Aspie Daddy

Welcome to Aspie Daddy, the website of Gillan Drew, author of An Adult With An Autism Diagnosis: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed. Here I blog about autism and parenting and whatever else takes my fancy.

I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at 28, and now nearing forty, I live with my autistic wife and two infant daughters on the border of Dorset and Hampshire.

If you get the chance, check out my fiction website The Struggling Writer where you can read some short stories and novel extracts and some of my rants about writing.

Thanks for dropping by.

Gillan

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How to get a baby to sleep

When people ask me how I am these days, I tend to answer the same way. I point at my fourteen-month-old and say, ‘For the past two months, this one has been staying up till at least midnight every night, often till two or three in the morning, and I have no idea how to get her to sleep. All she does is scream and scream. I’ve not had a single night off in over a year and I’m physically and emotionally wrecked.’

I figured that response was fine, since it was true. However, since I can hear like a bat, I’ve started noticing people talking about me in other rooms – family and friends and whatnot – saying how I’m always moaning, I’m never happy, I’m always going on about how tired I am, etc., etc. Yes, I have become ‘that guy’. Sucks to be me.

But it’s a real problem nonetheless. She’s too young to be disciplined, threatened, bribed or reasoned with; too old to cry herself to sleep because she can stand up – and special as she is, stand-sleeping is beyond her.

Since I’m clearly not allowed to be honest, and my family, friends and whatnot don’t have the insight to realise my moaning is a cry for help, I thought I would offer the pearls of my wisdom to other parents who find themselves in a similar position: stuck with a screaming child that won’t sleep, and clinging to the end of their rope by a single breaking fingernail.

Here are the tactics and the techniques I’ve tried, considered and/or been recommended to get my daughter to sleep. Use them wisely and with a pinch of salt.

1. Don’t let her nap during the day.

Upsides: It makes her tired.

Downsides: By ‘tired’ I mean ‘cranky’. You get no down time during the day, and now she’s too irritable to sleep.

Overall verdict: Counterintuitively, kids need to be less tired to sleep, so a baby who has regular naps and is well rested goes to bed easier than one who is exhausted. The more you know.

2. Move her bedtime back a couple of hours.

Upsides: You defer the problem till later.

Downsides: You defer the problem till later.

Overall verdict: You still have to face the horrors of bedtime, only now your kid is even more tired and irritable

3. Let her stay up till she goes to sleep naturally.

Upsides: You don’t have to do anything.

Downsides: Where the hell is my evening?

Overall verdict: Who’s the parent here anyway?

4. Give her a bath.

Upsides: It’s fun!

Downsides: It’s too much fun. She’s more awake when she gets out than when she got in.

Overall verdict: A great way to kill an hour. Not a great way to get her to sleep.

5. Leave her to ‘cry it out’.

Upsides: None.

Downsides: It wakes up the rest of the household and makes you want to die. After ten minutes, she’s choking and hyperventilating and it then takes you thirty minutes to calm her down, which makes it counterproductive anyway.

Overall verdict: Might work with earplugs and sociopaths, but painful for all concerned.

6. Shout and scream right back.

Upsides: It feels good.

Downsides: It doesn’t help get her to sleep.

Overall verdict: The only people you should be shouting at are reality TV stars and politicians. Or when they’re both.

7. Take her for a drive.

Upsides: You get to see interesting places, people and wildlife, and avoid watching teleshopping.

Downsides: When you get home after an hour speeding around the countryside, she’s more awake than you are.

Overall verdict: Save your petrol money, pay for a nanny.

8. Take her for a walk.

On these mean streets? In the dark? You must be joking.

9. Give her Calpol.

Upsides: When she’s ill, it soothes her enough to sleep.

Downsides: Unless she’s ill, why are you giving your kid painkillers, you psycho? It’s not a freaking sedative!

Overall verdict: If you think drugging your kids to make your life easier is acceptable, you’re at the top of a slippery slope that leads to sprinkling benzos on their breakfast cereal and fixing their ouchies with ketamine.

10. Spike her evening milk with rum/gin/whisky.

Upsides: Your elderly relatives will respect you for following their advice.

Downsides: Are you freaking kidding me?

Overall verdict: If you think drugging your kids to make your life easier is acceptable…

11. Cuddle her on the sofa.

Upsides: It’s nice, she goes to sleep, and you get to catch up on a box set..

Downsides: It is physically impossible to get her from the sofa to her cot without her waking up and starting to scream.

