“It gets better” is the message that we are all supposed to convey, with conviction, to troubled youths who are experiencing suicidal ideation. On July 27, 2011, a New Paltz man who had struggled for most of his life with Asperger’s syndrome, depression, anxiety and ulcerative colitis “finally gave up hope that there was something better than his reality,” according to his mother, Fran Wishnick. Only about seven hours after being released from a psychiatric unit at St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie, Craig Russell Wishnick, 27, walked out onto the Walkway over the Hudson, climbed over the railing and plunged into the river, the first person but not the last to commit suicide since the Walkway was opened as a public park. Craig’s body was found two days later.
During the five years that followed, Fran Wishnick has been writing down her recollections about her son’s life, and this August self-published the resulting book using the CreateSpace platform. It’s titled Craig Climbed a Tree: His Lifelong Struggle. What makes it stand out among the many accounts of the heartbreaks and triumphs of raising a child with profound mental-health problems is the fact that much of the text consists of Craig’s own writings. The reader is offered an unusual degree of insight into his thought processes, the barriers to his understanding of what the world expected from him, his struggles to fit in, his powerful determination and his persistent unhappiness.
The human brain is a marvelous thing; when parts of it have deficits, often other parts will overachieve in order to compensate. Like many “Aspies,” Craig was extraordinarily bright and excelled academically – as long as he had clear, concrete, step-by-step instructions to follow. But there were areas of abstract and hypothetical thinking where he was simply unequipped neurologically to complete assignments, or even take a stab at them.
Nevertheless, via his own strong will and diligence, and with constant support and guidance from his parents, Fran and Ken, he was able to become a consistent honors student during his high school years in Maryland. He was eventually offered scholarships at a number of prestigious colleges. He wrote prodigiously over the years – e-mails and letters and journals and lists and ponderings, in addition to school assignments – and his parents managed to preserve many of these documents.
It’s a false stereotype that people on the autism spectrum somehow lack compassion or empathy simply because they are often baffled by other people’s body language, tones of voice and other common social cues. Craig Wishnick decided to become a vegetarian at the age of eight and remained so for the rest of his life. He simply couldn’t bear the thought of animals having to die in order for him to eat. His academic studies were largely focused on the plight of immigrants and people in Third-World countries, and his ambition was to find a way to carve out a career for himself in the field of international relations – without being placed in the sorts of social situations that would trigger panic attacks because he did not understand how to behave appropriately or felt judged and rejected. A fluent Spanish speaker, he was happiest when traveling in Latin American countries on his own, discovering new things without feeling any more crippling culture shock than the average visitor from the US.
Alas, a niche in the professional sphere where Craig’s abundant strengths and talents could make the world a better place without his social weaknesses stifling his ability to succeed did not seem to exist. Worse, he always found it extremely difficult to develop and maintain friendships – except in supportive environments like the farm for special-needs youth where he often did volunteer work during the summers. Once out of school, he was determined to live independently, sharing an apartment in New York City for a while and filling his days with lectures and museum visits, various types of psychotherapeutic support groups and explorations of strange neighborhoods. His parents worried, of course, but tried to help him find his own wings.
But it was not to be. Negotiating with roommates was not the strong suit of this young man who suffered from “black-and-white thinking.” Nor could he find enough steady employment to support life in the Big Apple. Navigating the social-services bureaucracy to have his disability benefits transferred proved too daunting. Craig’s social anxieties triggered immune-system problems, notably chronic colitis that kept him bedridden for long periods, and the steroids that he needed to take to treat his physical ailments worsened his depression. Eventually he came back to live in New Paltz, bouncing between his parents’ home and a rented room.
Beyond that point, Craig’s is largely a story of frustration, exhaustion and disappointment, exacerbated by the absence of a system of mental-health care equipped to address the needs of young adults on the autism spectrum who have aged out of school-based supports. The Wishnicks tried everything, from acupuncture to psychoanalysis to a variety of drugs, but nothing could ultimately sustain Craig’s hope that he might ever stop feeling miserable. And so he decided – after wondering since early childhood why people were forced to live if they didn’t want to – to take his own life.
While much of Craig’s story is told in his own words, his mother – in the sort of clear, direct, undramatic language that a parent must hone while raising an Asperger’s kid – also lets us know what it cost the Wishnick family on a daily basis to try to help Craig interact successfully with a world that mostly saw his behavior as strange and off-putting. And she wraps it up with a plainspoken indictment of a medical system that all too often lets young people like her son fall through the cracks, or fails to engage with people with mental-health problems in effective ways.
Without deliberately tugging at our heartstrings, Fran and Craig break our hearts. And maybe that’s what’s needed in order for the system to change for the better. In the words of Keith Gurgui of the Resource Center for Accessible Living, Inc., the book is “a-must read for those in the healthcare service industry, especially within the area of mental-health care.”
Craig Climbed a Tree: His Lifelong Struggle is now available online from Amazon at http://amzn.to/2cojA8W, as well as in the Inquiring Minds bookstores in both New Paltz and Saugerties and Barner Books in New Paltz. Fran Wishnick will be doing a reading at 4 p.m. on Sunday, October 9 at Inquiring Minds on Church Street in New Paltz. Find out more about the book, Fran’s public appearances and advocacy work at www.facebook.com/craigclimbedatree.