When I was a kid I went to a carnival. It was one of those small town carnivals celebrating summer with music, craft tables, the smell of fried food, and games to play for a stuffed animal.
This carnival had a cake walk. It’s a game like musical chairs where people walk around an area until the music stops. If you happened to stop in front of a cake, you got to keep it. All the cakes were homemade and delicious! But, I digress. It wasn’t a time for cake then as you will see as my story progresses.
So, I was taken to this carnival to have a good time, and I really, truly wanted to have fun. For many people carnivals are happy places, and I’m sure they are if you enjoy loud music, lots of people, various smells mixed together, and the heightened, emotionally-fueled atmosphere.
The whole carnival was too much for me. As much as I really wanted to enjoy myself and fit in with the people who brought me – in being excited to go, enjoying my time there, and then talking about the day all the way home – I just did not.
Here’s the kicker though – I tried. I put a smile on my face (or so I thought). I paid attention to the games, I walked for a cake, I tried to do what I saw everyone else doing. I remember wanting the people who took me to be glad they took me. I wanted – for once – to not ‘make waves’ nor be invisible. It was difficult. I was making a huge effort to ‘be normal’, and I was actually happy with my success.
Until… I was taken aside by one of the people who brought me there. The person looked down at me with an angry face and said, “We’ve taken the time and effort to bring you here, at the very least you could pretend you are having fun!” Huh? What? That really threw me because I was doing exactly that! I was pretending to have fun! (Obviously not as well as I thought.)
That moment was a turning point for me. I had known I was different for a long time. I still didn’t know why, but I knew in that moment that it was not something I was going to outgrow. I realized whatever it was that made me different from other people was deep inside me and I was not going to be able to make it go away. I was around 12 years old.
It would be 35 more years before I had a diagnosis. Thirty-five years of not knowing why I was different. That’s a long time to build up defenses against bullying, harden my heart against loss, and to stop believing in myself..
But, that’s not what happened. Somehow I made it through with an inner strength that has served me well, my heart intact – with a deep compassion for people- especially for the underdog – and accomplishing stuff that I find hard to believe. (I’m pretty sure the Imposter Syndrome Monster lives under my bed.)
The best part of getting my diagnosis was finding my tribe. Getting to know other people on the spectrum with the same inner strength, deep compassion, and resolve you only get by striving through hard situations.
In looking back and remembering how I felt as I looked up at the angry face of that person who had so completely misunderstood me and my intentions, I feel for that kid who was me. It’s a healthy thing to do, as long as I don’t stay in that memory for too long I suppose.
I don’t know the end of the story yet, but that kid, and so many other kids like me who were undiagnosed in childhood, we are survivors! So many of us were misunderstood, confused, different, alone, bullied, and had no idea why. It was tough. We have our scars, we have our ‘carnival’ memories, but we also made it!
Now, it’s time for cake!