Surviving: A Story of Mental Health #MHAW17

A story of mental health #mhaw17When I found myself pregnant with Polly in 2008, the state of my mental health had never been better. At the ripe old age of 29 I’d already been on a remarkable journey.

Extraordinary even

I had survived a dysfunctional childhood, and self-destructive young adulthood. I’d dragged myself through two mental breakdowns, and experienced the highest highs and lowest lows.

I had travelled the world, and met my awesome husband along the way. I’d made the most wonderful friends a person could wish for. Which is just as well, because at 25 I estranged myself from every single member of my family. 

I’d also learnt (the hard way) that the answers to life’s problems could not be found at the bottom of a bottle.

Believe me, I’d searched every external crevice for happiness, and realised that it comes from within.

I learnt that to be happy, I would need to look in the mirror and like what I saw

I had to distinguish between my wants and my needs, and get to know who I really was. I’d need to forgive myself for the things that I wasn’t proud of. I’d need to truly let go of the past so I could make peace with it.

I was in such a good place when Polly came along. Even a traumatic birth didn’t stop me from loving her fiercely from the second she came out. To be honest I didn’t properly recognise it as traumatic until I was giving birth to Clara two and a half years later. That’s a whole blog in itself though.  

I walked everywhere that summer, staring at my beautiful baby in wonder. Had I really made her? Could I really be that lucky?

By the time I became a mum I had overcome so much, that I honestly thought the hardest bits were over.

Surviving: A Story of Mental Health #MHAW17Oh how naive I was

I never, in my wildest dreams, imagined that my own children could push me to the edge of my sanity. That I would watch my mental health deteriorate and feel powerless to do anything about it.  

Friends with kids had somberly warned me about newborn sleep deprivation. They’d said to watch out for pesky teeth, and strange changes that occur when babies are going through growth spurts.

A good friend, who’d had two kids very close together, had said to expect one seriously tough day a week. A day so bad I’d be reaching for the gin before the witching hour was over. One that I’d want to completely forget about as soon as the kids were asleep.

That’s not going to happen to me, I thought, no way. I’d leave a sensible age gap between my kids, having them super close sounds like a nightmare.

My girls are 2y 7m apart, and take it from me, the age gap is the least of our troubles

At seven months pregnant with Clara I found myself sobbing to my ex boss.

“I’m so exhausted, I don’t think I can last another three weeks until my maternity leave is due to start.”

Fortunately he’s a family man himself, and one of life’s good eggs. He let me tie up my loose ends and finish that day. If only all work managers were like him.

Back then I had a toddler who would get up ten times a night as standard, have huge meltdowns at 3am, and refuse to go to her daddy. As well as that we had a very noisy neighbour on our hands, who would be up all hours. 

We managed to muddle through though, and cope. Somehow.

Surviving: A Story of Mental Health #MHAW17When Clara was born I did everything I could to enjoy her baby days. Knowing how fast they’d go, I drunk up every delicious drop of that gorgeous girl. 

Polly was jealous of her sister, beyond what felt normal, and it was heartbreaking watching her regress. Nursery was more of a hindrance than a help, but we thought we were doing her good by letting her socialise. She was diagnosed with an allergy list as long as my arm, and so began years of exclusion diets. More frustration. More difficulty. 

Fast forward fifteen months, and a prosecco fuelled evening lead to Freddy being conceived. (Hubby has never touched the stuff since!)

By then I was back to work, and the girls were both at nursery. Clara slept through from ten weeks old, which was just as well, because Polly was still up all night. Challenging behaviour was the order of the day.

I found myself wondering on an hourly basis how I’d cope with three children when two already seemed like too many

Freddy’s pregnancy was the toughest, but with two kids to keep me busy it went fast. Two maternity leaves in three years.

Polly started school and struggled massively from day one. 

“She’s fine when she’s here.”

Oh how I loathed those words, and the patronising delivery of them. The inference being that we must be doing something wrong at home. Clearly the meltdowns and night time antics were either exaggerated or our fault.

Polly’s allergies weren’t getting better, so we had her tested for every gastrointestinal disease under the sun. Nothing. When a leading gastro paediatrician told me the tests had come back in normal range I knew what was coming next.

