Review: Isma Almas, About a Buoy – Adventures in Adoption

Isma Almas’ 2019 Edinburgh show is biographical comedy at its best. Her story of what led her and her female partner to adopt a little boy of a different heritage to their own is captivating, generous and at times so shocking I couldn’t prevent myself from gasping and laughing at the same time, in a state of liberal, white-girl confusion. 

Isma disarmingly shares the racism aimed at her as a child growing up in the 1970s. Although the racism is enragingly predictable, one incident in particular is not and neither is the comic storytelling approach that Isma takes. She lures and relaxes you then jabs you in the ribs. There are proper narrative punch lines, unexpected and unnerving. Even less predicable is the Islamaphobia she describes at a significant point during the adoption process. Researchers investigating the lack of diversity amongst those coming forward to adopt would do well to see her show, buckle up and not ask themselves too many questions about when its right to laugh. I won’t share the story, but I will say that Isma is a social worker and might have reasonably expected an easier ride because of that. It turns out not to have been the case. More subtle but equally damaging racism has since collided with her family. She skilfully exposes and dissects the excuses and the flawed reasoning, then wallops in with a firm reminder this is not a TED talk. The show never veers towards worthiness.

Isma and I are both adopters and initially connected in the virtual world. When I embarked on a novel set in the world of stand-up comedy, she reviewed a draft and gave invaluable feedback. It needs more misogyny and more messiness, she told me and her advice significantly improved my manuscript. Then she asked if I would give feedback on her Edinburgh-bound show, About A Buoy and I made my way to an office space near King’s Cross station, wondering just how awkward being the only member of an audience was going to be. It wasn’t at all. From the off I was with her, swept through a marriage and a divorce, a new relationship and a child. I knew some of the ending but still it touched me, right before it kicked my feet away, picked me up and bathed me in sunshine and Queen. Isma’s show is narrative comedy at its most vibrant and enriching and a perfect, mid-afternoon festival pick up.

Isma’s show About A Buoy – Adventures in Adoption, is showing at The Gilded Balloon from 31 July to 26 August.

Child to Parent Violence and Abuse by Helen Bonnick – review

Every now and then a book comes along that makes me want to grab a loud hailer and wear a sandwich board displaying it’s cover with “READ THIS NOW, PLEASE” printed across the front. I would stand outside our denuded public service ‘hubs’ and chant non-aggressively and if I had the cash, give out free copies. Helen Bonnick’s new book Child to Parent Violence and Abuse, A Practitioner’s Guide to Working with Families is one of those books. If you work with families who talk about or even allude to controlling, abusive, or aggressive behaviours directed towards them, by their child or a child they are caring for, then this is the book those parents need you to read.

I first met Helen some years ago in a cafe near a London train station. We had connected online and decided to meet in person to talk face-to-face about her professional desire to explore what was then a hardly reported on phenomenon and my experience of it. It was still a time when social media was a useful way of connecting with others and sharing complex and difficult information without fear of attracting further abuse. Helen’s work and her website www.holesinthewall.co.uk draw heavily on much of that information sharing and reminded me how much I had learned and how much support I’d received from others during that time.

Helen’s book is well-written and clear and yet complicated, is practical and yet doesn’t give easy answers and is compassionate and doesn’t apportion blame. ‘We need all of us,’ she writes, ‘the whole family, parents and professionals to work together, if we are to stand any chance of bringing about change.’ It’s hardly a radical statement and yet real life experiences are littered with blame and taking sides and accusations and investigations. There are good reasons why. Violent and abusive behaviours can drive us all into opposing corners, if we’re not careful. What Helen does so well is explain how we can work together and the information that all professionals need when working with families.

Headings such as ‘Difficult parents or difficult situations?’,’Parents are retraumatised by the helping professions’ and sections on building trust and safeguarding get to the heart of the matter. The reality of violence within the home, perhaps still taboo is laid bare as are the all too frequent and ill-fitting and simplistic responses. But this book isn’t just about ‘awareness-raising’, it’s about professionalism and processes and practical solutions and continuous improvement whilst recognising the pressures that all of us are labouring under.

