Life, death, journalism, free speech and censorship

[I wrote this as a comment in response to a post on The Free Speech Blog : Official blog of Index on Censorship entitled “Let’s not make suicide a taboo“. Since it contained many links which the commenting system rejected as spam I posted a stripped version over there with the information that a linked version would be here. Apologies for the interruption to the usual service, whatever that might be.]

I am at a loss to understand what a post of this nature is doing on the blog of a reputable organisation campaigning against censorship. You conflate suggested media guidelines for reporting on an issue of – literally – life and death importance with censorship. It is misleading and profoundly irresponsible.

Within the first three paragraphs you link the “dangers in silence” to a suggestion by the Samaritans that coverage of a recent double suicide may have prompted a second, similar incident. The evidence linking copycat suicides and social contagion as a result of media reporting is compelling as documented in the Samaritans media guidelines “Copycat suicides and media reporting (to which you do not link).

You say it’s important for journalists to be reminded of the media guidelines produced by organisations such as MediaWise and the Samaritans. Neither organisation expresses the opinion or the aspiration that the issue of suicide should not be discussed. The Samaritans media guidelines on Reporting Suicide (to which you also do not link) include specific recommendations encouraging coverage (points 8, 9 and 12).

However, as you will no doubt be aware, both guidelines you mention cite clear research evidence of the direct and often substantial negative effects – an increase in deaths by suicide and the attendant suffering such events cause – should the discussion/reporting cover certain clearly defined territory, most importantly explicit details of the method used. Or, to quote the author of the CPA “Media Guidelines for Reporting Suicide” – “The take-home message is that there is solid evidence in the psychiatric literature that there are dangerous and safe ways of reporting suicide.”

Your central proposition appears to be that guidelines for journalists on the reporting of suicide pose “a risk to the public interest… What if it becomes the norm not to cover suicides?”

The substantiating evidence that this is not “fanciful” is what you call “strong hints” at the possibility of self-censorship in the MediaWise study and undocumented anecdotal evidence that there are some local papers which “sometimes never” mention suicide.

You then discuss “some peculiar modern perceptions of privacy” which you see as a potential bar to the reporting of suicide. And yet on page 4 of the MediaWise document “Sensitive Coverage Saves Lives” you will no doubt have noted the following:

As far back as 1841 doctor and statistician William Farr considered that:

“no fact is better established in science than that suicide (and murder may perhaps be added) is often committed from imitation . . . Do the advantages of publicity counterbalance the evils attendant on one such death? Why should cases of suicide be recorded at length in the papers any more than cases of fever?”

You will of course be aware that the provision in the draft Coroners and Justice Bill giving coroners power to ban publication of the name of the deceased in some cases of apparent suicide to protect bereaved relatives from unnecessary or gratuitous invasion of their privacy was withdrawn before the Bill became law in 2009. This was to be replaced by “consideration” of “how current codes of conduct for the media might be refined to ensure there is appropriate emphasis on the need for sensitive reporting” (p16). It seems, therefore, that your complaint about “some peculiar modern perceptions of privacy” has already been noted by the “officialdom” to whom “it is not satisfactory to leave important matters”.

If one is to deduce from your article that journalists, rather than “officialdom” would be best to sort out “important matters”, and further to deduce that these “important matters” are whether or not the news media report suicide, and/or how they do it, then I refer you again to the MediaWise report you cite. On pages 19-20 are the details of round-table (ie not “behind closed doors”) discussions designed to bring media practitioners and mental health agencies together. Not one single journalist turned up to any of them.

In your penultimate paragraph you describe suicides as “deaths which seem out of the ordinary”. According to the National Office of Statistics deaths on the roads in 2007 were 5.4 per 100,000 population. However in the same year the NOS says death by suicide among men in the UK was 16.8 per 100,000 and among women 5.0 per 100,000 population. In other words for every one person killed in a car accident there are five people who die as a result of suicide. This is not an “out of the ordinary” problem.

