Browsing "Psychology"

Excuse me, I’m having a moment here

You know those people who always say, “There’s a reason for everything that happens?”

Yeah, I usually want to kick them in the crotch, too.

But even as I say that, I have to admit that I’ve seen meaningful patterns in my life, time and time again, for which there’s no rational explanation. Doors closing, windows opening–call it what you will. I’ve just found myself in too many places I shouldn’t have been that turned out to lead me to exactly where I was meant to be.

That’s why, when people ask me if I could “take back” my sexual assault or my fibromyalgia or the hell we’ve been through with Connor, I answer, fast as a snap, “No!” Those things made and keep making me the person I am, and I love where and with whom I am far too much to risk changing even one crappy thing in the past.

For the most part, I perceive these patterns from afar, like an aerial photograph of where I’ve been. But I’m in the midst of an amazing moment right now, when I see them crystallizing right before me. I am precisely where I am supposed to be, where I’ve been headed for decades.

I’m volunteering for Minnesotans United for All Families, the coalition fighting the constitutional amendment that seeks to limit the freedom to marry in Minnesota for generations to come. It’s on the ballot in November, the 31st of these elections when a basic human right for a whole group of people is put up for popular vote.

We aim to be the first to defeat this kind of attack.

I’d already committed to be part of this effort, but when one of the organizers here in Saint Paul came to me to ask if I would step up as a team leader and put in about 6-8 hours a week on the campaign (until it becomes much, much more, when the leaves start falling from the trees). Frankly, I might’ve been smarter to say no, but I’d wanted a way to engage more with the campaign so, like the Overcommitment Princess I am, I said, “Bring it.”

I’ve attended trainings and phone banks, planning meetings and launch parties. I’ve met more new people on the campaign than I may have met in the whole time I’ve lived in Minnesota. They’re running a crazy-smart campaign here, unlike anything that’s been attempted anywhere else, focusing on personal conversations about love and commitment, rather than discrimination and legal protections, with over 1 million voters. And the longer I’m in this thing, the more I know that the skills I’ve acquired all come together for this work.

A lot of the work is very similar to teaching. Informing voters, training volunteers, and coordinating teams has shades of lecturing, discussing central concepts, guiding and supporting folks so they can reach their own conclusions on the subject. I appreciate my experience with non-traditional students and different ethnic constituencies–this coalition is so broad and deep, uniting across so many communities.

I’m finding my crisis counselor training to be very useful too. Having intense conversations about values with strangers, neighbors, and friends, as well as training others to have those conversations, requires active listening, something that doesn’t (but should) get taught in everyday life. It’s hard not to use my Rogerian reflective statements, but I’m allowed to get invested in the stories I’m telling and hearing in a way I couldn’t as a counselor. I’m walking with people through memories, and feelings, and judgments that sometimes unravel or take shape at the same time as the words cross their lips. It’s incredibly powerful.

And I’ve already expounded on my commitment to philanthropy and social justice activism here on the blog. Though I still feel guilty when I try to own my bisexuality because I’ve never suffered for that part of my identity, this isn’t only an LGBTQ issue. All you have to believe in to fight this amendment is love. I’m living my happily ever after, despite very long odds–I want everyone to have the same freedom and joy.

Even my training as a historian gives me perspective that adds to my sense of privilege at being a part of this. In my religious studies work, I’ve looked at the civil terms and religious blessings on personal commitments in a wide variety of cultures and eras, which is powerfully erosive of many arguments in favor of such an amendment. And knowing the history of milestones like the Loving v. Virginia case, which made interracial marriage legal for once and for all in America in 1967, has opened my eyes to the historical importance of halting the tide of these amendments at last.

So I’m having a moment here. Minnesota’s having a moment too, deciding what kind of state it wants to be. But my moment (as egocentric as it sounds to say it) is more empowering than I think anyone at Minnesotans United knows or cares. I doubt my qualifications, my value, my ability to be useful to anyone, all the time. Every time I recommend myself for something, my heart’s in my throat like I’m jumping off a cliff. I even feel weird thinking about getting business cards made up, because honestly, who would ever want or need to remember me enough to keep my stupid square of cardstock?

But on this campaign, I feel useful. I’m doing good work. I can contribute my skills and my passion, and have it matched and encouraged and appreciated. I feel needed–me, with my quirky, particular bag of tricks. I’m so grateful for the experience that I even offered to dye my hair back to a plausibly human color, if they thought that the coding that happens on first contact would be detrimental to my ability to help effectively. Their response? “No way. Rock the pink hair. We need the pink-haired to feel included too.”

That’s love, folks. That’s what we’re fighting for. And what I’m doing will help us win.

Jun 3, 2012 - Psychology    1 Comment

My Own Worst Enemy: Reverb Broads Summer #2

Summer Broads 2012, Prompt #2: What gives you nightmares? (by Kassie at Bravely Obey)

I don’t have a dream life–my dreams have a me life.

I have incredibly vivid dreams, many of which I remember the next day. They’re always in color, sometimes in French, and though I’ve heard that it’s impossible to read in a dream, I regularly do. People from every period of my life crop up, usually in logical groupings, though occasionally we get the sweeps-week, special-guest-star episode where they mix in interesting ways. A lot of this probably comes from the very vivid visual style of thinking and remembering that’s not uncommon among autistics.

Sometimes, I dream things that happen. I won’t say they’re “psychic” dreams, but they’re not quite deja vu either. There’s actually a tradition of this on my maternal side, going all the way back to my great-grandmother. Sadly for everyone else, I almost never dream something helpful in advance. It’s mostly just situations, fragments of conversation, or groupings of people interacting. I’m sure it sounds loony, but there it is.

Nightmares, though…nightmares are something else entirely. Sure, I had bad dreams when I was a kid. My grandparents took me with them to see The Elephant Man in the theater while they were waiting for their car to be serviced, and I still can’t see a picture of John Merrick or hear the voice from that movie without it triggering a mountain of anxiety. I also had my share of bad dreams from the second half of Gremlins–don’t let the cute fuzzy mogwai fool you, it’s a horror film!

But I don’t actually have nightmares–I have night terrors. I can’t wake up from them unless someone does it for me. I never do the sit-bolt-upright-and-scream thing; that would be a lovely change of pace. Instead, I’m just stuck until the dream decides to wind itself down. Most commonly, they’re violent as hell, and I’m just trying to stay alive.

