Tuesday, August 26, 2014

To Cage the Mind

Wow, 100 posts, let's post something a little different for this one, how about something about myself other than my gaming habits. My son's favorite dinner-table conversation starter is "Daddy, tell me a story about when you were <insert randomly generated age here>". This is a thing I wrote a few years ago (the year he was born actually) that tries to explain, to myself as much as anyone else, why such stories are hard to come by. The narrative, if such it is, stops c. 2010, so many details around the end have since changed drastically, but the core principles, such as I can verify, are close enough to the truth...maybe...

An Attempted Exploration of the History Of...Myself

This is a work of non-fiction, with the exception of sections clearly labeled as fictional; the characters featured in this story are completely real. Any resemblance to any fictional contrivance, amusing or otherwise is purely coincidental. No similarity to any mythical, magical, heroic, or super-heroic being either living or dead is intended or should be inferred. 

To set my life into chronological order might be considered an impossible task, as it is a chaotic amalgam of that which has happened, that which might have happened, and that which would have happened were it not for one specific event. To all three of these possibilities, the mind assigns the equal weight of fact. Thus we are left with shadows, mists, and hearsay. Not even the witnesses of the events of our life can rightly say what truly happened or when, until the veil of deceit was lifted and our life began anew. Still, we shall attempt to piece together a narrative from what we perceive as the beginning.

It all started when I was five, though some would say four, and still others seven, and the debate about the time is quite heated I assure you, but we shall say five for this story. At the age of five I fell down a flight of steps. I was running. My sister claims I was racing her. All I recall is a pile of laundry, a turn of the head. We were having pizza, or tacos, or donuts, and dinner, or breakfast, was ready. I tripped, or was I pushed? Regardless of the circumstances, I fell down a flight of steps and cracked open my skull. I was rushed to the emergency room. A few stitches, a few questions, a few blinks of the eyes, and I was released.

Before this accident I had been brilliant, inquisitive, and nearly diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I had boxes of toys: neat, orderly, toys. My GI-Joes were arranged in order of rank. My LEGOs were sorted into bins by color and size. Everything had to be stacked perfectly in the closet before I went to sleep at night. On Sundays and Wednesdays I would allow my parents to dress me in nothing other than a suit for attending church, or else I would throw a tantrum. I would shake and panic if there was dirt on my hands. After I fell it all simply went away. I was no less brilliant or inquisitive, but the need for extremities of order in my life abated. I was . . . cured. No one noticed.

The next years, up through high-school, become a blur of motion and memory. We moved and moved again. I was in many different schools, always excelling, always liked by my peers, but always feeling distant from everyone around me. Only recently was I able to articulate the particulars of my childhood mindset. It occurred while reading Ender’s Shadow by Orson Scott Card with my wife. In the fifth chapter, the child Bean is leaving for school and is confronted by his caretaker, Sister Carlotta, and her need to, as he perceives it, “pretend that Bean loves me.” Bean, in a purely logical manner weighs the pros and cons of allowing the woman who raised him to give him a hug, and decides that the illusion of affection was a fair exchange for the food, shelter, and education she had given him.

At the age of twenty-six I discovered that I could not feel emotion. More specifically I learned that I had not felt emotions since the accident when I was a child. Twenty years had passed and no one had noticed. My new wife, whom I had been dating since I was fifteen and to whom I had been engaged since I was nineteen, had started to suspect the nature of the illusion that had surrounded me my whole life, but not even my parents believed. Even when I showed them a picture of my brain they did not want to accept that I had so completely deceived them.

In high-school I began to become aware that I was different. As a child, people expect less from you I guess, and thus you can deceive even yourself. After I started dating my future wife, I slowly began to realize that I was truly something different, something special I thought. For starters, I never got angry, could not get angry. I was impervious to any amount of insult to myself or our relationship, never acknowledging the individuals involved, believing myself to be supremely self-controlled. Also, I could not feel fear, and would throw myself into all manner of dangerous situations, from being flung from the roof of a car, suffering severe lacerations, to jumping headfirst into fights for the fun of it, suffering numerous broken bones. My various exploits and calm demeanor somehow earned me an even greater reputation among my peers, further feeding my growing narcissism.

