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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Quest for Identity

Well, that's the name of the Spiritual Voyager card I pulled yesterday morning as my card for the day – Quest for Identity. (Spiritual Voyager cards are part of the Soul Quintessence system created by my friend and colleague Raeline Brady. Her website's under reconstruction at present, but Google her name and/or Soul Quintessence and you'll find all sorts of fascinating material.) Among other things, this card's about new understanding, and a reassessment of certain characteristics we commonly accept as being part of us.

Right on cue I received a loving email from a friend whom I know sees deeply into people – but what she saw in me surprised me.

"I want to tell you right now," she said, "what is the number 1 thing I love most about you.

"Rosemary: you are not innately feeling...you have developed that...its not a gift...its something you have accomplished, I have that gift so in a way it means less...than someone who has accomplished it...thats what I admire and love most about you."

"What's she talking about?" I thought at first. "I'm a Scorpio. I feel deeply; I feel intensely."

But then I remembered. When I was in group therapy in my twenties, my psychiatrist once expressed the – admittedly tentative – opinion:

"I think you might have been a missed autistic child."

"You couldn't possibly have been!" said a woman I repeated this to, who had had experience of a child with extreme autism. But nowadays we know a little more about degrees of autism, in conditions such as Asperger's Syndrome and High-Functioning Autism.

As a child, I was awkward and physically clumsy. I was inappropriately friendly and trusting when I was very little. As I grew older, I became painfully shy and had trouble meeting people's eyes. My vocabulary was always above average, and I shone academically in the subjects I loved, but I was known as dreamy and introverted. I had trouble even noticing, let alone interpreting people's non-verbal cues, or knowing how to conduct myself in social situations. I've never been any good at small talk, and I've always needed frequent periods of solitude. All of these qualities are apparently typical of people with HFA.

And I remembered something else. I wanted to be loved. I dreamed of it, yearned for it.

Don't we all? But I experienced myself as "different", unpopular, strange – an outsider. I had no idea how to fit in and be normal. I also thought I was ugly. I fervently wanted friends, and I wanted passionately to grow up to experience romantic love.

I don't remember where I heard or read that, in order to be loved, you have to love. But I came across the idea somewhere when I was still very young, and it made a huge impact. I received it as the unquestionable truth.

The conclusion was obvious. This was what I must do. I would become a loving person. Yet even at that age I knew it would only work if I did it for real. You can't pretend love and expect that to work.

How did I do it? I can't altogether explain. I wasn't a dumb kid; I could see who had genuine warmth and kindness. I sort of checked out their energy and generated in myself energy that felt the same. I wouldn't have put it in those terms at the time; I couldn't have. I just somehow knew instinctively how to do this. And so I learned empathy. My responses to other people became more appropriate and more spontaneous.

It didn't happen overnight by any means, but I gradually became less awkward, less introverted. It took decades. It took having to support myself and hold down a job, and it took having and raising my kids. I couldn't remain in some kind of ivory tower and also perform those obligations properly. I had to look outwards and become more practical.

And it took a friend noticing about 13 years ago that I wasn't fully in my body, and telling me how to get myself there. She suggested exercises such as walking on the earth very consciously, feeling my whole foot treading on the ground. There's a definite corollary between being grounded and being fully aware of others and the feelings of others.

Now I'm officially a senior citizen, with a wealth of life experience. And I can tell you that I have been – and am – well and truly loved. No-one is more blessed in their friends! And as for romantic love ... ah, that's where the depth and intensity come in. ;)

5 comments:

  1. This is really interesting. The autistic spectrum is so wide that a lot people must get lost along the way. So long as it's not too great, perhaps it is a blessing not to receive the label, although it certainly helps those who are more severely affected.

    I read an interesting book by Simon Baron Cohen (The Essential Difference: Male and Female Brains and the Truth About Autism) a while ago. He explored the differences between the male and female brain and how that related to autism. To simplify hideously, he argued that autism was 'the extreme male brain', which is why more boys than girls (though by no means only boys) have autistic spectrum disorders. Women were, of course, up on the male end of the spectrum and men down on the female end.

    I've gone off on a tangent there, but nonetheless, it's an interesting read!

    It is interesting that you managed to learn empathy. It gives me hope for the child I work with.

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  2. Well, I don't know if I was autistic. It was a hypothesis, not a firm diagnosis. See next post, on the eyesight problems not diagnosed until I was nine! On the other hand, what causes autism anyway? Does anyone really know?

    Perhaps it's all a matter of brain chemistry. But then, what affects / alters brain chemistry anyway? What if living in my own little world through not being able to see properly added up to the same thing as inborn conditions? I have a godson who was born profoundly deaf. He is also autistic. Is the deafness a big factor in that? Yet his older sister, also born profoundly deaf, is not autistic.

    On the other hand, I had a mother who was unable to be demonstrative with her affections. She seemed cold and distant. That might have been a factor too. (My godson's mother, though, is not like that.)

    I like to think that few circumstances are totally hopeless. I think of my severely retarded cousin (due to things going wrong during his birth and a degree of oxygen starvation). As a child he had psychiatric assessments every so often, and when he was about seven the psychiatrist congratulated my aunt because she had "socialised him perfectly". His ability to get on with people and to function in the world in practical ways has stood him in very good stead in his fifty-plus years.

    My psychiatrist used to say that even the sickest people have a core of sanity, and as a psychiatrist you talk to that. You assume that even catatonic patients will hear you.

    And I am remembering that when my kids were toddlers I had to teach them how to be gentle with animals. I am always shocked by parents who don't teach this but allow little kids to treat pets as if they were non-sentient toys. I'm similarly incensed by people who don't teach their dogs not to chase cats - which I know can be done as I taught all my dogs that. I even had one cat whom I was able to teach to distinguish between birds and mice, but she was exceptional. Mostly I resort to bell collars!

    So, have I wandered off the track? It's all behaviour, I guess, and behaviour modification.

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  3. Yes, sorry, I took it to be hypothesis rather than diagnosis, I just got caught on the idea!

    By hope, I meant hope that he will eventually find it easier to live in the world. He is a bright and popular child anyway; he will always probably be OK. But it would be nice if one day he could feel safer, trust himself more and understand how society requires him to behave. Not that there'd be an issue at all, perhaps, if society worked differently.

    That's a clever cat you had!

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  4. Don't be sorry! Interesting discussion.

    For whatever reason, I had trouble knowing what was normal behaviour and what society expected of me, but eventually "got it" enough to be able to relax. I've always been thankful I was blessed with intelligence; it's a big advantage.

    I think, as your lad is bright, he can learn it too.

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  5. I think so too. It is frustrating to know that I will never know though... I just have this academic year left with him and then he will go off to secondary school and grow up. I'll never get to see the ending!

    I think you're probably right though and his intelligence will serve him well.

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