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Alexis

Age at interview: 50
Brief Outline: Alexis’s daughter is now 22 and started self-harming at the age of 11. She hasn’t self-harmed in the last two years. Alexis says nothing can prepare you for the sadness, loneliness, fear and lack of support that you go through as a parent when your child is self-harming.
Background: Alexis, age 50, is a rehabilitation officer working with visually impaired people. She is divorced and with a new partner. She has two children. Ethnic background: White British.

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Alexis’ daughter started to self-harm, by pulling her hair out, about the age of 11. She couldn’t explain why she was doing it, but looking back Alexis says she was always a very sensitive and emotional child who seemed to find things more difficult than other children her age. Alexis didn’t think of the hair pulling as self-harm. The first time she noticed marks on her daughter’s arms, it was explained as the result of falling against a wall. ‘As a parent,’ Alexis said, ‘you’re not looking for problems, so I believed her. Why wouldn’t I?’ 

As time went on Alexis would see cuts on her daughter’s arms and one day she found a pencil sharpener blade while tidying her daughter’s room. Her emotional reactions to this included fear, anxiety, disbelief and anger but she went ‘into practical mode’ to look after the cuts, partly because it was easier than facing up to the emotions. She blamed herself and the trauma of her marriage break-up which was going on at this time and tried hard, too hard, she says, to make her daughter’s life better. But she continued to self-harm, by cutting and with stones if she was outdoors. Alexis took her to the GP, who warned Alexis that it was likely to continue and get worse, which made Alexis feel like they were in a ‘huge black pool, not knowing how to get out or whose hand to hold.’ 

Her daughter was referred to the Community Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS), but didn’t immediately establish a rapport with them. The distraction techniques they suggested didn’t really work: ‘She needed to see blood,’ Alexis says. She continued to self-harm, as she got older, with risky behaviour and sexual promiscuity as well as cutting. Arguments with her boyfriends were devastating to her and she always self-harmed when she was unhappy. She always cut on her arms, and always tried to hide it. Alexis doesn’t believe that self-harm is done for attention and she said her daughter described very clearly why she did it, because the physical pain relieved her emotional pain. 

At this stage, aged about 15, her daughter saw a psychiatrist, privately funded by her father’s health insurance. Alexis says this was unhelpful as the psychiatrist simply told her daughter to stop self-harming. She continued to struggle at school, rebelling in the classroom and being challenging to her friends, but successfully completed her GCSEs and went to college. She soon became withdrawn, unlike her normal self, and after a few months Alexis confronted her and asked what was going on. This brought a flood of emotion in which her daughter said she wasn’t going to lessons, wasn’t sleeping, couldn’t turn off her racing thoughts, thought she was going mad and couldn’t go on. Alexis says her ‘blood turned to ice’ on hearing this. 

They went back to the GP who wouldn’t prescribe anti-depressants because she was 16 and said she needed to see a psychiatrist. Alexis paid privately for an appointment because she was so desperate for help. Her daughter saw a psychiatrist and a psychologist, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed a mood stabiliser and anti-depressants. She continued with monthly psychiatric appointments and weekly sessions with the psychologist. Alexis never believed that her daughter was bipolar, and that she was too young to be given that label. Her daughter, she says, was happy to be labelled because it helped explain what was happening to her. 

She continued to self-harm, because she continued to be unhappy. Her father didn’t understand her self-harming, took it personally and withdrew from her life. One day Alexis saw she had carved the word ‘dad’ into her thigh. She stopped going to college but gradually, as the medication began to take effect, she started to ‘come out of it,’ after about four months, and decided that she wanted to go out to work rather than return to college. She struggled to hold down a job, resisting authority and not really getting the picture of what was expected of her in the world of work. She was sacked a couple of times, but always managed to get another job, Alexis says, because of her outgoing and attractive personality. 

