Around the age of 25, the mental health professionals and adults in my life started casually saying “Oh, sure you’re on the spectrum. We’ve always known.” It didn’t much bother me then. So what? It explained a lot about my behaviors, things I thought were normal that made people raise eyebrows. At that point my life was starting its upward trajectory, so what did it matter? There were a lot of things I could–and did–beat myself up about, but that wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t a character defect, it was just the way I was. It wasn’t something I felt, and it wasn’t something I could change.
Somewhere in my mid 20s I went on a date with a woman who said in her profile that she had Aspergers. About halfway through the date, my fight and flight instincts started going off. I didn’t know if I wanted to bolt or start screaming at her. She reminded me a lot of myself, and I didn’t like having that reflected back at me. The reflection was an awkward and unwieldy disposition with conversational skills that, while decent, were obviously practiced behavior. The conversation was one other people might politely enter and at some point possibly be engaged in, but probably one they’d be relieved to be done with. There was no second date. I’d seen myself in her the way I believed other people saw me, and I felt ugly and burdensome.
Fast forward a lifetime, on Saturday my wife and I were celebrating our second anniversary (!!!). We were at the restaurant where we had our first date, riffing and cracking jokes like we do. I said something ridiculous, an observation loosely tangential to something else around, and said something like “aren’t I hilarious?” She responded “You are neurodivergent, and I love you.” We have always acknowledged the fact that I may be somewhere on the spectrum. I knew she accepted me the way I am long before we got engaged, and I felt like her comment was more of an acknowledgment than a jab; but in that moment, a lifetime of social failings suddenly clicked, and I felt like I’d been hit in the gut by a sack of flour.
My academic peers all said I was weird (even the weird ones), or else just went out of their way to avoid me. I didn’t see it, but figured they couldn’t all be wrong, so maybe it was true. My mom would tell me things like “maybe if you didn’t read while you walk between classes” or “maybe if you weren’t so literal all the time” or “maybe if you just listened instead of trying to force yourself into the conversation,” that people might accept me more. I try to find ways to relate to the people I’m talking to, often with anecdotes. This is typical of people on the spectrum–something I knew, and something my wife unhelpfully pointed out at the restaurant to try to re-engage me. If I can’t strike up a relatable conversation, my social anxiety sets in. My and my wife’s friends like to say “oh you’d get along with him great” about other friends or SOs, which I find encouraging, but which also comes off like making matches between two single people. I get the impression that my family, while appreciating my presence at gatherings, gets tired of me talking pretty quickly. Coming to Heart Support was a relief because my anecdotes actually matter and I’ll probably never meet anyone here anyhow; but with an abundance of learned self-awareness, sometimes I think I try too hard and too often to relate, and insert myself into threads I should just leave alone. One thing I am pretty sure of: Taking an hour or more to craft a cohesive response seems excessive.
Is listening to me talk like hearing the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons? Are people well-intentioned or patronizing and pitying when they try to help me along in social situations? Are casual acquaintances just being polite when they converse with me? Are related anecdotes really more annoying than poignant and topical? Does anyone give a shit about me trying to convey abstract ideas with metaphors? Have I learned and practiced social skills enough to pass for normal or even charming in casual environments? Do I lack the self-awareness to see myself as other people see me, or am I overly self-conscious? Does any of it matter?