headstart, a lovesong to otherness
my first short story commission
in 2021, Ali Wilson (the lead-brain behind Manchester-based neurodivergent arts organisation ‘Every Brain’), ran a series of creative commissions.
in one of these commissions, 6 neurodivergent writers were selected to create new short stories inspired by their experience of being neurodivergent for a collection called ‘Tangent’.
Thanks for reading unfeesable! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
i was one of them.
you can download the complete collection at the bottom of this post.
now the project has closed, i wanted to share my story from the collection.
younger: can you tell me how relationships work?
older: what kind of relationships?
y: all of them. i don’t get any of it. family weren’t safe. friends don’t stay, or i don’t. loving people feels like a form of self harm - and i have enough of those already. it’s just… i’m so tired of being alone. i want to love and be loved. i just don’t know how. so… do you know how it works?
o: um, well, yeah… i guess. i know how i have made it work for me. i got myself safely away from my blood family and found a new one. i’m now really discerning with friends and lovers, celebrating our differences and finding the harmonies between. mostly it all began with my relationship with myself.
y: can you teach me how to be you?
o: well, i don’t believe any of us can teach another who they are, or who they may choose to become. i can share my journey, though. maybe that will help you find your own.
y: i’m scared.
o: i know you are. it’s scary, at first. you’re brave, too. you’ve survived this far, you’re curious, you’re liberating yourself… which liberates us all. you can’t yet see how brave that is… one day you will. one day you’ll remember this moment, and you will be so proud of how strong you were to take this leap. to learn how to be, how to love and be loved. starting with you. would you like to walk with me?
y: yes. where should we go?
o: anywhere - there’s no destination. let’s just start walking together, and see what we find.
they walk in silence awhile. from here, through the magic lens of a literary-distanced observation, we can see what they choose to see, feel how they choose for it to impact them. if, that is, we - their observers - choose to lower our own barriers enough to allow the energies of others to enter our own awareness. so much is expressed nonverbally, if we choose to notice. how we connect with our environment speaks to how we feel in our own selves, which then reflects outward in how we behave with others, and how they behave with themselves. so much can be learnt from the cycles of simply noticing.
the younger walks with a stiffness, back hunched, dragging the heavy feet of a body weighed down by a tormented mind. their gaze is downward, narrow, guarded. they choose to see only the darkened cracks in the pavement, patches of greybrown soil where grass has not yet regrown, deep puddles from recent rainfall calling them to step inside and drown in their darkness. this perspective limits what light gets in, a narrowed lens designed to protect, hide, escape. their colour palette reduced to dim shades, lost in swollen shadows. a myriad of scents lost in breath too shallow to reach the olfactory.
the older walks tall, shoulders rested back, flowing with the fluidity of someone confident in their embodied shock absorbers. while whatever comes may wobble them, their sturdy foundations ensure they will not collapse. their chosen gaze is outward, widescreen, wide eyes absorbing every drop of sunlight bouncing off every surface. rainbows ripple against dew-laden leaves, the ground firm yet giving beneath their feet, petrichor evaporating into their long deep breaths. birdsong and breeze tickle the trees, whispering softly the only words which matter: “be here now. we’ve got you”.
their first circuit of the park arrives effortlessly, and we may choose to notice that things have shifted, just a little. words can lead before we are ready to follow; the silence of movement sets us on a path less trodden. this gentle co-regulation through mindful steps, heartbeats synchronising alongside the light physical effort, allows the two bodies to find their commonalities. evidence of the simple trusting truth of showing up, walking with.
the body speaks far more wisdom than a mind trained in defence.
o: there’s a river down there. fancy heading that way?
y: yeah, whatever.
o: can you give me a moment to take off my shoes? i love the feeling of damp grass on bare feet.
y: uh, aren’t you afraid of broken glass, or needles?
o: we’ll see them, navigate around them. and if we don’t and they break the skin, we’ll work it out. i’d prefer a barefoot walk ending in wrapping a bloodied foot, than not taking one in case an unknown something might - or might not - happen.
