Thursday, 15 December 2011
Letting Go: When Love Isn't Enough
13 years ago I came to a crossroads. I could no longer manage Chrissy at home but how could I bear to part with her?
The first stage of the letting go process – accepting that I couldn’t care for Chrissy unsupported by community-based services – was respite care. She was only 7, and Ian and I decided to go on a family holiday without her. When I told a friend, she was shocked. “Chrissy’s your flesh and blood - how can you leave her behind?” she asked. Ian didn’t mince words in justifying our decision. We desperately needed a break and previous holidays with Chrissy had been disastrous. Holidays and special occasions can be purgatory for children with learning disabilities that struggle with routine changes, and there was no point in putting Chrissy, her two younger siblings or ourselves through what would be another ordeal. She could stay in respite for the week, which she enjoyed. I was discovering that tough compromises had to be made in order for us to function as a family.
When respite services were first offered I was at breaking point emotionally but felt like a bad parent because I couldn’t cope. The needs of my two younger children also had to be taken into account; having a disabled sister had forced them to grow up too quickly. When I’d had them I had no idea that Chrissy’s difficulties were so severe. I thought she’d just be a bit ‘slow’ and grow out of her outbursts like a toddler grows out of the terrible twos. The only person that suffered during the letting go process was me! Chrissy loved the respite centre on her first visit. It was full of friendly, cheerful staff, play equipment and toys. She didn’t want to leave.
Respite care became our lifeline. Mum was the only family member nearby, and she did her best to help, but she had my dad to care for, who had premature Alzheimer’s.
The introduction of behavioural strategies when Chrissy was 10 helped me to feel more in control and manage her better day-to-day but the self-injurious outbursts continued. It was as if she was in torment, in the grip of something she desperately wanted to control but couldn’t. Her doctors prescribed powerful sedatives and all carers, including us, were taught physical restraint. It sounds extreme but it was preferable to leaving her to her own devices. The anti-psychotic medications they prescribed sometimes had paradoxical effects and caused extreme agitation or nasty side-effects. Ironically, the use of chemical coshes was something I’d feared would happen if she went into residential care, yet here we were sanctioning its use at home.
Guilt and anxiety engulfed me – I beat myself up for everything I couldn’t do to help Chrissy and lost confidence in my parenting abilities. I persisted in trying to make her life as ‘normal’ as possible by including her in family activities and outings. We had some lovely times but, more often than not, outings ended in mayhem. Chrissy's SLD school was struggling to manage her outbursts too and an agency providing home carers during school holidays was concerned about them getting hurt. Something had to give.
The obvious solution was residential school but I felt torn. Chrissy was still like a toddler, and very dependent on me. I feared she’d be neglected or miss us terribly, but for her to suffer abuse like the disabled adults in BBC’s Panorama programme, ‘Undercover Care,’ was beyond my worst nightmare. Then I wondered: "Am I denying her a better life? Maybe she'll thrive in a more structured environment. Surely it’s better that she gradually gets used to residential care now rather than when we die or are too old, or ill, to cope?"
When Chrissy was 14 her life changed for the better. A new drug regime transformed her behaviour and we found a very special termly boarding school http://www.stelizabeths.org.uk/schooldefaulthome, a tranquil gem tucked away in the Hertfordshire countryside, I only wished we'd discovered it earlier. I was excited about what they could offer Chrissy. The pupils looked happy and cared for, and many had complex needs like Chrissy. Their on-site healthcare team could monitor her epilepsy closely and she would return home for weekends and school holidays.
Despite my optimism, I felt bereft when Chrissy first left, and wept at the sight of her empty bedroom – but my fears were unfounded; she never forgot who we were and always quivered with joy each time she saw us again. She was happy to return to St Elizabeth’s after visits home, and having time apart made me enjoy the good times we had with her more.
When Chrissy left school at 18 I accepted that adult residential care was the best option for her. We found a lovely care home 30 minutes’ drive away, and Chrissy was their first resident. Her carers spent time with us at home getting to know Chrissy’s needs and supported her to go out and about in the community.
Unfortunately, four years later Chrissy’s medication was changed due to a life-threatening adverse reaction. Her self-injurious outbursts intensified and couldn’t be stabilised with medications that her psychiatrists prescribed. Two residential placements broke down when they could no longer cope with her challenging behaviour.
Since January 2010 Chrissy has been in a privately-run therapeutic unit to stabilise her behaviour with medication and psychological approaches. She will remain there until she is stable enough to move into a bespoke service, which is still in its planning stages. Living in a hospital ward, no matter how homely they try to make it, is far from ideal. Many residential services claim to specialise in autism but struggle to offer sufficient staff training, structured routine, continuity of care and a person-centred environment.
As Chrissy’s mum, I feel no one can look after my fragile daughter like I can. She’s a hefty 12 ½ stone due to her medications but, in my recurring dreams about keeping her safe, she’s tiny, like the child she’ll always be in my eyes.
Other parents may manage to care full-time for their disabled children at home but some are harder to care for than others. I need all my strength to fight battles on Chrissy’s behalf, which is what I’ve had to do all her life. I do all her washing, still have her home every weekend, and move mountains to enable her to attend family events and celebrations. I leave no stone unturned in ensuring Chrissy gets the best possible care and, when things go wrong, righting them becomes a full-time job. I still fantasise about having her home full-time. Then I’m brought back to earth with a bump after a particularly challenging home visit.
Over the years, each time I’ve let Chrissy go a little – the first night in respite care, the first MENCAP holiday, then on to boarding school and full-time residential care, it’s been gut-wrenching but when I look back, I recognise that I’ve made the right decisions for Chrissy and my family. Her outbursts are so violent and unpredictable, and her needs so complex that it would be impossible to care for her at home.
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