Giving up sugar for Lent

I may have made a mistake. A big one. I gave up sugar for Lent.

Not all sugar, of course – there are sugars in all kinds of food. But I’ve given up foods to which sugar is added, and I’m advising anybody who reads this cry for help – don’t. Don’t do what I did.

But why sugar? I hear you ask. Why not something easy, like chocolate? Are you a masochist?

Yes. And resoundingly no.

I’m a chocoholic. I buy a 200g chocolate bar with the intention of making it last two days at least, and within 20 minutes it’s gone. And living close to the shops, who always have special deals on their chocolate, I can get through a fair few bars in a week. And I know that’s bad, particularly since chocolate doesn’t agree with me. Heart problems, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity – my chocolate addiction is going to shorten my life. That’s why last year, I thought it would be a good idea to give up chocolate for Lent.

But here’s the rub – because I stopped eating chocolate, I doubled down on sweets, biscuits, cakes, ice-cream and doughnuts. If you’re going to sacrifice chocolate, you have to do it for your health, and if you’re just going to binge on sugar as a replacement, what’s the point?

So I decided this year to nix sugar altogether. Surely I’d feel better, healthier, more alive?

I feel like I’m going to die. It’s been thirteen days. The first week I had cravings, sure, like an addict in need of a fix, but I ate a lot of potatoes and fruit and wondered why I hadn’t done this sooner.

The second week has been hell. I have no energy. I fall asleep at the drop of a hat. I’m not just irritable, I’m angry. My joints ache. My back hurts. My eyes flicker at the sides. I’ve got a constant headache. I’m dizzy and nauseous. I have earache and a sore throat. My belly feels heavy and tender. I can hear my heart in my ears, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. I can’t take a deep breath or I cough. My teeth are now chattering, even though I’m wearing a T-shirt, shirt, hoodie, dressing gown, woolly hat, fluffy slippers, and I’m wrapped in a blanket.

Hmm. Actually I think I might have flu.

[Next day]

Okay, so I just spent all last night shivering and sweating, drifting in and out of consciousness, my mind racing (I wrote an entire novel in my head), and woke up feeling a little better, albeit as grimy as a cinema floor and weak as a  newborn lamb. Yes, this might have been a 24-hour fly bug.

But I stand by what I said – giving up sugar has kicked me in the nuts and knocked me for six. Apparently, you’re not supposed to give up all at once – like any addictive drug, you’re meant to wean yourself off it. But I hope that I’m now past the worst of it, and will start to feel better from now on.

But one thing I have to point out is the weight loss, which might surprise you. When I joined Slimming World a few years ago, I lost 9lbs the first week, 4.5 lbs the second, and 35lbs over 12 weeks.

So how much weight have I lost from giving up sugar for two weeks? 10lbs? 5lbs? 1lb?

Not one solitary ounce.

Hardly seems worth it, does it?

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But how did her baby get into her tummy?

Ah. We have reached a developmental threshold. I thought we’d hit it before Christmas when my daughter said, ‘You know I was in mummy’s tummy? Well how did I get out?’ but that was only the mechanics of birth (and she didn’t believe me that mummy pushed her out her noo-noo). No, this question – the creation of life and the sexual dimension it implies – is altogether trickier, deeper, and represents a significant step outside of ‘that’s the way things are’ to ‘why are things that way?’ Yikes.

I must admit, I fudged the answer. I was alone with her in the car at the time, and I figured something like this ought to be discussed with her mother first so we can decide the best time, best way, and all that. To be honest, I thought I wouldn’t have to deal with the concept of procreation for a few more years at least, so I wasn’t ready, and a garbled response about eggs and seeds probably isn’t the best way to introduce a three-year-old to the mysteries of the adult world.

My mind racing, I considered implying that birds and bees had something to do with it; storks, cabbage patches, magic; even the age-old ‘when a mummy and daddy love each other very much…’; but given that bees are dying, storks are terrifying, and one of her friends has two mummies, it’s no longer that simple.

I turned it on its head and asked her how she thought they got in there.

‘I think mummy swallows them,’ she said, and we left it at that.

Phew! Dodged a bullet.

I was taught about sex at the age of four or five – penises, vaginas, sperm and eggs. While I’m not sure about the appropriate lower age, there is definitely an age where you should already be clued in – I remember everybody making fun of a ten-year-old at my school because he thought he came out of his mother’s butt. Sucked to be that guy – pooped into the world.