By the age of 17 she was working as PA to a film producer in a job she loved, but started to become ill again. She was living with her boyfriend at this time and one evening phoned Alexis to say she needed to see her psychiatrist but wouldn’t say why. Alexis arranged a telephone consultation for her with the psychiatrist, but next morning felt that something was wrong when she saw something her daughter had posted on Facebook. Alexis went to her flat and found that she had taken an overdose. She was admitted to hospital and, after seeing the on-duty psychiatrist, transferred to the Priory because the local psychiatric unit was thought to be unsuitable for her. For Alexis, at this point self-harming had become something completely different, beyond her ability to think, leaving her ‘head full of monsters’ and fearful of what would happen. She had wanted to believe that self-harm didn’t always lead to suicide and her daughter confirmed that she didn’t want to kill herself, just for ‘all the stuff in her head to stop.’

At the Priory the diagnosis of bipolar disorder was reviewed and discounted, replaced with a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder, which made more sense to Alexis, and to her daughter. Her medication was changed and she also received cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT). She continued to self-harm when on week-end leave from the Priory but after three months she was discharged, a few days before her 18th birthday. For both of them, the Priory had been a safe place in which Alexis’ daughter could have some time away from the world, but Alexis worried about how she would cope with life when she was discharged home, and whether she would take another overdose. But she gradually ‘picked herself up,’ found a job, and self-harmed less often. 

She continued to have periods of depression, not helped, Alexis thinks, by starting to smoke marijuana (which she eventually gave up because she realised it was making her lazy and overweight). Alexis began to see ‘tell -tale signs’ that her daughter wasn’t well and one day she came home and said she ‘didn’t want to be here anymore, everything was too difficult,’ and barricaded herself in her room. Alexis was terrified that her daughter was going to kill herself, but eventually persuaded her to open the door and to go to hospital. She wanted to be admitted but the psychiatrist really wanted to keep her out of hospital and referred her to the Crisis Team which, Alexis says, ‘turned their lives round.’ Community psychiatric nurses visited every day, sometimes twice, for a month, reviewing medication to include a sedative which helped her sleep properly for the first time in years and giving more CBT. Alexis sees this as the beginning of a healing process which has continued over the last two years, with no serious depression and no self-harm. She sees herself now as the mother of a very normal 22 year old and feels strengthened and more knowledgeable as a result of her experiences.
 

Alexis’s daughter explained that “if you’re hurting so badly in your head, to harm yourself on your skin, to give yourself other pain, stops the feelings in your head.”

Alexis’s daughter explained that “if you’re hurting so badly in your head, to harm yourself on your skin, to give yourself other pain, stops the feelings in your head.”

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At some stage, I can’t remember how old she was but I do remember she explained it very coherently. If your head is hurting with emotional pain, if you’re unhappy, if you’re really, really hurting so badly in your head, to harm yourself on your skin, to give yourself other pain, stops the feelings in your head. She’s always been very coherent at explaining the things that she’s done and I could, even though I can’t really understand why anyone would do that, I understood that. It’s deferring that pain away. 
 

Alexis asks how parents should respond to their children’s use of social networking.

Alexis asks how parents should respond to their children’s use of social networking.

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I mean I think, I think again, youngsters with any sort of mental health issues, I mean Facebook can be a terrible way of them outpouring their negativity. That used to really, really bother me, really bother me. Such is social networking. I think it’s a very, it’s very good barometer that like for my daughter now uses Facebook just like anyone else would but I think for, for a lot of, you know, a lot of young people, who are distressed, they let, they put stuff out there in the public forum because, I don’t know, maybe it’s just another release but actually, it’s hard for those people who are friends, family seeing this. Do I respond? Don’t I respond? Do you, you know, when, when you see that child, when they come home from school, “Now you put something on Facebook, how are you feeling?” And then they get angry at you but it’s like, “Hold on a minute, you put this out there.” It all gets very confusing. 

I mean these are things, these are new things that we’re having to deal with. As, as parents, if we’re on our children’s Facebook and our and our children put things, should we be responding but once we know the information, what do we do with that information? That is a whole new area of, of having, having to deal, sometimes I think, as parents, maybe we just should not actually have our children on Facebook. Maybe that would be a more peaceful place for us but, on the other hand, we kind of feel if they’re troubled, we need to know. Hard, difficult one, that’s a really tangled one.
 

Alexis wondered how to tell people about her daughter’s problems.

Alexis wondered how to tell people about her daughter’s problems.

