‘But they look so well.’
I hear this often. Along with, ‘you wouldn’t know there was anything wrong with them,’ and ‘they seem fine.’
And I smile and nod and say, yes, we really are very lucky. And most of the time I mean it. My sons are lucky to have such a normal life, but a little part of me wants to scream and shout and stamp my feet at the lack of understanding. Yes, my children go to school most days. Yes, they are well most of the time. Yes, they do look perfectly healthy. But they are not. And a hell of a lot of hard work goes in to keeping them ‘well.’
You know when you have a cold? And you have mucus in your chest and throat and blocking up your nose and ears? You know how crap and exhausted that makes you feel? Well, my children live like that everyday. Except they do not have a cold, they have a condition called Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia. It is a rare, life changing and potentially life threatening condition that has already resulted in my middle child losing two thirds of his right lung. But if you read my blog then you’ll know this, I’ve written about it all before, more than once..
But what you don’t know is that it’s taken me a long time to come to terms with their diagnosis. And that at times that process has affected my relationships. I’m not entirely sure if this is down to me, or the people I know. You see, I know no one in the same situation as me and it is so hard to get people who are not going through it to understand. Most of the time it’s fine and when I’m ok it’s all ok. But then, someone may say something insignificant and it’ll affect me. Our fears as parents are all relative, I know that, but maybe, just maybe, I deserve a bit of extra empathy, maybe, or understanding, some kindness. But then I know it’s hard to put yourself in my position. No one wants to imagine their children unwell.
Over the first few months after their diagnosis I know I was at times perceived to be a moody, grumpy person and it became somewhat true. For, if you’re perceived as something, it’s damn hard to fight against it, right? And I’m sure if my friends read this they’d say I was being most unfair – they’d shout that they did, and still do their best to support me. But, in all honesty, I’m not sure many of them really did. And it’s not only their fault, I know this. It’s also because I don’t tell them how difficult it’s been. Or how isolated I felt. Or how anxious I still am. I feel like I’m constantly having to remind people how hard it all is and then I imagine them rolling their eyes and saying I’m blowing it out of all proportion, because, and I quote, ‘they look so well.’
But not every disability is visible. Not every child running into the playground is well.
I’ve learnt to be more honest. And I’ve learnt to ask for support when I need it. But most importantly of all I’ve learnt from the boys to live every moment with utter joy and to just get on with it!
Edit: since writing this post for The Huffington Post I’m actually a lot better!! Some days it’s hard to come to terms with and looking after the boys and keeping them well is all consuming, but a life changing diagnosis is like a bereavement of sorts. It’s always there, but you get used to living with it and you learn to laugh again.
When do we start planning the lives of our children? Is it when we conceive? Or is it earlier than that? Does everyone, unconsciously at least, absorb events, feelings, hopes and dreams, and hold them in a tiny part of their brains ready to transmit to those they may give birth to.
We may think, as a stroppy teenager, angry at the world that we will never speak to our children in the way our parents do to us. Or we will find a love in something so powerful that it absolutely has to be passed down to our children so they can exact the same pleasure we have from it.
However the hopes and wishes for our children manifest themselves in our minds there is always one enduring want – for them to be healthy. You often hear people comment when asked, probably for the millionth time, ‘Do you know what you’re having?’ that they don’t care as long as ‘it’s’ healthy.
And so, what happens, when your child isn’t healthy when they are born? Or are diagnosed with a life changing disease when they are still young and vulnerable? Do your ideals for their lives flash before your eyes, like time is said to do when on your deathbed? Do visions of what could’ve been dance and flicker before you when dealt with such a hand?
I should know. I should know because I have been there. I am that mum. I have sick children. And ever since their diagnosis I have been struggling to find the right way of describing how our lives have changed. How what we thought was before us was snatched and tarnished with the threat of a life changing and life threatening illness.
And until now I have found no way to explain how that feels. What their diagnosis has done to them, to my husband and I and to our family, who are all affected. But then, two nights ago, I watched a documentary on the Aurora Borealis, where the night sky is lit up by the most beautiful, natural lights in an awesome show of colour. And it got me thinking. Whenever I see the lights in photos, or on the television, they fill me with pleasure. One day I’d love to see them for real and experience nature at its most awe inspiring.
The journey there wouldn’t, of course, be stress free. Especially if I went with the children. There would be arguments along the way. We’d be oh so very tired when we got there, but would marvel at the relative ease with which we are now able to travel around the world. We’d laugh at the time our suitcases went missing and have fond memories of the time we caught a plane for our honeymoon and talked about doing this, seeing the Northern Lights, with our family complete. We’d be making the journey with a multitude of other people from all different countries and backgrounds. And there’d be a plan. A guide telling us what we needed to look out for and the best times to travel and see them. It would be an adventure and one that we would all be on together, with other people who, like us, would want to offer their children the very best experiences in life.
