What was your best day?

For all those who have been following my blog in recent weeks, I don’t have the strength or the will to write about what happened today. Physically, emotionally, psychologically, I’m spent. I’m broken.

Instead, here’s a quote from the movie City Slickers that sums it up far better than I could right now.

Mitch: Alright Ed, your best day, what was it, twins in a trapeze, what?

Ed: No, I don’t wanna play.

Mitch: C’mon, we did it.

Ed: I don’t feel like it.

Mitch: Uh, okay.

[pause]

Ed: I’m 14 and my mother and father are fighting again… y’know, because she caught him again. Caught him… This time the girl drove by the house to pick him up. And I finally realized, he wasn’t just cheating on my mother, he was cheating on us. So I told him, I said, “You’re bad to us. We don’t love you. I’ll take care of my mother and my sister. We don’t need you any more.” And he made like he was gonna hit me, but I didn’t budge. And he turned around and he left. He never bothered us again. Well, I took care of my mother and my sister from that day on. That’s my best day.

Phil: What was your worst day?

Ed: Same day.

The confusion, guilt and self-doubt of being abused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or is this all just part of the game?

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

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

Maybe that’s what she wants?

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

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

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

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

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

‘She sent you this just now?’

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

What? What!?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coronavirus and domestic abuse

This afternoon, when my wife brought my kids back from visiting [redacted] in spite of the lockdown, my two-year-old asked me to leave the lounge and go into my office – she didn’t want me in the room while she watched Paw Patrol. I’m pretty sure she learned this behaviour from her sister, my four-year-old, who in addition to wanting me out of the room most of the time, has also made it clear she wants me to sleep downstairs from now on.

Why do my kids want me out of the way? Because they’re being poisoned against me.

And there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

This blog post is a confessional. I didn’t want to reveal the full extent of what’s been going on out of respect for the parties involved. Now, I don’t care anymore. Domestic abuse is wrong, whatever form it takes. I might be a man, with a beard and a few extra stones around my middle, but that doesn’t make me any less a victim.

In order to keep it on point, because it’s long, I’m only going to focus on the lockdown. Stuff that happened before – siphoning money from the bills account into her own, for example, or all the times she’s taken a swing at me – is water under the bridge at this point.

As I’ve mentioned before, as soon as the lockdown started, I became Public Enemy Number One to my wife and [redacted]. When the Prime Minister told us to stay at home and not visit anyone who didn’t live in the same household, I took that as it was meant. My wife, on the other hand, took it to mean ‘keep visiting [redacted] despite living in three separate households’.

As someone who believes in doing what’s right, I was adamant we’d respect the lockdown. I was therefore horrified when [redacted] turned up on my doorstep a couple of days later. When I didn’t let her in, much shouting and crying ensued, in which I was made out to be the bad guy. To my children, I was being mean and upsetting mummy and [redacted]; to my wife and [redacted], I was being unreasonable and irrational.

The following day, my wife took the children out for ‘exercise’. When I asked to go with them, she became defensive and aggressive, so I dropped the matter because I didn’t want to argue in front of the kids. However, it was obvious she was really going to visit [redacted].

A couple of days after this, [redacted] demanded my wife and I stop having support sessions – the very support that is allowed under government guidelines and without which our family would fall apart. [Redacted] said it would be my fault if they caught coronavirus from my children – not their fault for breaking the lockdown rules!

I let it go until a few days later, when my eldest said she was seeing [redacted], but she wasn’t meant to tell me or they’ll all get in trouble. I had it out with my wife after that. I told her I knew she was visiting [redacted], and I wanted her to stop, but that as she was an adult, I couldn’t physically stop her. I asked her to stop lying, stop getting the kids to lie to me, and at the very least to stay two metres apart, which she agreed to do.

I then emailed [redacted] and told them the same – that I’d like them to support me and not come between me and my wife, but that if they were going to meet up, they were all adults and there was no need to sneak around and ask my kids to lie to me. It was, I thought, a reasonable request to make.

Their response was to call me a hypocrite who didn’t need support, and accused me of deliberately misinterpreting the guidelines.

I replied in a manner that was far more polite than I felt. I provided a link to the government guidelines that spelled out in black and white that I was following the rules. Regarding not needing support, I pointed out that I have autism and depression, while my wife has autism and a personality disorder, and I have spent four years protecting my family from Social Services, who have said that if I wasn’t around, they’d have grave concerns about my wife’s fitness as a mother. I said that this has taken a toll on my mental health, given my wife’s multiple behavioural explosions in front of support workers, including shouting, swearing, throwing things, storming off, slamming doors, making threats, raising her fists to hit me, and totally losing all connection with reality. I said that without support, my marriage wouldn’t survive.

Well. I don’t know why I expected understanding, because none was forthcoming. They tore me a new one. How dare I threaten them with Social Services, they said. How dare I label my wife (it was actually the psychiatrists who labelled her). And they said that if my wife shouted at me, swore at me, threw things at me, threatened me and raised her fists to strike me, they could understand why. That’s right, it’s my fault if she attacks me!

They said they’ll never forgive me for putting them through this ‘ordeal’, that I should be grateful to them, and that I’m a terrible father and husband who might be able to hide his true temperament from others, but they can see right through me. And they don’t want to speak to me ever again, so I didn’t even get the chance to defend myself.

I’m not entirely sure what ‘ordeal’ I’ve put them through. I asked my wife not to visit [redacted]; she ignored me. That’s it. Hardly an ordeal.

