I look back at all of this as a twisted blessing. Each incident added another brick to my wall. I see pain, and I run the other way. My sister inherited our dad’s recklessness, and I inherited our mom’s overprotectiveness to balance her out.
Sometimes I don’t understand it. I could never touch a cigarette when three of my grandparents died from smoking-related conditions, and I told myself I would never start drinking alcohol knowing addiction runs in our family. My sister picked up both habits in high school.
When I see cigarettes, I don’t see cancer, I see the look on my mom’s face when she found out her mother had suffered a stroke. When I see alcohol, I see a hole in the wall, my mother crying herself to sleep. I feel the need to protect her the same way she always protected me. But it isn’t a lack of compassion. My sister has always been the more compassionate sibling. She feels with immense passion. My shield just has more layers.
Autism is one layer. I didn’t have any friends, so I avoided peer pressure as a teen. I didn’t drink at parties because I didn’t go to parties. My friends say milk is my second layer. In my first decade, milk made me hyper and aggressive. Over time, it stopped having an effect. Yet people still joke that milk is my drug.
I’m hyperactive. I drink a lot of milk. But the two are not related. But you bite one teacher at one swimming lesson after drinking one giant glass of milk, and no one ever lets you live it down. Nonetheless, when my friends are drinking wine, I’m usually slurping milk. It’s a sensory pleasure. The smooth consistency of milk feels good going down.
My senses are another layer. I never worried about being tempted to try smoking, because the smell of tobacco hurts my nose. Even thinking about drinking, I can smell stale beer wafting from the bottom of a tackle box, melding with the scent of fish guts and rotting bait. I always thought that that memory alone was enough to keep me from ever trying alcohol.
But even as I write this, I can’t figure out why it didn’t. I don’t know what made me taste that Moscato. I know why I didn’t swallow it. I know why my tongue retracted. But why did I let the poison touch my tongue in the first place? Simple curiosity doesn’t explain it. I had never had any interest in trying wine before that day, and in the moment, I wasn’t thinking about what it would taste like.
Over the years, I have been asked so many times why I don’t drink. I never give an answer. Want a beer? Can’t, I’m afraid I’ll wake up a raging alcoholic. It’s a bit of a mood killer. Tasting it would allow me to say unequivocally I don’t like the feel of alcohol in my throat.
That is much easier to explain. I had a built-in safety net. I knew I wouldn’t like the taste. My brain wouldn’t let me. My sensory signals are off honking their horns in traffic. I wanted to prove to myself I wouldn’t like liquor. I wanted another reason to hate it.
But I know how stubborn my taste buds are, which make me think there’s more to the story. The way I process sensory input shapes my attitudes towards what I experience. I hate mushrooms because I loathe how they feel inside my mouth. I associate trains with embarrassment because my friend tapped my shoulder at a train station and everyone at Union Station heard me shriek in pain.
Intimacy is always an emotional whirlwind. My reaction to touch is highly influenced by my stress levels. What feels comforting one day, can leave me so overwhelmed the next day that my brain shuts down, and I am reduced to a zombie caricature the rest of the day.
None of this I can control. Emotions are easier to manage. It’s easier to convince yourself you’re in command. That night I had friends all around me. The cups had rainbow polka dots, and it’s impossible not to smile when you’re drinking out of a cup with rainbow polka dots. I had people treating me the way I always wanted my family to treat me. There was no pressure. Only understanding.
Maybe I wanted one alcohol-related memory that I could look back at as a happy one. I laughed about the incident. Tongue dipping a wine glass is weird, but it is so quintessentially me. The look of horror on my face afterwards made everyone giggle. In losing control, I was able to take some control back.
I had a memory of alcohol that didn’t involve my parents fighting. Back then, I could not have imagined a time when I wouldn’t have to watch my dad drink away his life every day. The beer was as much a part of his identity as autism is for me. He lost his career to it. He lost his house to it. He lost his self-respect.
It took losing all his money, being arrested three times in a span of a month, and nearly falling to his death in a fishing accident to cajole him into going to rehab. I don’t have to think about alcohol until the next time my sister fails to take my dating advice.
I don’t have to, but I will. I don’t have to because I know how to bury pain. My walls have only grown stronger. Emotions. Deception. I can play that game. But the sound of tape ripping off a tape dispenser will always drop me to my knees.
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