The earliest story that I was told about when I was little came from my mother. My grandmother was watching me in my playpen as I turned and studied a single toy. She found it curious that I was surrounded by toys, yet sat quietly with only one, not making a sound. “Ann, I think she’s deaf. You should have her hearing tested,” my grandmother said to my Mom. My earliest memory goes further back than that moment.
Jack and Jill day care. “Jennifer needs to work on her social skills,” as I was off in a quiet area of the room spinning around in my favorite blue dress watching how the fabric moved in the air. I was fascinated, engaged and entirely happy.
I was fortunate to attend an elementary school that was part of a desegregation program in Waterloo, Iowa, a city that experienced a race riot in 1968 – the year I was born. Known as Bridgeway, the magnet school maintained a 50:50 ratio of minority and non-minority students while offering an innovative, engaging curriculum. Waterloo was primarily an “East side/West side” city with the low-income areas on the East side and the higher income areas on the West side. Bridgeway was established in a school on the East side, and the bus system was used to bring children from both sides of Waterloo. The neighborhood was familiar to me because my grandparents lived just a few blocks from the school, so I felt right at home. They also had a Talented and Gifted program, of which I was a part. Throughout elementary school, my grades were always the same – “commendable” in all areas except social skills for which I consistently received “acceptables.” I always rolled my eyes when my teachers pointed this out to me and my parents. I was happy and doing well. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m here to learn, not socialize. I socialize outside school.” I was also the girl who chased boys around the playground and went after any bullies who picked on my sister or my friends. I played the flute and the autoharp, and I loved making candles in art class.
At home, I spent time in my bedroom playing quietly, pretending to be a teacher, doctor, postal worker, whatever I could imagine. My favorite “toy” at that time was a large refrigerator box that had been converted into a Jack-in-the-Box for a cantata at church. When it was raining, I went outside to the entrance of our trailer court where rocks had been collected by the water and pick out my favorites to take home. Pounds and pounds of rocks. On sunny days, I laid in the grass of our front yard pretending to zoom through the clouds on my imaginary (and very fast) aircraft. “I want to be a jet pilot.” I spent time with my friends, one day discovering infinity on my own when I realized that I could add as many zeros that I wanted to after writing the number one. I filled pages and pages with zeros, then looked at my friend and said, “Hey! Numbers go on forever! I can just keep adding zeros.” She looked up at me and said, “Oh,” and went back to her Barbies. I was very attached to my friends, and cried for days when they moved away, even if it was just 10 minutes from me. My Dad taught me how to make kites, took me fishing and pretended to be lost only to end up at A&W for onion rings and milk shakes. I spent the summers in southern Arizona with my grandparents or traveling the country in their motor home. One summer when I came back, I told my Mom that I wanted to be a truck driver. She said no. My parents bought me a Big Wheel – actually, several, because I loved racing down the hill and crashing into the curb. I did the same on my sled. I raced down the hill and crashed into the skirting on a neighbor’s mobile home. He and my Dad eventually came to an agreement that every winter my Dad would just make a deposit on the upcoming damages.
I was in the choir at church and sang my little heart out every time. During one performance, the person next to me said that I was singing too loudly, so I sang even louder, “I am a PROMISE! I am a POSSIBILITY! I am a PROMISE, with a capital P! I can be anything! Anything God wants me to be!” I would spend time in my Mom’s office pretending to be a secretary or in the media room pretending to be a teacher or helping prepare snacks for the day care or playing in the Vineyard that was filled with bean bag chairs.
My parents, intentional or not, did a great job at letting me be who I was, even when some of the things I did seemed a little reckless. But I survived with only one broken ankle, a broken collar bone, a split scalp and some scrapes and bruises.
Junior High – “Jennifer is not reaching her full potential.” Once again, I rolled my eyes, “Who are you to say if I am reaching my full potential?”
That same counselor took a small group of us into a room and tested us for ESP. Yes, that ESP - extra sensory perception. When it was my turn, I went outside the room and waited. The counselor came and got me. I stood near the closed door, and the counselor said, "We are all thinking of an object - the same object. What are you getting?" I sat quietly for a moment, a little confused because the answer seemed wrong for some reason. Then I said, "All I'm getting is the lollipop." Everyone suddenly went into an uproar. Apparently when I was outside, the group had decided to choose the lollipop, but thought it was too hard, so they chose another object. That was not the first time that I was in a setting that focused on ESP abilities. I average two hours of deep sleep per night, and I have dreams - premonitions - all the time. They are symbolic, and they always come true. I can also "read" people like I've known them a lifetime. I've known what is happening in people's lives when they are half a world away from me and I haven't spoken to them for decades. The world is opening up to these types of abilities, but my friends have always known.
