Golden Years

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I don’t remember exactly how old I was when we got him, but I do remember picking him out at the kennel that sat outside the breeder’s enormous farm in Palmyra.  There were enormous ears of corn that greeted us on the drive in.  The driveway was gravel and bumpy.  As we drove in I remember seeing the farm and the residence that sat just outside the woods off in the distance.

“Who lives like this?”  I remember asking myself.  “It’s like we’re going to the rural Gatsby’s.”

“Does this road end?”  My dad asked.  We kept driving for about a mile before we reached the midway point between the kennel and the main estate.  There was a place for horses somewhere around there as well.  I remember this because my sister loved horses when she was growing up and I could smell the hay as soon as I got out of the car.  We made our way over to the kennel which was filled with all sorts of dogs.  There were huskies, German Shepherds, even a large burly animal that seemed to me to be at least half wolf.  It seemed odd to me the way this dog kept an eye on seemingly everything that went on around the kennel.  As soon as we headed inside and the owner let the different litters in this dog followed along too.

There were two different litters that were let in and my mom knew exactly what she was looking for.  She took out various different dogs and played with them while we held the ones that had to wait their turn.  None of the puppies were very good at waiting.  We knew which one we wanted as soon as he went running across the room with a toilet paper roll in his mouth.  The roll was bigger than his head but he dragged it along anyways and he did so at a brisk pace.  We had to wait a couple weeks for him to mature enough for us to take him home.  Apparently there are laws that say when you can and can’t sell a dog.  We waited the period of time required and came back to pick him up.  I’ll never forget the ride home because he slept on my lap the whole way.

When we got home we had a whole playpen set up for him because he needed to be introduced to the other dogs slowly.  At that time we had three other dogs as well.  There was Thumper and American Cocker Spaniel and she was the oldest then there was Wiley, he was an English Cocker Spaniel and he was the second oldest then there was Whoopi, and she was about a year younger than Wiley and she was also an English Cocker Spaniel.  I had nicknamed each of the dogs, why I chose to do this and continue to do this is a mystery even to me.  I think it had something to do with rebelling against what was supposed to be the established order of things.  I know it started with my first Persian kitty that we got and was named Puffy (this was way before Puff Daddy came along and ruined the name forever.)  I nicknamed her “Puff-Puff Kitten Friend” because I was only seven or eight years old when I thought it up and it was the most obnoxious thing I could think of.

“Puff-Puff Kitten Friend!” I’d repeat over and over and over again until whoever was watching me threatened to bludgeon me to death.  Some of our animals even had songs that I had made up often revolving around some annoying commercial that had captured my fancy at the time.  I remember coming up with a song for Ramsey, our black cat that we got from the humane society that I rhymed to the beat of the “Coco Wheats” song.  Coco Wheats were a cereal that was supposed to be some sort of hybrid between Coco Puffs and Count Chocula, but in reality they looked like oatmeal and tasted nasty.  Ramsey had become the “Silk-Laden Dandy,” I remember it because it was one of my first rhyming nicknames that I had thought up.  I gave him the silk-laden part of his name because he was really fast and hard to catch when you got your hands on him.

One day my mother was making steaks and she left them on a plate by the microwave in the kitchen.  It was maybe twenty feet from the plate on the counter to the cat door that led to the basement and when Ramsey saw his opportunity he grabbed a great big T-bone steak and made his way downstairs.  I had made a diving attempt to stop him but had managed only to grab a tuft of hair.  I was amazed that he was not only able to fit himself but that huge steak as well through that tiny little cat door and he had done it all so remarkably fast.  My mother always covered our dinner after that.

“Your mother is no dummy” Grandpa used to say.  “You might get away with tricking her once, but after that you won’t get away with anything else.”

Grandpa was really good at analyzing things.  I think that’s where my great powers of analysis came from.  He could tell something about someone just by looking at them, he always had his eyes on the details.  By the time we had gotten my new Golden Retriever who I named Ian after Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond franchise Grandpa had moved up to the Wisconsin Veterans Home up in King, WI, which is just inside of Waupaca.  There’s the Veterans home and The King’s Table, a local eatery that I swear has the best bacon cheeseburger you could find.  Those two buildings comprise the tiny town of King, WI along with a couple of veteran’s cemeteries located outside the grounds.

When we first got Ian we had to bring him with us when we went just about anywhere because we couldn’t leave him home alone for too long.  This meant that when we went up north to visit Grandpa we took Ian along with us.  The plan had been to leave the trunk of the car open so that he would have plenty of fresh air while we were up with grandpa, but as soon as grandpa learned that we had a dog with us he insisted that he be allowed to meet him.  I pondered how we could do that.  Grandpa had always loved dogs and even when they were hazardous to him as a man who counted on crutches to keep himself upright, he still enjoyed playing with our dogs.  The veterans home didn’t allow dogs inside and it would have been difficult to get Grandpa all the way outside and down to the car, so I had to think on my feet.

