On some level I, my friends, family, teachers, lovers, co-workers, bosses, classmates, bullies, et. cetera have always known that I am different in some strange and fundamental way. I was mostly normal, if a bit stoic, before I went to grade school. I was showing signs of precociousness. After I began school I learned I was the stereotypical nerd, only in doll-faced little girl form. I was overlooked. It was the early 80s and Asperger’s wasn’t as on the map.
Before I sought an official diagnosis, I had certainly heard of Asperger’s Syndrome. I’m a culture and science buff after all. Many beloved American folk characters are Aspie stereotypes (and all of them are male), but I always knew I skewed heavily in that direction. My parents and teachers discussed it as a possibility at one point, but no one wants to admit their child is impaired when there is some giftedness to focus on. My abilities were praised and my deficits blamed on me or ignored or rationalized. I can hardly blame them for this.
Here’s one example of how I was put off the scent for so long:
Around the turn of the century I was in an intense teacher training program at college. I was going to teach high school English. One day we went to a presentation at S , a rehab facility that also does a great deal of good work with autistic children. It was given by a woman who works with (boys) who have Asperger’s. She gave us the run-down on the symptoms and characteristics and showed us a film of the music therapy she was doing with one boy.
It was an immediate revelation to me. For about an hour. After she was done speaking I piped up like I do and started telling the class, visibly trembling with excitement, how that completely described me as a child. I fear I monopolized the discussion and made it about myself. I buttonholed the presenter after the class was over and followed her into the elevator, getting more talkative and enthused.
She was not responsive. She had one of those inexplicable looks on her face that I later interpreted to mean that I was off-putting. She told me that I was probably not autistic. She dismissed me rudely. She seemed to think that I was just some narcissistic chick who wanted attention, even though the behavior that she, and the entire class I later discovered, found irksome from me was a clear sign of Asperger’s in itself. I think, at that time, it was considered extremely rare for girls, and definitely not women, to have this poorly understood syndrome.
Less than a month later I got a letter in the mail requesting that I come into the Dean of Education’s office to discuss some “concerns” they had. The semester was over and I had done well on my projects and made excellent grades. All A’s and a B, I think. But the stress of this “boot camp” style, back-biting competitive program was inappropriate for me or any other student who pays money for a fair education. At the end of orientation the director told us “Don’t ever cry and watch your back.” I failed to do both. So I’d begun drinking heavily mid-way through the semester to deal with the 10-hour days of combined student teaching and going to my own classes in addition to severe sleep deprivation and the inexplicable mental agitation I always felt then. In addition to the stressful hours, I was assigned to a “mentor” teacher at D . She openly abused and belittled the children in her class while she sucked away on fentanyl lollypops. She called individual students “stupid as sin,” and “losers.” She wanted to teach the class, “Little Black Sambo” she told me. I literally cannot make this shit up, but I was reprimanded for “stirring things up.” The education program directors were angry that I told them about it, as was the principal of the school.
This was only one of my “mistakes.”
Subsequently, I got a DUI one night and had no idea whether to disclose this to the professors running the program. I asked my parents and a lot of other people what I should do, and they were as stumped as I was. I decided to let it ride because the instructors were pretty condemning of the black student’s “drug-addicted” and “irresponsible” mothers. I should mention that this program was racist in that subtle, insidious way that white people who think they’re over their hang-ups are. I found a lot of the comments about and methods of studying “inner-city” kids to be offensive. As did a few of my black classmates who were smart enough not to mention it.
Also, teaching is still one of the only professions where “moral turpitude” is a reason for dismissal. Imagine if that was the standard in Congress! But they eventually found out about my drinking because the women in my study group had ganged up on me and were calling one another on the phone to talk about me. They confronted me, with great hostility, about a meeting with them that I had missed while I was waiting to get bailed out. They went to the program director after I blurted out that I’d gotten a DUI. I can still see the looks on all their faces.
If looks could put you in prison, I’d still be there.
Of course, the powers that be were furious I hadn’t told them. Not that I had any legal obligation to do so. I’m pretty sure they would’ve been condemning no matter how I’d handled it. It was my second DUI.
So when I went to the office, two of the program directors had difficulty voicing exactly why I was “in trouble,” but thought I “wasn’t enjoying teaching” and they “had concerns about my commitment.” I explained that I had recently been ( and incorrectly as it happens) diagnosed with bipolar disorder. They were clearly unsympathetic and “suggested” that I do extra student teaching at W A S . Actually I was required to get a teacher there to sign a form confirming my hours before they would allow me register for my last semester. I’m pretty sure it was unethical and illegal to do this, but I didn’t know that and I was mortified, and, as a dirty drunk, who was I to judge?
I got the message loud and clear that they didn’t want me teaching children, that I was an unacceptable person altogether.
But I had invested so much time and money in this major after trying and losing interest in several others. So I went to help with the after-school program at W . It turns out this was a punitive assignment. The “after-school program” was detention for students sent there for disciplinary and behavioral problems at a school where all the other public schools sent the delinquents. The worst of the worst. It worked. I completed my hours, but was too ashamed and angry to go back to the student teaching program, instead just finishing my English degree in nonfiction writing without the degree in education.
