Let’s Talk About STIGMA…

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I’ve been wanting to write about this one for a minute now, so I’m gonna just dive straight in.

I’ve literally only been blogging for two weeks, and there has been quite a big outburst of support which I am more than grateful for, but I haven’t mentioned any negative, which gives the impression that it doesn’t exist. Let’s talk about it…

I’ve received messages from old school friends, from complete strangers, from charities and much more, and the love has been amazing. I keep saying that I just started this to vent, and in all honesty, I didn’t think about anyone else possibly going through the same situation, but in my community, and in the black community especially, some of the stuff I’ve spoken about seems to affect other people, but we just don’t speak out. Why?

My family have been supportive for the majority. I’m someone who’s not a very great talker. Don’t get me wrong, in real life I’m loud as hell, I play a lot, and can be quite childish, but to talk about serious topics, like how I am coping, my mental health, Zariah’s disability and other serious stuff, I just can’t get it together. I brush everything off as if it’s all great, and I sometimes come off as emotionless. It’s hard for me to talk to my friends. Sometimes I avoid serious conversations with my boyfriend too, it’s just a habit of mine to turn everything into a joke. My writing is probably the most honest open platform I have. But when I shared it with my family, my granny said I should “keep this kind of stuff within the family”. My ex partner said “I shouldn’t put his business out there for everyone to see”. I mean I’m not mad, but it’s this kind of broken mentality that keeps people drowning in depression.

I love how much things have changed in the past few years regarding mental illnesses and opening up, but we still haven’t reached all communities. When I was 17, I was diagnosed with a personality disorder and suffered with episodes of psychosis, as well as frequent self harming. People around me were freaked out by my arms. People thought I was sick or crazy. I mean I was always someone who was outspoken and was confident enough to speak up against bullies, but this isn’t the case for everyone. Even in me saying that I can’t say it’s 1000% true. I was confident only to tell strangers. I didn’t care about the opinions of people who didn’t know me, but I cared about the opinions of people who did. I didn’t tell my family I had a mental illness until I was 20, 3 years after the diagnosis, and the only reason I ended up telling them was because it was a condition imposed by social services for me to come home with my daughter. Can you imagine? I kept a massive part of my life a secret from the people who have known me the longest because around them I felt embarrassed. I felt that they would look at me different, or think I “wasn’t quite right”. I did stints in secure psychiatric wards as a child and as an adult, and didn’t tell one member of my family. It’s quite poor really, but I understood the stigma.

When I had to tell my family, I had two of my aunt’s, my mum and my grandma crowded round my living room with a social worker and a bunch of flyers, and this lady was explaining my diagnosis. I just felt shame. But why should I feel ashamed? Why should I be embarrassed? Why aren’t mental illnesses treated like any other illness? If I said I had diabetes, the room wouldn’t act shocked or start treading carefully around me? Why is a mental illness any different? Why shouldn’t I speak up? We’re taught that we shouldn’t need psychiatrists, social services should never step foot in your house, people outside shouldn’t know your business, but everyone needs help at some point. Young men make up the highest portion of people who commit suicide. Because we don’t talk. We teach our children that “boys shouldn’t cry”, we emphasise the importance of the “man of the house” in our cultures, and expect men to always be the providers. This kind of mentality makes it seem like men should never need help. Our society makes men feel shameful when they can’t provide, when they need to cry, when they ask for help. “It’s not manly”. That’s not the message we should be sending, and the reason why I wasn’t too shocked to hear my grandma’s opinion is because she has been raised to believe that this is something shameful that you don’t bring out the house. It’s enough. I have a voice that I am not afraid to use, and it’s time we start changing minds, changing stereotypes, and eradicating stigma.

I saw this at work the other day. All of the ideas on here are really simple, but they really do make a difference.

And it’s not just mental health. It’s our relationships too. It’s sex, it’s choices with our bodies, it’s finances, it’s disability, it’s literally everything!

