The confusion, guilt and self-doubt of being abused

In my last three posts, When you’re in love with Dr Jekyll…, Coronavirus and domestic abuse, and It must be so much easier as a girl, I’ve finally started being honest about the kind of relationship I’m in. It’s very, very hard to get your head round the fact that you’re being abused. It’s even more difficult to accept that the person you love is an abuser. And even after making those statements, you’re not free of the guilt, confusion and self-doubt.

You see, I don’t want to call my wife an abuser, because I love her. I don’t want to call her an abuser because it reduces the wonderfully complex range of attitudes, beliefs, opinions and behaviours of the mother of my children into a single, negative label. And yet, if I am being abused, then I have to say who is carrying out that abuse, as ugly and disloyal as that is.

I asked my support worker today if I’m overreacting; if I’m blowing it all out of proportion; if I’m somehow causing her behaviour and therefore it’s my responsibility to fix it. By tolerating it for so long, haven’t I taught her it’s okay to treat me this way? So how can I throw her to the wolves? I’m her husband – isn’t it my duty to stand by her through thick and thin?

I guess I was desperate for confirmation that I’m being abused and she’s an abuser. I mean, it’s not like she’s beating me up. It would probably be easier if she was, because at least then I could point at the bruises or the split lip and say: there! Abuse. Cut and dried.

Instead, I’m full of doubts. Where’s the line where being awkward and aggressive crosses into abuse? Who draws that line? Who is responsible for it?

I’ve spent six weeks desperately trying to get my wife to stick to the lockdown, only to be told by both Social Services and my doctor that I should just let it go and she can visit whoever she wants. Does that mean I’ve been the one in the wrong for the past six weeks? Does that mean her reactions have been acceptable rebellions against my oppressive values? Because it seems to me that the professionals don’t care about following the rules half as much as I do.

My support worker reminded me that this isn’t just about the lockdown – I’ve been going through this for years, and no matter how many times she’s promised to change, she hasn’t. Now I’ve finally taken the decision to leave for the sake of the children and my own sanity, I need to stick to it because it’s the right decision.

But I’m even more confused and guilt-ridden by my wife’s recent behaviour. Since she learned that I was talking to Adult Social Services on Friday, she’s been weirdly pleasant and compliant. At least when she’s being mean to me all the time, I feel a righteous sense of being wronged; when she starts being nice to me, it messes with my mind, because I start thinking, ‘Well, she’s not that bad, is she? You’ve got a nice life here, really, and if you’d just ignore all the shit she puts you through, nothing has to change. Wouldn’t that be easier than walking out and becoming a single dad? Wouldn’t it be better just to tolerate it because you love her?’

Or is this all just part of the game?

The most confusing thing is her reaction to what’s going on. When I said I was going to see the doctor, she was really pleased for me because she thinks I need my head sorting out. When I came back and told her the doctor had said that, for her mental health, she can go visit [redacted] whenever she wants, I thought she’d be happy – instead, she said she’s not going to visit [redacted] because it’s against the rules.

I almost choked on my own spit! For six weeks she’s been visiting [redacted] in open defiance of the lockdown rules, and when I tell her she’s now allowed to visit, she won’t because it’s against the rules! What the hell? I told her I don’t understand her. I don’t understand her at all.

Maybe that’s what she wants?

So today, after six weeks of cycling to the dairy most days, and the day after I told her I no longer object to her cycling to the dairy, she’s told the children they’re not allowed to cycle to the dairy because it’s against the rules! How perverse is that?

And the oddest thing happened this afternoon. When I contacted [redacted] six weeks ago to say that my wife was mistreating me and the kids, she told me I deserved it; that I was a manipulative monster who caused my wife to attack me; that I wasn’t a good father or husband; that I was disloyal; and that she’d never talk to me again and never forgive me. She’s told my wife to openly defy me over the lockdown; she’s told my wife and kids to lie to me about seeing her or they’ll all get into trouble because I’m a bad man; and she’s told my wife to gather evidence against me to support their attempt to paint me as the abuser instead of the victim.

So why did my wife read out a text she received from [redacted] this afternoon saying, ‘I’m looking forward to seeing Gillan when this is all over. I’ve really missed talking to him. I’m very fond of him.’

