Archive for April 5th, 2011
Writing is a struggle against silence. ~Carlos Fuentes
Passing as a non-autistic, passing as neurotypical, means that you never get to actually be human. Be a person. You just learn how to get really good at faking it. It’s not good, it’s not healthy, and yet how can you say no to a trick that gets you the human treatment, college, a job, a future, some sham at self-determination?
But that’s all it is: a sham.
These things have costs and consequences. You can bottle things up for so long; you can pretend to be someone and something you aren’t and never will be; you can do things which are exhausting, even actively harmful in pursuit of “passing”…
But in the end you are still an autistic. An autistic who doesn’t know how to be an autistic, much less a person, never mind an autistic person. And that’s an important thing to know how to do.
How to be.
Who to be.
Anatomy Of A Meltdown
My brain likes to alternate between being made of swiss cheese (full of holes to fall in and through and down) and wax (for optimal melting). I have meltdowns a lot, in part because I use the term “melting” very broadly. Meltdowns, moments in which one’s brain melts, are a physical thing, though they look different moment-to-moment and person-to-person. But they all start out the same, with that pressure behind the skull and the feeling of your thoughts evaporating, your language freezing, your body retracting inward. It’s called shutdown, meltdown, violent meltdown, tantrum, outburst, dissociation, a million different things, but they all refer to the moment wherein your body or your brain, independent of your vote, decides that it simply cannot and will not continue to function in this charade that wasn’t really working anyways and…
Maybe you don’t bang your head, scream, throw things, leave. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I incur brain damage. Sometimes I just sit frozen for an hour.
Passing tends to come to a halt when this happens.
Meltdowns are of course a bit more complicated than all of this. What they are, to me, is a descent. A black hole opens up and draws you in, in, in. It’s empty and silent and ringing with screams and your intestines get itchy and try to crawl up out your throat, or maybe that is just the pressure everywhere building, building until it explodes out or locks you down.
The worst part about any of it, for me, is the silence.
The complete and utter silence. Silence so deep it fills up your ears. Silence like a scream.
And what’s worse is that, when I’m melting, as I enter or exit, I am silent too.
It’s why I type so frenetically. Why I get so upset when the words don’t mesh just right, or when they build up and won’t come out. That silence is to be avoided at all costs. When I’m silent, when I have no voice, I might as well not exist. I don’t, really. I’m not properly a person. I must speak, type, make my voice project over their heads and into someone’s ears.
Anatomy Of A Passing Person
Well, passing is difficult, first of all. It’s constant anxiety, calculation, cognition, because remember, those of us who pass are trying to be a person we aren’t, a member of a species that, should it know our true identity, expels us. The trick to passing, to passing well, is to make it look natural.
Passing means repressing, memorizing rules, sublimating, jumping through hoops, and turning tricks so we can get the human treatment. It means making it so that when you reveal your diagnosis to someone they “never would have guessed it”.
Passing is supposed to be a good thing. It’s convenient for the enabled and beneficial for the passing. The passing gets college, health care, respect, an audience to speak to, friends, work, a house, etc.
What I want to know is why do I have to pass in order to implicitly deserve any of these things?
What I want to know is since when did being treated like a human being have requirements?
When I am actively, deliberately passing as nonautistic, I am supporting power structures I benefit from. I am saying through my actions that it is okay to divide the human race along these lines, to treat people who fall outside of these lines like this, to save all the privilege and benefits and nice things for the safe normal people, etc. And you know, there are a million reasons to deliberately do this, some of them okay and a lot not, but in the end I am still supporting and ironically benefiting from a power structure designed to oppress and disable me.
But there is nuance to this. Silence is safety, of course, and being safe is important. And we aren’t all cut out to be radical, kyriarchy-smashing activists.
And what of those of us who pass without really trying all that hard?
There is a certain amount of ridiculousness to that idea, of course. Of course we have to try hard, speaking (speaking!) and socializing and reacting and parroting like the neurotypicals around us takes effort even (especially?) when we don’t realize it. Being a fake person, a half person, a glass girl or a ghost takes work. We tend to burn out eventually, no matter how brilliant a job of faking it we were doing. Or maybe we develop depression, anxiety, dissociation secondary to our autism as a result of this facade? Perhaps we take an increasingly upped litany of pills to cope. At the very least, we spend so much time learning how to be an acceptable human being that we forget, or never learn, how to be an autistic one.
