Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and LiteratureSummer 2016
By Diane Baumer
Steps. Words in a sentence,letters in a word, number of lines in a paragraph. Floor tiles, ceiling lights, slats that make up a window blind.
I count. Anything and everything. Odd is better than even(always) except when I'm counting with my hands or feet -- then, the counting always has to start right and end left, which makes the number even. I think that has something to do with coming full circle, with closing an opening. But whatever it is, I usually tap out an extra, so there is an odd number to finish. Evens seem so very, very unlucky.
It used to be much worse, more involved and detailed. Counting the number of times I blinked and,therefore, saw an object…making sure it was an odd number. If something happened to interfere with the pattern, looking away and back again, to make up for it, all the while being certain that wherever I looked, I maintained the same "odd" number.
As far back as I can remember, everything has always needed to be done in multiples of odd numbers. To not do so created incredible anxiety. Scratching an itch, brushing my hair, buying things (1 or 3, never 2),structuring my sentences, coughing, sneezing, everything.
It wasn't until I discovered that my ability to see labels beneath objects that spelled out the name of that object was vastly different from the way others perceived the world that I started to think about other things that made me different. I thought everybody counted. Somebody mentioned that we used to count steps a lot, at the apartment, and at school. And then, I remember running back right before the bell in high school to recount steps that I thought I might have miscounted, and hiding it, and I realized that some part of me knew I was different.And then another somebody said that I still do this because, until now, many months after this discovery, I wasn't consciously aware of it. But as I thought about it, I realized I knew the number of steps in various public and private buildings, the number of letters in many words without having to count them and, as I began to give fuller attention to the body, I noticed that counting was almost as involuntary for me as breathing.
There's no rhyme or reason to my compulsion. I can very vividly describe what I do, and how things must be, but not why. I've yet to uncover the obsession or obsessions that drive it. Even though I like to think that it is getting better, I really think that it is simply existing, as it always has, at a deeper level, because at times of increased anxiety, it comes out in full force. And I occasionally test myself. Though I can't remember counting steps in a particular building or number of letters in a certain word, I always know how many there are.
The most difficult thing about being quietly different from others is that feeling of needing to hide a part of yourself. I want to be accepted as I am, quirkiness and all. I have a dissociative disorder and it seems that the more I learn about the role that plays in my life, the more I begin to discover that the quirks I uncover are not directly related to the dissociation as I first thought. The hardest thing I think I'm learning is to accept all parts of me as they are -the others, the behavioral quirks, everyone and everything – and people aroundme are much more likely to accept them as well. It doesn’t always work out that way, though.
It’s like with those labels I mentioned. It seems that every time I notice something that’s unusual about me, it’s something weird or something that nobody has ever heard of. And it’s always something I think everybody does or hears or sees, because I’ve never known any different. It’s been a very long road for me and I’m alot smarter than I used to be, but I still learn new things every now and then.
I was messaging with a friend of mine one day when he commented on a small brown animal he could see out his back window. Sqirell. I didn't get it. How was it possible for anyone to be such a perfectly bad speller? I asked my best (and I might add, most patient) friend this, while I replied that he ought to know this word was spelled s-q-u-i-r-r-e-l. He sent me a smilie, and asked how often a person really needed to spell that word – and thus began our dance, and my spiraling into a world both warmly familiar and terrifyingly strange.
It wasn't until that very moment that I started to realize that I process the world in a very different way than do other people. I'd always been unimaginably impatient with others who misspelled words, because my environment provides no excuse for it. When I see an object or hear an idea, it comes with a label attached. The bus passing me on the street is accompanied by its own sign beneathit that reads "b - u- s" and,as people talk, their conversations come to me as words and sentences in a book. It’s a little like watching those children’s shows like Sesame Street,where all the objects are labeled beneath with black lowercase letters.
If I see an object or hear something in a conversation that whatever does my spelling for me can't process, it comes to me missing letters,or misspelled. I'm not sure how I know,but I always know the word is misspelled. So I might see a word for an unfamiliar particular Native American tribe as "Iriquois," or"Ir quois."
I could never understand how people could deal with the constant intrusion of these incorrectly spelled or incomplete words. To me, it's like a visual assault, and the only way to ease its effects is to correct the spellings.
Learning that not everyone perceives the world in this way was confusing, and a little scary for me. It felt a bit like a gift, and a little bit more like some stupid joke somebody was playing on me. It has always been distracting, although as I’ve gotten older, the letters have faded to a degree and have become easier to ignore.
It also has led me to wonder how many different ways people perceive this world that they just don't talk about, because they either think that everybody is the same, or they know that they are different.
Diane Baumer has an MA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Midwest and has just completed work on a memoir. Diane’s work has appeared in The Albatross (Romania), This is Shibun (Japan), Many Voices, Frogpond, Streetlight Magazine, Haiku International, South by Southeast, the Girls Trek Too blog, and several others.