How I Rebuilt My Soul in Washington, MO (May 2008)

This week marks 4 years since I started this blog. I considered briefly writing a piece on that anniversary, a state of the blog post. But the thing is, I think the state is fine and hasn’t changed much in the last 4 years. When I find a topic worth writing on, I write on it. I am debating a few new ideas but I’ll come to them.

What I’m doing instead is telling a happy story from my past and for a good reason. I’ve been battling severe depression and anxiety for the last couple of months. I’ve been in a dark place that I even wrote about. But I am on an upswing because I’m forcing myself on an upswing. I’m fixing myself. And to that end let me tell a story about a trip that got me out with yet another story that belonged in the book but didn’t make it in.

I want to start by using Google Street View to show the exact locations I’m talking about. To look at this location it might be impossible to imagine that I found anything to heal my soul here. It’s perfectly generic. A few fast food joints. A grocery store. A Super 8 motel. There is no reason that this should sit in my head for 10 years as an important place. But it is an important place for me. Because there’s a small part of me that knows I found my will to live walking around this area one night.

Let me begin by addressing that idea: the will to live. Mine was running low during this weekend. Not gone, I’ve never reached that low, but low all the same. I didn’t think I was capable of much in life. I mean to be blunt I only had my part time job due to who I knew. What good was I?

I was nearing a year since the West Memphis incident. Going to Missouri for a job interview was an act of desperation. Since I was desperate I convinced my father to go/drive with me up to Washington, MO. I had no idea where it was but if they’d interview me, fine.

The day before, we drove up. It’s bizarre the memories I have. I read Essential Rampaging Hulk on the way. I ate Mountain Dew flavored Doritos. I remember driving through Harrison, AR. Dinner at Golden Corral in Springfield. Then driving through the wilderness. We checked in at a Super 8, dad’s chain of choice. It was about 9 and I wasn’t quite tired so I opted to go out.

A word about towns. Towns that sit in the midst of a lot of things aren’t special. Nothing towns in the middle of nowhere are nothing. But sizable, real towns in the woods are like stumbling into civic oases. That’s Washington.

Look at that view. The details are fundamentally what I saw on my night stroll. A Jack in the Box, alluring to someone from a state without one. An Applebee’s. A Michael’s a Lowe’s. A Jewelry store. A Mobil. And a Schnucks.

I made a beeline for the grocery store. Why? Well for one thing it was the only place open. I also feel a deep draw to grocery stores. They’re places of order. They’re all alike. They’re designed as sensory free zones. And I needed that.

That feeling of being adrift hurt. We define ourselves by our station in the world. I had no full career. I had no love. I had nothing to make me a man of standing in this realm. My only status I had was that dark word I so despised. Autistic. I was low.

As I perused the soda section, I found some trace of myself. I was a fan of these generic places, grocery stores. I had a sweet tooth. I liked alcohol. I liked finding oddities. Those were my traits. They weren’t great traits but they were mine.

I didn’t buy anything though I lingered a while in the store. I walked out into a lovely June night on my way to the Mobil. Crossing that sizable lot was a zen act. No sound but traffic. The halogen bulbs casting false daylight around me. Just my thoughts. Which I try to ignore.

There is one sure way to ignore those thoughts. I find it at the Mobil in a 16 ounce plastic bottle: Mike’s Hard Lemonade. There’s an odd moment where the clerk is confused by my driver’s license but finally he lets me take my cold, delicious drink.

I walk back to the hotel. My dad watches sports while I drink my alcopop and read the magazine exploits of the Hulk. Comics have helped in this age. Brand New Day. Doctor Strange: The Oath. Secret Invasion. I feed on the distraction. The alcohol helps too.

Then it’s dark and I’m stuck with my thoughts. I’m scared now. I’m scared more than anything else. I don’t get to escape that fear either. I’m scared of everything changing. I’m scared of nothing changing. I’m scared of failure. I’m almost scared of success as much. I’m scared! I’m so weak. Here I am in a strange place and there is nothing I can do,

I cry. I don’t make a big deal of it but I do shed a few tears just from the sheer, crippling fatigue of being at my low. I’m tired of being in strange towns hoping for a crumb. I just want the approval denied to me in this year. I want to matter.

