By Patricia Stacey
In 2003, I was invited on a radio show to talk about a book I had written about parenting. During a commercial break, the host asked me if I wanted to read a passage. Sitting across from me, tall and stately in front of a large microphone, Diane Rehm, the celebrity I had known for years, (though only through her voice), pierced me with her elegant eyes and I knew something about myself in that moment that I hadn’t understood before. While my book was about helping my young son Ian* recover from autism, the passage I wanted to read had nothing to do with him. Or, everything, depending on how you look at it. What I wanted to read was about the most intimate aspect of my life—my marriage. While Rehm waited for my reply, I realized something even more surprising about myself. I didn’t just want to read the passage about my marriage on national radio; I had to.
If there was any truth to my life as I raised a child at risk for autism, it lay in one ridiculously obvious “secret.” My husband Dave* and I were unhappy. For months we had been like two dogs tied together to the same pole, circling it, around and around, while our chains clanked and strained. We were caught in our certain knowledge that the problem with our lives was each other. Why would I want anyone to know that?
As I paged through my book about how children develop, how the brain functions, about how to help re-write a kid’s brain, I became aware of the world of listeners about to rejoin our frequency. I felt a strange and intimate bond with the listeners. I could not see them but felt them waiting, ready to be as done with their commercial break as I was ready to spill. “You have two and a half minutes,” Rehm said. I began flipping through the book. My fingers felt as if I was trying to find my keys outside in mid-January—fumbling, stiff. I knew the opening line about my marriage as if my heart had engraved it on the page. But where were the other words when I needed them? My eyes darted. I couldn’t focus. Words doubled, shifted. I flipped and I flipped. “Ten seconds,” someone warned. “Nine. Eight. Seven. Six.” A green light turned on, and in that moment the page fell open. I nodded that I’d found it and she began her introduction. And then I read.
The passage described my worrying about Dave coming upstairs to our bedroom. During that period in our lives, I was doing an intensive form of therapy with our toddler, ten twenty-minute sessions a day. Because he had early signs of autism, hypersensitivity, an aversion to human interaction, we needed to train him to become used to a world of human interaction (a job which fell largely to me). The prescription? Play, play, play. Smile, smile, smile. But don’t smile too much; that would be too much for him. I was so tired, so played out, so back-and- forth-communicating-with-a-toddler- wiped-out that I was raw. (Imagine Scheherazade, staying up all night to be entertaining, fearing death … oh yeah, but without the sexy parts.) I often joked that it had been like doing stand-up comedy to save someone’s life. I was so tired of interaction that if you’d plucked me and dumped me on a nuclear sub, I would have wept with joy.
In fact, in that period, I had become, in many ways, like Ian. I was pulling away from a world that wanted too much from me. His autistic-like nervous system was so sensitive he could not tolerate the rustling sound of a plastic bag. Stress, work, and mother-anxiety (scourge of all prophylactic manufacturers) was rupturing that thin filament that connected me to my husband. But crisis had brought out something fierce and unrelenting in me. If my hands had stiffened that day on the radio show while trying to find the passage about my marriage, some deeper part of myself had also stiffened.
Helping my child with autism become highly social had been an ecstatic experience, probably the single greatest accomplishment of my life. But there had been moments along the way when I felt like I’d been sent away to war. Ironically, too often, the blitz had been on home turf. When Ian’s psychiatrist, Stanley Greenspan, had learned of Dave and my constant disagreements, he said quite simply and firmly: “Don’t!”
And we didn’t—for a while. But conflict can engulf a home like defoliant spray, settling on everything alive. It stopped up our senses, corroded our peace. Like villagers in times of heated strife, Dave and I took to using whatever implements we could, inept tools not designed for the job of warfare. The tool we used too often was silence, its own kind of weapon. Do not try this at home.
Over the radio I read: Evenings, often, I lay in bed at night before Dave came up, my body humming still with an edgy static from the hours of frantically gesturing and moving and touching and talking and endlessly, endlessly talking and touching our toddler—hours of what the therapists called “rapid back and forth”—I worried about my husband coming upstairs. I had in those moments a rocking repulsion to the idea of more human contact. Full disclosure: I’d loved reading the word “rocking repulsion” on the radio. It was a relief to tell the truth. Like being in a double bed alone—where you can take up all the space for yourself.
Night after night those early years after Ian’s diagnosis, I often went up to the bedroom by myself to read and research whatever I could to help our son. Dave and I hadn’t been talking much after one rich blowout about selling the house, an old argument we were recycling just to throw some battery acid in each other’s eyes. He wanted to sell; I didn’t.
