Am I missing something?

Since my wife and I both have autism, sometimes we misunderstand each other; sometimes we get the wrong end of the stick; and sometimes we are simply incapable of understanding the other’s point of view.

I live with my wife; I have kids with her; I spend practically every waking moment with her; but after the conversation I just had with her, I’m pretty sure she lives in a parallel dimension where up is down and black is white, or I do. I have no comprehension of what just happened.

She rushed into the lounge, her face aglow with excitement. ‘I’ve just realised something,’ she said.

‘Oh, yes?’ I replied, eager to hear what it was.

‘You know the alphabet? If you count seven letters above A, you get H.’

‘Yes.’

‘And if you count seven letters above B, you get I.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Well, if you count seven letters above C, you get J.’

I waited for more, but no more came. ‘And?’

‘Well isn’t that amazing?’ she said.

‘Isn’t what amazing?’

‘That if you count seven letters up from A, B and C, you get H, I and J.’

I frowned. ‘Still not seeing the significance.’

Her smile fading, as though talking to an idiot, she said, ‘Seven letters above A is H.’

‘Yeah, I get that.’

‘And seven letters above B is I.’

‘Yeah, and seven letters above C is J. So what?’

She sighed. ‘You’re not getting this.’

‘No, I’m not. Seven letters above A, B and C are H, I and J. Why is that significant?’

‘Look,’ she said, starting to lose her patience. ‘If you put the numbers A to G in a line, and then on the next line put H to N, all the letters on the second line will be seven in front of the letter above.’

‘Yeah.’

‘Well, that’s amazing, isn’t it? I just figured that out.’

‘You figured what out?’

‘That H, I and J are seven letters ahead of A, B and C.’

‘I’m still not understanding why that’s significant.’

‘Because, like, mathematicians could make algebraic equations out of it.’

By now, my frown was so deep my eyebrows had merged with my moustache, and she got even more annoyed.

‘What?’ she said. ‘You knew that seven letters in front of A, B and C are H, I and J, did you?’

‘Yes. I don’t get why this is news to you.’

‘Because H, I and J -‘

‘I know,’ I said. ‘They’re seven letters in front of A, B and C, but so what? Why seven? What’s the significance? Do they spell something out? Do they mean anything?’

‘No, but seven letters ahead of A, B and C are H, I and J.’

‘So what? Three letters in front of A, B and C are D, E and F. Four letters ahead are E, F and G. What’s interesting about that? What the hell are you talking about?’

She was very cross by now. ‘I’m talking about how, if you put the letters A to G in a line -‘

‘I know! The second line are all seven ahead! So what? Who cares?’

‘You’re just not getting it!’ she cried.

‘No, I’m not, because you’re not explaining it, you’re just repeating it!’ I cried back. ‘Why seven? If you make a line of three letters, the next row will all be three ahead; four letters, they’ll all be four ahead. Shit, we don’t even need letters. Three in front of 1 is 4; three in front of 2 is 5. Look at your phone – every number on the second row is three ahead of the first row. Who cares? Why exactly does it matter!?!’

‘Because if you choose a letter and go seven ahead, and pick the next letter and go seven ahead of that, they’re next to each other!’

‘Of course they’re bloody next to each other! If you go ahead any number of letters, from one to twenty-four, they’ll be next to each other! Twenty-four above A is Y, twenty-four above B is Z. So what?’

‘You just don’t want to admit it’s amazing because you didn’t come up with it.’

‘Come up with what? That some letters in the alphabet are ahead of other letters in the alphabet?’

‘No, that seven letters above A, B and C are H, I and J.’

‘But that’s not – that doesn’t mean anything.’

‘Not to you. I think it’s quite a profound idea.’

By this point, I wanted to rip off my own arm and beat her over the head with it. ‘That’s not profound. It’s not even an idea. That’s saying what you see. The sky is blue. Who cares? That’s half an idea. You need to say, the sky is blue and therefore. You have to provide significance. Meaning. Like, neo-Nazi organisations often put 18 in their name because 1 and 8 are the letters A and H, which stand for Adolf Hitler. Or, it’s called the alphabet because the first two letters are alpha and beta. That’s interesting.’

‘Well, I’m still pleased with myself for coming up with it.’

‘Well, you go and be pleased, then. I’m going to try and figure out what planet you’re on, because it definitely isn’t mine.’

And, try as I might, I still can’t figure out what the hell she was on about.

Am I missing something?

Greta the Aspie

There’s a strange assumption I’ve come across of late that, by dint of my autism, I must necessarily be a fan of other people on the spectrum. This is particularly odd when the only point of similarity between us is our diagnosis. As a tattooed, shaven-headed, guitar-playing proponent of punk, rock, metal and grunge, is it really likely that I’m going to listen to Susan Boyle simply because she’s Aspergic? And as a fan of mostly horror and crime fiction, am I going to enjoy Chris Packham’s meandering nature memoir because he, too, is on the spectrum? (Short answer, no).

So, in a week during which 16-year-old autistic activist Greta Thurnberg dominated the headlines by not only arguing her case at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, but also giving the Leader of the Free World the worst case of stink eye I’ve ever seen, everywhere I go it’s assumed I must be a fan. People keep asking my opinion of her, and of climate change, and whether we should be running for the hills screaming, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling!’ all because we both happen to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

On the one hand, it’s rather patronising to presume that, because we’re both autistic, I have specialist insight into a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who has made it her mission to beat everyone over the head with a virtue stick like a real life Lisa Simpson. On the other, it’s nice that people are talking to me, and since, as a result of my autism, I’m a keen observer of the human condition (even if my conclusions are sometimes way off base), it probably makes more sense to ask me than some random weirdo who sleeps on a park bench and smells of cheese.

