The Perils of Perfection

I am a high achiever. This might come as a surprise considering I’m a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad whose longest of nineteen jobs lasted a massive 365 days and whose highest take-home pay was a measly 16k, who has practically nothing in the bank, drives an old rust-bucket, and lives in a house owned by his father-in-law. But I am a high achiever nonetheless. And I’m here to tell you: it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

What makes me a high achiever despite never actually achieving anything of much note? With no false modesty, I just am. I walked early, talked early, read early, wrote early. In primary school, I jumped from the first year to the third year, skipping the second. I was in an advanced English class with older children. They told my parents that the sky was the limit. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said I absolutely could be.

At middle school I was in an advanced English and Maths class with older children, and regularly corrected my teachers’ spelling and mathematical mistakes. They told my parents I would reach the stratosphere. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said I absolutely would be.

At secondary school I was in the top set for every subject, and started getting Level 10s for English (the highest you can get) when everyone else was getting Level 6s. They told my parents I was the most exceptional student they’d ever had in the 54 years the school had existed. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they said to remember them when I was on This Is Your Life.

In VI Form, my English Literature work was deemed third-year university standard, and I was selected to go to a politics retreat for especially bright students. They told my parents I had a gift that needed to be shared with the world. I said I was going to be a novelist, and they had no doubt I wouldn’t just be a novelist, I’d be one of the bestselling novelists in the world.

I sleepwalked through university, spending no more than two days on any assignment, and still came out with a first class BA (Hons) with distinction and the highest mark in the year. I was voted the person most likely to succeed by my peers.

I started doing Open University courses and got a Diploma of Higher Education, another degree and a Masters, earning a distinction for every module, exam and essay, whether it was humanities, arts or social science – English, History, Classics, Archaeology, Psychology or Philosophy.

I have excelled at every job I’ve ever done, be it medical secretary, student nurse, telesalesperson, administrator, public speaker or police communications officer. I have worked with famous people and for royalty, sold art to mayors, travelled solo across the United States and around New Zealand; I have spoken with James Cameron, stood beside the Queen and once saw Michael Jackson travelling down Broadway on top of a bus.

I have sailed across the Atlantic as deckhand on a tall ship; climbed 100-foot cliffs; abseiled down a mineshaft; caught a 50lb conger eel; ascended mountains; qualified as a scuba diver and a parachute jumper; played guitar in a number of rock and metal bands; acted in amateur plays; won screenwriting and short story competitions; had a book published about being diagnosed with autism as an adult; appeared on TV, in magazines and newspapers, and on the radio. I have kayaked, surfed, water skiied, disappeared into the wilderness. Last year I won a competition medal for rifle shooting the first time I picked up a rifle. I’ve done courses in blacksmithing, map-reading, survival, forensic science, private detection, web design, tai chi, sailing, Alzheimer’s, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The only thing I’ve never done is walk on water.

So, I’m a high achiever. Which is weird considering I’m a 38-year-old stay-at-home dad whose longest of nineteen jobs lasted a massive 365 days and whose highest take-home pay was a measly 16k, who has practically nothing in the bank, drives an old rust-bucket, and lives in a house owned by his father-in-law.

The trouble with being a high achiever is when your achievements don’t actually amount to diddly squat in the real world. I haven’t reached the stratosphere, or This Is Your Life, or even London. I still haven’t had a novel published, despite having written ten over the past twenty years, sacrificing career and relationships in exchange for 350 rejection letters declining my entry into the hallowed halls of the literary world. I’m hardly setting the world on fire.

I mean, even Clark Griswold invented the Crunch Enhancer, a non-nutritive semi-permeable cereal varnish. I’m less successful than Clark Griswold. Puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?

I feel that if I died at eighteen, I’d have been on the front page of the newspaper – so much potential, he would’ve been great and done so much, what a tragedy. If I die now, I’ll be lucky to get a footnote in the obituaries – so much wasted potential, he could’ve been great and done so much, but didn’t, oh well.

