Writing Without a Mask

Clearly, there’s something I’m not doing right.

It is my third full day at the writers’ refuge and I am researching my article’s topic, the muscles in my neck and shoulders simultaneously taut and compacted such that I find my range of motion constrained.

IMAG1268.jpgI am in a veritable paradise, with astounding natural beauty, a sublime and comfortable writing environment, surrounded by books and supplies and various corners and nooks into which I can settle and work my craft, smart and friendly people around who are both few in number and fully understanding of my need for solitude, but also interesting and enlightening when I do get into conversation with them, and two weeks to pursue this project in any way I please. Oh, and I am right now looking at a different tectonic plate than the one on which I stand. Seriously, it’s right there. Also, deer aren’t afraid of us, and they hang out and eat apples. Oh oh oh and there’s a hawk that flies around my part of the house, sometimes so close I can look into its eye.

And I’m lost. Whereas I had begun this retreat with a lot of enthusiasm for this project and eagerness to get it going, I’m now overwhelmed by the breadth of the topic, unsure of the degree of depth that is most appropriate, ignorant of the best practices for this kind of work, anxious about the unwise use of my time, and generally feeling beneath the task. I even think I broke the electric kettle in the kitchen.

I am being treated to more privilege than billions of people will ever experience, and here I am, angsty. I hope I at least get credit for recognizing the absurdity of my own hangups.

I know there is no right way to go about this. That’s really the point of this retreat, to give writers the space and time to take things at a pace and within a structure that suits the writers themselves. I’m so accustomed to stop-and-start times, specific formats and styles for particular written products, and an established approval process, that this freedom, this liberation, is bewildering.

But now that I think about it, I suspect that what’s really going on is very similar to the distinction I make between performing as an actor on stage in a play and giving a presentation on a real-world topic for my job. There is too much of me riding on it.

Let’s begin with the theatre/work-presentation distinction. Upon learning of my autism/Asperger’s diagnosis, many people who know me from my theatre life are in disbelief. How can I feel anti-social, afraid of human interaction, uncomfortable in crowds, and oversensitive to stimulation and also thrive on stage? It’s a perfectly reasonable question (though I bristle at the skepticism of my diagnosis that it implies), and one that took some time to for me to understand myself.

When I’m performing a role in a play, there is no question as to what I will talk about. My words are predetermined, and not just for what I will say, but when I will say it. The play will also have been blocked, meaning that where I am in space will also have been set and rehearsed well in advance. Through the rehearsal process, it will be determined how I will say all these words, how I will conduct myself physically, and even how I will imagine my character to have reached those various decisions. There is always room for change, iteration, adjustment, and depending on the production, sometimes even improvisation, but the structure is always there, and it is firm. Most importantly, I am not me. I am someone else. Not literally, of course, but there are sufficient layers between me and the audience (and even between me and my fellow actors on stage) that the excruciating discomforts associated with my autism are, if not wholly eliminated, sufficiently dampened. The role is a mask.

But take me out of the world of the performing arts, and into the world of speaking on behalf of an organization or a cause, and those layers are stripped away. If I am, for example, expected to give a talk about communications work, I know I will be utterly exposed. Not only can I not play a character (try as I might), but the “real me” must also lay bare whatever degree of expertise I have, or claim to have. “I’m Paul, and this is what I know.” My words, my physical comportment, my inflection, my gestures, and even the very contents of my brain are open to public scrutiny. There is no mask. That is unbearable.

So let’s apply this basic idea to writing, and, in a way, the dynamics flip, with two different areas of my life producing opposite results. As I mentioned, my writing for work is routinized with established formats and processes. As with a public presentation, I am the one producing the words, but I am rarely writing them in my own voice. In a very real sense, when I write press releases, emails to supporters, and newsletters, I am writing “in the character” of the institution I work for. I’m playing the role of my organization. My job title and the institution’s logo, they are my masks. Those layers are sufficient, once I am settled into the given employers’ needs, processes, and, importantly, voice.