So what do I think of Greta Thurnberg?

I have mixed feelings. I think she’s done an amazing job almost singlehandedly putting environmentalism at the centre of the political agenda and bringing the issue of climate change to the forefront of everyone’s minds, and there’s little doubt her autism has played a massive part in this – her obsession, stubbornness, and dogged refusal to be put off by any criticism or negative feedback have all served her well. She’s demonstrated in the best possible way that one person can change the world, if only they work hard and believe in themselves enough. And unlike some environmentalists (*cough* Prince Harry *cough*), she practices what she preaches, travelling by trains and yachts instead of cars and planes. Kudos.

However, the same autism that has enabled her to succeed has, I think, exposed her to legitimate criticism in terms of her message, and created genuine concern about the potential impact of being so notorious so young on both her short-term and long-term mental health.

Climate change is clearly her obsession, but as with many people on the spectrum, while we are fabulous at learning facts and figures, we often lack a genuine understanding of the topic – we’re great at studying the trees, but not so good at putting them together to see the forest. You know, big picture stuff. There is certainly a tinge of millenarian hysteria in her rhetoric, and while she has been emotionally restrained in the past, her speech on Monday was dramatic, scathing, emotional and scolding. It risked undermining the good that she’s done since nobody likes being lectured by a know-it-all teenager who thinks they can solve all the world’s problems because they’re better than you. I should know – as a teen I was insufferable, and, human nature being what it us, I never managed to convince anyone that my extensive knowledge of playground social interaction meant anything in the ‘real’ world. Strange.

Now, before you say I’m a climate change denier, I’m not. The science is unequivocal – the climate is changing. And anyone who ignores the impact of man on the environment and thinks it’s all a conspiracy to charge higher taxes simply doesn’t want to face the uncomfortable truth that we are a massive cause of this. That said, predicting the effects of anthropogenic global warming using computer models is on less sure-footing given our inability to accurately measure the influence of millions of different variables on complex weather patterns, ocean currents and ecosystems. I think much of the panic afflicting young people right now is from taking the ‘worst case scenario’ models. It’s ‘end of the world’ stuff, a doomsday cult with scientific backing, so it’s no wonder that schoolkids are crying themselves to sleep over our impending demise.

I’m not so pessimistic. I think we’re going to be seeing a turbulent few decades involving mass migration of people, increasingly frequent extreme weather events, and lots of highly-charged arguments about power sources and a diet containing less meat and more locally-sourced produce, but I don’t think humanity is going extinct. And the accusation that we’re doing nothing to combat climate change is just as selective a reading of the evidence as climate change denial. We’re not doing enough, certainly; we can definitely go further; but the very fact so many people are engaging with this issue shows that it is being taken seriously by large swathes of the population, including consumers, manufacturers, lobbyists and politicians (with the notable exception of Donald Trump).

Likewise, I fundamentally disagree with many climate change zealots who seem to think we can save the world by going backwards, banning cars and air travel and returning to a pre-industrial-type lifestyle. That genie is out of the lamp, and it’s not getting put back in. Through the natural earthly cycle, climate change is going to happen whether or not we change, so preparing for it is far better than trying to hold back the tide. We need more technology, not less. Look at how digital streaming services have massively reduced the manufacture of CDs and DVDs. Look at how 3D printers prevent the need for transporting goods from the other side of the world. Look at the new Sabre oxygen-hydrogen hybrid engine, which promises far greener air travel. These are the things that are going to let us reach a carbon-neutral society, not a bunch of Luddites throwing their shoes into the machinery.

When it comes to effecting change, I think Greta Thurnberg is right in targeting the young and will reap the rewards of this stratagem, but not in the way that she thinks. Far too many pressure groups and protesters (like Extinction Rebellion and many of Thurnberg’s student activists) seem to prefer standing on the outside shouting at ‘the Establishment’, and I have no truck with that that way of thinking. If you want system change, you do it from within the system. You train hard and work hard, you become an expert, you get into a position where you have the power to change things – you don’t piss and moan on a street corner. I don’t think the student strikes will change the world, but I think ten years from now, when those same students move into government and academia and industry around the world, that’s when things will change – from the inside.

As far as Thurnberg’s mental health goes, I do worry what kind of support she’s receiving. This is a person with diagnoses of autism, OCD and selective mutism who, by her own admission, has battled depression and anorexia and who is right now at the very centre of world affairs and media scrutiny. Of course, I’m not saying that this in any way detracts from her message or that she should be denied the right to express it, but as someone who has experienced breakdowns and burnouts throughout his life, I wonder how long she can keep it up. My saying this probably comes across as patronising in itself, and if so, yeah, I am, but that doesn’t change that, from my experience of those of us on the spectrum, her mental health is a legitimate concern and she should not be mocked by the President of the United States simply for being herself.

So, in summary, I think Greta Thurnberg should be applauded, not only for highlighting the issue of climate change, battling her way into the corridors of power, and ensuring the next generation of lawmakers and decision-makers will be concerned about the environment, but for practising what she preaches, even if I’m not entirely on-board with the severity of her message, and I have more hope about the future than she seems to be.

The way I see it, while climate change makes the future a terrifying unknown, we’re humans – we’re creative, adaptable, resilient and determined, and I have no doubt we’ve got this. Of course, climate change fanatics, and Greta Thurnberg herself, might call this hubris, since humans can also be stupid, selfish, backward-looking and incredibly resistant to change. It all depends on your perception of humanity, and whether you believe we are collectively a good or an evil. I’m prepared to think we’re better than Thurnberg thinks.

