TW: This story contains metaphorical images of self harm that may trigger some people. They are fictional and very brief, but please proceed with care.
At six I was labelled, put in a little box with big black lettering that said ‘Strange. Handle With Care’. The box was taped shut over my small, pony-tailed head, and no matter what shape I contorted myself into, I couldn’t get out. There were other labels on the box, some smaller (scrawny, knobbly knees), some brightly-coloured (bright, excellent reader), some hastily scribbled and almost illegible, easily erased (Year One), and some branded into the side so they could never be removed, only papered over: GIRL.
At eight the bright colours were covered with an official stamp: INTELLIGENT. With it came others, scrawled over every surface in clumsy red letters: NERD. GEEK. LOSER. I scratched desperately at the red bleeding through the cardboard, but it was there, in permanent marker, indelible and invulnerable. I turned my back on them, and poked a hole in GIRL. For a moment, I felt hope. Until the brand came down again, burning the label over and over into every side of my little prison. I stopped poking. I feared that if I didn’t, the label would be branded right into my skin.
Each year the box changed, some labels rubbed away or written over, some refreshed with new lettering. I tried to decipher them, tried to discern where they came from, but no matter how hard I stared, no matter how hard I scratched at them or studied them, they remained insoluble, indecipherable. I looked at the labels on food packages, so clear and neat, telling buyers what was inside, and how much, and where it came from. Where were my ingredients? STRANGE was not an ingredient. Nor was FREAK or LOSER or GIRL. So why were they plastered over my packaging for everyone to see? I started to search for my Nutritional Information, but there was no Google then. I did the best I could.
At fifteen, I found a clue. Asperger’s. I couldn’t find a full list of ingredients, but what I did find looked like mine, looked like me. Asperger’s had the same labels slapped over its box as well, but underneath, there were other words, words that explained who I was. For the first time, I started to peel the tape off my box. I freed an arm, enough to start ripping at the labels on the side. I mentioned it to my parents. They said I couldn’t have those ingredients. I crawled back into my box and shut the lid behind me.
At sixteen, I read through all the labels I’d accrued. I read GIRL, NERD, WEAK, ATTENTION-SEEKER, PATHETIC, LOSER. I read CREATIVE, LAZY, INTELLIGENT, INTROVERT. I decided they must be true. I learned what they meant. I started to paint them onto my skin, until I was so covered in words I couldn’t see myself any more. The marker bled into my pores, the words leeching into my blood until I could no longer tell what was me and what was words. I let it happen. My ingredients were wrong. I needed new ones.
There was darkness, for a long time. My blood became ink, saturating me in the words of other people, telling me who I was, who I should be, until I was buried under the weight of the words. Yet there was still a Me, a tiny golden core that refused to absorb the words, that rejected the inky contagion. It cried in agony as I tried desperately to drown it. Its pain was my pain, and I couldn’t ignore it.
At twenty-seven, I took a knife and cut open my box. I burned the words from my skin with acid, I opened my veins and bled ink onto the floor until there was only blood left. I thought I would bleed to death. I thought the pain would burn me whole. But I didn’t care if it killed me, if I could be free.
At twenty-eight I said the word again. Autism. At twenty-eight I said the word for the first time. Transgender. At twenty-eight I embraced the truth. Pansexual. I was told, “You don’t need to label everything”. I roared in frustration. As if I hadn’t been tagged and labelled and categorised since the moment of my birth. As if I didn’t bear the scars of those labels on every inch of my skin, in my heart, in my mind. As if the world didn’t keep throwing them at me, trying to make them stick. I pasted on my own labels, and wore them as proudly as my scars. These are MY ingredients.
This is part of a selection of works for Autism Awareness Month. Please remember this is my experience only, and not intended to speak for all autistic people. Please also remember that this story relates the difficulties caused by ableism, and not autism. It is not intended to paint autism as a tragedy in any way. I love being autistic, and am proud of who I am. What has made my life difficult is people’s attitude toward autism, and that is what this story is intended to convey. Thank you for reading.
All Rights Reserved to Cambrey Payne 2017. Please acknowledge sources when sharing and do not repost without original source.
Image from: http://www.staples-3p.com/s7/is/image/Staples/s0537785_sc7?$splssku$