“There’s something wrong with you.”
I know…. I have a legal qualification in two different countries, I am a qualified high school teacher, I speak seven languages fluently, another ten functionally, I can read at a rate of a hundred and thirty six pages an hour, I have a masters degree and I am GREAT with words. And yet….
All that skill, all that savvy, and I did nothing about the massive white elephant in the room. What drives someone so smart to be so dumb? Frankly, it was all about perception and self-realization. My vocabulary and linguistic strength did nothing to enable me to explain to others that something was off-centre, because I had not been able to disclose it to myself yet. I speak Welsh, French, German, Spanish. And yet…..
Yet, I don’t understand meanings, faces, intentions, justifications. People are such a mystery to me that I would rather pretend they don’t exist. I am better-off without others. Or so I thought.
I had my first encyclopedia at eight, but I had been reading for facts long before. Facts and figures about countries and political systems, facts about bureaucracies, cultures, religions, flags. I loved figuring things out, classifying, organising, explaining. The whole world was so full of things to explore from my own bedroom, I did not need to go “out there”. “Out there” was full of people who asked stupid questions about things I had taken as fact for years; what comes after ten, what happens after you die, what comes after town, county, country, why are there more male than female drivers on the road around here?
I had taught myself to count to a hundred at the age of three and a half. At the bottom of my grandparents’ garden, next to a plot of Sweet William was a rotary washing line with yellow twine, a grey pole and a locking mechanism at the top connecting the pole to the washing line itself. At the foot of the pole, on the lawn, were four stepping stones, laid in a square formation. I used to step from one to the other, going round in a circle, for ages and ages. And one day, as I did so, I counted. Eleven, twelve and thirteen, I learned listening to my mother. The rest, I figured out, stepping around and around and around; I had also managed to figure out that from one to a hundred, I had gone around all four stones twenty-five times, thus engaging in my first bout of division (although I didn’t know it at the time). I am not sure what is more bizarre – the fact that I had figured it all out before even starting in school, or the fact that, as others my age played with cars and trucks, I was quite happy going around and around, counting up and up. I didn’t bother with 101 and beyond. I knew what came next and there was so much more to go figure.
The philosophy of life after death, I had worked out on the school yard at the age of five. Of course the ghosts of hallowe’en and the angels of the nativity had to come from somewhere, and, when people died, they had to go somewhere. Made total sense – the mind could not proceed from the body, nor the body from the mind, so they each had to go somewhere. No proof, but hey, who did I need to prove anything to? No one else really got the point anyway.
The Christmas I received my first globe – a lamp that illuminated such counties as Australia, Yugoslavia and Lesotho – I had confirmation of the theory that I had been playing with a year before. After my estate, came my town. After this, my county, my country, my continent, my planet, my solar system (nine planets as they were then- knew them all), the milky way, the universe. Then what? More universe, of course. I knew this six months later because I took on the habit of dealing with my insomnia by sneaking around in the early hours on a Sunday morning, to watch the astronomy programmes broadcast by the Open University (I was six and a half), on the television set that my parents bought for my bedroom. The universe was either infinite and extended on forever, or else it was curved, and turned in on itself. Frankly, I plumped for the latter, the planets going round and round again, just like I had on my grandparents’ stepping stones, but I figured it would not matter anyway, as we would all be dead (and thus ghosts and angels) before we ever had time to figure it out. Thus was born my first, explicit encounter with philosophical pragmatism.
It was this kind of pragmatism that explained why there were more men driving than women, where I lived; there were more men in paid employment. They needed some means of getting to work, so they had to drive. Women, generally, got on the bus, where I would sit, with my mother and sister, on the way to town to go shopping (Kia Ora drink and toast or a sausage roll from Merrett’s café – now Greggs – before going to get the bus home). And so I made my first encounter with social inequality – I was five. Men get to drive, women catch the bus. Imagine my fascination when we had new neighbours, and the lady could drive! Incredible!
