Holidaying with my autistic son in the time of Corona – and hoping to be kidnapped by Pirates!

KL_Lucia

Stressed? No, I wasn’t stressed… I always floss my ears, run a comb through my teeth and spritz my armpits with hairspray. It wasn’t until the morning I broke an egg on my hand and fried my iPhone that I finally admitted how a year of furlough, social distancing, doomscrolling, quarantining and lockdown had taken its toll.

But if the death-defying Coronacoaster ride has been hard for we neurotypicals, imagine how distressing the ordeal has proven for people who suffer from chronic anxiety?

My 30-year-old son, Jules is on the autistic spectrum. Autism is a lifelong, neurological condition whose chief characteristics are poor social skills, a high IQ but also often chronic O.C.D. and anxiety. Jules plays an autistic porter on the BBC prime time medical drama “Holby City”. When COVID struck last March, filming stopped abruptly in the middle of his big story line. For the rest of the year he just shuffled aimlessly around the house like Judy Garland in her later years on a Las Vegas stage. Constantly catastrophising, his positive attitude soon joined a witness protection program.

When you have a child with special needs, anxiety about their welfare is constant, like tinnitus. But how could I help him? I felt as though I were on a sinking ship and hadn’t paid attention during the muster drill, so now had no idea how to find the lifeboat station.

Then I read about BodyHoliday – an all-inclusive West Indian beach vacation with a programme of wellness. The resort has a four point manifesto of relaxation, exercise, therapy and nutrition. Their mantra? “Give us your body for a week and we will give you back your mind.”

To be honest, I wasn’t just booking for my son. You know you need a de-stressing holiday when you look even worse than your passport photo. When a travel corridor to Saint Lucia opened just before Christmas, we packed our emotional baggage and set off.

We arrived blinking into the Caribbean sunshine like newborn field mice. The tranquil, luxurious, 155 room BeachHoliday resort curls around a palm-tree fringed, turquoise cove. All I wanted to do was dive head first into a cocktail festooned with little umbrellas, but Jules was keen to join Beach Bootcamp.

I greeted this invitation with the same enthusiasm you’d welcome a cold sore on Date night. But Jules felt too shy to partake alone. The kid was clinging to me like melted marshmallow. But what really convinced me to don my shorts was when he candidly commented; “Middle-age is when you stop growing at both ends and start growing in the middle, Mum.”

Two British Olympic medallists, Leon Taylor and Jamie Baulch, were waiting on the sea shore, biceps bulging. It was clear these blokes were of the “excuse me while I do the six-hundred-meter butterfly, climb two Alps and rappel back down for some dressage before breakfast” types. I was worried these top athletes would be more strict and controlling than Donald Trump’s pantygirdle.

“Right class!” these Attila the Athletes chorused. “Let’s start with some High Intensity Olympic running!”

I looked at the long golden stretch of sand with dismay. I once entered the London marathon and people thought I’d won… until they realised that I was just finishing last year’s race. This was going to be so humiliating. But as the instructors guided us through the running drills followed by burpees, squats, half twist push ups and backward lunges, there were no barked commands; just gentle encouragement and self-deprecating asides. These Olympians were Attila the Honey’s.

Inspired by their enthusiasm, Jules and I then tried some of the 50 socially-distanced sporting activities on offer – Thai Chi, core spin, archery, body barre, pilates, hobie cat sailing and wake boarding. By now Jules was feeling confident and comfortable enough to enter a tennis competition, liberating me to jump into the pool with all the other HRT-fuelled mums for Aqua Fit. It was Busby Berkley gone wrong as we laughingly leapt about like pale prawns being par boiled for lunch. I’m pleased to report that the only thing we drowned were our sorrows.

By late afternoon, it was time to find my spa-ing partner; not for boxing but beautification. Overlooking the resort is an Ottoman-esque pink palace of spa pleasures. A daily pampering massage, facial or one of the other 170 treatments on offer, is included in your package.

Now, typical spa hotels are like minimum security prisons with palms. After eating the customary bale of hay for lunch you then get pounced on by grim-faced therapists, brandishing colonic irrigation nozzles.

Well, the BodyHoliday spa is their antithesis. Friendly, efficient staff offer a wide range of excellent treatments. At first I thought my deep tissue masseuse had mistaken me for a piñata. But it turned out to be the the best massage I’ve ever had. (And believe me, I like to feel kneaded.)

