Deceptive Practices

The years before we returned to California were dark ones for Adam. After graduating from a high school in New York that specialized in kids with learning disabilities, as well as emotional and psychological problems, Adam had returned to SF to live with his mother and enroll in community college there. But without the close attention he’d received at the special needs school, he failed. He attended a couple of different colleges, studying film mostly, and barely passed his classes; in a series of depressing “affordable” apartments he built a wall with drugs and alcohol.

Why no one pulled him out of that morass sooner is a question that has haunted me since: I feel that I failed him then. After the drama of his teen years, Peggy and I were exhausted and probably too happy to look the other way and tell ourselves he’d find his path. Out of sight, out of mind we were thinking, while he was going out of his mind…

At his lowest point in SF, Adam was incommunicado. He didn’t respond to calls, texts or emails, and when his mother tried to visit, he wouldn’t answer his buzzer. We were still in NY, and I felt increasingly powerless. Once I asked Ethan if he would go there and try to muscle his way in somehow, or wait for someone to walk out of the building and catch the door before it closes. He agreed, got in and went up and knocked on Adam’s apartment door. He found him in one piece, and maybe I had scared him when I told him about Adam’s suicidal ideation and past incidents of self-harm. This was a few years before Pat killed herself, though she had effectively gone into hiding, too.

Ethan called me after his visit and described what he found: A filthy apartment, empty food containers and beer bottles, residue of medical marijuana (newly legalized in CA), and little seeming sense that there was a world out there and people concerned about him. Adam was chagrined, and promised to call me, and Ethan confessed to being fearful as he went up the elevator—and this was a guy who’d fished bloated dead Haitians out of the ocean when he was in the Coast Guard.

After being evicted from the dilapidated Market Street monolith he’d called home for a year (they were tearing the apartments down to build another office building), Adam went to visit his mother and her second husband in Costa Rica. The trip hadn’t gone that well, and I think all three of them were counting the days until he left. But to go where, and do what?

In the years before his eviction, Adam had a number of different psychologists and psychiatrists, each with their own diagnoses, therapies and medications.  After undergoing a battery of tests with a doctor from UCSF, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome (AS). For millennia, Asperger’s (named after Hans Asperger, the German doctor who identified the syndrome) had been considered a lighter, less-debilitating cousin of autism. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) eliminated the name and dragged it into a big tent branded Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The spectrum, according to the APA, was large and contained multitudes.

None of these labels and acronyms did anything to alleviate Adam’s unhappiness. He had been lonely for years, desperately seeking some kind of connection, and maybe even relief from all the doctors and pills he’d been prescribed. (Loneliness had been a hallmark of his childhood We’d vacation on Block Island some summers when he was a kid, and he spent one ferry ride over repeating a fervid wish: “I hope I make a friend, I hope I make a friend…”)

I was with him the day he got the Asperger’s diagnosis. The UCSF shrink seemed to barely tolerate my presence, even though I was his father and the person paying for the tests. I remember Adam’s face as he listened intently to her describe Asperger’s, and what it meant for him in terms of understanding his social anxieties. There’s no medication or cure for Asperger’s, which is often marked by poor social skills and motor development, but the number of successful people who now claim it as their own (David Byrne, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Gates) would indicate that one can do more than merely function with AS.

Adam was silent for second. “I know this is a lot to take in,” she said. For a kid who had been tested and poked and prodded since he was eleven, I was surprised that no one had come up with the diagnosis before. His problems in the past had been generally labeled as ADHD with some mood disorder thrown in for good measure. “Do you have any questions?”

“Yeah,” he said finally. “Does this disease have another name? ‘Ass burger’ sounds pretty bad.” He later worked that into a joke in his standup routine. His sense of humor has saved his life at times.

We left that meeting and went to Ethan’s house. It was my older brother Brian’s 60th birthday, and our family was gathering there to celebrate. I called before to remind Leah that Adam had just had a birthday the week before, and maybe she could squeeze his name in on the cake? I also told her that we’d just had a difficult meeting with the doctor, though I’m not sure what I meant to convey. We probably shouldn’t have gone.

Ethan had prepared a small feast and Leah had baked a cake. There were numerous presents and even a speech from our host. It was a generous toast, the kind Ethan is adept at making, and may have ended with an Irish blessing. I was more aware of Adam, who sat on the sofa staring at the floor the whole time.

