It Was The Worst Day of My Life (Recognizing Emotions and Overcoming Them)

I have written about depression and mental illnesses several times. I wrote about the tragic death of Robin Williams. I expressed great disappointment in Fox News analyst Shepard Smith and his claim that Williams was a “coward” for taking his own life. I am someone who firmly believes that a mental illness should never define everything about who we are. However, the human mind can be a very fragile thing. It can often cause us to do things we never knew we were capable of doing. These things can certainly be wonderful, but they can also be devastating and tragic.

I recently read a story about Virginia Gentiles, a mother from Pasadena, California. She is suing a local Target store for false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence and wrongful death.

Her son, Graham Gentles, committed suicide on July 18, 2014. Three days earlier, store security and local police met him at the front of the store as he arrived early. They grabbed him, emptied his pockets and hat, then paraded him around the store to an office. This practice is commonly called “the walk of shame.” 

“The walk of shame is a Target policy to purposely cause shame, embarrassment and emotional distress to any Target employee who is suspected of stealing from Target. The policy consists of employees being arrested and paraded in handcuffs through the Target store in full view of co-workers and customers.”

Long story short, the alleged harassment was not because he stole from the store. Graham’s mother stated that the supposed theft was all fabrication by the multiple media outlets that have reported on this story. It was due to a previous altercation that occurred between him and an employee, which also happened months beforehand. After being taken paraded around the store, police drove him to the local station for questioning and released without any charges filed. To add more devastation, he was wrongfully fired from his job. When he spoke to his mother about the ordeal, he said it was the worst day of his life. Unfortunately, this day was so terrible, he decided to take his own life because he could not bear the pain and humiliation anymore.  

Reactions from the public have ranged from very supportive and sympathetic to downright hateful and disrespectful. I cannot say that this surprises me, mainly because mental illness is such an under recognized issue in our world today. Normally, I would agree that the loss of a job alone is not a reason to commit suicide. However, this is the dark side of living with a neurological disorder like Asperger’s Syndrome. The emotional pain we experience in life can overpower our ability to think things through and find ways to cope. 

If there is anything this story has taught me, it is the sheer importance of finding positive ways to cope with negative emotions. It doesn’t matter what I am feeling or going through. Sometimes, I have no choice but to think it through and try to understand why I am feeling this way. This is when I like to take time to myself. I use what I do best. My gift in writing. “My Letter to Steve Grand” is one of those examples. I don’t normally share these writings with people. However, I decided to make a rare exception this time. 

Please understand that crushes, love and romance are very new feelings for me. Life with Asperger’s Syndrome has always made me a loner. The high school social scene considered me the loner who was a “loser.” I was an awkward, uncoördinated kid with zero confidence who walked around with a scowl on his face. My “phases” changed throughout that time. I refrained from talking to anyone for most of those 4 years, and then I became this kid who could not control himself and acted out just for the sake of acting out. I desperately needed a way to handle my pain and that was the only release I could find.

When I was a small child, my issue with emotions was not recognizing them. I’ve always known what I am feeling. However, there were times when I knew my emotions way too much. The thing is, it is still one of my demons today. My mammaw and papaw (southern talk for grandma and grandpa) used to tell me this story from when they came to visit us in Pennsylvania. It goes back to when I was somewhere between three and four years old.

We were celebrating my sisters 6th birthday. The local bowling alley was our chosen venue. The familiar sounds of bowling balls hitting the pins, people chatting and music playing filled the bustling local hangout. My attention was not focused on any of that. It was focused on the family to the right of us. They also happened to be celebrating a birthday and rented a helium tank and were using it to blow up balloons. I immediately covered my ears. I was terrified of the possibility that they were going to pop. My attention became hyper focused on those balloons and the possibility that they were going to burst and make a loud sound. 

Crying was the only way I knew how to handle it. My mammaw tried to give me a set of ear plugs, but that didn’t help. My papaw sensed that I needed to get out of the noisy room for a few minutes. I needed to tell him what was wrong and I needed to be reassured. While he did not say it in these exact words, this was the gist of the message he gave to me. 

“The world is full of things that are much scarier than balloons popping.” 