Living with constant and terrifying violence and abuse from a loved one who isn’t choosing to behave in such a way and trying to get anywhere close to explaining how that is, is like trying to report from the war zone of a foreign country, while gunfire drowns out your voice. Many of us are rendered mute. We are desperate for advocates who know the terrain and who can translate for us. Helen is a brilliant translator-advocate who can bridge the sometimes aching divide between families and services. BUY HER BOOK NOW. Please.

Today it isn’t raining

Today it isn’t raining and the wind doesn’t buffer the bird feeders on the crab apple tree. Today I have sown seeds in the wet soil and in pots of compost on the window ledge. And I have planted hardy hopes and autumn fruiting optimism in anticipation of bowls of greens and pots of jewelled reds and purples.

Last year was devastating. Seeds rotted and plants bolted. Nothing flourished. I despised having no choice but to dig deeper and deeper and feared it had all been for nothing.

There must have been growth all along though because this year strong green shoots emerge, persistent despite the nipping frosts.

There’s not much more for me to do now the compost is spread over the ground and the watering can is filled and left by the outside tap. I’ll put on my boots and head out across the fields where the buds push open in the hedges and the deer rest in pairs if you are still enough not to disturb them.

Superkids need Superparents

Many of my Superparent friends; foster carers, adopters, kinships carers, guardians chose not to watch Superkids on Channel 4 last week. They said being Superparents had left them too broken, exhausted and sad and all they could face was a bit of I’m a Celebrity and an early night. The programme could have carried an irony warning.

Although everyone says they bloody love those who care for the state’s children, words can come up empty when the shit hits the fan. I took a deep breath of sweet-smelling air, thought of the poetry and Lemn Sissay and switched over. I’m glad I did – the kids, the poetry, the human spirit….

The Superkids, who were completely super, had awful starts in life and been bundled around the care system. They were hurt, hurting and rootless. The state, their parent clearly does some great work, but still has a long way to go before it can truly say it universally provides what Superkids need and deserve; relentless, fearless, forever parenting.

The State’s Superparenting obligations are of course carried out by individuals. If the state is serious about reducing the number of moves that children in its care endure and improving their life-chances, then supporting and scaffolding those on the caring front line must be its bread and butter. Hurt children hurt, children who have been tested will test and children who have learned they are not worthy of a permanent home will chase chaos. To stick alongside kids when this is the daily reality is the difficult bit, the forever bit. It’s when Superparents of all hues need to hear ‘you’re doing something incredibly difficult, we’ve got your back, it’s not your fault’. It’s when they need to know that schools, health services, social services, members of parliament are right there, rolling with the punches, sharing the same objectives and the same knowledge about trauma and broken childhoods. It’s a dirty, human, emotional business. It’s also a real test of the state’s commitment to forever, no matter what parenting. When the shit hits the fan, will the state pitch in with a mop or a clipboard?

It perhaps sounds easy to be a Superparent when you’ve never done it yourself, when you’ve never come face-to-face with the soul-shattering rage our children rightly feel then helped them unpick it, when you’re not the one chasing, mending, grieving, problem-solving, relentlessly, day after night, after week after month after year after year. But it’s the hardest thing most of us will ever do.

I marvel at the lengths individuals go to for their Superkids and the life-changing Superparenting they provide. And I despair at the lack of value put on their efforts and skill, the lack of even general knowledge about how trauma looks and behaves in the real world, the way the state, without meaning to, squanders their talents and goodwill. If Superparents are to stand a chance of providing the relentless parenting our kids need and deserve, the state must in turn stand by them and the children they care for, relentlessly, day after day after week, after month after year. And at the very least, Superparents shouldn’t be left too broken and dispirited to face watching a programme about the children they put themselves on the line for.

Wifi-free Wednesdays

The Wifi-free Wednesday is a brand new thing in our house. It has come into being as a consequence of online teen shenanigans and after an enforced period of zero internet reminded all of us how beautiful life can be without social friggin’ media.

It’s a simple plan. We do something together every Wednesday evening; go to the cinema, walk  along the beach, eat a meal and none of us uses a device while we’re doing it. It’s not meant as a punishment but as a beacon of reconnection during the week when we attempt in a tiny way to hold back the psychological tug of the tech industry.

