FEW things compare to the feelings of warmth, security and comfort you get after a hug from a parent.
But for Sam Whittick, her father’s love was always just out of reach.
For 19 years Sam, 23, didn’t receive a single hug from her dad Arsenal, 56 – and at age 15, Sam attempted suicide as she blamed herself for her dad’s lack of affection.
It was only when, in 2011, Arsenal was diagnosed with autism – a lifelong development disability that affects how people communicate and relate to others – that his inability to show affection was explained.
Slowly, Sam’s relationship with her dad improved and, three years later on Christmas Day 2014, they hugged for the very first time.
Here Sam explains how that hug was the best Christmas present she could ever have hoped for – and how such a simple gesture healed her heart forever…
Tucking myself into bed, I smiled as mum came in to kiss me goodnight. “Sleep tight,” she said, hugging me tightly.
My mum, Nicola, 40, was kind, cuddly and affectionate, but my dad Arsenal couldn’t have been more different.
He loved planning trips for me and my younger sister Danielle to theme parks, concerts and fun fairs, but if we were hurt or upset, he was unusually distant.
Once, when I was 11, dad took me to the dentist. I was having some teeth pulled out, but my mouth wasn’t fully numb from the anaesthetic.
“It hasn’t worked!” I cried, panicking. “It’s fine, carry on,” dad told the nurse.
As the dentist began working on my teeth I screamed in agony. Thankfully they stopped my treatment, but I left feeling traumatised.
“Didn’t you think there was something wrong?” Mum snapped when we arrived home.
“Kids are always screaming – I thought that was normal,” dad fumed.
I’d never had a single hug from my dad, even as a toddler, but I just assumed it was dad’s responsibility to be the caring, cuddly parent.
He didn’t hug Danielle, who was six years younger than me, either, and while mum and Dad didn’t hold hands, they would occasionally cuddle on the sofa.
It was only during my teens that my dad’s behaviour began to trouble me. He became increasingly insensitive towards me, hating any change to his routine.
If dinner was a minute later than expected, or a single coffee cup was left unwashed, it would send him into tailspin.
When I was 15 I went through a horrible time at school. I fell out with my friends and became stressed about my exams.
My dad worked in a supermarket and didn’t understand why my studies were so important to me, so we argued constantly and I felt emotionally neglected.
“I don’t know what you’re getting so upset about. It’s just reading and writing things down,” he said, coldly. “This is really hard for me,” I cried.
Mum tried to help him see things from my perspective, but he wouldn’t budge. I questioned whether I was going mad, but from mum’s reaction, I recognised my feelings were valid.
One day, after being bullied at school, I returned home upset and emotional. I didn’t want to argue so I just walked up to my dad and placed my head on his shoulder.
“Go on, put your arms around her,” my mum said to him.
Inwardly I was begging him to show me the tiniest shred of love, but it was as though his body had turned to stone and he didn’t move.
Distraught, I ran upstairs crying and locked myself in the bedroom. “He doesn’t love me, and it’s all my fault,” I thought.
That night, when everyone was in bed, I took an overdose. My parents had been arguing about me for hours and I couldn’t take it anymore.
I fled the house at 2am feeling sick and dizzy, but soon after, a police car pulled up beside me. It turned out my friend had contacted my parents, who had called the police.
Thankfully I hadn’t done permanent damage to myself, but by the time the police drove me home, mum was hysterical.
“Thank goodness you’re ok!” she sobbed, hugging me.
Despite my ordeal, dad was devoid of emotion. The police suggested he take me to hospital while mum stayed with Danielle.
We were silent during the drive and I was kept in overnight while doctors carried out blood tests. Fortunately I was out of danger, but the next day a child psychologist arranged an appointment with me, mum and dad. “Why did you do this?” she asked.
Heartbroken, I finally shared the truth – how my dad’s never hugged me and we argue all the time.
The atmosphere in the room was awful. My mum was crying too.
“How much of what she’s saying is true?” the psychologist asked dad.
“She’s right, I’ve never hugged my children,” he said flatly.
The therapist continued counselling me, but her attention slowly shifted towards dad. They referred us for family therapy and my poor mum blamed herself for my suicide attempt.
After learning about my dad’s rigid routines and uncompromising behaviour, a clinical psychologist referred him for an assessment.
Six months later, in May 2011, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. It was a massive shock for all of us.
My dad had spent his entire life seeing the world in a different way to us, with everyone oblivious to the fact that he was autistic.
This finally explained why he had serious difficulty reading other people, recognising our feelings and knowing how to express his emotions.
The diagnosis came as such a relief, as I finally realised dad wasn’t purposefully trying to hurt me, mum or Danielle. He was referred for cognitive behavioural therapy to help with his self-awareness and reflection on the thoughts and feelings of others.
What are the symptoms of autism in adults and how do they test for it?
THERE are around 700,000 people on the autism spectrum in the UK – that’s around one in every 100 people.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the name for a range of similar conditions, including Asperger syndrome, that affect a person's social interaction, communication, interests and behaviour.
No two people with autism spectrum disorder have the exact same set of symptoms, and it is referred to as a spectrum because of the variety of its signs and symptoms, and their differences in severity.
Some people with ASD experience symptoms that make daily life difficult.
Others who are considered “high-functioning” may simply feel like something is “different” about them.
They might have felt that way since childhood but haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly why.
