The Carer’s Log – a guide for parents

It says a lot about the state of my life that last week’s crisis isn’t even old news before the next issue is rolling in. The battle with Simon over child maintenance was instantly relegated to the sidelines when Lily was suddenly expelled from college, so much so that I had to remind myself to post off my statement and evidence in time to the CMS, caught up as I was in the new business of trying to find another college placement for Lily and fighting for the SEN support she so obviously needs. Meanwhile life continues, there’s no intermission doled out to hand you the space and time you need to handle whatever’s happening. So inbetween calls to local advisory services and colleges, I received an unexpected call from the London hospital that handles Lily’s hormone blockers for her gender issues. We’d already received an appointment for the previous week, which was then cancelled and changed to a phone call when I discovered the train fare would cost us over £300, and all because the clinic had forgotten to refer us to a more local service. But now the nurse was saying that our GP was apparently refusing to prescribe or administer the injection Lily receives every 10 weeks, so our only option was to travel down to the clinic to receive it alongside a final health check before they referred us to local services. With less than a week’s notice I was now left arranging travel – which ended up in an overnight stay as it was still cheaper to catch an off peak train the day before and stay overnight than it would have been to buy a peak ticket on the day of the appointment.

Given it was half term and Ivy was going off to stay with a friend, it seemed like it might be fun to spend a couple of days in London together with Lily. And, in the event, there were moments of fun. Except, that this was Lily, and so none of it can ever be straightforward. From the stress of trying to get her up, dressed, and out of the house on time for the train, to the meltdown on the train because there were no seats, to the tantrum when she inexplicably decided that I should buy her a full length leather coat right now, to absent-mindedly leaving her phone behind in the hospital toilets followed by a panic attack/meltdown until it was handed back to us, to giving me hell because we’d been sent up to the paediatric ward for her jab and Lily wanted it made clear that she wasn’t a child any more, to refusing to cooperate when the nurse wanted to measure her shoulders and hips as she’d not had to do it previously and she “didn’t trust it,” to her outrage at missing Halloween and how I never should have arranged the appointment in the first place (It wasn’t me, Lily, it was the hospital and this was the only day they could fit you in, otherwise you couldn’t have your blockers)… oh dear god. By the time we got home I was utterly exhausted – only to discover that Lily’s bedroom window was wide open, along with the heart-stopping fear that we’d been burgled. Thankfully, we hadn’t. But, I decided, I could be forgiven for choosing never to leave the the house ever again, particularly not with Lily in tow.

It’s hard, it’s so hard because this is what autism looks like – and for the most part it looks like bloody horrible behaviour rather than a recognisable disability. It’s hard not to get sucked in, not to get angry or frustrated by it. If Lily could do better, she would; that’s the conclusion I have to come to when her behaviour gets her thrown off the college course she absolutely loved. She wouldn’t have chosen to be expelled, she just can’t control the way she behaves when she’s anxious. And being autistic means that she’s anxious a lot, the world is a very overwhelming place. To make it worse, out in public most of the blame is put on me as her mother. I’ve obviously just raised her wrong, there’s still precious little understanding around autism and ADHD.

Recently I started keeping a Carer’s Log. A simple diary outlining what I’ve done that day that relates to handling Lily’s autism/ADHD and epilepsy whether it’s phone calls to arrange appointments, sorting out paperwork, or having to give her reminders to help her manage her time, or take her meds, or the time spent handling a meltdown or trying to adjust her behaviour. I’m not sure why I started, possibly a glimpse of intuition that this might become important in future, particularly for dealing with PIP/Carers Allowance claims. It’s too easy to feel crushed under the weight of right-wing rhetoric that labels disabled people as scroungers, to start feeling guilty for claiming benefits when the reality is there would be no way of coping otherwise. It’s only been a couple of weeks since I started, and already the Carer’s Log has been an eye opener. It’s too easy to overlook how much you’re actually doing as a carer, over and above what you’d be doing as a parent for a child without SEN.

