Each Other

I have written previously about the need to look after ourselves when parenting a child with SEMH, or trauma and attachment needs ( Self-kindnessSelf-Care, Parental Mental Health) . Recently, on a much needed date with my husband, I realised I’ve written little about the need to also look after your relationship.

Modern life is pretty challenging. It’s busy, people work hard, hours are long and the bombardment from e-mail and social media is constant. Long-term relationships are tricky enough within the context of passing like ships in the night, or when one or both of you are glued to a screen, without the additional challenges brought to the table by a small person constantly screaming your names at the top of their capacious lungs. Sometimes, it all just gets a bit much.

I think within a stressful life (late home/work pressure/deadlines/personnel challenges/financial concerns etc. etc.), it is all too easy to turn tensions inwards – to become tetchy or short with your partner; to not give them the time to offload their stresses; to consider your path difficult enough without whatever they have going on too. Add into that mix the usual concerns about running a home, running cars, remembering birthdays, booking holidays etc. and things can start to fray. Add the parenting of any child into the mix and there is immediately a whole other layer of logistics, concern and juggling. When the parenting of any of the children is relentless, difficult, keep-you-up-at-night-worrying, unremitting in its challenge to your emotions; you can quickly approach the ledge between stress and the end of your tether.

Now, some people are not doing this crazy parenting thing from within a relationship. Some are doing it alone, and as usual, I salute them. I’m sorry, if that’s you, this post won’t really be relevant, by my goodness I do take my hat off to you.

I wrote – a long time ago now – about My partner in adoption . And I fully stand by what I said. Grizzly really is a crucial cog in the survival of this machine. He is often not here for weekday bedtimes and sometimes he goes away for a couple of days at a time. He’s often out the house for longer than twelve hours and obviously he can’t be at home every day of school holidays. But those things don’t really matter, because if I Whatsapp him to say I’m being driven insane or one of them has done X or I’ve been called into school again because of such and such a thing or one of them is fully doing my head in or one of them did x AGAIN and I honestly can’t understand what possessed them, he will unconditionally understand. I can say far worse. I can voice the deepest, darkest, most unpalatable thoughts I might have about parenting at any given time and he will not judge me. The things you can’t say out loud, to anyone, I can say to him. And him to me.

I can’t really overstate the importance of that in maintaining ones sanity.

Despite his hefty workload, Grizzly does school-drops offs and pick-ups where he can. He prioritises school meetings. He is more than happy to take the kids off my hands at a weekend to give me a break. He doesn’t necessarily wait for me to ask – sometimes he’ll say I Iook tired before spiriting them off somewhere. He’s a good egg.

Earlier in our parenting career, I’m not sure we had that many breaks. BB was a terrible sleeper which made it difficult, then LB struggled to be left/ made life for whoever was looking after him very difficult and consequently we felt a weighty guilt about escaping.

More recently, I think my attitude has changed. I’ve come to realise that aspects of our parenting life are arduous and unrelenting and anyone would get tired. I’ve written before about how self-care and self-kindness are important, not just for your own wellbeing but because they inadvertently make you a better parent too. When you’re worn down and shattered, you haven’t the same resilience to deal with difficult behaviours, or to be calm no matter what, or as therapeutic as you’d like. Keeping yourself topped up makes sense for all involved. And now I’m given to thinking that your relationship deserves that TLC as well.

I don’t want the long hours and the daily irritations to erode our relationship. I don’t want those issues to turn inwards because we’re too tired or too stretched or too distracted. This family requires a well-oiled parenting team to function the best it can. Perhaps I mean it deserves one. Either way, it does mean that Grizzly and I need to ring-fence regular time that is just for us.

I think you don’t always realise you aren’t connecting the best you can until you go out, have fun, relax, and remember what your relationship was all about in the first place. We’re pretty good at keeping the lines of communication open in our daily lives, but inevitably, when everyone is tired after a long day, no one is particularly keen to discuss the relative merits of this home-improvement project over another or how big birthdays almost a year away should be celebrated or to go into anything but necessary detail. It is only when we go away and are not rushing back for pick-ups that these conversations tend to happen.

Not only that, but although our family time is fun and raucous and a little crazy, I probably wouldn’t describe it as relaxing. There is very rarely a moments’ peace. Any adult chat is constantly interrupted by an urgent, loud, attachment-needing voice. Even if we are engaged in something supposedly fun, like a game, we still need to heavily manage the situation to make sure everybody copes. Which does tend to reduce the fun element. We both find early mornings quite intense, woken as we are most days by the heart-rate raising noises of dysregulation and potential imminent meltdown.

One night away every couple of months is a surprisingly welcome balm. Fun can be had without worrying how others will cope. Conversations go uninterrupted. Meals can be long and relaxed. We don’t even drink. It is not as though we want a night on the tiles and a child-free hangover. It is just so refreshing to have a little space to be us.

