Alone and Afraid

It’s amazing how kids can unlock parts of you that have long lain dormant.

As an adult, it’s not often that I’m afraid. I was often afraid as a child, especially of the dark, but as soon as I realised there were no monsters hiding in the woods – no supernatural ones, anyway – that visceral, uncontrollable, preternatural fear that was programmed into our ancestors’ DNA to keep them safe faded into an erstwhile caution. Of course, having autism and social phobia, I’m used to an all-pervading anxiety, but out-and-out fear is a different entity entirely, and something I’m not particularly familiar with.

I’m far too rational, sceptical and sensible to feel true fear. I went through a period in my early twenties when I decided to test myself, so I did bungee jumps and threw myself out of airplanes, climbed mountains, descended into caves, watched every scary movie I could lay my hands on, visited witches and mediums, hung out in graveyards after dark, crossed rickety rope bridges, trekked through rainforests, slept in wooden huts on barren hillsides, and learned to scuba dive down to a depth of 100 feet in a place called Shark Bay. I’ve been nervous, sure; anxious, definitely; but afraid? Not really. I analyse, process, plan, prepare, adjust, and execute. Control the variables. Assess the risks. And trust in myself. What’s to fear?

Which is why I was thoroughly unprepared for how afraid I felt in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Late Friday evening, my wife Lizzie fell ill. Like, end of the world in a frying pan ill. So I packed her off to bed early with a hot water bottle and a handful of drugs, and the understanding that she would be of no use for at least the next 24 hours. If the house caught on fire, the dog grew an extra head, the chickens started eating meat, or the fish learned to fly, it would be up to me to keep it all together. But I’m used to that, so without a care in the world I put the baby to bed and settled down to a pleasant evening of reading/watching TV/killing aliens, depending on which took my fancy.

Half midnight, my daughter Izzie started screaming. So far, so normal. Except this screaming didn’t stop when I put her dummy back in and laid her back down in the cot. If anything, it got worse. If anything, it was the worst screaming I’d ever heard.

I picked her up, I cuddled her, I sang to her, I danced, I whispered, I begged, but she only grew more agitated, trying to fight me off, choking on her own screams. I took her downstairs, tried milk, tried water, tried biscuits, all to no avail. She was frantic, distraught, so agitated I thought she might suffocate or have a fit. Her face was bright red, her expression horrible. Tears and snot and dribble were everywhere, making her choke, and still the dreadful sobs, the heart-rending screams. Oh God, I just wanted to be able to do something, anything, to help, to stop the screaming, the distress writ large across every aspect of her being.

And it was then, one in the morning in the lounge, unable to do a thing to comfort my daughter and knowing I was totally alone, that I felt afraid. Terrified, in fact. And there was something instantly familiar about this fear, because I’d felt it before. When I was twelve. In a heartbeat, I was twelve again.

This story begins when I was ten. We were on holiday in Spain, and with my twelve-year-old brother, we befriended an older boy on the campsite. I suppose he must have been about fifteen. At some point we went to the swimming pool, at dusk, unsupervised, which was fine because my parents were having drinks with his parents in the caravan awning and he seemed a nice kid and there was a lifeguard and they told us to stay at the shallow end and this was completely normal. But that night wasn’t normal at all.

In the pool he had a couple of other friends who were a few years older than him. One of them had long hair and stubble and I’m sure was eighteen, the other maybe seventeen. And at some point, the three of them thought it would be fun to drag little ten-year-old me out of my depth into the middle of the pool and duck me under the water.

The sky was dark by then. I wasn’t a big fan of water. I hated being under the water. They held me under. I writhed, I fought against them, my arms flailing. My terror seemed to amuse them. They ducked me again and again. I couldn’t touch the bottom. They’d let me up for a breath then hold me under again. My brother watched from the shallow end. Each time my head broke the surface my ears would ring with their laughter. They kept passing me between them. Sometimes they’d let go, and I’d try to swim away but they’d grab me and start up again. I thought I was going to die. Between mouthfuls of water I screamed at the lifeguard for help. He watched with a smirk on his face – the one adult, the one person who was meant to keep me safe, enjoyed my suffering. I was frantic.