I hope humanity doesn’t prove me wrong.

Too young for a sleepover?

My daughter Izzie loves sleepovers, probably because they have been confined to Granny’s house, where she is spoiled rotten, is pampered and protected, and can invade Granny’s bed at any time of the night. I can sleep soundly knowing she’s being well looked after, and that if there are any problems, I will be alerted and can sort them out. Furthermore, being ‘within the family’ means any hiccups – behaviour I don’t approve of from either child or caregiver – can be corrected moving forward.

However, since turning four a couple of months ago, Izzie has decided she’s grown-up enough to have friends over for sleepovers or even go for sleepovers at their houses. I can well understand the thrill and excitement of hanging out with your friend without your parents, staying up late to muck around, and gaining a sense of independence and ownership over your life. But while my wife thinks sleepovers are fine, I am dead set against them because to my mind, four is way too young.

So when is the ‘right’ time to start sleepovers?

She has a friend that she’s known since they were both around six months old. This friend (and, of course, her mother) have been to our house dozens of times, and Izzie and my wife have been to hers probably more than this. They’ve been to parties together, the park, the theatre, swimming – all sorts. I’ve seen how the children interact together, how the mother disciplines her child, and the values and beliefs that this woman possesses. I have therefore, tentatively, agreed to my child going over to her friend’s house for a sleepover, on the understanding that if there are any problems we are to be informed immediately and come and collect her.

My wife unfortunately interpreted this as carte blanche on sleepovers, so promptly lined up another with a friend from nursery, a child I don’t really know, whose mother I’ve only met a few times and whose father, coming from a radically different socio-economic class to us (he’s undoubtedly many, many rungs closer to the Queen than we are), is such an unknown in terms of attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and child-rearing practices, that I’ve insisted my wife cancel.

And therein lies the rub, as my wife now refuses to budge. This is before the first sleepover has even taken place, and we’ve seen whether it was a success or not.

I’ve explained to my wife that I see it as my job to protect my daughter from harm – physical, psychological and emotional – and I am simply not comfortable allowing my four-year-old into a nighttime excursion at a virtual stranger’s house, a place filled with expensive breakables and a father I’ve never met. Her response is that she has met the family a number of times, I’m a control freak and need to learn to let go. Yes, I know I struggle to relinquish control, but frankly the safety of my children, to be looked after within my own home and under my own roof, is more important to me than fostering my daughter’s social connections.

We are therefore at loggerheads, and neither of us looks to back down anytime soon.

So which of us is right? Is four too young for sleepovers? What age were yours when they first slept out? And does anybody have any experiences, good or bad, they’d like to share about sleepovers?

Midlife crisis or male postnatal depression?

Dear readers, I have something to admit: I am completely, utterly and irreparably miserable.

How miserable? I don’t remember the last time I felt at peace. There are too many hours between waking up and going to bed, hours where I swing from sadness to annoyance, from cynicism to hopelessness. Getting through each day is a real struggle. I have no energy, my brain won’t focus, and I can’t seem to motivate myself to do anything other than eat and sleep.

Which is pretty rubbish when you’re married with two kids.

I’ve felt this way – not waving but drowning, to quote my favourite poem – since a couple of months after my second daughter was born, so around a year-and-a-half now. True, looking after two children is exponentially more difficult than one, but instead of gradually getting used to it, my low mood has been getting worse over this period until I’m now in a very bleak place indeed.

It’s taking its toll on my life and relationships. I’m the fattest I’ve ever been, have lost interest in all my hobbies, and get snappy at everyone I know. As a result, my marriage is failing, I don’t have any friends, and even my eldest daughter, not yet four, has started asking if I’m okay because she knows, intuitively, that there’s something wrong with daddy.

I don’t want to go to the park; I don’t want to have fun and games; I just want to sit on the sofa, drink my coffee, and get to the end of the day without either breaking down in tears or shouting at someone. Battling endless irritation, despair and emptiness, with no light to alleviate the darkness, leaves you feeling like a terrible dad, terrible husband and terrible person, because you pretty much are just terrible all round.

My wife thinks my antidepressants have stopped working. I thought the same around ten years ago, so went to a psychiatrist, only to be told that of course I’m miserable – I’m intelligent enough to know all the things I’m missing out on thanks to my problems; feeling miserable is the normal reaction for a person like me, so get used to it, because you’re in for a long and bumpy ride. Inspirational. Should work for the Samaritans.

I’m bored, irritated, unfulfilled. I’m sick and tired, fed up, run down and worn out. Smiling fake smiles as I build yet another Lego tower, making out that I enjoy pushing a swing for the ten-thousandth time, pretending watching Peppa Pig isn’t eating my self-esteem and devouring my very soul.

I escape from the struggles of the present by dwelling on the past and dreaming of a different future. All I can think is: I hate this. I want to be more than this. I want to be something. I want to make a difference. I can’t live like this any longer.

I’ve lost my identity, my path, my sense of purpose. I’ve been reduced to a nanny. I know, parenting is meant to be the hardest, most important and ultimately rewarding and fulfilling job going, but let’s get real – nobody got knighted for being a dad. There are no awards for parenting, the prospects stink, you’re on call 24/7, you don’t even get a lunch break and you can forget all about remuneration. While it might be enough for some, it simply makes me feel like a massive loser and a giant failure.

I feel like the train passed me by a long time ago. I missed the parade. I had a chance to triumph, twenty years ago, but I walked the other way, and now I’m fat, and bald, and lost.