I also have recurring nightmares. The worst stretch of those was the summer after I graduated from high school. The dream began with me waking up in my bed, looking down over the footboard at the shade-covered window. Every night, I saw the shadow of a man cast against the shade, then watched his silhouetted form duck under the windowframe, and enter my room. After that, it was different every time. Sometimes he came over and choked or stabbed the life out of me in my bed. Even worse were the nights he walked past me, and I heard him kill my family, one by one. Sometimes I fought, sometimes I froze, but I could never stop him.

And when I finally woke, my first sight was the shade-covered window across from the foot of my bed.

I had that dream every single night, unless I went to bed after 3.30 am. If I had it, obviously, I was done sleeping for the night. I spent a great deal of time that summer running away from that dream. When I went off to college, it ended, and it never revisited when I came home after that.

Finally, someone who thinks as visually and has a vivid imagination that never takes a day off is bound to have waking nightmares, and I’m no stranger to those either. Mostly, I just chase down a full thread of a passing horrible thought, without meaning to, like fast-forwarding through a video. They’re mercifully short, but they can derail my day just as surely as a sleeping nightmare. My kids getting hurt, our fragile home economy collapsing under catastrophe, or just the black hand of depression holding me down by the throat again. Life can be pretty dark, even before you turn out the lights and close your eyes.

Pride and Prejudice

My nine-year-old son Connor finishes the partial hospitalization program that saved his life this spring on Friday. He’ll return to school, and his beloved friends and teachers and staff, for the last eleven days of the year. It’ll be a lovely reunion–he’s determined to surprise them on Tuesday–and he’ll get to show off the amazing new self-control and trigger management he’s developed, in a manageable, boundaried time period.

As part of his evaluation and treatment in the program, Connor was tested on a wide battery of skills and scales. Most irritating of these tests was a tear-your-hair-out boring attention test that required TWELVE FULL MINUTES of participation to determine a baseline. We laughed at the irony of his twice quitting an attention test because it bored him, but as soon as he tried it with someone to tell him to keep going, the test revealed no attention span issues.

Connor's first-place winning science fair project this year, about predicting compressive strength of materials based on their atomic structure.

Equally unsurprising to us were the results of his IQ test. He scored 136. Now, officially, there’s no “cutoff” for “genius level” anymore in the updated IQ scoring, but 136 puts him into the 99th Percentile for kids his age. In other words, only one percent of nine-year-olds score higher than that. His vocabulary and reading level is that of a 12th grader. According to a new study, that’s two grades higher than the average of the U.S. Congress.

This kid is staggeringly intelligent. Which comes as news to absolutely no one who’s ever met him. I feel far less proud than affirmed. These scores only quantify the bar that we’ve always felt we have to rise to as his parents. The doctor who evaluated him repeatedly emphasized how unusual Connor’s mind really is–the words “exceptional,” “exceed,” and “excellent” appear frequently throughout the write-up, and he urges several times that Connor receive gifted and talented services.

What did shock us in this evaluation was the statement that immediately followed the quantitative elements: “Connor indicates that he enjoys role-play games, which I would strongly advise against, given how these activities can result in him being more obsessed with fantasy than reality. Connor should be devoting his time and effort to normal activities socially, recreationally, and athletically that would be pursued by a nine-year-old.” Further down, he returns to this point: “Repeatedly, I witness children like Connor becoming consumed with fantasy and role-playing games, derailing their social and emotional development and ignoring ‘normal’ endeavors. The result is a pattern of unusual or atypical interests that ultimately are not shared by their peers, causing them to be viewed as unusual, odd, or atypical and, therefore, contributing to social rejection and emotional alienation.”

My first reaction was, “Holy crap, he thinks geeks are pathetic.”

I saw the Darling Husband’s hackles rise as he read, though he channeled it into humor, since the therapist who gave us the papers wasn’t the one who did the evaluation. Instead, he suggested that they give the doctor a call and tell him what Connor’s dad does for a living.

We shared a laugh at the time, with Connor in the room and unaware of what the papers said, but we were shocked and bothered by the obvious bias in the evaluation, and how utterly dissonant it was with both of our life experiences. How could anyone think such a wonderful hobby was destructive and alienating?

For both of us, fantasy literature and roleplaying games were the ultimate sandbox, an environment finally big enough for the universes our minds could imagine. Sci-fi and fantasy, both in prose and comic books, gave us colorful and expansive vocabularies that challenged us, in the days of stultifying spelling tests and reading assignments that left us cold. Games gave us math problems we wanted to do. They gave us new friends at home and around the world, hours of solo and group entertainment, and eventually, roleplaying games gave us each other. They are our hobby, and our work, and now our legacy to our children.

We understood the doctor’s concern that, if Connor was only into media far beyond his peers’ comprehension, he’d have no common interests with them. But what’s “normal” for a nine-year-old? Chess? No, no chance of obsession there (ahem, paging Bobby Fischer). Baseball? Just what he needs to stay away from unsociable statistics (or not). Guns? That can’t possibly turn out badly. In fact, I’d like someone to tell me what subjects are, in fact, more normal for a nine-year-old American boy in 2012 than heroes, monsters, superheroes, Star Wars, LEGO, and XBox games?

Sure, we’ve known our share of people who couldn’t function well socially in contexts that excluded their primary enthusiasm. Every joke refers to a D&D stat, or a video game plot, or a Monty Python sketch. Every anecdote ties back to a Star Trek episode. And yes, autistic kids get fixated and study the everlasting hell out of what they like. Some days, it’s all they can talk about, and that can be off-putting to other kids who don’t have the sheer bloodyminded endurance they do. But that’s not the vast majority of today’s geeks and gamers, and it’s certainly not Connor.

Connor got a make-your-own sonic screwdriver kit for Christmas. He may have been pleased.

Cam and I will take some credit for keeping his interests wide. Every time he finishes a book, movie, or TV series he’s thoroughly enjoyed, we’ve got three new things racked and ready to suggest. So you liked Star Wars, did you, kid? Here, meet this guy called Indiana Jones. Muppets tickled your fancy? Fantastic–watch this Wallace and Gromit short. Harry Potter and Doctor Who are pretty awesome, aren’t they? Let me tell you about my friends Sherlock Holmes and Lewis Carroll. And the same lack of inhibition that sometimes leads Connor to say tactless or oblivious things allows his passion and enthusiasm for his favorite things to bubble over giddily, and it’s absolutely irresistible. He’s a trendsetter among his peers. They don’t tell him he’s weird for liking what he likes–they want to know what’s got him so excited.

