The Holy Grail and the Myth of Support

“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?

Mossy Cottage and the House in the Sky.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…

Our homes have such a hold on us, our subconscious minds pulling them into our dreams no matter how long it’s been since we lived there – sometimes even homes we’ve never actually lived in, like my Nana’s council house, the place of sleepovers and family gatherings. In dreams, the home might not look anything like the house we know, and yet we still recognise it as home, despite the extra room that has appeared halfway up the stairs, or the fact that it’s now beneath the sea and a shark has taken up residence on the sofa. These can dreams infuse our waking state with nostalgia, longing or regret; hiraeth, a Welsh word with a sense of longing for a lost home or home we’ve never had.

Mossy Cottage is my hiraeth, the house of my dreams, a far cry from the Victorian two-up, two-down that I’m currently living in with the children. Our last home – the place that was bought on the basis of it being our forever home – is sorely missed. During the divorce I struggled to decide whether or not to fight Simon for the right for the children and I to remain living in the family home. Friends urged me not to give it up, that he can’t kick you out of your home. The domestic abuse support worker warned me to stay put, that we’d never get a place that was anywhere near as nice. My mother, horrified by the lack of gas central heating, the thought of me shovelling coal early in the mornings, and the overgrown, uncontrollable garden, tried to persuade me to get the hell out of Dodge. The children pleaded to stay. The mediator took a brief look at the figures and assured me that there was no question about it – I could keep the house, Simon would keep everything else. Even if all I fought for was a stay of execution, Simon retaining a charge on the house until Lily had finished school; Lily, our Aspie child, who had developed epilepsy shortly after we separated. I worried what a house move would do to her, particularly an unwanted one. I even offered for Simon to keep the house while the council rehomed me and the kids, knowing at least they’d still get to spend some time in their home. For me, a different house might be a lot easier to run, especially if it had central heating, which only added to my ambivalence. And yet – it was our home.

The House in the Sky. At a creative writing workshop I went to shortly after we moved into the family home, I met an older woman who had considered buying the house a couple of years earlier. Her daughter had very sensibly talked her out of it, listing the many difficult practicalities, but the house haunted her dreams – The House in the Sky, as she called it, high up on the hill, with the sweeping panoramic view of the valley beneath, the hills climbing up away in the distance. “There was just something about it,” she confessed and I nodded. There was. The first friend to visit stood in awe of the view in front of the massive window in the living room – a window so large that the double glazing firm we brought in told us it was the largest single panel they’d ever installed into a domestic setting. “Ah, you’ll take it for granted soon enough,” she told us.

I didn’t.

I was grateful to my friend for that phrase, for pointing out the dangers of familiarity, how soon we get used to the very thing we once longed for. For me, it was the lure of green that had me aching to leave the city, tired of looking out of my window and seeing only grey. Once she’d said it, I decided that I would never, ever take my new view for granted. Every single time I looked out of my windows, I would appreciate the beauty of those views. Simple pleasures can bring the greatest joys in life if we take the time to relish them and for me that was sitting on the huge, snuggly sofa, cup of tea in hand, looking out at the view. Watching the tiny subtle changes that grew day by day marking the seasons go by, the bare sticks of winter gradually studding with tiny green buds, unfurling into leaves and blossoms, the colours shifting from bright to darker green, to reds and oranges until Winter brought bare branches again and the wonder of a landscape altered by frost and snow.

In the end I had no choice. We had to move. It was clear that Simon’s abuse would not stop until he got what he want, which was to sell our home and buy a new place with his girlfriend. Their actions meant I no longer felt safe, meanwhile he was subjecting the children to emotional abuse. Agreeing to the sale seemed to be the only way I could protect us; Simon clearly believed that the house was his, not ours, had no thought as to what was best for the children, and would never allow us to live there in peace. Naively, I thought the situation would improve once he’d got his way. I was wrong.

My God, I miss my home. Miss it more than I thought I would, like a void inside me, something hollow in my belly that can’t be filled. A huge part of this hiraeth stems from the fact that the new place is now too small, too impractical for the three of us. When I chose it, the tenth house that I had been to view, the children were only supposed to be living with me for half of each week, meanwhile the available houses were flying out of the estate agents’ windows in a sellers’ market. It didn’t matter so much that the place was small – after all, the kids would have half of their possessions at their father’s new house. It didn’t matter that there was nowhere to park, or that it wasn’t as convenient for the school run – I would only be taking the kids to school for half of the week. And so on, and so on, with all the difficulties I could list about the place. But of course, both children now live with me full time, and so it matters. You should have fought him, the voice in my head now tells me. You should have fought to stay. Yet the abuse would have continued, would have worsened, and at least he doesn’t have a key to my new place. At least we are safe here.

