Suicide Isn’t Painless

“Who cares if one more light goes out? Well I do.”

                       Chester Bennington (1976-2017)

[*NB this post talks about subject matter that is disturbing and distressing. I think it is important for people to be aware of the facts about suicide, and de-stigmatise it as a topic for discussion, so what follows is frank, challenging and undoubtedly upsetting. If you are sensitive about this sort of thing, it might be best to avoid reading on. You have been warned.]

Everyone I’ve told that I’m writing a post about suicide has responded in the same way: ‘What? Why would you want to do that? You shouldn’t, what’ll people think? You need to be really careful. I don’t think it’s an appropriate topic to talk about.’

Without knowing it, they have all supported the central argument of this post and the exact reason I’m writing it: in our society, we are far too reluctant to talk about suicide.

A lady I worked with died a couple of years ago along with her twenty-year-old son. They had gone to stay at a cabin in the woods, so my natural assumption was carbon monoxide poisoning. The newspaper that initially reported their deaths went very quiet about it, as did everyone who knew them. It was only recently I discovered it was murder-suicide: the son killed his mother and then himself.

A few months back I looked up somebody I knew at school to see what he was up to these days. I found a memorial page – he died a few years ago on Valentine’s Day. There was nothing to say how he died, but among the dozens of tributes were repeated assertions that it was unexpected, along with the question ‘why?’, leaving little doubt it was self-inflicted. But no matter how much I scoured the newspapers, tribute sites, obituaries and Facebook, nobody was saying what happened, as though it was a dirty little secret that could only be hinted at in riddles.

I don’t think that this is helpful. At all. As someone who has suffered from depression all his life and was at the right age to be deeply affected by the self-destruction of the grunge movement, especially the suicide of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana in 1994, I considered suicide throughout my teens and early twenties. I imagine the tragic suicides of Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave, and especially Chester Bennington of Linkin Park earlier this year have had as big an impact on later generations. Had I known more about the realities of suicide – had it been a topic we could discuss openly and honestly – I would certainly not have thought about it in the same way. The silence surrounding suicide endangers lives, and this is what we need to address.

Below is the information people need – parents, teachers, adults, teenagers, male, female, whether you’re considering suicide or not. This is the information I wish that I’d had years ago. Hopefully, by removing the shroud of mystery that surrounds the topic, it will help some people realise that suicide is not the answer.

Suicide is a human tragedy, not a moral issue

I’m going to start by laying out my position on suicide. I don’t think that suicide is either right or wrong in and of itself and I don’t think that preaching about the morality of suicide or judging those who have done it brings us any closer to finding a solution. Different societies treat suicide differently, making it more or less acceptable based on cultural standards. The Japanese, for example, long thought it more honourable to kill yourself than surrender, while even in Britain, suicide to save others can be considered noble – Titus Oates leaving Scott’s tent with the iconic line, ‘I’m going outside and I may be some time’, springs to mind. Feeling suicidal doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ person, any more than suffering from depression makes you a ‘weak’ one: it is just the way things are. 

On the other hand, while suicide is not a moral issue, I think that it is a tragic, heartbreaking, often unnecessary course of action typified by suffering – both of the one committing the act and those left behind. I think that if people were more comfortable talking about it, more aware of the facts about it, and better able to ask for and access help without the fear of being judged, there would be fewer suicides. No parent wants their child to commit suicide; no child wants their parent to either; and the only way to stop this is to de-stigmatise the issue of suicide and stop it being seen in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. That is what this post aims to do.

Suicide stats

First, we have to understand the scale of the problem. Here in the UK, we have just over 6000 suicides a year (compared to only 1700 road deaths and around 500 murders). In a country of more than sixty million people, this equates to one suicide per every ten-thousand people. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but this figure is misleading as it relates to a living population. If you look at suicide as a proportion of the total deaths in the UK each year – just over half a million – 1% are from suicide. That is, one in every 100 people who die, kill themselves. That’s a substantial figure.

This increases dramatically if we screen for age. According to government statistics, the leading cause of death for 20-34 year olds is suicide (24% for men, 12% for women), and it remains the leading cause of death for men in the 35-49 age bracket (13%). You would be forgiven for thinking that the group most at risk of suicide are teenage girls since barely a day goes by without another suicide of a promising young person making the headlines, but while teen suicide is particularly devastating, suicide affects all age groups and genders.

Figures from The Samaritans show that in actual fact men kill themselves at a rate three times that of women. Furthermore, rates of suicide, whether male or female, tend to increase with age until peaking in the forties, then steadily drop until a sharp rise in the seventies and eighties. People are therefore far more likely to kill themselves during the ‘mid-life crisis’, when they look at their lives and wonder what it’s all about, or when they are tackling infirmity and illness towards the end of their lives, than as teenagers. Most at risk are men in their forties.

Unfortunately, we live in a society in which ‘real men’ are supposed to be strong and self-sufficient, admitting no weakness nor asking for help. Therapy and counselling are seen as ‘feminine’, and those undergoing it as somehow ‘broken.’ None of these value judgements are accurate or helpful, and as a whole this stigma has to change. As the statistics show, all people need more sympathy and support when it comes to their mental wellbeing. If we cannot create a society in which it is okay to seek treatment for very real difficulties, we will never reduce the rate of suicide and the suffering will continue unabated.

Suicide is often a passing impulse

Of course, it must be pointed out that people are going to kill themselves, regardless. It has always happened throughout human history, and it always will. Some people seem destined to kill themselves, as though drawn to it like moths to a flame; some suffer from various mental health conditions that predispose them towards it; some have painful, life-limiting conditions that make it the lesser of two evils; and for some, life circumstances make it appear the only option.

In many cases, however, suicide is avoidable because the desire to kill oneself is often a passing impulse. You might spend a lot of time thinking about suicide and considering how you might do it, but the actual decision to go through with it tends to be in a specific and transitory moment of desperation. In my lowest moment as a seventeen-year-old, if I’d had easy access to a means of ending it all (i.e. a gun), I’d have used it. But I didn’t, and the feeling passed, and I’m glad that it did. If you can get through that desperate, impulsive hour or two, suicide generally doesn’t seem like such an attractive option.

This is not just my opinion. It has been claimed that up to 80% of suicides are impulsive acts that wouldn’t have happened if the person had had the chance to reflect and back out before committing the act. Furthermore, in around 70% of cases, the time between deciding to commit suicide and actually doing it is less than an hour. If you can get through that hour, your odds of survival go up dramatically: a 1978 study found that of 515 people who were prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, only 6% went on to kill themselves later. The impulse passed and they lived.

In fact, one of the most upsetting aspects of suicide is that the desire often wears off either during the suicide or immediately after fatal steps have already been taken. Many people who survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge have reported that they regretted the decision the very moment that they jumped. From this, we can surmise that an unknowable number of the people who successfully committed suicide changed their minds after jumping, but it was already too late. This begs the question: how many successful suicides could have been prevented had the individuals been kept away from the means of killing themselves until the impulse waned?

