Autism: My First and Deepest Closet

by Emily Smith

When my parents first inspected the house that would become my childhood home, they took stock of its ample rooms and inviting backyard. They pored over the kitchen and wondered what color to paint the bedroom. They momentarily lost track of their two-year-old (me), whose first inclination had been to hide in the broom closet.

I liked that closet. Extrapolating from the way I loved small spaces as a slightly older child, I imagine it made me feel safe. I craved the cool dark, the enveloping silence. I marveled that no one could reach me. I stood in the closet and giggled, and I did NOT want to come out.

Well, I know how to come out now.

After decades of confusion about my own romantic proclivities, namely how they never seemed to take bodily equipment or gender into any account whatsoever, I’ve decided that “pansexual” best describes me. Well, actually I say “pan.” It’s a small and innocuous shortening; it rolls off the tongue nicely and I find it cuter. “I’m pan.” Adorable. Maybe I should find some little cheap pipes and a fluffy fake tail for Halloween so I can be Pan then, too. Tee-hee.

It’s nice to be able to disclose this in my writing at last; I finally feel “unstuck” and capable of discussing any topic I need, including my girlfriend! (Unless she gives me permission to use her actual name, she will be addressed on this blog as Lovey. Because she’s my lovey.) She is the best and that is enough about her for now.

Disclaimer: I do NOT fall for literally everybody. Don’t troll me with questions like that. I still have standards, including the raw physical attraction that manifests toward some people and not others. Man/Woman/Other just isn’t anything I find influential in that.

It’s funny to look back on my latest coming-out process now (not that coming out is ever really finished; you always have to keep doing it). I’ve done this whole song and dance three times now, after all. I think I finally have the process down. And these days, I get to be in love the whole time.

Still, three closets is a lot, and I hope I don’t end up needing another. Allow me to elaborate.

Most recently, it’s been the whole sexuality spiel. I could’ve kept shut about it for a bit longer, but then I met my girlfriend and the label became more important. Dating another woman sort of forced me to know and understand what label fit. Am I a lesbian? No: I still like men. Does “bisexual” fit? Nuh-uh. There are lots of cute and exciting people in-between the whole Man/Woman binary (including my girlfriend sometimes). So it became “pan,” and I’ve had to explain a great deal about that, to a great many people.

Before that, there was the issue of my not believing in any immortal/religious sort of stuff, and what exactly I wanted to call that. I usually say I’m “secular” now because it fits. I am a creature of this world and not any possible worlds to follow. And I am at peace. Why would I waste a second of my life lying about that? (My truth is not necessarily your truth. But denying one’s own truth is always tantamount to lying.)

Once again, there’s this issue of what to call myself. “Secular” seems easiest, safest, and most accurate. In this country you can’t really say “atheist” without traumatizing half the Christians in earshot. Even if you’re like me and don’t mind forcing a confrontation sometimes, it is not worth the effort most of the time, because “secular” means exactly the same thing with less charge, and trying to reassure people about the state of your soul on a daily basis is exhausting.

I’m not one to pander to privilege – and believe me, if you’re an American who believes that Jesus Christ is your lord and savior, you hold so much privilege that you might not even be able to see it. You don’t always see it because you don’t always see people like me. It’s often not worth bringing up, and constantly being asked to repent or convert or otherwise apologize for existing, is just too hard for too many of us. But that is a topic for another time. The point is, this closet gets very scary too.

I don’t hide in my secular closet, but I keep it well-stocked with humor. At times, the words “heathen” and “infidel” come off their hangers. I enjoy them. The bafflement of believers at my peace with mortality, my relative lack of existential pain, can be a source of interesting thoughts and even amusement. I mean, what else can you do when confronted with these crusaders so incessantly? Wherever you fall in the clash, you have to laugh at the predictable way this dynamic plays out.

But my first closet was never so funny. My first closet of all, my first and deepest closet, was autism.

Yup. Being diagnosed as autistic, living as an autistic person, includes its very own walk-in closet, complete with door for varying degrees of openness.

I still remember the initial barrage of questions that pelleted my brain. If you’ve ever come out of a closet, you’ll recognize them.

What am I supposed to call myself?

Who do I tell?

Does this make me weird, or broken, or somehow not as good?

Who already knows? Who suspects?

What if everyone is judging me?

