I am fully aware that we are ten days into “Autism Awareness Month” and that I have been completely silent about it. If you are looking for a post on Autism, this isn’t it. I’ll probably write something before April is over on that topic, but not today.
This is a post I’ve tried to articulate for several weeks, about something I’ve tried to avoid processing for almost fourteen years. This is a story of 72 hours that irretrievably changed my life.
When I was twenty-one I had a traumatic experience. I’ve done a good job of repressing most of the memories and moving on but there are certain scenes of one’s life that time cannot fade. Memories that crop up in dreams, or at lunch with a friend, or in my solitary walks on the trail when the sun peaks through the trees just right.
I don’t know why or what nuance summons such things, I simply recognize the feeling of dread that washes over me when I realize how small and helpless I am in this world and how reliant I am on the perception of others for my self-worth.
Because, for so long I have not liked myself very much at all. I’ve felt blinding inferiority about my aptitude, talent, weight and beauty. I don’t feel special at all. Not one bit. And the only thing I want is to feel special. Hearing about my specialness from others makes me uncomfortable – driven to distract from my very own fraud.
Desperate to be rescued from this self-imposed tariff on self-worth.
It started long before I was 21, but if anything it was cemented in late September of 1999. The details are not terribly important, and many of them are not clear as only recently have they come back to me.
In 1999 I was involved with a young man who lived in New York City. It was one of those whirlwind romances that only a twenty-one year old can have. I was living in Orlando (where we met) and after months of a long distance relationship, I agreed to travel to New York for a visit. It was my first trip alone – ever. I had been on one airplane trip in my life. The year before I had flown up to NYC to spend time with a friend who was attending West Point. This time in lieu of LaGuardia I flew into Newark; I guess I wanted to “see the world” or maybe it was cheaper. I was feeling very grown up and metropolitan.
Mostly I was too much of a naïve twenty-one year old to think that anything could go wrong.
But it turns out that a lot went wrong on that trip.
The guy picked me up at the Newark airport and we drove for a long while. He had booked two days in Saratoga Springs in this beautiful mansion overlooking the Mohawk river, it was very fancy and expensive. I remember that the leaves were starting to change and having spent my life in Florida I was enchanted by that – I remember the leaves very clearly. I focused on the leaves a lot during those almost two days.
I remember other things too. Bits and pieces that don’t merit writing. Bits and pieces I am not ready to write. Suffice to say that there were things I should’ve feared at twenty-one that I had not before. I cannot say that I was raped, because that conjures a specific image I am not ready to own, but I can say that in retrospect the events of that weekend were egregious enough to have permanently damaged me. The third day, the day before my return flight, we spent holed up in a run-down motel in Elizabeth, NJ with dirty carpet that smelled like curry. I did not have enough money for food or a taxi and especially not to change my flight. I didn’t dare ask for anything from him by then.
At 6:30 the next morning, I was delivered to the airport, a full 14 hours before my scheduled departure, literally willing myself to believe I had been anywhere else for the past 72 hours. I was stoic and measured as I approached counter to check in for my evening flight. I think the flight attendant saw more than I could see within me though, because she got me on the very next flight home.
These are the details that are sketchy. But the image that creeps into my thoughts remains unfaded by the years.
These were the days before you had to go through security, so I took my bag and began walking down the very bright concourse towards my gate. As I walked I became aware that I could hear these primal gut-wrenching sobs enveloping me. I became aware that my face was wet, my shirt was wet, the taste in my mouth was salty. My hands were numb. And then my legs gave way.
I fell to my hands and knees in absolute despair right there in the Newark airport. I could not breathe, I could not speak, I could only sob.
It felt like forever, too. It felt like I lost hours on the floor, even though I know that is not the case. Perhaps it felt that way because I had lost years in the past 72 hours. I don’t know.
I just know that I have never felt more unspecial than I did in that moment.
There was a man in a suit, he was a “grown-up”. In hindsight he was probably younger than I am now, but that’s how I saw him through the haze of the brightly lit concourse and my exhausted contact lenses.
He walked over to me and knelt at my side. He sat there for a while not saying anything, just kind of patting my back in a really nice “grown-up” kind of way. After a little while he asked me if he could see my ticket and take my bag. I was practically catatonic, but I assume I nodded yes because he did.
I followed him and my stuff to what he told me was my gate. He spent some time talking to the flight attendant at the desk, they nodded, he wrote something down and then he came back to me. He said “Do you drink Coke?” and I kind of laughed at the absurdity of the question despite my fragile state. He smiled and told me he’d be right back.
He came back with a Coke and a travel package of tissues and asked me if I’d like to use his cell phone to call someone. These are the days before cell phones were common, and I had one through my job but I dared not incur the roaming fees. I called my Mama. I choked out a little bit, but I also knew I didn’t want to worry her. Mostly I just told her I was sad and scared and coming home.
Then the stranger asked me if I was going to be okay and I said yes and thank you and I am so sorry.
And he said, “Of course, anytime. Everything is going to be alright.”
Then he was gone.
He rescued me and then he was gone.
He stopped to talk to the flight attendant again on his way to his gate (if he even made his flight, if he wasn’t too late) and I am almost certain he told her to take care of me and gave her his number if I needed anything.
I don’t even know his name but it was because of him that I made it home. I wonder if some day he’ll stumble across this blog and remember me and know that I am very grateful that he rescued me?
As I think about the years before and since, I am not all that shocked that this stranger felt I was special enough to warrant rescuing.
I understand that at twenty-one and in trauma I was not capable of being my own champion.
I don’t know why over the past several months this long repressed event has begun to emerge, I’d rather not remember, but if I have to perhaps it’s because it’s time that I recognize that not only am I special enough to be rescued…
…but that I have the ability to rescue myself.
I can carry my bags. I can find my gate. I can fall apart and put myself back together, and I can (and will) buy my own Coke.