‘What are you trying to do to my head?’ I asked my wife.

‘What?’ she said. ‘I thought it was nice.’

‘She sent you this just now?’

‘Yes. See, we’re not all against you like you think.’

What? What!?

So I’ve been sitting here feeling guilty, feeling confused. Is it all in my head? Am I the one with the problem?

It would be so easy to just roll over and let things go back to normal. Remain a husband in a nuclear family. Avoid the upset and the turmoil of taking my kids away from their home. Not end up a divorced single dad.

And then I looked back through the past six weeks of blogs, starting with It’s not meant to be this hard and coming up to date, and all the crap she’s put me through, and I remember that the niceness is just the thin layer of ice over the black depths below. And I realise that actually, while she is being nice, she’s not being that nice.

Like yesterday morning. I slept on the sofa the night before, so in the morning my wife sobbed to her support worker about it. She wanted to know what she’d done because she didn’t understand. I was heartbroken for her – I can’t bear to see people in distress, particularly those I love – and I don’t want to hurt her, so I offered to talk about it with her if she’d come into the other room with me, so it wasn’t in front of the children. But she refused – I could tell her in front of the children or not at all. I asked her again and again to go into the other room with me so we could talk about it, and again and again she refused.

So how serious were the tears, and how desperate was her need to understand, if she refused to discuss it? And by extension, how real is any of her current behaviour?

I just have to remember the bad times every time I’m blindsided by the good.

This is the confusion, guilt and self-doubt you face when you’re the victim of abuse.

A coronavirus thought experiment

Let us today try a thought experiment.

Imagine a husband and wife. They live in a house owned by the husband’s father and have two adorable little daughters.

But the husband also has an ex-girlfriend he can’t live without. Instead of turning to his wife for emotional support, he can’t resist texting his ex-girlfriend at least two dozen times a day, and telling her all his wife’s secrets even though he knows his ex-girlfriend likes to interfere in his relationship. He even texts his ex-girlfriend from the marital bed, despite his wife asking him not to.

To make it more current, let’s suppose that there’s a virus infecting the country, and people have been asked to stay at home in order to protect the NHS and save lives. Fantastical, I know, but bear with me here.

Now let’s suppose the wife is a long-term blood donor and former nurse who believes in following these rules to the letter, and asks her family to support her in this commitment to do what the Prime Minister, the Queen, the Cabinet, the scientists, the police, the newspapers, the doctors and the nurses have all asked us to do. Let’s pretend that the husband agrees.

But let’s also pretend that every day when the husband takes his kids out for ‘exercise’, they actually go to his ex-girlfriend’s house, where she cooks them a meal and smothers all three of them in hugs and kisses. Then they say to the children, ‘Don’t tell mummy what’s going on or we’ll all get in trouble. You don’t want to get us all in trouble, do you?’

And then, when they get home, they don’t want the meal that the wife has cooked because they’re already full.

Let’s pretend that, kids being kids, they can’t keep secrets, so the wife finds out about the visits to the ex-girlfriend, and knows she’s being lied to. Let’s suppose she confronts her husband, who says he’ll keep visiting whoever he damn well pleases, and there’s nothing she can do to stop him, and by the way, did you know this is my father’s house and since we’re in the middle of a lockdown there’s nowhere you can go?

What can she do then? Let’s suppose that the wife decides to appeal directly to the ex-girlfriend, from one woman to another. She asks her to please not come between a wife and her husband, or a parent and her children. She acknowledges she can’t stop her husband from visiting his ex-girlfriend, but she’d hope they’d at least be careful and follow the social distancing rules. They’re all adults so there’s no need to sneak around, and it’s really not appropriate expecting children to lie for them.

Imagine the ex-girlfriend replies by telling the wife to go screw herself, and that if she wasn’t such a terrible wife and terrible mother, her husband wouldn’t feel the need to visit his ex so often. Imagine the husband witnesses his wife’s humiliation and approves of it with a knowing smirk.

Now imagine the wife tells her husband she knows she can’t stop him from seeing his ex-girlfriend, but can he please take some precautions and just be honest about what he’s getting up to. He says he will.