Living as a high achiever messes with your mental health. Ten out of ten is not something to strive for; it is something to be expected every time. If I get nine out of ten, I beat myself up because it’s not good enough, damn it, I should be better. When you throw parenting into the mix – especially of two little girls aged two and zero – that’s when perfectionism is a right royal pain in the ass.

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed I’m a little obsessive over my role as father. It’s not good enough just to be a dad – I have to be the best dad who ever lived. I model myself on Supernanny Jo Frost – calm, collected, consistent, and always in control.

So now that, after two years and nine months of putting up with the crap of parenting, I have started falling short of this ideal – when the baby is screaming and the toddler joins in just for fun and I suddenly shout, ‘Oh for God’s sake, shut up the both of you before my brain starts leaking out of my ears!’ and the toddler starts sobbing ‘don’t shout at me, daddy!’ – I have been sinking into a shame spiral, thinking I’m the worst father in the world, and punishing myself for my abject failure to live up to my unrealistically high expectations.

All of which has resulted in me taking an Anxiety Management and Coping With Depression course, where I have learned four interesting things:

  1. Eight out of ten is good enough.
  2. When you’ve lived with the Black Dog nipping at your heels all your life, just getting up in the morning is an achievement, let alone looking after two kids and a heavily dependent wife.
  3. If I’m always in control around my kids, I’ll teach them that it is bad to show their emotions and they should strive to be perfect all the time, which will set them unrealistic goals and thus perpetuate the cycle.
  4. I am a human and not a robot.

To which I respond with:

  1. For whom?
  2. They don’t put up statues of people simply for getting out of bed.
  3. Fair dues.
  4. Beep boop – does not compute.

But in all seriousness, they’re right. I have to lower my sights and lower my standards, because I’m killing myself to be perfect and there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. I have to accept that sometimes I’m allowed to be ‘crap dad’. Eight out of ten is a perfectly acceptable standard to live at. And what does it matter if I never publish a bestseller?

It matters to me.

Setting aside everyone’s expectations of me, my supposed potential, all the things I ‘should’ have done, all the things I was ‘meant’ to achieve, the only pressure on me to live at ten out of ten comes from within my own head. So it’s up to me to change the thought patterns of a lifetime if I want to access that elusive thing called ‘peace of me mind’.

Can I do it? Of course I can – I can do anything!

Let’s just call it a ‘work in progress’ and see where I end up, okay?

Children with autism become adults with autism

There is a deductive argument so straightforward and sound that all intelligent, educated, free-thinking people should be able to grasp it with ease. It’s so patently obvious that I shouldn’t even need to write it down because we all just know it to be true. I will, however, because it is necessary for what follows.

  1. Autism is incurable.
  2. Children grow up.
  3. Therefore, children with autism become adults with autism.

I mean, it couldn’t get much simpler than that. You’d have to be a philosophical contortionist to somehow argue against it.

And yet, looking at the way that autism is treated, represented, categorised, theorised and mythologised, you’d be forgiven for thinking autism is a childhood disorder that disappears on your eighteenth birthday. You step up to your birthday cake a person with autism, and as you blow out the candles, lo and behold, you’re neurotypical! Hallelujah!

It strikes me as bizarre that even though we all know that children with autism become adults with autism, the latter group is virtually invisible. From the services available, to funding, to treatment, to research, to specialists, to TV programmes, to books, to websites, to expertise, it’s all heavily skewed towards children with the condition. Much of it simply vanishes as soon as a person reaches their majority, as though nobody realised that these children with needs would one day become adults with those same needs that are now, sadly, unsupported.

Go look at 100 books on autism, you’ll find that around 99 of them have children or childlike images on the cover, and contain chapters dealing with school and adolescence and how you can help your child make friends. Research the statistics on autism and you’ll find statements like, ‘1 in 88 children has autism’, when surely they mean 1 in 88 people has autism? Then try and find academic studies on autism and sex or on parents with autism and you’ll find it pretty damned hard, because the experts don’t seem to realise that autism extends beyond the first eighteen years.