From that point on, my wife took the kids to see [redacted] every day, even though she knew I didn’t approve. When my kids told me they’d been hugging [redacted], my wife denied it and called them liars, before admitting that okay, yes they had, and she wasn’t going to stop him, so mind your own business. And when she told me she hadn’t seen [redacted], it turned out she had.

Our care manager came out to talk to her, and point out how awful it was to ask the children to lie to me. ‘What happens when the man down the street wants to play a game with them, but they can’t tell mummy or daddy or they’ll all get into trouble?’ she said. ‘You’ve trained your children that that’s normal.’ I reiterated that she’s an adult and can make her own decisions and doesn’t need to lie to me, so she agreed to be honest with me from then on.

Two days later, I caught her lying again and coercing the children into lying.

Given what my wife said in the meeting with our care manager, and from hints in [redacted]’s emails, I know they’re trying to set me up as some kind of monster. I caught her filming me in secret, trying to get evidence against me for God-knows-what, and [redacted] has told her to keep a secret diary in which to record all my misdeeds, whatever on earth these might be. I honestly don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing wrong.

I took legal advice from a specialist in family law, who told me that I’m in quite the predicament. You see, the house I live in is co-owned between my wife and [redacted]. If my wife owned it, if our relationship fell apart I would have the right to remain in the house until our divorce; because it’s co-owned, they can kick me out any time they want.

Worse, because of coronavirus, all the hotels, B&Bs and shelters are closed. With my wife being so unstable, if our relationship breaks down during the lockdown and the home situation becomes untenable, Social Services will have nowhere for me and the kids to go so would put the children into foster care until the end of the lockdown. If, on the other hand, it all became too much for me and I walked out and left the kids, I would be deemed to have abandoned them in an unsafe situation and would lose any right to them. Meanwhile, because of my wife’s instability, without me around Social Services would take the kids and put them into foster care permanently.

So, to recap – if I stay and the relationship becomes unworkable, my kids go into foster care; if I leave, the kids go into foster care. Therefore, the only way to keep my kids out of foster care is to stay and make the relationship work until the end of the lockdown, which is what I resolved to do.

A couple of days later, a police car pulled into the close and flashed its lights for a minute, the message being a clear STAY-AT-HOME. My wife waited ten minutes before heading to [redacted]’s again, but she was nervous about being stopped and asked what she should say if the police pulled her over, so she knows it’s wrong. I told her that if she’s decided to break the rules, she has to come up with her own excuses.

She didn’t get stopped, and as usual the kids came home with chocolate smeared all over their faces and didn’t want to eat the meal I cooked for them. I’ve told my wife before that I don’t approve of the way [redacted] buys their affection with chocolate (if he tells them off and they cry, he immediately gives them chocolate in case they stop liking him). I don’t think they should be eating Creme Eggs every day anyway, in addition to other chocolate, biscuits and sweets, and he knows this. So, what do you make of the fact that every day my wife doesn’t visit, an ice-cream tub full of chocolate appears on my garden wall?

It’s awful. I’ll finally manage to prevail upon my wife not to visit him for a day, I’ll take the girls on their scooters around the block, and every time I get back, a box of chocolate has been delivered in my absence. As soon as the girls see it, they scream in excitement, and if I tell them they can’t eat the chocolate, I’m the bad guy again. I’m trying not to be paranoid, but it comes across as a massive fuck you – it seems to say, ‘even when your wife doesn’t come to visit me, I can still get to your kids’.

I told my wife she was breaking my heart and betraying our marriage, and she decided to gaslight me in response. She told me I had it it all wrong, that she loved and respected me and was 100% committed to our marriage, and that’s why she hasn’t been visiting [redacted]. She said she goes to [redacted]’s house every day to exercise, and if he just happens to be there at his house when she visits, along with [redacted] who lives fifteen miles away, it’s coincidence. And if he chooses to cook them all a meal, or kiss them and cuddle them, there’s nothing she can do about that, is there? And the reason she lies to me and tells the kids to lie, is because she doesn’t want to upset me. But if I’d just look the other way it wouldn’t bother me so much. So really, I’m the one with the problem. And I’m not actually a very good husband and father anyway, and she only lies to me because I don’t trust her, and I should be grateful to her and [redacted] for taking the kids off my hands for a couple of hours a day. And anyway, she isn’t doing anything wrong and everyone knows I’m the crazy one and if anyone’s ruining our marriage, it’s me.

But that didn’t stop her from lying to me again last week. She said she’d only [redacted] through the car window leaving as my wife arrived, but my eldest said, ‘Mum, shush, remember what [redacted] said? We’re not supposed to tell him,’ to which my wife said to my four-year-old, ‘Shut up and stop lying, we didn’t see her, she’s lying! Liar!’

Later, my daughter told me they’d had a whale of a time with [redacted], who’d been chasing them with a hose, but [redacted] had told them not to tell daddy or they’d get in trouble because daddy’s very naughty. And she said, ‘But it’s okay, we didn’t have a cuddle with her.’

‘I did,’ said my two-year-old.

‘Well, okay, we both did,’ said my four-year-old, ‘but I’m not meant to tell you.’

No wonder they don’t like me. They’ve been told I’m being mean to [redacted] and they’re too young to understand any different.

