My earliest memory of being “different” was actually a pleasant one. When I was four, I would sometimes spend the weekend with my grandmother at her retirement home. When she took me down to the cafeteria to the communal dinners, I knew which fork to use, and how to follow rules, so I charmed the old people at our table: “He’s so mature for his age!” I learned very early that there were rewards for not being who I was, that the biggest compliments came for not being a four year old, but something else, and so I set to work.
For most of my life, I have dedicated a great deal of energy to picturing myself from other people’s perspective in an effort to avoid rejection. And I don’t just mean in my spare time (though I did this too). I mean that when I have a conversation with someone, a good part of my concentration is dedicated to feeding data to a quiet observer-self who stands a few feet away, watching and listening and evaluating my performance in real time and then feeding me tips, like a director in a play.
It’s difficult and distracting to do this. I often can’t allot my mental resources correctly, and in the middle of a conversation, I will realize that I have spent too much focus on what I will say in reply (and how it will sound) and not enough focus on what the person is saying. Things as simple as greeting a new person often goes sideways because I will be focused on considering whether to say “Nice to meet you” or “Hi, I’m Colin.” I often miss them saying their name, and have to ask them to repeat it, and sometimes, I am then so thrown off by my failed performance, and how it must seem like I am disinterested, that I fail to listen while they repeat their name.
When I do manage to direct enough focus to what the person is saying, I’m often left unable to generate a response quickly, because I haven’t had the processing time, so it sometimes seems like I’m not listening, or don’t care. In reality, the problem is that I often generate a multitude of things I could say in response, so many that it takes me time to decide which are most relevant, and then those need to be processed through my quiet observer to anticipate possible reactions, then the script goes back to the writers for some final editing, then I do a quick table read, and, finally, I speak my lines.
There’s more, though. If I am introduced to someone from Spain, my brain is immediately filled with empanadas and Francisco Franco and the trains run on time and how Castilian Spanish sounds different than Mexican Spanish, and I don’t have a way to stop this flood of random information which is triggered by the word “Spain.” This noise makes it harder to hear my quiet observer, and almost impossible to hear the poor individual from Spain.
So, that’s pretty much the way things have gone, for 60 years. I did not mention that during this time, I was unaware that most people don’t do any of this. Most people, I think, are pretty much able to just have a conversation. I have, at times in my life, met people who described things that sounded similar, and I was initially very excited to think I had found someone like me, but, with further investigation, we usually reached a point where the similarities ended. I’ve met many people who suffer from anxiety, and struggle like me, in similar situations, but I had not met people who had to ignore empanada thoughts whenever they met someone from Spain.
And then I found myself being evaluated for autism. And that’s a story for next time.