Autism. Diagnosed a year later

Surviving: A Story of Mental Health #MHAW17By then it felt like we were a broken family, and we desperately needed help being put back together. No such luck. When you live in London under the Tories, you’re on your own. 

Polly was on a clear cycle by then. Sleep and post-school meltdowns would get worse as we neared the end of term. Then we’d plough all our energy into making her happier over the holidays only to watch our hard work unravel when she went back.

My poor baby girl was severely overwhelmed by school, and they were doing precisely nothing to help her.

Home education wasn’t a last resort, but I wasn’t going to sit back and let it get that bad. Eighteen months later, and here we are.

Yes we’ve made progress, but the set backs can send us to square one in a heartbeat

We’re now the noisy neighbours. Our kids are loud. They have meltdowns and tantrums multiple times a day. Individually they’re awesome, collectively they make me want to cry.

I have good days and bad, but just lately there haven’t been many good ones. The challenges have been never ending, and keep on coming.

My previously rock solid marriage can feel as shaky as a dingy in the middle of the ocean on a stormy night. Most days I want to punch my husband in the face when he leaves the house to go to work, because he gets a break from it all.

Sleep is better than it’s ever been, but it’s still rubbish. Freddy’s in our bed every night. Polly’s often up. And although Clara sleeps, getting her to bed can be a tiresome task. She’s not getting enough Zzzzz’s and unlike her brother and sister, who are used to running on empty, she can’t handle it.

Home education often means being a prisoner in my own home. If Polly is anxious and exhausted and I can’t convince her to leave the house. Most days I have fun things planned for us to do, but usually we do none of them because we get caught up in Polly’s rage. She’s taken to using me as her punching bag. At least she isn’t being so violent with the younger two.

Surviving: A Story of Mental Health #MHAW17Eight years ago, when I was nearing the end of Polly’s pregnancy, I thought I had it all sussed out

Surely motherhood was like everything else? The harder you worked, the more rewards you would reap? I’d just work my butt off, and give my absolute all to my kids. Surely that would equate to happiness?

To be completely honest, even if it was possible to go back in time and tell my thirty year old self how it would actually be, I probably wouldn’t have listened anyway.

My plan was fail safe. I’d just love my kids more than everyone else loved theirs, and not make ridiculously stupid decisions that would mess them up in later life.

Once again, I’m learning the hardest way that it’s not that simple though. So here I am, eight years later, feeling more clueless now than ever before. The game is constantly changing, and I have no frigging idea what the rules are.

People warn you about maternal and post-natal depression. Nobody tells you about surviving chronic stress due to challenging children. 

The emptiness you can feel when you give everything to your kids and get treated like the enemy

The cycle of self-loathing that’s created from having toxic thoughts about the little people you created. 

The loneliness you can feel, even though you can’t take a pee in private. 

All any of us can do is try our best, and hope that when all is said and done, it was enough

**sharing for world mental health awareness week**

Our Kids Need and Deserve Good Role Models 

Our Kids Need and Deserve Good Role Models Role models were in short supply when I was growing up. In fact, by the age of eleven, my only good role model was dead.

My childhood was full of women who were deeply unsatisfied with their lot. Almost every one I encountered before leaving home at 15 had a story of heartbreak to tell. Mostly due to settling down with (settling for) awful men who treated them like crap.

They got beaten, raped, cheated on, emotionally tormented

This makes incredibly sad to think about, but there’s no way to dress it up. Keeping afloat was the best they could manage, being role models wasn’t on their radar.

Unsurprisingly these women were consumed by life’s challenges, desperately wanting a brighter tomorrow with no idea how to create it. They didn’t live, they existed. They survived. Just about. They were stuck in the past, marred by the deep dark secrets that ate away at their souls.

From as young as eight or nine, I remember thinking that I didn’t want to end up like them

Every one of them were vocal about their kids not going through what they had been through. But their words and crossed fingers were not enough to prevent the inevitable from happening.

That’s the thing about not letting history repeat itself. It doesn’t just happen organically, we have to actively make sure it doesn’t happen. If we want to break the mould we have to work damn hard to smash it to pieces.