There’s a danger to leaving it too late, too. When I was on a bus travelling through Alabama twenty years ago, I remember seeing a massive billboard that said: ‘Talk to your children about SEX, or SOMEONE ELSE WILL!’ You definitely don’t want them learning from porn and thinking, like today’s eleven-year-olds, that that’s how people actually do it. And, of course, the consequences of a lack of sex education have been devastatingly explored in fiction, from Stephen King’s Carrie to Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. Message received and understood.

But there’s a way to do it, and I know that showing embarrassment or squeamishness can send out the wrong message and lead to problems later down the line. I met a girl at university who said, ‘I’m bisexual, but I’m terrified of penises, so I’ve only ever been with girls and I don’t think I’ll ever have sex with a man, so behaviourally I’m a lesbian.’ (My response to this statement was, ‘Nice to meet you, I’m Gillan, what’s your name?’). I don’t want that kind of confusion for my girls.

And I certainly don’t want them to think sex or masturbation or specific body parts are ‘dirty’ or ‘naughty’ or ‘shameful’ either. I want them to be body confident, with a healthy sexuality free from the hang-ups that I, an awkward, sexually-inexperienced autistic bloke might pass on to them.

So I started researching this topic online (very carefully – I don’t want to be on a watch list!), and I discovered I’m a lot more old-fashioned and out-of-touch than I realised.

Today’s Parent, for example, suggests teaching a child of 0 to 2 the words penis, vagina, vulva, clitoris, bum and nipple, meaning I missed that window. It also suggest explaining to them when and where it’s appropriate to explore their bodies – gently and in the privacy of their bedrooms, apparently – which I must confess I thought was a conversation for much, much, much later on.

For the 2 to 5 age range – where we’re at now – it suggests opening up about consent, explaining it’s not appropriate for others to ask to see or touch their genitals, and not to keep secrets about this, which is definitely good advice but, God, how do you have that conversation without implying the world’s full of sexual predators? Also, now’s the time to mention sperm and egg, perhaps leaving the gory details for when they’re older.

All of this seems alien to me. Far too young, I keep thinking, let them be children a little longer before you strip them of their innocence. But other sites, like Family Education, all seem to agree on this basic framework – the proper names for genitals and where and when it’s appropriate to touch yourself somewhere between 0 and 3, the egg and sperm speech and stranger danger around 3 to 5, and the more explicit details about 6 to 8.

I’ve been living under the erroneous belief that I could sit them down in about five years, have a one-off Q&A session, then avoid the issue until their first date when they’re sixteen, with a couple of ‘women’s issues’ interventions along the way. Instead, you need to mention sex throughout their upbringing, stressing issues of consent and context, in order to create a sexually healthy adult.

I guess I agreed to all this when I became a father, and next time she asks I’ll be better prepared. Sometimes, I think it would be better if a stork delivered us fully-formed to our parents. You certainly wouldn’t have to worry about stretch marks and post-partum incontinence!

How to age 5 years in 3 minutes

The three scariest things that can happen to a childless man:

  1. Looking in the mirror and seeing your father’s face staring back at you.
  2. Hearing the mechanic suck in his breath through his teeth when you ask how much it’ll cost.
  3. Your girlfriend turning to you and saying, “I know we’ve never talked about having children, but I’ve got some news…’

The three scariest things that can happen to a parent:

  1. Answering the door to a stranger who says, “Hello, I’m from Child Services.”
  2.  Discovering a rash that looks strangely like those meningitis pictures you keep Googling.
  3. When your child stops breathing.

So this afternoon I was driving along with my wife and youngest daughter in the car when suddenly 17-month-old Rosie’s breathing started to sound a bit raspy, like there was something lodged in her throat and she was struggling to breathe. I looked round and she was staring vacantly off to one side.

‘Rosie?’ I said.

No response.

‘Can you check on her?’ I asked my wife.

She turned round in her seat and said, with increasing panic, ‘Rosie? Rosie? Rosie!’

I looked round again and Rosie was still staring off to the side, eyes still blank, but now her lips were blue, her face was violet, and she looked like a porcelain doll.

‘I’m pulling in!’ I shouted, spun the wheel and stopped the car on someone’s driveway. Leaping out, I scattered the contents of the door pocket all across the road, rushed round the back of the car, ripped open Rosie’s door and dragged her from the seat.

She had this glazed look in her eyes and she was trying to breathe but there was nothing but this horrible gurgling rattle, and she was totally unresponsive.

