Sunday, December 28, 2014

Owning Your Emotions

I briefly alluded to "owning" one's emotions in my last blog post, and now I am going to expand further on that idea. By "owning" one's emotions, I mean acknowledging that they exist, not trying to repress them, and even being able to embrace them. For many years I felt like I was not allowed to own my emotions, that I had to justify to myself any odd thought or feeling that I had or else it meant there was something wrong with me. Even though I am an adult and my parents and others are meeting me with much more understanding than they did when I was growing up, or even when I was in my twenties, I find myself reflexively going through justifications in my mind that I shouldn't have to go through. In a recent post, "Thoughtcrime", I talked about having reflexively justified to myself why I had tears in my eyes when I learned that Dr. Jack Kevorkian died. I ultimately decided that if anybody told me there was something wrong with that then they could jump in the lake. I had tears in my eyes because I was sad and disappointed about the loss of someone whom I'd never even met. Yes, and? So what? That's how I reacted. Accept it. I thought to myself, If there's something wrong with me, then there's something wrong with me. I am 30 years old and I am entitled to feel however I feel. If it means that the world thinks I'm fucked up, then fuck the world. But the fact that I reflexively went through that ritual at all just shows how much I have been conditioned over the years, mostly (but not completely) by my parents.

The scenarios in which I felt the most like I was not allowed to own my emotions were those involving the intense crushes I developed on a few guys over the years. I can trace this issue back to the summer of 1997 when I was on my group trip to Israel with Camp Negev (not its real name) and its sister camps across North America. I had developed a huge crush on one of the counselors, Charlie (not his real name). At the time, he was only the second guy I had ever had a crush on. The first was a counselor named Jonas (also a pseudonym) from my summer camp. I was incredibly lucky that he had not only been accepting and understanding of this but also became my close friend and mentor and remained so for several years. When I met Charlie, I assumed that if I spent enough time with him the same thing would happen. So I followed him everywhere, even walking the perimeter of wherever we were staying in hopes that I would "accidentally/on purpose" run into him. Charlie tried to be nice to me-- and he was nice except for the occasional frustrated snap, after which he usually apologized-- but we sure as hell didn't become friends. The fact that I had spent so much time focusing on him instead of meeting other kids and enjoying learning about Israel eventually became a source of embarrassment to me. After I had time to reflect on that summer, I thought to myself, "Okay, obviously I don't know how to handle these types of situations. The next time I see that I am developing a crush on somebody, I will talk myself out of it."

That next time came the following summer, 1998, when I returned to Camp Negev for the C. I. T. program. As luck would have it, my crush was, once again, on yet another counselor, an Israeli named Omri (again, a fake name). We were somewhat buddy-buddy in the beginning. It began when the camp wouldn't let me work with kids because they were afraid that I might hurt them, physically and emotionally. The fact that anybody thought I was capable of doing something like that was shocking. I was hurt and had nobody to talk to. In a move that would make today's youth leaders and psychologists cringe, the executive staff essentially told me, "You made your bed. Now sleep in it." Not in those words, of course, but I wasn't given any kind of emotional support. People told me that it was my problem, one that I had brought upon myself, and that I had to solve it myself. At least, until Omri reached out to me.

My relationship with Omri began as my talking about the mistakes I had made in conducting myself in the past and knowing that I would have to grow up a bit in order to work with kids. But after a week or so we just talked about regular stuff. We laughed together and offered one another advice. Yes, I gave him advice about a couple things. It seemed like we were becoming friends. I asked him if he would eat with my family on Visitors' Day. He said, "Well, if one of my kids asks me they need to come first, but if not, I would be happy to." We had several interesting discussions in the first couple weeks, all of which ended with a big bear hug "goodnight". Omri impressed me as an intelligent, thoughtful, interesting guy-- all common denominators in my crushes, which never developed from an initial physical lust as with most people (it's called "demisexuality"-- Google it). Because I knew that this crush was inappropriate due to the age difference (I was 17 and he was 23), I realized that I had to rein myself in, just as I had promised. I set very strict boundaries for myself. I was not allowed to go out of my way to sit with Omri at meals. I was not to approach him to hang out until at night after his kids were put to bed. I was to accept that his obligation was, first and foremost, to his campers. I was proud of myself for having set these limits, and I was sure everything was going to be okay and that I could handle this situation and that Omri and I could be friends.

But it was not enough. After a couple weeks, Omri figured out that I had feelings for him and avoided me. On Visitors' Day, he had to eat with his kids and I accepted that. But in the evenings when I would come to him and ask, "Are we hanging out tonight?" he would often say he was "tired" or "busy". I promised myself that if he said those things that I would just turn around and leave, as was the mature thing to do. So that's just what I did. The mistake I made was looking back as I headed away and seeing him warmly embracing some campers and other counselors. Very few people appreciate the sheer willpower it took for me to just leave. Many have been perplexed as to why I couldn't just "let it go" or "accept it" or "give up". Do I really have to qualify that with an answer?

I will say this: even though I followed the strict rules I had set for myself, I realized that they did not work in keeping my emotions in check. I am embarrassed to admit that in the last week or so of camp I resorted to pulling the same stupid stunts I had on my Israel trip: taking late-night walks to "accidentally/on purpose" run into him-- sometimes as late as 2:30 AM-- just so I could see him and, if nothing else, claim one of his bear hugs. And in retrospect I'm sure both he and Charlie knew that I hadn't "accidentally" run into them. I couldn't help but feel great sorrow that my late night conversations with Omri that I had enjoyed during the first couple weeks were over. My racing heart and accompanying adrenaline rushes told me that I was not feeling okay about this, that this was a big deal to me. But I knew I couldn't blow up about it. I couldn't cry about it. I had to find other ways to tame my hijacked mind, especially if I wanted to work with kids second session. One night I sat alone in an office until I calmed down. Another time I took out my diary and wrote about how frustrated I was about how things were going. But my feelings still came and there was nothing I could do about them. They were there, whether or not I wanted them to be.

In the end, Omri wanted nothing to do with me. Back then I had not known about Asperger's Syndrome and just months earlier had misdiagnosed myself with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I recall on the last night of camp crying to one of my friends and saying, "Everybody else is allowed to have feelings for someone, but not me. Why? Because I am obsessive-compulsive. I have to calculate everything I do." While everyone else who liked hanging out with Omri could take it for granted that they had the right to hang out for him, for me it was a privilege that had been revoked. I was not allowed to be his friend. I did not have his permission.

After I went home the next day I drove around with Dad and told him everything. I made him promise not to tell Mom. Why? Because I knew that she would tell me that if only I were more feminine in dress and behavior I wouldn't have scared Omri off. And that is ultimately the sort of thing that did happen when I finally came out to her about having crushes-- more on that later.

In 1999 I worked at a crappy summer camp and met someone who finally reciprocated my feelings. It was with him that I got my first kiss (and a little bit more). He was from Germany, however, so our semi-relationship didn't last (we still are in touch on Facebook, however). Then in the summers of 2000 and 2001 I also had crushes on people at a different camp, this time in Michigan, that I worked at. Both of them ended negatively. Long story short, Joe (fake name), an English guy two years younger than me, was not only friendly with me in the beginning but actually my friend. Then when he figured out I had a crush on him, he canceled his plans to go to Chicago with me at the end of the summer, AFTER I had bought the Amtrak tickets (I was lucky I was able to get a refund)! Instead, he went with someone else-- to GARY INDIANA. He told me I was "fucked up" and told other people I was stalking him. As in the situation with Omri, I found myself hurting and nothing I could say or do would stop the pain.

During my years in art school, I had a crush on Doug (yes, a pseudonym), one of my teachers. I am now embarrassed about this because, as discussed in the linked blog post, he was caught in an underage sex sting on the Internet. In any case, the story is familiar. We began on friendly terms and I eventually developed a crush on him. Just like Joe, Doug eventually said nasty things to me, but much worse. He said that I would never amount to anything. He also lied to keep me out of one of his classes. He told me the class was full, but I knew better. Once again, when I tried to repress my feelings-- telling myself that I was imagining things, or that he must have had a good reason, or that it's none of my business-- my pounding heart told me that the pain would not go away.