For people like me, who didn’t come from a privileged background, it can be a constant battle just to keep our heads above water. Especially when life keeps dealing out the shitty cards, but no-one becomes an inspirational poster girl by having an easy ride.

If we decide to become parents, not continuing the cycle of dysfunction is paramount. Everything we do has an impact on our children. Every action has the ability to shape them, for better or worse. Which is why dealing with the demons of the past is so important. So we can let go of our hurt and move forward. So we can get to live the lives we deserve, and become great role models for our kids.

Self-respect (or lack of it) is contagious

It’s a tall order to expect a young woman, or man for that matter, to emerge into adulthood with self-respect if they didn’t witness it growing up. If the people who were supposed to be their role models were anything but. Good role models exude true confidence, which comes from respecting ourselves and knowing our worth.

role models It’s impossible to teach confidence, we can only learn it through behaviour. Which is why it’s so important for our children to observe us respecting ourselves and each other. How are they supposed to know how to behave appropriately if they aren’t shown?

I don’t believe in ‘faking it until you make it’

I think our energy is better spent living as authentically as we possibly can. By getting to properly know ourselves, and what we want out of this life. By learning to not care what others think about us. Not being afraid to go against the grain, and stand up for our beliefs.  

Surrounding ourselves with awesome people who lift us up is a great place to start. When we have genuine friendships we have no need or desire to second guess their motives. We know they have our back, and we could turn up on their doorstep in the middle of the night if we were in trouble. They wouldn’t ask questions, they’d simply listen to our woes and dry our tears.

Something I’ve learnt on my own rocky journey, is that it’s impossible to properly screw up when we have great friends.  

In our always on, selfie-mad, celebrity obsessed world, the best thing we can do is set a good example for our children. We need to show them love and kindness through our actions. We have to let them see via us how important it is to have great friends around. 

I don’t claim or aim to be perfect. Far far from it. But I do know that I have to be happy and positive if I expect my kids to be. It’s not easy, but I’ll never stop trying.

A Letter to My Family at this Super Difficult Time

A Letter to My Family at this Super Difficult TimeDear Andy, Polly, Clara & Freddy,

My family, it should go without saying that I love you all to the moon and back, but there’s no denying that we’re experiencing a really difficult phase. 

I’ve ummed and ahhed over whether or not to press publish, and have decided that this needs to be said. Out loud. On the record. So here goes.
For Andy

There’s no way to dress it up, these last few months have been exceptionally tough. Your new job has taken up a lot of your time and attention. Ditto going back to off-site training. We’re either ships passing in the night, or bickering on an epic scale.

It can feel to me that you’re being distant, moody and uninterested in what’s going on in my life. It’s not a good way for a wife to feel about her husband, but in fairness you probably think the same about me. Let’s face it, I’ve always been terrible for feeding off your negative vibes. It’s really getting me down though, my love. Riding the storm has become par for the course.

We go through a monumental amount of stress on a daily basis, and are still as sleep deprived as most brand new parents. It’s not going to be easy is it? It’s been horrendous watching friends separate, divorce and suffer mental breakdown over the last couple of years. We joke about the mid-life crisis, but it’s not funny. No-one is immune. As our anniversary approaches, I’ve been thinking of past celebrations. The ridiculous amounts of fun we’ve had, and the adventures we’ve been on. Last year’s weekend away replenished us, and I can’t wait for our weekend away next month. I’m certain it’ll do the same.
For Polly

A Letter to My Family at this Super Difficult TimeMy darling girl, you have the ability to make the entire family smile and laugh their socks off. You’re also able to bring us collectively to our knees, with exasperation. Seeing how amazingly well you took to GAPS at the start of the year made me so proud. You aced it during those first couple of weeks, but it didn’t last. You quickly got back into the sugar cycle, and your body just can’t handle it. Even though you only eat natural sugars, they still make a difference to your mood and ability to control your emotions. It’s awful watching you become so angry and irate over things that were passing you by.  