Suicide is a major public health challenge, so much so that government has put in place the National Suicide Prevention Strategy for England, chooselife in Scotland and Talk to me in Wales. Each of them contains, as a central plank of its strategy, working with the media towards responsible reporting of suicide.

And the danger to “public interest” if your “non-fanciful” self-censorship by the media of suicide coverage should come about? That the public would be “poorly informed” about suicide, “knowing considerably less”.

If the information you fear might be repressed by journalists is of the quality of that of your post the public will have been done a service – should journalists indeed be cowed into silence by guidelines. If the information in your post bears any relationship to that which students of journalism are provided with on their courses then we still have a very long way to go in tackling this very real, very complex and very important issue.

Moved to moblog

For anyone interested in art & or mental ill health or the incredible amazing collision of the two I can’t recommend highly enough the current exhibition at the Wellcome Collection called Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings: Mental illness and me, 1997-2008.

So many incredible images, issues, hyoooj STUFF going on here. Superb. Would love to write more but keyboard doesn’t permit loquacity. (Is that a word? If not it should be.)

PS The picture is her representation of mindfulness meditation. Hope it’s legible at whatever size this (hugely cunning and clever) widget chooses to publish it.

Hanging out the washing

hanging out the washing

News just in – the washing machine’s finally given up the ghost. Sigh. An expected bereavement but sad none the less. The economics of laundrettes clearly dictate a new machine will be cheaper than feeding the voracious slots of commercial washing appliances for any length of time, so a new machine has been ordered. Thank goodness for the never-never, that’s what I say. Oh, and the peerless John Lewis without which life might not be worth living.

The above is F hanging out her own washing while condoling on my loss and sheroically offering the services of her own machine while I wait (a week) for the new one. Hurrah.

Full catastrophe blogging

Switched on the sockets yesterday and dammit, no internet. Looked at the router. The ADSL light was not on. It must, therefore, be a fault on the line. Because after all I’d only replaced the router a few months ago.

After a series of conversations with a series of representatives of a series of companies which shamefully ranged from overly patient to curt to downright rude on my part and actually taking the damn router and plugging it into F’s ADSL line I finally grasped the dreadful truth. There was nothing wrong with my line. The router was well and truly, utterly, totally fritzed.

Immediate descent into catastrophe mode. I don’t have any money. I can’t afford a new router. How much do routers cost anyway? I can’t find out because I don’t have the internet. I haven’t kept the receipt. I won’t be able to get it mended/replaced. Oh fuck-shit-bollocks disaster. Woe, alas, alack. Wail. Moan.

By the time the children came home from school I’d calmed down a bit and was able to point out, when they realised the full horror of not having all episodes of The Simpsons and South Park permanently available for immediate viewing, that I was being quite brave about the situation myself. However after series of helpful suggestions from the Spawn – “is it plugged in?” “is it switched on?” “have you checked the cables?” – I did advise them with some asperity to believe me when I said I’d tried absolutely everything possible to rectify the situation. At this point the suggestion was made by a-Spawn-who-shall-remain-numberless that I sell my one and only family treasure, a small clock, in order to buy a new router.

By this morning I was regarding lack of internet access as a form of spiritual discipline. Like a hair shirt or self flagellation. I was considering various schemes to raise money for a router and viewing the time taken to do so as a therapeutic online fast. I even began wondering whether I should cancel my broadband altogether (clear saving) and sustain online life through the free wifi at the café round the corner. But of course just as there’s no such thing as a free lunch there’s no such thing as free café wifi. There’s a password on the network now and the cheapest drink is £1.65. So that would be 12 or so trips to the café a month during its opening hours for the length of time it takes to consume, however slowly, an espresso, versus 24-hour unlimited access at home. Not such a clear saving after all, then.

Whilst sipping one of the aforementioned espresso extremely slowly and downloading e-mails for later off-line consumption I bemoaned my routeless fate to A. But far from troubling deaf heaven with my bootless cries I was in fact addressing someone who had, tucked away in a drawer, a fully-working but surplus-to-requirements router. Now what are the chances of that? I mean really. With the utter crapulous fragility of your average router how many people have a spare one that actually works? And how many of them live around the corner from me?