Doug was the last crush I had had for a long time. Then, in October 2007, I reunited on Facebook with Sergio (yes, fake name), a Mexican counselor eight years older than me who had been at Camp Negev in 1995. At camp, we had been buddies. When we reunited online, we hit it off immediately. We emailed each other several times a week. We once talked on Skype for two hours. He suggested that we make a film together. We talked about meeting the next time he came to New York City, where I was then living. Once he even emailed me at work to ask if I could talk on Skype (obviously I couldn't). As time passed, I began to feel warmly towards him. I couldn't tell you exactly when it turned into a crush. I can't quantify it, so please don't ask me to do so. But I decided to send him a package for Chanukah. It was a gesture of friendship, nothing more. He told me that he looked forward to receiving it. Sergio left for a vacation in Spain, and when he came back I asked him if he'd gotten the package. He said he hadn't.

Our frequent emails suddenly stopped dead. This was before Facebook added a chat function, so I couldn't IM him and ask what was going on. However, I knew when Sergio was online because Facebook used to have a page that would show you who was online. He was constantly commenting on people's posts but he wasn't answering my emails. I kept emailing him over the course of January, 2008, to ask him if he'd received my package. No answer. None. Zero. I was angry and hurt. And no amount of talking myself down could convince me that everything was okay, not when my heart was racing like I was running a marathon. I couldn't repress this emotion at all. I couldn't deny the pain that I was in. I even asked one of my cousins, "Why does this bother me?" He said, "Because you worked hard to do something for another person and he doesn't seem to care." Well, yeah, no shit. And I realized that this was a valid emotion that I should be able to own. But for years I'd made excuses for other people, told myself I was overreacting, and told myself that I had overstepped my bounds (ie, it's MY fault).

Both of  my parents (but my mother in particular) conditioned me that way. At first glance it appears that I told myself, without any prodding, to squash my feelings of hurt in terms of Omri, Joe, Doug, and the others. But I also learned this elsewhere. Whenever friends at school shunned me, Mom would blame the fallout on me and also tell me, "Relationships change." If I was upset because Jonas wouldn't write back when I sent him an email when I needed to talk (always about something I wasn't comfortable telling my parents), Mom told me that I needed to understand that he was in college and that he had a girlfriend and... take your pick. Any excuse. I shouldn't be upset about these things. Ever. Oh, and because Jonas lived hundreds of miles away, I shouldn't be focusing on him. At all. I would think that all of these things would be completely irrelevant to whether or not somebody should want to talk to you. So in the case of Omri, I took that advice when I walked away and sat in the camp office and squished my feelings. Same when Joe suddenly decided to go to the shithole that is Gary Indiana instead of to Chicago with me. I said to myself, "Well, I guess he has his reasons and I have to respect that." And actually, when Mom found out about Joe a year later, that's exactly what she said, that I should have respected his decision.

As for Doug, Mom told me that I was misinterpreting constructive criticism as nasty comments. When I knew he had lied to keep me out of the class, Mom told me that I was imagining things. When it was clear that Doug had been lying, Mom told me that I had obviously pushed him to the edge and instead of telling me point blank he didn't want me in the class he lied because he didn't want to hurt my feelings. No. I'm not stupid. He didn't give a damn about hurting my feelings. He lied to avoid the inevitable confrontation (and he did eventually let me in the class, after I called his bullshit and essentially twisted his arm). Mom also told me that I should have respected his decision to keep me out of the class. But sorry, when somebody is paying $30,000 a year to go to college, you do not lock them out of a class just because you don't like them. You bite the bullet and deal with it like an adult.

And in terms of Sergio? When weeks passed without a response about the package despite clear activity on Facebook-- and despite three weeks of gently prodding Sergio for an answer to what was a simple yes-or-no question-- I stepped out of work one day and called Dad in hysterical tears. I told him that I had a crush on Sergio and that I was embarrassed about it. Dad told me that I had nothing to be embarrassed about, that Sergio was probably just busy and that he would get back to me, that he probably just hadn't gotten the package yet. I confessed to Dad that I had done something stupid: The night before, I had reached my limit. I had felt like Sergio was fucking with me. I had sent Sergio a barrage of emails in the period of about an hour demanding why he wouldn't respond, why he was ignoring me. Then I sent him a video message via Facebook asking the same thing, and in that video I broke down crying. I then unfriended him, saying things like, "I can take a hint. You don't want to talk to me. I guess I fucked up again. The mature thing to do is unfriend you." When I woke up the next day, thinking to myself, "What the hell did I do?" I apologized and tried to refriend him. But it was too late. He ultimately blocked me and we haven't spoken since.

When I couldn't hold it in anymore and I told my mother a few days later about what had happened, she started screaming at me that I had smothered Sergio, that I couldn't differentiate between a casual acquaintance and a friend (months later I showed a therapist the emails from Sergio. She assured me that it was very clear that he had been my friend). She told me that my sending him the package was overfamiliar and inappropriate... oh wait, I should tell you what was in it. You'll never believe the stuff I sent him: A clay dog that I had made, a drawing, a DVD of camp videos, and... gasp... a T-shirt. Yes, a T-shirt. I really sent him a T-shirt. No, really, I did. And you know what it said? It said, "Brooklyn 718." No, really, it said that. I swear.

Yes, both of my parents and others told me that sending a damned T-shirt was too personal. You'd think that I had sent Sergio a jock strap by the way they reacted. Mom told me that I should have just thought, "Well, I guess it made him uncomfortable when he didn't acknowledge the package." So in other words, I guess I should have said, "Oh, fiddlesticks. I guess I fucked up. Next time I'll walk on even more eggshells and make sure I don't fuck up."

Mom also played the "relationships change" card (Relationships change in three months? Really?). In a pathetic attempt to tell me a "good lie", Mom even said that maybe Sergio cared about me so much that he was also trying to protect me from getting emotionally hurt in the long run by backing out when he did. I guess Mom forgot that this very transparent lie wouldn't work on a 27-year-old. That bad "good lie" (which perhaps she was telling herself as well as me) reminds me of this scene from a Simpsons episode:





Lisa: So there I am, being nice to Alex, and she takes all of my friends and ditches me!
Marge: I'm sure they didn't ditch you, honey. Maybe they went off to plan a surprise party for you.

That scene resonates with me in so many ways. I can't begin to tell you how many times Mom has said things remarkably similar to that.

My dad and my brother even commented on my weight (I was overweight at the time) and my tomboyish appearance, saying that Sergio wouldn't have reacted as he did had I looked-- and acted-- more feminine. My brother especially thought my appearance might have been what drove away Sergio. Never mind that he wasn't seeing how I looked each day in real time, just a few photos.

One woman played the Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus card, saying that I have to accept that men need more time to process things. Oh yeah, doesn't matter how the woman is feeling. She has to just suck it up and wait for the man to be ready to talk. It's always about women being nurturers and men just doing what they do. To this day I hate that book almost entirely because of that conversation. Another case where I couldn't just own my feelings. Everybody and their grandmother was coming up with some simplistic, stupid answer that I was just supposed to say, "Oh, okay" to.

The expression I kept hearing from everyone around me was, "Let it go." Let it go? Funny, when I was a kid and I would be perplexed about why girls would go ballistic if their crush didn't like them back, Mom would say, "Well you have to understand that this is a special feeling." But of course when I get the arrow in the butt it means I'm crazy and I just have to "let it go." Oh, hey, after all, I'm just obsessive, right? And obsessive feelings aren't real, are they?

One night the song "I am a Rock" by Simon and Garfunkel played relentlessly in my head. The lyrics took on an entirely new meaning for me. I ended up going to therapy, and it took me 1 1/2 years to get over Sergio.  The first shrink I went to was ridiculous. I told him about how Sergio and I had talked about meeting in New York the next time he came and that I had looked forward to riding the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island with him-- we both love roller coasters. And what did he say? He said, "Don't you have other friends you can do that with?"

There was a time when I would have tried to make myself look on the bright side, that yes I do have friends who would ride the Cyclone with me. In fact, one night in 1998 when Omri and I didn't get to hang out, I thought to myself, "Well I had a really interesting discussion tonight with this other person. That's positive." But I look back and see that then I was repressing my feelings. And when my shrink asked me if I had other friends I could ride roller coasters with, I told him exactly what I thought: "I want to ride the roller coaster with Sergio." I was finally owning my feelings. I wanted to ride the goddamned Cyclone with Sergio, and I wasn't going to pretend I felt differently. Needless to say, I found a new shrink.