So we’ve gone back to being strict again, and although it’s only been three days, I can already see improvements. The bottom line is that no behaviour intervention we’ve tried works as well as clean eating does. I am more confident that ever that this is what we need to do. The best thing is that now you’ve had a taste of how wonderful life can be, you’re fully on board with GAPS. You haven’t been pestering me for treats and lashings of honey on pancakes in the morning. You’re happy to eat the kind of breakfast I do, and are back to eating with gusto again. We’re going to own GAPS this time my girl, and we’re going to get you on track for good.   

For Clara

It’s been a tough few months for you my sweet little girl, hasn’t it? Watching how much of a negative effect school has had on you has been absolutely soul destroying for me. Six months ago I was certain that you needed to go to school for your independence, now I’m almost certain that I was wrong. It’s beyond heartbreaking watching you become so nervous and anxious.

However, in the face of all this, I still see glimpses of the happy go lucky gorgeous girl you are deep down. You and Polly are getting on better, which is wonderful to see. I’m so pleased that you can finally play together for longer than five minutes without it turning into a fight. It’s lovely when you sit at the table and create masterpieces of artwork together. You girls could be the best friends if you showed each other a little bit more love. 

For Freddy

Even though at three you are still a complete sleep thief, you are also a little ray of sunshine. It sounds silly to say please don’t change, and totally futile, but I can’t help myself. You’re the most sweet natured, loving little boy I know, and I’d like to keep you this way forever. I try not to let my mind race when you jump up and down, and cry your eyes out over the smallest things. What will be will be, there’s not much more to be said on the matter. 

For all of my family 

They say the days are long but the years are short, and I’m feeling this sentiment a lot right now. The days are so very long, and so very challenging. Outings to the local park have descended into meltdown recently. Restaurant lunches have caused more problems than they’re worth. Plans have been cancelled this half term, or altered to make them super easy for us.

This mama is exhausted by life, and is going to be taking the path of least resistance for the foreseeable. It’s time to concentrate all our energies on coming together as a family. No more complicated days out, and expensive activities that seem like a good idea at the time. I’m going to embrace a smaller life, and you know what? I think it’s exactly what we need.

Much love to you all. Always ❤

 

Today’s been super hard. I started my day on a sleep deficit, after being up for hours in the middle of the night with F. The girls have been cranky to put it mildly. All three have spent the day on a knife edge, kicking off at the slightest thing. Tears on the way to the park, more tears on the way home. It’s been exhausting, and my head is pounding. 💖 I used to pride myself on my together-ness, but days like today push me to my limits limits. My mind starts drifting off into a bleak future, and I think f***, if I can’t cope now what will it be like in a few years time? I start worrying that the foundations of my marriage aren’t strong enough to take the strain of this pressure cooker environment we call life. 💖 Then I remember to breathe. And I remember that the days are long but the years are short. I count my blessings, and think of the empty armed mama’s I know, who’d sacrifice a limb for what I have. And I remember that I’m made of tough stuff, but I’m not a robot. 💖 Is parenting the toughest gig of all? I’m starting to think that yes indeed it is. We can only do our best, and hopefully our best will be good enough.

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An Open Letter to Theresa May: Our Children’s Mental Health is Suffering for the Sake of Your School Statistics #CMHW17

An Open Letter to Theresa May: Our Children's Mental Health is Suffering for the Sake of Your School Statistics #CMHW17Dear Prime Minister,

I hope this note finds you well. I’m writing to you today as a mother of three. As it’s children’s mental health week, it feels like an appropriate time to do so.

Allow me to introduce myself  

I’m Reneé Davis. I’m the survivor of a dysfunctional childhood and was failed by the education system in the nineties (I left at 15 with no qualifications). I was also bullied throughout school, so know first hand how much damage it does to one’s mental health. I suffered two breakdowns, and numerous bouts of depression as a young adult. Through sheer determination I have broken the cycle of dysfunction, to ensure that my children have a better start to life than the one I had. 

My little family is neuro diverse, which means that we do not fit into a standard pigeon hole. My eldest daughter Polly was diagnosed high functioning autistic in 2015. So far, my two younger children appear to be neuro typical, but I don’t have a crystal ball. Who knows if further diagnoses are on the cards later on down the line? 

Polly is a July baby, and sending her to school weeks after her fourth birthday in 2013 felt like throwing her into the lions den. She was the smallest in her year, and due to her sleep problems back then largely wandered around in a little world of her own.