Thus it is, dear reader, that after a vicious but expected and mercifully brief struggle with the configuring business here I am, floating along the strands of the interwebbing like a butterfly in a hothouse full of sugar bottles. But I’m a butterfly that knows how lucky it is. Unless of course I’m wrong in assuming that butterflies don’t have that level of consciousness.

Medication -> mediation -> meditation

Anyone who visits regularly will know that I’m interested in the therapeutic benefits of meditation and, serendipitously, Vaughan at Mind Hacks recently posted an overview of a roundup detailing cognitive science studies on meditation. There’s a growing body of clinical evidence to add to my own entirely subjective experience that meditation, particularly mindfulness meditation, can be extremely helpful in continuing efforts to remain, for want of a better term, “depression-free”.

Jean has already written about attending a course with a view to embarking on the path of teaching meditation techniques to others. We were originally intending to attend the same course together with the same goal in mind, but childcare considerations meant I have ended up on a different course. And here I come upon the first of many questions which have arisen (and will no doubt continue to arise).

I’m currently attending a Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course.

MBCT is based on the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) eight week program, developed by Jon Kabat Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Research shows that MBSR is enormously empowering for patients with chronic pain, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, and gastrointestinal disorders, as well as for psychological problems such as anxiety and panic.

Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy grew from this work. Zindel Segal, Mark Williams and John Teasdale adapted the MBSR program so it could be used especially for people who had suffered repeated bouts of depression in their lives.

The course Jean is attending is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the name given to the original eight-week programme developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. What then is the difference between her MBSR course and my MBCT? As far as we’ve managed to discover by comparing notes after each of our sessions, almost nothing.

This is not entirely surprising. The basic MBSR programme is being used to treat a variety of different health problems.

However I have a few reservations about my experience of this particular MBCT course so far.

The first is my sense, entirely unverified (although I think I should ask her) that the teacher herself has never experienced severe depression. Her descriptions of the thought processes of the depressed mind bear almost no relationship to my own experience of depression. She originally took an MBSR course to help tackle chronic pain.

The second is that although everything I’ve read about MBCT (including the flyer for the course I’m attending) says it is not suitable for people who are currently depressed one of the participants in our group is obviously currently depressed, on medication, broke down during one of the sessions, failed to attend the following week, returned the next week and announced that she’d been feeling so terrible that she’d had to increase her medication. And yet she was not advised that the course might well not be suitable for her and has not, as far as I’m aware, been told that it might be better for her to stop.

The third is that the course information does not say where (or indeed if) the trainer gained a qualification to teach MBCT. Or MBSR.

Given that depression is a life-threatening disorder I think it’s important that preventive action – which is what MBCT is good at – is very clearly kept separate from active treatment of the illness itself.

It concerns me that people who are not qualified to treat depression may be exacerbating an already difficult situation:

When meditation can make depression worse

Although meditation can be very helpful in relieving depression or in preventing depression from arising, the act of focussing inwards can actually heighten feelings of despair. I would suggest not trying to meditate when you are extremely depressed, and especially not at times that you are having any thoughts of self-harm.

As one experienced meditator said, “Meditation while clinically depressed can result in intensification of feelings of despondency, hopelessness, and negativity generally. The metta practice (where the meditation is focussed on the development of loving kindness towards yourself, and others) is theoretically a good thing, but in practice it can be a nightmare if all you feel is self-hatred!”

Regulation and accreditation of training and practitioners would seem to be very important.

This leads on to an important conviction I have come to. It is that, as another western meditation maestro Jack Kornfield put it, meditation is not psychotherapy.

Meditation and spiritual practice can easily be used to suppress and avoid feeling or to escape from difficult areas of our lives. Our sorrows are hard to touch. Many people resist the personal and psychological roots of their suffering; there is so much pain in truly experiencing our bodies, our personal histories, our limitations. It can even be harder than facing the universal suffering that surfaces in sitting.

