University, as I explained in other stories was a brutal experience for me between the time I started in September 1988 and the time that I met my first wife Lea in June 1990. A combination of social awkwardness, pent-up anger towards my parents, having my sense of self-worth totally tied up and defined by my academic performance and a complete lack of any structure or boundaries proved to be disastrous for me. My dorm-mates tried to help me and for the most part they meant well. But they had never dealt with someone on the spectrum and certainly not someone who had all the issues that I had. In addition, I am an incredibly stubborn person and nearly every time I was advised by my peers not to drink too much, not to get too exited over a girl I fancied and not to over-do it on my studies, those pearls of well intended and freely given wisdom fell on completely deaf ears.
I made it through three straight semesters at SFU before the very deep cracks in my psyche became very clear to both myself and everyone around me. Toward the end of my third semester I came within two professor’s signatures of withdrawing from the university under extenuating circumstances from extreme burnout. My dad, in a frantic telephone call urged me to come out for dinner with him (he was in town briefly) and he managed to talk me out of not completing the withdrawal process. I finished the semester with a 3.53 GPA, which wasn’t bad, but far below my expectations of what I thought it should be, which is absurd when I look back on it. At dad’s and my uncle David’s urging it was decided that after the semester was over that I would go on a two week camping trip with my uncle David, aunt Melanie and their three children. I went and managed over the course of the trip to feel rested. I read Bernal Diaz’s “Conquest of New Spain”, which was required reading for the Latin American History course that I had signed up to take in the following semester, during the trip by the campfire. I felt ready to take on the world again just a few weeks later.
I should explain at this point that one of the reasons why I felt so burned out was that my dad wanted me to complete my university education in 8, back-to-back semesters without taking a break, other than the 2-3 weeks between semesters. I had just turned 17 when I started, and his employer, City Polytechnic of Hong Kong was willing to pay for my university education until I turned 19. So If I went back to back, my university education would be almost completely free. I hated him for this at the time, though as a father now, with limited financial means I can understand where he was coming from. But from the time I was 11 years old dad had promised me that as long as I kept my grades up he would pay for my university education. He had never told me until after I started that he expected me to complete it in this manner. I looked around me and saw that nobody else even attempted to cram a 4 year degree into 2.5 years. So I felt in some way like he was reneging on his promise and passing the buck to his employer, since I had sacrificed most of my free time during my teenage years to study and keep a straight A average.
So with newly found piss and vinegar I started the fourth semester. I had signed up for a full load of history and archaeology courses as this was now going to be my major. After two semesters of science courses, I realized that although I could get A’s in science, I could not do so without an incredible amount of effort and I would never be like the guys who wandered into an exam and had forgotten that there was going to be a mid-term and then managed to blow the grade curve and get 98 anyway. Let me tell you that there is nothing more humbling then setting foot in a lecture hall of 300 very smart people for the first time and getting decimated on an exam. You can go through high school being the top, or the second from the top student in your school, as I did. Heck, by the time you finish you think your shit is so hot it could pass through solid steel. Nothing, and I mean nothing in high school prepares you to be surrounded by 300 equally smart or smarter people than you. Most people I think are used to dealing with this humility very quickly, but I was not one of those people. Rather than accept that I wasn’t going to be amongst the best, but continuing with my major anyway and doing the best that I can, I ran like hell away from it after just two semesters.
I did ok until week 4 and then I got sick. Very quickly my fitness routine went out the window and very quickly I fell behind in my readings and my term papers. The stress began to mount and once I recovered from the flu that I had contracted I went to my professors and told them that I wasn’t sure if I could make it through this semester. I had the option of unconditional withdrawal at this point with no notations on my academic record. So I wanted to convince them to let me withdraw later if the pressure got to be too much to handle. It seemed like a reasonable step to take. In the meantime I set up camp in the Academic Quadrangle (AQ) and began the long process of trying to catch up. My modus operandi in this regard was to find a spot along the AQ – they had many carpeted benches with long tables where you could work. Most of these had ashtrays where you could smoke as you worked. And the benches were long enough that you could sleep. What I did was attempt to pull as many back to back all-nighters as I could to catch up. I would bring my books, a change of underwear and load up on change – quarters, dimes and nickels and then head out and find a spot. When I got too tired to keep my eyes open, I would get up and walk to the nearest vending machine and grab a coffee. I would then walk once or twice around the perimeter of the AQ, which was four very long corridors about ½ km long and a good 300 feet wide, and usually by the time I reached my spot, I would feel sufficiently alert to continue studying for another few hours. Eventually, when I got so tired I absolutely had to sleep, I would set my watch alarm for 2 hours or so and would lie down on the bench and sleep. Sometimes I did this for a period of three or four days. I did it in the summer semester for my biology final, in which I got 91% in, so it was a method that at least in my mind produced results.