And then I sleep. At dawn, all is new. I awaken. I eat. I get dressed. I’m not ready for this. I can’t be. But I go anyway.

The downtown area is lovely. There’s no other word for it. I stop in at a ridiculously idyllic corner store and drink a Cheerwine. It’s almost absurd how pleasant all this is. I could do this.

Then I have my interview. I go in and I do ok. I fumble some questions and my nerves shot but I try. I give great answers about my background and make me a good candidate. I know I won’t get this job, and I don’t, but I go to the end trying. It’s all I can do.

And then I’m freed. As we drive away from Washington and to St. Louis because why not, I let go of everything I’ve carried. My pain, my angst, my fear? They were left here. Now I know I can at least try.

I’ve never gone back to Washington. There’s no reason for me to do so. I’ve gone to that section of Google Street View often but going back in person would destroy the magic. Washington can only exist in my head as a place where I confronted my issues and came out ok. Sure I would love to visit the used bookstores in town. But it must be the site of my dark night of the soul.

We all have these places. These strange, ethereal phantom zones. These places where we were only there once but it changed us. This is mine and I’m grateful for it.

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The Comedy and Tragedy of Gender Norms

 

When I was in 10th grade, I was oddly fascinated by a book for sale at a local bookstore: a printed copy of the screenplay to the now forgotten 1999 teen comedy Drive Me Crazy. I swear every week for 6 months I considered buying the thing but could never get to the register with it. Every time a voice in my head stopped me from making the purchase, afraid I’d be ashamed of myself for owning it. Eventually the book was gone and I never purchased it though I scoured used bookstores for years.

This wasn’t an isolated incident. Throughout my childhood I wrestled with having tastes that went against “masculine” norms. I didn’t wrestle with my sexuality, as I’ve covered before. Nor did I question my gender identity. But I struggled with being appropriately male, an issue I think many of my peers fought.

My taste in music tended towards lighter music such as the strong (in memory) run of pop in the late 90s with very little interest in the abrasive rock. I didn’t like war movies and still don’t. I hate sports. I preferred things like teen comedies and frankly still do. But I felt I had to keep that secret to fit in with others. (I do love a good action movie admittedly, so I’m not completely atypical. But who doesn’t?)

All of this seems so silly a full lifetime later. These were the most inconsequential things to define myself by yet we all use these barometers. No matter how progressive we are, we know what’s coded male/female and we care about the perception. I’m going to stand out if I blast Carly Rae Jepsen (who I love) instead of Tool (who I utterly despise.) It’s just how this ignorant society works.

What really makes me question the thinking behind these norms is my day to day life. After all, I violate one of our grandest gender norms as the daytime caregiver to my daughter. I change diapers, feed her, dress her, all of the things a man is only supposed to do as a “babysitter.” It’s not lost on me how few other dads I see out and about on a given day. Comically, while I may have doubted myself over the media I consumed, the actual actions I take in my daily life that truly violate these norms? I don’t care.

Why is that? I actually live a life in violation of serious norms yet I don’t care. I think it’s simple. I want to believe with time we mature and outgrow caring about these silly things. I’m not 17 now. I’m 34. I’ve become a man or at least as much of one as I’ll be. I’m old enough to see how silly all of this is. Besides, Lola is a status symbol. I’m a father. I might be a disaster in many ways but I’m a dad and that counts.

But even if I see how silly all of this is, that doesn’t stop it for being a problem for so many still trapped in it. I wish we weren’t so essentialist on gender. It starts at a young age with clothes coded for genders and never ends. How often have I heard the sex appeal of them men listed as the reason the MCU is popular across gender lines? How often have boys been forced into playing sports they hate?

None of this is healthy but it’s so coded into our society and it frustrates me. We cling to these ideas as if they actually matter and as a result they do. Think of how much great art is lost because a girl with killer action ideas was pushed away or a boy with romantic comedy ideas was mocked. The ones that cross those lines are the ones who were wise enough not to care.

I don’t have any easy answers to this issue. Trust me if I did I’d fix society. All I can do is bring this story full circle. A couple of months ago I finally did get to read the Drive Me Crazy screenplay via the internet library at archive.org. It was astoundingly awful just as a piece of writing. I missed nothing.