I know the kids around him won’t always be as forgiving of his differences. But the age when that happens was exactly when Cam and I found roleplaying games, and we weren’t alone. Neither will he be. In fact, he’s likely to be in demand as a creative, versatile gamemaster with deft control of rules and narrative, and a bag full of hacks and tricks. Heavens know, he’s learning at the feet of The Master.

We want to let this doctor know that we respect his experience and knowledge, but in this area, he’s got it flat wrong. Games knit society closer together. Connor’s entire existence, and his loving home, come from the power of those stitches. His whole life, since before he was even born, he’s been on the receiving end of love and support from the friends we’ve made through games. He’s already discovered the delight and the challenge in them, and he’s learning social skills in a safe, welcoming environment, in the community of gamers.

How on earth could he grow up healthier without all that?

May 2, 2012 - Psychology    11 Comments

First Contact

I feel like I’m living my life as an autistic in reverse. I was aware of Autism Spectrum Disorders and Asperger’s Syndrome generally, but quite frankly, I never applied myself to really learning anything substantial about them. I had trained as a crisis counselor while I was doing my undergrad at the University of Kansas; Headquarters is the oldest, continuously operating phone and walk-in crisis center in the nation. In the ’90s, their training didn’t include anything specific about how to talk to autistics, but their Rogerian approach and general attitude of acceptance provided me with a good footing for dealing with all sorts of neurodiverse folks.

Then,  my eldest son was diagnosed in 2008. That diagnosis was a blessing, to be perfectly honest. Until the school showed us how all the strange, inexplicable things about him actually formed a pattern that belonged to Asperger’s, the leading theory for what was wrong with Connor was crap parenting. When presented with a new situation, my primary coping method is to build a fortress of books on the subject, then read my way out, like you would escape a marshmallow dungeon if you were handcuffed by eating a hole to crawl through. (Hey, don’t mock–it works for me.)

The more I read, the more I recognized of myself. It came as a complete shock, how well the Asperger’s pattern explained pieces of my life that I’d never been able to make fit. The spotlight of memory swiveled back to all the times I’d been called “intellectually advanced but socially backward” in my childhood. My fixations on weird trivia, the First Ladies, native costumes around the world, Sherlock Holmes (so much like an autistic, himself), foreign languages, and others. How much like learning those languages was like learning to “read” people. All my weird sensory issues with fabrics and foods. My strong visual memory and how I see everything play out in my head as I read. My sensitivity to sounds, both good (perfect relative pitch) and bad (loud sudden noises are my only migraine trigger). A million little things, none forgotten, but suddenly in focus.

And while my primary preoccupation has been on using my own understanding of the autistic experience to help unlock doors for my son, the corrective lens of identity and memory also sharpens things that stayed in the background so long, I’d almost lost sight of them.

Like Clarence Treutel.

When I was nine, my mom remarried and we moved to Whitewater, WI, where my new stepdad was a professor of music education at the state university. It’s a gorgeous little town full of Victorian homes and stately elms. The university, with about 10,000 students, somehow manages to be insulated from everyday life, both for those on-campus and those off. Its presence made itself known in funny, mostly advantageous little ways. We had a disproportionate amount of cultural resources–world-class concerts, technology, a great public library. The people of color were most often Indian, African, or Asian, as opposed to Latino or African-American (this has changed a lot in the years since I moved away, thanks to a large influx of Hispanic workers for the big farms all around town).

Clarence was probably in his 50s when I met him, a perpetually smiling man with Mad Men-styled glasses and a salt-and-pepper buzzcut. He had an old bicycle that he rode sometimes, but mostly just walked along the sidewalks around town. He’d known my dad for a long time; my dad was very kind to him, and it didn’t occur for our family to treat him otherwise. He offered to walk my brother, sister, and me to and from our new school, a little less than a mile each way.

As we walked and talked, we got on well with him. His sense of humor and world outlook was that of a sixth-grade boy, generally, except for when it came to his interests. On town history, radio shows, old movies and TV, and professional wrestling, he could hold court. He was the only person I’d ever met who remembered as many facts, as clearly, as I did, and we genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. I didn’t know what autism was, then, and he wouldn’t have known either, even if his mom and he hadn’t been Christian Scientists, which kept them from ever getting a diagnosis. But he was my first contact with a mind like mine.

Only when the school year got fully underway did I start getting questions about why I was spending time with Clarence. “He’s so weird,” my classmates would say. “Did he ask you to sign his bike seat? Don’t do it. My brother did, and he, like, talked to him for years! Like they were friends.” I noticed how the older kids would abuse him as we went past the junior high; they danced around him, chanting stupid taunts, accusing him of unspeakable things, occasionally daring to take a swipe at his body or bike. He would scowl and wave them off, trying to come back with clever retorts, sometimes. But mostly, he just held his chin firm, sadness in his grey eyes. I learned how to chase that look away by asking him about his favorite things.

Just like I do now for my son, when the world makes him so unbearably sad.

His mother died around the time I graduated from high school, leaving him alone; his father and brother had died quite some time earlier. My parents became his Powers of Attorney, and they continued to treat him with care, patience, and affection until they moved away in 1995. Another family took over his care. I heard that Clarence died in 2002, but it turns out he’s still around–a good friend back home corrected my misinformation, much to my happiness.

Don’t bother looking for him on the Internet. I did. He’s not there. There’s a 2002 Walworth County tax record for the property where he lived. That’s all. No pictures, no mention anywhere. Like he doesn’t exist. Like he hasn’t walked so many generations of kids to school, their self-elected protector. Like he hasn’t learned to stop across the street, so the parents can’t complain that he was a pedophile, and the bullies can’t be heard so loudly. I wish I had a picture, so you could see his kindness. But that absence tells an important story, too.

I’m so afraid, when I think of all the autistic kids who are aging out of the schools and social services, adults as alone as Clarence, always outside looking in. How many of them will find families and friends to give them help and love? How many of them don’t know how to ask for it? How many of us will see them and judge the surface, never taking the time to find out what chases away the sadness in their eyes?

