I Know now I am Bi-Polar, but was I? Am I? Autistic?
I will be 50 in April of this year, so when I was born, there wasn't a lot known about mental health other than to steer clear of people who had issues. There was a lot known about how to deal with mental health issues on your own, but nothing that really helped. They only added to the problem. Namely, the use of alcohol and drugs.
I was born in California, and have very little recollection of that time in my life, other than what I've been told. I know I was born to a family of 5, which included my father, my mother, and my two sisters.
I know I was a "mistake". My mother was 38, and the youngest of my sisters was 13. My mother believed that soon her children would be old enough so that she could have a life of her own and be able to go back to work if she wanted to. Unfortunately, that was not to be, as soon she would once again be tied down to dealing with diaper and bottles.
The rest of the family was overjoyed - so much so, that they managed to infect my mother with their enthusiasm and soon she, also, started to look with anticipation towards my birth.
My history requires a little bit of a prologue. My family was in a car wreck that occurred 7 years before my birth. It was a bad one, with a semi-truck that has lost it's brakes. Both my mother and father were "scalped"; the skin was peeled back from their heads and had to be stitched back in place. From that point, my father usually shaved his head bald, since the hair didn't grow back in, and my mother had a white streak through her hair that she usually hid with dye. My mother also had her pelvis broken in 9 places and had to be placed in traction. My eldest sister was placed in a body cast. She was paralyzed from her mid-thorax down. She had the use of her arms, but everything below that point had no feeling. One of her eyes was also damaged, and had to be repaired with surgery that required the eye to be removed from it's socket, and then replaced. She was 6 at the time of the accident. I remember mom telling me stories about how she had sewn a tiny mink coat for Karen's Barbie doll, to try to get her to open her eyes again. My youngest sister suffered some bumps and bruises from the accident, but otherwise came through unscathed.
This accident obviously had a huge effect on my family - their whole lives changed on that day. So even though it seems to have nothing to do with me, it affected everything for them, from that point forward.
My mom and dad went by Joyce and Bill. Dad called Mom Sophie. They never let me in on why. My sisters were Karen, who was the eldest, and Margie, who was in the middle.
This narrative is based on hearsay and my own memories and perspectives, and my memories and perspectives, to some, are decidedly odd. It is what I saw through my own eyes, or what I interpreted from words that were spoken to me. On top of that, it is what I can remember, and my memory is very erratic. Some things I can almost feel, taste and touch as though it were yesterday. Others seem to be hidden in a fog bank and make my head hurt when I try to pull them out into the open.
What you read here may not be the truth, but it is my truth. My perspective is my reality.
So, for 7 years, my parents and family learned to live and adjust their schedule with a paraplegic child. She was in and out of the hospital due to complications from the accident, there was a law suit, and though my family won, the owner of the truck cleverly managed to avoid paying any of the hospital bills. I know next to nothing about this time, other than that the majority of it occurred in California. I was told that my two sisters were very close and could be very sneaky, using Karen's disability to do things they otherwise couldn't have. Nothing bad - just bypassing the lines at Disneyland rides and getting the good seats in movies, etc and so on. My father was a talented engineer and very creative. He came up with ways to include Karen in everything, including camping and fishing. They would take her camping and fishing even when she had a raging fever - otherwise, she would never have been able to do anything but lay in a hospital bed. They sent her to regular school, and when the schools could not accommodate her wheelchair, my father called the White House and demanded to speak to the President. He wanted to know how he was expected not to break the law by having a truant child if the child could not attend public school. Accommodations were made for her. There was nothing at all wrong with her mind; it was only her body that didn't work properly.
When I was born, my mother told me that she believed that I was not a mistake, but a gift to my oldest sister who would never be able to have a child of her own. Apparently a lot of my early care was taken over by her, and mom told me I was her baby. Mom told me that I could be very naughty, and when my sister became angry and tried to punish me, I would run and hide behind the dining room table, because I knew her wheelchair wouldn't be able to fit back there. Mom said she would get so mad, but that she thought it was funny at the same time, and she would wheel her wheelchair around so that I couldn't see her laughing. Karen laughed silently. Mom told me that when she laughed, the only thing you could see of it was that her nostrils moved in and out, and her shoulders shook. When Mom told me the story, I felt bad for being such a brat, but I did like the idea that my sister had been amused by it.
