Reading

Calm During Coronavirus

At times I have to question whether my brain and I are playing for the same team. Take Lockdown; as if looking after and home educating two high-maintenance teenagers wasn’t going to be enough to deal with, my brain decided that what I really needed to do was set myself a challenge. Why not write and publish a book on Kindle during Lockdown? And for bonus points, make it Covid19-related so that it’s incredibly time-sensitive? Yes, that’s an entirely sensible thing to do!

Well, I did it. Slightly behind schedule given the drama we’ve had around the threat of bailiffs, ambulances being called and yet another battle over Child Maintenance, but I did it. Calm During Corona: Coping with Anxiety During Lockdown is now available on the Kindle store.

I had to fight the demons telling me that it was pointless, that Lockdown was nearly over and it was too late to go ahead. It was important to me to get it finished and out there, even if no one buys a copy. This time around, it’s about the doing of it, of going ahead no matter what. Of course, the hope is that it reaches someone who needs it, someone who isn’t used to dealing with anxiety and feels like they’re struggling to cope. The book is a blend of reassurance and practical tips and techniques for coping with anxiety. I’ve learned so much about living with stress and anxiety over the last few years, it felt like a good time for passing on some of that knowledge.

The difference between having yet another unfinished project cluttering up your laptop, and having something finished and out there can be just a few hours – yet it’s immense and profound. Completion is an incredibly satisfying feeling, as opposed to the niggle of coulda woulda shoulda over things we never quite got round to doing. I’ve also hemmed the skirt of the dress I’ve been making – and I’m wearing it as I type this. I’m thinking of digging out a few more UFO’s (UnFinished Objects, in crafting terms!) and getting them done, for the pure satisfaction of it. Completion also seems to clear a bit of mental space – I guess every unfinished project still has a pocket of brain devoted to it until it’s either done or thrown away for good.

So – it’s never too late. Dust it off, whatever it is, and get it done. And if you’re looking for some tips on handling your anxiety while the pandemic continues, I highly recommend this book. (Follow this link for Amazon.com)

abuse, Creating a life worth living, Home, parenting

Survival Instinct

 

(5c0ef338-be91-4b46-960e-005603043a91

(From Pinterest, original author unknown)

I try to remember that long queues snaking outside the shop have been a normal part of everyday life for millions of people throughout time. The scene feels reminiscent of footage from the Soviet Union back in the 80s, when people didn’t even necessarily know what they were queueing for – you joined the queue and hoped that the food you needed would be there at the end of it. Which essentially was exactly the same situation that I was now in, queueing outside Tesco at 8.30pm, homemade face mask in place, anxiety levels rising and a handy stress-related migraine rapidly building. Trying to follow the newly installed one-way system without missing anything on the list, trying to find alternatives when what we needed wasn’t in stock – no pasta, no rice, no flour, no chicken flavour Super Noodles, trying to maintain the requisite 2m from everyone else… supermarket shopping was stressful enough before Covid19, but it turns out there was a whole new level of pain to overcome.

The stress migraine had largely formed beforehand, with a letter from CMS informing me that they had reversed their original decision and were now ruling in Simon’s favour, judging Lily to no longer be in full time education, so he no longer had to pay maintenance for her. This after he sent false information to the Child Benefits office, telling them that Lily was not in full time education after being expelled from college, ignoring the fact that I was legally home-educating her while she was attending her new college part-time. Having finally won the EHCP we needed to get Lily extra support, she should have now been able to attend full time… except that college was now closed due to the Coronavirus crisis. I had successfully appealed the Child Benefits decision, largely due to the fact that Lily had previously been home educated age 5-8. If that hadn’t been the case, Simon might have been able to get away with it, despite having thrown Lily out and refusing to honour the “equal shared care” Child Arrangements Order that he’d insisted on obtaining. Of course, he’d then tried to use that Order to claim that he retained shared care and shouldn’t have to pay maintenance, but thankfully the CMS ruled against him. Some men will do anything to support their children… others will do anything to get out of paying child support.

With everywhere closed for the Easter Bank Holiday, it was impossible to get any further advice or take action until the following Tuesday, at which point it would be the familiar half hour wait to get through to CMS and explain they’d made their new decision based on false and misleading information. Which meant an entire Bank Holiday weekend of anxiety – would I have to wait 6 months on reduced maintenance in order to put my case to appeal, missing out on almost £2000 of payments? Would Simon have to pay this money back, or would he yet again get away with deliberately misleading the authorities?