“I have an idea,” I said as I grabbed my mother’s tote bag.  We went downstairs, grabbed some books that my mom had brought along and put Ian in the tote bag.  We put the books on top of him and carried the tote bag upstairs like we were just bringing some books inside.  Ian remained still the whole time he was in that bag all the way from the car into the building and up the stairs to Grandpa’s room on the second floor.  It was quite remarkable in retrospect.  Most puppies are unbelievably energetic, but he knew when to stay calm with uncanny efficiency.  I’ll never forget the look on Grandpa’s face when we made it back up to his room and my mom peeled away the books revealing the eight-week old Ian inside the bag.  Grandpa’s face lit up like it was his birthday, Christmas and New Year’s combined.

I still have the photo my dad took of my sister, Grandpa, and me with Ian as a small puppy and though both are gone now it still makes me smile when I look at the photo.  In every picture I have of Grandpa he’s smiling and not just a little bit, he’s smiling like he just won the lottery.  That is perhaps the best memory I have of Grandpa, that of him smiling.  I know that I am a very intense person to be around, that is how I am almost always described.  I don’t think anyone has ever accused me of being easy going.  But as I grew older I reflected on my time with Grandpa and how he could make an entire group of people laugh by keeping a smile on his face and telling a silly joke.  That was how I determined to fit in with a society that is difficult to fit into for the typical Aspergers sufferer.

When I was diagnosed with Aspergers when I was twenty-eight I realized that I needed to make some changes in my life if I was going to co-exist with the rest of society.  I learned as much as I could about Aspergers from the DSM-5 and whatever books I could find about the subject.  One of my favorite books about the subject was written by Augustin Burroughs’s brother Jon Elder Robinson called Look me in the Eye.  I remember reading it and finding the similarities uncanny.  I realized that I wasn’t the only one who nicknamed everything around me nor was I the only one who had a problem interacting with people and antagonizing others through no fault of their own.  Aspergers is something that affects how you interact with everything around you.  Robinson described the lack of empathy that a typical Aspergers person has as not one that is fully devoid of emotion, that is where many people mistake people who suffer from Aspergers with sociopaths or psychopaths, Aspergers people have “logical empathy.”  We can empathize with those around us but react oddly to things at times often upsetting someone when we do not mean to do so.

I’ve experienced this so many times first hand that it seems almost cumbersome to list them all, so I’ll just go over some of the ones that have been considered to be the most egregious.  Something that my father does with relative frequency is make common sense errors.  There is no doubt in my mind that he means well in everything he does, in fact he is one of the most kind people I have ever known and is the greatest father that any man could hope to have.  But he does things sometimes that don’t make sense to me and I often react in ways that irritate him as they would irritate any normal person who makes mistakes.  For instance, one day my dad decided to use a plastic rake to try and put out a fire in our backyard.  He was surprised when the rake caught on fire.  I thought this was hilarious because the mental image of a man running around with a rake that is on fire is an amusing thing to think about.  It was not funny to him though and I know it frustrates him to see me laugh at things that aren’t funny to him and are often embarrassing for him.

The ultimate example of my inability to show the proper emotions in a situation came when Grandpa was dying.  We all knew that the end was coming for Grandpa and it truly was a sad and somber time.  I’ll never forget that time in my life because I not only lost my grandpa, my best friend since I was a child, but my grandmother, who was the light in the lives of nearly everyone who had the good fortune to know her.  She died mere months after my grandpa died and it’s hard for me to remember a sadder time in my life.  But when we went up to see Grandpa one last time we went into the building where he was staying and waited for the social worker to show up.  We couldn’t really see Grandpa in the room when we first got there but I saw him out of the corner of my eye slouched over in his wheelchair, barely conscious.

My reaction is unfathomable, even to me, even now.  I laughed.  I don’t know why I laughed.  It wasn’t funny.  It was the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.  But I couldn’t help myself.  I sat down by the nurse’s station out of view from my family and laughed by myself until I could finally compose myself enough to talk to Grandpa for the last time.  To this day I’m ashamed of what I did, but I had no control over it.  That’s how Aspergers people react to things sometimes.  Their emotional reaction may not make sense even to them, but it’s not something that they have control over.  It’s something that just happens.  There are a number of things that I’ve done in my life that I don’t completely understand and indeed am ashamed of doing, but I never really had control over my reactions at these times.  I never thought about things like consequences because I lacked the emotional empathy to do so.  Even today I find it hard to empathize with people even though I know I should.

