April and Accuracy

I think one reason April (at least in its guise as Autism Awareness Month) is so stressful and aggravating for autistic people is the sheer amount of mis-/disinformation bandied about: since many of us like things to be correct, we feel the need to correct it. This often leads to friction, because, well, people don’t like to be corrected, even politely. Beyond that, I think there is often a mismatch in the intent of communication when it occurs between autistics and allistics.

I realize I’m generalizing here, but this is a fairly common trait; I think it’s one reason why autistic people are often said to “take things literally.” (But we could just as easily call it an allistic failure to say what they mean and/or mean what they say.) When someone says something, autistics tend to see it as an informational statement, and evaluate it as such. But for an allistic person, the main point of the statement might have been something entirely different — sharing something that was (unknowingly) inaccurate about autism, for example, might have been meant primarily as a social signal that the person cares about autistic people, not specifically as a sharing of facts. A lot of communication is meant this way: social sharing that signals virtue, for example, or reinforces the speaker’s place in a particular group.

Evaluating and correcting these statements on their factual content, then, tends to put the other person on the defensive — what they hear is a rejection of their social declaration, rather than a more neutral offering of more accurate information. Then we might get defensive, because we were just trying to help, but the other person reacted in a very negative fashion. And then we end up in a widening spiral of miscommunication that is very hard to get out of, because neither person realizes they are not having the same conversation at all.

As an aside, I think this is also what lies behind the phenomenon of person A getting upset about something they believe is true, but only getting more upset when person B tells them that it isn’t. On the surface this is confusing, because if they were really upset about that thing, wouldn’t they be relieved to find out it wasn’t true? But they’re not. I see this all the time, particularly when it comes to people sharing information of…shall we say…questionable origin. Sharing that “news” is often less a matter of informing others and more a case of declaring one’s allegiance, and challenging its accuracy is seen as questioning that self-identity. Plus, again, people generally don’t like to be corrected, even when your intention is to help them feel better by pointing out that the thing upsetting them isn’t really real.

Anyway. I’ve come to realize that this mismatch is actually one of the primary causes of miscommunication in my life. I will focus on a factual detail in someone’s statement, and respond to that, when that wasn’t the point of the statement for the other person. I am slowly starting to be able to notice this before I respond in a factual manner, but at least I’m usually able to recognize it now once a conversation has started to go off the rails. 🙂

P.S. Some of us also tend to take statements literally in the sense that we don’t “get” sarcasm or metaphor, but this is another way that it manifests, and it is the primary one for me. I think this is also related to the “social (or pragmatic) use of language” that is said to be difficult for autistic people (but which, again, could also be characterized by an allistic insistence on unnecessary communication).

Autism Appreciation

Ah, yes. Autism Awareness Month.

Once more, we meet again.

(Ok, it really starts tomorrow, but I’m already looking over the horizon in weary resignation.)

Last April was my first time writing about this phenomenon, as it was my first time experiencing it…well, no, not my first time as an autistic person, because I’d been that all along. But it was my first time knowing that I was autistic, knowing that I was one of the people the world was allegedly being made aware of.

Did all that awareness work? It hadn’t up to that point; as I wrote last year, all of the previous “awareness” months hadn’t made me aware that I was autistic, so clearly the type of “awareness” being spread was not so helpful in that regard. From the generally baffled and surprised reaction I’ve gotten from people as I’ve started to tell them I was autistic, it hasn’t helped them become more aware, either. And my continued exposure to mainstream impressions of autism hasn’t convinced me that awareness is growing on a larger scale, either.

So I’m with those who say we don’t need any more of that type of awareness. But we do still need more real awareness — the kind of awareness that comes when we listen to what autistic people have to say about autism. We need the kind of awareness that counters the fear-mongering approach of groups like Autism Speaks, the kind of awareness that would help people like me realize we’re on the spectrum, and help the people around us to understand how we see the world.

I am also with those who say that beyond Autism Awareness, we need Autism Acceptance. It isn’t enough to be “aware” of autism if that awareness leads you to rail against it and treat it as a great burden on society that needs to be cured. Although I would hope that true awareness would not lead in this direction, acceptance is still another step beyond awareness. As Shannon Des Roches Rosa has written, “Awareness is passive. Acceptance is a choice.”

