In the summer of 2011, I was looking for a job. I received an email from a friend whom I used to work with. Elizabeth was now working at a different office, and she invited me to meet her co-workers and apply for an open clerical job.
The next day, I showed up wearing a beautiful navy blue suit, and armed with copies of my resume. My friend hugged me and introduced me to a coworker. The co-worker asked me how I knew Elizabeth, so I told her we used to work together and how great Elizabeth was. The co-worker said, “Oh she’s not that great.” I countered, “Yes, she is.” The co-worker responded, “In fact, Elizabeth is kind of a slacker.” I told the co-worker she must be misreading Elizabeth. After we went back and forth a few times, I realized the co-worker was kidding and now seemed impatient. I quickly added, “Yeah, Elizabeth really isn’t that great.” I felt everyone was relieved. Then the co-worker said something about what she was working on, but I kept talking about Elizabeth, until I realized the co-worker had turned away. I’d missed the signal that she was done talking.
Later, I met Elizabeth’s boss. We also talked about how great Elizabeth was. Again, I kept talking and realized too late that she had already signaled we were done with our conversation. She seemed 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 been able to keep a job for long, despite being bright, skilled, conscientious, resourceful and eager to help. At work, I felt as if people inexplicably became irritated with me. It felt as if they were watching me and looking for more evidence to support their dissatisfaction with me. Then it seemed as if others would notice and adjust their perception of me. Sometimes I felt 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 co-workers, 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 girl asked me, dismayed, “Why are you so goofy?” I read countless psychology and self-help books, searching for the right formula on how to interact with people. Sometimes, I would share my difficulties with family or the occasional friend, but they said I brought it on myself or I had a “persecution complex.” So I learned to keep my mouth shut. Yet I kept reading books, trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. Deep down, I was terrified I’d never be able to fix it or figure it out. I thought I was doomed to be an outcast, never understood and 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 to help with the brain fog and tried to make an inventory of past job failures. This time, however, a new piece of information was emerging: I was missing social cues, and people were continually getting angry or irritated when I missed them.
With this new information in mind, I thought of all my previous experiences; suddenly, they made sense. I started to see a bigger picture and felt relief from finally understanding how, over the past 50-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 the mental math to see this?
I already knew the answer. I stopped doing the math of adding all my failures over 30 years ago. At the time, I was in my 20s.
Because of my poor people skills, I could only get temp jobs at what seemed like the worst dysfunctional corporate environments. I got the jobs nobody else wanted. One day, my supervisor — speaking in what sounded to me as incomprehensible code — seemed to condemn me for something I couldn’t figure out, and two of my co-workers ridiculed me in the elevator. I had no clue what was going on, or even what to ask.
That night, 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 seemed to be getting worse and I had no idea why; I felt very alone and scared. I wondered how I was going 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 work hard to get things done. It was as if they never noticed how I treated everyone with kindness, pitched in with my best ideas, volunteered for the most unpleasant menial tasks, even acknowledge my clumsy attempts to be friendly. I was afraid eventually 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 confused, and depression and shame would affect my ability to do a good job. By then, they’d be justified in firing me.
So that night as a young 20-something, 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.
To help drown out jeers and accusations from the “twins,” I began to live for tomorrow, looking only at future possibilities where I could 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 get another one.
From that night on, and 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 there I was, sitting and drinking coffee, looking over the past wreck of my life and 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. In the mid-90s, in my experience, most people in my generation were only somewhat aware of autism. I was over 30 years old, and I was thrilled that I’d finally figured out most of what I was missing; it was only a matter of time before I’d have 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 of missing social cues. 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. Even back then, I was under siege every day, a typical day for me was filled with confusing moments. In a rare, beautiful moment — before I messed it up — a kind, older woman 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 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 her gesture of friendliness. She shared something with me 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 I had come to expect from everyone. Besides, what could I say?
I reviewed the incident even more closely, I 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, when it was far too late to prevent it. Bingo! There was a delay in my central processing unit.
I realized there would never be a solution to this problem. My wonderful new life came to a grinding halt. I realized 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 percent in the U.S; my people skills, the lowest 5 percent.
I looked at all the devastation and waste spanning all the years of my life. At least the shame was gone, it could no longer grind me down and tell me, “it’s your fault,” for all the times 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 my friend’s office never materialized, but that was OK 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 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
These days, I’m training myself to recognize more social cues. I still struggle daily to speak up so my silence or ill-chosen words are not interpreted as uncaring or even harmful. I also struggle to filter out what I shouldn’t say.
However, I no longer wake up in the morning dreading another onslaught of sneers, snubs, slights, dislikes and insults. I’m slowly beginning to trust people won’t inevitably turn on me. Now I console myself and say, “Hey, maybe you missed it this time, but you’re getting better at responding to cues.”
Unfortunately, my diagnosis came too late for my 27-year marriage. I had thought that, aside from the occasional tiff, we got along beautifully. 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? One thing I understand now is that 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 when others encounter people like me, they look beyond our silence and our clumsy words.
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