Jani’s psychologist sees her at school now so I rarely get to see her (the psychologist). But she happened to be there in the school office waiting with Jani when I arrived the other day to pick her up. I wanted to catch up, see how she felt Jani was doing, so the assistant principal took Jani into her office while I spoke to her psychologist. I asked her what she and Jani were working on.
“We’re working on games, specifically on how to…” she glanced over at Jani, about twenty feet away, and mouthed “lose.”
I nodded. This is why Jani won’t play any games, and games on the playground are critical to socialization. “Well, I am open to any ideas you have. I’ve never been able to convince Jani of the old adage that it’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game.”
“Well, to be honest, it’s something even regular kids have a hard time with,” she answered.
This got me thinking. When do when learn how to lose?
I congratulated her on the San Francisco Giants getting into the playoffs, which inadvertently continued the theme of losing. I thought about my own brief experience in Little League. I rode the pine for most of the season. When I did get to play, I was stashed in right field (because most hitters are right handed and tend to pull the ball to left field, the so called “hot corner” in baseball). When a ball was hit my way, I seemed to have this fear of being hit which would delay me coming in on the ball. Funny how at 10 years old nothing seems worse than being hit on the head by a falling fly ball. I still remember the only two at bats I got that season. My first at bat, I got hit in the head by the pitch, which, just like in the professional game, means an automatic walk to first base. My second at bat came two months later during the tournament. I faced the same pitcher. I never learned to time my swings or try to guess if the pitch was a ball or a strike. I just swung. And somehow I made contact and hit what is called a “comebacker,” which is a ball hit right at the pitcher. He followed his natural instinct, which was to jump. The ball shot underneath him and passed by the shortstop into the outfield.
A stand up double and an RBI. My only hit in my illustrious baseball career.
Personally, I never cared whether the team won or lost. All I cared about was getting through the game. I didn’t want to field. I didn’t want to hit. I didn’t want to play.
I have the vague memory that my Dad put me into Little League for that one season primarily to “socialize.”
I kept trying to remember when I had learned to lose. It wasn’t as a kid because I never cared about winning. I can count on one hand the number of fights I had growing up and I lost every one of them. I had a problem with punching another kid in the face. It seemed too harsh. So I went for the stomach while my opponents had no problem clocking me in the head.
Try as I might, I could not remember learning to lose when I was a kid. It’s hard to learn to lose when you don’t care.
It didn’t hit me until Jani and I were on the drive home.
I didn’t learn to lose until I was an adult.
Hope is like everything else. It’s probably inborn but also influenced by your environment. My childhood was not perfect but I never wanted for anything materially. My father earned a good living. I never had any doubt that I could achieve whatever I wanted. For me, it was more a matter of the desire to do so.
When I ran away from home for three months at 16, I accepted that I had to go to inpatient treatment in order to come home. I embraced that program because I had the desire, not because I really wanted to come home (because I didn’t feel it was my home) but because I knew it was the only way to get back on the road to anywhere other than death. I gave up drugs and drinking because I had the desire to get out and the only way out of Minneapolis, out of my home, was to be a functional human being and finish high school and go to college (all of which my father paid for).
When I decided at the end of my second semester at the University of Arizona to up and move to Los Angeles to be a screenwriter, I had the desire. I truly believed I could “make it.” Looking back at my arrogance in those early years in LA, it’s a good thing time travel is not possible because I would go back and hit myself in the side of the head. I had this unshakeable faith, if you want to call it that, that I would make it. I got good jobs but left them because I was convinced they would stop me from achieving my goal. I kept dropping out of college because I was convinced I wouldn’t need it. I let Susan support us and she did, apparently based entirely on my faith. And when my faith would falter, hers stepped up. In many ways, it still works that way today. It’s funny to read criticism of my treatment/portrayal of Susan in January First. Funny because first they don’t seem to realize the book is written in present tense, meaning it is a reflection of how I felt THEN. Funny because I read comments like “He criticizes his wife for a decision and then does the very same thing a few pages later, yet never acknowledges that [Susan] was right.” Which is true. I blamed Susan because it was easier than facing the reality that I was dealing with a problem I could not fix.
You see, I was losing. And I’d never lost before. I’d either won by default, by accident, like the time I hit that double in Little League, or simply continued to live in denial, thereby allowing me to keep from conceding defeat. If you think I am an asshole from reading the book, you would have DESPISED me in the early drafts. My assholeness was toned down at the request of my publisher.
Hell, I tried to kill myself because I couldn’t concede defeat. I’d never learned to lose.
It’s still hard. I haven’t won Jani back. I’m just in another form of denial that says that she will make it through the very hard challenges that remain. Either that or I have more faith in her than I do in myself.
I’ve never explained on this blog why I am now a life-long fan of the Angels.
The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, formally the Anaheim Angels, which is what they were known as in 2002. The fall of 2002 was the first time I had ever watched the MLB playoffs. This was back when Jani wouldn’t sleep unless she was held and we had no cable back then so I found myself sitting up night after night. And with nothing else to watch, I watched the playoffs. I watched the Angels mow down the Yankees with Jani in my arms. I watched the see-saw of the ALCS with the Minnesota Twins, torn in my allegiance because I had partially grown up in Minneapolis. But there was something about the Angels. Maybe it was the fact that they entered as the AL “wildcard,” meaning they were the underdogs. Maybe it was the fact that they had never been to the “Big Show,” let alone won it. Maybe it was that no one expected them to make it and yet every single time it looked like they were out, they fought back. Maybe it was because my brother in law bragged about getting access to a sky box at Pacific Bell Park (now AT&T Park) which created in me a dislike of the Giants that I would not have already felt.
