Monday, 17 September 2012

The Past


My picture from a 'bonny baby' competition, 1976/1977.
I hate the fact that so many people claim to have Asperger Syndrome or Autism just because they have one or two slightly obsessive rituals or are maybe prone to remembering one or two geeky facts.  I will give you an example of this.  I was speaking at an event for Research Autism at the 02 Arena in March.  I heard two people talking on the train as it was leaving my home City of Newport for Paddington.  One woman was claiming that she had to check and recheck the door every time she went out somewhere.  She followed this statement by booming to her friend ‘I am telling you, that is Aspergers’, repeating it over and over again.  And she pronounced Aspergers with a soft ‘g’ instead of a hard ‘g’, yuck!  Why do I care that so many people claim to have Aspergers you may ask?  Am I being pedantic?  There is a very real reason this is problematic for me and for others with Autism, which I will explain in this blog.

Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t an exclusive club, the auties versus the rest, as far as I am concerned Asperger Syndrome is nothing to be proud or indeed ashamed of, it is just a fact of my life.  The reason it annoys me is the way such statements trivialise our condition.  Being on the Autism Spectrum is not like catching the common cold, it is not something that everyone can relate to and by the time you listen to people speak, it feels like it is the neuro typicals who are in the vast minority and those with Autism are in fact the majority.  Sometimes I think maybe we should be supporting them. 

One of the questions many people ask me, the one which is the most difficult to answer, is what is Asperger Syndrome?  Or how does it feel to have Asperger Syndrome?  Describing Autism or Aspergers is very difficult.  Whenever I try to put it in a nutshell and talk about obsessions or anxiety, thinking in black or white or indeed lacking empathy, people often look at me in a  puzzled manner and say to me, ‘well I do that, how does that make someone with Autism any different to those without autism?’  I believe this is a very good question, and one which has a very simple answer.  My answer is that most of these aren’t autistic traits, but human traits.  This is why so many people can relate to experiences people with autism have and then underestimate the effect the condition has on our lives.  Any human being under a certain amount of stress can engage in obsessive and ritualistic behaviours, it is a human way of coping and managing anxiety.  What makes it different for someone like me is the amount of stress and anxiety we go through, which makes us more prone to these behaviours than those without our condition.  And besides I would argue that the O.C.D and other traits associated with our condition are secondary symptoms to a more important experience; the experience of being consumed by fear, uncertainty and confusion caused by an inability to understand the world around us.  I can give many anecdotes about times when I have taken things literally, seen issues in black and white, had strange obsessions and rituals, which exceeded the experience of the ‘norm’, and I intend to elaborate on them in future blogs.  But in this one I want to try and communicate my experience of the past, and why it has such an overwhelming bearing on the present and the future.

For those of you who have been watching Emmerdale, you will be familiar with the current story about the character of Ashley bullying his father Sandy.  For those of you not familiar with the story line, Ashley the local Vicar and pillar of the community has been putting pressure on his father to move into an old people’s home because he felt he was intruding on his family life.  Things came to ahead when he eventually assaulted his father and is now being ostracised by the local community.  Most people wouldn’t have given this a second thought other than to be entertained by a very interesting story.  For me it is the source of an awful lot of anxiety and confusion.  The reason it has caused me so much distress is because it challenges my perception of human behaviour.  When my perceptions are challenged my whole understanding of the world around me becomes blurry too and this makes me feel scared.  This subsequently leads to excessive revaluation of my own life.  Ashley like me is a person who has good intentions and tries to do his best for those around him.  After hearing of his wife having an affair he became angry and failed to manage this anger which led to a change in his character.  Now that his behaviour has changed he is being ultimately judged by that behaviour by a community he has been so kind to and who are now turning their back on him.  This doesn’t seem logical to me but then maybe that is the problem, I deal with issues in logic and social interaction doesn’t work that way.  It has been pointed out to me of course that the nature of a soap opera is to make the good guy bad and change the bad guy to good and back again, so it isn’t the best way to analyse human behaviour, but nonetheless I hate the fact that people judge each other on the negatives or are too narrow-minded to see the bigger picture.  I have always believed in unconditional love. 
My first birthday party, 1977.  I am at end of table
(in front of cooker) with Mam.

