It’s been a very strange bunch of weeks. I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster for reasons that aren’t immediately clear to me. I go through my days with a combination of logical efficiency and having to fight back tears.
Take a break… find an empty conference room and compose myself… Or put on my headphones and hunker down in my cubicle till the emotion passes.
Either that, or I’m flying along without a care in the world, dealing with whatever comes up with surprising alacrity and presence of mind.
Or I’m in a numb state of overwhelm that just doesn’t add up, because my life is no more overwhelming than it’s ever been. If anything, it’s less overwhelming, because I’ve cut back on the sheer volume of stuff I do on a daily basis.
Maybe that’s it… maybe I’m feeling the loss of my intense focus and drive. Maybe I’m suffering from a lack of mental activity. I know I do feel unchallenged in my daily life, and my greatest cognitive challenges are not losing my mind in the emotionally, sensorily vacuous political atmosphere I function in, each day.
Come to think of it, I probably have a lot of good reasons to feel sad and bereft — yeah, bereft is how I feel. I can’t list all the reasons here. At the same time, I have just as many reasons to feel positively bouyant… which I do. Back and forth the emotional pendulum swings…
And all the while, I know that things are happening that I should be feeling something about. Something… But I can’t muster it. I can’t summon the sensation. It holds back, it keeps its distance. It’s just not there for the taking, whenever I need it.
Which makes me look cool, chill, sometimes even cold.
I don’t want that. So, I feign emotional responses. A lot. Based on what I see others doing. I do a lot of mirroring and mimicking, these days. And yes, it’s exhausting. Because there’s no room for someone like me who doesn’t feel something on demand, and people distrust others who aren’t like them. And I work with people who are skittish to begin with, what with all the layoffs happening and organizational drama taking place.
In some ways, alexithymia really comes in handy. It keeps me out of the pit of despair that everybody gets sucked into. But then my empathy kicks in, and I co-experience other people’s dramas, without really knowing why. I don’t sense things in the same way, with the same cadence/regularity that others. So, I have the dubious honor of sharing their emotional states without really knowing why…
And yes, it is exhausting.
So, I curl up in bed at the end of the day and weep. For whatever reason. Reasons I can’t imagine, that I can’t fathom… but which show up, days, even weeks and months on down the line.
I’m chugging along in my life. Finding my way through things. As usual.
Making the most of it — regardless. All of life presents itself to me, and I get to decide what I do with it.
There’s plenty of stinking muck under this lotus.
And there’s plenty of heaven above my metaphorical (and literal) head.
The richest soil comes from compost. All the ingredients that support life, coming from some sort of death. The process of composting is never pretty, never dainty, never as sweet-smelling as we’d like it to be.
Some time back, I spent some (very little) time downwind from a the decaying remains of a beached whale. The stench was overpowering, and it carried to the nearby seaside town. Tourists were walking around with their hands over their faces, but they/we all had to make the best of it. Because it wasn’t easy to get to that town, and we’d all made the investment of time and energy, and By God, we weren’t going to be chased off by the cycle of life.
We made the best of it, finding areas upwind of the rotting carcass, keeping ourselves otherwise occupied, trying to not pay it any attention. It wasn’t easy, but it worked.
“If you want to hear God laugh,
announce your plans.” – Said someone somewhere, sometime.
I’ve been a pretty reliable source of entertainment for God, for years, now. And while I’m sure He’s gotten plenty of good laughs from me (you’re welcome, God), I’m kind of tired of being laughed at.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m autistic, so I’m used to being laughed at. And if anybody has a right to do it, that would be God. (I’ll overlook the fact that I don’t actually believe in God – I’m taking artistic liberties here.) But now, after all those years of striving and hoping and planning and wishing and working… I realize that God laughing at me really shouldn’t bother me at all.
Truth be told, the point of all my undertakings hasn’t been in the neurotypical mold. It hasn’t been in anybody’s mold. And that’s the point. I’ve frustrated my family and colleagues and bosses and recruiters for years, with my laissez-faire approach to career and undertakings, my lackadaisical, shifting focus from one fascination to another, not to mention my (shrug) “whatever…” attitudes toward advancement and achievement and worldly success.