But imagine he doesn’t. Imagine he keeps visiting his ex-girlfriend with the kids every day, and tells his wife he hasn’t seen her, despite the lipstick on his cheek and on his children’s faces. Imagine he tells his wife that nothing is going on, despite the children saying, ‘We saw her again, but they said not to tell you.’ Imagine the wife begs her husband to just be honest with her, and the husband continues to lie in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Imagine that eventually the wife breaks down and tells her husband that she feels betrayed. She feels heartbroken he’s chosen his ex-girlfriend’s short-term happiness over his wife and his marriage. She wishes he would stop visiting his ex-girlfriend and stop lying and getting the kids to lie and start respecting his wife and show some consideration for her feelings. And she warns that this will very likely end in divorce if it carries on.

If you’re expecting a tearful apology, you’re new to this game.

Imagine instead that the husband tells his wife she’s got it all wrong. He loves her and respects her, and is 100% committed to his marriage. True, he goes over to his ex-girlfriend’s house every day, but that’s not to see his ex-girlfriend, you see, it’s to exercise, and if she just happens to be there at her house when he visits, it’s happenstance. And of course, if she chooses to cook him and the children a meal, or kiss them and cuddle them, well, there’s nothing he can do about that, is there? It’s not his fault. Can’t his wife see that he’s doing absolutely nothing wrong? He’s the victim in all of this. And the reason he didn’t tell her, and asked the kids to lie, was because he didn’t want to upset her. But don’t worry, sweetheart, just be a dear and ignore it in future. I mean, if you look the other way it won’t bother you so much. Surely you can see that you’re the one with the problem? And you know what? You’re not a very good wife and mother anyway. You never trust me or give me any thanks for what I do. In fact, you should be grateful to me. You should be thanking me for taking the kids to my ex-girlfriend’s. Everyone knows that you’re the one being unreasonable here. It’s all in your head. And how dare you accuse me of seeing my ex-girlfriend? I haven’t seen her in weeks. If anyone’s ruining our marriage, it’s you with your paranoia. Now be quiet and do as you’re told and I don’t want to hear another peep out of you!

In the above example, it would be very hard to defend or justify the husband’s behaviour. You’d be forgiven if you think he comes across as a selfish, deceitful, manipulative douchebag who doesn’t even have the balls to take responsibility for his own decisions. From a psychological standpoint, I’d say he’s gaslighting his wife, a form of abuse that undermines a person’s reality.

Now, for the last part of our thought experiment, I’d like you to imagine that the roles are reversed. Imagine it’s the husband staying at home and the wife who’s sneaking off with the kids, not to see her ex, but to see family members. Imagine they’re the ones who told him to mind his own business, they’re the ones who own his house, and they’re the ones who’d rather his marriage fail than suffer the indignity of staying away from children for a few weeks. Imagine she’s chosen their desires over her husband’s scruples, that she lies about seeing them, lies about the kisses and cuddles, asks the children to lie to their daddy, and when confronted, denies she’s doing anything wrong and suggests that he’s the one with the problem.

Does that make the abuse any less real?

The true meaning of Easter

Somewhere along the way, people have forgotten the true meaning of Easter. Despite all the people complaining online, it’s not about chocolate eggs and family get-togethers, lying in the sun or walking along the beach. Nor is it about going to church to sing, take communion and pray. It is literally about sacrifice – sacrifice to save others. And there is no greater message we need at this time.

Whether or not you believe that Jesus was the son of God, the entire basis of the Christian festival is that an innocent man allowed himself to be executed in a pretty nasty way in order to save people he had never met. For all the bad things done in the name of religion, and all the bile flung at it these days by secular society, it’s pretty hard to argue that the message of Jesus is anything other than good.

He said that, when struck, we should turn the other cheek; we should judge not, lest we be judged; we should do unto others as we’d have them do unto us; and we should love our neighbours as ourselves. How is this anything other than an instruction to be a nice, decent, compassionate and caring member of society? Going to the cross was the ultimate expression of that regard, giving up his life and his blood to help others.

While not a Christian myself, I was raised as one and I still try to follow the Golden Rule of treating others how I’d wish to be treated myself. It forms the hard nugget at the centre of my core values, beliefs and attitudes. It’s the reason I believe that, whatever the rights and wrongs of immigration, people in leaky boats ought to be rescued; that any military force that can describe civilians as ‘collateral damage’ has lost the moral high ground; and that if not seeing our families is what it takes to save lives during this coronavirus crisis, it’s what we have to do.

