Babies: it’s a numbers game

It’s funny how numbers change depending on your age. When you’re eighteen, getting up three times a night means you’re a superstar. When you’re sixty, getting up three times a night means something completely different.

I’m thirty-eight. For me, getting up three times a night simply means I have a baby to look after.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. I have a baby and a toddler to look after. And last night, it wasn’t three times.

It was forty-two.

I can imagine what you’re thinking: how on earth can you get up forty-two times to tend to your baby? Why didn’t you just stay up? To be honest, I’m not entirely sure myself. It’s all a bit of a blur – I was only semi-conscious for most of it. But some part of me was counting each and every time, so I know that, for some reason, I got up more than three dozen times to tend to little Rosie.

The best I can do is liken it to the snooze button on your alarm. She cried; I got up, went into the nursery, stuck her dummy back in her mouth, and settled her; then I crawled back into bed. Three or four minutes later, we repeated this charade, all because I was too knackered to get up, take her downstairs and give her milk, and because I was hoping beyond hope that this time – this time – she’d actually settle and go back to sleep for real.

In my defence, she wasn’t actually awake for most of this – she was in the same soporific stupor that I couldn’t climb out of. She’s taken to sleeping on her side in the cot, which means as she reaches full sleep, her dummy drops out and she starts to cry, without fully waking up. So every time I went in there I rolled her onto her back, put her dummy in, rubbed her nose and stroked her forehead, made cooing sounds, waited until she seemed to be asleep, and left. Four minutes later, when I went back, she’d be on her side again, her eyes still closed, but her whining mouth gasping for her missing dummy. Time after time after time.

After ninety minutes of this, I finally summoned the wherewithal to pick her up, take her downstairs and give her some milk.

Trouble is, she didn’t want it! She only wanted her dummy, and then fell promptly asleep in my arms.

After watching half-an-hour of Lone Survivor at silly o’clock in the morning, I took little Rosie back to bed and crawled back into my own, assuming she was finally gone. And then five minutes later…

This went on till about five, when she finally shut up. Just in time for my toddler to wake up coughing, and then demand I lie in her bed with her to settle her, which, exhausted as I was, I duly did. And after an hour of cuddling a fidgety jackrabbit, I got up to empty the nappy bin, change the cat litter, put the bins out and make breakfast for us all. Just another Monday morning in my household!

So, numbers, and how they change with age: I used to think that a twenty-year-old having a baby was way too young. Even a year ago, I’d look at some spring chicken pushing a baby in a buggy and think, ‘It’s a baby pushing a baby! How can they possibly cope?’ Now when I see them I think: ‘Damn, I wish I’d had kids at that age!’

At twenty I bounced back from things so much better than I do at thirty-eight. I could spend 48 hours locked in an editing suite working on my student film and then go to a lecture on psychoanalysis without any problems. I could run and jump and play without being stiff and sore in the morning. If I’d had a baby at twenty, I’d have had energy to spare.

Of course, if I’d had a child at twenty I know I’d have spent an incredibly frustrating decade feeling bitter about missing out on all the fantastic things life had to offer. As a thirty-eight year old, I can look back and say my twenties were awful, so I might as well have had a baby then, and I wouldn’t have missed out on anything.

On the other hand, I’m far wiser now, and can impart that wisdom to my children far better than I would have at twenty. And if I did have children at twenty, they wouldn’t be the children I have now, and that would be a tragedy as these are the best kids I could ever have hoped for. So there’s no point wishing to alter a life already lived. It happened for a reason – to make you the person you are today.

I just wish I wasn’t so tired all the time. Especially as my toddler said to me this evening, ‘Daddy, me going to cry tonight in bed.’

‘What?’ I said. ‘Why would you do that?’

‘Then Daddy have to sleep in my bed.’

Yikes. If she’s this manipulative at two-and-a-half, what’s she going to be like at seven?

The Long Winter

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

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

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

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

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

Combined with the depression it becomes somewhat debilitating.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It got worse!

A night with a couple of hours of broken sleep is normal when you’re a parent, and while unpleasant, more than bearable.

What’s slightly harder is when that night of broken sleep is followed by a day of doctors and hospitals, a night with no sleep, a day helping prepare for the wedding, another night of no sleep, and another day preparing for the wedding, and then a wedding rehearsal.

This evening, after bathing the baby at Lizzie’s dad’s farm, I had to get someone to take the baby off me before I collapsed. Possibly because, looking after Izzie around the clock for four days, trying to get her to eat, keep her fluids up and soothe her, I was not only in desperate need of sleep, I had neglected eating or drinking myself.

