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

Baby care: what you should know

Looking after my second baby girl, now twenty days old, I really feel I have a handle on what this baby-rearing thing is all about. While all babies are unique, it seems to me to be a difference of degree rather than of kind. As I’ve said before, baby care is mostly a case of putting stuff in one end and cleaning it up when it comes out the other, and in the interim making sure she isn’t too hot or too cold. If you keep that in mind, and don’t sweat the small stuff, you should do fine.

That said, becoming a parent for the first time is an incredibly scary, difficult thing. I know that some of my readers are planning on having children, and some are soon to become parents themselves, so for your benefit I thought I’d share my take on parenting – all the facts you need to confidently raise a baby. At least, the facts as I see them, and the things that I’ve found invaluable in my own life.

The General Stuff

  1. There’s a lot of sentimental guff spoken about babies. You hear people on the way out of the delivery room saying, ‘I love her so much, she’s perfect in every way, it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’ There’s this expectation that you’re going to feel an instant connection. In my experience, new born babies look like asthmatic Smurfs – blue-skinned, gasping for breath, and stuffed into oversized hats. You look and think, ‘What on earth have I done?’ If it takes you a few days to warm to the little creature, a few days to work out how you feel, a few days to get your head round things, that’s okay. You’ve got a lifetime of emotions to come – don’t expect too much too soon.
  2. New born babies feed every couple of hours, sometimes for a couple of hours. If it feels like you’re always feeding your baby, you are – their stomachs are very small and with all the growing they do, they use up what they’ve drunk very quickly. Luckily, it settles down and they get into a pattern, sometimes having a big feed and a three hour sleep, sometimes cluster feeding every thirty minutes before drifting off. And when they’re finally asleep, I have one word of advice: sleep!
  3. Baby poo changes rapidly over the first few days, from black tar to green whole grain mustard to yellow mush. This is normal and nothing to worry about.
  4. Babies aren’t made of porcelain. They’re designed to make it through the birth canal, so unless you’re really clumsy, you’re probably not going to break them. But don’t put that to the test!
  5. You might not think of yourself as a particularly violent or jealous person, but you may find that when people pick up, touch, or even look at your baby, you feel like scratching out their eyes. This is normal, but try to remember you’re not the only one excited about your child, and you’ll have more opportunities for cuddles than anyone else can ever hope for.
  6. Even though they seem to prefer lying on their front, when you put your baby down to sleep, always put her on her back. If your relative tells you that the advice in their day was to put them on their front, ignore them – the advice was wrong. Babies on their front are eighteen times more likely to die of cot death than babies on their back.
  7. Though it is lovely to let your baby fall asleep on you, and such cuddling is to be embraced, be sure to transfer them to the cot or Moses basket for a proper sleep – you don’t want to get to the point where they will only sleep on you, or you’re setting yourself up for a very tiring couple of years.
  8. Babies communicate. Try to learn the little signs that they’re hungry (rooting, poking out tongue) or need burping (fidgeting, gasping) or need changing (a slightly shocked facial expression accompanied by the smell of sour milk), and deal with these things before they start to cry – it makes life much more peaceful.
  9. Babies cry as a form of communication – mostly because you haven’t met their needs quickly enough (i.e. within about thirty seconds!). It can be distressing for a parent to hear their child wail, seemingly in despair, but don’t take it to heart – it’s how she’s talking to you. It’s your job to figure out what she needs.
  10. Babies only have a handful of needs. They need to be fed; they need to be winded; they need their nappy changed. Do these things and they are normally happy.
  11. Babies are sometimes unhappy. When they have belly ache or a non-disclosed need, or simply want to hear their own voice, they can cry and keep crying. This can be upsetting for you, but there’s not really a lot you can do about it except rock them and hug them until they fall asleep.
  12. If you suspect something more serious is wrong, don’t be afraid to get advice or seek help. If you go to an out-of-hours doctor or A&E, they’re jam-packed full of new parents with young babies. It’s part and parcel of being a new parent, so don’t ever feel like you’re being neurotic.
  13. In the womb, babies are lulled to sleep by movement, light and noise (i.e. during the day, when mum is busy), and come awake when all is still and quiet and dark (at night, when mum is exhausted). Why, then, do we expect them to sleep in a dark, quiet room? If you’re struggling to get your baby down at night, a Moses basket on a rocking stand at the bedside, a night-light and some quiet music or a radio tuned to static can really help give you some well-earned rest.
  14. Make sure you have plenty of everything. Taking off a poopy nappy at 3am to discover it was the last one is nobody’s idea of a good time. That said, there will be occasions when you need to buy something in a hurry, so be sure to locate a good 24-hour store long in advance of actually needing it.
  15. You’re going to be tired, you’re going to be crotchety, and the baby is going to push your buttons. That’s just the way it is. If you ever feel yourself at breaking point, put the baby into the cot or Moses basket – somewhere safe, at least – and walk away. Take some deep breaths. Make a cup of tea. Ask for help. Don’t keep going until you break.
  16. Forget the housework. Sure, do enough to keep the place ticking over, but you don’t need to live in a show home. Provided it’s clean, don’t get too hung up on it being tidy or spotless, unless you’re prepared to add extra stress to your life in pursuit of perfection.
  17. Babies are better off being too cold than too hot. Older people are paranoid that your baby isn’t warm enough, but being too hot is actually dangerous for babies as their brains are vulnerable to increases in temperature. In fact, the recommended temperature to keep your home with a baby around is 19 degrees centigrade – colder than we like it.
  18. Eat. Drink. Sleep. You might think you can keep going forever, but trust me – if you neglect your own needs, eventually you’ll be good for nothing.

