Last night I had the strangest dream. I was walking down alleys in some foreign country–it might have been Morocco, judging from what I saw in store windows. I have never been to Morocco, but I went to the Moroccan restaurant in Disney World and had some fantastic food. And a store that I frequent in Jerusalem, Rika’s, carries Moroccan stuff, everything from clothing to solid brass mortar and pestle sets, which I regret not getting when I moved to the States. Never mind, I’ll get one when I move back
Anyway. Back to the dream. I was consumed by anxiety because I was supposed to meet with someone at a restaurant somewhere around there, and I couldn’t find it and my cell phone had turned into a wristwatch, courtesy of Dick Tracy I’m sure. So I had no way to locate the place, or to tell the people I was going to meet with that I would be late.
In my growing state of panic, I turned out of the narrow lanes and found myself in a cityscape not unlike the South Side of Chicago, which is where I did my undergraduate work. Dreams, right? I decided to just let my intuition guide me, since I had no other guidance, and found myself in an underground mall full of fast food joints and cheap clothing stores. I wandered through the passages in the mall until I found the restaurant: a shiny, upscale place full of chrome and stainless steel, very unlike the people I was going to meet.
And those people were: my ex-husband, his wife, and my ex’s sister’s husband. I joined them and apologized for being late, but they were very understanding. We got right to the reason for the meeting, which was: my ex was having a breakdown because of the guilt he suddenly felt for how he believed he had treated our son when our son was little. I was shocked, because although they didn’t have a lot of contact for a few years, I didn’t think he had done anything more than most parents do in the way of mistakes, and he had already been forgiven for those. But there he was, crying and begging me for forgiveness. I didn’t know how to feel. Ah, dreams.
In a few days we will celebrate our son’s 28th birthday. In the Hebrew system of numerology, 28 is the number for “strength.” I bless our son to have lots of strength, for now and for many, many healthy years to come.
He was not an easy child to raise. The brilliant ones never are. He always wanted more, and better, and faster; but at the same time he would get overloaded and have classic melt-downs, needing to be bear-hugged until he calmed down enough to go to his room and totally wreck it. And he wasn’t so good with children his age. In kindergarten he absolutely refused to participate. I went to the child psychologist he had been seeing since age three, and together with the teachers we worked out a behavioral contract: for each five minutes that he cooperated and participated in class, he got to do whatever he wanted for fifteen minutes. At first that was reading to himself in a loft they had in the room (he had taught himself to read when he was three). Then he discovered the laminating machine in the office, and fell in love. All of his out-of-class time was spent laminating things for the teachers and staff. I joked that they should have paid him.
First grade was a wash-out. It was a lovely Quaker school, and each morning the children had a meeting to cooperatively decide what they would learn today. No dice: my son staunchly refused to participate, and stationed himself in a corner like a wooden Indian. But somehow managed to get perfect grades on the tests. Countless phone calls from the sweet young teacher later, I said to him, why don’t you just give him a job? How about giving him a tape recorder and making him the class documentarian? It worked. He followed the class everywhere with his tape recorder. That was his role.
Second grade was better because the new school had a pull-out Gifted Student program, and not only did he get one-on-one instruction, but he had peers with whom he could interact, that were on his wavelength. They did stuff outside of school together too, like observing our goats having babies and speculating about how the babies got in there. Then they observed our stallion in action, and that answered that question.
But then there was the constant bullying, because my son was weird. Time after time he’d come home crying with a new bruise he’d acquired on the playground or the bus. Countless phone calls to and meetings with the school principal bore no fruit, as they insisted that the incidents had to be witnessed by an adult, and of course the bullies were smarter than that.
So one day when we were at wit’s end, I said to him, look, the next time someone hits you, you hit ‘em back! And indeed the next day some kid whacked him upside the head while standing in line to get off the school bus, and my son turned around and decked the little bastard. Oh, didn’t that precipitate an uproar! The kid’s parents called the principal and threatened to call the police (on a seven-year-old?), and my son was suspended for two days. But the bullying stopped. That time, anyway.