Overall verdict: It’s great for killing time on the long evenings when she just won’t settle, but you’re simply deferring the problem till later. And worse, now she’s slept for a few minutes, she uses it as a springboard to propel her past midnight and into the early hours. Depends how much you want to catch up on Game of Thrones, I suppose.

12. Rock her in your arms.

Upsides: Really effective and gives you biceps like Dwayne Johnson.

Downsides: Cramp, boredom, and you’re still left with the problem of transferring her into the cot.

Overall verdict: Can work if she’s really tired, but if she’s not, get ready for her eyes to pop open and her lungs to fill during the transition.

13. Sing to her.

Upsides: You get to practice your aria with an uncritical listener.

Downsides: Pretty hard to get the right pitch and intonation when someone’s screaming at you.

Overall verdict: It can work, but you’d better keep singing because the second you stop, she’s going to give you feedback, and you probably won’t like what you hear.

14. Read to her.

Upsides: You get to do something interesting and she gets to work on her grammar.

Downsides: You have to have the light on. And even if she does fall asleep, you face the awkward prospect of having to get up and creep across the creaky floorboards without waking her up.

Overall verdict: quite good, but it can take a long, long, LONG time.

15. Stay in the room with her.

Upsides: You get to sit there and completely ignore her. You have the power!

Downsides: If she’s anything like my kid, she starts off quiet, then starts talking, then starts shouting, crying, screaming, choking, hyperventilating and then dying, until you have to sort her out. End result: she wins.

Overall verdict: She wins.

16. Bring her into your bed for the start of the night.

Upsides: She goes to sleep happily and easily.

Downsides: You still have to transfer her back to the cot, and since she’s been so happy and comfortable, it makes her doubly angry when she wakes up mid-transition and even less likely to settle.

Overall verdict: It’s better to avoid the aggro.

17. Bring her into your bed for the whole night.

Upsides: The easiest technique of all.

Downsides: Where do I begin? You have the same bedtime as a baby; you’re going to get kicked in the nuts and punched in the neck half of the night; babies are a real passion-killer; you’re paranoid you’re going to roll over and squash her.

Overall verdict: Don’t. Do. It. Once you’ve started, how and when do you stop? It might seem like the easy option in the short term, but do you really want your ten-year-old still sharing a bed with you because she never learnt to sleep by herself? Jesus, cut the apron strings.

18. Give her a relaxing massage.

Upsides: A great way to bond with your child.

Downsides: She giggles the entire time like it’s the funniest thing ever, which isn’t relaxing at all.

Overall verdict: If laughter makes you sleepy, go right ahead. If you’re normal, might be best to skip this one.

19. Give her a slap.

Upsides: I’m not even going there.

Downsides: If you want her to stop screaming, slapping her probably won’t achieve that. Well, I guess it depends how hard you slap…

Overall verdict: Not an effective tool for bedtime, or daytime, or any time, actually, unless you like the look of prison.

20. Knock yourself unconscious.

Upsides: You sleep.

Downsides: She doesn’t.

Overall verdict: Doesn’t solve the problem.

21. Put her on her back in the cot, slip your arm through the slats, place your hand on her chest and pin her to the mattress.

Upsides: You’re in the room with her; you’re in physical contact with her; she can hold onto your hand; she’s reassured that she’s not been left alone; she’s lying down and can’t stand up; when she whines you can rock her gently; you can sing to her at the same time; and eventually when she goes to sleep, you don’t have to transfer her because she’s already asleep in her cot. Job done!

Downsides: This can take up to forty-five minutes; depending on the size of your forearms and the gap between the bars, your arm will probably ache after three; once she’s asleep you’re faced with slowly removing your hand from her chest without waking her and you still have to get out of the room; and if she isn’t tired after all, you’ve just wasted three-quarters of an hour.

Overall verdict: It works. It’s time-consuming and labour intensive, but my God, it works. Most of the time. And it’s the only way I’ve figured out to get her to sleep these days. You might as well try it – what have you got to lose?

Spare me the armchair experts!

My wife has just had a knee operation, which means she’s on crutches for the next fortnight. Having been out of hospital a full two days, we have been bombarded with visitors who all seem to know everything there is to know about knee operations and how best to recover from them. Which is good, because the next person who offers an unsolicited, unqualified opinion will need all their medical expertise to extract their own leg after I rip it off and shove it up their ass.

