Melville was a bright boy. In his room he would devour calculus textbooks and dismantle the family electronics. Alone, his preferred state of being, he would sort through the neighbor’s junkyard of a car lot and take apart internal combustion motors and then build a forge for smelting shards of metal in his backyard. His mother was confused but unsure of what to do, and he would shrug her touch and affection, returning his nose to the texts that provided keys to his insatiable mind. Decades ago, there were not ready diagnostics for a child who with an aversion to social and physical contact, a dislike of strong smells and textures, a perceived unwillingness to communicate. He was so obviously smart, so willfully disobedient, he understood but refused to listen, he frustrated everyone. It was much easier to label him a bad kid, hopeless. The vocabulary of autism spectrum disorders being a fluent part of the public vernacular was still decades away— school in the 1970’s was a string of wretched situations and expulsions.
Melville knew he was different, but he didn’t understand why or what was ‘wrong’ with him any more than anyone else. What he did know was that when he was in his middle teens, and his neighbor offered him some drugs, those drugs hit his central nervous system and for the first time in his life, he felt what he imagined “normal” might be. Melville left high school, and with the aid of his new “normalizers” got a degree and bounced around silicon valley, working for Apple, Silicon Graphics, Applied Semiconductor; as long as he could focus on the circuits, the electronics, the logic, he thrived. And he made good money.
Now in his mid twenties, Melville wasn’t happy. His drug use was increasing, as his tolerance grew and grew, and what once made him feel ‘normal’ now hardly took the edge off. Physiology trumps mental perception, as the family of every addict knows. A series of unfortunate events landed him in rehab and a court-appointed 12-step program, and Melville began to discover God. He got clean, sober and moved himself away from everyone he knew who might pull him back. He was brave.
He married a girl he had been friends with for several years, and who was supportive of him through his rehab and who, in her own naiveté, believed she could help him and saw the beauty in his distant genius. She imagined a life full of brilliant books, building telescopes to view the skies, and thought the idea of a forge in the backyard was charming. She didn’t know or understand that the season of peace he was inhabiting would be brutally short.
A season of peace for an addict is a powerful and persuasive narcotic in and of itself. Those who love an addict know the hopes and dreams that can be built in in this bubble- and for a few fortunate souls, the bubble may last years or even decades. For Melville, it was six years.
In those short years, Melville and his wife had three children, bought a home, and discovered the Gospel. They joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and built a life resembling something respectable and beautiful. But it was fraying around the edges even with the birth of the second child, and by the time the third was born, Melville’s ability to cope with the demands of three children, a mortgage, a wife and the daily grind of a job was becoming dangerously perilous. When the second child was diagnosed with autism shortly after the birth of the third, a picture began to emerge where for years there were only blank spaces.
Now firmly woven into a community of faith, but where people still generally lacked the understanding or vocabulary for not only an adult with autism, but for an addict, Melville’s crash was spectacular and fast. The pressure to be a Latter-day Saint provider and priesthood holder was a crushing weight to a man without understanding of his own disability, but keenly aware of his own differences.
Over a period of three years, Melville burnt through eight relapses, two stints in rehab, and untold hell for him and for his family. His wife hung on as long as she could, but eventually she could no longer, and she left too. From the outside, it was so easy to assign blame, to fit the wretched implosion of a family into an acceptable narrative of Good and Bad- and to a certain extent those labels were useful. When an addict is using, there is nothing good to be mined, and those who are innocent should be protected.
Melville lost his wife, his children, his home, his job, his savings, and his membership in the church of the God in which he believed. Rock bottom is a different place for everyone, addict or not, and it’s impossible to say where it will be found. The only true rock that can be hold onto in such a situation is that the Savior descended below whatever level of hell is your personal bottom.
Melville slowly, and with now un-numbed pain and vision for what he had done, began to gather himself back into human form, placing his clay heart into the hands of God. It took more than a year before he was strong enough to appear at church again, attending a ward where he didn’t know anyone and sitting alone in the back. The humility required in that simple act was nearly heroic.
“One day at time” is more than a mantra from AA meetings for an addict. It’s a way of life, and sometimes even taking it a day at a time is too much, and time compresses and crunches down to ‘one hour at a time’, or on bad days, even into moments. Those scores of moments between Sunday meetings, Melville walked mostly alone.
After a year of moments strung together, Melville began the work of moving from a shadow in the back of the chapel and returning to full fellowship. He requested to have the missionaries visit him regularly, and began counseling with his bishop and working the church’s addiction recovery plan. Invisible to the outside is the anguish he carried with him, a constant companion, but one that he knew he must bear.
It has taken Melville nearly three years of painful, hard work, but he is once again a full member of the church he loves. Judges in Israel have weighed his heart, and found him worthy, and he can even enter the Temple again. But you might not know that if you watched from the outside.
When Melville enters his old ward now, there are people who remember his wife, his children, his home and what came before. Perhaps it is a misguided idea of allegiance or faithfulness to what appear to be the innocent. There are those who are kind and smile and shake his hand. But there are more who glare at him, snub him, turn away, whisper, and slide over on their pew in order to make a subtle but definitive statement about his welcome. He makes no protest. He swallows what is heaped on him, and finds a new seat.
The courage it takes for Melville, each Sunday, to face this, is something which most of us will never have to draw. The kindness of the few, mercifully, outweighs the scorn of most. Melville accepts this as the harvest he reaps. One cannot help but wonder though, if those who feel free to scorn, to shame, to cast out, would have the mettle to continue to show up in the face of their own judgment.
There isn’t a soul alive who knows Melville’s pain. It might be comfortable to sit and look at him, and feel superior, or feel as though he is deserving of scorn- after all, what he did was so easily and tidily labeled as Bad. But there is also not a soul alive who knows the strength Melville found in standing on the bedrock of the bottom and crawling his way back to God. If any person feels that the Lord needs help dispensing pain or shame, they are missing the point of being a Saint and a disciple of the Lord. Life is complicated, and too often is full of pain. Some of it is of our own making, and some foisted on us by others- but what really matters is how we deal with our fellow man. Despite our fervent wishes, there is not a formula that works for everyone. The atonement promises salvation and grace for us all. Even for Melville. Especially for Melville.