Ever since I was a kid, I knew I didn’t want to live like my parents lived. I didn’t like their friends, I didn’t like their values, I didn’t like how they behaved, I didn’t like their life choices. Everything — from food to clothing to how we worked (we did a lot of that) to what we did in our free time — was at odds with what I wanted for myself.
I didn’t want to eat their greasy, fatty, carb-filled meals at 7:15, Noon, and 5:30, that left me feeling worn out… and tied my gut up in anguished knots of pain every single day. I wanted to eat a leisurely continental breakfast, followed by a mid-morning snack (second breakfast!), a light lunch, a mind-afternoon munch, and then a solid dinner, preferably late in the evening (Spanish style).
I didn’t want to “rough it” camping in campgrounds with bathhouses that reeked of disinfectant and bug spray… going on long hikes with loud gangs of people, in the process getting all sweaty and covered in bug bites and various scratch organic matter… sleeping on the ground in a tent that didn’t keep out the noise or the mosquitoes. I wanted to spend my days on a university campus, preferably in the library, reading… studying… writing… and taking solitary walks through the silent woods or along an isolated beach.
I wanted to be free. Free of their small-minded limits. Free of their food choices. Free of their priorities. Free of their roughness. Free of their fear.
And my ticket to freedom was work. Getting jobs that would pay me enough that I could do what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted, as much (or as little) as I wanted. Getting out in the world and finding out how other people lived their lives. Coming up with my own ways of doing things, based on what I learned from others.
I left home at 18, going off to college in a state that bordered Canada, which had heavy Canadian influence. Most of the television, radio, and news were Canadian. This was in the early 1980, before there was cable and internet and DVDs and whatnot. The world was much bigger then, and it was easier to get away.
So, I got away. I took off and got the hell out of there. I was going to school out-of-state, and because I’d gone directly against my parents’ wishes, my parents cut me off financially. They wanted me to go to the Christian college they’d both graduated from, because then I could get a scholarship – a kind of family discount – but there was no way I was doing that. You had to sign a “morality agreement” saying you wouldn’t do certain things. But everything I actually wanted to do in college was on that agreement — drinking, smoking, dancing, loud rock music (a-la big-hair 80s guitar bands — rock on!) So, yeah, ix-nay on that college choice.
Because I went out-of-state (I couldn’t get away fast enough), I paid higher tuition. Now, mind you, that means I paid $8,500 a semester, versus $25,000 — times have changed — but when you have limited funds, and your family has cut you off, that’s a lot of money for an 18-year-old to come up with.
But I did it. I shopped my typing skills around, making extra money re-typing bought papers for my peers, who didn’t feel like writing them, themselves. I tutored a local kid in German. I did work-study programs during the school year and over the summer. I worked it out so I could stay in-state for the summer between freshman and sophomore year to get my state residency and get lower tuition the following three years. It worked.
Unfortunately, I got myself in a bit of trouble over that summer. And the following year was pretty rough, with me dealing with police and the law and a stalker. But again, the thing that saved me was finding work. I went to Germany for a “semester abroad” and liked it so much, I got a job with an American translator and was able to pay my way to stay a full 2 years.
I did get extra help from friends, who paid for more dinners than I could count. I generally paid for my breakfast and lunch — which cost next to nothing for students, in those days. I could get a full lunch meal for less than $2.00, so long as I wasn’t picky about what went into the “Eintopf” — a stewed mix of whatever was leftover from the day before. I had to eat. I didn’t have the luxury of picking and choosing. And the dinners I made for myself were vegetarian, because meat was expensive, and I could get all the nutrients I needed from veggies and rice.
When I reached the end of my 4 years of college, I was out of money and out of options. I didn’t have a degree, yet, because I had lost touch with my home university and didn’t pay close attention to the requirements. I didn’t care about academic requirements! I was an artist! A writer. I was going to write novels and poetry. What good would a math class do me?
Back in the 1980s, you could still get by without a college degree, so I went back to the United States and proceeded to figure stuff out. My life was a lot more complicated and messy than I can describe here, but the one thing that kept me going through it all was work. Having a job. Having a regular income. No matter how screwed up I was, or how messed up my choices were, or how much life seem stacked against me (in terms of crippling chronic pain and coming out as a lesbian in the days when even saying the word “lesbian” out loud could get you beaten up, fired, or cast out of your circle of once-cozy friends)… as long as I had a job, I had choices. I had freedom. I could move. I could grow. I could make art. I could write.
As long as I had a job and kept working with a steady income, I was good.
And I knew that as well as anyone. I’d worked since I was 12 and had a paper route. I’d worked tons of sh*tty jobs in back kitchens of restaurants, at nurseries transplanting hundreds of tomato seedlings (I got paid per piece), delivering meals and meds at a nursing home, and I’d supported myself a number of ways through various illicit activities (selling speed out of my locker and procuring booze for classmates in high school , for example, as well as retyping contraband papers in college). No matter how crappy the job was, every single one taught me something. And I learned as I went.
Work was my ticket to independence, to creating my own safe Autistic haven from the non-autistic world. The money I made allowed me to make choices with how I was going to live, where I was going to live, what I was going to do with my free time, and if I had free time at all.
So, I was super-motivated to always have a job. No matter what, I always had a job. Working full-time, whenever possible. More, if possible. And I’ve typically worked extra gigs on the side, even while working full-time. This has been going on for 30 years, and I’ve never, ever been under-employed. If anything, I’ve been over-employed, with barely any time left to just catch my breath. But that’s my choice. That’s by design. And it’s worked for me.
