The Self-isolation Society…..*

*please feel free to hum/sing that to the Italian Job theme tune to get in the mood!

Never mind the Self preservation Society, for the preservation of society, we all need to be the SELF ISOLATION SOCIETY!

Today is Undiagnosed Children’s Day 2020!

This whole week should have launched joyfully with much fanfare and a variety of exciting plans and activities, guaranteed to generate awareness, interest and much needed funds. Unfortunately as we all know, the universe had other plans & so we are all stuck, if not totally inside, then only venturing out for the essentials, scurrying away from our fellow humans & hoping no one gets too close, breathes on us or worse still has the audacity to sneeze or cough in the vicinity.

How I miss the days when a public sneeze generated a polite “Bless you” rather than people backing away in fear and/or rage. It’s definitely not a good time to have hay-fever that’s for sure!

I definitely don’t mean to make light of what’s going on with this awful pandemic causing huge isolation, suffering, financial panic and tragically, the death of far too many, dying much too soon. 😔

There are untold and incomprehensible ramifications of the wider fall out from COVID19. Much of which I suspect won’t even be clear for years to come; perhaps only even when future generations reflect on the past and the repercussions from these times. Splinters and cracks from the epicentre appearing like those on a broken mirror, spiralling out ever further and further.

For now though, it is at times like these, that my SWAN UK family are more important than ever. Who are SWAN UK and why so important you may ask? SWAN stands for Syndrome without a name. It is not a diagnosis but an umbrella term for a child who has a medical, physical and/or cognitive condition that is likely genetic in origin but of unknown cause. SWAN UK is the only dedicated network providing support to families with a child with an undiagnosed condition – A family like mine. https://www.undiagnosed.org.uk/about-us/

For those of you who know me in the “real world” or have followed me and mine via social media https://www.facebook.com/definitelynotthewaltons/ you may already be aware that I have been a parent representative for SWAN UK for the last 5 years. I am (allegedly) a mother of 4 children/young people and 2 of my youngest children are SWANS who like to keep myself and the medical profession on their toes. I have also been a member of the SWAN UK community for approximately 8 years and shared the highs, lows and everything in between.

Due to the nature of the vulnerabilities that our medically complex children present with, my family are currently shielding. Many of you reading this will be too. I know that many of my fellow parent-carers on SWAN are too. Ironically being a SWAN parent probably makes it easier to cope with the current challenges the world is throwing up at us. Many SWAN parent/carers are used to living their lives in uncertainty, in the shadows of those with mainstream, cognitively typical children. Too many SWAN UK carers and the siblings of affected children know that we live by plans that ever change, emergencies, sadly sometimes of the blue lights and sirens variety and far too many know the pain of losing a loved one before their time.

We have become used to feeling isolated, not being able to go out with our children because we don’t have enough support, be that in terms of carers or facilities – ever tried changing a 9 year old on the floor of a disgusting toilet cubicle? Probably not (I hope not) – but this is just one of the many realities for those who care for children with complex needs. So being stuck at home isn’t necessarily new to us.

Whilst every family with a SWAN child will have differing experiences – there is no common denominator of a SWAN child (apart from the fact that looking through the photo gallery of our community, they are all ruddy gorgeous, cheeky, amazing kiddos!) we all know that our children throw us curved balls, medical crises or meltdowns that just cannot be calmed with a soothing word, change of scene or face. We know the fragility of life and we know that we have to adapt and roll with the punches because we can’t change things – or change the world expediently for our children.

But we also know the vibrance of a life well-lived, of seemingly simple but oh so important triumphs – first steps tottered at 5, 6 or even later; first words painstakingly achieved by hour and hours of speech and language appointments and therapies practiced over and over again. Of new skills that come later in life, sometimes only fleetingly appearing and then regressing again, depending on the nature of our children’s difficulties.

Now more than ever SWAN UK needs any support you can offer, no matter how big or small. Although some of the activities we had planned to celebrate Undiagnosed Children’s Day 2020 have had to be curtailed, it hasn’t stopped our community spirit or our passion for highlighting the importance of belonging in a group of like-minded people who can be there for each other through out the day and night.

You can have a look at some of the things we have been up to: https://www.facebook.com/SWANchildrenUK/?epa=SEARCH_BOX or https://twitter.com/SWAN_UK?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthorhttps://twitter.com/SWAN_UK?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor You can sneek a peek at our instagram: https://www.instagram.com/swanchildrenuk/?hl=en

Never has social media played such an important part of our lives – a network on which we can connect, celebrate and commiserate. Our private Facebook group is a source of comfort and a wealth of advice and experience until we can meet again in the outside world. Please help SWAN UK continue to be there by sharing this post, others like it from the social media platforms and give what you can: https://www.undiagnosed.org.uk/donate/

The Rare Conundrum…..

If I had a penny for every time my children have confounded the medical profession, I would as the saying goes, be a very rich lady.  I won’t dwell on the fact that if I had a penny for every time they have confounded me, I’d also be very rich…and probably less wrinkled, less dependant on caffeine (IV drip anyone?) Chocolate and wine but that’s another story.

However, let me elaborate why my precocious precious cherubs have elicited such responses as “we have never seen that before” or “that’s very unusual/odd/strange” and my personal favourite: “that just doesn’t happen!” – when confronted by my child doing exactly what doesn’t happen right in front of their eyes. 

You see my children, well 2 of them at least, are considered “rare.” On the whole I try to see that as a positive, albeit at times I think the whole world should appreciate their uniqueness by observing them inside a perspex case in a museum but usually those days are few and far between 😉

‘& here we have the lesser-spotted children horribles preserved for prosperity….’

2 years ago I wrote a blog piece to explain what being rare means and how it affects our family. If you would like to have a read: https://definitelynotthewaltons.com/2018/02/

Rare Disease Day is once again looming large upon us – 29th February 2020 to be exact. This year marks the 13th International Rare Disease Day which is held every year on the last day of February. 

Given that every 4 years the month of February inveigles an extra day into the calendar month and thus is a little bit quirky in itself, it seems especially fitting to celebrate all things rare in a unique month, highlighting the weird, wonderful and downright peculiar  (of the medical world you understand(!) – In fact this year there are reportedly 146 events in over 100 countries to raise  awareness on the day itself as well as  thousands of other events throughout February. You can learn more https://www.rarediseaseday.org/article/about-rare-disease-day

You may find yourself thinking that you don’t have anything in common with a rare disease or even know anyone affected by such a thing but if you will spare me a little more of your time, I’ll explain why in actuality, this misconception is most likely wrong.

Based on current data it is accepted that 1 in 20 of us will at some point in our lives be diagnosed with a rare disease and the majority of them, being so rare, will have no cure. Some of those rare diseases may be transient, others life changing and in the very worst cases, life limiting. 

It is not my intention to scare you or depress you (how am I doing so far?!) Merely to heighten awareness around the fact that rare diseases, well really they aren’t that rare and if you personally aren’t affected by one (or more) you are bound to know, possibly even be related to someone who is living with a disease or condition that falls under the rare moniker.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with my family background, I am a mother of 4 of the human child variety, married to the long-suffering Mr DNTW’s, owner (used in the very loosest of terms) of 2 crazy dogs and 1 cat. We used to have 2 cats but one couldn’t stand the melodrama of life with us and shipped himself out. Funnily enough he was also sort of rare, being of the ginger hue – ginger cats are apparently less common than the typical moggy; perhaps he just couldn’t face the competitive nature of this family in the rare stakes?

Furry friends

In a sense of irony that befits our family largesse, all our children have unique and/or rare genes and in a further twist of fate, we only discovered their ‘foibles’ for want of a better turn of phrase, in reverse age order!

I sometimes feel I have to add that bit in almost apologetically – the fact that we discovered this from youngest backwards I mean. When you exchange the usual pleasantries on meeting new people and the topic invariably comes round to the whats and wherefores of each other’s lives, they already think you are a bit bonkers because you have 4 children (or that you don’t have a TV – so, funny…ha, ha, ha….not!) Add in extra/special needs and they either assume you must have adopted and are therefore saintly or if they are your actual birth children, then you are clearly more than a bit soft in the head . Why would you go on to have 4 when you already have one or more with special needs?! Of course no one has been rude enough to say that to our faces (yet!) But you can feel the silent judgement all the same.

All the same, I will confess it was a bit of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick moment (understatement) when our then 17 year old (20 this year!! How?? Believe me I have asked myself this question a lot – I don’t feel old enough to have a 20 year old, although I definitely look and physically feel it) was diagnosed out of the blue with a congenital heart condition, solely as a result of a medical he had undergone because of his chosen career path.

Not only was this new diagnosis very scary – well to us as parents anyway, he took it with the brevity of teenagers and their immortality concept – I did have a bit of a why us moment? In fact I distinctly recall saying that in spite of us making beautiful, amazing and rather fabulous children, (offspring if you are reading this, don’t bother asking for a pocket money raise!) Mr DNTW’s and I are clearly a car-crash genetically.  

Considering there are approximately 7.8 billion people on earth, you have to wonder what the odds are that 2 people who are not related to each other in anyway other than by marriage (we have been asked by sooooooo many medical professionals over the year whether we are cousins/inter-family marriage and such like!)  manage to meet, marry and have kids, all of whom likely have extra needs all because of wonky DNA (technical term wonky!) from each parent; whose chromosomes whilst not an issue individually, in combination have resulted in the difficulties our children face.  There was a distinct wanting to rage against the unfairness of it all and a feeling of being given the shi**iest end of a really shi**y stick. It didn’t help that he received this news at a time I was also stuck in our local hospital with G-Man, (our 3rd) because of his own medical issues.

