Ask an Aspergirl

Pondering popular culture, generalized anxiety, and social confusion

Overlapping, overarching narratives

I’ve been trying to have this conversation with my therapist for a while now: “Do you think I’m autistic? I remember when the possibility first entered my mind, it was because someone else brought it up.” “Do you think you’re on the spectrum?” “I don’t know,” I replied and then spent that spring semester researching the possibility. I called a friend from undergrad whose background was in special education.

“The question is not whether you have autism or are on the autism spectrum, but how you understand yourself and find a place that’s the best fit for you.”

I remember her saying to take all the time I needed with that process and not feel pressured to place myself in any sort of box. She mentioned how I didn’t sound so scared anymore about the possibility of being autistic. As I read books and essays about autistic women’s experiences, they resonated with my own. I made a series of Venn diagrams and journaled as I attempted to make sense of how these overarching narratives fit together.

It's in the overlap

I remember looking for the right words to describe myself — “Aspergirl, quirky, or socially different.” I didn’t want to call myself autistic if I didn’t meet the diagnostic criteria (which at that point would have been under DSM-IV, although I knew Aspergers would be absorbed into the autism spectrum that summer). Aspergirl was a self-identifier that seemed consistent with my experiences of not quite fitting and missing social nuances. It was a label noting difference, not deficit.

I’ve lived in this overarching narrative — that I was an Aspergirl (probably autistic young woman – but only self-identified) for the last year or so. I found a community of like-minded women who shared their lives through blog entries and tweets. And yet part of me wonders if I’m actually autistic — maybe I’m just anxious, so I feel awkward in social situations and miss others’ cues because I can’t see past myself.

Imagined conversation:

“Do you think I’m autistic? You’d mentioned when I first started seeing you that my social confusion could just be due to my anxiety, but why does that identity resonate with me?”

“I can’t tell you who you are. We could talk about autistic traits, and you’re familiar with the diagnostic criteria. But I think you’re trying to figure out what being autistic means — to you, your experience, who you’ll be, in the becoming.”

I’m reminded of those Venn diagrams covered with notes about my interpersonal history and longstanding observations. It’s in the overlap where things make sense — familial trauma, Aspergirl self, and generalized anxiety intermingle on a sheet of notebook paper.

“I felt like someone had to call me that for it to be so — to claim that identity [as a poet]. I have the authority to claim that identity for myself.” – writing group facilitator on labeling oneself

“If you want to further explore the possibility that you’re on the autism spectrum, there’s a clinic nearby campus where I can refer you — but I also don’t want you to feel limited by a label. Remember this is a sacred space where you’re free to determine who you are.”

So for now, this is where I am, pondering these overlapping, overarching narratives, knowing that identity isn’t static.

You don’t know me, a rant

No, really, I actively avoid your calls because you don’t know me — don’t try to know me — not really. “Don’t waste your PhD, like your mother wasted her degree,” he said. You don’t know me. You’re living with my grandmother — I talk to her, not you.

That talk at Christmas was a gift — acting as if anything — some semblance of a relationship was there — Here’s who I am and what I’m doing, but you don’t deserve that.

“I wasn’t always a good father — but I loved you — I tried harder than my dad.” Trying to be someone isn’t enough — you need a plan. You don’t know me because I won’t let you in — again, after watching you pretend everything was normal. I’d like to pull out the slideshow sometime:

This is me, hiding in my room — this is you, yelling at mom, her crying, you screaming accusations — needed her to be someone other than who she is. This is me distancing myself; this is you hugging me as I recoil slightly. This is me, watching, waiting, wondering how you don’t recognize your dad in you.

You don’t know how hard I’ve worked to shake off the fear, the memories of silence intermingled with strings of obscenities reverberating in my mind. You don’t know the adult me, who feels like she’s constantly piecing herself back together, returning to the present. Reminding herself that you’re not an authority on anything — then feeling the sadness in that absence.

I don’t trust you to know me. What would you do with me? As I become myself, I’m distancing myself from you, not knowing what you could do to find space in my life — not wanting you in my space — Mine! My quiet, my people, my time; no longer waiting for you to decide what we do with our paper doll family.

I don’t know if you ever  knew me — you knew the cutout paper version of me — still and quiet, waiting for you to leave — surprised at the quiet.

This is what I need now — to see you as a horrible person with no place in my life — in the stark black-and-white, no grey — we’ve tried grey. I’ve seen you in the familial tragedy and saddened adolescent self — BUT you can’t see me! Maybe you don’t want to — I suppose you’d realize what a shitty father you’d been if you did.