The story of Ashley in Emmerdale is just one example of many life scenarios, which can drag up unresolved issues and cause me anxiety.  The reason the Ashley storyline causes me anxiety is because as a person with autism I do have a history of challenging behaviours.  What contributes to those behaviours and indeed the ability to forget and move on from those experiences is the way that my brain works.  I have difficulty processing and understanding information and a difficulty in shelving the past and moving on to the future.  My memory is like a memory foam mattress; if an issue is not understood or resolved it stays in the shape of the last stressful experience associated with it.  This makes it as fresh in my mind today as it was, maybe years ago when the original issue happened.  This is why I need closure.  Many people would say this is because I am autistic and I am obsessive, and whilst there is a relative truth to that I believe a much more pertinent explanation exists.  And that is the way my mind understands and makes sense of the world around me; this is the essence of my condition the resulting behaviours that follow and the inability to shelve and move on from negative or indeed ‘human’ experiences.  My obsessions and rituals are a consequence of this, and whilst they cause me a large element of distress, they are insignificant compared to that feeling of being confused, vulnerable and not having a place in the world.  This is why I take such an exception to people saying they have Autism or Aspergers just because they share one or two of those traits.  This can lead to the condition being trivialised and developing an ‘oh we all go through that’ attitude which is the reason so many people with autism remain isolated or victims of bullying.  Because we all supposedly go through it, we should just get on with too and that to me is frankly absurd as well as making people with autism potentially very vulnerable (again I will elaborate on this a little further in future blogs).

Many people have said to me that I should forget the past and move on.  That advice is no doubt very good, sound and necessary.  The problem I have had in my life is knowing what I am moving on from.  If I don’t understand why something happened to me and the motives behind peoples actions then it is very hard for me to say ‘stuff them, they’re not worth it’ and I subsequently look to myself for the blame.  Even when it is explained to me I often don’t understand or I remember the explanation temporarily before asking the same question again.  Because of my logical thinking it is often hard for me to understand that people have character flaws and their behaviour has nothing to do with me.   I assume I have done something wrong I keep trying work out where I have gone wrong to put it right, and often you’ve done nothing wrong other than being an easy target for a bully.    This confusion and the pressure to pretend I can cope make it difficult to know when I should stand up for myself and when I am over reacting.  My stress levels rise and as much as I try to hide my emotions it eventually becomes too much and then I blow.  Losing my temper is easier for me than confronting someone because losing my temper does not require the same social interaction skills of looking someone straight in the eye, and telling them I have had enough.  The problem with that of course is that you end up going from being gentle to volatile in one step, without showing any warning signs in-between.  I am judged on the behaviour and become the bad guy.  People often forget how nice you’ve been and how much you’ve taken before it has gone that far.   I get so frustrated then that people don’t understand that Joe Powell in the words of King Lear, is most definitely ‘more sinn'd against than sinning.’  But then I think differently from most of society, so often people wouldn’t understand the logic behind my behaviour, exacerbating my anger at mankind and my frustration at a society that misunderstands me, which makes it hard for me to avoid misanthropy.  Bernard my life coach is helping me to understand that whilst it is good that I am more aware that some people do take advantage, there are many wonderful people out there who would benefit from my kindness and who in turn would enrich my life, if I was to let them in.   I am still struggling to come to terms with this but I am trying.  Whenever I see people, I see a potential advantage taker, a potential confrontation with someone I really don’t want to be involved with, a potential regret and a possible source of humiliation, a reminder of that unresolved incident that happened years ago and a reminder of how vulnerable and socially incompetent I really am.

As I am getting older I am coming to the conclusion that whilst the past is not always a healthy place to be (especially when trying to manage my mental health issues) sometimes the past is necessary in order to make progress in the future.  This is why the ability to self-reflect is one that has been essential for my development.  The challenge I have is to access the past when I need to, learn from it, forgive myself and then use the experience to move on and not let it hold me back or prevent myself from building the best life I possibly can.    


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