Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Monster

In a recent post I ended by saying that I was feeling too damned good and optimistic to write my initial post idea about something I call The Monster. But of course the Monster had a reason to come back. He came back to visit today and now I'm enraged, and I can't get to the gym yet to burn him off.

What is the Monster? The Monster is a state of mind I get into when I find out I've done something wrong, or when I'm convinced that I've done something wrong. Last night my friend and I went to see a transgender musician/speaker. In between songs, I turned to my friend and whispered-- or I thought I whispered-- things like, "Oh, this one's my favorite" or "This is what I was telling you about earlier." I had no idea that anything was wrong.

Meanwhile, during the Q and A, I asked the musician/speaker about something that I've heard about-- that occasionally there are people who identify as one gender in childhood and then it changes in adulthood. I don't mean someone who came out in adulthood or someone who didn't know what to call themselves until adulthood. I mean someone whose gender identity honestly changed. And occasionally I have heard, too, about people who've identified as transgender in childhood and then changed in adulthood. I asked him if there has been any research on it. After the Q and A, it occurred to me that I possibly made him feel uncomfortable with that question, that it could be misconstrued as me implying that transgender people should suck it up and "outgrow it". I mean, it's not too unreasonable of a fear, especially since last August some people accused me of silencing rape victims with this blog post. So after the show was over, I went to the musician/speaker and told him that I hoped my question hadn't offended him. He assured me that it hadn't. Well, good.

OK, so I had taken that possibility into account, but of course I couldn't get through a social event without pissing people off. No. It never happens. The Universe won't let it happen. My friend told me today that when I commented between songs, I wasn't whispering and the whole fucking auditorium could hear me. She said that she heard people making annoyed noises. Of course it was a cue that I missed. It scares me because it makes me wonder just how out of touch with reality I am, that I'm the classic unreliable narrator.

Oh, but she was trying to help you by pointing it out to you. First of all, my friend also has Asperger's. More importantly, this isn't an isolated incident. This happens EVERY SINGLE TIME I'M IN A SOCIAL SITUATION WITH PEOPLE I DON'T KNOW. Every time I learn to keep something else in check, something unexpected comes up that I ended up screwing up on. People think I'm being serious when I'm joking, people think I'm angry when I'm not, and all around people misinterpret one thing after another about me.

As I alluded to above, a blog post I wrote was interpreted by people in a Meetup group that I was silencing rape victims. Another group (my sign language Meetup group) kicked me out. Why? They said that I was voicing too much when what I was doing was saying things to myself for clarification in my attempt to learn sign language. For example, "Oh, oh, okay. 'Dog,' got it." This apparently made the deaf people there feel unsafe. Then the straw that broke the camel's back happened one night when I ordered a large dessert and in the spirit of community tried to share it. They felt that I was forcing it on them and it made them feel alienated because I was the only one who ordered it. Four people left early because of me. But of course I had no clue that this was why they were leaving. It didn't even cross my mind.

The day after this past Thanksgiving, I went out to breakfast with my family and extended family. My cousin, with whom I'm close, announced that she was pregnant. Her aunt hadn't arrived yet, and she told us not to say anything and let her make the announcement again when her aunt came. I didn't hear her say that. So when my cousin announced her pregnancy again, I was confused. I turned to my cousin's aunt and said, "What, you didn't know? She announced it before you got here." In other words, I thought she had already known I and didn't get why my cousin was announcing it again. My cousin put her head in her hands, shook her head, and said, "Oh, God, Julie." Embarrassed over my stupidity-- I'm lucky my cousin's aunt didn't feel offended over this-- I walked out of the restaurant to cool down. I knew if I continued to sit there that I would shake and fight back tears. These misspoken words are, of course, the kind of thing that could get me fired if it happened in a job staff meeting. And I knew it. Getting kicked out of the sign language Meetup was still fresh in my mind, so this incident hit me pretty hard.