After a few years of relative peace, we moved to another state, and there the bullying started anew, and my son stopped doing school. He went, yes, but once again he stopped participating. There was a dominant religion there, and the boys used to follow my son around yelling “You’re Jewish and you’re going to hell!” One day my son turned around and said, “Fine, at least you won’t be there.” Suspended again, two days.
Things progressed from bad to worse. He was in seventh grade; I took him for educational testing and he turned out to be working at college sophomore level in reading, and college freshman level in math. No wonder he wasn’t interested in seventh grade.
But he began to have behavioral issues similar to what he had had as a three year old: tantrums, but now with a simmering anger that frightened me, as he was literally twice my size. His alternating angry outbursts and silent gloominess had me worried about depression. We have a long family tradition of depression, and he certainly had both situational and genetic reasons to be depressed.
So I took him to a psychiatrist. He would not say a word. The psychiatrist recommended a psychologist, but the same thing happened: arms crossed, staring at floor. After five iterations of this, I gave up. But then I found the suicidal note that “just happened” to slip out of his notebook. Terrified, I got him into the car by means of screaming threats of calling the ambulance, and drove him to the emergency room, where I showed the note to the doctor and they sent for the psychiatrist on call, who read the letter and asked him if he felt suicidal now. He shook his head. Question repeated, response repeated. Recommend follow-up with regular doctor in the morning.
Please, I pleaded, please just admit him for a 24 hour observation. This note is really serious. (As a pediatrician myself, I was trained that there are two kinds of suicide threats: serious, and more serious. And this one was more serious, because it specified a plan.) They sent him home.
Then, it seemed moments later now, the Columbine school shooting happened. Panic shot through every school in the country. Some went on lockdown, some installed metal detectors. Many started conducting regular routine locker searches. Our school was one of those.
When they searched my son’s locker, they found it stuffed with papers. Most of them were his homework papers that he never turned in: all done perfectly. Some of the papers were more concerning: images of guns and missiles and ominous, dark poems about death and mayhem. They called me in, showed me all the stuff, and threw him out.
It was at this point that I sent him to a wilderness therapy program, one that he couldn’t get out of until he started seriously dealing with his “shit.” That is a whole ‘nother story, but it was the first of many outpatient and residential treatment programs. He got into drugs, much more seriously than I had any idea of, as he told me later. At the age of sixteen he had failed many programs and torn up the family, and his step-mother–I had sent him to live with his father because I couldn’t handle him anymore and thought that being with his dad might help–threw him out. He went to live with a bunch of gangsters and sold drugs until they thew him out, and then he crashed where he could and ate cold pizza out of the dumpsters. Somehow we got him into an adolescent psychiatric hospital, and they drugged him into a stupor, and there he lay on couches listlessly watching TV, until some kid started bullying him and he picked the kid up and threw him into a refrigerator, and they threw him out. So he went to live in a homeless shelter, back to dealing drugs.
Then, serendipitously, he got busted for a small amount of pot. I called the judge–I worked with the courts in that county a lot and knew all the judges–and begged him to remand my son to long-term residential therapy. I knew that if I didn’t do something before he turned 18 that he would be lost, in jail, or dead. The judge did me that favor, and I found a wonderful therapeutic boarding school that helped him find his way out of the hole he had fallen into and discover his wonderful talents. He also got started on the right antidepressants, and thrived.
And now, bli ayin hara (a Jewish prayer against the Evil Eye, just ignore it), he is working on his Ph.D. in Medicinal Chemistry, doing things with the insides of cells that no one else has done before. I am so proud of him! He has taken charge of his mental health issues, working with a therapist and doing DBT. He consciously cultivates hobbies that round out his life so that he’s not spending all his time in the lab, which he knows he would do if he didn’t do something on purpose to change it.
Looking back on this post, it’s amazing to see how many paragraphs of difficulty and heartbreak it took, to get to this last paragraph of triumph over desperation and despair. And what I’ve told you is just the tip of the iceberg. And he still has to work constantly to keep himself on an even keel, and living a healthy life. But he’s doing it, thank God. It isn’t easy being brilliant.