After a strong coffee (and probably wine) I gave my head a wobble and we began the medical process to discover more about his condition and the implications of it for his future. As these things go, if you have to have a heart condition, he has escaped relatively lightly. Whilst it is progressive in nature and will need addressing in the future, we already know that there are things that can be done when the need arises and because of our wondrous NHS, he will be reviewed regularly and receive the very best care and attention. 

According to an article produced by NHS England in 2016, congenital heart defects are the most common birth defect. Approximately 8 in 1000 children are born each year showing signs of disease and the figure rises still further to a prevalence of 4 per 1000 in adulthood – not quite sure why the discrepancy in figures. Perhaps because associated issues or co-morbidities of the disease are leading to an improved diagnosis ratio?   

Moving on. our almost 17 year old (another DNTW’s on the road later this year?? UK watch out!) is diagnosed with high-functioning autism, sensory processing disorder and traits of Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA) 

Whilst it is right and proper that autism in his presentation is now more often referred to as autism spectrum CONDITION (previously stated as a disorder and within the medical/scholarly community, it largely remains so) it would be unfair to gloss over the difficulties that this diagnosis brings with it. 

Our son is many things: clever, bright, articulate on subjects he is passionate about (of which there are many) intensely focused on specific interests, able to recall events and facts from an astonishingly wide range of areas (and years of family memories, both a blessing and a curse!) and with a sense of humour that borders on cheek but *just* manages to avoid rudeness….most of the time. Sometimes I don’t know whether to laugh or wish I could gaffer tape his mouth shut; usually depends on the audience. 

But over the years, it has been hard to not understand each others perspectives. At times it’s  felt as if we were each speaking a foreign language with no hope of translation or commonality. It’s been scary and worrying and frustrating. 

Autistic people can find social interactions and communication in general problematic. There are so many surprising ways that we interact with each other so interpreting body language, tone of voice, facial expressions and even the spoken word can lead to a whole host of misunderstandings and anxieties which have knock on effects on self esteem, mental health and well-being.  

To witness his struggle to make sense of this world, to comprehend that the things we say are not always literal – only years later can we laugh about our miscommunications: the expression I used to use when in a rush to get out of the house in the mornings for school: “C’mon, get a wriggle on!” shouted in exasperation and then looks of disbelief at the child appearing to body-pop across the kitchen, which resulted in more shouting (not my finest hour). Or the look of horror on his face when I would say things like “Keep your eyes peeled” if I was looking for a car-parking space. 

Sensory difficulties in so many aspects of life too have taken their toll. Going out to eat at a restaurant, going shopping, holidays, day trips and even visits to family and friends require meticulous planning and contingencies. 

The intensity of the world around you when you are over stimulated by your senses  – hypersensitivity –  and your ability to regulate them must be extremely stressful for many autistic people and especially those with sensory processing difficulties. 

There is an excellent video courtesy of the National Autistic Society which demonstrates this very well: (be warned before viewing, this could be triggering for some people)   https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=12&v=Lr4_dOorquQ&feature=emb_logo which my son tells me is very representative of how he feels when out in public. I know the first time I watched this I felt thoroughly over-whelmed and exhausted, craving peace and solitude by the end. School teachers I imagine this is a but a snap-shot of your day – kudos to you all.

Paradoxically people with sensory processing difficulties also experience significant hyposensitivity – under stimulation in certain senses, particularly tactile (touch) vestibularly (part of the brain/inner ear concerned with balance and eye movement) as well as proprioception  – awareness of one’s own body in space around you. These intertwined sensory needs can result in a craving for input in order for the person to self-regulate. 

These are all issues we have learned about and try to continually learn from in the best ways to support our son but it’s not an exact science.

So is autism a rare condition or one that’s being bandied about like a box chocolates? Hmnnnn, that’s difficult to answer. Certainly I have heard time and again that “autism didn’t exist in my day” more times than I care to recall. There’s a great meme, something along the lines of:

There was no autism diagnosed before 1830……

Mount Everest wasn’t ‘discovered’ until 1856 but I suspect it was there all along!

Our son didn’t receive his diagnosis until he was 10 and this isn’t unusual, even though we had first sought help and guidance when he was around 3 years old. Adults are increasingly being diagnosed later in life but diagnosis rates still vary hugely across the UK alone and there is no one specific test that can confirm whether an individual is autistic.  

In our wider family, there are a number of children with a confirmed diagnoses of autism and/or co-morbidities thereof. Whilst there may be a genetic component for some, testing may only indicate the presence of a known autism gene rather than whether the individual themselves is autistic. Genetics is advancing and evolving rapidly but there remains a long way to go. 

I personally believe the exact cause of autism is irrelevant and understanding, management and appropriate support should always be the best practice approach.  

So far, so not particularly rare or unusual you are probably thinking. However, where things get a little more complex is with our youngest 2 children, G-Man 13, and Minx 11. They may be the youngest but are truly determined not to be left out and are the 2 largely responsible for causing the medical community much vexation. For the time being we know that Minx has an as yet, undiagnosed neuromuscular condition, likely genetic in origin and it is likely that G-Man has a variant of this too.

Minx is the more severely affected but both children are tube fed, had severe reflux as babies, both have dysfunctional swallows related to muscle fatigue of repetitive action and there are various commonalities in their difficulties. 

This is what just 2 weeks of tube feeding equipment/nutritional supplement looks like….. for 1 child!! 🤦🏽‍♀️

Both children are SWANS. This is not a diagnosis. It stands for Syndromes Without a Name and you can learn more here: .https://www.undiagnosed.org.uk SWAN UK is the only designated support group for children and families in the UK without a diagnosis and they have provided my family with a life-line, connecting us with other families in similar situations, even though their children’s needs may be very different to my own. It has given us a sense of belonging, people to talk to at all hours of the day and night, balloons after hospital stays, coffee mornings and family days out. I know from my own experience and talking to others how valuable this is in our rare and undiagnosed community.

Thank you SWAN UK for balloons!

In the early weeks after Minx’s birth her difficulties came to ahead at the age of 9 weeks resulting in an emergency hospital admission and a flurry of subsequent appointments. None of them gave   answers.

I felt very alone and I pinned all our hopes on every specialist or therapist we encountered. I was convinced for at least the first 3 years of her life that the next appointment or admission would be the one where we got ANSWERS and  a PLAN. 

But despite being on genetic studies from the age of 6 months, enrolling on DDD – Deciphering Development Disorders: https://www.ddduk.org in 2013 and https://www.genomicsengland.co.uk/about-genomics-england/the-100000-genomes-project/ in 2015, at the age of 11 ,we still have no over-riding genetic answers.

I can reel you off a list of conditions: upper limb arthrogryposis, lower limb hyper-mobility, gastrointestinal reflux disorder, gastrointestinal dysmotility, chronic abdominal pain, muscle weakness and fatigue, congenital myopathy, etc etc  – but although we have seen specialist consultants in numerous different fields, at many different hospitals and although many differential diagnoses have been proffered, thus far nothing explains why my children require a feeding tube for nourishment, why Minx is a part time wheelchair user, has had to undergo countless operations, tests and procedures over her tender years. Why I can’t explain (to her immense frustration) why she is able to do something one minute but not the next; why she can be running around like her friends and then her legs turn to noodles and she can barely stand, let alone walk;  why her hands can hold a pen and write one day but the next it is all she can do to hold her head up; why the things so many of us take for granted are such a battle for her.  

I’ve held her in my arms as a baby, screaming as she was prodded and poked, as Doctors trooped in and out, relentless personal questions about whether my husband is my cousin or other close relative,  examining this body part and that – hers and mine!  X-rays, MRI’s, needles, blood tests, skin biopsies, muscle biopsies. 

I’ve handed her over to anaesthetists, surgeons or gastroenterologists more times than I can recall, laughed about her antics and singing (caterwauling?!) over pre-meds (an early indication of what she might be like when intoxicated in later years I suspect) manipulated her joints for intensive physiotherapy, tried different diets and multiple medications.   Soothed her, cajoled her, bribed her (she is VERY good at extortion!!) wanted to yell at her for being non-compliant but secretly proud of her feistiness and determination that has got her this far. 

G-Man too has had more than his fair share of tests, procedures, trials and tribulations. Both kids have been through more in their young years than many adults do in a life-time.

I’ve paced hospital corridors, driven in a state of recklessness when I should have called an ambulance, ridden in the back of them on blue lights, cried, put a brave face on, been meek when I should have called out poor practice and learnt to fight my children’s corner when necessary. 

I will always have respect for those in the medical profession but equally I no longer place them on a pedestal or assume they know best. They know their speciality, they don’t know my child/ren. It sounds a bit cliched and twee but I have learned such a lot over the years and I do consider it a journey of sorts.

These days I don’t often dwell on the fact that we don’t have a diagnosis and I try not to worry about what the future may bring. Other than typical parental worries: will they drive me to distraction by refusing to wear a coat even though it’s minus 2 with a windchill of minus 10 and snowing? HOW SHORT are those SHORTS?! Will she stop stealing my lipsticks, will he ever hang up his towel instead of leaving it on the bedroom floor,; will they do well in their exams (not because it matters to me as such, more that it opens doors for them),will they have a nice group of friends, make only the kind of mistakes they can learn from without devastating consequences? 

