People who equate truth with fact are missing the point.

Patterns and Chaos

All science is the study of patterns. Biology is the study of patterns among living organisms. Chemistry is the study of elemental patterns. Sociology is the study of patterns of human behavior among humans in groups; psychology is the study of patterns of human behavior in individuals.

Human beings are hard-wired for patterns. The first thing that a human infant recognizes is the human face, or any representation of a two eyes over one nose over one mouth pattern, no matter how minimally rendered. We seek patterns, rely on them, create them. Our traffic laws are based on patterns, our worship services, our meals, our education system. Language is built of letters and sounds in patterns, from a baby’s first words to Green Eggs and Ham to booze-fueled late-night philosophy debates to Hamlet. Music, table manners, architecture, the route you take to work, the way I brush my teeth: all patterns.

Mental illness is, at bottom, a pattern disruptor. Healthy people have daily patterns of high energy, low energy, and sleep. A person who is ill with depression becomes unpredictable and may sleep very little or a great deal, and may experience no periods of high energy. Schizophrenia disrupts patterns of cognition; depression and bipolar disrupt patterns of mood and energy; personality disorders disrupt patterns of identity.

Behaviorism is based on predictable human reactions to stimuli, simple cause-and-effect relationships. Parenting a neurotypical child, while not easy, is usually pretty straight-foward until adolescence if parents and other caregivers are reasonably consistent. Humans will repeat behavior that has consequences that feel good; behavior that has results that feel bad will become extinct.

Lay aside for a moment the significant debate about behaviorism, because right or wrong it’s the foundation of most parenting advice in modern America. It’s the thinking behind the vast majority of the criticism that we parents of children with emotional and behavioral differences receive. From the nasty onlooker in the grocery who says, “If that was my kid I’d give his ass a good whipping and straighten him out!” to the sticker charts that books advise to Supernanny’s naughty chair, it’s all based on a fundamental assumption that we can predict human behavior and therefore, shape that behavior.

Carter spits on the stairs sometimes, which most people would call “naughty” or “disobedient.” In general I would agree, and when Carter started with the spitting I delivered consequences. I made him clean up the mess and gave him time-outs. When that didn’t work, I upped the ante and revoked his computer privileges, sent him to bed early, and yelled at him. I failed to recognize my own bias toward behaviorism, the same bias that makes me so angry when other people use it to criticize me.

Carter wasn’t spitting because he wanted to make me mad or because he was testing limits or because he is somehow naturally rebellious. He was spitting on the stairs because his hallucination of little men on the stairs with bows and arrows, combined with a delusion of “super spit,” compelled him. I was punishing him for protecting himself and his family from a threat that was, for him, entirely real.

Even after seven years of living with Carter, 6+ years after beginning the journey toward accepting his differences, 3 years after acknowledging that he was mentally ill, nearly a year after we put the name “bipolar” to that mental illness, I still can’t quite get past my own biases. So as much as I may rant and rage at a world that can’t or won’t embrace a new way of thinking about mental illness and its treatment, I will always have to see myself as one among many subjects of my own anger.

We can’t control everything. That seems obvious on its surface, but the way we live, our cultural attitudes and ideas, say that it’s anything but. As I learn this lesson, this hateful, putrid lesson of my own powerlessness, over and over, Jack London’s stories (especially To Build a Fire) pop into my mind often. Just as humans are at the mercy of nature, the lesson in so many of London’s stories, so Carter is at the mercy of his illness. Not always, of course. He is a person, whole and beautiful under the scrim of disorder on top, and he makes decisions and takes actions that belong to him. But sometimes the illness is so loud and his defenses are so weak that it dictates all of his behavior.

Powerlessness is a bitch.

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12 comments to Patterns and Chaos

  • That is an interesting view into the mind of someone like Carter. When we see children acting ‘badly’ we immediately assume that the parents suck or that the child is out of control. I hope that your post will make people stop and think that maybe their behavior is brought on by something in the child’s mind like the little men on the stairs. Thank you for sharing this.

  • I have someone very close to me who has spent periods of time spitting at imaginary demons. It is so hard to maintain a relationship during these times, as all normal social norms are stripped away, and that “scrim” of mental illness forms a hard shell over the person I know is beneath.

    Very difficult indeed.

    I cannot imagine parenting such a child, as I know what value I give to having control and power in my own life.

    My heart aches for you, but I also feel such great joy that your son has you. That you see him even when he is in the shadows; that you hear him even when the illness is overwhelming in its volume; and that you love him through it all.

    It is a hard road. But you knew that already.

    Much love.

    And yet again? So powerfully and beautifully written.

  • See? Now this is why I’m so looking forward to my move to WordPress: I’ll be able to reply to comments individually.

    Lauren, that’s always one of the things I hope for, that I’ll reach the people who think like I used to think. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was one of those people who judged. I thought “bad” behavior was caused by “bad” parenting. I took credit for my three older children’s “good” behavior. Yikes.

    Kris, you’re so right. The hardest times are when Carter is so deep inside mania or, worse, a mixed state, that he’s not really Carter at all, but just a big mess of symptoms and reactions and life is only keeping him safe.

