Monday 11 August 2008

After the quake

In the weeks since Euan's diagnosis I have come to think of our family as akin to a city hit by an earthquake. In case the comparison seems disproportionate, I should make clear what I mean: autism was something we didn't anticipate and were unprepared for, something which ruptured the foundations of our family life and transformed its landscape utterly. Until we came to terms with the shock and dealt with its immediate aftermath, we would languish in grief and confusion. Of course, taking care of the aftermath didn't involve anything as harrowing as removing broken bodies from the rubble of buildings, but in a fundamental sense we had to accept that our lives had been changed for ever by an external force.
The emergence of Euan's autism was bound up with a period of turmoil in my own life and well-being. To invoke the quake metaphor again, it was only once we started to clear the debris that the connection became clear. At the time all I understood was that the life I had aspired to, the middle-class dream of a house, a marriage, a steady job and happy, healthy, smiling children, had turned sour. Instead we had a child we hardly understood, who frequently left us exasperated as trips to the shops or the park became a series of small battles for his attention. Euan learned how to operate the CD player, and then played his favourite CDs over and over again until he knew them by heart. Once he did he would spend large portions of the day standing in the kitchen singing to himself, only pausing to eat or go to bed.
Things came apart at the seams. When I wasn't feeling a failure as a father, I was querying Magteld's methods ceaselessly, first in my mind, and then to her face. She responded by becoming angry and withdrawn; weeks went by when we hardly spoke. I began to seek refuge in the office and regarded weekends as short, sharp prison sentences, to be endured rather than enjoyed. Everything I had once cherished, I now resented. I devised increasingly fanciful ways of escaping my straitened family circumstances, while Magteld's thoughts were occupied with plans to go back to Holland with the children and start a new life there. We stopped just short of splitting up; a generation ago, when autism was less readily acknowledged or understood, we certainly would have done. But the whole episode affected our relationship and our mental health in ways we once would have thought ourselves immune from.
Many cities, in rebuilding after an earthquake, reinvent themselves in spectacular ways. The catastrophic event forces them to confront the shortcomings in their civic life and gives them the impetus to undergo bold and ambitious regeneration schemes. Devastation is a catalyst for revival. I feel the same principle can work for families such as ours. Since we began to accept Euan suffers from a neurological disorder, and especially since he was diagnosed, we have begun to adjust to the new demands in our lives and been able to look to the future without being overwhelmed by fear. The aftershocks will be felt for some time yet, but the foundations are still in place. The challenge is to go back to the drawing board and build anew.