What to do when you can’t do it all

There was an interesting little discussion on the forum this week about the perceived pressure to do everything, and to do it all right now. That fits with the concept of the insecure overachiever that is actively sought out for certain high demand jobs (and was the topic of a recent radio 4 show) and also the concept of Imposter Syndrome, where you constantly feel like a fraud who might be found out and identified as inadequate for the job. There is a widely perpetuated narrative in modern society that people should be willing to work longer and harder, and there is always a mythical person who is doing more than you. Whether that is more revision before exams, or more prep for their clinical application or assessment day, or more voluntary work, or managing to juggle more things in their working week, it always makes you feel a bit guilty and inadequate no matter how much you are doing or how hard you are trying. The truth is we are in a profession where demand for our services will always exceed supply. The early stages of the clinical psychology career path are competitive, and there are lots of people who claim impossible workloads and huge amounts of experience that can make you feel like you’ll never measure up. So how do we tackle this pressure to do more?

There are probably lots of layers to the answer. Some are political, as this culture springs from job insecurity, underfunding, and the focus on attaining wealth and status – so the ideal is to change the game, rather than trying to win a game that is rigged against us. Another layer is to communicate with others and band together, as this undermines our personal insecurities that see it as our own personal failings, and allows us to normalise our experiences and work together to resolve the systemic issues that underlie them. But even at a personal level, there are things that we can do.

So this blog is about my top ten suggestions to tackle that feeling of having too many plates spinning and not enough time, and the cognitive distortions that maintain the belief that we should do more. I’m not saying I’ve got all the answers, or that that I’ve resolved all these issues in my own life. Far from it! I’ve mentioned many times that I’m not a good role model in this regard. I think I am a bit of a workaholic, and whilst other people say I’ve achieved a lot, I always feel like there is more I could/should be doing. However, the things that have started to help me change my own patterns are:

1) Know when you are taking on too much. Having had a minor car accident, the physical repercussions made me cut down my work to a more manageable level. They remain a good reminder if I’m overdoing things, as I get aches and pains in my ear/jaw and shoulder. Obviously, I’d not recommend having an accident as a self-care strategy to others! The bit worth sharing is to be aware of your own physical and mental state, and to learn to recognise your own signs of stress as early as possible. Then you can be responsive to your own needs, and learn to stay within your own limits. It is also a good reminder to ensure that you build self-care and exercise into your routine.

2) Fit in friends and fun. Giving higher priority to the people and things you enjoy and are recharged by. We all need to have support networks, and family and friends need to be given enough time and priority in our lives to perform that role. I can’t persuade myself to “do less work” or to leave gaps in my diary, but I can put in commitments to the people and activities I value in my life that compete with work. I make it a personal rule that I finish work at 4pm on Mondays to take my kids to their swimming lesson and do my 30 lengths. Every evening the 7.00-8.30pm slot is time I always give to my kids’ bedtime routine, and 8.30-10.30pm is time I always spend with my husband. I’m also trying to cook with the kids twice a week, to fit in a creative activity each month and not to work on weekends. My advice it to start small, commit to something for at least a month and then build on good routines once they are established. Once in a while make time for fun or frivolous things like having a spa day, or sneaking out for a cinema or lunch date with my husband, or booking a holiday.

3) Sleep. No matter what else is going on, make sure to get enough sleep. For me that means eight hours per night. I’m a night owl, so I often work until the task is done, even if that means resuming work after everyone else in my house is asleep and working through until the small hours. Then I often have to get up and fulfil work commitments the following day. If I could stop doing those extra bits of work after everyone else is asleep and get a proper sleep routine where I sleep during the hours of darkness and get out into the sunlight more in the daytime, that would have positive knock-on effects on my energy levels, mood, appetite and attention span. You can see from the fact I’m drafting this post at 2am that I’m not managing that yet, but for now allowing myself to have at least one lie-in on the weekend is a lifesaver.

4) Use your time better. Stack commitments together with similar content, that involve particular colleagues or that you can do in particular locations. Get the right kit to do the job efficiently. Travel less. Use video chat rather than meeting in person. Minimise your commute, or use it for something relaxing like reading a novel or listening to music or audiobooks. See if you can work from home even if it is just a small proportion of your time. Work out what the blocks or bottlenecks are in your process, and how you can solve them, For me having templates of common reports and letters was one helpful step. According to where you are in the power structure, you can also look at how you can draw in support or what you can delegate to others.

5) Diarise the in between stuff. Don’t just fill your calendar with the face to face stuff and expect to fit in the admin and support tasks in the cracks, because they either escape into non-work time or don’t get done.If you have to write a report between appointments, give yourself a diary slot to do it in. Need to read the papers before a meeting? Book the hour beforehand for that task. Want to write up a paper? Diarise three days for it. Then make sure that you keep that time for that sole purpose. Book an admin slot at the beginning or end of each day, or a half day at the beginning or end of the week. Check out how much time you need and when you are most productive. If that is a time that is earlier or later than other people work, make sure that you take the time back somewhere else*.

