Thursday, 25 October 2018

Things I Don't Understand - Normal

I don’t understand ‘normal’.

I’m thinking of two types of ‘normal’ here, though they blur at the edges.

The first is who or what is largely still assumed to be the social norm, the ‘standard’ for others to live up to, emulate, or to be measured against. And that norm is the white, Western, middle-to-upper class, cis-heterosexual, able bodied, neurologically typical male or, as one commentator calls it, ‘Default Man’.

And yet is this really the ‘average’ person? Just looking at statistics says no. Most of the world’s population is non-white, for starters. Even if you only look at, say, Europe, in most of its countries, more than half the people are female. Even looking at just the men, setting aside those who are gay/bi/trans/gender neutral/etc, those who are not white, not middle or upper class, those who are not of the majority religions, and those who are not able-bodied and neurotypical… I’m betting that what’s left is actually only a very small proportion. (Ten percent, according to the writer of ‘Default Man’.)

So how did this minority become held up as the ‘standard’? The answer to that lies with history. Men have been dominant for millennia. Add in all those colonisers, slave-owners and plunderers of non-European countries who didn’t think non-whites were even truly human, centuries of religious and social condemnation of non-cis-heterosexuals, a power imbalance in favour of the rich, screwed-up attitudes to the disabled coupled with lack of understanding of science… And you have the perfect storm for a narrow slice of the population to be able to hold themselves up as the benchmark group for everyone else to envy, compare themselves to, and wish to belong to – or to made to feel as though they should wish to.

We can’t change history of course. But some of these attitudes are still with us. Witness the bias towards male experience in the diagnosis of autistics, for example, that sees many females not diagnosed because they don’t fit the stereotype. Or how black kids are not allowed to wear their hair in ‘black’ styles in some schools. Or how people react to Muslim women’s head-coverings. Then there’s the pressure to not be ‘obviously’ gay, or to speak ‘standard’ English, or for immigrants to speak English instead of their own language even amongst themselves, or the recent attempt of a certain Australian politician to have a motion passed that it’s ‘okay to be white’ (apparently, if it wasn’t passed, whites would be the ‘victims’ of ‘genocide’, yes, you can roll your eyes now).… You can probably think of more examples, but you get the picture.

So I understand the historical reasons for the current situation, what I don’t understand is this clinging to the old standard, when it’s so obviously not actually ‘standard’, or even ‘average’. I can only assume it’s fear – fear of ‘the other’, fear of change, fear of somehow losing white privilege (which too many of them view as their ‘rights’). They’ve been thinking of themselves as the ‘norm’ for so long, they’ve come to feel they really are it. Or the best thing to be, or however they justify it to themselves. And you can almost watch the scrambles going on in their minds, as they try to do so. The mental blocks and torturous reasonings they have to manoeuvre around, the gaping holes in their arguments and world views that they refuse to look at.

I can tell you that as a person of European ancestry, I don’t feel fearful of ‘white genocide’ any time soon. I am more concerned with the actual genocides and wars and oppressions already going on, the plight of autistics everywhere, of gays in some countries, of immigrants fleeing terrible situations, the effects of climate change, etc, etc, etc. Not to mention all my own day to day difficulties of course. You know, real problems.

So I don’t understand this insistence on a group who never have been the majority, being able to keep their power, their wealth, their privilege, at the expense of those who actually are the majority. I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t understand reactionary people.

The second ‘normal’ I don’t understand, is a category of people I don’t even have a name for. They’re the ones who simply …do things. Like, they get out of bed in the morning, go off to work or school or wherever, come home, eat, relax, and then go to bed and fall asleep. Straight away. And then wake up and do the same over again the next day. Without thinking twice about any of it.

And on their weekends or days off, again, they simply get up and do things like mow lawns, catch up on housework or schoolwork, tinker with their hobbies or take themselves and their loved ones out to places like movies, shows, amusement parks, the beach, and so on. During their holiday breaks, they crowd to places where lots of others go, and don’t seem to mind that at all, or even like it.

And if you ask them, how do you just do these things, they look at you like you’re crazy, or simply say ‘I never thought about it.’ And shrug. And go on doing it.

I get that people do this, I just don’t understand how.