We haven’t been as good as we should have been about booking such things in – it is another thing to add to the long old to-do list after all – but as we are just back from a mini-break, I have renewed enthusiasm for making it happen. Not just because it’s lovely but because I can finally see the necessity of it. I used to feel tremendous guilt for leaving the children, even for a short time, as though I were shirking my responsibilities. I also worried about the grandparents, who could be having a testing time. But now, I see that we need it. I need it, Grizzly needs it and as a parenting-team, we need it. The children didn’t even miss us this time, so I suspect they needed it too. We forget that the getting fed up of each other thing works both ways – a night with grandparents in charge is probably a lot more fun than usual.

We have happened on an ideal scenario for minimising fallout too. We now take the children to school on a Thursday, then go off on our travels, returning for Friday pick-up. This way, grandparents are only on duty for an evening and overnight and can lie down with a cup of tea at 8:45 am the next morning if they feel the need, duties already complete. I think it gives us longer than the brisk 24 hours we’d allow ourselves on a weekend and the children don’t notice we’re gone in the same way, as we’re here for Saturday and Sunday. It works for us, anyway.

Now to get the next one in the diary. I’m finding that having something to look forward to helps with trickier days too.

 

Each Other

Parental Mental Health

Thursday 10th October is World Mental Health Day – a chance for everyone to focus on mental wellness, ways to support mental health difficulties and suicide prevention. I wanted to contribute by writing about a niche, slightly neglected corner of mental health: how do you keep yourself well when you are caring for someone else with mental health struggles? Specifically, how do you keep yourself well when your child has social, emotional or mental health needs?

As a parent myself, of a child with SEMH needs, I am all too aware of the toll it can take. No doubt people will accuse me of selfishly focussing on myself and my own needs when it is my child who is in real turmoil, but to them, I say this: when you are parenting a child with such needs, there is barely a waking minute that passes without you puzzling over how they’re feeling, why they’re feeling like that, what you can do to make things easier for them. You can tie yourself in knots wondering how certain situations might affect them and what measures you can put in place to reduce their anxiety or make things easier. You rake over previous situations wondering what you could have done differently, what else they might have needed, what underlying worries or upsets might have been driving certain behaviours. You write social stories, make visual supports, meet with teachers, buy sensory equipment. You read books, blogs, articles to inform yourself; to check you haven’t missed anything. You consider them and their needs in every plan you make.

I’m not saying any praise or accolade is required for that – it isn’t, it’s just you doing your parenting best like everybody else – but it is all consuming and somewhat exhausting.

The very nature of SEMH difficulties means that children who experience them will now and again (or often) present with behaviour that is difficult for people around them. Again, that might sound selfish, but I just mean it factually. It’s the nature of the SEMH beast. And no matter how good you are at looking beyond it, analysing it, understanding it, trying to support it, the fact of the matter is that some of the behaviour you live with is difficult.

In trying to support my child in the best way for him, I sometimes have to dig so deep into my emotional reserve that I know I’ve gone beyond what is actually there. Sometimes the effort required not to rise to provocation, not to shout, not to fully (or even partially) lose my shit, not to enter my own fight/flight state and to instead respond therapeutically and calmly, feels like a superhuman request. I am not superhuman. But sometimes I feel I’ve plumbed superhuman depths and that can’t be good for you. I often feel depleted after particularly tricky situations and that is probably because I am. I’ve used everything I’ve got and more.

This is where concerning ourselves with parental mental health is absolutely not selfish and should be a priority for all. If I am depleted, how can I provide all the things my child needs? How can I analyse and look beyond and generate solutions? I can barely get off the sofa.

This is why caring for carers is absolutely something that should be talked about.

For me, there are three main safeguards: self-care, self-kindness and external support. I have written about self-care before ( Self-Care ) and I generally consider it to be all the boring stuff that you should do to look after yourself and stay well. That is just my personal interpretation – some people include all the self-kindness stuff in there too but in my mind there is a distinction. For me, self-care is things like eating properly (which isn’t fun because I don’t eat sugar or bad carbs like bread but I know that I stay healthier this way), getting enough sleep (despite being a natural night-owl), getting enough fresh air and exercise. I don’t necessarily enjoy self-care but it is all about things I’ve learned from experience that I need to do or not do in order to function the best I can.

Self-kindness  is much more fun. I view it as little treats to yourself that give you a boost and help to fill up your emotional reserves. It can be anything – sometimes the thought of getting into fresh pyjamas and watching Location, Location, Location is enough to help me through a day; at other times it’s some uninterrupted writing time, or being alone for a bit, or chatting to a friend, or now and again, I do need an actual treat.

