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.

Untamed

Economists calculate the total value of ecosystem services – such as water purification, soil building, and pollination of food crops – at over $33 trillion each year, twice as large as the entire world’s economy. Nature does it all free of charge. Life is a diversified portfolio, but we are drawing down our capital and stealing from the future. Our economy is consuming its planetary host. The end result is inevitable: bankruptcy.

(From Untamed, by Will Harlan)

The trouble with CYPS

Another CYPS appointment; drive over 11 miles to school to collect Lily, drive 11 miles straight back to the clinic where the session is held. Sit in a waiting room where Heart FM is playing at full blast, in case Sarah, the therapist decides to involve me in the session. The chairs are ridiculously uncomfortable, the inane shouty DJ is giving me a headache and there’s nowhere to get a cup of tea. I wait for half an hour, trying to use the time to answer emails, before I’m summoned into the room. Sarah begins telling me about how she’s been learning about Lily’s interests and would I like to hear about what she’s been doing on the computer? I bite my tongue before I can point out that I live with Lily, that the computer is in the living room and therefore I get to see and hear what Lily is doing on the computer. Every. Single. Day.

Sarah tells me what Lily has been doing on the computer and asks me for my reaction. Lily’s computer use is highly problematic for us as a family; she becomes obsessive and addictive while on it, and entirely disregards all of the rules and agreements that we’ve made about it, namely that she needs to have done her homework, revision and any outstanding chores before using the computer. Time and again I’ve had to drag myself out of bed to tell her to get off the computer and go to bed, even after midnight. While gaming online, she yells, screams and swears at the top of her voice no matter how many times I intervene and tell her not to. If I try to turn the computer off, she physically fights me to stop me – the only thing I can do is then confiscate the entire thing when she’s at school. Rather than do what it takes to get the computer back – chores and homework (and by chores I literally mean one small task per day) – she then resorts to aggression or emotional blackmail such as threatening to kill herself if she doesn’t get it back. She switches it on as soon as she gets back from school, or first thing in the morning if there’s no school, and will remain on it all day and late into the night. If Ivy needs to use the computer for homework, there will be yet another fight. Lily will promise anything to get the computer/internet back when it’s in Time Out, but will never stick to those agreements. She has posted videos on YouTube in which she’s ranting, swearing and being aggressive, and refuses to take them down, has posted one in which she was improvising a flamethrower in Simon’s kitchen, and I narrowly managed to prevent her posting a video in which she cried hysterically while claiming she’d been diagnosed as a psychopath. She simply has no concept of the damage that she could cause for herself or others, that dodgy online stuff has a nasty habit of reappearing in the future, and so I’ve banned her from “vlogging” – yet another rule that she entirely disregards.

Sarah is aware that I’m broken, exhausted and struggling. She’s aware that computer use is a contentious issue. Yet she seems displeased when I respond through gritted teeth that while it’s great that Lily has for example made some music on the computer, she shouldn’t be playing on it unless she’s done her homework and her chores. She sends Lily out of the room and essentially tells me off, albeit couched in friendly therapist speak, for not managing to be enthusiastic about Lily’s computer use. That I’m too critical, I’m not affectionate enough, that she has a duty of care towards Lily and needs to ensure Lily is not subjected to emotional harm. Really? I think, Where the hell where you when Simon was subjecting the three of us to severe emotional and psychological abuse? How come all the evidence I’ve gathered, including the audio recording that Lily made of him being hugely abusive and attempting to alienate them from me has been entirely ignored by the authorities? Seriously, you’re going to insinuate that I’m being emotionally abusive because I can’t fake a happy face about Lily breaking the computer rules on a daily basis? Sarah goes on to point out that last week’s session was about addressing my needs and we’re now getting support from Early Help. Um – do you mean the session where I was kept waiting for over half an hour, feeling worthless because I’m evidently not important enough for anyone to speak to, and triggered because that’s the kind of thing Simon used to do? Also no – I’ve had a referral to Early Help. I’ve not had any actual help yet. So basically, nothing has changed since we first walked in to the clinic a month ago, yet Sarah is acting as if I’ve now had all the support in the world and the issue is that I’m just not patient and positive enough around Lily. Sarah also appears to have forgotten that she brokered a deal with Lily about her computer use during the last session, one which Lily has entirely disregarded; evidently Sarah is not going to hold Lily accountable for this, but rather is reinforcing Lily’s poor behavioural choices, making me look like the Bad Guy for insisting that Lily follows the rules.