Every time you fill in an official form, it makes it clear in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS that deliberately sending false or misleading information is an offence and could result in a fine or even prison sentence. My experiences have shown this to be a lie. Simon has so far given false and misleading information to the Family Court (during 2 separate cases), CAFCASS, the police, Social Services, Child Maintenance Service (more times than I can count, but I think we’re onto 9 appeals now?) Child Benefits Agency and what would have been Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service had CMS not already reversed their decision. I’ve been left fighting false accusations and fire-fighting the consequences for six years, while the authorities do nothing to stop him. It’s exhausting and demoralising and has left me begging them to take action. The system simply doesn’t recognise the more insidious forms of domestic abuse and provides no protection. Abusers are able to exploit loopholes – for example the disgusting way that Child Benefit does not take into account the lack of educational provision for autistic teenagers at 16+. Or they refuse to follow court orders, knowing that without any jurisdiction for arrest, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it unless you have enough money to take them back to court.

Having just fought a battle over student loan repayments, and then Child Benefit payments, all under the shadow of Covid19 and lockdown, I really don’t need yet another battle. I’ve been battling for six years now, I’ve had enough. Simon and Astrid have repeatedly taunted me that I need to “move on” and “get over it” – yet they’re the ones making it impossible for me to do so. “Move on” and “get over it” in this context seem to mean “We want to ignore the court orders, refuse to look after Lily, pay absolutely no child maintenance and continue to abuse you as much as we like, while you just shut up and take it.” Without recourse to Legal Aid to take him back to court – Legal Aid is only paid out for cases of domestic violence in which it can be proved that you have called the police for your own protection, or have been hospitalised or required medical treatment, likely on more than one occasion – there seems to be nothing I can do to make him stop. And as I’ve already discovered, Court is useless when you’re up against someone willing to lie about absolutely everything, and a Court Order is a waste of paper if it doesn’t come with power of arrest.

I got through my shopping while fighting back tears and counting my breaths to avoid panic attacks. I bought myself a large bar of chocolate as some kind of solace; I will emerge from lockdown looking as if a Beluga whale had miraculously learned how to walk. Arriving home, I asked the kids to help unload and pack away, while I collapsed on the sofa with a couple of paracetamol and an emergency glass of Coke, clutching an icepack to my forehead. Naturally they started squabbling, then Lily refused to do the washing up that she should have tackled hours earlier, saying she was “too busy.” Doing what? I wondered, but it turned out to be playing Fortnite. Simon does not have to deal with any of this, I reminded myself. Simon is not having to keep both of us children alive, fed, happy, entertained and educated during this pandemic. Simon has not even bothered to get in touch to see how the kids are doing. People try to make it better by saying “Oh well, he’s the one missing out,” especially as neither of the kids want to see him any more – but the truth is that the kids are missing out, whether that’s missing out on the money they should be entitled to, or missing out on having a mum who isn’t ill or irritable with stress, or missing out on having a loving and supportive father. It sucks, frankly.

Life goes on. Next day, with a headache still hovering around the edges, I find the appeals form online and fill it out, ready to send if I can’t convince the CMS to reverse their decision again on Tuesday. I have stopped taking this personally, I realise. Simon’s shenanigans are now nothing more than an administrative and financial hassle. I’m the one who has actually moved on, while he still lashes out vindictively. Meanwhile Lily miraculously does the washing up without me having to nag her. They both fight over the dodgy flavoured Super Noodles. Ivy tells me about her hamster-related dream and I tell her about mine, involving dating a mysterious violinist captured by gangsters who threatened to cut off his fingers. I sow a few seeds and water the garden, admiring the daffodils I planted in the Autumn. There will be pizza for dinner and an at-home Movie Night. We will get through this. We’ve already been in lockdown for the past six years, we’ve gotten good at surviving.

Creating a life worth living, Home, Self Care

The new normal

Laundry and pasta

Several seasons into The Walking Dead the tattered bunch of survivors reach a community that has been sheltered from the zombie apocalypse. When talk turns to the need to head out on a supply run, one of the community women whines on and on about getting a pasta machine. Oh the pasta she could make if only she had a pasta machine. To a group that has been busy fighting for their lives in a dystopian nightmare, the notion of searching for a pasta machine is beyond trivial, it makes her seem incredibly trite, spoiled even.

