Wednesday, June 27, 2012

In Response to "The Life I Once Had"

The other day, Stuart Duncan (a.k.a. @autismfather) posted what might just be the best thing I've ever read on his blog. It's dark, no doubt. He warns us about that in the introductory comments. It's negative. He says it's boring, but he's wrong. "The Life I Once Had" is anything but. It's the equivalent of an autistic "it gets better", but without the schmaltz. It shows a stage in the development of an autistic life that most of us don't spend enough time talking about, lest we be drawn into brooding about times we'd rather not remember.

In that spirit, I'd like to contribute my own story (or at least a shortened version of it), and I'd like to encourage others to do the same. If you follow suit, please tweet at me so that I can collect these and edit them into links at the bottom of the page.

The Life I Once Had

Ten years ago, I was 20 years old, and I was confused. My first major relationship had just gone down in flames the year before, and my second one was not doing well. I was working in Residence Life to put myself through college, and even though all of my supervisors told me I was doing a good job, I was frustrated because the job was making demands on me that I could not understand. I stuck it out for six months or so after I started to feel out of place, but I never managed to pull it together. I had to resign.

It seems odd, now that I look back on it. I was an R.A.--probably the most social job on campus--for three years before I finally hit my breaking point.  It should have come much sooner--I was incredibly ill suited to it. All I can say is that I probably stuck it out because I was so miserable in my personal life that it made me blind to how miserable I was at work.

I left campus, got a job as an office manager, and finished school. It was fairly uneventful. I circulated my resume. I tried to find full time work. Nothing seemed to work out, though. I was capable of typing a mistake-free 60 WPM, I knew Excel, I knew Access... but I still couldn't find an office that wanted me. I tried to parlay my Residence Life experience into work at a property management firm, a hotel, anything--what I wound up with was a factory job through a temp agency. The place I was at claimed they hired people after ninety days, but what I actually experienced was 60-70 days of work, a three to four week layoff, and then another 60-70 days of work.

That got old fast.

Someone in my family suggested that I take up substitute teaching, since I had a degree in English and no one seemed to want me for anything else.  For the next year, I kept going back and forth--subbing, then factory work. Subbing, then factory work. I felt terrible. It wasn't that I thought that factory work was beneath me. It was just--how rejected would you feel if your job was to tape boxes together and you were still treated like you couldn't cut it?

At that point I had no friends to speak of.  My roommates constantly owed me money, and I think the only reason they didn't move out was because I was bad at being forceful with them. My best friend from high school was calling less and less, and only when he wanted someone to buy him booze. My girlfriend was there for me, but her own health was failing.

I got my first real break at the same time that my partner Liz started having serious complications from her epilepsy. I went to work for a place called Kalsec, doing lab work. Looking back on it, I realize that my supervisor was probably also autistic, but at the time I was just in heaven. The job was to prepare, dry, grind, and analyze peppers for the amount of pigment they contained. I was allowed to wear headphones all day, and as long as my work was accurate and I cleaned up after myself, I was left to work at my own pace and according to my own habits.

In addition to the extremely understanding versatility of the place (my supervisor wanted people to work overtime, but she pretty much let us work any 10 hours a day we chose), I found that people there liked me. The other technicians wanted to talk to me, and when they laughed at things I said, I felt like they were laughing with me. It was the first time in my life that I ever felt that.

Unfortunately, the year that I spent at Kalsec was also the year that Liz spent inpatient at the University of Michigan hospital, and while my work life was perfect, my personal life was a mess. Outside of work, all I did was visit her and drink. We had an extended holiday at one point, and I drank 4 bottles of whiskey in 3 days, and then got too sick to go back to work. Nobody said anything, but I knew they could tell.

At the end of that year, I got accepted to graduate school for playwriting.  At this point, I should have known that an incredibly social field would not suit me, but that was part of the problem--I was failing to understand so much of what happened around me that I couldn't even tell what worked well for me and what did not. I spent the entire time between my stints at the university writing short stories, but I still went back for drama. I felt most at home in a chemistry lab, but I still concentrated on teaching. I was incredibly stubborn.

Today, I do teach, and I do it well. I teach rhetoric for a couple of universities in the area part time. I limit my interactions with my students to strictly the course material as much as I can, and it works out. I don't feel lost.  I have a stable relationship with Liz, and while we will never have kids, we have a wonderful yappy dog named Boomer. For the first time since I was eleven years old, I can say that there is no member of my family that I am refusing to speak to, and no one who is refusing to speak to me.

