I did it! Finally, I gave myself permission to get outside and garden, despite the chores piling up in the house; thanks too to the comments I’ve been left encouraging me to go for it. The goal was to plant a couple of snowdrops; one I’d bought this year, and two stragglers that have survived a full year in their little pots, as well as a pretty snakeshead fritillary, Lily’s favourite flower. I managed to get out a couple of times last month to attempt to prune the apple trees at the bottom of the garden, at which point the one existing clump of snowdrops was in full bloom. This time around, the snowdrops were well and truly over, but signs of Spring were peeking out – the celandine beneath the trees, daffodils, primroses beginning to awaken. Somehow it was a surprise to see them, perhaps the snow threw off my sense of timing. Seeing the first of the primroses out brought an instant craving for primrose tea, my Springtime ritual; put 4 or 5 flowers in a mug and fill with boiling water. It’s a very subtle, slightly sweet taste that feels like drinking the Spring sunshine. I’m looking forward to my first cup, another thing to lift my spirits. If you’re going to try it, be mindful of where you get your primroses from, avoid anything that’s been sprayed, including any new plants as you’ve no idea what’s happened to them in the nursery, and don’t take too many flowers at once, leave some for the bees.
In the end, I managed about an hour and a half before grabbing a cuppa and setting off on the school run – I planted out a few things that had been sitting too long in their pots, replanted one of the tubs that sits outside the front door and gave myself permission to buy a few more little violas or similar in the next week to replant the second tub. The plum tree close to the house got a prune as the branches were getting very long and whippy. I’m not sure if I’ve done it any good or not, but it was getting too tall. I’m not even sure whether it’s actually a plum or not, maybe a damson – all I know is that the fruit wouldn’t ripen on the tree and fell to the ground still green. Maybe it’s a greengage? Maybe they’re supposed to be green? I’ll have to do more research this year.
What’s more important is that my instincts were correct; I felt so much better for having spent that time out in the sun, getting my hands dirty. Yes, I still forgot to do the other stuff I’m supposed to be doing; the important email I should have sent a month ago, the payments I should have made by now, the laundry… but hell, I would probably have forgotten to do them anyway, and at least this way I’ve got something to show for it.
Back in the House in the Sky when I didn’t have a clue where my life was heading after my marriage broke down, I vowed to follow my instincts, listen to my Soul. The first time I sat still and tried to listen to what my Soul was telling me, expecting it to involve meditation and inner peace, I was surprised to hear her clearly telling me to tidy up the back porch. We tended to use the back door as the main entryway, and the small porch/pantry/utility had become a dumping ground – things had landed there when we first moved in and just stayed put. It didn’t seem like the most inspiring thing that my Soul could say, but I went with it, clearing everything out, stripping down the ugly brown gloss woodwork, painting it all white, sorting through the stuff and reorganising the shelves. When it was done I realised the value of having followed my instincts in this way – now when we came home, we were met by a tidy, welcoming space rather than having to squeeze past the hoover, the step stool and the kids’ scooters. Previously the clutter had dragged me down whenever I came through the door, now I felt uplifted, with a kick of pride in my achievement.
Until now I’ve tried to do right. Be sensible, follow the rules, trust the System. It’s got me nowhere. Following those small whispers of Soul has proved to be the right direction every time. While I desperately want my house to be fixed up, decluttered and calm, my Soul is telling me I need to be outside. That healing is in the soil, the flowers, the wind and sky, not in sitting inside, anxious and overwhelmed, trying to summon the motivation to carry on. Healing needs to be my priority this year; healing first, organising later.
How can I make a garden when there’s so much to do in the house? Time, energy, money, all are limited. The one thing I have in abundance is overwhelm. When it comes to fight or flight, I freeze. It’s taking all I have to stay on top of the regular chores, the endless cycle of cooking and washing up, laundry, the relentless school run, the demands of two teenagers, and even the barest attempt at cleaning. We’ve never properly moved in, the whole house feels cluttered and chaotic. The shower broke soon after Lily starting using it; this time I can’t really blame her as it’s probably around thirty years old. Ivy’s attic bedroom isn’t properly insulated, and I’m scared that this includes the entire loft, creating condensation, damp or rot, which accounts for the apocalyptic numbers of woodlice in her room. The boiler has stopped working on account of the snow, leaving us without central heating or hot water during the coldest week in living memory. The back porch has a leak, the back door is rotting and the front porch isn’t watertight either. There’s a list of phone calls to be made to builders, to advice lines, to doctors, school, therapists, solicitors. The car broke down – yet another bill to pay. Every time I manage to save a bit of money, whether for a financial cushion, or to put towards one of the jobs that needs doing, another bill springs up to snatch it away. Right now I want to shut the door and walk away from it all.
People get through trauma in different ways. Through the domestic abuse support group, I met women who lost their appetites due to stress. Instead, I’ve been comfort eating to the point where I’ve put on around 4 stone in as many years and most of my clothes no longer fit. I met women who combatted their anxiety by throwing themselves into the housework, cleaning late into the night. I find myself hiding from the dishes piled up in the sink, avoiding the clutter, sitting motionless on the sofa and wondering what happened to the day. Why can’t I have useful anxiety? I ask myself, berating myself for not having the “right” type of stress-response, one which would see me lose weight and gain a clean, tidy house. Occasionally I manage a burst of activity, complete one of the big projects – building wardrobes in mine and Lily’s rooms, putting up shelves in the tiny hallway. Since Lily moved in full-time last December, it’s gotten harder and harder to get anything done; the added pressure of living with her ADHD/Aspergers adds an extra level of stress and chaos. At times it’s like living with Taz, the Tasmanian Devil in the Warner Brothers cartoons, a whirlwind of mess and fury.