This passing impulse might explain the reason why, according to the World Health Organization, the rate of suicide in the US in 2015 was 12.6 per 100,000 people, while that in the UK was 7.4: greater access to firearms. Indeed, firearm suicide in the UK is incredibly rare (hanging is the most common method), while in the US nearly half of all suicides are from firearms. That said, statistics are notoriously unreliable, and cultural factors need to be considered – the comparative rate of 17.9 suicides per 100,000 of the population in Russia, for example, has been attributed to high alcohol consumption.

Whatever the case, if anybody who is feeling suicidal can have the self-control or support network to enable them to wait it out for even an hour or two, the suicidal desire will likely pass. If you’re feeling suicidal, don’t be too hasty. And if you’re with someone who is feeling suicidal, don’t leave them on their own. A couple of hours is not a lot to ask to potentially save a life.

Killing yourself is harder than you think

People are very blase about suicide: this person killed themselves, that person committed suicide. Because of our reticence to talk about it, suicide sounds like something very quick and easy, removing yourself from this veil of tears in a neat and painless fashion. I used to wonder why people ‘attempted’ suicide – surely, I thought, if you were serious and it wasn’t a cry for help, you’d get it right.

In reality, killing yourself is much harder than this. Estimates vary, but it is thought that for every ‘successful’ suicide, there are between 50 and 200 suicide attempts. For centuries, suicide has held a dark allure that has inspired poets and artists alike, but suicide is neither romantic nor beautiful – successful suicides tend to be the result of violent trauma. For example, my parents knew a man who killed himself by swallowing razor blades with bleach – there will be no poems written nor pictures painted about that. While most people would never go to that extreme, it still requires far more unpleasantness to kill yourself than simply drifting off to sleep.

Below are the pitfalls of various common methods that, I hope, will convince people not to use them. There is no such thing as an easy death.

Slitting your wrists

I often considered slitting my wrists, and I think teenagers still see this one as a reliable method of suicide. It isn’t. Depending on how much of the vein you open, your blood will likely clot or reroute before you’re in any danger from blood loss. And you need to lose a lot of blood to be in danger – the way it’s depicted on TV is far cleaner than the reality.

To be effective, you’d have to cut down to the artery. However, if you feel your wrist, you need to cut through the tendons that control your fingers in order to reach it. This is incredibly painful, and if you survive you’ve lost the use of your fingers into the bargain.

During my time at the police, I did encounter a suicide by opening the radial artery. To say he ‘slit’ his wrist is far too polite –  it was more akin to butchery and the scene was a horror movie. I think if more people knew this, far fewer would ever attempt this method.

Drug overdose

I can understand the appeal of an overdose, since the idea is that you simply fall asleep and never wake up. The problem is that suicide by pills is an unpredictable method at best, especially since barbiturates have largely been replaced by benzodiazepines, which are far less toxic in overdose. It requires a number of factors, including your health, interactions with other drugs, and all manner of random chemical processes to actually kill yourself this way. Indeed, it is estimated that in the US, overdoses result in death only 1.4% of the time.

Oftentimes, a person will vomit either before or after they lose consciousness, ridding their system of the drugs and giving themselves an almighty headache in the process. Furthermore, they will often do significant damage to their internal organs, leading to a shortened life characterised by pain and regret. If you consider that, by taking an overdose, you risk screwing up your physical health and reducing your quality of life without actually dying, it seems to me a risk too great to take.

Of great importance, everybody needs to know that you should NEVER overdose on over-the-counter medication, especially Paracetamol. You certainly can kill yourself with Paracetamol – it’s often the drug-of-choice for teenage suicides – but it is not a quick or pleasant death. Instead of simply falling asleep peacefully, it kills your liver, leaving you conscious and alive but dying for hours or days. Time enough to regret what you’ve done, to have to face your family, and to encounter all the things you’d been hoping to avoid. I’ve heard enough stories of teenagers regretting doing this and vainly begging the doctors to save them as they slowly die to know this is possibly the most drawn-out, emotionally-wrought and horrific way of killing yourself.

Don’t keep this one quiet. Shout it from the rooftops: Don’t. Ever. Overdose. On. Paracetamol.

Hanging

While I mentioned before that this is the most common method of suicide in the UK, that doesn’t mean that it is without its pitfalls, which are fairly horrendous.

There are two main versions: the long drop (with a quick stop) or suspension. The former, as the name suggests, is where a person ties a noose around their neck and jumps from height, which, if done right, results in a broken neck; the latter involves the person putting a ligature around their neck and then suspending themselves until they’re asphyxiated. Neither is a pleasant option.

From my experience in the police, the long drop can result in decapitation, since the person’s entire weight and the force of the sudden stop are focused under their jaw. Oftentimes, people kill themselves this way in the woods by climbing trees, where they will be discovered by children or joggers or dogwalkers, which shows a blatant disregard for others. Worse, many people kill themselves in the spring or summer and it is not until the autumn, when the leaves fall from the trees, that their blackened and bloated bodies are discovered. If you want a dignified, ‘neat’ demise, without the risk of ripping off your own head, the long drop is not for you.

Far more common is the suspension method, but this is little better. When done ‘right’ – compressing the carotid artery – unconsciousness can occur fairly quickly, followed some time later by death. However, there is still pain, since your weight is focused entirely on your throat, and suicidal people don’t often do it ‘right’ – even professional executioners who did it for a living couldn’t guarantee a quick end.

When not done exactly right, it compresses the windpipe instead of the arteries, leaving you hanging, choking, spluttering, gasping for breath, for anything up to thirty minutes. Furthermore, if we factor in that many suicides are impulsive and the victim regrets it and changes their mind, imagine half an hour of hideous pain and terror as you struggle to free yourself from your self-inflicted death, desperate to take it back as the life is slowly choked from you. It doesn’t bear thinking about, but you must if you’re considering suicide – hanging is not the easy way out you might think it is.

If you want to see how awful it is to be hanged, you need look no further than Back To The Future III. Early in the movie, Michael J Fox’s character is suspended by the neck from a rope. During filming something went wrong with the stunt harness, and what you see on screen as Fox claws at the rope, his face turning purple and tongue bulging from his mouth as he struggles for breath, is the actor really being hanged. And it isn’t pretty.

Vehicular collisions

Stepping into traffic or throwing yourself in front of a moving train is an extreme method of killing yourself that is not for the squeamish. The forces involved mean that body parts tend to fly in all directions – arms, legs, head and torso ending up in different places and in various states of undress. Yes, victims of this type of suicide are often found naked, because if the impact is powerful enough to sever your limbs from your body, it’s powerful enough to rip off your clothing and leave you without a stitch on you.