But sometimes in the small hours, or when something new rears it’s ugly head or when they ask me questions I can’t answer, those worries can’t be so easily silenced. And the truth is we don’t know what the future holds. I can waste time worrying about the ifs and buts and maybe’s but down that path lies only doubt and pain and I wont give it headspace.

Tomorrow is never a given for any of us so we may may as well make the most of today ❣️

The Trigger…..(Pull it)

Recently for reasons that as yet I cannot divulge (I promise there is a blog post coming on this as soon as I am able; apologies for the cloak and dagger tactics. I’m not one of those “u ok hun?” PM/In box me” type people honestly!!) I have recently had to write an explanation of what led me to my break down almost 2 years ago. The account needed to be factual and pragmatic; the irony of trying to keep my feelings out of it when dealing with something so fundamentally, emotionally driven as a suicide attempt was not lost on me.

Although I will (if asked) talk to close friends and family about what led to my attempts and breakdown in mental health honestly and forthrightly, it doesn’t mean there isn’t shame; that there isn’t guilt and that there aren’t things that I (still) hide. There are somethings that are so deeply personal (buried?) that I don’t think I’ve even allowed myself to explore them.

In writing down the what’s, why’s and wherefore’s, its dug up a lot of suppressed memories, pain and feelings of helplessness, at a situation that was not of my own making. That’s not to say that I want to palm what happened off on someone/something else. I accept responsibility for want of a better word for the actions I undertook. However I reached that point where checking out seemed the only option to change what was going on around me.

It occurred to me as I typed the details up that it was triggering a lot of emotions even though I wanted to be concise and almost 3rd person in my approach. And I as thought about that word “trigger,” I realised that summed up my entire experience of a mental health breakdown. Seems obvious I suppose. I don’t know – I can only speak from my personal situation.

Suicidality  springs from a myriad of wide and varied causes;  I am no expert. For some it may be a single one-off event that causes the person to experience a sudden mental health breakdown (personal/financial/status loss spring to mind) for others something that happened in their past (abuse, specific traumatic one off/repetitive  event) which cannot be overcome.

For me, it came about insidiously, through a relentlessly relentless piling on of pressures and this too is of course acknowledged as a common cause. I guess for me the idiom “at the end of my rope” has more connotations than just being at the end of one’s patience. Apparently the original source of this expression relates to tethering an animal to prevent it moving and wondering off beyond a certain distance.  Personally, (in a somewhat grimly, ironic humour) I thought it meant at the end of the hanging noose knot….

My first suicidal ideation was triggered by the repeated use of the word COPE. An innocuous little word that is used to describe so many situations. As a parent carer of children with special needs, it’s not uncommon for others to utter “I don’t know how you cope!” This is something that I know many of my fellow parent carers  or carers in general will be nodding along with.

Carers are often seen as saintly like figure. A cross between Florence Nightingale and Mary Poppins perhaps? Truth is, very few of us chose this life. The role chose us by circumstance or default.  I know there are some utterly inspiring carers out there who did actually choose to foster or adopt children with special needs (and thank goodness for them) to prevent little lives being institutionalised without families of their own.

There are also those courageous individuals who when embarking on their journey of parenthood were given horrifying, frightening, diagnosis for their unborn child and yet chose to bring life into the world knowing they were doing so against the odds; that they  would do their utmost to love and cherish their child, no matter what. Other parents have had to face a child being diagnosed with cancer, degenerative or congenital conditions out of the blue or as a result of an accident or injury.

Of course later in life more and more of us are facing the hideous reality of dementia in family members. Those with grandparents and harder still, their own parents or siblings who they see deteriorating in their day-to-day abilities; losing their independence and all too often a decline in mood, personality and recognition of their own nearest and dearest. Very cruel.

Whichever way it comes to be, caring for someone isn’t something you get a medal for. There isn’t a huge amount of reward  – certainly not monetarily. If you can show that you provide care for someone receiving  specific incapacity benefits for over 35 hours per week and you earn under £123p/w (as of April 2019) from other sources of income, you can enjoy the princely sum of £66.15p/w (also April 2019) for the ‘privilege’ of being a carer. Even based on 35 hours per week(and the majority of carers I know ‘work’ substantially longer hours than that; 24/7 for many)  that equates to just £1.89 per hour. Wow. Best not get me started on that. A ranty blog post for another day no doubt.

Anyway I digress. The point I’m taking a long time to get to is many carers ‘cope’ because there really isn’t any other alternative. And those of you who say you couldn’t? Well you would. If you had to. At least for a period of time.

There are (too) many days I feel like sitting in a corner and rocking. Many days I wonder how I’m going to make it through the endless medications, physiotherapy, appointments, hospital visits and dealing with the practicalities and physicalities of caring for children with extra needs. Don’t get me started on the relentless laundry pile that never seems to go down, the food shopping and meal preparation that are just part and parcel of every day life in a busy family and I know I’m far from alone.

But the point is I do – cope – I mean, generally speaking. It isn’t a life I chose but equally my children didn’t ask to come into the world with neurological,  medical and/or physical difficulties either. So I get up, I keep going, usually with a grin (maybe a grimace) and somehow it all vaguely fits together, we get to the end of each day with perhaps only a modicum of sanity and no clean school shirts for the next day (Febreeze anyone?!) because it’s the only way we carers know how too.

There isn’t any one else out there to pick up the slack. Unless you are in the fortunate (and probably) unlikely position to be independently wealthy, the majority of carers get on with their role because they have to keep on keeping on. No one else is going to be there to pick up the pieces (or socks) if they don’t. No white knight (or even vaguely grimy one) will rush in where others fear to tred.

So back to that pesky trigger of mine. What’s more frightening than ever is it’s not just carers that struggle to COPE. Unless you have been hiding under a rock, you can’t have failed to notice the inadequacies in the health and social care system caused by austerity, lack of (meaningful) investment, candidates and poor morale. The system itself has reached breaking point.

The working conditions are sending droves of medical professionals overseas where they will have a better work-life balance and better remuneration. Fewer than ever medical students want to take on the role of General Practice and more GP’s than ever are planning to retire early. Figures released in July 2018 showed 1 in every 6 GP positions were unfilled leaving almost every surgery across England at least one Doctor short.

Mental health services have also suffered hugely and in real terms, whilst there were expansive (and expensive!) promises given that funding would increase broadly in this area (£2 billion was pledged by Phillip Hammond in October 2018) in reality the fall in in-patient beds has led to those in crisis being sent hundreds of miles from home, away from their nearest and dearest which can, at least in my experience, only create more hardship. The inability to access timely, regional in-patient care is not just inadequate but dangerous. The focus on out-patient/community based care is of course welcome but it is not a replacement for those battling psychosis, severe depression, eating disorders and such like, especially when either the beds aren’t in familiar environments or worse still, available at all.

Locally Harrogate Hospital plan to close the adult mental health in-patient unit at some as yet unspecified date in the future (rumoured to be later this year) and I for one will mourn this loss. Whilst I hope never to need in-patient services again, I made and have retained a very special  friendship with a fellow MH warrior. We often share some  deeply inappropriate, darkly humourous moments that unless you have experienced a mental health crisis, just wouldn’t be appreciated by  nearest and dearest.

I am forever changed by my own break down experience both in good and bad ways. I have learned my tolerances are much lower than before so whilst I’m in an *ok* place much of the time, it doesn’t take much to alter that kilter and send me spiralling to darker places. But I have also learned I am stronger than I thought it was ever possible to be, that I can ‘cope’ with most of what life throws at me and that will do… for now

The sky’s the limit…

I make no apologies but I am going to be *that mother* – you know the one that clogs up FB (& therefore anyone else who reads her posts, unless you have set me to silent or similar!) with proud, perfect first born posts & rambles to anyone who will listen how talented/amazing/Einstein’s veritable protege etc her child(ren) is/are.

Bare with me on this one though ‘cos I really do think I deserve (well not really me as such but I’ll get on to that bit in a minute!) to have at least 5 minutes of proud glory hunting on H’s behalf.

There are so many reasons I can wax lyrical about H’s virtues: the love and support he gives to all his siblings, (and us of course) the practical care he has voluntarily been trained in to provide for Minx so he can give medications via her gastrostomy, set up her pump feeds (and now G’s too) and aid and assist with various other aspects of personal care; his verve for life, his 100% commitment to anything he puts his mind too, his enthusiasm to embrace every day no matter what it throws at him, volunteering for the local Young Carers; you get the picture: I could go on ad nauseum.

However, the last 2 weeks give me even more reason than normal to shout from the rooftops: H started his private pilots flight training on Monday 23rd July 2018.

On Thursday 26th July 2018 he did his very first air-flight – SOLO!!! Given that he’s only ever had a trial lesson aged 13 prior to this, I think that’s pretty bloody impressive!!! So shout it from the roof tops I will 😊

Just call me Maverick! No first day nerves – Well H didn’t but I did!

From a very early age, H demonstrated a love for all things plane related.

Not necessarily surprising given his Dad’s job (airline pilot for those who may not know) and watching him hero-worship his Daddy flying his little die-cast planes through the sky at death-defying angles, accompanied by lots of engine nnnnnneeeeewwwwaaaahhh type noises (apologies for very poor sound description!) was very sweet.