Eventually, they let me get too close to the side – I grabbed the metal steps. They were bigger, holding onto my arms, and there were three of them, and they certainly didn’t want me to escape and ruin their fun, but there was no freaking way I was ever going to let go of that railing – I thought that if I did, I would die, and thus I literally clung on for dear life until I managed to drag myself from their grasp.

Afraid they’d now target my brother, who was stupidly sitting in the shallow end, completely oblivious to the danger, I shouted at him to get out and fled from the place I had been sure I would die. Maybe it didn’t look so serious from the outside. Maybe they only held me under ten seconds at a time. But if you’ve ever been held under water by strangers when out of your depth, ten seconds might as well be a lifetime. I was traumatised.

Skip forward a couple of years. We were on holiday in the south of France with three families my parents were friends with, each of whom had kids the same age as my brother and me. We spent a day at a lake and, in two inflatable canoes, the eight of us kids paddled out to an island in the middle. It was meant to be great fun, exploring the unknown – I was excited by it. It might even have been my idea. But it went horribly wrong the moment we got there.

The second my feet hit the sand, I freaked out. It was, without a doubt, my first panic attack. The rest of the kids ran up the beach, darting about the rocks, climbing into the dunes, flitting about the bushes – I sat on a boulder, hugging my knees and rocking forward and back, my skin crawling and every sense telling me that something was wrong and I wanted out. I asked to go back, I demanded we go back, I kicked up such a fuss and ended up so crazed they finally boarded the boats and we set off.

The end of this affair was captured on that ultimate early-90s status symbol – the camcorder. My parents filmed our return journey, the arguing in the boat, and my decision to leap into the water half-way across and swim the rest of the way to shore as it was taking too long. It even made it onto our yearly Family Video – that kooky Gillan, what’s he like?

My brother put my behaviour down to me being an arsehole, and my parents probably agreed – in all fairness, erratic, disruptive and destructive behaviour was hardly out of the ordinary for me, given I had autism and it wouldn’t be diagnosed as such for a further sixteen years. But the feelings that triggered the episode were certainly new, and being an introspective sod, even as a twelve-year-old, I decided I had to get to the bottom of why it happened.

Ultimately I realised that my fear on that beach beside a lake in the south of France was a direct result of my experience two years earlier in a swimming pool in Spain. The moment I stepped out of the canoe I was alone with a bunch of children, no adults around, no rescue, no safety, and my vulnerability in that situation was more than I could bear.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, as Izzie screamed and choked and sobbed, while upstairs my wife lay ill in bed, I was back on that beach. I was a child again, with nobody to save me, nobody to protect me, only myself to rely on in all the world. I had no idea what to do. I was trapped in the situation as surely as I had been years before in a swimming pool at dusk. And I was afraid.

I hadn’t thought of those experiences in years. I hadn’t felt those feelings in forever. I have been an adult almost all of my life. My daughter made me a child again.

And then she vomited all over me.

And I’ve never been so relieved.

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Autism and OCD: the Sacred Half-Banana

Thanks to the nature of autism, many of us with the condition have other psychological problems that are either caused by our autism or overlap with it. Combine the rigid, obsessional thought processes associated with autism with the anxiety and poor coping mechanisms that are often part and parcel of living with the condition, and you have the recipe for obsessive compulsion. So it is, then, that at times of stress and anxiety we can slip into full-blown obsessive compulsive behaviour and lose all sense of proportion, driving the people around us to despair.

And when I say ‘we’, I mean my wife Lizzie.

And by ‘people around us’, I mean me.

And instead of ‘being driven to despair’, a better metaphor would be that I am steaming uncontrollably towards a mid-Atlantic collision with an iceberg on a dark April evening. All because of half a freaking banana.

It all started a month ago when we returned from holiday. Every night after I’ve put Izzie to bed, Lizzie goes around the lounge and tidies up the baby’s toys. And given that Lizzie’s other big obsession right now is buying toys for the baby, we have an awful lot of them. Before going to Toys R Us to get something, I just check the massive pile of plastic bags stacked up in the corner of the study, and odds are we’ll already have at least two of what I’m considering buying.

