Metal Mike and the Electric Hellfire Band
Let's admit right now that Mike was a real bastard--both literally and figuratively. Convinced of his own adulthood and finding no evidence that there were actually adults that were more responsible than he was, he decided to ignore all conventional wisdom and advice and to revel in anything that gave him pleasure. I liked it when he took to violent video games and heavy metal, because the rhythmic nature of the latter and the complex geometry of the guitar work were both like bisecting crystal lattices in my ears, and I could explore their auditory architecture in ways that made them highly visible to me. I also liked the games for the rapid and satisfying risk-reward loops that they threw me into. When I was feeling creative, I could also get out the map editors and make my own worlds to tromp around in. It was like I had found LEGO again, only no one was around to make fun of me for playing with toys as a teenager.
When Mike discovered Marilyn Manson, I knew that I had found the sound that would define my entire existence. Today, seventeen years after the first time I heard Antichrist Superstar, I still listen to it at least once a week. Mike liked it because it was brutal and confrontational and because it bugged the shit out of all the so-called adults who told us what to do while they fucked us around and refused to protect us. I liked it because the surreal, lyrical storytelling deftly exposed the nature and texture of a hate that I could feel but could not understand. Today I listen to it because it is the most articulate dissertation on moral hypocrisy that I have ever heard, and it adequately shows both the way that this hypocrisy perpetuates hate and the way that that hate slowly corrodes us. In fact, I'm listening to it now.
The nature of the leeches,
The virgin's feeling cheated,
You've only spent a second of your life.
My world is unaffected.
There is an exit here.
I say it is and it's true.
There is a dream inside a dream, I'm wide awake the more I sleep,
You'll understand when I'm dead...
Then, I only understood this to be the way I felt. Now, I understand it to be a rather poetic demonstration of the layers of self-denial that are necessary in order to convince yourself that you are a good person even as you do horrible things to others.
Eventually, Mike's friends started experimenting with chemicals. The first time they introduced him to DXM, or tripping on cough syrup to you nerdy-nerds who never tried to party in the cold-n-flu aisle, he became convinced that he was living in a time-dilated bubble and that he was over ninety years old. He begged them to let him die, and to tell his family that he loved them.
The second time he did it, Mike became unvoiced and I was able to take over again. After that, he spent years chasing after me, dosing himself in higher amounts with purer substances until he could sink into oblivion and rest, forcing me to navigate in our body, sometimes for days at a time, before he would come back and start running our life again. It was glorious when he did it, but terrifying at the same time. The nightmare that usually forced me to retreat and to use him as a shield receded in those moments, and I could completely control my body as if it was nothing more than a puppet. For once, I did not have to worry about constant surges of anxiety or about trying to say something and not being able to speak. Sometimes people commented that it looked like I was wearing a suit made out of myself, but other than that, everything was great.
Mike had this system--he ran the show, managed our social life, and even carried on the relationship with our girlfriend, and when he got too tired, he would let me out of my magic lamp by drinking twelve ounces of Robitussin and watching music videos while I danced for him.
Oh, yeah... Mike fell in love around this time, too. Not in teenage love either--he fell into a full-blown, emotionally turbulent, fully sexual life partnership. I won't name the girl because I don't talk to her any more and I wouldn't want to embarrass her since she's moved on with her life, but she was in a similar situation to him. Her mother was epileptic and the years of seizures, coupled with the awful side effects of her medications, had left her in a position where she could work but she could not really run a household without help. The girl and her brothers took care of the house for her, and their grandmother helped them out.
She had lost her father shortly before we met. I had stopped communicating with my mother around then, too. Together, we worked our way through high school. When Mike could not tolerate his father's tantrums any more, he could always go to her family and have dinner with them. He even went to their Christmases. When she felt like her mother was belittling her or misunderstanding how hard she worked around the house, Mike sat down between them and mediated. It worked for almost four years.
During this time, Mike excelled in school, discovered his taste for whiskey, learned guitar, and occasionally let me out to listen to Skinny Puppy while he was too intoxicated to do anything about it. You know, normal teenage things. His friends kindled his interest in LaVeyan Satanism. He developed a penchant for outdoor oral sex, and he learned exactly how little attention the dollar movie theater employees paid to what a group of teenagers chose to do when the lights went down.
His sexual awakening was exciting. The girl he was in love with was bisexual and the cough syrup was eroding his ability to keep my behavior in check, so I was able to convince him to do the things that made me happy--wearing makeup, experimenting with highly alternative fashion (including some skirts), shaving his legs--and he was willing to go along with it for as long as his girlfriend was turned on by his "androgynous phase".
