Friday, November 30, 2018

What it feels like from the inside

Today, I have a guest on the blog - my husband Dave.  

Doing social

Having Aspergers means that I rarely have a sense of what is going on.

Early on I learned – don’t ask me how – that the best I could do to understand the world was to conduct constant and exhaustive analysis. I have done this habitually all my life. It may take days, weeks, months, and even years on some occasions. There are things I am still analysing after 40 years and somehow the committee of brain cells is not satisfied yet.

Many of these analyses have a life of their own. They are fired often by puzzlement. Feeling bamboozled is fairly familiar. Feeling lost.

An example – a trivial example – of such analysis is Having People Round. They may Eat, Visit, or perhaps just Chat. Everything is OK until they leave. I ask Sue ‘Was that OK ? Were they alright ?’ and then, whatever her answer, plunge into analysis. I search for nuance, study body language, remember what seemed significant moments, trying to figure out if the evening went well. The thing here is that I simply have no circuits to tell me how it was, whether they were OK or not. I have absolutely no sense of it, and have to try to arrive at a conclusion by means of relentless analysis.

To normal people, this process is at best aberrant, and at worse plain nuts. They have an intuitive feel for whether some social occasion has been OK. They don’t need to ask anybody. The question seems absurd. To them, whether someone enjoyed themselves or not is obvious, like asking them if the sky is blue, or what colours mix to make orange. It is not something they think about. Ever. This always feels like amazing magic to me: some spell I never mastered. One of very many.

Analytical thinking was useful at work, when it was explicitly useful. Leading a group through the foothills of analysis to the peaks of understanding was something I could do with ease. But nobody at work knew that the same process was constantly clicking over covertly in my head. It is incessant. It is exhausting, but I can’t stop it. And if I ever did stop it, I would have no understanding at all of what is going on around me. Analysis is the best I can do.

Sometimes there are intuitive insights which make me feel like an idiot savant. I can sometimes pick up on odd emotional undercurrents, and can stumble upon the hidden issues to unlock problems. This can be mistaken as being smart, when it is merely an accident of circuitry.

In particular, my radar has always been tuned to the wavelength of distress. I have never handled happiness well, and cannot detect it confidently in other people or myself. But misery ? That’s another story. I seem able to see the tapestry of misery with all the subtlety of a Farrow and Ball paint chart. I seem able to home in on people’s hidden sadness in a way which often takes them aback.

Why is this ? Well, I do not know, of course. It was true when I was a child, and is still true now.

This random and bizarre combination is all I have to try to understand the world. No wonder I feel so often out of place, puzzled, adrift.

I am hopeless at ‘doing social’. I often wonder aloud to Sue whether people I know might be considered friends, or if she thinks they might think of me as a friend. I was never sure, am still never sure. People are at best a mystery, and occasionally a nightmare.

Doing social was always a problem. Living in a shop, there was a clear boundary between the house and the shop. You stepped through a door from a private world into a public one. In the public one there were likely to be hordes of strangers: customers, reps, deliverymen, all of whom you were supposed to talk to. I remember always feeling tense before stepping through the door that led from the safety of the house into the shop where strange customers might be lurking. It often felt like us against them, though none ever got through the door to the house and actually invaded.

When ‘visitors’, ‘strangers’ actually got into the house, it was usually at my mother’s invitation. She even invited relatives to visit. When they came, much to my mother’s delight, my father, grandfather and I saw thought of it as an alien invasion. Relatives were inconvenient, verging on hostile. We withdrew into our respective shells like alarmed tortoises. There were a few exceptions: relatives with favoured status. We never invited anybody: relatives had nothing to do with us. We tolerated them to please my mother. I think she found this difficult.

I never understood relatives, and could never find common ground with them. It was hard to even figure out how they fitted together. They always felt like a problem that was just too difficult to solve. After my mother died in 1971 it was an opportunity to slip out of sight of many relatives, and her funeral was the last time I ever had any contact with most of them. I do not know whether they are alive or dead, but either way they do not trouble me now.

The family motto was “God gives you relatives. Thank god you can choose your friends.”

The thing was that we did not choose many. My mother had a bunch of them. She visited them, and they came to see her. I think she probably needed the light relief.

