My Aspergian traits, and my mom's suspected autism

As I was finishing my last post, a realization flashed across my mind: that my mom lacks empathy in an autistic way, rather than a narcissistic way; and that I too have inherited some of this trait.

My mom has always been weird and, well, embarrassing. The last time I remember having a close relationship with her is when I was age 4-6, sitting in her lap, eating strawberries with sugar. (Yummy.) But the more I developed the ability to express myself, the more the gulf between us deepened. In my entire life, I do not remember a single instance of talking to her, and successfully finding refuge in her understanding. It's not that my mom lacks the desire to help other people; this is even, perhaps, her foremost drive. But she completely lacks the ability to understand what people are thinking and feeling. As in the root of the word autism, "autos" - Greek for self - she is completely walled off within herself, as if separated from everything by a glass wall, and she's constantly misinterpreting others. Combined with her incessant desire to help, the result is, more often than not, a painful and embarrassing train wreck. What makes this even more frustrating is that she doesn't even seem to be aware it's a train wreck.

One would think that some kind of trauma must have made her this way, but according to my older relatives, she was like this even in her younger years, from when she first met my dad as a teenager. More than a decade ago, I remember a conversation with my grandmother - her mother - where she said: "Anica has always been different. I have no idea why. We raised her just like her brothers. Where did we go wrong? I don't know."

None of us in our family has ever been able to figure out my mom's problem. Most people have tried to help, but the cause has always been a mystery, and of course, she won't see a doctor; according to her, it's the world that's weird, and she's the only normal person.

For me, the problem has been too difficult to think about. Being her only child, I am the eternal target of her good intentions. The way she tries to help, she presses all my triggers, and in the past, especially while growing up, this put me in a permanent state of meltdown. I've come to realize that, in order to preserve my mental well-being, I have to keep contact with her to a minimum.

Then, in the past year, I fell deeply in love with someone. In due course - long after I've followed in my mom's footsteps, and done everything I possibly could to alienate this person, all under the banner of love and caring - I finally figured out a plausible explanation for the misunderstandings I experienced with this person. Before that, if you followed this blog in October, you would have noticed an angry post where I armchair-diagnosed her with narcissism. I have deleted that post, because I've come to realize it was not only incorrect, and explained only a portion of her symptoms, but was incredibly unfair. If I could have made it so it was never written, I would have. As it is, I could only delete. I'm sorry, Mey. I'm profoundly sorry.

But the mystery haunted me. Why did she act the way she did? When I did X, or I said Y, why was I so completely unable to predict her reaction? When I did this enough times, why did she cut me off the way she did? I know she's not cold-hearted, so why is she behaving as though she is? Why have I been unable to reach her?

This remained a mystery until I was reading something random on reddit, and things finally clicked: she might be on the autistic spectrum. I contemplated this for a few months, until I found a book that made everything clear as day: Rudy Simone's Aspergirls. I'd like to avoid another incorrect armchair diagnosis, but this is a wonderful book, and everything I read in this book describes Mey. Including, and especially, the misunderstandings in the absence of knowing, and the consequent burning of bridges.

Since then, I've read 22 Things a Woman With Asperger's Syndrome Wants Her Partner to Know, also by Rudy Simone; then Mozart and the Whale, the amazing life story and love story of two people with Asperger's syndrome; and I'm currently reading David Finch's The Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man's Quest to Be a Better Husband. Another book - The Complete Guide to Asperger's Syndrome - is still waiting for me on my Kindle.

All of this reading has been compelling and exceptionally interesting, and has led me to question how many of these traits I also have; and lately, did I get these traits from my mother...?

In my years of arguing with people on the internet, I have not evaded an occasional accusation that I have Asperger's without knowing. Even during my contact with Mey, at one point, she exclaimed that if she didn't know better, she'd swear I have Asperger's. (I find that cute and funny now, because she probably has it more than me, tee hee. And I love her no less for it.)

I've always rejected these insinuations, because a key Aspergian trait is lack of empathy, and I always thought of myself as having no problems in that area. If I understand how another person feels, I inevitably feel with them, I thought. More so than other people.