How they do it without stress. Or at least not the kind of overwhelming stress that us ‘not-normal’ people suffer. They never worry about things like sensory challenges, social challenges, transition challenges, executive functioning issues, mental/emotional states and triggers, stairs, wheelchair access, exhaustion, blood sugar levels, allergic reactions, pain issues, will-there-be-food-I-can-eat issues, whether-X-activity-will-make-me-dizzy issues, and all the thousand-and-one other things that those of us with ‘conditions’ stress about. Not to mention those of us who have the anxiety of possible exclusion or even threats to personal safety because of race, class, sexuality, gender identity, religion or lack thereof, etc.

These ‘normal’ people just …do things. Without a second thought. No agonising, no scattered thoughts, no intense pre-planning, no I-did-this-yesterday-so-I-have-no-spoons-to-do-anything-today, no double and triple-checking everything, no fretting over whether you’ll get a park close enough or will the accessible parking be all taken or will some dipstick give us hassles because we have an invisible disability and park in a disability space, no worrying about potential meltdowns or shutdowns, no ‘at what point does it get too much and we bail out’, no ANYTHING.

I used to read accounts of these people’s lives, only half-consciously looking for any sign of this, but it just wasn’t there. And then it finally hit me - that they don’t worry about these things because they don’t have to. So I understand that now. But I’ve been struggling with so much for so long, that I have no conception, no understanding at all, of what a life without that struggle would feel like.

But what I do understand, is that, if all of us ‘not-normal’ folks got together, we may find that, like the non-‘Default Man’ people, we’re actually the majority – and that it’s actually normal to be ‘not-normal’.

Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Things I Don't Understand - Number Eleven - Change

I don’t understand change.

Don’t get me wrong here. Change as a means of improvement, I’m fine with. Without it, we wouldn’t have things like safer cars, improved rights for minorities, better health care, and the Internet. And yes, it does bring undesirable things too, but I can understand the roots of those, even if I don’t like them much.

I can also understand change as variety, something to spice up life, because every day being the same can be totally, mind-numbingly, boring. I can cope with this kind of change, as long as it doesn’t happen too much, too often, and I can go back to my ‘normal’ afterwards.

But change simply for change’s sake, that’s the one I don’t understand.

Take for instance when supermarkets switch items round in their aisles, so that what was once in Aisle Seven, is now who knows where, because for sure you don’t. Or when manufacturers change the packaging of their products, so you can’t even recognise them. Or worst of all, they actually stop making your favourite of some product, for no reason at all that you can figure out.

Then there are things like the fashion industry, which constantly changes its ‘look’, so that even if you do find a style that fits and you look not-too-bad in, next year it’ll be gone, and something uncomfortable and unflattering will take its place. Not to mention that they use crappy fabrics, and charge outrageous prices, and that some of their designs would make you a laughing stock if you actually wore them in the street. And don’t get me even started on POCKETS. We’re conned into thinking this absurdity is good, people make movies, TV programs and even write books about it, it’s become normalised, and largely unquestioned.

A lot of it seems to be about money – if this product isn’t making them a squillion of profits, they toss it and make something else. Never mind if lots of people are quite happy with the existing one. Or supermarkets, department stores, etc, will rearrange their floors because they want to put more ‘high-value’ (ie, more profitable) stuff where people will see it and impulse buy. And fashion, of course, is definitely about money, especially at women’s expense, as we’re the ones being the most badly conned (or forced, for lack of alternatives) into buying their products.  The ethos seems to be ‘make people buy more, make more money, make more money, make more money...’ We’re all in thrall to the Great God Profit.

Politicians seem fond of this kind of change too. Maybe they just like to be seen to be ‘doing something’, even if it’s endless tinkering what should be left alone. We in New Zealand have seen a fair bit of this over the past few decades, especially in regards to things like our health and education systems. Politicians wanted to ‘leave their stamp’ on the country, and they have, not always to good effect.

My feeling is always, why can’t people leave well enough alone? If something ain’t broke, don’t fix it, is my philosophy. This constant change-for-change’s-sake seems to be very much a modern thing, a function of late-stage capitalism perhaps. We now have ‘planned obsolescence’ rather than quality, ‘trends’ rather than a search for perfection, ‘the latest gadget’ rather than the best tool for the job. Change has stopped being about improvement or variety, and become an end in itself, an out-of-control spiral, meant only to further enrich those who have way too much already. This is a big part of what makes the world seem to get crazier every year.