One thing that Mom said when this nonsense with Sergio happened was, "Why do you always fall for guys who are out of your reach?" My answer is this: It's an unfortunate coincidence (except for the one guy who I was briefly in a semi-relationship with), but she seemed to think I was doing it on purpose. She even asked me if I had ever had a crush on my best friend, Eric (not his real name). I supposed she was desperate that I have feelings for someone who lived nearby. No, I don't have a crush on Eric. I never have. It would be like having a crush on a first-degree relative. And jeez, I would think that Mom (and anybody else) would know that you can't control who you fall for.

Sergio eventually unblocked me and accepted my subsequent friend request. But he still didn't answer my emails. And when summer came and he posted a profile picture of himself standing on the train platform of what was clearly Newark Airport Station on New Jersey Transit, I was crushed. He had come to New York and hadn't bothered to contact me. I was supposed to squish those feelings. And a few months later Sergio unfriended me again. When I tried to refriend him, he blocked me again. Mercifully, I haven't had any crushes in seven years, since Sergio.

Was I stupid in terms of the way I panicked and sent Sergio the barrage of emails and that video in which I broke down crying? Yes. But he also drove me to it.  And what also drove me to it was the years of accumulated bad experiences in which I couldn't own my emotions, in which every thought I had had to be repressed to keep not just me sane, but also my parents. But it didn't keep me sane. It only delayed the inevitable. I cried a lot growing up and both of my parents often chalked up my frustrated tears to overreacting and immaturity. But the repression didn't work and it sure as hell didn't make me sane. My racing heart kept telling me what I knew logically, that something was wrong and that I was hurting. Sometimes we have to cry, and sometimes we have to cry hysterically. Sometimes we have to scream and shout explitives. Sometimes we have to punch a pillow or break an expensive vase. We have to own our feelings, even if other people don't understand them. And as for the rest of you, you have to let us own these feelings. You have to accept that we have them even if they make you uncomfortable. Even if you don't know what to say, don't just tell the person to let it go. Or, if you think they should let it go, give them advice as to how instead of hoping the three magic words will make a difference.

And for crying out loud, what is so difficult about saying the following?: "You know what, I confess that I don't understand how this is making you feel, but I imagine it must be frustrating and painful." That helps a lot more than you would think.

Finally, I want to end this post with a metaphor. As I mentioned earlier, people held me to different standards in terms of how they felt I should handle crushes. The metaphor is this: Sometimes people get very hungry, and there is a giant bacon cheeseburger nearby. Most people take it for granted that they can eat the bacon cheeseburger, or at least get a whiff of it. As for me? I was expected to be on a perpetual religious fast.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Revenge Fantasies: A Clarification

Regarding my last post, "Revenge Fantasies" I realize that there are probably a number of people who will interpret it literally instead of as a cathartic piece of writing. They will wonder if I am capable of this kind of cruelty and if I would actually act out the scenario in the blog post if it ever came up. I'm happy to tell you that fantasies are just that-- fantasies. And I wouldn't act on revenge fantasies, nor would I recommend doing so.

What would I actually have done had I found someone who'd screwed me over stranded in the snow with a dead car battery? Of course I wouldn't have let them freeze in the snow. I would have helped them jumpstart their car. But after doing so I also would not let them just leave right away. I would insist on having a discussion about what happened the last time we had interacted so that I could get closure. If the person were my ex-best friend Melanie, for example, I would insist on answers as to why she didn't invite me to the wedding and why she cut me off, ignoring all my emails and phone calls. I am also a forgiving person so if she apologized and meant it sincerely and wanted to be friends again, I would forgive her and accept her Friend Request, so to speak. 

Despite the popular misconception, revenge fantasies are not a symptom of an unhealthy mind but rather the mind's way of working through deep hurt. They are a way of owning your feelings (there will be an upcoming blog post on such owning soon). If anything, actually, people who have these fantasies are less likely to do something to hurt someone else. Don't believe me? Check out this article about it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Revenge Fantasies

Everybody has fantasies about getting revenge on people who have wronged them. Mine are mostly against the holier-than-thou neurotypical people who have wronged me in a passive-aggressive manner; the revenge fantasies are also passive-aggressive, against: Melanie, my ex-best friend who has shunned me; my most recent boss who told me I was "doing fine" and then fired me; people in Meetup groups who, instead of confronting me directly about issues they had with me, reported me to the organizer and got me kicked out; and many, many more. The revenge fantasy that continually comes to my mind is one that fights passive-aggression with, well, passive-aggression. I have nobody specific in mind for this story, but since I have to use pronouns I'm just going to use "she" for the person I'm getting revenge against, as most of the people who have been passive-aggressive to me have been women.The story goes like this:

I am visiting my parents in Pennsylvania, driving alone along one of the back roads in one of the more rural areas of Bucks County, returning from... oh, does it really matter? I just felt like going for a drive. Alone. Some me time. What I hadn't counted on was the snow. The weatherman on Channel 6 had said that the high was going to be fifty degrees and there might be some light rain, but right now it's twenty-eight and the snow is coming down in clumps, attacking my car on all sides. The heat is cranked up, the defogger is on the highest setting, and the windshield wipers are thump-thumping, trying desperately to attack the clumps before they obscure my view. It doesn't help that the sun has already set and that my high-beams barely penetrate the darkness. 

And then I see the flash, the reflection of a deer's eyes. A deer in the headlights. Caught. Just like in the metaphor. It's not going to move. 

"Shit!" I yank the wheel to a hard left.

But then the world spins around me. I jam on the breaks and hear their screeching protest against the relentless ice and snow. When the car finally stops and I get my bearings, I see that the car has done a complete one-eighty: I am facing backwards. Damn good thing that nobody else is on the road. And who would be in this weather? As soon as my heart stops racing and I confirm that the deer is gone, I maneuver the car back on to the right side of the road, again facing the correct way.

I haven't driven in a year because I've been living in Boston where one doesn't need a car, but I think I am doing well, considering that near miss. Since I never really learned to drive until just under two years ago, it's amazing that the driving skills I have learned are still there. Like riding a bike, as they say. I think about the neurological connections one has to make when learning a new skill and how those neurological connections just stay even if they have not been accessed for quite some time. I think about the time I learned the lanyard box stitch from a ten-year-old kid when  I was working at a summer day camp in 1999. I showed it to my father, who had learned the same stitch when he was nine or ten. Since he was then almost fifty years old, it had been a good forty years since he had done the box stitch. But when I handed him the lanyards I had been working on, he completed the next couple stitches. Once the lanyards were in his hands, he knew immediately what to do. Muscle memory? Or perhaps tapping into some unused but present neurological pathway, like accessing a file on a computer one hasn't used in a while? Both? As I wake up from my mental tangent, I make a note to buy more books by Sam Harris and Steven Pinker to see if the answers to my questions are there. Maybe I'll stop at the Doylestown Bookshop on the way back to my parents'. Mom will be doing the typical mother thing and worrying herself to death about me (I'm amazed my cell phone hasn't rung yet), but she'll live.

Yeah, that sounds good. A couple of nerdy books to read while wrapped up in a warm, down-filled quilt in front of a fire. The only thing that would make the night complete would be a dog curled up beside me, warm, fuzzy head in my lap. Like the last dog that my family had, a sweet and affectionate yellow Labrador Retriever. We got her when I was 12 and she was put to sleep in early 2008 at the age of 14 1/2. For a dog that size that is the equivalent to a person living into her early '90s. She was a great dog.

Whoops, there I go. Another mental tangent. They say that those with Asperger's can't multi-task. But here I am, driving and daydreaming at the same time. If people think that those with Asperger's can't multi-task, then they don't know me...

The robotic woman on the GPS tells me to make a right at the next stop sign. That will eventually lead me to route 611. I'll know how to get back to my parents' from there. As I turn, I notice a car at the side of the road. Its headlights aren't on. Hell, even its hazard lights aren't on. I can vaguely see that it is blue, but it's hard to tell in the darkness and with the snow blanketing it. Did somebody abandon their car here? I wonder. But then I see the silhouette of a head in the front seat. I slow down, realizing that the person's car's battery must have died. I have some jumper cables in the trunk. Last year Dad taught me how to jump-start a car. I don't remember how to do it, but I'm sure I can figure it out. If not, at least I can call Dad and he'll talk me through it. 

