The flu jab: and people get stupider…

I took my two-year-old to the doctor today for a persistent cough, and while in the waiting room I overheard this nugget from an old woman to her friend:

‘They want me to have the flu jab but I said no. They’re very bad for you. Last time I had it, it gave me the flu. And they’ve got mercury in them. No thank you very much!’

The irony is strong with this one…

I’ve already discussed the belief that MMR causes autism (it doesn’t), the health benefits of amber necklaces (none), and the efficacy of homeopathy (zero), so I might as well bust some myths about the flu jab while I’m at it.

1. They give you flu

No, they don’t. While some ‘live’ vaccines give you a small dose of a virus in order to build your immunity as your body fights it, the flu jab isn’t one of those. Instead, it gives you inert, inactive parts of the virus – enough for your body to recognise it and start producing antibodies against it without risking being infected by it.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that you won’t still catch the flu from another source, because there are hundreds of different strains of the virus and it’d be prohibitively expensive to vaccinate against all of them. Instead, the way the vaccination program works is that the World Health Organization (WHO) identifies how many people are infected by each strain around the world and therefore the most likely strains to infect people in the coming season. For the autumn jabs, the strains are identified in February, and then national bodies decide which of them to vaccinate against and spend six months making it. It’s not foolproof, but it’s the best system we’ve got.

2. They’re bad for you

No, they’re not. You know what’s bad for you? Flu. True, the flu jab can give you ‘flu-like symptoms’ for a couple of days – muscle aches and a mild temperature – but influenza is a far more serious illness. It’s much worse than a ‘heavy cold’. The ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic after the First World War infected 500 million people and killed between 50 and 100 million. Even today, in the UK it’s estimated that more than 600 people die of flu each year, rising to more than 10,000 in some years, mostly from vulnerable groups like young children and the elderly.

Furthermore, there are three main types of flu: A, B and C. Type C is the mild form that many people might catch and think, ‘Hey, that wasn’t so bad.’ If they catch either of the other two, they wouldn’t be so dismissive.

3. They contain mercury

No, they don’t. Oh, you’re talking about thiomersal? Still no. Thiomersal (or thimerosal) is a mercury-containing preservative used in some vaccines to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi, but only in multi-dose vials. Other than some very rare cases, the flu jab is provided in single-dose vials or pre-filled syringes. Since these are sealed units, they aren’t vulnerable to contamination and therefore don’t need thiomersal. So, no mercury.

And even if they did contain thiomersal, you’re getting worried about the wrong kind of mercury. Thiomersal contains ethylmercury, an organic compound that has never been shown to cause any harmful effects to humans and remains in the blood only a few days before the body excretes it. The type to worry about is methylmercury. That’s the kind that’s toxic to humans, builds up in our bodies over time and is contained in certain fish.

‘But how can mercury be safe? It’s a metal,’ I hear you cry. So is sodium, and chlorine is poisonous, but put them together and you get sodium-chloride, aka salt, which we need to survive. This is chemistry. Substances in compound change the properties of the individual elements.

4. Doctors are evil

Underlying this entire hysteria about MMR causing autism and flu jabs containing mercury and causing flu is the idea that doctors are evil. The drug companies know it’s bad for you, but they do it anyway because they’re chasing the Almighty Dollar, and your doctor is complicit in hiding this awful truth because they’re getting kickbacks from Big Pharma. It’s all a global conspiracy.

Most conspiracy theories are full of holes so big you can drive a truck through them, like that 9/11 was an inside job or that someone other than Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, but this one is particularly stupid. While it’s true that ‘Big Pharma’ have some pretty questionable ethical standards, and certain doctors are less than trustworthy, is it really likely that every doctor, biologist, biochemist and pharmacist on the planet is carrying out a vast evil upon the whole of mankind? Does every child who grows up with the philanthropic idea of helping people turn into a Machiavellian monster as soon as they set foot in a medical school?

