I'm on the autism spectrum. I was picked on, ridiculed, and beat up at school while growing up in upstate New York. I couldn't memorize anything (including names) unless I had genuine interest, and always seemed to be turning red, embarrassingly sweaty and stuttering from anxiety. I was sometimes told by teachers to sit at the special needs table to make friends, but I preferred hand-writing reams of BASIC code in isolation to avoid my constant social faux pas. As I got older, my grades suffered, my behavior suffered, and my family struggled with raising three children without enough money. The stress contributed greatly to my mother's mental and physical health, leading to psychological and emotional abuse. She removed my right to privacy, told me Satan led me around by the nose, and censored my taste in music, art, and literature, calling it "disgusting". The word 'punishment' was probably one of the most common of my childhood. Highly impressionable, my self-esteem / self-worth never recovered. I ran away at 16 with no plan but desperation, ending up moving into my old childhood girlfriend family's home. There I was referred to as "it" and "retard", and took their 'advice' to quit school and start working; though I eventually passed a GED test, the last grade I successfully completed was 9th. They tried to teach me how the world really works- how to lie, manipulate, steal, and think only of personal gain. They used force, acting, stealing, mind games, mental and emotional abuse (upon myself and others), employing whatever it took to get ahead, because 'everyone else does the same anyway'. While that went against everything I was inside, these were essentially my new parents, which meant my new masters, and I was used to being and feeling wrong. I tried to please them. For extra money, on garbage days, I would go find VCR's, stereos, TV's and other electronics that had been thrown away. I figured out how to fix some, and sold them to the pawn shop. "Tinkering" became my hobby, creative outlet, and cash cow in emergencies. I was absolutely certain that this life would be the only one I would ever know; within two years, we were two very messed up kids trying to raise two kids of our own. I took whatever work I could get with no qualifications or education, mostly factory- a wire mill, then a steel mill- until they closed down or moved out of the area. We lived in apartments that got condemned while we lived there, battling cockroaches, relying on food stamps and WIC, pushing a double stroller in the New York snow to get groceries. With no car or license, I walked miles to work in all weather, doing my often ineffective best at meeting everyone's increasingly confusing demands and expectations.
During that time, my mother died of emaciation. I got the call while at work. My last memory of her is the disgusted, hateful look she gave me when I left. Sometimes it's difficult to remember that she started out as my only confidant, consoling me when I came home crying. I didn't have the money or time off work to go to her funeral in Massachusetts, where the family burial plot was. My sister, Leslie, told me she just stopped eating, saying she had received an answer to her prayers- that it was time for her to go. It upset her greatly- Leslie, though younger, was often closest to me, watched out for me, believing in the "right" of things and willing to be vocal when others stayed silent. She died the next year at Christmastime in a car accident. My father was working nights at the post office, so it was up to me to break into the tomb-like old dilapidated house, wake him up and tell him his daughter was dead. He cried and cried in my tiny old room, where he'd moved when unable to sleep downstairs in the bedroom where his wife had passed. I screamed inside yet couldn't cry, I was too broken. Years of resulting anxiety and depression, trying to fake my way through this alien world of meaningless uncaring cruelty, pushed me toward suicide attempts. I had ended up at a temp job service, with no insurance or savings, trapped in an inescapable life of obligations I could never meet, and unending personal, social, and economic instability. I went on just about every anti-depressant medication you can think of, spent months in inpatient facilities that tracked admittance and progress based on how long your health care authorized payment, and realized in resigned horror that I could function best (if not well) with a clear head. The drugs just made me slow, foggy, and stupid. I often couldn't understand or keep up normally, but on meds I couldn't even reason things through, just went through the motions like a zombie, feeling out of control and unbalanced. Somewhere around then, amidst personal crisis and worrying about my children, my wife turned up pregnant by a childhood friend of ours. I still have a scar on my left arm from where I wished I had the courage to push harder and finally be at peace.
