Seeing things differently

When Pudding was diagnosed with a rare progressive condition that I’d never heard of (I mean, who HAS heard of mucopolysaccharidosis in the course of normal life) I knew that nothing would ever be the same again.

I was right. It hasn’t been. But that doesn’t mean that life is over, that everything will always be bad.

When he was first diagnosed, other parents told me that the first six months to a year were the hardest. I tried to find that helpful but couldn’t really see myself going back to feeling normal again, not feeling all that fear and grief and anger. It just didn’t seem possible.

Five years on, and a friend, another MPS mum, recently messaged me with this photo that she’d just come across in a back copy of the MPS Society magazine. To her, it was just a lovely photo – Pudding reaching over to me as I leaned on his hospital bed.

To me, it was so much more than that. It was a reminder of the day our fears came true. The day, a few months after diagnosis, that we finally got the results from his DNA test, confirming a complete gene deletion and therefore the worst possible outcomes from his condition.

I mentioned that and she immediately apologised, wishing she hadn’t sent it. But as I told her, I truly didn’t mind. For despite the circumstances, I do now love that photo. Yes, it is bittersweet, but it doesn’t just make me think of the worst.

When I see it I also remember the consultant’s face as he told me, and I knew how much he cared. I remember the hug that our specialist nurse gave me as she wished she could do more to make things better. I remember the nurses on the ward not just giving Pudding his treatment, but loving him with all their hearts. I remember being so grateful that my mum was with us on that (as I thought) routine visit. I remember the beauty of the moors as we headed back home along the hated M62 in sunshine.

One photo. So many different ways of seeing it.

In fact, I actually find it hard now to truly remember my feelings from those first few months. Not that I have exactly welcomed MPS into our lives. But I do think I’ve come to much more of an understanding with it. An acceptance that what will be will be.

A lot of the reason I’m free to see things differently at the moment is the wonderful long break we’ve had from hospital. Leaving the clinical trial he was on was difficult certainly, but it has meant that normal life is more ‘normal’ – no more clinical visits, no more psychology tests where I’m hit again and again with the reality of what he can’t do. No more M62!

Pudding’s health continues to be mostly ok for the moment and he’s a lot easier to deal with, being so much quieter than he was. Whilst I know the things that are still to come for us, it’s like we’re in the golden days. The eye of the storm. And I’m liking it here.

I used to hate all those motivational/inspirational memes (still do actually). You know the sort of thing: ‘Special children are only given to special people’ or ‘What doesn’t break you, only makes you stronger’. But I guess one that does ring a bit more true for me now is ‘Whilst you can’t change what happens to you, you can change how you react to it’. Not that I’ve really made any attempt to change. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I have been changed.

The next stages in Pudding’s condition may come quicker than I think, or we may still have months or years to make the most of. Who knows, I may see things differently again tomorrow! But until then, I accept.

Time

Yesterday nearly passed me by. Five years since Pudding’s diagnosis of MPS Hunter Syndrome. Five years of knowing that we will lose our gorgeous boy before he turns 20. Five years since I gave up hope of being told it was all just a silly mistake. Five years of this roller coaster of treatments and hope and despair.

In the last few weeks I’ve noticed that Pudding has started getting darker hair on the corners of his lips. A reminder that time is passing and even though his brain is declining his body is still getting older.

But don’t cry for us. Not for long anyway. Because I have a secret.

I can stop time.

All I have to do is snuggle in close and let his head rest on my shoulder. Lean in to him and breathe in his hair. Breathe in the warmth and marmite and banana. Feel his hand grab mine to fiddle with. Drink in all the love and content that flows from him in buckets.

And time…pauses. Nothing else matters.

Fear

Fear. It creeps up on you, doesn’t it?

The whole situation with coronavirus has been a perfect breeding ground really.

I’ve written before about how my anxiety levels seem just naturally higher these days. It started when becoming a stay at home mum: my horizons narrowed and I was no longer pushed to do things that I found stressful. A few years later Pudding’s diagnosis came and things suddenly became that much more limited and worrisome.