Even worse is that the bedtime routine has been completely thrown out of whack, making my wife the hero and me the enemy. I put the kids to bed every night, and I’ve done that all their lives because after 7pm, my wife switches off as a parent. The handful of times she’s tried to put them to bed have been utter disasters that she’s abandoned halfway through because it’s hard and her job is to be the ‘fun’ parent.

Anyway, the past month my wife has been going up to bed at 8pm. What’s actually been happening is that, after I’ve put the kids to bed at 7pm, my wife’s been getting them up again and playing with them and telling them to keep quiet or daddy will come up and ruin their fun. Twice in the past two weeks, I’ve come up to bed to find my eldest camped on our bedroom floor because ‘mummy said I can sleep in here.’ Once she was in our bed itself, my wife fast asleep, so I sent her back to her own bed. This has turned me into the bad guy, and my daughter keeps asking me to sleep downstairs because she knows that if it’s just mummy upstairs, she can do whatever she wants. Consequently, discipline and respect have fallen apart.

Two weeks ago I put the kids to bed, waited fifteen minutes to make sure they were settled, then took the dog out for a walk. When I got back, my wife was in their room putting up a play tent and telling them they could sleep in it! I asked her what the hell she was doing, it was far too small, and said the kids had to sleep in their beds. It took me another 90 minutes to settle them again.

The next night she decided that from now on, she’s going to take over bedtimes. I told her this wasn’t a good idea because the girls see her as a playmate and not an authority figure, and now is not the time to disrupt their routine, but my wife had already told the kids she was doing it, and that was that. Again, I didn’t want to argue in front of the kids so I let it be.

After an hour of her screaming and shouting and the kids screaming and shouting, I went up to intervene and she closed the bedroom door in my face and wouldn’t let me in. I left it another half an hour before I’d decided that enough was enough. By this time, my eldest was crying uncontrollably while my youngest was screaming, hyperventilating and so agitated she was biting everything within reach. Walking into that room with my kids in such a state of distress, I was horrified.

I took them downstairs, and it was thirty minutes of holding my two-year-old tight to me before her breathing calmed down and she stopped sobbing. From there, it was another hour to get them to sleep.

I told my wife that from now on, she leaves bedtime alone. We can’t have this disruption. Once I’ve put the kids to bed, they stay in bed. They’re tired out and overstimulated. They’re being damaged and I need her support, because they’re the most important thing.

When the next day I told my support worker what had happened, she was equally horrified, and said she would have to report it, and in all likelihood it would be passed up the chain to Social Services. I figured the decision had been taken out of my hands. Whatever happened was no longer my responsibility – I had lost my kids.

This was a Friday, and I spent the whole weekend on tenterhooks, waiting for Children’s Services to come with a  van and take away my kids. I felt awful because since I’d clamped down on bedtime, things had improved. Worse, my wife was being nice to me, and I was racked with guilt over what this would do to her.

Nothing happened. Monday, nothing. Tuesday, nothing. Wednesday, I saw my support worker and she told me that her manager wouldn’t be passing it to Social Services because they’re my children and they’ll support me in keeping them, whatever it takes. It felt good to have that support.

Alas, it was the calm before the storm.

During my support session, my wife was home-schooling my eldest. Badly. Even though we were in a different room with the door closed, it was impossible not to hear the shouting and the crying. It was clear my wife wasn’t coping. So my support worker asked me why I wasn’t teaching my daughter.

I explained that from the start, my wife has elbowed me out of different aspects of the girls’ lives – birthdays, Christmas, days out, and in particular, schooling. When we were getting my daughter ready for school, I wanted to be involved but my wife kept pushing me out, going out to buy uniforms, pencil cases and suchlike with [redacted] instead of with me. She even wanted to take her to her first day at school by herself, without me.

I insisted I go too, but my wife conveniently ‘forgot’ to bring something vital and sent me home to get it. I asked her to wait and not go in without me, but of course, by the time I got back, she’d gone in, so I missed walking my daughter into her first day of school.

Anyway, my wife has always been incredibly territorial over our daughter’s homework, and I don’t get a look-in, and she’s the same with the home-schooling. So my support worker reminded me that she’s my daughter too, and if I want to be involved in her education, that’s my right as her father.

She had a point. My wife and I had been getting on for days, and that afternoon when she got back from visiting [redacted], we spent a very pleasant hour in the garden as a family. It was all fun and games so I thought it was a fair moment to broach the subject. I said I wanted to be more involved with the teaching, so could I have the login details for the school portal with all the lesson plans and resources she uses?

Everything changed. No, she said, no way. How dare I? Why did I have to ruin everything? No, I couldn’t have access to my daughter’s schooling – she would never give me access. She stormed inside and disappeared for thirty minutes, and when she reappeared, she looked at me like I was the dogshit she’d stepped in.

‘What have I done wrong?’ I asked, and she exploded with this whole rant about how I’d stolen bedtimes and bathtimes from her and there was no way she’d let me steal this. I said I didn’t think what I was asking was unreasonable; I wasn’t trying to steal anything, I just wanted to take a turn with the home-schooling. She replied with how I was selfish and nasty, and she stormed inside again.

But when the kids tried to follow, she told them to leave her alone, slammed the door in their faces and then locked us out in the garden! My kids burst into tears, I had to calm them down and it was five minutes of knocking before she let us in, while telling us she wouldn’t talk to any of us ever again, which again upset the kids.

I kept my head down and tried to keep the kids buoyant, but I was absolutely gutted, because things had been fine for a few days and suddenly it had all gone wrong.

