Moving

Flurries of activity; sweeping through the house like a dervish, decluttering, cleaning, tying loose ends together with the help of the plumber and builder I’d procrastinated about hiring for a full year. Finally a working shower, a new back door. Countless trips to the charity shop, to the tip – sorry, recycling centre – with sacks of garden waste, broken electronics, two no-longer-working lawn mowers. Lily refused to give up the ancient armchair that she had utterly destroyed by squatting on during her “L from Deathnote” phase. She sat in it defiantly strumming her guitar while I asked her repeatedly to drag the bag of garden waste round to the front of the house ready to go to the tip. We were moving in a couple of days, everything had to be ready for the packers – because yes, I went all out and hired a removals firm to pack our belongings as well as shift them. It was well worth the price of my sanity, plus the house was so small that there was nowhere to put the boxes in the meantime! Ivy insisted on packing up her own room in advance, using up all the boxes we had. Lily tried to insist on doing the same, but 3 days before the packers arrive we discovered her room was a maelstrom of belongings, clothes, papers, rubbish, piled high and strewn across every surface.Thankfully she grudgingly accepted Ivy’s help in getting her room cleared (I was not allowed in her room, and too tired to argue with her), the wheelie bin crammed full of junk after a couple of hours of Ivy’s Marie Kondo style intervention. I could hear their voices through the bedroom door, Ivy patiently asking Lily to focus on whether she wanted to keep a particular book, while Lily hit distraction after distraction as she re-encountered childhood favourites; “Oh wow, look at this Corvette!”

Miraculously, the house sold within 4 weeks – after the first wave of potential buyers came through and dismissed it as “needing updating,” a young woman fell in love with the quirks of our tiny Victorian terrace. We had an offer accepted on a house near to Ivy’s new school, only for the seller to pull out the week after I’d spent £500 having a survey done. Although it was brutally frustrating, the survey then showed up major problems with the roof, and the vendor pulling out made the decision for me rather than having to agonise over whether to continue with the purchase. Moving 150 miles away meant that house viewings had to be arranged with military precision – a Folder of Organisation accompanied us at all times, potential viewings pencilled into half hour slots, my phone buzzing with return calls from estate agents. We stayed at my parents’ house, about an hour away from the town we were hoping to move to, spending several weekends endlessly driving around while Ivy clutched the Folder of Organisation and we debated the overall scores we were awarding to each house. I tried to keep it as fun as possible, and Krispy Kremes were purchased at frequent intervals, but Stress sat on my shoulders throughout, the stress of having to navigate unknown streets on a tight timescale, the stress of having to find us a suitable new home that we could move to before term started in September. When our purchase fell through, it looked as if we were going to have to put our belongings into storage and move in with my parents – thankfully my buyer decided to delay Completion by a month, and we were able to find a new home in that time. The major sticking point throughout was the third bedroom issue; the poor design of most postwar UK homes leads to 2 decent size bedrooms and one tiny boxroom – perhaps navigable with small children, but an impossible situation with teenagers, neither of whom was willing to accept such a small bedroom. In the worst cases it was hard to see how a full-sized single bed would even fit – the estate agent described one such room as a “cot” room, while I pointed out that I’d have to cut Lily’s legs off to have any chance of her fitting into it.

During the same timescale, I’ve also been navigating an EHCP application for Lily to try and set up the support she needs for college, and her PIP application, plus trying to support her through the GCSEs she steadfastly refused to study for. We had to tour the schools in the new town, then apply and appeal for a place for Ivy – an appeal which the panel refused to hear due to a technicality, even though they knew we’d driven 150 miles specifically for it, and would now have to immediately drive back again. We trialled a reduction in Lily’s epilepsy medication, only to discover that sadly, she’s not grown out of the condition and still required the full dose (thankfully she only experienced minor “absence” seizures in this time, rather than a full blown tonic-clonic seizure.) It’s been a ridiculously stressful time. I’m hoping that Autumn will be a time of settling, of being able to take time to set up our new home while we all adjust to our new life. Hoping that we can brush off some of the stress, like dust, as we settle into our new life, new town, new way of life.

Decluttering for the Truly Disorganized and Overwhelmed

Minimalism is trending; every other YouTube video or Pinterest post promises to help you declutter your way to clarity, space and a new, improved you. I think I’ve clicked on just about all of them. Even though I’ll never be a minimalist, I’m drawn to the idea of living more simply, streamlining our possessions and having a calmer, clutter-free space.

But.

And it’s a rather big but, to be honest. Just between you and me, I’ve always been messy. At this point I’m going to jump right in and blame it on ADHD, but maintaining a tidy, organised space has always been beyond me. Most of my possessions spent their lives spread across my bedroom floor when I was a child, and yet I knew where everything was. What looked like an atrocious mess to everyone else – particularly my horrified Mum – was to me a structured series of themed islands with clear stepping points in between.

I’ve always been stunned by people who have perfect kitchens, with empty, gleaming counter-tops and not an appliance nor wooden spoon in sight. I’ve gazed around in amazement in friend’s real-life Perfect Homes, literally unable to comprehend how they’ve achieved it. One thing is for sure; they don’t have as many books as I do.