So should we rename April to be Autism Acceptance Month? It would be an improvement, I think, and I fully support those who do so. But I also think we can go another step further, and call it Autism Appreciation Month.

Because just as we need more than awareness, we need more than acceptance. Acceptance can manifest in very positive ways, but it can also manifest in ways that involve one group “putting up with” another group as an act of charity. “I accept your many flaws and love you anyway” is sometimes the vibe I get from that sort of thing. (Not always, but often enough to raise my hackles.) Appreciation, though, requires recognition of our strengths as well as our struggles, of our gifts as well as our “deficits.”

Can we as a society come to appreciate the benefits bestowed by our sensitive autistic senses, our iconoclastic honesty, our deep love of our interests? Can we celebrate the physical and emotional expression embodied in spinning, bouncing, flapping, or rocking? Instead of grudgingly making accommodations, can we learn that making workplaces and public environments more comfortable for autistics makes them more comfortable for everyone, and actually thank autistics for pointing out the problems?

That’s what we really need: a true celebration of our differences, and recognition of how those differences can be a positive force in the world. But I think that’s going to take a little more than one month to achieve.

Taking Steps

So. I have been Taking Steps.

(When I put it in caps like that, I feel like a Terry Pratchett character — which isn’t a bad way to live a life, frankly.)

I mentioned last month that I was considering going back to school, in a totally different field compared to my bachelor’s degree, but I didn’t explain what that new field was going to be. That was partly because I was still weighing some options, but also because I was still mulling over this whole course of action, thinking about what it would be like. But as I said above, I have been Taking Steps. I have enrolled at my local community college. I have transferred credits from my bachelor’s degree. I have taken placement tests in math and English. I am getting ready to select (and meet with) an advisor. I have picked out classes for the fall (and am getting really excited about them). So I guess I’m doing this.

But what am I doing, you may ask? I am getting ready to start studying in the field of human services, with an eye toward working — in some capacity — with other autistic people in a supportive role. That may eventually lead to a master’s in social work and clinical certification, or it may lead in some other direction; I’m not sure yet. All I know is that something needs to change in the way that autism is seen by those in the helping professions, and I want to be part of that change.

I want to help older adults learn to make sense of a late-life diagnosis. I want to help younger adults transition into independent living. I want to help autistic children and their parents understand that children on the spectrum learn and grow, and they can do so in ways that honor their differences instead of erasing them. And I want to help educate teachers, doctors, therapists, and other professionals to understand what autistic people need…and what we don’t.

Now, I am also Taking Steps toward doing what I can without a formal education in the field, but the education piece feels very important to me. It’s not just about getting a piece of paper that other people will respect, but about learning more about how to be a good source of support. A combination of study and practice seems a good way to do that.

That, and reading more Terry Pratchett, of course.

Baggage

I’ve been getting a few glimpses lately of emotional issues that are resurfacing long after I thought I had dealt with them. This has led to some interesting thoughts (well, interesting to me; you can be your own judge after you read them).

Because I often don’t know what I’m feeling — at least not right away — I also don’t know how much emotional baggage is piling up from the events I experience. This has two parts to it, really: 1) it can take me a long time to realize how much of an impact something has had on me, and 2) even when I realize that, I forget that the event was having that impact the whole time I didn’t know about it. What I’m realizing now is that #2 is an even bigger factor than #1 when it comes to my long-term mental and emotional health.

Of course, #1 has layers to it as well. Even when I do recognize an immediate impact, for example, I don’t always realize the full extent of it until much later. For example, I got divorced from my first husband many years ago. This was obviously an emotional event, and I got emotional about it — but it took me many years to realize just how deeply it had affected me, especially when it came to my sense of self and my worthiness to be loved. I absorbed a deep sense of “not okayness” from that event, which has taken a long time to come to the surface.

Other things in my life have had similar delayed impact, sometimes decades delayed. But the thing that I realized with #2 is that delayed impacts aren’t really delayed; it would be more accurate to say they’re unconscious and therefore invisible. So I wonder if one reason things get harder for autistics as we get older — often leading to burnout — is that we accumulate more and more baggage we don’t know how to process. In fact, it’s baggage we may not even know that we’re still carrying, so we don’t know that it even needs to be processed. Of course it piles up.

