The Big Day (part two)

As soon as I walk into the room I know it’s a stitch up. Once they trot out a second or even third member of staff, you know you’re wasting your time. As the Centre Manager ushers me into the tiny room, the Learning Support Manager is already waiting, and there are immediate apologies that the lead staff member for Lily’s course couldn’t make it. I haven’t even got my coat off and I know it’s game over.

The Learning Support manager is basically there to make sure they’ve ticked all the legal boxes, so there’s no right to appeal. She runs through our previous emails and the college’s SEN code of practice, pointing out that as an independent training provider they’re not bound to the same SEN rules as other FE institutions.

At this point it doesn’t matter what I say, they’re kicking Lily out. It doesn’t matter that she’s been doing well until now, that it was one incident that got out of control, one lesson that went wrong in over a month of attendance, she’s out. It doesn’t matter that she’s been consistently let down, has never been given the support she needs, she’s out. It doesn’t matter that I’m still fighting to get her the ADHD medication that she needs, or appealing the local authority’s refusal to give her an EHCP, she’s out. It doesn’t matter that there are extenuating circumstances, the stress that we’ve been under as a family due to domestic abuse, she’s out. I may as well stick pencils up my nose and sing the Russian National Anthem, nothing I say is going to make a difference. I point out that I came in the hope of having an open discussion about how to support Lily and move forward from this point and it’s devastating that they have already drawn their conclusion and aren’t prepared to listen. I question their decision process and point out that no one has been asked to advocate for Lily before the decision has been made.

“Well, that’s what you’re doing now,” the centre manager tells me.

“But you’ve already made your decision,” I repeat. “Who advocated for Lily during your ‘investigative process?'”

I get nowhere. The Centre Manager then gives me the bullshit about how they could theoretically take Lily back, but it will only leave us in a worse position as by then the 6 week probation window with other colleges will have closed so transferring her won’t be easy and blah de blah, so this is in everyone’s best interests as he doesn’t want to leave me in a worse position, it’s best if she goes now. One thing I really hate is when they try to pretend they’ve got your child’s best interests at heart while they’re delivering the killer blow. Fuck off, basically.

“Forgive me for being bitter,” I tell him. The fact that we’ve relocated 150 miles for Lily to be able to attend this college doesn’t matter at all to him. They’ve failed to provide the support she needs, because they can’t afford to provide further support. The local authority won’t provide the support that Lily needs. No one will. No one ever has. I don’t understand how Lily can be identified as having a Special Educational Need by the EHCP panel, but then be denied an EHCP. It feels very much like bullshit. When Lily then fails due to this lack of support, she (and I) are blamed and punished. There’s no point in staying any longer and I leave, trying to hold my tears in until I’m out on the street.

In that moment, I hate them. I hate everyone. All the people around me with their petty concerns, who haven’t spent over a decade fighting to get help for their autistic child. All the people who lead nice normal lives, without having to battle domestic abuse, special needs, who don’t know what it’s like to have life knock you over and kick you again and again and again. I feel suicidal. There seems to be absolutely no point in carrying on, I end up at the same place, trying yet again to find the strength to pick myself up off the floor, dust myself down and start over. It’s getting harder and harder to keep on starting over, to keep on fighting for things that don’t seem to affect the majority of the population.

I lock myself into the toilets at the nearby library, and cry. When I’ve got myself together enough to face going back outside, I end up in the nearest Wetherspoons, ordering a vodka-coke and packet of crisps. I don’t care any more. I’ve still got to go home and break the news to Lily, who I know is fully expecting Mum to pull off a magic trick and allow her to stay on the course, no matter how many times I told her that I might not succeed. I have to deal with Ivy, who didn’t want to move away from her home town in the first place, who now has to deal with the frustration of Lily blowing the big opportunity that we moved here for. Meanwhile the planet burns, and politicians quibble about the DeathNote that is Brexit. We’re approaching an election and I want to beg people not to vote Tory, because a decade of Conservative rule is the reason why Lily has never had support. I don’t want to be part of this world any more. What’s happened today isn’t exceptional, it’s a battle I’ve fought many times before. I’m still having to battle Simon in order to get him to stop lying to CMS and pay the child support he legally owes us. I’m still having to battle the health system to give Lily the help she needs. And hell, Lily was first expelled age 5, from kindergarten, so you’d think I’d be used to it by now. But something has tripped inside me, a switch pinging off with this fresh bout of despair. Some crucial part of myself just died. Hope, maybe. Compassion. Duty. Doing the right thing. It’s got us nowhere. The sad reality is that if I’d lied about the EHCP, if I’d claimed that Lily’s college place was still dependent on her being given one, then she probably would have got it. Except then she wouldn’t have been accepted by the college. We can’t win.

The Big Day (part one)

The Big Day. I wake at 5.30, lie in bed with my mind racing until I give up and turn on the Calm app for my daily meditation. It’s so early that the cats don’t even jump off the bed to demand breakfast. I’m at the GP’s surgery with Lily before the receptionists are, the first in the queue for an emergency appointment. We’re told to come back at 8.50, and end up killing time in the nearest cafe, where a woman inexplicably dressed up as the Queen of Hearts makes us tea and an Americano, before disappearing into the back to handle her deliveries. The Meat Man is coming.

At the doctor’s, Lily wants me to do the talking. I explain the difficulties that she’s having, how her aggression has got out of control, and that we now want to try ADHD medication. The doctor turns to Lily.

“So now that Mum’s said everything she wants to say, how do you feel about all of this?”

