Comedy and the Art of Therapeutic Parenting

Parenting children traumatised by their early experiences has taken me to some of the most bleak, incredible, lonely and wonderful places: places I had never imagined existed before I became a parent. At the same time the experience has been one of the most comic: not in a flippant way, but in the way that comedy and tragedy collide and for a moment the tragedy it forgotten and perhaps longer term becomes more bearable.

And thank goodness for that, because without the moments of comedy accompanying us through the times of drudgery and drama, where would we be?

Comedy is about making sense of things, its pain relief, an unsticking, its sharing something silly and profound with someone. Laughter, even in the bleakest of times humanises, ourselves and each other. It magics us away from rage and despondency and tips us off our high horses and out of our despair. Laughing along with someone, a child, a partner is pure connection.

And it is one way of trying to marry up the mainstream lives we may have imagined for ourselves, with the bizarre lives we end up with (and perhaps not just because of the kind of parenting we do). It’s a bridging material. Comedy is found in dissonance and there’s never been a greater need for that.

trumpfarageIf you were at the Adoption UK conference last weekend then you may have noticed the sound of laughter everywhere; around the coffee tables, the stands, the dining room, the toilet queue. It’s what happens when isolated people come together and find things in common. It’s the sheer relief of realising you are not alone in say happening upon a poo in a strange place or a digestive biscuit in your wash bag. These events experienced alone can be a long way from funny, but sharing them takes some of the the sting away. And the next time something similar happens, we may be able to experience it with a comic disbelief, rather than the hopeless kind.

That’s not to say I’ve laughed my way through parenthood. I haven’t. I’m not insane. The moment itself, in that moment can be too painful for words but what plays out after that moment, given a bit of context, can be comic, in the full Shakespearean sense of the word. And like they say, if you don’t laugh, you cry, or you get angry, or withdrawn.

The ability and the opportunity to see the comedy gives us back some power and it reminds us we are all doing the best we can. And the best kind of comedy, my favourite kind isn’t mean, it’s full of heart. And you need tonnes of that to be a therapeutic parent.

Thank you to everyone who came to the Adoption UK conference in Birmingham. I hope you came away feeling encouraged and connected. I certainly did. It was a joy to meet so many people, so thank you! And for those who couldn’t make it, here’s something I shared from my own catalogue of self care strategies, filed under ‘funny youtube videos”.

Arvon Experimental Fiction Week Learnings

As a break from Experimental Living, I spent last week Experimental Writing at the Arvon centre in Devon, with tutors Adam Foulds and Toby Litt and a fabulous and kindly group of writers and experimenters. The Trump Triumph and his Farage Menage were a world away. It couldn’t have been better timed. 

Don’t pack a spare towel, you won’t need it. Likewise teabags. Bring more clothes.

Download more podcasts for palate cleansing at the end of a day of rich brain food.

Expect to feel odd and dislocated for a day or two. You will come back to yourself. You will make friends.

Physical isolation, plus no wifi is a GOOD THING. You will experience panicky feelings over an inability to instantly fact check. Get over yourself. Leave a gap and go back later. Be less of a dopamine reward junky.

It doesn’t matter if you haven’t read all of the things, but you should read better. TLS. LRB. That sine wave storyline thing though, that came straight out of Ramsay Street.

Remember a plot doesn’t need to be bland to be believeable (POTUS afterall) however if it feels wrong, it probably is. Wrong. Trust your instincts.

Work in the wifi-free, well-heated town library more often. Drink the coffee. Pity the old men.

Continue to get up early and work before the crazy grabs the day. Two hours early is worth four later.

Say ‘no’ to a lot more stuff, especially if that stuff involves complicated travel arrangements.

Create space to ….

write, write, write.

Write the scene, not the summary.

Nurture brainy friendships; Malteser Rachel and University Kirstie.

Go to the pub, but this time order a pint. Otter. Stop crapping on about Poldark.

Do it again next year.

