(Content warning: brief, indirect mentions of suicide)
There are times in which I wish I could go back and talk to my child-self. Because I remember the (numerous) times I sat there, on my bed in my room, tears in various stages of falling and drying, wishing that I had the answers. Wishing that I had a mentor or guide to help me steer my way through life. Wishing that someone could give me advice. And not just anyone, but someone who really knew me, when it (correctly) seemed like no one did. Wishing that I knew how everything was going to turn out. Endlessly confused about…well, I couldn’t even really put my finger on What.
Dear younger self…
Come here; sit beside me. I’m your friend, your older and semi-wiser self (although sometimes I feel like that’s up for debate). I’m your ally. I wish I could’ve talked to you before, because that’s when you really needed me.
Growing up is hard. It’s hard for everyone, but it’s probably harder for you than most. No, you’re not imagining things; it really is a bit tougher for you. Except that believe it or not, as alone as you feel, it’s actually not just you. There are lots of other people out there going through the exact same feelings.
It’s OK if you don’t believe me right now. Looking around, you can almost feel the pressure that the other kids are under to wear the right clothes, hang out with the right people, say the right things, do the cool things, and generally be accepted…or at the very least, to avoid being ostracized.
I know sometimes you think about running away or even exiting the physical plane. You don’t mean it, but that doesn’t stop it from crossing your mind. I know that sometimes you wish for a different school, a different family, a different city, a different world.
You’re not sure what to make of this world. It seems tuned to a different key, fitted to a different gear, locked on a different frequency, something that’s out of sync with your own. The world is indeed different, and your dissonance with it is very real. It’s real in a way for which explanations and terminology don’t yet exist, but they will.
You’re autistic/an Aspie. What that means to you is, these social cues you’re trying to learn to pick up on, the social customs you’re trying to iron out, the societal expectations, the yardsticks by which you’re measured… aren’t going to be learned. The only skill you can learn is to mask and act. To create a Socially Acceptable You. There are different ways to do that. It’s going to be tiring, and I’m not saying that it’s a good or bad thing, but it is what it is, and it’s reality. The interesting dichotomy is that although you float in a dreamy world, you’ve also had your feet grounded in reality. That’s a strength in your favor. Don’t lose that. Don’t lose either one–the reality or the dreamy; they’ll both benefit you.
The social awkwardness, you may never actually grow out of. That doesn’t mean that you should give up; it merely means that you shouldn’t expect it to click into place one day. That won’t happen. That’s OK, but it’s also hard.
As you’ve discovered, the only way around this life is through it. You’re strong. You don’t feel that way now; you feel weak and meek, shy and wry. I get that. You feel like a soft sponge with no backbone, no way to stand up for yourself. You can never quite think of the perfect comeback at the time; it’s delayed. I’m sorry to say that that won’t change, either. You’ll still be processing emotions from falling-outs and you’ll soon gather the words and the energy to release a response, and everyone else will have moved on.
That doesn’t mean that you’re not bright. Everyone says you are, and you are. You may not feel bright. You may feel like you’re just doing what you do and being who you are. You take it for granted, and that’s OK, too. It’s kind of Zen-like, in a way, to just be. But it’s good to gain awareness – not everybody’s like that. If you feel different from others, it’s because you are. The world needs all kinds.
I have some other advice for you…
When you mask and act, which you will because you would likely not be able to help it, don’t sacrifice who you are. Don’t create a mask or an acting role that is so different from your true inner self that it becomes at odds with who you are, or you even lose who you are altogether. I know that it’s tempting to create such a mask, because you know that the way you are isn’t accepted or perceived as “cool” by the rest of the world, and in order to be accepted and considered “cool”, you would have to construct a persona that is something you are not.
But don’t forget who you really are. You like rainbows. You like feathers. You like corduroy pants because they stretch and feel comfortable, even when you’re squatting on the ground, looking for rocks to add to your collection.
Don’t be ashamed of your quirks. Some people will make remarks to your combing through the split ends of your hair or staring into space. Some people might think you’re a little odd for bringing all of your peanut-butter-and-honey sandwich supplies to school so that you can make the sandwich fresh on the spot because you can’t stand the way the peanut butter gets all stale and the bread gets all soggy from the honey seeping into it when the sandwich is made the night before. Sure, it’s a heavier load to carry even the small jars and mini-containers, and oh my, what to do with that sticky butterknife after you’re done spreading all the goodies on the bread? But the freshness and textures are that important to you. Don’t be ashamed that your life seems like a movie and you feel like you’re looking at it through a camera, complete with the “mental jukebox” soundtrack. You’re not a drama queen, you’re just seeing the world through a different lens. Don’t be ashamed that you write stories in your head. Don’t feel self-conscious that you’d rather spend time with cats than people, spend time painting rather than watching TV, listen to eclectic music rather than mainstream popular music. It’s OK that you’d rather write music than go outside and play ball. Those are all valid–and valuable–quirks.