6) Prioritise, then focus on the key tasks. Isolate yourself if you need to get something important or time critical done. Turn off your phone and your email alerts, ideally unplug from the internet, and prevent distractions. Then give it your full attention. Work out what is interrupting you, and then stop it so you can get work completed in one steady sprint, rather than having to come back to it again and again after dealing with phone calls, emails, other people interrupting, or diverting onto the internet. Deal with the quick stuff straight away. But then make yourself a task list and work down it. Prioritise the important stuff over the seemingly urgent but unimportant. Try to check email and messages at the beginning and end of the day, not every few minutes. When you need to get something done turn off social media, email alerts, etc. Turn your phone onto silent and then put it out of sight.

7) Clarify your goals, and how to reach them. Envisage where you are trying to get to, what the steps you need to take are, and what barriers are preventing you getting there. If you wanted to lose weight you could picture yourself thinner and see how it would play out in your life, then think about what you need to do to consume less calories or burn off more. Then see what is stopping you. You could identify that you aren’t getting to the gym if you go home from work first, or that you are always tempted when there is cake in the office, or buy unhealthy snacks when you don’t take a lunch to work. Once you recognise them, you can then make an informed choice, and if the benefits are worth the extra effort you then need to address the barriers. One of my goals is to make my business self-sufficient enough to continue even if I went off long-term sick, and could provide me an income in retirement. So I have been thinking about how to recruit and train others to sustain the business, and create products that can utilise my skills and knowledge without me having to deliver everything in person (eg can I train others to deliver training, deliver it as a webinar, or make videos of the training available to subscribers).

8) Get a better bubble. They say that we are the average of the five people we spend most time with, and whilst that isn’t a scientifically validated concept, I think that it has some merit to it. We are all normed by those we spend most time with, so I’ve actively chosen to seek out the company of people I admire and want to learn from, and who will challenge my assumptions and habits. More specifically, I’ve been trying to spend more time with other social entrepreneurs, rather than the long-term NHS, education and social care professionals I already know, so that I move away from the common assumptions of this kind of work, and can be more creative and less risk averse in how I look to create impact. You also need to enlist the support of the key people in your life so they reinforce your goals, rather than unwittingly draw you back into old habits.

9) Get reflective. Use your supervision, your trusted confidants or keep a journal. If you want to take it one step further, why not seek out therapy, or coaching, or personal development opportunities. Give yourself time to think and regroup, particularly after stressful or emotional experiences. As well as the benefit of some wonderful supervisors, I’ve had various coaches and mentors since I left the NHS, and I’ve attended various groups and training programmes. Each one has helped me understand myself better, and refine my plans to make them more likely to success. It is really good to take time outside the pressure of spinning all the plates to look at why you are spinning them, which are most important, and how they make you feel. It can help you to consider the pros and cons of different options, and to identify goals and actions.

10) Be kind to yourself. Remember that you need to attach your own oxygen mask before you can help others with theirs. Take time out when you need to, and find the things that replenish you. Be realistic about what is possible or what you have capacity for, and learn to say no to unreasonable demands. Don’t be too self-critical. Seek out and remember the positive feedback, and the things you have already achieved. Take the time to note the positives and be grateful.

And above all: Enjoy the journey. There is no rush to get to the destination. Dance whilst the music is playing.

 

*with the agreement of your manager, of course.

Spreading too thin

In general I’m a frugal person. I buy foods that are reduced because they have reached their best before date and most of my clothes and shoes in the sales. I collect coupons and shop around for good offers. I try to waste as little as possible, and to recycle as much as I can. So I can understand wanting to get good value for money.

On the other hand, I like doing things properly. For example, when it comes to a sandwich, I like a thick slice of granary bread, fresh from the oven, with generous amounts of toppings. As it happens I’m not a big fan of butter or margarine, perhaps a symptom of being overweight in the 1980s and 90s when fat was literally seen as a cause of fat, whilst the carbs underneath were seen as relatively healthy. But whether it is soft cheese and cucumber, avocado and salad, cheddar and chutney, hummus and roasted veg, or toasted cheese and banana, the topping needs to cover the bread, with sufficient depth to make the sandwich proportionate. If the cheese has nearly run out, I’ll have half a cheese sandwich that tastes good rather than a mean whole.

So when it comes to services, I can see the motivation to get value for money, and to ensure that resources are being used in the most cost-effective way. I’ve developed pathways, clinics and groups to meet needs more effectively, and I’m happy to delegate less complex work to less experienced or less qualified staff. I can’t see the justification for paying psychiatrist salaries to deliver therapy, when a member of staff with half the hourly rate can be an equally good (if not superior) therapist. I can see the importance of capping the cost of agency staff, so that this money can be invested in increasing the substantive workforce. And when it comes to staff who are not pulling their weight (my record being a member of staff who had spent a whole year with a caseload of four clients, whilst colleagues in the same job had five times that along with other responsibilities) I can see the need for performance management.

