Inside each of us is a mountain, one so tall that the top cannot be seen.
The only way up is via a straight flight of stairs that are carved right into the rock. They are slick, they are narrow, and they are steep.
Every one hundred steps or so, there is a landing that leads to a path. This path encircles the mountain. Step onto it, breathe in the fresh air, sit on a boulder, enjoy the panorama — but remember, the only way to the next landing, the next path, is by climbing another set of stairs.
You may choose never to mount those steps; you may choose to stay on the ground. Or you may decide that the landing you are on, that looping pathway, is a good place for you to set up camp. You may stay there for days, weeks, months … even a lifetime.
After my mother died in 2008, I stopped climbing for a good 5 years. I hunkered down on the path that I was on, weary with grief, and looked into the deep valleys of memories that lay before me.
In 2013, I stood up, flexed my muscles, and began a slow ascent of that stark staircase once again.
Then in 2017, I began running up the staircase. In 2017, the year I turned forty-two, I learned that I am autistic.
The first hundred steps were surprisingly easy. They were when I began practicing mindfulness, intentionally focusing on the present moment. Since I was young, I have been aware of “living in present tense”. Every single day, every second is a piece of clay that I sculpt with care and consciousness. I do not have a strong episodic memory and looking to the future is like looking straight at the sun, bright white and blinding. Because of this, I am able to cradle the individual moments of my life, nurturing them before they pass by, unnoticed.
When I reached the landing, I didn’t even have to pause to catch my breath before bounding up the next set of steps.
I became alcohol-free. For almost twenty-five years, I drank alcohol on a regular, near daily basis. It had become part of my routine to measure out my wine and sip while cooking, sip while eating, sip for dessert. The process of measuring was part of my routine. The goblet I used was part of my routine. The struggle was not in giving up the alcohol; it was in giving up my routine. For weeks after I stopped drinking alcohol, I still measured juice or ice tea in that measuring cup, sipped from that goblet. Now, almost a year later, I have a new routine of morning-afternoon-evening teas, each with their assigned mugs, and a water-berry-seltzer blend in the evening, in a cut-crystal glass that is surprisingly similar to that once required goblet.
This time, when I reached the landing, I stopped, arms open wide, and gulped in deep breaths of clean air. I felt the warmth of the sun on my eyelids, a refreshing breeze nudge my cheeks. This is what it felt like when I was eight, I thought. Back when I played in the desert, read books, wrote stories, and swam all summer long.
I strolled that path, expecting that sobriety would resolve many of the issues I had experienced throughout my entire adult life, such as forgetting conversations from yesterday, bruising my hips after misjudging how to maneuver around obstacles, and burning my fingers and forearms while taking dishes out of the oven. As I followed the loop around the mountain, I was surprised that my expectations were not fulfilled.
In addition to that, I felt raw, as if my skin had been peeled off and all the underlying nerves exposed. Alcohol was a Band-Aid and now I was bleeding, my intense empathy exposed again, unable to distinguish others’ feelings from my own. I hid from the world. I became vegan. I worked on my book in earnest. I allowed myself to cry. I squeezed out sadness the way I would wring out a wet towel. I built a wall out of stones and clay. I hung those damp towels on the other side of the wall, aired them out, let them dry. There were puddles everywhere.
Eventually, I decided to go to the next path and began climbing the steps again. This time, I moved more slowly. The stone was damp and slippery. I needed to pause to rest my knees. When I was about halfway up, the educational director of our afterschool program introduced me to a volunteer who was going to assist with our most popular activity. After we parted ways with her, I said, “I can feel her positive energy just lift me up.”
My boss said, “I know! She is one of the volunteers we recruited from the autism organization. We are so lucky that she is part of our program. Although, I am not sure why she chose to work on that activity because she does experience sensory sensitivities. I’ll make sure to check in with her throughout the day.”
“Maybe she did it to challenge herself,” I suggested.
“Maybe,” my boss said, drawing the word out, though I suspected later that she didn’t really agree.