Eventually though my body developed a very high tolerance for caffeine and the effectiveness of the coffee began to diminish so that by the time I needed those “wings” to help me catch up on my readings, they weren’t there for me. I was always against smoking and had admonished my mother to quit my whole life up to this point. I knew if I smoked I would be a complete and utter hypocrite. However, I could not think of any other way to get the required fortitude to get through all the work that lay ahead. So I reasoned that I would just smoke as needed to get me through the next few weeks. With that I went to the Shell gas station that lay at the edge of Gaglardi Way, which was the main ring-road that surrounded the campus on Burnaby Mountain and bought my first pack of cigarettes. They were Player’s light. Oh my god they tasted awful! But within about 5 or 10 seconds of taking that first puff, I felt this complete light-headed elation – quite unlike anything I had experienced before. Now I finally understood why my mom smoked!
I found that with these things and copious amounts of coffee, that I could stay up and alert almost as much as I wanted. Very quickly, I began to not only catch up on the immense backlog of history readings that had piled up in the week and a half that I was sick, but I also began to come up for some good ideas for my history and archaeology term papers that were going to be due in the last week of the semester.
One afternoon, while I was sitting in the main study alcove outside the Archaeology department of the AQ, a girl accompanied by a little boy was walking toward the table and asked me if she could join me as the boy needed to eat a snack. She introduced herself as Sarah and we began to make small talk. I was stuck by the softness of her voice and her warmth. She had a round face with full cheeks and lots of freckles, which I keenly studied as we conversed. Her hair was a kind of mousy blonde bordering on light brown, long and straight. She had just started her education at SFU and lived over at McTaggart Cowan Hall, another co-ed residence on campus. I knew it, but not well, as I lived in Shell House and saw very little reason to go there. Practically everyone I knew was on my floor at Shell. After speaking for a while she got up and patted the boy’s head and said it was time to go. She said that it was nice talking to me and wished me luck on my studies.
After she left I thought about how warm and friendly she was, but went back to work soon as I doubted that I would see her again. About two or three days later, I was sitting in the same spot and Sarah came by and stopped to chat again, which surprised me. I can remember being so glad to connect with her that I didn’t worry about getting back to my studies the way that I normally would. She just seemed so tender and kind. After about an hour or so, I said that I had to get back to work. She said that she had to get back as well. So she got up to leave. Just as she was leaving she said: “Why don’t you drop by my place sometime when you aren’t so busy? I’m at room 219 at McCow”. I said I would stop by when I could.
After a few days of sitting out in the AQ, I decided that I had covered enough material that I could go and see Sarah. So I made my way over to her room. She answered the door quickly and invited me in and we sat in her room chatting about everything under the sun. She was so easy to talk to and was so non-judgemental. When it was time to leave she asked me to come over the next day after I had completed my studies, and then the next. I was only too happy to do so and was beginning to feel a growing attraction to her and thought that she may feel the same way. All these visits were beginning to interfere with my ability to catch up on my work, but for the first time since I had started at SFU, I can honestly say that I didn’t care. I was finally beginning to get somewhere with a girl that I like and I didn’t want to blow it by being too focused on my work.
The fourth time I went to see her my feelings were confirmed. After the usual conversation started with both of us sitting in separate chairs opposite one another, we very quickly moved onto her bed and were lying down next to each other. At one point she looked at me and said “Hold me.”. I took her into my arms and looked I her eyes. She moved her lips close to mine and just looked into my eyes as she moved in for a kiss. It was not my first kiss, but it had been several months since I had experienced a kiss like this and before that several years – back to the night of my first kiss in Hong Kong, which is the subject of another story. It was heavenly and all I knew was that I didn’t want this moment to ever end. But of course, as with all things, it had to, and pretty soon I was leaving to go back to my room. Could this be? I thought as I made my way back to my room. Could Sarah be my girlfriend now? It certainly seemed from the way she was behaving as though she was. But we hadn’t actually talked about our relationship and where it was going. I was feeling pretty smitten though, as was revealed by my shit eating grin that was plastered all over my face.