I don't remember anything about my oldest sister, Karen. I have no recollection of her at all.
So, I was born in California, and at that time, I didn't know what I was. I had no label to determine my mental state. Karen had the label; paraplegic, and at that time, our family's life revolved around that.
My first memory - my earliest memory - came to me when I was 36 and exhausted after giving childbirth. I closed my eyes and saw a white ceiling framed by the white bars of a crib, and tiny fists were waving in the air in front of my face. It was so very vivid and clear, I knew it had to be a memory. I told my mother and she scoffed. I couldn't possibly have a memory from that far back. I told her I was absolutely certain that it was. She tested me: What was the color of the crib, and what was on the mobile over the crib? I immediately responded, "The crib was white and plain square wood. There was no mobile." She stared at me, her mouth agape, and looked away. I said, "Well?" and she said, "You're right." So. I believe that to be my first memory.
Me as a Babe
I actually remember very little about this time in my life. I remember very vividly being taught to tie my shoes by a preschool teacher. Her name was Ms. Dot, and she showed me how to simply make two bows and wrap them over each other the same way as you make the initial wrap with the laces. I still tie my shoe like that to this day. I also remember once, during a lesson, she reprimanded me with, "You need to think!" I wailed back in a torrent of tears a very affronted and heartfelt response: "But... I don't know HOW to think!"
Is that strange, not understanding what thinking is? I found it a highly unusual concept.
I found existing to be a highly unusual concept. Seeing. Touching. Moving. Breathing. All of this stuff was just weird, and so incredible and amazing that I was capable of doing it. I would stare at my hands for hours, wondering at how I was able to make them move seemingly without any effort, almost before I thought about it. My fingers would move before I gave the order. There, see that? it twitched before I said anything. Or did it know already, somehow, that I wanted it to move? Fascinating. I would close my eyes and touch things, see how close I could come to a thing before I actually perceived it was there. What was that perception? How come it was so different from pain?
It was the same with light. I was yelled at over the fridge light constantly, but who doesn't want to know the exact instant the light kicks on and how long it takes for it to fill the interior with light? Who doesn't want to know what things look like from the underside, and crawl around under and over and inside and between things to get a feel for them from every aspect?
Very few people, apparently. Because exploring your word and yourself this thoroughly, well, in all honesty, it's just weird. Small children can be overlooked, behaving in this manner, but as you grow older, it becomes embarrassing. For me, the very fact that I existed absorbed almost all of my attention. What was I? Why was I here? Why did I exist? How was it that I could think and feel and taste and touch and see? And what was taste? What was it, really? A feeling on my tongue? What exactly was "flavor"? Food touched my tongue and I "tasted". Sometimes the tastes made the sides of my tongue ache, or the back of my tongue burn. How was it that this pink wiggly thing in my mouth could differentiate between so many very different flavors? How was I perceiving that? How was it even possible?
Although I'm sure I didn't think about it in all the words I use to describe it, that is what I was thinking about as I grew up. How was it even possible? How was... existing... even possible?!
Life to me was and forever will be a complete miracle that everyone else seems to take for granted. When I was a child, it was as if I had never experienced such a thing ever before; it was all brand new to me, and I wanted to savor every aspect of it as thoroughly as I possibly could. Or, it was as if I was someone who had worked for years to create and forge and develop, to make such a thing possible, and then when I finally accomplished the goal, I was amazed by the perfection of the result. Like an artist, admiring her masterpiece. Look, how perfect the tilt of her head, look how smoothly drawn the curve of her back... it truly is a beautiful piece of work.
No, I didn't think all of that when I was a child. I felt it, and I experienced it, but I didn't understand what it was.
Me as a Child
The Early Years. Just an Odd Little Kid.
Once, when I was about 4, my sister Margie came in with some friends. They had a wine bottle. My sister sat there and peered into the bottle, holding it close to her eye, and when they left, I did the same. I sat there at the kitchen table for the longest time, peering into the neck of the bottle and watching a tiny slosh of reddish fluid slosh around at the bottom. Light rippled and reflected off of it, off the glass as it rolled away from the glass... fascinating. Who doesn't want to sit for and hour and watch the dregs of a wine bottle?
