Today another guest blogger, Mary. I've known Mary for a number of years now but only knew part of her story about when she had been flooded. But I wasn't aware of the other challenges she has faced and continues to face, the mask she has put on and the bravery she has shown to face life head on and passionately champion causes.
We spoke briefly about mental health at a recent work event and I asked if she would be able to share her story. I'm pleased to say she did....
Take Care Paul
Behind the door - Mary Dhonau
I have given numerous presentations about what it’s like to be flooded. These are based on both my own experience and those of the countless people I have spoken to over the last 18 years. One of the things I always emphasise is that we don’t know what is going on in the lives of people before they were flooded. I’ve been told many heart-breaking stories along the lines of ‘My mother died, the day before the floods came’, or ‘I had just had a diagnosis of cancer and then we were flooded’. Such appalling coincidences are among the many reasons I have championed the plight of the flood victim.
Let me tell you what was going on behind my front door.
Just before the floods of the year 2000, my youngest son Peter was diagnosed with severe autism and severe learning difficulties. His behaviour was challenging to put it mildly: he didn’t sleep, self-harmed, broke windows with his head and regularly smeared poo about the place. Try to imagine, if you can, being flooded in that situation. We lost every one of his toys and had to cope with builders in our home for many months. It was that experience that made me don on my wellington boots and start campaigning.
Fast forward to 2007. During the intervening years, Peter’s autism had become unmanageable for us; no state school could meet his needs; and my marriage had imploded under the strain. (He had recently escaped from his special school, the only child to do that in the 30 years the headteacher had been there.)
Someone from my local Council said Peter was the ‘worst case of Autism they had seen in a long time’. After a multi-agency meeting, it was decided that he should go to a specialist residential school. He was only 10 years old and the decision to let him go was such a painful one - I felt I was letting him down, it was a bit like giving your baby to someone else to bring up. Then we were flooded again - not as badly, as I’d made our home flood resilient, but we were still flooded, and it wasn’t a picnic by any means.
I was also running the National Flood Forum at the time and my phone didn’t stop ringing (remember 55,000 people had been flooded). I was giving advice to people and talking to the media day and night. I guess with the name ‘National Flood Forum’, people thought we were huge but at the time, it was a very small organisation.
Luckily carers from Peter’s new school were with him during the day, trying to get to know him but in the evenings and nights it was just me, answering that phone at the same time. Peter wasn’t my only child either). I was determined to keep going, even though the demands on me were incessant. Then the time came in September for Peter to go to residential school 35 miles away - although we did it gradually, parting with him was honestly the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Something broke inside me after that but still I kept going. I can clearly remember walking to a local river bridge with tears pouring down my face, to give a TV interview. I gave ‘a brilliant interview’ (so the guy said afterwards) but I walked away and cried again. Then one day I woke and didn’t stop crying for days. I felt totally broken.
I really struggled with going to my GP, ‘what will she think of me’ etc but she was brilliant. She had a mildly autistic son, so knew something of what I was going through, and she’d also seen me many times on the television news. She was very supportive and said I was exhibiting ‘true grief’, having put Peter into care. She was astounded that I had been able to hold down my job.
One huge mistake I made was not to tell the board of the NFF just how bad things were for me. (My advice to anyone going through something similar, is please tell your work place - I literally couldn’t cope, and my work relationships suffered).
To this day, they still don’t know. I was put onto antidepressants and was on them for quite a while. I think once this has happened to a person, you never fully recover. I’m self-employed now (which can be very scary, as it tends to be feast or famine, and when it’s a famine time, I do become quite anxious but who wouldn’t?)
I’m seen as ‘strong’ ‘passionate’ and ‘charismatic’ about the work I do - but some mornings I can wake, and that bloody ‘black dog’ is in my room and sitting heavily on my chest. The type of person I am, I plaster a smile on my face and get on with it but it’s not always easy.
My son is now 21 and in a local specialist care home. His mental capacity is between 9 months and 4 years, He was also recently diagnosed with epilepsy. Hindsight has told me that putting him into specialist care was the best possible thing we could do for him - he has had a much better quality of life as a result. My ex-husband and I care for him together every other weekend and we have quality time with him. It is still stressful and demanding but we do get to hand him back afterwards.
However, as I result of all I’ve been through, I have been left scarred. It has planted a permanent ‘seed’ in my brain that will always be there, and one I guess I will always wrestle with.
Mr Paul Wyse