Some Short Personal Updates

I blinked, and April was over. Already Tennessee is taking on the muggy heat that makes me regret going outside for much of the year, but the azaleas and irises are trying to make it worth it somehow. If my life feels as though it has completely changed since last May, well, that’s because it has.

I’ve had a lot occupying my thoughts.

New job
At the end of March, I finally succeeded in returning to the library profession full-time after leaving to explore other options. I’m working in the reference department at the main branch of my local library, which affords me relative quiet, work that I generally enjoy (especially interlibrary loan processing), and colleagues with whom I fit in well as a queer neurodivergent person. The promotion to full time allowed me to quit my baking job, and being out of the heat, noise, and hectic pace of a commercial kitchen has been a relief, as has working only 37.5 hours each week (in comparison to 50).

New apartment
This weekend, my girlfriend and I finished moving into our first apartment together. We have much left to organize, including our extensive library, and right now we’re surrounded by boxes to be unpacked and decisions to be made. I’m looking forward to settling in and feeling like I’m at home, finally. It’s been a long time since I truly felt at home anywhere.

Fully vaccinated
As of yesterday, my COVID vaccine is fully active. I had expected to feel relieved, and I do, but I’m also anxious about life returning to normal (as much as it can in a state with one of the worst vaccination rates in the country). Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve felt closer to people than before; the switch to largely online and text-based communication worked well for me. I’m afraid that my friends and acquaintances, when they have more options, won’t have time for me anymore. I’m afraid of interacting with people in person, and having them remember that I’m a weird buzzkill whom they don’t want to have around. And I’m nervous about spending time with my family for the first time in months.

The last several months have been characterized my nonstop change. I’m hopeful that as summer begins, I’ll be able to establish productive and reassuring routines: time to go for walks, to write, to read. I want to sink into a comforting sameness for awhile, to be boring and content.

Autism and Relationships: My Experiences, Part 4 (The Worthwhile Terror of Falling in Love)

Note: In this post, I discuss a trans woman both before and during her transition. While I make distinctions for clarity where they are relevant, I refer to her throughout by her current and correct name and pronouns.

As I discussed in my previous post, I spent years in denial about being a lesbian. Until Fall 2020, I suspected that I would be happier and more fulfilled pursuing a relationship with a woman. However, my fear that this hypothesis would prove false prevented me from testing it.

That changed when the pandemic hit, and I found myself isolated from the world except for glimpses of it through my phone screen. It was through these glimpses that one of my friendships began to deepen and take on greater significance in my life, blossoming into my relationship with my now-girlfriend.

Mina and I had known each other for a few years already. We were former coworkers, and I had taken note of her at a time when not only would it have been unprofessional for me to indulge my interest in her, but deeply confusing, as well. It was 2018. I was in the depths of my crisis of realizing that I was a lesbian. And she was living as a man.

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Autism and Relationships: My Experiences, Part 3 (or, It Turns Out That I’m a Lesbian)

Back in August 2020, when I was working on my series of posts reflecting on Love on the Spectrum and my romantic experiences as an autistic person, I alluded to the possibility of writing a third installment. I had envisioned that it would discuss the intersection of my autism and my queerness. After all, I had identified as bisexual for many years, since I was in my early teens, and I considered it to be an important part of what made me, me.

But something held me back from starting that entry. In some ways, I felt that I wasn’t even qualified to write about queerness, as a woman who had only been involved with men and who was married to a man. What of interest could I possibly say about being bisexual, when I had never even managed to kiss another woman? People had questioned the validity of my bisexuality before, speculating that I assumed the label as a means of attracting attention. Writing about it from my position of inexperience felt like it might invite more of such doubt and scrutiny.

But there was another reason why I was reluctant to write about my queerness: I knew that I was not in a position to tell the entire truth, even to myself.

Since then, almost everything about my life and the way I live it has changed. I’m finally ready to continue the story, and in the best way: acknowledging my comp het, getting a girlfriend, and coming out as a lesbian.

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Top 10 Books of 2020

It’s been awhile. It’s been a hell of a difficult year. And while I could spend, well, what’s left of 2020 recounting and analyzing all of the ways in which my life has changed, I would rather look back on the books that I read this year and share my favorites with you.

My reading habits fluctuated a lot this year. I spent much of 2020 unemployed and part of it in lockdown, and I thought that this would lead to me reading far more. Sometimes it did, but sometimes I found my anxiety and depression so distracting that I could barely focus all the way through a page. I listened to a lot more audiobooks than usual, because I could do so while going for long drives, or crocheting, or playing Animal Crossing. At other times, my need for escapism and something to challenge and engage my mind led me to read 10+ books a month and reach for titles that had seemed intimidating or too complex to me in the past.