Eventually, she started talking to the kids again. And then, with the kids sitting on her and glaring across at me, she said, ‘Oh, by the way, I’m putting the girls to bed tonight and there’s nothing you can do about it.’

I repeated what I’d said about routine and disruption, and I didn’t think it was a good idea, but she shot that down in a heartbeat, so again not wanting to argue in front of the kids, I went outside and wrote a long email to my care manager about the situation, before I had to hurry upstairs because my kids were screaming and crying again and bedtime was yet another disaster.

Later that night, I asked her why she was trying to push me out of my children’s lives – why she won’t let me have anything to do with education, why she’s just spent £200 on a children’s entertainer for my eldest’s fifth birthday without telling me, why she keeps arranging holidays and trips out with [redacted] and the kids but not me. She again told me she’d never let me steal this from her, and threatened to hit me if I said one more word on the matter.

Later that night, she texted me the login details, and the following day she told me not to change password and lock her out, like I’ve ‘done with everything else’. I knew immediately what she was talking about. The previous week, her account had been locked because she’d accidentally bought 17 lids for her inflatable hot tub (essential, I know), so she’d asked for my bank card so she could go shopping. When I pointed out we had plenty of food in the house and a menu plan covering the entire next week, she flipped out, so I thought it prudent to change the password on my Sainsbury’s (supermarket) account. Clearly I was right to do so, because she must have tried to get into it.

Anyway, I reassured her I wasn’t going to change the password and lock her out, nor did I want to take over or steal the home-schooling from her – I just wanted to be involved. And I asked her why she’d ever think it was okay to lock us out. ‘I was just joking,’ she said, like every abuser in history.

My care manager responded to my email and said she was very concerned about my wife’s increasingly unstable behaviour, particularly as it was damaging the kids and their relationship with me, and said that now was the time to bring in Social Services and get this resolved, and how did I feel about that?

I did a lot of soul-searching that day, but eventually I conceded that yes, the time had come. My children would be damaged by going into foster care, but they’re being damaged anyway. Things couldn’t go on as they were as it wasn’t healthy for any of us. It’s what’s in the best interests of the kids, after all.

This was a massive thing for me to do, because I knew it would spell the end of my marriage, but there needed to be resolution of some sort, whatever that was.

The next day, Adult Social Services rang and said I could have an extra couple hours of support each week. Not hugely helpful, but a start. But Children’s Services didn’t ring, so I waited for them to turn up and take my kids for a second weekend in a row.

Nothing.

Over the weekend, my wife has decided that [redacted] will now read the girls their bedtime story on a video call, despite me doing it for four years and it being one of the few fun things I have left to do with them. The girls told me they don’t want me putting them to bed anymore and want me to sleep downstairs from now on. As a father, that’s not pleasant to hear.

I spent the weekend doing everything an abused spouse does, like prevaricating, like making excuses for my partner’s behaviour, like wondering if I was the one in the wrong.

Finally yesterday (Monday) they rang. They told me they’d heard my wife had locked us out of the house and to tell them what was going on. So I did. I told them everything of the above. The lying, the undermining, visiting [redacted], poisoning my children against me, disrupting bedtime, shouting and swearing in front of them, all of it. Like I said – time for a resolution.

Well. Don’t believe what people say about Children’s Services wanting to take your kids away. They couldn’t care less. They said that if my wife decides to visit [redacted], so be it, it’s already done so there’s no point intervening. They said they can offer us some Early Years Support to teach us how to ‘cooperate better’ with each other, but not until after lockdown.

They asked to speak to my wife and said it wasn’t good to ask the children to lie to me, so she said ‘Okay, I’ll stop,’ and the person on the phone said that that was now all sorted, and if there was nothing else, thanks for calling.

I quickly asked her about the possibility of my eldest going back to school, just to get her away from the toxic atmosphere in the house, and she said she could perhaps ring the school and see if they’d take her for a couple of days, but she wouldn’t be able to do this until later in the week.

And that was that. To say I felt like somebody had ripped out my insides is an understatement. Children’s Services weren’t helpful, they were positively harmful. Why? Because they’ve essentially just told my wife that everything she’s done is perfectly acceptable and the only consequence of her actions is to maybe attend a voluntary parenting course. So of course, last night when they should’ve been in bed, she painted their toenails and let them camp on the floor, because there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

So, in summary, apparently you can:

  • Shout and swear in front of your kids;
  • Slam the door in your children’s faces;
  • Lock your husband and kids outside;
  • Take your children to visit family members during a pandemic despite it being against the government guidelines;
  • Undermine your husband with his children;
  • Tell the children to lie to him;
  • Call them liars when they tell him the truth;
  • Tell them daddy is the one being naughty;
  • Tell them that if they get caught, daddy will punish them;
  • Disrupt the bedtime routine in a way that makes the children frantic and distressed;
  • Refuse to give your partner access to your children’s lives;
  • Force your partner out of the fun stuff;
  • Not support your husband when the kids no longer want him in the same room as them or even sleeping on the same floor;
  • Use your children as weapons in some sort of twisted power game against your partner;

And Social Services will do nothing about it.

My care manager was utterly shocked by their response. She feels I’ve been badly let down by the system. While you’re in the house, she said, those children are not deemed to be ‘at risk’, so Children’s Services will sit on their hands until you leave, and then they’ll be in like a shot. Instead of preventing a crisis, they’ll wait until it becomes a crisis before intervening.

