My last post was about Billy, so now it’s Jo’s turn. Here we have seen progress. After months and years and tens of thousands of pounds in legal fees and specialist reports, Jo was offered a local authority funded place at a Priory specialist 16-25 residential college for young people with Aspergers and similar social disabilities. As there are no specialist colleges for FASD its a best fit. To our amazement Jo managed to go to a trial few days in the summer and made friends, which made the September transition easier. She also did a few days summer work experience in the pottery of a local Camp Hill community craft centre which also gave her confidence. While we can’t say she is happy, she is a professional moaner, the change from being stuck in her room with only online relationships to her current situation is huge. The academic programme has not really got off the ground – she hangs around outside the class apparently too stressed to take part, but wants to be around people and have company. College for Jo is about social relationships, particularly boy friends, and given that her peer group are mostly on the autistic spectrum and socialisation isn’t their strong point, she has done well. It is an enormous advantage that the college have a 24 hour waking staff, so if she is awake at night she can and does go and talk to someone, reducing the likelihood of self harming. We just hope that the local authority will consider her progress sufficient to continue funding – any excuse to cut it will be so tempting to them. There is an annual review next month and rather ominously we had a letter from the LA saying that they had changed her Education Health Care Plan as a result of the review reports received from the college. To have Jo back home in her room at this stage would be heartbreaking.
It is almost a year since I last blogged and the truth is that life became too difficult and painful and my qualms about protecting the privacy of the individuals involved overcame my desire to write. I have realised that life will not necessarily get easier and the challenges increase rather than diminish as the children get older, so here is a brief summary.
Billy struggled in ‘supported’ housing, which was pretty dreadful. He stopped pretending to engage with any sort of education and sunk to the bottom in terms of behaviour and attitude, although still wanted to spend time, as much time as possible, at home. He seems to have spent most of his time playing on his Xbox with other lads, hanging round the streets at night, sleeping during the day, smoking, some drinking, probably getting a fair quantity of cannabis. He certainly had too much money which encouraged his life style, and the charity running the place were making a good profit from his housing benefit. Billy was asked to leave when seen on CCTV letting friend who had been banned from the property in at a window. The state of his room was a continual source of tension with staff. He would occasionally be given warnings to clean up but not actually helped to do so. Just telling him has never had any effect. He never mastered the laundry system, any more than he did at boarding school. He was always well turned out as he either bought new T-Shirts rather than retrieve dirty ones or brought his stuff home for me to wash. The main problem however was his girlfriend, not in herself, we were very fond of her, but their relationship was toxic. She was also in supported housing and as mixed up as Billy, but without the same level of family support. They started going out in January 2016, and from the start the relationship seemed very volatile. Billy could be verbally cutting and tried to push her away emotionally and using language, but the more he did so, the more she clung to and pleaded with him to keep her. As Billy became emotionally closer to her, and often thoughtful and caring, he also became increasingly possessive and controlling. We tried several times to suggest to her that she should leave him but to no avail.
Things came to a head in May/June – we managed to find a rented flat for Billy as he was once again homeless, and his girlfriend immediately quit her accommodation and persuaded us, against our better judgement, to let her move in with him (not that we could have monitored them at a distance, and they were over 18). A few weeks later, with another homeless friend permanently lodged on a sofa bed in the front room, and Jo staying for the weekend, Billy assaulted her. I went to collect Jo on Sunday morning and saw that the girlfriend was covered in bruises. I could go into detail of what followed and the next few months but won’t as it is unnecessary and distressing. The whole thing was somewhat predictable and we had tried hard to get appointments for Billy with CAMHS and an NHS psychiatrist. When we finally managed after a great deal of persistence from us and his GP, both services dismissed him, despite the fact that he was clearly distressed, disregulated, hearing voices that ‘told him to do stuff’, suffering lapses of memory, increasingly violent and frightened… CAMHS told him to contact ‘Teens in Crisis’ which he tried to do, but without success. The psychiatrist said after a brief interview that he was not schizophrenic, although noting that we thought he had signs of personality disorder, and discharged him. The girlfriend meanwhile was finally persuaded by her family to press charges of assault – and added rape for good measure, but didn’t understand that she couldn’t do that and still go out with Billy at the same time. She was actually in our house for the weekend when the police and her hysterical mother turned up to arrest Billy some weeks later. Since then she has alternated between wanting to be with him and wanting to destroy him. Billy was kept in custody overnight and released on police bail. Nearly eight months later the case is still waiting to go to the CPS. The (ex) girlfriend has made it her business to stalk Billy online, as well as by direct contacts, and ensured that anyone else he might go out with or befriend knows his past. This meant that Billy was unable to take up the college place he had intended in September and moved to another town to do a similar course, only to be ‘chased’ from there after a few weeks. He has now made a third move to still try to catch up with his Level 2 qualifications, but finding accommodation has proved extremely difficult. He evidently still loves her but accepts that for the moment at least they can’t be together. Her feelings seem as ambivalent as ever, and we can only assume that she is suffering from shock and trauma from the whole experience.