And then a worldwide pandemic. Boom! Horizons reduced even further. We’ve been lucky: our home and garden have been very much a safe space for us. With the exception of sporadic trips out for exercise we’ve pretty much stayed put. Yet now shielding advice has been changing and I’ve known for a while that I’d need to venture out into the world again.

Scary.

Logically I know that the risk of me catching anything on a quick trip to the shops is minimal. I can tell myself that till I’m blue in the face. But of course brains don’t always work like that. Logic doesn’t always win over fear.

Last week I beat that fear in a small way. I stepped inside a building other than my house for the first time since the 21st March. It was only taking a parcel to the post office and I’d already paid the postage online. There was one other customer in the shop and it actually wasn’t at all scary.

We will definitely not be going wild and having a family trip to the pub anytime soon, but it felt like a positive step taken.

And then, this weekend the fear bubbled up again. Or should I call it anxiety? Sometimes I know exactly what has triggered it: an argument on social media, a TV programme I’ve watched that has touched a nerve. Sometimes it takes me a while to pinpoint what the cause was.

This time it was a letter received from the government on Friday – a letter that said Pudding is still considered to be in the ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ group and should remain shielding until August.

cuddle

I know that those letters aren’t always accurate (see below for the explanation) and I know that his consultant was happy for us to start easing into normal life a little more. But I’m obviously well conditioned to respond to authority, despite my reservations about the current government, and that letter tickles all those ‘but what if…?’ nerves.

Logic taking another little holiday.

Well, the weather this weekend hasn’t been very conducive to getting out anywhere anyway. So I have been doing the next best thing – plenty of cuddles with Pudding. Very much like a therapy pet, it is impossible to stay stressed for too long with that soft, warm snuggly body pressed into you.

Fairly difficult to breathe too when he’s lying on top of you, but I’ll take that side effect any day!

 

Shielding letters: at the start of lockdown consultants helped identify groups of patients that could be most vulnerable to the effects of Covid19. All diseases/conditions are described by a code – a bit like the Dewey Decimal system for books. So Pudding’s condition would come under Inherited metabolic conditions, then lysosomal storage condition, then mucopolysaccharidosis, then MPS II Hunter Syndrome. (Don’t quote me on this by the way – I’m not sure of the exact breakdowns, but using this just as an example.) But when the NHS database was accessed in order to send out these letters the data was not able to be broken down in such detail. Therefore, rather than sending out letters to patients with Hunter Syndrome who also have particular risk due to airway issues, a much wider group of patients were targeted. If you have a shielding letter but are not certain whether it should apply to you or vice versa, I’d recommend talking to your consultant to get more individual advice.

Trapped

We can’t go anywhere or do anything that I want to. You can forget about lazy foreign holidays or trips around historical sites. Life will just carry on around us and we’re stuck. Stuck in a rut that will only end in the worst way.

No I’m not talking about Covid-19, but my state of mind a few weeks ago. Although I do bumble along quite happily most of the time, the lows are still there and seem to hit harder sometimes simply because they take me by surprise.

This time, although I knew I was feeling miserable, I just couldn’t see that I was being unreasonably so. I was in a hole and couldn’t see my way out and when that happens logic flies away and it’s impossible to reach out for help. What’s the point? Nobody can help. Nobody cares. 

I was worrying about some aspects of Pudding’s care, but not sharing concerns with Hubby – he’s got to keep working to support us and doesn’t need more pressure on him – and at the same time resenting him for not knowing. And I was losing sleep over little things that I had no control over.

Like I said, logic doesn’t hold much sway.

So what snapped me out of it? A blogger friend of mine, Gemma from Isla’s Voice checked in on me as she often does. Just a simple message asking how I was doing. Maybe it just came at the right time to find a way through my barriers, but I found myself letting some of it out and sobbing as I wrote back to her. That night I was still holding the world at bay, but Hubby came and gave me a hug. Often when I’m feeling emotional/angry I’ll escape from contact as soon as I can, but he held on and my walls came tumbling down. I cried. Messy crying.

