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Sarah Y

Age at interview: 42
Brief Outline: Sarah is 42, a teacher with three daughters. Her eldest daughter, who has learning difficulties, has taken two overdoses and has been referred to a psychiatrist. Sarah hopes this will help her understand her daughter’s behaviour.
Background: Sarah is 42, a teacher with three daughters. Ethnic background: White British.

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Sarah describes her eldest daughter as being on the autistic spectrum, with learning and social difficulties. In July she took a small overdose of painkillers when on a college trip and was taken to A&E. She claimed she had taken the pills for stomach pains and hadn’t meant to harm herself. Then in December she went on another college trip to a town two hours away, where she bought 64 painkillers and swallowed half of them. Sarah was called urgently to the hospital. She had to get neighbours to collect her other daughters from school, but went back home that evening while her daughter was kept in hospital. When she returned the next day she found that her daughter had absconded because she thought doctors were trying to kill her with a glucose drip, but had been picked up by the police and returned to hospital. Sarah thinks the doctors should have taken her learning difficulties into account and explained more clearly why they were putting in the drip, although apart from that the hospital staff were very kind and caring. Eventually her daughter was seen by a psychiatrist at the hospital, who told Sarah that her own GP would be able to refer her daughter for counselling. They have been given an appointment for a few weeks’ time. Sarah is reassured by this, and hopes it will help her understand what her daughter is feeling.

After the first overdose Sarah was quite cross with her daughter, as she hadn’t followed the instructions on the packet about how many to take. After the second overdose her daughter said she had meant to harm herself, but then said she didn’t know why she had done it. She claimed she was upset by something her father had said to her, but Sarah thought she said this to avoid being questioned further about her motives. Sarah had spent an hour with her the night before talking about something which had upset her at college, but she had seemed very happy when she went off on the trip. At the hospital Sarah felt like telling her to pull herself together, but then she felt guilty for feeling like this.

Sarah says she finds it difficult to understand what is going on in her daughter’s head. Her daughter’s explanations include testing herself to see how strong she is, feeling low, and ‘having urges’ to take pills. Sarah is confused by this and is worried that she will do it again. She finds it very stressful not to have any clear cut answers and would welcome a label to the behaviour so that she could develop strategies to deal with it. At the moment she is coping by hiding all the tablets in the house and not allowing her daughter access to money. Her daughter tends to punch her hand or hit her head when she is frustrated, and Sarah tries to help her deal with the causes of frustration.

Sarah’s middle daughter is angry as she can’t see a reason for her sister’s behaviour and thinks it is selfish. Sarah tries to explain that her eldest daughter needs help to resolve some of her issues. Her youngest daughter hasn’t said much about it. Their father lives apart from the family. Sarah finds it hard to know who to talk to when it is difficult to cope. Some of her friends have been very supportive, but she is reluctant to tell too many people as she thinks they might blame her for failing as a parent. The main impact is the stress, the guilt and the feeling of helplessness in not knowing why her daughter has done this and how to help her. She is going to wait to see what the psychiatrists say before she looks for any other sources of support and information – she thinks there is a lot of rubbish on the internet.

Sarah’s advice to other parents is to be patient, to get on with their lives and to hope that clinicians can give their children the help and support they need. She advises healthcare professionals not to be judgemental. She is making a complaint to the pharmacy which sold her daughter the painkillers, and thinks there should be education in schools about the dangers of overdose.
 

Sarah Y could not work out 'what was going on inside her head' even after hearing her daughter's explanations for her overdoses.

Sarah Y could not work out 'what was going on inside her head' even after hearing her daughter's explanations for her overdoses.

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She said it was because she had stomach pains and it just wasn’t going but it ended up being sort of a small overdose but clearly she’s quite angry about a lot of things from her childhood and growing up. She does have difficulty dealing with them because she does have learning difficulties, social difficulties. I would say she’s on the autistic spectrum. She also academically finds studies very difficult. So that was really I think the beginning of sort of self-harming sort of thing and I don’t know whether it was an intentional self-harm. I could never get to the bottom of it. She then said she was fine. She didn’t mean to hurt herself. She didn’t want to die. She wasn’t trying to do anything like that so we left it and moved on. 

