The Psychopath Test

We’ve been at my parents’ house for a few hours and have just been summoned to dinner. For once, Lily comes downstairs relatively quickly – I’m relieved as Dad gets cross if people aren’t prompt to the table. She’s not happy though.

“I’m having a crisis, Mum,” she whispers.

“What is it, love?” I ask, hugging her. “Did you and June split up?” That’s the worst, most obvious thing I can think of. I run through more possibilities; online trolling, bullying, discovery of a large gangrenous tumour. Once I’ve gone over the worst options, I turn to humour – this is what works best with Lily. “Has your leg fallen off and you can’t sew it back on?”

“No, it’s still here.”

“You’re about to be arrested for drug dealing?”

“No.”

“Someone discovered the body?”

“No.”

“You’ve finally realised you’re an alien?”

“Well yes, but that doesn’t bother me.”

She refuses to talk about it within earshot of my parents, and dinner is ready so I’m forced to wait until after we’ve eaten, wondering what on earth it is. I figure it’s YouTube-related, another spat with someone over videos and comments that should never have been posted. When dinner is over I track her down and she hands me her tablet to watch something. Yes, it’s YouTube, but rather than a flame war it’s a series of videos with titles like Are You a Psychopath, and The Psychopath Test.

Lily has been watching them and is now worried that she’s a psychopath. I have no idea how I’m supposed to handle this one. Perhaps I should have just laughed it off, told her it was a load of rubbish and not to worry – yet to me, that comes across as not really listening to her fears. She insists that she wants this investigated further, and I try to reassure her that she will be able to talk about to the the psychologist at CYPS when she has her appointment. I tell her the videos are sensationalist and irresponsible, and the very fact that she’s concerned enough about whether she’s a psychopath is probably proof that she’s not a psychopath. That she’s 15, her brain isn’t fully developed yet, particularly when it comes to feeling empathy – that this is true of all teenagers, who are notoriously horrible to deal with but inevitably grow out of it. That she has Aspergers and ADHD, which accounts for a lot of her concerns. That liking black coffee and dark chocolate does not make you a serial killer, that much of the “science” being quoted is incomplete or misrepresented and used out of context. That only a trained psychologist or psychiatrist would hold the answers to any of this, not some random YouTuber.

We talk about lying, and that I think it has become a problem for her. She admits something I’ve long suspected – that when she tells a lie, it somehow becomes true for her. I tell her that this is something I just don’t understand, that she must surely know that it’s not true. We discuss how Simon’s lies in court were so painful to me, that effectively he became sociopathic, lying to manipulate and achieve what he wanted, and the hurt this has caused. We talk about how Lily struggles to accept responsibility and tends to blame others for anything and everything. That again, these can be issues with ASD/ADHD and don’t mean that she’s a psychopath. That not all criminals are psychopaths and not all psychopaths are criminals – although a great many world leaders and CEOs would fit the criteria, particularly Trump. I try to explain that none of us are perfect, we all have our character flaws and that being aware of our issues means that we can try and overcome our difficulties – that we should all try to be the best we can and to make the world a better place. Lily admits she doesn’t really feel guilt or remorse over her wrongdoings, that she doesn’t really care how other people are affected as long as she gets her own way. I don’t tell her that I’ve secretly had concerns when her patterns of behaviour match Simon’s; lying, blaming, lack of responsibility and remorse, that I’ve wondered whether she will be abusive to others in this way as she gets older. Going down that line of thinking wouldn’t be helpful to anyone at the moment, least of all Lily. She’s 15 and incredibly immature, with an autistic spectrum disorder, ADHD and anxiety and control issues thrown in on top. She’s growing up with all of this, plus epilepsy and gender identity issues on top of the usual teenaged angst, school, homework, exams, dating etc. It’s enough.

I tell her it’s a bad idea to watch these kinds of videos. That she’s my baby and I love her and don’t think she’s a bad person. That she’s still got a lot of growing up to do and it’s too soon to tell who she’s going to be, but it’s not likely that she’ll suddenly become a mass murderer; not that all psychopaths are killers anyway. Afterwards, sitting outside in the shade of the evening, I wonder whether I’ve handled it the right way or not, whether I should have laughed it all off, refused to give it any credence. In reality, Lily’s behaviour over the past few months has been so extreme and bizarre that I can’t just shrug it off. We both know that she threatened me with a knife, that she’s been claiming she can see demons and shadowy figures in the corners of the room, that she was self-harming. I’ve been going from one doctor to the next trying to get answers, while school pushed through with a CYPS referral. My main concern this week is how well she’ll cope with her work experience, not whether or not she’s a psychopath – but now her worry over it becomes my issue to deal with.