We talked. And the world became infinitely better again.

But it wasn’t until the weekend and our walk in the woods that I twigged what one of the main contributing factors had been. (I’m supposed to be intelligent, but hey…) No wonder I was feeling trapped. It’s not my family that is the problem. It was the weather. We had been pretty much trapped in the house every weekend for the last month by regular storms. Not easy to wrap up and head into nature when you’ve got wheelchairs and poor balance to consider. And I DO really need a fix of nature every so often.

Of course with coronavirus complicating the world right now, social distancing and self-isolation are the key words being thrown around and we may end up having to stay in again. But spring is around the corner, the weather is improving, and the garden desperately needs some work. I am determined not to feel trapped by this.

I only ever really write about our own story. I’m no expert and don’t feel qualified to preach to others or give advice. All I can say is that reaching out to others really can make a difference. Maybe not every time. Maybe sometimes you’ll be pushed away. But just maybe you’ll be the right person at the right time and you can help them out of that hole.

Letting go

I think over this Christmas period I’ve found the secret to happiness.

That is, I’ve found it before, but never really known how to articulate it. Letting go.

Letting go of the way things ‘should be done’. Letting go of preconceptions. Letting go of the idea that the opinion of strangers actually matters.

It’s a path that many parents of disabled children have to travel. We have all sorts of ideas about how parenting will be: the experiences from our own childhood that we remember and want to repeat with our children, and those that we want to avoid; the plans for their future – school, university, work, marriage. And then the slow realisation that things are going to be different to our expectations.

Maybe that journey goes faster for those with disabilities apparent from birth, I don’t know. With a condition like MPS though, when development is relatively normal at first, the realisation is slow. Painful at first.

Pudding with an enormous smile, watching TV

Over the last few years we’ve gradually adjusted to Pudding’s world and at Christmas I think it’s even more apparent how far we’ve come from what I would previously have planned. He is at his happiest with his beloved cartoon films on tap, and getting plenty of attention from people on his own terms. So that’s what we do. Christmas for us now is at home, with family visiting. TV stays on.  We don’t buy any presents for him – he doesn’t need anything and isn’t interested. This year, he even stayed asleep in bed until we’d opened all ours anyway. He definitely doesn’t feel that he’s missing out and I no longer feel guilty about that. I’m letting go!

How things ‘should’ be done really doesn’t matter. What matters is what makes Pudding, and us as a family, happy. This Christmas in our still-feeling-new house is probably one of the best I can remember. Letting go doesn’t mean giving in, or necessarily accepting second-best. Instead it’s developing new traditions and finding the joy in small things.

I don’t really make new year’s resolutions, though I do sometimes have aims for the year. But maybe this should be the theme for my year. Letting go, and finding the joy in small things. There are definitely worse ways to live.

I hope 2020 will bring each and every one of you some joy too. xxx

Over the Wall

On a Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago, I stood in Leeds coach station anxiously watching the bus in front of me. I was waiting for one face. And there suddenly he was, in unfamiliar clothes, tall, dark and with striking eyebrows. I soon realised the last two were from badly-wiped-off face paint (much of which seemed to be all over his trousers), but after four days away my 9-year old did look somehow taller and more confident.

I had been told about Over The Wall Sibling camps ages ago, not long after Pudding was diagnosed but at that point T was too young (the camps are for 8-17 year olds). This year I thought he was ready but that didn’t stop me worrying about him going off without knowing a single other person there. I needn’t have been concerned – the first question he asked me as we walked out the coach station was ‘When’s the next one?’

I could write a whole blog post about this myself but what’s the point? I wasn’t there experiencing it, so I’ll turn this one over to T. (I interviewed him on your behalf!)

A tie-dyed T-shirt and some trousers covered in face-paint

So tell me a bit about camp. What’s it like? It’s fun cos you do lots of different activities. Some outdoor things like climbing and abseiling. We also did indoor activities like picking a partner and going round a course blindfolded.

