Fire-fighting and the Magic Button

“I’d like this year to have less fire-fighting,” I tell my counsellor. “I want things to be a bit calmer.”

She looks at me. “Is that realistic, given Lily’s difficulties?”

The impact of her words hits my chest like a punch. As ridiculous as it might seem to an outsider, I hadn’t actually considered that. I’d merely assumed that I was doing something wrong and that the stresses and emotional turmoil we endured over the last year could hopefully begin to fade away if I just tried harder, worked on myself, operated from a place of stronger mental health. Maybe meditating, drinking green smoothies, reading the right book; somehow there had to be a way of finding normality, of making everything okay. The Magic Button, in other words.

When you have a child with difficulties such as autism and ADHD, people look to you for the Magic Button. Teachers, grandparents, even going way back to kindergarten and crèche workers will all at some point sit you down and inform you that your child isn’t responding to them the way he/she should be, and is misbehaving (“making poor choices” in modern day teacher-speak) and so could you please give them the Magic Button? You know, the one key phrase or action that means your child will suddenly switch off their challenging behaviour and behave perfectly for them.

Over and over you explain that there’s no quick fix, no instant solution, no Magic Button. That you really have nothing to offer other than the general advice to try and keep a sense of humour, patience, very clear instructions etc, and that some days none of it will work. That Lily is genuinely not capable of holding it together 100% of the time, that 80% is pretty good and she just can’t manage that final 20%. They won’t accept that though. If she’s capable of “making the right choices” 80% of the time, surely she can do this 100% of the time? She just needs to make better choices, that’s all. So if you can give them the Magic Button, they can get her to 100%, tick all the boxes and go home happy.

“There is no Magic Button,” you find yourself explaining yet again. My God, you wish there was.

I hadn’t realised that I’d got into that same mindset myself. Expecting myself, or an as yet unknown professional to suddenly come up with the Magic Button that would “fix” Lily’s behaviour. If I found the right supplement, or therapist, or managed to explain things to her in the right way, it would all click into place and life would begin to flow more smoothly. It’s very hard to accept that this isn’t an option. Weirdly, it’s hard to accept that maybe I’m not actually doing anything wrong.

Of course, it’s impossible to tell how capable Lily really is. It seems that she can be intelligent and relatively capable when she wants to be, but demand avoidance and Oppositional Defiance Disorder combined with ADHD mean that it’s virtually impossible to motivate her when she’s not interested. Given that she still refuses to do any studying, despite her GCSEs rapidly approaching this year, it’s evident that her grades could be improved if she put even a tiny amount of effort in. But she won’t. And there’s the issue – do I accept that refusal as part of her condition, or do I continually fight against it? Similarly, should she accept that part of her make-up that leads her into stubborn refusals and defiance, or should she work to change it? Can it be changed, or even improved a little? I don’t have any answers, see-sawing between feeling sure that Lily needs pushing to do better, or wondering whether in fact she’s more disabled than anyone gives her credit for.

“It’s like trying to push a double decker bus up a hill,” I explained to the counsellor, describing how it felt to battle to support Lily every day. “Exhausting, demoralising and you can’t make any progress upwards, all you’re doing most of the time is trying to stop her from sliding back down the hill into the swamp.” The swamp – my fear for Lily, borne out by too many of the ASD/ADHD families we’ve met – of a child/teenager/adult who never comes out of their bedroom and spends their entire life playing computer games, rather than existing out in the real world in any meaningful way. So what? some people might say, the kind of just let them do what they want and keep them happy philosophy that I’ve learned doesn’t work with Lily. A life spent playing computer games in the bedroom is a life only half-lived – and when you know your child has more to offer than that, it’s heartbreaking to see their gifts go to waste. Lily could achieve a lot with her music, if she could manage to stay on track and put some effort in, particularly if this was backed up with the right educational support. And there goes the next major issue, the total lack of provision for autistic kids, which warrants an entire post in itself. Every single day brings the same battles over the basics; getting up on time, cleaning teeth, studying, bathing, chores, homework, getting off the computer, bedtime… “What happens if you just don’t?” one mother asked me. Then she won’t do them. She simply doesn’t get out of bed, misses school, smells bad and the mouldy dishes pile up in her bedroom while she builds her Minecraft empire late into the night. There’s choosing your battles and there’s what if all of it’s a battle? Because if you ease off, even a fraction, the bus starts to roll downhill, likely flattening you in the process. And then there’s the phone calls from school…

