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.
Crashing, over and over. Fighting to pick myself up, keep going, trying to make things better. Getting knocked back over again, each time the fall coming harder, the pain deeper, the resilience less. A good weekend is followed by a clash with Lily’s therapist, who alarmingly manages to actually make things worse. Over the past two months, this woman has left me feeling suicidal no less than four times, steamrollering me with her procedures and rules and now forcing me into the role of Bad Cop with Lily while she gets to play the Good Fairy; not even the Good Cop. Another post for another time, but I was left curled up on my bed, sobbing, unable to function. Not able to leave the house to drive into town to pick the kids up off the school bus, not able to cook dinner, locking myself in my room because I couldn’t face dealing with the kids and I didn’t want them to see me in that state either. Literally wanting to die and feeling trapped because suicide isn’t an option when you’re a single parent. Fighting the urge to gulp down most of a bottle of whisky as the next best option. Discovering a whole new level below rock bottom, one in which suicidal is something to aim for, something better than you’re currently feeling. There is nothing of me left, I died a long time ago. This empty shell should have crumbled into dust, but is forced to keep moving so that the kids have food, clothes and a ride to school. The small voice in my head becoming a scream I can’t go on like this any more, day after day after day I can’t go on, but with no way of making it stop.
Casual plans had been put in place to head north last weekend to visit my parents and see the final outing of Royal de Luxe’s giants in Liverpool. Exhausted, I realised there was no way I could drive 150 miles on Friday evening after school, spend a hectic two days giant-watching and then drive 150 miles home again on Sunday evening. I figured we’d head up on Thursday evening, then by Wednesday night, broken, realised that it was still too much to manage. I wasn’t coping, was barely functioning. So we took Thursday off school as well, packed a bag each and set out on the journey North, having left an early message on the school’s answering machine that Ivy and Lily were both ill. In the end, we took not only the Thursday and Friday but also the Monday off school, knowing that after a full-on day watching the finale in a massive crowd, I was too tired to drive home safely (due to roadworks as the motorways are upgraded, the three hour journey takes five hours or more.) Three illicit days off school, two struggling kids, one mother who was an emotional wreck. I told school that the kids were ill, intending to use the excuse of food poisoning if questioned further, developing this into full blown Noro virus if pushed – knowing that school were unlikely to want us back until fully recovered if this were the case. Because what am I supposed to say? Sorry, I’m feeling suicidal so my kids aren’t coming in for the next few days as I need to be with my family, I don’t feel safe on my own.
To Liverpool then, for 3 days of Giant-watching. Trains, buses, huge crowds. Wishing that my Dad was more inclined to take tea-and-cake breaks, or that chairs had been provided along the route. No matter though. The spectacle was enough, the magic of a mass of people caught up in a game of make-believe. I’d seen pictures of the Diver and Little Girl from years before and wished I’d been able to see it then. This time around, I was determined that we’d catch it – and now having discovered that this is the last outing of the Giants, I’m so glad that we did. It’s yet another example of an extra-curricular activity that the kids will remember for the rest of their lives, whereas it’s unlikely they’d remember what they did in school that day. We were all captivated as the huge puppets moved, walked, and danced along the streets, while red frockcoat-wearing Lilliputians dangled from ropes, climbed alarmingly tall frameworks, pulled, hauled and best of all hurled themselves from moving trucks to make the giants move, all to the music blasting out of speakers and the cheers of the crowd.
Having worked in theatre, I’m well-versed in criticism, in development during which an idea is thrashed about and re-worked to the point where it no longer resembles itself, of too many voices demanding that the piece needs to be more this, less that, must say a different message… and yet I’ve known that often the audience doesn’t make the same demands. Or at least the audience – if it were composed of ordinary people rather than the theatre in-crowd – isn’t necessarily making the same demands as those within the industry claiming to speak on their behalf. That sometimes people want to be heard, want to see their lives reflected back to them in a way that gives them grace and dignity, and above all, hope. Most people are happy with a simple story told well rather than a piece that defies convention or experiments with form and style. With what we saw of the giants this time around, I couldn’t pick up on any notion of a story that was unfolding in front of me. It didn’t matter though. What we watched was a celebration, a spectacle. Hundreds of people had poured countless hours of effort into planning, building, rehearsing, and now performing- from the frock-coated Lilliputians tasked with operating the giant puppets, to the volunteers walking alongside them to maintain a safety cordon, to the transport workers ensuring that people could travel there and back as swiftly as possible, to the guys sweeping up the litter afterwards – all ultimately tasked with a single aim; to bring delight. I could infer any meaning I wanted about Liverpool’s Dream, from the history of migration from the city, people travelling to the New World chasing their dreams of a better life, to the tragic history of slavery and a city built on the backs of the exploited. Perhaps it sounds crass to say it didn’t matter. What mattered was bringing people together to watch it, to share in a communal experience of childlike wonder, of awe, of joy.
