At risk in the culture of ‘normal’ … People with atypical brains are at a higher risk of suicide and self-harm

11 October 2019
Author   Jonathan Mooney
I was a weird kid. I was obsessed with checker-patterned clothing, and for a time I rode a checkered bike, wore checkered Vans, checkered shorts, a checkered shirt and to top it all off, a checkered hat. I loved the television series “Roots” and took to calling myself Kunta Kinte.  I would take a shower while wearing my socks.
  I decided one year to pee only in the corner of the extra room in our house. No one noticed, which gives you a sense of the general level of cleanliness in our home.  I memorised all the dialogue in Trading Places — the 1983 movie about class warfare starring Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy that was definitely not for children.
When I was in third grade, I couldn’t sit still, so I spent a lot of each day chilling out with the janitor in the hallway. I struggled with reading, especially reading out loud, so I often hid in the bathroom. Then there was writing. I asked my teacher what seemed like perfectly reasonable questions: Do we really need there, their and they’re?  And can’t we just agree when I write “how” instead of “who,” or “who” instead of “how” that he could still get the gist of what I was trying to say?
Eventually I was found to have multiple learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, anxiety disorder and depression. It was helpful for me to be able to identify the challenges I faced, but the language used to describe me was, and still is, negative.  It was clear that in the eyes of society, I wasn’t just different, as my mom liked to say, but deficient.  I wasn’t just not normal, I was abnormal.  And to be labeled abnormal is to be told that you should be other than you are.  Eventually the round peg, made to fit the square hole, breaks.
Sometime in October 1988, during my sixth-grade year, I felt as if I were in the corner of a room watching myself.  I started to rub my eyebrow raw and became obsessed with my split ends and would pull out any irregular hairs. I thought I had cancer, and then AIDS, because I found some white spots on my tongue.  That year, a teacher assigned us the task of writing a story.  I figured this was my chance to prove them all wrong. I wanted to show them that I was more than my speech problem, my chicken-scratch handwriting and my fetus-level phonic awareness.
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I went home that day, sat down and tried to write all of the images, sounds and feelings that were swirling around in my head. It didn’t work. But my mom told me to tell her the story and she would write it down. So, I dictated a 10-page story about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table to my mom. It was my magnum opus. Mom and I were triumphant. A few weeks later, I was summoned to the principal’s office, where I found my mother waiting. The principal proceeded to accuse me of plagiarizing the story. My mom stood by me, defended me and, long after that demeaning incident, continued to support, teach and love me.
But I was devastated. I went home that afternoon and wrote my suicide note. I got a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin. I sat there, feeling nothing. I turned on the light and walked over to my bird Charlie’s cage to say goodbye. He was the size of a Granny Smith apple and had a green body, yellow-tipped wings and black around his eyes like a prizefighter. I found Charlie as a baby with a hurt wing on the sidewalk. He had fallen out of his nest and I saved him, took him home, fixed his wing and loved him. I taught him to talk, and he could say, “Hi, Jon” and “Charlie is a pretty bird.” I took him out of his cage and said I was sorry. He kissed my face and said, “Hi, Jon, hi, Jon, hi, Jon, hi, Jon, hi, Jon.” I put down the bottle of pills. I couldn’t do this to Charlie. He loved me just as I was, and that, for a moment, was enough.
We live in the golden age of diversity, right? I figure if we are all special now, my school experiences, which happened decades ago, would at some point be obsolete, simply a dispatch from the bad old days of the 1980s, a time long ago when everyone listened to Def Leppard and wore stonewashed jeans, when rattails were cool and kids were sorted into “smart” and “stupid” reading groups, and normal reigned supreme. Well, that was naïve, wasn’t it?
Every day, in every community, all around the world, people with differences are demeaned. Whether they have autism, cerebral palsy, deafness, visual impairment, dyslexia, depression, ADHD or something else, they are being treated as abnormal and deficient in school and at work, as well as in families and communities. And there are consequences.
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