For crying out loud. I watched an episode of Rawhide called ‘The Incident at Red River Station’ which was about exactly this soft of thing. A doctor was trying to vaccinate a small town against smallpox. The townsfolk, a crazed mob with burning torches, called him a witch doctor who was trying to infect them. They instead wanted to rely on their traditional cures of leeches and herbal tea. The result? A whole bunch of them caught smallpox, and it was too late to do anything about it.

This episode was set in the 1860s. It was broadcast in 1960. Are we still going to face this crap in 2060?

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40 before 40

At New Year, in preparation for my fortieth birthday this month, my wife gave me a list of forty challenges I need to complete before I turn forty. Some of them were easy (eat a food you hate, give blood, go to a zoo); some were harder (learn a new language, learn a new instrument, give up technology for a week); and some were impossible and therefore remain incomplete (lose 40lbs, do a 40-hour sponsored silence, learn to ballroom dance).

One of them is to make a list of forty things I’ve achieved in my life. I thought it’d be pretty simple because in my mind I’m someone who’s achieved a lot, but I actually really struggled with it, not least because of how to define what counts as an achievement. Is it a one-off event, like winning an award, or is it something ongoing, like a lifestyle? Is meeting somebody famous an achievement, or is making a connection with a stranger more noteworthy?

It really makes you think about yourself, and what you value, and what is important to you. As someone with depression and autism and social phobia, people tell me just getting out of bed in the morning is an achievement, but it’s hardly notable to do something that virtually every single person on the planet does on a daily basis. You can’t exactly brag about not lounging around in bed all day.

And that is how I’ve defined an achievement: something you can brag about. Or, rather, something you’re proud of that you’d want people to know about if you’re forced to do one of those ‘tell the group something interesting about you’ kind of things.

So here it goes. Forty things I’ve achieved in my forty years:

  1. I managed to convince someone to marry me.
  2. I had a non-fiction book published.
  3. I have the courage to wear my cowboy hat in public, even if I get funny looks.
  4. I sailed across the Atlantic as a crewmember on a tall ship.
  5. I was interviewed on a BBC TV documentary about rescuing two Trans-Atlantic rowers while on the tall ship.
  6. I taught myself to play the guitar.
  7. I recorded three EPs and performed multiple gigs as lead guitarist and vocalist in various rock and metal bands.
  8. I spent six months as a care assistant in an old people’s home and four weeks as a student nurse on an infection control ward.
  9. I have given numerous speeches to educate people about autism.
  10. I got a Diploma of Higher Education, two Bachelor Degrees and a Master’s Degree, and achieved distinctions for all of them.
  11. I have two children, and in four years I haven’t killed them!
  12. I have written eight novels and am still plugging away despite more than 300 rejections.
  13. I travelled alone across the USA from the Atlantic to the Pacific through 23 States on 32 Greyhound buses.
  14. I have been to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, St Peter’s Basilica, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Space Needle, the Sky Tower and the Shard.
  15. I worked for Prince Edward at his production company.
  16. I qualified as a PADI Advanced Open Water scuba diver, making dives to 100ft and at night.
  17. I dived with sea lions.
  18. I have tried waterskiing, windsurfing, paddle boarding, bodyboarding, canoeing, kayaking and canyoneering.
  19. I’ve made two static-line parachute jumps.
  20. I made an iron bottle opener and a candlestick in a blacksmith’s forge.
  21. I spoke to James Cameron about the movie Aliens.
  22. I’ve done two bungee jumps.
  23. I sold a painting to the mayor of Christchurch.
  24. I caught a 50lb conger eel.
  25. I made a 4,200 piece model of the German battleship Bismarck.
  26. I was interviewed live on BBC radio about said model.
  27. I created and maintained a blog for four years.
  28. I’ve tended to injured pigeons, owls, sparrowhawks, hedgehogs and a deer.
  29. I did a 140-ft abseil.
  30. I’ve made 47 blood donations.
  31. I spent three months travelling alone around New Zealand.
  32. I walked eighteen miles around Auckland without stopping.
  33. I spent three days trekking alone around the wilderness of Stewart Island.
  34. I’ve tried archery, pistol-shooting, rifle-shooting, clay pigeon-shooting, fencing and karate.
  35. I’ve climbed Mt. Snowdon in Wales, and Mt. Roy (Roy’s Peak), Ben Lomond and Avalanche Peak in New Zealand.
  36. I worked as a 999 call-taker and radio operator for Thames Valley Police.
  37. I did a falconry day flying owls, hawks and a bald eagle.
  38. I won four consecutive short story competitions in a writing magazine.
  39. I’ve read more than 1000 books, including all six Jane Austens, Watchmen, Lord of the Rings and It, and seen more than 1000 movies, including all six Jane Austens, Watchmen, Lord of the Rings, and It.
  40. I made it to forty when I didn’t think I’d make it out of my teens.