Let’s see if any of the following sounds familiar;

There are so many things you’d rather be doing than tidying, and you run out of energy long before getting round to it. You’re sure you’ll put it away later, deal with it later, sort it out later… but later never comes and the mess begins to build. You can think of 101 uses for every single item you pick up, from used wine corks (stamp-carving, anyone?) to battered old books (could be re-purposed as an art journal, maybe I could even start selling them on Etsy?) – the Creative in you sees the potential in everything. Once you’ve put an item down somewhere, it’s like it ceases to exist and you don’t really see it as clutter any more, oh that’s just the old radiator that I need to take to the tip, I don’t need to worry about it. Clutter attracts clutter, more mess quickly joins the original out-of-place item and breeds until an unruly pile is formed. Nobody around you is pulling their weight and helping. You don’t have enough storage. So Much Paper, (seriously, having a child with special needs involves entire rainforests of paperwork,) what are you supposed to do with it? Sentimentality forbids you from throwing out anything the kids have ever made for you, you save every drawing they’ve ever done, keep the outgrown clothes and toys, because to get rid of any of it feels like you’re throwing away parts of your children. You just can’t be bothered, it’s so hard to get started. You feel completely overwhelmed and don’t know where to start or how to organise any of it. You have plans for all of it, eventually. You can’t get rid of things in case they come in handy – if you throw them out and then realise you need them, you’ll regret it. It seems so wasteful to get rid of things, and you can’t bear the thought of things ending up in landfill. You could probably sell some of it, but you’re not sure where – eBay, car boot sale? – and it’s such a faff to organise, but you don’t want to just give it away.

Maybe you’ve also studied the endless posts and videos about decluttering, quickly realising that they all pretty much say the same thing; get a box for Donate, one for Sell, one for Trash, one for Keep. Anything you’re unsure about, put it in a box, seal it up and leave it in the garage, and if you haven’t used it in a year then take it to the charity shop without opening it. Get a friend to help you. Stay hydrated. Tackle one small area at a time.

If you’re anything like me, none of this advice is particularly helpful. It sounds great in theory, but when you’re confronted with stacks of paper and assorted miscellany, all of which seems to have a purpose, it’s hard to know where to start. Perhaps if I really did have three sets of wedding china, several coffee makers and a novelty monkey lamp, decluttering would be easy. Ah yes, we’ll keep the Limoges, junk the Nespresso on environmental grounds, and give Aunt Susan’s lamp the ceremonial burning it truly deserves. Instead I’m left wading through piles of papers about benefits claims, hospital appointments and divorce, not knowing whether it needs to stay or go; I’ve already learned that you really don’t know what you might need in the future, especially where Court is involved. Throw in brain fog, stress, time and energy constraints and it becomes easier to live with the mess.

Yet ultimately, a clearer home is so much nicer to live in. Mess breeds stress and adds to the chaotic stew of busyness and not ever feeling on top of things. A tidy home feels so much calmer and frees up the space for better things, whether that’s a creative hobby or family board games. I’m now moving into my fifth home as an adult, and I’m aware of how much nicer it was to live in those homes once they were done up, tidy, clean and buyer-ready. Unfortunately, they didn’t much look like that when we were actually living in them! Having to frantically tackle my current home to get it ready for selling has made me aware of how much can be achieved in a short time – and determined to undertake this work as soon as possible in the new place so that we get to enjoy living there from the outset, rather than once we’ve decided to sell. With that in mind, here are my top tips for decluttering for the Truly Disorganized and Overwhelmed.