By aged 3 he could identify most aircraft in the sky or at an airport with spectacular accuracy and had a vast collection of little plastic aircraft models on display stands from various different fleets. Very fragile, a nightmare to dust around and definitely not compatible with younger siblings clumsy hands!

He could fly the simulator on our home computer and his idea of a top day out was sitting in Jersey Aero Club watching planes coming in and out of the Island for hours at a time.

Stealing Daddy’s safety tabard for doing aircraft walk round!
Captain Beaton & First Officer La-La at the helm

Since the age of 4, he’s talked about being a pilot. Initially we responded with a laugh; how many of us said things when we were pint-sized about future occupations and how many of us actually do those particular jobs? As far as I can tell the world isn’t overrun with spacemen, nurses, ice-cream taste testers et al (Incidentally Mr DNTW’s wanted to be a dustbin lorry driver or the night porter on a sleeper train!) Over the years however, H’s convictions only grew stronger and 3 or 4 years ago, recognising that he was serious, we began scrabbling down the back of the sofa for the purported thousands that Brits are supposed to have scattered in loose change (I suspect this is collectively as I only found about 2p, a chewed piece of gum no doubt stashed by one of the offspring for safe-keeping 🤮 and a partially eaten nerf bullet)

The sofa search having proved fruitless, I went to investigate the mystical money tree that lives at the bottom of the garden. Alas, there’s a straggly looking bush and a peeling- paint-bit of fence but nowt else.

We started looking at flight schools more closely and after I had scraped my jaw off the floor cognisant of the fact that it’s very unlikely we have a spare £100,000 + just waiting to be spent, H and hubby had more serious discussions and investigations as to how H could realise his end goal of becoming an airline pilot.

The plan is for H to train just like his Dad did: get a job in the real world to pay for exams, flight training, hour building etc over the next 2-3 years. It’s not the easiest route but it’s a considerable saving on dedicated flight schools and his sense of achievement ultimately will be enormous.

H has also been extremely fortunate that due to the generosity of grandparents he’s able to do a ‘crash course’ (definitely not a good choice of words but can’t think of a better one!) and do his private licence over a month this summer. He’s taken 8 of the 9 ground school exams, passing a number with 100%.

Given that between revising for a-level exams he read through the 9 tomes of aviation law, navigation, radios, meteorology etc for ‘fun’ and relaxation, he’s already showing dedication and determination beyond his tender years. (NB, have made a note to talk to him about his understanding of the word fun!)

Already in the face of adversity, H has had to overcome some hard times. Last September when undergoing his very important application for a Class 1 Aviation medical, he very unexpectedly hit a huge brick wall: despite being merely 17, seemingly fit as the proverbial butcher’s dog – he cycles regularly, goes walking for fun(!) and hikes in the Dales, tests showed an issue with his heart.

Initially he believed it was an error on the machines part (youthful exuberance) but further investigations revealed a progressive heart condition. He was devastated as were we.

No amount of consoling that at least this had been detected early could reassure him. For H, it potentially meant the end of his dreams in pursuing a career in aviation

As a mother, all I could think was how, why and what happens now?? Your heart is a *fairly* important bit of kit….

The cardiologist we consulted was excellent and there followed a round of extensive medical testing to find out how serious things were (are). Sleepless nights for me at least whilst we waited for results.

The good news is that whilst the condition is progressive in nature, he should have years ahead of him, symptom free.

He will be regularly monitored and scanned and eventually medication will control the symptoms. Based on present medical knowledge he will at some point need surgical intervention but we are talking far in the future and with medical knowledge, procedures and equipment evolving at lightning speeds, who can say what the future will bring.

Nonetheless, H was rejected for a Class 1 medical and caveats issued alongside this meant he couldn’t even pursue a private pilots licence. H has always been a positive person but this knocked the stuffing out of him.

After taking time to let the news sink in, we decided not to take this as a fait acclompi. H and Mr DNTW’s consorted with aviation medical and legal experts.

I’ll spare you the ins & outs but it became apparent that if this hadn’t been H’s initial medical licence application, he could have been issued a licence with restrictions (no flying with anyone over 65 or a fellow pilot with medical restrictions) so effectively, the refusal to issue his licence was penalising him for something that hadn’t happened and was/is unlikely to be an issue for many years to come!

As ‘luck’ would have it, another would be pilot had been declined his medical for a different condition for issues that are unlikely to be problematic potentially ever. He was in the process of pursuing his case at the court of human rights.

The Civil Aviation authority agreed to concede before it got to that level and thus opened the floodgates for others in similar situations. H was advised to appeal the decision and after a nail-biting few months he was issued a licence with restrictions.

He is under no illusions that this does complicate matters a little but if air travel and the airline industry continues to expand as predicted, there will be a shortage of airline pilots in the years ahead. (Brexit of course is an unknown, unquantifiable potential source of concern – & not just to the Government! 😏)

So H has made the decision to pursue a flying career and if all goes as it should will have achieved his private pilots licence in the next 2 weeks!! Eek.

As I type, H is preparing for his last exam, another day of navigational flight planning and cross country flying. He’s earned his first set of ‘stripes’ – epaulettes – and is proving that he’s a force to be reckoned with!

First ‘stripes’ … a while to go yet before the airline version First Officer, then Captain someday?

I have no doubts that H will achieve his goals professionally and personally in the years to come because of his hard work, determination & drive to always do his best. Now if only that could also be applied to ironing his uniform…..❣️

A picture paints a 1000 words?

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When you look a this picture, what do you see?

A smiling girl (admittedly that’s probably stretching the use of the word ‘girl’) and her dog? A woman who looks tired, definitely in need of a bit of slap (literally and figuratively?!) and probably some air brushing?

This picture is so bittersweet in so many ways that I *almost* can’t bear to even share it.  My beautiful dog Buddy is in it and he’s no longer with us, departed over the rainbow bridge to be with other furry friends. It makes my heart ache all over again but he still brings warm thoughts and a semi smile to my face nonetheless. The power of canine love.

But what this picture represents is so much more than the image at face value.

Just over one year ago this picture was taken in the reception area of a psychiatric hospital. I was suicidal and had been admitted two days previously having reached crisis point and having made the decision to end my life.

Even trying to write that phrase feels unreal and melodramatic.  Like a bad soap opera or overly prosaic novel.   This stuff doesn’t happen in the ‘real’ world. Except it does.

I don’t know if it was a surprise when I eventually confided in some of my closest friends about what I had done and what at times, it feels like I still intend to do. In some ways reaching that point was a huge shock, even for me.

If there is such a thing as a poster girl for depression, I’m not certain mine would have been the picture used (hopefully not this one anyway…it’s not my best side!) I was and still am (usually) a glass half full type person – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – a glass half full means there’s still plenty of room for more wine!

See, I crack jokes, talk a lot, especially when nervous, I smile, put make up on, clean clothes, prepare meals, answer phone calls etc etc so how can I be depressed? And therein I think lies the crux of it: what does a depressed person look like? What image does someone who has reached the end of their coping skills project?

I wouldn’t dream of speaking for others who have gone through and continue to battle their own demons. But in my experience, depression is such an insidious thing. So even if you seem to be the life and soul of the party, the one that is strong and capable, dependable and reliable, it doesn’t mean you can’t experience the gnawing, dragging, emptiness. The feeling that it’s all too much, no way out, nowhere else to run to.

Too much effort, too much expectation, everything from getting up, dressed, one foot in front of the other a herculean effort. But it doesn’t mean you don’t keep DOING all those things. Sometimes the doing of all those very things is one of the ways you keep some kind of a handle on it, albeit a wonky one.

So it doesn’t in any way seem surprising to me when I read accounts of how someone has gone about their day-to-day life, seemingly taking it on the chin, even appearing to have a great time attending events, get togethers, nights out….and then they end it all.

The shock and grief to their nearest and dearest must be bitter, unpalatable and shrouded in disbelief.  There must be soul-searching. What did they miss? What clues didn’t they pick up on? How could they let their friend/partner/family member down so unreservedly? Why couldn’t they be stopped from choosing this final absolution?

And anger, only natural too. Rage at their selfishness; that they left everyone in this mess, they stopped trying. Took the ‘easy’ way out.

All these things run through my mind regularly, over and over, like a fuzzy old-fashioned film negative.

I feel burdened by the weight of other people’s expectations of me and the damage that would ricochet through our family unit if I achieve my objective. I once had a crisis mental health worker give me the statistics of how many young people go on to take their own lives in the event that a parent ‘chooses’ to commit suicide. Harsh and horrifying and heaping on the guilt. Crafty, effective move that was.

Perhaps because so often my every day life involves meetings with professionals in relation to the needs of our 4 children, it is so important (to me) that my armour is in place. Keeping up appearances, stopping them from defining me as *that* mother, that weak, special snow flake.

The vast majority of professionals we deal with have been nothing but supportive and helpful, even sympathetic but there are always a few, (ironically the ones who in my view have most failed our wider family), who would like to define our ASD child’s difficulties by my ‘shortcomings.’

The fact of course that respite care was proffered but never organised, dangled like a mesmerising carrot for so long, just out of reach; the fact that our child required appropriate specialist schooling and wrap around care, the inevitable self harm, suicidal idealisations, violence against myself and our other children, the regular police involvement, ambulance call outs, CAMHS care and so forth, all accumulated into some persistent, momentous ball of hell unravelling at lightning speed had nothing to do with my break down at all. I’m *just* that sad and pathetic and attention seeking……

Mental health is still, despite the (much-needed) increase in awareness and highlighting by people like the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Harry and high-profile celebrities, radio presenters and such like, a taboo, a dirty little secret.

