A life on pause: UNCW’s Lang battled Asperger’s syndrome to become star student, budding author

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UNC-Wilmington holds its annual commencement ceremony Saturday. Ahead of that, here is a story of one graduate’s struggle to succeed against the odds.

Hillora Lang spent decades trapped by fear.

She was afraid to be around other people, to go new places.

She couldn’t look people in the eyes when she talked to them, couldn’t hold down a job.

After a lifetime of social anxiety caused by Asperger's Syndrome, Hillora Lang found the courage to attend college. She is graduating with honors from UNCW Saturday. Photo by Hilary Snow.
After a lifetime of social anxiety caused by Asperger’s syndrome, Hillora Lang found the courage to attend college. She is graduating with honors from UNCW Saturday. Photo by Hilary Snow.

Nervous at her best, immobilized by panic at her worst, Lang always knew something was wrong with her. She just didn’t know what.

It wasn’t until she was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in her late 40s that she, for the first time in her life, finally felt free. Asperger’s syndrome is an autism spectrum disorder characterized by major difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, as well as repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.

Now, just a few years after hearing that news, Lang is doing something she never thought possible.

She is set to graduate from UNCW on Saturday as an honor student in the creative writing and English departments. She has already been accepted into the graduate writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

“Having the diagnosis was the most empowering thing that ever happened to me,” Lang said. “Because I was able to get the help I needed.”

It didn’t magically make everything better, of course. But it gave Lang the confidence to seek out a better life for herself.

“I was nearing 50 and had no prospect for a decent job. And I was not going to end up an elderly person on welfare and food stamps. I knew the only way to overcome it was to get an education,” she recalled.

With her severe social anxiety, college was a concept she had never considered.

“I knew I couldn’t do it so I never even thought about it,” Lang noted.

And since foreign situations terrified her, it took Lang a week of driving to Cape Fear Community College each day and sitting in her car for hours before she finally worked up the courage to go inside and ask for a course catalog.

She started by signing up for a free computer literacy class, just to see if she could handle being in the classroom. When she found that she could, she began taking courses at CFCC and online, with hopes of becoming a librarian.

But while at CFCC she began taking creative writing courses, a move that changed her career path.

“I loved it so much, I knew that’s where I should be, after all,” Lang said. “Creative writing is something I have always done. It was always a way to express things I couldn’t do in person…I have read so much throughout my life, I felt like I know what good writing was. I’ve read hundreds of thousands of books. Tens of thousands, at least.”

So, Lang took another brave leap–this time to UNCW, where she threw herself into her newfound existence. She kept up exceptional grades in order to continue receiving grants and scholarships.

And she slowly began to break down the wall that had kept her withdrawn and afraid most of her life.

“It’s tremendous–to go to college, to be able to go to class with other people. I’ve often been able to take lead in class when no one else spoke up because I felt bad for the teacher,” she laughed. “Younger students, I think, are intimidated sometimes. They are afraid to speak up. I looked at this as my one chance to succeed. I don’t have any time to lose; I’m going to take advantage of it.”

That mindset is what motivated Lang to accept a Wentworth Fellowship from UNCW in 2012 that allowed her to travel to Scotland.

“I traveled abroad for the first time in my life,” she said, smiling. “I never thought I could ever do that. At least I had a year to plan.”

To ease her fears of flying alone, Lang combined her trip with an anthropology class trip to Ireland.

“I knew I would be able to travel with the class and have some time to get my feet under me,” she said.

But after being in Ireland a couple of weeks, she hopped a plane–this time by herself–to Scotland, where she spent five weeks driving around the countryside.

“I was shocked I could do that,” she said.

Scotland is also where an idea for one of her young adult book series–a reinterpreation of ancient Scottish myth–was solidified. She is also working on a dystopian fantasy series, with hopes of becoming a published author.

“Emotionally, I feel very close to that age group. Asperger’s held me back from life for so long, I feel connected to that age now,” she said. “It’s really important for me to write about my experiences and my feelings honestly, to let other people know they are not alone.”

As she sets her sights on graduation–then Vermont–Lang cannot believe how far she has come and how far she has yet to go.

The unknown may still be quite scary at times, but rather than turn away she embraces it now. Because in the unknown is freedom, adventure, a life fulfilled.

“I have had so much fun. Throughout my time at UNCW, I have forced myself to take on situations I wouldn’t have normally taken on. It’s been a little bit easier for me. And Saturday, I’ll be walking across the stage all blinged out with my cords and medallions,” she said. “I don’t think young people always have an appreciation for what this means.

“Until you’ve lived in the world and suffered and struggled, you don’t understand. For me to have this opportunity to go to college was a blessing and something I never thought could happen to me.”

Related story: Inspired by a health scare, CFCC’s O’Keefe now determined to make a difference

Hilary Snow is a reporter at Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6341 or hilary.s@hometownwilmington.com