They say you were something in those formative years/hold on to nothing as fast as you can

How are you supposed to feel when someone dies who was very important to you for a very short time very long ago? It seems like I shouldn’t be allowed to be as sad as I am. Like I’m grabbing the coat tails of someone else’s tragedy. But all I know is that there are a small smattering of people who played a role in my life during pivotal periods who I’ve never been able to reconnect with through social media as an adult, and I can now stop my periodic Google searches for this one guy. I never found him. And there’s a tiny hole in my heart because of it.

The end of my eighth grade year was a time of shifting loyalties. In my overly dramatic brain, I was beset on all sides by friends who had never been friends, by enemies who had always been enemies, by people who did actually like me but sensed which way the wind was blowing and desperately jumped ship when being my ally became a liability. I had always been something of a joke, but as middle school marched towards its close, my value as a target for ridicule seemed to reach a terrifying crescendo.

But then something strange happened. An odd assortment of people began to tentatively stand by my side. People who had written me off as a hopeless nerd got to spend some time with me and realized I was actually funny and interesting. People who had always blended into the woodwork emerged and reached out to me.

I have no recollection of how my running joke with this guy started. We were in art class together; that was it. To be quite honest, there may have been some casual inhalation of rubber cement that made us think the whole thing was funny in the first place. But suddenly every time we passed in the halls, he would hip check me and we would trade our silly lines, act out our tiny play. There was no romantic aspect to it (that was already developing elsewhere with someone else I had barely noticed before). This was just a simple affectionate gesture between two people who were practically strangers until that spring, that spring that had been so bleak for me until that point. Did we recognize our mutual dysfunction? A similar darkness inside, a sensation of being lost and directionless?

1994 was a long time ago, and due to a variety of factors my once formidable memory has begun to crumble, so all I have left of him are snippets, small vivid moving pictures of the two of us from that summer and fall. I remember us at a birthday party, both having escaped from the main celebration, hanging off a bed and watching The State upside down. (It was the episode with the Sleep With the State Concept and Barry Lutz Monkey Torture, for the record.) I remember both of us leaving tryouts for soccer teams that we had very little interest in actually joining, strolling with another friend across a baseball diamond, a parking lot, a grassy quad. I don’t remember what we talked about, just a feeling of contentment.

I remember the new school year starting and alliances shifting yet again, making a new set of friends through the fall play, never really seeing him beyond the occasional nudge in the lunch room. And then I remember him being gone. And I remember myself losing my mind, and being too distracted by my own crumbling sanity to have any consideration for his disappearance. I knew he had disciplinary issues. I knew he had dismal grades. I assumed our school had “asked him to leave” because unless someone was actually caught doing drugs in the gym the administration was reluctant to do anything so déclassé as expelling anybody. I heard he had transferred to another local prep school. I decided he was fine. We were never the kind of friends who would chat on the phone, so we disappeared from each other’s lives.

One day he appeared at school, alongside another former middle school classmate (who had, presciently, left after 8th grade rather than bother with another four years of snobby nonsense). He shambled up to me with a huge smile on his face, I yelped with surprised delight and gave him an enormous hug. We fell immediately into our little script from years ago, a script that we had tossed out in favor of actual tentative friendship before he had vanished but still, always, the core of our bond. It was a stupid little bond. I was nothing more than a blip in his life, I’m sure of it. I called him Vinny. He called me Gina. And then he was gone. I never saw him again.

I saw his brother once, when I was living in New York City. I asked how he was doing. The answer was generally noncommittal but clearly not good. I could commiserate. That same night I caught a cab home from Grand Central, rode with the window down, watching the city fly by, letting the air hit my face, feeling that old emptiness, that old darkness. I woke up the next day and found I had plunged into my worst depression in years. It took me another two years to pull myself out. From the sound of it, whatever my old friend was going through, he was in too deep.

I searched for him every time a new social network popped up. Friendster. MySpace. I was actually briefly Facebook friends with some other rando from Buffalo who happened to have the same name until I read his profile and discovered this kid was about seven years younger than us and a drummer in a Christian rock band. Definitely not the same guy. I was apparently not the only one who had left town but occasionally poked around the internet trying to track him down; he had left absolutely no digital footprints. But he had never gone anywhere. As I now understand it, he was in Buffalo the whole time. And tomorrow, I am going to his funeral.