Care for yourself first. Don’t be ashamed that you don’t pick up the phone every time a friend calls. Don’t be ashamed that you don’t necessarily want to come out and play when asked, even if you’re not immediately doing anything in particular. You don’t have to justify turning down an invitation by making up something “better” to do; you just don’t feel like going out. Nobody’s going to know or understand your limits better than you do, and you’re not under any obligation to explain yourself to them.
You’re also not under any obligation to make sense to anyone else. It’s OK that you talk like you’re writing poetry sometimes. It’s OK that you make unusual connections between two very different things. It’s OK that you quote lines out of movies, or that one thing reminds you of another in an unusual way, or that one thing looks like something unrelated. That’s fine.
Don’t hide those idiosyncrasies. Don’t sacrifice them in order to be accepted by people who don’t deserve to take them away from you. They’ll carry you far in life. They’ll become your advantage, your secret weapon. Hang on to them, preserve them, embrace them. Don’t lose yourself; stay true. The right people will love you more for them. Don’t change for anyone else, especially when most people suck and don’t justify that kind or amount of effort, anyway. The way you are is perfectly OK. Eventually, the idea of being an outcast will actually grow on you and become appealing. You’ll realize how superficial, empty, and unfulfilled the rest of the world is, and that they’re hardly a role model or benchmark standard worth trying to emulate or conform to.
Keep developing your talents. They, too, will serve you well. Don’t limit yourself when creating; don’t self-check from an initial default position of doubt. If something (a piece of music, a painting, a lyrical passage, etc) seems cheesy, who cares? It’s not like you’re releasing it to the world. You’re doing it for you, and that’s a good enough reason to do it. Go wild, be free.
Stay gentle; don’t harden. It’s an easy temptation, and an understandable one, especially when everyone’s laughing at you and criticizing you and you feel cornered. Try not to be vengeful. I’m still working on this one; nobody’s perfect.
You don’t know it yet, and it’ll be decades yet before you find out the truth, but the truth is out there, and you will find it at the right time. There is an answer, a demystifying nugget that will unlock your life and explain everything. You’re not broken or incompetent or hopelessly defective. You are legitimate and valid, and there is indeed an answer.
Throw yourself into school and learn everything you can, even if it doesn’t come naturally easy for you right away. Buckle down and do that schoolwork. Stay on task; get it done before settling into leisure and play. You can do this. You might not want to, to the point where you think you can’t, but you can. This is especially true for the sciences and math; you are capable of learning, grasping, and even mastering them. You may not remember, but you were ready for multiplication by the time you entered kindergarten. So, you’re not a math-dud or a science-failure. Don’t let those subjects intimidate you.
Junior high and high school are pivotal formative years. Get serious (I hadn’t). Actually study (I rarely did). Don’t put your assignments off until the last minute. Use them as an opportunity to learn, to explore a topic more thoroughly, to really learn it in greater depth, to discover its nuances. Do well; you’re capable of it, and you’ll get your parents and teachers off your back. You’ll benefit from the better grades by having more options open to you and less stress from the grownups in authority.
Try not to worry about what you’re going to do and which path you’re going to follow. You’ll make your living. It won’t be easy, but you’ll do it. Your field won’t reveal itself right away; it barely exists yet. It’s getting started, but you won’t even hear about it until well into adulthood. You’re going to help people, you’re going to change lives, and you’re going to be good at what you do. Your knack for spotting detail and working from the bottom up in your thought processes will carry you far.
Keep exploring your options. You’ll try various paths on for size, and decide it’s not for you. You might feel like a loser or at least a drifter at the time, but you’re not; there’s no shame in exploring. Choosing a life path to follow is a decision made too lightly and for the wrong reasons. You need something you can genuinely get behind, feel solid about, and have a strong love for/interest in. That sentiment will drive you and propel you forward. So, choose carefully, and it’s OK if several tracks don’t quite hit the spot. Be honest with yourself and leave them behind.
