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.

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Pedantry and Autism: a love story

Pedantry: noun. Excessive concern with minor details and rules; over-commitment to formalism, accuracy and precision; prioritising of simple knowledge (facts and rules and obscurantism) over more general knowledge and/or common sense. Used in a negative context.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am a pedant. I have always been a pedant and likely always will be. It stems from the black-and-white thinking style of my autism, my propensity for rote learning and my obsession with the little things, especially my ability to see the minutiae of the trees yet somehow spectacularly miss the forest. I speak ‘correctly’, even though I acknowledge there is no ‘correct’ way to speak; I try to ensure that I am one-hundred percent accurate in everything I say and write, while accepting that perfection is an impossible dream; and I follow the rules, no matter how stupid or seemingly arbitrary.

Despite its negative reputation, I don’t think being a pedant is necessarily a bad thing.

True, if you correct people on their grammar or point out the factual and logical fallacies of their arguments, it’s often seen as arrogant, condescending and belittling. To quote Ben Shapiro, however: facts don’t care about your feelings. Thanks to my autism, and unfortunately for those around me, I’m far more committed to the facts than I am to anybody’s feelings.

It is not my intention to hurt people’s feelings, though. Correcting them when they make a mistake is how I communicate and share my love of language and history with those around me. Much of the time, when I interrupt the flow of the conversation to tell somebody the true meaning and origin of a phrase they’ve misused, it is done with good intentions and because I think it’ll enrich their understanding and appreciation of the world around them. Partly, it’s to show off and try to impress people.

Only sometimes do I do it to be a dick.

But while I can say it comes from a place of genuine concern for the intellectual development of my fellows, another and probably equally important factor is that I can’t not do it. Inaccuracies cause me pain. My cringe-factor is turned up to eleven every time I hear something that’s patently wrong and the only way of alleviating that crushing horror is to put them straight. I can’t let them walk around being wrong. Entitled? Yes, you could probably call me that. But would you rather suffer a momentary embarrassment and then go through the rest of your life being right, or keep on exposing your ignorance to everyone who knows the truth?

It’s been said that the moment an Englishman speaks, another Englishman judges him, so it’s important to get it right. It’s not ‘I drunk it’ but ‘I drank it’, not ‘could of’ but ‘could have’, and there are no such words as supposably, irregardless, and expresso. I imply, you infer; a chicken lays an egg but people lie down; and if I affect something, I create an effect. Unique means ‘one of a kind’, so things cannot be quite unique or very unique, and if you say ‘reverse back’ or ‘past history’, you’re using one word too many. Little things, but they go a long way.

It’s hard to blame people, however, when everywhere they’re exposed to poor grammar. Songs called ‘Beneath Your Beautiful’; pop culture expressions like ‘You sunk my battleship’; movies entitled Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. No wonder so many people think that you are hanged, not hung, or that you can ‘literally’ die of embarrassment, yet still be able to tell the tale. And don’t get me started on there, their and they’re.

Misused idioms also hit my ear like nails down a chalkboard. It’s not ‘chomping’ at the bit, it’s ‘champing’, referring to an eager horse biting down on its metal mouthpiece; a damp ‘squib’ is a small explosive device, not a tentacled sea-creature; and ‘tenter hooks’ stretch hides over a wooden frame to make them anything but tender. Language evolves, sure, but there have to be standards, otherwise we’ll all end up speaking gibberish and nobody will be able to understand each other.

I can’t stand people promoting falsehoods either, like the guy who sat in front of me on a ferry into Portsmouth one time, who pointed to HMS Warrior and told his wife it was HMS Victory. That might seem minor, but come on – how can you mistake the legendary Victory of Trafalgar and Nelson fame, a wooden-hulled 1765 first rate triple decker ship-of-the-line that is an integral part of British history and national identity, with an iron-hulled 1860 armoured frigate? How could I not correct that error? It’s something every schoolboy should know.