How to keep a Carer’s Log

  • Decide on the format that’s going to work best for you, whether to write in a dedicated journal, or keep a document on your phone/tablet/laptop. It’s crucial that it’s easy for you to update on a daily basis, otherwise you’ll keep putting it off and will end up forgetting a lot of the detail.
  • Decide what time is best for updating your log, I recommend doing it in the evening so that the day’s events are fresh in your mind, however you might want to avoid using a screen device close to bedtime.
  • Make sure you record directly into your log rather than keeping random notes all over the place that you’re planning on updating into the log at a later time. Inevitably, you won’t get round to it, or will lose half of them.
  • Keep this separate from any records/files that you’re keeping about your child’s condition; I have a large file containing all of Lily’s medical history, educational records etc that I frequently refer to as needed. My Carer’s Log is recorded separately, not mixed into the rest of her records.
  • Update the log on a daily basis, even if you’re logging “Nothing to report” for the day, just to get you into the habit of doing it. However, I’ve not yet had a “nothing to report” day, there’s always something!
  • Absolutely everything connected to your child’s condition should be recorded, such as calling to make appointments for them, driving to meetings with school, time spent researching aspects of their condition eg recently I’ve spent a lot of time online looking for information about supplements and diet for ADHD. It’s easy to otherwise overlook these things and only record the time you spend directly dealing with your child’s issues. Even the fact that I usually have to send multiple texts to Lily to remind her to come home on time after youth group gets recorded!
  • If your child has toilet issues, these should also be recorded.
  • Do you spent days and days trying to persuade your autistic kid to take a shower? Make a note of when you started asking, and how long it is before they actually take a shower – this can be two weeks in Lily’s case! It also acts as a reminder as to just how long it was since they’ve bathed, rather than it being a vague thought in the back of your mind that it might be about time to chase them into the bathroom!
  • If your child takes medication or supplements relating to their condition, list these at the start along with a brief description of what’s involved; you can then write “gave them their meds” or similar on a daily basis rather than writing it out from scratch each time. But don’t forget to add in these details about meds, they’re obviously an important aspect of your child’s health but one that’s easily forgotten in a daily log as they’re so routine!
  • There are no set rules for format etc, so you are free to choose your own style, whether you prefer writing in bullet points or being more descriptive. You might need a mix-n-match style, using bullet points to document routine items such as medication or physical therapy, followed by a descriptive paragraph to record how the day went.
  • Try to make sure your Carer’s Log won’t be read by your child – keep it somewhere they won’t think to look, or give it a very boring title if it’s a computer file. For this reason, be careful about the language you use – it’s simply a record, not a judgement about your child’s issues and behaviour.
  • If you’ve had a particularly trying or exhausting day due to your child’s difficulties, you might want to add this in, eg “Today was very challenging.” You don’t need to go off on a three page rant, but it can help to record what happened, and ideas of how to prevent it in future.
  • You can also record things that worked, or ideas that you want to try in future.
  • It can also help to add in photographs- for example the horrendous pile of rubbish I recently unearthed from beneath Lily’s desk! If your child has a habit of dressing in unsuitable clothing due to autism, a picture can be a good idea before you get them changed. This can act as evidence during a PIP interview.
  • Educational struggles are part of your child’s condition, so list these are they occur, for example having to attend meetings at school because of their “behaviour,” applying for an EHCP, or even the ways in which you have to intervene to keep your child calm while they’re getting frustrated due to homework. Yes, all kids get frustrated with homework at times, but most kids won’t smash up the computer or punch their little sister as a result… which is why you’re constantly on the lookout for your child’s warning signs and intervening as necessary.

A Carer’s Log can help you to feel validated in your role as your child’s Carer – a role which demands you go above and beyond the normal role of parent, in a society that constantly devalues both your and your child’s experience. It can act as a valuable record and evidence that you can refer back to when dealing with authorities, such as applying for PIP or an EHCP. Hopefully too it will allow you to treat yourself with more compassion if you’re dealing with the self esteem issues that seem to inevitably arrive when you are struggling with a child whom everyone labels as difficult. The Carer’s Log makes it apparent just how hard you’re working to help your child manage in daily life. Respect.