After all that exercise, muscle pummelling and pore purifying, I was in the mood to wolf down food as though I were a slave in Egyptian times, bolstering myself for a day of heavy pyramid building.

Now, at most spa resorts, the management place speed bumps in the dining room to slow down your progress to the buffet. Guests are expected to live on one cup of skimmed air and a whiff of tofu. Well, only yogis who’ve been fasting for ten years are ever hungry at the sight of tofu. In my view the one thing a woman should never eat are her words. BodyHoliday obviously agrees that having no appetite for food indicates no appetite for life. After downing a cocktail or ten, we headed off to a hearty dinner. The cuisine, whether in the fine dining of Windows Restaurant, Tao’s Asian fusion or Cariblue’s a La Carte is healthy but scrumptious, with not a tofu cube in sight.

If you don’t fancy leaping about in a leotard all day and want to lie, supine, on the beach, you can just dance off the COVID kilos to live bands ‘neath the moon later. Let’s call it the disco diet. And in lieu of lifting weights, you can simply crush a toy boy between your thighs on a nightly basis – because BodyHoliday is a mecca for singles. Believe me, my eyelash batting average would have rivalled Alastair Cook.

But this holiday is not all about the body. The resort also offers meditation, metaphysics, motivational lectures, sunrise salutations and spiritual therapies. Sadly, when it comes to spiritual enlightenment, I have a third eye infection. My meditation is more accidental, than transcendental; a brain numbing coma which overtakes me in bank and loo queues. In the Yin Yang Yoga meditation class I tried to chant while contorting my body into an origami selection of poses, but was soon tied in knots with an elbow stuck in my ear, a knee wedged up one nostril and something alarming up my chakra.

No, the best way for me to achieve a meditative state proved to be snorkelling in the pristine sea. Jules and I took a boat ride down the coast, snorkelling at a reef on route. A warm sense of calm washed over us as we watched the silvery trumpet, butterfly and clown fish, shimmying anemones and majestic sting rays with their batman capes, all going about their day-to-day lives, without a care in their weightless world.

Reefs, rainforests, mountains, waterfalls, ginger and nutmeg scented winds, golden beaches – Saint Lucia has everything you want from a tropical island, including a volcano. To enhance our relaxed state, we stopped for a dip in the hot mud springs of Soufriere’s volcanic crater. With mud bubbling up from the magma chamber below amid geysers of steaming water, the therapeutic mineral baths felt like swimming through a pool of soothing hot chocolate.

But the best stress-busting element of BodyHoliday is that the food, alcohol, classes, treatments and tips are all inclusive, so there’s no angst about barfly skinflints who only ‘shout’ if there’s a shark.

Jules and I loved the holiday so much that on the farewell sunset cruise, we hoped to be kidnapped by pirates so that we’d never have to leave. We got the DJ to play pirate attracting music – ARRR n’ B of course. (Sorry. Blame the rum.) And we were not alone. All you need to know about Bodyholiday is that satisfied guests boomerang back, 10, 20, or 30 times.

And what of Jules? Well I would write more about his experiences, but I could never find him. He was either playing tennis tournaments, water polo, volley ball or break dancing on the disco floor with new friends.

Autistic people often feel cast out into Social Siberia. But the Bodyholiday experience is so friendly and welcoming that at first I suspected ecstasy pills in the drinking water. But the real reason is that a Body positive holiday attracts a body of positive holidaymakers.

The miraculous comfort of Jules’ smile was the best hotel review ever. His permanent smile was so treacly-sweet it wouldn’t have been out of place on a British boarding-school pudding.

Jules came home refreshed, calm and ready to get back to work on the Holby City set. And I loved it too. What could be better than a boot camp with cocktails? We returned to London with tighter bodies and looser minds. BodyHoliday proved to be the wind beneath my bingo wings.

But I’ll let Jules have the final word. “Mum, I loved Bodyholiday so much I want it to become a person so I can take it to Las Vegas and marry it.”

And I know where he’ll be spending his honeymoon.

For more of my column head over to The Telegraph


p.s. And if you need any holiday reading, well, I’ve had enough rum punches to get up the nerve to brazenly recommend my latest novel, “HRT – Husband Replacement Therapy” or my re-issued bestsellers, “How To Kill Your Husband – and other handy household hints”, “The Boy Who Fell To Earth” and “To Love, Honour and Betray.”

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