When I was an infant or maybe toddler, I was diagnosed with autism. I was way too young to remember that, but, because of the diagnosis, I grew up in a family environment that had an awareness of mental illness.
It may even be possible that I come from a long line of autistic people.
I believe I even knew that the word used to describe me was autism as all my life that word has always struck a nerve in me but I never knew why. As a small child I had no idea that autism was a mental illness.
So when I overheard the conversation discussing me, I understood what ‘mildly retarded’ meant. I was devastated. It was extremely traumatic.
I was definitely not like other children. I did not play much and the only friends I had were my sisters’ friends. But I was very aware. I followed everything. I understood what people around me were talking about except for some words.
That particular time I had been thrilled to hear that the person my mother was talking to also did not understand what autism was, so I really paid attention. Imagine my shock when I heard what she said. Me, I’m retarded!
For at least the past year I had been anticipating my turn to start school, which was due to happen the following year, so I must have been about four or five. Suddenly I felt convinced that there was no way I would be allowed to go to school if I was retarded.
My mother was a really wonderful woman. She was the one who helped me crack my shell and learn to deal with society. Albeit in a limited, less than perfect way. I don’t think that she had been aware of me listening to them but she could always tell if something was upsetting me. When she heard my concerns she reassured me that I would definitely be going to school.
Although I loved school, the first couple of years were still quite traumatic. My oldest sister always had to accompany me from my classroom to the transport home, or I would get quite hysterical. Although I was socially clumsy and awkward, my teachers loved me as I was ever attentive and quick to learn, even being quite dexterous. I learnt to knit in no time, again with a lot of extra support and coaching from my mother. In Standard Three I knitted my first real garment – a button-up cardigan with stripes in three colours and in my size. It gave me a wonderful sense of achievement.
In spite of being successful in my school work, I still did not have even low self-esteem. The only real friend of my own I had from Primary School was Marion Gleeson. Somehow, she did not make me feel not quite up to scratch, which was how I mostly felt as a young child. But she also had a whole group of other friends who I did feel awkward around so we only really spent time together when she wasn’t with them.
Standard Seven was the first time I actually had a group of friends. For me it was empowering. Although I still used to walk around looking at the ground, I would be fine if my friends were with me. By the time I reached Matric I had pretty much forgotten that I was ‘retarded’ but I still had very low self-esteem.
Then my mother got cancer. It was my first year after Matric. I was seventeen. I had managed to get a job straight after writing my final exams, at a local bank. It was considered a good position for someone with only a Matric and no actual experience. In a way I enjoyed my job. The actual work as a waste clerk was not very stimulating, but I made good friends with a couple of my colleagues.
On Fridays the staff, actually only the white staff, would get together for drinks in the ‘social’ room upstairs. It wasn’t long after I started there, that some of the older men would ply me with drinks and take me off into the empty offices.
I was still a virgin and extremely naïve, but I managed to fend them off. It was only in May that I was overpowered by one of the younger men, who then raped me. We had been the last to leave as he had offered me a lift home on his motorbike. This was, to me, a thrilling idea – it wasn’t very far to home. He also had the keys and had to lock up – which is why we ended up alone at the bank.
I was very traumatised but I tried to talk to him the following Monday. I saw him go upstairs and followed him. Being the person I am, I hung back, afraid to confront him. Then I saw that he was scrubbing the white carpet where he had done the dirty to me – he was trying to remove the bloodstain and was cursing.
I ran away and he never spoke to me ever again. I was so stressed I struggled to work. I had a permanently upset stomach and spent most of every day in the toilet. As I had been working for less than a year I was allowed to resign with only two weeks’ notice, which I did.
As my mother was very sick at the time I did not want to burden her with my troubles, but I could tell that it worried her that I had left my job.
After a couple of non-starter jobs in sales, I got a reception come girl-friday position in a small insurance brokerage.