Admitting that you have mental health difficulties, at least to me, feels a bit like shouting out the word VAGINA (or other awkward word of your choosing that doesn’t tend to come up in day-to-day conversation!) on a megaphone, naked on stage to a silently packed out Wembley arena, being globally transmitted by multiple satellites……

I can only speak for myself but having chatted to other friends going through similar concerns, I know they too feel a sense of shame, being perceived as somehow weak and feeble, lessened.

One of the most crucifying  experiences I had in the latter months of last year related to the ill-health of our youngest son. Due to severe gastrointestinal difficulties culminating in losing 5 Kilos in a 4 month period, an extended hospital stay and the insertion of a naso-gastric feeding tube, the lead paediatrician (also our regular consultant for both G-Man and Minx) called a multi-disciplinary meeting to discuss both children’s health concerns (they share many similar aspects) and a plan going forward.

Present at the meeting (in addition to the consultant) were an Occupational Therapist, Physiotherapist, Dietician, Speech and Language Therapist, Community Nurse, Student nurse, Ward Sister, Disability Children’s Team Social Worker, Paediatrician, myself and Mr DNTW’s and a few others I can’t recall. I think the only person who wasn’t there was Uncle Tom Cobley*

The consultant outlined the various medical difficulties, asked professionals for observations and then having brief knowledge of our background family situation asked for us parents to outline relevant events over the year.

It’s trite but during that account, it did feel like time stopped. There seemed to be a palpable and  collective withholding of breath as I relayed the events of significance. I did my best to remain factual, honest, hiding nothing but not (at least I don’t think) boring them to slumber and derailing the topic with a pity party for one.

I couldn’t make eye contact. I didn’t dare look up. My attempt to be detached failed. I cried; big, fat, salty tears of shame. And of course that always brings on the snot. So as I crumpled tissues and wiped and snorted my way through this hideousness, it brought with it crippling anxiety; the awareness that I had laid myself especially vulnerable to the people I need to work with for my children’s sake on a regular basis and I was in their eyes, at least to my thinking, diminished, fallible.

I must take pains to clarify that not for one moment do I think the consultant was doing this to be unkind or humiliate me. His request came from a genuine place: to what impact psychologically were (are) G-Man’s difficulties related to what is going on in his life and how as a collective could we address this for the best patient care.

It’s an ongoing situation. G doesn’t have an eating disorder; his medical ‘foibles’ are complex and require further investigation (even as I type a referral to Minx’s gastro team at GOSH is on its way), interwoven with understandable anxiety around food , the pain it causes and the bigger picture. He’s also under CAMHS.

That there has been a fall out from my ‘situation’ on all the children, there can be no doubt. Even now, if I am unwell physically or seem low the children are hypersensitive to me, like little meerkats on guard.  It will take time for that to subside and what I am beginning to realise, it may never go away entirely.

I’m still recovering if that’s the right word to use. I feel frustrated with myself and angry. There are too many should’s/would’s/could’s (which my mental health team would rap me over the wrists for) – unhelpful words those – and I suppose like the layers of an onion, or perhaps the facets of a diamond, (definitely preferable to root vegetables in my eyes!) are to be evolved and discovered in time.

Therefore, just as the 4 c’s in diamond terms are all important – cut, colour, clarity, carat weight –  we know there is no such thing as a flawless diamond; technically speaking even those given a flawless classification have the tiniest of blemishes or imperfections – (bet you will sleep better knowing that hey 😉)  Having a love of all things sparkly and glittery, I’ll happily compare myself to a flawed diamond (less of the rough diamond please).

Perfectly imperfect. Needing a bit of a spit and polish.

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  • Uncle Tom Cobley origin:
    “Uncle Tom Cobley and all” is a well used British expression to define (in slight derision) a lot of people. It’s akin to the expression “the world and its wife” and  comes from from a Devon folk ballad (Widdicombe Fair in case you are really interested!)  Uncle Tom Cobley (and all) is named as the last of a long (long!) list of men with a chorus ending Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Same but different….rare as Unicorn 💩???

Rare disease G&A Photo 2018This year 28th February 2018 is the worldwide celebration of Rare Disease Day. 

The very first ever Rare Disease Day was held in 2008 –  a leap year so the perfect occasion for the initial 18 countries that signed up to celebrate.

Every year since, countries across the world have united to raise awareness of all things rare in terms of disease.

Last year 94 countries highlighted their commitment and support to raising rare awareness which is a pretty fantastic achievement.  In fact that’s an increase in ‘productivity’  of 422.2222% for want of a better way of describing it!!! (I had to ask my eldest son taking A-level maths to work that out so if the stats are not right, don’t blame me!!)  So it isn’t surprising that highlighting all things rare is close to the hearts and minds of those who live with a rare disease or have family members affected by a rare disease.

What does ‘rare’ mean to you? I googled the word rare in the Oxford English Dictionary and the top definition that came up as an adjective was this-  “RARE:  – of an event, situation, or condition not occurring very often. ‘a rare genetic disorder’,”

After that it went on to talk about rare steaks, uncommon birds and such like. Interesting I thought however that the very first sentence used to define ‘rare’ was in the context of genetic disorders!

Actually I think the use of the word ‘rare’ in the context of rare diseases is a bit of a misnomer. Why? Because at any given point 1 in 17 of us will be affected by a rare disease! Surprised? Think about this number in terms of the day to day and see how it relates to your experiences.

If you used public transport today (probably a bad example since much of the country seems to be under snow!) was it crowded? More than 17 of you on board? Probably. Bought a coffee in one of the many high street chains? Hopefully not 17 of you in the queue at any one time but probably more on the premises tucking into a hot drink or waiting anxiously for their turn.

17 is lucky in some countries, unlucky in Italy. 17 is the number of muscles it takes to form a smile, 17 syllables in a haiku poem. 17 is the least random number in a study conducted by MIT asking people to choose a number between 1 and 20. So again, not that rare.

A rare disease/condition in Europe is classified as affecting 1 in 2000; in the US fewer than 1 in 200,000. 80% of rare diseases are genetic in origin whilst others are as a result of infections (bacterial or viral) allergies, environmental factors, degenerative or  known as proliferative eg cancers.

Of those diagnosed with a rare disorder a staggering 75% will be children.  In fact, many of these children are a whole new breed of rare. So rare that their medical/physical and or cognitive difficulties don’t actually have a name!

Presently we know that there are approximately 6000 children born each year in the UK  alone who have an UNDIAGNOSED condition. Of those, only 50% undergoing genetic testing on the NHS will ever get a diagnosis. And this is something very close to my heart because 2 of my children are undiagnosed.

Whilst we can indeed be enormously thankful that medical science is evolving and improving so rapidly –  approximately 5 new rare diseases per week are described in medical literature  – organisations like https://www.raredisease.org.uk provide essential support and a voice for those affected by a rare condition.

For those of us still in unknown murky waters, studies such as  DDD – Deciphering Developmental Disorder  https://www.ddduk.org  or the 100,000 genomes project /https://www.genomicsengland.co.uk/the-100000-genomes-project/  offer families like mine the best chance of getting an answer as to why our children experience various difficulties and potentially the best way to manage their conditions, obtain treatment or assistance and potentially connect with families in a similar situation.

Families such as mine with children who are undiagnosed and/or ultra rare can often feel alone. SWAN UK http://www.undiagnosed.org.uk provide the only dedicated support network for families of undiagnosed children and young adults affected by a genetic condition. Hand on heart I can say that the support I have received by being a member (and now a volunteer parent rep) has been a veritable life-line.

Although my youngest 2 children have a myriad of medical terms/symptoms and diagnoses, to date we have no unifying “umbrella” that explains why they are affected. Their medical notes are vast. Between them they have confounded some of the brightest and most well respected specialists across the country. If I had a £ for every time I had heard the words ‘rare’ ‘atypical’  ‘uncommon’, ‘complex (the list could go on for a while, you get my gist) I would be a very rich woman.

If a part of the human body or a specific organ is supposed to work a particular way, you can pretty much guarantee with my kids that it won’t. If unusual presentations or the extraordinary were olympic sports, my kids would be gold medalists. Several times over.

So over the years, being able to talk to those who understand what we are going through, who have felt left out, different or isolated has been incredibly important and helpful.

If one in 17 of us will be affected by a rare disease in some way, IT COULD BE YOU

Please click on some of the links above to find out more and if you can, please consider fundraising or donating: https://www.raredisease.org.uk/donate/      https://www.undiagnosed.org.uk/donate/

Tonight Matthew I’m going to be……

An adult!

Strictly speaking I ‘adult’ every day, albeit some days more successfully than others.

Yesterday however, I ‘adulted’ myself to the nines.

So that you can feel comfortable continuing to read and for the avoidance of any misunderstandings, I should reassure you that this post is perfectly respectable and I won’t be revealing anything x-rated or of a delicate nature. You can all breathe a sigh of relief and resist the notion of poking out your own eye-balls/resorting to mind bleach for fear of dodgy pictures and such like!

I don’t know about you dear reader but the majority of the time I don’t feel old enough, responsible enough or even qualified enough to do the “adulting” parts of life. Certainly not with success and authenticity in any event.

