Planes (no trains) & automobiles…..*

*also a boat(s) but that doesn’t scan as well!

** & yes I know it’s a film title..

Bonjour mes amours!

It is the end of the 6 weeks school summer holidays (in England) and we have been lucky enough to spend 2 gloriously hot weeks in Southern France, followed by a mammoth drive to Paris, a dabble in EuroDisney and now as I sit and type, we wait expectantly to board the boat back to Blighty…. for an onwards drive back ‘oop north.’

It has been epic; in all senses of the word. I don’t know if the ‘cool’ kids still use the word epic to describe an amazing time or not but it definitely falls under that.

Equally however, as per the Oxford English Dictionary classifications, our hols could be defined as a ‘heroic/grand saga’ requiring much ‘bravery’ and a ‘long and arduous journey;’ yeah definitely all of that…

It would be fair to say that when I first mentioned our 3000 mile (return) travel plans to various medical personnel involved with our enfants horribles , there was some *slightly* nervous tittering. And it wasn’t just me doing it. 😆

Apparently taking all 4 of your offspring aged between 10-19 on such a journey borders on insanity/madness. Especially if they also happen to have some issues….

And I won’t lie, it hasn’t all been champagne (not much of that actually!) and roses.

When Mr DNTW’s informed me he had booked for us to go away way back in March, Minx and I were cooped up in GOSH, awaiting the ‘big plan.’

It seems an age ago now but at the time, we were all in need of some cheering up as it had rapidly become apparent during that stay that we were in for the long haul; that the carefully laid plans thus far had been stomped on, ripped up and had gone awry. The more cynical of us *may* have argued that the plans had never been properly drawn up in the first place but that’s a whole other story…..

So when Mr D made his triumphant announcement about the booked holiday I was rather more concerned by where he had found the magic money tree to pay for said holiday (still looking 😉) or whether he had sold my collection of shoes & handbags on e-bay to pay for it!

Through the lengthy weeks of hospital time, hospital stays and subsequent limbo, having the holiday to focus on became a shining beacon of hope and something to really look forward to.

Despite Minx and G-Man’s combined efforts to throw (surgical) spanners in the works, their procedures came and went. Healings were (are) complicated and I had to stock up on the mobile equivalent of a field hospital which brought its own issues in terms of getting everything delivered in time and space in the car

No room at the inn…the grey trunks are all medical supplies…& there’s a roof box full as well!

I didn’t even really flinch (too) much at the astronomical quotes we got for travel insurance – ranging from cheapest at £1300 to £2600!!! Actually I did; I really did…. until I cried when the most reasonable company called me back after I had phoned to give them more info (like many I suspect our family don’t fit neatly into black and white questions: is …….a wheelchair user? Well yes but not all the of the time? Apparently that’s like being ‘slightly pregnant’ where insurance companies are concerned – you either are or aren’t, no middle ground) and declared that based on the additional details I had provided, Minx was in fact uninsurable!! 🙈 I hadn’t even mentioned the words “undiagnosed” – a veritable death knell where insurance is concerned!

Eventually after much research and consulting of the oracle – ie suggestions from wise friends, we went with our bank (who already provide us with an annual standard cover automatically) and just disclosed the ins and outs of our weirds and wonderful for a slightly less eye-watering cost that covers us world wide… bargain really!

The logistics of accommodating the varying needs of a large, dysfunctional family and ensuring everyone’s needs, sleeping arrangements, well-being, not to mention enjoyment, fun, food and safety could all be achieved (& without the budget of Croesus in the process) were significant but you know #nicerproblems# to have and all that.

Given our ASD’s son’s needs for a safe place to escape when overloaded and also just generally being a teenager, (🤢) we wanted to ensure he had his own room and a space for down time. So the right, affordable accommodation was paramount.

Eldest son H is now working and we weren’t sure if he would still want to come with the ‘rents on holibobs.

Turns out however that in-spite of us lowly oldies cramping his style, an expenses paid trip to sunnier climes, very much met with his approval! Funny that….

Given H works in the travel industry on contract, getting time off/shifts swapped to accommodate a break was like something out of the Krypton Factor and so he couldn’t join us for the entire trip.