That said, it is not necessarily a reliable method of suicide. Jumping under subway trains only leads to death around half the time since the train is decelerating as it enters the station and the depth of the pit means you’re less likely to get caught under the engine. Survivors from this type of suicide attempt often lose limbs and suffer massive injuries, dramatically reducing their quality of life without actually killing them. That is a pretty big risk to take.

While I said that I wasn’t going to discuss the morality of suicide as a whole, this is the only method that involves another person. Indeed, rather than kill yourself, you get an unwilling participant to kill you, implicating them in your death and often leaving them traumatised and suicidal themselves. No matter how you look at it, this is wrong.

That is before we mention that killing yourself in this way endangers other lives. In a road traffic collision you could very easily cause a fatal accident, while those who park their cars on railway lines can cause derailments. At Ufton Nervet in 2004, for example, a man committing suicide at a level crossing resulted in the deaths of the train driver and five passengers, along with 71 injuries. This is not suicide: this is murder. To feel like killing yourself is one thing, but to do it in this manner is indefensible.

Falling from height

I’ve already discussed this one in relation to the Golden Gate Bridge – many of the people who jump regret it before they hit the water, which is not an ideal situation in which to find yourself. There used to be a myth that people who jumped from great heights would be unconscious before they reached the bottom, but this isn’t true – you’re awake and aware the whole way down.

Jumping from height is a risky proposition. There is no actual height at which it can be said that somebody is guaranteed to die. Some die after falling twenty feet; some survive after falling a hundred, albeit often with major injuries and/or paralysis. Certainly, as a result of suicide locks on windows, suicide barriers on buildings and bridges, and reduced access to rooftops, people are jumping from lower and lower heights to try and kill themselves, with mixed results.

One thing is sure, however – killing yourself this way is not the equivalent of drifting off to sleep. Bones break; organs are ripped free; splinters of your ribs penetrate your lungs and heart; your head explodes like a watermelon. It is a traumatic, nasty, horrible way to go.

Firearms

Often seen as a foolproof way to go, there are surprising exceptions. I’ve seen people who have put a pistol under their chin or into their mouth and blown off their face, only to survive hideously deformed. A gun held to the temple will sometimes travel around the outside of the skull or take a part of the brain away that leaves you alive but brain-damaged. The author Joseph Conrad shot himself in the chest, only for the bullet to miss every major organ and his spine and pass out the back, though it left him critically ill for months.

Shotguns have a higher rate of lethality, but like other methods, it is a messy, destructive and very ugly way to go. If put in the mouth, the expanding gases from the gunshot rip out the sides of your eye-sockets while the shot evacuates your brain through the back of your skull. Photographs of Kurt Cobain’s body taken through the window show him lying almost serenely on his back; what is out of shot is the true horror of what it looks like when somebody shoots themselves in the face with a shotgun, and if that photo had become the defining image of his suicide, then there would be no way to glamorise his death at all.

Lastly, I would like to say that with suicide in this manner, there is no way of stopping at an earlier stage or having second thoughts. On a ledge, you have the opportunity of thinking things through; with an overdose, you can rush yourself to hospital; but as soon as you pull that trigger, all of your chances and opportunities are gone forever. Given the impulsive nature of so many suicides, don’t be too hasty, or you won’t be able to live to regret it.

Your suicide will probably ruin somebody’s life

I appreciate that when you’re feeling suicidal, you’re not always rational and your judgement can be impaired. You might think that nobody cares or would notice you were gone; you might think that people would be better off without you here; you might be lost so deep inside your pain that you don’t think about others; and you might even want to kill yourself to show someone how much they’ve hurt you. I don’t agree with calling people who commit suicide ‘selfish’, as I believe that it’s far more complicated than that. However, it is an undeniable fact that, no matter what you think about other people or how they’ll react, your suicide will likely ruin somebody’s life.

Parents rarely, if ever, get over the suicide of a child. Likewise, children rarely recover from the suicide of a parent. Even if you think you’re doing them a favour or that they wouldn’t care, I can guarantee that you’re wrong. For every suicide, there are reckoned to be around six ‘suicide survivors‘ – that is, people left grieving and struggling to make sense of it.

When a loved-one commits suicide, the grief of those left behind is often far more long-lasting than if the loved-one simply died, because it is tied up with feelings of guilt and responsibility. Indeed, when a loved-one dies naturally, some 10-20% of the bereaved enter something called ‘complicated grief‘, which leads to major depression and often suicidal ideation; when a loved-one dies by suicide, that figure is 43%. Furthermore, people who lose a loved one to suicide are 65% more likely to attempt suicide themselves.

This is because losing a loved-one to suicide is different from losing them in other ways. The suddenness of suicide is shocking, as is the trauma of discovering what you’ve done; even if they don’t see your death or your body, family members will often picture it in their minds, which can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The shame and stigma that surrounds suicide means your grieving relatives will often become isolated, unable to express or offload their grief because of the circumstances of your demise. For example, Gabbi Dix, mother of a fourteen-year-old suicide victim, said, ‘When Izzy died, I didn’t want to be alive but I didn’t dare tell anyone that in case I was judged.’

Your family will suffer painfully mixed emotions because of wondering if there was anything else they could have done. Furthermore, the lingering question of why you did it might never give them resolution. When you think about it, if you commit suicide you’re condemning your loved-ones to the same suffering and confusion that you’re experiencing. I don’t say this to guilt-trip you, but it is worth asking if this is something you want to put them through.

You might think that you have no loved-ones, and that is fine; but even so, your death can affect people you’ve never met in ways you can’t anticipate. Like a pebble thrown into a pond, you have no idea how far the ripples caused by your suicide will reach.

When my first girlfriend was eight, for example, she was crossing a pedestrian bridge at a train station when a man pushed past her and muttered something. She watched him as he continued down onto the platform and threw himself in front of a passing train. She was the last person he ever spoke to.

Traumatised by what she had witnessed, she underwent years of counselling and psychotherapy. At sixteen, she tried to kill herself with an overdose. She gravitated towards friends with suicidal tendencies – one of her best friends hanged himself. She got into drugs and ended up a mess, far away from the happy life she could have had, and all because a stranger chose to kill himself at a train station one day.

She won’t have been the only one affected. Train drivers often suffer PTSD after witnessing suicides. Some are never able to work again. When I worked at the police, the suicide of a woman who jumped in front of a train started me on the road towards a nervous breakdown from which I doubt I’ll ever fully recover. While you might think that suicide doesn’t hurt anyone else, you need to be aware that your actions may very well cause massive damage to total strangers who have to witness or deal with the aftermath of your decision. If you have any compassion for people, you have to think about that.

What to do if you’re feeling suicidal

Read about suicide – that’s possibly why you’re here reading this. Learn all the facts. Dismiss the myths, such as that suicide is most common at Christmas (it’s actually the spring and summer months), or that people always leave suicide notes (they’re actually somewhat rare, and mostly banal things like, ‘Please feed the cat.’). And then talk to somebody.