I was introduced to computer programming in junior high, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever…except math. I was also introduced to algebra, which just bent my brain completely, but I excelled. I also made some new friends because the friends I had in elementary school had gone to other junior high schools, and they also started getting “cliquey,” and I no longer fit in. Many said that I was hanging with the wrong crowd, but I did well in school, and I made my own choices based on who people are, not what they do or how they behave or fit the social norm. Peer pressure was never a thing for me. No one’s business but my own. A teacher once said in class that my friends only liked me because I smoked with them in the bathroom. I replied, “That’s not true. I would trust my life to them. Maybe that’s how your friends are, but not mine.” Afterwards one of my friends came to me and said, “Just so you know, even if you didn’t smoke, I would still be friends with you,” and I said, “I know.” Loyalty was huge among my friends, and I knew that I would be protected any time, any place. That was a good feeling.
14 years old. Sister graduates. Mom leaves with sister and grandparents. Dad moves across town. I am alone. Open the fridge. Six-pack of Mountain Dew, $20 and a carton of cigarettes. He came by. Freezer full of frozen burritos and pizza rolls. Each week. No one here. Just me. Three months. Someone finally called CPS or the police or something.
First love. Lost in each other. A home in each other. Amazing. He said, “I’ll be your friend,” when I had lost all my friends.
Bending fingers backwards. Slapping me so hard that I am thrown across the room. Defiant. I stand up to him, knowing that he needed to do this…hurt the one who accepted him entirely and protected him for who he is as a person. Part of his journey. Five. Six times. Stepmom and friend stand there watching.
Phone rings. “He hit me.” Mom is coming to get me.
Phone rings. I tell him that I’m leaving. “I don’t want you to go.” – “I have to. He hit me. It will only get worse.” Heartbreak. I am leaving my best friend – my true home…behind. The one and only person who ever treated me as a normal person.
High school. Graduation. No money for college. Can’t qualify for loans or grants. Work study. Pre-engineering and mathematics. Couple semesters. There goes that dream.
Deep breath. It still hurts. But it’s OK.
White Sands Missile Range. Operational Test & Evaluation Specialist. Oh, yeah. That was awesome. I was blessed with a team of people who discovered that behind the quiet girl they hired as a secretary for three months with no degree who wore pastel Van’s imprinted with palm trees and skinny jeans was quite intelligent and gifted. But then one day a little voice in my head said, “Be careful how you use your gifts.” This was the business of war. I had to consider that.
I just reach these points in my life where I ask myself, “What do I want to do now?” The opportunity comes along, and I do it. There are no coincidences.
When my Mom and I talk about my resume, I giggle. “Mom, you always said that I could be anything that I wanted to be…you just left out the part where I was supposed to choose one thing.”
I never knew that a “hostile environment” existed in a place of employment. Names are fictitious. The rest is fact.
My supervisor within a week of starting my new job - “Bobby Jean thinks you don’t like her because you don’t go up to her office and say hello. Will you please make sure that you go to Bobby Jean’s office and say hello to her each morning so she doesn’t feel bad?”
“If Bobby Jean feels bad because I don’t say hello to her when she’s is on another floor of the building and I never see her to say hello, that’s Bobby Jean’s insecurity. She needs to deal with that.”
“I need you to go up to her office every day.”
“So rather than come in and do my work each morning, you would rather that I spend time with Bobby Jean to make her feel better about herself?”
Then she stuck a knife in my heart.
“You’re like a machine.”
Followed by 18 years of:
That’s a small sample. All from various people with whom I worked. Actually, most of the people that I worked with. Non-stop. Every single day.