However, there comes a point that too much pressure for efficiency actually makes services less effective. I saw this happen gradually over the 16 years I worked in the NHS. If we cut out all the conversations between cases, all the informal supervision, all the CPD opportunities, the time to bond as a team and to reflect and process information between appointments, then clinicians are less able to be empathic and individualised with clients. If you also give people tougher and tougher cases to work on, expecting faster throughput than with the more mixed caseload that preceded it, and couple this with cuts in admin despite there being more and more paperwork to do, you increase burnout and time off sick. Add some pay freezes, lose a proportion of posts, put people in smaller premises and tell them to hot-desk or become mobile workers and they no longer feel valued. Make it a set of competing businesslike trusts rather than one amazing non-profit organisation, tender out services like cleaning and home visiting to allow them to be done on minimum wage without the terms and conditions of the NHS, allow private companies to win contracts, and keep people in a perpetual state of change, then morale falls. Nobody has any loyalty or job security and it no longer chimes with the ethics of the people who work there.

The sandwich has been eroded down to bread and butter, and then to crackers and margarine, and then to a value brand version of the same that is 30% smaller. It might look like costs have been driven down, but the price is a reduction in the quality of services, and in the wellbeing of staff. It reduces the willingness to go above and beyond that has been the backbone of the NHS, and increases presenteeism – the tendency to feel that you need to be at work longer, and look like you are working harder, without this making meaningful impact on the work you get done. The UK has lower productivity than most other developed nations, perhaps because we have longer working hours, and work expands to fit the time available.

All over the public sector at the moment I see services trying to spread their resources thinner and thinner, and I’m acutely aware that this means they can’t do the whole job. Social Services departments have barely the capacity to maintain their statutory role, so supporting families in need goes by the wayside. Some good staff find other jobs. A proportion of the remainder go off long-term sick, leaving an ever bigger burden on those that remain. Teachers are forced to teach to tests that assess primary school pupils on aspects of English grammar that graduates struggle with that have little relevance to daily life, and squash the rest of the curriculum into less time. Children’s centres, youth clubs and leisure facilities are disappearing at a time when it is clear that parenting support and exercise are critical in improving well-being and decreasing long-term health and social care costs. We’ve been feeling the cost of ideological austerity bite, even before the financial shock of the Brexit vote, so I am struggling to see how things can improve in the foreseeable future, let alone once any steps are made to implement the extraction of the UK from the EU.

It is hard in this climate not to feel overwhelmed by pessimism. Staff are not pieces of equipment that can be upgraded or replaced at the click of your fingers. I can make a plan for how to cover a remit that needs 12 staff with 7, but I can’t then tell you how to do it with 5. I can only tell you that if you want the job doing properly it needs 12, and if you go below 7 it won’t be fit for purpose. If I sticky plaster over the cracks, you can pretend that paying for 5 is enough, and that it is the clinicians who are failing, whilst we burn out trying to do twice the amount of work each. But no matter how hard I work, I can’t be in four parts of the country at once, or do recruitment, service development, supervision and provide a clinical service in a part-time job.

Maybe the problem is that I am stubborn. I won’t just toe the line whilst covering my eyes and ears and going lalalalalalala when it comes to everything that isn’t being done. Like my exit point from the NHS, there comes a time where I’d rather leave than do things badly. And where the only efficiency available for me to recommend that fits the prevailing rationale is to pay two cheaper staff instead of my time. I’m teetering on the edge of the plank they’ve made me walk, and I’m increasingly tempted to jump. Maybe in retrospect they’ll recognise how much was getting done with such limited resources.

Siblings, friends and vampire bats: a story of reciprocity

I don’t remember that much of my undergraduate psychology degree. This may be because I wasn’t paying enough attention at the time, or because it was two decades ago, or because I have built so much later knowledge on top of it that the foundations are no longer visible, or some combination of the three. But I do recall that for the most part it didn’t feel that relevant to what I was most interested in – how I could help to alleviate human distress. I didn’t really care much for the mechanics, chemistry or geography of the brain. The seminal experiments that built our knowledge of human behaviour felt more about history than something I could apply in my daily life or future clinical practise. However, one course surprisingly caught my interest: behavioural ecology.

In this class, the text by Krebs and Davies, was a joy to read and full of fascinating insights into how human behaviour is very much just an extension of animal behaviour. Altruism in particular may feel like a sophisticated moral drive, but is in fact just a sensible survival strategy within a community of related individuals. I wrote essays that argued that religion and law were ways to formalise the reciprocity of altruistic behaviour. I particularly remember about vampire bats, and how donating blood to a peer who has not fed is a mutually beneficial strategy within the community. Such apparently selfless acts become a worthwhile investment when there is reciprocity, as one day you may need to be the recipient rather than the donor.