Meanwhile we attended the magistrates court last week where Billy was answering charges going back to 2014/15 for inappropriate Internet use. It took the police nearly two years to present the case to the Crown Prosecution Service who, much to the surprise of Billy’s solicitor, decided to prosecute. It is hard to see how it is in the public interest, but that is where we are. The solicitors did suggest that the delay had more to do with waiting until Billy was 18 (he was 14 and 15, and out of school when the offences occurred) and could be treated as an adult, rather than the merits or otherwise of the case itself. We are now at the stage of assembling medical and other evidence that can be used in Billy’s defence. He is convinced he is going to get a custodial sentence, which he may, and is suffering frequent crippling stress migraines. He had the unpleasant experience of having to disclose the details to his current college. We can only hope that he has learnt something about what you do in secret coming to the light eventually, and are glad that he was caught and stopped when he was. The one positive note is that with the help of the Adoption Support Fund Billy is getting around 25 hours of therapy from a charity. It probably helps him cope day-to-day but does not get to the roots of attachment, abandonment and sensory issues that lie behind much of his behaviour. What is frustrating is that he has been explicitly barred from receiving any treatment for inappropriate sexual behaviour as the case was still open.
The most interesting and effective treatment Billy has had so far is from a small group of
healers who broadly adopt the approach outlined by Tom Zinser in his book Soul-Centered Healing. Billy has seen one practitioner face-to-face on two occasions, and other work was done on his behalf remotely. The idea that he has sub-personalities, probably created at
points of trauma in his past, or possibly even past lives, makes sense to me. His personality changes and lack of awareness of what he does in different moods or persona is very apparent to anyone who witnesses them. I took an odd little drawing of a ghost-like figure along to one meeting of healers said that Billy had denied drawing it, but that it looked like his style. The therapists present said with one voice ‘he didn’t’, which I later realised meant that he didn’t do it consciously in his ‘Billy’ personality, but in some sub-ego state which he could not remember. Therapy consists in helping Billy connect to his ‘Higher Self’, as well as removing any unwanted negative energies. Although subtle these sessions have generally been marked by step changes and improvements in attitude. Billy has stopped saying that he is fine as he is and doesn’t need any treatment, and realises that he needs help. He spent a lot of time using a Ouija board and summoning negative entities (and producing some quite dramatic psychokinetic effects such as lights blowing, raps, knocks, mould growing on walls, orbs flying across the room etc.). This had been a ‘game’ since boarding school days that he had become hooked on much like the cannabis. One of the unwanted visitors was ‘Zozo’, well known to the young generally I discovered. Billy’s drawings of Zozo were a cross between a devil and himself – perhaps another sub-personality? Anyway, Billy insisted that he could handle Zozo and other negative entities, and the soul-centred mediumistic healing seems to have both removed any hangers-on and improved Billy’s mental state considerably. It hardly needs saying that such treatments are regarded as highly questionable by many people and we wouldn’t mention them to mainstream psychologists or other medical practitioners. My only interest is in helping Billy, and if it works, it works.
Taking responsibility for his actions and as far as possible leading a more regulated and fruitful life are also essential parts of the healing process. To this end we are continuing to support Billy to stay at college for as long as possible, although he frequently talks of giving up. He clearly has talent for music technology and has started a Soundcloud channel with some of his rap recordings. They are quite raw and honest, in true rap style, and are the best way to find out what’s going on in his life. While we many not like the language, it is at least creative and cathartic. His birth mother is also a fan and posts his latest songs on her Facebook page. One of the most moving was about his need of and love for her.
So why take so long to write any of this? Apart from the privacy issue there is a sense that the adoption community really don’t want to hear too much negativity, which is understandable. We know from friends, however, that we are not unusual in having an adopted teenager in contact with the criminal justice system, struggling with education despite being bright, self-harming through substance misuse and sex, and becoming increasingly violent or anti-social. The support just isn’t there. Tony and I benefitted from therapy but the targeted, specialist help Billy needed and needs has yet to materialise. Maybe it will remain mum at the end of her tether waiting for his brain to develop and gain more self-control. That could be the sum of it.
