As I reflect on my life of performance described in earlier posts, I also have to consider the cost. And that’s actually a difficult knot to unravel. It’s true that I’ve poured an immense amount of energy and effort into crafting, shaping, and living that performance since my age was still measured in single digits. However, that’s been what I’ve considered ‘normal’ for decades, and at least some of it has been necessary, in the sense that failing to perform would have had more serious negative consequences.
And there were definitely benefits to performance, especially early in life. Even though I’m now 51, I still clearly remember incidents of bullying from my early childhood. They are fixed in my memory in large part because I could never understand them, even when looking back as an adult. As a specific example, one day at school in second grade, two of my three best friends held my arms while the third punched me in the stomach. It hurt physically, but it’s fixed in my mind because, to me, it came completely out of the blue. I was shocked and confused as much as hurt and later it was as if nothing had ever happened as far as everyone else was concerned. Most of the incidents I remember are like that one. They weren’t the stereotypical schoolyard bully. They were friends who suddenly attacked me and then often returned to being friends. I’ve thought about these incidents repeatedly over the course of my life and have never been able to understand them.
As an aside, my diagnosis is actually somewhat freeing in that regard. I still don’t know what specifically triggered those incidents, but I do finally understand why they happened. Because I am autistic I missed social signals and unintentionally transgressed boundaries provoking a negative response. There were likely clues before the actual incident erupted, but I never saw them. And that means I’ll never be able to understand that specific trigger. I was completely unaware of those clues at the time, I did not absorb any of the social indicators, and therefore those details simply aren’t in my memory. And that means I can finally let them rest. I know where and how they fit in the tapestry of my life.
Those sorts of incidents declined and largely vanished as I became a preteen and young teen. I remained vulnerable to deception, manipulation, and abuse throughout my life, most of which I blamed on myself and would usually try to hide or minimize, but I became less of a target for the sorts of bullying that marked my early childhood. I’ve always attributed the decline to everyone’s increased age and maturity, and that was probably a factor, but it’s obvious now that the sharp decline parallels my own focused efforts at learning how to modulate vocal tone and inflection, better emulate facial expressions, and integrate those into performative versions of myself. I trained myself to better blend into the social background. In fact, it’s so blindingly obvious to me now, I’m not sure how I failed to connect those dots before.
But the energy required for that ongoing, life-long performance had to come from somewhere. I joke, sometimes, about being the Energizer bunny, but I don’t have unlimited stores of energy however much I might like to pretend otherwise. I can drive myself to the point of collapse while maintaining a facade of normality, but I have definite limits.
One odd thing I’ve noticed is that my degree of introversion has appeared to increase over the course of my life. I’ve taken multiple scales in work and personal contexts over the years and as I’ve aged I’ve noticed the intensity of my introversion on those measures has increased. When I was in my 20s, for instance, I was almost evenly balanced between introversion and extroversion on the Meyers-Briggs scale in a test at work. Today, I practically max the scale toward introversion on that or any other test. And that makes sense if I’m pouring energy into performance with every social interaction. Over the years, that has become increasingly draining and I require more time to recuperate between performances. And since I know how draining it will be, social interactions become dreaded events I avoid as much as possible. At this point, I’m not even sure exactly how introverted I actually am and how much I just dread and seek to avoid donning my metaphorical costumes.
I’ve also struggled to maintain relationships. I interact with a lot of people my age and older and one thing really stands out to me. Most people have at least a few friendships that span large chunks of their life. Many still have close friends going back to childhood or college. And that’s true even of the people who say they don’t have many friends or don’t make friends easily. My wife and brother have friends going back to childhood. My father-in-law has friendships that have endured 60 years or more.
Me? I think I get along with people pretty well. At least most people don’t seem to dislike me. And I believe I have some friends, that is people with whom I’m more personal than a casual acquaintance. But most of my friendships have been purely situational. We were friends because our kids were involved in the same activity or school. Or friends at work. Once that context ends, the connection of friendship quickly fades. Even the few actual close friendships I’ve managed to form over my lifetime (which I could count on the fingers of one hand and have fingers left over) have never lasted more than 5-10 years at most. They don’t end abruptly or acrimoniously. They just diminish and fade, even when I’ve tried to pour effort into maintaining them.
I even struggle with familial relationships. I interact with those outside my immediate family very infrequently. And I struggle to maintain ties even with my brother and parents. My relationship with my older children is strained and I’ve been unable to repair it, even though it’s always on my mind. My wife and younger children are pretty much the only long-term, close relationships I have.
I recognize even from the handful of stories and accounts I’ve read so far that the process of building and maintaining relationships is a common autistic challenge. But I can’t help but wonder if the energy I’ve poured into performance has made it even more difficult in my case. If I pour as much energy as I do into casual social interaction in my effort to appear ‘typical’ perhaps it’s not surprising I have less energy to expend on relationships that actually matter to me. And I’ve stayed in character so thoroughly, I have to wonder how many friends have ever even known the real ‘me’ rather than a facade?
As I’ve struggled to deal with our ’empty nest’ I’ve noticed something else in conversations with my wife. She discusses things she would like to do and I tell her they sound like fun to me. I’m looking forward to doing some of them. And that’s true. But then a number of times she’s asked me what I would like to do. And I’ve responded, I think, with my ‘deer in the headlights’ look. She’s followed up with other questions. Isn’t there something I’ve always dreamed of doing? Don’t I have bucket list?
And my answer is … no? My focus has always been narrower. In general, I wanted to be a good father and husband and raise my kids — give them as stable and nurturing a life as I could. More specifically, though, my focus has been on what I needed to do today, this week, this month, and sometimes this year. It’s been all I could do to manage life as it came at me. It never even occurred to me that I was supposed to have dreams of things I would like to do ‘some day’. I think I may have done some of that sort of dreaming when I was a young teen, but it’s taken all my energy just to ‘do life’ and I realize that’s left little room for anything else.
Then there’s the issue of identity. Who am I, really? As I’ve recognized working through the ASD criteria as it applies to my own life, my lens has actually been distorted by my performance. I have not perceived myself accurately. How well do I even know myself? Where do the performative roles end and the ‘real’ Scott begin? I honestly don’t know.
There’s a part of me that wonders if maybe now that I know what’s causing them, I can shore up the holes in my performance. Perhaps I can become more ‘normal’ or at least appear that way. But there’s another part that’s just so tired. The thought of the work that would require is just exhausting. I cycle back and forth between relief and hopelessness.
A song from one of my favorite episodes of one of my favorite TV shows, keeps running through my head. It seems like a fitting note on which to conclude this post.