When you’re an adolescent, you break your identity down into pieces and then put yourself back together at least once, if not multiple times. Sometimes in that interval when you’ve fallen apart, you have a moment where you are briefly no one in particular, where you can look around with some peace and clarity and relate to other people with no baggage. The end of 8th grade was that moment for me. I was tired of everyone’s bullshit, sick of their expectations, over their preconceived notions of who I was and who I was supposed to be. And in that moment, I made a friend. Just for a moment. Not enough of a moment to merit the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach when I was told he had died, logically, but no one has ever accused the emotional portions of my brain of having much connection to logic. In that moment when I needed him, he was Vinny and I was Gina. Some days that was what made the difference.

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We shall board our imagined ship and wildly sail/Among sacred islands of the mad till death/Shatters the fabulous stars and makes us real

When my family went to visit Rochester this past spring, we drove past a huge old brick building that had obviously been vacant for quite some time.  “What is THAT?” my husband wondered.  “That’s an old insane asylum,” I told him flatly.  I was quite confident, and I was right.  I know what those things look like.  There was one on the street where I grew up.

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When I was an adolescent struggling with mental illness, I found the abandoned towers of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane both haunting and troubling.  I was never in any real danger of being institutionalized myself — for one thing, “institutionalization” the way it was practiced until the latter half of the 20th century simply does not exist anymore.  There was a brief passing threat that I might need to be hospitalized in the short term at a small inpatient facility, one with more modern methods, but also one where, as the ER doc informed me solemnly, “they do electroshock therapy.”  That put the fear in me pretty quickly.  I have a bad habit of wallowing in media that I know will upset me, so at that point I had read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Girl Interrupted…even thought I knew intellectually that a stay at the small clinic wouldn’t leave me lobotomized like Randle McMurphy, I also knew I didn’t want to take that chance.

The towers have been long since abandoned, but there is still a psychiatric hospital on the grounds near the old asylum.  The summer after my first year in college, I worked at a gas station across the street, and our clientele was largely composed of inpatients with day passes.  They were a colorful crew, all of whom had earned mildly humerous nicknames from the Stop-N-Go veterans.  They came in all day long, buying cigarettes, coffee, hot dogs, beer.  They had day passes, but nowhere to actually go during the day.  So they wandered up and down the street, hung out in our parking lot, mumbled to themselves, and drank.  There was one gentleman who my co-workers had dubbed “Rod”, because his feathered blond hair lent him a vague resemblance to Rod Stewart…if Rod Stewart was made entirely out of sandblasted leather and wore a torn-up denim tuxedo rather than flashy blazers and leggings. Rod would come in about four or five times throughout the say and buy 40 ounces of King Cobra malt liquor in a paper bag.  One day Rod came in to buy probably his third 40 of the day, and as I rang him up, he leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “You know, they’re all crazy over there.”

Mildly taken aback, I just smiled at him politely.  “Yeah?”

He nodded, and then added, “After a while it starts to rub off on you.”  He looked rueful for a moment, then turned and walked out the door as the Backstreet Boys crooned over the sound system.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat.  “We’re all mad here.  I’m mad.  You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “otherwise you wouldn’t have come here.
-Lewis Carroll

 

When my father was a child, he also lived near the asylum.  He and his cousin would ride their bikes past it after school, and the patients would be at their windows, shouting lurid things at them through the bars.  Hearing that story as a kid left me aghast.  It sounded so Dickensian somehow.  Mental patients hissing vulgarities at children from their cells.  Every time I drove by, I would hear the hissing in my head.  It felt uncomfortably real.

As an adult, my dad had a friend who worked at the asylum.  In a recent email, he described it thus:

“While I was waiting for my…friend to be available so we could go to lunch, I overheard my first schizophrenic conversation between an aid and a patient.  The striking this was that he kept repeating the same tape or gambit over and over.  And the aid had no other option but to put up with it and play her part over and over.

When I read this, I felt a chill.  Because it was immediately apparent to me that the patient in question wasn’t just schizophrenic.  He was autistic.  Because people with autism were often diagnosed with “childhood schizophrenia” (a diagnosis, by the way, that is almost unheard of to this day, to the extent that one girl with the diagnosis, Jani Schofield, has been making the talk show rounds like a carnival side show for half a decade now) and put in asylums.  That’s what we used to do with disabled children.  We locked them away.  Kids with autism, kids with Down Syndrome.  Doctors told their parents these children were hopeless cases. Temple Grandin’s parents were told to insitutionalize her.  Daryl Hannah’s parents were told to institutionalize her.  They were not to be seen.  They were not to be spoken of.

