Face-Blindness in Autism

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

“Everyone knows Jeannie; she just doesn’t know them.”

That was the common phrase I heard in high school. A constant stream of hugs, smiles, and waves filled my days. I never understood how so many people who I didn’t know, knew me.

Prosopagnosia, also known as “facial agnosia” or “face-blindness,” is a neurological disorder that makes facial recognition difficult or impossible. Two thirds of autistic children and adults have some degree of face-blindness. I live among those numbers.

Do I know you? That is the question that runs through my head when someone I don’t recognize approaches me in public. They call me by name, ask about my children, my parents, and my work—I know I should know this person, but I do not.

When my husband and I were first married we attended a very large church in Brooklyn, NY where I often spoke to people having no idea who they were. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. I just figured that in such a large church I never ran into the same person twice.

Being greeted by hugs and kisses from strangers has always made me uncomfortable; I don’t like to be touched. To add to my discomfort the odd looks these strangers gave me when I introduced myself was unnerving. When people approached us to talk, I assumed that my husband knew them. We talked for a while, they left, and my husband would say, “You know them, I introduced you last week.” You did?

I met the same people at church, each Sunday, talked with them, and still did not recognize them the following week. It’s no wonder they looked at me like I was a lunatic when I introduced myself, yet again.

When the same scene played itself out over and over, I began to believe what I had been told my entire life. I was a lazy, absent-minded, self-absorbed air-head, who didn’t care enough about people to remember them. Or—I was stuck up, obnoxious, too good for anyone, and just ignored people; nothing could have been further from the truth.

The first time I read about Face-blindness, I was stunned. I had another one of those “ah ha” moments. The moments were I had to look back at my life with new eyes, evaluating it through the lens of Autism.

It took 38 years for me to be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), a form of high functioning Autism—38 years of confusing experiences.

When I was a child AS was not a known diagnosis in the United States. Although, well-known in Europe for more than twenty years at the time, it only became a viable diagnosis in the U.S. in 1994; three years after I was out of high school, and two years after I’d dropped out of college the first time around.

What is wrong with me? Why do I have trouble recognizing faces?

We do not see with our eyes, we “see” with our brains. All of us—with or without Autism see with our brains. Our eyes take in a snapshot but it is our brains that process all the information in the photo. It makes sense of all the patterns, categorizes them, and stores them for later use (recognition).

I fail to recognize familiar faces, but I never fail to recognize a tree, or a cat, or the shapes of clouds. Why?

A number of theories have arisen to answer this question. Maybe because we tend to not look people in the eye, or focus on their faces, we have a hard time remembering them. It is said that autistics tend to be socially uninterested—that we don’t care enough to remember people.

Could it be an issue of weak central coherence?

Those with weak central coherence tend to focus on details but lose track of, or don’t perceive the whole. A tendency to focus on minute details, a portion of the face or specific feature, without taking in the whole picture could be partially responsible for many autistics having have difficulty with facial recognition. All of these theories seem viable; however, I believe there is more to it than that.

Facial recognition is isolated in the right temporal lobe in the “fusiform face area.” Non-facial recognition happens on the left side of the brain. In other words, all other details, pieces, and patterns are processed on the left side of the brain.

Why does this matter? Autistics tend to do fairly well on pattern recognition tests—significantly better than their neuro-typical counterparts, but do poorly on facial recognition tests. The opposite is true for neuro-typical people who perform very well on facial recognition test, but do poorly in pattern recognition. In the autistic brain it seems that the “fusiform face area” does not function the way other people’s do. This could explain why I wouldn’t recognize you if you stood on your head—or would I?

Tests showed that autistics were able to recognize faces that they viewed upside down. Researchers found that the circuitry that recognizes faces only works on faces that are right side up. Upside down faces are routed to the left side of the brain to be processed like any other image. The upside down faces processed like patterns, and autistics recognized those facial patterns.

How did you know it was me?” a friend asked pulling her mask from her face.