The Big Day (part two)

As soon as I walk into the room I know it’s a stitch up. Once they trot out a second or even third member of staff, you know you’re wasting your time. As the Centre Manager ushers me into the tiny room, the Learning Support Manager is already waiting, and there are immediate apologies that the lead staff member for Lily’s course couldn’t make it. I haven’t even got my coat off and I know it’s game over.

The Learning Support manager is basically there to make sure they’ve ticked all the legal boxes, so there’s no right to appeal. She runs through our previous emails and the college’s SEN code of practice, pointing out that as an independent training provider they’re not bound to the same SEN rules as other FE institutions.

At this point it doesn’t matter what I say, they’re kicking Lily out. It doesn’t matter that she’s been doing well until now, that it was one incident that got out of control, one lesson that went wrong in over a month of attendance, she’s out. It doesn’t matter that she’s been consistently let down, has never been given the support she needs, she’s out. It doesn’t matter that I’m still fighting to get her the ADHD medication that she needs, or appealing the local authority’s refusal to give her an EHCP, she’s out. It doesn’t matter that there are extenuating circumstances, the stress that we’ve been under as a family due to domestic abuse, she’s out. I may as well stick pencils up my nose and sing the Russian National Anthem, nothing I say is going to make a difference. I point out that I came in the hope of having an open discussion about how to support Lily and move forward from this point and it’s devastating that they have already drawn their conclusion and aren’t prepared to listen. I question their decision process and point out that no one has been asked to advocate for Lily before the decision has been made.

“Well, that’s what you’re doing now,” the centre manager tells me.

“But you’ve already made your decision,” I repeat. “Who advocated for Lily during your ‘investigative process?'”

I get nowhere. The Centre Manager then gives me the bullshit about how they could theoretically take Lily back, but it will only leave us in a worse position as by then the 6 week probation window with other colleges will have closed so transferring her won’t be easy and blah de blah, so this is in everyone’s best interests as he doesn’t want to leave me in a worse position, it’s best if she goes now. One thing I really hate is when they try to pretend they’ve got your child’s best interests at heart while they’re delivering the killer blow. Fuck off, basically.

“Forgive me for being bitter,” I tell him. The fact that we’ve relocated 150 miles for Lily to be able to attend this college doesn’t matter at all to him. They’ve failed to provide the support she needs, because they can’t afford to provide further support. The local authority won’t provide the support that Lily needs. No one will. No one ever has. I don’t understand how Lily can be identified as having a Special Educational Need by the EHCP panel, but then be denied an EHCP. It feels very much like bullshit. When Lily then fails due to this lack of support, she (and I) are blamed and punished. There’s no point in staying any longer and I leave, trying to hold my tears in until I’m out on the street.

In that moment, I hate them. I hate everyone. All the people around me with their petty concerns, who haven’t spent over a decade fighting to get help for their autistic child. All the people who lead nice normal lives, without having to battle domestic abuse, special needs, who don’t know what it’s like to have life knock you over and kick you again and again and again. I feel suicidal. There seems to be absolutely no point in carrying on, I end up at the same place, trying yet again to find the strength to pick myself up off the floor, dust myself down and start over. It’s getting harder and harder to keep on starting over, to keep on fighting for things that don’t seem to affect the majority of the population.

