Swimming Upstream by Shannon Foster

I have spent most of my life focusing on what I cannot do. Being neurodivergent in a world designed for neurotypical people has been exhausting and discouraging. I am like a fish out of water, gasping for breath, waiting to be placed back into my natural habitat. I have been caught on the hook of a society that does not recognize or value my differences. I have all but drowned in the dry air of the unmet expectations and unrecognized accomplishments my life has been defined by. If only someone would place me gently back into the water, I could swim freely and live in the gifts nature has given me. My mind is brilliantly different, and I feel more deeply than most. I am forever connected to the emotions of others, yet I show little of my own and have been accused of being cold and unfeeling. My face is stoic, my voice monotone. What no one witnesses beneath the surface is the debilitating anxiety I live with everyday, or how my heart breaks as easily as glass shatters upon the hard ground. 

I have dyscalculia, the math version of dyslexia, and suffer from depression and PTSD. Living in a waterless world has made me mask my perceived weaknesses and underestimate my innate talents. I am a pisces, perhaps this is what fate had planned for me all along. The sign of the fish is the last of the signs when they are listed out, almost forgotten. I have always been drawn to water, but the depths of the ocean terrify me. I cannot watch nature documentaries when the camera dives deep beneath the surface because I feel like I am drowning. I don’t remember when this began because as a child I was fearless. This fear in me has been taught over time. I am constantly misunderstood and mistaken for someone I am not. My face and voice hide what lies in the depths beneath… the waves within me that feel more than one human being ever should crash into one another. This chaos of waves is forever caught between the moon and the tides because they have forgotten who controls who.  

If I focus my attention on the gifts I have been given instead of what I do not possess… What would I be capable of creating? I do not have to live in a waterless world, devoid of the substance I need to breathe. I can set myself free and wander slowly back into the water. Is it a river or an ocean? Perhaps it is both. Either way, it will lead to a place I have never been before. If I swim into a river that leads to the ocean, I will release my fear and dive into the depths. My brilliant brain has made me who I am: hilarious, intelligent, quick witted, sarcastic, artistic, creative, unique, and talented. I have many gifts that have gone untapped because this world is designed for minds that do not think the way mine does.  

I have spent too much of my life resenting my differences, wishing I could conform to the expectations of others. Yet when I consider what I am missing, much of it seems like a nightmare to live within. If others are content with a white picket fence, I am happy for them. But I do not wish to live in the conditions for which society has conditioned me: Sitting in a gray office forty hours a week while feeling forced to do a job I resent, coming home to a house in the suburbs identical to the houses on either side, teaching my children to grow up and do the same while they ride their tricycles around the cul-de-sac, as if preparing for their futures when they will live their lives in an endless circle of monotony… this is my nightmare. I have stepped into this world, only to escape. I was transient in the lives of little children, their caregiver for a time. Though I loved the children, I have never been able to wrap my mind around the seeming apathy of some of the parents I have worked for. How could they possibly be content with this life? I understand the need to make a living and provide. What I do not understand is how we arrived at this point where loving what we do for a living is the exception instead of the rule. I want children someday, but I will never teach them to live in monotony, in the maddening normalcy our society has somehow come to define as the standard. 

I will not live my life on a steady, predictable path. I am unwavering and strong, like the salmon in a river swimming upstream. Though they know that at the end, they will perish, they make this journey. Their individual lives will conclude, but their progeny will go on for untold generations. We all know that we will one day die, which is why I will never be able to grasp the reason so many choose to live lives they do not love. 

I have experienced how quickly life can be extinguished, and lived in the existential dread this knowledge created within my mind. But I am learning to turn this dread into purpose and motivation. I can either choose to live a life of mediocrity, fulfilling the obsolete expectations of a society determined to make me miserable, or I can decide to embrace my brilliantly different mind. 

My neurodivergence has given me the gift of seeing the world in a different way, so why have I ever expected myself to live a life befitting that of a neurotypical person? I have nothing against neurotypical people; I simply have difficulty understanding the way that neurotypical brains have shaped society so that everyone is expected to conform to a narrow mold that constrains and punishes anyone who dares to step foot outside of the white picket fence. My differences are a gift, not a curse. If it weren’t for my learning disability, depression and PTSD, I would be a completely different person, devoid of the unique experiences that created the person I am today. My brilliance has often been passed over, but I will never forget the ones who have recognized it. More often than not, those who recognize it are neurodivergent themselves. I want to create a community where those who think differently are given opportunities they have been denied in the “real world.” What could be more real than embracing the brilliant differences within? 

I am moving forward a little each day, knowing how impermanent life is, using my experiences and the people I have known as inspiration to continue swimming upriver. The courage to continue swimming towards a course bound for death is a strange creature, but she often reminds me that we are all destined for the same ending. If we are all headed towards this fate, I choose to be one who leaves a part of me behind after I am gone. I do not know if I will ever have biological children, but I want to adopt children. Either way, I will leave a mark on this world, and it will not be “normal.” I am three different kinds of neurodivergent; how could I ever live a neurotypical life? 

I am headed back into the river to swim against the current, the way I have my entire life. The difference now is my willingness to embrace my differences. My life may not make sense from the outside, but I still have opportunities abounding. I can go anywhere at any time and live whichever life I choose. I am not bound to the chains society has placed upon me. I am setting myself free from the hook I was caught on, struggling on the shore to make my way back into the river. The sun flashes across my scales as I flip back into the water and disappear, refusing to be a captive of society. The white picket fence will not entrap me or my progeny. I will teach my children to swim upstream. 


Biography: I have been attending Aims since 2011 after I graduated from high school. Depression and other struggles with mental health held me back from finishing at Aims, but this semester I will finally be graduating! It has been a long, harrowing journey to get to this point. I wrote about my struggles with my learning disability and being neurodivergent because it is something I have struggled with my whole life. I wasn’t diagnosed with Dyscalculia, the math version of Dyslexia until last spring at 31 years old. I was not able to pass math and science in order to graduate until I was diagnosed and given accommodations by my professors and DAS at Aims. I am so thankful to finally know why I am the way I am and I don’t want other people to suffer the way I have. Most people have never heard of Dyscalculia but it is as common as Dyslexia. I want to pave the way for other neurodivergent people by making accommodations more accessible. I have always known that my calling is to be a writer and I am so excited to graduate from Aims and transfer to UNC this fall to major in Writing, Editing and Publishing. My favorite author is Jenny Lawson, she has inspired me by being a neurodivergent writer who is relatable, talented and hilarious. As a writer, I also love inspiring others while weaving honesty, vulnerability, sarcasm and humor into my craft.