It is my opinion, unverifiable of course, that I would be unable to meditate at all never mind gain any benefit from it if I had not tackled a large number of underlying issues, which I feel either caused or significantly worsened my depression, through psychotherapy. And I would probably (possibly?) have been unable to undertake the therapy without medication.

I do not wish to undervalue my experience of meditation. It is, in a very real sense, what keeps me going. Medication and psychotherapy are like the plaster cast that enables a broken bone to heal. But that is worthless if immediately you fall over and break the limb again. Meditation allows me to keep my balance. Meditation is like a dog. It is for life, not just for Christmas.

I would like to share this knowledge, these techniques. The way in which this might happen is still not clear to me. One thing, however, is. I still have a very, very great deal to learn.

The words

They are words like “death” and “worth” and “alone” but they need other words to join them like the stalks do a daisy chain and those haven’t arrived yet.

So all I can do is ask whether you knew that the dandelion is a member of the daisy family. I didn’t, until I checked how to spell it. How wonderful.


Single parent = fucked; single parent + ill = totally, utterly fucked

I get quite a lot of searchers landing here for information about “single parent on benefits”. I fear I am not a useful resource but, given the opacity in the system and the difficulties I have encountered trying to find out information (with my fluent English, degree-level education, internet connection and middle-class background), I’m not surprised that desperate seekers end up here.

However my situation is slightly different to the usual single parent dilemma, which is that workplace inflexibility and the high cost of childcare often means you’re worse off working than on benefits. And believe me, as one who does it, living on benefits is not a picnic. My situation includes the fact that I have been, and still continue to be, not sufficiently well to work.

I’ve written already about the existing difficulties of being an ill single parent but it’s worth recapping them.

  • If you are an unemployed single parent with a child under the age of 16 you are entitled to claim Income Support (IS) – in my case £59.15 per week.
  • If you are too ill to work, and certified as such by a doctor, you are entitled to claim Incapacity Benefit (IB) – in my case £59.20 per week.
  • You are not entitled to both. The Department of Works and Pensions (aka “Belfast”, because that’s where the offices are based) assesses your case and awards you whichever benefit is the greater, regardless of any other factor. In my case this was incapacity benefit, by 5p per week.
  • What you are not told is that if you are on income support you are (eventually, after varying qualifying periods of up to a year and a half) able to claim:
    • – free prescriptions;
    • – free dental care;
    • income support mortgage interest (ISMI) as a homeowner, a benefit which only comes into effect after 18 months unemployment. Those in rented accommodation can claim housing benefit – see link below under council tax benefit;
    • – free school dinners for the children (administered by the local council);
    • – council tax benefit (CTB) (handled by the local council).
  • What you are also not told (and what I had to find out, slowly and painfully while my savings dribbled away) is that if you are on incapacity benefit you are not entitled to any of the above. Which obviously add up to considerably more than 5p per week.

The moral is – if you’re a single parent you can’t actually ever be ill.

Now, however, the landscape for single parents is about to undergo very significant change.

Today I went to a “work-focused interview for lone parents” at my local Job Centre. Compulsory. You have to take your passport along to prove it’s you and not some ringer you’ve sent along while out earning vast sums of money doing… something or other. And, for no reason that I could discern, I was asked if I’d been abroad any time in the last two years.

At this interview I was told that the government has new plans for single parents. The government, I was told, is busy creating just the sort of jobs that are ideal for single mothers with children, part time, between the hours of 10am and 2pm, although I wasn’t told what these jobs are or where they’re situated. However we have to take on trust the fact that suddenly, out of nowhere, there will be jobs doing something, earning at least the minimum wage, at the appropriate hours so parents can drop off and pick up their children to/from school.

This sudden job-creation activity is because from next year single parents will only be entitled to claim IS if they are caring for a child under seven years old. If their child/ren is/are over seven years of age they will be entitled to claim Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA). In my case this would be £59.15 per week.