The encyclopedia I still have on my shelf at home. Frankly, however, I would not need it, to remember what was in it. Information about the human body, ancient civilizations, mechanics, astronomy. My favourite, though, was a section on cultures, containing a vocabulary list of words in Chinese, Hindi and Japanese. I learned them by heart. Memorising stuff was easy. I could follow patterns, no problem. Languages would become a lifelong passion; I can learn a new language from nothing to fluent in approximately five weeks. I was eight when I got my encyclopedia; a book my parents bought me because my teachers had told them I was “gifted”. My spellings were impeccable, I could hold facts in my head, and I asked questions the others wouldn’t. I needed, therefore, stimulation and encouragement. Sometimes, I think it was simultaneously a shame and a blessing that no one added diagnosis to the list. My precocious nature was all-pervasive. I remember, for instance, writing musical notes on an “ET” notepad, sitting in front of the TV. My mum and dad showed Mrs Brown, a teacher at school. I was six. By nine, I was writing my own stories (eventually writing my own porn!) and had already been advanced a year at school. A real privilege.
Except it wasn’t always. I had friends – I worked out that there was probably life after death whilst playing with the others on the yard (actually, they played, I just ran or galloped, I loved running and counting my steps, and still do). Being honest, however, I didn’t interact with friends very well. I didn’t understand what they wanted, or have the same experiences they did. I was also horribly blunt sometimes; vicious, even. Get in between me and my plans, my routine, and it was not pretty. I once stabbed a girl in the arm with a pencil because she was getting on my nerves and in my way. On those days when my father would be late home from work, the unsettling feeling this caused meant that I would sit in the passageway at home and cry and scream to the point that I remember my mother asking me once, in her exasperation, what was so wrong with her that I only cried for daddy (she had totally missed the point – I was crying for my routine).
I HATED being pushed and prodded into doing things that I didn’t want to do. My mother’s constant, well-intended attempts to ensure I got out and played with others had some success – I got out, and I did things with others, but I was never comfortable, and, although I never said it, I was always extremely anxious. I could copy the other kids, and act as they did, but I always managed to say the wrong things (I once accidentally shouted “Hitler” at a barbecue – in Germany). I was awkward and my childhood painful. I couldn’t kick, throw or catch a ball properly because my coordination was horrendous. Days when we had PE in high school were tumultuous. I would always claim that I was ill, to get out of school, and the arguments with my mum were electrifying in their intensity.
My handwriting was poor, I cannot draw, it took me five attempts to pass my driving test, and I gave up the chance to audition for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, because the thought of having to compete with others, and perform on command in the audition, made me physically sick. Literally. The anxiety of going to a fancy-dress party for Hallowe’en was so great, I was literally ill and we had to call it off. I still remember the trouble that caused – my sister crying, my mother locking me in my room and telling me “There is something wrong with you.” Even the next day, I was so ill, I puked green vomit into a sink at a local department store.
Playing imaginative games with friends was pointless – I knew it was fake. I also knew that my imaginative friend, Geoffrey, was fake. This wasn’t pretence on my part, it just meant I had someone to reason with who saw things my way. To this day, I still reason with myself, talk to myself, interact with myself – a modern-day version of the Geoffrey I learned to hide because others in the family made a big deal about it, and my shyness meant I didn’t want the attention. Geoffrey was definitely non-existent. I knew this because he didn’t look like anything – he had no appearance to me. If he had, I would have known. I remember all sorts of things – not just that they happened. I remember how they felt – I can ACTUALLY re-feel them now. I can re-see the colours in the carpet in our living room at home, re-smell the soap in my grandparents’ bathroom, still re-taste the Merrett’s sausage roll and the the green vomit in the department store. When I recall singing “She’ll be coming round the mountain” with my dad at the age of three, sitting in the car in the car park where my mother worked, waiting to pick her up, I am actually still there, in my head, to the point I can even see which space we were parked in at the car park. On those nights when I cannot sleep (viz. most nights) I can turn on my internal IPod. I can re-play music and radio content in my head – no need for headphones. Just this morning, I was re-hearing Toto’s “Africa”. It was forty-five minutes before I noticed I was drumming out a bass-line with my molars.
Yes, I am weird. By your standards. Maybe.