When, as an adult, I spent a decade seeing psychiatrists and psychologists under the Mental Health Team, not one of them ever brought up the possibility I might have autism. When I asked to be seen by an autism specialist, I discovered there was one person qualified to diagnose adults in the whole of Dorset – a county with a population of almost 800,000 people – and she could only devote one day a week to this. When I was finally diagnosed with autism at 28 (and immediately discharged by the Mental Health Team because ‘autism isn’t a mental illness’), I went to the Learning Disabilities Team, to be told that all of their support services were for children with autism, and they had neither the funding nor the expertise to cater to adults. So that was that.

But the greatest irony, and to me the greatest illustration of this very real problem, is the book I had published last month. Now, I am incredibly grateful that it has been published and I’m gratified to learn it is helping people, but I wrote it specifically to address a shortfall in the autism literature, namely, people diagnosed with autism as adults. The book is entitled An Adult With an Autism Diagnosis. It is written for adults with autism, about adults with autism by an adult with autism. So where does it appear on Amazon?

Here’s the directory information: Health, Family & Lifestyle > Pregnancy & Childcare > Children’s Health & Nutrition.

Ever get the feeling you don’t exist?

Parenting and writing: more similar than you might think

Having had my first book published last month, I can now call myself a writer. Of course, I could have called myself a writer at any point over the past twenty-five years, since that’s how long I’ve been at it, but it always felt a little pretentious, given I have barely made a penny from it. It would be like a postman, upon being asked what he does, saying, ‘I’m a fisherman,’ because at weekends he takes a rod and some maggots to his local river and casts about for fish. While he might want to be known for doing that, it’s not exactly an accurate answer, is it?

And yet, throughout my writing life, I have met no end of people who proudly introduce themselves as writers, authors, novelists, poets and even philosophers, despite never having had anything in print. On top of this, there is a really weird thing that many of the writers I’ve met have in common: none of them actually write.

I’m always amazed by how many people pack up their laptop and go to a busy cafe, park or pub in order to write in a loud, bustling and incredibly public place. I’ve had long conversations with writers about their writing, their ideas, their characters, their themes, the depths of their literary ambitions, and how if only someone took a chance on them, they’d shake up the publishing world – all without ever having written anything. I even had a tutor on a creative writing course I was taking tell me she wanted to write a novel one day. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d already written eight. What’s stopping you?

It seems to me that while many writers love being writers, they don’t particularly like doing writing.

That’s understandable – writing is hard. All the other aspects of the craft – planning, plotting, themes, character biographies, working out the front cover and the blurb, giving imaginary interviews in front of the mirror and picturing your book at the top of the bestseller list – those are the easy parts, the fun parts, the parts you can do with an audience. The hard part is sitting down and actually writing, day after day, week after week, churning out tens of thousands of words, editing, rewriting, reworking. Most of that stuff you can’t do in public – you do it in private, in loneliness, in blood, sweat and tears. The only publicity is the book itself, because nobody is meant to see the struggle that goes into it.

The fact is, writers write. They don’t sit around pontificating about their ‘art’ all day, worrying about which jacket makes them look the most writer-ly, or which is the best place to write where they’ll be seen and acknowledged. They knuckle down and work. They don’t wait for inspiration to hit them. They cram it in whenever and wherever they can. Some days it’s easy, some days it’s hard. Some days you have no idea if you’re doing it right and if you’re wasting your life. But you persevere. You keep going in the faith that you’re on the right path and that tomorrow it’ll all click. You keep going not because you want to, but because you need to, because it’s in you and it’s who you are.

In this way, it’s a lot like being a parent.

It’s very easy to get caught up in the superficial aspects of parenting. You take the little one to a cafe and she sits there all well-behaved and you play a game and she laughs and an old couple comes over and tells you what a great parent you are – I love that stuff. It happens to me quite often, in fact – I can’t go a week without a stranger coming up to me and telling me how awesome I am, which makes me walk around all day with a massive head, going, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the shiznit.’

Trouble is, sitting in a cafe playing with a well-behaved child as you bask in the adoration of the public is not all that different from the writer who sits in the pub and delights in telling people about the books he intends to write when his writing credits to date total zero. You’re wallowing in the glory of being a parent, without actually doing any parenting. Because parenting, like writing, can be bloody difficult.

