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.

The Hidden Disability and the Hands-On Dad

I’m a pretty placid guy, I think. I take as I find, try to treat others as I’d like to be treated myself, and generally endure massive amounts of abuse before I fight back. I can be irritable, sure, and I can be a dick, but I try to make the world a better place by being in it.

All that being said, there’s one thing that drives me freaking insane: when people assume I’m somehow less of a parent because I’m a man.

Yesterday, I arrived home from nursery at around 6pm with my little girl in tow and unloaded her from the back of the car. A neighbour was out in the street and asked me how I was.

‘Knackered,’ I replied.

‘Well, if you’re knackered, imagine how your wife feels,’ she replied. ‘It’s harder for her – she’s the mother.’

Wow. Considering we’ve only ever exchanged a couple of words before, it seems awfully forward to express such derision for my physical and mental state.

Allow me to respond.

‘Well, actually, my wife has autism and a learning disability and I’m practically her carer; I can’t leave her alone with the kids more than an hour or she becomes overwhelmed; she goes to bed at 9pm and sleeps right through till morning, so until 8am, I am a single parent; and every time the baby cries, she passes her to me.

‘For every five nappies I change, she changes one; I cook four nights a week while she cooks twice, unless she decides she’s not in the mood, in which case I have to throw something together or we go hungry; I look after the dog, the cat, the chickens, the fish; I do all the driving; and if I try to nap in the afternoon, I’m told I’m selfish and don’t care about the family.

‘When the baby cries, my wife cries; when my wife cries, the toddler cries; and then the toddler tells me I’m naughty for making mummy cry. So I soothe the baby, then soothe the toddler, which soothes my wife.

‘I’m the only one who baths our toddler; I put her to bed every night, even when she’s screaming to stay up because the baby’s still awake, which is every night; I take her to nursery twice a week and pick her up; I hold her hand when she wakes crying in the night; I cuddle her because since her sister arrived she needs three times the love and reassurance; I console her when mummy’s too busy playing with her phone to pay her any attention; and I’m the only one who disciplines her, gives her stability and clear boundaries, and remains consistent in my behaviour.

‘I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in two years, while my wife gets ten hours a night; haven’t had more than a few hours in a row ‘off’, while my wife goes out several times a week; bear the full responsibility for everybody in this household; and I am not allowed to get ill, or feel tired, or have a headache, or else everything falls apart.

‘If I go out, I have to arrange for someone to come in and sit with my wife; and everywhere I go, everybody asks me how my wife is coping, and how we can make things easier for her, and whether she needs more time away from the children.

‘My life revolves around my kids, as though I’m in a bubble of childcare; I don’t have the time, energy or inclination to do any of the things I used to do; I eat all the time and am so tired I barely know the day of the week; I feel as though I’m just going through the motions; and I read a pamphlet that said these are all signs of postnatal depression in women, but, damn it, this is just normal for me.

‘And now let me tell you why I’m knackered today. Between feeding and changing the baby last night, I worked on my speech till 1am. The baby was up at two, four and six this morning, an hour each time, and then my toddler once again got up at seven. I have had three hours of sleep in snatches of 45 minutes a time, and that’s the way it’s been for a month.

‘After breakfast I took my toddler to nursery, where she spent all day because I was out this afternoon and my wife wasn’t capable of looking after them both. After making lunch, I packed everything up for my wife and drove into Bournemouth. I then set up the pushchair, loaded the baby into it, and bid my wife adieu as I headed for a hotel.

‘Upon arrival, I was seated at a table beside best-selling author Kathy Lette and her son, Holby City actor Jules Robertson, and across from comedienne Rosie Jones. I was both overwhelmed and terrified, but I hid it well.

‘After a bit of chit-chat, I got up and gave a speech to 140 local business leaders, the mayors of Poole, Bournemouth and Christchurch, an MP and a Lord, encouraging them to provide work placements for people with special educational needs. After my speech, several people approached me and told me they had been sufficiently moved by my words to offer employment to people with autism.