I thought about that conversation as I paused to rest, holding onto the rickety handrail. I myself wasn’t fond of that activity because it had a cacophony of loud noises from computers and movies, and because the lights were too low, blurring everything, reminding me of driving at twilight. It made me feel chaotic. I coaxed myself every day to lead that activity because my students LOVED it.
I wondered, If I had a sensory sensitivity, would I challenge myself by working there or would I pick some other activity, one that wouldn’t leave me overstimulated and exhausted? I still hadn’t recognized that I was left overstimulated and exhausted. Probably not, I decided. If I was autistic, I would advocate for myself.
But, my problem, as the adults of my childhood had taught me, was that I was simply too sensitive. There was nothing for which I could advocate; I just had to try harder. I must have had a vitamin deficiency if I was that tired at the end of the day. My social obligations were greater than my selfish desires for time alone. I needed to stop fidgeting and pay better attention to what people were telling me. I just had to climb faster and further. Nothing less was acceptable. No time for enjoying the view.
So, I pulled myself up from the bootstraps, just like I always did, and kept scaling those steps. Our program began to hold Autism Days, when we changed our lighting and sound effects and limited the number of families who participated. I found myself drawn to those shifts, which felt as freeing as unbuttoning a pair of tight pants.
I worked with people on the spectrum, people who came in on alternating days so they could have time to re-energize between shifts. Hey, I do that! I would think, though that recuperation period was just a bonus for me. I really did it so that I could work on my book on the off-days. Of course, I could have worked at the program four days in a row and spent four consecutive days writing, which would make sense in terms of focus, but no, these alternating days seem to be the most successful, for some reason. I took another step, my thigh muscles trembling, my breath shortening.
I taught children on the spectrum, children whose parents told me that their kids were task-oriented and needed time to finish a project before moving on to the next; that their kids had to eat their food in a certain order and needed space to lay it out in a certain pattern; kids who struggled with unexpected changes and could have meltdowns if we didn’t adhere to the schedule. I would smile at these parents and say, “I completely understand and don’t worry, we will make sure your kids have what they need.” I did understand, too. Quite literally. My knees buckled and I grew dizzy from the altitude. I leaned forward, resting my head on my forearm for a moment.
And then. And then. And then I learned that I have face-blindness. And then that program director walked into my classroom and said, “I have been calling you for the past fifteen minutes.” We both turned and looked at the phone, which was right next to me. The volume was turned up as loud as possible. The kids were working in groups, murmuring to one another, and I had classical music playing quietly in the background.
“I-I don’t know. I just didn’t hear it. Sometimes I have a hard time distinguishing sounds.”
The director, whose daughter had a fairly late autism diagnosis, stared at me a moment, and said, “Okay.”
And then I reached the landing. I was struck with vertigo and sat down, leaning back against the sturdy mountain.
I was panicking. I Googled “autism signs”. And then. And then. And then I knew. It felt like sliding into a refreshing lake after hiking up a steep trail in the peak of summer.
I stayed on that path for a long time, turning over every rock, peeking under every leaf, examining every aspect of my life. Autism.
I began climbing those steps again, slowly at first but gaining speed. There was mica embedded into the stone and the sunlight would flash on it, reflecting back a memory. The way I have spatial locations for numbers and time, like stars in the galaxy.
My hand ran along the bamboo railing and I saw another flash. Why the overlap of Adrian’s voice, Reko’s bark, and the jazz station sounds like a fan blowing on its highest setting.
I lifted my knees high as the steps grew steeper. Flash. My refusal to wear bras. Flash. The moment I come home, I put on my cosy clothes of the softest cotton. Tagless, of course.
I leaned forward and began to pound up the steps, breathing hard. Flash. Why I could never improvise in my jazz piano class. When it was my turn, all I saw was a blank screen that extended forever in every direction. Flash. The time I hooked up with a college friend’s boyfriend because she said she was tired of him talking about me, so could I please just fool around with him to shut him up? All of our friends shunned me afterward, saying I wasn’t actually supposed to do it. But, then why did she ask me to in the first place? Flash. My preference for attending Bug Club meetings (I was the founder and only member) over playing with classmates after school.