The great wave of deinstitutionalization in this country began with the one-two punch of the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962 and the Community Mental Health act passed in 1963 by President Kennedy.  Kennedy understood the state of mental health care better than most — his younger sister, Rosemary, was lobotomized and institutionalized for relatively shady reasons.  She had a low IQ and grew volatile and disobedient as a young woman.  By the age of 23, her father unilaterally decided that she needed radical treatment. The doctor who performed the procedure would “ask her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing God Bless America.

“We went through the top of her head.  I think she was awake.  She had a mild tranquilizer.  We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.  When she began to become incoherent. we stopped.”

Men reaching out past the bars. Autistics scripting endlessly to bored orderlies.  After a while, it starts to rub off on you.

“The thing that I have understood is that madness entails no obligations.  There’s no need to kill people in order to prove to them that you are insane.  They know it already.”
-Carl Solomon

 

“Carl Solomon!  I’m with you in Rockland
where you must feel very strange…
I’m with you in Rockland
where the faculties of the skull no longer admit
the worms of the senses
I’m with you in Rockland
where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re
losing the game of the actual ping pong of the abyss 
I’m with you in Rockland
Where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul
is innocent and immortal it should never die
ungodly in an armed madhouse.
I’m with you in Rockland
where fifty more shocks will never return your
soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a
cross in the void.”
-Allan Ginsburg

 

We don’t really have institutions anymore.  The schizophrenics and manic depressives are in and out of prison instead.  People struggle through the waking world disguised in a cloak provided courtesy of Pfizer and Blue Cross Blue Shield, where we can quietly refill prescriptions and hide in plain sight.  Autistic children are integrated in mainstream classrooms, triggering horrified queries about the rising rates.  1 in 88.  Where did they all come from?  Where were they before?

They were in the institutions.  The ones that are slowly but surely being turned into luxury hotellike the one in Buffalo, on the street where I grew up. I am glad for continuing urban revitalization in my hometown, but I would rather spend a winter at the Overlook with Jack Torrance that spend a single night at the Richardson Olmsted Complex with the voice of a thousand McMurphys hissing in my brain.  Because after a while, it starts to rub off on you.

Farewell, Aragog, king of arachnids, whose long and faithful friendship those who knew you won’t forget!

One of the important parts of parenting small children is modeling behavior — that is, acting like you’re not as screwed up as you are so your kids don’t grow up to be screwed up like you are. Everyone generally flubs this one here and there. Among my particular cohort, foul language seems to be the one that trips us up most often. Earlier this evening, my daughter had cause to giggle, “Did you just say ‘holy crap’?” Yes, yes I did. But that particular slip up came wrapped up in a larger package with a different aspect of modeled behavior that I’ve pretty much aced, against very long odds.

I had just seen a spider.

A flippin’ ENORMOUS spider.

Like, imagine Charlotte had a binge-eating disorder, took steroids, and then got hit by Wayne Szalinski’s growth ray. Honey, I blew up the arachnid. In my house. Where I live and eat and sleep and breathe and stuff.

I have a very strong bug phobia. Not crippling, but strong. I once spent a night in a motel shaking and weeping because we couldn’t defeat the swarms of tiny flies that descended on our room after the sun went down. I was standing on the bed, attempting to swat them, when I pivoted and saw a gigantic spiderweb in the corner just littered with the damn things. And I just melted into a sobbing, inconsolable heap. My husband had never seen me have a panic attack like that before. It wasn’t pretty.

But D luhhhhrves bugs. She likes worms best, actually, which I’m fine with. I have no real quarrel with worms. We did procure a couple foot-long fat pink nightcrawlers last week that were really pushing the envelope as far as my gag reflex was concerned…but mostly worms are OK. It’s arthropods I have the problem with. Slimy? Yuck, but whatever, you do you. Crunchy? Skittery? Get the fuck out. And now I live with a child who adores the damn things. Who will carry a millipede between thumb and forefinger for a quarter hour, chattering about how they’re going to be such good friends. Who will squeal with delight when a zookeeper offers her the opportunity to pet a Giant Madagascar Hissing Cockroach. SHE PET A FUCKING COCKROACH, PEOPLE. I pet a cockroach once, but only on accident because I thought it was a turd the cat had kicked from her litter box into her food bowl and instead it was a logy fat palmetto bug that had gorged itself on kibble and wasn’t able to scuttle to safety when the kitchen lights flipped on. Since spring has sprung, in the last few weeks, I have found myself variously poking through soil looking for potato bugs, examining the legs on a spiky caterpillar, coaxing a ludicrously large beetle onto a wood chip, overturning a rock to expose an utterly vile and teeming citronella ant colony, and generally wondering where my life took such a disastrous turn and trying my very best to only dry-heave, not actually retch, in front of my child.

