I’ve become a statistic. A mother of the one in one hundred ten children diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder in the United States.
When my son was diagnosed, his developmental specialist told me that I did not stand alone – there was an international community of people who had been impacted by similar diagnoses to whom I should look for support and education. At a time when I craved tranquility and unity I got a crash course in turbulence and division. Members of the autistic community are pitted against each other based on whether or not they believe that autism is caused by the components in childhood vaccinations, whether or not they believe that autism can be and has been cured by a combination of diet and alternative therapies, and whether autism is a disease that needs to be cured or a difference to be accepted. Each of these groups is comprised of sincere people who are actively seeking ways to help their loved ones and themselves but somewhere in all of the friction they lost me.
I found consolation in a place I never expected it: Michael Greenberg’s Hurry Down Sunshine. It’s the stuff of nightmares: not the ones brought on by horror movies or too much spicy food before bed, but the kind of nightmare that seeps into the recesses of your mind and refuses to leave when you wake. A child, suddenly and seemingly without warning, is attacked by her own mind. For Greenberg’s daughter, Sally, this took the form of a psychotic break and diagnosis of Bipolar I. In his memoir Greenberg recounts the devastating impact Sally’s mental illness had on him and his family.
Greenberg does not mince words: “On July 5, 1996 my daughter was struck mad. She was fifteen and her crack-up marked a turning point in both our lives.” This is not a sentimental account. At no point are readers asked to pity this man whose pain and love for his daughter are obvious. Like a news story of child abduction, his painfully honest style terrified me and made me hold my children a little closer at night. He demonstrates the feeling that many parents of children with brain issues have but don’t often express: sometimes having a child with special needs just stinks, but it can’t possibly take away from the love and dedication that I have for that child. This is a feeling that I have come to know only too well since my son’s diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome and severe Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
When I read this book for the first time I was so caught up in its narrative that I almost forgot that it wasn’t a novel. Greenberg does not give a straight account of his daughter’s “crack-up” and its aftermath; instead he weaves together a narrative that links events in time and place. He creates drama in the classical sense. For example, in one of the most rousing scenes of the book, Greenberg takes a full dose of his daughter’s medication in order to experience the mental state that causes her to be distant and lethargic upon her return from the hospital. While in the middle of his mind-altered state, a movie producer he has been waiting to hear from for several weeks insists upon an immediate meeting to discuss optioning Greenberg’s unpublished novel for a film. His medically induced calmness convinces the producer that he is up to the task of writing the screenplay.
The ending is not happily ever after, but there is hope. It was this type of hope, realistic and hard-earned, that I was seeking for my son and for myself. What has become clear to Greenberg, and me, is that while our children will always struggle with their minds and we along with them, if we are honest there is a place for joy, love, and hope, like the song from which Greenberg’s title comes: “I say hurry down sunshine, see what tomorrow bring.”
In our home this is the hope to which we cling because we’re not a statistic, we’re a family.