I’m a learning support assistant in a large, English comprehensive school. This year I’ve been supporting a student, who I’ll call Philip Pirrip, in his English classes. This kid is on the autistic spectrum and has a number of anxiety-induced tics. When I first started working with him, he kept saying something that sounded like “wilefingbahapemy”. He repeated this with increasing insistence: “wil-efing-ba-happe-me”, until I realised he was saying “Will anything bad happen to me?”. He says this to me in every class, usually three times, with varying degrees of urgency, depending on how anxious he’s feeling. He also, occasionally, asks, “Will I become a paedophile?” I reply “No, Philip, I think you’ll probably be alright. Now, let’s get on.”
I told this to Abi, before I stopped seeing her and she said “You can’t say that. It’s not your role to say he’ll be alright. How do you know?” I said, “Well, I can’t do a deep psychological intervention at the back of his English lesson, while the teacher’s at the front trying to discuss images of sleeplessness in Macbeth or something.” Anyway, I’m not qualified to run therapy sessions.
Actually, at first, I did say “Well, I don’t know, Philip, what do you think?” Because I don’t know, do I? Philip looked at me with irritation and said “No, no, you have to say ‘No’”. So I did, and do, but I feel uneasy about it.
The first time this happened I felt a little weepy, confronted with such familiar existential anxiety, exactly the condition that I don’t deal well with, in myself. I think, also, Philip’s anxiety resonated so much with my own that I felt a poignant burst of empathy for him. And empathy is exactly the sense I’ve lacked while anorexic, so I felt not only deep sympathy, but also gratitude towards this odd, self-absorbed little bunny. It was a little overwhelming.
I wouldn’t say I “suffer” from anxiety, though. It’s simply the background hiss to my life, the white noise; the dark wash on the watercolour; the filter on the camera that brings out dramatic contrasts; the drone to my bagpipes… Anyway, like experiences of pain, you can only infer other people’s perceptions, an inexact science. Perhaps everybody has an identical experience of alertness, or wariness, or foreboding, but they don’t label it as anxiety.
If you operate with what appears to be a higher level of background anxiety, though, you tend to battle your way through your days with a general sense that everything is fraught and alarming. Everything has to be struggled with. When you can stop and challenge this feeling, you can’t find its source. This tends to make me feel temporarily better, but, still, I make heavy weather of living. The doomy feeling is intensified, almost into a fever, by extreme hunger.
I guess I’ve always been a nervous wee pudding, but something was clearly triggered by having children. The experience of parenthood is of terror and guilt, I realised as my daughter Margret wobbled along the pavement on her tricycle, right next to the enormous, death-dealing wheels of gear-grinding, roaring juggernauts. This was particularly emphasised by the one and only time we ever flew with Margaret.
I used to cross myself, as the plane picked up speed on the runway, grip the headrest in front of me, and try to reconcile myself the possibility of an imminent and fiery, though mercifully brief, death. Then I just had to get on with life, because there was nothing I could do about it.
On that flight with the baby, though, I thought I was going to have hysterics. It felt almost unbearably claustrophobic, like we’d been sealed into a tubular coffin. It wasn’t the possibility of my own death that freaked me out, it was the sense of how little control I had over an environment that could kill my daughter. “If the wings did fall off”, I thought, “how could I protect her as we plummeted towards the sea? What could I say to reassure and comfort her?” I thought I was going to run screaming up and down the aisle, battering at the doors, because there was nothing I could do about it.
Then, when we first moved to the East of England, we laid down some lawn in the scrubby garden we’d acquired. It didn’t rain for the next 12 weeks.
I was born and raised in Ireland. For me, a dry spell means it only rains for a couple of days a week. So I was surprised, at first, walking up and down with the pink plastic watering can my daughter had chosen, squinting up at the sky. Soon, however, I started to feel alarmed. Jo bought us a garden hose. I continually scrutinised an impassive sky. Every morning I’d wake up and pull back the curtains, hoping for the shine of water on the tarmac. Nothing. Dry as bone. Then I started waking up in the middle of the night, listening hard for the sound of rain. Sometimes I’d hear the lovely, loose drapes of rain hushing the roof tiles. I’d leap up, but it would only be the blurring sound of a light breeze. Could it be a breeze that promises a change in the weather, the coming of rain? No.
And then, as I lay awake at night, sinister “what if”s began to creep into my mind. What if it never rained again? This was the longest drought anyone could remember: was this caused by climate change? If so, then no weather patterns could be guaranteed again. All those interlocking climate systems, the Gulf Stream, North Atlantic Drift, that guarantee our reliable, damp British weather, could cease. If the whole global climate was changing, just because it had never happened before didn’t mean that it wouldn’t happen now. This was new territory and we were reluctant climate pioneers, forging forwards into a vast, black storm. There is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than has ever been breathed by human beings before, after all.
I was having night terrors, real spasms of overwhelming, gasping panic confronted with a pitiless universe that could snuff us out at any moment. What could I do? What could I do? I gleaned tiny grains of comfort from picking up rubbish when I went for a run or from furiously composting everything, (although, horrors, the breakdown of organic matter increases CO2 emissions). I wasn’t suicidal, but I began to feel that it might be better to be dead. I would no longer be producing CO2, which would benefit my children, and I wouldn’t have to cope with the almost unbearable panic. It would be such a relief.
Of course, eventually it rained again and I slowly relaxed, but I had been rattled by these two events. What seemed to link them was the issue of control, especially when it came to my children. I felt powerless confronting the vast forces of global climate catastrophe or gravity itself. How could I keep them safe? How on earth would I provide for them, if we became climate change refugees? (Don’t laugh – it happens.) I felt I just didn’t know what to do. I also wouldn’t know how to marshal and direct the children in these situations. And this, I think, comes from the circumstances in which I became a father, and my attitude to fatherhood itself. I’ll go into this in my next post.