That week, the same quote keeps appearing in different guises. You can’t calm the storm, you can only calm yourself. You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to ride them. A sense of acceptance is beginning to form, the tiniest seed of realisation that needs to be nurtured; I need to detach. I can’t stop the storm, but I don’t need to hurl myself into the raging waters. If life is never going to be smooth or easy – if the firefighting is going to be endless – then I need to take a step back and find my anchors, develop the self care practices that are going to keep me calmer and help me cope better. I’m never going to be able to stop the stress from arriving, but perhaps I can try to create the space in my life to help me deal with it. A combination of detaching emotionally so that I’m not getting hurt on a personal level by whatever’s happening, while also vastly improving my own self care and support systems so as to be able to stand stronger and not crumble each time the storm hits. The image I have is of being able to watch the storm through a window, rather than battling to survive the elements in a tiny boat as I’m battered by wave after angry wave. That’s the idea, yet turning it into a reality remains an unknown quantity. Still, it feels that I’m sitting with the right questions at least, even if I don’t yet have the answers, nor the Magic Button. Perhaps the Magic Button was always the individual’s coping mechanisms, and not about the SEN child at all.

Foraging

Foraging apples, blackberries, elderberries, rosehips

Buoyed up by intention, I grabbed my basket and took a quick detour on the way to drop Ivy off at a sleepover. Down the road from The House in the Sky was a small park with a few large elder shrubs that I relied on when foraging elderflowers and berries, so we headed to it. Bittersweet feelings and memories bubbled up with each step, so many times we’d traced that path on walks or trips to the playground – this was our old stamping ground, no longer ours. As if to underline that, the bushes had been chopped down to the ground earlier this year, young green stems growing out of thick stubby trunks, but no hope of any berries. We took a different route back to the car, finding another elder growing up next to a garage – most of the berries were already shrivelled, but between us we managed to pick a handful. Evidently the plans I’d made for cooking up some elderberry cordial to see us through Winter’s coughs and colds, plus a bottle of elderberry liqueur, would not be happening this year. That’s the downfall of foraging; if you get out there too late, it’s gone. It’s frustrating as I know how effective elderberries can be in staving off colds – one year I made a flask full of hot elderberry cordial to take to a work event with me, needing to be at my best when I could feel myself coming down with a bad cold – after a day of sipping cup after cup, my symptoms vanished. Having been stuck with this current cold for almost two months, I could do with a few good cups of it now!

We headed over to the canal in the hope of finding an elder cloaked in shade and brimming with berries, but no such luck. Instead a box of apples on a cottage wall, free to take. We took a few, and found some late blackberries further up the path as well as a rose that was bursting with hips. Rose hips are also full of vitamin C and good medicine for Winter, I remember taking rosehip syrup as a child, bought at the local chemist rather than foraged. Once upon a time they would have been a vital source of vitamins, given that the UK didn’t have the climate for citrus fruit; Nature provides fruit and berries in the Autumn, allowing us to take in the vitamins we need to build ourselves up for Winter, while Spring brings the tonic herbs for detoxing and enlivening. The difficulty with rosehips is that the fine hairs surrounding the seeds are an irritant and used to be used in itching powder – not something that you want to ingest. As it looks like this year I’m going to be relying on rosehips instead of elderberries, I’ll have to do a bit of research into the most efficient/easy ways of using them. Over the last few years I’ve been trying to learn about herbalism and foraging and know how empowering it feels to make your own medicine; there’s a belief among herbalists that medicine you prepare yourself is the most effective. Similarly, foodstuffs that you plant and grow will become tailored to your needs, a medicine in itself. I’m in need of good medicine, of building myself up and empowering myself to move forward.

So, with only a handful of elderberries to play with, I did what I could, simmering them up in a bit of boiling water with a good dollop of raw honey and a smashed cardamom pod (cloves are usually recommended but I’d run out.) Pouring it into a mug, I added a healthy splash of last year’s rose brandy to turn it into my own take on a hot toddy. It was delicious, plus I’d enjoyed fresh air, sunshine and a walk with Ivy in order to gather it, all of which are part of the medicine.

I’ve found a recipe for rosehip syrup at www.laundryetc.co.uk and a rosehip liqueur at www.craftinvaders.co.uk, I’ll let you know how it goes!

