Breath & Shadow
Summer 2016 - Vol. 13, Issue 3
"The Loose Palace of Exile"
John Thomas Allen (with thanks to Vicky)
How does one discern between a learning disorder like NVLD (non verbal learning disorder), which is rightfully characterized by experts like Byron Rourke and Pia Savage as a series of frustrating, often maladapting traits which should be addressed in early adolescence, and other disorders which are more pro social and adaptive to the environment society presents us with?
As is usually the case, lived experience trumps all else. This is the purpose of all the wild, sometimes dismal, stories I have provided. My inpatient experiences at New York State Psychiatic Institute have a purpose in their telling: how does an outwardly "normal" adolescent, without considering it on any core level abnormal, end up in a locked state psych ward with nothing but a small mood disorder? How does a person with a set of interpersonal skills, nicely honed, well spoken, slip through the cracks bit by bit in that fashion with superb schooling?
Though it was hardly just my NVLD which landed me there, it easily could have been. At this point I'd like to give an example from earlier in my life.
After being (the most polite way I can put it) referred out of Christian Brothers Academy (the alumni telling my mother and father they just "didn't know what to do with me") I was transferred to a nearby public school, Albany High School.
My vision is bad. Since age 10, I think, I've always had to wear some manner of visual aid, glasses until the age of 14 or so, I think. (I lost them constantly along with everything else, which was an early sign that my cognition wasn't really clear as a mirror and a habit others with this disorder have to an alarming degree.) In the year that I attended Albany High, I never wore my glasses once.
Reason: being removed from my cultural context with this sort of jarring abruptness put me in a strange mindset .) So ashamed of being ashamed of being who I was, this negated freak on two legs with a taste for books and a mind empty of basic math, I didn't care about my NVLD.
Walking through the Fort Knoxish, labyrinthine complex where my book bag--now nothing more than a pile of crumpled papers from CBA, where I still longed to be but now hated on a level I wouldn't quite understand till later on when that hatred manifested itself--was checked by beefy, suspicious looking men with steel wands, I didn't care. What happens when an adolescent (or indeed, anyone of any age, but perhaps most especially an adolescent) really stops caring? Destruction.
The continual blur that presented itself to my bumbling view while making my way through the enormous halls was akin to calliope of spectral hues incarnating themselves in small increments, knocking me to and fro.
I spent the majority of time on a prisonlike throne; a steel toilet flanked on either side by graffiti, some vulgar and some not.
I had received a schedule of some sort. The day I visited what was flippantly termed "The High" by people who didn't go there, a student I knew from CBA introduced himself to me. We had never been on the best terms, but the momentary disappearance of the past in a chaotic, foreign environment is always pleasant. Whatever friction you had disappears; the coupling of shared identity and background takes the place of all else.
The cafeteria, which looked nothing so much as a bomb shelter slopped here and there with food and students barking at each other seemed a far cry from where I'd come from. My rotund friend must have recognized the look of culture shock on my face and stated baldly: "Yeah. Things are different here."
That day there was a "weapons surrender," a term meaningless to me until I saw the nunchuks. It wasn't anything dramatic; the tall, lanky Asian kid who had boasted about having them was escorted by two police officers to the principal.
That day I was introduced to him.
"We're glad to have you here, Mr. Allen." He reminded me of David Lynch; pencil eraser shock of white hair and everything else.
Whoosh," he said, taking a breath. I asked about what had happened.
"Oh, he made a threat. He's gone."
I mentioned my learning disability.
He told me I was going to be in "some classes for that".
My stomach began to curdle.
The sensation of a big nose leaning into my face was experienced violently. I wasn't wearing glasses or contacts. His nose looked like the portal to a fly he couldn't see.
"Is everything alright, John?"
Internally I was shutting down. It must have shown on my face. My frayed nerves had taken full hold of me. I'd always managed, just by the skin of my teeth, to avoid special ed. Though I'd never put much effort into school on any serious level, I did on that count. I asked if I would be in any classes with my friend.