I lock myself into the toilets at the nearby library, and cry. When I’ve got myself together enough to face going back outside, I end up in the nearest Wetherspoons, ordering a vodka-coke and packet of crisps. I don’t care any more. I’ve still got to go home and break the news to Lily, who I know is fully expecting Mum to pull off a magic trick and allow her to stay on the course, no matter how many times I told her that I might not succeed. I have to deal with Ivy, who didn’t want to move away from her home town in the first place, who now has to deal with the frustration of Lily blowing the big opportunity that we moved here for. Meanwhile the planet burns, and politicians quibble about the DeathNote that is Brexit. We’re approaching an election and I want to beg people not to vote Tory, because a decade of Conservative rule is the reason why Lily has never had support. I don’t want to be part of this world any more. What’s happened today isn’t exceptional, it’s a battle I’ve fought many times before. I’m still having to battle Simon in order to get him to stop lying to CMS and pay the child support he legally owes us. I’m still having to battle the health system to give Lily the help she needs. And hell, Lily was first expelled age 5, from kindergarten, so you’d think I’d be used to it by now. But something has tripped inside me, a switch pinging off with this fresh bout of despair. Some crucial part of myself just died. Hope, maybe. Compassion. Duty. Doing the right thing. It’s got us nowhere. The sad reality is that if I’d lied about the EHCP, if I’d claimed that Lily’s college place was still dependent on her being given one, then she probably would have got it. Except then she wouldn’t have been accepted by the college. We can’t win.

The Big Day (part one)

The Big Day. I wake at 5.30, lie in bed with my mind racing until I give up and turn on the Calm app for my daily meditation. It’s so early that the cats don’t even jump off the bed to demand breakfast. I’m at the GP’s surgery with Lily before the receptionists are, the first in the queue for an emergency appointment. We’re told to come back at 8.50, and end up killing time in the nearest cafe, where a woman inexplicably dressed up as the Queen of Hearts makes us tea and an Americano, before disappearing into the back to handle her deliveries. The Meat Man is coming.

At the doctor’s, Lily wants me to do the talking. I explain the difficulties that she’s having, how her aggression has got out of control, and that we now want to try ADHD medication. The doctor turns to Lily.

“So now that Mum’s said everything she wants to say, how do you feel about all of this?”

Inwardly, I groan. Here we go again.

I can already tell from the doctor’s demeanour what I can expect. Oh yes, she’s friendly and acting like she’s here to help, but I’ve seen all of this before. Yet again, I’m going to be written off as a pushy, neurotic mother. For once Lily manages to speak up, explaining that she wants to try medication to try and help control her anger. The GP explains that she’s not going to send us home with any pills today, but she’ll give us a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health service, that should be our first step.

I try to make it clear that this really isn’t our first step, it’s our last resort. I’ve been fighting for support for Lily for over 11 years now, and got nowhere. She’s never had the help she needs for her autism or ADHD. We’ve done CAMHS, we’ve done CYPS, we’ve done Family Therapy, we’ve done Early Bird, we’ve done art therapy and play therapy, I’ve done the two different parenting courses that they insisted on sending us on, I’ve paid privately to attend workshops on autism and challenging behaviour, even a Non Violent Communication weekend. I’ve read countless books and websites to help understand her difficulties and find better coping techniques. It’s obvious to me that Lily has additional problems; Pathological Demand Avoidance and/or Oppositional Defiance Disorder, neither of which can be treated by conventional parenting/discipline techniques, nor by talking therapies. Only, I’m not allowed to insist that these diagnoses are taken into account, because I’m her mother and not a medical professional, so if I mention this it’s another strike for the Neurotic Mother award. Of course most medical professionals won’t even recognise these as real conditions and prefer to blame the mother’s parenting style, even when you have other kids who are miraculously unaffected by your alleged poor parenting techniques. Whatever I try, it’s Catch 22. I have effectively been sitting in the GP’s office for 11 years now. This is not the first step, this is we’ve run out of options, we’ve tried everything except ADHD medication and it’s now time to give it a go.

The newspapers would have you believe that doctors were handling out Ritalin to kids like sweeties at Halloween. Yet we’ve never been offered medication, nor have I ever previously asked for it. Lily has threatened me with a knife, was suspended from school for being aggressive towards a staff member, as well as incidents with other kids for which she spent time in Isolation, and is now facing expulsion from college for being aggressive towards a tutor, including throwing a chair in class. When her anxiety is out of control, she responds with aggression. The reality is that she can’t help it; this is a neurochemical reaction caused by a diagnosable condition. No amount of talking therapy or parenting courses are going to change that. But medication might stand a chance.