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Do you tell people? Do you keep it quiet? Who do you tell? Do you feel embarrassed? Do you feel humiliated? Do you feel, what do you feel? What do you say to people when they say they haven’t seen your daughter for a while? I mean there are all these things. It’s, you’re kind of like you’re skating on ice. You don’t know how to be. Some of my family members really didn’t get it, I mean we’re a very close family. I can remember my brother crying down the phone and saying, “How could she do this to us?” And I’m thinking, “Do it to us?” Someone who really doesn’t understand mental health and still doesn’t, she wasn’t thinking of us.
 

Alexis is close to her daughter but sometimes found her behaviour very hurtful.

Alexis is close to her daughter but sometimes found her behaviour very hurtful.

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I mean that’s the other thing I guess, that, you know, even though we have this closeness, I mean she can be very hard going and she can [sighs] not be as kind to me as I would like but again, I also recognise that when someone has a mental health issue, it takes lot for that person just to deal with their own stuff. And I think that’s probably something I’ve learnt along the way maybe from forums or books or whatever that, you know, she has to, and she does amazingly now, she works very hard to maintain her equilibrium so sometimes the other stuff, and maybe the other stuff might be me, is just too difficult to deal with. So it’s like, you know, it’s almost a dismissive sort of, a dismissive reaction. 

You have to have quite hard skin. I’ve worked on that for myself because I was getting quite hurt by sometimes her behaviour towards me but, you know, I’ve grown a backbone. It’s kind of, I know she loves me, we’ve been through a lot, you know, and sometimes it’s hard for her so I’m now learning to walk away. If something is upsetting me I can walk away now. I don’t have to be scared of leaving my daughter in a room on her own any more. It’s taken me a lot of years to get there, a lot of years. It’s taken me a lot of years to realise that I can go out or I can go away for a weekend. I can go away for a couple of weeks. I have to, it’s hard for me. My scars from all this are that I suppose the last ten years of my life haven’t been normal but I’m now realising that actually, it’s okay and it’s okay for me sometimes to say to her, “No, you’re wrong. You shouldn’t be treating me like that.” I never would have done that three years ago. Upset her? No way, because what then? What if I upset her and I made her unhappy and she self-harmed or worse? 

So as a parent, I now am working on realising a) she’s responsible for herself and the choices she makes but I can, I don’t have to be fearful and that’s the thing. That’s what’s taken me so many years, so many years. This, I get very fearful very quickly. I think the thing that shocks me about myself is that the fear is there. I, I pushed it right away. It, it comes back just like that and that’s scary and I’ve had to accept that. I mean if I even, sometimes if I look at her and I think, “Why, do her eyes look okay? Is she unhappy? Is she going to get ill again?” It’s that fear is like overwhelming straight away and I really have to work at keeping that calm and, you know, and pushed down. But that is the scars from the parent’s point of view from, you know, the, the young person has, has scars outside and in but also the parents, the carers, they, they you too will end up with scars but you can carry on and you do carry on and you carry on in a different way. Yeah.
 

Alexis didn’t want her daughter ‘labelled’ with a diagnosis, but also thought a diagnosis could explain her behaviour.

Alexis didn’t want her daughter ‘labelled’ with a diagnosis, but also thought a diagnosis could explain her behaviour.

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But [sighs] so we went and that morning we saw this very young, dynamic psychiatrist in a local private practice and his side-kick, a psychologist. And suddenly you’re all being given labels. I mean he spoke to me and my daughter and then, obviously, you know, I withdrew and he spoke to my daughter about what was going on and how she was feeling and then they called me back in. And suddenly you’re being, words like bipolar are being used and, like these really, these words that are so scary and I think I remember him because, obviously, he’d been asking my daughter about my ex-husband, my daughter’s father and my son and he was using words like I’ve forgotten the words now, he, I mean he, he categorised all of us and so I was the overprotective mother, okay. Charming psychopath, that was, my, apparently, [name] father was a charming psychopath and my son possibly also too. I won’t, actually, make any comment about that [laughs].

But you’re suddenly being labelled, but actually, in a way, you want a label because you want an answer and so he’s saying to me, “It could be that your daughter is bipolar.” Bearing in mind my daughter is sixteen, and there’s part of me thinking, “Don’t give her a label.” And there’s part of me thinking, “Give her a label.” Because that would give an explanation. 
 

The Crisis Team ‘turned our lives around’, Alexis says.