So often, the families of suicide victims are stunned because they didn’t know anything was wrong. Reading survivor testimony, you regularly come across lines like, ‘Why didn’t he say anything?’ and ‘I wish I’d known.’ It’s difficult to talk about something so personal and emotive, difficult to open up, scary to expose yourself like that – but it’s something you have to do if you’re going to be fair to yourself and others. Give yourself a chance; give others a chance.

You might be afraid of upsetting people, of being judged, or of power being taken away from you, and I can understand that. But you’ll cause infinitely more suffering if you don’t, and nobody can stop you killing yourself if your mind is made up – the decision to live has to come from you.

It doesn’t have to be a family member or even a friend. You could tell your doctor, or a counsellor; you could talk to someone anonymously over the phone or online. The important thing is to reach out and make contact.

I know that it can often seem as though your problems are insurmountable. At my most agitated moments, I could think only of death as a release from my difficulties. But to do so denies you the possibility of overcoming your problems, and looking back, the things I would have killed myself over twenty years ago are, in the grand scheme of things, nothing worth losing your life over.

As Ken Baldwin said after surviving a leap from the Golden Gate Bridge in 1985 while severely depressed: ‘I instantly realised that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable – except for having just jumped.’

Don’t make that same mistake. Talk to someone.

How you can help prevent suicide

Make yourself open to discussions about suicide. I’m not saying to raise it at dinner parties or family picnics, but letting your kids or parents, siblings, partner and close friends know that the subject isn’t taboo with you, and that if they ever feel low they can talk to you without judgement or consequence, can only help break the dreadful silence that prevents people seeking help for this affliction.

This only works if you truly can set aside your value judgements about suicide. The topic is surrounded by fear and emotion, and is more often than not brushed under the carpet and ignored until it’s too late. Only by confronting your attitude towards suicide, and treating its victims with compassion and not censure, can we effect positive change.

I’ve read several times that when they realise somebody is down or depressed, people are worried about mentioning suicide in case they put the idea into the person’s head. Don’t be. Odds are, they’ve already thought about it, probably a lot and possibly more than you could imagine. The fact is, while the decision to kill yourself is often impulsive and abrupt, most people who do so have already considered it, planned it, and incorporated it into their belief system long before they ever make an attempt – they simply haven’t reached a point where they have chosen to act on it.

Given the often impulsive nature of suicide, you don’t want to be talking about it with somebody and trying to change their opinion on it when they’re already at crisis point and actively suicidal. All the information above is no use at such a time as the information needs to be absorbed before a person is at the point where they’ll make an attempt. Hopefully, that will mean that if and when they reach the impulsive hour or so, they’ll have enough facts about the awfulness of suicide to delay it or seek help until the urge passes. Talking should be a first resort, not a last resort.

And lastly, if you think somebody is in that agitated, hour-long danger window, stay with them. There is a strange psychological duality that comes over a suicidal person, a desire to die alongside a desire to be saved. Jumpers stand on a ledge instead of just jumping; shooters ring the police as though asking to be talked out of it; the Ufton Nervet driver pulled on and off the train tracks several times, clearly unsure about it; and even people who cut their own throats have ‘hesitation wounds’ as the desire to die fights against the survival instinct.

Suicidal people often want to be saved, so save them.

Summary

  • If we want to reduce the incidence of suicide, we need to de-stigmatise it and become comfortable talking about it.
  • Suicide is not ‘wrong’, but it is tragic and often unnecessary.
  • Suicide is often an impulsive act, and if you can survive the first hour or two, things will normally get better.
  • There is no such thing as an ‘easy’ suicide – it’s hard and nasty, and anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t done their research.
  • Suicide ruins the lives of those left behind.
  • If you’re feeling suicidal, don’t do anything rash – talk to somebody.
  • If you think somebody may be considering suicide, don’t ignore it – talk to them. You might just save a life.

Useful contacts

In the UK and ROI, The Samaritans can be contacted by phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on 116 123, or by e-mail at jo@samaritans.org.

In the USA, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be contacted 24/7 on 1-800-273-8255 or through live chat (accessed from the website).

For other countries, please follow this link to find a list of other national helplines.

Final thoughts

In the late 1990s, on several occasions, I worked myself up into such a state that I thought suicide was the only way out of my problems. In those moments, I was a danger to myself. Yet those moments passed, and here I am, twenty years later, going strong.

Had I killed myself back then, I can honestly say that it would have been a mistake, done because I didn’t know the truth about suicide or how to go about getting help. I think many people who kill themselves are making that exact same mistake every day. This needs to stop, and if this post makes just one person think twice about killing themselves, it has done its job.

I apologise to my regular readers for straying so far from my usual topics – autism and parenting – but I felt sufficiently compelled to write this by seeing Nirvana, Audioslave and Linkin Park videos being played back-to-back every time I turn to the music channels, bringing the whole notion of suicide to the forefront of my mind, as I’m sure it has in many people’s.

Writing this post hasn’t been easy, but I have always believed we need to face our problems if we are to overcome them and grow as people. I once saw a plaque on a bench that read, ‘Keep facing the sun, and the shadows will always fall behind you.’ No truer words have ever been spoken.

I can’t promise you that life will ever be easy. But at least we have the sun.

Take care of yourselves and all the best.

Gillan

Advertisements

Partners in the Marriage Business; or, what the hell happened to my sex life?

There’s a line in the Robin Williams movie RV: Runaway Vacation that really resonates with me. It’s not a great movie by any stretch, with the trite message that spending time with your family is more important than spending time at work, but it has a certain clumsy charm that makes it far more likeable than it ought to be.

Towards the end of the movie, when the family is at its lowest ebb, the wife opens up to a delightfully happy hippy couple about how when you first get together, it’s all romance and fun and affection, but then before you know it you’ve become ‘partners in the marriage business’ – this one needs taking to school, that one to football practice, you need to get the shopping on the way home from work, who’s paying the rent this month? – and somewhere along the way, you forget what it was that drew you together in the first place.

My wife and I have become partners in the marriage business.

Our relationship is entirely about who is cooking tonight, let’s get take-out, are we made of money, you need to pay the swimming teacher, I’d rather pay the pizza boy, do we have enough nappies, we’ve run out of wipes, why is there ink all over the carpet, you’ve shrunk my shirt, no you’re just fat, have you seen her dummy, where’s the lid to this bottle, I’ve lost the TV remote, well if the house was tidy we wouldn’t keep losing everything, so tidy it then, someone needs to get petrol, by someone you must mean me, you’ve spent how much on Christmas presents, no I haven’t even thought about it yet, can we please turn off Peppa Pig, I appear to be sitting in a wet patch, did you feed the cat, it’s your turn to change the nappy, I changed the last one, there’s poo on your jumper, I’m tired, I’m hormonal, how come we don’t connect any more, how can we possibly connect when we’ve got two kids, I hate my life, I hate your life too, oh God why’s she crying again, I don’t know I’m not a mind reader, really I thought you knew everything, oh go to hell, I’m already there, that’s because you’re the devil…and so on, and so forth.