I’ve already done my proud mama-bear boasting moment on my personal FB but just in case you missed it and also, well ‘just because’ here’s a little mini pic😊

He thought he could *probably* come in the car with us. He couldn’t…..whether he wanted to or not… I flatly renounced any such suggestions. We genuinely didn’t have the seat space or rather luggage space. The car being a 7 seater was neither here nor there.

In actual fact, I can’t help feeling that he rather got the best end of the deal: no long & ardous 2 full days of driving (& boat) journey to contend with, no smelly cooped up car with fractious siblings (& even more fractured parents); merely a solo 2 hour flight in blissful air con before arriving, unflustered in Nice. Nice in Nice and all that…. 🌝🌞

I’ll spare you the ennui of a day by day, blow by blow account of the DNTW’s vacation extraordinaire (almost as enthralling as looking at other people’s holidays snaps right?! 😉) but suffice to say it wouldn’t have been an “us” holiday without hospital trips… yes that’s right. Trips plural.

Surprisingly, the child I thought most likely to test-drive the French medical system and give my school-girl French a run for its money, behaved herself.

However, I was more than slightly out of my comfort zone when having to liaise with the French emergency and medical services for 2 of the rest of the gang.

It transpires my ’comprehensive’ French knowledge of menus, food stuffs in general, encore du vin (more wine!) and where is the toilet/library phrases memorised from school weren’t terribly helpful or useful. In fact I think the alleged (possibly apocryphal) Hungarian phrase “my postillion has been struck by lightning” (in French) would have been more helpful than what I do know of the French medical terminology.

Nonetheless, I attempted my best “Franglais” and despite murdering the language of lurve, (I never really thought I would fervently wish I had studied French tenses in greater detail but turns out I was wrong) some Gallic shrugging, frantic gesticulating and resorting to google translate as well as stick drawings, I made myself (sort of) understood; enough anyway that the right areas of my children’s’ anatomies/difficulties were attended too on both occasions. I think I probably gave the medics a bit of a giggle at my expense too…. intended to ask if I could sit but actually suggested I was a plate… I blame too much sun, shock & being very tired for that one and anyway, ‘assayez’ and ‘assiete’ are quite similar 🤔

Fortunately it transpires that the words for ‘jejunostomy’ and ‘autism’ in French are essentially much the same, although they sound decidedly more exotic and sexy en francaise. Pathological demand avoidance and sensory processing disorder don’t however seem to translate…. 🤷🏻‍♀️

In any event the care we received from our European brethren was par excellence, albeit if I hadn’t already appreciated our marvellous FREE at the point of use #NHS# as much as I do, I definitely would have done by the time we proceeded to the billing department.

Much like the UK, the French medical system do have a duty of care to provide emergency care irrespective of your ability to pay but they are VERY quick to demand your passport & health document details and even if you possess an EHIC ( https://www.nhs.uk/using-the-nhs/healthcare-abroad/apply-for-a-free-ehic-european-health-insurance-card/) you may find you are presented with a bill immediately.

It does however have to be said that for the care we received – ambulance trip by 3 emergency personnel, urgent care access, paediatric emergency Doctor consult, 4 xrays, resulting antibiotics, wound care and dressings – the resulting €92 bill was very reasonable… and perhaps something that given the dire status of our health system and the amount of “health tourism” that seems prevalent in our country, something that needs further consideration in good ole Blighty.

We didn’t get presented with a bill for our “Second day out with the emergency services” away day when we checked out; maybe it was my presence of mind to thrust the EHIC document straight at them BEFORE actual treatment took place or maybe due to the comprehensive nature of tests that were required, they took pity and felt presenting me with an eye-watering invoice might also necessitate an ECG of my own but I am told we will receive it in the post….. I won’t hold my breath for obvious reasons!!

One bizarre observation I will venture: when sitting in French Doctor/hospital waiting rooms, it transpires it is necessary to greet all those who walk in and out with a chirpy “Bonjour” or smiley “Au revoir!” How mad is that?! They don’t do the politely British thing of ignoring each other at all costs, eyes down-cast, studying the floor and hoping no one in your immediate vicinity is Ebola carrying when they cough & splutter into a hankies. Non! There is a lot of eye contact and even some bisous (kissing) when they (presumably) know each other. Another good reason to have nothing to do with trains in this post – if they greet each other like this at the Doctors, I can’t even imagine what they get up to on locomotives – definitely not the British way!

