Chasing Oblivion


A conversation last night reminded me to write about this. (Note: Now that I’m coming back to this, I have no idea when I started writing this, but it sure wasn’t last night.)

When I was a kid, I really didn’t want to exist. At least, that’s how I conceived of it at the time. I was not suicidal. I did not want to die. I just didn’t want to be there. The manner in which I started head-banging was not as the impulsive action it evolved into (and it did evolve into that), but I had heard a person could be knocked unconscious if the right part of the head was hit, so I set about trying to hit it over and over. Unconsciousness sounded like non-existence, and non-existence sounded pleasant.

It sounded pleasant because I was on a kind of overdrive that I have heard autistic adults talk about still being in. Some of them have sustained it their whole lives. I only sustained it about ten years, if that (maybe more like six or seven).

That would be ten years of doing incomprehensible things, for reasons I could not understand, with a vague fear that something awful would happen if I stopped, and being continually bombarded with more information than I could understand or handle. This is not to say there were not good things going on in this time period, but outside of specific incidents, I mostly remember a blur of shapes and sounds and words and pain. (Severe physical pain, which went untreated for more like 20 years.)

What I was thinking throughout all this, was about getting back to the nothingness that my mind could sometimes get into. I pressed myself onto the floor hoping that I would become the cool smooth surface of the floor instead of the jagged burning surface of my body. In school I ran out of the classroom and ran the paper towel dispenser in the bathroom all the way out of paper towels, ran the soap dispenser out of soap, and pressed my face on anything flat and cold I could find. When not doing other things, at home I tried to disappear in my room by inventing all kinds of scenarios where everything around me slowly faded out of existence, trying to call up the nothingness. Or else banging my head with things, trying to call it up another way.

Some people have tried to characterize some of what I was doing outwardly in this time period as pretending to be normal. That’s not actually a possibility. Doing that would have required a level of understanding that I didn’t have at the time. A better characterization would be, I was doing what I thought I had to do, with not enough capacity left over to reflect on why I had to or what it was I was doing.

To me, the world — in general — usually felt like one giant thing attacking me from all sides. I don’t mean in a paranoid sense like “people were out to get me” (although kids certainly weren’t very nice to me and teachers certainly nearly always took their side), but on more the level of total bombardment with something giant, chaotic, incomprehensible, and pain-inducing.

As I got older, I was put in situations where I had less and less time to do all these things, and so I started doing more of them in the open than I’d previously done. I lost most capacity for the appearance of standard learning, which people didn’t notice for somewhere between one and three years (I noticed right away). And all the other changes I’ve discussed during that time period were happening, so I was pretty disoriented.

I tried taking refuge in nonsense, since the world seemed like nonsense to me anyway. I also started preferring sleeping to being awake, and trying to treat being awake as if I was still dreaming. In my dreams I often fell into nothingness, which felt wonderful, so I kept trying for it while I was awake. I even tried running into a window (ground-level, it didn’t break) because in a dream I had run through a window and been absorbed into the cold glassiness and disappeared. And then when I got old enough to understand what suicide was I tried that (but was thankfully horrible at it).

A lot of people would attribute all this to how horrible autism is or something, but I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s the result of trying to function beyond your capacity day in and day out with no understanding of why and how to stop. These days, if I start getting an intense longing for oblivion, I understand that I am on the verge of shutdown, and need to lie down or at least do something less overloading. While I am still considered by at least one friend a “workaholic,” I actually push myself far less than I did when I was a kid, because I know what the results are — I don’t get any further that way, but I get a lot more burned out.

There’s a real problem, though, with the way things are set up (and I don’t mean the brain), when a little kid’s fondest dream is to not exist. I really worry about all the kids who are put through rigorous programs that make them do more and more, and the more they can do the more work is piled on them, to the point where their systems can’t take it. And the adults forced into that position from lack of readily-available assistance. I wonder how many of them just wish they could disappear, like I used to wish.

About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods, which tell me who I am and where I belong in the world. I relate to objects as if they are alive, but as things with identities and properties all of their own, not as something human-like. Culturally I'm from a California Okie background. Crochet or otherwise create constantly, write poetry and paint when I can. Proud member of the developmental disability self-advocacy movement. I care a lot more about being a human being than I care about what categories I fit into.

