The Hidden Village of Aspergers

January 20, 2015

Falling In Love Again

 It’s neither blunt nor bland
It’s Edward Scissorhands
It’s naughty and sublime
Like the Bride of Frankenstein

Anyone who expects all blended families to be like the Brady Bunch is in for a world of disappointment. Sometimes they’re more like the warring clans of the Naruto universe, or characters from Shameless. I’ve been in two. The first time around, I was miserable and felt like I didn’t belong among the horde of new relatives. The second time around, it worked. Both families clicked.

I won’t go into details about my stepbrother and stepsister, in order to protect their privacy, except to say that both are in their teens. He’s a breakdancer and choreographer in the making, she’s into acting and singing. They are two wonderful kids. They’ve been very kind and supportive towards my mum and her alcoholism, and neither of them were freaked out when I had a meltdown in Germany in 2012. I feel more comfortable around then than I do around my last set of stepsiblings, who I didn’t get and who never got me.

When my mum announced in 1995 that she and her then boyfriend were going to get married, I cried. I was angry with her and accused her of replacing Dad. It was only two years after he’d died and I didn’t feel ready at all for a new father figure in my life. I’ve never coped well with change, and having to take on a new family, three new stepsiblings and various extended family, was a lot to deal with. But I learned to like her boyfriend, and to swallow my sadness and try and look on the positive side of things – at least Mum was happy. None of us knew at the time how things were going to turn out. I read Anne Fine’s Goggle-Eyes a lot around that time, as I identified with Kitty, the heroine. She too was the daughter of a right-on feminist mother with a background in CND, and she too was having to get used to a new man in her mother’s life, who was older and more conservative. (The only difference was that Kitty’s parents were divorced, while my mum was a widow.) She learned to get on with him eventually, and I hoped it would be the same for me, and it was, at first. With my brother, it was a different story. He and my ex-stepdad hated each other, and I am not using that word lightly.

To cut a long story short, my mum and my ex-stepdad split up in 2008. It had been coming for a while. My brother wasn’t bothered, but I was, because it was another big change, and because I was more ambivalent about my ex-stepfather; after all, he’d taken me to a Sheffield Wednesday match (I’d wanted to go to one for ages), he’d been kind to me at my maternal gran’s funeral and when he found out I was cutting myself, and when I came out as bisexual, he was totally fine with it. But little things started to dawn on me; he’d never come to visit me while I was at university, for instance, and he’d seemed fairly unconcerned about me when Mum had told him I’d be upset about the divorce. He cast me and my brother off like so much trash, and that hurt. I eventually cut all ties with him in 2009, and haven’t looked back.

Mum started dating again after they split up, mainly guys off the internet, though nothing came of it. Then I found out she’d been in touch with Richard, an old boyfriend of hers from university who she stayed friends with after the split. We’d visited him a few times when my brother and I were kids, and I always remembered him as the Tintin Man because of all the Tintin stuff he had – books, figures, and so on. He’d split up with his wife and he and Mum had been phoning and emailing each other. Eventually, one thing led to another and they got back together. I wasn’t upset this time, just relieved that Mum was happy and that it was someone we knew this time.

Richard became more a part of my life as the years went by, and now it’s 2015 and he and Mum are living together (have been since 2013), and my stepbrother’s at Bournemouth and my stepsister’s in Sixth Form, and they’re talking about getting married, and we had our third Christmas together last month (although the stepsiblings were at their mum’s, so I missed them this time). This time round, I’m prepared. For a start, I’m older and I already know what it’s like to be in a blended family, but also, I’ve had years to get to know my new stepfamily, and this change isn’t scaring me. Plus, we’re not living together, so we’re not in each other’s faces. OK, I did have a bit of a wibble when Mum moved down south, mainly because I would miss her old house and because I couldn’t just hop on a train whenever I was in a crisis (Manchester to Cambridge is three and a half hours’ journey, at least). Unlike my previous stepfamily, I feel like I belong. I don’t feel I have to pretend to be something I’m not. They knew what they were taking on, and Christmas isn’t the awkwardly formal and overcrowded occasion it was with my last stepfamily.

I’m not angry with Mum for marrying my ex-stepdad. She was getting over my dad’s death and she was lonely and unhappy and none of us knew what an utter douchebag he was going to turn out to be. What’s past is past. For all those other people with Aspergers in blended families, though, I hope you get stepfamilies who love and understand you and don’t treat you like some kind of embarrassment. Change is hard, new people coming into your life and staying there is hard, but it’s a bonus if they’re new people you can get along with.

