In Part 1 of my review, I covered ‘What went well’. Which means it’s time for…
What didn’t go so well
It’s a year ago to the day (25th Jan, as I’m writing this section) that the tone was set for our year. Me and Angie had hatched a plan to stop Lucas’ demands for night feeds, in the hope that we could get more sleep. Angie was going to sleep at her folks’, and if Lucas woke up, well, there wasn’t a milk option, so that was that! It was going well until day four when, after what we think was a delayed allergic reaction, Lucas woke up around 10pm with severe breathing difficulties.
We ended up in an ambulance being rushed to A&E in Broomfield (Chelmsford’s hospital), where Lucas was given various things to try and help his breathing. After a long, sleepless and stressful night, we got home in the early hours of the morning with Lucas heading in the right direction. In the morning, Angie woke up, picked up Lucas to go downstairs, and then just as she was a few steps from the bottom, she fell, twisted to protect Lucas, and fell awkwardly on her foot and ankle. Back to A&E…
I vividly remember three things about the return trip. First, the confirmation via X-ray that Angie had done some serious damage. Second, the moment when a nurse forcefully ‘set’ Angie’s foot, ready for plaster, and finally, sitting in the hospital car park, after almost a full day without sleep, seeing my family go through two emergency situations, and crying my eyes out so much that Angie ended up comforting ME!
I did feel better after the cry, mind.
I think we actually adapted really well, all things considered. We had fantastic support from everyone around us, including all of our Live Simple folks, and made the best of it. Angie’s foot is now fully healed and is no longer an issue.
The real driver of our ‘bad’ year though, was yet to come. Since very early on, Lucas has suffered with eczema. It’s not a huge surprise, as I had it seriously bad when I was a kid, right through to my teenage years. But, over 2015, it got progressively worse.
Dealing with an eczema baby
In June, he was pretty much covered head to toe in a painful, itchy, blotchy rash. In the night he would wake up, strip off, and scratch until he bled. Even if we tried in some way to make him unable to scratch, he would extricate himself from whatever was stopping him scratch and get to it. Often, he wouldn’t cry at all, so we’d just find him in his cot, with his clothes off, silently scratching. In the day, he would sit and scratch, and nothing we did could distract him. We’d been trying our best to manage it with an emollient cream, but in the end, we went to our doctors for help, and that’s where the downward spiral started.
Essentially, our local doctors didn’t seem equipped to deal with the severity of Lucas’ condition. We visited them multiple times in July and August, and each time we were prescribed a different cream and bath oil to try. At best, these creams did nothing. At worst, they made his skin significantly worse. Most times we went to the doctors, they didn’t even LOOK at Lucas’ skin – they just immediately went for their eczema list on the screen and prescribed the next one down. We had to push for a referral to a dermatologist, and then the wait time for an ‘urgent’ appointment was three months. Going to the doctors became an ordeal in itself, and ultimately we completely lost faith in their capacity to help.
The last time we went, we finally saw a doctor who looked more closely at Lucas’ skin, which by this point was shedding continuously and red raw. The doctor looked at Lucas, looked at an exhausted and fraught Angie, and then called the hospital to ask them to admit Lucas immediately as we needed help. It was a huge relief, and despite the fact that we were then headed into hospital again, we were sure we were finally getting somewhere.
But it didn’t work out that way….as once we were finally seen by a doctor, they freely admitted they were not skin specialists and we were given antibiotics ‘just in case’ (which is not a good enough reason for me). The doctor then started going through the very same list of creams that we could try before discharging us after a few hours… I think I left without saying a word as I didn’t know whether to laugh, hit someone, or cry.
Lucas’ eczema essentially defined a full four months of our lives. No sleep. No respite. No answers, and nothing we tried helped.
Interestingly, during our summer trip to Combe Martin, we did have a moment of positivity. James St Pierre and I had discussed a lot of books during our chats, and he mentioned The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari. It’s a decent book, but really, it was a reminder of a lot of stuff that I already knew. And the reminder was what I needed to kickstart a discussion with Angie about choosing our reaction to the situation we were facing, and trying to change our mood, outlook, and purpose. It was at a critical point that this happened, because really, we had hit rock bottom with the situation. Lucas was in constant pain, we were sleep deprived and moody, and we couldn’t see a way out. At that bottom point, we made the decision to try to change, and we gradually climbed out of the darkness and made the best of life for a short while. The energy didn’t last at that stage, but we had managed to change our reactions, decided to change our moods, and it had a big impact – a big learning point that I am taking into 2016.
