Thursday, January 12, 2017

Andy Warhol was a Hoarder

I recently read Claudia Kalb's new book, Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder: Inside the Minds of History's Great Personalities. It's one of those books in which the author rounds up a bunch of famous people and diagnoses their mental illnesses post mortem. Kalb uses each historical figure as starting point from which to explore each of several disorders, including autism, borderline personality disorder, narcissism, and addiction.
Artwork from the book's cover

These profiles can be divided into two basic groups (though this was not the author's organizing principle): individuals who achieved greatness in spite of their mental illnesses, and those who achieved greatness because of them. Charles Darwin pushed through his own crippling anxiety to conduct the research and thinking which led to The Origin of Species. Albert Einstein, on the other hand, made his discoveries because his mind was better optimized for math than for social interaction.

The chapter about George Gershwin goes so far as to explicitly question whether he would have composed Rhapsody in Blue if not for his ADHD. This got me thinking about the creative gifts that come with the condition, which then led me to realize that my own writing has suffered since going on Adderall.

Adderall has helped me in numerous ways - this year for the first time I was able to plan activities in advance, and I can unload a dishwasher without being distracted by whatever shiny notion pops into my head - but my creative ideas have atrophied. I can sit down to focus on writing, but if no good ideas come out, there's little point to the exercise. I've also grown adept at focusing on unimportant things, like computer games, instead of on getting up and doing things.

So I'm experimenting with taking a break from the drugs. Today was my third day in a row Adderall-free, and I feel flighty but energized, inspired yet fidgety. Remarkably I've gotten through more of my to-do list than I have in weeks, including a bit of creative writing and very grown-up things like making doctor appointments.

I feel good knowing I still have access to the meds as a tool, but I'm enjoying exploring what it feels like to be an adult with ADHD, conscious of both my inborn deficits and the unique insights that may come along with the package.

I'll still never be George Gershwin, but then again, how many people can be?

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The I Hate This Book Club: The Rainbow Fish

I'm either a terrible person or too analytical for preschool literature: I strongly object to Marcus Pfister's classic picture book The Rainbow Fish. Until going to the book's Amazon page to grab this link, I hadn't been aware that I'm far from alone in feeling uncomfortable with this story.

I don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that Rainbow Fish perpetuates rape culture.

For those who have not read the story recently, go have Ernest Borgnine read it to you in the most endearing way possible, or settle for this summary: 

Rainbow Fish was the most outwardly-beautiful fish in the sea, covered in shimmering scales. Everyone thought he was pretty, but he was too stuck up to talk to them. One day a little fish asked Rainbow Fish if he could please have one of his beautiful shiny scales; Rainbow Fish says "Who do you think you are? Get away from me!" The little fish tells all the other fish that Rainbow Fish is a jerk and they all shun Rainbow Fish. Rainbow Fish feels lonely: "What good were the dazzling, shimmering scales with no one to admire them?" A wise octopus tells him to share his beautiful scales with the other fish. He does, and the other fish love him, and he lives happily ever after.

Let's break this down:

First, Rainbow Fish is a snob. The other fish call out "Come and play with us," but Rainbow Fish won't even talk to them - he just glides past looking pretty, too cool to bother with non-shiny fish. This is no way to make friends.

Then one of those fish who only wanted to play with Rainbow Fish because he was beautiful asks Rainbow Fish to give him a scale - to rip out part of his body, to cause himself physical harm, to give up some of what makes him unique

Rainbow Fish says No.

The little fish respects Rainbow Fish's bodily autonomy enough not to assault him then and there and take a scale, but he tells all the other fish that Rainbow Fish won't put out. The little fish is basically a bro at a party who gets slapped in the face by a girl for getting fresh and then tells the guys at his frat house that she's a cock tease/whore/fat/ugly/bitch.

For saying No, Rainbow Fish is ostracized, an outcast. He seeks advice. "I really am beautiful," he says, "Why doesn't anybody like me?" Unpacking that further: The only value he sees in himself is his appearance; he feels that being pretty should be enough to merit having friends, regardless of how he has treated people (ie being too proud to talk to the fish who invited him to play).

Rainbow Fish goes on a spiritual journey. The local sage advises him to buy the friendship of the frat bros who call him a whore behind his back. He is advised to rip out chunks of his own flesh, to scar himself, to violate his body, to allow the whole frat to rape him. He is told that stripping himself of what makes him most special - the aspect of himself which he most values - is the only way to make friends. Don't save yourself for someone you love, if you really want to be popular just get drunk and lose your virginity in a gang-bang.