Anyway, Lizzie’s particular inclination is that all the toys have to go back complete – if the toy food blender has six shapes that go inside it, then when it goes back on the toy shelf it needs to have six shapes inside it. Not five inside it and one in the box of building blocks, but all six inside it. This is non-negotiable and woe betide anybody who forgets.

So, a month ago we return from holiday, play with Izzie for a couple of hours, and then I put her to bed as usual. Lizzie tidies the lounge and – gasp – half the toy banana from the kitchen set is missing. We have both halves of the tomato, the pepper and the carrot, and the three parts of the cucumber, but only one half of the banana.

In the normal scheme of things, you might think this is minor. I thought so myself, it being a two-inch long piece of yellow plastic with a bit of Velcro stuck to it. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realised that in Lizzie’s mind it was the Holy Grail and it had just been stolen from us by person or persons unknown.

My reassurance that ‘it’ll turn up eventually’ didn’t cut the mustard. Before the holiday, the sacred banana had been complete, entire, unsullied – Izzie had only been in the lounge a couple of hours upon our return, thus it could not have gone very far. We had to find it.

Many hours after midnight, having overturned the sofas, emptied all the drawers and cupboards, removed the building blocks piece by piece from their boxes, turfed the dog out of her bed, checked behind the fridge, in the cat litter and around the driveway (as if!), I managed to persuade an increasingly irascible Lizzie to come to bed, we’d find it later. Problem solved – or so I thought.

The following day we repeated the exact same process, double and triple checking all the places we’d already double and triple checked the night before. I ended up checking through the bins, the nappy bin, the freezer, inside the guitars, stretching my hands into deep, dark crevices no mortal ever dared to delve. Still no banana.

Long after midnight, I managed to persuade Lizzie to come to bed, where she tossed and turned all night, no doubt dreaming of incompleteness.

It was two-thirds of the way through the third day of the search, after putting the baby to bed and moving the sofas for perhaps the eighth time, that I finally declared enough to be enough. Actually, I think what I might have said was something along the lines of, ‘I’m all out of f**ks to give about half a goddamned plastic banana! Don’t ever mention it to me again, I don’t care anymore, there’re another two plastic bananas in the corner of the study anyway, for God’s sake, let me live, why won’t you let me live!’ And suchlike and so forth.

Two days later, Lizzie stopped moving the furniture. Two days after that, she stopped talking about the banana.

But the stage was set. The anxiety was there. And it manifested itself late every evening with the words, ‘Have you seen…?’

Every evening for the past month, Lizzie has lost something and pressganged me into helping her find it. Mostly it’s Izzie’s hairclips, less than an inch long, or her dummies, transparent. Sometimes it’s pieces of paper, a scrap torn off the back of an envelope on which she has written the world’s most important information. Quite often it’s socks, which necessitate going through the sleeves of every item of clothing we own in case it’s become lodged inside in the wash. Occasionally it’s earrings, tiny, insignificant, nigh-invisible earrings. Every single evening, give or take.

I’ve been under the sofa so many times now, I can describe it better than the back of my hand. The inside of the dustbin no longer holds any mysteries. The sound of building blocks being removed from the box one at a time fills me with dread, and every time I hear the words, ‘Have you seen…?’ my blood chills within me. No, I haven’t seen it. But I guarantee we’re spending the next two hours searching for it.

There are two possibllities for explaining this behaviour. The first is that, because both sets of our parents were away, Lizzie has been anxious for the last month, and this anxiety has triggered an obsessive need to have control over the minutiae of our household to distract her from her own feelings of vulnerability. Once triggered by the missing banana, her mind became stuck in a loop of repetitive, obsessive behaviour, fostered by her rigid autistic way of thinking.

The second is that she’s faking all these disappearances and we’re still searching for that flipping plastic banana!