I imagine that there’s people I’ve worked with previously who would turn their noses up at the naivety of the whole thing, who would claim it had nothing to offer artistically, that it was mere spectacle. I think perhaps they don’t understand the meaning of the word spectacle – like watching a grand fireworks display which may not have anything to say about white working class reaction to Brexit, but which fills you with a delicious joy for the wonders of human existence. This is something we need more of, these moments of connection, of awe, of delight. Of hope, rather than yet another young woman brutally murdered in yet another crime drama, or witless reality show, or on-point, right-on stylistically innovative but depressing as fuck piece of new writing. Under Tory cuts, arts budgets have been slashed nationwide – it’s hard to justify spending on the arts when there’s no money for meals on wheels or road maintenance. Yet Royal de Luxe have been instrumental in regenerating the city of Nantes, their home base, not only culturally but economically. Liverpool is one of the few cities that insists on investing in the arts, the number of visitors last weekend proving that it makes economic sense. The Golden Age of cinema occurred alongside the Great Depression. Art Saves, as the T-shirt has it; financially, emotionally, intellectually and also spiritually. When you run out of hope, there’s nothing left to live for. I had reached that point last week. And although the weekend was tiring due to the long hours of standing, waiting and walking, it left me feeling renewed and refreshed in a way that I haven’t felt for years. The Giants ultimately brought me the gift I most needed; hope.
Reading Think Small has reminded me of the need to set achievable, measurable goals (SMART goals) that I can tick off as they’re completed. Although I try to do this with the daily To Do list and often add tasks that I’ve already completed just so I can tick them off, Think Small has helped me to see how big dreams need to be broken down into daily habits if they’re ever to be achieved. As I’ve designated this to be A Year to Heal, it got me thinking about what steps I can take in order to help myself heal – I can’t guarantee that at the end of the year I’ll be 100% better, but I’m keen to move forward rather than stagnate. First things first – how will I recognise that I’m healed, what are the main issues that are currently causing problems?
I think the main clue that I’ve healed will be when I no longer feel the desire to drive a pickaxe through Simon or Astrid’s skulls. I wish I was joking. Anger and injustice still burn through me on a daily basis whenever the details of what happened creep into the back of my mind. At first I questioned why I felt so bad, so unsafe, after all there are many women going through far far worse and I wasn’t facing physical violence. However, the Domestic Abuse recovery course explained to me that the way Simon and Astrid were spying on me and stalking meant a violation of my sense of physical safety. That’s fundamental in terms of Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs, the need for shelter and safety. Which means we’re dealing with something primal; the need to protect yourself and your children. If an intruder entered your home, went through your possessions, took things, threw things out, and threatened your and your children’s right to feel safe in your home, you’d wind up pretty angry – if you caught them in the act, you would be permitted by law to defend yourself, which basically equates to physically attacking them. The fact that the intruder was my ex-husband and his girlfriend doesn’t make the situation any more bearable – in fact, the violation is deeper, more personal. I trusted him. He betrayed my trust again and again, and for that I basically want to hurt him; of course I would never act on my homicidal urges, but at times the intensity of my feelings makes it feel as if I will never heal. The anger has nowhere to go, other than creating havoc in my mind and body. I will know I’m healing when the incessant rage dissipates.
Fundamentally I don’t feel safe. I don’t feel safe in my own home despite having moved house, a hangover from the past few years of being afraid to go out, of worrying that Simon or Astrid were waiting to swoop in and invade my home yet again. When we’ve gone away for the weekend to visit family I still worry that they will try to break in to my new home, I won’t let Lily have a key for this very reason. When I’m out and about, I don’t feel safe either, other than in a very few limited places that I’m fairly sure Simon and Astrid don’t visit. Hyper-vigilance is ever present, scanning the horizon like a meerkat sentinel, ready to dart back underground at the first sight of anyone who might be them. My chest is always tight with anxiety, my heart fragile and fast to the point where I’m scared about my health. I will know I’m healing when I start to feel safe in the world again – although given current global politics, this may be heard to achieve. At least, I will know I’m healing when I no longer carry this constant burden of anxiety and fear, when I don’t have a panic attack every time I see someone who looks like either of them.
My mind constantly replays the abuse, trying to explain what’s happened, trying to reason with Simon, rage at Astrid, rehearsing what I should tell the judge if I’m dragged through court again, and what I should have said last time. I struggle to get to sleep at night, resorting to listening to meditations and sleep hypnosis videos on YouTube. I wake in the early hours and my mind immediately picks up where it left off. This is part recrimination against my failures to achieve justice in court, and part preparation in case it happens again, protecting myself. In counselling, we discussed how Simon essentially tried to destroy me with lies and accusations, and that this constant inner voice arguing against him is a survival mechanism determined not to give up. Silencing it means killing off that small part of myself that has endured, has fought back. I need to find it a healthier channel, switch from PTSD 24/7 to Peace of Mind. I will know I’m healing when my mind is no longer caught in this incessant loop of recrimination and replaying.
