Building A Ruin

Since I embarked on my road to a healthier lifestyle in December last year, it has been – without wanting to sound like a massive egotist – pretty successful.  I’ve lost the amount of weight that I set out to, am comfortably with range for each of the health indicators from the initial assessment which led to the changes and feel a million times better for it.  Job done then, right?  Well no – getting healthy and improving fitness is a good achievement but it’s maintaining and ideally improving on it that is the key.

With a history of REALLY bad choices, with both food and (non-existent) exercise, the first thing that I craved (other than SUGAR!! FAT!! STODGE!!!! MMMMMMMMMMMMM…… ) was knowledge on what I should be doing to tackle some, ahem, weighty issues.  As part of the health assessment on that fateful December day, I was given lots of information on what the NHS thinks you should be doing – cut down on/completely avoid the things you currently like to eat, replace it with stuff you’ve always pulled a face at (step forward salad and vegetables), eat more ‘healthy grains) and move your ass at least 30 minutes more than you do today (so that’ll be 30 minutes then… ).  While at the time I couldn’t argue with any of this, it did seem a bit generic and stopped short of giving any advice on what happens afterwards, i.e. if you are lucky enough to achieve the initial goal of getting healthy enough to avoid coronary heart disease or an amputated limb from poor circulation if nothing changes in the next 5-10 years (very sobering to be told that at 36 years old), how to then progress beyond that.  Speaking to a GP every few months doesn’t really help with day-to-day motivation to keep going so you just have to take the responsibility and run with it – this is where the REAL discipline kicks in.

I’ve been very lucky with the support and encouragement from my family and friends, particularly my wife, but ultimately it is only me that can achieve the goals I have set myself.  There is a natural temptation when you have achieved any sort of weight loss goal to re-introduce certain ‘bad’ foods or become less active again to think it’s all fine because if you’ve done it once, you can easily do it again. 

For me personally, it needs to be ‘all or nothing’ – I have to be consistent as possible and if that means continuing to avoid some of things that caused the problem in the first place, then so be it.  I admire people that have lost a lot of weight and are able to maintain this afterwards with a more ‘flexible’ diet but I can’t do that – those foods, the laziness and the problems they caused need to be consigned to the past for me to feel like I’m beating/have beaten this.

So the weights come off, I’ve found a new passion in running and my diet is fairly ‘dialled in’ but if this is about continuing to improve (rather than accepting the initial achievement as the only one), then the mental approach is just as important.  If I’m honest with myself, it’s a lack of consistency that has held me back.  This has been caused by the examples of trial and error that I’ve gone through with both ‘acceptable’ foods and the most effective forms of exercise.  As most of the latter is new to me, I’ve lurched between many things, so this is understandable to a point, but I’ve come to the conclusion that you will only maintain something if you enjoy it – not because it’s easier to do but because you can feel the effort make a difference – and have got a good routine now in place.  If I can just stop the kopping out of the one more night a week I should be doing by convincing myself I need a break (good luck with that, now the new football season has started!), the results will definitely get better 🙂

If I was to split the emphasis I need on both diet and exercise, I would say it was 70/30 in favour of the former and again this is where the consistency comes in.  For all the gains I have seen from exercise, I know it could be improved to honing my diet so have continued to try and educate myself on this.

When I started looking at what I should/shouldn’t be eating, one of the common threads in the ‘official’ guidelines is that a promotion of fibre in the diet through wholemeal and ‘healthy grains’.  Now, I love bread and when I say love, I mean LOVE and have always preferred brown (wholemeal) bread to the white version so initially this was music to my ears.  Eat more bread?  No problem, bring it on!  Removing the unnaturally sweet elements of my former diet was hard at first but given I could find a good sugar source in the fruit I was being encouraged to eat more of, managed to replace this and stick to it with relative ease.  Savoury food on the other hand was much more difficult – pizza, sandwiches, fast food and the like – and it took/takes a lot of willpower to stick to.  I could understand a sugar craving with sweet food but was the craving for savoury food as simple as a salt or stodge craving?