No wonder Baby P fell through the cracks.

My children have been poisoned against me, and will go on being poisoned against me.

And apparently there’s not a damn thing I can do about it.

 

When you’re in love with Dr Jekyll…

…then Mrs Hyde comes as part of the package.

I knew that when I married her. I knew that if I wanted to be with Dr Jekyll, I was inviting Mrs Hyde into my life. But I didn’t care, because Mrs Hyde was a small thing to put up with in order to spend time with Dr Jekyll.

You see, Dr Jekyll is lovely. Dr Jekyll is kind, and attentive, and a joy to be around. I love Dr Jekyll.

Mrs Hyde, on the other hand, is awful. She’s irrational, unreasonable and aggressive. The stubbornness and lying, the disruption and heartbreak – that is all Mrs Hyde. And I loathe her.

I understood why people warned me off. From the outside, they only saw Mrs Hyde, and allowed Mrs Hyde’s behaviour to taint their impression of Dr Jekyll. I knew different. Two identities competed for control of one body, and I could not sacrifice the positive aspects of one for the negative aspects of the other. I fell in love with Dr Jekyll in spite of Mrs Hyde.

Most importantly, I knew that Mrs Hyde wasn’t Dr Jekyll’s fault. She was as much a victim of Mrs Hyde as I was. I couldn’t abandon my sweet and innocent lover to the ravages of her alter ego. I had to protect her from it. And if I punished Dr Jekyll for something that Mrs Hyde had done, that goes against every precept of justice I believe in. We take responsibility for our own actions, not those of others.

But Mrs Hyde – Mrs Hyde takes no responsibility for anything. Like a wrecking ball through our lives, she leaves a trail of destruction in her wake, and then she’s gone. She never has to face up to the consequences of her actions. Dr Jekyll and I are both left to pick up the pieces.

This would be easier to bear if there was any pattern to Mrs Hyde’s visits, but she comes and goes without warning. Sometimes I spend days with Dr Jekyll; sometimes days with Mrs Hyde. Sometimes, in the midst of a sunny afternoon, Mrs Hyde will descend upon us as if from the sky, and stay just long enough to ruin any pleasure we were having, before disappearing again just as quickly.

Sometimes in hindsight I can identify the triggers – the innocuous word, the momentary look, or even the lack of words or looks, that transformed sweet Dr Jekyll into evil Mrs Hyde – but mostly, it’s impossible to locate. And afterwards, when Dr Jekyll returns to me, she often has no idea what it was either.

We’re held prisoners to Mrs Hyde. The question of my marriage has always been: how much can I take? How much can I endure? There’s never been any discussion of how much should I take. How much should I endure?

But there are children in our lives now. Mrs Hyde’s behaviour doesn’t just impact me and Dr Jekyll anymore, it impacts our children. After twelve years shielding Dr Jekyll from the effects of Mrs Hyde’s behaviour, and four years shielding the children, I’m all burned out. How much can I take? The real question is: how much do I want to take? And I don’t want to take anymore.

Somebody asked me the other day if I spend more time with Dr Jekyll or with Mrs Hyde – if that’s a way to settle my chaotic headspace. That’s not the point, I replied – it’s not about how much time, but the extent of the damage that Mrs Hyde causes. If you spend six days with Dr Jekyll, and on the seventh Mrs Hyde burns down your house, the negative consequences of one day with Mrs Hyde far outweigh the six positive days with Dr Jekyll.

And it no longer matters whether it’s the fault of Mrs Hyde or Dr Jekyll – the effects are still the same. If I don’t want to put up with Mrs Hyde anymore, that means I have to give up Dr Jekyll too.

It would be so much easier if I could hate them both. I wish I didn’t love Dr Jekyll as much as I hate Mrs Hyde. To save my children and myself from Mrs Hyde, I’d have to abandon Dr Jekyll to her fate. And how can I abandon someone I love?

Or is this mental gymnastics the reason the abused so often stay with their abusers? And was it always easier to pretend the lover and the abuser were two different people instead of one and the same?

The memory of betrayal

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

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

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

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

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

Heaven withers.

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

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

The breakfast tastes as bitter as my coffee.

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

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

Finding certainty in uncertain times

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

Speculation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speculation, speculation, speculation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The unexpected upsides of coronavirus

While Covid-19 is a steam roller of awfulness flattening everything in its path, it’s important to remember all the good things that life has to offer. Turning a frown upside down is vital for our mental health in the coming weeks and months, so here are some of the positives to come from social isolation and lockdown.

1. You can finally indulge your hobbies

That book you’ve been meaning to read but never started because it was too big? Now’s your opportunity. The typewriter mocking you from the corner of the room? That novel isn’t going to write itself. And the musical instrument you always wanted to learn? With YouTube videos instructing you in everything, there’s never been a better time.

Or you can sit on Facebook and keep checking coronavirus updates and slowly go insane – the choice is yours.

2. You can create a healthier family life 

Tradition might be a dirty word these days, but there’s definitely something to be said for taking your foot off the gas, slowing things down and actually spending time together as a family. Free from rushing around from here to there, desperately trying to clean that school shirt while shuttling the kids to football and ballet and gymnastics, we can get back to the simpler things, like having fun together, playing games, and family dinners. You might even find that, without the endless stress, you actually like the other members of your household for a change.