Thankfully, the vast majority of our holiday was a break away from all things medical (aside from the standard doling out of pills, lotions, potions & generalised care the kids necessitate day to day) and whilst I wouldn’t necessarily go as far as to say it was relaxing, it has been great to enjoy time together, sun, sea, days out, pool days, ice-creams, the odd Kir-Royale 🍸 (or 3) here and there and a last hurrah with the younger 2 at DisneyLand Paris.


Pre Thunder Mountain…. there weren’t quite such good spirits after 🤣

So now we are returning home, no doubt back to an enormous pile of bills (maybe the French hospital one will have beaten us home?!) laundry and lord knows what state the house will be in as the older 2 have been home without us over the last few days…. But we have suntans and smiles and precious memories and that makes it all worthwhile

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In the blink of an eye(roll)…

It’s arrived. I always knew this day would come but I don’t think I expected it to be so soon. 😫 Or so sudden.

It probably wasn’t – that sudden – but it feels smack you-round-the-face-excruciatingly-so-upon me. Sigh.

I thought I had years to go, many more eye-rolls to bear (how exactly can one, fairly diminutive 10 year old convey such soul-churning disdain in a mere upward flick of one perfect eye brow and simultaneous roll of said eye-balls?!) but in the way of the cliche, time has sped up & my ‘littlest’ is not so…. well ‘littlest’ I guess. However petite she may be in stature, make no bones, this girl is growing up. F.A.S.T.

Of course as parents that’s what we want. ❣️ Of course it should be the natural progression of life and indeed, I am starkly reminded to be humbled and grateful in contrast to far too many of those we have known along the way whose children will forever remain but 4 or 5 or X amount of years young.

I’m full to the brim of love that Minx is following in the trajectory of ‘tween’ girls the world over, especially given the at times mixed prognosis of her youngest years and some of the curve-balls she has thrown at us latterly. I think really she just wants to keep us on our toes, never a dull moment and all that. But at times: whoosh, a sucker punch to the gut.

I digress. What has ‘come’ that I alluded to at the beginning of my rambling?

ATTITUDE!

In spades. Big time.

I shouldn’t really be surprised I suppose. She comes from a long line of family members who know how to speak for themselves, fight their corner & generally not take ‘no’ as a complete sentence. (No finger-pointing please!)

Secretly a (very) teeny tiny part of me is enjoying this new territory, the minefield to navigate of what she will wear, what is sartorially appropriate (or not, depending on which one of us you are speaking to!) the determination to do it (or not) her way. But by Lordy, it is tiring at times! And the girl can argue….

Minx embracing “Break The Rules Day” at school recently

Gone is the elfin child so pretty in a plethora of pink & purple, ribbons and sequins , frothy trappings of Monsoon, Accessorize et al. Replaced by a love of glitter but of the sparkly eye-make up variety – the contents of MAC shop, Urban Decay make up or a bath-bomb (or 5) Her clothing choices now consist of darker hues, bigger and baggier, less ‘girly’ more quirky and sassy.

When she said she wanted to ‘go to the theatre in tattoos’ this wasn’t quite what I had in mind….

In place of the (long past) nursery rhymes, Disney tunes and Nickelodeon, a fascination with Billie Eilish, weird-pranking You-tube families, LD shadow Lady and Roblox (parental controls on) has emerged. She spends hours watching make up demonstrations or bizarre things you can make out of recycling crisp packets, how to make tiny working copies of day to day stationary – one inch perfect replica glue stick anyone?! 🤔

In a rehash of my Dad asking me what on earth I could possibly need to speak to my school friends so urgently about given I’d only been out of school for an hour and off the school bus for 10 minutes max when I rushed in from school to pick up the phone, Minx /bounds (*slightly* too strong a word . usually knackered after school but you get the picture) straight to her bedroom, door firmly shut before she giggles away to her friends via face-time or school group chat. The peels of laughter, the loud shushing and use of code-words (and shouting) if someone inadvertently enters her room without knocking (I’m looking at you here Big Brother G!) as well as the general disarray of her bedroom (despite my best efforts) all serve as reminders that my affectionately known little Millie Minx is maturing.