My father had a friend. Jack Brownhill had improbably furry eyebrows and appeared very infrequently. He had been best man at my parents’ wedding, and after that came around like a comet maybe once every two years. It wasn’t a close friendship, but it was the closest my father had. Jack Brownhill and my father both look bewildered on the wedding photographs, though that might have been due to the fancy dress. I have no idea who Jack Brownhill actually was.

My grandfather had a tiny group of friends who never visited, though he went to see them. They were previous colleagues from work, and all of them female. He – and I – always got on more easily with women than with men. Neither he nor I were competitive, and both of us were vaguely cerebral, probably feeling safer in our heads than out in the company of people.

As a kid, I had friends at primary school. I even did Susan Sloboda’s maths in exchange for her doing my sewing. My stuffed Bambi still has Susan’s tiny seams punctuated by wild blanket stitch where I took over. My sewing looks like the webs spun by spiders after being given marijuana. But I was taken home ill from the end of school leaver’s party. It was the social stress that made me ill, rather than the jelly and buns.

Secondary school was a nightmare of Kafka-esque proportions from the first day to the last, and ‘friends’ there were never more than acquaintances really. The school used surnames only, so I guess that friends were the people whose first names I knew. The main task at school was to protect myself from the school’s desire that we should all fit in with what were odd rules of behaviour. I did this by being difficult when I was there, and by being there as infrequently as was possible. I was often not there when I was actually there – playing truant inside the school. I have been playing truant all my life.

I did A levels at 16, and went to university when I was just 17. I was socially inept, hideously immature, ill-at-ease, but good at Latin. It was not a promising prospect.

The university wanted me to go into hall. This was a deal-breaker as I simply could not face spending time in the company of so many strangers. I wrote to say that I would not be going to the university at all if I had to be in hall, and so I ended up in digs with a dozen other misfits, oddballs and eccentrics. They were delightful, though Sue always felt we were faintly creepy as a bunch.

University was the best period of my life. By light years. There were very few, if any, rules. Nobody seemed to care very much what you did, and there was no pressure of any kind. I failed to turn up for any departmental meetings, parties, meals or wine tastings, and did not go to graduation. I missed not only lectures, but whole courses of lectures. I read voraciously and discovered delight in so many areas of learning. I bought astonishing numbers of books and had VIP status in the bookshop as a result.

As an adult I have studiously and creatively avoided groups of people wherever they gather. Shops, parties, weddings, sports, festivals, collective bonhomie of all kinds. I am most alone in groups of people, and feel existentially threatened. I have been to three weddings, one of which was my own, but could not face going to my wonderful children’s weddings. There are many reasons for that, but social events are something I welcome as much as the invitation to have flu for a month, or have someone push wires under my toe-nails. I break into a sweat at social events, feel my pulse rate and blood pressure rise, and can’t wait to get away.

To other people, it seems incredible that I have this debilitating lack of social feel. It is unbelievable to normal people that anyone can lack this basic capability. I look un-ironed but otherwise almost normal. My behaviour is a little eccentric, but not wildly enough to have me barred from public spaces. But there is just no circuit in my head which can tune in to how happy people are, whether they like me, whether they are having a good time, whether they are satisfied.

Analysis, analysis, analysis … there are usually several simultaneous analyses continually running in my head. No matter what I am doing, however absorbed I am in some obscure woodwork or music, committees of brain cells are beavering away trying to find answers to impossible and often trivial questions.

I cannot tell whether people are angry or upset. This is true of myself, too. It is hard to distinguish between them. I try not to get into that whole territory, as it feels rather scary. On occasions when I have been angry, I feel out of control and unstoppable. Martial boggled at the rhino displayed in the arena. He commented that it was slow to anger, and hard to provoke, but once aroused it was ferocious beyond belief. The Romans were awe-struck that a rampaging rhino, suitably goaded into action, tossed anything in its path. Its fury was indiscriminate and implacable. I know how it felt.