Which does, to be fair, remain something of a mystery…

A Father’s Role

 

In the olden days – like, the really, really, really olden days – a father’s role was simple: catch food, drive your enemies before you, hear the lamentations of their women. Okay, maybe that’s not exactly simple, especially when all you have is a wooden club, but cavemen knew what it was to be men.

Years later it was decided that, while the father still had to provide for their children, they should also guide them towards successful adulthood by administering discipline, principally using ‘the rod’, ‘the birch’, ‘the staff’, or ‘the belt’, depending on their particular inclination.

Then we had this pesky thing called the sexual revolution, in which women decided they no longer wanted to sit around raising babies, baking cakes and waiting for their husbands to give them their pocket money, and instead go out and earn money for themselves. No bad thing in itself, but it upset thousands of years of a clear gender split in parenting roles.

The father is no longer the provider, because the mother can do that too. He’s also equally expected to help out with the night feeds, change nappies, give baths, nurture, cuddle, sing songs, mollycoddle, encourage and entertain. And discipline is hardly an exclusively masculine preserve. As a result, many men have lost their way, with nothing they can cling onto as an exclusively XY domain, unlike women, who have a sacrosanct arena of XX dominance: no matter how much I might want to, I shall never be able to give birth, breastfeed, or discuss pelvic floor exercises with my girlfriends – at least, not without embarrassment.

The thing is, we men are full of testosterone, ready to contend with nature red in tooth and claw, but there’s little call for that on the way to the chemist to get more baby wipes or when choosing between pink paint or floral wallpaper. So modern man channels all his brutish, preternatural manliness into the one thing we can make our own, and in this find fulfilment and transcendence: personal safety.

You mothers can wander about with the baby, smell the flowers, watch the sunshine; we fathers will protect you. That’s something we can do. That’s something you have to let us do so we feel like men. While you play in the play park, we’ll stand sentry, intercepting any and all potential dangers and inconveniences. We are a cross between Secret Service agents, bodyguards and ninjas. We stand ready to do violence upon those who would harm us and ours. We are men. Hear us roar! Miaow!

Trouble is, since I became a dad, I’ve realised that the world seems to have become an incredibly dangerous place, and I’m not at all sure I’m up to the task. Every hitherto friendly dog I pass in the street is now a potential child-killer, just waiting for me to drop my guard so it can maul my baby to death. I’m not just talking about Alsatians and Rottweilers – the village is full of prissy little Lhasa Apsos, fluffy, self-important, ten inches tall, all of whom will turn into Cujo if I’m not watching them. That’s without mentioning the cats, the size of tigers, that prowl between parked cars, sharpening their claws as they lust after toddler blood. It’s a freaking jungle out there, people.

And people too. The postman has morphed from a friendly chap who delivers the mail into a blood-thirsty psychopath who wants to take my baby away with him in his post bag. Elderly neighbours ask us if we have any plans for the day: why do you want to know that, are you planning on ambushing us and stealing our baby? You would not believe just how many kidnappers lurk around our village, ready to steal my nearest and dearest if I look away for even a second. Man with walking stick = man with offensive weapon, best avoided. Every bush, every tree, could be hiding the human equivalent of Rumpelstiltskin, and it’s my job to keep these bastards at bay.

Then there are the drivers. One mile an hour over the speed limit is one mile an hour too much: ‘Slow down, Lewis Hamilton, you’re not in Monaco now!’ The car park at the supermarket has changed from a place to dump my vehicle in order to purchase goods into a nightmare murderfest organised by the prison guards in Death Race 2000, filled with elderly people who reverse without warning and ignore the one-way traffic-flow system, yes, ignore it! And by the end of each car journey these days my eyes are bloodshot from glaring at every person along the way who has the potential to cause an accident which might harm my daughter – which, to be frank, is all of them.

Nature is just as violent. I see dog poo and wonder what diseases it might be able to pass on; I look at the sky and ponder whether or not little Izzie will make it home alive if the weather changes suddenly; I question if the trees I have walked under a thousand times will choose this day, this moment, to come crashing down upon us. Are those cows going to stampede? Can that bull get out of the field? Is the slurry pit giving out noxious gases? What if? What if? What if?