Lily was referred by the pastoral team at her school as an emergency case. At the time she’d punched other kids at school, was acting aggressively and threatening members of staff, and was disruptive in class, claiming she could see people who weren’t there, or demons climbing up the walls. She had been self harming, and her behaviour was becoming more and more bizarre as she imitated characters from her favourite anime, literally living out her day as a fictional character. Also – and the part which seems to be continually overlooked – she had threatened me, firstly with a heavy stone pestle and then with the kitchen knife. What I find most disturbing – as well as the knife incident – is that she was deliberately faking having psychotic episodes. She didn’t really see people or demons, she was acting out. The self harm was carefully controlled, scratching rather than cutting, and displayed to others at school. In addition, the only time she ever shows me affection is when she wants something. Every time. If she starts cuddling up to me, I can feel myself getting tense because I know she’s about to demand something from me. Sarah was emphasising that Lily was a child with diagnoses, but then again she had Lily down as being 14. Lily will be 16 in three months. If she continues punching people and being aggressive, she’ll get arrested. If she continues acting out like a crazy person, she’ll be sectioned. It doesn’t matter to the police that she’s deeply immature or autistic, if she’s behaving like a menace to the public then they’ll take action against her – and as she will continue to be aggressive towards the arresting officer, the situation will spiral out of control. I suppose I’m lucky that we don’t have guns. In America, Lily would have been singled out as a potential school shooter. I’m not trying to make some kind of sick joke – she would literally be on the “concern” list, invited in for regular chats with the school counsellor as her behaviour has been so extreme.

If Lily was my partner, people would be urging me to leave her; the pathological lying, the aggression, the total lack of regard for other people. But she’s my child, therefore I’m expected to not even complain. The reality is that I need respite, it’s a lot easier to manage her behaviour if I’ve been able to take a break from caring for her 24/7. When you’re having to fight the same battles day in day out – over issues as simple as Lily cleaning her teeth, or taking a bath, never mind homework and computer use, it becomes exhausting and demoralising. When you’re dealing with aggression day in day out, it wears you down and erodes your self confidence. If I got a job at a specialist school for autistic children, I’d be given training and support. As a parent it’s a case of just getting on with it – or the offer of yet another parenting course in which you’re told to be positive and enthusiastic, or even to just give the kid exactly what they want to keep them quiet. Broke the computer again? Oh well, let’s buy you another one. I wish I was joking, but that’s what the advice on Challenging Behaviour workshops boils down to. Nobody ever works one-to-one with your child on a sustainable therapeutic basis; instead the onus is always put back on the parent; untrained, exhausted and demoralised, to somehow wave a magic wand and make it all better.

We should have had a referral to CYPS about seven years ago. It should have been automatic when Lily was referred to the Tavistock with gender dysphoria, but we were knocked back. We’ve had one six week block of art therapy for her about five years ago when the service was still CAMHS and Lily was newly diagnosed with ADHD, but several rebuttals since then. I’m aware that children’s services are woefully overstretched and underfunded, but I refuse to say that we’re “lucky” to have had the limited support that we’ve had. It’s a disgrace. Even before she’d met Lily, Sarah was hinting that perhaps talking therapy might not be appropriate and seeming very much like she wanted to take us off her case list before she’d even started, the easiest way of clearing out the waiting list. The trouble is there is nothing else. If CYPS don’t help us, it’s the end of the road, unless I pay for private therapy. Yet it’s clear that at the moment, I need therapy myself – if I go under, both of the kids go under, and I can’t pay for all of us at once. We might only get 8 sessions with CYPS, and Sarah is going to be moving away halfway through those, leaving Lily with someone else – my next fear is that we’ll get no further than essentially having two rounds of getting to know you sessions with two different therapists, and no actual progress will be made. In the meantime I’ve now had four occasions of leaving the CYPS clinic feeling utterly demoralised to the point of suicide. I’ve had to sit on a park bench, sobbing in public until I could calm down enough to drive us home, knowing that if I had a knife in my bag I’d be using it on my wrists. Each time, I’m left fighting to survive, building myself back up before trying to repair the additional damage that has been done to the relationship between Lily and me.