Apparently however, being married having children, dog ownership (he might dispute that as pretty sure Milo thinks he owns me) a mortgage and all the other infinitesimal accoutrements of life plus being over a certain age means I automatically qualify as an adult… and there’s no resignation option (well unless you ‘check out’ entirely but that’s generally speaking a bit drastic)

Over the last year particularly, “adulting” has been a part of my life I’d quite like to have run away from.

Somehow wherever I hide, no matter how precisely I have chosen the deepest, darkest recess or how carefully I stick my fingers in my ears and shout la-la-la, the necessity for “adulting” always has a way of finding me….darn it.

And even before last years ‘annus horribilis’ I must confess that I had very often felt like a player in that game “Hedbandz” rather than a real adult.

For the uninitiated, the game compromises of a plastic head band device with a slot in which you stick a card in which states the object/word/profession and the wearer has to ask a series of questions to try & work out what or who they are.

For added ‘fun’ you can do a timed session so they have to guess in a specific time period or a specific number of questions. Adding alcohol into the equation for the ‘Adulty’ version I’m sure can only enhance the fun 🙄 But never in a million years would any card ever depict me as an adult; in fact I think I’m possibly only marginally up from a lemming….

Anyway, what I mean by my ramblings above is, in theory I suppose I should know I’m an adult but the actuality is very different and frankly I really don’t feel I’m quite mature enough to make life or death (somewhat over dramatic!) decisions on a day to day basis when I can barely decide what to cook for dinner!

So now I’ve long-windedly explained that, I’ll get to why I ‘adulted’ properly yesterday.

For those of you who have followed my blog for a while or who know me in the ‘real world’ you are probably familiar with my involvement in SWAN UK.

SWAN stands for syndromes without a name and it is the only specialist support network in the UK dedicated to families of children and young people affected by a syndrome without a name.

Having 2 children who are classified as SWANS – they are both medically complex and although they have multiple diagnosed difficulties/needs, we don’t have an over-arching diagnosis that draws everything together – getting support from SWAN UK over 5 years ago made a huge difference to myself and the whole family. In fact, if we had not joined SWAN UK (its free!) we would have had no idea where to even begin to think of living when we moved to the UK some 4 years ago.

Mr Def Not The W’s was allocated Leeds as a base when he joined his new airline but we knew nothing about the area, about hospitals, schools, housing and services and so it was to my trusty network of online friends that I turned to to seek advice and guidance in helping us formulate a plan.

Of course SWAN UK’s services go far beyond the things I mention above. You can read more about the vital support they provide here: http://www.undiagnosed.org.uk/

Over the years, the advice, reassurance, sense of belonging and community not to mention the family days out, coffee mornings and get togethers have been a huge source of comfort, support and a wealth of experience for me.

Back in 2013 it became apparent that holding down a job, even working from home as I had done since 2008, in a role that I could fit around my children, was no longer viable.

I eventually found that in order to keep on top of work I was in a seemingly endless cycle of being up very early, going to bed very late and working all the hours in between that weren’t occupied with the needs of the family including weekends. Something had to give. It was *almost* my sanity.

Although I don’t miss the crazy relentlessness of those days and we are fortunate in that we can (just about) manage for me not to work (and are hugely grateful at times to our parents for stepping in when an unexpected bill/costs rears their ugly head) I do miss that feeling of achievement and accomplishment.

So in September 2015 I decided I would like to try and do something useful with my life and if possible, give a little something back.

I recognised that combining this with (at the time) 3 children with extra needs was going to potentially be problematic. (Turns out we now have 4 children with additional needs, although our eldest is almost 18 and would revolt against the use of the word child!)

I decided to volunteer to be a SWAN UK parent representative for North Yorkshire…. if they would have me! And they did.

In fact, this was absolutely perfect because recognising that caring for medically/physically and or cognitively complicated children can mean life doesn’t follow the best, most carefully laid plans, SWAN UK are happy for parent representatives to volunteer as much or as little of our time as we are able to give. They also understand that sometimes we have to drop everything with little to no notice and have always made it clear that the needs/demands of our children, wider family and ourselves are paramount.

Over the years of being a SWAN UK parent representative, I have spoken at a Rare Disease conference about my experience of being a parent of undiagnosed children; I have contacted my MP about being part of an APPG (all party parliamentary group) to discuss and raise awareness of being undiagnosed and the implications that has on families as a whole, not just the affected individual. I have visited Parliament and spoken to a wide variety of professionals about the difficulties of living with the unknown and unexpected as well as assisted in organising days out to celebrate Undiagnosed Children’s Day (last Friday in every April) arranged coffee mornings and fund-raising events.

I don’t want to come across as holier than thou but aside from (hopefully) raising awareness and sign posting SWAN UK, it did make me feel useful and purposeful again.

It gave me an opportunity to step outside the role of parenting my own children’s medical management and hopefully gave a voice to others in a similar situation.

Anyway back to the reason behind the recent adulting: after something of a hiatus in 2017, I attended a professionals meeting at our local hospital.

Having contacted the Harrogate and District Hospital administrative team (via FB messenger no less!) I pretty much threw myself on their mercy. They kindly directed me to the Head of Paediatric Nursing and The Head of Paediatrics and we set up an appointment Gulp.😳

The fact that the head of paediatrics is also my children’s consultant was not lost on me and was more than slightly daunting.

Somehow, seeing me in a different role to G Man or Minx’s Mum felt strangely discombobulating; at least in the run up to the meeting itself and I was plagued with disconcerting dreams that I would somehow disgrace both myself and SWAN UK.

Nonetheless, I asked SWAN HQ to send me some literature and armed with this, my trusty, very bright pink SWAN UK bag, business cards (get me! I’m posh!!) and a lanyard, I put my big girl pants on (erm figuratively you understand, I haven’t gone totally Bridget Jones yet) and my “grown up” clothes on.

Being only 5ft almost 3 inches, adulting clothes usually involve heels for me. Fretting that I didn’t want to look like I was trying too hard or heading out for a slap up meal, I opted for heeled boots, a patterned skirt & top, with a bit of jewellery and a swish of eyeliner & lippy.

On the inside I may have felt about 5 and was quaking like a jelly but externally I *hopefully* projected confidant, knowledgeable and approachable….

Obviously I couldn’t really ask those present at the meeting if I had successfully captured that but my audience were enthusiastic and receptive. They were keen to read and then display the literature I provided and told me that they would be disseminating the information to fellow colleagues, the Paediatric ward, Child Development Centre, Parents Room and Paediatric clinics. I also got agreement to have a stand in the foyer of the hospital to coincide with Undiagnosed Children’s Day in April. So all in all, I think it went well.

I came away feeling positive and uplifted and like a real-life proper grown up for the first time in a very long time. I’m pretty sure I didn’t have my skirt tucked into my knickers at any point or commit any other embarrassing epic social faux pas’s so all in all winner winner… I hope…. 😊

When is an EHCP not an EHCP?

For the avoidance of doubt or for those who may be unfamiliar with the UK and it’s education system in general, I will outline what an EHCP is supposed to do.

All children and young people who have a learning difficulty/disability which makes it difficult for them to access education and need more specialist help than a typical child or a child with educational needs over and above that which the school/college is usually expected to provide from their nominal budget, should be assessed for an EHCP.

As it stands, if a child has a relatively low-level learning based difficulty/disability/need, their school would be expected to fund specialist support out of their own budget before making an application to their local authority for additional top up funding.

The Governments own website outlines the EHCP in more detail: https://www.gov.uk/children-with-special-educational-needs/extra-SEN-help

 

Rather succinctly this little gem  sums it all up in a very appropriate nutshell:

The EHCP should identify, as detailed on the UK governments own website:

educational, health and social needs and set out the additional support to meet those needs

So there you have it!

Hopefully this makes things clearer to you than mud (please read that in an ironic tone) but the whole EHCP process is such a lengthy, demoralising fiasco, so forgive me if it’s still murky. Anyway, I digress….

EHCP stands for Education and health care plan. I’ll say it again and in bold, just in case and for the avoidance of doubt:

EDUCATION  AndHEALTH  AndCARE

Let’s take a moment for that to sink in.

Okay then. Got it?

If you saw those words at the top of an important document, with your child’s picture beaming out at you from the front page, what do you think you might expect to find reading on?

I may not be the sharpest tool in the box, no contender for Mastermind or MENSA but even I don’t need a dictionary or google translate to understand those 3 little but ever so important words.

I would expect a to-the-point, concise yet detailed report outlining what and how all my child’s EDUCATION, HEALTH and CARE needs could be best met.

I would assume (& yes my dad did teach me the adage about assume making an ass out of you and me) that such a document would clearly state what steps/methods/therapy or such like would be put in place to accomplish this and help the child achieve the best possible outcomes, uniquely tailored to their own specific requirements.

There would be bullet points stating  identified needs. And to each of these there would be a response detailing how those needs can be met, who would provide the support and how. Quantifiable, specific. Defined.

As you may have guessed by now and if you have read my previous blog posts: (https://definitelynotthewaltons.com/2017/10/07/how-do-you-sleep-at-night-part-1/) and https://definitelynotthewaltons.com/2017/10/08/how-do-you-sleep-at-night-part-2-😡😡 we lost our educational tribunal case as the judge decided after hearing the evidence that we couldn’t prove a waking day curriculum (residential school mon-fri) was solely necessary on educational grounds, which is the ONLY aspect of the case he could rule on.