Doing some research by reading and listening to the advice of some great people in the health and fitness community (Ben Coomber and David Damron’s podcasts have been massively helpful), I discovered that the common element to each of the savoury foods that form a staple of our daily diets is wheat/gluten.  The modification of wheat over many years has led to its current version being a pale imitation of the original and more importantly, indigestible to most people, whether they know it or not.  Like most things, this will affect some people more than others but as someone who has suffered from stomach problems most of my life, led me to want to look into further.  While I haven’t gone down the road of declaring myself as wheat and/or gluten intolerant, what I do know is that without both in my diet, I feel infinitely better.  I’ve also realised that there is no point in all the effort I put into training if my diet is holding me back – there’s no point building a ruin.  You wouldn’t believe how much gluten and wheat is present in the standard Western diet until you try and have a diet without it but all of the health benefits that these foods provide can be found in others, such as the fibre content in green vegetables so other than the taste we are so used to enjoying, there is no real reason why wheat needs to be a part of our everyday diet.

So, the consistency I mentioned is now for me to maintain a wheat-free diet.  Not eating things like bread and pasta (I know you can get the wheat-free versions but as I said earlier, it needs to be all or nothing for me) is ‘interesting’ and there have been are days when I have simply given in (I’d have spilt blood to my hands on that baguette…. ) but I know it works for me and I have to stick to it, simple as that. 

Incidentally, for anyone interested in looking into this more for themselves, I would wholeheartedly recommend the book ‘Wheat Belly’ by Dr. William Davis – it’s a massive eye-opener on how the supply and demand nature of what we eat has led to a huge decline in the quality of food we are sold and the benefits of adopting healthier alternatives (further details at www.wheatbellyblog.com/).

The common mental image of someone eating a ‘cheat meal’ is someone devouring a 18″ pizza or triple-decker burger.  If you see me doing the same thing with a slice of Kingsmill, you have my permission to rugby tackle me to the ground and shake some consistency into me 😉



The old phrase ‘Tragedy + Time = Comedy’ would be a good way of describing the way in which people, given enough distance since some type of awful event or situation that someone other than you finds themselves in, can look to draw humour from it. I say ‘would be’ as in recent times, the ‘+ Time’ element of the equation has been removed, leaving us with ‘Tragedy = Comedy’.

It seems that no time needs to have passed since a joke about something tragic is doing the rounds. We’ve all either received the serial texts or seen the stuff online which then gets recycled ad nauseam. People feel the need to be seen to be ‘getting the joke’ or taking part in humour for fear of not being cool or being too sensitive but it does raise the question where we drawn the line, or indeed whether a line needs to be drawn, in an age when nothing is sacred or exempt from fun being made from it.

Our common reaction is to accept this type of humour, either willingly or with a sense of weary inevitability (you decide), as the way people react to things nowadays, almost as if it’s the only way we have for making sense of whatever the event is. Maybe there is a relief element to this, a subconscious “there but for the grace of God”, simply manifesting itself as a joke. Or maybe some people are just sick in the head – again, you decide.

While there seems to be unwritten rules of what we should and shouldn’t joke about – the death of someone widely unpopular appears to be fine, whereas terminal illness is never acceptable – there is a flippancy to this now to the point that we do it without thinking or appreciation of the offence it might cause.

While most people wouldn’t consider disability as ‘tragedy’ in the same context as a loss of life or lives, the same concept applies. We can all remember being at school and fun being made of kids for a variety of different reasons but the thing I remember most were kids being referred to as ‘spastics’ (the word most commonly – and ignorantly – used at the time to describe any sort of mental or physical disability), not normally because the recipient had any disability but simply because they couldn’t do what was expected of them or were disliked for some reason or another. As we get older and our understanding improves of the world around us, use of these types of terrible phrases should remove themselves from our vocabularies, mainly through an appreciation and respect of the people with disabilities.

I say ‘should remove… ‘ because the reality is that many people haven’t grown out of their school days and still think it’s hilarious to make fun of a disability. The difference now is the terminology has now changed from the aggressiveness of ‘spastic’ or ‘flid’ to the catch-all subtlety of ‘special’ (as in ‘special needs’). I’ll admit I’m naturally sensitive to this as the father of a child with autism but it is something I hear so regularly and it always angers me because it’s always adults who should know better and not kids that it is coming from.

You can guarantee that if someone happens to use the word ‘special’ in conversation of any context, there will be someone who feels the need to quickly interject and add “yeah, needs!”. Worse still, a lot of the time this will go unsaid but will be implied with a knowing, wry smile or raised eyebrow – all very subtle but the person’s compulsion to react at all is for the same reason.