The world’s idea of success is fine for everyone else. But I’m just so tired of it. What a time-sink it is. What a heart-breaking waste of time it is for me. All the shiny baubles and trappings and evidence of world domination that brighten the day of the Masters of the Universe… they just leave me cold. All the goals, the intentions, the schemes… yeah, I’ve had them a-plenty. But what I’ve gotten out of my life has been so much more than all the plans and hopes and wishes that urged me along.
I got a life. I got experience. I’ve failed fantastically at many things, and I’ve done so-so at others. Sometimes, I’ve nailed it. Just “hit it” exactly right, and I managed to ride a wave of success and achievement for a number of years, till I moved on to the next thing. And in the end, I think my failures have served me better than any of my successes.
That fact means more to me, every single day.
It’s not the end result of my plans and activities that’s meant the most to me, or that’s stood me in the greatest stead. It’s been the process… the experience… the peripheral collateral of joy that’s come along with the endeavors. The ultimate goals of specific intentions was really just the context, the impetus for moving me along. Ambition is the delivery agent of experience. And unlike some who revere the final result of a completed project/plan/scheme, for me it’s actually all the other stuff in-between that matters. Experience — good, bad, or neutral — is what’s made my life what it is — something cool and awesome. And far more valuable than any flush bank account.
So, I’m letting certain sh*t go. As in, the “end game” ideas that have progressively dragged me down and made me increasingly uncomfortable and frustrated. I’m shifting my ambition away from specific “targets”, and towards the quality of my experiences. I’m tired of being pushed and pulled by internal drives and external impetus toward specific outcomes… and then never getting to enjoy myself along the way, because the specifics haven’t materialized exactlyas I’ve dreamed them up… or as others expect them to.
I’m also letting go of looking back in frustration, looking back in criticism, viewing my past as a series of failures. Failures at what? Some idea I had in my head about “how things should be”? Or worse, some idea that some marketer out there concocted to sell me? Those rocks and blocks are like so many useless, pointless obstructions teetering on a cliff above me (as I wait for them to break loose). It’s time to cut them loose myself, and just live my life, driving around the blockages with a gunning motor and a squeal of brakes… doing what I do for the love of it, rather than for money or quantitative measures. Quality, not quantity, is what I seek.
And interestingly, when I’ve put the emphasis on quality… on my own experience… somehow money and other quantitative measures have showed up.
I’ve still got a lot of dreams, still have a lot of hopes and plans… but the important thing now is really the process I go through as I make my way along those paths. The “final” destination I’m shooting for is just the carrot enticing me along… keeping me motivated… keeping me interested. But it’s not The Reason I do things, anymore.
Something much more intriguing is filling my life, these days — What Happens In Between.
And I’m finding, when I let go of specific outcomes, they actually show up — not always exactly as I envisioned them, but present, nonetheless.
I have to say, the past few days have been some of the best I can remember having in a really long time. Plans didn’t work out. Schedules changed. Expectations weren’t met. I didn’t get nearly as much done as I’d intended. But somehow I’ve been staying chilled out and even-keeled.
My work situation stinks. It just irritates me so much. So, I’ve been putting my resume out there, in hopes of finding something new and different. It’s slow going, because the automated systems in place “see” my educational history, and they block me before I can even reach a live person.
Whatever. Where I am now isn’t where I want to be for the long term, but I’ll make the best of it, while I have to. I’m finding ways I can meet the basic requirements each day, but still keep my sanity intact. And that’s fine. I just can’t get too wrapped up in expecting more of it than is reasonable.
My home life is going better than it has in a long time. I’ve let go of a lot of my old persnickety obsessions (and yes, they are obsessions) with perfection… not fretting if Everything Isn’t At Peak Expression… letting a lot of things slide and going out of my way to not take stuff personally. I’m treating dynamics that used to drive me batshit as opportunities to learn and grow and strengthen my character.
Healthwise, I’m doing okay. I’ve got intermittent pain, vertigo, and a whole raft of sensory issues. But you know what? It’s all old news. I’ve been through the wringer over this sh*t so many times, over the past 40-some years, I can’t even worry about it, anymore. It should come as no surprise to me. In fact, if anything, it should (and often does) bore me. Lately, the internal dialogue about my intermittent disabilities plays out like this:
I’m uncomfortable! This comes as a surprise to you? Exactly where have you been for the past 52 years, that this is noteworthy?
