You’ve Got a Friend

Kids are attracted to Milo because he’s attractive. He is pudgy, with an inviting smile and flashing, lashy hazel eyes. He is almost always moving, dancing or singing and will come right up to you and sing a song made up on the spot about you directly to you. Even his skin is a warm tone.  Younger kids think he’s cool.  His closest friends in the world are at least a year younger then he is. This may be because they don’t threaten him, are willing to be bossed around by him and communicate their admiration accordingly. But I think it has to do with their lack of judgement. They find his quirkiness charming and innovative. They enjoy playing his games.

Milo’s peers are sometimes weary of him.  They are not comfortable with his volume — he can be LOUD — or his lack of self consciousness.  But they are also sometimes strangely interested in him, waiting to see if and when he’ll blow. I don’t blame a 9 year old boy for poking the bear.  That’s what 9 year old boys do. But my little bear isn’t caged and if he gets poked enough his resulting rampage might be painful for everyone.

Milo makes friends easily because he is the opposite of shy. But he loses friends easily as well because he can be paranoid and delusional and impossible to decipher. I also don’t blame 9 year old boys for giving up on him.

Because he is unpredictable Milo is often lonely.  And his loneliness doesn’t sound to him like wind in the trees, it sounds like a funnel cloud screaming toward him, destroying everything, leaving him as the last person standing in a sea of detritus and waste.  The dials inside Milo’s brain are set to 11, so he hears correction as vicious criticism and disinterest as an insult.

Sadly for me, Milo’s relationship with his longtime babysitter Matt has been ruptured by these distorted receptors. Matt recently tried to move Milo off of some of his more anti-social behaviors in order to help Milo retain friends. Matt did this lovingly and subtly, but Milo didn’t hear or take it that way. Matt wanting him to stop chewing on his clothes and his arm was heard as Matt calling him a freak. Matt wanting him to look away from the screen when talking to people and look, instead, at the people he is talking to, sounded  to Milo like Matt saying he didn’t know how to talk to people. And Matt trying to explain to Milo that the games Milo makes up are fun, except when Milo changes the rules every 30 seconds confusing the other players, convinced Milo that Matt thinks that Milo is a cheater.

The last two times Matt tried  to hang out with Milo, Milo ended up beside himself,  screaming that Matt is “evil” and trying to “ruin” Milo’s life. So. . .no more Matt, for now. Milo doesn’t quite understand that he has lost his best friend (driven him away), but he can feel it. He’s been mopey and sad. But Matt remains a focal point of paranoia for Milo right now, so I have to leave the subject be.

Yet, at the waterpark on Friday  Milo walked up to an Albino boy and asked him if he wanted to swim with him. And for close to a 1/2 hour they jumped off the pirate ship together, even holding hands at one point. When we left, the boy waved vigorously to Milo.

And yesterday, at a friend’s pool, Milo turned to a boy his age and asked if he wanted to have a splash fight? An hour later the other boy’s father had to pry him and Milo apart after many trips down the slide, time spent in the game room and several rounds of “categories” off of the diving board.

These friends are clear presences for Milo. He notices many details, about their hair, their clothes, the way they talk and the things they say. He loves them while he has them. And then he lets them go. He doesn’t ask for playdates or a future. Instant, or should I say sudden, friendship. Is this because he doesn’t think he can sustain a friendship beyond the here and now? Or, he thinks he doesn’t deserve long-term friends?

Remember when you were 9 years old. What was more important than your best friend? And as you grew up — middle school, high school — didn’t you live for your friends?

I am sustained by my friendships. My friends are not the ornamental flowers in my garden, they are the soil, the rain and the plants that give sustenance. I cannot live without them. And I have a genius for friendship. It’s one of the few things that comes naturally to me.  Being a friend is a pure pleasure in my life and I want Milo to know this feeling and enjoy it too. Because, while I share Milo’s depression and am no stranger to loneliness, I have never felt alone the way he often does.

Except that he has me.

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The Poetics of Paranoia

School ended for the year on a Friday. The following Monday Milo and I took the dog for a 3 mile walk. It was humid, the sun was blazing and I was moving slowly. If you saw us from a distance we looked familiar, a family getting some exercise and air, spending quality time. If you came close enough to hear you would have understood: for three solid miles, Milo hardly took a breath. He spoke the entire time. It started as a story about designing a video game at school with some other kids including a 6th grader (his school stops at the 5th grade.)

He and his tech posse (yes, he was the leader) invented math bingo and then, a grown man disguised as a kid came to school and stole it. This happened with several other games. This grown man started several companies and made billions of dollars from Milo’s inventions. But because this man isn’t evil, just greedy, he paid Milo and the kids back by setting up an alternative internet and registering every kid in the world. The kids post their inventions and adults buy them and send the kids money and the kids are able to slip the money into their parents’s bank accounts. (I’m broke so I know this can’t be true.)