  • Reduce, reduce, reduce. Long before you’ve reached the bottom of the box of stuff, you’ve created a pile of things you don’t know what to do with. Stuff that feels vaguely useful, important, or that you can picture using in several projects. All too soon you reach the point of overwhelm, shove everything back into the box and give up on the whole idea. For the Truly Disorganized and Overwhelmed, the idea of completely emptying a box of stuff and either throwing it away or finding it all a rightful place is simply too much. So don’t start out with the idea that you’re going to clear away box after box. Your goal is to reduce; focus on reducing the overall number of boxes, clearing out enough stuff so that three box’s worth now fits into two, and two eventually go into one. Or streamline it so that the contents now fit a much smaller box. This allows you to begin honing your skills in deciding what to keep, and creates a more gradual, gentler process. Yes, you’ll end up having to go through your boxes several times, but it will get easier each time. For “box” you might need to substitute “closet,” “cupboard,” “drawer,” etc. Just have the aim of overall reduction rather than panicking over getting it perfect first time around.
  • Identify the big jobs and get on with hiring. Getting someone in to do the work can feel daunting – what if they turn out to be a cowboy, make the mess worse and rip you off? What about having to live with all the mess while the work is carried out? Websites such as CheckATrade can help take some of the guesswork out of hiring, but I’d still advise asking around. If you ask enough people, you’ll be able to get a personal recommendation for a reliable plumber, electrician, builder etc. Knock on doors when you see a nearby house has had work done, ask if they’re happy with it. If the job needs doing, then do it as soon as you can. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself in the position of having to put up with it for years, then paying to have it fixed so that the new family who are buying your home can enjoy it. Do you deserve it less than they do?
  • Know yourself. Would it be useful to have someone helping you, or do you already know that you’ll feel panicky and defensive if someone else starts going through your possessions and pressuring you to make quick decisions? If you’re going to ask for help, choose the person carefully and make sure they realise that you find it emotionally challenging. The last thing you need is someone getting frustrated with you for dithering over whether or not to keep every. single. book.
  • Give yourself enough time. If you’re decluttering for a move then start as early as you can – yesterday isn’t too soon. Don’t pull out more than you can deal with in one sitting, you’ll overwhelm yourself and end up in a worse mess. I’m a fan of Marie Kondo while understanding that it’s simply not practical for me to gather every single item in one go. Take breaks when you need to, but set a timer on your phone so you’ll get back to it. Last Minute Panic can motivate you like nothing else, but you’re always going to regret not starting sooner.
  • If you’re hoping to sell stuff, especially on eBay, you really do need to start early as it won’t necessarily sell straight away. eBay isn’t great for books, but there’s a roaring trade in secondhand Sylvanian Families and Lego so you might be able to persuade older kids to sell their outgrown toys; try to get them to take responsibility for photographing and describing their items so that they’re really earning their money. I’ve even managed to sell bundles of magazines but this works best with specialist titles such as sewing/craft, or foreign imports. Make sure you charge enough for postage as the standard eBay rates are a little low, and don’t forget to set a minimum price so that it’s going to be worth the bother of packing and posting it. Local Facebook groups (or Craigslist in US) might be better than eBay if you have large items and furniture to get rid of. If you’ve got a sizeable number of books, DVDs or computer games websites/apps such as WeBuyBooks might buy some of them; it’s worked out at around £30 per box for me so far – not a fraction of what the books were “worth” but better than getting nothing. Look for voucher codes offering an extra 10-15% profit. You generally need over £25 of sales to make it worthwhile, then the boxes can be taken to your nearest Hermes collection point (or equivalent) so there’s no postage charge – if you have a large amount you might also be able to get them picked up at your home by a courier for no extra cost. Knowing that you’ll get financial compensation for decluttering can really help with the process!
  • Car boot sales – oh Lordy. They can be a great idea at the start of the decluttering process, when you’ve got the most to sell, including some “big ticket” items that will generate enough interest and cash to make it worthwhile. Make sure to get there early, take drinks and snacks and have a very strict moratorium on buying from other stalls because if you’re buying burgers and drinks and forking out cash to the kids to buy more junk, it entirely defeats the purpose of being there and you won’t turn a profit. It’s worth leaving the kids at home unless one of them is older and sensible enough to be actually helpful – otherwise you’re better off using the extra space in the car to load up more stuff for selling; it sounds harsh but younger kids are going to get in your way, get bored, and want to buy up everyone’s cast-off toys. Don’t be too hard-nosed about prices, bear in mind that it’s going to be more profitable to sell it than end up donating to a charity shop, but don’t be bullied by the professional dealers offering you a pittance. Take a helper so that you can nip to the loo without your stuff getting nicked (warning – put anything valuable in a “safe” display spot where you can easily keep an eye on it!). You don’t necessarily have to price everything in advance, the “Make me an offer” approach can work well, and be prepared to haggle. However once you’ve already got rid of a fair amount of stuff, you’ll reach a point where car boot sales aren’t really worth the effort, bearing in mind it costs you for your pitch; consider whether it’s going to be easier and less stressful to just donate the rest. Also – it’s only worth doing it in decent weather, pack the car the night before, and don’t forget your sunscreen.
  • Kids. Leaving aside the hellpit that is a child’s bedroom, kids seem to generate a whole new set of clutter and paperwork, particularly if they have any kind of disability or SEN. Gather up all the random paperwork, get a box file or lever arch file per child and put it all in there. It will look better in a file than it does spread all over the house, and much easier to retrieve at a later date. If you want to be particularly organised, put the oldest stuff in at the bottom and add it in chronological order with the newest stuff at the top – this makes it easier to add in new papers as they arrive.
  • Buy one large scrapbook per child – the old-fashioned kind with large, thin cardboard covers that you can pick up in places like The Works, often with black pages designed for gluing things into. Use this as a repository for their early art work and tape/glue in your favourites. If it’s not favourite enough to be in a frame and hanging on a wall, nor stuck into their Art Scrapbook, get rid of it. Get a couple of cheap frames from IKEA and have at least one picture per child up on the wall, it looks a lot better than Blu-tack, and makes your kid feel super-important.
  • Watch relevant shows/YouTube videos to inspire yourself (do this during breaks rather than using it for procrastination!) – from episodes of Hoarders/How Clean is Your House? to videos about Tiny Homes, or one of the many YouTubers who focus on cleaning and decluttering. Watching Hoarders etc makes me realise I’m not actually that bad, plus it can be inspiring to see how much can be achieved in a very short space of time. Tiny Homes show how little we really need to get by, and help you to prioritise what you’d keep if you were moving into such a small space. Cleaning videos can be played in the background while you’re working to keep you motivated, and can also inspire you by showing how nice your home could look when the job is done.
  • Make a list of everything you’ve decluttered, this helps to keep you motivated when the going gets tough as you can see how much progress you’ve made. You don’t have to specifically list every book/DVD for example, just a general note of how much you’ve let go of. Some people like to weigh the total amount they’ve got rid of, or you might want to photograph it before it leaves. Taking pictures of sentimental items can also help you to then declutter them as you now have a record of it; I’ve found this can really help kids to let go of things they’ve outgrown. It helps to document your progress in some way, find what works for you so you can take pride in how much you’ve done.
  • I’ve spent a surprising amount of time talking about decluttering with my counsellor (who I went to for entirely different reasons.) During one session we realised I’d put myself in a lose-lose situation with a lot of my “stuff,” particularly with potential projects and crafts. If I kept the items then I felt the over-bearing pressure of things I should be doing every time I saw them, from weaving a basket to sewing new clothes. If I got rid of them then I was admitting defeat, I’d failed to achieve my potential and there was an element of grief and regret over not having managed to do it. This Lose-Lose mentality literally meant I couldn’t win and that decluttering was agonising for me – no wonder I was procrastinating and going round in circles. Realising this helped me a lot, and I was able to let go of projects I knew I wasn’t going to undertake or that were perpetually half-finished, as well as saying goodbye to items I’d previously used but was realistically unlikely to use again, such as a paper-making kit. You might have a similar mindset about clothes, for example if you’ve been trying to lose weight to fit some of your old favourites, or books you haven’t got round to reading, or sports equipment that’s been gathering dust for a long time.
  • Donating is much easier if you’re able to find the right homes for your stuff. I knew I was ready to part with my collection of Selvedge magazines, but with a face value of over £200, I wasn’t going to chuck them into the recycling. When I discovered that a woman at my art class loved textile art, it was lovely to hand them on to her in the knowledge that they would be greatly appreciated. Check first though – not everyone wants your cast offs!

