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.

The Healing Garden

Good old NHS. Three times I’ve turned up begging for help as my apocalyptic divorce rained down fire, thunder and plagues of snakes on me and the children. Three times I’ve been offered counselling as a result, along with antidepressants and even a sedative to quell my panic attacks, palpitations and insomnia. The antidepressants caused eczema while fear of developing an addiction to tranquilisers made me too anxious to take the sedative on all but the very worst nights. Counselling was the only other non-itchy, non-addictive option.

God knows I could still do with more sessions but I’ve been warned that it’s ultimately not helpful for me to try to recover piecemeal in this way; 6 sessions with a counsellor, then nothing, then falling apart, then being put back on the waiting list for more help. Far better to seek out more consistent help, whether by paying for therapy or starting over with a new, pay-as-you-can afford service. Except I don’t want to start over with a new counsellor; I’d reached a point of understanding with the counsellor I was seeing, I could refer back to situations without having to replay them blow by blow. To have to start from scratch with a stranger and explain every detail over again feels counter-productive; I’ve no desire to relive it. Having had a small amount of art therapy in the past, I’d like that rather than a purely talking cure – but it costs. While I’m paying out for weekly therapy sessions for Ivy, it’s too much of a stretch to pay for myself as well – and meanwhile, I’m aware that Lily also needs help.

Healing isn’t automatic. Sure, we patch ourselves up and carry on, but for the most part it’s about survival. Sticking a Band-Aid over a gaping wound and getting on with it. Scars form, holding us together yet the tissue beneath is damaged and tender, possibly even gangrenous and festering… but we limp on. There’s a huge difference between Triage and Healing. In the middle of the battle, all we can do is staunch the bleeding the best we can while we fight on. It’s not until we’ve got ourselves off to a safe place that we can stop and lick our wounds. Good healing requires time, space, support and often the intervention of a therapist. Bad healing means we turn to whatever we can get just to keep ourselves going, leaning on shadow comforts such as food or alcohol, or that the wound always stays tender, easily triggered and torn.

“What do you want?” the counsellor asked me. There were so many questions tied into that one; where could I see myself in the future, what was I hoping for, what was I looking forward to, what was my next step, my next direction in life?

I had nothing.

No answers. No vision. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t imagine any kind of future. I’d got so used to fighting, to life being a constant battle with my ex, having to defend myself and the kids from each fresh attack that I couldn’t picture anything different. And trust me, I don’t normally lack in imagination. The truth was, there wasn’t anything to look forward to except the hope that the abuse would stop now that Simon had got his own way and sold the house. With the divorce finalised I was free to start my new life, but the abuse had kept on coming, a second court case followed the first and hope was nowhere to be found. No matter what you’re facing, the moment when you give up hope is the worst; the belief that this is it, it will never get better. That’s when you give up – or, when giving up isn’t an option – because you have kids – you die inside instead. The Walking Dead, limping along, enduring rather than living.

It’s no way to live. It’s not a life.

What do you want?

By that point, all you want is for it to stop. There is nothing else. But the counsellor persists. You have to have something, she insists. Something to look forward to. And the words slowly form on your tongue, from some deeply buried part of yourself, some last shred of surviving spirit.

“I’d like to make a garden.”

So there it is. Exhausted and depressed, but somehow a garden holds the key to healing. I’ve designed gardens before in previous homes and for my parents’ house, but then Simon was on hand to help with the actual construction. This time it’s down to me, on a budget of zero and with the energy of a squirrel that’s just been hit by a truck and is lying at the side of the road, dead. Sigh. Thankfully I’m a stubborn old mule, something which I’m beginning to realise is likely caused by undiagnosed Aspergers. As I write this it’s snowing again – in March, in the UK, which is unforgivable. I’m a wuss, and there’s so much to tackle around the house so it will be strictly armchair gardening for the time being. I’ll re-read my gardening books, particularly Cultivating Sacred Space by Elizabeth Murray – if I can find it, and if it wasn’t one of the books sadly sent off to a charity shop in order to make space. I’ll start a Pinterest board or two for inspiration, and look for gardening videos on YouTube. I’ve been enjoying Colette’s videos about her Goddess Permaculture garden in Ireland, Bealtaine Cottage – even more inspirational as she has single-handedly achieved an incredible transformation from boggy, unpromising land into a forest garden haven. Again, the bullish belief; if she can do it, so can I. Not anything like the scale of Bealtaine, but I will do my utmost to turn my narrow, empty, bedraggled plot into a garden that nourishes my soul.