In the conversations I’ve been there to repair, in the sads and that would hurt — but I need you to see that, to recognize who you’ve become, if inadvertently — not so far away from the man who’s alienated his sons, and screams at cows. The one whom you’ve avoided across holidays.

I suppose you know what this feels like — to hide and mourn — then pause, to feel stuck — but you’ve distanced yourself from that experience.

You’re too far away to see me.

 

It was just then, at the end of everything

“It was just then, at the end of everything” — she knew things would have to change, but how? Did she change in hopes of shaping the environment around herself? Would she wait for the seemingly uncontrollable to somehow move?

Just then, at the end of everything, she gave up — on knowing what she was supposed to do — as if there was some plan before her — on knowing what was real, what was objectively happening. She is living in the in-between –

What do I do when I’m exhausted and confused?

You embrace it.

(Seriously?)

Yeah, this is where you are now. In the absence of resources or long range plans, when you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing.

This is everything. Just then and now — living in the in-between, the distant present. When sleep is elusive and burnout seems imminent. At this end — you leap — tessering to a place unknown — you can see it sometimes — an imagined this will be; but the getting there can be excruciating, bewildering.

In the “I don’t knows,” what if you just decided you’d be okay — amongst this — in the absence, you decided to tesser — not knowing; not seeing — in an unfamiliar end you lack the words to describe. What then?

It’s in this space we live — in the constant movement, the not enough time and too much to experience, in the self-doubt and fear if we stopped moving the everything would collapse into nothing. In the wondering why we’re still, in the lies to ourselves — told to comfort — that slowly become our truths — we catch ourselves mid-thought, wondering if that’s what we really meant.

We have conversations with the familiar people in absent settings — pondering “the end of everything.” How it would come — what lives there; how could we live there — imagining it’s too close.

It was just then she paused and then continued on living in this unknown in-between — and that was enough for now — even as the end loomed; she noticed it and went on with her day…

My mind’s aflutter in the quiet (with you)

Sitting, quiet, here with you — my mind’s aflutter — of things to do, questions left unanswered, wondering how you can just sit so calmly across from me; headphones in, fingers to keyboard as we both attempt at productivity.

My mind wanders to the not yet done, making lists, planning — getting lost in the will be. Where are you? The present feels elusive, the past fuzzy, in a created narrative designed to fit my expectations of what is now.

Sitting with you in the quiet, I’m waiting — maybe to pull the scattered pieces of myself back together. Where do you go mind when you’re not quite here? Thoughts going to the not here in the space between our words — anticipating your words; wondering if they’ll express where I am.

In the litany of things, I wonder where I am between –

How are you? (There’s a space between the dialogue.)

Okay — that’s all I’ve been for a while, wondering what’s beyond the managing, the getting through, the doing the next thing. (I suspect you want to hear I’m okay — an emotionless word for a state of being.)

And I wonder what it would be like to describe a state that feels slower — the just getting by — a feeling good that isn’t between periods of not yet. We have slowed the pace for a minute, maybe a 50-minute hour, catching up with myself — as I wonder about the realness of my own experience.

Is that what I’m thinking or feeling? Would naming it help — if a response to alleviate this state feels far away?

I am scattered before you as I attempt to describe this litany of concerns, maybe worries — outside the conversational to the just is — not knowing how you’ll respond and then trying to convey these thoughts — wondering if they’ll make sense to you.

“Managing is hard,” she said deliberately.

Borrowed dreams

They lived in a drafty old house with an attached chemistry lab — Bunsen burner stew simmering there. I spent my days huddled over their lives. I shared her attic bedroom on the windy nights when she wondered why she didn’t fit — Meg Murry and I. Fortinbras barked at the intruders; ours came from within.

I lingered over L’Engle’s novels living amongst their borrowed dreams — the heroines making sense of themselves, trying to reach a preplanned ending. I return to the fantastic prose in times of stress — when I want to be in a familiar dialogue. We have an understanding, L’Engle and I.

Her father was distant, but kind — a scientist trapped in a sideways world, while mine was all too close, and lived with a lingering bitterness: “My dad wasn’t a nice man, so I stay far away.” Not so much a borrowed dream as an all-too present reality.

They sat together in their kitchen, making cocoa on the stove — we sat on the bed watching B-grade horror films. She lived with the memories of a father she used to have; mine alternated between acquiescent planning and altogether unpredictability.

She reminded me of a strength in difference, “The foolish and the weak shaming that which was mighty and wise.” A love stronger than IT. I lived with an absence and ever-present reminder of what could be — what never was — carving out my own narrative in which I longed to be separate, not too close.