 The Controversial Stuff

  1. Breast is not always best. Since breastfeeding has become something of a sacred cow these days, you might be treated like a pariah by the sisterhood if you shun its self-evident benefits. But not everyone can breastfeed, despite their best efforts, and you shouldn’t be made to feel a failure because of that. Faffing about with nipple shields while you’re tired, the baby’s tired and hungry, and you’re both crying does not help either of you. It can harm your self-esteem and mental well-being, and make it more difficult to bond with the baby. If you don’t feel you can cope breastfeeding then switch to the bottle – it’s as easy as that.
  2. Dummies (pacifiers) shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Like bottle-feeding, these simple tools have earned the opprobrium of the ‘all-natural’ brigade, but unfairly so. It’s not a means of making a baby shut up but of meeting her needs. Sometimes, between feeds, a baby needs to suck to soothe, and giving either the nipple or the bottle is inappropriate. As with anything, it’s a personal choice and nobody has the right to judge you for what you decide is best for your baby and family.
  3. Never underestimate the utility of swaddling. A fidgety, unsettled baby can be transformed into a contented sausage roll by wrapping her in a blanket and gently rocking her.

The Little Everyday Stuff

  1. When a baby breastfeeds, if done right, the first part of its body that comes into contact with its mother’s boob is its nose. If you’re breastfeeding, using a bottle or trying to keep a dummy in, and having little success, rub the baby’s nose – it often triggers the baby to latch-on.
  2. If your baby is distressed, has a rock-hard belly but isn’t able to poop, sit with your knees up in front of you and rest her in your lap, facing you and leaning against your thighs. Using two fingers, rub her belly in a clockwise direction centred on her belly button. After a few minutes, switch to gently pushing her knees up towards her chest. Alternate between the two. If this fails to work, pick her up under the armpits and allow her to stretch out in the air – oftentimes, gravity will cause the world to fall out of her arse.
  3. Whether male or female, while changing nappies you will get explosions from front and back. Before removing the nappy, be prepared: make sure you have cotton wool, water, nappy bag, clean nappy, and toilet paper. Keep them out of the way so that if things do go flying, they don’t get soiled too.
  4. Urine has a chemical in it that can’t simply be scrubbed out of the carpet with soap and water. I’ve tried. A couple of days later, you start to smell stale wee and go mad trying to locate the source. If there’s an accident and baby champagne goes everywhere, you need to use a proper cleaning product. I recommend the spray cleaners sold in pet shops as they contain enzymes that neutralize the odour while also disinfecting the area.
  5. When bottle-feeding a baby, an armchair or a sofa with a cushion – or even putting your knee beneath your elbow – prevents you getting a dead arm. Make sure you’re in a comfortable position that you can maintain before you start feeding or you’ll regret it.
  6. Always burp your baby after feeding. Babies have immature digestive systems and inefficient swallowing reflexes, so gulp down a great deal of air along the milk – air that causes wind and discomfort. It’s sometimes tempting in the middle of the night when the baby falls asleep at the breast or bottle simply to place her gently down and return to bed. Don’t. You’ll be getting up again in 5-10 minutes to burp an unhappy baby, right when you’re falling asleep, making both of you grumpy.
  7. Check out Dunstan Baby Language. This is the idea that all babies are born with five ‘words’ that they use for the first three months – ‘neh’ (I’m hungry), ‘eh-eh-eh’ (I need burping), ‘eairh’ (I’ve got belly ache), ‘heh’ (I’m uncomfortable/please change my nappy), and ‘owh’ (I’m sleepy). Though this hasn’t been scientifically scrutinised, it has undoubtedly worked for both of mine, especially the first three words. It makes it so much easier to know what she wants, and this leads to a calmer household.
  8. Make a record of every time she eats, poops, sleeps, for at least the first couple of weeks. You can very quickly spot patterns to her behaviour, and knowing when she last ate or had a bowel movement is very reassuring. It’s also helpful to be able to tell to doctors, midwives and health visitors, in case there is anything wrong.

The Annoying Stuff

  1. If you’re female and you go out with the baby, nobody will bat an eyelid.
  2. If you’re male and you go out with the baby, you’ll be stopped by every old woman you see. But they’ll only ever ask you how the mother’s coping, and then congratulate you on ‘doing your part’.
  3. People will give you advice. Lots of advice. Much of it will be wrong and directly contradict what you’ve been told by the midwife. Much of it will be against your principles. Luckily, advice is free and is not mandatory. You might as well listen, smile, and say ‘I’ll think about it.’ And then do what feels right for you.
  4. People will give you opinions. Lots of opinions. You will feel judged, because they are judging you. But the only expert in your baby is you, and everyone else can bugger off, because opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one and they’re mostly full of shit.
  5. People will make out like modern parents are useless because when they were parents, they never had car seats and parent/child parking, or washing machines or paternity leave or Perfect Prep machines. They’re just resentful they didn’t have these conveniences, and criticising us makes them feel better about the fact that their infant mortality rate was about ten times what it is today.
  6. You will feel patronised because people will be patronising. This is my second baby, yet I’m still told to ‘make sure she’s warm enough’ and ‘support her head’, as though without these instructions I would somehow flush my baby down the toilet without realising I was doing anything wrong. Unfortunately, there’s no way I know of not to get annoyed by these ‘helpful’ comments.
  7. Your family and friends will no longer talk to you, except about the baby. They’ll come to see the baby, but not you. And they won’t listen. You can break off mid-sentence and nobody will notice. You’re not going to have a grown-up conversation for a while.
  8. Unless you’re really weird (or single), you and your partner will argue. You’re both tired, you’re both under stress, you’re both trying to adjust to this new life you find yourselves in, so don’t expect your relationship to be perfect. In my experience, you’ll have a crap time for a few months but it’ll pass. Don’t take your disagreements too seriously. Don’t throw in the towel too quickly. It all works out in the end.