I would go over to see Sarah nearly every night for the next three weeks, i.e. from weeks six through eight of the semester. I was continuing to fall behind in my studies, but not so much that I was concerned. To me, seeing her was more important than anything. Sometimes we would watch her favourite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, while other times we just sat in the kitchen and ate ice cream and talked. The funny thing is that I don’t remember the details of any of our conversations now – probably because I was too busy basking in the elation that came from getting this kind of attention from someone else. A week in, I started to think I was I love and by week three I was convinced of it. Of course, I was just infatuated, but there was no telling me that at the time.
At the end of the three weeks, Sarah went to Victoria for the weekend to see her family. We parted with a kiss and I looked forward to seeing her when she got back. I spent most of the weekend in the AQ, trying to catch up, aided now by my trusty cups of coffee and packs of cigarettes, which I was now going through at the rate of 1 a day. When I went to see her on the Monday the following week, Sarah was cold and distant. I asked her what was wrong. I was completely unprepared for her response.
Sarah: “I don’t think we should see each other anymore Chris.”
Me: “Wait. Why Sarah? What’s wrong? What have I done?”
Sarah: “Nothing Chris. It’s just that when I met you a few weeks ago, I was lonely beyond compare. I’m not anymore and I just feel that this had been getting too intense for me right now”
I was just devastated. I couldn’t understand how she could be saying this after we had been holding one another and kissing after hours of sweet conversation nearly every day for three weeks. It just didn’t make any sense to me. Was there someone else? I wondered. It never occurred to me that having done this every day for three weeks might actually be the problem.
Me: “Is there someone else?”
Sarah: “No, Chris. There isn’t anyone else. I’m just not looking for a relationship right now. I think it would be best if you left now.”
Me: “Can we at least be friends?”
Sarah: “Yes, I think so.”
I left Sarah’s room, still in a state of shock and disbelief. I handled this shock in an all too familiar way: I went into denial mode. I figured that since Sarah changed her mind so suddenly about us, that she would surely change it back – especially if I continued to be really kind toward her. I had no clue. No clue whatsoever about how attraction works, much less than relationships. I would find out – the hard way. Many. Many times. Over the next three weeks or so I tried hard to catch up and focus on my studies, but I just couldn’t get Sarah out of my head. My mind kept on wandering and envisioning all those moments where we held each other and I just couldn’t figure out what went wrong. I just didn’t understand that Sarah was not really attracted to me and it had simply taken her just a few weeks to figure that out.
As my grip on my studies slipped in weeks 9 and 10, I could see that there was little chance that I was going to avoid an academic disaster this semester. For me that was unthinkable as I had never had since grade 7, gotten anything less than an B+-average. Most of the time, I had A’s and only in the first and third semesters at SFU did I get less than that with a 3.29-3.59 out of 4.33, which I had not considered to be too bad, given all the difficulties I had adjusting to university life. But this semester, I felt I would be lucky to get more than a 2.0 (i.e a C). The impact on my cumulative GPA would be hard to come back from, and for me, this was almost more important than life itself. I sequestered myself in my room for several days while I tried to figure out what to do. I kept thinking that I couldn’t face my parents if I quit, because for me it would be a disgrace – a black mark against all that I had worked hard to achieve ever since that day in grade 6 when I decided that I would do whatever it took to be the best student in my class and make them proud. I felt it was my duty to them because of all that they went through with me in the years before. For two or three days, I felt that there was nothing to live for. I kept having fantasies of dying and ending the torment of Sarah in one corner of my mind, and academic failure in another.
At the end of the following week, which was week 11 (there were 13 weeks to the semester), we had a dorm social dance party to kick off the start of finals. I decided to go, despite how I was feeling. Bad idea. Very. Bad. Idea. I wound up getting extremely drunk to the point where I fell down twice. After the first time I fell, I spotted Sarah in the room and approached her.
Me: “Saaaarrrah. Willllll you daaaance with me?
Sarah: “No Chris, you are drunk. You should go up to your room and call it a night.”
Me: “Pleeease!” as I fell over again.
These two guys who had been standing nearby said “Right! It’s time for you to go!” and they got on either side of me to escort me back to my room. They walked me up the basement stairs to my room on the second floor, waited for me to open the door and then said to me sternly “Stay here and don’t come back down!”.
