Learning to Switch Off

Nobody ever said that parenthood was easy, and no new parent seriously thinks it’ll be a walk in the park, but deep down you figure you’ll survive because, well, you’re more awesome than any other parent that ever lived. Nonetheless, after seven weeks of broken sleep, emotional upheavals, psychological torment and disrupted meals, it’s very easy to become run-down in body, mind and spirit. It’s not enough just to say you’ll survive – you have to figure out a way of doing it. And for me that is learning how to switch off.

As might be clear for regular readers of this blog, I think about things. A lot. I’ve always been driven by an insatiable need to probe beneath the surface and figure out why things are the way they are, how they work, is there a better way, what should I do, is it right, what are the consequences, is anything objectively true, what does it all mean? My brother used to call me Johnny 5 after the robot from the movie Short Circuit: ‘Input, need input!’

By way of illustration, the subject matter of the books I’ve read this year include the search for the North-West Passage, the Battle of Waterloo, the afterlives of dead bodies, the origins of English idioms, the life of Jane Austen, the war in Afghanistan, round-the-world yachting, serial killers, psychology, mythology and, of course, babies. Plus a smattering of fiction. And an awful book about how a cat changed its owner’s life by being an uncontrollable, violent, wild beast that also happened to look cute, but the less said about that, the better.

Certainly my obsessive desire to understand how the world works and my place within it could be said to stem from my autism, but where it comes from is moot considering I am my autism and my autism is me. The unfortunate result is that I’m almost incapable of switching it off.

Every minute of every day my mind is a whirring mess of thoughts and counter-thoughts, ideas and connections, fears and resolutions. When I go to bed I lie awake at least an hour, struggling not to think. But of course, that only makes the thoughts come quicker.

So yesterday I did something I’ve not done in a long time. I sat on a bench overlooking the sea, closed my eyes, felt the breeze wash over me and listened to the sounds of the world around me. Just me, alone. No babies, no partners, no trying to control things. Watching the thoughts come and go like waves upon the shore. My breath in and out. Accepting what is. Allowing it to exist in that moment. Knowing that it’s okay.

It’s a technique called Mindfulness. I learnt it many years ago during a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Like most Eastern philosophies adapted for a mass-market Western audience, I considered it pseudo-spiritual New Age pants. How can you ‘watch’ your thoughts? Who’s doing the watching? And what was the point? How could this possibly help me? Sure, for the duration of the exercise I felt peaceful, but immediately afterwards it was gone. Hardly a worthwhile use of my time.

Or perhaps I just wasn’t stressed enough to feel the benefit.

Somehow yesterday I managed to recentre myself in myself. I know that that sound like wishy-washy crap – or a euphemism for masturbation (‘I recentred myself yesterday.’ / ‘Well I hope you cleaned up afterwards.’) – but I found the resilience and sense of identity that was missing the past few days, enough to feel like me again. I think you spend so much time thinking, worrying, tending to and caring about and for your child and your partner, you find you can’t work out where they end and you begin. So for disentangling your thoughts and emotions from another, for that, Mindfulness is indeed a tool.

I used it again today. I sat on the swing chair, sheltered from the rain under the canopy, and watched the leaves on the bushes blowing in the breeze. No thoughts of babies – no thoughts at all. Just me with myself being me.

Of course, it doesn’t last. Izzie crying, Lizzie demanding my attention, phones ringing, people at the door, bottles need sterilising, dog to walk, nappy change, we’ve run out of baby wipes. But for those few minutes I’m managing to switch off, and I’m okay, and I’m surviving.

It’s not a miracle cure, and I still feel tired, and irritable, and paranoid that if I’m not there to sort things out then Izzie will grow horns out of her forehead, but I no longer feel quite so overwhelmed. And yes, I know it sounds bad that forgetting about the child you brought into this world to cherish and love can be therapeutic, but ten minutes of switching off can make the difference between coping with the day or burning out mid-afternoon. And if you burn out, well, who’s going to keep those horns away then?

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