On anger and housework.

Bone weary. The house unravelling around me. A month ago I had the downstairs looking reasonably clean and tidy to the point where I wouldn’t be embarrassed if someone called in. Now I’d have to barricade the door. The relentlessness of it is wearing me down, while frustration and resentment build up that the kids ignore the chores while I nag and nag until I’m screaming. When I finally crack and yell and get either of them to at long last do the thing I’ve spent days asking them to do – take a bath! Take your clean washing upstairs! Bring your laundry down to the basket! Please fetch the dirty glasses and plates from your room! – they look at me like I’m being entirely unreasonable.

This is not how I want my life to look. Or feel.

Last weekend I had to drop everything to take a friend to hospital, about fifteen miles away. I sat with her for two hours, until they decided she needed to stay in for 24 hours. She didn’t have anything with her, so I drove back again to pack an overnight bag, making sure I washed the dishes sitting in her sink so she wouldn’t have to come home to them. I stopped off to buy a couple of drinks and snacks to make sure she didn’t go hungry if the NHS food wasn’t up to much, and because there’s not a lot of choice of drinks other than tea and coffee. Back to the hospital, keeping her company for another hour until visiting time was over and she was being taken away for an X-ray. It was about six hours all in all, and I didn’t mind any of it, I’m glad to be of use to her. “This is the closest thing I’ve had to a night out in a long time,” I told her. I wasn’t even joking.

What I minded was texting the kids at 9.15pm to let them know I was on my way home, only to be told that they hadn’t cooked enough food for me after all and I’d need to stop off and buy some dinner for myself. Thank God there was a Tesco Express close to the hospital. Getting home after 10 to discover that no one had thought to wash the dishes but had just piled up more, and that the laundry – my bed linen – was still hanging on the line in the damp evening air. Lily was still playing on the computer in the living room – despite having assured me in an argument earlier that day that she was perfectly capable of self-regulating her computer time, breaks, conduct etc.

“Lily, you’ve been playing on it for over seven hours straight.”

“No, I’ve taken some breaks, I was doing Wii Sports with Ivy.”

Taking a break from the computer to play on the Wii is not what I consider a legitimate break. It took another twenty minutes to chase her off it and into her bedroom, then I sat down with a sad-looking microwave carbonara that went against all of my dietary rules, in a living room full of computers, wires, papers and general detritus.

This is not how I want my life to look. Or feel.

I wanted to flop down on my bed, exhausted, and go straight to sleep. I had to make it first, with slightly damp sheets. I tried to convince myself the dampness would be refreshing after another hot day.

Morning, and the messy kitchen still needs to be tackled, the dishes are still waiting to be washed. A mouldy glass of water appears overnight, brought down from someone’s bedroom. It takes some doing to create mouldy water. The garden needs watering, and the weeds need pulling before they take over. Another load to put in the washing machine, and when did Ivy last change her bedding? A meal plan needs putting together, a shopping list made and presumably shopped for. There are bricks to collect from a house around the corner, before the skip is taken away tomorrow, they’ve said I can have them for my garden to make paths with. I need to cancel my car insurance and hire a handyman and fill out the forms to reclaim the travel costs from Lily’s last appointment, and sort out a new password for my bank account. I’m still feeling angsty and agitated after a week in which several strangers saw fit to have a go at me over things that really didn’t warrant it – triggering as hell after 4 years of Simon blaming me for stuff that wasn’t my fault. Half of me wants to curl up under the sheets and not get up, the other half is screaming that I should just jump in my car and drive away, escape and leave it all behind. I’m going to have to have the talk with the kids again, the same one I keep having, the one that goes I need you to help me. You live here too. You know what jobs need doing. Please do some of them without me having to constantly nag and beg for help. I really can’t do everything on my own. I am so so sick of this one-sided conversation. I’ve left a sign saying No Computer on Lily’s computer, but I can hear her playing. When I go down, she’s on the Wii instead, no chores done, no studying done, wearing the same clothes she’s had on all week and when I try to remonstrate that she shouldn’t be playing games when there’s jobs to be done, she’s utterly unrepentant.

“Get off my ass,” I hear her muttering as I leave the room. I explode at her, pent up with all the jobs I’m trying to do at once.

Do I have to die? Do I have to actually die before someone helps me?

It’s the relentlessness of being a single parent that’s grinding me down. There’s no pause button, no support, no respite. Not a single day off. Not a single night off. I need a holiday from my life, basically. A week where the stress and struggle can stop. I may as well be asking to go to the Moon. And beneath all this – the hurt. The injustice. The anger burning a hole through my chest. Because this is what Simon has done to me. I’m struggling day after day after day with no hope of respite, no hope of any improvement, while he lords it up in their big house, with parking and garage, with holidays whenever they want, with absolutely no responsibilities, no kids to make a mess or interrupt their plans, while still claiming that he is the victim in all of this. I want to scream. I want to throw rocks at his windows and plenty of other stuff that for legal reasons I should definitely not admit to in a public forum. And I despair. Will I ever be healed of this? Of him?

This is not how I want my life to look. Or feel.