It’s a while since I wrote a post – too many other things to do, not sure where to start, too exhausted – physically and emotionally. Boxing Day seems like a good time for a quick retrospective look at 2015. Christmas was different this year as Billy opted not to join us. In July we managed finally, after a great deal of effort on my part, to get a referral to a hostel for homeless youngsters in a town about 50 miles from home. His behaviour at home has become increasingly difficult, and he has nothing to do here. He almost but not quite finished his catch-up Sixth Form college year, sabotaging it really as he didn’t finish his courses. Still under qualified for progression to Level 3, the College said back in about April that they wouldn’t keep him on next academic year. We went to a talk about apprenticeships but he clearly wasn’t remotely ready for this. After some searching I found a housing project that also offered music technology Level 2 and Maths, as well as accommodation. Getting a social service referral was ridiculously complex, but we got there in the end. After a shaky start in a grotty little flat with five other lads, all older, which was evidently pretty scary, he was moved to the main building where at least they have CCTV and more people around, as well a a bigger room. There is still no-one on duty at night and the kids are pretty feral, left to their own devices much of the time. Billy has a key worker he sees for an hour a week, when he makes it, but seems to have fallen out of the education and isn’t doing anything else. He has money from disability payments and housing benefit pay the rent. At the moment he isn’t motivated to do much else and has fallen into a gang culture with very little effort. His fascination with guns and knives, inability to control his temper and distain for anyone weaker than himself are worrying to say the least. We picked Billy up today on our way home from relatives, where we spent Christmas, but having opened his presents he is keen to head back to his mates. It is so sad to see him like this. He is nearly 18 and the problems he had at five and ten are all there, and it is very hard to see how he is going to stay out of prison.
The adoption fund provided some therapy for us. It was supposed to be 20 sessions of art for me and Tony, 20 of drama for Jo and 20 of music for Billy. Tony and I have found ours very useful – Billy went a couple of times then wouldn’t turn up and Jo wouldn’t engage at all, locking herself in her room. Part of the ‘work’ we have been doing is letting go of the kids and realising that what we can do for them is increasingly limited.
Having driven for nearly 3 hours today already, Billy just came to ask if there was a train back to the town he’s living in (there isn’t). I will take him back after only about four hours at home as he assures us that it is either than or he will smash up the house. He’s angry with his girlfriend as she went out with her family and another guy. We worry about her ability to cope with someone as needy and dangerous as Billy but so far she sticks with him.
I haven’t written for some time – to busy and exhausted. One of the things taking up my time has been trying to persuade the Local Education Authority that Jo does have special needs and requires an Education Health Care Plan (ECHP) and fully-funded residential school placement. She was turned down for an assessment, but after several weeks of counter moves, the LEA have changed their minds, and we are back at the gathering documentation stage – again. As I had a quick cup of coffee and salad in town today I jotted down the following:
- To be born Hep.C + to an alcoholic mother with a heroine addiction;
- To suffer pre-natal brain damage;
- To be taken into care at three days old, and moved from a loving foster family to a new setting at 11 months;
- To attach oneself to, and crave the attention and approval of a brother who wants to destroy you, who will undermine you at every opportunity;
- To be bright and creative, but drop out of three mainstream schools unable to cope;
- To feel for as long as you can remember that you are in a wrongly gendered body, and hate yourself and the world for failing to recognise that you are really a girl;
- To want to socialise but be rejected by most of your oldest friends;
- To be sidelined by your birth siblings, who mean so much to you;
- To be depressed and stressed and isolated at home;
- To have no clear or realistic idea of the future and what it might hold;
- To feel that the world is against you and hide away from it;
- To struggle to make decisions and regret each failure to move forwards;
- To have so much to give the world but have no opportunity to express it…
Yes, I have special needs.
No, I am not fulfilling my potential.