Costume parties, for me, are like any other social gathering. If I knew you well, I recognized you. It did not matter what you used to cover your face. I recognized the contour of my friend’s hands, her ring, the shoes we bought at the mall that summer, the way she stood, and swished her head back and forth when she talked. I spotted her from across the room, without hearing her say a word, or knowing what costume she was wearing.

Most people rely on facial features to recognize someone they know. I’ve always wondered why bank robbers wore ski masks, but did not disguise the rest of the body. And it was ridiculous that in superhero movies no one recognized their loved ones because they wore a mask over their face. Don’t all people rely on other details to recognize people they know?

When I think of my brother, I can form a mental picture of his face in my mind. I have no problem recognizing people who I know well. But I can also bring up just as sharp mental picture of his hands, or the way he has this one thick vein that rolls back and forth over his wrist bone. My oldest brother has hands exactly like my mother’s, my father’s hands look exactly like his fathers, and my son’s feet are very similar to my youngest brother’s feet. I would recognize the way the hair lies across my husband’s arms, and would recognize him even if he wore a mask. These details are as vivid as any face I can recall.

For several years I worked in prisons. My co-workers often wore uniforms, and were stationed at the same posts day after day. On a daily basis, I recognized them, said hello, knew their names—but if I saw them outside work, I did not recognize them. If their uniform was off, or they were not where they should be (at their post), then I did not recognize them. I processed the whole situation—the person, in uniform, sitting behind that desk. I was not processing the person’s face. Place this same person in the supermarket, at the post office, or in the school cafeteria eating with their children, and I do not recognize them at all.

Many people have had the experience of seeing someone, and not being able to “place” their face; they the person who stands before them from somewhere, but can’t remember where. Or, they know the face and cannot recall a name. I too, have had these types of experiences with those that I have had contact with often enough to recognize something about them. But—more often than not, I simple do not recognize them at all. There is no inkling of familiarity, no spark of recognition; it is as if I am staring into the face of a complete and total stranger.

Depression and Asperger’s Syndrome

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

Children and adults on the autism spectrum are prone to depression—I certainly am. Research has shown that nearly 65% of people with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome present with symptoms of depression. The depression usually develops in late adolescence and early adulthood.  This comes as no surprise to me. Those are the years that social interaction and life demands change rapidly and can often overwhelm us.

Due to the inability to express our emotions or communicate feelings of disturbance, anxiety or distress verbally, depression is often missed until it is so severe that it hinders our ability to function. I faxed my doctor a list of symptoms because I could not verbalize them when I was in his presence. I thought I had found a way to express my emotional state—through the written word, but he thought that made me a little crazy.

An autistic person with depression may not “appear” depressed to a physician that only see them once every couple of months due their impairment in non-verbal expression. My medical records are filled with this two word comment: Inappropriate affect.

Inappropriate affect is when a person is saying one thing with their words but their facial expressions, or body language is conveying a different story.  When I finally found my words and was able to explain my feelings of depression and despair, apparently I did so smiling.  I was unaware that I was smiling; it certainly was not a smile of happiness—more likely it was anxiety slipping past my facade.  When I am anxious I tend to smile, and make jokes (most of which no-one else in the room seems to “get”).

Many physicians commented that I conveyed happy events looking gloomy, and I conveyed very troubling events and feelings that “would bother most other people,” but I was “cheerful, almost giddy.” The particular physician who wrote this comment in my records determined that I was simply lying. That because my affect was inappropriate, it was a sign that I was being untruthful—nothing could have been further from the truth.

A minimum of four physicians, one general practitioner, two psychiatrists, and a neurologist, noted that I displayed inappropriate affect consistently, and none of them put the pieces of my puzzle together. The general practitioner sent me for a psych evaluation, the first psychiatrist decided I had major depression and panic anxiety disorder (by this time I most certainly did), the second psychiatrist determined I was a liar, and the neurologist—that I was crazy and my sensory processing issues were “all in my head.”

