So SAD

I’ve written before about suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Every year I hibernate, stop going out, stop writing, stop reading – just eat and sleep and snap at people over trivialities. And while this year is no different – I keep stuffing my face with chocolate, going to bed two hours earlier than usual and falling out with family members on a weekly basis – I’ve noticed an addition to my symptoms this year:

An overwhelming feeling of sadness.

It’s weird that having something called SAD, I’ve never particularly felt sad with it before. Moody? Sure. Lacking in energy, filled with self-loathing and totally uninterested in anything other than binge-watching old episodes of Arrested Development? Naturally. But sad? No, I’m too depressed to be sad.

For those who don’t suffer from depressive illness, allow me to explain the difference between depression and sadness.

Sadness is an emotion, a feeling, like joy or fear. You can feel it in particular locations in your body, and it provokes a visceral physiological reaction – a sinking chest, a trembling lip, tears. It is transitory and ephemeral, and stimulated as a reaction to something going on in your life – a death, a rejection, a painful memory. It comes in a rush, can be incredibly intense, and then goes away again, without leaving a fingerprint in your soul. That is sadness.

Depression, on the other hand, is a mood – an ongoing, long-lived, debilitating way of life that pushes down on you and pervades your entire body, mind and spirit. It’s not a feeling but a way of feeling. There are no ups and downs, no bursts of colour, just an ever-present gloom. It exists irrespective of what else is happening in your life, and though it is sometimes less pronounced, it never truly leaves you, a shadow that lurks in the recesses of your being and stains all that you’ll ever become. That is depression.

If sadness is a thunderstorm, horrible and exciting, depression is an endless grey sky, without wind, without rain, and without the prospect of ever seeing the sun again.

Which is why it’s odd that this year, this gripping, all-consuming sadness keeps creeping up on me and washing over me, stopping me in my tracks.

Contrary to the philosophy underpinning Cognitive Behavioural Therapy that the ancestor of every feeling is a thought, this feeling only comes when I’m not thinking at all. If I’m doing something that requires even the slightest modicum of brainpower, I’m fine – at least, as fine as I ever get. But every time I stop or do something so routine I don’t even need to think about it, I get hit by a wave of sadness.

It works like this – I’ll be watching the kids play, making sure they’re not killing each other, and all will be well and good. I’ll walk into the kitchen to make myself a coffee, flip on the kettle, and – BOOM! – I’m sad. So sad.

Or I’ll be doing the shopping, or driving the car, or playing with my kids, and the moment I stop, this dreadful sadness slaps me across the face. So I keep active doing word puzzles, watching game shows on TV, completing online quizzes so that I’m constantly thinking. Whenever I stop thinking, that’s when it comes – this feeling that I’m going to burst into tears.

People have suggested my antidepressants have stopped working, that I should go see a doctor. I can’t imagine why that would be the case after fifteen years on them. Besides, I saw a psychiatrist around eight or nine years ago to ask him that very question, and he said that you don’t build up a tolerance to SSRIs, needing to up the dose to receive the same effect. No, he said that depression just happens to be one of those things I have to live with.

And besides, sadness isn’t depression, so why would antidepressants control it?

I just have to wait for the spring again, even as it gets harder year on year. And hope that these thunderstorms will go away and leave me with my overcast sky.

Advertisements

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?

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]

Suicide Isn’t Painless

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

                       Chester Bennington (1976-2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suicide is a human tragedy, not a moral issue

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

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

Suicide stats

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

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

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

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

Suicide is often a passing impulse

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

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

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

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

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

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

Killing yourself is harder than you think

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

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

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

Slitting your wrists

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

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

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

Drug overdose

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

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

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

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

Hanging

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vehicular collisions

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

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

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

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

Falling from height

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

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

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

Firearms

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

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

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

Your suicide will probably ruin somebody’s life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to do if you’re feeling suicidal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How you can help prevent suicide

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

Useful contacts

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

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

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

Final thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

Take care of yourselves and all the best.