Night Driving

Blazing,
Too intense;
Eyes are headlights in the dark.
Just one pair brings pain,
And too long a stare
Erases thought,
Takes the whole world
Out of my sight.

It takes time to bring it back,
To realize where I am
After the glare has passed.
And once the first has caught me,
It does not take many more
To disorient,
To dazzle,
To plunge me into danger.

What saves me then
Is silence,
And lessons learned
From night driving:
I drop my gaze,
Searching the ground
For the painted white line
That will lead me home.

Conferences And All They Entail

Yesterday, I attended the AANE (Asperger/Autism Network) 2017 Spring Conference, which was titled Hiding in Plain Sight: Shining Light on Women with Asperger/Autism Profiles. It seemed primarily geared toward professionals working with people on the autism spectrum, but two of the keynote speakers were autistic women, and there were quite a few of us in the audience as well.

VoxVisual wrote up an excellent recap at her blog already, which is great, because I am still too wiped out to be that organized. <grin> And honestly, I don’t know that I would have too much to add when it comes to describing the speakers, the venue, and the overall experience. So go read her summary, if you want to get an idea of what the conference was about.

(And yay, we got to meet! 🙂 That was really cool, even if we had to postpone dinner plans due to exhaustion.)

But while I don’t want to duplicate her efforts in recapping the conference, I do want to write about my subjective experience of planning for, getting to, and physically attending it. First of all, I was selected to read an essay I had submitted, as one of six personal accounts of being a woman on the autism spectrum. (You can read that essay here, if you like.) So even before conference day, I was interacting with the organizers to polish up my essay and make sure I was ready to present it. The volunteers I emailed and talked with were very good about setting expectations and answering all of my questions — clearly they (as women on the spectrum themselves) were aware of some of the anxieties that might arise.

The week before the conference day, I made sure to print out all of the information I would need — directions, schedule, a clean copy of my essay to read — and make a checklist of other things I would need to bring. I wanted to bring plenty of water, for example, and I would be bringing my own lunch. Lunch was included in the conference registration, but having recently cut wheat out of my diet, I was concerned about the gluten content of the sandwiches offered. Besides, I figured the day would be stressful enough without subjecting my body to unfamiliar food (which doesn’t always agree with me).

Google Maps told me the drive would be about two hours each way, but I would be driving in toward Boston (and back out again) around rush hour, so I gave myself extra time. It ended up taking me about 2 1/2 hours each direction; I left home around 6 am and got to the conference center (after parking and making my way through several wings of the hospital building) a little after 8:30. The first speaker didn’t start until 9, so that was perfect.

Check-in was easy, but walking into a large crowd of people outside the venue was disorienting. And it wasn’t just the people: there were tables with food and coffee, other tables with pamphlets and fliers for the organizations who put together the conference, and too many other things to look at. So I went in to find my seat; at least I knew I was supposed to sit down in the front, and when I got there someone recognized my name tag and directed me to a seat.

Since I was early, though, I stood back up to see if I could find Vox. We had told each other what we would be wearing, and shown each other pictures, so this turned out to be easy. 🙂 I felt like we immediately clicked, and spent the rest of the time before 9 chatting about several different things. (As would come up later at lunch, with some other women, socializing with other Aspies/autistics can be soooo much easier!)

I went back to my seat just before 9, where I met a couple of the organizers and some of the other speakers. I felt a little exposed sitting in the front row, right in front of the podium where most of the speakers would be standing (and therefore where the camera for the live-stream would be pointed). This didn’t become evident until the second speaker, though, because the first was himself being live-streamed from the UK. Being in the front row also meant I was looking up most of the time in order to see the slides, or up at a different angle to look at the speakers’ faces. The venue was fairly bright, too, and sometimes the sound was too loud, while other times it was too quiet.

By the noon lunch break, I had finished all of my water (I was very warm for most of the day, as well) and was developing a low-level tension headache. My neck and shoulders were tight, something that had crept up on me without my really noticing it. I think it was all of the ambient noise from the crowd — people turning pages as they followed along with the speakers in their printed slide packets, occasional whispered conversations, people moving around. These are the same sorts of things that had stressed me out while working in an open-plan office, things I didn’t even consciously notice until I learned I was autistic and tried wearing noise-canceling headphones. I guess I still don’t notice them until they’ve built up into tension and pain.

