Of lies and money

So. With money running out and less than a third of the child maintenance being paid, the phone calls to CMS began. For each call you make to CMS, you will be on hold for over 20 minutes, guaranteed; I figure it’s deliberate, in the hope that some callers will give up and go away. They told me that Simon would be sent a letter about the missing payments, and would have “until the end of next week” to respond. “The end of next week” became a moveable feast, being cited for over a month while Simon failed to respond and the money still didn’t arrive. The amount owed crept up over £1600, my anxiety levels soaring with it.

Then the excuses started. Simon had apparently told the CMS in a phone call that he was no longer earning as much money. It says a lot that even now, I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt – perhaps he’d been made redundant, or had deliberately reduced his hours in order to free up more time for DIY on his new house. I stressed about what that might mean for us, what our payments would be reduced to, how we would manage. Yet the quiet voice of reason whispered in the back of my mind that if he was genuinely earning less money, the very first thing he would have done would be to contact CMS to reduce his payments. When I checked with CMS a month later, Simon hadn’t even put in an application to reduce his payments, never mind sent in proof – clearly this was another lie.

Next, a letter from CMS stating that they’d “been informed” that Lily was no longer in full time education and could I confirm this or send proof? Otherwise payments would be reduced. I called to let them know that Lily was attending a BTEC course which was classed as full-time. I knew immediately what must have happened; Simon had turned up in our new town the weekend before, taken Lily to dinner and asked her about her course. On finding out that she “only” attended three days a week, he’d assumed that this couldn’t possibly count as full time, and called the CMS to have his payments reduced. As he has no responsibility for the day-to-day lives of our children, he either didn’t realise that the BTEC still counted as full time, or he knew but didn’t care. It’s frustrating that instead of being happy for Lily, who is loving her music course, he’s tried to use her course as an excuse to pay less maintenance, turning it against her.

Normal reaction; I’m so glad you’re enjoying your course. Do you need anything else for it, any textbooks etc?

Abusive father; Tell me more about your course so I can try and use it against you.

Simon had not asked for our new address, nor had I offered it. Lily had talked to him only in terms of the nearest city, making sure not to give him the precise area. Yet he turned up here with Astrid, insisting to Lily that he meet her in our actual town, having managed to find out where we live without being told. It felt sickening, and took away the security that Ivy and I had been feeling, it’s all mind games and intimidation – see, we can find out where you live! But no doubt if you talked to him, he would still insist that I was the one stalking him… He spent less than 3 hours with Lily, but treated the occasion as a weekend away with Astrid, spending two nights in a hotel, meals out etc, while still claiming that he couldn’t afford to pay child maintenance.

Last week another call from CMS; now Simon was claiming that he retained shared care of Lily and had a court order to prove it. The court order was a 2017 relic from Simon trying to force Ivy into reinstating contact (and therefore not having to pay maintenance for her.) While I had been so careful to word the document in such a way as to make sure Ivy wouldn’t be forced into anything, it didn’t occur to me that I should ensure that Lily had a similar, flexible opt-out clause. In the Family Court you evidently need a fortune teller as much as a lawyer. Even though it was Simon’s choice to deviate from the court order, and Simon who had originally informed the CMS of his decision, he was now trying to claim that he had equal shared care of Lily.

At times I agonise over how this must seem to Lily. If it wasn’t bad enough that Simon effectively threw her out with a week’s notice, after having spent 10 months in court battling to force contact with Ivy. If it wasn’t bad enough that he dumped all of her belongings on the street outside her house, including even her bedlinen, making it clear she was no longer welcome. If it wasn’t bad enough that Simon then made Lily tell Ivy that he was happy for Ivy to move back in with him if she didn’t want to relocate – yet never made an offer for Lily to move back in… Now he was claiming she still lived with him for half the time, so that he could stop paying for her. To throw her out and then claim she was still there?

Even though Simon’s claims were ludicrous and outright lies, there is always the fear lingering beneath. What if they actually believe him? What if he’s managed to find a loophole and they have to uphold his claim, even though he’s not adhering to the court order? It’s no wonder I have an anxiety disorder, it’s been my constant companion these past five years. I waited over a week for the official letter to arrive to find out what the precise arguments were that Simon was using so that I’d know how to word my response, but when the letter finally got here it contained no information. Yet another call to CMS, another 20 minutes on hold.