Don’t be afraid to be nice. At the same time, don’t believe everything people say. People will say all kinds of things, for all kinds of reasons. Most of those reasons have much more to do with them, not you. They’re nice to you because they want something, or they’re mean to you because they feel poorly about themselves. Either way, it’s about them. Don’t let it sway you or throw you off kilter. Carry on as you were, unwavering.
If someone’s making fun of you, you won’t be able to “kill ’em with kindness”, as mom told you. She’s rarely wrong, and the advice is well-intentioned, but it’s also somewhat misguided. Don’t get your hopes up that that will work, because it usually won’t. Simply say, “I’m not going to stand for that”, and walk away. It’s OK to go into a rage every once in a while, especially if you’re defending other people who may not have the time or energy or avenue to speak for themselves. You’ve always been kind that way, and, well, that’s sometimes going to bring unpleasant results, but it’s the way you are. Don’t get caught up in the teasing yourself, though. That only makes you just as guilty.
And whatever you do, don’t take people at face value. You might be showing and saying what you mean, with no intent to deceive. However, not everyone operates that way. Some people will pretend to be your friend only to get back at someone else. Others will try to buddy up to you because they want something for themselves, and they want it from you. Maybe they’ll pretend to be friendly so that they can get inside your head, learn your secrets, and use them against you. Some people will only be nice in order to get away from the situation. Don’t cling to them; let them go. Some will disappear without warning, which will lead to a lot of confusion and pain. Try not to let them get to you. Try not to let them win.
There are indeed other people out there who are like you, in eerie and amazing ways. They think how you do, they feel the way you do–and about the same things, they notice what you notice. They share the same frustrations and challenges in life. They experience the same phenomena. They even kick themselves the way you do. And they’re wondering the same things, about themselves and the rest of the world. They’re struggling, too. You’re not weird, and you’re not alone.
Believe it or not, you do need accommodations and supports, but no one will notice it. They know you’re different, but you’re ahead of the game; your type exists throughout the world, but the experts haven’t written it yet, primarily because they’re missing the point. They’ve got the details all wrong. You’ll never get the diagnosis the way it’s being described, and you wouldn’t want it to be the way they think it is. Life really is harder for you; you’re not imagining things; but you don’t want any part of what they call “support”. It doesn’t help, and it’s not for you. Keep going; you’ll be stronger for having gotten through it. In today’s ableist world, you’ll be taken more seriously because you did graduate from conventional school (K-12 and university), and you did go to work and all that.
Your hard work will pay off…but it will also cost you. Develop stress management techniques now, because there will be serious problems later. They’re brewing now, but it’ll be years before you feel anything and by the time you do, it’ll always be so much worse/more than you feel. On one hand, that makes you lucky, since you’re not suffering through everything that’s actually happening. On the other hand, that’s dangerous because without feeling it, you’re unaware that there’s anything wrong, and it will have become chronic long before you even know it’s there.
Eat well. Stay in karate; your physical activity now will save your ass later. Better beef up on the nutrition, though.
Don’t beat yourself up. If you’ve tried without success, it’s OK to be bummed, but don’t add unnecessary pain by criticizing yourself. If you can’t do something, you can’t do it. Trust me, there’s a legitimate reason for this. A reason that has as many awesome points as it does challenges. Think of it as another secret weapon.
Your dad really does love you. Here’s the secret: he’s scared. Yep, that’s why he’s irritable, volatile, and controlling. It feels like you can do no right. I know that the temptation is to try and keep trying. But it’s futile because it’s coming from inside himself, not you. You’re merely the conduit, the scapegoat, the vehicle, the avenue for the outlet, the outward manifestation of his own inner turmoil. He’s got demons to slay, and he won’t let up on you until they’re resolved–which won’t happen until long after you’ve grown up. There’s little you can do to speed this process along, because his issues didn’t come from you. There’s no easy answer except to stay out of the way. Study at a friend’s house, or in the library after school–but do study. Go right from school to launching into homework/assignments. Pace yourself. Break up bigger tasks and projects into baby steps and make progress each day.
Choose your friends wisely. Try not to trust or reveal too much too quickly. Don’t lose yourself conforming to a world that’s fine with passing you by, never consulting you. Don’t lose your voice, even if you feel like you’re shouting into a howling wind. If you don’t lose yourself, you’ll have everything to gain and a solid foundation on which to build. Childhood and adolescence suck, so stay strong. They’ll be over soon enough.
~Your almost-40 self