Finding (my) Autism – Part 2

You know how most people kept saying that nothing in the world could have prepared them for the unprecedented chaos of covid-19? I was not one of those people. Born with fear and anxiety in my blood, I had always learned to expect the worst. And because I always like to be prepared, I do my extensive research beforehand, I dig into the past, I try to see what history can teach me about today. 

This is why as soon as I got wind of a little virus creeping into the everyday news cycle, I knew what to do. By then, I’d read about the Spanish Flu and watched hours-long videos on the effects of pandemics and the global responses that followed. I listened to historians give speeches about the devastating after-effects. I knew about the death and destruction one little viral disease could bring about. And I knew, for a fact, in my heart, that this virus wasn’t just going to “go away” in 2 or 3 weeks. I knew I had to quarantine quickly. I was, after all, all alone in a strange city, away from all my family and loved ones. If something happened to me, there would be no one to help or even know. I lived alone.

So I confined myself to my apartment very early on, even before the word “quarantine” became a popular word, before it became very widely used. It was mid-February, and I had decided that I was not leaving my apartment ever again. No, sir. Maybe not until August! When I told my therapist I wanted our sessions to be virtual from now on, she agreed. So we kept doing our weekly sessions online, where she began to witness the strangest reaction to a global pandemic anyone ever could.

Because you see, the problem I faced when the initial shock and fear and panic attacks and thoughts of mass death wore out was not that I was starting to get lonely. Quite the opposite, really. The problem after the first month of total isolation was that I was beginning to love it. And I didn’t want it to end. Being completely alone was making me the happiest I think I’d ever been. And worried, I began to ponder what that really said about me, as someone who defined herself by her love of her people and who craved human connection and intimacy deeply. But I shoved those dark thoughts and all that doubt aside.

I remember very vividly a moment about 3 months into the pandemic where I ashamedly confessed to my therapist that “I think I might be… thriving?” And I was. I had created my own daily routine and my own little world and I was beginning to love every single second of it. I was free of others’ expectations and demands, and free from having to be in public and be perceived by other people. I was free to find out who I really was. And boy, what a shock it was when I found out who that was. 

I would wake up every morning at 7 am, open my big french windows to let the sun in (I had direct sunlight through my windows from about 7.30 am until 10.30 am), position my chair right in front of it, and bask in the sunlight. I would usually sit there in a swimsuit just so I can feel the sun directly hit my skin. My music played in the background and I would sing along, drink my coffee, and take in the sun’s kisses. It felt euphoric. I loved watching the empty streets. Catching glimpses of my neighbors who – in the spirit of covid-19 solidarity – would smile and wave at me. Sometimes I’d opt for a towel on the floor in front of the window and trick myself into thinking I was on the beach (which turned out to be better than the beach, because I hate the beach, because ew! sand! and because I’m terrified of open water). I’d read some poetry and have long calls with my loved ones where we’d update one another on our new covid lives. 

What also happened during those basking-in-the-sun moments was that I allowed myself to face my physical body for the first time, too. Across from the chair I would usually lounge on was the open window, which reflected my body back to me with alarming precision. During the hours I would sit there in the sun, my body stared back at me aggressively. There was no other way to position the window door, this was the only way it could be left open to let the sun in. So I’d have to sit there, hours on end, enjoying the sun on my skin, and trying to avoid looking away from the window door that had now turned into a mirror. 

I stared at my big belly, the one I grew up hating, the same one everyone around me taught me to hate – the same one some people claimed didn’t even exist! -, and fell in love with the way the sun was reflecting off of it. I’d squeeze it and make it into funny shapes and let it wiggle and giggle. I stared at my “thunder thighs” and instead of thinking I wish they would go away, I found myself caressing them with love. I’d never noticed that my thighs were so incredibly soft! My big forearms no longer bothered me. I felt the power they held. I’d always had freakish upper-body strength and the bigness of my arms reminded me of that gift. My developing double-chin made me feel cute and laugh roaringly every time I opened my phone’s front camera by mistake. Even my flat ass was suddenly adorable to me, as were my big hips and love handles. I was falling in love with my body. Or rather, I was unlearning all the hate I was taught to give it. I remember distinctly saying to my therapist something along the lines of:

“If this was all an experiment on how being around people can negatively affect body image, the results would be very conclusive. I’ve never felt better about my own fat body than I do now, in total isolation. Around other people all I can do is hate it.”