Political analysis aside, I’m sure many NTs feel bugged by much of the above too. But the autistic reaction to this sort of change goes beyond irritation. It can mean very real distress. The world to us is a chaotic place, and we rely on a lot of little things to provide anchors or islands of calm in the swirling mess. If the tinned tomatoes aren’t in Aisle Seven, if our favourite shampoo is discontinued, if we can’t find clothes we like, it feels like the bottom has dropped out of our world. Our anchors are gone, and we’re drifting out to sea in a storm. Our little islands have disappeared, and we’re free-falling into the abyss.

When this happens, our thinking can spiral into what I call catastrophising, where one little thing triggers a chain of thoughts that invariably end in a disaster scenario. No tinned tomatoes – we can’t eat tonight, we’ll go hungry, we’ll starve, be found dead on our kitchen floor. No shampoo – we’ll have to use something that induces sensory overload and meltdowns, or we’ll never be able to wash our hair again, will end up dirty and smelly, lose our jobs, become homeless... No new clothes – we’ll end up dressed in rags or butt-naked, unable to set foot outside our front door, our lives falling apart… You get the picture. Sometimes, we’re able to find a solution, or others help us find one, but we go through the emotional wringer on the way to it.

I’m not saying that the world has to be organised around us. I am saying that other people need to understand that if we get upset about some ‘little thing’ having changed, we’re not ‘making a fuss about nothing’. It’s very real, and very horrible. This world is hard enough for autistics. Please, don’t make it worse.

So yeah, I don’t understand change for change’s sake. And I think I’m not alone.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Borderline Personality Disorder And Autistics

Lately I seem to be seeing lots of mentions of borderline personality disorder and autistics via social media. One article I saw asks if we are being misdiagnosed with borderline instead of autism, other times people have mentioned how we are so often victims of ‘manipulators and abusers’, categories borderline people fall into. And, of course, there are genuinely some who are indeed both.

I do believe that autistics might be at higher risk of being borderline, because of the way we’ve so often been badly treated. But we’re at even greater risk of being the victims of borderliners, as I call them, including those who are both autistic and borderline.

Briefly, borderline personality disorder is now defined as “impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits.” There are several criteria that must be met for a diagnosis. I must stress here that we’re not talking here about isolated incidents, but a consistent pattern of behaviour, over many years or possibly decades.

A couple of disclaimers here – firstly, before anyone points it out, I’m well aware that I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist or anything like that. I have no professional knowledge in this area at all. But if something walks like a duck, looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, excuse me, but I’ll call it a duck.

Secondly, this is NOT intended as some kind of attack on those with mental health issues. There seems to be some discussion as to whether personality disorders actually count as ‘mental illness’, though they are now generally defined as such. A crucial difference, however, between personality disorders and other mental illnesses is that you’re usually aware that you’re depressed, suicidal, etc. People with personality disorders, by comparison, often won’t acknowledge what they are. This is a big part of what makes them so damaging to others.

But what I am concerned with here is how often we are their target. (I’ve focused here on borderliners, but I don’t doubt that much of what I say applies to other personality disorders too.) When I researched them, my initial search only turned up websites that talked of borderline as a condition of ‘emotional instability’ and seemed to ooze with sympathy for the ‘sufferers’ of it. There was little or no mention of what it was like for those around them. It wasn’t till I typed in ‘I have been a victim of someone with borderline personality disorder’ that I discovered all their many, many other victims.

Because yes, I have suffered at the hands of borderliners, and I have seen family and friends suffer too. I didn’t have a name for their behaviour back then, but they’ve been in my life on and off for decades. The label is fairly recent, the type is not. Even the book that’s my ‘creativity bible’, The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, published in the 90s, talks of what she calls ‘crazy-makers’, and the characteristics are basically those of borderliners.

So, I’ve put together a list of common characteristics of borderliners so we can recognise them, preferably before they irreparably harm us.

1) Everything Is About Them. They have to be the centre of attention, at all costs. They will create (melo)dramas, sulk, throw tantrums, argue or rant for hours or even days, whatever it takes to make sure your focus is on them. They will also consistently invade your boundaries and your privacy. It didn’t matter what I was trying to do, my (now ex!) partner just had to talk to me, even when I was writing and made it very clear that I didn’t want to be interrupted. In fact, any time my attention strayed from her, she became almost frantic to get it back. This is often coupled with isolating you from family and former friends, so that you lose perspective on what’s happening. 

