I don’t know why I felt so much older than her. Only a few months earlier I had been right where she was- a high school kid with my whole future ahead of me. Only my daily routine had changed. What gave me the right to be the grown up in this situation? But there I was sitting with a stranger and her friend in an empty classroom at the end of a very long day. She was telling me that her uncle molests her and no one knows about it.
I asked for it. In a desire to escape my world of rules, I ran off and joined the circus. Not really; but in some ways, it was exactly that. My first experience away from home was a ten month tour across the country with a group of strangers. It still stands as the most bizarre year of my life. One of my tricks was occasional speaking in front of junior high and high school students.
I gave the speech that made everyone uncomfortable, and I didn’t mind. But it meant opening myself up to moments like this one. She was a high school student in a rural Northern Michigan town I had never been to before. What did I know? I had no experience with anyone who had been molested by an adult or a family member. In spite of my confidence in publicly speaking about uncomfortable topics, I had no experience at all with one on one conversation like this.
Her friend had approached me after the show and asked if I would talk with them. I wonder what they expected to happen. There wasn’t much I could offer in counseling that her friend hadn’t already provided. I suppose somewhere in the back of her mind she knew- this was it. I would have to report it (which is true). It was just a matter of what adult she would tell and when. And somehow, that adult turned out to be me.
She wasn’t the only one, but she was the first. Everyone had their own story. Date rape was a common theme and what I was prepared for. It was the whole point, actually, but I preferred just giving the presentation. I shouldn’t have been the one they talked to. Didn’t anyone know that? I was ridiculous back then. A teenage girl.
I said the right words the way I say the right words when I am talking about the weather. It was no different from waiting on a customer who confesses they are on their way to a funeral; you know the polite thing to say, but there is a wall between you because you aren’t a real part of their world. This situation made the words sound more genuine somehow, but I wasn’t important. I was a means to an end; an avenue for her to blow up her turmoiled existence. To make it stop. And to become “that girl” who everyone is whispering about.
“Did you hear what happened to her?”
Maybe that’s what she was most afraid of. Or maybe she wanted to be that girl. Some people move forward by amputating a thing completely from their lives, while others choose to feel it more deeply- let it absorb into their skin until it feels like it belongs there.
Maybe the attention will be the part that makes it bearable. It becomes a part of who she is and how she defines herself. It makes her feel more interesting because it’s a story to tell. She will repeat the act of disclosure for years to come; feeling obligated to it, as if it were dishonest to forget. She will give it permission to hurt her relationships. She will pretend, for far too long (maybe a lifetime) that the choice to feel differently was never hers.
I hope that’s not what happened, but I guess I will never know. I was just a middle man of sorts. For all of my empathy toward that way of thinking, I have never had much sympathy for those who believe it. That was the year I learned that I prefer being a “cut it out if it offends you” type of person. Leave the past in the past. We have the choice every day to be whoever we want to be and feel whatever we want to feel, in spite of everyone and everything else.
That includes autism. I can’t exactly amputate it from my life, but I don’t have an interest in forming a linked identity with it, either. I have no desire to be “that mom” to anyone. Our daughter is who she is, and the fact that autism played a role doesn’t really mean anything in any typical moment. She is a million other things first, just like us.
I started this blog because I wanted to connect with others and find a way for friends and family to know Teghan better. Honestly, writing about autism can be impossible. I enjoy it, but I feel as if I am playing a “six degrees to autism” game every time I sit down to write something new.
Maybe it’s because I don’t have to fight so hard. Other people see Teghan’s autism. We are a walking advertisement of awareness. My daughter is in the severely impaired autism class at a special education school; she is surrounded by people who accept her and we qualify for everything with little effort. Our IEP meetings are usually brief and pleasant, with staff who are on top of things. Remember the time they left us a voicemail asking if it was okay to add occupational therapy to her IEP? No one is pushing my “I must fight for my kid” button over here.
Other parents plunge themselves into the world of autism completely. They are an endless resource and proudly embrace the “autism parent” identity badge. They don’t know any other way to be (any more than I do). I wrote a whole post about how I am not a warrior. I’m happy to co-exist with them, though. Warriors sure can be helpful.
Then there are the parents who have been defeated by autism. Not for a day or two, but truly drowning every day in an identity they both hate and need to be recognized for. They let it get under their skin, but it never feels okay. They are also the “autism parent,” but for all the wrong reasons. They don’t know they have the choice to feel differently. I don’t know if they will ever find out, but I do know that how we go forward means nothing about how much we love our children.
There are a lot of ways life can single us out and knock us down. We make a choice, consciously or not, on how we will get up and keep going. If at all. We can brush ourselves off and continue on as we were, use our experience to embrace a new cause to fight for, or stay on the ground and wait for someone to notice us. The good and bad news is that the options remain available.
I am still better at the presentation than the one on one. I can write you a nice story about raising a child with autism, and I could read it out loud without hesitation to any group of people- but am I really the one you want to corner in a room and ask for help? I’m not sure. I suspect your Starbucks cashier would be just as prepared. It’s funny. Twenty years later and I’m not sure I would be any better with that teenage girl, either.
I wonder what became of her.