Exhaustion and the quiet of the suburbs.

Saturday. The alarm switched off the night before, being able to sleep in until the heady delights of 7am, when my bladder can’t hold out any longer. There’s the list of weekend chores to tackle, but I’m exhausted. I manage to wash up, put the school uniforms in the wash, start emptying the bins… by lunchtime I’m struggling to keep my eyes open. Today would be a good day to start work on the herbal garden, but instead I crawl back to bed for a nap.

It’s not been the worst week, but it’s been tiring and stressful – battling with school over meeting Ivy’s needs, the strain of the car breaking down again and worrying at one point that we weren’t even going to make it into town for the school bus without having to push the car ourselves. Taking a friend to the shops even though I didn’t need to go myself. More arguments with Lily, a paediatric appointment, and having to contact the two other hospitals we deal with to get advice about her medication and whether it could be affecting her behaviour. Lots of niggling jobs were ticked off the To Do list; emails, bills, the Tax Credits form. Possibly I over-exerted myself planting pretty much all of the remaining pots that were waiting on the patio. But by Saturday – total exhaustion. It seems to go this way most weekends – the plans I want to make fall by the wayside as I don’t have the energy to carry them out. One day at home to catch up with homework and chores, to decompress after the busy week, and then a day to go out and have fun as a family, get a change of scene – that seems ideal to me. In reality, it’s one day spent feeling like The Walking Dead, barely able to do anything at all, and one day spent catching up on twice as many chores.

Lily and Ivy know that there are chores to be done, my new system is write out a list on Friday evening – everybody then chooses a couple of jobs and gets through them as quickly as possible on Saturday morning. I’ve had to enforce this by changing the Wifi password until the jobs are done; tiresome but effective. Otherwise I have to do absolutely everything on my own until I’m on the floor with exhaustion and frustration – it’s impossible to make progress on the home and garden fronts when you’re struggling to manage the daily chores. Or to put it another way – it’s depressing to spend most of the day working hard outside; clearing, digging, painting, mowing, trimming, shredding, planting, weeding – then come back in and discover the kitchen is piled high with dishes that nobody else is washing. Yet still, even though they know that the chores need doing, even though they know that they’ll lose their internet access, nothing gets done unless I nag and chivvy them into it. On the days when exhaustion wins out, I simply don’t have the energy to fight to get the kids to do their part. Frustration and resentment bite hard.

No sooner have I decided to give in and take a nap then out they come. The strimmers, the mowers, the hedge trimmers, the pressure washers, even at times the cement mixers and circular saws. All the noisy outdoor appliances that the suburbs can muster. I close my window and try to relax, but the noises grate on my tired mind. From her bedroom, Lily lets out random shrieks of insane-sounding laughter as she watches endless YouTube videos- a noise that grates even further as it’s proof that she’s neither doing her homework, nor tackling her chores. It’s not as if I can throw my windows open and order my neighbours to shut up while I get some sleep, and I’m done with arguing over Lily about what she should be doing. I’ve been spoiled by the House in the Sky – being detached, with only two neighbours to worry about, the other houses spaced out far enough for noise not to matter. When people mowed their lawns or set to with the strimmer, it didn’t sound as if they were waving them around right under my bedroom window. Am I right in thinking that there’s areas in Europe where there are very strict times about when you can and can’t mow the lawn? It sounds very oppressive to say that lawns can only be cut at 9am on Sunday mornings, but then – what bliss to enjoy the quiet for the rest of the week.

I’ve always beaten myself up over days like this, the days when nothing gets done, intentions swirling down the drain of exhaustion. Now I’m trying to give myself more wiggle room, more compassion. Accepting that much of day to day life feels like a battle, that ASD/ADHD makes life feel harder, uses up more energy. That it’s been a week of doing things that I find difficult, that the stress means paying a price, several shiny gold tokens extracted from my energy levels. When Lily was a lot younger, we learned the hard way about her need for decompression days – generally after a day or so of absolute hell when we were supposed to be on holiday. It didn’t matter how fun it was, how many activities there were to do, how great the swimming pool was or how many places we wanted to explore – after a big day out, we needed to spend the next morning at home (or in the tent, caravan etc), letting Lily chill out, watch her videos etc. If not, she got over-stimulated, over-tired and there was hell to pay – screaming tantrum after screaming tantrum.

