Motherhood, mental illness and beyond

Posts tagged ‘support’

Consequences

Recently I wrote about being reported to the NSPCC and consequently Children’s Services in these two posts: The Letter and The Letter – part 2. If you don’t have time to read them, the short version is that the NSPCC received 2 anonymous reports from someone who was concerned that my and DH’s mental illnesses meant that our children were at risk. Children’s Services investigated and quickly concluded that the reports were groundless. That, I hope, is the end of the matter.

Except that it isn’t, not really. Although I choose to believe that the reports were made due to genuine (albeit misguided) concern rather than malice, knowing that someone has read my blog and my tweets and concluded that I am an unfit mother, DH an unfit father, has been profoundly distressing. For me it has caused heightened anxiety and stress-induced insomnia, DH is struggling with an abrupt plunge into low mood. I hope that in time these will pass, and of course the children are still entirely unaware of the whole situation and its effects, and will hopefully remain that way.

I have always prided myself on being open and honest about my mental health, both here and on Twitter. Stigma is increased by ignorance, and by speaking out I hoped that in a small way I could help reduce that stigma and the alienation that many people with mental illnesses suffer. But to have that honesty turned against me and wielded as a weapon has been a horrifying experience. I’ve never hidden the fact that I find blogging to be an extremely therapeutic way of dealing with my illnesses, both mental and physical. I have also found a wonderful support network on Twitter, where I can be honest and speak of my experiences to those who understand and empathise as well as to those who really have no understanding of what mental illness can be like. In return I’ve been able to offer sympathy, advice and comfort to others who struggle with their mental health. But I’m not sure that I can continue to do so.

Despite our swift and complete exoneration by Children’s Services, this experience has left its mark. I no longer feel safe blogging and tweeting honestly about how I am, how my day is going, how DH is. Even as I write this post I’m wondering whether it will be turned into a stick to beat me with, whether it will prompt yet another report to the NSPCC. I have lost my sense of safety, of refuge, and of course that means that I have lost my online support network. This is no trivial thing; in the past the support I’ve received from individuals online have literally made the difference between life and death. But now that’s gone. I feel watched, I feel harassed and I feel as though my honesty has endangered the happiness and wellbeing of my family.

I don’t know whether these feelings will fade as time passes but I certainly hope so. I will miss the catharsis that blogging can provide and I will miss being able to interact with the mental health community in a meaningful way. It’s been very important to me that I speak out about mental health issues and I hope that I will be able to again, but for now my voice has been silenced.

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Mumsnet – the marmite of parenting sites

I’ve been inspired to write this after reading this blogpost by the awesome Kraken. It’s not intended as a response but reading her post clarified some thoughts I’ve had on the subject lately. I’ll be honest here – I’m a Mumsnetter so my approach will be a bit different to Kraken’s. 🙂

For those who live under a rock don’t know, Mumsnet is one of the most prominent parenting forums in the UK. They have more than 50 million page views per month and log over 8 million visits per month. There are posters on Mumsnet of all genders, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality and social background. Most are parents but not all; despite the site’s name being a parent is not a requirement to join and there are many members who have no desire to have children or who are unable to.

Mumsnet is often in the news but usually only when someone’s complaining about it. The part of the site that gets most media attention is the “Am I Being Unreasonable?” board which is known to be argumentative and helps lazy journalists write about the “nest of vipers” as Mumsnet was once labelled. Strangely the site’s detractors never seem to report the advice and support members receive on topics as varied as mental health, bereavement, education, special needs and many more.

One of the accusations frequently levelled at Mumsnet is that posters are mean, nasty, bullies etc. Some are, it’s true. Some are saints. Most of the rest fall in between. 🙂 The problem is that Mumsnet is not pre-moderated and the staff rely on members reporting unpleasant posts. If no-one reports nastiness then it’s unlikely it will be seen and deleted. Mumsnet have a strong anti-bullying policy – sometimes they miss things or get it wrong but I have seen posters deleted, suspended and/or banned on many occasions. But of course it’s the idiots who stand out and give the site a bad name.