(As an aside, it was interesting to read Vox’s observations of the reactions from the audience, and what things seemed to surprise or interest — or upset — them. Since I was in the front row, I didn’t get a perspective on that.)

Lunch conversation was great, and it was good to get some food. (I also snagged some more water.) It probably wasn’t the best idea when I suggested we seek out a table in the larger hospital cafeteria to eat — it was busy, and sometimes hard to hear each other over the dull roar — but it wasn’t clear where else we could have settled down to eat. The rooms near the conference venue were already pretty full by the time we all got our food.

Settling back down for the afternoon, I was already pretty fried. As I mentioned earlier, I was really warm during most of the day. It was a very cold day, but I thought I had dressed in a way that struck a balance between keeping warm outside and not being too bundled up inside. Apparently I should have worn something a little lighter. It also didn’t help that I was scheduled to present my essay in the mid-afternoon, so I had most of the day to be nervous in anticipation of that. My nerves weren’t too bad in the morning, but during Liane Holliday Willey’s talk after lunch, it was all I could think about.

I also felt like my voice was going to be hoarse from all the talking over lunch and during breaks — but I didn’t want to drink too much water before I had to talk, because I hate the feeling of having to pee while trying to focus on something else. So I decided it was probably for the best for my mouth to be a little dry; it would probably help my voice sound a little clearer than if I had too much moisture.

(Seriously, these are the logistical practicalities that run through my head all the time. All. The. Time.)

In the end, I was very happy with the way my presentation went. My knees were shaking, but my voice wasn’t, and I had a podium on which to steady my hands. After I was done, I was very happy to be sitting in the front row, because I only had a few steps to walk before I was back at my seat and out of the public eye. And I definitely felt my shoulders relax — though not completely — when it was over.

Maybe because of that feeling of finally-now-I-can-relax, I kind of floated through the last talk of the day. It also was a bit less relevant for me, as it related more to parenthood, but I did enjoy some aspects of it. Mostly I was just getting hit by the cumulative weight of all of the sensory input of the venue, the social interactions during lunch and breaks, and the cognitive processing of listening to all of the talks, as well as all of the logistical planning required to navigate through the day. I managed to have a few more — really excellent, I have to say — interactions after the event was over, but yeah, I was very much done.

My brain was foggy with all of that by the time I left, and I still had a 2 1/2 hour drive home — over half of it in the dark. At least in this direction I was leaving the city traffic behind, and most of the night driving was on familiar terrain. I had listened to an audiobook on the way in, but by evening I was talked out and needed music. So I put all of my Dar Williams albums on shuffle and sang along with her for the whole way home. 🙂

Overall, this was a great day, and I enjoyed the conference immensely. While I think there may have been some ways in which the venue might have been improved as far as sensory issues — Vox mentioned several in her post — I also feel like a lot of the things that eventually wore me out were just…going to wear me out. I also think I might have been better off sitting somewhere in the back for the morning, and only down in front during the talk right before my presentation. I would have felt a bit less “on display” and also would have been farther away from the epicenter of all the light and sound.

I feel like there is so much more to say — for example, I really, really enjoyed listening to the keynote speakers and the other first-person accounts, and think they provided a lot of good information and perspective, especially to those in the audience who weren’t on the spectrum. But I wanted to write this up as an example of how…involved it can be to attend something like this as an autistic person. And now I’m going to enjoy a nice quiet weekend to unwind, because I can. 🙂

Letting Go Of Fitting In

I was very honored to present this essay yesterday as one of six personal accounts selected to be read at the AANE Spring 2017 Conference, which was titled Hiding in Plain Sight: Shining Light on Women with Asperger/Autism Profiles.

I have never fit in.

I’m not entirely sure I fit in here, at a conference about women on the autism spectrum. I’ve never fully identified as a woman, and I found out only a year and a half ago that I’m on the autism spectrum. So trying to tell my story as an autistic woman almost feels revisionist, even when I’m telling the absolute truth.

