Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Other - by Heather M

Picture in your mind, a completely unique creature. Get creative. Is it tall or short? Fluffy, scaly, or smooth? Maybe it has a tail or a horn. Give this species a name. Have you got a name picked out? Good.

Now imagine this creature, somehow trapped inside a human body all its life.

As a baby, things seem fairly average, but then life starts to get tricky. Especially when school begins...

Things that come easily to other children, don't come easily to this creature. She's no good at PE, because the body she was meant to have had a lot more legs, or a different way of balancing. Writing and crafts are challenging because her hands should have been tentacles, or claws. 

She doesn't always understand the other children, and they don't seem to like her very much. This is not the language she was meant to speak.

But this little creature is intelligent and motivated. She works very hard. She feels misunderstood, and wants to communicate, so she becomes obsessed with words and language, and spends a lot of time reading. She develops an impressive vocabulary, but the other children still don't seem to like or understand her. 

Her recesses and lunch breaks are spent alone, reading, or watching the other children play.

She watches the popular children, and notices that the clothes she likes to wear are different from what they are wearing. That must be it! She tries to pick out clothes that the other children will like, but she never seems to get it right.

She notices that the popular students are good at sports, so she tries to learn all kinds of sports. Sometimes she practices for hours on end. She has improved for sure. She can catch a ball (something she could never do before). But being able to catch a ball (which was a huge accomplishment with her would-be tentacles) doesn't make her popular. In fact she is still the least talented kid in her PE class.

She doesn't really like who she is. She doesn't like her hair because it doesn't look like the popular girls' hair. If she had thick hair, or curly hair, the other children would like her. She doesn't like her name, Heather, because all the popular girls have better names. She wishes her name could be Amy, or Ashley, or Ann. She spends a lot of time imagining she is someone else.

School is a daily struggle. The teachers say that she is lazy. Clearly she is very smart, so she shouldn't have any trouble doing her schoolwork. Perhaps the natural environment of the creature she was meant to be is just not as loud, or as bright as a classroom, but that never crossed the teachers' minds.

She feels ill often, especially at school. Sometimes she can gain some strength back by lying down in the nurses office, her favourite place in the whole school. The nurses office is always quiet. All of the surfaces in the room are cool and clean, and it is usually dark. Heather enjoys lying back on the vinyl cot, and counting the ceiling tiles over and over again. The result is always the same, and this comforts her. She lies still and silent, actively listening for the occasional echoing footsteps of a passerby heading to the washrooms.

The washrooms are quiet too. Not nearly as nice as the nurses office, but they have to suffice when the teachers stop allowing Heather to visit her sacred space. They tell her that an illness that occurs at the same time every day, is no illness at all. Especially if it is time for PE.

To escape, she spends a lot of time in a world of her own imagining. A world where she can do anything and be anyone she wants to.

She develops an interest in acting, and she gets pretty good at it. It seems to help her act more like the other kids do. Heather is determined to make friends; she wants so badly to play with the other children, instead of watching them from afar. She practices using the kind of words they use. She tries to be like them in every way. It seems to help. She makes one or two close friends. They are not popular kids, they are outcasts like her, but that's ok...

Heather learns that it helps to be agreeable. If someone says they don't like peas, she says she doesn't either. If they say they like the colour purple, she says she likes it too.

There's a girl in Heathers class who seems to dislike a lot things and a lot of people. Her name is Christa. She has beautiful thick hair the colour of caramel and freckles on her nose. She always says what she's thinking, and she has five or six close friends. Heather wants to be her.

They become friends. Heather can't believe she has a friend who is so cool. Sometimes Christa even lets Heather brush and style her long, thick hair.

Christa plays tricks on Heather, and calls her mean names sometimes, but that's ok, because they are friends, and she says she's only joking. Heather tries her best to be agreeable. After all, she is lucky to have a friend like Christa.

Over the years friends come and go, some are true friends who love Heather for who she is (or appears to be) and some are "cool Christas", the ones she's dying to impress.

But having friends doesn't feel as great as she expected it to. She's become so good at acting, that even her true friends don't really know her. They don't know she's a pretender, a fraud, an outsider. Whether or not people love her is irrelevant because of her deep dark secret. She is an "other". 