The Good Stuff

  1. Being a parent is awesome.
  2. Looking after something that is entirely dependent upon you for its very existence is an honour as well as a responsibility.
  3. You get to use parent/child spaces.
  4. When you hop about, sing, dance and act like a clown, you can say you’re doing it to ‘entertain’ the baby.
  5. You gain a new understanding of your own parents.
  6. You watch more sunrises than you ever knew existed.
  7. You get the morning news before anyone else.
  8. You realise it’s the best thing you’ve ever done and you’re grateful to experience the ever-changing miracle that is your child.

And that, mums and dads, is baby care in a nutshell. Here endeth the lesson. Now go forth and multiply!

Becoming a dad for the second time

Having become a dad for the second time a grand total of four hours after my last post, I would like to announce the arrival of Rosie Grace Drew into the world. Weighing in at 7lbs 13oz, she was born in a blisteringly quick six hours from start to finish, meaning I was finishing my blog while my wife was in labour – shh, don’t tell her! In my defence, I thought it was another false alarm, such as we’d had the day before, during which we’d spent eight hours in ‘labour’, including five in hospital. Also, I was timing the contractions while hiding on the landing to write, so…no. No excuse. My bad.

Anyway, becoming a dad for a second time, and in such a quick and easy fashion, has given rise to a number of observations.

Firstly, your understanding of birth clearly relates to the manner of birth you experience. After the traumatic arrival of our first daughter, my impression of birth was as an incredibly stressful, dramatic and terrifying ordeal, a medical process involving tubes and tools, a score of specialist personnel, massive aftercare, and the ever-present fear of death. Indeed, whenever I heard about people giving birth at home, I’d think: are you freaking nuts!?!

This second birth couldn’t have been more different. When we arrived at hospital, my wife was 3cm. Ninety minutes of sweating, shivering and grunting later, the midwife said, ‘You know what? I don’t think you’re in established labour yet. I think we should probably give you some pethidine, you go have a sleep, and then we’ll resume this – it’ll be hours yet.’

Here we go again, I thought. But she decided to check before administering the drug.

‘There’s your show, and there’s your waters, and you have no cervix so you can push anytime you want.’

And four pushes later, out plopped Rosie. These experiences don’t really give you confidence in NHS midwives, do they?

As a result of this birth, which was quick, easy, and entirely carried out under my wife’s own steam, I now see childbirth – the uncomplicated kind, at least – as a very natural, everyday process. An incredible process, to be sure, but a biological function rather than a medical intervention. Having a baby at home? Why wouldn’t you have a baby at home?

In fact, she arrived so quickly, we weren’t ready. We were waiting for something to go wrong – for my wife to be rushed off to theatre by people in blue scrubs, for our daughter to be put in a perspex box and dragged off to NICU, for weeks of eating petrol-station sandwiches and trying to sleep in hospital chairs – but we had none of that. Instead, we sat in a room with a baby that only a few minutes before had been inside my wife’s abdomen, and were left alone. We’d only been in hospital two hours. We could have gone home after another hour. It all seemed rather surreal.

After the first birth – at least, one the way we had it – you see childbirth as an awful thing. After the second, we saw it as a beautiful thing. As with everything, I imagine the truth is somewhere in between.

As we’re a high-risk family, we had to stay in for 48 hours for the baby to be monitored, lest she develop respiratory problems (she didn’t). It was on the postnatal ward that I realised that having a second child is completely different to having the first.

It’s amazing how chilled you are the second time round. You really notice it when you’re surrounded by first-time parents hovering over their babies, stressing about every little thing, treating them like porcelain dolls that’ll break whenever they touch them, constantly checking to make sure they’re still alive, struggling to feed them, agonising about whether breast truly is best or if they should switch to the bottle, and being thoroughly unprepared for being up half the night, every night. You know, all the stuff I did first time round.

I did none of that this time. Other than ensuring she’s neither too hot nor too cold, looking after a baby is mostly a case of putting stuff in one end and cleaning it up when it comes out the other. So while we were in hospital, I fed little Rosie, burped her, and put her back in her cot, waited three hours, changed her nappy, fed her, burped her, and repeated this for two days. In between I’d watch the other parents fussing around their kids, freaking out over every cry, and fretting through lack of sleep, and think: I’m so glad I’m a second-time dad!

Having experience makes the return home that much easier too. The first child, it’s like someone swings a wrecking ball through your life. Everything changes, and until you manage to adjust, you get caught in a baby bubble where the baby and your status as a parent are the only things that matter. No matter what you do – driving her in the car, bedding her down in the Moses basket, taking her out in the pram, giving her a bath – it’s the first time you’ve ever done it, so it seems like a massive obstacle you need to overcome.

Taking Rosie home was no big deal, because we’ve done all of that hundreds of times before. Nor do we worry so much. Having been a good feeder, she’s suddenly grazing every hour around the clock and is incredibly unsettled, but instead of panicking, we simply carry on, aware it’s just the day-ten growth spurt. It’ll settle down, as it always did with Izzie. (Note to first time parents: watch out for growth spurts, and try not to worry!)

In fact, coming home with a second baby is something of an anti-climax. Partly this is because instead of the mountain of cards, banners and balloons that greeted your first, your second is met with widespread indifference, but mostly it’s because you’re expecting hell, ready to march through a field of flames for the foreseeable future – but it isn’t anywhere near as bad as that. The only real hardship I’ve encountered is that the nights seem to take more out of me now than they did two years ago, probably because two years ago I was fresh, while this time I’m starting on the back of around 800 nights of broken sleep. But hey ho, I’ll adjust.