It’s also the reason I gave blood on Good Friday.

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I’m not a normal blood donor, however – I’m a platelet donor. Platelets, or thrombocytes, are little yellow discs carried in your blood that join together to create clots, vital in the healthy functioning of your circulatory system to stop cuts from bleeding externally and blood vessels from leaking internally, and to heighten your immune response. Essentially, people with leukaemia or lymphoma, those with transplanted organs, those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer or suffering kidney dysfunction, those who have suffered burns and those who lose massive amounts of blood from trauma, need transfusions of platelets or else they’ll die.

Unlike whole blood, which lasts about a month in a refrigerator, or red cells, which can be frozen for ten years and defrosted when needed, platelets only last seven days. That’s why you need a continual chain of platelet donors donating every day, or else the supply runs out and people die.

Unfortunately, not everyone can donate platelets because in order to do so you need:

  1. A high platelet count.
  2. A vein capable of delivering and receiving blood under pressure.
  3. A tolerance for the anticoagulant.
  4. Two spare hours every 2-4 weeks.

There are 12,000 of us in the UK, or one for every 100 blood donors, meaning that at times like this, we’re especially in demand. On the plus side, one donation can save three adults or up to twelve children. On the down side, it isn’t the most comfortable of procedures.

The process, called apheresis, starts with around five minutes extracting your blood into a centrifuge which separates out the platelets, then you go into a cycle of thirty seconds draw (where it extracts more platelet-rich blood) and thirty seconds return (where it pumps platelet-free blood back into you). Along the way, if you’re up to it, it also extracts plasma, the liquid component of blood, so you end up with a bunch of bags filled with what looks like melted butter. It takes somewhere between sixty and ninety minutes to complete the procedure, before it spends a final five minutes pumping the blood that’s left in the machine back into your arm.

The discomfort isn’t the size of the needle – though the needle is fairly big, and a month ago they missed my vein and stuck it straight into a nerve, which hurt like hell – but various other factors. The anticoagulant to keep the blood flowing makes your lips and tongue tingle, which can be unpleasant, and after forty-five minutes you can get pretty restless and claustrophobic knowing you’re stuck there for another forty-five watching your blood flow back and forth. Also, the first few returns before the machine has warmed up, the blood coming back into you is cold, which is a weird sensation. And if you’re squeamish, there’s really nowhere to hide – you have three tubes coming out of your arm (one drawing, one returning, and one with the anticoagulant).

But saving lives was never so easy. An hour and a half watching Netflix on your tablet, with nurses bringing you coffee and chocolate biscuits? It’s hardly stretcher bearers in No Man’s Land at the Somme, is it? Yet in four years, with a bit of time off because of hospital stuff, I’ve saved 75 adults or 300 children – enough to populate an entire primary school.

That is the true spirit of Easter – sacrificing your time, your comfort, even your blood, to save people you have never met nor likely ever will. It’s sending out positivity into the world, knowing it will do good. And it’s something we can all achieve simply by staying at home.

That’s why I cannot condone or understand people going off to visit their families today of all days.

The memory of betrayal

I feel good in the night, when it’s dark and the house is quiet around me. I feel the gentle movements of the bedsheets as my wife breathes beside me, lost to sleep. It’s peaceful; restful. I exist in the moment.

In the night, somewhere between waking and sleep, we snuggle together as we always have. Arms and legs wrapped around each other, each seeking the physical comfort, the intimate security, of love.

When I wake in the morning, my head is empty. I lie in the warmth with my eyes closed, revelling in the stillness. I wish it could last forever.

Footsteps across the landing, little fingers scrabbling at the door, and then our children jump up and down on the bed. We smile; we laugh; enjoying the simple pleasures of each other. It’s the closest we get to heaven.

And then I become fully awake. And the memory of her betrayal floods in like ice.

Heaven withers.

I go downstairs to make breakfast, stare out at the sunshine, the clear skies of a glorious April day, and my insides twist. If there is beauty in this morning, if there is solace in this vista, my heart won’t let me feel it.

The memory is poisoning me. But I can’t stop poking the wound.

