I read an autisticmotherland post, Performing normal, the other day and it’s been percolating in my brain ever since. She opens the post with a statement that late diagnosed autistic adults “are method acting every day.” When I read that, I had to pause and look at the copies of Constantin Stanislavski’s books on the shelves behind me. I began studying acting as a child in the 1970s at the Alley Theatre in Houston. Many of the techniques I learned were based on his approach and various family members gave me copies of his works. While I have a large library today, Creating a Role, An Actor Prepares, and An Actor’s Handbook are among the few books I preserved through my turbulent childhood and young adulthood.
While I considered acting as a career, I recognized even when I was young that though I loved performing, it was also incredibly draining for me. And the audition process was its own form of nightmare. So acting is something I’ve done off and on throughout my life for enjoyment or to present concepts or ideas, but not something I could ever imagine trying to do for a living.
I had never really considered, though, how much I rely on those techniques in day to day life. When I’m preparing for interviews, for presentations, a major meeting, or any other significant interaction, I never just consider what I’m going to say. I work through the image I want to convey. I consider the audience and how I want to engage them. In short, I’m always creating a role. I’m stepping onto each metaphorical stage in an appropriate character. I didn’t really think of it in those terms because the name of the role is always ‘Scott’, but it’s variations of a ‘Scott’ constructed to meet the demands of that role. So it’s actually, ‘Scott the technical guru’ or ‘Scott the middle school Sunday School teacher’ or ‘Scott the Cub Scout leader’ or any of the other host of public roles I’ve filled over the years.
Everyone, of course, does that to some extent, or at least I imagine they do, which is one reason I never really thought about it. My preparation, though, has often been less about the content and more about preparing myself to convey the correct persona in that context. And I realize that extends to purely social contexts as well. If we’re hosting something like a Sunday School Christmas party, I bring out and perhaps update the ‘Scott the host’ role. I even prepare a ‘Scott the patient’ role to try to make sure I interact appropriately at the doctor’s office. I try really hard to do well at ‘Scott the friend’ but given that the friendships I do develop tend to drift apart and fade over the course of years, I think I get a failing grade on that one.
In fact, personal relationships in general have always been a challenge. I think I’ve truly learned how to be a better father over the years. I always studied it. In fact, I notice one of the books I really liked on parenting is in the picture I took. And my two youngest children (24 and 19 years old) still seem to think highly of me as a parent. (My youngest insists I’m “the best Dad in the world” which I know isn’t true.) My relationship with my older children is, however, badly frayed, and I can’t seem to figure out how to fix it. It’s something that’s never far from my mind.
Living with me has also been very difficult for my wife. While she is also something of an introvert, she’s very social and often feels isolated and alone. As much as I try, I know I fall short meeting those needs. It’s been incredibly frustrating for me and painful for her when she has needed to discuss something highly emotional and I’ve found myself effectively mute. I experience that sometimes in other contexts, but in social settings, I can usually just withdraw and listen. That’s not the case when involved in an intense conversation with my wife. When I lose my words with her, it’s impossible to disguise. She’s always taken it as a refusal to speak on my part and I’ve never been able to explain my own interior experience. I want desperately to be able to say something, but the words fly from my grasp as soon as I reach for them. Curiously, that’s never happened to me when formally presenting in a public or group context, even when spontaneous questions are involved.
It’s my hope that knowing what lies of the root of those issues will help moving forward. Perhaps I’ll be able to find alternative approaches. Simply knowing why helps, at least a little.
Still, I’ve spent a lifetime shifting from one role to another. I never stop performing. I’m always on stage in character. Even without recognizing that fact about myself, I’ve always empathized deeply with the famous Shakespearean quote from As You Like It.
I’m also most comfortable in my professional role, as the author of the Performing normal post mentions about herself, though after three decades, it’s beginning to wear thin as well. The more personal a connection becomes, the less successful my performance of the associated role has been. Ultimately, that’s really the reason I sought diagnosis. I don’t actually care much about work beyond the enjoyment derived from its intellectual challenges and, of course, the paycheck. Casual social interaction, however well I perform, also means little to me. It’s the close, personal connections that actually matter to me. And I’ve been failing at them to one degree or another my whole life.
I want to start succeeding instead.