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I Am Autistic. This Movie About Autism Changed My Life.

I have a vivid memory of the first time I watched the 2009 Australian claymation film “Mary and Max.” I had recently turned 18, and one of my great friends had died suddenly earlier that year from health complications they were unaware of.

“Mary and Max” played on a relatively old CRT-TV in the basement of the house of a friend (whom I didn’t care too much for). I sat watching attentively to avoid any uncomfortable conversations.

We had stayed up all night doing drugs, smoking cigarettes, and swapping music recommendations. I was feeling numb and disembodied — still reeling from the death of my friend — unable to sleep but unsatisfied with the reality of my waking life.

The sun had begun to rise as the film introduced us to its two central characters and their separate environments. I immediately recognized parallel traits and experiences between the characters and me; my interest was piqued, and I continued to watch with greater focus.

Spoiler Alert: The following contains detailed plot information and includes discussion of a suicide attempt, death and drug use.

Max has an identity centered largely around his Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis. Many of his idiosyncrasies (which were scolded and pathologized) reminded me of my own, and his ability to learn to love and live with them was a huge help for me in reminiscing on my late friend’s reminders of the importance of individuality and self-love.

I had always disliked myself for these idiosyncrasies because they resulted in hurtful human interactions, and my solution was to try my hardest to be different (in order to be liked, and thus, in order to be comfortable).

Needless to say, I have rarely felt comfortable, continuously stuck between the discomfort of either hurtful reactions to my authentic behavior or in having to perform unnatural, allistic behavior.

In the film, Max has an unconventional diet. It isn’t considered healthy, and it may not be even in this reality, but it makes him happy, where other diets make him not-so.

My own unconventional diet and “pickiness” has resulted in my (relatively) low weight and thin figure, which has resulted in demeaning “you’re nothing but skin-and-bone” comments and a negative attitude towards my figure, my diet, and my desires; in other words, some of the core components that make up my identity.

Max helped me (and is still helping me) learn how to love my body, my preferences, and my abilities for what they are and how they define my identity.

On an even more positive note, Max’s love for both the sounds and invention of words are traits I resonate with that have rarely (for me, thankfully) been marginalized and have remained characteristics of my identity that I am able to hold love for.

Max and I also share trouble in expressing our emotions. It’s not that we don’t experience and feel emotions, but that it is difficult for us to articulate them.

Learning I am autistic has meant finally and fully processing my relationship with emotion, to the point that my awareness now allows me to learn to accept and hone my unique communication processes/methods around emotion.

Growing up, I was frequently told by adults who observed me that I have trouble expressing and identifying my emotions. While this is true, it is only true to a degree, and it did more harm than good in gaslighting my experiences with emotion and preventing me from exploring potential communication accommodations.

Max revealed to me in that moment, in that smelly basement, that I don’t need to continue to agree that I simply have “troubles,” or that I need to conform to others’ (read: non-autistics’) relationship with emotion. My relationship with emotion (while slow!) is valid, and I am allowed to embrace my neurological disability as a socially-acceptable means of processing and articulating emotion.

I know this now, and it was Max who helped me get here.

And speaking of adult-child rhetoric, all three of us (Mary, Max, and myself) were frequently told to smile growing up, when smiling was just not what our brains wanted for us in those moments.

Mary was told to smile when at school she was being bullied for who she was and at home, her distant father (who never smiled) just sat in a shed stuffing dead animals. Same, Mary. Same.

Max was told to smile when he was, in fact, smiling. He was smiling in his brain. That thought always makes my brain smile. 🙂

Being forced to smile growing up made me feel both broken and ugly. I felt broken because I literally could not smile authentically on command and it was physically uncomfortable to maintain a (forced) smile for longer than a few seconds. I felt ugly because my forced smile looked (obviously) forced, and it didn’t resonate with or communicate what I was feeling inside.

That picture of Max’s smiling brain is burned in my memory and remains my inspiration for learning to love my neurological instincts and reactions just as they are. I even have a shirt that reads: I am smiling on the inside. It makes me happy.

One last example of how Max’s character saved me — even momentarily — from that unbearable basement and bodily state was learning about his unapologetic commitment to honesty (and hence, his critique of allism).

I really don’t understand how, according to allism, lying is approved of and even encouraged in some instances, while it is disapproved of in others. It felt critical for me to finally get that representation.

More than that, though, this insight allowed me to connect my newly-refreshed appreciation for honesty with my newly-found appreciation for being myself. Now, thanks to Max, I am learning how to be honest in expressing (unapologetically) who I am.

As I processed all of these epiphanies — like fireworks lighting up my brain — it was impossible not to think about the loss of my friend, the weight of my depression, and the dankness of my reality.

Mary’s suicide scare definitely helped me get there. It also didn’t help that we then learned [for the first time] that Mary is pregnant.

What is the point in “being myself” when I don’t want to “be” at all? I thought to myself.

Quickly, however, Mary was saved by the (door) bell (and by Max, incidentally) when the postal worker dropped off a package at her doorstep. It was from Max, and it contained (as a gift and an apology to Mary) his entire collection of toy figurines.

Inspired to reconnect with Max and rekindle their relationship, Mary traveled soon after with her newborn baby to America to be with Max, in person, for the first time ever.

The moment Mary arrived at Max’s apartment, detected his door ajar, and entered to check on him was the definitive moment “Mary and Max” changed my life.

Max had died in his sleep, as my friend had; he sat on his couch, neck bent back with a sort of smile on his face. Mary sat next to him.

As Mary appreciated and bathed in all the beauty of seeing her great friend in the flesh for the very first time, she noticed that his bright, content expression seemed to be connected with something he was gazing up at.

Mary followed his gaze, looking up to find that he had covered his ceiling with every letter she had ever sent him. Content herself, she smiled, as tears trickled down her face.

I was bawling — not smiling, just ugly crying.

I was processing grief, after all, but I was also processing new-found feelings of peace from the message I received from Mary and Max: that acceptance can be found simply in appreciating the memories of a friend.

In that moment, as I reflected on death, love, and interrelatedness, I decided that I will live my life with respect for myself and others; that I will live this way knowing my life is inextricably interrelated with the lives of those who love me and whom I love.

I didn’t hesitate. I vowed to myself that I would quit any sort of drug use immediately, barring tobacco. My intention was to set myself up for success by continuing the use of tobacco as a barrier against the craving to use drugs. After a certain point, I would quit using tobacco as well.

Two days later, however, I had (surprisingly) no cravings at all, so I vowed to quit using tobacco too. Just like drug use, I never got any cravings.

This was just the first of many pivotal changes in my life precipitated by my exposure to “Mary and Max.” One of the most memorable shots of the film (for me) — the one that inspired those initial vows — was the heart-shaped candy on the palm of Max’s open hand (and later, Mary’s) which read: love yourself first.

So I did, and I live every day with the intention of loving myself more so that I might love others more in return. My spouse and I got those tattoos in Amsterdam, on our honeymoon.

All this thanks to “Mary and Max.”

This story originally appeared on Starving Autist.

Image via YouTube