You know who I really look up to?

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It’s people who have done something really bad, or even almost done something really bad.  Up to and including torture, murder,  and things like that.  And who are able to look at themselves with unflinching honesty.  Who are able  to take that look at themselves, fully comprehend the impact of their actions on others, and then move on with their lives a changed person.

I sometimes envy them.  I have done bad things, certainly.  But I am not always able to face myself, even after relatively minor things I’ve done wrong.  I go into denial.  I try to find every way not to face what I have done.  Either that, or I take too much responsibility, but I take responsibility for things that aren’t actually my fault or my doing.  Much harder is to take a true, honest look at myself, see what I am responsible for and what I am not, and try to specifically take responsibility for the parts that are really my fault, and do my best to fix what I can fix and move on from what I can’t.

As far as I can tell, that’s hard for just about anyone.  Most of us run around not facing the way our actions affect other people.  Most of us have a hard time seeing ourselves, and the consequences of our actions, clearly.  Most of us either take responsibility for things that aren’t our responsibility, fail to take responsibility for things that are, or, more usually, a little bit of both, here and there.  All of which ultimately evades our ability to accurately take responsibility for things we’ve done wrong.

I have a lot of respect for Dave Hingsburger, author of the blog Rolling Around In My Head.  He has spent pretty much his entire career as a writer atoning for unforgivable things he did when he was working as staff in institutions for people with developmental disabilities.  He wrote the program that gave a DD woman burns all over her skin from an electric shock device similar to those used at the Judge Rotenberg Center.  (If you want to read about that and much more, read his book I Witness: History and a Person with a Developmental Disability, which is an extended interview with a wise old woman.)  He has always been a role model to me in how to responsibly face up to what you have done wrong, and how to make it right as much as you can.  I know it doesn’t come easy to him, but he’s better about it than most people I know.

There are people who try to fake such transformations, of course, and I wouldn’t trust them further than I could throw them.  I know someone who hurts people and fakes remorse in a cyclical way that never goes anywhere.  But real understanding of the wrongs you have done, and real remorse, has a look to it that can’t be falsified.

I am always amazed when I see criminals recount their crimes with an unflinching accuracy combined with a clear acceptance of what they have done, the harm they have done others, and their role in making it right in any way they can, as well as the realization that even though they will have to atone forever, some things can never be made right.  It feels like despite the horrible things they have done, they are on some levels better at behaving ethically than a lot of ordinary citizens who can’t even face up to the last time they lied to their wives about money or something else little like that.

Anyway, I’ve always admired people who can do something really bad, look themselves in the mirror, and turn their lives around.   The real thing I mean, not people who fake such a turnaround while looking for admiration or forgiveness in all the wrong ways.  I hope someday the rest of us can be that courageous.

Mud and wood-sorrel.

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Who did you hold when you fell to the floor?  And will you ever tell me more? Your cast iron hands and your filigree mind have never had much time for my kind. I can rise from the floor and take my leave of here, anytime I want. Just remember, anytime I want.

Tell me of earth, you who have never touched it, but only held it in your mind, an abstract component in one of your filigree spells. And I’ll tell you of words, I who have seldom seen them but as the birds that Donna spoke of, falling without a sound. And maybe somewhere we can touch and find our common symmetry. Or maybe only common disdain. So common, that disdain.

I held out to you a hand full of soil drenched in water. It had the smell of roots, of fallen needles, the beginning of green wood-sorrel. You shouted, drop it, get out, get it out of here!  Get my damn mud out of here before it ruins your floor, your house, your clothes, your furniture.

I fell down on the floor to examine the soil. I ran it over my fingers and inhaled the rooty scent.  And I could find nothing amiss. Nothing of this mud you spoke of with such disdain.

You were never aware of the power of the words you threw behind you, one scrap, one song, one to sting. Mud, you called it, and suddenly it became filth, and I became filth by association. You never saw a beautiful or useful building constructed of mud, I imagine, nor all the other uses of mud… or the very tone of your voice that tells us all “Mud is beneath me, beneath me, beneath me, Mud is beneath me” would simply not be.

But people heard your words carried on the wind. They do that. Your words ride the wind whether you will them or not. And people hear them, and people change.  Your words carried down to someone whose house was made from mud, and when she heard the tone in your voice when you said mud, for the first time she was ashamed.  Half ashamed, half defiant, but all unnecessary if you’d kept your disgust to yourself.

My voice is the color of mud, and my skin is the texture of bark. My love has the depth of water, my touch is as soft as mist dancing past trees in the dark.

