Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Perpetual Clean Slate

I left my public school at the end of 5th grade (age 11) and and spent my 6th grade year (age 12) at a K-8 private school, where my mother was teaching.

A fresh start; a clean slate.

Then Mom got a job in the public schools and could no longer send me to the private school, as it was too far away.

An entire year had passed since I had been in the public school system, and since a year is a long time in childhood, 7th grade (age 13) was another fresh start (sort of).

Another clean slate.

When I started going to Camp Negev in the summer after 8th grade (age 14), it was another clean slate, another fresh start. Since I didn't realize that I would be zoned for a different high school (10th-12th grade in my district) from most of the kids at my middle school, I was sure my camp would be my last clean slate until college.

My last clean slate until college? Yes, what a lot of pressure to work under.

As stated, I was zoned for a different high school from most of the kids in my middle school.

Another clean slate, another fresh start. 

I went to college.

Another clean slate.

I went to grad school.

Another clean slate.

I took a job at a library in Maine. I got fired. Then I took a job at another library in Massachusetts.

Another clean slate.

I got fired again. I decided was done with libraries.

So what happened to all these clean slates? I went to the small private school and generally got along well with everyone else. But then I had to go back into the public school system. I was bullied relentlessly, verbally and sometimes even physically. I didn't feel safe going to school. My parents and brother didn't seem to really understand that I was being bullied. Back then, people didn't really take bulling seriously, and the term "bully" meant "the school bully", as caricatured on The Simpsons, for example: The kid who indiscriminately shakes down everybody for their lunch money. Not a group of kids who targets one person. No, my parents and brother told me that I brought the treatment on myself with my relentless wiseass comments and because I didn't dress and act feminine enough.

I went to Camp Negev. At last things seemed to be going right. I was with a group of kids who understood and appreciated me. But then in the CIT program, I learned that many of the counselors were wary of me. They said that I was inappropriate. It's true, I was sometimes, with my jokes, etc. Part of the reason I sometimes acted inappropriately was that I was rebelling against my parents because they never let me do anything irreverent, even with my cousins around. I felt asphyxiated. So the dam burst, so to speak, at camp. But I did come to the CIT program prepared to "grow up", as I was no longer a camper. However, it was too little too late. And I should note that the other counselors' concerns about my being inappropriate were hypocritical as many of the counselors didn't care about the kids. They belittled the ones who were different, left them alone in cabins, and smoked weed in the staff lounge. Sometimes they even came to activities while high. They were just inappropriate in more socially acceptable ways. I wasn't given a group of kids until second session, and despite the ways that I had toned myself down for that summer, I wasn't hired as a counselor the following year.

I found another camp to work at. I made some stupid mistakes and got fired, so then I found another one.

I got a fresh start in the summer of 2000, working at a camp in Michigan. I was hired again in 2001, but in 2002 I had to come back as a volunteer, as they wouldn't rehire me.

As for high school? I was very quiet because I was so worried about screwing up. The result? I wasn't bullied, but I was too timid and didn't make any friends. You can't live like that. Remaining withdrawn in high school is one of my biggest regrets.

In college? I made friends but starting junior year, most of the teachers didn't like me. I wasn't used to this; in high school teachers generally did like me. When I went to grad school, I got a fresh start and fortunately the teachers liked me.

At the library in Maine?

The parents were wary of me and constantly reported me to the director. I was fired. I read books about child development and came to the library in Massachusetts, armed with more knowledge to help me work better with little kids. Not good enough. I was fired again after four months, although this time there were only two complaints. The rest of the staff liked me, but my boss didn't. I knew by the end of the first week that she was avoiding me.

Mom told me, "You'll get a fresh start" when I entered 6th grade at the private school and 7th grade in the public school system that I grew up in. She told me that when I went to summer camp, to high school, to college, when I worked at the camp in Michigan, and when I started at the library in Massachusetts.

I cringe about "clean slates" and "fresh starts". A clean slate is only clean so long as you can disguise who you really are. Ultimately, it's less about learning to stop telling inappropriate jokes and whatnot (although it may seem that way superficially) and more about not letting who you really are come out. Whether or not my parents realized it, when they told me, "You'll get a fresh start," they were really saying, "Try again to be someone you're not and things will go well." And as you can see, many of these "fresh starts" (though not all, by any means), ultimately failed.