I turned her upside down, lay her over my forearm and slapped her hard between the shoulder blades, whereupon two old ladies, thinking I was assaulting her, asked if she was okay.

I checked her and she wasn’t, so I shook her, turned her over, slapped her again a few times. When I turned her back the right way she was still struggling to breathe, but there was a bit more life in her eyes.

Cuddling her and bouncing her up and down, gradually the colour returned to her lips and she started breathing, if not normally then at least no longer sounding like she was dying. She didn’t react to me, just stared away and kept yawning and closing her eyes, everything sluggish and drained, her eyelids pink and lurid.

Luckily we were only a few minutes from the local surgery, so I rushed her there and they put me straight in to see a doctor. She was so sleepy, she didn’t react to the thermometer in her ear or the stick in her mouth, but she did start to cry when the doctor listened to her chest.

The long and the short of it, she has a fever but her chest sounds clear and her throat isn’t swollen. The doctor thinks it’s one of three things:

  1. A fit, though with no other symptoms or a repeat performance, it’s difficult to say any more at this time.
  2. She choked on a foreign body or even her own saliva.
  3. She is ill, and sometimes children hold their breath  when they’re feeling rotten, even to the point of turning blue.

Reassured, I took her home and she has been asleep on me the last ninety minutes while I listen to her breathing. But oh my gosh, if you’ve ever known fear before becoming a parent, it’s a thousand times worse after. It was probably three minutes between seeing her lips were blue and the colour returning to them, but those three minutes have kicked the living crap out of me.

I only hope it is a one-off.

The Greatest Spoonman

I am 39 years old, give or take six months. That means I’ve been alive around 14,235 days not accounting for leap years. I’m good at some things, less so at others, but one thing I can say without any exaggeration or false modesty: I’m damned good at using a spoon.

Some people look at me and think I was just born with certain genetic advantages, but I wasn’t. My skill with a spoon does not come naturally but has been honed over a lifetime of practice and hard work. If we scratch out the first two years of my life (which are a little vague in my memory), let’s suppose for the next four years, I used a spoon an average of four times a day, or a total of 5,840 times. If you use anything that many times, you become an expert. You have to put in the effort to get the results.

Unfortunately, my dedication to spoons slackened off after that as life got in the way. After starting school, up until eleven, I probably used a spoon twice a day – once for my cereal in the morning and once for pudding at teatime. Although I wasn’t really focusing on my spoon-wielding skills, I still managed to get another 4,380 uses in my logbook. Quite good for the average person, but not enough if you want your spooning to take you to the Olympics.

Then at twelve I started to take things more seriously. Like a quintessential Englishman, I started drinking tea to help focus my performances. For five years, seven spoons a day, that’s another 12,775 times.

At seventeen, shortly after taking silver at the National Spooning Championships, I realised I would have to add coffee to my daily regimen if I ever wanted gold. Eight to ten cups a day, plus cereal for breakfast and yoghurt for pudding, say, twelve spoons a day for 23 years, and you’re looking at 100,740.

Total times I’ve used a spoon in my life (give or take a couple of thousand): 123,735.

That is how I became what I am today. All my plaudits and successes in spoon usage have come from 39 years of single-minded pursuit of excellence. I am, without a doubt and by any objective measure, a giant of spoon-wielding brilliance.

But apparently, I’m using my spoon wrong. I’ve been using it wrong all my life. Luckily, my three-year-old was able to put me right over breakfast this morning. How lucky I am to have such an expert in my home who is able to correct years of bad technique.

Her lectures on how to properly use toilet paper, the best way of making coffee, and how I should shave my face have also been greatly appreciated and improved my life no end.

This will take me to the next level, so look out world! If I was unstoppable before, with the help of my three-year-old’s wisdom and expertise, I will soon conquer this puny planet. All hail your new emperor.

9/11 – the Truth

I had a row with someone today over who was behind the September 11th attacks. I told her I would love to have been a fly on the wall of the Oval Office when the idea was pitched.

‘Mr President, sir, you asked me to find a justification for invading Iraq to get our hands on their oil. I’ve consulted with the CIA, and we’ve come up with a plan for a false flag operation that’ll give you all the reason you need.’

‘Then let’s hear it.’

‘We rig a remote-controlled plane to crash into the World Trade Center and blame it on a bunch of Palestinian terrorists controlled by a Saudi mastermind backed by Pakistanis and living in Afghanistan.’

‘And then we can invade Iraq?’