Big Thank Yous to the Arvon Experimental Writing class of 2016; Adam, Toby, Mary, Louise, Luke, Natasha, G, H, S, M, S, J, L, L, E, C, P. 

Things that were broken

The outbreak of peace in our house continues. It’s brilliant. That’s the thing, when life has been so relentlessly crap for so long, it just needs to be less crap for a few weeks and everything is a complete joy.

I went to the Yorkshire and Humber Adoption Consortium annual conference this week – had a ball (I so enjoyed meeting everyone). I caught up with old friends in the pouring rain – brilliant. I spent two hours selling raffle rickets in a field yesterday, and even that was a blast.

Living in a state of near hysterical joy (for one never knows when it will end) means that things get done as there is at last time and head space to tackle Mount Must Do. On the Must Do list for this week was:

RING PLUMBER: heating has been malfunctioning for … two years, radiator has been leaking for …. five years.

RING OIL TANK SUPPLIER: oil tank is old and has cracks in it, which means it cannot be refiled. Current oil level = empty.

RING TREE SURGEON: massive tree has needed cutting down for … at least three years, but at last I have a certificate saying it is allowed to go.

FIX LAWNMOWER: broken for six months, state of lawn = dire.

On a separate Must Do list has been, lose some weight. Living in Trauma Central is bloody terrible for the BMI. That’s been done too.

In other news, Mr D has been building a summer house in our garden. He took some unpaid ‘I take it or I go insane’ leave from work last year and spent weeks in a happy bubble of woodmanship drowning out the crap with power tools. It’s almost finished, and it looks fabulous. I bought some cane furniture for fifteen quid in a charity shop  and have sprayed it green (apple green, if you will). I won’t mention how much I’ve spent on the paint.

IMG_0384

There has been a theme around our family for a long time about Rock Bottom. Mr R (trusty therapist) had been saying to me for ages ‘we often only see a turnaround when our children and young people take things to rock bottom and you need to think about how far down you are willing to follow’. It took me ages to see it but he was on the money. Both he and our family therapist C were also on the money as they helped Mr D and I to work out when we needed to shout ‘enough’ and how to do that as therapeutically as we were able. This process has played a large part in our survival of Rock Bottom and current state of flourishing.

I sit here typing and I can hear our family outside, doing their things, having fun in the sunshine. I’m going out now to join them. Things that were broken are being mended and it’s a complete joy.

Spring has sprung …

Peace has broken out chez Donovan. The crisis generators have been set to ‘normal*’. No letters home. No interactions with anyone in uniform or a gown or white crocs.

Cover me in Lindt and roll me in mini eggs – it’s amazing. Who knew what real life felt like? I’d forgotten.

It’s incredible what can be achieved when parenting** doesn’t drain the batteries.

I’ve dug out the enormous stump of a dead shrub, dug out a tree and moved it, weeded like a demon and planted some new lovelies. I’ve sat in the sun and done some work. I’ve wallowed in the publication of Billy Bramble and in the early feedback (even my mum likes it). I’ve been catching up with old friends and bingeing on House of Cards (24 episodes in two weeks – go me).

I’ve been reminded that tough times are sometimes an indication that in the dark, wet soil, things are growing.

I’m aware that in even thinking any of this, let alone committing it to black and white I risk invoking the great jinx of the optimist, but without optimism I’d be in a much rougher place.

FacebookI wish you a happy and relaxing Easter. I know the holidays can be tough for some but at the very least, spring has arrived, the clocks will change and there will be hot cross buns.

* our kind

** crisis management

 

Billy Bramble and the Great Big Cook Off is published

In November 1997 (long story) I wrote this on a post-it note:

post it

This morning, the postman delivered a copy of my first children’s book, Billy Bramble and the Great Big Cook Off to our conservatory-less house.  It’s only taken me 18 years. I still don’t have groovy hair.