Despite countless setbacks, ongoing divorce proceedings assisted by my father, and losing daily interaction my kids, I kept doing my best to stay stable and productive. With a friend's help, I got an apartment, and my first real- if beat-up and knocking- $500 car. I tried to find joy, tried to counteract the darkness inside that always threatened to swallow me whole. I kept tinkering, repairing, modifying, finding comfort in things that could be figured out, could be fixed or rigged to work no matter how broken. After half a year, with a semi-steady temporary assembly line position at Welch Allyn, I started to have my life in some semblance of order. I started to feel almost like a real person- except that I was losing the divorce, as my lawyer warned me I would. After all, 80% of men do. My kids were living with their mother half a mile away in the type of low-income state housing that you just don't walk through at night. Shootings were reported fairly often, along with other crime and violence. When my son told me about kids picking on, teasing, and hurting him while he walked home from school, it broke my heart. I felt like a complete failure, doing no better by my children than my parents did for me. This was not what I wanted, but I couldn't find any tools at my disposal to remedy it. Until my soon-to-be ex-wife agreed to give me primary physical custody of our boys and let me move them out of there to Utah, where my father had remarried - if I would wait until she gave her new baby up for church adoption and take her with me to try our relationship again. While my lawyer congratulated me, astounded at her sudden change of heart, mine pounded. I kept telling myself, I can handle this for my kids. I can handle this for my kids. I lived through it once, I can do it again, the ends justify the means. Moving did temporarily get my kids into a comparably healthier geographic environment, but unfortunately didn't change anything else.
We made it another few frankly unhealthy years, during which my physical and mental health deteriorated. Years of bad posture and factory work gave me a bad lower back that put me in the hospital, where they couldn't help me but were happy to charge for telling me so. I couldn't seem to do the call center work any more- helping people had turned into remembering and reciting scripts, being the representation and enforcer of unfair corporate policies, lying to customers, mandatory manipulation and pushiness to up-sell instead of just offering the advertised customer service... I remember getting pulled off the phones for agreeing with an irate customer that advertising "Unlimited" internet was indeed misleading when the (just changed for monetary reasons) policies actually dictated charging over a certain data monthly cap. "Unlimited", they said, was just the name of the plan. Ethics and rationality seemed to have no value, in fact were considered unacceptable disadvantages in the workplace. I ended up using my electronic tinkering skills to become an eBay Power Seller, refurbishing laptops and computers to sell online and locally. We had a little girl- our third child- whom I stayed home to take care of. When our marriage finally collapsed completely, I was without hope and direction once again. I tried some more antidepressants, and noted with bitter amusement that even when I refused to check what the side effects were beforehand, I still ended up with nearly every single one, and few if any positive effects. When they didn't work, all I knew to turn to was the hospitals. But being coherent and intellectual, if shaky and obviously distraught, they would simply explain that their facility was for crisis only, short-term care for momentary issues. Come back when I was seriously ready to self-harm, here's your bill. The free or low-pay counselors I tracked down could meet once every couple weeks for half an hour, and were usually students or overworked volunteers. I had one tell me bluntly they didn't think they could help me. Once again, it was made clear to me- I was on my own.
So I tried again. I got work at an entry-level university position, where my self-taught tech skills came in useful in setting up and troubleshooting equipment. Now with my second wife, after over a year of relative emotional and financial stability and a new home, we ended up pregnant. I panicked at first, but was reassured that things were different now, the chaos of the past was over with. Her freshly started career as a grade school teacher was interrupted by preeclampsia, her kidneys shutting down, and the emergency 24-week C-section which resulted in our micro preemie 1 lb, 6 oz son Alex... also autistic. He was in the hospital for over a half a year, giving us an emotional roller coaster including underdeveloped lungs, morphine addiction, RSV, and even a hail-mary effort by the doctors of flying him north to be put on an iron lung when his could no longer produce oxygen. My wife kept working doggedly in her first year, trying to throw together lesson plans each night and corral rambunctious kids knowing our son's life was day to day so precariously in the balance. Over a million dollars of health care later, with a flat head from half a year being chemically immobilized in plastic incubators, he tentatively came home on oxygen lines, monitors, and medication. He spent the first few years scooting around on his back, pulling his tubes out, getting sick, struggling to keep his O2 stats up, and fighting the expensive plastic helmets he needed for correction but almost instantly outgrew. But our miracle came at a price. My wife's employer, displeased with her teaching performance, decided not to renew her contract. Unable to find any other positions, she took inconsistent substitute work for a fraction of the pay. Desperate to keep our home, I started working nights stocking shelves at Walmart while working for the university during the day. I managed a month of that. Somewhere around that time, the recession hit, and my wife was caught having an inappropriate relationship with a student. We lost the car, our house, and were forced to declare bankruptcy. I was in complete shock, with my earlier life apparently flooding back and mocking me.