September 26, 2014

Attack of the Mutant 50 Foot Kebab

When your starving pitbull starts to eat your leg
You have to watch your children beg and beg

TW: eating disorders

In December this year, I’m going to see the Manic Street Preachers playing their third album, The Holy Bible, in its entirety. It’s one of my favourite albums of all time. However, there is one bit I’m dreading, and that’s when they play ‘4st 7lb’, a song about anorexia which contains lyrics such as ‘I want to walk in the snow and not leave a footprint’ and ‘Mother tries to choke me with roast beef, but sits savouring her sole Ryvita’. If you look up the song on Youtube, you’ll find dozens of ‘thinspo’ videos set to the song. What Richey Edwards, an anorexic himself, would have thought, I do not know; the song, if anything, is anti-anorexia. The lyrics are filled with horror and despair under the ‘isn’t anorexia great?’ exterior. The girl in the song hates food. She doesn’t see it as comforting, warm, nourishing, delicious, even healthy; it is her enemy. At the beginning of the song, there is a sample of Caraline Neville-Lister, a severely anorexic woman who eventually died of the disease, saying, “I eat too much to die, and not enough to stay alive. I’m sitting in the middle, waiting.” When I was younger, I envied the ‘discipline’ of anorexics; now I look back and cringe. I am trying to have a healthier relationship with food, but it’s not an easy process. I write this after having eaten a large amount of Ritz crackers and thrown them up.

Food. My relationship with it is complex. I eat it, I cook it, I talk about it, I swap cookery tips with friends and reblog pictures of cakes on Tumblr, I have a cupboard full of cookery books given to me by family members and copies of Sainsbury’s Magazine, I regularly visit my local greengrocer (Withington Fruit & Veg) and used to buy vegetables at my local monthly market. When it’s my birthday, or friends’ birthdays, I go out for meals with friends, to Pizza Express or a curry house; we share sides between us or try each other’s dishes. Back when I went to synagogue, a group of us – mainly converts – would go out for a meal afterwards. The food is even more delicious at the end of Yom Kippur, when you’ve been sat in a long and draining service and had nothing to eat or drink for hours. One thing that got me interested in Judaism was the love of food, and how interlinked it is with faith. On Pesach, my favourite festival, we have the seder meal (and it’s much more fun when you’re with your mates and you’re all a bit pissed, communal sederim are a bit formal sometimes); on Chanukah, we have doughnuts and latkes; on Shavuot, we have dairy; on Tu B’Shvat, we have loads of fruit, and so on.

Baking has become a trendy thing in the UK, and I actually find this rather pleasing because I’ve always loved baking. When I was a toddler, I learned to bake, as did my brother (whose cooking is out of this world). When Jack and I were teenagers, we were so into baking that sometimes we’d compete for kitchen space. Carrot cake was his speciality and brownies were mine. Delia Smith was the queen of TV chefs, and I learned everything about the basics of cooking from her. Both Jack and I cooked the odd meal. In my family, particularly on my mum’s side, cooking was and is not considered a gendered activity, and everyone does it, except a couple of cousins (although one of them is getting better). There is a running joke on my mum’s side of the family about my maternal gran’s secret stuffing recipe and how many times we’ve tried to replicate it. My cousin Andy has recently got into cake decorating (and not just him – his mum, my auntie Chris, my dad’s sister, made an amazing football-themed cake for my cousin Laura’s birthday earlier this year). My dad cooked, as did my ex-stepdad, and the current one does too (he makes some very nice pasta meals and grows his own vegetables and fruit in an allotment). Jack and I were both packed off to uni with more cooking equipment than you could shake a stick at; my housemates would often steal my garlic crusher, as I was the only person in the flat who had one. Some of my earliest memories are food-related, such as eating duck à l’orange out of a metal tray when I was very little, or coming home from tennis club to find my dad cooking pasta in the kitchen. My ex-stepdad was very big on roast dinners on Sundays. I always dreaded doing the washing-up on Sundays because there was so much stuff to clean, and fat was a bugger to get out of things. This might be one of the reasons why I went vegetarian in 2004, although mainly it was not liking meat. (No kebabs for me, then.)

On the negative side, however, there is the comfort eating, the guilt and the shame that comes with it. I’ve written about bulimia before, and how I’d comfort eat, binge and purge when stressed or unhappy. Recently, I was in Cambridge, visiting my parents. My mum spent most of the weekend in bed, and at one point I went to the Co-Op, bought a packet of crisps and a bag of chocolate raisins, ate them and threw them up. I’m hoping that if and when I see the local mental health services, I will tackle this.

