Max's shop of horrors

Warning: imagination testing site. Enter at own risk

Month: February, 2014

The Insurmountable Waist-High Fence

There’s a phenomenon in video games I like to call the “Insurmountable Waist-High Fence”.

You’ve probably run into it yourself countless times. You’ll be making your way through the countryside, on your way to kick the arse of the evil overlord/terrorist cell/zombie hoard, when the urge to explore comes over you. You try to deviate from the invisible corridor the game’s trying to funnel you down, only to run into a flimsy, waist-high wooden fence that wouldn’t keep in a three-legged donkey. Your character should easily be able to vault over it, or blow it to pieces with your automobile-sized alien plasma bazooka of doom. But you can’t, because its purpose is to stop you wandering off course.

Autism often feels similar to this.

See, there are tasks in life that seem simple. Other people seem to have no trouble doing them. And yet when I try, its like my brain just hits an Insurmountable Waist-High Fence.

For example, a few months ago, my then-girlfriend asked me if I could stay at her house during the day while she was at work, in case the people coming to connect her internet came while she was away. I said yes, and sure enough, they turned up a few hours before she got back.

Then everything went to shit faster than a tornado going over a sewerage pond. I forgot which questions I needed to ask them, got confused by their (to me) vague statements, and ended up calling my girlfriend and trying to act as an interpreter between her and the workers. It was something like they were there to check the phone line, but their responsibility ended at the fuse box… I still don’t understand what the hell it was all about; the details and concepts slipped away like slippery soap every time I tried to grasp them. I felt like an absolute moron.

The funny thing is, people often tell me I’m intelligent, but it doesn’t feel that way to me, because I struggle with things that everyone around me just breezes through. A lot of the time it feels like I was installed with the wrong operating system in the factory, and now I’m running Windows in a world built for Macs. Doing paperwork, installing internet connections, arranging for automatic rent payments, these things should be easy, but for some inexplicable reason, I can’t seem to wrap my head  around them.

Perhaps the most frustrating instance of this currently has me in a headlock. After years of submitting manuscripts to paperback publishers and never hearing back, I’ve begun to explore the possibility of self-publishing  my stories as eBooks. A friend of mine was kind enough to link me to some self-publishing websites. Yet when I read the content on these sites, my brain turns into that cheap crappy tofu that cooks to the consistency of scrambled eggs and tastes like some kind of industrial glue used to hold space shuttles together.

Now, my stories aren’t quite ready for publication yet; I need to find someone who can proof read and edit them first, to make sure they’re not insipid rubbish. But that’s turning out to be roadblock as well, and being bogged down in the mental mud so close to my childhood dream of publication (I’ve had articles and short stories published before, but my novels have always been my first love) is really getting my goat. (Unfortunately a goat who refuses to jump the Insurmountable Waist High Fence)

Perhaps the answer lies behind me instead of in front of me. I grew up in a rural town, and through my childhood I spent a lot of my time climbing over fences I wasn’t supposed to. But I didn’t do it alone; we would go adventuring as a group, and if the fence was too tall for one of us, someone else would give them a boost.

Maybe all I need to clear the Insurmountable Waist High Fence between me and my dreams is to stop trying to be a one man army and ask for a little help now and then.

Night of the living dread

When I was 16 or so, our high school sent the students from my year level to a motivational presentation in a nearby town. (Some of my former classmates may remember this; it was in Bairnsdale, next to the big church)

Their message seemed to be “live life to fullest and put yourself out there”. Cos, you know, hormone-charged teenagers are known for living life in the slow lane. The first thing they did was ask if somebody wanted to come up in front of everyone to dance. I was the sole volunteer; everyone already knew I was nuts, so I had no dignity to bruise, and I figured it might be fun. If you’ve never seen me dance, imagine a guy trying to swat away a swarm of mosquitoes while having a live wire stuck up his bum. Or one of those flailing inflatable tube men they put outside car dealerships. The guy presenting said “he’s a terrible dancer, but at least he had a go.” Well, Mr Mystery  Man, I’ll have you know that dancing won me awards, notoriety, free drinks and makeouts at University. Checkmate, good sir.