This came into my mind recently when I asked my brother if I could borrow some money. I was surprised that he hardly seemed to think about it before saying yes, until my parents pointed out that I had loaned him money and otherwise put myself out for him many times in the past. Similarly I asked old friends whether I could stay over with them when visiting a different part of the UK, and they were super accommodating to me. Both times it was interesting to have the experience of being the recipient of selfless kindness, as I very rarely make demands on others, despite constantly expecting myself to be a giver (perhaps because I feel that I am lucky enough to have plentiful resources myself both physically and emotionally most of the time). However, it felt very good to be the receiver for a change, and reminded me of the fact that there is pleasure on both sides of the relationship, and that reciprocity is the marker of the best relationships. Being helped is obviously a positive experience, but the act of helping a loved one is also rewarding in and of itself, and makes it more possible to ask for their help in the future.

In the bigger picture, my tendency to be a donor rather than a recipient is also one that I have been thinking about in a work context. I’ve clearly chosen a line of work in which I am acting to support those in need, and where I put some of my own emotional resources into my job. I’ve blogged in the past about times of feeling quite burnt out by my work (particularly my expert witness work for the family courts, as it contains so much grim content about child abuse) and the lack of nourishing and supportive experiences provided by certain employers or employment experiences (where good work doesn’t seem to be valued, and people are expected to live up to unrealistic expectations despite being sabotaged rather than supported to achieve them). I find myself wondering: where is the reciprocity? What do we get back when the positive feedback loops are absent? I read an excellent article about sick systems, and I found parts of it eerily familiar when I think back to my NHS days. I’m not in a sick system now, as I run my own company. Most of the time I can do work I enjoy and be rewarded for it (in terms of positive feedback, thanks and payment), but I do sometimes still feel somewhat exploited. I end up doing lots of committee work, policy documents, best practise papers and making contributions to the work of others (mostly unpaid and in my own time), and often those who promise input to these things, or to my work, don’t deliver. So why do I keep doing it? I wonder whether it is echoes of that culture that I carry with me, or my own unrelenting high standards and expectation I can always be a donor, or some combination of the two…

All change!

Someone once said to me that, if you can manage the stress, change can be an opportunity. They argued that a time of confusion is a good time to put forward ideas that could be seen as potential solutions, as nothing is set in stone yet. Derren Brown (the skilled TV hypnotist, cold-reader, sleight of hand maestro and showman) said something similar when he talked about how confused and stressed people are at their most suggestible. I think he said it whilst persuading bookies at the races that he had won on losing tickets, which was not something I felt was ethical to replicate (even if I had his skill-set) but I do have some anecdotal experiences of this being true. I remember a few years ago going shopping in early December and queuing up to pay in a very busy clothes store. I had a loyalty card which gave a discount for the event at the store, but when I got to the till I couldn’t find it. The poor cashier was on hold to the accounts department to see if they could find my details when, whilst making small-talk, I asked if the discount was the same as the student discount. The cashier then decided it would be easier to put my purchase through as a student discount (which did not require a card number), so that she could deal with me more quickly. Thus I got the discount without the card, and she was able to move on to the next customer. I could see that my comment had unintentionally introduced the potential for an easy win into her mind. Of course as soon as I left the crowded store I was able to find the card, but it made me think about the attractiveness of offering an easy option when the demands are overwhelming. I find this a reassuring concept to think about when the public sector organisations seem to be constantly in a state of organisational change, demands that exceed resources to meet the need, and a pervasive level of uncertainty and confusion! This idea that sometimes a suggestion with serendipitous timing could influence change in a positive direction offered an interesting alternative perspective to my pessimism about how difficult it can be to get even solid, evidence-based, cost-saving ideas accepted into practise (see previous blogs).

I’ve also been talking about the need for change in how I work in my personal development coaching sessions. I’ve previously blogged about feeling a bit burnt out by the emotionally harrowing content of some of my work, the need for me to get better at prioritising and how I am trying to get a better work-life balance. One of my motivations to start the coaching was my sense that I have so many plates spinning I have almost lost track of why I am spinning them and what my goal is. I wanted to re-evaluate what my goals were, and to find the joy in my work again. As I have begun to clear space in my life to reflect on this, I have recognised that my beliefs about what my career would look like have not really kept pace with changes in the public sector and in my own interests and ways of working.

At some level, my template for a good career in psychology was based on my Mum. She worked in child psychology and CAMHS, and was Head of Child Psychology for a county at the point she retired a couple of years ago. I had always assumed that was pretty much how my professional life would pan out. I had qualified in 2000, worked my way up the bands to make Consultant Grade and be part of the CAMHS management team in 2008, and expected to end up as Head of a Child Psychology service somewhere. In metaphorical terms, that was the train journey I bought a ticket for. But something changed when I had kids and went through a lot of stress related to the organisational changes when the CAMHS contract was won by a competing trust and we were TUPEd over. In the end I left the NHS and did something different. In the metaphor, I got off the train. My early plans for my company were very much based on wanting to replicate what I was doing within the NHS, but without the systemic problems I experienced in the NHS trust that I left. So in the metaphor I caught the bus, but I was still headed for the same destination. At various points I meandered, detoured to explore things I had heard about, joined groups to see the local sights, even hiked across country with my own compass, but underneath it all my destination was still the same.