I grew up not knowing why I didn’t fit in. I was just too weird, my viewpoint and sense of humor incomprehensible. Academically, I was “too smart”; socially, I was mocked for my naiveté, teased for my way of speaking, bullied for my shyness. I was seen as a girl, but I didn’t think like the other girls. As a teenager, martial arts classes gave me confidence, but I still felt out of place. In the classroom, I could hear every fidgeting student, every scrape of chairs on linoleum, the high-pitched whine of every piece of old equipment — but I was able to get past all that if I kept my head down and studied. I loved to learn, and I did well, graduating at the top of my class.

My love of science carried me to MIT to study physics, paid for by an Air Force ROTC scholarship. For a few short weeks I felt I belonged; here was a place where science was cool, people worked hard, and geeky jokes were appreciated. But it was hard, and it wasn’t long before I felt overwhelmed and alienated again. It wasn’t just the academics that were hard; it was also the social stress of living surrounded by other people, the extensive planning and prepping to keep executive functioning on track, the frequent sensory overload. Somehow I made it through, but I graduated feeling wrung out, bitter, and undeserving of my degree.

Thanks to the Air Force, I had a job for at least the next four years. I got to do some technical work and learn new skills — and at least in the military, expectations are usually made explicit, social interactions are fairly regimented, and you always know what you’re expected to wear. Not being traditionally “feminine” is not unusual for a woman in the military, either. There is a lot of uncertainty, however, in knowing you have so little control over your own career, or even your own life: even in those (relatively) peaceful years, I could not say where I would be stationed next.

So I opted to leave when the four years were up. I moved back to the Boston area, got a job at a tech company, got married and bought a house. It was a lot of change over a short period of time, but I was making my own choices. I had friends. I earned my black belt and began teaching at and even helping to run the martial arts studio I attended. It was a busy four years leading up to my thirtieth birthday, during which — first slowly, then more rapidly — I began to hit a wall.

Some people call it autistic burnout: the point at which all the energy and effort you’ve put into keeping it together, managing executive functioning and sensory overload…just runs out. I couldn’t do it anymore. Full-time work, martial arts training and teaching, keeping the house clean, making time for my husband — I just couldn’t do it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, my first marriage fell apart around this time. My lack of specific gender had always been with me; among other things, it led to close friendships with men as well as women, and to the certain knowledge that I did not want children. These were things my husband knew about me from the start, but they ended up as deal breakers anyway. Looking back, I’m sure my burnout played a role, too, as well as my persistent inability to explain how I was feeling, or to understand his arguments when I found them irrational.

All this time, I still didn’t know I was autistic. I just thought I was a failure, despite all I had accomplished. I held onto my tech job for another year or two, dropping down to part time and hating it more and more. During this time, however, I also grew close to a friend from the martial arts studio, and eventually we decided to move to a rural area and start over on our own terms.

That was twelve years ago. He and I are married now, and live in a beautiful house in the woods. We have struggled for money at times, but did so because we prioritized creativity and happiness over working long hours for other people. When I learned, at the age of 43, that I am autistic, I was overjoyed. Suddenly everything made sense. I started to see my life as a series of triumphs over struggle, rather than a lifelong failure to be “normal.”

I now work part-time — from home! — for a software testing company that seeks to employ people on the spectrum. This leaves time for several creative pursuits and areas of independent study. I still struggle with anxiety and depression, but as I learn to be my authentic, autistic self, I find new ways to manage that. While I didn’t know it for most of my life, autism has helped make me who I am. I wouldn’t want to be anyone else.

 

Traditional Music and Change

My taste in music is eclectic (like so much about me), but one style I have always loved is traditional Irish music. Scottish music, too — bagpipes are awesome — but I grew up listening to Irish music with my dad, and so the songs are a lot more familiar to me. And one thing about traditional music is that while you might hear familiar songs from different artists, they’ll never be exactly the same.

It’s a bit like listening to a live version of a favorite rock song, but more so. With live recordings, there are usually changes in the delivery of the song — different emphasis on words here and there, maybe a change of speed, changes in the instrumentation or backing vocals, that kind of thing. Some artists change the lyrics slightly, but generally not by much.

I often don’t like live versions of songs I love, unless the live version was the first one I heard. I want to hear the familiar cadence that I’ve memorized, that I sing along to in the car. I don’t want to have to learn a new version or stumble along thinking I know it, only to find that it’s changed. Favorite songs shouldn’t change.

