This non-linear essay is dedicated to my father. I believe he would be proud of it once his “narcissism personality disorder anger” subsided. He is now out there where the maps and the territory are harder to tell apart.
We’ve entered an era when pendulums are swinging, models are disintegrating, and narratives are evolving. It is a thrilling time to be a holon of the MentalHealthSpiritualHomeness/SpiritualEmergencyMentalIllness community.
Yesterday at the supermarket there was a boy and his mother who became part of my experiences. The boy was about ten years old, and pulling cans rather violently off the shelves. His mother was clearly tired, distressed, and embarrassed. She wore a t-shirt which said “Keep Calm. It’s just an autistic meltdown. It’s not Bad Behavior.”
Our eyes met briefly. Her eyes said, “Help!” I can’t be sure what mine said back to her. I suspect they reflected discomfort and judgment. I smiled what was meant cognitively to be an “I feel you and wish I could help” smile, but probably came out as a pathetic “I’ve read your t-shirt but it sure as hell looks like bad behavior to me” smile.
Public places require some behavioral boundaries. What the boy was doing was not good behavior, by which I simply mean that if everyone in the store started doing as he was doing, property would be damaged and people might get hurt. The impulse to educate those around the child about the cause of the behavior is not misguided. The desire of the mother to deflect inevitable (in today’s climate, but ideally not in the future) harsh judgment of the situation and, by extension, the mother’s parenting, is understandable. However, by embracing the mother’s t-shirt at face value, we reinforce a narrative that is a very slippery slope toward giving all explanations of, and responsibility for, behavior to the doctors. While Big Pharma might be OK with this, I am not.
Driving home I was fully triggered. My final impression of my father was that he loved me when my behavior was good, and he loved the image of me as a successful professional athlete, but that he felt “disrespected” when my behavior exhibited a mild constellation of symptoms which in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is labeled “manic.”
That is my impression primarily because the last time we were together, that is exactly what he said. The question is whether he can be said to be loving ME while also feeling disrespected by the manifestation of my spiritual emergency.
I know what the books say about “of course parents love their kids but sometimes they have a funny way of showing it.” One of my Dad’s ways of showing it was to never question a simple story he told himself.
That story is this: my son has a diagnosis. Doctors are experts who understand the brain. My son’s brain has been examined, a pathology has been measured, and there are medications which, like a key in a lock or high-end duct tape around a leaky pipe, fix that pathology and make his brain work normally. Because these are the facts, if my son chooses to not comply with his medication regimen, he is making the conscious choice to fuck up. I have picked up the pieces of his mess too many times for one father. That he then does it again, and now does it not just to me but to his family, is disrespectful and unacceptable.
I made it to middle age, accomplished this and that, and have an angelic wife and three miraculous children. All I hear when I think of Dad’s last words are “not good enough.”
I suppose my mistake was in asking for his thoughts without being ready for whatever might come back. My father’s words nearly killed me. There is a relief from indescribable pain which comes flooding in with a clear plan and date to end one’s life which you have to see to believe. Like, it was almost all worth it to have experienced that sense of relief. Not a super healthy way to come by such a moving experience, but it was my way. I count myself both lucky and strong that I was able to communicate my plan to my wife and agree to be hospitalized last December.
Here are a few facts to help orient the perspective which informs what follows: My father was an Emergency Room doctor. My mother is a Pediatrician. My wife is an Emergency Room doctor. I have lived my entire adult life primarily through the lens of manic depression (aka Bipolar I), although other labels we could throw around are cancer survivor, Olympian, and poet. My oldest son is autistic.
I am in the middle of enjoying Kay Redfield Jamison’s biography of Robert Lowell. I have all her books, including Touched with Fire in first edition hardcover. I love her writing. Maybe if I had become a Pulitzer Prize winning poet Dad would have been able to stomach my ups and downs better. Maybe there’s nothing that would have made it easier for him. Still, I believe the rigidity of his narrative of “mental illness as chemical imbalance fixable/curable with medication” came between us. I also believe that narrative drastically stunted my growth as a spiritual human being. Water under the bridge.
Where this all gets juicy is my parenting. Our oldest son is named after the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Most days, I wish I had that woman’s t-shirt, like tattooed on my forehead. Some days, I remember that names can be powerful things, and I might have been gifted the next Rilke by the universe and am being invited to break the left-brain cycle my dad was in and really love Rainer through thick and thin.
Here’s what his diagnosis of autism indicates: theory of mind and displays of empathy do not come as easily to him as moccasin walking does to neuro-normals. He uses up all his keep-it-together power-ups at school, so it’s understandable that he lets it all go when we stop to grab milk at the grocery store on the way home. The list goes on and on, and the wheel goes round and round about his label and his behavior.
Our daughter lost a tooth yesterday. Mommy went to bed early to get ready for her 5 AM shift, and daddy dropped the tooth fairy ball. Little Stevie, aged nine, had a frown over her oatmeal this morning. The tooth fairy had only brought a dollar. While Stevie was brushing her teeth, Rainer told me with a look of immense pride that he had snuck a dollar into her room when he saw the look on her face this morning.
Photo: Getty Images