How does this tie in with Aspergers? I think it’s because of my enhanced senses and being sensitive to noise and textures and lights – it stands to reason I’d be sensitive to tastes and smells. There are some foods which I just cannot eat because they make me gag. Aubergines, for instance, and bananas (though I’m OK with banana cake), and cabbages, and swede (I blame school dinners). I also have a raging hate-on for coriander leaves. It’s also the reason, I think, why I like spicy food and prefer to use herbs or spices rather than salt, not to mention the amount of garlic I get through. I am a vampire’s nightmare.

Finally, to end this post and tie in with the Space theme, when Space toured the UK with Republica in March, one hardcore fan, Andy Wilton, brought a cake that his mum had made to the Newcastle gig. It was shaped like a doner kebab. The band loved it and, if I recall correctly, got through it very quickly. (One of my many happy Space memories of last year, incidentally was eating dinner with them; they ordered a Chinese takeaway in the dressing room at St Helens last year, and I ate some leftovers as I hadn’t had much for tea.) I’ve used food as a way to show love or appreciation for someone. (As has Jack – he made a beautiful fairy castle cake for his mate Woody in high school, and he used to bring cakes into clubs. I’m not kidding. He’d put the tin in his rucksack.) When two of my friends got married, I made them cupcakes (and beforehand, I made a chocolate cake which we took to the Wendy House for her hen night), and another time I made them a tin of Rocky Road, with a jar of Bovril in the middle. When my auntie Nicky put me up at her house when I went to see Space in 1998, I made her gingerbread as a thankyou present. I made chocolate fridge cake for my best mate one Christmas, and I’ve made several birthday cakes for my mother over the years. One year, I made her a cheesecake which nearly went horribly wrong, but luckily I had a Plan B. It wasn’t aesthetically pleasing and Mary Berry would not have approved, but no-one cared. My stepdad and his kids were there, as was Jack and possibly his girlfriend, and I sang the Cuppycake Gumdrops song. We ate dinner around a tiny table. It was magical. That is food for me in a nutshell; not just fuel, not just tastes and smells and textures, but also a bonding experience.

March 25, 2014

Gravity

You’ve lost all the feeling in your heart and soul
It’s not enough to cry

We all knew the end was coming.

In that respect, we were lucky. A friend of a friend’s dad had gone to play tennis and never came home; he’d died of a heart attack. On 11th September 2001, eight years after my dad died, firemen and passengers alike were killed in a terrorist attack, their children unable to escape from the horrible images on TV and in the press for days on end. On 15th April 1989, several kids in Liverpool waved goodbye to their fathers as they went off to watch a football match in Sheffield, never to return. Other children have had to wait for days, weeks, months, not knowing if their fathers are alive or dead, until the dreadful news finally comes. That was the one advantage we had; we knew. Mum and Dad were always honest with us. Unlike my best friend at the time, who only found out her mother was dying through overheard conversations, we were told everything. There was no bullshit, no whitewashing.

All we could do was wait.

We had had a false alarm at one point; it looked as though he was going to be OK. But from the beginning of 1993, he went into rapid decline and had to move in with my paternal gran in St Annes-on-Sea; he was in a nursing home for a bit, but it was pretty bad. He gained a load of weight on steroids and sent letters typed on Gran’s typewriter and – thank G-d – was around long enough to meet Laura, his new baby niece. In September, on the day Jack was supposed to start primary school and I was supposed to start Year 5. Instead, we found ourselves on a train to Lancashire. Jack explained that Dad was going to die any minute. Me not getting my priorities right, I was pissed off because I was worried about missing school. We spent a few days with Gran and Auntie Chris and her family, and said goodbye to Dad, who was in hospital by this time.

That was when I experienced death for the first time, the realisation that people you love won’t be around forever. For days, I couldn’t believe he’d gone. It must have been worse for Mum – just being surrounded by reminders of him everywhere, the ties he would never wear again, the CDs he would never play again, the empty space next to her in bed. No wonder she went crazy. My memories of the time are patchy, but I do recall going to a friend’s house the day after, presumably because Mum was too worn out with grief to pay much attention to us.

Why do I write about this so much? This was the event that pushed me over the edge. It’s not the only time a death in the family pushed me over the edge; my maternal gran’s death in 2005 was one of the things that led to me trying to kill myself. I acted up in school. I could never handle change, but this massive change had hit me, soon to be followed by another one when Mum decided she couldn’t stand living in Brighton anymore, and the bottom had dropped out of my world. Little things got to me, and still do. The Lion King still makes me and Jack cry (and if you’re a kid who’s lost a parent, watch it – it is a fantastic film for bereaved kids to see and it came out at the right time for us), as does Home Alone 2, the last film we saw at the cinema with Dad. The funeral was hell – I’m glad Jack and I went, as it gave us the chance to say goodbye, but seeing Gran collapse and have to be carried out of the chapel by two men, and the coffin going into the incinerator, and grown men and women crying – it was too much to take in.

