Category Archives: Chronic Illness

Mental Health Awareness Week 2019: Body Image

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week (#MHAW19) in the UK and the focus this year is on body image – how we think and feel about our bodies. I’ve talked about mental health in relation to our family before as there is no question that the ongoing challenges of M’s ill health and the restricted diets of both children have impacted not only them, but Mike and me too. Just because I’ve not written about body image issues before doesn’t mean we haven’t faced them and I thought it was finally time to try and put my pen to paper and talk about our experiences honestly.

It’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with the way I look. I am not a size 10 having, as I have often said, passed through it on my way to bigger and better things. I struggled as a teen being taller and bigger than some of my friends and again as a new Mum, when some of my antenatal group bounced back to their size 8 jeans within a ridiculously quick space of time, something I was never going to achieve. The depression that has haunted me since my early teen years didn’t help with my sense of self worth and it has taken me 40 years to finally accept that I am the way I am and that that is enough. That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally have a crisis of confidence even now, but I have learned to wear clothes that flatter my shape and can truly step out with confidence when everything comes together to help me feel good about the way I’m presenting myself to the outside world.

There is no question that G is the spitting image of Mike and his side of the family, which gives her beautiful tanned skin and dark hair, although her build is very similar to mine. She has struggled at times with not being as slender as some of her friends and these days complains that she appears to have stopped growing whilst her friends are still inching past her. She is a beautiful young lady on the inside as well as out and we encourage her to find her worth in the way she behaves and reacts to the people who are around her and not her physical looks. We have all heard the criticisms of both print and social media and the airbrushed images that all too often create unrealistic expectations in our children and young people. The increasing popularity of taking selfies and then using social media filters to manipulate the image presented to the world can add to our unrealistic perceptions about the way we should look. I still remember a discussion we had with one of the paediatricians when she was little, who told us that the danger these days is that our perceptions and expectations of body shape and size are such that we fail to recognise when people are a healthy weight for their height and instead view them as overweight. G is learning to eat healthily, keep active, believe in herself and, most importantly, to not constantly compare who she is to her friends.

It is easy to believe therefore that if you’re slim you have no reason to have body image issues, but I can tell you that’s not true either. M is the complete opposite to the rest of us and has always been on the slender side. He is chatty, witty and can ooze absolute self-belief at times, and yet he has struggled with feeling too thin, too short and lacking muscles when compared to some of his friends. He refused to wear shorts during his Junior school years, even when the weather was gloriously sunny and we asked for permission for him to wear jogging trousers rather than shorts for PE – all because he hated the way his legs looked. These days he’s a little more prepared to reveal his legs, particularly when it’s too hot to be comfortable in jeans, but he frequently comments on just how much taller than him many of his classmates are.

Boys can be just as much affected by body image issues as girls can and we’re lucky that our secondary school is very aware of that fact and looks to support all of the pupils in its teaching about these matters. We are all aware that puberty is a tricky time and one that needs to be carefully navigated by all involved. At home, we look to help both G and M grow up with a positive self image and belief as well as teaching them the importance of balanced meals and regular exercise. We also encourage them to talk openly and honestly with us about how they’re feeling about various issues, not just about the way they look, and will help them find answers or solutions if they want. Our youngsters grow up sadly believing all too often that they need to be thin and conventionally beautiful to succeed in this world and I find it devastating that they do not truly understand and believe that there is so much more to achieving success than the way they look.

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A pudding for every day

M’s restricted diet has come with a number of challenges over the years, not least of which is finding some delicious desserts for him to enjoy at the end of a meal. I have worked hard to adapt recipes or create new ones for him, but sometimes all this busy working Mum wants is to be able to pull a pudding out of the fridge and not have to do anything more than remove the lid and provide a spoon. One of the staples of my childhood for weekday desserts was fruit yoghurts and when M was small, he absolutely loved eating a yoghurt whenever he fancied it. G has always been less keen, although she definitely enjoys the odd soya pudding – especially the chocolate ones – on occasion.

