Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Daddy’s little girl. Tuesday, November 9, 2010.
“You must look into other people as well as at them.” –Lord Chesterfield
When I was a little girl, my Dad would tell me fantastic stories using my stuffed animals as actors. He loved cartoon characters and fantastical worlds. I adored him and he adored me. He would brag to everyone about his “Baby-girl” and he kept every single drawing I made for him. He was the perfect father for a 4-year-old. The problem was, 4-year-olds grow up, and my father stayed the same.
I spent most of today my now 80-something father, working to get him secured in his assisted living situation, which has become necessary due to his physical disability and worsening dementia that is complicated by Asperger’s Syndrome. Although, like most adults on the autistic spectrum, my father has never been diagnosed, my discovery of the syndrome in a book in the early 90s kept me from losing my own mind. At last, there was an explanation for his behavior (much of which I mirrored as a child and wrote about recently).
By the age of 5, I recognized that things weren’t quite right with Dad, and I was already trying to protect him from things that would scare him or change his rigid routine. By the age of 9, I was pleading with him to stop speaking to me in “baby talk.”
At 12, I was deeply ashamed when he demanded to hold my hand at a carnival in front of my friends; when I whispered I was too old, he began to sob. At 16, I was humiliated when my father – wearing only pajamas and socks – ran after the schoolbus one frigid morning, crying “Baby-girl! Baby-girl! You forgot to kiss your daddy goodbye!”
By the time my parents divorced when I was 16, a part of me truly hated him. On the one hand, he doted on me. I was, he told me so often, his “entire world.” He had worked hard and made a beautiful home for his Baby-girl, filled with toy horses and trips to Disneyland. He never once disciplined me (he didn’t really have to). He gushed over my art and writing projects, certain that I was brilliant and talented and very, very special.
On the other hand, he never looked into my eyes. We never had a reciprocal conversation; he would simply monologue in a flat tone, about camera parts or film animation – reciting the same facts for hours, month after month, year after year. His hug was bony and awkward and didn’t give me any feeling of security or safety.
He made jokes about my nose, my weight, my hair and my scoliosis, using words like “cripple” and becoming genuinely confused when that made me cry. He taught me that the world was a chaotic and dangerous place, where airplanes fall out of the sky and cars crash more often than not. He was filled with anxiety if I got home past dark, and once when I was 17, he threatened suicide because I refused to put on a raincoat. “You’ll catch pneumonia and die,” he said, “and without my Baby-girl I would have no reason to live.”
Strange body posture. Narrow, obsessive interests. No understanding of emotional or physical boundaries. Difficulty in making conversation. High levels of anxiety. Lack of empathy. Confusion about age-appropriate language and behavior. Inability to tolerate certain fabrics, lights or noises. “At least MY dad’s an alcoholic,” said my best friend in high school. “He has as reason to be weird. Your dad’s just weird. It sucks.”
Then I stumbled upon “Shadow Syndromes” in the bookstore. It was as if someone turned on a bright light. It wasn’t all in my head. My dad wasn’t a bad person, and his behavior wasn’t my fault – or my mom’s. I Xeroxed the chapter on Asperger’s and mailed it to my mother. She called me the night she read it, crying. “Thank God,” she said. “Thank God someone understands. Thank God there is a reason.”
Today my father is an old man, and he seems to be fading fast. I don’t think he’ll be around much longer. But after spending hours with him today, I’m reminded of how far I have to go. You see, I had soaked up his dysfunctional ways of dealing with the world like a sponge. I “took after Dad,” and have spent decades trying to unlearn those behaviors. When I hate myself, I hate him. When I hate him, I hate myself.
I know he has a neurological disorder that prevents him from experiencing the world as “NTs” (neuro-typicals) do. I’m in an online support group for people raised by parents on the autistic spectrum. I see that every day there are more groups and websites dedicated to people like me.
My father lives in a small room now, and among his few belongings are all the drawings I gave him as a child. He’s never thrown one away. Every time I visit, he beams, “Remember when my Baby-girl made these for me?” But his Baby-girl grew up, and for Dad, that was a betrayal.
I know it's not his fault. And I know that in his way, he loves me. But I’m angry. I’m angry I have an autistic parent; I’m angry that I once idolized him and now can’t stand to be with him, I'm angry at myself for being angry at him, I'm angry that I have never been able to have a true conversation with him and that he knows virtually nothing about my life.
And I’m angry my own father has never looked into my eyes.