Have any of you ever seen a film called Clockwise? It stars John Cleese as the organised and punctuality obsessed Head Teacher of a Comprehensive School in the early 1980s, who is greatly looking forward to giving a speech to a Headmasters conference in the City of Norwich. His day unravels disastrously though when he accidentally boards the train to Plymouth instead, and a series of hilarious and escalating mishaps ultimately sees him dressed as a monk and stranded in the middle of a country lane miles from anywhere. He sits in a ditch with his head in his hands and thinks to himself “Little did I dream that I should be sitting here!” I’ve always loved that movie, but “little did I dream” that those words could now resonate with me so much, and almost metaphorically represent the last 12 months of my life!
On Monday October 1st 2012, Olly was officially diagnosed with Autism. We knew this was inevitable. Our “crash course” in autism in the 4 months leading up to this date had made the diagnosis a mere formality. I foolishly felt prepared for this, and proudly thought of myself as steadfast, resolute, determined, or any other host of fancy words that made me feel in control of the situation . My wife Louise on the other hand had taken it all very hard, and was struggling to cope emotionally with all that we were facing. This made me all the more focused on being “Mr Positive”, and adopting a “lets just get on with it” mentality as we moved forward. I viewed myself as the rock of our little family unit, I could deal with this! However, this particular October week was far from done with me!
In the early hours of Saturday 6th October, my Mother passed away at the age of 69. She had been ill with CLL (a type of leukemia) for almost 10 years. For the majority of those years, her illness had been manageable and she had continued to live a full, active, and relatively normal life. However, around June of that year I became very aware that things were changing. Mam was in and out of hospital a lot and they seemed to be struggling to get her medication right and her condition under control. I hated to think of Mam as ill. She had always been my rock, the person I had gone to for help and advice with everything. She had always looked after me, and I always wanted her to, so I selfishly “filed” her illness away in a dark corner of my mind and tried not to think about it. Now it was impossible to ignore though, and in a very clinical, unemotional and robotic way, I quickly concluded that we didn’t have very much time left with Mam, so I prepared myself for this. Looking back to when she died, I now realize that I didn’t allow myself time to grieve. Instead I felt very cold and detached, but much like with Olly’s diagnosis, I also felt in control and that I was managing everything that had happened. Life could throw what it wanted at me, and I wouldn’t be beaten by it. This of course was an illusion, and only the beginning, and events that were to follow would lead me to an almighty fall.
We were living in a little house in County Durham where we had been happy for almost eight years. The house was looking a little tired and battered, and was also now a little cramped since we had George and Olly. We were pretty isolated from any family and there was no one close by who could help us to look after the boys if we needed a break. Winter was setting in, and winters there were very very harsh. You haven’t seen snow until you’ve lived in Stanley. The weather there is just bonkers. This particular winter started early and it more or less snowed every week from mid October until March of this year. Louise had never been confident of driving in the snow, and after a small accident in the car the winter before, this was developing into a full blown phobia. It caused her so much stress and anxiety worrying about how she would get George to school while having to also drag out his (unpredictable and prone to autistic meltdowns) little brother Olly, that it got to the point that she didn’t want to leave the house.
So we made a decision. We would have to move house. We decided it made the most sense to move closer to Louise’s parents, and once we made up our mind to do it, we initiated one of the quickest home moves you could ever imagine. We bought a house on a new development from a house builder, and they took our old house in part exchange as part of the deal. We agreed to buy the house on Olly’s third birthday which was January 6th of this year, and we ended up moving in on March 28th.
In the weeks and months leading up to the move, I had continued to be “Mr Robot”. I was just getting on with whatever was thrown my way. I had taken on extra responsibilities at work, winter just wouldn’t let up, and I was racing against time to get the old house cleared out in time for moving day, I just kept on going like a machine, all the while playing my part as a Husband, and a Father. I was pretty darn pleased with myself. I thought I had evolved into the best possible version of myself and that nothing could stop me. Boy, was I wrong!
One week before the move, I had a panic attack at work. I had absolutely no idea what was happening to me, but I believed that something was very very physically wrong. My colleagues got me to a medical centre immediately and I was thoroughly checked out and they found nothing wrong. The nurse asked me what was going on in my life at the moment, so I told her it has been a stressful few months and she said it sounded like a panic attack. I had a hard time accepting this. What I experienced felt very very real. I thought it could be a brain tumour, or maybe I was having a stroke? Panic attack didn’t sound at all right. It couldn’t be what it was! But, they assured me and sent me on my way.
One week later, a day before the move I had another attack. This one was much worse and I haven’t felt the same from that day to this. I was feeling very stressed on my final day at work and just wanted to get out of the office and get on with moving day. A colleague popped into my office with a problem, and unusually I became very agitated about the situation he presented me with. This is when the panic attack started and I suddenly felt unable to speak. I immediately thought “Oh my God I’m having a stroke”, but after I calmed myself down I managed to feel better. It was after this attack that a persistent feeling of brain fog/haziness set in and I constantly felt a sensation of either being spaced out and disconnected, or of intense head, neck, and sinus pressure. I have no idea how I drove home that night, and as for moving day – well I was near enough useless. Poor Louise had to get us over the finish line.
We somehow got moved though, but my problems continued. I constantly felt head pressure, dizziness, or a general feeling of being spaced out. I found the medical profession extremely disinterested and unhelpful. They insisted that all I had was General Anxiety Disorder, and all they wanted to do was throw pills at me. I ended up taking fluoxetine (also known as prozac), and the initial side effects of these made me ten times worse for about 6 weeks. I could barely function, developed an intense fear of driving, and took a lot of time off work. I really was in a state of utter despair. My family thought I was unhappy, but I really wasn’t. I just felt physically unwell. There were times where I was convinced I was actually going to die. I know that I was impossible to live with.
Thankfully, there is light at the end of the tunnel however. It took a lot of time, patience, medication, and some counselling to get me on my feet again. Although the prozac nearly killed me in the first few weeks, I stuck with it and I think it has genuinely helped. I also attended therapy for around 10 weeks and was really overwhelmed at how helpful this was in digging into the causes of my anxiety. This more than anything has changed my outlook on life and I now feel that I can manage my anxiety much more effectively, especially now that I have made the most significant breakthrough in recognizing that anxiety is in fact what I am suffering from. And no wonder really when you look back on the last 12 months. We have had to come to terms with Olly’s life changing disability, a family bereavement, and moving house all in a very short space of time. Something had to give I guess.
At my lowest ebb, I couldn’t help but identify with that John Cleese character from Clockwise though. My life took some unexpected twists and turns. I too thought I had got onto a train to Norwich, but instead ended up in a ditch dressed as a monk. Obviously that didn’t really happen, but there were times when my life really felt that crazy and I found myself thinking “Little did I dream that I should be sitting here”. How on earth did I get here, to the point where I needed medication and therapy? I used to scoff at such people. I thought they were weak. I now realize how wrong I was, and the most important thing I have taken from these experiences is that I am now a lot less quick to judge. I realized that I was a very judgmental person.
So, if any of you have been checking in on this blog in recent months, I hope this explains my lengthy leave of absence from blogging. I didn’t want to write for a very long time. I didn’t want to do anything for a very long time for that matter. I’m now taking things one day at a time though as opposed to worrying about what’s round the corner. That’s the first time in my entire life that I have felt that way, and it’s a pretty nice feeling. There’s lots I want to talk about going forward, and I hope you will stick with me. I’ve learned a hell of a lot through recent experiences, and also met some really great people. Long may it continue!