A recent documentary showed how nationwide CYPS is underfunded and overstretched, and that children and young people are repeatedly being turned away while their problems grow worse. As a parent it’s heartbreaking and terrifying to watch your child’s condition worsen week by week while not being able to get them the help they need – unless of course you can afford to pay for private treatment. Frustration and anger build as GPs refuse to even attempt to refer you to further services. Again and again you’re told that there’s nothing they can do, or that your child’s problems aren’t serious enough, while you watch your child slipping further down, further away, losing them a bit more each day. Your stress and anxiety build, until it reaches the point where you need help too, and your own ability to cope and support them diminishes. And because the “support,” if and when it arrives, has been so hard-won, you close your eyes and pretend that it’s fine, it’s making a difference, even when it’s not. You don’t dare complain for fear of losing everything. I’ve met countless families where this is the nightmare reality. Our kids are stressed and sick and left to get on with it. Our autistic kids are entirely ignored and unsupported. Meanwhile no one is taxing the rich or the corporations and the luxury goods market is at an all time high. A local aristocrat featured in a documentary about the wealth divide, shrugging her shoulders that “poor” people were just jealous of her lifestyle and needed to work harder (she herself had married into a titled family.) No. The system is stacked against us, social mobility becoming increasingly harder in a world of Zero Hours contracts, huge university fees, student loans, eye-wateringly expensive property prices and precious little job security, not to mention the nightmare that Universal Credit has been. But we’re not jealous of Cartier watches and polo ponies. We’re angry that our kids are being left to rot so that the rich can feel even richer.

On World Mental Health Day

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

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

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

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

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

Everyday crisis

Sitting in a local cafe, waiting for Ivy to finish therapy and Lily to arrive via the school bus. An overhead light flickers on and off, making crazy strobing shadows on the floor that feel like a horror film. Nearby a mother sits with her clearly autistic son, who having downed his drink now rocks and repeatedly tells her We need to go home now, while she does her best to ignore him, tapping at her phone screen. Finally, her coffee drunk, they get up and leave. I don’t judge her for trying to block him out – I know too well the struggles of having a child on the spectrum and how it wears you down. I do my best to ignore the flickering light, to take this hour and catch up with myself after a demanding week.

Lily’s work experience week did not go well. As usual, she did what she wanted, blanking out or messing around on the tasks that bored her. This time around, my Mum was present for her final day and so Lily wasn’t able to hide behind her usual excuses . Lily still insisted that she worked hard and did her best, meanwhile the office manager apologised to Mum that she wouldn’t be able to provide Lily with a reference as she really hadn’t earned it. After being called in by the manager to check on her because Lily had pinged an elastic band into her eye and was now claiming she couldn’t see and needed to wear an eye patch, it was clear that any plans I’d sketched for the week had to be abandoned; I was on call. By the afternoon of Day 2, the manager sent Lily over to the community theatre group making props in the church hall as it was clear that she was bored and unwilling to do anything else. That had already been scheduled for Day 3 – at which point Emo Lily, with heavily black-smudged eyes and face, argued with the organiser as she wasn’t allowed to play Marilyn Manson as they worked, then took 2 hours for lunch. Day 4, the day Mum was there as a witness, Lily did sod all but roll her eyes and sigh, until the manager told her there wasn’t much point in coming back after lunch. Given the amount of effort that I, Mum and the office manager had gone to in order to set this up for her at the very last minute, it was hellishly frustrating that Lily seemingly put no effort into it. I was just glad that I hadn’t succeeded in setting up anything more challenging – or even anything local – it would be embarrassing to be sitting in this cafe had Lily spent last week messing them around.

