Friday, 1 August 2014

For the first time ever, and somewhat against my better judgement

For the first time ever, and somewhat against my better judgement, I'm going to post and respond to a comment I got yesterday. Here is the comment and then here are the things that I wanted to say. 

But no boundaries, let the kid get away with murder, claiming you've somehow acquired "secondary trauma" from the horrors of parenting kids you spent years and years and countless thousands if dollars to acquire from overseas?
As opposed to actually setting boundaries + dealing with it you've managed to pathologise your kid's behavior.
And other upper middle class white women with no backbone and expensive foreign kids praise you for your "bravery"? 
It might just be worth doing a quick google search regarding folks who TRULY survived trauma (worse than letting their bratty kid get away with murder) and came out the other side without need of "post adoption therapists". You know, Holocost survivors. Folks who escaped civil wars. Military vets. Folks who don't have the luxury of falling apart -- with the expectation that others exist to help put you back together! 

Thing the zeroth: 

I'm not actually particularly upset or offended by this comment. I already knew that some people thought this way, so I'm going to use this as a chance to respond frankly to a very, errr, frank comment. So. 

Thing the first: 

My kids have boundaries; a ton of boundaries actually. I totally laughed my head off at the idea that my kids might not have boundaries. There are so many boundaries in our house that it might as well be an atlas. I'm far from a perfect parent, but believe me, we have boundaries. Also, to the best of my knowledge, my kids have not yet tried to murder anybody. 

Okay, that one was easy. Next. 

Thing the second: 

It's interesting that you see a contradiction between spending years and years in the adoption process and then struggling post-adoption. You're not alone! It's funny (except, obviously, not) how commonly the 'you picked this, so shut up' attitude surfaces in talking about the hard parts of adoption.  Are only the parents who got there biologically allowed to struggle with parenting? Because that doesn't seem like it makes sense to me, not at all. Parenting my kids is not 'horror', no way, but it is pretty tough sometimes and that isn't magically untrue because the adoption process was also tough. 

Seriously, I hate it when people expect adopted kids to 'shut up and be grateful'. Family is hard, right? And sometimes it's harder for families who weren't formed the easy way. So it doesn't make any sense to just expect adoptive parents to shut up and be grateful either. Okay, moving on. 

Thing the third: 

I totally agree that pathologising kids' behaviour is not cool. In fact, that's the very question I kept asking myself for months- are we just pathologising this? That's probably one of the reasons why it took us quite a while to seek any kind of professional help. I hated the idea of getting some kind of unnecessary label on my kid. Nobody (okay, almost nobody) wants to get their kids a diagnosis that they don't need, or isn't warranted. We went to seek help after getting opinions from people like teachers and nurses and a speech pathologist - yep, they all said, you should definitely get some support. So we did - that's not pathologising. 

And hey - there's plenty of shame out there for those of us who need to get help for our kids - totally inappropriate shame, in my opinion. Maybe, sometimes, there are parents who are looking for 'help' when what they actually need is a kick in the pants. But I don't think that's me and Jay, and I don't think that's the majority of people who find themselves  asking for post-adoption support. After all, I kind of hated being scrutinised when we were in the middle of our homestudy; there is no way on earth I would voluntarily put myself back through that kind of thing if I didn't think it was something that would really help our precious kids. It was a big deal to swallow my pride and go there, to say hey, we could benefit from some outside help. I would hate to think that other people who need help would come up against attitudes like this and feel shamed into putting the phone back down and not making that call. Pathologising is not cool, but shaming people is not cool either, just so you know. 

Thing the fourth: 

I totally take your point about me and my upper middle class white friends reinforcing each other's choices. In fact, I think that's one of the biggest things that those of us in these kind of situations need to be really, really wary of. After all, if I decided that what my kids really needed was chicken therapy, or trapeze therapy, I'm sure I'd be able to find a group of women, somewhere, who would applaud my choices and suck me into spending hours on whether bantam hens are more or less therapeutic than fancy ornamentals.

(I'd say go for the ornamentals, wouldn't you? These upper middle class white chickens could totally kick trauma in the butt). 
I am aware that the internet is not the only - and probably should not be the primary - source of information on how to parent kids from hard places.  That's why I think that getting help - or at least advice - from professionals is actually a really good idea, if you think you might need it. Diagnosing our own kids at home is probably not an entirely brilliant plan, and while I value (more than I can say) the support I get from my friends on the internet, a facebook group is no substitute for six years of training in clinical psychology. Although it is a lot cheaper. 

While I'm on this topic, I've been thinking a lot recently about how the whole 'adoption trauma' thing is such a very closed system, if that is the right word. You know - a 'theory of everything'. I've been thinking about the way that it really can be used to explain absolutely everything, and if we aren't careful it's definitely a risk that we as parents can miss the wood for the trees occasionally. As in - sometimes it's trauma, sometimes it's a bad night's sleep. (And then sometimes it's a bad nights' sleep BECAUSE of trauma anxiety and then which one is the chicken and which one is the egg in that little situation, hmmmm?) 