Here at the refuge, I am attempting to write a long form magazine article on a topic of great interest to me. But I am not writing or “reporting” it in the voice of my institution, nor in the voice of the publication in which it will appear, as one might do with a straight-news newspaper article. With this project, the speaker is me. The facts I present, the sources I’ve chosen to mine, the people whose perspectives I’ve sought, the conversations and quotations I’ve initiated, the things I’ve chosen to omit or gloss over, and the conclusions reached, they’re all me, in my own voice. Whatever is wrong or unsatisfying or weak about the final product is a reflection of me, with no mask to hide behind. That, I tell you, is dizzying.

Now, one might then wonder, hey Paul, you seem to have no trouble opening every one of your precious little wounds and examining them in detail on this little blog of yours. Too true! And I’m not certain why this kind of writing that I’m doing right now doesn’t make me feel just as vulnerable. But I suspect it’s because I’m rather sure of the topic at hand, that being myself. Even if I’m completely deluded about what is going on within my own tempestuous morass of a psyche, there’s no one else in existence who can claim a greater level of expertise or comparably intimate knowledge. There is relative safety in that. Whatever the reason, exposing my inner thoughts and struggles is far less perilous than claiming the authority to expound upon an external subject.

So perhaps a healthy approach, and even a more fruitful approach, is to lean into my own inclinations and preferences, and tackle the subject of this project through my own lens. In other words, rather than present facts and an argument impersonally, maybe I can chronicle my own experience of the subject as I absorb it, and recount for the reader my intellectual journey to better understand it. The cliché is that one ought to “write what you know,” but I really don’t know much. So maybe the best thing to do is to write what I am coming to know – of the project’s subject and of what it comes to mean to me personally.

Okay, maybe I can do that. Take it easy now, oh knotty neck muscles of mine. Let’s get a few deep breaths in. Let’s take in the vast scene of nature around us and indulge in its otherworldly peacefulness. Let’s let the brain soak up what it’s learning and let the new information bounce off the thoughts and values that are already there.

And then, let’s write.

(And pay for the kettle I broke.)

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A Sore Thumb, a New Face

I’m on a plane to California, about to spend two weeks at a refuge for writers, a retreat for which I was nominated by a colleague who had himself been a resident as part of a fellowship for writers in the freethought community.

Being selected for this wasn’t just a surprise. Certainly, I went through all the thoughts of “what an honor” and “what a wonderful opportunity,” and they are very sincerely felt. But my dominant attitude is, “Oh, dear, they’ve made a mistake.”

Wait, this isn’t the usual imposter-syndrome lament. Let me go at this sort of orthogonally. As I was preparing for this excursion, I figured I ought to get at least a couple of new shirts or pairs of pants, since so many of the nicer items in my already spare wardrobe are looking worse for wear. As poked around the men’s section, haplessly, I found myself fixed to an idea of what a “real writer” is supposed to look and dress like. It wasn’t a fully conscious thought, just something I became gradually aware that I was aiming for as I shopped. Despite the anxiety this caused me, whatever that writerly image is or was, I’m fairly certain I did not achieve it. I’ll come back to this is a bit.

This retreat will take place in what appears to be a big, gorgeous house in a ridiculously picturesque area of Southern California, overlooking a fault line I think, and yes, the weather is supposed to be heavenly while I’m there. Apart from a couple of formal meet-and-greet meals held by the proprietors, writers are otherwise left to themselves to work on whatever it is they’re working on. When not writing or sleeping, we’re encouraged to take advantage of the local restaurants, outdoor activities, and I think there’s even a tennis court.

I’ll be in residence with two other writers, selected, I assume, through different means, since my spot is specific to those writing about freethought and secularism. These two writers, my soon-to-be housemates, are very accomplished, particularly for their ages, as I suspect they are both a good decade younger than me, though that’s just a guess. One is an award-winning novelist, the other a journalist with bylines at prestigious outlets and publications. Me? I’ve written a whole lot of press releases and email newsletters. I have a personal blog that more or less no one reads. I have a blog for work where I round up news stories and make dumb jokes. That’s…kind of it. And I’m gonna be 40 soon! I mean, I also now host a podcast that is listened to by a few thousand people, but I was selected for this retreat well before that got started. So what am I doing here, on this plane, heading for this gorgeous place and joining these amazing people?