I miss my House in the Sky. But this tiny terrace is my home now, and I must make the most of it. Despite the regret of having to move, I welcomed the security that the new house would offer – I looked forward to making it a home. Unfortunately, my first year here was instead marred by Simon’s second malicious court case, my time and energy wasted on legal battles. I struggled to just make it habitable and functional while dealing with the endless statements, correspondence and admin that court required. Now that court is hopefully over, with only a few remaining legal issues to clear up, it’s time to turn my attention to making my house our home. Except of course, a year down the line, I’m even more drained and exhausted, without having had a chance to heal. The house feels overwhelming, the struggle being to manage to just stay on top of the daily chores, never mind improve the place. Is it possible to find gentleness and healing in creating a home, rather than stress and overwhelm? The question seems to merit an obvious yes, and yet I find myself exhausted before I start. During counselling I could think of nothing that was a possibility for my new life, other than perhaps I might enjoy creating a garden for myself. And so: Mossy Cottage, my attempt at creating both home and healing, starting over while trying to leave the past behind.

And so I wait.

It’s no use pushing on too hard, trying to get back to normal without feeling all the feels. Neither does it help to stay in the dark room, wishing it was light.

“And so I wait. I wait for time to heal the pain and raise me to me feet once again - so that I can start a new path, my own path, the one that will make me whole again.”(2)

What doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger. Often it leaves you curled up in a foetal position, or sat rigid, staring into space, immobile. Fight, flight, or freeze. I have frozen.

In Britain we have a strange attitude to snow. Old news reels will show freezing winters, people trudging to work through drifts of snow, or skating on frozen ponds (I don’t know anyone who owns a pair of ice skates, so this one always puzzles me.) That was the Old Days though, and I can only remember one severe snowfall in my childhood; for the most part we’ve gotten used to Winters being relatively mild. We’re not Canada, or Norway, snow isn’t guaranteed, so when it does hit us, we’re completely unprepared. The entire nation stops. There are no buses, no trains, schools are closed. Snow Day! If you’re lucky, you live on a road that the gritters have passed through. If not, you have to question what is more important to you; fresh milk or your intact hip bones. As a child it’s soooo exciting to get in the snow and play. As an adult – especially as a single mother – it’s terrifying. Do we have enough food in the house? Will it be safe to drive if school opens tomorrow, or will there be ice on the hills? Is there a clear route to the shops? What if I fall and break my leg, how on earth will I look after the kids? It’s not economical to create the infrastructure necessary to keep the nation moving in heavy snow, when snow isn’t guaranteed every year, or might only sit for a couple of days. It snows, we stop. Frozen. We don’t seem to expect snow.

We don’t expect trauma.

We don’t expect a once loving husband to become a sociopathic stranger intent on destroying us. I didn’t.

We don’t know how to cope with trauma. Instantly we’re in a survival situation, the usual rules and routines no longer useful or appropriate. The ship has hit the iceberg and we’re left floundering in the icy water, trying to grab on to whatever will hold us up. Sometimes it takes a while before we even understand that the ship has gone down and we can’t understand why the usual routine isn’t working, why we’re up to our necks in water instead of sitting on the sofa. Overwhelm can drown us before we’ve got our bearings.

I fought, initally. I fought to hold my position, to prevent myself and my children being crushed by his selfish, vengeful actions. I refused to quietly give in and do as I was being told.

It just got worse.

Each of his lies was an attack, undermining me, destroying my reputation, maliciously unpicking the life we’d created together. Massive court documents with lie after lie on page after page. Literally every single statement was a lie, or a gross distortion of the truth. Reading it was traumatic. Trying to constantly defend myself was exhausting. Running around trying to get proof of my innocence was both exhausting and humiliating, writing to people I’d previously worked with, asking for statements confirming that I was no longer under any kind of contract to them. More running around trying to get proof of his guilt, struggling to get evidence from the police, the schools, the hospitals, the GP; the inability to afford a solicitor means that you’re easily ignored and no one will risk sticking their neck out. Meanwhile, the attacks kept coming. I no longer felt safe in my own home. I didn’t feel safe outside the home either.

Eventually, I broke. I froze. I don’t even remember the precise moment. Just the awareness that the most recent court papers required me to complete my statement. Now. Trying over and over again to put into words everything that had happened, to counteract all his lies, to set down the truth, each time giving up and starting over because it was taking too long, the judge wasn’t going to bother to read it. Sitting curled up on the sofa, unable to face opening the laptop and trying again, while time ticked away and the panic grew larger. My lawyer announcing two days before court that he wasn’t going to use any of my evidence. Lily, threatening to run away to her Dad’s in the week before court after an argument with her sister – not because you’ve done anything Mum, I just need a break – and me begging her not to leave because Simon would use it against me. The horror of fresh allegations thrown at me in the waiting room and realising that Simon had already won before we even set foot in the court room. Realising how stupid, how naive and trusting I’d been. Realising he was laughing at me. Realising that he had got away with it. All of it.