I don’t want my life to be a constant reminder of the abuse that I was put through. But it’s hard, when every single day the house is still too small, and I don’t have anywhere to park, and I’m bent double under the weight of holding it all together and raising the kids single-handedly …and Simon’s got away scot-free. Without Legal Aid, there’s no way I could afford to take him back to court to get a fairer settlement, even if that was an actual legal possibility, which it probably isn’t. There should be a free tribunal, a couple of years after divorce, that you could go back to if it’s obvious that your ex lied about finances and circumstances and have any imbalances redressed. Too often divorce settlements are based on equal childcare that somehow disappears once he’s won himself a bigger house and more money than he’d have got if the judge knew the kids would end up with you full time. Sadly I’ve heard too many similar stories to mine and the injustice burns; what I went through, what so many other women have been put through, or are going through right now.

Every time I struggle to find a parking space for the night while I’m exhausted and having to carry shopping bags a quarter mile back to the house, I think of Simon with his garage and driveway. Every time the house feels cluttered and overwhelming and I despair of ever turning our too small house into a comfortable home, I think of Simon with his four bedrooms and two receptions. Every time I give up and close the holiday websites, knowing I just can’t afford to take us away during school vacations, I think of Simon, able to jet away with Astrid off-peak, whenever he wants. Every time I’m faced with Lily raging at me over school work, or being asked to take a bath, or refusing to get off her computer for a break, I think of Simon, who never has to bother with her behaviour. And so on, and so on. How do you heal when the very cornerstones of daily life are a trigger?

This might not be how I want life to look or feel, yet I have no idea of how to get from here to there. So many of us are in that same boat, trapped by financial circumstances that we have little chance of improving, certainly not when other factors are in play; children, disabilities, divorce, trauma, illness, family, lay-offs. If you have money, a solution is affordable for so many of the obstacles in life. If not, the obstacles seem insurmountable, blocking the path to earning the money that would ease the situation.

My friend texts me, she’s going to have to stay in for another 24 hours and needs me to bring more clothes. Here I am complaining about my life while a friend is fighting cancer. Another wake up call, but I’m getting angry at how it’s the good people who seem to suffer most. Prayer, Lottery ticket, a giant red button to just make things stop for a while; I don’t have the answers to how to make life better right now. I really wish I did. In the meantime; just keep breathing.

Building up and slimming down; weight and image post-abuse.

One of the exercises we did together on the domestic abuse recovery course was to create an image of a victim of domestic abuse, sketched out on the flip chart by the facilitator. Our cartoon woman wasn’t necessarily covered in bruises, after all not everyone is a victim of physical violence, it was more about capturing the effects of living with long term emotional and psychological abuse. She was, we decided, either underweight from chronic stress and not being able to eat, or overweight from comfort eating. Bags and dark circles under her eyes from stress-related insomnia. Her hair was a mess, her clothes frumpy as she couldn’t justify spending any money on herself – even if she had any money to spend. She might be missing a tooth after not taking care or herself, or maybe she was grinding her teeth at night. Her shoulders were constantly up around her ears, stiff with stress and anxiety, causing tension that gave her migraines. Her expression was a rigid mask of fear, always worrying about what was going to happen next, scanning the horizon for the next attack, or frowning as her mind replayed what had already happened. She might well have developed an ongoing health complaint; as well as migraines and insomnia there could be IBS, panic attacks, hypertension, eczema as well as even more serious issues. She wasn’t looking good, in other words.

At home the decluttering continues, and it seems to be time to tackle the photos. As well as boxes of unsorted prints, CDs, memory sticks and folder after folder of digital shots, there are now several albums of unwanted memories. What do you do with your wedding album now that you’re divorced? Burn it? Keep it for the kids? Going through the pictures I’m struck by how unbelievably pale I look – some kind of iron supplement intervention was surely required – and how thin I am, my dress being taken in to a UK size 10 for the big day. Happy too, so very happy. In those days I had no problem posing for photographs, could look in the mirror and smile at myself. Now I shy away from cameras and tend to avoid mirrors, my reflection usually making my heart sink. Who is that woman? I don’t recognise myself – the extra weight, the thinning, frizzy hair, dull eyes and resigned expression. She feels so heavy, this stranger in the mirror, not just her bloated belly and aching legs but her spirit too. Can she possibly be the same person as the beaming young woman in her wedding dress? It doesn’t seem likely. She’s the woman from the flip chart, self esteem eroded and replaced by self-neglect, health suffering, defeated.

Body positivity seems to be a new trend, with fashion models ranging from what can only be described as normal (rather than seriously underweight) to curvaceous to overweight now being called body activists. I’m all for a healthier depiction of female bodies rather than only young, skinny, flawless forms being shown in the media, but frankly? Fat is fat. Right now, I’m overweight. Fat. Not a body activist. I’ve gone up from a size 12-14 to a 16-18, perhaps even larger at times. Most of my clothes no longer fit. And while I could embrace body positivity and learn to love myself the way I am, that’s not going to help my arteries, or my pre-diabetic state. Being overweight isn’t healthy. Being underweight isn’t healthy either. And while we shouldn’t be shaming each other over our weight, let’s not pretend that being obese is good for you, no matter how lovely your Instagram posts look. I hate feeling this way, heavy and bloated and tired, no energy or enthusiasm, no shine in my eyes. While I will never be that skinny girl in the photos again, it’s time to change, both inside and out. I need to lose around 4 stone – 4! – to get down to a healthy weight. I want to wake up in the morning feeling energised rather than exhausted. Above all, I’d like to be able to look into the mirror and smile at myself again. The mission; building myself up inside, while slimming down the outside.