Although I was too drunk to stand, I was not too drunk to feel. I felt so completely defeated. I had completely humiliated myself in front of Sarah and I was never going to recover academically. I just felt like life would just completely suck and would never get better. I went over to the built in desk that was kitty corner to my built in bed, in my 6’ x 9’ room. Next to the desk was a built in shelf that had all my textbooks and other stuff on it. I reached for a small cardboard box and removed the contents: two arrowheads that I made for one of my archaeology classes from obsidian. Obsidian is a form of volcanic glass, that is razor-sharp when chipped. It was the material that ancient native North Americans and other peoples often used to make arrowheads, knives and other cutting tools. I looked at the two arrowheads, and then at the soft, white flesh on the insides of my wrists. I knew that I could end it all in just a matter of minutes. I shifted my gaze back and forth between the arrowheads and my wrists for a few minutes before I decided to slit my wrists. But first, I had to say goodbye – first to Mike and then my parents. I picked up the phone and called Michael in Australia, where he was living at the time. I explained to him why I couldn’t go on anymore and after much begging and pleading with me, I agreed to not go through with it. After I hung up the phone, I went to call my parents collect, which was how I usually called them.
By the time the operator came on the line, I was barely coherent. I slurred out my parent’s telephone number and let it slip that it was really important that they accept this call as it might be the last time we would speak. At this, the operator must have called the RCMP, because I had passed out in the middle of the call and awoke to two RCMP officers dressed in yellow jackets in my room, along with Neil, an acquaintance of mine who lived on the 4th floor where I had lived in my first semester there. They laid me on my bed and I passed out again.
When I awoke the next morning with a pounding headache, I was surprised to find Neil sitting outside my room on the floor, next to my door, with his back to the wall.
Me: “Neil, what are you doing here?”
Neil: “Chris, I need you to promise me something.”
Me: “Ok Neil, sure. I need to get some more smokes. Why don’t you tell me on the way to the gas station?”
Neil got up and started to walk with me, down the hall and out the south exit of the building. There was a large lawn that we had to walk up and across and this eventually led down to a street, which in turn led to Gaglardi Way, where the Shell station was. We arrived there and Neil stood silently at the counter while I paid for my cigarettes and then we headed back to my room.
Neil: “Chris, I need you to promise me that you will never, no matter how bad things get, try to kill yourself again.”
Me: “Oh my god. Is that what happened? The last thing I remember was drinking at the dance and some vague image of two RCMP officers in my room?”
Neil: “Yes Chris, they were there. You had tried to call your parents and were going to slash your wrists. The operator called the police and they came up here quick. I happened to be walking by when I saw them come to your door. I asked them what was going on and they told me. Then they asked me if I knew you. I told them that I would keep watch on you. I was worried Chris.”
Me: “I’m so sorry Neil. I promise I won’t. But I know that I have to quit. I can’t finish the semester. Not now. My parents will have to listen to me this time.
So within a few days, I had met with the head of campus security and the head of the residence about what had happened and then I began the process of withdrawal that I had negotiated with each of my professors weeks before. I called my parents to tell them of what was happening. My mom was very understanding, but my father surprisingly still tried to convince me to finish. I was firm and told him no. Then the tone of the conversation shifted to how my return to Hong Kong was to be arranged, and what was to happen while I was there in order to ensure that this did not happen again after I came back.
About a week later, I had obtained a part time job at my favourite stamp shop, Weeda Stamps in Vancouver. I had taken it to just fill in the two weeks I would be in Vancouver before I had to leave to go to Hong Kong. The job went so well initially that Mr. Weeda decided that I would have a job to come back to when I returned. I did wind up deciding to take the job rather than go back to school, much to my parent’s dismay. I spent almost two months in Hong Kong convalescing and getting my head together. Sarah was still not far from my mind and even after all that had happened, I was nowhere near accepting that there was just no future to this relationship. In fact, the entire time I was hatching a plan as to how to win her back when I returned. That all but fell apart about a week after I got back and I went to go see her. She basically asked me to leave and told me that I needed help. Even after that, I occasionally ran into her on campus, and each time it was painful, though less so as time went on. It wasn’t until I was with my fiancée Lea, that I ran into her another time, after three years had passed that I was completely fine and we sat and had a normal conversation.
I never had that feeling again -that of wanting to end my life; at least not that seriously to the point where I was ready to act on it. However, this would be the first of two romantic rejections that would have a devastating effect on me emotionally, despite the fact that in both cases, neither relationship had ever really gotten off the ground. The next of these would come six months later in September 1990.
This concludes the next three stories that I have posted here. In my next post, I will explain their significance as it relates to living on the spectrum, as well as why I chose to post them together.