Is this normal? I find myself wondering. Is this a thing now, do most teenagers question whether they’re psychopaths or not? I don’t remember ever worrying about that when I was a teenager, but then I didn’t have YouTube. No doubt someone put those videos up for a laugh, for entertainment, a bit of click bait. Sometimes I wish the Internet had a caretaker – that sounds so much gentler than Internet Police – someone who would go through content, quietly deleting the hate, the trolling, the misogyny and porn, the racism, violence and general crassness; all the stuff that’s basically not helpful when you’re trying to raise kids, never mind live in this world yourself. This is new territory for all of us, the biggest global experiment ever, and at times it’s like watching a baby playing with scissors. Lily struggles to manage as it is, and I struggle to manage with her. Go gently, I try to remind myself, but the internet is not a gentle place and the internet is shaping my children.

Praying for rain

It’s been ridiculously hot. June passed without a cloud in the sky and no real rain, only the tiniest drizzle. For anyone trying to create a garden, this was not good news. The ground is too sunbaked to dig, and the new plants are desperate for water – I’ve lost count of the treks through the house with dripping watering cans in each hand. While I should no doubt count my blessings for the glorious weather, I’m craving rain. If the patterns of recent years can be relied upon, the good weather will continue right until the last day of term, when the heavens will open for the entire summer holiday. This will continue until the start of the September term, proving rubbish for those of us whose holiday ambitions stretch no further than a cheap camping expedition – then when the kids are back at school we’ll be treated to an Indian summer.

Truth is, I’m not great in the heat. I’m not great in the cold either, I’m an entirely temperate being. Dappled shade and a light breeze are what suit me best. I can’t think straight in the heat, can’t bear to cook in an already over-heated kitchen, hate driving in an oven of a car. If life consisted of siestas and ice cream and dabbling my toes in a stream, it might be bearable. Sadly, life continues on the same, heat-warped rails; school run, housework, shopping, cooking, driving. Oh, and fire-fighting.

The fire-fighting is getting tedious. Another week, another battle with school. Having just achieved some measure of satisfaction over Ivy’s need to switch teaching groups, the next problem arrives. Lily is supposed to be doing work experience for a week. This was all supposed to be sorted out before the January deadline, as Lily decided she would help with lighting and sound for the drama group production, a role she fell into by default last year when Simon didn’t return the forms for her much-wanted European trip in time. I figured it wasn’t exactly work experience but gaining further knowledge of the technical desk would be good for her and tied in with her music technology GCSE.

Two weeks before work experience is due to start and Lily tells me that school have told her she can’t do it. Cue panic, and much phoning and emailing. School insist they gave Lily this information back in January, and from what Lily says, I realise that everyone’s wires have been crossed. What they actually seem to have said to her was that “it might be difficult.” To an ASD/ADHD child, that doesn’t count as a No. Only a No counts as a No, and even then Lily might decide to take it as a Maybe. School insisted that they had given Lily further support to set up a placement, while I tried to point out that clearly they hadn’t – if she had been given enough support, then she would have a placement. The fact that she didn’t have a placement in two weeks’ time, was fairly obvious proof that not enough support had been provided. And for the love of God, why had nobody contacted me about it? This was information I should have been given months ago, as an SEN child is evidently going to need extra help when it comes to securing a suitable work experience placement.

So then, two weeks of last minute panic and stress trying to find something for Lily to do during work experience week, so that she didn’t have to stay in the school library doing extra Maths the whole time. Plus making sure that Ivy was ready for her European trip at the same time, which involved a major shopping expedition. Plus trying to buy a new secondhand car. Plus taking a friend to hospital appointments. Plus, plus, plus. Asking in different shops and cafes whether Lily could do her work experience there, knowing that it was all too late to be arranged properly. Over a hundred miles away, my family were doing the same – but it seemed to be work experience week across the nation, and the most likely places had long since been snapped off. Eventually, Mum managed to secure a few days at her church’s office – not something that Lily would have chosen for herself, but definitely better than extra Maths. The forms were frantically emailed back and forth, arriving on the teacher’s desk on Friday afternoon, with work experience due to start that Monday. The weekend disappeared in a flurry of driving – back down to the city for a college open day for Lily, then home, dinner, and over to the town where school is, as Ivy had thankfully arranged to sleep over at a friend’s house to be closer for the 3.15am drop-off for her trip. Then the four hour drive north to be at my parents’ house for Lily’s work experience, my own appointments for that week cancelled, including a place on a Photography workshop that I’d been looking forward to for ages.

