Finding certainty in uncertain times

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

Speculation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speculation, speculation, speculation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping sane in a crisis: an autistic perspective

As someone with autism who’s neurologically predisposed towards obsessing over danger and freaking out over every little thing, I have forty years experience of battling dread and fear, and so the threat of a pandemic bearing down on us like a runaway train is just another day to me. However, it seems to be something new for large sections of society, and as panic starts to spread, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on keeping sane in a crisis – because if an autistic guy can do it, so can you.

First a disclaimer: I’m not an epidemiologist. Nor are most journalists, or the person on Facebook claiming coronavirus is harmless, or the neighbour stockpiling toilet paper. None of these behaviours are particularly helpful, because they add to the noise and misinformation out there, making it difficult to know what to believe and harder still to keep a level head. That’s why I’ve held off blogging about Covid-19: because I didn’t want to add to that noise.

But since we seem to be at peak saturation for signal clutter, what can it hurt? And hell, in some small way it might even help.

1. Demystify what you’re afraid of

There is nothing scarier than the unknown, except, perhaps, the unknown over which we have no control. There’s a very obvious evolutionary reason for this – the unknown could be dangerous and might kill us, so it’s safer sticking to the familiar where we can manage the risks.

Unfortunately, this means we have a tendency to inflate the dangers of anything new, and downplay the severity of those dangers we face everyday. That’s why we’re afraid of terrorists (odds of dying in a terror attack in the UK: 1 in 7.3 million), flying (1 in 5 million) and sharks (1 in 900 million), and not the death machines parked on our driveways (1 in 20,000, or a staggering 1 in 240 in your lifetime).

One of the best ways of controlling our fear of Covid-19 is to make it familiar, and thereby strip it of its mystique. Look at the bald statistics from a reliable site (like the World Health Organisation and Worldometer) and they’re more reassuring than the unhelpful running totals on websites listing number of cases alongside number of deaths.

As of 9:40, Thursday 12 March, there have been 126,628 cases, of which 4638 have died and 68,325 recovered. More helpful, perhaps, are the stats on current cases: 53,665, of which 47,957 (89%) are mild, and 5,708 (11%) serious or critical. While the tabloids might delight in showing photos of people lying in hospitals on ventilators, and implying there are more than 100,000 of them, the truth is that, globally, there are 5,708. Even if you catch Covid-19, the vast majority will have mild or no symptoms.

And this is good news for the statistics. The mortality rate is based on the percentage of known cases that have died, but if up to 50% of cases are asymptomatic, there are undoubtedly thousands who are infected, or have been infected and recovered, without even realising it.

So how lethal is Covid-19? Answers vary depending on which source you look at, but the mortality rate is estimated to be around 2% (ranging from 0.7% to 3%). This varies greatly by age, however, falling heaviest on the elderly and those with underlying health issues. If you’re under 50, the fatality rate runs at 0.2% of those infected, or 1 in 500, giving you a 99.8% chance of recovery, while those in their 80s have an 85% chance of recovery.

Therefore, if you catch Covid-19, you’re still twice as likely to die in a car accident in your life than die of coronavirus this year. Indeed, not only will you most likely recover, you’ll probably have either no symptoms or the mild symptoms of a cough, a high temperature, and a shortness of breath. This doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous or that we shouldn’t do everything to protect ourselves and those more vulnerable to the virus, but knowing what we face is far easier to deal with than worrying unduly.

2. Put your fear into perspective

Oftentimes, it feels like the end of the world. Especially as an autistic person, you spend your life magnifying things to the level of a catastrophe. Your chest tightens as you’re flooded with adrenaline, obsessing over the danger and letting it consume your every thought, because you can’t avoid the thing that’s coming for you. At these times, it’s best to step back and put things into perspective.

Look out of the window: is the world still there? Is the grass still green? Can you see insects buzzing and flowers growing and clouds scudding across the sky? Then it’s not the end of the world, even if it might feel like it.

For the past few months, people have been comparing coronavirus to the flu. For just as long, people have been saying, ‘Stop comparing it to the flu! Stop saying it’s only dangerous to the elderly and those with underlying health issues! Stop trying to minimise the dangers!’ Such people are, I think, missing the point of why these things are being said.

People are scared. People want reassurance. Comparing Covid-19 – the unknown bogeyman – to something we’re fairly comfortable with, like flu, is a way of dispelling some of that fear, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The situation is serious, yes, but uncontrolled fear leads to the kind of irrational, unhelpful behaviour we’ve been seeing with panic-buying and stockpiling, which places massive strains on supply chains and has the potential to be very damaging. In a crisis, the last thing you want is panic. Making sane, rational decisions is always better than rushed knee-jerk reactions.

Nor do I think it’s a problem stressing that 98% of those infected will recover, with most of the remaining 2% being elderly and/or those with underlying medical issues. There was an article in the Guardian yesterday about the people in that 2% ‘at risk’ group feeling thrown to the wolves to make the other 98% feel better (along with lots of the usual Tory-bashing), but while you must be feeling vulnerable in that 2%, the solution isn’t to fill the remainder with dread. This doesn’t mean that those who die from this pandemic are unimportant and that we shouldn’t do everything we can to keep them safe, simply that we shouldn’t panic by overestimating the lethality of this virus.