Now, I don’t profess to being medically trained. True, I spent six months working in an old people’s home as a medication technician, six months as a student nurse, six months as a medical secretary and a year as a doctor’s receptionist, and am the son of a pharmacy technician who spent every mealtime of my childhood talking about pharmaceuticals, but still, I don’t consider myself an expert because I’m not. I do, however, consider myself sensible in matters of healthcare – enough at least to be able to sift the nuggets from the bullshit, and where I am ignorant, trust the advice of those better qualified than me. I just wish others had a similar awareness of their own limitations.

‘How long did the operation take?’

‘Two hours.’

‘Oh, no, it wouldn’t have taken that long.’

‘It took two hours.’

‘No, it would’ve been an hour tops.’

‘Well, the surgeon told her afterwards that it took two hours.’

‘No, it would’ve taken an hour.’

‘Well, you know what? I’m going to trust the surgeon because I’m pretty sure he’s the one to know.’

Same with the stitches. ‘How many did she have?’

‘Two.’

‘Two? It must have been more than two.’

‘No, it was keyhole surgery. Two stitches, that’s all.’

‘No, she definitely had more than two.’

‘Would you like me to get the discharge summary and we can see who’s right?’

Then there’s the recovery period. She’s been told she won’t be able to drive for two weeks.

‘Oh, it’ll be much longer than two weeks.’

‘Or we could trust the experts and see how it goes, yeah?’

‘It’ll be longer than two weeks, you’ll see.’

Grrrrrr!

They’re also experts at how to navigate with a reconstructed knee.

‘When you go upstairs, you should do it backwards by sitting down and using your good leg to propel you up one step at a time.’

‘That’s not how the physiotherapist showed her how to do it.’

‘Well that’s how I’d do it. That’s what she should do.’

I’ll admit, I lost it a bit. ‘Or, how about this for a novel idea – why doesn’t she do it the way the medical professionals told her to do it? You know, the ones trained in anatomy and physiology who are experts in post-operative recovery.’

‘Alright, alright, I was only making a suggestion.’

‘A suggestion that would involve her dragging her bad leg up the stairs? Why don’t we just stick to the things we know about, yeah?’

I’m off that Christmas Card list!

Same with the meds – everyone and their grandmother thinks they’re a freaking expert.

‘What’s she taking for the pain?’

‘Paracetamol and Ibuprofen.’

‘Oh, there’s no point using Paracetamol, it’s not strong enough – I’ll get you some Nurofen.’

‘She’s already taking Ibuprofen.’

‘Well, she should try Nurofen.’

‘Nurofen IS Ibuprofen. They’re literally the same drug, only one’s four times the price.’

‘Well, Nurofen’s better than Paracetamol.’

‘You’re comparing apples and oranges. Paracetamol and Ibuprofen do different things in different ways – one’s a painkiller, one’s a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory. Anyway, the hospital said to take both.’

‘Well, it’d be better if she was taking Nurofen. I’ll get you some.’

Good Lord, it’s like talking to a brick wall. There again, why would I expect anything more from a person who, whenever we have colds, gets cross with us for not following her advice to take 5000% of the daily recommended dose of Vitamin C?*

Frankly, I am amazed there are so many trained pharmacists, physicians, surgeons and physiotherapists hanging around in a little village in the New Forest working as farmers, cleaners, baristas and shopkeepers instead of, you know, pharmacists, physicians, surgeons and physiotherapists.

I’ll tell you one thing though – for people so concerned with health, they’re taking massive risks with it – every time they open their mouths near me!

*If you’re interested in why this is so ridicuhous, the human body can only absorb a finite amount of Vitamin C and it pisses out the rest, but exceeding the daily recommended dose by so much risks diarrhoea, nausea and in extreme cases of prolonged use, kidney stones or even renal failure. And that’s before we bring up the fact that there’s no evidence Vitamin C shortens colds. Admittedly, there is some evidence to suggest that it can make cold symptoms less severe, but only if you start taking it before you’re aware you have a cold. Drinking down five effervescent Vitamin C tablets every day because you have a sniffle isn’t going to improve your lot in life other than by the placebo effect. But hey, why would I bother saying all this to someone who thinks Nurofen is better than Ibuprofen because it’s in a flashier box with a higher price tag?

 

 

NEVER tell me I have ‘man flu’

What is the most sexist, unsympathetic, demeaning thing you can say to a guy when he’s ill?

Call it ‘man flu’.

I just slammed the door in my neighbour’s face for exactly this reason, and do I feel bad for such unwelcoming behaviour? In all honesty, no. No I do not.