Our first Wifi-free Wednesday involved eating crisps and watching Ready Player One, a Spielberg film set in a future where the populace live with more gusto in a virtual world called OASIS than in the real one. The designer of OASIS has died and left a game within the virtual world, the winner of which gets to own and control OASIS forever. As a god-like gesture it’s rather laissez-faire. The baddies are a tech giant set on evil domination. The goodies are a disparate group of plucky kids with the dice loaded against them. The plucky kids win, share ownership and introduce some human-friendly changes one of which is to close OASIS on Tuesdays and Thursdays to encourage it’s real life citizens to rediscover real life relationships. Well, blow me over. It was an unplanned but fitting message for our first Wifi-free Wednesday and some weird synchronicity.

There was some initial resistance to Wifi-free Wednesday that fell away when it was actually fun. It propped up a heavy first week back to work and school after the holidays and put a spring in all our steps. We will continue our experiment and see if our little oasis improves as a result.

The exploitation of looked-after young people – are we complicit?

<TRIGGER WARNING>

When I arrived at university as a hopeful and nervous fresher, attempts were made to groom me and an overseas student I shared a flat with. A fundamentalist religious group identified us as a potentially lonely pair, invited us to social gatherings, strummed guitars at us and only some way in unmasked themselves and brandished their direct debit forms. It was all very underhand. I wouldn’t have called it grooming back then but the tactics were uncannily similar to those now being used by criminal networks to exploit young people in the care of the state. The similarity ends there.

Criminal drug gangs are frighteningly trauma informed, practically and psychologically. They know where the state houses its most vulnerable young people, when and how much they receive in benefits and allowances, how robustly their residential accommodation is managed and whether anyone will ask ‘where are you going and who with?’ They know how disrupted, traumatic childhoods work. Our ‘tough on the outside’ young people, with their lack of trust in authority and their propensity to form relationships quickly and uncritically wear their vulnerability on their backs. They are easy, self-identified targets for exploitation – cash generating, drug carrying expendable pieces of meat. Where the state leaves a void of real care, the drug gangs sweep in and sweep up our children and put them to work. We (the state) make it far too easy for them.

The grooming process which starts with befriending and promises of riches builds into faked but shared sense of living in an exciting sub-culture and results in indebtedness and retribution, drug addiction and criminalisation. When they don’t come up with the goods our young people are disfigured with keys or cheese graters, stabbed in the legs, cut, burned, locked away. They may disappear for days then resurface miles from home in a run-down seaside town or in a police cell facing serious and life-changing charges. The resulting devastation of futures, of opportunity and mental and physical health is a tragedy we don’t take nearly enough interest in or responsibility for.

The state (all of us) is complicit in this criminal, exploitative and drugs trade. We have starved children’s services of money, we house our most vulnerable young people together in accommodation away from home and in the worst parts of town, on the doorstep of those looking for fresh meat, we pretend that parenting is providing young people with little more than the practical means to survive, we staff our homes with under-trained, under-paid workers, we hand out money without question and we tell ourselves that young people of 15 or 16 say are old enough to make their own life choices. If they chose to prioritise spending on drugs over spending on food, that’s surely up to them. If they stay out all night, we can’t make them do otherwise. And failures in the education of vulnerable, care-experienced young people leave them under-equipped, under-educated, excluded and with a lot of time on their hands. The combined result is that our young people who are or were parented by the state (us) are handed to criminal gangs on a plate.

There will be cries of ‘not all children’s homes are like that’ and ‘there are good reasons to exclude some children from school’ but try explaining that to a 17 year old lying in hospital bed with his gums cut to shreds because he owed money to a drug gang. We have to join the dots and disrupt the business of exploitative gangs by taking our role as corporate parents much more seriously and by raising our standards. If you wouldn’t want your family living in the same street as a nest of drug dealers, why is it acceptable for looked after children to live there?

What protected me from my tambourine-wielding groomers was a sense of myself as a good person, a solid network of friends and family and a well honed gut feeling that these wide-eyed people were ‘off’. Our most vulnerable young people do not have these protective factors. And criminal gangs operate in plain sight; in our town centres, our residential areas, outside our children’s homes and on social media and they exploit the void of parenting left when the state goes missing. They can’t believe they’re getting away with it. It’s time we got clever (trauma informed), joined hands around our care-experienced young people and played these bastards at their own game. Only the quickest and smartest will win and right now we’ve got a lot of ground to make up.