Places that might appreciate donations include;

  • Schools/colleges – art and craft materials, including fabric and textiles, plus magazines to cut up and use in sketchbooks or collage (make sure they’re age appropriate!). Books. DVDs, especially adaptations of set texts such as Macbeth etc.
  • Playgroups, children’s charities – toys in good condition, books, colouring books, children’s plates, cups etc. Be aware that it can be very difficult to pass on baby items such as high chairs and cots due to safety fears, and you can’t donate child car seats anywhere, at least in the UK – unfortunately I ended up taking mine to the tip. Sometimes grandparents-to-be will welcome high chairs, changing mats, car seats etc.
  • Doctor/dental surgeries, hospital waiting rooms – coloured pencils/pens, pads of paper, colouring books, toys such as small cars, magazines.
  • Community groups, ranging from youth clubs, Scouts and Guides to the Women’s Institute – will sometimes take furniture such as a sofa or chairs if they have a space they need to furnish – we once donated a sofa to a local Scout troop who wanted to create a hang-out space for their teenagers.
  • Charity shops – as well as the obvious clothes, furniture and bric-a-brac IN GOOD CONDITION, many charity shops also welcome “rag bags” – donations of old clothes/textiles that are not in a fit enough condition to be sold in store, but which they can sell on for textile recycling. Check before as not all shops do it, and make it clear that it’s for their rag bag so there isn’t a volunteer trawling with despair through your holey sweatpants and odd socks. Some charity shops accept electrical items, and some will also take furniture for repair/upcycling as part of their on-going training schemes – again, check with them in advance. Many charity shops will collect bulky furniture from your home, but it needs to be in good saleable condition and you need to set this up in plenty of time as their vans have limited space and might only be in the area once a week.
  • Charities – as well as charity shops there can be local charities who will accept specific items. When the kids’ old bikes failed to sell on our local Facebook group, we were able to donate them to a nearby bike project that taught young people to repair and maintain bicycles. When the charity shop wasn’t able to collect Lily’s old bed in time for the move, another charity that specialised in offering furniture to low-income families was able to take it instead. Women’s refuges are often in need of furniture and clothes. Not all charities have high street shops, so do a bit of research as to what’s available in your area and what they’re looking for.
  • Freecycle – one of the easiest ways of donating, as people will generally come and collect it from your house. There will generally always be someone who is very grateful for your cast-offs; an old mattress is better than no mattress. After moving I was able to pass on our empty cardboard boxes to other people planning a house move, and even have someone collect the large cardboard sheets that had contained Lily’s new IKEA bed (great for mulching a new garden bed.)

I hope this has helped. For me, one of the things that makes decluttering easier is knowing that the items I’m getting rid of will be helping someone else out. Yet even with the worst case scenario – taking stuff to the tip – it always feels so much better to have gotten rid of the extra clutter, you feel palpably lighter on the way home. And with all the stuff I’ve gotten rid of, there are only 2 small items that I regret letting go of – a tiny baby cardigan I knitted for Lily, and an especially lovely birthday card from when I was little, neither of which is that important in the grand scheme of things. It shows that most of the stuff I really can live without and that it’s only the truly personal, sentimental items that I’m likely to miss in the long run – everything else can be replaced.