When the sun moved away from my window, I’d take to the couch and watch TV shows. I’m something of a TV show enthusiast, so I filled my days with dramas and comedies and psychological thrillers and sci-fi and every single thing that interested me. I’d eat on my own time, but I always made sure I was well-fed enough to stave off an IBS attack. My stomach explodes when I starve it, so I try to remember to feed it lest it unleashes its anger on me.

Other quarantine activities included long video calls with my loved ones. It was their love and care and attention that kept me grounded. They made sure I never felt lonely. They made sure I never felt too far. There was also therapy once a week every week, where I’d update my lovely therapist on how well I was doing. If she was surprised, she feigned it well. And she provided me with support and validation and reassurance I could not have survived without.

Around 10 pm usually I’d go to bed. Nothing left to do with my day. And then I’d wake up tomorrow and do it all again, in the exact same order. It was bliss. It was quiet. It was heavenly. I was thriving.I was happy. I was happy?! And despite my mother’s pleas, I decided to stick it out all alone in Barcelona until August as I originally intended. She worried, but I convinced her it was the right thing for me. So she let up, scared and anxious as she was. I loved her for that.

One blissful July day, I turned on Netflix and found that my favorite comedian had a new show. “Douglas” by Hannah Gadsby had just been released, and I was filled with excitement to see what she had to say now. Her “Nanette” had changed my life two years ago. And her particular brand of humor was exactly my cup of tea (Hannah Gasdby fans, get it?!).

What I didn’t know was that “Douglas” was essentially a show about Gadsby’s autism. 

What I didn’t know was that she was about to plant the autism realization seed in me. 

So right after I watched the show – the show where a woman who I related to and felt a kinship with, a woman who mirrored me and my experience in more ways than one, described her late-diagnosis of autism, I was shaken. This was a woman who, like me, could get up on stage, charm hundreds of people, who had a fantastic sense of humor and a passion for truth-telling. And she was autistic. I didn’t think people like her (or me) could be autistic and be able to do all that.   

So I went online and took an Autism test – which said “high probability of autism”. I didn’t know what to do with that information. Plus, who would believe me? 

I put my phone away in shock and disbelief, and I didn’t talk about (my own or otherwise) Autism again for almost 2 years.

Finding (my) Autism – Part 1

What my therapist had just suggested took me completely by surprise. I think I was too stunned to answer, so she asked a second time, “have you considered dropping out of the master’s program?” and waited patiently for an answer. 

I tried to explain that not only had I not considered that option, that thought had literally never crossed my mind. “Of course not.” was all I could form in terms of a reply. Of course not. I was sure she could see my confusion.

She pressed on, “If you stopped the program now, are you worried that you’ll have to go home earlier than you’d planned?”

“No, that’s not it. I can stay here in Barcelona with or without this master’s degree.”

She continued: “Is it a legal thing? Would your visa be revoked if you dropped out?”

“No, my papers are already sorted. I can stay here legally until August regardless.”

She went on: “Can you afford the loss of the tuition you already paid? And the living expenses you’d need to stay?”

“Yes, I paid for the program myself and it wasn’t too expensive. It’d be a waste but it wouldn’t put a dent in my finances. And I have enough money to stay comfortably.”

“I see,” she nodded, “so technically… if you dropped out of the program you’re so clearly struggling with, nothing truly bad would actually happen, would it?”

I pondered her question, flustered. “But like… I’m already halfway through the entire program. I only have one semester until graduation. I’ve invested a lot.”

“But you’re here seeing me because the first half was so hard to deal with and so unenjoyable for you that you’ve developed agoraphobia and you keep dissociating and having panic attacks and being completely unable to go to class…”

“I know…”

“And that doesn’t sound like it’s sustainable. Are you worried that if you drop out your mum would be disappointed?”

“A little. A lot. She’s a perfectionist with high standards.”

“From what you’ve told me, she’s a very understanding person who loves you a lot. She might not take it the way you think. Plus, you just finished your first master’s program just last May and already have one master’s degree. This one was just supposed to be another addition to your academic arsenal. You never actually needed it, did you? You called it your “passion degree” as opposed to the previous more practical ones. But are you actually having any fun? Do you actually feel passionate about it? Are you learning anything? Are you finding the course content enjoyable?”

