A mother beams as her son, lives with Asperger's syndrome and schizophrenia, courageously lives his dream to become an inventor
From The Quarterly, Winter 2014
John Atherton is a 53-year-old electronics whiz and inventor living in Portland, Oregon. At the time of this writing, he was busy preparing a prototype of one of his inventions for presentation to potential investors at the Consumer Electronics Show, held every January in Las Vegas. The device, one of several he has patented, is a hand-held voltage indicator that determines whether a power cord is alive or dead.
John also lives with schizophrenia and Asperger’s syndrome (an illness “on the spectrum” of autism). His mother, Martha Atherton, explains that it took years for John to get the right combination of medications to alleviate his debilitating symptoms. She has been his unwavering supporter and a trusted companion during many dark periods when John questioned whether his life was worth living. Today, Martha plans to join John at the convention in Las Vegas and can hardly contain the pride she feels in her son’s success.
Martha, John and the rest of the Atherton family have faced what seems like more than a family’s fair share of hardship. A happily married couple, Martha and Robert Atherton worked side-by-side at Robert’s successful company in Chicago for more than 50 years until his death in 2009. They had three sons, and lost two of them to cystic fibrosis. John, the middle son, began showing signs of psychiatric illness in his teens.
John never knew his older brother, who died in early childhood, but he was very close to his younger brother, whose death at age 12, when John was 14, triggered a severe depression. John was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Although he had shown some early signs of difficulty with socialization, he was in his late thirties before he was also diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
As is often the case in children with Asperger’s, John was an outstanding student. He tried to cope with the loss of his brother by burying himself in his books. Toward the end of high school, he says, “I began to unravel.” John struggled through three years of electrical engineering studies at the University of Illinois, but could not complete his degree. By that time, he says, “I was down and out. I thought about suicide.”
After a long and agonizing period marked by disappearances from home, hospitalizations and trial-and-error treatments, he finally found some relief with the antidepressant fluoxetine (originally sold as Prozac®). Today, John is stabilized on a combination of antipsychotic and antidepressant medications.
John had moved to Portland when he was 18, drawn by its mountains, which he used to love climbing. He has lived there on and off ever since, returning to Illinois to attend college and for other brief periods. He gradually put on a great deal of weight, which can be a side effect of some of his medications, and had a near-fatal fall while leaping to safety as his house went up in flames. John was bedridden for two years with multiple fractures and still has trouble walking more than short distances.
During his extended recuperation, John became determined to turn his life around. He realized that what he wanted most was to challenge himself, to do “something that would express my creativity.” Inventing, which he now pursues full time, has filled a “great inner void.”
Although his family has seen to it that he is financially secure, John is eager for his inventions to pay off–– partly for his own self-satisfaction, but mainly, he says, to be able to help others. From his own struggles with mental illness, he has great compassion for others’ suffering, particularly for homeless people. Having learned from his parents’ example of philanthropy and charitable giving, John supports the Portland Rescue Mission that offers services for the homeless. Like his parents, he supports cystic fibrosis research and donated all the funds raised when he climbed Mount Denali in Alaska in memory of his brothers.
As for Martha, it is hard for her to articulate the pride she feels in her son’s courage and the joy she shares in his success as an inventor. She and her late husband are longtime supporters of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, through which she says she has developed a better understanding of autism and schizophrenia and a strong conviction that research will eventually lead to the alleviation of suffering caused by mental illness. She says the Foundation “is a blessing in her life” and she knows the treatments John eventually found have helped save his life. For that, no gratitude can possibly be adequately expressed.