It’s interesting how an experience can make a lot more sense or take on a vastly different interpretation or emotional reaction once it’s over.
For example, many times, people remember something as being more enjoyable than it was once it’s over. I know I’ve been guilty of that, for instance, when reflecting back in some of the backpacking vacations my family took when I was young. Even immediately after it was over and we returned to civilization, showered, and eaten a solid meal, I’d remember the trip as being more fun than it had been in the moment when I was hungry, aching from my pack, limping with blisters, and listening to my stomach growl after hours of hiking on a measly bowl of oatmeal. This is not to say the treks didn’t have their beautiful moments, laughs, and bonding experiences, but it’s like the tough or uncomfortable times fall away after the fact and all that remain when qualifying the experience are the good memories. I think this is referred to as looking through rose-colored glasses. There are certainly some benefits of this type of filtered memory, but it can also cause you to forget why you might not want to do something that actually wasn’t that fun again or how to plan differently to improve the negative aspects.
That’s not exactly what this is about. Extending that concept further (the idea that reflecting on things in hindsight can alter your perception of them), one’s past experiences can especially take on new meaning or much clearer understanding with wisdom, maturity, and better self-awareness. In this regard, I’m referring to the new understanding I’ve gained about some of my personal history in the new light of my autism diagnosis. Since I was oblivious about some of the specific challenges I had and lacked both the vocabulary to articulate them and the self-awareness to even notice there was an issue (and what it was), I stumbled and suffered through many things unsuccessfully. Moreover, I felt truly unhappy, confused, uncomfortable, weird or freakish, and left out; consequently, my low self-esteem kept getting worse and worse as these feelings only grew, I amassed more failures or feelings of isolation and differentness, and I became more bewildered, anxious, and depressed.
For me, the problematic experiences were more frequent and more significantly impactful the older I got. I think children have the ability to be themselves more fluidly and firm friendships and “succeed” against the barometers that assess their level of function. For example, I was a very bright kid so I did well in school and I had friends who accepted my quirkiness and played harmoniously with me. I had a lot of behavioral problems, which were chalked up to ADHD, though they were likely rooted in sensory and social issues. There is also so much structure, support, and routine for many children, who, if they are fortunate like I was to live in a good home, have stability and bubble-like small, protective environment to grow up in. The times my behavior and emotions were the wildest and least appropriate were when things deviated from their controlled fashion (I.e., playdates, taking someone else’s bus home, field trips, surprises, sleepovers, camps, etc.). For me, things started breaking down when some of that structure was lost or at least changed. Transitions were always really chaotic and poorly endured for me and the older I got, the naturally less structured and predictable my life got.
One of the worst transitions was moving to Durham, NC from my small hometown of Amherst, MA as a freshman in college at Duke University. I struggled tremendously there in basically every possible facet: academically, socially, athletically, physically, and emotionally. I only made it one academic year before transferring to the University of Massachusetts in my hometown, where I was able to live at home.
For most of the twelve-plus years since my Duke experience, my response has always been, “I HATED Duke.” I’ve never really regretted my decision to transfer, and though I still had a handful of problems transitioning to UMass, once I was there, they were nothing as severe as what I battled at Duke. At UMass, I ended up graduating with honors, being a co-captain of the D1 cross country team, and making some friends. During this time, my parents got divorced, I lost two grandparents, I continued navigating the road to anorexia recovery, I started dating for the first time and trying to understand those types of relationships and feelings, switched majors, worked a job, had a falling out with my mom where we didn’t talk for a few months but then repaired our relationship, lived in an apartment with friends, among other things. All this is to say that even at UMass where things were less different and more supported in some ways than my stint at Duke, it was a time of a bevy of challenges and “firsts.”
From the informed position in which I now sit, armed with the awareness that I’m autistic and an understanding of some of the ways that affects my thinking, feeling, and perception of myself, the world, and others, Duke doesn’t seem like the horrible place I made it out to be in my mind. In other words, it wasn’t the university that was problematic, it was my own impairments and misunderstood (and unidentified) challenges. Moving so far away, lacking all sorts of types of supports I desperately needed, lacking the ability or knowledge about how to communicate about the struggles I was facing in all sorts of regards and whom to even approach with them, and otherwise being completely overwhelmed with changes rendered me useless as an advocate for myself and my needs; blind to what I was thinking, feeling, and experiencing; lonely on the deepest and most painfully primal levels that I’d ever been in my life; and feeling completely foreign in my changed body and broken identity after eight years of anorexia suddenly behind me and all the running accolades those years carried.
I can still put myself back in the freshmen days. Some of my memories are so vivid that they instantly invoke tears. Now that I’m wiser and much more aware of how I think and my neurological “differences,” I can reconcile the emotions I felt out of the sea of confusion, shame, and dire depression I felt at the time. I can make sense of much of what had bewildered me for years about that time and the seemingly sudden “failure” in everything from my apparent constant successes of all my years prior. I’ve also learned to let go of the anger and resentment I felt toward myself for selecting Duke out of all the schools that accepted me (and for being “stupid” enough to apply there). For over a decade, I’ve hated and chastised myself relentlessly for my decision to go to Duke because it felt like such a blatantly obvious bad fit and a “terrible choice.”
I still don’t purport that it was the right college choice for me. I would have done best with a tiny school close to home with a lot of support, like Amherst College. Unfortunately, I knew nothing about what was best for me at the time and had zero ability to actually picture myself at a school and envision what the experience would be like. All I knew was that I had wanted to be somewhere warm and far from parents while I was constantly at odds with them during my eating disorder. When I accepted my spot at Duke my senior year of high school, I was still living in this mental space, but in the summer weeks leading up to cross country pre-season in North Carolina, I had recovered enough to understand that distance from home was no longer a priority, and actually the last thing I wanted. But it felt too late to say anything.
I’m glad that I now have absolved Duke’s responsibility in my struggles and unhappiness. I can’t guarantee that even though I know myself better now that I won’t make decisions that are similarly majorly incompatible with my needs. After all, I know myself a lot better than I did at seventeen, but I’m sure that in another thirteen years, I’ll know myself even more fully and see the errors in my current ways. That’s why I refuse to think we ever have all the answers. Life is about learning and doing our best. Mistakes will happen. Hopefully, they can be rectified, serve as lessons, and we can go forward with a deeper understanding of ourselves and our lives.