Though self-kindness is more enjoyable and has the potential to vastly improve your mood quickly, I continue to struggle with allowing myself to have it. I can’t be the only one. We do seem to live in particularly trying times – with the threat of Brexit, political instability and, even more horrifyingly, climate change hanging over us. There is a general atmosphere of unrest and unpleasantness (just dip your toe into social media to see what I mean) and no doubt all these things are contributing to a country-wide dip in mental wellness. I can’t be the only one who thinks about using some retail therapy for self-kindness reasons then gets the guilt that I might be unwittingly ruining the planet. One purchase can lead to a spiralling concern about use of water to farm cotton, tonnes of clothes entering landfill and a general worry about human over-consumption. Whilst I clearly should be concerned about my carbon footprint (and I am), I am finding that my ways of practising self-kindness are dwindling in parallel.

I don’t drink, I don’t eat sugar, now I can’t really shop. But I’m still plumbing those emotional reserves and that need for a boost continues to gape. I suspect it is about turning away from having to have things and finding more wholesome ways of filling reserves. Writing is a salve, as is cutting myself enough slack to actually relax without constantly clambering around my to-do list. I’ve realised that buying books is pretty wholesome – even a hardback is a fraction of the price of a new top and unless we buy them, authors can’t make a living – so it’s a multi-faceted win (assuming it’s made from sustainably sourced paper. See? I have self-kindness with a side-scoop of guilt problems). Enid, our puppy, arrives soon and I’m hoping that her furry little face will be a salve in itself.

There are no clear answers, and what each individual needs will be different, but my point is that self-kindness is essential. We must let ourselves have it and find the things that work.

Lastly, parents of children with SEMH needs will require outside support in one form or another. It is too big and too hard to deal with single-handedly. Whenever Grizzly and I have one of our frank chats about how we’re feeling, it is never long before one of us wonders aloud how on earth single parents do it. If I couldn’t air my deepest darkest thoughts without needing to censor them or without fear of judgement, I suspect I would implode. Everybody needs that outlet.

We are lucky that outside of our family of four, we have a wider family of grandparents and aunties/uncles and close friends who get it. They are an informed bunch who listen and are willing to help with the analysing of behaviour and application of strategies as needed. They are happy to give us a break. I’m not sure we take that option enough, because life is a little manic and it requires forward-thinking, but it helps to know the option is there. We are also fortunate enough to have the support of school. I had a meeting with them recently and realised that despite the myriad ups and downs we’ve had with them (and the odd specific person I find it hard to engage with) they are genuinely caring and they do want us all to be ok. I feel comfortable speaking honestly with them too and just that ability to voice your worries and challenges outside of your four walls is invaluable.

Unfortunately, not all parents of children with SEMH needs have this emotional scaffold around them and I can only imagine how lonely a place that is. It must be particularly hard for those who don’t know others in similar positions – there is a very real risk they would consider themselves the only ones in their particular predicament, further compounding worries and stresses over whether they or their parenting may be to blame.

I hope that by being open about the challenges of SEMH parenting it will reassure other parents they are certainly not alone as well as raising awareness for any wider family members or professionals working with such families. For me, the key thing is to ask parents if they’re ok and to give them the time to talk if they are not. Be prepared for tears. Most of the time, it is just an outlet that’s needed, not necessarily a raft of solutions, because those parents are likely to have already tried most things you can think of.

Families of children with SEMH difficulties will have found themselves in all manner of weird and not-so-wonderful situations – please don’t judge them. It is safe arenas in which they can be honest that they so desperately need.

Parents can be made to feel guilty for talking openly about their worries and challenges – as though they are in some way disloyal to their child in doing so – however the real risk of encouraging them to put up and shut-up is that it might well push them to breaking point; a point at which they are no longer able to adequately meet their child’s needs.

As a parent, it is scary to admit that things are hard and that scenarios are arising where you don’t know what to do. Parents already fear they are failing, they do not need their suspicions to be compounded by bad listeners, naysayers and judgmental attitudes. Unless you have over-plumbed your emotional depths caring for someone, you cannot begin to imagine what it’s like.

Actually, I think there is a fourth thing that is needed, as well as self-care, self-kindness and support: niceness. It seems like an outmoded concept these days – it’s faded into obscurity along with other seemingly bland concepts such as beige clothing and magnolia paint. But I really miss it. I think we’re all unknowingly really missing it. Politicians could do with re-inventing it for sure. Since when did it become normal to shout and yell and name-call and judge and troll and alienate and oppose and incite? Just be nice. That would improve everyone’s mental health. Some kind words, a smile, a hug or an “I hear you” can go a long way to improving a day.

Let’s look after one another; we’re all just trying our best.

 

Parental Mental Health

Talking is Crucial

We’ve had a flurry of activity here over the past week or so, with various people visiting us and several sleeping over at different points. Each person has come with their own story, most of which have made our day to day challenges pale into insignificance. Their stories are not mine to share of course, so I won’t, but reflecting on it all has left a few thoughts whirling about.

