I think I’m the problem.

“You can sit with us. We know you’re a part of our group.”

Her tone was flat and she looked me dead in the eyes. I wanted to vomit. But she was right. Why did I think I was invisible? Why do I see myself as an outside observer, having my own experiences in solitude, while everyone else—the collective of which I am not a part—shares an experience that doesn’t include me and is completely different from mine? I looked away.

“Sorry,” I said with a fake laugh, knowing she knew the laugh was fake. “I didn’t see you all when I came in at first.” (Or did I say “you guys”? I am trying to stop saying that phrase because it’s not inclusive but sometimes it slips out.)

I guess it doesn’t matter if I was telling the truth or if she believed me, (and I know it’s “she” because the university had pronoun stickers to put on our name tags and university lanyards when we checked into the orientation this morning,) since I was finished eating anyway, but I stood up, threw my trash away, and joined the rest of my assigned orientation group of transfer students in the one empty seat at the cafeteria lunch table.

It was the first time today I felt like I could relax a little bit. I am trying to go back to school and finish my degree after a long time away. The whole process has been fraught. First, the religious college that has most of my credits didn’t want to release my transcript because of fines I owed for missing chapel. I know I said “first,” implying that there’d be at least a “second,” but I don’t really want to go into the whole process right now. I’ll just say that my day started in bed, feeling like it was going to be a dark day. I let myself stay there too long and then I was stressed out trying to arrive on time for the transfer student orientation, which I understood to be a requirement to register for classes.

I got there later than I wanted but still with plenty of time, only to waste some of it trying to figure out how to get out of the parking garage. Then I wasted more time trying to figure out where I was supposed to go and how to get there.

The morning consisted of a three hour sensory assault: student presenters banging on microphones with their open palms; people coming in late and other people directing those people where to go (even though the program didn’t officially start until 9:15am even though all of the communications previously said presentations would begin “promptly at 9am”); music being played too loudly from YouTube through the speakers while presenters spoke over it; poorly-designed PowerPoint slides with a 3×4 aspect ratio instead of 16×9 and text that was way too small to be legible from the back rows where I was assigned to sit with my group; lapel mics being held way too close to mouths resulting in feedback and chatter from the audience; the stress of potentially being called on to “interact” and having to shout to be heard from the front; presenters presenting from draft view; a cop speaking intimidatingly about potential crime to be wary of on campus and a self-defense class only available to “females”; seats that were too small for my frame with little desks that folded out and cut into my stomach; a bag we were given and had to keep track of all day, which did not actually include any tools with which to take notes of all the information we were told we needed to know; the cognitive load of a full day of information, unsure of which information was the most important to know and which might not be useful to me. This is a small list but suffice it to say, the day was a sensory nightmare.

At lunch we were instructed to go with our OLs, which I took to mean orientation leaders. Ours did not say a word to us or look in our direction so she got up and started walking so me and all the other people with the same number on their name tags got up and followed her through a door and down a hallway and up some stairs and around a corner and down another hallway and then she stopped and said something I couldn’t hear and everyone else got in a line. I didn’t know what they were lining up for so I didn’t go. She looked at me and said “do you need one?” and I said “I don’t know” and she said “did you get yours already?” and I said “I’m not sure” and she said “Get in that line” so I did. Then she left and I surmised that we were getting our student identification cards since they were taking our photos. Our group leader didn’t come back so the photographer told us to go to lunch. We said we didn’t know where that was and he pointed down a hallway and we started walking.

I’m not very good at estimating physical dimensions but I do know the part of the cafeteria with the food vendors was very small. We were shoulder to shoulder. There were five different food lines that all bled into each other and I couldn’t see what kind of food each had and so I just kept walking until I was through and I sat at an empty table by myself.

I decided I didn’t need lunch. Then I thought of my stomach growling and how I hadn’t stopped for breakfast or iced coffee because the communications said masks were mandatory. When I showed up, though, no one was wearing a mask and they had a full breakfast but only hot coffee and I was wearing a mask so I didn’t want to eat. I got up and paced around until I found the exit. I didn’t know if I was going to leave or find the person in charge and ask some questions or make some complaints or… well, I didn’t have a plan. I just needed to get away. The thoughts of the chaotic mass of people and decisions I would just have to make with no information warred against my growling stomach and the lunch ticket in my pocket. I walked all the way back to where we’d started the morning and then, finding that area vacated by anyone having to do with the orientation, I turned around and went back. There were far fewer people at that time and so I got in the shortest line and ordered two heavy slices of pizza and a soda and had to argue with the cashier because she wanted to offer me a whole host of other foods and snacks and drinks because of the balance remaining on my free lunch card even though I told her over and over again that I didn’t want anything else.

So I was stressed out and sat down by myself at a table near my group. Their table looked full and I ate a slice of my pizza while I stared out the window and tried to hear what they were talking about and wondered to myself if I should just get up and go home and texted my partner and looked over the schedule. The other members of the group all sounded like they knew each other as they talked and laughed while they ate their lunches. When they started to talk about how the group leader had ditched us again, I started to focus more on what they were saying. And I started to watch them I guess. And that’s when they noticed me watching and even though I am constantly vigilant about how much physical space I am taking up, I was shocked that they had noticed me at all. Why was I shocked? I am kind of a large person and I am someone who notices everyone and everything. But I was shocked anyway.

