Thursday, 10 February 2011

The gaps in my story

For anyone who cares to wonder...

* * *

"Mr Willoughby, your son Jossie is a low-functioning autistic. He will never have a normal life."

These words were issued by a serious-minded woman in the equally austere setting of a London clinic. It was January, 2008, but the sights, sounds and smells will stay with me forever.

I looked sideways at Janet. Her face seemed to reflect the way mine probably now appeared. I felt terror, agony, helplessness.

And something had been making it worse. Jossie was two years and one month then, but I had always known there was a problem. I saw it in his face the moment he was handed to me in hospital.

But I never said a word. Not to Janet, not to my parents, not to anyone. For every few minutes of every day for two years, I desperately tried to make the whole thing go away.

Like a fool, I sought alternative explanations and abandoned common sense. But I was constantly reminded of my folly: the way his eyes didn't meet with mine; the way he didn't seem to react to his sister's prompts to learn; the way he did not indulge himself with imaginary play.

The story I told myself never made sense. I read book after book on cognitive development, looking for this condition or that, something milder and less permanent which would explain the symptoms burned into my consciousness.

Of course, I never found an explanation, except the one I feared the most. Why didn't I voice my fears to someone? Why didn't I act rationally, honestly, openly?

Somehow I felt I had to hang onto hope. As if reality might just morph into it, if only I kept quiet.

I hoped I might look into Jossie's cot one night and finally see him looking back at me. Night after night my desperate hopes came to nothing. But to acknowledge his condition would be to extinguish the same chance tomorrow. So I continued the delusion.

It is no coincidence that I screwed up a couple of important friendships about then. To be fair to both, they hung in longer than I would have.

The day that humourless pediatrician delivered the hammer blow was in some ways a relief. Even this did not mitigate the nascent feeling of terror, however. To hear her stoic words - framed by the spiritless surrounds of bleached, white walls - was like getting the sack in the office at the end of the world.

The fact I was on Racing UK less than two hours later was tragi-comic. I must have been like sitting next to a ghost for Angus. I told him what had happened in vague terms; he asked if I was alright about 37 times.

It would have to be Nad Al-Sheba. Even in the pit of despair, absurdity can penetrate low mood. Some of the racing at the Dubai Carnival those days was surreally bad. There were more bandages on display than the place I had just come from.

I got through the shift, thanks to my friend. But that day started a journey of despair. I don't do things by half and what I did half-killed me.

That night, after Janet had gone to bed,  I walked round and round the living room. I reminded myself that at least I had been given a decent brain; I reasoned that Jossie's salvation was within my power. (This, I later recognised, is the manifestation of Freud's morality-based concept of super-ego.)

It was soon clear that medical science has only scratched the surface of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I distrust academia and so managed to convince myself they might have missed something. (Now, this seems beyond ridiculous to admit.)

So, I started to teach myself neurobiology. On trips to my parents in Dewsbury, I bought books from Borders; on visits to the office at Canary Wharf, I stopped at Foyles in Charing Cross.

I learned about the interplay between thoughts, perception, feelings and behaviour. Most profound of all was the effect of diet on brain chemistry. Soon, I suggested we get Jossie on a special diet. It has helped a lot.

Janet did all the work, of course. She got up even earlier to bake special bread, biscuits and cakes; she added extra vitamins and lowered the dose of others. We still think endlessly about modifications and tinker more than Claudio Ranieri. I admit some of it is for my sake.

I started staying up until 3am, endlessly leafing through books and academic papers I bought online. I was like a mad scientist.

I speed-read through complex material, skipped parts I did not understand (most of it) or felt was not relevant (the remainder). I was desperately searching for a moment of enlightenment.

Except you don't find an awakening when you should be going to bed. I started waking up with my head on the computer keyboard.

And that's when my work started to suffer. I had no energy to engage with the material. I tried harder and harder but my stuff became so bland that people began to understand it!

So, I gradually cut out freelance gigs. Then I gave up Racing UK, first partly and then completely - my Racing Post contract made things awkward anyway.

I wanted to make more and more time in the search of an answer. It was then I first had the notion of giving up work altogether.

In September, 2009, I wrote a resignation letter and headed off to give it to Bruce at Canary Wharf. But I never got as far as his office door.

John Cobb got to me first: those of you who have encountered him will know he is one of the kindest and most compassionate men there is.

He must have picked up something. Whatever, he managed to subvert my desperation on the spot. He took me to the canteen and told me not to resign but to ask for a sabbatical.

I did this and Bruce granted it with no hesitation. I wasn't in any state to be making the decision to resign.

But a reduction in work commitments only allowed more time to ruminate. Now, the work goes on much more slowly. Then, it was still manic.

I have needed the last 14 months to reach peace with the decision to leave. But my motives also became different.

Fortunately, there came a point when I was brought to my senses. I fell over in the street while walking my dog. Like Tony Soprano, I thought it was a brain tumour and I was dying. It turned out to be Labyrinthitis - a viral infection of the inner ear which results in severe vertigo and sometimes triggers panic-like symptoms.

Unfortunately, the resulting effect on my vestibular system (the co-ordination of sensory and visual stimuli which provides balance) is chronic. I am going to be battling it for a while yet.

My sabbatical changed my feelings about the Racing Post. I was there nearly 15 years and every one was tremendous. But now it felt like the end of an era had been triggered; that it was time for a change.

I developed an endemic need for a new challenge. I felt it to my core, it did not need a fresh stimulus and it would not go away.

I was ready because I had got over the mindless obsession with finding a miracle cure for autism. Better still, I had started to treat Jossie like any loving Dad does an ordinary child.

I can't play football in the backyard with him or teach him the piano. And, luckily for him, I will never be able to talk to him about expected value, logistic regression or Markov chains.

He will not feel romantic love or even empathy, shared experience or the joy of knowledge. But neither will he fight, hate, envy nor destroy. 

But the joy for his father can be found in the little things. It might be the way he chuckles when his obsessive games are disrupted; it might be the way he has learned to order numbers and letters by rote; most emotively, it is in his clearly expressed sense of aesthetics.

I have thought about the last point repeatedly. Here am I, wrapped up in the material world, forever casting around in the chaos of the past or the uncertainty of the future. I don't make time to smell the roses.

But Jossie will stop on a walk and look at the branches of a tree. God knows what he sees but it captivates his attention, draws him into the beauty of nature and brings him back to the same spot time and again.

Screw logistic regression. I wish I could do that.

Nowadays, I look on his cognitive development in a much more tranquil way. And where I tried to lead, I have now learned to follow; where I tried to command, I now only shepherd.

And, as I have regained connection with my humanity, the joy of racing has returned. I don't mind admitting I had lost touch with the emotional content of watching racehorses.

It is strange but the Arc helped to bring it back. And I had never really got Sea The Stars to that point.

I don't want to write articles in the Racing Post anymore because I have explored all the possibilities the medium can offer. It is nobody's fault and there is no cause for regret.

It's not that I yearn for something necessarily better, just something different. It doesn't need to be high-profile or high-powered. I just want to live in the moment again and be around people. And I'll make the most of any creative opportunity which comes my way.

Clearly, I also need to earn money to support my family. But I figure that will come. And if it doesn't, I will make it. I am prepared for any eventuality.

There are too many people at the RP to thank individually. I wish those at the paper all the best and will continue to have a high opinion of everyone.

And that's it. You can hit me up on Twitter nowadays @Prof_Hindsight. I have chosen that name because a punter in the bookies where I used to work would tease me with it.

Thanks for reading. The vast majority of posts will be a lot shorter and live up to the title of this blog.

Best regards.