Perfect is the enemy of good enough

Like many autistic people I know, I’m prone to looking for the one right social solution.

But sometimes – many times, there is no perfect solution. Especially in tough situations, there’s often times when you can’t avoid pissing someone off – or hurting someone, for that matter. Unless you let yourself be hurt, and in some cases that’s not doable, either. Sometimes you’re stuck in a situation where you have no choice but to hurt someone and it’s up to you to find the least bad option. Good luck.

I’m in such a situation, in my meatspace life. And I can’t talk about it because it’s confidential. But, suffice to say, I’m pretty sure there is no “right solution” to this particular social problem, and that makes it difficult.

Social skills books and exercises and classes and what have you lie. They pretend as if all situations have a right answer and if you know the rules well enough, you can find it. But people aren’t like math. You cannot simply derive what you need from first principles.

You just muddle along as best you can and hope you don’t screw up anything irreparably.

And that’s where I’m at.

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Socially-acceptable cursing and how not knowing how to curse started me toward self-diagnosis

Post inspired by this post at suburp. So, when I was a kid, I had a bit of a cursing problem.

And by a bit, I mean a lot.

I’ve mentioned before, how I would do outrageous things without realizing they were outrageous? Yeah. Cursing out my third grade teacher when I was seven was one of those things. Er, probably more like several hundred. I cursed a lot.

I came by it honestly: Most of my extended family is military, and I spent all of my early childhood on military bases. In Canada, military people curse a lot. Like, it’s not uncommon when they’re hanging out for every third word or so to be a swear word. My parents were (are) both fairly free with the curse words when upset or angry. I modeled that.

On bases, in kindergarden and first grade, it wasn’t a big deal. Most of the kids, like me, grew up in houses where adults cursed a lot. So they cursed a lot. Teachers chided, but took it in stride. Second grade wasn’t a big deal because I had a great teacher and was rarely upset.

Third grade, though. Third grade was a disaster (with all my seven-year-old wit, I was referring to it as “turd grade” by the end of September, and that pretty much sums up my thoughts of that year even now). I was young for my grade (second-youngest in the class, youngest by over two months when you considered prematurity). I was bored silly by the work. I was so small for the grade, the desks dwarfed me and they had to get what the other kids called a “baby desk” from a kindergarden class room for me, since I was too small to be able to do work while “sitting properly” in the desk. The classroom was sensory hell. I didn’t know any of the other kids, and they didn’t like this new weirdo with her books and clumsiness and weird posture and stutter and vocal affectations.  So I had meltdowns. A lot. And I cursed. A lot.

This was a problem.

So parents and teachers worked with me. It’s okay to be angry, they said, but that’s no excuse for cursing. I should never curse, even if I was angry. It was inappropriate.

Of course, I’m very black and white. So, once I internalized that lesson, i stopped cursing. Completely. But expressing anger in normal words without cursing didn’t get people to pay attention. I needed a way to signal that I was angry. So I turned to my friend, the dictionary, and started making scripts with extremely descriptive language. And, because I was using dictionary language, not normal speaking language, the resulting scripts were, to put it bluntly, arcane. Stuff like, “Verily, I yearn to defenestrate that work sheet! Its uselessness is of brobdingnagian proportions!”

Which didn’t win me any friends at all. My parents thought it was amusing, evidence of my “dry wit” and “creativity” and “unusual perspective.” My teachers, I think, were made to feel inadequate when a 7-year-old who looked more like 5 was using words they didn’t understand. They got angry and treated me poorly as a result. My classmates were more convinced than ever that I was a weirdo.

All that said, it wasn’t really a noticeable problem until I hit university (before then, I was too much of a social pariah for anyone actually comment on it). One of my friends, about six months after I started uni, asked me, “I noticed – you never curse. Like, ever. Are you religious or something?”

Cue an awkward conversation where I explained that it was never okay to curse, and she talked me around to realize that I set a double-standard for myself, where I believed it was never okay for me to curse, but other people could curse as much as they wanted to. And that I had no understanding of when it was appropriate vs inappropriate for anyone to curse, but I assumed other people had some information I didn’t have and assumed that if they were cursing, it was okay for them to, but not okay for me to. After all, my parents and teachers said there was never an excuse for me to curse.