So how am I going to manage to create a garden when I can’t stay on top of the dishes? Without heat and hot water it’s even harder – I now have to schedule swimming each week so that we can get clean, while dish-washing means repeatedly boiling the kettle to get hot water. It’s almost impossible to dry clothes, so the amount of laundry I can get through each week is reduced to one or two loads, carefully planning the timing so as to make sure that school uniforms get priority while also hoping that no one runs out of clean pants. Ivy has developed gluten and dairy intolerances, making mealtimes more complicated. Life seems to be an endless round of school runs, shopping, cooking and washing up. When I’m in the house I feel overwhelmed by it all, not knowing where to start – especially given that the house is too small for us and that no matter how hard I work at it, the mess will take over faster than I can clean it up. The same tasks, over and over, the same nagging at the kids – can someone please put the dishes away so I can wash the next lot, you’re both supposed to cook at least one meal per week, can dishes be brought down from bedrooms, can dirty laundry be put in the basket, can people please reclaim their clean laundry and put it back in their rooms? Homework! Have you done your homework? Please don’t snack on the food I’ve bought to make dinner with. And for the love of God, can you both please set your alarms and get out of bed on time in the mornings, without me having to yell at you to get up for school every single day? I am a nag, I am a skivvy, I am a mind-numbingly boring housewife, a drudge and yet I can’t even get control of my drudgery.
There is nowhere to put the Hoover. Henry should probably live in the pantry cupboard under the stairs, but that’s where the step-stool currently resides, making it easier for everyone to reach the top shelves. So Henry sits glumly cluttering up whichever room he was last used in. He seems to symbolise so much of my struggle to get on top of things; an item we need and use but can’t find a place for in a too-small home which is chronically short of storage. With everything, the avalanche effect. In order to find Henry a home under the stairs, I’d have to clear out the entire pantry and reorganise it. In order to clear out the pantry, I’d have to clear up the kitchen to make space, and in order to do that I’d have to do a lot of sorting in the kids’ rooms, and so on. Each job is a chain reaction, and it’s hard to find the starting point. Along with the suspicion that I have undiagnosed Aspergers, I also fit the criteria for ADHD – something which feels more like a relief than a diagnosis, explaining why I find it so hard to get organised, why I can’t get started, why I never get finished. My current state of mind, the anxiety and trauma and depression, mean it’s even harder; I have no mental clarity, no focus and precious little motivation. Whichever room I’m in, I don’t know where to get started. Each item I look at either creates a fresh chain reaction of To Do’s or throws up more questions – do I need this, do I use it, where should I put it, or if I’m going to get rid of it, where should it go, should I donate it or try to sell it, how can I avoid it ending up in landfill? And all of this is only on a good day, a day when I have the energy and motivation to even try to get started. On a bad day – forget about it.
I need peace. I need order. Being out in the garden would almost certainly improve my state of mind and wellbeing, yet it’s hard to allow myself to get out there when so much needs doing inside the house – and so I end up achieving next to nothing, caught in a trap of indecision, guilty feelings and anxiety. There are days when my anxiety levels are so high that I struggle to leave the house – which includes even going out into my own garden. There are days when my sense of overwhelm is so high that it’s easier to run away, to stay out and not come home to face the laundry. At times I need to remind myself of how much I’ve achieved under difficult circumstances, that when we moved in just over a year ago, none of us had beds, or wardrobes, and every single room was piled high with boxes. I need to be kind to myself, talk to myself the way I’d talk to a friend, encouragement rather than blaming and shaming. The past few years have been so hard, without respite from the abuse and stress and anxiety. I’m gradually trying to build a new life for us, doing my best to help the kids through their own struggles while not getting any support for myself or for them. I need to accept that many of the negative voices playing out in my head were placed there by Simon, and that my home doesn’t need to be picture perfect.
Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.
For me, that might mean giving myself permission to begin my garden before my house is ready. To trust that by following my instincts, my gut feeling that creating the garden is part of my healing process, it’s more likely that I’ll find the peace and clarity that I need to get control over other areas of my life. That it’s not possible to be perfect – ever – never mind when you’re healing. That I need to follow the small breadcrumbs that my soul is trying to lay down in the forest, tiny morsels of comfort in the moonlight, before the birds of doubt swoop down and gobble them up with the drudgery of each passing day.
Good old NHS. Three times I’ve turned up begging for help as my apocalyptic divorce rained down fire, thunder and plagues of snakes on me and the children. Three times I’ve been offered counselling as a result, along with antidepressants and even a sedative to quell my panic attacks, palpitations and insomnia. The antidepressants caused eczema while fear of developing an addiction to tranquilisers made me too anxious to take the sedative on all but the very worst nights. Counselling was the only other non-itchy, non-addictive option.
God knows I could still do with more sessions but I’ve been warned that it’s ultimately not helpful for me to try to recover piecemeal in this way; 6 sessions with a counsellor, then nothing, then falling apart, then being put back on the waiting list for more help. Far better to seek out more consistent help, whether by paying for therapy or starting over with a new, pay-as-you-can afford service. Except I don’t want to start over with a new counsellor; I’d reached a point of understanding with the counsellor I was seeing, I could refer back to situations without having to replay them blow by blow. To have to start from scratch with a stranger and explain every detail over again feels counter-productive; I’ve no desire to relive it. Having had a small amount of art therapy in the past, I’d like that rather than a purely talking cure – but it costs. While I’m paying out for weekly therapy sessions for Ivy, it’s too much of a stretch to pay for myself as well – and meanwhile, I’m aware that Lily also needs help.