To put things in perspective, I used to be a big shot. At school I was hot shit. The best student of English they’d ever had, I was going to change the world and make it my bitch. London, Paris, New York – the sky was the limit. Everyone thought I was going to ascend to the stratosphere. Dean at Oxford, celebrity author, This Is Your Life. Should I be a barrister, astronaut, brain surgeon? I could have done anything I put my mind to.

Life worked out differently. I had the smarts, but I lacked understanding – common sense, intuition, the ability to relate to others. The depression, anxiety and mental illness didn’t help either, or the self-harm, the suicidal ideation.

At my quarter-life crisis I started training to be a nurse because I wanted to help people; switched to medicine when my ego caught up with my philanthropy; had a breakdown at 27 while halfway through the application process to join the police. Was diagnosed with autism at 28. Couldn’t function till I was 30.

Reassessing my life, I decided to become an academic. My teachers always told me I would be miserable anywhere in life outside of academia, and they were right. ‘You have a gift you need to share with the world,’ they said. So I got a Degree in History and then a Masters, intending to go on and get my PhD and bury myself in an abstract world of facts and figures, where my ability to talk at people instead of with them would be a help instead of a hindrance. My tutors thoroughly encouraged me in this; they told me I was made for it.

But instead, four years ago I became a full-time dad. It’s a sacrifice, I know that, but I feel like I’ve sacrificed so much there’s nothing left for me. The people who used to copy off me at school, the kids I used to babysit, they’re bankers now, lawyers, stock brokers, hedge-fund managers. The kid who was one day going to eclipse them all spends his days changing nappies, unblocking toilets, playing peekaboo and dying inside.

I wish just being a parent fulfilled me, but it doesn’t. I want a career. I want to make a difference. I want to be somebody, but I’m almost forty, haven’t properly worked for ten years, and have a history of depression, self-harm and nervous breakdowns, not to mention autism, crap Theory of Mind, and problems relating to people. I’m too old to join the navy; too unstable to become a paramedic; too autistic to join the police. I’ve considered nursing or teaching, but £9000 a year tuition fees are out of my reach, and I certainly can’t afford the time or money to continue my studies.

I’m bursting with desires. I want to spend my life in museums, art galleries, theatres; I want to go to poetry readings, jazz cafes, film festivals; lectures, seminars, performance, dance; I want to see dinosaurs and spaceships, architectural wonders and technological genius; I want to discuss politics with strangers, debate literature with friends, argue semantics in crowded halls; walk the same streets as the greats of history, the greats of now. In short, I want all the things a city can provide, but I live in a little village in the arse-end of nowhere, as far from the throbbing pulse as you can get, with a wife and kids and no job or capital to finance a move I know that they wouldn’t be willing to make.

I can understand now why people walk out on their families. I’ve always thought a guy who leaves his wife and kids for a bit of excitement is a scumbag, but for the first time I can see the appeal. When the choice is being miserable or taking a chance on happiness, can you really begrudge someone who makes that leap? How much easier, I keep thinking, how much easier just to pack my bags and disappear? At times I feel desperate.

But it’s no solution. The number of men who reach this age and start to feel old so buy a sports car or a motorbike and trade in the wife for a younger model – it always seems they gain a month of joy and a lifetime of pain, because there’s no going back. Once you’re gone, you’re gone.

And I know that the grass is always greener, too. If I left, I would bring myself with me, and my misery would come too. Because it’s not really my family stopping me from being happy or preventing me from fulfilling my destiny: it’s me. I am responsible for my failure to thrive. I am responsible for the decisions I made. The depression, the autism, the breakdowns, they didn’t make things any easier, but ultimately, where I am in life, or am not, is down to me.

But I’m miserable, and I don’t know how to fix it. Midlife crisis or male postnatal depression? Maybe it’s just the realisation that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, and if I’m not careful I’m going to choke on it.

NEVER tell me I have ‘man flu’

What is the most sexist, unsympathetic, demeaning thing you can say to a guy when he’s ill?

Call it ‘man flu’.

I just slammed the door in my neighbour’s face for exactly this reason, and do I feel bad for such unwelcoming behaviour? In all honesty, no. No I do not.

Let me explain why this sort of thing pisses me off. I generally do a 17-18 hour day looking after a one-year-old and a three-year-old, regardless of how I’m feeling. Oftentimes, it’s a great deal more than that. The last four nights my little one stayed up till 3am, 2.15am, midnight, and 2am. On two of those nights, the other one got me up at 4. Why? Because they’ve both got coughs and colds and are feeling too unwell to sleep. I kid you not, my clothes are held together by snot stains and phlegm.

It doesn’t matter if I only snatch a couple of hours sleep – I get up at 7am to change nappies and wipe arses, get others dressed and breakfasted before myself. I play mind-numbing games, take the kids swimming, give them baths, cuddle them, read them stories, cook them lunch and dinner, drive around trying to get them to sleep. I can’t even take a shit by myself anymore.

Which is funny considering I’ve caught my youngest’s upset stomach and had to sit on the toilet eight times yesterday. The human body just can’t take that kind of pressure indefinitely. Something’s got to give, and it has.

Today I’ve woken up exhausted, with a headache, sore throat, pink eyes, runny nose and blocked ears, and I feel like a piece of crap mushed into a taxi’s floor mat. But I still got up, got the kids dressed and fed, took them swimming, brought them home, got them lunch…and then there was a knock at the door.

My neighbour looked at me and the first thing she said was, ‘Are you unwell?’ because I clearly look like shit.

‘I feel awful,’ I said.

‘Oh, poor you,’ she replied sarcastically. ‘What is it, man flu?’

I’ll tell you, she got off lightly with a door slammed in her face.