“This is gonna be weird, but, are you sure you’re not autistic?” said another friend of mine, who was himself diagnosed autistic. It wasn’t the first time he asked. It wouldn’t be the last. “Cuz I had that problem in Grade 10, for the same reason, but my teacher taught me when it’s okay. Seriously, you seem more autistic the more I talk to you.”

At the time, I brushed it off. But as my friends taught me when it was okay to curse and when it wasn’t – and also taught me some more useful scripts for expression of frustration than the ones I had been using – it stuck with me. Are you sure you’re not autistic?

I remembered the aha! feeling I got on reading Asperger’s syndrome diagnostic criteria at 15.

Are you sure you’re not autistic?

I remembered people on forums asking me the same question.

Are you sure you’re not autistic?

I realized I felt most comfortable and relaxed among my autistic friends. That I felt kinship with them. Like their struggles were mine in some way.

Are you sure you’re not autistic?

Eventually, I had to answer “No.”

Embrace the weird

I did not have a formal diagnosis growing up. This means that I avoided a lot of the more toxic ‘therapies’ that autistic kids are subjected to. I was not treated like a dog while being trained to perform normalcy tricks for rewards. I was never told to touch my nose or whatever else have you. In that way, I am lucky.

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t expected to perform normalcy. I was. “Use your words” was common when I couldn’t talk. “Spit it out!” was common when I stuttered. “Don’t do that, you look r******” was common when I flapped or toe walked. “What are you doing?” was common, with the screwed-up disgust face (one of the only facial expressions I can recongize with any accuracy, because it was so necessary to my survival growing up), when I stimmed or twirled or did anything too obviously weird in polite company. When I was bullied, I was assured that it was my fault. If I would “just” dress better or fit in more or show more interest in normal things or stop talking about weather or Tamora Pierce novels or whatever have you – if I would just follow the million and one complicated and seemingly self-contradictory rules* of normalcy, I wouldn’t be bullied. Humane treatment wasn’t a right, it was a privilege, contingent on performing normalcy acceptably.

For a while – a long while – I did my best to put on a good performance. At one point, I studied body language and ettiquette voraciously, certain that if I just learned enough, book knowledge could make up for a lack of ability. I just needed to read more. Study more. Learn more. Then I would know enough and be able to fake it. I made up flow charts, and I practiced. I practiced alone, because I knew by then that having to practice normalcy was on its own breaking the performance. I hid the stress and anxiety and despair it caused me to perform normalcy and hide my true self in such a way, because normal kids don’t feel like that, and therefore I had to hide it. When I finally hit a point where my mental health issues were life-threatening and told someone because, as miserable as I was, I didn’t want to die, per se, I just wanted the world to quit sucking so damn much for me, they were shocked. “You always seem so cheery! Why didn’t you say something before?”

When I left for university, I made a decision. I’d spent much of my schooling trying and failing and failing and failing again to be normal. I knew, from experience, how miserable that performance made me. I decided to stop trying to be normal. At that point, I wasn’t quite ready to embrace my own self. I was just at the point where I recognized that the performance of normal was killing me, and I couldn’t do it anymore.

I’d always been told that if I didn’t act normal, I wouldn’t have friends. Weirdos get ostracized because they’re weird. But I found out that this was a lie. Sure, the sorority types wanted nothing to do with me, but that was nothing new. I made friends with my fellow weirdos over common interests, and found actual companionship in friendships that didn’t have the wall of my normal performance between us. Because I was honest in how I acted, we were able to build trust and become friends.

These friends – one of whom is now my partner – and others I’ve made online since taught me to accept me for who I am, weirdness and all. They taught me weird is what makes me, me, and those who would change that don’t actually like me, they like who they think I should be. They taught me to embrace the weird, and in so doing, they taught me to be happy.

Don’t try to perform normal. Embrace the weird. You will be happier for it.

*like how “honesty is the best policy” but “white lies make people feel better”, as just one example.

