The Long Climb Up to Zero

I’m on my way back from CSICon, the skeptics’ conference put on by my organization, which took place in Las Vegas this year. One of the presentations was by Anthony Pratkanis, who introduced us to the phenomenon of “altercasting,” wherein a person can elicit desired behavior from others by adopting, and implicitly assigning, particular social roles. So for example, if he effectively assumes the social role of a teacher, we become students, and will find ourselves carrying out the behaviors that are expected of that role (dutifully taking notes if he suggests it, for example). And the power of this altercasting is such that once we have put ourselves into these social roles, we live up to them. We almost can’t help it. It’s a tool of con artists, as well as a skill that can be used for good.

On my way in to Vegas, I got a message from my wife asking if I knew what day it was. Uh oh, was my first thought. But then she reminded me: the sixth anniversary of the night I was ambushed late at night by two thugs on the street in DC, beaten to a bloody pulp, and sent into a years-long spiral of PTSD and myriad other associated problems. The anniversary date used to have a lot of power over me, almost as though the recurrence of the date would somehow “make it happen again,” which is of course nonsense. In the past couple of years, though, I’ve more or less let the day pass without realizing it, which is a small victory.

The years of therapy that followed this event, which I’m still working through, subsequently unearthed the vast array of phobias, self-loathing, weird hangups, anxieties, traumas, and other psychological baggage I’d been lugging around more or less since childhood. The PTSD diagnosis, it turned out, spanned far more than just one attack. I had been trained to experience existential terror, fight-or-flight amygdala activation, through years of bullying and abuse in my youth. In other words, I was early on placed in the social role of a subhuman target for derision. And with constant reenforcement, I lived up to it. I memorized it.

All this time, readers will know, I had been living with Asperger’s syndrome, and had no idea. I only found this out very recently, at age 38. This means I had been born predisposed to feel like an alien, unable to comprehend the behavior of the beings around me, stunted in my attempts to reach out or communicate, and often punished for it. The Asperger’s also contributed to a litany of other ways in which I experienced the world differently from neurotypical folks, so a great deal of my fears and limitations (social, intellectual, physical) were textbook aspects of the autism.

I felt like an alien for a reason, because I really was different. The misfortune of growing up in a bullying environment led me down the path of believing myself to be a bad alien, a bum unit out of the factory, a lemon, sent into this breathing world scarce half made up. To use Pratkanis’s concept, I likely altercast my social role as an unworthy to others as much or more than it was altercast upon me by others.

When one is of this mind, I’ve learned, one sort of expects to be called out, to periodically pay some kind of penance for one’s difference, for pretending to be a normal member of the species. Not so fast! We see you. In adulthood, you can go for longer stretches of time without being overtly chastised for trying to pass as human, but the dread of being revealed is ever-present. For me, it was a constant exercise of over-analysis of my behavior, my physical comportment, my speech, the direction of my gaze, my gestures, as well as kind of running apology for my quirks, oddities, and deficiencies. It’s as if to display a running advertisement to the rest of the world that says, “I know I’m not like you, I get it, and I’m sorry.”

The attack six years ago felt like one of those moments of being caught, unmasked. Ostensibly those assailants were beating me up to get my wallet and phone, but to me, they were punishing me for existing. Not so fast. We see you. In the moment of the beatings, it felt like I was finally going to be killed for it, and that didn’t seem too strange to me. I had it coming.

I now am meant to unlearn all of this. I am supposed to be working to memorize a different story about myself, to assign myself different, affirming social roles.

The Asperger’s diagnosis should be making this task easier. Before the diagnosis, this was an exercise in convincing myself I was fine the way I was, and that there was nothing about me that inherently made me unworthy of membership in homo sapiens, which is quite an uphill climb, psychologically, intellectually, and emotionally. My mind had been trained to believe the opposite, and now I had to learn that I was as worthy of respect and agency as anyone else – not in spite of my various quirks, hangups, and differences, but regardless of them. Knowing now that I had been working with an autistic brain all this time should have eased this path, because it explained the majority of my differences and my feelings of alienation, giving them a name and a cause. Rather than working to accept a bubbling, undulating mass of traits, something that seemed scattered and very abstract, I now had a concrete, definitive First Cause. Whereas I had once felt that I had a torrent of faults of my own making with which I had to come to terms, now I knew I had a condition. I was born with an atypical brain, and there was and is nothing to be done about that, so I might as well just be okay with it.

But three months or so into my life as a diagnosed Aspie (which is a short time, I know), this hasn’t happened. What I hoped would be a huge relief and a license to finally accept myself as I am has proved to be much more complicated and fraught. At conferences, for example, like the one I’m leaving right now, I still default to the social role of the barely-tolerated freak, the alien who needs to at least imply apology for just being there. Awareness of my own Asperger’s hasn’t erased the limitations of that condition, so I still flail and sweat and panic my way through even the most banal interactions (especially those). Rather than accept the fact that I simply can’t perceive what others naturally perceive, I go into a kind of processing overdrive, likely coming off even weirder than I might otherwise, and certainly exhausting myself. The cascade of self-doubt, self-loathing, and shame for existing continues as it ever has. If anything, now I add to my longtime mountain of struggle the knowledge that I am being “a bad Aspie,” failing to accept and live out that reality.

So even after all this self-realization, after all this really hard work, there remains a social role I seem immune to, over which altercasting has no effect: Respected peer. It’s not as though I get no validation from friends and colleagues. Good-hearted people in my life expend great effort trying to imbue me with some sense of self-worth. But their words, their sentiments, their compassion, sincere as I assume it to be, just bounces off. It simply doesn’t penetrate. Words of encouragement and affirmation sound as absurd to me as being told I have three heads or telekinetic powers. I know it’s not so, no matter how passionately you try to convince me.

I know, I know. The point is not what others tell me, how they validate me. The goal is to start within myself, to memorize a new narrative of my own making. It’s just proving a lot harder than I thought. Understanding the core source of my alienation hasn’t erased the alienation, not yet anyway. And all I aspire to, really, is to stop at knowing I’m different. To take no further steps, either into self-loathing or even affirmation.

A mere feeling of neutrality about “the way I am” would be a goddamned paradise. But man, it’s still a long, long way up just to get to zero.

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