The breakfast tastes as bitter as my coffee.

So I fake a smile. Fake small talk. Fake love, fake joy, fake coping, fake life itself. And as the hours pass, I feel my face contort from the effort of holding back the grimace. Stomach knotted; gut sickened; chest tight and heart bursting.

I keep it hidden. I wait for night, when we can lie beside one another without the pressure to keep up this charade; when my thoughts return to silence, and there is no yesterday, and no tomorrow – only love and the gentle movements of the bedsheets.

Spare a thought for the broken hearted

Spare a thought for the broken hearted, those whose marriages have fallen apart; those for whom there is nowhere to go, and nothing to say, until this lockdown’s over.

Spare a thought for those pretending that everything’s okay when everything’s not; those who smile to hide the hurt inside. Waiting.

Spare a thought for those sitting at a table that’s no longer theirs, in a chair where they used to belong; a guest where once they were host. Toiling in a garden that’s now someone else’s; walking a dog of whom they’re not master any more; mocked by the happy family photos on the walls.

Spare a thought for those who wrap their children in the comforts of their home, knowing that this innocence will soon be wrenched away from them; who talk of a future now out of reach; who tell them the forecast’s fine when a storm’s edging over the horizon.

When will it come? Who knows? Weeks, months, it’s all the same.

Spare a thought for the lied-to lovers, those who see the truth but cannot speak it; those who know that their love just wasn’t enough.

Spare a thought for the broken hearted.

The weirdest coronavirus conspiracy: it’s 5G

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have no patience with conspiracy theories. I don’t believe 9/11 was an inside job, that the flu jab is harmful, that amber necklaces have health benefits, or MMR causes Autism. I understand why people believe conspiracy theories, but I think that at times like this, coronavirus conspiracies are especially dangerous.

Even when they’re batshit crazy.

The latest coronavirus conspiracy is so ridiculous, I can’t imagine why anyone would take it seriously, but they are, particularly when celebrities like Amanda Holden and Woody Harrelson are actively promoting it. For more than a year, conspiracists have been theorizing that 5G – the fifth generation of wireless data technology, promising download speeds at least ten times that of 4G – will release fatal amounts of radiofrequency radiation that will destroy DNA, cause cancer and premature ageing, and effectively cull most of the planet’s human population, in the same way that the 1918 Spanish flu was apparently caused by the invention of radio (!).

Yes, 5G is a doomsday weapon wielded by the New World Order so they can take over. So far, so normal.

Unfortunately, the roll out of 5G and the outbreak of coronavirus have somewhat coincided. Conspiracists claim that the first city in the world to be blanketed in 5G was – yes, you’ve guessed it – Wuhan. Proof positive that China, and Huawei, are deliberately killing people. And the multiple denials by practically every media outlet and reputable scientist in the world simply confirm it – methinks thou doth protest too much.

They’re currently torn on whether 5G is causing it by lowering our immune systems, or is somehow directly transmitting the virus into us (because that’s how biology works!), but they’re in no doubt that 5G and Covid-19 are one and the same.

The weirdest version of the conspiracy I’ve come across is that vaccines contain metal; microwaves make metal things blow up; thus 5G is going to make all the vaccinated people go BOOM!

Yikes.

This fringe belief wouldn’t be a problem on its own, if not for the fact that in the UK in recent days, people have set on fire three 5G masts and abused and assaulted phone company workers. This is when those ‘harmless’ conspiracy theories have stark real world consequences. It won’t be long before someone does something stupid, thinking they’re being heroic and saving us from our evil overlords.

So what’s the truth? Yes, 5G does emit radiation. However, like FM radios, power lines and Wi-Fi, it’s low-frequency, non-ionizing radiation, which means it doesn’t have the power to break chemical bonds, penetrate cell walls or even have any known effect on biological matter. Higher frequency radiation – that above ultraviolet – is called ionizing radiation, and like X-rays and gamma rays, it can damage DNA and cause cancer. Ultimately, the power and frequency of 5G is less than light – you’re getting more radiation standing outside in the sun. Or sitting under a lightbulb. Or lighting your birthday candles.

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

So wash your hands, keep your distsnce, and stop getting your news from Facebook!

