

Panic.

The timescale of getting the house onto the market and selling it was pretty tight. Having only made my mind up in early March, it was clear that the house would have to be sold before June in order to complete all the legalities and move in to our new home before the September term started and Ivy begins her GCSE courses. Of course, we couldn’t move out before mid-June either, as Lily would be taking her GCSEs. The house would have to be on the market by early April to stand any chance of making the deadline.

More Panic.

Truth be told, every corner of the house contained a scene like the one above. We were still adjusting to living in a house less than half the size of our previous home, a house bought on the understanding that the kids would only be spending half of the week here, with half of their possessions stored at Simon’s place. Home-making had fallen victim to a court case in the first year here, to stress and mental health challenges, to Lily’s increasingly worrying behaviour and Ivy’s depression and anxiety. At times, I would beat myself up for not having managed to create the lovely home that I wanted, for failing to give my children the home they deserved. And yet, it was all too easy to forget the progress that I’d already made, despite the obstacles in my way. When we moved in, every single room was piled high with packing boxes. I joked with the kids that we’d be renaming the place Box Cottage. The washing machine didn’t fit under the counter and sat in the middle of the kitchen, boxes piled on top of it. A wardrobe wouldn’t fit up the narrow stairs and had to be abandoned in the garden, where it stood slowly rotting. We didn’t have a sofa, or beds, or wardrobes or any storage at all. Oh, and I had clearly underestimated the amount of space that the piano would take up in the living room, or wildly overestimated how big the living room actually was.

Panic Overload.

Single-handedly I chiselled out enough counter-top to fit the washing machine beneath, planned and built large IKEA wardrobes, found a secondhand sofa in a charity shop that would fit our tiny living room. The piles of boxes were gradually unpacked, even though some of them sat untouched for a full year before I was ready for them. A log-burner was paid for by instalments and fitted that first Summer, paying me back in the next Winter when the boiler broke and we had no heating. A ridiculous amount of flat-pack furniture was hauled up the stairs and assembled, our existing furniture heaved into different rooms. A new home was found for the piano with a local family. Pictures were hung on walls. A garden began to take shape, a log store was built from pallets. A rudimentary cabinet was built for a gap in the kitchen, shelves and hooks put up where needed, power tools and DIY gear beginning to overflow from the box I was keeping them in. If I stopped and assessed the situation, I had made so much progress from how things were when we moved in. Overwhelmed by how much still needed to be done, it was all too easy to forget how far I’d already come.

So much needed doing before the house could go on the market – the shower needed replacing, the back porch needed a leak fixing and a new ceiling, the render on the front extension needed some patches filling and repainting, the hall needed decorating, the broken decking out in the garden needed fixing or demolishing… not to mention the vast amount of decluttering, tidying and general prettifying that was desperately required. Nothing focuses the mind quite like a deadline though, and so suddenly workmen were hired to do the jobs that had been lurking for ages, while I scrambled to tackle the rest; trips to the tip, painting, tidying, cleaning, painting some more, weeding and strimming, buying light fittings and plants, taking bag after bag of donations to the charity shop or listing things on eBay. A month of sheer hard work and the house has been transformed.

Part of me couldn’t quite believe how capable I was proving to be, having only just turned the corner from severe depression. There was just no other option than to crack on with it, so that’s what I was doing – while also handling simultaneous EHCP and PIP applications for Lily. The other part of me couldn’t believe how much of a transformation was possible in such a short space of time. The house has begun to look and feel completely different. For the first time since we’d moved in, it feels like our home, comforting and sweet. Yes it’s small, but it does the job. We have all begun to appreciate it in a new way, enjoying the calmer, nicer atmosphere. Even the smallness feels cosy rather than cramped, with an awareness that living in such proximity has brought us closer. But it wasn’t just the house that has transformed. Many people have pointed out the link between our external spaces and our state of minds; a cluttered house is a sign of a cluttered mind. The hard work I’ve been putting in is rebuilding my confidence and strength; I’m proving to myself that I was capable, despite the lingering voice of abuse telling me that I’m useless, a failure. Decluttering is bringing a fresh clarity to my mind. Even just having made the decision to move has brought with it a newfound sense of hope and purpose rather than the fear and stagnation that I was stuck in. Can’t has become Can. And while it’s terrifying to leap into the unknown, leaving the lives we’ve created here behind in order to start over, I’ve already proven the basic fact to myself; I can do this.