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.

Emulating Abed

Abed Nadir from the show Community is, apparently, supposed to have Asperger’s syndrome, though it’s never stated explicitly in the show (I’m only on season 2 so maybe there’s more coming). As a newly-minted Aspie, I can’t help but look to his portrayal as a means to better understand myself. Of course I know that this is a highly fictionalized portrayal of an Aspie, and that the show itself exists in a kind of magical reality in which Abed is not only different but almost superhuman in some ways.

But along with being an oddball with Asperger’s, he’s also beloved. Not just in spite of, but because of his quirks, he’s adored by fans and the characters in his world. I can’t help but envy that.

One of Abed’s marquee quirks is his obsession with movies, and his desire to reenact them. Though fully secure with himself (as he even tells his friends in the first season), he nonetheless sees life through the lens of well, lenses. Movie camera lenses. In his mind, he frequently hops in and out of the personas and scenes of films.

I wonder if this isn’t itself a clue to the Aspie mind. As I grew up, and became increasingly alienated from my peers and the culture at large, I looked to the screen to instruct me on how to be. Since no one ever enrolled me in a course in “how to be a person in the world,” I had to look to the television to fill me in. How did people actually talk to each other? What did they wear? What did they value? What did they feel hostile toward? What kinds of people did they avoid or hate? What did they do with their hair? How did they stand or sit? What was funny to them? What quirky traits could be accepted or loved by others, and which ones would they reject? TV, and popular culture, was all I had to go on. I studied it when I should have been studying my schoolwork.

I think I may have had this tendency to look for role models on TV and in popular culture even before the feelings of alienation set in. This is where the overlap with Abed comes in. Because maybe if I’d never felt so utterly rejected by the normals, I’d have continued to model the behavior of fictional characters, but benignly, as a pastime that could inform creative endeavors.

So let’s look back. Let’s pop into the mind of Paul at different stages in his life to see who he considered modeling himself after and why. Maybe we…well, maybe I can learn something from the exercise.

Charlie Brown

I was not unhappy in my single-digit years, but I knew I was different. I knew I was good-different in more ways than I was bad-different, a state of mind I can barely imagine now. I knew I was smart and funny, but I also thought about things like death and futility and longing and why we bother doing the things we do. I also thought of myself as something of a screw-up, even though I can’t remember why I thought that. I mean, what had I had a chance to screw up when I was 7? I think I lost at a lot of games. And, well, anything involving sports.

Anyway, Charlie’s angst rang very true to me. His despair was like an echo of something I didn’t know I’d already been hearing in my own mind. He couldn’t quite understand why the people around him did what they did, and neither did I. I think at that age I assumed I’d eventually understand other people, and that Charlie would too.

Alex P. Keaton

Around the age of 9 or so, I decided that I would contradict by parents’ politics and declare myself a Republican, all because Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties was. Alex’s values were orthogonal to those of his family, but he was also intellectually superior and had a cutting wit. I admired that deeply, and being as short as Michael J. Fox, I appreciated this example of a loved lead male character who stood out for his brains. And his quirks. So I could be a Republican and a hyperintellectual. Wrong on both counts.

Judge Harry Stone

Harry couldn’t stop performing. He didn’t really belong on the bench, as he explained in the first episode. Technically qualified, he was the bottom of the barrel for judges, and his behavior baffled all those around him. Card tricks, dumb jokes, and a glorification of the past all served to alienate Harry from the already-bizarre world of Night Court, and yet as the show went on, his quirks went from an annoyance to a source of nurturing, his goofiness was an indication that you were safe in this place. In a crazy world, the crazy — and good — man was king.

I was funny. Right? I was smart. Wasn’t I? I was misunderstood, but given time I thought people could come around and find my oddness reassuring. I could don the hat, make the jokes, and maybe even learn to love Mel Torme.

Data

An aspirational ideation. I knew I wasn’t and could never be as intellectually and physically superior as Data the android was, but like me, he found the behavior of those around him impossible to intuit. When he tried to ape their behavior, the results were comical, and would have embarrassed anyone who was capable of feeling embarrassment.

But he wasn’t! He just kept trying! He had no feelings!

In middle and high school, the time this show was in full swing, I would have loved to have had no feelings. I couldn’t emulate Data, but only wish to be him.

Comedians

I realized that my only chance to survive middle school and high school would be through humor when my rip-off of Dana Carvey’s George Bush impression garnered laughs even from bullies and popular kids. I obviously wasn’t an athlete, nor was I sufficiently proficient in academics to ever be considered one of the “smart kids.” I could be the funny one, though.