Let me explain why this sort of thing pisses me off. I generally do a 17-18 hour day looking after a one-year-old and a three-year-old, regardless of how I’m feeling. Oftentimes, it’s a great deal more than that. The last four nights my little one stayed up till 3am, 2.15am, midnight, and 2am. On two of those nights, the other one got me up at 4. Why? Because they’ve both got coughs and colds and are feeling too unwell to sleep. I kid you not, my clothes are held together by snot stains and phlegm.

It doesn’t matter if I only snatch a couple of hours sleep – I get up at 7am to change nappies and wipe arses, get others dressed and breakfasted before myself. I play mind-numbing games, take the kids swimming, give them baths, cuddle them, read them stories, cook them lunch and dinner, drive around trying to get them to sleep. I can’t even take a shit by myself anymore.

Which is funny considering I’ve caught my youngest’s upset stomach and had to sit on the toilet eight times yesterday. The human body just can’t take that kind of pressure indefinitely. Something’s got to give, and it has.

Today I’ve woken up exhausted, with a headache, sore throat, pink eyes, runny nose and blocked ears, and I feel like a piece of crap mushed into a taxi’s floor mat. But I still got up, got the kids dressed and fed, took them swimming, brought them home, got them lunch…and then there was a knock at the door.

My neighbour looked at me and the first thing she said was, ‘Are you unwell?’ because I clearly look like shit.

‘I feel awful,’ I said.

‘Oh, poor you,’ she replied sarcastically. ‘What is it, man flu?’

I’ll tell you, she got off lightly with a door slammed in her face.

How did society reach a point where it’s deemed okay to mock somebody who is feeling unwell purely because of their sex? I’m talking to women, because it’s only women who do this, such as my wife, mother-in-law, my neighbour, work colleagues, casual acquaintances, TV shows, adverts – exactly how can you justify mocking people for being ill? If you wouldn’t mock a woman in the same way, why not? And what kind of person does that make you?

I know there’s going to be a section of people out there reading this who’ll say, ‘Well, women had it bad for ages, so suck it up, dude,’ but if such people can’t see the irony in combating sexism by being sexist, then you’re too stupid to be reading my site. I have never mocked anybody, male or female, for being unwell. Why would I? It’s just plain rude.

It’s part of a wider trend of belittling, ugly, anti-male rhetoric that you see out there. Explain something to a woman? You’re mansplaining. Interrupt a woman? You’re manterrupting. Because of course, only men talk down to people or interrupt them.

What the hell has sex got to do with anything? If someone talks down to you or interrupts you, it’s not a male thing – it’s an asshole thing. If a woman talks down to me or interrupts me, I don’t immediately infer it’s because of her sex and use some bullshit, made-up word like womansplaining or womanterruption. You know why? Because neither sex has a monopoly on assholes.

And besides, we already have perfectly good words for these behaviours that don’t try and divide us as people – ‘condescending’ and ‘interrupting’. And there’s a great, inoffensive word you can use when I man is feeling ill that doesn’t belittle him – ‘ill’.

Seriously, I believe in equality. We all have the right to be treated equally and have the same opportunities, regardless of our sex, ethnicity, religion or sexuality. There are, undoubtedly, areas in which women are unjustly discriminated against, just as there are those in which men are unjustly discriminated against (but you’re pretty unlikely to read about that anywhere), but if you believe that ‘raising women up’ to be equal to men is synonymous with ‘pulling men down’, then you’re part of the reason we live in such a fractured, divided society.

Now I’m going to get on with my afternoon, ill or not, knowing I’ve probably got another thirteen hours before I can crawl into bed.

Rant over.

Imaginative play and the autistic male

Oh my gosh, my daughter is driving me insane. Now nearing three-and-a-half, she has reached the stage where imaginative play is pretty much the only thing she wants to do, and my life has consequently devolved into an endless game of mummies and babies, doctors and nurses, car journeys, shopping trips, picnics and tea parties, and I honestly don’t know how much more I can take.

I don’t mind playing with her. I like building towers out of wooden blocks and playing with her toy trains. I like sword-fighting with her and doing flash cards and making up songs. It’s the pretending games I can’t stand.

When I spend all day and much of the night looking after a real baby, I have little interest in looking after a plastic one. When the only thing I do that isn’t looking after a baby is driving to the shops to go food shopping, it’s a real struggle to get motivated about driving an imaginary car to an imaginary supermarket to buy imaginary items with imaginary money. And I have no idea how many cups of air I’ve drunk, or wooden finger cakes I’ve scoffed, but if they were real I’d bankrupt the NHS with my soaring blood sugar and endless bladder problems.