Transformation

I’m ashamed to say that this was the landing not so long ago. A plastic crate of toiletries that landed here soon after the move, a chandelier that came with us from The House in the Sky but which needs an electrician to install, a bag of Christmas gifts that hadn’t found a home, a soft toy that Ivy was throwing out, a bag of old toy cars that Lily had finally agreed to get rid of, and several large samples of wallpaper purloined from B&Q for future use. A mess, in other words – but a mess that I had gotten so used to that I’d stopped actually seeing it. Is it just an ADHD thing? My mind is very capable of cataloguing clutter and then completely ignoring it, as if it weren’t there at all, particularly if the items are destined for elsewhere like the tip or charity shop. It’s only when something else intrudes into the domestic chaos, like knowing a visitor is about to descend, or -god forbid- deciding to put the house on the market, that suddenly the mess reveals itself through fresh eyes.

Panic.

The timescale of getting the house onto the market and selling it was pretty tight. Having only made my mind up in early March, it was clear that the house would have to be sold before June in order to complete all the legalities and move in to our new home before the September term started and Ivy begins her GCSE courses. Of course, we couldn’t move out before mid-June either, as Lily would be taking her GCSEs. The house would have to be on the market by early April to stand any chance of making the deadline.

More Panic.

Truth be told, every corner of the house contained a scene like the one above. We were still adjusting to living in a house less than half the size of our previous home, a house bought on the understanding that the kids would only be spending half of the week here, with half of their possessions stored at Simon’s place. Home-making had fallen victim to a court case in the first year here, to stress and mental health challenges, to Lily’s increasingly worrying behaviour and Ivy’s depression and anxiety. At times, I would beat myself up for not having managed to create the lovely home that I wanted, for failing to give my children the home they deserved. And yet, it was all too easy to forget the progress that I’d already made, despite the obstacles in my way. When we moved in, every single room was piled high with packing boxes. I joked with the kids that we’d be renaming the place Box Cottage. The washing machine didn’t fit under the counter and sat in the middle of the kitchen, boxes piled on top of it. A wardrobe wouldn’t fit up the narrow stairs and had to be abandoned in the garden, where it stood slowly rotting. We didn’t have a sofa, or beds, or wardrobes or any storage at all. Oh, and I had clearly underestimated the amount of space that the piano would take up in the living room, or wildly overestimated how big the living room actually was.

Panic Overload.

Single-handedly I chiselled out enough counter-top to fit the washing machine beneath, planned and built large IKEA wardrobes, found a secondhand sofa in a charity shop that would fit our tiny living room. The piles of boxes were gradually unpacked, even though some of them sat untouched for a full year before I was ready for them. A log-burner was paid for by instalments and fitted that first Summer, paying me back in the next Winter when the boiler broke and we had no heating. A ridiculous amount of flat-pack furniture was hauled up the stairs and assembled, our existing furniture heaved into different rooms. A new home was found for the piano with a local family. Pictures were hung on walls. A garden began to take shape, a log store was built from pallets. A rudimentary cabinet was built for a gap in the kitchen, shelves and hooks put up where needed, power tools and DIY gear beginning to overflow from the box I was keeping them in. If I stopped and assessed the situation, I had made so much progress from how things were when we moved in. Overwhelmed by how much still needed to be done, it was all too easy to forget how far I’d already come.

So much needed doing before the house could go on the market – the shower needed replacing, the back porch needed a leak fixing and a new ceiling, the render on the front extension needed some patches filling and repainting, the hall needed decorating, the broken decking out in the garden needed fixing or demolishing… not to mention the vast amount of decluttering, tidying and general prettifying that was desperately required. Nothing focuses the mind quite like a deadline though, and so suddenly workmen were hired to do the jobs that had been lurking for ages, while I scrambled to tackle the rest; trips to the tip, painting, tidying, cleaning, painting some more, weeding and strimming, buying light fittings and plants, taking bag after bag of donations to the charity shop or listing things on eBay. A month of sheer hard work and the house has been transformed.

Part of me couldn’t quite believe how capable I was proving to be, having only just turned the corner from severe depression. There was just no other option than to crack on with it, so that’s what I was doing – while also handling simultaneous EHCP and PIP applications for Lily. The other part of me couldn’t believe how much of a transformation was possible in such a short space of time. The house has begun to look and feel completely different. For the first time since we’d moved in, it feels like our home, comforting and sweet. Yes it’s small, but it does the job. We have all begun to appreciate it in a new way, enjoying the calmer, nicer atmosphere. Even the smallness feels cosy rather than cramped, with an awareness that living in such proximity has brought us closer. But it wasn’t just the house that has transformed. Many people have pointed out the link between our external spaces and our state of minds; a cluttered house is a sign of a cluttered mind. The hard work I’ve been putting in is rebuilding my confidence and strength; I’m proving to myself that I was capable, despite the lingering voice of abuse telling me that I’m useless, a failure. Decluttering is bringing a fresh clarity to my mind. Even just having made the decision to move has brought with it a newfound sense of hope and purpose rather than the fear and stagnation that I was stuck in. Can’t has become Can. And while it’s terrifying to leap into the unknown, leaving the lives we’ve created here behind in order to start over, I’ve already proven the basic fact to myself; I can do this.