Home Safe

My anxiety levels have been through the roof. An out-of-the-blue letter came for Ivy from Simon a few weeks ago, inviting her to come on holiday with him, Lily and Astrid.

Ivy lay on the kitchen floor sobbing for a full hour, crying “Why? Why would he think I’d want to do that?” while I sat holding her, trying to soothe her. Trying also to ignore how much the kitchen rug needed hoovering, and trying not to panic about the fact that I should be cooking the dinner and so everyone was about to get hangry.

Simon insisted in his letter that “We think it’s time to move forward.” Ah yes, the erroneous belief that the abuser gets to set the timescale for the victim’s healing. It’s very easy to move on when you’re the perpetrator, not so much when you’re still suffering the devastating effects of their actions. Of course Ivy was also upset because yes, she very much would like a holiday – just not with Simon and Astrid. She knows it’s impossible for me to provide the same holiday during the peak season. It’s unlikely that I’ll be able to take the kids on holiday at all this year – or any year – with the insane price hikes during school holidays. Even back when Simon and I were together, there were no holidays during peak season, other than very basic camping.

To put this into perspective, Simon hasn’t taken the children on holiday once in the four years since we separated, other than two nights camping back in 2014. So I was suspicious. Officially court was supposed to be over, but a small window was left open in case either of us wanted to reopen the proceedings and the deadline for this was rapidly approaching. Knowing Simon the way I do, the timing seemed suspicious. Why send this letter now? And so the Easter holidays were spent fretting about the arrival of a large white envelope yet again bearing the seal of the Family Court, the fear that yet another year would be wiped out by a malicious court case.

I can’t do this again.

Like a song running through my head, a constant ear worm. I can’t do this again. Insomnia again. Constantly running through the arguments I would need to make to the Judge, my frantic mind playing out what was said last time, what I should have said differently, what I would say if I had to do it again. Knowing that this time around I wouldn’t be able to afford a lawyer. Remembering the dirty tricks played by Simon’s lawyers last time, and the lie, the absolute lie that court will not discriminate against you if you can’t afford representation. The entire system is set up for lawyers – as a private citizen you can’t even get hold of the evidence you need in the form of letters and reports from professionals unless you have a solicitor.

Fear is isolating. This is what domestic abuse looks like. Long after the original situation is over, the same patterns and fears keep playing out in your head. Your abuser can continue to control you and play out his games long after he’s left the room, all the while claiming that he’s the innocent victim of your behaviour. And still you question; was I? Did I? Was it my fault? as he has long since convinced you that you’re to blame. There are moments that I have to hold on to, as if desperately cramming my fingers into fissures in the rock face, particular lies that he has told, particular actions that scream of his wrongdoing, just to cling to my sanity against his lies. Remember. Remember he lied about entering the home behind your back, remember that he lied about bringing Astrid into your home. Remember that Astrid was photographing your private documents. Remember they threw out yours and the children’s possessions, dumped food waste and wallpaper strippings and rubble into the same bin bags to ruin everything. Remember how he refused to tell you how much maintenance you’d be left with after his latest round of “cuts”, and that you ended up on Diazepam as the stress was giving you palpitations? Remember.

I have to remember these things, while also trying to let go of the past. Remember Astrid kicking your car with the kids inside it, while Simon stood by and watched. Remember Astrid sending abusive texts to Ivy. Remember that he has got away with lying to court, with his malicious accusations, with breaking court orders, that there will be no justice for what he has done. Remember that just because he got away with it doesn’t mean that he is right.

Remember also that I want to be happy again.

Anxiety dancing a jig in my belly as I drive home from spending a week at my parents’ house. Will there be a large white envelope waiting on the doormat? I didn’t sleep during my last night away, a now familiar pattern – coming home means returning to a whole heap of trouble. The race to unpack the car before the grumpy old lady comes out and yells at me for blocking the shared driveway, hustling the kids to get a move on, stumbling up the steps with too many bags, eyeing up the pile of mail on the kitchen table, desperate to know. The large white envelope isn’t there. I send a text to Mum. Home safe. No court summons.