Putting Covid-19 into context shows that it’s much worse than the flu, which has a mortality rate of 0.1% and a mortality rate in the over-65s of only 0.83%. However, it’s far less lethal than recent health scares like bird flu (60%), Ebola (50%), MERS (35%), and SARS (10%). It’s also nowhere near as contagious as measles or chicken pox.

Looking at the big picture, the government’s worst case scenario – something that is unlikely to happen – is that 80% of the UK gets it, resulting in 500,000 deaths. While this seems terrifying, again we must put it into perspective. In the UK, there are around 600,000 deaths each year from all causes, which is around 1% of the population. Therefore, more than half-a-million people die around us each year and we barely even notice it. Many of the people in the government’s 500,000 would have died anyway and been included in the 600,000, so if we speculate that around 1 million people will die in the UK this year, the worst case scenario will increase our annual death rate by half a percentage point – from 1% to 1.5%. This is worth remembering.

It’s also worth remembering that all of these figures are speculative. Covid-19 has the potential to kill millions, but so far it hasn’t, and only time will tell how it pans out. As my mother always says, worry is a waste of energy – if the thing you fear doesn’t happen, there was never any point worrying about it, and if it does, your worry didn’t stop it.

You know what does kill millions of people around the world each year? Heart disease. It kills 18 million people a year, but very few of us heed the warnings and change our diets and exercise. Cancer kills 10 million, many of them preventable. 9 million die of hunger. 1.5 million die of tuberculosis. 1.1 million of dysentery.

Judging Covid-19 on what it has actually done, instead of what it might do, is a better way of keeping a level head. I understand those people who scream that Covid-19 could kill millions, because they’re right. I also understand those who say that coronavirus has only killed around 4500 people, and even if you do catch it, you’ve got a 98% chance of recovery, because they’re right too.

3. Switch off

As someone whose autism causes him to obsess over every little detail of an issue until it dominates every aspect of his life, I’m well aware that there comes a point where, for the sake of your sanity, you just have to stop. It’s understandable that people want to keep abreast of the situation, because you want to keep an eye on the danger and avoid it if you can, but we’re in a uniquely difficult age where our technology gives us 24-hour access to information. What starts as a desire to keep you and your family safe can quickly turn into an addiction.

Watching the news a couple of times a day is fine, but tracking the spread of Covid-19 in real time and checking your phone for updates every few minutes isn’t healthy. It gives you the illusion of safety while simultaneously heightening your anxiety – a wound can’t heal when you’re constantly picking at it. Following Covid-19 doesn’t make you any safer, but it does make you far more uptight about it. So learn what you need to learn, hear what you need to hear, and then switch off, or else you risk letting your fear of coronavirus take over your life.

Of course, distracting yourself from that feeling of impending doom is not always easy. Instead of telling yourself not to think about it, which only makes you think about it more, simply acknowledge it whenever it pops into your head and gently shift your focus onto something else. I find doing something that requires concentration, focus and hand-eye coordination – a jigsaw puzzle, a model, a paint-by-numbers – is a far better means of taking your mind off your fears than TV, movies or a book.

And once your mind is off it, go do something else. Count the leaves on a tree. Dance in the shower. Focus on the here and now and the things you have control over, instead of things that might happen tomorrow. Know that this will pass.

4. Learn to accept the things we cannot change

I think the biggest thing I’ve realised from watching this emerging crisis is just how resistant people are to accepting things. They might close the schools, they might cancel my holiday, it’s not fair, rage, fume. When you come up against a brick wall blocking your path, repeatedly bashing your head against it is nothing more than a futile gesture. Sure, it’s annoying to find our way blocked. The solution isn’t to cry, it’s to go back and find another path.

You also have to accept that we’re all mortal and will therefore one day die. I’ve seen tons of people in their 70s and 80s in denial, panicking that they’re going to die. Why? If you’ve not accepted your mortality by that age, when you’re already past the life expectancy of an adult human, you’d better start working on it. I’m 40 and I’m comfortable with the fact that this bundle of cells, animated by that mysterious force called life, will one day become nothing more than meat. If I die of coronavirus, or heart disease, or in a car accident, it’ll be sad for my wife and kids, my family and friends, but it’ll be normal, and natural, and it was simply my time. There’s no point feeling bitter over the years I didn’t get to have, because I was never entitled to them, and I never had them anyway.

Accepting that no amount of huffing and puffing will change the nature of the universe is a vital skill if you want to keep your head when all around you are losing theirs.

5. Keep a sense of humour, even if (especially if) it’s dark

The best way of dispelling fear in a crisis is finding the humour in your situation. I remember someone posting that you should look around at all your friends and know that two of them will die. Wow, I thought – with a mortality rate of 2%, she’s vastly overestimating my popularity!

I’m also bemused by people’s fear of self-isolating. To me, that’s a normal day.

I find social media an endless source of amusement. It’s fascinating how easily Covid-19 slips into political rhetoric. To the right wing, the crisis is the result of immigrants bringing in the virus; to the left, it’s because the Tories have cut health services. Various right-wing websites are claiming that Covid-19 is a biological weapon that escaped from a Chinese lab; various left-wing websites are claiming it’s an American biological weapon designed to crash the Chinese economy. You’ve got to see something amusing about that.