I’m not seeking validation. I mean, I usually am, but not here, not for this. I actually do think I’m a pretty good writer, so my discomfort and foreboding aren’t due doubts about my skills. I suck at many, many things — but I’m fairly sure I can write. 

But I also know I don’t have the resume, the credentials. For the vast majority of my public writing, there are several layers separating me from the material. I am writing in the voice of an institution, not my own. I am rarely writing in the first person, or from my own personal perspective at all, but from the point of view of an organization or one of its leaders. Even were I to grant that my work was uncommonly exemplary, it wouldn’t even begin to approach the prestige or cultural significance of what my fellow residents have achieved with their work. My predecessor for this fellowship who nominated me to succeed him is also incredibly accomplished. Holding a similar position to mine in his own organization, he has been a well known and highly respected leader, not just in secularism, but in political advocacy in general. He’s written books, academic articles, and has had a leading role in the advancement of the cause for which he fights. He’s not only qualified to be at a writers’ retreat like this, he’s overqualified and overdue for even greater honors.

Oh but hey, I’m kinda funny on Twitter!

Okay, well, they knew all of this when I was nominated and selected. And they didn’t hedge their invitation with anything like, “Well, you don’t quite have the pedigree we normally look for in our residents, but your friend seemed to think you might be worth a shot.” They were as warm and welcoming and excited about my arrival as they would be for anyone else. (Or at least they made it seem so, which is almost the same thing. As a parent, I know all too well the emotional and psychological cost of feigning enthusiasm.)

Remember the clothes shopping? Half-consciously, I was focused on looking the part of what I think they think a real writer is supposed to be. I didn’t want them to think of me as a weird outlier, an exception to their usual standards. Just as I have always done as an unknowing-autistic for all of my life, I was aiming to pass.

In attending this retreat, I am entering a world that is both aspirational and alien to me. I have always wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, a thinker, a creator. I’ve been on the cold street, looking in through the window at that society of the humanities, the creative class, the intellectuals, feeling simultaneously compelled to become one of them and certain that I could never, ever truly belong. So I never stood close enough to that window to fog up the glass. Someone might have noticed me.

In my mind, this is a world of people with deep, varied, and rich life experiences, who have achieved greatness in their fields, who have been intellectually and creatively ahead of the curve since toddlerhood. And now, they write thinkpieces and longform articles and nonfiction books and novels and poetry, and are rewarded with respect, admiration, income (I assume), a place in a network of brilliant and thoughtful people seeking to learn from and collaborate with each other, invitations to speaking engagements, conference panels, NPR interviews, generous fellowships, and, of course, retreats.

The stereotype in my head gets richer still! They love nature and trekking about in it. They also love the city and its unrelenting stimuli. They love fancy and eclectic restaurants. They also love — really love — dinner parties, where they drink and laugh and eat exotic food and swap stories of their adventures and the many, many books they’ve read.

I’m not one of these people (whom I’ve mostly made up). I don’t like dinner parties or almost any kind of party. I don’t like exotic or unfamiliar food. Hell, I don’t even really like eating at all. I wear silly T-shirts and ratty jeans, I read very slowly, and I am averse to being outdoors, what with the sun and bodies of water and insects and all that. My education has been modest and not culturally rich, and both my acting and nonprofit communications careers have been fairly static, owing in large part to my own reticence to do what is necessary to advance socially and professionally. I’m an awkward little man with Asperger’s and a lifetime of experience considering myself broken, failed from birth, only achieving what I have by dint of happenstance and people making exceptions for me. I am the sore thumb. Humiliation is my default expectation.

But here I am on this damn plane. Here I go, nonetheless, onto alien soil. My best hope would be to go there, to *be* there, as me, unapologetically, and perfectly content with myself as I am, without crossing the line into being ungenerous or unaccomodating. If I am truly not “like them,” then so be it. They asked me to come, and this is who they get. It’s not like I’m going to do any damage or hurt anyone’s feelings. I just might not be the usual thing, or what they expect.