So how-come no one picked it up when I was little? Were my parents neglectful? Definitely not. I was raised by some of the most loving people in the world. They just didn’t know what was happening. My mother’s exclamations that something was wrong with me were not taunts, so much as expressions of her worry and lack of understanding. To top it all, these were not statements that a toddler should have understood her saying at that age, anyway, let alone remember for the rest of his life, so how was she meant to handle this bizarre situation differently? My dad often told me that my hand would drop off, because I would not wear my wristwatch without having it skin-tight. This was not an attempt to upset me; more a warning that I didn’t need to have everything “just so”. My clothing was always immaculate. Shirt and tie always done-up, shoes clean, not a hair out of place. On the day pupils “chalked” my black blazer on the way home from school, I was distraught – I went to my room, out of sight and had a massive tantrum.
And that also explains why nothing was done until now. So worried was I about standing out, I had learned to bury the most extreme elements of my odd behaviour by the age of eleven. In addition to this, being gay meant getting used to keeping parts of my life secret. If I felt uncomfortable with others due to my autistic behaviours, I actually explained it away by telling myself it was a product of living in the closet. My tantrums were buried until I could get to my bedroom, my sanctuary. Even now, things get “damaged” at home, and I cannot explain to family how it really happened. I am not lying; I always say exactly why the baby-oil got splashed up the wall on the staircase, or why the tile in the kitchen is chipped – it was an accident. I just cannot disclose any more the finer detail of what led to this “accident”. Conforming has become the norm, and so I have never been myself, since I was nine or ten. If you see me driving around in a car, looking like I am talking to myself, I actually am talking to myself; talking about the unfairness of our political system, the impoverishment of Welsh cultural heritage by unionism, the way I feel about the way I am treated at work or at home. I could never do that in front of witnesses, but I do it when I am on my own, all the time. I NEED the outlet, because I need to discuss things that others are not interested in. I secretly think my mum and dad knew that something was up, but it was hidden by other more pressing matters.
I was clever – the first person in my family to go to university. Admitting that something was wrong could bring all that down. So I kept it hidden. My status as a loner grew from a “geekish” or “mawkish” personality that others learned to accept because I was clever, and thus interesting to them. So no one ever really questioned whether something bigger was at play. Not even me. I had not joined up the dots (and I was clever) so why would anyone else? There was always another reason – my sexuality, the bullying at school, our social status…. I did have (secret) counseling at university. The transition of going to uni and then having to find a job was so awful that I eventually thought of downing a bottle of paracetamol with a bottle of vodka, and so looked for help then. Aside from unpicking my uneasiness with endings (rather than endings AND beginnings) the counselor never really picked anything meaningful up, because it could always be explained away.
Just over a year ago, more than three decades of feeling at odds with the world led to one inexorable conclusion. Something (else) was wrong. It has taken until now to book an appointment with the doctor to examine:
- My incessant internal monologue.
- My fascination with details and lack of perspective.
- My “visual” acuity and preference to store information in images.
- My alternate tendency either to refuse to take part in a dialogue or to keep talking at length such that you will not get a word in edgeways.
- My difficulty in understanding what others want and think.
- My lack of any real empathy for others and impatience for their emoting with each other.
- My frustration that I never get on as well in life as others, because they can network (nepotists!) and I cannot.
- My social awkwardness.
- My inability to speak and interact “off the cuff”. Almost every meeting I have is prepped in minute detail, otherwise I will stammer and stumble over my words.
- My insomnia.
- My tantrums.
- My discomfort with noises, feelings and sensations that make me angry and nauseous.
- My constant feeling that I am out of sync with the world.
- My ability to live all in my own little world, for days on end (I go for months without calling friends, because I am busy working on my latest idea).
I, naturally, have done my reading. I think this is Asperger’s Syndrome or some other neuron difference on the autism spectrum. Suddenly it all makes sense. And so I am going to seek my doctor’s advice and hopefully, get a diagnosis that means I am not a freak or a monster anymore; just a perfectly normal Aspie, with a unique way of seeing the world and of problem-solving. Of course, I am ready to hear that it is something else. I just want to give it a name and an explanation. Give something a name, and you control it. We’ll see.
Here goes. Wish me luck.