Almost everyone knows the famous poem by Robert Frost entitled, "The Road Not Taken". If you don't know it, go read it, right now.
There are many interpretations on this poem, every time I read it I get the sense he was saying, "Hey guys, sorry, I want to be on both roads but I need to go this way now."
And I think everyone gets to that point in their lives at some time or another.
For some, it might take longer for them to even realize that there even was another path for them to go down, they were so focused on the one they were on.
It may be that some never see it and continue down the same road forever.
And some do see the other path and are just content to stay on the comfy, well worn path that their family and everyone they know has walked on before them.
I was late in realizing that there are other paths out there. I was sheltered intensely.
I grew up a Member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which is too long of a name if you ask me. No one ever did, but I guess a lot of other people thought so too, so people also call us "Mormons".
And there is a lot to unpack with the whole religion thing.
I also grew up unknowingly autistic.
And if you can imagine, there is a lot to unpack there as well.
But let me tell you, taking this new path really had made all the difference. And I, like Robert Frost, doubt that I will ever go back.
And I want to tell you why.
So let's get to it.
I guess we'll start with my name.
My name is Ryan.
I always liked my name.
Until I started going to school.
The other kids made fun of me, telling me I must be a boy because I had a boy’s name.
I was not a kid that enjoys the spotlight.
I only wanted to go to school to talk to my teachers. They were the only ones who were nice to me.
And they actually wanted to talk about the latest “Hooked on Phonics” book that we were assigned to read at home.
I was always annoyed at the very loud, rambunctious “other” kids who the teachers needed to devout time to.
I liked to learn. The other kids seemed more interested in playing than learning to me.
Maybe I didn’t like to play because I never got asked to.
I was never good at talking with the other kids.
I always felt like they were laughing at a joke that I didn’t understand.
What was so funny all the time?
In kindergarten, there was a playhouse that had costumes, a toy kitchen and a little table to serve fake food to other kids that we were all supposed to take turns in. I instantly noticed a pattern of who got to go in and play and who did not. I was one of the ones who did not.
So, I would spend play time in the little kiddie pool that was full of pillows and books and I would read and sing songs to myself.
I was always taught that God was my friend, that he would always be there for me. So, while the other kids would exclude me, I would turn to God. Back then, He was my best friend. He was, essentially, my only friend. Him and I would have silent conversations together, and I would read him my books. He never really talked back, but that was okay, He helped me to not feel so alone.
I remember one winter day at recess I decided that I was going to conquer one of my fears of going down the big red twisty slide. That was the last day I would let it intimidate me.
I climbed my way up to the top and stood there for a minute, and seeing how high up I was and decided that this was actually not the day for this, when I heard a voice at the bottom of the slide. It was the red head girl named Aubrey from my class. She told me that the slide was fun, and that I should do it.
I stood at the top, doing my nervous habit of twisting my long chestnut colored hair around and around my finger.
I was still not good at talking to kids my age. But she seemed like she was being friendly.
“What are you waiting for?” Aubrey said.
I mustered my courage, bent down, dusted the bit of snow that was at the top before I sat down and then pushed off.
As I was sliding, for those few seconds I was actually joyful. I had conquered my fear, it was fun, and I had a friend waiting or me at the bottom.
The joyfulness ended abruptly as my face exploded with cold. I felt stinging on my cheeks from where sharp ice pieces from the snow scraped my face. The girl laughed, “Sorry Ryan.” and went on her way.
My face was numb. I was numb. I walked to the farthest end of the playground and sat down facing away from the other kids who were oblivious to me. I tried to joke with God, “I guess she didn’t want to be friends, huh?”
I laughed one little laugh. But it wasn't really funny, so I stopped. I sat, twisting my hair around my finger, and waited for recess to be over.
I was thinking about dying.
It was making me extremely anxious, but I couldn’t help it. I thought about a lot of things that most kids my age wouldn’t.