Despite those challenges, I read some great books this year. These are the ones, in no particular order, that stand out to me as noteworthy.

Maggie Nelson, The Art of Cruelty
I read several Maggie Nelson books this year. I started with The Argonauts because of course I did, but rather than include it as the obvious choice, I selected The Art of Cruelty instead. Nelson’s examination of the use of cruelty–against the self, the audience, and others–specifically in relation to performance art fascinated me. I knew little about performance art, but Nelson’s ability to describe performances that are by their nature ephemeral and to evoke a visceral response was engrossing. I finished the book without definitive answers, but something I think is better: more and better questions to ask.

Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet
As I read through as many Maggie Nelson books as I could find through my local libraries, Anne Carson kept coming up as one of her influences. Naturally, I segued into a binge of her work, as well. Although I got a nasty shock when I remembered that Eros the Bittersweet is beloved of Jenny, The L Word’s least beloved character, I can’t hold that against this brilliant book. Carson is a translator and an academic, but she is also a poet, and her poetic sensibilities shine in her prose as she picks apart Greek depictions of romantic love, starting with Sappho. It’s a gorgeous piece of scholarship that engaged my intellect and induced many a wistful sigh; not a commonplace achievement of academic writing, in my experience. I read this a handful of months before it became personally relevant, and I’ve since revisited portions of it; I believe it to be a book that will not quite finish with me for years, if ever.

Jennifer Giesbrecht, The Monster of Elendhaven
As 2020 wore on, I found myself unwilling to read any book dealing with plagues, pandemics, or disease, which makes it a lucky thing that I read The Monster of Elendhaven near the beginning of the pandemic. It’s short, dark, and nasty in the best ways, with a grimy setting, an antihero bent on unleashing a biological weapon, and of course, a monster. I gulped it down in a single day, and would have been happy with more. Also, judging from Giesbrecht’s twitter, I would probably like hanging out with her.

Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves
I originally tried to read House of Leaves something like ten years ago, as I house-sat for one of my professors. Predictably, reading a book about a weird house that grows rooms and shifts its shape without warning did not combine well with staying in an unfamiliar house. I also lost patience with the more challenging elements of the text: the dual narratives, the labyrinthine footnotes, and the moments when the text in general goes all kinds of cattywampus. But this time, I was better equipped to appreciate the way this book is built, and I was in dire need of something in which to lose myself. House of Leaves provided the escape that I needed, though I should advise that it’s not the kind of escapism for everyone. (I found that my reading was enhanced by listening to the podcast Wound & Stab, which discusses the book in chunks. I listened to episodes as I finished each chunk, to see if my interpretations were on track and to note if the podcasters caught things that I had missed.) 

Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House
Reading books about houses seems appropriate in 2020, when so many of us were confined to our living spaces, but unfortunately I cannot say that it was an intentional theme on my part. In the Dream House relates the story of Machado’s abusive relationship with her ex in a series of vignettes, conceptualizing the abuse as a disorienting physical space. Though it’s an emotionally intense and troubling book, it’s also one that I struggled to stop reading because it is just so well-written and compelling. I recommend that you get your hands on a physical copy, if possible, solely for the choose-your-own-adventure section.

Laura Jane Grace, Tranny
I came to like and respect Laura Jane Grace in a slightly backward way, reading her memoir before I listened to any of her music, with only a vague secondhand familiarity with her based on having a high school friend who listened to Against Me!. I wonder how my experience of Tranny would have differed if I had come to it with as a fan, with a fan’s expectations. I suppose it would mainly have been a trade-off of the music recommending the book rather than the other way around: While I lacked the musical context, I’m finding that I can now pick up on the themes and stories within the songs that she discusses in the book. I listened to it on audio, and liked her voice both in the narrative and aural sense, and I liked how she doesn’t strive for a sterile, practiced likability that characterizes some celebrity memoirs. Tranny isn’t a book that comforts cis people or holds our hands and tells us we’re good allies while presenting an idealized image of a trans woman (if the clutch-your-pearls title didn’t tip you off), which is why I think more cis people need to read it. (I also think that everyone should listen to her 2020 album Stay Alive, simply because it’s wonderful.)

Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Women Who Run With the Wolves
For the first quarter to half of 2020, I made it a goal to read more books that I owned, rather than depending as heavily on library checkouts. While I’ve since weeded my personal collection drastically, at the time I was surrounded by unread books that I had hoarded, some of them following me through multiple moves and languishing on the shelf for years. One of them was Women Who Run With the Wolves, which analyzes fairy and folktales through a feminist and psychoanalytic lens, and which I had always viewed as dense, long, and intimidating. Once I dug into it, I found my previous assumptions a bit silly, but I was also glad that I put off reading it until I did, because the examinations of powerlessness and suppressed wildness resonated with me more than I believe they would have in the past. A book to revisit. (Note: There are a lot of references to ovaries that struck me as a bit gender essentialist; however, I was expecting far worse from a feminist book published in 1992, and I don’t think that the experiences Estés describes only apply to cis women.)

