If I grew up in a jungle, quite free and alone (I dream of this often), I don’t think I’d know that I’m autistic.
I’m certain I wouldn’t have a clue.
When I’m walking through a park, I don’t feel autistic.
When I’m curled up in my warm bed in the morning, reading a book and drinking a coffee, I don’t feel autistic.
The bird outside my window, who knows I’m watching it, doesn’t know i’m autistic. The beautiful leaves don’t know, or the trees, or stars, or dogs, or cars. My toaster doesn’t care a dot that I am autistic, and cooks my toast as equally for me, as it would for anyone.
I am good enough for most things (onions, lamps and chairs), as I am, and even if i’m crying.
But I have learnt one thing – that I have never been quite good enough for people, and that’s what seems to count (onions, lamps, and chairs don’t count).
That is the story how I found out that I was autistic. Through the shame of discovering that I am simply not good enough for most people. I’m a bit “off”, and people let me know about it, directly or indirectly, one way or another. More and more people, as the years pass, have let me know. I became a reluctant collector of the knowledge of people’s uneasiness towards me. I became an expert in sniffing it out. Ever-watchful, exacting, and sensitive.
That is how Debt starts. Debt is a story of shame. Some people have less Debt than others. Some people seem to be in total poverty.
Being in Debt is a process where you are given invisible (and not so invisible) fines, that slowly shape your identity and form your core belief about yourself. This is the only way I can explain it. It is a debt of shame, that you carry with you, that you don’t know what to do with, or what it means, or how exactly to pay it off – you just know that you are in some kind of personality deficit. That you are less, and that people like to let you know that you are less (sometimes it’s their job), because it frightens them that you are. “Be more” they sometimes say. “Be me”, they mostly say. “Stop being less!”, they yell, in chorus. And you listen because you are young. Anyone can give you a fine – that is the cruelty of becoming indebted.
My debt started when I was very little. My first “fine” came from my four brothers, who didn’t want to play with me.
“she’s weird”, they would complain to my mum.
“Go away!” they would tell me. I embarrassed them all, somehow.
I was weird.
I took that first fine, the knowledge of my weirdness, and I put it under my pillow and I tried my best to ignore it. I learnt to play alone, in a house full of children. I knew the fine was there, it stabbed at me gently from beneath my pillow, but it was just one fine, and I could hide it. Children are very good at hiding things. I didn’t know then that there would be more fines, and that soon I would run out of places to hide them.
From the age of five onwards, the fines came in quick succession. School. Every day a handful of new offences.
“Tegan is quiet”, reads one.
“Tegan keeps to herself”, reads another.
“Tegan doesn’t concentrate”
“Tegan is antisocial”
“Tegan can’t make friends”
“Tegan can’t keep up”
“Tegan is behind the other children”
“Tegan needs to try harder if she wants to catch up”
I had one teacher, Miss Smith, who would keep me in at lunchtime because I couldn’t read the time properly. She was completely exhausted by me. She would scream “EVERYONE ELSE CAN DO THIS, WHY CAN’T YOU?” and thump her hand on my desk. Being less makes some people really angry.
Why couldn’t I do it? Why couldn’t I tell the time? I wanted to know, too. She asked my mother one day if I had been dropped on my head.
Soon after, I was kept back a year. I think that is the moment that broke me into a million little pieces that I have never been able to put back together. I was 7 and I knew now, for a fact, that I was different, and that it was bad to be less – that it was punishable. After that, when I failed my classes, I was no longer surprised. When the teacher ripped up my drawings in front of me because I wasn’t concentrating in class, I wasn’t surprised. I was being punished for being less, and this is the way things were. I swam in the sad shallow grading pools of Fs (FAIL), of Ds, D+ and D-, sometimes, but rarely, I got a C. I don’t think I have ever, in my whole life, got an A or even a B.
What a strange thing it is to be graded.
For a long time I tried very hard not to be less. I thought it was a matter of effort, like the teachers said. I tried so hard to understand what was in my school books that I would cry from frustration. No matter how hard I tried, I never improved. My brain was impenetrable and picky, only liking what it liked, and nothing more.
There was so much that I apparently couldn’t do that, after a while, I didn’t think I could actually do anything. The apathy started. I was a failure, so why even try? I used every sly trick to get out of going to school, faked every illness. I hid in the toilets during class, or I would take my lunch to the thick and quiet bushland that surrounded the football oval and wait out the day. The bushland frightened me, I was often cold, but being frightened and alone and cold was preferable than being reminded that I was a hopeless dipshit on an hourly basis in class.
Like most kids, I thought that when I left school, things would get better. They didn’t. They got worse, and grew into a different kind of horrible. My debt grew bigger and more terrifyingly real. I could never keep a job for longer than 6 months, and I drifted from job to job, never quite being able to make friends, never quite being able to learn at the pace people wanted me to, never quick enough, bright enough, chatty enough, irrespective of my motivation to be all of these things (and I wanted to be them so badly).