Of course once you are going off the beaten track, sightseeing, hiking and choosing your own route, the journey becomes a bit more scary but much more interesting. In turn, the destination becomes less fixed and also less important, because it can continue to change and there may be steps beyond each destination to another. You can also grow in confidence and tackle bigger challenges and find new things inspiring, so you end up setting goals you had not considered at the beginning of the journey. Once I was off the train, I didn’t need to follow the tracks, or try to make my way by other means to where they led. I didn’t need to replicate CAMHS or to try to set up a LAC service outside the NHS, and I didn’t need to be Head of a Child Psychology service. Indeed I was offered an NHS post with this title last year, which was my expected destination, but I declined the offer. I learnt things about the post that made me concerned that I’d be jumping back into a train on a route where everything was running late and all the passengers were unhappy, whilst I was no longer afraid of being off the rail network and doing my own thing – in fact I had remembered how much I could enjoy the journey if my focus was in the here and now and not about trying to get to the destination ASAP. I started to think of myself as being a much more adventurous person and put my skills to use in much more flexible ways.

Sadly, the kind of NHS I envisaged spending the next 25 years in isn’t there any more, and the jobs at 8C and above bear a lot of the brunt of the change by having to take on the new political and financial pressures, whilst the lower banded staff continue to do much the same work (albeit with increased pressures of throughput and whilst hot-desking). There are good services remaining, and some people will still think that is the best career option for them, and I’m glad about that as I love the NHS and want to see it survive and hopefully thrive in the future with more investment. But for me it isn’t the only option any more. There are other opportunities for adventures outside of the NHS that hang on to my core ethics and values, and put my clinical psychology skills and experiences to good use, but without some of the constraints of the NHS. I can write my own job description, choose my own working pattern and be paid for what I do, rather than on a fixed set of salary points for a set number of hours. Perhaps surprisingly to me, I’ve learnt I’ve got competencies and ideas that are useful and marketable in lots of places. Despite the austerity in the NHS, I continue to have more opportunities and offers of work than I can accept, and some of these are quite well paid. In short, I have learnt that I can actually think much more creatively about what options for my professional life will make me happy if I let go of the template of how I expected my career to be.

With that insight, I’ve got a growing desire to start afresh and do the things that have most impact and bring me most joy. That means I need to look hard at all the options in front of me, and all the plates I have been spinning, and figure out which of those I want to focus on, and which I want to pass on to other people or drop. There may also be entirely new projects that I can develop because they are interesting to me, but I can recognise a future market or source of funding for.

There is big change ahead. But my business is small and agile, I’ve got an entrepreneurial attitude, and I’m lucky enough to have some interesting offers on the horizon. I’m in a position where I can embrace the change, so I am seeing it as an opportunity.

Slow burn: Reflecting on the emotional impact of working with chronic trauma*

*This post contains vignettes of harrowing material which may upset some readers. Case examples are all anonymised.

When I decided to do work in child protection, people warned me it was the fast road to burnout. Twenty years later I think they are right about the direction, if not about the speed.

Burnout is an insidious thing. It sneaks up on you as a chronic accumulation of many tiny things, rather than having an obvious trigger, like a single life threatening event that causes PTSD. A thousand small examples of vicarious traumatisation. Experiences that I shouldn’t complain about as I’ve chosen a career that inevitably brings exposure to distress and tragedy. It feels like I’ve chosen to wade through the grottiest parts of life, until I’m normed on that 1% of stories that cause the most concern. It saturates me. Pollutes my perceptions of life. It has been building up for a long time.

Fifteen years ago my two specialist placements included post abuse work with survivors of sexual abuse, a group for non-abusing parents of children who had been sexually abused and work with “complex” children and families, such as those on the child protection register. I knew it was emotionally harrowing work then. I talked about it with a good friend, and concluded that my drive was to go where I was most needed, to grapple with the most complex cases, and that I’d worry about burnout when I got there. I graduated onto a clinic for children who were “failing to thrive” and most of my clinical time being with Looked After Children and therapeutic work with those who had experienced trauma or maltreatment. Right from the start, it was an induction of fire, salved only by the fact that it was important work that needed to be done.

It started with individual stories.

The sad silent child who ate 7 digestive biscuits and carefully stowed extras in his pockets during clinic, but whose parents claimed he had a digestive disorder that meant he wasn’t gaining weight despite eating plenty.

The young woman with learning disabilities who repeatedly played out how the daddy bear lay on top of the baby bear and thrust, but said baby bear was a liar and nobody believed her when she told.