Nobody is perfect. Not myself, nor anyone I know. When I had my daughter, I isolated myself and didn’t tell anyone outside my family and two friends about her diagnosis. I wasn’t ashamed of my daughter, I thought she was the cutest thing ever, but I was ashamed of the stigma. That people would look at me different, look at her different. I’m not ashamed to say I had no idea what cerebral palsy was before I had my daughter. Quite bad really, but what I’ve noticed is that unless someone in your family or close friends has a disability, you’re not really aware of what is outside. I wasn’t educated on stuff like that, I only guessed people were disabled if they were in a wheelchair or “looked different”. If I’m honest, I was quite ignorant before Zariah, and having her really opened my eyes to how much I didn’t know, and how judgemental I may have been towards others as a child.

With my relationship too, having an abortion at 18. I was ASHAMED. I still look back and feel ashamed. Ashamed for making that decision, ashamed for finding myself in that position, ashamed for going against my values, my religion, my culture. Ashamed for allowing somebody else to pressure me into making decisions. I couldn’t tell my mum at the time. That stuff is unheard of! Me? A black CHRISTIAN NIGERIAN girl? lol no. I couldn’t tell anyone in my family like that. I ended up relying on my two friends. It’s so crazy that this goes on quite commonly, but nobody wants to start the conversation. People are quick to judge you, quick to disown you and condemn your decisions, and things like that are hard enough so why would I come out and tell someone just to be made to feel worse? I didn’t skip down to the woman’s clinic with a grin on my face, most people don’t. It was a hard decision for me and a large number of people I know. The stigma is soo bad that a lot of girls I knew lied, and say they had a miscarriage (there’s less of a stigma attached to that, people seem to sympathise with you), and some people would keep absolutely everything private. Imagine being at a turning point in your life, where you need more support than you have probably ever needed before, but feeling like you have no one, because everyone is going to look at you different, or make you feel worse, or speak ill of you. It’s not the response that people need.

We as a community need to do better. We need to become better listeners, better friends, better support systems and better people. We have all made mistakes in our lives, and nobody has the right to pass judgement. This is all of our first times on this planet, I don’t think any of us came into earth knowing how to do everything. You may not agree with decisions for religious reasons, cultural reasons or anything else, and that’s OK. It’s never by force you must agree to something you don’t understand, but let’s lay back on the judgement. Be an open ear, you never know how far that can take you and how much just being there to listen without judging can do for someone. Let’s learn to accept people’s differences and learn to love. It doesn’t cost a thing. If you are religious, please let’s also remember that even if God condemns an act, he still loves the person.

Learn to Love. Goodnight all. x

P.S. Everything I have said in previous blogs still stands. If anyone ever wants to talk, to rant, to cry, to shout or just needs an ear, feel free to message me. Whether you have a special needs child or not, whether you are a parent or not, my ears are always open if you feel alone. Let’s talk. (IG: embtp // Facebook: Esther Marlsey-Burkson)

P.S. (Again lol) If you haven’t already, please check out my last blog about our hunt for a “special” school. Share, comment or message me if you know of anyone, or know someone who knows someone regarding childcare for my beautiful 2 year old. We’re on the lookout!

The Back Story – Part 3 (Diagnoses and Our Journey Home)

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Hey guys, it’s been a while. I think it’s just gonna be a thing where I’m thanking everyone at the start of each blog because the support and love has just been amazing. Having Zariah, and being a young mum in general, can sometimes feel quite isolating, and before coming out with our story and experiences, I felt excluded from so many things, even though Zariah is probably too young to understand or feel it.

The outburst of love has been real though, from simple messages of love and encouragement, to invitations to places, messages from organisations, and people being much more inclusive in general. My friends have been incredible as always. Thank you for everyone who has read, commented on and shared our blogs too. Who knew people on the other side of the world could be going through the same experiences?

In the last post, I got up to Zariah’s birth and shared a picture of her whilst she was in a medically induced coma. I’m just gonna explain Zariah’s diagnosis and where we are today.

Zariah is diagnosed with spastic dystonic quadriplegic cerebral palsy. It’s abit of a mouthful to be honest, we just say CP. Anyways, all that means is that her muscles and joints can be really stiff but weak at the same time. She doesn’t have complete control of all parts of her body like most people do, and things that just come naturally to others, Zariah has to learn over more time. She can’t sit up independently, walk, talk, stand, etc. and she is only just learning to roll over. There are some things that she may never be able to do (my first blog was about her physiotherapists opinion that Zariah will never walk), but I still stay hopeful. As well as the CP, Zariah has seizures, and global developmental delay (she is behind her age mates in terms of learning). I didn’t know this would be the case when she was born, I was quite clueless to be honest, but the doctors knew that this was a likely possibility, based on how bad her condition was at birth.