It is no wonder that I had tears of relief to find out, finally, the truth—to discover an explanation, a diagnosis that explained not one or two of my symptoms or behaviours but ALL of them.  Finally, someone saw me.

Despite my feelings of relief at receiving a proper diagnosis, depression began to set in. The thoughts of all the needless pain, all the missed opportunities, all the things if only I’d known I could have done differently were hard to banish.

The difference this time was that the depression did not stay very long. I rapidly found a way to communicate with other people like me—with other autistic adults.

I had never been a big fan of online communications, did not have a Facebook page or Twitter account, and had very little use for technology like smart phones—but now I am ruined.  The communities and friendships that I have found online with other autistic adults helped me move quickly from depression to learning to accept my “condition.”

The more I learned about autism, the more I needed to know. I researched, and read—a lot. Then I began to write. Writing—being able to communicate what I could never say with my spoken words has been a freeing and exhilarating experience.

Writing is my form of communication. I may not call someone on the telephone; I cannot stand to talk on the phone. I may not visit, make play dates, or organize night’s out with friends, but I will, if they are willing—write. I will write messages, emails, and chat online—it is the easiest most honest way for me to communicate with the world.

Days This Bright Should not be this Sad

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

I was born here, and part of me died here. The haunting echoes of my childhood lingered in the halls. I could hear it; run from it. I bit my trembling bottom lip determined to hold back the tears.

My stomach tightened when I looked at the empty rooms, my vanquished memories. The ones I’d thrust off to someplace new. Away from where the air was infused with freshly baked semolina from the bakery up the street. Where lunch was routinely a Sicilian slice from the pizzeria around the corner, or thinly sliced prosciutto and fresh mozzarella still hot from the vat, spread across crisp Italian bread. There would be no salmerias or delis in the Mississippi delta—no fresh baked cookies, Italian pastries or ices in the summertime.

I took a last look at the two-story brick house I’d grown up in, and the children running through the open Johnny pump, and then at the taxi waiting at the curb. The baby wiggled in my arms, as if he knew more than I at only eight weeks of age. One tear escaped from my eye.

Grandpa had stood in the same place that I did, in the shade of the dogwood tree. He’d worn a smile from ear to ear when he overheard the news. Three weeks later he was gone. I tucked a sonogram picture into his pocket as he slept in his mahogany casket. That was the beginning of the end.

My arms trembled as I looked up at the dogwood tree—my tree. Grandpa planted that tree ten years earlier, right in front of the house. He tore up the patch of concrete himself and then built a white fence around his gift. “See, a tree can grow in Brooklyn,” he said when he showed it to me.

My husband’s arm wrapped around my shoulder, “You ready to go?”

I nodded, and then watched him put the last of the suitcases in the back of the cab. The sounds of soft sobs drew closer behind me. My breath caught in her throat. I couldn’t speak, my chest hurt, and my feet felt cemented to the stoop.

My father’s tears always turned his eyes the brightest of blues. That day my eyes were gray. I knew I had to do this; a new life awaited us—a new job, a new house a new baby, a new place. It was my idea after all.

The sun shone through the trees; days this bright should not be so sad. Deep breaths, I can do this, I can say good-bye to this place.

“Jeannie, we’re going to miss our flight.”

Proprioception and autism

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

So why can I not keep my feet underneath me, or apply the correct amount of pressure when lifting an object? Why do I walk into a room like an elephant in a china shop, or send the milk contain flying across the room when it is too light?  In a word—proprioception.

What is proprioception?

Proprioception refers to one’s own perceptions. It an unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation controlled by nerves within the body.

Our proprioceptive system allows us to locate our bodies in space, to be aware of where  our arms and legs are in relation to one another, as well as, where they begin and where they end. Proprioception helps us perceive the outside world, telling us whether our bodies are moving or sitting still.

This system helps us perceive the amount of force needed to complete a task, and then allows us to apply it appropriately. It helps us measure and perceive distances, allowing us to move through our world without crashing into everything around us.