Ironically, the easiest one to bear is being a patient in hospital.

‘Daddy, please can you play doctors with me?’

‘Do I have to do anything other than lie on the sofa?’

‘No. You got a dinosaur in your tummy and I got to cut it out and make you better.’

‘Fine, knock yourself out. I’ll just close my eyes for a minute…’

At the other end of the scale, the hardest is when she decides the four square feet between the back of the armchair and the wall is her house, and I’m her neighbour, who lives in the main part of the lounge, because she always invites me over for dance parties where I’m expected to shake my booty.

‘How about you come over to my house, where there’s much  more room?’

‘Coz it’s my party in my house.’

‘But why don’t we pretend this much bigger space is your house?’

‘Because this is my house and you need to be dancing!’

So I squeeze myself in and simply shift my weight from foot to foot, because that’s all I can do. You want to know where I get my ‘dad dancing’ from? It’s here. This. Especially when it’s to Justin freaking Fletcher. (Although to be fair, his version of ‘What does the Fox say?’ isn’t the worst song I’ve ever heard, even if my daughter sings it as, ‘Why does the fuck’s sake!’)

And she gets so into her games that anybody not buying into her reality gets short shrift.

‘The drawbridge is closed, you can’t come through here!’

‘But my coffee’s on the windowsill.’

‘You can’t come in.’

‘Well, I am because I’m going to get my coffee.’

‘No, you can’t come in, no, NO!’ Cue screaming, shouting, crying, trying to block me, holding onto my ankle as I drag her behind me across the lounge (‘You’re in the moat! You’re in the moat!’) to get my gosh-darned drink. It’s excruciating and it never seems to end.

Now, I imagine many parents have this problem, but for once I’m going to play the autism card and say, ‘I just can’t do it, and it’s because of my autism.’

I have NEVER got imaginative play, even when I was young enough to enjoy it. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I understood my own play – it was other people’s imaginative play I couldn’t get.

I’d treat my own toys as though they had thoughts and feelings. I once dragged my mother all the way back to playschool because I left my imaginary pet rabbit there. But give the same suspension of disbelief to other people’s toys and games? I didn’t have the ability.

That’s why at nursery, I’d wander straight through the middle of the farmyard the other kids had set up and not understand why they were now angry and upset – they were just pieces of plastic. That’s why I had no problem breaking my brother’s toys – they had no feelings, although he clearly did, and I’d invariably feel bad (and confused) a moment afterwards when I saw his tears. I was simply unable to appreciate that others could have the same emotional attachment to their toys and games as I did to mine – a fundamental inability to understand how other people think and feel.

And that’s why I’m struggling so much right now. I just don’t get that my daughter is investing her emotions into an imaginative reality.

However, while I might not get it, I can understand it at an intellectual level and adjust my behaviour accordingly. I know that imaginative play is important in child development, and I know that for the benefit of her emotional wellbeing, not to mention our relationship, I have to pretend that the things that are important to her are also important to me. So that’s what I do, as painful as it is.

The best way of surviving it? Biblical levels of sarcasm that she’s too young to understand.

‘What’s that? You want me to keep my voice down so I don’t wake your baby? Gosh, I wish she was just a cheap piece of hardened petrochemically-derived organic polymers, but since she’s clearly a real baby, then okay, honey, I’ll be quiet.’

‘What? Your baby has a poorly knee? Oh poor her, what an absolute tragedy. I’d better drop everything and see to it right away because it’s definitely so much more important than anything I was doing.’

‘I can’t come through here because it’s on fire? Well, let me check what’s on my utility belt, shall I? Wow, what do you know? I just so happen to have a fireproof suit I can put on. Holy asbestosis, Batman! Now get out of my way.’

Of course, if she learns to detect disingenuousness before she grows out of this imaginative phase, I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do!

Bullying: An Undiagnosed Aspie at School

My little (neurotypical) daughter is now three, and by January we have to select her schools. I had thought that this would be easy – have a look at them, decide which is best, and apply – but what I hadn’t counted on was how much my own experiences of school would colour my thinking, or how this process would stir up all the unpleasant emotional and psychological shit that has lain buried inside me for twenty years.

There are two schools in particular that we’re looking at, one small and with more of a personal focus, the other big and more academic. Both of them fill me with dread.

At the big, academic school there’ll be plenty of kids for my daughter to make friends with, but the environment is less supportive. In the small school, she’ll be better looked after, but if the other kids turn on her and she’s the one who’s the outsider then there’ll be nowhere to hide.

