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.