I’ve always struggled in school. It was always perplexing to my teachers just as it was to my parents but there was something about it that made everything very difficult to understand. Looking back I can understand where the problem was rather easily because of what I know about myself now. At the time however people looked at me like I was always their troublemaker. Teachers looked at me that way because of my smart-aleck responses to their questions. Students had a dim view of me because I was different than them and thus an outsider who couldn’t be trusted. I never fit in wherever I went not even in college. It was in college that I realized that something wasn’t right because everyone kept saying that if I just kept going something would gel for me along the way but it never did.
“You just don’t listen,” she said to me sternly. When you have a girlfriend you don’t have a choice in these matters. You have to pay attention or you’ll just get in trouble down the road. I tried to pay attention and I did try to listen but when she explained her side of it I realized that she kind of had a point.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she responded. “It’s just the way you are.” That’s a terrible response to have to deal with. Life is full of problems and we need to believe we can fix them otherwise why are we even bothering with life if we’re just going to fail all the time? Being told that “it’s just the way you are” is a very deflating thing to process because it in essence means that there is no room for improvement and thus no point in even continuing a relationship with you. I’ve always struggled with relationships and it was when she laid that on me that I realized that she wasn’t the only person that had told this to me. Everyone told this to me. Everyone, everywhere said I didn’t listen, couldn’t follow directions, didn’t get along well with others, was needlessly difficult, so on and so forth. It’s hopelessly depressing because when someone says those things to you you automatically believe that you are indeed hopeless. If one can’t listen, can’t follow directions, and can’t get along with others one might as well not even bother to get out of bed. Bed is after all the only place where you don’t really need to listen, don’t need to follow directions and don’t need to get along with others. It’s just you vs. your alarm clock and no one wins in that relationship. Both sides get slapped around.
I wanted to be good to her because she had always been good to me. She never berated me like so many other people who never understood me. She always tried to understand and that’s all I ever wanted was for someone to try with me. The very thought of losing her was so overwhelming that I started listening to her. Relentlessly. I remember because I was reading Robert Caro’s Passage of Power at the time and many of his aides recalled Lyndon Johnson and how he would “listen at you.” That was a clever idea, I thought so I tried it out. Like many things that I like in the abstract and attempt to implement in my daily life however it failed.
“Why are you staring at me?” She asked.
“I’m listening,” I said.
“Stop it,” she said. “You’re freaking me out.”
“I thought you wanted me to listen,” I said.
“Not like that,” she said.
“How do you want me to listen?” I asked, genuinely interested in the answer.
“Why do you do that shit?” She asked. “You always belittle me when I ask you to stop doing something.” I just stared at the ground after that. I hate the feeling that what I’m doing either annoys someone else or makes them feel bad so if what I’m doing is upsetting them I really do try to stop.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“You always ask these questions but if you just listened you’d understand,” she said emphatically.
“But you just told me not to listen,” I said.
“What in the hell is wrong with you?” She screamed. I thought she was going to throw her coffee at me so I grabbed my jacket to deflect the hot mess that I figured was bound to be headed in my direction. She took this to be behavior that I was devising in a sinister fashion just to upset her.
“What are you doing?” She asked, confused.
“I thought you were going to throw your coffee at me,” I said. One of the problems that I have is that when someone asks me something I actually say what’s on my mind which is something that most people are unaccustomed to hearing and thus unaccustomed to dealing with.
“Why would I do that?” She asked.
“You’re mad at me,” I said.
“I’m not mad just frustrated,” she said and she looked extremely agitated which is what really worried me. When I was a kid my dad used to tell me that he wasn’t mad just disappointed. That’s a line I heard quite a bit of in my life. Eventually she simply left and I never saw her again. I was shocked and a little scared. I don’t like being alone in the world. It’s a terrifying feeling to me. I wanted answers to this continual problem that I had in my life. People just didn’t like me. I annoyed them. I didn’t listen.
When I met with my doctor I explained what had happened and he calmly explained to me that I had Asperger’s. Just like that everything made sense.
“People think you’re not listening to them because you’re not really listening and empathizing or trying to help them you’re just taking mental notes of the situation,” he explained. I thought about what he said and it was true. I never really cared about anyone else’s problems I only cared about my own and how their problem affected me. That’s a messed up way to look at things but apparently this common among people with Asperger’s.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Just being aware of it is going to be a big adjustment,” he said. “I’d say it’ll take a couple years before you really know what to do with yourself.” This news terrified me but what could I do?
“Do I have to take more drugs?” I asked with a pained expression on my face.
“No, actually you’re taking so many drugs that anything else probably wouldn’t make a dent in the problem at this point,” he said. “The best thing you could do would be to find as much material about Asperger’s as you can and just start reading.”
I took my doctor’s advice, which was unusual for me, and started reading profusely on the topic. The more I read the more I began to understand. It wasn’t that the world was out to get me as I had spent most of my life believing it was that the world and I were speaking two different languages. I began studying artists and how they interpreted the world. The only way I knew how to express myself was through words but I was a lousy public speaker so I began studying the craft of writing. Some people’s heroes are artists who paint the world using oil on a canvas. The people I admired painted the world in words and did so by disseminating ideas into people’s imaginations. As I began to understand how different people looked at the world I started to see how I would need to look at the world. As someone with Asperger’s, life was never going to be easy for me. I needed to make life difficult it was part of the deal that you got with Asperger’s.
What I needed to do was to find a way to express myself like other artists who saw the world in a similar way. No artist is ever perfectly understood by anyone. That’s what attracts me to art and artists; we’re both incredibly misunderstood and at the same time this is also why I understand them because they didn’t seek to understand what was happening they sought to interpret it so that others could find meaning. When I discovered how I needed to look at the world I began looking at everything as a possible canvas just like most artists do. You can write about anything and everything when you think about it and that’s what I’m doing. I’m interpreting the world the great tragedy being of course that like most artists I’ll never understand what any of it really means until I’m dead.