This afternoon, I'm pleased to present a guest blog from my friend and fellow author David Finch, whose Journal of Best Practices makes its debut in bookstores in just three more weeks . . .
When people meet me for the first time, they’re often surprised to learn that I have Asperger syndrome. “Oh, my,” they say, sometimes slowly and clearly, as though they’re now addressing a child. “It is really remarkable how well you’re able to handle yourself socially.”
As compliments go, it’s not so bad. Still, I can’t help but feel a little like an unfrozen Neanderthal when I hear comments like that. “You mean to tell me you’re only thirty-four years old and you managed to come here all by yourself?” The implication is that two minutes ago I was just another dude standing around in a sport coat, smiling unexpectedly, but now that I’ve outed myself, I’m Asperger Guy, and it’s a wonder I haven’t been yapping the whole time about pygmy fruit bats or the history of the shoe.
What can I say? People are bound to be surprised. One of my special talents is masking certain behaviors, a skill set I’ve been cultivating since childhood, when began my lifelong career of wanting to blend in. Even I didn’t know I had Asperger’s until I was thirty years old; the prevailing diagnosis throughout my early life was that I was peculiar. Talk to me long enough, or catch a glimpse of me lumbering around the cocktail party, and you’d find this assessment still to be fairly accurate. But at first glance, you might not call it Asperger’s. This is not uncommon. Some with Asperger’s may appear more or less not-Aspergian depending on the circumstances. I could possibly elude a diagnosis if I assumed the right character while talking to a psychologist for an hour or two.
My wife, Kristen, knows this all too well. We had been friends for years—I was always that special (dorky) friend of hers, the quirky one who made her laugh in a certain way that no one else could—and one day, we found ourselves in love. We dated for a year, a period of time that, in some ways, felt like a twelve-month-long audition. Be cool, I told myself, roughly ten-thousand times a day. Look normal. Act normal.
We got engaged, and still I did everything I could to impress her, because, as I understood it, that’s what a person did when they landed themselves a fiancée. I showered Kristen with affection and praise, went out of my way to act supportive, and never once voiced a negative thought or feeling. What was not to love about that guy?
After we were married, and we were living together around the clock, Kristen began to understand exactly what was hard to love about that guy: he wasn’t entirely real. By our third anniversary, the illusion I’d created had been shattered, and Kristen found herself married not to the husband she’d always wanted, but to a husband who had no idea how to go with the flow. A husband who lost his temper whenever his concentration was disrupted—even when it was disrupted by an act of affection, such as a kiss or a simple hello. A husband who couldn’t show her the kind of support she needed.
Despite the fact that she had been working with children with autism for several years, Kristen hadn’t recognized my mixed bag of baffling behaviors and frequent man-tantrums as Asperger’s (of course, no one else, including me, had recognized this either). We had been married nearly five years before her suspicions reached an apogee and she realized I could actually be on the spectrum. Some are amazed by this, but it does not surprise me at all.
A toad analogy, if I may. I’ve been told that if you toss a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will immediately try to escape, but if you place a frog in a pot of water at room temperature and gradually bring it to a boil, the frog will not try to escape; it’ll just boil to death. (I don’t know who on earth conducted these experiments, but I like to think it’s true. We can also assume that I’ll be the one in hot water for making my wife a frog in my own analogy...)
Marriage can be a slow boil. When you’re married, and things aren’t going so great, the threshold of pain and drama and wackiness tends to creep up imperceptibly as you go about your daily lives. If, when you were blissfully dating, you could somehow fast-forward to a period in your marriage when that threshold of pain is unfathomably high—five, ten, fifteen years into the future—you would experience the darkness all at once, and you might decide to walk away from the relationship, to leap from the pot. It would be that alarming. “Good lord, is this what our marriage is going to look like?! Welp, nice knowing you, do not keep in touch.” But life doesn’t work that way. Instead, you just sit in the pot, day after day, and boil to death, acclimated for better or for worse to the suffocating conditions.
There is another reason we wouldn’t have thought to call it Asperger’s sooner: I had never expressed to Kristen just how challenging certain situations were for me. Like how difficult it was to navigate social interactions, how exhausting it was for me to be “on” around other people, or how upsetting it was whenever my routine was disturbed. I hadn’t spent a great deal of time contemplating these things about myself. All I knew was that I seemed different from other people, yet prior to my diagnosis I just wanted to fit in. I wanted to seem, for lack of a better term and knowing full well that a word such as the one I’m about to use can swiftly, if unintentionally, stoke the ire of commenters everywhere, normal. As a guy who assigned unique personalities to numbers, was it asking too much to seem normal? I mean, who wants to think of themselves as being inferior? Who wouldn’t feel inferior if they were being mocked on a regular basis, even as an adult? Who has the presence of mind to say yes to their freaky, extraordinary selves, especially if they don’t know it’s okay—nay, advantageous—to be different?
So, how could Kristen have known what it was like to be me? I barely knew what it was like to be me—I didn’t even know there was a clinical name for being like me.
When she realized how many similarities I had with Aspergians, Kristen sat me down and guided me through a very informal evaluation. Though I am grateful to be married to someone who doesn’t spend her days regarding me through a diagnostic lens, I’m glad that Kristen instinctually pieced it together and invited me to participate in the evaluation. A person can learn a lot about himself when he answers more than a hundred questions designed to reveal precisely how his mind works. For the first time I understood who I am. And Kristen finally understood, too.
Until we went through that exercise, she could not possibly have known just how difficult it was for me to adapt to things, or how great a challenge it was for me just to understand how to be responsive to her needs. Or, in her words: “I never could have imagined how hard it sometimes is for you to simply be.”
That’s how Asperger syndrome can so thoroughly destroy a relationship that at one time seemed invulnerable. If it’s well-hidden, and you’re not specifically looking for it, the condition can reveal itself slowly, one misunderstanding and baffling meltdown at a time. But for Kristen and me it’s no longer hidden, and we used this knowledge of the so-called disorder to rebuild our marriage. With my diagnosis she found patience and understanding, I found self-acceptance and the will to learn to manage the behaviors that strained our relationship, and together—together—we are finding our way to the marriage we always wanted.
And it makes me wonder, as I sit here scripting tomorrow’s inevitable didactic lecture on pygmy fruit bats: How many of us are struggling with something that reveals itself in such cruelly deceptive ways? How many of us are plainly misunderstood, even by those who know and love us best?