TW: suicide

It’s confession time again. Are you ready for another one? Here it is: I was not a very good teenager. What I mean is that I was a total failure as a teenager. And when I say failure I really mean that, as far as typical teenager behavior goes, I did not conform to stereotypical teenager behavior hardly at all.

I was eighteen years old the first time I tried alcohol, unless you count the time I accidentally took wine at communion. I was raised in a church that only served grape juice; when I was invited to perform a musical solo at a neighboring church, I didn’t realize that one line served grape juice and the other served wine. That was an unpleasant, unwelcome surprise. And I have never smoked a cigarette or marijuana, never experimented with illegal drugs.

I was a teenager in the 1990s when grunge rock took over the airwaves. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains. If you were to ask me, I could probably only name a few of their songs. I was even in attendance when Pearl Jam was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017 and honestly couldn’t have cared less. (I was really only there to see Journey, my favorite band with the greatest vocalist of all time, Steve Perry.) After all the fabulous rock music made in the 1970s and ’80s, I have to say that I felt totally ripped off by the music of my teenage years. It’s supposed to be the music of my generation, but I personally could not identify with it at all.

If you’re not familiar with grunge music, the name implies a lot about the genre. Filled with angst, its raw sound and dark undertones delve deep into trauma, neglect, social and emotional isolation, and a desire for things to be completely different than reality. Perfect music for the typical teenager. Unless that teenager is someone like me.

I couldn’t understand why the music had to sound so angry and unhappy. And what are they saying? I could never understand the lyrics, either. The singers’ voices sounded whiny to me and the guitars were harsh. As someone who has received extensive musical training, grunge music did not resonate with me at all and I made no effort to dig deeper into its underlying messaging.

It wasn’t until a few months ago that I discovered the meaning behind Pearl Jam’s 1991 monster hit Jeremy. I had no idea what that song was about until I stumbled upon an article recently and discovered the song was based on the real-life suicide of Jeremy Delle, a 15-year-old who shot himself in front of his English class in Texas. Suddenly the song had an entirely different meaning and gravitas to me.

At home drawing pictures
Of mountain tops
With him on top
Lemon yellow sun
Arms raised in a V

And the dead lay in pools of maroon below

Daddy didn’t give attention
Oh, to the fact that mommy didn’t care
King Jeremy the wicked
Oh, ruled his world

Jeremy spoke in class today
Jeremy spoke in class today

Clearly I remember
Pickin’ on the boy
Seemed a harmless little fuck
But we unleashed the lion

Gnashed his teeth and bit the recess lady’s breast

How could I forget
And he hit me with a surprise left
My jaw left hurting
Dropped wide open
Just like the day
Oh, like the day I heard

Daddy didn’t give affection, no
And the boy was something that mommy wouldn’t wear
King Jeremy the wicked
Oh ruled his world

Jeremy spoke in class today
Jeremy spoke in class today
Jeremy spoke in class today

Try to forget this (try to forget this)
Try to erase this (try to erase this)
From the blackboard

Jeremy spoke in class today
Jeremy spoke in class today

Jeremy spoke in
Spoke in

Jeremy spoke in
Spoke in
Jeremy spoke in class today

Although inspired to write the song after reading about Delle’s suicide in the newspaper, lead singer Eddie Vedder also drew on his own personal experiences in the lyrics. The video below includes an interview with Jeremy’s mother, Wanda, where she tells more about the boy behind the story.

What in the world does all this have to do with autism? In all the information I read, there was no indication that Jeremy Delle had ever been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and I’m not suggesting he might have been on the spectrum. On the face of it, this story has no relation to autism whatsoever.

However, it did trigger something in me. Living with autism every day creates a heightened awareness of social isolation and its effects that others might not see. One recent study found that people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder are three times more likely to attempt suicide than the those without autism.

And, just like Jeremy’s mom, I have a fifteen-year-old son, although mine is on the spectrum. This beautiful, kindhearted, brilliant young man of mine who loves knowledge and nature, but has never – not once in his entire life – had a friend over or been invited to do anything with anyone his own age. This boy who rarely leaves the house except to go to school. He seems happy enough at present. He says it doesn’t bother him, but yet I still worry.

