They said I had “anger issues” … when I was just actually autistic

A life of misunderstandings is a fatiguingly common theme among the Asperger’s/autism spectrum community.  I’m sure that a whole gaggle of us (broken into tiny tight-knit groups, of course) could get together and swap our gruesome, embarrassing, and at times, painful  stories about having been misunderstood, misinterpreted, misjudgment, and, well, missed (in terms of the points we were trying to make).  Or maybe we wouldn’t be able to swap stories at all, because it may be such a frequent theme that it can’t be isolated into separate, specific events that we can easily identify and recall.

But upon further pondering, I do have a story.  And maybe we all do!

Mine is a tale of anger and irritability.

It looked like anger, anyway.

And often, it even felt like anger.

After all, when you’re swearing, throwing things around, ranting, or even breaking things, it’s hard to call it anything but anger.

Hell, I even thought it was anger.

It took me more than 30 years to consider and realize that it might be something else.

I learned, much more recently, that anger, despite being one of the four basic emotions, probably doesn’t occur in a vacuum.  It’s usually fueled by another emotion, one that hides in an abyss, its true identity obscured, like a criminal mastermind who sits in a fancy high rise and has their foot-soldier henchmen do all the dirty work.

Only after I discovered that I was on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum did I begin to be able to decode the mystery.

It turned out to be fairly complex, yet elegantly simple, all at once.

Like many people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, I’ve come across as angry.  Sometimes I would have concurred; other times, not.  Many times, having “anger issues” or being an “angry person” were accusations lobbed at me when I knew deep down that it wasn’t the root of the truth.

So the magic question became, what was The Truth?

Well, it might have been any one or combination of aspects…

Anxiety is actually the Number One Suspect.  Aspergian/autistic people often experience amped-up anxiety.  This comes from a variety of sources.

As children, it could be school, homework, rocky relationships with teachers, rockier-yet relationships with other classmates (up to and including bullying and threats), the treading of treacherous ground in the classroom, unhealthy family dynamics at home, loud noises, disruptions in routine, and much more.

As teenagers, puberty, dating (or lack thereof), and more bullying/teasing/harassment dominate the landscape.

And as adults, college/university, employment, finances, significant othership, self-sufficiency/independence, continued social awkwardness, a lack of friends, mistrust/distrust (usually from having been burned by past experiences), bills, a mortgage, apartment leases, external societal pressures, driving, lingering pain from previous situations (up to and including PTSD), health issues/chronic illness, aging relatives and/or caretaking roles, and even children, if we have them… could all be significant sources of anxiety.

The world is cold and cruel.  It’s not forgiving.  Nothing is safe.  Nothing is sacred.  Everyone is suspect.  Everything is a threat.  It’s a wonder many of us sleep at all.

So, many of us–myself included–live with a “buzzing” of low-level anxiety that is always there.  It’s been there for so long that I don’t remember what it feels like not to have it.  Then, when actually faced with a stressful situation, the anxiety shoots up, adrenaline pumping.  Nirvana for an adrenaline junkie; hell for me.  My system has become frayed and fragile.  At not quite 40, I already detect the early stages of an impending, debilitating fatigue.  (Let’s hope I can stave it off.)

But anxiety itself is not the only problem.  It has a side-effect: a feeling of weakness.  For anxiety is not a position of strength.  It’s passive and vulnerable.  It’s defensive by its very nature.  It encourages you to tighten up into a little ball, inert and inactive.  In the clutches of a fear paralysis, you literally can’t move.  This means you can’t defend yourself, get anything done, or live your life.

So, it’s much more tempting–and remarkably easy–to convert that adrenaline into anger.  Unlike anxiety, anger is a position of  (sometimes misplaced/misdirected) strength.  Get them before they get you, says the instinct.  Or if they do get a swing in, at least retaliate.  Show them you’re not weak, and that they haven’t won.  It’s not a matter of competition, though; it’s a matter of survival.

I have a long history of getting angry at other drivers.  There’s no excuse for drifting over into my driving lane and almost colliding with me.  People need to watch the road and be aware of what’s around them.  My horn blares.  My voice blares.  A string of cuss/swear words escapes my lips.  There might even be a rude gesture, thrown in for reinforcement, to make sure my ire is unquestionably understood.  To show them in no uncertain terms that they screwed up.