Of course, I also think 2020 will have remarkably high rates of domestic violence and divorce, but hey, let’s try and make the most of each other at this time in our lives.

3. You can learn to appreciate ‘the little things’

Humans are programmed not to notice, or appreciate, the familiar and everyday. It’s the reason you stop smelling freshly-baked bread after a few minutes, and why after the novelty has worn off, lottery winners are just as miserable rich as they were poor. Two weeks ago, we were bored with our dull world; today, everything in it that we can no longer do seems so precious – even just the ability to go to the cinema, have coffee with friends, or walk down the street without worrying.

If coronavirus holds a lesson, it’s to learn to appreciate those little things that we take for granted. Consciously acknowledge those things you’re grateful for, like a roof over your head, or personal freedom, and continually remind yourself of it when this is over. Like water to someone dying of thirst, we might find ourselves far happier with the everyday when the restrictions finally lift.

4. Home working lets you re-evaluate your work/life balance

All those times they told you that you couldn’t do your job from home? Turns out you could. Those meetings they said couldn’t be done by email or teleconferencing? Ha! Without the dreaded commute, how much more time would we have in the morning? How much better might our working conditions be? And how many cars would be taken off the road, making everybody happier? Coronavirus might lead to a new model of business that is less likely to drive you to the brink of despair.

And even if it doesn’t, at least you will know which you prefer. After being locked down with your wife and kids, you might even find you never moan about going into work again!

5. Pollution is clearing up rapidly

A lack of cars on the road and planes in the air, and entire economies grinding to a halt, has had the effect of reducing carbon emissions and clearing a lot of the crap floating around in the air. Indeed, given that thousands die each year from the effects of air pollution in cities, some are claiming that in China alone, coronavirus has saved the lives of 4000 children under five and 73,000 adults over seventy.

Of course, it won’t last long, since as soon as this crisis is over we’ll be burning everything twice as fast to make up for lost time, but people can make the most of it while they can. In Venice, for example, a dearth of diesel-spewing tourist boats churning up the canals has reportedly led to a sharp increase in water quality – the water is so clear you can actually see fish swimming in it.

And if nothing else, at least we’re not going to be hearing about Greta Thunberg and the impending doom of climate change for the next few months, and my mental health is already better for it!

Explaining coronavirus isolation to my kids (and wife)

My two-year-old is too young to understand what’s going on in the world, but my four-year-old is definitely switched-on enough to know that something’s up, and since her response to not being able to go to gymnastics was a tantrum, I figured it was time to put on my dad hat and level with her.

‘Lots of people are getting ill,’ I said. ‘Most of them will get better; many of them won’t even realise they were ever even ill; but some of them won’t get better. It’s very bad for old people, and people who are already ill. But you don’t have to worry about it – it doesn’t really affect children.’

‘Why not?’ she asked, sharp as a tack.

‘Nobody really knows,’ I replied. ‘Trouble is, while you might not get ill from it, you can carry the virus and pass it on to others and make them ill. And we don’t want to do that. The government – the people in charge of the country – they’ve said that we shouldn’t go and see people unless we absolutely have to. That includes gymnastics.’

‘But I want to go to gymnastics.’

‘I know, sweetheart. But – look.’ I got three books off the shelf and placed them on the floor, then got six teddy bears. ‘Most of us are going to get this. For most of us it’ll be no worse than a cold. But a lot of people will have to go to hospital. There are only a certain number of beds.’

I took the first teddy bear, and touched its hand to the second. ‘This one’s ill,’ I said, then put it on the first book. ‘He gets a bed in hospital. Now the second bear is ill.’

I touched the second bear’s hand to the third’s, then put it on the second book. ‘He gets a bed too. But now the third one’s ill too.’

I had the third bear touch the fourth and take up the last bed. ‘Now this fourth one’s ill, but there are no beds, so he can’t get better.’ I then showed the virus infecting the remaining two, but there were still no beds.

‘This is what happens if we all keep going to gymnastics and seeing our friends and going to cello lessons,’ I said. ‘There aren’t enough beds, so they can’t all get better. Now let’s see what happens if we don’t do those things.’

I reset the simulation and had the first bear get ill without touching the second bear, and take its bed, then the second, and then the third.

‘But this time,’ I said, making the first bear stand up and jauntily walk away, ‘this bear gets better and comes out of hospital. That means that when this bear gets ill’ (I picked up the fourth bear) ‘there’s a bed for him. And when the second bear gets better’ (I picked up the fifth bear) ‘there’s room for this one, too.’

I repeated it with the sixth bear and showed them all eventually leave the hospital. ‘You see?’ I said. ‘They all still get ill, but instead of all getting ill at the same time, and not having enough beds, they get ill over time, and have the best chance of getting better. That’s why we can’t go to gymnastics right now. We all have to look after the people who need hospital beds – all of us – and the best way of doing that is to do what we’ve been asked to do.’

She got really excited by that and wanted to do it herself, so she re-enacted what would happen if everyone got ill at the same time (not enough beds) versus what would happen if we flattened the curve. Success.

Explaining it to my wife, who is both autistic and has Emotionally Unstable (Impulsive) Personality Disorder, is altogether more difficult.

She’s adamant that she’s still going to see her friends because ‘it means, just hang out with people you know, not strangers.’

It doesn’t mean that at all. You’re just as likely to catch it from friends as strangers – more so, as you’ll be in closer proximity.

‘Everyone I’ve spoken to says they’re still going to go to swimming and gymnastics.’