Borderliners can also be very controlling. My ex once threw a huge hissy fit because, in the middle of a ‘discussion’ (ie lecture from her), I got up and went to the toilet without asking her ‘permission’. How dare I “just get up and walk away!” Around a borderliner, your life no longer feels like your own.

2) They Are Never To Blame. The only time they don’t want attention, is when it comes to accepting blame. Their standard tactics are to deny and minimise. After I fell out with one borderliner, for instance, she tried to tell a friend that I’d ‘just misunderstood one little incident’, when in fact there’d been months of increasingly objectionable behaviour on her part. They will also deny there is any repetition of their behaviour - “let’s just talk about this one thing”, my ex would always say, when I tried to point out any patterns.

 Another tactic is ‘reframing’. If something negative did happen, it’s always someone else’s fault. On the rare occasion my ex would admit there was anything ‘wrong’ with her behaviour, she’d insist that it was an ‘only natural’ reaction to how *I* behaved, that I ‘drove’ her to it. For years, I tried very, very hard to be ‘better’, so she in turn would be nice to me. Only when I realised that my behaviour was not the trigger, was I able to break free.

3) They Have Almost No Self-Awareness. A borderliner, for instance, will say things like “I’m a very calm person”, when they’ve just spent hours screaming at you, or claim “I’m not _____ anymore”, when it’s obvious to everyone around them that they still very much are. They also have (or pretend to have?) almost zero awareness of the effect of their actions on others. This is part of the blaming others of course, but it’s more than that. I’ve had a borderliner tell me, with great concern, how it used to ‘really upset’ her when her ex used to self-harm, not realising that this same ex had told me how they only self-harmed after the borderliner had convinced them that they were worthless. It was as if they can’t comprehend any connection between how they behave, and how other people react to them.

4) They will use others against you. This is particularly so if you’ve put yourself out of their reach somehow. Remember that borderliners are experts at manipulation. There’s a phenomenon called ‘flying monkeys’ where borderliners recruit others to continue their abuse of you, having convinced them that YOU are the ‘baddie’. You may even have been one yourself, when you were with them. And while they rarely seem to commit physical violence themselves, I have seen one incite someone to commit it on a third party – after several attempts to destroy that party’s personal and professional reputation.

5) They see all this as normal. Whatever made them borderline happened so young, and so thoroughly, that they seem unable to understand just how screwed up they are. I suppose this makes them objects of pity, but the way I see it, it’s like seeing an unhappy-looking lion in its cage at the zoo. You may feel sorry for it, but it’s not a good idea to jump into the cage and pat it on the head - ‘there, there, poor kitty!’ Borderliners are like the lion – feel sorry for them perhaps, but at a safe distance, or they will rip you to shreds. They can be helped, yes, but not by just anyone. It takes truly major therapy - and first they must admit they need it. Wherein lies the Big Problem – they generally don’t and won’t.

If all this sounds horrendous, believe me, it is. Victims can take years to win free, and more years to heal, if we ever do. After more than twenty years, I’m not sure I’ve quite managed yet to ‘un-program’ myself from the messages my ex implanted in my psyche. And it still didn’t stop me from being the victim of other borderliners. Thankfully, I recognised the patterns quicker, and was able to get out faster and limit the damage.

You’ll notice I’ve said ‘she’ when talking about the borderliners I’ve known. This is because all the ones I’ve known have been female. Typically, about 70% of those diagnosed borderline are women, but this may simply reflect society’s expectation of how men and women ‘naturally’ behave, as more recent research finds the same rates of borderline among men and women in the general population, though the ways it manifests may differ somewhat.

Similarly, I am aware that borderliners are not all the same. Some seem more aggressive than others, some treat badly only those closest while seeming ‘lovely’ to everyone else, while others display the same behaviour to all. Some even seem to have moments of remorse and acknowledging their behaviour (my ex would sometimes do this), but the big problem with this is you can’t trust them to stay that way. What they say today, they will ‘forget’ and deny tomorrow. It’s how they’re built.

There is much more I could say about borderliners, but I think this post is long enough! My basic message is - be wary. Be very wary. And when you recognise one, run a mile. And then another, and another. For your own sake, and the sake of those closest to you. Stay safe, people.