And he does.

Rainbow Fish is again propositioned by the original fresh little fish, and he rips out a beautiful scale and gives it to him; this makes the little fish treat Rainbow Fish kindly. So Rainbow Fish rips out more scales and gives them to more and more fish, buying their love by diminishing his own beauty. The other fish have successfully bullied Rainbow Fish into submission. Rainbow Fish now looks just like everyone else and is therefore socially acceptable.

To summarize:

  • Bullying works.
  • It is morally imperative to cave to peer pressure.
  • Friendship can be bought.
  • Sacrifice what is most special about yourself to be just like everyone else.
  • Only outward beauty matters.
  • Fuck your way to the top.
It is telling that while writing this post I had to keep reminding myself that Rainbow Fish is male, because everything about this story reads to me as a parable for how women in our society are treated and are expected to behave: nothing is more important that your appearance; take care of the needs of others before your own; popularity is more important than being true to yourself; if you think you're special society will find a way to knock you down a notch.

But hey, the illustrations are pretty and shiny, so let's just tell the kids it's about sharing and not think too hard about all this.

God, I hate this book.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Pro: Amazing Memory. Con: Amazing Memory.

Ryan, like many on the spectrum, has a fantastic memory. To clarify: he has a fantastic memory for certain types of details, like the length of each track on a CD, or the order in which we picked up groceries, or all the words to every movie he's ever seen.  Ask him where he left his toys or to identify his own grandmother by name, though, and you're on your own.

This kind of memory is known as Declarative Memory, and a strong declarative memory can help compensate for some deficits that go hand in hand with autism, like learning a script of what one should say in a specific social situation.

I think the brain wiring behind the awesome memory has something to do with keeping the memories readily accessible for longer than usual, rather than overwriting and pruning the neural connections. Don't quote me, this is just my hypothesis: I'm not a brain scientist, and I'm totally making this up.

My anecdotal supporting evidence is rooted in my observations of how Ryan seems to experience time. For Ryan, something that happened months ago is just as current as something that happened five minutes ago.

Today for example, we were having a perfectly relaxed evening, playing checkers and looking up cookie recipes, when Ryan suddenly flew into a panic, bordering on a meltdown. His heart was racing, his face crumpled with anguish. He shrieked, "We will not see Hard Red any day this year!?!"

Several minutes of interrogation and calming strategies later, we figured out that he meant that he had lost a tiny plastic Angry Birds toy (the red bird) somewhere in the basement... at some point in 2015. This was the first Stu or I remembered hearing that it was missing.

In Ryan's head, last year might as well be yesterday. When this memory surfaced for Ryan, he experienced it with all the urgency we would expect to see if he had lost that toy today. (Side note: I found Hard Red within 5 minutes of learning that it had gone missing. I am just that good.) Today, last month, that one afternoon when he was seven, it's all the same to him, and it's all fresh.

His memory is a blessing and a curse.

Sunday, November 27, 2016


I had a close friend, and because we spent a lot of time together, our kids spent a lot of time playing together. Earlier this year the friendship ended. 

When Ryan noticed he wasn't seeing those kids anymore, he started asking for play dates with them; he was rejected. He insisted on inviting them to his birthday party; they had other plans. Stu eventually set up a play date through their dad, but then he got sick and had to postpone. 

Today, seemingly out of the blue, Ryan started sobbing. He said he was crying because he missed his friends "so much." In theory they have plans to get together in a couple of weeks, but Ryan wanted to play with his friends Right. Now. And he found it completely unacceptable that he would "see them only one time this YEAR." 

Unfortunately, the play date is just going to have to wait a few weeks. Still crying, Ryan asked if he could call them Right. Now. I suggested he make them a card. He immediately sat down and wrote them a (barely legible) note: 
Dear _____,

I miss you so much!

Love, Ryan

My heart hurts for him.

"I miss them, too," I told him.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The one thing that almost humanized Donald for me. Almost.

I've had so many thoughts about the results of the presidential election but neither the words nor the stomach to articulate them. Combinations of Heartbreak and Terror swirl around with good measures of Disgust and violent impulses aimed at stomping the patriarchy into the floor.

Amid news reports of how the American taxpayers are going to have to pay for double protection of the presidential family and New Yorkers are going to have to add hours to their commutes because Melania and Barron will be staying in New York through the end of the school year (New Yorkers might have to pay $1 million per day!), I started reading rumors that Barron is autistic, and that his mother is understandably wary of disrupting his routine.