I fretted, and wondered and worried and tossed ideas around in my head until those ideas had every possibility thought out, every outcome, good or bad speculated, all the information drained from it. And then it would circle in my mind for a long time. Until I could force it out, and sometimes, I just couldn't.
And today, the subject in my brain was death.
I was old enough to understand what my religion taught me about death. And I had been baptized last year, at the age of eight when most members of my church do.
I thought about what dying would feel like. What was the experience like? Do you have to come to an understanding that you’re dead or do you just know? Was it painful or peaceful? Was it scary or would you be relieved? Would I like being dead?
When we die, I was told, and believed, that we go to a place called Paradise to wait until the second coming of Jesus. Then we are judged and assigned to one of the three degrees of glory depending on our righteousness. I might like being dead if I got to go there.
As long as I kept being good I would go to a good place when I died. I thought, what a relief that we go somewhere when we are dead.
Of course, people don’t want death to be the end of the road. An eternal sleep, the end of our existence. Who would actually want to believe that?
Not my eight-year-old brain. No sir. But what frightened me was the other part that was taught. The part about Spirit Prison. That’s where the people who were not baptized and the sinners go. They are taught about our religion there and get to make a choice to accept it or not. To me, it never really seemed fair that we called it a prison and that I might get stuck in the same place as some really bad people if I didn’t do what was right.
These thoughts dragged on all day, and chugged around in my brain most of the night. I thought about what would happen if I didn’t get to Paradise, if I somehow wound up in Spirit Prison.
I had always felt I could talk to God about anything, even when I couldn’t force myself to talk to anyone else, but what if I had somehow disappointed God or made him mad enough that he wouldn’t let me go there? I wanted to make sure I had no chance of that. And this started the never-ending prayers. I repented to God every night. I went through my day very carefully, combing through the details of what I did and said, and asking for forgiveness for anything and everything that might be slightly frowned upon.
I made sure I missed nothing.
My mind is loud tonight
It screams at me
It is so easy to hear
But so difficult to understand
So silent to anyone but me
I try to make people listen
But it’s speaking a language only I can understand
A language I’m still trying to learn
I ask for help
Bu the help is all the same
And only seems to hold a megaphone to the noisy voice
I try to cover its mouth with wild flailing hands
But it always overpowers my tries
Tonight my mind is quiet
And earns my trust once again
I think I am figuring it out
I tell it what it wants to hear
But it is quick to break the bond we formed so shortly ago
It yells so loud this time that everyone else can hear it too
And it scares them
But not nearly as much as it scares me
But as much as it causes me so much pain
Is also my only source of comfort.
At school, I was paired with a girl named Emily to practice some spelling words.
After school, she told me that we were friends.
I was confused, thinking, that all this time, all I had to do to make a friend was correct their spelling of the word, "banana?"
And she talked to me even though I didn’t talk back much.
I was happy that when an adult asked, “Who are your friends at school?” I could answer, “Emily.”
But I quickly realized that Emily wasn't very fun to be with. She would tell me that my clothes looked dumb, and would tell me where I could sit and what pencil I could use that day. She told me not to talk to the teachers after school anymore because that was "weird." She yanked on my arm all the time to get me to go places.
I listened to her and followed what she said because I honestly didn't think I had a choice not to. And two, because everyone seemed so relieved that I finally had a friend and didn't just read in a corner at recess anymore.
During library time, she would erase her name off her homework sheets and tell me to write my name and then when I was done with all of it, erase my name and she would write her name again. It was a big concern to me because I was lying, and cheating. I would pray as I was erasing her name and writing mine, “Please forgive me Heavenly Father. I know what I am doing is wrong. But I’m scared of Emily. Please forgive me.”
And I did this every library day, even though I would have loved to look for new books to read. I loved to read.
If Emily wanted something that I had at school lunch she would take it and tell me that I was a good friend.
One day Emily wanted me to sit down next to her on the reading rug. I wasn’t expecting it when she grabbed my arm and pulled down on it, hard. It pulled me down onto the rug and it made me physically ill. I had to go to the nurse’s office and then to the doctor. I had a torn muscle in my shoulder.