Why do I do this?

Because a surge of adrenaline has doused my blood vessels.  My Aspie/autistic brain has lightning-quickly processed all of the horrific parallel universes that might have materialized had the senseless flake hit me–the impact, the shattering of the glass, the violent twisting of the steel, the careening off into the ditch, the injuries, the blood.  And then the aftermath–the paperwork, the ambulance, the hospital, the bills (we live in the US, without being able to afford health insurance), the wrangling, the legal battle, the recovery, the therapy and rehab, the scarring, the restricted movement, the pain, the life alterations, the costs, the losses, etc, etc.  All facets are imagined in fractions of a second.

And my fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in, instantaneously.  Even though it’s “just” a close call, my brain has processed the gruesome possibilities and worst case scenarios as if they had become reality.  My legs shake.  My hands and arms shake.  My palms and under my arms get sweaty.  My heart pounds.  My breathing stops, until I remember to breathe again.  (And when I do, it’s as if I’d just gotten done sprinting a mile/kilometer; it takes me a while to catch my breath, even though I’m merely sitting in the driver’s seat.)

My angry response is an instinctual attempt to create an unpleasant reaction in the other driver, as some sort of detriment to repeating the unintelligent move.  For me, it’s a survival tactic to avoid that potentially life-threatening situation in the future.

Much of my outwardly-perceived anger is simply anxiety on the offense (as opposed to defense).

Or, my irritability may involve a neurological sensory overload.  Some sensory stimuli set me off more efficiently than others; I’m sensitive only to specific types of sounds and lights, but smells and textures penetrate ruthlessly and uninvited.

One specific type of environmental sensory stimuli consists of mess/chaos/disorganization/clutter.  This is a frequent contender, because all of my surroundings are messy.  My partner is legally blind, so he sees the mess on a low-resolution level, but doesn’t perceive the severity.  I have extremely poor executive function, so bringing myself to “just buckle down and do it” is much more difficult than it sounds.  We’re a match made in heaven and hell at the same time.

It’s almost like a cruel joke: the one with the clear vision also has the suck-arse executive function, but a semi-compulsive need for order and organization.  Ha.

When my surroundings are chaotic and disordered, my brain has to (at least subconsciously) process, interpret, and make decisions about (to act or not to act) each and every item.  It’s a lot to take in, and it can become overwhelming very quickly.

Not to worry, everything is at least sanitary.  And I do pick up the odds and ends daily.  I also do address the chronic clutter from time to time, but these times mostly occur when my distaste for the mess overrules my need for routine, which in itself is a powerful force to be reckoned with.

Children yelling or screaming in restaurants or on airplane flights is another example.  Instant overload, instant and severe irritation.  I don’t hate kids (at all), and I don’t even blame them or hold any ill will toward them.  I don’t even blame their parents, as long as it’s short-lived and there’s at least the most genuine of attempts made to abate the noise.

I notice the sensory input usually when I’m already tired or irritated, or otherwise running on thin energetic ice.  Rapid-fire mini-stresses only fray my system further, making me more susceptible and less tolerant.  Then the frustration sets in.  And, if the intensity is turned up, presto–it looks like anger.

Impatience, when sufficiently intensified, also resembles anger.  I embody the yin-yang of patience, the determining factors being the usual suspects: energy, tolerance, flexibility, etc, which all ebb and flow with daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms.  I can have seemingly endless patience, but its apparent endlessness is merely a mirage.  It does give out at some point, and the first sign of its paper-thinness is an irritability that’s very adept at ramping up.

I frequently lose patience with complainers, whiners, poor drivers, salespeople, religious proselytizers, drama-seekers, superficial extroverts, aggressors, bullies, loud-mouths, people who lack common sense, rumor perpetuators, narrow-minded people, over-emotional/illogical people, energy-suckers, martyrs (especially the martyr type of autism parent), and similar types.  I don’t go off on them like some volcano, but I can’t stand to be around them.

I also get fairly antsy when standing in line, caught up in traffic, waiting on hold (in the rare instance that I use the phone), or when my computer gets boggy and buggy.  I detest bureaucracy, whether governmental or corporate.  I can’t stand commercial/advert breaks or phone menus.  My brain processes run the gamut of fast/efficient and slow/muddy, and I hate to wait for much.