Yes, the marriage business.

We’re so disconnected that the toddler has started calling them ‘mummy’s sofa’ and ‘daddy’s sofa’, and calling us ‘cheeky monkeys’ if we dare to swap. When we kiss or cuddle, as we’re trying to do to rekindle something of the spark we once had, the toddler shouts, ‘No fighting!’ because little signs of affection are so rare, she thinks we’re attacking each other.

It’s a little worse at the moment because my baby has a cold, my wife has a cough and a cold, and my toddler has a cough and a cold and conjunctivitis. In addition, we haven’t had an oven for three weeks as a two-day kitchen makeover has dragged on exponentially. And currently, the kids are tag-teaming me.

When they’re not screaming at the same time, they’re taking it in turns. Either way, there’s no respite. Two days ago I got up at 4.30 in the morning and didn’t get to bed until 2.30 am yesterday, which by my reckoning is a 22-hour day. Not even Amazon makes people work that hard.

So, as our marriage is on the rocks, and we’re aware of that, we decided we needed to reconnect physically, because everyone knows that if you solve the problems in the bedroom, everything else falls into place (yeah, I know it’s meant to be the opposite, but what else can we do, talk to each other?).

Unfortunately, intimate time when you’re married with a toddler and a baby is easier said than done. When I was up to my middle knuckles in shit the other day, trying to extract my baby from three layers of yellow-stained clothing and fighting to wipe peanut butter off her ankles, knees, belly button and nipples (no, I’m not joking, it was a bad one), my wife looked at me with a wink and a nod, and mouthed the word, ‘Later.’

I’m on a promise, I thought. Yay! But I wasn’t entirely convinced.

I’ve been on a promise for a fortnight now.

What tends to happen is, ‘Sex tonight?’

‘Yep, definitely.’

I put the toddler to bed around 7.30, and my wife goes to bed at nine with another hint of things to come: ‘don’t be long’, she says, seductively drawing her fingers across my shoulder as she leaves.

Whereupon the baby does her nightly cluster-feed, keeping me up till around midnight when she falls asleep in my arms. I go upstairs, put her in the Moses basket, rock her back to sleep since she always wakes up during the transfer. And then I look down at my wife in the bed.

Snoring away in a ball of misery and discontentment, wrapped up to the eyeballs in the least-flattering pyjamas she can find. Which, to be honest, is a relief.

I can’t afford the time or energy it takes to have sex. My kids climb over me all day so by the time I go to bed, I don’t want even the slightest trace of physical contact. Added to which, I’m knackered and I just want to sleep, knowing either of them could wake up any second and demand my attention.

But I figure I’d better go through the motions anyway and continue with the charade.

Nudging my wife with my knee, I say, ‘You still up for sex?’

‘Too tired,’ she mumbles without even waking up.

‘Thank God,’ I mutter, and collapse into bed.

We’re partners in the marriage business, and it doesn’t look like that’s changing any time soon.

The Wind Atlas

Oh Rosie. You might be my favourite 11-week old, but I can no longer pretend this isn’t happening. For the purpose of saving our relationship, I have to be honest with you. I love you, from the tips of your ginger-tinged hair to the tops of your tiny little toenails, but there is no denying it anymore: you are the fartiest creature I’ve ever met.

Your early weeks weren’t so bad. Yes, when I fed you, you puffed like a steam train against my thigh – puff, puff, puff – but they were quiet and polite, like little girl farts ought to be. What happened, sweetheart? Why did you change?

Was it to teach me a new vocabulary of wind? Was it so that I could experience such diversity of parps and pumps that I would never again take for granted the simple biological process of breaking wind? Well, honey, lesson learned – you have successfully educated me. Here follows a chart of flatulence, a wind atlas, if you will. And now it’s done, can you just stop it now?

The Wind Atlas

The broadside – a fart so loud and resonant it’s like all the cannons on HMS Victory firing at once – BOOM! Has been known to send the dog running for cover.

The fire at will – like the broadside, except the individual gun crews reload and shoot as fast as they can, leading to a ragged series of explosions.

The warning shot – this is a single cannon shot, with minimal powder, as though testing the barrel is clear. Often presages further shots to come.

The ripper – the sound of tearing cloth; short, fast, with a certain amount of vibration. Tends to make people check you haven’t burned a hole in your baby-gro.

The zipper – like the ripper, but longer and slower, like somebody zipping up the door to a tent or awning.

The follow-through – starts off like the zipper, but before the tent is completely closed, a lemon gets stuck in the zip and is loudly squished. Often followed by a shocked look on your face, as if to say, ‘How did that happen?’

The cough fart – quite a skill, this one, like patting your head while rubbing your stomach. It’s a simultaneous cough and fart, done in such unison it’s almost musical. Normally in clusters, two and two. Ringo Starr wishes he had your sense of rhythm.

The sneeze fart – not as percussive as the cough fart, and not always exactly in time, either, this is nevertheless a worthy addition to your repertoire. Except when flying snot enters the fray; then I could do without it.

The laugh fart – it’s not that funny.

The tearjerker – despite the name, this is in fact a series of seven or eight farts, normally of either the ripper or zipper varieties, that results in tears. Strangely, the crying tends to arrive halfway through the sequence and then continues beyond the climax.

The snake – this is one of those farts that slips out when you’re all relaxed, and sounds like a gentle sigh, or a grass snake hissing away to itself under the sofa. Or the valve being released on a pressure cooker before it explodes.

The squirty cream – anybody who has ever used squirty cream from a can knows the sound it makes, that aerosol whoosh – schshhhhhh. Well. Somehow you do that. And it’s gross.

The South West train – I know you’re pushing; I can see it in the way your face is turning red and your legs are ramrod straight and lifting out of your chair; and then you relax because it’s obviously been cancelled and – bloop! There it is. Just a late arrival, that’s all.

The whale song – like a relaxing CD, this is a distant whistle that sounds like a cetacean trying to communicate. Normally has me searching the room to find the source of the sound before I realise it’s you. Makes me worry for your safety if you ever swim in the sea.

The disappointment – this imposter arrives when your belly is so hard I could bounce coins off it, and after half-an-hour of massaging your abdomen we’re treated to a piddly little, weak ass ‘phut’, that does nothing for any of us. Better nothing at all.

The rocking horse shit – after pushing and straining and straining and pushing, nothing comes out and your belly softens and shrinks by itself. A relief for all involved, and it happens so rarely, it’s practically a myth by now.

There. Now just stop it. Nobody should need to fart so often or in so many different ways. We’re feeding you milk, for crying out loud, not baked beans! Two-dozen farts per hour is damaging the Ozone Layer. So just stop.