I worry because I know what it’s like to experience social isolation. I know what it feels like to sit alone in a cafeteria full of other people my own age, seemingly invisible. I know what it’s like to feel like there’s not one single person in the world that I could relate to, especially during my teens and early 20s. I know what it feels like to not know how to engage with others socially, to feel like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole, to feel like I was dropped off on the wrong planet. To live in a world that’s made for social people where I don’t belong. And I also know what it’s like to have my son come to me and say that he’s having thoughts of killing himself.

I try to end my posts on a positive note, but unfortunately reality has shown us that life doesn’t always give us the happy ending we want. Not for Jeremy and his family, and not for countless others who, for whatever reason, feel that their continued existence is too much to bear.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, help is available by calling the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

My son at a wildlife refuge near our home.

The price of a gallon of milk

I don’t typically make New Year’s resolutions. Why wait until a new year rolls around when you can make a change right now? That’s my usual logic, although I do occasionally stop and think about things I’d like to change when the calendar flips over to a new year.

One change that I decided to make at the beginning of last year was to try to reduce the amount of plastic our family consumes. This is an ongoing challenge because just about everything available for purchase at our local grocery stores comes in some sort of plastic container or wrapping.

We do recycle as much as possible, but learning the dismal amount of how much plastic actually gets recycled (only about 9%!) inspired me to try to reduce our plastic consumption in addition to recycling.

I was excited to find that some brands still sell milk in paper cartons rather than plastic jugs. Remember the milk cartons at school lunch? This was perfect, I thought! Our family of five goes through a lot of milk. It’s slightly more expensive to buy milk in half-gallon cartons than gallon plastic jugs, but I thought it would be worth it to do my part in helping the planet.

It turns out that not everyone in the house was as excited about my solution as I was. Well, really just one person was less than thrilled that I was no longer buying the same kind of milk as before – my 12-year-old son was not a fan.

My son enjoys a reflective moment at the Biltmore

In case you’re not aware, he is also on the autism spectrum. In fact, it was because of his diagnosis that my own was also discovered. He displays a lot more classic symptoms of autism than I do. In this case, strict adherence to routines and distress when those routines become disrupted would be on full display.

So what’s the big deal? It’s just a different kind of milk! To most people, that’s true – it is just milk. But to someone on the spectrum, it’s so much more than that. People on the spectrum rely on certain routines and things remaining the same because the certainty and familiarity helps them find calm and comfort in a world that is anything but calm and comfortable for them. When things change and their routines are disrupted, autistic people can experience significant distress and lose control of their emotions.

The first morning with the new milk was a school morning. Like every morning, I dumped his favorite cereal into a red bowl – he won’t eat out of a yellow bowl – and poured this similar yet unfamiliar white substance on top.

After one bite, he looked at me, perplexed, and asked, “What’s this?”

“Your cereal,” I responded.

“No, it’s not. This milk tastes funny.”

“I’m trying something new. Instead of buying the milk we usually drink, I got a different kind that comes in cartons so that we don’t use as much plastic. It’s better for the environment!”

I knew it was possible that he wouldn’t react well to this change, but I still held out hope that that wouldn’t happen. Sometimes he surprises me by tolerating change better than I would expect. But not this time. This time he had a meltdown.

Those who are unfamiliar with autistic meltdowns are likely to assume that someone experiencing one is just having a temper tantrum. In fact, for many years before we discovered his autism, we naively assumed that it was misbehavior on his part and that, like most children, he would eventually grow out of it. When his episodes became worse instead of better as he grew older, it started to become clear to us that there was something much more serious going on.

I’ve never taken a video of one of my son’s meltdowns for a few reasons. First of all, there’s so much chaos going on that there’s no time to grab a phone and start recording. Secondly, my instinct is to help him calm down, not document it. He responds well to pressure, so I try to wrap my arms around him and gently squeeze. It’s difficult to do that and record at the same time. And, most importantly, he can’t give his consent to being recorded and I don’t want him to feel like he’s some kind of side-show attraction.

In lieu of having any visual evidence of an episode, the easiest way to describe it in words is that he becomes visibly upset – he will grab his head with his hands, make wild gestures with his arms, and pace erratically. He will also make guttural noises in the back of his throat, clearly evident of distress. Sometimes he will throw or hit nearby inanimate objects. He has never become physically aggressive with us and has no intention of hurting anyone.

Here’s a video someone else made of a typical meltdown that he experiences. Please be aware, though, that a meltdown can be displayed in many different ways – biting, hitting, banging one’s head against a wall, walking in circles, flapping hands, crying out, heavy breathing, etc. Below is just one example of what a meltdown might look like.