When I hear yet another bit of feedback after another fuck up, I'm not hearing "constructive criticism" or even an occasional "Don't do this". I'm hearing, "Here's yet another mistake you made." And after decades of this never-ending nitpicking from others, I just feel unbridled rage. Operant conditioning. Amygdala hijacking. That's what the Monster is: He's a intense fight or flight response that I reflexively get when I've done something wrong. My heart races, my fists clench, and I feel intense pins and needles in my face, probably from the sudden surge of adrenaline. It's anger: Anger at myself for annoying, offending, hurting, and scaring people. Anger that I have this intensely negative effect on so many people, that I'm a burden to them, that I habitually cause people distress. He comes to life in my head after I leave a situation thinking that things went well only to find out that I pissed everybody off. He comes to life after I offend people with a few misspoken words. I go into these situations reminding myself things like, "Remember, don't tell raunchy jokes" (I don't anyway unless I'm with people I know well), "Remember, phrase that question in a tactful way", and so forth. But there's always something I fail to take into account because it didn't occur to me to take it into account.

And, as you know from the opening to this blog post, often I assume I've done something wrong when I actually haven't. But if that happens it's often alongside something else upsetting people, something that it would never occur to me to think twice about. I just can't predict what's going to fly and what isn't. There was recently a situation involving someone I am in occasional correspondence with. I don't know him well, but he knows a bit about me from my blog posts, and has been very kind and helpful. That said, I would hate to make trouble for him in any way. I can't get into what the exact situation was, but the short version is that I was afraid I'd hurt him in some way based on something I had said to someone else whom we both know. I emailed him and told him that I was worried that I had done something horrible. He assured me that I hadn't done anything wrong and seemed genuinely puzzled as to why I was worried. He's been very compassionate towards me, so of course I know rationally that if I had done something wrong that a civil discussion-- not yelling, screaming, shunning, blocking, etc.-- would have ensued. But that's the exception, not the rule in my life.

And it's hard to think rationally when the Monster is in my brain, telling me in no uncertain terms that I have done something wrong. In this recent case, it was almost like watching a movie, all these possible scenarios of what the outcome could be running through my head. I wouldn't go so far as to say I heard literal voices, but there is a nagging voice of sorts in my head when this happens. And I'm sorry to say, it's usually the voices of my parents, Mom especially. They only really started to get what it was like to be me about 6 years ago, and before that I heard endless feedback about fuckups in social situations that sometimes included phrases like, "That's abnormal", or "What's wrong with you?" or "I can't believe you said/did that", "I'm wondering where I've failed as a parent.", "You never take advice," "You don't know how to interact with people", "You make people uncomfortable", or any number of phrases that start with the word "You". After decades of conditioning, it's hard to shrug that off.

Today I'm just very angry. Tomorrow I'm going with the same friend I saw yesterday to see a production of Hamlet at Wellesley. That's how the subject of my talking came up. OK, fine, I won't talk during the show.

But don't be surprised if I'm back here tomorrow reporting another social mistake that I made.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Mundane Things That I Find Funny

I have an unusual sense of humor. Sure, I laugh at other things that people find funny, but usually these people, like me, have a "fringe" sense of humor and laugh the hardest at rounds of Cards Against Humanity or at jokes on South Park

But there are other things that strike me... not as funny, per se, but amusing. And these things wouldn't make sense to most people unless I explained why. A joke works when you reflexively laugh at it. But there are some mundane things that I find amusing because you have to think about them. And when you have to think about why something amuses you, it doesn't make most people laugh. But what are these mundane things that amuse me, and why? Is it an Asperger's thing, or does this happen to everybody? Let me give you some examples:

The Boston green line trolleys have only 2 cars, sometimes 1. It especially amuses me when I see these 1-car-only trolleys. Why? Because I lived in New York City for over a decade. With the exception of the infamous and hated G train (which had only 4 cars), all the subway lines in New York had around 10-11 cars in order to accommodate the city's elephantine population. But Boston doesn't even have a million people, let alone the 8 million that New York has. The blue, red, and orange lines usually have 5-6 cars at the most. Probably since the green line is the oldest line and is a trolly and not a regular subway train, it only has 1-2 cars. So when I see a one-car trolly (usually on weekends and in late evenings) I think it's cute. I think of the city of Boston as a person, trying naively to prove it's just like New York by having its own subway system, but not coming close to even resembling New York. It makes me think of a little kid imitating his or her older sibling.