But there’s one thing that is exactly the same no matter how much you worried about it – the amount that you love them. You don’t love them the same way, because they’re not the same, but you love them just as much. It took me a couple of days to get there, I’ll admit – I didn’t feel as strongly for her the moment I set eyes on her – but your fatherly instincts kick in soon enough and you realise you’d die for the second just as you’d die for the first.

And like the first, she’s already a daddy’s girl, and beautiful to boot. What can I say? I make great babies.

Toddlers, on the other hand…but that’s another story.

The key to good parenting

I was recently asked what makes a good parent. You can fill a library – a thousand libraries – with the possible answers, so I could have gone on about patience, tolerance, a sense of humour, imposing boundaries, being consistent, enjoying the moment, and all those other nuggets of wisdom, if I wasn’t sure that most people already know these things.

Instead, to save you the time and the eye-strain, I can sum up what makes a good parent in just two words: emotional resilience. Everything else stems from that.

I think that society is very confused about what a good parent looks like. The parent with the perfectly behaved, adorable little angel of a child is lauded as ‘good’, while that with the bratty, obnoxious little oik they have to drag out of the supermarket because they’re screaming is judged as ‘bad’. I know, because I have done this myself, inferring the relative merits of the parent from a brief glimpse at the behaviour of their child.

But this is, in fact, a very unreliable method of gauging an individual’s parenting ability, because all kids are different – some are easy, most are a mixture of tranquil and testing, and some are right little bastards who, in an earlier generation, would have been destined for birch and borstal. It’s not so much the behaviour of the child but the behaviour of the parent that reveals their abilities or otherwise.

You see, being a good parent isn’t about succeeding when things are going well, the toddler’s perfectly happy and everything is hunky-dory – those are the times to sit back, relax and bask in the glow of strangers who deem you the very model of a perfect parent.

No, the real test of your parenting prowess is what you do, and how well you cope, when things are going horribly, horribly wrong, the little one is screaming fit to burst her lungs, and you want nothing more than to run away, find a dark place where you can curl into a ball, and hide away as you ride out the storm. That’s when you discover whether you’re a good parent or not, and that’s when you find whether you have the strength to rise up in the face of adversity – or not, as the case may be.

Being a parent, you’re tested every day. What your toddler loves to eat on Monday she decides is vomit on Tuesday, no matter how long it took you to make. At home on Wednesday she’s as good as gold while on Thursday at the restaurant she behaves so badly you have to leave early in defeat. And on Friday she’s using the potty like a pro, but on Saturday pisses on the sofa and then craps on your shoe, and she’s so upset, you break your heart trying to console her.

The hours of crying, the thrown toys, the irritating whining, the tiredness, the dressing and redressing, the bathing and washing, the repetitive game playing, the incessant highs and lows and successes and failures, the constant battle of wills and the endless sacrificing of your own hunger, thirst, wants, needs, dreams – it is so difficult not to be affected by all that, not to get run down.

That’s what I mean by emotional resilience. If you want to be a good parent, want to keep going in the same calm, controlled, reliable fashion you’ve done from the start, you have to find a way of protecting your emotions, shutting off a part of yourself, so as not to become overwhelmed. If you let things get to you, if they weigh heavy on your heart, you’re never going to make it.

As I said before, emotional resilience is pretty much all you need to be a good parent, because it is the foundation of everything. Nobody sets out to be a bad parent – nobody decides they want to lose their temper at their kids, shout at them, hit them, make them cry; nobody thinks one day they’ll start to ignore their child, sit them in front of the TV, dump them with family and child minders and start hiding at work; nobody plans to simply give up and overlook their child’s bad behaviour because they can’t deal with it, or give them the chocolate bar because it’s easier than arguing, or leave them in nappies till they’re five because it’s just too hard – but I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of these behaviours.

Hell, I went to a fair yesterday, and I saw most of them – parents losing control and swearing at their kids, parents looking the other way as their kids misbehaved, parents buying things for the kids to stop them whining – anything for an easy life. I don’t believe these parents started out this way. I don’t believe they ever thought they’d be like this. But somewhere along the way, they’ve become so run down by being parents that they’re just trying to survive – and good parenting has gone out the window.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter if your child is well behaved or not. In the grand scheme of things, all your mistakes as a parent, all your failures, aren’t anywhere near as important as you think they are. What’s important is that you never stop trying to be a good parent; that you persevere, no matter how difficult; and that despite wanting to run away, or give in, or give up, you don’t, don’t, don’t. That’s the only way you can be a good parent. And ultimately, your child will be all the better for it.

 

Managing the Toddler Stage

When people see you struggling with a heavy load, they don’t ask if you’re doing an awesome job or exceeding all your expectations, or if carrying heavy loads comes naturally to you – they say, ‘Can you manage?’

I think there’s a lesson there for all of us.

As a dad, and an autistic dad at that, I want to be the best parent on the planet – guide, teacher, confidante, protector, therapist, playmate, master and friend. I want to be friendly, understanding, patient, relaxed, calm, tolerant, respected and in control. I’m pretty sure that’s normal – no parent thinks to themselves, ‘Damn I wish I was worse at this than I am.’ But where I possibly differ from many is my rigid, black and white, all-or-nothing approach to the subject.

You see, to my way of thinking, if I’m not the best dad in the world, then I must be the worst; if I’m not excelling, then I’m failing; if I’m not winning then I’m most definitely losing. My benchmarks, my expectations and my standards are set so high you need oxygen and ice axes to reach them. This is unrealistic, and I know that, but it doesn’t stop me striving for greatness.

Up to now, this hasn’t been much of a problem. There have been trials and hardships, sure, but every step of the way I’ve overcome them. A bit of perseverance here, some tender loving care there – all it required was patience, endurance and a sense of humour. Simple.