Firstly, talking is crucial. It is crucial in a very basic form: the form where it allows you to have your needs met. We know this as a family, having adopted Little Bear at a point when he couldn’t communicate well and there was more he couldn’t tell us than he could. We know it but sometimes a situation arises that reminds you. One of our guests was a family friend who happens to have learning difficulties. Her speech and language skills are very limited and even in the short time she stayed, we could see a snapshot of the challenges she faces every day. She couldn’t always tell us what she wanted to eat; she couldn’t tell us what she wanted to watch on TV; she couldn’t tell us why she did or didn’t want to do certain things. It must be incredibly frustrating, especially as she can understand much more than she can express (you can’t help but notice these things as a speech and language therapist and incidentally, be a little desperate to solve them).

I certainly feel as though life would be different for her were she able to say everything she is capable of, whether that was verbally or in another way. I also felt it must have been really scary for her, to come and stay somewhere she hadn’t stayed before, knowing she might not be able to get all her needs/ wants met. Imagine how vulnerable that would make you feel. I suppose some people might think that due to her learning difficulties she doesn’t think about these things but I know she knows her communication is different. I think she’s embarrassed about it and is certainly more reticent if there are a lot of people around or people she doesn’t know well. More words began to sneak out as she settled but there was still a huge disparity between the ones she comprehended and those she was able to verbalise at the point she wanted to say them.

I can’t help but think of the what-ifs. What if she’d had more/better speech and language therapy when she was younger? What if she did now? Is it too late? Is it ever too late? Should something alternative have been put in place? What should it be? Why wasn’t more offered? Did people think it was ok because of her learning needs? What if a young child presenting as she did when she was young was under speech and language therapy now? What potential would be seen in them? Would outcomes be different? I like to think so but given what we know of speech and language therapy services since Bercow10 (see Ensuring Children’s Speech and Language Needs Are Met: A Call to Action) I wonder…

Surely we should be striving for the most a person can do, whoever they are, instead of settling for the least we can get away with.

On another note, it was interesting to observe Little Bear with this person. Firstly it really highlighted the progress he has made with his communication. He is a competent communicator now; he can say everything he wants to say and mostly with clarity. It’s not to say that his speech and language skills are perfect, because they are not, but in general, if you popped him into a group of people he didn’t know well, he’d be ok communication-wise. I don’t mean to draw a comparison, because that’s wholly inappropriate, but the realisation that Little Bear has reached that point was a bit of a surprise. I worried for so long that he wouldn’t reach it that this little revelation is very welcome.

Along with this revelation came an uncomfortable truth. Little Bear is now able to use his communication skills for both positive and negative purposes and though he was mostly great with the lady I’m talking about, there was one point when he was tired and cottoned on to the fact that he was verbally wilier and could use his words to wind her up. It was weird to observe because I have seen it so many times directed towards Little Bear, from wilier peers. I tried to intervene to stop him as I could tell he was upsetting her but as he was on that trajectory where he couldn’t stop himself he carried on regardless and I decided to take him out of the situation and up to bed.

The incident had a weird, double-edged irony: I was sad to observe it and sad for the lady’s communicative limitations whilst being simultaneously disappointed that Little Bear would do it yet also noting it was indicative of his developmental progression. We talked afterwards about it and Little Bear could remember times when he wasn’t able to say what he wanted and times when he had to resort to other methods of getting his messages across, such as hitting out and I think he understood why he shouldn’t have exploited her communication difficulties as he had. He was sorry afterwards.

Although it feels like an important moment to reflect on, I don’t want to make it more significant than it was. Overall both boys were fabulous and just took all the issues of the past week in their stride. They are both very empathetic and I’m extremely proud of the kind, understanding, non-judgemental young men they are becoming.

At one point the lady I keep talking about gave Little Bear a bear hug that was a little squeezier than he might have liked. Initially he got a bit upset and took himself out of the room. When I went to him he started with the usual “I hate said person/ she hurt me/ she did it on purpose/ I hate her now” rhetoric but we had a little chat and I left him to calm down. The next thing I knew he was coming over to her, offering another hug but asking her to be more gentle. Again, I could see the progress he had made. Previously he wouldn’t have been able to put his communication skills to such good effect, would not have calmed so quickly and would have given said person a wide birth/cold shoulder for a lengthy period. I think the approach he took showed real maturity and I felt a glow of pride.

Our week also taught me that it is not just talking at the fundamental level of getting our most basic needs met that is crucial. Talking is also crucial to keeping us mentally well. Other guests we had were carrying other issues and when I say carrying them, I mean lugging about a massive sack of stress, hurt and grief wherever they go. The difference, I think, between that massive sack dragging you further down or you being able to get on with your life despite it, seems to be your ability to talk about it. The person who internalises or who does not have an available/ safe outlet for their worries and feelings is in danger. I know that sounds a little dramatic but I genuinely believe it’s true. There is a lot on social media at the moment about suicide prevention and all the statistics around the issue. It’s worrying.

