I am the oldest son of an oldest son. I have six younger siblings. My dad had seven. I have been typing and erasing for an hour because it’s hard to understand this tenuous relationship between my dad and me without all of the context. He is the chaotic presence I blame for the lack of structure and security growing up. My life has been plagued by poverty and housing insecurity with waves of religious trauma and addiction. I want to write about how he went to jail when I was in kindergarten and how my twenty-something mom moved her four kids into a homeless shelter. I want to write about how in my memories, there was a chunk of time when my dad was not there, and then he was. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned he had actually come home at some point after getting out of jail and chose to leave us again. I want to write about the various bouts of homelessness or him getting fired from jobs for stupid mistakes and thinking he was above any kind of rules or regulations. But I guess the story of a son wanting to grow up into anything but his father is not so unique.
Yesterday we went to a party my uncle threw for his daughter who just graduated med school. The contrast of how my dad’s brother has built his life fills me with regret and envy. Moments after arriving and taking in the scene of the giant back yard with tables and chairs and tents and coolers, the fire pit, the gravel bocce court, the cornhole setup, the trees, the grass, the in-ground pool, the crowd of people laughing and drinking and smoking, one of my brothers arrived. It must have been bothering him, (or maybe he just thought I’d want to know,) because soon after our hellos, he was telling me how my dad almost got arrested this week. My mom’s car has been acting up, (the latest in a history of transportation-related insecurities to go along with the homelessness,) and my dad took his car to go get a part for hers. Except he was driving on a spare tire and apparently ended up getting stranded when another tire went flat. The details are foggy but this somehow turned into him getting drunk and getting himself home somehow, where he said he’d had enough of “this life” and left again. Evidently, the local police called my mother the next day to tell her he’d been found passed out in someone’s yard. He is 64 years old. I can’t help think of a serious talk I had with my boyfriend the last time I got drunk and lost control. “You’re almost 40 years old!” he said, like there is a certain age where drinking to black out might actually be appropriate. I felt intense shame in that moment and it’s a second-hand feeling of shame when I think of my father, a few months from 65, drinking himself unconscious in a stranger’s back yard.
Then it was maybe 20 minutes later that my mom and dad arrived at the party. I didn’t even want to look at him. But I watched him. I wish I could know what everyone was thinking. I see my dad, the oldest brother, laughing and playing around and I just feel embarrassed because I don’t see anyone laughing and playing around with him. I have this craving for belonging, for community, that swallows me up sometimes and makes me feel like I cannot exist without the validation of a group. I’ve grown up feeling like I ought to feel like I belong in this giant family, this crowd of people who all look like me, but always feeling excluded. When I was young and my family was homeless, did we get help from my grandparents or my aunts and uncle? I know when I was older and my dad’s sister was struggling with substance abuse, the rest of the siblings swooped in to take care of the children. My uncle and a few of my aunts just flew out to see my cousin graduate. From the outside, it feels like my father’s siblings think of him as the disabled sibling that they don’t want to deal with. “He’s special so we just let him do his thing.” He doesn’t get invited to things and he doesn’t have the means to contribute to things financially like they do. Where we’ve struggled so much over the last 30+ years and continue to struggle, I see other parts of my family caring for each other, building relationships and taking care of one another. They know each other. But no one knows me.
Maybe this is all in my head.
It feels surreal even to type those words, though I’ve said them to myself so many times. There were so many clues over the years that I didn’t know how to interpret, (or didn’t want to,) but thinking of myself in this way now somehow pulls everything together in a way that makes sense to me.
It feels a little silly to have come to this conclusion with the aid of social media. Primarily the aid of social media. I have talked a little bit about this in therapy and my therapist is always supportive, assuring me it’s a good thing to be seeing myself in the stories of others and immersing myself in things that feel affirming. But if I, an almost 40-year-old man, mention TikTok in conversation, I’m often met with patronization or rejection. I guess it’s not often but if any of my peers are familiar with this particular app, it’s more in the context of comedy and trendy dances and less about neurodiversity and autism. But they say the algorithm shows you what you want to see so maybe it’s telling that while all of my friends want to see something light hearted to escape the lives they live in the world, I am looking to dive a little deeper into something that makes sense of the the life I live in my head.