So, I’m constantly on the look-out for an M-friendly alternative and you can imagine my delight when my hours of internet trawling uncovered the wonder that are Bio Organic Rice Desserts. Now sadly these puddings are incredibly difficult to source and I have spent a small fortune in shipping boxes of them to our house. However, the chocolate desserts have been a huge hit with Master M and those boxes definitely don’t last long unless a few are hidden away from his immediate view.

18 months ago I came across  La Crèmerie’ and their rice yoghurts at the Foodmatters Live Conference in London and last summer I eventually managed to convince M to give the yoghurts a try. We placed an order for both the plain and the vanilla flavours, but unfortunately  La Crèmerie was low on stock and we had to wait a little while for just the plain yoghurts to be delivered to our door. The rice yoghurt is delicious, although M wasn’t too keen on the plain flavour – I just wish that he’d had the opportunity to taste the vanilla ones as well. However, whilst they weren’t the biggest success we’ve ever seen, they did make a great addition to his smoothies and I was also able to use it to create a stewed apple and yoghurt pudding for him. Sadly, these are another more expensive option and perhaps not one for everyday, but they are a good dairy-free alternative and one I’d happily recommend.

Rocky Road

Over the last few months, I have been encouraging G and M to become more engaged with the treats they like to eat, in particular asking them to find, choose and make the goodies they want to eat themselves. Part of my reasoning was to make sure M has some safe desserts to include with his lunch at school as it’s so difficult to buy safe options for him, and part was to help them both develop the skills they need to cook safe food in the future. It has been a mixed success and as soon as their initial enthusiasm wore off, the number of biscuits and snacks they had similarly reduced to almost nothing. However, after a couple of busy weeks at work, I decided to seek solace in the baking process myself and chose to experiment with adapting a new recipe for them both to enjoy.

My starting point was a favourite treat of mine, which I thought I could adapt, but actually needed me to perfect another biscuit first before I could even attempt the final product. I love shortbread, especially at Christmas time and I thought that an M-friendly shortbread might be a great starting point and something G and M would both like on its own. Some quick online research and I found a great and simple shortbread recipe, which thanks to our recent successful introduction of Vitalite dairy-free margarine to M’s diet, only needed me to swap the flour to make it perfect for him. It didn’t take long to whip up the first batch and G and M were delighted to taste-test them for me.

With the success of the shortbread in my back pocket, it was time to turn my attention to my final goal – M-friendly Rocky road. This time I recruited G as my kitchen help and she enjoyed the tasks of chopping the Freedom mallows as well as smashing some of the shortbread into bitesize pieces too. Whilst the standard recipe calls for the inclusion of raisins or cherries in it, we haven’t yet introduced them into M’s diet and so instead used dried banana chips, which again had some attention from G and her trusty rolling-pin. Moo-free chocolate has proven to be another safe option for M and was the final ingredient needed for the recipe.

An hour or 2 in the fridge and the Rocky road was ready. It was another resounding success with G and M and they certainly enjoyed the week or so that followed as either shortbread or rocky road was included in their packed lunches every day. Even better, M was so taken with both recipes that it reignited his interest in doing some safe baking himself and he spent a Saturday afternoon making the shortbread and prepping everything for the rocky road before he had to head to bed. He even told me off for not having put my recipes onto my blog quick enough for him to find and follow – so here they are, ready for the next time my youngest ventures into the kitchen!

Pizza and Ballet

One of the Christmas presents we were treated to this year was family tickets to go and see Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” at the Bristol Hippodrome. We have only been to a couple of ballets with the children over the years despite our love of the theatre and my Mum was keen for us to experience this unconventional retelling of this classic ballet. Of course, no family evening out can start without dinner out too and this time round, partly as we were later arriving in Bristol than we’d originally planned and partly because, well, why not, we decided to veer away from our known safe restaurants and look for somewhere new to try.