But right now I feel bone dry, as if my roots can’t push the water far enough into the sky.  And there’s haze between me and you.  My eyes are like a desert, my kidneys burn in the night while I’m waiting, waiting to put things right.

Can you enter my life without burning me from the inside? Can you steer your way round the curves of my body without looking for all the ways to tell me they’re wrong to exist. Can you?

Or will you just shout at me that I am mud?  And with your words, turn that into an insult rather than a thing of beauty?

I want to curl up underneath the mud and show you I can turn into wood-sorrel.  Show you that nothing can uproot me, least of all words.  And hold my roots in the ground and turn my leaves to the sky and taste how sweet light is and be cradled in the muddy dark.

Redwood sorrel

(Originally written Oct. 12, 2013)

My worst social trait.

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One of the things I feel the most guilty about is my inability to stay connected with people I care about.

Generally, I can actively have between 1 and 3 friends, at most, at a time.  I may have other friends who are my friends, but I don’t communicate with them.  I don’t even remember, half the time, that they exist.  It’s gotten so bad sometimes that I live right down the hall from one of my closest friends in the world and I have sometimes forgotten that she exists for over a month at a time.

People who are not tied to me closely in a way where I have to communicate with them regularly, don’t stand a chance unless they are able to keep up the lines of communication, themselves.

I try as hard as I can to change this.  I feel horrible about people that I feel like I’ve picked up and then abandoned, so many times over the years.  And then, to make things worse, it can get to a situation where I only contact them when I absolutely need something out of them.  So then it becomes “I can’t even contact you most of the time when I just want to talk to you, but I can contact you when I need something from you.”  That feels horrible.  I know that it’s not the case that I’m just “using” them, I know this is all tied into autism and executive dysfunction and movement disorders and memory problems and inertia and a million other things, but it still feels like this is what’s going on, and I can’t help wondering if they secretly resent me for it.

Sometimes, to make matters worse, there are people I think about all the time, but I can’t write to them.  I get writer’s block every time I try.  I may somehow manage to think about them every day, but I can’t write.  And then the guilt builds up and only makes it harder to contact them.  I haven’t gotten into this cycle with very many people, but when I have it’s been almost impossible to get out of.

And then I try to explain these things to people I’m “supposed to” have ties to, people who are very different from me both socially and cognitively.  There’s one person who’s repeatedly said things to me like “I know you don’t like to write to me” and no matter how many times I explain what’s actually going on, they still say things like that, a lot.

And sometimes I wonder whether everyone except me knows all this about me.  Like whether there’s conversations like “Yeah, she says she likes you, but then she disappears and forgets about you and never talks to you again, except maybe if she needs something.”  I hope not.  But I don’t know.  I always feel like I have to warn my friends up-front that this happens, because it’s so hard for me to stay in touch with people no matter how much I actually care about them.

And it’s hard to deal with this in a world where people measure how much you care by how much you think about someone and stay in touch with them.  I have the problem that I can care very much about someone, and in fact have a very close relationship with them, yet forget about them for weeks or months at a time, and fail to communicate with them for years at a time.  If my friends want to maintain a relationship with me, then they have to put in a larger amount of effort staying in touch with me than they normally would with someone who is more easily able to stay in touch, and this doesn’t seem fair.

And it still doesn’t seem fair even knowing that this is related to specific cognitive limitations.

And I still feel like a failure as a friend, because I can’t communicate with people as much as I want to, or think about them as much as I want to, or both.  I still don’t know what makes the difference between people I think about all the time but can’t communicate with, and people I forget even exist.  It certainly isn’t how close a friend they are, nor is it physical proximity.  There’s someone in particular that I think about frequently, but who I have not written to in probably seven years.  They wrote to me once a few years ago and I badly wanted to write back but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t.  It was like bashing my head against a brick wall.  And this person is someone I once had daily contact with, someone I owe my life to.

As far as I know, there’s a few things that overlap to cause this problem.

One of them is a memory problem where unless a memory is specifically being triggered all the time, I’m not going to remember it.  I have a very good memory for things that are triggered in a specific way, and a lousy memory for everything else.  I have been known to be unable to eat because my cupboards were closed and I couldn’t see the food so I didn’t know food existed.  I have the same problem with people.  If the person is not actually there, or not actively communicating with me right at that instant, then I don’t remember they exist.

