One of my superhero powers is a vivid, accurate memory of things that happened when I was very young. My earliest memories that I know for sure are real come from when I was three and four, and they are many and detailed. Yet for some reason, it never struck me until tonight how much some of those memories may explain about why I felt so “different” so early on.
I’ve been reading and writing a lot about intrusive thoughts lately. I know that I had episodes where they bothered me severely from the time I was about 9. For a long time, I was petrified that I was going to see a ghost: not that it would harm me, just that I’d see one. If I heard a sound or saw a shadow move at night, it was a ghost. I was sure I was going to see it in my bedroom, so I couldn’t stand to be alone in there. I would leave the light on if I could, or go into my parents’ room and sleep on the floor next to their bed. (Even now, though I don’t believe in or care about ghosts, I still struggle with fear of the dark.)
In another case, I watched an episode of Unsolved Mysteries about spontaneous human combustion, and over the next couple of days became obsessed with the idea that I was going to spontaneously combust. I lay awake at night thinking about it, the reenactments from the TV show running on a loop through my mind as vividly as when I watched it. During the day, I felt distracted and jittery, and couldn’t enjoy things. I think this lasted about a month. At the worst times, even when it was totally inappropriate and humiliating, I was convinced that I would combust if I didn’t repeat my mantra, please don’t let me spontaneously combust, continuously. Out loud. (Luckily, I never become convinced that muttering wasn’t good enough.) I repeated this sometimes for hours at a time, out at restaurants, during conversations, when alone. When my parents asked me what I was muttering, I lied. I told them I was trying to memorize the lyrics to a song.
So why did I lie? Why, at 9 or 10 years old, did I already feel so much shame about something so painful that I couldn’t tell my parents what was happening? I just remember it feeling like a horrible secret that no one must ever know, that I was bad, defective, different. And after thinking about it tonight, I know that the problems began much earlier than that.
All my life, at least as far back as I can remember, I’ve had a narrator in my mind who relentlessly describes every single thing I see, think and do. I remember the first time it occurred to me that this was actually really annoying. I was four and I was kicking a ball across the yard and realizing that that simple action became in my mind something like: “The black and white ball is on the greenish-brownish grass, the sun is bright, she’s squinting, she’s thinking about kicking the ball, she’s kicking the ball, she kicked the ball, now it’s over there under the tree, the grass is crunchy, she wonders if she’s good or bad at kicking the ball.” I didn’t want to be part of a story about kicking a ball, I just wanted to kicking the ball. So I tried and tried to turn the narrator off, but never had any success, and still never have. (I have since tried to explain this experience and why it’s bothersome to a couple of people, and it has made no sense to them, so perhaps it makes no sense here either.)
Before that, when I was three, I got a coat at a thrift store that I really adored. It was dark blue and had fake fur around the hood and it had the most glorious soft, silky texture I had ever felt. I’d only had it maybe a few days when, coming in from playing in the snow, my older brother suggested I hang it on the wood stove to dry out, so I did. Needless to say, it got scorched beyond repair.
I’m sure I cried and whined to my parents at the time, but I remember long after that having an irrationally inconsolable feeling of loss about that coat. I was experiencing what I now recognize as anxiety symptoms– feeling a hard lump in my throat, feeling sick to my stomach, my heart pounding. If anything provoked a single thought about that coat, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I hated how it made me feel. I tried desperately to avoid ever thinking about it, which of course only made it happen more.
Eventually, it faded from my mind, but some time later– it was early spring– I was walking in the woods with my parents and we passed the pit where we dumped our trash and I looked down and saw the coat lying there half-buried, so forlornly. And all the thoughts and the feelings came crashing back down on me and stayed for a second round. I wished that coat had never been made, and that made me feel guilty because I felt sorry for the coat. If it occurred to me that I should tell someone how I felt, I had no idea how.
I’ve always had these memories– and there are others like them. They’ve entered my mind from time to time, and made me unhappy, but for whatever reason for a long time it didn’t occur to me that by any standard, the things I was experiencing from age three onward were disruptive and bothersome, and therefore not “normal.” It is clear to me now that something very real was problematic in my brain from almost the beginning of my life– something I don’t think is entirely attributable to autism. There was never a moment where something happened that “screwed me up.” If I’m screwed up, it’s just me.
But I am still left with the nagging question: why the shame? Why did I feel so acutely that my experience would be incomprehensible to anyone else, so convinced and resigned to suffer through it alone without letting anyone know? And nothing I remember gives me any answer at all.