It’s always a challenge when eating out with G and M because of their dietary needs, but our decision over the last 18 months or so to relax M’s restrictions on high days and holidays in order to find a better quality of life and balance for him means that on occasions like this, we’re able to eat in places where we’re confident he can choose safe ingredients to make a tasty meal. We know that there are a number of restaurants near to Bristol Hippodrome from Pizza Express to Wagamama, so I made the suggestion that we wandered up Park Street to see what else might be available, with our end target being Pizza Express if nothing else seemed to suit.

About halfway up the hill, we stumbled across the marvellous Molto Buono restaurant and, spotting gluten-free pizza bases on the menu, decided to stop there and see how their food measured up to the children’s somewhat exacting standards. It didn’t take too long for G and M to decide what they wanted to eat and were delighted to discover that as well as gluten-free pizza bases, the restaurant also had vegan mozzarella available as a topping. Much to my surprise, G opted for the GF Marinara pizza – tomato sauce, olive oil and oregano – and M chose the GF Diavola – tomato, salami and vegan mozzarella. Mike joined them in trying one of handmade pizzas, whilst I settled on a pesto pasta. The dishes that arrived looked amazing and tasted even better with portion sizes that satisfied even the voracious appetite of the youngest member of our family. I wouldn’t hesitate recommending this restaurant – excellent food, prepared simply, served quickly and all at a great price.

Fully satisfied by our meal and with more than enough time to meander our way back towards the theatre, our evening had started in fine fashion. We all then sat enthralled for the next couple of hours as the story of Swan Lake unfolded before us. Matthew Bourne’s interpretation brings a more modern-day twist to the tale and replaces the well-known Dance of the Cygnets with an incredible male troupe of swans instead. The dancing was incredible and brought real inspiration to both G and M as they watched it in absolute awe, something that should never be under-estimated as M had expressed his concerns about watching a ballet – “…there are no words to explain what’s going on, so how do you know the story-line..?” before it even began.

I think we would all heartily recommend seeing this production, though it turns out that I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to the setting, much preferring the classic portrayal of the Swan Lake tragic love story. It was fascinating to talk to G and M about their thoughts on the production, with M uncertain as to whether the second half was a dream or not and both expressing the view that the role of the Swan/Stranger represented the 2 sides oft he Prince’s psyche. This was a performance that really challenged everything we knew and expected of a ballet and was a truly amazing experience. Despite my hesitations about some parts of this version, I am fascinated to see how Matthew Bourne has adapted and updated other ballets and hope to be able to see another of his productions soon.

Birthday blessings

This weekend has been one of “those” weekends. You know, one of the ones where there’s so much to do and just not quite enough time to manage to do it all. A combination of birthday celebrations, performing arts classes, auditions and hospital appointments has left us feeling somewhat exhausted; but tonight, after a fun few hours with M, G and a group of their friends, I’m also counting our blessings.

It’s been no secret that M found last year, his first at secondary school, tough. The move into a school environment where his year group was considerably bigger than his entire junior school combined with family deaths and the inevitable challenge of his continued restricted diet left not only M, but all of us, struggling to find a positive way forward. Circumstances last year meant that we didn’t really do much to celebrate his 12th birthday, so I was determined to kick off his teen years in whatever fashion he wanted.

The celebrations started with an M-friendly pear and ginger cake with caramel buttercream icing on Friday evening to accompany his presents, which included the bass guitar and amp that he’s been yearning after for a few months. He had been slightly frustrated with Mike’s refusal to take him to look at guitars last weekend and was only marginally mollified by the promise to get up early this Saturday morning to visit our local guitar shop and examine exactly what was on offer. As you can imagine, his excitement in finding the guitar and its own mini amp waiting for him when he got home from Stagecoach was wonderful to see and we’ve been serenaded with renditions of both “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Seven Nation Army” since late Friday night! I’m just glad the bass guitar lessons he’s been having at school appear to be paying off already and delighted to see him so wiling to practise in every spare moment.