The Crisis Team ‘turned our lives around’, Alexis says.

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But then the magic words, “the crisis team”, were said. I didn’t know what the crisis team was. She didn’t. She was very angry. She was so angry at the psychiatrist. You know, she was swearing at the psychiatrist and saying, you know, “So you’re not going to help me.” Well, you know, and [sighs] but he said, “We want the crisis team to come and see you.” 

And so we were we were sent home and so I was sent home with this incredibly distraught young woman, who still five years on wasn’t sleeping, who would about twice a year have terrible episodes of depression and in between would self-harm and you’re sent home and you’re thinking, “So here we are and is life ever going to get, be normal? Is this going to be how it always is?” And the next day, the first psychiatric nurse came from the crisis team and I can hand on heart say, that team turned our lives around. They visited my daughter every day for a month but also what they were able to do, they were, it was it was all so joined up, and I know my daughter was really, really worried that she was going to see, yes, she was going to see different CPNs every day but their ability to feed back to each other was amazing. They were incredible people. They would come at whatever time was suitable to us. They would come in the morning. They would come in the evening. Sometimes, they came twice a day and they were able to talk to her about her medication because again, here we have someone who’s on medication but they’re still getting ill. I know people on medication get ill but it’s kind of like you start questioning it. 

And she was able to see people at the hospital. She was able to be supported. I was supported. For the first time probably ever someone said, “And how are you doing?” And you sort of think, “Please don’t ask me that because I’m going to cry and, actually, I’m doing crap and I, I’m doing really badly but I haven’t got time for that because I’ve got to care and love and look after and keep my daughter alive.” And her medication was changed and suddenly, she was put on a medication that enabled her to sleep for the first time probably in about six or seven years. She was put on an anti-depressant that also has a sedative affect. 
 

Alexis says internet forums are useful when you don’t want to ‘burden’ your family. You can post at three o’clock in the morning, and talk to people who understand.

Alexis says internet forums are useful when you don’t want to ‘burden’ your family. You can post at three o’clock in the morning, and talk to people who understand.

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With forums, there’s so, and the great thing with the internet now is we are linked in to everybody. I think you have to be a little bit careful in as much as there’s always going to be a lot of people with a lot worse stories than you and I think you have to be a little bit careful not to get scared. You know, get anxious, “Oh, is that going to be me?” 

I think, for me personally, if I was to analyse myself, I’m a fixer. I probably give more to these forums now and probably have always given more. I mean I’ve made friends with people who maybe have a child with borderline personality disorder because I’ve been willing to share some of my experiences and I want people to know that there is life after all this. It might take a long time and it might be a different life but I think sharing can be very cathartic. I think sometimes if you feel you, you know, I don’t want to use the word burden, but if you don’t, if you feel you’ve shared enough with your own family, your partner, whatever, sometimes it can just be somewhere where you can go and let off steam, where you can go and say, “I don’t know what to do.” It can be a place, usually, the forums will be run by people with quite a lot of knowledge so I mean there will, there should always be information pages, you know, where you can actually go and get facts. It can be anonymous and for some people that’s really important. 

You can, you know, the other great thing about the internet is you can post something at three o’clock in the morning. You know, when the house is quiet and you’re scared and you think, “I really can’t wake my partner again.” Or whatever, you know, you can go and maybe talk to someone who’s on a totally different time zone to you but understands. But everyone’s experience will be different. I’ve met, I’ve met some amazing people, with very different experiences, but again, it’s like reading that one sentence in a book, if someone can just say to you one thing, one thing. I mean there is, there is a lady I’ve got to know quite well and her daughter is a few years younger than mine and she’s now just getting to that stage where she’s starting to let go a little bit, you know, to actually step back. And, you know, I can quietly encourage her and say, you know, “You’re just doing so well. It’s hard. I know how hard it is.” But the relief you feel when you know you are talking to someone who really gets you, even if their experience is different, that they know the pain, they know the fear, they know the anxiety, they know that feeling of bleakness that you, they know that feeling of absolute terror that you might lose your child. There, you don’t feel so alone and it can be an incredibly lonely place, you know, sort of, when your child is growing up with lots of issues and lots of problems.
 