It feels rather foolish to be starting a blog in 2022. I thought about putting this out into the world publicly, with my name and face behind it, but it just felt too scary. I want to explore this part of my identity and make sense of it and maybe I’m not actually autistic but I want to know that, too, if that’s the case, and why does it feel so scary? At first I thought it was because I was afraid of how the neurotypical people I know would react. But I realize I’ve craved belonging for as long as I can remember so it’s not as though I am risking something with their possible rejection. But it’s all the reactions I’ve experienced so far at the very notion I might be some flavor of neurodivergent that makes me question whether this sense of belonging I feel to the autistic community is authentic and how it might feel to face rejection from this community. I’ve always heard “but you never had trouble in school,” “but you have so many friends,” “but you have a successful career,” but you don’t do this, but you don’t do that, and while discouraging, I can see where this is coming from a neurotypical perspective, always, and based on neurotypical expectations of how neurodivergence would ought to appear. It’s one thing to hear “no, you’re not one of them,” but “no, you’re not one of us,” hits more painfully.
in 12th grade i took ap english and i had a really hard time with uncovering symbolism. another student in the class was really good with understanding subtext and whenever we had to work in small groups to debrief a piece of literature, he was always the one who told the group what the book was actually about and while it always made sense to me right away, i would get frustrated that i wasn’t able to interpret them for myself. after expressing it to him in confidence once, the student assured me that as long as it made sense to me, that was the important part. whenever we were in small groups, though, and another student would say something that he thought was accurate, the first student would always gently issue his nose a few taps with the tip of his pointed index finger to indicate that the student speaking was “on the nose” and i always really enjoyed that.
when i was in high school, my dad’s friend whose family mine was living with at the time because we were homeless, found gay porn on his computer that i had downloaded. he and my dad had a sit-down with my to talk about the perils of porn from a religious standpoint but they never mentioned that it was gay and i’m still not sure if my dad knew.
my senior year in high school, i said the word circuitous in conversation in my english class and the teacher stopped me and told me I’d said it wrong. I’d said it like the word “circuit” but he said it was pronounced like cautious… “sir-kyoo-shus”… i said it like that until someone made fun of me in college and i was able to google it. i guess we were both wrong.
I was never the tantrum-thrower. I was the oldest of six and felt like my job was the peacekeeper, breaking up fights and negotiating conflicts. I want to say it was my 13th birthday because I felt like it was a milestone, but memory is unreliable and kids feel like every birthday is a milestone. But, because I was so quiet and reserved, I won’t ever forget breaking down at the lack of birthday festivities on my behalf. So, I was a child throwing a tantrum. It began as a conversation but then I was sent to my room when the conversation made me dissolve into tears. I felt unloved. I felt deserving of a celebration and crushed that my parents did not seem to agree. I felt marginalized, like everyone else got to be the focus of attention on their special days but when it was my turn, the whole system collapsed. And I also felt catharsis as I screamed and cried in my bed, punching and kicking the wall, making myself as much of a disturbance as I could manage. At one point, my parents yelled at me and told me it was enough but I didn’t stop until I was too tired to continue. I dream about that level of unleashed expression, especially in times of intense despair.
in seventh grade, we had a school spirit week with themed days and everyone in the school would come dressed appropriately to the theme. one of the days was “clash day” and you had to come to school in clothes that clashed. i don’t remember the exact outfit but i remember i’d combined purple and green, two colors i thought inherently clashed. during school, one teacher said to me, “i thought you’d have trouble with this one.” her tone was endeared, like she was amused or thought it was cute, but i never understood what she meant by that.
when i was in my teens, i remember the pediatrician telling my mom that i was “developmentally delayed” and i remember thinking that meant i would eventually get taller. i didn’t.
i had to read ‘the giver’ in fifth grade and my mom found out later that it was controversial for some reason and parents didn’t want their kids reading it but i couldn’t figure out why.
one time in my special program in fifth grade, i had to do some kind of research project and didn’t work on it until the day it was due. i did not do any research but made some clay jewelry and put it in a shoebox like a diorama. i had a lot of shame about it.