It’s actually quite beneficial to do a list like this, if only to take stock of your life. It’s a sobering realisation that the majority of my ‘achievements’, on closer inspection, seem rather insular and self-indulgent. The one of which I’m most proud is that I’ve made 47 blood donations, sacrificing my time and comfort to help others. And look at what’s missing from my list – being a good husband; being a good father; being a good friend. Why aren’t they there? Because I’m none of those things.

Maybe I should make a new list: things I want to achieve.

  1. Being there for a friend in need.
  2. Apologising to my wife and taking the blame even when it’s not my fault
  3. Letting the kids be kids without getting annoyed with them.
  4. Accepting that this is my life.
  5. Learning to enjoy living in the moment.

That seems far more positive. If I manage to achieve these by the time I’m 41, we’ll all be in a better place.

How children learn to talk

As a guy with Asperger’s, and the parent of two kids at different stages of learning to speak, the English language fascinates me. This might sound strange considering that part of living with autism means struggling to communicate, but by forcing me to obsess about words and meaning, those very difficulties made me not only an expert on morphology and syntax, but also a bit of a grammar Nazi. This means I find it incredibly satisfying to watch my girls struggling to work out the rules of the language – and often very annoying too.

‘But surely,’ I hear you non-parents cry, ‘children learn to speak by imitation. They don’t learn grammar until they’re at school.’

You’re wrong. Emphatically so. It’s hardwired into us to spot patterns, and two facets of the English language provide incontrovertible proof that toddlers are not simply passive recipients of their mother tongue, mindlessly parroting back what they’ve heard, but active participants in deciphering language: irregular verbs and irregular plural nouns.

Since most people don’t read grammar primers for fun, a bit of explanation is required. Let’s start with the verbs. There are strong, irregular verbs that have three forms to denote tenses (present, past and past imperfect), like ‘sink, sank, have sunk’, or ‘swim, swam, have swum’, and some with two, like ‘buy’ and ‘bought’, and ‘think’ and ‘thought’. By far the most common, however, are the weak, regular verbs that simply add ‘ed’ to the end to change tense, so ‘walk’ becomes ‘walked’ and ‘talk’ becomes ‘talked’.

Ever heard a child say that they ‘winned’ or they ‘runned’ or they ‘taked’ or they ‘eated’? They absolutely did not pick that up by listening to other people. What they’ve done is notice a rule – that you put a ‘d’ sound on the end of a regular verb to change its tense – and they’ve generalised that rule and applied it to every verb, including the irregular ones. Even if they’re not consciously doing it, they’re grappling with the rules of grammar to make meaning.

The same is true of irregular plural nouns. You pluralise regular nouns by adding an ‘s’ at the end, so ‘bed’ becomes ‘beds’ and ‘tree’ becomes ‘trees’. How, then, are we to account for toddlers talking about ‘sheeps’ and ‘childs’ and ‘mouses’, instead of ‘sheep’ and ‘children’ and ‘mice’? They’ve learned a rule and applied it where it doesn’t work. As seemingly incapable as they are, they’re advanced pattern-recognition machines. That’s right, every kid is a freaking genius.