Everybody needs a sherpa

I’ve always been comfortable around guys; for many periods of my life, I’ve been more comfortable with guys than other women. Part of this was about common interests. From preschool to high school, if I wanted to hang out with other people who loved Star Wars and sci-fi/fantasy and punk rock and hobby games, that pretty much left me with male companions. For instance, I was the only female among 23 males in the high school Strategy & Tactics Gaming Club. It wasn’t until I got to college that I met other women who liked the same things I did, but even still, I felt more at home around men. They were less maintenance, less complicated, and to a girl with Asperger’s (though I didn’t know it then), the big surface emotions of my male friends were far easier to navigate, and less fraught with booby-trapped layers of meaning, than my interactions with the majority of the females I knew.

It’s not that hard to get into those male social groups. You prove you can give as good as you can get on crass humor and double (or, in the case of high school guys, single) entendres. You show that you can avoid overt emotional displays that make them uncomfortable, but also that you can be a silently commiserating soundingboard on those occasions (read: breakups) that demanded support and solidarity.

I was so successful at this that I sat, one female in a car with six other males, through a one-hour conversation about all the mysteries of the fairer sex. Only ten minutes from home–after a pee break on the side of the country road, in which I clearly did not participate, for heaven’s sake–did someone pipe up, in a tone of dawning discovery, “Hey! Jess is a girl! We can ask Jess!” I didn’t know whether to be insulted that this feature of my identity had been so thoroughly forgotten, or flattered that I’d assimilated into their group so seamlessly. The sudden and emphatic arrival of the Boob Fairy around my junior year of high school was the only thing that disturbed my status, but even that came to be regarded as a sort of personal quirk, as if I’d shaved my head without warning–a change, to be sure, but superficial and easily ignored once the novelty had passed. So I’ve got a very thick skin when it comes to matters of sexism and creepiness. Part of that also came as defense in the wake of my sexual assault and abusive relationship–if every expression of sexism has the capacity to personally wound, how would any person ever recover from overt damage?

Obviously, though, because I’m an attentive, intelligent, enlightened woman, I perceive sexism in my environment, as it’s expressed both individually and institutionally. There’s been a great deal of discussion about this lately, especially in the context of the Internet. Sady Doyle of Tiger Beatdown collected comments from fellow female bloggers, made by men, attacking them specifically and often violently as women when they didn’t agree with their arguments; in many cases, the initial argument had absolutely nothing to do with gender. A Twitterstorm blew up around similar attacks on women who play multi-user video games. The basic pattern is this, for those of you who haven’t followed these discussions: Woman says X. Man disagrees with X. Man does not say, “I disagree with X because of Y.” Man instead says, “You’re a stupid whore for thinking X. I hope someone rapes you to death.” Woman decides to shut up instead of writing about Z. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see sexism in this.

A secondary pattern has emerged when lots of my fellow smart, sensitive friends of both genders discuss the ways in which the enviroment for women is not the same as men. People of earlier generations thought they were being enlightened and anti-racist by saying, “I don’t see race” or “There are no black or white people; we’re all our own individual shades of human.” This is no longer acceptable, because duh, of course we see race, and racism is real, and pretending it’s not relevant doesn’t fix anything. Similarly, some men, when confronted with something which screams SEXISM to women, say well-meaning but unhelpful things like “No, no, it’s not sexism, it’s this other thing,” or (even more maddeningly) “You say those behaviors make you feel scared/threatened/objectified? No, you actually feel this other thing.” As if my lady parts somehow impaired my feelings.

Here’s the thing: If someone feels a particular way in response to something, that’s how they feel. That feeling is valid, and they really are feeling it, even if it’s completely incomprehensible to you how they could feel that way. You can try to explain how you see that something differently, but it is Highly Inadvisable to tell someone that they are feeling it wrong, especially if you are not a member of the class that is particularly singled out or threatened by that thing. So if a person of color says something feels racist to them, or a woman says something feels sexist to them, the correct answer is, “I’m sad to hear that you’re so upset by that” or “I can tell it really bothers you.” In fact, this is just a general Rule of Thumb in life–people feel how they feel, and nobody knows better than they do what those feelings are.

Nobody would argue that some of these situations are clearly sexist.  I’ve had entire conversations in which I felt like I, too, should be looking at my breasts. But the saddest thing about this whole sexism debate is that, often within geek/nerd culture, there’s a fundamental disconnect between a man’s intention and a woman’s reception. Things that men do to express their admiration for women frequently make those women feel creeped out, the exact opposite reaction the men are trying to elicit. I’ve known guys who lavished extravagant compliments, frequently couched in quasi-faux-RenFaire-style language and great flourishing gestures, on women who are painfully embarrassed at being singled out for such attention. Those women seek to put as much distance between themselves and that attention as possible, and contrary to the man’s intention, they feel objectified–they feel that all that flowery language and dramatic attention would be directed at any woman, by virtue of being a woman. The objectified gaze is not the same thing as the public gaze. Sure, this sounds very Women’s Studies 101, but it’s true nonetheless. There’s a world of difference between being looked at and admired for a striking, elaborate costume or a particularly smart/funny/insightful comment, and being stared at like a piece of meat.

But sexism is so much more than this, and it’s so complicated, even women argue about this stuff. And frankly, a lot of it is gut reaction. Anyone would feel threatened if someone says, “I hope someone stabs you to death.” You get a cold ball in the pit of your stomach and a hot rush up the back of the neck. You feel queasy, your vision blurs, the space around you seems to shift unexpectedly. You need to run. This is primal stuff–flashes of neurochemicals deep in your amygdala and hippocampus–pure lizard brain, fight-freeze-or-flee response. It’s your danger sense. It can save your life.

But it doesn’t only get triggered by death threats. Those same chemicals kick in when someone’s creeping on you, and you can’t always explain it. I’ve never been explicitly threatened with sexual violence at a gaming convention, but I’ve been creeped on. The time that sticks out most vividly had no sexual overtones at all. The guy started with the extravagant attention that I described earlier, despite the presence of my husband at the table and a two month old baby in my arms. He made persistent decisions that forced our characters into proximity, and he “roleplayed” that with physical proximity that violated all acceptable boundaries among strangers. This man was so close and so loud and so intrusive, he actually startled my son awake; the baby wouldn’t stop crying until I left the room entirely. I shook badly, and worked to swallow my nausea as my husband and friends tried to comfort me. My reaction was as violent as the one that followed a too-close brush with stranger rape years earlier.