Being mostly ultra-logical in an illogical world also grinds my gears; this is probably a variation on the impatience theme directly above.  My Aspie/autistic brain probably thinks a bit more in black-and-white than I realize; while I like to think that I have an open mind and plenty of compassion (although this post might make some disagree (LOL), I promise it’s there), there are some things that simply ought to be, and other things that should not be.

A road intersection that is significant enough to warrant a traffic light/signal should also be significant enough to have a right-turn-lane, so that the people turning right don’t have to sit at the red light behind other cars going straight.

I also think that there should be no leeway given to violent criminals (given that the correct person has been convicted) or chemically-impaired drivers.  I see absolutely no excuse for texting/dialing while driving, and those who do should have their licenses revoked.  Because they pose hazards to other people on the road.  At the very least, they have significantly-impaired reaction times, which creates traffic jams and inconveniences people.  Since one of my least favorite activities is sitting behind my steering wheel (I’d give body limbs for efficient, reliable, and logical public transportation!), I can think of 254809 other things I’d rather do, and I’m eager to get the driving task over with so that I can settle down into my umpteen hundred more pleasurable activities.

And my black-and-white brain really doesn’t see any other alternatives.  Thus, in my brain, the case is settled; the jury has ruled.  So what is everyone waiting for?  Why must things be the way they are?  Why did it take so long to enact certain laws (not that I’m regulation-happy, but some are indeed necessary), and why hasn’t the world caught up with our ideals yet?  They make too much sense.

Self-defense is another face of anger; this sort of piggybacks on the first theme, the part about a subconscious desire to turn anxiety into anger/irritability so that one can assume more of a position of strength, so I won’t repeat myself here.

Broken trains of thought, and scenarios of interrupted speech or concentration are also a source of irritation.  I’ve written about derailed thought-trains/broken concentration before, so I’ll link to that here and move onto being interrupted while speaking…

I admit, I’m guilty of being a hypocrite; I despise being interrupted, because I want to say my piece before it slips away out of my mind, but I interrupt…because I want to say something before it slips away.  I display alternating and opposite behaviors, but for the same underlying reason.

Sometimes, what people think is anger is actually a frustration with my own difficulty in identifying and expressing emotions.  This element may have an impatience-themed flair to it as well; I’m not sure.  If I don’t know what I’m thinking or feeling, or if I can’t express myself, then I can become frustrated.

Before discovering that I’m on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, I hadn’t realized just how much time I spend being frustrated with myself.  The most obvious of examples involves my clumsiness (ugh), which ranges from running into things while walking to making copious typos while blogging.

But what I hadn’t previously noticed was my semi-frequent difficulty in not only expressing thoughts or emotions, but merely identifying them in the first place.  I knew I was mildly frustrated much of the time, but like everyone around me, I simply accepted the frustration as a “given” and chided myself for the character flaw, tone policing myself to “let go” and “chill out”.  But that doesn’t work (for me) if I can’t get to the root cause of the frustration to begin with.

My most extreme example of this occurred when I was about seven or eight years old.  I had fairly suddenly developed a stuttering problem; usually it was mild-to-moderate, but occasionally, it could become severe.

During this period of time, I remember having something to say and needing to say it – my brain had thought of the entire paragraph – but I couldn’t even bring myself to start speaking!  I had taken my deep breath, opened my mouth, but it’s like I couldn’t get into the groove and get going.  My brain and my ability to speak weren’t matching up.

My mom (and I think my brother and/or my cousin) were waiting for me to say what I needed to say.  They were standing there, looking at me; I had the spotlight.  But I just couldn’t get started.

Suddenly, I simply cried, “I can’t talk!” and burst into tears.  At least I could get that much out; I was thankful for that.  I shudder at the memory, even now, more than 30 years later.  I can’t describe the helplessness and frustration I felt that day.

Sometimes, if it looks like I’m angry, it might just be that I might be fatigued or hypoglycemic (my blood sugar might be low).  Because I can’t always identify or express what’s going on, I don’t always know when I’m tired or hungry.

I don’t wind down, get sleepy, and simply “drift off” to sleep like everyone else.  I think and move, constantly and repetitively, until I simply “pass out” to sleep.

My stomach doesn’t gradually start to pang and growl the way everyone else’s does; mine is silent and seemingly satiated until about five or six hours (or more) after my last meal.  Suddenly–boom!–it’s there, and it’s intense.  Then, the impatience kicks in.  My reserves, resilience, and tolerance bottom out.  And I might get perturbed.