"Noooo" he said slowly, amassing the paperwork he had on me. "Your grades don't reflect that."
"We've talked with some of the faculty at your old school," he said with an alarmed, shiny polident smile.
"They've conveyed to me that you're well intentioned, but you need help with certain tasks. Math especially."
I wanted to find out who, exactly, they had spoken with at CBA. I wanted to know so I could send whoever it was a big jar of urine.
I nodded my head for the rest of the conversation, took my schedule, and threw it away at some point, or lost it. This became a pattern that year, me nodding my head. Upstairs I had become a thing the outer world had to tolerate, and the outer world itself had become a vortex with little sense or meaning.
It was nothing if not a novel year. I was put in classes with kids who had never had an education and would probably never be afforded one; I would sit through hours of Rowan Atkinson portraying Mr. Bean with his understated humor during Science class.
The teacher, who seemed positively overwhelmed by the atmosphere of relentless socializing and spent most of his time talking with me about Pearl Jam, also brought in VHS tapes of "Faces of Death" to keep us occupied. All of us lost our breath when a woman crossing the railway a tad too early was reduced to mincemeat by a train.
"Word bond, guy," a muscular classmate standing next to me exclaimed when the close up on the woman's corpse was shown. "She dead."
I was fond, for some reason, of sitting in the waiting room to the guidance counselor's office. She spoke to me a few times, but I must not have told her much of what was going on. Everything was a blur. What was I going to say? I'm learning disabled and no one knows how to deal with it, least of all me.
My school basically fired me. Nowadays all I do is walk around in the local park and hide from people. All this and I haven't touched a drug yet. I can't even see you right now.
I don't know the difference between the A side and the B side of the school, so maybe I'll just sit here where it's safe and no one will find me out.
Looking back, this was exactly the time to talk, and talk a lot.
Naturally, I was completely silent.
I wasn't schooled to complain like that, though.
I kept thinking back, as if clinging to my one spot of normalcy, to my friend I still hung out with from Summer Camp. But even he was turning on me; a sadistic delight grew in his eyes when I held my fork awkwardly--a common trait of those with NVLD, stemming from a difficulty with motor function--and he would look knowingly to his father, stating flatly: “You hold your fork like a five year old.” Later on in life he would tell me that blaming my learning disorder for the difficulties I was having was like "blaming my left knee."
There was a racetrack on the outside of the school. Sometimes I would rob the already impoverished library and take collections of poems by Baudelaire, books by the contradictory German aphorist Friedrich Nietzsche, and fantasize about being a writer. Along with the books I would take all the pills I'd began buying from CVS. Unisom, LSD when I could get it, sleeping aids, caffeine pills, anything that changed how I felt. The world had taken on a disturbing, malevolent, even, quality. I was not accepted. No one really noticed me except a short Persian girl named Medea who would whisper "Hi" as the world passed by in an ephemeral nod. This would not be the end of my journey; I was hanging from a beam of incommunicativeness, frozen in a psychic oasis, and had little sense of the future--if it would even happen was a good question. It most certainly would--my life would continue-- and my year at Albany High would be something I'd make it a life mission to spare any other person with NVLD from enduring.
John Thomas Allen is a 33 year old poet from New York. His numerosity is numerous in recent poetry mags, including "Spectral Realms" and "The Adirondack Review", and in 2014 Ravenna Press published a surrealist anthology entitled "Nouveau's Midnight Sun: Transcriptions From Golgonooza and Beyond", based on the 2012-2014 surrealist movement ("The New Surrealist Institute") led by him. David Lehman, David Shapiro, and Sutton Breiding were a few who made it into print. Currently he is assembling another anthology which harkens back to Aubrey Beardsley and the original "Yellow" decadent books with a group of speculative genre poets like Bruce Boston, Don Webb and Eric Basso. He would recommend Peter Flom's "Screwed Up Somehow But Not Stupid" to anyone interested in how to live with Non Verbal Learning Disorder.