But the most egregious recent example I’ve come across is in Jon Sopel’s bestseller If Only They Didn’t Speak English. As North America Editor for BBC World News, he should know a thing or two about a) facts and b) accuracy, yet when writing about race relations in the US, an incendiary topic that demands care and attention, he displays an unforgivable ignorance. He writes about ‘the literally millions of Africans rounded up and shipped off in the most appalling, fetid conditions to the East Coast of America’, and how ‘twelve and a half million people left the ports of Africa and came to America in leg irons’. All of this suggests that the slave trade was centred on the US and that it’s an exceptional case in world history, a view that supports certain political ideologies but is entirely inaccurate.

Don’t get me wrong, slavery was awful and I don’t wish to minimise the suffering of those affected, but sensationalism and emotion should never take the place of cold, hard facts. Luckily, these are readily available at the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, thanks largely to the work of professors David Eltis and David Richardson of Emory University. Of around 12.5 million slaves shipped across the Atlantic in the period 1519-1867, fewer than 350,000 – less than 5% of the total – went to what is now the United States. Around 40% went to the Portuguese colonies in Brazil, 11% to Jamaica and the rest around the Caribbean and South America.

It is therefore wholly inaccurate to claim that ‘literally millions’ of Africans were shipped to the East Coast of America’ or that ‘Twelve and a half million people…came to America in leg irons.’ More than that, it’s irresponsible as it feeds into the myth of American Exceptionalism and continues to inflame racial tensions. I would have expected a person of Sopel’s background to be more careful with his facts. I would also have expected this misinformation to be picked up on and corrected in the subsequent editions, but it has not, meaning thousands of readers around the world will read it and believe that ‘millions’ of Africans slaves were shipped to the US, and use this ‘fact’ to inform their erroneous view of the world. And that annoys the hell out of me.

(To provide further context, the peak figure of American slavery was 3.9 million, recorded in the 1860 census. Furthermore, in the same period that less than 350,000 African slaves were shipped to America (388,000 according to some sources), more than a million Europeans were held as slaves in Africa.)

Pedantry might be seen as bad, petty, unkind and inflexible, but sometimes, as in the Jon Sopel slavery case, it is by far the better approach than playing fast and loose with the facts. As an autistic individual, pedantry is in my nature, as it is in many others who share my condition. We thrive in academia, in the sciences, in linguistics, where accuracy and obsession over the minutiae are seen as strengths instead of poor social skills. And who knows? One day, the difference between the survival of the species and our unfortunate extinction might come down to somebody spotting a single misplaced integer.

The Non-Specific Anxiety of an Aspie

Anxiety is a normal, healthy human emotion. It comes in for a lot of stick these days, but everyone suffers from it at one time or another and it has evolved for a number of very good reasons.

First and foremost, anxiety keeps you safe. It alerts you to potential dangers, makes you better at threat perception, and discourages you from taking unnecessary risks. It encourages you to think of alternatives, prepare backup plans and expect the unexpected. Indeed, those who experience anxiety tend to be better prepared, and cope better when things go wrong, than those who don’t.

Anxiety can also push you to be better. If you’re anxious about an exam, you study really hard so that you ace it. If you’re anxious about giving a speech, you practice so much you deliver it like a seasoned pro.

Even social anxiety has its benefits. Worrying what people think of you, how to make a good impression, and not hurting their feelings actually makes you a nicer, kinder, more empathetic person who cares about and tolerates the thoughts and opinions of others. Consequently, you tend to be better liked than those who don’t worry how they’re seen.

All of which shows that anxiety is not something negative. Excessive anxiety, on the other hand – that’s a different kettle of fish altogether.

Autism and anxiety go together like syrup and waffles. I’m not going to talk about the anxieties Aspies suffer from altered routines, sudden change, sensory issues, societal expectations or social situations as these are well-known and extensively covered elsewhere. Instead, I’m going to address something surprisingly common but rarely discussed: the general, non-specific, all-pervading anxiety that all is not well with the world.

It’s a feeling that comes and goes, sometimes with identifiable triggers and sometimes not. Probably the most common time I’ve heard it affecting people on the spectrum, myself included, is after moving house. While it’s popularly said that depression comes from dwelling on the past and anxiety from dwelling on the future, this does not hold true for the anxiety I’m talking about, for it exists in the present moment and no amount of rationalising or reasoning can remove it.