‘Oh, did I forget to mention that I’m autistic too? And that I’m also susceptible to depression and have been on a high dose of antidepressants for fifteen years? And that nobody seems to give a damn about whether I’m coping?

‘So, my speech over, I picked up my wife, loaded the baby and pushchair into the car, and drove home. The baby apparently hadn’t woken up at all, but she was wet as my wife hadn’t changed her. I changed her clothes and nappy and fed her, then went to pick up my toddler from nursery.

‘On the way back, I thought how exhausted I was and how desperately I needed some rest, but I knew I still had to make tea, put my toddler to bed, and then, after my wife went to bed, get up up at least three times in the night to see to the baby.

‘And then I saw you, and you asked me how I was.

‘”Knackered,” I replied.

‘”Well, if you’re knackered, imagine how your wife feels,” you replied. “It’s harder for her – she’s the mother.”

‘Now, I’m not going to tell you how offensive your assumption is that my wife works harder at parenting than me. I’m not going to harp on about how while from the outside we might look like a nice, normal family, you have no freaking idea what goes on inside. And nor am I going to roll out that old adage that to assume makes an ASS out of U and ME. No.

‘To assume makes you an ass, period. And that’s all I have to say about that.’

That’s what I could have said. Instead, I dug deep, took it on the chin, and said, ‘Yep, it’s much harder on the mum.’

Because the situation in my household is the situation in my household. It’s not ideal, sure, but I’m surviving, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow my neighbours to know what’s really going on, and talk about it among themselves, and judge us.

They call high-functioning autism the ‘hidden disability’, and it really is – in every way that matters.

Romantic and Parental Love: an Aspie’s Perspective

When people say ‘I love you,’ what do they really mean?

As an Aspie, love has always been a confusing concept to me. When I was younger I took my cue from movies and TV, believing in a fantasy, fairy tale form of love that moved mountains, crossed oceans, and transcended space and time. People in love never argued, never had to compromise, and never had to say sorry, for love is such that they could communicate without words. It was a force so powerful it could even conquer death. Thanks Hollywood!

For some reason, the divorced and unhappily married people around me didn’t contradict my belief in a happily ever after. Indeed, they were an object lesson not to settle, to keep holding out for ‘the one’ – that person who would make everything better. I was half a person, broken and drowning, and she was half a person, broken and drowning, and together we would become a single whole, entire and swimming. We’d live in and through and for each other. Limerence, I think that’s called. Looking-for-a-miracle-cure-for-my-depression would be more accurate.

As I got older, I started to notice there were a few holes in this idea of love. For one thing, there are over seven billion people on this planet, so if there’s only one person out there for you, the odds of you finding them are too small to be worth calculating – unless you also believe in magic, and destiny, and unicorns, which I don’t. For another, from a psychological perspective, the very notion of being incomplete and needing another person to fulfil you puts you in a rather vulnerable position. Not to mention that it’s an incredibly disrespectful way of viewing your partner – only half a person without you. What rot.

I then redesigned my concept of love. It was not an emotion anymore, not a feeling, but a psychological compulsion programmed into you by biology, society and the greetings card industry. You got together with someone not to complete one another, not to make you happy but to enhance your own happiness. It was about two wholes coming together and remaining two wholes. Think two islands joined by a causeway that gets covered every high tide.

The emotional aspect of a relationship – the butterflies, the happiness, and all the other intense experiences of the honeymoon period – is simply a mislabelling of nervousness, lust and the fulfilment of social expectation. And once that exciting time fades, you’re left with a need for the other person that has developed through shared activities and the difficulty of disentangling your lives and CD collections. Not a particularly romantic idea, perhaps, but certainly more realistic.

As time went on, I decided that denying an emotional aspect to love didn’t entirely fit the reality I saw around me or that I experienced myself. And when you’re in a relationship, there is an undeniable merging of two people, a coming together of hopes and dreams, sacrifice and support, until you struggle to distinguish where you end and the other person begins. Clearly, I needed to come up with a new definition.