As the mother of an autistic child, I thought that would help humanize the Trump family to me. But it's only made Donald seem more alien to me because of how he has chosen to handle - or not handle - the subject.

Assuming Barron actually is on the spectrum (again, I have no inside info on this), I would have expected that at some point during his presidential campaign his father would have talked about autism and the needs of autistic children and adults. Maybe he would have said something like, "Our schools are a disaster. They can't handle all the kids with autism. Can't handle them! And once they graduate, they can't afford any services at all! This is a huge problem. Huge, believe me. My son, he gets the best therapists. The best. But here in Pandersville, you can't afford an OT, you can't afford speech, because Obamacare doesn't cover that!"

Instead, Donald tweets garbage about vaccines causing autism, mocks a disabled reporter, and says nothing of his family's personal experience, as if admitting that his own son were autistic would somehow reflect poorly on him. He shows no compassion, no empathy, no policy-based solutions for the challenges the autistic community face. He promotes junk science - crap that has been debunked again and again. And he doesn't use any of his countless hours of public attention to promote an agenda that supports individuals on the spectrum.

I didn't expect any better. I had just been hoping to be surprised.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

I feel all the emotions at the same time.

We just got some academic testing results from last March - something or other about 5th grade science and how independently Ryan can "explain how senses let you know fire is nearby" or "Describe Earth movement for night/day." I marveled that Ryan managed an overall score of "Independent" - the lowest threshold of the top category, but hey, he was able to answer enough test questions "independently and consistently."

"This makes me feel hopeful," I said to Stu. "Maybe he's going to become a fully functioning member of society."

Then I looked out the window and saw Ryan twirling maniacally in the backyard, arms out, head back, bringing himself to the brink of falling over but managing to stay on his feet.

I felt all the emotions at the same time.

Pride, fear, hopefulness, anxiety.

My baby finally has the ability to ask questions. But he asks the same nonsensical question over and over.

He can operate a web browser, but he chooses to use it to find videos of the Teletubbies.

He can remember everything that has ever happened, except where he left the toy he was just playing with.

He goes to a wonderful public school that hired a para so he could be in the school play. But he needs a para to participate in the school play.

I feel all the emotions at the same time.

I try to focus on the positives, on the progress - and there are so many positives, so much progress - but my depressive brain fixates on the negatives. I try to refocus myself, but I find it easier to try to turn off all my feelings.

Because feeling nothing is easier than feeling everything at once.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Middle School Drama Club, BYO Drama

I always have a hard time taking Ryan to the playground, watching how preschoolers socialize so naturally, and then watching how much effort comparable interactions are for my almost-11-year-old.

Attending the mandatory parent meeting for the middle school drama club was ten times harder.

Ryan wants to be in the middle school production of Shrek The Musical. The drama teacher says the school can hire a para to help Ryan at rehearsals. In theory, then, Ryan is cleared to try out next week.

But holy cow, it's going to be challenging for him.

For one thing, rehearsals are after school. Most days when Ryan comes home from school he needs an hour of time alone just to recover from the demands of the day. But if he is cast in the school play, two days a week for the rest of the year (plus tech week) he will have to hold it together for an extra couple of hours. These couple of hours will coincide with his ADHD meds wearing off for the day.

Also, rehearsing a play requires skills that are either non-issues or manageable for the majority of middle school students but are difficult at best for Ryan. Reading along with the script. Writing blocking notes in the margins. Following those directions.

Looking around the packed school gym at the scores of typical middle school kids who attended the parent meeting, I felt like I was being assaulted by normalness, taunted by an alternate reality in which my child doesn't have to struggle to get other kids to understand him and gets to ride the long bus to school and can engage in conversations comprised of original material. An alternate universe in which I have no doubt that someday my child will be able to live independently. A world in which my biggest worry for him regarding drama club would be how he might handle the rejection of not getting the part he wanted.

I gained so much from the experience of performing in plays throughout my childhood, and I want Ryan to reap the same benefits. Actually, he has far more to gain from this experience than I ever did. Maybe he will learn to be quiet while other kids are talking. Maybe his reading skills will improve. Maybe he will finally find a good use for that fantastic visual memory of his.

Or maybe he'll just annoy the rest of the cast and start on that sad path to isolation that so often begins in middle school.