Trying to make sense of why a (supposed) adult feels compelled to do this is hard but if you’re not affected by it, you don’t see the harm. To me, the ‘logic’ of “you’re special, haha” is the latest way of saying “you’re a retard / spastic / disabled / less than you should be / less than me, haha”. When put in this context, I’m sure people would be quick to defend themselves by saying that they don’t “mean it like that” but if you don’t, then what else do you mean?

For what it’s worth, it would be nice if people thought before they insist using ‘special’ as a way of having a laugh, as the people and those caring for them, in a society where the acceptance of difference is difficult enough, don’t find it funny.

To those that do it, do everyone a favour and cut it out as it actually makes YOU look like the one with mental health problems. You’re welcome.


What Price Health?

Ever since being told in December of last year that I had contracted Type 2 Diabetes and having to make some wholesale changes to my diet and activity levels, the subject of food quality has been really important to me. Without being overly dramatic, continuing with the diet and sedentary lifestyle I had could have (and still could) led to some major health problems and most likely shortened my lifespan. Scary stuff.

When you first embark on a ‘diet’ to lose weight and/or get healthy (already this conjures a mental image of a temporary or quick fix solution to the problem), it’s a struggle to know how to go about it. I’m naturally quite an impulsive person so, driven by the fear of what could happen if things didn’t change, was open to and all suggestions. People’s advice both in person and via the Internet is so varied that there doesn’t seem to be any universal truth but my wife was brilliant in keeping me grounded and ensuring I wasn’t trying to do too much too soon. The fact that she does 99.9% of the cooking at home also helps!

When you strip it all down, it’s as simple as this: make sure you are eating enough good food with proper nutrients every day and moderate your intake of saturated fat and sugar. Easy, right? In theory, yes but putting in into practice is something different entirely.

The modern Western diet of most people is, if we’re honest with ourselves, a shambles. Looking at what we are consuming in the breakfast/lunch/dinner cycle (this of course is on the presumption that you are lucky enough to be able to afford for you and your family to eat in this way – increasingly many people can’t), you’d be hard pushed to find many food stuffs that aren’t packed with sugar, saturated fat or preservatives.
With this cycle being in place since birth, we set the wheels in motion of pumping ourselves with chemical and inflammatory ingredients and combine this with the fact that our children are generally more inactive than any previous generation, this will inevitably lead to a myriad of health problems for many people. This might sound a bit reactionary or self-centred but my own situation has made me look at this at closely and we’ve gotten ourselves in a pretty dire situation.

With the lack of work/life balance people have nowadays, there isn’t a lot of time to consume food, let alone prepare it ourselves from base ingredients, so the convenience of ‘ready meals’ is viewed as a godsend to our busy days. If any of us actually bother to read the content labels (I suspect very few do), we would see that the quality of ready meals and the other processed food we are consuming is very, very poor – high fat, sugar and salt content with very little by way of natural ingredients. The way food is manufactured and our choice of what we buy is ultimately driven by two elements – taste and cost.

As processed, pre-packaged food has become such a staple of our diets, our pallets have evolved accordingly. Food cannot be consumed without a heightened taste – if not sweet, spicy, salty, creamy or stodgy enough, our taste buds demand this is added. Food is no longer viewed as the fuel it should designed to be, moreso a sensory fix. Don’t get me wrong – you should always enjoy what you’re eating but if the only reason we eat something is to satisfy a craving, then there is something seriously wrong.

Then there’s cost – what can we afford to eat? Covering the cost of mortgages, other utility bills and the costs of basic living will wipe out most household incomes week on week, month on month. What is left for food then influences what we can buy and suffice to say, it’s all about quantity over quality. The latest marketing strategy of the UK’s top 3 supermarkets is to basically use a boast about being cheaper than their competitors as a selling point – never mind that the food is garbage, it’s all about survival and unfortunately that means our ability to afford something will be the deciding factor. To supermarkets, despite the smiley advertising and images of the healthy shopper, you are a consumer and cynically, by pushing our eating habits down an increasingly unhealthy path, exploit a supply and demand – “if we produce more crap, they’ll buy more, and become dependent on it to the point of addiction so of course they’ll return and buy more and more of it”. Make no mistake, it is within these people’s interests to remove your natural instincts about choice and settle for what they offer, so long as the money rolls in. Paranoid? Maybe but when was the last time that you got a BOGOF on whole food like fresh fruit, vegetables or good cuts of meat, rather than a multi-pack of Snickers or frozen pizzas? Exactly.

