This post appeared on the Resilience and Engagement for Every Learner blog under the title “Appearances Can Be Deceiving.” And appearances can be deceiving…because the girl in the stock photo on the REEL blog isn’t me.
Mission: Leave my biology classroom, walk across one hall and three flights of stairs to the cafeteria, grab a plate of food, refill my coffee cup, then climb two flights of stairs and walk a quarter of the way across the building to an empty classroom, where I would be able to eat with one hand and copy French verb conjugations with the other.
Time allotted: Five minutes.
11:35. Our bio teacher ends class about 40 seconds behind schedule. I pack my bag as quickly as possible and rush out of the room. The halls are already swarming with shrieking freshmen, juniors bemoaning the upcoming PSAT, and the robotics team’s latest creation rolling around with alarming speed.
11:37. I elbow my way toward the staircase, dart down two steps at a time, and arrive at the cafeteria panting. I fill two cups with beets and cherry tomatoes, wincing at the moist residue on the tongs – hummus? Mayonnaise? Either way, it is one of my least favorite textures in the world. I’m making good time, though. 3:27 elapsed, leaving 1:33 for coffee + staircase + classroom.
11:38. Leah waves to me as I approach the coffee machine, but the thought of a conversation makes my stomach lurch. It only takes 20 or 30 seconds to derail the entire routine. I smile in her direction as I rush past – “Sorry, gotta go” – before pouring my coffee, jamming a lid on the paper cup, and darting back through the crowd and toward the staircase.
11:39. Up the stairs, two at a time, down the hall, then into the classroom.
11:40. The door slams behind me. Mission accomplished. I collapse into a chair and hold my head in my hands for a moment, feeling my pulse throb in my throat. I wish I could close my eyes and breathe and just be still, but the clock is ticking – 11:40:28, 11:40:29 – so I straighten up and keep going.
This was an average sliver of my life in high school. Upon first glance, I appeared to be thriving. I earned straight As, never handed in homework late, studied twice as much as necessary, and even convinced myself that taking three science classes for the entirety of my sophomore year might be a good idea (it wasn’t). Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Despite all my academic accomplishments, I struggled with the skills that seemed to come naturally to everyone else. I dreaded the nine-minute walk between school and the train station because if a classmate came up beside me and tried to strike up a conversation, I would ask the wrong question or give the wrong answer and have to endure their looks of puzzlement, as well as the sinking feeling that I had just failed yet another social interaction. My anxiety disorders were out of control. Even on hefty doses of medication, I was always minutes away from another freak-out. The smallest asymmetry could make me feel like the world was ending. The chairs at the kitchen table had to be lined up perfectly, the napkins crisply folded, the drawers closed tightly, the microwave door never left open. I planned my time with absurd precision, scheduling activities in 15-minute intervals, and panicking whenever the train ran late or swim practice ended early.
These obsessions and compulsions rendered developmentally normal activities such as hanging out with a friend after school or going to a birthday party impossible. There were too many unknowns, too many factors outside of my control. No amount of cajoling on the part of my parents or therapists could convince me to branch out or try something new. Instead, I clung to my spreadsheets and tended to the napkins and the microwave door, hoping that if I gained control over all the stimuli that made my mind spin and my skin crawl, my crippling anxiety might someday fade away.
At the time, I had yet to be diagnosed with autism. Although I certainly considered anxiety and obsessiveness parts of my temperament, it never occurred to me that there might be a deeper issue underlying these problems. Even though my level of perfectionism was intensely debilitating, I was terrified of letting it go because it was also one of my greatest strengths. Without my discipline and determination, I wouldn’t have learned Spanish or discovered my love of Latin American literature or written novels or memorized Welsh train routes or read Greek plays, or continued to find ways to try to satiate my endless curiosity. In other words, I wouldn’t be me. For all the pain and difficulty anxiety conferred, it was still a defining aspect of my identity, and I wasn’t ready to give it up.
