I can’t remember a time when I didn’t concern myself with the infinity of space or the concept of eternity, these are elements of life that have travelled with me through time, since I was born. Neither can I recall a moment in my life when I haven’t been overwhelmed by the suffering of others or crippled with inertia at cruelty toward animals, or when I haven’t wondered about wars and treachery and conspiracy and corruption. Nor is there a time in my childhood when the wilting of a picked flower or a snapped twig from a tree or a random pebble found in my shoe wasn’t mourned for, worried about and set aside with gentle care as if burying a friend.
I remember the liberation at feeling breeze on my face and the taste of the salty sea air; spending my pocket money on the discarded torn, one eyed stuffed creatures thrown into bargain bins in charity shops that smelt of musty coats and lavender, delighting in the birdsong of the robin and the lark and lying down in the grass with a cabbage leaf over my face to see what a caterpillars world looked like. I felt a joy beyond human words at touching the colour of the sky that was blue and clear with streaks of white and the joy of burying my face into the tiny body of a purring kitten whose heart raced like the treadle of mums sewing machine, a tiny creature who understood my world and chose to dwell inside it with me. And, if I close my eyes, I can still see the intricate patterns on dresses worn by ageing aunts, their texture, design and contours and when I see those patterns now I smell the coal fire again and hear the sparks crackling. I remember hiding under the table at social events, talking through my teddy, running away from people in spectacles, wishing I could take flight like the birds and soar above the noise of incessant conversation, smoky pubs and people who told jokes that I didn’t find funny, people who laughed at my awkward gait and big feet and confidently told my parents that one day I would ‘get over’ my shyness.
I remember coming home from school and looking for my beloved cat who always met me in the street and finding out that he had been poorly, taken to the vets and put to sleep, my best friend, gone in a whisper without me being there to hold him, to say goodbye, and I gasped for air as if my world had ended, looking for his fur on the chair where he had sat that morning, collecting it in a jar and carrying it in my pocket. And years later, I would carry the ashes of my beautiful border collie to work in my rucksack, reassured that the one who had known me best was there beside me and I was looking after her just as she had always looked after me.
And then, as the years moved on, those memories of solitude and peacefulness and innocence of sensory delights were gone, overtaken by the rain clouds of winter and the ignorance of life, destabilised by adolescence and the expectation of ‘maturity’ and those anxieties from fallen petals were a distant thing as life crashed and banged and walloped its way into my psyche like a charabanc of frantic people skidding off course, bumping and bruising and smashing it’s way through pathways strewn with broken glass and noxious debris. Noises got louder, voices raised, the faces of strangers became contorted and hung like gargoyles on fence posts and garden gates and even a walk outside was devoid of its joy and beauty.I remember the etched lines of judgement, the morally superior and the effortlessly sublime all wrapped up in teenage angst and mystery. Listening to peers, comfortably linking arms and talking excitedly about their favourite bands, their romantic conquests, mirroring their focus, their expressive, vibrant eyes and their energy for each other as I snook away to listen to obscure pieces of music that made me weep and see the colour of orphans eyes, in the notes that swept me away to a land that had no time for chatter but that lost itself in a hope for a better world, a kinder world, a world that embraced uniqueness with gratitude rather than indifference or with a celebratory embrace rather than an ironic grin.
I can hear the banging of the doors now, doors that represent corridors of silence, loss of truth, identity and liberty. Corridors that told me that I was the wrong shape, corridors that told me that I had to conform, try harder, stop thinking, stop feeling, stop believing for better, corridors that told me that my esoteric ideology was indicative of ‘oddity’, my aloofness symptomatic of a disturbed mind, my need for creative expression an excuse for opting out of reality and my overwhelming anxiety at the world around me futile and hopeless, unless treated with sedatives and mind altering ‘therapeutic interventions’ with a blind eye turned to contraindications for the rest of my sorry, likely short lived existence. Crash, bang, wallop……….falling under the lights, the stresses of life, getting sent to places of ‘safety’ that were never safe at all, walloped with medication that rendered my spirit dried up and unrecognisable, morphed into someone else, anyone else other than my own truth. Subtly manipulated, moulded into an eclectic mix of ‘otherness’ that rendered me sufficiently altered to ‘fit in’ and yet far enough removed to no longer recognise my own face, the face of reluctance and disengagement, the face of an autistic child .
Well, I climbed out of those corridors, on every single occasion I climbed out, ran faster, sang louder, painted bigger, studied harder, achieved more, scaled greater career ladders, proved my worth, made my way, crashed, banged, walloped and did it all over again, year in year out. Crawling on my belly to the tune of an unrecognisable song, convincing myself that my own song was misguided and quietened for my own sake, humming it under my breath as a secret mantra, hidden, stifled, stilled. I was “Ju the cleaner, Ju the glue factory worker, Ju the artist, Ju the painter, Ju the musician, Ju the student, Ju the social worker, Ju the senior practitioner, Ju the lecturer, Ju the teaching fellow, Ju the carer, Ju the bereaved daughter, Ju…………the missing person”. I had always been a missing person.
So, as we near International Women’s Day 2019, I find myself asking how many more women have spent their lives battle ready, beaten down by misdiagnosis, medical intervention and the message that tells us that our ‘difference’ is a problem needing resolution? How many more women have lived and died and not known that their uniqueness was a gift to the world that chastised them? How many more women have left us not having told their stories, shared their wonders, lifted our spirits with inspirational contributions? How many of us have quietened the dance inside us and respectfully allowed society to bind our own hands and feet in the name of ‘normal’. I doff my cap to those women now because I am one of the lucky ones.
I close my eyes today and I focus on the fading silhouettes, the beautiful profiles of those women who have gone before us, those who have trodden corridors of silence, those who have withdrawn, battle worn, those who have protested and rocked and spiralled and faded without having had anyone truly listen to their stories. Well…….. I’m listening now!. And, if I reach out, slowly, tentatively, I can embrace them all in a whisper, the songs of angels unawares. Listen with me to the unique voices of wisdom, of humour, of collective empathy of stealth and resilience, of misunderstanding, of disbelief and of solitude. Close your eyes and see the lines on the faces of those who have been to this earth, this incredible experience of life and breath with the privilege of smelling the scent of the colours and tasting one’s own tears. Come with me my friend, to a place that will today choose to acknowledge those of us who have gone before and left us without having ever known the freedom of truth. Come with me, let’s walk together through places that make us feel lesser, hurt deeper, try harder, fight stronger because as we hold tight to one another we shall inadvertently be passing the fading silhouettes of those who have gone before us and we shall be stronger for it. Come with me, hold my hand, let me allow you in, offer me the privilege of accepting our shared truth, our difference, our diversity and our rainbow, for with each collective battle we shall be standing alongside those who never knew their own strength. Let me stand beside you when our darkness comes and run with you when our laughter rattles walls and brings down barriers. I close my eyes and I hear the ones who have gone before us, shouting us on, see them waving their hands on the sidelines and telling us to keep running, keep believing for better, keep standing strong, keep kicking back, keep refusing untruths, myths, misdiagnoses, character bashing, energy sapping shortcuts and rat runs that lead us up blind alleys and lock us into dead spaces in the name of bureaucracy, funding, assumptive, pre-conceptive, stereotypical labelling and instead, let’s offer up a rainbow coloured pole vault to the memory of lost women that gives us the stamina, energy and pure will power to traverse the highest line of resistance in the pursuit of our right to breathe and dance to the unique tune in our own heads.
Join me in remembering autistic women everywhere who never got to feel the colour blue.