I never thought I would enjoy therapy, but Tony and I are finding our weekly art therapy sessions a useful space to think about where we are and how to deal with the children’s behaviour. Our adoption worker also recommended looking at Nonviolent Resistance. One of the books I ordered was Haim Omer’s book, Nonviolent Resistance: A New Approach to Violent and Self-destructive Children (CUP, 2004). I have only dipped in so far, but it makes a lot of sense. I turned first to the chapter on ‘Violence towards siblings’ as Billy’s attitude and behaviour towards Jo is the cause of most violence in the family. I was thankful to read (p.113-14) that the author stresses the need for parents to be supported rather than judged:
We have seen that the prevailing assumption that parental abuse is the real cause of violence towards siblings is little more than a widespread dogma. This blaming stance toward parents precludes any possibility of building a therapeutic alliance with them. Professionals thus jettison in advance their main potential collaborators in the fight against the child’s violence. In effect, we can hope to cope with the hidden endemic problem of violence toward siblings only by moving beyond the prevailing accusatory stance and evolving an attitude of trust toward parents who are willing to get help. We therapists should approach these parents with the assumption that they are motivated by true concern and an honest desire to help their children and themselves. Viewing the parents as defensive, as sabotaging the therapy, as trying to invade their children’s privacy, or as bent on preventing her independence are professional habits generated by the erroneous view of the parents as the main pathogenic factor. What the therapist views as a parent’s resistance to treatment is often nothing but a reflection of the parent’s feelings that the therapist’s suggestions are not helping.
The same could be said for social workers and educationalists. We are fortunate at the moment in having some professionals around us who do recognise our genuine care and concerns for our children and who are working with us in trying to find solutions. We were working towards many of the principles of non-violent resistance anyway, including setting clear boundaries, keeping ourselves safe and taking back control – so far by keeping the children apart, but now we have the Easter holidays, which we meet with some trepidation. I wrote a letter to Billy, a kind of contract, which included some of the non-violent resistance ideas, including making it clear that we would not hide his behaviour, and that we would be present when he is at home – he might consider intrusive – and make the decisions as to what is and is not acceptable without entering into negotiations. The bottom line is that we will call the police and have him removed from the house if we can’t cope with his behaviour towards us or towards Jo.
Tony picked Billy up from College and took him to MacDonalds, our neutral space for talking. He explained that there was a solicitor’s letter and a letter from us for him at home, and talked him through the situation he was in. From there he led onto how Billy can help himself and meet our expectations of him. Billy is keen to avoid a custodial sentence and unusually open to suggestions as to how he can do this. Last time I spoke to him he thought he was fine and didn’t need to change, so maybe something has shifted. The good influences in the form of Jane and friends, as well as family, probably help. It is impossible for us to really know what and who is a danger to him and should be avoided, and who can help. Naturally at 16, living away from home, most of his life is hidden to us, and even when at home so much of his life is online that it is still a mystery, as we found out recently to everyone’s cost. Billy has arranged to have friends staying for part of the holidays which suggests to us that he is aware friends can help act as a corrective to some extent on his behaviour. These things are a delicate balance between control and firmness on our part but without communicating rejection or anger.
Second Letter to Billy
Things we can and can’t do for you.
We can and will:
- Continue to love you unconditionally.
- Be proud of your achievements and celebrate your successes.
- Welcome you and your friends – as long as you and they behave well, and treat the family and our home with respect.
- Try to support you when things don’t go well.
- Be upset and disappointed when you don’t take advantage of your opportunities, let people down, let yourself down, and make bad choices.
- Decide if and when you can come home if your presence or actions have an overly disruptive effect on the family.
- Call the police if we decide that your actions are more than we can cope with.
- Continue to liaise with social services, adoption services, the police, solicitors and Department of Work and Pensions on your behalf.
- Make choices for you.
- Mitigate the consequences of your actions.
- Undo your mistakes or minimise the seriousness of what you have done wrong.
- Turn your life around.
- Help you discover what you really want to do and be in life – that’s for you to do.
- Find you an apprenticeship or job – but the College and other agencies can help if you take advantage of their services.
- Tolerate bad behaviour in the home. This includes (1) being rude, provocative or unkind; (2) smoking or taking anything legal or illegal, apart from tobacco, in the conservatory or outside; (3) damaging the house, furnishings or belongings; (4) any violence, verbal or physical, whatsoever; (5) stealing; (6) lying; (7) misuse of the Internet; (8) excessive drinking.
- Seek to minimise or conceal your behaviour in the past, present or future.
- Bargain with you over what is or is not permitted.
We expect you:
- To be polite and considerate.
- To keep your room and belongings tidy.
- To actively plan for and work towards your future in a constructive and realistic manner.
- Ask for and accept help when needed.
- To keep yourself safe and behave in a responsible manner.
