Empty Mirrors and Redwoods

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This was originally written and posted elsewhere on February 25, 2012.

This is in response to a quote:

“When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” —Adrienne Rich

This is the story of my life. Not just teachers. Everyone. Everywhere. Not a moment. A lifetime.

Which is probably why one of my biggest goals in learning to communicate with people, in both standard and unusual ways, has always been to shout to the world that I exist, who I am, and that I am not going away without a fight.

It’s also why it hits me so hard when anyone tells me I’m impossible. They usually do it in the most fleeting ways. As in they don’t even give me a full once-over. In a moment they have decided I don’t exist. Sometimes it’s a matter of fact statement. “Real people don’t work like that.” Other times it is accompanied by some of the worst bullying I have ever encountered. “Real people don’t work like that. And I will stomp you into the ground for having the audacity to be who you are.” Any way it happens it hurts. Not just for me. I’m trying to make the way easier for others like me. I don’t want anyone ever to have to go through this again.

There is nowhere I can go that this won’t happen. Even if I try to go away from people, they can still follow. The closest I’ve ever come was when I first moved out on my own. I lived alone with my cat in a redwood forest. I would turn off the Internet, go outside, and talk to the rocks and the trees and the slugs and the fungus.

I’d fill my pockets with rocks. Or sit on the ground and stack rocks all over my body. And the rocks would tell me about my own solidity. They’d tell me about being part of mountains. And avalanches and mudslides. And volcanoes. And all the other things rocks know about. A small piece of granite in my hand would tell me about the smell of sun on a granite mountainside.

They told me I was part of the world too. Of the larger world. Many people say the world when they really mean the social world of human beings. The world is so much bigger than that. They told me that even if no human being told me this in my lifetime, that I do have a place in the world. A very small, particular place just for me. They said that everyone has a place like that. And that when I am done with my place in the human world, I will turn into all the animals and fungi and plants and microbes that will likely eat my remains. And then I will have other places in the world entirely. I may yet be a redwood tree when I grow up, just like some rocks turn into sand in the ocean.

Until now, I’ve never been able to fully express what all those rocks and stuff did for me. It was a surreal period of time. When I was online or with people, the main message I got was I didn’t exist. And even when the people weren’t around, their general behavior patterns followed me telling me I was a worthless, unreal waste of space. Then I’d go out to the rocks, in my driveway and elsewhere, and suddenly I had a place in the world and everything made sense. They didn’t tell me all these things in words. They told me through the patterns of what they were and where they’d been and what connections they had to other things. It’s hard to translate it into words or ideas, and harder still to translate into the dead, disconnected world that the mainstream culture wanted me to believe in.

So the rocks, the slugs, the dirt, the trees, and the fungus seemed to have no problem with being in the same world as me, and letting me know in so many ways that I belonged there. It was human beings that shut me out. The only thing I could write of it at the time: “I walk inside and I disappear; I walk outside and I have a place in the world again.”

But it wasn’t as simple as momentarily looking in a mirror and seeing nothing. My friend said it was more like looking at a painting without them in it and then being told it was a mirror. For me, it was not seeing myself no matter where I looked. I mean, on a deep level, I knew that I existed and that one day I would find at least one person like me. Knew it bone-deep, though I never imagined how much like me they’d be. But on the surface of my mind, it felt quite different.

On the surface, it was terror. Absolute unreasoning terror. That I might not really exist at all. That I might just be a thing. Forget not seeing myself in the mirror, I didn’t see myself anywhere. I felt like I was floating in a dark place without being able to perceive myself or anything around me. Or falling, living in free fall. Once it really started hitting home, I became terrified for my survival.

Because my life was not full of examples of anyone like me. Education was one way. I started junior high, high school, and college but I never truly finished them and deep down I knew I’d never finish. (Don’t make me explain the twists and turns in my educational history that made that statement possible.) I spent the majority of my teen years in either no school, institution schools, or special ed. And I knew that to the rest of the world none of us were real. And just — I can’t explain it fully — this caused an intense, deep terror of what my adulthood would be like.

After I fell off of the conveyor belt of life that all the real people were on, I was presented two, and exactly two, choices for my future. The first choice was that I could remain as I was, and go to an institution forever. The second choice was that I could get better and live on my own with no disability-related support. People called the second one words like “hope” and “we believe in you”. I called it a mirage. And it was really that second option that drove me to suicide over and over. Because that was the option I knew I would never become. And having it thrust in my face and called “hope” only gave me the message “hope is impossible”.

I knew this because I could see things about myself that none of those hopeful people could see. I saw that every month that life went on I was being expected to climb harder and run faster. And I saw that the things preventing me from doing those things… even if my skills were staying the same I’d be dropping further and further behind. But my skills were getting worse. And I knew exactly what that meant in terms of how feasible choice #2 would ever be.

Somewhere around when I got diagnosed, I coincidentally found Nobody Nowhere in a library. I brought it home because of nothing more than the picture on the cover. By the first page, I was in shock. By the next page, I cried. This was my first ever glimpse of myself mirrored in the eyes of another human being. I got profoundly lucky. I collect autiebiographies now, I think I have over a hundred, and that’s still one of the closest to my experience. If basic types of autism truly exist, she and I are in the same one. We are different in many other ways but not so much in that one. The first time I ever, ever was told by a human being in any form that I existed: I think I was 15 years old.

Somewhere in there I began making plans to escape. To run away to the woods and find some way to hide there and scratch out a living. But every time I tried going, I was caught long before I got there. People began making theories that something in my brain caused me to wander aimlessly with no real purpose in mind. They got me a bracelet that said so, that I couldn’t take off. Just one more mirror I didn’t exist within.