Child and adults with autism often have difficulty with proprioception and very well may just be the thing that goes bump in the night…and the day, and at work, and in the streets. Poor proprioception may likely be responsible for those many bruises, skinned knees, and torn stockings that plague our days.

It can be difficult to explain how we, those with Asperger’s Syndrome/Autism, can be so clumbsy in our day to day activites, but so adept when we are intently focused.  I spent a great deal of my life dancing. I could dance with the grace of a swan, and fall down steps on my way off the stage.

I believe the difference is the intensity of our focus.  We can, for a short period of time, intensely focus on crossing a balance beam get to the other side. However, it is impossible to sustain that level of focus in all our activities 24 hours per day. I am sure that I would never fall down again, if I could focus on every step I took to the exclusion of every thing else—with no distractions and no interuptions.

While a “normal” person unconsciously perceives and is aware of each step they take, an autistic person must think about and focus consciously to perceive what comes naturally to others.

Adult Autism Hurts

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

 

Childhood was fleeting. I’d entered the adult world, but try as I might to tread water the current continued to pull me under. The world around me was changing—swiftly.  Old friends were growing, beginning careers, and starting families while I floundered. Everyone had a direction, a dream, a focus—not me. I seemed to tumble where the wind tossed me, never truly recovering before the next gust sent me sailing again.

Yes—adult autism hurts.

It hurt when I raced to my car to make my next class, and lost my footing, tumbling down the side of a grassy hill, right after it rained, and rose covered with mud dripping from my hair. I was a real sight in my next class; that was memorable entrance.

It hurt when my high-heel got wedged in between the elevator shaft, and the elevator platform causing me to nearly break my leg and get hit in the head with the closing door on my way down to the floor. I worked the rest of that day with a limp, broken shoe, and torn stockings.

It hurt when I fell into the only hole in the street, the one everyone else slid over with ease. And when I slipped on the black ice and landed under the parked car.

It was painful when I took one step, and then tumbled end over end down half a flight of stairs and somehow ended up with both legs up on the wall. It is a good thing that townhouse was carpeted, it cushioned my fall.

I was not as lucky when I tripped over my own feet in front of my Brooklyn apartment, and flew down the concrete steps. The only thing that saved my face was the cheesecake it landed in.

Adult autism burned when I pulled my coffee mug out of the microwave, applying a little too much strength, and sent the scolding liquid raining down on top of me—or worse the times when my fingers failed to hold on to the mug altogether and it crashes into kitchen wall.

It hurt when I misjudged the weight of the door entering the deli up the street, and I crashed face-first into the glass, and when I pulled at the pizzeria door a little too hard sending myself sailing backwards.

It  hurt when my butt hit the floor and my groceries spilled out all over the sidewalk. Or, when I pulled at the cabinet door in my kitchen too hard smacking myself in the head with it.

It hurt last summer when I fell face first into a one foot kiddy pool on vacation—holding my son.

But most of all—as an adult with autism, it hurts to feel completely and utterly alone.

Damn That Shiny Armor

I was never more myself than when I was six years old—a lively little girl who talked too much, knew too much, spun round and round, and ripped her clothes off to run naked through the streets in comfort. She was still rigid and literal-minded, misunderstanding the world of people around her, but she didn’t notice. She was carefree—free to be herself.

Memories are marked with odd, quirky, stimming behaviors, but they too were just an expression of herself; the way she saw the world, and did things. That little girl knew what she needed, wanted, and what was comforting to her. The young woman I was becoming could not make the same boast. I was rattled and confused.

Adolescence crept up on me, bound and gagged me when I wasn’t looking. Adulthood threatened to choke the life from my soul. Much of my happy stimming behaviors were replaced with mind numbing alcohol. My intelligence was not being fed, and my self-worth began to rely on whose attention I attracted. I was on a downward spiral into the abyss of uncertainty.

I was a weird child, but adults accept even weird children. A weird adult, most especially a woman, no-one accepts—not really.