Talking helps people take things out of their massive sack. Issues can become less, opinions can be sought, advice given, soothing words or hugs dispensed. Talking doesn’t make things go away but sometimes it can give perspective, space or a fresh view point. Things tend to multiply or expand or metastasise when left in the sack. Talking can curb things, keep them in check, prevent them taking on a life of their own.

On face value, one of our guests maybe seemed to have a lot of issues. They told me a lot of things. They seem to have a lot to worry about. However, I know that another of our guests, who said nothing, also has a huge sack of issues. It’s the one who said nothing that worries me. The one who talks spills the contents of their sack at regular opportunities and I’m glad they do. They have hard things to cope with but they’ll be ok. The other one, the one who doesn’t talk, I worry about them. I don’t know if they have that safe outlet, that trusted person, that someone who will just listen. I don’t know and I think their lack of being able to talk, even though they have the communication skills they need, is a red flag. I suspect it is not being viewed as such by people around them – they do not appear upset, they aren’t saying upset things ergo they must be fine.

Whilst talking is crucial, so is listening and both are required for mental wellness. I know many people who think they are good at listening but few who genuinely are. The best kind of listening is not just done with the ears; it is about observation, reading between the lines, hearing the unsaid. It is the ability, or maybe the willingness, to see beyond what is presented. I suppose it is about connection. I suspect not everyone thinks they have the time.

I also suspect that people don’t always think the same level of observation and alertness to emotional wellbeing is required for children; that somehow children are just fine. They aren’t and the ways they manage, or don’t manage, their feelings and worries and grief will follow them into adulthood and shape their future selves. This whole talking thing needs to start as soon as possible.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve got too wrapped up in adoption and the issues it brings. None of the people who have been here this week are care-experienced. They are not adopted yet they have experienced trauma. I guess I’ve been reminded that we don’t know what sacks people might be lugging with them; these cumbersome burdens are often invisible. The emphasis is on us, as fellow human beings, to be alert, to look beyond appearances, to actively observe and skip the snap- judgements. Talking is crucial but so is hearing the unspoken.

It has been a funny old week.

 

 

 

Talking is Crucial

Anxiety

This is one of those blog posts that I am not too sure about writing because it is going to require a high degree of honesty, soul-baring and general over-sharing. However, I think I should write it because all the recent discussion about mental health encourages us to talk more. That is one of the main aims of the projects I’ve seen mentioned and shared around social media. It’s a good aim. We should talk more. Talking can save lives.

I’m not going to tell you anything that dramatic but I am going to be honest about something which is fairly common and has impacted me in my lifetime: anxiety.

The reason this feels topical and like I want to write about it today, rather than at any other point in my life, is that Big Bear has recently begun suffering with anxiety and I don’t want it to be something we sweep under the carpet or hide like a dirty secret.

Big Bear plays football for a club. He joined because he wanted to and to begin with he absolutely loved it and it gave him a lot of confidence. He trains every week, gets very excited about going and has a whale of a time. He also has a match, usually each week too. To begin with, Big Bear took us by surprise by how well he could play (having never previously been particularly bothered about football) and generally played up front, becoming his team’s best goal scorer. He loved it and all was well with the world.

However, on match days, over recent months, we have noticed a deterioration in his ability to cope. Big Bear begins to anticipate the upcoming match a few days before and it starts to play on his mind. It’s hard to tell whether he is excited or nervous about it. On the day of the match he will often wake up early and go to the toilet a few times. He will try to eat his breakfast but often can’t and then experiences tummy-ache. He might go to the toilet a few more times. By this point he is usually a little ashen and really struggles to get his kit on and get to the match. Sometimes when he has got there and seen his friends he has been ok and has ‘run it off’ so to speak. At other times, he has barely managed to stand up let alone run about. Obviously his goal-scoring record has deteriorated alongside his mental health as nobody is capable of playing well if they haven’t eaten and if they are consumed by anxiety. I suspect the poor performance is only serving to propagate Big Bear’s internal pressure on himself and he is now trapped in some sort of negative thought cycle.

It is such a shame to observe as he is only 8 (nearly 9) and far too young to be crippled by anxiety. We have done all the obvious things. There is no pressure to play, let alone score and we make that very clear. We only want him to enjoy it and he doesn’t have to be in the club if he doesn’t want to. So far, he has wanted to persevere. Initially he wouldn’t talk about the anxiety so it was hard to help him. Over time he has got more open about it and has made suggestions about things to try that might help him e.g. specific things he thinks he might be able to eat; having a relaxing shower; having a little wander before breakfast. The coaches know about it and quite often have little pep talks with him, telling him there is nothing to worry about. Although this is well-meaning and meant in a supportive way, when you are anxious, you are pretty sure there are things to worry about so although it’s kind, I’m not sure how effective it is.