I believe it was a combination of these two things that made her an ‘easy target’. She would often come home with a red note to say that she had banged her head, or injured herself during the day.

Polly suffered low level bullying from the end of reception, and all throughout year one. Not only this, but the ridiculously high expectations of learning were too much for her to cope with. She lived in a perpetual state of anxiety, and her pre and post school meltdowns dominated the happiness of the whole family. My husband and I would plough all our energies into getting Polly on track during the holidays, only to see our hard work being undone almost as soon as she went back to school.

You see she’s a classic high functioning autistic girl. She is able to convincingly mask her autism, and appears to cope in public. All the pretending to cope takes a lot of effort, and is exceptionally overwhelming for her. It got to the point where she would come home, where she felt safe, and spend up to two hours screaming. This was her way of communicating to us that she was unhappy at school, and wasn’t coping as well as she appeared to be.

After her diagnosis we thought we’d get support from the school, but none materialised. Perhaps if she had been subjecting her teachers to huge meltdowns things would have been different? That’s just my speculation though. Going against my gut instincts, I sent Polly back to school and into year two in September 2015. Within a few weeks our lives had once again become soul destroyingly hard. My husband and I knew that if we wanted different results, we were going to have to take matters into our own hands.

We made the decision to not send Polly back after the first half term of year two, and home educate her instead.

It’s not been an easy ride, but in the fifteen months that Polly’s been at home, we’ve made great progress. In addition to her core learning, we’ve invested a huge amount of effort in rebuilding her confidence, and fostering emotional intelligence. She is finally, at seven and a half, sleeping most nights. She is calmer and happier, and more patient. 

Now, no two children are the same, and this is especially pertinent in a neuro diverse family such as mine. My other daughter, Clara has always been laid back and mostly happy. I say mostly because no child is going to be sunshine and rainbows 24/7 are they? Especially when they are exposed to some times unpleasant behaviour from their older siblings.

For many reasons, my husband and I made the decision to send Clara to school in September. We figured that being such an easy going kid, as well as being super bright, she would excel and flourish.

Clara loved the first few weeks of school, but sadly it didn’t last.

When she returned after the first half term, things changed for her. She wasn’t so happy about going to school in the mornings, and has a few times, point blank refused to go. She started having meltdowns after school, like her sister used to. She broke out in the same stress eczema that my husband gets on his hands when he is bogged down at work. For the first time, Clara began displaying the familiar symptoms of being seriously overwhelmed.  

The decline in our girl has been shocking to witness. She has become highly sensitive, aggressive and inflexible. It’s as clear as day to me that she’s stressed out. She has little patience, and gets very upset very quickly, over things that wouldn’t have mattered to her six months ago. It feels like she’s a shadow of her former self. 

One day last week Clara wasn’t feeling well, and had a raised temperature, so I kept her off school. When she saw Polly getting her learning books out, she said she wanted to practice her writing. We got her dry wipe tracing book out, and she started tracing the alphabet full of enthusiasm. By the time she got to F she’d started crying. It wasn’t long before she was completely inconsolable, screaming that she wasn’t doing her writing perfectly. She ended up shutting herself off from the rest of us by hiding behind the furniture, and didn’t come out for over an hour.

Am I the only parent who feels it’s too much to expect four year old children to learn to read and write (in joined up handwriting) from the very first term of school?

I can’t imagine that I am, but know from experience that there’s a lot of turning a blind eye us parents have to do. My husband and I weren’t always in a financial position for me to stay at home with our children. In fact I only stopped working in my part time City job weeks before we began home educating Polly. The combination of a promotion for my husband, and voluntary redundancy presenting itself to me led to me being able to drop out of the traditional workplace.

Since then I’ve been able to make a little bit of money through writing, which has kept me afloat. I consider myself to be incredibly lucky to have the option of staying at home. If I had financial pressure to go back to an office based job, we would be, to put it bluntly, screwed. 

The school system has already failed one of my children, and it’s beginning to look like it’s failing another. The one size fits all approach does not work for so many. 