Another thing children have to do when they learn to talk is limit the range of meanings a particular word can have. If you point at a picture of a silver convertible and say ‘car’, you’d be pretty confident they understand something so simple, but you’d again be wrong. The truth is that pinning down the meaning of a word is far more complicated than that. Are you saying this individual vehicle is a car? Are you saying that all things with wheels are cars? Are you saying all silver things are cars? All convertibles?

As an example, two of the first words my youngest learned were ‘dog’ and ‘cat’, and while she was accurately able to distinguish a dog from a cat, her fluency was actually rather deceptive. We quickly discovered that she understood ‘cat’ to be a catchall term for ‘anything alive that is not a dog’, so rabbits, mice, monkeys, or even people were cats in her mind. Similarly, my oldest often makes mistakes with gender-specific pronouns, thinking ‘he’ and ‘his’ are universal instead of referring to a particular sex, so it can be quite confusing when she’s talking about her friend Phoebe and starts using ‘he’ and ‘him’. Kids have to work out what individual words refer to, or which of several separate meanings is the one you want, and that’s before they can even feed themselves properly.

Speaking of personal pronouns, have you ever thought about the complexity of a sentence as apparently simple as, ‘She gave it to me’? In order to say it, children have to learn to distinguish between first, second and third-person, singular and plural, masculine and feminine, and identify the subject and object of a sentence.

‘Now you’re talking nonsense,’ I hear you cry. ‘That can wait till secondary school.’

Actually, no. While it’s true that English lost most of its inflections and gender constructions, for some reason we kept them when it comes to pronouns. This is another topic that needs a bit of unpacking, so buckle in, it’s going to get interesting.

‘I’ is the first person singular. ‘We’ is the first-person plural. It’s easiest to think of the first-person as involving yourself. I am part of what’s happening, whether it’s just me on my own, or me and some others. You use this when speaking about yourself.

‘You’ is the second-person. You is both singular and plural. You use this when you’re addressing someone to refer to them.

‘He’, ‘she’ or ‘it’ is the third-person singular. ‘They’ is the plural. You use this to describe what other people did that didn’t include you. It’s in the third-person singular that gender comes in – he, she, him, his, her – and is the reason it’s become a battlefield of the trans movement. The only gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun is ‘it’, which normally refers to inanimate objects or gender-indistinguishable animals, whereas many gender-neutral individuals like Sam Smith prefer to be referred to as ‘they’, which purists object to since that is a third-person plural term.

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Subject and object is far easier.

The subject of a sentence is the one who does something; the object is the one who has something done to them. In English, we normally distinguish them by their place in the sentence in relation to the verb. Thus in the sentence ‘John kisses Mary’, John is the subject (the one who kisses) and Mary is the object (the one who is kissed). If you want to reverse the meaning, you simply switch the nouns around to ‘Mary kisses John’. This is why English is referred to as an SVO language, because we construct meaning using ‘subject-verb-object’ (about half the planet’s languages are SOV, or subject-object-verb, so would write ‘Mary John kisses’, but it’s not important to know this).

Many of the older languages that influenced English, like German, French, Greek and Latin, are inflected languages, which means the words change their form to reflect their relationship to other words. In Latin, for example, whether a word is the subject or the object is denoted by its ending rather than its position in the sentence, thus ‘Sextus laborat mulum’ and ‘mulum laborat Sextus’ mean exactly the same thing: ‘Sextus works the mule’ (theoretically, the words could be in any order, but in practice, Latin was an SOV language).

The trouble with inflected endings is that people are lazy speakers, so over time they drop word endings, which totally messes up the meaning and forces the language to evolve. English speakers tend be very lazy speakers – we’ve reduced most of our endings to the ‘schwa’ vowel sound ‘uh’, hence the endings of footballer, theatre, literature and banana are now pronounced the same (at least where I live, anyway), so that’s how we ended up with an SVO language. Whether a noun is the subject or the object it stays the same, unless it’s a personal pronoun, in which case it gets tricky.