Not so now that she’s hitting two. This terrible toddler stage is something else entirely.

Everything that took minutes before now takes hours. Everything that once was easy is now like quantum mechanics. And everything she used to do willingly has become a clash of nuclear powers that leaves only devastation in its wake.

Bedtime, for example. I used to put her down, read her a story, and that would be that – maybe I’d have to stick her back under the covers a couple of times overnight, but nothing more than that.

Now it’s like carrying a hissing, spitting baby tiger up the stairs, trying to avoid getting your eyes scratched out while enduring a barrage of feral, bestial roars that befuddle your senses and threaten to burst your eardrums. You put her down in bed, and she kicks off the covers and is at the bedroom door before you can escape. So you fight to lie her back down, and you reason, threaten, beg, cajole and finally bribe her with a story until she’s finally quiet and allows you to leave.

Three seconds after you close it, the door flies open and she hangs over the stairgate screaming blue bloody murder at you, as though the sky is falling down and you’re the one to blame. You hide in your bedroom, wait a minute and then pick her up, against her struggles, put her in bed, against her screams, throw the covers over her and race to the door.

And then the whole thing repeats.

It’s like being trapped in Tartarus with a cruel and unusual punishment picked out exclusively for you. Two minutes, three minutes, four minutes, putting her back in bed each time only to have her wrench open the door behind you and claw maniacally at the bars. Five minutes, six, seven. The screams descend into choking splutters, snorts, grunts, growls, a demon in your midst.

Until that wonderful, horrible moment, hours later, that she’s all cried out and sits on the floor like a dejected prisoner, rattling her dummy against the bars of the stairgate locking her in her room. And you sink to the floor yourself and you slither across the carpet to the stairs, lowering yourself inch by inch, praying they don’t creak because at the slightest sound she’ll start up again.

And you slink away and fall on the sofa, and you feel like bursting into tears because you’re battered and bruised, it’s all so hard and you can’t take it anymore.

And then she starts screaming again.

Unbelievably, the days can be worse. For the past three days, my home has been a war zone. The house is a mess, the floor covered with toys, and I decided that enough is enough. I told her she couldn’t get out any more toys, or watch Peppa Pig, until she had put her wooden blocks away. Two-and-a-half hours later, having screamed, cried, shouted, attacked me, laughed, giggled, batted her eyelids, hugged me, pleaded with me, thrown herself into the walls, thrown the blocks, hit me with her doll and overturned half of the furniture, she put the blocks away.

Did I feel jubilant, triumphant, victorious? Hell no. I felt emotionally raw from the hours of abuse, fighting to stay calm as she pressed every button and tested every boundary. I am the mountain worn away by the sea. But I consoled myself that the next time, it would be easier.

Yesterday, I told her to put away her wooden blocks before we went to the park. Three hours later, on the verge of screaming and crying myself, she put her blocks away. I won. At the cost of my soul and my sanity.

Today, to be fair, it only took one hour. But who knows how long it’ll take tomorrow?

I’ve never really understood the idea of picking your battles – I’ve always been of the opinion that if a principle is at stake then you attack it wherever you find it – but I’m discovering that flexibility in parenting a toddler is a must. After hours of fighting over the wooden blocks, when she started taking the DVDs out of their cases and putting them back in the wrong ones, you know what I did?

I pretended I didn’t see.

I’ve drawn a line in the sand, nailed my colours to the mast – the wooden blocks are the issue on which I hang my hat. If I can master this one thing, then I’ll deal with everything else, but I can’t do it all at once and I don’t have the energy or the emotional resilience right now to be master of all things.

Because the truth is, while I might want to be good at every aspect of parenting, to excel and overcome and be the best damned parent in the world, I’ve realised that in order to survive raising a toddler you have to lower your standards, relax your ideals and temper your expectations, or you’ll go crazy.

And that’s okay. Like the man with the heavy load, nobody is asking if I’m excelling – they’re asking if I can manage. And yes, I can.

That’s the lesson I take from this week – I might might want to conquer Everest, but setting my sights on Kilimanjaro as a more realistic alternative doesn’t make me a failure as a parent, does it?

Does it?

 

An Adult With an Autism Diagnosis

Well, it’s here: today my book, ‘An Adult With an Autism Diagnosis: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed‘ is released into the world. You can buy it from Amazon by following one of these links: Amazon UKAmazon US, or from your regular book supplier.

Here is the blurb:

Being diagnosed with autism as an adult can be disorienting and isolating; however, if you can understand the condition and how it affects perceptions, relationships, and your relationship with the world in general, a happy and successful life is attainable. Through an introduction to the autism spectrum, and how the Level 1 diagnosis is characterised, the author draws on personal experiences to provide positive advice on dealing with life, health, and relationships following an adult diagnosis.

The effect of autism on social skills is described with tips for dealing with family and personal relationships, parenting, living arrangements, and employment. Important topics include disclosure, available resources, and options for different therapeutic routes. On reading this book, you will learn a lot more about the autism spectrum at Level 1, be able to separate the facts from the myths, and gain an appreciation of the strengths of autism, and how autism can affect many aspects of everyday life. Drawing from the author’s lived experience, this book is an essential guide for all newly diagnosed adults on the autism spectrum, their families and friends, and all professionals new to working with adults with ASDs.

So, why did I write this book? The short answer is that when I was diagnosed with autism at the age of 28, having only heard of Asperger’s Syndrome and high-functioning autism a year previously, I was sent away without so much as a leaflet to explain what it was, why I had it, how it would affect my life, and why it had taken so long to identify. I had nobody to talk to – nobody knowledgeable, at least – who could help me come to terms with this life-changing news.

