Walter Mencken 10:06 a.m., Feb. 6
- Community Blog
What's Wrong with Me?
A few years ago, my mother told me something I’d never known or even suspected: she is extremely shy—like me. And so was her mother, Dottie. She told me she had never hidden this fact from me, it was just something she had assumed was common knowledge. This was an eye-opening revelation for me, knowing that my own mother had dealt with the same disability that I had for her whole life. Eye opening, I say, because the façade she projects is completely contrary to the truth. She comes off as a confident woman who can strike up and hold a conversation with anyone, and Dottie was the same way. (This is completely unrelated to anything, but I just happened to notice six months ago—my mother is now 66—that her eyes are a beautiful shade of hazel. I’d always assumed that they were brown like mine. Admittedly, I am oblivious to so many things around me.)
As we talked she asked me if I thought that I had, as a child, suffered from some form of autism, perhaps Asperger’s syndrome. I thought about it for a moment and then nodded my head. “Yeah,” I said. “Maybe so.”
“I think I had it too,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s something you can get over. Maybe we still have it. Maybe we’ve just learned to manage it, that’s all.”
I nodded again. “That sure would explain a lot.”
“I asked Joe if he thinks he had it,” she said, speaking about my brother, “and he said, ‘yes.’ Jason (another brother) doesn’t have it, but I think Jake (my youngest brother) might have a very mild form of it.”
“Jake?” I said disbelieving. “But Jake’s so social.”
“He is,” she agreed, “but the friends he has now are the same friends he’s always had. They’re the friends he grew up with, from school and the neighborhood. Jake doesn’t broaden his friend base. Maybe it’s something that makes him uncomfortable, but something he isn’t even aware of.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” I said, thinking about my family and the new knowledge that I quite possibly stumbled through my childhood hindered with a syndrome related to, if not actually, autism. A sobering thought, indeed. I tried to remember doing autistic things, but nothing sprang to mind. I don’t remember painstakingly lining things up or stacking them. I also consider myself to be a reasonably good judge of character as well as being able to accurately interpret people’s moods, and I honestly can’t ever recall being apathetic toward others or lacking a basic intuition to read someone’s emotions or being unable to recognize a listener's feelings, such as a need for privacy or haste to leave my presence. And I don’t remember ever performing any sort of repetitive behavior or doing anything really abnormal, like screeching, running around for no reason, banging my head against the floor, or flapping my arms and hands; I was a quiet and introverted child.
I didn’t know there was something wrong with me, so everything I did, I did with no feelings of shame or self-consciousness. If you’re unaware you’re not normal and no one tells you, how would you ever know to behave any other way?
Of course, I don’t remember everything, and I am only able to remember bits and pieces of my life when I was very young, so maybe I was lining things up, refusing to look people in the eye, and adopting a general disposition of apathy.
When I was five, I recall staying with my aunt Polie and my cousins for a few weeks in Long Beach. The house was an artist’s studio with a weaving loom and statues in the sunroom. I remember two incidences on this visit, however, that probably don’t do much to convey an approaching life of adult normality and emotional stability. As we drove from Ramona into Los Angeles, I remember looking out the window of my aunt’s car and seeing the pumpjacks going up and down mechanically in the Los Angeles oil fields, and I remember how they looked to me like thirsty pterodactyls. Then, a few miles later, I felt cold, sheer terror course through my body as we neared the 15,000-foot long Vincent Thomas Bridge over the Los Angeles Harbor. I had an impractical fear of heights, even though I had never actually been anywhere high before. As we went over the bridge I didn’t want to look out the window, so I huddled in fear on the floor of my aunt’s car, and my cousins laughed at me.
A few years later when I was in Ramona Elementary School I went on a field trip with my school to the lighthouse on Point Loma. My class and I were going to be allowed to climb the circular staircase to the top of the lighthouse tower where the lantern room is. The lantern room is the glass-enclosed room that houses the lens. Surrounding the lantern room is a circular catwalk with a sturdy four-foot high iron railing running its entirety. As I viewed the catwalk from the ground as a state park ranger gave our class a brief history of the lighthouse I began to grow very anxious. The catwalk was at the dizzying height of 34 feet. I didn’t want to climb the stairs trapped in the inescapable line of children that would then force me to brave the almost insurmountable journey entirely around the catwalk as the wind whipped menacingly at me, but I knew what would happen if I asked my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Trumblebottom, if I could avoid going up to the catwalk and just patiently wait outside near the flower beds with the state park ranger instead.
“What?” Mrs. Trumblebottom would have exclaimed. “Are you kidding me, Quill? Do you really think I’m going to let you pass up an opportunity like this? You’ll regret it for the rest of your life. No way, mister. You’re going to go up those stairs and then walk all the way around that big light. Do you hear me? Now march!” she would demand, pointing an index finger toward the staircase entrance.
“Okay,” I would mutter before shuffling toward the stairs.
“Wait a minute,” she probably would have added, holding up a hand as if she were a crossing guard, her toe thoughtfully tapping on the ground as she took a moment to think. “You know what, Quill?” she would ask loudly as an idea struck her.
Oh no, I’d think. No, Mrs. Trumblebottom, no. Don’t say it.
“I think I’ll join you. How about that?” Then my teacher would have grabbed me by the arm and guided me toward the stairs. “Make way, everybody, we’ve got an eager beaver coming through. Rrrrrr! Rrrrrr!” she would say, imitating an emergency vehicle.
Yes, I knew it would be much simpler to personally grapple with my fear of heights rather than be humiliated by Mrs. Trumblebottom’s enthusiasm.