I’m only just realising my own need for decompression days. Society isn’t very good at taking a pause though, something that’s getting worse instead of better, an endless push for faster, harder, more. If you’re ASD/ADHD, your head is full enough already, 50 brain tabs running all together while being constantly bombarded by sensory overwhelm. Noise is a big one for me, something I’m noticing when trying to drive; it’s why I’ve bitten Lily’s head off at times when she starts immediately fiddling with the radio and changing it to one of her CDs while I’m still absorbing the energy of both kids coming out of school full of complaints and chatter, the frenetic car park of pupils and vehicles moving in and out, the queue to get out, the cars whizzing past on the main road… SHUT UP ALREADY! I guess that’s why when I travel earplugs are essential, otherwise I can’t sleep – my brain recognises that the noises around me aren’t right and starts freaking out, trying to pick up every sound in case I’m in danger.

The fastest way to improve the everyone’s work-life balance would be to make the weekend a day longer. The bliss of having that extra day during Bank Holidays or Inset days but all year round- we get a decompression day, a chores day and a fun day. Personally I think it would boost the economy and the nation’s productivity no end, reducing sickness and stress and giving neurotypicals another day to go to the Mall and spend money. In the meantime, I may have to buy ear plugs for home use too, or fantasise about a return to scythes and old-fashioned non-electric mowers like my Grandad had. Wasn’t Poldark supposed to have sparked an interest in scything again? Thinking about it, I know one of the actors in the TV series… could I get Poldark himself to scythe my overgrown grass and set off a quiet new suburban trend?

Slugs and snails

I have a new hobby; snail-flinging. My lovely hostas have been shredded. My two trays of seedlings, bergamot and chamomile for the herb garden, disappeared overnight. The grapevine I planted has been nibbled away entirely to the point where I don’t know if it will recover – thankfully it was on a cheap offer, and I’ve popped a plastic bottle over it as a make-do cloche in the hope it will grow back. When you’re investing so much into your garden in terms of your time, energy and emotion as well as money, it can feel devastating to have slugs and snails destroy your plants while you sleep. I’ve been trying to nip out as it gets dark, picking off the snails by hand and flinging them down the garden as if it was an Olympic sport. Slugs are fired off with the addition of a spoon, I’m not up to picking them up with my bare hands. This doesn’t actually kill them, merely delays the inevitable while I look for better solutions. The kids have enjoyed a spot of snail-flinging too, although I’ve struggled to keep them on track with their aim. It’s not okay to fling snails into your neighbour’s garden, I’m fairly sure that’s the kind of behaviour that earns you an ASBO.

The basic choice with slugs and snails is to put down some kind of physical preventative barrier such as crushed eggshells, or to attack them chemically. Traditional slug pellets are out as I want to garden organically. Knowing the damage that they can cause further up the food chain to frogs and birds etc, I’m amazed that they’re still legal. Nematodes might work for a small area, such as the barrel planter, but not across the whole garden. A few years back I bought a packet of what turned out to be rough shards of pottery that the slugs and snails were supposed to not enjoy crawling over, but it didn’t seem to have any affect. A circle of porridge oats around a plant seems to work well, but I’m unsure of whether this is safe for birds as the raw oats can then swell up in the stomach. Salt seems too vicious, but wouldn’t be much good for the soil either. I’ve had limited success with beer traps, which get a little bit disgusting to empty out but at least it’s a relatively happy death, unlike being dropped into boiling hot water, or the bucket of salty water my Mum favours. Perhaps I’m getting too soft in my old age. Gardener’s World has just featured wool pellets, which work on the premise that slugs and snails don’t like the texture and won’t crawl over them, and have the bonus of being natural and should eventually break down into the soil. No doubt there will immediately be a rush to buy them up across every garden centre in the land. Amazon seems to be selling them at around £18 for a 10L tub, so not exactly cheap, but perhaps worth it if there’s a particularly special plant that you’re trying to protect. I’m wondering whether I could use some wool stuffing to achieve the same effect.

Of course, the minute I start putting new plants in further down the garden, my snail-flinging won’t be a viable option. I’m wondering whether I could trail a catch and a release scheme, dumping the pests by the bucketload at the very bottom of the garden where they would have to navigate their way through the orchard to make it back to my tender plants. Beyond that, it would be a late night walk to the cycle path to release them into the wild. At the moment though, I’m secretly enjoying trying to beat my personal best with each throw, as well as avoiding the added obstacle of the plum tree.

However, the heavy rain a few nights ago brought fresh horrors. Salt and Peppa meowed their loudest to remind me to give them a snack before going to bed, but when I checked I could see something in one of their bowls. What have the kids put in there now? I wondered, as Lily and Ivy were prone to donating “treats” to the cats when they were younger, be it cake or a slice of ham that was supposed to be in my lunchtime sandwich. It was dark out in the porch, so I switched on the torch on my phone. And promptly screamed.