I’ll admit to slight trepidation, a bit of panic. I’m not ready for my little girl not to want me or need me. I’m not ready to stop kissing the top of her head & inhaling that fresh-from-a-bath-scent before she goes to bed (or the sweet-not yet-sweaty-smell when she wakes of a morning) I like still reading bed time stories, the books I loved as a child.

Since Minx is the youngest of our children and there are most definitely NO plans to have any more, I’m unsure whether my reluctance (fears?) stems from that letting go of the ‘baby’ stage or whether it’s down to the medical issues and difficulties she has faced (& will continue to) in the years to date; somewhere between the 2, I suspect.

But importantly, most importantly, she is ready. Wanting to strike out on her own, arguing it’s fine to go out in just a t-shirt & cropped leggings despite it being single figure temps outside (Mum: I’m sorry I remember us having those arguments when I was her age! 😫) her Dad asking incredulously if we had actually paid good money for the jeans with the rips in and why we couldn’t just slash some of her other things with an artfully wielded pair of scissors.

I’m reminded of that beautifully written, perfectly summed up quote from Nanny McPhee but I think it’s rather more for my own benefit now than hers:

#Parenting Advice 101#

And without going over all Darwinian/survival of the fittest, over the years I’ve been privileged to be a mum (& I’ll be honest, there are many many moments it hasn’t felt like such a privilege!) I’ve come to the conclusion that the very best you can hope for if you have done a reasonable job of parenting is that your child(ren) will have confidence enough – ideally in leaps & bounds – in their own abilities to strike out on their own; that they will seek to carve their own way, flee the nest to live their best lives and all that jazz. That the mistakes they will inevitably make are small enough to learn from but not big enough to endanger/hurt or ruin life (theirs or another’s) and that is more than enough **

Offspring however, if you are ever reading this: a visit to your old mum & dad in their dotage, the occasional cup of tea and a desire to spend some time in our company that doesn’t involve gifting you data/food/money/combinations thereof , wouldn’t go amiss….

*Either that or you’ve fu#*ed it up so badly, they have fled for the hills at the first opportunity. Cold comfort. You’re welcome. 😉

3am Eternal….

It’s 3am (actually it’s not as I write this, it’s more like 8pm but the thoughts that led to this blog post pinged into my head at 3am & hoping to eventually get some semblance of sleep, I declined to let the brain-fart creative juices run riot)

3am. In the days of my ‘yoof” it meant something quite different to where I find myself now: 3am might have been when I rolled through the door, perhaps *slightly* tipsy; 3am giggling chats with my school or uni besties; where we had face-packs & chocolate (& revolting White Lightning Or MD20/20 in the latter years) and shushed each other in overtly loud whispers.

3am Eternal, that absolute belter of a tune by The KLF with their ancients of Mu Mu! Now I have an ear-worm & find myself mentally humming. These days if I had the budget, I’d rather like to be more in tune with the Mui Mui (fashion darling!) but that’s another story…

3am now: when the rest of the world is sleeping. When all is quiet. When you feel alone, scared and any problem(s) you have feel insurmountable, all consuming and impossible to solve.

Ironically, I’m far from alone. I’m on a children’s hospital ward where 3am doesn’t mean all is quiet and settled. It’s an alternative, less pleasant version of a city that never sleeps.

Whilst the nursing staff go about their business calmly and efficiently, even if (when) the dreaded crash bell sounds or alarms from machines and monitors peal and squark; the heart-tugging cries of babies and children in pain or scared There is both an urgency and yet serenity of those on duty in these darkest hours.

We have a 3am visitor. A surgical resident called up to our ward because Minx isn’t behaving. Anatomically speaking.