I've been thinking about this because I've been connecting a lot with friends - real life friends-  who have kids with various special needs, and when they describe some of the behaviour challenges they face, I think I could totally come up with a trauma explanation for that behaviour. Even though, obviously, that's not the issue in their case. We definitely do need to be careful that we don't see the world so much through one lens that we ignore all the other factors. There are more lenses than just trauma that all sorts of parents use to explain / modify behaviour, obviously - some parents get very focused on nutrition / lifestyle / food dyes, some people focus on sleep, some on exercise, some on particular types of schooling. Some people (not naming any names, cough cough) think everything comes down to how the parents parent. And once you are committed to one 'thing' as your explanation for everything, it's very easy to forget that there are other factors at play too. 

Just so you're aware, I haven't forgotten. Have you? 

Thing the fifth: 

I'm going to pass on over the 'no backbone' thing, because seriously, whatever, and I'm trying to talk about this like adults. Same goes for the bit about not having the luxury of falling apart. I have a job and two kids and no childcare. Believe me, I don't have that luxury either. So let's move on. 

Thing the sixth: 

Here's the biggie, I think. All that stuff about what constitutes 'real trauma.' Well, you know what? Life is not the pain olympics. Not even a little bit. I'm not saying that what my kids have experienced is as bad as the holocaust - obviously it's not - but it's not nothing, either. I don't talk about details here because woah - privacy - but believe me, it's not nothing. 

I guess what I mean is: If you had, say a broken ankle, and I had a broken leg, then my broken leg wouldn't stop your broken ankle being real. And if you were saying hey! I have a broken ankle, and it really hurts! I hope that nobody would say to you I spit upon your broken ankle. Don't talk to me about broken ankles when Claudia over there has a broken leg. That's what a REAL broken bone looks like, lady. What I hope they would say is this: so sorry about your broken ankle. I know it's not the same thing, but my friend Claudia had a broken leg once. Maybe she has some good tips for walking on crutches. Want me to put you in touch?  And I would totally share my tips with you because hey, pain is pain, whichever one of us is suffering the most. 

On a  related note, thing the seventh (and finalth): 

You sound really angry and upset, and I'm sorry if anything that I've written makes you feel that way. (Although something else I read recently makes me think that you're leaving this comment for more people than just me). I don't know what your background is - but I'm guessing that this kind of anger at someone you don't know is probably because you're hurting in some way.  I'm sorry about that, but even when you're hurting, it's not okay to be mean. (See? Boundaries). 

The internet is a funny place, right? Sometimes it seems like everyone is crazy. But it can be wonderful, too, so let's keep it that way. I really am sorry if anything I've written makes you sad. But in the future, I'd be grateful if you could extend a little compassion to people whose struggles are different from yours. Goodness knows there's little enough to go around, most days. Here, I'll give you a little of mine - in fact, I think I just did. And next time you want to say something unkind to someone, perhaps you can take it out of your pocket and give a little back. 

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Mapping the Exits

So we went to see the social worker. Two of them, actually, and they were really nice. I know what you mean they kept on saying, while making sympathetic noises. Also That sounds exhausting, (and yes, it is, thanks for noticing).

We talked a bit about parenting strategies - what we could do, what we have done, what we might try. They asked us about all kinds of things, and the words just fell and fell out of me. Usually when I talk about parenting I hedge everything around with disclaimers about how much I love my children, but this time I didn't, really. I didn't feel like I had to apologise to these people for finding things tough, sometimes- these people are in post-adoption support; I presume they already know that adoption can be tough. So let's skip the chit-chat about the cuteness, shall we? Jay talked as well, of course, but not as much as me because the attachment complications we face in our family are very much concentrated along the mother-son axis.

mother and son
I talked about how bad I feel, sometimes, when I realise that my focus on Blue - my need to coach him through the simplest things, sometimes - affects how I parent Pink.  Do you love Blue more than me, Mummy? she asked me, after one particularly hard morning. Her voice was matter-of-fact.  Of course not, I said, trying not to sound as horrified as I felt. I adore both of you. (This happens to be true). Then why do you always cuddle him so much? she asked. Because his attachment issues manifest themselves in physical clinginess,  I might have said, but didn't, of course. Instead I said well, Blue needs a lot of cuddles, honey. She looked at me and said, still matter-of-fact, But mummy, so do I. When she said that, I felt all the air rush out of me. I know you do, honey, I said, and I gave her a hug right then, but of course in ten minutes time I was dealing with him again.

And has all of this affected your marriage? asked the older social worker, and Jay said no  at exactly the same time that I said yes. Make of that what you will. I feel like it has - it must have - affected our marriage, because it affects everything else in life. I feel so profoundly exhausted so much of the time. I have no energy to cook creative meals and light candles for some kind of date night - I just want to sit on the sofa and watch Veronica Mars. I find that I am completely unable to separate out what is normal parental exhaustion (surely, everyone feels this way) from the exhaustion that comes from managing our particular circumstances (nobody else can possibly feel this way, surely?)

