The summer of 1998 doesn't seem like sixteen years ago. I'm not sure how long ago it seems, but it does not seem like sixteen years ago. I suppose what it comes down to was that it was a huge turning point in my life in terms of how I understood myself, the world, and in my place in it.
In June of 1998, just a few weeks before leaving for what (unknown to me) would be my final summer at Camp Negev, I made a huge discovery. Or, that is, I thought I did. After years of wondering what it was about me that was so different, wondering why I was always off in "my own world" and why I got obsessed with movies as well as any guy I had a crush on, I literally woke up one morning and thought to myself, "I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder." At the time, it was the closest I could come to labeling myself. Asperger's Syndrome was barely known at the time, and not having heard of it, OCD seemed like the only logical explanation. After a couple years, I realized that wasn't it (and, of course, I didn't know what it was). I compare my experience to that of many transgender people, who have not yet heard the term "transgender", initially misidentifying themselves as gay. Kim Pearson, of Trans Youth Family Allies, calls this mislabeling "in the absence of reflection." The mother of an FTM transgender child, in an interview she talked about her son initially coming out as a lesbian "in the absence of reflection." In other words, her child looked out into the world and didn't see any examples of himself. He felt masculine and thought, "Masculine females are lesbians. That must be what I am." But that label never felt right to him. It was only when he heard the term "transgender" that everything finally began to make sense to him; he realized that he was actually a boy trapped in a girl's body. In my case, I looked out into the world, didn't see examples of myself, and thought, "People who get obsessed with things have OCD. That must be what I have."
Although the OCD label proved to ultimately be wrong, the attempt at diagnosing myself that summer made me aware of something: some people are simply HARDWIRED DIFFERENTLY. This had never occurred to me before in my life. I realized, "If I'm hardwired differently and I know this, I can understand myself better." I came to Camp Negev that summer fully ready to not only embrace this understanding but also to be the best C.I.T. I could be-- at age 17, it was time for me to enter the C.I.T. program at camp. As it turned out, however, camp wasn't ready for me to take this next step. It turned out that the only reason that I got accepted to the program was because my counselor friend and mentor, Jonas, demanded that the camp accept me, which they were originally not going to do. I was allowed to be there, but they would not let me work with kids. For the first time, I realized, "They won't let me work with kids. It's not because I'm a malicious person or someone who would hurt the kids, but it's because I'm hardwired differently and they don't understand me."
The other C.I.T.s, however, had known me already for three years and did understand me. Most of them thought the whole thing was unfair. The camp director told me I could work with kids second session (halfway through the summer) if I proved able to work with them. Do you sense a Catch-22 here? How could I possibly prove myself if they didn't want me near the kids? In fact, I recall constantly referencing Catch-22 throughout that summer. I was given kids second session, but apparently only after director and some other counselors were up until 3:00 A.M. discussing it.
It was around this time that I began to be disillusioned with the social politics of Camp Negev and also see a greater hypocrisy in the world. I could have understood the concerns of the counselors and the director if most people on staff were responsible, caring counselors. But they weren't. Most of them simply worked at camp to be with their friends. I was appalled by some of their conduct. Many of them left their kids alone in the cabins and went off to the staff lounge to smoke weed. Some of them were nasty to the kids. I found this hypocritical at a camp that specifically preached social justice. In fact, during second session when I was at a staff meeting, a group of counselors was talking about an eleven-year-old kid with four-doses-of-Ritalin-per-day ADHD. They said that he was a horrible kid, that he was hopeless, and that he deliberately misbehaved. I did not take this lying down. I told the counselors that the kid was just that-- a kid. He was a kid with ADHD and, thinking of my own epiphany at the beginning of the summer, one who was hardwired differently. I tried to explain that to them but they just laughed at me. What made this even more disgusting was that the meeting was in a cabin cubby and some of the kids were in the next room. I warned the counselors that the kids might be listening. I know I would have at age eleven. Throughout the summer, many of these same counselors were very short with this kid who, as far as I could see, was well-meaning and not malicious. I remember thinking, "I hope when it's his turn to be a C.I.T. in 2004 he doesn't have to go through what I'm going through" (fortunately, years later I learned that he got into the C.I.T. program with no trouble).
From that summer I also took away another lesson that still resonates: It's not what your intentions are, or even what your actions are. It's about how well you cover up any mistakes that you make. Let's use the metaphor of getting caught with your pants down. Socially savvy people get caught not just with their pants down, but peeing or pooping on the floor, masturbating, you name it. They laugh, wipe their hands off, and pull up their pants. No big deal. As someone with Asperger's, when my metaphorical pants fell down (accidentally, of course) at camp, I could not pull them back up with the kind of finesse that the others could. To them, it looked like I committed a serious infraction. This is metaphor of course, but in terms of what actually happened? It was okay for these counselors to go off and smoke weed instead of watching the kids, or to browbeat a kid with ADHD because that was a socially acceptable thing to do. But if I tripped and fell and reflexively said, "Oh, shit!" when a kid was within earshot? Forget it. The whole universe collapsed on itself and within an hour everyone at camp knew and I was read as an unstable person who shouldn't be near kids. Never mind that these kids really liked me. I recall one fellow C.I.T. commenting that she was impressed by how much initiative I took in terms of spending time with the kids.
I should mention that since 1998, Camp Negev (not its real name) has changed drastically and the leadership is much better. It is no longer acceptable to leave the kids unattended or to smoke weed at the camp. As I understand it, it was in or around 2002 when some serious changes began to take place. I couldn't tell you exactly when it happened, because I could not get hired as a counselor. Further down the line I learned that there is Asperger's awareness training that takes place during orientation. However, since 1998 I have still seen this dynamic of "getting caught with one's pants down" in the real world. If anybody besides me gets caught screwing up, no big deal. It's an isolated incident. If I do? People read way too much into it and what my intentions are and what it means about me. In some cases, this type of misunderstanding has gotten me fired from jobs.
And finally, one thing I began to notice in the summer of 1998 that sticks with me to this day is that when I think a situation is going downhill or that something is going on regarding me that I'm not aware of, I'm usually right. I may have had difficulty with social cues, but during the summer of 1998 I picked up on subtle cues that led me to correctly believe that people were scrutinizing me beyond the superficial (ie beyond "prove that you can work with kids"). I knew very clearly when they said one thing and all I was hearing was the tip of the iceberg. "We have some concerns." There was a time when I would have read that as, "We have some concerns." In fact, I think many people would. But ever since 1998, that word has been more loaded for me. "Concerns" means, "You are a problem and we are watching every move you make. And everything you do is subject to microscopic examination." Beyond this example, I can't articulate exactly what I mean. But I've seen it a number of times since then. I have had to learn to read more deeply into things than most people, because they don't have a history of social failure.
Despite everything, the summer of 1998 was overall a fun, memorable summer for me. But I still won't forget the frustration I felt in certain situations. And because of the lessons I took away from it that are still relevant, it does not seem as long ago as it should.