TW: This article discusses trauma, including death and school-related incidents.
“What makes a girl start a fire in the hall, leave a lipstick scrawl on the bathroom mirror?” Ezra Furman, a trans singer/songwriter, sings with a tone of desperation and longing on “Trauma” off of her album “12 Nudes.”
I love Ezra’s visceral description of one way in which trauma can manifest itself in a person, however my experience as a autistic trans woman with trauma, has been one that has never quite seemed so clear-cut. When I was younger, the majority of associations I had with the word “trauma” were of individuals who were involved in war, involved in an accident, natural disaster, et cetera.
My father lost his sixteen-year-old sister in a car accident when he was six, and subsequently developed C-PTSD (Complex post-traumatic stress disorder). He still gets a flash of fear in his eyes when I get in the car to drive anywhere. That’s what I thought constituted trauma until I started making friends with other neurodiverse individuals and working with neurodiverse young people at an alternative education school in Western Massachusetts.
I was lucky enough to grow up in rural upstate New York, where the majority of my neighbors and friends were spread out and I had a beautiful tapestry of rolling mountains and pine trees to throw all my wonderful weirdness at. I made my own weekly comic strips that I attempted to “sell” for 25 cents at the natural foods store my mother worked at, I made up skits in my backyard with the hopes of getting on Saturday Night Live one day (although I doubt my precocious eight-year-old self knew what the heck SNL even was, and my bedtime was long before its airtime anyways). I also repeated lines from The Simpsons I had memorized, much to my neurodiverse family’s amusement.
But life at home was completely different from my experience at school. A tidal wave of anxiety and fear started to wash over me in pre-k, and I remember as soon as I entered first grade, suddenly I was disruptive and needed to “sit still” better and stop chewing on my t-shirts. My first grade teacher would scream at me, and one day I broke out in hives from the sheer fear and stress that ravaged my body and mind. I’d get home from a long school day of overstimulation and masking who I really was, and go almost completely nonverbal.
The only relief I got was when I swung upside down on my tire swing outside, often without a shirt on because sensory issues are the bane of my existence, and shirts are overrated. I began to associate school and education with physical feelings of constricted muscles and holding back tears, and a deep emotional longing to be seen, and I mean REALLY seen for who I actually was.
When you begin to fall into a pattern of feeling profound anxiety from 7am until the last bell rings at 4pm, that anxiety tends to accumulate elsewhere. I remember being diagnosed with OCD at a relatively young age, and for me this manifested itself in the form of a repetitive negative mantra, with the declaration “I’m sorry.”
For the life of me, I don’t know what the hell I had to apologize for. I think I was so beaten down by the public education system misunderstanding me and ignoring my needs, that I felt like I could preemptively cover my bases by apologizing for my very existence.
You don’t have to apologize for you, ok? I want you to know that. Make those silly Saturday Night Live skits, swing on your tire swing, and keep talking about your experiences.
I am 24, and I should still probably have some equivalent of a “swear jar” for unnecessary apologies. I’m working on it. Well, more so I’m working on summoning the executive functioning needed to create an “unnecessary apology jar,” but progress is progress.
Sometimes I meltdown. A common trigger is when demands placed on me exceed my capacity on a given day. My processing time is often delayed when I have to follow directions in order to complete a task with multiple, complicated steps. Meltdowns rush over me with the same tidal wave of anxiety and fear I experienced in the first grade, oftentimes complete with my first grade teacher’s voice ringing in my head, adding fuel to the fire. Instead of a fire in the hall, like in Ezra Furman’s song, it’s a fire in my own head. I now recognize that as trauma. I haven’t quite figured out how to silence that voice completely in those moments yet, but I can now give a name to it, and that’s a step in the right direction.
I think many autistic people often have a love/hate relationship with modern psychology. Maybe you are like me in that you checked out the DSM-5 from your local library when you were eight as an attempt to understand your own congealed blob of neurons and synapses, only to find a rat’s nest of pathologizing language, outdated information and misinterpretations of your experience? Maybe you found more clarity and could breathe a sigh of relief? Maybe you still don’t quite know? I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer.
I can sometimes see it in my dad’s eyes when he isn’t sure what he is even feeling. He looks away a lot. I often do the same when I feel ashamed or scared. I don’t believe it’s necessary sometimes that we have a name for a specific emotion that we’re feeling in those moments.
What’s necessary is that we surround ourselves with kindness and compassion and maybe find the nearest tire swing and just swing for a while.
Learn more about Olivia and her music at https://olivianied.com/
If you are experiencing an emergency, contact 911 or go to your nearest emergency department.
Additional Crisis Resources:
988 National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: Dial 988
National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233
The Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
National Domestic Violence Support Crisis Text Line: 741741