Learning to equivocate

So, when I was a kid, I would be the one who said the most outrageous things. The kind of stuff that would have people exclaim my name in surprise, or gasp, or stare at me in wordless shock.

I would ask questions that were seen as challenging or defiant. Stuff that teachers, parents and classmates alike would get angry with me for. My mother commented that I was fearless and headstrong. My father commended my social bravery and my willingness to stand up for what was right.

But they were both wrong.

You see, to be “headstrong,” one has to realize that others are trying to cue you to do something else. And to be brave, you have to realize that what you’re doing is dangerous. When I saved a classmate from drowning at age 7, I wasn’t brave. I had no concept of the danger of jumping in after someone who was drowning or of what someone who is a foot taller and 30lbs heavier could do to you in a pool. I was lauded for my bravery, but they were mistaken. To me, I was just helping my classmate out of the pool because he yelled “help!” and “can’t swim!” between choking on water, and I figured since I was closest, I should be the one to help. I had no idea of the danger. It wasn’t an act of courage, it was an act of empathy.

Likewise, when I did outrageous actions, I didn’t do them to be outrageous. I did them because I didn’t realize they were outrageous.

Sometime in high school, I began to realize that I pissed people off a lot. And that people always thought it was my fault. “Bullshit you didn’t know that was a bad thing to say!” they’d yell at me. “I was born at night, but it wasn’t last night.”

But I really didn’t know. And I usually still don’t. But I know that saying what I think, how I think it, is dangerous.

I never learned how to spot when something I’m about to say will piss someone off. I also never learned how to spot when a question has the potential to blow up in my face. But what I did learn, as a way to quit pissing people off, was how to equivocate. How to hide my thoughts behind bullshitese and say something so ambiguous in response to a question that in effect I’m saying nothing. So, instead of saying a dress is ugly, I say, “it’s not my style.” Instead of taking sides in an argument, I reflexively utter some bullshit about how I can see it from both sides. Whenever someone asks me a question of the sort that could get me in trouble, I feel a stab of fear and think about how to avoid giving them any reason to get upset with me. 

People now call me “political” and compliment my diplomacy. They marvel at how I’m always able to avoid taking a hard side.

They don’t realize that I’m terrified of what will happen if I do.

Social anxiety

I have to meet someone new today. Well, technically, xe’s not “new” – I’ve met hir once before. Still, not long enough to figure out hir rules, so new.

And my words are being assholes.

And this meeting is important, because it might be a job.

But it’s a new type of job, one I’m unfamiliar with the rules of.

But I know I can do it. Because it’s basically teaching through writing and I’m good at that because I’ve done it before. My boss gets me to write up user’s manuals since I’ve got a good memory for all the things that gave me trouble when I was just learning how to do something, and when I teach I tend to personalize it so instead of saying, “Don’t do that,” I say, “Don’t do that unless you want to suck fluid into your line and then spend the rest of the day cleaning it out and have to put your experiment on hold and learn how to clean out a Schlenk line… it’s a pain in the bum. So make sure you do this instead, so that doesn’t happen.”

And people learn better when they know why they’re supposed to do stuff. And I explain why, which is why I’m a decent teacher. 

So I know I can do this job. If I can get it. And not get myself screwed over for it. Because Person is a business person and I know xe’s fairly nice but business people are trained to get themselves the best deal possible. And I have to social-negotiate. Eep.

So… anyway. Fairly nervous.

Because I’m scared I’ll mess it up.

Because what people in general don’t get is that I’m not clumsy at social because I’m anxious, I’m anxious because I’m fucking hopeless at meatspace social and through hypervigilance body monitoring and social flow chart following and suchlike, I can make myself look just clumsy.

But right now? I’m down four tools: I have no social flow chart for this, I have no person-specific rules, I have nobody’s lead to follow, and my words are on the fritz.

Halp.

(and don’t tell me to do calming shit because calming shit is bad because I need the extra awareness anxiety brings. It’ll help me pick up on stuff like “Oh, he’s extending his hand, I guess I should shake hands.” Anxiety for me in meatspace social is not maladaptive, even if it is unpleasant)