They visited at holidays; I found my ways to stay away, developing a language of boundaries and what is — and yet L’Engle’s narrative of far-flung figures coming back appeals to me. I had my own Aunt Beasts — those middle-aged wise women whose capacity for listening exceeded my knowledge.

I felt enveloped by their listening and space for my words, rather than their looking for space of their own. I borrowed these visions of women who were where I’d like to be. There was a quiet strength in their acknowledgement. I can make space for you. I’m okay — maybe you’ll be too.

I returned to these young adult shelves to find a quiet that was unfamiliar — borrowed — in these stories of becoming — in these linear narratives. Mine was windier and there was a comfort in these fictional heroines, mothering and reassuring me — steadying me.

As I integrated their words into my own narrative — their dialogue borrowed, in a space we’d made in fiction.

Womyn’s Herstory Month

remind me everything is okayMarch is Womyn’s Herstory Month. The lady who facilitates my writing circle challenged us to “write one daily, poem, story, reflection, song, blog, memoir, tribute, or manifesto about womyn.” I’ve done so via the Tumblr as I’ve pondered my experiences as a woman and the mentors I’ve had. I’ve thought about how sharing our stories can be a way of reassuring others that it will be okay.

There are times when I get tired of explaining myself — why particular stressors are so anxiety inducing or why parts of my familial history still evoke a dull ache. It’s so validating when I begin to tell my story and I’m met with the mutual understanding that comes from a shared lived experience.

“You get it, don’t you? I’m not exactly sure why, but I suspect you have a story like mine. I don’t presume that you want to share it with me, but it helps that you’re listening. That you ask fewer questions because you know what it’s like to feel complicated, even though that’s no fault of your own. I wish you didn’t have to get it, but I’m glad you do.”

Sometimes storytelling happens in the car at the end of the day, when your social filters have stopped working or you’re just so exhausted, you let them come down. Other times, you hear that pause in their story — you have it too. The parts of your life you also avoid sharing in polite conversation. You don’t really want to hear about that do you? But then you tell your story and they recognize your experience in their own. Stories are powerful.

When I find a friend, who gets it — really gets it — she becomes the person I finally feel safe enough to text or message via social media platform when things don’t feel okay. When I’m sitting in a waiting room terrified to see the chaplain fellow because I still find men intimidating. When I’ve just ended a phone call and need someone to help me process that interchange. When the waves of anxiety hit so hard I feel like I’m falling apart — again. When I need to acknowledge that I’m hurting (“so many sads”). These are the women who will support me in these moments; they don’t need me to be anyone other than myself.

Sharing one’s story makes it feel real. I think that was the hardest part of growing up in a home where my closest confidant was my journal. I feared that if I couldn’t describe the experience, it didn’t exist. Even into college, I wrote notes to myself (and prayers) trying to figure out what I was thinking (and sometimes feeling — those words seemed hardest to find).

I’ve shared my backstory in bits and pieces over the years. I suppose I first began this process in undergrad, when I walked around the track surrounding the man-made lake and talked with close friends. “So I’ve been going to therapy and it’s been helping.” The first poem I ever wrote in writing circle included these lines: “Cacophony is the sound I hear from my room, as I sit huddled over a book, again — weekly, monthly, it feels like forever; as we sit with the door closed and the lights on.” I learned to share the words I’d written on the page before me. My notebook was a conduit for further conversation.

So this March, I’ll keep writing, while I remember that “I deserve to take up space, even when I have no words to say, because I matter.” Let us continue to intently listen to the stories of our fellow women and create spaces where we feel loved and supported.

Lingering questions written in memo books

I was sitting at a conference this weekend, making a list of questions to ask my therapist when we met the following Thursday: Will I always feel this exhausted as I muddle through my anxieties? Everything I’ve read about GAD says the worries get worse under stressful circumstances, but the condition itself never goes away entirely. How do I manage knowing that lingering radio static may just be part of my day-to-day existence? Why am I so drawn to the narratives of autistic women? I remember you mentioning that these anxieties were probably making it more difficult for me to engage socially, but what if this is just part of me. What if this is me?

“The symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder tend to be chronic and wax and wane across the lifespan, fluctuating between syndromal and subsyndromal forms of the disorder. Rates of full remission are very low.” (1)

The previous Thursday, I met with the chaplain fellow I’ve seen since the semester started. I hadn’t slept well the night before and felt terribly scattered. I just started talking and couldn’t seem to stop. I was already having difficulty managing my anxieties and on top of that, felt I was moving so much slower that usual. I wasn’t processing things well and couldn’t seem to quell the waves of anxieties that hit once I stop moving.