I’ll give you an example. About ten years ago I moved into a block of flats. My flat was on the third floor and contained all my belongings. I had a sea view, an allocated parking space, an entry phone system and a concierge. I had my support workers coming in regularly, and kept up the same routine as I had in the previous place. I had everything I needed to feel safe and happy. So why did I spend two weeks curled in a ball on the floor whenever I had a spare moment?

I was terrified, but I couldn’t work out why. The door was locked and nobody could get in. I was on the third floor, so totally safe. I had working smoke detectors and my car was right beneath my window. I had my own curtains and bedsheets, my model, my Jeffery Deaver books and my Starsky and Hutch DVD boxset. I had my guitars, my phone, the internet. I had food, an oven, a washing machine. There was no reason I should feel anxious.

But I did. I was anxious all the time, only without an obvious cause. Despite knowing I was safe, having all the things that I needed to feel comfortable, and having support workers  come in, I had an ever-present feeling that everything was wrong. It’s not something you can think away. There’s nothing you can do to get rid of it. And nor can you distract yourself – this type of non-specific anxiety pervades your very being. It’s there when you wake up and when you go to sleep. It’s there even when you refuse to think.

I’ve known others who, after moving house, take months to finally settle and feel comfortable. Why do we feel this way? Who knows. It happens to me every time I move, even though I’ve lived in sixteen places. The same books in the same order on the same bookcase in a different house fills me with anxiety, and there is nothing to alleviate the dread.

I felt the same non-specific anxiety all day yesterday and most of today. So did my wife, who’s also on the spectrum. We’re going on holiday tomorrow and so we’re both anxious about that – the change of routine, fear of the unknown, and so forth – but this was not that. This was, again, the sense, the dread, that something was very wrong with the world, but we couldn’t really say what.

I think it was because we packed on Saturday, leaving Sunday and Monday to relax. Trouble was, neither of us could. Can’t start a new book because I’ve got one for holiday. Can’t write my novel because I’ve got to a convenient break. Can’t pack my hand luggage until the last minute. Everything felt wrong. Doing the same things – getting the kids up, getting them dressed, taking them to ballet – it all felt wrong. We couldn’t get comfortable, couldn’t relax, so anxious we couldn’t even distract ourselves from it.

I’ve spent two days pacing from room to room. Picking up the guitar, strumming for thirty seconds, putting it down. Flapping my hands. Trying to watch TV. Tidying the kitchen, the lounge, the playroom. It all feels wrong.

Let me be clear – I’m not particularly anxious about going on holiday tomorrow. My anxiety was all about the here and now. And how do you get rid of that? I’ve already dealt with my anxiety about the holiday by planning in detail, making backup plans, writing lists, checking and double-checking and triple-checking everything. The anxiety I’ve felt hanging around the house the last two days, walking the dog, going to town – it comes from somewhere else, somewhere I can’t clearly identify. It’s a horrible feeling that makes me want to cry, and sometimes I feel my chest constricting and my heart pounding away, and because it comes from nowhere, because there are no thoughts to challenge or problems to prepare for, there’s nothing you can do but endure it.

That’s what I mean by non-specific anxiety. As I said, sometimes it has an identifiable trigger – moving house, the days before holiday – but sometimes it’s just there, anxiety that serves no purpose and drives you out of your mind. So you learn to live with it and hope that, soon enough, you can stop feeling so afraid.

Suffering fools: an Aspie perspective

As a person on the autism spectrum, I’m often told that, as a result of poor Theory of Mind and a lack of empathy, I am remarkably intolerant of people who do not share my opinions. This is not true at all. I’m remarkably intolerant of people who do not share my knowledge. That’s something different altogether.

I mean, if I know something, everyone else should know it too, right? How can they not? Are they stupid? Yes, poor Theory of Mind and a lack of empathy means I struggle not to be a dick to those less well-informed than me.

This wouldn’t be a problem if not for the fact that I know pretty much everythingThat’s another consequence of my autism – I’m obsessed with facts, I have no problem recalling information, and I care more about being right than people’s feelings. Whenever at job interviews I’m asked about my weaknesses, I reply that I’m a perfectionist and sometimes I work too hard (ha ha), and then quietly slip in that I don’t suffer fools gladly.

That’s an understatement – I don’t suffer fools at all.