Healing isn’t automatic. Sure, we patch ourselves up and carry on, but for the most part it’s about survival. Sticking a Band-Aid over a gaping wound and getting on with it. Scars form, holding us together yet the tissue beneath is damaged and tender, possibly even gangrenous and festering… but we limp on. There’s a huge difference between Triage and Healing. In the middle of the battle, all we can do is staunch the bleeding the best we can while we fight on. It’s not until we’ve got ourselves off to a safe place that we can stop and lick our wounds. Good healing requires time, space, support and often the intervention of a therapist. Bad healing means we turn to whatever we can get just to keep ourselves going, leaning on shadow comforts such as food or alcohol, or that the wound always stays tender, easily triggered and torn.
“What do you want?” the counsellor asked me. There were so many questions tied into that one; where could I see myself in the future, what was I hoping for, what was I looking forward to, what was my next step, my next direction in life?
I had nothing.
No answers. No vision. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t imagine any kind of future. I’d got so used to fighting, to life being a constant battle with my ex, having to defend myself and the kids from each fresh attack that I couldn’t picture anything different. And trust me, I don’t normally lack in imagination. The truth was, there wasn’t anything to look forward to except the hope that the abuse would stop now that Simon had got his own way and sold the house. With the divorce finalised I was free to start my new life, but the abuse had kept on coming, a second court case followed the first and hope was nowhere to be found. No matter what you’re facing, the moment when you give up hope is the worst; the belief that this is it, it will never get better. That’s when you give up – or, when giving up isn’t an option – because you have kids – you die inside instead. The Walking Dead, limping along, enduring rather than living.
It’s no way to live. It’s not a life.
What do you want?
By that point, all you want is for it to stop. There is nothing else. But the counsellor persists. You have to have something, she insists. Something to look forward to. And the words slowly form on your tongue, from some deeply buried part of yourself, some last shred of surviving spirit.
“I’d like to make a garden.”
So there it is. Exhausted and depressed, but somehow a garden holds the key to healing. I’ve designed gardens before in previous homes and for my parents’ house, but then Simon was on hand to help with the actual construction. This time it’s down to me, on a budget of zero and with the energy of a squirrel that’s just been hit by a truck and is lying at the side of the road, dead. Sigh. Thankfully I’m a stubborn old mule, something which I’m beginning to realise is likely caused by undiagnosed Aspergers. As I write this it’s snowing again – in March, in the UK, which is unforgivable. I’m a wuss, and there’s so much to tackle around the house so it will be strictly armchair gardening for the time being. I’ll re-read my gardening books, particularly Cultivating Sacred Space by Elizabeth Murray – if I can find it, and if it wasn’t one of the books sadly sent off to a charity shop in order to make space. I’ll start a Pinterest board or two for inspiration, and look for gardening videos on YouTube. I’ve been enjoying Colette’s videos about her Goddess Permaculture garden in Ireland, Bealtaine Cottage – even more inspirational as she has single-handedly achieved an incredible transformation from boggy, unpromising land into a forest garden haven. Again, the bullish belief; if she can do it, so can I. Not anything like the scale of Bealtaine, but I will do my utmost to turn my narrow, empty, bedraggled plot into a garden that nourishes my soul.
My anxiety levels have been through the roof. An out-of-the-blue letter came for Ivy from Simon a few weeks ago, inviting her to come on holiday with him, Lily and Astrid.
Ivy lay on the kitchen floor sobbing for a full hour, crying “Why? Why would he think I’d want to do that?” while I sat holding her, trying to soothe her. Trying also to ignore how much the kitchen rug needed hoovering, and trying not to panic about the fact that I should be cooking the dinner and so everyone was about to get hangry.
Simon insisted in his letter that “We think it’s time to move forward.” Ah yes, the erroneous belief that the abuser gets to set the timescale for the victim’s healing. It’s very easy to move on when you’re the perpetrator, not so much when you’re still suffering the devastating effects of their actions. Of course Ivy was also upset because yes, she very much would like a holiday – just not with Simon and Astrid. She knows it’s impossible for me to provide the same holiday during the peak season. It’s unlikely that I’ll be able to take the kids on holiday at all this year – or any year – with the insane price hikes during school holidays. Even back when Simon and I were together, there were no holidays during peak season, other than very basic camping.
To put this into perspective, Simon hasn’t taken the children on holiday once in the four years since we separated, other than two nights camping back in 2014. So I was suspicious. Officially court was supposed to be over, but a small window was left open in case either of us wanted to reopen the proceedings and the deadline for this was rapidly approaching. Knowing Simon the way I do, the timing seemed suspicious. Why send this letter now? And so the Easter holidays were spent fretting about the arrival of a large white envelope yet again bearing the seal of the Family Court, the fear that yet another year would be wiped out by a malicious court case.
I can’t do this again.
Like a song running through my head, a constant ear worm. I can’t do this again. Insomnia again. Constantly running through the arguments I would need to make to the Judge, my frantic mind playing out what was said last time, what I should have said differently, what I would say if I had to do it again. Knowing that this time around I wouldn’t be able to afford a lawyer. Remembering the dirty tricks played by Simon’s lawyers last time, and the lie, the absolute lie that court will not discriminate against you if you can’t afford representation. The entire system is set up for lawyers – as a private citizen you can’t even get hold of the evidence you need in the form of letters and reports from professionals unless you have a solicitor.