The adult relatives who revealed at the last moment the sadistic physical and sexual abuse that their step-father inflicted, after he had charmed the professionals enough to get residence of his grand children, when their mother was unable to cope and had reverted to chronic drug use.

The maps of children’s bodies in medical notes, used for annotating injuries, including one for babies. The paediatricians sharing photographs of torn orifices, injuries, malnourishment and legs with rickets. “This one has burns on their hands up to a straight line on their arms, showing they were held in boiling water as a punishment”. No, I don’t want to see, thanks.

The little girl in a religious cult who couldn’t disclose her abuser as she had been taught it was as bad to think or speak badly of others as what they had done, and shown pictures of people rotting in the ground or burning in hell for their sins.

The boy who was conceived through rape, whose mother couldn’t look at him, and whose grandmother thought any challenging behaviour showed he was “living up to his genes”.

A girl asking how she got the zigzag scar on her stomach. The family didn’t want to tell her about how her mother tried to cut her open to let the devil out during a puerperal psychosis. They don’t want to spoil the relationship as she goes to Mum for alternate weekends. When I meet Mum she talked incoherently about spirits and auras, telling me she likes climbing on the roof to be nearer to God. She has no need of adult mental health services, thanks.

The young woman who always claims to be pregnant. Partners are less likely to harm her that way. She is couch surfing at the moment, which is the new name for homeless. Her only possession is a photograph of her son who was removed at birth and adopted. After physical and sexual abuse at home, and attempts to stay with numerous relatives, she grew up in care. She had a sexual relationship with her male carer at 14 which she views as consensual.

Since 2000 I have done expert witness work for the family courts. That means reading bundles of documents about trauma, child abuse, neglect, loss, violence, family breakdowns and mental health problems. It means speaking to parents who have been maltreated in their own lives, lack coping resources and instead of being able to create healthy relationships and flourish have limped from one bad experience to another. It involves speaking to children who have seen too much, had to cope with awful things and missed out on the love and nurture that you’d want every child to take for granted. I read about and sometimes see the state of the home, with rubbish heaped up and rotting, flies circling, dirty nappies on the floor, no clean clothing, nowhere to store possessions and no space that isn’t filled with clutter. I hear about broken bones, bruises, burns, rapes and assaults. Sometimes there are x-rays, photographs or medical records. I see sadness and anger accumulated over many years of getting a raw deal. I measure problems with learning, attention, behaviour, life skills, self-esteem and mental health. I observe who denies the problems, who spills over with them, and who recognises themselves doing as they were done by despite all their best intentions otherwise.

I read, and I listen. I measure and observe. I pull the pieces together to see what fits and what conflicts. It is an active process, trying to understand what happened, how and why. Evaluating insight and future risks. A computer couldn’t be programmed to do this. It takes empathy, curiosity, critical thinking and detective skills. I am the barometer of relationships, of what would feel okay, of what is causing harm. If I felt nothing, I couldn’t do the job. But there is so much pain to feel. So many sad stories.

A little girl with curly dark blond hair who the foster carer told me “shook with excitement to get her own dolly for the first time and promised to keep it pristine so that when mummy gives it to her little sister she will still think it is new”. I nod politely. Take verbatim notes. I have to stop the car on the way home for a cry.

A teenage boy tells me how his father often pinned him up against the wall by his neck or beat him with a belt. He wonders why he dissociates when he perceives threat or criticism now and worries that he is going mad. I try to explain his brain learnt to protect him when nothing else could.

I observe the baby that was rescued from the fire. Her scars are healing slowly, and the medical treatments are painful. She can’t bear to be touched. There is too much pain for someone so young.

A mother tells me how it hurts her watching the foster carer do a better job than she was able to at caring for her children. “I always swore I’d be different to my mum, make better choices of partner than she did, keep my kids safe from harm. I look at where we are now and see it has happened all over again and I can’t bear it”. And neither can I.

A teenage girl tells me she took the overdose because her step-dad broke the door down and overturned the bed to reach where she and her mother were hiding, and hit her mother repeatedly with the broken bed leg. She shrugs and smiles, and says “its just how it is, you know”. I don’t know. But trying to imagine it makes my guts curl and my eyes leak involuntarily.

A mother tells me about the culture she grew up in, and how grateful she is to be here, even though the whole family live in a single room in slum conditions, and it is hard to find work as an illegal immigrant. If her son is hungry, developmentally delayed, and being beaten for misbehaviour at least he is safe. I think that isn’t safe. It is all relative.

A father tells me that his uncle sexually abused him as a young boy, but there was too much stigma to tell anyone and he was afraid to lose this special relationship. He still spends time with his uncle now, and trusts him implicitly with his own children. A few sentences later he says he is baffled why the children are showing sexualised behaviour. I am baffled that other people can’t see how obviously the pieces fit together.