The Mistake in Springfield: A Story of Bad Autistic Behavior

I live with regret. Everybody does but I in particular live with regret. The things I regret are not the grand ones you’d expect. I regret the mistakes I’ve made that I regret the small things I did as a kid like ditching a friend at the movies. I regret not accepting my grandmother’s offer to pay for me to go to the movies, an offer that likely would’ve gone to the masterpiece Life is Beautiful no less. And I regret the story I’m about to tell.  

The saga begins in 2001 in the town of Branson, MO. It was in this legendary tourist mecca that my brother, my father, and I spent the night after taking a tour of the lights. I could tell you memories of the light but I don’t remember them. I remember Not Another Teen Movie playing at the theater. I remember the Cracker Barrel we ate at. I remember how vacant the town was. I remember the CDs my brother and I blasted. He went with a Radiohead live EP while I listened to Creed’s Weathered album. It was a quiet moment.

The plan for the day ahead was simple. We were headed to Springfield, MO We would go to a few bookstores in the morning by my request so I could track down screenplays then Bass Pro Shops that afternoon for my brother. After that we’d crash in a hotel in Northwest Arkansas. A simple day and one I could not screw up.

I had my list: Vanilla Sky, A Beautiful Mind, The Royal Tenenbaums. I wanted to find one of those scripts. Barring those, no other purchase would do. That was what my Christmas money was for along with maybe a couple of other neat books if I found one. The hunt was on.

First bookstore: Barnes and Noble. No luck. I found the Jackie Brown screenplay but not one I cared about. Barnes and Nobles have bedeviled me my whole life as a hunter btw. Sometimes they’re completely generic, all the same. Sometimes one gets a wave of British imports. I had no way of knowing which this was.

Second bookstore: Waldenbooks. What was I doing even looking here? Waldenbooks didn’t sell screenplays or at least not ones that weren’t the mass sold ones like Twister or the oddly overprinted English Patient script. But I looked anyway. Didn’t find it but I grabbed the second Star Trek SCE book. I loved that series.

Third bookstore: The used bookstore. Yeah that entire quest for the scripts was over immediately. At the used bookstore I consider a couple of books before settling on a book on the Twilight Zone movie, not a happy read at all. It’s a neat store though. There’s that at least.

And all at once it’s over. I’ve got two books to show for my quest, less than $10 spent out of at least $100 in xmas money. No, I’m not happy. But I must trudge on to Bass Pro Shops.

I enter hell. Bass Pro Shops on December 26th is essentially a license to have a panic attack for an autistic person. It’s loud. It’s packed. There is nothing that interests me. I can’t move. It’s loud. I’m already moody. It’s GODDAMN LOUD!!!

35 minutes or so into the trip, I start to hyperventilate. This is the first sign of things to come. I struggle to eat and finally have to leave, breaking down crying because it’s too much. If I were 7 it would be fine. I’m 17 on the verge of 18. I’m humiliating to be near. I can’t keep it together. I stay in a less crowded part of the store for the rest of the visit. The damage is done.

Now for the drive. The long drive down to Northwest AR. My brain locks in harder as the music plays in my ear. I’m angry. I’m frustrated. Why? Because I had something that was supposed to happen and it did not. I was supposed to find those screenplays. Now I can’t spend the money I have unless I do. I have power and I can’t use it.

Let me stop now to explain what a logical reaction to this scenario would be. Give the money to my parents to pay for am Amazon order. That way I’d be assured of getting the books I wanted even if I had to wait. If I’d known I could end the grief and just enjoy the two admittedly first rate books I’d purchased, I could’ve prevented what came next.

Once we got to the hotel I essentially demanded we drive across the area to a Barnes and Noble. There it is. That’s what I did. I threw a fit and demanded out of frustration that we go make me happy. No it was not the right thing to do but it was what I needed. I was so stuck in this one place that it was eating me alive that I couldn’t fix it.

Fourth bookstore: Another Barnes and Noble. A more varied selection but no luck. I consider the Donnie Darko script and the Memento script. If I were to do it again, I’d put the Nolan script in my hand but hindsight hurts. I’m still unsuccessful.

