Monday, September 24, 2012

Family Bullying, Then and Now

I really wish I would have punched my brother out last Saturday. I don't really care what that makes you think of me--I still wish I'd done it. It's not the first time I wanted to punch him, either. It's the first time in a couple of years, but that's only because the last time he and I had a falling out, I separated myself from him and places he was likely to be. Since then, I've seen him maybe a dozen times, most of which were at gatherings for my father's side of the family.

The last time we really went at it was before I was living openly with my diagnosis. I'd recently broken my hand, I was a year out of graduate school and barely making a living wage, and the healthcare debates were raging. That time, my brother told me that if I wanted health insurance, I should quit teaching college classes and just get a job at a gas station, because the one he worked at had benefits and that I was being stupid. He also told me that my partner, Elizabeth, who suffers from an exceedingly rare and degenerative neurological condition, was probably better off dead anyway, so people like him shouldn't have to pay for people like her.

At that time, I tore loose and screamed at him until I was raw, but I left before I physically assaulted him. We were at my maternal grandmother's house, and my uncle was home from Afghanistan for a short visit, and I was embarrassed that I had lost my words. My own diagnosis was fairly new, and I was trying to learn how to defuse my own meltdowns. I'd been without punching or kicking anything for about five months. I'd known I was autistic for three. It was humiliating, and it was made worse by my father's refusal to hear me out and his subsequent "you should both be better than this" lecture.

My brother won that time out, in that my father's side of the family basically doesn't talk to me anymore. This happened mainly because I took my anger out on my father. It wasn't the first time I called my father when I was emotionally distraught, and it wasn't the first time that he basically told me that he had to work in the morning and that I should be old enough to deal with my problems myself.

It was the first time that he told me that he didn't want to have anything to do with me unless I got counseling. It was the first time that anyone used mental illness as an accusation at me, and it was on the back of an autism diagnosis that I had not yet had the nerve to talk to him about. To this day we've never discussed it.

It was also the only time I ever admitted to my father that the only way I could stand to be around him was when I was drinking.

Today, I see my father about once every three months, and only at my paternal grandmother's house. I also drink less than half as much as I used to. I see my brother even less often, and only because I refuse to stop going to family gatherings just because he's invited. I don't want my family feeling like they have to choose between us.

This last weekend, I found myself put together with my brother at my maternal grandmother's house once again. It was only the second time that that has happened since we fought. This time, we seemed to be getting along well. He's a car guy, so I just let him talk for the most part, and I occasionally provoked him with questions about green technology and hybrid cars, because that's what interests me. I thought things were going well.

After a few hours, I left to take a walk with my mother. The crowd situation was getting to me, and I was trying to de-escalate before my sensory issues got the better of me. The children were running wild--all six of them--and it was proving to be impossible to keep them away from the piano. A walk was the best thing.

I was proud of myself for knowing it was time to step away before I lost it and embarrassed everyone. A lot of the relatives that we were there to see were from out of town, most of them did not know I'm autistic, and a few had not seen me since I was five or six years old. My mom and I had a good walk-and-talk, we discussed anti-anxiety medications, and I told her about my progress dealing with my sensory issues.

When I got back to the party, Elizabeth found me and told me that we needed to talk. While I was gone, my brother had been trying to talk with her, well, talk down to her. I'm not sure how they wound up fighting, but the end result was that he told her that she was only disabled because her mother smoked while pregnant. It was a crude, stupid put-down, and it was uncalled for. Elizabeth told me that she was sure that it only happened because she told him to stop talking down to her. I don't know I wasn't there.

Here's what I do know. I know that my brother isn't just making casual mistakes. He's using my partner's disability as a weapon. He obviously doesn't really think she has the same rights he does. Once would have been a mistake, but this is not the first time.

When I heard about this, I wanted so badly to stalk into the next room and to break a chair on him. I was in that place beyond anger, where I didn't want to yell or to force him to apologize, I was just trying to think of the fastest way to get the drop on him. I didn't. I left, without telling anyone except my mother and her husband what had happened, and without making a big deal.

I've been getting calls from people as they figure out what happened. I'm not making a secret about it.

Once in a while, people tell me that they are surprised that I am open about my autism at work, and that I blog under my real name. I understand that not everyone can feel comfortable doing that. But, before you post comments about how dangerous it would be for you to do the same, think about this. I live with this kind of treatment of disability in my family. My mother is disabled. My partner is disabled. I have a developmental impairment that is just short of being truly disabling. And my support network--the people who should be invested in me--also owe allegiance to someone who use my partner's condition as an excuse to dismiss, to bully, and to exclude. Someone who does it in ways that take advantage of my emotional and communication problems to try to render me inarticulate, so that I just look crazy when I try to retaliate or seek help.

Before you talk about my courage, consider that maybe the reason I'm out about my disability is that no matter what happens at work, it won't be as bad as what happened at home. If I'm trust-falling, professionally, it's only because I don't know what else to do.