I saw myself in the subway today. Twenty-five or so and Asian and wearing lipstick, but otherwise, me.
She was stimming like crazy.
People seemed to both avoid and ignore her, giving her twice the personal space of anyone else, but also never really watching or noticing her. I watched her intently, at first in surprise — because I've never seen what I must have looked like, before I did all that work to get my stimming (the various outward expressions of my hyperweird brain) under control; it was fascinating — and then I watched carefully, the way you keep half an eye on someone carrying a huge stack of boxes, in case one falls and you can jump in and help.
She looked fine, mind you — at least to me. She was pacing on the balls of her feet, flexing and bouncing against the ground as she paced, never really stepping the same way twice. She walked past the wall repeatedly, knocking on it with different knuckles each pass; all the while her eyes darted to different things, and she kept up a constant half-silent conversation with herself, muttering and whispering. If she'd been wearing headphones, it would have only looked like she was super into the music — which is one reason you'll rarely see me out without headphones; they're great cover. But those are all things that I do, still, regularly when I'm alone, and that at various points in my life I've been unable to avoid doing no matter who was around. They don't mean that I'm doing badly (though more of them does usually mean I'm stressed — but all change is stressful, even good things). She wasn't giving any signs of doing actually-badly, and yes, I'm quite comfortable in my ability to tell the difference.
I sat across from where she was standing on the train — I used to not be able to sit down on transit, either — and I held a book in front of my face, something I usually do even if I'm not reading, because again, it's great cover. My headphones were also on, playing what most people would probably consider extremely loud, aggressive music, because in addition to making good cover for your odd or excessive movements, it turns out that headphones can provide enough aural stimulation to distract some parts of the brain that would otherwise be flapping your hands or tapping your feet or talking out loud without realizing it.
Part of me wanted, of course, to grab her and give her future-you hints like that: Have you considered stupidly loud music? Do you carry things in your pockets to play with? (Here, have a few of mine! I have *tons*.) Have you learned to flip quarters or roll baoding balls while you walk yet? –But of course, that would be rude, even if I honestly think that when I was twenty-five, I'd have fallen to my knees in gratitude if someone had grabbed me and said the same. The struggle to not stim in ways that earn social punishment was not infrequently, at that age, too intense for me to go outside at all.
But there's a difference: It wasn't, for her. People on the subway in Boston ignore you, and while there are downsides to that, the upsides are amazing for the mentally-atypical (be they ill or just differently-wired). She was clearly similarly neuroatypical to me — maybe Asperger's, as those similarities come up a lot — but she was relaxed about it; she ignored everyone and they ignored her. Stimming on the train around here is no big deal, as long as it isn't super loud or getting anything sticky on the seats. This is not true in public in the Midwest, where people generally pay a lot more attention and are a lot more flinchy about behavior that strikes them as "wrong" or violates herd-rules. In fact, while I put a lot of work into smoothing out and controlling my stimming for a long time, it wasn't until I moved to Boston that it suddenly got a lot easier. Why? Simple: my stress-levels were lower. People weren't staring, glowering distrustfully, or slipping away to go talk to that cop and point back in my direction — regular occurrences in Michigan — and so, while I might have still been doing some of my dumb stuff, I wasn't hyper-focused on OH GOD STOP ROCKING and therefore making it worse.
On the downside (not just of Boston but everywhere), the people so politely ignoring her / us on the subway weren't doing so because they "got it", or knew that doing so was polite — that's just how they roll around here. If she'd been acting mentally ill in a way that needed attention, I don't suspect they'd have done any better than the folks in the Midwest would have. We still live in a world, a whole culture and multiple societies, where mental illness is invisible at best, and punished at worst. She and I are lucky to be ignored when we're doing well, but if we're not, the only meaningful help we can ever expect is from each other.
I wonder if there's a mental health equivalent of an "I'll Go With You" button. I'd like to have one, to out myself at least to other people like me as someone who you can grab if you need eyes, a voice, or help getting to an exit. I don't for a second forget how lucky I am to be as crazy functional(-looking) as I am now, and have been able to be for most of this decade of my life; and I deal regularly with plenty of people who aren't so lucky. I wish I could do more to help.
(It's funny, we understand "mental illness" so poorly in this country that simple things about it — like how you are equally lucky for your mental and physical health, and likely to experience loss of both at some point — aren't even common knowledge yet.)
I'm watching my ragged fingers as I type this, fingers with nails permanently shortened by decades of biting; but fingers mostly in good shape now, no blood or injuries like I carried permanently before. I'm so lucky — and yes, have worked hard — but really, mostly, lucky; all the hard work has paid off, and that's on luck more than me.
And the urge to help keeps bobbing back to the surface, even though I don't know what to do with it. I wish I could have told her, in some way that wasn't outing her to people who didn't understand, that I was there, that I get it, and if she'd have needed me, I would have dropped my shit and helped her.