I want it to be okay to jut out a bit, not like a sore thumb, but simply to stand out as a new face. The face of someone who thinks and acts a little differently and has something meaningful to offer. Someone who, if he’s not liked or appreciated, is okay with that too.

I suppose I’ll find out if this is possible, at least to some meaningful degree. I’ll enter that world in a few hours. I guess we’ll see what things look like at the other side of a fortnight.


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Autistic Alienation: Not as Simple as Intense Introversion

One thing about Asperger’s/autism that I think is hard for neurotypicals to understand, and is also hard for me to come to terms with, is that as an autistic person, my attitude toward socialization isn’t merely binary. The introversion instinct is incredibly strong, and it’s true that I can’t heal, rest, or reengergize without relative solitude. But that doesn’t mean I therefore never want human contact.

It gets even more complicated than that, though. If it were as simple as “I like to socialize a lot less than most people, but I do want to socialize a little,” that’d be relatively easy to manage. You just keep social interaction to a manageable level, whatever it happens to be For the individual. But here’s the thing: even human interaction that an aspie might affirmatively seek out is still fraught with discomfort, self-doubt, anxiety, and pain. It’s still exhausting, and sometimes dispiriting, unless it's particularly fulfilling in some way.

So when an introverted aspie is avoiding other members of his or her species, they may also be experiencing, at an atavistic, lizard-brain level, a longing for human contact, to feel assured that one still “belongs” in the tribe. And even when that validation is achieved in the most positive and affirming of scenarios, it’s still incredibly difficult.

This is the picture: Imagine a human being whose brain has developed differently than almost everyone they know. They may be incredibly intelligent or talented in some way or other (or maybe not!), and have a great deal of thoughts and feelings they desperately want to express and share. But the agony of submitting oneself to the evaluation of normal people, even in the most banal and benign circumstances, is often too much to bear, or at least too uncomfortable to make it worth the effort. When they do take the leap and try to mix in normal society, the energy drain is rapid, the stress is damaging, and the tiniest faux pas (real and imagined) is burned into their memories as scarring humiliation. So this human being, full of life and solitary, feels lonely, while determined to remain alone. Until the loneliness becomes too much, such that a new attempt is made.

I miss having a set of friends that I was comfortable with, that I could develop routines with, and rely on for that base-level validation that I was in the right species, that I had a tribe from which I was in no danger of being ejected. I have had that. A lifetime ago.

I don’t have that now, and most of my experiences after my life in professional theatre has been characterized by anxiety over being banished from whatever tribe to which I submitted myself, or else having no tribe at all, and cautiously yearning for one. (And not knowing that I was autistic in the first place.)

It’s not just that we want to be alone. But it’s the only way we know we can safely be.

Excruciating Information

A fellow autistic blogger whose work I deeply admire pointed me to this short little PSA video from the UK that she said was revelatory in how it reflected her own experience. And so it is for me.

Particularly when it comes to the Asperger’s part of the autism “spectrum,” I think people – including actual Aspies – tend to cling to the idea of social awkwardness and alienation as the defining traits. But using this stereotype as definitive ignores what I think is one of the prime causes of that awkwardness and alienation, and that’s the difficulty we have in processing stimuli with the same capacity and at the same rate neurotypicals, and that difficulty manifests not just temporally – it’s not that we just have to sit there and ponder for a few moments and then move on – but physiologically. It’s painful.

The example you’re most likely familiar with is that of the noisy, crowded room, say at a bar or a party, an environment that can be incredibly uncomfortable for many of us. I usually see it described in terms of the noise level and the variety of voices coming from all directions emitting sound. But that’s just one factor. There’s the visual, of course, as one is surrounded by faces and bodies and objects and movement and nonverbal expressions and cues. And there’s also the tactile, the feeling of one’s clothes, the floor beneath you, the furniture you may or may not have your weight on, the food you likely have strong aversions to, and quite especially the temperature. And that sound? It’s not just the decibels, but the information contained in the voices, what they’re actually saying in the chit chat, in the music blasting, and on and on.

