Editors’ note: Some names in this story have been changed to protect confidentiality.
My nine-year-old son Jackie first attacked me at the end of a beautiful day, on vacation in a house by a lake. The trip started out hopefully. For the first time in seven months, we’d left the home that had become our school, workplace, gym, movie theater, and restaurant. Like everyone else, we needed a break from the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders. But a seemingly trivial event triggered Jackie into a state of uncontrollable rage. He drew blood. I still have the scars. They were the first of many that I would acquire over the next eighteen months.
Jackie, diagnosed at four as on the autism spectrum, was already a child prone to remarkable bouts of object or process obsessions. He was additionally challenged in that most basic of social behaviors—perspective-taking. Our parenting had already been steeped in practices of patient negotiation over everything from bedtimes to explaining why eight toy trash trucks was finally one too many. However, over the course of another six or seven months we began to realize, though not yet understand, that Jackie was likely suffering from a condition that inflamed his neurological system. The real knot in the story is that such maladies, for reasons not completely understood, have the most observable and deleterious effects on neurodivergent children. The next year and a half was a journey through domestic war in the middle of a global disaster, when we were further isolated by his dangerous and obsessive behaviors which increasingly took on the appearance of madness. At times between the summers of 2020 and 2022, my partner and I seemed enemies to our own child. I became a father of war.
How could I have been so terrified of and angry at my child that in my darkest, most desperate hours, I wished that a god I didn’t believe in would take him? At the same time, I wanted nothing more than to scare away all Jackie’s troubles and rescue him from the well of emptiness and rage. Those years left me with other questions about how to process the grief and anger we all still feel. I have learned that I need to reconfigure my notion of being a father. I often feel lost in a wilderness.
In recent weeks, however, I have found an unexpected resource in the video game God of War Ragnarök. The game tells the ongoing story of Kratos, a Greek god of war, who in previous games has relocated to Norway. There, seeking a life of peace and a chance at redemption for his past mistakes, he raises his son, Atreus, and mourns his dead wife, Faye.
Ragnarök, named for the end of days in Norse mythology, is an expansive and immensely reflective game. In light of prophetic revelations about his dead mother’s origins and intentions, Atreus believes he must help prevent Ragnarök. Yet he can only do this if he first can understand who and what he is. Kratos only wants Atreus to remain safe; spiritually, his days of saving realms and mythic lands are behind him. But Atreus will not relent, and thus their journey begins. At the story’s core is a constellation of predicaments: How far should a father go to convince his child that they matter more to him than anything else, even if his child can’t understand how profound and costly the commitment? Should his parenting change as he more keenly understands who his child truly is? These questions haunt all loving parents, but they have become especially urgent for me.
By the late fall of 2020 Jackie had locked us out of our house on two occasions and had physically assaulted me and my partner two or three more times since the day by the lake. Erratic and dysregulated, he often cursed at us when displeased; he seldom followed instructions and was gloomy when not disruptive. My partner joined every possible social media group and spent nights as a part time detective into psychopathology in neurodivergent children. We began to narrow down the causal candidates to conditions that were not themselves psychiatric, but that could present as such and, unfortunately, often had to be treated with medication to ensure a modicum of stability. Yet everything indicated that the local child psychiatric ward would be more likely to damage our autistic child than help them. So, though isolated as we were, we sought to endure.
With time, we eventually had to turn to a child psychiatrist, though Jackie frequently refused to sit and speak with the physician over Zoom. Relying almost solely on testimony provided by me and my partner, the doctor prescribed an antidepressant for Jackie. Things improved only slightly before getting worse. We would later understand that the medicine had adverse effects on his already precarious levels of serotonin; it only served to make Jackie more unstable and violent. But we had opened the door to medication, and another medicine was needed later to offset the side effects of the first.