Reenactment of one person’s experience during an autistic meltdown

What would you assume if you saw someone behaving in this manner and you didn’t know the person was autistic? Spoiled brat or bad behavior if it were a child? Maybe a mental disorder if it were a teenager or adult?

Before I knew what an autistic meltdown was and why it occurs, I said things to my son and reacted in ways that I’m not proud of. “Why can’t you behave?” “You’re too old to act like this!” I reacted in frustration and punished him because I didn’t know any better. I assumed he was intentionally giving me a hard time when, in reality, he was having a hard time. He needed me to be there for him while he suffered through these episodes, not to chastise him for something he can’t control. It did neither of us any good whatsoever for me to be punitive, admonishing, or judgmental.

One of the best things to happen as the result of his diagnosis is that I handle his meltdowns so much better. Now that I know why these episodes occur and that he’s not misbehaving, I react in a much calmer manner myself. He calms down more quickly when I respond to him in a calm manner.

On that fateful morning, instead of getting angry at him or accusing him of trying to avoid going to school because I simply changed the type of milk we drink, I told him that I would buy him some yogurt that he likes and deliver it to him at school for his breakfast. He was able to calm down and voluntarily go to school, albeit a little late. I called his special education teacher and explained the situation, which she understood completely

So instead of a slight increase in the amount we pay for a different kind of milk, in the world of autism, the abstract cost of this simple switch is much higher. The price we pay at the cash register doesn’t include the cost of the emotional turmoil inflicted on everyone involved. I always have to weigh the options and consider if making a change is worth the inconvenience it might cause. And yet, now that we know and understand more about autism, the cost isn’t as great as it would be if we had no understanding of the situation.

My son still won’t drink the new milk, and that’s OK. Now he likes toast in the mornings instead.

Angels among us

Three stained-glass angels hang in my kitchen window, one for each of my children. None of my offspring is perfect, but they are each perfectly imperfect in their own way.

My oldest daughter is a lot like her father, personality-wise. She’s extremely affectionate and wears her heart on her sleeve. You know what’s on her mind because she will tell you before you even have to wonder. I’ve always loved that about her and wish that I were like that myself. She tries so hard to make the lives of everyone around her easier. I often wonder what I did to deserve her. I’m not sure she realizes she’s a teenage girl because she doesn’t act like one at all. (Except for her love of K-pop, that is.)

My youngest daughter is an extroverted social butterfly. She needs people. Her greatest fear at this point in her life is being left behind at home. She begs to tag along when I go to meetings or work. I once kept track of how many questions she asked me over the course of approximately five hours – the grand total was 130. If it weren’t for the strong physical resemblance, I might wonder who her real mother is.

On the other hand, my middle child clearly takes after me. From an early age, he showed characteristics that his father and I knew came from my gene pool. He’s highly introverted, enjoys being by himself doing his own thing, loves to stay home, and doesn’t usually display much affection to loved ones. When he was diagnosed with autism at age 11, I did a lot of research about his condition and discovered that a lot of the characteristics of autism also applied to me.

One of the first things I did after my suspicions were aroused was to take this online quiz. Eighty percent of people who score 32 or higher are subsequently diagnosed with autism. I scored 42, then took it again, changed a few answers I wasn’t completely confident about and scored 41. Full disclosure – I wasn’t trying to diagnose myself, but I did need to satisfy my curiosity about whether or not this was a possibility.

I also found this checklist about signs of autism in females that helped me recognize many characteristics that I never would have considered on my own.

Given what I suspected, I asked for a referral from the psychologist who diagnosed my son. He gave me the name of another doctor who specializes in autism in adults. I met with her three or four times, answered a lot of questions, told her things that I had never told another living soul, and completed some questionnaires. We discussed in detail the reasons why I thought I was autistic, and also delved into possible reasons why I might not be. In the end she came to the conclusion that, based on the information presented, the diagnosis fit me as well. It took forty years, but I finally had an answer about who I am.

If it hadn’t been for my son, I might have never known. Isn’t it ironic that our children teach us so much about ourselves? We’re supposed to be the ones teaching them, but end up in the role of student more often than we ever would have imagined.

Whether he realized it or not, my son helped me figure out a lot about myself and improved my life immeasurably. If that doesn’t fit the criteria for angelhood, I don’t know what does.