A coronavirus thought experiment

Let us today try a thought experiment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does that make the abuse any less real?

A coronavirus fairy tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always.

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

Midlife crisis or male postnatal depression?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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