But with traditional music it’s different. I love discovering new renditions of my favorite songs, especially when someone manages to create something completely new out of the familiar. Traditional Irish songs can have multiple versions that are all just as traditional, with significant differences in both lyrics and melody. But it’s not just that there are multiple “acceptable” versions — instead, the very practice of changing the song is at the heart of traditional music. It comes out of an oral tradition, after all, with lots of regional variation.

It might seem a little contradictory to call something “traditional” when it incorporates constant change…but it works. I think that’s because there’s still always something familiar about the song that maintains continuity. It’s still that song.

And here’s why I started thinking about this last night. As an autistic person, I often have problems adjusting to change. Change feels threatening when I don’t know what to expect. But I think listening to Irish music has helped me learn how to appreciate change instead of resisting it. Maybe it’s just because I do know what to expect: I know ahead of time that this new rendition I’m listening to will not be the same as others I have heard. I know to expect change.

That may sound like I’m still resisting change, because I’m only accepting it when I know it’s coming — and there may be some truth to that. But looking at it this way does serve to remind me that change occurs everywhere, so maybe expecting an element of change in life will allow me to appreciate both the new and the familiar as simply variations on a theme.

Returning, Restarting, Reframing

I am thinking about getting back into martial arts. I am also thinking about going back to school. These two things are strongly related in my mind.

I have a black belt in a martial art that doesn’t really exist anymore; it was a single-school system, and the instructor isn’t teaching it anymore, and neither are any of the other black belts who had been teaching there (including me). Part of what this means is that I can’t maintain the same rank when I start at another school. The skill I built up while earning that black belt is still real (if a bit rusty right now), but the “credential” doesn’t really apply anywhere else.

Now, that’s totally fine with me. I’ve been a white belt (beginner) again twice since earning that black belt — and before that point, I had been a white belt several times over as I switched styles. I always let new instructors know about my previous experience — it’s usually something they ask of new students — but I make it clear that I’m not expecting to start anywhere but at the beginning. Knowing about my previous experience is helpful to them, because it explains why I often pick up techniques very quickly (if they’re similar to what I’ve done before), but also explains why there might be small details that will take some time to retrain (if a technique in the new style is close-but-not-quite-identical to a technique in the older style).

I had one teacher who was really weird about it, though. He actually offered to let me retain my black belt, but it made no sense to me since I didn’t know his curriculum. The rank would not have been an accurate representation of my skill in that style. So he let me learn at a bit of an accelerated pace instead — but constantly pointed out to the other students around my current rank that I was “really” a black belt, and that’s why I was learning faster. It made things awkward, and I think it gave the impression that I was somehow bragging, even though I was never the one to bring it up.

So I’m looking at starting a new style yet again, at a small school not far from my house. The instructor has a good reputation, and the style — though not one I’ve been particularly drawn to in the past — shares a lot of elements with past arts I’ve studied. (And I’ve definitely found that specific style matters much less than having a good instructor.) But I don’t know how this past-experience thing is going to play out this time, so it makes me a little nervous.

The going-back-to-school impulse carries some similar issues, as it happens. I have a bachelor’s degree already, so I think most people would be looking at graduate school programs as the next step. But I don’t think that’s the right step for me, and it’s similar to how I didn’t feel right coming into a new martial art and wearing the black belt from my old one. That’s because I want to start studying a completely different field, and to me it seems like studying something at a master’s level kind of implies that you’ve trained up to that level in that field (or a related one).

I know many people do change fields between their undergraduate and graduate work, so it’s not impossible. But when I look at master’s degree programs in the field I’m interested in (I’m going to be vague for now and write about it in more detail later), it looks like there’s a lot of ground work that I haven’t done. I could do that coursework first, I suppose, but to me it makes more sense to start at the beginning.

There’s also the question of the cost of education, and for me that includes the logistical costs of getting to classes while also continuing to work — so the availability of programs within a close driving radius was a big factor. And frankly, I’m really not sure whether this area of study is going to give me what I need for the plans I have, so starting small seems to make more sense, too.