Love is partly a feeling, partly a psychological compulsion, partly the result of biology, partly a fulfilment of a social need, and partly an idea you consciously engage with, negotiate and decide upon yourself. Think two islands linked by a bridge, a causeway, a swamp, a lagoon, and a tangle of vegetation, all of which change depending on the height of the tide and the time of the year.

How does this work in practice? It means that my wife and I are bound together by a variety of things, some deliberate, some accidental, some beyond ourselves, some of which we’re unaware of; it means we are sometimes close, sometimes more distant, that sometimes it’s easy to connect and sometimes bloody difficult; and that ultimately, though we could sever our ties or seek other people to love, we have chosen to be together. This is what it means when we say, ‘I love you.’

Or at least, that’s what it means when we’re talking about romantic love.

Parental love is something entirely different.

There is no choice when it comes to parental love. You don’t consciously create ties with your child, psychoanalyse why you love them, adapt the form it takes to suit both of you – it just is, with an intensity beyond anything else.

And it asks no reciprocity. You’re not even sure it’s a two-way thing, and it wouldn’t really matter anyway, because you’d go on loving them regardless. You’d suffer any indignity so they don’t have to, fight the world if it was necessary, and lay down your life in a heartbeat. Autistic or otherwise, I think most parents would feel the same way.

Where autistic parents can differ is in our expression of that love. The children of autistic parents often grow up feeling unloved because, as we know we love them, we assume they know too and therefore don’t feel the need or even understand we have to tell them. Which is why, since birth, I have showered my daughter with hugs and kisses and smiles, even when they don’t come naturally to me, so she grows up feeling loved.

But it struck me the other day that there is one thing I’ve not done in the twenty-two months she’s been with us: I’ve never said to her, ‘I love you.’ It just never occurred to me to say it. I don’t know if that’s normal, I don’t know if it’s odd, but from now on I’m going to tell her every day – just so that she knows.

Even though it doesn’t come naturally to me.

The Long Winter

Every year I look forward to the winter, when the trees turn into skeletons reaching bony branches into a crisp azure sky, the air fills with the reassuring scents of wood smoke and cinnamon, and as the evenings draw in I can snuggle safe in the warmth of my family’s comforting embrace. And as a bonus, I get to break out my rather fine collection of furry hats and oversized jumpers, my gloves and my scarves, and best of all my cowboy boots. Winter, I think, is my favourite time.

And then winter comes and it’s an eternal wasteland of grey days, miserable nights and an ever present sense of despair. The garden turns to mud, the dead leaves swirl about huddled bushes and overturned lawn furniture, and the cold seeps inside and seems to chill your very soul until your outlook becomes as bleak as the view from your dirt-encrusted windows. Good God, I think, I bloody hate the wintertime.

Normally, I start to feel better as soon as the daffodils begin to burst up from the frigid earth, bringing with them the promise of spring and cheerier times to come; this year, the daffodils are in full bloom and this despondency shows no sign of lifting. I’m caught in my own personal Groundhog Day, and there are six more weeks of winter.

The depression goes hand-in-hand with the tiredness. There comes a time when you have to accept that tiredness is no longer a transitory state –  it is now a part of you, a defining characteristic, just another one of your personality traits. Describe Gillan: male, six feet tall, autistic, tired, mostly friendly – provided he’s had his coffee.

I wake up tired, live tired, go to bed tired. In my dreams, I am too tired to do anything – I simply sit and stare at featureless walls in an empty room. I don’t remember the last time I felt well-rested and ready to face the day ahead. This is, of course, a familiar side-effect of being a parent. You count down the hours till the little one goes to bed, because you think you’ll be able to rest, catch up, get at least some of the way towards feeling okay again. But you don’t, because tiredness is who you are now.

Combined with the depression it becomes somewhat debilitating.

