I am in a plane.
The sky outside is a black pool of spilled ink. We coast silently along the current, adrift high above the endless abyss. We’re passing over England now. In Arabia, where I’ll be staying for a few short days, it’s almost seven in the morning. The sun breaks over the mountains that separate the port city of Jeddah from the holy city of Mecca; the first pink hues of dawn paint the sands a burning crimson. In Virginia, the place I just left, it’s only minutes to midnight. For a few short moments, it’s still my birthday.
It’s been twenty-four years since my parents became parents, twenty-four years since a child born of emerald hills and cedar mountains, of lavender fields and a sea in the middle of the earth, was given a name. I have been alive now for twenty-four years; yet, for the past few days, I have been preoccupied with who I was when I was half this age.
When I turned twelve, my father had found work in Arabia. After years spent building a family in a foreign land, he could finally be closer to Lebanon, to his parents, to his brothers, to his culture. What would this mean for the rest of us? This, we would have to wait and see.
My sister and brother went with him for that first year. My sister was nine years old and well aware of the world being pulled out from under her feet, but my brother was on the cusp of three and only knew what was put in front of him.
My mother and I stayed behind. For one year, the family would endure a separation.
That was the year I turned twelve, half the age that I am now. That year is, by far, my least favorite year of my young life.
When I was half my age, the bullies got worse. The vile actions of the radical few only a couple of years prior had made my father’s people an unwilling target for the frightened and the angry. My tormentors, clearly not done marking me the “tubby terrorist,” grew more despicable than they ever had before. They physically assaulted me. They locked me in dark places. They sent government agents to my house. They thought they were being “funny.”
When I was half my age, I thought I could make friends. I made vague attempts at displays of friendship, but what did I know about expressing my feelings? For years, doctors argued about what was wrong with my brain, how someone so intelligent could be so socially stunted. While they argued, I tried to make friends, I tried to love, tried to open my heart without knowing how. None of what I did worked, of course. If I had any friends that year, my enemies far outnumbered them.
When I was half my age, the doctors came to a conclusion. They told me that I was autistic. Big deal. My brain was wired differently. I was remarkably intelligent and intuitive, but I had zero capacity for socialization. That wasn’t what upset me. What upset me was when the doctors, when asked what could be done for me, responded with a shrug. I was a “unique case,” they told me. Not much data had been collected on kids with Asperger’s Syndrome, and cases like me needed to be studied. The way I took it, they gave me an answer that just left me with a thousand questions, none of which they had answers for.
When I was half my age, I was angry. I was always inconsolably angry. The smallest thing would set me off. I was bitter, and I was distant. If nothing else, I do believe I tormented my mother. I was an angry child, and despite our constant arguing the year we spent alone, she did everything in her power to make sure I was okay. Even when we had nothing, she made sure I would want for nothing. Though I didn’t know it then, I know now just how grateful I am that of all the mothers in the world, I got mine.
When I was half my age, I was told that I would not amount to much. Somehow, this was worse than being told I would amount to nothing. “Nothing” can be defined, “nothing” can be quantified, but what does a person mean when they say “much?” I was told that I would never be able to work, much less find a passion I could turn into a career. I was told I would never be able to make friends. I was told I would never have any sort of meaningful relationship with anybody.
But here I am now. Twelve years on from twelve years old, I know that my younger self would never think he’d be capable of the things I have done, the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met. He would never believe that he had found a passion, a passion not only for story, but for giving back to the world. He would never believe the flurry of ideas bursting in his head now like an endless shower of fireworks day in, day out. He would never believe that he would one day come out of his shell, that he would find his calling in the spotlight.
More than that, he would never believe that he’s made friends. Forget the kinds of friends he’s made, and forget even the sheer number: the fact that he’s made a single friend would strike him dumb with disbelief. Pigs would fly, the sun would rise in the west, and the deserts of Arabia would be graced with snow before he’d ever make friends. Yet, here they are: just about the most eclectic and diverse cast of characters one could possibly imagine came not from his stories, but from real life.
When I was half my age, I would never dream of having so many people on my side, people who support my wild ambitions, my crazy schemes, my impossible dreams.
When I was half my age, I never thought I’d have such dreams, dreams of telling stories, dreams of making the world that much better for everyone in it, dreams of doing so much more than I ever could’ve believed.
But here I am, and I wanted to talk to you. You, when you were half my age. I know you’re reading this miles above Europe–where am I? Monaco? The map says Monaco–and I know you still don’t believe it. I know you still wake up some mornings wondering if this is all some elaborate scheme, wondering if the world is faking it, if this is just your episode of The Truman Show.
So, let me reassure you:
You are twenty-four years old.
You are pursuing higher education because you want to change the world. You not only want to tell your stories, but you want to help people like you tell their stories because you know they deserve that chance, because you believe in them the way you’ve always wanted to be believed in.
And you know what? People believe in you. They really, truly believe in you, with every fiber of their being, with every ounce of love in their heart. They believe you will go far, but you can’t get there without them.
So, this is for the friends I’ve made since I was half my age: thank you for making the last twelve years worth every single moment. Whether we’re swapping stories or plotting to take over the world or watching the sunrise, you have made everything we do that much better by virtue of your existence. When I can’t glow with that brightness and unyielding hope that you’ve all come to know me for, you remind me of the things that are really important. You pick me up when I need to be picked up, and you also keep me grounded when I threaten to leap just a bit too far. Thank you for sticking by this mad man and his mad plans, and I promise you, they will pay off for all of us.
This is for Mom: I wouldn’t have a birthday if you had not given birth to me, and I wouldn’t have pursued the things I loved if you hadn’t been my biggest fan. I will never, ever be able to thank you enough. You gave me life so that I could live it the best I can, and that’s the best gift anyone could ask for. You are, of course, invited to all of the big Hollywood events, and I swear to you, I will get Mark Wahlberg to sign your poster.
And this is for you, the boy in my heart who is half my age, who’s reading this now and choking on his own words because he knows how much he needs to hear them: you’ve come a long way, so quit beating yourself up. You may not be where you want to be yet, but you’re a lot further along than you ever dreamed you’d be. There’s a lot more that needs to be done, and you’re gonna carry that weight, but never forget: you’ve got people who love you, and they will help you as long as you keep helping them. Carry each other, believe in that person–that you–that they believe in, and together, you will go far.
Good luck out there, man. Let’s see where the next twelve years takes us, okay? I’ll write you again in 2027.
Best of luck,
Me, Twice Your Age
October 16, 2015
To Me, October 16, 2003