How did society reach a point where it’s deemed okay to mock somebody who is feeling unwell purely because of their sex? I’m talking to women, because it’s only women who do this, such as my wife, my neighbour, work colleagues, casual acquaintances, TV shows, adverts – exactly how can you justify mocking people for being ill? If you wouldn’t mock a woman in the same way, why not? And what kind of person does that make you?

I know there’s going to be a section of people out there reading this who’ll say, ‘Well, women had it bad for ages, so suck it up, dude,’ but if such people can’t see the irony in combating sexism by being sexist, then you’re too stupid to be reading my site. I have never mocked anybody, male or female, for being unwell. Why would I? It’s just plain rude.

It’s part of a wider trend of belittling, ugly, anti-male rhetoric that you see out there. Explain something to a woman? You’re mansplaining. Interrupt a woman? You’re manterrupting. Because of course, only men talk down to people or interrupt them.

What the hell has sex got to do with anything? If someone talks down to you or interrupts you, it’s not a male thing – it’s an asshole thing. If a woman talks down to me or interrupts me, I don’t immediately infer it’s because of her sex and use some bullshit, made-up word like womansplaining or womanterruption. You know why? Because neither sex has a monopoly on assholes.

And besides, we already have perfectly good words for these behaviours that don’t try and divide us as people – ‘condescending’ and ‘interrupting’. And there’s a great, inoffensive word you can use when I man is feeling ill that doesn’t belittle him – ‘ill’.

Seriously, I believe in equality. We all have the right to be treated equally and have the same opportunities, regardless of our sex, ethnicity, religion or sexuality. There are, undoubtedly, areas in which women are unjustly discriminated against, just as there are those in which men are unjustly discriminated against (but you’re pretty unlikely to read about that anywhere), but if you believe that ‘raising women up’ to be equal to men is synonymous with ‘pulling men down’, then you’re part of the reason we live in such a fractured, divided society.

Now I’m going to get on with my afternoon, ill or not, knowing I’ve probably got another thirteen hours before I can crawl into bed.

Rant over.

Fear not, Aspie Daddy fans

Regular readers of this blog might have been a little concerned by my absence over the past couple of months, particularly when my last post suggested you stay tuned for Part 2.

The truth is, I have been going through an incredibly trying time in my personal life. Far from being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, it was too dark to find the bloody tunnel in the first place. I have been groping around blind, and not in the appropriate headspace to write about family life and parenting at a time when both were in question.

Now, we have finally turned a corner. I’ve found the tunnel and I can see enough to locate my surroundings. The light might be way off – might always be beyond my reach – but I once more believe it is there, and that is enough to keep going. These experiences might form the basis of another post one day, but for now I am going to embrace this fragile sense of security and move on.

So rest assured, I will be updating this blog again. And to start with, I’ll share some good news: a few weeks ago, over two nights mostly after midnight, in between nappy changes, bottle feeds and lullabies, I managed to write a short story in time to meet the deadline of the Writers’ Bureau Short Story Competition 2018. Reading it back, there were typos and grammatical errors and bits that make me cringe, but it amazingly won fourth prize and has been published on their website. So here is The Embrace of the Sea, and I will see you again soon.

The Perils of Perfection

I am a high achiever. This might come as a surprise considering I’m a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad whose longest of nineteen jobs lasted a massive 365 days and whose highest take-home pay was a measly 16k, who has practically nothing in the bank, drives an old rust-bucket, and lives in a house owned by his father-in-law. But I am a high achiever nonetheless. And I’m here to tell you: it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

What makes me a high achiever despite never actually achieving anything of much note? With no false modesty, I just am. I walked early, talked early, read early, wrote early. In primary school, I jumped from the first year to the third year, skipping the second. I was in an advanced English class with older children. They told my parents that the sky was the limit. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said I absolutely could be.

At middle school I was in an advanced English and Maths class with older children, and regularly corrected my teachers’ spelling and mathematical mistakes. They told my parents I would reach the stratosphere. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said I absolutely would be.

At secondary school I was in the top set for every subject, and started getting Level 10s for English (the highest you can get) when everyone else was getting Level 6s. They told my parents I was the most exceptional student they’d ever had in the 54 years the school had existed. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said to remember them when I was on This Is Your Life.

In VI Form, my English Literature work was deemed third-year university standard, and I was selected to go to a politics retreat for especially bright students. They told my parents I had a gift that needed to be shared with the world. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they had no doubt I wouldn’t just be a novelist, I’d be one of the bestselling novelists in the world.

I sleepwalked through university, spending no more than two days on any assignment, and still came out with a first class BA (Hons) with distinction and the highest mark in the year. I was voted the person most likely to succeed by my peers.

I started doing Open University courses and got a Diploma of Higher Education, another degree and a Masters, earning a distinction for every module, exam and essay, whether it was humanities, arts or social science – English, History, Classics, Archaeology, Psychology or Philosophy.

I have excelled at every job I’ve ever done, be it medical secretary, student nurse, telesalesperson, administrator, public speaker or police communications officer. I have worked with famous people and for royalty, sold art to mayors, travelled solo across the United States and around New Zealand; I have spoken with James Cameron, stood beside the Queen and once saw Michael Jackson travelling down Broadway on top of a bus.

I have sailed across the Atlantic as deckhand on a tall ship; climbed 100-foot cliffs; abseiled down a mineshaft; caught a 50lb conger eel; ascended mountains; qualified as a scuba diver and a parachute jumper; played guitar in a number of rock and metal bands; acted in amateur plays; won screenwriting and short story competitions; had a book published about being diagnosed with autism as an adult; appeared on TV, in magazines and newspapers, and on the radio. I have kayaked, surfed, water skiied, disappeared into the wilderness. Last year I won a competition medal for rifle shooting the first time I picked up a rifle. I’ve done courses in blacksmithing, map-reading, survival, forensic science, private detection, web design, tai chi, sailing, Alzheimer’s, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The only thing I’ve never done is walk on water.

