As a kid, I loved the movie Peter Pan. Wendy was my favorite, of course, with the pastel blue nightgown and butter-yellow curls, and the eerie clock ticking in the crocodile’s stomach and Tiger Lily tied to a chair and left to drown…it’s a little dark, now that I think about it. But when I was eight I didn’t care, and I was thoroughly convinced that if I flapped my arms hard enough, I would fly. Actually, I thought that if I drank soda, I would fly, because my parents never let me have soda. The only possible explanation for this was that they didn’t want me to know how to fly. A diabolical scheme, indeed.
Eventually, I realized that the flying thing wasn’t going to happen, and I didn’t get my Hogwarts letter, either. I outgrew Peter Pan and the Magic Tree House books and even the Series of Unfortunate Events, but what I didn’t outgrow was the sense of unease and solitude, a lostness I could never explain. I found echoes of it in music, including Ruth B.’s “Lost Boy,” a melancholy 2015 single recapitulating the journey to Neverland: “Run, run, lost boy,” they say to me / Away from all of reality.
Or maybe it’s better captured by boygenius’ “Ketchum, ID:” I am never anywhere, anywhere I go / when I’m home I’m never there long enough to go.
Or Counting Crows’ “Round Here:” Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog where no one notices the contrast of white on white.
Or Billie Marten’s “Ribbon:” I long to belong, but I always have to go.
No matter how long my playlists grew, I could never find the source of this loneliness, the displacement. In fact, I had more or less given up on the possibility that it had a source. I didn’t think I would find the solution anywhere, let alone in an autism diagnosis. (NB: Foreshadowing.)
There were theories, of course, always theories. I saw a psychologist for the first time when I was eight, then dozens more throughout my adolescence. The first thing they had figured out about me was that I was gifted, meaning that my brain is fiery and chaotic and restless, drinking in the world with unsettling intensity, leaving me with the metaphysical equivalent of motion sickness. There are other metrics of giftedness – IQ tests, primarily, along with many other batteries of assessment – but I prefer to explain the experience through stories rather than sums. The Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski chronicled these stories with remarkable verisimilitude. I first read about his theories when I was eight, and I was amazed that a person who had died decades ago could describe me with such accuracy.
Thirst for knowledge, avid reading, curiosity. In the summer, I walked to the children’s library with my red wagon, filled it up with books, and went back home. The next day, having finished all of them, I returned for another round.
Keen observation, search for truth and understanding. When I was two or three, I asked my mom, “What if all this is just pretend?”
Thinking about thinking, love of theory and analysis, preoccupation with logic. I got in trouble at Hebrew School in fourth grade for pointing out the logical fallacies in the teacher’s lesson plans.
Predilection for magic and fairy tales, imaginary companions, creation of private worlds. I had dozens, literally dozens, of imaginary friends. A handful were quadruplets with whom I attended a boarding school. The other students – also imaginary – occupied various houses in our neighborhood. I always felt a little rattled when I saw real people walking into the bungalow that I knew belonged to Annie. In a different dimension, my imaginary friends were not quite human, and they spoke backwards English, which I taught myself to read and write. I would speak aloud entire backwards sentences: ?esuoheert eht otni em tel esealp uoy lliw ycuL si eman ym olleH
Frequent use of image and metaphor, facility for invention and fantasy. I started my first novel when I was about ten; imagine a fanfiction of Graceling by Kristin Cashore where most of the characters are vaguely Welsh. Then a realistic YA book when I was 11, a steampunk piece at 13, surrealist poetry at the beginning of high school, evolving to magical realism, and eventually, op-eds, nonfiction, a blog…
This was the answer, or at least it was supposed to be. Giftedness, Dabrowski, overexcitability, brain on fire. I switched schools, ending up at Nueva, where intellectual curiosity was celebrated, not squashed. Nevertheless, the loneliness persisted. Soon enough, there were new labels from the DSM-IV, and then DSM-5 post-2013. I accumulated diagnoses the way some people collect keychains. Autism was brought up a handful of times, only to be brushed away. My parents would later tell me that doctors encouraged them not to focus on the diagnosis, but there did seem to be some sort of vague, tacit consensus that I was…like…kind of Asperger’s? Maybe a little autistic? Not normal, definitely not normal, but I could talk and make friends and understand sarcasm, so autism wasn’t the main dish. Post-diagnosis, my doctors told me, “We always thought you were on the spectrum.” Although they never really said so explicitly, they figured I could read between the lines.
I couldn’t, though. That was the point. I remained very must lost in a sea of inexplicable symptoms and baffling diagnoses and expensive medications with excruciating side effects, and then, about a year and a half ago, I stumbled upon an article in Spectrum News titled, “The lost girls.”
How fitting, I thought, scrolling down. The article described the life of an autistic girl named Maya, a girl whose personality and experiences were remarkably, even eerily similar to my own. I read through the piece again, counting the commonalities. More than 10 years in the mental health system, check. Long list of diagnoses amassed before the age of 21, check. Crippling social anxiety, intellectual achievements, perennial loneliness, hyper-rigid thinking, hatred of shopping, check check check check check. Transition from mental hospital to well-respected university, check. She’s even quoted as saying, “If you can go in two-and-a-half years from being locked in a psych unit to graduating from Cambridge, you can do anything, really.” This is what I imagine telling people about Stanford – if all goes well.
I received the autism diagnosis shortly thereafter, and that Spectrum News article was one of the factors that moved me from resistance to acceptance. Earlier, I had assumed that autism would just be another label to point out my defects and emphasize the multitude of ways in which I didn’t belong. I expected the diagnosis to change how other people saw me, but instead, the opposite happened. The more I learned about autistic brains and autistic lives, the more I understood the futility of trying to be normal. It’s like trying to wear those triangular shoes with six-inch heels, while knowing full well that your foot is not a slanted triangle. Maybe the shoes are shiny and sparkly. Maybe for a few hours, you look good and you like it. But if you wear the shoes all the time, your feet will hurt. They’ll hurt like hell. They might start to bruise or even break.
Shaping myself into a neurotypical mold was like trying to crush a foot-shaped foot into a triangle shoe. Shaping myself into the giftedness mold was a little better, but it still didn’t fit. No wonder I constantly felt that un-belonging. No wonder the lostness had sunk in so deep. No wonder I hadn’t been happy.
Once, my dad was wearing a t-shirt that said, “The journey is the destination,” and I thought, “Thank goodness you’re not an Uber driver.” For the record, I do not believe that journeys are destinations, and if you want to check my sources, grab a dictionary. That being said, navigation is a tricky business. The fastest route is not the most scenic. The traffic changes unpredictably. There is surge pricing and construction work and it turns out that no amount of Sprite will make you fly. The trains are delayed. The taxis are full. You arrive where you wanted to arrive and you realize the brochures were misleading. You hit neurotypical developmental milestone #15 and you think about the fact that after comes #16, then #17, then #18 and on and on and on and you thought that normal would make you okay, but here you are with your triangle shoes and foot-shaped feet and you realize that you aren’t actually lost, not in the strictest sense of the word. You know exactly who you are and where you’re going and why.
The elation starts to set in. You rip up the road map. You throw out the shoes. You scrap your itinerary and hit the open road and lean into the motion sickness, let it lull you. You drink up sky and soda and sunset and everything else that sparkles. You wonder if the t-shirt might be right. You learn a different kind of flying. You turn on the radio just in time to catch the end of the song:
Neverland is home to lost boys like me
And lost boys like me are free.