The gentle art of leaf wine

Calm. Not just the popular app but a quality of life I’ve been craving. Gentleness. Quietness. Appreciation. Kindness. I’ve found myself seeking out tranquil videos on YouTube, the likes of Li Ziqi and Dianxi Xiaoge. It doesn’t matter that I can’t understand a word – in fact it seems to soothe my jangling nerves to not have to listen as someone endlessly rabbits on from the usual script; Hi guys, welcome to my channel, today we’re going to be looking at filling every available moment with meaningless chatter, don’t forget to like and subscribe!

I realise I’m trying to create a gentler life. I’ve always been drawn to bright colours and bohemian styling, but increasingly I’m replacing this with a more soothing, harmonious palette. Minimalism might be a step too far, but I’m drawn to the calm aesthetics and tranquil spaces that it espouses. I keep paring back, decluttering, discovering that the only thing I want more of is plants.

For a while now I’ve wondered about making my own videos as a form of appreciation for the gentle moments in life. I don’t have any specialist equipment or experience and I have no desire to appear on camera – yet my video watching has shown that there can be another way. Whether it’s Colette at Bealtaine Cottage talking to camera as she films her beautiful permaculture garden, or one of the many minimalist living vlogs that focus on food, design or gardening, I’ve found so much inspiration from videos that people have been brave enough to share. And it does seem like an act of bravery, given the number of trolls, haters and critics, people who don’t seem to care whether their words hurt or crush someone. Although there are a lot of people hoping to become famous YouTubers, not everyone shares that ambition. Some just want to create, or inspire, or share their knowledge.

It’s in that spirit that I’ve created my first video, about making hedgerow wine, a hobby I’ve had for several years now. So many people have asked me how to make wine that it seemed worthwhile to make a video on the subject. Not wanting to point a camera at my face while I jabber on about sterilising demijohns and the rules of foraging, I’ve aimed for the peaceful aesthetic that I’ve admired in others.

If you are tempted to try making leaf wine it needs to happen in Spring, while the leaves are soft and fresh, before they are too full of tannins. Most of the equipment can be found secondhand, or on Freecycle or similar, while Wilkinson’s/Wilko seem to be one of the few high street chains that carry wine and beer making equipment, such as yeast, citric acid etc. Leaf wines are one of the easiest and most reliable to make, and should be ready before Christmas – just please make sure you know which tree you’re taking the leaves from, use a reliable tree guide or ask a more experienced forager for help.

Moving on

Struggling, falling, crashing and breaking. Gluing the pieces of our fractured lives back together and carrying on somehow. Crawling back to the starting line, trying to rise, then inevitably getting knocked back down again. Each time thinking I’ve found my feet, can begin to build things up, only to be hit with another setback that brings everything crashing down again. This has been the debilitating pattern of the past five years, each fresh round feeling harder, bringing me down further. The last few months have seen another mental health crisis, the worst yet, this time brought on by struggling to deal with events at school. The Head of Pastoral lied on Lily’s school record in order to cover up his own failings, in a way that makes me look like the world’s scummiest mother – but the school insisted that they weren’t going to change it. Despite having to fight so hard for my children over the past five years, having struggled (and largely failed) to get the school to provide both the academic and pastoral support they both need, school are essentially saying “We think you’re scum.” The last straw, anyone?

Knowing that this teacher is deliberately lying and misrepresenting our conversation took me back emotionally to having to fight Simon’s lies and accusations in court, the ongoing struggle to clear my name, to have someone, anyone, actually look at the evidence and believe me. In these situations you’re not only left fighting the abuse, or the failings of the school in this case, you’re then left fighting the ensuing lies about the situation. It re-triggered the PTSD that I thought I was largely getting over; back to severe depression, anxiety attacks, insomnia, daily life slipping through my fingers as I was left unable to catch onto the threads that hold us together.

Of course, it’s not just dealing with school that’s brought this on. It’s the ongoing battle to heal the PTSD caused by Simon’s abuse. The daily 24/7 difficulties of having a teenager with autism, ADHD, epilepsy and gender issues. The realisation that likely myself and my younger daughter are also on the spectrum, struggling day to day in our own way. The relentless battle of being a single mother, coping alone with the responsibilities. The same reluctant mantra playing through my head: It’s just too much.