I ended up with PTSD to the point that I was sobbing on my kitchen floor wanting to crawl out of my skin and off this planet completely. Not suicidal. Just wanting off this planet. I love who I am too much to even consider suicide. I also love this planet, so even if I could, I wouldn’t move to Mars. The narcissists can move to Mars. All because…why? Because I was a horrible, awful person? No. Because I think differently. Because I wanted to help improve processes. Something that I had successfully done before in other fields of work and environments. Because it makes everyone’s work life easier and more satisfying. Instead, I was personally attacked. They were like a pack of wolves. Like a true-to-life Star Trek episode. In an environment that was intended to protect people from stigma. Ironic. I fought them at every turn while maintaining my composure as much as humanly possible. I stood up to them just like I did with bullies on the playground, and never betrayed my integrity. It definitely took its toll. The only thing I didn’t do was quit. Considering where I am now, it was a good choice to stay.
That moment in my kitchen, I knew I was in trouble. I knew that I needed someone. I reached out to no avail. In fact, even that friend from so long ago turned his back on me. “In a meeting.” The phone rang. A new friend. He knew I was crying and asked me to explain where I was at, and I said, “Why won’t anyone let me talk? All they do is interrupt me or attack me. Why won’t they just let me talk?” I also explained that I have PTSD from all of it. He asked me to explain what that means to me. I felt better at the end of the phone call, and thought that was all he would offer, but then he said, “I’m coming to get you, and we’re gonna go have dinner.” And that’s just what we did. After we hung up, I yelled, “Thank you!.....Jesus!” Because everyone else seemed to have such a hard time being decent human beings to me. That stranger had just redeemed my faith in humanity, and it was a turning point for me. So many times in the following year I remember thinking to myself, “Oh. This is what it’s like to have a friend. Now I remember.” It had been that long. He gave me the courage to keep speaking up about the hostility at work, and finally someone listened.
That single friendship has evolved into an entire group of Jeepers who are so much like the friends I grew up with.
2018 – Monument Valley
Many of those comments are related to a trail that intimidated even the most experienced guys in the group. The Jeep had to be near-vertical nose down in order to make it. It didn’t flip, and I didn’t die. I would trust any of them with my life…again.
So while I was in the Twilight Zone, I did discover that I am a great writer and photographer. My freelance writing and nature photography really were my saving grace. Funny thing…as life unfolds, I find myself emerging as who I was as a child, yet with bigger toys and playgrounds. My Big Wheel is now a Jeep Wrangler, and my little collection of rocks is now the entire American southwest. Remembering and loving who I was so early on was why I fought so hard to protect myself from the vicious attacks of The Lost Ones. I sometimes think that it’s because I never conformed to societal norms and was successful that people came after me so much. Like they sold out because they were told that it’s the only way to succeed, and I certainly make a liar out of people who believe that.
The other thing that came out of the Twilight Zone is that apparently I am very likeable. Imagine that. A lot of the behavior was “cliquey,” and I don’t put up with that ridiculousness. Never have. I chose my friends, not you. And I like you until you give me a really good reason not to. Folks is folks. I always say, “You are perfectly you, and I am perfectly me.” The friend who rescued me from my kitchen breakdown told me one time, “You wanna know what scares me about you? You don’t need anyone.” Yes, I am happy in my own little world, but trust me. I do need friends who are happy to see me and kind when I do emerge, just as I am to them. And they mean the world to me.
I do feel like I have been existing in a dark hellish place for 18 years, and many would agree. And I still struggle with feeling safe in this world again, yet I maintain the perspective that this myopic world in which I have existed is not the entire world. I was saved by the kindness of strangers, after all. And, I found my voice. Just a few years ago, I would not even consider writing this blog. I’ve always been very private. So, thank you to those who were so cruel to me. This is for you. 😊
Things have kind of clicked over the last few weeks thanks to A&E. A program about employing people on the autism spectrum. Yes, I’ve known for awhile that I was high-functioning, although never formally diagnosed. “Geek Syndrome.” We are artists, as well. But I know the answer. I relate to them on so many, but not all, levels. At first, I felt even more of an outsider, but then it made me realize that the world is evolving, and that those like me are being given the same opportunities that I had before I entered The Twilight Zone, yet they also face the same stigma as me when I was in The Twilight Zone.
I have a lot to say about neurodiversity from a few angles. My own expression as a neurodivergent (welcome to my world), encouragement and appreciation for my fellow neurodivergents and some insights for those who may be friends and family of neurodivergents. And let’s hope that none of us have to go through The Twilight Zone Zombie Apocalypse that I just experienced. If that’s the “societal norm” that everyone is talking about and that I was encouraged to join so early on in my life, no thank you.
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