When our marriage was falling apart and we were fighting the most, my wife said to me on more than one occasion that I needed anger management therapy. Especially after she was pregnant, and when she had just danced linguistic circles around me once again, and I felt myself flailing and couldn’t keep up, and my volume would grow without me realizing it, and even if I did try to disengage and walk away my hands would insist on smacking the table top or slamming a door on my way out of the room, she would later say coolly, “This is not acceptable behavior. I will not have my son raised in an environment like this. You need to get it under control.”
I was out of control. I knew it, I felt it, in fact that was the whole source of the banging around and yelling, was I couldn’t control my intended communication and hence that communication found other outlets. Because, like I mentioned: linguistic circles. Not to say she’s some gifted, tricksy orator or something, but she (and I suspect most people) can keep track of more than one conversational thread at a time. I am much more mono-minded. She would dip into and out of past discussions or related topics for the precise piece of evidence she needed to support whatever her current argument was. You know, like a person, with a brain, in a debate. She could bring up an entirely different issue in the middle of the current dispute. My brain revolted at such treachery. Often I literally couldn’t speak. My mouth would record-skip in place because it was caught at the fork in the road. In my brain, I could feel that fork, but like, the poking, eating kind of a fork, stabbing into my gray matter like a breakfast sausage.
I don’t have a stutter per se, but in the late days of the marriage I would frequently exhibit a stutter, of a kind. The two or more paths my mouth was trying to take overlapped with each other, and the resulting first syllable of two sentences tried to merge into one. The result was usually unpronounceable and left me sputtering and puffing, fat-tongued. I am a firm believer in the multiple universe theory because in those moments I existed between existences, split-brained, feeling not unlike a regular passive citizen, just calmly getting groceries in the Matrix, when suddenly they are possessed by an agent, and this alternative consciousness seems to explode right out from the core of them, eventually to take over completely, sure, but, for a moment, they are an impossible combination of multiple realities. This was every argument for me. Sometimes it would take me hours to feel completely resolved again, located in one spot in the galaxy, one mind.
The problem was both paths seemed essential. I needed to address every possible point that was being brought up, I needed to address them completely and correctly, and if I chose either one over the other, the path not chosen would lead to my downfall, the dissolution of my marriage, my son growing up in a broken home, etc etc, or even just my wife looking at me with anything akin to pity, like I couldn’t follow the most basic logic, like I was dumb or immature, the sole cause of a highly preventable problem that normal people shouldn’t have to suffer through, but because of me, we did. It was a staggering amount of pressure, and so, I staggered. I buckled and fell. I found exactly none of the roads through the woods, less traveled or otherwise, and what do you do when you’re lost? You yell. Maybe punch a tree. Not to hurt the tree, no; to hurt yourself.
But if I’m being brutally honest here, and it seems I am, the fury goes back much further than a few miserable years. My wrist is all sorts of jacked up—in part because of typing, specifically one goddamn typing class which was required for an accounting degree I never finished, because I was taking free classes as a military spouse and, well, you know how that turned out. But the injury probably has its roots in my high school soccer career, when I was a goalie. Not for every goal scored on me, but not exactly infrequently either, I would relieve tension by punching the goal post, which, much like a tree, is solid and not prone to flexibility, and is, on occasion, literally made of cement.
Concrete? Cement? I don’t know, I’m not looking up the difference right now.
I’m not proud of any of this, but I bring it up because I’m worried I’ve passed it on.
That’s not why I started this entry, actually. I actually wanted to talk about how I recently discovered a way to subvert my own anger when my son starts to drive me crazy. A stranger posted in an autism parenting forum about how their baby had been in the NICU and now at around two years old they were seeing signs of possible autism, which took me back to my NICU days and how often I thought about how lucky I would be to be angry at Alex in three or four years, to be dealing with a stubborn toddler, or for him to grow up with some kind of health problem that would occupy practically all of our time (still married then) and how we’d probably have to remind ourselves to be thankful when things eventually turned out to be that difficult. Not that this is an original take, but I have found it to be pretty true that it is extremely difficult to stay upset when you feel grateful. So my new parenting hack, when we’re looking at hour three of bedtime approaching and he’s not only fighting against sleep he also just. will. not. stay. in. bed., is I remember the chairs in the NICU. There were good chairs in each pod but they were not at every single isolette, but typically we’d have at least one of the good ones at Alex’s station, if not two (!), with their plasticky faux-leather cushioning and minimal reclining capabilities, easily cleanable but every move you make is a sticky frictiony adventure. They were pretty comfy, though. Never would I want one, not in my ideal home, but in this environment they represented high status, some pull, some real caché with the nursing crew. So sitting in one was an experience of both privilege and also please let me sit anywhere else, let me be anywhere else, far far away from here on the knife edge of a nightmare, but you usually didn’t think about that second part of the equation because there was this 20-ounce miracle right in front of you, and the farty chair noises barely registered as you were reading to him through the plastic or singing to him or just watching him breathe. It was so easy to tune out the petty inconveniences then and focus on what really mattered, even if what mattered was scary as hell and held the potential to absolutely ruin you, at least you weren’t too concerned with how your bare arm skin would occasionally adhere itself to the pleather with Post-it levels of stickiness.