Or to question why the one isn’t the same as the other.
Anatomy Of A Monster
And what none of us passers want to talk about is what our passing does to those who can’t. Passing is necessitated because without it, we would be stuck being a Scary Disabled Person and everybody knows how well their lives are allowed to go. There is a pervasive, fundamental belief that disabled people are monsters, or else possessed by monsters. That disability is monstrous, and disabled people, by implication are either victims or monsters ourselves. And therefore any and all talk of accessibility, universal design, human rights, equality, self-determination, alternative modes of communication, interdependence, what it means to be human and in a communication, what needs are and what it is to have them, etc etc etc goes out the window. Our bodies and lives and minds can be medicalized and politicized, but our voices are silenced and we get redefined as not quite, or not even close to, human.
Maybe it’s that view, of autism as monster and we as victims, which makes people recoil so much from the word, from the idea, from the concept of someone who will need 24/7 assistance and someone who won’t but has the same label. People don’t know how to treat victims, except by recoiling, as if bad luck is catching. People don’t know how to treat disabled people except as someone blend of horrific and pitiful, and by doing so we are dehumanized and re-conceived as something manageable and avoidable and yes, monstrous. Unhuman.
To be disabled is to be dehumanized. To pass is to be re-humanized as an acceptable, safe version of yourself that does not actually exist.
Well. Hi. My name is Julia, and I am autistic, and I am neither horrific nor pitiable nor monstrous, and if I am so what? And I pass. Mostly. For now.
That’s right. There’s a monster in your midst.
Anatomy Of An Autistic
So it looks as if I have two options. Pass and learn, perfect, the art of being a person I’m not. Or don’t, and let everyone else define me as some entwined version of monster and victim, pity and revulsion and terror.
But there’s actually a third option.
I can humanize myself. I can define myself. I can speak for myself, as myself.
I can find out who that self is.
I can lean what it is to be an autistic adult.
To be honest? I don’t have the faintest idea how to do that, and I don’t think you do either. It’s not as simple as flapping in public or typing on my laptop when speech is too much. All I know how to do is pass, and to interrupt that passing with moments of confusion, furious honesty, rawness and vulnerability. The emphasis in education and intervention is to make the child look nonautistic, not to prepare them for a future as an autistic adult. And there a million more posts in here, and I will go back to writing them eventually, but the point is that a whole generation of us have graduated, we can pass now, and we don’t know who we are or what to do.
The anatomy of an autistic is a lot of sketched out, smudged charcoal lines and open uncontained spaces. It’s a free space to develop. It’s something that will fill in as disability is humanized, normalized, as autism is accepted, as I am allowed to be who and what I am and to drop the poor facade that got me so far without risking losing it all.
The anatomy of an autistic is perhaps a scary thing. So few people have filled it in before, and even those fleshed-out illustrations have been crossed out by the dehumanizing, pitying, horrifying interpretations superimposed by others. But there’s a whole generation of us coming.
And I? I at least am going to work it out.
Hi, my name is Julia, and I’m autistic. It’s probably the best thing about me. Check your assumptions at the door.
We write to fill a silence here.
Hi. My name is Julia Bascom and I’ve had it easy.
I had it easy. What this means is that in fifth grade I was the smartest kid in the class. I also did a lot of hiding under my desk, and I talked funny and moved stiffly, so the other kids formed a club. It had only one rule, the golden rule: you couldn’t talk to Julia.
I changed schools at the end of the year. I kept breathing, but then, I had to: I had it easy.
No one beat me up. They didn’t have to—I did a good enough job of that on my own.
I have a friend. We’ll call him Martin. Martin is autistic, like I am, although he doesn’t identify that way. In fact, nothing would make him happier than being just like everyone else. See, Martin and I are different. We both know that being different, being autistic, being disabled, is dangerous. We’ve both been bullied. We’ve both had it easy. We’ve both seen what our alternatives are—be just like everyone else, or don’t be anything at all.
The difference between Martin and I is that I know without a shadow of a doubt that this is wrong. Martin doesn’t.