My head was spinning. What she had just suggested to me was nothing short of blasphemy. I am the perfectionist daughter of a perfectionist mother who had never ever (been allowed to) quit. And there I was, contemplating dropping out of a prestigious program at a prestigious Spanish university after having completed more than half the hours I’d need to graduate. 

All I could say back to answer all her questions was “No. It’s been awful.” 

“Well, then think about it. Just weigh the pros and cons and try to imagine how it would feel to not continue putting yourself through all this pressure. And if you want, we’ll talk some more about it next time.”

This conversation with my therapist took place in February 2020. I had just finished my first master’s program in May of 2019 and then immediately started my second master’s program in September of 2019. I was superwoman, you see. Plus, I wasn’t ready to leave my beautiful Barcelona and go home just yet, so this was an exciting solution to my dilemma. By June of 2020 I would have my second master’s degree in hand, then stay out the rest of my visa until August and then finally go back home. It was a solid plan. I’d be welcomed back an intellectual hero. My mom would be so proud of me. And then I could get my pick of jobs with my 2 graduate degrees in hand, find an apartment and live independently, learn how to drive, and I would live happily ever after. 

And then I burnt out. Hard. Halfway through my second program, I was no longer able to leave my apartment to attend classes. I was severely depressed and deeply anxious. I was never at university long enough or after class or at mixers to make any friends. I wasn’t able to complete assignments without panic attacks followed by hours of dissociation, and I felt my professors growing annoyed with my flakiness and perceived lack of effort. So I dragged myself to an English-speaking therapy clinic close to my apartment and met the aforementioned therapist and asked her to write me some kind of note I can present to university to explain my many absences and short-comings. “I’m really depressed and I think I’m becoming agoraphobic and I need to explain that to my professors” was how I think I started our session. 

When, by our second session, she gently suggested to me that dropping out of my program might be something I’d want to consider, I was confused. Mostly because I had never registered that as an option (me? a drop-out? never!), but also because I couldn’t understand the train of thought that led her to make that suggestion. 

Let me explain. She wanted me to quit something because it was hard for me to continue doing it and because it was causing me physical pain and mental anguish. But for me, that was the case with almost everything in the world all the time ever. If I had to quit something every time it was hard or caused me physical pain and mental anguish, I’d never leave the house. What she didn’t understand at the time was this: I experience almost every thing with a tinge of pain and discomfort. And no one had ever told me that was enough reason to just stop.

But I took her advice and I did. I wrote to my university to tell them that even though I was due to graduate in 3 months, I wanted to drop out immediately. And no, I didn’t want to claim the credits I already completed. They had questions and wanted me to know a refund wasn’t possible. I said I knew and didn’t care. They asked if there was anything that could be done to make me stay. There wasn’t. My mind was made up. I couldn’t possibly face going back to that place again. 

I dropped out of my program in February 2020. You know exactly why this is relevant. The plan was, I would spend the remaining 6 months of my visa learning to relax. My friends and family would continue to visit me with consistent regularity and I would fill my time with rest and the company of my loved ones and maybe even explore my creative side again. 

I graduated from my bachelor’s in 2015, and then immediately started working full-time after graduation. I worked in advertising and strategy – and excelled, to a certain extent – for 3 years before deciding to pursue a master’s abroad on a whim. I applied, got accepted, and left my hometown. The day after I arrived in Barcelona, my program started. And so I faced my own limitations in a new city for the first time. 

What I didn’t know when I dropped out of master’s program number 2 was that covid-19 was right around the corner. And the resulting chaos that ensued and the forced solo quarantine I was about to face would bring about changes and epiphanies that would have been impossible without that kind of profound isolation and alone time. What I didn’t know was that I was about to face myself – my real self, my alone self, my unmasked self. The self who I’d kept hidden from everyone up until this point, even myself.