Sara Gran, Come Closer
I love a good possession narrative. I find them to be powerful metaphors for how women and girls are treated by cisheteropatriarchy, for the changes that our bodies and relationships undergo, and for vilified sexual desire. But as a horror fan, I also think that they are deeply scary and, therefore, very fun. Come Closer differs from a lot of possession stories I’ve consumed in that the victim is not a teenage girl, but a grown woman, whose life is irrevocably  transformed by the demon that possesses her. Gran writes some eerie and gorgeously atmospheric dream sequences in this book, something I admire as a writer, because it’s difficult to write a dream sequence that doesn’t burden the reader by making them suspend disbelief twice. I also admire how smoothly she transitions her narrator into unreliability, as she becomes more and more dangerous to those around her, while maintaining the reader’s sympathy for her. The idea of losing control of oneself and being unable to prevent your world from unraveling is a compelling fear, and one that Come Closer dives into headfirst.

Grady Hendrix, The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires
It occurs to me that perhaps this list is a bit heavy, a bit dour, so here’s a lighter book for you. It’s got a weird take on vampires, a Designing Women vibe, and a great cover design. Maybe I’m tempted to do a tiny bit of analysis of how Hendrix depicts race and the way it plays into whose problems are viewed as important right here, but I’m not going to, because you can just read this one for fun if you want to! I’m told that people read for fun, sometimes! I swear that I read books for fun, despite how it might seem! (But also, pay attention to race when you read this book, because it’s interesting and relevant, and because reading is more fun when you’re thinking about it.)

Iris Murdoch, Under the Net
Okay, my beloved Mina recommended this one to me, and I’m aware that its inclusion on my “best of 2020” list runs the risk of looking like I’m trying to impress her, or that my enjoyment of the book is unduly influenced by her recommending it. And I mean, I am always hoping to impress her, true enough, and I do have nice memories of reading it sitting beside her and taking breaks to comment on a passage or read a quote aloud and discuss it, memories that are inextricable from the text for me. But I would have liked Under the Net even had I read it without her influence. It’s a joyful experience to read a narrator who is unreliable not because he’s lying or a bad person, but because he is comically self-involved and convinced of the accuracy of his own perceptions of the people in his life, which leads him astray repeatedly. There are questions to ponder about the nature of love and friendship and how we seek to understand one another, but there’s also dog kidnapping and explosions, and stunningly perfect writing. Murdoch earned her own spot on this list.

On Objects, Memory, and Complicated Loss

Today my mother called me and told me to come to my paternal grandmother’s house, to look through her things and decide what, if anything, I want to keep to remember her by when she moves from the nursing home to North Carolina, to live the likely short remainder of her life with my aunt and uncle.

I pulled into the once-familiar driveway, gravel crunching beneath my car tires the way they used to beneath the tires of my bicycle. Piles of trash pulled down from the attic and out of the backs of closets greeted me on the front porch. But the peeling wooden swing was the same, the rocking chairs, the snowball plant with the greenish-white blossoms I was admonished, as a child, against plucking from the bush.

I haven’t seen my grandmother since I graduated from college, an impossible-sounding nine years ago. My aunt picked her up and they drove the 200-odd miles from my hometown to my college, to watch me sweat through my polyester robe in a gym with hundreds of other students and then go out to eat with the rest of the family. I sat in a local restaurant and watched as my grandmother and my aunt shared one meal from one plate, leaving food behind. They were and are both so unlike my mother and me, their bodies composed of hard, straight lines, so easy to fit into the tiniest spaces.

Nine years ago, but when I saw photos of my grandmother last month, sent by the nursing home staff, she looked much the same as I remember her. And as I walked through her house, I walked through a monument to time stood still, everything in its exact place, just as I remembered it from my childhood. In the bedroom where I slept when I spent the night, I found the same books that once belonged to my father when he was young gathering dust on the same shelves down from which I took them at age seven, staying up past my bedtime to thumb through Peanuts comics.

If everything had not been emptied from dressers and cabinets and sorted out on the floor, it would have seemed that nothing at all had happened, that no time had passed since the last time my father dropped me off for a visit. I found a VHS tape my grandmother received as a gift sometime in the ’90s, its cellophane wrapper intact. In a closet hung my deceased uncle’s uniform from Vietnam. In a drawer, unsigned drawings dated 1938, still lifes and holiday scenes in colored pencil on notebook paper gone gauzy with age.