Fear is isolating. This is what domestic abuse looks like. Long after the original situation is over, the same patterns and fears keep playing out in your head. Your abuser can continue to control you and play out his games long after he’s left the room, all the while claiming that he’s the innocent victim of your behaviour. And still you question; was I? Did I? Was it my fault? as he has long since convinced you that you’re to blame. There are moments that I have to hold on to, as if desperately cramming my fingers into fissures in the rock face, particular lies that he has told, particular actions that scream of his wrongdoing, just to cling to my sanity against his lies. Remember. Remember he lied about entering the home behind your back, remember that he lied about bringing Astrid into your home. Remember that Astrid was photographing your private documents. Remember they threw out yours and the children’s possessions, dumped food waste and wallpaper strippings and rubble into the same bin bags to ruin everything. Remember how he refused to tell you how much maintenance you’d be left with after his latest round of “cuts”, and that you ended up on Diazepam as the stress was giving you palpitations? Remember.
I have to remember these things, while also trying to let go of the past. Remember Astrid kicking your car with the kids inside it, while Simon stood by and watched. Remember Astrid sending abusive texts to Ivy. Remember that he has got away with lying to court, with his malicious accusations, with breaking court orders, that there will be no justice for what he has done. Remember that just because he got away with it doesn’t mean that he is right.
Remember also that I want to be happy again.
Anxiety dancing a jig in my belly as I drive home from spending a week at my parents’ house. Will there be a large white envelope waiting on the doormat? I didn’t sleep during my last night away, a now familiar pattern – coming home means returning to a whole heap of trouble. The race to unpack the car before the grumpy old lady comes out and yells at me for blocking the shared driveway, hustling the kids to get a move on, stumbling up the steps with too many bags, eyeing up the pile of mail on the kitchen table, desperate to know. The large white envelope isn’t there. I send a text to Mum. Home safe. No court summons.
When I wake the next morning, it seems that life is possible again. That maybe now it really is over. That maybe I can finally start to move on. Given our circumstances, life will probably never be easy or straightforward, but for now at least I can start to hope. Not hope for – that’s far too advanced a concept given what we’ve been through, but hope itself. When you realise that you have lost hope, that’s the darkest time; the fear that this is it now, life will never get better, you are condemned to spend the rest of your days in fear and despair. Awakening to hope, like the Spring bulbs returning into flower despite the harshness of Winter – that is strong magic indeed.
“But you’re coping,” my Mum tells me over the phone.
“I’m not, I’m really not,” I answer, thinking of how every surface in the kitchen is covered in dirty dishes, that the living room is an obstacle course of clutter and empty cardboard boxes from the most recent DIY session, that every single room in the house is a mess, that none of us has had a shower all week, my grey roots are showing like a badger stripe, the kids aren’t keeping up with their homework, we’re risking intervention by the Attendance Officer due to Ivy’s recent bout of school refusal, Lily’s behaviour is becoming more and more problematic, I can’t get to sleep then wake at the crack of dawn so I’m permanently tired, that my heart feels like it’s racing out of my chest all day every day, I’m always on the verge of a panic attack, I look like a bag lady and also my car is now falling apart. The boiler is broken so there’s no heating or hot water, the shower is broken so we can’t wash properly, and I’m getting increasingly scared that the roof might need work too. Things are really not good.
“But you are,” she insists. “You’ve kept on going where others would have crumbled. You’re not hiding in a corner, refusing to come out.”
Hiding in a corner refusing to come out is exactly what I want to do. Before I even open my eyes in the morning, the wave of despair and nausea hits me. I can’t even bring myself to write my daily list of Gratitudes any more, having spent one evening scrawling I hate my shitty life all over my journal. The only reason that I haven’t taken to my bed and refused to come out is …drumroll… fear. Ah yes, fear and its cousin, anxiety, my constant companions of these past four years. The only reason I’m getting up and carrying on is the fear of what will happen if I don’t. Fear of further trouble with school, of social service intervention, of what Simon might do next if he suspects that I’m struggling to cope. Fear is not a great foundation to structure your life around; it’s exhausting, depressing and soul-destroying. Yet there it is – my life is a life spent in fear. Fear of what will come next. Fear that Simon will find yet another financial loophole and cut the child maintenance again, or another spurious reason for taking me to court. Fear that my kids are falling apart after everything we’ve been through and that I’m failing to get them the help they need. Fear that one or both of them will resort to self-harm, alcohol or drugs, even suicide. Fear that someone – Simon, probably – will report his concerns to social services, resulting in a dawn raid and child welfare officers inspecting every last messy, cobwebby corner of my home; this happened to a family I know, whose only crime was that their neighbour didn’t understand that they were home-educating. Fear that I’ll get into debt and potentially lose the house because of the costs of fixing the house up in the first place. Fear that I’m basically fucking up in ways that I don’t even know about yet but which are guaranteed to bring disaster to my doorstep.
Given Lily’s most recent episodes of challenging behaviour, which include threatening me with a knife, locking herself in her room with said knife, plus an increasing refusal to cooperate with even the basic tasks of cleaning her teeth and brushing her hair, school are keen to refer us to Early Help. From what I can gather, this is a low level of Social Service intervention – the soft, fluffy side of the SS, as it were. It would involve meeting a social worker to put together a CAF identifying the needs within the family – from prior experience, this would actually involve endless meetings with several different social workers as they keep quitting before the job gets done. Countless form-filling. A lot of box-ticking. And a whole lot of promises, most of which are never fulfilled due to staff shortages or funding falling through. It would also involve school informing Simon.