I talked and talked. I talked and talked about how my son reacts to certain stimuli - how it seems that his reactions to some things are way outside of what those things warrant. I talked about how I'm trying to work out which things do what, trying to work out how I can manage those reactions. I read this thing I kept on saying and it made me wonder if - there's so much to wonder about. Why the really good days, why the really bad days? What are the uncommon denominators? I have no idea. The hitting seems to have stopped; for now, at least. I'm beyond relieved, but I have no idea how it happened so I wouldn't know how to make it stop again if it were to re-start. So much to read, so much to think about, and still, sometimes, when things go wrong, no freaking clue what to do.

(Have I mentioned that I love my son? Really, I love and adore my son).

The social worker interrupted my flow of words. You said you've done a lot of reading, she said. I nodded. Have you done any reading about secondary trauma? I hadn't. She wrote something down. The way you're describing your own behaviour, she said, it sounds like what you're describing is some hypervigilance. It sounds like your own reactions have become fine tuned so that you are always waiting for something to go wrong, always unable to relax. 

Have you ever played pinball, dear reader? I haven't, but I've seen other people doing it and that moment for me was like when someone makes that perfect shot in pinball. Her words arced into my brain and then bounced for what felt like forever, hitting piece after piece and connecting a whole head full of dots that I didn't even know were there.  One thousand points, I should have told her, you have earned an extra life. I didn't say anything though, because I was too busy feeling stunned. We finished the meeting and went home and I haven't been able to stop thinking about what she said. Hypervigilance and secondary trauma. In me. 

Honestly, I don't really know why this has shaken me up so much, but it really has. I thought I had bought into the whole 'attachment is a family issue' thing, but I guess I hadn't. I guess I really was thinking of myself as a person outside this difficult situation, a person who was trying to deal with it (not always very well) but a person who was fundamentally the same person she was before she found herself in it. I'm not sure that's true any more.  And the more I think about it, the more I think that there is nothing secondary about this trauma. Secondary trauma is something that caregivers experience when they have to process the pain of what their loved one has experienced. But if I'm traumatised, I honestly don't think it's through dealing with what he is suffering; I'm traumatised because of what I've experienced myself in this situation. Dealing with the fighting, the drama, the constant push-pull, the difficulties and the neediness - I've spent the last years on constant high alert and waiting for something to go wrong. It suppose all of this has short-circuited something in my brain. Feels about right, to be honest.

We see hypervigilance in our children and we understand why it's happening but we want it to stop. I have to say, it's been a profoundly humbling experience for me to see that it's happening in my own brain too. Now that she's said it, I see it all the time. I don't want to go places, I dont' want to do things because I'm worried that we're going to have a meltdown or an explosion. And when we do go places and something goes wrong, I catastrophise immediately.  This is the worst meltdown in the history of forever. I can't cope with this. The rest of the day is going to be ruined. Now that this is happened he isn't going to eat. If he doesn't eat he won't sleep. Tomorrow is going to be ruined too. We need to leave immediately. Right, let's go, let's go NOW please honey. Where is the nearest exit? It seems that, even when things are actually going fine, I'm always getting ahead of myself. I'm always mapping the exits.

Does this hypervigilance make me a better parent? Absolutely not, obviously. I've developed it as a coping mechanism, but right now it makes me less able to deal with stressful situations, less able to accurately assess risk, less able to think creatively to solve problems when the do occur. I'm trying to be conscious about this. I'm trying to at least talk to myself in a positive way - what's the worst that can happen? - was something I was using for a while, but actually, sometimes the answer to that question is pretty traumatising in itself. Ha.

It doesn't make me a better parent, but I don't think it makes me a worse person, either. The same way that we can acknowledge - hopefully without judgement -  that our kids' brains have reacted to what they have experienced, I think I have to acknowledge the same thing about myself. I'm still trying to work through how to deal with this.

So what does all this mean? Heck, I don't know. I just found her observation incredibly perceptive - if painful - and I thought it might apply to more people than me. A friend of mine was talking about something similar just yesterday and it made me wonder.

Feel familiar to anybody else?

Monday, 16 June 2014

The House Is Quiet

The house is quiet. For the first time ever, my kids have gone off to do a day of school on their own, leaving me at home. It's going to happen once a week for the rest of the term. This means that I have some time to myself - guilt free, no-strings-attached, not calling in any favours, not owing anybody anything, not relying on babysitters - time to myself for the first time in five years.

Five years.

I'm confused.

Why is nobody yelling at me?

