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When You Were Young

{excerpt from Diaz’ novel, Blue Dream Playlist}

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting with Dad on the living room floor, where he’d play different records for me and speak at length about whichever album he’d chosen. I’d nod along even when I didn’t have the foggiest idea what he was talking about. Meanwhile, Mom would be within earshot, singing along to the music as she worked on her paintings. This was back when we lived on Bleecker; back when we were still a family. I remember what it was like when my folks were still in love. The hugging and smooching and playful pinches on the butt. The echoes of laughter reverberating through our household. We were so happy early on. I know I was. Pretty sure they were, too.
Sundays were Family Day; customary trips to the Bronx Zoo or to the aquarium on Coney Island. Lazy afternoons in Washington Square Park, watching magicians and the various other street performers. I’d spy Mom and Dad sharing looks so intimate, so tender, that I would feel embarrassed for intruding on their private moment.
Early on, life was good at home.
Unfortunately, my comfort and security didn’t extend to school. Getting along with other kids proved difficult almost immediately. Didn’t take others long to pick up on how different I was. It should be said that I didn’t yet understand how different I really was because up until I started school, I wasn’t around many other kids. The school environment doesn’t exactly foster individuality. All the bizarre outfits Mom dressed me in made me an easy target. Mind you, this was during her psychedelic mushroom phase, around the time she first gained acclaim in the art world for her enormous papier mâché vagina. Mom was an eccentric artist with a “uniquely wonderful child.” She actually believed that sending me off to school in quirky, mismatched outfits would attract all kinds of new friends. Yeah, not so much. The only things my outfits attracted were ridicule and laughter. Coming to class wearing yellow rubber rain boots on a sunny day, or parts of a Halloween costume──in March? Sure, thanks for the bull’s-eye on my back.
And let’s be honest. Kids can be real assholes.
During second grade, my teacher began to ask questions. She took a special interest in my quiet ways and my reluctance to participate in classroom discussions. She wanted to know why I was always so withdrawn. The guidance counselor got involved, and pretty soon my parents were called in for a conference. Now, I wasn’t actually present for the summit, but I overheard Mom and Dad discussing it at home that night. What I remember most was how utterly offended they were by some of the counselor’s questions, queries about child abuse and what our home life was like. The simple reality was that I believed it possible to avoid mockery by somehow making myself invisible.
Mom’s position was: “Noel is just a shy, sensitive kid.”
Dad was convinced: “He’s a normal little boy.”
But the guidance counselor still suggested I be taken to a child psychologist. You know, just to be on the safe side. And that was when the first trickles of diarrhea hit the fan.
To humor the school’s Gestapo, Mom took me to see a well-known child psychologist, who subsequently put me through a battery of tests and eventually diagnosed me with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder──or ADHD, a neurological disorder characterized by either mental meanderings or hyperactivity and impulsiveness. Or a combination of the two. It’s the most commonly studied and diagnosed psychiatric disorder in children. If you ask me, ADHD is pretty much a blanket disorder.
Little Susan is withdrawn? Must be ADHD.
What’s that, you say? Mikey is too hyper? Well, that too is ADHD.
Now let’s get them all hopped up on meds.
The doctor claimed that I didn’t seem to pay attention during our conversations, that I seemed to drift off. Said I’d become easily confused by her questions. All clear symptoms of ADHD. She immediately prescribed Ritalin and cautioned my parents that if my disorder wasn’t properly treated, it could eventually lead to depression or anxiety disorders. Imagine that.
Well, as far as Mom was concerned, it was all just a load of psychobabble. She refused to accept that I had any kind of mental disorder. Not her wonderful child. So she took me to visit other child psychologists for a second and third opinion. The second doctor said his findings were inconclusive. The third one concurred with the first quack.
Sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Casey, but your son is a basket case.
Mom instantly went into make-believe-there-isn’t-a-problem mode, refusing to acknowledge the hard truth. This created a huge rift in my parents’ marriage. Up to then, I don’t remember ever hearing them fight. And now they fought constantly. Imagine the sort of guilt I carried because of it. I tried wishing the problems away──anything to quiet the riot in my head. But I wasn’t able to.
Mom was adamantly against having her seven-year-old son strung out on stimulants. Not on her watch. Therapy and lots of extra love was all I needed. Inversely, Dad sided with the doctor. This became a topic of heated contention, obviously. Dad went so far as to call Mom──who herself indulged in drugs and alcohol──a delusional hypocrite.
It was so on after that.
The next four years saw me being put on medication, only to be taken off them. Then put back on. Then off again. Neither parent would concede defeat for long. This was war in the Casey household.
The fights became so tumultuous that Aunt Betty would sometimes have to come from Jersey to pick me up. She was pretty much my only friend in those days. I’m sure she had a life of her own to live, but she’d manage to make time for me. Even if this meant bringing me around her friends. In those settings I was the cute, shy kid. No longer was I the freak. Aunt Betty understood the hard time I was having, so she’d go out of her way to make me laugh──as misguided and inappropriate her efforts were. For example: she’d sometimes greet me by lifting her shirt over my head and shaking her jugs in my face. She’d get a kick out of my awkward reaction.
Wonder when she started to greet Dad the same way.
Looking back on things and how they were, I feel directly responsible for the deterioration of my parents’ marriage and the destruction of our family. Of course, neither party would come right out and blame me and my mental health issues, but it was implied and soon became an unspoken truth in my mind.
We each dealt with the family turmoil in our own way: Mom dove into a puddle of vodka as fame in the art world came knocking; and Dad, he sunk himself into his job, booking up all his free time. The more inundated they became by their careers, the further apart they drifted from one another. I was left with the collateral damage, made to feel like Mom and Dad’s perfect mistake.
It was during that period that I first found refuge in music. I really didn’t know how else to cope with the growing disconnect I felt towards my parents. This was also when deep depression first grabbed hold and shook me like a kitten caught in the jaws of a rabid pit bull. I would go through these long stretches where I wouldn’t speak to anyone. I’d just hole up in my bedroom, listening to music and reading Rolling Stone. Just like my parents, I was drifting away to my own private island.
The three of us were living under the same roof, but none of us were there. Not really. There would be mornings when I would eat breakfast at the kitchen table while Mom sipped coffee and read the Village Voice. Dad would be there, too, looking over contracts and stuff──all three of us present in the literal sense. Hell, sometimes there would even be some small talk tossed around like an afterthought. But that was just a formality. We were each tuned in to different frequencies.

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