A great deal of my pop culture study was devoted to comedians, who won approval through the inducement of laughter. I could do all of Carvey’s impressions, which came in handy. In the meantime, I absorbed every ounce of wry standup that I could, from Dennis Miller to George Carlin to David Letterman. Yes, even Seinfeld. They stood outside the world and revealed its absurdities. I stood outside the world, so I could do the same, right?

But to emulate those comedians that I watched at all hours of the night, every night, I’d need to display a level of confidence that, while probably also faked by many of those comics, I could never, ever muster. Yes, I’d develop my comedic skills, but I’d never be able to live them.

Garp, etc.

After college I got into John Irving novels. I don’t relate to wrestling, the German language, or bears, but I do relate to men who seek to be writers and have trouble making sense of their relationships to other people. I tried to imagine myself in those roles, in the life of Garp, John Wheelwright, or, even more strongly, Fred Trumper (lord, does that name not work anymore). While I certainly didn’t want to experience the tragedies that seemed to rain down on some of his characters, I did aspire to the lives of the mind they had achieved, all the while aware that they didn’t quite belong in the worlds they inhabited, due to their own failings, passions, and, yes, quirks. They were outsiders, but managed to thrive on the inside nonetheless.

Sam Seaborn, Josh Lyman, Toby Ziegler

As my thoughts moved from theatre to politics in my middle to late 20s, I saw much to envy in the fictional working lives of the characters of The West Wing. In Sam, I emulated his intense earnestness and desire to communicate that earnestness through prose. In Josh, I emulated his ability to find novel solutions to bizarre situations, despite his bafflement and his obliviousness to the effects of his own behavior. In Toby, I emulated his concision, his brusqueness, and the intentional concentration of his wit, experience, and intelligence.

But in Toby I also shared his weariness, his impatience for niceties and for the extraneous. (His advice to Will to eschew pop culture references, because they gave a speech “a shelf life of twelve minutes,” truly struck a chord with me.) And what hit me in the gut the hardest were the words of his ex-wife with whom he longed to reunite. “You’re just too sad for me, Toby.” I was too sad, too.

Blackadder, House, Sherlock

Unapologetic jerks have always held a special attraction for me in the idolization game. Not because they were jerks, per se, but because they were almost entirely uninterested in how their behavior, which included the cold analysis of the normal people around them doing ridiculous normal-person things, impacted their standing with others. If something needed saying, they’d say it. Or even if it didn’t need saying, because, well, fuck it!

Blackadder almost doesn’t count here, because he was a conniver, and an amoral one. But his verbal evisceration of those in his way (despite his failures to overcome them) was liberating to me in its own way, even though I never attempted to mimic him.

House and Sherlock, however, have been hinted to be Aspies themselves, their incredible intellects a kind of superpower that has allowed them to thrive among the normals despite the pain they cause. With all three of these characters, I envied — I envy — their shamelessness, as in, their total lack of shame for who they are. It’s not even conscious. They obviously didn’t “decide” to disavow the approval of others, it just simply isn’t a factor in their view of themselves. Forget being a clever jerk. Heck, forget being clever at all. I’d just like to have that superpower of shamelessness.

Odo

This is less about someone I wish to be like, and more about a character I suddenly understand and feel for in a striking new way.

Though he takes a humanoid form as best he can, no one thinks Odo, the changeling, really looks like them. He doesn’t understand humanoid behavior, but he does try to map it out in order to follow others’ motivations and how they lead to actions. He is impatient with the things that humanoids seem to find fulfilling and important, which to him seem pointless and wasteful. He comes off as mean when he doesn’t intend to. He craves companionship, but knows he can’t have it. And when it all comes down to it, when he’s tired of pretending to be one of the “solids,” he must — absolutely must — return to his bucket. He must resume his true liquid form, stop pretending, find total solitude, and rest.

Odo wasn’t someone I related to when Deep Space Nine first aired. But he is now.

Kirk Gleason, Abed Nadir

This brings us to today. I’ve previously written about Kirk from Gilmore Girls, how I so admire not his weirdness, per se, but his ownership of his weirdness. Do the people of Stars Hollow find Kirk a bother? Do they think he’s terribly strange? Do they find many of his actions troubling, annoying, or even destructive? Hell yes. But he doesn’t care. And he seems to fit in all the more for not caring.

Abed cares, but about the right things. He isn’t normal, and he knows it. His abnormality doesn’t bother him, nor does it bother him that people don’t get him, just as he doesn’t get them. He isn’t bothered until something about him hurts his friends or pushes them away. Then he adjusts. But not from a place of shame, but as an acknowledgement that his quirks aren’t always compatible with all the people he cares about. His adjustments are out of love, not out of shame.