In all honesty, I don’t care about the academic standing of either – I care about my daughter’s happiness and emotional wellbeing, and the damage that can be caused by making the wrong decision.

As you’ve probably inferred by now, I hated school. I found the other children silly and immature. I couldn’t relate to them or their games. I preferred hanging around with the teachers and the dinner ladies. Sometimes I took teddy bears to school and played with them instead because they were easier to understand. That’s when I wasn’t collecting insects or classifying all the trees, or crying all the time at the slightest provocation.

When I was seven we moved house and I changed schools. I decided that I didn’t want to be known as a crybaby, so every time I got upset I forced the feelings inwards. I hated sitting with the other kids in lessons, preferring a seat by myself while all the rest were chatting and playing. At breaktimes I’d join in with the games, but mostly I’d keep up a stream of narration, pretending I was a commentator observing the people around me. Always separate, even when I was part of the whole.

I always preferred my own company. If it was a wet break I  could stay in and draw a picture or read a book – infinitely better than mixing with others. People made fun of me for my interests and good behaviour and excellence at schoolwork, laughed at my complete lack of sporting prowess. I had spiky hair, goofy tooth, and massive plastic glasses. Whenever somebody called me names or wouldn’t let me play with them or tried to force me into being naughty, I inwardly wept.

Being told off by the teachers – normally for things that other people had done and blamed on me – was an indignity I dwelt on for days. That was when I wasn’t correcting their spelling, pointing out mistakes in the maths textbooks, or telling them every intimate detail of my life.

Every morning I’d tell my mum I had a funny feeling in my tummy, and every morning she’d say, ‘Just go and see how you feel. If it gets worse they can always ring me to come and pick you up.’ But of course, they never did.

I always knew that I was different. I was constantly moody, constantly confused and just wanted to be left alone. But none of that really bothered me until I was ten, when I started to want friends but realised I was unable to have them.

My brother always seemed to have it easier. He just drifted through school without any struggles. He could make friends with anybody, and normally did. He was always out on his bike, off to the cinema, heading to parties. Sometimes my parents made him take me along, something he hated only slightly more than I did – I had my pride.

I often asked when I would have friends like my brother did. ‘When you get to secondary school,’ my mum used to say. ‘You’ll make plenty of friends there.’

My father was less optimistic. He constantly stressed how I needed to learn how to get on with people or else I wouldn’t cope with life. I think they were terrified that I was different and desperate for me to be normal. They started sending me to Christian boys’ camps in the summer, hoping I would build my character and somehow learn to socialise. They were abject lessons in just how incapable I was of functioning in a group of my peers. I came home from them bruised and scarred and even more aware of my utter ineptitude.

It was when I started secondary school at age 12, an institution of 1500 kids that taught you your only value was in your grades, that everything went to hell. Lessons were bad but survivable – people would steal my pencil case, snap my rulers, stab me with compass needles and squirt ink on my shirt, but there was never a shortage of people wanting to sit by me so they could copy. It was the breaktimes that broke me down.

I hung around with people I’d been to middle school with – people who hadn’t actually liked me for the past few years and now, to impress their new friends, showed off their disdain at every opportunity. I was the guy to push, the guy to throw things at, the guy to trip up in the mud; I was the guy to call names, to run away and hide from, to spread rumours about and laugh at. I wasn’t handsome or cool or popular – I was what they called a ‘gorm’, short for ‘gormless’ – a nerdy, geeky swot, teacher’s pet, loser. Sometimes they’d take turns spitting on me – thick, snotty loogies on my bag, on my back, even in my face.

If ever I stood up for myself, which was rare, I’d make threats I had no possibility of following through with. They’d simply threaten to beat the crap out of me, so I did nothing, and let my pride, my dignity and my self-esteem sink into the earth beneath my feet, where I wished I could curl up and die. Looking back, I’d have preferred them to beat me – those wounds heal. The wounds they gave me can last a lifetime.

Those twenty minutes a day killed me.

Luckily, we lived opposite the back gate of the school so I was able to go home for lunch. That was my lifeline. Without it, I don’t know how I’d have survived. I sat by myself, ate some lunch, recharged my batteries to face the afternoon. And, most importantly, I didn’t have to mix with anybody else.

I put up with this crap for a year. One whole year. Until, one week before the school year ended, I started hanging around with a boy that I will call Judas.

I don’t know how it came about that we hung out together. We sat next to one another in most of our classes, and I thought he was pretty darned awesome. He was intelligent, like me, but he was also sporty, which made him well-liked. For whatever reason, we hung out together at morning break, and then the next day. The following day, I even stayed at school for lunch, and the next, before we broke up for the summer holidays. For four days I had a friend.

