Shonda Schilling, the wife of retired Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling, shares the painful and joyous story of her son Grant's struggle with Asperger's syndrome, and how it changed her life and her family. In this excerpt from her book, "The Best Kind of Different," she recounts her breaking point as a mother who didn't understand what was wrong with her son.
To those who know my son Grant and me, I frequently referred to it as the summer that one or both of us would end up medicated.
It was 2007, and Grant was seven. I was rounding the bend toward forty, but there were moments when I was so worn out I felt more like seventy. Every day was filled with exhausting challenges, one after another.
On a visit to my hometown of Baltimore, Maryland, that summer, I somehow got it in my head that I should take Grant along with my other kids—Gehrig, then twelve, Gabby, ten, and Garrison, four—to an Orioles baseball game. I suppose it was wishful thinking on my part. There were so many reasons it could have been a special evening—so many reasons to be sentimental. Not only had I grown up going to Orioles games at the old Memorial Stadium, taking in game after game there with my dad, mom, and brother, mostly in the one-dollar bleachers, but the Orioles were also how I met my husband, Curt, who used to pitch for them. To make that particular game in the summer of 2007 even more exciting, Curt was pitching again, only this time for the opposing team, the Boston Red Sox. I wanted the kids to be there for that—to see “our” team play my home team.
When we got to the stadium, I proudly led the kids up to the stands. Then . . .
“I wanna go!”
Grant was visibly upset, his face a bright red.
“I wanna go! I wanna go!” he started chanting over and over while holding his hands over his ears. He draped his upper body over my knees and started rolling back and forth aggressively as he screamed.
Luckily it was loud in the stadium. People were milling about, shouting at one another, and cheering. There were announcements and music over the PA. But it wasn’t so loud that Grant’s tantrum went unnoticed. All nearby heads turned in our direction. People had the most concerned looks on their faces, as if to say, “What did you do to your kid, lady?” A few more I-wannagos and the expression morphed into an indignant “Jeez, why can’t you get control of your kid?”
And then they opened their mouths.
“Grant!” one of the men shouted. “You need to listen to your mom!”
“Calm down, Grant!” one of the women said.
Have you ever heard the expression “If you want to help, don’t”? It’s a good one. Those people meant well, but they were only making matters worse, not to mention making me feel even more humiliated. Despite entertaining vivid thoughts of killing those people (or perhaps just seriously injuring them), I managed to smile through gritted teeth. I needed to put on a good face. People might recognize me, and they were clearly judging me, assuming I didn’t know how to control my kid. They weren’t too far off base, but I didn’t need them to point that out to everyone around us. Plus, it just made Grant more upset.
“Grant, we need to stay here,” I said as firmly and quietly as I could, still all smiles. Grant didn’t stop, though.
“I wanna go, nooooow!” he shouted again. He continued flailing, and I worried that he might hit himself on the aluminum chair in front of him. I tried to hold him, but he wouldn’t have it.
Then I tried bribing him. “We’ll go to the toy store tomorrow, Grant,” I offered.
“You can pick the movie tonight.”
“You can stay in my bed.”
“You can have cotton candy. We can have popcorn.”
Frankly, at that point, I would have let him eat a hot dog with cotton candy for a bun and ice cream on top just to get him to stop. But none of my offers worked. (Of course, the next day he would still remember I’d promised a trip to the toy store, and he’d insist on it.)
“Let me take him for a walk,” my mom offered. I felt bad. I didn’t want her to miss this game, either. “Grant, come for a walk,” she said, reaching for his hand, but he kept rocking and screaming. He only wanted me. But there was nothing I could do to make him happy.
I felt completely defeated. I wanted nothing more than for Grant to want to be there. But not only did he not want to be there, he didn’t even understand what was going on. For a long time I had been trying, unsuccessfully, to get Grant excited about baseball. I wanted him to be able to bond with his dad the way his siblings had, but in his seven years, that hadn’t really happened. There was a disconnect that I couldn’t understand, and nothing I tried seemed to fix it.
At the game, I couldn’t even get Grant to grasp that it was his father down there on the field, that he was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball, playing right there in this game that had brought all these fans to this huge stadium. I just kept thinking, If Grant sees Curt out there, he will take an interest. He will understand it, and he will be proud. I thought about how many kids would give anything to be sitting in those stands, let alone watching their father pitch for the Red Sox. What would it take to get Grant to realize what this all meant?