Last week, with the supermarket shelves emptied of pasta, the thought of a pasta machine started to become an obsession. I’d been casually wondering whether to get one for a while, but I’m not keen on filling my kitchen with barely used gadgets. But if I bought one now, I could make pasta despite the shortages! The irony of becoming the crazy pasta machine lady from The Walking Dead did not escape me.

I recognised that I was fixating on something that wasn’t that important in the grand scheme of things. Buying a pasta machine would not reduce the risk from covid19. Perhaps it might allow me to feel a measure of control -the ability to make pasta- in the face of an uncontrollable pandemic.

A decision needed to be made; rein in my brain, accept my powerlessness and think about more practical matters. Or buy the damn pasta machine just so I could stop obsessing about it. Well reader, as the above picture shows, I bought the damn pasta machine. There was money in the bank account and it seemed like the easiest solution; the obsession immediately stopped. Tonight I made fresh pasta for the first time – it took over 2 hours and I scalded my hand, but it was delicious.

I know myself well enough to know that if I hadn’t bought it, I’d still be obsessing over it, turning the idea over repeatedly, should I or shouldn’t I…? Buying it has quieted my mind. Hopefully it will get enough use to be justified, if not there’s always eBay.

This may well sound as trite as Crazy Pasta Machine Lady did, but it runs far deeper. We’re strapped in for the long haul; potentially months of lockdown, maybe on and off for much of the year. Nobody knows how this will go, whether it will play out better or worse than the projections. Which means living with months of anxiety and I know from 6 years of toxic divorce how damaging that is.

We’re used to having a time limit on our disasters; two weeks and the News has moved on. We’re used to feeling relatively in control of our lives. Having control stripped away for who knows how long can feel unbearable. Our hearts race, our breath is shallow, we lay awake at night, we jump out of our skin at the slightest provocation. This is our new normal and new coping strategies are required to get through it. Although it might feel that we’re not doing much if we’re not battling it out on the frontlines as a key worker, it’s crucial not to underestimate the strain involved in keeping the home fires burning. Treat yourself with gentleness and compassion. And if a pasta machine is going to help, in whatever form that might mean for you, then buy the damn pasta machine.

Creating a life worth living, Home, parenting, Self Care

Ordinary miracles

The dishes are washed. Everyone has been fed. There are clean clothes, towels and bed linen tucked away in drawers and wardrobes.

Sometimes we forget how miraculous the basics can be. Hot water pouring out of a tap, or channelling through pipes to heat the house. I didn’t have to walk miles to fetch that water, nor send my children out to gather sticks to burn in order to heat it.

We forget too how many ordinary miracles we perform on a daily basis; the unappreciated wonders of maintaining a home, keeping everyone fed and clothed and as happy and healthy as we can manage. We have appliances our ancestors could only dream of, Hoovers, washing machines, cookers with controllable heat – yet such increased convenience has brought increased responsibilities. Laundry would once have taken all day, once a week- now it’s most days, fitted in around work, school runs, shopping, cooking. The number of tasks we accomplish each week can be astounding, yet we barely notice them. Most of them don’t count as accomplishments in a society focused only on financial success. Our minds are frazzled, our souls weary.

Perhaps this virus has shown us the value of the ordinary. Our heroes are not only the medical staff battling to save lives, the scientists searching for a vaccine or cure, but also the supermarket staff serving frightened customers and stocking the shelves, the delivery drivers keeping the nation going. People who were once considered too ordinary to admire, people making minimum wages- it turns out that they are the ones we really need.

Washing the dishes is the most hated job in the household. Nobody wants to do it, the kids complain loudly and do their utmost to get out of it when it’s their turn. Some nights I simply don’t have the energy after a day of running errands then cooking dinner, but it’s hateful coming downstairs next morning to a kitchen piled with dirty dishes. I would panic too that it was evidence I wasn’t coping, that my ex would find a way of using it against me to prove I was an unfit mother.