Another of them is a form of inertia, where actions have to be triggered in specific ways in order to happen, much like memory has to be triggered.  This means that simply thinking about doing something is not enough to make me able to do that thing.  I have to be in a situation that triggers the right reaction.  And writing to people is not an action that is easy for me to trigger into existence.  So even if I remember you exist, I’m not necessarily going to be able to write to you.  This also explains why I’m more able to write to someone if there’s something I need — the need triggers the action.  Although need doesn’t always trigger an action, it all has to align correctly (so there’s someone I needed something from for years and I never could write to him because it wasn’t exactly aligned right to trigger the action of writing).

Another of them is a trouble with multitasking.  Staying in touch with people is not a simple action like picking up a ball.  It is a complex action that involves many different cognitive and physical aspects all at once.  This means that in order to happen it’s not enough for one thing to be triggered by one other thing.  Everything has to line up perfectly.  If even one part of this large chain of events is out of place, then I’m not able to do it.

The multitasking problem is also evident not just in the amount of parts it takes to make the action happen, but also in terms of paying attention to multiple things at once.  There’s a reason that I am able to stay in touch with one or two people, but not more than that.  One person takes up all of my attention, then I have very little attention left over for anyone else.

And this is all besides the fact that I’m pretty introverted by nature and I don’t automatically spend my time thinking about people.  I think if I were extroverted I would still have trouble keeping in touch with people, but it would be less trouble because my mind would be more drawn to thinking about them all the time.  I can go a long time without thinking about people at all.  Even when I write for my blog, it is easier for me to pay attention to what I am saying, than it is to pay attention to all the people who might be reading it.  I am always genuinely surprised how many readers I have, and sometimes alarmed by that fact.  Even though I feel like I am someone who cares deeply about people in both the general and the particular, my mind is not automatically drawn to thinking about people, as a topic.  Right now I mostly think about crocheting.

I’m sure there’s other things, many of them autism-related, that play into this as well.  And it doesn’t just affect friends, it affects family.  I have a horrible time staying in touch with my family, and I feel constantly guilty about it.  (Worse when I get letters from relatives that contain assumptions like “I know you don’t like writing to me”… ouch.)  Especially since I get a lot of support from my brothers at times, but never ever talk to them, rarely talk to my father, and only sometimes talk to my mother.  It doesn’t matter how much I care about or love someone, it can’t overcome all these difficulties.

So if you ever notice this pattern in my communication with you (this includes my inability, sometimes, to respond to blog comments), try to understand that it’s not personal.  I only have one person in my life that I’m in consistent contact with right now, and another person that I’m in semi-consistent contact with, and that’s usually about my limit right there.  Three people happens sometimes but it’s rare.  Right now it’s one and a half people — one very consistent contact (Anne), one less consistent contact (Laura), and a lot of very, very scattered contact with other friends and family.  And I can even forget Anne exists, even though that doesn’t happen as often as it would with other people because of a type of connection we share that as far as I know is completely unique — I can’t form that connection with people on command, it just exists, and I’ve never had that type of connection with anyone else.  And even with that deep, intimate connection I can occasionally forget her for a week or so.

And I’m very sorry, to the 15+ people I’ve cared deeply about and almost entirely lost contact with over the years.  If I could change anything about myself socially, this would be it.  But I’ve never been able to change it.  It makes me feel like I’m not capable of “real” friendship, even though I know I am.  I am lucky that I have some very tolerant friends.  People who take such lapses in contact personally, won’t do well in a friendship with me.  Not that I judge you if you do take it personally on an emotional level — we just may not be compatible if you do.   But do try to understand that my level of contact with you is not at all related to how much I love or care about you.

Being tired is not the same as fatigue.

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Being tired, even being exhausted, is not the same as the kind of fatigue that people with chronic illnesses are dealing with day to day. And I knew this, intellectually. But after going on steroids to treat adrenal insufficiency, and getting some stamina back, it’s like a revelation.

I haven’t really had much in the way of clinical fatigue since I got on steroids. I only feel it on my bad days, and my bad days aren’t all that bad compared to how they used to be.

I do get tired. I get exhausted. But even at my most exhausted it’s not the same.

Fatigue, when talking about in a medical sense, is more than exhaustion. It’s a sense that everything is drained from your body. You don’t just feel tired, you feel sick. Your body doesn’t work right.

I wish I could just upload the feeling into people’s heads so they’d understand it’s not the same.

Like, take the feeling of clinical fatigue, wrap it in a package, and hand it to all the people who think that chronically ill people are just lazy.

And then take the feeling of ordinary tiredness without clinical fatigue, wrap that up in a package, and hand it out to people with chronic illness so they’ll remember that they’re not just lazy or tired.

Because that’s so hard to remember in the thick of things. It’s easy to think that you’re only dealing with the kind of tiredness everyone else gets. It’s easy to start believing that you’re just not trying hard enough.