Nine monster green slugs, demolishing the cats’ supper. Plus more on the walls, floor and door – and please excuse the nasty looking floor and walls as well – it was all thoroughly cleaned last weekend but as the floor level is lower than the ground outside and the damp proof course, there are ongoing problems with damp, as well as woodlice and slugs. These were the biggest, fattest, ugliest, scariest slugs that I’ve ever seen – I don’t normally see this type in the garden. Not knowing what else to do with them, I took them outside in the dark and tipped them into the middle of the grass, then came back to remove the stragglers and the remaining monstrous hordes lining up on the doorstep for entry.

No wonder the poor hostas are suffering – the slugs are beefing themselves up on cat biscuits, then attacking my plants as pudding. I need to get tougher, develop a no tolerance attitude to the slimy critters and bring out the bucket of brine but I’m getting too soft in my old age. I don’t like the idea of killing things and should probably become a vegetarian. Frankly, I’ve got enough to deal with without a colony of monster slugs living in my garden. Or in my house for that matter. What’s a sensitive gardener to do?

Courtyard Retreat

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The patio. A crucial part of the garden, the transition between house and nature. A place to sit and enjoy the view, to share a meal, to sip an early morning mug of tea or evening glass of wine. In this case; not exactly a promising start. Mouldering old trellis, a myriad of pots and containers, the bench we’d brought with us from the last house, in dire need of a repaint.

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It got even worse before it got better; a huge pile of thorny prunings from the rosebush, plastic mesh retrieved from the undergrowth when I fixed the fence, bags of compost… Not exactly somewhere you want to sit and relax. The patio had become a dumping ground, making me shudder every time I came outside. Looking out of the windows onto the garden wasn’t a pleasure either.

Although I’d been working hard in the garden, I told myself that the patio could wait. The urge to fix it up was growing though, the awareness that I needed a place to sit outside, be still and enjoy the garden as it gradually developed. It fast became a soul-urge. Paint the trellis, came the whisper. Start there. And so I did… and it didn’t take as long as I’d feared, and one thing led to another and…

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Ta da! Sorry about the glare, it was taken through the living room window. Suddenly the grotty patio had become a courtyard retreat. A place to sit and breathe, read a book, eat lunch, listen to the birds. The early morning sun makes it a lovely spot first thing, then as the heat builds up in the afternoon it begins to shade over, becoming a refuge for over-heated gardeners. Even Lily and Ivy have appreciated the difference, having been spotted out there occasionally; Lily with her tablet on the bench which still manages a Wifi signal from the house, Ivy at the table with sketch book and paints. At the House in the Sky we’d often sit out on the patio to eat a meal, particularly if we had friends round – it’s a habit I’d like to get into again, although the table only has two chairs and is on the petite side for three sets of plates, glasses etc.

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As afternoon turns to evening, the little solar bulbs (Sainsburys) switch on, making the place even more enchanting. The bench has a fresh coat of paint and waits patiently for one of us to sit in the cooling air, letting the day’s stress slip away in the fading light. Lesson learned; it’s worth taking the time to make one small area of the garden into a special retreat, a refuge from the cares of the day and thoughts of all that still needs doing. And if that sweet courtyard refuge is what you see when you first step out of the door, rather than an ugly pile of jobs to be tackled, so much the better – it will coax you into your garden rather than beating you about the head with your To Do list.

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.

On Imperfection, Barrels and Buddha

May has brought a very unBritish heatwave, followed by its very own monsoon season, sometimes in the space of a single day and most usually when I’ve hung the washing out to dry. After over a week of scorching hot weather, the ground was too hard to dig and so I’ve shifted to other jobs; painting the fence and bench, revamping the patio area as well as trying to keep everything watered. Watering is tricky as there’s no tap at the back of the house and so watering cans have to be filled up in the kitchen or bathroom, carried dripping through the house and out into the garden. I’ve now managed to install a water butt, almost correctly, and so there’s some water available at the back, as well as a large barrel further down the garden, although this isn’t connected to any gutters and so only fills from rain falling directly in it. I’ve been setting out as many containers as I can to catch rainwater and manually refill the barrel – my garden looks like an episode of Bear Gryll’s The Island at times. It’s only when you don’t have water that you appreciate how sacred it really is. I will say nothing of the constant hiss of hosepipes in neighbouring gardens as I’m slogging down the path carrying watering cans of my recycled bath water. I’m so glad I mulched the new flower bed after planting, it’s done a lot to help my precious new plants to get through the hot weather.