Lizzie, of course, has been understandably preoccupied with arrangements for Saturday, leaving the brunt to unfortunately fall upon me. Izzie is very grizzly, has a fluctuating temperature, and chronic diarrhoea – all a result of her gastroenteritis. Worse, since Wednesday’s stint in the Children’s Unit, she has developed a phobia of syringes. Every dose of Calpol or Ibuprofen or gripe water is met with stubborn resistance and followed by two hours of misery.

As a result of the experience of hospitals, she has become remarkably clingy. I have never been hugged so hard. If I so much as lean forward an inch, this vice-like grip tightens around my shoulders and she starts to scream.

So she will only sleep on me.

That’s great if you’re able to sleep with a baby snoring on your chest. If you can’t, after a few days it seems to result in a spinning head, pink eyes, trembling hands, a stiff neck, an aching back, a sore chest, intermittent breathlessness, and a face that twitches as though attached to a whole mesh of electrical wire. All I need now is a rash that doesn’t disappear when a glass is pressed over it, and I’ll be really worried!

Tonight, for the second night in a year, I am sans baby. The night before my wedding. I was always meant to spend it alone, but after my near-fainting episode, they sent me home early. And instead of luxuriating in my aloneness or living it up, or at the very least working on my speech, I can’t open my left eye, my head feels like someone is sawing through it with a spoon, and no matter how hard I try, I’m too tired to fall asleep!

In all honesty, I’m a tad worried about my little one. But there are fifteen people there, including her mum, aunt, great-aunt, grandmother and grandfather. It’s an important lesson to learn: I’m not invincible and I can’t do it all alone, despite how much I think I can. I guess that’s what marriage is all about.

And on that note, I’d better at least try to get some sleep, or they’ll have to Photoshop my eyes open in the pictures!

AS, Babies and Multitasking

When you have AS, you don’t process information the same as other people. We have rigid, systematic ways of thinking that give us excellent rote memory, but that hinder our ability to combine different pieces of data to create a larger whole or easily shift from one thought sequence to another. Sounds complex? Let me explain.

If you imagine each sensory input, thought or piece of knowledge as a sheet of paper, and the autistic brain as a giant filing cabinet, it goes some way to understanding how we operate. Every sheet of paper needs to be analysed, categorised, related to other sheets of paper and then filed in its relevant folder in the relevant drawer before we are done with it. It seems great in theory, but in practice? Bloody exhausting.

Processing information in this manner takes both time and huge expenditure of mental energy. Sometimes people with AS can seem a little slow when you’re talking to them, but they’re not – they’re just busily interpreting all those little nuances of social interaction that neurotypicals do automatically. Sometimes you can say something to an Aspie, and it’ll be minutes, hours or even days before they get back to you, because that’s how long it can take to work through everything you’ve said, figure out what it all means, and create an appropriate response. And if you give me a list of instructions, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll focus so intently on the first step to make sure I understand it that I’ll switch off from everything you say thereafter.

This is because we can only think about one thing at a time. With a mind like a filing cabinet, every detail is separated and stored in an individual folder. If we’re thinking in a certain way about a certain thing – say, file Z284 in Drawer C (the book we’re reading) – then how on earth can we suddenly start thinking about something else – file B827 in Drawer F (the gas bill), for example? So we focus on the first file, and the others cease to exist – at least until they come knocking on the door.

And when we try to do too many things at once, or switch from thinking about one thing to thinking about another, we often screw up our whole filing system. We open a drawer, take out a file, study the page; then we open another drawer, take out another file, look at it; open a third; and before we know it, all the drawers are open, we’ve got files all over the place, we can’t work out what goes where and can’t put anything away or let anything go, our thoughts spiral round and round and, unless we manage to stop this process, we go into what is affectionately called an ‘autistic meltdown’. That’s what it’s like having a filing cabinet for a brain (and that’s without mentioning how, because our thoughts are separated into different files, we focus on the details and miss the ‘bigger picture’ – we see trees instead of forests – but that is by the by).

Anyway, ‘what does all of this have to do with babies?’ I hear you ask. Simple. My house is a tip.

Actually, that’s putting it mildly. My house is, at current, a shithole. I know this because both of Lizzie’s parents have separately described it as a ‘disgrace’ and said that they would be embarrassed to have people over. Ouch!

