Thursday, 23 August 2007

Agoraphobia and a Trip to Wales

A trip to Wales seemed just what was needed after hosting two pairs of students over a 5-week period. A few days without the children (my oldest daughter Carla had offered to look after them). Just Marie & me getting a little time to ourselves.

It didn't have to be Wales, of course. It could have been anywhere in the world...well, anywhere Marie's agoraphobia would allow us to go to...that is, somewhere we could drive to...which wasn't too remote... Yes, the choices were limited, but with a quite favourable weather forecast for the region, a trip to Wales, which is only a couple hours' drive away from here, seemed an attractive proposition. And it was to be south Wales, avoiding all the sparsely populated areas (and the problems which arose on our Scotland trip). Marie was in good form and was wanting to "walk somewhere" - a good omen, indeed. We were also able to spend some time with Jenna and her family before her imminent return to Ireland.

The weather was quite good, and Marie's agora- phobia was not as bad as it has recently been. She went into some bigger shops and took some short walks (6m in built-up areas and 3m in the open). She unexpectedly volunteered to drive a couple of times.

We explored the scenery of the Brecon Beacons, and the Black Moun- tains.

At the edge of the area is Caerleon, a former Roman settlement. Here we visited the Roman remains, including the Roman amphitheatre, claimed to be the most impressive in the UK.

Only I walked around them - Marie waited in the car. The fact that Marie could wait in the car showed an improvement in her agoraphobic condition.

So it was only a few days, but very enjoyable ones.

With no children and no requirement to get up at any specific time, it was like having a second honeymoon...

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Marie's Anxiety, Zorbing & The Cerne Abbas Giant

Marie had arranged for us to host 2 pairs of students (see previous post) - Agnes & Alice and Julia & Anna. When Agnes and Alice were here, the weather was poor most of the time, inhibiting what both the Summer Language School and the host parents could do. However, when Julia and Anna were here, the weather was mostly good, and most activity options were available.

Marie has a best friend in her home town called Claire. Claire has a sister called Rachael. Rachael had a job with a company called Zorb and had told Marie all about it. Zorb was based within a hour's drive of Marie's parents' house. (For a description of "Zorb" and "Zorbing" click on the links.) Zorbing can only take place in reasonable weather. When Julia and Anna stayed with us, the day their Summer Language School had designated "family Sunday" was warm, sunny, dry and calm. Perfect weather for visiting Marie's Mum and Dad to see their new (8-bedroom!) house - and to go Zorbing.Zorbing for Julia and Anna was Marie's idea (I hadn't even heard of it), but when we were about to go, she became very anxious and decided to stay at her parents' new home which, being well above average size, made her feel quite anxious, too. So off I went with the girls and the children.
The girls really enjoyed the experience.Afterwards I took them to see the nearby Cerne Abbas Giant, which caused them much merriment.I think our students had a pretty enjoyable day. So did the kids.

But sadly, Marie didn't...

Monday, 20 August 2007

Agoraphobia and Austrian Students

Our home is always only partly decorated, and it's Marie's fault.

I'll come home one day and the wallpaper in one room will be partly missing. "I've decided to redecorate this room," Marie will tell me. "It's really old-fashioned (done 2 years ago). I want something trendy." Then she'll spend the next week on the internet looking at colour schemes. Home improvement magazines will appear to be breeding in the living room. Bits of redundant wallpaper will appear in all the other rooms while the job is in progress. I will be dispatched to the nearest DIY shop for sample pots of paint. These will be painted onto the walls in imperfect squares, like some kind of mad tartan design. We'll all be standing in the middle of the room, casting a critical eye over the wall of sample paint colours. "That's definitely too dark." "That's much too light." "...too yellowy." "...too much green...
" "Oh my god - that's gross!" "I'm not having that!" And more of the same. I'll be dispatched to the DIY shop for another batch of sample pots of paint, and the whole behaviour pattern will be repeated...several time
s...for several months...

So it came as a big surprise when, out of the blue, Marie announced that she wanted to host some students attending summer school learning English. Apparently the organisers needed more host families.
...In six day's time! The students, who would be from Italy or Austria, would be out most of the time, having English lessons or going on trips to sample "typical" English pursuits. Being an agoraphobic in a host family would not be a disadvantage. Now that Sharyl had become a "safe" person, I could, when necessary, provide chauffeuring services or go out to get some forgotten item.

We had a week to turn our home, which resembled a cross between a decorator's store and a furniture removal company's storage facility, into a suitable temporary residence for a couple of pubescent females. (Marie wanted only girls.) And it was a week when I was unusually busy at work. Then we decided that the nice, newly decorated (mostly completed) room which Marie had picked for the girls would not be practical, so they would have to go into the bedroom with the oldest decor and a carpet which needed replaced (as well as being quite old, our cat had scratched a hole in it)...