Perhaps the weirdest thing is how quickly people’s professed virtues flip to the opposite extreme. After Brexit, I lost count of the number of Tweets I read hoping that elderly Leavers would hurry up and die; then, in the run-up to the election, those same people were saying how we had to vote Labour or else millions of old people would be at risk. After the result showed most old people voted Tory, I again lost count of the number of Tweets saying they looked forward to the elderly dying in their millions as the Tories ran the NHS into the ground as it would serve them right; and now, those same people are saying, Save the Elderly! Save the Elderly! I mean, come on guys, pick a side and stick to it: do you want elderly Brexit-voting Tories to die, or don’t you?

One of the best jokes I saw online was: If there was a vaccine for coronavirus, most of you wouldn’t take it anyway. Now shut up and wash your hands.

We have some difficult times ahead of us, people. But keep calm and carry on.

Good luck on staying sane.

How to age 5 years in 3 minutes

The three scariest things that can happen to a childless man:

  1. Looking in the mirror and seeing your father’s face staring back at you.
  2. Hearing the mechanic suck in his breath through his teeth when you ask how much it’ll cost.
  3. Your girlfriend turning to you and saying, “I know we’ve never talked about having children, but I’ve got some news…’

The three scariest things that can happen to a parent:

  1. Answering the door to a stranger who says, “Hello, I’m from Child Services.”
  2.  Discovering a rash that looks strangely like those meningitis pictures you keep Googling.
  3. When your child stops breathing.

So this afternoon I was driving along with my wife and youngest daughter in the car when suddenly 17-month-old Rosie’s breathing started to sound a bit raspy, like there was something lodged in her throat and she was struggling to breathe. I looked round and she was staring vacantly off to one side.

‘Rosie?’ I said.

No response.

‘Can you check on her?’ I asked my wife.

She turned round in her seat and said, with increasing panic, ‘Rosie? Rosie? Rosie!’

I looked round again and Rosie was still staring off to the side, eyes still blank, but now her lips were blue, her face was violet, and she looked like a porcelain doll.

‘I’m pulling in!’ I shouted, spun the wheel and stopped the car on someone’s driveway. Leaping out, I scattered the contents of the door pocket all across the road, rushed round the back of the car, ripped open Rosie’s door and dragged her from the seat.

She had this glazed look in her eyes and she was trying to breathe but there was nothing but this horrible gurgling rattle, and she was totally unresponsive.

I turned her upside down, lay her over my forearm and slapped her hard between the shoulder blades, whereupon two old ladies, thinking I was assaulting her, asked if she was okay.

I checked her and she wasn’t, so I shook her, turned her over, slapped her again a few times. When I turned her back the right way she was still struggling to breathe, but there was a bit more life in her eyes.

Cuddling her and bouncing her up and down, gradually the colour returned to her lips and she started breathing, if not normally then at least no longer sounding like she was dying. She didn’t react to me, just stared away and kept yawning and closing her eyes, everything sluggish and drained, her eyelids pink and lurid.

Luckily we were only a few minutes from the local surgery, so I rushed her there and they put me straight in to see a doctor. She was so sleepy, she didn’t react to the thermometer in her ear or the stick in her mouth, but she did start to cry when the doctor listened to her chest.

The long and the short of it, she has a fever but her chest sounds clear and her throat isn’t swollen. The doctor thinks it’s one of three things:

  1. A fit, though with no other symptoms or a repeat performance, it’s difficult to say any more at this time.
  2. She choked on a foreign body or even her own saliva.
  3. She is ill, and sometimes children hold their breath  when they’re feeling rotten, even to the point of turning blue.

Reassured, I took her home and she has been asleep on me the last ninety minutes while I listen to her breathing. But oh my gosh, if you’ve ever known fear before becoming a parent, it’s a thousand times worse after. It was probably three minutes between seeing her lips were blue and the colour returning to them, but those three minutes have kicked the living crap out of me.

I only hope it is a one-off.

Number 2 – uh oh! (Part 1)

Today I am reflecting on the preponderance of the number two in my life. My wife and I together are two; my daughter is two years and two months old; we have two household pets (a dog and a cat); after the tragic death of Peking the Pecking Pekin two weeks ago, we now only have two chickens; and two weeks from today, we are due to welcome baby daughter number two into the world.

And then we’ll be in more number two than we know how to handle! (Come on, admit it, you were expecting a poop joke).

Yes, my wife is thirty-eight weeks pregnant. I might have forgotten to mention this over the past, oh, thirty-eight weeks. Partly because I wrote a series of posts about how I wasn’t keen on having another baby, and I hate going back on myself; and partly because of good, old-fashioned denial.

Not that the pregnancy wasn’t planned – it was, and I’ll explain about the decision process in Part 2 – but I’ve been caught in a quagmire of complacency and the mistaken belief that I had more time. It was always, ‘I’ll do it tomorrow,’ or, ‘I’ll do it next week,’ but I’ve run out of next weeks and I might have run out of tomorrows too, so I’d better do it now.

You see, the first time you’re expecting, you go to all these classes, buy all these weird and wonderful products, read everything you can about babies and child-rearing, rearrange the entire house, get everything ready, and pontificate about what it means to be a parent. Consequently, the baby takes forever to arrive and you’re in touch with the process every step of the way.