However, Grant wanted nothing to do with being in the stands. Once the game started, I tried to calm him down by showing him how to mark the scorecard and keep track of every play. But he was agitated and couldn’t focus. I found myself caught between a rock and a hard place: It seemed as if I should get us all out of there before Grant made a bigger scene, but that wouldn’t be fair to Gehrig, Gabby, and Garrison. I didn’t want any of us to miss that game, because I knew that Curt’s career was coming to an end. Also, the kids had begun to have their own lives. A family vacation was going to become difficult to pull together with any regularity now that the kids had obligations to sports and camp and other things they wanted to do with their friends. I didn’t know how many more moments like this we were going to get, and I wanted us all to have a memory of this special night before it was gone.
My heart sank and I started to wonder if the seat I was sitting on would be big enough for me to fit underneath. I wanted to find a place to hide. How much more of Grant’s screaming could we all take? Fortunately, he started running out of steam. He climbed into my lap and began rocking back and forth, back and forth, covering his ears, without saying a word. This was hardly an ideal way for me to watch the game. But it was preferable to fighting with him and listening to him scream.
In a short time, Grant rocked himself to sleep.
* * *
This was not the first time I’d had a problem with Grant in the stands at a ball game. It had been a long time—years—since I’d tried to take him. I figured he’d be mature enough at seven to behave differently, and maybe even enjoy himself. That’s what I thought it was then: a maturity issue.
Since the time Grant was little, I’d known it was better to leave him at the hotel with my mom during away games, or, if it was a home game, put him into our players’ kids’ room in the stadium. There was a great one in Phoenix that we used when Curt played for the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2000 to 2003. It was staffed with five or six adults who would lead the kids through arts and crafts, video games, and building things with blocks. Grant could get lost in there, playing all day with the other players’ kids. It was great for me, too. I needed to have a place where I could put Grant so I could get three hours to myself to enjoy a game.
My experience had been so different with Gehrig and Gabby, and later, with Garrison. Even when they were toddlers, I was able to keep them content at games. I could teach them how to do things like take peanuts out of their shells (that alone would keep them occupied for several innings). But those activities were never enough for Grant. He was never happy at games, and I didn’t know why.
If it were just Major League Baseball he had an issue with, maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad—even though it would have broken his father’s heart, not to mention my own. But the truth is, I couldn’t control Grant in most situations. He was noisy, willful, defiant, incapable of sitting still—and that was just the tip of the iceberg.
Later that fateful summer of 2007, it finally clicked for me: Grant was different. Really different. And I realized I needed to do something to help him—to get some kind of professional help, although what that would be, I wasn’t yet sure.
I wouldn’t come to that realization until I first hit a wall. With a cordless phone, to be very specific. One morning as I tried to get the kids ready and out the door to day camp, I couldn’t get Grant going. He wouldn’t get up, then he wouldn’t brush his teeth, and then he wouldn’t get dressed. Everything I asked him to do was met with a resounding “No!” Something in me snapped.
I went into his room and yelled at him. He was completely unfazed. I tried grabbing him to put the clothes on his body myself, but he pulled away and ignored me. Here I had just told his little brother, who wasn’t even five yet, to get dressed, and he hopped right to it. Why was this seven-year-old so unaffected by what I was asking, so uninterested in listening to an adult?
Why couldn’t he look me in the eye? I didn’t get it, and I wanted to kill him. I knew that if I put my hands on him again, I’d hurt him.
I stormed downstairs loudly, all the while screaming up to Grant, “You’d better get dressed, young man!” My kids have rarely seen me flip out—maybe once or twice in their lives. That morning Gehrig, Gabby, and Garrison were shaking in their boots. Grant just stayed in his room, in his pajamas, playing with his Legos as if this conversation never happened. He was obsessed with Legos.
In the kitchen, I grabbed the phone to call Curt, who was on the road. “I want to hurt him!” I sobbed, when Curt answered.
“You’re just upset,” Curt said.
“No, I mean it. I really want to hurt him,” I said.
“You just have to show him who’s boss, Shonda,” Curt suggested. “He needs to respect you.”
Curt wasn’t getting it. He did not understand that there was something going on here that was not about discipline and respect. I felt so frustrated, I threw the phone against the wall. Then I sat down where the phone had fallen and curled up in the corner, bawling.
I have always believed that being a mother was what I was meant to do, but in that moment I wasn’t so sure.
As predicted, it wasn’t long before we were both on meds.
Excerpted from "The Best Kind of Different," by Shonda Schilling. Copyright (c) 2010, reprinted with permission from HarperCollins.