Physically, I’m a wreck. I’m overweight from comfort eating and horribly unfit – particularly after developing plantar fasciitis last year which made it hard to walk. I have insomnia and am still prone to anxiety and panic attacks. It’s not possible to be this stressed for this long without a serious impact to health. I’m permanently exhausted, a combination of said anxiety and insomnia, plus two demanding teenagers and perimenopause. Self care has fallen off the bottom of the To Do list – I feel fat, frumpy and tired. I will know I’m healing when I start feeling fitter and more energetic, and able to better take care of myself. This includes a healthier relationship to food and making sure I get some form of exercise.
The house move was impossibly hard, made far worse by being bedridden with severe flu for the best part of two months while having to downsize to a house that was about a third of the size of our existing home. The stress around the move was unbearable, but I told myself that this was the worst part, once I’d moved I could look forward to a fresh start and take my time putting things in order, there was no hurry. What should have then been a year of gently setting up home turned instead into a second year of having to fight my corner in court and being consumed by stress and anxiety. Overwhelm is not a helpful emotion when trying to set up home. It’s now time to create a home that nourishes us, to reclaim my environment. One of Simon’s accusations was that I was a hoarder, which has resulted in a year of obsessively watching the Hoarders TV show – I think I can safely say that I’m not a hoarder, but ADHD means that I struggle with organisation and tend to be somewhat messy and cluttered, it’s hard to make decisions about what should go where, what to keep and what to let go of (and don’t get me started on the donate/sell issue.) When the outward circumstances of your life are acute stress, anxiety and chaos, it’s no wonder that your home environment begins to reflect this. I will know I am healed when I’ve been able to deal with the remaining clutter and feel like I’m managing on the domestic front; when our home feels nurturing rather than a source of stress, when I can let go of the feelings of guilt and shame that Simon’s accusations engendered. Also Simon – given the amount of old crap in boxes that you’d stashed in the attic which I discovered two days before the move, you should maybe not be throwing around accusations.
Previously I used to have friends round for impromptu bring and share gatherings, food, wine, laughter and good times, but that’s not happened for a long time, it stopped even before I moved house. It’s not just that my house is now too small, it’s also that having people in my home makes me feel anxious and on edge. Inviting a friend over for an Easter dinner was a major achievement, and even then I found it hard not to watch the clock. Having a workman here to fix the boiler was unbearable, particularly when he had to go into all the rooms, including my bedroom. I will know I’m healed when I’m able to have friends round without feeling that I’d rather be undergoing major root canal surgery.
My career, tiny though it was, has been destroyed. A post-divorce name change didn’t help, it feels like starting over, plus several of my existing contacts have moved on to pastures new. Stress meant having to stop working, I couldn’t focus on writing. My previous blog was used against me, a story of mine was used as evidence in court and I had the joy of a potential client turning out to be Simon and Astrid using a fake alias to try and entrap me. Now, at the point where I could be returning to work, it feels like my brain is entirely addled. It’s hard to focus on anything, hard to stick at things, difficult to know where I should be putting my energies. My confidence is at a low ebb, particularly with Simon’s insistence that I was deluded about my abilities as a writer. It’s hard to reach out to former colleagues, never mind forge new contacts – no, not hard, impossible in my current state of mind. More than that, I’m scared of putting anything of myself out into the world again in case Simon finds new ways to use it against me. I will know I’m healed when I’m able to write again, consistently and professionally.
I will know that I’m healed when I start looking forward to the day ahead instead of dreading it. When I no longer have to fight hard to find reasons to go on living, beyond looking after the kids. Ultimately I will know I’m healed when I’m able to leave the past in the past rather than having the abuse creep into every aspect of my daily life with its poisonous, painful reminders. And right now, it’s the hope that one day I will be healed that’s keeping me going.
The kids have been dropped off at school. I’m supposed to be attempting the 5:2 intermittent fasting diet, but I stop off at the farm cafe on the way home, ostensibly to buy flowers for May Day – I’ll do my best to resist the almond croissants, even though I’m already hungry and it’s not quite 9am. The flowers here are usually beautiful, locally grown and artfully put together, but today they’re a little disappointing, the daffodils clearly having passed their best. Not worth the £9.95 price tag. I could point out their flaws and ask for a discount, but I’m not in the mood. They’re a gift for a friend who is going through chemo; she deserves more than flowers I’ve had to haggle over. The cafe used to be my favourite, but it’s since been taken over by the local gentry, the car park full of Range Rovers, posh people braying about their holiday plans. My god, but posh people talk loudly. They dominate the space, interrupt my thoughts, make it impossible for me to sit and quietly write.