A coronavirus fairy tale

Once upon a time a beautiful Princess fell in love with a handsome Knight. The King set them up in one of his many castles, and within a few years they had created a family of their own, adding two Little Princesses to the Royal Gene Pool.

But one day, a terrible illness spread through the kingdom, and everyone had to stay in their homes. The Knight drew up the drawbridge and swore he would would keep his family safe.

The Princess and the Little Princesses were now stuck in the castle, and the King and Queen were very upset. The Queen went to the castle, but the Knight wouldn’t let her in. The King told the Knight that he was being ridiculous and that rules don’t apply to Royalty, but still the Knight wouldn’t let down the drawbridge.

Alas! Alack! Despite the Princess and Little Princesses being safe behind their walls, and the Knight claiming he did not want to pass on the illness to the rest of the Royal Family, it was a situation that could not be borne. After all, Princesses, and Kings and Queens for that matter, could not be expected to do as the peasants did.

And so the Princess sent messages to the King and the Queen, and the King and Queen sent messages to the Princess, and they all agreed the Knight was in fact an evil Ogre who had deceived them all these years. He had weedled his way into the Royal Family and kidnapped the Princess, and was now holding her and the Little Princesses prisoner.

So they came up with a secret plan, hoping the Ogre wouldn’t find out. When the Ogre lowered the drawbridge so the Princess and the Little Princesses could go out for their daily ‘exercise’, they would instead sneak off to the palace and play with the King and Queen.

Their only mistake was asking the Little Princesses to lie to the Ogre – unless underestimating the Ogre was also a mistake, because he knew all along, and knew this was just an illusion.

You see, the Ogre wasn’t really an Ogre – he was always a Knight. And the Princess had her own keys to the drawbridge, and could make her own decisions. He reminded the King and the Queen of the rules, and that the Princess was an adult and could come and go as she pleased, and suggested that in future they should support him through this difficult time, and not undermine him with the Princess as it was having a detrimental effect on the Little Princesses.

Little did he realise, he was actually dealing with Dragons. Dragons who would rather see the kingdom in flames than do as they were told. Dragons who would sooner have the Knight cast out of his family than relinquish their control of the Princess.

But there was one thing they forgot. In the end, the Knight always slays the Dragon.

Always.

Since the Dragons owned the castle he lived in, and the Princess sided with the Dragons, the Knight didn’t know how he would keep the Little Princesses safe. He didn’t know where they would live, or if the Princess and her Dragons would try to take them. He suspected the Dragons would claim he was really an Ogre, and use all their resources to destroy him. All he knew for sure was that this wasn’t a fairy tale, and that there was no longer any hope for a happily ever after.

Coronavirus and my four-year-old’s fear of death

Every night when I put my kids to bed, I read them a story, kiss them, cuddle them, tell them they’re loved, turn out the light and then sit in my bedroom next door for ten minutes in case of problems. It’s a relaxing time of listening to their childish conversations drifting down the hallway while I read a book, though it can be abused, like last night when my four-year-old came into my room 90 seconds after I’d left, saying she’d had a bad dream.

‘In a minute-and-a-half, you already fell asleep, had a bad dream, woke up, climbed out of your bunk bed and came in here?’

‘Yes.’

‘I don’t believe you.’

‘Well, it wasn’t an asleep dream, I had my eyes open.’

‘Oh. So, not a dream.’

‘Can I stay in here with you?’

Normally I’d send her back to bed with a flea in her ear, but at a time like this, I figure I have to bend the rules a bit. ‘Go on. But only for a few minutes.’

‘What are you reading?’

War and Peace. There’s no better time than right now.’

‘Can you read it to me?’

‘Not really, sweetie.’

Then my two-year-old came in and refused to leave, so last night saw me and my daughters cuddled up on the bed as I pretended to read them Tolstoy, but instead made up a story about a magic horse and the girl he befriended. I bet they can’t wait till they get to read ‘grown-up’ books now. How disappointed they’ll be!

But it was much better than the night before when things took a decidedly more morbid tone.

I was listening to their conversation as usual when the little one told the big one to go to bed. The big one must have misheard, because she said, ‘I don’t want to be dead, because when I’m dead, I won’t be alive anymore, and that’s sad.’

Nothing followed this, so I turned back to my book.