Normal people, apparently. If you are normal, you don't do this.
When I was 4, my oldest sister, Karen, died. I remember nothing of this. Maybe my parents protected me from it, I don't know. The only memory I have of Karen is of her gravestone, when my parents went to visit it. I see an image of a shadowy tree to the left, and my parents, who I am looking up at, looking down with very sad, still expressions on their faces. I remember looking at them, and then looking down to the grass, to the rectangular gray stones set into the earth, with very green grass growing up all around them. Very green, rich, and thick. I hopped from one stone, and then to another, and it became a game of "keep off the grass". I heard my mother call for me, and I ran back, and the memory ends. I remember knowing what we were there for, I knew we were visiting my sister's grave, but I don't remember feeling any sadness. I only knew I was expected to be quiet, and so I quietly hopped around on the stones. No one could fault me for that, could they?
My Sister's Grave
When my sister died, life changed. A lot of things happened then, all at the same time. My sister Margie met a man and moved away, and from that point I became an only child.
My parents moved to an A-frame in Twin Peaks, up in the California mountains by Lake Arrowhead. We lived there with my dad's parents, Grandma and Grandpa, and our dogs. My dog was Gypsy, a grey terrier mix. Monaghan was an Irish Setter, and was more of a family dog. Wilhelmina was my Grandfather's dog. She was a hugely fat standard dachshund. I didn't see much of her, as she stayed close to Pop, as Dad called him. Grandpa rarely moved away from the front of his TV set, where he sat swathed in a ring of rich scented pipe smoke.
I remember Dad had a gun. It was a pistol, and it was a starter gun, used for starting races. I remember the porch we had, and trays of seed everywhere for the birds and squirrels. Dad used the starter gun to startle the pigeons, who would swarm the deck and take over everything.
I clearly remember Dad had a record of nature sounds, and when he played the part that was a thunderstorm, all the animals would leave the deck as well.
The deck overlooked a sort of drop-off into a valley. If you wandered down there, you would find a rock - a huge boulder, jutting out the side of the mountain. I remember sitting on that boulder and pretending it was a whale, and I rode on the back of a whale. The whale was surrounded by lush forest and pine trees - the scent of pine was powerful out there. Looking out from the top of that boulder you could see a long way, because the woods dropped into the drop off and you could see out over them.
I clearly remember that rock, and I sat on it alone. Alone, and content to be so.
I have very few memories from my time living here, and few friends. I did know three kids that I went to play with; now, looking back, I guess they were "odd" too. I don't remember going to school with them. I remember their clothes were dingy and colorless, and the girl always wore a dress with pair of pants on underneath it. They lived up the paved road and down a gravel drive. This memory is a clear one because every time I walked up the road to visit them, I would stub my toe. I rarely wore shoes, and I rarely wear shoes now. I clearly remember walking up the road, dragging my right foot across the pavement and ripping the skin off my big toe. I looked down to see it bleeding, and I'd think, "Pick up your feet." Mom always told me to pick up my feet, and I would always think of it while I was looking at my bloody toe, but not before. I bloodied my toe almost every time I walked up that road. I think that is why I remember it so clearly.
I remember nothing about school, except for one instance, and that was walking to school. Mom was yelling to me from the porch, and I looked off the side of the road to see a coyote standing there, head down, tongue lolling, staring at me. Mom told me to watch him, and I did. When I walked, he walked. When I stopped, he stopped. I remember looking at the coyote, then looking at mom, wondering what all the fuss was about.
That is absolutely all I remember about that instance. I didn't really understand what she was worried about, and that is where my recollection ends.
I didn’t really understand what it was she was worried about. That’s all I remember.
Through stories told later, I’m told that Gypsy attacked the coyote in my defense. The coyotes in the area made a habit of eating small pets, so my little terrier was really no threat to it, but apparently she attacked it, and it tore into her. She came away with her life, but had to visit the vet for shots and a lot of stitches.
Is it odd, how my memory works? I can remember walking up the road. I can remember the coyote, standing on the side of the road. But I can remember nothing else. I don’t remember Gypsy being hurt, or caring for her afterwards, I don’t remember going to school.