What’s the problem, you may ask. IS is £59.15 per week, JSA is £59.15 per week too. Well, there’s a difference between the two. Obviously, otherwise the government wouldn’t be making the change.

This alteration in legislation was, apparently, announced in December 2007 with minimal publicity, according to an article examining the widespread repercussions:

Although there is a lot of talk in the government’s proposals about personalised help and support, anyone who has had experience of the JSA regime knows that there is a gradual tightening-up of eligibility for JSA the longer the claimant stays on that benefit. There may be a presumption from the Jobcentre that suitable child care is available and that the working tax credit system will be available to help with up to 80% of the cost. Some parents may be reluctant to use that child care and some parents may be worried that 10- to 13-year-olds – who are often too old for child care – may be left unsupervised after school.

The changes will affect about 300,000 lone parents on income support with a youngest child aged seven or over, or nearly 40% of those currently claiming the benefit. As the hardly revolutionary Social Security Advisory Committee commented: “We are concerned that the Green Paper proposes greater responsibility upon claimants without balancing proposals for how the rights of claimants will be enhanced.”

Having read the government document Ready for work: full employment in our generation, specifically (pdf) Chapter 2 Sustainable employment for lone parents, I am filled with foreboding. This is a surreal document. There are, on many pages, blue boxes headed “What you said about X” where X is the particular issue at hand. And without exception the opinions expressed therein, from relevant organisations and individuals, are at least 75% opposed to the measures proposed. But this appears not to matter in the slightest.

So the aim of the exercise:

Increased obligations will be supported by appropriate and affordable childcare, suitable and flexible jobs and tailored employment and skills provision, with Jobcentre Plus advisers given more discretion to assess individual circumstances.

Current and new flexibilities and services will help lone parents meet their obligations to look for, take up and stay in work.

There is a basic assumption that as a lone parent, once your child has reached the age of seven, it is less important that you work to parent your child and more important, an obligation in fact, that you work. And this is going to be possible because of three things – childcare, jobs and skilled advice. Let’s take each in turn.

Just where is this “appropriate and affordable childcare”? The government has devolved responsibility for this provision to the local authorities. Judging by my experience with my local authority it is irresponsibility bordering on insanity to expect them to have in place appropriate childcare by, the report states, April 2008. That’s last month. There’s also an “aim” that “by 2010, every school in England will be an extended school”. And how will that come about? through “working with local partners”. I can’t see that happening either, even if I actually thought it was appropriate childcare and wanted my children to spend from 8am to 6pm (nearly all their waking hours) in school.

Jobs. For lone parents. Who may or may not be able to access and then, oh joy, afford childcare (paying someone else to look after their children because they themselves, the parent, have an obligation to work. Doing something other than looking after their child). There are, apparently, going to be “Employment opportunities”. According to the report: “On 6 November 2007, the Prime Minister announced the Government’s intention to extend the right to request flexible working to parents of older, teenage children.” There’s no definition of “older” but, for the government’s purposes so far “older” appears to mean “over the age of seven years”. An intention. To request. So that’s where all these lovely 10am-2pm jobs are going to come from. Which, no doubt, allow the employee to take off the 13 or so weeks of school holidays throughout the year to look after their child/ren. No obligation on employers to grant flexible working, of course. Should the government follow through on its “intention”.

And finally advice. The Jobcentre Plus employees (hired and paid by… the Department of Works and Pensions) are going to be trained, one would hope, to guide lone parents through the complexities and significance of the new regulations. “We are here to help and support you” said the woman I saw today. Fine. Lovely woman. However these are the people who, presented with a woman with no job, severe depression and the lone parent of two young children, tell her to claim IB. At no point do they appear to realise or, if they do realise, point out, that she’d be better off claiming income support. These are the people who, having received all the (tens of pages of) paperwork, return it after a month without any action having been taken on it because the claimant (that’s me) had failed to write her name in capital letters in one box on the back of one medical certificate.