And then I took this dream and put it out of context. For not everyone gets to go to see the lights, even though they may want to. Some people are forced to watch fireworks instead. Something that is noisy, artificial, and dangerous. Fireworks have the ability to wow and hurt at the same time. They are not predictable. There isn’t just one destination where they can be seen – they are not always let off at the same time and in the same place.
My family wanted to see the Aurora Borealis, but instead we’ve been singled out to observe the fireworks. At first we watched from afar, not wanting to be herded in with the other people there. We watched the different colours and patterns and oohed and ahhed. But all the while believing this wasn’t go to be all we were going to see forever. We’d be allowed to go to the lights at some point. But then, over time, we were pushed deeper into the crowd. It didn’t matter if we closed our eyes to shut out the bright, artificial lights, or the noise – the fireworks were still there. And they had the ability to catch us off guard. Make us jump, like when a firework is set off at 5pm on the first of April instead of 5th November after it’s dark.
And fireworks burn. Scar. Leave you with physical injuries that, although they aren’t painful and raw forever, remain as a reminder of what happened and where you are. Where you can’t escape.
Some people in the crowd walk away from the fireworks. You can hear them scream, ‘I didn’t sign up for this shit,’ and as it’s all a bit loud and unpredictable, they go. To where I don’t know for I don’t believe you can fully ever leave the fireworks once you’ve been forced to go to the show. There’s always someone nearby ready to set one off and rock your world once more. It can be peaceful for a time, but never for ever.
And so at the moment, this is where my family is. We are repeatedly being surprised by loud noises and sudden fires, and even though we’ve remained relatively unscathed so far, it’s been bloody hard work. We have to tend to the field where the firework show is daily, and it’s tough fighting the fire to make sure we don’t get burnt. But we are doing it. We’re getting used to this new future. This new place we find ourselves in. The Firework Show. And The Northern Lights and all the hope and wonder they would’ve brought remain a distant memory. Nature has played us this cruel hand instead.
And all the while, the most important thing is to make sure the children enjoy the show. That not for one minute do they feel they are missing out on something more spectacular. So we embrace the show, buy them sparklers and candyfloss and take them on every single ride we can.
They know no different and for as long as I am fighting fireworks, I will fight to keep it that way.
Relentlessness: a good word for describing something that’s harsh, unforgiving, and persistent, like the hot sun in the desert, or a cold that keeps you in bed for days with a nose like a strawberry. When you’re relentless about something, you mean business.
Being a mum to poorly children, as I’ve said many time before, is not easy. It comes with a whole heap of extra anxiety and guilt and is an endless cycle of hospital visits, frantic emergency appointments as well as cancelling of plans and much needed escapes.
I’m that mum. The mum who doesn’t want to always dominate coffee mornings or evenings out with the talk of the responsibility and stress I face every day. The mum who quietly gets on with physiotherapy, organises hospital appointments, dishes out medicines like sweets, calms fears, soothes pains, and rarely asks for help. I know many parents all do this, but it is relentless when you have children with genetic illnesses. The fear doesn’t ever go away. Not when you are living with a life changing and life limiting diagnosis.
And in my case it isn’t for one child, but two. Double the responsibility. Double the anxiety. Double the fear.
And as the mum it is hard. I have a firm grasp of their diagnosis and treatment and so when people talk to me about my boys I’m often seen as the expert, the doctor, not the mum who has sick children. I don’t want to talk about them in terms of statistics or medical data. I don’t want to be told I’m being a great physiotherapist/nurse and meeting their needs. I want to be held close and allowed to freak the fuck out because I’m bloody terrified.
For four years I faced doctors on a regular basis, my instincts telling me that my middle child was desperately poorly, only to be told he had a dairy allergy, asthma, reflux. I had medicines thrown at me and at one point her was on a cocktail of seven different meds daily. None of it helped and whilst he was wasting away and vomiting thick yellowy-grey phlegm several times a day whilst coughing his guts up all night his right lung was slowly dying. And by the time I was properly listened to it was too late. And it could not be saved.
And that hangs over me constantly. That fear that somewhere in their tiny, fragile bodies, irreversible damage is being done.
I watch other mums at the school gates, worried about their child’s spelling test or whether or not they’ve been put up a reading level and I wish I was one of them. Because I stand there and worry about whether his temperature will spike during the day. Whether his medicines are working. Whether I’ve made him do enough physiotherapy to clear the mucus from his lungs. Whether anyone on the class has been sent to school ‘calpolled up’ full of a nasty bug that could destroy his remaining lung. Whether he is looking skinnier than his classmates and what I can feed him to bulk him out and give him strength more. Whether he’ll be able to keep up when they play in the playground at lunchtime. Whether my phone will go during the day to tell me he is unwell or has been sick. Whether he is happy and enjoying his childhood enough in spite of all the crap he has to face.