We eat and go back. I sleep. The next day we go to a Civil War battlefield. It’s a great way to forget my darkness. It’s an amazing site to visit and the weather is perfect. Maybe I’m freed?

We get to Fort Smith. My dad has work there so we go with him to that. The blue of the day has curdled into that sickly yellow of evening. My skin crawls to be here. My demon is roaring.

Fifth bookstore: Shoppers’ Nook, a used bookstore. I buy a Batman prose anthology more or less out of desperation. A few years from now I’ll make some of the greatest finds I’ll ever make there. Maybe I could’ve on this day if I wasn’t in my head. I still wanted those 3 books.

Sixth and truly final bookstore: a Books-A-Million. I find nothing. Once and for all I find nothing. I’m not yet a comic reader so I pay no attention to their incredible comic selection which I’ll notice in three years. My tunnel vision game is strong. The light falls on the trip and I’m miserable. I’m miserable because I was stuck on an outcome I had no control over. I ride back home quiet, utterly blind to anything good that happened over the last 48 hours.

There are things that will happen. For my birthday I’ll make the call I know now I should’ve made and order the scripts online. In two years I’ll return to Springfield with friends and will have another meltdown due to being overwhelmed by college. A few moths later I’ll go back to exorcise my demons in Fort Smith. Then I’ll go back again a few weeks later and from there once a year.

But will I ever understand what happened? Maybe only half a life removed do I. Being autistic is being set in patterns. It’s seeing life as a flow chart with good and bad outcomes. It’s not being at peace with being powerless.

We hate the image of being burdens but it’s not untrue at times. We are hard to live with. Just how it is. We need to change but that’s far easier said than done. We are who we are. It takes work to be otherwise.

Had I just let go I would’ve made everyone happier on that trip. But I couldn’t. I was stuck in my pattern. And others paid the cost. They likely don’t remember any of this. Maybe the meltdown at most. But I do. I carry it with me in my ledger. It’ll never get crossed off.

How a Death by a Thousand Cuts Destroys Us 

I’ve moved. I’ve had a kidney stone. I ran over a nail. Even after getting fixed, the tire keeps losing air. My headlight went out. Lola’s been sick. I’ve had a sinus infection. Bills have piled up. I’ve had anxiety about my future. Some things I hoped would happen didn’t. I’ve had at least one fight. 

It’s been a long five weeks in other words. Like to a point I’ve had to stop and think about what I’ve talked with my therapist about in advance of Tuesday’s appointment. It’s been a tremendous amount of stress and it’s started to break me. 

This is not however an article where I cry woe is me. Kind of the opposite. I want to discuss a hard truth. When we go through such an arduous time it often makes us kind of terrible. And that’s not ok. 

I’ve noticed in the last few days just how toxic I’ve been. I’ve snapped at a few of my friends in chat. I’ve been incredibly cynical. I’ve almost sought fights. About the only area I haven’t struggled is with my wife and daughter who do make me feel calmer, despite Lola being such a key stressor this month. (Babies get a free pass. They’re babies.)

None of this is ok. Not one bit. I can’t take my issues out on other people. They don’t deserve it. 

So why do we do it in this case? Well we can’t rage against what’s actually stressing us. Random bad streaks of luck are just that: random. So there’s no outlet for the stress we feel. We’re stuck festering in our stress. 

We also take periods where small things batter us continually harder than one massive hit. There’s a psychological reason. We have mechanisms that kick in after a massive hit even if they’re grief and depression. We don’t have those for minor stressors that come at us repeatedly. (Note that I would under no circumstances call the last month a period of minor stress. I’m amazed I haven’t had worse health issues.) 

What we’re really dealing with the hits. It’s the fear of what next. Thus we get on edge as a defense. We know something else is coming so we fight off everything. And that’s not ok at all. 

It’s just so very hard to shift down, especially when you’re not sure it’s over. And I’ve tried. I meditated. I read. I listened to music. I took a drive. (Ok that one only made things worse.) Shifting gears is hard. 

Ultimately all I can do is write an entry like this where I lay out my issues and hope for unearned patience. This won’t last forever. I just need to be better. 

On mental illness and violence 

In the wake of Parkland, the link between mental illness and violence has become a hot topic of conversation. There’s a real focus on the need for increased mental health treatment in the US. Over and over again I keep hearing about how we need to change how things are done in this country and maybe if we treat mental illness we can stop the next Parkland. I have two words to say to this: stop talking! 