May Day. The year is flying past already – is the world speeding up or is this the inevitable affect of age? Years seemed to creep by so slowly when I was a kid, and now I can’t keep up. “Have you got a busy day ahead?” the young man asks me as he hands me my tea – I’m proud to say I resisted the croissant. It’s a question I hate. My days seem pointless, full of chores but nothing I could point to and get excited about, nothing that seems worthwhile. I tell him that I was supposed to be taking my friend to chemo, but she’s not well enough and I’m waiting to hear what she feels up to doing. I don’t tell him that the flowers were crap this morning, clearly he’s on barista duty so it’s not his fault. I don’t tell him that my life feels pointless, that my mind is full of depression, anxiety and trauma, that I can’t seem to think clearly any more and I’m struggling to keep on top of the day to day tasks. That when I think about the days ahead, all I see is relentless treadmill of school runs, cooking, washing up and nagging the kids to get up, get ready, do homework, go to bed and occasionally take a bath. I used to be fun, I think. Nowadays I can’t remember what fun feels like, what on earth I’d do to feel that way again, how to get it back. I used to make sure we went out at the weekends, did an activity together, went to a museum or gallery or day out. Since Lily moved back full time, I’ve been too exhausted, have found myself trying to work out how to make a meal from chickpeas and slightly out of date bacon rather than having to drag myself to the shops.
Once I read a post by a young woman suffering from a debilitating condition that left her with chronic fatigue, trying to explain to a friend why she couldn’t always manage to meet up. The gist was that she only had 10 spoons worth of energy per day. Every single task required energy – getting out of bed, showering, getting dressed used up about 3. Even pleasant activities such as meeting a friend for lunch took up another couple of spoons, which meant that on some days she just couldn’t do it – and also showed how much she treasured her friend, in that she was willing to spend some of her spoons in order to spend time with her. I’ve never had a diagnosis to explain why my energy levels are so poor – there’s anaemia for sure, hormonal issues, post-viral fatigue, weird metabolism and blood sugar issues; I just know that certainly since puberty I’ve constantly struggled to have enough energy to get through the day. The difficulty comes when you wake up and have only 3 spoons to get you through the day, rather than the expected 10; or that the day ahead is a 20 spooner. Further difficulties arise when you’re surrounded by people who have never experienced what the doctors call TATT – Tired all the time, who judge you for being lazy. It’s not laziness; on the days when my energy levels are good, I prove this to myself by running around doing everything that needs to be done, knowing that I need to make the most of it. Waking up already exhausted rather than refreshed is hellish. I look down out of my window at the small area that I’ve cleared and planted, wanting to get out and mulch it, having to weigh up the energy cost against knowing I’ve still got to drive to pick the kids up, cook a meal, wash up, get them to bed. I don’t have enough spoons.
Depression worsens fatigue. Fatigue can cause depression. Bit of a vicious cycle, that one. My friend texts to say she fancies a walk across the hills followed by a coffee. I want to cry. Can’t we just have the coffee? The walk will mean I don’t have enough energy to garden today, or at least not to tackle the jobs I was hoping to do. She has cancer, dammit, and I’m the one moaning about energy levels. ADHD has an impact, having the equivalent of 105 tabs open in the brain at once all running together is tiring. Not getting enough sleep, not eating enough protein, developing an unhealthy reliance on sugar as an emergency fix; none of it is helping. Some would say I need to get more exercise, they might well be right, but how do you exercise when you’re already exhausted? Learning more about ADHD has led to experimentation with caffeine as a form of self-medication, to see if it helps settle my mind and help me focus; Pukka’s Lean Green Tea feels good, but switching from decaf tea to full strength tea and coffee seems to have mainly brought on severe headaches; caffeine fail. I’m left not knowing whether to take more naps, or take more walks, rest more or power on through. The phrase I need a break plays through my head like a mantra – I so desperately need a holiday that doesn’t involve camping or self-catering or struggling with Lily’s outbursts.
Gentle, I try and remind myself. Go gently. There’s no point in beating myself up over anything. When progress feels so frustratingly slow, it’s vital to raise flags over every tiny success, every step forward, so that there’s something to look back on, something to cheer you on. A Ta Da list as well as a To Do list. Sometimes you need to turn around and see how far you’ve come before you tackle the mountains ahead.
I catch a glimpse of the Moon as I stand up to go to bed – rising over the distant hill, almost full, twice her normal size, her halo rendering the clouds around her inky blue and copper. It’s a stunning sight that lifts my spirits, a reminder that there’s more to life than the endless rota of chores. A moment of beauty. Beauty. It’s something I need more of in my life – not the chauvinistic hectoring of the fashion magazines about what face cream I should be using, and keeping my eyebrows in shape, but true beauty, duende, being emotionally transformed by a work of art, or nature herself. I wish I could photograph her to capture this moment, but the end result looks like someone is shining a very small torch a very long way away. The beautiful moon is a reminder that life is more than this, more precious than what my life has become. The moon waxes and wanes and goes dark before shining again, the tiniest sliver of light in the night sky, far more mysterious than the sun. And as she rises, so can I; sometimes waxing, sometimes waning, sometimes hiding away but always ultimately shining.