It was during the cold and even more lonely winter months of 2021, trapped mostly in our house, that Jackie began to fixate on elevators. Not many know this, but elevators are a common obsession in the autism community. Sizeable YouTube communities exist around people of all ages filming their elevator rides as they narrate for viewers any technical specs they may know of a particular brand of elevator. Some of the most prominent elevator videographers, self-identified as autistic, have many thousands of subscribers eagerly awaiting posts of their curator’s latest vertical sojourn. There is a special subclass of this pastime—freight elevator rides. These elevators, located mostly in the back halls of shopping malls, represent a kind of delicacy for this community. The clanging clamping gates are a delectably corporeal device for those with different sensory priorities. There is a certain satisfaction in bringing mesh metal doors crashing together and then being able to observe the gliding wall of the shaft as the elevator moves to another level. The growling and wheezing motors make diagnostic commentary easy, as do the varying states of the elevators’ uncleanliness. As far as I know, no law prohibits nonemployees from walking these back halls and riding these elevators. But you’re not supposed to be back there. Yet I found myself in these halls dozens of times.
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It began with endless YouTube screentime, watching certain videos on repeat—“Daddy, listen to the engine on this monster!” By mid-winter, with COVID-19 numbers dropping in our area, the risk of masked public outings became tolerable, and we all teetered on the verge of a breakdown if we remained trapped in the house. Jackie started asking to go places to ride elevators. At first, he was only interested in standard passenger elevators. In hindsight it is easy to think we should have cut this avenue of obsession off right away. But at the time, Jackie’s desire to go out felt promising: at least he wanted to join the world rather than remain terrified, as the adults were, inside our house. Besides, what could go wrong riding a few elevators?
Atreus is the son of a god of war but also, on his mother’s side, the last of a race of giants. We are invited to suspect that his ultimate destiny will be grand, which is what makes the narrative strategy of his early life poignant. As a budding teenager, he seeks answers. He needs to find out who he is in a world where the things that happen to him and those he loves are seldom understandable or rational to him. It is not merely a matter of selfish regard. Rather, Atreus harbors angst that something in the answer about who and what he is can help him understand the prophecies left by the giants. These prophecies predict that he will ultimately become a servant to Odin, the deceptive All-Father to the Norse pantheon whose own agenda is deeper and darker than anyone can grasp.
Meanwhile, Kratos has little use for talk of prophecy. In the previous eight games in the series, he has been feared a force of nature. He is what the philosophers call a metaphysical libertarian, a person who believes that we make the choices we make and do so freely. He represents the unspoken slogan, “We are what we decide we are.” This way of being threatens a rupture in his relationship with Atreus, who is driven by what he feels is destiny. Kratos tries to accommodate Atreus in ways that his son cannot appreciate. During an emotionally wrought exchange, Atreus insinuates that his father does not trust him, cannot understand the world from his perspective, and does not have faith in his quest to make sense of the world as he must. Kratos grabs his son by the shoulders and tells him with tender urgency, “And still I follow! Because all that matters is that you are safe!” Kratos conveys that all that matters is his effort to catch Atreus in case he falls. He follows.
Have you ever been forced to do something by someone holding a kitchen knife? It is how I found myself riding freight elevators in a mall two states away the morning after a troubling night. A friend had reneged on a spend-a-night with Jackie, and it was a turn of events with which he could not cope. Like that day by the lake, and many nights since, an otherwise typical life event had sent my child spiraling, and we were being forced to follow. We came to learn that in these sorts of moments, Jackie was almost existentially beside himself; the bouts of threats and violence were as much an act of fear and panic at the realization that he was out of control. Our own attempts to bring Jackie back to himself were not, or at least were not intended, as tactical surrenders but rather as ways of reassuring him that if anyone in the world understood and was willing to follow him, it was us.
Jackie had cajoled me into riding the freight elevators starting about two months before the moment when he held a knife in his hand, and there was no telling him no. I admit that at first I completely refused to accept this—to follow—because I did not grow up this way. There was only what my parents said: I either did what I was told or faced the consequences. This was a behavioral economy I understood and did not seek to rise against. But I have come to learn something as a parent: if your child sets their foot down and is effectively immune to the reasoning of carrots, then you only have sticks. Unless you are willing to physically inflict fear in your child, then there is not much to be done. That was where we found ourselves. Jackie could not be reasoned or compromised with, he was barely bribable, and physical intimidation had never been part of our parenting style. So Jackie would have his way or else we might find ourselves with more shredded plants, smashed Bluetooth speakers, or bodily scratches. We allowed him to make the decisions as we awaited some moment when the antidepressant would save us as we believed, hoped, it might. We were aware that the medicine often takes time to be fully effective, and we had not yet learned of its possible adverse effects.
