Dust motes whizzed through a ray of late afternoon sun as I sat. I contemplated their furious energy, abruptly halted as they collided with years of my journals shelved at the end of the sunbeam.
Shabby, mismatched and worn, the assembly of spiral notebooks echoed my own unevenness in life.
I was one of those “promising” high IQ young people that never amounted to much. School inexplicably exhausted me. I missed weeks at a time. More than once my indignant parents fought to keep me enrolled.
My attendance did not improve when I went to college. Inconstant grades plagued me. Only in retrospect did I realize I excelled in classes with take home tests and independent work. I collapsed in timed problem solving exams and group projects.
Sometimes I thought I was losing my mind. In fact, if one could be driven to madness by a physics exam, my experiences with Dr. Stromberg’s Physics 270 would certainly certify me.
I dashed through homework with ease, working harder to amuse teaching assistants than to solve problems. But midway through the first exam, my brain latched onto the sound of the buzzing fluorescent lights. In an instant, the droning lights and institutional urine-yellow of the classroom collapsed upon me, skewing reality.
I became not me.
The world around me prized into my mind; I could not drive it out. Classroom rustling and coughs seemed so immediate I wondered if they emanated from my own person. The bolts on the chair prodded me while the scents of the students around me challenged me to match them to their owners.
The unreality dislodged the problem solver inside me. My mind froze so solidly that I bombed every physics test that semester. Yet, a year later, I topped the class in a complex electromagnetics course.
As dust caromed and settled, I regarded my worn notebooks.
Revisiting me throughout my life, the surreal sensation of the physics exam is more existential than any panic attack. I can best describe it as the inevitability of doom and failure that occurs in certain dreams—the sort of dream where you see death rushing at you.
Imagine standing alone on a sandy beach wondering where the sea went only to spot a mile high tsunami above you. In seconds you will be crushed. Do you sprint for distant safety or tip your head to watch the dark water fall upon you? The bee-like buzz of the classroom lights felt like drops of tsunami water to me.
My notebooks pulled glittery specks toward them.
Would parenthood be a repetition of college or my sketchy part-time work? Would my mothering be as untidy and irregular as my journals? Would I fail, not at some ephemeral exam but in nurturing and shaping a young life?
I took control by imposing order on my journals. My words would not remain trapped on paper or canted on shelves. My words would resound in tidy typeface against a glowing white background. Through the patterns these words wove, I uncovered the great mystery of my life: I am on the autism spectrum.
Eight years have passed and my life is still uneven. Tsunamis abound. But now, when I look up, I see something beautiful. I accept and find worth in my differences. And even when I don’t rejoice, I find more purpose in being a parent and autistic advocate than million physics exams. I stand tall as the water falls.