Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Summer of 1998

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.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I'm Not Asexual, but...

A bit over a month ago, someone who I do not know well expressed interest in the book about Asperger's that I'm trying to get published, so I sent it to him to read. After reading about half of it, he gave me a little feedback and commented on my being asexual. I explained to him that I am not asexual, that I'd been attracted to people before but just hadn't been in a relationship. He said from reading my book that he knew I'd had "crushes" on people, but that there didn't seem to be very lustful (to clarify, he was simply commenting on it and did not mean it as a criticism). 

Well, it's true. Any crush I have ever had has not been very lustful, at least not lustful in the way most people experience them. Let me explain:

First, let me say that online dating would never work for me. Why? Most people look at a profile, see that the person has similar interests and think, "Hey, this is a possibility." But usually they first feel something from looking at that person's picture. "Wow, he's hot!" or "Wow, she's sexy!" And then they  look at the interests. And then they get together for a date (and possibly sex as well). And then it may or may not work out. In other words, lust comes first, then feelings about the person as a person come next. For me, it's the complete opposite. 

Whenever I've felt attracted to a guy, it has always happened after having a few in-depth conversations with him. After I realize he's interesting and intelligent, then I might start to think, "Oh, he's hot!" And then other... thoughts... eventually follow. But this just does not happen very often. I know plenty of guys whom I find very interesting but, for whatever reason, have not resulted in Cupid's arrow. If I rarely feel lust, and if lust only comes after knowing the person somewhat instead of before, then it stands to reason that I, of course, have not been in a relationship. The fewer attractions I feel, the less likely the chance of one being reciprocated. And yes, my never having been in a relationship means exactly what you think it means. There was one guy who returned my feelings, but he was only in the states for a few months; we were friends with (limited) benefits. I was almost 19 at the time that I knew him, and he is the only guy I've ever kissed, let alone had any other (limited) "experiences" with. Though perhaps had he been around longer something might have happened. I don't know. In any case, at the time I wasn't ready for sex, and he didn't push it.

Apparently, it is very common for people with Asperger's Syndrome to either be asexual or, like me, just rarely attracted to people and to experience attraction in the "reverse" way that I do: person first, lust second. However, when they do get attracted to people, they tend to become very obsessive. That, of course, causes a lot of pain when the person with the crush sees the person they yearn for avoiding them at all costs. For this reason alone, I hate getting attracted to people if it's not reciprocated. Hey, I know people like to say, "Well, just enjoy the feelings you have for them." For us Aspies it doesn't work that way. Imagine how you'd feel if you hadn't eaten in days and there was a three-pound bacon cheeseburger constantly a few feet away from you... and you were told you weren't allowed to eat it but to just enjoy the smell. Well, that's what it's like for us. Mercifully, my last crush was in 2008-- six years ago as of this writing-- and what a shit storm that was. I won't get into it.

Just for the record-- and I know people are going to ask me this because they always do-- my being rarely attracted to people is simply how I'm hardwired. Many people assume that if you are asexual or comparatively so then you must have had some bad experience, must be religious or have some moral objection, or must be repressed in some other way. No, I was not sexually abused. No, I am not religious. I don't care what other people do as long as it's between consenting adults. No, I am not repressed. When I was living in New York City, I went to the GLBTQIA center one day to listen to a guest speaker. I mentioned that I have only been attracted to eight people in my entire life. He said something to the effect of, "Well, that tells me that you have some kind of sexual problem." I don't remember his exact words, but that was the gist of it. I told him, "Excuse me, you don't know anything about me. And you know what? I think your theory sucks!"

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

New York City- An Aspie's Paradise

If anybody were to ask me about the perfect place for a person with Asperger's Syndrome to live, my answer would be very simple: New York City. 

Why New York City?, you ask. Isn't it too crowded and overwhelming for people with sensory issues? Yes, but not everybody with Asperger's Syndrome has those issues. In fact, a good portion of them-- including me-- don't. And just to clarify, for many of us (me, at any rate) our discomfort with crowds is not about simply being around large numbers of people, but expecting to interact with them, all at the same time. For as long as I can remember, people have told me that I'm great in one-on-one or small group situations, but not so great in large group situations, such as parties. In fact, at parties, I usually befriend one or two people and go off in a corner with them to talk. Or if I need some break time, I just sit in the corner and draw. Asking someone with Asperger's Syndrome to enjoy large social groups is like asking a Catholic nun to be John F. Kennedy. 

