I watched my daughter circling the ice rink — wobbly and wide-eyed, slow and unsteady, slightly out of sync with the sounds of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” on the tinny speakers hovering above the scarred, snowy ice surface. From behind the glass, I could see the a parade of ice-rink burnouts and townies blowing by her, feeling smug and superior that they could skate faster than an eight-year-old girl who had never done it before.
This was Romulus, Michigan, a town named after a character in Rome’s foundation myth representing the grace and glory of the New World. But in reality, Romulus was a town the economy forgot. It’s a place near the airport full of pit bulls and lottery tickets, where bangs are still possible and hockey jerseys are acceptable wedding attire. I know. This is where I’m from.
In the ’80s I was one of the acid-washed masses shooting the puck at this very ice rink, hanging out back where the Zambonie guys sold weed. But I had moved on. Got out some 15 years ago. And now I was back, visiting my family. Back in Romulus — where every radio station seemed to be in the middle of a Van Halen A to Z marathon and bowling shoes aren’t an ironic hipster statement. They’re just shoes you wear for bowling. My wife, our two children and I had only driven five hours down I-94, but we were a million miles away from our quixotic blue-state-urban-enclave in Chicago where the children learn conflict resolution at Wiggle Worms and the gift bags at the Montessori parties are compostable or at least biodegradable.
I caught my daughter looking longingly at a slutty 16-year-old girl who I am pretty sure was on a post-sex skate with her boyfriend. I decided it was time to go — enough of Daddy’s hometown for one day. So I gathered up my daughter, my wife and my parents, and we walked out of the rink into the lobby where I saw my 5-year-old son wielding a sawed off shotgun. He held it all hillbilly-gangster-style, cocking and reloading with one arm — looking oddly comfortable, like he knew how to handle it, like a sheriff in a ’70s action movie or a republican. He was channeling some sort of ancient alpha male archetype he’d never actually seen in our left-of-center lives of politically correct Pixar movies and NPR. But still. Somehow, the urge to shoot things pulsed primal and pure behind his eyes.
As I got closer, I could hear him yelling across the arcade — at me — for quarters. He wanted money so he could shoot the space zombies on the video game his plastic blue sawed-off shotgun was attached to. After each appeal for quarters, he would point his gun at some other unsuspecting passerby and pretend to blow their head off, pausing only to make that little boy — I just blowed your head off — sound and, of course, reload.
Suffice it to say, we are not gun people. My wife and I watch PBS news. And we like it. We do hot yoga and eat Greek yogurt. She is a humanist, feminist, environmentalist, and I write plays. We have committed to a life of no guns — no toy guns, no squirt guns, no glue guns — we don’t do guns. We’ve ruined Christmases over guns, had full-on family drama in Target’s toy department over guns. Yet there we were. Trying to…disarm my son…in an ice rink in Romulus, Michigan.
But disarming my son is no easy task. Johnny has SPD — Sensory Processing Disorder — a neurological condition in which a child has difficulty taking in, processing and responding to sensory stimuli from the external environment, whether it be visual, auditory, tactile or olfactory, resulting in “inappropriate motor and behavioral responses.” At least that’s what the Sensory Processing Disorder Foundation will tell you. What they don’t tell you is that those “inappropriate motor and behavioral responses” might mean your son is almost six years old and still isn’t potty trained because he doesn’t always feel when he has to go. Or that a loud train whistle could ruin an entire day at Disney World. Or that the seams in his socks will be called “mountains” and he won’t be able to leave the house — literally will not leave the house — until they are perfectly positioned on the tops of his toes.
“Give me the gun Johnny.”
No recognition that I’m even there.
“Give me the gun Johnny”.
He shoots me.
“Johnny! Give me the gun!” This time with more authority in my voice. He shoots me again. Then shoots his grandma. Then me, again.
“Give me the gun Johnny! Now!”
Now I am yelling and he is yelling back, and even though tears are streaming down his cheeks — he is fearless and defiant, belligerent and bellicose — I feel the crimson in my neck start to blossom, see the crimson in his cheeks start to rise. My wife steps in. She intuitively understands Johnny better than anyone on the planet – always has, from day one. She’s the hostage negotiator of our family. She tries to trade toys and privileges, but he cannot receive what she is sending this time. She tries reason and humor and deflection and, finally, bribes, but he all he can do is escalate. His capacity to hear has completely shut down. All he can do is scream and dodge me when I try to grab him.
Soon a small crowd begins to form to watch the standoff – Now Johnny! Give me the gun! People who have had episodes of Cops filmed on their front yards are now judging me, my son and my parenting skills. That is what’s running through my head. My kid is genuinely dealing with something big–something out of his control–and I am worried about what the ice rink people will think of me. I had spent years trying to move on from this place, trying to somehow be better than where I came from. But in that moment I was significantly worse. He shoots me again. Consumed by a toxic cocktail of ego and embarrassment, I do the one thing you should never do to a child with SPD: I rip the gun out of his hands.
Now, there are two things you should know at this point. One, children with SPD get overwhelmed in high-sensory situations, like, say a packed ice rink with a hundred people dodging each other at high speed next to an arcade full of shoot ’em up videos games under the constant pounding of Journey’s Greatest Hits blaring down from above. This was the perfect storm for a child wrestling with SPD. Situations like this become triggers for these kids. And while every child’s particular triggers are different, they are all the same in that they are perceived as profound, intense violations of one’s self and the sensory system is overrun by that violation. It’s like a car overheating or a pot boiling over. Molecules get excited, energy is released, and it often gets hot and messy and cannot immediately be cooled.