So, I’m a high achiever. Which is weird considering I’m a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad whose longest of nineteen jobs lasted a massive 365 days and whose highest take-home pay was a measly 16k, who has practically nothing in the bank, drives an old rust-bucket, and lives in a house owned by his father-in-law.

The trouble with being a high achiever is when your achievements don’t actually amount to diddly squat in the real world. I haven’t reached the stratosphere, or This Is Your Life, or even London. I still haven’t had a novel published, despite having written ten over the past twenty years, sacrificing career and relationships in exchange for 350 rejection letters declining my entry into the hallowed halls of the literary world. I’m hardly setting the world on fire.

I mean, even Clark Griswold invented the Crunch Enhancer, a non-nutritive semi-permeable cereal varnish. I’m less successful than Clark Griswold. Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

I feel that if I died at eighteen, I’d have been on the front page of the newspaper – so much potential, he would’ve been great and done so much, what a tragedy. If I die now, I’ll be lucky to get a footnote in the obituaries – so much wasted potential, he could’ve been great and done so much, but didn’t, oh well.

Living as a high achiever messes with your mental health. Ten out of ten is not something to strive for; it is something to be expected every time. If I get nine out of ten, I beat myself up because it’s not good enough, damn it, I should be better. When you throw parenting into the mix – especially of two little girls aged two and zero – that’s when perfectionism is a right royal pain in the ass.

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed I’m a little obsessive over my role as father. It’s not good enough just to be a dad – I have to be the best dad who ever lived. I model myself on Supernanny Jo Frost – calm, collected, consistent, and always in control.

So now that, after two years and nine months of putting up with the crap of parenting, I have started falling short of this ideal – when the baby is screaming and the toddler joins in just for fun and I suddenly shout, ‘Oh for God’s sake, shut up the both of you before my brain starts leaking out of my ears!’ and the toddler starts sobbing ‘don’t shout at me, daddy!’ – I have been sinking into a shame spiral, thinking I’m the worst father in the world, and punishing myself for my abject failure to live up to my unrealistically high expectations.

All of which has resulted in me taking an Anxiety Management and Coping With Depression course, where I have learned four interesting things:

  1. Eight out of ten is good enough.
  2. When you’ve lived with the Black Dog nipping at your heels all your life, just getting up in the morning is an achievement, let alone looking after two kids and a heavily dependent wife.
  3. If I’m always in control around my kids, I’ll teach them that it is bad to show their emotions and they should strive to be perfect all the time, which will set them unrealistic goals and thus perpetuate the cycle.
  4. I am a human and not a robot.

To which I respond with:

  1. For whom?
  2. They don’t put up statues of people simply for getting out of bed.
  3. Fair dues.
  4. Beep boop – does not compute.

But in all seriousness, they’re right. I have to lower my sights and lower my standards, because I’m killing myself to be perfect and there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. I have to accept that sometimes I’m allowed to be ‘crap dad’. Eight out of ten is a perfectly acceptable standard to live at. And what does it matter if I never publish a bestseller?

It matters to me.

Setting aside everyone’s expectations of me, my supposed potential, all the things I ‘should’ have done, all the things I was ‘meant’ to achieve, the only pressure on me to live at ten out of ten comes from within my own head. So it’s up to me to change the thought patterns of a lifetime if I want to access that elusive thing called ‘peace of me mind’.

Can I do it? Of course I can – I can do anything!

Let’s just call it a ‘work in progress’ and see where I end up, okay?

My future daughter

It’s only natural, I think, to look at your two-year-old daughter and imagine what her life might be like in the future. She leaps around the room like a baby ballerina – a dancer. She gets out her plastic stethoscope and listens to your chest – a doctor. She pushes the dog off the back of the sofa – a pest-controller.

Then there are the hints of her future character. She tries to make sure everybody is involved in whatever we’re doing – she’s going to be sensitive to the needs of others. She befriends anybody and everybody she meets – she’s going to be sociable. She lures other children away from their parents whenever we’re in a pub – she’s going to be charismatic. Or a future cult-leader. No, I’m going with charismatic.

Unfortunately, not all of it is so positive. While her behaviour is probably (please God!) normal for a two-year-old, let’s just suppose for a second that my daughter acts the same way when she’s twenty-two. Those little idiosyncrasies of early childhood would look an awful lot different in an adult.

For example, imagine your grown-up daughter, who is called Izzie, suddenly appears in her doorway late at night as you’re walking past her room and declares, in a croaky, demon-possessed voice, ‘My name’s Actata.’

‘Jolly good,’ you reply.

‘What’s your name? Oi, where you going? Me talking to you!’

‘Go to sleep, Izzie.’

‘Me not Izzie, me Actata! Come back! Me in charge!’

You’d find that a bit weird, right?

Or what if your adult daughter disappeared upstairs for a couple of minutes, then reappeared wearing some sparkly gold sandals, a pair of knickers, a fluffy hoody, bright pink lipstick, dark sunglasses and a red woolly bobble-hat, with a bag of makeup over her shoulder, and then proceeded to strut back and forth across the lounge like something from the opening scenes of Pretty Woman, saying, ‘Me going to my new house. You not invited.’

You wouldn’t be strangely proud of her imagination – you’d be freaking terrified.

But that wouldn’t be anywhere near as alarming as your twentysomething daughter stripping off her clothes in the lounge every night before bed, climbing onto the back of the sofa, and doing five minutes of star-jumps while shouting, ‘Me naked, me naked, me naked!’ followed by, ‘Girls have noo-noos, boys have willies!’