they sit, to remove their shoes, on a bench carved from a fallen oak. the head of a green man intertwines with celtic knots in the space between them. the older traces the indentations with a slow finger before laying their hand flat over its surface, absorbing the delicate craftwork, the remnant energies of the artist’s hands, and the life force of the rooted trunk still feeding into the mycelium networks below.
the younger takes longer with their task. their boots are tall and strapped-in over their skinny jeans, laces binding with a tightness which leaves an indent when removed.
the older slips off loosely fitting converse, spreads and wiggles their toes in gleeful connection with the earth beneath, and rolls up their baggy trousers to allow their legs to embrace the sun.
the older sits, eyes closed. inhaling deeply, exhaling longer.
the younger doesn’t notice themselves doing the same.
as they walk toward the river, the older steals a subtle side-glance. the younger’s gait is already a touch lighter, bare feet treading more softly against the gentle give of the grass. their head is slightly more raised, allowing a little more light in.
a heron flying low overhead grabs both their attention; eyes, heads, necks flicker upward to trace its flight. the slow swoosh of broad wings brings a deep exhale, marking the younger’s body dropping into safety.
“now we can start”, thinks the older, wearing a smile imperceptible to the eye, felt strongly in the heart.
o: so, what’s alive for you right now?
y: what do you mean?
o: we’re here now because of your new diagnoses, right? you’ve just found out you’re neurodivergent, with developmental trauma, isn’t that what you said? what you wanted to talk about?
y: yeah, i guess.
o: so that’s a world of stuff going on for you, inside and out. any late diagnosis can bring discomfort, uncertainty, disconnection. tell me about that.
y: i wouldn’t know where to start. it’s such a mess. i’m such a mess. it’s all just shit, isn’t it? i have nothing, no one, and the only thing that’s changed is that now i know why.
o: you know why?
y: i’m a freak. unlovable. always wrong. always in the way. neither use nor ornament…
o: ooo, they sound like someone else’s words. who taught you to speak to yourself that way?
y: i dunno, everyone. my parents, teachers, kids who bullied me, bosses...
o: that sounds hard to receive.
y: it was. still is.
o: so why do you use their words against yourself now?
o: ‘i’m such a mess’, ‘i have nothing, no one’, ‘i’m a freak’, ‘i’m unlovable’, ‘neither use nor ornament’. you know those words come from others, yet you use them against yourself. why hold yourself accountable to such negativity?
y: call that negative? that’s nothing!
o: do you enjoy it?
y: what?? who enjoys negativity?!
o: well, exactly. just because people behaved badly with you, it doesn’t mean you have to follow suit. i wonder if you’ve noticed how often you deny yourself a kind word.
y: i’d have better luck noticing when i don’t. does that count?
o: well, kinda - i think i’d enjoy noticing the nice things instead. your choice though.
y: there’s a choice?
o: absolutely there is! especially now you know your brain works differently. you get to choose everything now - it’s a fresh start, if you want it! i mean, you could keep going as you have so far - hating on yourself, mimicking others just to fit in, pushing yourself just to keep up, then collapsing again… on loop. or you could learn who you are, what you’re dealing with, and what you might need to become your true self. the you who was hidden underneath the weight of other people’s expectations. i mean, look. if you wanna continue down the road of self-hatred: go for it. it’s your life. i just can’t help you navigate that. however, if you wanna try sommat else instead: i can at very least help you find your path.
y: what path gets you out of… this? i mean, the whole world’s fucked. what’s the point of ‘becoming myself’ when there’s always gonna be shit to deal with out there?
o: well, yeah. the world is pretty fucked - i can’t argue with that. it’s a pretty common trait of our conditions that we feel injustice more deeply, too. except, in medical terms, they call it ‘a deficit in immorality’.
y: a what?!
