Tuesday, May 29, 2012


The other day I took my younger son to Birling Gap where, at low tide, a rather dull, pebbly beach becomes an enchanted world of rockpools populated by crabs, anemones and fragile, transparent fish that dart into cracks the moment they sense danger. My son seemed disappointingly indifferent to the wonders of marine life, but later told someone that he was so happy he wanted to cry. Children are strange creatures.

What a contrast to his older brother, who is virtually imprisoned by an OCD that won't allow him to venture beyond the front door. It has taken me a while to realise how much my son's condition has changed our lives. Unlike an accident or conventional disease, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder can assimilate itself so insidiously into the sufferer's world that even their family can't always recognise the huge tectonic shift that has taken place.

Why does one child possess the capacity for happiness whilst another is wretched? In my sons' case, the glib answer would be that the world is a much happier place when you're six than it is at 12, but I don't think that's the answer. Even at six, my oldest son was a troubled soul.

On the beach, I looked up at the cliffs and marvelled at the fact that they were made up of the skeletons of countless billions of marine creatures. On the clifftop, tiny figures walked along a thin, grassy topsoil, probably unaware that the solidity of the landscape was the result of so many forgotten, insignificant, prehistoric lives.

I looked at my son. What would he remember of this day, if anything? But did it even matter? Perhaps the sum total of who we are is like sedimentary rock, largely comprised of invisible, forgotten events that have helped to silently create solid foundations.

But I'd done all of these things - the rockpools, the forest walks, the zoo and the museums - with my oldest son, and they hadn't created a bedrock of security. If I could go back, what would I change? I can't think of an answer.

In many ways life has become very challenging. I have had to give up a secure job for the uncertainty of sporadic, freelance work. My wife and I now pass like ships in the night, taking it in turns to spend time with our oldest son. We aren't the house of spontaneity.

However, I feel quietly hopeful. The OCD has been very powerful, but it is no match for a neighbour's Border Collie that appeared one day on the doorstep, demanding to be taken for a walk. After witnessing several professional strategies fail, it was a surprise to see a dog have such a huge impact, but in many ways it made perfect sense. The front door has been breached.

The next phase will involve territorial expansion: a street corner today, the postbox tomorrow and the end of the road by Friday. But the dog may have its own ideas, guided by unknown smells and hidden memories. My son will follow the dog.

I've no idea what will happen next, but I'm now resigned to a life of living in a house that smells of dog, out in all weathers so that an incontinent canine can relieve itself.

I can't wait.


Chris Matarazzo said...

I said it once and I'll say it yet gain: The boy's in good hands. It's this sort of observation and poetic sensitivity that will help him digest an intimidating world. And dogs are a wonder...

Annie said...

What a lovely post.

By the way, one of my friends works for a really good organisation called Young Minds, a support service for parents of children with mental health issues - I don't mean to be patronising but sometimes it's good to know there is support out there and other people experiencing the same thing...

David said...

Great if the dog leads your son to venture outside.

I recognise what you're going through, we have a very similar situation with our daughter, who has autism - I came home tonight to find her lying on the kitchen floor with her head in my wife's lap, howling. It just came out of the blue, we don't know what triggered it. That happens 2-3 times a month.

As you say, it affects what you can do, it affects the other children... we do get some respite evenings now, but then on evenings when Daughter's not around it's so hard to get used to her not being there and work out what to do!

PearlFog said...

Oh I hope it helps, will be thinking of you and your boy. Thank you for the lovely piece.

Desperate Reader said...

Good luck with it all, Dogs are a perfect mix of dependable and dependant which can be quite beguiling.

Canadian Chickadee said...

So glad the dog is helping. Sometimes life can be so hard. I'm sorry. I hope with the collie's help, things improve.

Take care and God bless you all, xoxox

Canadian Chickadee said...

So glad the dog is helping. Sometimes life can be so hard. I'm sorry. I hope with the collie's help, things improve.

Take care and God bless you all, xoxox


Dogs and horses seem to have a very calming effect on so many children and adults.

I'm loathe to leave a comment along the lines of 'everything will be fine'. I can't pretend to know what it's like to live with someone who has OCD, I have only worked with children who have the disorder.

What I will say, is that I noticed a trend; problems tended to peak between the ages of 14 and 16, before slowly and surely settling soon after. Maybe hormones and energy levels stabilize.

