Friday 8 January 2016

The Dishonesty of NTs

I don’t want anyone getting me wrong here – this is not an anti-NT rant. I don’t do such things, not even in my worst and most frustrated moments. That would be doing a disservice to the many NTs I love dearly. Not to mention that I don’t believe that autistics are superior overall to NTs, anymore than I believe that NTs are superior to me/us. Rather, we have strengths in different areas, and in our thinking and approach to the world and life and other people, we’re simply, totally, completely and overwhelmingly different.

And it’s one aspect of that difference I want to explore here, as I attempt to get to grips with something that’s long puzzled me about NT behaviour. Namely, their dishonesty. Or what seems like dishonesty to us.

Note, I’m not talking here about those blatant acts of dishonesty – theft, shop-lifting, burglary, fraud, embezzlement, con-artistry, espionage, treason, and so on - that get punished by the law, and rejected by most NTs even, and rightly so. Nor do I mean the deliberate but not usually illegal deceptions of negative intent – the cheating spouse, the manipulative workmate, the political trickster. I’m talking, rather, about the little acts of social dishonesty.

I’ve come to realise that NTs, unlike us, place ‘getting along with others’ way, way, way ahead of ‘telling it like it is’. So they will do all sorts of little fudgings of the truth in service of that, where we would just blurt things out – and then get jumped on for being ‘rude’, ‘insensitive’, etc. As we almost never intend this, we end up confused and even hurt. What, we wonder, did we do wrong? Why is the truth so bad?

Anyway, here’s something of a guide to the various kinds of social dishonesty (though they wouldn’t call it that) I’ve seen NTs doing.

Phrasing things politely. This is using diplomatic versions of the truth, to soften harsh messages. So people will say that so-and-so is “a bit upset”, by something, when in fact they threw a tantrum, or are bawling their eyes out. Always take a message like this as a huge understatement – the truth is almost certain to be far worse than the literal words. Phrases like “a bit”, “kind of”, or “somewhat” are red flags for this sort of dishonesty. Even between aspies, I’ve seen this one trip some of us up.

Euphemisms. This is a variation on polite phrasing, where softer expressions are used to blunt harsh realities, eg saying that someone has “passed away” rather than simply “died”. I have often used these myself, finding them either less likely to cause offence, or just kinder. Or more bearable – eg when referring to my mother’s recent passing. It has its place therefore, but too much of it is like constantly wearing cotton wool in your ears – you start to feel like everything is a bit muffled.

Circling the truth. Basically, this involves verbal beating round and round the bush, till you’re not even certain what the heck the bush is. I have always found this extremely difficult to cope with. I’m still not sure what the point of it is, other than a kind of super-politeness, or maybe not wanting to commit to saying the truth, but if you’re faced with someone who never clearly states what is it that they want, or are trying to say, circling is likely what they’re doing. My recommendation is, be blunt. Ask straight out what they mean. It tends to disconcert people, sometimes annoy them, and even then you don’t always get a straight answer, but at least the issue is out in the open. And that’s got to be far less anxiety-provoking for you.

The little white lie. Years ago, my then-partner told me about a previous flatmate of hers, who fancied a guy who was obviously gay, something she refused to acknowledge, even once saying to my ex “people say so-and-so is gay, but he’s not, is he?” My ex’s private thought was that the guy was as camp as a row of pink tents, but she agreed no, he wasn’t. This is the ‘nice’ lie, to spare someone’s feelings and supposedly not harmful, though I have my doubts. How can not facing up to the truth be harmful? How long would that woman have gone on deluding herself this guy was potentially available? And how hurt would she have been, in the end?

 If you do hear someone telling one of these white lies, however, it’s best not to barge in with the truth. These situations often needs delicate handling, and are best left alone by those as socially clumsy as we aspies. Of course if someone asks you outright, they should know better than to expect you to lie, but do ‘phrase it diplomatically’ if you can.

The ‘Fairy Tale’. A more elaborate version of the ‘little white lie’, we see this one most especially on sitcoms, where some of the characters invent a complicated tale to tell another character, because they feel they can’t tell the truth for some reason. However it also sometimes happens in real life too, usually I think to spare someone’s feelings, or to escape the consequences of something.

