We’re one week into the new year, and still suffering from the Christmas comedown in my house

This year we did things differently. We didn’t go overboard with Christmas related activities. There were no trips to see Santa. No mad dash to visit every single friend we have beforehand. No so-called treats in the way of milk and glucose syrup dressed up as chocolate.

There was no advent. No mass hysteria counting down the days, minutes and seconds until the 25th arrived. Rather than get caught up in what other people were doing, we did what was best for us.

And you know what? We had the best Christmas as a family yet

It was a far cry from the way things have been over the last few years. I spent Christmas eve 2014 sitting on my bed, feeding Freddy, crying my eyes out while all hell broke loose in different rooms. The excitement and sensory overload had well and truly got the best of our then undiagnosed Polly (who is high functioning autistic). She was only five at the time, but the misery that was inflicted upon us all – especially her sister – was undeniable. Little did we know back then that her poor little brain just could not handle what was happening.

I spent that evening sobbing into my phone, desperately searching for answers. Reasons why our child was so difficult when everybody else we knew were posting cute photos on social media. I looked at numerous blogs, websites and book excerpts on the Kindle store that night. I found a book which filled us with hope, and we ploughed the rest of December and much of January into implementing the strategies it suggested.

Christmas comedownWe were still playing the ‘lets treat her the same as everyone else’ game at that point, you see

So although some of the advice was helpful, a lot of it wasn’t. Now that we know Polly isn’t the same as everyone else things are very different. We create our own rules. We play our own game. Life is incomparable now to what it was three years ago.

“Isn’t that just what happens around Polly’s age?”

This is the question I’ve been asked a few times recently. Perhaps for neuro typical children who fit a standard mould, this is exactly what happens as they get older. For autistic children though, life can start getting much harder as they grow.

So, for all of my positivity, and delight about the end of our year and festive season, my stomach is once again tied in knots. The Christmas comedown has come along and sucker punched me this week.

We’ve argued. A lot. There has been much resistance to getting back to learning. There have been many tears and screams of I hate you.

I’ve been physically and emotionally battered by the Christmas comedown

I haven’t written about Polly’s autism for a while. I am desperate to write about all the positives. To pass on tips and help other parents who are in the depths of despair like we were three years ago.

I have articles in draft about getting sleep on track, about home education, about helping my kids get on better.

But for now, I’d like to dish out some huge virtual hugs. For anyone else feeling a little bit low right now. Feeling the January blues with a side of autism. For those like us, who are feeling the Christmas comedown, and hoping beyond hope, that it doesn’t last much longer!

Cards on the table: I have been in a seriously dark place for most of this year

I kind of broke, which sounds ridiculous, but I’m not allowed to fully break am I? Not with three kids at home. I came closer than I ever imagined I would though, and it terrified the life out of me.

Having experienced mental breakdown twice already, I’m no stranger to the dark place. I know the warning signs. Sometimes they are helpful, and other times they just make me feel worse.

A toxic, negative rut

My biggest problem was that the toxic thoughts inside my head became all consuming. I found it impossible to count my blessings and focus on the good. I was deeply engrossed in a cycle of negativity, and could only see disaster everywhere I looked.

I became bleak about the direction my family was going in, and what the future held. I was catastrophising and couldn’t snap out of it. I started fantasising about running away, and not just for a weekend.

dark placeHow did things get so bad?

Back in March, as we headed into Spring, I was full of optimistic hope. We’d decided that school wasn’t for Clara, and were happy with the idea of home educating her. It felt like we were making massive progress with Polly. Freddy was going through a particularly wonderful phase.

Then a series of unfortunate events occurred, and every time I picked my little family up, something else would happen to knock us back down.

It started with Polly smashing up her front (adult) teeth on a slide at the park, then three months followed where it was literally one thing after another. Including the shock, not to mention heartbreak, of being ghosted by a person I considered to be one of my very best friends.

I was done for

I had no motivation for anything over and above the bare essentials. Or as the infamous lyric in Amy Winehouse’s Rehab goes:

“I just think you’re depressed.”

Another couple of months passed, and I found myself drinking far too much. Reaching for the wine or gin bottle multiple times a week, to drown my sorrows. This led to comedown type hangovers, leaving me feeling totally despondent, drinking endless cups of coffee to try and perk me the next day.

I did not like what I saw in the mirror. As I’ve already said, I’ve been here before. It wasn’t pretty then, and it was even uglier this time around. For the first time since becoming a mum, I questioned whether I was capable of doing this job.

There was only one thing for it: GAPS!

Call it a detox, call it a cleanse. I like to call it the ultimate reset, and it worked a treat. Check out my other blog if you’re interested in the full details.

Suffice it to say that I’m now feeling much better, and I can’t tell you how great it is to be able to say this.

After hitting rock bottom, and turning my life around in 2006/07, I honestly thought the dark place was behind me. This year has proved that it can happen to any of us, at any point.