I really am losing patience with myself, over all my wailing and gnashing of teeth. Seriously, it solves nothing. Might make me feel a bit better (temporarily), but it doesn’t change anything. And it seems I’m subject to an odd supposition that anything could be perfect… ever.
Silly. What am I thinking?
In a way, I feel like I’ve been kidnapped by pirates and taken away on a stolen ship, crossing stormy seas both night and day. And all my life, I’ve been wishing I’d never been kidnapped… longing for dry land that stays stable… just wanting to get to the proverbial shore and get off the ship.
To no avail. After way too much bitching and moaning, I’m finally finding my sea legs, getting the hang of sailing the ocean blue (and black and gray, when the storms hit), and realizing that I actually like it on board this privateering vessel — and accepting that I fit better here, after all the years aboard, than I fit anywhere else. Even if I did get to “dry land” tomorrow, even if I did set foot on shore and not have the ground heaving under me, I’m no longer sure what I’d do with myself.
Because it’s not home.
Home is here. Out at sea. In my storms… and in the company of other misfits and cast-offs and very-very-different folks who “get” me, even when the “normal” world doesn’t.
It’s all very well and good to dream about the luxuries of a staid and settled and conforming life, but here on the high seas, in the midst of 10-foot waves… this is home.
I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about how fortunate I am. I’ve been kind of tangled up in all sorts of emotions about letting go of old unrealistic expectations that were very much a part of who I thought I was — or could be. I’ve always had goals, always had aspirations, but the more I think about it, the more I realize just how non-autistic so many of those goals were.
I think it’s just normal to internalize the values of society — we’re constantly being shown images of the “ideal”, constantly getting unspoken messages about how we should/should not be, constantly being redirected in subtle ways to keep us on society’s “straight and narrow”.
I also think the influences are particularly pronounced, when you’re autistic. We pick up so many cues and clues that slip by others, and we can be so strongly impacted by even the slightest nudge in a certain direction… even the faintest hint that we’re not OK… Which sets us up for ongoing bombardment, because society’s clues and cues are really designed to pressure folks who aren’t sensitive, who don’t pick up on subtle messages, and who can’t discern the gray-area differences between good/bad, right/wrong.
So, autistic folks end up bludgeoned. We really do.
Which is why I’m really, really happy that I was raised in an autistic family.
Nobody called themselves autistic, of course. It wasn’t a thing when I was growing up. Autism was a classic-Kanner deal, where you had to be severely impacted/disabled by your challenges, in order to be considered autistic. We knew of families who had autistic members — the guy who renovated our kitchen, for example. But those cases were just whispered about. Those of us who suffered intensely from environmental and sensory distress, but were able to go about our lives without being permanently disabled by all that, were considered “normal as normal can be”.
Indeed, for that time and place — in an insular religious community that was highly regimented, rules-oriented, literal, hard-working, and chock-full of physical activity that gave you ample outlets for your overabundance of energy — we were normal. Because how we were and what we were, was the norm. And our community of faith was sufficiently insulated from “the World” (capital W), that the ways of the evil outsiders never posed a danger to us.
Our autism was our creed. It was the right way to be. It was the only way to be. And anybody who wasn’t like that, was considered a minor (or major) threat. The ways of the non-autistic World were evil. Temptation. An ever-present danger that put our souls at risk. In the world where I was raised, you followed the rules. Autistic rules. Religious rules. Social rules. You didn’t deviate, on pain of expulsion. It wasn’t pathologized. If anything, NOT following the rules was pathologized.
Of course, all that pathologizing got a bit old, after a while. Especially for me. I wanted something bigger and broader than what the rules allowed. A more generous interpretation of gender. A less debilitating interpretation of what was possible for girls and women. The rules may have spared me a lot of anguish and insecurity, when I was growing up, but they also hemmed me in… in ways that were excruciating. Nearly lethal.
But let’s talk about the fun stuff, shall we? I can sit around and feel bad about the bad, or I can choose to feel good about the good. Life supplies ample amounts of both, and where I choose to concentrate is up to me.
There was a lot of good, in being raised that way. As painful as it was, as excruciating as it could be, it trained me along certain lines. And having a hyposensitive mother who was always on the lookout for the next exciting experience turned out to be a boon. Seriously, my Mom was/is like a shark… always moving, always seeking her next sensory experience, looking to fill up on the inputs of life. We did a lot, when I was growing up. Camping. Hiking. Playing. Working. Always active, always thinking, always talking. Even though it overwhelmed me constantly, and it took me years of pain and frustrationi to learn how to deal with it, now that I know how to do it, it’s an incredible gift.