There are times when it feels like all I do is complain. Times when I think I’d like this blog to be all light and fluffy and day-dreamy gorgeousness. But my life doesn’t look anything like that. Having a child with additional/special needs means that life is never going to be straight forward, never mind fluffy and gorgeous. Yes, I try to cherish the moment and remember to count my blessings – but life would be so much easier if schools created decent SEN policies. It’s hard enough trying to cope with a child who has significant behavioural issues, without having to constantly battle to have their needs met at school. To find several teachers have written in Lily’s end of year report that she needs to pay more attention in class – meaning me pulling my hair out in the kitchen as I read it because for Christ’s sake she has ADHD and needs a support worker to keep her on track and I thought we had this sorted out back in Year 7 and now you’re telling me that most of Year 10 has been wasted because you’ve withdrawn that support without telling me and I’m only finding out now when it’s too late?

In the same way that the garden is longing for rain, I’m thirsty for understanding. For compassion and consideration. For ease, for all of it instead of this continuous fire-fighting battle that I’ve been on for the past 15 years. Because I know it’s not just me – pretty much every parent of an SEN child is fighting the same battles, week in, week out. Fighting lack of resources, lack of funding, as well as lack of compassion and imagination. Fighting the tired old cliche that they can’t make exceptions for one child, despite the fact that they need to. Fighting the poor communication, the not being kept informed until it’s too late to do anything about it, the not sticking to agreements that you thought were already in place. And so this week; far more stress than I needed, entirely unnecessarily, and over 300 miles in a dodgy car that might or might not make it home again, while my garden shrivels in the heat and everything is postponed. I’m actually still waiting for the phone call from the teacher responsible that I was promised two weeks ago, the I’ll get back to you. I’m sure that school has written me off – I’m that angry, neurotic mother, always complaining about the lack of support given to her precious Snowflake children. That what I’m saying will be ignored, because most parents never make a complaint or request a meeting, therefore there must be something wrong with me. If only. I’m so over school, so fed up of the ridiculous pressure being placed on us for 100% attendance, never being late, homework always being handed in on time never mind how much has been set or what plans you have made or what’s going on at home, having the correct and expensive school uniform and PE kit, constant demands for money for this trip, that trip, music lessons etc.

I’m longing for the rain. I want to step outside in an evening downpour and feel the cool, refreshing shower wash over me. I’m longing for my parched garden to get that nourishing soak it desperately needs. Longing for life to feel like a cool glass of water instead of a wildfire.

Grand Day Out

(My Nan would have called this a “Knicky Knacky Noo Shop,” but I’m sure they’d prefer “Antique” or “Vintage”, Notting Hill.)

Lily has regular clinic appointments in London, which on the whole we tend to treat as a Grand Day Out, catching the first off-peak train and waiting until the afternoon rush hour is over before making our way home. A couple of times I’ve tried to fit in taking Lily to London while also getting Ivy to school but it caused to much chaos and stress. When the last trip meant an hour and a half’s delay on the train while Ivy was home alone, I decided enough was enough – Ivy comes too. Both children being off at the same time inevitably makes school suspicious, as if I’m determined to sabotage their education by secretly nipping off to the Seychelles for the day. But no – it’s a genuine hospital appointment, and I’m doing the best I can to balance everyone’s needs including my own. The trip is educational in its own way – as a former home schooler I recognise that everything has educational potential – and we usually end up in one of the museums, or exploring somewhere new. School holiday appointments bring their own problems – yes, we’re not missing school, but London is far more busy and crowded, proving too much for Lily’s Aspergers. Lily also refuses to use the Tube when it’s crowded, resulting in some epic walks across London to make it back to Paddington on time for the train home – this was especially difficult when I was hobbling along with plantar fasciitis, having to practise Lamaze breathing techniques to get me through each step of a three mile walk from Camden, having already been on my feet for most of the day.

(Sculpture or alien invasion, we couldn’t quite decide, River Thames.)