Like anybody, I turned to books and the internet. I discovered, much to my dismay, that books on autism seemed to fall into three categories: those for autistic children; those for parents of autistic children; and those for healthcare professionals working in the field. There was very little about adults with the condition and nothing for the many thousands of people diagnosed each year as adults.

The internet was worse. There were dozens of sites, and now hundreds, if not thousands, offering conflicting, confusing, inaccurate, unreliable, opinionated and impenetrable information and advice, often littered with jargon and insider knowledge, with no explanations for the layperson. I therefore struggled to accept the diagnosis, to make sense of where I now found myself, and to understand what any of it meant for my future.

I wrote this book for people who find themselves in a similar situation, a one-stop shop for those newly diagnosed with Asperger’s and ASD Level 1. It is not exhaustive, not ‘the only book on autism you will ever need’, but it contains answers to everything I wanted to know when I was first diagnosed. It is designed to help explain the basics, untangle the jargon, and describe in clear and plain terms how autism might affect the various parts of your life.

If this book can help just one person avoid some of the confusion and grief that I went through upon being diagnosed, if it can help them learn about their condition and be able to see the diagnosis not as an end but as a new beginning, and if it can make them feel not quite so alone in the world, then the effort will have been worth it.

Happy reading!

Gillan Drew

 

Parenting mistakes (to avoid)

All parents make mistakes. Sure, we think we’re great and we’re doing it right, because it feels right and because we’ve read the right books, but in actuality we’re making mistakes we know nothing about until it’s too late.

Too much love, too little, too much leeway, not enough – the consequences of these will not be known for decades, or at least until the teenage horror that was once your child picks up a psychology book and says, ‘Wah, the reason I can’t get a boyfriend is because you didn’t hug me enough/give me enough freedom/discipline me enough as a child!’ and all that crap. I guarantee that in twenty years time, everything we’re doing now will, apparently, have been wrong. But that’s the joy of parenting, guys!

Making mistakes we’ll be blamed for in the distant future is one thing; making mistakes with consequences in the here and now is quite another. For the edification of new or would-be parents everywhere, here are ten avoidable mistakes that I have made in my extensive ten months of parenting:

1. The muslin game.

Description: you throw a muslin over your baby’s head, and she pulls it off. You repeat with delight, and over time replace the muslin with sleepsuits, blankets, tea towels, nappies (clean), and whatever else is within reach: newspapers, books, telephones. What fun and what harm?

The unintended consequence: can we get Izzie to wear a sunhat? Put it on her head all you want, hold her hands, tie it under her chin, she thinks it’s highly amusing taking it off and flinging it away. After all, that’s what you’ve taught her with your fun and games!

How to avoid: don’t play with your child.

2. The bath plug

Description: at the end of a bath, you think it would be kind of cute if you let your baby pull out the plug. What a productive member of society she’ll be then.

The unintended consequence: the first thing Izzie does when she gets in the bath is pull out the plug. Because though you taught her how to pull out the plug, you didn’t teach her how not to pull out the plug.

How to avoid: don’t bath your child.

3. Dropsy

Description: when she’s in her high chair, your baby drops her beaker. You bend down, pick it up and hand it back to her. Well done! You’ve invented the game of dropsy.

The unintended consequence: twenty times a mealtime, every mealtime, Izzie drops her beaker on the floor. If you don’t pick it up, she screams; if you do, she immediately drops it again. What great fun!

How to avoid: don’t give your baby fluids.

4. Swimming

Description: you throw a toy out in front of your baby, she flaps her arms and you carry her through the water as though she’s swimming until she grabs hold of it. How can teaching her to swim possibly cause a problem?

The unintended consequence: when Izzie’s sitting in the bathtub and wants a toy that’s floating out of reach, she thinks she just needs to flap her arms to get it. This creates plenty of splashing, but strangely the toy doesn’t get any closer. You’ve taught her to get water all over the bathroom for no appreciable gain.

How to avoid: don’t teach your child to swim.

5. Raspberries and wibble-wibbles

Description: you know what’s just adorable? Teaching your baby to raspberry. First with just the lips, and later with the tongue. And teaching her to use her finger on her lips while humming to make that wibble-wobble sound: people just die when she does it. How cute is your baby?

The unintended consequence: you know what isn’t just adorable? When Izzie raspberries or wibble-wibbles with a mouthful of food, and either sprays it all over daddy or rubs it up her face. These are not memories to treasure.

How to avoid: don’t teach your baby to make sounds.

6. Yuuuuuuummmmmm and nom-nom-nom

Description: when your baby refuses to open her mouth and take the magic aeroplane spoon, what could be more natural then holding it to your own mouth and pretending to eat with a ‘yum’ and a ‘nom-nom-nom’? Your baby’s like, ‘Damn, that looks like it tastes good, I want me some of that!’

The unintended consequence: every time Izzie eats anything, she goes,’yuuuuuuuuummmm nom-nom-nom’ until she swallows. Then she takes another mouthful, and it’s ‘yuuuuuuummmmm nom-nom-nom’, and no matter how many times I tell her the other kids will think her weird if she moans over every mouthful, she steadfastly refuses to listen.

How to avoid: don’t feed your baby.

7. Feeding off your plate

Description: when your baby sits on your lap as you eat your dinner, you find yourself tempted to answer the question: ‘Would my baby like broccoli? A chip? Jalapenos?’ (NB for any social workers reading this, that last one’s a joke). So you pick up a morsel of food from your plate and find that, lo and behold, a love of barbecue pork ribs is another thing you have in common.

The unintended consequence: from now on, everything you have on your plate, no matter what it is, where you are, or what time of day, it’s fair game. That little chubby hand will reach for cutlery, crockery, burning hot potatoes, boiling stew, spicy curry, burgers, ice cream, pizza (you can see I have a great diet). And if you tell her it’s your food, and she’s already eaten, it’s like talking to someone who doesn’t speak English. Who’d have thought it?