It is for this reason that experts advise parents of bullied kids not to change schools unless it's to a private school or some kind of "special" school. You bring who you are to any new situation, and when the results are the same, the message that one gets is that they've failed, over and over again.

Imagine what it feels like to go through life like that.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Visit from the Monster

I've been having a case of The Monster all week. Just to remind you, The Monster is when I find myself in a horrible state of mind because of something I've done wrong. Actually, it's often more as a result of people's reactions to what I've done wrong. Even if the reaction is something as benign as, "You have to make sure you don't say things like that", it can trigger a cascade of intense, overwhelming emotions. I feel such horrible mental pain to the point that it's practically physical. I find myself angry at myself and hating myself. In fact, at work (it's a low-paying temp job) this week I had to go into the bathroom to cry. I was hyperventilating and I had to stop myself from howling from the agony I was feeling. I went back to my desk, still in tears, and a couple people asked me what was wrong. I told them that I was just going through a rough time, that it was "personal issues, you know?".

The slightest trigger can bring back a bunch of old memories, many of which I'd put to rest up until two years ago. What happened two years ago, you ask? Let me start by saying that two years ago I was in a better mindset that an I'd been in, well, ever. I'd lost 40 pounds, I was getting into excellent physical shape and developing athlete's heart, and my self-esteem was through the roof. I recall one day specifically when I had just left the Dodge YMCA in Brooklyn, reeling from endorphins from my latest killer workout. I walked toward the subway, plugged into my iPod and listening to a song that had a message of hope. It perfectly complemented the wonderful changes I was making to my body and my brain. At that moment I felt like someone could come up to me with an AK-47, shoot me, and the bullets would bounce right off.

That was early 2013. Then I made the biggest mistake of my life: I left New York City and took a job at a library in Maine. Yes, in my infinite wisdom, when I went back to school for library science, I thought it would be fun to concentrate in children's librarianship. I thought it would be fun to do activities with kids and that I'd just have fun with them. I mean, it was fun doing just that when volunteering at a New York library for seventeen months. But what I didn't count on were the parents, which were pretty absent in the library in New York that I volunteered at. The short version is that the parents in Maine constantly complained about me, saying that I was mean to their kids. I was finally fired after only four months when parents told the library director that their kids were afraid of me. I was 5'2" and weighed 122 pounds. I don't know what the parents thought I could possibly do to their kids, but truth be told, this wasn't the first time I've heard that people have said that they are afraid of me.

The Monster was awakened.

I bounced back and took a job in a library in Massachusetts. Once again, I was fired after four months. To my knowledge, only two parents complained about me. But the library director took those complaints very seriously. When parents complained about the other librarian, these complaints were just laughed off. Why? My shrink says she thinks that the director saw right away that there was something off about me and was thus more sensitive to my infractions. In fact, this phenomenon of not being able to get away with little things when neurotypicals get away with outrageous things is a very common Asperger's experience. Needless to say, I want nothing to do with working at libraries anymore.

The Monster was awakened again, and I haven't been able to put him to sleep. At most, he lies dormant, waiting for the next thing in my life to go wrong and to come back. When he does, he constantly whispers in my ear that I bring my problems on myself; that I cause people distress and misery; that I'm creepy, defective, and narcissistic; and that I deserve bad things to happen to me, both physical and emotional. He tells me that he hopes that somebody beats the shit out of me so that I get just punishment for all the problems I cause and my refusal to learn from my mistakes.

Just to clarify, this is not a literal voice-in-my-head. But it is very powerful. I have tried all week since the Monster's initial visit on Monday to neutralize him. I've gone running (even though I shouldn't because I still haven't recovered from an injury to me knees from last year) and I've gone swimming. It provides temporary relief, and I feel a little better since Monday, but it's not enough. I'm still reeling from some anger. I don't even know who or what I'm angry at anymore, but I just wish the Monster would die. The best I can do now is just wait until he lies dormant again.