Not so with second pregnancies. The second time round, having been through it all before, you’re a lot more relaxed about the whole thing. I mean, you’ve already got everything a baby could ever need, the house is as babyproof as a marshmallow, and having successfully raised a child from babyhood to toddlerhood, you’re pretty confident you know how this parenthood thing works. Instead of living, breathing, eating, drinking and sleeping pregnancy, therefore, you’re not as closely tied to the day-to-day development of your child, so it races by with little notice until you realise with shock that it could literally arrive any moment and you’ve not prepared yourself emotionally for that wonderful, terrifying, exhilarating, traumatic and altogether life-changing day.

But that’s only half the story of why second pregnancies race to an unexpectedly sudden climax. The other half is that there’s already a pint-sized version of yourself tearing around the house, and throwing herself down the stairs, and loving you, and hating you, and hitting you, and hugging you, and generally taking all your attention, all your love, and all your energy, so you can’t spend anywhere near as much time thinking about the second unborn baby as you did the first. That’s not really fair on the second bump, I know, but it’s the way it is, although I’m fairly certain that my neglect of my child in utero won’t have that many long-term consequences. What’s important is that I focus on her once she’s born.

And therein lies the other reason I’ve avoided thinking about my impending second child until the last moment – I’m terrified of how it’ll change things, I’m terrified of how it’ll affect my relationship with my first daughter, and I’m terrified of letting them both down.

With your first child, you don’t have to divide your attention. You lavish everything upon her because you can. Every need she has, you meet there and then. You give yourself to her, body and soul. She is the centre of your universe.

How can I give that to my second child? Clearly, I can’t. And how will my first child cope when I can’t give it to her anymore either? The best thing I’ve got going for me is the closeness of my relationship with my daughter, and I don’t ever want to lose that, but equally, I want to have the same with my second daughter, and I’m struggling to see how that’s possible. I’ve always considered my heart as fixed in size – one child can have all my heart, two children can have half each, three a third, four (god forbid!) a quarter, and so on. The only way out of this diminishing is for my heart to double in size each time – and I’m not sure there’s enough room in my chest for that. Or perhaps, in my typically autistic way, I’m far too focused on this ‘heart’ metaphor and should stop trying to intellectually analyse something that is beyond conscious comprehension.

I said in my earlier posts on the subject that having a first child is a matter of faith – trusting that you’ll be able to cope and it’ll all work out okay – but that a second child is more of a conscious decision. I’m only now realising that having children is always a matter of faith.

Because for all my cocksure complacency, my know-it-all arrogance and bluster, I’m just as scared this second time around as I was the first.

 

A Christmas Parenting Problem

My daughter is a very boisterous child. She’s happiest when she’s falling off things and engaging in rough and tumble. She climbs up shelving units, jumps off the arms of sofas, spins in circles until she loses balance and crashes into the nest tables, runs until she trips and crashes down on grass, carpet, wood or concrete, and very rarely cries as a result of these semi-deliberate ‘accidents’. I’m sure she’s in training to be a stuntwoman. Her legs are a patchwork quilt of bruises and grazes and cuts, which she pokes and fusses over like they’re curiosities or badges of honour.

She’s a double-hard bastard, is what I’m trying to say. Despite being 17-months-old, her preferred playmates are kids aged 4-7 with whom she can wrestle, dance, and generally get up to mischief. She’s pretty much fearless. I get very concerned when she plays with kids her own age because she’s so excitable, energetic and rough that someone always seem to get hurt – and by ‘someone’, I mean whomever else happens to be playing with her. She’s a happy, confident and very contented child.

Which is why it’s all the more unexpected that she’s terrified of Santa.

She saw him a fortnight ago and screamed herself hoarse. She saw him last week and screamed herself hoarse. She saw a cut out of him on the wall of her soft play and pointed at it, shook her head and said, ‘Bad man’ (or she thinks Batman has really let himself go). She won’t go near the Christmas tree because it’s got a four-inch knitted Santa on it. She saw him on Peppa Pig and backed up ten feet until she was up against the wall, never once taking her eyes from the screen. She even went through a stack of CDs, came upon a picture of an elderly Brahms, and burst into tears. Clearly, overweight men with white beards are some kind of trigger to her – I’d better try not to let myself go (any further than I already have).

All of this would be a minor problem were I not married to a person who thinks that rather than peace, love and goodwill to all men, Christmas is actually all about trees, tinsel, markets, carol concerts, and a rather rotund gentleman with a penchant for dishing out presents from his sack. Indeed, my wife clung to a belief in Santa Claus far longer than would be considered rational, and I often have arguments with her over the existence or otherwise of Hogwarts and the Ministry of Magic (statements such as, ‘But how do you know they’re not real?’ and ‘What evidence is there that they don’t exist?’ show exactly where she believes the burden of proof should lie!).

Unfortunately we have two upcoming appointments with St Nick – prebooked, prepaid and non-refundable – and my wife’s love of Yuletide being what it is, there is no way in hell I can persuade her to cancel. The first is innocuous enough: a garden centre. We walk down a tunnel filled with twinkly lights, fake snow and geographically mismatched wildlife (I can accept flying reindeer, but polar bears mixing with penguins? Forget about it!), and we meet Santa in a little room at the end. If she screams, vomits or has any kind of adverse reaction, we can simply head for the nearest exit. Simple.

The other encounter I’m less optimistic about: it’s on a train.

The thought of sitting next to a screaming toddler while Santa enters the front of the carriage and slowly makes his way from the front to the back, stopping to greet and cuddle and provide gifts to every child along the way, fills me with dread. Not to mention the fact that I really don’t take any pleasure from exposing the little one to a situation that upsets, terrifies and traumatises her.

