cloth and water

space feels like water, usually. more accurately, space feels like part of me. the inside of my chest seems to act like an echo chamber of sorts: it catches even the slightest vibrations in the air and magnifies them. but at the same time, space also feels like cloth. layers and layers of it. sometimes it moves and i move with it. sometimes i move and it moves with me.

i remember being small and having to ask someone at our local deli for macaroni and cheese. i spoke too quietly, and they couldn’t hear me. there’s always this feeling (still now) in the moments before i know i have to try to speak louder, where my head and ears hurt, because they know i have to rip all this soft fabric open with my voice.

and then there are times when the fabric is so tight it suffocates, when it becomes restrictive. loud voices, and eyes watching and feet tapping and pressing expectations covering my mouth. then i scream and the world tears open around me, air flows in and i run to it, free and cold and alone.

at some point in my childhood (probably around puberty, maybe even earlier), i learned that it was not acceptable to break open space for yourself, even space was suffocating you. “there’s no reason to have a temper tantrum” people would say, “we’re not asking you to do anything unreasonable.” air is not fabric, they would say. you can still breathe. you’re just making yourself feel that way. you’re throwing a fit.

i was a logical child, and could extrapolate just fine: if the space around me wasn’t what was making me feel like i was being buried alive, it must be me. i must be not letting the air in. so i learned to tear myself apart in my head.

there are lots of stories from my life (so far) that are really about me and spaces. even ones that seem unrelated are actually about that.

like the many times during my adolescence and young adulthood when i would punish myself for being irresponsible by not allowing myself to buy any food. i actually could not physically do it; when it was my fault that i was hungry (because i forgot to go to dinner, because i spent money on something else, because i couldn’t sit in the dining hall because it was too loud, etc.) asking for more money, or borrowing it from someone else, or asking for someone else’s food…all that is tearing the fabric. it’s irresponsible. it makes no sense. it’s being selfish. going hungry because i made a mistake, on the other hand, made perfect sense. i was taking responsibility for what i did. i was conditioning myself to not make the mistake again.

and the conversations with adults. those ones. where they’re talking to you and telling you about things you need to do or responsibilities you need to take care of. and you can feel with every word like you’re in water, and a weight is pulling you down further and further. your voice is muffled because you know that what they’re saying isn’t bad. it isn’t wrong. it’s normal. they just want you to do normal things. be a normal person. they’re being perfectly reasonable. so you pretend like you aren’t drowning. like the air around you isn’t being wrapped, tighter and tighter, around your body.

i’m learning to break things other than myself again. learning that my world is real. that i make sense. that needing to tear things apart to breathe sometimes doesn’t make me a bad person. that maybe, making a space for myself makes space for others like me.

i’ll be a kid again, but this time, i won’t need to be cold and alone to feel free.


I’m six, and wearing my favorite blue dress with long sleeves (it was soft cotton and amazing) and my dolphin necklace. I’m sitting in a weird hammock chair in a beach-house my extended family used to rent for vacation.


6 thoughts on “cloth and water

  1. This ..

    i’m learning to break things other than myself again. learning that my world is real. that i make sense. that needing to tear things apart to breathe sometimes doesn’t make me a bad person. that maybe, making a space for myself makes space for others like me.

    Oh my God. That.

    Thank you, Em. Thank you.

  2. I follow Diary of a Mom and am ever so grateful that she led me here to your blog. I don’t have a lot of words to explain how reading this post has affected me. You are a powerful writer as you convey your world to us, thank you for saying it all, thank you.

  3. Holee smokes…

    I was just diagnosed this past March. I am what one would consider mildly affected. I passed this long without being obvious.

    But I have to tell you, this made me tear up. Because I understand this feeling. The difference is, I never tried to “make space.” I swallowed my insufficiencies, never realizing the option was there for me to make some space. I didn’t fight harder to breath, just to find more energy for the self flagellation. I made a perfectionist out of myself. People couldn’t criticize me, they couldn’t joke with me about me for the longest time. People couldn’t point out the things I should be doing because I, too, was intelligent enough to understand my place in this world and how I differed in relation to the abilities and desires of others. I was sensitive about that.

    I would rather starve than ask for help. Walk home if my car ran out of gas than ask for help. It was *MY* mistake so I needed to solve it. Punishment for not being perfect. For not being “the way I was supposed to be.”

    I am most affected in my executive functioning skills. While I have some sensory challenges (artificial light is painful, partially muted natural light is painful, sudden sounds are painful, and certain clothes are bothersome), and sometimes I lose the ability to have educated sounding articulate speech (but maintain general, base pattern of speech), it is the processes, the planning, the breaking down of things into swallowable, sensible, effective steps that has always been most difficult for me. When I was in school, I was gifted; I inherited my father’s high IQ. While in one sense it was a shield that weighted my person and integrity better than if I were average of intelligence with my challenges, in another way, it drowned me. It was a dichotomy I never understood about myself, one that I consistently beat myself up over.

    At no point did I ever feel it was okay to say “I need help. I’m in over my head.” Because mostly, I didn’t want to BE in over my head. I didn’t want to feel like the most incapable smart person alive. I didn’t want to feel overloaded with expectations, both from myself and from others, drowning in a sea of failure and bright lights.

    Your words today further validate me. With these words, you have made space for me today. Thank you, Emma. You have a new fan.

    • April, your comment alone made all the work I put into this post more than worthwhile. I totally get what you’re talking about–probably because I’m very similar myself. I also just recently got diagnosed, and I also struggle intensely with ever, ever asking for help.
      I think the one thing that probably caused me to tear open space for myself (rather ineffectually) when I was a child is my added severe ADHD traits; having a big, public, destructive meltdown when someone tried to make me do something that I couldn’t do wasn’t really a choice so much as an knee-jerk reaction. Similarly, while I was always considered very bright, my executive and attentional issues have always been so severe that I really couldn’t keep up a facade of normalcy, or perfection no matter how hard I tried. There were upsides and downsides to this: on the one hand, the giant gap between my intellectual ability and my basic skills/performance was always very obvious and very public, which was just devastating emotionally; on the other hand, I managed to exit the “I’m so sensitive that you can’t tease me or give me constructive criticism or else I’ll freak” stage in early adolescence.
      It was like, since I was so obviously going to never be able to do much anyways, and since I was so obviously not the kind of person who could do really well in school or have big aspirations, I couldn’t take myself too seriously? But I know that for my dad, for instance (also very bright, Aspie-type, but without the ADHD and with better EF), really struggles with never being able to laugh at himself when he makes mistakes. But I know that, like you said, I spent so much time basically pretending to be someone I wasn’t, because the alternative–being myself–was simply to painful and paradoxical to handle. It was always preferable to pretend to be a deadbeat, or a quirky space-cadet who didn’t care about school, because I couldn’t handle the hurt of admitting that I cared about, even yearned for, achievement and recognition, but simply wasn’t “good enough” to get what I wanted.
      Other things I totally identified with that you mentioned: 1. What are steps?!?!?! How do you make one big thing into smaller things that go in an order? Seriously? 2. My rather dark sense of humor enjoyed that when you said “I would rather starve than ask for help. Walk home if my car ran out of gas than ask for help” the voice in my head was like “Definitely literally done both of those things in real life more than once.” Ha.

  4. Ditto to everything April said… The dichotomy between “smart” and “challenged” is always a hard one to figure out. No one expects you to have problems because you’re so “smart.” If I had a dime for everytime someone told me that…. Making space for us… Learning that my world is real that I am valid…. Such amazing insights and what my mind has been focused on lately myself… thank you for writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s