A few weeks ago I sent my brother an email. He doesn’t know this, but I’m thinking about moving again—far away this time, to California. So I take a wild stab at reestablishing communication.
I think it would be fun if we communicated more regularly. What do you think? If you wanted to, what medium would you choose?
Making weird cartoons on the computer and emailing them to each other?
Let me know your thoughts, or just ignore me.
The summer nights of my childhood were humid and thick with crickets. After tossing sweatily under the covers for an hour, feeling my throat constrict every time I thought about leaving for college, I got out of bed. I fumbled my way down the dark carpeted stairs towards the kitchen, aiming for the anxiety pills Mom kept in the cabinet filled with identical orange bottles, each with its own inscrutable label. She said I could take them if I needed to. I cradled the pills in my palm, tiny precious stones.
On my way back upstairs, I paused at the door of the den. The pale blue light of a computer screen cast a cool glow. My younger brother, Gregory, was crouched on a chair in front of the computer, knees drawn up to his chin, pupils flicking back and forth, body rocking slightly to some rhythm he heard in his head. He wore a headset into which he muttered unintelligible words, half-audible and barely understood, a sort of other-world language he shared only with those faceless others who hovered somewhere across a digital ocean. If he noticed me, he didn’t show it.
The doctors warned that the meds might disrupt sleep, so they prescribed another, Ambien, which didn’t seem to help. None of the drugs really seemed to help.
I stood watching him lean closer and closer to the screen, and it seemed that any moment his nose would touch the cold pixels, break the surface, and he’d be pulled in.
In this other world he was not a pale overgrown teenager with unwashed hair and dark stubble on his chin, body soft from lack of use, playing computer games 12 or 14 hours a day. He didn’t live with his parents and wasn’t forced to navigate between identities: child and adult, hopeless fuck-up and sovereign individual. In this world, he was a commander of armies. He knew things and was respected for it. He could strategically outwit his enemies in battle, could affect change on his environment. He chose his own name.
Greg leaned in and the screen became a wall, reflecting back the person he wanted to be. But it also made him disappear, invisible to the rest of us here in this messy world of relationships and logistics and petty frustrations, a world that never accepted him and which he had already learned to fear.
Swallow the pills. Back to bed.
When our parents tried to cut him off from the computer, we learned that this was an addiction and not a pastime. On the night after he kicked Dad and broke the living room door, I dreamed that he and I were in a house full of delicate glassware—beautiful vases, bowls, figurines—and he was raging, his whole body writhing and contorted and his mouth open in a scream of pain and anger, and I watched, terrified, trying to placate him, begging him to calm down, but the glass was shattering around us and he wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t listen to me, he was breaking the glass and there was nothing I could do.
What most people don’t know about my brother:
He bites his nails until they bleed. He is freakishly good at science; Dad used to read Superstring Theory to him before bed. He knows all the lyrics to Les Miserables. All. Last year he rode with me to meet our family for Christmas, and we belted out the whole libretto, all hundred and thirty-four minutes of it.
He has blue-gray eyes. This isn’t something you’d be likely to know, because he avoids eye contact with most everyone. Your best chance at communicating with him is if you can do it ironically.
His sense of justice is acute. He cringes physically at the sight of anyone shamed, bullied, or hurt. He sees the world in black and white, right and wrong, and I suspect that he sees himself secretly as the Hero, defender of the weak, waving a banner of truth and justice.
The only thing that will draw him away from the computer is Cards Against Humanity, which, in case you didn’t know, is the most intentionally offensive game of all time. Two cards, fill in the blank. His current favorite pairing:
Q: “Life for Native Americans was forever changed when the white man introduced ______________.”
A: “‘Take backsies.’”
He wants to be a civil engineer so he can make things that are useful.
At Thanksgiving he follows his usual routine of walking in the front door, passing us without saying hello, and going directly upstairs to plug in his computer, only clomping downstairs to use the bathroom or to rummage around in the refrigerator. We sort of forget that he’s there.
But here’s the biggest thing people don’t realize about him: he’s paying attention. The house where we spend Thanksgiving is modern and has few walls, with one room flowing into another. He can hear everything. Once in a while, the voice from upstairs startles us with some incisive witticism injected into a conversation about politics, or a barely-concealed laugh when he overhears something funny, and we stare up at the ceiling openmouthed. We call it the Voice of God.
When we were little we would dismantle, with some regularity, the big beige couch in the living room and build a fort. The walls were made of the largest cushions, and we stretched blankets tight across them to make a roof, or cantilevered a mattress—quite a feat of engineering. We’d crawl through the door and seal it up with a pillow, closing off the boundary between the world ruled by adults and the world of our own making. We crouched in the dark, chewing animal crackers pilfered from the kitchen. Greg would stockpile his plastic swords so we could defend our fortress if necessary. I brought my essentials, books and Barbies.
If Mom let us, we’d bring our blankets and pillows into the fort and spend the night, curled up in the warm dark burrow with a flashlight, giggling, and fall asleep with our heads on the same pillow, almost touching.
Something changes when you’re diagnosed. The frighteningly erratic behavior—uncontrollable anger; intellectual brilliance coupled with an inability to interact socially; compulsive self-soothing behavior—these become symptoms, arranged in a legible way. Now they have meaning. Now you can look up Asperger’s Syndrome in the index and see lists of these disorders that are recognizable, quantifiable; perhaps, it is suggested, even curable. You see that Asperger’s exists somewhere on what people nowadays refer to knowingly as “the Spectrum.”