How to avoid: don’t feed your baby (see point 6 for further details).

8. Wafer bribes

Description: your baby screams whenever you put her in her play pen. So you decide, quite naturally, to give her a wafer to munch on when you put her in there. That way, she’ll associate the play pen with happy thoughts, and won’t scream.

The unintended consequence: now, whenever Izzie goes into the play pen, she looks around with a ‘where the hell’s my gosh-darned wafer?’ kind of expression on her face. Then screams. You’ve merely delayed the inevitable.

How to avoid: leave her free to roam around the house.

9. What’s in a name?

Description: every parent wants their baby’s first word to be them. So you walk around saying ‘dad-dad-dad-dad-dad-dad-dad’ while your partner warbles ‘mum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum-mum’ and you wait to see who’ll win.

The unintended consequence: Izzie walks around saying ‘dad-dad-dad-dad-mum-mum-mum-mum-dad-dad-mum-mum’, with no idea what either means. Now that she says mum and dad a hundred times a day, how the hell are we going to know when she says it and really means it?

How to avoid: don’t teach your baby your names.

10. Afternoon naps

Description: it’s half four in the afternoon, you’re feeding your baby and she falls asleep between mouthfuls. You think to yourself, ‘It’s okay. She’s so peaceful I’ll let her have twenty minutes kip. Poor thing’s so tuckered out.’

The unintended consequence: congratulations! Your baby will now be up till midnight.

How to avoid: never let your child sleep. Ever.

And there, in a nutshell, are my tips: don’t ever feed your baby, give her fluids, play with her, bath her, let her sleep, teach her your names, or sounds, or how to swim, and be sure to leave her to run free with no restraint whatsoever. Then you’ll be a perfect parent and avoid making any mistakes at all.

But nor will you be a parent for long…

Medicine vs. Magic

When you’re a parent, people never tire of telling you what to do and how to do it, not in the form of advice, but in the form of judgement. And when it comes to health, they’re bloody insistent. With everything else you have to contend with, it’s damnably unfair to hear veiled criticisms of your parenting, especially when you’re in the emotionally vulnerable position of wanting to do the right thing with a screaming and thoroughly unhappy baby.

The best response is to bite back your annoyance and say, ‘Thank you for your advice, but as the mother/father of [insert baby’s name], I will make the decision as to what is best for my child.’ It’s short, polite, to the point, and reminds them where the power truly lies.

But it doesn’t stop you wanting to throttle them with their condescending attitudes and ridiculous ideas.

It’s like a friend of mine who is on a personal mission to stop me giving Calpol to my baby, because paracetamol is bad, it’s bad for babies, it damages their liver, it’s unnatural, and all that jazz. Whenever she discovers I still use it, she turns into an evangelical preacher and acts like I’m slowly and deliberately poisoning my child.

With Calpol.

I’m not saying that paracetamol is safe – overdoses do damage livers – and nor do I advocate dosing kids up on paracetamol as and when you feel like it, but when it’s necessary, and when it is administered carefully, at the right doses, then there is nothing wrong with it. Izzie has an ear infection and a high temperature, as I discovered yesterday afternoon when I rushed her to the doctor’s after she projectile vomited all over Lizzie. The doctor prescribed Calpol to bring down the fever. Simple.

But, according to my opinionated friend, I’m practically killing the baby by giving her paracetamol, and I should avoid using it until I’ve tried some alternatives.

‘What alternatives?’ I asked. ‘Child Ibuprofen? Because I have that too.’

Nope, lectured my forthright friend. Homeopathic remedies.

Ah. Magic water and wishful thinking, then. Glad we had this conversation.

Until a few years ago, I thought ‘homeopathy’ was simply another way of saying ‘alternative medicine’. I figured it was herbal remedies like St John’s Wort, cinchona bark, and suchlike. But that’s not homeopathy at all.

Homeopathy is a medical system invented in the late 1700s that posits that ‘like cures like’ (hence the ‘homeo’ part of the word). Its essential belief is that if you put something that causes an illness into some water – say, something that causes a headache – then dilute that water down almost exponentially until there’s unlikely to be a single molecule of the original substance left, that water is somehow energised and imprinted with the ‘memory’ of that substance and will therefore be able to cure headaches.

There’s another word for water that contains no molecules of any other substance:

Water.

Homeopathic remedies contain precisely zero active ingredients and are therefore precisely useless. And ‘like cures like’ has no basis in science whatsoever. That’s not just my opinion – the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) does not recommend homeopathy is used to treat any ailment, the NHS say there’s no good evidence that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any health condition, while a 2010 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report concluded homeopathy is no more effective than placebos (http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Homeopathy/pages/introduction.aspx).

No matter how much you talk about Nature with a capital N, or the Law of Similars, or how substances leave a quantum imprint behind, I do not believe in homeopathy. I will take science and evidence over magic and fairy dust every time.

Then there’s the close relative who has this crazy notion that the best way to cure a cold is to consume vast quantities of vitamin C, and so tries to get us to overdose every time we have the slightest sniffle. The fact the human body can only absorb a finite amount of vitimin C before excreting it out, and excessive amounts give you diarrhoea, means it’s not the best advice, ta.

And don’t get me started on amber necklaces helping with teething. This whole ‘Baltic Amber contains up to 8% succinite, an anti-inflammatory and analgesic that will be absorbed into the baby’s skin to ease pain, cut drooling, and stimulate the thyroid’ is pseudoscientific claptrap. You show me a substance that is strong enough to exist for millions of years at excessive temperature and pressure, yet is weak enough to leak out when brought to a baby’s body temperature. I’d respect them more if they went right ahead and said, ‘It works by magic,’ or even, ‘We don’t know why it works, but it does,’ than duping people into thinking there’s a scientific basis for this. And since the same people who advocate amber necklaces also disparage modern medicine as ‘dangerous’, aren’t they worried that they have no control over the dose of succinite their baby receives?