Ten years ago, I was at a water park. There was one water ride which had circular rafts to hold a few people who went down the slide. There was a conveyer belt to carry the tubes back to the top of the ride for the next users:

But this amused me. Why? Think about it. They had to hire engineers to not only build the slide but also to build the conveyer belt that brought the tubes back up. You have to have a serious engineering talent to build such structures, and it amused me that so much effort was put into something so frivolous when there are more important things that such talents could be used for. Not that I dislike frivolity-- obviously I like it or I wouldn't go to water parks!

When I was little, things like this didn't just amuse me: they put me in stitches. I guarantee you that if I had encountered the New York subways and then the Boston trolleys as a kid, I would have laughed hysterically. I would have lost my shit, as they say, over the conveyer belt carrying the tubes up to the top of the water slide. And when I was in elementary school, I thought footballs (as in American football) were hilarious because of their shape. If somebody threw or kicked a football, as it turned end over end it made me think of some weird creature running away. I used to laugh really hard at these runaway footballs, and nobody could figure out why I was laughing. Another time, when I was in 1st grade (age 7), I laughed hysterically in class for no fewer than 10 minutes over the word "grass". Why was it funny to me? I don't know. I think I just thought the word sounded funny. When I was a little older I also thought the word "Batman" was funny.

One of my friends with Asperger's thinks palm trees are "hilarious" when viewed from far away. Why? He doesn't know. He just thinks they're hilarious. Another friend with Asperger's thinks the word "couch" is funny, and when she was little you could not stop her from laughing at that word. 

A trademark of having Asperger's is having an odd sense of humor. But laughing at mundane things? Is that an Asperger's characteristic, or does this happen to other people as well? Comments from everyone on the neurological spectrum are welcome!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Exercise, The Zone, and Altered States

I don't know what happened. Maybe it was the sudden change of weather, from just barely above freezing to the mid to upper 60s. For years I've said that when the temperature begins to rise into the 60s in early spring I feel like I'm waking up from deep coma. Summer is my favorite season (I HATE winter), and the spring weather just gets me excited for the upcoming months. But something else happened. I'm not sure what. I feel like a switch suddenly flipped in my mind this past Saturday. It is a switch that hasn't been fully flipped in about two years.

What happened two years ago? I lost 30 pounds. But that was only the beginning. I was going to the gym 5-6 days a week; 4 days a week was a "bad" week for me. I was addicted to working out, and in a good way. I enjoyed the euphoria I got after my weekly special "killer workout" which consisted of a 90-minute swim or protracted treadmill running followed by completing the entire circuit of weight machines. The weight just fell off at a steady rate of 2 pounds per week, and I was getting stronger. My state of mind was changing, I was more alert, and I had more energy. Suddenly, the gym was a single-minded focus for me and was a place I looked forward to going to every day. Eventually, I began training myself to run again. Overall, I was constantly in an altered state. I didn't just feel euphoric coming from the gym-- I felt euphoric going to the gym. And this euphoria kept me motivated and energetic and led to a kind of super-euphoria after working out. It was a wonderful cycle that helped me lose weight, condition my heart, and get stronger. I even found myself drawn to healthier foods and less interested in sugar, which caused my weight gain to begin with (it's a VERY powerful addiction, trust me). Why? Again, I don't know. It's like a different part of my brain was suddenly in charge. But I was also eating less, was eating more sensible portions. I wonder if exercises such as running and swimming, which tighten the abdominal muscles, and perhaps press against my stomach, helped to curb my appetite.