My mother urged me to take anything that I wanted, though I had insisted that I wanted nothing. I ended up with a few things that hold no objective value, but that, when I think of the house, stand out as images in my mind. Old paperbacks, the bookshelf that once held my father’s photography manuals, one of a collection of many bells that I used to take down and ring one by one, a small molded sandcastle brought back from a vacation that happened before I was born.

The signatures of my grandmother’s house, though, are things that I can’t take. The summer sunlight filtered through the magnolia tree’s branches, so much higher up from the vantage of age 7. The knothole that fascinated me, as hidden spaces and apertures always have. The kaleidoscopic pattern of yellow tile on the bathroom floor. The view of the street from the front window. The grass that encircles the house’s foundation, soft and deep green, the kind I’ve only seen growing around old homes.

There are some things that I don’t want to take, but I don’t have a choice.

I first learned about cognitive dissonance in the introductory psychology course that I took as a college freshman. The act of holding within one’s mind two contradictory ideas or beliefs. At the time I thought that I held few contradictions, but I was wrong.

Cognitive dissonance: My grandmother spinning me on the merry-go-round at the city park. My grandmother hitting me hard enough to knock the breath from my lungs. Christmases spent opening presents with my cousins on her living room floor. The months when my mother would not speak to her. Cashing checks she asked my father to give to me. Not remembering the last time I spoke to her. Knowing that it’s sad that she is leaving, that we are selling her house. Feeling nothing.

I often think of all the places that once made up my landscape, apartments and homes, that no longer exist, that cannot exist as they once did because they hold other people, other things. Phantoms that have been worn away by years. Soon my grandmother’s house will join this ghost map in my mind. I will watch as it auctions and as strangers carry it away piece by piece.

Perhaps, this time next year, the new owner will have knocked it down and replaced it with a new house, one where only their feet have walked, where only their children have played. A house that is not haunted, yet, by war or secrets or death. They will fill the drawers with drawings dated 2021, will place books on shelves, figurines on the table in the foyer. Years later, a granddaughter will sift through the remnants of lives and losses and regrets and wonder why this was kept, why that.

Maybe she will know how to feel about it.

On Masking

I’ve been thinking a lot about masking lately. If you’re unfamiliar with the term–which seems unlikely if you’re reading my blog–masking is the act of camouflaging or suppressing one’s autistic traits in order to appear more neurotypical.

It was only after researching autism and receiving my diagnosis that I learned about masking and realized that I had been doing it subconsciously for my entire adult life.

As a child, I knew that I differed from my peers in ways that I didn’t quite understand, but I did little to hide those differences. After a few token attempts in early elementary school, during which I tried to say the right things and pretended to share the interests of the popular girls in my class, I decided that it was pointless, and by junior high had leaned into being the weird kid. I was guided by a spiteful brand of self-confidence that I can only look back upon with disbelieving affection for my younger self. I simply decided that I was right about everything and that anyone who responded negatively to me was wrong and could kindly fuck off. (Who was that little punk? I love and miss her.)

I maintained that sense of bravado until I graduated from college and realized that my survival hinged upon my ability to find and hold a job. Even before I started working as a librarian, I found myself in service roles that demanded subservience and politeness, traits that would become the foundation of my social mask.

What does masking look like for me?

  • Over-reliance on manners and social scripts.
  • Consciously trying to make the correct facial expressions.
  • Monitoring the ways in which I move or hold my body (trying not to fidget, rock, flap my hands, or do anything that might attract attention).
  • Suppressing visible negative reactions to noises (such as sirens, something heavy being dropped, or a baby crying).
  • Limiting how much I talk to avoid saying the wrong thing.
  • Downplaying my level of knowledge or involvement in my interests to avoid annoying people, if I let myself discuss my interests at all.
  • Attempting to match the level of formality of my speech to those around me.
  • Trying to maintain appropriate eye contact.
  • Mimicking the people around me and agreeing with them (or at least not actively disagreeing with them in a confrontational manner).

If this sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. And after years of constant masking in stressful and socially demanding environments, I began to feel severe negative effects in the form of burnout, depression, and a sense of not knowing myself.

I became accustomed to performing personalities based on what a specific situation demanded. At the library, I was the responsible and unflappable supervisor who was incapable of feeling surprise and who could deal with anything. In social settings, I was, variously, someone to listen to another’s problems, someone to gossip with, someone to come through with wry humor. I strove not to take up too much space, to show vulnerability, or to demand anything emotionally from other people. I tried to be as much of a chameleon as possible and to always fit in, even when I began to feel like a fraud or when I had to absorb as truth others’ incorrect perceptions of who I was. (The worst of which was probably that I’m “dead on the inside.”)