My first instinct, though fearing that my son could be in the early stages of developing a severe mental illness, was to follow him. I decided that if things were to be this way, and we were not willing to place Jackie in the even more precarious position of institutionalizing him—where the main form of treatment would be to serve him a cup of assorted colored pills—I would guide him on the quest to try and grasp who and what he was becoming. But life’s narratives are not neatly laid out as in a work of fictional entertainment. Leaning in did not lead to peace and mutual reconciliation. Tragically, my following Jackie was inviting disastrous results for the both of us. We were circling an existential drain where obsession and compulsion were defining our lives to the exclusion of anything therapeutic. We were putting faith in medicines, at the behest of medical professionals, that were doing things to our child’s already affected brain that we didn’t understand. And, so far, the doctors’ score card wasn’t much better than ours.
On my birthday, in the spring of 2021, I got a text from my partner, who was in the car with Jackie: “We’re coming home; hide the knives!”
Jackie had become fixated on one particular freight elevator at a department store at the local mall—one we had seen before but had been busted trying to ride. We had been told by store security that we were not allowed there and asked not to return. On this morning, Jackie demanded we go back. My partner, despite her own fraying, could see I was coming undone, and offered to relieve me of trespassing duty. However, she went in with a strategy. My partner would approach the store manager and appeal to him, as a parent of a child with special needs, to let Jackie ride the elevator, with a store escort if necessary. The manager refused.
When they came home, there was no question where the situation was going. “You fucking bitch! You stupid fucking bitch! You ruined it! I fucking hate you!” shouted my nine-year-old. The plants were torn and the couch cushions were thrown before Jackie demanded that my partner leave the house, “and never fucking come back!”
This was the last straw. After my partner left, hoping to preempt a physical confrontation, I took photos of the destruction and sent an emergency email to our psychiatrist, describing our situation with photo evidence attached and asking that he prescribe an antipsychotic we had all earlier discussed as a treatment option— and to do so as quickly as possible. What followed was truly preposterous. By text I coordinated with my partner for her to pick up the medicine at the pharmacy, drive by the house, drop off the medicine in our mailbox without being seen, and to disappear again as I worked to calm Jackie. I agreed to take Jackie to a different mall for elevator rides, but informed him that my car would not leave our carport unless he took the pill I now held in my hand. We looked at each other for a minute that felt like forever. Despite my fear and heartbreak seeing my kid this way, I kept firm and uncompromising eye contact. If Jackie didn’t take this pill, my birthday gift might be a broken family. To a degree of shameful relief that I cannot now articulate, Jackie put the antipsychotic in his mouth and, with a gulp of water, swallowed what I hoped would be a dose of sanity. Though agitated, Jackie did begin to calm down and I texted my partner that I thought it was safe for her to come home. When we returned from the mall, Jackie saw her on the couch, and walked up to his mother. Every muscle in my body tensed, prepared to spring into action in case Jackie made to get violent. Jackie mumbled that he hated her and asked where she had been all day. Jackie was talking. This was a start.
Atreus’s journey brings him and Kratos face to face with an existential reckoning. Will they avert disaster together? Can they come to a new understanding of themselves and each other in time to allow their love to be a pillar of their quest? After a particularly testing set of battles, Kratos, visibly worn, beaten, and weary, pauses and looks at his son long and hard and says words he has never had to say precisely because he is a god of war: “Atreus . . . I am sorry.” Kratos has come to realize that if he cannot revisit who and what he is, he will never be able to help Atreus come to his own self-understanding. That failure could break them apart forever.
Atreus wants his father’s love and wants also to be part of the solution. He responds to Kratos by saying, “Don’t be sorry, Father. Be better.” Kratos smiles with forlorn warmth, suggesting both that there is wisdom in these words, but also something too facile in the mandate. Nevertheless, this is a foundation where the reconstitution of their most important relationship can be developed.