On October 26th, Game 6 of the World Series, the Giants were leading 5-0 heading into the bottom of the 7th inning. I was sitting in the easy chair, holding the sleeping Jani in my arms (or “Janni” as she was then known), waiting for the inevitable end.
After Giants starting pitcher Russ Ortiz gave up consecutive singles to Troy Glaus and Brad Fullmer of the Angels, San Francisco manager Dusty Baker pulled Ortiz for Felix Rodriguez, one of the best bullpen arms in the game. Next up to bat for the Angels was Scott Spezio. Jani started getting fussy and I was not paying attention as Spezio fouled off pitch after pitch. Jani suddenly cries out in her sleep and jams her arm out. I am more concerned with getting her settled down so it takes me a minute to realize the TV just got louder. At the same moment Jani cried out, Spezio hit a three run home run to put the Angels back in it. That was the turning point. They would come back to win Game 6 and take Game 7 for their first World Series.
Since then, I’ve always considered Jani, and not the Rally Monkey, to be the Angels true good luck charm. They should put her up on the Jumbotron down at the “Big A.”
Believing in destiny is a form of blind faith. It was what keeps you going through losing seasons. Jani is in a winning season. Bodhi? Up and down. The Angels? Well, they got eliminated in game 160 of the season when Oakland won their 92 game.
I can handle losing a game. I can even handle a losing season. That’s essentially what I tell my friends and support group members with special needs kids going through a tough spot. I don’t use those words exactly but I am essentially telling them that things will turn around. I am playing manager to a ballclub. I have to believe that every day we got a chance to win, even if it takes us all another ten or twenty years to go to the proverbial World Series.
Except losing in sports has no real consequences. The worst that can happen is you get fired. Then you get hired on by another team.
It’s not like that with special needs kids. I am starting to realize there isn’t always another team. I am starting to realize there won’t always be another season.
I’ve seen families, including my own, lose battles. But what I am beginning to see, because I have known some of these families for several years now, is the loss of the war itself.
And it kills me. When our story first became public, I would hear from families who had lost their son, daughter, brother, sister to mental illness. More specifically, to suicide, the most common form of death for the mentally ill. I would write back and promise them that their son, daughter, brother, or sister did not die in vain, that I would change things.
Maybe. Maybe the reason I rail against NAMI and other mental illness non-profits is because I want to believe it is THEIR failure that these kids are dead. They didn’t do enough. They didn’t bleed dry to save them all.
Maybe it’s denial. There should be no casualties of mental illness because we have the resources to stop it. We have the money. It’s just not going to the right people. With enough people and enough money we could have an around the clock support system. Pretty hard to kill yourself if we never leave you alone.
And if I could do that, I would. If I could surround you, whether you are an adult or an child, with friends who never left your side, flesh and blood friends whose job it was to stand guard against the ones in your head who tell you to hurt yourself, I would.
If I could get every parent of a mentally ill kid to totally focus on their child, if I could drag people out of their house and force them to stand guard, I would.
But we come back to desire, don’t we? You will only do what you want to do.
I’ve watched mentally kids grow into mentally ill teenagers. Some of them are very nearly adults now. And it hasn’t gotten any better. There have been moments, yes, but the disease inside their brain still has the advantage.
And what terrifies me is I see death now. I see it everywhere, hiding in the shadows, reaching out its long fingers for these kids, kids who are getting closer to adulthood and the loss of their last true defenders, their parents.
I see some parents beaten down. Not giving up on their child or children, but realizing that the end of the war is coming soon and they are not likely to win before their child or children rolls over the age of 18.
And I get furious with them. I want to scream at them that it is not too late, that it is never too late.
But I don’t know. These are parents who have fought the war longer than me and parents who have fought a more difficult war than me. There is the other end of the spectrum of people who read January First and comment “That was so awful.”
Not by a long shot. There are FAR worse cases in the world, in your country, in your state, in your neighborhood, than Jani. Jani’s hallucinations are primarily benign. I have seen kids scream in terror. Jani is not suicidal. Jani is not really violent anymore. There is worse, much worse. Jani has schizophrenia and it is a challenge and I am proud of her for everything she has achieved. But she doesn’t have the worse case of schizophrenia I’ve ever seen. Not by a long shot.
I still tend to blame other parents for not doing what Susan and I have done (even if what we’ve done is impossible) because I refuse to accept defeat. I can’t lose. I never learned how. So it must be your fault.
But I can’t know that. I can’t know that anything you did or anything that I did really made a difference. I only want to believe that because I can’t just walk out of the dugout and into the tunnel because for some of your children, there will be no next season.
So I overturn the baseball bats. I scream at umpires. And, yes, I do get ejected (notice I don’t get invited to mental health events despite having arguably the most “famous” mentally ill child in America).
I’m “nice” when I have hope, when I have faith. When I start to lose that, I become the world’s biggest jerk. Anything to delay the end of the game, even if it gets me ejected.
So what is the point of all this?
I am scared of losing. I am terrified of it. I am terrified of the phone calls I am still to get, the phone calls telling me “_______________ is dead.”
I want to win the game. I want to win the Big Show. I know, I believe, we can do it. Collectively, if enough of us care, we can change this world, adapt it for these kids. We will make it.
But we won’t make it with all of our kids.
As much as I want to deny that, that is the fact. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke about the “Promised Land” and he acknowledged that “I may not get there with you.” He was right. He didn’t get there with us. But he started us on that journey. We haven’t made it there yet ourselves. We are closer, but we haven’t made it.
So this is what I want you to do, whether you are a parent or a family member of a mentally ill child or someone who knows or works with mentally ill kids. The next time you see them, I want you to say something to yourself.
I want you to say, “That’s Dr. King.”
I pray for the time to help get your child to the promised land. But I may run out of time. We all may run out of time.
But whether your child makes it there or not, remember this….
They started the journey.