On World Mental Health Day

Crashing, over and over. Fighting to pick myself up, keep going, trying to make things better. Getting knocked back over again, each time the fall coming harder, the pain deeper, the resilience less. A good weekend is followed by a clash with Lily’s therapist, who alarmingly manages to actually make things worse. Over the past two months, this woman has left me feeling suicidal no less than four times, steamrollering me with her procedures and rules and now forcing me into the role of Bad Cop with Lily while she gets to play the Good Fairy; not even the Good Cop. Another post for another time, but I was left curled up on my bed, sobbing, unable to function. Not able to leave the house to drive into town to pick the kids up off the school bus, not able to cook dinner, locking myself in my room because I couldn’t face dealing with the kids and I didn’t want them to see me in that state either. Literally wanting to die and feeling trapped because suicide isn’t an option when you’re a single parent. Fighting the urge to gulp down most of a bottle of whisky as the next best option. Discovering a whole new level below rock bottom, one in which suicidal is something to aim for, something better than you’re currently feeling. There is nothing of me left, I died a long time ago. This empty shell should have crumbled into dust, but is forced to keep moving so that the kids have food, clothes and a ride to school. The small voice in my head becoming a scream I can’t go on like this any more, day after day after day I can’t go on, but with no way of making it stop.

Casual plans had been put in place to head north last weekend to visit my parents and see the final outing of Royal de Luxe’s giants in Liverpool. Exhausted, I realised there was no way I could drive 150 miles on Friday evening after school, spend a hectic two days giant-watching and then drive 150 miles home again on Sunday evening. I figured we’d head up on Thursday evening, then by Wednesday night, broken, realised that it was still too much to manage. I wasn’t coping, was barely functioning. So we took Thursday off school as well, packed a bag each and set out on the journey North, having left an early message on the school’s answering machine that Ivy and Lily were both ill. In the end, we took not only the Thursday and Friday but also the Monday off school, knowing that after a full-on day watching the finale in a massive crowd, I was too tired to drive home safely (due to roadworks as the motorways are upgraded, the three hour journey takes five hours or more.) Three illicit days off school, two struggling kids, one mother who was an emotional wreck. I told school that the kids were ill, intending to use the excuse of food poisoning if questioned further, developing this into full blown Noro virus if pushed – knowing that school were unlikely to want us back until fully recovered if this were the case. Because what am I supposed to say? Sorry, I’m feeling suicidal so my kids aren’t coming in for the next few days as I need to be with my family, I don’t feel safe on my own.

To Liverpool then, for 3 days of Giant-watching. Trains, buses, huge crowds. Wishing that my Dad was more inclined to take tea-and-cake breaks, or that chairs had been provided along the route. No matter though. The spectacle was enough, the magic of a mass of people caught up in a game of make-believe. I’d seen pictures of the Diver and Little Girl from years before and wished I’d been able to see it then. This time around, I was determined that we’d catch it – and now having discovered that this is the last outing of the Giants, I’m so glad that we did. It’s yet another example of an extra-curricular activity that the kids will remember for the rest of their lives, whereas it’s unlikely they’d remember what they did in school that day. We were all captivated as the huge puppets moved, walked, and danced along the streets, while red frockcoat-wearing Lilliputians dangled from ropes, climbed alarmingly tall frameworks, pulled, hauled and best of all hurled themselves from moving trucks to make the giants move, all to the music blasting out of speakers and the cheers of the crowd.

Having worked in theatre, I’m well-versed in criticism, in development during which an idea is thrashed about and re-worked to the point where it no longer resembles itself, of too many voices demanding that the piece needs to be more this, less that, must say a different message… and yet I’ve known that often the audience doesn’t make the same demands. Or at least the audience – if it were composed of ordinary people rather than the theatre in-crowd – isn’t necessarily making the same demands as those within the industry claiming to speak on their behalf. That sometimes people want to be heard, want to see their lives reflected back to them in a way that gives them grace and dignity, and above all, hope. Most people are happy with a simple story told well rather than a piece that defies convention or experiments with form and style. With what we saw of the giants this time around, I couldn’t pick up on any notion of a story that was unfolding in front of me. It didn’t matter though. What we watched was a celebration, a spectacle. Hundreds of people had poured countless hours of effort into planning, building, rehearsing, and now performing- from the frock-coated Lilliputians tasked with operating the giant puppets, to the volunteers walking alongside them to maintain a safety cordon, to the transport workers ensuring that people could travel there and back as swiftly as possible, to the guys sweeping up the litter afterwards – all ultimately tasked with a single aim; to bring delight. I could infer any meaning I wanted about Liverpool’s Dream, from the history of migration from the city, people travelling to the New World chasing their dreams of a better life, to the tragic history of slavery and a city built on the backs of the exploited. Perhaps it sounds crass to say it didn’t matter. What mattered was bringing people together to watch it, to share in a communal experience of childlike wonder, of awe, of joy.