I’ve been tripped up by this one more than once – confused, I would jump in with “no, that’s not true!”, and blurting out the truth. And of course getting a very sharp reaction, which confused me even more – why were they telling a lie in the first place, and why didn’t they tell me they were going to do it? I still think it’s stupid, and usually unnecessary. Or at least they didn’t need to invent such a convoluted lie.

Zipping the lip. Sometimes NTs avoid telling a lie by simply saying nothing at all, also known as ‘keeping mum’, ‘keeping stum’, and similar phrases. Like the little white lie, it’s done to spare other’s feelings, especially in situations where it’s felt that revealing the truth would do no good, and possibly even hurt someone. So there is a place for it, and I’ve done it myself – kept quiet about stuff that it really wasn’t necessary to reveal.

Maybe, for instance, you’ve got a sweet little old auntie who’s on her deathbed, and who’s always idolized her long-dead husband. Why tell her that in fact he had an affair thirty years ago? What purpose would be served by telling her now? (This is a fictitious example, I hasten to add, not one I’ve ever personally faced.)

Keeping our mouths shut is I think about the only ‘social dishonesty’ we aspies can manage, in response to all the situations mentioned above - difficult though it can be, not to blurt things out! I’ve found it best to watch what others are doing. If they aren’t revealing something, I don’t either.

It’s important to remember that all of these ‘dishonesties’ are done with positive intent in mind – the sparing of other’s feelings, at least in the short term. Whether they do in the long run of course is another question, but the golden rule here is “if in doubt, don’t say anything”.

On Being Challenged, Not Disabled

As most of you will know, I have not only Asperger's Syndrome, but also Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I also, incidentally, have arthritic knees and a temporary disability in the form of a still-mending broken ankle. So in most people’s eyes, I would certainly slot into the ‘disabled’ category. Yet  I’ve always felt uncomfortable describing myself as disabled, most especially in regards to my Asperger’s Syndrome, but even when considering my other, physical, impairments.

 I’ve been thinking about all this for a long time, and I’ve finally realised why I feel that discomfort. The Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of ‘disability’ is ‘thing or lack that prevents one from doing something… physical incapacity caused by injury or disease’. But I don’t see myself as totally prevented from doing certain things. Rather, I see myself as extremely challenged in doing them. This isn’t being all PC, it’s simply that I feel ‘challenged’ describes way better how my life works.

 I am challenged, in that many, many things are difficult for me, some of which I don’t care about and hence would never bother attempting anyway, some I’ve given up only reluctantly, and others I can do only with assistance, or in small doses, or with extreme care.

 So I’ve decided to try and list (yes, I know, another list!) the ways in which I am challenged, ways which aren’t likely to change anytime soon.

I am Physically Challenged. It is true that many physical activities which others take for granted present significant challenges for me. CFS imposes limits, as does arthritis, how severe depends on how bad my conditions are on any given day. (The ankle, of course, also imposes its own set of limitations.) I can’t work full-time, lift a lot of heavy loads, stand for a long time or walk long distances, and can no longer run or dance or even walk fast, even on good days. Plus, I have to do far less of anything in any given day than others would, or I risk running out of ‘spoons’. Even reading or using the computer can be tiring, for instance, if I do them for too long. I am constantly calculating my spoons, to see what else I can manage that day. Some days, that’s not much at all. Other days are better, but it’s never up to the same level of activity as others can do.

I am Sensory Challenged. I’m challenged, daily, to cope with the sensory barrage of everyday life. I can largely avoid or minimise it in my own home, and to some extent outside it too, eg going to the supermarket when it’s not so busy. But not always, even at home. And sometimes it’s totally overwhelming, and I just have to escape, withdraw, and do my best to avoid a meltdown. It’s a perpetual struggle, and one I know I’ll have to deal with for the rest of my life. And one which others often underestimate or don’t take into account, adding to the struggle.

This challenge is due to not only my AS, but also my CFS. When I acquired the latter, it made already acute sensitivities far worse, especially around glaring lights, certain types of noise and strong chemicals. My intolerance of the latter is especially acute, and means I simply don’t use a lot of fancy cleaning products in my home, as well as strong-smelling toiletries and the like. It’s an aggravation I can avoid, so I do so.

I am Executive Functioning Challenged. All my life, I’ve had to struggle just to get my daily life in order – getting myself to school or work, keeping my house clean and tidy, or just following reasonable routines that keep my life from descending into absolute chaos. When I was a child, my parents, especially my mother, structured things for me a lot, though I do remember she found it frustrating that I was such a ‘daydreamer’, as I was called then.