And speaking of bed, what would you think if, every night after you’d made sure she was settled, your university-aged daughter took her pillow and duvet and made a little nest in the open doorway of her bedroom, and every time you returned her to bed you found her right back on the floor in the doorway again ten minutes later?

And what would you say to a grown-up daughter who claims ‘exercise’ is rolling off the arm of the sofa to fall flat on her face on the floor, time after time after time? Or who demands her dad sing to her every time she sits on the toilet to coax out her poop like a particularly gross snake charmer? Or who, whenever you’re driving the car screams, ‘Go, go, go! Faster, daddy, faster! Do your horn!’ Or who runs away from the cat every morning crying, ‘Don’t let her eat me, daddy, she’s going to eat me!’ Or hits her sister in the face with her doll Lucy, then claims it was Lucy who did it, not her.

Projecting into the future, there are only two types of adults I’ve met who behave anything like that. My daughter is going to be a melodramatic, free-spirited, adrenaline junkie nudist hippy who goes her own way, works as an actress, wears tie-dyes, conducts seances in her spare time, and is a shining beacon of what life can be like if we listen to our inner voice and refuse to conform.

Or she’s going to be a meth addict.

I’m really hoping it’s neither.

Babies: it’s a numbers game

It’s funny how numbers change depending on your age. When you’re eighteen, getting up three times a night means you’re a superstar. When you’re sixty, getting up three times a night means something completely different.

I’m thirty-eight. For me, getting up three times a night simply means I have a baby to look after.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I have a baby and a toddler to look after. And last night, it wasn’t three times.

It was forty-two.

I can imagine what you’re thinking: how on earth can you get up forty-two times to tend to your baby? Why didn’t you just stay up? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure myself. It’s all a bit of a blur – I was only semi-conscious for most of it. But some part of me was counting each and every time, so I know that, for some reason, I got up more than three dozen times to tend to little Rosie.

The best I can do is liken it to the snooze button on your alarm. She cried; I got up, went into the nursery, stuck her dummy back in her mouth, and settled her; then I crawled back into bed. Three or four minutes later, we repeated this charade, all because I was too knackered to get up, take her downstairs and give her milk, and because I was hoping beyond hope that this time – this time – she’d actually settle and go back to sleep for real.

In my defence, she wasn’t actually awake for most of this – she was in the same soporific stupor that I couldn’t climb out of. She’s taken to sleeping on her side in the cot, which means as she reaches full sleep, her dummy drops out and she starts to cry, without fully waking up. So every time I went in there I rolled her onto her back, put her dummy in, rubbed her nose and stroked her forehead, made cooing sounds, waited until she seemed to be asleep, and left. Four minutes later, when I went back, she’d be on her side again, her eyes still closed, but her whining mouth gasping for her missing dummy. Time after time after time.

After ninety minutes of this, I finally summoned the wherewithal to pick her up, take her downstairs and give her some milk.

Trouble is, she didn’t want it! She only wanted her dummy, and then fell promptly asleep in my arms.

After watching half-an-hour of Lone Survivor at silly o’clock in the morning, I took little Rosie back to bed and crawled back into my own, assuming she was finally gone. And then five minutes later…

This went on till about five, when she finally shut up. Just in time for my toddler to wake up coughing, and then demand I lie in her bed with her to settle her, which, exhausted as I was, I duly did. And after an hour of cuddling a fidgety jackrabbit, I got up to empty the nappy bin, change the cat litter, put the bins out and make breakfast for us all. Just another Monday morning in my household!

So, numbers, and how they change with age: I used to think that a twenty-year-old having a baby was way too young. Even a year ago, I’d look at some spring chicken pushing a baby in a buggy and think, ‘It’s a baby pushing a baby! How can they possibly cope?’ Now when I see them I think: ‘Damn, I wish I’d had kids at that age!’

At twenty I bounced back from things so much better than I do at thirty-eight. I could spend 48 hours locked in an editing suite working on my student film and then go to a lecture on psychoanalysis without any problems. I could run and jump and play without being stiff and sore in the morning. If I’d had a baby at twenty, I’d have had energy to spare.

Of course, if I’d had a child at twenty I know I’d have spent an incredibly frustrating decade feeling bitter about missing out on all the fantastic things life had to offer. As a thirty-eight year old, I can look back and say my twenties were awful, so I might as well have had a baby then, and I wouldn’t have missed out on anything.

On the other hand, I’m far wiser now, and can impart that wisdom to my children far better than I would have at twenty. And if I did have children at twenty, they wouldn’t be the children I have now, and that would be a tragedy as these are the best kids I could ever have hoped for. So there’s no point wishing to alter a life already lived. It happened for a reason – to make you the person you are today.

I just wish I wasn’t so tired all the time. Especially as my toddler said to me this evening, ‘Daddy, me going to cry tonight in bed.’

‘What?’ I said. ‘Why would you do that?’

‘Then Daddy have to sleep in my bed.’

Yikes. If she’s this manipulative at two-and-a-half, what’s she going to be like at seven?

An open letter to the Mental Health Community

Dear doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists and other Mental Health professionals,

As somebody who accessed Mental Health services for much of his teens and twenties – and, depending on the person that I saw, was variously diagnosed with clinical depression, major depression, cyclothymia, dysthymia, bipolar disorder and emotionally unstable (borderline) personality disorder, and prescribed all manner of antidepressants and mood stabilsers – may I begin by saying that I have nothing but respect for your profession. It is a very problematic and stressful area of medicine in which to specialise, and much of your work is more an art than a science. I am therefore fully cognizant of the pressures under which you work, and the difficulties that you face on a daily basis.

