Reading

Calm During Coronavirus

At times I have to question whether my brain and I are playing for the same team. Take Lockdown; as if looking after and home educating two high-maintenance teenagers wasn’t going to be enough to deal with, my brain decided that what I really needed to do was set myself a challenge. Why not write and publish a book on Kindle during Lockdown? And for bonus points, make it Covid19-related so that it’s incredibly time-sensitive? Yes, that’s an entirely sensible thing to do!

Well, I did it. Slightly behind schedule given the drama we’ve had around the threat of bailiffs, ambulances being called and yet another battle over Child Maintenance, but I did it. Calm During Corona: Coping with Anxiety During Lockdown is now available on the Kindle store.

I had to fight the demons telling me that it was pointless, that Lockdown was nearly over and it was too late to go ahead. It was important to me to get it finished and out there, even if no one buys a copy. This time around, it’s about the doing of it, of going ahead no matter what. Of course, the hope is that it reaches someone who needs it, someone who isn’t used to dealing with anxiety and feels like they’re struggling to cope. The book is a blend of reassurance and practical tips and techniques for coping with anxiety. I’ve learned so much about living with stress and anxiety over the last few years, it felt like a good time for passing on some of that knowledge.

The difference between having yet another unfinished project cluttering up your laptop, and having something finished and out there can be just a few hours – yet it’s immense and profound. Completion is an incredibly satisfying feeling, as opposed to the niggle of coulda woulda shoulda over things we never quite got round to doing. I’ve also hemmed the skirt of the dress I’ve been making – and I’m wearing it as I type this. I’m thinking of digging out a few more UFO’s (UnFinished Objects, in crafting terms!) and getting them done, for the pure satisfaction of it. Completion also seems to clear a bit of mental space – I guess every unfinished project still has a pocket of brain devoted to it until it’s either done or thrown away for good.

So – it’s never too late. Dust it off, whatever it is, and get it done. And if you’re looking for some tips on handling your anxiety while the pandemic continues, I highly recommend this book. (Follow this link for Amazon.com)

abuse, autism, parenting

What we did during Lockdown: vomit, ambulances and the CMS.

I’m on my hands and knees picking up broken glass and chunks of vomit from Lily’s carpet, while she yells at me to get out of her room. Seconds later she’s clutching her head, screaming in pain, demanding I cure her post-seizure headache immediately. Less than five minutes ago she was fitting, smashing a lamp as she fell to the floor, showering slivers of broken glass from the huge decorative (and expensive) lightbulb. There is a real danger of her choking to death on the partially-chewed food in her mouth, so myself and Ivy struggle to roll her into the recovery position as soon as we can, while a semi-conscious Lily fights us off. Despite being urged to stay calm and lie still, she suddenly springs up, banging her head on her desk in the process. Next minute she climbs up the ladder to her loft bed, while Ivy and I try to get through to her that there is broken glass everywhere so please just stay still.

I deal with the chaos, picking up all the mess from Lily’s bedroom floor, shaking out clothes from the window to make sure there’s no glass in them before putting them in the wash, heading downstairs to empty the dustpan. Lily appears in the kitchen, despite having been told to stay in bed, then suddenly swears loudly and yells for a bowl, which I manage to grab and hand over before she starts vomiting again. Ivy, who’s been helping brilliantly until this point, turns grey and runs upstairs to the bathroom, crying and retching, the sight of a vomiting sibling proving too much for her OCD.

Having made sure they’re both okay, and dealt with a second major vomiting incident from Lily after that, I’m on hold to NHS 111 on the landline while simultaneously trying to reach my GP on the mobile. I need advice about whether Lily’s vomiting and severe headache are post-seizure symptoms or signs of concussion, given that she whacked her head on her guitar amp; an ambulance ends up being sent to assess her. Of course, Lily initially refuses to be seen until I manage to explain that if she had concussion she might end up with brain damage. I have to then persuade the 111 operator that the paramedics would be able to safely assess her and not be turned away at the door. Lily then refuses to let the paramedics take her to hospital for observation, so observation becomes my job too. She blames Coronavirus for her refusal, but I know from past experience that she would have refused to go anyway.