I can’t explain this, but if someone tried to convince me I shouldn’t have felt threatened or completely creeped out because I wasn’t in actual danger, or that the root of that interaction wasn’t sexist, I may slap that person. My feelings were very real, and therefore very valid. I have an unexpectedly strong sensory memory of that event even now, almost ten years later. And, really, do you want to train women to turn off that response? Do you want women to stop listening to those early, physically rooted danger senses that tell them something is not quite right? It happens, you know–women are taught to mistrust those feelings. It’s called gaslighting, from the unforgettable Ingrid Bergman/Charles Boyer movie Gaslight. When women stop listening to their danger sense–that creeped-out feeling–it makes it easier to manipulate and abuse them.

So please, don’t tell anyone who says they’re feeling singled out, discriminated against, or creeped out that they’re not entitled to feel that way. Racism and sexism are real, and they have undeniable histories (and current realities) of violence. If someone tells you that what you’re doing is creepy, just stop. If you don’t understand why that behavior registers as creepy, ask others. If they say, “If you can’t tell, I can’t help you,” keep asking until someone explains it in a way you can understand.

This stuff is as complicated as human nature, and everyone needs a guide, women just as much as men. If you want to understand, surround yourself with sherpas–folks who have seen the terrain before, know where the pitfalls and footholds are, and can explain the culture you’re exploring. Don’t have someone you feel you can ask? Ask me. Gods know, I wish I’d had the knowledge I have now, back when my high school friends asked me for the secrets of the feminine mind. They could’ve really used a good sherpa.

A Gift Better Not Given

Most days, I try not to think about how my kids were formed (note: I didn’t say “how they were made;” that was quite pleasant), just like I try not to think about how my husband and I met. The odds are just too astronomical that things worked out the way they should, and on less-good days, it’s hard to believe that the universe has even one good thing in store for me after pulling off those hat tricks.

But every once in a while, especially when I see something of myself or Cam reflected back from them in flawless mirror image, my mind flits across whimsical images. Sometimes, it’s the three fairies from Sleeping Beauty, hovering over their cradles and bestowing gifts. And sometimes, more magical in its own way for being true, I imagine those tiny coded zippers–unfurling, melding pieces of each of us into someone new and unique but so familiar, then coiling again, before doing a little do-si-do and starting the whole thing over again, in the blink of an eye. Amazing, but frankly, it hurts my head a little to contemplate it all.

Of the two boys, Griffin definitely looks more like me, or more correctly, my little brother–he certainly got his uncles’ engineering skills and sheer cussedness from both sides of the family. Connor’s a bit more of a mystery–his looks are changing so much every year–but there’s definitely something of his Auntie Fi in his smile and stubborn little chin. Not to mention his big, enormous head, an inheritance from his father which I had not truly contemplated until hour three of pushing at Connor’s birth.

Personality traits are much easier to spot and attribute. Cam and I are a lot alike, and were as children, and we’d like to think we’ve had a big influence on them as they’ve grown too, so it’s no surprise that both boys are voracious readers–Connor loves adventure stories, comics, and technical manuals; Griffin is my non-fiction kid, and I think we’ve read every book about animals and weather that our local library has. They’re also imaginative storytellers, and immerse themselves in roleplay that folds together Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Doctor Who, James Bond, the Marvel and DC universes, and a host of other settings in what we affectionately call “the Connorverse.” We’re fortunate that Griffin inherited my appreciation for villains; he’s not stuck as the droid, like I always made my sister, to her everlasting bitterness. And of course, there are the senses of humor, as abundantly demonstrated in the last post; like their parents, they riff from the absurd to word play to cultural references and back to the zany again.

Other gifts are more obviously from one or the other of us. To our great relief, both boys inherited my iron stomach for travel–no Dramamine for us, we’ll be here in the back seat, reading quietly through long car trips. Their talent and enjoyment for video games, though, that’s all their dad (and uncles). Connor inherited his father’s ability to produce vast quantities of heat from an internal nuclear reactor. Griffin, much to my chagrin, seems to have inherited my anti-authoritarian streak.

But then there are the gifts that aren’t really gifts, the things that show up that fill you up with regret when they surface in your child. Cam felt horrible the day we learned that Connor needed glasses, much worse than Connor did, in fact. And the first time Connor had a stretch of insomnia, I actually apologized to him for setting that little timebomb in his DNA. The Asperger’s, too, was an unwelcome complication from me and my family, though the relief at understanding what was going on with Connor offset any grief at the diagnosis. Griffin, too, has some sensory issues in common with Connor and me, but so far, no sign of being too far off the neurotypical end of the spectrum.

This has been a weird month for our family. While we’re overjoyed at the release of Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, and the attendant acclaim and delight, even good stress can be very stressful. Then I had my sudden pancreatic mutiny that landed me unexpectedly in the hospital for almost a week, and recovering from surgery for another week after that. Whatever the combination of factors, Connor hasn’t reacted well, and the deepest stretch of depression in almost two years has laid him low. He’s so fragile and off-balance: little things he could normally roll with knock him down into the trenches, and those troughs are so much deeper and hard to escape than even the usual lows that are common among Aspies. We’ve had several violent (toward himself and objects, not anyone else) meltdowns at school, as well as a hair trigger temper toward his brother and more insomnia. Yesterday’s major event, to my furious frustration, was brought on by a teacher who didn’t follow Connor’s IEP, which lets him go to a safe place when he’s overwhelmed at school, and told him that he needed to “stop being a baby” and stay, or he would “lose privileges like free time.” He’s been to the ER twice in two weeks for evaluation.

Guilt is a normal state of existence for mothers everywhere, but seeing the depression that’s derailed whole seasons of my life wrap its sticky, persistent black tendrils around my beautiful boy–it weighs like a stone on my heart. And it’s probably no consolation to him, when he says there isn’t anything good in the world for him, or anything good he can give back to the world, that I can look him straight in the eye and say, “I know exactly how you feel right now.” Sometimes, I do things that fly in the face of my own experience–I don’t particularly like or find comfort in being touched when I’m that depressed, but I hold him so tightly as he weathers hurricanes of emotion too big for his little body, and I hope it brings him calm sooner than he would find alone.