Gillan

Speaking for Others with Autism

As someone who puts himself in the public eye for a cause, especially on the internet, I’m aware that this makes me a target for criticism. Mostly it’s to do with my opinion on MMR not causing autism (because it doesn’t), my belief that modern, science-based medicine is better than snake oil and superstition (because it is better), and my insistence that people with autism can and do make good parents (because we can and do – although not all of us). These criticisms I can easily brush aside.

Not all criticisms can or should be dismissed out of hand, however. There’s a pernicious idea among the younger generations (and Taylor Swift) that any criticism is trolling, and those who do it are simply ‘haters’ and bullies, which is a great way of avoiding personal responsibility and adopting the mantle of victimhood, but isn’t an enlightened way of viewing people whose opinions differ from your own. So I tend to give my critics the benefit of the doubt – that the criticism was sincerely meant, even though I might disagree with it – and I consider whether there is any merit to it, since this is how we grow as people.

My latest criticism has got me thinking, for despite being worded rather rudely and making some outlandish assumptions, it asks a pertinent question: by what right do I presume to speak for others on the autism spectrum?

I have to first point out that, while I have been told I am an ‘ambassador’ for the autism community, speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves, I have never actually claimed this myself. I recognise, however, that by putting myself out there as a speaker, author and blogger, my words and behaviours reflect upon people’s perceptions of autism, and this is not something that I take lightly. Indeed, I put a great deal of effort into getting it right, especially since I’m currently in a position to influence opinion.

On Wednesday, for example, at an autism conference in Belgium, I spoke to two-hundred delegates about what it’s like to live with autism and how I manage to cope. Also on the bill at Inservice Autisme 2017, in the small village of Oostmalle outside Antwerp, were two other Brits with autism: internationally-renowned opera singer Sophia Grech, and bestselling author of Freaks, Geeks and Asperger’s Syndrome Luke Jackson. So, what right do I have to speak at such an event?

My answer is: I have every right. I talk about what affects me and other people I have met with autism, what has helped me to cope and what has helped others. I point out some of the issues you might face living on the autism spectrum and how these might be overcome. As you don’t cease to be an individual when you’re diagnosed, I am up front about the fact that the things I say will apply to some people more than others, and while some coping strategies might work, they are certainly not for everyone. The important thing is to make sense of your own experience and find out what works for you.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly offensive about that.

I have also been told I shouldn’t speak for others with autism because I have a wife and children, a book and a blog, and I have worked in the past – that my achievement of various life goals makes me ‘atypical’ (i.e. too successful) and thus invalidates my experiences of autism. Inherent in this accusation is a very negative view of people on the autism spectrum, as though to qualify as autistic you must necessarily be unfulfilled, downtrodden and miserable, and this is an opinion that simply does not ring true for me.

I have met hundreds of people on the autism spectrum, and I continue to be amazed by their diversity. In just four months of public speaking I’ve spoken to many Aspies with wives and children, jobs and homes. After every speech I have given, people on the spectrum have come up to me and told me I could have been describing their lives and that what I said really resonated with them. To say that I am ‘atypical’ and cannot relate to others on the spectrum is therefore simply wrong.

It has also been assumed that, because I take a positive, hopeful view of the prospects for those of us on the spectrum, I shouldn’t speak for those who don’t have it as ‘easy’ as me, or the same ‘advantages’, as though I lead a blessed like free of strife and woe. I don’t think anything could be further from the truth. I could offer to show all my self-harming scars from years of struggle, but instead I’ll say what it took to attend the autism conference to show how ‘easy’ it was.

