I have played with a memoir on and off for five to six years.
So much to write: being a parent of a child with autism, family rejection, the non-cliche 32 year age difference between my husband and me, social rejection, being pregnant while working two jobs during graduate school, my career, and postpartum depression. I tried to write it as a piece of fiction. I couldn’t get all it out. I have mentioned a poetic memoir, but I realize how abstract that is.
My unnamed memoir lacked center. Is it about my son and his autism? Is it about battling postpartum depression while trying to finish graduate school?
It’s about those events, and then again it’s not. None of them are the center. My previous novel had a center: a story inspired by my grandfather’s youth. I needed something that united all of my experiences.
It wasn’t until my husband and I were verbally attacked by his oldest daughter outside of a family reunion that inspiration struck.
How do you respond to anger? With anger?
Nah, doesn’t work.
My husband started writing. Then I started writing again. I scribbled through pages, and I could not stop writing about my Mimi. It was at the end of a rough draft passage that I found my center:
I spent a lot of my childhood with Mimi. She became a second mom, influence, and example of a complex woman. I think I loved her more than anyone because she let me by myself even when she gave me a mini-lecture about what I’d done wrong. She never diagnosed me–as I would be later–with all my oddities, but saw my passion; my writing.
Before and after my first diagnosis in the second grade, all I wanted to do was to get lost in stories whether I read or wrote them. They could turn and twist down different paths. People weren’t so easy to understand. I was supposed to fit into a box that fit the social order.
When I reached the end, I realized the story’s center was my journey with Mental Illness and ADHD. I was diagnosed when I was in the second grade with ADHD. At age fourteen, I was diagnosed with depression.
How do you navigate a social world you don’t understand, but everyone else seems to get?
When I examine my son’s journey with ADHD and autism, I see many events that parallel my own. All of the sudden, the pieces in my memoir connect.
Rough draft of my Prologue:
Imagine you travel to a different country. Use a translation app to ask a local person directions, or if you’re old school, use a Guide to Speaking French. Someone looks at you as if a piece of spinach is stuck in your teeth while you continue to eat a steak. You ask for directions in a foreign language again. Maybe louder or with an odd accent. You don’t realize you’ve become a version of Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s European Vacation.
The traveling scenario is like my experience as a person diagnosed with Mental Illness, ADHD, anxiety, and the eternal struggle to understand people and their social cues. I feel as if I’ve spent my life figuring out how to ask people for directions in the right language. Then when I figure out the correct language, is it better to use the words left or right, or to be more specific with north or south? Throughout my life, I’ve struggled to learn the language of the real social world spoken by those people, who seem to fit in easily. Like the moms who are friends for life and go away to the beach for a girl’s weekend. How to know when to ask about another person’s life, when not to, what you’re supposed to ask or not ask, or which girl is talking to a certain boy.
Some people got that social chemistry, but not me. If I pause for a moment, I feel alone. As an adult, I’ve met people as a teacher and through my husband’s experience with the National Alliance for Mental Illness, NAMI, who have felt like they are stuck on a city street in a strange country struggling with the act of how exactly to ask for directions. People like me are born with different diagnoses. We do not choose them. Although culture in the United States has become more accepting of people with disabilities, people like me are still figuring out how to ask directions out of the city.
Sometimes people with Mental Illness don’t understand themselves until they’re adults. It took the birth of my son, and his later diagnosis of autism and ADHD to revisit the trials of my childhood, youth, and early adulthood with every social hiccup and failure or success. Only by backtracking can I help my son understand himself and maneuver through the world at a younger age.
This is only a rough draft, but I’m inspired again. It’s been a long, long time, since I’ve had a center for my story. I think Mental Illness and other disabilities need to be discussed in order for people to feel like they’re not alone in a room full of people. My grandmother, as I wrote, is one of the most complex women I’ve met. She’d say, “Don’t put all your business out there” while also advising to “write what you know.” But the most important thing she ever told me that no one else did was: “Write.”
Dedicated to Mimi.