Progress is slow and it’s hard not to rely on sugar as an emotional crutch, particularly when Lily is is giving me a hard time – and generally Lily is always giving me a hard time. A couple of times previously I’ve tried to start losing the weight, only for life to crash and burn around me; out came the chocolate again. This time I’ve lost maybe two pounds, but the scales seem to already be stuck, not moving any further down. But I have to go gently, have to trust that this will work, that I’m capable of succeeding. After years of hauling myself through a marriage devoid of affection, after living with a husband who never reached for me, after enduring the emotional and psychological torment of the past few years, I’m not willing to put myself through more. No more abuse, no beating myself up, no blame, no shame. I reached for food rather than the bottle during a time of unbearable stress, even while knowing there would ultimately be a price to pay. But now it’s time. It has to be. My journey back to wellbeing has to come from self-kindness rather than a form of self-hatred. To make healthier choices out of love for myself, wanting to heal my body, rather than punishing myself or feeling deprived. And to do it while loving myself – or learning to love myself – rather than hiding from my own reflection.

Resilience

Advice on how to plant trees has changed in recent years; instead of being lashed to a stake that stands parallel to the trunk, it’s now thought best to put in a lower, diagonal stake that allows the growing tree to move with the wind. This way it will strengthen and gain more resilience, better able to withstand future storms.

I feel I have precious little resilience left. Looking at the storms I’ve had to weather in the past few years, some might say I’ve demonstrated incredible resilience – after all, I’m still standing. My answer is this: barely. In tree-speak, I’m like one of those wind-blasted thorn trees, gnarly and bent by Cornish winds, leaning at an alarming angle. Nothing is as it should be. Each setback seems to extract a higher and higher price on my mental health – and recently, the setbacks have been piling in on top of each other until breaking point has been well and truly passed. In truth, I don’t know how I’m still standing; my body seems to haul herself automatically through the days while my spirit remains curled up in the foetal position. Recent events brought me to a near-suicidal low after an argument with the children; apparently my attempts to get them into school on time and wearing the correct uniform make me unreasonable.

It was Ivy’s insistence that I was being ridiculous that somehow broke me, something she had no idea would trigger such a catastrophic state of mind. Of course, that was the word that Simon used almost non-stop during our disastrous mediation sessions, shouting me down with Ridiculous! Ridiculous! whenever I tried to speak the truth. I left that final session shaking and traumatised; the mediator should never have allowed it. Instead she seemed shocked that I had become upset and angry, that I wasn’t holding it together in the calm, rational manner that Simon was capable of, that so many abusers are capable of, smug in the knowledge that they are winning. There are so many aspects to domestic abuse that professionals need more awareness of, the subtle and insidious ways that abusers use to manipulate and control their victims. Simon’s ability to stay calm should never have been interpreted as proof that he was reasonable, nor that he was right – it’s only much later, with hindsight, that I can see the extent to which he was already lying, plotting and manipulating. You can’t win against someone who is willing to lie about absolutely everything, who will literally stop at nothing in order to get what they want (namely to destroy you) and all of the professionals involved were entirely taken in.

It wasn’t Ivy’s fault, she had no way of knowing the impact her words would have. To be triggered has become such an over-used buzzword, the millennial generation throwing it around for seemingly the slightest upset, the least bit of offence. To be triggered shouldn’t be equated to being over-sensitive, a special snowflake – realistically it means that you are unexpectedly floored by your reaction to what should be a non-event. It’s sudden, overwhelming panic, or shutdown or crisis. I should not have been upset by Ivy’s usage of one simple, inoffensive word, bad-mannered though it was. Instead, I spent the next few days feeling worthless, unable to carry on as normal in what seemed like an utterly pointless life. Feeling this low is exhausting and terrifying, and at times it’s only been the knowledge that I have kids to look after that’s carried me through it. None of this is a big red flag, a crisis call for help; I’ve gotten through it. Again. Resilience, I guess.

The garden is saving my life. Each time I go out there, I feel better. Gardening is a form of hope that the future will be better, we plant for the future. Having cleared the new flower bed for planting, I sorted through the plants I’d rescued from The House in the Sky to see what could go in along with the few new plants I’d bought. A lot of the old pots contained shrivelled up specimens of what used to be plants, or were overcrowded with weeds, and so I decided to take them down to the far end of the garden to get them out of the way. But as I picked up one pot and pulled out the weeds, I noticed a leaf. One single leaf poking through the dry soil that looked remarkably like a peony.

Back in the city years ago I’d tried to grow peonies without much success. They’re not keen on being moved and the plants I’d bought just wouldn’t settle in. When we moved to the House in the Sky though, there was a beautiful red peony near the front door, with gorgeous blowsy blooms. For seven years, I smiled at its flowers, not even wanting to pick them and bring them inside – they were too beautiful to cut. Once the decision to sell had been made, I had to agree to Simon sending in “gardeners” to tame the garden that we’d never fully taken control of, so overgrown was it by the time we bought the place from its elderly owners. Knowing that Astrid considered herself to be “good at gardening,” I had to specifically name her in the court agreement, that she was “not to attend the property” – otherwise Simon would bring her there each day so that they could get the house on the market as quickly as possible in order to buy their new home together. This woman who had been stalking me, spying on me, attacking me on social media, entering my home without permission, going through my belongings and papers – yes, Simon really was that tactless as to bring her to the house against my will. Even with the court agreement in place she still turned up at the house at least three times in the following week, at one point standing right outside the garden wall, shouting abuse at me in front of my children – You’re mad! You’re crazy! while Simon told the kids “Your mother is psychotic.” This because I objected to them breaking the court order, because I was upset and angry about being lied to and betrayed yet again, particularly as I had gritted my teeth and tried to be friendly towards Simon as he turned up at the house each day.