I am so tired of being fobbed off by professionals. I am so tired of being treated like I’m neurotic every time I try to get Lily the support she needs. Because this isn’t actually about autism or ADHD, it’s about money. Lily wasn’t given the support she needed at school because of the costs involved. In order for her to be given a statement/EHCP, the school would have to demonstrate that they had spent £6000 on supporting her needs. Faced with ongoing budget cuts they clearly weren’t going to. I tried privately to get her an EHCP and got through to the final stage, meaning that the Educational Psychologist had identified that she did have a special educational need – but she was turned down because she’s been offered a college place. As a parent, you want to scream at that point – the issue isn’t her getting a college place, I managed that for her, but being able to stay in college. One month in, and that’s fallen apart. Oh, but here’s the kicker – the college only has places for 21 students with an EHCP, which has already been reached, so if Lily had been granted it, and been promised the support she needed, she wouldn’t have then been given a place at the college. In the meantime, the college has no budget to provide for her needs.

This is the reality for any parent of a child with SEN; it’s down to money. It’s not about their autism, their ADHD, it’s down to a decade of Tory Party cuts. If Lily is expelled, she will be classed as NEET – not in employment, education or training. I’m then punished financially for that, by having child benefit stopped, and Simon can pay less maintenance for her. So the system that has failed to provide Lily with the support she needs to remain in education – due to economic cutbacks that have benefitted wealthy Tory supporters – then punishes me financially for its own failings. Smashing, innit?

I have no choice but to smile sweetly and accept the CAMHS referral, although I pointedly ask how long the waiting list is likely to be. It could be six months, even a year, and we need help now so that Lily can return to education. We don’t have any more time, either with the GP or to wait around for another pointless referral; we’ve been through 3 rounds with CAMHS already, to no avail. Meanwhile I’ve scheduled a meeting with college this afternoon, and I need to be able to offer them something, a concrete assurance that it won’t happen again. But if I push any harder with the doctor, then it merely confirms her opinion that I’m the one with the issue, not Lily. From past experience, it’s only mothers who are treated this way, not fathers. And had Lily attended the appointment with a chaperone from college, say, the outcome may have been different again. After 11 years of struggle, I’m tired of fighting to try and get what should have been freely offered over a decade ago. When will autism be properly funded?

Past experience has shown that there are plenty of people getting paid to work within the SEN industry but none of it seems to be trickling down to support the kids that need the help. One time I attended an autism support meeting, the only parent there due to poor publicity – meanwhile the 6 professionals in attendance brought out their packed lunches and chatted away to each other, but not to me. That’s 6 professionals being paid to attend a meeting to support parents of autistic kids, which was in reality just a subsidised jolly. Or the autism support worker who only worked in schools and didn’t do home visits even when we explained that Lily was being home educated. So you’re not actually offering any kind of support then? Meeting after meeting with school staff and SENCOs with no real change, no progress, no actual support. One even questioned why Lily would qualify for DLA/PIP, before deciding for herself that her ADHD meant she’d need to eat more meat! Perhaps job descriptions for SENCOs should demand that they actually have experience of SEN? Meanwhile, I’ve a train to catch…

SEN and the art of fighting

The saying goes that one day you will look into the mirror and realise you’re turned into your mother. In my case I definitely skipped a generation. When I look in the mirror, it’s my Nana who looks back at me, only with much less vivacity than she ever had. Tired, stressed, defeated, a woman who has given up on herself, that’s what my reflection pronounced. It didn’t seem to matter, it wasn’t as if I was going anywhere anyway.

