Posts

1: Operating Manual

It sometimes feels like the average person is given a metaphorical operator’s manual at some point in their early socialization. Maybe not a completed manual, but a pretty solid start on one. This manual details the basics of both verbal and non-verbal communication. Where there are gaps, the user naturally picks things up from those around them and the lessons appear in their manual for later reference. I like to think that most of those people are given a Windows operating system manual. It sometimes feels like-not only was I given a Mac manual-it was given to me with whole pages torn out or missing, lines drawn through or fuzzed out, sections written in a different language….

The majority of people seem to be able to refer directly to their manual or learn quickly from others what to add to theirs, pages being organically added to their operating guide with relative ease. It feels like I’ve had to cobble together the missing pages based on social research, observation, and sheer trial and error.

I’ve taped in handwritten pages, crossed out, and rewritten…only to rip out pages and start all over again. I’ve made wild leaps to “normal” behaviors based on what I read in novels or saw on TV or watched in anime. My manual looks like the world’s most scatterbrained, sleep-deprived college freshman used it for note-taking with memos scrawled in the margin, half-erased, and stained with no small amount of tears staining the text.

Over time, my operating manual may look as thick as someone who naturally came built in with an easily created, neat one. But in actuality, my operating manual is a book made through struggle and not-a-little suffering.

While most social users seem to be able to learn from their manual and then put it aside (referring to it only in rare cases such as “What do I say when I need a break from my partner?”), I almost never put mine down. I’m constantly referring to it (for the most part subconsciously), recording results, and grumbling over the inconsistencies and the infuriating lack of any 100% certain, rational pattern in people’s behavior.

No wonder social interaction leaves me so drained. It’s a very rare person indeed that makes me forget about all (ok, MOST) of what I’ve cobbled together into my manual, set it aside, and just BE with them. So rare that I can count on one hand the number of people I can completely stop analyzing (again, mostly) and just interact in whatever way comes to my mind.

It’s exhausting.
[image description: “Purple Shamrock” plants (Purple, 3-leaved leaves) with two small, pale pink flowers peeking up from between the leaves.]

Seeking Sara

 

Sara as a 10-year-old, dressed in a blue polkadot dress. Sara is looking over her shoulder at the camera, smiling very faintly.I have a secret. An unintentional one, but a secret all the same. In a sense, I live a lie every day. I wear a mask that I can’t remember putting on. When did I first don the disguise? When I was 15? 10? 5?

Perhaps in actuality there are layers upon layers of masks that I hide behind, all stacked on top of each other as I grew older. Or maybe there is a whole host of masks that I subconsciously change out as the situation calls for a role.

And yet, until recently, I had no idea I was hiding anything. Perhaps that’s what is most telling about the depth of this lie. Can something be considered a secret if it was unknown even to you?

It wasn’t until I was 24 or 25 that I really, truly let myself begin to wonder. For as long as I can remember, there has been this nudging, nagging, itching question of “Why?” echoing up from deep within me. Why is this so hard? Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I be like them? Why can’t I keep up? Why are they like that? Why am I like this? Why are they so very different than me? Why am I so different from them? But it wasn’t until I spoke to a new therapist that it all made more sense.

The answer came as a wave, breaking over me and dislodging a stopper inside of me. It was as if suddenly everything and nothing made sense—all at the same time. With this realization, I grew more in a year than I had in the previous five. So many things finally made sense. I was able to adapt, to compensate, to allow myself some credit and time to heal and do what I needed to do.

A large part of why I am writing this blog is to confront my enormous lie—the lie of me. In many ways, my journey to discovery has been a massive puzzle, like the ones in those old Highlights magazines where you have to trace the tangled knots to lead to the source.

Ultimately, I have three primary reasons for writing this:

  1. To make sense of those tangled knots, unravel them, and find my true, authentic self in a therapeutic and constructive way.
  2. To help those on the outside to understand what goes on behind a finely-crafted disguise like mine.
  3. To reach out to those like me that shelter behind a mask they may or may not remember crafting, particularly the women and gender queer or non-binary individuals like me who are so often overlooked and left behind.

In many ways, this is my coming out. Coming out to my friends, my family, myself. Now, at 27, I am proud and relieved to say:I am on the Autism Spectrum. I am Autistic. I am Sara.