Thursday, 31 December 2009

Not quite the Christmas I wanted...

23rd December.

Jenna and her family arrived.  I picked them up at the airport.  They are staying until 1st January.  Matthew looked great!

Matthew now.
He's changed a lot since he was ill.
24th December.   
All my family gathered at our house for my birthday party.  It was Christmas Eve.  The birthday presents were both generous and thoughtful.   I'm a lucky man.

While indulging in some horseplay, one of my grandchildren threw a mobile phone.  It struck the TV, bounced off it and hit Jenna's husband, Colin, on the cheek.  The TV was ruined and Colin had a significant bruise on his cheek.

At 11.00pm, I went to church for midnight mass.  The church car park is about 200m along an unlit, narrow lane.  While driving up the lane, a horse stuck its head out from the field alongside the lane into the path of my car and I was unable to avoid hitting it - although the collision was at low speed.  The horse ran off into the darkness of the field.  I got home about 1.00am and relayed my story to Marie and Jenna.  What was their reaction?  Was the horse hurt?  Why didn't I find the horse to see if it was ok?  Obviously I am a really bad person - I should have run around the muddy field to locate a horse which probably wasn't really looking for human company, and then I should have cornered it to examine its mouth for injuries...all of this in the pitch black!!  No one asked me how the collision had affected me.  Oh well.

Damage to my car

25th December
We had Jenna and her family and Colleen with us on Christmas morning.  It seemed like the opening of presents took hours.  But everybody was well pleased with the presents.

Around lunch time, Colleen went to Colm's house to collect him and bring him to ours.  It was icy where Colm lives and he slipped.  He hurt his wrist and smashed his present for Marie.  We didn't tell him about the broken present in case he got upset about it.

My property alarm company called to report that one of my alarms was sounding.  A subsequent inspection revealed that the alarm had gone faulty.

All my children, their spouses and children had arrived just after lunch time.  Presents were given and received.  With 17 of us, that took a long time!  Happiness everywhere.  Great atmosphere.  Christmas dinner, prepared by Marie and me with some assistance from Colin, followed.  Marie and I have got the hang of catering for such a large gathering!  It was a great success, not only due to the quality of the food (Marie's Somerset cider ham is legendary in our family), but also to the seamless flow from course to course and the general ambiance.  As usual, all the adults helped with the clearing up.

My 7 children - Colm, Joseph, Carla, Jenna holding Orla, Colleen (top right) and Collette (bottom right)

Julie and Drew called around about 9.00pm!  This was a major achievement for Drew, especially as our house was bursting at the seams with family members.  Family members began to leave or went to bed leaving Julie and Drew, Marie, Colin and me to have a much quieter and very enjoyable time with good craic and fine wine.

At about midnight, my alarm company called again...

26th December
Colm's wrist was still swollen.  He spent most of Boxing Day at the hospital and discovered that he had broken his wrist when he slipped on the ice.

Marie and I went to her parents' house where she had a birthday party as well as a Christmas party.  Her sisters, their children and a few other family members were there too - the first year that all the sisters had children at Christmas.  There were lots more presents for Joseph and Orla.

During the afternoon the alam company called yet again!

27th December
We spent the morning completing the assembly of the children's toys (nothing comes ready to use any more) and tidying up all the packaging associated with children's toys.  In the afternoon, I took advantage of the near Spring-like weather and took all the children to the beach where they happily played with sea pools, crabs and sand for a few hours.

The alarm company rang yet again!

28th December
Baby Matthew had had a rough night and was very snuffly.  He wouldn't feed and his breathing was very laboured.  He was distressed and crying almost non-stop.  I felt that a visit to the hospital was required, where they found that his heart rate, breathing rate and temperature were all higher than they should be.  Treatment began almost immediately and I became a messenger boy getting pizza, clothes and nappies.  Matthew was kept in, so Jenna spent the night in the hospital with him.  I eventually got home around 3.00am.

29th December
Two members of staff reported ill early in the morning!  One was a manager, but I managed to get cover for her.  I had to cover the duties of the other ill staff member.  However, the faulty alarm, about which the alarm company had been ringing throughout the holidays, prevented anyone from opening the safe, so one of the branches wasn't able to open for several hours, until the safe engineer sorted out the whole mess.

By lunch time, Matthew's treatment had worked wonders and he was able to go home.  Smiles all round!

After lunch I found out that the unwell members of staff would be able to work next week.  That's good, of course, but even better is the knowledge that they are getting better.

In the evening Marie and I went to a Christmas party.  It was in a private house and I suppose that there were about 40 people there.  The evening was very enjoyable much helped by the fact that despite the party being noisy and crowded, Marie was almost totally anxiety free the whole time.


All in all a mixed Christmas season, but I feel the the good points significantly outweighed the not-so-good ones.   However, I hope that next year we'll have less incidents to cope with!

Btw - The picture at the top is of my wrecked TV!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Mingling with Marie's Mental Mates at the Party for Panicky People.

Marie hosted a party on Saturday evening.  It was for her friends with anxiety issues, but she let me attend too (as long as I agreed to help with the catering).  Our guests all came from the South of England and 5 of them who had travelled about 2½ hours to get to us had booked overnight accommodation.  In total there were 11 of us present.