I imagine that there’s people I’ve worked with previously who would turn their noses up at the naivety of the whole thing, who would claim it had nothing to offer artistically, that it was mere spectacle. I think perhaps they don’t understand the meaning of the word spectacle – like watching a grand fireworks display which may not have anything to say about white working class reaction to Brexit, but which fills you with a delicious joy for the wonders of human existence. This is something we need more of, these moments of connection, of awe, of delight. Of hope, rather than yet another young woman brutally murdered in yet another crime drama, or witless reality show, or on-point, right-on stylistically innovative but depressing as fuck piece of new writing. Under Tory cuts, arts budgets have been slashed nationwide – it’s hard to justify spending on the arts when there’s no money for meals on wheels or road maintenance. Yet Royal de Luxe have been instrumental in regenerating the city of Nantes, their home base, not only culturally but economically. Liverpool is one of the few cities that insists on investing in the arts, the number of visitors last weekend proving that it makes economic sense. The Golden Age of cinema occurred alongside the Great Depression. Art Saves, as the T-shirt has it; financially, emotionally, intellectually and also spiritually. When you run out of hope, there’s nothing left to live for. I had reached that point last week. And although the weekend was tiring due to the long hours of standing, waiting and walking, it left me feeling renewed and refreshed in a way that I haven’t felt for years. The Giants ultimately brought me the gift I most needed; hope.

Mary Poppins Syndrome

I got sick. Again. This time around it was supposedly just a cold, picked up from my Mum while we were visiting. But while Mum and the kids were under the weather for a few days, I’ve been ill for over a month with no sign of improvement. It’s a measure of how run down I am, I suppose. There simply aren’t any reserves left to fight with. So; long blog break.

In the last couple of weeks we’ve started our appointments with CYPS. So far Lily’s psychologist seems more concerned about me than Lily – at least, there’s the recognition that I’m too exhausted to start implementing new domestic routines to help with Lily’s behaviour. I’ve more than a sneaking suspicion that the Psych believes that everything will be fine if only I could be a bit more patient with Lily, and that a marvellous transformation will occur if I’m able to face every situation with calmness and positivity. There should be a law stating that no one can make that kind of judgement until they’ve lived with Lily for at least a week, and then multiply their stress by a total of fifteen years. Like yesterday, when the kids had agreed to make their own way to the school bus stop so that I could have a lie in, I then had to intervene over the phone as Lily was refusing to give Ivy her spare bus ticket – Ivy was crying, thinking she’d be left at the bus stop with no way to get to school and yes, Lily was quite happy for that to be the outcome. It wasn’t even 7.30 am, so goodbye lie-in and hello more stress. Still at least the Psych realised that I’m traumatised from the abuse during the divorce, and that the day to day demands that I’m facing are just too much to deal with. When I ran through the stresses I was facing, the psychologist looked at me in horror “But no one could cope with all that,” she told me.

Yes, I know, I wanted to scream. Here I am, not coping. There’s talk of what support will be put into place, referral to this and that, but I know better than to hold my breath. Too many times we’ve been promised support and none has arrived, so I’ll believe it when I see it. Either the support doesn’t exist, has sadly just been de-funded, the people delivering it are too flaky to make it consistent and sustainable, or the support on offer isn’t the support you actually need. Frankly, I want someone to look after the kids for a week while I get sent on an all-inclusive holiday – that’s the kind of rest I need. Or for someone to come round and cook dinner, wash up and hoover for a couple of weeks. Or drive the kids to school and back for me. Something tells me that these options won’t be included in the support package. When you’re this burned out, what you want is for someone to say Honey, go to bed. I got this.

Being so ill and drained all the time is incredibly frustrating. The pallets I’ve been collecting for months are laying around in the garden, ready to be turned into a shed – if only I had the energy to tackle it. There are plants and bulbs waiting to go into the ground. The decking attached to the garden cabin has rotted, because whoever built it didn’t think to put gutters on it, so that all needs redoing – as well as the roof finishing off properly (People, do not half-tile an already felted roof. Tile it all or don’t bother.) I keep forgetting to tackle the jobs on my list, such as getting home insurance quotes before it automatically renews, calling one lot of builders to see if they’re booked in to fix my shower, and calling the other builder to see about replacing the rotting doors. And oh – the dishes, the endless stack of washing up piling up in the kitchen. So I’m flunking at all the stuff that needs doing, never mind the additional stuff that I want to do on the house and garden. Right now, trying to make sure the kids get to school, we have food in the house and clean plates to eat it off is pretty much all that I’m managing. It sucks.

It sucks doubly because the kids are getting older. Which means two things; one, they should be old enough to help and take responsibility for themselves instead of me having to do everything for them. Two, they won’t be kids for much longer. And there’s the heartbreaking reality – I want them to be able to look back on their childhoods and remember the good times, not the living with an irritable, burned-out exhausted mother in a cluttered home where everything needs fixing. It’s like the bulbs for the garden – if they don’t get planted now, they won’t bloom in Spring. It’s too late. If I don’t start building the shed, the wood I’ve gathered will start to rot. If I can’t somehow pull together our lives and our home into something more harmonious, the kids will have grown up and left. As much as I want to heal and go gently on myself, there’s a timeline here. I can’t press a magical pause button so that the world will wait until I’ve caught up.

