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.

Who’s Teaching Girls to be Angry?

by Emily Smith

Now, you might have read the above in one of two ways.

The first of these ways is “come on, the internet’s full of angry feminists! Check Instagram and check Tumblr! They’re all crazy! I can’t stand it! WHO is teaching these stupid women that they need to be angry?”

This is probably not how most of you, our audience, would have read that. But certainly, it’s a view often proliferated, even encouraged, both in the dark recesses of Internet anonymity and the broad daylight of our quotidian lives.

You may even have read that tone into it without wanting to – that’s how loud this viewpoint can scream. It’s an exercise in privilege, and in irony, that boys and men in their usual environments can sometimes express so much anger… about someone else’s anger. The point, of course, is that they have the right to this anger. And women don’t.

So I’d care to illuminate the other half of this question, the genuine half, with honest concern and bafflement. Who IS teaching girls to be angry? Their parents, their teachers? In many cases, nobody. In most cases, not enough people.

In fact, this general failure to teach productive anger gets so entangled with our gender that even the words we use for “not getting angry” are domestic, traditionally effeminate in nature. We do not restrain our emotions; we bottle them. We do not build up resentment; we stew it. We do not sort out our feelings; we prune them like roses, sift them like flour. We boil over in our overwhelm. We cook up stories. We throw babies out with bathwater. And so on.

I claim a new language for the anger of women. A strong language. A dark, wild language. I am not “steamed,” “strained” or “drained” because I am not pasta. A thick-funneled vortex churns away at my heart and threatens to swallow it up, because I am a storm. And if you believe storms are fickle (as oh, so many do), you fail to understand weather.

Storms follow iterative rules; each molecular movement of the cloud depends upon the movement before it. This is why meteorologists run their simulators so many times, why the predicted path of a hurricane grows increasingly narrow as it approaches the shore. The possibilities appear chaotic, yet are mathematically predictable.

The path of a storm is a fractal.

The path of my anger is a fractal. Each measurable state depends upon the measurable state before it. And so I think it must be with “angry feminists” in our current sociopolitical climate. No one has given us the right to be angry (or feminists anymore, for that matter). No one has predicted us; no one has stood watch for our storms. And because there are no plans in place, we devastate the land.

To paraphrase Alexander Pope, “to anger is human; to believe, divine.” As human beings, we deserve our storms. One deserves a natural pattern of behavior, a climate to call one’s own. Even the sunniest of dispositions will occasionally darken, and even the darkest are not on constant tornado watch. As we know in this environmentally conscious world (or at least, we ought to by now), prevailing climate offers a range of variance. It is not the same as daily weather.

Certainly we all wish for fair weather, relative warmth and sunlight. This is a mercy in our lives, hence the dead metaphor of precipitation as “inclement.” Yet we understand that the elements of nature do not offer us eternal clemency. We watch, wait, and prepare.

I therefore advise all women and men expressing the storms of their lives: brace for those of others as if they were inevitable, because they are. Look out your windows; check your local listings.

Plan for the weather you see.

“Put your mask on first, then help the child.”

By Jill Wilbur Smith

I hate seeing my daughters in pain. It’s possibly the most difficult aspect of being a mother. Seeing my children in pain and being unable to do anything to fix it. That’s the ultimate definition of helplessness for me. And for someone who craves order, who loves to always be in control, that’s excruciating.

When my children or husband are in difficult situations, I often jump in with both feet and try to redirect some of the pain towards myself. I try to absorb their pain, thinking it will ease their burden. Of course it rarely does. Then I feel helpless and in pain myself. And exhausted. And frustrated. And did I say helpless?

So I give up things that I would normally do for myself and devote all of my time and energy to them. Then I get resentful. Then I feel guilty. Then I’m exhausted. Which leads to helplessness. Wait. Did I already say that?

I’m going to try to stop doing that. I don’t know if I can. But I’m going to try.

I think about my own life. I can’t think of a single time in my life that I made it through a difficult situation because I let someone else claim my pain as their own. It doesn’t work that way. No one can really take away your pain. You have to simply feel bad until you don’t feel bad anymore.

Of course you can listen. You can make soup or offer a hot beverage. You can perform random acts of kindness. You can hold the tissue box and rub a back while the person in pain cries. But their pain will always be their pain. Not yours.

A few months ago, I saw a therapist. I told her it was because I didn’t want to feel left out. But really I just felt a little at a breaking point. I’ve tried to absorb so much of the pain of my family that I felt overburdened. She gave me some good advice.