But at least they don’t smell. If they did, well – then we’d really have a problem, wouldn’t we?

Where’d my toddler learn THAT!?!

The other day I was sitting on the sofa when, out of the blue, my toddler came up to me and said, ‘Daddy, c+nt.’

As you can imagine, I looked at her in shock. ‘What did you just call me?’ I gasped.

‘Daddy, c+nt.’

I got down on her level and looked her in the eye. ‘If you ever say that to me again -‘

‘Daddy c+nt, me hide.’

She wanted to play hide-and-seek. Thank God.

The way kids learn to talk is nothing like the way you learn a language at school. There, it’s hideously formulaic. Nuance? Nah. Emotion? Hell no! But can you ask directions to the train station where you’ll buy a return ticket to an A-ha concert? You bet I can! (This was already a dated reference even when I was at school – we’d moved on to New Kids On the Block by then).

The way to truly learn a language is to do it the way kids do it: by immersing yourself in it, listening to the way it’s spoken, the way it’s used, and experimenting with it to find ways of expressing your thoughts and ideas that are unique to you. Sure, you’re going to make plenty of mistakes along the way, but it’s the only way to become fluent. And it’s damned entertaining for the rest of us.

My two-year-old is at this stage now, and it is a daily dose of fascinating. Except that, as she attends nursery, mother-toddler groups, play dates and the houses of family members, I’m not always in control of the influences she’s exposed to.

Like the other night when I was hurrying her up to bed. ‘Come on, get a move on,’ I said, halfway up the stairs.

She turned to me, slowly took out her dummy, and in the manner of a person around thirteen years older said, ‘What’s the rush?’

It stopped me in my tracks. Where the hell did that come from?

Possibly the same place as her accent. My wife and I were both raised in the south, so we speak Estuary English with just a touch of West Country. I therefore have no idea why my daughter has started to speak as though she’s from the West Midlands.

It’s not a train but a ‘trine’, not a table but a ‘tie-bull’. We get on a ‘boose’ and wave ‘boy-boy’, and when mummy brushes my little one’s hair, she doesn’t ‘loik’ it. It’s like having a miniature Frank Skinner running round the house – every vowel sound is everso slightly off.

She also has no idea about social niceties – that just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. I asked her to describe someone to test her communication skills. Is he tall or short? ‘Short.’ Is he thin or fat? ‘Fat, like daddy.’

Out the mouths of babes…

And that’s before we mention the profanities. The other day I got cut up at a junction and snapped, ‘Asshole.’ Driving on down the road, I suddenly heard this little voice from the back going, ‘Ash-hole. Ash-hole.’ My wife made the mistake of laughing, and lo, we now have a potty-mouthed toddler whose favourite word is going to get us banned from the church playgroup.

Her storytelling is a bit bizarre at the moment too, focusing on the trivialities and glossing over the important stuff. After a whole day with granny on Monday, she summed it up with, ‘Natasha came to see granny, and Barry came to see my tongue.’

I have no idea what that means.

Still, if you really listen, sometimes she gives you pearls of wisdom. When she noticed the dog had a sore foot, she asked me what was wrong, and I told her to ask the dog. This she did, waited for an answer, then said to me, ‘Dog food needs butter.’ Problem solved.

But for me, the funniest thing was when I was putting her to bed the other night. My wife made a clatter in the kitchen and my daughter said, ‘Mummy noise.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Mummy made a noise.’

‘Mummy upstairs?’

‘No, she’s downstairs in the kitchen. It’s right below us.’

‘Kitchen?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, pointing. ‘It’s below, right here.’

Pushing back her covers, she climbed out of bed, got on her hands and knees and blew on the carpet.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked.

‘Kitchen,’ she replied.

‘Yes, it’s below here.’

And she bent forward and blew on the carpet again.

‘Why are you -?’ I started, and the penny dropped.

You forget that kids can’t always differentiate your words.

I can’t imagine why she thought daddy was pointing at the floor and saying, ‘Blow here.’

 

How my toddler made me cry

My two-year-old daughter made me cry the other night.

It came as a bit of a surprise, because I’m not really that emotional a person. Over the years I’ve built up a thick skin – it’s the only way to survive being a square peg in a world of round holes. My moods tend to vary between melancholy, discontentment and ennui, so I rarely reach the extremes of feeling that lead to tears, good or bad. Funerals? Nothing. Weddings? Nothing. The birth of my kids? Meh.

But then, there is a chink in my armour. Toy Story 3 made me weep in the cinema, My Girl just kills me, and who doesn’t cry at Marley & Me (besides cat lovers)? I can’t walk past a child’s gravestone without welling up, and last year I even cried at a book, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, in a scene where a chimpanzee begs to be allowed to go home. All of which goes to show, give me the bittersweet juxtaposition of innocence and sorrow, and you can pierce right to the heart of me.

I first noticed this weakness about twenty years ago, at Land’s End in Cornwall. A little boy was running with his brand new toy sword from the gift shop when he tripped and fell and – SNAP! – the blade broke at the hilt. The look on that boy’s face – the dawning realisation of what had happened, the switch from innocent joy to infinite sorrow as life’s hard truths hit home, and then the tears of impotent despair at the discovery that some things once broken cannot be fixed – it broke my heart.

I mean, sure, it was just a plastic sword costing a couple of quid and his parents could have bought him another one in a heartbeat – hardly a life-or-death experience. But that boy’s face haunted me for weeks after, because in the innocent, uncontrolled emotional state of a child, unable to weigh up comparative value or process cause, effect and consequence, and living solely in the moment, it is life-or-death. Children and animals, their simplicity of thought and emotion, their purity – when they suffer, when they’re sad, when they’re in pain and when they die, it cuts through every barrier I put up to protect myself.

Unfortunately, my toddler is right at that point in her social and emotional development where innocence and sorrow come into contact several times a day.

The evening she made me cry, I picked her up from nursery as usual. It’s always nigh identical to that scene in The Railway Children – she sees me, stops stock still in awe, and then she shouts, ‘Daddy, it’s my daddy!’ and runs towards me, her face filled with elation, leaving me just enough time to drop to one knee before she slams into me and throws her arms around me. So excited to show me what she’s been doing, so proud to show me off to the ladies at nursery – ‘My daddy,’ she says, ‘This my daddy.’

She’s the last to be picked up, after dark, so for half an hour she gets to hang with the grown-ups. I know it makes her feel special. She gets such a look of well-being on her little face as she puts on her school bag like a big girl, waves to the ladies all cocky because she’s heading home to mummy and her little sister. This night was no different but for one thing.

She tripped as she stepped over the threshold, stumbled down the wheelchair ramp and face-planted into the mud.

I stood her up, her hands, coat and face black with dirt. The women from the nursery appeared in the doorway and in the light spilling out past them I saw my little girl’s face – the shock giving way to embarrassment and humiliation as she fought back the tears, struggling to keep control. I told her it’s okay and she’s very brave, but it was all too much and suddenly she was wailing and burying her face in my side so nobody could see her. Ultimate joy to ultimate misery in under ten seconds, her special, sacred moment destroyed. Broke my heart.

