Without a doubt, the past couple of years have been immensely revelatory for me.
My journeys through New York City, New Delhi, Dhaka, Chittagong, Tunis and Washington, DC have produced moments that tested my determination to meet my present and future goals, to re-imagine and refine them, and the confidence to stay steadfast in pursuit of them despite what others think or project.
Currently, I am in Washington, DC – an international city that feels like a big town. Despite the claustrophobia, I am ok here. My feelings are neither super enthused nor overly repelled, but that depends on the time of today, the strength of my positive mood, and effect of people around me. In spite of DC’s size, I am planning to move away because I have gained what I think I needed at this stage of my professional life: a contract communications job with a multi-lateral development banking institution.
In honesty, I have worked to gain a place that merits my master’s degree. There’s no longer a need to tread a path that shall not lead me to a place where I can thrive. What does it even mean to thrive? Would that need another degree for the further advancement of my career? Does it mean that another step along this path may leave me occupied, materially secure, and unmarried? In short, these past few years have been about me testing who I am, learning to understand what people think of me, and what, exactly, I want for myself. For many people these questions are easy to answer, but understanding reality never came easy for me for a reason.
What’s become clear is that being bipolar actually isn’t so much of a problem because my mood cycles, if not too pronounced, are disguised behind a smile. No one knows if I am sad if I smile. My fortune is that with passably decent looks and straight teeth, no one will ask me any really probing questions.
I smile to people who hurt me, cheat me, ignore me, mock me, scorn me. I smile to those who make me glad, happy, welcome and part of the scene. It’s a weapon of the greatest defense, and a sure enough guard against those who would attempt to wield influence, and provoke my actions – a ballast for smooth and rough seas. But, that requires me to seem distant from my own feelings in public or in the company of others because sometimes I don’t know what I am observing. An oxymoronic absence from the present and separate from a full, real-time comprehension or analysis of what other people’s social interactions mean. If I were to actually think too hard of what people say socially, my facial expression would be one of someone not in control of himself; even less than sane. If I think of what people say within the context of something I authoritatively know, then the “lost” feeling diminishes. I am learning being interested in what others say, never speaking of myself or my own thoughts, is safest, though less than reciprocal.
One of my favorite lines (besides the incantations of the three lovely women) from the Scottish Play is “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” A smile, an art of projecting comfort to another, appears as a placation; a formal gesture of goodwill in a world less sociable, more competitive and seemingly more conflict driven as required for economic and social survival and advancement. Neurotypical in-groups, out-groups and pecking orders are confusing to me in a social context, clarified by title, unstable in perception in a professional context – making both environs a minefield for a neuroatypical person on the autistic spectrum of things.
What’s a smile worth? Not much if I have unknowingly affronted someone’s ego. A possible entreaty from a neuroatypical person seen in the best of lights, becomes the symbol of a challenge, and that’s it: I’m the target. Of all the lessons I have learned, a smile would no longer advance me professionally because something else made me seem “off” to others.
Faking sociability all my life protected me and enabled my advancement, and my intelligence did the rest – I graduated school, gained degrees and learned (and continue to learn). But, I could never put my finger on why I still never felt part of the crowd; why I didn’t get all the jokes; and why I (though it was never told to my face) am thought to be “weird” or “different”; why interactions with people sometimes exasperated me, tired me, worried me, disrupted me, caused me to explode in a temper or recede into solitude.
I wasn’t terribly social in elementary, middle and high school and chalked it up to living in a dangerous and poor neighborhood. I stuck close to either teachers or two other trusted friends and didn’t go beyond that bubble. Forcibly, I put myself out there socially in college, found a fair weather circle of friends, gained internships through scholarship organizations, and worked in a law firm not realizing my social deficits until I decided to carve my path away from the scholarly and profitable confines of law towards the adventurism of international affairs. Once that occurred, I seemed to arduously start and understand my lack of connection with people.
While college experiences brought to the fore my diagnosis of being bi-polar, I struggled to accept it for a few years. After graduating, I knew I could find a way to manage that naturally without medication. Unmedicated, I worked my 60+ hours at the law firm, resigned, went to graduate school, resumed medication for class; tossed the pills aside as a professional reporter in the Big Apple, documents editor in New Delhi, temporary worker in New York, and as an instructor in Bangladesh. Upon leaving Bangladesh, I resumed my meds for a new communications job in Tunisia because maybe that would be the key that would enable my success.
