Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Journey of a Misfit

Several years ago my life simply didn't make sense. No matter what I did, I simply didn't fit in. I knew I was intelligent, hardworking and somewhat adventurous; yet, despite my best efforts at being nice and friendly, I struggled in social settings of all types. I had trouble at work, few friendships, and couldn't make sense of dating. I lost several jobs, had multiple social issues that were usually low intensity but were often devastating emotionally and financially. I struggled with feeling rejected especially anytime that I found myself in a relationship with a young women. I wanted to be liked and loved and be a ladies man, but I couldn't figure out how to make sense of relationships no matter how nice and friendly I was. To make it worse, I was “overly logical” and interested in things that others frequently were not interested in.

As time went on, I was becoming increasingly isolated. Even though I had known that I had ADD for a long time, this certainly did not account for all of my issues. I seemed to be learning to manage my ADD better as I grew older, yet despite that, most of my issues seemed to be getting more obvious. I was getting very depressed as I began to despair. Ultimately, this became an increasing source of rage and frustration in my life that threatened to overwhelm my life. Nothing I was doing worked-I was a misfit. I was a misfit and I did not know why or what to do about it.

To be clear, I was not a complete failure nor was I an unhappy person. I had many, many hobbies and interests, and enjoyed them all. I had some friendships that were left over from a brief happy period in my late teens when my social life seemed to go well... yet these relationships were becoming less satisfying as these friends grew up, married, and began to have kids. Meanwhile, I seemed to be getting more and more awkward around women.

More frustrating than even the social problems I was having, was the fact that no one seemed to understand what was happening in my life. I was taught to look up to elders, and so I went to to all my friends and many church and community leaders for advice. I was told to be patient, that I was rebellious, that I had “spiritual problems”, that I needed to learn to “get along with people”, that I was “unstable”, and that life and my social skills would some day get better on its own. I tried all the advice with sincerity; however, as time went on the advice became more vicious and people seemed to tell me that something was wrong with me with growing conviction. I knew I wasn't lazy... Even though I was a night owl and the early mornings were not easy for me, I worked 60-90 hrs a week most of this period on a farm. I knew I was a deeper thinker than some and questioned everything but this did not seem bad. I had been patient, and life was getting worse... I was sliding deeper into depression and did not understand it.

During this time period I decided to switch my employment from agriculture to EMS, and found that I had a gift for working well under pressure and for understanding human anatomy. I progressed quickly in EMS and despite social issues with coworkers I did fairly well; during this time I assumed my social issues were the result of being raised in a backwards rural community. This however began to break down as I became fairly street smart but continued to have problems. I then concluded that I simply had a little trouble reading body language.

Also significant during this period, I was introduced to computers and programming and became obsessed. I learned Linux and began to mess with coding for fun. Little did I know that my life was following a common pattern. People with Asperger's often are drawn to computers.

After some time, I began develop friendships with a few "misfit" friends. During a long conversation with one of these friends, I realized that I needed to look at Asperger's or high-functioning autism as a possible answer. A few short months later, I was evaluated for autism spectrum disorder by a psychiatrist. I found out that it appears that I fit the profile of a person with high functioning autism spectrum disorder (ASD), also formerly called Asperger's syndrome. The psychiatrist did not have the courage to straight out say that yes, I have ASD, but he told me I fit the profile. I'd like to have a more official diagnosis, but mental heath-care in this country is both expensive and terrible. Because of the cost, I have simply realized that understanding that I have Asperger's is an incredible insight that I have used to move forward in life.

I will never forget the relief that I felt after I found out that I had autism; this insight has helped me to understand myself and brought healing in my relationships and life. The period since I’ve been diagnosed has been an extremely productive one in my life, with an unbelievable amount of growth. It was one of the most healing, painful, and most meaningful revelations of my whole life. I have found it healing to realize that I am not weird, even if I am different than most. I have begun to realize that I am not broken or diseased either, but that people with ASD like myself tend to think, act, and communicate slightly different than others. I came to realize that many of my traits, are normal in the autistic community. Like many autistics, I have high intensity, and make frequent social blunders. I am obsessive with studies of absolutes like math, computers, and science. When I communicate, I am blunt, logical, and honest. I found out that even my enjoyment of Sci-fi and star wars are almost stereotypically autistic. It feels good to finally know I fit in, even if the group that I fit in to is by definition weird; even so, it still feels good to finally fit in, and I have even found some groups of autistic adults that meet to socialize and share.

By understanding how different I was from others, and that I am not "weird" or "broken", I was able to forgive many people, especially women, for misunderstanding me. This has been quite healing to me, and helped me to become more healthy emotionally and spiritually. I now realize that it was inevitable that they would not ever have understood me, and that the fact that they didn't was not really rejection at all. They simply couldn't have understood me. This is also true of my parents.

Finding out that I have autism, however, has not been all roses and encouraging. Realizing that there is something very specific that is different about me, and that I will never be able to change that, has been very overwhelming at times. Most disappointing has been discovering that there is a lack of research and literature about adults with autism. 

Despite learning a lot, ASD is still very stressful. One of the one most difficult things about ASD is realizing that no matter how much I learn, I will still face social challenges that will be stressful. I will lose relationships, miss promotions, and my GPA may lag behind my effort and intelligence. I will often be managed, bossed, and judged by people who are inferior in knowledge, intelligence, and skill level to me. This is not about being negative, but about realism; I must accept where I am in life, and what I can realistically expect. I must anticipate challenges, and make plans to avoid them. The more I learn, the more I plan, the better life will be.

I try to make a conscious effort stay upbeat, and take care of myself. It is important to for me to manage my stress levels from these challenges. I can do that in many ways. I've learned to understand that like many people with ASD, I often lose track of their own emotions as well as those of others. This realization has helped to make me more aware of my lack of understanding of myself at times. I have come to realize that I often do not know my own emotions, and that talking about them, writing down the feelings that I don't understand, and having supportive, accepting friends to bounce things off of is essential to me. Autistics have a tendency to self isolate; not only do they not realize or understand their social needs, but they also become scared of social interaction because they are so often misunderstood and heckled. I spend time with positive and intelligent friends (some who also have ASD) several times a week.

I also have learned that I need both solitary and social ways to unwind. I am learning that I need to do something extra in the evening 3-6 evenings a week. I spend time with friends, and am learning to play the bass. Taking up a musical instrument and going to jams and lessons to practice is something that builds friendships with musicians, builds eye-hand coordination, and I've found that musicians are often great friends to Aspie people. I've also started following several local bands and have become good friends with the musicians. In short, despite all of the challenges of ASD, today I am happier than ever before; I am more productive, have a larger social circle , and a better understanding of myself and others. By accepting and understanding who I am, I have been able to grow.

         In writing a blog about my experiences, I hope to be able to encourage other adults with high functioning autism and Asperger's. I also hope that I can be of help to parents that have kids with ASD, and that through my voice they can understand their kids better. I know that sometimes I will write in a level headed way and have good advice, but in other posts my frustration may be seen. I hope that in each post I can be kind and charitable, yet honest. I hope that you will follow my blogs and sign up to receive them, and that you will post responses and questions and comments so we can all learn together.

-Calvin Johnson

        In using the term "misfit" as a description of myself and my experiences, I realize that some may misunderstand me. At times in my life I have seen this as a negative thing, but now I am happy to be myself and to grow. I am glad I am a misfit, am glad that I am geeky, and would not want to be any other way. I hope you can understand that I do not feel sorry for myself, and use this word in a liberating, humorous, and self-deprecating way.

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