Martin and I became friends because we were both worried about each other. Martin was worried because apparently no one had ever taught me how to pass for normal. I was worried about Martin and the way he was quietly twisting himself away. I only got more worried when he tried to teach me how to blend in, how to pass, when he yelled at me senior year for looking like that, because don’t you know you’ll get hurt, don’t you know you’ll die, looking like that?
I have another friend. We’ll call her Maria. Maria has also had it easy. She’s autistic like me, but she is more visibly disabled than I am. What this means is that when we went to get ice cream two weeks ago no one would sit near us. What this means is that people think that because I help her count out the money to pay for her order I should be ordering for her. What this means is that Maria is not permitted to just neutrally exist in public. Getting ice cream becomes an act of war.
I work with middle school students with significant disabilities in a mostly self-contained classroom. Some of them have had it easy—no one will talk to them, the other kids run away when they see us coming, the teachers don’t want them in their classes, but no one gets beat up. Some of them have permanent brain injuries from abuse. Like Charlie. Charlie goes into murderous rages and has almost killed people–he’s the sweetest kid, but someone decided to beat him enough that he doesn’t feel the world is safe for him. He’s right.
Kaley hasn’t been to school in two months. The social workers are sent away from the house and the state is content to leave it at that. I don’t even know if she’s still alive, and no one seems interested in finding out. Roger, who can’t feel or control his tongue, was kicked out of his foster home and into an institutional placement three days before Christmas because he eats too messily. His ex-foster mother now visits him regularly and expects him to call her “mom” and say that he loves her.
She says she loves him too.
The hell of it is, the world agrees with her.
Here’s the thing about being disabled: it sucks. It’s horrible in a million different ways, and not a single one of those ways is because I can’t do this or because I have this impairment. That would be too easy. Instead, every single reason translates roughly to because people are awful. Sometimes, for a minute, for a day, for a week, I think I can forget that. I delude myself into thinking that the reason I can buy ice cream without five different hostile stares, can be allowed to work in a school, can be invited to the occasional party, is because people really are okay, and not just because I have learned how to fake being normal, being human well enough to avoid some sort of weird ability-based xenophobia.
I’m wrong, of course.
I just spent seven hours at a conference about bullying. Here’s the genius behind really good, really effective bullying: it turns the victim into their own worst bully. I told you I never got beat up for being autistic. I want you to take a good look at me. See my glasses? Those are because I damaged my eyes banging my head in tenth grade. See the spots on my arms? Those are from where I tried to gouge out my skin all through high school. See the scars on my face? Those are a little more recent—same idea though: self destruct. There are a million more I can’t show you—even the insides of my cheeks are scarred. I can’t tell you how many pairs of sheets I’ve had to throw away because I woke up covered in blood—I’d tried to pick myself apart while I was sleeping.
I didn’t do this because I was depressed, or scared, or because I hated myself. I didn’t want to hurt. But I knew I had to. When I hurt, I was in my place. And smacking my head against a wall for an hour a day was ultimately less painful than trying to convince myself, let alone everyone else, that I was maybe, possibly, worth something just the way I was.
The thing about bullies is that, although they never go away—I went to a different school with different kids after fifth grade, but there were always plenty of bullies to keep me remembering—they cannot be with you every second of every hour of every day. They can do hundreds of subtle and nasty things to you, and they will, but eventually they will need to pee or go home or at least sleep. So what they do is program you so that you can continue to bully yourself in their absence. I still hear the chanted retards in my head whenever I play with a strand of beads. I still believe, in my stomach and pulse, the way you know to run from a lion or don’t jump in the campfire, that I shouldn’t be here.
I don’t need someone yelling at me to sit down, shut up, stop flapping—I do these things automatically now. No one needs to tell me that I’m worthless—I get that. Message received, message believed, message drilled into my bones. No one has to threaten and force me into some version of myself that is less visibly disabled, less obviously autistic, less real and I guess less threatening—I’ve carved off all those edges of myself into a smooth facsimile of what I need to be.
(That’s the only reason I’ve ever “had it easy”. Because I could do that. Because I have, or had, the rare ability to pull myself apart and twist myself into some new shape when ordered. I’m lucky, in other words, that I don’t have any glue holding me together. Lucky to be broken, because then there is nothing left for someone else to break.)