Back home and I struggle to teach her to think about others, to take responsibility for her actions and behaviour. I try to get her to understand how disappointing it was that she hadn’t put more effort into work experience when the rest of us had tried so hard for her. Try to get Lily to tell the truth, and to stop making excuses – always the thousand and one reasons why she had to do or not do whatever it was.

I don’t care any more Lily, I just want you to behave.

Perhaps it sounds harsh, knowing that Lily is autistic. Perhaps my expectations are too high. Yet Lily is evidently bright. She can be capable when she wants to be. Most of her behaviour comes down to Pathological Demand Avoidance, needing to be in control at all times and never wrong, an Aspie aversion to transitions and change, plus ADHD-driven inertia, difficulty with both starting and completing tasks. Back in the day she’d merely have been labelled as awkward, lazy, difficult, selfish and defiant. And that’s where it’s hard – she seems capable of so much more, of making better choices, of making more effort. She can do it when she wants to. It’s impossible to know what she’s actually capable of, where the line of autism and ADHD ends and the line of bad behaviour kicks in. Some would argue that it’s all down to her various diagnoses. Others would blame poor behavioural choices. And then there’s the ones who will blame bad parenting.

Yesterday brought a workshop with the local Carers’ group, followed by a meeting with the school SENCO. At the workshop the facilitator dared to say the unsayable; that in many ways, it’s easier with a child who is lower-functioning on the spectrum. This is heresy to some; above all, it’s really not helpful to get competitive over whose child is the easiest/most difficult to manage. Everyone is fighting their own private battles and it’s not possible to weigh up whether it’s worse to have a child who wakes throughout the night, or smears poop, or constantly runs off, or screams abuse at you in the supermarket. Yet she was talking from experience, a son who was more profoundly autistic yet in many ways easier to manage than his sister, whose Aspergers brought constant conflict, tension and verbal abuse on a daily basis. These are the kids no one knows how to handle, the kids on whom no behavioural strategy will work, who can seem bright as a button one minute yet next minute are in meltdown, refusing to cooperate, flying at you in a rage or head butting the wall. Kids who seem capable of getting decent qualifications, of going on to be independent and living their own lives… then have you lying awake with the realisation that they’re not going to make it, they’re just never quite going to manage, that either they will end up getting arrested, sectioned, or spending the rest of their lives still living at home, glued to their computer and arguing about cleaning their teeth or having a shower. Or worse. There is simply no provision for them.

The SENCO meanwhile assured me that Lily was being offered plenty of support in school, but was choosing not to utilise it. That countless times she’d seen Lily ignore the teacher, blank the TA and just refuse to do the work. The same verdict at home, at school, at work experience; Lily only does what she wants to do and kicks off about the rest. It has been this way since she was born. Unusually though, the SENCO took the time to tell me that I was a good mother, even though I generally never get to feel that way. There were the usual concerns of what support are you getting? and an insistence that I need to try and limit Lily’s impact on myself and Ivy. To which the answers are None and How? When I told her that we’ve found the perfect post-16 course for Lily, but it’s in a city over 30 miles away, she insists that I should drop the idea – it will be too taxing both economically and/or physically if I end up having to drive her there, unfairly impacting on both myself and Ivy. She also admitted that Lily was an extreme case, the first time I’ve heard this from a professional. The Early Help scheme was mentioned, and again I reiterated that while I was willing to try anything, I couldn’t access it if it meant that Simon would be informed. Despite the fact that Simon has now absolved himself of any and all parental responsibility (while retaining parental rights, of course), the knowledge that I was accepting help from Social Services would be like handing him a loaded gun and he wouldn’t hesitate to use it against me. Meanwhile Lily has been telling people that she’s been told she’s a psychopath and is just waiting for confirmation.