So, the past two weeks I’ve been trying everything I can to convince her that Santa is actually a very affable, non-threatening, child-friendly individual – albeit one who sneaks into your room at night while you’re asleep, hoping you won’t wake up, so he can steal your milk and cookies. Alas, it doesn’t seem to be working.

Still, it could be worse, I suppose. If she develops a phobia of thirty-something men with neatly-trimmed ginger beards tinged with an increasing amount of grey – well, then we’d really have problems!

Alone and Afraid

It’s amazing how kids can unlock parts of you that have long lain dormant.

As an adult, it’s not often that I’m afraid. I was often afraid as a child, especially of the dark, but as soon as I realised there were no monsters hiding in the woods – no supernatural ones, anyway – that visceral, uncontrollable, preternatural fear that was programmed into our ancestors’ DNA to keep them safe faded into an erstwhile caution. Of course, having autism and social phobia, I’m used to an all-pervading anxiety, but out-and-out fear is a different entity entirely, and something I’m not particularly familiar with.

I’m far too rational, sceptical and sensible to feel true fear. I went through a period in my early twenties when I decided to test myself, so I did bungee jumps and threw myself out of airplanes, climbed mountains, descended into caves, watched every scary movie I could lay my hands on, visited witches and mediums, hung out in graveyards after dark, crossed rickety rope bridges, trekked through rainforests, slept in wooden huts on barren hillsides, and learned to scuba dive down to a depth of 100 feet in a place called Shark Bay. I’ve been nervous, sure; anxious, definitely; but afraid? Not really. I analyse, process, plan, prepare, adjust, and execute. Control the variables. Assess the risks. And trust in myself. What’s to fear?

Which is why I was thoroughly unprepared for how afraid I felt in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Late Friday evening, my wife Lizzie fell ill. Like, end of the world in a frying pan ill. So I packed her off to bed early with a hot water bottle and a handful of drugs, and the understanding that she would be of no use for at least the next 24 hours. If the house caught on fire, the dog grew an extra head, the chickens started eating meat, or the fish learned to fly, it would be up to me to keep it all together. But I’m used to that, so without a care in the world I put the baby to bed and settled down to a pleasant evening of reading/watching TV/killing aliens, depending on which took my fancy.

Half midnight, my daughter Izzie started screaming. So far, so normal. Except this screaming didn’t stop when I put her dummy back in and laid her back down in the cot. If anything, it got worse. If anything, it was the worst screaming I’d ever heard.

I picked her up, I cuddled her, I sang to her, I danced, I whispered, I begged, but she only grew more agitated, trying to fight me off, choking on her own screams. I took her downstairs, tried milk, tried water, tried biscuits, all to no avail. She was frantic, distraught, so agitated I thought she might suffocate or have a fit. Her face was bright red, her expression horrible. Tears and snot and dribble were everywhere, making her choke, and still the dreadful sobs, the heart-rending screams. Oh God, I just wanted to be able to do something, anything, to help, to stop the screaming, the distress writ large across every aspect of her being.

And it was then, one in the morning in the lounge, unable to do a thing to comfort my daughter and knowing I was totally alone, that I felt afraid. Terrified, in fact. And there was something instantly familiar about this fear, because I’d felt it before. When I was twelve. In a heartbeat, I was twelve again.

This story begins when I was ten. We were on holiday in Spain, and with my twelve-year-old brother, we befriended an older boy on the campsite. I suppose he must have been about fifteen. At some point we went to the swimming pool, at dusk, unsupervised, which was fine because my parents were having drinks with his parents in the caravan awning and he seemed a nice kid and there was a lifeguard and they told us to stay at the shallow end and this was completely normal. But that night wasn’t normal at all.

In the pool he had a couple of other friends who were a few years older than him. One of them had long hair and stubble and I’m sure was eighteen, the other maybe seventeen. And at some point, the three of them thought it would be fun to drag little ten-year-old me out of my depth into the middle of the pool and duck me under the water.

The sky was dark by then. I wasn’t a big fan of water. I hated being under the water. They held me under. I writhed, I fought against them, my arms flailing. My terror seemed to amuse them. They ducked me again and again. I couldn’t touch the bottom. They’d let me up for a breath then hold me under again. My brother watched from the shallow end. Each time my head broke the surface my ears would ring with their laughter. They kept passing me between them. Sometimes they’d let go, and I’d try to swim away but they’d grab me and start up again. I thought I was going to die. Between mouthfuls of water I screamed at the lifeguard for help. He watched with a smirk on his face – the one adult, the one person who was meant to keep me safe, enjoyed my suffering. I was frantic.

Eventually, they let me get too close to the side – I grabbed the metal steps. They were bigger, holding onto my arms, and there were three of them, and they certainly didn’t want me to escape and ruin their fun, but there was no freaking way I was ever going to let go of that railing – I thought that if I did, I would die, and thus I literally clung on for dear life until I managed to drag myself from their grasp.

Afraid they’d now target my brother, who was stupidly sitting in the shallow end, completely oblivious to the danger, I shouted at him to get out and fled from the place I had been sure I would die. Maybe it didn’t look so serious from the outside. Maybe they only held me under ten seconds at a time. But if you’ve ever been held under water by strangers when out of your depth, ten seconds might as well be a lifetime. I was traumatised.

