This is a continuation of my post for Autistics Speaking Day. You can find part 1 here.
Michael Stops Talking
As Michael got older and Mike got more completely constructed, the boys noticed that a lot of the things they used to do were starting to change. For example, their mother stopped babysitting for other people's kids and started taking them to visit neighbors with kids who were their own age. Those kids wanted to separate the boys and the girls, the older and the younger, and so Michael and Mike followed along. They wanted friends, after all, and their friends were doing those things.
Somewhere during this time period, the boys also had to stop playing Little League. They had aged out of Tee Ball, and now they were not allowed to play with girls on the team any more, which meant that the games were pretty evenly divided between standing in the middle of right field and having things thrown at them. Mike was willing to stick it out so that he could try to get better, but Michael started having screaming nightmares about being hit in the head that only got worse after he was actually hit in the head while they were at bat.
The boys fought amongst themselves, but Mike could not convince Michael to let him have control while they were at bat--Michael was too frightened to surrender, and also too frightened to have any control over the bat--so they gave up sports.
They picked up drawing cartoons, though. Michael loved animated strips like Garfield and Calvin & Hobbes because they mixed irony and imagery, and he loved to play in both. Mike loved them because Wile E. Coyote had a lot of guns and explosives. For a few years, they worked together, with Michael dominating the schoolwork and drawing the cartoons while Mike ran their social life and puffed himself up while he helped their father do chores around the house. Once in a while Michael ruined things: by getting squeamish about touching the fungus-covered firewood that they were forced to haul from behind the shed in the backyard up to the house every time their father wanted a fire, or else by freaking out and shrieking in his high-pitched voice when he felt the texture of the mud by the creek behind his uncle's house. Sometimes, it was just the way plants looked while they moved underwater--who knew what would set Michael off, making his skin crawl until he shivered with disgust.
Mike did his best to stomp those feelings down so that Michael would not get them in trouble. He was strong enough to understand that they did not want their father to "give them something to cry about." As the two boys wrestled, Michael understood that he was really talking to himself, but his Mike voice insisted that they were actually changing and growing. Eventually, Mike became convinced that Michael was the one he had made up so that he could get things done. Michael disengaged--he only wanted to work on cartoons and stories anyway, and it was easier to just live in his own head and to let Mike do the heavy lifting.
When the boys were in fifth grade, their grandfather died. It was on Easter morning, and I can still remember every second of what happened. Our whole family had just come back from a week of vacation in Florida. While we were down there, Mike had tried body surfing like his dad did and got caught in a riptide. It was the only time he cried without Michael making him cry, and it was also the only time his dad had not yelled at him for crying.
Anyway, they had returned late on Saturday night, and they were going to do Easter at home before going over to my mother's family's home for Easter dinner. We all liked doing Easter there because my grandfather had a huge yard and he sold candy for a living, so the entire house and surrounding grounds became a minefield of hidden plastic eggs filled with candy that was as fresh as anyone could possibly procure. The call from my grandmother came in while we were still going through our Easter baskets at home, though. She asked us to come immediately because my grandfather had collapsed in the basement. She said she was calling for an ambulance, but she wanted us there.
In the car on the way over to their house, my mother cried and bargained out loud with god. My brother and sister were scared--he was nine and she was only five, and I don't think either one really knew what was happening yet. Maybe my brother did. It was hard to tell because we did not communicate very well. When we got to my grandparents' house, my father saw the ambulance was already there and he ordered us to stay in the car until he understood what was happening. Then he took my mother and they went inside.
As my brother and sister panicked in the back seat of our station wagon, I felt my own panic rising inside of me. I felt like I was going to scream until the car shattered around me, like I was finally going to shed all the layers of performance I had surrounded myself with and run, naked and loud, across the yard to destroy anything that came between me and my grandfather.
Mike saved me. He stood on my voice box and he told me that we had to be calm because our sister was only five and she did not deserve to be ignored or told to shut up. He said that she was a girl and that she was not trained to be tough like we were, and that we should let her be anxious by not contributing to her anxiety, that it would only make her panic more. I shit you not, he even whispered inside my head that we should be more like Captain Picard, who knew how to feel things deeply but who was manly enough not to let other people guess at his thoughts.
So I did that. I made my face as much like Patrick Stewart's as I could, and I told my brother and sister that it would be okay. I held onto his image in my mind as they wheeled my grandfather out of the house on a gurney, and I heard Mike's lies when he told our siblings that the fact that they had not covered our grandfather's face meant he must still be breathing. After the ambulance went away, my father came back to the car and told us that we were going to spend the day at our other grandparents' house so that he could take my mother to the hospital to wait for news without them having to worry about whether or not we were being taken care of.