When I see bugs inside, I kill them. I’m sorry, may all sentient beings be free of suffering and blah blah blah, but whatever I can do to minimize the essentially constant mild sensation that bugs are crawling all over my skin, that’s what I’m gonna do. But last week I noticed D going out of her way to smush ants out on the porch. So, although part of my brain was like, “YES, MY CHILD, JOIN ME IN MY ANT-CRUSH BRIGADE AND WE WILL ERADICATE THIS SIX-LEGGED DEMON ARMY THAT WANTS TO DEVOUR THE OREO CRUMBS YOU LEAVE STREWN IN YOUR WAKE SERIOUSLY THOUGH KID YOU ARE FOUR YEARS OLD NOW WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO BE ABLE TO EAT LIKE A HUMAN NOT A WOODCHIPPER I DIGRESS CRUSH KILL DESTROY ALL INSECTS,” I instead calmly explained that when we’re outside we leave bugs alone, because the outdoors is their home…but if she sees one inside, let me know and I will dispose of it. Go me, modeling behavior! Teaching my child respect for nature while simultaneously not passing along my own petty weird phobias and brain farts!

And then tonight that mature, totally-together posture I had thus far managed to maintain in front of this kid shattered in the face of a four-inch-long daddy long legs hanging like a skeletal venomous teardrop from the ceiling outside the basement bathroom.

*giggle* “Did you just say ‘holy crap’?”

I walked purposefully to the kitchen and grabbed a few paper towels…and then a few more, because in the time it took me to sprint up the stairs my brain had transformed the thing from an objectively-large cellar spider to Aragog the Acromantula. I started back downstairs and my breath began to catch in my chest; tears welled in the corners of my eyes; my hands shook. I was going to be a model parent. I was going to be brave. I wasn’t going to let my child see that I’m secretly broken. I’ll save that horrible revelation for when she’s an adult and has grown to resent me for other, yet-to-be-determined reasons.

But D had made enough of a commotion in my wake that my husband came to see what was going on. He found me hyperventilating, covered in sweat, clutching a wad of paper towels and cowering in front of a completely harmless bug. “I think I need you to do it,” I quavered, and he took the towels and killed the damn thing.

“Can I see it?” Dahlia asked, eyes agleam.

“Well, I think it’s pretty well squished…” he said, as he unfolded the towel…and then yanked his hand back violently with a sudden intake of breath, as if it had bitten him.

I literally shrieked and fell over backwards. Aragog was alive! WE NEED BASILISK VENOM!

My husband started to laugh. “No, no, it’s dead, it’s squished.”

“That was SO MEAN,” I hiccuped as the blood rushed back to my head.

Model parental behavior.

Reasons why I should start a blog:

1) Clearly, professional blogger is the perfect job for me. Total no-brainer. Overall I would consider myself an agnostic, at most a believer in a watchmaker god or maybe, to be slightly more generous, an absentee-dad god who drops in periodically, just long enough to toss you five pounds of veal on Christmas…but you can’t help but think the fact that being snarky and pop-culture savvy while simultaneously lacking any sort of healthy boundaries about personal disclosure became a viable career option at exactly the same time that I graduated from college has to indicate something close to fate or kismet. I started my first blog after reading an essay about Blogspot on the back page of Entertainment Weekly in the summer of ’01, sitting on a white couch in an overpriced sublet on the upper west side, typing on my tangerine clamshell iBook, basically waiting for a job to fall into my lap. Which it did. And then I pissed it away, in a glorious spasm of mania and drugs and lust and pure old-fashioned youthful idiocy the way you only can when you’re 22 years old in the most important city in the world and you picture yourself as a bon vivant, as the star of your own movie, when really you’re a dancing monkey with a lithium tremor and a lithium belly to match. But that all goes back to the bit about lacking boundaries. About difficulty using discretion. About not sticking your foot in your mouth. And more than anything, not indicting innocent bystanders who are drenched in your wake. And that brings me to…

Reasons why I should not start a blog:

1) Anything interesting I have to say these days is going to involve my family. My husband, yes, but mostly my kids. And they are nothing if not innocent bystanders. I have funny things to say about politics, about pop culture, about people being Wrong on the Internet…but for the most part, this will end up being a mommy blog, to one degree or another. And I don’t know how I feel about mommy blogs, on the whole. Is it fair to discuss your children in a medium like this? Where everything about their life becomes fair game for bullies and trolls? What if Evan wants to be Supreme Court justice someday? Are my copious posts about his bowel movements going to condemn him to a life as a cowboy-booted stripper? (I will not actually be discussing his bowel movements.) It has been hard for me, over the last ten years, to learn when I’ve said too much. Is blogging not, almost by definition, saying too damn much? I think I have a lot to share that will be enjoyable and relatable, even helpful to other parents of girls with autism, or other women with mental and physical health issues…but you always run the risk of becoming Ayelet Waldman or Heather Armstrong, two other bipolar chicks who had the audacity to run their mouths off about their kids for profit and were promptly crucified by the mommy hordes and the elite bloggers who mock us all from their n+1 parties in Kensington. I’m sure the two of them cry themselves to sleep at night on their piles of money (or, in Waldman’s case, using Michael Chabon’s chest as a pillow and thinking about how much her kids suck by comparison), but I don’t know if I could handle such constant heinous vitriol as I know even mildly successful bloggers receive. It’s hard enough for me to get to sleep at night without having to worry that some disgruntled men’s rights advocate is tracking me by my IP address because I casually mentioned that I think misandry is bullshit (as evidenced by my autocorrect refusing to accept it multiple times: “Miss sandy? Me angry? Please tell me you’re not actually trying to type misandry. Mist and dry??”). But even just thinking about this has me a little bit pie-in-the-sky…maybe someday I could get the flying monkeys of Age of Autism sicced on me! What if I managed to end up linked on some subreddit full of mouthbreathers that don’t like the cut of my jib? Maybe Slut Machine from Jezebel could write yet another unbearable Mommy Wars article that references my disdain for mommy wars articles? To be successful is to invite critique, and on the Internet critique can be both vicious and visceral…but once you get flamed, that’s when you know you’ve made it.

Reasons why I should start a blog:

2) “I want everyone to remember me; I don’t want anyone to ever forget me.” -Madonna

Reasons why I shouldn’t start a blog:

2) “She gave away the secrets of her past and said, ‘I’ve lost control again.'” -Joy Division

Reasons why I should start a blog:

3) No one else has my story. I know; I’ve looked. I’ve looked out there for bipolar mothers of preschool girls with autism who may or may not be on the verge of developing an undifferentiated connective tissue disease. As far as I can tell, I’m the only one. Or else I’m not the only one, but I’m the only one who’s in a position to talk.

Reasons why I shouldn’t start a blog:

3) Some stories I have to tell from my past could implicate other people who, while not exactly “innocent” in any reasonable sense of the term, don’t deserve to have their youthful follies dredged up so I can make hay of them on WordPress for a few cents in Google Ads. And stories I have to tell in the future will involve my beautiful children who, at the time of this writing, actually are pretty darn innocent, although I know that won’t last. I would sorta rather my solipsistic need to “find my joy” just because a rheumatologist made me utterly despondent about my priorities in life doesn’t end up being what shatters their innocence. But there’s never a good time for that. Never a good time to lose your innocence. Never a good time to realize too late that you even had innocence to lose.

Reasons why I should start a blog:

4) Because in 1998 I was sexually assaulted. And after that, the words stopped coming. I had always meant to be a writer, but suddenly, nothing seemed important enough to write about: stupid fucking Sexton-aping poems written in chapbooks while I should have been paying attention to AP Calc; pitiful novellas with epigraphs pulled from Counting Crows songs; my first weak attempts at something that could plausibly be called journalism and put me on track to a career! As a writer! It all became dry and cracked and small like pebbles in the back of my brain. Because I thought my innocence was gone years before, but I was wrong, and I had no idea how wrong until it was much too late. And so the writing stopped. And everything went so crosseyed. I can’t regret any of it, because every individual moment combined together to bring me the two kids I now have, life that I created with my own body and blood to become new human being with thoughts and dreams of their own. But I went off track somewhere that left me without joy.

Reasons why I shouldn’t start a blog:

4) I created life with my own body and blood, and it became new human beings with thoughts and dreams of their own. And I will now exploit them, for my own gain, for the therapy it offers me, for the gloating warmth I feel in my chest any time someone complements the one-liner I managed to post on Facebook during one of the very few free moments I get from sunup to sundown. One of those rare moments that I forget that I’m running a marathon I didn’t train enough for and now my metaphorical toenails are falling off. The moments I am a human and not just a mommy, but with a humanity shaped so vigorously by mommyhood that it would be impossible to wrestle the two apart for even a second. Is it just too selfish for words?

Reasons why I should start a blog:

5) “I want everyone to remember me; I don’t want anyone to ever forget me.” -Madonna

Reasons why I shouldn’t start a blog:

5) “I want everyone to remember me; I don’t want anyone to ever forget me.” -Madonna