Apparently, I was on the radar with some of the teachers at the school when they witnessed Emily being mean and me being so passive. My parents met with the teachers and I wasn’t allowed to be friends with Emily anymore.
I was okay with that.
Wanting to go to school got harder and harder for me because of the daily social interaction that I would have to face.
When my dad would drop me off at school he would park, and I would sit. I would sit and look at all of the other kids getting out of their cars and laughing and pushing each other around. I would just stare. A feeling I didn't understand filling my entire body and making me want to run, freeze and cry all at the same time. I couldn’t get out of the car. My dad would wait. And wait. He would say, “You’re going to be late if you don’t get out soon.” And I would unbuckle my seat belt but continue to sit. I didn’t want to get out. I would have to face the loud. The loud from the laughing and screeching and yelling at recess. The extra loud from the lunchroom where you had to just sit and try and eat. The yucky feeling of the school trays on my hands and the bright lights and colorful posters and decor in my classroom. The math assignments I didn't understand and the constant need to fit in but also not knowing how in the world to do it.
One day that he was particularly stressed, he said, “Get out of the car Ryan! You have to go to school! You just have to!”
I started to cry. And he took me home.
When I was 13, I got invited to a New Year’s Eve party by a boy named Tyler. I knew him from one of my classes at school and he seemed to have an interest in me. I was nervous because of that fact, also, because there was supposed to be a bunch of other kids from my school there, along with his family.
I was going to be picked up at 10:00 by my parents. They told me I could always call and they’d come and get me earlier than that if I was having problems. My parents knew me well.
I kind of wanted to stay home with my family, but in my head, what I wanted didn’t really matter at the time. I was trying to be more like the other kids. And other kids didn’t want to hang out with their family on New Year’s Eve.
My parents dropped me off at the church building where the party was being held in the gymnasium.
When I went in I realized that there were no other kids my age besides Ty. His family were all sitting in the gym at tables playing card games and eating and laughing.
I felt extremely awkward and my anxiety spiked.
Ty greeted me and I mumbled, “Hi. Am I early?”
He laughed and grabbed my hand. I had never had a boy hold my hand before.
I let him lead me down the hallways thinking we were going to where the other kids were hanging out.
He opened the door to the church building’s nursery. The room had no other kids in it.
My mind froze with what to say or do. My eyes gravitated to the picture on the walls of Jesus holding children in his arms, or walking along a beautiful path with their hand in His.
Ty pulled me into a close hug and all I could do was stare at those pictures.
In my head, I was thinking, ’This is wrong. Stop it. We should not be alone together like this. This is wrong.” But my mouth felt glued shut.
“I know you have a crush on me Ryan, you’re just too shy to say anything about it. I know you wanted to be alone with me. This is what you wanted isn’t it?”
Then he abruptly kissed me on the lips.
Somewhere in the back of my mind I hear a whisper, “Your first kiss.”
He kissed me again.
“What’s wrong? Never kissed before?” He seemed slightly annoyed.
I shook my head ever so slightly.
“Oh...for real? Well that would explain why you kinda suck at it.” I said nothing in response. I did nothing. My brain and body seemed frozen.
He shrugged his shoulders and kissed me again anyway. He started to progress past kissing and started touching and my brain was yelling, “Get away, run away, push him, say something, do anything!” But I remained frozen.
I could sense that he was becoming agitated that I wasn’t participating.
“What’s your problem though seriously? You’re like a dead fish.” He said, pulling me around a little.
I knew he had a bit of a temper from a time I saw him yell at another kid for cutting in the lunch line and I didn’t want to make him mad.
But as I glanced at the pictures of Jesus again silently I thought, “Heavenly Father, help me.” I was finally able to unfreeze. I backed up against a wall and started to shake my head.
“Okay, so you’re a little shy. I get it. I knew that. Everyone knows you're shy. You just need a little more warming up.” He pulled me closer to him and I pulled back and shook my head no again.