I stop the car, pull on my coat and gloves, and step out into the blanket of nighttime snow. How long has this person been waiting? I wonder, looking at the snow that has accumulated on the car. I look through the driver's side window. A woman's head is resting on the steering wheel, her hair obscuring her face. Christ, has she fallen asleep, waiting for help? Even though I can't see her face, there's something oddly familiar about her. I knock on the window. "Hey, do you need help?" I call.

The woman nearly hits her head on the roof as she turns to look at me. She opens the door, an ear-to-ear grin on her face. "Oh, thank God!" she says. "I've been waiting forever for someone to get here. I--"

Oh my God. Her. Her. What were the odds of me running into her

"Julie?" she says. "Is that you?"

"Um... Yeah," I say, jamming my hands into my coat pockets and kicking at a clump of snow with my left boot. "Wh- what are you doing here?"

"I was driving home from a friend's house. But I've been stuck here. My battery died."

I look at her and see the desperation in her eyes. She's hoping I'll forget what she did to me. People with Asperger's are said not to be able to interpret any social cues or read any body language. Bullshit. Asperger's is part of a spectrum. I know and understand a lot more than people think. In any case, she's counting on my not picking up on her hopes that I don't remember because she knows damn well that makes the difference of whether or not I will help her. Or she's at least counting on my being a nice, naive, compliant Aspie woman who doesn't know when she's been manipulated. Or maybe she's just counting on me being more forgiving than anyone can be expected to be. Well, I know damn well when I'm being manipulated and even I have my limits for forgiving. 

"Your battery died, did it?" I ask.

"Yeah," she says. "Oh, Julie, it's so good to see you. I haven't seen you in ages."

"Yes, I know," I say. Inside my right glove I can feel a hangnail. I just clipped my nails this morning, but I guess I missed a spot. I remove my hand from the glove, bite off the hangnail, and spit the remains into the snow.

"So, how long have you been out here?" I ask, slipping the glove back onto my hand. 

"Two hours, I think," she says. "It's horrible. The car battery is dead. I can't start my car and the heat won't work."

"Yeah, that's what happens when car batteries die," I say. I can feel a slight tug at my lips.

"I can't get home," she says, her wide eyes begging me to not remember. 

 "And?" I ask, feeling an even stronger tug at my lips. I scratch an itch on my left arm and flick away some snow that accumulated there. 

"I'm stuck here. I don't even know where I am."

I nod, my lips now ear-to-ear. I walk over to my car and lean against the driver's side door for a moment.

I then walk to the back of my car and open the trunk. She looks hopeful, but it's not jumper cables I'm getting. It's a scraper. In the five minutes that I've been out here the windshield and the back window have been completely covered with snow. I brush the snow off of my windshield. She still hasn't taken the hint. Funny, I thought that's how neurotypicals communicated: through hints, not direct confrontation.

"Julie?"

"Yes?" I stop for a moment to look at her again.

"What are you doing?" 

"Getting the snow off the windows so I'll be able see where I'm going."

She still says nothing. She is looking at me, her eyes radiating disbelief. I finish cleaning off my windshield and then begin working on the back window. When I am finished with that, I toss the scraper back into the trunk. I then open the front door of my car. She is still watching me. I put the key into the ignition, and the engine roars to life.

She knocks on the window. I roll it down.

"Julie? What are you doing?" she asks, looking at me through the window.

"Going back to my parents' house. I might pick up some books on the way home first."

"Aren't you going to help me?"

"It's really coming down out here. I don't have time."

She leans through the window. "But I'm stuck here."

I look at her. She is so desperate. She cannot imagine why I am doing this to her. But hey, it's not my problem. Besides, I'm sure she has a cell phone and if she uses her brain she'll figure out that she can call Triple A, I assure myself, just like she probably assured herself when she screwed me over that I would "forget about it" and "get over it."

"Well," I say at length. "I guess you're fucked."

She says nothing. I press the button to roll the window back up. She steps back, just barely avoiding getting clipped by the moving glass.

I put the heat back on, restart the defogger and the windshield wipers, and flip on the high beams. She steps out of the way, staring at me as I pull back into the street. Some music would be nice. I turn on the local oldies station. Oh, hell, yeah. They're having a Beatles marathon.

I plug the address of the bookstore into the GPS. I should be able to detour there before I go back to my parents'.

She steps out of the road, her back against her car. She continues to stare at me until I have driven far enough away that we can no longer see each other.

I feel something stirring in my belly, moving up towards my lungs until it emanates from my mouth like a desperate animal bursting out of a cage: A laugh. A laugh so powerful that moisture forms at the corners of my eyes. I try to stop so I can focus on the road, but the sound keeps desperately forcing itself out of my mouth and almost snapping my eye shut. Somehow, however, I manage to get myself to Route 611.

And I don't look back.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

As Nature Made Me: The Aspie Who Was Raised as a Neurotypical: Part II- Thoughtcrime

When Dr. Jack Kevorkian, an intellectual hero of mine, died on June 3, 2011, I stared at the computer screen and muttered, "Oh, no." I felt my heart racing. And the next day on the way to Manhattan to see a friend, I briefly had tears in my eyes thinking about it. But why? I had never even met the man. Immediately, I found myself thinking, "What's wrong with me? Why should this upset me?" But of course I understand why. This was because reading about Dr. Jack Kevorkian I learned that he was a unique person, more than the Dr. Death stereotype. He was a painter, a musician, a filmmaker, a historian, a philosopher, a linguist, and an overall fiercely independent and brilliant man.  I had never heard of anybody quite like him, and I had suspected that he had Asperger's Syndrome. My words here don't do him justice; one has to read his biography and watch the HBO documentary Kevorkian to really get it. I was upset because what it came down to was this: There will never be another.

Above you can see that I was justifying my feelings to myself. I felt I had to. It really shouldn't matter why I reacted the way I did to Dr. Kevorkian's death. It is the way I reacted, and I should have been able to own and embrace it. But my reflexive need-to-justify comes from years of unwitting conditioning from my parents. I thought that if they knew about my upset over Dr. Kevorkian's death, their reaction would be, "You have an unhealthy obsession with this." In fact, I had decided that if they did react that way I would tell them to get over it, that I'm an adult and this is who I am. Of course, now that they understand me better, they didn't bat an eye when I told them about my reaction to Dr. Kevorkian's death.

"As Nature Made Me: Part I" talked about the things that I did that my parents tried to fix. But what about the things that I thought? Yes, my thoughts were under scrutiny too. As you can see from the above anecdote, I was reflexively afraid of what amounts to being guilty of Thoughtcrime.

My parents' attempts to "fix" me didn't stop in telling me what to do and what not to do. My mother in particular pried into my thoughts with questions, comments, and judgments. I understand that she was trying to help me and just didn't know how. But it is still a frustrating memory that resonates to this day.

For example, when I was twelve there was a story in the news about conjoined twins that had been separated. I jokingly asked Dad, "What did they do? Take a knife and chop them down the middle?" Dad rolled his eyes and said, "Yes, Julie, exactly." Just as Dad was finishing his sentence, Mom shouted, "How could you find that funny? Why do you find these things funny?" Often, I was asked why I found a lot of different weird things funny. I had no answer and I couldn't think of a single one that would alleviate Mom's fears and concerns about me. It really hurt when Mom responded negatively to my gallows sense of humor, often by saying, "Get those odd thoughts out of your head!"

As a reaction to my absurdist sense of humor and oddball cartoon characters I created, Mom would often ask, "Why aren't you interested in 'nice' things, in 'beautiful' things?" or "Why can't you create a cartoon character like Belle from Beauty and the Beast?" To the first question, I had no answer. I wondered why there had to be one. And as for the second, SNORE.

There was also the Thoughtcrime about the movies and TV shows I got obsessed with. Mom would say: "Why do you talk about [insert movie here] all the time?" or "Why are you always thinking about that?" And this gem: "I don't want to talk about [insert set of characters here]. They are not people in my life!" I understand that it was probably tiresome for Mom to listen to me go on about the same thing over and over again, but I felt like I was being shut down, dismissed, and, most importantly, judged. I felt like I was committing Thoughtcrime. Today, it reminds me of how religions often chastise people for "impure thoughts".