Then came the week of hell – technically probably Week of Hell 346 – and the devastating news that Lily was probably about to be expelled from college, one month into her course. After the initial shock and despondency had eased, I realised that Lily’s only chance was for us not to wait for the phone call bringing the final decision, but for me to insist on a meeting with the college head and advocate for her.

For someone browbeaten by stress, exhaustion and social anxiety, this was not a particularly welcome realisation. However, it was the only plan I could call up with – an emergency GP appointment on Monday morning to demand a referral to an autism/ADHD specialist with a view of trialling medication, followed by a trip to the city centre to speak to college.

Over coffee in a local cafe I sat and wrote down the gist of what I wanted to say, how Lily has never had any support for her autism and is then punished when she’s failed to manage. How badly her school let her down and how I didn’t realise until it was too late as I was fighting the abuse from Simon all that time. That Lily has suffered from that abuse and been left feeling angry and confused – and that Ivy has spoken of Lily and Simon having physical fights; her own father has modelled violence towards her. That she has a slow cognitive process and reacts before she can think, that she doesn’t seem to understand consequences or cause and effect. How her anxiety leads to a need to be in control at all times, and how threatened she would have felt by what her tutor was saying to her in front of everyone. That she deserves another chance, it’s not fair to expel her for messing up in one lesson when she’s been a good student until now and the problem was largely cause by a lack of support and understanding.

As I write, my own frustration grows. Listing Lily’s difficulties, it’s unbelievable that she has never had support. That for purely economic reasons, she’s been kicked to the kerb time and again, left to sink without the support she needs and then blamed for her behaviour when she’s not managed to conform to rules that she doesn’t understand or that create massive anxiety for her.

This has to stop. We’re running out of time.

It is beyond time that Lily started getting the support she’s always needed. And clearly, it’s going to be down to me to fight for it, even while I’m still having to battle Simon over child maintenance. On the way home I stand in the beauty aisle in Tesco Express, studying the hair dye. That evening Ivy smothers my head with it, while instructing me on the Curly Girl method. After I’ve washed it out, she nervously trims my hair, snipping each curl individually as the book prescribes. I keep reassuring her that no matter what she does, it can’t look any worse than it did, and after all I was made to cut Simon’s hair for years without any clue as to what I was doing.

I’m not a hairdresser per se, but I have used scissors and I do have hair, we joke, misquoting the pig from Bear in the Big Blue House. I finally find the makeup that’s stayed buried in the bottom of a packing box until now. This is my war paint. These are my battle stripes. I will not walk in defeated and beg, I will go in ready to be listened to.

Meltdown

I’m in the supermarket with Ivy when my phone goes – Lily’s college. Already I’m striding towards the exit as I answer, my heart beating faster. Last week the call from college was because Lily was having a seizure, meaning dropping everything, abandoning plans to have dinner with my parents and instead driving 90 minutes to reach her in A&E. Has she had another seizure?

Instead her tutor asks me if Lily has been in contact. She hasn’t, and he explains that there’s been an incident, and Lily has stormed out of college following a heated argument with one of the tutors. Her guitar had been slipping out of tune and he’d told her to use one of the spare guitars. I wince – this was Lily’s first day with her brand new guitar, she’d been looking forward to it. I knew that her anxiety levels would have been going through the roof if there was something wrong with it, or if she feared that she wouldn’t be able to use it. She needed things to go right, to be given enough time to tune it and continue playing, for her to keep control of the situation. But now the immediate issue was that she had run off into the city on her own, leaving her belongings behind her.

Ivy and I both try calling and texting her, but there’s no response. We realise she probably doesn’t have her phone on her, it would have been in the bag that she left behind. I call the college back and let them know, trying to reassure myself that she can’t have gone far without any money. She’s likely just sitting it out somewhere nearby, waiting for the class to finish before she goes back in for her stuff. Her tutor kindly offers to go back outside to look for her again, and shortly afterwards I get a text from Lily to tell me she never left the building and is now sitting on the stairs talking to her tutor.

The immediate panic is over, but now it’s time for the longer term consequences.