I realise that I sound a little defensive and to be honest I am. Mumsnet is a site that has supported me for many years. When I was suicidal with PND it was Mumsnetters who talked me round in the middle of the night, who gave me strength and hope. It was Mumsnetters who sent me clothes for my baby son when I was unexpectedly pregnant and we had no money to buy him anything. It is Mumsnetters who spend time and energy and money fundraising for many charities and campaigning for change in many important areas such as miscarriage care and support for victims of rape and domestic violence. It is Mumsnetters who spend time lovingly crafting Woolly Hugs blankets for children who are terminally ill both in the UK and abroad, for children who are seriously ill, for Mumsnetters who have lost a child or partner.

Mumsnet is a site that divides people more than any other. The trouble is that parenting today is scrutinised and criticised as never before and many parents feel insecure. Infant feeding, weaning techniques, where the baby sleeps, discipline, nappies, buggies, slings – there’s always someone to tell you that you’re doing it wrong, whether it’s a stranger online, a journalist, friend, relative or so-called ‘experts’. And that’s just in the first year or two! Most people have the sense to concentrate on their own children and let other people bring up theirs as they will – but there’s always an idiot somewhere willing to judge. Mumsnet is merely a reflection of society at large.

A school facilitated a pupil’s self-harm; why part of me wishes mine had done the same.

It was reported by various media outlets today that a pupil at a school in Surrey was permitted to self-harm under the supervision of staff. The child’s gender varies depending which account you read and his/her age has not been made public. The school in question provides specialist education for young people up to the age of 19 who have Asperger’s, higher functioning autism or an associated diagnosis.

This story resonated with me. I began self-harming very young, at the age of 7. I started by scraping a My Little Pony or Barbie hairbrush across the skin of my forearms until it bled. By the age of 10 or so I was using one of my dad’s disposable razors; by the time I started university I was using kitchen knives. I went to great lengths to hide what I was doing – I felt ashamed of it and didn’t want anyone else to know. At the same time I was desperate for someone to notice so that I could come clean, own up and get help.

The first time I ever told anyone about my self-harming was when I was seeing a bereavement counsellor at the age of 19. After a few sessions I hesitatingly confessed the shameful secret that I had hidden for so long. His response wasn’t what I expected – almost jovially he said “Oh don’t worry, if it helps it’s a good thing”. I was stunned and horrified by his response, and never went back.

Looking at it now from a more mature perspective I can see what he was trying to tell me. Self-harm is a coping mechanism. It’s a pretty rubbish one admittedly, and definitely not healthy, but it helps the individual to cope with or process feelings and situations that would otherwise be utterly overwhelming. Many self-harmers find that when their families discover their secret they remove anything with a sharp edge in an attempt to stop the harm. However well-intentioned this is it often does more harm than good; the self-harmer has no outlet for their feelings and may turn to far worse coping mechanisms in order to regain control.

Because at its most basic level self-harm is usually about control. When you are feeling overwhelmed, panicky, as though you are suffocating, self-harm is a way to focus and regain self-control. Having this coping mechanism taken away can be devastating and can sometimes cause a downward spiral leading to suicidal thoughts.

I suspect that this is what was uppermost in the minds of the headteacher and principal of Unsted Park school when they implemented their support scheme for the pupil in question. Apparently staff were told to give the pupil (who may be a boarder) access to sterile razor blades and accompany them to the bathroom, checking they were ok every couple of minutes. The wounds would then be cleaned and dressed.

Obviously this isn’t an ideal solution and teaching staff should not have to bear that sort of responsibility. But as far as I can see once the school became aware of what the pupil was doing they only really had 2 options; to try to put a stop to it and risk the pupil spiralling downwards or to make sure it was done as safely as possible while finding a better way to support and help the pupil.

By the time this policy had been in place a few days several staff had complained. The school, its headteacher and principal are now under investigation. There has been no mention of whether the pupil is getting more appropriate support, or indeed any support at all. I hope they are.

When I was young the thought of someone finding out about my self-harming both terrified and tantalised me. The thought of being escorted to the bathroom by a teacher so that I could cut myself would have been horrifying and humiliating, I didn’t want anyone to find out what I did. And yet if someone had told me that they knew I would probably have clung to them, sobbing with relief and begging them to help me stop.

There are no villains here, no wicked teachers encouraging children to mutilate themselves. There are only staff who, I believe, were doing their best to cope with an extremely difficult situation and fulfil their duty of care towards a pupil. Whether the policy in question was the best course of action is debatable. But a young person was supported and cared for and that’s the most important thing.

I wonder. If my school had been this aware and responsive would I still be a self-harmer 25 years after I first began?

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