To be fair, I don’t really notice the mess most of the time. We’ve been blaming it on having a baby – how can anyone have a baby and a tidy house? – but I’ve stumbled unannounced into two houses in the past fortnight who have kids the same age as Izzie, and their houses are freaking immaculate: toys put away, the sideboards clear of stained coffee mugs, no dishes in the sink, clothes hung up instead of strewn over the backs of chairs, everything in its place. Where in God’s name do they find the time or the energy to do that? What makes us so different?

The answer, which has been eluding me for so long, is horrifyingly obvious: they don’t have autism; we do.

To have a tidy house and a baby, you have to be able to multitask. You have to be able to keep one eye, or part of your brain, on the baby and the other on the washing, the ironing, the cleaning. And that’s not something I’m capable of doing.

When I look after the baby, I look after the baby. That’s my job, that’s my focus, and that’s what I do. When I tidy, I tidy. I can’t do both at the same time. So I leave the tidying to the evening, after Izzie’s gone to bed, by which time I’m exhausted and tend to flop down on the sofa or, to be entirely honest, obsess over random things like making lists of all the WWE wrestlers from my teens who are now dead, or researching the million-and-one rebuttals to 9/11 conspiracy theories, or writing 10,000 word treatises on why Jack the Ripper was not Arthur Sickert (take that, Patricia Cornwell!) – you know, useful, productive things like that.

Raising a baby as a person with autism is surprisingly mentally taxing. There is so much information to process, so many sensory inputs and new experiences to file away, my brain is constantly distracted. I used to go to bed between midnight and two every night, getting around six hours sleep – now, I’m lucky to be able to function past ten. That’s how draining it is.

I’m not entirely sure how to rectify this situation. I mean, the house is mostly clean – it gets hoovered, the sides are anti-bacced and we’re still sterilising the baby’s bottles; bleach down the toilets, dog poo picked up, nappy bin emptied regularly, rubbish put out – it’s just got stuff everywhere. And until I can figure out a way of thinking about two things at once without tying my thoughts into knots, that’s the way it’s going to remain.

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But it’s all worth it to see that smile every day!

Learning to Switch Off

Nobody ever said that parenthood was easy, and no new parent seriously thinks it’ll be a walk in the park, but deep down you figure you’ll survive because, well, you’re more awesome than any other parent that ever lived. Nonetheless, after seven weeks of broken sleep, emotional upheavals, psychological torment and disrupted meals, it’s very easy to become run-down in body, mind and spirit. It’s not enough just to say you’ll survive – you have to figure out a way of doing it. And for me that is learning how to switch off.

As might be clear for regular readers of this blog, I think about things. A lot. I’ve always been driven by an insatiable need to probe beneath the surface and figure out why things are the way they are, how they work, is there a better way, what should I do, is it right, what are the consequences, is anything objectively true, what does it all mean? My brother used to call me Johnny 5 after the robot from the movie Short Circuit: ‘Input, need input!’

By way of illustration, the subject matter of the books I’ve read this year include the search for the North-West Passage, the Battle of Waterloo, the afterlives of dead bodies, the origins of English idioms, the life of Jane Austen, the war in Afghanistan, round-the-world yachting, serial killers, psychology, mythology and, of course, babies. Plus a smattering of fiction. And an awful book about how a cat changed its owner’s life by being an uncontrollable, violent, wild beast that also happened to look cute, but the less said about that, the better.

Certainly my obsessive desire to understand how the world works and my place within it could be said to stem from my autism, but where it comes from is moot considering I am my autism and my autism is me. The unfortunate result is that I’m almost incapable of switching it off.

Every minute of every day my mind is a whirring mess of thoughts and counter-thoughts, ideas and connections, fears and resolutions. When I go to bed I lie awake at least an hour, struggling not to think. But of course, that only makes the thoughts come quicker.

So yesterday I did something I’ve not done in a long time. I sat on a bench overlooking the sea, closed my eyes, felt the breeze wash over me and listened to the sounds of the world around me. Just me, alone. No babies, no partners, no trying to control things. Watching the thoughts come and go like waves upon the shore. My breath in and out. Accepting what is. Allowing it to exist in that moment. Knowing that it’s okay.

It’s a technique called Mindfulness. I learnt it many years ago during a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Like most Eastern philosophies adapted for a mass-market Western audience, I considered it pseudo-spiritual New Age pants. How can you ‘watch’ your thoughts? Who’s doing the watching? And what was the point? How could this possibly help me? Sure, for the duration of the exercise I felt peaceful, but immediately afterwards it was gone. Hardly a worthwhile use of my time.