We didn’t want to scatter the ashes, so Mum went alone one day while we were at school and threw them in the sea. Seeing my maternal gran’s ashes freaked me out enough, seeing what looked like something you’d scatter on your driveway and realising it used to be a person – I could not have handled that at nine years old.

The other massive change that came as a result of Dad’s death was what it did to Mum. She and Dad were always close; they never argued. They loved each other to pieces. Dad dying broke her. We went on holiday to Menorca in 1994 and she spent most of it in bed with stress-induced migraines, while Jack and I amused ourselves in the swimming pool. In April of that year, Mum used some of the money Dad had left us to take us to Australia to see Auntie Debby, Mum’s older sister, and her family. We spent nearly a month there. When it was time to return to England, Mum broke down at the airport. I was still getting accustomed to seeing her cry. Adults crying confused me. I thought it was something only kids did. I couldn’t get my head around why she was ill all the time. Seeing someone you’ve known all your life acting out of character throws you.

I talked before about strong emotions in Mister Psycho, and how for a lot of people with Aspergers, everything is intense. We love intensely and hate intensely. We see black and white, not grey. When we love someone, we put them on a pedestal and act like the sun shines out of their arse, and are surprised and disappointed when they show any kind of flaw. We cannot always find the words or means to deal with strong emotions. Maybe that was why Dad’s death broke me. He’d been a massive part of my life for nine years, and now he was gone, and the despair manifested itself through behaving badly at school, crying all the time, running out of class, skiving, hyperventilating, being unable to interact with large groups of people, and Mum didn’t know what the hell to do with me, and the rest is history.

March 17, 2014

Everybody In The Madhouse

If you’re cool, I hope you’re lucky
I hope your life is fulfilled
If you’re bad, I hope you rot in Hell
Or get run over by a train

Ah, primary school. Stanford Junior in Brighton, to be exact. Some of the best years of my life, and one of the worst (my annus horribilis, 1993). Most of the people I knew, it seems, are still living in Brighton. Helen, who was my best mate back then, is married (and I cried when I found out – not out of jealousy but out of joy, because she’s had a hard life and I’m just relieved she’s happy). Many others have kids. It seems so long ago, but I can still remember it as clear as day.

Primary school wasn’t as bad as high school for bullying, though I do remember an older boy threatening me with a knife in Year 3, and another boy stealing my hat, and other kids certainly thought I was weird. I remember breaking out into song one time in class and the other kids would not let it go, and I wished the ground would swallow me. Helen was picked on a lot by other girls in our class, and there was only so much I could do. She was probably the only real friend I had, although there were others I got on with. A group of us would walk to and from school, and for some reason, on the way back, they’d walk through the infant school and I didn’t want to for some reason, and Kate, the group leader, would lie to me about things happening, and I believed her. She claimed she was doing it to prepare me for the future, to help me. Somehow, I doubt that.

One of my proudest moments was writing the script for our class play for assembly, ‘Pandora’s Box’, when we were doing Greek myths. Primary school was where I discovered a love of writing and history, and later on, languages. We learned French in Year 6, presumably because of being on the coast. This bit me in the arse somewhat in high school, as I was way ahead of most of the class and ended up being bored. We did shows at the Dome – I remember doing one where I was dressed up as a male evacuee. My memories of primary school are fractured. Dressing up as a policeman to sing ‘A Policeman’s Lot’ when we were doing the Victorians. Mrs Cairns, my teacher in Year 5/6, writing a little poem for me in my leaving book. Reading Chalet School books. Jack giving me a thumbs-up from the stage when his class were doing a play. A trip to the museum, where I failed to copy a David Hockney painting. Playing short tennis in the playground and coming home to Dad cooking pasta with tomato sauce. Playing girls’ football and being rubbish at it. Trying to make one of the teachers laugh, as part of an activity day where different teachers hosted different activities. Walking out of assembly in front of everyone else. Writing a story about a character who ate too much chocolate and vomited copiously. Dad winning a jar of pickled beetroot in a raffle and Mum refusing to let him bring it in the house because of the smell. Those were the days. I only have to hear Blur’s ‘End Of A Century’ again and I’m in the classroom on the final day of primary school, before we all went off to the Big School and started to grow up.

