Get Personal / Growing Up before Asperger’s was a diagnosis

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The following is from Raw Days, a manuscript written long before I was finally  diagnosed Asperger.

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I was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1950.

I have no direct memory of that city. When I was three, my father accepted a job in Chicago. My mother, brother, and I went to stay with relatives in Pennsylvania until our new house was ready. My mother’s parents lived in a four room apartment above a hardware store that was accessed from the street by a staircase. The door to the stairs had a purple glass knob and I told myself that if I became lost I could find my way home by looking for that knob. My brother stayed outside town with an aunt and uncle who had a boy his age. I have forgotten where my mother stayed, but I believe it was with one of her two brothers, who were both married to nurses. I was alone with my grandparents.

My grandmother had been brought to this country as a baby. She had never seen her birthplace, but she kept afternoon tea like the other Welsh people in town. A plastic cloth printed to look like white lace covered an oak table in the front room. In the center she placed a ruby red drinking glass that held teaspoons, a detail that was forgotten until years later when I was setting the table in my own apartment and sensed that something was missing, something that ought to be there.

At tea time I was allowed to choose from my grandmother’s collection of gilt dime- store tea cups. These gaudy acquisitions were displayed on painted corner shelves along with capacious tea pots. Every afternoon we ate bread and butter with jam and sharp white cheddar cheese, which she melted on a plate on the gas stove, and slid onto pieces of toast. My grandmother ate little else but bread and jam and cheese, which she converted into to two hundred pounds of cool fluffy flesh.

My grandfather was a shadow in comparison, but he was important. A small fragile man when I knew him, he had labored in tin mills to support the family, but other than criticism, he received little thanks for his labor from his children. The intense heat of the mill rollers caused severe muscle cramps due to sodium loss, and later near-blindness from cataracts. His health was ruined. He still worked at the time I lived with them, but I don’t know where. My mother seemed to hate him. She and my grandmother ignored him except to berate him. I think that his ill treatment on their part broke my heart, but my mother claimed that she had reason to hate him, which she never revealed.

The apartment over the hardware store had but one bedroom. It barely accommodated a double bed, so I slept in the front room on two chairs pushed together to make a rough cradle. One of the chairs was covered in blue fabric woven with small flowers, and the arms and headrest had become slick from use. The other chair was one of the straight back chairs from the oak kitchen set. My grandfather awoke before daylight each morning to get ready for work. I got up with him and watched everything he did: how he made lather in his shaving mug and shaved his grizzled face in the streaky bathroom mirror; how he made us tea, placing a chair near the front windows so that we could watch as sunlight crept along the empty street. As I remember it, we inhabited an Edward Hopper painting.

Our family left for Chicago in early winter.

My mother was a nervous woman and as artificial as anyone I’ve known, not as a contrivance, but because it held her together, like the horrid rubber girdle she always wore, or her hairspray, silly hats and frigid smile. It was her mission to quash the natural female in me, and her efforts caused constant friction between us. I must be forced into beauty pageant dresses even though other perfectly suitable styles existed. I must force myself to speak in a higher voice because a few phone callers mistook me for a boy, which she found shameful. When I balked at her demands to betray myself, she would accuse me of having no feelings, no ability to love, no sympathy or understanding for what real human beings (like her) felt.

By my mid-twenties an astounding thing had occurred: success. I was on my own, had a career in advertising and owned my own house in a western city. My parents came to visit, so I showed them samples of my work, which they had never seen or asked to see, and which they viewed in silence. My father headed into the kitchen for coffee; my mother took the opportunity to ask how much money I made. Thinking that she would be proud of me, I told her.

Her face boiled angry red and her body shook. She stared straight into my eyes and said, “What kind of world is it when someone like you can make more money than a good man like your father?” I admit to total shock; I was ‘done with’ my mother after this revelation, which did teach me, once and for all, that predators often hide in the guise of victims.

I loved my father immensely, despite being frightened when he shared certain experiences that had to do with his mental powers, which included mind control and telepathy. He introduced me to science, geography, history and the mysteries of the universe, and yet he could not recognize human worth beyond “technical” males like himself. This was terribly confusing, because he wasn’t cruel or aggressive, but oddly tender. Ironically, I saw that it was my big strong father who needed protection from his tendency to say inappropriate and angry things in public. I wanted to protect him, but didn’t know how.

My search for “what was wrong with me” ended (I thought) at age thirty-six with a diagnosis of manic depression. The psychiatrist who treated me interpreted my aspirations, success and self-confidence as manic delusion. Assets such as abundant energy and verbal skill were also attributed to the disorder. (Positive attributes were defined as “abnormal” in females.) The diagnosis explained a lifetime of high-low episodes, confused my father(his mother had exhibited mania) and the diagnosis confirmed for my brother that I had been the sister from Hell. My mother passed away the year before I was diagnosed and I was thankful that I didn’t have to hear her opinion. As for my reaction, I was left with the startling realization that I knew less about myself than I had ever thought possible.

(I now understand that what I was experiencing was most likely not bipolar symptoms, but “meltdowns” and lifelong severe anxiety due to the stresses of “trying to fit into” social environments, like work. I was successful, but only temporarily, and at great cost.)

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