“I’ve got self-esteem falling out of my butt,” says Abed. “That’s why I was willing to change for you guys. When you really know who you are and what you like about yourself, changing for other people isn’t such a big deal.”

I’m not as smart as Abed. I’m also not as overtly weird as Abed. And Abed isn’t real. But dammit, Abed, I want to live like that. Maybe one day I can be more like Abed when I grow up.

This Situation is Awkward, and I Can’t Stand Being In It

I don’t know how to react to it, and I’m worried that I may not feel enough at the time to make the right sorts of expressions on my face. How am I supposed to look? Am I supposed to tear up? Eugh. The situation is awkward, and I can’t stand being in it.

This is the nearly daily experience of having Asperger’s syndrome, which I was diagnosed with this past August at the age of 38. Shortly after finding out, I read a book called Asperger’s on the Inside by Michelle Vines, a woman who around the same age discovered that the difficulties she had wrestled with her whole life were also attributable to Asperger’s. A friend of mine recommended her as a potential source for perspective after she was a guest on my organization’s podcast Point of Inquiry, and I must say, so many of Vines’ experiences and challenges mirror my own.

Not all, of course. On the whole, I’d say Vines is more interested in assertively establishing friendships and social groups than I am. In her efforts to do so, yes, there are some truly eye-opening similarities between us, but I, so often being burned by the social world, have opted out. She took a different approach, seeing her social struggles as a problem to solve, a puzzle. I wish I had more of an attitude like that.

Rather than go into a deep review of her book, which as you can imagine I mostly enjoyed (though I thought some of the attempts at humor were a little forced), I’d simply highlight some passages that were meaningful to me and reflect on them. This isn’t by any means exhaustive, but a selection of highlights that I felt I had something to say about.

On Aspie emotions:

Another example [of the challenges Aspies face] is the intense difficulties we Aspies can have with emotional regulation, which I’ve experienced firsthand. Emotional regulation is a technical term I’ve seen in online articles—sorry to feed you technobabble. In simple terms, it means that when we feel an extreme emotion, such as sadness, we can stay in that emotionally extreme state for a long time with little ability to make the feelings go away.

This is definitely true for me. Often this manifests just as you’d expect; as panic, intense anxiety, or overwhelming depression (or all of the above).

Sometimes it expresses itself far more deeply within me, which is often interpreted as my holding something resembling a grudge, “dwelling,” or rudely closing off entirely. But the reality is that sometimes the feelings are so powerful or painful, the cognitive effort required to just stay afloat means I have to shut off everything external, and present a kind of low, blank disposition toward others. It’s almost as though I’m booting into “safe mode” so I can devote all my processing power to working through my overwhelming feelings. I’m sure it looks weird.

On appearing normal:

So, as you may have guessed, I, like many Aspies, was not born with an interest in fashion and clothing, or at least it wasn’t there when I was young. In my childhood and early teen years, I remember being teased occasionally on free dress days for wearing the odd daggy[19] thing my mum bought me. No one told me that you don’t tuck your T-shirt into your jeans! What’s wrong with black shoes and white trousers? Or the fluorescent-pink parachute tracksuit that my mum got me for my birthday?

Oh how I wished I’d had some guidance on this kind of basic social blending knowledge, just an early seed of understanding that other people would care so goddamn much about this kind of thing, and that in order to get through the day with one obstacle fewer, it’d be wise to just check these boxes.

But no one told me. No one told me what to wear, and I didn’t care in the least, and was in fact barely aware of what I was wearing, so people made fun of my clothes. No one told me what to do with one’s hair, so it got too long and out of control, and people made fun of my hair. In southern New Jersey – which is largely populated by olive-skinned, beach-loving people of Italian descent – having a tan was considered table stakes for presentability. But I abhorred the sun, the heat, and the overall beach culture, and my genes had given me extremely pale skin that burns very easily, so I was made fun of for that all the time as well.

Also, I’m rather short, but I guess there was nothing I could do about that, though my grandmother used to tell me I failed to become tall because I refused to hang upside-down by my knees on the jungle gym. So I blamed myself for being short, too.

On communicating one’s challenges:

I started going through possible ways she and my father-in-law could respond [to my difficulties with people]. Was I going to get a talk on how I was “viewing everything wrong” or how I “need to change X and just get in there and do Y and stop overthinking it”? I guess I expect these sorts of comments, because they’re the usual reaction I get from people when I make little hints that something might be hard for me. People so often downplay my issues. “Everyone else deals with Z, so you should be fine dealing with Z too.” “Nobody likes working, but we all do it.” So that’s what I waited to hear.