But the light from this switch gradually dimmed a year later. How? I don't know. I was still going to the gym a few times a week, but my workouts didn't "feel" the same. Nor was my motivation the same. I was going to the gym as a matter of routine, but only 3-4 times a week. Then last year I gained back 10 pounds because I was starting to eat more sugary snacks again. When I tried curbing these tendencies and running off the extra weight, I found myself starting to get back into the Zone, albeit slowly. I was running almost every day. But just as as the switch was beginning to turn back on, I gave myself patellar tendonitis. After that, I had to go to physical therapy and could only do cycling for several months. How could I possibly get back in the Zone when I was only exercising my legs? How could I feel euphorically motivated to get on a stationary bike and not do much of anything? I needed a full body workout to do that, and I couldn't even swim (I am not good at freestyle, and breast stroke aggravated my knees because of the kicks involved).

As I started to get better, I began using the seated elliptical at the gym. That worked my arms and legs, but I was sitting. It just wasn't enough. It wasn't my entire body. Then last week I made a decision: For one thing, I was going to go to the gym 6 times a week (trainers recommend you take one day to recuperate) like I did before. If my knees hurt after my workout, I'd just ice them. Even if my knees got worse at first, ultimately they would get better if I took some of the extra weight off-- I'm within normal limits (mid 130s), but just barely.

I started going to the gym more often but it still felt partially forced. But then last Saturday I suddenly felt like I was in the Zone again, for the first time since 2013. A switch had flipped in my mind. I was finding myself doing what I did in 2013: getting out of bed and going straight to the gym. Suddenly working out on the seated elliptical even felt a little different. But why? It's the same workout that was boring me. Then yesterday the temperature went up into the mid 60s, and it was a perfect day for a swim. And suddenly I really, really wanted to swim. I went to the gym thinking that maybe I'd swim for an hour, but I ended up feeling energetic from the moment I got into the pool. I ended up doing a 100-minute swim (plus a 5-minute warmup and 5-minute cool down). I was so energized that the altered state that comes from being in the Zone made me feel that just swimming wasn't enough. No. I was launching myself off from the walls, twisting, turning... I almost felt like I could flip through the air like dolphins do when they swim. In this altered state I felt like I was one giant muscle and the pool was my conquest. That was just how I felt two years ago.

When I walked out of the gym I was wonderfully weary and euphoric. I knew that I would have to take the next day off to let my muscles heal. The expression "getting ripped" isn't just a metaphor-- your muscles do tear and you need to give them a day to regenerate after a killer workout. But I didn't want to take the day off. I wanted to go swimming again today, and I found myself counting the hours until tomorrow. Tomorrow I will be swimming for one hour (as I said, killer workouts are weekly). And it will be a vigorous, energetic swim. What's more, I didn't even have to ice my knees after this workout-- the swimming seems to be helping the healing process.

So I feel like I'm back in the Zone. The switch has flipped. I'm in an altered state. I am confident that I will lose the extra 10 pounds by June with an ultimate target weight of 110 by the end of the summer (yes, 110 is within normal limits for my height. If it's too much of a loss, I'll adjust. No big deal.).  Yes, I know gut feelings don't mean anything, but something else is going on. In this altered state, where I suddenly want to practically live at the gym, where I suddenly have little to no interest in sugary snacks, where I suddenly feel like I can just kick ass, I instinctively know what I need to do. Maybe this is just the fact that it's become easy for me to avoid junk food lately. Maybe it's just the fact that I suddenly feel increased energy during my workout and instinctively know how to make these workouts more effective (ie, the twisting, turning, etc. during swimming, for example). Maybe it's both.