“You know when you’re on an airplane,” she said, “and the flight attendants go through their safety spiel. They say ‘In the unlikely event that the oxygen masks deploy, be sure to put your mask on first before trying to assist others.’ That’s what you need to do. You need to make sure you’re wearing your own mask before you can help others.”

She’s right. I need to take care of myself so I can be there to care for others. I need to make sure the oxygen is flowing freely to my lungs so that I can be healthy and energized for those around me who need me.

For me, that means taking time to meet with friends. Making space in my day and in my home to write. Saying “no” when I don’t really feel like doing something that my spouse/daughter/friend/coworker asks me to do. Occasionally putting myself first. Taking deep breaths and making sure my heart is full before assisting others.

Fail Faster: A Change of Plans

by Emily Smith

The creative process and formatting of this blog isn’t working for me. So I propose an altered schedule, to revitalize our writing. Specifically, my own writing. I’ve posted here without my mother’s review, and indeed, without much revision. Sorry, Mom. I guess “autism” really is Latin for selfishness. But I HAVE to get this out there. I HAVE to get this seen.

The collaborative nature of this blog means that the two of us spend a lot of time talking to each other as co-authors before anything gets posted. But that also tends to mean, if we can’t find time to actively collaborate, nothing gets posted. We stagnate, regardless of whose turn it is or who has what posts done. I’m having a lot of trouble with this paradigm. It’s not working.

So I’m posting something every day now. Here are my reasons.

1. I feel compelled to do so. As a creative type, I find that listening to such compulsions usually yields ideas worth sharing.

2. Time I spend writing, especially for this blog, is time I always get back. It fuels a more productive day than I’d have had otherwise. That feels like I can do MAGIC with my time. I put an hour into the spell, and I get two more hours out of it. It’s a fountain, an unwinding clock, a wormhole of constantly regenerating time. It could make me immortal if I did enough of it.

3. Whenever I’m awaiting an editing session, I sprout this gnawing fear of failure. It makes me so twitchy inside that I can’t write anything good. At least, I can’t write what I think will be good enough. Robin Williams tribute? Not topical enough. Description of my day? Nobody wants to hear that. Generic post about a particular autism difficulty? But I could post that anytime! Where’s the perfection?!

But NO creative idea is perfect. Explained on their face, a lot of creative ideas are really bad! Check THESE out!

A video game about a plumber on drugs!

A play about two guys on a bench whose friend never shows up!

A novel about a bumbling old Irishman that’s full of nonsense words! Like the Odyssey, but NOT!

A picture of six hookers, but in the shape of REALLY ugly cubes! And the one in the corner is like, ten times uglier than the other five!

Yeah, let’s go there. Let’s make all that.

And we’ve got Super Mario Brothers, Waiting for Godot, Ulysses, and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, respectively. They’re works of media we love. They were gamechangers. They became classics in their genres. They made Nintendo, Nintendo. Made Picasso, Picasso. And they’re all totally weird ideas that probably met a lot of failures on their way to the final iteration.

Which is why I need to FAIL FASTER.

Failures transport us between Points A and B. FAIL FASTER.

Failures give birth to human interaction about those same failures. They spawn conversation, spawn revision. FAIL FASTER.

Failures on job interviews might get me down, but they’ll point me toward the authorial success I strive for, and deserve. FAIL. FASTER.

Mom, you can post as frequently or infrequently as you want. I am here to help. I’ll also be asking you for your opinions on these posts as much as ever. I hope you’ll be here to help me as well.

But I need. To fail. Faster.

And if you’ll pardon me, gentle readers, I’m off to my part-time gig, where maybe I’ll fail some more. Just as long as I’m failing faster.

Happily Ever After Starts Here

By Jill Wilbur Smith

Last Labor Day weekend, we attended my niece’s wedding in Michigan. It was a beautiful affair, held in a barn on property that’s been in my brother-in-law’s family for generations.

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About three hours into the evening, my sister came up to me looking concerned. “Emily just got upset and said she was leaving,” she said. In the old days, I might have gotten upset myself and frantically looked for Emily to try to calm her down. But on this night I didn’t.

“She’ll be OK,” I told my sister. “I’ll check on her in a while. Don’t worry. Go enjoy your party.”

Then I got another drink and continued to mingle with family. About 30 minutes later, Emily emerged from the house. She had found a quiet corner in which to sit and recharge. She came back to the party happy and calm. I was glad that I hadn’t run after her.

I’m trying to put an appropriate amount of distance between my daughter and me. I don’t mean that I’m abandoning her. I’m simply working to let her find her way. Because I’ve learned that the way she navigates out of painful situations is rarely the way I would guide her.