The world is a scary place, and we all seek order and routine to help us stay calm. Spontaneity isn't something you think too much about until you can't enjoy it. However, you and your wife are, I assume, able to take pleasure from very (seemingly) small and insignificant steps towards progress - something so few people are able to do because they want so much.

I think of all the worry my brother caused my parents while I 'got on with life' from childhood to early teens, then we reversed roles. I became a big worry for my parents whilst my brother got a job and car (something they never envisaged).

Life is anything but predictable.

Donna McKinnon said...

Beautiful...everything I've come to expect from your writing, and your musings.


Tim Footman said...

Dogs do have a way of transcending barriers that mere humans find impossible. Hope things work out.

Martin said...

The love you have for your boys, comes shining through, Steerforth. It won't have been wasted on them, either. More important than those invisible, forgotten events, love itself creates a pretty solid foundation. Good luck with the dog!

nilly said...

Your openness & natural empathy for your sons moves me greatly. I'm further on in family life than you are & I too have experienced great pain & difficulty with my children's problems, but I treasure & value every positive moment I've had & still have with them & this keeps me going. I wonder if personality problems etc. are the price we pay for human creativity & imagination?

MikeP said...

Aware that literary criticism isn't necessarily what you need right now, but these are beautiful words (and pictures). Good luck with it all - and with the smell of dog. Our house and car, both bought in the last 6 months, smell of dog (particularly when it rains) - we scrub away like Lady Macbeth, but it doesn't seem to make any difference.

Camilla said...

I am full of hope for your son that his doggy companion will help to expand his world. Animals can be extraordinary facilitators of transformation in that way.

My son seemed disappointingly indifferent to the wonders of marine life, but later told someone that he was so happy he wanted to cry. Children are strange creatures.

They are indeed. Strange and glorious. Mine told his father the other day that he thought I was a 'beautiful princess', which is an image so at odds with reality (I am more of a scruffy Hobbit-type) that I can't get my head around it. But it made my heart melt all the same.

All the best to you and your sons.


Anonymous said...

Steerforth - this almost brought me to tears. A dog today - who knows; the Seven Sisters tomorrow... AnnaC

Steerforth said...

Thanks Chris - I hope you're right.

Annie - I've just looked at the website and it looks really good, so thanks for posting the link. Reading about other people's experiences will help, I'm sure, as I feel pretty isolated at the moment.

David - I know several people with autistic children and they're having a much worse time than me, which is why it took me a while to recognise what was happening on my own doorstep. And you're right, when we do get a break, we've forgotten how to enjoy it!

PearlFog - Thanks

Desperate Reader - I think that's the magic of dogs in a nutshell.

Carol - Thanks. I expect we'll be getting a puppy soon, so that should make a big difference.

Lucy - I'm secretly hoping that puberty may be my son's saving grace, giving him the energy and confidence he currently lacks. But I'm aware of other possible outcomes, so my fingers are very firmly crossed.

Donna - Thank you. I felt quite self-conscious writing what felt like a rather self-indulget post, so I appreciate your comment.

Tim - Thanks. I'll have to read that book 'Dogs Never Lie About Love' by Jeffrey Masson.

Martin - Wise words. I get the same impression when I read your writing about your grandchildren. Nobody lies on their deathbed wishing they'd been less loving (except, perhaps, Zsa Zsa Gabor).

Nilly - Ideally, creativity is the reward for being a sensitive soul. I hope that my son's experiences will make rather than break him, turning him into a wiser, more compassionate adult. Judging by his views on moral issues, there is hope.

Mike - Thanks, and literary criticism from an ex-Picador man is always welcome!

Camilla - I'm sure that you are his 'beautiful princess' - even on days when you might feel like Cinderella.

As for children, like dogs they can seem noisy and smelly when they're other people's, but when you spend time in their company, they make the world seem a kinder place.

Steerforth said...

Anna C - Your comment must have appeared while I was writing the above. With luck, it will be further than the Seven Sisters - we have a holiday in Spain coming up, booked before my son decided to stop going out. I tried to cancel it, but Easy Jet tickets are non-refundable and several people said that it would be foolish to do this, as it would put a huge burden on our son (as well as spoiling things for the rest of us).

We're going for the 'Mr T' approach - knocking our son out with antihistamines before the flight.