Knowing how much he’s like me in other ways is no consolation. He has my resourcefulness. He has my tendency to predict future events based on scenarios played out, like chess games, entirely in his mind. And he has my impulsiveness. Each, on their own, is harmless–even an asset in many situations. But put them together, and I’m left with the certainty that, if he decided now was the time to hurt himself, the best I could hope would be to find him in time.

The options for treating juvenile depression aren’t great, or many. We’ll step up the frequency of his visits to the therapist. We’ll work with him for plans to stay safe in every imaginable contingency; he does well with things scripted out in advance. We’ll spend a lot of time just snuggling on the couch, reading and watching TV together. We’ll work a little harder to keep him in touch with friends and family who love him so much. We’ll watch some “It Gets Better” videos. We’ll build little things for him to look forward to on the calendar for the next few months, and I’ll break myself if I have to to make sure they happen, no matter how I’m feeling.

All these plans, though, are no match for one moment of desperate action. Needless to say, I’m not sleeping much or deeply these days. I’m terrified for my baby; I would be even without any personal experience with depression. But I do have experience. When he says it’s hopeless, he’s only saying aloud something I’ve thought a million times. When he says we’d all be better off if he killed himself, he’s giving voice to a feeling etched in a dark corner of my own heart.

This broken piece of my beautiful boy comes from me. It matches a broken piece inside of me. What remains to be seen is whether my broken piece will be any help filling in the jagged edges of his tattered little soul.

Feb 25, 2012 - Psychology    5 Comments

Minnesota Nice

Things you should know about me

  • I love volunteering for good causes
  • I love making people feel good about themselves
  • I love trying new things
  • I love making people laugh
  • I also use humor to defuse tense situations
  • I need to feel useful
  • I try to be honest, tactful, and polite, even when they seem mutually exclusive
  • I frequently wear myself out doing things for others before I get around to taking care of myself
  • I have an anti-authoritarian, rebellious, “Who the hell are you to tell me I can’t?” streak a mile wide
  • I’m wild about democratic politics, but not interested in small group interpersonal politics, except in an abstract, anthropological way
  • I love when my enthusiasm for something makes others enthusiastic too
  • I somehow manage to have abysmal self-esteem and a sense of unflappable calm and competence in crises
  • I probably like making lists a little too much
  • I’m pretty riled up at the moment, so this is about as passive-aggressive as I get
  • I’m pretty sure the people I’m upset with don’t read this blog

Things I don’t really enjoy

  • Power politics in places you don’t expect them
  • People who hoard information to guarantee their continued importance
  • People who let someone else take fire as a leader, but continue to pull strings behind the scenes
  • Finding out important things about an institution that radically change your understanding and expectations of what’s possible
  • The belief that intellectuals can’t possibly know anything practical about the “real world”
  • The stance that it’s not worth even trying new things because there’s the chance that they’ll fail
  • Grown-ups who still rely on status cliques for a sense of importance
  • People who won’t blow you off to your face, but who basically stopped listening before you started talking
  • Being accused of selfish motives for taking on time-consuming, thankless volunteer work
  • Finding oneself nominated by the method of everyone else taking a step backward while you stood still
  • Being my own (and only) cheerleader
  • Feeling like a project that’s meant to be helpful and positive is now nothing but a drag on time, energy, and emotional reserves
  • Working on not being such a control freak, and then watching everything go directly to hell the minute I leave it alone
  • Being hamstrung on projects that are important to me because I don’t play politics
  • The why-am-I-even-trying-anymore kind of tired

Things I actually do enjoy

  • Kids wanting to hug me, high-five me, say hi to me, tell me a joke, or ask when I’m coming back to their class, every time I walk down a school hallway
  • When good, solid, simple plans work like they’re supposed to, defying others’ expectations of failure
  • Having another project that actually is working, and doing good, and is appreciated
  • People who feel like I’m approachable and non-judgmental, even when the group I represent leaves them feeling excluded from a secret society
  • Helping friends
  • Helping kids
  • Helping strangers
  • Helping anyone, anywhere, anytime I’m asked
  • My hair color, even if I’m “too old” to be doing weird stuff like this
  • A good old-fashioned bitch session
  • People who support me when I go out on a limb with good intentions
  • Participating in conversations that have no mysterious subtexts or power dynamics I don’t know about
  • Making my own social group where the misfits feel welcome and valued
  • A level playing field
  • Offering a graceful way out of the corner someone has painted themselves into (eventually)
  • The job-well-done kind of tired

A Thousand Little Things

This is Gwen.

I’ve been working for a while now, in all my copious spare time, on organizing a fundraiser to help some dear friends. Given how closely to the bone my family lives from time to time, it may seem like an odd choice for me to use my time to make money for someone else, but my efforts aren’t about the money. The money’s just the most immediate way to begin righting a wrong.

Elizabeth and Shreyas have two daughters. Nirali is two years old and completely adorable. And Gwen is eight, whip-smart with a smile as big as the world. Gwen is also autistic. Her family has had to pull her out of the public school where she’s been going since they moved to California because of its stubborn refusal to follow the Individualized Education Program (IEP) that outlines Gwen’s difficulties, goals, and the school’s obligations to help her function at her fullest capacity. IEPs are legal documents, and the school has broken the law time and time again by refusing to provide the support Gwen needs to learn and participate.

If her family just pulls Gwen from the school, with no follow-up, there will be no record of the egregious offenses the school district has committed. Another family with their own bright, high-functioning autistic child might run into the same obstinacy and intransigence, and never know that their experience is part of a pattern that goes back years.

The only way to change things in the future is to fight now. And fighting is expensive.

In return for donations to help Gwen’s family fund the legal fight and prove that a private school can do what the public school refuses, I’m putting together six months of new short fiction from a fantastic roster of writers. Every other Monday (with occasional “freebie” days at random), subscribers will get something new to read. Readers of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and generally offbeat stories will recognize some of the authors who’ve already committed their talents: Matt Forbeck, Kenneth Hite, Josh Robern, David Niall Wilson, Cam Banks, Steven Savile, and more. Still more authors are still stepping forward; I’m thrilled and humbled by everyone’s generosity. You can subscribe right here.

But I’m not just doing this for Gwen and her family, much as I adore them. I’m not doing this just because it’s the right thing to do, though it obviously is. I’m doing this out of gratitude for the thousand little things my sons’ school does for them, above and beyond Connor’s IEP requirements.