Then, he stepped forward, slapped me, and then pushed me pretty hard away from him in one fluid motion saying, “What did I even ask you here for then?”
I fell onto my butt, caught off guard by the sudden act of aggression. I sat there for a moment, stunned, then my body took over and I got up and ran for the door. He let me, still angrily muttering something about a wasted evening.
I walked fast to where I knew the bathroom was and once inside a stall, I sat down, rubbed the side of my face and wondered why I felt responsible for him being upset.
I knew I did the right thing, but I prayed for forgiveness for not being able to stop it fast enough and for what had happened before I ran out of there. “Heavenly Father, I didn’t know this was going to happen. He said there were going to be other kids here. Please forgive me for putting myself in a situation where I sinned. I don’t know why I couldn’t move or talk. I’m so sorry.” I cried for a while and when the tears finally stopped a new thought came to my head.
Ty was a Mormon. Why did he do that? Didn’t he know that doing the kind of thing he did was a sin? You are only allowed to date and be alone with another person of the opposite sex once you turn 18, and even that has to be closely monitored.
My parents always told me that the people in the church aren’t always perfect, but the doctrines always are. I knew that Ty wasn't perfect. No one is but Jesus. I guess that he was just giving into temptation. I need to forgive him. God would forgive him.
When my face looked normal again I went and used the church phone to call my parents to come get me. I said I was tired.
Ty never apologized for that night. And I never told anyone.
My name is Innocence.
I have been killed.
I am trying to rise from the dead
and haunt anyone willing to except a dead thing
Wounded at first, curious
How could one know?
That this seemingly slow, painless journey could lead to this?
The thing trying to creep back in but cannot succeed because once it’s gone the door is shut and bolted forever
One who tries can never open up the door past the chain that holds it shut.
My name is Innocence.
And smaller and smaller I get
Younger and younger I leave the souls of the precious ones
their minds now infected and full of disease.
Old ones Knowing they cannot return to me go insane with want and guilt
People don’t know how much they need me until they knowingly or even unwillingly let me escape.
And I run.
Not because I want to
But because I have to
My name is innocence.
And I am dead.
In High School, I was old enough to understand a little bit about the brain. And with my psychology class, I learned that what it sounded like what I had was a severe case of anxiety and depression. I just never said it to anyone. I hardly admitted it to myself. But I knew that I was different than my other peers so this had to be it.
I had learned ways to try and cope with it through the years and Sasha, my best friend I finally found, -(or more accurately, she found me, sitting alone in the library and asked about what I was reading)-in middle school, tried to help push me to do things so I wouldn’t, as she put it, ‘miss out on the true High School experience.’ She dragged me to football games, school parties and clubs. If it weren’t for my friend Sasha I would have just coasted through High School, getting good grades, graduated and been fine with it.
I knew that it was a good thing. I knew I would probably regret not doing something in High school. Its just that I was so tired after school. And people wanted to do more?
I found it hard to speak after a full day of activities and would just be frazzled. Sometimes I would just go into the bathroom and cry really hard for what felt like no reason other than I was just feeling so off.
Even though I liked Sasha a lot, when she asked me to hang out after school I would inwardly freak out. I just wanted to go home.
'Yes', I would think to myself, 'for sure not typical teenage behavior. You are the odd one here. Just do what they are all doing so they don't catch on to how hard this all is for you to keep up.'
But she was my only friend and I also wanted to make her happy and have her be proud of me. So, when she asked me to audition for our school’s concert choir, I eventually said yes. Or, more accurately, I didn’t stop her as she wrote my name down for me on the signup sheet.
You were required to sing a solo, some scales and some sight reading. I was scared out of my mind the day of.
Sasha went first and I could hear her beautiful soprano voice singing up and down the scales with ease.
I walked in after her and she shot me an encouraging smile. I tried to smile back. I didn’t know what I had gotten myself into. I started out rough. The teacher put a hand on my arm, and kindly told me to breathe. She let me start again.