I assess a couple that smell so bad I struggle not to gag. I open the windows but it is not enough. I go out for air every hour. A social worker sprays perfume on my sleeve so I can raise it to my face to mask the smell. I learn the phrase “body odour to an extent causing discomfort to anyone in the proximity”. They don’t own toothbrushes and show me teeth rotting in swollen gums.

A woman tells me she has put on 9 stone as she needs to have fat deeper than the knife blade is long, since she was stabbed by her ex-partner. She wheezes for a long time after climbing the stairs at the contact centre, and she struggles to get down on the floor to play with the baby. I worry when she is slower than expected to return from the toilet, do I need to check if she is okay?

The child was born with HIV. His mother died of it. He lives with his grandmother. She doubts the diagnosis. “He doesn’t look ill, the English doctors don’t know about us”, she says when I ask why his prescriptions have not been collected.

A lady tells me that she must have had post natal depression. If she wasn’t ill she would keep the house clean, but when she is ill she can hardly get out of bed, and gets ideas that the world is very unsafe. That is why she kept the children in her bed with her, rather than sending them to school, until they were no longer able to walk. She’s on antidepressants now, and saw a counsellor for six sessions, so everything will be fine. The social workers are making a fuss about nothing.

A man tells me he has exercised to pass the time whilst in prison. He is proud that he is bigger and tougher than his father now. He says the robbery was the fault of the friends who bought him the beer and suggested the idea, and much exaggerated by the victim. I am glad I brought with a student to observe, as the room is quite isolated and his body language makes me tense.

This couple have managed to sustain the acrimony of their separation for five years. She says he was controlling, violent and obsessive about having every last penny accounted for. She tolerated his promiscuity for far too long. He says she was moody and manipulative, and it is probably her mental health that’s the problem, and her jealousy that he moved onto another relationship. It makes me cross that both of them seem to have forgotten the kids in the middle of their conflict.

A little boy tells me what it felt like to be buggered. I try not to think about it that night in bed. I play tetris on my phone until I fall asleep at 4am.

A woman tells me that all of her relationships have been with men who present a sexual risk with children. They are all so different, she says, that whenever she learns what to avoid the next one is nothing like it. And why wouldn’t you move in with someone you’ve just met? How else do you get somewhere to live after the last relationship has turned sour?

The story stems of a girl of eight show the family repeatedly pushing the girl off a cliff and laughing at her. For variation they poison her and laugh as she vomits. She repeats the loop for 90 minutes, then returns to lying foetal under the table as I leave, just as she was when I arrived.

“I had a cold, mum caught it, and it made her sick so she fell down the stairs” says the boy with autism. “That is why she had to go to hospital”. It wasn’t the head injuries her partner caused, it was his fault. But later in the conversation “Daddy gets out of prison soon. When he finds us he will kill us this time”. It is deadpan. An emotionless fact of life.

The girl in the children’s ward tells me “I didn’t want to go home. I jumped off the bridge because it would be better to be dead. They say I will need to be in hospital at least six weeks whilst my leg heals”. She smiles showing me the metal cage and all the pins reassembling her bones, and counts the pieces in the x-ray. She won’t say what is wrong at home.

“He spat right in my face and pushed me over. I was so angry then. I hit him with the lamp until it broke, then I whipped him with the cable. I could see the shape of the switch in the bruises when I was done. They might have seen it, but that’s not the same. I’d never hurt the children.”

A boy tells me what is different in foster care. “It was the best day ever. We went to the garden centre. I got to look at the fish, and we had a drink and a slice of cake at the cafe. We eat at the table with the grown ups here. I got my own coat too, nobody wore it before me! And my skin is better”. The carers tell me that they had to wash the grime off the bath after he arrived, replace all his clothes and do twice daily treatments of his infected eczema. They had to get a court order to shave off his matted hair as his parents would not give consent.

A five year old girl tells me about the day she came into care. “I could hear they had fish and chips in the front room. I could smell it. I tried to walk there, but my legs weren’t working and I kept falling over”. The medical records show that a visitor called an ambulance when they saw her unconscious and malnourished. Her blood test results are marked with blue biro. Haemoglobin is captioned “how is she alive?”. She dances when she shows me the foster carers have a rabbit run in the garden.

In each family I hear many of these stories from each individual, and I see several families each month for assessment. I’ve been doing this for over a decade now. I have banked hundreds of such narratives, maybe a thousand. All involve a child or children being harmed. The stories are each unique, but the themes recur. James blurs into Joshua and Jared and Jacob. Samira merges with Samantha and Saskia and Sasha. Depression and anxiety, broken bones and bruises, filth and mayhem, conflict and violence, cancer, obesity and sensory impairment, neglect and abuse heap up in my repertoire of human experience and leak out into my life. I see those stories lurking at the edge of my vision, in the arguments partially overheard in the shops, or behind the headlines in the news. I see their echoes amongst people that I know; my neighbours and colleagues and friends.

