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The Difficult Years


Here, finally, is the long-put-off sequel to The Insulated Jar.

It's been five years since my husband died, and the time has run like sand through my fingers. My son was a freshman in high school then; now he's a sophomore in college. Maybe this time has gone by so rapidly because these have been the best years we've had. The fourteen years that preceded my husband's death were very, very difficult. On the day of the funeral four of my son's friends came over and hung out with him, all dressed in church-going clothes, they just sat and talked and sometimes they joked and laughed. They all left together when a couple of moms showed up, and after they walked out my son said "That's the first time I've had friends over to this house in four years."

After his death, I was consumed by the need to understand what had been "wrong" with my husband. I had been with him for twenty years, and I had long known that his emotional reactions seemed bizarre; as though he first decided how to feel, and then pretended it. But he never quite got it right. I couldn't explain it, but he was always just a bit "off" in his emotional expression. At times he would gush embarrassingly in lavish praise of a salesclerk in a store; at other times he would be shockingly, pointlessly rude. Unless the emotion was rage, or fear, or some such primal reaction--these came naturally.

I knew, too, that he was hyper sensitive to noise. I had frequently seen him startle in response to sounds that didn't bother me at all. Our son played with balloons because they were quiet; every time he came down the stairs from his room the sound of his footsteps set my husband's teeth on edge.

There were other things I couldn't explain. The blinds in his study had to be open. The blinds in my study had to be closed. Although he was a brilliant man, a math professor when I married him, he couldn't relate his knowledge to the world around him. He couldn't understand simple mechanical systems. We had a bizarre conversation one day in which I tried to convince him that conservation of mass was not just a rule used in the formulation of mathematical equations, it was a real phenomenon. He said "But what happens when wood burns?" and I described the classic experiment in which wood is burned in a sealed container, and the combined weight of the released water vapor, smoke, and ash is exactly the same as the original weight of the wood.

What was my husband's diagnosis? He hadn't suffered from depression, although a sudden onset of depression had certainly killed him. I've already described in my earlier post (linked above), how I stumbled on the answer, so I won't repeat the story here. Suffice it to say that once I discovered Asperger's Syndrome, it all became clear.

For a while I posted to a private, invitation-only online message board that was a support group for partners of people with Asperger's Syndrome. They would all understand what I'm saying: that the years since my husband's death have been the best years of my son's life. Their stories all mirrored my own. There was a woman whose husband bought all his clothes at Nordstrom while his children slept on mattresses on the floor because they had no beds. There was the time a piece of heavy furniture fell on a woman's two-year-old son, and her husband's only reaction was "Did it break?" There was the time my own son slipped and fell on the stairs and my husband's only response was anger at the noise. Again and again, the stories described narcissism beyond comprehension, and a complete lack of empathy.

I'm likely to get some angry email in response to this, so I'll say up front that like all disorders on the autism spectrum, there is tremendous variation between people with AS (most of whom are men), and I've heard of at least one case in which a man who recognized his symptoms worked hard to form a bond with his children. Congratulations to those few. The majority, I'd say, reject the idea that they have any shortcomings at all. Indeed, it's typical for an "Aspie" to reject any diagnosis and believe he's perfectly all right and the rest of the world is hysterical.

My husband and I had been married for three and a half years before our son was born, and we'd lived together for two years before getting married. And yet I couldn't foresee how difficult it would be to bring a baby into our lives. It's not that the courtship and early years had been trouble free--even the courtship years had been difficult. You may well wonder why I chose to marry a man to whom it was difficult to be engaged. All I can say is that I learned to navigate the rocky shores and find the few calm inlets. I attribute this tolerance to the home I grew up in--which is all I want to say about that at this time.

And besides, there were qualities I greatly admired in my husband. Most people who see the movie "A Beautiful Mind" probably wonder why in hell the wife ever married the guy, as nuts as he was. I can answer that question, because I understand perfectly why she married him; I'd have married him too. She wanted an extraordinary man. My husband was a very successful and highly respected mathematician. After his death a memorial conference was held for him at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute on the campus of UC Berkeley, and a scholarship was established in his name.

So I navigated the rough waters of our relationship, and I learned things about him that helped. Such as, he was always, always in a good mood after a good night's sleep. His mood inevitably deteriorated as the day wore on. I assume my husband's brain chemistry was unstable, and sleep corrected whatever went out of whack during his waking hours. As fate would have it, I am not a morning person, and I was never on his wavelength after dragging myself out of bed in the morning. Nevertheless, I relied on my husband's happy mood at the beginning of the day. I knew it didn't matter if he went to bed mad at night--the anger would be completely gone in the morning. I knew I'd have a better chance of getting a positive response to any suggestion if I waited to ask until morning. There was a flip side to this trait: he was utterly dependent on sleep and quickly destabilized when it eluded him. He committed suicide after suffering just one week of insomnia.

Despite the difficulty of the early years, I failed to anticipate how much worse it would get after our son was born. My husband couldn't tolerate disruption of his schedule--a typical Aspie trait. His lack of an emotional bond with our son meant, I guess, that to him it was as though we were baby-sitting a stranger's child, constantly watching the clock, counting down the minutes until the child would be picked up, but the child was never picked up--he was ours.

And yet--he was not incapable of forming a strong bond, and he formed one with me. How I came to this conclusion several years after his death will be the subject of another entry.

The Insulated Jar, revisited

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I rarely check my blog statistics. Having been offline for weeks after my web host revamped their servers, and again for weeks after switching my dsl provider, I had assumed all of my readers would have deserted me.