Being attacked with advertising isn’t an excuse in of itself to make bad choices but more thought certainly needs to be given to what we are buying and putting in our bodies. If our intentions as a society were correct in wanting to have a healthy population, we would address the fact that what for a generation before was a treat, something to be had occasionally, now forms part of our daily diet – kid’s breakfast cereal that is effectively chocolate sweets, ‘energy’ drinks, fast food, the list goes on.

Feeding and caring your family is the primary motivation for most of us each day and providing a healthy, balanced diet today is more difficult than ever, particularly where budgets are stretched beyond a joke. From personal experience of buying fresh fruit everyday (yeah, that stuff with the natural sugar in it!), it’s actually a lot less expensive than than the current staple of chocolate and crisps and there’s the obvious nutritional health benefits. Using food outlets that you can depend on to give you good quality without rip-off prices are ideal but sadly over-looked – using your local green grocers, butchers, delis and farmer’s markets should be encouraged much more widely than it is.

Why don’t we put a ‘tax’ on all the things that damage our health, like badly-produced food in the same way as other socially acceptable drugs like alcohol and cigarettes, and make the beneficial, healthy foods more affordable and accessible? If we have people’s best interests at heart (or rather the best interests of people’s hearts), we would all want that, right? Sadly not – as always, money holds the answer and that ain’t changing any time soon.

All we can do is the make the best choices we can with the resources available to us. Eating well
doesn’t have to cost the earth and might just help improve your life more than you realise.


Handle With Care


The weekend’s drawing to a close and it’s been a great one.  Great company, great weather, great food and lots of great fun.  Perfect.

One of the things we did to celebrate Callum’s birthday was to take him to his favourite restaurant on Southend seafront.  It’s a very relaxed place and specialises in Italian food which he loves so it’s ideal.  As the weather was so warm yesterday, the seafront was absolutely RAMMED with people.

As we walked the couple of hundred yards from where we had parked to the restaurant, we were surprised by the sheer number of people, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it quite that busy before.  Between the isolated parties, volleyball, music and partying,  it was pretty chaotic but not, I imagine, unlike any other seaside town, especially one which has such a close proximity to beachless London.

So, we went for the meal and to Adventure Island (for those of you that don’t know Southend, it’s the main theme park) afterwards and have a great time.  What was pretty shocking as we made our way back to the car was the huge amount of litter than had been discarded on the beach – it looked like an actual landfill.  There had been a sudden clap of thunder and a shower shortly beforehand (nothing heavier than that) which caused everyone on the beach to run for cover but it seems everyone forgot or, most likely, wasn’t bothered about the total mess they had left behind them.

I don’t know whether people assume that it will magically disappear or a squad of refuse collectors would suddenly swoop down and clear it all up but obviously neither will happen.  Particularly if the ‘squad’ was the two kids we saw in council jackets with hand-held bins they were using as umbrellas to avoid themselves getting wet.  Heaven help us…..

The only consequence of this is: large-scale waste + incoming tide = polluted estuary. Ironically, the many bins provided looked empty.

To see the disrespect the people who trashed the beach showed to the seafront and Southend as a town was disgusting.  If people live their day-to-day lives in an environment that they don’t respect, that’s fine to an extent but why bring this to a town you are a visitor to?  If everyone took this attitude and felt it was always someone else’s responsibility to clean up and this included the local council, would those that caused it be inclined to return?  Of course not because it would be “a dump” – a dump that they created.  One that the locals who enjoy the seafront all throughout year (myself included – the 10K stretch along the front is one of the most enjoyable running spots around) are left with, not just those abusing it during the school holidays.

This isn’t a rant against people enjoying themselves or visiting Southend (we’re a seaside town, it’s what we want!) but people just need to think about their actions and show some respect for a town as welcoming as the one they are coming to.  Having lived here for the last 14 years, the Southend borough is a fantastic place to live and a lot has been done to re-generate the seafront in recent times.  If council resources are wasted (no pun intended) on having to sort out a totally avoidable mess, the locals suffer – simple as that. Do unto others and all that.

I’d like to think people’s attitude to this will change but it only seems to be getting worse.  IMaybe I should make myself really popular and stand down their with a tazer, zapping anyone leaving litter behind.  That’ll learn them….