I am mentally ill and I’m not referring to autism which I consider a condition not an illness. I suffer from severe depression episodes and live with chronic anxiety. I know what it’s like to have a mental illness spiral to a point of severity. I’ve lived with it. It’s why I’m being treated for it. 

Mental illness, to be blunt, has nothing to do with what we see in these shootings. Oh it might show up in the shooter’s background but issues like mine also show up in the backgrounds of men like Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, both victims of gun violence. Yes, I share a condition with the Sandy Hook shooter. I also share a condition with Anthony Hopkins and Darryl Hannah. See how the correlation doesn’t really matter. 

On the other hand an association with violent hate groups does show up constantly. Domestic violence is almost always present. These are two ideas completely removed from mental illness. They’re far better harbingers though. 

And we know this. I see so many arguing that the latter two matter. But they’ll still argue for mental health. I suppose the assumption is it does no harm to bring it up since there is a need for reform. But it’s doing tremendous harm to us. 

Here’s the reality of mental health and violence. We are far more likely to be victims rather than perpetrators because we are vulnerable. If we do harm someone it’s ourselves. Self harm and suicide are absolutely connected to mental health. We’re no more prone to hate than anybody else, maybe less because we identify with the marginalized. (Intersectionality is a fight we’re into!) 

And yes, the system is broken. It’s hopelessly broken. I can only afford meds and a monthly doctor visit. My insurance doesn’t cover therapy until I hit my deductible. I need far more to cope with my issues than I can get. But because I can’t get more, I’m not a threat to society. I’m just likely to have insomnia. 

This correlation absolutely has to stop. Just because you can’t comprehend it doesn’t make it an issue of mental health. It means you don’t get it. Quit scapegoating innocent people. Meaning well doesn’t absolve you. 

What “Good” Autistic Representation Should Look Like

Representation matters. This is a fact we all know. Positive representation tells a person that in the public eye, they exist and matter. Negative representation tells a person they’re lesser and deserve scorn. It matters big time that Love, Simon is in theaters depicting a gay teenage love story that doesn’t end in tragedy and it matters that Black Panther is a monster hit.

Sadly it also matters that The Good Doctor exists. It matters that Atypical exists. It matters that Autism Uncensored exists. It matters that To Siri With Love exists. It matters that counterexamples aside from the imperfect Abed Nadir (who is an atrocious representation of the highly underrepresented Palestinians) don’t exist. It ABSOLUTELY MATTERS that Sheldon Cooper exists. Autistic people are extremely poorly represented in mass media with little signs of change.

So what would be good representation? I was challenged on twitter today by Alex Haagaard to answer this question. This is my best attempt at answering that question. What would a portrayal of autistic people that would recognize and respond to look like?

For starters, autistic people would be the point of view character of the material. This seems so simple but it’s really not as common as it should be. Most works about autistic people are told through the perspective of the parents or their cohorts. This bedevils even the best works such as the fantastic manga With The Light. For good representation, we need to be the ones telling the story. Colin Fischer does this quite well actually.

We need to have an inner life. Again, this seems so obvious but it’s not to makers of this material. Autistic people are shown as at once closed off yet all of our issues are right on the surface. We don’t seem to think. We’re all process. No! Give us personalities no different from anybody else.

We’re emotional. Yeah you won’t see that in any media about us. But we’re actually highly emotional people even if we don’t express it that well. Good representation would depict us having moods, just a bit off.

Give us a sense of humor. I love Spock but we’re not actually like that. I love comedy no different from anybody else. My sense of humor isn’t that weird either. Honestly most of us laugh at pretty ordinary stuff. Weird Al is our saint too after all!

Show us as frustrated by the neurotypical world. We’re always commented on but never get to comment on others. And we do. We absolutely have thoughts. Let us vent! It’ll help make us real when we can snap back.

We should have our interests but surprise us! Give us unique interests. They don’t have to be cliched ones like criminology or medicine. Give us a thoroughly useless interest and let us laugh at it. Our interests don’t have to be only good because they have value in mainstream society. Tell us it’s fine just to be us.