Then there was the Thoughtcrime about thoughts I didn't have. I didn't have thoughts about the opposite sex at all until well into my teens. My parents thought I was gay and not ready to come out of the closet. Both of them (again, mostly Mom) grilled me about why I wasn't interested in dating, what thoughts I had about boys (sorry, none), and whether I had thoughts about girls (none there either). Telling them of my indifference was unsatisfactory. They just kept asking. In a way, it seemed that they didn't want an honest answer, but the "right" answer. To get them to leave me alone, I had to give them the answer that they wanted to hear. After all, any honest answer I gave was met with more questions.

Over the years I felt helpless to control my thoughts, my feelings, my obsessions, and my sense of humor. I often had intense internal monologues with myself, trying to justify as to why I was the way I was. I felt that I needed to justify these things, not just to my parents, but to myself. If I couldn't justify my thoughts, there was something fundamentally wrong with me. 

In the days before Asperger's Syndrome was widely recognized, there was a huge coming-out process for those on the spectrum. At around age fourteen I came out to my father about the intensity of my obsessions with movies and TV shows (they manifested as "butterflies in my stomach"). I trusted him with this information because I knew it wouldn't freak him out. We often had talks about these sorts of things when he drove me to school in the morning. When I asked Dad, "Why do I get these physiological reactions?" of course he didn't know the answer, but he did often respond with, "That's you", or "Because you're creative and you get excited about these things." 

Both of my parents are guilty to some extent of the accusations of "Thoughtcrime", but Dad was more laid back about my idiosyncrasies than Mom. Maybe mothers are just naturally grizzly bears, so to speak. Or maybe Dad's psychological profile, despite not having Asperger's Syndrome, is closer to mine than Mom's is. In any case, what a person with Asperger's needs is understanding about and acceptance for who they are. They don't need invasive questions, demands to stop thinking a certain way, and they certainly don't need to be fixed.


As Nature Made Me: The Aspie Who Was Raised as a Neurotypical: Part I- Fixing Me

...Brenda [Reimer] was now living a life in which every instinct had to be denied, repressed, hidden: at dances, at parties, in the classroom, and on the street. "I was like a robot," he [Brenda, now David Reimer] says, describing the playacting that his day-to-day, moment-to-moment survival now entailed. "You're so careful to look normal, but you don't want to go overboard. You're saying to yourself, This looks like an appropriate time to smile. So you smile. This looks like an appropriate time to cross your legs. So you cross your legs. You're always thinking one step ahead, like in a chess game."
It was a chess game Brenda was losing.

This passage is from the book As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl by John Colapinto. This book tells the true story of David Reimer, a genetic male who was reassigned and raised as female named Brenda after a botched circumcision destroyed his penis. Dr. John Money, who championed the idea that gender identity is learned, not innate, supervised then-Brenda's sex reassignment and trumpeted this grand experiment as a success. It was, however, a terrific failure. Despite the fact that Brenda was reared as a girl from just under two years of age, "she" never felt like a girl. Even when "she" tried to fit in as a girl, "she" failed miserably. When Brenda learned that "she" was biologically male, at age fourteen, "she" immediately reverted to living as a boy. 

The point of today's post is not gender identity specifically (but that will be addressed somewhat) but rather something in the above passage that resonates with me: "Brenda was living a life in which every instinct had to be repressed, denied, hidden..." This has been my life with Asperger's Syndrome, particularly growing up. By the time I was a teenager, I got the message that who I was was not okay. I tried so very hard to be socially appropriate, but each time I failed miserably. People told me that I joked around too much, so I tried to be serious. But then if I tried to be serious I would inevitably say something that "makes no sense" and end up making people uncomfortable. In the best case scenario, I would do neither and end up being a total stiff, doing my best to keep the real me hidden so I wouldn't put people off. But I put people off anyway: who wants to be around a stiff?

Every day in school, no matter what I did, I was shunned, taunted, and sometimes even physically attacked. Telling my parents made the situation worse. They tried to fix me. That is, they nitpicked every little thing about me because, hey, every little thing about me somehow rubbed people the wrong way. Often, my mother in particular told me what not to do:

"Don't talk about Alan Arkin movies. You can't expect the other girls to be interested in Alan Arkin." So? The girls can't expect me to be interested in makeup.

"Don't talk about cartoons. That's not what kids your age are interested in. It's juvenile! You're fourteen years old!" But that's what I'm passionately interested in. I'm going to be an animator when I grow up. I'm going to make the kind of weird, absurdist cartoons that you aren't thrilled that I enjoy watching.

"You can't go to school dressed like that. You look like a boy!" But I want to look like a boy. Well, more like a tomboy, because that's what I am. But girls are expected to outgrow that stage by age twelve, so I'd better keep my mouth shut about it and pretend I have no idea what Mom means by that. I'd better not tell anybody that I know this is never going to change.

Then came my mother's advice of what to do:

"Why can't you talk about what the other girls talk about?" Because the other girls talk about boys, clothes, and makeup. They flip through Teen magazines going, "And he's cute. And he's cute. And he's cute. And he's cute..." Snore. 

"You need to learn how to make small talk. Talk about the teachers and ask what the other kids think of them." So on the first day of 8th grade I asked some other girls, "What do you think of Mr. Henry? It was so funny today when he went on about chewing gum in class and made those noises like he was cracking gum." But it felt so phony coming out of me, like I was reading from a script. And I think the other kids knew it.

"You need to learn to wear what's in style." What's in style are low-cut shirts and super-tight jeans. Wearing those things makes me feel very mortified and self-conscious. I like T-shirts and looser-fitting jeans.

From both of my parents came this gem:

"You have such a great figure and such beautiful hair. Girls would kill to look like you." I'm glad that I'm skinny, but not for reasons that you think. Skinnier people live longer. And it fits the tomboy image I have of myself. As for my hair, I hate it. It sticks out like Doc from Back to the Future. It takes me an hour to wash it and dry it. I want to cut it off and get a more tomboyish looking haircut. But I'm not allowed to because as a fourteen-year-old girl, I should love my hair and do my best to look like a model, because that is the normal psychology of a fourteen-year-old girl.

My parents tried their best to fix me, and when I resisted, they called me stubborn. They chalked up my resistance not to strength and self-awareness but to my being a teenager who thought she "knew everything". And it wasn't that I didn't try. I tried out Teen magazine in fifth grade. I couldn't get into the articles about the latest teen hunks and fashion tips. As I said, I tried the small talk about the teachers, but it was phony. And it was exhausting. In some ways this isn't terribly different than what poor David Reimer went through when he was growing up. How can you live your life when everything you say and do is subject to scrutiny and judgment?

Or how about what you think? Stay tuned for "Part II- Thoughtcrime". 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I Want to Know

Like many people with Asperger's Syndrome, I'm not a huge fan of small talk but of ideas. I like to talk about ideas, debate ideas, and wax philosophical about ideas. No idea is too taboo. I just want to know.

I want to know if it is theoretically possible for someone to be able to perceive and see a four-dimensional object. Or, at least, what evolutionary changes would have to take place to make that possible.

I want to know if the universe is actually more than 13.7 billion years old.

I want to know how insects would adapt if a nuclear holocaust destroyed mammals, birds, and other species that couldn't handle radiation. I wonder if they would grow large.

I want to know if there ever will be a way to circumvent the light barrier in order to get to distant parts of the universe. Warp drive, anyone?

I want to know if it is possible to time travel to the past and what would happen if someone killed his grandfather before his grandfather procreated (It's called the "Grandfather Paradox"). 

I want to know what the last moments of life feel like without having to actually die so I could report the experience.

I want to know what would happen if someone were cloned and born 15 years after the original copy's birth and how different that person would be. How about 30 years? 45 years? 100 years? 

I want to know what it's like to be a cat and to think that the world is out to destroy you. And what does my cat think is happening when I put him in his carrier?

I want to know if there is life on other planets and, if so, what their genetic code is.

I want to know how much more productive people would be if sex drive became obsolete. 

I want to know if it's possible to genetically engineer certain harmful herd instincts out of people and, if so, would it be ethical to do so.

I want to know what exact genes and in-utero hormone levels are responsible for producing kids with Asperger's Syndrome as well as kids with more severe autism. What variables would a bioengineer have to twiddle with in order to affect the severity of the autism?