And I thought I could blog about that. I could blog about how strange this is, how quiet the house is, how I feel this strange mix of elation and guilt, how this strange day makes me feel some gut-squeezing grief about the children growing up, and how this strange day makes me feel some other heart-clenching grief about how their time at home wasn't the wall-to-wall halcyon haze of happiness that I assumed it would be and how I'm never going to get a do-over on that now, how a part of me feels unmoored by this sudden gaping chasm of time, how part of me feels 'oh no, now people are going to start expecting me to achieve stuff and I don't have any excuses anymore', and how that makes me realise that I must be sort of addicted to the martyrdom of never having my own time, even though I didn't realise it, how part of me feels like great, I can finally get my novel edited, how part of me feels like great, I can finally do that netflix binge, how part of me feels like great, I guess I'd better clean up this stinking cesspit I've been calling a house, how all of me realises that I've forgotten what to do with proper down time, don't I have somewhere to go, don't I have somewhere to be, don't I have a body part to wipe, doesn't somebody need me right now? How can nobody need me? I'm here. Don't you need me? Who am I if nobody needs me? 

So I thought yeah, I could blog about that. 

And then I thought or I could go to Starbucks and read a book. 

I can smell the coffee already.

I win today; I'm calling it. Score one for mental health; zero for stupid pointless mother-angst.

Make mine a caramel macchiato.

Monday, 2 June 2014

We've been away

thanks, aunty L, for the superhero outfit. 

.... and I'm about to go away again (on my OWN. Can you imagine it? I can't. I've checked in, but I still can't believe I'm really flying without children).  I'll be back soon, I promise.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Icy Family Feud Ends In Court

I'll post about seeing the social worker as soon as I can get my head around the meeting we had - hopefully tomorrow or the day after. Today, a vision of my future, if my children had their way. 


A Berkshire mother of two was today sentenced after losing a landmark hearing regarding her children's access to the film Frozen. 

After sentencing, a  tearful Mrs Chapman told the waiting media, "This has all been a terrible misunderstanding. I didn't realise that it was actually The Law that children had to be allowed to watch Frozen at least once per day. Now that I know this, my behaviour will change. I'm going to go home and put this right."

Her sentence included a commitment to learn all the songs on her ukulele - even the boring ones - and play them for impromptu karaoke sessions whenever her children ask. Judge Menzel, presiding, said that her sentencing specifies that "This really does mean whenever she is asked, even if it is nearly bedtime."  In addition, the family laptop will be repurposed to show the film on an infinite loop, and Claudia, 34, will wear her hair in mandatory braids every day for the next year, 'just like Ana'.

Neighbours reported that tensions had been growing in the Chapman household for some time. When interviewed, Pink Chapman (who asked that we refer to her by her preferred name of Elsa) said "It was obvious to everyone that something wasn't right with how our mother was treating us. It's not like she couldn't show us the film; we could see the DVD on the shelf. The problem was that she was restricting access, and children need to watch this film daily. Everybody knows that. Now that she has signed a contract and her probation officer will be checking the house regularly, I'm hopeful that we can all put this episode behind us".

Her brother Blue agreed. "She was only letting us watch it while we were having our hair done, and that just wasn't enough," he said. "It's true that we did watch it four times in one week when it arrived, but that was while she was learning to do cornrows and there was a lot of inconsistent behaviour relating to that, anyway. Four times in one week turned out to be the best it ever got, and that's why we had to get the authorities involved".

When asked why they had decided to litigate, rather than seek a more informal  resolution, he said "Elsa and I love our mother, but there are some things that need to be taken seriously. We called for help, and I'm just grateful that help came in time."

A spokesperson for Berkshire child services said, "We are very pleased with the outcome of this ruling. Obviously, we are working towards a situation where all children have unrestricted access to Frozen at all times, but until that day comes, we think the current one-viewing-per-day laws are adequate, and we are glad they are being properly enforced."

When asked to comment, the children's father, Jay Chapman, said "I have no opinion to give. This whole situation has nothing to do with me; that's why I go to work."

The family have asked for privacy at this difficult time.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

So I Called The Adoption Agency Again

Last Tuesday, I called the adoption agency who did our assessment back in 2008. Was that really six years ago? I suppose it was, and I haven't slept properly since. (And I guess that would explain why I recently got told off by a makeup guy in Selfridges for looking like something he found underneath his shoe. I wanted to buy some foundation, but after 'working' on me for a little while, he sighed and said people come here and they expect that a new foundation is going to work some kind of magic. But really, there's nothing foundation can do for you if you have open pores, and fine lines, and an oily T-zone. You don't need a different foundation, you need to take better care of your skin. I was so shocked by his honesty that I bought the foundation. Now that I have it home, I realise that my skin might be terrible - okay, it is - but his foundation isn't all that either. Never trust a man who wears more bronzer than you do, is probably the moral of that story).

Anyway. I didn't call them to schedule another homestudy. I asked to speak to their post-adoption support team (miraculously, they have a post-adoption support team) and told them, as neutrally as I could please help us. Things are really difficult around here and we need some help. 