‘Age Inappropriate’ is Cool

Callum 1

Callum 2

Callum 3

Today was my eldest son Callum’s 13th birthday.  I can’t believe our boy is now teenager, which also makes me feel quite old, haha…..

Becoming a teenager for most kids is something of a milestone in their lives – the breakaway from childhood, the sense of independence and feeling like you know everything when you actually know very little (well, I did anyway).  Teenage years also bring with them the pressure of what peers are doing/thinking, fitting in and being cool at all costs.  Few kids who don’t fit in go unnoticed by their peers and most will be singled out in some way for ridicule, ostracized and/or sadly, some type of bullying. 

Kids can be cruel, downright nasty in fact, and it’s with this in mind that I have always been very protective of Callum.  As you may know from an earlier post in this blog, Callum is autistic so a degree of protectiveness is natural on my part because he’s my son and has special needs. 

Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m actually too protective of him and realised this comes from the combination of his vulnerability in social situations and a totally misguided view on my part that I need to ‘protect’ him from a social plane that he happily doesn’t operate on.  In other words, if he isn’t worried about being ‘age appropriate’, then why am I on his behalf?

We have had a great day today celebrating Callum’s birthday with the whole family and have naturally tried to fill this thing that he will enjoy.  This has included going to the cinema, having dinner at his favourite restaurant and going on rides at Adventure Island (our local theme park).  All cool things for a teenage boy to do.  The film was Monster’s University, the meal was followed by a (beautiful) birthday cake with Paddington Bear on it and the rides he went on with his brother and older cousin were for young children – all of which can be deemed ‘age inappropriate’ – but the point is, he loved doing it.  His age or what people think doesn’t come into it – what matters is he loved it.  If people stare, care, think it’s strange or (as is most likely the case) don’t take any notice, it doesn’t matter – Callum is having the time of his life!

In the course of a day, Callum’s interests can range from toys, books and TV shows featuring pre-school characters to 15-rated films.  There is a comfort for Callum in reverting to the pre-school (and everything in between) stuff as his condition demands familiarity and the comfort that these will help him to cope without an unexpected sensory overload.  For anyone who has ever seen  pictures of Callum, you’ll notice that he is rarely pictured without holding a toy, book or DVD case – each of these are a coping mechanism, a sense of familiarity that helps him to focus when there is the risk of ‘dramatic’ change.  It’s amazing how stressed he can become if a particular toy isn’t accessible to him – someone without autism could easily rationalise this but for Callum, it’s like a crutch has been suddenly removed and the anxiety immediately kicks in.  So we always make sure he is prepared.

While much of the way that Callum’s autism can impede him is difficult to accept (and at times, hard to deal with), to live in a way which means you don’t need to care about peers, social standing, what people think or anything other than the things in your life that make you happy sounds like an attractive prospect! 

Anyone you can think of in life who is effortlessly cool is not so because they bow to pressure or are concerned with people’s perception of them, it’s because they live life on their own terms.  This is why Callum is unbelievably cool and has taught his worrier Dad that he needs to chill out  🙂

Learning from your children is a great feeling, a sign of how far they’ve come and Callum, despite his condition, has developed into a fine young man and I couldn’t be prouder of him.


Torn between two lovers

And so it finishes. The clash of the two football clubs closest to my heart – Celtic and Cliftonville – has ended in a 5-0 aggregate win for the Bhoys in the first round of Champions League qualification. Whilst usually this type of score line for Celtic would have me crowing, especially in Europe, the fact that the Belfast Reds were on the receiving end actually left me with a pang of disappointment for them. No other result would have engendered this sort of reaction but Cliftonville are a special club and growing up in North Belfast, were my local team so not wanting to see them hammered by anyone is understandable, even Celtic.