My anxiety levels have been through the roof. An out-of-the-blue letter came for Ivy from Simon a few weeks ago, inviting her to come on holiday with him, Lily and Astrid.
Ivy lay on the kitchen floor sobbing for a full hour, crying “Why? Why would he think I’d want to do that?” while I sat holding her, trying to soothe her. Trying also to ignore how much the kitchen rug needed hoovering, and trying not to panic about the fact that I should be cooking the dinner and so everyone was about to get hangry.
Simon insisted in his letter that “We think it’s time to move forward.” Ah yes, the erroneous belief that the abuser gets to set the timescale for the victim’s healing. It’s very easy to move on when you’re the perpetrator, not so much when you’re still suffering the devastating effects of their actions. Of course Ivy was also upset because yes, she very much would like a holiday – just not with Simon and Astrid. She knows it’s impossible for me to provide the same holiday during the peak season. It’s unlikely that I’ll be able to take the kids on holiday at all this year – or any year – with the insane price hikes during school holidays. Even back when Simon and I were together, there were no holidays during peak season, other than very basic camping.
To put this into perspective, Simon hasn’t taken the children on holiday once in the four years since we separated, other than two nights camping back in 2014. So I was suspicious. Officially court was supposed to be over, but a small window was left open in case either of us wanted to reopen the proceedings and the deadline for this was rapidly approaching. Knowing Simon the way I do, the timing seemed suspicious. Why send this letter now? And so the Easter holidays were spent fretting about the arrival of a large white envelope yet again bearing the seal of the Family Court, the fear that yet another year would be wiped out by a malicious court case.
I can’t do this again.
Like a song running through my head, a constant ear worm. I can’t do this again. Insomnia again. Constantly running through the arguments I would need to make to the Judge, my frantic mind playing out what was said last time, what I should have said differently, what I would say if I had to do it again. Knowing that this time around I wouldn’t be able to afford a lawyer. Remembering the dirty tricks played by Simon’s lawyers last time, and the lie, the absolute lie that court will not discriminate against you if you can’t afford representation. The entire system is set up for lawyers – as a private citizen you can’t even get hold of the evidence you need in the form of letters and reports from professionals unless you have a solicitor.
Fear is isolating. This is what domestic abuse looks like. Long after the original situation is over, the same patterns and fears keep playing out in your head. Your abuser can continue to control you and play out his games long after he’s left the room, all the while claiming that he’s the innocent victim of your behaviour. And still you question; was I? Did I? Was it my fault? as he has long since convinced you that you’re to blame. There are moments that I have to hold on to, as if desperately cramming my fingers into fissures in the rock face, particular lies that he has told, particular actions that scream of his wrongdoing, just to cling to my sanity against his lies. Remember. Remember he lied about entering the home behind your back, remember that he lied about bringing Astrid into your home. Remember that Astrid was photographing your private documents. Remember they threw out yours and the children’s possessions, dumped food waste and wallpaper strippings and rubble into the same bin bags to ruin everything. Remember how he refused to tell you how much maintenance you’d be left with after his latest round of “cuts”, and that you ended up on Diazepam as the stress was giving you palpitations? Remember.
I have to remember these things, while also trying to let go of the past. Remember Astrid kicking your car with the kids inside it, while Simon stood by and watched. Remember Astrid sending abusive texts to Ivy. Remember that he has got away with lying to court, with his malicious accusations, with breaking court orders, that there will be no justice for what he has done. Remember that just because he got away with it doesn’t mean that he is right.
Remember also that I want to be happy again.
Anxiety dancing a jig in my belly as I drive home from spending a week at my parents’ house. Will there be a large white envelope waiting on the doormat? I didn’t sleep during my last night away, a now familiar pattern – coming home means returning to a whole heap of trouble. The race to unpack the car before the grumpy old lady comes out and yells at me for blocking the shared driveway, hustling the kids to get a move on, stumbling up the steps with too many bags, eyeing up the pile of mail on the kitchen table, desperate to know. The large white envelope isn’t there. I send a text to Mum. Home safe. No court summons.
When I wake the next morning, it seems that life is possible again. That maybe now it really is over. That maybe I can finally start to move on. Given our circumstances, life will probably never be easy or straightforward, but for now at least I can start to hope. Not hope for – that’s far too advanced a concept given what we’ve been through, but hope itself. When you realise that you have lost hope, that’s the darkest time; the fear that this is it now, life will never get better, you are condemned to spend the rest of your days in fear and despair. Awakening to hope, like the Spring bulbs returning into flower despite the harshness of Winter – that is strong magic indeed.