Similarly, they may not notice that they feel or behave differently, but others around them may notice that they behave or act differently.
While autism is most often diagnosed in toddlers, it’s possible for adults with autism spectrum disorder to go undiagnosed.
Signs of autism in adults include:
- Communication challenges
- You have trouble reading social cues.
- Participating in conversation is difficult.
- You have trouble relating to others’ thoughts or feelings.
- You’re unable to read body language and facial expressions well. (You might not be able to tell whether someone is pleased or unhappy with you.)
- You use flat, monotone, or robotic speaking patterns that don’t communicate what you’re feeling.
- You inventing your own descriptive words and phrases.
- Understanding figures of speech and turns of phrase (like “The early bird catches the worm” or “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”) is difficult.
- You don’t like to look at someone’s eyes when talking to them.
- You talk in the same patterns and tone whether you’re at home, with friends, or at work.
- You talk a lot about one or two favorite topics.
- Building and maintaining close friendships is difficult.
Emotional and behavioural difficulties:
- You have trouble regulating your emotions and your responses to them.
- Changes in routines and expectations cause outbursts or meltdowns.
- When something unexpected happens, you respond with an emotional meltdown.
- You get upset when your things are moved or rearranged.
- You have rigid routines, schedules, and daily patterns that must be maintained no matter what.
- You have repetitive behaviours and rituals.
- You make noises in places where quiet is expected.
- You care deeply and are knowledgeable about a few specific areas of interest (like a historical period, book series, film, industry, hobby, or field of study).
- You are very smart in one or two challenging academic subject areas, but have great difficulty doing well in others.
- You experience hypersensitivity or impaired sensitivity to sensory input (like pain, sound, touch, or smell).
- You feel like you’re clumsy and have difficulty with coordination.
- You prefer to work and play for yourself, rather than with others.
- Others perceive you as eccentric or an academic.
Our family was incredibly supportive, but we also had wounds that couldn’t heal. I still felt isolated, insecure and unloved by my father, and a year later my parents separated.
Danielle chose to live with dad, while I stayed with mum.
Gradually, dad and I began rebuilding a relationship on my terms. We needed space from each other so we could enjoy days out and lunches together, without any arguments.
Dad continued having therapy with Autism Wessex’s Information and Advice Service, where therapists helped him build strategies to improve his communication with us.
My parents remained friends and we still celebrated family occasions together. On Christmas Day 2014, dad was unusually excited.
“I have another present for you, Sam,” he said.
Suddenly, he rushed across the room and lunged forwards, wrapping his arms tightly around my body.
I was speechless. As I hugged him back, I didn’t want it to end. The feeling was indescribable. After 19 years, my father was hugging me for the first time, and it felt like my heart was healing.
“I can’t believe it,” mum said, crying.
“Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you, Danielle,” dad said, pulling away from me and taking her in his arms.
My dad held on to us both for as long as he could. I knew how hard it was for him. A hug may seem like a simple thing we all take for granted, but for me it was totally life-changing.
Now it’s like I’ve been given two very different dads in one lifetime. Since that first hug, my dad’s confidence has grown – and mine too.
YOU'RE NOT ALONE
It doesn't discriminate, touching the lives of people in every corner of society – from the homeless and unemployed to builders and doctors, reality stars and footballers.
It's the biggest killer of people under the age of 35, more deadly than cancer and car crashes. And men are three times more likely to take their own life than women.
Yet, it's rarely spoken of, a taboo that threatens to continue its deadly rampage unless we all stop and take notice, now.
That is why The Sun has launched the You're Not Alone campaign, to remind anyone facing a tough time, grappling with mental illness or feeling like there's nowhere left to turn, that there is hope.
The aim is that by sharing practical advice, raising awareness and breaking down the barriers people face when talking about their mental health, we can all do our bit to help save lives.
Let's all vow to ask for help when we need it, and listen out for others. You're Not Alone.
For a list of support services available, please see the Where To Get Help box below.
I’m studying law and criminology at university and when dad comes to visit, he always hugs me goodbye.
In April this year, dad even did a sponsored hug challenge for Autism Wessex. I’m so proud of him and grateful for the support he’s received – our relationship is the strongest it’s ever been.
As challenging as it is for dad, when I have children someday I hope he can hug them too.
Arsenal said: “Until I was diagnosed with autism, I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t do something as simple as giving a hug and the negative affect this had on my daughters.
“By pushing myself to do this I really hope that I can raise awareness and help people to understand autism. To me, hugging someone is like a burning on my skin. It’s like getting a potato peeler and when I look down I’ve got no skin and all I can see is red.
“When I gave Samantha her first hug, we tried for about 20 minutes because every time I got near to her it was like she was holding a dagger that was going through me. Eventually I hugged her and she just cried.”
Since then he has been determined to raise awareness of autism and funds for regional charity Autism Wessex. Visit autismwessex.org.uk for more information.
WHERE TO GET HELP
If you, or anyone you know, needs help dealing with mental health problems, the following organisations provide support:
- Beat, www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk, 0808 801 0667
- CALM, www.thecalmzone.net, 0800 585 858
- Heads Together, www.headstogether.org.uk
- Hector's House, www.hectorshouse.org.uk
- Mind, www.mind.org.uk, 0300 123 3393
- Papyrus, www.papyrus-uk.org, 0800 068 41 41
- Samaritans, www.samaritans.org, 116 123
Source: Read Full Article