About a minute later, she appeared in my doorway her fists balled in her eyes, and sobbed, ‘I don’t want to be dead because then I won’t see you or mummy anymore!’

‘Come here,’ I said, and gave her a big cuddle. ‘Why are you thinking about dying? Is it because of the virus?’

‘Because I might get ill,’ she cried. ‘And when Aunty Sue got ill, she died and it was sad.’

‘Oh sweetheart. I’ve told you before, this virus doesn’t really affect children. The youngest person who’s died from it was a teenager. You don’t need to worry about dying because it’s not going to happen for a very long time.’

‘But what if you and mummy die? Who’ll look after me?’

‘That’s why we live in families,’ I said. ‘There’ll always be aunts and uncles and cousins and nieces and nephews and friends around when we’re gone.’

‘But I won’t have a mummy and daddy anymore.’

‘No, you won’t. But by the time that happens, you might already be a mummy yourself.’

Then came the really awkward question: ‘Where do you go when you die?’

‘Where do you think we go?’

‘My friend at school, her grandpa went up into the sky. He was ill so he went there to get better, but he can’t come back.’

‘I think that’s as good an answer as any,’ I said. ‘Nobody really knows what happens when we die. Lots of people think we go to a place called heaven, a nice place above the clouds where everything’s great. Others think that when we die, we’re born again as babies with no real memory of our former lives.’

‘What do you think happens?’

‘I really don’t know,’ I said. ‘I quite like the idea of a family of souls. Every time someone in a family dies, they’re born back into that family somewhere down the line. So if I die, and then you have a baby, I’m that baby. Which makes me my own grandfather.’

‘But you can’t be my baby! You’re my daddy!’

‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ I said. ‘Whatever happens, nobody’s ever really gone. I’ll always be part of you, in your thoughts, your memories, your DNA. I will live on through you, and you will live on through your children. Dying is nothing to be afraid of. It’s sad, but it’s normal. It’s okay to be upset, and it’s okay to miss people, but we have to accept it and let them go. Life is for the living.’

Then my two-year-old came in and, completely failing to read the room, pointed at my man-boobs and said, ‘Bluebell and Buttercup.’

Bluebell and Buttercup are our guinea pigs.

My eldest is worried about death. My youngest thinks I have breasts like a South American rodent. Those parenting classes never prepared me for this!

Finding certainty in uncertain times

Go onto social media. Pick up a newspaper. Ring a friend. Switch on the news. What are you guaranteed to encounter?

Speculation.

Often quite rampant speculation. In the internet age, we are all epidemiologists and experts in public health; we are all fortune tellers and soothsayers.

How long will these restrictions be in place? Two weeks, six months, eighteen months, forever. We’re flattening the curve; we’re protecting the vulnerable; we’re shielding the NHS; we’re acquiring herd immunity; we’re buying time to find a vaccine.

What further restrictions will be imposed? We won’t be allowed outside at all; the army will be on the streets; there’ll be rationing; we’ll have to eat cats and dogs.

Why has Italy been hit so badly? It has an elderly population; they were already in the middle of a flu epidemic; they have a high proportion of smokers; they’re a tactile culture; they didn’t obey lockdown; they live in multi-generational households; they closed the schools before the workplaces, exposing the vulnerable to the superspreaders.

How many will die in my country? 6000; 20,000; half-a-million; everyone. The death rate is much higher than we’re being told; much lower than we think; 10%; 0.4%. The statistics are different because of how they’re recorded; how many tests have been done; whether they died of coronavirus or with coronavirus. We’re two weeks behind Spain; three weeks behind Italy; ahead of the curve; better.

When will it end? When everyone has acquired herd immunity; when there’s a vaccine; when there’s a proven treatment; when it mutates to become more or less deadly; when we’re all dead from it.

And what will life look like afterwards? It’ll go straight back to normal; it’ll be entirely different; people will care more; people will hate more; we’ll be poorer; richer; safer; more vulnerable.

Speculation, speculation, speculation.

I understand why people are searching for answers – humans hate uncertainty. Uncertainty is dangerous. It’s terrifying. We don’t know how to protect ourselves from the unknown, so we feel vulnerable. People right now are living in a state of continual fear, and they’d rather live with an uncomfortable truth – a deadly but known danger – than endure the unknown.