Billy Bramble – therapeutic story for children with angry, aggressive behaviours

Billy is an angry, aggressive 11 year-old who is disruptive at school and destructive, argumentative and difficult at home. His meltdowns are catastrophic and impact upon everyone around him including his parents and his younger sister Lucy. He is the title character in my book Billy Bramble and the Great Big Cook Off, which was published almost exactly two years ago. Happy birthday Billy!

He is the kind of child that documentaries like Violent Child, Desperate Parents are made about, that strategies like Non-Violent Resistance are developed for, that guidance like the Home Office Information Guide: adolescent to parent violence and abuse is written about. He is the child that until relatively recently, no one much wanted to talk about, let alone try to understand and help. He spends a lot of his time in the school ‘naughty room’. ‘I think I am bad right the way through from my outsides to my insides’ he says. He is the child who on the face of it, isn’t much of a hero.

But Billy is the hero of this story; articulate, funny, interesting and lost. We all need stories that allow us to identify with the hero, to root for him or her. When does a boy like Billy ever get to read something uplifting and hopeful about someone just like him? The adults around our children also need the opportunity to share books and initiate difficult conversations. Billy is after all so much more than the huge feelings that overwhelm him. He has dreams and ambitions and is emotionally intelligent and determined. Brambles are interesting things he tells us, ‘The bramble is a survivor.’

The difficulty in writing about aggressive, challenging behaviours is shame. The shame children feel at carrying such huge, destructive feelings and the shame of the adults around them, left helpless and sometimes judged. That’s why Billy has an imaginery dog, a vicious, frightening hound called Gobber. Gobber represents Billy’s rage, fear and sadness, his dysregulation: something that with help Billy can learn to tame.

His parents are doing their best, learning how to parent him in new ways and occasionally shouting and throwing shoes. They are imperfect, like all of us. Much of the action takes place of the page and is left to our adult imagination, ‘I am sad and Mum is cross and now Mum is on the phone and I am scared she is arranging for me to be taken away’ he tells us, although we know Mum is calling for help. The jeopardy is real but short-lived.

Billy’s luck begins to change with the arrival of Mrs Buttress into his life, Teaching Assistant extraordinaire. She supports him at school and teaches him to cook. Through cookery, the patience and connection of Mrs Buttress, and the growing understanding and skill of his parents, Billy begins to experience himself more positively. As his confidence grows Gobber becomes calmer and easier for Billy to control. As success beckons, Billy must start to rewrite the story of himself, ‘He is not the boss of my universe any more and I have a feeling my universe will be a much better place to live in from now on’.

I would like to write more Billys and a Lucy (Billy’s younger sister, who competes with Billy for attention, struggles with homework and is always hungry). Therapeutic stories for older children are thin on the ground and many have connected with Billy and ask for more of him. I’m giving Billy a fresh airing for his birthday, in the hope that he has a chance at finding a greater readership and realising the potential I’d imagined for him.

If you know a Billy, or someone working with or parenting a Billy please tell them about my book and send them a link. It’s full of jokes, lists and recipes brought to life by the engaging and funny illustrations of super-talented illustrator Kara McHale and published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Despite the difficult subject matter we set out to offer children and the adults around them something hopeful, entertaining and funny and a starter for gentle conversations around big feelings. We’re proud of what we created and we’d very much like to create some more. We have loads of ideas. Billy says a massive ‘thank you’ for your support and so do we.

Mother’s Day for Complicated Families

Mother’s Day. A day that recognises your dedication and hard work throughout the year. A day that’s all about you, right?

Wrong.

For children with complicated, dislocated and perhaps distressing experiences of mothers, a whole day devoted to their marvellousness might just be one of the worst days that could have been invented.

If Mother’s Day is something to be endured rather than enjoyed in your family then I recommend getting your head around it now, a good few days before the gushy event and before those tricky visitors; emotion and expectation move in and make themselves at home.

These are some of the things I try to do and sometimes succeed at to increase the chances that Mother’s Day doesn’t leave my family in a state of dislocated hysteria.