Sufferers were afflicted in various degrees with one or more of the following conditions - agoraphobia, arachnophobia,  gynophobia, haphephobia, monophobia, ocd, panthophobia, ptsd, social phobia and xenophobia.  A social anxiety sufferer took 90 minutes to pluck up enough courage to ring our doorbell.  Our ptsd guest didn't converse with anyone for almost 2 hours, and then talked incessantly.  A few of our invited guests, including our new next door neighbour, Drew, couldn't make it because their phobias were too strong on the night and one had a stomach upset.

Marie had what looked like the contents of a small supermarket delivered from the local Asda (UK's Walmart stores).  It was all snack food and cakes and the drinks were either alcoholic or sugar saturated.  There wasn't a healthy tidbit in sight.  As a result,  the food and drink were very popular!

Our guests mostly hadn't met each other before.  They were all keen to compare symptoms of their conditions as well as chatting about TV, movies, their children (who appeared to be either really sweet or real nuisances) and jobs - or lack of them.  Of course, no one had to hide their condition or put on a false front, so we had a very relaxed atmosphere.  Some of our guests were very pleased with themselves just for travelling so far or going somewhere with so many people.

Everyone seemed to have had a good time.  No one panicked!  The guests wanted Marie to have another party and the concensus was that some time around Easter would be good.

By the end of the evening, I realised that all our guests suffered from one common problem - poor self esteem.

Nobody got drunk enough to be annoying, the carpets and furniture hadn't been damaged and when all our guests had left, around 12.30 am,  we completely filled a bin bag with rubbish!  Blaze (our dog) got petted all evening and had some of the leftovers, so he had a good time too!

Marie's mental mates are a great bunch of people! 

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

My next door neighbour has agoraphobia!

     The doorbell rang. 
     I opened the door to a quite attractive lady in her early thirties.  It was one of our new next-door neighbours.  She was slim with long legs, had quite short curly brown hair and a disarming smile.  Her dress was peculiar - under an Afgan she wore a dark knitted top, jeans...and a brightly coloured, striped blanket.
     "Hi Julie!  Come on in.  Fancy a coffee?  I was just about to make one."
     "Mmm.  Please."
     She followed me into the kitchen and watched carefully as I prepared our beverages.
     "Sugar?" I asked.
     "No, thanks."
     "Shall we go into the living room?"
     We sat down on different settees, at right angles to each other.  Julie sat on the edge of her seat, knees together, hands clasped together on her lap, back rigid.  We had met before, but only on a business footing. She's an Ebay trader.  Meeting socially is different, of course, and Julie appeared somewhat ill at ease.
     "You must think I'm odd," Julie ventured apologetically, with a sweeping gesture highlighting her stripy blanket.
     "Living with Marie, I'm kinda used to odd behaviour," I replied.
     "Yes, but I hope you didn't mind me watching you make the coffee.  I can't eat or drink anything unless I see it being made.  And the blanket, I have to wear it when I feel anxious.  It's my safety thing.  It's a security blanket.  I have about twenty of them."
     Julie continued to catalogue her "oddities" and for the most part, I just sat and listened, nodding my head at appropriate intervals.  She can't walk far from her house, can't travel in a car further than about 30 miles, can't cope with being in a room with more than a few people, has anxiety about any type of social interaction but feels okay in most business environments.  She has some OCD, being compelled to put things in their "correct" places and she finds it very difficult to put down a puzzle without completing it.
     Julie now settled into the soft cushions of our settee.  She had obviously relaxed.  She told me a little about her difficult childhood, and how it left her with problems trusting people or showing affection.  Drew, her "other half", a local business man and known to me, has social phobia - but only in non-business situations.  She wasn't sure if he would be able to come into our house.
     Both of us looked up as Marie entered the room.
     "Hi Julie!  Sorry to keep you waiting.  I was just getting ready."
     "No problem."  Julie got to her feet and took her leave of me.  She and Marie had arranged to go to the local shop.  They were going to give each other courage.
     So Marie has a new friend; and Julie has too.  Each glad that the other knows something of how they feel, of how their phobias are affecting their lives.  I'll see if Drew will allow me to befriend him.  He hasn't had a friend for many years.
     It's early days, but this might be a helpful development for Marie - and our neighbours.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

My extraordinary son

"The apple does not usually fall far from the tree."  (Der Apfel fellt nicht gerne weit vom Baume.)

If this proverb was true for my son Joseph (8), he would be untidy, unruly, unhelpful, disrespectful...  My anarchic tendencies during my formative years was the bane of my mother's life.

By comparison, Joseph is:
  • affectionate
  • neat
  • punctual
  • conscientious
  • organised
  • respectful of authority
  • considerate
  • obedient (most of the time!)
  • loving
Joseph is, academically, in the top 2 or 3 in his year at school, has the most awards for behaviour/good work, is one of the best footballers on the school and local club teams, is one of the best swimmers and the best gymnast in his school.

Now, that list of attributes would make any dad proud of his son, but Joseph has even more to offer.

