Friday, 27 January 2012

Angels, Demons & Selfish Tears

Chrissy with her lovely Nana

As I left Chrissy at the hospital today, her image is etched on my brain. She's screaming, nose bloodied, stark naked, on the floor of the nurses' office where she'd flung herself. Around her, nursing staff & I matter-of-factly deal with the handover. Another patient wanders by and asks me if my hair is naturally blonde. She doesn't bat an eyelid at the ruckus.

I really need the catharsis of my blog at times like this.

If last week Chrissy was an angel, this week she was a demon! The signs weren't good when she came home yesterday afternoon. The bridge of her nose is branded by an open wound. She's been attacking this area by rubbing it violently in outbursts then picking the scab for some weeks now. It had all but healed last week. Now it looks angrier than ever.

My mum was staying with me while Ian was away on business. I so hoped that she'd see Chrissy as lovely as she'd been for me last week. It wasn't to be. Chrissy's obsessions over food inevitably spilled over into a violent meltdown & off came the clothes. I don't know if it's a sensory thing or rage or what - but stripping has been occurring with many of her take-to-the-floor outbursts for years now. The impact on her life is massive, as you can imagine. Stripping effectively imprisons her as it's so socially unacceptable. You can wrestle with her to try to stop her from tearing her clothes off but it simply fuels her frenzy.

We did have some sweet times too. Chrissy pointed to the word 'mousse' on the of lid of her chocolate mousse, and said 'mouse.' Mum and I laughed and corrected her - 'look, it's got two wiggly S's' I showed her. She pointed at the lid again with a triumphant 'Chocolate mouse!' After dinner Chrissy settled down for a cuddle but her mood remained unsettled.

This morning she kept shouting in my face: 'I wanna banana in my bag!' (I kept showing it to her and letting her feel it so she knew it was there but she continued to bellow at me. I lost it, & shouted back 'shut the f up!' In an instant, I was racked with guilt. I'm so not a patient person but I try my utmost to stay calm with Chrissy as I know she can't help it. She signed & asked sweetly: 'Are you cross mummy?'

The old emotional roller-coaster kicked in again, and tears threatened, but it's hard to feel any emotion for long while Chrissy's around as she keeps me on my toes constantly. I was too busy dealing with the practicalities of getting her to focus on taking her tablets & eating her breakfast, while praying she'd stay calm enough to get into my car for the half-hour drive back to hospital.

As we were about to leave a delivery man turned up at my door and, seeing Chrissy's nose, asked her: 'How did you do that?'

'She did it to herself,' I interjected. 'She's got learning disabilities & she self-injures.' He dumped the parcel & off he went. I wonder what he thought as he drove away? What else could I have said? 'Mind your own business?'

As soon as Chrissy arrived back at the hospital she starting demanding food, just as she had when she'd arrived home. When she's in an obsessional, instant gratification mood you've just got to ride out the storm. The clothes came off and the screaming started again. I could hear her as I climbed back into my car, & felt guilty again - for sighing with relief that someone else was now dealing with it.

On the drive home, I allowed myself the luxury of a few tears. I could see no positives in what's happened to us. It was every mother's worst nightmare. A voice inside my head wailed: 'What happened to my beautiful baby?' Thank God those disturbing feelings soon evaporated. I just needed to throw myself a little pity party.

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Friday, 20 January 2012

Person Centred Planning: A Queen Hit & Hidden Meanings

December 2011: Note rolled up sleeves - one of Chrissy's rituals

Person centred planning (PCP) is a way to support people with learning disabilities to plan how they would like to live their life as fully & independently as possible. Anyone with a learning disability can have a PCP, even if their communication is limited, as PCP is done in consultation with people who love them and know them well.

Chrissy has been in a therapeutic unit for two years and, although she's not yet ready to move on, we need to start planning her future now. The Challenging Behaviour Foundation advised that this can take 12-18 months for someone with such complex needs.

A PCP professional visited me on Wednesday and showed me an example PCP. It included gems such as 'When I sing Bohemian Rapsody watch out. I'm not singing happily - it's a sign that I'm about to lose control and I may throw something at you!'