I knew I couldn't leave Alex. I knew I had to try fixing things, somehow. With my younger son from my first marriage, we moved to her old hometown to run away from everything, a tiny rural place in Idaho. I again could not find work. This time I tried my best at college, even finishing a few semesters, while my wife took a turn at Walmart, then became a CNA. We had some happy times in our low-income but newer apartments by the river, and Alex the miracle blossomed into an active, healthy, very unique toddler. Unfortunately, both our unresolved mental health issues and our broken trust became barriers for our relationship. Ultimately, she decided to pursue a relationship with someone at work, and refused to stop when confronted though she admitted it was wrong. At that point I don't think she knew why she was doing what she did. After blowing up in anger, pain, and desperation, I left. Over the next few months I continually tried to salvage the marriage, but it simply was not possible. I ended up going back to Utah to stay with family and try to figure out what my life was supposed to be. I eventually got my own apartment again, using my renewed first university job experience to land a similar one at another university, and keeping both as long as possible. I tried going to school there, but again could not absorb the information as it was presented. I felt stupid, and ended up dropping school (apparently incorrectly, now owing over $10k for the education I couldn't receive) and losing the first job while stretched too thin. Fortuitously, the second eventually turned into a $12/hr salary position- my first and only one. My first wife, who now had all three of our kids, kept me from my children with threats. After not having seen my daughter in months, in desperation I stopped by her school and had her called to the office. I had a quick chat, gave her a hug, necklace, and a heartfelt "I love and miss you." Within hours, I was told by my ex that if I came near her again she would be hiding her in a different school, or moving them back to New York. She never explained her actions, but did get my father's new wife to agree with her. I received news that my eldest son hated me, my other son no longer trusted me, now my little girl is off limits, and Alex was out of state. I began to question why I remained where I wasn't wanted or needed, both geographically and in terms of life.
I started camping in the mountains with a girlfriend. Why does it sound like I was never alone? Because I was almost never alone. Whatever my many failings, I could help make others happy, for as long as they let me. There's some meaning and distraction in that, when the rest of the world seems to be chaotically flying apart. Plus, isolation was no longer my friend. Being alone with my thoughts now nearly always led to the darkness suffocating me. I knew it wasn't a good fix, but it worked better than the pills. It kept me functioning. Even when I couldn't keep going for me, I could keep going for someone else. But around then I tried marijuana as an anxiety relief. Exposure to nature, the absence of civilization, and real reprieve from almost constant pressure removed me from the chaos, rules, and status quo that constantly filled my head but made no sense. I started remembering the moisture, green trees and water of my childhood. That started a year-long process where a co-worker, the girlfriend (eventual third wife), and I started planning to move to Washington. I'm not going to defend it as the right choice- it still bothers me to have relocated without being able to take my kids- but I'm pretty sure there was no longer any clear correct path. I anguished over right and wrong, duty and responsibility vs the reality of staying in a restrictive, unsupportive LDS environment on the off chance one of my kids might want to see me for a minute someday. My scariest thinking was, I need to find myself, find my peace, get stronger and healthier, or this mess is going to end exactly like my mother. And if I care at all about my kids, I cannot hand them the same haunting emotional legacy she bestowed on me. I cannot give them this burden, or enable them doing likewise. By this point, I'd been diagnosed as Bipolar (though disputably atypical), having PTSD (trap me in a room for instant trauma-inducing fun), anxiety (at times my hands were completely useless from shaking), and severe lifelong depression. Depending on the doctor, you can also add in ADHD, OCD, and a few others. It felt painfully selfish to think, let alone say, but I had to take care of me before I could take care of anyone else, even if it was a lost cause decades too late.
So having given myself permission, I moved to Washington. The trip would have been comical if not so stressful- someone somewhere has a picture of my old '85 LeSabre, nose in the air, overloaded trailer hitched behind it. How we made it through the mountains, I'll never know, but just breathing the air seemed therapeutic. Hearing the ocean, seeing the truly deep green moss and foliage, I felt home. I felt grounded. I wisely abstained from marijuana to keep my temporary job sweeping floors in a new Amazon warehouse, only to have things crumble again. My third marriage didn't have the mutual respect or maturity it needed to survive; I think I knew that at the start, but when everything in your life smacks of failure, I guess you stop paying attention to reason. When we split, I was unable to afford the apartment and ended up completely suicidal. A friend took me to the ER, because she couldn't logically convince me I wasn't worthless, useless, and had no place in this world. I only existed to fulfill commitments- commitments I couldn't meet. The 'Christian' hospital, despite keeping me waiting for over five hours, had no bed for someone without insurance. They put me in an ambulance (non-optional, for their liability) and dropped me two blocks away at a homeless shelter. To say it was horrific is a gross understatement. I saw then the path this society creates, how individuals like you and me trying their hardest end up as broken, huddled, easily ignored statistics... until we ourselves are the numbers in question. Most have no way out, many die there on the streets. My friend, a single mom raising two teenage kids of her own- one of them also autistic- angrily questioned the rationality of what had happened ("that's just the way things work") and refused to leave me there. They let me walk out, with the only thing to show for the whole process being a non-negotiable $1k+ hospital and ambulance bill. At great cost and sacrifice to herself she gave me the nurturing environment this society frankly no longer offers to those who need it most. Despite her having to work 2-3 caregiving jobs at times as the sole provider, I got helpful therapy through a friend of hers, responsibly got my medical marijuana endorsement with her as my caregiver, and finally began the work of understanding who the hell I am, what the hell is wrong with me, and how the hell I fix it.