It was late in high-school that I hallucinated for the first time. I was running, again. This was not unusual. What was unusual was that everyone else seemed to be moving so much slower than me. I sprinted through the hallways and had the feeling that time seemed to stop. As I neared solid objects they took on a sparkling, wavering quality. As I neared people, they looked two-dimensional and the closer I got, the slower they moved relative to me, until they appeared to stop moving altogether. There is a time in every boy’s life, I think, when they imagine they have super-powers. I was one of the few who actually saw his in action.
These ‘powers’ grew in strength too, until, my first year of college, time broke. I have no clearer way to describe what happened. One day I woke up. Eleven days later I found myself asleep in another state. For eleven days I did not sleep, and barely ate. The days blurred into a single mass of time. What others considered night I spent running around the streets of the city, aimless, staring at lights. At one point I found myself in a classroom having carried a dead pigeon back with me and put it in a cage on my desk which I had constructed by hand from trash I had found on the street. By the end of those eleven days I was crying in a ball on the floor of my future wife's dorm room two states away. By the end of those eleven days, I knew that I was insane.

Before the age of twenty-six I had never heard of such things as the medial temporal lobe or the superchiasmatic nucleus, I had never heard of seizures of any kind other than the ones that made people fall down on the ground twitching, and I certainly never would have thought that something that happened around the age of five would dramatically impact my entire life. I had, however, read a lot about psychological and psychiatric disorders. I was in college, covered by the university health plan, and convinced that I was going mad. Armed with this assertion, I went to the university hospital and asked to be committed to the mental ward.

I was summarily turned away after a few quick tests. While they were quite prepared to diagnose my narcissistic tendencies, the residents and student physicians were not prepared to deal with my claims to memory blackouts, hallucinations, and ‘dissociative episodes’. I was sent in for several drug screenings to prove that I was not experimenting with anything, followed by some overnight observations and an EEG (Electroencephalograph), which involved having lots of electrodes attached to my head and lights flashed in my eyes. In the end of their short inquiry, their diagnosis could be summed up by one short phrase written in their records which I still have – “try not to be such an asshole.”

Finally, after six years of struggling with weeks of sleeplessness, lost days with no recollection of what happened, and death-defying sense of superiority driving me to scale cliffs, drive at reckless speeds, and eat lethally poisonous plants, I quit school. During a visit to Alysha at her graduate school during that last year, I set up meeting with a neuropsychologist named Nadia Webb, who made me a list of all the possible things that could be wrong with me and what tests were needed to diagnose them or rule them out. So, I quit school, I got married, I moved to Virginia, and I took control of my own medical testing.

It seems odd to claim bleeding as a skill, but I am a highly talented bleeder. During those first six years of college the sale of my plasma twice a week kept me fed and clothed. My veins were easy to find, I had no fear of needles, and type O-negative was always in high demand. This ‘training’ in no way prepared me for the track marks I would have in my arms after just a few months getting extensive blood work done on a weekly basis. After six months I returned to Nadia with a pile of test results and a tendency to refer to doctors as ‘vampires.’ Nadia looked over everything I gave her, and gave me two things in return: a significantly shorter list of possibilities, and a referral to a neurologist. What she did not provide me with were any kind of reassurance, her short list contained the following: schizophrenia, an extremely rare type of seizure, or a brain tumor. Never in my life did I expect I’d be hoping I was schizophrenic.

Five years before I was born, Paul Lauterbur and Peter Mansfield saved my marriage. My wife reminds me that Dr. Raymond Vahan Damadian also saved my marriage, or perhaps instead, but for some reason he was not included on the Nobel Prize they won in 2003 for their work. These three are credited with developing Magnetic Resonance Imaging technology, which, among its many other wondrous uses in modern medicine, allowed the cheerful, sprite-like Dr. Gregory O’Shannick to get a very clear picture of my brain. A brain, which, it turns out, had a significant piece missing.