Don't get me wrong, even when I was doing well emotionally the Monster would still come sometimes. But at the most he would stay for a couple hours and then I would be fine again. Now he comes for days at a time, and in this most recent instance, it's been closing in on a week.

I am just so sick of a lot of things.

I am sick of…

  1. ...Knowing that if I get into a conflict with somebody, even if they're at fault, I inevitably have played a role in the incident.
  2. ...People telling me "It's your overall personality; I can't even explain it", expecting me to just smile like this while they say it, something no neurotypical would ever be expected to do. In fact, BOTH LIBRARY DIRECTORS said this to me. 
  3. ...That a lot of people in my life-- my brother, cousin (and yes, I'm close with both), and some of my friends who've known me longer-- feel entitled to wag their finger at me and lecture me like I'm a child.
  4. ...My dad framing my life as a case of maturity. Even when he thinks he's complimenting me in that regard, it's a backhand compliment. He says, "You've matured a hell of a lot over the years." But he says it in a voice that sounds like, "God, you were so awful back then." To raise your consciousness, think about how it sounds telling someone with Down Syndrome who's improved in math, "You're a hell of a lot smarter than you used to be." It sounds like, "God, you were so stupid back then." 
  5. ...Being expected to understand how everyone feels but then being told I shouldn't be expected for people to understand me. I'm supposed to shrug and go, "Okay, no problem" and, again, smile like this. Recently, my brother said of this, something like, "Yes, it's unfair, but you know why that is." 
  6. ...Being expected to repress every little thing that comes naturally to me, whether it's my choice of discussion topic, my opinions, my sense of humor, or anything else. Sometimes I do this and then everything goes well, but it's exhausting. The dam breaks eventually, the holes in my mask form, and then I get lectured on how I need to learn to do A, B, and C, and not to do X, Y, and Z.
  7. …Hearing sentences that start with, "You need to learn…" or "You need to work on"...
  8. …Knowing that the stories I've related on most, if not all, of my blog posts are told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator and that I am missing one crucial element. My brother and one of my older friends have both told me that when I tell a story they know that if they ask somebody else, they'll have a story that's diametrically opposed to mine. My brother also recently said that I frequently have a very skewed version of situations, often with catastrophic results. 
  9. …Of people asking me what I do for a living when I'm constantly in between blue-collar jobs, despite having a Master's Degree.
  10. …Of the fact that most people have one or two skeletons in their closet when I have a whole fucking graveyard.
  11. …Of being observed. I've been observed one way or another since I was a little kid, and by the time I was eleven I was pretty aware of it. It still goes on today. I'm sick of being observed, evaluated, gossiped about, told on, etc. I'm also sick of people like my brother telling me that nobody owes me answers when I ask exactly what happened that got people upset enough to tell on me, or what they said about me. It's easy to say that nobody owes you answers when this sort of thing rarely happens to you.
  12. …Of people like my brother telling me that part of being adult is learning to repress my emotions. The problem is when I do that it only delays the inevitable outburst, which only makes things worse. My brother doesn't see whatever outbursts I have as an end result of repressing and repressing and repressing. He sees it as me giving into some emotional whim. Dad has the same opinion. Part of the problem is that, as I've said before, leaving a situation to cool down and prevent such things is seen as immaturity. 
  13. …Of my pain being dismissed. If the Monster starts fucking my brain and I feel overwhelming emotions which I express, Dad tells me things like that I'm just trying to get attention and that I need to grow up. The irony? For years Dad understood me a lot better than Mom. And actually, there are still aspects of me that he understands better than Mom. But the deep psychological turmoil? Mom seems to understand it better (although this is a fairly recent development), perhaps because she has students who write in their journals about cutting themselves or being suicidal (no, I've never done/been either). I think only in the past few years have students come out about this sort of thing to teachers. They probably cut as much then as they do now but were shit-scared to talk about it, even in journals.
  14. …Of having to think before I open my mouth or send an email or ask somebody something.
  15. …Of having to expect that something will go horribly wrong, even if the situation I'm in seems wonderful at first.
  16. …Of being told I'm not trying and that I need to try harder.
  17. ...Of when something does go wrong, getting an entire fucking list of things that I did wrong, some of those things which still don't even seem wrong. When most people are told they've done something wrong, it's one thing, not a whole fucking list.
  18. …Of never being allowed to be 100% right. Ever. 
  19. …Of being told that I'm aggressive, too intense, and that I make people uncomfortable. Sometimes people don't even have a tangible explanation for these things when I ask for ones.
  20. …Of feeling like I'm in a SIMS game. For those of you who don't know the SIMS, it's a simulation game where you take people, put them in houses, and let them develop relationships, get jobs, etc. A popular thing to do-- which my friends and I did in college-- is to "fuck with" the characters. We would build them a pool, let them jump in, and take the ladder away so they can't get out. Or we'd put them in a room with no door. Sometimes I feel like I am a character in that game and some higher being is fucking with me, watching me stumble through life.