A ‘lovely new boyfriend’, medication and exercise all contributed to Alexis’s daughter’s recovery.

A ‘lovely new boyfriend’, medication and exercise all contributed to Alexis’s daughter’s recovery.

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She was still probably, self-harming but not as much. and she had a lovely new boyfriend, who’s still in her life now two years later, who again, really young, like her, only twenty two but amazingly able to accept her for the person that she is and I suppose, coming up now to more recent times, my daughter hasn’t self-harmed in nearly two years. She hasn’t had a terrible episode of depression. I mean winters were particularly bad. It always seemed to be wintertime and, in fact, it always used to be around Christmas time and I think there were psychological issues, family issues, but the last two Christmases she’s been well. No, sorry, the last one Christmas she’s been well. She last was ill two years ago but now we have got through a December without her being seriously ill and I think, once you start realising that you can get through that Christmas or that anniversary or that year, maybe you become more confident in yourself. 

Also, she’s grown. She’s grown emotionally. She’s now sleeping. Her medication seems good. She’s worked out how to make sure she doesn’t put on weight. She exercises hard three times a week, which is amazing. This is somebody who hated exercise, who wouldn’t even walk to school when it was only ten minutes away. I asked her, I asked her why she thinks maybe she stopped self-harming. I didn’t actually get the answer that I wanted but the answer was, she loves her boyfriend and she saw how devastating, how devastating it was to him and very selfishly, but not in a nasty way, I, I you know, we, we talk about these things and I said, “So was my devastation not enough. Did that?” But as she says, she goes, “But mum, you didn’t really show it.” And of course, I didn’t because you don’t burden your child with any of your stuff. 

You die inside, you take it away but, faced with someone, you know, a, a young man of twenty two, who for the first time is faced with a beautiful young woman who was harming herself and that she couldn’t hide it from him, it’s made her stop and I imagine that that means that she now doesn’t turn to this as an emotional crutch because there’s been emotional stuff. Also she’s on good medication that enables her to sleep, keeps her more balanced and I’m hopeful. I never get complacent. I never take anything for granted. 
 

Alexis’s daughter is much better, but still needs to take her medication.

Alexis’s daughter is much better, but still needs to take her medication.

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Also she’s on good medication that enables her to sleep, keeps her more balanced and I’m hopeful. I never get complacent. I never take anything for granted. 

She is remarkable. She is so wise and she will talk to people about her experiences, if, you know, if appropriate and it’s been a long, long journey and sometimes she questions the medication she’s on. I mean she did go through a phase, and I suppose I hadn’t remembered that, she actually decided to come off her medication overnight, went cold turkey, wanted to be normal. “I don’t want to take tablets anymore because I want to be normal. I want to be like my friends, who are sixteen, and they don’t take tablets.” So she actually came off tablets, her tablets overnight. She ended up sleeping in a car park by our local shops because I mean you cannot do that. You cannot come off hefty medication. 

I think she accepts her medication now. I’m a true believer, if it helps, take it. If you were a diabetic and needed insulin, you would. As we know in mental health issues, it’s a brain, it’s a, you know, it’s our brains, if they’re not balanced they might need something to help them. Maybe one day, she, I mean, I think I think there were times when she did, when she was younger, when she did try and withdraw off certain meds but she got scared. She got scared. Maybe now she’s older, one day but, as I say to her, “You’ll know when the time is right and you’ll do it with good help from your psychiatrist and people, you know, who know but it aint broke at the moment.” It really isn’t broke. 

For the first time, I would say in ten years, twelve years, life feels amazingly normal.
 

‘Be that lioness for your cub’, fight to get support and stay hopeful, says Alexis.

‘Be that lioness for your cub’, fight to get support and stay hopeful, says Alexis.

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I would just say to people to remain hopeful. It might be a long, long journey and it might feel at times where your terror and your fear is going to completely overwhelm you but just remain hopeful, remain strong and realise that nothing stays the same. That, although dealing with or supporting a young person who self-harms or who has mental health problems is probably something you never ever expected. You will not have coping strategies. You will not have a rule book, which tells you what to do. 