However, the culmination of M’s birthday weekend came yesterday afternoon as we spent the late afternoon and early evening with a group of his and G’s friends. M had chosen a group of old friends and new, some from school, others that he’s grown up with and the best bit was seeing just how well these different strands of his life hit it off and enjoyed the few hours together. After lots of chat, M had decided he wanted to try his hand at an escape room and we booked 2 rooms at one of our local escape rooms sites. We amicably split into 2 teams, each with an adult and a mix of the older and younger children and determined to compete against the clock, rather than each other to escape our locked rooms.

I was impressed with how well they all worked together and certainly those on my team managed the frustration of solving some of the clues well, with only one of M’s friends needing some redirection and reminders to focus from time to time. We were lucky to escape with just 2 minutes to spare and although Mike and M’s team were not quite so successful – they had found all 4 keys, but failed to open the door in time – everyone enjoyed themselves and were ready to move on for a dinner to suit all dietary needs that were present.

The chatter, camaraderie and chuckles around the table were wonderful to experience and all the children were a delight to spend time with as they enjoyed their food and just spending time together. It was a wonderful way to celebrate M’s 13th birthday and I really have counted my blessings tonight that M has finally found his way out from the darkness of last year with the help of some amazing friends, who accept him for who he is and don’t see his health challenges as a barrier to their friendship with him. A perfect celebration with both new friends and old; and a combination of friendships that I hope will keep going for many years to come.

Be my Valentine…and #SpareARose

How did your day start today? With a card, chocolates or maybe a bunch of flowers? A promise for dinner tonight? Or maybe tonight will just be a quiet night in front of the TV.

You can’t have missed that it’s Valentine’s Day today and you may, or may not, be celebrating it.

Whatever your plans, could you please do just one more thing?

By gifting the price of one single rose (£4) to Life for a Child, you will be helping the Diabetes community to “take care of one another around the world” and giving one month’s supply of life-saving insulin to child living with T1D in an under-resourced country.

It really is that easy and what a wonderful gift to share with your loved one this year.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Young Carers Awareness Day 2019

Today is Young Carers Awareness Day 2019 and the purpose of the day is to raise public awareness of the challenges faced by young people because of their caring role, and to campaign for greater support for young carers and their needs. Young Carers often struggle with mental health problems of their own due to the strains they can find themselves under, hence the launch of their #CareForMeToo campaign.

I was recently invited to write a blog for Over The Wall about the impact of their camps on our family and I chose to particularly focus on the importance of the siblings camps for children like G, who is recognised as a Young Carer locally. I thought I’d take the opportunity to share my thoughts here too.

 “…when one person in the family has a chronic illness, the whole family has it…”

Jamie-Lynn Sigler

When you live with chronic illness you know that it is about so much more than just the disease itself. Pain, exhaustion, medicines, appointments and hospital admissions are often accompanied by a loss of self-confidence, doubts about self-worth and mental health issues that need time, patience and understanding to come to terms with and overcome. As parents to a child with a rare illness that is little known and little understood, Mike and I have had to find a resilience and strength within ourselves to not only support M as he finds his way to understanding his condition and living his life to the fullest, but also to fight those battles that he is not yet ready to tackle himself.

For the last 8 years, since our appointment with M’s first gastro consultant, our focus has been on finding answers and researching ways to give him the best quality of life we can despite the challenges he faces. As he now heads into his teens, we are seeing the fruits of those endeavours as M begins to make his own choices about the foods he eats, knowing full well the reactions he may experience, and taking on more responsibility for his medicines.

You could say that we’re achieving what we set out to do when we got his diagnosis: to raise a young man who won’t let his illness define or constrain him and who believes that he can be successful no matter what; but we have not been alone in supporting M. Family, friends and our local community have walked every step of this journey with us, helping us in more ways than we could ever imagine was possible; but there is one person who has been there since the very beginning, without any choice and yet who loves M unconditionally and is an indisputable rock for him, even when they don’t always see eye to eye.