I mean, look at me — virtually, of course, since you can’t actually see into my life, right now. I live in a 2100 square foot garrison colonial house in one of the most affluent towns in my county, with woods surrounding me and an amazing view of the western mountains from the front of the house. I’ve got to cars in my garage (well, one’s in the shop right now, but it will be back this coming week). I sit on a town board and participate regularly in my town’s government. I used to volunteer at a local botanical garden (till my life got too busy). I have a 6 month financial safety net in the bank, and this month I get two bonuses from work that will allow me to renovate two of the bathrooms in this house.
I’m presently sitting on a nice burgundy colored sofa with a cushy, soft grey pillow behind my back, with my favorite Samurai-design mug of coffee on the t.v. table to my right. Beside it is a ripe banana that looks really tasty, and beneath it is a woven place mat with a folded paper napkin beside it. To my left is my mobile phone, which is playing my favorite tunes, a full box of tissues, a pile of comfy, cozy blankets I can wrap around me if I get cold. Across the room is the fireplace which is built from cobblestones retrieved from a historic district in Boston. You can see chips in the stone where horse-shoes probably struck them.
I’m surrounded by comfort — the two Amish-made rocking chairs in front of the fireplace with an engraved copper coffee table my aunt brought back from Africa between then. Lovely rugs on the floor, a basket filled with Christmas cards from friends and family, an entertainment center with t.v., DVD player, VCR, and cable box… and many, many knicknacks my partner and I have collected over the years. To my right is a bookshelf full of books and papers, and the desk and main computer & printer we use for all-purpose activities. And across the room, the bay window looks out on a woodlot where firs and hardwoods sway in the wind, as hawks circle and call to each other overhead. Upstairs, my partner of 27 years is fast asleep. Later, she’ll get up, and we’ll touch up her graying roots with a “touchup kit”. I’ll do a bit of work for my day job. And I’ll take care of some other stuff for another business we have together.
I’m not listing all my blessings to make anyone jealous. For every nice thing I have, there’s been a lot of pain I’ve endured. But I am listing all these great things to make a point.
Keeping working with a steady income made all this possible. If I hadn’t been able to keep working, very little of this would be possible.
By no means am I vastly wealthy. Far from it. But because I’ve had steady work — a steady income — all this is now possible. It’s been a long and winding road, and to date (over the past 30 years), I’ve had something like 20 employers. Some of them (temporary employment agencies) were simultaneous. That was by design, because I couldn’t afford to be out of work. At all. If I had to sign up with three different agencies and play them off against each other, that’s what I did. And worked for me. Looking around at my life now, I can see just how well it worked.
Personally, I think people are really messed up about work, these days. Everybody seems to think you need to find a career and stick with that, from Day One. Er, not exactly. I’ve had four distinct “careers” in the last 30 years, and they all just happened organically. I learned different things at each job, and then I applied what I’d learned to the next one… and the next one… and the next one.
To say that my parents were horrified by my… meandering “career path” would be an understatement. I can’t even count the times they openly despaired of my future — usually in front of other people, so they could vindicate themselves and avoid public shaming.
But you know what? It worked for me. And although my future is far from guaranteed, I am a heck of a lot happier than most people I know, I have a life that really, truly works for little ol’ Autistic me, and I have the things I value most in life — Books, books, and more books… and the leisure time to read them, write, and truly enjoy myself.
Because I kept working. When one job didn’t work out (and there have been lots of them), I moved on. I cut my losses, learned my lessons, learned to portray it to others in a light that made me look like an opportunity-seeking winner, not a loser fleeing my last failure in a long string of screw-ups. I learned how to work the system and find exactly what worked for me. I didn’t hang around longer than I had to, if things got sour. And I never shed a tear about moving on. As a matter of fact, I’ve been actively interviewing for other jobs, so I can keep my hand in the game. I actually turned down a really great offer at the end of last year (because I could), and I have another interview on Monday, which I’ll probably ace, but plan to turn down, because their schedule requirements already look like they suck, compared to what I’m doing now.
Most people I know would get a little green around the gills, if they followed my path. It’s not for everyone. The point is, it works for me. And it’s paid off in some very big ways.
It boils down to the following set of non-negotiable rules I have for myself:
Always work. Never don’t have a job. Keep the income coming in. If possible, get more income coming in. If your day job doesn’t fulfill you, pursue your passion on the side and let that fill in the blanks of your spirit.
Never, ever talk disparagingly about past work experiences, but emphasize the positives. Always look for the benefits and things that other people value, and emphasize them.
And whatever you do, always, always, always work. I don’t care if it’s a crappy temp job shuffling papers for personal injury attorney — I did that for a while, and it was horrible, every single day, but I still showed up and did my best. Even if it’s a seasonal gig selling Christmas trees or lemonade on the corner… even if it’s delivering newpapers or putting flyers on people’s windshields at the mall… always, always, always work. Even if it doesn’t suit you. Even if it’s exhausting. Even if it’s demeaning. Doing shitty work is required, if there’s no other work to be found.
That’s been my secret. Tolerating awfulness and learning from it. Turning it into something better, on down the line. Not getting stuck in lost causes or beating myself up because things didn’t work out. I experience, I learn, I transform, I move on. And I move up. Because I can. And lots of other people can, too.
These days, it seems like everybody has such high expectations from the workplace. Careers. Professions. And so forth. You get out of college, and it’s all supposed to be set up for you (Pro Tip: it’s not, by the way). On the other hand, some of us have to work our way up in the world. And I’ve observed tha those of us who do, who have all those rough experiences we learn from, are worlds ahead of the rest of the entitled set-up crowd, when it comes to long-term prospects… not to mention general happiness and satisfaction with our work and life situation.
When you’ve slogged through the muck, you appreciate and value the clean, well-lighted places like they’re your ever-renewing lease on life life.
Because they are.
So, that’s my riff on working while Autistic. There’s plenty more to say, but I’ve gotta go get some things done in my own clean, well-lighted sanctuary.