I sit Lily down for a talk and explain that her behaviour has to improve. That she has to put more effort in. That while ADHD makes it harder to do certain things, like getting started on tasks, it just means that at times she has to force herself to do it, like it or not. That we all have to do things we don’t want to do; I certainly don’t want to get up at 6.30am to drive them both to the school bus stop. She promises she will try harder, and she does, for almost a whole day. When she asks, I tell her she’s been 100% better. Then I discover she’s lied about finishing her Maths homework, neither has she made any attempt to tidy her room. Next morning I have to tell her several times to get up. I tell her she needs to read through her science topic for a test next week; she disappears to her room and refuses to come out. She doesn’t clean her teeth; by rights she should have a mouth full of fillings by now, she’s evidently hit the genetic jackpot. She goes to school without brushing her hair or teeth yet again, and yet another teacher emails me about homework not handed in, meaning that Lily is still lying to me about it. In her room, along with a mouldy apple core, discarded food wrappers, piles of detritus and dirty laundry she has a piece of broken glass by her bed and I know I need to check whether she’s been self-harming again. When I try to tackle her about the homework and emails from teachers, knowing she’s been given a detention over it, the lies continue and she denies it all, meanwhile Ivy chimes in that several of her classmates were there and told her that Lily was screaming at the teacher.

Sanctions are taken; Lily’s computer is confiscated, the WiFi password changed, the PlayStation put away. Result; behaviour miraculously improves, or at least it does until Lily gets what she wants, at which point it inevitably begins to slide downhill again. This time around, her computer gone and access to the internet withdrawn, she snapped at me that no, she wasn’t doing the dishes as requested, as I’ve got nothing left to lose. Battle after battle, day in, day out. The latest? That by trying to ensure she does her homework, I’m triggering her. If excuses were pennies, I’d be very very rich. The situation doesn’t change, only my ability to cope.

There’s over a month to wait before the next CYPS appointment, I don’t know how long before actual treatment begins. School holidays are coming and I don’t know whether to be relieved or scared. The only option meanwhile is calling the CYPS Crisis team, which makes me incredibly nervous as I don’t know what it will entail, whether I will have any say it what happens to Lily at that point. Because also; this isn’t a crisis. This is just what everyday life looks like.

The Psychopath Test

We’ve been at my parents’ house for a few hours and have just been summoned to dinner. For once, Lily comes downstairs relatively quickly – I’m relieved as Dad gets cross if people aren’t prompt to the table. She’s not happy though.

“I’m having a crisis, Mum,” she whispers.

“What is it, love?” I ask, hugging her. “Did you and June split up?” That’s the worst, most obvious thing I can think of. I run through more possibilities; online trolling, bullying, discovery of a large gangrenous tumour. Once I’ve gone over the worst options, I turn to humour – this is what works best with Lily. “Has your leg fallen off and you can’t sew it back on?”

“No, it’s still here.”

“You’re about to be arrested for drug dealing?”

“No.”

“Someone discovered the body?”

“No.”

“You’ve finally realised you’re an alien?”

“Well yes, but that doesn’t bother me.”

She refuses to talk about it within earshot of my parents, and dinner is ready so I’m forced to wait until after we’ve eaten, wondering what on earth it is. I figure it’s YouTube-related, another spat with someone over videos and comments that should never have been posted. When dinner is over I track her down and she hands me her tablet to watch something. Yes, it’s YouTube, but rather than a flame war it’s a series of videos with titles like Are You a Psychopath, and The Psychopath Test.