It’s Mary Poppins Syndrome, the desire to click my fingers and have everything fall nicely into place, preferably with the aid of a magical helper. Living – the real life we should be living – is deferred until the future when everything is in order. I have the firm belief that if I could just catch up with myself, get to a place where the house is in order, then life will begin to run smoothly and everything will be less overwhelming. I’ll be on top of things, instead of constantly skidding down the avalanche of chores and responsibilities as they pile up on top of me. No doubt life would feel more pleasant if I lived in a home that was always Instagram-ready, but I have no idea of how I’d reach that mystical stage without Ms Poppins’ intervention. The inbox is never empty though – even if by some miracle the house was “done,” it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Sustaining it requires energy, and that’s exactly what I’m lacking.

Clearly my healing and recovery needs to include my physical wellbeing and it’s fast becoming a priority. Doubtless the physical is also affected by the emotional/psychological, and vice versa; it’s hard to be upbeat if you’re constantly ill and exhausted, and stress/trauma will likely create ill health. Healing needs to take place across all areas, and apparently at the same time. So tomorrow I’m heading out to forage some elderberries, if any are still around, and maybe some rosehips too to make an immune-boosting syrup, on top of the supplements that I’ve begun taking. Time too to think about therapy, to start looking for help rather than struggling on alone, to make plans for recovery rather than waiting for Mary Poppins.

Spinal Tap and the Art of Survival

Another Spinal Tap week. You know the kind, when every time you manage to tweak your personal stress dial down to maybe a 6 or 7 (with autism in the house, it will never be below 5 unless several of us are unconscious), the Universe decides to crank it up to 11. So just as I was trying to build some order into our days, organising days out, insisting on chores and that Lily did some studying… a friend was hospitalised for almost a week. She has no family and is a single mother, which made her heavily dependent on friends to bring in changes of clothes, wash laundry as needed, bring her son in to see her. Most – almost all – of this fell to me, as it seemed very few were stepping up to help. It’s not possible to say NO to someone who is in hospital alone, scared and desperate, at least not for me. So my two have been left to their own devices – literally, computers and phones – while I’ve been driving to and from the hospital, dashing into the supermarket, collecting her son, cooking and houseworking, and still trying to squeeze in a couple of trips and activities for the summer holidays, all the time knowing that this wasn’t sustainable. Thankfully, as I write this, she’s now been released, but will still need a considerable amount of help at home; her home is half a mile away though and not fifteen miles, which makes it easier.

Several things emerge from all this. Firstly a documentary by Paul O’Grady about the working classes that I caught during the week in which he suggested that being working class was an attitude and set of values – the unspoken implication being that working class people had a stronger moral ethic about looking after each other. It had to be that way, helping each other out in times of illness and hardship, creating a web of kindness and loyalty that was the earliest version of the Welfare State. You helped each other, because you might be next in need. You helped each other, because you were up close with each other’s suffering, and one family going under could be any family going under. I’ve heard it argued that going wayyy back in history, the tribe’s hunters would share out the meat they’d caught – it wasn’t exactly easy to hoard it, pre-refrigeration. Stockpiling it or demanding that others paid a high price for it (pre-currency) just wasn’t feasible. Sharing it was not only generous, it boosted your social value to the tribe and created a debt of gratitude. If the hunter was injured or ill, it was then more likely that they would be looked after by the others. The anarchist creed; from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Until relatively recently I’ve always believed that most people acted in this way, now I’m not so sure; a lot of people seem to be walking around wearing the attitudinal equivalent of Melania Trump’s I Really Don’t Care jacket. So; care. Help. Be kind. It’s revolutionary.

Second – thank God for the NHS. I’m trying to avoid politics on this blog, but it’s not as if politics are separate from real life. Things that our grandparents and older generations fought for are under attack again, as chunks of the NHS are sold off to private companies, workers’ rights are eroded through zero hours contracts and enforced “self-employment” for firms such as Uber, meaning that people lose the right to holidays, sick pay, pensions etc. Again, I thought that those battles had been won on the understanding that it was right and necessary to pay workers fairly, give them enough time off, look after them when they’re sick… but no, there are still too many bosses and CEOs who really Really Don’t Care and are more than willing to exploit others for wealth. I’m in despair at where our society is heading and that the fight – basically the fight to get everyone to treat each other with respect and fairness – is neverending. But in the meantime there’s a 10 year old boy who still has a mother, thanks to the NHS.

