A shy kid. A sensitive kid.
I knew instinctively, from early childhood on, that I was somehow different from nearly everyone around me. I was perplexed by people, and they, in turn, seemed somewhat perplexed by me.
I was fascinated by them, though. I watched them constantly, everywhere I went. I watched them walking around, making small talk with each other as they passed. I watched their gestures, their easy, spontaneous laughter. I studied their faces, picking apart their features, observing the way they smiled and the way their eyes danced while they talked to each other, sharing some small momentary connection with one another. They were beautiful creatures.
But I wasn’t one of them.
I didn’t know. But I was somehow certain of it.
I made a conscious decision to become one of them. Surely I could do that if I really tried. I was smart enough, and I knew it. I could figure this out with sheer willpower and brain power.
One of the first things I realized by my observations is that people didn’t like smart, though. At least not in girls. My brother was smart and he was practically worshipped. I was three years younger, painfully shy and awkward, and I wanted what he had: an easy air of confidence and the respect and admiration of everyone around him. He deserved it; he was awesome! I wanted it too, and was determined to get it.
Good grades came effortlessly to me. I loved standardized testing days, and looked forward to them all year. School was fairly boring – even with gifted/talented classes – but it gave me plenty of time to observe my peers and try my damnedest to emulate their behaviors. Somehow, though, I always fell short. I still replay my childhood social errors in my head, over and over, and berate myself for being “so stupid.” I had a hard time reconciling the fact that I could be simultaneously intelligent and stupid. And it seemed that people disapproved of me if I displayed either trait. I yearned to be average, yet I liked being smart, because it made me feel competent in a world that was confusing and overwhelming. However, the smarter I appeared, the less people liked me. Well, the teachers liked me….the children, not so much. I made a few good friends over the years who accepted me, guided me, and even came to appreciate my weirdness. The rest of the kids, by and large, treated me with a mixture of mild curiosity and contempt. They called me things like “bookworm,” “geek,” and “schoolie.” They teased me for being horrifically inept at all things phys ed-related, for being “gullible,” and for the way I used to bite my nails and the skin on my fingertips until they were raw and bloody.
I kept trying though. Oh, lord, did I try to fit in. I’d choose a girl I admired – a cool, confident girl – and try to become her. I’d emulate everything from her clothing to her mannerisms and speech. I made an effort to tone down my use of big words while speaking to peers. It was almost physically painful to do so. In class, I knew just about every answer to the teacher’s questions, but I made a “rule” for myself: I could only raise my hand for every 6th question. I spent my school days sitting at my desk, daydreaming, humming tunes to myself, watching kids and counting questions, sitting on my hand to avoid it automatically shooting into the air with each of the teacher’s queries.
I had the typical “pedantic speech” of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome, a true “little professor.” At age one, I could speak in full sentences, yet I did not walk until 17 months. My mother said she thought I could have walked earlier, but I just too stubborn and scared to try (yep, that sounds about right). Even as a baby, I was not comfortable with change or trying new things. I ate basically NOTHING, which was a major source of contention in our family throughout my childhood. I knew that my “picky” eating habits (which I now know is actually an eating disorder called Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) were causing my parents to tear their hair out. I was also keenly aware that my entire extended family was raising their collective eyebrows and wondering why my parents weren’t force-feeding me ham or the assortment of terrifying, mayonnaise-laden salads at holiday parties. I wanted to please my family so much, but it wasn’t enough to make me overcome my significant sensory issues and try new foods. Still, to this day, my diet is quite limited. I basically survive on assorted cheeses. My eating habits have only improved marginally since I was that little girl feeling disapproval every time I couldn’t eat what was served for dinner.
My childhood wasn’t all bad. In fact, in many ways, it was great. I may have been different, but I was definitely loved. My parents were unknowingly doing all the right things: consistency, schedules, and routines were big in my family. My social life may have been tumultuous, but I had stability and support at home. Dinner was at 5:00 pm sharp every single day. My mother was a stay-at-home mom, and kept a nice, tidy home. She and I were close. I think she was unsure how to handle my intense sensitivity and frequent emotional outbursts, but she understood me in a way that no one else could. I think she is somewhat of a “dreamer” herself.
Things completely fell apart when my parents got divorced, right at the time I was approaching adolescence, when the social stakes get higher. I needed support more than ever before, and there was none to be found. I’m not sure I would have made it through middle school without the help of a very supportive guidance counselor. I felt….simply lost. I didn’t know exactly who I was yet, but I knew without a doubt that I was a failure. A defective person. I had tried SO HARD to be like everyone else, and I had failed. Effort and intellect weren’t enough.
It all came to a head at age 14, when I made the decision I had been seriously considering for four years. I decided to kill myself.
I rummaged through our medicine cabinet and found several bottles of prescription pills. One said in bold capital letters: “DO NOT TAKE WITH ALCOHOL.” “Perfect,” I thought, as I raided the liquor cabinet, took out my mom’s signature bottle of store-brand Light Vodka, and mixed it with orange soda pop. I brought all my supplies up to my room, and shook the pills out into three neat piles on the white dresser that used to reside in my pepto-pink little girl bedroom, but was now in a run-down house owned by my mom’s second husband.
Before I started popping the pills in groups of threes and washing them down with swigs of my vodka drink, I set my alarm clock for 6:30 AM. I thought that if this suicide attempt didn’t work, I’d better be prepared to get up and go to school in the morning, just like any other weekday. As silly as that action sounds….it saved my life. The next morning, my brother heard my alarm blaring incessantly and found me in bed, unconscious. The doctors later told my mom that if I hadn’t been found when I was, I wouldn’t have made it. Thank goodness for my compulsion for routines!
I’ve come a long, long way since that incident. That was my darkest moment, and although there were many other dark times in my life after that, they paled in comparison to that singular act of complete desperation and despair at age 14. Still, I didn’t quite find myself until I was 32…
You see, I’d had a daughter, and she was like me. She was different too.
She was a weird kid.
A sensitive kid.
Her eyes shone bright like sunbeams. She was different, yes, but in a magnificent, magical way. And I saw myself in her.
I found myself through her.
We dream together now.
"Amber Appleton Torres" is a stay at home mother of three, the eldest two of whom are diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. After their diagnoses, she realized she is on the spectrum as well, and got her own Asperger's diagnosis. She blogs about her family's journey at https://onebigaspiefamily.wordpress.com/