That is the one thing that we all need to be reminded. The world is full of things that cause a lot more pain. Sometimes, those experiences are directly caused by our tendency to negatively dwell upon those little things. I failed to realize that when I was a young child. I failed to realize it when I was in high school and feared that people were not going to like me. I fail to realize it today when I discover that things just don’t work out the way I anticipated them to. The big question is, how do we stop it from dictating our lives?

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Aspergers Syndrome and understanding others

Many people often don’t understand what goes on in the mind of a person with Aspergers Syndrome. Because of their lack of social skills, there are many things that they don’t understand when relating with people. One of the important skills someone on the autistic spectrum needs to learn is insight. A simple definition of the word insight is understanding another person’s actions, thoughts or behavior. One question you might ask when you notice a person doing something unusual is “why do they do that”? For example, at the Computing Workshop summer camp I worked at this summer, I noticed that one of our students would ask if he could be excused to go to the restroom. I noticed that he would ask to be excused when he was working with a staff member that he wasn’t used to working with. My assumption of this situation was that he would ask to go to the bathroom to get out of the stress from working with a different staff member. I also thought that he feared the person would make fun of him for whatever reason. This is one of the things that many kids with an Autistic Spectrum disorder may do to try to get out of a stressful situation. There are two reasons why I wish the staff members worked with this particular student on this issue. First off, in many public schools across America, you have to ask to go to the restroom before you could go. There is also a sign out sheet you have to fill out, and you had to include four things, your name, the time you left and returned, and the reason why you were leaving the room. If this student was in school, and he would constantly ask the teacher if he could go to the restroom, they would most likely say something like “no, go sit down and do your work”. At computing workshop we had a very similar situation with another student, but this particular student had a more severe case of autism, and was also diagnosed with Down Syndrome. He was not able to communicate like most people do, instead he would use a special computer device called a Dynavox.  This device gave him the ability to communicate his emotions and needs, such as when he needed a restroom break or a snack break. He had two therapists working with him the day the staff members noticed this incident, and during instruction time he used the Dynavox to communicate that he needed to go to the restroom. The one therapist rudely snapped at him and said “it’s not time to go to the restroom, it’s time to work”. We didn’t really understand what was going on in this students mind, and what if he really needed a restroom break? A few minutes passed, and he stated that he needed a restroom break on the dynavox again. The therapist then said her usual “it’s not time for a restroom break, it’s time to work”. I then noticed the student get up and try to walk to the restroom himself, then the therapist restrained him and told him to sit down.

As I have said many times before, there are people who push students on the spectrum to learn social skills, when they demonstrate ignorant behavior like this that shows a lack of social skills. I am going to tell you another real life example, it all began my freshman year in high school. Eighth period, the last class period of the day, I had this real grouchy and bitter math teacher. I noticed that everyday she would make a negative statement about her students, or work in general. An example of something she would say was “Out of all the students in this school, (student) is the one I hate working with the most.” At first I decided to just sit there and ignore her negative statements about the world. That changed until I noticed her say something very rude to a student with high special needs. It was the end of the class period, and the students were getting ready to leave school for the day. The teacher was sitting at her desk, not doing anything at the time. This student started a conversation, which sounded something like “I haven’t seen Mrs. (teacher) at all today”. The teacher responded with a real irritated tone of voice “Well, maybe they just didn’t want to see you”. I was shocked when I first heard her say that. I never imagined that a school teacher would say something like that. This student was only having a casual small talk conversation with the teacher, and she was doing nothing to offend her. And the question I was asking myself was “Why would she say something like that to a learning support student?” My guess was that she was in a bad mood, as usual. I mentioned this to my mother that night, and she emailed the principal about the situation. The next day I noticed she wasn’t in school, and my assumption was she got a one day suspension for her mess up. Weeks passed, and I still kept asking myself why she was so bitter and mean, and I came to think that some time along the line, bad kids may have taken advantage of her. That was the only explanation I could come up with about this situation. People that have been mistreated usually will turn mean, grouchy, bitter. This is obviously not an excuse to say something that rude to a learning support student, but it is the only explanation I can come up with.

Parents, you absolutely must teach your Autistic child about being insightful, it is a very important skill to learn. Not understanding someones actions or behavior may cause them to make fun of the person, which could get them into trouble in the near future. There are many things people don’t understand about Autism and Aspergers, and there are many things people with Autism and Aspergers don’t understand about interacting with other people. It really could benefit them in the long run.