I married when I was twenty-three years old, and by that time believe me when I tell you I felt OLD, way past the age when I felt my life should have already began and hadn’t yet. While my friends were finishing up college degrees, or beginning their careers and settling into lives of their own, I was still floundering around trying to find something that fit me—but nothing fit me.

When I first met my husband, I was attending a large church in Brooklyn. It was a Tuesday night in May of 1995. I know because I had just finished taking my physical for the New York City Police Department, and had gone directly to the Tuesday night prayer meeting at church. It had been a long day; I had said many many prayers to get me through that physical exam. Everyone should go to church sweaty in a t-shirt and stretchies.

On our way out of the building I saw him, I don’t remember very much else about what was going on around me—damn that shiny armor; here we go again.

He was the complete opposite of me. Dark eyes to contrast my blue eyes, brown hair starkly different than my light blonde, his nose and were lips full, mine pointed and thin, and his olive skin made my marshmallow complexion glow. I don’t know how we met really, I just remember looking at him. He was talking; I wasn’t listening.

When it was time to leave I offered him a ride home in a car that a student of mine lent me for the week. I was working at Arthur Murray Dance Studios in Manhattan at the time, but was getting ready to leave that job because the next police academy class would be beginning in the end of June. Law enforcement, police work, forensics, investigations—that was where my interest really lied, where my heart always laid.

Maybe it was the idea of justice, that naïve belief in the system—good vs. evil; right vs. wrong. That has always been at the core of my being, a passionate morality, a clear distinction between right and wrong; where lines were crisp, and there were no shady grey areas.

He accepted my ride home versus making the long trek from church to his apartment. I am proud to report that he was nothing but a gentleman, and in fact, would you believe he got out of the car, thanked me for the ride, said good-night, and began to walk away from the car! What?

I sat there slightly shell-shocked.

Beep, Beep. B-b-beep. BEEP.

He hadn’t expected me to start honking that horn.

The Autistic College Student and Executive Dysfunction

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

My first semester at John Jay College of Criminal Justice went as smoothly as I could expect. I had no problems with the academics and had straight A’s across the board—easy peasy. But what I did not have was any college friends. For the most part I didn’t mind, I was living back at home after joining another family didn’t work out, and I worked two jobs. Life was busy, and that hid the fact that I was alone.

A full course load at John Jay only took up two weekdays. The remaining three I spent working as a bank teller. On the weekends I worked at catering hall as a cocktail waitress.  I was determined to not have to live back home for very long.

I had trouble staying focused and interested. I majored in Forensic Science, but Chemistry didn’t hold my interest.  So I transferred to St. John’s University in Staten Island where I took several English and creative writing and psychology classes.

Girls all around me where pledging for sororities.  They walked in groups, ate lunch together, and basically kept away from me. I only attracted the attention of boys, this act I already had down pat. Despite the attention I focused on my studies, but St. John’s only outlasted John Jay by one semester.

St. John’s was also a bigger challenge than John Jay. Not because of the academics, because I found the coursework to be more difficult at John Jay, but because the campus was larger. I had a recurrence of my first experience with junior high school and place-blindness.  The additional stress from constantly being lost and late for class contributed to my dropping out of college after a total of three semesters. My brain was perpetually overloaded.

Although, I managed to keep straight A’s during these semesters, it took so much work on my part that I was completely and utterly burned out. The course load and my growing responsibilities overcame me. I could not keep two thoughts together in a row in my mind.

Part of what made college so exhausting was my proneness to get lost in the details. One detail of a lesson, lecture, assignment, or test question would grab my focus and I would lose sight of the whole picture. If one word was wrong in a sentence or oddly placed, I was so consumed by that one small detail that I completely lost sight of what the text said making me have to go back and re-read the entire thing. I could not stay focused.

I suspect that my autism bubbled up to the surface highlighting many of the core deficits that those with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) share. I clearly had severe deficits with Theory of Mind, but college life made my weak central coherence and executive dysfunction noticeable.