She is, without a shadow of a doubt, the unsung hero in our family story.

Since the day her baby brother arrived prematurely in her world, G was determined to help out whenever she could. She put up with his incessant screams from what we now realise was undiagnosed pain and looked to comfort him however she could – making him laugh, giving cuddles, reading stories or just bringing him “Cat” when nothing else would do. Like so many siblings to children diagnosed with chronic illness, G has inevitably been side-lined when that illness has dominated family life and despite our determination to make sure she doesn’t miss out because of it, I know there are times when we haven’t got that balance right and given G the attention she deserves and needs.

From the interruption of frequent hospital appointments to badly timed admissions over her birthday 2 years in a row, G has had to take the back seat to M’s illness more times than seems fair and these are not the only ways in which her life has been affected by his diagnosis. We cannot ignore the reality that having a chronically ill sibling has had a massive impact on G and her mental health too. Anxiety, panic attacks, facing fears and anger management issues are all inextricably tied up with the role of being a young person caring for another and it has been crucial we find a supportive environment for her that has taught strategies for dealing with her yo-yoing emotions and provided a safe and understanding outlet for them. Encouraging G’s involvement with our local Young Carers group as well as applying for a place at the Over The Wall Siblings camps have been important steps in recognising the impact that M’s health has had on her over the last 15 years and have helped her feel that we really do understand and appreciate all that she has had to put up with and sometimes give up too.

That time away at OTW was a week for her to be herself, not defined or viewed in her role as M’s big sister and encouraged and allowed her to take time to focus on herself without worrying about him. G came home a different child to the one who had left us, having realised that her life experiences didn’t isolate her in those circumstances and she had found a sense of self-worth that she had been struggling to develop at home and at school. G’s second camp experience saw her develop a confidence and willingness to take on new challenges, knowing that, with a little bit of self-belief and perseverance, no mountain is too big for her to conquer. OTW brought G out from the shadow of M’s ill health, helped her rediscover who she is as an independent individual and gave her her childhood back – and for that I can’t thank them enough.

Thai-time

Back in 2017, we were invited to visit and judge the wonderful Bangkok Canteen in Gloucester as part of the FreeFrom Eating Out Awards (FFEOA) and it won a well-deserved gold award for its amazing gluten-free Thai food. However, what with one thing and another, I never quite got round to writing up a review of our visit despite my best intentions and so, when Michelle asked us to make a return journey there in 2018 to flex our judging muscles once more, the whole family were delighted to go back to try their food again and I was determined to finally write that blog post – even if it’s still taken a little longer than I’d have liked.

The Bangkok Canteen is one of those hidden gems that once discovered you want to shout about to the freefrom world, whilst being, at the same time, almost reluctant to share too much, or too loudly, just in case it suddenly becomes very popular and you struggle to book a table at short notice. What I love most is that even though it advertises itself as 100% gluten-free, nearly all of the menu is also dairy-free, which is absolutely perfect for G; and with staff as incredibly knowledgeable as theirs, they are willing and able to offer great advice to those of us who need to know about the other ingredients used. Another highlight is their use of a lot of local or UK grown produce wherever possible, which means that treats such as Gloucester Old Spot Pork Panang appear on the menu – and come highly recommended having more than passed my taste test! Add in a good selection of organic, gluten-free and vegan beers and wine and you really can’t fault this restaurant for its allergy offerings.