But the Zone isn't just my sudden motivation to "live" at the gym. It all ties in with a sudden increase in confidence I haven't had in almost two years (I got fired from two jobs, which was a severe blow to my ego). Maybe it helps that I recently have been able to get work as a freelance writer. But whatever the case, some switch flipped in my mind on Saturday, the same one that flipped two years ago when I started making exercise an almost-daily part of my life. I don't know how it works. If I could bottle it and sell it, I'd be rich. I also wish I knew how to describe this state of mind because words don't do it justice. Unless you've experienced it, you might as well be asking me to describe what the 5th dimension looks like. But I suspect that there's some chemical change going on. I wish I knew. I wish there would be studies on this sort of thing. I'd like to know what the chemical reaction is and what triggers it. Exercise physiology and how the brain works both fascinate me to no end. But whatever the case, I'm feeling much better about life than I have in a long, long time.

I was originally thinking about writing a post about a state of mind that I sometimes get into, which I call the Monster. But this week I was just feeling too damned positive.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

More on Maturity

"[Do y]ou ever feel like a little kid around people your own age?"

That was a question that somebody posted in an Asperger's group on Facebook the other day. I thought, "Oh, God, YES." Actually, I should clarify. I don't feel that way now at age 34, but sometimes I felt that way from adolescence up until my late twenties. In my last blog post, I wrote about how gender conformity is often perceived as maturity. Now I'm going to talk about some of the other arbitrary designations for maturity.

When I was in fifth grade (age 11), I noticed that all the other girls in my class were starting to get crushes on boys (or at least they appeared to-- I'm sure a few of them were actually gay). I felt like I was the only girl who didn't at least pretend to have a crush on a boy. Like many kids (girls especially, for some reason) with Asperger's, I couldn't see what the big deal was about "going out" with someone. That boy over there is cute? I didn't notice, and I really don't see what you're seeing. I just see another person who happens to be a boy. Dating? Kissing? Whatever for? For me that would just get in the way of my writing and drawing. In that same year, all the kids-- boys and girls-- were throwing around sexual slang left and right. Nearly every day I came home from school and asked one of my parents questions (usually my father, if I recall-- probably because his answers were more direct) like, "What does 'humping' mean?" or "What's a boner?" 

I learned the hard way that not at least pretending to have a crush on someone got me labeled as "gay"(keep in mind that in 1991- 1992, when I was in 5th grade, there were very few openly gay people) or "immature". I also learned that if I heard one of my peers using a sexual slang that asking what said slang meant would only earn me ridicule, usually in the form of being called names that indicated that I was immature or at least "out of it". I also remember being afraid to use the word "decibel" in that class when the teacher asked a relevant question during a science lesson. I thought my knowing that word would earn me even more ridicule (I was probably right). But why? Why does knowing "boner" make you "grown-up" but knowing "decibel" makes you a nerd?

I know what you're thinking-- what do 10- and 11-year-olds know about maturity? They're just repeating what they've heard in movies and they don't know what half of it means. Or, in terms of crushes, it's just something new for them so they think it means they're suddenly grown up. OK, fair enough. Except I continued to feel like a little kid all through adolescence and my teenage years whenever the subject of dating came up, no matter what the context. When I was in 8th grade (age 14), I recall one particular instance where my parents were talking to my brother (then 17) about school and his friends and in particular about whom his friends were going out with. I remember thinking, "This is the kind of 'grown up' talk that I'm expected to be part of, but I can't be part of. I don't know how."

Think that was just my perception? It didn't help when my mother kept nagging me throughout my teenage years, asking me whom I had a crush on. This was a topic I was enormously uncomfortable with. For one thing, my mother kept trying to engage me by pointing to celebrities on TV and saying, "He's cute-- don't you think?" That made me feel put on the spot. For another, when I got a little older and finally did start getting crushes, I refused to talk about it because the topic was too embarrassing for me. I experienced crushes very intensely and I knew that Mom wouldn't understand. When we had one of these conversations when I was 17, I tried to assure Mom that I had had crushes but that I just didn't want to talk about them. She didn't believe me and started lecturing me about how kids my age are interested in dating. She told me that I was at an age at which I was supposed to start feeling attracted to boys-- or girls, if I was gay. But I remember thinking that I found it hard to believe that every single person on the planet except me experienced romantic/sexual attraction on a regular basis. For me it was unusual (last year I learned this is called demisexuality), and I thought there had to be somebody else out there besides me who fit this profile. But what in the world did it have to do with maturity? Why not just another trajectory of development? 