Well they shouldn’t – what part of, ‘Now is the time to stop ALL non-essential social contact’ is so difficult to understand?

‘I don’t care what they say, they can’t tell us not to, they can’t tell us what to do.’

They can, and they have.

‘I think it’s stupid and pointless.’

I had no idea you know better than the Chief Medical Officer, the Science Advisor to the Government, and all the experts at the World Health Organisation.

‘But we’re not ill or over 70 or pregnant.’

No, but we could carry it to someone who is and they could die, or take the bed away from someone who needs it. Stop being so selfish and bloodyminded. They wouldn’t be asking us to do this without good reason. Our grandparents went to war, we’re being asked to stay home and watch Netflix.

‘I’m not cancelling anything. You can’t stop me.’

It’s not me telling you to do it, it’s the government. You know, the people who pay your benefits. It’s incumbent upon us to be informed, responsible and conscientious citizens, and that means avoiding ALL non-essential social contact, even if it inconveniences you.

‘But it doesn’t mean not to go to gymnastics or see your friends.’

That’s exactly what it means. Is gymnastics essential? Is seeing your friends essential? Is going swimming essential?

‘You just don’t understand it because you’re autistic and you take things literally.’

What’s not to understand? There’s no room for misinterpretation; there are no shades of grey here. It’s as black and white as it comes – avoid ALL non-essential social contact. Not some, not most, not the ones you don’t mind dropping, but ALL. Jesus Christ, we’re talking about people dying here.

I even made her watch tonight’s press conference on YouTube. She watched him say, ‘Now is the time to stop ALL non-essential social contact,’ and her response? ‘He doesn’t mean all.’

Dealing with a global health crisis is one thing; dealing with a stubborn, recalcitrant ass-hat who has no intention of abiding by the government’s instructions is another altogether. God forbid we get locked down for fourteen days together or I’m going to have to lock the doors and hide the keys.

Be responsible, goddamnit. There’s a time to rock the boat and a time to do as you’re told. It’s pretty damned clear which this is.

EDIT: this policy is projected to reduce the UK death toll from 260,000 to 20,000. It’s not a lot to ask for a thirteenfold saving of life.

The little things that kill: living with depression

As humans, I think we’re programmed to believe that only the big things matter. As kids, we innately believe that accidentally breaking the TV is worse than deliberately breaking a pencil, and even though we develop a better understanding of morality as we grow older, we continue to associate damage with size. I’ve argued before that we can see evidence of this in conspiracy theories, as we mistakenly believe that large effects must have equally large causes, and so invent labyrinthine plots to fit reality to our preconceptions, rather than our preconceptions to reality.

The same is true when we look at our lives. We spend so much time looking at the ‘big picture’ – our income, job, achievements, social status, family relationships – that we miss the little details that make up the whole. So often we reduce the wondrous complexity of our individual experience to a linear sliding scale, with ‘success’ at one end and ‘failure’ at the other, and pigeonhole ourselves as monolithic entities, without appreciating that we are a multitude of successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses – we are not the sum of our parts.

Yet despite knowing better, we apply this same misunderstanding to mental health.

In the media, in fiction, among our families and friends, the emphasis is always on singular, disproportionately large and simplistic explanations. A person is depressed because they’re single, or they lost their job, or they’ve suffered a bereavement; they kill themselves because of a relationship breakdown, money worries or a sudden trauma. It’s comforting to think like this, because it means the causes can be identified, and therefore treated. Like a weed growing in our minds, all we have to do is cut out the roots, and the mental illness will wither and die.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. For most of us with lifelong depression, it doesn’t have a single identifiable cause. It’s not a weed that can be excised, but a symbiotic parasite so interwoven throughout our being that the only way of killing it is destroying the host. I’m always suspicious of people who say they used to be depressed but they’re now ‘cured’, because I don’t believe it ever really goes away. Sometimes you’re winning, sometimes you’re losing, but you never stop fighting, and just as in any war, there are casualties in this conflict that can never be made whole again.

What people don’t want to acknowledge – what is perhaps terrifying to accept – is that there are millions of causes of depression, most of them so small and inconsequential that they pass us by unnoticed as the parasite slowly winds it’s way into our bodies. You don’t suffer a shock one day and wake up the next with depression – if only it were that easy! No, it creeps up on you, little by little, so that by the time you realise how much of a hold it has on you, it’s too late.

It’s the everyday things, the little things that don’t seem to matter, that lead you into depression. It’s the family get-together you skip because you can’t face the hassle. It’s the meal you miss because you can’t be bothered to cook. It’s the text message from a friend you mean to respond to, but put off so long you no longer know what to say. It’s the hobby that you can’t seem to find the time for any more. It’s the chocolate bar you insist is a one-off treat as the empty packets pile up around you. It’s yesterday’s clothes you put on because it’s too much effort to pick out a new outfit. It’s the letter you don’t open because it looks scary. It’s the lawn that grows too long because there are more important things to do. It’s the cross word with your partner that doesn’t get resolved. It’s the walls you put up against the people you love.

And it’s the escape you sink yourself into, the dark pit where you can curl up and feel safe. It’s the irritation you feel when people try to reach out to you. It’s the excuses you use to avoid anything that might help. It’s the growing awareness of how awful you feel, and how awful you are, and how awful the future appears, and how little you want to leave your isolated little hole.