I’ve written before about the misunderstanding, the ignorance, and the physically and psychologically scarring bullying Connor received from both administration and classmates at the school where he attended kindergarten. His Asperger’s Syndrome was so obvious to trained observers that, when we switched him to a different school for first grade, we were called in for a meeting about his diagnosis before the first month of school was over.

Over the years, we’ve had meetings upon meetings around that packet of papers labeled “IEP.” They’re full of jargon, full of measurable annual goals, services and modifications, assistive technology considerations, and other daunting phraseology. But that jargon translates into real help that makes a real difference. It gives him permission to walk out of any situation that’s overwhelming him to the point that he feels a meltdown coming on. It gives him access to tools like fidgets and weighted vests that allow him to focus longer and be more at ease in loud, crowded situations. It justifies the time spent in social skills group and occupational therapy, when other kids are drilling on academics that Connor mastered a grade or two ago.

All those therapies and tricks and tools are incredibly helpful. But the things for which I get down on my knees in thanks, and that I wish for Gwen and every other amazing kid trying to cope in this noisy, gaudy, overwhelming world with their quirky superhuman senses, are the things that aren’t ever written into an IEP. They’re the points of human contact, of compassion from professionals whose hands are more than full with the everyday concerns of all the other “perfectly normal” kids.

It’s the way that, when Connor had a meltdown at school after a week of substitute teachers and his mom in the hospital, the principal offered him a hug, and just held him as he sobbed under the weight of emotions too big and complex for him to sort out alone.

It’s the way that the school social worker offered to use “special funds” to buy a pack of undershirts so Connor didn’t have to wear the pressure vest that helps him stay calm on the outside of his clothes, where it might be noticed and commented upon by his classmates.

It’s the way that they recognized that his need for a break in the day could be fulfilled by an activity that would raise his self-esteem and make use of his extraordinary talents, and set up a schedule to act as a “reading buddy” to second-graders who could use a little extra attention.

And it’s the way that these amazing teachers and administrators are extending the same caring resourcefulness to Griffin, who doesn’t even have an IEP, but has needed help adjusting to kindergarten. They created a “job” for him, carrying a crate of books to the nurse’s office in the morning, and back to the classroom in the afternoon, to let him feel proud of helping as he gets some much needed movement breaks. It’s the special desk they made for him, with faux fur, sandpaper, and a bumpy silicone potholder glued to the underside for him to fidget with instead of constantly touching his classmates and their work.

A thousand little things that make our kids stronger, calmer, more confident, more self-aware, and better prepared for the thousand little things that none of us can foresee from day to day. Like those waterfalls of brightly colored ten thousand origami cranes, fashioned by hand from paper and love, a labor of such dedication that it’s believed to grant the recipient one wish. Except that the visible sign of the grace and compassion of these people isn’t as perishable and impermanent as paper.

It’s the fast, bright, smart, funny, kind, curious, and beautiful boys that their actions are helping to grow. Every parent and every child deserves an education that gives results like this.

That’s why I’m fighting for Gwen.

The Censorship Quandary

The main job of parenting is to introduce your kids to the world outside your home in a way that best helps them make sense of it and learn to survive in it. You take them places, and show them things, then stand aside and anxiously watch them discover the joys and pitfalls for themselves. You clap and cheer, and dry tears and kiss scrapes. And it’s worth noting that this job isn’t only done by parents–any adult who deals with children experiences these things, and bears the honor and responsibility for those children’s formation.

The point of divergence among parents is when to expand the fence we build around our kids, to include new information and experiences. Obviously, this is a hot-button issue, laced with words like “censorship” and “age-appropriate” and “psychological trauma” that fuel an entire industry of researchers and trade paperback sales. Morals and memories of our own formative years have a powerful impact on our choices, as do our unique tastes. Sometimes, this veers in the absolute opposite direction from how we were raised. We resolve to raise our children with or without those influences: religion, politics, bad food, naughty words, even our extended family.

And sometimes, we lean into the curve of our own years, and urge our children into the shape of the things we’ve grown to love. The phrase “Where has this been all my life?!” is a strong predictor of parental behavior; the favorite shouted phrase of teenagers throughout time and space, “When I’m a parent, I’m never going to make my kid go there/eat that/do this!!” rarely factors in parenting decisions later in life. My husband and I are geeks who are making our living from an industry based on social experiences of play–it was a foregone conclusion that we would mold our little creations to share some of our offbeat enthusiasms. I showed Connor Star Wars when he was two, the same age at which I’d seen it (when it was first released in 1977), and Griffin was about the same age when I introduced him to Godzilla and all the other Japanese atomic monsters. And sure enough, they’re evolving nicely on the quick-witted, culturally referent, and wide-ranging track we set them.

But, inevitably, there are hitches in the unrolling of the tapestry of the world we lay at our children’s feet. Some, we never see coming. When Connor was born in the long, hot summer of 2002, we started watching “The Sopranos” on DVD to while away the humid evenings. He would actually stop nursing and look at the TV in recognition when the theme song came on. In large quantities, this show can have a deleterious effect on one’s language; I suddenly found myself saying, in the voice of Paulie Walnuts, “This f—ing guy!” whenever Connor would poop in a brand-new diaper. At the same time as we were awash in a stew of New Jerseyan profanity, I discovered that I no longer felt comfortable leaving live news on TV around my newborn son, a feeling that intensified as he grew to toddlerhood. I must admit, I am a news junkie; have been since high school. I mean, slap a vein and stick in a global 24-hour mainline–I want it all. So this discomfort came as a distinct shock to me as a new mother, a radical and instantaneous re-prioritization that told me I was no longer the same person I had always been, the first of many.

Other problems, we see coming and face with deep ambivalence. For instance: I swear. A lot. Not as badly as I did when I lived in France, but I’m somewhere between dockhand and a Naval officer on his ninth month at sea. I’ve tried to rein it in, but I just can’t force it entirely from my vocabulary, which will doubtless earn me the scorn of parents with more willpower. I’ve always believed in the concept that there are no bad words, only the wrong situations for them; calling them bad gives them more power, as most ably demonstrated by the Harry Potter novels. So I’m raising my kids to know that swear words are not appropriate for children, and are a reflection of strong emotions, and so far they get it. Connor, in particular, is still pained by my profanity, and regularly implores me to “be appropriate” around him, but I’m convinced he does this for the sheer joy of turning the tables on me. I’m also grappling with my awareness of the deeply bizarre American relationship with sex and violence. I’m determined not to be casual about violent themes and images, and to be less neurotic about anything to do with sex and gender, but the whole thing is fraught with conflict and difficulty. For now, I take it as a victory that my sons are some of the only young boys I know who don’t freak out at kissing or when I streak from bathroom to bedroom on the days I forget my robe.