Over the last few months, as I have well-documented on my blog, we have taken the decision to allow M a little more freedom with his food choices when we eat out or are on holiday. That’s not to say that he suddenly eats completely normally, but with the complete support of his gastro consultant, we increase his medicines to help dampen the reactions he experiences when he tries more than his staple diet at a meal-time. This time round he decided to stick with the base ingredients we know he can eat – think chicken and prawn – whilst adding some flavours that he longs to enjoy again – sweet and sour for example. Both children chose some familiar favourites and were thrilled to be able to safely pick starters, main courses and puddings, although the generous portions meant we ended up with far more food that we could really comfortably manage. I opted out of a dessert of my own, preferring a pot of jasmine tea to finish my meal, but the banana fritters and Thai custard cake, served with dairy-free and vegan ice-cream were a big hit with both G and M. It really was fantastic to be able to enjoy such a delicious 3-course meal as a family and I’ve no doubt that we will visit the next time we’re in the Gloucester area.

The food at the Bangkok Canteen is fabulous and delicious and it really is incredible to have found a restaurant that is so switched on about their freefrom offerings. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this Thai restaurant to anyone in the area, or visiting the area, who wants a truly exceptional dinner. My one recommendation would be to make sure you book a table in advance as it appears to be a popular destination for dinner in Gloucester; and one not to be missed.

Polar Dip

Despite the assertions of some Canadian friends that it couldn’t be a “real” polar bear dip without having to break some ice, in the middle of December Mike decided to take part in our local New Year’s Day polar swim. With just a smidge over 2 weeks to prepare for this madness, you wouldn’t be blamed if you thought Mike was completely mad – believe me when I say it was something that went through my mind too – but the reason for it is actually a fantastic one.

You have all heard me talk a lot about the amazing charity, Over The Wall, who provides free therapeutic camps for children with serious health challenges as well as their siblings and families. G and M have been fortunate enough to go to these camps twice each over the last 3 years and the difference it has made to them both is incredible. Since G’s first trip to the South Siblings Camp in 2016, we have taken every opportunity we’ve been able to find to raise awareness and funds for them – from M’s presentation at school to G’s sponsored hair-cut. I’ve talked to more people than I can even begin to count about just how special this charity is and in the last year have been delighted that 2 fellow EGID Mums were successful in their applications for camps too.

2019 marks 20 years since OTW’s first camp in the UK and they are looking to mark that anniversary by being able to send 1,000 children, young people and families to one of their camps. We want to help them achieve that goal, knowing from firsthand experience just how invaluable their camps truly are, and will be spending the year finding new ways to support them just as they have supported G and M.

And that’s why Mike kicked off our fundraising year in style with his Polar swim. He chose to swim in 9° water for 20 minutes – 1 minute for every year that Over The Wall is celebrating this year – and we set a tentative target of £200. Thanks to the generosity of friends and family, Mike not only more than managed his New Year’s Day dip, but also raised a fantastic £223!

If you’re able to give even a small amount, I know that Over The Wall will make very good use of it and you will be helping enrich the lives of young people living with health challenges, just like G and M. You can donate via their special 20 years donation page here.

Welcome to 2019

It feels a little strange to be putting fingers to the keyboard and sharing news with you all once again. Since the last time I wrote, we’ve celebrated Christmas, seen in the New Year, made some big decisions about future plans and the children have headed back to school. Mike kicked off the New Year in style – something I’ll share more about in my next post – as part of our family commitment for 2019.

To be honest I was glad to see the back of 2018, which had challenged us all from almost the beginning of the year, thanks to a nasty bout of Aussie ‘flu and…well…everything else that then followed on from that. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t all bad and there were also lots of highlights from our year to celebrate too. Unfortunately and almost unbelievably, 2018 finished in much the same way it started with the sad news that one of my Godmothers passed away just before Christmas and 2019 obviously didn’t get the memo that it needed to improve on our experiences and kicked off with further news of ill-health for both friends and family.

However, I’ve learned some important lessons in 2018 and will be taking them forward into our New Year. I have some wonderful freefrom finds to share amongst other news and I’ve no doubt there will be discoveries and adventures to write about as 2019 unfurls.

Here’s to a year of discovery and wonder for us all.