Over the years I’ve learned to control it, mostly. I’ve come to understand that people don’t spend their time looking up facts and figures and memorizing them, so my favourite pastime is educating others about things that interest me and should therefore, by rights, interest all of mankind – the equivalent ranks in army, navy and air force, the reason the days of the week are so named, what distinguishes a barque from a barquentine, a brig and a schooner, and so forth. I’ve learned to appreciate that people might not have had the opportunity to come across these facts in their everyday lives and therefore I am more than happy to address the gaps in their knowledge – I’m a giver, you see.

But what I cannot tolerate – what really brings out the beast in me – is when people are unaware of things I think they really ought to know. Things that you don’t have to go and look up to understand. Things you couldn’t have missed unless you’ve chosen to switch off your brain and walk blinkered through the world. That’s when I go ‘full Aspie’.

Like when I meet someone who doesn’t know who won the Second World War. Or who the belligerents were. Or that Hitler was a bad guy.

How uninvolved with the world around you would you have to be not to know that? You didn’t know about the Arctic convoys or PQ17? Fine. Didn’t know about kamikazes or the Battle of Leyte Gulf? Forgivable. Didn’t know Hitler was a genocidal madman? Oh come on!

The reason I bring all this up is because I’ve got in a little trouble with a work colleague. She’s very nice and she does the job fine, but boy is she ill-informed about the world. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone quite as ignorant as she is, and it is triggering all my worst behaviour.

Right off the bat, she didn’t know what Brexit is. Admittedly, nobody does right now, least of all our politicians, but you’d have to be living under a rock not to know there was a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, we voted to leave by a small majority, and it’s torn our country apart for the past three years. Her excuse – ‘I don’t watch the news’ – makes me want to tear my hair out, or would if I had any. How she’s avoided hearing about Brexit, when it is the dominant topic on sitcoms, panel shows, current affairs programmes and at family gatherings, is nothing short of a miracle. What next? Who’s Trump?

Another time she came in all excited to tell me she’d seen a document – no matter how many times I correct her, she seems incapable of using the word ‘documentary’ – that said autism is caused by vaccination, and isn’t that amazing? Rolling my eyes, I said it might have been, twenty years ago before it had been thoroughly debunked and is now only believed by celebrities, crazy people, and whatever overlaps there are between the two. I proceeded to tell her all about the MMR scandal, and how, far from ruining his life, Andrew Wakefield is now a feted celebrity in America with no less than Elle Macpherson as a lover.

‘Elle who?’ she asked.

‘The supermodel? Nicknamed The Body? Magazine covers, catwalks, movies, TV? Was in Friends as Joey’s roommate? Ring any bells?’

‘No.’

‘Moving on.’

The next snafu was when she insisted that September 11 was an inside job and the Twin Towers were brought down by explosives in a controlled demolition, which inspired this rant (9/11 – the Truth) a few weeks ago. In the course of that conversation, it became clear she didn’t know who Osama bin Laden was, had never heard of Al-Qaeda, didn’t know why Palestinians might be upset with America, wasn’t aware of the previous attempt to blow up the Twin Towers in 1993, had zero knowledge of how the Twin Towers were built, and thought that despite its name being the World Trade Center, it was residential. But no, she was convinced it was the naughty government that did it and nothing I said would change her mind.

Another time I discovered she had never heard of the Cold War, or the USSR, or knew that we pointed nuclear missiles at each other with our fingers hovering over the launch button for forty years. Her excuse this time gave me a nosebleed – ‘I wasn’t around then, it was before I was born.’

Yup, we can’t know anything that happened before we were born. Since I was born in 1979, I don’t know who The Beatles were; don’t know about the moon landings; slavery; the Holocaust; Queen Victoria; Vietnam; Woodstock; the Kennedy assassination; or Martin Luther King, Jr. If only there were some way I could discover information about the past, information I could access from anywhere in the world with a mobile phone signal, whether in written, audio or visual form…you can see how hard I had to work not to call her out on this bullshit!

When my manager asked me how things were going with her, I was honest. She’s a good worker, she’s good at her job, but oh my gosh I just want to scream at her for being so…I don’t know what word to use. If she was on a quiz show, I’d be shouting ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’ and ‘dumb-ass’ at the screen, like I did this evening to the guy on The Chase who thought Charles de Gaulle was from the Middle Ages. But I don’t think she is ‘thick’, for want of a better word, just completely blissfully ignorant of anything you might expect a 30-something to know.