Ah. No, no, and no again. This would basically be handing Simon a nice shiny dagger so that he can stab me in the back far more effectively.
“Legally, we have to inform him as he has parental responsibility,” the pastoral teacher informs me. I want to scream. No. No he doesn’t have parental responsibility. Ivy hasn’t seen him in over a year, at her request, and he kicked Lily out of his house last December. In real terms I’m bringing the kids up on my own. Simon pays child maintenance and takes Lily out to lunch once every few weeks; that’s not parenting. The endless round of shopping, cooking, washing up, laundry, school runs, cleaning. Doctors, dentists, therapists, parents’ evening, pastoral meetings, endless chauffeuring. Nagging about homework, bedtimes, teeth-cleaning and showering. Making sure that they have fully-equipped pencil cases, that music lessons are paid for, school uniform provided, new trainers bought for PE. Listening to their problems, to their constant stream of chatter about TV shows, YouTubers, memes and bands. Straining the budget to try and provide the occasional treat, trying to give them positive experiences, good memories. Trying to provide them with the love and stability they need. Worrying. More worrying. Breaking up the fights. Begging them to help out occasionally. Guiding them through the angst of growing up. Always feeling that you’re never quite good enough, never quite managing enough, could never ever give them the childhood that they deserve, the perfect world you want them to live in. That’s parenting. If Simon had Lily to stay at his house for even one night a week, I would have to bite my tongue and accept his involvement. School makes a lot of noise about safeguarding; I understand how and why informing Simon is a legal obligation, yet ultimately it puts the children and myself at risk of further emotional, psychological and financial abuse. The only person they’re safeguarding is Simon.
We need support. I know from bitter experience that support is hard to come by. Both of the kids need more help than they’re getting, both of them have had referrals knocked back by CYPS – the Children and Young People’s Services. From what I understand, CYPS are now so over-stretched that they’re only taking on new referrals once your child has actually committed suicide, or so it seems. I’ve been taking Ivy to the GP for well over a year now for her anxiety, depression and OCD behaviours- all we’ve had is a referral to a local charity that offers a limited number of free counselling sessions. A couple of weeks ago we left the GP’s office feeling thoroughly patronised and frustrated after he more or less entirely ignored Ivy, didn’t ask her a single question, but told me in front of her that she “wouldn’t get any help unless she took a knife into school and threatened to kill herself.” That no help would be forthcoming until she was in crisis.
“How would he know whether or not I was in crisis” Ivy later pointed out, “He didn’t ask me a single question.”
I pointed out to him that his “advice” ran entirely counter to the advice that would be given to an adult with the same symptoms. No adult would be sent away with a pat on the head or be told that they wouldn’t get help unless they took a knife into their workplace and threatened to kill themselves. They’d immediately be referred to counselling, given medication, signed off work, encouraged to get all the support that was available. The sad reality is that, locally at least, there is absolutely no support for young people; the happy result of Tory cuts. This current generation of young people are having to endure a ridiculous amount of academic pressure in terms of both performance and attendance, record numbers of family break-ups, economic and environmental meltdown, and increasing global and political instability as well as watching the rise of the Far Right, racism and misogyny. I thought my teenager years were hard enough, my family’s various crises as bad as it got, my school as demanding as it was possible to be – I was wrong. My kids have got it harder. It’s heartbreaking to realise that their childhood is in fact harder than your own, their experiences worse, your ability to help them diminished.
Support then, is limited to whatever charities have sprung up to fill the gaps, or what you can pay for. Money might not buy you happiness, but it sure as hell solves a lot of problems. I’m paying for therapy for Ivy while watching Lily’s behaviour get worse; I’ve been trying for over ten years to get Lily the help she needs, with no success. I can’t even afford to pay for a dyslexia specialist to assess her, something which should surely be happening automatically in schools rather than being left to parents to pay for. How can anyone on benefits afford to pay around £500 for a dyslexia assessment for their child? Or £40 a week per child for a therapy session? No one should be told to wait until they’re in crisis before seeking help, let alone a child. No one should be in the position of being afraid of seeking support because that would mean the potential involvement of an abusive partner, or fear of reprisal. I’m left scared of taking up the offer of Early Help, particularly as there’s no concrete proof that it will result in any tangible help – yet I’m also scared that if I don’t willingly sign up to it, it will only take one more inevitable incident with Lily before school goes over my head and makes a referral to the not-so soft and fluffy element of the social services. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Meanwhile I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me “What support are you getting?” and reacted in alarm when I answer None. “Oh, but you need support, you must get support,” as if Support was something you could pick up off the supermarket shelf like a can of beans.
Yes. I am painfully aware that I need more Support. I am aware that my children need more Support. But unless you’re actually going to offer me some Support, you’re really not helping. Support for too many families has become a Holy Grail, a mythical unicorn that everyone has heard of but no one knows where to find. Or worse – that setting off on the quest of finding Support will bring further danger rather than help, Ralph Fiennes being imprisoned as a suspected spy while Kristin Scott Thomas lies rotting in the cave with her broken leg. “I’ll just pop you down here while I go and seek some support.” What could possibly go wrong?