It’s hard to believe that I once wanted to live in London. I was all set on a career in The Media, without really knowing what that would look like, just that I’d be heading off to London to do exciting things in film and television or magazines. Instead I fell in love with Simon and moved to a tiny town where Media careers simply weren’t a thing. Now when I look back I’m not sure whether that was a wasted opportunity or a lucky escape – I’m not sure that I’d like the person that I’d have to become to succeed in that game. Certainly I quit my on-the-job training as a features journalist when I was being asked to phone an elderly woman who I knew was sitting in a hospital holding hands with her second husband as he was slowly dying from a brain tumour, to ask her whether her previous fiance had actually died in her arms or just on the floor. I couldn’t believe that anyone would think it was okay to do that, but the young woman on the other end of the phone didn’t seem to register that we were dealing with people’s very real lives and emotions and that there was a duty of care not to traumatise an innocent person for the sake of a single sentence of the story. I’d struggle to live in London now; the 24 hr hectic, non-stop pace, the busyness, the crowds, the glazed, unconnected look on people’s faces as they ignore each other in a bid to find personal space. It’s an entirely artificial lifestyle in a hard, artificial environment, something that I seem to struggle with more and more as I get older.

(We’ll take this one please, Notting Hill.)

The 2pm appointment cut into the day, leaving not quite enough time before or after to really do much. We decided to explore Notting Hill, finding brightly painted townhouses and a vibe on the chichi side of boho. One of the streets was unbelievably picturesque, each painted house seemingly trying to compete with the next, all with lovingly tended tiny front gardens that showed that even the smallest space can be transformed into a personal haven. We decided the house with roses spilling around the door and windows was our favourite. Neither of the kids have seen the eponymous film, but I pointed out some of the landmarks nonetheless; the Travel Bookshop, now a tacky tourist souvenir shop, the blue door that was supposedly Hugh Grant’s house, the cafe where he buys the drink he spills over Julia Roberts. The kids just asked who Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts were, and I felt ancient. We found a small public park in one of the squares, and sat to eat our sandwiches. There are countless such pocket parks around London, some public, some private, providing small sanctuaries of green to counteract the hectic pace of the city; more and more I find myself drawn to and appreciating such spaces.

(Pocket Park, Notting Hill.)

On the spur of the moment, we decided to take the bus to the hospital rather than disappearing back underground; remarkably I managed to work out which bus to catch from which bus stop. The drawback of the Tube is that you never build up a sense of London, how the areas connect and interact, the flavour of each district – each location is an isolated dot centred around the nearest Tube station. From the bus we could get a sense of people’s everyday lives, from the blocks of flats and corner shops, to the hidden Mews and gold Maserati. Plant pots balanced on windowsills, balconies dressed up with tiny gardens, a table and chair, or a washing line; little glimpses of lives being lived, of people claiming their spaces and dressing them up.

(Matching planters extends the wall height, creating a private courtyard, Notting Hill.)

After the rather intense appointment, we headed to South Kensington – Lily into the Science Museum while Ivy and I went into the V&A, relieved that Lily is of an age where I can let her wander on her own, mobile phone in hand. We’d intended to go look at an exhibition, but by that point we were both too hot and frazzled. Instead, we took our shoes and socks off and sat in the courtyard garden, dipping our feet into the water, instantly feeling calmer and cooler. A group of men in suits sat behind us, remarking to themselves that the toddlers had the right idea, going paddling, isn’t that what we all want to do, take our shoes and socks off and get in the water? I wondered what was stopping them. There were no signs up telling you not to put your feet in the water, no members of staff patrolling the perimeter. It was a very hot day. On some days I might have turned round and asked them directly, my own feet firmly in the water; what’s stopping you? Not on this day though. Too hot. Too overstimulated. I let them stew in their business suits. When we were ready to go, we rescued the fallen leaves from the succulents that had been planted beneath two tall trees. It was clear that these beds were not the right environment for succulents, and from the looks of it they hadn’t even been planted properly. Ivy picked up the fallen, plump leaves and stored them in her packed lunch box, hoping to bring them home and replant them.

(Giant bubbles outside the Science Museum, London.)

We came out of the V&A by the new side entrance, all gleaming white tiles and stone. The sun bounced off the white steps, dazzling us. I wish they’d planted a couple of trees instead. I’m not a fan of sleek, minimalist modernism, not when everything in sight is manmade, unnatural. Put a few trees in, a couple of raised beds, and I’d be happy. Instead, they’d made a sun trap even brighter, even hotter, to the point where it was uncomfortable for our eyes. I thought of the YouTube video I’d watched in the bath that morning, a couple in Mexico who transformed a wall in their house with re-used, repurposed plastic bottles, turning them into chains of planters, each one dripping down into the one beneath, the water caught in a reservoir bottle at the bottom and poured back into the watering can. A refreshing wall of green. I thought of the tiny balcony and basement gardens we’d spotted from the bus, of the smart front yards in Notting Hill, all cramming as much greenery as they could into tiny spaces. It seems a human instinct to bring nature into our living spaces, to prettify and green up our personal environments. Yet too often nature is simply missed out of the equation when it comes to public spaces. I’m with Hundertwasser and his tree tenants and grass-roofed buildings. The city is an alien enough environment; we’re simply not designed for such high-density, fast-paced living – there are even video adverts on the side of London bin lorries, for goodness sake. If we venerate design as being entirely man-made, if we exclude plants and trees as being too messy for our sleek, hip, spaces, we create more artificiality. We contribute to the chaos of the city. Sitting around the courtyard pond, an environment with grass, trees and cloud-trimmed bushes, everyone was relaxed. On crowded tubes, busy pavements and visually over-stimulating unnatural environments – adverts crowded in to every space, people are frazzled.