My manager told me I had to accept that not everybody is into the same things as me. Fair enough, I said: maybe she’s just totally cut off from politics so doesn’t know about Brexit; wasn’t properly trained, so doesn’t know that vaccines don’t cause autism; has never heard of Elle Macpherson because she’s never opened a magazine; believes whatever rubbish people tell her as she has zero knowledge of geopolitics or structural engineering; and is unable to learn about the past without access to a time machine. Okay. It drives up my blood pressure, but I’ll find a way to get past it.

But I really struggled to hold my tongue when I discovered, in a conversation about the murder of Lyra McKee, that she’d never heard of the IRA.

‘The IRA.’ Blank stare. ‘The Irish Republican Army.’ Blank stare. ‘Oh my god, are you seriously telling me you’ve never heard of the freaking IRA? The Troubles? The army patrolling the streets? The bombings? The Guildford Four? The Birmingham Six? Bloody Sunday? They fired mortar bombs at 10 Downing Street. They killed the Queen’s cousin.’

‘When did it happen?’

‘Since the late 60s.’

‘Before my time.’

‘They blew up the BBC in 2001. You’d have been 14.’

‘No, I don’t remember that.’

Well, I got cross. I got cross because it frankly boggles my mind that somebody can live in this country and not know that for a period of thirty years, 3500 people were killed on our streets either for or because of the cause of Irish Republicanism. I got cross because I grew up in the 1980s, and even as a child was well aware of the risks of bomb attacks whenever I went to town, got on a train or saw an unattended bag. And I got cross because I was profoundly affected by the 1993 deaths of three-year-old Jonathan Ball and twelve-year-old Tim Parry, a boy almost the same age as me, killed by an IRA bomb planted in a town centre.

It more than boggles my mind – it offends me that somebody should be so ignorant. She will have come across it multiple times in her life – at school, on Remembrance Day, in films and books and music and everyday conversation. She knows all the words to Zombie by The Cranberries and has seen the music video, what the hell did she think that was all about? It means she’s chosen not to take it in, not to pay attention, not even to notice it, and whether it’s my autism or just me, I find that impossible to understand.

But the real bust up, the real head-to-head, came from something small and insignificant, as do all straws that break the camel’s back. It came when she picked up a roll of fly paper with the words Fly Paper on the side and said, ‘What’s this?’

‘Fly paper.’

‘What’s fly paper?’

‘You don’t know what fly paper is?’

‘No.’

‘Oh my god, have you spent your whole life living under a rock with your eyes closed, how the hell can you not know what fly paper is?’

‘Because I don’t, okay? And you having a go won’t change the fact that I don’t know what it is, so why don’t you just tell me?’

‘It’s sticky paper that you hang up to catch flies!’

And I won’t tell you what I said next. My manager tells me I need to be more tolerant of people who have had different life experiences than me. I get that, I do, but surely there are limits, right? I wouldn’t get annoyed with someone who has genuine reasons for their ignorance –  they have a learning difficulty, they have only just moved here from another country, they’ve been in a coma the past fifty years – but someone who is, by all accounts, ‘normal’ has no excuse or justification for being so ignorant.

Like I said, maybe it’s my autism or maybe it’s just me, but I cannot understand how people like this even exist – people who either don’t know or don’t care who’s running the country, don’t know about major things that are happening or have happened in the world around them, don’t even know about pop culture. What on earth do they do with themselves? What do they talk about with their friends? I don’t get why somebody would come across a word they don’t understand, or hear something referenced that they’ve not heard before, and not look it up. Do people do this? Go through life so happily ignorant that they simply skip over everything they see and hear that they don’t understand? How can they understand anything?

Let me put it this way. If you don’t know about politics (Brexit, Trump, the growing polarisation of society); current affairs (Climate Change, #MeToo, terrorism); pop culture (Star Wars, Kurt Cobain, Batman); high-brow culture (Jane Austen, the Mona Lisa, Picasso); science (medicine, plate tectonics, evolution); or history (Pompeii, the Crusades, Pearl Harbor); then what the hell do you know? And where have you been all your life? And why should I listen to anything you have to say? Because without knowledge to back it up, your opinions are worthless.