Now comes the fun part. In order to speak properly using pronouns, you have to know the person (first, second or third), the quantity (singular or plural) and identify the subject and object. That’s how you know the first-person singular subject ‘I’ becomes ‘me’ as the object, just as the first-person plural subject ‘we’ becomes ‘us’ as the object. It’s how you know ‘he’, the third-person singular masculine subject, gives something to ‘him’, the third-person singular masculine object, and ‘she’ gives something to ‘her’. It’s how you know ‘they’, the third -person plural subject, becomes ‘them’. And this is without even mentioning the possessive pronouns ‘my’, ‘our’, ‘his’, ‘her’, and ‘their’.

Pretty complex ideas that need to be unpacked right from the start of learning to talk, not at secondary school. Whether they know it or not, kids are having to sift through a linguistic labyrinth just to say something as simple as ‘I gave it to her’. It’s the reason you hear so many toddlers say, ‘Me do it!’ and the reason it hits your ear wrong: they’ve correctly identified that ‘me’ is first-person singular, but they haven’t yet managed to grasp that ‘I’ is the proper term to use when they’re the subject. See? Kids are sorting out incredibly complex rules, most of them without even being aware they’re doing it.

What I really enjoy about children learning to speak is when their misapplication of the rules, mishearing of idioms, or simple mispronunciations create something genuinely interesting.

Like my youngest the other day walked up to the cat and gave her a kick. I told her off, and then a few minutes later she did it again. When I asked her why, she pointed at the screen and said, ‘Kick cat.’ It didn’t dawn on me until later that we’d been watching a programme on chocolate and they were talking about KitKats!

It’s also been really difficult to convince her that her name is not ‘me’, it’s Rosie. The closest we’ve managed is to get her to say, ‘Rose-me,’ which I guess is close enough.

My eldest, Izzie, is an expert at mixing up expressions. She always says, ‘by your own’ because she’s combined two expressions that mean the same thing: ‘by yourself’ and ‘on your own’. Also, because there’s a bedtime and a night time, she often shouts out in the middle of the night, ‘Is it morning time yet?’

Her pronunciation also leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of dropping the ends of her words and replacing them with a schwa, she has a tendency to drop the start of her words, so banana becomes ‘uhnana’ and ‘pretending’ is pronounced ‘uhtending ‘. And I swear she must have lived in Louisiana in a past life, because at times she has the most Southern drawl of any English girl I’ve ever met. Instead of hotel, she says, ‘Ho-TAY-ul,’ and instead of daffodil, it’s ‘daff-o-DEE-ul.’ It’s like sharing a house with that racist redneck sheriff from the Bond movies.

But the best thing she’s ever done is her song, ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy.’ She’s been singing it for months, and it drives me nuts, but I’ve only just figured out where it comes from.

If you study idioms, you find that their meanings and the words therein gradually change over time. This is particularly true if they contain a word that falls out of fashion and survives only as part of that idiom, and that word is normally changed to one that is more familiar. ‘All that glisters is not gold’ became ‘All that glistens is not gold,’ for example, and people everywhere these days say they’re ‘chomping’ at the bit, when the expression is ‘champing‘.

Kids do this all the time. With their limited vocabulary, they hear something and try to fit it into the words they already know. ‘Anchor hole, anchor hole, make you crazy’? She’s really singing, ‘Alcohol, alcohol, make you crazy.’

Of course, just because I know the difference between the definite and indefinite article doesn’t mean that I’m immune from misunderstandings, far from it, in fact. I’ll leave you with this little anecdote that happened to me the other day. I was listening to the radio in the car when an advert came on extolling the virtues of a particular brand of tyre. It ended with the line, ‘If you want a tyre without standing grip and performance, buy…’ and whatever the brand was called.

I frowned out at the road. Why would you want a tyre that has no standing grip? If you parked it on a hill, what’s it going to do, slide down to the bottom? And what on earth do they mean by standing performance? Surely you want the best performance when you’re driving down the road, not when you’re standing still. What odd characteristics they chose to highlight in their advert, I thought.

It was only later that I realised the man had said, ‘with outstanding grip and performance’. Whoops.