Leah may have mentioned his birthday, but no one else did and I couldn’t blame them: Adam was a missing nephew and an absent cousin to them and their kids. I don’t think they had much contact with him, and I couldn’t blame them—they had their own kids to raise, and without the diagnosis he’d just received, he didn’t have much of an excuse for his behavior. Reaching out to him was seldom a rewarding experience.

In retrospect, that evening bristles with ironies: Ethan had generously put together a party for Brian, but the two of them can hardly stand each other much of the time. They are not cut from the same cloth. Ethan is stoic, mostly pragmatic and reliable in his actions. Brian is looser in his thinking and sometimes just spaced out.  A gifted child, teased for his intelligence and quirky behavior, Brian had become a full-blown hippie by the time he graduated from high school. He came to visit us one Christmas wearing a serape and what looked like a cow bell. He became an important cultural influence to me, the person who turned me on to Big Brother and the Mothers of Invention and so much more weird new music when I was still listening to the Monkees. And though he’d foresworn drugs years ago, he still acted drug-addled at times. He’s the only person I know who claims to have seen Bigfoot.

Equally ironic: After Adam explored the meaning of Asperger’s, he became convinced his uncle Brian was afflicted with it as well. Brian displays many of the classic traits, most notably his ability to go on and on about something that you don’t actually care about. He follows a Native American spiritual tradition that includes sweat lodges and Indian songs, and I’ve seen him drive people away with his obsessive talk about it. Brian’s example has served as warning to Adam. “I do not want to end up like that guy,” he told me.

And then there was the presence of Finnegan, nine at the time. His troubles were before him; at that age Finn was a little blonde prince and he didn’t have to do much to earn his parents’ approval. He was starting to get into sports but spent most of his free time riding skateboards with other kids in the neighborhood. If he had any anger, he kept it well hid.

Adam moved in with us in Palo Alto the spring of 2013. Peggy had taken a job in Silicon Valley and we said goodbye to New York and the East Coast after almost 23 years. We had other reasons to move—she really needed a job, and this was a good one, and this California boy longed for return—but Adam’s uncertain status hung over the decision, too. I wasn’t sure what he needed, and wasn’t convinced that I alone had the power to change his course, but I knew I could help him negotiate the Social Security labyrinth in order to get SSI, for instance. He seemed like a one-legged man in this race, and I was determined to pogo along beside him.

The house we rented was big enough to hold a small Internet start-up, which is how many of the houses on the Peninsula were being used. The sprawling ranch-style home had four bedrooms and a swimming pool, big enough to give us some distance from Adam, and vice versa. He seemed wary of the arrangement at the time—grateful for our help, sure, and happy to have a roof over his head. But he hadn’t lived with his parents in years and chafed under our occasional scrutiny.

Though I had been sober 17 years at that point, and started going to AA meetings in the Bay Area when I returned to California, I missed the signs with my own son. I had worried about his drug and alcohol use in the past, and even dragged him to a few meetings in SF after finding him shitfaced at five o’clock in the afternoon on a day when we were supposed to go look at an apartment in need of a roommate. But in Palo Alto I distracted myself trying to find work and reestablish a footing in the Bay Area.

So, when Adam went for a walk our first night there and came back an hour later drinking a beer and carrying a half-empty six-pack, I didn’t think much of it. Nor did it register when I looked out at the pool one spring afternoon and saw him sitting beneath the diving board, smoking a bowl. It wasn’t until Memorial Day weekend, when Peggy and I had made plans to make a quick return to New York, that I was forced to confront his dependency.

At that point, Adam had been trying his hand at stand-up comedy for a few years. For someone with intense social anxiety, I thought that was a pretty ballsy move. I’d seen him get up in front of a small crowd at Brainwash, a now defunct café and Laundromat in SF’s South of Market district. He was what the kids today would call a hot mess, with barely coherent jokes and a sweaty manner that conveyed more desperation than humor. But I admired the move, as I would if someone with a fear of heights climbed to the highest board to dive.

Now a comedian friend of his had offered him a spot on a show at Fisherman’s Wharf on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend. I changed my flight so I could see him and Peggy flew east without me, agreeing I would come the next day. It was important to show support, I said, and he hardly had any other friends or family to see him.