Except, while the meds may have stabilized my mood, got me through the hell of one of the worst professional experiences I’ve ever known, and led me back home to Washington, DC – they didn’t remove the social deficit. Before getting back to DC, a really good friend-family in London said when dealing with people always ask yourself “What’s this person’s game?” RealizingI’d never thought to do it before in a social context, that should have been the first clue (of many) to the other condition yet diagnosed.
This comorbidty – a bipolar Aspie – means that I know now that in spite of all appearances to the contrary, I don’t get the social cues – this oblivion actually hurts me. It’s not cool, it’s not fun, and it’s painful. I see people’s facial expressions, and while I know there’s something there, I don’t get it. I hear people say things to me about me – that I know are insults – but I don’t open my mouth to speak or defend myself. I let the moment pass, and focus on something to do. Many people have observed this, said nothing, and exercised their advantages all the same. Passively watching painful things happen to you in the third person (removed behind a smile), exploding into an inarticulate temper (when the air fills the lungs for a yell), and attempting to pickle the pain in alcohol or any other mind numbing substance isn’t the best way of living life, and it isn’t the best way for those watching to have witnessed a life being lived.
Individuality reigns in either case – independence and the ability to make up one’s own mind, the insistence that people make up their own minds without influence is a dicey proposition. In this era we cannot count on people even be able to intellectually, gingerly, sensitively, considerately approach a problem because there appears to be no sensitivity. People can see things, but a whisper must be a fact rather than an observation. Thankfully, I have a strength of will; I’ve encountered stupid people and have been a stupid person more than once a time in my life.
This is not victimhood, but an awareness that maybe if I can find a way to contextualize my Aspie traits within a profession that allows me to thrive materially, then maybe I can survive better. Which maybe a good reason for studying the law. Throw myself into it. Acknowledge that I while long for a romantic partner, I will work so single mindedly that I can almost assure myself of not gaining one.
The law is fascinating, and its application, analysis and manipulation intriguing. I don’t mind being myself, and I never have – except now, if I want to succeed as a professional I have to take into account my Aspie nature, alongside the manic depression, and sacrifice personal happiness. That is an idea: untouched, dedicated to a commercial profession, dead to all else, but the fact that I breathe for the sake of survival. To be my hero, and an example to those who believe in my promise, I will have to responsibly cloister into the legal monastery for a few years. Nothing like spiritual death, only a time to be useful – which is all I want. The price maybe everything else.
Unfortunately, people do not sympathize with people who are “off”. People who are “off” are vulnerable, social prey with no role other than to fulfill the hierarchical notions held by a neurotypical person’s ego (Sometimes, I hate that people can talk). At any rate, I will never allow this. I will never entertain the idea that I am a drone. People can keep their low expectations for themselves, and I’ll stay focused on my goal of living a fulfilling and successful life.
Someone doing their job with the focus of an Aspie isn’t seen as a demonstrative symptom of the condition. No, to some neurotypical this is a threat. How does that happen? Through insecurity disguised as supreme confidence, and the underhanded minefield of social games. This is a big lesson for me. I didn’t quite learn that as a teen, I was busy.
Full disclosure of myself as an Aspie appears as the best protection except, how does one tell co-workers: Hi, I’m an Aspie. You may have some questions, but what this means is that I like set routines, and I can sometimes be daft on the social interactions. The positive, I have the kind of focus that allows me to work you all under the table. That kind of disclosure would never happen. But what can happen is this: of all the professional experiences I have had, which one seemed to accommodate Aspies best? Corporate law. Long hours. Provided an enduring interest in the law, which I am exploring, then I will do it until something else comes along. And, I will have to do it within the context of classism, homophobia, racism, ageism and good old-fashioned competition. Great! Time for me to get started.
I believe and see myself as a successful professional in some capacity – and one thing that I do know is that the law is the best fit. I’ve tried other things, valiantly, and now I know my first career pick was best. In the legal world, advocacy matters, for me and my clients. The use and manipulation of rules for profit is awesome, though colorless; I’ll write poetry if I need color. More importantly, it is familiar, stable, intellectually challenging and devilishly detailed.
But, what I will NOT do is give up on my dreams of being successful. So, I have gained the experiences given by my master degree, I am now going to head to law school! Comorbidity is welcome to ride along in the passenger seats as we take this show on the road.