As a stay-at-home dad/unemployed guy with a two-year-old, a seven-week-old and an autistic wife who can’t be left alone with the kids for more than a couple of hours, attending the conference was tough. First, my wife was very abusive when she first found out about it in April because she was scared of me going away and her not being able to cope; despite organising for people to sit with her while I was away, and for her to stay at her mum’s, she remained hostile about it right up until the time I left, telling me I would likely be killed by terrorists in Belgium and that I didn’t love my family, etc., etc. This is what she does when she is feeling vulnerable – she goes on the attack.

As I tried and failed to book a flight to Belgium (I found it too difficult, for while I am capable of some things, I’m incapable of many others), I sought help from my dad, who agreed to drive me. He wanted to take the Channel Tunnel, but as I’ve been on it before and found it claustrophobic, I asked for us to take the ferry because I was worried I might have a panic attack.

On the day of the journey I was up at 3am with the baby and didn’t return to sleep. I left home at seven and it took more than twelve hours of travel to reach Oostmalle. Upon arrival, I was terrified, had an upset stomach, and struggled to keep my anxieties in check.

Entering the conference centre, I was confronted by 200 Dutch people eating dinner, drinking in the bar, and milling about in a noisy, dark environment. The organisers sought me out and directed me to the ‘English Corner’ where Sophia Grech sat with Luke Jackson, two titans of the autism community. So I dug deep, swallowed down my fears, and introduced myself.

After an hour of trying to hear people over the noise and hiding behind a bottle of Coke, my father drove me to the hotel. I rang home to check on things, to find my wife sobbing, the baby screaming, and my toddler crying down the phone, ‘Mummy very sad! Mummy very sad!’ Not easy.

After my dad went to sleep, I worked on my speech, as this was the first opportunity I’d had to be in a clear headspace – or as clear as it could be.

In the morning, I was really panicking. I had to take pills for my upset stomach, struggled to breathe, and wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep my heart inside my ribcage. As we arrived I puffed out my cheeks, blew out my breath, and flapped my hands like a baby bird trying to take flight. And then I forced it all inwards and painted on my mask, my happy, confident face, and entered the fray.

The speech went well, very well, in fact. I really felt as though I made a difference, and the feedback afterwards showed that it went down a treat. For the next few hours I hung around with Luke and Sophia, and despite my fears, they were two of the coolest, nicest, most down-to-earth people you could hope to meet, with stories and experiences and ideas very similar to my own. In fact, to find myself in such agreement with others was both a rarity and a validation of my own views on autism.

The next day, exhausted and headachy and socially hungover, dwelling on every word I’d said in my speech and worrying if I’d done justice to the wider world of autism, I got up at six to leave at seven for the twelve hour journey home, whereupon I immediately resumed my parenting and caring roles.

I mention this to show that while things might be hard, those of us with autism can achieve amazing things if we have the courage and drive to confront our problems and refuse to let them hold us back. And if people still think I don’t understand what it is to struggle, that I don’t find things difficult enough to be a ‘proper’ Aspie, and that my life is too easy to be relatable, then it says more about them, I think, than it does me.

So why do I do it, if I find it so hard? I do it because I can do it, and I genuinely want to help. My life has been so hard I want to make things easier for others, and if sharing my experiences, opinions and coping strategies can make an autistic person’s life just a little bit easier, that’s what I’m going to do, regardless of whether critics think I’m entitled to or not.

I’ll leave you with the comments of a girl in my village who also has autism. She has struggled all her life but is now doing voluntary work and trying to make something of herself. She’s quite open about the fact that she isn’t articulate enough to describe what it’s like living on the spectrum and doesn’t have the confidence to speak in front of people anyway. Here is what she wrote on my Facebook page a few weeks ago:

‘You’re amazing and you’re doing a great job for everyone else who has autism like you and me and everyone else. I’m really proud of you.’

And the other day she wrote:

‘I and everyone else with autism is going to look up to you. You change people’s lives. Congratulations.’

Am I entitled to speak for others on the autism spectrum? I’ll leave you to decide.

 

Parents as Partners

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, it is not an ideal world.

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

And I hate that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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