School knows best. I should probably just accept this and move on. Yet still, on Wednesday night, I found myself repeatedly checking the school’s website and Twitter feed in anticipation of the news that school would be closed the following day. Given that we’d had snow that day, that more was forecast, that an amber weather warning was in place, that most of the UK was already buried under several inches, that the local police were advising to cancel journeys, it seemed that surely a snow day was the right way to go.
School would absolutely, resolutely be open on Thursday morning.
At this point, my anxiety was getting worse. We live 11 miles from school and are not on the bus route so I drive the kids to school every morning and also collect them most days. Most of that drive is on exposed, rural roads where there’s nowhere to go for help if you get stuck – there isn’t even a petrol garage on the way. Roads that feel the full effect of the bad weather, roads that could well be icy and treacherous.
Thursday morning, and it was still snowing – by now the snow was beginning to stick. Okay, not snow as someone in Canada or Finland would recognise, but this is the UK. We don’t normally get much snow, so we’re not prepared for it – there isn’t enough snow to make it economically viable for local councils, transport services or even households to invest in specialist snow gear. Even the YakTrax I bought a few years ago felt like a ridiculous indulgence. So while I was looking out of the bedroom window at the snow, I was aware that while I could probably drive the kids into school okay, there were 2 major problems with that. 1) There was no guarantee I could drive them home again later in the day if the weather got worse, and 2) I don’t have much experience driving in the snow and so the thought of having to do so was making me incredibly anxious. In fact, if I did drive them in, I’d either spend the day in a cafe close to school, anxiously watching the weather, fully prepared to make a snap decision to pull them out and bring them home again if it got worse, or I’d be stood at home doing the same thing, watching the snow pile up and feeling more and more nervous about the return journey.
I kept checking the school website, but remember: school knows best. School was staying open, informed by government pressure over targets and the insane notion that every pupil should have 100% attendance. School was very much staying open.
By this point, my heart was racing, my stomach twisting in knots. Both kids have been ill and missed a few days of school, my car broke down after a weekend visiting family resulting in missing another two days. Ivy is falling apart and basically refusing school at the moment. We are on the Attendance Officer’s radar, to put it mildly. I feel under mounting pressure to make sure that both children are in school, on time, all the time. This has meant no mental health days, even when they were much needed, and sending them in before they’ve fully recovered from coughs and colds, meaning illnesses dragged out for longer. School, in other words, is adversely affecting my children’s physical and mental wellbeing.
I looked out again at the snow as the wind blew flurries around the garden, and realised how stressful the drive was going to be. Even the street where the car is parked wouldn’t be gritted – I could be slipping and sliding just while trying to do a three point turn to get out onto the main road, followed by 11 miles of fretting about black ice and maniac drivers while snow blew across my windscreen and I struggled to see.
School, I firmly believed, wasn’t making the right decision. It wasn’t a decision made according to the safety and wellbeing of their pupils, staff or the parents. And I wasn’t prepared to put myself through the stress and potential danger of the drive, nor of spending a day anxiously watching the weather in case it got worse. I called in and said we weren’t coming – from the sound of the harassed tones of the receptionist, we weren’t in the minority, but again, I was on the verge of palpitations with anxiety while making the call, worried that this decision would land me in even more trouble with school.
This though, is what self care looks like. Not bubble baths or an early night with a nice book to read; activities which may well be enjoyable but aren’t the sum total of what self care constitutes. Self care is the decision to put your own wellbeing foremost, rather than squeezing it in around the edges of your life. It often looks like being difficult, or awkward, of going against the grain. Mostly, it’s about listening to that quiet, scared voice inside, the one that is begging you not to do that, to please do this instead – a voice that we so often have to override out of a greater fear of what will happen if we give in to it. Fear that we’ll be in trouble – with a boss, with school, with our ex, or our mother. Fear, all the time, fear. I’m getting so fed up of living my life in constant fear, yet this time, the fear of driving through a blizzard (actual weather forecast) outweighed the fear of what school might say if we didn’t come in. Self care meant allowing myself to avoid a scenario that I’d find terrifying. Similarly, a few weeks ago, self care meant taking the extra time to drive through the town to the garage after dropping the kids off, as my petrol gauge had dropped down to one bar – and while intellectually I knew that there was enough petrol to get me back home and to the far more convenient garage, I also knew that I’d be worrying about it for the whole 11 miles. Inconvenience beats anxiety and stress in the self care equation.
At 9.40 am, less than an hour after the start of the day, school sent out a text to parents to announce that it would be closing at 11.30, and so everyone would need to make special arrangements to collect their children early. By this point, it was clear we were within a few miles of the Red Zone that the newscasters were warning us about, and snow was coming down hard. School made it very clear that this decision had been taken by the bus companies rather than in-house, as the bus firms were worried that they would not be able to operate and get the pupils home safely that afternoon. Seriously? If school had paid attention to the weather warnings, to the police, to plain old common sense, then they would have announced the decision to close the night before, and saved everyone the added stress, worry and potentially dangerous journeys.
School, in other words, doesn’t always know best. Doesn’t that ring true for so much of the daily stresses that we have to deal with? When what we seemingly have to do is in direct conflict with what we really need to do, but we’re forced to go along with it all anyway? And for someone who is essentially in a state of recovery after a traumatic situation, it’s crucial to take the actions that will make you feel safe, the actions that will reduce that overload of stress and anxiety. There are times when it’s right to expand your comfort zone, and there are time when feeling safe is paramount. Self care is essentially about pegging out the boundaries that you need in place to feel safe, to protect your wellbeing. The soft and fluffy end of the self-care stick – bubble baths and the like – are enjoyable reminders to be good to ourselves and to boost our sense of wellbeing. They’re not much use if we’re sabotaging such core feelings such as safety by pushing ourselves too hard in stressful situations, against our own intuition. A hot bath will not outweigh the stress of driving 11 miles through a blizzard.