During his mum's month long malaise, he has helped me around the house.  Without being prompted to do so.  He washed and cleaned the bathroom, walked the dog (close to our house), often set the table at meal times and sometimes made breakfast for all of us.  He looked after his little sister by showing her how to draw and colour in, selecting tv programmes for her to watch, often played with her and if he saw her doing something that he though was dangerous, would report it to me.  He made cups of tea for his mum.  I could continue to wax lyrical about my son, but I'm sure you've got a pretty good picture already.

Joseph, you enrich my life.  You are a truly extraordinary son.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Nativity play season

Once again, it's the time of year for school nativity plays.

This year, Orla was in her first nativity play, and Joseph was in his fifth.  Normally this would mean attending two nativity plays, but in a break with tradition their school decided to have a play which included all the children between the ages of 4 and 9; so both children were in the same play. 

I had the honour of helping out as musical director (for free of course!).

There were three performances of the play, and all on the same day - yesterday.  Joseph was one of eight chosen for a solo speaking role.  He carried it off with aplomb.  He also performed in the school choir.  Orla was a very attractive angel.  Yes, I know I'm biased!  The picture at the side was given to me by the school since I was unable to take one myself.  (I thought that this was very considerate - I hadn't asked them for a picture.)  She sang her heart out with the rest of her class with "Away in a Manger".

The children were fantastic and the play was a great success.  Even the 4 year olds (like Orla), performing for the first time and after only 12 weeks at school, were terrific.  The kids' performances were really moving.  More than one parent had tears in their eyes.

But do you know what the best thing was, for the children and me?  After hours and hours of indecision, Marie plucked up enough courage to attend the final performance.  The children were thrilled.

Marie was pretty pleased with herself as well!

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Medication moderated - Charles Linden Method is back

Charles Linden has a new hair style.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"My" Marie is back.  Her sleep pattern is returning to normal, she spends time with the children, carries out more domestic duties and is beginning to look to the future.

Here's an email she sent Charles Linden:

I have had a couple of rough months as I mucked my medication up again. Cold turkey isn't a good idea as I should have learned by now.  :(   I've had laryngitis as well as the side effects of my tablets. I am feeling a bit better now and I am going continue the Linden method.. I truly believe in what you say Charles - it's just believing in myself is the problem.  :(  I am too scared as I'm letting my anxiety controll me I guess. So I need a kick up the ass. Charles, I want out of agoraphobia and I kinda have let myself down as I did not keep the work up and I kind of feel a failure as I let the anxiety control me again  :(

Recovery starts from today x

Here's his reply: 
Marie, you are not a failure! Life gets in the way sometimes. You must stop see-sawing your meds though, a stable physical foundation is what is needed in order to recover fully - you know that. Keep your meds dose level or withdraw, it's your choice, but once that is done, you can start the recovery process. Equilibrium is the watchword Marie. You can do this but try to get level first, then move forwards. You can do this Marie... look at how far you came before, there is nothing to stop you. C
 Ok, then.  Onward and upward!  Marie is listening to her therapy CDs again.  Wanting to go out in the car again.  The children are enjoying her attention.  I'm able to spend a little time attending to my business.

Life is better!

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Agoraphobia Works! (for some)

If you suffer from a panic/anxiety disorder, you might find this post makes you angry.  You may find it insulting/controversial/ignorant/thought provoking/just plain wrong.  If so, please let me know!  I want to be wrong!  But I need evidence to make me change my mind.

Over the past years, I've met quite a few panic/anxiety sufferers.  The majority have got over or are getting over their problems, but some, like Marie, haven't.

Now, we all know that agoraphobia is not an incurable problem.  For example, how many housebound agoraphobics have chosen to stay in a burning house to experience voluntary incineration?  How many agoraphobics have refused life-saving surgery?  I haven't heard of any.  It would seem that if you give an agoraphobia sufferer, no matter how severe their condition, sufficient incentive, they can - at least temporarily - overcome their agoraphobia.  And if it's possible to set agoraphobia aside temporarily, then it's possible to remove it permanently.  Well, that's my theory, anyway.  Can you prove me wrong?

I was interested to learn why some people don't seem to be able to fight their agoraphobia.  Here are four of their stories.  Their names and any details which could identify them have been changed/omitted.  The fact that none of them is male is simply because I haven't met an unrecovered agoraphobic man (although I know of one online - but don't know enough about his story to include below).

Anne was a happily married twenty-something with no children when she was raped.  Her husband considered her "soiled" and left.  Scared of another rape and having lost her trust in men, Anne became afraid to leave her house.  She has been almost totally housebound ever since, and she's in her sixties now.  She doesn't work but instead devotes her life to her pets and spends most of her time on the internet.  She considers that her agoraphobia is not adversely affecting her life any more.  Anne has spent most of her life avoiding dealing with her mistrust in men.  Was agoraphobia a convenient excuse for choosing to be reclusive?