Unfortunately, his friends were not so happy to go with it. Neither was his father. He was forbidden to dress and act the way he wanted when he was at school and later, when he was in his hometown at all. Eventually, when we became completely noncompliant and a few of our friends got sloppy about the Robitussin thing, he got caught out for getting high off it, and then we came under more scrutiny. Mike agreed to stop--to tell the truth, he was just glad that it was only the 'tussin he was caught for, since he was screwing, drinking, smoking, and sneaking out of the house at night by then (among other things)--but I didn't want to go back into my magic lamp. I wanted to stay out, and to do the things that Mike only let me do when he was unable to stop me.
I got us out of high school early. That was how I did it. I figured that the only way that Mike could keep his bad habits (and my freedom) going would be if he was no longer under his father's roof, and I figured that the easiest (ha!) way to do that was to get him through high school in three years. I imagined that he would get lots of scholarships because it was such a rare thing.
I imagined wrong. I did get us out of high school, and Mike did keep his bad habits going for long enough to let me have another year or two of freedom, but since he was unable to acknowledge me as Michael and to integrate my desires into our personality, I was just the ghost that bothered him whenever he got stoned. I watched him make choices and use my body to do what he wanted, but I didn't really get to participate in a full way.
Life passed me by. Mike grew apart from the girl, who decided that her bisexuality was a phase and that she wasn't actually sexually attracted to confused genius boys who liked to drink cough syrup and hump her while they both wore dresses. Mike's father also welched on the portion of tuition that he was supposed to cover, which meant that Mike had to clean his act up and work three jobs to stay in school.
Eventually, after he managed to push me back down under the surface, he got a job as a Resident Assistant, and he was able to muddle through school without having to work himself to death. He had to go clean to do it, though, which posed new and different problems.
Meeting Liz, Graduation, and Grad School
Around the time that Mike was cleaning his act up, he met Liz. Liz and I are still together, and I have to say that I think she was the first truly positive relationship in my life. When she first met Mike, he was still trying to keep me corked up and failing pretty badly. I was giving him night terrors, insomnia, and other symptoms that the other people in the dorm were noticing because he would scream and tear the furniture apart in his dorm room every night. When Liz stayed over, though, things got better.
Mike accepted her epilepsy as a simple fact of existence, which was something that astonished her. She accepted his bisexuality, which was as close as he could come to pretending that he was straight after the things that I ran him through while we were dating that first girl. She supported him emotionally, and he drove for her when she was too ill from recent seizures to drive. When he graduated and he did not know how to find any work, she nursed his ego through temp agency layoff after temp agency layoff. When her parents wondered what was wrong with him and why no one would employ him for longer than a few weeks, she defended him to them.
Eventually, they got to know Mike well enough to like him on their own. They taught him the things that his dad did not--the basic things, like how to use tools, as well as the more complicated things, like how to plan a household budget. It was a slow process that took years, but they were there for him in real, material ways that his own parents were not.
Mike helped them to see him for what he could be, instead of what he was, when Liz got really sick. She wound up in status epilepticus for the better part of a year, and he stayed by her side, finding rides out to her hospital (100 miles away) even when his car was in the shop for a month and he had no money to fix it. Once, when she was feeling exceptionally lonely and unstable, he drove the 100 miles to see her even though his brakes had failed on the way home from work the night before. He drove the 100 miles back the same day so that he could do Sunday overtime and afford to get the car fixed. It was hard for her parents to see him as a lazy loser after that.
In a lot of ways, it was Mike's choice to stay by Liz's side that finally started to make the cracks in my performance of his personality show up. The extra trauma that he experienced for me during that period became too much, and even as he found himself getting accepted to graduate school, he found it harder and harder to control his drinking and to perform his role as the beastly rock-star-future-writer-hard-drinking-party-man that he knew he had to be if he was going to convince the world not to question the inconsistencies in his nature. It was, after all, far easier to be a brilliant eccentric than to be a disabled and mentally ill adult.
Graduate school provided a lot of opportunities for us to learn social things that we had not learned before, because we were going for a creative writing degree with an emphasis on writing for the theater, so we took a lot of acting-oriented writing workshops and we got some plays staged. Unfortunately, the romantic writing-party atmosphere also brought out the worst in my performance of Mike's personality, which caused him to further deteriorate. The constant social pressures of performance also led to more drinking. It was the only way that I could balance performing as Mike while Mike was trying to perform in a play, and it cost me.