It was in primary school that my symptoms started to really come out, and luckily, there was support. After Dad died, I saw a counsellor at school and it helped somewhat, though I still had crying fits and an abject fear of anything unusual happening. I talked more about it here. The other major change that occurred during primary school was my mum meeting J, my future stepdad (not to be confused with Richard, the current one, although I did meet Richard when I was a kid). If I recall correctly, she found him through a Lonely Hearts page in a newspaper. She’d been dating various guys, but J was The One. When Mum told us she and J were getting married, I cried a lot and accused her of wanting to replace Dad; it was only two years after his death. Jack, ironically considering how much he and J ended up hating each other, was fine with it. I liked him at first – I compared him a lot to Gerald, the heroine’s mum’s boyfriend in Goggle-Eyes by Anne Fine – and made myself adjust to the fact that I was living in a new town and going to a high school where I wouldn’t know anyone. Had I stayed in Brighton, I would have gone to Varndean, but instead, I found myself at an induction day at Christleton High School, before seven years of hell began.

March 15, 2014

I Am Unlike A Lifeform You’ve Ever Met

Filed under: books,childhood — kankurette @ 11:36 am
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I’m a midnight creeper, an all-day sleeper
Waiting for the night, I feel I’m gonna meet her

“Books,” my mum once said, “are like food to Lotte.” She wasn’t kidding.

One of my biggest pet peeves regarding misconceptions of people with Aspergers is the idea that we don’t have an imagination. We do. Just because I am very literal does not mean I don’t have an imagination. I can’t speak for all people on the spectrum, everyone’s experience is different, but I definitely remember writing stories, creating characters and worlds, and playing dress-up and other imaginary games with Jack or my friends. I remember us both being obsessed with the Disney version of Robin Hood, and playing games where he’d be Robin and I’d be Maid Marian. We’d also play at Thunderbirds, or being Top of the Pops presenters, and we wrote a fanfic together on my dad’s old typewriter, about the Famous Five. Sadly, it was lost years ago, but I do remember the word ‘vagabond’ was used a lot, Julian’s catchphrase was ‘I know, I know’ and variants thereof, and they ended up eating Timmy. In school and at home, I wrote poetry and stories. I drew pictures. I invented characters – my most notorious one was Mike Mushroom, an anthropomorphic mushroom who I drew on all my books at school and my desk. Mum thought it was something to do with Dad dying. Maybe it was, I don’t know. Like a lot of kids with Aspergers, I was obsessed with Sonic the Hedgehog (although I grew out of it once I grew out of gaming) and Thomas the Tank Engine, and I used to draw pictures of Sonic and Tails on my books. I also had imaginary pets – an entire menagerie – as Mum and Dad wouldn’t let us have a cat. I definitely remember having two dogs called Anne Albertine and Claire Beetroot. Again, I have no idea where these names came from.

Then, of course, there were books.

Franny & Zooey. The Very Hungry Caterpillar (there is a tape of me, aged two, reading it aloud). The Lost Continent. Mrs Pig’s Bulk Buy. Jill Investigates. The Chalet School and Nancy Drew books. The Women’s Room. Is It Just Me, Or Is Everything Shit? Ladder Of Years. Paul Jennings’ short stories. All these are books I’ve loved, and read and re-read until the spines cracked and pages came loose. Some people find the idea of re-reading books weird, but for me, it’s a mixture of familiarity and the fact that I pick up on things I may have missed the first time around. My house is full of the damn things. There are books piled up on the bookshelves in my kitchen and my living room, on the windowsills in my bedroom, in a basket in the toilet (I read on the toilet and in the bath), on my chest of drawers. Some are presents, some are from charity shops, some are nicked off my parents. When I’m on holiday or going to gigs out of town, I take books with me. I can remember taking Linda Goodman’s Love Signs to Space’s Leeds gig, When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelsohn to their St Helens gig, Sue Townsend’s Rebuilding Coventry to Hebden Bridge in the summer, and Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman to Birmingham in October. In Germany in 2012, I slogged through Moby-Dick, and Tori Amos’ Piece By Piece kept me company in between watching bands at Primavera Sound last year. One time, while visiting Jack in London, Mum left me in Foyle’s, and I could have happily spent the day there. As a kid, I gave zero fucks about clothes shopping; it was bookshops, and later music shops, that got me interested. Also, and I know this is a massive cliche, I love the smell of old books. I think it has something to do with being sensitive to smells. (I’m not one of those people who’s anti-Kindle, by the way. I think Kindle is a great idea, though not for everyone.) Both my parents are/were readers, as is my stepdad, whose book collection makes mine look miniscule (sometimes I worry about taking books off his bookshelves in case a pile of books falls on my head and brains me). There is a photo of me as a toddler pulling books off a shelf. Apparently I did this a lot. My parents also learned the hard way that I would read anything, including things that weren’t suitable for a little kid. The awkward moment when you’ve read Lern Yerself Scouse and you sing ‘get plasterd, yew basterd’ on your dad’s birthday, and wonder why your family are staring at you…