Hmm. So maybe I am remarkably intolerant of people who don’t share my opinions. Or maybe I just don’t suffer fools gladly.

I don’t look like a monster…

…but I definitely feel like one. It’s hard not to when you make your closest loved ones cry multiple times every day.

It happens when you have a precocious almost-four-year-old, a wilful one-and-a-half-year-old, and a wife who would rather be a best friend to our daughters than a parent.

I see more tears than smiles. I say no far more often than I say yes. While my wife gives them toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream, I take away toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream. My weapons are the naughty step, the counting to three, the threat (never followed through with) of bed without supper.

I am the one who says, ‘You’ve watched enough TV,’ before switching it off. I am the one who says, ‘No, we can’t afford it,’ while driving past the restaurant on our way to homemade spaghetti bolognaise. Time for bed, time for bath, brush your teeth, put your shoes on, you need a coat, just behave, no, no, no.

And then once they’re in bed, I lay into my wife – stop buying so much, you’re spoiling them, the house is a tip, why did you give them sugar at bedtime? You have to toughen up, they’re walking all over you, I don’t care if they like having a tent in the living room, I’m taking it down. If you want to go on holiday, stop wasting your money on takeout. No, we’re not getting a gosh-darned rabbit, you don’t even look after the pets we’ve got. Another one? You want another baby? The two we’ve got are running me ragged and you want to add to this chaos?

So she goes to bed around half-eight every night, and I sit alone on the sofa and check to see if I’ve sprouted horns from my forehead.

How do my kids see me? When they don’t hate me, they seem to like me, but certainly from the eldest, the hate comes through far more often than the love. I’m definitely the mean one, the one who shouldn’t be crossed, the one who isn’t fun. I’m the one she wants to leave behind on family outings, and who isn’t invited to her birthday. I’m not the one she hugs and kisses and gives affection to, no matter how much I want to be.

And yet, I’m also the one she turns to whenever she’s in need of help. I’m the one who sorts out her ouchies, who wipes her bottom and fixes her toys. I’m the one she shouts for in the night to scare away the monsters. I’m the one that takes her to the doctor, the hospital, who gives her the medicine and puts on the cream. I’m the one she knows will be there for her, looking out for her, whether we’re friends or not.

In life, in relationships, we all have a role to play. Mine is the rock you cling to in stormy waters. I first noticed this at university, when I realised all my friendships were one-to-one, and consisted of meeting people in cafes so they could tell me all their problems and confess their deepest, darkest secrets. I wouldn’t see them for a few months until it was time for another counselling session. They had plenty of other friends to have fun with – I was the friend they needed when things got serious.

And that is the way it is with my kids.

I feel very lucky to be able to fulfil this role.

And awfully lonely because of it.

I guess even monsters have feelings.

Anatomy of a Ghost Hunt, Part 2

For those just joining us, this is part 2 of my (sceptical) account of my ghost hunt in HMP Shepton Mallet, an abandoned prison that used to house the Krays. To catch up, check out Part 1.

Cell Block A

Cell Block A is a dirty, mouldy block that comprises the condemned prisoner’s cell, the executioner’s room, the execution room itself, a ‘poltergeist room’, and 37 cells arranged across three floors. With paint peeling off the walls, bare metal bed frames, heavy doors that creak, bars, echoes, and a large open space that is entirely dark, it is a creepy place to explore at night. This, of course, ensures that any phenomena encountered are given supernatural, rather than perfectly natural, explanations.

The investigations conducted in this block were calling out for responses (voices, touches, visual phenomena) and trying to get spirits to interact with our devices. Given the stimulation from such a suggestible environment, it’s no surprise that we picked up ‘activity’, which again reveals more about people’s perceptions of events than the events themselves.

Camera Orbs – One of us ‘ghost hunters’ spent much of the night with her phone switched to video so she could see orbs in real time. Up on the balcony outside the cells, she duly reported seeing numerous orbs – small, indistinct balls of light that zip across the screen and are believed by many in the ghost hunting community to be the first stage of a ghost manifestation. I saw them too, but was less impressed as to their significance.