My worst experience

N.B. This one is bad, and bloody, and graphic. If you’re sensitive, especially about animal suffering, stop reading: you have been warned.

I’ve just started reading a book by Professor Richard Wiseman called 59 Seconds, and it argues in the very first chapter that according to empirical scientific data, talking about bad experiences doesn’t actually do you much good. Writing about them, however, by using a different part of the brain and by forcing you to apply a narrative to the events, does help you.

So I’m going to try that because I’ve just had one of the worst experiences of my life.

(What, worse than the time those boys kept ducking you in the swimming pool and you thought you were going to die?)

Yes, worse.

(What, worse than the time you got stuck in traffic with diarrhoea and pooped yourself?)

Yes, much worse.

(What, worse than the time you caught the end of your knob in your zipper?)

No. Not that bad. But close.

So here it goes.

As research for my novel I’ve been spending a lot of time on military forums and message boards, and been struck by how many military types look down their noses at us civilians. It’s as though they think the hardships we experience are in no way comparable to theirs, like we’re weak and sheltered and have easy, pampered lives. So, funnily enough, I was having a conversation just this morning about how everybody has bad things happen to them, you can’t tell what someone’s been through just by looking at their face, and nobody has a monopoly on suffering, and less than an hour later I had a terrible, traumatizing experience that proved us both right.

I live on the edge of the New Forest. I was driving my daughter to nursery with my wife this afternoon when the car in front of me pulled round something lying in the road. It was brown, about the size of a Great Dane, and there was blood everywhere.

‘Someone’s hit a deer,’ I said as I started to pull round it, assuming it was dead.

And then it lifted its head.

Oh. My. God. As we passed, it tried to stand up, but its legs were jutting out at all the wrong angles, like something from a John Carpenter movie, like a broken spider, and all it succeeded in doing was spilling more of its insides across the road.

I stopped, got out and told my wife to drive on. It was screaming, and it was obvious it was going to die, and I thought immediately that I had to kill it, to put it out of its misery, but I knew I didn’t have it in me to do it. Kneeling by it, I put one hand on its shoulder, the other on its neck to hold it down because it kept struggling to get up on broken legs and broken spine. Cars were slowing to stare and driving round me. I was worried they might not see me, but I was wearing a white shirt and I kept an eye out for traffic.

A passing motorist said whoever hit it and left it was a bastard, before she handed me a towel and, ironically, drove off. I covered its head, tried to keep it still and calm. It was on its right side, its two front legs facing left and the two rear ones facing right, like it had been ripped in two pieces about the middle. And it kept making this horrible screeching noise, this sound so sharp it cut to the bone.

There was so much blood. Blood and guts and intestines spreading out over the road.

With one hand holding it down, I fished my phone out of my pocket and called the police to come and destroy it. By the time I’d finished, a man came up from his car a hundred yards down the road and said he was the one who’d hit it. Where he’d been the past five minutes is anybody’s guess, but to be fair to him, he did stick around and he was badly shaken up. He clearly had no idea what to do.

By now, the blood was a big puddle just draining out of it, and it kept screaming and struggling and I kept holding it and trying to calm it down. There seemed to be two types of blood, this dark red liquidy kind and this much thicker, brighter, syrupy kind that oozed slowly towards the ditch, and I felt sick to my stomach, but I made sure the driver was okay and I rang the RSPCA to see if they’d come quicker, but I couldn’t get through.

More and more cars went past and I could see faces pressed to the windows, grown-ups, children, all desperate for a peek, and I thought any minute there’d be a camera and a selfie. (And, bizarrely, a woman with her husband beside her and three kids in the back shouted out the window at me, ‘You’re brave, aren’t ya!’ as she passed, which makes no sense to me whatsoever).

A woman pulled over and asked if I needed any help and I said I thought we needed to get it out of the road and onto the verge. She agreed, said we needed to think about its dignity and thanked me for covering it with the towel. Together with the driver we picked it up and carried it across the road and gently laid it down on the grass.