What I’ve just described is “having it easy”, and it’s actually not easy at all. It’s complete and utter psychological and emotional warfare, and there is no winning for us—they, the bullies, set the rules and the terms and they always win. Millions of us live like this every day—we have it easy, we can’t complain, this isn’t something that can be solved with curb cuts or an act of legislation, and so we die the death of a thousand cuts.
I told you about Martin, earlier. Martin always beat me on quizzes in class, but there is one thing I know that he doesn’t. I know that this is bullshit.
Here’s the secret. There is, in fact, one way to beat the bullies. See, what they want is to work themselves out of a job, to have you doing their dirty work for them. They want you to beat yourself up. So the way you win is by stepping out of the game entirely. The way you win is by knowing, being absolutely and irrevocably and 100% positive, that they are wrong.
It’s the tiniest thing.
It’s almost impossibly hard. How do you discover the world’s best-kept secret: that despite what you’ve been hearing since you were two and your parents started dragging you to doctor after doctor and the other kids stopped playing with you that you are actually perfectly fine, just fine?
When you are disabled, you are sick in every sense of the word. Disgusting, scary, dangerous, broken, wrong. Lesser. I knew this, had it memorized and lived my life accordingly. But one day I met someone else who was sick. “You’re sick!” I protested when they insisted on acting like a human being.
“Yeah, I am.” they agreed. “So are you.”
And then one morning I woke up. I was still sick. And I was also fine.
I was fine.
There is no equivalent to a GSA for disabled kids. We have to pass it on like a secret. You’re okay. We’re okay. Everyone else is wrong. We have a right to be here too. We’re not just sick. We’re not in doctors’ offices all the time. We’re okay.
We need that support, need some sort of physical community. Passing it on like a rumor isn’t enough. The moment we realize that the hateful people who fill and control our lives are wrong is the moment when everything can finally start to change. That moment shouldn’t even have to happen—it should be something that we just always know.
Things won’t get better until then.
Good-bye. My name is Julia Bascom, and I am, always have been, and always will be, fine.
I am autistic. I can talk; I talked to myself for a long time before I would talk to anyone else. My sensory system is a painful mess, my grasp on language isn’t always the best, and it takes me quite some time to process social situations. I cannot yet live on my own or manage college or relationships successfully. I can explain, bemoan, and wish away a lot of things about me and my autism: my troubles finding the right words to say what I really mean, my social processing lag and limits, my rubbery facial expressions, my anxiety, my sensory system’s dysfunctions, my brain’s tendency to get stuck in physical self-destruct mode and land me in the ER. I can complain about the suckiness of being socialized and educated as an autistic and as an outsider, about lack of supports and understanding and always needing to educate.
One of the things about autism is that a lot of things can make you terribly unhappy while barely affecting others. A lot of things are harder.
But some things? Some things are so much easier. Sometimes being autistic means that you get to be incredibly happy. And then you get to flap. You get to perseverate. You get to have just about the coolest obsessions. (Mine are: sudoku and Glee. I am not ashamed.)
Now, maybe you do not understand. Because “obsession” and even “perseveration” have specific dictionary and colloquial meanings which everyone uses and understands and which do not even come CLOSE to describing my relationship with whatever I’m obsessing on now. It’s not just that I am sitting in my room and my heart is racing and all I can think about is Glee and all I want to do is read about it and talk about it and never go to sleep because that would take time away from this and that has been my life for the past few days. It’s not just that I am doing sudokus in my head or that I find ways to talk about either numbers or Glee in any conversation, including ones about needing to give a student a sensory break so he’ll stop screaming and throwing things.
(It’s not just the association and pressure of shame, because when ever an autistic person gets autistically excited about something, there will be people there to shame and bully them, and some of us will internalize that shame and lock away our obsessions and believe the bullies and let them take away this unique, untranslatable joy and turn it into something dirty and battered.)
It’s not any of that. Those are all things neurotypicals can understand and process. This goes beyond that. It’s not anything recognized on the continuum of “normal”.
It’s that the experience is so rich. It’s textured, vibrant, and layered. It exudes joy. It is a hug machine for my brain. It makes my heart pump faster and my mouth twitch back into a smile every few minutes. I feel like I’m sparkling. Every inch of me is totally engaged in and powered up by the obsession. Things are clear.
