By Becca Lory, CAS, BCCS
Family, talk about a loaded word. It certainly means different things to different people. For me, it’s not a particularly good word. Family has never been associated with the kinds of experiences I am looking to have nor the memories I am looking to make. I realize that may seem harsh. Many of you must be thinking, ‘there goes the unempathetic autistic again, always so unfeeling.’ But trust me, I do not say that lightly nor without my fair share of lived experiences. In fact, after years of struggling to match the word family to my reality, I was done with it. I realized that this word and its associated memories had become permanently attached to the negative self-talk in my head. So much so, that I decided to just stop using it altogether.
Did you ever try doing an image search on the word family? Give it a go the next time you are waiting for the bus or in the doctor’s office. It’s genuinely more fascinating than those two-year-old issues of Parents’ Health. The first thing you will notice is that the images that come up are strikingly identical. Silhouetted foursomes of two parents and their two kids frolicking by the beach at sunset, the word ‘family’ strewn above their heads. Or the same foursome, holding hands, walking along the beach by day, hair flowing in the breeze, laughing at the one kid on dad’s shoulders. These days not everybody is white but it’s close. The occasional non-traditional couple pops up, an adopted child here and there. Page after page, sunset after sunset, four souls wandering through life, stress free, no place to be, and endlessly enjoying each other’s company. Where are the cousins? Where is the family dog? The non-stop family gatherings? My big take-away, according to society’s giant Google machine, you can only be family at the beach while remaining epically vanilla.
I don’t know about anybody else but that doesn’t exactly ring true for me. In my life, my experiences with family varied and it wasn’t always “a day at the beach”. We also weren’t four but two, just me and my mom. Well, two and half, my grandma was really my second parent. So just the 2.5 of us, trying to survive in a very confusing world for an undiagnosed spectrumite and her well-meaning support team. That is, of course, until the Family was around. Anyone outside of us three felt like an invader from another planet. They didn’t know the rules. They were loud. They were boring. And, I was always hungry because I hated eating in front of people almost as much as I hated not having chicken nuggets. Both of which remain true to this day. Then there would be the questions. What are you reading now? Do you have a boyfriend? What are you up to after school? You won’t know it. Not yet. Hiding. No matter the occasion, same questions, same answers. With each family gathering, the distance between us and them growing while walls were being built to protect us from their pitying looks and sporadic phone calls.
So just the 2.5 of us, trying to survive in a very confusing world for an undiagnosed spectrumite and her well-meaning support team.
And those are just the ones that were around. There were plenty more that we rarely, if ever, saw. Names matching stories but no faces or smells to go along with them. Just voices on the other end of the answering machine and the occasional birthday card in the mail. Virtual strangers and yet, “family” just the same.
Then there are the ones that just left us. Deciding that we didn’t fit in their boxes or their version of life, they left, doing only what was obligated. The rest of it being too much work and too inconvenient for us to warrant their time. Still, they were “family”.
As an adult, with revelations gifted to me by my autism diagnosis, I have untangled some of my trauma and faced head on that incessant negative self-talk. Repeating over and over in my head, were words, conversations, and labels given to me by family. Lazy, stubborn, selfish, mean, rude, manipulative, aggressive, and, my favorite, intimidating. Handed down by the generations, just like my DNA, were these family words that ate at my soul and fed my anxiety and depression.
Somewhere around eighteen years old, I had absolutely given up on family. It was my choice to make and if that was what family meant, I didn’t want any. Things have changed some since then. Our two and half is now one, and I know I am autistic. As the solo member of my “family”, I am done that with that word. I literally stopped using it. It went the way of its fellow ‘f-word, “friend”, into the dumpster heap of the wreckage I sorted through with the help of my new-found self-knowledge. With the clarity of my autism diagnosis, I decided to redefine the people and animals that I choose to surround myself with.
There is a great line in the closing of the movie, Zombieland. The lead character sums up his thoughts and says, “That look on my face? That was me realizing that those two girls in the black truck and that big guy in the snakeskin jacket were the closest thing to what I always wanted but never had – family. I trusted them, and they trusted me.” This is the version of “family” that I have now. I am surrounded by people who care to understand me and share my passions. Animals who know love and loyalty like no other, share their daily lives with me, and we function as a unit. I am supported by a community with more heart in their little fingers than any “family” I have ever known. These people, these animals, they are what make every day worth living. They are worth sacrificing spoons because they would give me their last one. They are worth more than calling “family”. They are my tribe. They are my pack. They are my pride.
Becca Lory, CAS, BCCS was diagnosed on the autism spectrum as an adult and has since become an active autism advocate, consultant, speaker, and writer. With a focus on living an active, positive life, her work includes autism consulting, public speaking engagements, writing a monthly blog, Live Positively Autistic, and the bi-weekly podcast that she co-hosts, Spectrumly Speaking. An animal lover with a special affinity for cats, Becca spends most of her time with her partner, Antonio Hector, and their Emotional Support Animal (ESA), Sir Walter Underfoot.
Read more articles in Zoom Autism Magazine, Issue 13:
- Lights, Camera, Activism! Up Close with Matt and Ed Asner by Lydia Wayman
- Walking with Owen by Walter Suskind
- I Will Never Go to Harvard…And That’s Okay! By Jacob Fuentes
- Parenting, Spectrum Style by Maura Campbell
- Cummings and Goings: The Manyness of Family by Conner Cummings
- How I Found My Happy Ending by Megan Amodeo
- The Impact of Camouflaging, Anxiety and Trust by Robert Watkins
- What Does the Word Family Mean to You?