I am scared of a lot of things.
Typical things: pain, being assaulted, being robbed, fire, plane crashes, terrorism.
Natural things: spiders, fish, crickets, lizards, earthquakes.
Other things: cat poop, global warming, right-wing politicians.
But on an overall, day-to-day basis, what I fear the most, what most impacts my day-to-day life, what keeps me up at night and what I obsess over and over and over….
I am absolutely, batshit terrified of being annoying, of being misunderstood, and of hurting other people’s feelings.
The other day someone said something, and I disagreed with him, and said something else. Then a third person chimed in that actually, I probably hadn’t thought of it from this viewpoint. I heard: my opinion was wrong, and here was why. I didn’t, actually, think that my opinion was wrong. I thought that it was entirely correct for me, and the third person had misunderstood me, but what I got out of the interaction was that I had committed the ultimate sin. I had said the wrong thing.
Suddenly, my anxiety overwhelmed me. My throat closed up. I dug my fingernails into my palms, and I completely lost the ability to speak for a good forty-five minutes and didn’t recover it fully for over two and a half hours.
I know that my fear stems directly from two things: my autism, and the way that I have been treated due to my autism in the past. When I was growing up, I was constantly rude, and constantly chastised for it. I was not rude on purpose; I simply had absolutely no idea what was going on the vast majority of the time and I had poor impulse control. My senior year of high school, the special ed teachers handed out mock awards, meant to be friendly, affectionate ribbing. Mine was ‘speaks first, thinks later’, and now it is later, and I think, that was not just inappropriate, that was cruel. I still burn with shame and sadness thinking of that stupid piece of paper I threw out long ago.
The excellent memories that autistic people have can be both a blessing and a curse. It is a curse when I can remember being three years old and interrupting a teacher at preschool and being sent to sit, alone, in the hall – I can remember the shame and the tears and the exact incident as if it happened yesterday. I can tell you where the teacher was sitting, who she was working with, the length of the hall. I remember in first grade being chastised for talking back to a student teacher. I remember the pain and confusion – it blossoms within me. It doesn’t go away.
So when I say that I fear being rude, it is not just the self who exists right now fearing this. It is the misunderstood toddler and the chastened grade schooler and the humiliated middle schooler. It is being made to apologize, over and over and over, without understanding why. My body betrayed me, it lashed out, melted down, and I didn’t have the words to tell people how much pain I was in or how little control I had. I could only say ‘sorry’ over and over. By the time I was six or seven, this had manifested itself in a verbal tic of saying ‘okay?’ after every single sentence I spoke – just checking that I hadn’t grievously offended anyone, said anything wrong. Today, it persists in my constant apologies for – well, everything. I’m the type of person who will apologize when you bump into me, because I assume that I did something offensive without knowing it. (And no, I’m not Canadian, or British, either.)
He’s never said anything, but I know that my apologies drive Matthew nuts, and so I apologize more, and then I obsessively worry about when he’ll want to stop being my roommate/friend because I’m pretty certain that I am the most annoying person on earth. After all, I’ve been told so my entire life. I talk too much, I say the wrong thing, I use the wrong tone, I don’t make eye contact. I am always aware that I am always doing something wrong. I am always aware that people probably hate me, and that no matter how hard I work, it will never be enough. I will never be enough.
This is my internal monologue. I try my damndest to not let it be my external. Most days, some days, it works.
But on other days……….
Other days I know that if any words at all come out they will be the wrong ones. They will express the wrong feelings. They will consist largely of mixed-up pronouns and variations on ‘fuck’. Lately, my anxiety is so high that this happens more often, and so I shut down. I choose to say…..nothing. I choose it. I think.
On these days, sometimes verses come more easily than prose. Here is what I wrote instead of swearing:
Why do they call it – selective mutism
There is nothing selective about it.
To imply that I select this, well
I guess I do.
I select to be silent.
I choose not to speak.
I choose for my tone of voice,
To be polite, my words will not offend I fear
The message that I send
Will not be what I intend
It is better, I think, to say nothing at all
Than to say something, my words misconstrued
Somewhere in my body my speech all lies in wait
I reach into my throat but what I pull out
Isn’t good, isn’t complete, I stutter
Achingly slow like pulling fossils out of tar.
(They are not the real thing, only shadowy representations of my ideas and ideals.)
I am so tired and I am so sad
And I am so terrified and I am so mad
Stutter, stutter, goodbye, fuck
Words they elude me, evade me
If I don’t say
Then I cannot possibly offend.