Later, however, in an attempt to impress upon us our mortality and how every day is precious, he told us a story about a friend of his, whose 16 year old healthy son died in his sleep. It still blows my mind that they thought this would be a good idea, as I’m sure I’m not the only one who didn’t sleep that night.

Problem was, it didn’t stop there. That was 9 years ago, and not a single night has passed since then that I haven’t been at least a little frightened of going to sleep, for fear that I won’t wake up. See, the thing about OCD and autism is that they’re like mischievous little brats, always looking for some way to cause trouble. Any little thing my brain could use to frighten me, it latched onto, like the brain of a Uni student latching onto ways to procrastinate.

The situation took a nosedive after my Dad passed away in his sleep when I was 19. This seemed to validate my fears, transforming them from theoretical to terrifyingly real. For the next year after that, which was my first year at University, I don’t think a single night passed without me having to call Mum before bed so she could assure me that no, I was not going to die in my sleep, no, my stomach ache was not an imminent heart attack, and no, my headache wasn’t a precursor to a stroke.

Being terrified of sleeping makes keeping a regular daily schedule rather difficult. Because it took me so long to get to sleep every night, I would frequently sleep in and miss classes and lectures. I would try to get by on as little sleep as possible, only for fatigue to make my waking hours miserable, and eventually cause me to burn out and end up sleeping for twelve hours straight.

It wasn’t just fear of heart attacks or stroke either; I checked if my door was locked a dozen times before bed, imagining some murderer breaking in and going Jack the Ripper on me.

What scared me was that if something happened while I was awake, I could do something about it. Sleep, however, meant hours on end of being helpless and vulnerable; anything could happen.

Thankfully, over the last few years, I’ve gotten more experienced at coping with my OCD, which in combination with improved treatment has significantly loosened its hold on me.

As a result, I’ve been able to dam the nightly flood of terror, reducing it to more of a trickling anxiety that only occasionally overflows. I’ve weaned myself out of the habit of having to phone my mother every night before bed, and besides a few hiccups I’ve managed to keep to regular sleep cycle for several months now, though I still set my alarm for a few hours before I have to get up, just so I won’t be asleep for too long at a time. OCD habits die hard.

Will the fear ever go away completely? I don’t know. What I do know is that its been declining for the last 5 years. In 2009 there was nothing that scared me more; now, most days, it ranks just above “are we out of toilet paper?” and “did my save file on Donkey Kong Country get deleted?”

Invisible minefield

Having autism and OCD is a little like playing Operation 24/7. One wrong move, and a really unpleasant alarm goes off.(Perhaps my age is showing here; I don’t for the life of me know if Operation is even a thing anymore, or if it’s joined Tamagotchis, Tazos, and Furbies in the mists of prehistory)

Let’s take a simple daily task; going to the shop and buying milk and eggs. (Or as my Dad would have said, cow juice and cackle berries)

First I put my shoes on, then wash my hands cos I’ve walked outside with my shoes, where there’s bird poo, possum poo, etc. Then I walk down the street, eyes glued to the footpath, making sure to skillfully dodge every band-aid, animal turd, and tissue with the grace of a drunk penguin playing hopscotch. Then, suddenly, I spot my mortal enemy, dog shit, on the nature strip. There are flies on it. (If there is indeed an an epitome of evil, the fly must have won him a very shiny prize, which he keeps on his mantelpiece next to the ones for mosquitoes, paperwork, and “child” proof seals, AKA indestructible seals of sorcery)

But I digress. Flies. Red alert! Scotty, we need warp drive immediately! I break into a frantic sprint so that the flies don’t get a chance to fly off it and land on me. I think I’ve escaped, and slow down. Then a fly tries to lands on my nose. Fuck. I feel like someone just injected me with ice water.  Is it one of the flies from the dogshit? Or not? Best not to risk it; I’ll shower when I get home. (Which means I’ll have to wash my clothes if I feel like they’ve been contaminated, leading to me running out of clothes during weather not conducive to evaporation. Like right now, with every pair of pants I own besides trackies currently dripping wet)

After ten minutes of this grueling obstacle course, I reach the supermarket. I’m walking down the aisle towards the milk. A woman is walking the other way. Please don’t let her cough as she passes me, please, please, please, please- she does. Another shot of adrenaline. My skin crawls. I feel nauseous.