If your emotions run on the hotter side like mine, then with any luck, this may have helped you consider that you’re not “wrong” for being like this.  You’re probably not actually an angry or hot-tempered or anal-retentive person; as you can see, there are many other possible explanations and valid reasons for feeling what you feel.  Do respect your needs and limitations, and take care of You.  Give yourself that permission.  Try your best to contain any outburst or overflow to a finite radius, but even if the outward-looking ire rubs off on someone else, just remember that it happens.  You can’t undo what’s been done, but you can at least take action steps to help the healing process.  We all live and learn.  All of us are human, and none of us are perfect.  With any luck, having read this, you’ve been able to reach a greater understanding, if the above applies to you.

If your emotions don’t run on the hot side, then it might be hard to understand those of us with higher temperatures.  Our “yang” may clash with your “yin”.  Congratulations; you’re probably a lot less prone to heart attacks, aneurysms, and leaky gut.  I honestly wish I was more like you, with slightly cooler temperatures and longer fuses.  But I have a Fire nature; one that I’m at least trying to corral and contain in some sort of “safe zone”.  I admire those who can remain on an even keel, whose disposition is mellower than mine.  With any luck, having read this, you may have been able to gain some insight about a friend, family member, loved one, or someone at work, school, etc.  Some people really are jerks, but some merely look like jerks on the surface, and there may be a completely different–and surprising–backstory underneath.  🙂

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13 Comments

  1. Yep. That was me. My parents, peers and teachers all thought I was just a hothead and I had anger problems. They never understood what caused me to lash out when I finally hit my breaking point and when I did I was always punished with negative reinforcement which made it worse.

    It’s been hard to bounce back from and it’s still a struggle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing! 😊 I hear you, bro, and my heart aches for you. It is indeed a process, and it takes time, but I know (all too well lol) that it’s not easy to be patient with oneself, especially when (please forgive the pop-psych term) there are “old tapes” playing, well-established, in your head. To do our best is all we can do ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Me too, was removed from my family, sent to a “special school” where it was made clear that the behaviour had to stop. It was brutal and painful figuratively and literally. Most of my adult life has been spent trying to manage my anger and inability to cope with the world around me. Finding out I’m autistic has opened up new paths and options. I’m not overly angry anymore (at least not most of the time) but I’ve got grumpy stuck in his was middle aged man down pat. Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so kindly for sharing your story. God I’m so sorry that happened to you 💐, and I’m also glad that the anger has dissipated–glad for your sake, since that stuff can eat us up ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, my friend! 😊 Yes, it is indeed ok to be who we are 😊 Breaking free from the chains of self-judgment is a process, one that can last quite a while, and for me, some days are harder while others are easier. But overall, it gets better! Just keep trying; give it time ❤️ The world needs all kinds ❤️

      Like

  3. Meltdowns and maladaptive behaviours are not an integral part of the person, like autism. They occur from stress. They have nothing to do with “functioning level”, or “functioning age level” (“functioning age level” is an ableist term). No one should be judged based on their worst moments.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree. They’re simply a neurological “break”, if you will. 🙂

      For the record, I’m also opposed to the terms and concepts of “functioning labels” and “functioning age level”; I’m hoping I didn’t say anything that could be construed that way, because I totally didn’t intend anything like that. 🙂

      Like

  4. Yes to all of this. I’ve had several conversations with a loved one recently where I kept trying to explain that I was not just “angry” all the time but rather was trying to express (or unable to moderate how I expressed) another emotion. Anxiety or enthusiasm are the two top contenders for me – both come across as intensity/anger to others, mainly because of my tone of voice and tendency to overtalk or interrupt. The funny thing is that when I am REALLY angry, as in furious, expressing pure rage, it is very obvious. That doesn’t happen all that often, to be honest (I can go months between feeling what I would call feeling true rage or anger). I come across as an angry woman but mostly I’m an anxious one 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! I can relate all too well, my friend ❤️

      When people call me “angry” or “pissed off at the world” or ask me if I’m mad at them, I simply say, “don’t worry; if and when I’m angry, you’ll *know* it” 😉

      Those emotions are such a thorn in the side 💐

      Liked by 2 people

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