He hired “gardeners” to clear the garden, which they did using petrol-fuelled hedge-trimmers, slashing everything in sight. In desperation I tried to explain to them what should stay and what should go, otherwise they would literally have cut everything down to a stump, the old apple tree included. But they were Czech and barely spoke English, and my NO, don’t cut that was generally interpreted as No, I don’t want that. Meanwhile Yes, I want to keep this became Yes, please cut this down. I simply couldn’t win. I googled Czech phrases, we tied ribbons to the plants we wanted to keep and the kids hung signs on the apple tree, but it was too little too late. I sobbed indoors, hands around my head to block out the noise as they cut their way through the entire garden, then ran for my car and got the hell out of the destruction, unable to stop it, unable to cope with Simon strutting around the devastation like the Lord of the Manor, not even able to stop Astrid from constantly turning up. I stroked the leaves of my peony, trying to get them to understand, to save it. It was flowering, surely they could see how beautiful it was? When I came back, it was gone.

I’d dug up a few plants before the gardeners came, but wanted to rescue more plants to bring with me when I moved. I was too ill by then, bed-ridden with severe flu. Moving had become a disaster, Simon hadn’t even bothered to let the solicitor know that the money from the sale was supposed to fund my ongoing purchase. I could barely stand by that point, but was having to repeatedly haul myself off to the tip and charity shops. A last minute shout out to friends brought much needed help with clearing furniture that wasn’t going to fit into the much smaller new house. A friend offered to dig up any of the plants I wanted to bring – a few roses and a hazelnut were all I managed to remember; I didn’t even have the energy to make a proper list. But then, almost on the day of the move, I spotted something where the peony had once been. A small offshoot, a baby plant pushing through the soil where its parent had once sheltered it. A young seedling that probably would have been choked out by the dominance of the mother plant, if it had still been there. Carefully, I dug it out and into a pot. It was this same tiny peony that I found now, as I pulled the weeds out of its pot. One leaf poked up through the soil, so easily overlooked or thrown into the compost by mistake. I planted it in the new bed, whispered words of encouragement to it, watered it and crossed my fingers. Live. Please live.

Resilience.

Cat and resilient peony. I'm not sure how resilient it is to being sat on though.

How will I know when I’m healed?

Reading Think Small has reminded me of the need to set achievable, measurable goals (SMART goals) that I can tick off as they’re completed. Although I try to do this with the daily To Do list and often add tasks that I’ve already completed just so I can tick them off, Think Small has helped me to see how big dreams need to be broken down into daily habits if they’re ever to be achieved. As I’ve designated this to be A Year to Heal, it got me thinking about what steps I can take in order to help myself heal – I can’t guarantee that at the end of the year I’ll be 100% better, but I’m keen to move forward rather than stagnate. First things first – how will I recognise that I’m healed, what are the main issues that are currently causing problems?

I think the main clue that I’ve healed will be when I no longer feel the desire to drive a pickaxe through Simon or Astrid’s skulls. I wish I was joking. Anger and injustice still burn through me on a daily basis whenever the details of what happened creep into the back of my mind. At first I questioned why I felt so bad, so unsafe, after all there are many women going through far far worse and I wasn’t facing physical violence. However, the Domestic Abuse recovery course explained to me that the way Simon and Astrid were spying on me and stalking meant a violation of my sense of physical safety. That’s fundamental in terms of Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs, the need for shelter and safety. Which means we’re dealing with something primal; the need to protect yourself and your children. If an intruder entered your home, went through your possessions, took things, threw things out, and threatened your and your children’s right to feel safe in your home, you’d wind up pretty angry – if you caught them in the act, you would be permitted by law to defend yourself, which basically equates to physically attacking them. The fact that the intruder was my ex-husband and his girlfriend doesn’t make the situation any more bearable – in fact, the violation is deeper, more personal. I trusted him. He betrayed my trust again and again, and for that I basically want to hurt him; of course I would never act on my homicidal urges, but at times the intensity of my feelings makes it feel as if I will never heal. The anger has nowhere to go, other than creating havoc in my mind and body. I will know I’m healing when the incessant rage dissipates.

Fundamentally I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe in my own home despite having moved house, a hangover from the past few years of being afraid to go out, of worrying that Simon or Astrid were waiting to swoop in and invade my home yet again. When we’ve gone away for the weekend to visit family I still worry that they will try to break in to my new home, I won’t let Lily have a key for this very reason. When I’m out and about, I don’t feel safe either, other than in a very few limited places that I’m fairly sure Simon and Astrid don’t visit. Hyper-vigilance is ever present, scanning the horizon like a meerkat sentinel, ready to dart back underground at the first sight of anyone who might be them. My chest is always tight with anxiety, my heart fragile and fast to the point where I’m scared about my health. I will know I’m healing when I start to feel safe in the world again – although given current global politics, this may be heard to achieve. At least, I will know I’m healing when I no longer carry this constant burden of anxiety and fear, when I don’t have a panic attack every time I see someone who looks like either of them.

My mind constantly replays the abuse, trying to explain what’s happened, trying to reason with Simon, rage at Astrid, rehearsing what I should tell the judge if I’m dragged through court again, and what I should have said last time. I struggle to get to sleep at night, resorting to listening to meditations and sleep hypnosis videos on YouTube. I wake in the early hours and my mind immediately picks up where it left off. This is part recrimination against my failures to achieve justice in court, and part preparation in case it happens again, protecting myself. In counselling, we discussed how Simon essentially tried to destroy me with lies and accusations, and that this constant inner voice arguing against him is a survival mechanism determined not to give up. Silencing it means killing off that small part of myself that has endured, has fought back. I need to find it a healthier channel, switch from PTSD 24/7 to Peace of Mind. I will know I’m healing when my mind is no longer caught in this incessant loop of recrimination and replaying.