  • 3am is when my imagination goes into over-drive. I’m over come with the ifs, the buts, the maybe’s; the pointless worries and the unhelpful questions that come unbidden when you’re a parent, and especially the parent of a medically, physically, cognitively or combination thereof child/ren.
  • In reality of course I know I’m far from alone. Wherever it’s 3am, there will be a multitude of man-kind engulfed by their own demons, be they parents or not. Those worrying over relationships, financial matters, jobs, mental health issues, where their next meal is coming from. I’m sure Dear Reader, you can add a plethora of reasons I haven’t listed.
  • I can add guilt to my annoying bed-fellows who hover sadistically at the 3am party. For however many of the worries my brain attempts to rattle through, I know I’m one of the ‘lucky’ ones.
  • I’m reassured by the surgical resident’s breeziness, by Minx’s visceral reaction to his proposal if matters don’t sort themselves out; even groggy from the after effects of surgery and the powerful pain medications pulsing through her, she is not one for rolling over and playing easy. She is not in favour of his plan and whilst a part of me knows that ultimately we may have to adopt the cruel to be kind approach, it is heartening to see she is strong enough, with it enough, to protest and rail against it.
  • So whilst I may wonder at 3am how I will ever juggle all the varying needs of my children, if I remembered to order medications, feed, equipment & supplies; did I send that email, reply to that message, make that all important phone call, at the very least I am fortunate to have those worries; the luxury for want of a better word to fuss and fumble, curse and sigh about all the never-ending chores.
  • I would take that in a heart-beat over the emptiness, the silence, the agony of losing a child. There are friends, far too many dear friends, who deal with that hollowed out grief. Who lie awake at 3am with the eternal knowledge that never again will they hold, sooth, cuddle or fuss over their cherished child. Who would give everything they had and then some to be in my shoes, (slippers) right now.

    So when I’m feeling overwhelmed and exhausted with it all, I will remember that in reality, I am one of the fortunate ones & banish those unhelpful spectres back where they belong. Dawn will come one way or another and the 3am fears will recede. We will fight on another day. ❣️

    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

    Relentlessly Relentless….

    blog picture June 2018 final draft 3

    Who cares for the carers?

    There are many days where I feel like waving the white flag of surrender. I give up. Stick a fork in me, I’m done. Substitute your own personal favourite motto for when the 💩💩 just keeps on coming and you really don’t want to face it anymore.

    As a rule, I am not a woe is me kind of a gal but there are limits and even for the Queen of “the glass is half empty, therefore there’s always more room for wine” claimant, sometimes I just don’t want to play anymore.

    So why today? It’s been a busy week – nothing new there. Multiple appointments – again lather, rinse, repeat. Certain “dark forces” (bear with me, having to be slightly obtuse so it’s not too outing; a story for another day!) have done their level best to floor us as family and put up barriers; as my Dad would say: “same sh*t different day.”  Nothing especially jumps out as being out of our ‘norm.’

    Actually, the straw that broke the camels back today is really rather ridiculous –  especially since I’m a grown (loosely termed since I barely scrape 5ft 3″) woman.

    I don’t know about you but for me, it’s often the little things that tip me over the edge and today was no exception: there were NO apricot danishes left in a certain food establishment that prides itself on offering not just any old danish…. and boy did I have my heart set on that danish.*

    You could in fact say I had built that particular danish up to be the highlight of my week (I know I know, I need to get out more!) and I was relishing scarfing it down with my mid-morning latte whilst staring daggers at my ever-increasing piles of paperwork that needs to be set light to dealt with and some of it rather urgently (anyone thinking I might be procrastinating by writing a blog post instead of dealing with said paperwork, that’s an affirmative!) particularly if I intend to throw my own kind of shade back at the dark forces. They might be putting up barriers but I’m packing TNT, a demolition ball and an AK47 to pulverize them. Ok perhaps I should STEP AWAY from the caffeine….my over active imagination, key-board-warrior-esque approach and twitchy eye suggest that caffeine, my drug of choice, has been consumed in too vast a quantity.

    Whether it was the *slightly* murderous deranged look in my eyes or the muttering  sotto voce of curses questioning the parentage of all food halls connected with this particular establishment that caught the attention of the lovely man on the bakery counter, I can’t be sure but clearly sensing something was amiss from the plethora of delicacies in front of me, he tentatively asked if everything was all right.

    Resisting the urge to scream out in the style of Ross from Friends a la “My Sandwich” sketch (you young things aren’t likely to be familiar with that gem so let me share it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tqmXTYa3Xw) and without resorting to tears either (the struggle was real people!) I managed to convey my deep disappointment that there were no danishes of the apricot variety to be seen.