Ethan accompanied me to the show, and I still owe him for those hours he’ll never get back. The show was endless, and most of the comedians were terrible. Adam came on late in the second half, and though he was better than he’d been at the Brainwash, I was still inclined to say, “Don’t quit your day job,” except he didn’t have one. Afterwards he went out with two of his art school friends and I drove back to Palo Alto.

Adam was still sleeping when I left for the airport the next morning. My flight was delayed because of some mechanical issue, and as the delays extended, I began to realize I wasn’t going to make the trip. It had been a nut run to start with; I would have had to get to NY in time to get the last train to Connecticut, where we would be staying, having rented our house in Brooklyn. The final delay sealed the deal, and I called Peggy with the bad news. I’d see her when she returned Monday.  

By then it was after noon and I texted my son to say I’d be back soon but was going to stop and have lunch first. I texted him again from the burrito place when I was done—did he want anything? Silence, not unexpected with him.

When I got back to the house, I found what looked like the makings of a small party: some open wine bottles on the kitchen counter, a small bag of marijuana and a pipe, and what looked like ground up pills on a mirror, cut into lines. Adderall? Oxycontin? I was taking in the sight in when Adam appeared.

“What are you doing here?” he shouted. “You’re not supposed to be here!”

I can’t remember what I said next but there was more shouting involved. He may have left at that point; since I’d busted his one-man house party, he’d have to get high somewhere else. Or maybe the shame and confusion just drove him off. I was shocked and enraged, but also a little ashamed myself. The kitchen scene could have been one of my hotel rooms at the end of my late-stage alcoholic drinking. It takes one to know one.

I hadn’t done rehab when I got sober, just started dragging myself to AA meetings every day until sobriety took hold. But I didn’t think Adam had the will to clean himself up, and I didn’t have the power to make him do it. I started researching places outside of the Bay Area—I instinctively felt that further away might be better—and found an intriguing one near Santa Barbara, five hours from us. It was a six-month program, longer than any rehab, and pretty demanding: Boys and men only, uniforms, ranch work, 12-step meetings, team-building exercises, repeat. The testimonies from grateful graduates and their families were convincing, and after speaking to the guy who founded the place, I shot the link to Adam, who read about it when he returned, sober. 

“No way am I going to that fucking place!” he shouted when he emerged from his room. He’d found pictures of the founder at some outdoor church and said something about Jesus Freaks. (For what it’s worth, the place is nondenominational and their weekly church outings were voluntary.)

“Fine,” I said, “but I’m out of ideas and you’re out of control. If you won’t do this, you can try life on the streets.”

Then I did what I’ve often done at times of distress: I went to the movies. I’ve been going to matinees, often alone, since I was eleven and a darkened theater is better than church for me. When it works, I lose myself in the movie and the one I saw that afternoon was just distracting enough: What Maisie Knew is a modern retelling of the Henry James novel about a divorce as seen through a child’s eyes. It featured some good actors and was set in lower Manhattan, as we had been when Adam was young. There was the Little Red Schoolhouse, where he’d gone for summer sessions, and the playground on Bleecker Street that had so much rubber cushioning beneath the jungle gym that you could fall from a plane onto that spot and not get hurt.

By the time I returned to the house Adam had calmed down and accepted his fate. He would go to the rehab ranch I had found, and promised to do his best. I told him to pack his bag; I was putting him on a train the next morning, and the men from rehab would pick him up at the station in Santa Barbara.

After dinner he had one last request: “Would you watch The Departed with me?” he asked, and how could I refuse? We’d both seen it before and knew the story well: Two moles working on opposite ends of the law—a crooked cop, a straight crook—try to expose the other. It’s all about identity, and how well we hide.     

Anyone who’s had an addict in his family knows, it’s never over ‘til it’s over. Adam did well at the ranch; he was there for more than six months due to a few relapses (he and some of the other young men had snuck off to buy beer at the nearest store) but finally graduated in a moving ceremony where he expressed, among other things, the love he had for Peggy.

“You’ve been a mother to me,” he said, as she sat beside me in tears. The two had fought a lot his last year of high school, and she had been only too happy to see him go. Now she was calling him her son in front of a bunch of strangers. It was one of those moments where I felt I could die happy if my life were to end right then. But that’s not the way things work.