‘Actually, no, that’s not enough of a casus belli. We have to crash a second remote-controlled jet into the other tower.’

‘And then we can invade Iraq?’

‘Actually, no, crashing two planes into the World Trade Center won’t make people support a war.’

‘It won’t?’

‘No, we need the towers to come down completely.’

‘How do we do that?’

‘We rig them with explosives in the middle of a busy, bustling city, without any of the 20,000 people who work in the building noticing anything. Then after the planes hit, we carry out a controlled demolition even though we know there’ll be a thousand cameras pointing at the building from every angle, allowing people to examine it frame by frame for any evidence of a conspiracy.’

‘And then we can invade Iraq?’

‘Actually, no, that’s still not enough reason to go to war. We have to fire a cruise missile into the Pentagon and say it was a plane.’

‘Why not just fly another remote-controlled plane into it?’

‘Because.’

‘I see. And then we can invade Iraq?’

‘Actually, no. We need to crash a jet in Pennsylvania and make it look as though the passengers rose up and tried to take back control from the terrorists. We’ll do that by faking phone calls to their family members and employing actors.’

‘And then we can invade Iraq?’

‘No, then we can invade Afghanistan.’

‘Oh. So when can we invade Iraq?’

‘We wait two years and then make up some crap about WMDs we know they don’t have.’

‘Ah. So how are you going to pull it off?’

‘Sir?’

‘Well, when we invade and the public discovers there are no WMDs, we’re going to look pretty silly. All we need is to plant one chemical warhead on a Scud launcher, and then we can point at it and say, “See? WMDs.'”‘

‘Sorry, sir. We can’t do that. It’s too complicated.’

‘What? You’re telling me we can carry out a false flag operation in full view of the public using remote-controlled planes, cruise missiles, fake phone calls, actors and demolition charges, but we can’t plant a single Scud launcher in the vastness of the Iraqi desert?’

‘That’s correct, sir. It’s very dusty out there.’

‘Okay. Sounds like a great plan. Let’s do it.’

The problem with conspiracy theories is that people take a single ‘fact’ that doesn’t seem to fit, and use this to undermine every other fact, working backwards to locate the perpetrators. I think that if you work forwards, from the conspiracy’s planning stage, it’s pretty easy to see whether it makes sense or not.

To paraphrase a quote attributed to GK Chesterton, it’s okay to have an open mind, just don’t open it so far that your brain falls out.

Too smart for a three-year-old

I think one of the biggest problems in my relationship with my daughter Izzie is that I keep treating her like a five- or six-year-old, expecting an older child’s level of understanding, emoting and behavioural control. Why? Because she’s too damn smart for a three-year-old.

Take yesterday, for example. She was sitting in the kitchen, drawing with her mummy, granny and sister, when I came in, sat down, and started chatting. After a few minutes, she said, ‘Daddy, you haven’t read much of your book today.’

‘No, I haven’t,’ I said. ‘I thought I’d sit in here with you.’

‘Well, I know you want to read your book, so why don’t you go and read your book? We’ll be okay.’

‘I’m alright.’

‘Daddy. It’s starting to get dark. You should read your book now.’

‘You really want me to read my book?’

‘Yes.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘See you in a bit.’

‘Okay, daddy, bye bye.’

I got up, walked out of the room, and then heard her say to the others, ‘Ah. Nice and quiet.’

And they all burst out laughing.

I raced back in. ‘Hang on,’ I said. ‘Were you trying to get rid of me?’

Izzie gave me an apologetic look and said, ‘You just talk so much, daddy.’

Oh my gosh. Instead of telling me to be quiet or go away or any of the other things you might expect a three-year-old to say, she used subtlety and subterfuge to remove me, playing on my own desires and interests to get what she wanted. I’d like to think it was about sparing my feelings – it’s an improvement on a month ago when she said, ‘Daddy, daddy, stop talking, I’m just not interested’ – but I’m pretty sure she was simply sharpening her manipulative wiles for the future.

Gosh darn.

A couple of days ago, she showed another keen eye for social interaction. I have to admit that, despite writing on this very blog that you shouldn’t shout at kids because they won’t listen to you, I haven’t been following my own advice. Lately, Izzie has been very disobedient, or, to quote the ladies at nursery, ‘not using her listening ears’ – basically completely ignoring the authority figure and doing what she wants. And I have doubled down on the shouting because she’s testing every boundary, and getting on every last nerve of every person she meets.