Mum and Dad
I haven’t written anything for a while – too exhausted and unsure what to say. Jo is still at home but thinking seriously about going back to school tomorrow. It is a friend’s birthday, and she evidently feels that she is missing out on a good deal of social life. She can get quite disturbed at home and is very isolated. A couple of days ago Jo left empty sheet of paracetamol tablets ostentatiously on the kitchen table. I had no idea whether Jo had taken one for a headache, or the whole packet. We assumed that a serious suicide attempt would be more secretive, and she has long had a habit of self-medicating, as well as of threatening to kill herself, so I’m afraid we didn’t take all that much notice. I did mention this incident to the art therapist who came this morning, and he said he would have to report it. I also mentioned it to the woman from the LEA who phoned up to do a social assessment for Jo as part of the EHCP. She too was very concerned – although I assured her that Jo’s CAMHS counsellor was aware of her self-harming and state of mind. CAMHS can’t do much about it if Jo won’t engage with the service – I went on my own to her last appointment, as Jo wouldn’t leave the house. Jo wouldn’t engage with therapy at home either, barricading herself in her room when a lovely young woman came to do some drama with her. Jo has always engaged in risky behaviours, and our attitude since she was small was to ask ‘Is it life-threatening’? If the answer was ‘Probably not’ we would let her get on with whatever it was she was doing as supervising her was such extraordinarily hard work.
We had a good family day out visiting relatives a couple of weeks ago. The children are normally reluctant to join in our annual get-together and there have been occasions in previous years when having got them there they refused to get out of the car. Billy was the worst offender, but Jo would keep him company. This time his girlfriend Jane was invited along, which made all the difference. Billy behaved well in front of Jane, and Jane included Jo, making friends with her. Sunday morning we were discussing the success of the previous day when three CID officers turned up at the house. At first Billy assumed that they had come to take Jo back to school, and told her as much. They were in plain clothes and an unmarked car, but unmistakably the police rather than Jehovah’s Witnesses (we had them today and they are always in twos rather than threes). To cut a long story short, Billy is in trouble over an incident that happened about fifteen months ago. The police had traced his address through his mobile phone number, which he had exchanged with someone else involved. They had a search warrant and took away Billy’s laptop and phone. He was shaken, as we all were, but resigned. He also had to tell Jane at least some of what it was about as she was in the house at the time and he could hardly conceal that he was in trouble. Billy’s biggest worry seemed to be the effect on Jane and their relationship. The police also made it clear that if he didn’t present himself at a police station for interview they would issue warrant for his arrest.
I had two days to try to find a suitable criminal solicitor, and last Tuesday evening Tony came from work and I picked him and Billy up, and we made our way to the police station where we met the solicitor. She didn’t think that it would be in the public interest to prosecute, but the investigations will take some time and he has evidently been engaged in risky, and often criminal, behaviour for some time. Although we were all in a state of shock, there was also a sense of relief that things were coming to the surface, especially as Billy is still a minor (under 18) and there is an opportunity to address the underlying issues when the legal process has run its course. Prosecution is a real possibility, especially if the police find more incriminating evidence on Billy’s laptop, which they hadn’t had time to go through at that point. Billy did a good job of explaining himself but it was far from evident to us that he understood what he had done, or why it was wrong. He clearly knew that he was in trouble, but seems to live in a world with different values. So far at least Jane and her family have stood by Billy – he was at their house last weekend. Its hard to know quite what she sees in him, although he can undoubtedly be kind and caring, and they seem very much in love. We will make the most of enjoying the positive influence Jane seems to have on him while it lasts.
On Thursday as well as attending Jo’s CAMHS appointment without her, I bought a cheap laptop for Billy so that he can do his college work, and Nokia pay-as-you-go phone so that we can contact him, and he can stay in touch with his friends and tutor. I also had to go to the Job Centre with his birth certificate, which the DWP needed for some reason. They haven’t paid Billy’s benefits this month or last, which makes it hard to pay his rent, but I haven’t had the time and energy to find out what’s going on as yet. As I walked through the front door I could see that all was not well. Although our house is messy and too full of stuff, most of the stuff seemed to be on the floor, along with smashed remote controls and debris. The first thing I saw entering the drawing room was damage to the plasterwork – and I later found a smashed up chicken coup on the decking. I was pretty annoyed, having spent another day running round after the kids while they smashed the place up. Billy had retreated to his room and Jo had calmed down by then. He knows exactly how to push Jo’s buttons by being incredibly rude to her, and she reacts but damaging things to deflect her aggression away from Billy. After the smashing episode she asked him how he would feel if Jane could see him, which touched a very raw nerve. He was sobbing but looked murderous. Tony remonstrated with Billy, who wanted us to simply blame Jo for the damage (and to call the police). His stated ambition has always been to make her so naughty that we get rid of her. He wasn’t in a mood to listen to Tony, but hopefully got the message that provoking Jo to get a result is just not on. It is a pattern repeated endlessly since they were very small, but no joke with two large teenagers.