If I don’t stop, I can engage in autopilot. If I completely avoid my feelings by throwing myself into a task, I can see the worries, but not experience them entirely. In the in between spaces, when I’m talking with a safe person, everything seems to hit all at once. I realize how terrified I am of the uncompleted assignments and open-ended projects. My compartmentalization — the only thinking a week-and-a-half in advance — seems to fail me.

There are a few friends I can text when my worries overwhelm me — when the static seems to be growing louder and the volume knob is stuck. I’m trying to be honest with myself when I feel this badly: I acknowledge the worry rather than try to fight against it. I can’t will it away. I attempt to talk myself through it, using the cognitive-behavioral strategies I’ve learned in therapy, and feel my breathing as I wrap my arms around my diaphragm (looks like I’m hugging myself). But sometimes the worries linger anyway; my friend texts back, reminding me that I’ve managed before and will this time too.

Sometimes when I feel utterly terrible, I feel like I’m lying to myself when I insist that I’ll eventually be okay. In that moment, “all I could see was myself” (reminded of the conversation Paul has with Sophie). But I also remember, “This is coming from me. Because this is coming from me, I can make it stop.” Maybe not all at once, but by caring for myself in the meantime and acknowledging I need help, I can slow the worries down. I manage the best I can most days and remember that will be enough. I’m enough.

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Intuitive responses and self-consciousness

in·tu·i·tive (adjective)

/inˈt(y)o͞oitiv/

  1. using or based on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning; instinctive.

Synonyms: instinctive, instinctual; innate, inborn, inherent, natural, congenital; unconscious, subconscious,right-brained, involuntary, visceral [1]

Sometimes I have trouble picking up on social nuances: I may overlook when someone wants to switch topics or needs to leave because I’m monologuing. I’ll run through mental flowcharts in my head when I’m figuring out whether a statement seems relevant (or for that matter socially appropriate — will they judge me if I say _____ ). Maybe I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing; maybe I have no idea what to say. I use scripted dialogue in unfamiliar social settings and then inevitably lapse into pop culture references — maybe I need footnotes.

My mom says as a kid when I was having trouble with a task, I said, “It’s hard for me,” rather than “I can’t do it.” Maybe that’s why I’ve developed workaround for dealing with social confusion. I make sense of social situations by looking for patterns, developing analogs, and creating rules. I impose structure on ambiguous scenarios; I ask for examples and further explanation when I can. Sometimes I’ll ask close friends or my therapist for a script when I’m at a loss for words.

I’ve deliberately learned to manage my anxiety levels. Maybe some kids naturally learn to calm themselves as stressful situations resolve, but growing up, I lived with uncertainties. My body knew I was anxious before my brain did. I could feel my anxieties in my shoulders, but couldn’t identity the accompanying emotional experience. I knew I worried a lot, but I wasn’t sure how to lessen the radio static.

There’s a self-consciousness that comes with knowing that some aspects of one’s being don’t come intuitively. I’ll wonder if I’m the only person who talks with herself in 2nd person to self-soothe: “This scary, but you’ll manage. You can do this because ____. You know that. I’m proud of you for doing ______.” I’ll realize I’ve created elaborate social rules in an attempt to understand how to behave in novel situations.

Maybe engaging in tasks that feel intuitive can be a form of self-care. My self-care consists of comforting rituals and routines (Aspergirl R&R, as Rudy Simone would say): My apartment sometimes serves as my hide cave. It’s quiet and dark; after a long day of managing anxieties and others’ expectations, I’ll crash in front of my computer to read blogs or watch Walking Dead. I take the bus to the local cafe a few days a week because the people there are kind and the pie is delicious. I’m learning to sleep when I’m tired and seek quiet when I desperately need it.

I’m asking myself, “What do I need at this moment?” Sometimes my responses include realizations that I need help, but have no idea how to ask for it. Help-seeking makes me feel vulnerable and burdensome. I feel strange talking myself through anxiety-provoking situations or taking frequent breaks when addressing stressful tasks. “But other people don’t have to do this!” I muse frustratedly.

Maybe they do — a friend reminded me, “You’re judging your insides based on other people’s outsides.” I’m listening to my needs and seeking feedback from trusted people. I wonder if  I’ll become kinder to myself in the process.

  1. Definition from Google (used “define: word” function) – https://www.google.com/#q=define:+intuitive

Cultivating safe spaces

Community hugIt’s been a little over a year since the blog began, or rather I began the blog. I’ve moved from jotting thoughts (and sometimes prayers) in well-hidden notebooks — thrown behind bookstacks or on high shelves — to sharing my poetry at open mikes. It has been quite the year.