And in the worst situation, at a job where I felt like everything I did was wrong, I tried my best to become as invisible and silent as possible. A non-entity.

Over the past year or so, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort relearning who I am and recovering a stable sense of self. Part of that work has consisted of rejecting messages from people who treated me poorly (which is a weak word, but I struggle to use more accurate ones like “manipulatively” or “abusively” without feeling dramatic and self-pitying), and part of it has involved practicing revealing more of my genuine self to people who have demonstrated themselves to be trustworthy and accepting.

Of course, I still mask at times because it’s impossible not to do so in certain situations, such as when I’m at work. But I hope that my awareness of my neurodivergence and the presence of people in my life around whom I can unmask will help to prevent me from losing myself again.

My Reading Wheelhouses

At the beginning of this year I stumbled upon Reading Glasses, a podcast about book culture in which the co-hosts share what they’re reading, solve listeners’ bookish dilemmas, and discuss timely literary topics. I’ve worked my way through the entire back catalog of episodes, and am now in the relatively sad position of having to wait each week for a new installment.

One of my favorite things about Reading Glasses is the concept of the reading wheelhouse: tropes that, without fail, entice a specific reader into picking up a specific book. Often listeners write in to share their wheelhouses, and I’m always charmed both by how many people who don’t know each other can share the same idiosyncratic reading tastes and by the readers who are passionate about something I’ve never even considered (bird books being the one that gets the most good-natured laughs on the podcast).

I think that wheelhouses afford a deeper and more personal understanding of someone’s reading tastes that goes beyond the typical genre-based ways of discussing what someone likes. Two people who both read horror, for instance, might be drawn to the macabre for completely different reasons and read completely different authors. “Gothic fiction with lesbian protagonists in historical settings” and “fast-paced, gore-heavy slashers” would both fit into the horror genre, but they do not offer the same reading experience.

I’m also drawn to the idea of a reading wheelhouse as a former public librarian who frequently performed reader’s advisory services for patrons. I wish I’d had the concept available to me then, but alas… Maybe I’ll have the chance to use it in future.

For now, I’ve been thinking about how to articulate my own reading wheelhouses.

Dark academia, and/or any novel with an academic setting.
I love books that make me feel like I am a student again, that allow me to lose myself in details about classes and descriptions of beautiful, old architecture. Added bonuses include a dark and foreboding atmosphere and pretentious characters leading lives far more complicated and glamorous than my own student existence (which consisted mainly of eating waffle fries and staying up until the wee hours explicating poems). I’m not opposed to magical schools or pagan cults, either.

Fae/human relations.
Over the years I’ve read a lot of books that draw from Celtic faerie folklore, and I’m powerless to stop reading them. My favorites are novels that examine the fraught relationships between humans and faeries: changeling children, human encroachment on fae territory, forbidden romances, and power imbalances (mundane/magical, mortal/immortal).

Women (who might or might not be witches) running small businesses in quaint, small towns.
Maybe it’s a café, a bed and breakfast, or a candy company. It definitely is located in an idyllic small town that’s everything I wish my own tiny hometown could be (if you entirely ignore reality). The protagonist is certainly a woman on a personal journey who is probably starting her life over after a death in the family, a divorce, or a lifetime of being vaguely unfulfilled and on the wrong path. If there is an underlying thread of magical realism, all the better. These books are my brain candy, especially during summer.

Deeply unlikable female protagonists ruining people’s lives.
On the other hand, I also love to read gritty literary fiction or psychological thrillers in which a female protagonist is thoroughly unbearable, makes terrible decisions, and wreaks havoc on both herself and everyone around her. Faking her own disappearance (Gone Girl), scamming prescription drugs and hiding in her apartment (My Year of Rest and Relaxation), insinuating herself into the life of an envied and successful former friend (The Paper Wasp), spying on and becoming obsessed with the neighbors (Looker)… the list goes on.

The horrors of childhood.
Books like Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon, IT by Stephen King, or the Paper Girls graphic novel series by Brian K. Vaughan, which hold space for both nostalgia for what is lost and the knowledge that one’s past was hell to live through. Defining features include long passages about summer days, bike rides, interludes of innocence being chipped away as adulthood approaches, and parallels between everyday and supernatural evils that the characters must overcome.

Books about books.
This is a broad category that includes books with librarian protagonists, books set in bookstores, books about fictional books, books within books, books about writers real or fictional, books about bookish secret societies or books of forbidden arcane knowledge, books about the act of reading, and nonfiction books about books. If I’m in a reading slump, a good meta book almost always alleviates it.