Seeing the change in Clara has been nothing short of heartbreaking. It feels to me that our children’s mental health is being sacrificed for the schools numeracy and literacy statistics. That all the emphasis is put onto their academic capabilities, and very little thought is given to their emotional well-being. 

I felt that too much pressure was being put on the kids when Polly was in reception. Now, three years on, I am truly astounded at the expectations put on their little shoulders. Surely at four and five, it makes more sense to invest in our children’s mental health. Wouldn’t it be better to let them learn through play, rather than forcing them to read and write?

For now I have put my faith into the Senco at Clara’s school, to see if there are interventions available to help her. Only time will tell, but one thing is certain. I’m not going to sit back and watch school turn my happy go lucky ray of sunshine into an anxious wreck.

I have signed this petition to make mental health education compulsory in primary and secondary schools. It currently has over 33,000 signatures, which means it will definitely get a parliamentary response. 

At this point, Mrs. May, anything is worth a shot, which is why I’ve written you this letter. To ask you personally to put our children’s mental health on your agenda.

Yours sincerely,

Reneé Davis 

The Politics of Children’s Birthday Parties

I have never been a fan of bog standard children’s birthday parties.

You know the drill. A selection of the class are invited, usually to some lame hall or smelly soft play centre. The kids are given ridiculous amounts of junk to eat and drink, then they run around like loons for a couple of hours. At least one kid always cries.  

It can take longer than the party lasted to calm your kids down afterwards. 

Not my idea of fun

Parties for the children of real friends are different of course. The mums are my friends, and I often go early to help out with the prep. It’s a good opportunity to catch up with people we only see sporadically.  

When Polly was at school she wasn’t invited to tons of parties. She spent reception and year one walking around in a sleep deprived haze, so wasn’t particularly aware of what was going on. Which was a good thing in many respects.

She went to a couple of parties, and it was heartbreaking having to send her to them with a packed lunch. This was one of the many ‘joys’ of her allergies back then. Never being able to just eat the food that the other kids were eating. It was more hassle than it was worth, because the fallout was immense.

One party does stick in my mind though, for all the right reasons. The girl’s mum had been working in the school, and was aware of Polly’s situation. When she gave me the invitation she told me to text her with a list of Polly’s favourite treats. When we got to the party, there was a tray of food marked Polly. Her face lit up. My eyes welled up. Oh the kindness. I texted the mum afterwards to tell her much it was appreciated, but she will never really know the true extent.

The parties we throw are always fab, if I do say so myself

Polly’s birthday is in the height of summer, and we’ve had some cracking do’s. Last year was just perfect. The weather was glorious, and we had an amazing turn out. So many of our nearest and dearest came, and everyone had a really great time.

Freddy and Clara’s birthdays being in February make it trickier but not impossible. We had a beautiful party for Clara’s first birthday, and an awesome triple celebration two years ago for Freddy’s first birthday, Clara’s third and mine and hubby’s wedding anniversary.

Now that Clara’s at school, I’m back to viewing birthday parties with dread. She started in September, and the first party was in November. She wasn’t invited. Not only that but the little sh*t took great delight in rubbing her nose in it.

“You, you and you are coming to my party. You, Clara, are not.”

She sobbed in my arms more than once because of his cruelty.

We were going to throw her a party next month to mark turning five

the politics of children's birthday parties We were going to conform, and invite the whole class. If nothing else so she got invited to other parties in return. When push came to shove, it didn’t feel right. My instincts were screaming ‘don’t do it, don’t do it!’ 

Making the decision without consulting her didn’t feel right either though. In the end we gave Clara the choice. A birthday party or a family day out, and she chose the latter. 

So we’re off to London to see the Lego Batman movie in one of the fancy cinemas on Leicester Square. Then we’ll have lunch in China Town, and a whizz around the new Lego store for her and Freddy to pick their birthday presents.

As it turns out Clara’s best friend is having a birthday party the weekend before, so that will satisfy the party fix without it causing us too much pain. In an ideal world, my kids would go to a birthday party every few months, and we’d throw one a year ourselves, but I’m aware this is wishful thinking!

For now, I’m not even going to pretend I’m not relieved to have ducked it. 

Surely I’m not the only parent in the world who feels like this? What are your thoughts?

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