(Wild strawberries growing in public park, Notting Hill.)

Often on the train home, I head into the corridor long before our stop, knowing that once we’ve passed the final station before our own, we head through wooded valleys where the river winds through. The window open, I breath in the cool air, smelling the damp earth, calming my hyper-stimulated senses with the greenness of it all. There’s still the drive home, the kids to be put to bed, jobs to be done – and then hopefully the first sip of a much-awaited cup of tea before falling exhausted into bed. Wondering how on earth people manage to live full-time in cities like London, so cut off from nature, knowing that I’m glad I’ve opted for a quieter life. Knowing too that we all need more green – in our homes, our gardens and in our public and work environments. And if anyone could work out how to cover a tube train in moss and ferns, we should give them the horticultural equivalent of a Nobel Prize.

Exhaustion and the quiet of the suburbs.

Saturday. The alarm switched off the night before, being able to sleep in until the heady delights of 7am, when my bladder can’t hold out any longer. There’s the list of weekend chores to tackle, but I’m exhausted. I manage to wash up, put the school uniforms in the wash, start emptying the bins… by lunchtime I’m struggling to keep my eyes open. Today would be a good day to start work on the herbal garden, but instead I crawl back to bed for a nap.

It’s not been the worst week, but it’s been tiring and stressful – battling with school over meeting Ivy’s needs, the strain of the car breaking down again and worrying at one point that we weren’t even going to make it into town for the school bus without having to push the car ourselves. Taking a friend to the shops even though I didn’t need to go myself. More arguments with Lily, a paediatric appointment, and having to contact the two other hospitals we deal with to get advice about her medication and whether it could be affecting her behaviour. Lots of niggling jobs were ticked off the To Do list; emails, bills, the Tax Credits form. Possibly I over-exerted myself planting pretty much all of the remaining pots that were waiting on the patio. But by Saturday – total exhaustion. It seems to go this way most weekends – the plans I want to make fall by the wayside as I don’t have the energy to carry them out. One day at home to catch up with homework and chores, to decompress after the busy week, and then a day to go out and have fun as a family, get a change of scene – that seems ideal to me. In reality, it’s one day spent feeling like The Walking Dead, barely able to do anything at all, and one day spent catching up on twice as many chores.

Lily and Ivy know that there are chores to be done, my new system is write out a list on Friday evening – everybody then chooses a couple of jobs and gets through them as quickly as possible on Saturday morning. I’ve had to enforce this by changing the Wifi password until the jobs are done; tiresome but effective. Otherwise I have to do absolutely everything on my own until I’m on the floor with exhaustion and frustration – it’s impossible to make progress on the home and garden fronts when you’re struggling to manage the daily chores. Or to put it another way – it’s depressing to spend most of the day working hard outside; clearing, digging, painting, mowing, trimming, shredding, planting, weeding – then come back in and discover the kitchen is piled high with dishes that nobody else is washing. Yet still, even though they know that the chores need doing, even though they know that they’ll lose their internet access, nothing gets done unless I nag and chivvy them into it. On the days when exhaustion wins out, I simply don’t have the energy to fight to get the kids to do their part. Frustration and resentment bite hard.

No sooner have I decided to give in and take a nap then out they come. The strimmers, the mowers, the hedge trimmers, the pressure washers, even at times the cement mixers and circular saws. All the noisy outdoor appliances that the suburbs can muster. I close my window and try to relax, but the noises grate on my tired mind. From her bedroom, Lily lets out random shrieks of insane-sounding laughter as she watches endless YouTube videos- a noise that grates even further as it’s proof that she’s neither doing her homework, nor tackling her chores. It’s not as if I can throw my windows open and order my neighbours to shut up while I get some sleep, and I’m done with arguing over Lily about what she should be doing. I’ve been spoiled by the House in the Sky – being detached, with only two neighbours to worry about, the other houses spaced out far enough for noise not to matter. When people mowed their lawns or set to with the strimmer, it didn’t sound as if they were waving them around right under my bedroom window. Am I right in thinking that there’s areas in Europe where there are very strict times about when you can and can’t mow the lawn? It sounds very oppressive to say that lawns can only be cut at 9am on Sunday mornings, but then – what bliss to enjoy the quiet for the rest of the week.