This is the third seizure in 6 months due to Lily not taking her medication. ADHD-related executive dysfunction means that she basically can’t be bothered, even though I’ve put the tablets and a glass in her room. Or she forgets. Or… I don’t even know, because when I ask her if she’s taken her meds she always tells me she has. If you think that I can stand over my 17 year old twice daily and force her to take her meds, you clearly haven’t heard about Pathological Demand Avoidance. She’s now agreed to take them at breakfast and dinner in the kitchen, although I’m still reminding her twice a day, along with nagging her about her screen time, her caffeine intake, the amount of sleep she’s getting. I also have to check how much medication she has left, otherwise she’d run out and not let me know – it’s taking over a week to get a repeat prescription at the moment, and there’s only so many times you can explain to the GP and pharmacist that it’s an emergency before it gets hideously embarrassing. I have to keep track of when Lily has a shower, and remind her that she needs to wash more frequently than once every three weeks. Even with chunks of vom in her hair, it’s the next day before I can persuade her that she really does need to shower now.

Today Lily swore at Ivy with a word I found completely unacceptable, then argued with me over and over, becoming more and more rude and defiant and aggressive by the minute, not listening, talking over me, refusing to take no for an answer. No matter how many warnings she’s given, no matter how many times she’s told she needs to stop now and go to her room – or just leave me alone – she carries on until I explode and yell at her. And no, I shouldn’t yell – but I defy you to let a mosquito jump up and down on your arm repeatedly biting you without wanting to swat it at some point, which is the closest analogy I can think of.

Shortly afterwards the response I’ve been waiting for from the Child Maintenance Service arrives. It’s a short, badly worded letter, that basically only re-states their position that they are unable to revise their decision and I need to appeal to a tribunal. I fire off a curt response, including copies of the letters they’ve previously sent me with the relevant points highlighted. Look. You told me that my ex would have to go to tribunal to appeal the decision you made in my favour. Then you revised that decision without warning, based on false and misleading evidence he submitted. Now that I’m trying to appeal you’re telling me you’re not allowed to revise a decision, I have to go to tribunal. But you’ve already revised your decision on appeal! Kindly pick a policy and stick to it! I word it slightly more professionally than this and miraculously manage to refrain from swearing at them. I point out that I have full time care of both children, that both children are legally classed as remaining in full time education, and that Child Benefit continues to be paid for both children despite Simon’s attempts to sabotage it, so please explain why you’re opting to breach your own criteria for payment.

I have fought 7 battles over child maintenance in a little over 8 months. I’m exhausted, angry, demoralised. I’ve wasted hours and hours of my time writing letters, waiting to speak to an advisor at CMS on the phone – always at least 25 minutes on hold, registering and deregistering for their stupid online system, appealing to Child Benefits to undo the damage that Simon has maliciously caused, queuing outside the Post Office, or finding myself too angry and fretful to do anything useful. I’m getting half of what I should be paid, with further deductions taken off to pay Simon back for an “overpayment” that technically shouldn’t exist. What makes it worse is knowing that as I square up to fight this battle, there’ll be another one waiting around the corner, and another, and another, because the CMS refuse to take any action against Simon, even when it’s been proved that he’s lying to them. If I win the tribunal, he’ll find something else to appeal against, because nobody is stopping him. My biggest worry is that now he thinks he’s won by not having to pay for Lily, he’ll start looking for ways he can get out of paying for Ivy too. Well hello there, poverty.