After Adam left the ranch, he lived in a sober living house for men in Santa Barbara. It seemed a nice enough place to me but was completely lacking in structure. There were house rules (no drink or drugs, primarily) but other than that, you were on your own. You couldn’t hang around your room but had to find a way to occupy yourself during the day.

The day before Thanksgiving in 2014, Adam was taking the bus up from Santa Barbara to join us for the holiday at a house we were subletting in San Francisco. He called in a panic that afternoon: he’d gotten off the bus in Salinas to have a smoke and when he came back, the bus had gone! After making a few calls I learned that there wouldn’t be another until tomorrow morning and I booked him a room at a nearby motel. Peggy and I may have rolled our eyes at the outcome, but we also counted our blessings. At least he was sober! He arrived the next day in time for turkey and as holiday mishaps go, it seemed rather small.

The next month, Franny came west to be with us for Christmas. Adam, again, was taking a bus up from Santa Barbara. I was with my daughter in the car when he called the day before Christmas Eve. I answered the phone from the steering wheel and his voice came through loud on the radio speaker.

“Dad!” he cried in panic. “It happened again! I got off the bus in Salinas to stretch my legs and when I came back, the bus had left!”

Franny and I looked at each other, saucer-eyed. I asked him the same questions I had a month earlier: Didn’t you ask the driver when he was leaving? Why didn’t you stay near the station? Is there anyone there to ask? In the end, I did what I did before, booked him a room at a local motel and he caught the next bus up the following morning.            He arrived the following day, and I still have pictures on my phone of us on top of Bernal Heights, Adam mugging for the camera with his sister and his cousins, Tyler and Cait. But what I remember was the silence that followed that call. Franny and I were stuck in Christmas traffic and staring dumbly at the stopped cars in front of us.

“How could he have done that twice?” I said, and she commiserated. What I didn’t say, but surely thought, was: How is he ever going to live?

He left after Boxing Day, headed back to the sober living house. Franny flew back to NY, too; she wanted to spend New Year’s Eve with her boyfriend.

I never liked New Year’s Eve much, even when I drank. We called it amateur night, when all the drinks were more expensive and you had more competition from other drunk drivers on the road. For years, our friend Laura has hosted what she calls the Penultimate Party: On the night before New Year’s Eve she offers food and drink and perhaps more importantly, a way to ring out the old year without getting caught in the relative madness of the following night.

We hadn’t been there long when my cellphone began to throb. It was Adam, and I sought out a quiet room in the front of the railroad style flat to take the call.

He sounded more subdued than panicked this time. He’d been asked to leave the sober living house for breaking the rules; he’d come back at day’s end after drinking outside and was busted. The house manager told him to pack his meager belongings and go.

I was looking out a bay window onto the foggy SF street below. More folks were showing up in their holiday finery, and I could hear music and laughter behind the closed bedroom door. “And I didn’t miss the bus because I was stretching my legs,” he added, though we’d not been discussing his recent near miss of Christmas. “I went to get a drink, just like I had at Thanksgiving. I thought I had enough time to get a drink and get back on the bus.” A beat and then he said, “I lied because I’m an alcoholic and that’s what I do. I lie to people.”

I can’t remember what I said next, or where he spent that night or the next. The house had a revolving door policy; residents caught breaking the rules could return after two days and a lot of them had been in and out of there for years. This was nothing new to them.

But it hit me like a revelation. Here I had been worrying that Adam had some rare sort of disconnect, that his executive function was shot and he’d be fortunate if he could make it across the street, let alone get a job, have a life and learn to take care of himself. Instead, he was just a drunk, like me. Getting his drink was more important than anything. The primacy of our need becomes the story of our lives, and sometimes the end of our lives.

 In the hallway I ran into my friend Mark, whose had just lost his brother to cancer. He was shell-shocked and we exchanged words of encouragement, love and support. His parents had been killed in a plane crash when Mark was twelve, and part of him must have felt like the world was vanishing before his eyes.

In the living room people were laughing and starting to dance. There were several kinds of soup in the kitchen, ladled out by Mexican women. I don’t remember which one I tried, a pozole, perhaps? I just remember it was too hot to eat and I burned the roof of my mouth. We left without dancing and the air outside was crisp and cold. All the fog had lifted.