I grew up in a family in which mental illness was a fact of life. I’m Asperger (a valid brain type from my POV) and bipolar. My brother was schizoid. Everyone functioned – not great, but well enough, but I was the only one who actively searched for answers and treatment. It caused a rift in the family and I was essentially kicked out for wanting to be healthy. I would see my brother suffering, but he refused all treatment, even when he began to get into trouble with authorities and help was offered. It is incomprehensible to me why a person would want to stay in a frightening and agitated state and not want to live as well as possible. But then, I observe the lives of so-called normal people and think the same thing. It’s difficult for me to remember that I once had a family, so great was the gulf between my expectations and theirs. From a young age I began building a “ghost” family of artists and writers whom I admired through their works, and from landscapes and buildings in the environment, which is populated by thousands of strangers as well as friends. The habit became so rewarding that I just kept it up, accumulating a complex library of rich characters and environments that never leaves me. This creative act is likely to be the result of being a visual thinker.
During childhood museum dioramas were a source of conflict for me; the artistic presentation of the natural setting was highly appealing and increased my determination to move out west. Dioramas were a lie of course; a false sense of timeless peace and tranquility simply does not exist for wild animals. Animals are forever challenged by threats to survival and by immediate movement toward food and water; they exist in the present.
The color palette of diorama painting has always been my personal palette, which surrounds me in Wyoming; it’s not a romantic landscape; the light and colors are real. What one sees is created by light.
_________________________________________________________________ Once upon a time my life was scheduled. It’s been twenty-four years since my time was sliced up to any degree between what I need to do and what I want to do. I can remember as a young child balking at a few requirements that required future thinking, but I liked school and went along with being transported here and there – parents and adults mostly control our “time and location” as children.
It was in fact big events that caused anxiety: School field trips were planned and announced well-ahead of time, which placed a huge roadblock ahead. Being trapped in a bus for the long drive to a giant institutional building (usually a museum), that was crowded with half the kids in Chicagoland was an ordeal. Once unloaded, there would be the screeches of hundreds of children; the sharp clatter of “hoof beats” on concrete or marble floors, compounded by the shouts of teachers echoing along cavernous hallways. There was the threat of getting lost.
There were stuffed and posed dead animals trapped behind glass, with glass eyes in place of real eyes, and insufficient time to stare at wondrous things like minerals and fossils, and no exit from the awful smell of commingled chemicals: preservatives, paints, floor wax and human sweat, from thousands of years of decay and creatures resurrected, by what was to me, a ghoulish obsession with death. I swear I could smell the molecules of decayed wrappings and ointments that escaped Egyptian mummies encased in glass showcases.
Why on earth would anyone literally “gut” a dead body as one would a do to a hunted animal; scrape out it’s “useless” brains and store the shell for eternity? Why would anyone want to dig up such an object, haul it to Chicago and display it in a glass case? My bet was that if archaeologists could meet the corpses as living Pharaohs and Queens, they would be disgusted by egomaniacs who diverted an entire region’s energy and resources, for thousands of years, to imaginary immortality. Surely there were better things for people to do here and now?
Perhaps I began to associate “schedules” with uncomfortable things. I know that I got tired of people telling me that they didn’t hear or smell anything unusual, as though I was making it up, hallucinating, or just being contrary. I got tired of adults pointing to “normal” children and saying, “look at the other kids. None of them is complaining about sounds or smells; no one else smells anything.”
I do remember that at some point during high school, I discovered that if I took care of obligations first, then I could be free to do as I pleased. After fifty years of following this simple algorithm (Do I have to do this today? / Yes or No. If Yes, just do it; if No, do what I feel like.) it still works for me. This “lifestyle” enables a life that would be good for anyone, especially those individuals who have been sucked in by the current social propaganda that in order to “count” on the social pyramid, every minute of every day must be scheduled. Not a minute “wasted” on living, contemplation, study unrelated to making money, family life: in reality, slavery to today’s Pharaohs is THE PLAN.
It’s odd how I forget that I’m not only an Asperger type, but also bipolar: A terrifying condition for anyone, but now that I know what I’m like; my personality, how my brain works, I understand how terrorized I was by sudden changes of mood. The truth is, discovering my Asperger-ness has revealed how steady and non-social I am. I can’t explain it as yet, but I think that my bipolar symptoms were brought about by the stress of my family environment, the general social environment, and overstimulation – bad sleep habits, partying, and sensory overload.
My bipolar episodes were very specific: the “big ones” occurred like clockwork, at the July-August border and in early January and yet, several psychiatrists and therapists had no idea what was wrong with me. It took 20 years to get a correct diagnosis. Lithium treatment instantly changed my life, and I suspect that Lithium is far more important to the health of all humans than we understand.
The following is from Raw Days, a manuscript written long before being diagnosed Asperger.
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 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. 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 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 Zsa Zsa Gabor 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 literally 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, but I did learn that predator’s 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 and self-confidence as manic delusion. Assets such as abundant energy and verbal skill were also attributed to the disorder. 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.