Which brings us back to the beginning; when it all started; when I fell, in the 1980s in West Virginia, MRIs were not readily available. A quick blow to the head, and my life for 20 years became a whirling vortex of chaos. One clear picture, of an irregularly shaped piece of scar tissue, not much larger than a jelly-bean in total volume, slightly overlapping portions of my amygdala and temporal lobe, and my life made sense. Doctor O’Shannick confirmed what Nadia had predicted, that I had temporal lobe seizures; seizures which could be treated fairly easily -- with some extremely expensive medicine.

While all this was going on, the tests, the confusion, and the eventual diagnosis, one other important event occurred, one that, in retrospect now, I might owe much of my existence as a sane, functional human being to. In February of 2007, against all reason, highly under-qualified, and forewarned that I had an undiagnosed mental disorder of some kind, Rosetta Stone hired me. More importantly they hired me on full time, with benefits, which included very good health insurance with an amazingly low co-pay for prescription medication. Thanks to unlikely employment and the wonders of modern chemistry, within three months of being diagnosed, I was functionally cured. That is to say I was asymptomatic as long as I took my pills.
Which brings us to the relative present, a time in which time reasserts its dominance as a linear force, light reenters the world (such that I can look at without having to take more seizure medication), I can once again remember things, and for the first time ever can feel emotion. I would like to say that my new life as a thinking, feeling human being began the day I was married, but in reality it began the day I started my medicine, which more closely relates to when I started work. Thus, the rest of our story is about that which has become our home, the strange place that hired an admitted madman with no prior programming skills to work in their software development department. The present is filled with the strange people that accepted me for what I was, taught me their trade, helped me learn to function with a brain that works a little differently than it used to, and kindly remind me to take my pills whenever I get that crazed look in my eye.

It was a warm February, Rosetta Stone was at the height of development for their upcoming Version 3 product, codename “Dogwalk”, they had a lot of job openings listed, and they must have been desperate. That is the only reason I can imagine that they would give a second glance to a resume that looked more like a Dungeons and Dragons character sheet and described the merits of a dropout from a landscape architecture degree program submitted for one of their Software Quality Assurance Analyst positions. Whether from desperation or some other unknowable thought process, they granted me an interview, listened to me explain in answer to questions about my experience with Windows and Macs that I had only ever used Debian Linux with any real regularity, and somehow gave me a job.

Prior to working at Rosetta Stone I had never maintained a job for long, often simply forgetting that I was even employed. My previous work had covered a wide range of odd jobs, often by employers who also might be described as desperate: renovating and restoring a historic Victorian era house for a professor who had severely injured his hand, wrangling dogs for a clinic giving out free rabies vaccinations when an outbreak occurred, and later running x-ray machines and assisting with surgeries for a kindly, but less-then reputable veterinarian who could not afford to pay properly trained and licensed technicians. My time working in Quality Assurance for Rosetta Stone was no less short-lived.

On February 12th I began work, sitting down in front of a bank of computers and being asked to ‘break’ the company’s new Japanese e-commerce website by any means possible. I had a lot of fun with this. The regularity of going to work every day, with a set schedule, a clear task, and a comfortably quiet and lightless environment (the best thing about programmers is that even the healthy ones like to work in the dark) was very calming. By the end of the first few weeks though, I noticed that those of us doing the testing were not working as efficiently as we could. I brought in a giant whiteboard and hung it on the wall. I bought color-coded stickers and magnets. The other testers looked at me like I was crazy. My manager thought I was a genius. By the end of the March, we had doubled the number of bugs we were finding (though in retrospect I’m not sure if it was related to any process changes or to my insomnia and tendency to work from home at 3am).