I would also say, if you need support, get it, fight for it, shout loudly, go and see your GP, insist, go, you know, use casualty if you need to use casualty. If, if you are out of your depth and if you’re scared, make as much noise, be that, be that lioness for your for your cub, basically. That’s what I was. That’s how I saw, I would, you know, I would I would get any help that I could get, you know, make a noise and just have faith, be, be patient that hopefully, it will pass, that as your child grows older, if they, you know, with or without the help of medication that their emotions will, will change and they will become better at dealing with their issues and, finally, I suppose, that realisation that once your child is a bit older, the decisions they make about their own life, actually, are their decisions and, as a parent, we can only go far in, in what we do. 
 

The pressure on Alexis to support her daughter affected her relationship with her partner.

The pressure on Alexis to support her daughter affected her relationship with her partner.

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You talked a couple of times about your daughter’s inability to sleep for a long period of her life and you talked about a long period of time when you were sleeping alongside her. And you alluded to some of the difficulties that in terms of your own new partner relationship?

Absolutely [laughs].

Could you say a bit more about that?

Oh gosh, I mean yeah. My daughter required a lot, a lot of support and certainly, she required that during the day but at night, you have this teenager who could not sleep, who wanted sleep desperately, but would never, ever fall asleep before three, four o’clock in the morning. We never really got to the bottom of why but, you know, we won’t go there for the minute but so somebody who’s already very emotional, struggling with stuff, has racing thoughts, all that sort of thing, then it’s dark, it’s night time and you know that everybody else is asleep and I mean I think any of us who’ve even had one night not sleeping, we know that feels like. It’s lonely. It’s a really lonely place so yes, I mean we kind of like would get into the habit where, you know, sort of come, you know, eleven o’clock at night, my daughter would say, you know, “Mum, fancy coming in, watch some TV.” I’d even, you know, I’d read to her. You kind of, it’s very strange because you kind of like, you know, there’s that little person inside of you saying, “This is almost like having a baby again.” But, as a parent, as a mother, I mean if that, if you feel like that will keep your child safe, you do it. This went on for years, years. 

So, of course, it had an effect. I mean a) it had an effect in the fact that I was also tired because I was also trying to hold down a full time job, at the time. But yes, I mean there, you know, I was building a new relationship and I wasn’t, I was barely sleeping in bed with my partner and that’s bound to have an effect and it did have an effect. I mean, you know, and okay, that was the effect at night, let alone the effect during the day when I was always either, you know, running here, there and everywhere trying to maintain my job and trying to look after my daughter had a huge effect. I mean there was there was a time when, you know, really, we came very close to breaking up, which would have been absolutely awful because the reason my marriage broke up was because I actually fell in love with this person and I know this person was the person I was, you know, should be with and needed to be with. So if it had gone, if it had broken then what would all of it have been for? 

So, you know, that’s the other pressure but there were times I can remember saying to my, “I think it would be better if you just left. I think it would be better if we parted.” Because the pressure on me to help my daughter, to support my daughter. She had to be my priority. She had to be because there were times when it was, it could have been, and was at times, a life and death situation. I had to do this but I felt under pressure to also maintain this wonderful relationship that I had with this wonderful, kind, loving man and, and I just felt so pulled. I felt so pulled and sometimes it really was, “I think it would be better if we stop, if we split, if, go and have a life.” 

Because I couldn’t really have a proper life. I’m only just now, just now, getting a proper life back where I will do things because I want to do them not because it fits in maybe with my daughter being with a friend or a boyfriend or something like that. It’s a massive impact. I mean it [sighs] we struggled. We struggled for a lot of years I mean, you know, and if I was with my partner, my head was with my daughter. I am still working on that now. I have to work on the fact that I can have my mind on myself and my own life but, you know, here we are sort of like almost ten years on and I’m still having to work on that.

So yeah, having somebody with mental health problems, someone who self-harms, it’s not just the person. It’s all the people around them and especially, you know, if the mother, if it is the mother, who’s heavily involved, that would have an impact on her relationship without a shadow of a doubt. And sometimes you just think, “It would be easier if I was on my own with my children and then I can just be here and not have to concentrate on anyone else’s feelings.” Awful. Such, such a pull, such a such a dilemma and you don’t want your relationship to come to an end but then, on the other hand, you can just see it being stretched and stretched and stretched under such a lot of pressure. Hard, so hard.
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