Asperger’s or not, this is a common refrain whenever I’ve discussed my difficulties in school, in jobs, or anywhere else. “Everyone feels that way sometimes.” The implication is, of course, that since everyone else deals with it, and yet here I am particularly aggrieved by it, there’s something wrong with me, I’m especially weak or lazy or overly sensitive for no good reason. I’m having trouble, and it’s my own fault for being effected by it.

But no, everyone doesn’t feel like this. Not like I do.

It’s interesting that I made the automatic assumption that I need to debate to justify my views and people won’t naturally respect my opinions and feelings. Being me and explaining myself has typically been so exasperating.

Preach. This is a big reason why I think I overshare on my blog and on Twitter; it’s where I can, at my own speed, work through my thoughts and feelings and communicate in far more precise way. This isn’t to say that it’s always successful. But it’s better than most other means of communicating for me.

On processing information:

I am astoundingly bad with directions. I have just the worst time navigating through and orienting myself in space. This not only applies to things like how to drive from one location to another, but to things like depth perception, where parallel parking induces sweats, or playing video games (especially first-person perspective games) where I am constantly confused about my location in relation to everything else going on.

And when directions are explained to me verbally, my brain simply can’t process them. I try, I try very hard. I understand the meaning of the words being said to me, but it’s almost as though my brain immediately garbles the words so that as a whole, they are just gibberish. Even just being given a short list of basic instructions or tasks is a big mental load for me, and I have to concentrate intensely, repeat things out loud, and almost rehearse the actions in my head to be sure they actually make sense to me. Imagine how frustrating that is for my wife, who before this Asperger’s business couldn’t help but assume I just wasn’t listening.

Here’s Vines on this topic:

Sometimes, we just can’t function with so much sensory and verbal input and real-time speed. Or if the topic is not of interest, it may be hard for us to keep our focus on it in the face of other input. And I particularly wanted to bring it up in this chapter because, for such a long time, I really thought it was some sort of memory glitch that I had, and I used to kick myself for how bad I was at grasping and remembering the little details that people would tell me about themselves. I must be selfish, right? To never be able to remember the details of other people’s lives? Everyone else cares enough about other people to remember that stuff. What was wrong with me? It took me a long time to figure that one out—and a lot of guilt, I might add. So, when does this so-called memory issue affect me? Well, unfortunately, I can be pretty bad with directions.

Yep. And I’m also the same with details of others’ lives. I care about other people, of course, but I also frankly suffer from an acute lack of curiosity about those details. So they never, ever stick.

On being outdoors:

How many times have people said to me, “It’s a beautiful sunny day,” or, “I hope the sun will be out tomorrow,” and I’ve privately thought, “I really hope not! I hope for a pleasant, overcast day. Please give me miserable weather! The kind that makes me relax and feel at peace.” I know that other people love frolicking out in the sun and enjoying the brightness of summer, but for me, having that direct sun on me drains my energy and has always made me, subconsciously, that little bit tenser.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. See my essay on the seasons from a couple of years ago, long before I knew anything about my Asperger’s.

On coping in the workplace:

I’ve had some jobs I’ve deeply, deeply hated. I know, everyone has. But while these jobs caused me unspeakable anxiety, stress, and depression, I’ve often found that I couldn’t communicate to others why I was so unhappy. When asked, “What didn’t you like about your job?” I’d find myself almost inventing reasons, or exaggerating small grievances, because I couldn’t find a way to express what was really wrong. Here’s a window into that from Vines’ own work experiences:

Within a month of starting, I began to dread going to work. On the train heading in, I would have dreams about the train crashing and sending me to hospital or the city being bombed (preferably overnight while empty of people!). I became depressed and numb Monday to Friday and spent most of Sunday crying, feeling ill because I had to go to work again the next day. I was in no way “okay.”

This all rings very true. In face, the Sunday evening stress sessions became so common that my wife gave them a name: The SNAS (pronounced “snazz”): Sunday Night Anxiety Show.

When I mentioned it to people, I frequently got nonchalant replies such as, “Yeah, nobody likes working, but we all have to do it.” So after a while, I learnt to stop complaining. At the time, I had no idea that I had Asperger’s. And while I always had the sense that it must be worse for me than for other people, I couldn’t justify that feeling. …

Every place I worked, I had an overwhelming desire to get out of there. I had trouble focusing on the work and interacting with people at the same time. I would feel frustrated or angry inside and often felt like snapping at people (although I didn’t). I dreaded having to do tasks that involved dealing with unfamiliar people. It exhausted me.