Going to see Cliftonville in the 80’s was my introduction to football and it was a heady experience. At the time, the Troubles raged in the north of Ireland and Cliftonville represented the Irish nationalist community in a league which, with the possible exception of Newry Town, was filled with teams supported by the British unionist community. This gave Cliftonville a unique quality (much like Celtic in Glasgow) and pretty much every game at the time had a derby-type feeling, whether it be against either of the ‘Big Two’ at the time, Linfield and Glentoran, or the more far-flung(!) teams like Portadown or Glenavon. Every victory was a victory for not just the team but also the nationalist identity of the various areas of Belfast from which Cliftonville’s support came, predominantly the Cliftonville Road, Ardoyne, Antrim Road and Oldpark but also the Falls, Short Strand and Whiterock. I started going to games when I was about 10 in the mid-80’s and whilst crowds were comparatively small in relation to the English and Scottish leagues, I was swept up in my first experience of ‘real football’ – the unwavering support for a team that at the time hadn’t won a major honour that decade and the best that could be hoped for was a top 5 finish, the adoration of semi-pro players (Francie Murphy (snr.) and Bobby Carlisle are two that I remember being singled out for hero worship in those days), the singing, the sub-factions within the support (to this day, I continue to be confused by what a ‘Plain Clothed Skinhead’, or PCS for short, might be… ) and then banter all made for something which made you long for the next match. Solitude, as football grounds go, had never been blessed with natural beauty but the atmosphere brought by the support (particularly where we used to stand in the Cage) made it a special experience. If you timed it right, you could get ‘lifted over’ the turnstile for free entry (and we wondered why no money was being spent on the ground, ha!) so apart from the obligatory pastie bap and half-chip from Manny’s on the Antrim Road (“sure, it’s the same size as a full chip”) and a quid or so for the ‘Wee Red’ fanzine, it was a fairly cheap match day experience – as far away from the £100+ spent today as you can get. Victories were fleeting but when they came, they were celebrated with suitable gusto.

Away days at grounds like Windsor Park and the Oval were always great occasions, albeit the shepherding in and out of South and East Belfast was always an ‘experience’ – getting batoned by the RUC whilst escaping the clutches of the baying hordes (thinking about the ‘Irish Out of Northern Ireland’ graffiti near the ground still causes a grin) in East Belfast was something you could’ve done without. The craic was always brilliant though and despite there being quite a bit of crowd trouble (which attached itself to all clubs at that time), getting even a point at these grounds was cause for delirium. Happy days in the truest sense.

It was also around this time that I was being exposed to Celtic. In the post-Love Street/pre-Centenary season, there was (to paraphrase the Maestro) “a real buzz” around Celtic and my first involvement was tuning into a Saturday afternoon, second-half commentary of a league game against St. Mirren on the radio. Incidentally, radio commentary is the worst way of experiencing any sport but it was all we had until a local bright-spark cottoned on to the fact that if turned your RTE ariel in a different directon, the ‘booster’ would let you pick up STV! Anyway, I can’t remember who got the late winner or even the final score (pretty sure it was a 1-0 win but wouldn’t put money on it, must be old age) and it would be a few years after that until I would get to make the boat journey over to Parkhead but it was enough to start a love affair that has lasted ever since.

To me, both clubs represented (and continue to represent) a community, the cause of social equality and a determination to overcome adversity and it is because of this that I have always considered myself a supporter of both. When the CL draw was made, I was pleased that it set up an occasion that both sets of fans could relish but if I’m honest, for the first time didn’t want to see Celtic deliver a humiliation. While the 5-0 scoreline overall tells its own story of the gulf in class between the two, Cliftonville’s players acquitted themselves brilliantly and done themselves and the supporters (the atmosphere in both legs was fantastic) very proud.

Hoping to get back to both Glasgow and Belfast to get the experience of both first-hand again in the coming season. I was going to say I can relax knowing the tie won’t come up again but this is Celtic in the Champions League so relaxing doesn’t come into it!

Wish all the very best to Glasgow’s Green & White and Belfast’s Red Army – as the scarf says, ‘In Friendship’…






Seeing life through a different window

When I started this blog only a few days ago, I wanted to stick with the idea of posting something new everyday. Yesterday was just one of those days it couldn’t happen but the reason for this is actually the subject of today’s post.

My 12 year-old son Callum has Autism and his behaviour, most days, is pretty challenging. I’ve heard the condition of Autism described as ‘the extreme of male behaviour’ and I think this is pretty accurate. If Callum is doing what he likes to (watching movies/TV or using any computer/device with internet access or reading), he is happy. Anything else to him is an activity carried out as a hoped bridge to one of the things he likes to do so trying to get Callum involved in any ‘normal’ activity is difficult, nigh on impossible, without an adverse reaction. The condition means he is single-minded to the point of being unaware of other’s feelings but the reality of it is that how he feels towards other people is driven largely by how they can allow him access to the activities he wants to carry out obsessively. It’s hard to explain to those without any experience of someone with Autism that what can come across as very blunt and rude communication/behaviour is actually just a coping mechanism on his part and not something to be taken personally. It’s even more difficult to comprehend that this is only thing that Callum cares about day-to-day. While you learn to understand this, your acceptance of it can be strained at times, particularly when it means having to deal constantly difficult behaviour. You may have noticed that I don’t describe the behaviour as ‘bad’ as I don’t want it to infer that there is any intentional malice on Callum’s part – it can just come across in this way.