It is beautiful. It is perfect.
I flap a lot when I think about Glee or when I finish a sudoku puzzle. I make funny little sounds. I spin. I rock. I laugh. I am happy. Being autistic, to me, means a lot of different things, but one of the best things is that I can be so happy, so enraptured about things no one else understands and so wrapped up in my own joy that, not only does it not matter that no one else shares it, but it can become contagious.
This is the part about autism I can never explain. This is the part I never want to lose. Without this part autism is not worth having.
Neurotypical people pity autistics. I pity neurotypicals. I pity anyone who cannot feel the way that flapping your hands just so amplifies everything you feel and thrusts it up into the air. I pity anyone who doesn’t understand how beautiful the multiples of seven are, anyone who doesn’t get chills when a shadow falls just so across a solitaire game spread out on the table. I pity anyone who is so restrained by what is considered acceptable happiness that they will never understand when I say that sometimes being autistic in this world means walking through a crowd of silently miserable people and holding your happiness like a secret or a baby, letting it warm you as your mind runs on the familiar tracks of an obsession and lights your way through the day.
It takes a million different forms. A boy pacing by himself, flapping and humming and laughing. An “interest” or obsessions that is “age appropriate”—or maybe one that is not. A shake of the fingers in front of the eyes, a monologue, an echolaliated phrase. All of these things autistic people are supposed to be ashamed of and stop doing? They are how we communicate our joy.
If I could change three things about how the world sees autism, they would be these. That the world would see that we feel joy—sometimes a joy so intense and private and all-encompassing that it eclipses anything the world might feel. That the world would stop punishing us for our joy, stop grabbing flapping hands and eliminating interests that are not “age-appropriate”, stop shaming and gas-lighting us into believing that we are never, and can never be, happy. And that our joy would be valued in and of itself, seen as a necessary and beautiful part of our disability, pursued, and shared.
This is about the obsessive joy of autism. So I guess, if I’m trying to explain what an obsession (and, by necessity, obsessive joy) means to me as an autistic person, I can bring it back to the tired old image of a little professor cornering an unsuspecting passerby and lecturing them for half an hour. All too often this encounter is viewed through the terrified eyes of the unwillingly captive audience. I’d like to invite you to see through the eyes of the lecturer, who is not so much determined to force their knowledge into you as they are opened to a flood of joy which they cannot contain.
And why would you want to contain something like that?
It’s a grabbers vs. flappers warzone.
On the one side are the flappers. We wave and twist our hands in front of our faces or slap them against our chests. Our heads punctuate our moods and the music against the wall. Our knees don’t bend as we walk on our toes, our fingers pick at cuticles or scratch patterns against our forearms and cheeks, and we’d rather watch spinning pinwheels than drown in another person’s eyes.
(Our joy is own own, and we communicate it differently, perhaps holding privately onto it, or pouring it out into another person. But soon we learn from the grabbers that our joy should be our shame, our movements not our own, and so we withdraw.)
What else is there to do when you are surrounded by grabbing hands but shrink in on yourself?
The grabbers don’t believe that we can be happy or find meaning unless we are exactly like them—and that’s really the goal, being just like everyone else, and so there is not even a second of hesitation in their eyes when they slap our hands down onto the table with a shriek of “quiet hands”.
The hands are everywhere.
They’re at our chins. “Look at me,” with a face pressed in so close to yours that you count the pores until they force your gazes to meet. They grab our hands, “don’t do that, people will think you’re retarded.” They smack away picking fingers, because our foreheads must be pristine and easy-to-look-at for them. You turn away, pull away, try to put some distance in so you can breath, and they grab your hands, your hips, your shoulders and twist you back. You bounce your leg—surely you are allowed this?—and they press a hand to your knee, stilling you. Everyone taps their pencil, but when you start their hand closes over yours and won’t let go.
“Please let me go!”
But protesting just means you need to be grabbed more often, with harder and more insistent hands, until you realize that the way you move is fundamentally wrong, as wrong and deficient and disturbing and dangerous as you are, and if you want to be counted as a “you” at all you must let them grab you until you can stop your self. The most basic human thing is just existing in space, and you quickly realize that you do even this wrong. Is it that you take up too much space, or just that you do it too differently, moving in an entirely alien way and triggering some sort of dormant xenophobia?