When I considered the possibility I could be an Aspergirl — wondering what that meant, then gradually embracing that part of myself: I met fellow Aspergirl bloggers through reading and commenting in their online spaces. I’m feeling increasingly connected to other people whose stories are relatable.

When I began to read these bits of my narrative aloud — honoring my backstory and meeting like-minded women:  I became a regular at the neighborhood coffeehouse (barista friend says I’m  “earl grey latte girl”) and the local cafe with the good listening proprietor. I’m gradually unveiling my narrative in these spaces — “This is me and what I’m experiencing.”  I found a community of women writers through a flyer posted at that coffeehouse.

This has been a year of cultivating safe spaces and becoming (not finding) myself. I’m practicing self-disclosure and measured vulnerability: “right place, right time, right person” considerations in mind. This has been a year of coming back to myself as I’ve been learning to remain present, even as I’m waiting for waves of anxiety to pass — I’m learning to sit with them.

A little over a year ago, my chaplain friend suggested I start a blog. “Why don’t you call it, Ask an Aspergirl,” she said. I was a bit skeptical at first: “So I’m telling strangers on the internet about the worrisome and confusing things I’m experiencing? That seems weird.” And yet, I remembered telling my therapist, the previous semester, how I had few social supports, so she introduced me to chaplain friend and suggested I volunteer at the animal shelter. I’d been experimenting with social connections — maybe I could muddle through my thoughts via blogging — “It’s like curated journaling,” I thought.

I was sitting at the local cafe, waiting for a friend joining me for lunch, and remarked to the proprietor, “I have people now; when did this happen?” It was a wonderful feeling, but also unfamiliar. I know how to linger at a well-lit desk with a book and share thoughts with someone in line. It’s harder to maintain relationships. I forget people want me around until they say those exact words.

So dear readers, I’m reminded of a statement the cafe proprietor made as I think about my finding community this year: “You’d be surprised that most people you meet are lovely, if you give them a chance.” I’m glad we could have this conversation together.

Polaroids sent from the past

polaroid by ed__209

polaroid of polaroid by ed__209 (via Flickr: http://goo.gl/OsKH32, Creative Commons – Attribution, Noncommercial)

As I made the phone call to my childhood pastor, I had a series of questions handwritten in the notebook sitting beside me on the plastic kitchen table:

How did our family look to you? What roles did mom and dad play — especially in context of what you knew? To what extent (if any) did you suspect familial discord — why or why not? What were your perceptions of me growing up — of our family, of mom?

I had emailed pastor the previous week, asking if he’d be willing to have a conversation about my experiences in his congregation while we attended there. I told my therapist a few weeks prior that I was dealing with familial grief as I tried to make sense of my childhood narrative. I wondered if anyone outside my family noticed that we were troubled. I’ve long since acknowledged that my parents did what they could to take care of us, but at the same time there’s a vague sadness, sometimes frustration, with that past.

I’m writing because I’ve wondered about some of my experiences back then; since we moved, I kept up with few people from that time in my life. Growing up, my family was rather insular, so since undergrad, I’ve been trying to make sense of my childhood and early adolescence.

When we began the conversation, I acknowledged my fears about making that phone call — how I didn’t want him to think I was asking him to betray my parents’ confidence, if they’d shared anything with him. I just wondered about his impressions of our family. He answered some of my questions, and I discussed my life now — finishing undergrad and beginning grad school, how I promised myself I’d see a therapist when I started college (how it helped), and connecting with like-minded women who validated my story.

I felt surprisingly safe self-disclosing and took some notes. His recollections of me were relatively consistent with my own memories of being a “quiet, shy, self-conscious” girl (who I recognize was also pretty anxious). He said I was bright and intuitive even then, and that he was proud of me. I felt affirmed by this process of further developing my internal narrative.

After the phone call ended, I messaged a friend of mine who knew about the situation — the one who encouraged me, saying, “This is so brave and cool of you. I feel like I need to tell you that you astound me with your courage on a regular basis.” I remember sitting on my floor couch reading her message before making the call — I reminded myself that I was brave in my attempts to fill in some of my childhood recollections.

Memory isn’t static. It’s dynamic. Ultimately we are the ones shaping our own narratives as we ponder details consistent with our stories and neglect those that don’t seem to fit. I’m learning to honor the emotional truth of my story, especially how it still reverberates with me now.

I feel as if I’m making a timeline of Polaroids sent from the past, but I’m waiting for the blurriness of the images to become a scene that makes sense. I long for a coherent narrative and maybe in the process, I’m arranging these images into a recognizable whole. My friend says, “It’s like you’re uncovering your story.” Maybe I’m creating it, too.

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