Unfortunately, our shared endeavours are not paying off and if anything the anxiety is getting worse. Not only does Big Bear now need to visit the toilet frequently but he has started vomiting too. The poor child seems to have inherited both mine and Grizzly’s weaknesses.

People say ‘but what is he worried about?’ If it is not the scoring of goals or the desire to please, what is it?

The thing is I know what it is, because I’ve been there too. It is a very difficult fear to overcome: the fear of fear itself. I know that sounds ridiculous but there you are. There is no justifying the actions of an anxiety-fuelled mind. It does what it does and expresses itself through your body.

I can’t remember when it first started to impact me. I certainly wasn’t as young as Big Bear but I think my mum would say I was a worrier as a child. It was probably in my late teens or early twenties that things set in with gusto. There wasn’t a trigger; nothing happened to me. I didn’t have any ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) or any reason to be anything less than fully joyful. However, I developed IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and it made me pretty ill. It was hard to get to places early in the morning due to far too much toilet activity and I lost weight. I spent quite a lot of time feeling like death warmed up and it certainly impacted what I was able to do in my daily life. It was worse when I was doing exams or something stressful like placements at university. I look decidedly bony in my graduation photos. I mainly survived by abusing Imodium, not eating until I felt I could digest (often after lunchtime), having a couple of ‘safe’ foods and always knowing where the toilets were.

Those closest to me knew about it but it was embarrassing as afflictions go; we aren’t really a Society which talks about bowel movements openly so I tried to hide my IBS and was ashamed about having it.

I experimented with eliminating foods to see if that would help. I did cut out coffee and alcohol, both of which improved things a little but it wasn’t food that was irritating my bowel; it was anxiety. Just like Big Bear, there wasn’t a specific thing I was worried about. I was mainly worried that I would have an IBS attack and that would ruin whatever it was I was supposed to be doing. So basically I was worried about IBS which made the IBS happen and there I was trapped in the cycle. Getting engaged nearly tipped me over the edge. I was 26 by then and as soon as the proposal happened I was immediately anxious about having IBS on my wedding day, 18 whole months away. Clearly that is ridiculous and I knew it was then but when your mind is inclined to go that way, it is virtually impossible to stop it. Anxiety is such a self-fulfilling prophecy that of course all the months of angst and anticipation did result in IBS on my wedding day. I coached myself through being ok in the morning and I did pretty well but it hit later on and I wasn’t able to eat my own wedding breakfast.

My IBS (that probably never was) is now fully cured. It’s the strangest thing. You would have thought that having children would make it worse as they are such a cause for ongoing concern but if anything, having Big Bear saved me from it. I can only think that before kids you tend to think you are really busy but in actual fact I clearly had too much time and brain space for navel-gazing. After kids, my mind was so taken up with keeping them alive and developing them and running a home and having a job that those corners of my brain where anxiety used to lurk got filled with something more useful. I am not immune to some worries and my brain does naturally go to worst-case scenarios but with age I seem to be able to over-ride those thoughts more and can largely keep them in check.

I do remember getting to a point where I saw that my life was ruled by IBS and I decided I wouldn’t tolerate it any more. Despite all my issues I had got my degree and held down a job I liked and was good at. The IBS made everything more difficult but it had never completely ruined anything. I had survived every single situation in which it had tried to undo me. I think I stopped fearing it. I just accepted I might need the loo more than your average human and that would be ok. Just as soon as I didn’t worry about it, it ceased.

When I started writing this I wasn’t too sure how I was going to go about helping Big Bear but in blogging it out I may have answered my own question. I think that Big Bear also fears the symptoms of his anxiety and by trying to stop the symptoms from happening we have only served to make him more anxious when they do and more desperate for it to stop. Perhaps a cleverer approach would be to talk to him about how many people suffer anxiety and get nervous before matches or big events. Sometimes people do need to use the loo more or might be sick but that’s ok. Yes, that probably will happen to him at his next match but it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t need to fear that happening. It’s normal. Nobody is going to die. If he starts getting into a state we don’t need to make a fuss, just give him a drink and carry on.

I can empathise with him as clearly I have been there and I can certainly help him with not feeling like it just happens to him and I hope, by being open about it, we can normalise it a little. By keeping things secret or trying to hide them or not acknowledge them, we only serve to perpetuate the fear. Anxiety is parasitic; it feeds off your deepest worries and burrows into your brain. It gets pretty comfortable there if allowed but the more you bring it out and show it to people, the less powerful it becomes.

I now suspect that we have some sort of genetic propensity towards it as it is too coincidental that Big Bear is now presenting similarly and has never witnessed me suffering with IBS symptoms in his lifetime. A quick Google suggests a genetic predisposition is a thing when it comes to anxiety, which is unfortunate. And of course there is the brain-gut connection which clearly states that anxiety can cause digestive difficulties.

Little Bear, despite his much rougher start in life, seems far less impacted by such things so far. It just goes to show that birth children have their issues too and it has certainly been Big Bear giving me my grey hairs recently.