But that wasn’t what made me cry.

On the way home, to distract her from her misery, I asked her who had been there today. Turns out it was Tilly, Hugo, Sebastian, Rufus (yes, I know – we’re only a Tarquin away from winning Pretentious-name Bingo), and a new one for me – Jasper.

‘Who’s Jasper?’ I asked.

‘My best friend,’ she replied. Too cute!

Then I asked her what she’d been up to. ‘Me sing Twinkle, Twinkle with my friends.’ Oh my gosh, the sweetest thing ever. But it still didn’t make me cry. No, that came after dinner when I was bathing her.

She was sticking the foam letters to the side of the tub – ‘This mummy,’ she’d say, and ‘This Granny,’ and ‘This Poppa.’ Then she put three together, pointed at the middle one, and said, ‘This daddy.’

‘Who’s this, then?’ I asked, pointing at the figure beside me.

‘This daddy’s friend,’ she replied, and pointed to the other; ‘and this daddy’s friend.’ And then she put another one beside them and said, ‘And this daddy’s best friend.’

And that’s when I cried.

As a master at acting ‘normal’, I hid it well. This is particularly important because my toddler has become very sensitive to other people’s feelings. She’s always asking if mummy’s sad, or if daddy’s sad, and the other night she woke up sobbing because she’d had a dream in which mummy was very sad. So I wiped my eyes, endured that prickly feeling at the top of my nose, and got on with it.

But why did I cry? The juxtaposition of innocence and sorrow.

As somebody with autism, friendship is something I always desperately wanted but was never able to have. I struggle to understand or connect with other people. When someone wants to be my friend, I become paranoid and push them away. When I want someone to be my friend, I approach it so cautiously I miss the opportunity. I don’t know how to make, keep and manage friendships, and I only have the mental energy or focus to sustain one friend or partner at a time. As I’m married, this means I don’t have the social resources to have any friends – no close ones anyway. It’s the way I’m built. It’s one of those things.

But that doesn’t make it any less painful, and it doesn’t mean I’m not desperately lonely.

My daughter has already realised the importance of friendship. Watching her making friends is a wonderful relief, because she is not like me. A bittersweet relief, as one day she’ll learn that daddy doesn’t have any friends, and she won’t understand why, and she’ll be sad, because even though I won’t show it, she’ll know that I’m sad too. Because friendship is important regardless of who you are.

Where do innocence and sorrow factor into this? Her innocence; my sorrow.

That’s how my toddler made me cry.

Parents as Partners

Nope, this isn’t a post about Appalachian sexual practices. If that’s what you were looking for, then I’m sorry – for so many reasons.

For everyone else, it’s about attempting to balance the twin roles of parent and partner.

I’ve said before that the person who is everything you want in a partner can simultaneously be frustrating as hell to co-parent a child with. No matter how well you think you know someone, you can’t ever be sure what kind of a parent they’ll make until that kid pops out, and nor do you know how having kids will affect the dynamic between the two of you. You just have to have faith that whatever comes up, you’ll deal with it and get through it together, because that’s the commitment you made.

What I am discovering, as a father of a two-year-old and a seven-week-old, is that the gulf between words and reality is filled with sharp sticks and broken dreams – and a hefty dose of disillusionment.

You see, when you’re a couple, how one of you behaves as a parent inevitably affects how the other behaves. In an ideal world, each individual parent will have a mix of playfulness and responsibility, to differing levels, and you’ll share the load as best you can.

Unfortunately, it is not an ideal world.

In my household, my wife has abrogated all responsibility and so is situated right down the playful, irreverent, impulsive end of the parenting scale, alongside the fun uncle and your friend’s older brother who lets you drink beer. Trouble is, the only way to balance things is for me to go ever further towards the responsible, controlled side – I’m sitting with the school librarian and the ticket collector who won’t let you stand on the seats of the bus.

And I hate that.

While my wife dodges the surf with my toddler on a cold October day, I fret about the fact that they’re both now soaked up to the knees, the shoes will have to go in the washing machine to clean away the salt, and they’re going to freeze on the way home – not to mention we’re going to get sand in the car. While they carve their Halloween pumpkins, I hover around them on knife patrol, groaning as every drop of pumpkin juice splashes down onto the carpet, and trying to catch the seeds before the dog eats them. And while my wife is happy to say yes to just about anything, I’m the one who has to say no, and then deal with the nuclear fallout.

The trouble is, not only do your differing parental styles annoy the crap out of each other, they change how you see one another as partners as well. I’ve started seeing my wife as irresponsible instead of playful, argumentative instead of passionate, stubborn instead of determined and inconsiderate instead of simply absent-minded. For her part, she now sees me as boring, controlling, uptight and dogmatic instead of reliable, sensible, safety-conscious, and by-the-book. It’s all in how you define it.

Of course, matters aren’t helped by lack of sleep (mine), the spectre of postnatal depression (hers) and physical exhaustion (both of us). And to be fair, she has gone a long way down Nuts Street lately, with her moods up and down like a yo-yo, her OCD out of control, and the language she uses enough to make a sailor blush. So she blames her unreasonableness on hormones, I blame my irritability on tiredness, and neither of us really gets to be accountable for our behaviour, even though we’re driving one another up the walls and out the door quicker than a gas leak. I don’t remember the last time our wires were so completely crossed.

Actually, I do. It was a month or so after our first baby. Hmm, I’m spotting a pattern here.

On that occasion, things got better after I asked myself what it was I was doing that was unhelpful to the situation, and it turned out that I was being controlling and dogmatic, though for the right reasons – I was trying to help.

In similar fashion, I think I have located the root of our problems here, but they’ll be far more difficult to solve – it’s not what I am doing, but what I am not doing.

It was a throwaway comment in an argument that contained a thousand other throwaway comments, most of them spurious, many of them said simply to hurt me. It was that I’ve replaced her with the children, and on reflection, it’s a charge that I cannot deny. I have, over the past seven weeks, largely forgotten about my wife.

Well, that’s not true. As an autist – or maybe simply as a male – I thought that the fact I do all the nights and let her sleep, make most of the meals, sort out the dog, cat, chickens and fish, take the toddler to nursery and swimming and ballet, and do the lion’s share of the baby care so my wife doesn’t have to, showed the level of my respect and my regard for her. But it doesn’t.

I’ve been doing my damnedest since the baby arrived to make sure my toddler doesn’t feel left out, so what my wife sees is a man hugging his kids, telling them stories, making sure they’re okay, and then falling exhausted into bed – basically, giving them all the affection and attention he used to give her. And she feels left out, and resentful, and self-pitying. So she snaps at me, which makes me cross as I think, ‘Why isn’t she appreciating me?’ And then we argue, and the cycle repeats.