So what I have come up with is the idea of working toward an associate’s degree at my local community college, as a way of getting my feet wet. That way I’ll get a lot of preliminary exposure to this new field, and afterwards I’ll have a basis for transferring into a bachelor’s degree (or combo bachelor’s/master’s degree) program. It’s close, it’s affordable, and the program I’m looking at has a lot of cool classes.

But I’m curious as to how the previous-experience question will play out there, as well. And not just at the school, but among my family and friends. Most people seem to think of education as a ladder of sorts, with the only valid path being further “up.” They would see my plan as a major step backward — but I look at it as a natural process of starting over as a white belt again. I still acknowledge the strengths that my past training has given me (and I will take advantage of course credits that can be transferred), but I am fine with being a beginner again in a new field.

I’ll be writing more about both of these (potential) new starts in the future. But I thought it was interesting how clearly related they seem to me, and I wonder how my growing new understanding of myself as autistic will affect how I proceed.

Thanks, But It’s Just Tuesday For Me

I don’t really do Valentine’s Day. In fact, my husband and I tend to forget about it completely. (The day after, though, is our dog’s birthday, and she gets spoiled. Can’t forget that.) I know some people really enjoy having a special day to celebrate their relationships, but we just haven’t felt a particular need for one.

But my lack of affection for the holiday goes beyond that. It’s not just because the modern celebration of Valentine’s Day is marked by persistent advertisements for sparkly jewelry, mass-produced chocolates and cliched greeting cards, although that consumeristic element annoys me. And don’t get me started on all the gendered expectations around “dating” traditions, which seem to get thrown into high relief on this holiday. No, mostly it goes back to my memories of Valentine’s Day in grade school, and how much I hated it.

In the early grades, V-Day was a whole-class thing; everyone made cards for everyone, and placed them into little folded-paper “mailboxes” that we hung at the front of our desks. This wasn’t terrible, but it was awkward. I never knew what to write to anyone, and the cards I got were equally as vague. It never felt like any of the cards I got were actually written to me (and, to be fair, the ones I wrote were probably just as devoid of connection).

Later, of course, when kids were starting to pair off, Valentine’s Day at school started to take on the qualities of the romantic holiday adults celebrate. In junior high and high school, kids could buy candies or roses to have delivered to their “sweethearts” during class. I was always torn between terror that one of those deliveries would be for me — thus bringing me unwanted attention — and despair that no one would ever think of me in that way. To my memory, my first wish remained intact; I never received a Valentine’s delivery in school. But every hour of that whole day, each year, I would feel torn in half by those diverging desires.

None of this is meant to elicit sympathy; it’s not meant as a “poor, lonely me” story. It’s an illustration of the larger pattern of how I see this holiday playing out for large swathes of the population. Even as adults, people are bombarded with messages about how people are giving their loved ones gifts in a celebration of romance, and isn’t it wonderful that everyone’s so happy, and…aren’t you pathetic if you’re left out. I mean, isn’t that the flip side of seeing the holiday portrayed as if everyone is happily (and heterosexually, I might add) partnered up?

At least the public display of Valentine’s-worthiness that marked Valentine’s Day in school (I think some students even did these kinds of gift-delivery things in college, too) segues into something more private in adult life — but to me the holiday is still tinged with this worthier-than-thou feeling that leaves out so many people. And once I started to have my own romantic relationships, it never felt right for me to abandon my standing critique of Valentine’s Day and wholeheartedly embrace the gift-giving spectacle. It felt like that would be a sort of “too bad for those suckers, I’ve got mine now” attitude.

I feel the need to say at this point that I’m mainly talking about the cultural trappings of Valentine’s Day — the advertising, in particular, and practices like those I saw in school, where public displays of relationship status are encouraged in a way that (I think) is alienating to others. I don’t have a problem with anyone’s personal celebration of the holiday, or happy feelings on receiving gifts from a loved one. I like gifts, too. 🙂 But I also want to say that it can be a really crappy day for people who are feeling lonely, or who aren’t lonely but don’t fit the mainstream sexual/romantic relationship mold and are tired of having people think they should. Ultimately I just think it’s ironic that a holiday supposedly about love can feel so mean.

So a happy Tuesday to everyone who isn’t into Valentine’s, for whatever reason. And tomorrow you can celebrate my dog’s birthday instead. 🙂