Take special note of that last thought, about dealing with unfamiliar people, and then consider that I have spent most of my post-theatre career as a PR director. Yeah, great move, right?

The paragraph continues:

I disliked having to figure out how to do new things. Most of the time, I was given new things constantly, and I really had to force myself to start them. I had trouble remembering verbal instructions and needed to write things down. … In hindsight, perhaps I didn’t do and say the right things to project the best image of myself and promote myself to others. I needed to do things my way and plan my own time. Being micromanaged by others was too stressful. I felt sick and started to hate going to work. All I could conclude was that the common factor was me.

There is a terrible fear I have of being scrutinized by coworkers or bosses. Like Vines, I want them to trust I will get the job done, but I can’t bear to have my methods or practices judged. Why? Because I always assume I’m doing it wrong, getting away with something.

Dr. Loveland, who diagnosed me, explained that these workplace experiences I describe weren’t uncommon for people with Asperger’s and that she’d heard stories like mine before. She explained to me that that “sick” feeling I talked of was the result of bottling up frustration and anxiety all day, every day. Built up over time, I suppose it manifests physiologically, causing me stomach upset, low weight, and a general feeling of being unwell.

And this is why I spent my aforementioned post-theatre career in a state of sub-optimal health, to say the least. It got so bad when I worked for the 2008 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, with the 15-hour days of intense stress, scrutiny, and pressure while packed in a giant room with people (many of whom were themselves very intense), I fell apart. It resulted in a trip to the emergency room, a scare that I might have brain cancer (I didn’t), neurological problems that manifested in my limbs and fingers, and a full-body muscle spasm or tic that I have to this day.

Had I known I had Asperger’s then, I never would have taken that job. Or I would have at least found another way to do it.

On talking to people:

I don’t usually want to, unless I have a specific reason to be curious about them, or I have some kind of investment in them, like a close friend or family member. So I don’t talk a lot around people I don’t know well, unless of course I’m the only one there, or I feel there’s an expectation, and then I blather like an imbecile.

And as I mentioned earlier, a big part of the problem is that no matter how much I try, no matter how much I know I should, I simply can’t muster any curiosity about other people. And that’s not a good start for making small talk.

Which I hate.

Here’s Vines on that:

We find [small talk] mind numbing, lacking in content, and tiresome, because we’re mainly tuning into the details and not focusing on the social or emotional purpose of the conversation, probably in the same way that typical people can find our conversation intense, overly technical, detailed, and exhausting. For me, it’s hard to come up with anything to say in a conversation that, on the whole, seems lacking in purpose.

I have frustrated many a significant-other over this. “Why were you so quiet?” and “Why didn’t you ask anybody any questions?” Well, because I didn’t have any questions. I didn’t realize there was a kind of social ritual being played out.

So one tactic I might use to fill verbal space is to talk about my own take on a topic, or my own experience, and I find that this very often falls rather flat. Again, turns out it’s because I haven’t tuned into what the whole ritual is about.

As an Aspie it feels natural to respond to a conversation by relating our experiences, especially when the topic is emotional. We’re basically saying, “I know how you feel/what you are experiencing because I’ve had a feeling/experience like that myself.” To us, it’s a display that we’re actually connecting to a person’s feelings and are bonding with them. However, typical people don’t need to have had a similar experience to feel what a friend might be feeling, and they don’t need to relate that experience to show they understand. Changing the topic this way on occasion is fine, but when we do it frequently, all a typical person hears is, “me me me.”

Alas.

On self acceptance:

I am not close to being in the place Vines has achieved. But I aspire.

What I really feel the need to say here is that there is nothing wrong with me. I’m just different. And any difficulties I have are the result of trying to live in a world where everyone around me is so different from me, not because I myself am faulty. I think Tony Attwood hit the nail on the head when he said, “People don’t suffer from Asperger’s Syndrome. They suffer from other people.” I’m not “wrong.” I’m everything I’m supposed to be and more. But both the social world and the business world that I live in aren’t set up for someone like me. I’m the proverbial square peg trying to fit in a round hole, and I can’t function effectively like this. I have so much potential to be useful, creative, even ingenious. The world just has to find a way to utilize me better. …

It doesn’t matter what label you carry or what cause you stand for. If you approach the world with an assured attitude and pride in who you are, other people will love and respect you for it. It’s only when you hide things about yourself that you convey that something is wrong or shameful about you that needs to be hidden.

The world isn’t set up for me. And I can’t make the world change for me. But maybe I can stop attacking myself over the dissonance I perceive. I play my song, you play yours. I hope I can.


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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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