Betty got married and relocated far away from her friends and family due to her husband's job.  They had a good life together for a few years, although his possessive nature meant that Betty was unable to form friendships outside of their marriage.  Then she found out that he had been having an affair with her best friend.  Despite assuring her that the affair was over, he continued to see this woman.  Betty became insecure but had no one to turn to.  She became unwell.  This got her extra attention from her husband at first, but he began to tire of her attention-seeking "unwell" bouts.  Betty began to have panic attacks, and her husband got fed up with her and deserted her for her (former) best friend.  Totally humiliated, Betty moved back to her parents' house.  She tried to keep her relationship with her husband going by communicating with him by text and online, but he responded by taunting her with glowing reports of his new relationship and telling her how useless he considered her to be while she was with him.  Fifteen years and much therapy later, Betty is severely agoraphobic and despite being desperately lonely still believes that she's in love with her errant husband.  She lives on State benefits and with the assistance of her parents.  Is her agoraphobia conveniently hiding her inability to deal with the breakup of her marriage?

Carrie was psychologically abused by her father throughout her childhood.  She is married and has a lovely 10 year old daughter.  Her marriage has never been "ideal" because her husband pays her and their daughter almost no attention.  She works part-time in a convenience store a block away from her home and spends the rest of her time washing, cleaning, ironing, cooking, gardening and decorating.  Her husband has a full-time job and spends the rest of his time playing computer games.  He holidays with his mates.  He constantly puts Carrie down.  Nothing she does is good enough.  Her regularly tells her that she's ugly, although in reality she is an attractive woman.  This constant pressure has led Carrie through anorexia, depression and irritable bowel syndrome to panic/anxiety disorder.  Now agoraphobic, she cannot leave her area.  She also has some social phobia.  She believes that she still loves her husband but, despite recognising that he is abusing her, cannot imagine life without him.  All medications and therapies - and there have been many - have proved ineffective.  Is agoraphobia preferable to facing the reality of a sham marriage?

Denise is a stunningly beautiful 25 year old single girl living in a small rural town with her mother.  Despite her unpretentious beauty and popularity at school, Denise has always lacked self confidence.  After leaving school aged 17, Denise had a series of jobs in a nearby city in the beauty and fashion industries.  Mainly due to her lack of belief in her capabilities, she was spectacularly unsuccessful in all of them.  She began to have panic attacks at work, and this was an extra contributory factor in her losing jobs.  Soon she began to have panic attacks at job interviews or on the way to job interviews. In time, this escalated to the point where she became completely unable to leave her small town.  Due to her looks and her sexual expertise, she has had lots of boyfriends.  They all leave when they discover just how much her agoraphobia controls her life, but there are plenty more blokes ready to take their place in her bed.  Denise lives off State benefits and all the treatment for agoraphobia she has received so far has failed to help her.  Does agoraphobia mask her fear of getting a job?

These ladies have one thing in common.  They don't function as normal adults.  Agoraphobia is a convenient excuse to avoid changing their lives.  Sure, their freedom is limited: but is this limitation voluntary?  From the information I have been able to glean, I believe that it is.  While "suffering" from agoraphobia, these ladies can:
  • Avoid having to work for a living
  • Avoid relationships where the partners take equal responsibilities
  • Avoid going anywhere they don't want to go to
  • Avoid taking full responsibility for their lives
  • Get more than usual attention and/or care
  • Avoid making life-changing decisions
As far as I can see, agoraphobia works for these ladies.  By making agoraphobia the reason why they can't change their lives, they can avoid tackling their real issues.

And what about Marie?

Over the years, her level of agoraphobia has changed many times.  When the incentive is great enough, she can do almost anything.  For example, although today - just the same as when I met her - she cannot cross the street to go to a shop or visit the doctor, she has previously gone round supermarkets, furniture stores, busy markets, accompanied me to a hospital appointment, visited the x-ray department in the middle of a large hospital, taken a theory test - on her own - for her driving licence on the 2nd floor of an office block, given birth to two children in hospital (but won't visit the same hospital today)....I could go on, but you get the picture.

Here's what she has told me -
  • I'll get out of agoraphobia one day
  • I know how to get out of agoraphobia, but it's not easy
  • I don't feel strong enough to change things yet
  • I'll start getting out of agoraphobia when I'm ready
All of the above means just one thing - Marie doesn't have sufficient incentive to change her life.  She is comfortable with her current quality of life.  Agoraphobia works for her, too.  Her agoraphobia isn't her main problem - her main problem is whatever is preventing her from taking the necessary steps to conquer it.

Marie was agoraphobic when we met, and I accepted her as my life partner as she was (and is).  If she never changes, I'll still want to be with her. It's my belief that Marie could get much more out of life if she would shed her agoraphobia.  I know that she accepts this, at least in part, but she can also see that her responsibilities would increase.  Is this what is killing off her incentive to change?  Is she scared to assume the full responsibility of being a fully functioning adult?  The story continues...

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Minimising Monophobia, Messing with Medication

Last time I went to Ireland, Marie, for the first time, remained at home.  Her mother came to stay to reduce her anxiety.  That was good.

This time, she did better.

This time, she invited her friend Becky to stay with her in the evenings, and decided to stay on her own in the daytime.  And Becky doesn't even drive...

It went fine.  Just the occasional anxiety attack.  A great success.

Then I came back, tired but happy, ready to celebrate her success.  Ripe for romance.  Keen to canoodle.

But Marie went to bed.

And, for the majority of the time, that's where she has stayed since.  She only gets up to eat or to use her laptop.

