What the Fuck’s Wrong With You? Part One: The Great Depression
I was a weird child.
Hell, I was even a weird baby. I used to sit perfectly still in the middle of the living room floor for hours surrounded by toys peacefully and silently playing by myself.
My parents thought, hey, this is great! He’s so low-maintenance!
Well, no, I was fucking autistic, but I was their first kid, so they didn’t know how strange my behaviour was.
I started reading words when I was two and a half, and picture books when I was four, and again they thought, hey! This is great! He’s so precocious! So what if he shows no aptitude for sports at all and can’t tie his shoes or ride a bike and can’t make a macaroni necklace to save his life.
I was happy too, in my own way, totally engulfed in whatever I happened to be interested in at the moment. Sometimes that was mannequins or fish skeletons, sometimes that was Archie comics or Star Trek: The Next Generation.
My childhood was fairly peaceful. I mean, it wasn’t perfect. There were a few bumps along the way. Shortly after my sister was born, she almost died. Even though she recovered quickly, her illness caused a lot of stress in my family.
And when I was eight, my favourite uncle became psychotic and had to be involuntarily hospitalized a few times.
But these things passed quickly enough, and my life kept humming along.
I got tested for the gifted program in grade two, because my parents thought that surely someone as bright as me would be admitted.
My results were a little peculiar: my math scores were in the bottom fifth percentile, and my language scores were in the top fifth percentile. I did not appear to be average in any way.
My parents talked to the school about maybe partially admitting me to the gifted program, allowing me to attend gifted English and social studies classes and keeping me in the mainstream for math and science. I don’t know if this had ever been done before, but the third grade gifted teacher was intrigued, and agreed to try it out.
The principal said no, and so I wasn’t admitted.
In the fourth grade things went wrong. I have clear memories before and after this school year, but between about November and March there’s almost nothing. There’s just this black hole. I remember not wanting to go outside. I remember being outside and wanting to be inside. I remember losing a friend’s hat and fighting with him about it. And that’s just about all I remember. So in order to talk about this time, I have to rely on my parents’ recollections.
They noticed me getting more withdrawn, and saw that I was having difficulty with my schoolwork. This had never been a problem before. They decided to monitor the situation, and when it didn’t improve, they called for a meeting with my teacher.
My parents suggested altering the way in which schoolwork was given to me.
“He gets overwhelmed,” my mother said. “So it might be useful to break his work down into chunks to make it more manageable.”
“Yeah, I noticed he was falling behind a few months ago,” my teacher said, “so I started doing that.”
“You never told us he’d been falling behind,” my dad said. My teacher shrugged.
“I noticed a problem and took steps to correct it,” she said. “He does respond well to chunking.”
But I was still getting overwhelmed, and I still seemed sad all the time.
Here’s another thing I remember which must date from the blacked out time: a woman came to visit me at school.
She wore a leopard print shirt and had a smokers’ rasp. She said that she’d be coming to visit me at the school from time to time to check up on me and see how I was doing. “Everything you tell me is secret,” she said. “Unless you say you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else.”
I liked her well enough, but I didn’t understand what the hell she was doing there.
Meanwhile, my parents and my teachers kept strategizing to make life more manageable for me.
Because math was my weakest subject, my math teacher was a regular fixture at these meetings. He was a burly, middle-aged Scotsman who liked to pretend he was a hard-ass. All but the most sensitive students saw right through him. During one meeting the adults were brainstorming things that might help reduce stress at home. My math teacher asked if we had any pets. My mom said we didn’t.
“Well, why don’t you get the wee lad a doggy?”
My parents locked eyes, and even though my mom didn’t say anything, my dad understood what she was thinking: “Checkmate, bitch!”
Pets had been a sore point for years. My mom had always wanted a dog, and my dad always didn’t. And now my mom had decisively triumphed, for one does not easily ignore the advice of a dyspeptic Scotsman, especially if it’s expressed out of concern for your child’s well-being.
We went to a local breeder of golden retrievers, and it’s around this time that my memory returns. I have vivid memories of the interior of this woman’s house, and her herd of goldens, and the smell of the litter of puppies in her kitchen.
We brought home a certified grade-A cuddle bitch and named her Nellie.
But even though my depression was over, in many ways the worst was yet to come. Due to all of the meetings at school, and the attention of the leopard print woman, I was on the grid now. The powers that be had become aware of me, and aware that- despite my situational giftedness- I might very well be retarded in some mysterious way. And so answers would be found, and I would be fixed, come hell or high water.