IMG_0337

I didn’t write Billy Bramble to meet some personally set milestone. I wrote it because I find the voices of young people like Billy incredibly strong and perceptive. Billy is 11 (nearly 12) years old and on the threshold of adolescence. Adolescents, particularly boys and particularly boys who struggle to engage with school for whatever reason are not amongst society’s most treasured groups. The ways in which they are depicted in popular media, if they are at all, are often negative. The terms ‘naughty boys’  or ‘naughty girls’ are openly used to describe children perhaps not unlike Billy.

We don’t know what has brought Billy to the point at which we meet him and his angry dog/sidekick Gobber but there are indications that like many children, his childhood might not have been straightforward. He describes himself as naughty and bad and picks up signals from the adults around him that his conclusions about himself are correct. Despite everything though, he wants to fit in, to do well and to be a success, he just needs some help to achieve it.

And that’s where Mrs Buttress comes in. Mrs Buttress is my fictional ‘thank you’ to teaching assistants and teachers across the land who value all children, who can see the best in them, who go that extra mile to enable them to grow their talents and who can at the same time find a way through rigid behaviour policies and league tables. My own family have benefitted greatly from the steady and patient hand of a number of Mrs Buttresses (some of whom carried out this great work on minimum wage) and the difference they have made is hard to put into words.

Billy Sits With Facebook

For all my theorising, Billy Bramble and the Great Big Cook Off is of course a novel for children. I’ve designed it to be choppy and fun, with some drama and some comedy. It gives more than a nod to those for whom reading might not be their number one choice of activity and for that reason it had to be strongly illustrated by someone who ‘got’ Billy and his chicken and his cat and his sense of humour. I am so fortunate that the illustrator Kara McHale was able to more than amazingly fulfil what was in my head and which I couldn’t always describe. She took the text and ran with it and I am thrilled with the result.

Egg Sequence

Not Quite Assimilated

I share my life with four others; my husband, our two children and an entity I’ll call Trauma. There was a time when Trauma was useful, because it kept people alive. Trauma has rigid ideas about trust, control and about the types of people parents, particularly mothers are.

Trauma is outlasting its usefulness and it knows it. It sees allegiances shifting and the brightening light of a new and different future dawning, one that has Trauma in the sidelines and not centre stage. Trauma hates nothing more than a brighter future (and therefore its own demise) and has been waging the war of it’s life.

As a mother who doesn’t fit the internal working model, I am a constant challenge to Trauma so it targets me particularly, plays mind games, tricks me and sometimes scares me. It works mainly by wearing me down so I forget who I am and what my values are. I am waging the war of my life too.

Recently I’ve felt myself losing grip of who I am.

I am not who Trauma wants me to be.

But I am who my family need me to be, most of the time.

Someone clever suggested that Trauma is like the Borg from Star Trek; it assimilates its enemies and constantly evolves to counter whatever clever plans its enemies come up with. A bit melodramatic? Maybe but it is exactly what this madness feels like. I haven’t been assimilated yet but it’s a constant effort not to be.

.

I have managed to step away from the madness and realised I have been trying to compete with Trauma, on its terms, fighting on its territory. I got hitched to its crazy alien craft and I didn’t like where it was going (Sector 001?).

Being more about me and less about Trauma is the only way to prevent assimilation but its harder than it sounds. I’m getting lots of help with that now, all funded by the Adoption Support Fund.  It’s come just in time.

Professor Jonathan Green – the mental health needs of adopted children

The February issue of the Adoption UK magazine, which I’ve guest edited, is themed around the mental health needs of adopted children and their families. In this accompanying piece Jonathan Green, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Manchester University writes about the particular needs of adopted children and how services may better assess and respond to their needs. He argues for comprehensive assessment and a presumption of long term support.

Adopting parents have opened their hearts and homes to what are now often some of the most complex children in our community. When there are problems, they can be often difficult to make sense of and manage. And yet adopting families often find feel a lack of comprehension from services and difficulty finding help. Why should this be? And what’s to be done about it?

