My refuge


It was almost exactly 5 months from making an offer to owning the wood.  In those five months our lives changed dramatically.  When Mark and I put in that offer, I had no idea how vital owning my own space would become.

Making the offer on the wood was already the end of a long road.  Our family was under immense pressure.  None of the things that were causing pressure was insurmountable, but combined, they were crushing the life out of us.

Our biggest pressure was autism.  The fact that my eldest son, Joe, is high functioning autistic is absolutely not the biggest stress in my life, it is all the pressures that come along with it.  The fight for support at school, the fight that he be understood, the fight that he be treated with understanding and fairness, the fight that we as a family and I as I mother should not be judged, the fight for compassion… the list is endless.  Joe was already at his second school when his first illegal exclusion happened shortly after our youngest child, Amos, was born.  Joe was nine years old.  We were told by the local authority that he would never attend mainstream again and he was moved to a day school for children with learning difficulties, miles away.  Joe does not have learning difficulties – he is profoundly autistic but is high functioning.  The school was wholly unsuitable (not a bad school, just not the right one for Joe).  It took only a few months of the horrors that came with this time to know it was enough.  I withdrew Joe, intending to teach him myself.

Meanwhile other pressures mounted.  We lived in a house that was way too small for us…with my parents.  Joe’s autism made the house even smaller, our privacy even less.  Social services became involved because there had to be an assessment of the risk Joe posed to our other children.  My eldest daughter, Peta, was still at the school Joe had been illegally excluded from and was being bullied.  My youngest daughter, Melody, was unsettled because of all the upset at home and I knew there was no way she was ready for school in the autumn.  And my baby, breast fed and worn against my chest much of the day, was dragged from meeting to meeting, scheduled where possible in the times Melody was able to be somewhere else.  In a desperate attempt not to go under, Mark took all the leave he was owed from work, we pulled Peta out of school, used all our savings and took our children, back packing round New Zealand for nine weeks.

It was a decision we have never looked back on with regret.  Amos doesn’t remember it, Melody’s memories are vague, but that trip gave us the respite we desperately needed.  It shaped our family.  We were close before, but the trip pulled us together as a team and we continue to nurture that.

On our return home, reality was hard to face.  We seriously looked into moving to New Zealand – Mark works in conservation so it would be possible.  But we worried for Joe – the official line was that support for autism in New Zealand was even further behind that at home.  Then we seriously considered a move to Cornwall – so seriously that I flew there with a one year old Amos to look round schools to find one suitable for Joe.  I thought I had found one, but problems with shared mortgages, logistics of splitting one household into two, timings and fear of losing the two champions supporting Joe with no guarantee of finding any such help at the other end, put our plans on hold.

Things, as always move on.  I had emailed the local authority expressing how we felt about the situation with Joe before we had gone to New Zealand.  I had a petulant reply – if you can find a mainstream school to take Joe, fine.  I took up the challenge.  I found a school to take Joe, and he had an incredibly successful 9 months at primary on our return from New Zealand.  He was awarded one of two places in a special resource centre in our county for secondary.  It was attached to a mainstream school.  He did well in his first year.  I moved Peta and Melody from the school Joe had been excluded from, to the Primary that had accepted him.  I watched them blossom.  I began to see Amos grow too.  And so it was, we found ourselves, not pressure free, but with a slight lessening of the load.

By the time we made an offer for the wood, we were in a better place.  The girls were flourishing in a small school which supported them to learn in ways which were appropriate and meaningful to them and which respected them as people, not just SATS results.  I had a year ahead of me to enjoy my time left with Amos before he too had to head for school – I would make up for all those endless days of stress and meetings.  Joe had successfully completed a year a secondary school – indeed I had been so surprised at the praise he received at parents evening, I had even wondered to Mark if they had got the right child; I was that unused to hearing people talk this way about Joe.  Joe too was maturing.  I still couldn’t get used to his deep voice that had developed before he’d even started Secondary, but with this maturity his aggression born of fear and frustration seemed to be reducing.  He was more able to deal with situations he would previously have been unable to cope with.  We went to see the Lion King in London, we had a family portrait taken at the school, I plastered up the holes in the wall of the stair well where Joe used to throw things down the stairs in rage.  And we would buy the wood.  It wasn’t the normal way of up sizing, but who cared.  Who wanted to be ‘normal’ anyway.

But in those five months between offer and sale, our world imploded.  Government cuts meant a huge reduction in Joe’s support and as a direct result we were hurled into the maelstrom of permanent exclusion, appeal’s, an assault charge against Joe made by a teacher.  Joe’s anxiety and fear escalated massively, his aggression became hard to control.  He was so much bigger than me, but to the other children, he was enormous.  I was being hurt protecting my children from Joe, but Joe was just reacting to where he found himself.  Excluded again, made out to be a monster in a political game playing out in the special needs department of the school.  I was told I would have to send him away to a special school.  He was in the social media, we were labelled.  He drew back into listlessness, unable even to enjoy reading, his refuge.   He questioned why he was here, what was the point, what was the point of him.  He was twelve.

Added to that, it was determined that the Ofsted rated Outstanding school the girls attended was to be closed because it was too small.  No one seemed to realise that it was Outstanding because it was small enough to care.  School closure is devastating to the community it encompasses.  The girls were sinking fast.  Amos was refusing to go anywhere without me, he was so frightened by what was going on.  I cancelled all ‘get used to school days’ for him.  I could barely get him to stay in nursery the three mornings a week I have ever put my children in for.  I only persevered because I wanted him to have some time with people his own age, I wanted him to have friends.

It was the wood that saved me.  On those three mornings a week, when Joe was with a tutor pending decisions, when Peta and Melody were still at a school which had time to nurture and Amos was in a caring nursery where he would hear laughter, I tried to escape.  Whenever I was able, I took myself to the woods.  I walked in the silence. I revelled in the solitude; I felt the sun and heard nature.  I sensed the trees and was still.  It was the wood that saved me.


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