These are the people with whom the claimant (that’s me) has had not one, not two but three personal interviews to expedite the process of claiming benefits, a claimant who clearly finds the process difficult (I have broken down on each occasion) and who have never, not once, volunteered a single piece of information regarding optimising the benefits. “What you need is a big hug” said the woman I saw at the second interview as I wept uncontrollably, suicidally, over her desk. She proceeded to give me one, and other of the advisers joined in. I was touched beyond words. I was overcome with gratitude. I feel slightly sick, looking back on that. Because however much I might have needed a hug, and I did, what I needed a very great deal more was an accurate answer to my question “how am I supposed to feed, clothe and house my children on £59.20 a week incapacity benefit?” The answer, presumably within their grasp, was not “you need a hug” but “stop claiming IB and start claiming IS”. This, unfortunately, was not vouchsafed to me.

Forgive me if I am a little wary of the motivation and/or abilities of the Jobcentre Plus staff to “help and support” the claimant.

So where does all this leave me, individually? Well, there are a number of lessons I can learn from my experience today.

The first is that it is not a normal nor proportionate reaction when informed of the immanent cessation of IS to be washed with despair, immediately to think that the difficulties would be best resolved by suicide so the children could be cared for by employed people, that I am the problem and if I wasn’t around everything would be perfect. To weep uncontrollably. This leads me seriously doubt my ability at this time to hold down any sort of job, be it shelf-stacking in the local supermarket or something (like journalism) that I am qualified to do.

Depression is a vicious and horrible disability, all the more so for being invisible and stigmatised. I’m profoundly grateful to be able to do what I can do. Love my children. Keep them clean and warm and fed. Keep their lives as stable and organised and predictable as possible to allow them to grow and develop. I thank god for it, because I know that until so very recently it just would not have been so. But today told me what I already suspected to be the case, that these simple tasks are at the edge of my current level of capacity. Anything more would be extremely, extremely difficult.

The second is a reinforcement of the impression that the Jobcentre Plus staff either do not to know what they’re doing or that their remit is not to work for the best interests of the claimant (and the claimant’s child/ren) but to avoid informing claimants about benefits available if they do not already know about them. I base this on the fact that none of the collection of staff who had gathered round to stare at the woman weeping with her head on the desk of one of their colleagues mentioned the fact that under the new legislation they, the Jobcentre Plus staff, will have wide-ranging discretionary powers. None mentioned (whether through ignorance or design) that, according to the report, “Lone Parents with a health problem or disability may be able to claim the new Employment and Support Allowance”. Let me quote the report:

Some respondents were concerned that Jobcentre Plus advisers sometimes do not use the flexibilities that are available. As part of the plans to increase the tailoring of provision to meet the needs of each person, we plan to increase the discretion available to advisers. This will be backed by clear guidance for advisers on the existing and new flexibilities, and supported by the Jobcentre Plus reward and recognition systems.

This means that lone parents who have genuine reasons, or good cause, for not complying with their obligations to look for, or take up, work will not be penalised.

A search for “Employment and Support Allowance” reveals the following:

This will replace incapacity benefit and income support paid on the grounds of incapacity. It is is intended to start for new claimants from October 2008. From April 2010 all existing incapacity benefits claimants will be required to take the work capability assessment.

ESA will be paid to people in Great Britain (separate legislation will be introduced for Northern Ireland) who satisfy the following:

* have a limited capability for work – have a physical or mental condition, which means that it is not reasonable to require them to work.
* are at least 16 years old and who have not reached pensionable age
* are not entitled to income support or jobseeker’s allowance (including joint-claim jobseeker’s allowance)
* pass either a national insurance contribution test (similar to that for incapacity benefit – people under age 20, or age 25 in certain circumstances will not have to satisfy the contribution test) or an income test (similar to that for income support).

Anyone claiming ESA will be assessed during a 13 week period, or longer if necessary, to determine whether they have a limited capability for work but also whether or not he or she is capable of ‘engaging in work-related activity’.