Trouble is, in a situation like this, there are no answers. We don’t know how long it’s going to last; we don’t know how it’s going to end; we don’t know how many will die or what the world will look like afterwards. Ahead of us and around us is a vast, empty unknown. We’re walking on the edge of an abyss, liable to fall at any moment. How can you not feel anxious at such a time?

If it’s any help, as an autistic guy who spends his life living under the shadow of the unknown, you have to take comfort in the things that are known, and those things you can predict.

Like the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow. The sun has risen every day for the past 4.5 billion years; it will continue to rise long after we’re gone. The rhythm of the planets is eternal.

There will be two high tides tomorrow, and two low. The Earth and moon are locked in an endless ballet, and whatever happens with mankind, that will not change. It is immutable.

There will be life in one form or another for countless years to come. Every living thing on the planet has an unbroken chain of lineage extending back 3.5 billion years. Through billions of generations, every single one of your ancestors managed to reach sexual maturity, find a partner and reproduce before they died. Life today is the culmination of billions of survivors. There will be billions more generations to come.

We can’t say anything with such certainty when it comes to coronavirus. We don’t know when it’ll end or how, how bad it’ll be and who’ll survive to come out the other side. But we can say, with absolute certainty, that we will survive, and it won’t last forever.

How do I know this isn’t the end? Because modern humans have been around for 200,000 years. We’ve only had a germ theory of medicine for 150 of those years. We’ve only had antibiotics and antiviral drugs for 80. Yet we’ve survived Russian flu, Spanish flu, Asian flu, the Black Death, smallpox, leprosy, cholera, malaria, polio, meningitis, measles, HIV/AIDS, yellow fever, rabies, tuberculosis, typhoid, dysentery, diphtheria, and syphilis.

I was born in the 1970s. Most of the people reading this will, like me, have lived through the Troubles, the Cold War, the Iranian Embassy Siege, the Falklands, the Poll Tax Riots, shell suits, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Gulf War, Waco, Diana, Dunblane, Columbine, Y2K, 9/11, the War on Terror, 7/7, SARS, MERS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, the Credit Crunch, 2012 hysteria, the Paris Terror Attacks, the knife-crime epidemic and Brexit. We’ve taken all that life has thrown at us, and we can take plenty more.

If you want certainty, there it is. We’re going to survive. We’re going to get through this. It’s the one thing I have no doubt about.

The importance of language

I’m a writer. I believe that language creates the world. That’s why, at times like this, it’s so important to watch our language.

‘We’re stuck at home for the next few weeks’ creates an entirely different mental space than ‘We’re at home for the next few weeks.’

‘I can’t cope’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereas ‘I’m finding this hard but will get through it’ gives you strength.

‘I hate my wife and kids’ generates resentment in your chest, while ‘Finding my family difficult at a difficult time is perfectly normal’ keeps your relationships healthy.

And saying, ‘It’s not a problem, I’m enjoying this downtime,’ is better than screaming, ‘Holy shit, it’s the end of the world and we’re all going to die!’

Changing the language you use is a quick and easy way to change your mood and your attitude. Our body tends to believe what we tell it. Smile and it makes you feel good. Stand up straight and lift your chin, it makes you feel confident even when you’re not. Force yourself to breathe slowly and deeply when you’re panicking, it calms your body down because if you’re not hyperventilating, there’s nothing to panic about, is there?

The opposite is also true. Hunch your shoulders and huddle up, you feel edgy, as though you need protection from the world. Frown and you feel bad. Laze about and you lose all motivation to do anything that helps you.

So start telling yourself the reality in which you want to live.

What applies in your own home applies to the world outside. Be careful what you read. Be careful what you listen to. You can’t have a healthy mental space when you fill it with negative words.

A brief survey of headlines is enough to make you die of fear. ‘Killer disease’ is far more terrifying than ‘Covid-19’; ‘chaos’, ‘panic’, ‘tragedy’, ‘death toll’ are much worse than ‘hope’, ‘solidarity’, ‘positivity’, ‘recovery’.

So in this time of crisis, do what I tell my children when they’re moaning and whining: use your words.

And forgive yourself the occasional weakness, outburst, rant or cry – you’re only humsn, after all.