“Sorry, we are just going to have to let you go”, was common
“You haven’t made it past the probation period”, was another.
And, the most embarrassing one yet, “she eats alone at lunch time, and keeps to herself”, which was written in a reference letter for a new job. I got fired from the job before I even started. Nobody wants to hire someone who eats alone.
I blamed myself. It was all my fault. It seemed as if I was doing something wrong, all the time. If only I could just stop doing the wrong thing, stop taking the wrong step, then things would get better. BE BETTER, I would tell myself. YOU AREN’T TRYING HARD ENOUGH.
I ran away. I thought I could find somewhere where I would be accepted. There had to be somewhere in this whole big world where I could have some peace – peace to me was being told that I was doing a good job. All I wanted was a place where I didn’t stick out like an awkward, gnarly thumb.
Many years passed. I became my debt. When I spoke, fines poured out of my mouth, my bag, my pockets. They tumbled out my door and flew out of my windows. I couldn’t hide them anymore. I wore them. My social anxiety grew to the point where I could hardly speak, because I was convinced that I was such a failure, that everything I said would be wrong.
“Why are you so quiet?”, people would ask, some kindly, some not.
“Why can’t you dance? Just let loose for once!”
“why can’t you just enjoy yourself?”
“You say strange things”
“you need to learn to not be so honest”
“you’re really sensitive!”
The same thing happened, over and over: I would be invited to parties, then phased out of invitations. People would like me, and then suddenly not. After a while, I learnt to preemptively give myself fines to save people the bother. Even when people tried to be kind, and some people really did try to be my friend – I wrote myself off before they got a chance to, and burned bridges spectacularly and dramatically. After years of being pushed away I didn’t know how to let people in. I still don’t.
Loneliness is the biggest sin. The scariest monster. Him That Shall Not Be Named. This is a thing that I have learnt. That when people sense that you are lonely, really really lonely, they get frightened that you will need them, that they are responsible for you, that they too will fall into the dark, lonely abyss that you call from. The worst thing about loneliness is that you’re not supposed to talk about it, and that you can only hide it for so long before you eventually expose yourself, and people leave. Some stay, the brave ones – but rarely.
“Your loneliness is a burden on me”, one lover said.
“Just go out and make friends! Your sadness is driving me crazy”, said another.
Cruelly, it seems, that in order to make friends you can’t be lonely in an obvious, desperate way.
I have been lonely all my life in an obvious, desperate way.
At 32 I went to see a psychologist about my debt – it had become so big that I didn’t want to be alive another day. I was finding harder and harder to leave the house. Shame, phenomenal shame, took me to her door, and kicked me through it. Every small fine I had collected day after day, year after year, I laid out in front of her. My gaping, gnawing loneliness. My feelings of alienation and disconnection. My social failures. My anger issues. My failure to find any sort of career or stability. My moodiness. My longing. My chaotic lack of organisation.
She patiently went through each one. She didn’t mind my abyss. She had seen it all before.
“There is a reason you are like this” she said, “and it isn’t your fault”
The statistics for High Functioning Autism are grim. We are, on average, a pretty lonely and isolated bunch. We want friends, but can’t make them. Or if we have friends, we can’t keep them. Some fare better than others. We are mostly unemployed, and those who are employed are usually working well under their pay grade, in industries where they are exploited. Because we look normal, people doubt our disability. We die younger, we have chronic comorbidities like depression, anxiety and OCD. We don’t often marry, and when we do, those marriages don’t seem to last. God have mercy on my soul – the list is long.
After I was diagnosed I went through a period of mourning. Some people, when they are diagnosed with HFA, feel elated. They finally understand who they are and why they are the way they are. There is a monumental feeling of relief. I didn’t have this. I grew frightened – this was something that I couldn’t actually change about myself. It wasn’t a matter of effort, after all. There was no more TRY HARDER, or BE BETTER, and no matter how hard or how long I searched I wasn’t going to find anywhere in the world where I was fully accepted. I have a disability.
So what am I to do?
One thing, really: be kind.
Kindness is the answer to a lot of things. They didn’t teach me that in school. I hope they do now.
It’s that dumb, big cliche: I have to find a way to love myself, as I am, right now, in this moment. It is the only way to clear the debt that keeps on coming, day in, and day out, from everybody who thinks I’m a bit odd, who tells me, in their own small way, that I am less.
Every fine that I have, I have to confront it, contest it, and burn it with a hot, good thought about myself. It is a slow process. The slowest. It is often exhausting.
I might not be good enough where it counts, and a bit of a failure by a lot of measurements (my milestones are small, but they are my own) but I will have to find a way to be good enough for myself. And in the end, if I am good enough for myself (and for onions, lamps, leaves, cats and chairs) then that is all that matters. That is actually all that counts.