I never did land a job out of graduate school. I spent the two years after graduation trying, and also trying to get my plays produced. Neither happened. I drank more, wondering why the world had to be so horrible, and eventually, my anger and my disgust at my entire situation led to my breaking my hand. It was the single most terrifying moment in my life, because I knew that the bones were broken in that hand and I was working a manual labor job at the time, but I had no health care and only just enough money in my checking account to cover the next month's rent. The food in my kitchen had come to me by way of a food bank that my mother had gone to on my behalf, and so all I could do was ice the hand, work the fingers, and hope that I would not lose too much of the function in that hand.
Oh yeah... I was also in touch with my mother again. We didn't have much of a relationship yet, but I had initiated contact because I... I don't know. I just couldn't not reach out to her when I started to feel myself coming apart. I was twenty-six, the same age she'd been diagnosed at, and I had to know whether the things I was experiencing were because I was just like her or not. I hoped that she would see the mess I made and tell me what I was, I guess.
She didn't, but she did start to raise me. She took my rages and turned them back on me. She brought me food when she knew I couldn't afford it--something Liz had also done before she became disabled herself, but that Liz could no longer do because she was just as impoverished as I was. Eventually, she even gave me a bed and helped me to figure out how to buy a car by talking to me about how she had managed it when she needed one for work but didn't have a job yet. I don't know if she knew she was teaching me all those things, but she did.
Despite all the help though, I was still flailing. I still could not keep enough work on my plate to keep going, and I could not find a better job, and I knew something wasn't right.
Diagnosis and Discovery
The year I turned twenty-seven was the year that I finally sought help. I had reconciled myself to the idea that my inability to organize myself, to find work, to follow through on interviews, that it was all because I had something that could be treated. At the time, I was pretty sure that it was adult ADHD. Several other people in my family have it, and it seemed to explain a lot of my problems--attention span issues, executive function, missed social cues, etc. So I managed to get myself into a free consultation, and I talked to someone.
I also had Liz's mom throw a couple of books about autism at me. By the time I was done reading, I was sure I was autistic, but I didn't know how to talk about it to the counseling people. I talked to Liz and my mother about it, but I didn't know where to go from there. I considered my problem solved and stopped going to the counselors, because they didn't diagnose me with anything and talk therapy wasn't helping. About a year later, when I started to think about disclosing at work, I decided to go for a real diagnosis, and I received one fairly quickly. I guess I don't pass as much as I think I do sometimes.
Knowing that I was autistic, and that this explained a lot of the holes in my skill sets (and also a lot of my confusion about events in my past) helped me to come to terms with a lot of problems I was having. It showed me what life skills I needed to work on, and it gave me hope. That hope allowed me to reel in my drinking, to control my frustrated rages somewhat (at least enough not to re-break the hand), and to organize myself well enough that I could get more work. Eventually, it motivated me to radically rethink my pedagogy and to build more and more accessible classrooms, which in turn increased the demand for my courses and led to me getting more work.
As I gained the confidence to disclose, first to my students and then to my superiors, I started to write again. This time, though, I wrote novels. I had the practice--I'd been living inside a character's head for years. As my mastery of my craft grew, I felt more and more like Mike was a performance that I could turn on and off again. Michael started to talk to Liz, and our relationship grew deeper and stronger. We bought a house together. I now make enough money that when the Affordable Care Act goes into effect in January, we can afford to buy me health insurance.
It hasn't all been easy, though.
Michael Reasserts Himself
When I was 28, just after I was diagnosed and before I started to disclose my diagnosis widely, the Affordable Care Act passed. I was excited, because by that time I was teaching enough to earn a living wage, but it was piecemeal work that was spread across a few schools and more campuses. The Act promised that I could afford to buy my health insurance, finally, and that the things I needed (like surgery for the hand I had broken two years before) would be covered without question. I had (and still have) my reservations about the massive taxpayer payout to a corrupt and parasitic private market, but I was still excited to finally have something instead of the nothing that I'd had for years.
Unfortunately, my brother and my father did not see it that way. Both of them became more and more aggressively deranged as the battle over the Act went on, to the point where my father no longer tried to mask his racist sentiments, telling me things like "our problem could be solved if we just walled off all the cities and waited for the parasites inside to starve." My brother and I almost came to blows when, one night, he attacked my excitement about the act by calling the president Hitler and telling me that people who were on Medicaid could just die if they didn't have anything useful to contribute to society. He said that the real moral outrage was that he was expected to pay for them to stay alive when they didn't contribute anything.