I set myself impossible standards. I worry if my child has messy hair when she gets back from school, or I notice mud under her fingernails. Will people think we aren’t taking proper care of them? Are we not taking proper care of them? We go to A&E after my daughter burns her hand. I ask her to tell the story before I speak and she says “it was your fault mummy, it was your drink I tipped over”. I feel like a failure and a hypocrite. My cat has a jaw infection and needs teeth removed and antibiotics. I should have known. He smells like the couple I assessed at the social work centre last year.

I say we need to leave the restaurant. I can hear a mother saying “ungrateful brat, I should never have had you” to her son. Outside the school a mother pushing a baby in a pram says to her friend “look at him giving me evils, he’s going to be just like his father”. I walk away. The couple outside the pub argue incoherently and their voices get louder and shriller as we walk back to our car after a night out. The child in the park approaches me and asks me to push him on the swings. People on the internet disclose abuse. In the supermarket I hear a slap and the child is crying. The woman walks past on the street with a fading black eye. They are anonymous and legion. The scale of the problem is overwhelming. I can do nothing.

Friends of friends ask for advice as they have heard I am a psychologist. Its important to try to point people in the right direction, but I am depleted. Another 2 lever arch files arrive at work. Its an incest case and mother is terminally ill. Surely there can be no more stories this bad, but there is a queue awaiting my attention. The next one has police transcripts of the interviews of all of Dad’s victims. He might be a paedophile but his daughter wants to see him anyway. The one after that they want me to see Dad whilst he is in prison for abducting the children to a different country. He believes it is his right; fathers own children in his culture. Then back to the bread and butter of court work, another family where neglect and maltreatment has been the norm through many generations. One of the children is the same age and gender as one of mine. Don’t make comparisons. Don’t go there. Change the subject.

A letter from a solicitor tells me that my invoice has been reduced by the Legal Aid Agency on appraisal. I will get £400 less than the total billed, despite not billing for 6 hours work already because of the fee caps. The hours were “not proportionate”. Do I explain again that it takes longer to do assessments via a translator? I don’t have the energy. Another one is querying the hourly rate. I should work for £7 less if I only see the adults as I won’t be a child psychologist. I ask if a psychiatrist gets paid the rate for a psychotherapist if they don’t diagnose or prescribe. The solicitor is sympathetic but there is nothing they can do. A father doesn’t attend an appointment. I have driven 2 hours to get here, and I wait for an hour whilst phone calls are made, then drive 2 hours home, exhausted. I can do nothing else with my day. Legal Aid say a psychologist can fill their time productively with other activities and refuse to pay anything over travel costs, even though the contract says that they will pay for any appointment cancelled with less than 72 hours notice. I can’t bill for materials, venues or typing. The questionnaires cost an average of £5.31 each. I used 6 per child and there were 7 children in the family. Does it add enough to my report to justify £220 of lost income? The LAA ask what ‘capacity’ is and why it took me 4 hours to assess it. Is it not embarrassing to work for the family court system and not to know this or to have the sense to Google? The self-funding father wants to pay in monthly instalments, but my staff get paid next week. The wealthy mother from abroad hasn’t paid her share of the bill from 4 months ago, but the court wants me to do more work for her case. Why do I do this again?

Tomorrow is the appointment to assess the teenage mother in the mother and baby unit. Yesterday her boyfriend told me about how they met online, and gave me their usernames. Google shows me his dating site entries seeking single mothers, Facebook posts about the violence in their relationship and a video of baby’s “sexy dance”. A solicitor phones. Can I squeeze in one extra case this month? Mother has been evicted. She doesn’t want to see her child and is too anxious to talk to her lawyers. Could I fit the capacity assessment in this week? I get an email. Craig is feeling suicidal. I have reached compassion fatigue. I reply with the phone numbers for the Samaritans and the local crisis service. I turn off my phone and computer and go back to bed.

I am empty. My emotional resources have run out. Is this constant aching tiredness what they call burnout? I run on clockwork. I am a robot Mum and a robot wife. I fall asleep on the sofa. I am exhausted. At night when I finally fall to sleep I dream about children with their eyes sewn shut. I can’t save them all. When I wake I go to work and do it all over again. I’m good at this. It is important. It is needed. It is never ending.

Then I pause and take a few weeks off. The bubble of numbness bursts. I cry watching a video on Youtube. It segues into crying for all the children I’ve met, and all the children someone like me never met or didn’t reach in time, including the parents I speak to so often. I cry with frustration at my own limited reach. I cry for the selfishness of politicians, the broken systems and missing safety nets. I despair at how you increasingly need money to buy justice, and how hopeless and disengaged wide tranches of society are becoming. I click to sign petitions. I donate to campaigns. I counsel compassion in online debates. But I am tired. Achingly tired. Tired in my bones and my guts and my heart. I know how much this needs to be done. And I don’t know what else I can do. But I can’t do this any more.