When someone says their child is poorly I feel unreasonable anger that their child probably just has a cold and will be ok with some love and a day or two off school. And then I feel guilty for being such a bitch. Because I don’t have the monopoly on sick children.
Being that mum, the one with the sick children is hard. Trying to be normal and accept it is hard. Trying not to wish that it wasn’t your children is hard.
Trying not to scream everyday that is so shittingly unfair is hard.
Maybe a return to blogging every now and again, to purge my brain of all this crap, may just very well be the answer…
For me, the minute you conceive the emotions of guilt and anxiety become heightened. The world is suddenly full of dangers you could not possibly have foreseen and life changes. No longer do you simply need to take care of yourself. Guilt is no longer consigned to those mornings you awake with a hangover and the events of the previous night slowly come filtering back in. (we’ve all been there, right?) Now there is a new channel for guilt and anxiety, a new reason for these emotions to thrive and overwhelm you. But feelings these things shows you care and encourages you, as a parent, to do the best job you can for your children.
But when you child gets diagnosed with a life changing and life limiting condition what happens then? Anxiety and guilt take on a whole new meaning. And into the mix comes anger, depression and, so I am told, eventually acceptance.
This year has been a very challenging one for me as a mother. Last December my middle child was diagnosed with a collapsed lung after years of poor health and doctors appointments. I have written about the diagnosis of and the events that resulted in him having to have two thirds of his right lung surgically removed. The doctors at this point were still unsure as to what has caused the permanent damage to his lung, it could’ve been a virus that settled in the thick mucus his body repeatedly produced, in which case the surgery would permanently correct this, or worse case scenario his symptoms would return after he recovered from the operation and investigations would have to step up a notch to prevent any more of his lungs becoming damaged. No more of his lungs can be removed, and a lung transplant would be the only option.
Sadly it was soon apparent that the symptoms were not going away. His wet cough and excessive mucus were ever present and he repeatedly had high temperatures. On consultation it was quickly decided that he would, from now on, be treated as a child suffering from the genetic condition Primary Ciliary Dyskinesia. It’s a condition in the same family as Cystic Fibrosis, however not as serious, and is where the cilia (tiny hairs throughout the body responsible for removing mucus from our airways) do not beat in time, or even at all, and are therefore ineffective. As with my son, one of the worst case scenarios is that this causes mucus to pool in the lungs and be a breeding ground for bacteria resulting in the permanent damage of the lungs.
It is a lifelong chronic condition that requires daily physiotherapy; frequent x-rays and potential IV antibiotic and hospital stays due to recurrent and potentially dangerous infections. As well as suffering from hearing difficulties and potential infertility. You can read more about the condition here: wwwpcdsupport.org.uk.
During this year my youngest children, now three, has also noticeably been displaying similar symptoms and even though there is a one in four chance per pregnancy (both parents need to be carriers of the defective gene for it to be passed on) there is still a high chance that siblings can also be affected. My youngest child had had recent chest infections as a newborn and also had a permanent wet cough. We were sent very quickly to Southampton hospital (an amazing team work there and focus on PCD) and sadly initial test have shown that he too suffers, and so he is also being treated as a child with PCD.
And to be honest, since that day in Southampton my anxiety and guilt have hit the roof and I am struggling to come to terms with their diagnosis. This is life changing and potentially life threatening and the responsibility of keeping their lungs clear of mucus and healthy primarily falls to me. I am the one who has to encourage/make them to do their daily physiotherapy, sometimes several times a day, I am the one who has to monitor their temperatures and gauge whether they need to be rushed into hospital for a chest x-ray and sputum test to pre-empt a life threatening infection (and even a common cold could be that infection for them.) I have to make sure I constantly am on top of their antibiotic prescriptions and the paperwork involved is immense…hospital appointments, DLA forms, and so many more. I lie awake at night and hear them both coughing as their bodies try desperately to get rid of the mucus that builds in them everyday and wonder how long before our next infection or hospital stay, and will this be the one where my middle son needs a transplant because his lungs have been completely destroyed by the disease.
I feel guilty everyday that I didn’t fight harder to have him x-rayed when his cough and mucus first began to take its toll on his already malnourished and fragile body. I feel guilty for passing this illness onto them even though I didn’t even know it existed or I carried the defective gene. I feel guilty that their lives will be dominated by physio and staying healthy and nasty tests and hospital stays. And I’m anxious every minute of everyday about their health. Am become obsessed with taking their temperature and, in all honesty, catastrophising a bit about it all. I feel like I am grieving for the healthy children I thought I had and learning to accept that I am now the mother of children with a chronic illness.
At no point do I ever see myself accepting this. It seems too cruel and unfair.
I know there will be a period of adjustment as we all learn to live with this. And I know we will all get there, but for now it is too raw and too upsetting. It hurts.
And sadly anxiety and guilt are in control.
And so I have to ask, are there any mums out there who have been through something similar who can offer me some advice? I would love to hear from you xx