Iris, the autistic author of A Different Childhood, spent some time in her youth working on the night shift in a hospital cancer ward. It was a place pervaded with the fear of death where the staff avoided the patients by running around doing a lot of things, whether they were needed or not. With her amazing ability to read peoples inner thoughts, gained by her diligent observation of how “normal” people function as she was learning to become “normal” herself, Iris was able to see the underlying causes of their distress. In the excerpt below she shows herself as observant as Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, and exceeds him in effectiveness, because she sees the issue ans she knows what to do about it.
“When a patient was restless or anxious I stayed with her after I had done my rounds. I sat down, held her hand and talked about the immaterial. I asked the ones able to talk how it looked in their fears and got many descriptions of hell and all sorts of horrors that humans can imagine. The worst anguish was that so many thought that they hadn’t finished living, that their life hadn’t been good, that they hadn’t gotten out of it what they wanted (as if there is something special to be gotten out of life, as if it could be completed in the sense of “finished product”), that they had been too scared and too bound by duties. That feeling easily shifted into bitterness which they took out on the staff. They were well and had time left.
That envy was dreadful for the dying. They couldn’t help being mean and difficult, and at the same time felt more and more guilt feelings. I realized the hamster wheel they were on and that the patients really wanted to talk about their lives, have some type of connection, and work through their fear of death. I sat down and quietly asked them to tell about their life. I asked them to talk about both the light and the dark. They were often stuck in the dark and it took a long time and many turns before they got through it. I asked them what experiences they had had, what the agonies had taught them and if there was something rewarding they could find in it all. Often then they thought of something and little by little their mood brightened and we began to have a nice time together.”
If you would like to learn more about Iris and her experiences in this and other situations, you can read more on our blog and you can read her book, A Different Childhood.