Since moving house there’s been more time, more space, perhaps even more energy. The dishes are getting washed every night, the kitchen floor swept and mopped. Remembering the times when it felt so hard to make it through the day, when the dishes piling up felt so overwhelming, I’m aware of the ordinary miracle that a clean kitchen represents. Fear, stress, uncertainty, and anxiety are so draining when we’re dealing with them on a daily basis, exhausting when there’s no end in sight. And that’s where we are right now as a global community, facing the unknown as the pandemic continues. The rhythm of our daily routines can provide reassurance, if we’re paying attention to them, if we learn to appreciate how much effort it really takes to keep calm and carry on. So at the end of the day, take a moment to appreciate what you have and what you’ve managed, especially if it feels like not very much. These are testing times and we are all miraculous.

autism, parenting

How to reassure your autistic or anxious child about Coronavirus

If Ivy is worried about something she’ll either tell me about it or become anxious and withdrawn to the point where I’ll ask her what is wrong. Lily however will continue on in her rambunctious way, never admitting anything is wrong but becoming angrier, more defiant, more irritable and generally biting my head off – as if someone has cranked the level up to 11. Although as a family we don’t tend to watch the TV news, it’s hard to avoid all the headlines about Covid19 – and the rows of empty shelves as we did our weekly shop were a glaring reminder of the situation. In the car on the way home Lily quietly asked me if we were all going to die, and insisted that I tell her the truth, not just try to make her feel better about it.

It’s hard enough for adults to trawl through the innumerable sources of information out there and decide what’s truth and what is clickbaiting hysteria, but for children and teenagers it’s almost impossible. Faced with ever-rising figures about the numbers infected and the death toll, everyone is worried and uncertain – for anyone suffering with anxiety (and autism is an anxiety-related disorder) the consequences are unbearable. Our children have simply never experienced anything like this, and to be honest even as an adult who has lived through the swine and bird flu phenomena, I’ve never experienced anything like this either. No one knows what is going to happen nor what the long-term consequences will be. Personally I’m hoping that as our governments must surely be forced to work together, this sudden realisation that we are one global community might be harnessed in order to combat the crisis. Who knows?

In the meantime, it’s left to us as parents to reassure our children – many of whom are already suffering from OCD and heightened anxiety. What on earth can we say when we don’t know the answers, and when they’re witnessing empty shops, travel bans and talk of quarantine and school closures (at the time of writing schools in the UK are still open, but this may inevitably change?)

Please note – these are merely suggestions, and are aimed purely at providing reassurance rather than official medical advice; following these will not reduce the chances of you or your children catching Covid19. This is aimed only at reducing mental/emotional distress in the meantime. Also – the situation is constantly developing, so forgive me if my take on things becomes rapidly out of date!