13 responses »

  1. This coupled with Estee’s video is timely for me. A bit off topic as I’m addicted to ‘whodunnits’ but I just read ‘Adam and Eve and Pinch me’ by Ruth Rendell. One of the characters has serious OCD. It doesn’t help understand the ‘why’s but it does help an outsider see how ‘all encompassing’ such drives can be.
    best wishes

  2. I agree with you regarding pushing children too much. It upsets me when I read of children my little lad’s age (he is three and a half) being made to do hour after hour after hour of therapy each day. Helping your child to learn is great, but at that age most learning comes through play and unstructured play at that.

  3. Wow, this post evoked some really old memories I’d all but forgotten about…like banging my head on the concrete patio outside in the hopes that I would knock myself out (this around age 7) — not because I didn’t want to exist (I didn’t think of it in those terms) but because I wanted to escape from something or go into a different world that wasn’t so confusing.

    I also used to do other things, like try to hold my breath for as long as possible, and spin around and around to get as dizzy as possible, and lie on the floor staring at lights intently until everything disappeared except for the light. I never understood why I was doing any of that stuff…it just kept occurring to me to try all these “weird” things. I’m now wondering if I was compelled to do these things for similar reasons to yours, because that’s about the best explanation I’ve ever heard. Maybe our brains and bodies sometimes have ways of coming up with novel (if sometimes dangerous) stress-management techniques even if we don’t consciously know we are actually “stressed”.

    Stress was a really abstract concept for me until relatively recently, as was pain in general; I remember as a kid thinking I didn’t get headaches, but now I realize that I do get them, I just didn’t recognize the sensation as “pain” initially, nor was I able to localize it to a particular bodily region.

  4. Some days, I feel completely normal. I mean, more normal than most kids…because many kids adopt a subculture or style. I grew up, not goth, not punk, not anything. I grew up in some way, with the dullest, childhood one could ask for. In a sense, it was due to growing up in a shut in family. Shut in because they had to. Shut in because the best place to raise kids in their situation was next to the jails and halfway houses where the parking was cheap. Not that I myself have anything against prisoners judging how well our system works with autistics…still, there is a good enough measure of horror there to not enjoy my living situation. Every night, scared someone would break in…because on occasion, they tried and by that, I mean I nearly took out a grown man’s fingers by shutting my window before he could force his way in. I looked normal…only because I was quiet, still and trying what you were describing. Ordinary but in the middle of a kind of hell hole that was anything but. My parents were ok in some ways. They stayed together….that’s about it though. My mom pushed me to succeed. My dad pushed me to be as generous as possible to other people despite having more needs than everyone else around me. I was normal in that I was as close to having nothing as possible and a fair amount of 18th century abuse for a child. “just different times” I suppose. I mean, when one’s father was born in 1916…that’s what one gets.

  5. “I really worry about all the kids who are put through rigorous programs that make them do more and more, and the more they can do the more work is piled on them, to the point where their systems can’t take it.”

    This happened to me. First my body reacted by giving me seizures, and finally my brain seemed to break in half. I lost my memory and most of personality for 9 months, after 8 hours of paralyzation. Recovery was a long uphill process, and I’m not even sure I’m entirely “back” yet.

  6. I am NT but relate to much of what you have said in this post. For much of my childhood and all of my teenage years I wished to not exist. Not to die, but not to feel or have to think or have the weight of other peoples expectations and demands placed upon me; also to escape from the physical and mental experience of the situations I was placed in (or their aftermath and anticipation).
    I was in a very secretive,as well as mentally abusive family set up where those outside of the situation felt free to and expected me to fulfill the role that had been set for me by the family and would punish me (physically and mentally) if I varied from it.

    Many of the things around me changed ( death of a pivot person, kicked out of family home)and people I came into contact with allowed me to do what I needed to and aided me in finding other safer, more acceptable, less violent to my own person, alternatives (phyiscal contact with textures and temperatures, obsessive videogaming – as well as the NT staples of talking and physical contact but without compulsion and an understanding that I did not want to reciprocate).

    As an adult if I become over stressed over stimulated etc I find that I will automatically try to revert to these earlier patternings. It does happen less so and as wisely recommend this is a time to do something different and try to cut off from the demands/stimuli.

    This nearly became a larger epic but it would be presumptuous and is unnecessary and harmful to dump all of the details here.