Skip forward a couple of years. We were on holiday in the south of France with three families my parents were friends with, each of whom had kids the same age as my brother and me. We spent a day at a lake and, in two inflatable canoes, the eight of us kids paddled out to an island in the middle. It was meant to be great fun, exploring the unknown – I was excited by it. It might even have been my idea. But it went horribly wrong the moment we got there.

The second my feet hit the sand, I freaked out. It was, without a doubt, my first panic attack. The rest of the kids ran up the beach, darting about the rocks, climbing into the dunes, flitting about the bushes – I sat on a boulder, hugging my knees and rocking forward and back, my skin crawling and every sense telling me that something was wrong and I wanted out. I asked to go back, I demanded we go back, I kicked up such a fuss and ended up so crazed they finally boarded the boats and we set off.

The end of this affair was captured on that ultimate early-90s status symbol – the camcorder. My parents filmed our return journey, the arguing in the boat, and my decision to leap into the water half-way across and swim the rest of the way to shore as it was taking too long. It even made it onto our yearly Family Video – that kooky Gillan, what’s he like?

My brother put my behaviour down to me being an arsehole, and my parents probably agreed – in all fairness, erratic, disruptive and destructive behaviour was hardly out of the ordinary for me, given I had autism and it wouldn’t be diagnosed as such for a further sixteen years. But the feelings that triggered the episode were certainly new, and being an introspective sod, even as a twelve-year-old, I decided I had to get to the bottom of why it happened.

Ultimately I realised that my fear on that beach beside a lake in the south of France was a direct result of my experience two years earlier in a swimming pool in Spain. The moment I stepped out of the canoe I was alone with a bunch of children, no adults around, no rescue, no safety, and my vulnerability in that situation was more than I could bear.

In the early hours of Saturday morning, as Izzie screamed and choked and sobbed, while upstairs my wife lay ill in bed, I was back on that beach. I was a child again, with nobody to save me, nobody to protect me, only myself to rely on in all the world. I had no idea what to do. I was trapped in the situation as surely as I had been years before in a swimming pool at dusk. And I was afraid.

I hadn’t thought of those experiences in years. I hadn’t felt those feelings in forever. I have been an adult almost all of my life. My daughter made me a child again.

And then she vomited all over me.

And I’ve never been so relieved.

The Fear

This week I encountered The Fear. He was on a holiday park in North Devon, of all places, roaming between the static caravans that sit on a hillside overlooking the bay. I’m pretty sure most parents meet him at some point, but this week was my turn.

I’ve been anxious about Izzie before, concerned about her safety, worried about the future, but it’s always been small scale, fantasy-land fear, the kind you get before the dentist or a particularly unpleasant meeting – you’d rather avoid it, but you know that if you have to face it, you’ll get through the discomfort because it’s not really actually all that bad. The Fear is another matter entirely.

It crept up on me unannounced. Everything was fine – a bright, crisp morning, fluffy white clouds scudding across an azure sky, the ocean stretching out below us towards the horizon. Lizzie was walking down the hill holding Izzie’s hand and while I locked up the caravan, my little girl looked over her shoulder at me, the breeze tousling her hair. Her face was a picture of innocent joy, her toothy smile so infectious as she waved at her daddy that in that moment I knew what it was to be loved and what true happiness felt like.

And an instant later I was struck by The Fear – the all-pervading, nausea-inducing, gut-wrenching, knee-weakening presentiment that I would lose her.

The closest I’ve come to this feeling before is when Izzie was around three months old. I went into her room in the middle of the night to check on her and she was so still and quiet I thought she was dead. My first thought – nay, instinct – was to travel to wherever she had gone, because she needed me and I couldn’t bear the thought of not being there for her. Short story even shorter, she wasn’t dead, she was just asleep – but the incident cleared up any lingering doubts about whether I truly believed in the hereafter.

The Fear wasn’t like this at all. It didn’t come from anything scary but from something joyous. It was as though upon reaching the heights of happiness, my body reacted and rebelled, viscerally and violently. Out of the clear blue sky I was filled with the most terrible and heartbreaking dread.

I’m not just talking about death, though that’s a given – cancer, meningitis, kidnap, murder, an accident, The Fear showed me it all – I’m talking as much about change. If I could have frozen that moment she waved at me with innocent joy, I would have done, because right now Izzie adores me – I’m the smartest, coolest, funniest, most-lovable chunk of a man she knows. But all that will change, and quickly too. My days as my daughter’s faultless hero are well and truly numbered.

I spent all that day with The Fear. Maybe, I thought, it’s here because I was talking to somebody about Seneca a few days ago, and his belief that your mind is the only thing you can rely on as everything else you can lose – friends, family, status, job, home, health, hair, all of it. Or maybe, I thought, I’m preoccupied with losing Izzie because police believe they might be days away from locating the body of Ben Needham, a British 21-month-old who went missing 25 years ago in Kos. Or perhaps it’s because I had the unfortunate experience of overhearing a fourteen-year-old girl and her mother screaming life-affirming statements at one another like, ‘I’ve effing had it with you,’ ‘you effing well ruin everything,’ and, ‘I wish you were effing dead!’

But that’s not it at all. If it was, The Fear would be with me all the time. No, it’s because in that moment of perfect happiness I realised my unbridled love for another person – and simultaneously my utter and total vulnerability. Izzie has me, heart and soul, and if anything happens to her, I would be destroyed. The Fear was a safety mechanism, a reality check, because I was walking too close to contentment, and believed my happiness to be immortal. Keep away from the sun, Icarus, or you’ll fall into the sea.