When I wake the next morning, it seems that life is possible again. That maybe now it really is over. That maybe I can finally start to move on. Given our circumstances, life will probably never be easy or straightforward, but for now at least I can start to hope. Not hope for – that’s far too advanced a concept given what we’ve been through, but hope itself. When you realise that you have lost hope, that’s the darkest time; the fear that this is it now, life will never get better, you are condemned to spend the rest of your days in fear and despair. Awakening to hope, like the Spring bulbs returning into flower despite the harshness of Winter – that is strong magic indeed.

The Holy Grail and the Myth of Support

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“I’m just going to pop out for some Support, what could possibly go wrong?”

My God, I’m struggling.

“But you’re coping,” my Mum tells me over the phone.

“I’m not, I’m really not,” I answer, thinking of how every surface in the kitchen is covered in dirty dishes, that the living room is an obstacle course of clutter and empty cardboard boxes from the most recent DIY session, that every single room in the house is a mess, that none of us has had a shower all week, my grey roots are showing like a badger stripe, the kids aren’t keeping up with their homework, we’re risking intervention by the Attendance Officer due to Ivy’s recent bout of school refusal, Lily’s behaviour is becoming more and more problematic, I can’t get to sleep then wake at the crack of dawn so I’m permanently tired, that my heart feels like it’s racing out of my chest all day every day, I’m always on the verge of a panic attack, I look like a bag lady and also my car is now falling apart. The boiler is broken so there’s no heating or hot water, the shower is broken so we can’t wash properly, and I’m getting increasingly scared that the roof might need work too. Things are really not good.

“But you are,” she insists. “You’ve kept on going where others would have crumbled. You’re not hiding in a corner, refusing to come out.”

Hiding in a corner refusing to come out is exactly what I want to do. Before I even open my eyes in the morning, the wave of despair and nausea hits me. I can’t even bring myself to write my daily list of Gratitudes any more, having spent one evening scrawling I hate my shitty life all over my journal. The only reason that I haven’t taken to my bed and refused to come out is …drumroll… fear. Ah yes, fear and its cousin, anxiety, my constant companions of these past four years. The only reason I’m getting up and carrying on is the fear of what will happen if I don’t. Fear of further trouble with school, of social service intervention, of what Simon might do next if he suspects that I’m struggling to cope. Fear is not a great foundation to structure your life around; it’s exhausting, depressing and soul-destroying. Yet there it is – my life is a life spent in fear. Fear of what will come next. Fear that Simon will find yet another financial loophole and cut the child maintenance again, or another spurious reason for taking me to court. Fear that my kids are falling apart after everything we’ve been through and that I’m failing to get them the help they need. Fear that one or both of them will resort to self-harm, alcohol or drugs, even suicide. Fear that someone – Simon, probably – will report his concerns to social services, resulting in a dawn raid and child welfare officers inspecting every last messy, cobwebby corner of my home; this happened to a family I know, whose only crime was that their neighbour didn’t understand that they were home-educating. Fear that I’ll get into debt and potentially lose the house because of the costs of fixing the house up in the first place. Fear that I’m basically fucking up in ways that I don’t even know about yet but which are guaranteed to bring disaster to my doorstep.

Given Lily’s most recent episodes of challenging behaviour, which include threatening me with a knife, locking herself in her room with said knife, plus an increasing refusal to cooperate with even the basic tasks of cleaning her teeth and brushing her hair, school are keen to refer us to Early Help. From what I can gather, this is a low level of Social Service intervention – the soft, fluffy side of the SS, as it were. It would involve meeting a social worker to put together a CAF identifying the needs within the family – from prior experience, this would actually involve endless meetings with several different social workers as they keep quitting before the job gets done. Countless form-filling. A lot of box-ticking. And a whole lot of promises, most of which are never fulfilled due to staff shortages or funding falling through. It would also involve school informing Simon.

Ah. No, no, and no again. This would basically be handing Simon a nice shiny dagger so that he can stab me in the back far more effectively.