That’s a lot of information to process all at once, creating palpable discomfort, anxiety, and misery in a context that demands a certain kind of relaxed behavior.

There are so many other ways this comes up in my life. I can’t for the life of me orient myself in space, for example, so whether we’re talking about driving directions to places I’ve been many times before, or just navigating the interior of a building with more than four rooms or so, I’m constantly bewildered. I can’t process that information at a rate that makes the directions useful, nor can I process the information without extreme discomfort and crippling anxiety, which only makes the processing harder.

If I get an email at work that is more than a few sentences, I know I will have to relax my brain and read it carefully a few times because too often I have replied or executed instructions based on a misreading of the text or with significant pieces of data missing from my comprehension. That screen full of words begins, in my eyes, as white noise, a garble of glyphs in pixels, especially if it’s part of a threaded conversation. And again, that doesn’t just spark confusion and compel me to take my time, it hurts, it’s dizzying. (So yes, when I read books, I’m pretty damn slow about it.)

So I understand this young girl in the video. That was me at that age. These otherwise innocuous, benign interactions that a person has throughout their day, these humdrum travels from point A to point B that nonetheless feel perilous, these unanswerable questions launched at you and meant as small talk, the torrent of trivialities that threaten to drown you even when you don’t know why you’re expected to care, the inadvertent offense or problem you cause as a result of your efforts to shield yourself. It’s too much. Even today, though I fake it much better than I did then, it’s too much.

The world obviously isn’t set up for autistic people to succeed. It’s a miracle so many of us have. And the thing is, I don’t think it would take so much for the rest of neurotypical society to give us a little space. If only it weren’t so excruciating for us to ask for it.

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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Unavoidable Ambience

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Ed Yourdon via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

I admit it. When I walk through an airport (which I’ve done quite a lot of in the past couple of weeks), and see almost every pair of eyes staring at a phone or tablet screen, I get the feeling that something is wrong. It bothers me.

This is of course absurd if you know anything about me.

I adore smartphones and tablets and computers. I also hate being around groups of people, particularly strangers. In large part due to my Asperger’s syndrome, I’m deeply averse to casual human interaction, small talk, and establishing connections with people in meatspace. The smartphone and its ancillary technologies are a gift to someone like me; yes, as a way to escape and feed my mind and sate my need for dopamine squirts, but also as a means for me to communicate and build relationships on my terms, in my own time, and at a safe distance. I am serious when I say that I am so very grateful for these devices.

And yet. As my eyes survey a public space stuffed with humans, just about literally all transfixed on their phones, I can’t help but feel like something has gone wrong. I mean, they’re not all autistics and introverts, right?

If anything, I should be relieved. The more people who are engaged with their devices, the fewer there are to creep into my space and demand my attention and energy. As it is, I blend right in, which has been perhaps the chief aim of my existence in physical space since I was 10 years old.

Am I being weirdly territorial? Do I resent the normals of the world encroaching on my virtual space and leaning on my crutch? I mean after all, I’m in that space to get away from everyone, not meet up with them through a different venue.

Nah. These people may be online, but they’re still nowhere near me.

And anyway, I’ve argued before that there’s no reason to be judgmental about someone using a phone. Yes, it appears to the observer that all phone-gawkers are the same, passively consuming some digital confection of little to no value. But for all anyone knows, this person might be reading a scientific paper, that one might be engrossed in a rich novel, and that one might be reviewing important job-related correspondences. There’s no way to know.

But, you know, probably not. We still have no room to judge, though. I know that sometimes the best thing a person can do to heal psychological exhaustion is to vegetate for a bit, and rest one’s higher processes.

I suppose some of this has a lot to do with my own conditioning. I grew up to expect people to be interacting with each other when they’re in proximity. Lord knows I was never good at this, or ever liked it — indeed, it’s usually painful. But I knew that I was different for feeling this way, wrong, and well before I was ever diagnosed as autistic or sought therapy for my difficulties. I was the odd duck, while everyone else was doing it right. I learned, correctly or incorrectly, that this socially connective norm was right. To step back out into the world now, and in such a short space of time see things change so drastically, is jarring. I think, what happened to all of you?

