The Healing Garden

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.

The Holy Grail and the Myth of Support

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“I’m just going to pop out for some Support, what could possibly go wrong?”

My God, I’m struggling.

“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?