I didn’t know much. I just knew that having my toys (or later, clothes) and other belongings organized felt good. Seeing them lined up like that, according to color, shape, size, utility, and so on, was calming to look at. Doing so brought a feeling of contentment. In fact, when everything was ordered neatly, I found myself wanting to look at it.
It’s not that I was materialistic. It’s not that I was admiring my Stuff with a pretentious “wow – look what I’ve got” pride.
It was that finally, something in my life made sense. The order I had put everything into was logical. It could be quantified, classified. It could be counted on. It was accounted for. It was stable.
I felt empowered; I had done that! The accomplishment, the achievement, brought a sense of humble pride, the kind that comes with self-reliance.
Most importantly, these senses of logic, order, sensibility, calm, accomplishment, empowerment, and stability were a contrasting bright spot in an ocean of windy, fiery volatility that made me feel shaky, pensive, and vulnerable.
If I stayed in my room, I was safe. If I clung to the stability of my surroundings, I felt more secure.
I wish I could say that I lived happily ever after, as long as I stayed in my room, but that’s not the case.
Because I’m sure that somewhere along the line, I brought a new friend home from school. Since I frequently found myself in trouble at home for reasons I could never harness, decode, and navigate, we retreated to my room, to save my arse from the inevitable embarrassment of the parental disciplinary minefield.
And I’m sure that at some point, I wanted to share my meticulously-organized toys (my intentions were good; I wanted to share). And I’m sure that my friend’s and my ideas of what constituted acceptable Styles of Play were different. And I’m pretty sure that’s when a scuffle broke out. I’m also pretty sure that my mom either heard the commotion at the time, or heard about it afterward when I went to seek her sympathy and support.
And I would bet the farm that that’s when my mom uttered the word “controlling” for the first time, as compassionately as she could. It probably went along the lines of, “well, maybe you’ll have to learn to be less controlling.”
This phrase echoed and ricocheted throughout the years, both endogenously (within my head, in the form of psychological “tapes”) and exogenously (repeated over again, in additional ever-accumulating situations).
It became a rather annoying theme in my life; after all, these were words my mother used to explain my father’s behavior (empathetically; she tried not to talk trash about him to us). And I knew that my father at that point in time, was one of the least favorite people in my small circle of contacts. Back then, I wanted nothing to do with him, and I wanted to share nothing in common with him. This is difficult when you live under the same roof.
When my well-intended behavior was synonymized with that of my father, I felt like a piece of shizz. Here I was, just trying to make it through each day, in a world were barely anyone understood, except maybe my mom (except that even her understanding wasn’t exactly full-time). And the few actions I could carry out, the few that made me feel better, the few that brought sense into my world, somehow carried negative fine print.
Not only was it annoying to share any hint of a common trait, but it was also perplexing. But I’m nothing like him!, I protested in my head (and sometimes out loud). I’m not trying to do what he does! I’m not trying to control anyone! Where is she even getting that??
Heaven only knew. I sure didn’t. And the universe can be cruel; it tends to withhold information–information that would foster understanding, prevent pain, prevent traumatic events, lingering aftermath, decimation of self-esteem, and so on. The truth was out there, and the universe was clutching it in its hand, holding it behind its back, instead of simply showing mercy on a five-, ten-, fifteen-year-old.
After all, it would be another 20 years before my five-year-old mind had fully finished developing, and it would be almost 35 years before the universe would reveal my Ultimate Truth: my status as an Aspie/autistic.
When I say that the loose ends in my life fell together like a row of dominoes, I’m not kidding, and this is one of those dominoes.
I haven’t reached Buddhist enlightenment, per se, but I’m now aware a few more tidbits than I did even last year.
I now know that my desire to put my clothes and toys in order throughout the years is actually a combination of Asperger’s/autistic traits, especially as seen under stress. One of the characteristics of the Asperger’s/autism spectrum is the tendency to “systemize”; to build mental directory-trees (or flow-charts, or thought-clouds, or what-have-you) of information on subjects or objects we’re interested in or attracted to. If the first “step” is gathering and collecting, the next step is to compare and contrast, seeing patterns and forming connections. The outward manifestation of that second step is often the organization/categorization of objects. As a child, this extended to my toys; throughout my life and even persisting into adult life, this has involved my clothes, books, movies, music files on my computer, and digital art on that same computer.
I now know that the organization of these objects displays them in such a way that is neat and orderly and is thus in sync with the way my brain works. My brain likes things neat and orderly, because it’s easier to categorize them in my head. If my stuff is scattered about at random, my brain has trouble–immense trouble–even looking at it. My brain (and I think all brains, to some extent) must process everything I lay eyes on, and the more random the objects, the tougher the processing. This might constitute an example of inefficient task-switching, for to shift one’s gaze between various unrelated objects lying about a room would indeed cause the brain to switch tasks in terms of the context of each item.