Third – if it were me that was ill, I’d be screwed. I don’t have any back up, no one to look after the kids, drive them to school etc. I really don’t know what I’d do and it’s terrifying. I will just have to add it to the list of things I’m not allowed to think about.

Fourth – I can’t change the circumstances. I can’t magic good health for my friend, a house with a parking space for me, or take away Lily’s epilepsy or ADHD. So it’s going to have to come down to changing my attitude – grrr, my hackles are up already at the thought of it – and developing better coping strategies. I’ve been complaining too much, which seems fair given the stupid amount of things I’m having to deal with, but which doesn’t actually help any. This creating a life worth living isn’t easy, particularly when the pressure keeps getting turned up, but I’m so aware of how my days have become about surviving rather than thriving, and wanting to change that. Better support systems are required – and let’s face it, we’re talking self-support here – somehow finding habits and actions that build positivity and peace of mind. I also need more downtime and mental space, particularly if I’m going to seriously start writing again; I can squeeze in the time, but my brain is too frazzled to do anything with it. Which makes it sound like I need to take up meditation. Bother. Perhaps I can transmute this into more gardening instead?

Fifth – I’ve been determined to keep up with my newfound exercise. I refuse to use the word regime. Still fitting in an early morning swim, a yoga class, a Pilates class before heading off to hospital or the To Do list. Before now I’ve had gym memberships that went entirely to waste – exercising was something I should do rather than wanted to do, and working out felt like punishment. Now, I’m treating it as me-time and approaching it gently, making it far more sustainable. I’ve still got absolutely no desire to head into the proper gym and attack the treadmill or cross-trainer, and so I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I might be the youngest in my exercise classes by a good 20 years, but hey – it’s working. Exercise is becoming my support rather than a bugbear, which is a lovely, positive shift. Along with intermittent fasting and a general reduction in snacking and comfort eating, I’ve been able to lose almost a stone over the past month. I guess this ties in with the previous point, creating support systems and positivity. Finally, I’m seeing some kind of recovery in action. Now I just need to expand that into the rest of my life…

On anger and housework.

Bone weary. The house unravelling around me. A month ago I had the downstairs looking reasonably clean and tidy to the point where I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone called in. Now I’d have to barricade the door. The relentlessness of it is wearing me down, while frustration and resentment build up that the kids ignore the chores while I nag and nag until I’m screaming. When I finally crack and yell and get either of them to at long last do the thing I’ve spent days asking them to do – take a bath! Take your clean washing upstairs! Bring your laundry down to the basket! Please fetch the dirty glasses and plates from your room! – they look at me like I’m being entirely unreasonable.

This is not how I want my life to look. Or feel.

Last weekend I had to drop everything to take a friend to hospital, about fifteen miles away. I sat with her for two hours, until they decided she needed to stay in for 24 hours. She didn’t have anything with her, so I drove back again to pack an overnight bag, making sure I washed the dishes sitting in her sink so she wouldn’t have to come home to them. I stopped off to buy a couple of drinks and snacks to make sure she didn’t go hungry if the NHS food wasn’t up to much, and because there’s not a lot of choice of drinks other than tea and coffee. Back to the hospital, keeping her company for another hour until visiting time was over and she was being taken away for an X-ray. It was about six hours all in all, and I didn’t mind any of it, I’m glad to be of use to her. “This is the closest thing I’ve had to a night out in a long time,” I told her. I wasn’t even joking.

What I minded was texting the kids at 9.15pm to let them know I was on my way home, only to be told that they hadn’t cooked enough food for me after all and I’d need to stop off and buy some dinner for myself. Thank God there was a Tesco Express close to the hospital. Getting home after 10 to discover that no one had thought to wash the dishes but had just piled up more, and that the laundry – my bed linen – was still hanging on the line in the damp evening air. Lily was still playing on the computer in the living room – despite having assured me in an argument earlier that day that she was perfectly capable of self-regulating her computer time, breaks, conduct etc.

“Lily, you’ve been playing on it for over seven hours straight.”

“No, I’ve taken some breaks, I was doing Wii Sports with Ivy.”

Taking a break from the computer to play on the Wii is not what I consider a legitimate break. It took another twenty minutes to chase her off it and into her bedroom, then I sat down with a sad-looking microwave carbonara that went against all of my dietary rules, in a living room full of computers, wires, papers and general detritus.

This is not how I want my life to look. Or feel.

I wanted to flop down on my bed, exhausted, and go straight to sleep. I had to make it first, with slightly damp sheets. I tried to convince myself the dampness would be refreshing after another hot day.