Tony and I had a few sleepless nights feeling that we had reached another crisis, or at least turning point. Having both children at home with two parents is tough, but with one parent impossible. We agreed that Billy could only come home if he or Jo had a friend staying so that there is someone to act as a moderating influence on Billy’s behaviour (although this is not always effective) and both parents are at home. Logistically this might be difficult but we have been here before. It means cancelling other plans and commitments, which is annoying but can’t be helped. On the plus side, Billy did apparently attend a music therapy session that took place in college today. I just hope he finds a way to work through some of his anxieties and feelings in a way that enables some positive changes in his life. One of the images that came up in the art therapy this morning was that of a nut, like a conker, hard and brown but breaking open with the green shoots of new life. That is what I would wish for each of us.
After some thought, I have decided to write a note to Billy to leave in his room. When he comes home on Friday he might go straight up and lock the door, without much of an opportunity for a chat. He will no doubt be surprised that the usual magical transformation hasn’t taken place. I’m trying some tough love – we’ll see how it goes.
It will not have escaped your notice that I have not tidied or cleaned your room this week. From now on it is up to you whether you clean and tidy it or not. If it is tidy, Penny will clean when she comes. As you know I had a breast tumour removed a couple of weeks ago. It turned out to be benign and not cancer, but it was a reminder that you will not always have me to clean up for you and sort out your life. If you need help in leaning how to tackle your room, just ask. The same is true of college work. There is support there for you at the moment but it will not always be available, so take advantage of it while you can. The goal is for you to be independent. If Dad and I manage to go to the USA in 2016 you will be 18, an adult. Hopefully you will be in full-time education, doing an apprenticeship or working. You might have your own flat. To get to that stage you will need to be able to look after your belongings, do your washing, cook, and manage your money. If you need a mobile phone contract or tobacco you will need to earn the money for it. There is a lot to take onboard, so the sooner you start the easier it will be when the time comes. Enjoy your freedom and responsibility!
Love Mum xxx
Jo was bored. Billy spent Friday night at a friend’s house, then phoned very early Saturday morning to ask how he should get home as there was snow on the ground. We checked the trains on-line, all running normally. He eventually made it home by early evening, but in the meantime he had invited another friend along as well, a refugee from building work on his house. That meant that Billy had company all weekend and didn’t need Jo. Jo was bored and stressed. I don’t know quite what happened but there was some incident on-line with one of her oldest local friends, who never wants to see her. Maybe with Billy occupied she had tried to find other company and was disappointed that it didn’t work out. It became apparent on Sunday that she had no intention of returning to school. By the time we took Billy to the station on Sunday evening to make his way back to college we found “my blood is on you all” smeared, in blood, all the way up the white wall of the staircase. On Billy’s bedroom door, along with more bloody finger marks, was the word “Die”. Very jolly! Tony and I were both tired and not in the mood for Jo’s drama-queen antics. We focused on getting Billy out of the house, and assured him that we were not ignoring Jo’s behaviour, we just weren’t sure how to deal with it. He suggested she needed an exorcist.
Part of me wanted to ring her CAMHS counsellor first thing Monday morning to say that we simply couldn’t cope with this sort of thing. Part of me just wanted to tell her off and get her to clean it up the mess, as it seemed indulgent and uncalled for. Billy and his friend had ordered a Domino’s Pizza takeaway after supper on Saturday evening, refusing to share any of it with Jo. On Sunday Jo refused to eat saying that she only wanted a Domino’s pizza. I don’t usually buy them as they strike me as overpriced and not particularly healthy, but Sunday afternoon I had made a special journey to get Jo a Domino’s pizza. This she had turned down on the grounds that it was too small. She had evidently boxed herself into a place where she felt she had to act out her frustrations, as happened so often when she was younger.