Central coherence is the ability to focus on both details as well as wholes. People with autism appear to have a heightened focus on details rather than wholes, a cognitive style termed ‘weak central coherence’. Compounding the problem was my inability to complete tasks, stick with a plan, and work towards a long term goal. I struggled with the sequencing needed to complete the more complex tasks that working your way through college required—an example of executive dysfunction.

Executive function pertains to the way in which people monitor and control their thoughts and actions, which includes processes like working memory, planning, cognitive flexibility, and inhibitory control. Executive function is responsible for your skills and ability to goal, plan, sequence, prioritize, organize, initiate, inhibit, pace, shift, self-monitor, emotional control, and completing.

When a person with autism is experience executive dysfunction, they experience impairment or deficits in the higher-order processes that enable us to plan, sequence, initiate, and sustain our behaviors towards some goal, incorporating feedback and making adjustments along the way.  My constant failure to complete was evident in everything I tried to accomplish.  It spilled over from my school life, to my personal life, and right into my adult working life.

I had tremendous difficulty trying to figure out what was wrong with me, why I could never seem to finish anything I started.  Shifting activities was a challenge, and I was terrible at pacing myself.  I had two speeds—full speed ahead, and stop; there was never anything in between—all or nothing.

My father thought my going to college was stupid; that I was wasting my time and his money only to learn nonsense. He said all I needed was street smarts of which I had none, and college was not going to teach me that. Maybe he saw the dysfunction that I did not, or maybe he saw something that he could not describe. But maybe he could have described me as something other than—stupid.

Going to college was stupid; I was stupid; all my ideas, thoughts, and dreams were stupid, and something to be mocked, something to be laughed at—a joke.   A joke that I did not think it was funny.

Financial aid didn’t cover the additional tuition expenses that transferring to St. John’s University brought, so in addition to my aid, and loans, I needed my father to sign for a parent’s loan. He did for the first semester, whining and complaining how it was a waste of time. But after that he refused and if I wanted to continue the finances were my problem.

He never repaid that parent loan, and a few years later the IRS confiscated his income tax return to repay the debt. Would you believe my mother brought it up again—21 years later? Remarking how I wasted money on something I never finished.

Being a college failure, and now a drop-out, I was thrust into the adult working world.  Surely, with my intelligence, and bubbly smile I would be successful there.

Love or Obsession: When a Person Becomes an Aspie’s Special Interest

 

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

 

According to the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s Syndrome (AS), having an “encompassing preoccupation with one or more stereotyped and restricted patterns of interest that is abnormal either in intensity or focus” is a core symptom of AS.

I’ve had many special interests/preoccupations/passions/obsessions through the years beginning as young as three years old. My three year old self was completely preoccupied with baseball; my fifteen year old self—boys, or more precisely a boy.

That is not an unusual preoccupation for a fifteen year old girl, but what we need to look at is the intensity and focus. When focused on an interest or area to the exclusion of everything else, and everyone else in your life, is this not considered obsession? For the autistic person our obsessions and passions are soothing, calming, a place to hide, decompress, regenerate—a place of quiet peace. But what happens when your special interest your obsession is a person?

Love can be joyous and healthy but obsession can be seen as unwanted attention, smothering affection, and in the extreme…stalking. To make matters worse, the mind-blind teenager will usually never know if she steps over this line. How much is too much exactly?

The first few months were perfect. We cruised the neighborhood with the windows down, wind in my hair—and his, which was possibly longer than my own. My friends faded into the background of my mind, nothing else mattered, no-one else existed. I was in my one friend, one person allowed in my life at a time mode—other people were far from my thoughts.

I went to school—ok to the candy store, went to work, and hopped into this car at night to drive around. I wanted to stay roaming the neighborhoods like that all night long, but he needed to meet his friends. Every night around eleven o’clock he dropped me off at home and left to hang out with the guys.

At first I tried to be accommodating, to make him happy. I needed to be home before midnight or my father would flip out anyway I told myself. But as time went on it became harder, and harder to let go—to understand this strange need for his friends. Why not just stay hanging out with me? What was wrong with me? I began to take it personally, not understanding that others may have feelings and needs different than my own. I couldn’t see it; I couldn’t understand it; his behavior made no sense to me.