I continued in this way throughout my freshman and sophomore years of high school, anxious and diligent and committed and enthusiastic and miserable. But in the spring of eleventh grade, my doctors deemed me no longer healthy enough to stay in school. They sent me to a residential treatment center, where I would spend nearly five months. This was the first in a long succession of hospitals and treatment facilities where my symptoms continued to baffle therapists, doctors, and nurses alike. Despite all this chaos, I was still able to graduate on time. My school was so accommodating that I didn’t realize I was being accommodated. My teachers understood that the goal of school is to learn, so if a particular rule or expectation prevents students from learning, it might need to be changed. Thus, I was allowed to leave the classroom when it got too bright or too loud because teachers trusted me to finish whatever work I needed to on time (and I had already demonstrated my commitment to doing so). I got extensions on assignments when I was sick. My English teacher even sent me a hard copy of my graded paper when I was in the hospital. (Ironically, my essay was titled, “On the Soul-Crushing Power of Modern Psychiatry.”) On the days when I was unable to speak, I would turn in a written reflection after class. None of these modifications impacted my transcript because Nueva uses standards-based grading, wherein grades reflect mastery of learning objectives rather than a cumulative average of all assignments. On certain occasions, teachers even waived entire projects because I had already demonstrated the skills in question earlier on in the semester.
While I was too depressed to enjoy prom, decorating graduation caps, or the end-of-year party that my classmates were so excited about, there was one spring semester treat that I thoroughly enjoyed: the opportunity to write and perform adaptations of Shakespeare plays. Being the geek that I am, I signed up for two English classes. My proposal to set Romeo and Juliet in the early 1950s (“Polio, polio, wherefore art thou polio?”) was vetoed in favor of a version set on Lake Tahoe, with the protagonists belonging to two equally rich and ostentatious families. As per our teacher’s request, we included the line, “A curse on both your vacation houses!” My other class developed a largely incoherent but still amusing adaptation of Twelfth Night that involved a nineties sitcom, time travel, Grease, and an overbearing PTA mom. Midway through the writing process, I was hospitalized, going off the grid for five days. I returned to school in a bit of a panic; graduation was just three weeks away, and if I failed those classes, I had no idea what would happen. Fortunately, my teachers understood. I was assigned the role of Juliet’s life coach in Romeo and Juliet, and I knew all the lines because I had written them myself. I decided to sit back and watch Twelfth Night, comforted by my English teacher’s joking reassurance that as long as I didn’t set the stage on fire, I would be earning an A.
Among all the memories from that year that I’d rather forget, these moments stand out as testaments to the impact supportive teachers can have. I’m exceedingly lucky to have gone to a school that, instead of adding stress and anxiety to my life, helped me do the things I love, even as I struggled with severe illness. As I stood on the stage with my yoga mat and Kombucha, lecturing Juliet about the relationship between moral and dietary fiber, I was reminded of what I value most: humor; creativity; community; and, to a lesser degree, yoga. At my lowest points, school didn’t intensify my misery. It gave me a reason to keep going.
After I finished high school and spent another long year in hospitals, I finally received an autism diagnosis, which helped me and my doctors contextualize the challenges I faced. I now had a framework to understand the atypical, sometimes pathological, but still pretty cool workings of my mind. I gained a greater awareness of my abilities and limitations. With the help of my family, friends, and quite a few medical professionals, I learned to channel my anxiety toward positive ends and recognize when my perfectionism wasn’t serving me. I highly doubt that I’ll ever live in a way that anyone would describe as “spontaneous.” However, I’ve still developed the skills and taken the medications necessary to move past my obsessions and compulsions. Over the summer, I became healthier, more stable, and more comfortable with myself.
I was allowed to leave the hospital just in time to begin my freshman year at Stanford. As I got my bearings, I realized that the modifications to my schoolwork in high school were essentially prototypes for college accommodations. I developed a robust array of strategies to manage my impairments, from earplugs to audio recorders to text-to-speech apps. I also became more comfortable advocating for myself and communicating my needs to professors, administrators, and dorm staff. Knowing that I was autistic gave me the confidence to make decisions based on what was best for me, rather than what seemed normal. I opted out of dorm activities, parties, football games, homecoming, and virtually every other Stanford student tradition – and I was happy. My version of an amazing Friday night looked like attending Shabbat services at Hillel, eating dinner alone in my room, and going to bed around nine. This routine is weird and abnormal and probably unappealing to at least 90% of college students, but it works for me.
That magical day I used to dream about, when my anxiety would disappear for good, never came. What I have now is actually better. I’ve learned to leverage my strengths, remain aware of my weaknesses, set realistic expectations, and find the middle ground between soul-crushing rigidity and chaotic spontaneity. I’ve made peace with everyday imperfections, channeling the energy I used to expend on microwave doors and five-minute intervals into writing and learning. Though I have no intention of pursuing a career as a life coach, the joy of standing on that stage with my Kombucha and yoga mat is no longer a rarity but a given.