I was recently challenged on a social media round robin to name my favourite film and say why. There was no hesitation. It had to be Benigni’s Italian language 1997 ‘Life is Beautiful’. A film at the same time so heart-breakingly joyful and devastating that I could only bear to watch it once, but still the memory of that viewing has etched in a way I don’t think will ever leave me.
There’s a lot I could say about why it’s brilliant, but the scene that had me holding my breath is where the young Jewish child, held captive in the concentration camp with his brilliantly inventive father, is coached to join in with a birthday party that the German children of the camp guards are enjoying.
He’s entirely innocent of the context and believes it a game – a competition to win a Tank ride, if only he follows the rules carefully. In this way the boy enters the grotesquely normal scene of merriment and feeds himself on so many cakes and sandwiches that his stomach hasn’t had in months. We hold our breath along with the father. Knowing that these outlandish risks are necessary for the survival of the person, but that there is peril in every move if he acts wrong. Eventually we breathe in relief, that scene ends and he goes on, undetected. His innocence at once a risk and a protection.
It moved me when I watched it and it moves me now. Perhaps it’s this; I am both that father and his son. The doer and the watcher, the teacher and the taught. Autistic me inserting myself into everyday gatherings with a scripted set of rules. Masking the mechanics of it, praying not to be revealed an other. Over time I know ive got these lines down pat and I can risk some improvising. Not much you understand, but a few off the cuff actions and replies, here and there, getting a bit braver. Trying it out.
The drink is the undoing. Not in itself – i’m not paralytic ever – but the siren call of ease from attention is strong. Ease from watchfulness and vigilance and throat constricting. Choking then only on crumbs of nicety (I suspect that most cake is made with sweetener).
I took part recently in a friendly group exercise that came at the end of a training day. There were 4 of us in our group, all kindly oriented (no malice here). The trainer played some jolly music and the task we were given was to copy each others’ movements. We’d take it in turns to mirror each others actions and the exercise would make us all release endorphins and bond over our copying. It was of course supposed to be a nice thing to do. Well irony my old friend you mock me once again.
My turn came to lead without rules. But this was all wrong. I’m the mirrorer, not the mirrored. I’m the copier, not the copied.
The attention was too meta. Too breathtaking. I voiced my discomfort. ‘Oh I hate this’ echoed the group. I screwed up my eyes and tried again. ‘I feel like i’m being mocked’ they replied.
From there there was no going back. What had to happen, happened, and the shutdown took over. Brain hijack to re-set. Voice, limb control, sacrificed for a while as the electrics and chemicals raced then settled down. It wasn’t so bad this time though, and I’m not more scarred. (I had shelter in a person who knew, and a room primed not to be afraid of other)
I often dream that i’m naked as I think many do. Trying to run. Gasping, wide eyed, looking over my shoulder. Aware of my exposure and seeking cover at all cost. Its textbook anxiety stuff i’m sure. I think its also quite a literal reflection on exposure of self. But this week’s episode took a break from horror story backdrops of dimly lit streets and shadowy trees. This time, my dream had me in Tesco of all places, in my birthday suit at the fresh produce section (perhaps id done a big shop earlier that needed mental processing? Who knows. I’m sniggering though at my subconscious’ smut. Melons didn’t feature) I’ll add, dream me still wasn’t comfortable; clothes are always best in the fruit and veg aisle. But I wasn’t running away breathless this time, and the other shoppers were trying hard to be British about it, sideways glances and a couple of raised eyebrows the worst of it. That feels like progress! After a time, dream me grabbed a handily placed dream towel and wrapped it around so that I only looked odd, and not rudely inappropriate.
It’s very exposing is living. But i’m learning to breathe through the fear of being revealed. I’ve survived this time without running. Without hiding. This is ok I think it’s ok. I may yet get thrown out of the party, but still i’ll keep my life.