  1. Buy yourself a present, something you really like, a little plant perhaps or some chocolates.  Tell yourself it’s because you’re doing an awesome job at this mothering business. Anything else will be a bonus.
  2. Buy a Mother’s Day card, put it somewhere reachable, but not on display and say, ‘There’s a spare card on the sideboard in case you wanted to give it to me. No problem if you don’t want to.’ Say it casually and mean it.
  3. Take some time to consider how hideously difficult Mother’s Day might be for your child, even if they don’t say it out loud. Sit with it and decide that you will help them navigate their way through the day, because what could be a more powerful statement about what mothering is really all about.
  4. Set all expectations to “LOW”.
  5. Do not allow any cell of your body to look forward to a lie-in.
  6. Make a plan. Perhaps do something low-stress that you and your child enjoy doing, for instance going out for fish and chips. Perhaps have some ‘because I love you’ surprises in your pocket.
  7. Express the difficulties and complications out loud, with acceptance and compassion, ‘I know it’s a difficult day for you and I’m OK with that’/’I’m going to do my best to notice if you’re struggling’/’I know you love me and I don’t need you to show me’.
  8. Avoid all sources of sickly Mother’s Day emoting from others. Yuck!
  9. When the day is done and you’ve weathered whatever came your way, take some time to reflect on what did and did not work so well. No blame though. And perhaps say to your child, ‘I enjoyed spending time with you today.’
  10. Reward yourself with a big slug of self care. And remember that however your family has been stitched together, you are doing something truly remarkable. GO YOU.

Dissonance and the blame game

When a child comes into our lives who doesn’t see the world or ‘do’ relationships in the way we do, the resulting cognitive disruption can blow our minds.

“What do you mean you don’t trust me to give you tea, trust that this is a safe place to sleep, that I’m not going to hurt you and why do you fight me over EVERYTHING?” we may find ourselves exasperating.

I can’t tell you how hard I tried to make the traditional parenting fixes of rewards, warnings and consequences work. I tried until our home was a battlefield littered with casualties. The sheer discordance between what to me was entirely obvious and appeared to work for everyone else and the reality of raising care and trauma-experienced children has been the cause of much mental anguish.

For those of us fortunate enough to have been healthily-raised by people who enjoyed us, held us in their minds and arms and knew our needs before we even knew them ourselves, it’s easy to overlook that these first experiences formed the strong foundation on which all our future relationships are built. And it’s bigger even than that: our early lives gave us the working model our brain uses as a shortcut to understand the world. Enter a child, an adopted or fostered child, or a child in a residential home whose view of the world is built on entirely different foundations: they don’t bounce into our homes and our lives like little Orphan Annies thrilled at the prospect of having their relational and other deficits redressed.

Once almost everything we thought we knew about being loving parents and carers has been dashed on the rocks, once the dissonance is unavoidable, we resolve, or at least I did, to try and understand where the dissonance is coming from and to make some sense of it. From there we learn how to be the parents our children need us to be. It’s not just learning something new, it’s a profound and painful shift in perception and action. It’s necessary if we are to stand any chance of convincing our children that the world can be a safe, interesting and engaging place to be part of, that it is possible to have rewarding relationships and ambitions and a future to look forward to. We have to meet them much more than half way, peer into their working model of the world and appreciate it’s value in having helped them survive thus far whilst understanding it’s limitation for their onwards journey. At the same time we have to be more certain than we ever have been of who we are at our core. You can’t set sail on the open seas, psychologically speaking, without a sturdy and well-maintained vessel to sail in.

Over these years there have been many occasions when forces have been exerted upon my remoulded, child trauma-aware ways of ‘doing things’ back in the opposite direction and threatened my sturdy vessel (mental health). Hard-won knowledge and experience is called into question from outside and opinions are strongly and emotionally expressed. It takes great mental strength to stand and argue that, for example, your child isn’t choosing to behave like a nightmare, he’s traumatised and trying his best to survive in the only way he currently knows how, or conversely, that structure and routine is in place to create safety, and without that, utter chaos breaks out. As our family unit learned what works and adjusted our lives, so that created challenge and dissonance in those around us. I see it happening in the lives of my adopting, fostering and caring compatriots too. ‘You need to take away his treats/don’t give him attention/ teach him right from wrong.’ Or ‘why don’t you just <insert really simplistic suggestion>’. If this Billy-Basic type of parenting worked, don’t you think we’d all be doing it? Of course we would, we’re not self-flagellating fools. Perhaps, it’s your world view that doesn’t stand up? No? Too painful to contemplate? Tell us about it.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how much easier our epic family life would have been if we’d been bathed by the warm waters of a more trauma-aware society, if schools, departments, surgeries, waiting rooms, shops and those who populate them were blessed with at least a basic understanding that children born into trauma learn traumatised ways of doing things. The answer is MUCH EASIER. We wouldn’t have had to fight on all fronts, to justify, to practice the most supreme patience, to experience the most profound isolation and self-doubt. Doing all that drains time and energy away from the job at hand. That’s not to say we haven’t had the most remarkable supporters on side, because we have, and they have made all the difference. Without particular social workers, educators and others we most surely would not have been able to continue.