I still don’t understand how there can be any loophole that allows a parent to throw their child out and then refuse to pay maintenance for them. I don’t understand how an EHCP isn’t automatic when your child has a diagnosis (or three!) of a recognised disability. I think Child Benefit should continue to be paid until 18 for autistic/ADHD teenagers whether or not they’re in full time education, given the difficulties of finding suitable post-16 provision and of getting adequate support – it’s simply not fair to classify them in the same way as a neurotypical teen who doesn’t share their difficulties. Similarly I think child maintenance should be paid for a disabled child for as long as that child remains in your care, given the economic impact of being a full time carer. Having children continues to negatively impact a woman’s ability to earn – more so if any time is spent as a full time Mum, even more so if the child has a disability. But to change any of this would mean having to campaign to change the law – change several laws – and I’m too bloody tired to think about it. And so we continue on, all separately fighting similar battles; single mothers being screwed over by ex-partners, parents of autistic kids battling to get their educational needs met, politicians not seeming to care how hard it’s making our lives.

So this is what I’ve been doing during Lockdown, rather than joining in with Joe Wicks, baking cupcakes or writing a book. As I’m sluicing bowls of vomit down the toilet, picking up chunks of it from Lily’s carpet, trying to make sure no one slices themselves open on smashed light bulbs, waiting on hold to the NHS and wondering whether it’s safe to have a paramedic in our home during the pandemic, or trying to explain for the umpteenth time that it’s really not okay to call your sister that and no, I don’t want an argument about it, and coping with the realisation that Lily could well have died if I hadn’t been there, I’m very very aware that Simon isn’t doing any of this. So why should I be punished financially for being the one who does?

Creating a life worth living, Home, parenting, Self Care

How to Reset your Sanity

Why is it that bad habits are so easy to create and so hard to break, but good habits are hard to build and easily lost? Before Lockdown I had created a strong early morning routine; meditation, herbal tea, a five minute yoga session, journalling and a fresh celery and apple smoothie, before driving Ivy to school – and three days a week immediately hitting the gym. I know. Impressive, huh? But by this past weekend, I had started sleeping in (and staying up too late), reaching for my phone before I meditated, forgetting the yoga and journalling and skipping the smoothie in favour of a coffee and croissant. Dishes were hanging around too long, I was failing to make the most of the good weather, not going for my state-sanctioned daily walk, and Saturday chores didn’t happen. A stress-migraine wiped me out for much of the weekend, and the depressing reality of being a single parent is that it really is down to me to keep the ship afloat. If I’m not on at the kids to do their chores, it simply doesn’t happen – no matter that there’s a chores rota pinned to the wall, no matter that they’ve had years to get used to the idea; unless I specifically ask/nag/yell, then it won’t happen. It’s up to me to keep everyone on track, including myself, otherwise things fall apart with alarming speed.

The shock to my system last week, resulting in the stress migraine, was the rapidly-acting catalyst to everything falling apart. The warning signs started to ping red – staying up stupidly late to watch a film I wasn’t that interested in, then sleeping in the next day after a bout of insomnia. Waking up with a feeling of vague dread. Repetitive thoughts beginning to circle. Realising it had been too many days since I last took a shower. Not wanting to cook, or wash up. Outside feeling too bright, too overstimulating to deal with. Spending too long playing Candy Crush. Craving sweets, the healthy eating plan forgotten. Good habits abandoned, shadow comforts taking over. With it, my mood started deteriorating. It’s a vicious circle; low mood creates executive dysfunction, so the healthy habits and regular routines start to slide away, which means the unhealthy habits creep in to replace them, which lowers your mood even further, which means you’re even less likely to do the stuff you need to do… and so it falls apart.