o: yeah, i know. one of many ways we don’t fit this world. i spent years in social justice movements trying to do anything i could to make things better. i couldn’t fix a thing, and it almost killed me. eventually - not long after my own diagnoses - i realised if i wanted the change out there in the world, i’d have to begin with myself. i started noticing how i speak to myself, how that ripples out onto others, and i started editing out the words that were unkind. over time i started noticing when people reflected nice things back at me - i’d been letting them bounce right off. so i began letting them in, out of curiosity. to see what they felt like. they felt nice. i decided to keep looking out for those, and more came. i started letting other people love me. i started to belong. and i stopped feeling alone. oh look, we’re at the river… fancy a dip?
before the younger has a chance to reply, the older throws their bag and sneakers down by the river’s edge, strips off their floppy clothing and dives straight in. they sploosh back up from submersion with a delighted screech from the impact of the temperature shift.
o: whoa that’s cold!
y: what the fuck?! how’d you know it’s safe?
o: it’s a place i’m pretty familiar with. though to be honest, i’d probably jump in anyway. bit of a waterbaby, me, these days.
y: i can’t swim. i’m scared of drowning.
o: i only learnt in my 30s - there’s time for you yet. it’s made a huge difference to my mental health these last 20odd years. i feel alive in here… observing the world from the perspective of the water really shifts things for me. especially in the ocean.
y: nah, no way. too scary. and too many people here to watch me fuck it up, too.
the older playfully flips, relishing the watery sensation, before swimming back over to join the younger. with a springy flick of the wrist, they pirouette and land on the bank with the graceful control of an olympic gymnast. any claim of olympian pomp then evaporates as fast as water under hot sun; they shake their body unceremoniously dry with the vigour of a shaggy dog.
o: cmon, take a seat. i won’t hassle you to go in. though you could dangle your feet in there if you like - it’s very cooling in this heat. and you’ve already taken your boots off…
reluctantly, the younger slopes forward, places their boots and bag down, and takes a seat on the edge. with feet tentatively dangling just above the water’s surface, it’s clear they’re anticipating the impact of icey cold water with a hefty dose of cynicism.
o: it’s good for you, you know. a quick cold plunge every day does wonders for your immune system - and your somatics.
the older laughs hard at this, still giddy from their dip.
o: somatics! it’s a type of therapy which works with the body to heal the mind.
y: sounds like snake oil - what’s the body got to do with fixing a broken brain?
o: i hear you - i’d always lived in my head with no connection to my body, too. ohhhh my poor body, i was horrible to it for decades. never knew i was missing out on so much good stuff! now it makes complete sense to me - it’s all connected, after all. what you eat, drink, how you move, they all impact how you feel emotionally. when bad things happen to us they create an impact in our polyvagal - our autonomic nervous system. they get stuck in our bodies and set patterns in our thoughts, together causing all kinds of damage to our physical and mental health. the next time we’re faced with a threat, our in-built defence mechanisms look in their rollerdeck of resources and say “no. stop. that’s similar to a bad thing we once experienced. we’re dropping into ‘fight, flight, freeze, or fawn’ to stop you risking that happening again”. it’s very clever, when you think about it.
y: doesn’t sound very clever to me. sounds rubbish.
o: well, it’s rubbish that we aren’t taught this stuff, and even more rubbish that it’s so hard to get the right help for it. the nervous systems themselves are clever, though. it’s a bit like an overzealous bouncer: “hello new experience. your name’s not down, you’re not coming in”. you can reset it, though. you can open up those trapdoors, safely release what’s stuck there, and build new neural pathways. eventually all the things that used to throw you sideways don’t even ruffle you anymore. it’s kinda like rewiring dodgy electrics and replacing the shock absorbers in a vehicle.
y: show me.
o: if you drop those toes into the water, i’ll share a little thing you can do anytime you’re in distress. deal?
y: deal. aaaaaaaaagh!!!! fuck that’s cold!
o: hehehehe, oh i’m sorry - i promise i’m not out to get you. all new things can feel a bit daunting at first - and there’s a lot of new things to come for you, this is good practice! your feet will acclimatise, give ‘em a wiggle. you’ll see. ok, i’m going to share a grounding exercise. you can use it anytime you feel things are spinning out of control.