Finally, after a lot of research, we bypassed the NHS and paid to go and see a skin consultant in London. It was probably the best thing we did in 2015. She listened to our story, stripped Lucas’ clothes so she could see every bit of eczema on his body, asked us about everything we’d tried, and then calmly, compassionately and expertly described the situation, what she felt needed to happen, the course of treatment that she would recommend, and the likely, positive outcome. More than that, she asked if we had insurance (we don’t), and then said that she would immediately ring our doctors and order a referral to see her regularly, on the NHS, at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. We could not have asked for more.
Lucas responded to the treatment within days. He was given antibiotics to combat the massive skin infection that he was fighting (which had gone unnoticed and undiagnosed by everyone who had seen him before), and was given steroids to get his skin under control. We were very reluctant to use both, but the reasoning was explained clearly, and importantly, we have a plan to make sure that he doesn’t get into a negative cycle of steroid use on his skin, with a gradual reduction in the strength and dosage over time. Everything about Lucas changed within a week. He slept better (although still not great!!!), smiled and laughed a lot more, could take part in more activities, and came to life. It was the biggest relief imaginable.
When I think about it, I get angry at how we were treated, and I feel like our doctors really failed Lucas. But then, a different doctor, working for the very same NHS, listened to us, now cares for him, and has transformed him. For that, I am grateful. I just wish Lucas didn’t have to go through those months of pain, and that people would have actually looked at him sooner.
[A short aside – me and Angie discussed whether we should include a photo of Lucas when his skin was bad. In the end, we decided not to. I flicked through the photos last night, and every single photo which shows the extent of Lucas’ eczema also shows a little boy in severe pain. Maybe one day we’ll write specifically about eczema and decide to include it, but at the moment we’ll file the pictures away somewhere where we don’t have to look at them a lot.]
Finding it tough
Through all of this, me and Angie found life very hard. I’ll be honest, finding something hard is pretty alien to me. And in the context of our relationship, coming to a point where we were finding it really difficult to communicate effectively was the first time that we had found our relationship ‘hard’.
Think about it: you fall in love and it’s pure excitement. You then get to know each other better, with very minor bumps along the way as you go on cool holidays, go out for dinner and drinks, perhaps move in together, and think about the future. Then comes the engagement, and the thrill that comes with an impending marriage. And then comes marriage itself, with its feeling of certainty, of love, of togetherness, of a future together. At no point in that scenario, which pretty much describes our relationship, is there ‘struggle’, which is why I think it came so much as a shock when, on the back of not sleeping properly for two years and dealing with such an intense health problem, we realised we were facing difficulties in our relationship for the first time. Certainly not ‘end of the line’ difficulties, just ‘hmmm, we’re not communicating very well here’ difficulties.
Now, I can honestly say I get why so many couples split after having a baby. Because who you are when you are operating on disturbed and sporadic sleep for over 750 consecutive nights, stressed and not having a clue how to make things better, and who you were before, are two very, very different states.
I remember my Grandad giving me and Angie the only marriage advice he ever gave us – you have to talk. Even though we were adept at doing it before Grandad suggested it, we’ve needed it more than ever in 2015. By continuously talking about how we’re feeling, we’ve made it out the other side. My pal Gaz, ever the wise one, likened it to building muscle – muscles need resistance and tension to grow. Ultimately, I think Angie and I will look back on 2015 as a defining year in not only our marriage, but also our lives. We stayed together and talked it through when things got tough. We supported each other through the nights when Lucas just cried and scratched, taking it in turns to sleep for an hour. We still held hands when we walked.
Still more drama…
If that all sounds like enough drama for one year, then you’re right. But we weren’t done yet. Because in December, Angie had a ‘scratchy’ eye. She ignored it for a few days, but then on the Friday, the eye wouldn’t stop producing tears, so she went to the doctors (yep, the same ones!). They took a look, and gave Angie some generic drops, diagnosing the same condition that Angie had had earlier in the year – episcleritis. But on the Saturday, Angie woke up with blurred vision. She phoned the opticians, who squeezed her in that afternoon, but when they looked in her eye, they were speechless.
And then panicked.
Without telling Angie what was happening!
The optician called in a colleague, who then explained the situation to Angie – they were going to call the hospital, and she needed to go there immediately. It wasn’t episcleritis. She had a corneal ulcer, which is very serious indeed.
And so, another emergency visit to the hospital, where the on-call ophthalmologist explained the gravity of the situation, and prescribed strong antibiotics and drops and things, which Angie had to put in her eye every hour for 48 hours. We went back on the Monday, and Angie was out of the danger zone, but even as I write this, Angie’s sight hasn’t returned to the level it was before. She has a small scar on her cornea, which is definitely getting smaller, but is still affecting her vision.
