Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Shattered Image Fragments: Singing My Story

Note: Because I am working on  major news article for The Island Dispatch and because today is my deadline, I am reposting a story that first appeared in this blog on October 15th, 2014. This story is an essay about growing up with an undiagnosed learning disability that I had written for an online writing class. Kids who seem "different" are often the victims of bullies, and I was no exception.  

In the times before the bullies invaded my heart, my world was full of image fragments. The world was all sensation that beckoned to me to touch it, taste it, smell it, and listen closely to its song. It existed without words, and I was part of it.

As language seeped into my inner being, I wondered how I could capture and keep the image fragments of my formerly nonverbal world. But when I tried to use written language, the image fragments shattered, and my stories became disjointed and dull, not reflecting my inner being. I wandered the back yard of my childhood home, touching the trumpet flowers that overtook a tilted trellis. The sharp thorns of the overgrown bushes bit me. The stories, however, did not come. They refused capture, and they resisted being confined to a piece of paper.

My safe world consisted of old pennies, a crawl space under the house where I could hide, photographs of people who looked familiar and unknown at the same time, tall elm trees with knots that held secrets and imaginary friends, stray cats, and star-filled skies. There was a mirror on a door that was always kept locked. I talked to my mirror image and gave her a name. I talked to my younger sister's mirror image and gave her a name, as well. There was an imaginary world beyond the mirror that I shared with my sister and with no one else. My painful world was full of sounds that felt like shattered glass: loudspeakers and screaming voices and scratchy, off-key records, and pounding music that blasted my head and took over my heartbeat.

When I was little and still living in my wordless image fragment world, I didn't know that adults with diplomas on their walls and long strings of initials after their names had peered at me, given me odd tests, said that I suffered from "auditory hallucinations," and pronounced me to be abnormal. Later, when I went to school and stared longingly out the window at the world that was beyond my touch, the abnormal label followed me.

When I was nearly twelve, my family moved 300 miles away from the trellis, the overgrown bushes, and the house with the huge crawl space. We lived in a different house, and I went to a new school. I was the New Kid with the funny accent and the poor social skills. A ready target for bullies. The kids pronounced me ugly and stupid. I looked in the mirror, but no imaginary friend existed there. She was gone forever, left behind in the mirror of the other house that was miles away. Her story would never be told. After a while, I looked at my face with the bullies' eyes. It was an ugly and sad face.

When I wasn't in school, I wandered through my new town, looking at the chipped and discolored bricks of older buildings, wondering what stories they had to tell, if only they had a voice. I wandered through rainy days, watching the water create mirrors in the streets. At night, I went outside and stared at the star-filled skies and wondered what kinds of stories the stars held. But the stories would not translate from my imagination to the paper. Once again, the image fragments shattered into many pieces and were swept away.

The adults with the diplomas on their walls and the long string of initials after their names took over again. They pronounced me abnormal and gave me a name, "emotionally disturbed." I thought that, if only I could write down my story, the adults would understand would say that I was smart and creative, not crazy, lazy, stupid, or any number of names that exist in a text book to describe kids who don't fit into the world of worksheets, tests, and loud, sharp as broken glass voices.

And so, I became an adult because time made me so. I became a journalist so that I could write stories, but they were never the stories that told of the image fragments that shattered and were swept away by my efforts to make them into words. My career sputtered and died, so I worked at various jobs, and the supervisors said words that flowed into each other without meaning. The phones jangled and the machinery hummed and I didn't understand why I didn't understand much of anything. When I wasn't at work, I walked past decaying buildings and I touched the darkened, fractured bricks, and I wondered at the weeds growing in the cracks of the sidewalks. I wanted to write about the broken down city, but the image fragments defied my efforts to turn them into words.

I saved my money and went to Guatemala and later to Ecuador. I learned Spanish in small rooms, where I was the only student. I lived with families who spoke no English, and I ate unfamiliar words and picked oranges from trees. I walked into the ruins of a cathedral, destroyed by earthquake in the eighteenth century and found poinsettias growing wild where there once been a solid floor. Large insects crawled on the ground. Everything was green, vivid, and bright. I tried to write the story but it turned into image fragments.

Back at home, I went to professionals with diplomas on their walls and long strings of initials after their names. They were kinder than the other professionals. They told me that the pain in my ears wasn't imaginary and that my not understanding the sharp, jagged voice of the loudspeaker did not make me abnormal. They told me that I could live and even thrive with conditions that they called "auditory processing disorder," "sensory processing disorder," and "hyperacute hearing." They told me that I was smart and creative, and they helped me to banish the bullies that had occupied my head and my heart and who had turned my mirror image ugly.

I still live in a world of image fragments that defy all efforts to capture them and to turn them into words on a page. But that doesn't stop me from hoping that, one day, they will be caught and they will turn into magical words that sing my story.


The Widow Badass said...

What a great story of perseverance against the bullies and the hurtful labels from those with lots of initials after their names!
You are beautiful, smart and brave. Respect! said...

This is one of the big problems with experts- they are only expert in what they've seen. Something new to them? They immediately process it into a pigeonhole (turkey in a pigeonhole?) they claim to know intimately. Which leaves the person being studied at bigger risk.
Glad you persevered.

Alana said...

I've often wondered, if my brother in law "B" could write his experiences, what he would have to say. I suspect some of what he experiences is similar to your experiences. It doesn't help when you, and "B", are pigeonholed into some kind of label that defines you forever after, without really leading to understanding. I was a late walker and had some sensory and physical issues growing up. I still find it difficult to be, for example, in rooms with a lot of echoing (I've had to leave some restaurants). Certain scents also bother me.

Menaka Bharathi said...

I admire your perseverance Alice, not everyone could have done this, stood against bullies, listening to those labels they shower on us. I have always been a fighter and would jump up to fight at any point I find is objectionable to me. In fact I remember hitting back at boys till I was a teenager, well after that I was conditioned with some better behaviour though.

SciFiFan said...

As your only younger sister who loves writing poetry, image fragments can be used to create wonderful poems. You can also use those image fragments to draw or paint. You can also take this great and poignant story into a story for middle school children 👶

Anonymous said...

So impressed with your abilities to feel those fragments and be true to yourself. My daughter suffers too and it can be a lonely road-for adults with capd too. I know she is super intelligent and very sensitive and talented-the professionals are a joke. Believe in yourself-you have the words and you use them beautifully.

Marian Allen said...

Alice, you ARE singing your story! You use words beautifully. Your prose is smooth, lovely, moving, and piercing. You are a wonder!

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful, heartfelt, and vulnerable story...thank you for sharing...we may never meet, but please know that your writing has touched my soul.