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Ed Yourdon via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

For a few weeks now I’ve been chewing over in my mind the recent New York Magazine essay by Andrew Sullivan, where he cops to becoming consumed by the digital space, recounts his efforts to center himself and his priorities, and worries aloud about what the new smartphone era is doing to society as a whole.

I deeply respect Sullivan — he is a major influence on my work, even when I disagree with him. And here, I do feel like his own, very real feelings of loss and panic have caused him to project too much on the rest of the world.

Nonetheless, let’s consider some of his observations.

As I had discovered in my blogging years, the family that is eating together while simultaneously on their phones is not actually together. They are, in [Sherry] Turkle’s formulation, “alone together.” You are where your attention is. If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend, you’re not fully with your child — and he knows it. Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.

That feels worrying, to be sure. There’s something rather disquieting about the idea that we’re slowly atrophying our fundamental humanity. I don’t know that we actually are, but he’s at least succeeded in scaring me a little.

But look at one of the examples he uses here. “If you’re watching a football game with your son while also texting a friend…” In a hypothetical scenario in which a person is lost in digital distraction, he chooses another form of distraction as the venue: watching a football game. He doesn’t say whether he means watching one on television or in person, but it almost doesn’t matter. He’s talking about two people in the same place being distracted by the passive viewing of the same meaningless thing. A game! I absolutely grant that the parent and child here are missing out on the chance to connect over a shared experience as a result of the parent’s texting, but it remains that the original activity was one of passive consumption in the first place. (To be clear, I think the parent in this scenario should definitely put the phone away and be with their kid — I’m just pointing out the weirdness and the irony of the scenario Sullivan has chosen.)

Now put aside for a moment the parent-child aspect of this. Sullivan presumes that the connections being established over a digital medium while watching a football game are less valuable or less meaningful because they don’t occur in meatspace. I’m not refuting that per se, but I’m also not prepared to grant it axiomatically. I have what I consider to be very meaningful relationships and connections with people I have never met in person, and exist to me primarily as Twitter avatars or what have you, and I truly appreciate them during shared experiences like presidential debates. But again, I’m also autistic. And I also know that my in-person connections to people like my wife and children are more valuable and meaningful to me than all the smartphones in South Korea.

So like Sullivan I strongly suspect, if not from my own inner life then from my observation of other humans, that people need these social skills that have been “honed through the aeons.” But there are countless tiny signals and nuances in the digital realm as well, so there is the possibility that we are just honing new skills that will adapt us to a changing world.

It’s kind of the story of human civilization anyway, isn’t it? A wandering species of animal that somehow stumbles along building megacities and spacecraft and internets as its neocortices and amygdalae do-si-do throughout the millennia, hoping we don’t murder too many of each other and open too big of a hole in the food chain for some other species to become the boss. (I’m looking at you, octopuses.)

*

Sullivan also says that spirituality itself is being replaced by the unavoidable ambience of consumable content, because spirituality requires silence.

The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.

That’s a bit of a reach. The claims about the nature of reality made by faith traditions have indeed been disproven bit by bit over the ages, and we do now live at a time when they have been so utterly demolished by science — and even lived experience — that the outright rejection of faith in general becomes an increasingly tenable and normal condition. Has the noise of media contributed to this? Almost certainly, but I think it’s as much the content of that noise as it is the quantity.

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clasesdeperiodismo via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

However, I think there can be little doubt that our current state of affairs is one in which there is precious little space for silence. And too many of us aren’t wise enough to seek it out of our own volition. Sullivan got wise, but only after driving himself to the brink. I am also very new to the notion that silence, space, and meditation (in the broadest sense) are not just sometimes pleasant or preferable, but necessary, physiologically and psychically. Silence is medicine I must remember to take.

And I must remember it on my own. Apart from the encouragement of my wife and therapist, there is no mechanism built into the digital age’s social infrastructure that either imposes or easily facilitates this (unless the power grid goes down). Our world is built on an increasingly complex lattice, made up of strands of distraction. For now, the choice is entirely our own to close our eyes and refuse to follow each strand as it passes our awareness. And it’s a choice that becomes more and more difficult to make all the time.