But after I read the piece on the radio, I immediately felt guilty. All the way home, I remembered one glorious evening. Ian was about two. We were having rendition 289 of the house fight—I went upstairs to read. I wasn’t passion- ate those days about my marriage, but I was at least a passionate student—thrilling at the ideas I encountered in brain and child development books. The book I was most in love with at the time was The Growth of the Mind by Stanley Greenspan. I nestled it between my knees and read about how the emotional self develops in a human. We come into being as sentient selves only by virtue of our senses. Senses in a newborn teach the brain how to learn, how to notice, how to love. It was like nothing I had ever imagined. A baby doesn’t come out done; he comes out ready to learn and to become what he needs to become. In fact, the world itself is what teaches the eyes to see and programs the heart to love. So what about my little boy, whose senses struggled to bear the unbearable world? Or what about me now—so “touched-out”—who sometimes thought I would scream if someone so much as asked for a back rub? That night as I sat in bed and read The Growth of the Mind, the question was still: Did I even have time to think about my marriage? Ian was still a toddler. There was a time limit to when all this brain programming was going on.
The problem with hypersensitive kids is that they often can’t let in the information that will teach their brains to see, hear, and understand. Now all of a sudden, science was changing. Out-of-the-box thinkers like Stanley Greenspan were saying that you could reach a hypersensitive baby, change the course of his life. You could teach him to tolerate the everyday noises that make up the life of a healthy, social baby. But there were windows of opportunity; I often feared the windows were closing. Back then, scientists believed we had just a few months to reach our son, or maybe a year or two. That made it even harder to think about my husband. To even change the subject was to betray our baby. The idea was to give him so much attention that he would become used to it, seek it out, learn to one day play at conversation like a maestro. So what did that leave for my marriage? A nagging sense that while Ian grew closer to us, we grew further apart.
One night when I was reading The Growth of the Mind, I left the bed, padded in my slippers downstairs, and sat beside Dave on the couch. “OK,” I said, “Greenspan believes that the highest point of maturity is when you can discuss something emotionally charged with someone and maintain a picture in your head of that very person and one of yourself simultaneously while you talk.”
Dave looked at me. His eyes looked hollow and watery.
“Are you willing to try that?” I asked.
“OK, you talk first,” I said.
“We need to sell the house.”
“You feel we should sell our house because…?”
“Because I am concerned about money. I’m worried about the baby needing therapy and we need to downscale.”
As he talked about moving, my blood pressure began to rise. I felt fluid surging through my wrists, making them hot and cold at once. I tried to imagine myself going through the process of moving, packing boxes, talking to agents, wrapping knick-knacks, cleaning and making beds and organizing—imagining, all the while, my toddler lying in a corner, staring out the windows, disappearing behind that veil I had seen drop so many times—with “stared though our windows to the outside world.” I saw the lost moments, imaginary days passing like pages off a cinematic calendar, Ian’s neurons starting to trim themselves away for good. I was swimming in images of what it looked like to cut neurons, tallied up all of the hours of therapy lost to this senseless packing and moving of objects from one place to another, all to save some money. I wanted to jump off the couch and yell: “Let’s just set the house on fire if you want to downsize!”
But then I remembered Greenspan’s exhortation. I tried to calm my mind, to lose the scary images, to take a breath and bend my mind back to the place of focus. I quickly brought the little action figure of my husband back into the forefront of my mind and at the same time, I focused on an image of the little hologram of his wife, me, beside him. And the image of Dave began to take true form—a man who told silly jokes, a man who had to get up every Monday morning at 6:00, a man who was feeling that he couldn’t hold up this huge, as he put it, “ship” anymore. All this time we’d been arguing, I’d been frightened by his anger. But now I saw what I hadn’t seen before: a man who wanted rest himself, who was tired of paying big bills. I think I saw him as he really was. I knew that he was frightened. And I felt then that this ability to hold the image and under- standing of the other person in your mind while holding onto an awareness of yourself—to Greenspan, the highest level of emotional maturity—wasn’t just the theory of a Harvard-trained brain. It occurred to me that it was a call to enter the spiritual life itself. Reaching this level—even if I was only able to do it for a few minutes every now and then in an argument—helped me to see the ways that we are all bound together, intricate, defined threads in a tightly woven cloth. Greenspan’s method brought me out of my self-pitying, my tired, my nagging mode for a few moments to truly be a friend to my husband. I told him that I thought he was right; we needed to sell the house.
And in that moment, his eyes opened, they lost their watery distance, the glaze. They rounded and cleared. I think he saw me too that night. Maybe he was looking at the figurine in his own head of a tired woman who’d been feeding a kid who vomited three times a day, the woman on a mission who spent time those days acting like a clown in front of her child, jumping up and down singing a strange, stupid home-cooked song she called “the bottle song.” He looked at me lovingly for the first time in so long, and he opened his arms. We held each other for half an hour and when it was all done, we did not speak about the house for many years.
* Names in this story have been changed
Patricia Stacey is the author of The Boy Who Loved Windows. She has written for The Atlantic Monthly; O, The Oprah magazine; Brain, Child; and other magazines and journals. She lives in Amherst with her family.