A good parent, just like the good writer, does most of their work unseen. They do it day in, day out, and all through the night, despite the aching spine, the headaches and the tiredness. They face the monotony, the boredom and the isolation with stoic fortitude. They work, work, work, because they have no choice but to do so. They get pushed to the edge but keep their cool somehow; cuddle a kicking, screaming toddler at two in the morning when all they want to do is stay in bed; and endure the torture of a hundred mealtimes in a row that involve more tears and thrown food than spoonfuls successfully swallowed.

Sometimes they’re driven to tears themselves. Sometimes it seems utterly hopeless, and they don’t know how they can possibly get through it all. Sometimes nothing seems to work. But they still get up and do it, because it’s the only thing they can do.

The mark of a good parent is not measured by being good when everything is going well – it’s how you do when your precocious twenty-two month old is driving you up the wall by testing you, pressuring you, challenging you, from dawn to dusk each day and then again from dusk till dawn. It’s measured by what you do when you’re in a cafe and your little one is screaming bloody murder, by how you react when they’re not behaving themselves, by whether you can remain calm when everyone’s looking at you and judging you for the behaviour of your child.

Nobody sees the work that goes into a book, just as nobody sees the work that goes into a child. By the time it is ready to be released into the world, you have poured far more of your heart into it than you even thought you had in you to give. But when all is said and done, you’re only assessed on the finished product, not the work that went into creating it. So you just have to press on in the faith that one day it’ll all come good. And then maybe your kid will write that bestseller that eluded you so long!

An Adult With an Autism Diagnosis

Well, it’s here: today my book, ‘An Adult With an Autism Diagnosis: A Guide for the Newly Diagnosed‘ is released into the world. You can buy it from Amazon by following one of these links: Amazon UKAmazon US, or from your regular book supplier.

Here is the blurb:

Being diagnosed with autism as an adult can be disorienting and isolating; however, if you can understand the condition and how it affects perceptions, relationships, and your relationship with the world in general, a happy and successful life is attainable. Through an introduction to the autism spectrum, and how the Level 1 diagnosis is characterised, the author draws on personal experiences to provide positive advice on dealing with life, health, and relationships following an adult diagnosis.

The effect of autism on social skills is described with tips for dealing with family and personal relationships, parenting, living arrangements, and employment. Important topics include disclosure, available resources, and options for different therapeutic routes. On reading this book, you will learn a lot more about the autism spectrum at Level 1, be able to separate the facts from the myths, and gain an appreciation of the strengths of autism, and how autism can affect many aspects of everyday life. Drawing from the author’s lived experience, this book is an essential guide for all newly diagnosed adults on the autism spectrum, their families and friends, and all professionals new to working with adults with ASDs.

So, why did I write this book? The short answer is that when I was diagnosed with autism at the age of 28, having only heard of Asperger’s Syndrome and high-functioning autism a year previously, I was sent away without so much as a leaflet to explain what it was, why I had it, how it would affect my life, and why it had taken so long to identify. I had nobody to talk to – nobody knowledgeable, at least – who could help me come to terms with this life-changing news.

Like anybody, I turned to books and the internet. I discovered, much to my dismay, that books on autism seemed to fall into three categories: those for autistic children; those for parents of autistic children; and those for healthcare professionals working in the field. There was very little about adults with the condition and nothing for the many thousands of people diagnosed each year as adults.

The internet was worse. There were dozens of sites, and now hundreds, if not thousands, offering conflicting, confusing, inaccurate, unreliable, opinionated and impenetrable information and advice, often littered with jargon and insider knowledge, with no explanations for the layperson. I therefore struggled to accept the diagnosis, to make sense of where I now found myself, and to understand what any of it meant for my future.

I wrote this book for people who find themselves in a similar situation, a one-stop shop for those newly diagnosed with Asperger’s and ASD Level 1. It is not exhaustive, not ‘the only book on autism you will ever need’, but it contains answers to everything I wanted to know when I was first diagnosed. It is designed to help explain the basics, untangle the jargon, and describe in clear and plain terms how autism might affect the various parts of your life.