And further:

Suggested changes to the mental health activities and descriptors

There were 15 suggested activities in the October 2006 report rather than the current 4. These have different descriptors. A number of further recommendations were made in the transformation of the personal capability assessment report – February 2007 which reduced the proposed activities to 11. The 11 activities are now:

1. learning tasks
2. understanding instructions
3. memory and concentration
4. getting about – the February report recommended that this activity be renamed from “forward planning”
5. coping with change
6. execution of tasks
7. initiating and sustaining tasks – the February report recommended that this be reworded from the previous “initiation of tasks”. It was also recommended that the previous activity 12 “maintaining appearance and hygiene” become a subset of this activity.
8. inappropriate behaviour with other people – the February report recommended that activity 8 (appropriate behaviour with other people) and 11 (emotional resilience) be amalgamated into this single activity.
9. dealing with other people – the February report recommended that activity 9 (forming relationships with other people) and 10 (ability to communicate appropriately with other people) be amalgamated into this single activity.
10. coping with social situations – now includes the old activity 14 – “panic attacks”.
11. awareness of hazard.

The pass mark for mental health activities will be 15. It is possible to score 6, 9 or 15 in any one of the 15 activities.

I have no sense of what the implications of all this are for me. Does the fact that I can research and collate all this information mean I am employable? or does the fact that I weep on benefit advisers’ desks and contemplate suicide mean I am not? I have absolutely no idea. Should I, in preparation for this new scenario, be consulting with my doctor about being “signed off” as unfit for work even though I am not claiming incapacity benefit?

What I fear is that I shall be forced to take work of some sort which I shall struggle with, fail at, become more depressed, become even less able to work; my depression will affect my ability to care for my children, my children will suffer; our already precarious financial circumstances will spiral out of control into a completely untenable situation; my already tenuous ability to fill in all the forms, pursue every last avenue and grapple with bureaucracy will be eroded; we shall sink. I shall sink. I shall give up the struggle and pursue the course that seems the most obvious at these times. I don’t want this. Oh dear god I don’t want this. But I fear it, I fear it terribly.

UPDATE: points of information

There are two other benefits not mentioned above because they are not directly related to being a single parent.

The first is the non-means-tested, tax-free, universal child benefit.

The second is the means-tested tax credit scheme.

Chilly in these parts

My electricity provider has helpfully supplied me with an Age Concern Cold Alert thermometer. It is a piece of double-layered card with a temperature-sensitive strip displayed in a window next to a colour-coded guide relating to the safety of the ambient temperature. A very similar device was supplied by various purveyors of baby-products for monitoring the “nursery”.


Luckily none of us is either very old or very young since, as you might be able to see, it’s quite cold around here at the moment. I think it’s more a result of the wind getting through the late Victorian cracks than the actual outside temperature.

Last night, as I alternated between chill-induced headache and sub-duvet suffocation, I remembered of the delights of that comforting garment, the nightcap (my childhood held its fair share of frugal heaters), and thanks to the stitches of the interknit have already found free pattern. Although I’m not wild about the idea of knitting 1ply wool even if I could find some. It shall have to be adapted for something slightly bulkier.

Actually, there was a period in my life when I wore a knitted hat all day and all night, winter and summer. It was made for me by my mother from this pattern (which I obviously still have).


She only knitted me three things (excluding the possibility of baby clothes which I don’t remember). That hat was the second. First was… this.

sheer hell

In baby pink. Baby. Pink. Made for me when I was thirteen years old. Anyone who has ever met me, even for a millisecond, will know just how diametrically anti-me such a garment would be, at any age. Even in black. But in baby pink? And apart from the colour the most obvious thing about it, to a girl not yet bought a bra and provided with extremely sensible knickers, it’s full of fucking holes. Let us leave aside the obvious fact that it’s hideous. I was used to being forced to wear hideous.

Poor woman. She tried so hard to have a daughter who was some person other than me. It is entirely possible that, in the titanic struggle of identity between us, the hat – navy blue and very plain – became a symbol of something we actually agreed upon. Something given, something taken. Which may explain why I chose to wear it all the time until, as I recall, it pretty much disintegrated, and she elected not to stop me.