I kept my hands on it, soothing it, trying to let it know it wasn’t alone. It wasn’t screaming anymore, just making this quiet keening noise like it was winding down. There was blood on my hands and blood on my shirt, and I knew it wouldn’t be long. I felt its chest rise and fall, rise and fall, and then stop. I waited another minute to be sure.

‘I think it’s gone,’ I said, and peeling back the towel, I saw its eyes had turned a milky blue colour and it was dead, and my hands were shaking and I wanted to cry.

‘Have a good sleep,’ the lady said and touched it on the nose, and then thanked me again and left.

As I said, the guy who’d hit it was pretty out of it, and he was white as a sheet. He rang his work to say he wasn’t coming in while I called the police again and told them they were no longer needed, that it was deceased and it was out of the road. I called the council to come and remove the carcass, but again I couldn’t get through, so standing at the side of the road, I filled in an online form and sent it just as my wife pulled over to pick me up. It must have been twenty minutes since I’d first seen the deer. It took it fifteen minutes to die.

As I was making sure the driver was okay to be left on his own, a woman on a horse came by. She glanced at the deer, still under the towel, looked at me, then tutted and muttered something about people who drive too fast as she rode on. I wanted to knock her riding helmet off her head, and shout, ‘It wasn’t me! I’m not the one who hit it!’

So eventually, after I was sure the driver was okay, I went to shake his hand, but there was blood on it, and blood on mine, so instead I wished him well and told him to look after himself, and I left.

And. I. Felt. Awful.

When I was nineteen, I moved house with the hamster cage on my lap. The hamster ran on its wheel for an hour, then curled up in the corner panting and I watched it die. It broke my heart. And it was a hamster.

This was so much worse. It was a bloody, violent, horrible death. It was struggling and it was screaming and there were bits of it all over the road, and I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach and hollowed out, and on the way home I let out a roar of pain and anguish.

But when I got home and washed my hands and looked at myself in the mirror, I looked no different. I wasn’t even pale. I felt utterly gutted, but to look at me you’d have no idea I’d just been tending to a dying animal in the middle of the road. And when I went to pick up my daughter from school, none of the other parents could tell that all I could see was that thick, red goo oozing out over the darker puddle of blood.

Because you can’t tell what someone’s been through just by looking at their face.

It’s definitely one of the worst things I’ve had to experience. I say ‘had to’ as though I had no choice in the matter, but I don’t think I did – it didn’t even occur to me to drive on, not for a second. I’ve always been like that – I run towards danger to see if I can help instead of away from it, get involved when it’s probably more than I can handle, but I don’t know any other way to be and I don’t understand how people could drive past and not do anything.

This whole experience has made me realise that the experience of combat probably is something beyond what civilians can understand, except those special civilians like doctors, nurses, and the emergency services. We all encounter death in our lives, but it’s normally sanitised or hidden away; violent death is something else altogether. To see something’s insides on the outside; to see its blood spilling across your hands, and hear its screams, and feel its struggles, and know there’s not a damned thing you can do about it, is a shocking, reality-shaking thing. It’s so unnatural, so beyond how things are supposed to be, you can’t quite get your head round it.

I’ve seen many things die. A hamster, a dog, a chicken, a rat, a deer, a sparrowhawk, about a million fish. And it never gets any easier.

But while I’ve seen animals die, I’ve never been there when a person has died – I’ve only ever been there shortly afterwards. Now imagine if, instead of a deer, it was your buddy, your comrade, the man you’ve trained with and gotten drunk with and fought alongside, who was bleeding out into the Afghan soil. Everyday civilian life doesn’t really compare to that experience. No wonder so many of our soldiers have PTSD.

So, long story short, I think we’re both right. Nobody has a monopoly on suffering, and civilians can experience god-awful things in the usual run of their daily life, including death, just as soldiers can. But as civilians, we’re generally sheltered from the gut-spilling reality of violent death, while soldiers are surrounded by it. How much worse it must be to lose someone on the battlefield.

I’ll finish with the words of that woman as we said goodbye to that poor deer on the side of the road: have a good sleep.