Saturday, January 21, 2012

Hard Lessons

Over the last couple of months, when I've been mostly not posting, it has not been because I've not been writing or because I have not been participating in the community.  It's been because, as I found myself closing my third year since graduation without a full time job, I also have had to take some time to inventory myself and to think soberly about what I need to do in order to continue developing my craft as a writer, improve my life skills as someone who is developmentally challenged, and navigate the dark room that is my position in my social circle.

It didn't help that I turned thirty in December.  As I looked back over three decades on jagged, razor-edged and nearly terminal weirdness, I was forced to begin to acknowledge some truths about myself and my family that, for a very long time, I had either denied, ignored, or put behind me without comment.

As I enter my thirties, I have to admit that I'm far better off than I have any right to expect to be.  Some very good people spent a very large amount of time and energy on me during the last few years, and as a result, I find myself in a position that many of my neurotypical friends and colleagues envy.  After all, I might not have a full time job yet, but I'm a successful freelance writer/editor/web designer with a pair of relatively high-paying part-time day jobs.  And I might want to gripe about this lifestyle forcing me to work seven days a week for months at a time, but I also have to face the fact that many other people my age are working two part-time retail jobs, and they wind up working seven day weeks without being able to say that they are in the career that their degree prepared them for.

And, as I said earlier, I have my house...  Despite it costing me all of my disposable income in repairs last fall, I also have a car... There are people whose talent and dedication I envy that haven't managed that yet.

For all that I might have failure anxiety, and for all that I might regret my inability to push through and to obtain a tenure track faculty position, I really don't have a reason to whine.

In order to achieve what I have, though, I have had to give up a lot.  Namely, I have had to surrender my entire worldview.  I have only been successful recently, and I can say with confidence that I owe that success to the realization that my instincts are horrible, and that the only way for me to exist is to actively avoid doing whatever it is that I want most to do.

I spent the first twenty-seven years of my life wandering through a bizarre and mostly invisible landscape of body language and social rules that I did not comprehend.  During that time, I was so insulated from the reality of my own deficits that I was not actually able to understand the differences between my lifestyle, work habits, and obsessive tics and the behaviors of other people.

This and a childhood that would make Dickens tear out his eyeballs in sheer frustration caused me to develop a massive ego and a short temper.  After all, if I had left my parents' home at seventeen and never turned back, then why should I have sympathy for lazy kids who moved home after college?  If I came from a single parent household where I was forced to act as the guardian/protector of my younger syblings, then what right did other teenagers have to be (pardon the language) fucked up about their moms or dads leaving?

If I could survive on eight hundred dollars a month from a part time job and another hundred for donating plasma, then why should I listen to my room mates compain about their tuition or their credit card bills?

This kind of thinking built me up when I was at my darkest points, and it gave me the strength to basically chew my arm off to get out of more than a couple of horrible living situations.  The only problem is, a one-armed animal doesn't do well in the wild.  Once I found myself at an age where I was expected to compete with other adults for a limited number of available opportunities and resources, I started to falter.  If I couldn't be bothered to give a shit about anyone else, then why should they continue to waste time and energy on me, right?

Now it makes sense.  Then, all I saw was that people I trusted and turned to were turning their backs on me.  Life was getting harder, and I assumed it was because everyone else was fearing my progress toward some kind of radical enlightenment.

This kind of bullshit finally pushed me over the edge while I was in graduate school.  I was doing well, but I was given too many pats on the back too quickly.  After a teaching award and several productions of my plays in three years, I thought that I was going to walk into a good position at a university...

...except that it was 2008.  And while I had a lot of work produced, I didn't really have very many people who wanted to write recommendation letters for me.  I also didn't have any friends who had found jobs, so I was stuck looking for open listings.  There really weren't any.  Not any doing what I wanted to do.

Just before graduation, a few of my professors stepped in and helped arrange a part time teaching situation for me.  I owe those people my life.  I didn't even realize it until much later, but the suddenness of being confronted with complete failure had eroded my mental balance until I was beyond dysfunctional.

I had a good run.  Thanks to a decent work ethic, a healthy ability to tolerate deprivation, and a very hard head, I had made it to twenty-seven before my lack of social awareness caught up with me.  When it did catch up, though, it didn't just hit me.  It threw me to the ground, curb-stomped me, and then turned me into a sobbing, snot-sucking, bloody wreck.

I gained a hundred pounds, but I did manage to quit smoking during that time.  I also learned that the people who were the most annoying about pestering me with tiny details and demands were actually the ones that were trying to help me the most.  My "friends" and the members of my family that did nothing to try to change my behavior weren't accepting me.  They were just too lazy to help me reach my potential.

During the last three years, I have tried to embrace a new ethic.  The people who had previously annoyed me with their incessant picking at my work are the ones I make myself listen to, now.  Sometimes I need to take breaks from them, because there is such a thing as too much help all at once, and social situations tax me, but I do take as much as I can before I shut down.  I also make myself go back for more when I feel better.

I also started taking an inventory of my expectations, my ambitions, and my actual abilities.  This was important, because for the first time in my life, my awareness of my abilities includes an awareness of my own weaknesses.

Finally, I've started to force myself to confront things that I had previously made excuses for.  I've adopted a new standard for my own character, and part of that new standard has included adopting the basic tenets of the ancient Stoics.  I have accepted that I was born imprisoned, and that freedom is something that I can only obtain by recognizing and then breaking the habits, cultural expectations, and dogmas that had previously colored my perception of my own behavior.  It is a harsh way to live, but it is rewarding.  Essentially, it is the idea that if I have done anything that left me feeling empty, guilty, shameful, or depressed, then the most dangerous thoughts are the ones that make me feel better.  Those are the thoughts I should interrogate, that I should resist adopting until every other explanation for my behavior and feelings have been exhausted and found wanting.

This is a tiring way to exist, but it keeps me on my toes.  I've been trying for the last few months to figure out how to talk about it in relation to my autism and my interst in neurodiversity, and it is part of what has held me back from writing more.

Today, I must accept that if I can not measure the reactions of other people to my behavior, then I must make sure that my own standards for that behavior are higher than their expectations could possibly be.  I must also accept that I will be forever trust-falling.  Every time I speak to someone, I am blindfolded and collapsing into their arms, completely unable to predict whether or not they will catch me before I plant my face in the dirt.

I'm not a man who's much given to faith.  In fact, there are a lot of ways that people use that word that I can not even comprehend.  Lately, though, as I have been forced to keep diving and hoping that the person I am dealing with will hold me up, I have come to understand a little of it.  My entire survival is dependent on my blind acceptance of the idea that if I am courteous, polite, and helpful, that there will be more people who will help me than people who will take advantage of me.  For someone who spent nearly two decades being taken advantage of by nearly everyone he knew, this is an incredible act of faith.

I have to act this way, because the alternative is to assume that they all want to hurt me and that I should not try to communicate my needs to others.  I have found that attitude to be ruinous and believe me, I have tested it to exhaustion before giving up on it.

It as taken me a long time to decide to share this, but I've created a new category for posts that reflect on these issues.  My hope is that some of you, or some of your children at least, will be able to learn from the Hard Lessons that I post here.  I'm not going to pull my punches or watch my language on these posts--the lessons I've learned have been brutal, grim, and final.  The explanations about them will be the same.