So I sat with them. I didn’t say much. I interjected a few times with my frustrations with lack of signage and the very unhelpful student volunteers when it seemed conversationally appropriate. At first I was surprised they had shared so many of my same frustrations with the morning. Everyone seemed to always know what to do and where to go and what questions to ask. But the more I listened, the more I saw how all of their situations were really different than mine and I started to feel left out. The person who had called me out in the first place asked me once if I’d been to campus before and I said I was a bit older and I had a few times but never to these buildings and they rolled their eyes at “older” as though dismissing false modesty or something.

I went with (but didn’t feel part of) the group to sit through a presentation where a man played a video of slides and a voiceover in his voice that he paused every so often to quiz the audience on basics about going to college. I didn’t understand why he didn’t just have the slides and say the things instead of just standing there and sometimes pointing to a slide to reinforce a point or pressing pause to hand out candy to who could remember first how many credits it takes to be full time.

I followed the group to the bowels of the university library where we seated ourselves in a decrepit computer lab. We were expected to register for courses. They were telling us that we had to each take four or five courses. They told us where to get our degree audit but the browser couldn’t display it. There wasn’t a straightforward list of requirements for my degree so I wasn’t sure which classes I needed to take. I also don’t even know if work will pay for the program I got accepted into because it’s not directly related, and I’m not sure how I’ll pay for the degree otherwise.

Someone was walking around handing out handwritten notes of suggested classes for each of us and she handed me mine and it had two classes I’ve already taken and another basic course I know I’ve also taken but wasn’t transferred in so I looked up that course and there weren’t any evening or online courses. I can’t just go to school in the middle of the day. I don’t even work close by. And if I’m this close to a meltdown just because of the orientation, how did I think I was going to manage taking four or five classes on top of working a new job?

Overwhelmed with the feeling that my dreams were so out of reach and that there was no more room in my ears to hear any more speaking or nonsense and no more room in my brain for information which may or may not be important and no more room on my skin for all of this proximity… overwhelmed and feeling like my insides were screaming, I got up and stormed out.

“Already done in there?” One of the student volunteer group leaders sat with one of the employees whose job it was to accept or deny transfer credits. I wasn’t sure which of them had asked but they both watched me as I walked down the hallway toward the exit so I just said “I’m not doing this.” Then I pushed the button for the elevator over and over until it came. When I got in I pushed the lobby button and nothing happened but then I noticed a little torn up post it on the 2 so I pushed that and stormed off the elevator toward what I thought was an exit. It wasn’t. Then I found a desk and a nice looking woman said something nice that I don’t remember or didn’t hear and I said “how do I get out of here?” And she asked something else and I said “how do I get out of here? I want to leave. Where is my car?” And she pointed somewhere and said some directions that I couldn’t understand or I don’t remember and I started walking that way. The lobby I found myself in was a little triggering for me, familiar because it had been the way we’d come but also familiar because it was the same design as courthouses I spent a lot of my childhood in. I looked over the railing from the third floor where it was open and I could see down to the lobby below. I wondered if falling from this height would be lethal and part of me considered jumping so I hurried out of the building and spent another twenty minutes looking for my car.

Is it me? I was keeping a list in my notes app of all the things that I hated about the day but now I’m thinking there might have been nothing wrong with the day and everything wrong with me. There were over 100 other people in the orientation and, to my knowledge, I’m the only one who had to leave. It always seems like everyone else knows what’s going on, they are able to just take things in stride and maybe be a little annoyed but not completely deregulated. I vented on social media and several people offered to help walk me through the process, which feels to me like an acknowledgement that there is something wrong with me that I would need help with this process that literal children navigate every year. I think the problem is me.

I want to learn more.

I applied yesterday as a transfer student to the local state school to finally finish my Bachelor’s degree after twenty years. It felt foolish to only realize recently that I really enjoy learning. It makes perfect sense. Of course I enjoy learning. But, for me, school was never about learning, and maybe that was the problem. I struggled to get through the social and sensory nightmare that was high school. I struggled with classes and getting assignments done in college while I tried to reinvent myself into all the things I thought I should have been before that and simultaneously coming to terms with sexual identity, which ended up getting me kicked out of the private religious university I’d chosen. I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t process it. I just changed directions and went to work. When I attempted to go back almost ten years later, my focus was on finishing the degree so I would have the degree and I based my program of study on what I thought would be helpful with where I was in my career—a career I didn’t actually choose but just sort of landed in.

I think it wasn’t until I started reading about neurodiversity, specifically autism, that I realized just how many decisions I make not based on what I want or what interests me, but how I think I can be successful in the world as it is. Maybe it helps that I’ve been seeing a lot of evidence lately that what I once perceived as “the world” might very well be the capitalist mask of white supremacy and patriarchy and that, to be authentic, I need to separate my goals from the goals of capitalism and really sit with what I want for myself. I still exist under capitalism and so there is always the constant question of how can I turn this into money? but I’m still a long way off from a full-on career change.

When I first met with a student transfer specialist, I shared my story and my transcripts and I was told I was still three years away from graduating, even after close to six years of collective undergraduate schooling and over 150 credits. At first I was discouraged and overwhelmed but I’ve thought a lot about it. I’ve also been reading a lot of books about autism and neurodiversity. I love learning but it’s obvious I have so much to learn. So if it takes three years, it takes three years. Initially, I think I was imagining three more years of dry management courses and case studies in organizational development. But if it’s three years of learning and becoming an expert in something I actually like, well… that’s probably what I was going to be doing with the next three years anyway, just without help.

I’m hoping more states with follow New Mexico’s lead and offer free public education at the undergraduate level. Maybe sometime within the next three years…