What do you mean by difficult? the social worker asked, and I told her about what had happened that day - a huge tantrum out of nowhere that I couldn't do anything - anything - to stop - and about how that had come in the middle of a really good period and I feel like the Jekyll / Hyde thing going on around here means that I'm living in fear of my child, in some awful way, and I told her about the hitting and the mood swings and the attachment stuff. What kind of attachment stuff? she asked, and I thought for a minute and said how, if I want to shower (and I do want to shower) I have to choose between using the TV as a babysitter or having a small child stare at me from his seat on the closed lid of toilet, just making sure I don't climb into the plumbing and escape, even though I have showered every morning for four and a half years and every single time, I've come back out of the bathroom, still there, still me and still his mother.

All of this come out in a rush. And I kept saying this probably sounds silly and she would reply no, don't apologise and every second sentence of mine was I need to say that I love my son so much, I love him so much. I just wish he didn't need to stare at him while I'm soaping. 

I didn't say that some days I do want to climb into the plumbing and escape, although I'm pretty sure she knew.

I do love my son so much. More than words can possibly say.

On Friday, the social worker called me back to schedule a meeting with her and me and Jay. She barely said hello before I start talking, and told her - I realised that I forgot to tell you about the spinning. She said do you mean physically spinning? and I said yes and she said oh. Then she said I think I know the kind of thing you mean which was like a rush of oxygen to me because it wasn't just well, boys are like that which I've heard too many times to count.  

I love my son so much, I told  her again. She didn't say anything, which was a shame, because I wanted her to say he sounds amazing. You are so lucky to have such a wonderful son. Because I am lucky, and everybody should know that. He is hilarious and wonderful and so, so affectionate. I adore him.

I suppose this is the main reason it has taken me so long to call and ask for help. I feel like hitting up post adoption support services is saying our family is falling apart, is saying this adoption was a terrible mistake when the truth is, honestly, I love my son so much. (And my daughter, just for the record).

And who wants to be the family who is calling post-adoption support, four and a half years after placement? Nobody, that's who. It just feels kind of dumb. And I've talked to a few people about some of my concerns, but so many people saying that's what boys are like / he'll grow out of it / he's so good every time I see him that I thought maybe I was going crazy. They convinced me that I shouldn't call. And I feel kind of mad at the people who told me those things, because I probably should have called last year, but the truth is, it wasn't their job to decide whether or not my son (and our family) needed some extra support. We're the parents; it's our job. We should have started ignoring them sooner. I got a big push from my sister - an early childhood teacher - who told me I've seen a lot of kids and what you're describing is not normal. You should definitely go and ask somebody for some help. Of course, that made me kind of mad at her - isn't this just a phase? Aren't all boys like this? Are you saying there's something wrong with my precious boy? How dare you!!

And even after this conversation, I still didn't call.

I talked to a friend who is a nurse. She said yeah, you should probably call somebody. I didn't.

And at that point, I realised the other reasons why I really didn't want to call. It's not just that I don't want to believe there's something wrong with my son (although I don't) it's that what I really feared was that they would tell us - me and Jay - there was something wrong with us. After all, I can list the things that my son struggles with but there's a far, far longer list of things I struggle with, things like the yelling and the inconsistency and the amount of TV that they watch and the amount of pasta that they eat and the fact that I filmed one of them hitting the other one, rather than intervening, just so I could ask Jay's opinion about it later, and the fact that they rarely bathe and the fact that sometimes I do want to crawl into the plumbing and escape and the fact that I never bothered to teach them to draw and the fact that we are always, always late and the fact that I get so angry sometimes when he hits me that my vision blurs and that by the end of each day I know I should be chasing them playfully upstairs but instead I'm checking my phone for a text from my husband to say that he's on his way home and he never is, he never is and that's why we never eat meals together as a family either.

All of this sits inside me, weighing on my stomach like a stone. It sucks all of my oxygen away.

Who wants to be the mother who need to call post-adoption support, four and a half years after placement? I feel like hitting up post-adoption services is like saying our family is falling apart, this adoption was a terrible mistake, you never should have let an awful mother like me get these precious, perfect children. 

This sounds over-dramatic, I know, but believe me - when you have children who are showing, errrrm, challenging behaviours, the world does not make you feel like a good mother. The screaming, falling-down tantrum from a child who is too old to be having a screaming, falling-down tantrum does not garner much public sympathy. Sometimes I can feel the thought bubbles floating above people's heads - why doesn't she just - that child should be - mothers these days - why is she letting that child - I know they are thinking these things, because sometimes they say them to my face. Parenting, for me, is a constant exercise in humility. Before I had kids, if I'd seen children behaving the way mine sometimes do, I would definitely have assumed it was the parents' fault. So I can't really be shocked when people assume it is mine.

Is it mine? I don't think it's mine. And this was the decision I had to reach, honestly, before I could pick up the phone and dial. I had to come to a point where I could say I am a good enough mother to ask for help. Although of course, I still fear that they are going to listen to what we have to say, peer at us over their glasses and say I've diagnosed the problem, Mr and Mrs Chapman, and here it is: you have no parenting skills. 

I think where I got stuck was this: I couldn't see any outcome other than you are defective parents or you have a defective child. 