If this book can help just one person avoid some of the confusion and grief that I went through upon being diagnosed, if it can help them learn about their condition and be able to see the diagnosis not as an end but as a new beginning, and if it can make them feel not quite so alone in the world, then the effort will have been worth it.

Happy reading!

Gillan Drew

 

Failure and success in writing

Regular readers of this blog might have noticed that the frequency of posts has dropped off lately. For this I must apologise and explain.

In my core I am a writer. Ever since I was a child, four or five years old, I’ve wanted to be a writer. I always said I’d write a book one day, and then when I was eight I wondered what the hell I was waiting for and started. The result was Mystery of the Samurai Kidnapper. Needless to say, it sucked, but I was hooked.

I wrote all kinds of stories and read everything I could – action, adventure, crime, horror, science-fiction, war. When I was sixteen I began writing seriously, and at eighteen started sending samples to magazines and agents and publishers.

Skip forward eighteen years and I’ve written nine books, several scripts and dozens of short stories – over two million words of creative writing. I’ve come close a few times – I had a call from Ian McEwan’s agent once to discuss my novel The Butterfly Collection, and nearly nabbed an agent from Blake Friedmann for Beyond Wild, only to fall at the final hurdle – but other than a few short stories, I’ve been remarkably unsuccessful at getting into print. It goes with the territory.

But earlier this year I felt I was on a roll. I entered twelve writing competitions. Normally I just take a punt, but these were twelve of the best best things I’ve ever written – I actually thought that this time I had a shot.

Some were for short stories, some for the first 5000 or 10,000 words of a novel. I worked like a dog, polished them to perfection, then waited with bated breath. I hoped to win, but I knew I’d be happy just to be short-listed in one of them. It would make all the years of sacrifice worthwhile.

Over the past few months, the competition results trickled in, one at a time. And with each one, my hope and joy gave way to bitter disappointment. I didn’t win any. I wasn’t short-listed for any. I wasn’t even long-listed for any. It might sound like sour grapes, but that last rejection in early July crushed me.

Rejection is part of being a writer, and you have to be resilient. To put it into perspective, JK Rowling recently spoke of her pain at having Harry Potter rejected twelve times. When that last competition declared, it brought my rejection count up to 327.

As a father, I have to act happy for my child. I have to make out like everything’s fine and dandy and be the same as I always am. So I did. But inside, I was broken. It took all my focus and energy to hide it. The last thing I wanted to do was write this blog.

So I sat, and I festered, and I wondered if I would ever bother to write again.

But, to quote a cliche, it is always darkest before the dawn.

I’ve been awarded a publishing contract! It’s for a book I’ve written on living with autism, provisionally entitled An Adult With Asperger’s: A Guide for the Newly-Diagnosed. It’s being published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and will be coming out in the spring, and so I’m working around the clock to get the final draft ready in time.

As you can imagine, my mood and my self-esteem have both improved no end. I’ll try to keep posting every week on this blog as normal and I’ll keep you posted on the book as more details emerge.

I guess the moral of this story is: never give up, because you never know what’s around the next corner.

Thanks for reading,

Gillan Drew, author (yay!).

The Key to a Happy Life

No expectations. None whatsoever.

Resentment, disappointment, annoyance, frustration, and a sense that everything in the world is unfair and fundamentally wrong, all stem from having expectations that it should be other rather than accepting what it really is. We spend far too much time looking at where we’ve come from, where we’re going, and where we think we should be, and not enough time living in the here and now and grasping what is right in front of us.

Having expectations when you’re a parent is fatal.

Last night, Lizzie went out to see the new James Bond film and have a pizza, leaving me looking after Izzie. ‘Great,’ I thought. ‘She’s been awake all day, she’s behaved like a gem, and I actually got more of her Sweet Potato Bake in her than on her, so she’ll be tired and contented. I’ll have her in bed by seven, cook some dinner, and have some much-needed time to myself. I’ll spend an hour on the Xbox and a couple of hours writing. Awesome. I’m looking forward to my evening.’

Fatal.