Prior to the invention of compact cameras, orbs were few and far between. Now they’re everywhere, and there is a very simple, non-paranormal explanation for this phenomenon. Professional photographers use a flash on a long stick, angled away from the lens of the camera; compact cameras and camera phones have a flash that is often less than an inch from the lens. This means the light of the flash is going directly out along the line of sight, and thus if it hits anything – dust particles, water vapour, insects – that light bounces directly back into the lens. You can go into any room and take photos in the dark, and eventually you’ll capture an orb.

Many in the group were excited by the way the orbs moved, some of them upwards, others in zig-zags. In an old, crumbling, three-storey cell block with all manner of air currents and disturbed by twelve investigators, the orbs captured on this camera were undoubtedly dust particles. It is remarkable how quickly people will infer a supernatural presence on the flimsiest of pretexts. Indeed, I would have thought that the burden of proof for the supernatural ought to be incredibly high; among believers, it appears to be incredibly low.

K2 reading – Almost immediately after watching the orbs, a group of ladies with their own K2 meter started picking up activity in one of the cells. I had been in many of the cells by myself and picked up nothing on the K2 device I’d been given, so I joined them to see if I could confirm their findings.

The K-II EMF meter is a staple of ghost hunts. It’s a device that fits nicely in the palm of your hand and was designed to detect electromagnetic fields so that builders don’t drill directly into live wires. Ghost hunters, however, claim that ghosts can use it to communicate by manipulating EM fields. Essentially, it is five lights running from green (no EMF) through orange (some EMF) to red (lots of EMF!). Or, if you like, green (no ghosts) to red (ghosts!).

I can understand why ghost hunters love the K2 meter. Instead of relying on subjective experience it provides pseudo-scientific ‘proof’ in the form of a light that everyone can see, and it sure beats sitting in the dark all night without experiencing anything. The thing I find curious is that people simply accept that a device designed for something completely different is being influenced by spirits, without understanding how the device works, how it is influenced by electromagnetic fields, or having any underlying theory about how or why ghosts would be able to affect it. I asked the group leaders about this and they were a little vague. It essentially boils down to: it’s a magic box, the red light equals a ghost because that’s what I’ve been told. Like many things, it comes down to faith and belief instead of science and rational analysis.

Joining the ladies in the pitch dark cell, I saw that their K2 meter was indeed twitching at various locations in the room. I held mine here and there and it did the same. A third K2 meter was brought in and all reacted identically. After every flash, the ladies were conscientious about thanking the spirits for their efforts to communicate, assuming, of course, that this was bona fide otherworldly contact. As they were on a mission to convert the sceptic, they again asked if I was ready to believe.

I was not. Switching on my torch, I discovered a smoke detector apparently installed in the cell after the prison was closed. The closer I put my K2 meter to the smoke detector, the more it twitched until, touching the smoke detector, it held red. It was the only cell in which there was an electronic device and the only one in which we picked up an electromagnetic field. Clearly debunked, I thought.

Apparently not. The ladies did not believe it could affect the K2 meter when they were three or four feet from it. Later, in another part of the prison, I found an identical smoke detector when I was by myself, and the K2 meter responded in the same way, even three or four feet from it. Given that it didn’t detect EMF anywhere else in the prison, clearly the batteries in the smoke detectors were being picked up by the EMF meter.

I don’t think many of the people who use the K2 meter to hunt ghosts realise how incredibly sensitive it is to electrical devices. During a break I watched how the meters would respond when people were fiddling with their phones several feet away. I put mine beside my watch and the lights triggered every time the second hand ticked. I also experimented by putting the meter near a light bulb, and depending on how you hold it – turning it through 90-degrees on any axis, for example – you can affect whether or not it picks up the EM field. Hell, I even found that if you tapped the case in the right place you could get it to detect itself!

Therefore, while many were excited that we picked up EMF readings during our ghost hunt and cited this as an example of a supernatural encounter, any objective analysis would have to conclude that the energy we detected was electrical and not spiritual.