Perhaps instead of using some other nightcap pattern I should ritually recreate that blue hat in a symbolic assuaging of ghosts.

The bile coloured carpet and the anorexic cat

It’s always been difficult to describe the colour of the carpet that runs along the corridor, up the stairs and along the upper corridor of this house. Not mustard, not buttercup. Sunrise? no. Baby-shit comes close. But now, thanks to Cat, I know the exact hue. It is cat-sick-bile coloured.

From this you might deduce three things. Firstly that Cat has been sick, a lot. Secondly that he’s been sick on the carpet. Thirdly that it doesn’t show up. These deductions are all correct.

In fact Cat hasn’t eaten anything since Thursday but despite this has managed to produce copious amounts of diarrhoea and the aforementioned vomit. He has lost weight. Lots and lots of weight. This morning as he crouched on my lap he was a bag of bones with a matted layer of fur on top. Despite my best efforts at home remedies, tempting food, tlc etc etc he had refused to eat anything, not even his most favourite prawn treats.

It’s distressing how distressing a sick animal is and Cat has been adding to the general gloom of an already gloomy household. Today I bit the bullet and took him to the vet. Luckily I have not cancelled the pet insurance and will only have to pay the excess for the treatment (in theory anyway).  “Does he like rubber?” the vet inquired as she examined him. I’ve already mentioned his rubber fetish – apparently it’s quite common with “oriental” cats but can lead to the ingestion of rubber bands which of course does them no good at all.

He stayed in at the vet’s. She couldn’t feel a blockage but he was clearly an ill cat and needed blood tests etc. If he was seriously dehydrated she said he’d have to stay in overnight on a drip. If not he would be better off back at home. “These oriental pedigree breeds, they’re a bit too special,” she said, tactfully.

I was called to pick him up in the afternoon. His temperature was normal, his bloods were normal, he was borderline dehydrated, had stubbornly refused to produce anything from either end for the vet to examine and equally stubbornly refused to eat anything she or the doting nurses tried to tempt him with.

So there he was, in his box, throat shaved, drugged to the eyeballs with anti-nausea meds, antibiotics, painkillers, worm and parasite killers, appetite stimulants and goodness knows what else. I was given a little brown paper carrier bag containing six (yes, six) different types of specialist food to tempt him with, sachets, tins and bags. “These oriental breeds,” she said (that phrase again…) “can get themselves into a spiral of not eating if they feel unwell and of course the longer it goes on the more difficult it is to break the pattern. They don’t do well staying overnight, these oriental breeds. Bring him back first thing in the morning. If he hasn’t eaten anything he will have to go on a drip tomorrow.”

Yes, I got the message. He’s a ridiculously expensive, overbred, highly strung, effete creature who’s basically suffering from anorexia and in the process of starving himself to death. Jeeez. Just what I need right now. To spend a hundred quid on a fucking stupid self-harming cat. Besides, nobody’s allowed to have anorexia in my house except me.

I opened various of the tins and sachets from the paper bag. No. No deal. No way. Some he deigned to sniff at, briefly. Others he refused even to approach. Suddenly inspiration struck. What was it he goes wild for? tinned sardines. I usually let him lick the tin, don’t actually give him any fish, but he obviously loves them. So I opened a tin.


He only ate a couple of teaspoons worth which I mixed with a tiny number of kibbles of his normal dry food, but at least it’s something. He then crouched very very still for several hours with his eyes closed and an unutterably weary expression on his face. But that’s better than throwing it straight back up.

So it’s back to the vet first thing in the morning to see if she thinks he needs x-rays or not because, given the number of rubber bands and small toys there are lying around the house which he is quite capable of having ingested, we can’t yet rule out some kind of internal blockage.

My main worry, though, is that I end up with a cat which will only eat tinned sardines. How on earth am I going to pay for that? He’ll have to go. Perhaps I could have a small white fur collar and cuffs on my austenesque cardigan which is now, finally, under construction.