One reason I write about my experiences is to force the world to acknowledge who I really am and that I exist, that we exist as people like each other in these ways. But wrapped around that just as much is the desire to do for other people what Nobody Nowhere did for me. I know that a lot of people like me, given our language issues, don’t write a lot. And I want to be one of the ones that does, so that other people will benefit. And I don’t mean just about autism, although that will always be a large part of it. I mean everything in me that most of the world doesn’t acknowledge as a possibility let alone a large number of real life people. This happens to all marginalized people, and it also happens to people who just have things going on that are rare or contradict mainstream culture or the culture they live in. And I’m all of those things and I know how hard it is and I want to make it easier.

I also want to do something else. I’ve long had a video project in mind, but I don’t know if that will ever happen, so I do it in other ways too. I want people in the position I was in growing up, to know that choice #1 and choice #2 are not the only viable choices for a person to have. People kill themselves when they think they don’t have choices. And there are not enough choices in the world — but there are more than two.

Some truly nasty people once had a tittering little chat over my having said something like this once. It went something like “Why does she think her life is so great? She’s on welfare. She’s in public housing. She’s poor. She’s always going on about how wonderful this is, but that’s a shitty excuse for a life.”

I can’t even begin to explain the screwed-up worldviews that led to this little discussion. Including a complete misunderstanding of what does and doesn’t make disabled people happy with our lives (link to PDF). But really what it comes down to is this: Growing up, I learned that if I remained significantly disabled I would be in an institution. No other options. I knew long before anyone else did that cures were a pipe dream. I’d try hard to act like whatever they tried on me was making me better but that was bullshit and it fell apart fast. There was no such thing as a combination of freedom, and being unable to work or take care of myself. None. It wasn’t even imaginable. Nobody even made me aware of disability benefits or daily living services until I met other disabled adults.

To have no good options is a terrible thing. I want people to know there are options. They don’t work out for everyone. But to have the knowledge that there’s one option wakes your mind up and tells you there might be more. To actively look beyond the borders of your imagination. To be creative and keep trying. I know that the options I have now may disappear if the Republicans get their way, if the government collapses (even in a good way), if the economy gets ever more trashed. But my experiences since adulthood have stretched my imagination and taught me to keep trying for something until the day I die. Even if right now will seem downright luxurious compared to what is to come.

But what do I have now that is so special to me? I have a steady (if meager) income without having to destroy my body trying to work. I have subsidized housing, so I can (mostly) afford bills and food. I have housing at all. I have wheelchair accessible housing… mostly anyway. I have Medicaid and Medicare for health insurance. My GP is excellent and most of my other doctors are good. People actually pay attention to how to detect and treat pain, infection, and other medical stuff despite my communication problems.

I have a means of communicating in words that isn’t speech. I have learned how to communicate in words rather than just imitate what I thought was expected. I have a wonderful cat. I have friends who know me as myself, not a mirage, and who are not bullies in disguise. Including friends where we can understand each other without having to try too hard. Including some who can do so without words. I have learned some degree of self-respect and basic ethical awareness when dealing with people. I have a meaningful spiritual life. I have Internet access. And I’m alive.

So I have the basics — and more — and that is more than I ever expected. There’s things that would be better if they were different. But I can live this way fine. And I just wonder what kind of life a person has to have led to act like what I have is worthless.

The thing about never seeing yourself reflected by the people around you is that it’s simultaneously traumatic and invisible. So you feel terrible but you can’t put a finger on why. So unless you have someone telling you what’s going on, you’re eventually going to turn it around on yourself and become really miserable. And then your society generally sees your feelings as the problem, which just puts another layer of the same thing. It gets really convoluted. Because the answer — actually acknowledging you exist — is apparently too simple for some people.

This is why I freak out so badly sometimes when i realize I’m talking to someone who’s force-fitting me or what I’m saying into categories in their head that make no sense. It’s not the one instance. It’s the lifetime of little instances built up over the decades. It’s the fear — complete, unreasoning terror — of things ever going back to how they used to be.

I can’t imagine what it must feel like to grow up in a world where people see you. And talk to you. And about you. And not just about a series of illusions and mirages in their heads. I’m not talking about going out of their way to be inviting, even. Just noticing would be enough. Because when people notice, they act on what they’ve noticed, and it just unfolds naturally.

And if you ever wonder why I am so attached to redwood forests, it’s that. Both the one I was born in and the one I first lived on my own in. In both instances there was an intense sense of exactly where I belonged in the world. Everything around me told me that. And if I want to remember, all I have to do is think about that environment. Trees, soil, rocks, slugs, fungus, owls, moss, lichens, everything. I’m not able to live there but that doesn’t prevent me from being aware of these places. And whether it’s because I was born in such a place, or some other reason, that gives me the most intense feeling of belonging in the world that I’ve ever known.

4 responses »

  1. I am struck with your authenticity here. You speak as if you are walking in my own mind…my first impression of your opening words was: you are a shaman. These are like vision quest discovery; but you have a gift of articulation for the essential minutia. I bow down to your strength and talent and wish for you to bring us more. carry on, carry on, carry on. with love, t.

    • I’m definitely not a shaman. I’m just someone who doesn’t experience the ‘inanimate’ world as dead. There’s a lot of us out there, especially among certain kinds of autistic people.

      ‘Shamans’ and ‘vision quests’ are things that belong to cultures I’m not a part of, and that I’d feel extremely uncomfortable claiming any relationship to.

  2. Pingback: Autistic Representation and Real-Life Consequences: An In-Depth Look

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