As an adult, I had to work hard for many, many years, before I established ways of living that suited me. And even then, my routines were (and are) easily upset. Sometimes people have implied I’m too fussy or rigid about them, but I know what happens if I’m not, I know how easily things can fall apart. I’m a bit more flexible now than I used to be, but only within certain limits. Because even now, these routines are something I have to deliberately push myself into completing. Every. Single. Day. And still, I often fail to achieve order. It’s an ongoing battle.

I am Anxiety Challenged. For most of my life, from adolescence on, I would probably have met the criteria for some kinds of anxiety disorder. Trying to avert or cope with sensory barrages, social situations and daily functioning problems, the whole blasted confusing torrent of modern life, for me meant living in a constant state of hyper-anxiety.

 I’m not talking here about a little nervousness, which is what most people (NTs) mean when they say ‘anxiety’. No, I mean the whole sweating, shaking, gasping, heart-pounding, quivering, whimpering, gut-churning, fight-or-flight, on-the-verge-of-freaking-meltdown total mess kind of anxiety. Fear, really. Fear ruled my life. What did so-and-so mean, when they said that? Why did Person X do Y? Had I unwittingly offended them somehow? Why did the things I found so overwhelming not seem to bother others? How could I avoid these things, especially when others didn’t seem to care about or even notice them? Why was I so wretchedly different to others? And on and on, winding myself into tighter and tighter coils.

These days, not only do I know the answer is Asperger's, but I’ve given up on that kind of excessive worrying. You can only exist in that hyper state for so long, and then either it implodes, or you do. In many ways, I simply don’t care what the vast majority of people think anymore. But now and again, anxiety will still return to plague me, usually triggered by some social challenge, though other things can trigger it as well. I have to do A LOT of self-talk, to unwind and calm down. It’s best, I’ve found, to avoid anything likely to set me off.

I am Socially Challenged. Like most aspies, I have absolutely no inborn social instincts. Every single social skill I possess is consciously learnt and consciously practised, and slow, clumsy and incomplete as a result. And this is in spite of deliberately setting out to learn them, to observe and imitate others, from my early adult years on. Decades of effort, however, have not really yielded all that much. I can ‘pass’ for a little while, hold a conversation for a little while, but any interaction more than the superficial, or sometimes even that, will have others looking at me sideways, giving me a puzzled or curious or “Why-are-you-so-strange” look.

So I find it best to not put too much stress on myself in the social arena, it tends to not only tip me into anxiety or overload, but be a Conspicuous Fail anyway. I stick to the people and interactions I feel are ‘safe’, or as much so as possible. Why take on challenges I don’t have to? And which I’ll never succeed at anyway?

I am Relationship Challenged. Relationships aren’t easy for anyone I think, whether NT or aspie/autie, yet this is an area in which I feel myself particularly challenged. Even many other aspies seem to handle relationships better than I can. Moreover, I’ve realised it’s not actually necessary to be in one, to be happy. In fact I function heaps better alone than I do in a relationship - I’m much happier, calmer and way, way less stressed. And so I’ve decided it’s simply a challenge too far.

Think of it this way – many people have climbed Mt Everest. But they typically do it with suitable training, experience, fitness levels, oxygen and equipment, and a big support team. Whereas for me… being in a relationship is like I decided to just take a stroll up the mountain in jeans and a t-shirt, without any equipment, support, training and so on. I’m that ill-equipped, that ill-suited, to the whole venture. And I never really got any better at it either, despite repeated attempts. Every time, I was just as raw, just as unprepared, just as inadequately equipped for the reality of it.

And so of course my relationships failed, spectacularly. Horribly. Repeatedly. And when they did, the biggest and most frequent emotion I felt was …relief. The kind of Oh-Thank-God-That’s-Over kind of relief you feel when you’ve attempted something you instinctively know is way, way beyond you, but which you feel compelled to try anyway, because ‘everybody else’ is doing it. So I made the decision some years ago not to make further attempts at relationships. I just don’t have the right emotional equipment, whatever that is, and have more than enough other stuff to deal with anyway.

So there you go. These are my challenges, most but not all the result of my Asperger's. This is my life. This is how I am challenged. How do you define yourself?