After careful research, I found a "drug" that worked amazingly well for me, with zero side effects- Lithium. It's not a pharmacological cocktail, but a naturally occurring element like Iron or Zinc that organically enhances brain function. I had to specifically demand it, and doctors are often loathe to give it- being an old, generic "drug", there's no money in it. And thanks to a ridiculous set of unscientific circumstances (much like the prohibition of marijuana) blood tests are periodically required to ensure no "overdosing" occurs, though signs are obvious and it would essentially have to be intentional. Using cannabinoids at night helped me sleep better, and lowered my tension to a manageable level so it didn't keep getting in the way of calm thinking and functioning. Instead of rushing to accomplish the next overwhelming task or obligatory responsibility, running endlessly without any sense of control or strength, I was able to commit my own resources toward understanding myself and coming to terms with my past. I could take the time to truly, comprehensively understand who I was, who I wanted to be as a person, and accept that what had happened previously cannot continue to condemn, control, limit or summarize me. I chose my own principles to live by and hold myself accountable to, ideals that seem to naturally form my core even if the majority of this world's structure seemingly no longer value them. I was able to own them, that they are who I am, and accept that I'm done apologizing, hiding, and pretending to be something I'm not. I chased down errant impulses, false perceptions, incorrect assumptions, and bad logic in my head like a hunter stalking prey. Not to self-admonish, but to accept, embrace, analyze, and understand so I could work through and find solutions for issues I never dared or wanted to confront in the past. After years of therapy and helping others, I had the tools, and finally had the time to apply them in a logical, committed way that worked for me.
That was over two years ago. This past Sunday I stood up in a Democratic Caucus training and talked about the passion, the drive, the commitment Bernie supporters feel- it's from doing the right thing. I know this, because though almost everything in my life seemed to try stamping that out in me, I have tinkered, rebuilt, and revived that nearly extinguished spark into an inferno of ethical commitment. Where does my strength come from? Self-respect through integrity. I do not lie- period. Not for anyone, not for any reason. I do not intentionally harm others. I will always help when I can, give what I can, but not at the cost of hurting or losing myself in the process any more. I have been down that road farther than I can accurately describe, and I will gladly take homelessness or death before I do so again. There is no point to living if you don't respect yourself. There is no point to any of this human-built construct of society if it doesn't serve us, is there? That is why I, possibly one of the most unlikely of Democratic Delegates, fight so damned hard for the Political Revolution. Despite what one might think from my lengthy online essays, I've never been into politics. For me, it's not about Democrats, or Republicans, or the media soundbites and petty supporter squabbles. This is about realizing I have nothing left to lose, and the better future I could never give my children to gain. This is about being wherever I am needed in the fight against a "civilized" system that increasingly causes them more misery than benefit. This is about more than my individual momentary perspective; it's about what you gain by taking a good hard, critical look at the entire story I just told and asking some some tough questions.
Did I make a lot of mistakes? Of course. Could I have done better? Absolutely. Did I know how at the time? Sadly, no. Did I end up here because I didn't want to work hard, or because I'm lazy, or I think I'm entitled? No, hardly. Following the lead of others who were just as lost, I fumbled through the maze of life blindfolded, unaware of the patterns and cycles I was trapped in. I was unhappy yet unable to see the forest for the trees. But more importantly in the broader scope and when thinking of future generations, consider: Did the current iteration of schooling, mental health care, medication, employment, and resources work for me, or against me? I think anyone reading this would be hard pressed, despite all my obvious personal flaws, to say that I was solely at fault, and that the system was effective or even primarily beneficial. I am now 40. Despite being given the priceless gift of finally getting to resolve my own mental health issues and finding peace, my resume- if it can be called that- is useless. The lack of specific skills, education, experience, and multiple inconvenient gaps renders me un-hirable in an employer's market surplus-worker economy. And I have tried, interviewing at McDonald's, coffee shops, and even the local prison. The unskilled labor jobs are largely gone, and the ones that are left demand drug testing (no marijuana) and now normalized high-turnover, high-expectation, high-paced, high-stress working conditions. I cannot in good conscience prioritize money over my mental health again, having seen where that goes. Though I certainly seem to need it, somehow amassing over $20k in debt by not getting an education, not getting health care, and that number just keeps climbing with interest every day I don't successfully sacrifice my newfound soul to the gods of capitalism.