By the way, if you’re looking for an opticians in Chelmsford, go to Specsavers. Even though the initial reaction of the first optician was a bit unprofessional, the second optician that saw Angie was pretty amazing. She explained what was happening, and then phoned Broomfield to say that she had a patient that needed to be seen immediately. Broomfield said there was no eye clinic that day, and said to come on Monday. Cathy (the Specsavers optician) insisted that she was given the on-call opthalmologist’s number, phoned him herself, and Angie was seen within hours. This may well have saved her vision.
Anyway, surely we’re done now, right? What else could possibly go wrong? How about…shingles! Yep, when Angie’s immune system was shot to bits by the eye infection and fever which we both caught off Lucas, she noticed a sore patch of skin. Having had a friend recently talk to us about shingles, it was in Angie’s thoughts. Yet another trip to the doctor confirmed it, and she was given antiviral medication. Unfortunately, it meant that she couldn’t come to Ed and Ali’s wedding, as shingles can be dangerous for pregnant women and the elderly, and the risk just wasn’t worth taking.
So there you have it. It’s the kind of year that, when you’re in it, you can’t see a way out. But when you look back on it, you see that you’ve emerged a stronger person.
Teaching me a thing or two
One final thing that I wanted to mention was my return to teaching, as that was tougher than I imagined it would be by a distance. I had the same year 6 class every Friday, which sounded like it would be better than supply teaching, but it was actually tougher. Fridays in primary school are tough days – the kids are tired, grumpy and need a break.
My return to teaching was one area where I was very reflective, as, to be honest, I don’t think I did a very good job. I tried, but the reality of working one day in school is that it isn’t just one day. It’s a lot of time and effort – time and effort that I didn’t really have.
On one hand, I think I made a real difference to some of the kids – their behaviour, their ideas on taking responsibility and doing the right thing, and their ability to deal with setbacks. But, the year 6 curriculum is tough, and I felt like a burden to my colleagues as I would often not know how to teach particularly difficult concepts (balancing fractions, anyone?) and would need to ask for help pretty much every Friday. Plus, if the children didn’t get the way I’d been shown, I didn’t have the two or three alternative teaching methods that a good teacher has in their back pocket. In that respect, I think I let the kids down somewhat.
I found teaching very stressful. It is still by far the most difficult job I’ve ever had, so if you know a teacher, or your kids are in school, let me just remind you that teaching is HARD. It’s a hard, hard job. And your teachers are doing the absolute best they can against an avalanche of marking, testing, grading, checking, displaying, and about 40 other things that they have to do. Give your teacher a hug!
What I’ve learnt
The great thing to take from 2015 is that I still have so much to learn. Despite sharing with many others Frankl’s theories about how the one thing that you can control, no matter what, are your reactions, I struggled to control mine on numerous occasions in the past year. Looking back, I’m pleased about that. It gives me something to work on.
Here’s something else interesting: I’ve written this blog over several days in January, and I already feel different from when I wrote that first paragraph. Perhaps it’s that we’ve had a really positive start to 2016 that it feels different. Angie’s health had improved dramatically, Lucas’ skin is under control, and even though he’s still not a good sleeper, we have better strategies to deal with it.
Perhaps there’s just a little more space between the bad times and good. I like to think it’s also a result of writing all of this down. Writing makes me think about it all and reflect on my experiences a lot more, and the act of writing so many good things about 2015 have made me feel much better about it as a whole.
Thoughts on the year ahead
There’s no doubt that 2015 was a challenge. But, we met the challenge and emerged stronger. 2016 has already thrown up a lot of opportunities for all three of us. Lucas is enjoying a few mornings a week at a lovely pre-school near our house. Angie has started several new classes which are all full. I have more people training with me, and some interesting writing and communications projects in the pipeline.
When I think about my goals for 2016, they are a lot simpler than they have been in the past. I think the overall goal is ‘go with the flow’. I would like to write more, but won’t worry if I don’t. I would like to train more, but won’t beat myself up if I don’t have the time. I will take life as it comes, and try to be more present.
And having written all of this down, I now feel more confident that even if 2016 does become a similar struggle, we will all face it with the strength that we’ve gained in 2015. We’re not the same people as we were this time last year, and we will face challenges having reminded ourselves that we have the power to choose our reactions.
It also feels right to not set out any clear, measurable business goals for 2016. Live Simple has expanded nicely with our ethos of ‘do good work; be nice’, so I see no real reason to push that too hard this year. Angie is already oversubscribed. I have a nice balance between training people and writing work to keep up my side of the bargain.
Finally, I want to say thank you. Live Simple helped us more than you could know in 2015. It gave us a sense of normality and consistency during the dark moments. It gave us purpose. It gave us focus. And it made us proud and energised to see so many people enjoying our sessions and making big transformations.
Thanks for all your support, and here’s to a successful 2016. And a happier, more inspirational 2016 Annual Review!