Why I've Been Quiet

Image may contain: Mark Anderson, sitting and indoor

It's not that I haven't been paying attention.

I wish it were otherwise. I wish I could just check out, ignore what's going on around me, focus on what gives me joy, celebrate the wonders in my life.

Unfortunately, that's not who I am, not how my brain works, not how it's ever worked. And so today, I'm going to begin writing about myself in a way I haven't before (though I did briefly reflect on this topic in the early days of this blog, more than five years ago), even as this blog--the way I write it, the amount I share, the carelessness around boundaries, the sheer logorrheic excess of its word count--is, itself, solid evidence that I am, in fact, in possession of an autism spectrum disorder.

To be clear, I have not been identified as autistic by any professionally-administered psychiatric assessment, because I have yet to be assessed. I am, however, for the first time in my life, actively pursuing such an assessment. I want an answer. I want to know why it's so hard for me to make friends, why over the course of my life I've had so many administrators sour on me, so many adults jump to conclusions about me that have no basis in truth, why I have such a hard time treading the fine line between candor and over-sharing. There's more, much more: the superhuman focus I click into when I'm engaged in a complex task, the obsessive way I play video games or build puzzles, my intense dislike for collaborative work, my sensitivity to sensory annoyances (clothing tags, leaf blowers, eating noises), my inability to let go of injustices committed against me or people I care about, the flatness of my affect, the inscrutability of my facial expression.

To be uncharacteristically brief, then, there are a host of indicators that I may be--probably am--a person living with autism.

So why now? Why, at 57-going-on-58, am I just now taking this seriously?

1. Family history: my mother was recently hospitalized, and is now in extended recovery, due to some serious medical issues that she has been living with for decades. Like her, I've been coping with this condition for my entire adult life, creating work-arounds, addressing symptoms, but never actually investigating the source. I don't know if it's a New England thing or a French Canadian thing or some other cultural artifact. Whatever has led me to cope with rather than embrace and transcend my condition, I need to stop it before I die.

2. Work history: I have, over a work life that spans two different professions, contended with many supervisors. There's family history here, too: my brothers and me, like our father before us, are typically dissatisfied employees. We're better off as independent contractors, sole proprietors, lone rangers, even when we're engaged in people work like ministry or teaching. To the extent that we do work with people, though, whether they're customers, students, or parishioners, we cannot avoid coming under the scrutiny of our employers. As specialists, it's rare that we find ourselves working for someone who knows more about our work than we do, so we're already set up to be skeptics of whatever advice or direction these people may offer--and you can see where this is headed, and why, if I'm going to finish out my career in public education, I need help in this area.

3. Interpersonal history: I burned through two marriages and an engagement, not to mention a number of long-term relationships, thinking I was doing everything I could to save them. The harder I worked at pleasing my partner, the farther from me she drifted. The intensity of my focus was too much for her. It's felt lately like I have the same dynamic at work in my current teaching assignment--and as with all those dead relationships, it's not going well. The answer, I know, lies in the Buddhist principle of detachment, but that's much easier said than done, especially for someone who lives adjacent to or right smack in the middle of the spectrum.

4. Personal history: this dovetails neatly with the previous issue. Obsessing over matters beyond my control has exacted an enormous toll on my health, both physical and psychological. A light sleeper, I often find myself awake in the wee hours of the morning, unable to separate my mind from its anxiety over issues of work and relationship. Days off have been lost to email exchanges in which I've painstakingly crafted every sentence in hopes of getting my point across as clearly and inoffensively as possible, only to have the person at the other end blow up even more at me. I've always struggled with maintaining friendships once proximity ends, leaving me often alone and lonely. There have been few times in my adult life that I haven't been in therapy, always groping for an answer to my unhappiness, seeking answers in my past and present relationships, but never quite reaching the deep fundamental source.

5. Future history: I am blessed with a loving, affirming, honest, intentional relationship with a woman who has worked with me through crises large and small, and with whom I expect to happily live out the rest of my life. On Presidents' Day, we will have been together for ten years. There have been times in this decade together when I found myself falling into old behaviors that led to the end of previous relationships. Fortunately, this one was strong enough to weather those storms. But I don't want to have to rely on fortune going ahead. I want to know why I've fallen so many times into the same traps, and learn how to bypass them in the future, for the long-term health of my marriage.

I could go on with explanations of my current quest for self-awareness, but I want to get back to the title of this post, then wrap it up with where I'm headed in my blogging life. Work has kept me from blogging. All my creative energy has been directed into saving my job, but as with all those failed relationships, it's like gasoline on a fire. Detachment was what I needed from the beginning. While I'm beginning to find it now, it's almost certainly too late for this particular job. The energy I've poured into my work has kept me from creating in ways that feed me. I've hardly written at all, have gone months without playing in an improv show, and have neglected fitness to the extent that I'm carrying around forty extra pounds. All this needs to change. Understanding myself--obsessive focus, flat affect, frustration with those who don't understand me, goal fixation, all the factors suggesting I'm on the spectrum--will help me to build work-arounds and learn specific relational skills, as well as to turn my focus on the far healthier goal of detachment from the many outcomes I fear or feel driven to achieve.

It will probably be some time before I'm back to writing at anything approaching the pace of the early years of this blog. It may be, too, that the time is coming when "Midlife Meditation" needs to be retired, or at least sidelined, so that my writing can focus on this new adventure, exploring my part of the spectrum. Just this week, I read a piece about the controversy around the use of a puzzle piece as an icon for autism, and my first thought was, "Ooh, I do like puzzles." In fact, that symbol has represented the puzzle autistic persons presents to the world: what makes them the way they are? How can "normal" people live with them? Are they good for anything? Speaking for myself, I'm happy embracing the idea that I'm a puzzle, even to myself, and to direct my focus onto solving it. That means less punditry (and honestly, do we really need anymore words written about the Nightmare on Pennsylvania Avenue?), more over-sharing, and eventually, when the dust settles, a probable return to the political speculation that's my bread and butter. I may put this blog on hiatus and launch a new one with a title like "Spectrum Adjacent" (a working title--I'm holding off on naming until I've got a hard and fast diagnosis).

To again attempt to keep it brief: there will be more of me to read, if you're interested.


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