So for the stressed out mama’s and papa’s among us, make sure you look after you. If you sense the grey clouds looming, and the dark place coming, do anything and everything in your power to stop them in their tracks.

Take every opportunity you can grab for self care. Eat well, and nourish your body and mind. Do more of the things that make your heart sing. Feed your creative soul. Do not feel guilty about having time away from the kids. If you don’t put your oxygen mask on first, and save yourself, you don’t stand a chance of helping anyone else.

The deeper you fall, the harder it is to pull yourself out of the hole.

**Huge thanks to Unsplash for the gorgeous photots.**

poem about motherhood

It was a massive honour to be asked to guest blog for the amazing AutismAwareness.com. They do wonderful work in not only raising awareness of autism, but supporting parents through their journeys. They reach millions of people every month who discuss, learn and explore topics of interest to special needs families.

Here’s a snippet of my piece 

“Usually I’m as good at masking my sadness as Polly is at masking her high-functioning autism. Lately though, I’m being asked a lot if I’m okay.

Just to be explicit, I am not okay.”

You can head over to their site for the full post, by clicking on this link here.

Notice the title of this article isn’t: “how to love your autistic child,” or “how to love your SEN child?” That’s because a challenging child can happen to anyone. Additional needs or not.

Cards on the table: I’m going to come right out and say that parenting my own challenging child is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

It pushes me to my very limits, whilst simultaneously making me feel like an absolute failure. I have never felt so torn in my life. Every tiny decision I make has to be carefully considered. All options weighed up, to ensure it doesn’t end in complete catastrophe.

The seemingly smallest thing can have the biggest knock on effect. We can be having a lovely time one minute, and the playing field can dramatically shift thirty seconds later.

All emotions are felt. Every. Single. Day!

I have to be on my game, one step ahead, the entire time. Otherwise it’s meltdown central. I probably don’t need to tell you how exhausting it is, especially on such broken sleep.

So I thought I’d write down some of the things I’ve learnt on my journey of loving my challenging child. It’s more to remind me than anything else, but I figured someone somewhere might also find it useful.

In the heat of the moment, it’s best to say nothing

Zip your lips and throw away the key. Honestly, in the midst of sparks flying, it is best for all concerned to keep your mouth shut. I’m not ashamed to admit that this is my own biggest challenge, especially during certain times of the month. It’s crucial though. Which brings me nicely onto my next point.

Don’t be afraid to self-reflect

We absolutely must be kind to ourselves, because we ALL mess up. Me usually on a daily basis. However we must also be willing to look in the mirror and admit when something is our fault, so we can find ways to do it differently (and better) next time. Having a challenging child on your hands will test your patience, strength and faith in life. It’s vital to work as a team though, and find solutions to your troubles together.

Offer comfort, but be prepared to give it on their terms

In parenting fantasies, before I had any of my own children, I used to think that spats with kids would be easily rectified. A few hugs, a few sorry’s and voila, everyone has made up. In reality, it simply does not work like this with a challenging child.

They can be spiky beyond belief, and even when they’ve been the root cause of the destruction, they will more than likely think they are the victim. I always offer comfort, but I’ve learnt that it often isn’t taken up when I think it will be. But when they are ready to accept the love, they will come and ask for it.      

Do not, ever, compare your children to each other or to anyone else’s kids

It would be easy for me to get into the mindset that my high functioning autistic eldest daughter Polly is always the most challenging child, but this isn’t actually true. All three of my kids have their moments. 

If 3yo Freddy has had a particularly fitful night, and is running on four hours of broken shut eye, he can be exceptionally challenging. If 5yo Clara is unwell or not sleeping great it has a massive effect over her ability to communicate without screaming in faces. They are so different from each other and other kids we know, that it would be deeply unfair on all parties to compare them.         

Kindness rules

This is obvious, but when tempers are lost and fury is in the air, kindness can all be but forgotten. As the adults however, we need to summon the strength from somewhere, somehow, to rise above it (which I know, is so much easier said than done). If we aren’t being kind to our kids, how can we expect them to be kind to each other?   

Start the day with a clean slate

No matter what happened yesterday, or last week, we absolutely must start each day with amnesia. I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning if I was holding grudges for the things that have gone on inside these four walls. My husband has a great mantra:

“Only love today”

It’s a good one to hold close.   

Respite is utterly essential

Not just for the primary caregiver, but a break from the challenging behaviour is super important for the whole family. We’re only too aware that Clara and Freddy suffer when times are super tough, so it’s essential to give them a break from the doom and misery. A few hours love bombing, going to the cinema or being taken swimming on their own with just hubby or I is a real treat for them. It goes a long way to repair the hurt that they’ve endured. 

As for us parents, life cannot be 100% about the children 100% of the time. We all need a break from the norm now and then, and especially when we’ve got a challenging child on our hands. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing for our kids to see that we have a bit of a life outside of them. 

Are you parenting a challenging child? What have you learnt on your own journey? I’d love to hear from you! 

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**