The nature of children coming into adoption has profoundly changed over several generations but professional attitudes and service provision have not always caught up, being more influenced by the nature of adoption two or three generations ago when children given up to adoption often due to religious or social pressures. Children now of course tend to come into adoption rather differently, usually in the context of families whose parenting has failed and whose children have been received into care by the local authority. The complex background of these children leads to many potential impacts on their development and mental health, including heritable risks, potential exposure in fetal development to maternal stress or abuse of alcohol or drugs, and after birth, potential exposure to neglect or maltreatment and a variety of care placements before permanency. Each of these areas of difficulty can leave different kinds of marks on the child’s development, ranging from effects on the developing brain and nervous system to effects on relationships and feelings within attachment problems and consequences of trauma. Hence the complex presentations. Professor Julie Selwyn from Bristol found that a quarter of adopting families reported major challenges and complex needs in their children and at least 80% of these reported major mental health problems in the children – and a fifth of families in which the placement was going well still reported mental health problems in their children.

What sort of service do adopting parents deserve? Firstly a service that respects the very particular situation you’re in. The challenge of making and sustaining relationships with children who have often had previously very complex and difficult experiences is really unique. Secondly, help to understand the real nature of your child’s presentation. There is likely to be a complex picture mixing what we think of as “neurodevelopmental” problems such as ADHD and ASD or fetal alcohol syndrome, with problems of attachment, adjustment and response to trauma. It is not surprising that the behaviour and relating of children after all this can at times be perplexing. We tried to understand the extent and complexity of these layered difficulties in an in-depth research study. In the 60 families who volunteered for our study over 70% of the children had experienced maltreatment and neglect and over 50% exposure to prenatal risks; they had been taken into care at a mean age of one year and adopted at a mean age of three years. Two thirds of these children had problems with mental health and development, with a half showing signs of developmental type disorders and over a half with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Often these problems were mixed in together – creating the complex picture. What families need therefore is an assessment process that is efficient and yet skilled enough to be able to sort out different components of the problem and prioritise elements for intervention. There are good interventions for all of these kinds of difficulties, it is a question of carefully selecting which ones to choose and adapting them to the particular situation of adopting families. The problem with selecting interventions without a thorough assessment of this kind is that the wrong kind of intervention may be given for a particular problem; and this matters, particularly with such complex problems, since the wrong kind of treatment will be ineffective and possibly harmful.

What kind of service can deliver this? Not a “free for all” in my view, but instead one that is based on the best research and clinical evidence that we now have. In such a complex area the service needs to have specialist expertise and for that reason should initially be concentrated in coordinated regional networks of excellence linked to research centres. There needs to be excellent coordination between local authority, child mental health, the voluntary and where necessary independent sectors. Child Mental Health Services in general need alerting to the specific needs of families after adoption and we are working on an ‘adoption awareness’ program to be rolled out to them. We need good screening for problems so that families and social workers and others can know when to refer on to more specialist services; and the specialist services themselves need to be coordinated to produce individualised effective treatments. Additional to that there needs to be a recognition that these problems usually endure and that families need support and sustenance through the development of their children; they will not need help all the time but they need to know where they can get it if there is a crisis, so the availability of longer term support is crucial. If families know they have access to such support in a timely way then they will feel much more resilient in managing.

Is it pie in the sky to create such awareness and service integration within the NHS? No. We have done this before with other kinds of problems in child mental health and with good coordination and clear protocols we can do it in this arena. The attention on the needs of adoption of this current time is helping and we are working hard to make this a reality at the moment. The situation I do believe is gradually changing and the focus bought to the problem by the governments work on the adoption support fund has been a real catalyst.

Pyjamas and super tankers

I’ve barely been out of my pyjamas this week, not because I’m one of those much commented upon mothers who dares to do the school run in nightwear and slippers, but because I’ve been knocked over by a cold virus. It’s been dreamy daytime television all the way. I learnt that Dion Dublin now presents Homes Under the Hammer (yes, really) and that Adelaide seems a way nicer place to live than Prestatyn, that is unless you’re a thirteen year old girl whose dad is staying in Prestatyn. Doing right by family members is a messy and imperfect business.