For now, we have decided that while Big Bear will continue attending training because he has fun there, he won’t play any matches for a while. He is too young to be throwing up with nerves every weekend and I don’t want to re-inforce that behaviour pattern at all. However, when he tries again, I think we’ll play it much cooler. If he has physical symptoms of anxiety, that’s ok. We won’t reinforce his thought that it’s wrong by coming up with various solutions and we’ll see how we go. Perhaps he won’t be ready for competitive football until he’s a bit older and that’s ok too.

Today Big Bear has gone on a school residential where they do all sorts of adventurous things and I’m really hoping it will give him the confidence boost he needs, as well as him having some fun and hopefully enjoying some anxiety-free adventures with his friends.

And as for me, now that I’m a decade older, I’m much more aware that we all have our foibles and weak-spots. It isn’t something to be embarrassed about. It’s part of what makes us human.

Anxiety

Self-Care

For some reason I have been a bit reluctant to write about self-care, perhaps because it is well-documented already? I don’t know. Maybe because I haven’t always been brilliant at it and I have had to work at seeing the importance of it (for me). I suppose it can seem like quite an abstract, self-indulgent concept.

More recently the penny has finally dropped. Self-care is essential. It is not a pleasant add-on or luxury. It is crucial to our good mental health and to us being able to manage the myriad demands thrown at us in our day to day lives. I think when I spotted ‘Looking after yourself’ as one of the blocks in Kim Golding’s House Model of Parenting (an essential block, without which the house would fall down and upon which many other vital blocks sit) I got the message.

Self-care is a subject fairly widely bandied around by adopters (with good reason) but I truly believe it is a necessity for everyone. We are all busy, under pressure and juggling many-a-ball. If we are not mentally and emotionally well, we can’t function to the best of our abilities. We can’t support those around us who need us and we leave ourselves open to illness.

With my professional hat on I have been working with a young person who is currently under a lot of exam stress. A diligent and bright pupil, they are working extremely hard, leaving little to no time for rest and relaxation. As a consequence their stammer has worsened significantly. My main therapy has been around teaching the need for self-care, much to their surprise.

We are not designed to be under permanent stress, though modern life does tend to lead to it. We know, because of our children and how they have been impacted by their adverse starts in life that Cortisol (the stress hormone) wreaks havoc. A quick Google indicates it can impact on blood sugar levels, cause weight gain, suppress the immune system, affect the gut, damage the heart and even impact on fertility. Cortisol is meant for special occasions when we really need it, it is not something our bodies should be flooded with all the time.

We can juggle all the balls, work hard, play hard, look after others and achieve all we want to but, crucially, only if we look after ourselves. If we don’t make time for self-care activities, take the breaks, listen to our inner wellbeing voice, the consequences can be dire. A close friend experienced just what can happen when you forget yourself. I’ll let her tell you, in her own words:

“Self-care is life-saving. I do not say this lightly. Around ten years ago I had a very severe mental health crisis, resulting in me being in hospital for 7 weeks. It was horrible. It was caused by depression and exacerbated by me not taking care of myself. Forgetting myself. Putting everyone above myself. I worked solidly, because I felt so sad. If I was at work I was busy, if I was busy I wasn’t thinking. There is only so long you can do that, and then you crash. I crashed. When I was well again I had to make dramatic changes to my life, and the major one was how to actually look after myself.

The most life changing aspect of self-care for me has been learning to say no. Knowing my own limitations and not being afraid to voice them. You are not a bad person because you put yourself first. If you cannot take care of you, you can’t take care of anyone else.

Also, keeping lines of communication open. Keep talking to those around you, even when it’s a difficult conversation. Silence is a killer. When I was ill I was the most scared I have ever been, and had to have hideous conversations with people, which ultimately led to me getting the help I needed. It’s ok not to be ok. There is something incredibly freeing about being so open and honest. It was so hard to talk, but ultimately has only improved my relationships with everyone around me.

Baby steps. Find what makes you happy. Do it a lot. It sounds simple but life is hectic. Work, family, kids, school runs. But you know what, that ironing pile will still be there tomorrow. The house looks like a bomb hit it but you’ve kept your kids alive and fed and so now you are going to watch strictly come dancing and admire the, erm, dancing skills of Gorka, and just relax. There will be time for the ironing. It is not tonight. Equally, if ironing is your happy place, then good luck to you!”

I’m very proud of my friend for being brave enough to write this for me and letting me share it. Having visited her on the mental health ward, hidden away down the interminably long corridor, I can vouch that it is not a place you would want to end up (though my friend did feel safe there for which I am grateful).

Self-care is life-saving. It is essential. But how the bloody hell do you do it? If it was that easy and straightforward, people up and down the country wouldn’t be ending up in crisis. I suspect the first challenge of self-care is knowing what you need. After that, you need to value yourself enough to allow yourself to have it and then actively make it happen.