Unable to make much more progress while the ground was so hard, I turned my attention to the patio. Oh dear. A large pile of thorny trimmings from the overgrown rosebush and trellis that needed shredding, bags of compost and mulch, plants awaiting a home, pots that once were plants and now were weeds, random bits of wood and pallets and much general debris. Not exactly a space that cried out to be sat in and enjoyed. After a good tidy up and sweep, the trellis repainted and the table and chairs reinstated, it’s now a lovely little patio where we can sit outside and chill, read on the bench, or have a meal. One of those jobs that feels overwhelming but doesn’t take all that long once you get down to it. It was all so much better… except for the barrel.

Yep. Not great. The barrel was left behind by previous occupants, and judging from the state of it, I imagine they inherited it from their predecessors. It was now a sad accumulation of weeds and building rubble, too heavy to even move. With the blazing hot weather still preventing me from digging elsewhere, it was time to tackle the barrel. Once I’d started digging out the soil, I discovered why it was so hard to move – the bottom of the barrel was full of bricks. I’m not sure if someone thought it needed bricks for drainage, or whether they just wanted to get rid of them or were hoping to use less compost, but it was as much brick as it was soil. It all came out, then fresh compost went in and I was ready to plant.

Back at The House in the Sky, I had bought half-barrel planters for Lily and Ivy, let them choose their own plants from the garden centre to create their own mini-gardens. It’s a lovely idea for kids, as it’s more manageable than a patch of ground and way cuter – the main issue is to make sure they get enough water. Lily chose a strawberry plant amongst others, and would proudly give Ivy the one, precious strawberry that it grew each year. There should have been others, I don’t know why it only generally managed one, probably slugs, snails and woodlice were to blame. But still, a moment of cuteness and generosity, a very rare thing to be treasured. By the time we moved, the barrels were falling apart and we left them behind along with so much else, so many hopes and dreams. All this was running through my mind as I planted, along with the interruption of a phone call from Ivy as the school bus had broken down yet again in the hot weather and could I come and pick them up?

I’m just in the middle of something, give me ten minutes and let’s see if they get a new bus out to you quickly.

Because sometimes you need to finish what you’ve started. The barrel was going to be something beautiful, a contemplative spot, somewhere for me to sit and enjoy. If I ran off now and left it unfinished, everything would likely sit there for several more days until I could get back to it, plants drying out in the heat, weed seeds blowing into the fresh compost, resolve dwindling in the face of new chores. So I planted, and put down a layer of cardboard between the plants and piled up cobbles and placed the centrepiece I’d haggled over in the garden centre…

Ta da! My new garden meditation spot. Not that I do any kind of proper meditation, but sometimes sitting peacefully outside is as Zen as it gets. My little Buddha is there to remind me to do just that, to take a moment and rest and breathe while enjoying the quiet, the birds, the flowers. To contemplate beauty and stillness, rather than the To Do list. The bus brought the kids home okay after all; Lily noticed the difference straight away and declared it to be our Japanese garden, while it took Ivy a week to notice, by which time the slugs were attacking the hostas with primordial vigour. No matter. My garden will never be perfect, neither will life be. I’m learning to try to make the most of it anyway.

Beltane Moon

The kids have been dropped off at school. I’m supposed to be attempting the 5:2 intermittent fasting diet, but I stop off at the farm cafe on the way home, ostensibly to buy flowers for May Day – I’ll do my best to resist the almond croissants, even though I’m already hungry and it’s not quite 9am. The flowers here are usually beautiful, locally grown and artfully put together, but today they’re a little disappointing, the daffodils clearly having passed their best. Not worth the £9.95 price tag. I could point out their flaws and ask for a discount, but I’m not in the mood. They’re a gift for a friend who is going through chemo; she deserves more than flowers I’ve had to haggle over. The cafe used to be my favourite, but it’s since been taken over by the local gentry, the car park full of Range Rovers, posh people braying about their holiday plans. My god, but posh people talk loudly. They dominate the space, interrupt my thoughts, make it impossible for me to sit and quietly write.