Fortunately Tony and I were too exhausted to do anything and Jo was hiding under her duvet, refusing to make contact with anyone. We decided that we would ignore her histrionics, calculating that she was not a suicide risk. I could see some blood on her sheet and broken glass on the floor, but nothing to cause too much alarm. We hadn’t the energy to try to get Jo back to school, and phoned to say she wouldn’t be in that evening. Her housemaster was relaxed about it so we did not feel under any great pressure from that direction. A couple of hours later Jo appeared in the kitchen and presented me with a dirty pink flannel, with which she had evidently wiped the blood off the wall (we have tough wipe-clean paint for good reason). I asked her to move the flannel from the kitchen table to the washing machine, which she did. She then found the remains of her breakfast sausages and the Dominos pizza still in the oven and disappeared upstairs with them. She didn’t say much until this evening (Monday) having slept all day. She is clearly stressed, and has cuts all down one arm, having broken something made of glass her friend had given her, in order to make the incisions.
Part of the problem seems to be Jo’s indecision about going ahead transitioning from male to female. She feels female and just wants people to treat her as a girl, but is finding it hard to accept that she needs medical intervention if people are not going to see her, at least partly, as male. We find it easier and easier to think of Jo as a girl as in personality, and the way she talks, thinks and acts she has always been far more female than male. But one can’t escape the facts of puberty. However she dresses and does her hair, Jo is in a male body. Hopefully taking about it, rather than just acting out her frustration and sense of isolation, will help Jo move forward. I’m glad we didn’t react to her message in blood, even if it was because we simply didn’t know what to do and were too tired to engage with it at the time. You could say it was a call for help, certainly a bid for attention, but not one we would wish to encourage. Being fourteen is never easy, and for Jo there is a lot more to work out than just who your best friend is and why she doesn’t like you.
Jo sent me a text wishing me well for my operation yesterday. I was chuffed that she remembered and was thinking of me. I was sitting in the car waiting to go home last night when her housemaster phoned. My first reaction is always, ‘Oh dear, what have they done now?’ but apparently he had a tricky situation that he wanted to discuss. He kindly said that he had phoned me as the ‘voice of reason’. I can see that when staff are close up to a situation it can be difficult to step back and consider the options. This term in Citizenship classes Year 10 are covering sex education. We had received a letter informing us of our right to withdraw our child from this section of the curriculum. Jo had been asked whether she wanted to go with the boys or the girls, and had not surprisingly wanted to join the girls. Some of the girls in the class felt inhibited with what they saw as a boy present, and at least one parent had raised this as an issue with the school. The teacher in charge of Citizenship had gone to the housemaster for advice. Maybe they were hoping we would just exercise our right to withdraw Jo and solve their problems that way, but that would stigmatise Jo through no fault of her own. I reminded the housemaster that if they felt they could not teach Jo as one of the group they had an obligation to provide individual tuition for her to cover the same syllabus with a suitably qualified (female) teacher. He was open to that, but wondered aloud about the competence of any of the staff to take on that role. I also suggested that the school could use this as an opportunity for some wider gender education, and that the Gender Identity Development Service at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust in London, and Gendered Intelligence, must have plenty of experience they could draw on in this area. I offered to speak to the headmaster to see if he would pay for someone to go and speak to the staff and/or students.
It was also a chance to discuss with the housemaster what Jo had said earlier about feeling it had been left up to her to explain to fellow students about being transgender, and what it meant. She rightly felt that this was not fair. I passed on to him that tutors had not adequately explained to their tutees what it meant to be transgender, and that just saying that Jo had changed her name and would return to school in girl’s uniform wasn’t enough. He conceded that most tutors probably hadn’t explained it as they didn’t understand themselves. We left it that he would talk to the head, but I can see that this is one I will need to follow up. I do hope that this becomes a positive opportunity for some further education rather than just a negative experience of stigmatisation and exclusion for Jo.
Meanwhile Billy continues to avoid classes at college, and the people who could help him, while sending regular texts for more money. He wanted another £20 because he ‘took the wrong bus’ which I think probably translates as ‘had to ask x or y who is over 18 to buy tobacco for me and pay them to do so’. I continue to urge him to speak to his tutor or leaning support teacher about issues he has with attendance. He did say he was feeling overwhelmed, but seems paralysed when it comes to doing anything about it. People can only help, however willing they might be, if he turns up. I can’t seem to get that through to him. I have seen the same situation with university students, some of whom are probably exhibiting signs of depression, but they are not my responsibility in the same way and are older, better able in theory at least to take control of their lives. It is hard to know when to stop pleading with and for someone, and just let them get on with making a mess of things.