I have never been much of a TV person. Depriving me of TV was never a good punishment for me because I would just read instead. Maybe it’s because TV has the sights and sounds all laid out, whereas with books, you only have words to rely on, but words can paint pictures of their own. I like getting lost in a book and imagining what the characters look like and being sucked into their worlds – Panem, Ankh-Morpork, the Tiern See, the America of Brave New World, O Henry’s New York and Wild West, Hogwarts, the Glass family’s living room. When I was having a bad time at school, books were my comfort. They may not have taught me how to interact with people – though The Women’s Room changed the way I saw the world – but they took my mind off the bullying and the loneliness. Like Space, they were my escape route. Like Anne of Green Gables, one of my favourite fictional characters as a kid, my imagination was one of the greatest weapons in my arsenal.

March 10, 2014

Avenging Angels

Angel, oh angel, here to brighten up my darkest day
Take me in your arms, protect me from my enemies
Oh deadly angel, oh angel, and when they’ve got me on my knees
When I’m just about to do the deadly deed, you rescue me

The song I chose for this blog post is the song I love the most by Space, because it was written by a man who was very close to his father, who wanted to write the kind of songs his father would like, and who coped with his father’s death by writing Avenging Angels. When I heard the story behind it, it made me feel comforted, to know that a singer I loved understood how I felt. Like Tommy Scott, I adored my dad, Andy Holmes. He was, and still is, one of my heroes. Like Tommy Scott, I feel as though my father is watching over me, from wherever he is now. I sometimes worry I’ll forget him, even with my ridiculous photographic memory, but I won’t. All I have to do to remember my dad is look in the mirror.

Those dark eyes, that nose, that acne-scarred, pockmarked skin (though his was worse), that unruly dark brown hair, that profile – all those I inherited from him. I like to think I got my writing ability from him as well, though I’d be happy if I was only one-tenth as talented as he was – he was a journalist for the Financial Times and edited a magazine called Power in Europe, as well as writing the odd article for Greenpeace on the side, and he was on the editorial team for Brig, the Stirling University student paper.

What does this have to do with Aspergers? Well, Dad’s death was the catalyst for my diagnosis, and to show you just what an impact it had on my life, I have to explain just what a big part of my life Dad was. He was, after all, half of me. I was always quite the daddy’s girl. I used to love playing board games with him and having him read to me and dancing around the kitchen with him to the Pogues. We shared a love of language and wordplay; he got me into Edward Lear’s limericks (the one about the bear always reminds me of him), and we had these characters to help teach me words and shapes. The one I always remember is Snoopy the Snake, with an opera ticket in his hat. He introduced me to greengages. He loved exotic fruit. In fact, he loved his food generally, although, like me, he was a pescatarian (no moral issues; he just didn’t like meat). He used to tell me outrageous lies about how haggises were birds with square heads, and I believed him. He wasn’t perfect. He had off days, just like any other parent. But I loved him. I loved it when he would come home from work and play with us, or when he’d take us to the park to give Mum some alone time, or when he’d take us to the cinema. I always associate Home Alone 2 with him, since it was the last film he took us to before he died. I loved Sundays in Hove Park, when Dad and Jack would play football and I’d mess around on the swings, or the time when Dad took me to his office and I met his colleagues and he took me out for lunch at a Mexican restaurant.  These are the memories I try to keep in mind, not the ones that came later, the hospitals, the cancer, the memory loss, the steroids that made him gain weight, my mum’s panic attacks, the horrible nursing home, the last time we saw him and he was barely capable of speech and had to point at pictures on a card if he needed food and so on. I still find it hard to reconcile the man lying in the hospital bed in Preston with the father I knew.

In Naruto, the manga from which this blog gets its name, Sasuke – the titular character’s rival – has a massive inferiority complex where his older brother Itachi, an immensely talented ninja, is concerned. Sasuke feels as though he is always living in Itachi’s shadow and that he will never feel good enough. Sometimes I feel like that with Dad. It’s not like my family constantly compare my achievements to his and find me lacking. Only I do that. I feel I’ve got to do something, anything, to make him proud of me, though my family tell me he would have been. He never lived to see Jack and I grow from little kids into teenagers and then adults, get our GCSEs, our A-Levels, our degrees. He never lived to see me diagnosed with Aspergers, though he was around when I was in the remedial PE classes, and I wonder how he would have felt if I had been diagnosed before his death. Would he have been in denial that his daughter had something wrong with her? Would he have done everything he could to ensure I got look after at school? It’s one of the things I will never know, so I can only guess. He certainly was never ashamed of me or treated me like a weirdo.