I love both the word and the genre. Fiction and nonfiction, as I enjoy memoirs (and often prefer ones by interesting people about whom I have little to no previous knowledge). Preferred subjects include creators (especially writers), queer people, or, ideally, both.

Autism and Relationships: My Experiences, Part 2 (Maintaining Relationships)

Welcome to Part 2/? of my series in which I watch Netflix’s Love on the Spectrum and reflect upon my love life. (And perhaps overshare? I’m torn on whether or not this is TMI.)

Last time, I talked about my difficulties in meeting people and dating. This time, I want to look at my difficulties in maintaining relationships.

Whether romantic or platonic, maintaining a relationship is something I’m kind of terrible at doing. Relationships are much easier in the beginning, when I can fake my way through and present the best version of myself. Of course, when I expend a ton of energy appearing as conversational, outgoing, and “normal” as possible, I’m masking, and eventually, I can’t do it anymore. Either my real self begins to show, or the relationship never moves past a superficial level because I am uncomfortable with the amount of engagement, vulnerability, and accessibility that is required to forge a deeper connection.

In the past, I would begin a new romantic relationship with high hopes that I would continue to be the best version of myself indefinitely, and I would be disappointed in myself when I was not able to do so. I hated the moments when the mask would disintegrate and I would reveal that I’m not a lot of fun at parties or that I become overwhelmed in new environments. It felt like there were hundreds of little ways in which I failed to live up to the standard of being a good girlfriend, and because I was undiagnosed, I lacked the self-knowledge to be compassionate with myself. I just thought that I was weird and kind of broken, that I needed to try harder and change.

But I was already trying hard, and determination to just be a different person isn’t a tenable foundation for change.

Over the years, I frequently found myself in situations where I was overwhelmed, taxed beyond my emotional capacity, suffering from sensory overload, and unable to articulate what I was going through to my partner. I remember horrible arguments (that I now realize were the product of meltdowns) and times when I would just shut down entirely. I remember feeling misunderstood and alienated, but now I realize that my partners must have been confused and at a loss for what to do for me. Of course they didn’t know what I was experiencing or how to help; I didn’t know, myself.

For my part, I was always kind of just following a script in my head of how I thought a relationship should go and what I wanted. It was difficult for me to cope with my partners’ needs or their deviation from how I thought things should progress. I was not good at communicating or navigating differing expectations, and I was highly sensitive to rejection and criticism. This led to resentments and breakups.

Like my entire life before I received my diagnosis, I was crashing through romantic relationships clumsily, without any real idea of what I was doing. Diagnosis–which occurred for me at age 30, three years into my relationship with my husband–didn’t change everything, but it changed plenty of things in highly positive ways.

There are so many ways that my autism impacts my relationship. Some examples: I’m sensitive to touch and sometimes find physical affection uncomfortable, while other times I need to be hugged very tightly. I fixate on my special interests and feel the need to tell my husband about them all the time. I am bad at correctly interpreting facial expressions, which can lead to misunderstandings (like when my husband had to explain that he was looking at me affectionately, not pityingly). I still sometimes experience meltdowns in the face of sudden change or obstacles.

My husband has told me that before I was diagnosed, he often felt confused and concerned about me, interpreting my needs for space and quiet as anger directed at him. When I was diagnosed, he spent a lot of time learning about autism in order to understand me more fully, and that has helped our relationship so much.

Now he is able to support me in the ways that I actually need support, which often means running errands with me, making a game plan in advance of family gatherings or other stressful situations, and keeping an eye out for signs that I am becoming overloaded (and gently reminding me to take my Tangle with me when we go grocery shopping). He also listens and helps me to understand situations when I am anxious and/or find people to be confusing.

As for me, I benefit from possessing more self-awareness, which I think makes me a much more pleasant person to be with. I’m more aware of my sensory sensitivities and can work around them (and I’m less likely to interpret my partner seeming loud and annoying to me as them being inherently/intentionally loud and annoying). And I do ask my husband if he’s feeling up to me infodumping to him, although I sometimes don’t catch myself until I’ve already launched into a TED Talk. At least I try.

I wish I’d had access to a diagnosis earlier in my life, because I could potentially have avoided so many problems in my past relationships. Being up front with people about being autistic might have prevented some of those relationships from happening in the first place… but still, the problems would have been avoided, either way. 🙂

I feel like I need to wrap this ramble up with some advice, although I am the last person to be giving dating advice, honestly. But I have learned that you cannot pretend to be someone you’re not forever (nor should you), and that understanding yourself and communication helps you to be a better partner and to maintain relationships. It’s not easy, but it does help.

Thus concludes Part 2. Part 3 to come? Perhaps.