Six days later, with the house in barely serviceable condition, our Agnes and Alice arrived. Both of the girls live in the same street, so they knew each other well. Agnes spoke very good English and Alice, who was a year her junior, spoke quite good English too. Aware of Agnes's better grasp of English Alice chose mostly not to speak unless spoken to, which seemed a shame. Both girls were very well behaved, polite, clean, punctual - the perfect guests - but over the next two weeks the hoped-for bonding between them and us didn't happen, despite Marie's best efforts - and she rarely has problems getting on with just about anybody. The girls, particularly Agnes, did have a giggle when we were at the dinner table. Sometimes Alice would open up and show us that she has a great sense of humour. But they spent a lot of time in their (not very attractive) room and kept our family at arm's length. Perhaps it was our fault; after all, we were host family newbies. Or perhaps the girls weren't used to living in such a busy environment, lots of people living together, often noisy with two very young children and many visiting family relations. Or maybe they just preferred their privacy. Who knows? Later, we found out that our experience was quite normal and it's not uncommon for Austrian students to spend lots of time in their room.

Marie's agoraphobia did not cause any problems. She miSsed out on a few things, of course - I had to take the girls out on an afternoon trip by myself (accompanied by Joe and Orla, of course); we couldn't go to a karaoke evening in the local pub because it is inaccessible to Marie; I had to meet the girls on arrival and escort them by myself to the departure point.

After a week's break, and with or home in slightly better order, the second pair of students arrived - Julia & Anna. They were a year older than our previous guests, more outgoing and more mature. This time the girls mixed with us more. We had longer conversations. Like their predessessors, they were helpful and polite. Julia was quite tuned in to he internet and borrowed a laptop most evenings (Anna used it too, but less). Marie could relate to this and showed her around some of the sites she visits regularly. They now have each other's MSN details and I expect that they'll be chatting online in due course. Anna played the piano and wasn't too embarrassed to play to us. She is being taught classical music, but doesn't want to be a concert pianist, so I told her how I have used my piano playing skills in rock bands, theatre, and helping out at our local schools, etc. She expressed an interest in learning about other styles of piano playing, so I showed her how to play basic Boogie-Woogie, some Jazz teqniques and how to play "by ear" - i.e. to play just about any tune by listening to it carefully and working out the melody and accompaniment. She has real musical ability and will be able to adapt without much effort.

Again, agoraphobia caused no problems. But I think the success of being a host parent has raised Marie's self-esteem, and she is working on reducing her agoraphobia more than she has been recently.

And the room that our student guests used...the one that hasn't been decorated recently (two years ago) and needs a new carpet...guess what Marie's next project is? Yes, you've got it. I'm expecting to come home and find a mound of home-improvement magazines, a pile of paint colour charts and a couple of dozen carpet samples any day now!

Thursday, 9 August 2007


Marie shed some tears today. It's because Jenna is going back to Ireland. Out of all my daughters, Jenna is the one Marie feels closest to. It took Marie a while to establish this relationship with Jenna (click here for more info). Since Jenna has had mental health problems in the recent past, including mild agoraphobia, Marie felt that they were kindred spirits. And because Jenna talks non-stop, there is never trouble continuing a conversation. No awkward silences. Having a daughter (Elisha) only 13 days younger than her aunt (our daughter Orla) was another thing they had in common. Marie (and I) had visions of aunt and niece growing up together in a close relationship. Alas! it is not to be.

The announcement came totally out of the blue. Marie and I and Jenna's sister, Carla, had been intensively looking for a new house for Jenna and her family to move to. We had just identified one, a good-sized semi with a beautiful large and level garden, and were going to arrange to get it the next day. I told Jenna the good news, but, far from the ecstatic cries of delight, I got a flat instruction not to proceed. The reason for this was given a few days later.

Marie feels like she has lost a friend - the one who has been the most empathetic. But she and I agreed not to try to influence Jenna's decision. It's my opinion that parents should teach their children how to live without them; so when they become adults, they should be left to make their own decisions.

We will still see Jenna and Elisha (but apparently not her husband). She's promised to fly over and visit regularly. And I'll go to Ireland with Joe and Orla sometimes. But relationships will, inevitably, change. And every now and again Marie will shed some tears for what might have been...

Btw...I can't help Marie with this; because I'm upset, too.