I want to know what exact genes are responsible for a person's hobbies. I want to know how those genes would manifest if that person were born in a different time and place. For example, how would genes that make someone interested in filmmaking have manifested before the invention of film?

I want to know what combination of genes and hormones is responsible for a person's precise location on the gender spectrum.

I want to know-- and experience-- how people who are completely deaf interpret the written language, since they have no point of reference for phonemes. 

I want to know if my perception of red is the same as your perception of red. And yours. And his. And hers. 

I want to know what the brain activity looks like of someone with Asperger's engaging in his/her hobby with a single-minded focus.

An Open Letter to an Ex-Friend


November 20th, 2014


Dear Melanie,

I am not using your real name here, but if you are reading this, you know who you are. 

I hope this letter finds you well. It has been 7 1/2 years since we've spoken last and 9 years since I last saw you. There is something I have long wanted to talk to you about. I would have done it a long time ago had you not stopped answering my emails and stopped taking my telephone calls. Wait a second. Actually, that is what I wanted to talk to you about. 

We met in fall 1992 when we went to the same private school together. I was 12 and in 6th grade, and you were 13 and in 7th grade. We became fast friends because we were both odd, independent kids. I was the odd kid with undiagnosed Asperger's Syndrome, and you were just an odd, independent, and fun kid. Both of our mothers were teachers at the school. After school we hung out in the library while our mothers were at staff meetings. We drew comic strips that would have pissed off our mothers had they seen them, we had sword fights with my mother's Christmas decorations, and we did the Russian Kazatska around the playground just because we thought it was a funny dance.

Then my mother got a new job in the public schools and I couldn't come back to the private school for 7th grade. I'll never forget when I called you to break the news. You were crying hysterically on the phone. You said I was your best friend and you were going to miss me. But we kept in touch. We saw each other several times a year throughout my 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade years. We were still best friends. 

When I packed up and moved to New York City for college in the fall of 1999, you continued to live with your parents in Philadelphia and you commuted to a local university. But we still saw each other a few times a year, including on New Year's Eve, as was the tradition. We also continued our tradition of seeing the latest Disney animated movie together. 

But then in spring 2002 you got a boyfriend. At age 22, he was your first boyfriend because you, like me, were a late bloomer. I was happy for you. I met the guy a few times and I thought he was great. Then your relationship with him became more serious and you talked to me less and less. I figured it was because I was living in New York and you were still in Philadelphia. Besides, you talked about marrying the guy and about how I was going to be at the wedding. The last time we spoke, in 2007, you said that you had set the wedding date for Saturday, August 16th, 2008, if I remember correctly. But as August 2008 approached, I noticed that I never received an invitation to the wedding. I called you and emailed you, not mentioning the wedding but to see how you were doing. I figured during the conversation I could broach the topic of the wedding. But you didn't answer my emails or take my calls.

Why didn't you invite me to the wedding? If you had had a limited budget and could only invite people in the Philadelphia metro area, people who you saw on a regular basis, I would have accepted that. What hurts is not that you didn't invite me to the wedding, but rather you didn't give me an explanation as to why you didn't invite me and, more importantly, why you have continued to shun me to this day. Every once in a while over the past six years I have sent you an email asking you how you are doing, and you haven't responded. Why? Why, after the 16 years that you had known me was I no longer good enough to be your friend?

Perhaps you outgrew me. Yes, you went from getting girlhood crushes to having a serious boyfriend-turned-husband while to this day I still awkwardly struggle with obsessive crushes (mercifully the last one I had was in 2008) like a teenager. You went from laughing at my stupid jokes about my dad being older than your dad (when the reality is that your dad is older than mine) to telling me to "give it a rest." We were both huge fans of Darkwing Duck. But perhaps being a fan of a children's cartoon seemed too juvenile to you as time passed. Hell, maybe I seemed too juvenile to you. Now that you were getting married, you had to "put away childish things", and that included me. Perhaps I was simply beneath you in so many ways.

Or maybe you were afraid that I would say or do something inappropriate and embarrassing at your wedding. So instead of talking to me about it, you did what most neurotypicals do: not confront it and ditch the person. Out of sight, out of mind. Not your problem anymore. You knew I have Asperger's Syndrome, but if you had brought a concern to my attention I would have taken it seriously. But perhaps Asperger's is just too frightening to you and you want nothing to do with it. Oh, and incidentally, I heard through the grapevine that your son is on the autism spectrum. If my Asperger's is a reason for shunning me, I hope the irony isn't lost on you. And I hope you never have to watch your son go through the agony that I've endured for almost seven years: wondering why his best friend for more than half of his life now wants nothing to do with him, having dreams about confronting said person to get answers and closure, and wondering what's wrong with him that would make the other person do this to him.

That is all.

Bittersweet Wishes,

Julie


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Thanksgiving and Social Norms

Wow, it's been almost two months since I last posted here. Sorry about that. Whew! There's been a lot going on that I'd rather not get into on a blog connected with my real name, but it does have a lot to do with why I've been silent here lately...

Anyway, with Thanksgiving coming up, I thought I'd write another Asperger's-persepective post about the neurotypical world and how that world manifests on Thanksgiving (or any other major holiday where extended family comes over). One thing I hate about Thanksgiving is how much food there is. Think about it-- we're supposed to be thankful for what we already have, and to celebrate that we overeat? I recently lost a lot of weight and have been trying to keep it under control, and Thanksgiving is one of the most threatening holidays in terms of that. 

Why is there always so much food on Thanksgiving? Why are there usually no fewer than ten different desserts? It's ridiculous. Well, think about it. Even if the person who is hosting Thanksgiving wants to limit the number of desserts, how dare s/he tell the guests not to bring any? It sounds rude and ungrateful to the guests who are being oh, so nice and buying or baking something. On the other hand, guests are expected to bring food or else they're "bad guests" who are taking advantage of the host. Meanwhile, both parties might be thinking about how the overeating will impact their weight, or even that it's just so unnecessary to have so much food. It's just another case of people following social conventions in order to maintain bonds despite their own objections or concerns.

Is it really that rude, when hosting a Thanksgiving, to say, "Hey you know what? It's so silly to overeat on a holiday in which we give thanks for what we already have. It's not healthy to overeat, and a couple people are trying to watch their weight. Why don't we decide on one dessert that we all like and we'll have that?" Is someone who had planned to bring a 1200-calorie-per-slice chocolate cake (yes, we actually had that one year) because social norms dictate that s/he must bring something going to be offended? I highly doubt it. And I bet s/he will be secretly relieved that s/he doesn't have to spend money on it or time baking it. No, really. Why don't we try it? Why don't we buck social norms for a change and be a little more rational? 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Know Thyself

Those of us with Asperger's Syndrome are no strangers to psychotherapy. Many of us have been seeing shrinks from an early age: way back when we were children in the '90s (or earlier) when nobody had even heard of Asperger's, up through the present day when Asperger's is well-known and understood. What's interesting is that today many kids with Asperger's don't need to see a shrink. Why? Because now that Asperger's is in the mainstream, psychologists recognize that there isn't necessarily anything psychologically wrong with kids who have AS. These kids get a little extra support in social skills and other areas where they have difficulty, these days often in school, but often do not need psychotherapy.

I am turning 34 next month and grew up in a world in which very few people had heard of Asperger's Syndrome. As you may have surmised, I have been in and out of therapy for years to a number of shrinks. Some of them have been great, some of them mediocre, and some just plain bad. I recently had to switch shrinks because my most recent one, Dr. Donalds (not her real name), was a nice person who meant well but who also chased a lot of red herrings, analyzing things about me and my life that had no deep meaning.  Without going into detail, I've recently been having a problem with explosive anger whenever someone criticizes me. Why? Because for decades I've heard "You need to work on this", "You do that", "You make people uncomfortable", "You're perceived this way and that way", "You," "You", "You". It becomes infuriating after a while and makes me feel helpless and angry at myself. It's as if my brain short circuits when I hear one criticism too many. Instead of recognizing this issue for what it was-- anger and frustration--  Dr. Donalds tried to convince me that I was reacting to a repressed memory. Anybody who knows me knows that the idea of me having a repressed memory is hilarious. One of my friends even jokingly said that he doesn't want to end up in a courtroom with me because he knows I'll remember things that he doesn't. I told Dr. Donalds that this idea was absolutely ridiculous, but she got upset, feeling that I was calling her ridiculous. 