Autism and Relationships: My Experiences, Part 1 (Dating)

Recently I watched the series Love on the Spectrum on Netflix. While I’ve heard varying opinions online from other autistic people, I enjoyed it. For those unfamiliar with the premise, it follows several young adults with ASD as they begin dating and search for partners. While their lifestyles, interests, and support needs vary, what all of them have in common is their desire to find a romantic connection.

What I like about Love on the Spectrum is how it challenges the common assumption that autistic people are incapable of being in romantic relationships. While we do face significant challenges in dating, that does not mean that we can’t or don’t want to. For some of us, romantic relationships are important.

I related a lot to several of the people on Love on the Spectrum, and it made me reflect on my own experiences with love and dating. It turns out that I have a lot of thoughts on this topic, so I’m starting this blog series to share them all.

As a teenager, I was preoccupied with love and desperately wanted to be in a relationship. I had intense crushes on male and female classmates, and I had a brief relationship with a boy. I saw having a boyfriend or girlfriend as the ultimate path to happiness; if I could only be loved (and lose my virginity), everything in my life would be great.

The problem was not only, as I would come to learn over many years, that being in a relationship is not an automatic pass to happiness and in fact requires a lot of hard work to succeed. I also struggled because I possessed little ability to read people’s moods and intentions. I couldn’t tell if someone liked me back, and I was often crestfallen when my romantic interest in them was insufficient to make them reciprocate.

All of my romantic knowledge derived from watching romantic comedies, reading books, and consuming relationship advice from teen magazines (and the occasional issue of Cosmopolitan that found its way into my house). I had a wide array of theoretical knowledge about how things should work, but no background on how to build friendships or gauge/indicate interest. I could not implement my research. I was very similar in my approach to Michael on Love on the Spectrum.

When I graduated high school and went to college, I was more determined than ever to be in a relationship. My social skills had not improved, but being thrown in with many other young adults meeting for the first time worked to my advantage. I found a boyfriend.

Unfortunately, my research had not grounded me in knowing whether a relationship was healthy, and I did not grasp the concept of casually dating. I went for commitment from the beginning. I also was open to mistreatment and manipulation, because I took everyone at their word–a trait that I still struggle with today–and was very inexperienced. My first relationship was very controlling, and it took a lot for me to break away from it.

When that relationship ended, I immediately began another one. This started a pattern of serial monogamy in my life. Looking back, I realize that this behavior sprang from my need to have someone help me to navigate my life. My new boyfriend became that person: He accompanied me to the dining hall and all social events, went grocery shopping with me, and became my sounding board for all of my frustrations about other people.

It was comfortable to have someone to help me function, so comfortable that I ignored aspects of the relationship that were unhealthy. That relationship, and ones to follow, were characterized by constant misunderstandings and arguments. I was still very much undiagnosed at this time in my life. I had little self-awareness and no real framework for communicating my feelings or needs. My life and my emotions were in a state of constant chaos.

Eventually, I got to a point in my late twenties where I was actually single and began, for the first time, to really date. I was still undiagnosed, still a hopeless romantic, and still desperate to find happiness in the form of a romantic relationship. I wanted to get married, because I knew that’s what women my age in my geographic area were supposed to do.

In the past, all of my relationships arose from proximity, with people that I met at school or work. I decided that I needed to look elsewhere for partners, but I wasn’t sure where to look. Before I knew that I was autistic, I thought of myself simply as extremely introverted and shy. I longed for a meet-cute moment in the SFF section of my local Barnes and Noble, that some gorgeous person would reach for the same Neil Gaiman novel right as I did, and everything would fall into place. Unfortunately, things like that only happen in movies.

Knowing that I would never stand a chance if I just went to bars or clubs to meet people, I got on Tinder. (I had no idea that it had a reputation as a hook-up app.) I liked it because only people who liked me and of whom I approved could talk to me, a paradigm that I wished could govern interactions in all areas of life.

Even so, I ran into challenges. Dating is difficult, even for allistic people (or so I gather from the plethora of memes about how terrible it is). I discovered that trying to date women terrified me because there were even more social rules and cues to read with which I had no practice. So I turned to dating men, something I had done enough to at least have a shot at succeeding this time.

And well, it somehow worked, because I’ve now been married to my husband for over three years. I think that I got lucky, because without knowing it, he was kind of looking for an autistic girl: He wanted someone who didn’t play emotional games, who was quirky, and who had nerdy hobbies and interests.

Even with my now-husband, things were nerve-wracking at first. Relying a bit on gendered social norms helped because he took the initiative to suggest date locations, but that meant that I would have to go to new places and try new things. Once I even made a test run to be sure that I could find the restaurant and knew where to park… Then it snowed. I was so nervous about driving in inclement weather that I spent hours reading tips on how to do so online and seriously considered having my dad drop me off. (I’m glad that I wisely nixed that as a viable option.)