I’ve always beaten myself up over days like this, the days when nothing gets done, intentions swirling down the drain of exhaustion. Now I’m trying to give myself more wiggle room, more compassion. Accepting that much of day to day life feels like a battle, that ASD/ADHD makes life feel harder, uses up more energy. That it’s been a week of doing things that I find difficult, that the stress means paying a price, several shiny gold tokens extracted from my energy levels. When Lily was a lot younger, we learned the hard way about her need for decompression days – generally after a day or so of absolute hell when we were supposed to be on holiday. It didn’t matter how fun it was, how many activities there were to do, how great the swimming pool was or how many places we wanted to explore – after a big day out, we needed to spend the next morning at home (or in the tent, caravan etc), letting Lily chill out, watch her videos etc. If not, she got over-stimulated, over-tired and there was hell to pay – screaming tantrum after screaming tantrum.

I’m only just realising my own need for decompression days. Society isn’t very good at taking a pause though, something that’s getting worse instead of better, an endless push for faster, harder, more. If you’re ASD/ADHD, your head is full enough already, 50 brain tabs running all together while being constantly bombarded by sensory overwhelm. Noise is a big one for me, something I’m noticing when trying to drive; it’s why I’ve bitten Lily’s head off at times when she starts immediately fiddling with the radio and changing it to one of her CDs while I’m still absorbing the energy of both kids coming out of school full of complaints and chatter, the frenetic car park of pupils and vehicles moving in and out, the queue to get out, the cars whizzing past on the main road… SHUT UP ALREADY! I guess that’s why when I travel earplugs are essential, otherwise I can’t sleep – my brain recognises that the noises around me aren’t right and starts freaking out, trying to pick up every sound in case I’m in danger.

The fastest way to improve the everyone’s work-life balance would be to make the weekend a day longer. The bliss of having that extra day during Bank Holidays or Inset days but all year round- we get a decompression day, a chores day and a fun day. Personally I think it would boost the economy and the nation’s productivity no end, reducing sickness and stress and giving neurotypicals another day to go to the Mall and spend money. In the meantime, I may have to buy ear plugs for home use too, or fantasise about a return to scythes and old-fashioned non-electric mowers like my Grandad had. Wasn’t Poldark supposed to have sparked an interest in scything again? Thinking about it, I know one of the actors in the TV series… could I get Poldark himself to scythe my overgrown grass and set off a quiet new suburban trend?

The gift of an ordinary life

I think I might just have got the very thing I’ve been asking for for a long time; a week where nothing happened. Granted, it was preceded by a mental health crisis that I could have done without, but then there was definitely almost a week where there were no new problems to deal with. I cracked on with the garden, the housework, trying to catch up in general. It was bliss. This is what normal must feel like, I told myself. With the weather being so beautiful I’d persuaded the kids to catch the bus to and from school, which meant a much earlier start in the morning but resulted in so much more time and energy for me.

Of course, it couldn’t last. I made every effort to let the Universe know how much I appreciated the gift of a quiet, ordinary week in the hope that I would continue to be so fortunate, but no. Normality resumed. The quote for the shower came in around £500 more than expected. A phone call from school to let me know that other parents were expressing concern about Lily’s behaviour in class, given that she spent the whole time talking about being a vampire, seeing demons and being in possession of a Deathbook, all of which caused too much disruption in class to be tolerated. The CYPS crisis team had been contacted and were expressing concern that Lily’s epilepsy medicine might be behind what appeared to be some kind of delusional psychotic crisis, and the teacher urged me to contact them myself. Why? I found myself thinking. This is just normal for us. None of it is actually real, it’s more that Lily is now play-acting to an absolute extreme. A second call the next day to say that Lily had spent her IT lesson refusing to do any work, insisting instead that she needed to use the internet to help solve a murder in Utah. Thank God it was the last day of term, although the pastoral teacher didn’t think I was going to survive half term looking after Lily on my own and ordered me to make an appointment with the GP as soon as possible. All of this happened while I was in the middle of a meeting with a local charitable organisation in the hope that they could help me get back into work. Frankly, it did nothing but prove that a job would be impossible to handle right now.