Inwardly, I groan. Here we go again.

I can already tell from the doctor’s demeanour what I can expect. Oh yes, she’s friendly and acting like she’s here to help, but I’ve seen all of this before. Yet again, I’m going to be written off as a pushy, neurotic mother. For once Lily manages to speak up, explaining that she wants to try medication to try and help control her anger. The GP explains that she’s not going to send us home with any pills today, but she’ll give us a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health service, that should be our first step.

I try to make it clear that this really isn’t our first step, it’s our last resort. I’ve been fighting for support for Lily for over 11 years now, and got nowhere. She’s never had the help she needs for her autism or ADHD. We’ve done CAMHS, we’ve done CYPS, we’ve done Family Therapy, we’ve done Early Bird, we’ve done art therapy and play therapy, I’ve done the two different parenting courses that they insisted on sending us on, I’ve paid privately to attend workshops on autism and challenging behaviour, even a Non Violent Communication weekend. I’ve read countless books and websites to help understand her difficulties and find better coping techniques. It’s obvious to me that Lily has additional problems; Pathological Demand Avoidance and/or Oppositional Defiance Disorder, neither of which can be treated by conventional parenting/discipline techniques, nor by talking therapies. Only, I’m not allowed to insist that these diagnoses are taken into account, because I’m her mother and not a medical professional, so if I mention this it’s another strike for the Neurotic Mother award. Of course most medical professionals won’t even recognise these as real conditions and prefer to blame the mother’s parenting style, even when you have other kids who are miraculously unaffected by your alleged poor parenting techniques. Whatever I try, it’s Catch 22. I have effectively been sitting in the GP’s office for 11 years now. This is not the first step, this is we’ve run out of options, we’ve tried everything except ADHD medication and it’s now time to give it a go.

The newspapers would have you believe that doctors were handling out Ritalin to kids like sweeties at Halloween. Yet we’ve never been offered medication, nor have I ever previously asked for it. Lily has threatened me with a knife, was suspended from school for being aggressive towards a staff member, as well as incidents with other kids for which she spent time in Isolation, and is now facing expulsion from college for being aggressive towards a tutor, including throwing a chair in class. When her anxiety is out of control, she responds with aggression. The reality is that she can’t help it; this is a neurochemical reaction caused by a diagnosable condition. No amount of talking therapy or parenting courses are going to change that. But medication might stand a chance.

I am so tired of being fobbed off by professionals. I am so tired of being treated like I’m neurotic every time I try to get Lily the support she needs. Because this isn’t actually about autism or ADHD, it’s about money. Lily wasn’t given the support she needed at school because of the costs involved. In order for her to be given a statement/EHCP, the school would have to demonstrate that they had spent £6000 on supporting her needs. Faced with ongoing budget cuts they clearly weren’t going to. I tried privately to get her an EHCP and got through to the final stage, meaning that the Educational Psychologist had identified that she did have a special educational need – but she was turned down because she’s been offered a college place. As a parent, you want to scream at that point – the issue isn’t her getting a college place, I managed that for her, but being able to stay in college. One month in, and that’s fallen apart. Oh, but here’s the kicker – the college only has places for 21 students with an EHCP, which has already been reached, so if Lily had been granted it, and been promised the support she needed, she wouldn’t have then been given a place at the college. In the meantime, the college has no budget to provide for her needs.

This is the reality for any parent of a child with SEN; it’s down to money. It’s not about their autism, their ADHD, it’s down to a decade of Tory Party cuts. If Lily is expelled, she will be classed as NEET – not in employment, education or training. I’m then punished financially for that, by having child benefit stopped, and Simon can pay less maintenance for her. So the system that has failed to provide Lily with the support she needs to remain in education – due to economic cutbacks that have benefitted wealthy Tory supporters – then punishes me financially for its own failings. Smashing, innit?

I have no choice but to smile sweetly and accept the CAMHS referral, although I pointedly ask how long the waiting list is likely to be. It could be six months, even a year, and we need help now so that Lily can return to education. We don’t have any more time, either with the GP or to wait around for another pointless referral; we’ve been through 3 rounds with CAMHS already, to no avail. Meanwhile I’ve scheduled a meeting with college this afternoon, and I need to be able to offer them something, a concrete assurance that it won’t happen again. But if I push any harder with the doctor, then it merely confirms her opinion that I’m the one with the issue, not Lily. From past experience, it’s only mothers who are treated this way, not fathers. And had Lily attended the appointment with a chaperone from college, say, the outcome may have been different again. After 11 years of struggle, I’m tired of fighting to try and get what should have been freely offered over a decade ago. When will autism be properly funded?

Past experience has shown that there are plenty of people getting paid to work within the SEN industry but none of it seems to be trickling down to support the kids that need the help. One time I attended an autism support meeting, the only parent there due to poor publicity – meanwhile the 6 professionals in attendance brought out their packed lunches and chatted away to each other, but not to me. That’s 6 professionals being paid to attend a meeting to support parents of autistic kids, which was in reality just a subsidised jolly. Or the autism support worker who only worked in schools and didn’t do home visits even when we explained that Lily was being home educated. So you’re not actually offering any kind of support then? Meeting after meeting with school staff and SENCOs with no real change, no progress, no actual support. One even questioned why Lily would qualify for DLA/PIP, before deciding for herself that her ADHD meant she’d need to eat more meat! Perhaps job descriptions for SENCOs should demand that they actually have experience of SEN? Meanwhile, I’ve a train to catch…

SEN and the art of fighting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meltdown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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