I realize now - after writing my previous post - that I need to put an emphasis on if. I do in fact have many traits that are rather Aspergian. A sample:
  • Social blindness. While I certainly don't lack compassion when I understand what a person feels, I have on many occasions noticed that the way I read people has been completely wrong. This mis-perception has caused me to act in ways that embarrassed Jana, whose ability to read people is much better developed.
  • Social awkwardness. Growing up, I was exceptionally awkward in groups, and would hide to avoid them. These days, I consider myself more socially adept; I've always liked talking to interesting people, but group settings are still not the type of interaction I would seek out on my own, or where I feel naturally comfortable.
  • Triggers and meltdowns. Uncontrollable outbursts of anger, apparently for no reason, were my prominent and embarrassing feature when Jana and I first met a decade ago. This has improved over time, and I would like to think this is partly because I've improved, but to a large extent it's because Jana has learned to avoid my triggers.
  • Social hyper-sensitivity. I can be - uncomfortably - part of a group for a while, but over time, repeated unpleasant interactions are likely to trigger a meltdown in a way that will leave Jana embarrassed, and the other group members to think: "WTF just happened?"
  • Need for control. I cannot imagine myself working in an environment where I'm not my own boss. If I'm a member of a group where I'm not in charge, I will feel constant anxiety and pressure which I won't be able to tolerate in the long run. Give me an eventual stressful event, and there will be a meltdown.
  • Debilitating perfectionism. When doing something, it's more important to me that the steps are done impeccably right, than that the goal is reached in a reasonable time. I've chosen a career in security software, where this trait is necessary and treasured. But it also means that I find simple tasks, such as cleaning or cooking, uncomfortably challenging. They are not my passion, so I'm loathe to invest the time to do them right. Because I don't know how to do them right, I find doing them at all physically uncomfortable.

    When I was younger, I used to be like this with regard to eating, and nearly drove myself to diabetes by subsisting on a once-daily restaurant meal, and chocolate bars. Fortunately, I adopted healthy eating as an interest before my time ran out. Now that I did, of course, I eat perfectly - or at least what I think that is - and I find it really uncomfortable to deviate.

    Whether it's a blog post or an anonymous comment - when I post, I never just post. I write and post, but then re-read, edit, re-read, edit, re-read, and edit until I can no longer find a way to improve the post. I am significantly frustrated by systems which don't allow me to edit.
  • I hoard. I've learned to let go of material things - old magazines, old clothes, as long as Jana tosses them without my knowledge. But since disk space is ever growing, my digital stash contains most everything I've ever stored, going back decades. Even though I never touch the stuff, I find this important. One day I'll want to look back at the emails I wrote in 2003, and then I will find them valuable! Or what if I become transhuman, and transform into a completely different entity, and want to remember how I started way back when, thousands of years ago? Then I'll cherish the history I saved. Fortunately, disk space does keep ever growing.
  • I'm resistant to change. New versions of Windows and Visual Studio come way too often for my taste; even if I do try them, I have to force myself. After my first smart phone - an HTC Desire - crapped out after six months in 2010, I stuck to an old Nokia until August 2013, when I was finally cajoled into buying smartphones by Jana and a friend.

    I've traveled a fair portion of the world, but I prefer to stick to developed places where I know what I can expect. My favorite place to travel is the US. All the homogenization that people complain about - the same Walmarts, same fast food outlets, same hotel chains at every step - all of this, I find reassuring, because I know what to expect. My friends enjoy going to places such as India, Whateverstan, or Yemen - I enjoy some of the pictures, but there are crazy people there. I would still be afraid to go there when I'm dead.
A common misperception of autism - one I had myself before this year - is that it necessarily only applies to people who are completely locked in their own world, who can't possibly communicate, who still wear diapers at age twenty. This is not at all the case. I've come to realize that people with Asperger's, even with autism, tend to express themselves really well - especially in written form, so well you would never guess they're on the spectrum, until you're very well acquainted with them.

There's a reason it's called the autistic spectrum. We know that it is genetic. More so than being a disease, it's a spectrum of genes which, yes, in their worst combinations, create debilitating disability. But many more people have combinations of these genes which may cause lesser personality issues, and may also bring gifts with them - such as exceptional math skills, engineering ability, or musical and artistic talent.

Besides the inability to perceive, and properly react to, other people's feelings, unexplained permanent anxiety is a signature characteristic of my mom. It also happens to be a signature characteristic of Asperger's. My mom will likely never seek a formal diagnosis. Neither will I; I would probably be considered too highly functional for anyone to give me one. But my Asperger-like traits have had a significant influence on my life; they've influenced my friends, my career, the struggles experienced by my partners. More than anything before, this helps me understand them.

And, perhaps, it even helps me understand my mom.


Sunshine said…
This post was so brutally honest that it made me uncomfortable at some points. :) Which is actually a good thing. It makes me think.

I think you have an incredible ability for self-observation. I've noticed some of your traits before and they puzzled me. They make much more sense now.

On the other hand, I'm sorry I don't have the time to read more about this topic. I wanted to educate myself about borderline and narcissistic personality disorder in order to deal with it (him) better, to understand what happened and to avoid it in the future. I should probably do the same about Asperger's, but luckily not because I'd have first hand experiencess, but simply because I like to know and understand things. :)

P.S. This constant wondering bout how to avoid partner's triggers was driving me crazy. And it was exhausting and I stopped being myself because of it. Kudos to Jana, if she manages to deal with it in a way that benefits your relationship and does not do any harm to her. :)
denis bider said…
I talked to Jana about whether she finds our marriage challenging. For the most part, she says not at all; she finds it fulfilling. She says the past year has been challenging, but only because it was hard for her to keep seeing me suffer, and not being able to help that.

The one thing she finds really difficult to bear are the anger outbursts, however. That makes me ashamed of my temper, and I try to work on it... slowly.

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