I also recall a time when I was in the counselor-in-training (CIT) program at my summer camp when I was 17. The staff would not let me work with kids for the first half of the summer because my less-than-stellar social skills got translated as immaturity (nobody knew what Asperger's was in 1998). I understand now that they did have some valid concerns, but the same staff often did very appalling and unprofessional things that at age 17 I recognized were not conducive to running a summer camp safe for children. For example, a lot of the counselors did drugs. I don't mean on their 2 1/2 days off they went to New York with their friends and smoked weed (but I'm sure they did that as well). I mean they did drugs (usually weed, but probably more in some cases) on their breaks. They often even cut activities and let the other counselors pull their weight. During campers' rest times, the counselors often went to the staff lounge to smoke weed and left their kids unsupervised in the cabins. Even then I saw the clear hypocrisy in their concerns about me. I actually cared deeply about the kids and went out of my way to help them if something was wrong. But it didn't matter because of my lack of social savoir-faire.

As you might have guessed, at camp I had the reputation of being an anti-drug fascist. A fellow CIT finally asked me what I would do if I knew for a fact that a particular person on staff was doing drugs. I said something like, "Well, that depends. If it were something relatively harmless like weed, I would tell them how I felt about it and remind them that they shouldn't do it when they're supposed to be caring for kids. If it were LSD or heroin, I would probably report it because it's a safety issue for the kids." All the other CITs were completely stupefied and even upset when I said this. Why? Why were my social skills issues considered immaturity but doing drugs at a children's summer camp wasn't? Again, it's arbitrary. 

What I think it comes down to in all of the aforementioned cases is that people often mistake conformity as maturity. This is true whether it's gender conformity, conformity in expected psychosexual development, conformity in knowing the right slang, and above all-- conformity in social skills, even at the expense of doing the right thing.

Despite that uncomfortable discussion with the other CITs at camp, I didn't feel like a little kid around them. But that was the exception, not the rule. I often felt that I was much younger than my peers outside of camp because I just could not relate to them. I also felt like a little kid around people who were just a few years older than me inside of camp and out. This continued well into my twenties and it reached a crescendo when at age 27 I got a horrible crush on a Sergio, a guy 8 1/2 years older than me who had been a counselor at my camp in 1995. We had found each other on Facebook and hit it off immediately and became friends. However, he shunned me as soon as he figured out I had feelings for him. We haven't spoken since. That same year, my ex-best friend Melanie (1 year older) got married. She didn't invite me to the wedding and she cut me out of her life. Both shunnings were in 2008. It was a horrible year, and between the incidents with Melanie and Sergio, I felt like a little kid. I was not only too immature to have a friend 8 1/2 years older, but also too immature to have one of any age who was married. I began to feel that these little milestones that people take for granted were also a reflection of how immature I was. Because getting married wasn't on my radar, I was and always would be an immature little kid.

My feelings of being a little kid around my peers and people slightly older than me finally changed in late 2009 (age 29). I cannot divulge the exact details, but it did involve me becoming a regular on an Internet forum. People of all ages were interested in what I had to say. They thought I was interesting and intelligent and many praised me for my unique perspective. They didn't treat me like an annoying little kid who was dominating the forum (as did happen on a listserv in college). It was this kind of validation that I needed to be able to begin putting people like Melanie and Sergio behind me.

I hope this blog post gives everyone something to think about. I think it's important.