Was it just physical activities? No, we made a film where I was the evil genius with a side-kick. And we made tie-dye T-shirts and origami. And after most meals we had a disco and did camp songs. My favourite was one where you’d sing the start of it and then challenge someone to ‘shake your booty’.

How was camp organised? We were in different teams and we all had a T-shirt. I was in orange team which was the youngest. And a few of us shared a bedroom. There were grown up volunteers who took us to the activities and cheered us on.

Did the staff and volunteers do things to help you make friends and boost your confidence? Yes, there were trust things like the blindfold course and holding ropes when someone else was climbing. And we did one thing where we had to write nice things on some clothes pegs and then sneak around and try and pin them on someone without them noticing. I was very good at that! Another thing was when we had to draw round our hand and then everyone in our team wrote what they thought about you.

Origami, a little wooden chest with a friendship bracelet in, a toy monkey, and a picture of a hand with lots of nice comments written on.What was the thing you enjoyed most? Climbing because you had to climb up a log onto a rope onto another log and then there was a ladder and a big net and some tyres to get up. It was really cool.

What was the hardest thing you did?  Abseiling! I hated it at the top cos you have to go backwards and it feels like you’re about to plummet to your death. But unlike some of the others I actually did it and it made me a feel a bit braver.

Were you all very sensible and well-behaved all the time? Er…no. Well, sort of. One morning we woke up at 4am but we stayed in bed till a better time.

What would you say to someone who was a bit nervous about going to camp? Don’t worry about going away. Just do it. It’s fun. I will guarantee you’ll like it!

Did you miss us at all? No! I didn’t even miss Pudding cos I was just too busy the whole time having fun!

 

I think you get the picture. He loved it, and even though I was going down with that horrible tummy bug when I picked him up, I couldn’t keep a smile off my face as he talked non-stop about all the things he’d done. And yes, he had a VERY long lie-in the next morning!

Over the Wall run camps for children with serious health challenges, their families and siblings. Applications are now open for 2020 (T is on the reserve list now, as they quite rightly prioritise people who haven’t been before). The camps themselves, and transport to them from various big cities, are free to all campers. Therefore any donations would be very welcome!

 

Today I cry

Today I cry.

This morning I should have got in a taxi to the station with Pudding, caught a train to Manchester and arrived at the hospital. We would have had a lovely greeting from his fan club of nurses and other staff. He would have had a dose of the potentially life-saving drug, just as he has done every four weeks for the last three and a half years. And we’d have whiled away the next four hours with playing and TV in between medical observations.

I am sure that we have made the right decision in withdrawing Pudding from the clinical trial. But that doesn’t stop it being hard. And so I cry.

I cry for the loss of hope. I cry for the loss of his future. 

Pudding with a massive smile, laughing at someone just off camera.

I cry that after three and a half years one of the boys on the trial finally learnt my name and now we won’t see him again.

I cry for the skills he has lost and those he has still to lose.

I cry for the other boys with Hunter Syndrome that never even had the chance of this hope. And I cry for families that have been on trials before that were ended with no choice or input from them.

I cry for the strength I will need to deal with things still to come.

Today I cry. But not for ever.

I don’t have the time. For one thing, it’s production week for our play right now and I’m too busy to spend long in the emotional depths. But also, I think of the reasons that we actually made this decision. One of the huge positives of this choice is to give us more time to enjoy away from the clinical hospital side of things and I am determined not to waste this.

Every time over the last few weeks that I have looked at my gorgeous Pudding, my heart melts even more. And every time I cuddle him, I hold on just a little bit longer. Every minute has become that much more precious.

Less than a week after we saw the consultant for that life-changing discussion I did a talk at Martin House Hospice during their Open Day. I used a talk that I’d written for them on a previous occasion and hadn’t got round to updating it much. Reading through it just before, I knew there was one paragraph that I would struggle to get out without being too emotional and that’s because it had taken on a particular poignancy since I had written it months before.