I didn't mention this, as I didn't want to tempt fate. We may only get as far as the airport.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Well it's less inconvenient/expensive than dolphin therapy! Or even professional therapy with adults who often have less clue of what to do/try than yourselves!

Am delighted to hear your eldest has been bewitched by a collie when all else failed.

You can't argue with a collie. They have needs and there's no question of saying no to them or that you don't feel like going for a walk that day. They are pure love and life on legs, no complications.

Canadian Chickadee said...

You're so right about dogs making the world seem a warmer and kinder place. No matter how bad the day, or how horrific the news, the fact that my dog can't wait to see me and bounds out wagging his tail and with a goofy expression on his face, instantly makes the world a better place. SoI think it probably is true, what they say about dogs lowering your blood pressure. Just stroking those silky ears has a soporific effect.
Hugs, Carol

Ms B said...

You know, I'm sure all the things you did with your older kid DID have an impact. Like you say at the beginning of this post, you can't always SEE the impact. He would feel it if you hadn't. And I'm sure he really knows you're there for him now.

I've been very involved in recent years with a small boy with an ASD diagnosis - which of course includes OCD - so I know how it can take over and you have to become attuned to tiny details you might never have noticed before. And the awful anxieties you can't assuage. But he knows how loved he is and that's the bedrock.

Steerforth said...

Laura - Yes, sadly many of the professionals have been very disappointing, from the strange woman with an absurdly low-cut top (my wife's verdict, not mine) who accused us of trying to 'medicalise' our son, to the people who only looked for autism. Thankfully we have some good people on our side now.

But dogs aren't all about unconditional love. When my dad tried to teach our dog to swim in the sea, she paddled back to the shore and joined another family, sitting with her back turned to us!

Carol - My blood pressure might go up at first if we have a puppy that chews our new dining chairs, but yes, in the long run we'll all be better off.

Katie - I think you're right. I can only assume that his illness would be far worse if he hadn't felt confident about his parents' support. The hard bit is knowing when to do the 'tough love' bit, coercing my son into re-engaging with the outside world rather than remain in the safe world of online gaming.

sukipoet said...

Sending you many good wishes as you continue to be with your son. So lovely the dog happened by.

The cliffs are just gorgeous and your words too, pondering the puzzles of life.

Rog said...

Our dog Lily gets us out of the house twice a day in all weathers. And she would happily join a more exciting family given the choice. But they are endearing little treasures and always give more than they get.
Have you thought of an Ottakers Collie?

Steerforth said...

Thank you Suki - much appreciated.

Rog - What's an Ottakers Collie? If it's like the book chain I worked for, it will be something that is occasionally maddening, but very loveable and, just as you've made a long-tem committment, turns into something very unpleasant (i.e. Waterstone's under HMV).

My son wants a Collie and I suspect that that's what we'll end up with. I shall have to start practicing my "He'boy cumheelnu" and strange whistling.

Rog said...

It's really quite similar to a border collie

*gets coat*

zmkc said...

Huge sympathy - your own child's unhappiness causes a kind of pain that you only understand too late, when you're already a parent. I suppose it has to be that way. We have to approach parenthood with serene innocence. If it ever occurred to us that it might be our child's fate to be unhappy, it would be awful.I bet you both did everything right, but your boy has his own quirks, which he will work out in his own time - and I bet too that your help will make it easier. I hope you and your wife manage to relax and forget things at home a bit occasionally - I recommend strong drink. It's a great solace ('in moderation' as the government would no doubt insist I say)

Steerforth said...

zmkc - Forgive this late response, but I've been away for a week.

I quite agree with you. A nice bottle of something acts as a decompression chamber between the chaos of the day and the brief respite of the evening. Our bottle recycling bag bulges a little more than most of our neighbours' ones, but it keeps us sane.

Biscuit said...

Steerforth, this made me tear up as well. I look forward to your doggy adventures.

(@Rog - har!)

Christopher Butler said...

Hello there, I've been a long-time reader of yours and find myself regularly sharing your posts with others. Just wanted to say thank you for what you do.

I've been producing a yearly "mixbook" for the past four years and included this post in this year's volume. See explanation here: http://www.newfangled.com/a_year_of_ideas_volume_4

I would love to send you a copy. If you'd like that, please email me at chris@newfangled.com.

Thanks again, and keep this up.

- Chris Butler