In fact, I sometimes feel like the Universe is trying to put me in my place.

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Another thing I'm curious about. Aspies are supposed to lack empathy? You seem to me unusually empathetic.
These were the words in a mildly-amusing-as-well-as-flattering private message from someone I am friendly with online. Yes, the pervasive myth that people with Asperger's Syndrome lack empathy is still making rounds. It reminds me of some kind of abstract Hydra: That is, instead of cutting off one head just to watch two grow in its place, I clear up the "Aspies don't have empathy myth" for one person just to to have to clear it up for two more people. It is a myth that has gone viral and just seems impossible to stop.

Do Aspies lack empathy? The problem is that the term "empathy" has two very different meanings. Here's's definition:
the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

In other words, the definition can be interpreted in two ways: 1) Cognitively understanding that someone else is suffering (or joyful); whether or not the person cares about these feelings is a different question entirely. 2) The visceral reaction someone gets when seeing someone else suffering (or being joyful); that is, he's suffering (or joyful), so I'm suffering (or joyful) too, or  Unfortunately, when most people use the term "empathy", they use it in the second definition I am referencing: they believe that the Aspie knows that the other person is upset or joyful but simply does not care.

Reasons Why Many People Believe Aspies Lack Empathy

1. Difficulties with cognitive empathy are mistaken for lack of sympathy 

Yes, it is true that people with Asperger's Syndrome sometimes have problems with cognitive empathy, which is one thing that gives rise to the myth that they lack sympathy, more specifically, for another person. Sometimes Aspies do not realize that somebody else is upset. Or perhaps they do understand that the other person is upset but cannot quite understand why (depending where on the spectrum they are!) and the upset person thinks that they are self-centered and don't care how other people feel. Often, once the Aspie realizes that the person is upset, he or she cares just as much as any neurotypical person would. Conversely, sociopaths have a lot of cognitive empathy-- and they exploit others' emotions for their own selfish whims.

To give a very concrete example of this phenomenon in my own life, I need look no further than my horrible years in middle school. More times than I can count, I would approach a crying friend (and I use the term loosely, because they were fair-weather friends!) and ask her what was wrong. Her other friends would glare at me and ask, "Where have you been all week?" Because I missed subtle cues that something had been bothering a friend all week and did not realize it until she was doing something obvious-- crying-- the other girls thought that I didn't care, that I was only concerned about myself. Middle school is often the worst for girls with Asperger's because girls at that age tend to form relationships based on emotional intimacy, secrets, etc., rather than a shared interest, such as a favorite movie. The social dynamics become more intense and demanding. Boys that age are more likely to form friendships around shared interests-- it is for that reason (and more) that I wish I had tried to befriend boys at around that age. I had much more in common with them in terms of interests and styles of social interaction. Today I find that I generally get along better with men than with women (unless it's in a setting with like-minded individuals; then gender makes no difference).

2. We find it exhausting to be social butterflies

My very neurotypical mother is a high school teacher. She learns all of her students' names very quickly. She gets to know each kid individually and knows all their likes and dislikes. Years later, if she runs into one of her students again, she usually remembers him or her. I could not do what she does. Ever.

In my years working at summer camps, I bonded with a few kids over common interests. For example, if a camper wanted to learn to draw, we would bond over that because it was something concrete I could teach them. Or they could at least show me their drawings and I would be interested in seeing them. But I have difficulty pretending to be interested in a little girl's love of princesses, for example. I was not one of those counselors who knew everything about each camper, and it always took me forever to learn everyone's name. I'm also terrible with faces, which didn't help matters.