I make my way to the register, hoping desperately that none of the checkout people coughs or sneezes into their hand before serving me, and that none of the people they serve before me do either. I get lucky this time.

Back through the microbial minefield I go, this time crossing the road to avoid the dogshit. But wait, there’s some on this side too. I feel I may have been targeted by some kind of canine mafia. I run passed it, not stopping until I get home.

Mission accomplished.
Time taken: 30 minutes.
Cargo obtained: 1 bottle of milk, 1 cartoon of eggs.
Casualties: Judging from heart rate and blood pressure, a few years off my life.
Analysis: Just another ordinary day.

Alien puppetshow

One of the things about being autistic is that non-autistic people, (I refuse to use the term “normal” because I am convinced that “normal” people are a myth, like unicorns, yetis, supermarkets with all their registers open on a busy day, and the possibility of putting a USB in the right way on the first try) can be brain-meltingly indecipherable.

Supposedly there are these subtle movements of certain parts of their body, like hands and facial muscles, that form a intricate non-verbal language that explains how they feel, and what they really mean when they speak. After twenty five years of intensive research, I have deducted that a smile usually means they’re happy, a frown means they’re not, and checking their phone means “go away”.

They also possess a superhuman resilience; for example, they are able to touch doorknobs and handrails, shake hands, and have people cough or sneeze in their vicinity without being reduced to a quivering lump so saturated with adrenaline that their blood could be used to restart someone’s heart. I have even observed them using public urinals without suffering so much as a psychological meltdown.

As a writer, this presents something of a problem; unless I were to populate my stories entirely with clones of myself, (for not all autistic people will see the world as I do either; it’s a very diverse condition) then I have to try to simulate these remarkable yet bewildering beings in my stories. As someone who can scarcely fathom how their wondrous minds work, writing them as convincing characters is a bit like writing about war based solely on the experience of playing Call of Duty and watching Apocalypse Now. (The original version of which is a bitch to find on DVD, it always seems to be that annoying Redux version)

By far the hardest part of writing for me is trying to get inside my character’s heads and make them behave in a believable and relateable way. I try using traits from people I know, but then it becomes a question of how those traits interact. (I make a point of never dumping my real life acquaintances directly into my stories, as that always struck me as a bit creepy. Besides, it would make it harder for me to subject them to all the horrible things I tend to do to my characters)

To this day I have no idea whether my characters work, or whether they’re as organic as a McDonalds cheeseburger. I guess that’s for the  reader to decide.

Vomiting stardust

When I was three years old, the fruity broth of ideas in my head finally fermented enough to make me drunk.

As most of you who’ve been drunk will know; better out than in. Until then, “out” had meant viciously attacking an innocent piece of paper (or any available surface really) with crayons, textas, pencils, chalk, paint, and occasionally charcoal stealthily acquired from our fireplace.

But this was different; somehow, in the primordial ooze, the ideas had strung themselves together into an orderly chain. (When I say orderly, I mean in the same way that a desk or a bedroom that hasn’t been cleaned for a month, or your average man-cave, is orderly. That is, that the owner can see a semblance of order in it even if nobody else can) It was a story, and a story I didn’t feel I could properly regurgitate using only pictures.

The problem was, I hadn’t learned to write yet . So I accosted my mother, and got her to write down the story next to my illustrations as I told it.

And just like that, I was hooked; a literary alcoholic for life, vomiting the intoxicating ideas that collected in my head onto an increasingly sophisticated set of canvases, from scrap paper, to most recently the annoyingly user unfriendly Microsoft Word 2007.

I couldn’t stop; still can’t. A few weeks without writing is all it takes for the idea soup to go rotten and poison me with grumpiness, fatigue, and the kind of empty meaninglessness I expect that public payphones and VHS tapes feel.

Vomiting the stardust of exploded thoughts into the world was an outlet that kept me sane. But by itself, it was like masturbation; sure it was fun, but it was lacking something. A connection.

As someone with autism, I’ve always felt as though the world I experience is different to the one other people experience. It’s a very lonely feeling.

Then I began to wonder; what if these stories, these distilled extracts of my tangled brain, could convey to other people the way I thought and felt? What if I could share my soul with others, and perhaps discover that I wasn’t so alien after all?