That’s difficult for me. I always want to help. To soothe. To be the one to listen and make all of the bad feelings go away.  But that’s asking too much of myself. And expecting too much of her.

So, I’m trying to give Emily the space she needs. To understand that she doesn’t always enjoy being in a throng of people, even if those people are family. That the way she connects with others isn’t the way I connect with them. Her happy looks different than mine.

Earlier this summer we attended the wedding of one of my other nieces. It, too, was a joyful affair attended by almost every member of my extended family. I could have danced all night, raising my red solo cup in song and toasting the happy couple.

As much as Emily loves her cousin, the evening was too much for her. But unlike the year before, Emily didn’t get upset and disappear. Instead, she calmly said to me “I’ve had enough for tonight. I’m going to go wait in the car.” I gave her a hug and told her we weren’t ready to leave, but that we’d join her when we were.

I gave her the space she needed, but I didn’t sacrifice my own needs in the process. And it was OK. No drama. No stress. No guilt. Just two women defining happiness in their own terms and accepting their differences.

That might seem like a small thing, but for me it’s significant. It’s taken me a long time to accept that the things that make me happy aren’t always the same as the things that bring Emily joy. That reality used to make me sad. I felt that Emily was missing out on an important part of life. But I now recognize the fallacy of my belief. I’m beginning to accept that her happily ever after, although different than mine, will be happy. I confess that I still have my moments of longing, but it’s a start.

 

 

Odd Ducks Anonymous

By Emily Smith

As a young woman on “the Spectrum,” as all autism-like disorders may be dubbed, I am sometimes frustrated by the degree to which people will prematurely, and incorrectly, judge me as inept in the arena of sociability. Now, before I progress any further on that subject, let me assure you: people who judge me this way are often more correct in such judgments than I would always care to believe. Not entirely correct, mind; they’ve got a point. And as my maternal grandfather might’ve once said, if they part their hair right, it won’t show. A kinder way of saying, you might be onto something, good buddy, but I just don’t give a damn.

I suppose the best way to begin this massive endeavor called the Fractal, might be to make a small personal confession. They say the first step is admitting you have a problem— or, in my case, a quality that occasionally causes problems. As my “gentle readers,” you’re officially part of my group now, so let’s jump right into the chaotic roil. Fasten your seatbelts, everyone.

My name is Emily…

“HI, EMILY!”

And I am an odd duck.

What do I mean, exactly, when I declare myself an odd duck? Well, for one thing, I’m the kind of person who isn’t afraid to use an awkward and possibly outdated phrase like “odd duck” to get the proper point across. If anything, its awkwardness makes the phrase fitting, more opportune, almost charming in a rather dopey sort of way. I’m a painfully honest, right-up-in-your-face word blurter who cannot always restrain her internal dialogue to those safe little thought-bubble clouds that most of the populace carries around out of habit. This affords me a great deal of automatic stress relief, as well as a range of expressive freedoms; at least in the realm of interpersonal calm, I breathe rarefied air. Of course, the flip side of this is that I can hardly swing a dead cat in a circle without smashing into someone else’s delicate feelings. Heck, I might’ve just caught some grief for a dead cat joke there. Wouldn’t be the first time.

I’m also a self-professed geek, which doesn’t usually bolster my “image.” I’ve rolled an awful lot of funny-shaped dice in my time. I more often ponder “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” than “the real world, here and now.” It sometimes lands me in hot water, especially if someone is trying small talk. The world of imagining is big. Not more important; by no means haughty. Just big. Thinking big while talking small, you’ll find, lends a person the look of constant boredom with the world as it actually operates. As repercussions of geekdom go, this is about the only one that sometimes catches me wishing I were a little more “normal.”

Social awkwardness and/or geekness may deter people from learning my true personality, but I make an unswervingly loyal friend. A peer without peer, as it were. For loved ones who approach me with painful scars and burdensome personal secrets, I unconditionally drop my fog. I listen without judgment; I comfort without doubting motives or questioning sorrows. In my experience, neurotypicals rarely display this trait. They seek few social burdens. Perhaps they sleep better for it. How rare and valuable, then, must a seeker of social burdens prove.

My own seeking originally sprang from the fear that my friends were false and would leave me. At least in my youth, they were; and they did. I still fear losing those I love more than is healthy, but my fears more often give way to an appreciation for friendship that few could claim to match. That is what my autism means to me, and what I hope it may mean for others. My oddball exterior, when allowed its foibles, gives way to a gooey center. Call me a friend; it is yours.