Thursday, December 21, 2017

Reading "Life Animated" by Ron Suskind - Thoughts #1

            Last year over the break between fall and spring semesters I read the entire Harry Potter series. Stealing minutes and hours here and there as the kids played with new toys or spent time with their favorite babysitter, I hid in my bed, under the covers, propped up on pillows, engulfed in a magical world.
            Reading fiction has always been easy for me – there’s a through line, a goal, a process – you can see the story arc. Reading non-fiction is more difficult because there isn’t the story, the arc, the character development (typically), and I get bored easily. I set myself on a schedule – one chapter a day or however I want to get the book finished.
            This year for the break I created a pile of books from my stash – if you’re like me, you are a book hoarder. I buy books like pretty baubles, place them in my bookshelf, and look forward to the right time to get into them. So I have a stash of books. But frequently I pick up non-fiction, and they end up gathering dust because the new fiction released last Tuesday just looks SO MUCH MORE tantalizing. Let me consume the drama and leave the chaos of the house for just a little bit. Non-fiction doesn’t do that for me. But yet I buy them. It’s one of the dissonant pieces of my personality that my husband chuckles at.
            A few months ago I picked up “Life Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism” by Ron Suskind. At the time I put it in my Amazon cart, I thought about how my youngest son, Sage, was diagnosed with Autism and was very into movie characters (and used the dialogue from those movies to communicate with us for what feels like a few years). Toy Story (“To infinity and beyond!”), Big Hero 6 (“Baymax, hold on!”), Despicable Me (we had Minions EVERYTHING that Christmas), and Curious George were our staples for months at a stretch. Sage would use dialogue from the movies at the most random times (called delayed echolalia or the repetition of words or phrases rather than the creation of new statements with known vocabulary) and it was his only way of communicating for a bit despite our best efforts to reinforce his creation of new statements. Talking. So rather than talking to us, he would repeat lines from his favorite movies. So when I saw this book, I thought, “Hey, that would be interesting to read because that is us too!”
            Psychologists talk about flashbulb memories – the creation of a memory so distinct that it’s as if it’s burned into your brain. All of the sights, sounds, what you were doing, what you were wearing, it’s all there in this “flash” in your head. I started reading Life Animated on a Tuesday. I had a hair appointment so I threw the unstarted book and a bookmark into my bag in case I had some wait time. I got there early, before my stylist, and sat down in a chair near her door so I could see her come in and be ready when she was. I started reading. By page two I was a crying, snotty, “hot mess.”
            FUCK! I cannot read this book!,” I thought. At least not in public.
            Before having a child diagnosed with Autism, I could have read it easily. Well, more easily I should say. I’m definitely high in empathy so I probably would have teared up at the initial pages where he described the changes in his son – losing speech and skills he’d already acquired - but I wouldn’t have had tears streaming down my face and been dribbling snot.
            Facebook’s Timehop feature shows me often what this change in Sage looked like. We see these super smiley, toothy pictures of this baby with chubby cheeks. We see a curly haired toddler with mischief in his eyes; those gorgeous blue eyes. We see a 2-and-a-half year old with crazy hair in a video repeating “hi,” “me,” and “you” while waving backwards (all delayed behaviors that played into his Autism diagnosis). At the time, doing a video of him saying single words at 2.5 was amazing (AH-MAY-ZING) because he was using words so it was video worthy for sure. Now it’s a reminder of how far he’s come and where we were at while still in Early Intervention. And seeing these things makes me both want to laugh and cry at the same time. You just wonder, what happened? Did I do this? Where did something go wrong? What’s next?
            So I read about three pages. And I stopped. Because I couldn’t experience all of those emotions at once. And I’ll keep reading a few pages when I have the emotional strength to pull myself out of the affective tailspin that occurs when I see our experiences in someone else and vice versa. I think it’s especially hard on the days where Sage has a rough day or as I’m finishing up my own book on parenting a child (or children) with Autism.

            What’s kind of amazing though is that books can do this – that they can bring you from sitting on your bed, under the covers, propped up on pillows, to another human’s experience of parenting. That reading someone else’s words that they put to paper (or computer) could pull emotions from you and bring you to re-experience them. What books have you read that have done that for you?

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