Most days I still feel like a recalcitrant teenager. I marvel that the rest of the world seems to think that I’m a responsible adult – it doesn’t feel that way to me. A lot of it is ADHD, which can completely paralyse you and prevent you from doing what you should be doing – even what you want to be doing at times. There’s no actual explanation, you just can’t do it. Which is why it’s so important to create structure, to normalise routines and habits, so that they become as standard as brushing your teeth. After a year or more of trying, meditation has finally become a daily habit – my streak on Calm is now an unbroken 108 days; it would be almost double had I not had an overnight stay without WiFi last December. Yet for much of that time, I had to push myself to do it; create reminders so I wouldn’t forget, stick to the same time each day, as soon as I could after waking. It’s this aspect that I’m trying to explain to Ivy and Lily – that we all have to do things that we don’t want to do, and that we have to push ourselves to do things that will be healthy for us in the long run, even if we don’t feel like doing them in the moment. Like going for a run, or quitting sugar, or hoovering. I never feel like washing up, I tell them. But I hate coming downstairs to a dirty kitchen in the morning and it starts the day on a bad note.

Knowing I was slipping meant making a decision – to continue the downward spiral, or hit the reset button now. I reached for my journal, scribbled out what I’d been feeling and how I’d been struggling. Made a plan to pull myself out of the slump, listing what I needed to do each day to feel like I was progressing forward again… then realised it was ridiculously long and I was putting far too much pressure on myself. Separated out what was a daily must-do, and what could be spread out over the week. Woke up this morning and pushed on with re-installing the habits that I need to protect my mental health. Today that looked like writing an emergency letter to the CMS and then queueing outside the Post Office to send it by Recorded Delivery (letters have mysteriously vanished before now…) and then balancing that stress with a couple of hours spent in the garden, starting off seeds and then reading. I even paused to photograph the beautiful blossoms on a nearby tree on my way home, focusing now on the positive. Miraculously, with me feeling back on track and much calmer, both kids spontaneously appeared in the garden too, without me nagging them to come outside – they are refusing to set foot out of the house at the moment. It’s the Bagpuss effect. Washing was hung on the line, my bedlinen changed, a tasty dinner was cooked, the dishes washed, the floor mopped. Tomorrow I’ll wake feeling a bit more sorted, with a stronger impetus to carry on with the good stuff. It just took a good push to get me over the inertia.

So if Lockdown fever is starting to kick in and you’re losing track of the days, take a moment to reset yourself. Most things can be fixed by turning them off and back on again, including people. A journal or day planner is a must – think about what you want to achieve during Lockdown. This might look a lot like Just surviving it with as much of my sanity intact as possible, rather than Write a sequel to War and Peace, but that’s fine. Define what surviving it with your sanity intact looks like – does it mean showing up each day wearing full make-up and office-ready appearance, or going for a daily run, or getting through a whole day without yelling at the kids? Once you know what it looks like, brainstorm how you’re going to achieve it. What daily routines do you need to superglue in place? And when you find yourself slipping, it’s time to grip tighter rather than let go. So much trendy self-improvement talk is about the need to let go or go with the flow – but there are also times when we need to dig in our heels and grab a firm handhold to climb up on rather than plummeting into the abyss. When inertia takes hold ask yourself Do I want to spiral down or do I want to rise up? A little push can go a long way.

abuse, Creating a life worth living, Home, parenting

Survival Instinct

 

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(From Pinterest, original author unknown)

I try to remember that long queues snaking outside the shop have been a normal part of everyday life for millions of people throughout time. The scene feels reminiscent of footage from the Soviet Union back in the 80s, when people didn’t even necessarily know what they were queueing for – you joined the queue and hoped that the food you needed would be there at the end of it. Which essentially was exactly the same situation that I was now in, queueing outside Tesco at 8.30pm, homemade face mask in place, anxiety levels rising and a handy stress-related migraine rapidly building. Trying to follow the newly installed one-way system without missing anything on the list, trying to find alternatives when what we needed wasn’t in stock – no pasta, no rice, no flour, no chicken flavour Super Noodles, trying to maintain the requisite 2m from everyone else… supermarket shopping was stressful enough before Covid19, but it turns out there was a whole new level of pain to overcome.