“But you’re coping,” my Mum tells me over the phone.
“I’m not, I’m really not,” I answer, thinking of how every surface in the kitchen is covered in dirty dishes, that the living room is an obstacle course of clutter and empty cardboard boxes from the most recent DIY session, that every single room in the house is a mess, that none of us has had a shower all week, my grey roots are showing like a badger stripe, the kids aren’t keeping up with their homework, we’re risking intervention by the Attendance Officer due to Ivy’s recent bout of school refusal, Lily’s behaviour is becoming more and more problematic, I can’t get to sleep then wake at the crack of dawn so I’m permanently tired, that my heart feels like it’s racing out of my chest all day every day, I’m always on the verge of a panic attack, I look like a bag lady and also my car is now falling apart. The boiler is broken so there’s no heating or hot water, the shower is broken so we can’t wash properly, and I’m getting increasingly scared that the roof might need work too. Things are really not good.
“But you are,” she insists. “You’ve kept on going where others would have crumbled. You’re not hiding in a corner, refusing to come out.”
Hiding in a corner refusing to come out is exactly what I want to do. Before I even open my eyes in the morning, the wave of despair and nausea hits me. I can’t even bring myself to write my daily list of Gratitudes any more, having spent one evening scrawling I hate my shitty life all over my journal. The only reason that I haven’t taken to my bed and refused to come out is …drumroll… fear. Ah yes, fear and its cousin, anxiety, my constant companions of these past four years. The only reason I’m getting up and carrying on is the fear of what will happen if I don’t. Fear of further trouble with school, of social service intervention, of what Simon might do next if he suspects that I’m struggling to cope. Fear is not a great foundation to structure your life around; it’s exhausting, depressing and soul-destroying. Yet there it is – my life is a life spent in fear. Fear of what will come next. Fear that Simon will find yet another financial loophole and cut the child maintenance again, or another spurious reason for taking me to court. Fear that my kids are falling apart after everything we’ve been through and that I’m failing to get them the help they need. Fear that one or both of them will resort to self-harm, alcohol or drugs, even suicide. Fear that someone – Simon, probably – will report his concerns to social services, resulting in a dawn raid and child welfare officers inspecting every last messy, cobwebby corner of my home; this happened to a family I know, whose only crime was that their neighbour didn’t understand that they were home-educating. Fear that I’ll get into debt and potentially lose the house because of the costs of fixing the house up in the first place. Fear that I’m basically fucking up in ways that I don’t even know about yet but which are guaranteed to bring disaster to my doorstep.
Given Lily’s most recent episodes of challenging behaviour, which include threatening me with a knife, locking herself in her room with said knife, plus an increasing refusal to cooperate with even the basic tasks of cleaning her teeth and brushing her hair, school are keen to refer us to Early Help. From what I can gather, this is a low level of Social Service intervention – the soft, fluffy side of the SS, as it were. It would involve meeting a social worker to put together a CAF identifying the needs within the family – from prior experience, this would actually involve endless meetings with several different social workers as they keep quitting before the job gets done. Countless form-filling. A lot of box-ticking. And a whole lot of promises, most of which are never fulfilled due to staff shortages or funding falling through. It would also involve school informing Simon.
Ah. No, no, and no again. This would basically be handing Simon a nice shiny dagger so that he can stab me in the back far more effectively.
“Legally, we have to inform him as he has parental responsibility,” the pastoral teacher informs me. I want to scream. No. No he doesn’t have parental responsibility. Ivy hasn’t seen him in over a year, at her request, and he kicked Lily out of his house last December. In real terms I’m bringing the kids up on my own. Simon pays child maintenance and takes Lily out to lunch once every few weeks; that’s not parenting. The endless round of shopping, cooking, washing up, laundry, school runs, cleaning. Doctors, dentists, therapists, parents’ evening, pastoral meetings, endless chauffeuring. Nagging about homework, bedtimes, teeth-cleaning and showering. Making sure that they have fully-equipped pencil cases, that music lessons are paid for, school uniform provided, new trainers bought for PE. Listening to their problems, to their constant stream of chatter about TV shows, YouTubers, memes and bands. Straining the budget to try and provide the occasional treat, trying to give them positive experiences, good memories. Trying to provide them with the love and stability they need. Worrying. More worrying. Breaking up the fights. Begging them to help out occasionally. Guiding them through the angst of growing up. Always feeling that you’re never quite good enough, never quite managing enough, could never ever give them the childhood that they deserve, the perfect world you want them to live in. That’s parenting. If Simon had Lily to stay at his house for even one night a week, I would have to bite my tongue and accept his involvement. School makes a lot of noise about safeguarding; I understand how and why informing Simon is a legal obligation, yet ultimately it puts the children and myself at risk of further emotional, psychological and financial abuse. The only person they’re safeguarding is Simon.