Apparently, during my absence, Marie had missed two days' medication.  Only two days, but it was enough to wreak havoc.  All the side effects of her medication began again.

We've been through this before.  The side effects fade after a while and then disappear.  It takes 1 - 4 weeks.

In the meantime, it's up to me to hold everything together.  I attend to the domestic duties, chauffeur the children (who are brilliant and as supportive as their tender years will allow) and look after my business.  The typical parent in a single parent family with two young children.  Somehow I also fit in looking after Colm's needs and acting as an agony aunt to sad separated Colleen, hormonal expectant Collette, worried Jenna and Carla who has new job insecurities.  I'm a busy, busy boy.

Today Marie looked a little better and got up before lunch time.  I hope the worst is over.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The 2nd Belfast trip

↑ Matthew - doesn't he look much better? ↑

Matthew isn't well and he might not be getting much better, but he's not getting any worse. A new heart defect has been identified and he has digestion problems...but these are not life-threatening problems and he's holding on.

In my opinion, the outlook is quite good; there is no (currently known) reason why he shouldn't come out of this and lead a normal life. Colm had a very difficult 1st year and nearly died but now he's as strong as an ox; Colleen had a near miss cot death, I was told that she probably had brain damage and now she's as healthy as any 25 year old; Collette, who had heart failure before she was born, was not expected to survive more than a few hours, spent her first few months of life on life support...she's expecting her first child in January!

* * * * * * * * * * *
← Jenna with niece Shannon

I'm so glad I went back to see Jenna and Matthew! Matthew was a lot better and I was able to hold him lots. The feeling I get when a tiny, helpless baby lies in my arms looking up at me with wide, dark eyes... I can't describe that feeling, but it's unique and incredibly moving. Or am I just a soppy softie? - if so, I don't care!

Joseph, Orla and my eldest granddaughter Shannon (14) also had the opportunity to meet Matthew for the first time. Actually, I was really impressed that Shannon was taking such an interest in her newest cousin. Growing up fast, Shannon is turning into a responsible, caring young woman - a granddaughter to be proud of.

With husband Colin currently unemployed, Jenna's family don't have the funds for many days out. I made it my mission to get them out of their house as much as possible. Additionally, with her family's recent relocation, granddaughter Elisha is rather lonely. Joseph and Orla provided her with all-day company. Surprisingly, there were very few arguments.

If this was by an unknown artist, would you hang it in your living room?

We visited the Ulster Museum in Belfast - recently re-opened after a £17m ($28.36m) refurbishment. For a little city, it really is quite an impressive museum. You can see what it has to offer by clicking here. Less impressive for me was the Sean Scully exhibition which occupied all of the art galleries there. I honestly can't see why anyone would buy one of his paintings. - and I wouldn't hang one on my wall if it was given to me free. I know that the general public side with me since the museum was extremely busy and the art galleries almost deserted.

I have visited the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum several times over many years, but have never seen the transport exhibits. My last trip there was no exception: perhaps I'll check it out on my next visit? However, everyone - perhaps especially the children - thoroughly enjoyed exploring the well presented buildings and their period contents. The authentically costumed ladies and gentlemen plying extinct or ancient crafts were simultaneously entertaining and educating.

Every time I visit Ireland, I go to Dunnes Stores for clothes. The prices belie the quality; and the selection is both large and tasteful. Joseph and Orla found much to their liking during our shopping trip, as did I, so we purchased an amazing amount of clothes for an incredibly small amount of money. There was much which Marie would have liked, but surprisingly, Dunnes Stores has no presence online. I couldn't take the risk that any speculative purchases that I would make for Marie would fit and/or please her critical eye.

← Joseph took this portrait of Elisha. You can tell that it wasn't a planned event!

A visit to the excellent Lisburn Pool provided a very enjoyable aquatic diversion which nicely rounded off our trip.

The trip was an unqualified success. Joseph told Marie that he would like to live there; Orla liked playing with Elisha; Elisha cried sorely when we were leaving and keeps asking Jenna when we'll be back; Shannon told me that she had really enjoyed herself; Jenna had a well-deserved diversion and some helpful company (me - excuse the lack of modesty).

So where was the ugly, strife-torn, low-income, depressing Belfast? Still there, of course, but only providing an insignificant background to the good times being had by our little party. Beauty can co-exist with ugliness!

* * * * * * * * * * *
Joseph wrote a rather good blog post about his trip to Ireland. Click here to see it, and if you would leave a comment, it would thrill him to bits - and perhaps encourage him to keep writing. The blog post was taken from his essay "Half Term Diary" which was his half term homework. During our trip, he took loads of photographs and several are included in his post. His photographic skills are improving all the time.

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Belfast trip

Matthew has improved, doesn't need to be hospitalised any more and will, from now, be an outpatient at the cardiac unit.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Saturday 17th October.

After arriving at Belfast International Airport, I go to the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. The same hospital where my son Colm fought for his life 28 years ago.

The taxi leaves me off at the entrance to the hospital. It is at the opposite side of the building to the old entrance I had used so often while Colm was resident there. The doorway leads into a recently constructed extension to the hospital. There is long, wide lobby decorated with pictures and sculptures presumably aimed at a juvenile public. Perhaps they are meant to give the impression that this is a fun place to visit? In the centre of the floor is a large display of toy animals under thick glass, with long, curved fluorescent tubes to to make an impressive visual impression. Unfortunately the fluorescent tubes don't work...