Listen to your intuition. Stop fighting yourself when it comes to the basic human right of feeling safe. Self care isn’t a luxury, nor is it always fluffy. If you need a snow day, take a goddamn snow day.
One of the surprising revelations that came from the recovery course I took with my local domestic abuse service was that it’s been proven that victims can suffer from a form of PTSD. Why this should be a surprise I don’t know, abuse is a form of trauma after all, so let’s put it down to the fact that Simon had been telling me for so long that he wasn’t being abusive, that I was being unreasonable etc. For a brief summary of PTSD symptoms head to www.adaa.org – I will hopefully eventually put together a list of helpful resources as there’s a lot of info out there, but for now, they sum it up as:
• Re-experiencing the trauma through intrusive distressing recollections of the event, flashbacks, and nightmares.
• Emotional numbness and avoidance of places, people, and activities that are reminders of the trauma.
• Increased arousal such as difficulty sleeping and concentrating, feeling jumpy, and being easily irritated and angered.
To which I will say yes, yes and yes again.
On a day to day basis I’m constantly re-living the abuse, whether that’s the actual events or more often, endlessly looping over what I should have said, what I should have done, the argument I should have had in court. A memory will sneak in and I’m suddenly triggered, lambasting both Simon and his new partner, Astrid, for what they’ve done to me and the kids. This will happen silently if I’m with others, my mind doing its own stuff while I drive the kids to school, or I’ll find myself yelling with rage as I drive back home again alone. At night, unable to sleep, I’m holding an imaginary conversation with the judge, telling him what he needs to know, trying to persuade him of my case. When I wake, none of it has been magically swept away in my sleep and I’m straight back into remembering how they are both insisting that they are the innocent victims of my abuse and harassment. Seriously? Was I coming into your home and spying on you? Was I taking photographs of your private documents while you were out of the house? Was I throwing out your possessions? Was I making malicious calls to the police and social services? Was I? …and now smile and make breakfast.
My mind is not my own, they have hijacked it. I have panic attacks, often while in the supermarket. I don’t feel safe. Hyper-vigilance is another constant, making me irritable, nervous and jumpy as I scan both real and imagined horizons for more threats. There are a limited number of places where I feel safe, there are places I avoid going. I feel drained, angry, exhausted and yet often numb, detached from those around me, unable to raise a smile when one of the kids tells a joke. Depressed.
And then, in the middle of it all, hopefully I become aware. Simon and Astrid are not actually here with me, unless my mind decides to let them in.
Mindfulness. Touted by my counsellor, by the domestic abuse team and endless Pinterest pins. Very effective, but so hard to achieve, particularly when all attempts at meditation are invaded by thoughts of Simon and Astrid AND ALL THE BLOODY THINGS THEY DID TO ME.
My mind is my own.
This is the basic tenet for healing. My mind is my own. They don’t get to take up valuable retail space in my brain. Beyond that, there’s a choice. Do I let thoughts of them continue to hijack my brain, or do I push them out? PTSD becomes a habitual mindset. Constantly re-playing events can feel like a safety valve, you’re preparing yourself in case it happens again. Because of course, there is no point in telling someone with PTSD not to worry, it might never happen- It has happened. It did happen, it was deeply traumatic, and now their brain is trying in its own screwball way to not let it happen again. Be prepared.Try and figure out what the heckity-pie you did wrong so you can stop it from happening again. So it’s easier to continue to allow those thoughts to dominate, even once we’ve become aware of what we’re doing – in effect, it doesn’t feel safe to choose a healthier mindset.
Healing requires that we push those thoughts out. And boy, at times it’s not easy to do so. We are entirely justified in our anger, in our anxiety, in our overwhelming sense of injustice. We can’t just let go, or move on, or forget about it – it doesn’t feel safe to do so, even if we knew how. Deep down, we can even worry that by letting go, we’re actually absolving the abusers from what they did, as if we’re now having to admit that none of it mattered, it’s all okay; this is particularly hard to deal with when it’s taken so long to recognise and admit the abuse in the first place.
My decision to heal does not make what they did any less wrong.
My decision to heal does not make me less safe.
My decision to let go does not mean that they were right.
My decision to move on does not mean that none of it mattered.
My mind is my own.
My top 10 tips for coping with PTSD repetitive/intrusive thinking:
Recognise your main trigger activities – these are the times of the day when your mind is more likely to start chewing over what happened. For me, this is while driving or washing up. Make sure to plug up your brain against unwanted thoughts by having something else to focus on during these times, eg by listening to an interesting audio book, watching a movie (although not while driving!). I wouldn’t recommend just listening to music unless you’re going to sing along with it at the top of your voice as otherwise it’s still too easy for your thoughts to drift.
Create a visual for pushing those thoughts out of your head. I literally imagine Simon and Astrid being swept out of my head by a large broom. Hell, sometimes I stick two fingers up, pull back the elastic and catapult them over the nearest hill. This visual helps to break up habitual patterns of thought. Whenever you catch unwanted thoughts creeping in, stop, take a deep breath and visualise getting rid of them; make this your new habit.