It takes me over two hours to try and calm Lily that evening, she tells me she is traumatised and becomes angry and aggressive as I try to get the story out of her. In the course of the conversation it becomes clear that she was aggressive and swearing at her tutor, and that she threw a chair – not at him, but not a good idea in a college that’s packed full of expensive musical equipment. Lily sobs as she recalls how her band went on practising without her, “They don’t need me, I’m useless,” and that she has no friends and thinks everyone hates her. To prove this, she shows me an abusive message she’s received from another student, she doesn’t even know how he got her number. She doesn’t know if she can face going back, and I make it clear that she has no choice, she has to remain in education. That she has loved this course so far, and it’s stupid to throw it away over one session that’s gone wrong.

Approaching 10.30 I tell both kids that they should be asleep by now, they need to settle down. I usually do this around 10pm every night, but I can’t force them to actually go to sleep. Around half midnight I hear Lily’s door as she goes to the bathroom, and know that yet again she’s stayed up too late. Lack of sleep is one of the likeliest causes for epileptics to have a seizure, but nothing I say can get Lily to go to sleep early enough.

Next morning she doesn’t get up on time and I have to wake her and tell her she needs to go in. Typically, she flies downstairs at the very last minute, swallows her epilepsy tablets – I have also just discovered that she’s run out of her 500mg pills without telling me, another thing to sort out today – and grabs the decaf coffee, breakfast bar and apple that I’ve left out for her. She refuses the sandwich I’m trying to make for her – I’ve also discovered she’s been skipping lunch in order to save up money, but can’t be bothered to make herself a packed lunch instead. So basically, she’s been going into college each day without enough sleep, no breakfast and then skipping lunch. It’s disastrous for her epilepsy, and likely contributed to her seizure last week, but is also likely to be making her even more irritable and irrational. I get her to promise that she will have lunch, and remind her that she needs to apologise to her tutor, before getting her out of the door on time at 7.30.

By the time I’m driving Ivy to school an hour later, I’m fighting back tears as I try and chat to her while simultaneously mentally rehearsing my To Do list. Go to the GP surgery to sort out online access and get an emergency prescription. Call college. Call the Family Support Worker, even though I don’t have her number, how can I get her number? Does Lily need a further diagnosis, how can I get that, no one will listen? Write the cover letter to the CMS and send the evidence, hopefully the letter I requested from our previous support worker will arrive today. Call and cancel that subscription before I get charged for it. And so on, to infinity and beyond.

Driving home, I park and walk into town to sort out everything at the doctor’s. Of course, the GP doesn’t sign off prescriptions until late in the afternoon, so I will have to go back this evening and hope that the pharmacist can fulfil it without having to wait to order it. I’m walking back through town when my phone goes – it’s college. The man on the other end tells me that he has no choice but to suspend Lily. He tells me that the tutor is terrified, that Lily threatened to kill him. I ask whether it will just be a day’s suspension, whether she will be able to go back next week, or whether it may escalate further, and he admits that he will be undertaking an investigation but that Lily may well be expelled. I’m left begging him not to expel her, swallowing back my tears and my pride. “She’s sixteen,” I find myself saying, “if she gets kicked off the course, she’s got nothing, it’s game over, please don’t expel her.”

He fobs me off and I know from what he’s saying, his tone of voice that it’s already highly unlikely that Lily will be allowed back onto the course. The course she loves, that has lit her up for the first time in her life. Once again she’s not been provided with the support she needs, then been blamed and punished when she’s failed to cope; but now this is not school and the consequences are far more severe. Even I find myself blaming her, For God’s sake Lily, why can’t you behave yourself? Why would you think it was okay to behave like that? In the space of a few mindless minutes, Lily has destroyed the thing she loves most, the college course I’ve spent so much time and energy to get her a place on, the opportunity that we relocated for her to have. The pavement beneath me feels like quicksand. There are no second chances and I have no idea what happens to us now.

Of lies and money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.