Mark and I went to a meeting about Joe while Amos was at his nursery Christmas party. We listened to advice and looked at the options once more, and it was at this meeting that we formally agreed to look at placing Joe in a residential setting. I cried in the meeting. I felt raw pain through my core, red welts of bloodstained ache. I left the meeting early because somewhere there was the drive not to miss seeing Amos meet Father Christmas, not to miss hearing him sing jingle bells, not to miss my last chance to share part of a nursery Christmas party. I also needed Amos’ life to be as normal as we could make it. I had been there for the other three children, why should he miss out? But it hurt. Amos looks so much like Joe did at his age. It wasn’t so long ago I was sitting in that village hall for Joe…
I had asked in the meeting that Joe not start at the residential school until after his 13th birthday which was near the end of January. Looking back, the request was laughable. How was I to know that I had a longer journey on this road than I had trod since Joe’s secondary school exclusion? If I had known what was ahead, I would have given in then and there. As it was, I put the decision we had made aside, collected all the children from nursery/school/ tutors, shut out the world and set about making it the best Christmas Mark and I could pull off, all together as a family.
After Christmas, the girls went back to school where talk of closure was making them unsettled, Amos went to nursery three mornings a week where he rarely settled without a huge amount of cajoling, and Joe went back to his tutors, constantly stressed by the uncertainty of it all. Joe was down, irritable and his anxiety made him hard to handle – he was like an unexploded bomb in the house. Still no word of the school placement. Joe would oscillate between being loud, aggressive and unpredictable to quiet, extremely anxious and self critical. I swung from desperation to have some move forward, to panic that Joe would have to live away from us. One minute I wanted to pick up the phone and change my mind, the next I was overwhelmed by the lack of an alternative and the need not to be in the situation we were in at the moment. When Joe got angry, it was a case of keeping the other children out of harms way, but often that meant putting myself in it. I was exhausted, feeling battered from all sides, holding myself together by shreds. And then we got the news that the funding was not to be provided for the residential placement after all. The relief was immense; I would not lose my boy – the family would stay together, my most desired outcome. For a few days, I was so happy, but the reality that there was no alternative soon began to re-emerge. We were trapped in a situation from which there was no option of a happy ending.
We went through this cycle three times, and twice the place at the residential school was given to someone else. Each time, we had to go the emotional exhaustion of being forced by circumstance into the decision to place Joe in a residential school and each time we made the decision it was as hard as the first. And while this went on for months and months, life happened too. We received the official letters about the girls school closure, and experienced the pain of that with the girls. I had to face the humiliation of going back into the primary school that had excluded Joe and that we had moved the girls from, to ask if the girls could go back, this time with their little brother. I was getting migraines, Mark was ill, I was giving away the pram, buggy, baby clothes – something that upset me dreadfully as I find it so hard that I will never have another baby. I wasn’t sleeping, Joe’s tutors would turn up late; there would be days they couldn’t turn up at all. We were told the tutors only had a week to teach, then that they would carry on. Professionals who had been involved with Joe’s case left their jobs without us knowing, There was a big meeting about Joe’s residential placement, but after waiting all day and the next for news, we found out that while some professionals had cancelled annual leave to be there, others hadn’t bothered to turn up and the meeting was unable to go ahead. A car crashed into the wall outside our house, knocking it down (fortunately no-one was hurt – a definite upside). We had to get the Police up to the wood because someone had smashed up the badger sett, apparently to capture badgers for badger baiting. Normal life happens, and if I was dealing with a school closure on its own, or the just the cancellation of a vital meeting, or coping only with my life moving away from having a baby in it, or someone trespassing in the woods to damage the badger sett, I would have managed. But all together, through the lens of Joe living away from us, the pressure was destructive, deadly, all pervading. Then finally, more than four months after making the decision to place Joe in a residential school for the first time, the school phoned me to say that they had still heard nothing and they couldn’t keep this last place open any longer. And there we were, May, and we were no farther forward than on the day of Amos’ Christmas party.
When I read this through, it seems like a terrible list of moan. But it only scratches the surface. I want to write this down because we are not the only ones. We are not the only family going through needless trauma because of systems that aren’t working, and if I can reach one person to say “I know, I care,” and it helps them to know that, then this has been worth it. I would not have survived this without the woods to go to. I realise most people are not lucky enough to have the space to break apart in. They do not have the safe haven to pull up into, broken, battered, exhausted. I am so fortunate I had the trees roots to anchor me, the branches to support me, the leaves to whisper peace to me… And so I go to the woods.