Physically, I’m a wreck. I’m overweight from comfort eating and horribly unfit – particularly after developing plantar fasciitis last year which made it hard to walk. I have insomnia and am still prone to anxiety and panic attacks. It’s not possible to be this stressed for this long without a serious impact to health. I’m permanently exhausted, a combination of said anxiety and insomnia, plus two demanding teenagers and perimenopause. Self care has fallen off the bottom of the To Do list – I feel fat, frumpy and tired. I will know I’m healing when I start feeling fitter and more energetic, and able to better take care of myself. This includes a healthier relationship to food and making sure I get some form of exercise.

The house move was impossibly hard, made far worse by being bedridden with severe flu for the best part of two months while having to downsize to a house that was about a third of the size of our existing home. The stress around the move was unbearable, but I told myself that this was the worst part, once I’d moved I could look forward to a fresh start and take my time putting things in order, there was no hurry. What should have then been a year of gently setting up home turned instead into a second year of having to fight my corner in court and being consumed by stress and anxiety. Overwhelm is not a helpful emotion when trying to set up home. It’s now time to create a home that nourishes us, to reclaim my environment. One of Simon’s accusations was that I was a hoarder, which has resulted in a year of obsessively watching the Hoarders TV show – I think I can safely say that I’m not a hoarder, but ADHD means that I struggle with organisation and tend to be somewhat messy and cluttered, it’s hard to make decisions about what should go where, what to keep and what to let go of (and don’t get me started on the donate/sell issue.) When the outward circumstances of your life are acute stress, anxiety and chaos, it’s no wonder that your home environment begins to reflect this. I will know I am healed when I’ve been able to deal with the remaining clutter and feel like I’m managing on the domestic front; when our home feels nurturing rather than a source of stress, when I can let go of the feelings of guilt and shame that Simon’s accusations engendered. Also Simon – given the amount of old crap in boxes that you’d stashed in the attic which I discovered two days before the move, you should maybe not be throwing around accusations.

Previously I used to have friends round for impromptu bring and share gatherings, food, wine, laughter and good times, but that’s not happened for a long time, it stopped even before I moved house. It’s not just that my house is now too small, it’s also that having people in my home makes me feel anxious and on edge. Inviting a friend over for an Easter dinner was a major achievement, and even then I found it hard not to watch the clock. Having a workman here to fix the boiler was unbearable, particularly when he had to go into all the rooms, including my bedroom. I will know I’m healed when I’m able to have friends round without feeling that I’d rather be undergoing major root canal surgery.

My career, tiny though it was, has been destroyed. A post-divorce name change didn’t help, it feels like starting over, plus several of my existing contacts have moved on to pastures new. Stress meant having to stop working, I couldn’t focus on writing. My previous blog was used against me, a story of mine was used as evidence in court and I had the joy of a potential client turning out to be Simon and Astrid using a fake alias to try and entrap me. Now, at the point where I could be returning to work, it feels like my brain is entirely addled. It’s hard to focus on anything, hard to stick at things, difficult to know where I should be putting my energies. My confidence is at a low ebb, particularly with Simon’s insistence that I was deluded about my abilities as a writer. It’s hard to reach out to former colleagues, never mind forge new contacts – no, not hard, impossible in my current state of mind. More than that, I’m scared of putting anything of myself out into the world again in case Simon finds new ways to use it against me. I will know I’m healed when I’m able to write again, consistently and professionally.

I will know that I’m healed when I start looking forward to the day ahead instead of dreading it. When I no longer have to fight hard to find reasons to go on living, beyond looking after the kids. Ultimately I will know I’m healed when I’m able to leave the past in the past rather than having the abuse creep into every aspect of my daily life with its poisonous, painful reminders. And right now, it’s the hope that one day I will be healed that’s keeping me going.

Quest for Fun

Fun. I puzzle the word over, chewing on it. There is precious little fun in my life and I’m trying to figure out why. Oftentimes during the marriage we’d set out to have fun, but somehow miss it – I’d always put this down to having to deal with Lily’s demands and outbursts, leaving us tetchy and exhausted. Now I wonder whether there was more going on, whether the dynamics of our relationship were skewed against any positive outcome. Certainly after the split my happiness quota went through the roof; suddenly I had friends, a social life, I held gatherings at The House in the Sky full of laughter, shared food, homemade wine and kids running amok in the lanes. My overriding feeling was of being me again, after years of losing touch with myself. But gradually Simon’s abuse began to curtail this newfound happiness; I was soon lost, confused, exhausted, fighting for my survival. I stopped having people over – I didn’t have the emotional energy to deal with others, there wasn’t enough of me left over to give out to anyone else. More than that, I’d raised the drawbridge. With Simon bringing Astrid into the home behind my back to spy on me, I no longer felt safe. I didn’t want to go out, nor did I want anyone else in my home. As soon as anyone arrived, I’d feel edgy and anxious until they’d gone again; sadly that’s still the case. If I went out, I’d worry that Simon or Astrid had snuck into my home again, were going through my papers – I took to storing all the divorce documents in the boot of my car. I felt like I was being watched wherever I went; Mum sent me Starbucks vouchers to go out for coffee, but I worried that someone was recording each bite of cake, that being able to afford a latte would be used in court as evidence that I had too much money to spend. In reality, it was a generous gift from my Mum, doing what she could from a distance to help with my increasing social anxiety. Paranoia began to take over – but is it really paranoia when you’re actually being stalked?