But I love my son so much. He is wonderful, and I know that what we have together is pretty wonderful too, most of the time. I just want some help in knowing how I can be better at helping him, because honestly, he does need some help, and that means we do too.

Now, I'm hoping for a third outcome, although I have no idea what that might look like.

The first meeting is tomorrow. Please let this be a start.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

I Just Have Two Things To Say

The last few weeks, I've pretty much been off social media altogether. It makes me feel weird, being so disconnected, and then I think shouldn't that be the weird thing, that I feel the need to be on social media all the time? It wasn't a deliberate detox (I'm not that organised) it's just that things got kind of hairy around here for a while and even I couldn't argue that getting up to date with my feedly feed was my number one, topmost, pressingest priority.

It's been kind of good, though. I've been wondering lately about deliberately cutting myself off from the internet for, say, a day a week. I was thinking that i could call it Media Free Monday. And then I thought I should write about that on my blog, and see who else wants to get involved. And then I exploded in a puff of irony. So anyway, I never quite did get around to doing that, but these last few weeks (novel month, followed by the aforementioned hairiness) have been an interesting experiment in living like it's the nineties - no web 2.0. In summary, if you're interested, living without social media hasn't killed me and it's probably saved a lot of time but it has been pretty annoying. (And that's as far as that particular social experiment will ever go in my house).

The hairiness I mentioned isn't anything interesting, by the way - I'm not pregnant, nobody has been arrested and the kids are fine. It's just been more health stuff, mainly for Jay. Did I mention that he needed to have a nerve blocking injection for his back? Well, he did, around the last day of novel month, and it's helping his back a lot (we think) but for the first time in his life he's been having what seem like migraines - unbearable headaches with nausea, dizziness etc. Apparently that can be a side effect of an injection in your spine - who knew? Not us, that's for sure, probably because the clinic never got around to sending us any information leaflets about the procedure. But anyway, the headaches seem a lot better over the last few days and our world seems to be tilting back towards 'manageable'. I want to write 'normal' but a few people have reminded me lately that there is no such thing as normal - what we think of as 'normal' is actually everything going well, everything going according to plan, and let's face it, that's the opposite of normal.

It struck me this week (I'm a very, very slow learner) that Jay's ongoing health concerns are a proper Thing in our lives now.  It's like an annoying family member, or an incontinent pet - don't know how to live with it; can't make it go away. It's why I've been quiet here, I realised - this isn't a My Husband Has Chronic Pain Issues blog, and that's been the biggest thing going on in my life.  In some ways, the 'when will this end'-ness of this all reminds me of our wait to become parents, but with one extremely large difference - it's easy to talk about, and it's no kind of secret. Everyone we know knows what is going on and is very sympathetic. People have cooked us meals. (Not dozens, but some). People have offered to babysit for doctors' appointments. And really, this understanding and support makes the whole experience so totally different. It's difficult, but it's not humiliating; it's not alienating us from our friends.

(Although of course I realise Jay may feel differently about this. If so, he can write about it on his own blog).

(Just to be clear, he doesn't have a blog).

(Not that I know about, anyway).

So, that was the first thing I wanted to say.

Here's the second thing: Novel month. Novel month was great. I mean, it was really, really, great. 

If you have ever looked at your life - with your work, your kids and all your other responsibilities - and thought what my existence needs is another insanely demanding job - then you should definitely, definitely do novel month. Writing 50,000 words in 31 days is a crazy, stupid endeavour and that's why it is so stupendously great. If you have sort of vaguely always wanted to write a book, but never been sure if you could do it, then this is how you find out. It is  so many words, so quickly that there is absolutely no room for self doubt or procrastination. You have to just do it and that is amazingly, incredibly freeing. No opportunities to think oh, maybe this is stupid because there's just no time to think that. There's no time to do anything except think and type, and some days there's really only time to type.

I had no idea how different it would feel from writing Hypothetical Future Baby - it was a totally different experience. Writing the first draft of a memoir took me 18 months, and felt like this:

whereas writing a novel in a month felt like this:

in other words, FUN.  I was terrified of writing fiction, but in the end it felt a lot more familiar than I expected it to, undoubtedly because I 'recognised' so many of the writing conventions. A few times, I thought 'oh, I know how to do this bit' and it's because I'd read I'd read 'that bit' so many times, in so many other books. I'd never written an arrest scene, but I'd read enough to have a general idea how it should go, and that sort of thing helped a lot.   Fiction is nothing short of everyday magic, and it was brilliantly fun to do a little bit myself.

Having said that it was fun, it was also hard hard work. I kept thinking that I just had to crest the next hill (ten thousand words, then twenty five, then forty) and it would stop feeling like work, but it never did. It always felt like work. Was it Hemingway who said that the cure for writers' block is to apply the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair? If it was, he was right.  Every day when I sat down and opened up my file, it took effort (lots of effort) and at the end of the whole process I was completely spent and exhausted. I got sick straight afterwards, and that's probably no coincidence. I think that because creative things can be fun, it's easy to expect that they should be fun, but there's a whole lot of typing and wrist strain that go with the few-and-far-between moments of oooh, nice sentence, Claudia. 

