I Dreamed of a House

Autism, Identity, Neurodiversity, Writing

Dust particles catch the light, forming a glittering beam that looks solid, spearing the front door through its little square windows and ending in blocks of sun on the rug where we put our shoes. I turn to look outside and press my nose to the top middle pane of the window, touch my lips to the dark wooden sash. The wood always smells like rain and the rain always smells like this window. But it’s not raining now. It’s that time when the sun gets really yellow and loud, and you can’t watch TV because there’s too much glare even if you try to close the long green curtains.

I slide down into the couch and try to arrange myself so I’m sitting upside down, my legs up on the back of it, and my head hanging off the seat. When I’m sitting upside down I look at the ceiling and pretend it’s the floor. The living room ceiling has dark wooden beams across it, and I imagine hopping over them as I run across the room. After a while it starts to feel real, that I really live on the ceiling, and can walk from room to room on all the ceilings and see the whole house from there, looking down, or is it up, at all the furniture, and I start to wonder if I could ever invent suction boots that would let me walk up the walls and right over the ceilings for real. And then I am sad.

I once had a recurring dream about a house. It began in my teens and lasted through the next 20 years; every few months I’d have more or less this same dream: I am in a house, it’s my house but not like my house. I discover that there is space in this house that was always there but I never knew of it before. A secret wing, an attic, a basement – the space is vast, larger than seems possible for a room to be and still be part of my house. Finding this place is exciting and important, the key to everything. I wake feeling that a mystery has been revealed in my sleep, but forgotten as the dream fades.

Around the time I realized I was autistic, I stopped having that dream.

One question people ask when you identify as autistic in adulthood is, why find out now? What difference can it make at this point in your life? The answer is that it makes all the difference, for many reasons. For me it is hard to understand why anyone wouldn’t want to know themselves, but I know for some autistic adults this self discovery isn’t as important, and that’s fine for them.

But there’s also the reality that I can’t wear this old costume anymore. It’s coming apart at the seams and bits of the real me are sticking out here and there, anyway. Since my schoolgirl days people have always commented on my rigid posture, the way I pace when everyone is standing, the way I stand when everyone is sitting, the way when I finally sit down I sit at the edges of chairs, my hands tightly clasped or shoved under my thighs or balled into fists. “Hey, relax,” I’ve been told with a chuckle, too many times to count. “Sit down, you’re making me nervous.” I insist tersely, “I’m fine,” not even realizing. Every atom of my body holding tightly together to muscle my way through it all.

The easy part of it is surprisingly hard, and that’s finding out who I am now. What are my sensory processing differences? One would think that this would be obvious, but when you have lived a few decades not knowing that your perceptions of things are different from anyone else’s – assuming your reactions and responses to everything must simply be wrong – you end up having suppressed not only your reactions to stimuli but also your perceptions. Uncovering these is like unearthing a time capsule, from a time that never was – a time when I was truly myself, when I spoke, moved, felt, and thought with freedom.

Uncovering the natural movements of your own body is uncanny and startling. A lot of autistic people flap their hands when excited or agitated. I don’t flap. Until one day I read a disturbing news story, set down my phone and find myself flapping. And it feels familiar to do this. But where did this come from? It’s not as though I’ve gone looking for ways to act more autistic. By clearing away the dirt and detritus of a life lived trying to be someone else, by peeling away the layers of people that I tried to be, things emerge, unexpectedly.

I had a dream in my adolescence that I was a mummy. I walked down to the water near my house, trying to hide from passing cars in the night. I knelt at the water and tried to tear away the waxy bandages covering my body. But when I did, I found that my heart was exposed, red and beating in my chest. I was afraid. 

Image is a red brick wall with the text: First I must reassemble the foundational building blocks of my world. eisforerin

The hard part of this is disorienting and feels impossible at times: piecing it all together, trying to form a coherent life story for myself. Who I am now is just a moment. It seems important to reassemble the narrative, with this new information. The clues I have are few, because of the way the old stories I told myself distorted reality, and because of the way I’ve simply forgotten the rest, whether by will or by an inability to make sense of it – my brain refusing to allow long term storage to the incomprehensible – I cannot say. Sense memories are the memories that float up when I go dredging up the past, as if to reconstruct my very experience of the world. Feelings come to me – fear, anger, sadness, joy. I want anecdotes, but memory tells me – no. First you must reassemble the foundational building blocks of your world. This is what the sun felt like, this is how the water smelled, these are the sounds that filled the atmosphere.