Morning, and the messy kitchen still needs to be tackled, the dishes are still waiting to be washed. A mouldy glass of water appears overnight, brought down from someone’s bedroom. It takes some doing to create mouldy water. The garden needs watering, and the weeds need pulling before they take over. Another load to put in the washing machine, and when did Ivy last change her bedding? A meal plan needs putting together, a shopping list made and presumably shopped for. There are bricks to collect from a house around the corner, before the skip is taken away tomorrow, they’ve said I can have them for my garden to make paths with. I need to cancel my car insurance and hire a handyman and fill out the forms to reclaim the travel costs from Lily’s last appointment, and sort out a new password for my bank account. I’m still feeling angsty and agitated after a week in which several strangers saw fit to have a go at me over things that really didn’t warrant it – triggering as hell after 4 years of Simon blaming me for stuff that wasn’t my fault. Half of me wants to curl up under the sheets and not get up, the other half is screaming that I should just jump in my car and drive away, escape and leave it all behind. I’m going to have to have the talk with the kids again, the same one I keep having, the one that goes I need you to help me. You live here too. You know what jobs need doing. Please do some of them without me having to constantly nag and beg for help. I really can’t do everything on my own. I am so so sick of this one-sided conversation. I’ve left a sign saying No Computer on Lily’s computer, but I can hear her playing. When I go down, she’s on the Wii instead, no chores done, no studying done, wearing the same clothes she’s had on all week and when I try to remonstrate that she shouldn’t be playing games when there’s jobs to be done, she’s utterly unrepentant.

“Get off my ass,” I hear her muttering as I leave the room. I explode at her, pent up with all the jobs I’m trying to do at once.

Do I have to die? Do I have to actually die before someone helps me?

It’s the relentlessness of being a single parent that’s grinding me down. There’s no pause button, no support, no respite. Not a single day off. Not a single night off. I need a holiday from my life, basically. A week where the stress and struggle can stop. I may as well be asking to go to the Moon. And beneath all this – the hurt. The injustice. The anger burning a hole through my chest. Because this is what Simon has done to me. I’m struggling day after day after day with no hope of respite, no hope of any improvement, while he lords it up in their big house, with parking and garage, with holidays whenever they want, with absolutely no responsibilities, no kids to make a mess or interrupt their plans, while still claiming that he is the victim in all of this. I want to scream. I want to throw rocks at his windows and plenty of other stuff that for legal reasons I should definitely not admit to in a public forum. And I despair. Will I ever be healed of this? Of him?

This is not how I want my life to look. Or feel.

I don’t want my life to be a constant reminder of the abuse that I was put through. But it’s hard, when every single day the house is still too small, and I don’t have anywhere to park, and I’m bent double under the weight of holding it all together and raising the kids single-handedly …and Simon’s got away scot-free. Without Legal Aid, there’s no way I could afford to take him back to court to get a fairer settlement, even if that was an actual legal possibility, which it probably isn’t. There should be a free tribunal, a couple of years after divorce, that you could go back to if it’s obvious that your ex lied about finances and circumstances and have any imbalances redressed. Too often divorce settlements are based on equal childcare that somehow disappears once he’s won himself a bigger house and more money than he’d have got if the judge knew the kids would end up with you full time. Sadly I’ve heard too many similar stories to mine and the injustice burns; what I went through, what so many other women have been put through, or are going through right now.

Every time I struggle to find a parking space for the night while I’m exhausted and having to carry shopping bags a quarter mile back to the house, I think of Simon with his garage and driveway. Every time the house feels cluttered and overwhelming and I despair of ever turning our too small house into a comfortable home, I think of Simon with his four bedrooms and two receptions. Every time I give up and close the holiday websites, knowing I just can’t afford to take us away during school vacations, I think of Simon, able to jet away with Astrid off-peak, whenever he wants. Every time I’m faced with Lily raging at me over school work, or being asked to take a bath, or refusing to get off her computer for a break, I think of Simon, who never has to bother with her behaviour. And so on, and so on. How do you heal when the very cornerstones of daily life are a trigger?

This might not be how I want life to look or feel, yet I have no idea of how to get from here to there. So many of us are in that same boat, trapped by financial circumstances that we have little chance of improving, certainly not when other factors are in play; children, disabilities, divorce, trauma, illness, family, lay-offs. If you have money, a solution is affordable for so many of the obstacles in life. If not, the obstacles seem insurmountable, blocking the path to earning the money that would ease the situation.