y: what, like now?
o: yeah, maybe. can you describe how you’re feeling in this moment?
y: angry, mostly. i don’t want to be here, especially not bare- and cold-footed, with a total stranger who seems to be talking complete shit. you said you were gonna help and all you’ve done is make me feel even more stupid than i felt already.
o: so you feel angry, uncomfortable, vulnerable?
y: didn’t i just say that?
o: you did, i just wanted to be sure i’d understood you. are you willing to try this exercise with me? i promise if you don’t get anything out of it i’ll leave you alone. it’ll only take a few minutes.
y: fine. go on then.
o: thank you for trusting me. okay. i’d like you to check in on your senses. first, sight: look around you - in front, to the sides, and behind. take as long as you want. you can tell me or just make a mental note of whatever you see.
the older pauses silently while the younger jolts their head, first rapidly then gradually more slowly. perhaps they saw that cabbage white butterfly flickering over the dandelions, or the after-ripples of a fish coming up for air.
the older waits patiently, knowing this is the start of something too precious to rush. “this kid may be pissed at me right now, but they trust me enough to still be here. that’s everything.” the younger’s head comes to rest, facing the older. a cue for the next instruction.
o: excellent, now what do you hear?
the younger squints their eyes tightly as though focus only comes from forced effort.
o: you can close your eyes if that’s easier.
the sun emerges from behind a puffy white cloud as the younger’s eyes rest closed. a gentle smile passes over their lips as they feel the sunlight. their face softens as a new stillness arrives, emboldening them to share what they hear.
y: i hear… the river. it’s got a gentle trickle right by the rocks here, it makes more of a splooshy sound as it hits my feet (you’re right, they’re not so cold now), and i can hear it rushing over the dam much further away. there’s traffic even further off, a low rumble - ahh, no, there goes a motorbike. and birds. dunno what type, just hear a few chirrups from different directions. and there’s sommat rustling behind me. not breeze, tho there’s that, too; i can hear it rippling through these trees. and my breath, i can hear myself breathe.
the younger gently opens their eyes, blinks a few times against the bright sunshine, and smiles wide.
y: fuck me. i feel different. that was lovely.
o: well we haven’t finished yet… although i’m glad you got the idea so fast. you look different, too - your whole body dropped into total relaxation while you described the sounds. what feels different?
y: i dunno. everything. i’m not angry, i’ve stopped wanting to run, my breathing is slower, broader, somehow. i got really into how layered all the sound was… how distances kinda morphed into one channel, but i could still control the sliders; bring some things in, fade others out.
o: do you enjoy sound, music?
y: yeah, music is my safe place. i’m always in my headphones. that’s what was weird about this, though: no headphones, more safety.
o: i’m so pleased! do you want to continue? or do you want me to explain what comes next so you’ll know for next time?
y: explain. i wanna know how this works.
o: hah, typical autistic brain - we like to understand things, not just experience them. and you did catch on quick. never seen anyone drop into it so fast - especially considering how pissed off with me you were a moment ago! the basic idea is that when you’re feeling super-anxious you can step out of that state by dropping into the body. you did the sight and sound thing really beautifully, so you’d next do smell, touch, and taste.
y: what if it doesn’t work?
o: what, you mean like, what if you don’t smell anything?
y: yeah. or all of it - what if i don’t sense anything. or what if it doesn’t stop the anxiety?
o: it’s unlikely you wouldn’t sense a single thing out of all of those options. if that did happen, it’s probably because the environment has become an over-stimulant… which means it’s probably time to get yourself safely out of there.
y: what if someone’s talking to you?
o: you’re allowed to leave an environment which is causing you harm. in fact, it’s essential. neurodivergent brains have heightened sensory experiencing, and we often don’t know how to decode all the information flooding in. that leads to overload which can send us into a meltdown, or shutdown, or eventually, autistic burnout - like a breakdown only worse. this is about noticing those patterns and catching them earlier, so they don’t impact you so intensely.