After our relationship became serious, I still struggled with certain aspects of being together, living with someone, and navigating the social pressures and changes that accompany getting married. But I’ll cover all of that in Part 2.

P. S. If you’ve watched Love on the Spectrum but haven’t seen this “where are they now?” video, you might be interested. Ruth and Thomas were two of my favorites on the show, and their update made me really happy.

Things That “Normal” People Like (Satire)

Last year, my primary goal in life was to be perceived as normal. I was newly-diagnosed and learning more or less every day that my experiences were not as universal as I had thought. Moreover, I was working in an environment surrounded by the most normal people I have ever encountered, which made my idiosyncrasies stand out even more.

Of course, normality is subjective and dependent on one’s social context. It’s also not entirely healthy or authentic thing to strive to be normal. Which is kind of my point: I had to attempt to fit in, feeling like I was approximating behaviors that came naturally to everyone around me. They didn’t have to try, and they still fit in perfectly. I tried constantly, and I failed every time.

My biggest hurdle was making conversation, which everyone around me wanted to do constantly. Not only do I hate small talk, but I discovered that I either didn’t care at all about apparently universal interests, or I did not have the correct points of view concerning them.

From my observations, I have compiled the following list of things that normal people like and enjoy talking about. Maybe it can help you survive the next time you have to make small talk. Failing that, you can join me in wondering why people care so much about these things.

Please note that this is intended as humor, and I am not maliciously poking fun at anyone. People are complex, and you can’t really group them as normal or not normal. More than anything else, I am making fun of myself for being out of sync with the ways that most people socialize.

  • Money.
    • It’s not that I hate money; I quite like having money and worry when my finances are tight. But normal people talk about money all the time, even though it’s supposed to be rude to do so. They want to know how much money everyone makes. They sort people according to salaries. And they attribute a wide array of positive traits–intelligence, attractiveness, leadership ability–to people who are rich simply because they are rich, which is preposterous.
  • Vacations/the beach.
    • I am grouping these concepts together because I discovered that for normal people, they are synonymous. I plan trips to places that I enjoy based on culture, history, food, and sites relating to my special interests. Museums are a major factor in deciding where I want to go. Unfailingly, normal people found my stories of visiting Salem or New Orleans odd, because a real vacation means sitting on the beach, under the hot sun, doing nothing, for hours on end.
  • Shopping.
    • Shopping is something best undertaken when there is a definite goal in mind, with the exception of browsing in bookstores, secondhand stores, and oddities shops. However, “normal” people apparently love going to crowded department stores for no real reason, to buy things that they don’t need or really want, and then they like to talk about what they bought. And they don’t even get overwhelmed navigating busy parking lots or turn around and leave if there are too many people.
  • Sports.
    • I get a bit of an out on this one because I’m a woman, which is simultaneously sexist and pretty convenient.
  • Children.
    • I’m not a parent and don’t plan to become one, which cuts me out of many conversations with other women I encounter and makes people suspicious of me. I always end up nodding uncomfortably while someone tells me about teething or potty training or the relative merits of various preschools, unable to draw from my nonexistent mothering experience for a relatable reply. It always comes across as, “I, too, was once a child! I know the ways of the young!” (I do not.)
  • Alcohol.
    • Drinking can be fun, but I don’t consider it to be a personality trait or a hobby. How am I supposed to respond when someone tells me how much they drank over the weekend? “Congratulations?” There are just so many more interesting things to discuss!
  • Chain restaurants.
    • Do I eat at the same places over and over and always order the same 1-3 dishes on rotation? Yes. But why do normal people get so excited about chain restaurants opening up when they are, by definition, identical to every other franchise (except for the really cool ones in other countries, but they never talk about those)? Why do they go on vacation (to the beach, of course) and eat at Applebees?
  • God.
    • Specifically the Christian concept of God. This probably arises from my living in the Bible Belt, where seemingly everyone goes to church and commonly sprinkles references to Christianity into conversation, assuming that everyone shares their beliefs, worldview, and traditions. I’m a pagan, so I don’t really know what to do when this happens.
  • Manicures, spa treatments, and salon visits.
    • The only thing I hate more than small talk is having to make it while a stranger touches me and then charges me a lot of money.
  • BONUS: Sex.
    • Normal people are obsessed with sex, but they are forbidden by social taboos from talking about it. So instead they gossip about other people’s affairs, criticize women’s outfit choices, and go through the motions of being scandalized whenever an erotic novel, film, or song becomes popular.

If you ever meet me, please do us both a favor and avoid asking me if I have kids or whether I saw the big game. Ask me what I’m reading, instead. Maybe I should get this shirt?