1. (Before starting the course) This subject is really easy, I’ll easily get an A in this subject.
2. (During the course) Exam? What exam?
3. (During class revision sessions) Yeah, yeah, this is really boring.
4. (One week before the exam) Oh shit, I have an exam in a week’s time.
5. (Trying to revise) Why don’t I understand any of this? I don’t remember learning any of this.
6. (After looking at a past paper) My life is over, I am going to be slaughtered.
7. (Reaching the bargaining phase) If I faked my own death they would probably give me a good grade posthumously.
8. (The night before the exam) I could work as a dustman. Surely you don’t need good grades to work as a dustman?
9. (In the exam, just after turning over the paper) Oh no, anything but that.
10. (Afterwards) Fantastic, I will never have to study that subject ever again. What do you mean resits?
(My son is sitting an English exam next week. We’re currently at stage 6.)
People don’t talk or write very much about the menopause. Is it still a bit taboo? Of course we can name it now, and refer to it in passing, but we do seem reluctant to dwell on it in public. After all, if you get a group of women of a certain age together, they are very likely to talk about it – and laugh a lot too – which suggests there are things bottled up.
Of course rather than being taboo, it might be just that menopause bores most people. There isn’t much for men to relate to – they might get drawn into childbirth and child rearing, but they have a vested interest in getting that right – what stake do they have in the end of a reproductive life? Younger women are too busy coping with being reproductive (or trying not to be reproductive) – on the approach, menopause just looks like a heaven-sent rest.
And a heaven-sent rest it remains, until it hits you. And then rest certainly seems to be impossible. All night long, first ragingly hot, then freezing cold: there is no duvet made by man that can handle the nightly temperature range of a menopausal woman. In the middle of the working day, you suddenly absolutely have to tear off the sweater you had huddled into moments before. The evening is punctuated by similar frantic efforts to disrobe, to the unsympathetic amusement of watching family. And then the mood swings, by turns sentimental, raging, bored and demoralised. Not a serene middle age – as I hoped – nor particularly dignified.
It makes me feel old, reaching menopause. I have always said that old is good – now I am going to have to live by my words.
O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
This week I came up short against an unflattering image of myself. I am sure it is good for the soul, to meet your distorted twin occasionally, but probably best not to meet it too often. Apparently I am a pushy dominating mother. (Sometimes I beg the children to let me do a bit of pushing and dominating, but they never let me.)
One of the school staff has started mentoring Duncan – trying to help him cope with exam year. You have to remember that staff doing this are frequently giving up their (very rare) free time, because they honestly want to make a difference to students’ lives. But it’s no surprise to find that, untrained, they can drift into pop psychology. This is what happened here: Duncan told his mentor that he wanted to study Physics at [Scary University], and his mentor thought that very outlandish. How could a child – a child with his problematic school record – have dreamt up such an ambition on their own? It must come from the parents: “You don’t have to live your parents’ dreams, you know.” Throw in bits of gossip about Julie heard in the classroom, and the mentor was convinced he was on the right track: “You don’t have to get as good grades as your sister. The two of you don’t have to get good grades just because your mother expects it.”
(He probably doesn’t know much about Julie and her illness. He may know she has been in and out of school. Perhaps he believes she is just highly strung, made a bit anxious by pressure from mum. He likely doesn’t know about the hospital, the medication, the sadder reality of mental illness.)
Duncan wasn’t getting caught up in all this. He was cross with his mentor. “He doesn’t believe that it’s what I really want to do.” he said, “You’ve never pushed me into anything. I do want to get good grades and go to [Scary University]. I don’t secretly want to do something else: I just want someone to help me do this!”
As Duncan is the first to point out, from his perspective the real problem is that his parents haven’t been pushy enough. We never have bothered ourselves about his grades; we are convinced that his many good qualities will help him succeed in the end; and we think he should work out for himself what he wants to do in life. (In fact neither of us think much of this plan to apply to [Scary University], but it has to be his call.) Anyone who thinks we have been pushing him around doesn’t know Duncan: the last time I successfully pushed Duncan around he was in a buggy.
I’m in the middle of one of those weeks which is like a really bad Italian opera. Not one of the great ones, but one of those flabby, cut-and-paste jobs that were just trying to make a fast buck. There is too much high emotion, raised voices and an unlikely plot.
Life with teenagers is not always easy. Life with two highly strung teenagers, both with mental health issues, can really suck. Week four of the school term, the nights are drawing in, homework is piling up, and there is a sudden flurry of assessments. Both kids, in their different ways, buckle under the strain. There are lots of tears, a lot of catastrophising and an overdose is taken (yet again).
I calm, coach, encourage and insist. I drive, cook and shop. I negotiate with school. I phone psychiatrists and therapists. As an after thought, I sometimes work. I don’t sleep, laugh or relax as much as usual.
I think, Why are my kids like this? What did I do wrong? What could I do differently?
I am sorry I had to miss a key meeting at work, sorry I forgot to go to the nurse for my blood test, sorry I failed to return my neighbour’s call, sorry there was nothing in the house to eat one evening. But it was all I could do to survive this week.
But hey, I wrote my blog post: and this weekend I shall bake some bread.
The two words you dread to hear when you rely on mental health services: budget cuts.
It’s not as bad as all that: the specialist service that supports Julie at the moment will now give her two years of support, not three. I mull it over – trying to get used to the idea of a second transition so soon after the last one – before she even finishes school. I do feel dismayed: this team is so good, especially compared to what went before. This team specialise in treatment of psychosis: they understand it, they are not afraid of it, they are confident and encouraging. When Julie was treated by mainstream psychiatric services for young people, psychosis was not well understood: it was either ignored or suppressed with ever larger doses of antipsychotics. But this service teaches you to just get on with your life, take the psychosis in your stride, make the best of it, work out strategies to cope with the difficult bits, and take control of your own medication.
I am not quite sure when our two years are up (the transition into this service alone took nearly a year); I am afraid of what will come after; and I want to hide some of this fear from Julie. But then I start to wonder: how much of this is just good old fear of change? This service was never meant to be a permanent support: it was always meant to lead to independence. She is changing so rapidly, it is really possible that within a year she (and I) will have learnt all we needed to learn anyway. A year ago she was managing just an hour a day at school, could not be left on her own for twenty minutes, and I was terrified the school would give up on her again. Fast forward to this October, and she loves her sixth form, cycles there unaided, has fantastic support and is forming a new group of friends. Every day my daughter grows a little more before my very eyes.
I am bound to fear for Julie’s future. She suffers from a condition which is life-threatening, and also stigmatised; she takes several psychoactive drugs which have serious side-effects, some of which are also life-threatening; she has missed years of normal life. I know that she has to learn not just to navigate through adult life, but also to manage her illness, and I know there will be mistakes ahead. One day she will have to take control of her medication, and some day I am going to have to trust her to look after herself. The illness may eventually recede, but it may also have some nasty surprises in store for us. She may need extra support and care from us for years; she may make a partial recovery into a rather vulnerable adult; she may make a full recovery into independence. There is no way of knowing what she will have gone through by the time she reaches sixty.
But she is just at that stage of life – poised before the jump into adulthood – where there are always risks and fears, even for the strong, healthy and confident, who have never known more sorrow in life than their acne. No one does know what life is going to bring. Of course in an ideal world there would be a safety net of services to catch people like Julie if they fall – but if we cannot have that, then we will just have to make her as self-reliant as we can. Then trust to the kindness of the future.