The lobby leads into a narrower, brighter corridor with glass walls. Outside the walls I get an unobstructed view of untended patio areas and the brightness highlights the fact that the corridor needs cleaning. A wall sign at the end of the corridor indicates that the intensive care unit is up a gloomy flight of stairs. Then another dusty corridor and a couple of sets of self-opening doors lead into the much cleaner lobby of the intensive care unit and operating theatres. A relatives' room is off the lobby, and Jenna and husband Colin are waiting for me here. Matthew is in the operating theatre.

The hospital is on an elevated site and the waiting room has good views of the wide valley which encompasses Belfast.
I get a good view of the twin spires of St Peter's cathedral overshadowed by the ugly, dominant tower of Belfast City Hospital and lots of grey buildings framed by a grey sky. In the foreground is one of Belfast's many gable wall tribal murals. (Click on the images if you want to see them enlarged.)
It's depressing.

Let's have a cup of tea, suggests Jenna.

We go into the old Children's Hospital building and proceed through a dirty corridor with a cracked floor and turn into a dimly-lit, filthy corridor lined with black refuse sacks. Soon the smell of burned fat offends my nostrils. Here is the café.

The café is bright and cheerful and clean, but the smell of burned fat pervades. The cooked food on offer consists of refried, pre-fried, fat-laden potato bread, sausages and some dried-up, brittle bacon. It occurs to me that there should be health warning here. The chatty staff operate at a snail's pace. Fortunately the tea is palatable.

There is no craic. Conversation is forced, leaden; everyone is worried about baby Matthew, now being carved up on the operating table.

We go back to the relatives' room. I realise that I need to go to the toilet. It turns out that the public toilets are far away, in the entrance lobby. Luckily my need is not urgent. When I get to the toilets - there are only two to service the entire children's hospital! - I discover that one of these has no light. Someone has, I'm guessing, tried to use it anyway and the nice urine puddle on the floor is testament to the fact that they had aimed badly. The other toilet is smelly, but serviceable.

On my return to the relatives' room, we receive the welcome news that Matthew is back in the intensive care unit. The operation has gone well. We can see him. Jenna and Colin are elated.

Matthew is motionless, his tiny, yellow, jaundiced body attached to several banks of electronic equipment. He cannot breathe unaided and his heart cannot function unassisted. It is simultaneously incredibly sad and happy - sad that he should should be here like this, and happy that he survived the operation.

The staff in the intensive care unit are extremely friendly, tactful, helpful and informative.
The ward is spotlessly clean. It's a shame that the rest of the hospital isn't like that.

Over the next few days, travelling to and fro the hospital, I get a chance to see how Belfast has changed since I left, 15 years ago. As in many other cities, modern development has robbed entire areas of their identity. The security situation has improved, but Belfast is still a very troubled and divided city and tribal symbols (flags, graffiti and murals) are still strategically placed to indicate which tribe rules which area. Police are still equipped with flak jackets and guns. This isn't exactly conducive to anxiety free ambling in the quieter areas. The economic recession seems to be biting hard here and about 25% of the city's shops appear to be vacant or up for sale. There are a surprising number of boarded-up derelict buildings.

The hospital is situated on the west side of Belfast in what was always a “dodgy” area. It's still a dodgy area. It is Sunday morning, and the main road to the hospital is closed due to suspected terrorist activity. We have to get there by a different route.There are lots of bomb scares, the taxi driver tells me. On the way back, there is a police road block. It is still there on Monday.
The heavily fortified building is a police station.
A police road block is in progress.
Here is the road block from the opposite direction.

In case anyone is in any doubt, I really did not enjoy my time in Belfast. This gives me conflicting emotions since it is my home town and I feel that I'm being disloyal to it. The situation has improved since I left Ireland's shores 15 years ago, but I'm sad that things haven't improved more.

I'm going back to Belfast tomorrow morning. Joseph, Orla and my granddaughter Shannon are accompanying me this time. Since Matthew isn't so ill now, my visit will be much less stressful. Perhaps I'll like the city this time. Or even dislike it less. We'll see...

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Agoraphobia - another slap in the face

Marie's first reaction to my decision to go and see my daughter and critically ill grandson was, ”What am I going to do?”

This is the nature of agoraphobia. Its needs must be met before anything else can be considered.

Marie has never been able to stay at home while I was outside our local area. Therefore I had to arrange for Marie to stay at her parents' house while I was in Ireland and for one of my daughters – Colleen – to look after her until she could get there. The downside of all of this was that the children would miss school during my absence.

While travelling to Ireland it suddenly occurred to me that if I was hospitalised we would have the same problems. When I was last in hospital with kidney problems, two of my adult daughters were still living at home. They were able to look after Marie and the children. They even brought Marie to see me in hospital. Now that they had moved out, it would seem that if I was to go into hospital, not only would Marie have to go to her parents', 1½ hours' drive away (thus not able to visit me often), but also the children's education would be interrupted.

