There’s A Gaslight On In Chicago

“you want apologies
girl, you might hold your breath
until your breathing stops forever, forever”
Chicago Is So Two Years Ago, Fall Out Boy

It’s one of those moments that create best friends: the middle of the night, the lights off, everyone is supposed to be asleep but no one is. The truth comes out in the middle of the night, when it’s dark and everyone lets their guards down. Those mythic sleepovers, that don’t always happen. Those missing moments that can’t be forced. You’re laying in your best friend’s bed next to her, curled up in the blanket and staring at the ceiling in the dark. These moments happen a lot at her house.

You don’t remember meeting her.
You don’t remember ever expecting to have a best friend. Or a friend at all.
She knows this. Knows you have no memory of the kids you were supposedly friends with in elementary school. Knows you don’t know how you met some of your friends. She doesn’t know you don’t know who to count as your friend.
It’s one of those moments that forges your friendship, familiar and comforting but new every time. You’re talking about college and your fears of being alone. Time goes by fast and you wish it wouldn’t but you’re also glad it does. You want to leave.

You’re a pop punk stereotype just waiting to happen. Too bad you can’t skateboard.

It’s summer and you’re almost a freshman in college. You’re sprawled on a playground at a beach in Michigan next to your cousin. The day before, you and him, along with another cousin, had huddled together in a room at your grandparents’ house and talked about feeling like you’ve never fit in. How you feel off, different. How you feel like it might be a family problem.
Here at the beach, he tells you he can never know for sure why he feels wrong because he wants to be a Marine and if he’s right about his hunch, he won’t make the cut.

A year later he’s not allowed at your grandparents’ house anymore and you miss your talks with him. You’re both too bad at communication to talk outside of visits.

Almost three years later he’s a Marine and he can never know now, but you still learn he could have known if his hunch was right before you ever talked about it with him, if his parents hadn’t stepped in and put a stop to it after his brother.

Pop punk lied to you. Getting out of this town doesn’t solve your problems.

You’re a freshman in college and you still don’t know what friendship really is. You still have panic attacks. Your roommate leaves you for another room after only a few weeks and you never learn why. Everyday is a struggle and being at college only makes it worse because you’re supposed to find yourself but you can’t even find where to start.
You feel alone but you don’t know how to talk to people, let alone make friends. One girl sticks around you for the whole year. You think it’s a miracle.

You learn about emotional abuse online. There’s a pang of dread in your heart when the symptoms sound familiar. A brunette girl’s face pops into your head and you remember your best friend cutting said girl out of her life around graduation. You’ve never been good at communication so you don’t bother keeping her in your life either. Besides, she was already ignoring you, day by day. She didn’t even notice when you were gone.
The resurfaced memory of her doesn’t go away.
Classes are hard because reminders are all around. Your favorite subject is poisoned for you and you want to die.
You can’t remember your own interests because you’re ashamed to like things.
You realize you have PTSD from one girl, one friend of seven years. Was she ever a friend at all?

Gaslighting is something you learn. No wonder your memory is shit.

You research coping mechanisms, hoping to be able to deal with your problems. It means spending even more time online.
You learn a lot online. You think you might finally have a word for your identity but you’re afraid to admit it to anyone.
It’s a lifeline but it’s fragile and anyone else’s touch might cause it to fray right now. You find small communities online and learn more. You think maybe you aren’t alone.

You’re drunk for the first time when you say the word you found, that it applies to you. Your friend laughs it off.
You tell your best friends from high school the word and they say ok but don’t really know how to react. It’s the same with the girl you think might be your college best friend.
It’s almost the end of your freshman year of college and you mention your word to people you think are probably your friends. Two of them get annoyed with you for bringing it up and you don’t mention it again.
Two years later you find out that those two hated you from the start. At least the others believed you.

The beginning of sophomore year of college you tell people your lifeline word for the first time. It’s awkward. There’s a lot of crying involved on your end. There may or may not have been a somewhat famous person in attendance who took pity on you.
You think people understand a little bit better after that night.
They don’t.

You try to talk about your word more but you’re unsure. You still don’t know if it really fits you. Doubts crowd your mind.

You’re at a party when you drunkenly tell someone that you don’t know if you’re friends. He says of course you are.
Later, on a day when you’re sober, you talk to him and he explains that friendships are different with everyone. There’s no set rules to them. Your mind is blown. There’s always been rules, until now. There’s never been rules.
You make him a friendship bracelet as a joke. “I gave you the shittiest one, because I feel like that best represents our friendship.” You both agree it’s true.

That winter you learn you’re disabled. Everything is confusing and people think you’re faking it.
You get an official diagnosis. People believe you. Your anxiety tells you that you’re faking it.

You’re hospitalized that spring for self harm and depression. It’s a whirlwind of medical professionals misgendering you. There’s a horde of professionals telling you that your lifeline word doesn’t fit you. That you’re wrong.
You’re just confusing it with your anxiety, they say. They tell you that you show signs of PTSD. You want to say you already knew that. You believed in your word anyway. It can coexist. They tell you it’s not possible.

Just look at your social life. Your word can’t possibly fit you based on the surface facts about you. You don’t fit it at all.
We’ve only known you an hour but we know you better than you know yourself, is what you hear from their nonchalant comments. They think they’re helping you. You’re getting worse.
You aren’t a professional. You can’t possibly know this about yourself because you haven’t studied medicine.
Except you do know. You researched some more and realized that people like you commonly go overlooked in all medical situations, but especially situations like this.
People like you being people designated female at birth.

Besides, who wants to believe the trans kid knows anything about their mental health? Doctors hate being told they’re wrong, especially by someone with a vagina.

The inpatient program is alright. There are a few therapists who listen to you when you talk about your word. One of them tells you she believes you. Sometimes you wish you could go back to inpatient.

In contrast, your outpatient experience is hell. You have a meltdown at least once a week when you get home. You have one at the facility and your experience gets worse. Your parents want you to stop the program but you think it can still help you. It can’t.
Looking back you can pinpoint all the signs of emotional abuse and gaslighting that the medical professionals displayed.
You are sick to your stomach and you’re still reeling from the effects. More things to add to your PTSD, you guess.

You meet a therapist who doesn’t have your disability, but she has one of her own. She understands and she helps you infinitely more than outpatient ever could.
She doesn’t yell at you for mentioning your lifeline word, a word you’ve been too afraid to mention since outpatient.
You talk about all your worries and fears. You talk about why you’ve held this word close to your heart for so long. You talk about how it affects you. You talk about knowing self-diagnosis is valid but still feeling like you need a professional opinion.

Three months later she agrees to test you for autism.

You were right. Your lifeline word is truly a part of you.

“I’m autistic and I’m not ashamed. I’m autistic but that doesn’t make me wrong,” you say.
“I’m autistic,” you remind people, because someone’s gotta break the stigma.
But no matter how positive you pretend to be, your anxiety tells you to stop talking about it. Don’t use it as an excuse. You’re faking it.
You’re still reeling from the outpatient doctors who told you to stop talking about autism.
You’re still burning from the gaslight.

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