The solution? I have to show affection to my wife. I have to make time to give her hugs and cuddles, and tell her she’s special, and make sure she’s okay. Basically, I have to make her feel special.

Which is tough when I’m so busy and tired, and is tougher still when she says such awful things to me that I’d rather clip her round the ear than whisper sweet nothings into it. It’s like cuddling a rabid pitbull that hates you.

But it’s something I’m going to have to do. These are the sacrifices you have to make when you’re a parent as well as a partner.

A Trip to A&E

They say that some days you’re the pigeon and some days you’re the statue. I don’t agree with that at all, because it turns out that no matter what happens, or what day it is, I always seem to be the one who gets shat upon.

Even on my birthday.

I don’t think I was asking for much – just a day I could be free from the constant strain and responsibility of looking after a boisterous toddler, a demanding baby, and a wife who can be both. Alas, this was beyond the power of the Fates to grant me, so I chose the next best thing – a day out doing something I wanted to do in a place I wanted to go. Something that, for once, was not about ball pits, face painting or Peppa Pig.

Since I love old buildings, I love books, and I love learning, I’ve been hankering after a visit to Oxford – a day wandering among the dreaming spires with my family, losing myself in endless bookshops and fantasizing that I’m twenty years younger and attending one of the finest educational establishments on the planet, is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Only without my toddler.

I don’t want to single her out, but traipsing around a city centre isn’t anywhere near as much fun when you have a two-year-old pulling things off shelves, trying to yank her hand out of yours, and strangely determined to throw herself in front of traffic. And that’s not to mention the whining in the car all the way up, the awkwardness of keeping her settled on the Park & Ride bus, and the fact we can’t eat out anywhere without her behaving like a Ritalin-deprived bugwart (sorry, Izzie, but it’s true). So we decided to leave her at home with her Nana.

Given the way the week was going, I should have known it would all go to hell in a handbasket. I was meant to have two blessed hours to myself on Wednesday afternoon, but Izzie’s Granny fell ill, so that was nixed. Then on Thursday afternoon I was meant to have a couple of hours to myself, but the playdate that had been arranged fell through when the girl’s mother also became ill. And then on Friday, Izzie came back from nursery having bitten her lip and made it all bloody. Ominous signs that my birthday on Saturday might not go according to plan, but my wife reassured me that bad things happen in threes. How wrong she was.

My birthday started to go awry at 8.20 in the morning, ten minutes before we were due to leave. The moment I heard the phone ring, I knew. Halfway to our house to look after Izzie, my mother had vomited all over herself while driving. She had contracted a stomach bug, and was turning around to go home.

‘Well, that’s four,’ I said. ‘There can’t be any more.’

With no childcare, we decided, contrary to all sense and logic, to take Izzie with us after all. Sure, it’d make the day much harder, but we’d all be together.

I was pretty much spot-on with my predictions, and then some. As a naturally inquisitive and independently-minded child, Izzie was a bit of a pain, refusing to stand on the buggy board, pulling her hand from mine, grabbing everything that came within reach, and throwing herself down on the ground every so often because it’s really fun to do that on cobblestones. Eventually we went into a restaurant and ate a lunch punctuated by Izzie running around the table and shouting for attention, and me taking her outside and telling her in no uncertain terms that I wouldn’t tolerate that kind of bugwart behaviour.

That’s when the accident happened, but it’s not what you’re probably thinking.

Midway through the meal I took the baby to the disabled loo and changed her on the changing table – one of those tall wooden things with all the shelves and drawers underneath. No problems. So after the meal, I took her sister to the same toilet, picked her up and placed her down on the changing mat.

And with a loud bang it flipped up to the side and flung my two-year-old daughter headfirst to the tiled floor.

I pounced forward but wasn’t quick enough. I will never forget it – the loud crack when her forehead hit the floor, the way her body slammed down, the screams from the pair of us, and the top of the changing table thumping back down into place.

As I cradled Izzie in my arms, watching her forehead turn grey over the space of ten seconds, I put my elbow on the changing mat. Sure enough, if you put enough weight left of centre it flipped up to reveal a plastic bathtub underneath. It hadn’t been put together properly or aligned properly or something – the top wasn’t even fixed to the base. It was not fit for purpose, and certainly should not have been put in a restaurant bathroom for use by the public. It was an accident waiting to happen.

I wanted to kick up a massive fuss, but the seriousness of your concerns is hammered home when you’re wandering about with a screaming toddler in your arms, her face a blend of grey, red and purple. The waiter, the maintenance man, the general manager all had a look at the table, and yes, it wasn’t fixed, and I watched as two of them fiddled with it, trying to work out how it was meant to go on, and how to stop it flipping up when you position a toddler on it slightly left of centre.

I felt awful, terrified, distraught. But I had the presence of mind to make sure an accident form was filled in and they arranged a taxi to the hospital. My wife, deciding she didn’t want something as insignificant as her daughter falling four feet onto her head to ruin her day, saw it as an opportunity to go do some shopping in Oxford with the baby while I took Izzie to A&E.

For the record, here is what my daughter looked like while waiting in Accident and Emergency some forty minutes after the fall:

IMG_20171028_162329 - Copy

Three hours and a lot of tests later, they decided that other than a massive headache, she was probably okay.

Getting another taxi back to the hotel, I carried my two-stone toddler a mile back into the centre in search of my wife, and after a quick look in a single bookshop – albeit the largest in Europe – and with the sun having set upon Oxford, I decided it was time to leave. After all, we had to get the bus back to the Park & Ride and load the car with my wife’s purchases for the two-hour drive home.

Which took three hours, as both kids decided the car journey was the time to cry, and scream, and keep saying, ‘Where my dummy?’ and ‘Where my water?’ The number of times I had to pull into lay-bys to find things she’d dropped, or feed the other one, I lost count. All I know is that eventually everyone fell asleep, and I drove on into the dark, alone with my thoughts.

Thoughts of the changing mat flipping up and throwing my daughter off; thoughts of her head hitting the ground; thoughts of failure for not having checked the changing station before I put her on it. But when do we check? We trust they’re going to work.

I felt a mixture of emotions. Guilt at not having protected her; anger at the restaurant for their negligence in not providing a safe and working changing station; vulnerable for how it could have been so much worse.

Getting home, I put the kids to bed then quickly followed suit, thinking that on my birthday, of all days, I should have been able to relax.

My wife reminded me the clocks were going back, and that we’d get an extra hour in bed. That was just before the baby started crying for the first of three feeds in the night I’d have to get up for.

I didn’t get to see much of Oxford. I didn’t get to go in many bookshops. I didn’t get to fantasize about being a student attending one of the finest educational establishments on the planet. And more importantly, I didn’t get to cast aside my cares and responsibilities for even a minute. Instead, I was shat upon by life again, as usual.

I will never be that pigeon.