Who will be my friends?

Am I safe?

Why don’t the other kids understand?

How do I go on living now?

I felt inordinately depressed about the whole thing, for a very long time – ten months by my count. But somewhere in the middle of that, I started doing work with a therapist I liked. I liked her enough to work with her for ten consecutive years. I also joined an advanced math program, won English Student of the Month for the April poetry unit, and most importantly, made one really solid friend. Those formative experiences yanked me out of the Abyss and into something resembling a life.

Since it happened to me so early in life, and influenced my identity so much, the autism diagnosis left a pretty humongous closet behind. I don’t need too much more closet space than that. So in subsequent uncloseting attempts, I’ve downsized and decluttered. My other two closets are full of kitschy knickknacks and neatly folded towels. They’re not as scary as the first one. So here’s my advice to all the people with scary closets.

First, peek out of your closet. Can you show your closet to people who will help you? Maybe people whose closets look a lot like yours? If you can “find the others,” as Timothy Leary once said, you’ll be in better shape to tackle the rest of the project. You don’t have to sit in your closet alone.

Second, figure out what room your closet is in. Closets don’t spring up all by themselves. There is space surrounding them, space that defines the closet and makes it useful. How does your identity inform your life? Which of your friends and loved ones can get close to you in this regard? Not everyone in the world can share your closet, but the ones you love can stand in the adjacent room. They can help you chuck old junk out; they can help you pick out sweet new outfits. Unsupportive people will ransack your closet, and that really hurts. But you’ll probably find that most people you care about will smile, grab your hand, and take you shopping.

Third, make it part of your home. You can go on living with your swanky new closet. You can open and close its doors whenever you want. You can choose to deck yourself out in its colorful clothes… or you can let its snug walls be your shield, sometimes. You can put together a costume of stereotypes… or you can dress pretty much like everyone else, and savor the world’s surprise. You can do all of these things.

Nobody should live in a closet. But if you have a closet… use it, and use it all.

How I Sometimes Forget That My Life Includes Autism

by Jill Wilbur Smith

Sometimes I forget that I’m the parent of someone who has a disability. Call it denial. Call it hope.

On good days, it’s easy to believe that I’m unaffected by autism and depression. On good days, it’s easy to think that my world is just like everyone else’s. On good days, it’s easy to forget.

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Then a bad day comes along, as bad days are wont to do.

If the good days have been many, strung together in a brilliant and dazzling display of calm and joy, the bad days hit hard. Crashing down on me with an unexpected force. Taunting me. Don’t forget, they tease. Life isn’t meant to be easy.

Rationally, I know that bad days aren’t reserved for families who live with disability and depression. Bad days aren’t particular. They happen to everyone.

But in that irrational, emotional place inside of me, they feel vengeful.

I’ve had a lot of good days in the past two months. I need to remember that. My mother and sister joined us for Thanksgiving. I got a promotion at work. I had a joyful Christmas spent quietly with family. I celebrated New Year’s by kicking in the ass the dark times of the past 12 months, hopefully thinking a new year will mean no more bad days. Silly me.

Maybe that’s why I’m especially saddened by the day that occurs only 10 days into 2014. What makes it a bad day is a confluence of events that might not be troubling had they all happened separately.

I’ve had an especially busy day as I transition into a new job. I’ve mostly ignored text messages from Emily in the afternoon indicating that she’s struggling. I hope that by the time I get home the storm will have passed and we can have a quiet evening. I’m at the end of my emotional tether.

I walk into the house to find Emily’s bad mood hasn’t passed. In fact things have escalated into ugly confrontations between her and her father and sister. They, too, have had a less-than-stellar day.

So, in my already emotionally fragile state, I forget that I’m the parent of someone who has autism and depression. I forget that the angry young woman lashing out at me isn’t really condemning me. She’s fighting some unseen demon that I can only imagine.

“I just want peace,” I scream at her.

“I don’t want peace, I want justice!” she replies.

I’m too exhausted to pick up my sword and help her slay her beast, whatever it might be. I turn away. I go downstairs and drink a cocktail with my husband. I leave her to cry herself to sleep alone in her dark room.

For a few more hours I pretend that she’s just choosing to be obstinate and defiant. I make believe that there isn’t a chemical imbalance in her brain that has been adversely affected by the dark Minnesota winter. I ignore the injustice I feel knowing that Asperger’s makes it difficult for her express her sadness in a socially appropriate way.