Anyways back to the first day. So even though when I saw Zariah for the first time she was hooked up to a load of machines, I still was hopeful about her outcome, and just thought that lots of babies stay in hospitals for a few days when they are born. At this point, although doctors may have had their suspicions about her likely disability, we had no clue. Nothing was said to us, for whatever reason, so I was just naive as hell. In the early hours of the next morning, after meeting Zariah for the first time, I was moved to the ward where they bring mothers who have just had their baby. On the first day or two it was bearable, but it became increasingly depressing being on a ward with other mothers and families who were so happy about the birth of their child. I kept hearing newb0rn babies crying and cooing at 3 or 4 in the morning. I mean, congratulations to them and all, but my baby is upstairs, I have to keep going to visit her and she hasn’t even opened her eyes to look at me yet. Wasn’t the best environment for a new mother who hasn’t really got to “be a mother” yet.

On one of first my visits upstairs to see Zariah, the nurse by her bedside gave me a flyer to explain what they were doing to her and why. It was late in the night when they gave me the flyer, so I took it back to bed with me and read it. Zariah was placed in the coma so that they could try and cool her brain. They lower the temperature of the whole body and brain, to try and prevent the brain damage from spreading. They were one of only a few specialists hospitals to be able to do this, so I guess it was bitter sweet that she was born there. When I spoke to the nurse they said that they would be cooling Zariah for 72 hours, and providing she reacts well to the procedure, they will bring her temperature back up to normal after that. Also, the flyer had those “success stories” on them, of parents who had gone through the same treatment, that had worked well for their babies. There was a lady on there who said her baby was cooled at birth, and they stayed in hospital for 4 days. Her daughter was now running up and down and a “perfect little girl” with only a small hearing difficulty. Again, these are just memories of me being mad naive, but I thought “okay great, Zariah is gonna be in hospital for 3-5 days. After the cooling, she’ll wake up, be absolutely fine, and we can go home”. That wasn’t the case.

Zariah stayed in hospital for 6 weeks. A long, seemingly endless 6 weeks. I cant go through everyday or every milestone with you because honestly, I’ll keep you here forever. But I’ll go through each significant stage, so here goes..

Day 6: Zariah had finished the cooling and rewarming, they had stopped the treatment on her brain, and they took her in for an MRI scan to try and assess the damage. I remember being with my ex on that day excited as hell, because this was the last thing they were waiting for before they would take away the medication that was keeping her asleep. I would finally be able to see my baby open her eyes after that. Excited was such an understatement man, I just thought when she wakes up we can go home. I felt like we were hitting the finish line.

Day 7: Didn’t go as I expected to say the least. The MRI scan was done on a Thursday and I spent the day with Zariah in the hospital. The doctors told me we would get the results of the MRI scan on Friday, so I came into the hospital bright and early on Friday morning, ecstatic as hell thinking today’s the day Zariah is gonna open her eyes. I came early enough for the ward round and watched everyone else have theirs, and then the doctors came to me and asked if Zariah’s dad was going to be there. That in itself should have raised flags for me but I was so excited to get the results of the MRI, I was oblivious to the fact that it could have been bad news. You know in my first blog, I mentioned I didn’t want to be too hopeful about the results of Zariah walking, cos the let down when you’re overly hopeful is epic? This was the day I was talking about. I can’t even find words to describe how positively I thought this day would go. I contacted my ex to let him know the staff were waiting for him to get the results of the MRI scan, and so he said he was coming in. That wait just felt like forever. The doctors came in twice whilst I was waiting for my ex to check where he was and how long he would be. My ex never came to the hospital everyday and wasn’t that involved in Zariah’s care or her early days anyways, I really should have realised but tbh I didn’t. He arrived and the doctors summoned us into another room.. I remember smiling with my daughters dad walking into that room, I was so giddy, and my ex said “ahh the way they’re walking us into a private room is like it’s gonna be bad news”. We both laughed at that statement. The thought didn’t even cross my mind..