In the summer of 2021, Jackie was diagnosed with an underresearched and often dismissed condition called Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS), frequently triggered by Lyme disease or other pathogens, where symptoms include obsessive-compulsive disorder and a sudden deterioration in behavior. We began a round of treatment that involved many hours of plasma transfusion as we finished weaning Jackie off the antidepressant that had caused him to spiral farther out of control. My partner’s research and social network sleuthing had revealed that serotonin levels in autistic children can be volatile and promote awful behaviors when these levels spike. While the weaning wasn’t solving all our problems, it was allowing us some constructive footholds to gain Jackie’s cooperation with the plasma treatment. We hadn’t needed to hide the knives recently and the elevator phase was over. But this is not the part of the story where I tell you everything worked out in the end.
During the spring we had withdrawn Jackie from an elite private school as administrators began to unambiguously signal Jackie would not be welcomed back the following year based on the level of dysfunctional behavior he was displaying. We put Jackie in a nontraditional school that did not have any formal curriculum. Rather, the philosophy was that students learn best when they desire to learn something most. In practice, people left their kids in the building, and the kids did whatever the hell they wanted for eight hours. That could mean teaching themselves calculus or playing video games. At the time, it was the only nonrepugnant and workable option available to us.
My kid’s obsessive behaviors didn’t quite end after the plasma treatment, for there followed an intense and costly obsession with wood workshop tools. Another year of child domination followed, but the violence almost entirely disappeared, which, in the big picture, was a sign of progress and we pressed to keep the momentum in Jackie’s favor. We spent the first half of 2022 investigating the trigger for PANS. Many people don’t know that Lyme disease can in fact live in your body untraceably even after it begins to affect one’s health. Dozens of strains of the bacteria that cause Lyme exist, and a remarkable number of them show up inconclusively on even the most sophisticated diagnostic tests. One only treats Lyme by a process of inductive reasoning: months of antibiotics will follow suspected diagnosis, and if the health impacts begin to recede, then one can assume diagnosis, never doing so with absolute certainty. Our family followed this process and was fortunate to see more improvement. During the summer of 2022, Jackie declared a desire to return to a “regular” school where there would be worksheets, homework, and class instruction. In other words, Jackie felt confident for the first time in years that he could tolerate demands.
I like to think Jackie came to this decision in part because of a conversation we had in the car that summer when he asked me, “Daddy, do you think you’re autistic?” I replied that it was possible, though I had never been diagnosed. I asked the reason for the question. “Well, you’re a little like me. You’re impatient, get ideas stuck in your head, and you need a lot of time alone to think, like I do.” I nodded and said I thought these were really smart observations. I told Jackie that I didn’t think I was autistic, then I told him something else: “You know what? I have learned I suffer now, and probably for a long time suffered, from depression. Now I take the medicine you used to take. It didn’t work for you, but it works well for me, so I’m doing something to be a better version of myself. Do you feel, after the treatments and medicine withdrawal, that you feel like a better version of yourself?” Jackie kept looking out the window but smiled a little and nodded. I hoped at that moment I could start saying sorry less, and just focus on being better. I think Jackie did too.
I can’t tell you how Kratos’s story ends. Not only would it spoil the game, it would also invite an artificial comparison because my own story can’t end until I do. All the same, Kratos’s and Atreus’s story has given me one of many reasons to think about the ways that I can and cannot be the full author of my story as a father, or even that of my child’s. I used to be a metaphysical libertarian, just like Kratos, but also like him, fatherhood has humbled my sense of control over the world. It has helped me embrace vulnerability and see it as a source of wisdom rather than a distraction or weakness. Fathering Jackie has opened my eyes to the myriad ways love can be tested and wills can be bent to the point of near breaking. I have grown and looked back over my life with shame at the moments when I could not tolerate what I perceived to be weakness in others. I also have come to be kind to myself, having the sense to appreciate that no one’s story is truly final until the end, and that, until the final moment, what is needed is not full control but attentiveness to what the moment requires, to what those you love most require, and acting according to the principles of care and concern.
I used to be a willing father of war. I saw all that transpired between Jackie and me as a potential battleground upon which only I was meant to walk away victorious. Two years of isolated pandemic life amid calamitous personal upheaval was not without its benefits. Like Kratos, I now prefer peace to war, listening to demanding. I am more willing to follow. Because I love Jackie. And because I must protect my child.
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