The stress migraine had largely formed beforehand, with a letter from CMS informing me that they had reversed their original decision and were now ruling in Simon’s favour, judging Lily to no longer be in full time education, so he no longer had to pay maintenance for her. This after he sent false information to the Child Benefits office, telling them that Lily was not in full time education after being expelled from college, ignoring the fact that I was legally home-educating her while she was attending her new college part-time. Having finally won the EHCP we needed to get Lily extra support, she should have now been able to attend full time… except that college was now closed due to the Coronavirus crisis. I had successfully appealed the Child Benefits decision, largely due to the fact that Lily had previously been home educated age 5-8. If that hadn’t been the case, Simon might have been able to get away with it, despite having thrown Lily out and refusing to honour the “equal shared care” Child Arrangements Order that he’d insisted on obtaining. Of course, he’d then tried to use that Order to claim that he retained shared care and shouldn’t have to pay maintenance, but thankfully the CMS ruled against him. Some men will do anything to support their children… others will do anything to get out of paying child support.

With everywhere closed for the Easter Bank Holiday, it was impossible to get any further advice or take action until the following Tuesday, at which point it would be the familiar half hour wait to get through to CMS and explain they’d made their new decision based on false and misleading information. Which meant an entire Bank Holiday weekend of anxiety – would I have to wait 6 months on reduced maintenance in order to put my case to appeal, missing out on almost £2000 of payments? Would Simon have to pay this money back, or would he yet again get away with deliberately misleading the authorities?

Every time you fill in an official form, it makes it clear in BOLD CAPITAL LETTERS that deliberately sending false or misleading information is an offence and could result in a fine or even prison sentence. My experiences have shown this to be a lie. Simon has so far given false and misleading information to the Family Court (during 2 separate cases), CAFCASS, the police, Social Services, Child Maintenance Service (more times than I can count, but I think we’re onto 9 appeals now?) Child Benefits Agency and what would have been Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service had CMS not already reversed their decision. I’ve been left fighting false accusations and fire-fighting the consequences for six years, while the authorities do nothing to stop him. It’s exhausting and demoralising and has left me begging them to take action. The system simply doesn’t recognise the more insidious forms of domestic abuse and provides no protection. Abusers are able to exploit loopholes – for example the disgusting way that Child Benefit does not take into account the lack of educational provision for autistic teenagers at 16+. Or they refuse to follow court orders, knowing that without any jurisdiction for arrest, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it unless you have enough money to take them back to court.

Having just fought a battle over student loan repayments, and then Child Benefit payments, all under the shadow of Covid19 and lockdown, I really don’t need yet another battle. I’ve been battling for six years now, I’ve had enough. Simon and Astrid have repeatedly taunted me that I need to “move on” and “get over it” – yet they’re the ones making it impossible for me to do so. “Move on” and “get over it” in this context seem to mean “We want to ignore the court orders, refuse to look after Lily, pay absolutely no child maintenance and continue to abuse you as much as we like, while you just shut up and take it.” Without recourse to Legal Aid to take him back to court – Legal Aid is only paid out for cases of domestic violence in which it can be proved that you have called the police for your own protection, or have been hospitalised or required medical treatment, likely on more than one occasion – there seems to be nothing I can do to make him stop. And as I’ve already discovered, Court is useless when you’re up against someone willing to lie about absolutely everything, and a Court Order is a waste of paper if it doesn’t come with power of arrest.

I got through my shopping while fighting back tears and counting my breaths to avoid panic attacks. I bought myself a large bar of chocolate as some kind of solace; I will emerge from lockdown looking as if a Beluga whale had miraculously learned how to walk. Arriving home, I asked the kids to help unload and pack away, while I collapsed on the sofa with a couple of paracetamol and an emergency glass of Coke, clutching an icepack to my forehead. Naturally they started squabbling, then Lily refused to do the washing up that she should have tackled hours earlier, saying she was “too busy.” Doing what? I wondered, but it turned out to be playing Fortnite. Simon does not have to deal with any of this, I reminded myself. Simon is not having to keep both of us children alive, fed, happy, entertained and educated during this pandemic. Simon has not even bothered to get in touch to see how the kids are doing. People try to make it better by saying “Oh well, he’s the one missing out,” especially as neither of the kids want to see him any more – but the truth is that the kids are missing out, whether that’s missing out on the money they should be entitled to, or missing out on having a mum who isn’t ill or irritable with stress, or missing out on having a loving and supportive father. It sucks, frankly.