    And then, as if by divine intervention (ok, I’m waxing faaaaaaarr too literally, all that caffeine has really done for me today!) the dear, dear bakery man, (alas I did not find out your name in the ensuing rush of emotions that came over me!) uttered those most blessed of words: “not to worry, I’m just about to put some out!”  Yes! Fist bump, air horns and angels singing the hallelujah chorus; the gods and goddesses and the high priestess of bakeries had smiled righteously upon me.

    I must confess it felt like there was something in my eye. I’m thinking that as my salivary glands went into over-drive, some sort of neurological spill over occurred to cause watering?

    But the thing is, I’m a firm believer in taking your pleasures where you find them (erm just to caveat, legal ones, I’m definitely not advocating lawlessness or reckless criminality!) because being a parent is at times bloody hard work.

    Being a parent carer is even bloody harder, thankless work and as far as I can find, there’s no resignation clause and as for the pay? Well if you are “lucky” enough to qualify (there are certain criteria and the person you are caring for has to have significant needs taking up significant amounts of time) for carer’s allowance, do the maths –  you don’t even get minimum wage for the hours you put in. Oh and no matter how many people you provide care for, you only get a single carer’s allowance.

    When you multiply caring for 3 children and an 18-year-old who all have varying medical/social-emotional needs and complexities, there really aren’t enough hours in the day. I go to bed every night with a to-do-list that grows ever longer. For every 2 things I manage to tick off during the course of the day, I seem to have added at least another 5.

    It plays on my mind that I have dropped the ball somewhere; have I requested everyone’s medications from the GP and arranged for them to be sent to the pharmacy? Do we have enough feed/containers/giving sets/dressings/lotions and potions in hand to get to the end of the month? Have I transposed all of the appointments that crop up into my phone calendar so I can plan everything round them in the weeks ahead? And woe betide if any of those appointments were only given to me over the phone and I don’t have an actual letter to cross reference and double-check with –  will I get the right child to the right hospital/clinic/specialist on the right day and time?!

    I’m not ashamed to say I take a concoction of various medications every day to help me manage one way or another; be that for my severe depression, anxiety and inability to sleep or for the acid reflux that plagues me and the dodgy back/neck/shoulders and most   recently, excruciatingly painful sciatica (so many carers suffer with joint/muscle pain and problems as result of the physical demands of caring for a loved one with mobility difficulties) I’m acutely aware that these are a crutch for want of a better word. In an ideal world, it would be far better to tackle the sources of the problems permanently. Even better in some far off utopia, it would be to put provisions in place to be proactive instead of reactive. To prevent the aches and pains and feelings of isolation, despair and all the affiliated emotions and physicality’s that go along with being a carer.

    I learned to my cost (and that of my families, not to mention the NHS etc) that if we carers don’t put protective measures in to fortify ourselves it all comes crashing down.

    I am not unique. As a member of support groups such as SWAN UK –  http://www.undiagnosed.org.uk I read far too many comments from parent-carers who face battles similar or even harder than my own.

    On other forums I’m a part of in relation to education, health and social care there is a generalised resignation to the fact that accessing support, working WITH organisations or professionals instead of the THEM and US facade is a constantly uphill battle; at best a ‘sorry there’s no money in the system’ approach to outright horrific accounts of utterly despicable, underhand tactics designed to deprive the most vulnerable members of society from the most basic, fundamental human rights and discrediting, even slandering or making false allegations against those who have to pick up the mantle and strive on their loved ones behalf. Probably best I don’t get started. I can feel the vitriol rising and that won’t help the acid reflux!!

    Next week from 11th June to 18th June inclusive is Carers Week in the UK.  You can learn more here:  https://www.carersweek.org  It is estimated that in the UK there are 6.5 million carers and that figure is only certain to rise as we face an ageing population who are living longer, an NHS that is under resourced, over stretched and a welfare system that has been not so much stripped back as hacked to death and lord only knows what, if anything will be around in future times to help and support those most in need.

    But for now anyway, I have taken care of myself by refuelling with a double shot, fully caffeinated (you don’t say?!) latte and a belly full of apricot danishso I’m bouncing off the walls all fired up to tackle the paperwork and smite those dark forces with a mother’s wrath.

    *If anyone suddenly feels the need to shower me in delicious pastries of the apricot kind, you know, I’ll happily take one for the team 😉 Or tell me your own personal sanity savers and maybe I’ll see what else I can try!

    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.

    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…. 😊