Fortunately, many of these kids usually liked me because they thought I was fun and funny. In a video I shot during my CIT year at Camp Negev, some 11-year-old kids are jumping up and down and shouting, "We love you, Julie!" But I don't remember the names of most of the kids that I've worked with. My style in terms of working with kids involves a very narrow, usually impersonal focus. Kids who wanted to bond with their counselors on a more personal level usually went to their other counselors. Unless, of course, the kid has psychological/neurological issues. Then they came to me. Kids with such issues usually liked me, probably because I understood them better and could give them better advice.

3. We react differently than neurotypicals to another's joy or distress 

If somebody I barely know at work, for example, tells me that their mother is in the hospital, I do not gush with emotion. I think it's unfortunate, but I am not overwhelmed with emotion at this news. I say, "Oh, jeez. I hope she gets better," and I forget about it ten seconds later. The expected reaction-- from both sexes, but I think women especially-- is to react viscerally, or at least pretend to. That is, people are expected to at least seem extremely upset even if they don't know this person. And sorry, I think a lot of the time it is just an act if the person doesn't know the other person well. It is a social ritual to stay in others' good graces. Same with the social ritual where everybody tells a new mother that her baby is "perfect". Sure, some people mean it, but I think a good portion of them are lying, just saying what is expected of them. What do I say? I say what I mean. I tell the new mother that she's going to be a great parent.

The thing is, I sometimes question my own capacity for empathy. When something bad happens to a friend, I try to console him or her. But I do not get emotionally involved with the friend's issues. I just try my best to help. Am I in the minority? Do most people get emotionally involved? Do they get a visceral reaction, feeling the ache of the friend's breakup (for example) as if it were happening to them? I don't. And also, do I try to anticipate the possibility of hurting another's feelings or annoying them in some way because I genuinely care about their feelings, or am I just trying to avoid trouble for myself? Or both? I really don't know. And why do most people try to avoid hurting or annoying others? Does avoiding trouble for themselves factor in as well? I really don't know either.

I am more likely to get visceral reactions when I see a suffering animal than when I see a suffering person. I once broke off two pieces of bagel to give to two pigeons. One larger, dominant pigeon ate his share and stole the other pigeon's piece. When the smaller pigeon tried to eat his own share, the larger pigeon bit him. This made me really upset. I wanted to kick that bullying pigeon away from the little pigeon. I tried to feed the small pigeon again, but the same thing happened. I tried scaring the larger pigeon away by stamping my feet. It didn't work. I threw a piece of bread a few feet away so the larger pigeon would have to chase it. Unfortunately, the smaller pigeon gave chase as well, so I was unable to feed the smaller pigeon separately. It made me so angry that this little pigeon was barely able to take a bite while this alpha male (or female? I don't know what sex it was) got his way because he was bigger and stronger.

As for suffering people, I rarely get visceral reactions where they're concerned-- unless it involves children, particularly children who are victims of bullying. And I suppose the pigeon incident ties in nicely to my visceral reactions for the children who are victims of bullying.

4. We find ourselves in very extreme circumstances that makes it look like we lack empathy

The obsessive crushes I've discussed in a few blog posts immediately come to mind. Most people are able to move on if they think their crush is avoiding them. I simply couldn't. But I knew that it was also wrong to be pushy towards these guys that I liked. It was this constant balancing act, a psychological war in my mind to try to figure out how to allow myself to interact with them without being too pushy. As for the times I waited for them outside of buildings at summer camp and on my Israel trip, that was the end result of the warfare in my mind. On my 1997 Israel trip I didn't say, "Hey, you know, I think I'll wait for Charlie outside a building. That's not weird at all. That sounds like a great idea." Of course I knew it was weird, but I was just experiencing intensely powerful emotions that I couldn't handle. As a friend from that trip put it: "You were so gone over Charlie that you didn't know what to do." But to the observer it looks like stalking and lack of respect on my part. Even the following summer back at camp, in 1998, it was not enough that I implemented strict, assiduous controls for myself to make sure I did not fall into those same behaviors again (also discussed in the above linked post). Why? Because in the last week  or two of camp I did fall into those behaviors. People commented that I seemed self-centered for hyperfocusing on these crushes, and they did not realize that it was not a conscious decision. It was that my brain was hijacked by neuroterrorists, as I call it, and I just didn't know what to do.

