So today the respite and carers' support woman came to visit. "Do you want a cup of tea?" I said as she arrived, automatically moving towards the kettle. "Oh no, no thank you," she said, and, as I looked a bit puzzled, added "I've just had breakfast."
Fair enough, I thought. Although a bit spartan, surely no one really refuses tea because they have just eaten, surely? Anyway, we started our meeting, which I had been pre-warned would be a marathon (it took three hours, in the end, which was shorter than expected). After about an hour, I asked again. "Would you like some tea now?" "No, no it's fine," she said, and carried on talking. I looked at her dubiously. My mind is still running on science fiction. Was this perhaps some robot impersonating a human being? Or if not, and she was for real, did this mean bad things for my assessment, could a woman who could refuse tea really understand the challenges of life with three differently abled children, I mean if she didn't need tea then what else didn't she need? Oxygen? Sleep? After a few minutes' thought, I realised dimly that possibly this was a cultural difference rather than a REALLY WEIRD PERSON WHO OUGHT NOT TO BE IN MY HOUSE - and then, thinking about it, realised that everyone who had accepted a cup of tea on arrival came from Europe or the UK. (Except the South Africans, who wanted rooibos). New Zealanders, they just don't do tea in quite the same ubiquitous way.
The culture shock didn't stop there.
About halfway through the meeting, the same (very nice, very helpful, going-to-get-us-some-support-she-thinks) woman started explaining some of the arcane distinctions used by the Ministry of Health in assessing care needs. Apparently some bureaucrats in an office somewhere have decided that personal care budgets (as opposed to carer support hours, which are more generously allocated) aren't needed for children with "just" ASD. As she told me this, she laughed uproariously. "There is this CRAZY ruling..." was her exact wording, as if the idea of thousands of families left without much-needed support was the funniest concept since Blackadder first hit on the idea of hitting Baldrick.
I was - to be frank - somewhat taken aback. This was MY needs she was talking about, after all. Was it really so funny? And then I remembered the staff at my eldest's school, laughing hysterically whilst using exactly the same language "We have the CRAZIEST system" to explain to me why if I potty-trained my middle son he wouldn't get any help whatsoever when he started school.
In England there wouldn't be any laughter. We'd moan, and get depressed. We'd look frustratedly at each other, shaking our heads in mutual disgust at the dreadful despicable behaviour of a government or local council that was clearly inhuman, cruel, with distorted views on what was right or wrong. We would use words like "disgraceful" "disgusting," to each other, and get into a right old self-righteous rage about it all for a few minutes, bonding over the evils of government rationing with a moral fervour that likens those who are denying us funding to Ghengis Khan, or Stalin. And then we'd go to our doctors and ask for Prozac to enable us to cope with it all.
There were other comic similarities with New Zealand meetings I have had previously. "Ooh, Global Developmental Delay," she said with sudden enthusiasm, laughing, exactly as the school SENCO had done, almost punching the air with delight when I said that my middle son was still in nappies. "Not ASD, much more global. Oh, that's great, that will really help with the personal care side of things." Delighted as I am with the news that our application for help could be successful, it is still rather startling to have the details of your son's disability/delay treated with the same excitement as the All Blacks scoring in the last few moments of a game. But that is the nature of this Alice-in-Wonderland world of carer support, where your child's failures are the currency, the more the better. And to be honest, it is quite funny, in a mad upside down sort of way. Woo-hoo! I hit the jackpot! I got three of them, how many carers' hours do I win? You can't help but laugh at the insanity and upside-downness of it all.
I guess if I was the kind of person who didn't crack jokes, who didn't laugh wryly and hysterically as I described the limitations and complexities of our lives, I might find the laughter and enthusiasm offensive. But actually, I think I recognise it for what it is - a coping strategy, a different one from the English self-righteous "the-end-of-civilisation-is-upon-us" response to scarcity of funds, but not necessarily a worse one. Plus, on an intellectual level I kind of like the humorous approach, the idea that such-and-such a policy is just too crazy to be anything but a joke. Of course, it would be even better if it wasn't a joke at our children's expense, rather as Blackadder is great fun unless you are Baldrick. There's that famous moment in Blackadder Goes Forth - final episode, set in World War One - where the comedy turns to eerie, deathly silence as the soldiers crack their last joke, then head over the top to sudden death. The comedy is ripped apart in the final seconds of the series by something that - we viewers belatedly recognise - has been there all along, but we didn't manage to see. There's a similar moment in White Van Man, recent BBC comedy, and again the poignancy rips the comedy apart, silences the viewer. It is paradoxical, and uncomfortable. It makes us think about the limitations and ruthless one-sidedness of the comic process, the way it distorts reality to make it funny, eliminating much of the
pathos along the way. For this reason, I have mixed feelings about all the laughter I am meeting here.
Part of me really likes the upbeat, joky framework that New Zealanders I have met seem to bring to these disability conversations and assessments. It makes the whole thing easier. In an upsetting meeting such as today, where I was brought to tears more than once, it was helpful to have the laughter too. But laughter and tears are uneasy bedfellows. The endings of Blackadder and White Van Man are uncomfortable and incongruous, they make us feel uneasy for having laughed before. Part of me worries that laughter may conceal pain. In a land where, like the UK, resources are stretched paper-thin, there may be times when things are crazy in the wrong, dreadful way, because if children aren't being given the help they need that is just full-stop dreadful, and the upbeat, comedy approach may make it harder for some to admit just how hard things are. Some things I found today were just too hard, too upsetting and personal to raise, I preferred to put them in an email afterwards. Usually I don't have that problem. Did the joky approach we took together mean I was inhibited from baring my soul? Yes, I think so, a bit. Laughter can be a defence mechanism, in an unhelpful and denial-friendly sort of way.
There's also a political dimension. Can laughter be subversive? Yes. Satire can change the world. Can laughing at the craziness make it easier to cope with? Certainly. Does that not, just possibly, make these crazinesses easier to accept, easier not to protest against? Is it possibly, here, a tool towards acceptance of an oppressive or discriminatory status quo, political submissiveness or conformity? Hmm. It might do. Not sure. Hell, I don't want to write New Zealand off as a static conformist society with no appetite for social renewal and development, I've only lived here two months.
Anyway. The good news is that she wanted to help us. Baldrick-style, she has an as yet-unrevealed cunning plan, but if she's right will enable us to getquite a bit of help. I do hope that it doesn't involve turnips or being hit on the head. Anyway, I used the opportunity to address my own culture shock and do my best to integrate myself into this new society. It took great self-control, but I managed to let her leave the house without offering her any more tea.