Not a happy state of affairs.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised to learn, when I phoned Marie from Ireland, that she was still at home. Colleen had driven Marie to Weymouth to collect my mother-in-law. Marie's mother was now staying at our house, and would stay until I returned home from Ireland. She would be taking the children to school.

Marie now knows that she can stay at home – albeit with a “safe” person – when I am away.

This is a great relief to me and, although they don't realise it, a great benefit for the children.

Equally important, it is another slap in the face for Marie's agoraphobia/monophobia demon.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Baby is improving!

Lucky baby Matthew is winning the fight to live!

More about why he is lucky later. First, here he is, just after surviving the operation on his heart.

Matthew had recovered enough yesterday to come off life support. He opened his eyes and mum Jenna was able to hold him.

He has still got some problems, the most serious of which is a hole in his heart, but the worst is over. Today he was moved to the congenital cardiac unit where he will receive less intensive specialist care. He is expected to recover sufficiently to go home in the not-too-distant future.

The only bad news is that he is more like to suffer heart problems in the future than the average person.

Why is he lucky? Here's the story...

On Friday, Jenna's midwife called to see her. It was an unplanned visit. The wound from Jenna's c-section had become infected and she had been taking antibiotics. The midwife was in the area and thought that she would take the opportunity to see how Jenna's wound was reacting to medication.

Inspection of the wound over, Jenna and the midwife were chatting when Jenna felt the need to visit the toilet. Almost simultaneously, Matthew began to cry. Jenna went to him to see what was wrong. A rancid smell emanating from the direction of the noisy baby was a pretty good indication of his problem.

"Just when I need to go to the toilet urgently, Matthew needs to be changed," Jenna complained good-naturedly.

"Don't worry about that," replied the midwife. "You go to the toilet and I'll change the baby."

While changing and bathing Matthew, the midwife could see that all was not well with the baby.

"Jenna, I think Matthew isn't breathing properly," the midwife told her when Jenna returned.

"I know that," said Jenna. "I've taken him to the doctor twice and the hospital once, and they've told me that there's nothing to worry about. Some virus, probably."

"I think you need to take him to the hospital again," said the midwife. "I'll call them and tell them that you're on your way."

Matthew was examined almost immediately on arriving at the hospital. A few minutes later, he was in the intensive care unit, and Jenna learned that her little boy had heart defects and was critically ill.

Later Jenna learned that if she had not presented the baby at the hospital on Friday evening, he would have died during the night! Matthew's life had been saved by way of a chance visit by Jenna's midwife. Now you can see why I call him lucky!

Friday, 16 October 2009

Baby's life is in the balance

Baby Matthew is in the intensive ward at the hospital on a life support machine.

Today we found out that he has heart defects. He has immature, narrow arteries and two holes in his heart. He is to have a make-or-break operation in the morning. Jenna told me that she needs me to be with her so I am flying to Ireland early (very) in the morning.

Daughter Colleen is staying with Marie until her parents come to take her to their house. The children will go there too, and will be absent from school until I return. Such are the consequences of having an agoraphobic, monophobic wife.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The dinner party

There's this TV programme called "
Come Dine With Me" (in the UK - other countries have their national variations. Click on the link if you don't know what this programme is about, or you'd like to know what your country's version is called). Marie and I find it very enjoyable. My older daughters and their spouses also enjoy watching it (some more than others). Marie thought that it might be fun to have our own "Come Dine With Me" competition, and mentioned this to my sons-in-law. They were enthusiastic about the idea, and soon the whole family was involved.

After pairing now-single Colleen with family friend Guillaume, we had four couples and we decided to dine at each other's houses on consecutive Saturdays. Lots were drawn to determine the order in which we would be hosting the dinner parties. Marie and I were to be the first hosts. Diners would give each of the host couples marks (out of 10) and the winning couple would get a meal at a posh restaurant paid for by the losers. To make sure that everyone had an even chance, everyone would post their menus on Facebook by 9 p.m. last Wednesday, and all meals had to be totally home cooked.

Thus on Saturday last, Marie and I gave care of Joseph and Orla to our baby sitter while we prepared the meal. Marie had selected the starter and dessert, and I had selected the main course.

This was our menu -

Bruschetta with salad garnish

Moroccan spiced roasted Exmoor lamb shanks
Maris Piper potatoes and sweet potatoes
Selection of vegetables

Individual strawberry or banana pavlova

Cheese tray
Selection of biscuits

Tea or coffee
Selection of chocolates

By lunch time on Saturday, Marie had cooked the meringues for the pavlovas. They looked perfect.

I had marinaded the lamb shanks all night in my specially prepared, 12 spice, red wine marinade. I individually wrapped the lamb shanks in tin foil and put them in the oven, five hours before they were required. I cubed the potatoes, coated them in olive oil and spices and put them in the oven just two hours before required. The tomato-based sauce was prepared and cooked and the vegetables - baby carrots, miniature courgettes, baby corn and asparagus tips - were ready for their few minutes in the steamer, just prior to serving.

Preparations complete, and with Marie busy creating her bruschettas, I turned my attentions to getting the dining room ready.
With just one hour to go, I thought I noticed the faint smell of burning. Marie was changing into her evening wear, so I quickly checked the cooker.