Lily has been watching them and is now worried that she’s a psychopath. I have no idea how I’m supposed to handle this one. Perhaps I should have just laughed it off, told her it was a load of rubbish and not to worry – yet to me, that comes across as not really listening to her fears. She insists that she wants this investigated further, and I try to reassure her that she will be able to talk about to the the psychologist at CYPS when she has her appointment. I tell her the videos are sensationalist and irresponsible, and the very fact that she’s concerned enough about whether she’s a psychopath is probably proof that she’s not a psychopath. That she’s 15, her brain isn’t fully developed yet, particularly when it comes to feeling empathy – that this is true of all teenagers, who are notoriously horrible to deal with but inevitably grow out of it. That she has Aspergers and ADHD, which accounts for a lot of her concerns. That liking black coffee and dark chocolate does not make you a serial killer, that much of the “science” being quoted is incomplete or misrepresented and used out of context. That only a trained psychologist or psychiatrist would hold the answers to any of this, not some random YouTuber.

We talk about lying, and that I think it has become a problem for her. She admits something I’ve long suspected – that when she tells a lie, it somehow becomes true for her. I tell her that this is something I just don’t understand, that she must surely know that it’s not true. We discuss how Simon’s lies in court were so painful to me, that effectively he became sociopathic, lying to manipulate and achieve what he wanted, and the hurt this has caused. We talk about how Lily struggles to accept responsibility and tends to blame others for anything and everything. That again, these can be issues with ASD/ADHD and don’t mean that she’s a psychopath. That not all criminals are psychopaths and not all psychopaths are criminals – although a great many world leaders and CEOs would fit the criteria, particularly Trump. I try to explain that none of us are perfect, we all have our character flaws and that being aware of our issues means that we can try and overcome our difficulties – that we should all try to be the best we can and to make the world a better place. Lily admits she doesn’t really feel guilt or remorse over her wrongdoings, that she doesn’t really care how other people are affected as long as she gets her own way. I don’t tell her that I’ve secretly had concerns when her patterns of behaviour match Simon’s; lying, blaming, lack of responsibility and remorse, that I’ve wondered whether she will be abusive to others in this way as she gets older. Going down that line of thinking wouldn’t be helpful to anyone at the moment, least of all Lily. She’s 15 and incredibly immature, with an autistic spectrum disorder, ADHD and anxiety and control issues thrown in on top. She’s growing up with all of this, plus epilepsy and gender identity issues on top of the usual teenaged angst, school, homework, exams, dating etc. It’s enough.

I tell her it’s a bad idea to watch these kinds of videos. That she’s my baby and I love her and don’t think she’s a bad person. That she’s still got a lot of growing up to do and it’s too soon to tell who she’s going to be, but it’s not likely that she’ll suddenly become a mass murderer; not that all psychopaths are killers anyway. Afterwards, sitting outside in the shade of the evening, I wonder whether I’ve handled it the right way or not, whether I should have laughed it all off, refused to give it any credence. In reality, Lily’s behaviour over the past few months has been so extreme and bizarre that I can’t just shrug it off. We both know that she threatened me with a knife, that she’s been claiming she can see demons and shadowy figures in the corners of the room, that she was self-harming. I’ve been going from one doctor to the next trying to get answers, while school pushed through with a CYPS referral. My main concern this week is how well she’ll cope with her work experience, not whether or not she’s a psychopath – but now her worry over it becomes my issue to deal with.

Is this normal? I find myself wondering. Is this a thing now, do most teenagers question whether they’re psychopaths or not? I don’t remember ever worrying about that when I was a teenager, but then I didn’t have YouTube. No doubt someone put those videos up for a laugh, for entertainment, a bit of click bait. Sometimes I wish the Internet had a caretaker – that sounds so much gentler than Internet Police – someone who would go through content, quietly deleting the hate, the trolling, the misogyny and porn, the racism, violence and general crassness; all the stuff that’s basically not helpful when you’re trying to raise kids, never mind live in this world yourself. This is new territory for all of us, the biggest global experiment ever, and at times it’s like watching a baby playing with scissors. Lily struggles to manage as it is, and I struggle to manage with her. Go gently, I try to remind myself, but the internet is not a gentle place and the internet is shaping my children.