My dad had a lot of connections. He worked for both the Labour and Tory parties, though he was definitely an Old Labour sort of man, and when he died, the likes of Tony Blair sent us cards. I am not kidding. Loads of people – journalists, union reps, politicians – were at his funeral. I had no idea of the impact he had on people and even today, I’m still learning things about him. I watch his TV appearances and remember how I thought very little of it – to me, he wasn’t Andy Holmes, the energy expert, he was my dad. Recently, I went to visit my auntie Chris – Dad’s sister – and she showed me tons of photos of them when they were kids in Greenock. Last year, I went through a box of memorabilia Mum had kept – cards, the eulogy from his funeral, photos. A lot of tears were shed.

He was a warm, funny, intelligent man, a bit of a gentle giant, who loved his family and was loved by many, and it’s twenty-one years on, and I still miss him, but I will always be grateful for the nine years we had together.

March 5, 2014

No One Understands

No one understands me, no one understands
I am not an animal, I am a human being

Throughout infant school and primary school, I knew I was different.

My early memories of Stanford Infant School (1988-1991) are fragmented, but I do remember that I read a lot and I didn’t like playing with other kids. I remember a teacher trying to get me to come out of the wooden house in the playground and play with the other kids. I ended up playing a reluctant game of ‘In and Out the Dusty Bluebells’. I remember some nasty boy called Dylan shoving me off a bench, and getting upset because the teacher wanted us to dance around the room, and having extra PE lessons because I was so rubbish at it. I spoke in a monotone and when I was about nine or ten, Mum told me to try and deepen my voice. Apparently it was too high-pitched or something. I had imaginary friends and sucked my finger. I cried when Mum rearranged the furniture in my bedroom. I couldn’t ride a bike or tie my laces, and I walked down stairs in a weird way; I’d put one foot on a step and then the other foot on the same step, almost walking crabwise, rather than walking down stairs the conventional way. People found the way I held my pencil weird; a psychologist of some kind analysed my handwriting, and I was thought to have dyspraxia. Even now, I get told that I have surprisingly neat handwriting, considering how I hold a pen. Speaking of writing implements, I ate my pencils – I didn’t just chew them, I actually ate the wood. At break times, I used to run around the playground, on my own, lost in my own head. The other kids must have thought I was batshit insane. I did this in primary school, Stanford Junior School, as well.

Then Dad died, and the shit hit the fan.

Again, I can’t remember much, but I do remember freaking out whenever we had a supply teacher or a student taking our classes (and this happened a lot), to the extent that I was sent to go and sit with a junior class (Year 3/4 – my school had mixed-year classes) or the class next door to calm down. I’d cry or hyperventilate. I didn’t know why – it just upset me that we had a strange new teacher, and I very rarely liked them. It didn’t start after Dad died, it had been going on a while before that – I remember being particularly arsey with one student teacher, when I was in Year 4. She must have hated me. I remember going on a school trip with her when we were doing the Tudors, to Lewes or somewhere, and being miserable because I wanted to go home and I wanted my usual teacher. It was a bloody good thing the teachers were nice. They knew bad things were happening at home and that I’d lost my dad – Jack and I started Year 3 and Year 5 respectively a week or two later than the other kids. We had to go up north to Preston in the first week of term to say our goodbyes to Dad, as his time was rapidly running out.

I hated getting shouted at, hated collective punishment – my class made the Bash Street Kids look sane, and we were called into an emergency assembly a few times – hated noise, found group activity difficult. When all the kids were talking loudly, I’d hyperventilate or shove my fingers in my ears. I used to eat in the school secretary’s office because I couldn’t stand the noise in the hall. Sometimes the headmistress would shout at us to keep the noise down, which made me panicky – I’d end up throwing away lunches because of it. I remember chucking out this amazing lunch my mum had made me, and feeling bitter about it afterwards. I’d spent whole days skiving lessons by hiding in the toilets. How I didn’t get bored out of my mind, I don’t know. In short, the oddness was there, but Dad’s death exacerbated it. Mum, Jack and I all went off the deep end. Mum had migraines and panic attacks, and Jack had crying fits, and I acted up in class.

At some point, when I was about ten – this would have been 1994 – I saw a speech therapist who shared my birthday, as it happened. I can’t remember the exact details, but I do remember looking at picture cards and being asked questions about what I’d do if there was an accident, that kind of thing. Apparently my answers were a bit weird and inappropriate and illogical, whatever.

Then Mum got a letter from her saying I had a thing called Aspergers Syndrome.

Not as many people were being diagnosed back in 1994 as they are now. Aspergers wasn’t as widely known back then – there were no Adams, no Sheldon Coopers, no Glee characters faking Aspergers, no Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, though there was Rain fucking Man. At least, though, Mum knew why her daughter was a little freak, and it wasn’t just because her dad had died. The weirdness had a name and the odd behaviour had a cause. Even if it wasn’t something that could be cured, at least she – and by extension, the staff at Stanford Junior – gained a bit more understanding.