The plan was to head up north to spend a few days with my family and celebrate my Dad’s birthday. We set out over an hour later than I’d hoped, because of course Lily had decided to get the late bus home from school so she could do her music, despite knowing we were heading out on a long drive. Similarly Ivy hadn’t bothered to pack the night before as requested, and the minutes slipped by later and later while I despaired of ever leaving, knowing how tired I was going to feel with a five hour drive ahead of me. Almost as soon as we set out though, the car started flashing up error messages; faulty brake light. Error; Anti pollution faulty. The car was struggling to get up to speed, feeling sluggish and juddery. I pulled into a garage to double check my air pressure, in the hope that this would magically transform the performance of the entire vehicle. No such luck. By the time we got onto the motorway, it was clear that the car wasn’t going to make it. Instead, we came off at the first junction and headed for home. This is after the car breaking down on the motorway in February, after paying to get through the MOT in January and after replacing the clutch last Autumn, plus repairs to the radiator. I did my best to get the car fixed on the following day, but the garage weren’t able to solve it in time before closing for the bank holiday, leaving me with a car that wasn’t behaving well enough to undertake any serious driving. Half term, bank holiday and we were stuck. The trip north was cancelled and neither could I risk any of our usual day trips.

Meanwhile Ivy has been falling apart over being placed in a new teaching group without any of her friends. She’s had such a hard time in the last couple of years that I’ve contacted school to ask if she can move classes – of course, all I’m getting back is the tired old we can’t make exceptions for one child or we’d have to do it for everyone. Oh really? So if she had hearing or sight difficulties they wouldn’t arrange for her to sit at the front of the class? Ivy has severe anxiety, probably ASD-related, and is still recovering from depression. I’m doing my best to explain to school that this grouping means putting her through further stress and anxiety, including IBS and nausea, so loss of appetite and skipping meals, insomnia and fear about going to bed, plus inability to concentrate in class, inability to raise her hand or answer questions, inability to contribute to group learning and projects, while struggling to control her breathing and fight off panic attacks. It’s taken so long to build up her confidence after all the trauma, and I’m tired of having her knocked down again by either Simon or school. But schools nowadays just close ranks; it’s all about conformity and saving face, there’s never an admission that they’ve made a mistake, there’s no compassion or flexibility. She spent most of today in tears and I’m tired of being fobbed off. So; yet another battle. And now Lily is intent on being “L” from Deathnote, at home, at the supermarket, at school… and now the Tax Credits form needs to be filled out, and so on and so on.

Please stop, I beg the Universe. Please, no more. Give me the gift of an ordinary life, just long enough for us all to recover. Outside, the roses are blooming; can’t we just stop for a while, long enough to smell them?

Breaking point

I’m painting the fence bit by bit, stopping before my body aches and demands a break. In general though a break would be good. Any kind of break, except for the ones involving bones or water pipes. A lucky break; the Lottery, please. A holiday break. But most of all a break from constant problems. Even just a week or so in between problems would be nice, but no, they keep on flying relentlessly towards me like oversized gnats with fangs and awful body odour. So, on the happy happy day that I got my new boiler, I also got a call from school to ask whether I was aware that Lily was self-harming and appeared to be having schizophrenic episodes?

Oh boy.

Please, just a week? One week without fresh trouble? One week in which to live as close to normal as is humanly possible?

No.

Lily insists she can see shadowy figures appearing in her bedroom, that someone is there, in the corner of her eye, taunting her. She’s using a shark’s tooth I gave her years ago to carve deep scratches in her arm and hands, says she enjoys it. Says she feels like she’s losing her mind and that most of her friends are too, and that the scratching makes it feel better.

None of this is good news. And if it was Ivy saying this, I’d be freaking out and rushing to the nearest child psychologist I could find (although frankly, referrals are rarer than unicorn eggs in our overstretched child mental health services.) But it’s Lily and therefore much more complicated. We’ve just come through a couple of months in which Lily has been lurking in the shadows, complaining that the sunlight hurts her skin – thankfully this was Winter, so there was precious little sunlight to deal with. Momentary concerns that this was due to a reaction to her epilepsy medication were pushed aside when Ivy explained that Lily has been writing her own manga comic about a Japanese vampire. She’s also been putting a considerable amount of effort into learning Japanese, and has mentioned a few times that she likes the taste of blood. So – no side effects, just Lily playing out being a Japanese vampire. She’s been asking for a parasol to keep the sun off her face – this has also been inspired by Abby, her favourite character in NCIS, who doesn’t seem to venture outside without a parasol and ear protectors. The inside of Lily’s mind must basically look like an acid trip, all neon colours, dancing squids and fantasy and reality blurring into one.