Abuse is isolating. It’s insidious, creeping up on you without you realising what’s happened – by the time you wake up and realise what’s going on, your confidence and wellbeing have already been deeply eroded. By the time you’re able to find the right labels for the confusing mess you’ve found yourself in, your life has already fallen apart. Stress – by which I mean full blown panic attacks, uncontrollable crying, insomnia, severe anxiety and palpitations – meant I had to sign off work. Although that was over two years ago, it’s only just this week that I’ve begun to realise the full implications. It’s not just the loss of my career, I’ve lost the social side that came with my particular line of work. Previously, most weeks I’d have some kind of event to attend – a reading of someone’s work, a workshop, a networking event. Now – nothing. I’ve lost touch with my former peers and colleagues, most people have no idea about what’s been going on. Before, I had something that was purely for myself, something that I was passionate about, something that bolstered my self esteem, that gave me purpose. Something that was ultimately fun, if at times demanding. To have all that systematically destroyed by Simon has been devastating. So; social life destroyed, career destroyed, confidence and self-esteem destroyed, home gone. It’s only now that I’m beginning to add up the full cost of Simon’s abuse and realising just how much I’ve lost; fun seems to be one of the many casualties. I’m no longer able to do a lot of the things that used to bring me joy, plus my now precarious mental health means it’s harder to find enjoyment in whatever I try.

Not much fun then. There are moments when the kids and I will be in hysterics over our own daft jokes, yet these are counterbalanced plenty by the number of arguments and conflict. I’m doing my best to appreciate the good moments, to count my blessings. Next minute I’m triggered and having to walk out of the Stress and Anxiety course session, breaking down in tears. Near constant conflict with Lily means that the good mood I’ve tried so hard to achieve is wiped out in seconds. The rest of it is the daily grind, the struggle to keep up with the endless round of chores and duties.

This is no good. The realisation of how much I’ve lost was a bitter blow, bringing further feelings of what’s the point? The feeling that I don’t have anything in my life that’s just for me. Wondering whether I will ever find happiness again, whether I can rescue my sense of fun. A Quest for Fun is in order, and so I’ve nominated Fridays as Fun Fridays – the one day of the week that I’m reclaiming for myself, with the sole purpose of doing something that I enjoy. As they say, if you always do what you’ve always done then you’ll always get what you’ve always got. If you want something to change – ie to enjoy life more – then you have to change something. It won’t happen on its own. So Fridays are now dedicated to rebuilding my long lost sense of fun, which actually requires some planning in order to make sure that this happens – at the moment I’m thinking I’ll attempt to visit some of the many gardens, stately homes etc that are in the area, as well as art exhibitions. Taking a camera is key – I don’t know much about photography, but I know that having to literally focus on taking a picture means that my mind isn’t focused on my problems but on something beautiful instead. One small shift at a time in the journey towards creating a life worth living, one small step towards self care: I matter, I have the right to take the steps necessary to heal, I have the right to a full life, I have the right to be happy.

Breaking point

I’m painting the fence bit by bit, stopping before my body aches and demands a break. In general though a break would be good. Any kind of break, except for the ones involving bones or water pipes. A lucky break; the Lottery, please. A holiday break. But most of all a break from constant problems. Even just a week or so in between problems would be nice, but no, they keep on flying relentlessly towards me like oversized gnats with fangs and awful body odour. So, on the happy happy day that I got my new boiler, I also got a call from school to ask whether I was aware that Lily was self-harming and appeared to be having schizophrenic episodes?

Oh boy.

Please, just a week? One week without fresh trouble? One week in which to live as close to normal as is humanly possible?

No.

Lily insists she can see shadowy figures appearing in her bedroom, that someone is there, in the corner of her eye, taunting her. She’s using a shark’s tooth I gave her years ago to carve deep scratches in her arm and hands, says she enjoys it. Says she feels like she’s losing her mind and that most of her friends are too, and that the scratching makes it feel better.

None of this is good news. And if it was Ivy saying this, I’d be freaking out and rushing to the nearest child psychologist I could find (although frankly, referrals are rarer than unicorn eggs in our overstretched child mental health services.) But it’s Lily and therefore much more complicated. We’ve just come through a couple of months in which Lily has been lurking in the shadows, complaining that the sunlight hurts her skin – thankfully this was Winter, so there was precious little sunlight to deal with. Momentary concerns that this was due to a reaction to her epilepsy medication were pushed aside when Ivy explained that Lily has been writing her own manga comic about a Japanese vampire. She’s also been putting a considerable amount of effort into learning Japanese, and has mentioned a few times that she likes the taste of blood. So – no side effects, just Lily playing out being a Japanese vampire. She’s been asking for a parasol to keep the sun off her face – this has also been inspired by Abby, her favourite character in NCIS, who doesn’t seem to venture outside without a parasol and ear protectors. The inside of Lily’s mind must basically look like an acid trip, all neon colours, dancing squids and fantasy and reality blurring into one.