y: what about other people? won’t they tell me i can’t leave? or mock me? they don’t understand the shame of being different. how can i feel safe sharing what’s going on with me?
o: yeah, i understand that; we tend to mask our gifts and internalise the shame. it’s exhausting to shed our true skin just to survive in their world. in a place like this, with me - and with other neurodivergent people - we can open all this up, dive deep into it, and enjoy the pleasure of being stimulated, safely. it seems like you respond particularly well to sound. have you ever thought of being a sound engineer? it’s a common job for us… most technical things are. there’s enough of a special interest to satisfy our inner deep-diving geek, and enough of a clear practical role to allow focus and alone time. y’see, once we know what we love, what we’re naturally drawn to, what works with our conditions, not against them… life gets a whole load easier.
y: ok, well that’s all well n good… but… what about relationships? what’s the point of all this self-work to calm ourselves and survive when the outside world is still cruel and chaotic? it’s a human need to connect, to belong, right? how can we belong when our way - honesty, directness, justice - are deemed ‘wrong’? how can others not see what we see? how can they just carry on like all this is ‘right’?
o: we all have different capacities, strengths and weaknesses, needs and fears - regardless of neurology. it can be hard for any of us to perceive what we don’t understand. instead, we can accept we don’t have all the answers and find those who can do the same. they don’t have to be neurodivergent, just comfortable being around people who aren’t like them. willing to meet each other wherever we are. those are harder to find when we don’t know what we’re looking for, especially when we’re used to changing ourselves to suit everyone else. you’ll work that out. and the more you’re connected to yourself, the happier you’ll be, alone or in company, and the more your radiance will shine. that light will help the folks you do want around to find you. do you know what you are looking for in others, yet?
y: i dunno. compassion, honesty, trust, respect, accountability... they seem to not be typical human traits. i’m after the impossible.
o: they can feel like rarities, yes. and they are not impossible to find. some are doing the work you’re starting now. they are brave enough to face their own demons so they can show up fully for themselves, with others, breaking past chains, healing forward. by experiencing new memories with those people, we replace the old painful ones. by creating new boundaries, we become more protected. by accepting we cannot change anything other than ourselves, we stop taking responsibility for other people’s reactions.
y: how do you know who to trust?
o: there’s an energy exchange which happens between our bodies, look out for it. you’ll start noticing it more and more. some people leave you empty and ruffled… or worse. others leave you buzzing and alive… and feeling sexy as fuck! when you find them: be honest. tell them that you like how they are and you’d like to hang out. if you meet their friends and get a similar vibe: they’re keepers! for me this started working best when i sought the company of otherness, people who also don’t fit in. they’re generally on their own journeys into self-actualisation.
y: what’s self-actualisation?
o: it’s this, this journey. the one which starts from a deep knowing that where you are, who you are, is not where or who you want to be, then dedicating everything you’ve got into becoming that version of yourself - no matter what anyone else says you ‘should’ do, or ‘should’ be (and watch out for anyone who says ‘should’ a lot). language is a profound lens. being you, owning you, loving you - warts n all. that.
y: why is it so hard to just be? i don’t know who i am, never mind who i want to be.
o: it’s hard because it means taking total responsibility. we live in systems designed to make life appear easy, someone else’s problem, when existence is extremely complex. we’re told there’s only one way to be, so being different makes us stand out as a threat.
y: why are they so afraid of difference? maybe if we graffiti’d the word everywhere it’d become so familiar people would stop being afraid of it.
o: hah! you could be onto sommat! i mean, i get it. hearing “things are not what you thought they were” is bound to freak people out. human brains default to the path of least resistance. they’d rather stick with what they know, even when it’s hurting them, than dare to step into unknown territory.
y: why do they stick with stuff that hurts them?
o: why have you stuck with what hurts you? why did i, for all those years?
y: yeah, fair point. we’re all pretty fucked up i guess.