In other circumstances, such as trying to navigate middle school and having to watch my every move lest others start trash-talking me, people would ask me, "Why are you so focused on yourself? Why don't you ask other people how they're doing?" Because when your emotional survival depends on not becoming a target for bullying, the last thing on your mind is how other people are doing.

5. We don't always relate to what upsets others or makes them happy

I get a strong, visceral reaction from seeing victims of bullying suffer, from seeing children with psychological/neurological issues suffer, and from seeing animals suffer. I do not get a visceral reaction from hearing that my friend is having problems with her boyfriend. I've never been in a relationship and cannot relate directly to this. When I try to help, I tap into my issue of obsessive crushes to try find something relatable, but that is the best that I can do. I really cannot deal with a friend's relationship drama, and I don't want to (though I want them to feel better, of course), and they probably shouldn't come to me anyway because I have no good advice for them. But I suppose I am flattered that they do come to me.

In terms of joy, I really cannot relate to the joy a parent feels when having a baby. I can't even imagine feeling joyful about having a baby. And if I had any doubts about my declaration about not wanting kids, they were torpedoed when I began having recurring dreams about being pregnant and feeling horrified (in a couple dreams, I had the baby and thought, "What am I supposed to do with this?") The only time I really cared when someone I knew had a baby was when my cousin gave birth. But it wasn't this whole motherhood-is-an-amazing-and-rewarding-and-beautiful thing or a babies-are-so-precious thing. It was more of, "Oh, cool.  This person I grew up with is having a kid. It will be fun to watch him grow up."

The Irony

Now wait a second. Isn't it only natural that people tend to empathize with and therefore sympathize what they can relate to? Most people can relate to relationship drama and babies, and so most people are going to have the expected reactions. On the the other hand, most people can't relate to a lot of what I have been through. The girls in my middle school could not relate to my inability to see that another girl was upset, and so they could not empathize with how my confusion tormented me. Most people cannot relate to needing space from games of social football, so to speak. They cannot see why such a thing would be exhausting. No sympathy there, either. Most people cannot relate to being bullied at school. They think that to be bullied as bad as I was that you have to bring it upon yourself. No sympathy. Obsessive crushes? Same deal. Not thinking about others' needs because one's own emotional survival is in jeopardy? Forget it.

In other words, many neurotypicals lack empathy and sympathy for people with Asperger's because they cannot relate to what we go through. But because their neurotype is in the majority, our not relating to them looks like lack of empathy and sympathy whereas their inability to relate to us simply means our circumstances are too weird to be relatable.

And one more thing...

I'm going to, once again, plug a book by my favorite non-fiction writer, Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene. It is a great book with a misleading title, and the gist of the book is that natural selection works on the level of the gene rather than the organism. The genes are selfish (in a metaphorical sense), and this selfishness of genes gives rise to altruism. After all, family members share copies of these genes, and being altruistic towards them increases their chances of being passed on to another generation.

I once had a conversation with my mother about how people go through social rituals that are often phony: telling someone their baby (which they really think is ugly) is "perfect", insisting on paying for a meal even though they know damned well that the other person is going to cover them anyway, offering a Christmas guest leftovers to take home even though the host knows the guest probably doesn't want them... I told my mother that I think these rituals are really to stay in the good grace of others who might be able to reciprocate someday when the stakes are higher. My mother, missing the point that I was trying to offer an evolutionary explanation for these rituals, said, "No, it just makes them feel good." Okay, fair enough. But what does "feeling good" mean? There is a reward system in the brain that perpetuates behaviors that benefit oneself. If I remember correctly, oxytocin in the brain is the reward. So while the person might "feel good" from helping someone else, ultimately the individual (or their genes, if you want to get technical) are benefiting.

We are all out for ourselves in the end, and no amount of sympathy and empathy-- no matter how genuine-- changes that fact.