Someone had turned the oven up to 250º! (Probably Orla, when the babysitter wasn't looking.)

I took out the somewhat charred potatoes and the tray of lamb shanks. Although a little burned, the potatoes still tasted good. Since the lamb shanks were wrapped in tin foil, it was impossible to know whether or not they had been incinerated. There wasn't enough time to prepare anything else, so I decided to take a chance and serve them as planned.

The guests arrived bearing gifts of fine wine and were soon sampling the culinary efforts of Marie and myself. Marie's bruschettas were superb and she was duly complimented. The lamb shanks, when unwrapped, turned out to be crisp on the outside, but very tender, succulent and aromatic on the inside. The marinade had done its job superbly. The potatoes were equally delicious despite their charred appearance. The main course had almost turned out the way I had hoped. Later, the meringues Marie had prepared were absolutely perfect and her pavlovas were a big hit.

After dinner, our guests requested that I play the piano for them. I was able to play some of their favourite tunes and I remembered some popular French melodies which greatly pleased Guillaume. After much wine consumption, festivities ceased around 2 a.m.

Our dinner party had been a great success. We retired, happy tired, looking forward to seeing what the other dinner parties will have to offer.

And Marie's anxiety was absent all day long.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Did you know that Tesco sells saffron for almost £6,000 per kilo!!? (That's about $4.300 per pound.) You knew that? Well, it was quite a surprise for me.

Friday, 2 October 2009

My autistic son - Back in the saddle again

Colm has had many riding lessons, but few as important as yesterday's.

And this is why...

Our local branch of the Riding for the Disabled Association provides riding lessons during school term time. This means that during the summer, it is closed for lessons for 5 weeks.

Five weeks is an eternity to Colm, if it means 5 weeks without riding. So we looked around for somewhere else to go during the summer - somewhere that would be sympathetic to Colm's peculiar needs. We found such a place - or so we thought - near Ilminster, thus not far from where Colm lives.

Colm was well pleased with his new riding school and, despite all the staff and all the horses being new to him, adjusted extremely well. The first weeks were very enjoyable, but then there came a point where the inexperience of trainer and horse of having pupils like Colm began to show. The owner of the school was taking a lesson with Colm and moving things a bit too fast... She tried to get Colm to do a small jump while cantering. Colm looked uneasy and tried to object, but she ordered him to continue. His lack of confidence caused him to let the reigns go loose. The lack of direction caused the horse to refuse the jump. Colm went sailing over the horse's head, landing heavily on his side.

Colm got to his feet quickly, but looked shaken and very distressed.

"My arm," he said to the trainer.

"It's only a bad bump," said the trainer. "Come up here and we'll get you on the horse again."

I knew from Colm's demeanour that it was more than a bad bump, and went over to the trainer to tell her so. She argued with me and wanted Colm to continue with his lesson, but I wasn't having any of it. I took Colm to the car and then speedily to the hospital.

An x-ray proved that my suspicion had been well founded. Colm had broken his wrist. An hour or so later he was wearing a rather large plaster. Throughout the 3 hours we had been at the hospital, Colm had been the model patient. He was compliant in every respect.

His first plaster was rather heavy, made him very itchy and became quite tight, which affected Colm's disposition. He became a more than a little tetchy, so it was a relief when, after x-rays showed that all was as well as could be hoped for, this was replaced by a smaller, lighter one. The healing process continued and last week the plaster was declared redundant and removed. Colm's wrist is as good as new.

This week Colm went back to the RDA centre. His delight at returning there - the moment he had been anticipating for all those weeks - was obvious for all to see.

Apart from some issues arising from his broken wrist, Colm's life continues to improve. He has been 2 years at his current address, and he is now in his most settled period since leaving home 7 years ago. The 3 sisters who live in Taunton take him out regularly and he visits Marie and me from time to time. He seems very satisfied with this arrangement, and now when he comes to our house for dinner, is ready to leave after a couple of hours. Progress indeed.

Oh yes - the other riding school - Colm won't be going back there!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Hello new baby, goodbye husband...


I am proud to announce the birth of my 5th grandchild, Matthew. His aunt and uncle - Orla and Joseph - are thrilled too, as is Marie.

He was 7lb 6oz (3.345kg) and delivered by caesarean section. Jenna was extremely anxious this morning, but once things got under way, sailed through the procedure. Despite previous worries, the birth was uneventful; mother Jenna and Matthew are both fine.

Babies never look their best just after birth, but c-section babies look better than those who have just been squeezed through the birth canal. Here is Matthew, aged 2 hours...

Do you think he has his grandfather's good looks???

I'll be planning a visit to Ireland to see him - and my daughter - soon.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


While baby Matthew was making his entrance into our family, Colleen's husband, Jim, was making his exit. Married less than 8 months, the couple agreed to separate today. It appears that there is no hope of a reconciliation.

Colleen appears to be bearing up bravely, but having gone through too many similar episodes myself, I can empathise with her true feelings. Marie, who suffered an unpleasant breakup with her first true love, was similarly upset at the news. However, we are both hopeful that a better future awaits due course.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

So it's a happy/sad day. Isn't that just typical of life?