Paradoxically, I would say the whole thing was both less impossible than I thought it would be, and also much harder than I thought it would be.  I think the other women I was writing with would agree. (And if you do this one day, by the way, and I totally think you should, you absolutely need other people to do it with you. It makes all the difference).

I haven't read mine back yet. We're all going to read our own after forty days. And hey, it may be terrible (oh, please, let it not be terrible) but even if it is, I can always say that I got it done, and that I got to see these words:

and that makes the whole thing worthwhile. 

Thursday, 27 March 2014

I Just Have One Thing To Say

And that thing is:

Yes, that's a shot of the bottom of my screen saying that I have written 42,694 words of a novel this month. I need to get to 50,000 words. 4 days to go.

I'm behind with everything. Especially emails, because emails require typing and if I have access to a keyboard I'm chained to Squeaky Clean: a story about friendship, love and ....laundry.

(I just made that strapline up, right now, as I was typing. It's pretty awful, but that's okay. That's the spirit of Novel Month). 

Anyway, I'd better get back to it. Nadine is about to try to get her parents back together. (Come on, Kenneth and Yewanda. I'm sure you two still love each other. You've got about 1500 words to sort yourselves out or your relationship is toast).

I think what I'm trying to say is: I'm not dead. But my arms may be about to fall off.

See you in April!

Thursday, 27 February 2014

In Summary

Things have been complicated around here lately, so I'm summarising. 

Last Monday, I took our children to stay with their grandparents for two nights so that I could go to work while Jay was too incapacitated to care for the children. I got back home after an incredibly long rainy drive on the M4 and Jay said Claudia, I don't want to worry you, but I'm going to tell you something that's going to worry you. He told me, and it did worry me. It was also pretty gross, so I'm going to refrain from posting the specifics all over the entire internet, but two paramedics and an ambulance ride later, he spent that night in hospital. 

I got home from the ward at 3.30am, and I did not end up working on Tuesday. Instead, I went to pick Jay up. He called me from his bed - once at 7.30am (needing details of medication), once at 8.30 (by accident) and then at 9.30, to tell me he was being cleared for discharge. Could I come to get him? I thought you were getting a cab home, I said, blurry and still half-asleep. I can't get a cab, he told me. I'm far, far too stinky for a cab. 
Oh, well that's fine then. I said. I can't wait. 

By Wednesday his pain was pretty well controlled and he'd begun to wean himself off some of the more psychotropic medication. I quite liked the side effects of some of it - he was quite sincere and sweet for a few days there, sort of like finally having a spaniel.  I thought it was him just being really grateful to me for me being such an awesome wife while he was ill, but nope, turns out it was the drugs. He remembers nothing from the time he was on that stuff, which is awkward now because he did agree to me booking tickets to the States for a week in June on my own, even if he doesn't remember it now. (He did. I swear). 

Then Monday morning, we went to see the spinal specialist. He said Jay is probably going to need surgery, but he's not quite sure which surgery exactly. Recommended an MRI, which Jay had first thing this morning. (Sidebar - MRI in three days? How freakishly amazing is private health insurance!? We've only just found out that Jay has it through work and while I kind of disapprove of it in principle, it turns out to be pretty spectacular in practice). 

So yesterday morning, Blue accidentally locked himself in our hallway, possibly (okay definitely) due to some angry door slamming (by him, okay? By him!) He was there for an hour, screaming, while I called locksmiths and wiggled screwdrivers frantically into the latch mechanism. By the time he got out, he was catatonic with rage and shock and to be frank, I wasn't much better. 

Today I've begun to incubate a truly spectacular head cold. 

Tomorrow we have to go back to the spinal specialist for his opinion on the MRI and his recommendations about surgery. 

I feel like I could sleep for a thousand years. 

But Saturday? 

Saturday is March 1st so I'm starting a novel. 

Don't worry, I know this is a spectacularly bad idea. Writing a novel in a month was already  bad idea when I decided to do it a few weeks ago. Is this the dumbest idea I've ever had? I wondered. But with everything that's happened lately (and everything that is still going to happen) I can definitively say yes, this is the dumbest idea I've ever had. 

And yet! February has really stunk. I kind of suspect that March is going to stink just as much, but I'm doing the novel thing anyway. After all, I can't stop the stinky stuff happening, but when I look back to March 2014, I don't just want to remember discombobulation, cranky kids, a limping husband and the looming possibility of surgery. I want to remember oh yeah, that was the month I wrote a really bad novel. 

(obviously, all bets are off if Jay's surgery actually has to happen in March. I think novelling through that would cross me over from 'unstoppable to 'in serious denial about priorities' )I'm probably not going to blog much while it's happening - although I can't promise I won't be updating with breaking news like word counts  requests for help with naming characters outcome of consultations with the spinal specialist. 