Dr. Donalds also tried to diagnose me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) because of vivid recurring nightmares that I experience. She said that such nightmares are a symptom of PTSD. I am fully aware that one symptom isn't enough to diagnose somebody with anything, so I asked her about the other symptoms. One of them is a "fatalistic outlook on life". I said, "I don't have a fatalistic outlook on life!" She gave me this look that conveyed, "Um, seriously?" In fact, she gave me that look whenever I disagreed with something she said. She also tried to tell me I was clinically depressed. No, I'm happy most of the time, but I'm also frustrated. Again, challenging her assessment earned me the look

This woman also treated my life like a mystery novel, trying to find a constellation of events in my background that converged in a singularity that is my life today. She even asked me to help her put together a family tree. I mentioned briefly that my father's side is mostly estranged these days (long story) but I never really knew them well to begin with. Dr. Donalds tried to tell me that this dynamic ultimately had some effect on me.  I tried to tell her that these people had never had anything to do with me so their estrangement wasn't something I gave a second thought. She also tried to tell me that the occasions that I got separated from a group in school because of being spaced out had to have been traumatic. Why? Simply because I remember them. Never mind that I remember a lot of things, good and bad.

Oh, and Dr. Donalds also gave me that look when I told her I had Asperger's Syndrome. She didn't believe me, despite the fact that I was formally diagnosed back in New York City. And for the record, even if I hadn't been diagnosed, nothing could convince me I don't have Asperger's. I've done the research and I it explains everything about my life that was once a mystery.

I finally got tired of hearing that I had a repressed memory, tired of hearing that Dad's side of the family affected me, and tired of hearing that environment, not genetics, was 100% responsible for my issues, so I stopped seeing Dr. Donalds. I am now seeing a new therapist who seems much better. She understands me better and has worked with people with Asperger's Syndrome all across the spectrum. Most people don't know right away that I have AS, but she was able to see it quickly in subtle things such as my facial expressions and mannerisms. 

Yes, therapists have degrees in psychology, but psychology is not an exact science. A therapist should help you with the problems you know you have and, perhaps, help you identify others. But Dr. Donalds made me question my sanity. If you think your therapist is  seeing things that aren't there, or is overanalyzing aspects of your personality, then you are probably right. Just because a shrink has a lot of fancy wallpaper known as PhDs or MDs doesn't mean they have a trump card on understanding their patients. Besides, I think I know myself better than most people know themselves. I also suspect those of us with issues probably know ourselves better than those who have never had to go into therapy. Why? Because we have been forced to undergo constant sober reflection, for good and bad reasons. 

As the old saying goes, know thyself.

Friday, September 5, 2014

People Just Don't Get It

Note: This is an angry rant, so there will be some swearing. If you're offended by that sort of thing, just read my other blog posts.

This post is an angry rant, because I am pretty fucking angry. It's hard enough to keep a happy, optimistic face for this blog. I want this blog to come across happy and optimistic because I want to give parents hope that everything is going to be okay. But I have to be honest. There is a lot in my life that isn't okay. Sometimes I get so frustrated and angry that I break down crying, thinking, "Where do I even begin to fix this?" And by "this" I mean being financially independent like my peers. I am turning 34 in October, and I still don't have a career or even a decent-sized apartment, let alone one that I can afford on my own. Everybody else my age I know-- and many ten years younger-- has a career, has a decent-sized apartment (or a house, if they're in the suburbs), and doesn't need help from their parents to make ends meet.

"Oh, but at least you're not starving in Africa. You don't know how lucky you are." You know what? You're right. I'm not starving in Africa. So fucking what? That doesn't make my frustration and anger any less real (It's a logical fallacy; I forget what it's called). I grew up relatively privileged, in a white, middle-class household with educated parents. I lived in a relatively affluent suburb in Pennsylvania. I went to college and grad school. Given my background, I should have a career now and be financially independent. But if you have Asperger's Syndrome, growing up privileged doesn't mean shit unless you are born into wealth. I still have to get a career. I have a Master's Degree and am making $12.75 an hour at a temporary work-at-home job. What is my job? Transcribing. Mind-numbing transcribing that any idiot with a GED can do. And because I lost my last two jobs, each after a paltry four months (in both cases they said I was too awkward and made our clientele uncomfortable), to stay in Boston I had to give up my spacious, one-bedroom apartment and downgrade to a studio. It's $1200 a month, and the only way to get any lower in Boston is to live in a basement apartment not much bigger than a walk-in closet with no windows. Even then, the lowest the rent goes for something like that is $1000. The other option is to get roommates, which can bring each person's rent as low as $700-$800 per month. But all my roommate situations in the past have been disasters. My parents even said they would rather help me pay for my own little corner of the universe than take the chance that I would get into some ridiculous conflict with roommates and then have to move out (moving, of course, isn't free).

I know that I'm more intelligent than my employment history and living circumstances reflect but that makes no fucking difference unless you have pristine social skills. And research has shown that the decision to hire someone an any job is almost entirely based on how well they think she'll "fit in" with her coworkers, much more than if she has the talent to do the job. I'm not the kind of person who fits in. It's not that I haven't tried, it's that I can't. Making friends is not an issue for me because I live in a diverse city and can easily find social misfits/intellectual nerds who'd rather talk about psychologically intense topics than how someone's third cousin once removed is doing. But most people would rather talk about the latter, and that's what they expect you to do on the job, even if it is not related to the job description. People know when I'm faking it. I can only feign interest in somebody's third cousin once removed before the holes in my mask start to form. I then have to retreat to my little corner of the universe and do my work. But no. Most high paying jobs expect you to work as a team. I work in groups with about the same ease and naturalness as an asexual person behaves like John F. Kennedy.

"Oh, well have you tried this? Or that? Or the other thing?" Yes, of course I have. I've finished my undergrad 11 years ago. You think I haven't fucking tried? Of course I have, and I've run into one brick wall after another.

Oh, and people have told me over and over that I come off as harsh, angry, argumentative, and even cold.

"You know, the way you're talking to me when you're upset, you're real intense and argumentative and harsh. Maybe that's what's gotten you in trouble at work." No! That's not what has happened! I'm letting my guard down with you. At work I try to hide these emotions. People have told me I'm too "intense" or "harsh" or "argumentative" even when I'm happy or joking around. It's like all I have to do to fucking offend someone is open my fucking mouth, even if I just ask how they are! So you know what the other option is, to make sure I don't offend anyone or make anyone uncomfortable? Not talk. And then I become a fucking stiff and they still feel uncomfortable, but for different reasons.

"Well, you know, you do tell inappropriate and sometimes shocking jokes. Do you do that at work?" 

Yes, I have a raunchy, macabre, and downright absurd sense of humor. I also love saying things for shock value just to see how people react. But you know, I'm not Rainman. I tell the "shock value" jokes you're talking about to friends or on online social networks under an anonymous name, not in a professional setting. My friends laugh, and people online click "like" or write "Hahaha!" I learned years and years ago that there's a time and a place for these things, and work sure as hell isn't it. People at work have called me "inappropriate" for reasons that I'm not sure of but that have nothing to do with the jokes I tell outside of work.

"Well you're very interested in the work of Richard Dawkins and Dr. Kevorkian. You bring those guys up all the time. Are you talking about them at work? You can't do that, you know. They're too controversial."

Yes, I fucking know that I can't bring up these guys or their work in a job setting-- especially not Dr. Kevorkian-- because people at work represent a diverse range of sociopolitical and religious beliefs and I don't know these people well enough to have such discussions with them. I don't feel deprived if I can't bring up Richard Dawkins or Dr. Kevorkian, either. I am at work to do work. Of course, the funny thing is I've heard radically conservative people at work bring up their shocking views without getting in trouble. 

"Maybe you are talking about Richard Dawkins and Dr. Kevorkian and you don't realize it?"

I think I'm fucking aware of what topics I'm bringing up. Don't patronize me.