My father, with his unending pontification, philosophizing, pedantry… always thinking, always talking, always convinced that his ideas were the stuff of wonder and awe, always convinced that he was on the cutting edge… His bravado (annoying as it could be at times) is something I carry with me. I’m more tempered, I think, in my suppositions of grandeur, and I do believe I have a wider base to draw from than he, who’s always operated within a fairly narrow mindset and belief structure. But that same conviction that my thoughts matter, that my insights have depth and importance, is clearly inherited from him.
My whole family was so autistic… Pick up a (credible) work on autism (preferably written by an autistic writer/researcher — Milton Damien comes to mine, along with others whose names I can’t conjure right now — or someone who’s a true ally — Luke Beardon’s latest work is a good bet)… and make a laundry list of autistic traits, and I can assign them, to most (if not all) of my biological immediate and extended family to one degree or another. I can also find those traits in my onetime neighbors and classmates, the folks who attended our church, the people I interacted with daily as a kid.
They all helped raise me. They “trained me up in the way I should go”, and that way was autistic. They raised me to be neurodivergent, and it was our most critical identity. It was our saving grace. All those rules, all those pressures, all that constantly reinforced messaging of right/wrong, on/off, acceptable/verboten… all of it spared us from the world. Our agreed-upon rules, our regulations, our religion… it buffered us and gave us a profound, unassailable sense of belonging with one another that was so powerful and enduring, it makes today’s identity politics look like capricious dabbling.
We were autistic. All of us, to one degree or another. And the ones who weren’t, were recognized as “different” and accommodated, so long as they made an attempt to comply with our ways. In a sense, I was raised in a world that was the flip-side of the neurotypical mainstream — all the autistic folks were normal, non-autistic folks were the neurodivergent ones, who were looked upon askance, not quite trusted, sometimes pitied, often excluded, and constantly pressured to become like us.
To be autistic.
Well, it’s a beautiful day, and there’s an adventure out there “with my name on it”. How’s that for an image — in my mind’s eye, I see a vast stretch of wilderness with a stickie tag on it that has my name written in dark blue marker.
Time to make that come true, and do my parents proud.
(The development of reasoning heuristics in autism and in typical development. Morsanyi, 2010)
Given the debate around human rationality in decision-making over the last 40+ years, you’d think that psychologists and Behavioural Economists would have been scrambling over each other to dig deeper into a statement like the one above. The phrase “less susceptible to reasoning biases” goes against much of what we’ve learnt about the inherent irrationality of human behaviour since Kahneman and Tversky started getting people to gamble on coin tosses in the 70’s.
In reality, as the above paper goes on to point out, research into autistic reasoning in this context is sparse. However, there have been some studies, and autistic subjects have been tested on their response to cognitive biases such as the framing effect (choice will be effected by how information is presented), the conjunction fallacy (we think that more detail makes an event more probable whereas the reverse is true), the base rate fallacy (we favour specific information over general information), and the sunk cost fallacy (we’re influenced by how much we’ve already invested in an event or project).
I’m not sure what the hold-up is, in doing decent research about how those of us on the spectrum think differently — including how we have a certain advantage in some circumstances. But eventually, that work may get done.
In the meantime, I’ll get on with my own life and focus on my own thought process. At least that’s something I can manage.
… is resetting my expectations for what I’m actually capable of doing.
For years I have acted as though I am just as capable as the next neurotypical person of negotiating job terms, salary, and all sorts of different details to go along with carving your space out of the world around you.
Now, though, I realize just how impaired I am in that respect.
I don’t know how to negotiate pay properly. I don’t know how to be proactive and put on a strong showing all the time. I don’t instinctively put my best foot forward and showcase my talents and abilities just like every-NT-body else. I don’t naturally blow my own trumpet, so to speak.
The funny thing is, those are not things I actually want to be good at. They seem vaccuous and foreign to me. Like a formal dress-up suit that’s 2 sizes too small — but unless I’m “dressed” in it, I won’t be allowed into the party, so to speak.
Thus, I am inherently at a disadvantage when it comes to salary, job negotiations, advancement, career ladder climbing, the whole shooting match.
And it has dragged me down terribly for so many years.