Shortly into April I was asked to leave the test lab where I was working and move to the Research and Development team to take over a new project that they were finishing and help transition it into over to the QA group. There was an awkward series of conversations where I tried to argue that I was crazy and my brain didn’t work and I might not be the best person to be in charge of something, but I was kicked into an ownership role and out of the land of testing. I spent the next few months working with the pair of PHD computer scientists who were the ‘Labs’ team, who tried to explain the nuances of things like database management, file-systems, network protocols, and encryption algorithms to me, while I wrote furiously in the piles of notebooks I carried with me. By the end of May, project “Dogwalk” was in full swing with an August ship date, I had learned the rudiments of programming in Perl, and I found myself the somewhat proud and sole owner of cluster of 10 computers dedicated to running an extremely CPU intensive process of pulling all of our language content and the associated picture and sound assets out of the database where they were stored, encrypting them to protect against theft of our intellectual property, and then turn them into swf objects readable by Adobe’s Flash player. Thus was born Rosetta Stone’s “Data Production Department.”

It’s at this point I should probably reiterate that other than being a typical, casual geek, and liking Linux because it was free, I didn’t know anything special about computers before I was hired and had never written a line of code or taken any programming classes in my life. At the beginning of June I found myself suddenly without a manager, in charge of my own team (which consisted only of myself), and tasked with managing this process for turning all of our content into something usable by our software. Conveniently, June also finally presented me with my diagnosis and medication as well.

By the end of July, I had it all worked out. Using my one real talent of looking things up on the Internet, I got the systems administrators to teach me how to set up my own subversion repository and ticketing system, and wrote a pile of what is recognized as some of the ugliest, but still functional, Perl scripts Rosetta Stone had ever seen. It was during this time that I met Dave Dumler, a product manager and someone who shared my obsessive tendency to document things and love of whiteboards. Two years later we would share a common office, lit only by lava lamps, decorated with skulls and live orchids, and blasting with heavy metal music, but for the time we shared a common panic as the ship date for Dogwalk approached. Finally we did. Ship that is.

After the initial panic of Dogwalk, I was once again integrated into the management structure. Chris Karas, the directory of our internal tools group, found my “team” (as everyone insisted on jokingly calling me) and insisted that I reported to him. No one complained. With the first ten language of Version 3 out in the market, the company settled into a routine of making small incremental improvements to the V3 application and translating new languages to work with it. This gave Chris and me time to figure out just what “Data Production” did, other than produce data that is. I had already automated most of the processes I worked with, but many of them took 24 hours or more and consumed entire banks of computers to complete. Chris decided that my efforts should focus, foremost, on researching ways to optimize those.

By the same time the next year the tools team and I had reduced the original content generation process that could take upwards of 48 hours to a consistent 2 hours, and I had solidified my reputation as having a keen eye for inefficiency wherever it raised its ugly head, whether in hardware, code, or human processes. More importantly the rest of my life started to settle into a routine, much different from the life I had experienced before. After a few months of experimenting with dosages and timing, Dr. O’Shannick and I got my medication to the point where I was experiencing none of the symptoms of my injury on a day to day basis. Also, in finally learning what was wrong, I learned what behaviors and situations to avoid to keep from aggravating my condition. So, aside from wearing sunglasses almost constantly (sunlight and fluorescents), and shying away from cameras (flashes), and night driving (red tail-lights), I was finally able to lead a normal life.

Time moves forward, now, at a constant pace, unlike the erratic starts and stops of before. I go to work each day, sometimes tired or stressed from a sleepless night -- though those are becoming rarer – generally looking forward to the new challenges being thrown at me and the small team Dave and I have built up over the intervening space since that first panicked launch. I have my own home by a river, complete with a mortgage, plenty of renovations to make, several ducks and chickens to take care of, and a rather unhinged cat that likes to chase our neighbor’s cattle. I have friends, and can recognize that relationship and what it means for perhaps the first time in my life, and at home Alysha and I just welcomed our first child. There is, thus, a sense of wholeness that has emerged in these last few years. It feels as if I’ve been given a second chance at existence and I’m just starting to become comfortable in this new mind I’ve been given. Still, it does move forward.