Pumping my arms, my feet barely touched the steps. I felt as though I was floating up the staircase as I inhaled those memories and let them fill me up. Flash. How even now, thirty-five years after I coined the phrase in regard to my first dog, I will spontaneously shout, “Slobberdy Goop Handsome!” Flash. My love for thalis. Flash. The quarter-century of eating the same Subway sandwich, put together in a very specific order. Flash. The constant rotation of “Frasier” … with closed captioning. Flash. Why I do this to my french fries:
I was almost there. The landing was in sight. I bounced up and up, springy and free. Flash. Why “Eine Klein Nachtmusik” always elicited images of playing hopscotch, galloping horses, exploding fireworks, and hiking boots skidding on dirt. Flash. Listening exclusively to Radiohead’s “The Bends” from 1999-2004. Flash. Reading Bridge to Terabithia nine times in one summer.
I leapt onto the landing and raised my fists to the sky, breathless, flushed, and giddy. “Why I am not able to ride a bike!” I shouted, shrugging off that torn jacket of shame.
I raced along the path as if sprinting on a track, trying to increase my speed and outrun the years of beration and loathing: the reproached child, the wayward student, the draining partner. There was never anything wrong with me after all.
It was like taking off a pair of someone else’s spectacles and seeing through my own eyes for the first time. And, oh, was the view breathtaking. Everything was suddenly so clear.
And so I began climbing again. I had the energy, I had the discipline, and, most of all, I had the drive. Because see, this wasn’t just about me. What about my marriage? about all of our misunderstandings? I wondered. I suddenly heard footfalls and heavy panting behind me and turned. There was Adrian, who had crossed a bridge from his mountain to mine and was climbing with me.
We reached the next landing together and I held my hand out to Adrian, hoisting him up. As we caught our breath, I asked him if he remembered when, a few years ago, I had read that doing more than two loads of laundry a day could cause the washer to breakdown. I had been distraught because I thought that meant if I did a third load in twenty-four hours, I would damage the washer.
Adrian had then explained to me that there wasn’t actually a limit on the number of loads, just that the guaranteed lifetime of the washer was dependent on average use. More than a couple of loads a day (more than average, in other words) would lead to more wear and tear and to a shorter lifespan, not to the washer immediately breaking down.
I had retorted, “No, that’s not what the article said. How am I supposed to wash all of our sheets in one or two loads? This is impossible!” I had clenched my fists, my face tight. I liked my laundry routine of doing as many loads as I wanted before five o’clock, no exceptions or extensions. How had I not already damaged the washer? I remembered wondering.
We had argued back and forth about that and I had cried from my frustration, from hearing the frustration and impatience flick from his voice and sting me. Why am I always wrong when I am just relaying what I read? It was written by an expert, so how can it be incorrect?
We stood on that mountain landing, gulping in air, when Adrian told me he did recall that conversation. At first we were uncomfortable, standing on the edge, reliving the tension, the stiffness. But then he gave me his sweet, one-cornered smile and we began stretching our sore muscles. I announced in a loud voice, as I reached for my toes, “We just didn’t understand each other. You didn’t realize how literal I am and thought I was being intentionally obtuse. I thought you were being mean. Now, though, we work together.” We grinned at each other before Adrian crossed a bridge back to his mountain — we planned to meet there later for a picnic — and I continued my ascent.
I feel a cool wind lift my hair and look up. The top of that mountain is still far far away. I wonder if any people have ever reached the peaks of their mountains.
I stop mid-flight and turn around on the staircase to appreciate the vista before me, the valleys, the hills, the trails, the scorched land, and the plantlings that have taken root, unfurling in the sun. It is heady stuff, balancing on a precarious stone step, looking how far I have climbed.