When people-- friends, relatives, and even my shrink-- say these things to me, they clearly don't get it. I know they're trying to help me, reaching for the lowest hanging fruit, so to speak. But after a while it's like I'm hearing a mantra, a list of phrases from a pull-string doll. And yes, when I get frustrated enough, I do explode and curse a blue streak (it upsets them, but they know not to take it personally and I do apologize later). But they don't get it. They really don't. Why? They're coming from a neurotypical perspective, that the only way that I as a white, privileged middle-class American could be in this situation is if there was something I haven't tried. The fact that even my shrink gives these obvious suggestions is very telling. Hell, even my parents only started to "get it" in the past five years or so!

This is my life as an adult with Asperger's. Don't get me wrong: I am happy most of the time. But then sometimes (like last night when I was talking to my shrink) old wounds get reopened. No, they get reopened, have salt poured in them, and are pissed in. And I get angry and explosive and cry. Sometimes I just can't take it. Working out usually helps a little, but recently I injured myself while running and I can't do much of anything in the way of vigorous exercise until I heal. 

I'm angry. I'm hurting. I'm cynical. I'm frustrated. I have Asperger's Syndrome.

Friday, August 22, 2014

SEX! Now That I Have Your Attention, Read this Blog Post!

If you've landed here because of the word "sex", I'm sorry to disappoint that this is not a blog post meant to titillate you. But hey, the title got your attention, right? And that's exactly the point. Sex is something that is so heavily ingrained in our society, penetrating both the conscious and unconscious bits of our brains. In fact, that is the point of this long blog post: it is a huge part of everybody's lives. 

Well, almost everybody's. Believe it or not, there are exceptions to the rule.

Only in the past ten years (or less, perhaps) has society begun to accept the notion of life being on a spectrum. There's the autism spectrum, of course, which this blog was created to address. Even more recently-- I think in 2007 specifically-- did we begin to learn that gender exists on a spectrum, well beyond the binary that humankind has believed it to be (in most cultures) for thousands of years. I identify as a tomboy, somewhere in the middle of that gender spectrum. And finally, sex is found to exist on a spectrum, and I don't mean the gay-straight spectrum (though that is another spectrum that is becoming more accepted). It's a spectrum that includes being very sexually inclined at one end to being asexual at the other end.

The funny thing is that many of the same liberal, open-minded people who accept the autism spectrum, the sexual orientation spectrum, and even the gender spectrum-- one of the most difficult ideas for people to accept-- have an enormously difficult time accepting the sexual/asexual spectrum. Some people-- including professionals-- don't accept that it's a spectrum, believing that it's unthinkable that anybody could not have an interest in sex or at least a reduced interest in sex unless they have been abused in some way or unless there is something psychologically wrong with them. Sometime in the past decade, many people have been coming out as asexual. Yes, that's right. These are people who have no interest in sex. Some of them are interested in romantic relationships without sex, but some are not even interested in romantic relationships.

Then there are the demisexuals, who are in the middle of the spectrum. They're not sexual in the conventional sense, nor are they asexual (however, some people consider demisexuality to be a subset of asexuality). What is demisexuality? Well, before I define it, let's look at how most people experience romantic infatuation. First, a woman (or a gay man) might see a man and find him attractive. "Hey, that guy is cute. I'm going to go over and say hello". They say hello. The man might be interested in the woman (or the other man) because he finds her (or him) attractive. They know nothing about each other, but they continue to talk, trying to get to know each other as lust intensifies and tension builds. Depending on their inclinations and personal beliefs, they might have sex that very night. Or they might date first and have sex a few days, weeks, or months later. If infatuation usually didn't work out that way, many of us would not have been born.

Demisexuals experience infatuation in the exact opposite way, the way that I experience it: I am a demisexual. First I meet a guy and start talking to him as a friend. Nothing else is on my mind except that we're just talking, getting to know each other as friends. After I start to get to know the guy, I might find something attractive in his personality and then develop a crush. Only after I become infatuated with the guy as a person do thoughts of, "Wow, he's really cute!" enter my mind. And only sometime after that do the lustful thoughts finally surface. For this reason, online dating would never work for me.

For years I had chalked up my experiences to part of having Asperger's Syndrome, but only a few months ago did I learn that there was a term for my sexual orientation: demisexual. I have only experienced eight crushes (the last was in 2008), and only one reciprocated, back when I was 18. We did not "officially" date, let alone have sex: he was from Germany and only in the U.S. temporarily. We were friends with (limited) benefits, meaning we "fooled around" a little and that was it. I wasn't ready for sex at the time, and he didn't push me. If we had met more recently (I'm 33), I might have felt differently.

Last week I was at a Boston-area Meetup for people who identify as asexual and demisexual. Some of these people have had sex, some haven't yet, and some never will. One guy there had Asperger's Syndrome (many people with AS are asexual or demisexual), and another was a transgender man. The group was a nice blend of people, some representing more than one spectrum. We all found it cathartic to talk about our experiences: we all grew up wondering why everybody was always obsessed with getting dates and getting laid and why our parents-- sorry, our mothers-- were so worried about us. 

All of us had eerily similar stories about invasive questions our mothers had asked us. For example, when I was fourteen, my favorite actor was Alan Arkin and I was obsessed with some of his movies. Oh, so of course I must have had a crush on the then-sixty-year-old man. At least in my mother's perception. One night we rented Catch-22. My mother said, "We're going to watch Catch-22 with Alan Arkin-- sexy Alan Arkin." Then my mother suddenly asked, "Julie, what traits do you find attractive in boys?" Years later, when I told Dad this story, he told me, "You should have said 'Mom, you have the subtlety of a hand grenade.'" Other awkward, hand grenade-subtlety questions and comments from Mom included, "Look at [insert male celebrity's name here]. He's so cute. Don't you think?"; "Have you ever had a crush? Are you sure you haven't?" which later became "Have you ever had a crush? Are you sure you have?"; and "Are you sure you're not gay?". These questions made me feel worse, like there was something wrong with me. Others in the group felt the same way.

All of us in the group had one very specific experience in common: Growing up we were very uncomfortable with the topic of sex. It has been my experience that kids on the autism spectrum (and, according to psychologist Tony Attwood), girls especially are very uncomfortable with the topic of sex. These asexual/demisexual people, on the autism spectrum or not, had also been very uncomfortable (we eventually got over it). None of us could articulate why. But I have two ideas: 

1) Parents of kids with Asperger's sometimes get very uncomfortable with the things their children are obsessed with. My mother was very uncomfortable with my obsession with The Addams Family movie when I was 11-12. This was because she didn't understand why. Isn't it natural that people for whom sex is not on their radar, if at all, feel uncomfortable that the whole world seems to be obsessed with sex? 

When our mothers had tried to figure us out, they only made things worse. Universally, our mothers told us what a beautiful thing sex is between two people who loved each other. All of us had had the same reaction: "I don't feel the same way, but I'm expected to. And Mom is practically demanding I feel this way. There must be something wrong with me. And I must be narrow-minded for not feeling this way!"

2) For girls specifically, I think the pervasive objectification of women in movies does not help. In movies, sex is often depicted as a service that women give to men. And often women in movies are love/sexual interests first, characters second. I don't believe in censorship, but I think this aspect of movies is an important issue to discuss (perhaps in another blog post) and how it affects girls with Asperger's in particular. I think as a kid I must have thought on some level that I was supposed to eventually be like these women. It's harder as a kid with Asperger's to sort out these messages. 

At the Meetup, all of us recounted dealing with misunderstandings about asexuality/demisexuality in our adult lives. The women, myself included, were tired of going to their OB/GYNs and having to explain, "No, I'm not repressed; no, I wasn't abused; no I'm not religious; it just hasn't happened yet and I'm not losing any sleep over it." Likewise, we women also expressed frustration at the inevitable, patronizing response to this comment: "Oh, that's wonderful! You're waiting for the right person," as if our not-having-yet-been-laid status is due to discipline rather than a different set of inclinations. It's like praising a skinny person for being disciplined when the reality is that she may just not be as interested in food, not because she is a hardcore athlete.

And no, we're not afraid of sex, nor are we narrow-minded about it. Narrow-minded is an educator at the LGBTQ center in Manhattan telling me that I must have some "issue" because I can count on my fingers the number of crushes I've had.

Oh, and another misunderstanding is that we have some moral agenda. No, we are just differently inclined. We respect the inclinations of others as long as consenting adults are involved. We are sex-positive people who are just not as into sex as most others.