It is therefore with the best of intentions and sincere regret that I feel I must bring to your attention an area in which you could be regarded as failing in your duty of care. This is in the provision of services to adults with autism, particularly high-functioning members of the community, to whom your behaviour often amounts to nothing less than a flying kick to the balls – with both feet. Allow me to elucidate.

When I was working through my various (mis)diagnoses and battling the side-effects of my numerous sedating, mind-numbing and libido-crushing medications, I very helpfully had monthly reviews from a psychiatrist and weekly sessions from a counselling psychologist, such were my mental health difficulties. Indeed, they provided a measure of stability in an otherwise chaotic and trouble-filled life.

It was a little disheartening, then, when upon being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 28, I was immediately discharged by the Community Mental Health Team because ‘autism isn’t a mental illness’, and handed over to the Learning Disabilities Team, who said that ‘we have no services for high-functioning individuals’ and immediately discharged me also. This was ten years ago, and in all that time I have had no further input from the Mental Health Team or Learning Disabilities Team.

This makes me wonder, therefore, if you think that my clinical depression, major depression, cyclothymia, dysthymia, bipolar disorder, and emotionally unstable (borderline) personality disorder were merely symptoms of autism, rather than separate but co-existing mental health conditions, or if you thought that all of my problems with mood, identity, anxiety and depression would simply vanish alongside the diagnosis of autism? Surely, you did, else it would have been unethical to discharge somebody who had been receiving mental health treatment for over a decade without ensuring they were fully ‘cured’ and no longer needed mental health input.

To make it absolutely clear, I am wondering whether you think that having autism precludes the possibility of a person having mental health difficulties too? Because that seems, to a layman, a little like washing your hands of people who need help simply because you can pass the buck and attribute all their problems to autism.

Allow me a further, more recent example. My wife also has a diagnosis of autism and we have two children. Of late, her mental health has deteriorated quite badly, which has had a deleterious effect on our marriage and my ability to support both her and our children. In brief, her moods swing like a yo-yo, from hateful and aggressive and irrational to childish and giggly and equally irrational, and back again in the space of ten minutes; her OCDs mean she spends five hours an evening searching for things she has lost; she misremembers what has been said, or makes things up and believes them; struggles to differentiate fantasy from reality; at times seems out of control; is paranoid about people conspiring against her, then contacts others to conspire against me; continually empties her bank account buying pink plastic toys for our girls (eight dolls houses, seven push chairs, fifteen pairs of shoes); sabotages everything good that she has going for her; asks me to move out and take the children and then tells me she can’t live without me; is suffering the worst confidence, self-esteem and anxiety crises of her life; shuts down and retreats into her own world if she cannot handle things; and is worrying all her autism-specialist support workers, who have seen her behaviour first-hand and believe it to stem from some mental health disorder underlying the autism.

Now, to get my wife to acknowledge she has a problem has been tantamount to climbing Everest, but with much help and support from Children’s Services, who are equally concerned about her, and the Health Visitor, who similarly agrees, we managed to get her to attend to an appointment with her GP. She was accompanied by her Autism Support Manager, an expert who has known her for ten years and says that her behaviour is not normal and not consistent with autism. Her GP agreed that her behaviour was very troubling and, given the impact it is having on our marriage and her ability to look after the children, made an urgent referral to the Mental Health Team to have my wife assessed.

I have been castigated by my wife’s family for seeking help, for talking to people outside the family, for being honest. They told me I have betrayed my marriage, I am going to have my children taken away, everything is my fault and I should never speak to anybody about anything, but I have done this through a genuine desire to save my marriage, to get my wife help and make things better for her by giving her access to the wonderful abilities of Mental Health professionals such as yourselves. I was sure that you would be able to help.

You can therefore imagine my horror and disgust to receive a letter from the Mental Health Team saying that, after receiving the referral, they had ‘discussed’ my wife’s case and decided she doesn’t have any mental health problems and therefore doesn’t need to be assessed and has been discharged. Clearly, then, you think that OCD is simply a side-effect of autism; rapid mood swings are a side-effect of autism; irrationality and self-destructive behaviour are side-effects of autism; paranoia is a side-effect of autism; depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and low confidence are side-effects of autism; and everybody who knows her and suggests she is suffering mental health problems is simply wrong, because she has autism and that trumps all. Indeed, I imagine that if she was hearing voices, or believed she was the Queen of Sheba, you would attribute that to her autism also. I would therefore like to ask: exactly what does it take for Mental Health professionals to see somebody with autism?

In society, those of us on the autism spectrum suffer a great deal of prejudice from people who see us as a label, a walking, talking diagnosis ripped from the pages of the DSM, instead of unique individuals. It is appalling that we must experience this same stigma from the Mental Health Community, who really ought to know better. Just because we have autism doesn’t mean we don’t also have mental health difficulties, and certainly should not give you the right to decline to see us simply because we have a developmental disorder to which you can ascribe all our problems.

I know that money is tight in this age of austerity and it helps your budget to fob off people with autism to other, less appropriate departments, but you might like to ask yourselves whether discriminating against an entire section of society – many of whom are struggling with various mental health disorders and very real distress and anguish – is right, or helpful, or fair.

In summary, I have sought your help because my wife’s mental health has been deteriorating, but you have refused to see her because you have decided all her problems are concomitant with a diagnosis of autism, placing the onus on me to hold this family together without your specialist assistance. I can only hope that her mental health does not continue to decline to the point at which even you can’t ignore it.

Warm regards and best wishes,

Gillan Drew

[UPDATE: The value of persistence]