We got into the room now, and there were so many other people there. The mental health midwife that I had grown to really like, like 2 or 3 doctors, the nurses that I was most familiar with and God knows what other professionals. Even then I didn’t think it was bad news, I just thought they needed to be briefed too. They then proceeded to tell me the results. Honestly, when I tell you, the doctor explaining just let off shot after shot after shot. He told me that the images they took of Zariah were horrible. He said that she will probably be disabled, will probably have a learning disability, would probably be blind, and will never smile or laugh. She will never walk or talk or do anything. He told me in much longer terms, “you’re child is going to be a vegetable”. That’s all I heard. Please no one shoot me for saying that, but if you honestly understood how brutally the message was delivered, even till this day I still think he was the worst possible man for the job. I understand doctors are supposed to just speak medically and not emotionally but that man had no soul. He didn’t even let me breathe before he dished the next blow, and another one, and another one. I don’t even know how I made it home that day. Day 7 was the day that killed me. I couldn’t even face going back in to see Zariah. I almost gave up on that day. I remember calling my mum and just screaming on the stairs. She kept trying to calm me down but all I wanted to do was scream. My ex kept trying to hug me, but even he couldn’t do a damn thing to try and get me to act like someone who still has sanity. I was screaming on the floor on the stair case in a hospital. I’ve never been so broken. Literally never. I felt so helpless, I cant even describe the low of that day to be honest. I don’t even know how I made it home. My phone was ringing off on that evening. I understood why the mental health nurse was present. She didn’t need no briefing lol, she was there to make sure I didn’t go and throw myself off a building. That whole day is a blur. I cried and cried and cried. I don’t know how I made it to the next day but here I am, living to tell the tale.

Day 10: After my day and a bit of crying, I had to get it together. My ex partner weren’t stepping up to be there beside Zariah, and I didn’t want her to be there on her own, unconscious, with absolutely nobody around her. That’s one thing I realised from early. I can’t sleep on the job. I couldn’t afford to have days off of parenting, or days of depression where I didn’t get out of bed, because no one is gonna step up and be there for her whilst I’m not. It’s literally just me and her. So I got my ass up and went back to being there everyday. Day 10 was amazing. My baby woke up. She semi opened her eyes on day 9, but was still out of it. Day 10 was the day that I got to hold Zariah for the first time, the first time I got to feel like a mother. I took endless videos to watch when I got home, that was the first high I felt since having her, I needed it tbh cos without it I don’t know if I would have been able to keep going.

We had to teach Zariah to suck, which is a natural instinct that babies have when they’re born, but mine didn’t. I mean by the end of the 6 weeks it was much better, and she was breast feeding, which felt like a major achievement, but she came home with a tube that we would feed her directly into her stomach with. It was a lot to take in. The lead up to taking Zariah home was hectic but we got there. Because the doctors knew Zariah was likely to be disabled, we had the specialist input from early. Fast forward 2 and a bit years and here we are. She has her diagnosis and we are a little bit more familiar with her disability and what it means. It’s still a learning process, I’ll admit I never new what CP was until it was on the cards for Zariah.

Despite the doctors comments, Zariah CAN see, she CAN smile and play, she’s the most sociable little baby I have ever met. Her laugh is contageous, her energy is literally never ending (it gets exhausting sometimes lol), but she has already defied the doctors in so many ways and has so many more achievements to come. I know I’ve fast forwarded ALOTTT, but honestly theres so much to mention, I don’t think it’s something I’ll be able to cover in 1, 2 or 10 blogs.

If anyone does have any questions, I’m more than happy to answer anything and everything, and want to try and be as honest as possible about our experiences so far. It’s just the beginning of our journey, and I’m hopeful for what the future holds.

Thanks to everyone for reading. Even if I can help one person feel less alone, or can give one person hope or advice, or friendship, or support, then I feel accomplished and I am happy. We’re finally up to date now, so no more history/back story blogs for now, and we can get onto our current journey. I have learnt to let go and let God, and I understand that he has a plan. As long as I have Zariah, everything is and will be fine.