I was surprised when I checked the stats for the first time in months and discovered that I had had more than a thousand visits to my blog during August. Studying the entry pages, I found that two entries have drawn the most attention. A lot of people seem to like the picture of the big snake. Disclaimer: the claim that it's a record-breaker was an exaggeration. Still, it's a hell of a big snake.

The second most popular entry page is The Insulated Jar, which makes me feel kind of bad for not having written more about this topic, for those who are interested. I promise to write more, when I get some thoughts together.

The Insulated Jar

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My husband took his own life three weeks before Christmas, 1999-- four weeks before Y2K. He did it in the middle of a day that was, by all outward appearances, normal. He put his coffee mug and newspaper down on the kitchen table and, not waiting to finish the book he was reading, not waiting to move his laundry from the washing machine to the dryer, checked out.

When people ask me about it, I usually give a short answer: he was suffering from depression. Well, yes, but the depression had come on very suddenly, and it wasn't something he normally suffered from. No one saw it coming. Everyone who knew him was blown away.

His suicide wasn't a "cry for help"; there was no chance of failure. He did all of the classic things: he waited until my son and I left the house, wrote a note absolving us of any guilt, took off his glasses, went into a small uncarpeted room that our son never went into, closed the door, sat down on the floor, put the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.

We had been together for 20 years, married for 18. I don't know a kind way to say this, but I had known for a long time that my husband was "emotionally handicapped". Because I had never heard of Asperger's Syndrome, I had no clue as to the cause.

Several years before my husband's death, while waiting for our son to come out of an orchestra rehearsal, I spent a few minutes reading over the shoulder of a mother who was doing graduate work in child development. What I read sounded like a description of my husband: uncomfortable interacting with others, reluctant to make eye-contact, adverse to change, stuck in routines. I asked her what she was reading, and she said it was a description of Asperger's Syndrome. When I asked "What's that?" she said it was a mild form of autism.

I dismissed it at the time; my knowledge of autism consisted of my having seen the movie "Rainman", and I knew that my husband, a successful and highly respected mathematician, was no Rainman. For years I tried to put my finger on just what, exactly, was wrong with him. A year or so after his death, I again ran across the words Asperger's Syndrome, on a message board, where a poster claimed to have AS, and blamed it for his being hyper-sensitive to noise.

Bells rang, whistles blew. My husband was so sensitive to noise that our son had grown up playing basketball with balloons because they were quieter than balls. I started to research AS online, and all the pieces fit. From my husband's addiction to routine-- eating the same sandwich for lunch every weekday for eight years, stacking his handkerchiefs and wearing his t-shirts in a certain order, to his need to control his environment-- insisting that the blinds in his study be open twenty-four hours a day, that everything on his desk be at right angles, to his inability to interact spontaneously with strangers-- he was an "Aspie".

When our son was two years old I had a terrible revelation: my God, I thought, Michael is more mature than Fred. And yet I knew that didn't really explain the situation, because to say that my husband was less mature than a two-year-old was to suggest that he was emotionally similar to a one-year-old, and that was nonsense.

Consider a profoundly retarded twelve-year-old. It might be said that this child has the developmental skills of a two-year-old, and yet, are they similar in any way? While they might know an equal number of vocabulary words and have an equal ability to count to five, they're nothing alike at all. Remembering my own son at two years of age, I recall standing in the kitchen while he sat on the floor and scribbled. He looked out the window and said What do you see? I pointed out some object, and he followed up with a barrage of questions. Before he knew the word Why he invented his own query by inverting Because. He said What is it for doing? What is it cause-be? And he didn't just want facts; he wanted aesthetic and moral judgements: Is it pretty? Do you like it? This is not the behavior of a profoundly retarded twelve-year-old.

My son lived for feedback at that age. Supposing he had gotten none? Might he then have appeared retarded at the age of twelve? I think so. I believe my husband suffered from an inability to register emotional feedback, and consequently he did not develop emotionally as a "normal" person does.

Some people believe that those with AS, or any form of autism, have no emotions. I and others who have lived with an Aspie know otherwise. Not only did my husband have emotions, he had a good sense of humor, although his sense of humor and mine were very different. It was the lack of feedback, not because it wasn't provided, but because it couldn't be absorbed, that retarded his emotional development.

What would cause a person to be unable to register emotional feedback? This brings me to a point at which a reader might well hit "back" on the browser, because it is based on my interpretation of the nature of life, of existence, if you will. I believe we are all part and parcel of a unified field of consciousness, call it the Mind of God if you're religious, or call it a spirit world. We are all, while encased in physical bodies, separated from one another spiritually as the air in a glass jar is separated from the air around it-- part of it, but unaware of it, or of the existence of it in other jars.

Ahh, but we're not unaware of each other, not really. Because the glass isn't insulated; when the air outside is warm, the air inside is warm; cold outside, cold inside. When we ask someone What's wrong? and they say Nothing, we know better. Through emotional feedback we learn to recognize facial expressions, to relate them to emotions. Because of feedback, we can interact on an emotional level.

I think one tragic symptom of AS is the inability to sense not just the emotions but the spiritual essense of others. This is said in various ways in descriptions I've read of AS: it's said that Aspies "lack empathy" or that they "don't believe others have minds of their own." These are descriptions of the symptom, but my own explanation grasps for the cause. While all of us are "psychic" to some extent, if being able to sense others is a psychic ability, there are those with more ability than others, and those with less. I believe that tragically, those with AS are "psychically blind"-- the jar is insulated.

July 2012

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