Those hundreds of people I see in one glance around the airport, each to a person gazing into an imperceptibly dense mosaic of pixels; if they’re not interacting with each other as I have grown to expect them to, I wonder if they ever find silence. I wonder if they ever seek it.

As an Aspie, I am highly sensitive to noise, crowds, and torrents of stimuli. So maybe that’s what concerns me when I see them, that I unconsciously perceive that even if I can’t literally hear it, there exists among this sea of glowing rectangles an ever-increasing amount of noise, forming into a tidal wave of clamor that will eventually sweep me out to sea.

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Japanexperterna.se via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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You Don’t Seem Autistic to Me: Asperger’s and the Fear of Not Being Believed

[Updated below]

Do you remember when you were a kid, and being sick meant the tantalizing possibility of staying home from school for a day? I was usually pretty pleased to be just sick enough to avoid the misery of middle and high school, as long as the illness in question wasn’t something agonizing. (I did have some brutal ear infections back then that I did not enjoy.)

I remember that I would become pretty defensive about just how sick I really was. “Are you sure you’re not well enough to get through the day?” my parents would ask. I, taken aback by my parents’ skepticism, would respond with incredulity. “Yeeeesssss! I’m suuuuuure!” That defensiveness was due to the fact that I knew I wanted to be sick, and I knew that it was possible that I could maybe make it through the day, that I was perhaps playing it up a bit. It didn’t occur to me then, but does now, that this over-dramatization of illness on my part was probably already being taken into account by my parents and their decision to allow me to stay home. Melodrama was built into the stock, as it were.

Today something very similar is cropping up for me in a whole new way with my recent diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. (Here’s my first post on this new revelation, and some follow-up.) I am finding myself feeling very defensive about the fact of my condition. I am often under the suspicion that certain people in my life doubt the reality of my Asperger’s, that they think I’ve either gotten a bad diagnosis, or that I’ve somehow manipulated the process to get it.

In reality, only one person has actually said anything like this, and it was said with the best and most generous of intentions, saying that I am just too “charming” and personable to be someone with Asperger’s, comparing the behavior they see from me with others they know with the same condition, and who seem very, very different.

And I get that. Many people with Asperger’s, and many of the fictionalized portrayals of Asperger’s in entertainment, have glaringly severe social impairments that are obvious and off-putting to neurotypical people. There are aspies who really look like they “have something.” Whereas I don’t seem that way to most people. I would venture to say that no one, save my wife and therapist, would have ever entertained the notion that I might be at all autistic. I pass extremely well in most cases.

And why wouldn’t I? I have spent the better part of four decades trying to not seem like an alien, but suffering under the constant stress of my what I perceived to be scrutiny and revulsion from others. I had every incentive to appear as normal, as charming, as personable, and as funny as possible when in the company of people. And when attention on me wasn’t a requirement, my incentive was to blend, to disappear, to go as unnoticed as possible. As far as my brain was concerned, this was a struggle for survival. I, at a biological level, believed I needed to pass and to blend in order to live.

And I had no idea why it was so, so incredibly hard. I had to assume it was my own stupidity, laziness, obliviousness, or defectiveness.

So of course I don’t seem like an aspie to most people most of the time. As a contrast, there’s a person I know who I strongly suspect is also an aspie, but hasn’t felt the same need to adapt or ingratiate themselves to others, and has instead fully embraced their quirks, to hell with everyone else if they don’t like it. I never had the luxury to go in that direction, and it never occurred to me to be an option. I felt I had absolutely no choice but to pass.

And like the kid who is secretly glad to be sick in order to be able to stay home and watch TV all day, I wanted this diagnosis. I hoped the neuropsychologist would come back with a clear statement that I, indeed, had Asperger’s. It promised to explain so much of the pain and alienation and utter confusion I’ve experienced all my life, and it would mean that it wasn’t all due to my own failures to “live up” to the rest of the world’s norms and expectations. So I worried that in my testing, I might unconsciously try to “game the system,” and make myself seem more “aspie” (as though I would really know how to do that). Just as I was worried about others’ suspicions of me, I was suspicious of myself.

