Editor’s note: this article references animal cruelty
My beliefs on how the universe is ordered tend to oscillate between two extremes: a solid recognition that order exists solely in a scientific interpretation, and a reluctant acceptance that there exists a potentially-moral higher power dictating how our lives play out.
There are times in my life where the latter seems inescapable in its reality. The way I was able to become intimate with a psychopath over a period of about a year and walk away to talk about it is one of the situations in my life that has thrust my belief meter full on to the spiritual acceptance side.
As is widely known, when a person comes from a troubled background, they tend to find themselves in places they don’t necessarily belong. As a teenager, I used to spend a lot of time at a local fine dining French restaurant that turned into a jazz bar on the weekend evenings. I was obviously too young to be there, but my older friend was well-known around town, so no one ever questioned my presence. If she thought I was cool, well, I must have been old enough to be there.
Growing up, I was always a bit awkward, and I often struggled to parse subtle romantic signals from everyday interaction. As the result of a tumultuous childhood, I also had in my personal emotional queue the full range of needs waiting to be met. So when that handsome-but-unsettlingly-intense older guy stared at me unrelentingly across the dimly lit room those decades ago, I was all aboard for whatever he had to offer. As it turned out, he didn’t have much to offer– and most of what he did offer was pretty scary.
I remember him being obsessively tidy. He rode his bicycle everywhere and was a business major at the local university. Most of the time what he did was pretty unremarkable and what most would consider “normal.” We spent a lot of time in the dark listening to Dave Matthews Band. Red flag number one! Just kidding.
Back then, I was so heavily masked that I went with whatever everyone around me was doing without question. I had been gaslighted so much that I’d grown accustomed to ignoring what I felt, so much so that I could no longer really distinguish between safe and unsafe situations. In retrospect, he put me in a lot of unsafe situations, and I went right along, sort of half hoping I wouldn’t die, but not really knowing if I was overreacting. I’d been taught to be compliant without question as a result of much abuse throughout my then-eighteen years on the planet.
So I let him drive me an hour out of town into a field. A literal field, far away from access roads. And we talked. And the talks always felt like a test. Somehow, I passed that time.
One night I had a few friends over, and he said something to me so blatant and cold that I started crying. He seemed unfazed by my sadness, like it hadn’t registered at all. He left my apartment without saying anything– just turned around mid-conversation and walked out the door.
Then I found him in the pitch black darkness of my new boyfriend’s driveway when my boyfriend wasn’t home. He asked me to walk with him to another yard and we sat and talked as he gave me another “test.” Miraculously, I passed again. I say miraculous because I recall this occasion being very frightening, and the conversation was mostly just me talking him down from doing something that he kept describing as “really bad.” It felt eerily like I was being made to talk him out of hurting me.
Shortly after that unsettling incident, I came home from work late one evening to find a dish of milk on my front porch– which frightened me. I noticed my semi-outdoor cat had not returned for the night. I thought that maybe someone had taken her, but I didn’t really know what I could do about it. A few days later, I noticed a foul smell coming from the bushes in front of my ground floor apartment. I went over to investigate, and there under the bushes was my deceased, decapitated cat. Afraid that I was being stalked, I promptly ended my lease with the apartment complex and moved elsewhere.
A few months after that, he was arrested for murder.
It wasn’t until a decade later when I started to put together all the information I’d learned about human behavior that I came to the realization that he was very likely the person responsible for killing my cat and just how unsafe I had been during all of my interactions with him.
A Cautionary Tale for Autistic Children
Autistic people from my generation, especially those assigned female at birth. Now, autistic children are identified and diagnosed earlier. Ideally, this knowledge would help children grow into teens and adults who know how to identify danger, how to trust their feelings, and how to set boundaries to keep them safe; however, behavioral therapies that begin as early as toddlers only 18 months old and can be as intensive as forty hours per week instead are focused on training autistic kids to be as “normal” as possible.
These therapies, like ABA therapy, train children to interact and be friendly with people they don’t trust, to comply even when it feels wrong, to be polite on cue, and to not resist demands. This conditioning, or “programming,” teaches autistic people implicitly that their nature is flawed and that they need to trust that others know better what is good for them than they know about themselves.
The knowledge of one’s neurodivergence and what that means can be invaluable, but it needs to be used to empower people to work with their neurology instead of against it, to accept their differences as opposed to being pressured to be assimilate at the expense of their safety, their mental health, their self-perception, and their access to live authentically.
It could be a matter of life or death.
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