Monday, August 22, 2011
Thinking About Drinking
I was working with great difficulty on my piece on hierarchy, when I had a bleak moment of realization. Since I’ve begun putting myself out into the world, one aspect of my stance has gotten a lot of comment. That’s my honesty, my willingness to present myself both clearly and without any defense but truth. This is the public face of a private conviction – that the denial of unpleasant truths is the most direct way of empowering them.
I reached this conclusion by observing my mom and Grandma Jean. Both of them presented faces of unlimited optimism. And each hid despair. This dichotomy tore me up when I was younger, because I assumed that either one or the other could be true, and their optimism had a distinct odor of bullshit to it. Now I understand that things aren’t as clean cut as that, but I still have the mental habits formed by those reactions.
So as the concept of hierarchy proved resistant to organization, I reflected on the nature of my difficulties. How much easier would this be if I wasn’t crazy?
Look. I don’t want to take an, ‘I’m a victim, pity me,’ position here. But in my case, this is a legitimate question. I have to ask it to approach an understanding of my situation.
Difficulties in focus and decision-making are symptomatic of fetal alcohol syndrome, and I’ve definitely got that one. You can look it up if you want, but the symptoms can be roughly summed up as either, ‘ne’er-do-well,’ or, ‘asshole.’ Poor impulse control, emotional volatility, not too bright in general.
I am far from a typical case, but I am far from typical. I’m lucky enough to have compensatory brain power, so I’ve been able to function despite my condition, but it has had a very powerful impact on my life. If you deal with me and at times you wonder if I am actually a small child or poorly acclimated Martian, this would have something to do with it. The combination of genius (yeah, I’ve decided to claim that one too) and brain-damage mimics autism at times, but it ain’t the same thing at all.
(My current frame of mind is that if I’d been healthy? I’d have wound up working either for the oil industry as a marine micropaleontologist, or as a flavor chemist, or if I was not entirely healthy, just more functional than I am? I’d have wound up in the military. So it might be a good thing that I’m totally defective.)
This led me to wonder if anything else was going on. I seem to favor the layered look in mental illness, so it would be fucking typical if I had a few extra lesions and bruises floating around the old cortex. Head blows would be one possibility. I’ve been watching the news about brain-damaged football players with interest and dismay. Could be part of my problem.
My mom always said it was because I had a high fever from a bout with pneumonia when I was a baby in Ceder Rapids, Iowa. In fact, she took me around to doctors a number of times when I was a kid. Some said bullshit, most said yeah, there’s some kind of brain damage there.
I remembered that when I was running through the shrinks. One particular MD, not a shrink, was openly dismissive of the brain damage theory in a particular way. There are certain diagnoses that doctors use to indicate that there’s a problem and they don’t want to confess complete ignorance. ‘Borderline schizophrenia’ is one that I’ve gotten before, and then had explained to me by better shrinks.
I think ‘brain damage’ falls into that category.
My mom also involved my brother and I in a study exploring the possibility that gifted students who did badly in school were suffering from food allergies that caused learning disabilities. (Long story short – bullshit on that, simply not true.)
Now here’s what crossed my mind at this point in contemplation.
Mom ran a day care center. She was beginning her course of study in child development, one that would lead to her MA. And my visible signs of fetal alcohol syndrome were the basis of family jokes. I’ve mentioned that I get mistaken for Asian periodically.
It suddenly dawned on me. Did Mom know or suspect of my condition? On one hand, she was one of the shrewdest people I’ve ever known, a real student of the human condition, and in training to deal specifically with my kind of problem. On the other hand, her capacity for self-deception and selective observation is the stuff of legend.
But then I thought of the way Mom and I came to emotionally separate from one another.
Mom had moved to Merced, and got in the habit of calling me drunk late at night in order to more-or-less beg me to tell her that I had a perfect childhood because she had been a perfect mother.
When I lived with her one summer, Mom’s intake was twenty-four Buds a night, minimum. Minimum. And she weighed somewhere between ninety and a hundred pounds. That’s the equivalent of me having fifty drinks. Every night. Minimum. I could knock out a couple of cases of Bud if I had to, but taking weight into account…
Not that you could tell, most of the time. She paced herself, you got drunk with her (there was no point in my drinking career at which I would even contemplate pacing Mom), you never even noticed when she got a little blurry, a little glossy.
But when she called on those nights she was hammered. Slurring, repeating herself, not responding to what’s said – and desperate for confirmation that my childhood was the kind you read about, that kids should be buying stickers with pictures of my childhood to put on the heads of their beds, where they would bring pleasant dreams.
This was not the case, and I ain’t much of a liar. Things were not pleasant. I’d dance around the fact that my childhood was fucking awful like a bear on the end of a pole, shuffling around a cesspit. Mom wanted solid statements. I’d evade.
Oh, it was ugly.
And then the calls stopped.
This morning, I wondered. Why was it so important to Mom to hear me tell her she was a perfect mother? Did she suspect that she hadn’t been?
Because now I know four things I did not know at that time. I know I have fetal alcohol syndrome, and what that implies about Mom. I know that at that time, she was undergoing radiation therapy for lung cancer, and she would never, ever tell this to anyone, including her treating physicians at the end of her life. I know that the missus spoke to Mom, and Mom thought she’d been told never to call me again, and if you are capable of getting a straight story out of the combined testimony of Mom and the missus?
You are a very special person.
But the fourth thing, the thing that just caught my mind as part of the context, is that Mom had started her brief career working with at-risk kids.
I know some of these things from clearing out Mom’s files after her death. When I got to the section dealing with her clients, I tried to avoid looking, literally taking the files out in huge handfuls unexamined.
What I was unable to avoid was horrible. When my sweet little mother described an eight-year-old girl as a relentless sexual predator in unsparing and clinical language, I lost innocence I hadn’t known I had.
(An aside for writers. I knew as someone who works the noir side of the street? I was throwing away money. And by denying myself that information, I limited my view of humanity.
I think I did the right thing. I’d do it again.)
What crossed my mind this morning? I’ll bet some of her clients had fetal alcohol syndrome. Did this play into things? What went on there?
And that, of course, led to the real killer of the day.
Mom died of massive cancer that started in her lungs and erupted through her skull. Her lifestyle was black coffee, Budweiser, and Filter Kools in industrial quantities. She was self-medicating like a ring-tailed son-of-a-bitch.
Did she suspect that I had fetal alcohol syndrome? When did this thought cross her mind? Did it contribute to the levels of stress she experienced? Did it in some way contribute to the voracious consumption of chemicals necessary for her to maintain a bearable state of mind?
To what degree am I a link in the chain she forged for herself? How much responsibility can a person actually have for another one?
I am not tipping into the dark side again, don’t worry, but this is a bit of heavy contemplation for me.
Honestly? I want a drink.