We need support. I know from bitter experience that support is hard to come by. Both of the kids need more help than they’re getting, both of them have had referrals knocked back by CYPS – the Children and Young People’s Services. From what I understand, CYPS are now so over-stretched that they’re only taking on new referrals once your child has actually committed suicide, or so it seems. I’ve been taking Ivy to the GP for well over a year now for her anxiety, depression and OCD behaviours- all we’ve had is a referral to a local charity that offers a limited number of free counselling sessions. A couple of weeks ago we left the GP’s office feeling thoroughly patronised and frustrated after he more or less entirely ignored Ivy, didn’t ask her a single question, but told me in front of her that she “wouldn’t get any help unless she took a knife into school and threatened to kill herself.” That no help would be forthcoming until she was in crisis.
“How would he know whether or not I was in crisis” Ivy later pointed out, “He didn’t ask me a single question.”
I pointed out to him that his “advice” ran entirely counter to the advice that would be given to an adult with the same symptoms. No adult would be sent away with a pat on the head or be told that they wouldn’t get help unless they took a knife into their workplace and threatened to kill themselves. They’d immediately be referred to counselling, given medication, signed off work, encouraged to get all the support that was available. The sad reality is that, locally at least, there is absolutely no support for young people; the happy result of Tory cuts. This current generation of young people are having to endure a ridiculous amount of academic pressure in terms of both performance and attendance, record numbers of family break-ups, economic and environmental meltdown, and increasing global and political instability as well as watching the rise of the Far Right, racism and misogyny. I thought my teenager years were hard enough, my family’s various crises as bad as it got, my school as demanding as it was possible to be – I was wrong. My kids have got it harder. It’s heartbreaking to realise that their childhood is in fact harder than your own, their experiences worse, your ability to help them diminished.
Support then, is limited to whatever charities have sprung up to fill the gaps, or what you can pay for. Money might not buy you happiness, but it sure as hell solves a lot of problems. I’m paying for therapy for Ivy while watching Lily’s behaviour get worse; I’ve been trying for over ten years to get Lily the help she needs, with no success. I can’t even afford to pay for a dyslexia specialist to assess her, something which should surely be happening automatically in schools rather than being left to parents to pay for. How can anyone on benefits afford to pay around £500 for a dyslexia assessment for their child? Or £40 a week per child for a therapy session? No one should be told to wait until they’re in crisis before seeking help, let alone a child. No one should be in the position of being afraid of seeking support because that would mean the potential involvement of an abusive partner, or fear of reprisal. I’m left scared of taking up the offer of Early Help, particularly as there’s no concrete proof that it will result in any tangible help – yet I’m also scared that if I don’t willingly sign up to it, it will only take one more inevitable incident with Lily before school goes over my head and makes a referral to the not-so soft and fluffy element of the social services. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Meanwhile I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me “What support are you getting?” and reacted in alarm when I answer None. “Oh, but you need support, you must get support,” as if Support was something you could pick up off the supermarket shelf like a can of beans.
Yes. I am painfully aware that I need more Support. I am aware that my children need more Support. But unless you’re actually going to offer me some Support, you’re really not helping. Support for too many families has become a Holy Grail, a mythical unicorn that everyone has heard of but no one knows where to find. Or worse – that setting off on the quest of finding Support will bring further danger rather than help, Ralph Fiennes being imprisoned as a suspected spy while Kristin Scott Thomas lies rotting in the cave with her broken leg. “I’ll just pop you down here while I go and seek some support.” What could possibly go wrong?
School knows best. I should probably just accept this and move on. Yet still, on Wednesday night, I found myself repeatedly checking the school’s website and Twitter feed in anticipation of the news that school would be closed the following day. Given that we’d had snow that day, that more was forecast, that an amber weather warning was in place, that most of the UK was already buried under several inches, that the local police were advising to cancel journeys, it seemed that surely a snow day was the right way to go.
School would absolutely, resolutely be open on Thursday morning.
At this point, my anxiety was getting worse. We live 11 miles from school and are not on the bus route so I drive the kids to school every morning and also collect them most days. Most of that drive is on exposed, rural roads where there’s nowhere to go for help if you get stuck – there isn’t even a petrol garage on the way. Roads that feel the full effect of the bad weather, roads that could well be icy and treacherous.
Thursday morning, and it was still snowing – by now the snow was beginning to stick. Okay, not snow as someone in Canada or Finland would recognise, but this is the UK. We don’t normally get much snow, so we’re not prepared for it – there isn’t enough snow to make it economically viable for local councils, transport services or even households to invest in specialist snow gear. Even the YakTrax I bought a few years ago felt like a ridiculous indulgence. So while I was looking out of the bedroom window at the snow, I was aware that while I could probably drive the kids into school okay, there were 2 major problems with that. 1) There was no guarantee I could drive them home again later in the day if the weather got worse, and 2) I don’t have much experience driving in the snow and so the thought of having to do so was making me incredibly anxious. In fact, if I did drive them in, I’d either spend the day in a cafe close to school, anxiously watching the weather, fully prepared to make a snap decision to pull them out and bring them home again if it got worse, or I’d be stood at home doing the same thing, watching the snow pile up and feeling more and more nervous about the return journey.
