Monday, June 16, 2014

Listen to What Your Kids are Trying to Tell You

I was listening to a podcast about transgender children. The mother of a MTF transgender child was on the show, and another person asked her if she and her husband had had difficulty accepting the reality of their child claiming that "he" was really a girl. The mother said that it was not terribly difficult for her and her husband because her father was dyslexic. What does one have to do with the other? Her father is in his seventies; he grew up in an era when dyslexia was unheard of. When he tried to explain that reading was tough for him, the teachers wouldn't have any of it. They told him that he was lazy and wasn't trying. He tried to tell the teachers what was going on in his head-- that letters and numbers were confusing for him-- but they dismissed his explanations as mere excuses. Transgender children face similar obstacles: a natal boy tries to tell "his" mother that "he" is actually a girl (or vice-versa). Many parents respond to this by telling the child that "he" is wrong and doesn't know what "he" is talking about. Drawing on the father's experiences with trying to explain what was going through his head when he had a hard time reading, these parents gave their child the benefit of the doubt that the woman's father never had. The transgender child's parents said, "Who are we to say what's going on in our child's brain?"

As you might guess, I draw a similar parallel to my experiences with Asperger's Syndrome. To navigate the social world growing up, I had to use my cognitive faculties to accomplish social tasks that most other people do intuitively. As you also might have guessed, many parents and teachers told me that I was not trying. I can recall many instances of, as a child, being at social gatherings with my parents and one (or both) of them pulling me aside and telling me, "You're acting inappropriate", "You're too loud", or something else to that effect. Oftentimes I had no idea what I was doing "wrong". After the social gatherings, my mother would often remark, "You were very immature." There were many times at these social gatherings when I would be reduced to tears, frustrated and unable to understand why people (not just my parents) were reacting to me the way they were. Most parents assume they can bring their kids to social gatherings without incident, but whether or not such a gathering would go over smoothly for me was a crapshoot. 

These memories continue to haunt me in very vivid dreams, and sometimes I even wake up screaming and crying. In these dreams, I am that ten-year-old kid again, insisting that I'm trying to be "good" only to hear my parents say, "Well, I don't see you trying." My attempts to explain what was going on in my head were dismissed, and that hurt like hell. Another mantra I had to deal with often started with the words, "If you would just... [insert action here]." Okay. Tell the transgender child, "If you would just learn to be a boy" or the dyslexic child, "If you would just learn to read." I assure you that these words can cut deep. It's the verbal equivalent of somebody slowly plunging a rusty knife into your side.

Parents, please listen to your kids. You may be thirty or so years older than them, but sometimes they not only know more than you think, but in some cases more than you.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Memory That Won't Let Go

It has become almost cliché to say that people with Asperger's Syndrome have a difficult time "letting things go." In fact, I've heard "Jeez, Julie, let it go!" more times than I prefer to count. I've been working on that over the years. I usually end up doing self-talk: "Okay, is this really worth obsessing about?" or "What are you going to accomplish by continuing to replay that incident in your head?" What works the best for me is engaging in vigorous exercise, like running or swimming. The activity is a distraction, and for some reason it helps me think things through more rationally. Maybe it's the endorphin release.

But there is one memory that I have a difficult time letting go of. Rather, it won't let go of me. In 1999, I moved to New York City from my hometown in Pennsylvania to go to art school to study animation. During my second year, I had an animation teacher, Doug (not his real name) who I ultimately developed a crush on. It was some bizarre perfect storm between a childish "hero worship" and, well, a crush. Eighteen years my senior (unusual for me-- I have never before or since then had a crush on someone that much older), he was an excellent teacher, and was intelligent and funny. I was aware that having a crush on him could ultimately lead to a frustrating obsession, and I was determined to handle this one well. I knew that Doug was married and (as far as I knew), monogamous. Besides, I didn't think for a second that he was interested in me. The first two months went well. Doug initially seemed nice, but by the middle of my third year, he was constantly snapping at me and even telling me that I was wasting his time and had no talent. 

I felt confused. Surely Doug didn't really mean these things, did he? And, hell, perhaps I should have been understanding that I was probably making him uncomfortable. The self-blame came from past experiences of inadvertently scaring off guys I had crushes on who figured out how obsessed with them I was. I accepted that what was happening was my fault, and if only I did better animation and behaved better, Doug would accept and like me. Everyone else seemed to like him, so I was certain I was the problem. Aside from that, I had already put so much energy into my crush that I could not-- no, would not-- see very clearly that Doug was just a nasty person. What I failed to acknowledge was that while the guys I had crushes on in the past sometimes snapped at me, they almost always apologized later and tried to be friendly. Doug didn't even try. In fact, his behavior towards me became nastier and nastier.

By the end of my fourth year, Doug was unpleasant and vicious to me on a regular basis. He never wasted a moment in favoring me with a scathing remark: in response to a conversation with someone else that didn't involve him, in class if my animation wasn't up to his standards, and even on the school's animation listserv. Every time I commented on something on the listserv, he would make a nasty, bitingly personal comment. Once he even said something like, "I hope certain people get hit by a crosstown bus." 

By the time I graduated, I was a wreck, and my self-esteem was destroyed (fortunately, I have since regained it, but that's another long story). This man whom I respected and adored hated me, and I couldn't accept it. Doug had even lied to try to keep me out of a class, saying that it was full when I knew damn well it wasn't. He was a remarkably good liar, able to make the most outrageous lies look like the truth and make the truth look like an outrageous lie. I ultimately got into the class, but only because I all but twisted his arm, so to speak. Deep down, I knew exactly what I was looking at: a vicious person. But I couldn't bring myself to acknowledge it. It was just easier for me to believe that I was the problem. Sometimes believing in nonsense is easier than accepting the reality, swallowing the red pill.

If there was something that should have brought me to my senses, it was Doug's arrest in fall 2004, about a year and a half after I graduated. Yes, that's right. Doug was arrested. He was caught in an undercover FBI sex sting for trying to solicit sex online from someone he believed to be a thirteen-year-old girl. My immediate reaction-- and the one I should have stuck with-- was, "I hate him." But, again, I couldn't swallow the red pill. I tried but then puked it up. I felt bad for Doug, making myself think things like, "Oh, he's just complicated" and, "Oh, he just has a problem and needs help." So what did I do? I wrote him a letter. It said something to the effect of that I was sorry about what happened and that we all make mistakes. 

For another year and a half, I continued to trumpet my support for Doug and that what he really needed was help, not prison (he ended up being incarcerated for 4 1/2 years). In the summer of 2006, however, I reached an epiphany (another long story). I finally acknowledged that Doug was a horrible person, and that he was possibly even a sociopath. His arrest did not reflect a brief lapse of judgement on his part. He knew what he was doing. It made sense in light of the way he had treated me: in both cases, he preyed on someone he perceived to be insecure and vulnerable. I have met many nasty people in my life, but Doug has to be the worst human being I have ever known. After Doug's arrest, I was proud of myself for being able to see the situation as "complicated", but now I'm just embarrassed. 

Now to the heart of this post. Why won't this memory let me go? Because every time I see someone do something unethical, my mind goes there, goes back to Doug. My reflexive thought is, "Is s/he another Doug? Is s/he harboring dark secrets?" I talked about it tonight with my therapist. It is a very traumatic memory that I need to work through. My friend from art school, Flora (not her real name), tells me that she actually struggles with the same thing. She doesn't even have Asperger's Syndrome. But I think that just speaks to the kind of person Doug was. And that is the kind of bizarre, horrible memory that could hijack anybody's brain.