I’ll end by paraphrasing GK Chesterton: it’s good to have an open mind, but don’t open it so much that your brain falls out!

After the Cold

You look around your house, a shell-shocked survivor of the tornado that has swept through. Stained clothing lies scattered over chairs and banisters, dirty muslins screwed up in every corner. Tissues, and pieces of tissues, and the wrappers from cough sweets, litter the floor like patches of melting snow. And over it all lies an icy silence.

The storm has passed.

 

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“I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe…”

I struggled to make dinner this evening. Partly it was because I forgot to take my antidepressants two days running, leaving me horribly light-headed and with pupils like pinpricks; partly because in the endless round of buying vapour rubs, cough syrups, tinctures, ointments and snake oil salesmen’s charms, we’ve run out of food.

It’s a contest from Masterchef. I wandered around the kitchen, doing an inventory in a daze. One egg. A clove of garlic. Some carrots, best before two weeks ago. Strawberries that can walk by themselves. Some unidentifiable white substance lurking at the back of the fridge. And some oats. Make a dish out of that.

In my mind, I’m haunted by the memories of crying, sneezing, coughing, puking, and snot, endless snot. What started clear and runny turned thick and yellow-green – at this stage she blew vast snot bubbles from each nostril that spattered everywhere when they burst. Later, it turned into this sticky jelly-like substance, not dissimilar to the glue they use to fix bank cards to letters or CDs to the covers of magazines. It would get stuck all over her face, and I’d have to peel it off in strings. Now, as the cold fades away, it’s a healthy snotty green, and only visible when she sneezes – that’s when it hangs from each nostril like two little worms. Lovely.

I think the worst thing about the whole experience was little Izzie’s distress. You’re meant to protect her, you’re meant to take away the pain and discomfort, but there’s very little you can do to make a sick baby feel better. You can’t explain what’s going on, get her to blow her nose, give her a decongestant. I tried as many things as I could – held her in a hot, steamy bathroom, used vapour rub, nasal spray, Calpol, cough syrup, cuddles. I even tried to use an aspirator – kind of like a pipette where you squeeze a rubber bulb, put the attached tube up the baby’s nose and release the bulb to suck all the snot out – but frankly, more was dripping out on its own than I managed to get in the pipette, so I abandoned that one. And I didn’t bother putting pillows under her mattress to prop her up – given how much she moves about in her sleep, she’d have ended up upside down at the bottom of the cot with the blood rushing to her head.

And so much for three days coming, three days here, and three days going. I mean, the worst of it is over – her temperature is down, her nose isn’t running, her appetite has returned, and she only sneezes from time to time – but her throat still rattles with phlegm that she’s struggling to bring up, and she still has a nasty cough. Apparently, the average baby has eight colds in its first year, lasting ten to fourteen days. Since she turns six months on Friday, and this is her first proper cold, either she’s way below average or the next few months will be hell!

Now if only I could shake the cold she’s given me…

The World’s Worst Word

Top of the list of words that should be expunged from the English language is ‘should’. Unfortunately, in order to make that statement, I’ve had to use it, so perhaps banning it isn’t the right answer. To rephrase, then: I would greatly appreciate it if the word ‘should’ was avoided in any conversation about life, lifestyle, parenting, babies, child development, behaviour and relationships, because ‘should’ is the world’s worst word.

Implicit, and often explicit, within the word ‘should’ is that there is only one way of doing things, the right way, and therefore if people use that word at you, they are telling you that you are not only falling short of the ideal, you are doing things wrong. ‘You should leave her to cry,’ means: ‘A proper parent leaves their child to cry. This is the only way to respond to a baby that cries. By not leaving her to cry, you are not being a proper parent. You suck.’

Okay, maybe that’s my autism reading too much into it, but how much nicer would that same sentence be if you replaced ‘should’ with ‘could’? ‘You could leave her to cry,’ means: ‘there are many options available to parents, of which this is just one. I leave it to you to make the decision as to which option is right for your family.’ See? Much better.

‘Should’ also fills your life with pressure. ‘She should be drinking five bottles a day.’ Great, but what if she only wants four? Or those days that she wants six? What then? Should we be forcing milk into her, denying her it when she’s hungry? Instead of following your instincts and adapting to reality, you feel an obligation to try to squeeze reality into a ‘should’-shaped hole, and that doesn’t make life easy for anyone.

That horrible imperative also changes the power relationship between you and whichever person said it. ‘You should change the brand of milk she drinks,’ is another way of saying, ‘I don’t respect you. There is no point in us having a conversation as adults because you are a child who cannot be trusted to make decisions. Therefore, I must fill the role of your parent and tell you exactly what to do. Switch to Aptamil.’

‘But Aptamil and Cow & Gate are the same company with different coloured packaging.’

‘Shut up, imbecile. You are incapable of deciding what is best for your baby so I will take that choice away from you. You are the hydrant and I am the dog.’

You see what I’m saying? ‘Could’ means that we are equals, you are making a suggestion and you respect my ability to sort through the conflicting information and select an appropriate course of action. ‘Should’, on the other hand, means you’re the expert and I’m the dunce, and I should do what you say because you’re the Man, and I’m the poop he just stepped in.

So next time you’re giving someone advice, think about turning that first phoneme from a ‘sh’ to a ‘c’, unless you really are that arrogant that you think you know the best way to raise my baby.

Rant over.