By J.L. Pendall
“It’s okay honey, the doctor just wants to look in your eyes.” “Okay. I love you.” “I love you too, and I’m right here.”
The eye doctor smiled, trying to be comforting. My eyes still stung a bit from the drops, but it wasn’t bad. He tipped my head back and swung the light over my face. I was suddenly in hell. The bright light felt like thousands of daggers ripping through my body, tearing apart my speech and memories, filling every inch of my being with the dread of reality collapsing in shimmering chunks of ice.
I screamed, but it sounded far away. I thrashed and tried to close my eyes. The doctor pulled back, but he had to look—it was part of the procedure. So he tried again… and again, my mom weeping as she held down my arms. It was such an ordinary thing, but it felt like torture.
I was maybe five years old. A young Autistic without any shields, an exposed nerve there for the world to electrocute. No one knew I was on the Spectrum, they just thought I had vision problems. They thought I was shy, creative and melodramatic.
I blocked out most of my childhood memories for a long time. Now, the new antidepressants I’m on are unlocking all of those sealed rooms, giving me a more complete picture of who I am and where I came from.
My uncle was a yeller. He was verbally abusive too, but he yelled even in normal conversation. Yelled, stomped, and sniffed a lot thanks to all the snow up his nose. When you yell around an Autist, it’s like your voice rumbles through their essence, stripping away their flesh layer by layer until the bones stand out red and white. If the yelling is directed at you, it’s like someone pushing all of your teeth up into your brain while whipping you with a piece of electrified barbed wire.
I’m not being melodramatic. I wasn’t then, either.
It’s difficult enough dealing with neurotypicals when you’re on the Spectrum (probably in general)—dealing with sadistic, neglectful, narcissistic family members is a whole new ballgame.
There was no relief at school either. I was beaten, spit on and laughed at by almost all the other kids, and I didn’t know why. I thought I was just like everyone else. I couldn’t understand that everyone’s different.
The best experience I remember from those days is when a classmate—Diana—was sitting behind me while the teacher read us a story. She started gently playing with my hair (Yes, I did have hair at one point). That simple show of affection from someone else filled me with a peace I’d never known before. I felt safe and anchored in a universe that made no sense to me at all.
It was only for a minute or two, then class was over and we gathered our things. I didn’t know what to say to her, I didn’t know how to express how much that little moment of quiet connection meant to me. It meant so much that I still remember it almost 30 years later.
Fast forward ten years, and I’m in high school sitting in the bleachers. Heather, a cute Christian girl a year younger than me that I wanted to date, was behind me. She started playing with my hair, and I felt that peace again. The sense that everything was alright, that life had always been good because it led up to that good moment. The contact traveled through me, nourishing my essence until the world seemed like a paradise.
I was better at coping with information overload then, but I still struggled when it came to expressing myself. I didn’t understand how she could be so kind to such a bumbling chubster like me.
I was 19 the last time I saw her, I’d just graduated. A friend and I went to a basketball game at the school, and a few band students playfully hauled me to the band room. She saw me, literally dropped her saxophone, ran up and jumped into my arms. I spun us around and she giggled like life was perfect.
Then I was badgered into hopping on the drum set for old times sake as the band warmed up. That was the last time I saw her. I’d asked her to prom, but her parents were uber Christian, so they forbade it. I was a rebellious, chain-smoking pothead after all. Yet, she still dug me anyway, despite me representing everything she was taught to hate. I still dug her, even though I wanted every Church to burn to the ground.
Fast forward 15 more years and here I am. I’ve always had a great memory, that’s why I never had to study for tests, but I’d sealed so much of the chaotic years away. Now they’re coming back, as crisp and clear as the definition of homeostasis.
I find a comforting sense of continuity in this resurgence of the past. I’m starting to feel like me; more like myself than I have in a long, long time. I’m starting to make sense to myself—it’s hard to do that when you’ve got huge holes in your life.
I couldn’t understand how one heart could contain so many contradictions, but it’s simple: I’ve seen the light that burns and the light that heals. I’ve spent quiet nights with the stars, and dark hours locked in a deep freezer.
I’ve felt the fist and the caress. We all have. As these two halves of my life merge and meet, I’m savoring my first taste of completion.
Editor: Dana Gornall