Or perhaps I just wasn’t stressed enough to feel the benefit.

Somehow yesterday I managed to recentre myself in myself. I know that that sound like wishy-washy crap – or a euphemism for masturbation (‘I recentred myself yesterday.’ / ‘Well I hope you cleaned up afterwards.’) – but I found the resilience and sense of identity that was missing the past few days, enough to feel like me again. I think you spend so much time thinking, worrying, tending to and caring about and for your child and your partner, you find you can’t work out where they end and you begin. So for disentangling your thoughts and emotions from another, for that, Mindfulness is indeed a tool.

I used it again today. I sat on the swing chair, sheltered from the rain under the canopy, and watched the leaves on the bushes blowing in the breeze. No thoughts of babies – no thoughts at all. Just me with myself being me.

Of course, it doesn’t last. Izzie crying, Lizzie demanding my attention, phones ringing, people at the door, bottles need sterilising, dog to walk, nappy change, we’ve run out of baby wipes. But for those few minutes I’m managing to switch off, and I’m okay, and I’m surviving.

It’s not a miracle cure, and I still feel tired, and irritable, and paranoid that if I’m not there to sort things out then Izzie will grow horns out of her forehead, but I no longer feel quite so overwhelmed. And yes, I know it sounds bad that forgetting about the child you brought into this world to cherish and love can be therapeutic, but ten minutes of switching off can make the difference between coping with the day or burning out mid-afternoon. And if you burn out, well, who’s going to keep those horns away then?

The Twilight Zone

Day and night have blurred into an endless, formless twilight and time has lost all meaning. The rhythms of hunger and sleep have replaced the arbitrary units mankind imposes upon Nature. And things have taken a turn towards the surreal.

It started on Friday night when I woke Lizzie to watch the most impressive electrical storm either of us had ever seen. In every direction the sky convulsed, the lightning tearing apart the fabric of reality. The thunder claps rolled on top of each other in a continuous wave and the rain, when it came, was a foretaste of the end of the world.

Except Lizzie didn’t see it. Come the morning, she said to me, ‘Apparently there was a storm last night. I must have slept through it.’ So I’m now doing the night shifts. If she can forget witnessing someone crack open the gates of heaven, then she needs more sleep. Whether from tiredness or because I’ve been inducted into a mysterious dimension populated by shadows, and shapes, and the shadows of shapes, I’ve started to notice that the world is behaving a little odd: the inanimate, the animal and the Izzie.

When I make up bottles of formula in the night they scream at me like dying ghosts. The bedroom smells like curry powder for no reason I can grasp. A globe decided to jump off the window sill and roll down the stairs yesterday, denting the South Pacific and making a split across Asia. What does all this mean? Nothing, probably.

The animals are weirder. For some reason, the patio has become a cruising ground for earthworms, which at the moment are obsessed with sex. At 5.30 yesterday morning, a flock of seagulls descended on the street, and they were making so much noise I went out to scare them away, only to find they had opened the binbags and were spreading Izzie’s nappies all over the road. And our cocker spaniel Ozzie has become strangely suicidal, stopping in front of the pram every three seconds and asking me to run him over, or hiding under the sofa cushions as if he wants to be sat on.

More alarmingly, Izzie is doing things that I didn’t think babies could or should be doing. She’s beats me in stare-out contests and at eighteen days she’s already learned her first word: if you’re not making her milk fast enough, the hungry ‘ow-a, ow-a, ow-a’ turns into ‘now-a, now-a, now-a!’

I’m also starting to wonder if she’s in training to be a comic book supervillain. She dug her little fingers into my chest so hard the other day that she drew blood. If I’m cuddling her and she’s hungry she’s got a mean left hook on her. And while her farts smell like sulphur, her poo is like burnt ash.

The scariest thing was yesterday when I put her on my belly for some skin-to-skin. She put her feet in my belt, pushed herself up on her elbows and crawled up my body until she clamped her gummy mouth to my neck like a de-fanged Dracula. I moved her back to my belly; she wriggled back up to my jugular. Thank God she doesn’t have teeth yet!

I’m sure this sense of things being wrong with the world will dissipate like morning mist in the sunshine. Now I think of it, though, it might be less a case of tiredness and more the fact that when I was pushing Izzie round the village a few days ago, watching my feet so I didn’t trip up, I cracked the side of my head on a speed limit sign…

Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Be afraid. Be very afraid.