Sunday, June 13, 2010

Asperger's, Family Gatherings and Adulthood

I have a friend who says he never had much of a family growing up, and he thinks it's better that way. He doesn't want to deal with all the drama that having a lot of family sometimes entails, and thinks he's lucky for not having much of a family. I told him immediately that I thought he was wrong, and that I felt sorry for him. That even when you occasionally hate various family members for one reason or another, even when you want more space, in the end, you're always glad they're there, and that you have them to fall back on. And maybe sometimes when you fight with them, you do it because you're so afraid of losing them.

I wanted to tell him that even when you butt against the boundaries and cry out at various kinds of restrictions family might put on you growing up or at other times in your life, you are glad to have those boundaries there, glad to have that part of your life that you can be a part of; family is a fold that you can always come back to. It is a place you can feel like you belong (for some, anyway), a place where you have your foundation from, a place where you can be with other people who share the exact same highly individual quirks and tastes that don't seem so individual when you're all together. A place where you can see where you came from - and be proud of it. Of course - not everyone has a family they feel comfortable with; not everyone has a family they get along with. I understand that. But what I'm saying is that I am lucky that I do.

As I write this, a very appropriate song has just come on the radio, that fits in perfectly with the theme of this blog. A Father's Love by Bucky Covington.

"He checked the air in my tires
The belts and all the spark plug wires
Said "When the hell's the last time
"You had this oil changed"
And as I pulled out the drive
He said "Be sure and call your mom sometime"
And I didn't hear it then
But I hear it now
He was saying "I love you"
(He was saying "I love you")
The only way he knew how "

Seemed appropriate. Anyway. Back to the point. I think the concept of family is something that gets much better with age, kind of like fine wine and cheese. For the exact same reason that when I was a kid, I never appreciated or liked the Passover seders we went to every year until just about when they were about to stop, I am appreciating the concept of family more now that I am older and (hopefully) more independent.

I spent the day today with many family members, most of whom which were visiting, at my dad's house today. We left at 9:30, a bit on the early side for me, so had the entire day together. I was a little bit zonked out when I got there, so watched TV for a bit until people started to wake up. (We have a household of mostly late sleepers.) When G, my dad's cousin's wife, walked in, I surprised myself by how easy and enjoyable it was to get into conversation with her. For a couple hours as people played rotating chairs and took different spots in the living room, I found myself talking to whoever was near and being able to take part in and enjoy the conversations. When I wasn't talking, I was taking pictures, which is something I enjoy more and more the more I do it. Trying to get that perfect shot is addictive. It's a form of self expression that appeals to me. It's a way to show other people what you are seeing, and since that's always been so hard for me, maybe that's why I like it so much.

Before I knew it was 1pm, and 2 hours had gone by since I had gotten there. At some point everyone else went outside to sit by a bonfire in the fire pit, but I stayed inside with my grandfather since I can't tolerate smoke. I showed him the pictures I had taken on the view screen of the camera, and we commented on them. I had the pleasure of giving him the 74% Dagoba chocolate bar I picked up for him after he said he liked dark chocolate. There are unfortunately few ways that I seem able to fill people's needs in other ways, something I often regret because who doesn't like to be useful?, but food is one definite way I can do that. I am extremely good at finding good food - especially sweet food - that fits people's tastes and temperaments. It was a perfect match in this case. Dagoba makes good chocolate! A world away from Hershey's and imitation chocolates, but that's a story for another day or blog.

Again, maybe it comes down to self expression and emotional connection - if one can connect using food, then why not do so? There are far more less orthodox ways to do so.
Bungee jumping, for example. I wouldn't recommend it as a bonding activity. You know what they say. "If at first you don't succeed, then bungee jumping is not for you." If you must, however, be sure not to answer this ad I saw on the Internet the other day. "For Sale: Parachute. Only used once, never opened, small stain." Always good for a laugh.

We watched an All in the Family episode, flipped around some more channels, and eventually settled on the show House. This may seem very ordinary to you, but the fact is that I haven't watched TV with family for at least five years. It was nice to be able to share what we were watching. I took pictures of my parents in a kayak, and sat around the table with my grandparents and S and G (dad's cousin and wife) talking - in a conversation I was actually able to be part of, which, when you have social difficulties like Asperger's, you never, ever take for granted. Each word of each sentence that you are able to join in on feels like gold.