My GP urged me to challenge the school, make a formal complaint, but I simply didn’t have the energy – my own survival was of more importance. Nor do I have any faith in the school’s ability to respond with objectivity. As I fought to recover, the realisation grew that I’m just too tired. Life here is too hard – trying to heal from trauma, cope with illness after illness, handle two incredibly challenging teenagers while struggling on with the daily demands, no support, no back up plan. When I get sick, whether that’s my physical or mental health, it all falls apart. And realistically, there’s nothing I can do to change it – we can’t afford to move house here unless it’s to a worse area, even further from school. Unless, that is, I opt for something more radical; shifting us over 150 miles North, to be nearer family, in hopefully a better house (heck, I’m just hoping for a parking space somewhere near my front door!), a school for Ivy within walking distance – or at least closer than 11 miles away, and the chance for Lily to attend a specialist music course. I’ve ummed and ahhed and agonised, but ultimately it seems the best option; the fresh start I was planning when we moved from The House in the Sky over two years ago, but never got the chance to have. For several weeks I found myself saying “I think it’s for the best, but I can’t quite decide…” before realising that the decision had already been made, deep down, and just need to be spoken out loud.

We’re going to move.

The Accidental Runner

I’ve taken up running, entirely by accident. I’m not even sure how it happened. One minute I was a fervent anti-runner, would never have put the words fun and run in the same sentence… then quietly over Christmas, my body started whispering that maybe she might quite like to start running, much in the same way that she’d whispered earlier last year that she thought she’d really rather enjoy swimming. The swimming has been going -ahem- swimmingly, my face spontaneously breaking out into a grin when I enter the water and begin my old-lady-breaststroke 15 lap minimum. But running? Surely not. Running involved getting hot, sweaty, red-faced and out of breath, putting undue pressure on feet that had only just recovered from plantar fasciitis, and being seen in public wearing dodgy Lycra outfits. Yet my body remained quietly insistent that yes, running was what was required, and I know by now that it’s generally worth paying attention to what my body says she wants. It’s only taken me 46 years to understand this.

Apart from a brief spell of jogging in my teens, which was as much about wanting to get as close to Nature as I could in urban Liverpool as it was about actual exercise, I’ve never been running. Plus this time around it was Christmas, I was at my parents’ home in Liverpool without so much as a T-shirt or pair of trainers and with a large pile of chocolate to work my way through. As actual running was clearly not an option, I did the next best thing – reading about it. Firstly Anna McNuff’s The Pants of Perspective, an account of her solo run through New Zealand- literally all of New Zealand, from South to North. Crazy Lady. While impressive and inspiring in its own way – and kinda funny in that McNuff clearly isn’t a planner and the trip was alarmingly and refreshingly ad hoc rather than having been thrashed out in military detail beforehand – it didn’t have much relevance for a couch potato like me who’s not in the habit of tackling a mere 40k before breakfast. Bring on Bryony Gordon’s Eat, Drink, Run. Overweight and struggling with severe mental health issues, Gordon found herself running as a way of dealing with her depression… then, in her role as a journalist and mental health advocate, ended up chatting over-enthusiastically to several members of the Royal Family, and accidentally putting herself forward to run the London Marathon. Which meant that she really did have to take up running. Much more relatable. Not that McNuff’s book wasn’t enjoyable, just that it’s far easier for me to relate to someone who is completely unfit and falling apart and then takes up running by accident.

A Proper Running Shop was required to buy myself a decent pair of running shoes, realising that my “good” trainers were over twenty years old. The very nice man had me running on a treadmill to check my gait and found shoes with as much support as possible, given my previous injuries. Testing several pairs out in this way showed me that there really is a difference; with some of the shoes I felt flat-footed and landed heavily, while others felt much lighter and bouncy. Although blimey, they don’t come cheap. Terrified that I’d wasted a ridiculous amount of money on trainers that I’d never wear again, I signed myself up to the aptly named NHS Couch to 5k app, and the Red January programme run in association with Mind, the mental health charity, with the aim of exercising every day in January. Then on the 2nd January, I crept out into the grey light of dawn and with Sarah Millican’s reassuring voice in my ears, began my first run along the nearby cycle track. Or rather, my first walk. Week One had me walking for 90 seconds, running for 60 for repeated intervals. My Aldi fitness leggings began sliding down with every step, leaving me clutching the waistband so as not to get arrested for public decency offences. My other hand juggled my phone and water bottle. It was freezing out and I was nervous that I wouldn’t even manage Day One as I was so out of condition. But I made it, with an imaginary orchestra playing a triumphant Thus Spake Zarathustra behind me as the final seconds counted down (that one from 2001, A Space Odyssey.)

I’ve just completed Week 3 of the Couch to 5k app, now up to running three minutes at a time. My body is loving it, craving it even. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a rubbish runner, just as I’m a rubbish swimmer; I have no intention of entering any kind of 5k race or timing my personal bests. I’m just doing this for me. What I’ve realised is, it doesn’t matter whether or not I’m any good at it. Doing it anyway is what counts.

Fire-fighting and the Magic Button

“I’d like this year to have less fire-fighting,” I tell my counsellor. “I want things to be a bit calmer.”

She looks at me. “Is that realistic, given Lily’s difficulties?”

The impact of her words hits my chest like a punch. As ridiculous as it might seem to an outsider, I hadn’t actually considered that. I’d merely assumed that I was doing something wrong and that the stresses and emotional turmoil we endured over the last year could hopefully begin to fade away if I just tried harder, worked on myself, operated from a place of stronger mental health. Maybe meditating, drinking green smoothies, reading the right book; somehow there had to be a way of finding normality, of making everything okay. The Magic Button, in other words.