In the end it just comes down to you are wrong, and for that you must be punished. It simplifies to your body is not your own, but it is mine. And you learn that a relationship, if you can call it that, always has two roles, a flapper and a grabber, and you will always be grabbed, and never be permitted to grab back.
This is a story about disability. This is a story about the politics of drool. This is a lot of things, and maybe you should just read it.
So I want you to imagine being born a drooler.
We’re not talking just the adorable amounts of saliva an infant will naturally produce as their teeth come in. You grow up with that, sure, but then it never goes away. Some quirk of muscular development and oral-motor control leaves you with a constant stain of spittle around your lips and on your chin.
You grow up.
You have a small toddler friend or two, before anyone knows better. But you grow apart, and then one day in kindergarten you turn away from your playdough to answer someone’s “hello” and a string of drool lands on the tabletop.
Your cheerful “hi” is answered with a laugh, a stare, a jabbing, gesturing finger.
You remember your mother, always scraping at your chin with washclothes and whispering implored reminders to “swallow” and keep your mouth shut. You realize that no other kindergartener has sleeve cuffs which are crusty from reaching up to wipe their mouths every five minutes. The florescent lights above burn through your back, your playdough feels gritty in your fingers, and you’re sure that you’re about to melt under the table in a puddle of drool because you legs get this horrible shaking feeling as though they’re made of water. It spreads, and it’s like a wind or a shudder goes through your stomach and leaves your head empty and clear.
You don’t realize it at the time, but you are one of the lucky ones, in a way. You do learn to go through life with your lips clamped shut around each other. You learn to swallow so that your mouth is always perfectly dry. Your fingers constantly flutter to your chin just to make sure. You spend hours each day just concentrating on the muscles of your jaw and mouth, more intimately acquainted with them than any other part of you. In some ways, you stop being conscious of yourself as anything except a mouth. The rest of your body seems far-away and empty, everything caught up in your war against your own saliva.
It doesn’t sound it, but you are so incredibly lucky. If you just fake it well enough people don’t think of you as a drooler, just another distant and distracted and distrustful kid. It will be years before you are first called retard, and for a very, very long time you are sure you can get away with it, be just like everyone else with one tiny little secret.
You never go to sleepovers or let yourself fall asleep on the bus, because you can’t control it when you sleep and you know that drooling is just a disgusting crime, grosser than eating your boogers and punishable in all sorts of intricately painful ways. But it really does seem as though, so long as you take some reasonable precautions and devote three seconds out of every minute to monitoring your mouth, you’ll be just fine.
And then you’re in middle school and everyone is laughing at some joke and it happens again, in a rare moment of laxness, and then everyone is laughing at you or else pretending not to see—and you never thought that could actually be worse, but it is—and you realize that no, fuck it all, you’re never going to get away with or from this.
You don’t want to be a drooler. No one wants to, and no one wants them. If there is one thing every middle schooler needs, it is to be wanted, even as just a friend, by someone. To belong, to fit in, to have a place where you are welcome. Droolers get none of that. But you’ll be fine. You’ll just try harder and take what abuse you get (because you deserve it, you can’t even control your own secretions) and everything is going to be fine.
But your brain starts to shift a little.
You hear your voice on a recording for your answering machine for the first time and you spend the next five minutes wondering who punched you in the stomach. That voice. Is it really yours? It doesn’t sound anything at all like the one you hear in your head, and when you ask your mom mutters something about sound waves and bone conduction but all you can hear is that stupid, round, fishy, wet voice that you’ve apparently been using all your life. You had hoped you were a lot of things, fierce and funny and smart and competent and cool, but that, that is the voice of a drooler. People don’t even need to see your baby pictures, they don’t even need to see you compulsively swallowing to the point that your mom takes you to a doctor and asks about tics, because they can tell the instant you start talking.
You start to wonder if this is some great cosmic secret that everyone else got to know before you, and the thought makes you feel lost and sick and pathetic and you just know that you’d better be getting comfortable with that feeling because it’s going to get awfully familiar.