May Day. The year is flying past already – is the world speeding up or is this the inevitable affect of age? Years seemed to creep by so slowly when I was a kid, and now I can’t keep up. “Have you got a busy day ahead?” the young man asks me as he hands me my tea – I’m proud to say I resisted the croissant. It’s a question I hate. My days seem pointless, full of chores but nothing I could point to and get excited about, nothing that seems worthwhile. I tell him that I was supposed to be taking my friend to chemo, but she’s not well enough and I’m waiting to hear what she feels up to doing. I don’t tell him that the flowers were crap this morning, clearly he’s on barista duty so it’s not his fault. I don’t tell him that my life feels pointless, that my mind is full of depression, anxiety and trauma, that I can’t seem to think clearly any more and I’m struggling to keep on top of the day to day tasks. That when I think about the days ahead, all I see is relentless treadmill of school runs, cooking, washing up and nagging the kids to get up, get ready, do homework, go to bed and occasionally take a bath. I used to be fun, I think. Nowadays I can’t remember what fun feels like, what on earth I’d do to feel that way again, how to get it back. I used to make sure we went out at the weekends, did an activity together, went to a museum or gallery or day out. Since Lily moved back full time, I’ve been too exhausted, have found myself trying to work out how to make a meal from chickpeas and slightly out of date bacon rather than having to drag myself to the shops.

Once I read a post by a young woman suffering from a debilitating condition that left her with chronic fatigue, trying to explain to a friend why she couldn’t always manage to meet up. The gist was that she only had 10 spoons worth of energy per day. Every single task required energy – getting out of bed, showering, getting dressed used up about 3. Even pleasant activities such as meeting a friend for lunch took up another couple of spoons, which meant that on some days she just couldn’t do it – and also showed how much she treasured her friend, in that she was willing to spend some of her spoons in order to spend time with her. I’ve never had a diagnosis to explain why my energy levels are so poor – there’s anaemia for sure, hormonal issues, post-viral fatigue, weird metabolism and blood sugar issues; I just know that certainly since puberty I’ve constantly struggled to have enough energy to get through the day. The difficulty comes when you wake up and have only 3 spoons to get you through the day, rather than the expected 10; or that the day ahead is a 20 spooner. Further difficulties arise when you’re surrounded by people who have never experienced what the doctors call TATT – Tired all the time, who judge you for being lazy. It’s not laziness; on the days when my energy levels are good, I prove this to myself by running around doing everything that needs to be done, knowing that I need to make the most of it. Waking up already exhausted rather than refreshed is hellish. I look down out of my window at the small area that I’ve cleared and planted, wanting to get out and mulch it, having to weigh up the energy cost against knowing I’ve still got to drive to pick the kids up, cook a meal, wash up, get them to bed. I don’t have enough spoons.

Depression worsens fatigue. Fatigue can cause depression. Bit of a vicious cycle, that one. My friend texts to say she fancies a walk across the hills followed by a coffee. I want to cry. Can’t we just have the coffee? The walk will mean I don’t have enough energy to garden today, or at least not to tackle the jobs I was hoping to do. She has cancer, dammit, and I’m the one moaning about energy levels. ADHD has an impact, having the equivalent of 105 tabs open in the brain at once all running together is tiring. Not getting enough sleep, not eating enough protein, developing an unhealthy reliance on sugar as an emergency fix; none of it is helping. Some would say I need to get more exercise, they might well be right, but how do you exercise when you’re already exhausted? Learning more about ADHD has led to experimentation with caffeine as a form of self-medication, to see if it helps settle my mind and help me focus; Pukka’s Lean Green Tea feels good, but switching from decaf tea to full strength tea and coffee seems to have mainly brought on severe headaches; caffeine fail. I’m left not knowing whether to take more naps, or take more walks, rest more or power on through. The phrase I need a break plays through my head like a mantra – I so desperately need a holiday that doesn’t involve camping or self-catering or struggling with Lily’s outbursts.

Gentle, I try and remind myself. Go gently. There’s no point in beating myself up over anything. When progress feels so frustratingly slow, it’s vital to raise flags over every tiny success, every step forward, so that there’s something to look back on, something to cheer you on. A Ta Da list as well as a To Do list. Sometimes you need to turn around and see how far you’ve come before you tackle the mountains ahead.

I catch a glimpse of the Moon as I stand up to go to bed – rising over the distant hill, almost full, twice her normal size, her halo rendering the clouds around her inky blue and copper. It’s a stunning sight that lifts my spirits, a reminder that there’s more to life than the endless rota of chores. A moment of beauty. Beauty. It’s something I need more of in my life – not the chauvinistic hectoring of the fashion magazines about what face cream I should be using, and keeping my eyebrows in shape, but true beauty, duende, being emotionally transformed by a work of art, or nature herself. I wish I could photograph her to capture this moment, but the end result looks like someone is shining a very small torch a very long way away. The beautiful moon is a reminder that life is more than this, more precious than what my life has become. The moon waxes and wanes and goes dark before shining again, the tiniest sliver of light in the night sky, far more mysterious than the sun. And as she rises, so can I; sometimes waxing, sometimes waning, sometimes hiding away but always ultimately shining.

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.