Life carries on. No matter how bad your situation may be, the world doesn’t stop. You want it to, you desperately want to press pause on your life, catch your breath, rest, but you can’t. Eventually you realise that life has become a series of days to get through rather than something to be cherished. You go through the motions, dragging your weary body out of bed, trying to push yourself through the tasks of the day. Usually, only the barest of essentials get completed. Time seems to disappear. You’re not sure where it goes, what’s happening to you. You feel like a failure. Frozen. If only the world would freeze alongside us.

Am I, as Jack Canfield says, waiting? Or am I frozen? Unable to make decisions, unable to move forward. Wanting to heal, but not knowing how. Does time really heal? From where I sit, it seems as if I could easily spend the rest of my life in this frozen state, alive but not really living. Surely it’s life that heals, not time? The decision that I will heal, that I won’t allow him to destroy the rest of my life. I have faith that it will get better. That one day, I won’t feel the tension and anxiety in my guts at the merest thought of him and all that he’s done. That perhaps one day, I won’t think of him at all. And yet, I’m not so sure that it will happen just by waiting. Healing is an active choice that needs to be made moment after moment after moment. We take as many steps back as we do forwards, and yet we must continue to move on. We have to learn to sit with the pain, allow our bodies to process what we’ve been through. It’s no use pushing on too hard, trying to get back to normal without feeling all the feels. Neither does it help to stay in the dark room, wishing it was light. It’s a balance – dark, then light, then dark again. Trusting that the light will shine again, while also doing our best to strike the match and hold the flame to the candle. Taking each gentle, tentative step, no matter how small, how slow. Waiting, yes, but also moving. Rubbing our frozen fingers over that tiny flame, encouraging the warmth of life to seep back in.

I will heal. I will find that new path. I will be patient with myself, knowing that it takes time. But I won’t wait, unmoving, in the hope that time itself will do the trick. My waiting will be born of self compassion and faith, not of being frozen in fear. I will learn to listen to my body, my heart, my soul and start to give myself what I need.

I choose to heal.

A Year to Heal

So much healing is needed, while the demands of daily life force us to carry on as normal, pushing our own needs to the bottom of the To Do list.

Mossy rock, Dartmoor

The last couple of years, I’ve basically been living through the Apocalypse. A divorce that wasn’t merely painful but actively abusive. Being dragged through court twice and having to fight a battle over maintenance and custody, being stalked and spied on by my ex and his new partner, watching my children suffer emotional abuse and his attempts at alienation. Trying to get to know my estranged biological father while he died of cancer. My eldest child developing epilepsy, plus an ADHD diagnosis to go with her existing Aspergers. My younger daughter developing severe anxiety, depression and worsening OCD as a result of our experiences. My career destroyed by my ex, my finances wiped out on legal fees. Having to leave what we thought would be our forever home, with a stressful enforced downsize to a two-up two-down, less than half the size of what we had – a house move made far worse by developing severe flu and barely being able to stand up, never mind pack up.

The result? Exhaustion. Depression. Anxiety. Panic attacks. Insomnia. Confidence destroyed. Trying to look for the silver lining, I convinced myself that the house move represented my new start, my new life. It didn’t matter that every room was piled high with cardboard boxes, that we were all sleeping on mattresses on the floor, that the washing machine was 5mm too tall to fit beneath the worktop and the kitchen was barely usable. I could take my time putting it right and creating a home for us, slowly beginning to ease myself into my new life, resting, healing, rebuilding. Instead, only two months down the line, the second court case was thrown at me, along with my youngest’s suicidal depression. I had thought the battle was over, that I could put my weapons down, but instead was forced back into the fray at a time when my priorities needed to be on hearth, home and kids.

End result? More exhaustion. More depression. More anxiety. PTSD. Anger and cynicism about the Family Court system, the abuses and failings that we’ve endured. Constant fear that it will never be over, that my ex will find yet another thing to bully me with, drag me into court again. Heartbreak over what this has done to the children. The desperate need for healing, for rest and renewal.

These are the bare bones of my story. Sadly I know I’m not alone, too many of my friends have endured abusive and controlling relationships, have been forced into starting over at a time when they thought they would be happily settled. So much healing is needed, while the demands of daily life force us to carry on as normal, pushing our own needs to the bottom of the To Do list. While I want to retreat to the House of Grief, scream, rage and weep before falling into a deep hibernation, re-emerging months later calm and healed, the reality is that I have to get up in time for the school run.

In the midst of all this, a home that was never properly moved into. Boxes yet to be unpacked, rooms thrown together in a haste born out of emergency. A house that functions rather than a home that nourishes. A barren wasteland of a garden. A new life that never got a chance.

This, then, is my journey towards healing. My journal of this new, undiscovered life, waiting to be lived.