For the first evening, when asked, she just responded with, “I don’t know.” Until something was said about her dad and then she said, “Oh yeah, I’m very upset about things my dad said to me.” Well, yeah, he said some unpleasant things but often if she wants a scapegoat and, you know, you learn to read your children. Yes, sometimes she’ll do things because she’s upset about what’s said and you, there’s a manner she has when she’s upset about something he’s said in the past and she’ll talk to me about it. But this was one of those times when it didn’t seem to quite ring true. It just seemed to be, “That way people will stop asking me why I’ve done it.” And so I mean, I think I even said to the doctor that night, “I don’t know what to feel because I’m at a loss as to why she’s done it. I just cannot work out what’s going on inside her head in order to make her do this.” 

I really don’t know what’s going on in her head because it so much was out of the blue. It wasn’t she’s been having trouble with this or, you know, something had been troubling her, you know, and building up. It was just out of the blue and I, you know, the next day when I said things to her about why did she do it, she came out with different, “Oh, I was feeling really low.” Or, “I was just testing myself to see how strong I am.” And, you know, there were several other reasons and when you don’t know why somebody has done it, you think, “Well, will they do it again.” 
 

Sarah Y thought there was a 'lot of rubbish' on the internet. She decided to wait until her daughter had seen a psychiatrist before making her own investigations.

Sarah Y thought there was a 'lot of rubbish' on the internet. She decided to wait until her daughter had seen a psychiatrist before making her own investigations.

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In all honesty, with this one, I’ve I have at times looked up mental health issues but I think there’s so many confusing issues with regard to my daughter because she’s got the learning difficulties, you know, the social issues already, I think, you know, trying to assess whether she has some other mental health issue or not is something, that’s something slightly beyond me at the moment. That since this latest incident I’ve had flu, you know, and a couple of weeks more than that, you know, flu, Christmas, New Year, things have been slightly busy, you know. If we weren’t seeing a psychiatrist until the end of March, yes, I would start looking at things and start thinking, I want to start finding out but because I know the first psychiatrist appointment is at the end of January so only a couple of weeks away, it then gives me think, look, I know the next couple of weeks in my life are really busy, I’m actually just going to say, okay. We we’ll see what they say. 

We’ll see what their response is. If it’s a non-starter, yes, then I’ll start looking at things but, hopefully, they’ll say, “Well, we can’t say at the moment. I need to see her for, you know, further appointments.” Or whatever I’m sort of reasonably happy at the moment to leave it in their hands to see where we progress to, rather than start trying to go off, look things up on the internet because there is so much out there that is a complete pile of rubbish that I’d rather say, right, okay. We’ll leave it, leave it to the experts for the time being. If I feel like they are not making progress, yes, I will go and start making my own investigations and what have you but we’ll leave it until then.
 

Sarah Y’s daughter was angry and couldn’t understand why her sister harmed herself.

Sarah Y’s daughter was angry and couldn’t understand why her sister harmed herself.

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How have the other children reacted?

The youngest is sort of not really said or done anything about it. She wasn’t affected in the same sort of way. The older one of the two younger ones has been quite angry. It’s like, you know, “Why have you done it? You’re not.” You know, she can’t see a good reason for it and she just saw it as, you know, “You’ve made life difficult for mum and the rest of us. Why?” You know, and to her it seemed a very, very selfish thing to do and, you know, we can all understand that perspective and so she’s quite angry about it, won’t talk about it, well, hasn’t really talked about it very much since. I mean I’ve tried to say, “Well, sometimes when people get down, that’s what they do. They’re not trying to be selfish but, you know, and we’re going to go and see somebody to see if we can get her some help so that it doesn’t happen again and, you know, we’ll maybe resolve some of her issues.” 

But I mean they didn’t have the best relationship beforehand so, you know, the eldest, you know, as I said, she is academically weak. She has difficulties with things. The younger ones both are academically very able and so there’s all sorts of issues that go on between them and the usual sibling rivalry of bickering and loveliness.
 

Sarah Y was pleased with the ‘brilliant’ support she received from some of her friends.

Sarah Y was pleased with the ‘brilliant’ support she received from some of her friends.