The wait was horrible. Even though my father's parents did their best to let us have an Easter with a real Easter dinner, we all just kept crying and talking about how scared we were. A couple of hours later, when my parents came for us, they could not even speak. When my sister asked if grandpa was okay, my dad just cried and shook his head. It was the only time I'd ever seen him do that, and I ran to him and cried with him.
Then I went away and let Mike take over. It was easier that way--he knew what people expected out of him, and he felt good when they called him smart instead of fighting with them about how easy everything was. I figured that I would just let him run the show for me, because I could not handle trying to compete with him any more and also because being Captain Picard did not work for me, so I wanted to quit being anything.
That was the last day I remember thinking of myself as Michael, even in part, until I was twenty-six years old.
My mother was diagnosed as bipolar well over a year before my grandfather passed away. When I was in fourth grade, she spent several weeks in an inpatient facility while they tried to find medications that worked for her. She reported hearing her dead grandparents talking to her, and she even said that they warned her that other voices would come and tell her to hurt my sister sometimes. My grandfather, who had also had a history of mental illness, convinced her to work her way through the mental health system the same way he had--both the way he had worked his way through the "burnout clinic" that he had been inpatient at and also, years before, the way he had worked himself through the twelve steps of alcoholics anonymous.
Without him, our household descended into chaos. It was only a few months before the peace and familial love that we had all felt in Florida turned into terror as my siblings clustered together with me in my room and tried to ignore the screaming, knock-down fights that we could hear through the walls. When they came to me, Mike would turn up some Michael Jackson or some Billy Joel on his radio, and he would tell them just to listen to the music.
Mike blamed our mother for her outbursts. To his mind, she had licked her mental illness already and the current relapse was both her failing to be there for her children and to help them through their grief and also her way of avoiding her responsibilities. When she stopped taking her medication and my father told her that she was being irresponsible and that she did not care about getting better, Mike believed my father and also blamed her for not taking her meds. At the same time, though, he felt a tremendous responsibility to our siblings. He felt that it was his job to do what our parents could not and, as best as a twelve-year-old could, he worked to be a role model, a guardian, and a mentor to them.
Because he was twelve when he started, Mike was more like a dictator, but he didn't realize it. And he did do his best. Still, he was autistic, even if he did not know it. And he was twelve, even if he was sure that he knew better than his parents about what was right and what was wrong. The more responsibility he took on, the easier it got for him to avoid crying when he heard the fights start again. The only thing he wanted was to survive long enough to get himself and his siblings both away from both of their parents.
During this time, Mike learned to hate. He learned to hate his mother for not doing what she was supposed to do, and he also learned to hate his father for not being strong enough to remove her from the house and to keep her removed. When our father did finally fully divorce her, after three years of more conflict, assault, and shaming behavior than I have time to unpack here, Mike grudgingly forgave him (partway) for not having done more sooner.
Once our mother was out of the house, though, Mike found he had even more work to do. Now, he had to care for his siblings full time, and their father also expected him to intuitively know which household chores to do and when to do them. And remember, Mike was still autistic, even if we were pretending that he was not. He had trouble staying organized. Sometimes, he would get sucked into the television for hours without taking in any of the information that the screen was shooting at him. Still, when his father came home to find the dishes that sat in the sink, dirty, were the same ones he had left there (dirty) the night before, it was Mike's fault. When his father threw things around the kitchen, pounded his fist into the countertop, and bellowed about how hard he had to work to pay for Mike's mother's rent, it was Mike that he bellowed at.
Mike was the oldest. He was supposed to be tough enough to take it, and he was supposed to be tough enough to keep his siblings doing their own chores, so it was his fault when things did not get done, even when they were not the things Mike was directly responsible for.
A few times, Mike worked up the nerve to tell that over-privileged man-child that he was supposed to be the adult and that throwing a temper tantrum was stupid because all the kids in the house worked hard at school and took care of themselves without any help. When that happened, Mike's father threatened to send him to live with his mother and to put up with the way she couldn't hold a job or take her medication.
Mike learned to be as silent as Michael, and to do the women's work of the house like a man. He grew older, sure that he had already grown up, and he eventually discovered teenage pleasures: cheap over-the-counter highs, girls, and heavy metal.
(to be concluded)