And most of all Martin House has taught me that a hospice isn’t just a place about dying. Coming here is definitely about having the space and energy to live life to the full and celebrate what we have. And whether we have days, weeks, months or years to spend with our life-limited children, it’s important that we spend them living, not dying.’

And that is what I intend to do.

Circles

At this difficult time, my mind has been turning circles: reading up on options, moving towards a decision, learning more, wavering again. Yet strangely, I am finding it easier to deal with than the period just after diagnosis.

After diagnosis, when we first heard the word mucopolysaccharidosis, the bottom dropped out of our world. Learning that our little boy had a progressive, life-limiting condition left us reeling with shock, anger, grief, guilt…the lot.

You may have seen that diagram of a line showing what we think grief looks like, and then a tangled scribble saying this is what it is actually like. (Sorry, I don’t have a copy and wouldn’t know who to credit if I redrew it myself.) Well, that’s what it also feels like going through this journey. Emotions really aren’t linear. They’re complicated; overlapping and folding back in on themselves, circling round, revisiting you when you think you’re already done with that one. Ebbing and flowing. And over time, I’ve found them easier to deal with.

So even though we’re making this life and death decision for Pudding, it is with four years of experience behind us and without that paralysing shock punching into me every morning when I wake up unawares.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My brain is full of ‘what if’s and consequences but I can still laugh with my friends and have funny conversations with T on the school run. Seemingly simple tasks like booking a taxi are sending my underlying anxiety into stomach-churning levels, but yet I still managed to sort out my hoe insurance ten days before the deadline. I may find it hard to concentrate on planning meals, but can still enjoy eating. I need a hot water bottle at night to ease those tense muscles, but my mind has mostly let me sleep.

The world keeps on turning and another aspect of my life has circled round to bring home how far I have come. I’m rehearsing for a play at the moment, and it’s being directed by the same person as the play I was in at diagnosis time. I have always loved acting – the chance to step away from real life and be someone else – but back then it was tough. Everyone was very supportive and there were numerous times when I had to leave the rehearsal room to go and cry by myself. But now? Well the play is pretty challenging, dealing with family relationships, love and loss and I am finding it quite cathartic in a way – I may not be able to shout and scream at MPS in real life, but I can channel that into my character.  And though they may know I have a disabled son, I doubt most of the cast have any idea of what we’re currently facing and that’s the way I’m happy for it to be. I would do anything for my Pudding, but I also need to be just me sometimes. An ordinary person doing ordinary things.

And as for the future…? We have probably made our decision, but we’re sitting with it for a while, to check that it feels right. All your messages of support and love for Pudding really has helped, so thank you.

Holiday challenges

Trying something new can be difficult. Challenging.

And when you’re making decisions on someone else’s behalf, it’s even easier to stick with the same old things. I know I’m guilty of that with Pudding. I know what he likes and often don’t branch away from the tried and tested. After all, I can’t ask him what he thinks.

CPWe’ve recently come back from a holiday at Center Parcs at Sherwood. A tried and tested formula for us. We go with the whole of my family (parents, Sister, Brother and their children) so there are lots of people around to chat with or do activities. I loved going before Pudding was diagnosed with MPS, and I’ve come to appreciate it even more since. Holidays can be challenging for us in many ways, but I know what we’re getting at Center Parcs. I’ve always found the staff to be really helpful and responsive regarding Pudding’s accessibility needs and they even have a Changing Places toilet in the Sports Centre with another one planned in their pool revamp.

While we’re there, all the other kids get to try out new activities, stretch themselves and their abilities. We find things they like and things they don’t, and that’s ok. And I need to remember that Pudding deserves that chance too.

This holiday I challenged myself and booked him on the Mini Captains Adventure – a boat ride for young children with one accompanying adult. I had suggested that we could draw straws to see who went with him, but no-one else was brave enough!

To be honest, I had no idea what he’d make of it. The success of an outing or activity can depend very much on his mood at the time (and whether he’s had something to eat). But I was prepared for pretty much anything short of being capsized.