Life goes on. Next day, with a headache still hovering around the edges, I find the appeals form online and fill it out, ready to send if I can’t convince the CMS to reverse their decision again on Tuesday. I have stopped taking this personally, I realise. Simon’s shenanigans are now nothing more than an administrative and financial hassle. I’m the one who has actually moved on, while he still lashes out vindictively. Meanwhile Lily miraculously does the washing up without me having to nag her. They both fight over the dodgy flavoured Super Noodles. Ivy tells me about her hamster-related dream and I tell her about mine, involving dating a mysterious violinist captured by gangsters who threatened to cut off his fingers. I sow a few seeds and water the garden, admiring the daffodils I planted in the Autumn. There will be pizza for dinner and an at-home Movie Night. We will get through this. We’ve already been in lockdown for the past six years, we’ve gotten good at surviving.

Creating a life worth living, Home, parenting, Self Care

Ordinary miracles

The dishes are washed. Everyone has been fed. There are clean clothes, towels and bed linen tucked away in drawers and wardrobes.

Sometimes we forget how miraculous the basics can be. Hot water pouring out of a tap, or channelling through pipes to heat the house. I didn’t have to walk miles to fetch that water, nor send my children out to gather sticks to burn in order to heat it.

We forget too how many ordinary miracles we perform on a daily basis; the unappreciated wonders of maintaining a home, keeping everyone fed and clothed and as happy and healthy as we can manage. We have appliances our ancestors could only dream of, Hoovers, washing machines, cookers with controllable heat – yet such increased convenience has brought increased responsibilities. Laundry would once have taken all day, once a week- now it’s most days, fitted in around work, school runs, shopping, cooking. The number of tasks we accomplish each week can be astounding, yet we barely notice them. Most of them don’t count as accomplishments in a society focused only on financial success. Our minds are frazzled, our souls weary.

Perhaps this virus has shown us the value of the ordinary. Our heroes are not only the medical staff battling to save lives, the scientists searching for a vaccine or cure, but also the supermarket staff serving frightened customers and stocking the shelves, the delivery drivers keeping the nation going. People who were once considered too ordinary to admire, people making minimum wages- it turns out that they are the ones we really need.

Washing the dishes is the most hated job in the household. Nobody wants to do it, the kids complain loudly and do their utmost to get out of it when it’s their turn. Some nights I simply don’t have the energy after a day of running errands then cooking dinner, but it’s hateful coming downstairs next morning to a kitchen piled with dirty dishes. I would panic too that it was evidence I wasn’t coping, that my ex would find a way of using it against me to prove I was an unfit mother.

Since moving house there’s been more time, more space, perhaps even more energy. The dishes are getting washed every night, the kitchen floor swept and mopped. Remembering the times when it felt so hard to make it through the day, when the dishes piling up felt so overwhelming, I’m aware of the ordinary miracle that a clean kitchen represents. Fear, stress, uncertainty, and anxiety are so draining when we’re dealing with them on a daily basis, exhausting when there’s no end in sight. And that’s where we are right now as a global community, facing the unknown as the pandemic continues. The rhythm of our daily routines can provide reassurance, if we’re paying attention to them, if we learn to appreciate how much effort it really takes to keep calm and carry on. So at the end of the day, take a moment to appreciate what you have and what you’ve managed, especially if it feels like not very much. These are testing times and we are all miraculous.