That’s depression. Not a comet landing in your neatly ordered life and leaving devastation in its wake – it’s the glacier that slips slowly and silently and unstoppably into your world, covering everything in an impenetrable sheet of ice, where you can see your friends, your family, the sun, but they’re like ghosts behind glass, drifting away in a dimension you can never reach.

And the worst part? Most of the time you don’t have the self-awareness, the reflexivity, to even understand what’s going on. You think this is normal.

It’s only rarely, very rarely, that we can see ourselves from outside, when we have what alcoholics call ‘a moment of clarity’, or drug addicts ‘hitting rock bottom’, where we understand what we’re doing, and where we are, and the damage we’ve done to ourselves and others with our self-destructive behaviours. Most of the time we feel numb, and pointless – most of the time we don’t think what we do matters to anyone else – but for a few brief moments the cloud lifts from our minds and we can see how we fit into the world around us, and the impact we have on our loved ones, and we finally feel something, albeit bitterness, pain and regret.

And then, all too soon, it’s gone.

So what should we do in these moments? We have to focus on the little things. We have to do the opposite of what we want. If we want to hide in a dark hole, we need to step out into the light. If we’ve put up walls, we need to tear them down, hug and kiss our spouse, to enact the affection we no longer feel until we feel it again. We need to play with our children to bring back some of the joy. We need to laugh. We need to respond to friends and family. We need to restart the hobby we dropped. We need to open the post, mow the lawn, and make tomorrow a little easier than it is today.

In short, we need to resume the habits we’ve dropped, set us back on the right course, and do it quickly before the cloud returns in the hope those habits will hold us together until our next moment of clarity.

The little things got us here. Focusing on the little things will get us through.

For a time, at least.

Working on yourself isn’t selfish

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’ve been struggling with mental illness for a while now. Well, all my life in fact, but it’s been particularly severe of late. I’ve pushed myself past the point of sanity, kept struggling on far longer than I should, sacrificing my health, my hobbies, my self-esteem and my dreams in order to be the best father I can be.

And after four years I’ve burned out and can’t give of my best anymore.

I’ve come to realise, as I should have done years ago, that you can’t look after anyone else if you don’t look after yourself. It’s like when a plane is going down and the oxygen masks drop from overhead – put your own mask on before you help the children with theirs, otherwise you pass out and you all die. I thought that being miserable was part of the job, that feeling empty and unfulfilled was a cross that every parent has to bear and I could stubbornly push on and survive on willpower alone. Now I know better.

You can’t be a good parent if all you do is parent. You have to leave the kids, go out and experience all the wonders that the world has to offer, so you can bring that wonder back into your life and give it to your children. Without balance – without time away to gain perspective – you become stuck in unhealthy and repetitive cycles.

need down time, hobbies and personal goals that aren’t centred on parenting. I need to find space for Gillan the man, alongside Gillan the dad.

At school I was told I wouldn’t find fulfilment anywhere outside a university, and they were right. After my first degree, I was strongly encouraged to do a PhD. Instead, I got a second degree and a Masters, after which I was even more strongly encouraged to do a PhD. That was 2015, a few months before my daughter was born and studying had to take a back seat.

Now that she’s started school and my second daughter is two, I’ve decided I want to go for my PhD, and it’s the first time in years that I’ve felt excited about something, where the future seems to hold possibility and light instead of an endless slog of crushed hopes and forgotten dreams.

I’m not unrealistic. With a needy wife and two young kids, I’ll have to do it part time, and without two beans to rub together I’ll have to secure funding, but with a will to succeed I don’t think these difficulties are insurmountable. And as it will make me a better, happier, more contented person, I will be a better father and better husband. To be frank, I’m not good at either right now, and if it keeps going as it is, my marriage is going to fail. I’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Unfortunately, my decision has been met with decidedly less enthusiasm than I imagined. I’ve been told by various people – people I thought would understand – that I ‘can’t’ do a PhD; that I have ‘delusions of grandeur’; that as a father, with a family to think of, the time and opportunity has passed. The implication has been, almost universally, that to do a PhD would somehow be ‘selfish’, and they think less of me for even entertaining such a notion.

I hadn’t realised that having children means your life is over. Forget having hopes and dreams, forget trying to improve yourself and your situation in life – where you are when you have kids is where you will remain until you die. I should just ‘man up’ and struggle on, I suppose, keep feeling horribly empty, irritable and unhappy, keep failing as a husband and a father, so long as I don’t upset the apple cart. How selfish of me to try and escape that destructive mentality and make something of myself, and in the process become the person I want to be.

There’s nothing noble about sacrificing your dreams when you become a parent. For some people, having a family is their whole life. It isn’t for me. I didn’t cease to be an individual the moment I slipped on my ‘dad hat’. I have many roles to play in this world and I refuse to be pigeonholed into one that is only part of who I am. Turning away from life to focus on on your children makes you insular, one-dimensional, and blind. I’d rather put out my eyes and engage with the world by touch than choose to ignore it.

It isn’t selfish to work on yourself. Nor is it desirable. It’s essential. It makes you a better person and a better parent. Would I want my girls to give up their dreams when they become mothers? No. I’d expect them to take their children with them as they shoot for the stars. And that’s the example I want to give them. Why settle for one or the other when you can have both? Life isn’t about shutting yourself off and staying in the same place, it’s about opening up and going on a journey. This river has been stagnant long enough; it’s time to let it flow again.

No matter what anyone else thinks.