I had one other friend, from Amsterdam, that came to visit us there. I expect he was considered “odd” also. He would sit in one of the rockers in our living room and just rock and rock and rock, hard and fast, with his eyes closed and a complacent smile on his face.
I remember when I first met him, but I don't remember where it was. I know we were visiting his home, I think it was an apartment. He was in his room and I was sitting in the living room with the adults feeling dejected and out of place. He peeked at me from the doorway of his room. I saw him doing this, and retaliated by covering my face with my stuffed lion, which I always carried about with me.
I think he considered this a favorable response, because he ducked away and disappeared. Moments later he reappeared, proudly holding up a stuffed toy of his own. I responded by clutching my lion closer and looking dejectedly at him. Strange boy – what did he want? He disappeared again and came back with another toy, which he showed me, and then he grinned; a very charming, affable, friendly grin, and it only then occurred to me that maybe he wanted to play. That has always been my reaction to people who approach me. What do you want, because you must want something; I know you can't possibly want to talk to me. Always I'm surprised when I discover someone actually wants to talk to me, even today, I am still like that. I remember being surprised, and although I was still leery, I allowed him to lure me to his room, prodded also by my mother, who was encouraging me to go on.
That is where that memory ends.
But for this memory, in the California mountains of Twin Peaks, his family had come to visit us, and while they talked upstairs, we went downstairs to play. Downstairs wasn’t used very much, and a lot of stuff was sitting around, being stored haphazardly. There was a huge stuffed panda bear inside an old box sitting on one of the tables. He took it out and we started to play with it. He threw it at me, across the table.
“Get off my bloody ship!” he shouted, displaying his big grin. I shyly smiled back, then hurled the panda back at him. “No! You stay off MY bloody ship!”
We continued doing this for some time. The panda had a hole in it’s stitching, and the hole open wider and wider, releasing the stuffing. Before long, the panda was mostly empty, and the stuffing was everywhere. It was great fun to play in.
At some point it occurred to me that there was white fluff everywhere, and I do mean, everywhere. I looked around, and then I looked at him, becoming alarmed. He understood. “We’ll clean it up!” he said, and glanced around in search of a broom, which we found. We both set to work.
This stuff didn’t sweep up easily. Not to mention that we were little and didn’t really know how to sweep. And what were we supposed to do with the pile? Ah.
We opened the back door and started sweeping it all outside.
We didn’t get far. Grandma came down to check on us and saw what we were doing. She sent us both upstairs. Not long after, we heard a vacuum cleaner running.
My memory from that point is sketchy. My friend and his family left. My mother held the empty panda body, looked at me woefully and said, “Oh, Toria.”
There is no spanking, no lecture, nothing, that pierces my heart worse than being a disappointment to someone, especially, my mother. She said nothing else, but her face showed a weary acceptance. Her disappointment in me absolutely filled those two words. “Oh, Toria.”
My father had a lot more to say, though. He got down on my level and looked me right in my face and didn't exactly yell, but his voice was loud and deep. He asked me if I knew what my grandmother was doing, and why she was doing it. My father made it very clear to me what it was I had done, why I shouldn’t have done it, and who it was that was suffering downstairs and cleaning up the mess that was created due to the consequences of my actions.
He didn’t just tell you what you did. He made you tell him. He made sure the point was made.
I don’t remember my parents ever spanking me, but they were very good at the lectures. My dad was especially good at them. He didn’t yell at you – no. You were an active participant, and you had to respond and react to them. In my opinion, I had very good parents.
But in this instance, he didn’t tell me the whole truth of it, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized that panda had belonged to my sister, Karen. Years later – I was in my twenties when my mom related the story at some gathering or other, and then the truth became clear to me. It had been a memento of my sister, Karen.
It occurred to me then that, even when I was very young, I had no memory of my oldest sister, or else I would have known who the bear belonged to.
So it would seem that my oldest sister has been gone – virtually erased – from my mind right from the point in which she died. My only memory of her is her grave, and all my information comes from the pictures and stories I've been told about her, since.
(This is a "Work in Progress" - I'll be back)