Is it just me? Every time I hear or see the phrase ‘Dress like a detective’ (that’s every day this month then, as I’ve been doing the SWAN UK Instagram Challenge), I want to sing it to the tune of ‘Walk like an Egyptian’.
No? Just me then. That’s okay, I’m used to not fitting in.
Benjamin and I were in Ikea the other day buying a shower-curtain when a gorgeous, blonde little girl with thick glasses bounced up to us and said ‘What a beautiful baby, I wish we had one!’ I was a bit taken aback because although Benjamin was in his buggy he clearly isn’t a baby any more … and I couldn’t really imagine any ‘normal’ family wishing they had a child like Benjamin, at least not until they got to know him. Then the little girl’s mother joined us and said, ‘And look! He has a feeding tube just like you.’ I started to understand. The little’ girl’s eyes lit up. ‘Wow Mummy,’ she said, ‘That makes three of us. Me, this baby, and my teddy.’
I can’t really describe her delight at finding someone like her. (In the middle of Ikea, of all places). What must it be like to not know anyone ‘like you’ except your teddy? (And all credit to whoever gave that little girl a tube-feeding teddy). To not only not feel ‘normal’, but to not know anyone you could fit in with?
For a long time, Benjamin didn’t fit anywhere either. His physio said he had ‘symptoms of cerebral palsy’ – but not cerebral palsy. His neurologist said he would ‘likely have epilepsy’ – but he didn’t have epilepsy (he does now). His ophthalmologist said he was ‘probably visually impaired’ – but with someone as profoundly disabled as Benjamin he couldn’t actually tell. We didn’t know a child even remotely like Benjamin. I couldn’t find a website or a scientific paper that would tell me how he might develop, how much he would be able to do, how long he might live.
And if Benjamin didn’t fit, I didn’t fit either. Haunted by the innocent yet infernal question, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ I would shy away, mumble something, shuffle my feet, then berate myself for not giving Benjamin the answer he deserved. Having had some success as a researcher in a past life, I turned Benjamin into my latest research project, scouring the internet for matching patterns of symptoms, following citation trails back through obscure journals. Only to find, not only that he didn’t fit, but that I felt like a failure.
In fact, the only place we totally ‘fit’ is SWAN UK (Syndromes Without a Name). We fit here, because everyone is a misfit. All 2,000 families of us. All different, all undiagnosed (or once undiagnosed, or diagnosed with something so rare it might as well be undiagnosed). Finding SWAN UK was, at first, like that little girl finding Benjamin in Ikea. A sudden realisation that we were not the only ones. Over the years since, that sudden realisation has developed into a warm glow of acceptance. A knowledge that whatever hurdle we face, whatever question we have, another SWAN has probably been there already.
Two thousand misfit families finding where they fit is great, it’s fantastic. I am so glad we’re one of them. But – here’s the amazing bit – 6,000 new undiagnosed children are born every year in the UK alone! That’s an awful lot of misfit children and families that don’t have anywhere to fit. That’s an awful lot of mums dancing alone in their kitchens to The Bangles and not knowing that thousands of other mums are dancing along too (or is it still just me?).
That’s why – this Undiagnosed Children’s Day (Friday 28th April 2017) – SWAN UK is asking everyone to become a detective for the day. Help us find the thousands of other misfits out there. Help SWAN UK achieve its ambition of doubling its membership this year. You can help by sharing this post. You can help by tweeting with the hashtag #undiagnosed. You can help by starting a conversation about Undiagnosed Children’s Day. You can (if you like) help by dressing up like a detective (or an Egyptian) and feeling, for yourself, like a total misfit for the day. If you find a family with an undiagnosed child, please point them in this direction (https://www.undiagnosed.org.uk/). If you can’t do any of these things, you can help by donating a small amount to SWAN UK (just text SWAN11 £3 (or any amount up to £10) to 70070). Thank you.
SWAN UK isn’t the solution to all our problems. We’re still no closer to finding the cause of Benjamin’s condition. We’re still never going to be a ‘normal’ family. I’m still an angry old woman who shouts at people parked in disabled bays without a blue badge. I’m still an embarrassment to my children as I dance around the kitchen… but at least I know there’s another mum somewhere doing the same … isn’t there? Isn’t there?