The fact it took me three hours to get her to sleep on Saturday and four hours on Sunday should have indicated that you can’t bank on a bedtime, but I somehow forgot this rudimentary aspect of parenting in the expectation of a restful evening. So when it took me from six till ten to get her to bed, trying milk, water, rocking, singing, reading aloud, dummy, teething gel, Calpol, cuddles, TV, hypnotism (which made her laugh), teddy bear, womb sounds, and ultimately she fell asleep from exhaustion, I was pissed. I mean, seriously pissed.

It was no fault of Izzie’s – she’s a baby – it was my fault. I hadn’t managed my expectations to fit reality, and the reality is that my time belongs to the baby, and any extra I get to myself is a bonus, not a given. Expecting you can have an independent existence in the first six months of a baby’s life is just barmy. Get on with what you can when you can, and accept that what you can’t you simply can’t. If I had no expectations of the evening, I wouldn’t have had a problem – I’d probably even have been happy.

I think that’s as good a lesson as any for life in general.

As a kid, I wanted to be a famous author. Everyone told me I would be, because that’s what you tell a four-year-old, and I accepted it because you believe everything an adult tells you. But as I grew older, they kept saying it. When I was ten, my grandfather told me that not only was I going to be an author, I was going to be one of the greatest authors in the world. When I was thirteen, my teacher told my parents I’d be on This Is Your Life one day. When I was seventeen another teacher told me I had a gift and it was my duty to share it with the world. Everyone – family, friends, educators, peers – thought I would go on to be the most successful thing ever to come out of the little town of Frimley, population 5,000.

I therefore lived my life with the unshakable expectation that I’d be a famous author at eighteen. I saw future me as a rich, successful author living in the city, attending movie premieres and society parties, frequenting all the best theatres, museums and art galleries the world had to offer. Essentially, all glitz, glamour and sophistication. Monaco, Cannes and Val D’Isere – that was going to be my life.

Skip eighteen years ahead and you find me a balding, pot-bellied autistic guy on antidepressants who lives in his partner’s house in a village on the edge of nowhere and has spent his life working in shops, office administration, domestic care and call centres. There’d be nothing wrong with it if it it wasn’t so far away from where I expected to be.

In my twenties, I couldn’t stand that my life didn’t match my plan for it. Why the hell wouldn’t anyone publish my novels? How could I possibly live the rest of my life an unknown? I was meant to be special, damn it – everyone said so. So why am I broke and alone? I spent my twenties writing novels and waiting for my life to begin.

It took me until my thirties to realise that my life had begun – and begun many years ago – it simply differed from my expected path. I still write my novels, still try to get them published, and sometimes I do feel as though the parade is passing me by, but I’m less discontented about the whole thing. I hope they get published, but I’m not suffering unduly because they’re not – it’s just the way my life has worked out. And there’s nothing wrong with my life.

The life I’m comparing it to – the successful me with the apartment in New York and the A-list friends – is nothing more than a fantasy. How can I feel bad that I’m not living the life of a person that never even existed anywhere but in my head? It’s like getting upset because the sky isn’t green – it never was nor could be green, so what’s the point of those tears?

My advice to anyone feeling they’ve not lived up to their potential is: don’t look at where you think you ought to be, look at where you are, because if it’s anything like my life, it’s not bad at all, just different. Disappointment comes from looking at the future and remembering the past, comparing your situation with what it was and how you think it should be. When I was eighteen, the thought of living in a little village, unknown, with a baby, and London a hundred miles away, was intolerable; at thirty-six, it’s pretty darn great. Live in the moment, appreciate the present for what it is – your life – and remember that those other lives you’re comparing yours to aren’t real.

So long as there’s air in our lungs, blood in our veins, and the sun is still up there somewhere, even if it’s hidden in cloud, we’re doing okay.

That’s the key to parenting, and to life itself: no expectations. Life and babies refuse to conform to preconceived notions. The sooner you can make peace with that, the happier you’ll be.

And if you're still not happy, here's Izzie asleep in a giraffe onesie to cheer you up!
And if you’re still not happy, here’s Izzie asleep in a giraffe onesie to cheer you up!