Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 6.8]

Our situation remained the same for three more years. My old boss, Michael, the one I loved, had moved to a pharmaceutical start-up and asked if I would be interested in creating and managing their training program. For months I told him “No thank you.” He practically offered me the moon—autonomy, an unlimited budget, and a salary double what I’d ever made in the past. I eventually took Michael up on his offer, out of respect for him and the opportunity to incorporate the knowledge I’d acquired about process design and improvement, human performance, instructional design, project management, and hands-on training into the creation of a brand new program.

Around this time, I decided to wean myself off the antidepressant. I’d developed a sense of security behind my flattened emotions, but I came across an article that reminded me how emotions were important for memory storage. I became afraid that staying “numb” could keep me from enjoying Jax fully or remembering parts of his childhood. Around him, it was easy to be playful and feel joy. Those things had become sacred to me. I’d even conceived of a sort of “joy meter” for Jax.

Whenever he would interact with the world—school, friends, art, play, etc.—I stayed back enough to monitor the emotions on his face. I took note of the things that brought him joy and opened him up, as well as the things that seemed to sadden him and close him off. I did my best to let him engage in activities that seemed to bring him the most joy. And, I tried to keep him from situations or people that hurt him. If that wasn’t possible, because he obviously needed to learn to deal with unpleasant things in life, I would intervene with support to help him understand how the situation was affecting him and teach him how to regulate his emotions in a productive way.

One example of this was when my mother came to visit. Jax was about four-years-old at the time. He was used to frequent visits from my Dad and Bridget, who always excitedly greeted Jax at the door with huge hugs and smiles. When my mom knocked, Jax ran up to the door with me in anticipation. My mom walked quickly past us into the house and immediately began complaining about the traffic, and then said she needed a drink. She commented on some things about our neighborhood and then told David to go out to the car to get her cigarettes. She finally asked where Jax was and I turned behind me to get him. But, he wasn’t there.

At first I thought he’d ran out the front door. After searching outside and then inside for several minutes, I found him hiding under the dining room table. He’d never done anything like that with anyone. It hit me like a ton of bricks that he’d most likely taken my mother’s inability to reciprocate his greeting as a rejection. From that moment on, I’ve watched the effect my mother’s sometimes bizarre and erratic behavior has on Jax—especially when she drinks. I am always in his corner, subtly buffering him from her energy, and I have tried my best to help him understand that my mother’s lack of interest in him isn’t personal.

A nicer example of the “joy meter” is when Jax was barely three and came home from his Montessori preschool with a drawing he’d made. It looked like upside-down “U’s” in a row, from small to large. Three days in a row he handed me similar drawings, but I couldn’t understand what he was saying about them or what they were. On the third day, I asked the teacher and she said, “Oh! We have Matryoshka dolls in our culture box. Jax has been fascinated with them. It’s all he wants to play with.”

I remembered back to the set of nesting dolls Grandma Trailer had in her curio cabinet. A memory of their magic came back to me vividly. I went home and searched for a set of them on-line. I ordered them from a puzzle company and when they arrived, Jax went bananas for them. They were the only thing he wanted to play with at home, too. He slept with them and took them everywhere. For the next two years, we sought out antique shops around town and made “quests” out of finding a set hidden on a back shelf somewhere. We hopped on E-bay together and hunted for new sets. He always knew exactly the ones he wanted and found sets all very different from one another to complete his collection.

We’d bid on the ones that were within our budget, then wait for the results. That tested his patience enough, but even once we had won, he’d often have to wait three or more weeks for them to arrive from Russia or China or wherever, and then again in line at the post office. He sometimes struggled with the concept of time and the length of the wait, but we discovered that if he made a “paper chain” to count down the days, he could ride out the wait more easily. The whole process taught him a lot about: selecting wisely based on specific criteria; the value of money; accepting disappointments; and delaying gratification—besides it was extremely fun for both of us. He found so many creative ways to play both systematically and imaginatively with those dolls. Not to mention he learned to draw the art pictured on each set quite accurately and they often became the main characters in stories he wrote.

Of course, many other things brought Jax joy, including exploring nature, building structures, reading and learning, and being at his preschool with the kids and adults he’d learned to trust. As time went on, it became ever apparent to me that I wanted to spend more time with Jax. It hadn’t taken me long to tire of the corporate politics and demands of management, so once the new training program was up and fully running, I left that position for a very appealing, albeit much lower-salaried, job at the university. I got paid to read, write, design professional development workshops, and consult with leaders to solve performance problems and develop teams within the organization. It was considerably less stressful, required learning and creativity, and gave me a lot more time with Jax, so the tradeoffs were definitely worth it. It was the first time I’d ever been genuinely excited to accept a job.

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