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Archive for May, 2010

“And I raise my head and stare, into the eyes of a stranger…” ~ Queensryche.

“I’ve always known that the mirror never lies.” This is the next line to one of the most tortured of Queensryche’s lyrics, although for me, while I do see a complete stranger gaze back at me from the mirror, it is indeed the mirror that reflects nothing to me but lies. It is contradicting, and downright mind numbing, to exist as two separate people, to not know whether what I am seeing is a lie, or whether it is merely a layer to another, deeply buried personality. Which one of us is real? The frightened, deeply saddened little girl with autism, or the self-confident, seemingly fearless woman who blends so well now into the neurotypical world, that only very few can detect my differences? I promised, weeks back, to discuss the mask I wear each day in order to fly under the radar of the label of strange, or the discovery of my autism. I promised to write about how the only time I am comfortable enough to strip away the mask, and be my REAL self, is when I am in foreign countries.
So this is tonight’s topic, providing that I can finish it before the pumpkin turns into a coach for me, and whisks me away from the laptop. I’ll start by talking about the mask I honed perfectly, probably starting from the age of 5, which is when I first came to realize that I was different from other people. And yes, I do remember all the way back to my toddler and infancy years, which is common with many on the autism spectrum. But until I went to school, I perceived no differences between myself and others, I was not subjected to torment by my peers, was not given any reason at all to change my appearance to others, there was no incentive for it. My family accepted me the way I was without question. Did it matter to them that I was speaking in full sentences before I could even walk? Did they care that I never made eye contact, or changed facial expressions, or spoke in a monotone? No, as my father once said, “We always knew you were special, and that was it.” Special, different even, but not wrong.
It wasn’t until I began kindergarten that I realized, in my mind, there was something very wrong with me. I had no desire to interact with other children, in fact, I found them quite annoying. They were loud, their movements were quick and frightening, and I rarely understood them. Every sense of mine was made raw in the presence of other children, my ears hurt, my eyes hurt, and my mind hurt. And I had no way of ever knowing how to communicate any of this properly. To me, I was behind a thick, impenetrable wall of glass. I could watch the others play, but I could never participate, never understand the social intricacies of child society. I was alone, and so I preferred it that way.
But this is not something positive, not once it has been observed by the other children. The lone child is marked immediately, from day one, and with no understanding, my own behaviors only reinforced the abuse I received on a daily basis. But I digress.
From that day forward, slowly, and I do mean ever so slowly (as I am STILL learning to this day), I learned to protect myself, to try to crack the complex social code that mystified me, and continues to elude my understanding in many ways today. It wasn’t until junior high that I really figured out that I needed to watch others closely, watch their interactions, listen to the way they talked to each other. It was purely a driven instinct of survival, because I felt that I was fragile, porcelain in structure, and that anymore rejection would completely and utterly destroy me. I became, in effect, an anthropologist on the down low, unobtrusively trying to discover what was normal, and wrestling with my perceived demon of what made me so bad and undeserving of friends.
By junior high, I had a better grip on what was expected of me as a girl, and I tried as hard as I could to fit in. The anxiety was almost paralyzing, but I worked through it, devising various methods that seemed to work. For example, the lunch line was the most terrifying and dreaded part of the school day for me. My first experience with the lunchroom sent me into a full-blown panic attack, one that I was determined never to expose to my peers. I had come from a catholic elementary school with no cafeteria to prepare me for the onslaught of the senses that I was to be introduced to. Have you ever watched the HBO movie “Temple Grandin?” Remember the scene where she goes through the cafeteria line, only to be reduced into complete meltdown mode? That was me, although I hid mine better. The noisiness, the burning fluorescent lights, the kids pushing, the annoyed cafeteria women, no one to help me to pick something simple to eat. I left the line, and only rarely did I return, and that was when I was with a friend who could act as a calming inducer to me. Yes, I did manage to make a few friends in those dark years. I devised a system, which was as simple as not eating. The anxiety actually overrode my hunger, my need to eat. And when the stomach pains came, I yanked out a bottle of extra strength aspirin and downed a few. Did I understand that aspirin was not intended to quell pangs of hunger? Did I know it was harsh on the stomach and liver? No. Remember, many people on the higher end of the autism spectrum may be gifted IQ wise, but we are years behind our peers mentally and emotionally. Naive. Innocent. Whatever you want to call it, there it is.
While this wasn’t really a way to understand social norms, it hid my glaringly obvious anxiety from those I felt would try to hurt me. It hid my vulnerabilities. Or at least I felt that it did. And it was the very beginning of the complexity that is the mask.
By high school, I had learned that there were things you didn’t say, that you weren’t supposed to speak your mind, and it was accepted, even expected, to tell white lies. Friend: “Does my hair look nice today?” Me: “That rat’s nest? Hell no. You need to fix that!” Acceptable? NOT! Instead, “Why it looks gorgeous, of course!” Better, right?
So on and on, the glass wall still there, as thick as ever, but now, this time, no one but me is noticing it as often.