So the other day she was in the bath, throwing water all over me, and I told her to stop. And I told her to stop. And then I shouted at her to stop or I would get her out of the bath and make her sit on the naughty step.

‘Daddy,’ she snapped. ‘When I’m being naughty, treat me like I’m not being naughty.’

I stopped. ‘Huh? You mean let you do whatever you want?’

‘No, talk to me like you talk to me when I’m not naughty.’

‘You mean, don’t shout?’

‘Yes, daddy. Don’t shout at me when I’m naughty.’

‘Why not?’

‘I don’t listen when you shout. So I keep being naughty.’

‘Oh. So if I speak in a normal voice, you’ll listen to me when I tell you to stop?’

‘Yes, daddy.’

‘Okay.’ I thought a moment. ‘Let’s make a deal then. From now on, I’ll speak to you in a normal voice when you’re being naughty. But you have to listen when I do, and do what I say.’

‘Okay,’ she said. ‘We’ll do that. High five.’

So we high-fived on it. And at least one of us is upholding his side of the bargain…

But here is my question. If she’s that freaking smart that she’s a nursery room lawyer and can wind everyone in her life around her little finger at just three years of age, how come I have to check under the bed for dinosaurs every night?

So SAD

I’ve written before about suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Every year I hibernate, stop going out, stop writing, stop reading – just eat and sleep and snap at people over trivialities. And while this year is no different – I keep stuffing my face with chocolate, going to bed two hours earlier than usual and falling out with family members on a weekly basis – I’ve noticed an addition to my symptoms this year:

An overwhelming feeling of sadness.

It’s weird that having something called SAD, I’ve never particularly felt sad with it before. Moody? Sure. Lacking in energy, filled with self-loathing and totally uninterested in anything other than binge-watching old episodes of Arrested Development? Naturally. But sad? No, I’m too depressed to be sad.

For those who don’t suffer from depressive illness, allow me to explain the difference between depression and sadness.

Sadness is an emotion, a feeling, like joy or fear. You can feel it in particular locations in your body, and it provokes a visceral physiological reaction – a sinking chest, a trembling lip, tears. It is transitory and ephemeral, and stimulated as a reaction to something going on in your life – a death, a rejection, a painful memory. It comes in a rush, can be incredibly intense, and then goes away again, without leaving a fingerprint in your soul. That is sadness.

Depression, on the other hand, is a mood – an ongoing, long-lived, debilitating way of life that pushes down on you and pervades your entire body, mind and spirit. It’s not a feeling but a way of feeling. There are no ups and downs, no bursts of colour, just an ever-present gloom. It exists irrespective of what else is happening in your life, and though it is sometimes less pronounced, it never truly leaves you, a shadow that lurks in the recesses of your being and stains all that you’ll ever become. That is depression.

If sadness is a thunderstorm, horrible and exciting, depression is an endless grey sky, without wind, without rain, and without the prospect of ever seeing the sun again.

Which is why it’s odd that this year, this gripping, all-consuming sadness keeps creeping up on me and washing over me, stopping me in my tracks.

Contrary to the philosophy underpinning Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that the ancestor of every feeling is a thought, this feeling only comes when I’m not thinking at all. If I’m doing something that requires even the slightest modicum of brainpower, I’m fine – at least, as fine as I ever get. But every time I stop or do something so routine I don’t even need to think about it, I get hit by a wave of sadness.

It works like this – I’ll be watching the kids play, making sure they’re not killing each other, and all will be well and good. I’ll walk into the kitchen to make myself a coffee, flip on the kettle, and – BOOM! – I’m sad. So sad.

Or I’ll be doing the shopping, or driving the car, or playing with my kids, and the moment I stop, this dreadful sadness slaps me across the face. So I keep active doing word puzzles, watching game shows on TV, completing online quizzes so that I’m constantly thinking. Whenever I stop thinking, that’s when it comes – this feeling that I’m going to burst into tears.

People have suggested my antidepressants have stopped working, that I should go see a doctor. I can’t imagine why that would be the case after fifteen years on them. Besides, I saw a psychiatrist around eight or nine years ago to ask him that very question, and he said that you don’t build up a tolerance to SSRIs, needing to up the dose to receive the same effect. No, he said that depression just happens to be one of those things I have to live with.

And besides, sadness isn’t depression, so why would antidepressants control it?

I just have to wait for the spring again, even as it gets harder year on year. And hope that these thunderstorms will go away and leave me with my overcast sky.