“Yes, we get calls about this a lot,” the woman explained. “Unfortunately the letters are generated by the system, so they don’t have much information.” Then why don’t you change the letters? I wondered, given that it would save everybody more time if they just took five minutes to add a few details before sending it. If I hadn’t been told on an earlier call, I would have received the letter but have no idea what Simon was claiming. But yes, despite the fact that he saw Lily for 2 hours a month on average, and she hadn’t stayed overnight with him for almost 2 years, he was claiming that he retained equal shared care of her. Half term was rapidly approaching but with no invite for Lily to go and stay with him. It’s still difficult to believe that he could be making such an outrageous claim, that his lies have become this bold. It’s even harder to try and understand how he could do this while still apparently claiming that he is the innocent victim in all of this. But because he’s got away with it so far; lying to his solicitor, to his lawyer, to the judge, to social services, to school, to CAFCASS, to the police, never mind to me and the children, and no one has stopped it, he’s become further empowered. Because there has been no consequence for his lies, they’ve got worse.

“If you’re looking at my case on screen, you should be able to see that he gave you false information before,” I tell the woman. “He gave you false information in 2018 when he claimed that he retained equal care of Ivy, and you found in my favour. He’s given you false information this month, claiming he was earning less money, claiming that Lily was no longer in full time education. He’s lying now about this, Lily lives with me full time, he hardly sees her. It says on the letters you send out that if we send you false or misleading information then you’ll take further action, so I’m begging you, please take action. Because otherwise he’s going to keep doing this because there’s no consequence and it’s getting worse and worse. You’re failing to protect me and the kids, you’re allowing abuse to continue.”

Generally the staff at the CMS are very friendly and helpful, even if they have to stick to a fairly limited script. “I understand where you’re coming from,” is about as far as they’re allowed to go, rather than “Yes, we understand that he’s being a total bastard about this.” They have the power to take people to court, to seize driving licenses, to take payments directly from wages (although unbelievably, the receiving parent effectively pays a fine for this, losing 4% of the ongoing payments, even though it’s only possible to switch to direct collection if it’s been proven that the paying parent has been failing to pay.) Yet over £2 billion is owed in unpaid arrears, the vast majority of it owed by fathers to mothers. Because Simon paid up his arrears a couple of days before the deadline, the CMS wouldn’t switch our payments over to the Direct Collection service. The stress and anxiety he’d caused me simply don’t have a cost, nor would he be liable for any fines I’d accrued if I’d gone overdrawn or defaulted on a payment due to him not paying. What remains unsaid is the cost of all these lies, the fresh pain and confusion each lie causes; How can he do this to us? Do the kids mean nothing to him?

The realisation that it’s not over brings me crashing down again. That the abuse is set to continue, no matter what I do to free myself of it. That by taking the ultimate action in trying to free myself – relocating – all I’ve done is trigger a fresh cycle. Yet again the confusion over why is he doing this, how can he possibly think that this is okay? Part of the abuse endured several years of Simon and Astrid telling me to Get over it and to Move on – but it seems that they’re the ones who aren’t prepared to let me go.

A fresh start

Despite the challenges of moving from the House in the Sky to the Tiny Terrace, I clung to the belief that it was a fresh start. With the divorce and court over, I could take as long as I needed to settle in and rebuild my life, create a new home for my kids. However the abuse didn’t stop; now that Simon was openly living with his new partner it ranked up a level, resulting in our youngest deciding she didn’t want to see him any more. Cue another court case as he attempted to force Ivy into maintaining contact, at which point it became clear that he would stop at nothing to destroy me.

The fresh start disappeared under the burden of legal documents, reports and lies that I was left defending myself against. Rather than creating a new home, I was struggling to survive. Boxes remained unpacked, furniture that didn’t fit up the narrow stairs stood mouldering outside on the patio. When I look back, I’m amazed I managed to get anything done at all, never mind setting up a home! After almost ten months of legal battles, it became clear that Simon was not going to get his way; Ivy could not be forced into seeing him. A month later, he kicked Lily out with only a week’s notice, insisting she came to live with me full time, her belongings dumped on the street outside our house.

The Tiny Terrace had never been intended for the three of us to live full time in. Less than half the size of the House in the Sky, no parking, and not on the school bus route; these were manageable compromises when I bought it in the belief that the kids would only be there for half of the time. It was the only property I’d seen that was remotely suitable while Simon was ramping up the pressure to get us out of the family home. One year on, that compromise had been stretched to its limits.

Single-parenting is hard, even harder when you’re living in fear that everything you do is being judged. Everything was on me, all of the time, spinning all of the plates single-handedly with the added fear that Simon would exact some form of overblown retribution if I stumbled. My own life had ceased to exist, I no longer worked nor socialised. I didn’t go out without the children, I lost touch with nearly all of my friends. When my own mental health challenges became unbearable, it was clear that things needed to change; move now, or stay put for at least another two years until Ivy had finished her GCSEs, knowing that our struggles were set to continue. It was time to move, and this time I would make sure that it really was a fresh start for all of us.