In school, Heather struggles to do what's expected of her, and then all but gives up. Deep down, she knows she is bad and wrong. She feigns apathy, pretending she doesn't care about sports or school or being popular. She refuses to participate in gym class because she's terrified of being humiliated, but she doesn't tell the gym teacher that. Flat out refusal to participate is all the explanation he gets. She stops doing her homework, except for English homework, since her best is never good enough anyways.

Eventually, the feigned apathy becomes real. Nothing brings her joy anymore, not reading, or writing, or music. One evening her parents order takeout from her favourite restaurant. Fettuccine Alfredo. Her favourite dish. She looks down at her plate, realizes it brings her no joy, and begins to cry.

The floodgates are opened. For the next week or so she spends more time crying than not. She cries in the shower, on the bus to school, in the classrooms. Some days she doesn't go to any classes because the other students tease her for crying all the time. She cries herself to sleep every night.

Heather is afraid. When she reaches out to friends and family, she's accused of being dramatic. Her loved ones insist that these feelings are normal for teenagers, and nothing is wrong. She is instructed to "suck it up".

Heather wonders what it will take for people to understand that she is not ok? She begins to behave erratically. She no longer cares about fitting in or having cool friends. Sometimes she darts randomly into traffic, praying that she will be hit by a car. Eventually, she is admitted to hospital. She is upset and afraid, but she also feels relieved. Now they know something is wrong, now they will help her!

The doctors know something is wrong, but they don't know what. They say that she is depressed and they give her medicine. Medicine that is not made for the creature she was meant to be. Medicine for humans who are depressed....

Her mind and body react violently to the assault of strange chemicals flowing through her. Any ounce of self control she had is lost. The erratic behaviours worsen, so the doctors increase the dose. Heather soon becomes aggressive, hurting herself and those around her. Her clothes are taken away and she is given a pair of yellow pyjamas.

She is led to a small, brightly lit room, and a heavy door is shut and locked behind her. She is alone. Although this room is similar in many ways to the nurses office of Heathers childhood school, with its cool, clean surfaces, she finds no peace here. She screams and sobs hysterically, pounding her fists against the door, before crumpling, exhausted, onto a cot in the corner. She is disappointed that the ceiling is smooth, and not tiled, like the rest of the hospital.

The doctors decide that anti-psychotic medicine is the best course of action. The effects of the various drugs they try make the next 5 years or so a blur of hysterical crying, blue pyjamas, and counsellors telling  Heather that getting well is a choice, that it takes effort, and that she must "do the work".

At some point during this blur, the doctors (failing to see that she is a strange creature trapped inside the body of a human, violently reacting to drugs that aren't meant for her) decide that she has a personality disorder.

"Borderline Personality Disorder is our working diagnosis", the psychiatrist explains to Heather and her mother. Heather fidgets with the elastic waistband on her blue pyjamas, as tears fill her eyes, obscuring her vision. She looks up at the lights on the ceiling to watch how they change shape, bending through the prism of tears, and tries to tune out the sound of the doctors voice, as he continues...

"People with this condition typically"...."strain on the caregivers"....."emotional manipulation".... "attention seeking behaviours".... "until she wants to get better, there is little we can do."

Heather shoots the psychiatrist an icy glare. How dare he accuse her of wanting to live in this torturous hell?

"Do you have something you wish to say to me?" The psychiatrist asks, smiling sweetly as though he hadn't just called her a manipulative bitch who doesn't want to get better.

His tone throws her off. She tries to scream at him, but chokes on her words.
"I, I do want to get better" she croaks out meekly. "That's good!" he says in his most patronizing tone, and chuckles to himself, "That means we won't have any more incidents like yesterday, right?"

Heather tries to remember what happened yesterday and is immediately overwhelmed by scattered images that make no sense. She becomes frozen, like a statue, unable to form a response.

"Well?", the psychiatrist leans forward in his seat, looking into Heathers eyes as she tries not to feel him looking at her.

"No" she whispers. "No."

by Heather M

1 comment:

  1. "She looks up at the lights on the ceiling to watch how they change shape, bending through the prism of tears,"

    I remember as a toddler how once after a meltdown of sorts I was taken to a bedroom crying where I also noticed how the lights delightfully change shape, contract and elongate within the prism of my tears. This is, I believe, my earliest experience of autism that I can remember. Thank you for articulating this experience so mellifluously and taking me back to my own earliest autistic experiences I never thought I had - evidently, upon retrospection, I was quite a pattern-obsessed boy.
    God bless,
    Leo Nikol