My God, I was happy. If this was what it meant to have a friend, then I now knew everything I’d been missing out on, and everything that everyone else seemed to have. In the rain-drenched misery among the bullies at boys’ camp, I looked forward to the new term, not with horror and apprehension, but with a sense of anticipation, because now I had a friend!

The first day back at school, Monday morning, second period – art. I sat next to Judas like the cat that got the cream. I was so excited to catch up, so excited for the future. It felt so good to be normal.

When the bell went for morning break, I almost burst with excitement. He turned to me and said, ‘See you after break,’ and walked out of the room.

I thought it was a joke. I followed him at a distance, and when he stepped outside I jumped out at him.

‘Ha ha, surprised you!’

He glared at me. ‘I said I’d see you after break.’

‘Yeah, funny,’ I said, still thinking it was some kind of joke I just didn’t understand.

He stopped walking. ‘No, I’m serious, Gillan,’ he said. ‘Just piss off. I’ve got some new friends now.’

And he walked on.

I followed him again, unsure just what was happening. He walked up to a group of lads – football lads. He’d made new friends over the holidays and they didn’t include me.

I don’t think I have ever felt so alone.

Near where they stood were my old ‘friends’. I wouldn’t go back to them, no way. I was desperate, but not that desperate.

I saw a kid I’d known at middle school – Lucifer, we’ll call him – with a group of kids I didn’t know, and decided I’d try to hang with him, just for today, just so I wouldn’t have to be alone. In truth, he was a bully and had been the scourge of the middle school, but he’d always gone easy on me, possibly because there was no fun in beating on the developmentally disabled kid, albeit undiagnosed, and possibly because the one time he’d tried to put me in a headlock, I’d panicked and in a flurry of punches knocked him on his ass.

Anyway, Lucifer and his friends were all eating slices of pizza from the cafeteria. I was caught in the midst of despair, and not having a clue about how to approach people, I simply walked straight up to him and said, ‘Lucifer, can I have some of your pizza?’

He reacted as though I’d asked to sleep with his sister. I’ve never seen a face show such disdain. With an evil, mocking sneer, he hissed, ‘You fucking skank,’ and with a wall of expletives he ripped a chunk off his pizza and threw it in my face. His friends laughed, and some smiling, some sneering, ripped pieces off their pizzas and threw them at me too, shouting and swearing and laughing.

Everybody turned to look – my old friends, Judas and his new friends – everyone.

I did what I’d sworn not to – I cried. But I hid it well. Holding my head up high, I turned and strolled away from the mockery, bits of tomato sauce on my cheeks, pretending I wasn’t humiliated and utterly heartbroken. I headed for the nearest toilets and cried my eyes out. (Years after this, whenever this group saw me they’d throw things at me and call me a skank. Once when I was 17 they came upon me in the street, shoulder-barged me into the road and threw cigarette lighters at me).

After break, I went back to art and Judas sat down next to me as though nothing had happened. ‘Why can’t I hang around with you at break?’ I asked.

‘You wouldn’t fit in,’ he said. ‘They wouldn’t like you.’

And that was that.

The rest of the week, I hid in the toilets, hid in the bushes – I didn’t want people to see that I was entirely on my own. One day I even tried to join the group regardless of Judas’s warnings. They couldn’t physically push me out, could they? It turned out that they could. After being frogmarched across the playground, I decided not to repeat that indignity.

It was with a heavy heart, leaden legs, that the following week I walked up to my old ‘friends’ at breaktime. ‘Oh, you’re back,’ they said. And things resumed as though I’d never been away. Because being bullied was better than hiding in the toilets.

About ten months later, the school decided to build a new block and new playground. Because of all the builders on site, it was thought prudent, for health and safety reasons, to shrink lunchtime from one hour to just 25-minutes. As a result, they revoked all the lunch passes. My 20-minutes of hell each day was going to be 45.

Unable to cope with being bullied 3 hours and 45 minutes each week, I spied on the other friendship groups, found one I thought I might be able to join – a mixed group, some of whom were in my classes – and after a week trying to build up the courage, I approached one of the members and asked if I could hang out with him and his friends at breaktime.

‘Sure, whatever, I don’t care,’ he said, and I was in.