The pianist started the opening of the song of ‘Come thou Fount’, a church hymn that was taken out of our hymn book because too many other religions used it. Or there was no room for it. Honestly nobody ever had a good reason as to why. I never got that. It was a beautiful song. And the words seemed to speak to me. So, I choose it to sing as my solo piece.
This time I would do better. I let my quiet alto voice float over the words and notes.
’Come thou fount of every blessing
Tune my heart to sing thy grace
Streams of mercy never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise
Teach me some melodious sonnet
Sung by flaming tongues above
Praise the Mount I’m fixed upon it
Mount of thy unchanging love
Here I raise my Ebenezer
Here by thy great help I’ve come
And I hope by thy good pleasure
Safely to arrive at home
Jesus sought me when a stranger
Wondering from the fold of God
He, to rescue me from danger
interposed his precious blood
O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be
Let that grace now, like a fetter
Bind thy wondering heart to Thee
Prone to wonder Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
Here’s my heart, O Take and seal it
Seal it for Thy courts above’
Choosing this song, was a very small step that I took, away from my faith. A slight rebellion without realizing to sing a song that was no longer a part of our religious hymns. As I sang, I felt peace and had no idea, that this would be the beginning of a very difficult journey. “Prone to Wonder, Lord I feel It. Prone to leave the God I love.” I just hadn’t realized it yet.
Me and Sasha both made it in.
I felt like there was no better feeling than being in a group of people who love music as much as you, reading a completely foreign language off a sheet of paper, producing a beautiful sound and making people feel something. I loved it. Music felt spiritual to me. It made me have goosebumps and feelings I couldn’t explain and motivated me and inspired me. The same feeling that people describe when they feel the ‘Holy Ghost’ as we called it in our faith. The ‘Still Small Voice’ whispering to you that what you are hearing and feeling is right and good. It was supposed to be a witness from God. A testament to Him and His true religion.
Feeling this way during our best songs, made me realize that I get the same goosebumps, the same feeling, the same ‘spiritual witness’ that I get when I thought I was feeling the ‘Holy Ghost’ at church as when I sing. Or hear a motivational speech, or a really good song, or even when I look a sunset. This confused me. That could be God telling me that what I am listening to or looking at is beautiful and part of his creations. But I remember watching a clip in History class of Hitler giving a speech in German, so I had no idea what he was saying, but the way he was talking so intently and people were cheering, the same goosebumps return? I doubt that God was trying to tell me that Hitler’s work was a good thing. What if it is just a reaction in the brain when you hear and see something that is supposed to motivate you? I had thoughts beginning to bloom that scared me. Denying the Holy Ghost was a big deal.
But, what if….
No. Don’t even think about it Ryan.
Along with choir, Sasha signed us up for a club that was all about business. The Future Business Leaders of America. We competed in competitions against other schools in business related subjects, like Web Design, Advertising, Business Ethics, Job interviews and so on.
The club was not popular for obvious reasons.
It scared me and gave me stomach aches from stress sometimes, but it was an amazing confidence builder for me, and it taught me so much.
I became one of the officers, with a little push from Sasha. It made me feel smart and important.
I felt that feeling so little in my life that I thrived from it.
I went to compete on a state level in our Chapter News Letter and won first place. I went on a stage in front of thousands of people. I also placed 6th in Emerging Business Issues with Sasha and me as a team.
I was happy that I had some things that I was actually enjoying in school. As my senior year rolled around, I was getting to the point where I was able to talk to people with a little more confidence and people were starting to notice. I even got asked out on a few dates.
As irrational as I knew it was in my head, boys didn’t seem trustworthy to me since the incident with Ty all those years ago. I didn’t know if they would also lie to me about what was really going to happen.
But I still went on the dates. And only with Mormon boys of course.
I never had a connection to any of my dates, which is good in a religion that disapproves of having a serious relationship with anyone before you are 18. You can go on as many group dates as you want once you turn 16, but preferably with a different person each time to discourage getting too close with anyone and therefore avoiding any possible “sinning” from happening.
But of course, things always have to change. And I hate change.