Final semester, 1998
I missed a lot of class that semester. Depression and things I couldn’t name were eroding my sense of time.
I made half-hearted efforts to steer my grades in a passing direction and otherwise avoided class as much as possible. I spent most days just walking. I would stay on campus, roaming all over, going from one end to the other, or circling the big library for hours. It was hard to go home, I just liked being outside, so I would walk in the evenings as well.
Sometimes I would walk a mile or so to a friend’s house so that we could drink and watch old VHS bootlegs of Doctor Who. Then I would head back, walk off the drink, and I’d sit in my truck, try to make sense of where to go. I had trouble sleeping then, so I never liked being at home, I felt worse there.
Sometimes I would go to a midnight movie, then a diner. Other times I gave up, went home… watched infomercials till morning. Infomercials, endlessly, with real estate barons, with self-help gurus, with histrionic shamans of convenience.
I had finished the requirements for my psychology major the year before, so during the last semester I had to focus exclusively on my minor, philosophy. My psych classes had passed by quickly, without ever pulling me in. Teachers taught, I memorized, repeated, went through the motions. Philosophy made more of an impact. These were sad songs from far away places and I was drawn to that.
Several hours a day, five days a week, that’s what I did (when not skipping): went to class, listened, took notes, read piles of books. I had to do all of my minor course work in two semesters, so a large quantity of philosophy poured inward. Foucault tried to out-system the system. Kierkegaard despaired, wrote cryptic letters to himself. Nietzsche laughed, wrote aphorisms for the future. Sartre wrote about the social marionettes we like to play at, which I liked. I was the only person in class who thought Sartre was funny.
One professor thought that philosophy only reached people when its themes were fictionalized. And he thought Star Trek was the pinnacle of philosophical excellence. So, for his class on Aristotle, we had to read a minimum of five Star Trek novels. We spent one whole week of class watching ‘Star Trek 3: the search for Spock’.
At the end of the semester I knew nothing about Aristotle and a fair amount about Vulcan mating rituals.
I took the entrance exam for graduate school, but when the results came in the mail I threw them away without looking at the score.
I had applied to three graduate schools…I canceled the applications.
In the days before graduation I told a friend that I was probably in some trouble.
I mostly knew what was coming. I couldn’t see the ending, but I knew I couldn’t hold myself together anymore.
A girl kissed me that last semester and that was my first kiss. I had been so lonely.
I drove a pick-up truck. We were sitting in it, outside of a bar. She kissed me and I had trouble managing the intensity of the sensation. I opened the truck door and vomited. I had mentioned several times that I have trouble feeling comfortable around people, so she was nice about it.
We just sat in silence for while, then she asked, “What is that?”
I told her, “I don’t know.”
I wouldn’t know for almost a decade. Even then, in college, I knew so little about myself.
I read a lot of books that semester about various psychological disorders. After that kiss, I was more frantic to understand what was happening. I had tried for years to make sense of my reactions to lights and touch; I had tried to make sense of my physical awkwardness and the disconnected sensations that plague me; but it became very clear that semester that I was not going to meet a lot of extremely basic social milestones. I was feeling lost and confused and unsettled.
I read a lot about anxiety disorders and personality disorders, in particular. I kept a journal at the time. In it, I wrote out the specifics of what I felt internally…alongside symptoms of the various disorders. I tried to mix and match and see if I could find a diagnosis that made sense.
I still have the journal. On one page, written during the last two weeks of the semester, I wrote out a list of the four mostly likely diagnoses. Asperger’s Syndrome was one of them. Ultimately, I scratched it out, feeling it was the least plausible of the four. This was only a few years after it was included in the main diagnostic manual, and at that time the word autism meant one thing: Rain Man.
I could fake my way through a few elementary forms of social interaction. I didn’t feel particularly bright; clearly lacked a savant talent of any kind. Not understanding what Aspergers really meant, I ruled it out and moved on.
I never reached a decision that semester, even though I desperately wanted to. A diagnosis would put a box around things, contain them. It would offset what I felt in my heart: that no diagnosis actually fit; that I was, at the core of my being, incoherent. My fear was that I lacked a true personality, that I was just an accumulation of habit and need and mimicry.
That fear…unlike any diagnostic description…seemed to fit the facts completely. I think that’s what happened that semester. I became too afraid to function. I reached a point where the presence of others just pulled too much at my sense of self…I could see, too well, that my conversation was generally forced, scripted; my limited range of body language was rehearsed.
Life as a marionette began to scare me. Every day, during every interaction, my identity formed…lightened…and evaporated, like breath on a mirror.
Graduation day: I drifted around campus in the few hours before the ceremony. I sat on benches and people-watched. Moms and dads and aunts and uncles strolled through campus, snapping pictures. Students posed in front of the bell tower. Friends and their families came around and small talked. Everyone asked what my plans were. I prevaricated, muttered bland things, convincing things.
I went and sat on my favorite bench by the library. I drank coffee and threw acorns at squirrels.
Finally, I went to the big gym, put on the graduation costume and sat in a room full of robed strangers. One person called my name; I walked across a stage where another person handed me a diploma. I resumed my seat amongst the robes.
When graduation was over, I declined offers to parties. I told friends that I had family obligations. My family did insist on a get-together, but I told them I had friend obligations. Mom said, “You’re moving away tomorrow. Please just spend a little time with us tonight.” I apologized and told her I couldn’t.
I sat in my truck for an hour and watched the ebbing crowd. Campus emptied out.
I listened to worn cassettes. I drove around for awhile, aimless. I pulled into a movie theater that showed older films for a dollar. I didn’t know what was showing, I just bought a ticket for the movie with the closest start time. Black room, flickering lights: Sylvester Stallone punched bad guys. I don’t remember plot, I just recall punching and snow and mountains and a helicopter exploded.
I went home at midnight, slept a little, then loaded my things into the truck and moved away.