When you have a child with difficulties such as autism and ADHD, people look to you for the Magic Button. Teachers, grandparents, even going way back to kindergarten and crèche workers will all at some point sit you down and inform you that your child isn’t responding to them the way he/she should be, and is misbehaving (“making poor choices” in modern day teacher-speak) and so could you please give them the Magic Button? You know, the one key phrase or action that means your child will suddenly switch off their challenging behaviour and behave perfectly for them.

Over and over you explain that there’s no quick fix, no instant solution, no Magic Button. That you really have nothing to offer other than the general advice to try and keep a sense of humour, patience, very clear instructions etc, and that some days none of it will work. That Lily is genuinely not capable of holding it together 100% of the time, that 80% is pretty good and she just can’t manage that final 20%. They won’t accept that though. If she’s capable of “making the right choices” 80% of the time, surely she can do this 100% of the time? She just needs to make better choices, that’s all. So if you can give them the Magic Button, they can get her to 100%, tick all the boxes and go home happy.

“There is no Magic Button,” you find yourself explaining yet again. My God, you wish there was.

I hadn’t realised that I’d got into that same mindset myself. Expecting myself, or an as yet unknown professional to suddenly come up with the Magic Button that would “fix” Lily’s behaviour. If I found the right supplement, or therapist, or managed to explain things to her in the right way, it would all click into place and life would begin to flow more smoothly. It’s very hard to accept that this isn’t an option. Weirdly, it’s hard to accept that maybe I’m not actually doing anything wrong.

Of course, it’s impossible to tell how capable Lily really is. It seems that she can be intelligent and relatively capable when she wants to be, but demand avoidance and Oppositional Defiance Disorder combined with ADHD mean that it’s virtually impossible to motivate her when she’s not interested. Given that she still refuses to do any studying, despite her GCSEs rapidly approaching this year, it’s evident that her grades could be improved if she put even a tiny amount of effort in. But she won’t. And there’s the issue – do I accept that refusal as part of her condition, or do I continually fight against it? Similarly, should she accept that part of her make-up that leads her into stubborn refusals and defiance, or should she work to change it? Can it be changed, or even improved a little? I don’t have any answers, see-sawing between feeling sure that Lily needs pushing to do better, or wondering whether in fact she’s more disabled than anyone gives her credit for.

“It’s like trying to push a double decker bus up a hill,” I explained to the counsellor, describing how it felt to battle to support Lily every day. “Exhausting, demoralising and you can’t make any progress upwards, all you’re doing most of the time is trying to stop her from sliding back down the hill into the swamp.” The swamp – my fear for Lily, borne out by too many of the ASD/ADHD families we’ve met – of a child/teenager/adult who never comes out of their bedroom and spends their entire life playing computer games, rather than existing out in the real world in any meaningful way. So what? some people might say, the kind of just let them do what they want and keep them happy philosophy that I’ve learned doesn’t work with Lily. A life spent playing computer games in the bedroom is a life only half-lived – and when you know your child has more to offer than that, it’s heartbreaking to see their gifts go to waste. Lily could achieve a lot with her music, if she could manage to stay on track and put some effort in, particularly if this was backed up with the right educational support. And there goes the next major issue, the total lack of provision for autistic kids, which warrants an entire post in itself. Every single day brings the same battles over the basics; getting up on time, cleaning teeth, studying, bathing, chores, homework, getting off the computer, bedtime… “What happens if you just don’t?” one mother asked me. Then she won’t do them. She simply doesn’t get out of bed, misses school, smells bad and the mouldy dishes pile up in her bedroom while she builds her Minecraft empire late into the night. There’s choosing your battles and there’s what if all of it’s a battle? Because if you ease off, even a fraction, the bus starts to roll downhill, likely flattening you in the process. And then there’s the phone calls from school…

That week, the same quote keeps appearing in different guises. You can’t calm the storm, you can only calm yourself. You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to ride them. A sense of acceptance is beginning to form, the tiniest seed of realisation that needs to be nurtured; I need to detach. I can’t stop the storm, but I don’t need to hurl myself into the raging waters. If life is never going to be smooth or easy – if the firefighting is going to be endless – then I need to take a step back and find my anchors, develop the self care practices that are going to keep me calmer and help me cope better. I’m never going to be able to stop the stress from arriving, but perhaps I can try to create the space in my life to help me deal with it. A combination of detaching emotionally so that I’m not getting hurt on a personal level by whatever’s happening, while also vastly improving my own self care and support systems so as to be able to stand stronger and not crumble each time the storm hits. The image I have is of being able to watch the storm through a window, rather than battling to survive the elements in a tiny boat as I’m battered by wave after angry wave. That’s the idea, yet turning it into a reality remains an unknown quantity. Still, it feels that I’m sitting with the right questions at least, even if I don’t yet have the answers, nor the Magic Button. Perhaps the Magic Button was always the individual’s coping mechanisms, and not about the SEN child at all.