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Because, you know, who can I talk to about it because that’s a difficult one because you don’t want to share some of the issues because you want to make sure you only share with somebody, who’s not going to share it with all and sundry, because it’s quite personal. I wouldn’t want to sort of what do I say, break my daughter’s confidence, you know, because, you know, and you also have to judge somebody as to how they’re going to react to somebody having a mental health issue. Because some people are like, well, you know, I’ve heard somebody talk about, you know, suicide is a very selfish thing. Well, yeah, on the one hand it is a very selfish thing but to just sweepingly say, you know, “People only commit suicide if they’re being selfish.” Is something quite, you know, in my opinion, very wrong. There’s huge amounts more issues to do with it and, you know, to say that to quite a large crowd of young people, I was horrified when I heard somebody saying that.  So it’s not necessarily, you know, it it’s a very difficult thing to decide who you share it with and who you don’t because you have to know somebody quite well to share it with them. As a parent you want sympathy as to like, “Oh my god, I can’t cope with this.” And you do, I mean I’ve spent quite a lot of time over those few days crying [sniffs] thinking [sniffs] thinking, “What have I done wrong?” And really it is quite surprising the reaction from some people. Other people you think oh my god, you know, they’ve reacted exactly how I would have hoped and what have you. And some people I’ve had to tell because, you know, as I said, we were aiming to go away at the New Year and I said, “Would it be okay for her to come?” And I felt I should give them a reason why and I explained and it, they were brilliant and they were really supportive of me and her, actually, when she came, came with me, you know, to visit them and that was fantastic. 

But, you know, I as a parent am reluctant to sort of say too much to many people because you are, you are concerned about what people are going to say to you. Blame you, “Well, you’ve obviously failed them as a parent.” And you do feel that and it’s horrid. Excuse me. But, you know, I know really it’s not my fault and I know I haven’t done anything wrong as such, you know. We all make mistakes and so yeah, I’m sure I’ve made mistakes but, you know, at the end of the day if you find somebody who hasn’t, you know, I’ll be damned impressed. 
 

Sarah Y said the main impact of her daughter’s self-harm was stress. She felt helpless because she couldn’t understand it and not knowing what to do was ‘crippling’.

Sarah Y said the main impact of her daughter’s self-harm was stress. She felt helpless because she couldn’t understand it and not knowing what to do was ‘crippling’.

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I think the main impact is the stress it causes, the guilt you feel and the sort of helplessness as to how do I deal with this because really I don’t know why she’s done it so how do I deal with it and that I think is probably the worst feeling. What the hell am I supposed to do to make sure she doesn’t do it again [sniffs] and to help her out of whatever place she’s in. Is it that she’s feeling that low that it’s a, you know, it’s she wants to end things or is it there’s some other mental health issue and it is that not knowing and not knowing what to do about it that is so quite crippling. So I have to say I think I’ve probably been trying not to think about it too much.
 

Sarah Y’s daughter saw an educational psychologist, but Sarah thinks she should ‘have pushed sooner for psychiatric evaluation’. She says it’s not socially acceptable to say ‘My child is odd.’

Sarah Y’s daughter saw an educational psychologist, but Sarah thinks she should ‘have pushed sooner for psychiatric evaluation’. She says it’s not socially acceptable to say ‘My child is odd.’

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In hindsight I look back and think, yeah, actually maybe I should have pushed sooner for psychiatric evaluation. But as a parent you don’t, it’s when you know your child has learning difficulties and they’re sort of, they have difficulty socialising and things, you, they’re seeing educational psychologists, you know, throughout their education you think maybe this is a normal part of being like slightly sort of autistic or on the Asperger’s spectrum kind of thing or that sort of thing. 

But where does the line come between that and other mental health issues and, as a parent, you try and you do try and say, “My child is normal.” It’s not socially acceptable to say, “My child is odd. There’s something different about them.” You accept that there’s something a bit different but they’re normal for that category or that category and it is very, well, I, as a parent, think it is very difficult to say where’s that line between socially inept or, you know, Asperger’s, autism, you know, and all the degrees of different. Well, they’re classed as learning difficulties and [sighs] well, I just find it very, very difficult to say, where is that line and when, as a parent, should you assess it to say, she needs psychiatric evaluation.

You know, and they’ve seen educational psychologists and stuff because of their learning difficulties I think I just thought well, if they thought something was odd they would have then said, “Well, maybe we need a psychiatric evaluation as well.” But nobody ever suggested it so you sort of don’t think of it, if that makes sense.
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