Speaking of society, it would be great if we were shown as social. We’re always asocial. Untrue. Sure, many of us are but a lot of NTs are. Show us being social! And don’t just show us tragically wanting to have friends. We have friends in real life and it would be nice to see that in the media.

That correlates to relationships. I’m married with a daughter. I’ve never seen that in the media. Show that! But while I’m at it, show us as gay/lesbian/trans/asexual. I know people who are all of those things and autistic too! I realize intersectionality is a nightmare for media producers but please try.

Give us flaws too. Give us real flaws like anybody else would have. Make us rude not because we’re autistic but because we’re assholes. Mae us greedy. Make us selfish. Make us vain. We can be broken. Autism doesn’t make us pure. We hurt people because we’re people.

But here’s the big one: vary us. I’m so sick of seeing autistic people falling into the exact same trope. We’re cold. People confuse us. We’re sad. We’re superhuman. Almost always STEM geniuses (I’m sooo not.) Give me an autistic screwup alcoholic. Give me a highly social wisecracker. Give me more than Sherlock Holmes!

Will we get this? I think so. We’re creating more. We’re getting heard. We’re enraging publishers. It’ll take time but I have hopes in time we will eventually see ourselves in a way we like.

Moving While Autistic

Moving is hell for everybody.

How can it not be? You have to transport everything that comprises your life from one location to another in a short amount of time with no margin of error. You have an intense amount of physical labor combined with a violent amount of money being spent. Moving exhausts you in every way. And when it’s done you have to reestablish your life.

However, I think moving might be a special brand of hell for the autistic community. Moving is an experience that gets at everything that we hate in a condensed form. Over the last week, I’ve moved from one house to another and it’s gutted me physically and emotionally. So I have more than a few thoughts on the topic.

Between 2013 and 2018, I’ve moved four separate times. That is, as you might notice, not a small volume of moves. The first time was to move in with Amanda. The second time was because our neighbors were horrid. The third time was because our house was overpriced. Now, on our fourth move, we moved because we added a third person and there was a hole in our floor. It had to happen.

The last 30 days have ranked among the longest in my life. Amanda and I have slammed our way through the experience of finding a house, cleaning it out, and getting over to a new house. All while maintaining my normal routine of work, therapy, and the most strenuous of all: being daddy.

The physical act of moving is the part most people hate but honestly while I hate it, I probably prefer it to the other parts. Physical labor is hard yet not all that mentally taxing. It simply must be done. Get from one place to another. That’s pure and I don’t feel stress over it. I should note however that I did very little of the heavy lifting. Not my skill set.

No, what I find stressful is the cleaning and not just because I struggle with the fine motor tasks of cleaning. Moving inevitably means turning up strata of your past. This was especially clear on Friday when I produced a mountain of trash from the shed. As I did so I took out pieces from my past. Unfortunately, many of my old comics were water damaged. It hurt to trash them. But even if I hadn’t had to let go of those, I’d still find memories over and over. We always do. There’s lots hidden that we dig up just by going through the move. It’s impossible not to be slammed with nostalgia when we do.

Nostalgia is hard for us to deal with. We mourn for what was and can never be again no matter how hard we try. I know this for a fact as I moved into my freshman dorm room during my senior year and couldn’t hit the flint again. Moving reminds us that time passes and things change. The memories hurt.

But what really hurts is the upheaval. Moving your things isn’t as simple as transporting rooms in their exact forms. Everything you have is boxed up and hidden. Already I’ve had several panic episodes just trying to find things. I will continue to panic in this manner for at least a month. This is disastrous for all but I really think we get it the hardest. 

It’s not just your things either. I moved a minimal 10 minutes away but my routine has been violently disrupted. I don’t have my convenience stores. I’m figuring out how long it takes to go to work. I’m figuring out the closest stores. Everything I know and count on to the minute? Gone.

You might be thinking that it’s silly to whine about that when I’m so close to everything I knew but in a weird way that’s harder. It’s frustrating that I can’t just snap back. It’s all visible to me. 

But ultimately none of this matters. Moving is part of life. Do we hate it? Yes. But it can’t be avoided. 

What matters is what we come home to. My wife is at this house as is my daughter. I can build a new routine. But I can’t replace them. They are my home.