My mother often talks about how sad it is to see the homeless walk around the city where she works and though I know in my heart that it is truly a sad situation, I cannot emotionally feel for them like I could for someone I really cared about.  It is a sad thing that these people have nowhere to go and everything, but I have never been able to truly feel for them regardless of how hard I try.  The only way I can feel bad for people in these situations is if I think about myself and how I cannot bring myself to empathize with them.  I think of myself and how sad I think it is as a fellow human being that I cannot empathize with them.  I want to empathize with them, I want to feel really sorry for them, but I really only feel sorry for myself because I feel like a terrible person for not having a heavy heart when thinking about people who are in such dire economic circumstances.

One of the issues that many people with Aspergers struggle with is what I call the “fraud” feeling.  Many times in life we made out by others to be a “fraud,” someone who knows little to nothing about something that I can assure you any person with Asperger’s has studied harder than should be humanly possible.  I’ve worked for people like this and they make you feel bad about yourself because they’re insecure in who they are.  I’ve had people tell me that I’m any number of things that shouldn’t be repeated.  It’s like a vicious cycle.  The one thing I have learned is that wherever you go in life, a bully is sure to follow.

Everywhere you go in life there are bullies.  It doesn’t matter if you’re 6, 16, or 60 there will always be a bully out there and they will attack the person with the weakest social skills.  If you have Aspergers that most likely means that they’re coming for you.  As someone with Aspergers I’ve fought more bullies than I count, but the only way they win is they get you to feel how they want you to feel and that is: no good, bad, and useless.  My psychiatrist used to say that I didn’t like interacting with people and I always knew that to be false. I was never any good at interacting with people my own age.  I still don’t get along with people my age.  Most of my friends are considerably older or considerably younger than me.  This is because emotionally I’m anywhere from 5-7 years behind where a typical person my age is.  It only follows that I would have difficulty getting along with people my age because to me it feels like they’re much older than I am and dealing with problems that I haven’t had to deal with yet.

One of the big mistakes people make about people with Aspergers is that we don’t like being around people or don’t like people in general.  No one likes to be lonely, we all long to interact with someone, many of us who can’t get along with others are the ones who long to get along with others the most.  That doesn’t mean that we can automatically get there by trying really hard though either.  People often say to me that I don’t get along with people because I make a choice not to get along with them and that’s simply not true, it’s never been true.  I don’t get along with people because I don’t know how to get along with people, I never have.  As someone who suffers from Aspergers I simply do not have the kind of “people skills” that a normal human being has and the first thing that I have had to do is come to terms with that.

I so often get frustrated in dealing with others that I get completely dissuaded from interacting with humanity at all.  Indeed I know many people with Aspergers who feel the same way, but I know that this is the wrong way to deal with the problem that we face.  We cannot completely overcome this problem, but we can take steps to help deal with it.  This isn’t something that other people can help us with either.  I meet so many people who want to be my “come to Jesus” person, the person that shows me the light and helps me through this problem.  That’s simply not possible.  No person can change us nor should any person who cares about us want to change us.  We have to make the decision to change on our own and we have to do it alone.  Aspergers is something that affects each person differently and I have found that though many people know someone who has Aspergers few actually know this person as an Aspergers sufferer.  That may sound odd, but even if you suffer from Aspergers yourself (and I’ve met an awful lot of them since being diagnosed) you may still be unable to relate with me and my problems as they relate to Aspergers.  It’s not your fault and it’s not mine, it’s just the way we are and we have to be okay with this.

Life with Aspergers is not something that is easy to understand or explain.  It is a difficult thing to live with and it is an even more difficult thing to talk about.  As a writer, I try to use my writing to talk to the world about my problems with the hope that someday I might function in a semi-normal way.  However, I have to find this way on my own just as every other person who suffers from any problem has to deal with it on their own.  Having Aspergers is like being in an emotional wheelchair.  Unlike people who are in actual wheelchairs others do not see that you have an obvious disability and many will ridicule because of that.  What this means is that people who suffer from Aspergers need to develop the emotional shell of a sea turtle.  We can’t let the naysayers get us down and we can’t let those who tell us we can’t do things upset us.

I know that, for me personally, there is nothing more shameful than someone who tells someone else they cannot do something.  These are the leeches of life.  They slowly suck the blood out of people who can achieve anything and everything if they put their minds to it.  By telling them they can’t do something these people are eating away at the thing you need to be at its strongest point: your ego.  These people do not need to do this but they persist in doing it nonetheless.  Do not let them stop you.  I know that some think that they are doing us a favor by “being realistic” or however else they justify themselves and they may be well-meaning in some sort of abstract way, but always remember that there is not now nor has there ever been any job description in the history of the world that had the words: “dream killer” in it.  Never let anyone tell you that you cannot achieve your dreams.

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