It’s often the people we encounter that can make or break an experience for us. I often think Center Parcs have good customer care and the chap running this session was no exception. He was very happy to accept us on our terms and didn’t bat an eyelid when Pudding sat in his wheelchair watching his tablet throughout the safety briefing and instructions.

Grandma, Brother and Sister had come along with us for moral and physical support (very useful when it came to getting the chair across a short stretch of beach), but found it terribly funny when the instructions told us to visit each buoy in turn and note down which picture was on them. I very sensibly decided to ignore them and the instructions!

Pudding looking through the front window of a boat holding onto the steering wheel. I am sitting by him, arm just visible guiding the wheel too.Once the other three boats had set out (again, my decision) we got Pudding out of his chair and took him down onto the jetty. The massive smile on his face made it worthwhile even just for those few seconds. Manhandling him into the right place on the boat was a bit difficult but we did it. And then we set out onto the lake.

He loved turning the wheel, but wasn’t quite so keen on me actually steering so our progress on the water was somewhat erratic! He also loved the occasional person zooming past overhead on the zipwire. I had a feeling though that a good mood wouldn’t last too long, so after a while negotiated back to shore. Seeing his fan club there brought more massive smiles and we even got a picture of him holding his Captain’s graduation certificate.

It was probably the most expensive ten minutes he’s ever spent, but I don’t care. We tried something new!

(PS. I am not being paid for this post and haven’t been asked to promote it, so any advertising is entirely coincidental – just my opinion! Other holiday companies do exist, etc, etc)

Conference 2019

Saturday was the hottest day of the year so far, and what was I doing? Rubbing away goosebumps in a conference room in Coventry…

We’ve just spent the weekend at the MPS Society Conference – a weekend of talks, coffee, cake, chatting, more cake, more talks, partying and talks. Full on and exhausting, but most definitely worthwhile.

We’ve attended events each of the last two years, so you might think that there is not much more information I need to take in. Yet there are always some useful snippets that I pick up on, something to reassure me about the next steps we’ll be facing. I won’t bore you with the many details that I scribbled down in my notebook – info about changes in the corpus callosum relating to behaviour, warning signs to look out for as swallowing function declines (oops, I just did!). We’re lucky with the health professionals we see in Manchester in that any questions I have are always answered. But sessions at conference often answer the questions that I didn’t know I had.

And as always, it’s the chance to talk to other parents and individuals with MPS that is almost more important. Chatting with others who just get it.

Unlike in previous years we didn’t take Pudding with us – the date coincided with the weekend we’d been offered respite at Martin House Hospice. It did feel a little odd being at an MPS event without him, but in a way he was very much with us still. Walking down the corridor to our room, I could picture him thundering down the very same corridor two years ago. Helping myself to juice at the breakfast buffet I heard a little voice in my head, shouting ‘Du!’. And of course, every snippet of information that I stored away was one that will inform his future.

bananaT had a super time in the children’s programme (trip to Drayton Manor, magic show, DVDs and more sweets than I could possibly approve of). But it occurred to me that maybe one of the greatest benefits to him of the weekend was the chance to be play with us and be silly, released from the responsibilities of having to be the sensible big brother  while we concentrate on Pudding. (Yes, that is him and Hubby having an inflatable banana/guitar duel.)

And last but not least, I stepped way out of my comfort zone by standing up on stage to sing a solo in the MPS talent show!

It’s strange writing this today, exactly four years on from the confirmation of Pudding’s diagnosis. Back then it would have been too overwhelming, too difficult to contemplate choosing to spend a whole weekend immersed in the MPS world. I would have sobbed my way through the first couple of talks before hiding in the loo. So much has changed in the past four years, and while not everyone will find the same path through this life, for me embracing times like this can certainly have positives.

Pudding smiling in a red ladybird jacket.

(If you’d like to see some of the highlights from the weekend, have a look at this video. You might spot me!)