It was a period that I now lovingly refer to as: The Great Unmasking.

death rituals

inform everyone who cares about
them or you that they have died.
call the relatives, the neighbors,
set up the morgue visit.
ride the car there in silence.
don’t say a word.
just try to breathe.
touch their cold face even if you
don’t want to.
kiss their hands even if they’re
freezing,
even if it hurts that they can’t
caress your face.
don’t be put off by the smiling
corpse.
this is the last time you get
to see them in the flesh.
mama said you have to be here.
push through.
wail out loud in the company of
strangers and people you love,
even if you don’t want to,
even if it’s embarrassing.
have a full blown panic attack.
be the crazy woman in public
for once and own it.
now is not the time to be shy.
grab your heart like it’ll jump
out of your chest if you don’t.
let your brother carry you
when you fall to the ground.
don’t think of them
don’t think of them.
just try to breathe.
go to the mosque for prayers.
shoo crying strangers away
from your tired mother.
find her a chair.
say hi to old friends and old
lovers who have come to pay
their respects.
ignore the awkwardness of the
situation.
head home for the funeral.
ride the car in silence.
don’t say a word.
put on the funeral clothes
your friends have brought over
and greet the extended family.
look at walls and dissociate
for hours.
hide in the bathroom.
ask your best friend to chop
off your hair.
try to eat, or resist the food
being shoved down your throat.
drag your lover to your bedroom
to witness a secret meltdown.
say hi to a stranger while crying.
say thank you for coming,
but i wish you would leave,
i wish everyone would leave.
don’t think of them
don’t think of them.
try to breathe.
cry out loud and scare the sad
guests.
tell the ignorant idiot spewing
platitudes to shut the fuck up.
push away the lady annoying
your mom.
yell at the aunt telling your
sister to stop crying.
let your best friends hold
your hand.
let them take care of the little
things like they want to.
let them fight some of your battles.
forgive them for being so
worried that you haven’t eaten in
two days.
eat a little bit just for them.
kiss your mother’s crying face.
curse god for his carelessness.
look at your siblings for
confirmation the world
is now over.
decide to stop listening to
music.
decide no more make-up,
no more color,
only black clothes from now on.
don’t think of them.
don’t think of them.
just try to breathe.
even when you don’t want to.
even when you’re wishing it was
you who died.
tell your friends you want to
die.
tell them you don’t know where
to go from here –
if not out loud, then with your
eyes.
inhale, count
1 2 3 4
exhale,
1 2 3 4.
don’t think of them.
don’t think of them.
try to breathe.
do it again tomorrow.

sorry not sorry

to invitations i cannot
accept from now on,
i will start replying:
sorry, i can’t today,
something inside me is on
fire.
but when isn’t that true?
on good days there is
always inside me a
little spark,
it stings and excites,
(you can spot it in my
eyes)
on others,
inside me a forest fire
rages, angry and
destructive, resistant
to water,
even to kindness.
yes, the fire exists
even when you can’t
see it,
even when you can’t smell
the smoke.
reader, sometimes your eyes
will lie to you.
other times i will.
it is your job to figure it
out.
i would help you, but,
i’ve learned to say:
sorry, i can’t today.
something inside me
is on fire.

to my siblings

i.
but who will ever see me like
you see me? when i put on a smile
for the world, who besides you
will be able to see the
cracks in my walls,
climb in gently and fix me?
without me ever having to ask?

ii.
they say blood is thicker
than water but you are the
blood and the water
that washes away my bleeding –
you are in my veins,
even when we are cruel
to one another.
even when you’re not in my
blood. but we’re growing up,
and we are unlearning cruelty,
and we are the foundations
of this house now,
not the children running
inside. not anymore.

iii.
we are growing up, and
we can see each other clearly
now, and we can see we’re all
we’ve got. and this love
that flows from me to you
and you to me, i don’t
take it for granted.
i don’t take it lightly.

iv.
we have tended to this garden
together. we have watched it
and each other grow. look at
all this beauty. look
at all the love inside us
blooming like baba’s roses
in the spring.

v.
we have loved and held each
other through death and
heartache, even when we
didn’t understand each other,
especially when no one
understood us but us.

vi.
and i have seen your lovers
come and go, and i have seen
you become mothers and fathers,
and aunties and uncles,
i have seen the love you’re
all capable of. i have seen
how you’ve made this world
better.

vii.
we have grown,
but only we are capable of
seeing the children within
each other. and it was an honor
to watch you grow. and it
was an honor to be seen,
even when all i wanted to do
was hide.

viii.
and though the world
may separate us, oceans and
time difference between us,
we will hold each other still.
and no one will see us the way
we see each other.

my band of misfits,
my beautiful tribe,

that is both terrifying
and the biggest blessing.

ix.
let all our sins against
each other be forgiven.
let our love wash away
the pain of our past.
let us be each other’s
light in the midst of
all this darkness.
in you lies
my salvation,
and in me a river of love
flowing gently forever
into the sea
of all your hearts.