Drama, drama, drama – While we were investigating the cell, there was a commotion elsewhere in the cell block when one of the team had a door close on her. I’d had this happen to me several times already – you walk into a cell to look about, turn around to discover the door has swung silently closed behind you. The first time it happened, my heart skipped a beat for about half a second as I realised I was shut in a dark prison cell; so I simply walked to the door and reopened it, and watched it swing closed again as it was on a slant. Explanation: gravity.

The girl it happened to was not so calm, however, and as a believer in spirits, she was so shaken up by it she refused to join us all in the Poltergeist Room – a grandiose name for an empty office where nothing happened – and instead had to be accompanied by a team leader. This was the same individual who had (unconsciously?) manipulated the table tipping earlier (see Part 1). It got me wondering whether certain people enjoy the drama of ‘encountering’ the supernatural, so much so that they actually create encounters in order to have an experience they can react to. This person was attending with her parents, so I wonder if it was a kind of performance for attention. In any case, this person’s experiences tonight were clearly the result of psychological influences and in no way evidence of the supernatural.

Noises – Lastly in Cell Block A, we encountered noises down the corridor between the cell block and the Poltergeist Office, as though somebody (or something!) was following us. It sounded like feet scraping across a tiled floor, only for a couple of seconds, but as a big, old, echo-y building with parts dating back to the 1600s, anomalous noises are surely to be expected. Requests for a repeat of the sound went unanswered. Some people commented that as they stared down the dark corridor it appeared to get darker, which I imagine is an ocular phenomenon from eyes not designed to stare into the dark.

This ended our time in Cell Block A, where we caught dust particles on camera, detected a battery on our K2 meters, learnt a lesson about gravity, and heard unidentified sounds not inconsistent with our location. We then moved on to the gym.

Coming up in Part 3: scrying, spirit boxes, and visible orbs.

Running Down the Clock

Time is a funny old thing. The ticking hands of the clock fool us into thinking it’s a constant, moving at the same speed regardless of what’s going on, but time is actually surprisingly malleable. It passes slower the further you get from a source of gravity, so skiiers on a mountain are measurably ageing less rapidly than sunbathers on a beach. Likewise, the faster you travel, the slower time passes, so the astronauts on the International Space Station return to Earth younger than if they’d stayed at home.

Of course, we’re talking nanoseconds here – nothing that humans could notice.

Subjectively, however, time passes at vastly different speeds, depending on our mood, level of attention, hormones and the amount of processing our brain has to do. Ten minutes in the company of a bore can feel like hours; hours in the company of your lover can feel like minutes. The car about to crash into you seems to take forever to hit, but sit down for an exam and half the time is gone before you’ve finished writing your name.

And the larger scale passage of time can be a paradox, being both squashed and at the same time incredibly stretched – especially when you have kids.

‘Can you believe she’s almost four?’ they say. ‘I can’t believe she’s starting school in September.’

On the one hand, it seems like just yesterday she was born; like yesterday we took her home from hospital; yesterday she took her first steps and said her first words. But at the same time, it’s been one hell of a long  four years, the longest of my life. And thinking back to before she was born – back when our lives weren’t dominated by children – seems like peering into the distant past. I read about it in history books and it isn’t me.

And another irregularity of time is when you get yourself stuck in a rut – when the days fly by without anything to mark their passing, but they go by So. Freaking. Slow.

It’s a trap I’ve fallen into over the past few weeks. I know we’re supposed to pay attention to every single moment, to enjoy our kids every second of every day because it goes so fast and they’ll never be this age again, but damn – at the moment I’m just running down the clock.

The days have become so slow, so repetitive, and I’m so freaking bored, all I’m doing is waiting for their bedtime, counting down the hours until I can be me again. But as soon as they’re in bed, I’m too tired to do anything, so I too go to bed. And that’s how I’m living. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Park, soft play, beach. Painting, play-do, bath. Every day, the same, the same. Life has been stripped of its fullness.

Time drags, but suddenly it’s the end of week and I’ve done nothing. And I just feel empty, this horrible sense of ennui, this existential nothingness.

Time stretches on endlessly and shrinks to nothing.

So today, to adjust my relationship with time, I have filled my day with fullness. I’ve driven through yellow fields of rape; explored old buildings cloaked in wisteria; and tonight I’m hunting for ghosts in the ruins of an old prison. Because life isn’t about counting the hours, it’s about making the hours count.

I just have to remember that.