The judge however did stipulate verbally on the day of the tribunal hearing itself and in his subsequent summation that there is a clear, identified need for both the bodies representing children’s social care and health (ie CAMHS) to step up to the plate and that a tri-funded agreement would have been in our son’s best interests.

Regrettably because the latter 2 aspects are not enshrined under current legislation and despite the overhaul of the whole statementing process which took place in 2014, leading to the creation of EHCP’s, the judge was not able to rule on any other factor than education and he also had to balance his judgement with the best use of public funds.

We found all this out last October but there has been so much other assorted 💩going on in our lives that I’ve needed time to step back, lick my wounds, retreat, repair and decide what to do next. It is still an ongoing process.

So as it stands, it turns out I really should have listened to dear old Dad because assuming anything positive about the EHCP process really did make me an ass.

I naively thought the 3 very specific words of education, health and care would formulate the basis of MY child’s frame work of specialised education.

That those in authority and tasked with facilitating the EHCP would recognise not just his needs but his fundamental RIGHTS to access appropriate care and support to his emotional, social and educational needs as an entirety. Ha!

Essentially it seems MY child’s needs are pretty much irrelevant in the document that stands as HIS EHCP. Furthermore how his needs interplay and merge with those of ours as a family – because we are a functioning (debatable!) unit – seem totally irrelevant.

How egotistical of me to think all these things should be reflected and factored in as a holistic approach in his plan?! I think wishing for unicorns and rocking horse sh%t would have been more achievable.

As I was succinctly reminded the local authority do not have a duty to provide the best possible outcome for our son or our family, just an outcome. So let’s disregard what could have been a fantastic opportunity; a way forward that would promote his independence, resilience, friendships and enhance every aspect of his life.

Let’s ignore the fact he’s bright and potentially capable of achieving highly academically (as stated by an independent professional) Lets disregard the lack of ‘real’ life contemporaries, social skills and tasks pertaining to daily living that would best be achieved by supporting him in a residential school placement. In fact let’s knee cap him before we even start.

Because what we wanted for our son costs too much… and shame on me for appealing to the powers that be that providing the best possible support in EDUCATION HEALTH and CARE right now would reap dividends in the future.

I was told by “management” that long term goals/achievements aren’t even considered when looking at the costs right now!! So what the bloody hell is even the point????

Silly, silly old me! Bottom of the class for me. Do not pass go, do not collect £200 and straight to the jail!

Only we are not playing a fun game of Monoply (if the way you play Monoply is anything like the way my lot do, I accept I might be playing fast and loose with the word fun) I suppose if we are using paradigms as an example, we should choose The Game Of Life as a better synonym.

Forgive me if I’m coming across a little over zealous with the italic button. But the unhappy little fact is, we aren’t playing games and our story isn’t unique.

We are talking about REAL life, REAL children, REAL families being put through the mill and being spat back out again. Crushed, devastated, lost.

In fact those 3 words above would far better sum up the plan that is now recognised as the official EHCP document, prescriptive and responsible for shaping my child’s future.

Our legal representation has reviewed the decision made in law and reluctantly concluded there have been no errors in interpretation of the legal aspect. And just because we don’t like the decision, it doesn’t give us the right to appeal.

I’m still deciding what to do next and how best to proceed but in the interim if we refuse to accept and send him to the school stated in the plan, then we are in breach of the law and could face a fine and/or prison sentence. It saddens me beyond belief that legally I cannot do anything other than comply obediently in the interim.

The irony is not lost on me that on 24th October 2017, the Minister of State for Education department in the UK – Robert Goodwill – issued a statement advising that with effect from March 2018, every local authority in the county should ensure that all EHCP’s encompass the health and social care needs of the child in addition to those of education.

Whilst this is not mandated in law, a previously trialled scheme of 17 local authorities demonstrated an overwhelmingly positive response and therefore Robert Goodwill has announced that it should be adopted as best practice on a trial basis going forward for the next 2 years.

So, I can tell you and more importantly, the bean counters in their ivory towers: I won’t retreat, withdraw or go quietly. Of that you can be sure. One way or another I’m coming for you.

Somewhere over the rainbow… 🌈🌈❣️

Hello my hooomannn’s!

Mum, its been over 6 weeks now so I thought it was time I brought you a ‘pup’-date from over the rainbow bridge.

I know you have been so sad about my passing. I have watched you feeling down, seen you wracked with guilt, doubts and worries, especially over the last few days of our time together.

I wish you wouldn’t dwell so much on those sad times nor second guess the decisions you made before I had to leave you. It wasn’t your fault, you couldn’t know I was poorly and we dogs love to please so much, I hid it well, I always tried to keep my best brave snout on for you, no matter what.

Even when I wasn’t feeling my best in those last few days, I did enjoy our walks. Honest. Well I suppose if I’m strictly honest, I enjoyed you and the rest of my hoomann families company… and not forgetting the sausages you brought me when we went to the cafe by the river; especially the sausages!

I thought you might want to know a little about where I’ve been, what I’ve seen and what I’ve been up to.

Well first things first, I don’t hurt anymore and I don’t feel tired! In fact I feel like a puppy again. Boundless energy, everything is so exciting and needs exploring! And the smells – wow – I don’t even know where to begin in describing those!! It’s like every amazing, delicious, fantastic thing you could ever wish for: cheese, carrots, steak, sausages, newly moan grass, crispy leaves, Fox poo and all my hooman family smells rolled in together!! Yum! Absolute paw-fection.

There are so many other animals here to play with and lots have similar stories to mine!

Here no one here is scared or lonely, no one is hurting; no one feels tired or has any cares. No one is old or unwanted. In fact, most importantly all any of us know is love and happiness.

Our bellies never feel empty yet there is always room for more. I only have to think about a nice, sizzling sausage or bit of crunchy carrot and suddenly I can taste it!

There are balls and plenty of squishy toys everywhere and even if I chew the flip-flops no one minds and I don’t get a bellyache! That’s a definite plus.

Did you know Mum, some of the other souls here previously lived with bad hoomans who only caused them pain and fear? The ‘tails’ they tell me are horrible. Fortunately they are now but distant memories and those of us who want to, can watch over our loved ones whenever we choose.

I look in on you all often and it’s been lovely to see you this last week with the new addition to the family: little Milo. What a cracking young pup he is!

I know you think that I might feel betrayed – too quickly replaced – but Mum, he was my gift to you all! I knew you needed him. I opened your hearts you see.

When you were first thinking about a dog and you got me, after so many years of ‘Pawcrastinating’ I knew I needed to guide you in the ways of all things canine. Although you had researched a lot and borrowed other people’s dogs, it’s a bit like what you told your hoooman friends about having children: until you have your own, you just aren’t prepared, no matter how many books you read or how many pooches you ‘pup-sit.’ But like you also said, it brings you far more laughter, fun and happiness… albeit with a fair amount of 💩💩 thrown in!! 😆

So I went as easy on you, my Martin Dad and your other less furry children – my bros and sis – as I could; although I do know that when I had to leave, it almost broke you 😢

We won’t dwell on that though. Because I want you to know I’m happy and that means you have to be too.

My gift to you all was empowerment and knowledge that our family NEEDED another dog, to give a happy home, needed a dog to keep up your usual level of functionally dysfunctional chaos! So now you know.

I see already that young master Milo has been well indoctrinated in the ways of mischief. Hiding your dad’s slippers was very clever. But a stroke of genius to divide and conquer: 1 in the crate and 1 secreted away in his bed! Clever pup. The force is strong in this one.

I see he shares my love of blueberries, carrots & the odd crumble of cheese. Positively discriminatory on the cucumber I note but you can’t have everything… and anyway he seems partial to celery … which frankly I agree with Martin- Dad on: it tastes of welly boots… and not in a good way!

He’s starting to master the cava-tilt head pose and cottoned on to staring up at you beseechingly whilst you prepare food at the kitchen island. Smart move… took me much longer to suss that one out.

So Mum, when you think about me now, please know that I’m well looked after. Please reflect on the fabulous times we shared, the wind in my fur and running free through the nearby park. Know that I’m watching over you all and if you catch a glimpse out the corner of your eye of me, you didn’t imagine it; I’m just checking in on you all.

It’s almost 2018. You can leave the last year where it belongs: in the past. Look to the future. Teach Milo well – I think he could master some of my old tricks quite soon… oh and mum, go easy on dressing him up in the jumpers…. yes yes, it’s all very cute and I guess quite needed whilst it’s a tad on the chilly side… but a dog does need some dignity you know!

So from my furry little heart to you and yours, I wish you peace, happiness and good memories. Embrace it Mum! ❣️🌈😍🌈

“There are known knowns”…

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. ” 

Credit: Secretary of Defence Feb 2002 – Donald Rumsfeld 

Why the above quip which I’ve shortened to meet my own needs? Well as a very different Donald (to the tangoed-recently US elected one) said it so well…. I’ll explain further down…. hopefully I’ve peaked your intrigue and you will keep reading! 

Friday 28th April 2017 is a day to celebrate for Undiagnosed Children in association with SWAN UK who fall under the umbrella group of the Genetic Alliance.

Not only is this a fabulous day to celebrate all things unknown, rare, unique and downright puzzling, (with our children, not all the wonders of the world!!)  it’s a day to raise awareness amongst friends, family, professionals in any area of the medical field and wider still. 

Most importantly: our big ambition this year – to raise awareness, provide support and a place to feel at home for all those parents/Carers who are bringing up a child without a medical diagnosis. 