Most likely they were put off by my odd, youngish manner and inability to command the attention of classes full of students who looked and sounded older than me. I had been at odds with their attitudes and had made multiple comments they thought were inappropriate (but true). I was piqued by the insistence of teaching total inclusion of special needs students in the regular classroom. I believed then, as I do now, that some kids (like I was myself in grade school) need to be taken out of the regular classroom sometimes and given extra attention and enrichment to deal with our differences. They balked at that quite a bit.
Ultimately, my own developmental issues were the direct cause of their “concerns,” but they never once followed their own advice and put the welfare of their student, me, at the forefront. They were never honest or clear about why they thought I was not equipped to teach. This was yet another missed opportunity for me to get help. I was ashamed I had even suggested I had Asperger’s at that presentation.
This incident put me off the right path for another 15 years.
During that time I was raped multiple times by multiple people because I can’t always read people’s intentions and personalities. I unconsciously mirror body language and conversational tone as many autistic women do, and when a man is flirting with me I don’t realize it and I can send the wrong signals without meaning it. They think I’m good to go even though I only want someone to talk to and I’m copying them. If had known about my differences and tendencies, I would have understood how I was vulnerable and how to keep myself safe.
I continued to flail around the edges of society, looking for a good fit, a comforting group identity to wrap myself in. In all that time, no one ever reached out to me or tried to get to the bottom of my dysfunction, not even the people who love me the most.
Despite horrifying clues like this, the DSM-IV and common ideas about Asperger’s just didn’t quite fit. Lack of empathy? Robotically repetitive behavior? Strict routines? Unable to make friends or have a conversation? Doesn’t like fiction? Likes to memorize train schedules? Great at math and computers? Male? Nope on all counts.
So I concluded that while I certainly had the general nerd stigma and social delays, I was entirely to blame for my considerable difficulty controlling my emotions and completely failing to manage stress or succeed in life, my relationships, or college. I was diagnosed with everything from bipolar to unipolar to psychotic to “unspecified personality disorder” to PTSD. None of those fit at all. There was a lot more going on than depression or anxiety alone. I’ve never been manic. I’m the opposite of psychotic. I couldn’t break from the vividness of reality even if I tried. And I have tried.
I surmised I suffered from CCD or Crazy Cunt Disorder. Some sort of amorphous, shameful female hysteria. I grew to loathe myself and ceased to care about what happened to me. A lot of other unfortunate things happened to me because of this and will be detailed in my (bitchin’) book.
I felt I was broken and despicable and ridiculous and weak. Other people had a lot of challenges and still succeeded – why couldn’t I “buck up” and “deal with it.” If I’m so smart why can’t I figure it out? But mostly, when asked by the few head-shrinking Pez dispensers who bothered, I reported always being highly mentally agitated for no discernable reason. I, to this day, have no words to adequately describe some of the hellish, altered mental states (though totally without delusions or hallucinations) that I have periodically weathered since childhood.
“Pernicious dysphoria” comes close. Like some ultra-crippling anxiety disorder that won’t let up. After a while I deduced that the deep, black bouts of depression I have are because I’ve become overwhelmed and exhausted from a life change or tragedy or new job and I can’t handle nearly as much interaction as other people.
Jobs break me down in a matter of a few months. I can make a normal first impression and get hired. I do a great job and work hard, but I keep getting more and more tired on a regular full-time schedule. I stop eating and sleeping and I shed weight. The miscommunications build up and I am made to feel less and less welcome wherever I am. I’ve only been let go three times, but I usually see the writing on the wall and quit before they can come up with a reason to fire me. One time I had a letter of resignation in my pocket when I was called into my boss’s office to be fired. I can’t even do part-time anymore because I’m too afraid of being overworked and/or bullied.
Bullying doesn’t stop at high school graduation, by the way.
Social misunderstandings and faux pas are the hallmark of my life. I don’t see ephemeral social constructions like company hierarchies and gender expectations all that clearly and that obviously leads to problems. I don’t know unspoken rules of appropriateness or dress. I can pretend at work, but eventually my “mask” slips a few times too often and they figure out I’m a weirdo or not the “type” I presented myself to be. People project their own insecurities on someone they can’t clearly define and my superiors begin to watch me closely for more mistakes which makes me nervous enough to oblige them.
I am darkly familiar with self-fulfilling prophecies.
For the longest time I purposely self-medicated with alcohol and thought my pathological awkwardness was due to being intoxicated in unstructured social settings. After four years of sobriety (but not tee totaling), I am utterly alone and feel less confident in my ability to have relationships with people and enter social settings. My mental agitation still plagues me, as does my insomnia. I have too many crimes and employment gaps to get a job that comes close to my skill set or will pay a wage that will free me from the control of my parents. Besides I’ve got no references and my former employers dislike me. It’s mutual.
So here I am, trying to write myself into a better story.