Although we would be bringing some of our challenges with us – autism doesn’t go away – by relocating we’d be leaving some of our problems behind. No more panic attacks in the supermarket, scared that I’d bump into Simon or Astrid. Being able to attend local events without anxiously scanning the crowd. Simon not knowing our new address meant he couldn’t spy on my home. There were positives too; a school for Ivy that had better pastoral care and was within walking distance. The chance for Lily to attend her dream college course. My family within an hour’s drive. Hopefully the fresh start would also give me the chance to not so much rebuild but create a new life for myself and begin to put the past behind me. It felt like the end of a long struggle, and I was certain that the abuse would be consigned to history, there was simply nothing else that Simon could do to me now.

Or so I thought.

Money was tight, especially as we squeezed in a last minute holiday before the move, our first in years and an important symbol marking the end of one way of life, the start of another. I overstretched myself as the first house fell through, and ended up having to borrow money from my parents to pay the removals firm. I started keeping a money diary, but as I was in the process of switching banks it was more difficult to keep track of my finances; all I knew was that there wasn’t enough money in my account and I blamed myself for overspending. However, the new banking app on my phone soon revealed the issue – Simon had not been paying the full amount of maintenance. When the statements from my old bank arrived, it showed he owed me over £1500 – no wonder I’d been struggling. The next payment date rolled around, and less than half of the set amount was paid. Simon had evidently decided to pay what he saw fit, rather than the legally-mandated figure.

Financial abuse is one of the earliest markers of domestic abuse, and withholding child maintenance falls into this category. It’s no coincidence that this happened just as I moved away from Simon – this was retaliation, an attempt to regain the control that he had lost. For the victim, it creates constant anxiety and a high level of stress – money is an inescapable reality. It has meant having to constantly check my bank balance, buying only the bare minimum, putting off the purchases that we need for the new house. Each time that I fretted over money, Simon was forefront in my mind as a constant, intrusive thought. Of course, there was no warning that the money wouldn’t be paid into my account, no time to readjust or budget for the difference. “Sorry, my ex hasn’t paid the child maintenance” isn’t an excuse that goes down well with utility companies or the supermarket cashier. If I was overdrawn, I would have to pay charges, even though it was Simon’s fault – even if I managed to get him to pay the arrears, there wouldn’t be any financial penalty for him, no compensation for the difficulties or fines that he had caused. To have this happen right when my expenditure was necessarily at its greatest – moving house – was cynical and deliberate. Depressingly, our fresh start rapidly deteriorated into more of the same.

Simon doesn’t know how much money I have coming in or going out, what financial commitments I have, whether I’ll be plunged into debt without that money. He seems not to care about the impact it has on our children, from missing out on opportunities, school trips, clubs etc. to struggling to cover the cost of the basics such as clothes, transport to school and college, even what food we eat, as well as the kids worrying about money and feeling stressed. Such issues are the permanent price of poverty; what’s frustrating is when you are plunged into poverty purely because your ex is deliberately not fulfilling his legal obligations to his children. Getting a job isn’t so easy for a single mother with a large career gap and a kid with special needs – Lily had an epileptic seizure at college last week, necessitating a panicked 90 minute drive to get to her, then a three hour stint in A&E, not something that fits in well with a 9-5 job.

The hidden cost of financial abuse is the impact it has on your ability to parent – the children have a mother who is constantly anxious and stressed rather than happy and fully present with them. The fresh start we’d hoped for, the chance to make sure that the last years of their childhood were happy, has been sabotaged yet again by Simon’s abuse. By attempting to punish and control me, he’s hurt his children. And that for me is the most painful part, having to accept that the love he once had for his kids has been suffocated by the hate he now holds for me. It’s hard to reconcile the husband and father he once was to the monster he has become. Financially I’m losing out – but ultimately, he has lost so much more.

Mary Poppins Syndrome

I got sick. Again. This time around it was supposedly just a cold, picked up from my Mum while we were visiting. But while Mum and the kids were under the weather for a few days, I’ve been ill for over a month with no sign of improvement. It’s a measure of how run down I am, I suppose. There simply aren’t any reserves left to fight with. So; long blog break.