o: it seems to me that everyone’s so desperate to be liked - or at least, not hurt more - in a world where no one’s presenting their true selves. so everyone’s running around trying to please each other, doing stuff none of them find pleasing. and no one mentions it because it’d mean revealing that they’d been lying all that time, too. it’s a mass-self-cover-up, a loselose game of catch22. can’t survive without playing. can’t opt out without losing your high score. so we stay in those patterns, thinking happiness comes from stuff that doesn’t matter, miserable in the meantime. high scores and loot don’t feed your soul. they can’t. they’re a shallow hit of something you’ll never attain, don’t need, and don’t want. no amount of gorging will fill your gut; they’re a non-diet. we’re all addicted to a lifestyle designed to destroy us, one breath at a time. yeah, i’d much rather hang with society’s outsiders: the queer community, other cultures, creatives, changemakers - diversity is where life’s richness sits.
y: so life is easier in diverse communities?
o: hah, well, no. not really. we all have a lot of conditioning to shed, which can get messy if it’s not handled well - we’re all full of so many scars. it’s just that we’re more aware of all that than people who never had to think about it. we understand when others behave in ways that we find uncomfortable. we see that discomfort and sit with it instead of run from it, knowing that maybe they need help they can’t ask for, yet. we are honest in our vulnerabilities instead of hiding from them. so many of us have felt so alone, misunderstood, without hope, for most of our lives. we are not alone, we have the potential to understand each other perfectly - in our myriad ways. we just have to dig away the crap to see it.
y: you sound so brave. are you like this with everyone or just other neurodivergents?
o: isn’t it sad that being honest about existence seems brave? i used to get told i was brave - or authentic - all the time, when all i was doing was removing the masks and being open about what i see in the world, how it all makes me feel, and what i want to see there instead. they meant it as a compliment, it just left me feeling depressed.
y: you don’t seem depressed now. what changed?
o: i did. i stopped feeling bad about showing up as i truly am, and started living by my values. through that i found people doing the same, all of us standing as an invitation for others, if they choose. not everyone wants to do this, and not everyone has the safety to do this. the most powerful thing in human existence is our impact on each other during our time living it. alone, we are a fraction of ourselves. in bad company, we’re suffocated. through intentional relationships i found i could grow and stretch and become more than i knew was possible. what was destroying me was living behind the masks, complying silently with a status quo which denied my true self the right to exist - and which treats others far worse. i won’t survive that world - i don’t even want to. so i do whatever i can to co-create a better world, and rely on my connection with self, other, and nature, in order to survive the fucked up one we’ve got.
y: well it’s sure fuckin destroyed me.
o: you’re not destroyed: look at you. think back to how you were an hour ago when we first met. do you feel the same?
y: no, i don’t. this work stuff sounds hard, though. facing demons doesn’t sound very nice. how come you’re so confident i’ll get through it?
o: because, my dear young friend: i am you. i was where you are now. i have lived through the journey you have begun. and i am proof that things get better. i told you that i’ve got you, and i meant it. because what that means is that YOU have got you. all the answers we need are inside us, if we choose to learn their language to hear them properly. when our mind and body communicate the way they’re meant to, they can show us our paths, warn us of dangers, help us find safety, and empower us to be brave and kind, loving and loved.
y: and if you’re wrong?
o: hah, that’s a fair point. you may find paths i did not, and end up becoming a different version of us… that’s the beauty of all this. i’m here now because you needed me to show up, to navigate you away from that bridge. i wasn’t going to let you give up - just like long ago a part of me showed up when i was drowning in this very river, and helped me get to shore. that was when my journey began, when i learned to breathe, listen to my body, got curious, and got sober. if i can survive that and become this: you can, too. i’m always here, we can always talk. the rest is up to you.
just… take care of us, okay? we matter.
the younger sits alone by the side of the river where their older self had made their decision to live. listening deeply to nature’s shifting chorus of connection, they began to hum in harmony.
Written by: Fee Plumley
Writing Mentor: Lekhani Chirwa
Illustration: Abbey Lam
Graphic Design: Lucy Grainge
Curated by: Ali Wilson, Every Brain
Funded by: Manchester Independents
Thanks for reading unfeesable! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.