Susan's Blog

Friday, May 28, 2010

Past Perfect

I think I was raised to be a perfectionist. This is not a criticism of my parents; it is merely a statement of fact that we Senators are supposed always to do our best, to try our hardest, to be as kind and smart and healthy as we can possibly be… All not to be better than anyone else but so that we would not be faulted for anything. I think perfectionism springs from a fear being found out as being flawed or fraud.

I also do not think we are unique in this approach. I think most people operate from the need to be on top of the heap. Maybe it’s Darwinian.

Of course I am speaking on a deep, primal, irrational level. I don’t go around feeling fear or struggling to be so very good. But I do notice sometimes, that I am making an effort to “rise above.” What I mean is, I’m often trying not to be part of the problem. What I should have said at the outset of this piece is that I was raised to make the world a better place.

Having a child with a profound disability makes this an interesting challenge. Here you are, sitting politely in a restaurant, perfect manners, smiling kindly to everyone around, mentally wishing a happy time to all… jeez, I sound like Saint Pollyanna of Eateries or something and I swear I am not. (My religion doesn’t do sainthood. Instead, we have The Supreme Jewish Mother inside us, saying, when you bring home an A: “Nu? So you couldn’t bring home an A+?”) . I know I am “diseased to please,” as they say.
So anyway, sitting there with Nat, while he does his thing: puppet hand, self-talking, difficult eye contact, few reciprocal greetings —

(You know what? I hate the way I refer to Nat as what he is not or cannot. People ask me what is Nat like and I say, “Well, he has difficulty speaking, and doesn’t really converse to well… ” It’s like I am ticking off what is not perfect about Nat, what is still unformed. When people ask me what Max is like, on the other hand, I say, “He’s a real mellow, go-with-the-flow kind of guy. Very bright, into technology, coding software, making movies, making animations. He’s going to study film and technology at NYU. He makes apps for the iPhone. He has a wonderful girlfriend…” It’s like I’m selling him, like a product! Like I think we have to reach a certain standard, always. This is what I mean by perfectionism. You don’t want anyone to think you’re slacking off. This is why I have such a problem with my free time. I feel, deep down, that having free time means I am not doing what I am supposed to be doing at the moment. There is an element of almost-panic to my productivity. People ask me how do I have the time to do this and that, and I feel embarrassed, because I do it all to avoid having nothing to do! I hate having opposite problems from others. I hate feeling different. Learning to relax and maybe just go on a bike ride is an achievement I’m proud of because it means I am actually enjoying my free time!

Sure, I know that many times I do speak of Nat in a positive way, but there is the same piece to it where I am trying to — justify his existence? Just like I justify my own: “He has four part-time jobs! He lives with five other guys in the residence at his school! He is happy doing most things and learning new things. He has a lot of friends, loves sports, especially basketball and swimming…” This is what I’m proud of in Nat, these are accomplishments the average non-autism citizen can sink his teeth into.

Again, bear in mind that I am speaking on a more subconscious level, I’m speaking almost theoretically here. This is something that occurred to me while eating in a restaurant with Nat today. At my conscious level, I was so proud of him. Tangibly, I was proud because (here come the “necessary” reasons) he ordered for himself and the waiter understood him. The waiter spoke to him, not to me, about refilling his water. I will let you absorb how momentous that is.

One thing I left out when describing how I was raised: My parents were also probably aware on some level, of the quest-for-perfection streak that runs through our family. And so they often said to me, “Give yourself a break.” I remember thinking that I did not know what that meant at all. I had no clue what giving myself a break was.

I think I know what it is now. Sitting there with Nat today, on the edge of my seat and making sure he did everything right, I was suddenly aware of an even deeper feeling: just pure joy that he was mine, that we were there together. Doing everything right because we love each other, nothing more, nothing less.


Striving for perfection is a problem for me too. I can so relate to “You got an A, why not an A+?” I also found myself apologizing for my daughter’s differences to my family. With age, I am finally getting to the point of enjoying her for who she is, which a very wonderful woman. It happens to all of us perfectionists, is what I’m trying to say. The older you get, the wiser you get, trust me.

— added by Donna on Friday, May 28, 2010 at 5:08 pm

I vividly remember the first time I emailed you – right after I had finished “Making Peace with Autism” – I had mentioned that my boys were autistic and non-verbal. And I loved your reply – you encouraged me to think of what else they were (handsome, happy, easy-going, loving). That’s been a powerful message for me to remember. Thinking about people in general in that positive frame of mind is a powerful thing!

— added by Suzette on Friday, May 28, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Oh so beautiful Susan, so very beautiful. All that we are, instead of all that we are not. Profound on so many levels.

I traveled with M about a month ago, leaving my other two behind with their Dad. I had three glorious days only with M. I too caught the stares and the distress of others upon seeing M. But you know what, I was more filled with joy about just being with her, that it melted away about halfway through the first day. She was perfect, enjoying herself more than any other person on the trip, being totally herself and totally aware. I relished that she was mine.

— added by Penny on Friday, May 28, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Thank you for sharing this – it is one of those moments where everything falls into its rightful place. Sometimes it comes so easily and you wonder, why can’t it always be this way? It helps to have positive forces around you, like the waiter.

— added by Jane in Wisconsin on Friday, May 28, 2010 at 7:38 pm

Beautiful….or as my little guy said “Wuwiful” and that is my proud moment…because I knew he found joy in something 🙂

— added by Jenn on Monday, May 31, 2010 at 7:24 pm