Callum gets angry – what we refer to as his ‘rages’ – in a heartbeat and without provocation and will shout, stomp, threaten and gesticulate at anyone or anything around him. You’re probably thinking “Yeah, tell me about a kid that doesn’t – it’s called being 12 years old” but when it’s 24/7, day after day with no respite or apparent end, it can be incredibly draining. When there is no chance to reason with this and all you are doing is pouring petrol on an already open fire by giving in to the demands for access to the things which ultimately make the obsessions worse, it is frustrating and as a parent, you can be left feeling pretty helpless by it. It would be easy to give in to it but this then takes over everything the family does and makes any future attempt at doing something different all the more difficult. For example, if Callum wants to watch movies, he wants to do this from the minute he wakes up until he falls asleep that evening – meanwhile, the family is chained to the living room as he cannot be left alone for fear of hurting himself or someone/thing else.

Over the years, Callum has always been drawn to the idea of people (normally characters from TV shows, books or movies) being in trouble as this appeals to his ‘defiant’ side. He truly believes that he is equal-part superhero and villain – that his quest to do the things he wants do is a fight of good against evil (e.g. watching a Marvel movie is research to help him defeat life’s bad guys) but when he doesn’t get his own way, he is then the unstoppable bad guy himself, who rages and kicks out at the world raging against him. This probably seems quite cute in some ways (and at times, my wife and I have to laugh at the absurdity of it!) but when it manifests as a lump of a 12 year-old hurtling around a 10×8 lounge and dominating the room with shouting, cackling and screaming with all requests to calm down being ignored, the cuteness is short-lived. Since ‘Skyfall’ was released, James Bond has become Callum’s latest character-based obsession and the accumulation of 20-odd DVDs later (praise the gods that HMV had them on offer!), the good vs. evil juxtaposition carries on…

Callum will constantly refer to the fact he is ‘scared’ by things yet demand to
want to watch or read things that provoke this reaction. This has recently manifested itself in a Scooby Doo fixation (again, with the 20-plus DVDs that go with it). Callum’s ‘enjoyment’ of this is to scream all the way through it, which then encourages his 2-year old brother to copy him. You can imagine the harmony this brings….

I want nothing more than Callum to be happy but also to have the freedom for all four of us to enjoy things as a family. A routine trip to the High Street yesterday, with shops being dictated by Callum and a familiar outburst when he couldn’t have a particular book he wanted (he has no concept of money or being able/unable to afford certain things), set the tone for the rest of the day. We came away earlier than we wanted to as we basically couldn’t handle any more of the moaning and stroppiness – reasoning doesn’t come into play so you can stick to your guns and ride it out or remove yourself from the situation and yesterday was one of the days we needed to do the latter. This leaves a feeling of part relief, part failure as all good intentions for the day go out the window. We battle with the idea of giving into Callum’s limitations but it’s unfair on him and the whole family as any short-term respite is outweighed by the heightened obsessiveness and an even greater struggle to do ‘the right thing for the family’ in the future.

When Callum feel asleep on the sofa last night, he looked like the calmest, most content boy you can imagine – no indication of what he had gone through since he woke up in the early hours of yesterday morning. You look at him and try and figure it all out but you can’t. It is what it is and all you can do is your best. It breaks our hearts that he is affected by Autism in the way that he is – not because it makes our lives less easy but because he has to deal with a constant inner turmoil and is not getting the same opportunities as other children because of this. That said, Callum doesn’t know any other way so it’s pretty pointless using any sort of ‘normal’ barometer of happiness for him – it’s hard to tell a lot of the time but I pray that deep down, that despite all the turmoil and frequent expressions of anger and disappointment, that he is happy. I love him more than I can put into words and want this for him and my family more than anything.

Years ago, my wife (who deals with this much more than me while I’m at work – her patience and ability to resolve situations in the way that she does is a godsend) something that has stuck with me ever since: “There’s more than one way to live a life”. If we can all remember this, it might just help put some of the hard days into perspective and help us help the people who see life through a different window.