After reading Sonia’s beautiful “The unlearning #autism” piece, I realized that a chord had irrevocably been struck.
(Sonia and her gifted writing have that effect on me.)
I also realized that I was in the middle of doing some Unlearning of my own.
A year ago, I was knee-deep in the archives of the medical journal that would ultimately serve as the catalyst for my Asperger’s/autism spectrum discovery. I had no clue about the golden nugget of truth hidden just around the corner, so close and yet, completely obscured from view.
I was just being me, doing what I did best, being natural in my natural habitat where there’s no judgment panel or interrogation, verbal or nonverbal, to answer to, nor idiosyncrasy to answer for.
I didn’t realize it then, but I had a lot to unlearn.
I had been trying (too hard) to acclimate myself to the yardsticks and milestones of the neurotypical world, trying to measure somewhere favorable on their bullet-pointed list of what it means to be successful, to the point of my own exhaustion. I had been trying to dot “I”s and cross “T”s that I hadn’t even written in the first place. I had been trying to mirror their mannerisms and methods, a futile exercise in insufficiency.
It’s not that I was insufficient. I merely felt that way because I never registered on their scales. I felt that way because I never became fluent in their code. I felt that way because no matter how I mirrored and mimicked, it never quite felt right, and I’m sure the other people sensed that in some way. Something told me that something wasn’t quite right with the world, and I’m sure something told the world that something wasn’t quite “right” (the same) about me. I’m pretty sure that the mismatched signals transmitted both ways.
I masked who I truly was so effectively that for a while, I lost touch completely. I forgot who I was. I had no clue. I’d been in a state of perpetual denial.
As time passed, however, my quirks began to surface, like stubborn spring flowers poking through the snow, saying, “ready or not, I’m here!” And they would not be ignored. I tried to sic Shawn Colvin’s “Get Out of This House” (video) on them, but to no avail.
As more time passed, I began to listen to their messages. These quirks were telling me something. In fact, they were starting to get bossy. They were getting stricter and more insistent. They wouldn’t stop until I had heard them, loud and clear.
At that moment, one year ago, the reason behind the quirk-shouting hadn’t yet been illuminated. But I had no choice but to comply.
I was caught in the middle of a tug of war between the bossiness of the neurotypical world, which demanded that I perform according to its standards, and the bossiness of my increasingly noticeable and unruly quirks, which demanded that I live according to my own needs, even if those needs ran opposite those of the rest of the world.
My choice was laid out for me, plain as day. I would say plain and simple, but it was anything but simple.
I could either abide by the demands of the NT world and be “successful” (in their eyes) for an unknown length of time before the inevitable nervous breakdown–the one I could see looming in my future–became reality. Or I could live in accordance with my delicate nervous system and its voluminous needs, which would surely demote me in the eyes of “the world”, but preserve my health and sanity.
Not a simple choice. Not an easy decision. Not a fair dilemma to be forced into. Why did I even have to choose? Because the two options were mutually exclusive; to rule in favor of one was to eliminate the other.
Or could there be a third way?
On the surface, I may appear to be fence-sitting, waffling, trying to have my cake and eat it too. I might come across as a hybrid of “normal” and “abnormal”, or at least bilingual. My native language is Asperger’s/autism. But who says I couldn’t learn to speak neurotypical?
Well, I’d been doing that ever since I left the house on my first day of kindergarten. Being autistic in a neurotypical world means (for me) being thrust into a full-immersion program when you don’t even know how to say hello in their language. And nobody knows a word of your language, either.
So what changed?
On the surface, very little. A mysterious and beautiful creature gobbles up much of my time (blogging and researching and interacting with a whole new community), and I spend many more hours outside of the office or at home on weekends attending to my newly-realized need for Alone Time, but what else has transformed?
To find out, one has to excavate under the surface. This isn’t strip-mining, either; this is deep sea drilling. The metamorphosis has taken place on the inside.
I’m giving myself permission to let the Natural Me surface and the Real Me shine. I’m continuing to remind myself that I can stop when I need to, process at my own pace, ask for help, and expect a certain amount of accommodation, even if the amount is small and even if the accommodations made are minor.
I’m Unlearning the harshness and self-criticism, and replacing it with gentleness and self-compassion.
I’m Unlearning the idea that I must always be Socially Presentable in every way, and giving in to my instincts of dressing for comfort, taking my Me Time, and forgiving myself for missing the neurotypical marks.
I’m becoming aware of the stimuli that overwhelm my senses, and giving myself permission to excuse myself from the environment. Or those people. Or that situation. Or that activity.
I’m asking those around me for the extra leeway I sometimes need, for extra patience when necessary, and extra space when push comes to shove.
I’m Unlearning the belief that I didn’t need any supports and I’m leaning on some of the people around me to do the things that I can’t always do or have an exceptionally hard time with. Making phone calls, doing the grocery shopping, settling disputes, reporting apartment maintenance issues, and waiting in Customer Service Telephone Neverland have all been effectively delegated.
Some may object to my thanking the people around me for their support; after all, we venture into the neurotypical world every day and automatically adjust ourselves to give the world “acceptable” versions of us. Along that line, it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to ask the people around us to simply operate in a world built for them, performing tasks that come naturally and easily to them. To a neurotypical person, what’s an extra phone call? What’s an extra grocery trip? After all, my partner isn’t just picking up groceries for me, he’s getting the items he wants as well.
But the fact is that even though he’s in a partnership with me, we’re not operating in a partnership during those times. He’s going into the store alone, by himself, every time. There’s a certain expectation that comes with being in a partnership, and that is that the couple would do these things together.
That’s not the case in our situation. There are many things he does alone, as if he were single. I’m not there to participate with him.
In a way, that makes me sad, and every time, I struggle with another decision: go out and about with him and fulfill his internal desire to live a life alongside his partner, while my neurology gets chipped away at by the endless stimuli of the environment, or do I preserve myself, hang onto my energy, and maintain my resilience, by sending him into the store alone, which translates to more time apart?
And, now that I know that I’m on the spectrum, I know that I will face that question, and the consequences of each possible answer, each and every time, for life. And therefore, I maintain a steadfast “attitude of gratitude”, because for me to fail to acknowledge the extra efforts graciously made that hadn’t been disclosed to us (and, tragically, there are some partners who bail after their partner is diagnosed on the spectrum) wouldn’t feel right. If he’s giving extra where he can, then so am I.
I’m Unlearning the stereotypical “ideal” or “standard” of what a partnership “should” be. I’m Unlearning the concept that I “must” conform to the spelled-out gender role I’m “supposed” to fit. I’m Unlearning the practice of berating myself for not wanting to cave–and not having caved–in and play the game.
Just like learning these concepts was a process, so is Unlearning them. The latter is a more conscious thought-stream, because I’m paving my own way, as opposed to simply mirroring all of the numerous examples around me. I’m swimming upstream, which takes more thought and more effort. Resistance training is some of the most strenuous exercise out there.
Truthfully, I’ve exercised a certain form of resistance training every day. It’s just that it seems to have shifted forms. The dividing line between the forms was my Asperger’s/autism spectrum discovery. Before that discovery, I resisted myself. Post-discovery, I’m resisting the world.
I honestly don’t know which one is more difficult, but I do know which one is healthier 🙂