I kept checking the school website, but remember: school knows best. School was staying open, informed by government pressure over targets and the insane notion that every pupil should have 100% attendance. School was very much staying open.
By this point, my heart was racing, my stomach twisting in knots. Both kids have been ill and missed a few days of school, my car broke down after a weekend visiting family resulting in missing another two days. Ivy is falling apart and basically refusing school at the moment. We are on the Attendance Officer’s radar, to put it mildly. I feel under mounting pressure to make sure that both children are in school, on time, all the time. This has meant no mental health days, even when they were much needed, and sending them in before they’ve fully recovered from coughs and colds, meaning illnesses dragged out for longer. School, in other words, is adversely affecting my children’s physical and mental wellbeing.
I looked out again at the snow as the wind blew flurries around the garden, and realised how stressful the drive was going to be. Even the street where the car is parked wouldn’t be gritted – I could be slipping and sliding just while trying to do a three point turn to get out onto the main road, followed by 11 miles of fretting about black ice and maniac drivers while snow blew across my windscreen and I struggled to see.
School, I firmly believed, wasn’t making the right decision. It wasn’t a decision made according to the safety and wellbeing of their pupils, staff or the parents. And I wasn’t prepared to put myself through the stress and potential danger of the drive, nor of spending a day anxiously watching the weather in case it got worse. I called in and said we weren’t coming – from the sound of the harassed tones of the receptionist, we weren’t in the minority, but again, I was on the verge of palpitations with anxiety while making the call, worried that this decision would land me in even more trouble with school.
This though, is what self care looks like. Not bubble baths or an early night with a nice book to read; activities which may well be enjoyable but aren’t the sum total of what self care constitutes. Self care is the decision to put your own wellbeing foremost, rather than squeezing it in around the edges of your life. It often looks like being difficult, or awkward, of going against the grain. Mostly, it’s about listening to that quiet, scared voice inside, the one that is begging you not to do that, to please do this instead – a voice that we so often have to override out of a greater fear of what will happen if we give in to it. Fear that we’ll be in trouble – with a boss, with school, with our ex, or our mother. Fear, all the time, fear. I’m getting so fed up of living my life in constant fear, yet this time, the fear of driving through a blizzard (actual weather forecast) outweighed the fear of what school might say if we didn’t come in. Self care meant allowing myself to avoid a scenario that I’d find terrifying. Similarly, a few weeks ago, self care meant taking the extra time to drive through the town to the garage after dropping the kids off, as my petrol gauge had dropped down to one bar – and while intellectually I knew that there was enough petrol to get me back home and to the far more convenient garage, I also knew that I’d be worrying about it for the whole 11 miles. Inconvenience beats anxiety and stress in the self care equation.
At 9.40 am, less than an hour after the start of the day, school sent out a text to parents to announce that it would be closing at 11.30, and so everyone would need to make special arrangements to collect their children early. By this point, it was clear we were within a few miles of the Red Zone that the newscasters were warning us about, and snow was coming down hard. School made it very clear that this decision had been taken by the bus companies rather than in-house, as the bus firms were worried that they would not be able to operate and get the pupils home safely that afternoon. Seriously? If school had paid attention to the weather warnings, to the police, to plain old common sense, then they would have announced the decision to close the night before, and saved everyone the added stress, worry and potentially dangerous journeys.
School, in other words, doesn’t always know best. Doesn’t that ring true for so much of the daily stresses that we have to deal with? When what we seemingly have to do is in direct conflict with what we really need to do, but we’re forced to go along with it all anyway? And for someone who is essentially in a state of recovery after a traumatic situation, it’s crucial to take the actions that will make you feel safe, the actions that will reduce that overload of stress and anxiety. There are times when it’s right to expand your comfort zone, and there are time when feeling safe is paramount. Self care is essentially about pegging out the boundaries that you need in place to feel safe, to protect your wellbeing. The soft and fluffy end of the self-care stick – bubble baths and the like – are enjoyable reminders to be good to ourselves and to boost our sense of wellbeing. They’re not much use if we’re sabotaging such core feelings such as safety by pushing ourselves too hard in stressful situations, against our own intuition. A hot bath will not outweigh the stress of driving 11 miles through a blizzard.
Listen to your intuition. Stop fighting yourself when it comes to the basic human right of feeling safe. Self care isn’t a luxury, nor is it always fluffy. If you need a snow day, take a goddamn snow day.