Written by Cheryl Abel
People tell me that they never truly understood Asperger’s until they heard the story about the day I realized I was different.
In Summer 2011, on the day that changed my life, I was looking for a job. I received an email from a sweet, cheerful woman, Elizabeth, whom I used to work with. She now worked at the Sheriff’s office, and she invited me to meet her coworkers and apply for a clerical job opening.
The next day, I showed up wearing a beautiful navy blue suit, armed with copies of my resume. Elizabeth hugged me, then introduced me to her coworker, Kelly. Kelly asked me how I knew Elizabeth, so I told her how we used to work together and how great Elizabeth was. Kelly said oh she’s not that great. And I countered yes, she is. Kelly responded in fact, Elizabeth is kind of a slacker. I told Kelly that she must be misreading Elizabeth. After we went back and forth a few times, I realized Kelly was kidding and looked impatient. I quickly added yeah, Elizabeth really isn’t that great. Everyone looked relieved. Then Kelly said something about what she was working on. I kept talking about Elizabeth until I realized Kelly had turned away. I missed the signal that she was done talking.
Then I met Elizabeth’s boss. We also talked about how great Elizabeth was. Again I kept talking but realized too late that she had already signaled that she wanted to end the conversation. Everyone looked annoyed.
Afterward, Elizabeth and I sat down to eat our sandwiches. Again I was slow in interpreting her signals, constantly trying to catch up. By the end of the lunch, I felt exhausted. A dense fog had settled in my brain.
I drove home and thought about how I’ve never held down a job for long, despite being bright, skilled, conscientious, resourceful, and eager to help. At work, someone would inexplicably become irritated with me. After that, they’d watch me, looking for more evidence to support their dissatisfaction with me. Others would notice and also adjust their perception of me. Sometimes it got so bad at work that people would go out of their way to openly ridicule and harass me. Even clueless me couldn’t help but sense the growing number of hostile coworkers, but I could never figure out what happened, much less what to do. I could almost hear my gentle grouchy Dad yelling, “Don’t you have any common sense?”
My childhood was no better; I was ridiculed at school. In sixth grade, a thoughtful girl, Rhonda, once asked me, dismayed, “why are you so goofy?!!” I read countless psychology and self-help books, searching for the right formula for how to interact with people. I used to tell family or the occasional friend about my difficulties, and they’d tell me that I brought it on myself or I had a persecution complex. So I learned to keep my mouth shut. And I kept reading books, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. Deep down I was terrified that I’d never be able to fix it or even figure it out, that I was doomed to being an outcast, never understood, never loved. As more and more years passed, I eventually let go of the wistful hope that people would be nicer once they got to know the real me.
After I got home from visiting Elizabeth, I made coffee for the brain fog and sat, while I continued to look over memories of past job failures. This time, however, a new piece of information was emerging: I was missing social cues. And people usually got angry or irritated when I missed.
As I added the same missing piece to each bad memory, the memory finally made sense. Then another puzzling memory would immediately take its place, begging for attention, for resolution, as if it knew that I might finally complete the puzzle. I started to see a bigger picture and felt relief from finally understanding how, over the past fifty plus years, people misunderstood and disliked me. But I also felt an overwhelming grief as I tallied all the losses. Why had I never done this mental math?
Well, I already knew the answer. I remembered the night, over 30 years ago, when I stopped doing the math of adding up my failures.
At the time, I was in my 20s. Because of my poor people skills, I would get only temp jobs at the worst dysfunctional corporate environments, jobs that no one else wanted. On that day, my latest supervisor had, speaking in incomprehensible code, seemed to condemn me for something I couldn’t figure out, and two of my co-workers had ridiculed me in the elevator. I had no clue what was going on, or even what to ask.
That night long ago, like every night, I lay awake tensely sifting through the day’s poisonous failures, my daily futile search to understand what happened, cringing, feeling the years of shame and failure eating away at my life force, my life spiraling downward. The way people treated me was getting worse and I had no idea why; I felt very alone and scared. I wondered, how was I to keep heart and the will to keep going?
I’d start a new job thinking, “this time, someone will finally notice how much I give.” But eventually they’d forget all those times I’d eagerly volunteer my help without hesitation, gladly share my skills and knowledge, and kill myself to get things done; it was as if they’d never seen how I treat everyone with kindness, pitch in with my best ideas, volunteer for the most unpleasant menial tasks, even my clumsy attempts to be friendly. By that time, my self-esteem and hopes for a new beginning would be destroyed by the constant and unrelenting misunderstanding and scorn from others, my psyche would be scrambled and very confused, and deep depression and shame would disable my ability to do a good job; by then, they’d be justified in firing me.
So that very night, as I lay there wondering, I thought of an ingenious solution: If I ignored all the abusive words, acts, and attitudes from other people, I could keep moving. Even better, I could pretend that my shame and failures did not exist. I must never look back. If shame or failure dared to creep into my mind, I’d quickly shove them out, close my mind, and refuse to listen. They were banished! Just like that.
From then on, it was a Sisyphean task to shut up those evil twins, Shame and Failure. Although they kept grabbing at me, night and day, I never allowed myself the slightest peek, knowing that my spirit wouldn’t survive. If there were ever an Olympic contest for shutting things out, I would have won, hands down, absolutely no contest.