And that is the dilemma of parenting. You give yourself and hold nothing back, but in so doing you risk everything. Your fate is tied to that fragile, fickle bundle of cells you call your child. And the price for your joy is The Fear, cropping up when you least expect him, reminding you you’re dancing with a moonbeam that can never be contained.

But in the meantime, long live this moment.

Afraid of Number 2, Part 3

Irrespective of whether you are religious, spiritual, agnostic or atheist, having your first child is an act of faith.

No matter how much you learn or how well you prepare, no first time parent knows what they’re getting themselves into. You don’t know if you’ll make a good parent, or how you’ll cope with the lack of sleep, or the crying, or the screaming, or if your relationship will survive the stress. You don’t know what it’s going to be like changing nappies, or feeding, or bathing, or dressing, or being entirely responsible for another life in its physical, emotional and developmental needs. It’s the equivalent of being led blindfold to the edge of a cliff and then jumping off and trusting you’ll survive the fall. It’s not rational at all.

So why do we do it? Unless we play fast and loose with contraception, we do it because we’re driven to do it, without rhyme or reason. We do it because a couple of billion years of evolution have programmed it into our DNA to ensure our genetic legacy. And we do it because our hearts are crying out for completion, for something more to love.

Having a second child is nothing like that. It’s not such a leap into the unknown as you pretty much already know what it is to have and raise a baby. You know how your lives have changed, how your relationship has altered, and therefore how a second baby is likely to affect this fledgling family dynamic. As a result, discussions about a second baby are less to do with the heart than they are with the head.

‘I want Izzie to grow up with a sibling so she has someone to play with, learns to share, and won’t be lonely. I think an age gap of two to three years is best – with Izzie at pre-school there’ll be less disruption, and they’re close enough in age to get along. And I’m better with toddlers, you’re better with babies, so you can look after the new baby while I look after Izzie. It’s the perfect division of labour.’

So says my partner Lizzie. It all sounds very logical, and rational, and clinical, but logic had nothing to do with why I had Izzie. I had Izzie because my entire being was crying out to become a dad. There was a gap in my heart that I knew only a baby could fill.

Izzie filled it. It might change in the future, but right now I feel complete. My heart is whole. I don’t feel the pressing need to have a baby that I did before. So surely, then, it wouldn’t be right to have another baby purely because I can justify it intellectually?

And there are other considerations. As I wrote yesterday, Izzie was our miracle baby, a gift from the gods. How ungrateful would we be to take that miracle and demand another? And the journey to her birth was so long, and moving, and life-changing that how could a second baby possibly compete?

‘This is our daughter Izzie. After years of fertility treatment and events conspiring as though Nature itself determined that we should become parents, we were gifted with her presence. And this is our son Gregory.’

[pregnant pause]

‘We thought Izzie might like a playmate.’

Now I know that our children aren’t meant to compete, and I know that every child is a miracle (No, says the biologist, it’s a natural process resulting from the coming together of two gametes), but Izzie has set the bar pretty darned high. Even the reason for having a second baby – for Izzie’s personal development – means even before it’s born it’s in her shadow, not desired or considered in its own right the way Izzie was. And that’s just wrong.

It’s wrong to Izzie too. I love her so much and we’re so close, I feel like having another baby would be something of a betrayal. It’s like saying to her, ‘You’re great, and all, but we need more. And you can’t provide it. So there. Sucks to be you.’

And, in all honesty, I am afraid of having a second baby. My heart is full. People say that you always worry you won’t love the second child as much as the first, and then it arrives and your heart grows to fit all the love you feel and you don’t know what you were worrying about. You discover your capacity for love is boundless, and blah, blah, bollocks.

But what if you don’t? What if you discover that, heaven forfend, you have a limited capacity for love, and wouldn’t you know it, you’ve just hit your limit? Do not pass Go. Do not collect £200. Go to the back of the class.

I have specific reasons for my doubts. Because of my Asperger’s, I’ve always struggled to manage feelings and relationships. If I had a friend, I couldn’t be friends with anyone else because not only would it be a betrayal (I know it’s not, but I can’t help feeling it is), I couldn’t find the mental space to consider the needs of more than one person at a time. And when I have a partner, like I do now, the very thought of wanting to spend time with anyone else just makes me feel dirty. This is a lifetime pattern of behaviour. I’m a U2 kind of guy (one-love, one-life).

I loved the fish until we got the chickens; I loved the chickens until we got the cat; I loved the cat until we got the dog; and I loved the dog until we got Izzie. What if, by having another baby, I transfer my love to it and can no longer care about Izzie or manage to consider her needs in such a way that I go from being a good dad to merely an adequate one? I don’t want to turn my attention and my heart away from her towards anything else and let her down. The very thought of it is heartbreaking.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying I’m afraid of having a second child. I’m afraid I don’t have enough love to encompass two children. I’m afraid that my relationship with my daughter will irrevocably change. And I’m afraid if I’m spread so thin I’ll lose my ability to be a good, caring, attentive dad.

So in a way, I guess having a second child is a leap of faith. You’re not sure you’re going to love it – you don’t feel that you can – but you have it anyway, trusting that it’ll come good in the end. I said before that you can’t live your life imprisoned by fear, or else you deny yourself the chance of something good, and perhaps this is one of those things.