With Chrissy, I follow my instincts, and take so many of her quirks & rituals for granted that it's difficult to convey her support needs to someone else. However, seeing the colourful detail in the example opened the flood gates. I found myself able to take the PCP professional step-by-step through Chrissy's daily routines. I explained that when Chrissy comes downstairs for breakfast she must have the larder and kitchen doors shut, lights switched on, the area around her chair cleared of any objects that she deems shouldn't be there, her two favourite drinks with two straws, a carrier bag with handles tied in a bow containing her chocolate mousse and a banana......

After all that and more, she will only eat her egg on toast, cut up, with two splodges of tomato sauce, when she's good and ready, usually when it's stone cold!

Explaining the detail of Chrissy's daily routines also helped me to gain more insights into her support needs, which I can pass on to professional carers. For example, I instinctively know when to make myself 'invisible' for Chrissy to adjust to transitions and self-calm. It may mean removing myself from view and watching silently from a safe distance, or simply avoiding eye contact and using minimal communication. When Chrissy arrives for her weekly visits home, I try to get her coat off and settle her into my routine, but the penny's dropped that she needs initial time to herself to wander freely from room to room to adjust to her new territory. She will eventually approach me and say something like: 'Mummy, I want to go on my computer.'

PCP reminded me how important carefully managed approaches are to support Chrissy effectively. The daily management aspects of her needs should be sufficiently met in a single service unit close to her family with a team of carers that know her well - but there are other considerations. Key is the proximity, skill and responsiveness of a multi-disciplinary clinical team. Failings in this area contributed to the breakdown of two residential placements, which caused her untold trauma. When it comes to 'what next?' for Chrissy, we must get it right this time.

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Saturday, 14 January 2012

Epilepsy & Behaviour

Chrissy aged 10, with her chocolatey sister, Alex, 6

Since Chrissy's Topiramate has been swapped with Pregabalin, she's had two clusters of night-time seizures, one requiring rectal Diazepam. This is Chrissy's usual pattern but seizures were infrequent on Topiramate - the price she paid was being over-sedated, though not enough to quell her self-injurious outbursts. When her seizures started up again I hoped she'd get a break from her outbursts. They tend to be less severe during seizure cycles but this pattern has got less apparent as she's got older.

The reciprocal relationship between epilepsy and behaviour is recognised among medical professionals. It's like a pressure cooker releasing steam. Chrissy would have a build-up of challenging behaviours then seizures followed by a brief period of calm. When she was little I thought there was even more to it than that, and became convinced there was an epileptic component in the severe self-injurious outbursts. Chrissy's school teachers felt the same, and described the way 'something just came over her' as she sat doing something that she enjoyed. I became increasingly frustrated that health professionals were dismissing these outbursts as purely behavioural - as if they'd cease in a different environment.

When Chrissy was 10 my frustrations boiled over...

She was in Great Ormond Street Hospital for a routine MRI scan. A general anaesthetic was arranged because she wouldn't have co-operated, & she was given a pre-med. It sent her to sleep but she woke up when she was moved from her ward to the scanning room, and exploded into an outburst. She bashed her head repeatedly against the metal bars of her bed and tore at her skin. 'Now at last her neurologist will see one of these & organise investigations to find out what's going on,' I thought. How naive I was!

The hospital nurses were shocked at Chrissy's distress. One nurse, who'd worked in child psychiatry for years, said that she'd seen children with mental health problems in meltdowns before but this went way beyond that. Normally they gave up when they were exhausted but Chrissy appeared to be in the grip of something beyond her control.

The neurologist was called to the ward. He appeared, flanked by junior doctors, took one look at Chrissy, who was thrashing around on the floor by that point, and said: 'That's behaviour.'

As he turned on his heel to walk away, red mist descended & I threw questions at him like darts: 'If it's behavioural then how come she's had these from infancy? Why do they wake her at night? Why are they triggered by general anaesthetics & some medications? Why doesn't any intervention stop them? Why are they self-limiting? Why are they cyclic and worse in late afternoon? (as they were then) What about the strange physical symptoms - complaining about sore eyes, clawing at her face and extremities as if they hurt? What about the reciprocal relationship with the seizures?'

The neurologist insisted: 'What we're seeing now probably isn't the same as those you saw when she was a baby. This doesn't look like any seizure that I've seen. Epileptic episodes don't last as long as this. They're behavioural.'