And you fight, you feel like a baby kitten but even they have claws so you scratch and fight and do everything you can to keep that feeling of utter uselessness from settling permanently in you. You sign up for all honors classes for next year and you try to dress like the most popular girls and you try out for soccer even though you are the best in the whole school at tripping over your own feet and you are so damn happy when Eric asks you to the eight-grade graduation dance that you let him kiss you afterward even though he tastes like pepperoni and smells like too much cologne.
And the kiss is horribly wet and sloppy and you are now known as the worst kisser in your whole year and you just want to die.
High school is unremittingly terrible, even though you aren’t caught drooling once. But you make tiny mistakes in every algebra problem that create bigger mistakes and big, ugly red ‘F’s even though you are good at math and you love it. But your teachers talk so fast and you can never make rhyme or reason of what they say and so you spend your classes wondering how you can be so smart and yet so dumb and if you ever were smart at all and how are you going to past this test, and when that gets boring you draw passive-aggressive comics about your “friends” and their stupid boyfriends eating poisoned chocolates and getting stabbed with lightsabers. Everyone else bitches about long hours spent studying and you wonder if you should tell them that you are up until two every night just staring at your textbooks and worksheets and googling frantically and unable to make sense of any of it, somehow managing to string enough figures and terms together to create a passable bullshitting act that keeps you in the honors track with them. But you don’t tell, of course you don’t, because then people would find out and you can’t be found out again, you’re pretty sure they would kick you out of your classes and being able to scam your way into that elite little group of scholars is the only thing that makes you think that maybe you don’t deserve to die.
But one ever tries to kiss you again, or even invites you to a single party for four years, and every time you remember this all you can see in a spot of drool swallowing up the latest 68 handed back to you in geometry.
It doesn’t make much sense, but you come to see every little imperfection as a crack breaking across the surface of your act, ripping apart your pretensions of normality, of superiority, and it fills you with hate and fear and makes your nose ache with the smell of rubbing alcohol and your palms punch into your thighs until they bruise.
It just steadily keeps on mounting up, and every morning you wake up with a sticky chin and damp pillow and it gets harder and harder to climb out of bed. You know you’re failing on every level, but you’re terrified of what will happen if you stop. So you get up, day after day, and emerge every day from high school battered and empty, and that awful feeling of watery legs and a shivering stomach becomes your default setting.
You realize that you’ve never really left kindergarten.
The admissions officer asks you, sounding bored, who you are, what makes you tick. And you just sort of stare blankly back, because you’ve been trying not to think about that since you were five and somehow, explaining that you’ve spent your whole life just pretending, and passing, getting by and trying to blend in and not let anyone see how empty you actually are, just filled with drool…that doesn’t seem like the sort of answer expected.
You realize that you can’t answer the question, you don’t know how to even begin to think about the answer, because sometimes you are so focused on swallowing and sealing your lips that you forget the rest of your body and just sort of bounce along the lockers as you navigate from class to class. You want to tell them that your earliest memory is of a washcloth against your face, that your first nickname was “Droolia”, and that this one special ed boy absolutely terrifies you because he has to wear a kerchief around his neck to catch his drool and what if someone connects you two? You want to ask if they’ve ever been sitting in English, doodling in the margins of a vocabulary worksheet, and then suddenly felt like they’ve been running for miles, so out of breath with their heart hammering in their heads, legs watery, shivering and shaking. You want to tell them that your least favorite thing to do ever is to go to the dentist, because your mouth is open and you can’t swallow for half an hour. You want to point out that you never smile for the camera, that you actively run away whenever a camera comes out because the area around your mouth is so slack and rubbery and you just cannot control it.
You smile and say something about liking to draw comics and observe people for new material.
You fall asleep on a pile of your comics at RISD, and when you wake up they are wet and sticky and ruined.
They’re due tomorrow. Or today, actually, since it’s three in the morning. You can’t ask for an extension—what are you supposed to say, sorry I never learned to control my saliva, can I have an extra day to redraw them because I drooled all over them?
You drop out instead.
You drop out of everything.
And the boy who pointed at you in kindergarten? Eric, who kissed and told? Your friends, who never bothered to ask why you wouldn’t come over to their sleepovers? Everyone who ever let you know, subtly and quietly, that you were fake and damaged and disgusting, who may have only said that out loud once or even never but who always gave you a million little reminders?
The ones who broke you apart because a few of your muscles developed a little more slowly?
They are just fine.