In the last couple of weeks we’ve started our appointments with CYPS. So far Lily’s psychologist seems more concerned about me than Lily – at least, there’s the recognition that I’m too exhausted to start implementing new domestic routines to help with Lily’s behaviour. I’ve more than a sneaking suspicion that the Psych believes that everything will be fine if only I could be a bit more patient with Lily, and that a marvellous transformation will occur if I’m able to face every situation with calmness and positivity. There should be a law stating that no one can make that kind of judgement until they’ve lived with Lily for at least a week, and then multiply their stress by a total of fifteen years. Like yesterday, when the kids had agreed to make their own way to the school bus stop so that I could have a lie in, I then had to intervene over the phone as Lily was refusing to give Ivy her spare bus ticket – Ivy was crying, thinking she’d be left at the bus stop with no way to get to school and yes, Lily was quite happy for that to be the outcome. It wasn’t even 7.30 am, so goodbye lie-in and hello more stress. Still at least the Psych realised that I’m traumatised from the abuse during the divorce, and that the day to day demands that I’m facing are just too much to deal with. When I ran through the stresses I was facing, the psychologist looked at me in horror “But no one could cope with all that,” she told me.

Yes, I know, I wanted to scream. Here I am, not coping. There’s talk of what support will be put into place, referral to this and that, but I know better than to hold my breath. Too many times we’ve been promised support and none has arrived, so I’ll believe it when I see it. Either the support doesn’t exist, has sadly just been de-funded, the people delivering it are too flaky to make it consistent and sustainable, or the support on offer isn’t the support you actually need. Frankly, I want someone to look after the kids for a week while I get sent on an all-inclusive holiday – that’s the kind of rest I need. Or for someone to come round and cook dinner, wash up and hoover for a couple of weeks. Or drive the kids to school and back for me. Something tells me that these options won’t be included in the support package. When you’re this burned out, what you want is for someone to say Honey, go to bed. I got this.

Being so ill and drained all the time is incredibly frustrating. The pallets I’ve been collecting for months are laying around in the garden, ready to be turned into a shed – if only I had the energy to tackle it. There are plants and bulbs waiting to go into the ground. The decking attached to the garden cabin has rotted, because whoever built it didn’t think to put gutters on it, so that all needs redoing – as well as the roof finishing off properly (People, do not half-tile an already felted roof. Tile it all or don’t bother.) I keep forgetting to tackle the jobs on my list, such as getting home insurance quotes before it automatically renews, calling one lot of builders to see if they’re booked in to fix my shower, and calling the other builder to see about replacing the rotting doors. And oh – the dishes, the endless stack of washing up piling up in the kitchen. So I’m flunking at all the stuff that needs doing, never mind the additional stuff that I want to do on the house and garden. Right now, trying to make sure the kids get to school, we have food in the house and clean plates to eat it off is pretty much all that I’m managing. It sucks.

It sucks doubly because the kids are getting older. Which means two things; one, they should be old enough to help and take responsibility for themselves instead of me having to do everything for them. Two, they won’t be kids for much longer. And there’s the heartbreaking reality – I want them to be able to look back on their childhoods and remember the good times, not the living with an irritable, burned-out exhausted mother in a cluttered home where everything needs fixing. It’s like the bulbs for the garden – if they don’t get planted now, they won’t bloom in Spring. It’s too late. If I don’t start building the shed, the wood I’ve gathered will start to rot. If I can’t somehow pull together our lives and our home into something more harmonious, the kids will have grown up and left. As much as I want to heal and go gently on myself, there’s a timeline here. I can’t press a magical pause button so that the world will wait until I’ve caught up.

It’s Mary Poppins Syndrome, the desire to click my fingers and have everything fall nicely into place, preferably with the aid of a magical helper. Living – the real life we should be living – is deferred until the future when everything is in order. I have the firm belief that if I could just catch up with myself, get to a place where the house is in order, then life will begin to run smoothly and everything will be less overwhelming. I’ll be on top of things, instead of constantly skidding down the avalanche of chores and responsibilities as they pile up on top of me. No doubt life would feel more pleasant if I lived in a home that was always Instagram-ready, but I have no idea of how I’d reach that mystical stage without Ms Poppins’ intervention. The inbox is never empty though – even if by some miracle the house was “done,” it wouldn’t stay that way for long. Sustaining it requires energy, and that’s exactly what I’m lacking.

Clearly my healing and recovery needs to include my physical wellbeing and it’s fast becoming a priority. Doubtless the physical is also affected by the emotional/psychological, and vice versa; it’s hard to be upbeat if you’re constantly ill and exhausted, and stress/trauma will likely create ill health. Healing needs to take place across all areas, and apparently at the same time. So tomorrow I’m heading out to forage some elderberries, if any are still around, and maybe some rosehips too to make an immune-boosting syrup, on top of the supplements that I’ve begun taking. Time too to think about therapy, to start looking for help rather than struggling on alone, to make plans for recovery rather than waiting for Mary Poppins.

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.