I stormed off and had a good cry.

When I calmed down and returned to the ward, the neurologist took me into a side room and explained: 'I doubt that what I observed is caused by epileptic activity but I agree that there appears to be a reciprocal relationship between the seizures and behavioural outbursts. We really don't know what they are but behaviour sometimes worsens in children with epilepsy when seizures were well controlled.'

He decided to try a new anticonvulsant - Gabapentin.

Almost immediately Chrissy slept through the night for the first time in weeks. Two days later, the first thing I noticed when she came home from school was her smiley face and pink cheeks. (She looks pale & wretched when she's going through an outburst cycle). I asked her for a kiss. 'Screaming's gone.' she said.

Her teachers reported that she'd been 'brilliant,' amenable and well-behaved at school. I felt ridiculously emotional. Surely it was too early to be Gabapentin? Maybe it was a delayed reaction to all the pre-op sedation & general anaesthetic?

In fact, it was probably Chrissy's emergence from another bad cycle of outbursts but, when she's well, I always feel giddily optimistic that it will last. I rang friends and family to tell them about the change in her. 'Don't count your chickens....' they gently warned me.

Taken from my book: 'Bringing Up a Challenging Child at Home.'

I am a SWAN UK (Syndromes without a Name) blogger

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Why I Felt I HAD to Share Our Story

My book reviews have finally appeared on Amazon. I saw them 10 years ago when 'Bringing Up a Challenging Child at Home ' was first published, so no nasty surprises there! My book includes a brutally honest account of how I felt at the time of writing, and I spared no one! It was very cathartic but I'd be a little more circumspect if I were to rewrite it now....

When I first discovered that Chrissy had learning disabilities, I assumed the next step would be an appointment with a specialist who would tell us the exact nature of her problems – a diagnosis. I expected to be given some idea what ‘mental age’ she would reach, and what obstacles we might face in future. How wrong I was! I gradually realised that medical professionals had no more idea than I did about how to treat Chrissy’s condition.

During her childhood I felt isolated and terrified - traumatised even - by the violent self-injurious outbursts I was dealing with on a daily basis.

I believed that Chrissy’s problems were unique or at least very rare. Now I know that there are many other families like ours living with a cherished child, whose behaviour is a nightmare to cope with. Our love for our children remains undiminished when confronted with behaviour we find abhorrent but sometimes that love isn’t enough. Our home becomes a war zone and we can no longer function while living together as a family.

Divorce is all too common in families like ours and it's often the mother left to cope alone. Ensuing social factors, such as poverty, may contribute to the child's behavioural challenges and compound the parent’s feelings of isolation.

If took 15 years for family life to gain any semblance of normality and to find ways to cope with the challenges Chrissy presents. My search for answers planted the seeds for my book and a career in journalism. I had to tell Chrissy's story, and my research led to a fascination with complex and misunderstood medical conditions like hers. I've had a number of related health and human interest features published in magazines and newspapers.

I wrote my book in 1999 when the cause of Chrissy's problems was still unexplained. My target readers were other parents in similar situations and professionals working with families like ours. I longed to reach out to other mums like myself, which is why I get so much out of interacting with you all now, and I passionately believed that the professionals needed to know what it was like living on the front line. There was a big gap in the market for a book like mine as there were plenty of medical books about challenging behaviour in clinical settings but not in the family environment. Jessica Kingsley Publishers and BILD (The British Institute of Learning Disabilities) were both interested in publishing my book. I chose Jessica Kingsley because I thought it would help me reach a broader readership.

Writing Chrissy’s story helped me to make sense of our difficult journey and led to wonderful revelations. I realised how much I had learned about acceptance and unconditional love. I discovered personal strengths (and weaknesses!) I never knew I had. After spending years in the thick of it, by the turn of the century I had the space to appreciate Chrissy as she is – and marvel over her. She has a great sense of fun and makes us fall about with her quirky sayings and observations. She is generous with spontaneous smiles, affection and cuddles, and opens our minds by showing us a uniquely different view of the world.

When my book was published, I had stopped grieving for the ‘perfect’ child I thought I'd had and learned that life’s greatest gifts come in the cleverest disguises.

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