That's because I know what I am now. I'm autistic. I have gone out of my way to try to learn where my blind spots are, to understand that there are things I will never understand. Accepting that there will be those blind spots makes them easier to deal with. Accepting my own limitations--knowing that I can not do anything I put my mind to, because some things will be bad for me and will make me unhappy, has been an important part of my development.

Four years ago, I was at the bottom. I was 26 years old, I had a Master's degree, and again, I had no one who wanted to hire me. The part-time jobs I did get were through friends. Every job interview was a disaster, and every disaster wore away at me. I was barely speaking to my parents. I hated my siblings. Liz's parents were telling me things I didn't want to hear, so I tried not to have anything to do with them.

For as long as I can remember, I have always had the unfortunate and juvenile habit of lashing out and hitting inanimate objects when my frustration overcomes me. Every apartment I ever lived in had holes in the walls. My father had to re-drywall my room when I moved out of his house. I've broken tables, dented the roof of more than one car, and kicked holes in floors. I'm not proud of it.

As my frustration with my inability to find work mounted, I got angrier and angrier.  Then, one morning, I lashed out. I got so angry with Liz that I was afraid I was going to break down and do or say something that would trash the only relationship that I had with anyone at that time. Instead, I punched the floor of my apartment.

No one told me that there was concrete under the carpet. It never occurred to me that there might be--I was on the third floor.

I wound up shattering a fair number of the small bones in my right hand. As of my writing this, I have no knuckles on two of the fingers. Worse than the injury was the isolation it brought. I feared telling anyone except Liz what happened--I thought that I'd get fired from what little employment I had if anyone found out. I had no insurance. I had forty dollars in my checking account. I made twenty dollars per month too much to get help at the free clinic, and so I had a broken hand and no way to seek treatment.

The three months I spent recovering were the longest three months of my life. I could not play guitar. I could barely write or play video games. I smoked a lot and watched a lot of television, and I got fat. Those three months were the most important three months of my life, though, because I found John Robison's Look Me In the Eye during those three months, and I started to ask questions.  About myself. About my life.  Those questions led to me seeking help, and luckily there are more mental health services in my county than physical health services.

The next two years were hard. I found a second part-time job and my finances leveled out, but I had a hard time keeping up with it while I made my peace with my new life. As I got more used to myself and my understanding of the invisible obstacles that I had spent my life tripping over, I did do better.  Eventually, I started teaching online, and that worked really, really well for me. I'm a better than average-to-good teacher when I have to try to get people to listen to me. When they only meet me through text, though, I'm great. Online teaching turned my entire career around.

As I felt more comfortable with my new identity, I slowly started to make issue of it at work, too. Letting my supervisors an students know why I had the weird quirks that I do have helped. They got less judgmental, and I got some of the consideration that I needed. In the end, it was less about accommodations and more about just having people take more time to explain things to me when I got frustrated.

Eventually, I saved up enough to buy a house. Liz's parents helped a bit, too, and the security of finally having something calmed down what little anger I had left. It's amazing, really, what it is to own something of value when you have never done so before. Until we got our house, everything in my life was either secondhand or DIY.

I learned something, too. I learned that what I really needed, all along, was this security. I needed to know that people were willing to help me, and the unfortunate thing about being undiagnosed and unaware of my condition was that I felt so alone all the time. Before my diagnosis, I did not believe that the people I worked with would want to hear about my problems, let alone to help me with them. I just assumed that they would treat me like someone who was more trouble than he was worth and replace me. What my diagnosis gave me was reassurance--it was the understanding that most people, if you give them the chance, would rather help others than hurt them.

Unfortunately, as I had to learn at the age of 28, that's not a universal truth. Even as I got better, I got worse. When I finally understood that there were people in my life who were basically bullying me to make themselves feel better, I confronted them.  Perhaps more strongly than I should have. There are relationships that are gone now because I trashed them on my way out the door, and there are relationships that will be arms-length acquaintances forever now because I can't trust some people who I used to hold dear.  It was a painful process, this reckoning, but I'm glad I did it.

I'm thirty years old. I'm autistic. I have never had a full time job, but I make more money now than some of my friends who do have them. More importantly, though, I have friends. I have two families who support me. I have a dog.

I have not punched anything since I was 26. Nor have I gotten so drunk that I missed work. Nor have I felt useless, worthless, or disposable to the people around me.

And you know what? Now I'm finally writing.