Monday, 6 August 2007

The Staff of the Night Shift

Have you ever noticed the type of people who work permanently on night duty? They are totally different to the day-workers. The night shift is almost completely populated by misfits. If you are 7' tall (that's 2.1366 m for you metricated folks) or excessively rotund; if you're missing a limb or two or you've got six fingers on each hand; if your face has the eyes, ears nose and mouth in slightly the wrong place or you are a shy Adonis/Aphrodite...why not become nearly invisible by joining the night shift? And it makes sense, doesn't it? If you are having trouble fitting in with a normal day-time job, why not go for a night-time job?

Thus it was, a couple of weeks ago, when I visited the psychiatric ward at Exeter hospital (about 75 minutes' drive) at 9 p.m. That's the time when the night shift takes over from the day shift. Once I had managed admission to the ward through the 3 locked, reinforced glass, entrance doors, I was greeted by a long-haired, cadaverous midget.

"You're Colm's dad? I'll get him for you," he said while ushering me into a stuffy, dimly lit, windowless room about the size of a double coffin (is there such a thing?...). The room was populated by two utilitarian chairs with no sharp edges. Not normally claustrophobic, I loitered in the doorway to prevent being entombed in the tiny room. Luckily, Colm wandered down the corridor at that moment. The vertically challenged member of staff disappeared noiselessly while Colm and I went into the visiting room - leaving the door open!

"Hi dad," said Colm. "Where's Marie?"

I told him what he already knew - Marie's agoraphobia had prevented her from coming to the hospital.

Colm has severe learning difficulties and normally lives in a community of similar adults. However, he had been becoming less happy there in recent times, but due to a lack of competent vocal skills, he had been unable to explain to anyone the reason(s) why. His frustration had eventually led to a bout of "challenging behaviour" (i.e. an uncontrollable temper tantrum) and when staff couldn't handle the situation, he was committed to a psychiatric ward at the nearest hospital. He wasn't mentally ill - it was just the only secure place he could, temporarily, go.

Colm is only 5 months younger than Marie, but right from the start she has been absolutely brilliant with him. In return, she has become Colm's most important person in the whole world, after me. He showed her how much he thought of her when he started sending her flowers and a card every Mother's Day (he has never sent them to his real mother); which caused Marie to shed a few tears he first time this happened. Colm accepted Marie's agoraphobic condition in a child-like way right from the start, and Marie accepted Colm for what he is, without question, too. It's just one of her many, lovable, good points.

So Colm didn't just want to see me, after he got "locked up" - he wanted to see Marie as well. But Marie's agoraphobic head objected, and, as usual, it won.

Colm and I approached the ward reception desk, where I wanted to obtain permission to take him out for a while. There were quite a few people congregated in the area and I couldn't tell which people were staff and which were patients. None of them looked ill...but none of them looked entirely "normal", either! Eventually a man with a seriously oversized head (surely he had problems balancing?) asked me if he could help. I told him what I (and Colm) wanted, and he went into a small glass-panelled office and conversed with a black-haired female. She looked up and then made her way to Colm and me. Her black, full-length, fitted, crushed velvet dress and her unsmiling, deathly pale face made her look a bit like Morticia from The Addams Family - except that she wasn't so good-looking. She told me that we could go out for an hour.

We didn't do much - just cruised around Exeter. Colm pointed places out; "McDonald's there, dad" or "new cinema, dad", but it was all that Colm wanted. He returned to the hospital willingly, and, I later found out, told anyone that would listen that he had been out with his dad.

Once it was established that Colm could leave the hospital, Marie felt able to accompany me on my next trip. We pulled right up to the entrance to the psychiatric ward just after 9 p.m., occupying the space normally reserved for ambulances. This time the member of staff who admitted me (Marie stayed in the car) looked like an escaped convict, wearing a very clean, meticulously ironed, much-washed, used-to-be-black hospital outfit. But when he smiled, a different person broke through. Colm was waiting for us so he signed himself out and off we went for another successful evening.

Marie was quite relaxed when we returned to the hospital, so when Colm said that he wanted to show me some papers that a "lady" (who turned out to be an occupational therapist) had left, she was ok about staying in the car while I went in with him.

A very old, hook-nosed woman with a stoop let us in. Colm went off to get the papers and some of the patients (at least, I think they were patients - the staff don't seem to have any uniforms or name-badges) decided to strike up conversation with me. The general opinion was that Colm was a nice young man. One young lady who looked totally spaced out told me that Colm was "sorted". Another - a very attractive, blonde, early-twenties, normal-looking woman (so she definitely wasn't staff) - said to me in a thick eastern European accent "...Colm has enough intelligence to make small electric cars." That was a difficult statement to answer! But fortunately Colm reappeared, and after looking at his papers, I left.

Two of Colm's sisters have also visited him. One, Colleen, took him to see "Transformers" at the "new" cinema, so he is quite content in the hospital. Soon he is to go to a new home nearer me and the rest of the family.

I shall miss seeing the staff on the night shift...