Now, enter that first childhood friend who “dared” to suggest playing with the toys in a way that did not preserve neatness, but rather, involved randomizing my things out of the order in which I had meticulously put them, resulting in chaos, and overthrowing my hard-won state of calm.
What came first, was panic. Subconsciously, I freaked out that my things were now out of order. And allowing another person to play with them quickly resulted in a breakdown of the System (that I had created while Systemizing). I had temporarily overlooked the fact that other people, even small ones, have completely independent sets of thoughts, desires, ideas, and behaviors. The fact that they didn’t all act and think in the same way that I did was a rude awakening indeed.
What was actually happening was that my one life-area in which I felt any sense of empowerment, accomplishment, peace, and calm, was temporarily disrupted. This destabilized me, as though the solid ground shook beneath me, revealing to me that it was shakier than it appeared after all.
It wasn’t a matter of wanting to control other people; it was a matter of wanting to control–and better yet, relieve–my own stress.
During stressful times, even as an autistic/Aspergian adult, my cognitive flexibility takes a serious nose-dive. The more stress I’m under, the more anxious I get, and the more strong my need to be able to stabilize variables, turning unknowns into knowns. To do this, I must organize, systemize, account for, and depend on order in the form of lists, categories, thought-flowcharts, and whatnot. Every variable or randomness that exists is unpredictable, and unpredictability only heightens one’s stress response.
If the stress response is already frayed due to an excessively-intense, obnoxious, and overwhelming world, then unpredictability is one’s nemesis, and thus, variables are one’s worst enemy. Randomness and chaos are variables’ cousins. My dad’s yin-yang volatility was the kingpin of the posse. None are welcome at my brain’s block party.
As a child, I couldn’t articulate that my organized collections were one of the few elementary ways in which I instinctively knew how to relieve some of the stress. I couldn’t tell them, “hey, my school and home lives are actually hell, and I’d appreciate it if you left me my one bright spot. Could you humor me and play ‘this’ way instead, just so that the butterflies in my stomach can calm down for a while? Thank you.” That doesn’t happen when you’re five. It doesn’t happen when you’re ten or fifteen, either. At that point, being properly diagnosed probably wouldn’t have even made much of a difference. I doubt it would’ve done any good.
Maybe that’s why the universe held onto its Cards of Truth for so long, slyly concealing my truths behind its back – it might not have done any good to show them to me at that time.
I would’ve still become insistent upon playing in a certain way, a way in which the orderly peace was not likely to become too disrupted. I would’ve still been adamant about keeping things in some semblance of order. I would’ve still wanted to direct things, because I couldn’t trust anyone else not to create more stress in my world. And any additional stress was the last thing my world needed; it was already bulging at the seams with stress as it was, and one of the few ways in which I could keep a lid on things was to direct play with a heavy hand.
It wasn’t “controlling”. It was survival.
Although my once-volatile family relationships have become much more stable, my home is under my partner’s and my direct jurisdiction, and my brain has long since finished forming, thus bringing fresh adult insight, I can still see echoes of these patterns in my life. Most of the time, everything is fine, because my partner and I see eye-to-eye on what our home environment should look and feel like. We’re on the same page in terms of our daily schedules and life goals, and many other attributes. I don’t have to work to convince him. It’s not a repeated case of the fiasco with the childhood friend, because my partner and I reached a common understanding early on, even though neither one of us had any clue about my Asperger’s/autism.
Home life is less stressful now because I can exercise influence over it and I have equal say in the decisions we make. I don’t feel nearly so powerless in general, although I am aware that during periods of acute or severe stress, my brain loses the little flexibility it has, and I must have things a certain way, without being able to give in.
If someone in your life, especially someone on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, comes across as “controlling”, it probably has a lot less to do with a desire to commandeer anyone else, than it does to regulate some aspect of their life that they feel terrified and unstable about. Try and identify the source of their threatened, uncertain feeling. Try to find out what lacks grounding or solidity in their lives, and help them with it, as opposed to passing judgment on their supposedly “controlling” nature. If you’ve never considered that they might unknowingly be on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, consider that possibility.
Chances are, “controlling” behavior is not an Ego Thing of any kind. Instead, it’s probably born of fear. And fear is real, and the scared need compassion. If their minds can’t be flexible right now, let them off the hook for a while; try to bend yours instead 🙂
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(Image Credit: Android Jones)