But if you ever get the chance to try a treatment that works, and works big time, and alleviates a good chunk of that fatigue. Then it’s crystal clear that if anything you were working harder than most people do, and for less results.

Because that’s what keeps coming back to me. So many things are so easy now. I was working harder than I’ve ever worked in my life, and getting nowhere. And now I’m barely working at all in comparison, and I’m improving every day.

So this understanding is important for healthy people because they often expect too much of us. But it’s also important for sick people because we expect too much of ourselves.

The way a cat loves.

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[Written the same day as my previous post.]

I love the way a cat loves. When she takes every blank place my memory won’t fill in. And she sits at the center. In a big bold cattish way. And fills in all the blankness with layers and layers of catness. And somehow curls up in my arms, curls around my whole mind, at the same time, keeping everything in. Her love replaces blankness with catness and terror with love and sobbing with purring and I love her for all of it. And loving her back makes a circle.

Don’t ask, I can’t tell, I can’t even explain.

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[Originally written on October 17, 2012, after a hospitalization for pneumonia and gastroparesis, in which I experienced severe delirium for five weeks. This was my first attempt to explain what I was going through. It was the basis for part of the story in my comic.]

She skated towards me wearing a red winter scarf. My feet were frozen to the ground. She waved her scarf in the air from a distance. It was the only thing with color in sight. Then it flew through the air and landed in my hands.

I clutched the scarf tight. I didn’t see but felt her fall. I didn’t see but felt life struggle to maintain itself, and fail. I didn’t understand. I never understood. I couldn’t make sense of anything anymore.

I never let go of the scarf. I unzipped myself and wrapped it around my heart. To keep everything warm when nothing was certain. And then I cried until I thought I would never stop.

And I’ve tried to hide what is gone. But I’m not sure if it fools anyone. There are places we used to go, things I used to do, and they seem as dead as she is. Only sometimes I feel something squeeze my heart. And things pop into focus once again, in color.

I can’t tell you all of my wishes, because they are all in code. I can’t tell you what I can’t do anymore. It’s just one more room in the building, left blank and unexplored. I wish I was known for who I was and not for what I did. I can’t tell you what I’ve lost or what I’ve gained.

I can still see more than people want for me to see. I can still feel things deeper than people expect. What I can’t understand, I still can’t understand, only more. I still want things that can’t be named. I still can’t tell you any other way than this here, right now. What stays, what shifts, what’s changed.

If you wanted something different, I can’t help it. This is what you get. If you don’t understand, maybe it’s not here for understanding. I’m just exhausted, and didn’t have the energy to tell you the normal way. So I took what I had and I went where I could. And this is what you get.

Don’t tell me what I should have said. Chances are, I couldn’t. This is brain damage we’re talking about. It isn’t convenient. It doesn’t instantly vanish. If I could only tell you a tenth of it.

It’s hard to look around and see that nearly everything I used to pay attention to, is impossible to understand. It’s hard to know I can’t say anything unless it follows a particular pattern, like this does. I couldn’t say this part without all the rest before it. All the rest. Not something else. Something acceptable.

I’m scared and I couldn’t tell you why. It’s winter and the wind is blowing hair in my face. I’m glad I have the scarf around my heart. Otherwise I’d get lost in all the snow. Everything used to be familiar. Now there’s so much snow I can’t identify anything. Or not much of anything.

Please, something be familiar. Something be unfrozen. Something be other than white. I feel tiny, and I’m shaking, and I don’t remember anything. Not what I just said, not that you’re alive. In here, I don’t know you. I don’t know me. I don’t know anything.

But it always fades back. And there’s always more. And I always find myself writing this. To you. To who? To me. To they. I don’t know. All I know is I couldn’t have written this any other way. And maybe someone can even figure out what I meant. Because it’s in there. If you look in the right places, and with the right eye for the reality of one experience or another.

I am through, so I hope, sitting up all night with neon pink insects eating my eyelashes. Lying in a sunlit room with parts of me flying into the sky and back again. Night after night trying to avoid being flattened into a grid pattern and dissolved. In lots of pain. With lots of nausea. And I hope never to visit that realm again. A lioness carried me out.

Not that anyone noticed. They come in and change your IV bag and the hours between are left for you to lie still and drift into bizarre hallucinatory worlds that always have an undercurrent of hell on earth to them. They don’t check you for it. That’d take time. So of course they’re blindsided by my paranoia and then, after that was gone, sliding into the blank white snow everywhere. They only noticed what affected them.