The other kids smiled and laughed with excited glee as they emerged from the trapdoor in the catwalk’s floor and pulled themselves up into the bright, fresh ocean air. They held onto the catwalk railing and leaned out over it to get a better view of the cresting waves on the beautiful blue Pacific. I didn’t. After passing through the trapdoor, my head swam with unrealistic fear. I refused to look down, and I immediately plastered my back and buttocks against the lantern room as I inched my way at a snail’s pace around the catwalk. I can’t remember if I had my arms outstretched, clinging desperately to the glass, but I might have. The only thing that contained my absolute dread was the knowledge that once I’d completed my trek around the lantern room, I would be allowed to climb back into the safety of the trapdoor where I could then descend the stairs to sweet terra firma. Maybe I’d even kiss the ground once I got there. I felt ridiculous, but I had to protect myself; I was convinced that at any moment the railing would unbolt itself and a strong gust of wind would force me away from the safety of the lighthouse’s center toward the catwalk’s nightmare edge where I would then, in slow motion, plunge to my death as Mrs. Trumblebottom and the entire class looked on. But even as frightened as I was, I still couldn’t help but notice in front of me, heavenly Sabrina Blair putting a hand above her blue eyes like a sun visor as she viewed the ocean from behind the safety of the railing, chatting pleasantly with her best friend Kimmy McPherson. In spite of my fear, I thought about how lovely Sabrina looked in her navy blue sailor suit dress with the white collar, matching bow, and adorable red anchor appliqué near the hem.
I don’t know why I was so afraid of heights. There was absolutely no reason for my fear of heights to exist, but for some reason I was inherently afraid of them. My fear vanished when I was 11 or 12, gone as inexplicably as it had arrived.
In addition to cowering on the floor of her car, why I was staying at my aunt’s house in Long Beach, my first day there I accidentally locked myself in the bathroom. After relieving myself and washing my hands, I tried turning the doorknob to let myself out, but it would only turn partially. There was nothing to fear in the bathroom, it was clean and white with modest frosted glass in the windows that allowed the sun to filter in pleasantly. I tried again and then one more time. Nothing. I was trapped! I immediately panicked and began shouting help as I pounded on the door with my fists. “Help! Polie, help! Let me out!” I shrieked hysterically.
A brief moment later Polie effortlessly opened the door. “What’s the matter, Quill?” my aunt asked, her eyes wide with concern.
“I couldn’t get out,” I said, breathing heavily. “The knob wouldn’t turn.”
Polie turned the knob back and forth quickly. “It seems okay now,” she said.
“Oh,” I said sheepishly, hanging my head down in embarrassment.
“Just check it next time, okay?” Polie said, sympathetically. “Use both hands to turn it, and you shouldn’t get stuck in here again, all right?”
Shamefully I nodded that I understood. I could see my cousins standing in back of their mother as they put their hands over their mouths and snickered at me.
My daughter, Daisy, doesn’t seem to suffer from the crippling handicap that I do. With any luck it’s being bred out of our gene pool. Daisy seems outgoing and social like her mother, April, but not long after my mother asked me if I thought I had autism, out of curiosity, I asked Daisy if she thought she was shy; she was 14 at the time. “I don’t know,” she said, looking at me solemnly. “I’ve asked myself that before, and I’m just not sure.”
“Well, if you really had to give an answer,” I pressed, “would you say you are or you aren’t?”
“Yeah,” she said, nodding her head, “I think so … I think I am a little bit shy.”
“But in watching her in social situations over the years with her peers, her shyness seems to be something she overcomes quickly, she can’t wait to get into the mix with the rest of the kids. With adults, however, it’s a different story. Daisy loves to draw, and she’s good at it; she’s rarely without her drawing tablet and pencils, busily creating characters, scenes, and sometimes even complete multi-panel comics. In the exclusive company of adults, she’ll often withdraw and begin drawing. I don’t know if this is boredom, a defensive device, or simply her love of drawing; it’s probably a little bit of all three. Maybe someday, when Daisy’s children have children, they won’t have even a hint of the horrible family shyness about them at all. It’s something I often pray for.
Since my mother’s revelation planted the idea that I have autism, I’ve often wondered: if I had known something was wrong with me all along, perhaps that knowledge could have given me answers and then possibly even some solutions. But then again, I always think earnestly, even if I had been furnished with this knowledge, I probably wouldn’t have done anything differently, especially since I genuinely like being alone a lot of the time, alone so I can, unimpeded, do all the things that I like to do: read, write, draw, play guitar, and just enjoy the singular and satisfying experience of not having to please or impress anyone. I’d like to think that if I had known about my dysfunction, I would have done my best to try and change all the uncomfortable moments that occurred in my life because of it, but the sad truth is, even if given the tools to try and redirect destiny, it’s highly unlikely I would have had the strength or ambition to change anything about my life at all.
After writing this, I went online and studied up a little on autism and Asperger’s syndrome. Apparently, autism and Asperger’s are things that can’t be outgrown; they’re conditions that will be with their sufferers forever. But, really, none of the behavior I read about sounds familiar or even remotely relative to me. I even took an online autism/Asperger’s test: a score of 34 and up, autism is ensured, the test threatens; a lower score of 30 to 34, the test adds, but not quite so ominously this time, implies that autism is possible, and a score of 0 to 29 assures that no autism exists at all. I answered honestly, and, whew! my score was only 19. What a relief.
Maybe what my mother and I suffer from is nothing more than extreme shyness. Sure, to someone who has never been plagued by this mental handicap, it sounds almost harmless. But it isn’t; it’s something that is so socially debilitating it should be defined and medically classified as a genuine disorder. And who knows? Maybe in the vast and obscure volumes of the world’s medical journals it already is a documented condition, and maybe it even already has a name—but if it isn’t, and it doesn’t, I’d like to suggest calling it Quill’s Syndrome or maybe something that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual disorder but just sounds cool, something like the Mongoose Syndrome or the Stardust Effect