It's not too late to join in - let me know on facebook if possible and I'll add you to a group where we can kick each others' butts into gear when we get lazy mutually encourage one another.  I'm really interested to see what genre people are writing in. Personally, my secret weakness as a reader is girly romantic comedy so that's what I'm doing. Here's my first sentence: 

Afterwards, Martha thought that it had probably been a bad idea to kiss her thesis adviser. 

See? Girly and trashy! (Spoiler - he does NOT kiss her back). I'm not allowed to write any more until we start on Saturday. 

Now - tell me... what surname goes well with Martha? 

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Love Is Like A Human Heart

Yesterday, first thing, there were paramedics in my bedroom. Jay's back has been flaring up a bit this week and and then yesterday he woke up in paralysing pain, completely unable to move. "Should I call somebody?" I said, expecting a curt "no" from the man who hates to admit he is ever unwell, hates ever to make any sort of  fuss. Instead, he groaned "yes, of course you should call somebody," and I did - I called NHS direct, who asked me questions and then sent the ambulance.

A few days ago Jay and I were talking about whether or not he should be quitting his job to renovate a house. Now, fewer than 72 hours later, I was calling a friend, asking him to come straight away, throwing some clothes on my unshowered body and packing a bag of needful things for the hospital.

It turns out we didn't need to go to the hospital - not at that point, anyway. The paramedics gave him an injection of - I dunno, something - and told me how to arrange for a prescription of some stronger painkillers. We ended up at the hospital later that day for an X-ray, though, and I helped him into his hospital gown and wondered at how quickly his strong body had deteriorated.

The X-ray didn't find anything, which pretty much just means there's no fracture. He'll need an MRI and a ton of other stuff, of course. His GP, horrified by what she saw, tried to get the spinal surgeon to see him urgently but it didn't work, although it was gratifying to see a doctor so visibly shocked by his condition. It makes me feel a lot less guilty for how badly I'm coping with this whole situation. Most of us assume that, no matter how flaky we ordinarily are, we'd suddenly sort ourselves out if there was a real crisis. I'm sorry to report that this is not true - as I had feared, I'm terrible in a crisis. Yesterday I spent all day dropping things and panicking; I even got Jay's date of birth wrong when speaking to the paramedics. I also spent far too much time focusing on the fact that I hadn't been able to shower and berating the children for their troll-like behaviour. This is not helping! I screeched, repeatedly. Mummy needs to help Daddy! Stop biting each other and watch the television! It turns out they are terrible in a crisis too, but that is probably forgivable because unlike me they are four. 

I'm glad to say that Jay is much more comfortable at the moment, largely because he's off his face on very high doses of drugs. It seems the short term immediate crisis has passed, and now we need to think about what happens next. He will see the spinal specialist next Friday. Hopefully this will mean proper medical imaging and a proper plan of action. I never thought I'd be pleased for my husband to have an appointment to have surgery on his back but right now it would be a huge relief.

The next week, at least, is going to be tough. I realised, when I finally sat down on Wednesday night, that Friday was Valentines' Day. I'll be honest, this made me feel a little bit sorry for myself - this Valentines' Day, I think I can guarantee there won't be much romance from my semi-paralysed, drug-addled husband. I know it's a stupid day in any case and frankly he hates it but I usually give him a card anyway, just to watch him squirm. I haven't had a chance to buy one this year. I won't be making anything special for dinner, and there won't be any wine because I already drank it all.

Oh, Valentines' Day, you evil fiend. Did you ever make anybody happier? My little girl is just waking up to the presence of romance in the world. She saw some pairs figure skating on television and described it to me like this: Mummy, there was a man and a lady and they were doing ice sliding and I think they really, really wanted to get married. And then she smiled, embarrassed. She will be a sucker for Valentines' Day, just like I was. Am.

I don't want to tell her yet that love is not really like figure skating.

Love is helping my thirty-five-year-old husband walk down a hospital corridor, bent double, and love is stealing a wheelchair so he doesn't have to walk back.
Love is having ten minutes of down time, and being desperate to rest but drawing up a drug chart for him instead.
Love is a sincere Thank You from a husband who hates, hates, hates to be needy.
Love is the friend who comes over at seven am to look after two anxious, acting-out children.
Love is taking my boy on my lap and singing to him when I would rather do anything but, and love is the hug he gives me when he sees me crying.
Love is the online grocery order, the meal in the oven, the text that says I'm praying for you, the friend who watches my children at her house and then sends me home with dinner.
Love is even the kindness I give myself as I step into the shower, finally, choosing not to dwell on my failings but instead letting myself enjoy the respite, letting the water wash away my sorrow and my worry, at least for now.

Love is nothing like romance. Love is not made of red cardboard. Love is not a heart covered in sequins and glitter, pretty but disposable. Love is like a real human heart, messy and bloody and powerful.

This Valentines' Day, I may be short on romance but I realise that I am surrounded by love. Wherever and whoever you are, may you find love this Valentines' Day too - even in the most unexpected of places.