  • Reassure them that not everyone will catch the virus, and of those who do catch it the vast majority will be ill for a short while with flu but won’t die. Some people will have symptoms that are so mild they don’t know they’ve got it. Serious cases and deaths have been with people who have pre-existing medical problems. Young, healthy people are not at high risk of developing complications or dying – it’s important that your child realises this, otherwise they might believe that they and everyone they love will die.
  • With older kids explain that it’s a form of flu, that there are deaths every year anyway from flu (which is why the flu jab is available) and as it’s a new form of the illness nobody has immunity to it, which is why it’s become such a problem. The main issue isn’t that everyone is going to die, it’s that it will be difficult to keep things running normally if too many people get sick at the same time. While we obviously want to prevent sickness and death, a lot of the measures being put in place are about trying to slow the virus down.
  • Explain what steps you’re taking to keep everybody safe, eg. handwashing, sanitisers, reducing social contact etc. If you have loved ones who are more at risk, explain what extra steps they are taking.
  • If someone in your household has a compromised immune system, print or create a notice to post in your front window asking deliveries etc to be left in the porch – these are available online.
  • Children may feel more secure if they are able to write House Rules to pin up near your front door or window, eg Please wash hands as soon as you return home.
  • Explain what will happen if any of you get ill and draw up a Plan of Action to reassure them. It’s a good idea to plan for this anyway! Who will look after the ill person, what meals have you got readily available, where can you get food deliveries etc? What extra steps can you take to try and prevent others in the house from also falling ill if possible? What happens if both (or single) parents get ill at the same time? You will likely find that your child has specific worries that they want you to address, for example they might be worried that they don’t know how to call 999, or they don’t know Grandma’s phone number if you get sick.
  • If you have stocked up on food, loo rolls etc, let your anxious child see the stash in order to alleviate their fears. They might feel less anxious if given more agency, so have them create an inventory of what you’ve got in stock.
  • If you haven’t got hand sanitiser, try putting together a home-made version with essential oils (search for recipe suggestions online) – this is unlikely to provide realistic protection (although several essential oils can have anti-bacterial or sanitising properties), but again it’s about providing reassurance to your child.
  • Focus on positive and practical news stories and share these with your child. eg. Local volunteer groups springing up to help fetch supplies for vulnerable people, or that firms such as Rolls Royce can be used to manufacture extra medical equipment such as ventilators. As Mr Rogers said, always look for the helpers.
  • DO NOT WATCH THE NEWS WITH YOUR CHILDREN PRESENT. Similarly, do not have conversations about it when they are in earshot.
  • Although most kids might be thrilled at the thought of school closing, anxious children might be worried about falling behind, particularly if they are approaching important exams, secondary transition etc. Show them what measures schools are taking, that GCSE’s are likely to be moved back to September in the UK, how lessons might be set online, websites such as Khan Academy, BBC Bitesize, MyMaths etc, and reassure them that you will help them to manage their education if school is shut. You could help them look at how children get an education in remote areas such as the Australian Outback, or investigate forms of home education – not going to school has always been a reality for some children and so there’s no need to panic.
  • Friendships are also important so discuss ways that they can stay in touch with their friends if you or they need to self isolate, or if school is closed – this is perhaps more of an issue for younger kids who might not have mobile phones/social media.
  • Older children might appreciate relevant updates, particularly if it shows that new measures are being taken to control this. Keep these practical and positive – either tell them about it personally or show them an internet article/video, as long as the content is positive. Avoid just handing over your phone/tablet etc, share it with them and then put it away so that they don’t start clicking on negative links.
  • Focus on the science; there are good scientific reasons behind handwashing for example (the soap can kill the virus by destroying part of its coating, for a very oversimplified explanation!) Address specific worries by investigating the reality, so if your child is worried that the shops will run out of food you could look at how supply chains work, or how rationing would work – how do governments make sure people get fed after a natural disaster, for example?
  • Try to provide distraction, eg watching a funny movie together, or silly YouTube videos. Life goes on.
  • Make a list of ways you will have fun and keep yourselves amused if a quarantine or self-isolation is imposed. Let your child have as much input as possible, coming up with fun suggestions, or perhaps they could make a list of all the board games or movies you own. Even making a list of their own toys, books and games might distract them.
  • Prepare a Self-Isolation/Quarantine box (do this quickly before further restrictions are put in place!) – allow everyone to choose a new magazine or book, a small treat etc. This all goes into a box that’s put away and only brought out if you have to self-isolate, or if you get sick, or when the whole shebang is over and done with. This way your child has something to look forward to and it can stop them dreading what might happen!
  • Self isolation doesn’t mean you can’t leave the house (although quarantine restrictions can vary so check if this is the case) – it means avoiding public transport, going to work, social gatherings etc. You are still allowed to go for walks, or ride your bikes! Fresh air and exercise tend to do everyone some good, and you are not putting yourself or others at risk if you’re rambling through the woods and fields. Reassure your child that they will still be able to leave the house and go outside, walk the dog – but they wouldn’t be allowed to visit friends or go to a cafe, library etc.
  • I followed these instructions to sew a face mask for one of Lily’s cosplay outfits. It is unlikely to reduce her risk of infection, but she’s happily wearing it when she goes out, particularly as she has to use public transport to get to college.
  • Allowing your anxious child to wear disposable gloves might reassure them (these may be available at DIY stores if pharmacists, supermarkets etc have sold out) – I’m increasingly seeing receptionists etc wearing them. If they’re young enough, any kind of glove might help to soothe them, although be prepared for an insistence that they get washed every time.
  • Ask older children what measures they think need to be taken, whether for you as a family, or what they’d do if they were in government – this can help them to start thinking practically and give them a sense of control, rather than panicking.

Generally there’s a need to provide anxious children with a sense of control over a situation that is way beyond anyone’s ability to control it. Younger children can be more easily reassured with the equivalent of Dumbo’s Magic Feather – a squirt of hand sanitiser or a face mask. Older teenagers are unlikely to be as easily convinced, and won’t trust you if they think you’re lying. It’s okay to admit uncertainty, but do your best to focus on the positive actions that are being taken. Remind older children that thousands of children face danger and uncertainty every single day; in Third World countries without clean water, in war zones, in refugee camps – sometimes it can help to count our blessings and remember that we have safe houses, clean water and advanced medical care available. Making a ritual of everyone saying something that they are thankful for before eating dinner, or at bedtime, can help us all to focus on the positive.