We put the dog pack in kennels for a few days so that I have some post-operative time without them jumping up and pulling on the lead like a husky team. It is blissfully peaceful in the house without them. Much as we love our dogs we never planned to have three large ones. It makes a change to be able to leave doors open or unlocked (the pointer can open every unlocked door), without dogs rushing through the house, muddy feet and enthusiasm everywhere.
One sometimes hears that bereavement is the most stressful event in many people’s lives, followed by moving house. The thing that sends my stress levels through the roof is children refusing to go to school. Both kids have done this for prolonged periods, making full-time paid work impossible for me. This evening we should have been taking both children back to school but the signals from Jo were not promising. It started early afternoon with complaints about feeling sick and generally unwell. Spending the weekend in the dark playing on her computer or lying in bed with an iPad while snacking can’t help the digestion or headaches. She insisted that this was not the problem. Not taking a very long shower (an hour plus) was another bad sign, as was the fact that at 5pm she was still in her nighty, which she’s been wearing all day. Bringing her English prep to me about the time we were due to leave was a good sign, but was quickly followed by a return to bed and refusal to speak to anyone. My body was pumping adrenaline and I was feeling homicidal by this point, trying hard to maintain a calm exterior. I took Billy back to college (two and a half hours round trip) as he was already sitting in the car having a cigarette. I can’t see his tobacco supply lasting the week. I didn’t want to be in the house with Jo as years of school refusal have taken their toll on my nerves. Although feeling exhausted, at least taking Billy offered me the prospect of some time to myself in the car on the return journey. Walking into the kitchen on arriving home to find a new load of dishes and pans sitting by the sink didn’t improve my mood. Nor did discovering that Tony had not informed Jo’s housemaster that she wouldn’t be returning tonight. He had apparently had a rather odd conversation with a duty member of staff in Billy’s old school, who had eventually asked him which school he thought he was talking to. I have given Tony the phone number of Jo’s housemaster numerous times, and he could also have googled it. It is not the events in themselves that get to me, so much as continually having to take responsibility for others – I feel the need of some downtime. If I were an animal right now it would be a prickly hedgehog.
The problem is that for years, pretty much all her school career, we have struggled to get Jo to go to school. If we thought home education could work we would have tried it, but she is a non-co-operator and would have simply spent her entire life in bed. As an infant we could use physical force to get her dressed and into school. Once there if not happy, she did not generally appear unhappy, and she is a very sociable child, loyal to her friends, funny and good company. The middle primary school years were particularly hard as she was big enough to resist getting dressed or getting into the car, and out of it again at the other end. We might resort to force – extracting her from the foot-well of the car where she had jammed herself, then locking the car doors, for instance. Until the end of Year 5 I would then have to give her a piggyback across the playground to the school entrance. This process, which started with waking her up about 7am, often took till lunchtime, making a normal working life impossible. I would just have time to go home, have something to eat and walk the dogs, before it was time to pick the kids up again. To say that she has problems with transitions is an understatement. I loved my job, parts of it anyway, and it was good to be in adult company, but finding the time and energy for challenging children and a career was a nightmare.
There have been periods of weeks or months more recently when we began to think that Jo’s difficulty in getting into school was behind us, but sadly not. This is the second time in the last three school nights that we have been unable to get her there. When this happens it is rare that she makes it in on Monday, wiping out Monday for doing anything else, but she generally surfaces by Tuesday – taking out most of Tuesday as well. On the last difficult Sunday, the last week of the Autumn Term, she did eventually get dressed, and her bags were all packed and in the car. It got too late for Tony to come along and share the driving as he had to be up early Monday morning for work. Jo eventually came outside and to stop her going in again I locked the house. She stalked off round the side, in a well-entrenched pattern of behaviour – when little she would run into the garden and hide just as we were about to leave. I sat and waited in a cold dark car. Nothing. Eventually she returned and tried the front door, realised it was locked and went back into the garden. After about an hour in the car I had a phone call from her on my mobile (cell phone) to say that she was in the house. I had to admire her determination, which has never been in short supply. In pitch darkness she had manoeuvred a very large ladder from the far side of the house onto the decking, and up to my study window, then climbed in, leaving the windows wide open on a bitterly cold night. She was back in her bedroom and had no intention of moving. It was about 11pm by this time, and although the school had been alerted and said they would let us in when we arrived, I wasn’t up to a long drive there and back again by that point. One-nil to Jo! I revel in the fact that the children can now put themselves to bed, as bedtimes were awful, but it will be so good when we no longer have to persuade reluctant children to go to school, for them as well as for us.