    Thank you for articulating clearly what I have been unable to do so for a long time and far more succinctly than I ever could have.

  7. When I’m really having trouble with flashbacks sometimes I wish I could just stop being aware of anything.
    It’s probably a general reaction to overload.

  8. I can relate to the concept of non-existence. It is something I have felt throughout my teen years and into adulthood (I am at the age of 25 now).

    My contribution is somehow pessimistic, however, as it refers to the circumstances wherein one would develop an urge not to be present (or at least not to be confronted with the demands and expectations of their surroundings, as Sue W stated). My personal situation involves my Asperger’s syndrome and the fact that I have grown up under extremely favorable circumstances.

    I have had a caring family with a middle-to-high income which has essentially meant that I have had little or no real shortages of either material goods nor emotional support throughout my childhood.

    But that does not change the fact that I have constantly struggled with a sense of isolation from social relations which conforms quite easily with the conception of “not wanting to exist”, which of course leads back to the beginning of this thread by ballastexistenz. My point is, however, that this feeling occured despite the fact that I had much support (though not pressure) from my family. As I have had favourable conditions to begin with and that I nonetheless suffer from the same problems suggest that those of you who have had a more difficult childhood and parents with different demands (like born in 1916…) have already demonstrated quite a degree of resilience and ability. Otherwise, we would not be in the same situation.

    If this does not present itself a compliment, then forgive me. It was meant as such.

  9. As the parent of an autistic child, I have to ask: Is there anything, of any type, that a parent, teacher, peer, etc., could have done (or even can do now, for that matter) to help you during those times of stress, overload, and confusion? Be it something physical, emotional, or even behavioral on their part; removing stimuli or teaching you how to remove yourself from the situation (any specifics to that?); etc.?

  10. My 21 year old son who was a college student (diagnosed with high-functioning autism, as opposed to Asperger’s due to language delay as a toddler) died by suicide this past March. He has been struggling with depression for at least 10 years, and was being treated off and on for it for the past 5 years. I consider the frequent bullying that he suffered since mid-elementary school years, at the hands of other children and sometimes teachers, to be a very large contributor to his pain. Our schools are not doing enough to help any child who is “different”, to appreciate and value the differences in all of us. Now his pain has been multiplied and passed on to all who knew him and loved him.

  11. At times I have tried to kill myself because I believed that I did not exist and therefor continuing to be alive was a lie. I was told it was depression and I said “no I wasn’t depressed at all I just didn’t understand the separation between “me” and everything else. The didn’t get it and claimed it was depression.

  12. Reminds me of when I was pushing myself to meet the world on its own terms (as I thought of it at the time): the tough-guy attitude that the world doesn’t care and will never change, so you have do all the adapting, whatever the cost. (“Whatever the cost” doesn’t seem so bad until you find out what it is.) “Tired? Too bad, keep going. In pain? Tough sh**, do it anyway. Can’t read or think anymore? Then read it 20 times.” — and so forth.

    In the following ten years of nearly continuous overload that followed, I’d numb out (dissociate?) during the day at work and/or school, and then come home and chug vodka until I could feel enough artificial insulation to let the armor, and the built-up programming of feigned responses & understanding, and suppression of all manner of natural reactions, drop for a few hours. (It took years to figure out how to drop it naturally.) As time wore on that devolved into simply wanting to obliterate my consciousness.

    When alcohol wasn’t an option, there was suiting up and climbing the steepest 10 mile grade in the area I could find. I’d titrate my effort by the tunnel vision & ringing in my ears, to the edge of fainting; to the edge of consciousness.

    The world was like a brush fire, but burning everywhere at once and never burning out. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Turning out the lights of my consciousness made sense on an instinctual as well as a literal level.

    In those years I used to have a recurring dream about driving very fast on the freeway at night in the rain. The rain would be heavy, sometimes so heavy that I couldn’t see and could only freeze at the wheel, hoping that the view would clear up in time to avoid a crash. But it doesn’t clear up. Ten seconds… twenty… “are those lights coming at me or going away? …Holy sh**!” and then wake up right before the head-on happens.

    I could escape from the dream world into reality, but (as you mention) I had a lot less luck making it work the other way around.

    I am definitely no longer a fan of the “the world won’t change, so you must do all the adapting yourself at any cost…” club.

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