Gregory became a lab rat, testing out the whole rainbow of pills, and Mom shuttled him back and forth to group therapy, biofeedback therapy, psychodynamic therapy. He went to six schools in five years. She moved with him to L.A. for a year so he could go to a special school; but after a few months he shut down, refused to get up in the morning, and even those teachers gave up. After that he went to a boarding school for special needs kids in Connecticut. He locked himself in his room for a week and asked, finally, to be taken home.
We had been hopeful about the Trazodone, the new drug that was supposed to dull his acute anxiety just enough so that he could function at a more normal level. We had imagined him doing things like driving a car, going to the movies. There’s that word again. Normal.
Things had started out well. Mom and Dad compared observations about him over dinner while he played video games in the other room. “I thought he seemed good today,” Mom would say, cutting into her steamed broccoli. “He slept through the night and got up at nine thirty. I upped his dosage three days ago.”
But the Trazodone failed, and my parents’ hope for normal had eroded little by little until all we had was him, no different. He was unable to do homework, refused to learn to drive, and still spent days sleeping and nights awake, crouched, staring into the computer screen that seemed to talk to him in a way that real people did not. He learned quickly that he was different and that different was bad. Fear grew inside him and seemed to change his DNA.
By the time I left home for college, we had all gotten used to thinking of him as the ghost in the next room, there but not there.
Trazodone, Ritalin, Aderol, Effexor, Cymbalta, Zoloft, Lexapro, Risperdal, Depakote. Strange poetry.
My mother sat at the kitchen table, head in her hands. She was framed by the light of the big bay window, green with trees and streaked with moisture. It was an afternoon near the end of the school year and I had rushed in to tell her that I had just been accepted into a program for high schoolers at the National Gallery of Art, but I stopped at the doorway because I could see that she was crying. Greg was on the computer in the den.
She didn’t hear me. But I knew what, and didn’t repeat the question. She was in the throes of morning battles with he over going to school and nightly battles over homework. He was retreating farther into his virtual world, growing angrier and more uncontrollable. His wrath was directed almost entirely at her.
It began to dawn on me that if he couldn’t be independent, didn’t finish high school, get a job, or live on his own, that I would someday be responsible for him. I would have to take her place.
We all kept my successes quiet because we didn’t want him to feel worse in comparison; I buried my anxieties and teenage aches because I was supposed to be the one who was okay. In my journal from that year, I resolved henceforth to be resolutely, steadfastly okay.
A text from Greg appears:
“So, after a week of the ‘ignore you’ option, I have settled on regular communication by use of smoke signals.”
Fine. Smoke signals it is.
There’s a shot of him in an old home video, taken in 1994 when he was six. We’re on Mount St. Helens, on one of our fun-filled family vacations. This was during a phase where he liked to sing the Beach Boys song “Surfin’ U.S.A.” whenever possible. He stood on a rock wall near the visitor’s center pretending it was a surfboard, arms outstretched, belting out the lyrics without guile or self-consciousness, riding an imaginary wave. There, I think: that’s it. Proof that there was once a time when he was unafraid.
This is a little pathetic: It’s the day after Thanksgiving, 2014, and I’m crying in a bedroom, wrapped in an enormous down comforter, hoping no one will find me.
Let’s just say that a week of unspoken familial resentments and expectations, made raw by the specter of cancer, have driven me downstairs until I can wipe the snot off my face and pretend to smile again. I’m thirty years old and my family still makes me cry.
I hear the door opening behind me, and he’s standing there, caught off guard by this unexpected display of vulnerability, this roadblock in his routine.
Unbelievably, he’s twenty-six. He still plays computer games, still lives with Mom and Dad. They’ve long since given up on the idea of normal. I see him a handful of times a year, and each time I am shocked by how big he is, six-foot-two and clumsy, like an ogre. His beard is unshaven and his skin is pallid and blotchy because he never goes outside. His default expression is a lopsided grimace. He smells weird.
He stands there in the doorway, uncertain. I’m sitting between him and the TV, where he occasionally takes breaks from computer games by playing video games. His face is impassive, as usual, but I suspect that his brain does what a GPS does when it’s thrown off course: Recalculating…
“Hi,” I sniff.
“Hi,” he says, his voice flat. He’s silent for a few moments, and then asks something I don’t remember he ever asking me before. “What’s wrong?” I mutter something perfunctory.
After some hesitation, he crosses the room and I think he’s going to turn on the TV, but instead he sits down next to me on the floor, cross-legged, close enough that our knees are just touching. We’re parallel, facing the wall.
“Here, gimme,” he says, and grabs the comforter, tugging it around him so that we’re both wrapped in it up to our ears. He’s a heavy breather; each exhalation comes out like a frustrated sigh. I blow my nose. We don’t say anything right away.
Maybe, if I do go to California, we’ll figure out a way to communicate—maybe I’ll learn to play World of Warcraft, and I’ll talk to him through the microphone on his headset. Maybe we’ll command armies together, or face off in battle like we used to do with our plastic swords.
We sit together, looking at the carpet. He sighs heavily, a sound that means he’s uncomfortable. But he stays. This how he shows love; this is as close to comforting me as he knows how to get. He sits there with me, breathing, staying.
Kristin Moe is a writer, multimedia producer, storytelling teacher and theater student in Providence, RI. A graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, her writing has appeared in National Geographic’s Newswatch and Adventure, Orion, Moyers & Co., Grist, Poets & Writers, among others. She spends her free time obsessively documenting her family and devising elaborate plans to escape into the woods.