It goes on for three solid miles. There’s no pause to consider the next fantastical sentence, there’s no hint of delight at his own imagination, it’s all presented as fact, plain fact. I don’t speak. Well, occasionally I say “wow,” and “really?” I’m listening but not because I’m impressed or surprised but because I need to know if it turns nefarious (does Milo want to hurt the game thief?) or psychotic (is he hearing voices?) If it rambles along consistently as a delusion of both granduer and injustice which is his pattern, I try not to worry.

Also on Monday we have lunch, go to the pool, sit side by side and read. Milo watches TV while I do some housework. Then we walk the dog again, and again, Milo talks nonstop. This time he can hear what the dog (O for short) is thinking. This time he wants me to ask him some questions about the dog’s thoughts.

“What does O call daddy?”

“Big Daddy.”

“What does O call me?”

“She who feeds.”

“What does O call B (Milo’s sister)?”

“The torturer.”

“And what does O call you?”

“Milo the Magnificent!”

Sometimes he sounds like every other 9 year old boy, because that’s what he is, a 9 year old boy.

Except that he has Bipolar disorder.

On Wednesday Milo’s super awesome babysitter Matt came over for a few hours so I could do some work (at a nearby coffee shop) and go to the gym. About a 1/2 hour into Matt’s stay my phone rings.

“Milo’s gone.”

“Okay, for how long?”

“About 20 minutes.”

“Stay there. I’m on my way.”

I call the police because this has happened before and the police say to call as soon as possible.

The first time was three years ago (always in summer) and the police found him a mile from our house in a playground.

“Weren’t you hungry?”

“Yes, but some people gave me an apple and a cookie.”

“You asked strangers for food?”

“Don’t worry, I checked to see if the cookie had nuts. I know I’m allergic.”

I had asked him to put on his shoes for a hike and he said that he didn’t want to go and calmly walked out of the house and kept going.

The next time the police got involved was a year later while we were on vacation in Evanston, just north of Chicago. I was out to dinner with my BFF and my husband and Milo went to get pizza and ice cream. They stopped at a grocery store to pick up some granola for the morning since our hotel room had a kitchen. Milo asked if the granola had nuts. When my husband said yes but that the granola wasn’t for Milo,  Milo giggled at my husband, “oh no, no nuts! Put it back.” My husband thought he was teasing. Then Milo yelled, “Your granola or your son!” and took off out of the store. My husband, realizing this was serious alerted the store and the police. Then he called me.  My BFF and I got our check and started running except that I was sobbing and shaking too much to run. The police called. The store locked itself down and checked its security cameras, Milo had taken the elevator to the rooftop parking deck and run down the ramp and onto the street and out of the view. Gone. The police fanned out. My husband stayed at the store, I ran towards our hotel.   A squad car got to our hotel first and found Milo in the lobby talking to the front desk clerk.

“What happened?”

“My dad was buying granola.”

“How did you know how to get back to the hotel?”

“I just knew.”

A paranoid delusion about nuts, a run for safety.

So, back to Wednesday. I asked Matt what happened while we waited for the police.

“We were playing one of his games, you know the ones he invents where the rules change constantly. And I told him I didn’t understand. He screamed that he was not  a cheater and I was always trying to make him look stupid and that I had to leave the house. I told him that I couldn’t leave and he said that he would leave. When I asked where he was going he said he was gonna run around the block to, “walk it off” as he’s been taught to do. But he never came back. So I walked around the block each way, and then I called you.”

I sent Matt to the park where the police found Milo years ago.  And I waited. The police fanned out (again.) The officer in charge called me from a wooded part of the neighborhood to check in just as Milo came walking down the block. So I called off the police and sent Matt home.

“What happened?”

“Matt called me a cheater. He thinks I’m stupid. He hates me. Sometimes I think he’s evil. I had to get away from him, so I went to walk it off, like you said to do.”

“Where did you go?”

“To the construction sight.”

“That’s far away, it’s not around the block like you said.”

“I went around the block but then I needed to keep going.”

“Do you know how long you were gone?”

“No, how long?”

“45 minutes Buddy, long enough to worry me.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know.”

I’m shaking as I talk to him, but my voice is steady as rain.

Milo’s paranoia is not a river or a stream. It doesn’t flow consistently. It doesn’t have a reliable current.  There’s no logic to the motivation or the triggers, because paranoia isn’t logical. It’s like an embroidery stitch, it moves forward and then back, it covers itself, then exposes itself. Over time, from a distance, a shape emerges, maybe even a beautiful shape, something elemental and true.

At least that’s how it is for me.  I listen and I know that Milo is stitching. I can’t always tell if it’s a goof and he’s gonna pull those stitches out — like when he hears the dog’s thoughts — or if it’s a delusion based on paranoia that will cost me my adrenal glands, like that granola or a babysitter is out to get him.

But I hold fast to the idea of Milo threading through it, trying to establish something, trying to mark the fabric with a recognizable design, create something he can understand and communicate, something that binds him to the rest of us, to the people who don’t have delusions and paranoia. When he went missing years ago it took the police to bring him back and he could not articulate what happened. In Evanston he found his own way back. And this time he hadn’t intended to run off at all.

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