To be seen, or not to be seen?
I have spent a good percentage of my 36 years of life trying to figure out the answer to this particular question, which has expressed itself as a tug-of-war dialectic in my heart, mind, and soul. And the truth is, some days, I cannot decide which it is that I desire.
I was reminded of this struggle of my own upon reading this post on The Third Glance blog. The author speaks her own childhood growing up with autism and I found some of her account mirroring my own. I’ve quoted some of her post below to illustrate what I mean:
“She knew that if she complained, the consequences would be even scarier at home. When she first told her parents she wasn’t fitting in, she would get ‘talked to’, told she needed to try harder, that she needed to stop using big words, that she was obviously deficient. When that didn’t work, the responses got scarier, so she stopped saying anything…She learned that repeating the big words she heard in books would cause the other students to laugh at her and tease. She learned that no one else cared what happened in her books, or what she had just learned about her favorite things.”
I was reminded of my own childhood and my own struggles. Years before I knew that I was autistic, I knew that I was different. While I’ve said this before, I say it again now because there are people wandering around, like I was, without answers. There are children, teenagers, and adults who struggle with the decision between conformity and difference every day. Some, like the author of Third Glance and me at various points in my own life, choose to become invisible:
“It became her mission in life to be invisible. She learned how to blend into the background. Not conforming, because that was impossible, but not standing out, either.”
For some of us, invisibility does takes the shape of conformity: some of us become very good at appearing “normal”. We learn to hide our differences. Some of us begin to imitate others around us to fit it. We adopt behaviours of role models, characters, and people that we admire, people we deem are successful at the very things with which we struggle, such as creating friendships, sharing our worlds with others, or just the mere act of reaching out to another human being.
For others, invisibility takes the shape of a subliminal existence. We exist, but only to our own selves. We don’t look like everyone else, but we aren’t even present enough to be seen either. We’re the quiet kid that is barely remembered from high school, the refugee in the library, the person who sat in class and always turned in his/her homework on time but never spoke, answered a question, or even raised his/her hand. We left the hallways as quietly as we came. We try to avoid being seen in order to avoid being hurt.
It is a very sad situational irony indeed that some of suffer this way in a society that is portrayed and thought of around the world as individualistic and valuing difference and diversity. We’re taught in school that our very own United States of America was founded upon principles which call up a very individualistic mindset: in our very own Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (who, interestingly enough, may have been autistic, according to author Norm Ledgin in Asperger’s and Self-Esteem: Insight and Hope through Famous Role Models) introduces the concept of certain “unalienable rights”, including “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. Yet as children, teens, and even adults we sometimes find ourselves discouraged from those three pursuits if either our desired ends or the methods of pursuit themselves do not conform to what is usual, expected, or even — dare I say it — “normal”.
For many of us autistics, our way of pursuing those three things are NOT what is usual, expected, or normal. For example, I was falling in love with words while some of my classmates were at the mall or having slumber parties. I had whole libraries hidden in my brain of the stuff that I read, but no one with which to share it. My brain became a studio, an auditorium, a gallery. In the meantime, I was suffering from bullying and loneliness in turns at school; at home, I was told that I was causing my own ostracization by not being (gasp) “normal”.
Those ghosts from my teenage years have continued to haunt me as an adult. I have been fortunate to find some caring and understanding people at various points in my life, my fiance being the latest. Despite this, it was still hard to bear the voice inside that kept nagging me to conform. I say this with the full intent of sarcasm: it learned “well” from the goading and pressure to be “normal” which I experienced at home. It exhorted me to try to hide my uncertainty, my ignorance, and my social ineptness whist I tried to convince myself that I was “standing out” and defying the voice through demonstrative externals: beautiful, elegant, and outrageous clothing, strangely colored hair, and so forth. As a result, I find myself the equivalent of a 17 year-old in the body of a 36 year-old woman. Sitting in the corner is a constructed me: a programmed skin of automatically determined behaviours and responses and complete with badly constructed filters and negative core beliefs.
Fortunately, the story that the author of Third Glance tells in her post has a happier ending:
“The little girl grew up…She learned that these things that made her so different from the other little girls had a name: autism, and her whole world opened up with this discovery. She learned that she was a person, to be valued as all other people. She learned that she could interact with people and not make them angry. She learned that she could make a difference to the way that people think. She learned that she was actually a really good teacher. She discovered that her obsessions over small details, and her love of the natural world made her into a great researcher. She met people who loved her for her quirks, and cherished the time they spent with each other, just being themselves. She learned that she counted, that she had value as a person, and that she was worthwhile. Not despite her autism, but because she was Autistic.”
I grew up, too. I’ve earned two degrees, have published poetry, and had art presented in exhibits. Whilst in my more clear-thinking and introspective moments I embarked on a journey of self-discovery through thought and writing: along the way, I discovered my own Asperger’s. I know now why I have sensory issues, why I can hold one-sided ten minute long monologues about my favourite subjects, why I disappeared into my books, and why I stuff as much data and my experiences as I can inside my head. I’m tempted to leave that constructed me in the corner and learn to trust my own instincts, my own way. I realise that in order to truly grow up, that constructed me that pretended to have it together, pretended to be an adult, and put on a really good show to avoid being discovered must be left behind.
I am autistic. I don’t need to try to be seen, or not. Just being me and being present is good enough.