To help drown out jeers and accusations from the “twins”, I began to live for tomorrow, looking only at future possibilities where I could also squeeze out bits of (borrowed) hope and happiness. If someone was rude to me, I’d focus on kinder people or things to come. If I lost a job, I’d just get another one. I wore out my welcome at a minimum of ten temp agencies and three cities.
From that night onward, for the next 30 plus years, I was always running—constantly one step ahead, frantically trying to stay out of reach from the poisonous clutch of fear and shame.
So now, there I was, sitting and drinking coffee, looking over the past wreck of my life, my failed experiment in tunnel vision, wondering “what the hell am I going to do?”
I couldn’t simply tell everyone up front, “Hello. Pleased to meet you. By the way, I miss cues so, if I piss you off, I apologize in advance.”
That wasn’t going to cut the mustard.
I didn’t yet know about autism. Doctors didn’t start looking for autism until the mid-90s, focusing mostly on children; by then, I was over 30 years old. Most of my generation was only dimly aware of autism.
I was thrilled that I’d finally figured out most of what was missing; it was only a matter of time before I’d have, in my hand, THE formula for how to interact with people. My search was almost over. It buoyed the hope that someday my life might get better. I was tired of running away. But how could I fix my life? I felt like the solution, and a wonderful new life, were just beyond reach, if I could only figure out what to do with the new puzzle piece. What else was I missing?
To find the solution, I needed to figure out exactly what the hell was going on. I looked more closely at the problem.
I remembered back to when I was 19 years old, working as a clerk for the federal government. Even back then, I was under siege every day, a typical day filled with confusing moments. In a rare beautiful moment (before I messed it up), Paula, a kind older women, told me about how her job was being posted for application, although she wanted to keep it. I immediately told her I’d apply for it, because I knew I was expected to be competitive. She gave me a strange look. I was already accustomed to strange inexplicable looks by then, so I just mentally tossed it into the ever-growing pile of “inexplicable stuff I’ll never figure out”. A week or two later, however, I realized that I had betrayed Paula’s gesture of friendliness: she shared with me something about her life, and I threw it back in her face. I wanted to apologize, but by then, I could see in her face that familiar look of estrangement and wariness that I had come to expect from everyone. Besides, what could I say?
Who’s going to believe I didn’t intend it? Can you spell f-u-t-i-l-i-t-y?
I reviewed the incident even more closely: I, the moron, said something thoughtless although I knew better. Also, I noticed her strange look, which gave me a signal. However, I didn’t interpret her signal until much later afterward, when it was far too late to prevent it. Bingo! There was a delay in my central processing unit—my fracking brain was slow!
At that moment, I realized there would never be a solution to this problem. My wonderful new life came to a grinding halt. Worse, though, now I also realized how I would continue to miss literally millions of moments to connect with others. Relating to other people was always going to be difficult and perilous. My SAT scores were among the top 5% in the U.S.; my people skills, the lowest 5%.
Again, I looked out over all the devastation and waste spanning all the years of my life. Well, at least the shame was gone; it could no longer grind me down and tell me, “it’s your fault,” for all those times that I said and did the wrong things and made bad decisions. The shame had lost its power, and for the first time in my life, my spirit felt lighter, freed from the Sisyphean task of smothering the cries from so many bad experiences. I simply wasn’t going to swallow all that blame and shame any more. Plus, I knew what to look out for, so I could take steps to reduce the damages.
The job at the Sheriff’s department never materialized, but that was okay because I had a new job—to repair my life. For the first time in years, I felt hope for my future. In order to get help, I besieged my HMO with countless requests. Finally, in 2013, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s, ADD, and PTSD.
These days, I’m training myself to recognize more of your cues when I trigger your irritation or anxiety. And to say things to ease your social fears. I still struggle daily to speak up so you don’t interpret my silence or ill-chosen words as uncaring or even harmful. I also struggle to filter out what I shouldn’t say.
Best of all, now I wake up in the morning without dreading yet another onslaught of sneers, snubs, slights, dislikes, and insults. I’m slowly beginning to trust that people won’t inevitably turn on me. Also, I no longer call myself a moron; instead, I console myself and say, hey, maybe you missed it this time, but you’re getting better at responding to cues.
I met with Elizabeth again a few years after my diagnosis. She’s still a cheerful, unfailingly kind angel with an uncanny ability to discern between superficial versus essence.
Unfortunately, my diagnosis came too late for my 27-year marriage. I had thought that, aside from the occasional tiff, we got along beautifully. So my husband’s departure was a complete surprise. How did I miss all the clues? Was it because I had become a master at tuning out the lifelong parade of negative feedback and setbacks?
Before my husband left, he told me his friends didn’t like me. He also cited a lack of intimacy, which I understand now. I never shared with him the details of my daily living hell, because I never wanted him to see me through the eyes of others.
I hope that the next time you meet someone like me, you will overcome your fear and suspicions long enough to look beyond my silence and my clumsy words.
About the Author: Cheryl Abel is a writer based in Annapolis and the S.F. Bay Area. She writes to share information, explore issues, seek out new working truths, and make more sense of the world. Her goal is to promote understanding, tolerance, and compromise. She has two degrees in Writing from Columbia University and Notre Dame de Namur, and has written on a wide range of subjects such as economics, public health, co-dependent behavior, and the adventures of three friends who happen to be chickens.