Me before a lemsip

Me before a lemsip

We’ve had a run of dramas, which I won’t trouble you with; one a week, for what feels like forever. This week looked like it was going to break the run, but didn’t. There was a sting in it’s tail. It wasn’t as stingy as other stings, but a reminder (as if any more were needed) that the vulnerabilities of children who have experienced poor early care can be extensive (and sometimes expensive). It shouldn’t need repeating but they don’t just get over it, no matter how politically, economically and socially inconvenient that may be.

Episode 2 of The Brain with David Eagleman on BBC4 last night showed how crucial the first two years of brain development are and the enduring consequences for three young people who spent their early months in the appalling conditions of a Romanian orphanage. It filled me with a mixture of hope and anger; hope that this critical information has made it on to primetime television and anger that there are still too many services based on the ‘they’ll get over it’ model.

Next week sees the publication of the Adoption UK magazine, guest edited by me and themed around the mental health needs of adopted children and their families. It’s a subject I’m particularly interested in, or a stick with which I like to beat myself depending on how the week’s going. In parallel I’ll be publishing an article by Jonathan Green, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Manchester University. I’ve heard him say things in meetings, presentations and in private that I’ve itched for more to hear. He’s given me some hope that the super-tanker is indeed starting to turn.

In other news, we had the sad task of burying Treacle the much-loved guinea pig. He now lies under the apple tree in a tax-free Amazon box coffin. During my delirium Mr D stepped in and took over the hospital run, which was good because he’s much better at facing off the ‘how did this happen?’ questions than I am. Meanwhile, I’m tentatively researching the lives of some largely forgotten about Victorian campaigners for what may become my next book. It’s a bit of a brain holiday and something one can quite comfortably do in one’s pyjamas.

 

TAS Awards 2016 – Acceptance Speech

It is half past five AM. That’s half past five in the morning. I’ve been awake for an hour and a half.

I lay awake for a bit willing sleep but the enormous crapness of everything poked at my stress system (which surely must give up soon) and that was it, no sleep ’til Brooklyn. So I got up, brewed tea, wondered whether to edit a tearful, ranty podcast I recorded yesterday, decided against it (too raw for broadcast), then checked twitter just in case anyone else was about at this stupid hour of the morning.

What I found was a stream of wonderful, touching, caring messages about the TAS Awards 2016 and two awards; one for ‘twitter titter’ and another for what roughly translates as ‘yeah you nailed that crap’.

I am really sorry that I wasn’t about on twitter last night, to thank everyone for voting, to thank Sarah and Vicky for their relentless facilitation of our small but vibrant community and to thank everyone for their jubilation and cake emoticons and good humour. You know the score – life is tough right now, things have slipped, I’m slipping, blahblahblah  (I’m pretty fucking bored of myself and this relentless pressure cooker of family life), so basically I wasn’t around.

Our slice of twitter has helped me cling on to sanity and hope through the darkest, shittiest times. Using black humour is one of my main coping mechanisms and I feel lucky to have connected with so many others who do the same. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve laughed out loud at what might be considered the most inappropriate of times. It’s true what they say, you either laugh or you cry.

I’m currently trying to laugh not cry over some spectacularly poor choices, which come with a vile side salad of intimidation and a fuck you sauce. It’s hard to maintain the comedy because I feel increasingly lost in it all and scared about the future. The truth becomes clearer every day, with every fresh crisis: I’ve done the best I can and now it’s over to you. Sounds easy. Hardest fucker I’ve ever experienced.

My friends, thank you thank you thank you, for all your support over these years. I’m touched that I make you laugh from time to time and that you think I nail the crap. I shall continue to try to do both. Now more tea I think before the sun comes up and another day is done battle with.