Liz was on Medicaid. And she had survived six months of nonstop seizures and a brain surgery, largely because of Medicaid.
I dropped the Mike act completely and lashed out at my brother with all the howling inarticulate rage of two decades of suppression and frustration, and then I left. A few blocks from my grandmother's house (my maternal grandmother's), I tried to call my father. When he heard how distraught I was, he launched into a lecture about my immaturity and how he could not be bothered because he had to work in the morning. He told me to pull myself together and act like an adult man, and that he was too exhausted from driving all the way back from the hobbyist convention that he had just taken my brother to for the weekend. When I yelled at him and told him to fuck off and that I had only called to notify him that I was done having a relationship with my brother, he called me ridiculous.
I don't know what I said next, but I know that it was vile and that I would say it again today if he acted like that. Then I drove home and called my grandmother to tell her that I was done with both of them. The next day, my father sent me a condescending email that told me and my brother both to deal with the problem like adults and not to bother him with it.
I sent an email back. I told him all about the fact that the only reason I behaved around him was because I spent my visits drinking until his stupid, backward hate was palatable enough that I could avoid arguing. I told him that everyone else in the family did the same thing because his bullshit was intolerable, and I said some other horrible things that caused splash damage to my grandparents. My father responded back by accusing me of being just as mentally ill as my mother and telling me not to contact him again until I had gotten help.
What he didn't realize was that I had gotten help, and that help had sobered me up, given me a backbone, helped me earn a living wage, and none of it was because of him. Everything I had become, all the positive things that I had accomplished, I had accomplished while he watched without helping. I told him so, and then I didn't see him or talk to him for six months.
Grandma and grandpa, if you're reading this, I'm sorry about any remarks I made about you. They were the fallout. The years of bile I had backed up from my dad's verbal and emotional abuse had to be purged, though, and once that purge started, it overwhelmed all the barricades.
Mike is Dead, Long Live Michael
I stopped performing Mike after the fight with my father. It was difficult, and it required me to completely stop trying to pass, but it was what I needed. I hit him in the back of the head with a shovel and buried him out back behind my apartment building, and I have to say that suicide never felt better, even if the self I killed had just been an illusion all along.
Dropping Mike and accepting Michael as my professional name allowed me to finally admit that I had not been strong. I had not been a man. I had been an abused kid, and I needed to let that kid grow up. It also made me aware of the fact that the deficits that I had attributed to my autism were actually symptoms and side effects of other problems in my life--problems like addiction, an eating disorder, gender dysphoria, sexual self-denial, and post-traumatic stress disorder (caused both by my childhood and by my constant suppression of my own emotions). I learned that my problems accessing my feelings were not just autism, they were disassociation from my trauma. My problems voicing my feelings are sometimes caused by my autism, but accessing? I feel my emotions outside of real-time, often having delayed reactions to events, but I do feel them. The other thing before was not what I actually am.
After I came to terms with the implications of my fight with my father and my brother, I started to find the neurodiversity approach to autism. I saw that there were others like me who were realizing that their autism was not the problem they were having--the problem that they were having was the expectation that they would try to suppress their autism. I dived into it and I drank deep, and for two years now I have been blogging my way out of my own personal hell, working to develop my moral focus and my ability to articulate my outrage at the way people like us are treated. It has been a great journey, and compared to many of the people I work with and speak with now, I am still a beginner.
One year ago tonight I published my first novel, and it was the first time I really talked about the things that had made me suppress my feelings and perform for others. It was a simple little thing, and it did not talk about most of the things I talk about here, but it was important to me. It was the first time that I was able to fully access my childhood and reflect on how it shaped the adult I am. That was the night that I buried Mike forever. It was the bullet to his brain, the end of the zombie neurotypical performance, and the beginning of my coming out of a series of nested closets.
Since then, I have managed to articulate all of the varied aspects of my identity to the people in my life who matter most. I have accepted myself for all of what I am, and even if I choose not to fully disclose every inch of it through this public persona, I have become more comfortable sharing the most important parts. As time goes on, I may or may not talk about more of it. I don't know. While I believe strongly in an intersectional approach to neurodiversity, I don't think any of us can really claim to be out of all of our closets with every person we come into contact with on a daily basis. Because of that, I hope you'll excuse me if I just admit that I'm not coming out of all of them to you.
Just be satisfied that I'm finally out of all of them to me.