••• The International Writers Magazine - Lifestyles
Checklists Make Great Life Rafts
Coping with Autism as an undergraduate
The phrase “Think outside the box” always confuses me. I am not sure where the box is or how I got inside it. Sometimes, I think my brain is the box. What I do know is that boxes and the structure they offer to my life are nothing short of freeing.
I am a checklist person.
And a check-the-checklist-person. I color in and fill each checklist box to the brim like stacked glasses of water which overflow and fill the next and the next box going down the list until I have reached the bottom. These lists help me function in a world my box-brain cannot fit into. Without my lists, I drown in this world of lights, sounds, surprises, stimuli, expectations. My mind panics, my hands twitch, my tongue rolls, my fingers snap, my tears fall. This is what a small corner of my Autism feels like.
||I construct my checklists the night before so I can begin when I wake.
I wake up at 7 a.m. Every morning. Every one. Every single one.
The lists begin with “meditate” and a small box to be filled on the left of this word. I don’t know if I meditate correctly. Most of the language in my guiding audio is metaphorical or just meant to make me feel as if my crushing anxiety is barely a feather. I am sitting on the hard floor with low lighting before my roommate is awake to make noise; I am trying to get my boom-box brain to stop yelling about how I might have missed some joke the day before or should have spoken less in class. So, I might as well call it meditating. I check off the box in my notebook.
I get up off the floor and eat “toast with peanut-butter and banana” with my tea. I check off the breakfast box in my notebook. Then, I do the “Face + Teeth,” step of my list. This can be written out as “Wash your face and brush your teeth” but that is too long of a phrase and would mess up the alignment of my notebook’s lines. I get dressed-- making sure I can walk in my shoes without wanting to tear my skin off because of how the material wraps around my heels. I grab my keys from their spot by the door and head out.
The next box says “class.”
I go from one class to the next. If I have time in between, I check off boxes. The cogs in my brain turn, and the boxes get filled, and the threat of drowning is kept at bay. It works.
Until it doesn’t work. Usually, it’s a small error causing the first crack in my box-brain. One tiny thing like forgetting the book for an assignment, the library’s not being open during its usual hours, a professor changing their mind about a due date, a friend asking me to join them for lunch on a day we didn’t have plans. One surprise or box I didn’t account for. I can feel the water filling my throat.
The room is closing in on me. I can’t think of anything. I take a deep breath. I make myself the promises I have told myself every time the unexpected occurs: it will not kill me even if it feels as if is gorging out my insides, twisting the fibers of my brain, sending lightening through my nerves. I think about how I can make order out of chaos.
Just breathe. One breath at a time, fill my lungs to the brim, let the air flow into another breath and another. I tell myself: I can complete the assignment when I get home and have the book. I tell myself I can go to another building to complete my homework instead of the library. I tell myself I like hanging out with my friends and to say “yes” even though I want to scream. Doing mental flips tricks my box-brain into releasing me from the prison cell where my cellmates are panic, frustration, confusion, loneliness, freezing-cold shock. I end each day’s list with “Free Time.”, so, I can crash and drown or weave spontaneity among the structured boxes.
© Isabelle Adler 4.8.23
*Izzy is Junior English Major with a concentration in Writing, Rhetoric and Publication at the College of Charleston