Things didn’t go exactly to plan. I was so desperate to fit in, so terrified of being rejected, that I lost the ability to speak. It was weeks before I managed to say a single word. I stood at a slight remove from them, waiting my chance. Every time I opened my mouth to speak, this little voice in my head screamed, ‘DON’T SAY THAT THEY’LL THINK YOU’RE WEIRD!’ and I clamped my lips together. Sometimes I managed to think up something decent, but by the time I worked up the courage to voice it, the conversation had moved on and it was already too late. So I stood, in silence, like the number one buzzkill, so afraid they wouldn’t like me that I guaranteed they wouldn’t – the dictionary definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Within the first week I realised it wasn’t going to work. While not as bad as my old ‘friends’, my new ‘friends’ didn’t exactly make me feel welcome. One told me to my face, repeatedly, that she hated me because I was so weird and she wanted me to go away. One used to stuff her rubbish in my shirt pocket as though I was a dustbin. They loved telling me I wasn’t actually part of ‘their group’. I was the butt of every joke. I smiled, as though I was in on it, when in fact I knew they were mercilessly mocking me.

I knew from the start that it wasn’t going to work. I hung around with them for a year and a half. Breaktime and lunch. Forty-five minutes a day. Because I had no one else.

You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to know what that kind of thing does to a person. My self-esteem, self-identity, my confidence – my very value as a human being – they all went away. It got to the point where I was too afraid to put up my hand in class, even though I knew the answer, because people would look at me and I couldn’t bear their judgement. Looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t become a statistic, if you catch my meaning.

And throughout this time, Judas still sat next to me in every class we had together, and listened sympathetically as I told him of my loneliness, and made all the right sounds and facial expressions when I told him I was being bullied, and watched as I shrank into a shell of my former self, and he did nothing. Except, that is, on the days when I couldn’t face them and so wandered about alone – he’d always be sure to tell me he’d seen me wandering around on my own, and that if he’d noticed I was being a loner then other people would too, and perhaps I’d better go back and hang out with the bullies again. Because, evidently, it’s better to be bullied than have no ‘friends’.

I asked him repeatedly if I could hang out with him at breaktime. I begged – I told him I wouldn’t even have to say anything, I’d just stand there so I didn’t have to be alone. His answer was always the same. ‘You wouldn’t fit in.’ For a year and a half.

What hurt the most was that he was my best friend in the classroom. He was my lab partner, my vocab buddy. Every project we’d do together, every history assignment, every book report. Art, music, craft, IT. But other than those four days in our first year, outside of the classroom he wanted nothing to do with me.

I loved that guy for three-and-a-half years, right up to the moment I realised that I hated him far more than any of the bullies, and stopped sitting next to him in class. He never spoke to me again, even though we went to the same VI Form. I was amazed by how quickly and easily I was replaced, though it should have come as no surprise. I clearly meant nothing to him.

About the same time, I decided I couldn’t go on anymore as I  had. I spent the last six months of my time at that school hanging out with the band geeks who congregated on the benches at breaktime with their inhalers and head braces and vocal jazz stylings. I didn’t particularly like them, but it was all about survival by this point, and they weren’t really in a position to bully anyone. Luckily, by this time, the block was built and I could go home for lunch again, because all of them had orchestra, and music lessons and choir practice at lunch.

And so I survived, in body if not in mind. I left school, and I buried these experiences and haven’t spoken to anybody about them for twenty years now. I wonder if all the tattoos and piercings I got in my late teens, and all the challenges I undertook in my early twenties – rock climbing, bungee jumping, parachute jumping, scuba diving, tall ship sailing, backpacking – were a way of trying to work through all that anguish and self-hatred. To punish myself and see if I really mattered.

I thought I’d got over. Thought it was left in the past. Until I’ve had to start looking at schools for my little girl. And I realise I’m not over it at all.

I can think of my best friend telling a thirteen-year-old me to piss off because he’s found new friends, and it still hurts. I can think of reaching out to another for help in my lowest moment, only to have him literally throw it back in my face, and I still cringe at the way he looked at me. And worse, I can think of repeatedly begging a friend to save me from my bullies only to have him refuse because I ‘wouldn’t fit in’, but instead of the despair I felt at the time, now I feel only anger.

I never dealt with any of these feelings. I live my life looking forward, not back. What’s in the past no longer has the power to hurt you – or so I thought.

So perhaps you’ll understand why I don’t care about the league tables my mother-in-law sends me, and why I don’t care about the Ofsted reports, and why I don’t care if every one of the school’s pupils fails their SATs. The only thing I care about is if my daughter will be happy at school. Because if she’s not, all the league tables and Ofsted reports in the world couldn’t make me send her there.