I have my own bedroom at the back of the house, for a while anyway. The oak trees grow tall at this corner of the property and so it is always shady in the daytime and filled with the sounds of leaves rustling. In summer with the windows thrown open at night, fat junebugs hurl themselves at the screens while I try to fall asleep with a lamp left on, reading in bed. I have a pine wood desk with a tidy desk blotter that makes me feel like it is a real person’s desk where real work is done. I have stationery I use to write to my pen pals, eight pals at once at the peak of my correspondence – my online friends before there was an online. Later in that room I am a teenager and my parents have bought me a brand new oak wardrobe, a beautiful piece of furniture that makes me feel like a real person with a real place to keep my clothing. But one morning before school I have so much trouble trying to choose what to wear that day that I cry in a rage and slam all the doors open and closed and open until one of them cracks, badly, along one rail. I stop. I never tell anyone that I did this. I am ashamed.

Finding other people out there like you when you thought you were the only person like you is also strange, both unsettling and beautiful. When I was a child, I loved the story of the ugly duckling. The ugly duckling, of course, is not ugly at all, but is a cygnet born into the wrong world. Abused by the other animals in the barnyard for looking and behaving “wrong,” he flees the farm and seeks solace in other places, but is repeatedly repelled or put in danger from which he must again run away. He spends a season alone, and in his despair, he finally throws himself before a group of swans, expecting and even willing himself to be killed – but at the same moment, he glimpses for the first time his reflection in the water, and the swans accept him as one of them.

Since I realized I was autistic, I started to have a new recurring dream about a house.

I’m in a house, it’s not mine but it’s one that I have stayed in or am staying in and I’ve fallen in love with it. It’s unconventionally designed, rambling, even vast, with lots of surprising turns and hidden hallways. Each room is unique, quirky, with its own vibrant personality. Other people live here – some of them known to me, some not. They each have claimed their own space, but there are still rooms available. There are multiple kitchens and a huge backyard. Sometimes I am showing this house that I love to other people, showing off its charms. Sometimes I am exploring it alone. I think about moving in, but I hesitate. I love it, but can I live here?

And then I am walking through the house with my husband. We are planning out where the children could stay, how we could make this place safe for them. There is a realtor there, waiting for our decision. We tell him: we’ll take it.

And that’s the last time that I dreamed of a house.

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4 thoughts on “I Dreamed of a House

  1. I had the same recurring dream! — and, likewise, it stopped recurring when I learned about Asperger’s and figured out that I had it. (I was formally diagnosed some years later.)
    About flapping and such: what do you do at times when it would be a bad move? (e.g., when you are doing something that requires you to hold on with both hands, or at other times when following your impulse would be at the expense of yourself or at the expense of anyone else)

    Like

  2. Erin, I find your writing exquisite and stunningly beautiful, and as a fellow Autistic who didn’t discover their Autisticness until adulthood (only last year, in fact) it touched me deeply and nourished my soul. Thank you so much for your writing.

    And thank you so much for the nudge it has given me to finally start writing on my own Autistic experience; if my words, my sharing could bring meaning to others in even half the way your words have brought meaning to me, it would be to me an ineffable joy to contribute in this way.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I missed the cake story but I’ve seen it in other forms. I’ve never experienced it. I’m a high functioning guy but I’m completely lost and staggered at the speed violence in which life can peel me and chew me up. I’ve never really reached out until I got real close to dying a couple years ago. I lost my job and my home. I had spent all my saving on medical expenses for my hawks. I was forced to move to a distant town which I’d never even visited before. I was suffering from extreme anxiety and depression and a handful of incredibly painful diseases. Oh right… a broken ankle I earned during the move. I asked a close member of my family for a little help rebuilding my mews and filling out paperwork so I could get a little help from the government safety net: The first time I had ever asked for such help. When this person saw I was on an anti-anxiety medication and pain medication, he left and the next day basically told me I was dead to him. Confused and hurt and wondering what I did that was so horrible that this person would abandon me, disown me and sever all ties. I reached out to another group of peers from a sporting club I had been a member of. They had impressed me with their egalitarian traditions and kindness toward the newcomers. I received an in basket of hate mail.
    Even some of my own family cast a dark and suspicious aura around me behind my back. But there was one group of people who asked me to ask them for help. A loosely woven group composed of a little bit of everything, bound together by a common love of music. These people never questioned me or my disabilities or my motives. They loved me and with their help and encouragement I passed through the worst of that nightmare. Although I haven’t woken up yet and the wheels of misfortune continue to burn donuts around me, they’re still there. Still digging deep to help me keep my head above water and that’s no easy task. These folks have and continue to make difficult personal sacrifices for my well-being and no one, not a single person, has asked me to pay them back. By the way, that person who abandoned me with an email full of impossible ultimatums and fully loaded with f bombs was my only son.

    Now it’s time for the neurotypicals who don’t know me ( see above) to start stoking the fires of their wrath but I’m way past caring about the Drill Sergeants, the Proud, Hard Working Americans, the Type A Real Men who actually CAN pick themselves up by their bootstraps. Literally. They actually levitate with the power of their egos. Come to think of it, most of those people have blocked me, or I’ve blocked them, on FB – so it’s all good. And now back to frozen pizza, root beer and MNF. Yay!

    Like

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