“If you loved me, you’d stay!”

On New Year’s Eve we had a fight. He didn’t stay. I called and left messages on his voicemail like a crazy stalker, hung-up and redialed again. The return calls never came. What did I do?

For the next few months I could think of nothing else.

He wouldn’t even speak to me, giving me no reason at all.

I began dating someone else, just to keep my mind off things and keep myself occupied. Make no mistake about it; he knew all about my obsession with my ex-boyfriend, and how I desperately wanted him to dance with me at my sweet sixteen. Why that boy hung around me I’ll never know.

It had never occurred to me that I was hurting someone’s feelings, how could I if I was truthful with them? He knew that if my ex showed up at my Sweet Sixteen party, that it would be the end of things. I told him I would let him dance with me on my birthday if you know who doesn’t show up. I was still holding out hope. I’d invited him, and I thought maybe just maybe he would show-up and surprise me—and he did.

The night was a blur after that, we were back together and that is how it would always be, wouldn’t it? I’d never considered any other scenario in my head—ever.

These relations were all encompassing; I wanted to spend every free moment together and assumed that he wanted that too.

The Flying Christmas Fork

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

My father finally grew tired of my embarrassing behavior. Every time he took me somewhere I refused to eat unless I smelled it first, which didn’t guarantee I would eat it, and I sure was not going to try it. More of often than not I wrinkled my nose, turned away, and pronounced, “I’m not eating that!”

I wasn’t trying to be difficult, or rude. I didn’t even comprehend those ideas. I had no idea that my behaviors could hurt someone’s feeling, why would it? My intention was never to make anyone feel bad. It had nothing to do them; it was just that stinky food.

Every Christmas Eve my parents packed us in the car to Aunt Jenny and Uncle Eddie’s house for dinner. Uncle Eddie was my grandfather’s youngest brother. It was a short car ride; he only lived seven blocks from our house.

“You are going to eat whatever Aunt Jenny gives you,” my father announced on our way there. “Do you understand me?”

I said nothing, but the ball that was bouncing around inside of my belly got bigger. There were often many stinky things on the table like artichoke hearts. What if she gives me artichoke hearts? If I don’t eat them Dad will be mad.

Aunt Jenny’s table was set with a red table cloth, fine white china trimmed in gold with matching golden utensils. Napkins the color of Christmas spruce were rolled inside golden leaved holders. Ivory candles rose from holy leaves in the center of the table.

The kids table was set up in the center of the living in front of the Christmas tree. The plastic table cloth had pictures of Santa, reindeers, and elves. There was an assortment of candies in small bowls in the center. The plates were paper, and the utensils plastic.

I never liked sitting at the kids table. Not because I didn’t like the table, but because I would have to sit with the other kids. Kids I did not recognize, even though they always seemed to know me. “Cousins,” is what my grandmother called them, but to me they were strangers. I preferred to sit at the grown-up table.

The strange cousins ran around screeching and laughing as they went by while I sat near the tree worrying about when it would be time for dinner. This time I wanted to sit at the kids table.

Father had me sit right next to him, something he never insisted upon. A heaping load of steaming lasagna was slid onto my plate. Sauce oozed down the sides of the pasta, cheesy strings of mozzarella hung off the sides of the plate. I was able to breathe at last. I could eat that; I liked lasagna.

After waiting for my lasagna to cool down I scooped some up with my fork, brought it to my nose and took a deep breath—breathing in the smells of fresh basil, tomatoes, cheese—

It felt like an explosion. My breath caught in my throat, tears filled my eyes. My hand stung. The fork flew through the air, across the table, and landed with a resounding clank splattering sauce on the table.

“Joseph! What the hell is wrong with you?” Grandma yelled.

“She is going to eat whatever is put in front of her,” he said.

My chest quivered with each sob that started coming out of my mouth. The table burst into shouts and commotion.

“Joe, calm down,” Aunt Jenny said, “it’s alright, she doesn’t have to eat it.”