So yeah, I can calm down pretty quick now, when I think about that. Puts things in perspective. But the older Alex gets and the more complex his wants, I can see the fork hover over his brain sometimes. I can see it plunge into the gray matter when he gives up trying to articulate his desires (which is usually in the form of repeating the same phrase over and over and over again) and he succumbs to the violence and hits, or kicks, or tries to head-butt me.
It’s this last move I can’t ignore, because I am a reformed head-butter myself. There’s an oft-repeated bit of Fortkamp lore about how Aaron used to bang his head on the floor. I was wary of it appearing in Alex and when it did I knew I had to staunch that particular behavior in its bloody tracks. Which, by the way, we’ve been pretty successful with, and the head-butting has yet to bloom into a lore-worthy behavior.
Point being, I did that. Alex does that. I did that, too. Alex could read at 3 years old. I could read at 3 years old. Alex is autistic. Alex is autistic. Alex is
Alright let’s not make this all about me, for once. I think though that Alex has every bit of the temper I did but it hasn’t really been allowed to develop itself as much in part because we are so very alike that I can often see into his brain’s coding, if I may be permitted one more Matrix analogy, as though I were Keanu Reeves, the One himself, I can scan his code and see the break in logic that is bound to set him afire if we continue down the current path, and I can usually address that logic, somehow. Disrupt the meltdown. Usually.
I remember the game Lode Runner. It was an unforgiving game. The Commodore 64 did not have the technology to save your spot. Every time you played, you played it fresh, and you played it until you died and then you started over. I loved that game. I hated that game. I don’t remember how old I was when I played it the most but I want to say 5 or 6, maybe. By then my rage was itself a toddler, it had grown since its birth and had a language of sorts. It knew how to interact with the world through me, or at least knew very well that it could. I hate-played that game and after my rage caught notice of what was going on, what I had decided to do again, to subject myself to, I didn’t enjoy a moment of the game itself. I was playing it in order to get mad. I would play it normally for a while, like a job, like a chore, and then I’d get to a point well beyond where I’d normally screw up and that flicker of hope piqued my rage like a catcall, and then I died, but at a high level, a temporary success. Almost inevitably though in the next game I’d die in level one or two, often in the next several times games in a row, and I’d start to yell and then bang my hand or the controller on the countertop because my bedroom had this weird built-in surface that ran around the corner of the room and had the clothes drawers built in and can’t really be called a desk, but the computer sat upon that and I’d beat my small hand onto the faux-grain plywood and scream, but no matter what I’d keep playing, I’d restart the game over and over again in hot angry tears, making it harder to see and even more likely I’d die in the first level, until finally someone noticed my behavior and made me turn the game off which of course was exactly what my rage wanted, was to be seen. And then, full-on meltdown.
I know Alex has had meltdowns, but as of yet I haven’t seen any that are by design. It helps that he’s an only child, which allows our parenting focus to stay on him exclusively, but I think we’ve done a pretty good job so far in preventing the rage from becoming self-aware. But, you know, he’s only four yet. Maybe I’m giving our parenting too much credit.
I’m trying to keep him from hurting himself. Physically, sure. I have scars on my arms to this day from the time I stormed through the house and tried to burst through back door to the porch with extra gusto, only for the weak screen door latch to actually hold for once and the mid-height glass panel to shatter. I have a lot of glass windows around my house and Alex will test me sometimes and threaten to bang his head into the glass and that is crossing a line and he knows it. I still remember standing there with arms outstretched and sliced and gashed, like some poor impression of a zombie, confused how they were reaching right through the door that should be solid, confused by the blood, waiting for my mom to come and explain to me what exactly had just happened.
But windows are made of tempered glass now, usually, and like I said I can typical derail the rage train’s momentum. True, I don’t want him to have these scars, and I don’t want him to have these wrist problems. But mostly I think I just don’t want him to end up writing about his divorce like this one day, with a mix of shame and sadness and fate, no less confused now then he was on the day it became clear the marriage was over about where things went so wrong. I don’t want this for him. It hasn’t been fun.
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