But not right now. Right now, I don’t feel the desire for a second baby, not on its own terms. My heart isn’t crying out for something to love. And until it does, I can’t even think about bringing another child into this world.

It’s explaining this to Lizzie that’s the hard part.

Endless changing

When you’re having a baby, you expect its arrival to be the Great Unknown: you’re going to jump off the edge of a cliff in the night, with no idea what awaits you. But once you get into it, you’ll get into a rhythm, and the changes from then on will be incremental and manageable.

Not so. Not so at all.

Sure, the birth and first month is like leaping – falling – into the abyss, but gradually you learn how to fly. You learn to interpret the sounds the baby makes and what they mean, become adept at nappy changing, feeding, prepping bottles, soothing her. You work out ways of carrying her that are safe and don’t break your back or your arms, get into a routine, discover you can cope with the lack of sleep and the irritations of cold or skipped dinners, vomit-stained clothing and the ever present weight of responsibility. Things are getting easier. The future looks rosy.

And then, around three months, it all changes again.

She suddenly makes different sounds, different facial expressions. Whereas before, you knew exactly what she wanted and could meet her needs right away, now you can’t anticipate them at all, and you only realise she wants something after she’s started screaming. But on the plus side, she starts to sleep through the night and you have time on your hands and no idea what to do with it. You’re now an expert at nappies and bottles. You’re finally getting a handle on this parenting thing.

And then around five months, it all changes again. She wants to roll over all the time, so nappy changes turn into a nightmarish battle of wills. She starts waking again in the middle of the night for two hours at a time, and you’re so out of practice at missing sleep, it hits you worse than it did the first time around. She wants solid food – well, mush – because the milk just doesn’t cut it anymore. And everything within arms reach is a potential hazard that if she gets her hands on goes straight into her mouth and causes her to choke.

But you invent new methods to cope. I kept losing count of how many spoonfuls of formula I put in her milk as I had to keep one eye on her, so I’ve scrapped the numbers 1-7 and replaced them with the words ‘Thumb, pointer, middle, ring, pinkie, thumb, pointer,’ along with visualising the relevant fingers. Such an effective method, I can have a conversation while doing it and still keep count.

And changing her is so much easier if you give her a plastic baby coat hangar to play with, as it keeps her on her back and keeps her hands busy (and thus out of her own poop). [But a word of warning on this technique – never use something big, like a teddy bear. I made this mistake yesterday. The first thing she did was rub it between her legs and smear poop all up her belly, so I tossed it aside and gave her a sock instead. Finished, I turned to recover the poop-covered teddy bear to find the dog licking it clean. Gross does not describe it!]

We are approaching another change. In the past three weeks, from six-and-a-half months to now (seven months and five days), she has learned to crawl, sit unsupported, remove her nappy, manoeuvre herself anywhere she chooses to go, throw her dummies across the room, and speak, albeit in Spanish (‘habla, habla, habla, habla’, which prompts me to reply ‘Espanol? No habla Espanol. Habla Ingles, por favor.’).

And suddenly she’s decided she wants to be a drummer. Everything’s a drum to her – the tray table of her high chair, her toys, the floor, the sofa, her inflatable donut chair, daddy’s belly, mummy’s boobs. It used to be ‘can I pick it up, can I put it in my mouth?’ It’s now ‘can I pick it up, can I slap it and make a noise, can I put it in my mouth?’ Anything comes on TV with a heavy beat, like the intro to Modern Family, she stops what she’s doing and stares transfixed at the screen. Weirdly, she didn’t bat an eyelid when a compilation of old Sugababes videos was on, but put on Bring Me The Horizon’s ‘Sleepwalking’ or ‘Shadow Moses’ and she’s fascinated (look them up if you want to know why that’s so unexpected! And yes, my musical tastes are eclectic).

And she’s started hooking things over her feet – any hoop or ring toy she gets she tries to turn into an ankle bracelet. The developments are coming so thick and fast – in sitting, crawling, walking, talking, facial expressions, reaching, holding, manipulating, weaning – that it’s hard to keep up. And she’s reached the point where she suddenly gets clingy and shy. A couple of weeks ago, she’d have gone with anyone; now, she glances at strangers then buries her face in my chest before glancing out again, or looks to me as if to say, ‘Is this okay, daddy? Are we safe? Or should I show this person the door?’

According to the Health Visitor, she’s way ahead of the curve, and she can’t believe how these developmental milestones have been reached so close together. Normally, she says, they’re more spread out so you have the chance to process them.

The end result of this is that Lizzie and I both feel we’re walking along the edge of an abyss. We can feel a giant change coming, a truly Great Unknown just ahead, invisible and unavoidable. We don’t know what it is – walking, words, a rudimentary nuclear reactor. We keep expecting to walk into the nursery in the morning to find her sitting dressed on the floor with a cup of tea, asking us whether we’d like one lump or two.

It’s not a very comfortable feeling. It feels like it did the week of the due date – like something huge and life-changing is rapidly approaching and we don’t know how we’ll cope and if we’re sufficiently prepared. Yet again we’ll have to find a way to adapt. And honestly, we’re both a little terrified of this unseen future.

So if you think having a baby will change your life, you’re wrong. It will change your life, then change it again, and again, and again, and again, and again…