Until really recently, and decades after her death, I always thought of my mum as volcanic. She seemed to me to have two settings: calm and explosive. There was no mid-setting, and she moved unpredictably from pacific to violent without warning. It was scary and made me feel a bit insecure. Now I see that she must have had infinite gradations of gently increasing annoyance. The puzzle for her must have been that I ignored the warning signs and ploughed on regardless. It must have been so frustrating and inexplicable. But I simply did not notice any warning signs, could not read them, did not even see them. I simply went on with whatever nefarious thing I was doing, and kept on enthusiastically until she exploded, much to my complete surprise. And much to her huge incomprehension. How could I be so wilfully annoying ?

No relevant circuits, that’s how.

I am colour-blind. My rainbows, wonderful, glorious, and moving have only two distinct colours really. I see yellow and I see blue, and maybe am aware of another colour, though I don’t know what it is. Not for me the ROYGBIV version which I know exists for other people, but never see. It’s just the same with emotions. You have to work with whatever you have.

The second instalment to Dave's explanation is here.


Maureen said...

A brilliant blog Dave.....My sisters husband has Asperger too and in the early years had been at times, behaviour wise, hard to understand, as he had never been diagnosed as such then....As a family we have got used to his traits and absences from family get my eyes everyone is made differently and unique..x

Sue Hepworth said...

I'll pass on your lovely comment, Maureen.

Sally said...

Dave writes very well, this is so interesting & helps with trying to understand this condition. I know Aspergers is a spectrum, so presumably people's experience varies but this insight really helps with trying to understand. Any chance of a blog from your perspective Sue?

Sue Hepworth said...

Hi Sally, Aspergers is on the autism spectrum (actually they have ditched the Aspergers label now and it's all autism) and everyone's experience is different which is why it is so puzzling to a lot of neurotypical people. The main things that autistic people have in common are detailed here:

so I won't repeat them.
Yes, I might blog about it from my perspective.

Anonymous said...

Such a thought-provoking guest blog - thank you for inviting us to take a peek.

Made me wonder how well anyone really ‘gets’ other people - whether we refer to our unique set of assumptions and subjective markers or Dave’s evidence-based tactics. What is so impressive is the attempt itself. Maybe that is all there needs to be?

While being sensitised to human distress - that is really something special.

And now we know you can see Sue in all her turquoise glory!

You’re a marvel Dave - enjoyed, liked, loved. Accept it.


Anon said...

Love reading Dave's pieces. Can we have a book?

Sue Hepworth said...

oh, would that we could have a book.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Thankyou so much both of you. I like the Christmas hat, made me laugh. Yes a book. Please. Jenetta

Anonymous said...

Dave, As a woman and mother(of an Aspie teen), and caregiver (sort of), you have so articulated my internal daily struggle to the nth degree that Im astounded. In fact, you've inspired me to write a blog as well. Men, it seems, can get away with many of these isms, but when it comes to emotional, women are expected to be all to all. I find this exhausting and my lack of emotional response is frustrating to most. The only true responses are fear and anger. I struggle with humor though I desperately want it. And your accounting of your mother is probably exactly what my son experiences daily although we are close. He , too is much like you but he is the class clown instead of me, the truant who ran. I appreciate your accounting. No one understands an Aspie's necessity for ho esty like an Aspie. There truly is no grey. I will share this article with my son as he will see the same, Im sure. Good luck and keep writing.

Unknown said...

Thank you Dave for sharing how you experience life.
Both my sons are aspies and I have spent years devouring knowledge on how to help them negotiate life.
You so brillantly articulated your perspective!
I was completely able to see how you see just from reading your words.
I find as a parent I spend my time analysing everything also.
I analyse for my children attempting to predict how a situation or social event may be challenging for them. Then I analyse them as they negotiate the situation and then I analyse how I could have helped them more.
I analyse them each morning to see how they are when they wake up, how they are during the day and how they are after they go to sleep.
It is exhausting but I am so grateful that they are my sons and I am able to be so connected to them.
It constantly astounds me how brillant the aspie mind is.
Thank you again Dave for helping me to gain more knowledge to help me help my sons.

Sue Hepworth said...

Hi Holly and Helen,
I will pass your comments on to Dave. Thanks so much for bothering to comment.

Lizzi Bee said...

Thanks for sharing. 💕

Nicole said...

Very well expressed article. Thank you Dave for sharing your way of experiencing existence. I can especially relate to the “committees of brain cells” and constant streams of analysis.