We had a big turning point within the last week or so, with both boys. Griffin got himself suspended for a day by mooning his female classmates. When asked what on earth could’ve possessed him to do such a boneheaded thing, a thought occurred to me. Connor’s a huge fan of The Simpsons, and this was straight out of Bart’s playbook. I asked him, “Did you do it because you saw it on TV?” He nodded tearily, and mourned, “I did it so they would laugh.” So I’m having to re-evaluate the influences of tween tastes on the kindergarten set. Meanwhile, Cam has started playing Skyrim, and Connor is riveted by, of all things, the crafting. (I’m told WoW and FarmVille players will totally get the appeal.) He’s pleaded with us for permission to play on his own, so he can make leather and explore, but Cam firmly asserted that there was just too much violence and sexual content for a kid his age. I was more ambivalent, and argued that he wouldn’t necessarily even do some of the things we would be uncomfortable with, but I’m bowing to Cam’s vastly greater knowledge of video games.

It’s a comfort, though it seems wrong to put it like that, to say that some of the things that scared me the most as a child could never have been predicted, so sheltering my kids from everything isn’t going to inoculate them from every nightmare. The movie Gremlins scared the living crap out of me, and that was marketed directly at children, with tie-in toys and everything. And I was much more scared of nuclear war, as a Reaganbaby, than I was of anything I ever read–The Day After shook me so hard that it was incredibly hard to watch again as a grad student.

Similarly, one of Connor’s triggers couldn’t have been foreseen, or even insulated against. It took us a few years, until he could sufficiently articulate it, but extreme closeups of faces, especially not-completely-human faces, really freak him out. He went to see Spiderman 3–which is a horror in other ways, but I won’t get into that–at the movie theater, and none of the action or “adventure peril” bothered him at all. Instead, it was this one shot of Venom’s open mouth as he lunges at the camera that gave him fits. Likewise, there’s a scene in Fantastic 4 when Ben Grimm reveals his rocky deformation by turning his face out of shadow and lifting the brim of his hat. He leaves the room when that part of the movie is coming up, and that’s fine with me.

I console myself with the fact that we do so much with our children, and that guiding our kids through new experiences makes them less likely to be seeds of neurosis later in life. Sure, I’ve read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to them at Halloween–I even showed them the spooky-fantastic pictures by Stephen Gammell, which are apparently too scary to include in the latest republication. But I didn’t just give them the book and tell them to read it to themselves before bed. I was right there beside them, shivering at the gory parts and validating their fears by sharing my own. I think this prepares them for life much better than pure censorship can, and gives me the opportunity to shape their responses to their own feelings and impressions, by building a sense of empathy and honesty that I hope will serve us later when their lives get immeasurably more complex.

And if it doesn’t work, hey, I’m doing my part to support the psychoanalysts of the future.

Necessary Things: Reverb Gamers #7 & 8

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #7: How do you pick names for your characters? (Courtesy of Atlas Games.)

I’m influenced quite a bit by the setting–if there’s a clear analog to a time period or ethnic culture, I like to find a name that fits in the landscape. Just Google “baby names” and you’ll find all sorts of fantastic lists, often with meanings attached; www.babyhold.com has one of my favorites, with lots of ethnic names to choose from. I also read a lot, and books are fantastic sources of names. You might even keep a list of your own, with your gaming supplies, so you can remember the nifty names you come across in odd places. I’ve been inspired by names I found in alumni mailings, historical documents, garden centers, news reports, even on menus (I once had a pulp character named Wasabi Delmonico, after a steak description at a trendy bar and grill!).

And in case you’re the kind who does keep lists, here’s an incomplete list of character names I’ve used over the years (in no particular order): Selwyn, Rebekah, Julia, Rosemary, Margaret (aka Maggie the Book), Caledonia (Callie, for short), Bethan, Mercia, Anthea, Amara, Constance, Helga (the Wonder Nurse), Astrid, Marilla, Serafina, Lysimachia (Lysa for short; it’s the Latin name for Loosestrife, which is awesome for a fairy name), Stella Cordaric, Twink (the halfling barbarian with a soup pot for a helmet), and Freya. I know I’ll kick myself for the ones I’m forgetting, but if any of you dear readers can remember other characters I’ve played over the years, feel free to post names in comments!

REVERB GAMERS 2012, #8: What’s the one gaming accessory (lucky dice, soundtrack, etc.) you just can’t do without? Why? (Courtesy of Atlas Games.)

I’m terrible at sitting still; I have Busy Hands ™. So my essential gaming accessory is a craft to work on while the game’s in progress. Over the years, I’ve crocheted, knitted, cross-stitched, and made jewelry at the gaming table; I do this while visiting, watching movies, even during church services (thank the gods for circular bamboo knitting needles; no danger of a mortifying clatter when you accidentally drop your knitting). This is what I’m working on at the moment; you can see examples of my jewelry here.

Some people–even other women–this takes aback. From the reactions I’ve gotten from some men at convention games as I took out my tools and fibers, you’d think I’d just whipped out a breast instead. Somehow, it seems, my crafting was an unwanted feminine intrusion into their macho adventure space. In other groups, it was the norm. The battlemat was littered with scraps of embroidery floss, yarn ends, wire snippings, and stray seed beads. All the women around the table were industriously working away on their blankets, quilts, or wall hangings, stopping only to roll a handful of dice and briskly announce, “I kill it.” It was like the awesomest kind of quilting bee-slash-special forces raid.

I know that not everyone can deal with someone efficiently multi-tasking in their presence; it looks to them like I’m not paying attention as they play their part of the scene. What I try to make them understand is that I’m actually far less likely to stay focused on the action if my hands are busy. That physical occupation calms the restless, seeking portion of my mind, allowing the creative part to fully concentrate in the mental task at hand. I’d be curious to know how many other gamers on the ASD spectrum function better while stimming. I’m fortunate that my stim of choice masks what it’s doing for me in a sensory capacity. And when I’m done stimming, I have pretty things to show for it.

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