The smoke alarm went off this morning. As ever our 4 year-old, Huck, dashed out of the room. He is terrified of alarms. We are used to his reaction to smoke alarms, car alarms and even hand-dryers in public bathrooms if they are high-pitched enough. We don’t really stop to think that it is odd.
We’ve always put Huck’s fright from alarms down to his 101 days in hospital after he was born 13 weeks early. If you’ve ever been to a neonatal intensive care unit for the wrong reason, you’ll likely have been struck by the discord sowed by the alarms – an apparently random dissonant collection of noises. They don’t really stop.
They are there to warn you that your child’s oxygen levels have dropped to dangerous levels, that they have stopped breathing, or that their heart has paused its beating. Back when Huck lived in intensive care and for a good while afterwards, we heard the alarms in our dreams. I don’t see why children, like adults, should not be affected – however difficult that is to prove.
Henry’s yellow hair is sprouting again. He is catching up on his school work. He is getting faster. Every day, he looks a little healthier. But last night, he climbed into bed with us. I only realised when I was woken by the sound of him grinding his teeth. Trauma for children must be expected, but we are given little guidance on how to spot the signs and how to tackle it before it becomes an issue.
Today our marvellous friend and cheerleader Pam, who is in London from the US for a few days, shared a blog by Perri Klass published on the New York Times website (Haunted by a child’s illness) that reminded me that Huck’s reaction is probably not normal, and that Celia and I need to be mindful of our own response to the upheaval in our home. For our sake as well as the boys’.
There are so many good points in the NY Times blog. Do parents suffer a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder in the years after a child’s illness? What effects do children and parents suffer? How can you tackle these problems? How do you stop them in the first place?
My mantra during the days with Huck and more recently with Henry (picked up second-hand from BBC warzone training) has always been: Don’t become part of the incident. Others might call this unhealthy denial. But we have been enormously lucky to have huge amounts of support. We have this blog where we vent our anger and “get it out”. We have employers who give us the space to deal with our lives. We have friends and family who provide for us in any number of ways and force us to take time out. And we know our responsibility: we do everything in our power to stay well – mentally and physically. We know we are in a struggle.
When writing the news at the BBC, particularly when dealing with harrowing stories, I tried to separate myself from events – deliberately trying to be dispassionate. There is a difference between where I was and actually being in the heat of the action. In the newsroom, I could look away from the feeds bringing in frightful, often disgusting pictures of atrocity. I could turn my eyes to more normal scenes when I needed to. I was rarely in the field. I’m lucky that I was never caught up in the horror of a country facing upheaval or directly and devastatingly drawn in to the action of a country in crisis. But I had colleagues who were. And they took different, but often unsupported ways to try to reconcile for themselves what they had seen. There is an excellent article on this: Journalists and trauma: ‘Some images you can’t forget’. And I know now that “being dispassionate” doesn’t work.
With Huck and Henry we have been in the field. With help we have come to cope with it. I hope.
This week, the charity, Macmillan Cancer support has released research saying that nearly a million people in England look after someone with cancer, half of them felt they weren’t getting enough support, and nearly half suffer mental health problems. Macmillan’s research coincides with a campaign to influence the Care Bill which is currently being discussed in Parliament. Please click on the link and ask your MP to do their bit for carers. Most people are not as lucky as we are.