Sunday, July 26, 2009

Back To The Psycho Mines

I've recently been through one of the most pleasant runs of mood I've had in my life. I went through weeks of being stable, happy, and productive. But the last few days have seen me back on the roller coaster. Not in a serious way, but enough to throw me for a loop and worry the missus.

And then this morning I ran across this book on our kitchen counter. Started reading it in the bathroom, took it back to bed. Didn't set it down until I was done. It took me three hours to read and much of that time was spent in thought. It is a wonderful book and I'd recommend it to any interested party -- but this isn't a critical piece.

Now I've always scored high on Asperger's/autism tests but I always figured that was because they don't distinguish between autism and misanthropy. But reading this book, I was startled by the number of traits and behaviors I had in common with the author and her fellow autistics.

I ain't autistic. The two most obvious symptoms of autism are difficulty with verbal thinking and lack of empathy. In these areas I'm aberrant in the opposite direction; I was conversational on an adult level by nine or ten months, and my empathy is of the kind where it is frequently difficult for me to distinguish between my emotions and those of the people around me. (This makes it really, really easy to get me to do what you want if you really, really want to.) And while I have difficulty socializing, I've always treasured and desired human contact in a way that's quite alien to the autistic.

But over and over again I found myself recognizing the way she viewed life and the way she dealt with it. She talks about how autistic people benefit from the application of physical pressure to their bodies; until I moved away from home I slept with sixteen old-fashioned wool blankets on my bed because I needed the pressure in order to sleep. (During the summer I'd roll them up and stick them in our upright freezer during the day so they'd keep me cool at night.) Even now I can't sleep unless I have a pillow over my head. And a lot of my childhood play involved confinement in close quarters, which always soothed me. Even my preference for soft, heavy women seems to reflect this tendency.

The way she had to construct her social skills deliberately and intellectually. Again, this was and is very true for me. I don't have any intuitive sense of how people are going to react to me. I'm continually refining my public behavior based on incoming information. And there are aspects of my behavior which I don't even notice until they're pointed out to me -- the way I blow my nose loudly, for instance. I have no idea how many of those idiosyncrasies are still unknown to me.

Ms. Grandin wrote of having to study people in order to be able to interact with them effectively. I was utterly baffled by people until I watched a Jane Goodall special on the National Geographic show and I realized that if I were to get by in the world I'd have to do with humans what she did with chimps.

Autistic people can have trouble filtering input. Oh, man. Noises other people would never notice can prevent me from sleeping. I can't listen to more than one conversation at once -- if someone tries to talk to me when I'm on the phone I'm overtaken by a brute rage. I can't filter sensory input -- but on the other hand, if I'm focused you have to yell at me for a while before I'll notice you.

Autistic people have trouble deviating from routine. Again, guilty as charged. If there's any variation in my routine I can start losing my shit. And self-injury as a way to soothe oneself via endorphins? All my best scars are self-inflicted, and my rule of thumb is that if the number of minutes I've spent pacing is multiplied by the bleeding bite-marks on my cuticles is greater than one hundred, it's time to take things seriously.

It went on and on. Even small details like having additional difficulties during the fall and the spring seemed to be similar to my own experiences.

There are a cluster of mental conditions like schizophrenia, depression, autism, OCD, etc. that seem to be related to and interactive with one another and I live in that zone. While I've been diagnosed with agitated depression and tentatively diagnosed with borderline schizophrenia, I really don't fall neatly into any diagnosis. My symptoms range all over the place and every so often something new will crop up unexpectedly and then fade away.

(I was particularly grateful that the mean-talking voices in my head were a one-off. Living with that shit would be too much.)

When I know my role, when there's an emergency or a job to be done, I have no problem functioning. That's when I shine. People I work or go to school with tend to think of me as able, amiable, and confident. It's only people who don't know me at all or who know me really well who understand that the boy's got issues.

This book got me wondering if I should reconsider the possibility of counseling and medication. Which doesn't help put me in a good mood. Last time I tried that it was a fucking disaster. Medication made things worse (seems that they no longer prescribe anti-depressants for agitated depression), and I wound up depressing my counselor. And god only knows I don't have the money, so the point is moot -- but there are the counselors at school, but would they be capable of working with a headcase of this magnitude?

Ah, well. The mood will pass. It's actually not as big a deal as it sounds. I'm doing pretty well for a crazy person. And all of the best parts of being me are the light side of that shadow. C'est la fucking vie, you know?


robp said...

Hey Sean,
Since Susan teaches autistic children, there are quite a few books on autism around the house if you want more reading along those lines. I'll ask her to read this post regardless; maybe she'll think of one in particular that you'd like. Although Grandin's particularly interesting - such a high-functioning person, and despite the difficulty regarding empathy with humans she seems to have an empathy with animals that other people, autistic or otherwise, just don't have.

The most popular autism book in the house, far and away, is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, which is fiction and sometimes veers far from reality but in general is very well done, entertaining, and close to reality. And it's a damn fast read, both because it's entertaining and because it's short.

And yes, my own autistic tendencies have been pointed out to me more than once. Because it's a spectrum of behaviors there are probably quite a few of us who register somewhere on the spectrum. Like most things, it's a matter of how you function with it.

Totally off the topic - the Safire grammar column in today's New York Times brings up the fact that 'they' was the common and thus proper non-gender specific singular pronoun for centuries until grammarians made the pronouncement that the word could be used only as a plural term, thus creating the he/she conundrum that plagues us to this day. Safire was of the opinion that we should go back to what worked for Dickens and his ilk (the column is two rooms away, I refuse to walk that far for specifics, I may well be keeping the column for reference anyway. Maybe I can be at the forefront of the neo-Dickensians using 'they' as it was intended. Not to detract from the fabulous use of 'you guys' in your novel - I love that scene, much as I frequently enjoy the confusion or embarrassment of other people).

Okay, away from what's yours and back to the mines (I think that's a really pretentious and insulting to the difficulties of miners phrase unless, like me, you use it to refer to "I, me, mine." Ego doesn't mean you think a lot of yourself, just that you think of yourself a lot. Tis a stolen line and I may have typed it elsewhere recently, would give attribution if I knew where it came from. For now it's like the Maltese Falcon dropped in my lap without my knowing where it came from. Only that it's stolen.)

Cheers of course, and since doctors can't seem to settle on what's wrong with you they damnwell can't be trusted with prescribing your meds - it's up to you. Oy, I ramble when it's writing time; been there?

Sean Craven said...

Hey, Rob --

We've got a copy of Curious Incident floating around somewhere. I'll have to hunt it down.

One of the things in the Temple Grandin book that I found interesting is that she was able to intentionally cultivate a sense of empathy for people. It made me think of a discovery I made in early childhood.

I had a strong drive to communicate my thoughts and I found that if I just yammered at people they got sick of listening to me fairly quickly. Somewhere between one and two -- I think, I'm gonna ask my dad about this -- I realized that you had to listen to people if you wanted them to listen to you, and that it made a real difference if you cared about what they were saying. So I deliberately taught myself to care about what other people thought.

Sometimes I wonder if that was the smart thing to do. Too late now.

I have to admit that I might not want to leap full into the fray of self-analysis right at the moment. Given my current emotional state I'd be too tempted to turn it into a game of pin-the-symptom-on-the-psycho.

And after my last experience, should I give meds another shot I'm going to be a lot more active in determining what and how much I take, but I'm gonna want access to an expert opinion while I experiment. I have had interesting results from the use of amino acids -- I'll have to turn that into my next blog post. This reply is getting long enough.

Interesting thought on pronouns. Might be a good hook for a literary movement. I've always wanted me one of them things.