To quote directly from SWAN UK:

Our Big Ambition is that all families who have a child affected by a syndrome without a name get the support they need, when they need it. We want it recognised that being ‘undiagnosed’ is not always a temporary stage; the genetic cause of some conditions may never be known. We want every child and young adult with a syndrome without a name to receive high-quality coordinated care and support both in hospital and at home.

Surprisingly and sadly, there are still families out there who aren’t aware of the invaluable work and support that SWAN UK can offer them. 

In some cases, SWAN UK has literally thrown out a lifeline to desparately tired, lonely, scared and isolated people who feel they have nowhere else to turn. And of note, SWAN UK is the only support group in the UK dedicated to families raising children without a diagnosis – we can offer 24 hour support (give or take) since whilst all our SWAN children have varying difficulties and concerns, a large majority seem to share the view that sleep is the work of the devil so you can often find a parent on line offering or asking for support or just catching up on info they haven’t had time to digest during the day!  

Of course, raising funds to support the emmense work load of SWAN UK is also really important but I’ll get on to that in a bit.

Those of you who have followed my blog for a while will probably be able to quote back many of the statistics I’m about to blurt out; & yes I may have banged on about this one way or another every year for the past few in connection with celebrating Undiagnosed Day (and often times between) but you dear reader, even if you are personally unaffected will likely know a family with an undiagnosed child or will come across one (or more!) in the future. 

Just maybe you can be the one to offer someone out there light in the darkness and point them in the right direction to access the crucial support and signposting they need and deserve, particularly in the early days of their journey be that before birth when pre-natal scans pick up on possible genetic issues, those early days post birth when it becomes obvious that something is not quite right with their much longed for, hugely anticipated tiny baby or as in other cases when a seemingly typically developing child begins to fall behind their peers or shows regressive behaviour.  

From personal experience I know how tumultuous those feelings can be; how overwhelming. Just like the (approximately) 6000 children born in the U.K. each year, our daughter has a Syndrome Without A Name. 

My little Minx (not so little now, a whole 8 years old!) was born almost at term and despite a complicated pregnancy, seemed utterly perfect to us in every way. She passed her paediatric discharge – if awards were given, hers would have been gold (proudly boasting mother) but she really was the cherry on top of our cake. 

A little girl after our amazing 3 boys (not one of which we would have changed at all; we were never “trying” for a girl and personally, unless there is a very good genetic reason for sex selection, it’s a step too far for me) but it was so exciting to experience, even from the very first day, the differences of having a bundle of the female persuasion – nappy changing = no peeing in the eye moments as my dear boys got me so many times over the years for a start… although cleaning poop out the girly bits was…. daunting…. I’ll stop there rather than make anyone think too vividly. 

Our first few weeks in amongst the haze of feeding, washing, attempting to sleep when the baby slept – (i.e. never) and generally fight our way through the sea of all things pink that friends & family far and wide sent to us (yes I know it’s a stereotype and girls, for that matter boys, can wear any colour but did you really think with Minx being the first great/gran/daughter after 3 boys she wasn’t going to be in dresses and frills and shades of pale pink, lilac and basically looking like an explosion in a pink workshop?!) 

However, as a 4th time Mum I had a serious case of “the niggles” even in the very early days of the Minx having been brought home….she cried virtually constantly (but not like a collicy baby, I’d had 2 of those) she started feeding well but would then cough, choke, delatch and occasionally snort milk out of her nose (very different to her greedy brothers who had trouble latching initially but would soon settle into rhythmical suckling until they had refuelled) and she held her head/neck/arms so awkwardly.

I’ll spare you the VERY long story that brought me to this part of our journey as best I can (if you would like to, you can read some of my earlier blog posts and discover more about our journey to date).

Suffice to say mother’s intuition is a powerful thing and over the years we have collected a myriad of teams, specialists, equipment and partial labels to encapture Minx’s difficulties but like that dastardly elusive last piece of the jigsaw puzzle, we don’t have the complete picture. In fact as it stands at the moment we don’t even have the picture on the box – frustrating & like working in the dark. 

I can give you some examples of her varying issues:

  1. Upper limb arthrogryposis
  2. Lower limb hypermobility
  3. Blood sugar instability
  4. Possible growth issues
  5. Gastro esophogeal reflux disease
  6. Dysmotility of the entire gut/colon/bowel
  7. Low heart rate when sleeping
  8. Pain (in the gut & bowel
  9. Chronic constipation requiring stoma use to manage
  10. Congenital myopathy
  11. Neurogenic issues
  12. Severe feeding difficulties necessitating gastrostomy feeding tube to give specialised milk during the day & overnight
  13. Swallowing difficulties
  14. Muscle weakness and fatigue
  15. Food allergies….

Have I forgotten anything? More than likely! We see that many specialists and consultants in 3 different hospitals and use multiple pieces of medical equipment, aides, pharmaceuticals and so on; sometimes it’s hard to keep track!

Minx has a wheelchair, a stair lift and  bath lift for when she’s too tired/unable to get in/up/out or mobilise for herself. And who could forget the amazing self-cleaning toilet with padded seat and washer/dryer function, complete with arm rests, feet support and a medical pillow for comfort whilst “performing”. Honestly, it truly is a marvel to behold… and I’m told in Japan, it’s particularly de rigeur to own a similar commode, albeit not usually for medical purposes.

So back to Donald Rumsfeld’s now infamous quote, which yes, I’ll admit I have chopped up a bit to suit my own purposes, there are lots of things we know about the Minx but there are equally lots of things that we know we don’t know. The unknown unknowns if you will.

So many of her issues fit neatly together and others frustratingly don’t. As has been much muttered by her neuromuscular consult (complete with wringing of hands) “but we just don’t SEE this presentation of neurogenic and myopathic symptoms and difficulties”

Except of course you do, because Minx presents with them. So it’s back to the drawing board, tearing up the medical text books and much head scratching – although these days it’s a bit more technical than that and there are some fantastic genetic studies that we have been invited to take part in. Largely, down to information provided by SWAN UK, I knew which ones might help us get some answers and who to approach to see if we could get on to them too. If you want, you can learn more here: https://www.ddduk.org 

Also: the 100,000 genome project https://www.genomicsengland.co.uk/the-100000-genomes-project/

Minx has been tested over the years for various myasthenia genes, myopathies and so on but the above 2 studies give us our best shot of learning what Minx’s overall condition is. 

To some extent, it’s unlikely that having a formal diagnosis will change much in terms of treating Amelia and her difficulties. Unless it’s something that a very specific medication or therapy can improve, then it’s extremely unlikely that what she has is curable – in our life time and maybe even hers. But it does give hope for the future, for gene therapy, for others following our pathway and for siblings to make informed choices in deciding whether they want to know if they are carriers or affected by the particular genetic fault. It offers hope, choices, plans and preparation. Maybe far off for now but gaining ground every day. 

It should be noted that our family wouldn’t change a thing about our feisty little Minx (except maybe her stealing my MAC lip gloss & suede boots) Whilst we all wish she didn’t have pain, surgeries, physical weakness and so on, some of those exact difficulties have helped shape the amazing, bright, sparky and self assured young lady she is becoming, not to mention the dab hand she is becoming on using technology to help her in every day life – I-pads, tablets, lap tops and PC’s are increasingly being utilised to assist her at school and in daily life. 

Maybe my point about not changing her sounds odd? Most assuredly, I wish she and many of her SWAN UK comrades didn’t have to go through the dark, trying, and in too many cases, tragic outcomes I have witnessed over the years. 

There is something fundamentally, inherently wrong about a parent out living their child. It is not the natural order or design of this world and is beyond cruel to far too many of my contemporaries, friends, people I have formed and shared extra special bonds with over the years. Some I have only ever had the pleasure of meeting virtually through our SWAN UK on line community, others at the plethora of events that SWAN UK hold every year to give a glow to our special needs kids, their oft neglected siblings and exhausted but exultant parents who meet for regular coffees or stay and play type events. https://m.facebook.com/SWANchildrenUK/ 

Please do go and have a look at our website for more info about the group and what we can offer https://www.undiagnosed.org.uk/about-us/

So what can you personally do you may wander? Well, you could share this blog post on various forms of social media, change your profile picture like I have done to raise awareness of SWAN UK and Undiagnosed Children’s Day – I’m happy for my profile picture to be shared but please check with other people before sharing their stories or pics. Get tweeting far and wide – celebs, politicians, the rich and famous to raise awareness (and maybe even ask them ever so cheekily for some cold hard cash!) 

Get Undiagnosed Day trending (I’ll pretend I vaguely understand all these terms in connection with social media) because I know that one is important on twitter but I’m not too hot on all things tech. To those of you who are, I salute you – help this Luddite out and get sharing far and wide.

As well as raising awareness, WE WANT YOUR MONEY!! 

For more info, ways to donate etc go to the SWAN UK page or public face book page. You can donate via text/post/online or even fund raise for us directly! 

If you would like to make a one off donation you can also do this via Just Giving or Virgin Money Giving or text SWAN11 plus the amount (up to £10) to 70070

Online Donations You can donate through our page on Virgin Giving or Just Giving. If you are a UK tax payer don’t forget to tick ‘Gift Aid’ as this scheme allows us to claim tax back on your donation, making every £1 you donate worth £1.25.

Little heroes can fulfill big dreams and ambitions with your support! 

Thank you 😘