But it wasn’t alright, it was never alright again. From that night on, every time I smelled my food before eating, which was every time I ate, in front of my father he smacked the food out of my hands. “Just eat it!” He said.

The more he tried to smack the habit of smelling my food out of me, the more I needed to smell it. Eventually, I became immune to the smacks.

School was a Minefield

An except from Twirling Naked in the Streets and No-One Noticed…

 

“She was the last one in school, and the last one out. She made the whole class wait for her every day.” ~ Mom

I was late every day because my alien leaders, the ones that dropped me off at my mother’s house when I was born, didn’t give her an instruction manual—and she was not a fast learner. We continued to struggle over what I would wear, and what I would eat, which was usually nothing. I didn’t sleep well either so I was hard to wake in the morning, but much easier to wake than her.

School nights didn’t mean much in my house; my parents liked to party. My brother and I stayed in their bedroom to go to sleep while aunts, uncles and friends played loud music, drank, smoked, and played cards.

I tried to sleep curled up in a ball under the covers cupping my hands over my ears trying desperately to drown out the noise. The smell of cigarette smoke and beer made mye stomach sick and my eyes tear.

In the morning, navigating the sea of sleeping bodies sprawled out across the living room carpet surrounded by empty beer bottles, and half spilled over ashtrays brought on the vomit. Vomit brought on the screaming.

My screaming was because even then I hated to vomit; although I should have been used to it, and my mother’s screaming because now there was a mess to clean up. Now? There was a mess to begin with! Vomit was hard to get out of mustard-colored shag carpet.

Mornings sucked, school sucked, and we were late. At least I no longer needed to go see Mr. Hiler for a late pass; he was liar.

I was never in a rush; that much is true, but I certainly did not intentionally make the whole class late coming out of school every day—not intentionally.

The end of the school day was always the same.

“Pack your things, and line-up.”

Line-up I had down. I was number three; Toni was number one, Laura was number two, then me, and Shayne was number four. Line-up: check. It was the pack your things part, the part that needed to be done before line-up that was the problem.

My desk was a wreck. The small space inside the metal-framed desk reserved for books was jam packed with my things. Papers were shoved inside, crumbled and torn. Pencils fell to the floor when I pulled on something I thought I needed to pack up, and was followed by an avalanche of debris that scattered across the floor making my head spin.

The mess, the chaos, and the lack of things having their own place made me feel sick. My brain ceased to work; I ceased to respond. I just stood there staring at the mess that I had no idea how to begin to clean up.

“We are not leaving until Jeannie cleans up this mess and packs her things.”

I froze. There is that word again—things.

I made several attempts throughout the year to pack-up my things. All of them were wrong. I never arrived home with any of my textbooks, and couldn’t do my homework. I spend the nights crying because my homework wasn’t done, and the morning being screamed at because my homework wasn’t done.

Going to school without my homework meant writing, I must do my homework, twenty times on the blackboard. I longed for the end of the day; longed to be out of the clutches of the classroom.

“Jeannie, pack up your things,” the dreaded words seemed to echo throughout the room.

The whole class grumbled while I stood there staring blankly at my desk. They knew we were not leaving until I got my things together. The mother’s waiting outside would be angry and grumbling that everyone always had to wait for me.

“If someone doesn’t help Jeannie pack her things, we are going to stay here all day.” Ms. Montouri said.

I didn’t know what to pack.

Shayne, number four, rushed over to help. He helped me shove everything into my book bag, and slung it over his shoulder. Shayne wanted to go home.

From that day on Shayne helped me pack, or rather he packed my things for me. Actually he packed everything, and carried it because then it was heavy and I couldn’t lift it. I had to drag the book bag along, slowly.

When Shayne packed my book bag, I was able to do my homework. He packed the textbooks; I never did. The teacher told me to pack my things. The textbooks did not belong to me; they were not mine. They could never be my things; they were their things.

School work was easy, but navigating the school day without stepping on a landmine was not.