Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Thoughts on the Abandoned

This morning, I saw on my Facebook friends list that someone had posted a link to photographs of old architectural buildings, hospitals and other facilities left to fall into disrepair when they were decommissioned from use. The photographs were wonderful, eerie and spectacular, and looking at them felt like walking into the past. At the same time, though, a crawling fear slowly worked its way up my spine, because some of the buildings that were photographed were once insane asylums and hospitals for the mentally ill. The rooms were dark, narrow, some with only small peepholes out of which to catch a glimpse of the hallway and the world outside.

Many of these hospitals were for violent inmates, but I could tell that they'd also housed those with mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, manic depression, and many others. The gnawing pit in my stomach heightened to almost deafening proportions when I realized one other population that most certainly would've been found in these facilities in years past: individuals on the autism spectrum.

It's well-known that, in the '50s and '60s, a diagnosis of autism was almost immediately followed by the words, "Have your child institutionalized." There was no thought of an autistic child remaining at home with their family. These children were seen as hopeless, and they were sent to where society locked away all of its monsters, to a mental institution. Looking at the pictures that I saw, the tiny cots supported by rusted bed springs, sparsely furnished "rooms" with little to no light, and the almost pervasive presence of varying shades of blue on the walls of the common areas, I could not help but think that any sense of hopelessness would be intensified by these places, or maybe wouldn't even begin until after these individuals were sent there. One photograph that particularly haunted me showed a view of the Statue of Liberty in the background, seen from behind a pane of partially broken glass. Not a more powerful symbol of the institutional experience exists, at least that I have seen.

At one point in the not-too-distant past, someone told my parents to have me institutionalized. I don't know who this person is, as my parents won't tell me, but all I can think is that if even one voice would still proffer that as a solution now, there would have been a unanimous choir of voices twenty, thirty, forty years ago. I doubt I would have even been properly diagnosed back then, but the decision to lock me away would go unquestioned. I'm not saying that my parents would be that way, but society as a whole did not want people like me walking around freely in the daylight, and would have kept me locked in the dark for the rest of my life.

I tend to often harp about being born in the wrong time period. Indeed, I am an ardent lover of all things retro, and I would still build a time machine and travel back to the late '60s if I could. But the fear still plagues me. I'm able to more or less "pass" now, at the age of 25, as a "normal" person. If I were given the choice, however, to be a young person in the '60s, I would want to be a neurotypical one, because all of the things that I'd want to do, things that I am capable of doing now as a person with Asperger's, I do not think I could do back then, unless I were neurotypical. The only way I can see this being otherwise is if I were a part of the counterculture movement, because I know there's no way I could fit into the mainstream. I think that is why I've always felt so drawn to the '60s, because the hippies were the misfits of the time, the ones who didn't subscribe to the ideals and preconceived notions set forth by society. That's sort of been my experience my entire life, and I believe I would've felt at home among them because we'd be such kindred spirits.

I realize how convoluted everything I'm saying sounds, and it does bother me that I even feel like I would need to be neurotypical for any reason, but to me, it seems to be the only way I could survive under certain specific circumstances. I'm incredibly lucky and fortunate to even be as well-off as I am right now. There are so many things that could have led to my downfall in the past, but I've managed to stay on course. Even one misstep, one wrong person in my life or my parents' life who could've influenced them and convinced them to give up on me could have led to me being in one of those places in the photographs. There are still moments, even now, when I see what might have been and shudder with the knowledge of how, historically speaking, I am still within a hair's breadth of those empty rooms. When I looked at those photographs, I could feel the cold air in those rooms enveloping me. I think in some way I will always be running from that, always looking over my shoulder, hoping that it's far behind. Praying, silently, that I manage to escape that old fate, before it catches up with me.


  1. I don't think you were convoluted at all, just the opposite - very eloquent in fact. I have often felt this way about being a woman; I'm "glad I was born now instead of then" kind of an attitude. When I work to have my sons on the spectrum included in community events, etc., I know I am in some part advocating on behalf of all people with disabilities to live more fully integrated lives. It is a really hard job, but I know I would someone doing it for me if the shoe was on the other foot. I know for sure I wouldn't want to be locked away in a windowless room.

  2. I have both autism and bipolar and it seems like my life is as much about what i am running from as what i am wanting to get to. Perhaps that fear is why I do not succeed much.

    Thanks for the vision in prose