But enough of that tangent, on with my endorsement of New York City as an Aspie's paradise. I lived in New York City for 13 1/2 years and for me it was incredibly easy to to forget that I had a condition that many regard as a disability (someone I met online who moved there from Maine for about a year made the same comment). Why? The answer is simple, I think. New York City is as diverse a city as you can get. There are all kinds of people who live there. I don't mean people of different ethnic backgrounds or even people from different religious affiliations (though there are those too). There are people with such a wide variety of temperaments and personalities, much more than I've seen anywhere else. I live in Boston now (long story), and while it's diverse enough that I feel comfortable, it's not quite the same as New York. Hell, a ride on the subways in each city will give you the idea of what I'm talking about.

You go to the F line in Brooklyn, for example. You wait in a small line to get through the turn style during rush hour. Someone can't find their Metrocard, and the person behind them butts in front of them. Typical New York impatience, but that's okay Everyone is used to it. You get on the train, heading for Manhattan. Five minutes in, someone gets on and starts screaming about Jesus and end times. A few minutes later, someone else begs for money. At the first stop in Manhattan, a group of guys gets on and does a wild performance for money, complete with back flips. Later, a man comes in dressed as a clown and does the nail-in-the-nose bit, also for money. As all these colorful people continue to board the train, you look around at everyone riding the subway. Some are trying to read and can't concentrate with all the noise. They roll their eyes. Others have a good laugh. Others still are ambivalent. In terms of the panhandler, many feel sorry for him and give him money. Trips on the New York City subway are never dull. And did I mention that the people who are riding the subway also have a variety of temperaments? Of course! Otherwise there wouldn't be such a wide variety of reactions!

We all know the stereotype, too, of there being a ton of crazy people in New York City. That said, I think it's also easier for the average person there to put things into perspective. Whereas a quirky behavior by someone with Asperger's might be viewed as "weird" or "scary" elsewhere, it might simply be viewed as "quirky" or even just part of the patchwork of personalities in New York City. With so many people acting unusual, it's just a lot easier to see the difference between "quirky" and "crazy". Plus, there are a lot of organizations that make it easier to find and make friends. There is the GLBTQIA center on 23rd Street, for example. How about the Asperger's support groups? Or groups for atheists? New York is also a place where I met a lot of polyamorous people (I'm not inclined that way, but my point is that New York is just very accepting of that kind of openness). And New York Public Library even hosts what's called an Anti-Prom, a prom for GLBTQIA teens. I suspect that New York might be the only major American city whose library would host such an event (except for San Francisco and, possibly, Chicago). You know all the stories about libraries being blackmailed by the religious right.

As for Boston? Well, there aren't lines for the subways, and in the six months that I've been here I saw a total of one solicitor and one "crazy person" on the trains. There's just not the daily exposure to oddness that there is in New York. Again, I think Boston is pretty accepting but I don't think in the same way that New York is. I don't know if, for example, the library would host an openly GLBTQIA prom. It just isn't nearly as diverse and I think Boston has somewhat more of a religious hold. But again, let's put this in perspective. Last year I lived in a small rural town in Maine for about five months. I hated it. It was homogenous-- lots of white, Christian people. Very, very few Jews, let alone those with any other religious background. And as for atheists? I'm sure they were in the closet along with the gays who live there. In fact, to meet interesting people I had to drive to Portland-- 75 miles each way. Everybody who was my age in the town in which I lived was married and had 2.5 kids. At one point, I posted on my Facebook status, "I miss NYC so much it hurts." It did hurt. I did not feel welcome, and I felt like many people thought there was something wrong with me. I did not feel that way in New York at all. As I said, in Boston I feel welcome, but let's just say that it's slightly easier for me to remember that I have Asperger's Syndrome, something many people regard as a disability.

So fellow Aspies, go to New York. It truly is an amazing city.