Transformation

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

Panic.

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

More Panic.

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

Panic Overload.

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

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

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

Fire-fighting and the Magic Button

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resilience

Advice on how to plant trees has changed in recent years; instead of being lashed to a stake that stands parallel to the trunk, it’s now thought best to put in a lower, diagonal stake that allows the growing tree to move with the wind. This way it will strengthen and gain more resilience, better able to withstand future storms.

I feel I have precious little resilience left. Looking at the storms I’ve had to weather in the past few years, some might say I’ve demonstrated incredible resilience – after all, I’m still standing. My answer is this: barely. In tree-speak, I’m like one of those wind-blasted thorn trees, gnarly and bent by Cornish winds, leaning at an alarming angle. Nothing is as it should be. Each setback seems to extract a higher and higher price on my mental health – and recently, the setbacks have been piling in on top of each other until breaking point has been well and truly passed. In truth, I don’t know how I’m still standing; my body seems to haul herself automatically through the days while my spirit remains curled up in the foetal position. Recent events brought me to a near-suicidal low after an argument with the children; apparently my attempts to get them into school on time and wearing the correct uniform make me unreasonable.

It was Ivy’s insistence that I was being ridiculous that somehow broke me, something she had no idea would trigger such a catastrophic state of mind. Of course, that was the word that Simon used almost non-stop during our disastrous mediation sessions, shouting me down with Ridiculous! Ridiculous! whenever I tried to speak the truth. I left that final session shaking and traumatised; the mediator should never have allowed it. Instead she seemed shocked that I had become upset and angry, that I wasn’t holding it together in the calm, rational manner that Simon was capable of, that so many abusers are capable of, smug in the knowledge that they are winning. There are so many aspects to domestic abuse that professionals need more awareness of, the subtle and insidious ways that abusers use to manipulate and control their victims. Simon’s ability to stay calm should never have been interpreted as proof that he was reasonable, nor that he was right – it’s only much later, with hindsight, that I can see the extent to which he was already lying, plotting and manipulating. You can’t win against someone who is willing to lie about absolutely everything, who will literally stop at nothing in order to get what they want (namely to destroy you) and all of the professionals involved were entirely taken in.

It wasn’t Ivy’s fault, she had no way of knowing the impact her words would have. To be triggered has become such an over-used buzzword, the millennial generation throwing it around for seemingly the slightest upset, the least bit of offence. To be triggered shouldn’t be equated to being over-sensitive, a special snowflake – realistically it means that you are unexpectedly floored by your reaction to what should be a non-event. It’s sudden, overwhelming panic, or shutdown or crisis. I should not have been upset by Ivy’s usage of one simple, inoffensive word, bad-mannered though it was. Instead, I spent the next few days feeling worthless, unable to carry on as normal in what seemed like an utterly pointless life. Feeling this low is exhausting and terrifying, and at times it’s only been the knowledge that I have kids to look after that’s carried me through it. None of this is a big red flag, a crisis call for help; I’ve gotten through it. Again. Resilience, I guess.

The garden is saving my life. Each time I go out there, I feel better. Gardening is a form of hope that the future will be better, we plant for the future. Having cleared the new flower bed for planting, I sorted through the plants I’d rescued from The House in the Sky to see what could go in along with the few new plants I’d bought. A lot of the old pots contained shrivelled up specimens of what used to be plants, or were overcrowded with weeds, and so I decided to take them down to the far end of the garden to get them out of the way. But as I picked up one pot and pulled out the weeds, I noticed a leaf. One single leaf poking through the dry soil that looked remarkably like a peony.

Back in the city years ago I’d tried to grow peonies without much success. They’re not keen on being moved and the plants I’d bought just wouldn’t settle in. When we moved to the House in the Sky though, there was a beautiful red peony near the front door, with gorgeous blowsy blooms. For seven years, I smiled at its flowers, not even wanting to pick them and bring them inside – they were too beautiful to cut. Once the decision to sell had been made, I had to agree to Simon sending in “gardeners” to tame the garden that we’d never fully taken control of, so overgrown was it by the time we bought the place from its elderly owners. Knowing that Astrid considered herself to be “good at gardening,” I had to specifically name her in the court agreement, that she was “not to attend the property” – otherwise Simon would bring her there each day so that they could get the house on the market as quickly as possible in order to buy their new home together. This woman who had been stalking me, spying on me, attacking me on social media, entering my home without permission, going through my belongings and papers – yes, Simon really was that tactless as to bring her to the house against my will. Even with the court agreement in place she still turned up at the house at least three times in the following week, at one point standing right outside the garden wall, shouting abuse at me in front of my children – You’re mad! You’re crazy! while Simon told the kids “Your mother is psychotic.” This because I objected to them breaking the court order, because I was upset and angry about being lied to and betrayed yet again, particularly as I had gritted my teeth and tried to be friendly towards Simon as he turned up at the house each day.

He hired “gardeners” to clear the garden, which they did using petrol-fuelled hedge-trimmers, slashing everything in sight. In desperation I tried to explain to them what should stay and what should go, otherwise they would literally have cut everything down to a stump, the old apple tree included. But they were Czech and barely spoke English, and my NO, don’t cut that was generally interpreted as No, I don’t want that. Meanwhile Yes, I want to keep this became Yes, please cut this down. I simply couldn’t win. I googled Czech phrases, we tied ribbons to the plants we wanted to keep and the kids hung signs on the apple tree, but it was too little too late. I sobbed indoors, hands around my head to block out the noise as they cut their way through the entire garden, then ran for my car and got the hell out of the destruction, unable to stop it, unable to cope with Simon strutting around the devastation like the Lord of the Manor, not even able to stop Astrid from constantly turning up. I stroked the leaves of my peony, trying to get them to understand, to save it. It was flowering, surely they could see how beautiful it was? When I came back, it was gone.

I’d dug up a few plants before the gardeners came, but wanted to rescue more plants to bring with me when I moved. I was too ill by then, bed-ridden with severe flu. Moving had become a disaster, Simon hadn’t even bothered to let the solicitor know that the money from the sale was supposed to fund my ongoing purchase. I could barely stand by that point, but was having to repeatedly haul myself off to the tip and charity shops. A last minute shout out to friends brought much needed help with clearing furniture that wasn’t going to fit into the much smaller new house. A friend offered to dig up any of the plants I wanted to bring – a few roses and a hazelnut were all I managed to remember; I didn’t even have the energy to make a proper list. But then, almost on the day of the move, I spotted something where the peony had once been. A small offshoot, a baby plant pushing through the soil where its parent had once sheltered it. A young seedling that probably would have been choked out by the dominance of the mother plant, if it had still been there. Carefully, I dug it out and into a pot. It was this same tiny peony that I found now, as I pulled the weeds out of its pot. One leaf poked up through the soil, so easily overlooked or thrown into the compost by mistake. I planted it in the new bed, whispered words of encouragement to it, watered it and crossed my fingers. Live. Please live.

Resilience.

Cat and resilient peony. I'm not sure how resilient it is to being sat on though.