I spend hours lying on the sofa just staring at the ceiling. I think I should watch a movie, but after ten minutes I switch it off because I can’t concentrate or care. I think I should walk the dog but I can’t drag myself to my feet. I think I should write but can’t stomach the empty page. I can’t be bothered to cook, so I binge on chocolate and coffee. The other morning I ate four Creme Eggs, one after the other. Yesterday I ate three Crunchie Bars back to back, like chain smoking chocolate. And then I drank five coffees in a row just so I could get through until lunch. I’m not sure which is the most unhealthy.

I know too much, about all the wrong things. I can name dozens of serial killers, only a handful of victims; can name every state in America, but not the boroughs of my local town; know all manner of mental disorders, psychological conditions and mood stabilising medications, but can’t identify the plants that grow in my own back garden. If you need me to name a thousand movies I’ve seen, a thousand books I’ve read, a thousand bands I’ve heard, I can sit down with a pen and paper and list them for you (in fact, I do this a couple of times a year just for fun); but ask me to name a hundred people I have known in my life, I don’t think I’d be able to do it.

And that is the problem with depression – your mood dictates your thoughts, not the other way around. I have a lovely daughter, a lovely wife, a lovely family; I have a book coming out in three weeks, the culmination of a lifelong dream; and I have nothing to be unhappy about. I know this; I appreciate this; yet this awareness does nothing to lift my mood. Instead, the depression makes your brain turn on itself, devour the light and turn everything to the darkness. For darkness is not simply the absence of light – it is a physical entity that spreads and consumes all before it, a shadow fire that chills as much as it burns.

You start to wonder when last you felt happy, excited, or even at peace. You try to remember if there was ever a time you experienced what other humans call ‘joy’. You track back and back, and back even further. You remember a time when you were ten and you were surfing and…no, you weren’t happy even then. So you take it to the extreme – was I happy when I was six? Four? Am I just incapable of happiness?

And then people with no understanding say things to you, like, ‘Think happy thoughts,’ or, ‘Just pick yourself up and snap out of it,’ or, my favourite, ‘What you should do is get up early and go for a nice run, then you’ll feel better.’ If I can’t motivate myself to do those things that once gave me a modicum of pleasure, how on earth am I meant to drag myself out into the cold and the wet to exercise? Whoever recommends that course of action has no idea what it is like to battle every day of your life against simply giving up. And I am tired of fighting.

For depression is not something I have done to myself. I have not thought depressing thoughts. I have not chosen to feel this way. I have not caused it through my own weakness. Depression is something that has happened to me. It is an illness I contracted when I hit puberty, something from which I have never been free. It lies dormant for a time, only to return with a vengeance. Normally in the wintertime, to be fair. A black dog creeping in from the borderlands, uninvited. And no matter how I try to kill it with thought, medication, meditation, diet, I have no doubt it will dog my footsteps the rest of my life to come.

Luckily, for the pile of apathy writing this blog, I am a parent and a husband, and those things are more important to me than my own wellbeing. I cannot indulge my more destructive, neglectful tendencies without irrevocably destroying my self-image, and I am far too egotistical about my prowess as a father and a partner to neglect my duties towards others.

If I lived alone, as I have in the past, I would wake up in my clothes, stay in bed till lunchtime, eat junk, and go back to bed without changing, washing, shaving, opening the post, or doing any of the everyday chores that make a person a functioning member of society. Instead, as a father, I must haul my weary bones out of bed each morning to get my daughter up, dressed and fed. I have to change my clothes to set a good impression, brush my teeth when she brushes hers, eat at the table with her. In the evening I have to cook my wife a delicious and nutritious dinner and I bath when she baths. I might only be going through the motions, an imitation of a living, feeling being, but in so doing I find a way to function, despite the depression. I remain a good father and a good husband even as I cave in upon myself and sink beneath the weight of my own lethargy.

This is my life now, and I can keep it going as long as I must. I have done it before and I have no doubt I will do it again many times over. I just wish this winter would end.