Lily has recently decided that she is now an Emo; all black clothes, Panic at the Disco, My Chemical Romance and such. Combine this with a bit of a wave of self-harm passing through school, a few friends with issues, and there we have it; Lily’s latest obsession, played out in all its glory. Hello Aspergers/ADHD. In the past it was cars and dinosaurs, now it’s Emo, madness and self harm. And although the scratches are disturbingly real enough, I suspect the madness is make believe. Except of course, it’s complicated – Lily then believes her own fabrications. What she invents then becomes real to her; she will swear blind that she really really did go to a parallel Universe and discover that she was actually dead in that reality. It really happened, and woe betide anyone who dares suggest that it didn’t. So how on earth anyone can start to unpick whether or not she’s really seeing people in the corner of her room, whether she really is losing her mind or whether she’s playing out an elaborate fantasy, I have no idea.

Another day, another call from school. Lily has been banging her head against the desk in an alarming and bewildering way. She’s threatened to cut someone’s throat. She’s been belligerent in class and answering back to staff. Her cuts are seeping through her school shirt – are they fresh scratches or has she been picking at the scabs?

I don’t know. I’ve run out of answers when it comes to Lily. Even though I suspect it’s make believe, I feel I’m in way over my head. The school nurse calls me in for yet another chat – there are probably some lucky parents who don’t even know that the school has a nurse. “I know it’s not my place to say this,” she tells me, “but I found I was questioning whether this real or not?”

I nod. “I don’t think it’s real,” I tell her. The trouble is, I don’t have a clue what to do about it. The scratches on her arm are too obvious, she’s been showing them off rather than hiding them. But still, they’re there, and it must have hurt.

“I always tell parents not to worry about it so much if you can see the marks,” the nurse reassures me. “It’s when they’re doing it more in secret that it’s a problem.” Although thinking about it, how would you know if they were doing it secretly?

Not real and yet all too real.

What do you do when your child is pretending to have schizophrenia? This is now just the latest problem, the new normal. Something has gone wrong with the kitchen light switch and none of the lights are working, I’ve rigged up a lamp so I can see to cook and wash up. The shower still isn’t fixed and I need to chase up the builders for a quote. The car is making a strange noise. Lily’s still not doing enough homework. There’s a damp patch in the hall. Ivy’s nervous tic has returned. A garbled message is left by the Child Maintenance Service, sending me into a panic that Simon’s found another way to pay less. One at a time, please.

I need a break from adulting. I’d like to resign, at least for a week or so, put my hand up and admit that I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. This is the reality of single parenting. I can’t go to Simon to discuss Lily’s problems; this is a man who has previously written to doctors to try to undermine Lily’s diagnoses when he thought her disabilities might get in the way of his plans to sell the family home. Instead, I worry that he will see her arm and call Social Services again; ammunition is more important to him than Lily’s wellbeing. It breaks my heart that it’s come to this, that the father of my children can’t be trusted to do right by them. That the responsibility for their wellbeing now rests entirely on my shoulders, the double whammy of hoping that I can do a good job of raising them while worrying that not only am I failing, or unable, but also that any mistakes will lead to further attacks from Simon. Parenting is hard enough without the other parent actively working against you.

Thankfully, a letter arrives from the local Young People’s Services offering us an initial appointment after a referral from school. Successful referrals are so rare that this is truly miraculous. The fantasy is that this will lead to Lily getting the help she needs. The reality is that it might go no further than this initial appointment. Fantasy, reality, normality. It’s not just Lily who feels she’s going mad, at times my head feels under so much pressure that I’m sure my skull is going to crack; the wrong kind of break. I’ve been at breaking point so many times in the past couple of years that broken feels normal.

Last Autumn the fence blew down. Ivy helped me to repair it, hammering new posts into the ground and patching up the broken, rotting fence as best we could. This past week I’ve been painting it, trying to make it look nicer while wondering whether I’m wasting my time, whether it will make it through another winter. Knowing I don’t really have a choice, I can’t afford to replace it – I’ve just got to make the most of what I’ve got. The pretty sea-green paint now reaches halfway down the garden, post by post, brushstroke by brushstroke, plodding on with it when I can. The broken fence was a problem; we dealt with it, and for now it’s holding. For now, I’m making the most of it while it lasts. For now, I’m being the best Mum I can manage to be. Maybe Lily really does have schizophrenia, or maybe this is the follow-up to the Japanese vampire phase. There’s no break from any of it; the challenge is learning to accept that and carry on regardless. That broken fence isn’t going to fix itself. No one else is going to paint it for me either. Just keep going. Paint while the sun shines, hang a lamp so you can see in the dark.

Overwhelm

How can I make a garden when there’s so much to do in the house? Time, energy, money, all are limited. The one thing I have in abundance is overwhelm. When it comes to fight or flight, I freeze. It’s taking all I have to stay on top of the regular chores, the endless cycle of cooking and washing up, laundry, the relentless school run, the demands of two teenagers, and even the barest attempt at cleaning. We’ve never properly moved in, the whole house feels cluttered and chaotic. The shower broke soon after Lily starting using it; this time I can’t really blame her as it’s probably around thirty years old. Ivy’s attic bedroom isn’t properly insulated, and I’m scared that this includes the entire loft, creating condensation, damp or rot, which accounts for the apocalyptic numbers of woodlice in her room. The boiler has stopped working on account of the snow, leaving us without central heating or hot water during the coldest week in living memory. The back porch has a leak, the back door is rotting and the front porch isn’t watertight either. There’s a list of phone calls to be made to builders, to advice lines, to doctors, school, therapists, solicitors. The car broke down – yet another bill to pay. Every time I manage to save a bit of money, whether for a financial cushion, or to put towards one of the jobs that needs doing, another bill springs up to snatch it away. Right now I want to shut the door and walk away from it all.