This worry, though, turned out to be a pointless one. The testing, which took about 10 hours total, was so, well, alien to me, so removed from anything that I thought could relate to Asperger’s or much of anything else, I couldn’t have gamed it if I’d wanted to. And like the mom who already presumes their sick kid is probably overstating things just a little, these tests and evaluations have unconscious leanings already taken into account, as their abstractness and inscrutability are a definite check against the gilding of psychological lilies.

In the interviews and written portions of the evaluation, I did check myself for embellishment, but it turned out I felt no impulse to embellish. Honest, straightforward answers according to my own genuine thoughts and feelings were enough. They spilled out. I told my story as honestly as one could, because that story was full and rich and silly and sad all by itself. It didn’t need any dramatization or exaggeration. It was whole on its own.

And the doctor’s diagnosis was indeed definitive. There was no hedging, no “jump ball,” as Ray Romano’s character on Parenthood put it when he looked into the possibility of being an aspie himself. It was for sure. The doctor described it as “severe,” meaning firmly on the spectrum, and she explained how my results on the barrage of seemingly unrelated tests all confirmed this, one after the other.

She also described how people with Asperger’s commonly find themselves drawn to the arts and to acting in particular. Aspies usually have sharp minds and good observational skills, and use those to their advantage in learning particular crafts and in the imitation of others’ mannerisms and behavior. I’m a pretty good stage actor, and it turns out I’m also a pretty good neurotypical imitator. As I said, I’ve had almost 40 years of practice.

So it’s no surprise that I don’t “seem” autistic to most people. The doctor actually tried to impress upon me what a remarkable achievement it is that I’ve gotten this far, with a master’s degree and a meaningful job and a wonderful wife and amazing kids, all while trudging through this morass, and navigating through the confounding labyrinth of my differently-wired brain.

But rather than take pride, I tend to feel defensive. I still stress over scrutiny. I still worry about the doubts of others. Just as I’ve felt like a fraudulent human, always about to unmasked and humiliated (which, remember, I internalize as a genuine threat to my survival), here I am again afraid that others will think my autism is overstated or a mere performance.

Just last night I had a conversation about my autism with someone who has their own personal experience with people close to them who also have Asperger’s, and I felt like I was drowning. I rambled and sputtered, I spoke too loud and too fast, and I kept lurching back and forth between filling up conversational space and worrying that I had gone on too long. I was a hot mess, and now I realize it was because I was afraid I wasn’t being believed. This person had not said or done anything to make me think that, but I just thought that. In discussing something so new and personal and raw, I scrambled and flailed to protect myself.

I don’t want to feel that way anymore. Part of this new chapter of my life is the beginnings of acceptance and belief in myself, regardless of what others think, or even more important, what I perceive or suspect they think. That would be true even if I didn’t have Asperger’s.

This is real. This is who I am, and who I have always been. And though it is as old as I am, for now it is also new. In some ways, I am new. The coming months and years will find me experimenting with and easing into new ways of being and behaving that better suit me, and stepping back from many of the affectations and masks I’ve layered upon myself over the years. Many of those layers will stay, because they, too, are me.

I guess, when it comes down to it, I get to decide. I will try not to make that process harder on myself by worrying about the imagined doubts of others, which only fixes those layers more firmly in place.

Update August 27: Since writing this, one thing should be clarified. Some of the doubt I imagine to exist, but likely doesn’t, is about me, but another more problematic version of skepticism is doubt about the neuropsychologist who diagnosed me. And I just don’t know what to say to that. She’s an expert in her field, with decades of experience, and a particular specialization in adults on the spectrum, and she tested me for hours and hours over a period of months. And that’s in addition to the diagnosis of my regular therapist. But they don’t know what they’re talking about? 

Honestly, if you think my doctor is wrong, I don’t know what to say to you. I’m not sure why you’d know better than them, or know enough to think they somehow screwed up completely. But it’s very frustrating.

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