    Thank you both for your kind words. Also, thank you for not mentioning how far I stretched those definitions of science and the various mental illnesses. 😉

  • Although my daughter has a different “illness”, I understand totally the judgement that cones from others who think you are simply nit properly parenting your “naughty” child. I also understand how difficult it is to discuss the issues in a public forum. I applaud you for that.
    After 2 years of blogging, I finally “outed” myself as the parent if a child with oppositional defiant disorder, as well as sensory and behavioral disorders. Thus was just a few weeks ago. So thus post really hit home.
    Thank you.

  • I am not bipolar, although I was misdiagnosed as such for a while. I am chronically depressed, and understand the bias. I beat myself up for sleeping too much, not having energy, not caring enough… If I have those behavioral biases against myself I can’t even imagine what the others around me think. I have been called lazy too many times to count by people that I love and that love me and thought they were helping.

    I am 34 years old and just now learning to accept my limitations. Carter is lucky to have a mother that wants to understand him and what he is going through. You are an amazing mother!

  • Meg

    My son spits as well when he gets very overdone. It’s not fun but oddly I’ve gotten used to it. The Neurologist says it is a burst release of energy – much like a tic or seizure but it isn’t either. My son only does it at home when he is safe. No one else ever sees it and it passes quickly.

  • I don’t know what to say.

    But I want so badly to say something.

    I can’t say that I understand, but I wish I could.

    I will say that this post is beautifully written and I am ever-changed for having read it.

    Our daughter had some sensory issues that we were able to work through over time, so on a VERY small scale, I can just begin to understand.

    She couldn’t touch certain things–sand, dust, fuzz–things she called “really yucky stuff.” I remember wondering how to help her to make sense of it all–how to help her process it as we did. But we couldn’t and she couldn’t.

    Other people didn’t understand and we even had some say that we had done this to her…that we kept her too clean and made her sensitive to being dirty. No matter how much we believed in ourselves as parents, we began to wonder what role, if any, we had played. If we had somehow “ruined” our daughter as was being suggested.

    She is still sensitive to things–a bit reserved and somewhat reluctant at times, but part of loving her, part of respecting who she is, is allowing her to be her. As you say, it is a journey to acceptancing the differences. It is those differences that make our children beautiful and exactly what will ultimately make us better for the journey.

    You are a beautiful writer and I cannot believe my good fortune to have come across your writing.

    Thank you. For your honesty, for your bravery, and for your voice, I thank you.


  • When Violet was little I read Mary Kurcinka’s Raising Your Spirited Child (people were FOREVER giving me advice on what books to read, blithely assuming that once I read them my child would be easy like theirs), and it actually proved to be incredibly useful. The book didn’t deal with explosive, unpredictable children like the one I had, but it did urge you to look honestly at what kind of child you had and accept him/her, because you weren’t going to change what you got. I dont think I really appreciated until reading this how truly valuable that was for me to read. Sounds like you’ve had the same lesson.

  • I recently heard a story on NPR (maybe on Studio 360) about the mother of an autistic child who found great success in having her child work with theatre people doing acting exercises, theatre games, and improv. The root of it, she said, was that the actors were able to get past their own conceptions of behavior patterns and meet her son in his world, step into his patterns, and join in his chaos without judgment. In return, they provided him with new ways to express himself and the security that comes from knowing that someone will make an attempt to understand and do it his way. Perhaps, there is something similar that would engage Carter. Or perhaps something like that would engage you and help you find another creative avenue to bring yourself closer to Carter’s world, which is so very different than our own.

    I used to work with an improv theatre company (as an administrator, not a performer) who worked with at risk youth. The motto of the company was “If you dream it, it can be”. Theatre might have the power to help you and Carter understand each other’s dreams.

  • i sometimes wonder if Taz is seeing something or perceiving something differently than us and that’s why he does weird stuff like spit on the stairs (not specifically that but other weird stuff). sometimes we’ll be sitting on the floor playing, everything is fine, and he’ll just come over and whack me on the head. for no reason i can discern. then look at me like “what the heck are you mad about?” maybe he’s sees little people with bows and arrows on my head. i don’t really know. but it’s good to take a different perspective sometimes.

  • Rebekah – Love that idea! But I have NO IDEA why I didn’t think of it? My two eldest kids are very involved in drama. There’s a group that they’ve aged out of, but Carter could participate now. Major bonus is, if he had a hard time, Jacob or Abbie could go along to help him. See me, smacking my head like those old V8 commercials? Thanks!

    Taz’s Mama – There interesting thing about all of Carter’s psychotic symptoms is, he’s VERY reticent to talk about it at all and he’s more willing to tell his therapist than his dad and me. Everything else is the opposite. He’ll talk about his rages and depressive thoughts & feelings (most of the time, but it’s always unpredictable as you well know!), he’s very open about his hyperactivity and even aggression. I don’t know if psychotic symptoms are scarier or if it’s because it’s embarrassing. Also, it’s just plain hard for me to identify unless it’s something pretty severe. Usually his therapist tells me when he’s having delusions and/or hallucinations. (Carter doesn’t hallucinate much, but he goes weeks at a time with consistent delusions.)

    Actually, it probably took me such a long time to identify this particular hallucination because he typically hallucinates in his sense of touch. He rarely hears things, and even more rarely sees things.

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