My most progress did not come, sadly, until the age of 28, when two acquaintances told me that they didn’t trust a word I said. “What the hell does that mean? I never lie, it doesn’t even cross my mind to lie to anyone about anything!” After all, I had to train myself to tell white lies for god’s sake. “Well, you never make eye contact,” they said, “That’s what liars do.” Again, I was blown away. Next came, “Why do you clench your fists all the time? Are you gonna go crazy on us?” So I realized then, that I was doing something seriously wrong with my body language, bordering on that of the criminally insane. And making no eye contact appeared to be an insult of some sort. I knew then, that I would never, in a million years, be able to get a good job and support myself, something I badly wanted to do. To prove them ALL wrong, to show them that I was not as worthless as I allowed them to make me feel. That may have been the most influential two instances in my life.
I fervently began to immerse myself in the “Anthropology Project,” as I call it, determined to out best their snide remarks. I read about body language, what was expected, and how hopelessly unnatural it was going to be for me. I began to force myself to make eye contact (yes, at age 28), it scared the hell out of me, overwhelmed me with the other person, made me sick to my stomach, made it hard for me to hear and understand what the other person was saying, but I knew it was the only way. Now, if only I could determine the right sequence of eye contact. How much was too much, how long was too long? Where do I look when I’m not looking at the other person? I read somewhere that it was 50/50, so I estimated and began experimenting. Normal body posture for me? Stiff, fists clenched with anxiety. All wrong, right? So I learned to consciously relax my body. (I’m still not great at this because just a few weeks ago I needed a vaccination and the nurse told me that my arm was not relaxed enough. I laughed quietly to myself, knowing that if she had seen me years ago, my arm would have had the stiffness of a Victoria’s Secret lingerie mannequin.)
I learned never to clench my fists, especially since, if TSA decides to utilize body language analysis through security, I’m pretty much screwed. I’m already an anxious and sensory overstimulated mess going through security as it is, I don’t need them whisking me away into the interrogation room on top of that. I found other ways to cover up my missing social cues. The monotone of my voice? If I force myself to smile when I talk, it lessens the non-expressiveness of my voice considerably. I still sound like a robot when I create my own voicemail, but at least no one accuses me of sounding angry and irritated when speaking to me over the phone anymore.
Conversational skills were tougher. Small talk? I still don’t get it. So again, I listened to others. What does someone say to the question, “How are you?” It rarely is ever the truth, right? A simple “Good, thanks,” will do, maybe even, “Good, how about you?” I thought people really wanted to know, but of course not, it seems closely woven into that “white lie” thing to me.
So each day that I leave the house, I pull on the “I’m NORMAL” mask, maybe a better description would be a costume. Yeah, a far-fetched, outlandish and goofy looking costume. I like that. Or maybe I’m Catwoman. I have enough cats to qualify for that. So as I drive in the car, I remain the autistic me, blank expression, probably more relaxed than before, and usually singing to the music I play, which calms me and prepares me for the superman move. You know where this is going…that’s when I pull on my superhero non-autistic personality costume in the car before I get out of it. The smile comes on, the voice takes on a lighter note, maybe an expression to go with the smile, the relaxed body posture, and the eye contact. It certainly feels superhuman to me, and after all, I’ve got all the super senses to go with it. So there, I’ve taken myself from scarily weird to superhuman within one discussion. Something only a person on the autism spectrum could do, I assure you.
What I’ve noticed about myself, that has completely changed the way I regard the mask these days is the way I feel when I’m traveling. Specifically, foreign countries. That mask dissolves completely, and I feel no need to drag it out of my huge bag of “normal people tricks.” I feel free, free to be myself, and for whatever reason, when that happens, the autistic side of me vanishes into thin air, like a ghostly apparition. I am happy, free from anxiety, free from the concern of what others will think of me. I am, for once in my life, really and truly that person who gazes at me from the mirror. I am whole, healed, one person, the great wall of glass naught but a distant and disturbing nightmare of the past.
I have my theories as to why this occurs. For one, I have no day-to-day drudgery to turn on my anxiety button. And two, which I think is the most influential, is the perception that I am accepted. If I do anything that does happen to be unaccepted, it will be written off as “Well, she’s a foreigner, she doesn’t know any better.” If my auditory processing disorder kicks in and I can’t understand someone, I don’t get the “she must be retarded” vibe. I get a slower, more carefully repeated wording. An explanation I understand the second time around, without feeling as if the other person believes that I’m merely not listening. A forgiveness, again, maybe because I’m foreign.
The key here is that I feel acceptance, and where I find unquestioned acceptance is where I will be freed forever from the stigma of my past, and you can only imagine how delightful that is for me. I have come to realize that the life of a permanent wanderer will yield me the greatest fulfillment in my life, the most healthiest I could ever hope for. So with this analysis, I have begun to research the Peace Corps, the completion of which, I might add, I have dreamed of since the age of 9. Never before would I have had the courage to make that leap.
And it is to those out there, who were the most cruel to me, that I can now thank. Thank you, however you made me feel about myself then, you have shaped me into a undefeatable, unfathomably strong person who is no longer afraid to attain my dreams. Because of your cruelty, I will never, ever, be that lost, scared and crying little autistic girl in the corner of the playground ever again.
Namaste to you all, each and every one.

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