“Legally, we have to inform him as he has parental responsibility,” the pastoral teacher informs me. I want to scream. No. No he doesn’t have parental responsibility. Ivy hasn’t seen him in over a year, at her request, and he kicked Lily out of his house last December. In real terms I’m bringing the kids up on my own. Simon pays child maintenance and takes Lily out to lunch once every few weeks; that’s not parenting. The endless round of shopping, cooking, washing up, laundry, school runs, cleaning. Doctors, dentists, therapists, parents’ evening, pastoral meetings, endless chauffeuring. Nagging about homework, bedtimes, teeth-cleaning and showering. Making sure that they have fully-equipped pencil cases, that music lessons are paid for, school uniform provided, new trainers bought for PE. Listening to their problems, to their constant stream of chatter about TV shows, YouTubers, memes and bands. Straining the budget to try and provide the occasional treat, trying to give them positive experiences, good memories. Trying to provide them with the love and stability they need. Worrying. More worrying. Breaking up the fights. Begging them to help out occasionally. Guiding them through the angst of growing up. Always feeling that you’re never quite good enough, never quite managing enough, could never ever give them the childhood that they deserve, the perfect world you want them to live in. That’s parenting. If Simon had Lily to stay at his house for even one night a week, I would have to bite my tongue and accept his involvement. School makes a lot of noise about safeguarding; I understand how and why informing Simon is a legal obligation, yet ultimately it puts the children and myself at risk of further emotional, psychological and financial abuse. The only person they’re safeguarding is Simon.

We need support. I know from bitter experience that support is hard to come by. Both of the kids need more help than they’re getting, both of them have had referrals knocked back by CYPS – the Children and Young People’s Services. From what I understand, CYPS are now so over-stretched that they’re only taking on new referrals once your child has actually committed suicide, or so it seems. I’ve been taking Ivy to the GP for well over a year now for her anxiety, depression and OCD behaviours- all we’ve had is a referral to a local charity that offers a limited number of free counselling sessions. A couple of weeks ago we left the GP’s office feeling thoroughly patronised and frustrated after he more or less entirely ignored Ivy, didn’t ask her a single question, but told me in front of her that she “wouldn’t get any help unless she took a knife into school and threatened to kill herself.” That no help would be forthcoming until she was in crisis.

“How would he know whether or not I was in crisis” Ivy later pointed out, “He didn’t ask me a single question.”

I pointed out to him that his “advice” ran entirely counter to the advice that would be given to an adult with the same symptoms. No adult would be sent away with a pat on the head or be told that they wouldn’t get help unless they took a knife into their workplace and threatened to kill themselves. They’d immediately be referred to counselling, given medication, signed off work, encouraged to get all the support that was available. The sad reality is that, locally at least, there is absolutely no support for young people; the happy result of Tory cuts. This current generation of young people are having to endure a ridiculous amount of academic pressure in terms of both performance and attendance, record numbers of family break-ups, economic and environmental meltdown, and increasing global and political instability as well as watching the rise of the Far Right, racism and misogyny. I thought my teenager years were hard enough, my family’s various crises as bad as it got, my school as demanding as it was possible to be – I was wrong. My kids have got it harder. It’s heartbreaking to realise that their childhood is in fact harder than your own, their experiences worse, your ability to help them diminished.

Support then, is limited to whatever charities have sprung up to fill the gaps, or what you can pay for. Money might not buy you happiness, but it sure as hell solves a lot of problems. I’m paying for therapy for Ivy while watching Lily’s behaviour get worse; I’ve been trying for over ten years to get Lily the help she needs, with no success. I can’t even afford to pay for a dyslexia specialist to assess her, something which should surely be happening automatically in schools rather than being left to parents to pay for. How can anyone on benefits afford to pay around £500 for a dyslexia assessment for their child? Or £40 a week per child for a therapy session? No one should be told to wait until they’re in crisis before seeking help, let alone a child. No one should be in the position of being afraid of seeking support because that would mean the potential involvement of an abusive partner, or fear of reprisal. I’m left scared of taking up the offer of Early Help, particularly as there’s no concrete proof that it will result in any tangible help – yet I’m also scared that if I don’t willingly sign up to it, it will only take one more inevitable incident with Lily before school goes over my head and makes a referral to the not-so soft and fluffy element of the social services. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Meanwhile I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me “What support are you getting?” and reacted in alarm when I answer None. “Oh, but you need support, you must get support,” as if Support was something you could pick up off the supermarket shelf like a can of beans.

Yes. I am painfully aware that I need more Support. I am aware that my children need more Support. But unless you’re actually going to offer me some Support, you’re really not helping. Support for too many families has become a Holy Grail, a mythical unicorn that everyone has heard of but no one knows where to find. Or worse – that setting off on the quest of finding Support will bring further danger rather than help, Ralph Fiennes being imprisoned as a suspected spy while Kristin Scott Thomas lies rotting in the cave with her broken leg. “I’ll just pop you down here while I go and seek some support.” What could possibly go wrong?