Set aside an allotted time of the day/week where you are allowed to think about it. This can help to reassure the wounded part of you that fears being forgotten and therefore re-traumatised. Okay, I’m having intrusive thoughts. I’m not willing to go there now, but I’ll reschedule them for Tuesday at 7pm. If it makes you feel more secure, literally write it into your schedule. Tuesday, 7pm; worry, obsess and freak out. On Tuesday at 7pm, you might want to have a journalling session and try to process what you were feeling – or you might have forgotten all about it by then. Which is a good thing, by the way.
Take up a new hobby, or deepen your skills with an existing one. Beginner’s mind means having to concentrate, which leaves no room for intrusive thoughts. Learn a new language with a free app such as Duolingo. Take up knitting or tackle a really tricky pattern or new technique if you’re already a knitter. Photography is a wonderful way of literally having to focus on something else. Soufflé. Yodel. Whittle. Don’t take any of this too seriously – the aim isn’t to stress yourself with a big new creative goal that you must achieve, but to gently distract your mind into a better place. Make sure it requires enough concentration though -colouring in probably isn’t going to get the job done.
Chanting. Particularly while doing chores. Download a few Deva Premal tracks and chant along – it demands enough of your attention to distract you from your thoughts, but doesn’t stop you from doing what needs to be done. Try this also if you feel like you’re about to fall apart and don’t know what else to do.
Use a mantra/gesture. Press your thumb against each finger pad in turn while chanting This too shall pass – one finger per word. Use whatever mantra/gesture combination works for you, although it’s best to keep it simple. Do this on repeat until it’s safe to stop.
Beauty. More beauty. Even more beauty. No, not a new mascara, unless that particularly helps you. Surround yourself with gentleness and beauty. Avoid life’s harsher, uglier “truths,” stop watching the news until you’re feeling stronger. Be very mindful about what you’re taking in, and whether it’s ultimately going to heal or harm you. Go to beautiful, peaceful places such as flower gardens, sit and drink it in. You’re aiming to create a protective, beautiful bubble around yourself so that you can heal. Scary documentaries and depressing Oscar-winning dramas aren’t your friends right now, no matter how worthy. It’s also not the right time for grass-roots activism and protests. You can get back to fighting the good fight once you’re healed, otherwise you’re surrounding yourself with triggers and pain and will be sod all use to anyone.
If the voices in your head are telling you that you’re at fault, you’re useless, worthless etc, don’t listen to them. Sounds obvious, but it’s not easy. Secretly, at least part of you believes you’re at fault, you’re useless, worthless etc – your abuser has invested a lot of time and energy into persuading you that this is the case. So you’re going to have to fake it until you make it. When you catch yourself thinking this way, just speak out loud, forcefully; No. I refuse to think this way. I’m healing and my mind is my own. It can be too hard to get ourselves to believe the opposite of the negative voices – I’m a precious Child of God! – meh –so focus on interrupting them and destroy the hold they have on you. Repeat; I’m healing and my mind is my own. No matter what counter-attack the voices make, what evidence they hold up in front of you; I’m healing and my mind is my own. You don’t have to start debating whether or not the negative voices are true, you’re saying that you’re not willing to be sucked into this particular argument, am I to blame or not? It doesn’t help and you’re not doing it. No debate, end of. I’m healing and my mind is my own. You might want to stick a Post-it of this on your mirror.
You have insomnia, right? It’s really hard to control those thoughts at 3am when you’re exhausted and depressed. Use YouTube on your phone or tablet to play sleep hypnosis or meditation tracks, preferably ones with a voiceover rather than just instrumental. This can really help to drown out the unwanted thoughts, and who knows, maybe they’re having a positive effect while you drift off. A Gratitude journal just before bed, listing at least 3 things you’re grateful for, is also a good idea for putting yourself in a more positive mindset before sleeping.
It goes without saying – get the support, help and therapy that you need. Don’t feel guilty about spending money on yourself as part of your healing. You’ve been through a trauma, you’ve been through abuse – these are things we shouldn’t have to deal with alone. See a counsellor (you can get a limited amount of counselling on the NHS here in the UK), go see a therapist. Talking therapy is known to help with PTSD and it’s soooo important to have your story witnessed and validated, especially when your abuser has tried to convince you that you’re the one at fault. Look into low-cost and pay-what-you-can-afford solutions. Contact your local domestic abuse helpline. Call The Samaritans if you’re struggling. Someone else’s actions have buggered up your brain, and you’re going to need help to un-bugger it (technical term.)
Basically, PTSD is like zombie mind-rats have taken over your brain. Your mind hasn’t been your own. You can barely remember what it was like before the zombie mind rats broke in, and have no idea how to stop them. All you can think about is Zombie! Mind-rats! In! My! Brain! It doesn’t help that everyone else is telling you to forget about the Zombie Mind-rats. They’re in your brain! They’re running the show, how can you forget them? No matter what you do, they’re still going to gnaw their way in and run round inside your head, causing havoc and pissing all over your mental health. You’re so used to them now that you don’t even question their right to be there. They’re your friends, after all, they’re trying to protect you from the even bigger monsters out there, or so they say, and even if you wanted to get rid of them, you’ve no idea how to do it.
You have to sweep them out. Every. Single. Day. As soon as you realise they’re there, sweep them out and plug up the gap to stop them from diving back in. No matter how overrun your mind has gotten, keep sweeping them out and filling up the holes, finding new positives to fill up the gaps. You deserve a brain that’s free of Zombie Mind Rats. You deserve a life that’s not ravaged by PTSD. You are healing and your mind is your own.