Grizzly has recently moved to a more senior post which is highly stressful with long hours and quite a bit of travel. He shoulders a lot of responsibility at work. Thankfully, this was acknowledged during his induction and he was warned of the need to manage his timetable proactively to ensure it contains time for self-care. It is an ongoing challenge for him, as there are only so many hours in the day, but he is good at knowing what he needs at least (half the battle) and as long as he can run several times per week all is well. Running is not a negotiable activity: it is an essential part of his week.

Whilst running works its magic for Grizzly, I personally can’t think of a less desirable way to spend my down time.

Thinking about what works for me has been enlightening. I think it has taken me quite a long time to figure it out. However, it turns out that I’m a right unsociable so and so and find nothing more restorative than a day alone. Interestingly I don’t tend to stay at home for a self-care day (probably because it is good to escape the washing pile). I tend to find a coffee shop, sit with my back to the other customers (I know, miserable!) and read, write or draw, while consuming a massive cup of tea. I’ll generally write a blog post – in itself an act of self-care it turns out. Sometimes it isn’t just that I want to write but that I need to, just as Grizzly physically needs to run.

Blogging has certainly helped with keeping my adopter/ parenting worries in check – it gets them out of my head but doesn’t involve the discomfort of having to actually explain them to someone face to face (though I do a bit of that too).

The main self-care challenge for me has been identifying when I need it. Sometimes I can do a million and one things at the same time and be fine. At other times, one small thing can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. I have had to listen harder to the little voice inside that tells you when everything is getting a bit much. It turns out it is much better to heed the whisper than to allow things to get on top of you, as you will undoubtedly snap and lose your temper with the children. I don’t like to shout at them so I have had to get better at identifying the times I might (otherwise you get the joy of dealing with the guilt afterwards). I have to be particularly mindful of my hormonal state (see PMS and Adoption) and be a little kinder to myself at those points.

I think Mum’s in particular (sorry Dad’s and everyone else, I’m allowed a sweeping statement once in a while) are adept at ‘getting on with it’ – pushing through the home and childcare duties, work and the never-ending to-do list whether they feel like it or not. Things would quite possibly collapse around you if you didn’t. However, there is a skill in knowing when pushing through is ok and when you are rapidly closing in on your limit. I’m still working on it but after a busy few weeks of going from work to sorting out the builders who have been re-doing our bathroom to the children (especially Little Bear’s growing Christmas-related mania) to making Christmas decorations and selling them at craft fayres to Christmas shopping to planning & liaising over our next project (a pod in the garden since you ask) as well as a few other things, today’s yoga class felt like one ask too many. I usually love yoga but after a lot of rushing about and being in specific places at specific times, my little inner voice was asking in a stage whisper for a day off. There are times when I would have just made myself go anyway, ignoring that little voice, but I feel so much better for having listened. A whole day off, being unsociable, having some peace. Just what my inner wellbeing guru ordered.

As well as the crucial self-care we all need, there are also acts of self-kindness: finding ways to spoil yourself a little; ways to make life easier; adding things in just because you like them or they make you happy. Here are some of the things that work for me:

  • Wandering around my garden. It is not a big garden but I love looking at how my plants are growing, watering them in the summer and generally enjoying my little bit of outside.
  • I also like going to look at the fish in our tiny pond. I have no idea why that is so relaxing but it is.
  • I seem to be getting quite into the indoor gardening too. I also wander about the house tending my indoor charges.
  • I feel particularly happy when the sun shines in on the melon seedlings and I think they might just grow some melons.
  • Shopping. Sometimes you just need to buy yourself a little gift. I have to be careful though, shopping can lead to guilt.
  • A little taste of something carbohydrate-y as I’m not really eating them at the moment but a girl needs a treat every now and again.
  • All snuggles with my boys are lovely. Giving up on all jobs and lying on the sofa for a whole afternoon of snuggly TV can be just what the doctor ordered.
  • Any sort of gift that arrives in subscription form. My friend got me a Papergang subscription from @Ohhdeer so beautiful stationery landed on the mat every month. It was amazing.
  • A good book on the rare occasions I manage to read one. The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan is a very wholesome and uplifting read.
  • A good rummage in a charity shop, especially if there are retro coffee pots to be found.
  • Low-maintenance hosting. I rarely bother killing myself preparing a fancy meal to impress people with. You are just as likely to get a takeaway here but I will sit and chat and pay you my full attention. I’d rather give my energy to you than to the cooking.
  • Ditto children’s lunches. No slaving over packed lunches every night – school dinners all the way.
  • A cheeky lunch out with Grizzly when he is working from home – dating without the need for babysitting.
  • When all else fails, putting on my fluffy onesie, lying on the sofa and watching an episode of First Dates.

 

I wonder what other people do to be kind to themselves? Feel free to share.

 

 

 

Self-Care