The evidence to support the impact of childhood trauma and the ways in which attuned relationships in particular can help is now plentiful, but has not in the main dribbled down to all the places it needs to. The dribbling takes ages and even where it reaches it has a job to overturn strong and cognitively attractive narratives around naughty, out-of-control, offending children and young people – that they have a choice and are unwisely taking the wrong path, something we with our superior … superior something or other, would not do if we were to find ourselves in the same situation. The problem, in sticking to this cognitively comfortable but ultimately doomed narrative, is that the only logical response to the wayward behaviour of our children is blame. Blame is the sloppy response that protects us from facing the painful realisation that our experience of the world may not be the only experience there is and that perhaps we are not as innately and wonderfully ‘good’ as we think we are. Blame also acts as a barrier to helping trauma-experienced children and young people realise that they in turn are not innately ‘bad’ and given the right support could access a future as bright as that which the rest of us are raised to believe we deserve.

New Year’s Resolutions

My new year resolution for 2017 was to plan more fun stuff. Planning fun, doesn’t necessarily equate to having fun, but if you don’t buy the tickets, you can’t go to the Stewart Lee gig. If you buy the tickets and stick them on your fridge they are reminders to get out and and experiment with becoming untethered from misery. I dragged Mr D out to see Stewart Lee. I laughed like I might have a full-on existential crisis, but that came later in the year. In my quest to keep to my 2017 resolution I have dragged many people out with me. Some have come willingly. One time I couldn’t convince anyone to join me so I went to the cinema on my own. I saw Moonlight. It was so good it has ruined the rest of cinema for ever. There were four other people in the cinema. I wanted to talk to them all afterwards about the film. I never thought I’d ever go to the cinema on my own but now I’m sold on it. You can go on your own in the afternoon on a Tuesday and take in a coffee you didn’t buy in the cinema.

Harry Hill signed my youngest child’s Tim the Tiny Horse books and was very kind to her. We love Tim the Tiny Horse. My friend Geordie Jane came with me to see Sarah Millican. Youngest and I went to Edinburgh mid-crisis and saw Mark Steel and Katy Brand. We drank Irn Bru and fielded text messages that you wouldn’t believe. We came home and booked tickets to see Cressida Cowell.

In June I no longer had to pretend to keep my OBE a giant secret. We celebrated with a party in our garden. We put up lights and everything. Most of our guests were very surprised by the news. ‘What is it exactly you do?’ they asked and I didn’t know how to begin to answer them.

As I was emerging out from under the party hangover the police knocked on our door with a special knock that means business. I’d like to say their visit was unexpected. What they told us was hair-raising and there was much worse to come. I barely slept a whole night for months after that. The worry has been almost physically painful.

When one of our flock fledged way before time and flew off with itinerate crows and vagabonds believing them to be friends and protectors, the future broke and it nearly broke my heart with it. I’ve had to learn to protect my heart by packing it with fun and good times and tickets for things and trusting that the future will come good in the end. I’ve had to reassess my No Matter What principle, and still find it holds up. No Matter What isn’t the same as It’s Fine, Anything Goes. No Matter What is I’m Not Sinking With You But I’ll Be Here When You’re Ready.

Our reduced number went to Buckingham Palace for the grand investiture and had a 100% good time. Youngest child said ‘I feel like a famous person!’ and I loved that she said that. It was like an out-of-body experience: a million miles away from the shitshow. Peak 2017. We planned an overnight in a hotel and an afternoon tea and the plans paid off.

My new years resolution for 2018 is more of the same. Safety nets are in place to catch falling fledglings and plans are being made for the rest of the flock. A long distance walk, a mini-break. Tickets for Richard Herring and David Baddiel are stuck to the fridge. Without the tickets, you can’t get into the gig.

Bananarama!