And that’s just outside the house. Inside, I’m increasingly suspicious that the TV might mean my daughter harm, or the dishwasher, or the tumble-dryer. Radiators are steam-filled pipe bombs, the boiler wants to kill her with carbon monoxide, the toilet is full of water to drown her in, the bedding can suffocate her, the plug sockets might arc electricity across the room, the carpet might cause burns, the food might poison her, the picture frame might brain her as she walks past and there’s the ever-present threat of the sofa swallowing her whole. I lie awake at night wondering if I’m doing enough to keep meteors from crashing through the roof or foxes from scaling the walls and sneaking inside through the air vents.

My parents asked me what I want for my birthday.

‘A fire extinguisher,’ I said.

All in all, I’m coping really well with my paranoia. But this, you see, is a modern father’s principal role: keeping our children safe. It’s what makes us men. It’s all we’ve got. Don’t take it away from us. Because you’ll need us when the zombies come.

Provided we haven’t worried ourselves to death first!

Mummy’s Girl

Izzie’s first word has well and truly arrived. I’m not talking about the rather funny imitations she does – pronouncing buzzard as ‘buggered’ and beach hut as ‘bitch hoe’ – no, this is a real, bona fide, unmistakable word, used without prompting and in the appropriate context.

Unfortunately, that word is ‘mummy.’

I say ‘unfortunately’ because now that she has learnt the word, she has decided to use it in earnest. ‘Mummy, mummy, mummy,’ she says as she wanders about the lounge. ‘Mummy, mummy, mummy,’ she mutters when she’s supposed to be napping. ‘Mummy, mummy, mummy, mummy, mummy.’

This is a particularly galling word to hear when you’re a daddy, and you’re the one getting her up in the morning, or changing her nappy, or bathing her, or feeding her, or playing with her, or cuddling her, or all of those things you do that you really wish she’d be grateful for, and for which she might reward you by saying ‘daddy’. It’s hard to remain upbeat at three in the morning when she wakes you up crying, and as you try to settle her down all she can say is, ‘mummy, mummy,’ as she gets snot all over your shoulder. And it’s rather difficult not to feel a little aggrieved when you put her to bed, kiss her cheek and bid her goodnight for her to reply, ‘mummy, mummy.’

You might think she’s simply saying the word without knowing what it means, or because she likes the way it rolls off the tongue, but you’d be wrong because she knows exactly what it means. I’m not sure which came first, her obsession with the word or her obsession with her mummy, but she’s decided that mummy is the coolest person on the planet and daddy is just some guy that mummy lives with. Yes, I have been pushed aside in favour of a person with bigger boobs.

Who does Izzie want to see in the morning? Her mummy. Whose lap does she want to sit on? Her mummy’s. Whose hand does she want to hold when we walk down the street? I’m sure you can identify the pattern in this. I jokingly asked her this morning who her favourite parent is (like she’d be able to understand, ha!) – and she pointed at Lizzie and said, ‘mummy.’ Ouch. In retrospect, I’m not sure what I was hoping to gain from that question!

Following quickly on the heels of Izzie’s first word came her first full sentence yesterday – we often show her how to do something and then say, ‘Izzie do it,’ so when she was struggling to fit the shapes through the correct holes on her toy, she picked it up, plonked it down on Lizzie’s lap, and said, ‘Mummy do it.’ It was a revelation to her – now she can ask mummy to do everything!

It has been a week since this started, and while Lizzie initially rubbed it in – ha ha, she’s not saying ‘daddy’, is she? – even she’s getting a little tired of the constant, ‘mummy, mummy, mummy’. More worryingly, when I tried to kiss Lizzie earlier, the little tyke clambered up into her lap and started slapping me in the face, as if to say, ‘Get away from my mummy, you horrible man, she’s mine, all mine!’

A few weeks ago she was definitely a daddy’s girl. Now when I cuddle her she reaches out for mummy. I figure this is all just part of growing up, and toddlers being toddlers, and it’s not like Lizzie and me are in competition. Still, I’m looking forward to the day that as I close her bedroom door I’ll hear the words, ‘Night, night, daddy.’