Lily has recently decided that she is now an Emo; all black clothes, Panic at the Disco, My Chemical Romance and such. Combine this with a bit of a wave of self-harm passing through school, a few friends with issues, and there we have it; Lily’s latest obsession, played out in all its glory. Hello Aspergers/ADHD. In the past it was cars and dinosaurs, now it’s Emo, madness and self harm. And although the scratches are disturbingly real enough, I suspect the madness is make believe. Except of course, it’s complicated – Lily then believes her own fabrications. What she invents then becomes real to her; she will swear blind that she really really did go to a parallel Universe and discover that she was actually dead in that reality. It really happened, and woe betide anyone who dares suggest that it didn’t. So how on earth anyone can start to unpick whether or not she’s really seeing people in the corner of her room, whether she really is losing her mind or whether she’s playing out an elaborate fantasy, I have no idea.

Another day, another call from school. Lily has been banging her head against the desk in an alarming and bewildering way. She’s threatened to cut someone’s throat. She’s been belligerent in class and answering back to staff. Her cuts are seeping through her school shirt – are they fresh scratches or has she been picking at the scabs?

I don’t know. I’ve run out of answers when it comes to Lily. Even though I suspect it’s make believe, I feel I’m in way over my head. The school nurse calls me in for yet another chat – there are probably some lucky parents who don’t even know that the school has a nurse. “I know it’s not my place to say this,” she tells me, “but I found I was questioning whether this real or not?”

I nod. “I don’t think it’s real,” I tell her. The trouble is, I don’t have a clue what to do about it. The scratches on her arm are too obvious, she’s been showing them off rather than hiding them. But still, they’re there, and it must have hurt.

“I always tell parents not to worry about it so much if you can see the marks,” the nurse reassures me. “It’s when they’re doing it more in secret that it’s a problem.” Although thinking about it, how would you know if they were doing it secretly?

Not real and yet all too real.

What do you do when your child is pretending to have schizophrenia? This is now just the latest problem, the new normal. Something has gone wrong with the kitchen light switch and none of the lights are working, I’ve rigged up a lamp so I can see to cook and wash up. The shower still isn’t fixed and I need to chase up the builders for a quote. The car is making a strange noise. Lily’s still not doing enough homework. There’s a damp patch in the hall. Ivy’s nervous tic has returned. A garbled message is left by the Child Maintenance Service, sending me into a panic that Simon’s found another way to pay less. One at a time, please.

I need a break from adulting. I’d like to resign, at least for a week or so, put my hand up and admit that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. This is the reality of single parenting. I can’t go to Simon to discuss Lily’s problems; this is a man who has previously written to doctors to try to undermine Lily’s diagnoses when he thought her disabilities might get in the way of his plans to sell the family home. Instead, I worry that he will see her arm and call Social Services again; ammunition is more important to him than Lily’s wellbeing. It breaks my heart that it’s come to this, that the father of my children can’t be trusted to do right by them. That the responsibility for their wellbeing now rests entirely on my shoulders, the double whammy of hoping that I can do a good job of raising them while worrying that not only am I failing, or unable, but also that any mistakes will lead to further attacks from Simon. Parenting is hard enough without the other parent actively working against you.

Thankfully, a letter arrives from the local Young People’s Services offering us an initial appointment after a referral from school. Successful referrals are so rare that this is truly miraculous. The fantasy is that this will lead to Lily getting the help she needs. The reality is that it might go no further than this initial appointment. Fantasy, reality, normality. It’s not just Lily who feels she’s going mad, at times my head feels under so much pressure that I’m sure my skull is going to crack; the wrong kind of break. I’ve been at breaking point so many times in the past couple of years that broken feels normal.

Last Autumn the fence blew down. Ivy helped me to repair it, hammering new posts into the ground and patching up the broken, rotting fence as best we could. This past week I’ve been painting it, trying to make it look nicer while wondering whether I’m wasting my time, whether it will make it through another winter. Knowing I don’t really have a choice, I can’t afford to replace it – I’ve just got to make the most of what I’ve got. The pretty sea-green paint now reaches halfway down the garden, post by post, brushstroke by brushstroke, plodding on with it when I can. The broken fence was a problem; we dealt with it, and for now it’s holding. For now, I’m making the most of it while it lasts. For now, I’m being the best Mum I can manage to be. Maybe Lily really does have schizophrenia, or maybe this is the follow-up to the Japanese vampire phase. There’s no break from any of it; the challenge is learning to accept that and carry on regardless. That broken fence isn’t going to fix itself. No one else is going to paint it for me either. Just keep going. Paint while the sun shines, hang a lamp so you can see in the dark.