If you do not live with a young child, then you would be rightly horrified to awake to a person standing next to your bed, silently staring at you. As your mind swam up to consciousness, you would be naturally revolted to find that person caked in dried vomit from ears to shoulders. And it would not occur to you that he might reasonably say, “It’s not poop.”
When I awoke to this very scene the other day, it started me thinking on all the things that are normal in our house but that would be deeply pathological in a child-free house. Living with someone who can sleep through the night in a pool of his own vomit is not really one; my brother in college can regale you with similar tales of his binge-drinking roommate. The things that are truly weird about living with a three year old are usually the things people find cute about them. Simon’s Thoughts On Having Senses, for instance:
“My eyes can’t see in my brain. It’s just dark in the back.”
“It’s too loud in my mouth when I brush my teeth.”
“My skin is holding me in too tightly.”
If you close your eyes and imagine a 45 year old woman saying these things, they would likely strike you as disturbing, and she as a person in need of help. But three year olds live in this world of intense and bizarre disequilibrium. If I had to spend a day inside my three year old’s brain, I am certain I would have a mental breakdown. I suppose I got to thinking about this subject because I’ve just finished reading Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon’s book on children with disabilities, or criminally aberrant behavior, or mental illness. His chapter on schizophrenia seems to stay with me in particular. The schizophrenic in the popular imagination is a caricature–distinct multiple personalities speaking, as if in tongues, from the affected’s mouth; the deluded murderer convinced he had to kill the alien living inside his next door neighbor. The reality is simultaneously more banal and more horrifying.
Schizophrenia can and does cause hallucinations, and voices, but the other side of the disease is a creeping, inexorable loss of interest in life, in work, in family. Rather than simply gaining a chorus of phantoms, schizophrenics, especially if not effectively medicated, gradually slip away entirely. Many are lost forever for want of a robust mental health service in this country, and most are shunned by society out of fear. Schizophrenics often say things that are quite clearly insane. But so does my three year old. The difference is that no one perceives him as a threat. He’s little, and cute, and he has a squeaky voice. I get that it’s different to encounter a muttering homeless man on a dark city street. But in broad daylight, in the safety of a crowd, we still get scared by such people. We see them all as unpredictable, on-the-brink crazies about to do something terrible. I don’t know what the right reaction would be, really, but in thinking of my son’s inner life, where his “eyes are on backwards” and his “body is coming apart,” I realize I don’t understand his world all that well. Not really much better than I understand the world as seen by a schizophrenic. And if I can fail to understand my son’s distress about his eyeballs, yet still seek to comfort him, and soothe him, I think I am capable of at least that toward those who grew up, only to grow into an unexpected, disordered and distorted mind. What I want to try to do is stop thinking about how hard it is for me to see such people, or decide where to rest my eyes, or how fastest to get away, and just think a while on how hard it is to be living in there, where they are.