The second thing you need to know is that, at this time, we had no idea Johnny had SPD. I just thought he was being a jerk. So I grab the gun. And he erupts. Explodes. Violated and betrayed, he flails and howls, desperately clinging to the gun. I try and pry him off, pinning both his wrists in my left hand. It takes work; he is stronger than I expected, stronger than you’d think, with all this tension and energy pulsing and coursing though his veins. I finally get the gun away and he lurches forward and, using the only weapon he has left, he bites the fleshy part of my palm. Sinks his teeth into me. Primal, animal, committed to the act. My skin isn’t the only thing that breaks; I drop the Styrofoam cup of cocoa my wife quietly bought for him from the snack bar when she first saw him heading toward the arcade.
It doesn’t stop. He cannot give in. He cannot let go. He cannot settle or soothe. He cannot gather or gain control. I get close enough to his eyes to see they are dilated and dancing, dark and vacant. He literally cannot focus.
My mom steps in. A mother of three and a 30-year veteran of the Detroit School System, a teacher who has “seen ’em come and go.” She strokes his hot heaving back, making small circles with her hand, telling him it is time to go now. Surprised by the sensation of her hand on his back, he turns, swings wildly, and hits her in the neck and face. Twice. Fast and hard. Before anyone knew what had hit ’em. There is a rush behind my eyes, a pounding in my ears. I pick him up — instantly overpowering him — and he is four feet off the floor and in motion toward the door. Now I can’t hear. Now my eyes are dancing and dilated and I am beginning to think his behavior is contagious.
In my arms I feel his heat. His back is soaking wet with sweat seeping from his skin through his clothes and soaking into mine, the smell of the accident he has just had attaches to us as we try to move through the lobby of the rink. When we get to the sliding glass doors, he grabs on and will not let go, horizontal to the ground like a skydiver who has just changed his mind. I am pulling his body, and my father is prying his fingers. Johnny finally releases and the momentum carries us into the parking lot where I literally wrestle him into the captain’s chair of our fashionable SUV. I pin my knee to his pounding chest — harder than I ever imagined myself doing — and click his seat belt to restrain him. He won’t look at me. His eyes focus on some middle distance spot on the car floor and, as his chest heaves up and down, he keeps whispering, “I don’t like you.” Over and over, “I don’t like you.” On some level he knew he still had to still love me. But he didn’t have to like me. Like is a choice. And he had made his.
In the weeks and months that followed, my wife did what she always does — she moved forward. She read, researched, tapped into the mommy network, talked to our pediatrician and just basically searched for an answer. The good news was that there are therapies for SPD — occupational therapists dedicated to kids with SPD — so she signed Johnny up for group therapy, individual therapy, speech therapy. And I, well I came along for the ride, quiet, ambivalent and reluctant, still reeling from that day at the rink. And we learned — or should I say my wife learned — that there were things that could help Johnny, ways to order his world in moments of chaos. Drawing soothed him. When he would get overwhelmed, my wife would quietly pull out markers and paper and he would submerge into the sanctity and safety of his art. Buffered by an audible hum to drown out the remnant of an all too cacophonous world.
For my part, I just tried to assist and help. Whenever he would have an accident, which was still pretty often, I’d pull out our old terrycloth Finding Nemo towel, lay it on the kitchen floor, and have him take his soaking wet pants off. I’d turn on the shower, open the door and he’d walk in and wash off. We didn’t speak during the ritual. In fact, we didn’t speak much after that day at the rink, but we had developed an understanding though physical routine and rote repetition, and we both abided.
Around that time I began riding my bike to work. It was less about doing my part to protect the environment and more about protecting our home. The rides soothed me, calmed me down, seemed to take the bite and sting out of my fear and anxious frustration. By the time I got home and put my bike away, I was in a better place to deal with Johnny. This was my soothing mechanism — my way to order the world in moments of chaos — and I began to see more parallels between him and me. He would cover his ears at loud sporting events ; my last game, a Bears game at Soldier Field, was 10 years ago. He would get put out in the hall at school for humming while doing his work; I learned how to hum quietly at work. He was pathologically impatient, as am I. Over time, I realized that we had the same storms and the same insecurities inside of us, and a big part of my fear and frustration with Johnny was that he was…like me.
Then, one day, I was riding my bike home from work. Just as I got on the lake path near North Avenue the skies opened. A huge squall came off of Lake Michigan, crisp dollops of chilly rain flew sideways into my face the entire trek up to Foster Beach. By the time I arrived home, I was soaked — heavy and dripping — my skin alive to the sensation of the air pressing down on the cold wet fabric of my clothes. I put my bike away in the common area of our building, opened the door, and walked into the kitchen. Johnny was at the table, drawing. He took one look at my wet pants, put his crimson colored crayon down, went to the closet … and got out the Finding Nemo towel. He laid it on the kitchen floor and looked up at me. I stepped onto the towel and took off my soaking wet pants. He went into the bathroom, turned on the shower and opened the door. I walked in and washed off. We didn’t say a word.
When I came out of the shower, he came up to me and handed me the piece of paper he had been coloring. There were no pictures of ninjas or pirates like usual. Just three words, written in the shaky handwriting of a child with SPD trying really hard to process and respond to sensory stimuli from the external environment:
“I like you.”
I wasn’t quite sure if he was saying he did like me…or he was like me. But I kind of hope maybe he meant both.
Steven Simoncic is currently a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists Theatre and the Writer in Residence at 16th Street Theatre. His play, Once Upon a Time in Detroit was recently selected as a semi-finalist for the 2013 Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference. He has written several short films, has been nominated for a Pushcart prize and has recently won an Emmy. His plays and fiction have appeared in The Chicago Reader, Conclave, The ABT Anthology, New Millennium Writings, Spork Magazine and Drift Magazine. Steven holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College and an MLA from the University of Chicago.