Think for a moment how my story would change with a system designed to accommodate and help people instead of being designed to turn a perpetually bigger profit that we'll never see or benefit from. How much of the grief and trauma could have been avoided by simply making enough to comfortably live off of, or having honest, decent work available? Can you imagine if anyone in this story had a happy, well-supported childhood? Can you imagine if the health care system treated individuals, not numbers? Or if education wasn't a rigorous streamlined punishment, but an enjoyable exploration in knowledge? And on a more basic note, can you imagine if we, as a people, decided to stop perpetuating this game of selfish dishonesty and greed, realizing our culture, society and morale are much better served through caring and cooperation? Based on my life and research, I honestly feel our runaway capitalism has hit critical mass. Endless growth isn't sustainable, human beings have limitations and rights. Our quality of life is indisputably deteriorating. It is obvious to me that the increase in depression and mental health issues are directly tied to our normalized "status quo" lives, and resolving it is as easy as remembering and choosing to walk the walk on who we are and what we stand for. Why is it okay we're literally sending people off to die who can't play by these increasingly impossible set of rules? How can we continue offloading full responsibility and blame onto them for their misfortune, turning a collective blind eye on institutionalized selective disposal while calling ourselves good people? What did they do to deserve such suffering, abandonment, humiliation and lack of care, besides not being lucky enough to have a friend to save them when they needed it? How long will we allow people to be unfairly punished for failing to hack it in this thoroughly fucked up, broken system?
I support Bernie Sanders for all the people who would, but cannot. The broken, the discarded, the voiceless and conveniently forgotten. My sister Leslie, who I bet would have loved him. My mother, because she maybe could have gotten the help she needed and potentially averted so much. The hopeless, lost people at the shelter I got to walk away from, being treated like annoying dirty cattle by uncaring businessmen. My kids, scattered across multiple states, that are starting to face the same challenges- made even worse now- that I almost didn't survive. My savior, friend and now partner, out right now taking care of the elderly and those with special needs, forced to abandon her parental duties to keep the bills paid, feeding more unprepared victims to the insatiable machine. This circle of struggle and death will not stop on its own. I support Bernie Sanders because he alone speaks truth to the ugly reality so many are content to ignore for sake of consumerism and media narrative distractions. He speaks my long-lost inner language, and reflects my values- respect, justice and truth. And to my overwhelming surprise and joy, the nation is responding as well. Maybe I'm not quite so isolated and alone after all. Maybe none of us are. Perhaps it's simply this unnatural system that makes us feel that way- snarling, desperately competing with each other, selling out our very lives and ideals to survive. Why? There's obviously no guarantees in life, but looking around... what the fuck do we have to lose by trying to correct it? When bad continues to get worse, as is provably, statistically happening, at some point incremental change (in either direction) is insufficient. Our nation is in the midst of another Great Depression, and the solution must be proportionately radical as the problems we face. Yes, we've repeatedly learned that bold action should be done cautiously, wisely, and thankfully Bernie has consistently demonstrated this clarity and pragmatism for decades even against the status quo. That's exactly what we need. Even historically, his policies, mentality and ideas continue the path of successful, bold leadership in the footsteps of Eisenhower, FDR, and JFK. Do we really dare we pass up this miraculous once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in exchange for more of the same, or worse? Dare we risk not getting another chance by blindly continuing a path that doesn't serve anyone but our millionaire class and corporate masters? In the richest country on earth, when else is more appropriate to demand that our children once again not just have a chance to survive, but to thrive?
The flame of the Political Revolution, of American freedom from oppression both foreign and domestic, with equal justice under democratic law, will not die as long as I'm alive even if I once again end up lost and alone. Because I am no longer truly alone- thanks to Bernie's campaign, for the first time in my life, I now know my countrymen stand with me. When we stand together, we win. And together, there is nothing, nothing we cannot do. Even change the world for the better, starting with ourselves. #Solidarity