I can’t even begin to tell you how badly I have thought of myself because I couldn’t do the things that I thought I could.
If only I had simply known, from the start, and come to terms with those things…
If only I’d realized I’m at a real disadvantage…
If I had simply realized just how foreign that whole world is to me, and that no amount of practicing and no amount of pep-talk and no amount of motivation is going to get me to gravitate to those patterns of behavior…
I could’ve just saved myself a whole lot of time and hassle. I could’ve saved myself the anguish of dealing with those job changes that were supposed to lift me up in the world, but just ended up a repeat performance of my impairments, albeit in a slightly different way.
I could’ve spared myself all of those goddamn interviews, all the fucking screenings, all the pathetic excuses for bids for advancement that I embarked on over the years.
I could’ve saved myself the hassle of updating my damn’ resume every other year and talking to recruiters – on the fucking phone – about crap positions they wanted to sell me.
I could’ve spared myself all of those lousy miserable sessions talking to smooth-talking head hunters who did a fantastic job of talking circles around me.
I could’ve saved myself the pain and dread and horror of seeing one attempt at advancement after another fail, fall flat on its face, or backfire on me, to the point where I wished that I’ve never even tried.
If I had only known just how impaired I am, I could have made peace with the fact that I’m not at the head of the pack of my generation in ways that the present mainstream values. Nor should I bother even trying to get there in the standard-issue way. The ways I have are foreign and often unwelcome to others, but they’re my way. And they work for me. I could have just settled into doing the things that do come naturally to me, that are in my “wheelhouse”… things I am extremely talented at… instead of chasing after the waste of time limitations imposed on me by everybody else’s version of success.
Good Lord, if I’d only come to terms with being autistic early on in my so-called career, I could actually have enjoyed myself, all these decades, instead of always pushing myself to some neurotypical ideal, and then beating myself up for not achieving it.
What a colossal waste of time it’s been. What a goddamn fucking waste of time. And I’m done. I’m just over it. I’ve been knocking around on Planet Earth for over half a century, and I’ve had it.
It’s time to just enjoy myself. Do what I do. Forget about the whole getting-ahead business. I couldn’t manage it, if I tried. And I’m sick of trying.
But behind my privacy screens… there’s a whole other world waiting.
I just found this, following my commentary from the other week about how naming a thing doesn’t mean you’ve invented it.
And we could say exactly the same thing about autism, with a few updates:
Autismis one of the year’s “top 10 new epidemics.” But of course, autismdidn’t suddenly spring into existence 70 years ago – that’s just when it was discovered and scientifically named. . . . “Written documentation of a particular kind, by an authority figure of a particular kind, was what turned autismfrom a thing that just was … into a thing that was studied.”
Not to keep hammering on this pesky “nail”, but it matters.
Numerous style guides, including those issued by the American Psychological and the American Psychiatric Associations, prescribe that writers use only person-first language so that nouns referring to persons (e.g. children) always precede phrases referring to characteristics (e.g. children with typical development). Person-first language is based on the premise that everyone, regardless of whether they have a disability, is a person-first, and therefore everyone should be referred to with person-first language. However, my analysis of scholarly writing suggests that person-first language is used more frequently to refer to children with disabilities than to refer to children without disabilities; person-first language is more frequently used to refer to children with disabilities than adults with disabilities; and person-first language is most frequently used to refer to children with the most stigmatized disabilities. Therefore, the use of person-first language in scholarly writing may actually accentuate stigma rather than attenuate it. Recommendations are forwarded for language use that may reduce stigma.
The use of person-first language in scholarly writing may accentuate stigma
Person-first language is the structural form in which a noun referring to a person or persons (e.g. person, people, individual, adults, or children) precedes a phrase referring to a disability (e.g. person with a disability, people with blindness, individual with intellectual disabilities, adults with dyslexia, and children with autism). Person-first language contrasts with identity-first language; in identity-first language, the disability, serving as an adjective, precedes the personhood-noun (e.g. disabled person, blind people, intellectually disabled individual, dyslexic adults, and autistic children).
Numerous style guides, including those issued by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Speech-Language Hearing Association, and the Associated Press, prescribe that writers and speakers use only person-first language and avoid completely identity-first language. For example, the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (2010, p. 72) and the American Medical Association Manual of Style (2007, p. 416) explicitly tell writers to ‘put the person first.’