Later, I crawl into bed and turn out the light. As my eyes adjust to the darkness, I know that in the morning I will shed the mantle of denial. I will somehow find the right words to help her see through her depressive haze. I will have the strength to pick up my sword and continue to fight.

P.S. Many good days have followed since I wrote this post, with the occasional bad day thrown in to remind me of my special place in this world.

Each Day Thereafter

by Emily Smith

It’s Tuesday, like lots of other Tuesdays, and my old-lady pillbox needs filling again. You know the kind. Garish translucent plastic you can’t misplace, white large-print letters you won’t misread. Days of the week, pills of the day. I feel like I’m far too young to have one. Still, I have one. And today is Tuesday, like lots of other Tuesdays, which means it needs filling.

Seems simple, really. Take the bottles out of their plastic bin, cart them five feet to the bathroom, and pour out twenty-one tablets and capsules— seven of the former, fourteen of the latter. But at twenty-two, I balk at the idea that foreign agents serve as my body’s stopgap measures. I’m no bedridden invalid. Not to put too fine a point on it, but taking pills sucks. It means you’re old.

The pink progestin tabs, dressed to kill in their slim teal pack, soothe my singed pride a little. After all, they’re as tiny and rosy and round as the babies I’d rather not have. Every twenty-something’s best friend. Young people’s medicine. The pack suits them just fine. My other pills, the ones I think of as old-people pills, are not like that. They remedy more serious ailments.

The grainy beige wafers are Singulair, seven of them. The label says take it at bedtime, but I prefer morning. They’re for asthma; they provide a small but consistent baseline of control. My inhaler’s effect is more dramatic than it is lasting, and in truly senescent fashion, I often forget to use it. Hence, beige pills.

The capsules are smooth, green glass with miniscule black lettering: E 88. They might as well read “fulfillment,” “optimism,” or even “discipline.” They’re fluoxetene, generic Prozac. The label instructs me to take one for the first seven days, and two each day thereafter. A week into the full dosage, I feel like myself again. For the first time since last February, the me in the bathroom mirror looks happy by default. Given the last three fiascoes, I’d started to wonder.

I still have some half-empty bottles, and whenever I refill my pillbox I end up looking at them. I should probably throw them out. They’re half-expired and it’s bad form to keep random drugs around. Regardless, there they sit in the bin by my dresser, bull’s-eyes gathering dust, still ringed with the childish green plastic that marks them as mine for eternity.

Citalopram resembles nothing so strongly as Tic-Tacs, and I give the bottle a shake out of habit. It really did flat-line my depression, for a while. Too bad it also flat-lined my other feelings. The first week I took it, I suspected it might do nothing. By week three, I couldn’t stand all the nothing it did.

Sertraline is next in the Target Pharmacy bin of shame. I stayed with this one long enough to refill the pillbox a handful of times; I even took it on vacation once. I loved the look of those smooth, blue bullets. Over the weeks, though, unlikely but plausible self-harm situations began parading through my head at all hours. What if I slipped on a steak knife? Walked into traffic? Pulped my whole arm in the garbage disposal, jammed my house key in an electrical socket, and then poisoned myself with an obscene amount of anti-cavity toothpaste?! The list grew increasingly frantic, deadly, and absurd. Soon every household object in sight wanted to kill me. Bullets, indeed.

Terrified of my morbid imagination and convinced that no drug would help, I feigned happiness. The bottle stayed in its bin; the same fourteen bullets kept rattling around. You can tell that I stopped from the early date on the label.

There’s no third bottle.

I lied about sertraline for a long time— for much longer than I actually took it, in fact— and that is by far my worst failure. During all those months, I could’ve been feeling the way I do now. Instead, I withdrew from my social circle, spurned my family, took my crappy job too much to heart, and acted pissed off 24/7. It seemed easier than telling loved ones about macabre side effects. Looking back now, it absolutely wasn’t.

Let me be clear. New meds haven’t made me more sociable, even-tempered, or resilient. They do, however, help me stop worrying so much about my pillbox. It’s useful; it’s not the mark of a pariah. It’s a goddamn pillbox. So what.

Today is Tuesday, like Wednesday, Thursday, and each day thereafter.