I’m out. But it’s not over. And I wish I could tell you the things I can’t say or understand. But they’re just lost. And I get scared if they’re ever coming back. And this was the only way to tell you. So don’t ask it to be less roundabout or full of things that didn’t literally happen. Because right now that’s one thing I can’t do, can’t do at all. Don’t call this creative writing it’s the only damn writing I have at all this moment. And what I’ve done hurts like blinding colors in my eyes instead of a scarf warming my heart. If she’s dead or asleep, I can’t tell you, don’t know, but it hurts.

The Scarf — A Comic About Delirium

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This is not a BADD post.  It’s just a post I’m making for people who might have wondered.  And people who didn’t wonder, but might want to know.  And people who might have experienced something like this, and might be feeling really, really isolated.

In the fall of 2012, I was hospitalized for roughly five weeks with aspiration pneumonia related to gastroparesis and bronchiectasis, and I now know that undiagnosed adrenal insufficiency played a huge part in why I got much sicker than anyone thought I should be.  (My doctor now thinks I probably should’ve been in the ICU during the first part of that stay.  At the time, the first of several hospitalists took the position that he was only going to treat my pneumonia and was going to ignore all of my other conditions.  It was hell on earth and there were times I only existed by the skin of my teeth.)

It was a grueling and traumatic experience.  Especially things related to the severe delirium I dealt with both in the hospital and after I returned home.  And the aftermath of that delirium, which took over a year to fully dig my way out of.

The worse your cognitive impairment after a period of delirium, the more likely you’ll die later on.  So delirium isn’t just this weird thing that causes disorientation, cognitive impairment, and sometimes hallucinations.  It’s also something that can kill you.  It’s a form of brain damage, as far as they know, and each delirium makes you more vulnerable to further delirium.  But exercising your brain can help.

So I started taking classes online, to try to keep my brain occupied.  One of the classes was a class on comic books.  The big assignment for the class was to make a mini-comic.  I’m not good at that kind of drawing, and I’ve never been able to finish anything like this before.  But to my surprise, this comic pretty much poured out of me.

I want to make one thing clear though, before anyone reads it:  This is not the literal narrative of what happened to me.  It combines elements of things I experienced in a literal way, elements of things I experienced in the delirium, elements of a story I wrote later on in order to try to deal with the feelings the delirium and hospitalization caused in me, elements that are pure metaphor, and elements that are put there to make the story flow easily.  This comic is about emotional truth, not literal truth.  For instance, I didn’t just “wake up from the delirium and squeeze someone’s hand” (although there was a period of time when holding someone’s hand was quite important) — that’s just a shorthand for a much more complicated process than I could do in seven pages of comics.  The tube feeding came months after the first hospitalization, not immediately.  And obviously the person I drew looks nothing like me.  Some of the story follows a stereotypical story pattern for certain things, specifically so that I could explore others without having to flesh out every detail that varied from a stereotype.

The PDF of the comic is available at the following link:

https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/92647909/TheScarf.pdf

Here’s a picture of the front page:

The Scarf.  Stylized drawing of a woman holding a red scarf, inside a white circle, on a black background.

There’s two things that I hope about this comic:

1.  That it can express something of what I went through.  Because it was one of the most profoundly isolating and lonely experiences of my entire life.  It seriously felt like going into the underworld or something, and after I came back I felt like that world was all over me and I couldn’t break through to the world that everyone else was in.  And nobody could talk to me about it, and nobody could offer any advice, and I felt like I still had a foot in that other-world for over a year.  And like nobody could really see me, because I was in that other-world, and I couldn’t see anyone else, because I wasn’t in their world, and it was very frightening and isolating and I most of the time had no words to articulate any of it.  Except occasional bursts of almost-poetry.  But it felt like whenever I said anything, people just stayed silent, they didn’t know what to say or how to respond, and that made me feel even more distant and frozen and dead.  Also whenever I was hospitalized or sick I’d fall back into delirium even more easily and that didn’t help either.  Writing this comic was the first way I felt I could express any of that feeling in a big way.

2.  Even more so, I hope that if anyone else has gone through anything like this, that it speaks to them in some way.  That’s the other reason I’m posting it here.  My friend urged me to make it public for the sake of people who might be feeling the same isolation.

Also, that holiday season, my mother bought me a red scarf and pinned a note to it saying “to wrap around your heart”.  It means everything to me.  I still have it, and I especially wear it when I’m feeling like I’m being dragged too close to the delirium-underworld again.  Which happens, but less and less often, especially since treating the adrenal insufficiency.

I hope this is meaningful to someone besides me.