March 2, 2014

Neighbourhood

Filed under: childhood — kankurette @ 9:26 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

In a neighbourhood like this, you know, it’s hard to survive
So you’d better come prepared ‘cos they won’t take us alive
Oh, if you find the time please come and stay a while
In my beautiful neighbourhood

I was born in Guy’s Hospital in London in the spring of 1984. I came out on time, perhaps marking the anal retentive worrier I would later become (my brother Jack, however, who was born in 1986 and is more laid-back than me, came out nine days late).

I have lived in four different cities: London, Brighton, Chester and my current home of Manchester. Of all these cities, although I love Manchester, Brighton is the city that will always have a place in my heart. Whenever I go down there, I feel a pull; I walk on the beach and I’m a little kid again. I remember how Mum went down there one day while Jack and I were at school, and scattered Dad’s ashes. I swim in the Prince Regent baths and I remember the days when me and Mum and Jack would go for a swim and then a pizza. I’m at Preston Park station, and I remember my gran getting off the train to meet Dad when he was ill one time, and Dad crying in her arms, and me being shocked because I didn’t realise grown-ups cried. I’m looking at the rails where Dad used to drop off the frogs that hopped into our garden after capturing them and putting them in jars (Mum has a phobia of amphibians). I’m in Hove Park and I’m playing on the swings while Jack and Dad play football. And so on. I think I will move back there one day, but bringing myself round to leaving Manchester is a long and difficult process. I can’t just up and leave. I need plans, I need help packing, I need to know what I’m doing and where I’m going.

I cannot remember the exact reasons why we moved away from London, and my memories of the city itself are blurry, though I remember my auntie Debby’s house, and feeding ducks in our local park, and our purple bath, and going on a boat trip in Greenwich. I do know that the area we lived in was pretty dodgy and my parents were worried about bringing kids up there. My dad worked in London, but when we moved out to Brighton after my brother was born, my parents luckily found a house that was on a hill with a station at the bottom, making it easy for Dad to commute.

When Dad died, Mum wanted to get the hell out of Brighton. She couldn’t stand being in a house filled with memories (and my auntie Chris, Dad’s sister, still can’t go back to Brighton as it reminds her too much of Dad), and wanted to move further north, as my auntie Nicky lived in Manchester, my dad’s family in St Annes, and my maternal gran in Hoylake. We moved to a flat round the corner, but it was a short term fix; Mum considered places such as Altrincham and Wilmslow, finally settling on Chester after she met Jon, the man who would later become my first stepfather, and who lived in the sticks with his kids and dog. So we moved up to Chester in 1995. I started high school – more on that later – and although we alternated between Jon’s house and a rented place, when he and Mum got married, we all moved in together in a big house in the arse end of nowhere. Well, its real name is Christleton, but to kids who’d grown up in cities, it was a culture shock.

I got accepted into Manchester University and lived in halls in first year. Being in a place where buses were frequent, shops were down the road instead of a car journey away and you didn’t have to worry about getting mud on your trousers was a relief. In second year, I moved in with a group of girls in a rather dodgy part of Fallowfield, and that went horribly wrong, and after an overdose and a period where none of them were speaking to me, I moved out and into another hall of residence, on a floor filled with rugger buggers. In third year, I lived in yet another hall of residence, and in my final year, I officially moved out and lived on my own for the first time. The flat was a few minutes’ walk from the university. For a while I was settled, but eventually I wanted to get out and moved to my current place.

Considering I used to freak if my mum moved furniture in the sitting room, you can imagine how moving house felt. I cried my eyes out on leaving Brighton. I felt like a tree torn out at the roots. Saying goodbye to my best friend hurt. Sitting in the car and looking behind me hurt.

I should be used to moving around, but unlike my mother, I get attached to places. Even though most of my mates have left Manchester, and I no longer go to synagogue here, I have a home and a routine and I know where places are. My home is not just bricks and mortar; it represents my ability to live on my own and manage, to an extent. Plus it’s a nice little flat, with a garden and plants out front and a general lack of pissed students wandering around, at least compared to Fallowfield. I think that’s one reason why I’m reluctant to just up sticks and fuck off to Cambridge, where Mum lives now with my current stepdad, his kids and an ageing cat. I’m settled. After years of moving back and forth, from city to country to city, from halls to house to halls to house, I’ve got a home that I own, I’m not surrounded by boxes or coming home to workmen, and leaving this place, selling up, househunting, takes time and energy I do not have.

Some day, I will leave Manchester and return to Brighton. But that day may be a long way off yet.

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