People get through trauma in different ways. Through the domestic abuse support group, I met women who lost their appetites due to stress. Instead, I’ve been comfort eating to the point where I’ve put on around 4 stone in as many years and most of my clothes no longer fit. I met women who combatted their anxiety by throwing themselves into the housework, cleaning late into the night. I find myself hiding from the dishes piled up in the sink, avoiding the clutter, sitting motionless on the sofa and wondering what happened to the day. Why can’t I have useful anxiety? I ask myself, berating myself for not having the “right” type of stress-response, one which would see me lose weight and gain a clean, tidy house. Occasionally I manage a burst of activity, complete one of the big projects – building wardrobes in mine and Lily’s rooms, putting up shelves in the tiny hallway. Since Lily moved in full-time last December, it’s gotten harder and harder to get anything done; the added pressure of living with her ADHD/Aspergers adds an extra level of stress and chaos. At times it’s like living with Taz, the Tasmanian Devil in the Warner Brothers cartoons, a whirlwind of mess and fury.

So how am I going to manage to create a garden when I can’t stay on top of the dishes? Without heat and hot water it’s even harder – I now have to schedule swimming each week so that we can get clean, while dish-washing means repeatedly boiling the kettle to get hot water. It’s almost impossible to dry clothes, so the amount of laundry I can get through each week is reduced to one or two loads, carefully planning the timing so as to make sure that school uniforms get priority while also hoping that no one runs out of clean pants. Ivy has developed gluten and dairy intolerances, making mealtimes more complicated. Life seems to be an endless round of school runs, shopping, cooking and washing up. When I’m in the house I feel overwhelmed by it all, not knowing where to start – especially given that the house is too small for us and that no matter how hard I work at it, the mess will take over faster than I can clean it up. The same tasks, over and over, the same nagging at the kids – can someone please put the dishes away so I can wash the next lot, you’re both supposed to cook at least one meal per week, can dishes be brought down from bedrooms, can dirty laundry be put in the basket, can people please reclaim their clean laundry and put it back in their rooms? Homework! Have you done your homework? Please don’t snack on the food I’ve bought to make dinner with. And for the love of God, can you both please set your alarms and get out of bed on time in the mornings, without me having to yell at you to get up for school every single day? I am a nag, I am a skivvy, I am a mind-numbingly boring housewife, a drudge and yet I can’t even get control of my drudgery.

There is nowhere to put the Hoover. Henry should probably live in the pantry cupboard under the stairs, but that’s where the step-stool currently resides, making it easier for everyone to reach the top shelves. So Henry sits glumly cluttering up whichever room he was last used in. He seems to symbolise so much of my struggle to get on top of things; an item we need and use but can’t find a place for in a too-small home which is chronically short of storage. With everything, the avalanche effect. In order to find Henry a home under the stairs, I’d have to clear out the entire pantry and reorganise it. In order to clear out the pantry, I’d have to clear up the kitchen to make space, and in order to do that I’d have to do a lot of sorting in the kids’ rooms, and so on. Each job is a chain reaction, and it’s hard to find the starting point. Along with the suspicion that I have undiagnosed Aspergers, I also fit the criteria for ADHD – something which feels more like a relief than a diagnosis, explaining why I find it so hard to get organised, why I can’t get started, why I never get finished. My current state of mind, the anxiety and trauma and depression, mean it’s even harder; I have no mental clarity, no focus and precious little motivation. Whichever room I’m in, I don’t know where to get started. Each item I look at either creates a fresh chain reaction of To Do’s or throws up more questions – do I need this, do I use it, where should I put it, or if I’m going to get rid of it, where should it go, should I donate it or try to sell it, how can I avoid it ending up in landfill? And all of this is only on a good day, a day when I have the energy and motivation to even try to get started. On a bad day – forget about it.

I need peace. I need order. Being out in the garden would almost certainly improve my state of mind and wellbeing, yet it’s hard to allow myself to get out there when so much needs doing inside the house – and so I end up achieving next to nothing, caught in a trap of indecision, guilty feelings and anxiety. There are days when my anxiety levels are so high that I struggle to leave the house – which includes even going out into my own garden. There are days when my sense of overwhelm is so high that it’s easier to run away, to stay out and not come home to face the laundry. At times I need to remind myself of how much I’ve achieved under difficult circumstances, that when we moved in just over a year ago, none of us had beds, or wardrobes, and every single room was piled high with boxes. I need to be kind to myself, talk to myself the way I’d talk to a friend, encouragement rather than blaming and shaming. The past few years have been so hard, without respite from the abuse and stress and anxiety. I’m gradually trying to build a new life for us, doing my best to help the kids through their own struggles while not getting any support for myself or for them. I need to accept that many of the negative voices playing out in my head were placed there by Simon, and that my home doesn’t need to be picture perfect.

Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.

For me, that might mean giving myself permission to begin my garden before my house is ready. To trust that by following my instincts, my gut feeling that creating the garden is part of my healing process, it’s more likely that I’ll find the peace and clarity that I need to get control over other areas of my life. That it’s not possible to be perfect – ever – never mind when you’re healing. That I need to follow the small breadcrumbs that my soul is trying to lay down in the forest, tiny morsels of comfort in the moonlight, before the birds of doubt swoop down and gobble them up with the drudgery of each passing day.