At that point, around 7 or so, it was time for dinner. Since I hadn't eaten anything substantial since 9:30, I was surprised I wasn't hungrier, but I did have my crackers, roast beef and hummus to snack on throughout the day. I made sure to take lots of pictures of the table before eating. The other good thing about a camera is that if you are with other people and become bored of or left out from a conversation, you can amuse yourself by taking pictures instead of feeling lonely and left out, which is by far a more productive thing to do.

S liked my hummus and crackers, becoming one of the first people I have met to do so (hummus seems to turn off most people), and that was another connection: a connection over food, of the taste and feel and joy of food. I suppose a lot of things that other people experience I may have trouble understanding because I don't necessarily experience them, and therefore it can be hard to authentically relate to others. But food is the one thing I very much have feelings and experience with, as do others, so it is an equalizer in some ways.

Casual conversation is like gold to people who have trouble with it. It may seem so hum drum, redundant, meaningless to others to focus so much on words exchanged with no particular value other than that they were exchanged in a pleasant way, but they matter. The feeling of inclusion matters.

What memories will I have ten years from now? What will I want to remember, what will be important to me? I guarantee it won't be the amount of time I agonized over whether or not I could manage to get up early enough to leave at 9:30, whether the day would be structured enough for me to feel comfortable, if I'd have enough to do, if the music would be too loud, if I'd be able to participate in conversations or if I'd be left out, if people would be outside when I couldn't go outside, if everyone would be watching basketball instead of talking, or any of the other multitude of minutiae (albeit minutiae that was very important to me) that I worried about. What I will remember is all the conversations and connections I did have when I was finally able to overcome my fears enough to go. And that is precisely why I did it. Ten years later, I want to have and cherish memories of my family, especially of my grandparents, who are moving to California and getting a little closer to the last stage of their lives than I would like.

There was recently a post on an Asperger's discussion group that I am on that caught my interest. The writer wanted to know if the "glass window" feeling, or that of feeling like you're behind a glass window, everyone else is on the other side, and you can't connect to them, was normal for Asperger's. Of course, I wrote back to say that it was extremely common, and while he may not enjoy it, he was certainly not alone.

A lot of people with AS have the conversation skills to talk to others but have a hard time feeling a sense of connection, especially emotional connection, to others. It may be that they are putting so much energy and thought into how to carry on the conversation, and what is right to do and what is not, and what they're going to do next, that they simply do not have any brain space left over to "feel" whatever feelings are supposed to come with such communications.

(This is one reason I try to write about what happened to me after a day like this, because I am often too mentally busy "doing" when being social to actually "feel" as much as I should be feeling, and writing about it later allows me to feel the feelings belatedly. I am not saying I don't feel at all at the time, but there is often a delay. The feelings are often more related to pragmatics of the activity rather than emotion derived from it.) It may be that they don't emotionally connect with the topic of conversation, or that fear is getting in the way of connection. I am sure there are other reasons I have left off here because I am getting too tired to think anymore, but you get the gist. I don't believe I have ever spent 12 hours with people, interacting with them the whole time, and you better believe me when I say I need some serious decompression time when I get home - but I am thankful for once to be awake enough to write about it, which really helps me process, and which the last two weeks I haven't been able to do.

Especially here in Maine, in the wake of a local governor's race where the Democratic candidate is a woman, they talk about breaking the glass ceiling for women in politics. Far more important to me, though, is breaking the glass ceiling of Asperger's. And I do believe I made some headway today.


  1. Family is SO WONDERFUL (even though they are as imperfect as everyone else, including ourslves... and we see it more with family than with others)! It is great to know that no matter what quirks we have, or how much famiy might say and do the worst things, and hurt you in the worst way... it's because family are the ones you really care about and love... and despite it all, THEY LOVE YOU, TOO. Family is where you can be - whatever you are - with all your flaws and imperfections, and they will always keep you in their hearts and minds and love you, anyway!

    Oops... didn't mean to ramble on! :O

    BTY - You are a beautiful writer! :D

  2. I completely agree about family connections! Very important in and of themselves, and also serve as a springboard for other connections. And I'm glad you were able to enjoy watching TV again with your family, after all these years.