My friend texts me, she’s going to have to stay in for another 24 hours and needs me to bring more clothes. Here I am complaining about my life while a friend is fighting cancer. Another wake up call, but I’m getting angry at how it’s the good people who seem to suffer most. Prayer, Lottery ticket, a giant red button to just make things stop for a while; I don’t have the answers to how to make life better right now. I really wish I did. In the meantime; just keep breathing.

Building up and slimming down; weight and image post-abuse.

One of the exercises we did together on the domestic abuse recovery course was to create an image of a victim of domestic abuse, sketched out on the flip chart by the facilitator. Our cartoon woman wasn’t necessarily covered in bruises, after all not everyone is a victim of physical violence, it was more about capturing the effects of living with long term emotional and psychological abuse. She was, we decided, either underweight from chronic stress and not being able to eat, or overweight from comfort eating. Bags and dark circles under her eyes from stress-related insomnia. Her hair was a mess, her clothes frumpy as she couldn’t justify spending any money on herself – even if she had any money to spend. She might be missing a tooth after not taking care or herself, or maybe she was grinding her teeth at night. Her shoulders were constantly up around her ears, stiff with stress and anxiety, causing tension that gave her migraines. Her expression was a rigid mask of fear, always worrying about what was going to happen next, scanning the horizon for the next attack, or frowning as her mind replayed what had already happened. She might well have developed an ongoing health complaint; as well as migraines and insomnia there could be IBS, panic attacks, hypertension, eczema as well as even more serious issues. She wasn’t looking good, in other words.

At home the decluttering continues, and it seems to be time to tackle the photos. As well as boxes of unsorted prints, CDs, memory sticks and folder after folder of digital shots, there are now several albums of unwanted memories. What do you do with your wedding album now that you’re divorced? Burn it? Keep it for the kids? Going through the pictures I’m struck by how unbelievably pale I look – some kind of iron supplement intervention was surely required – and how thin I am, my dress being taken in to a UK size 10 for the big day. Happy too, so very happy. In those days I had no problem posing for photographs, could look in the mirror and smile at myself. Now I shy away from cameras and tend to avoid mirrors, my reflection usually making my heart sink. Who is that woman? I don’t recognise myself – the extra weight, the thinning, frizzy hair, dull eyes and resigned expression. She feels so heavy, this stranger in the mirror, not just her bloated belly and aching legs but her spirit too. Can she possibly be the same person as the beaming young woman in her wedding dress? It doesn’t seem likely. She’s the woman from the flip chart, self esteem eroded and replaced by self-neglect, health suffering, defeated.

Body positivity seems to be a new trend, with fashion models ranging from what can only be described as normal (rather than seriously underweight) to curvaceous to overweight now being called body activists. I’m all for a healthier depiction of female bodies rather than only young, skinny, flawless forms being shown in the media, but frankly? Fat is fat. Right now, I’m overweight. Fat. Not a body activist. I’ve gone up from a size 12-14 to a 16-18, perhaps even larger at times. Most of my clothes no longer fit. And while I could embrace body positivity and learn to love myself the way I am, that’s not going to help my arteries, or my pre-diabetic state. Being overweight isn’t healthy. Being underweight isn’t healthy either. And while we shouldn’t be shaming each other over our weight, let’s not pretend that being obese is good for you, no matter how lovely your Instagram posts look. I hate feeling this way, heavy and bloated and tired, no energy or enthusiasm, no shine in my eyes. While I will never be that skinny girl in the photos again, it’s time to change, both inside and out. I need to lose around 4 stone – 4! – to get down to a healthy weight. I want to wake up in the morning feeling energised rather than exhausted. Above all, I’d like to be able to look into the mirror and smile at myself again. The mission; building myself up inside, while slimming down the outside.

Progress is slow and it’s hard not to rely on sugar as an emotional crutch, particularly when Lily is is giving me a hard time – and generally Lily is always giving me a hard time. A couple of times previously I’ve tried to start losing the weight, only for life to crash and burn around me; out came the chocolate again. This time I’ve lost maybe two pounds, but the scales seem to already be stuck, not moving any further down. But I have to go gently, have to trust that this will work, that I’m capable of succeeding. After years of hauling myself through a marriage devoid of affection, after living with a husband who never reached for me, after enduring the emotional and psychological torment of the past few years, I’m not willing to put myself through more. No more abuse, no beating myself up, no blame, no shame. I reached for food rather than the bottle during a time of unbearable stress, even while knowing there would ultimately be a price to pay. But now it’s time. It has to be. My journey back to wellbeing has to come from self-kindness rather than a form of self-hatred. To make healthier choices out of love for myself, wanting to heal my body, rather than punishing myself or feeling deprived. And to do it while loving myself – or learning to love myself – rather than hiding from my own reflection.