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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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.

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)

 

The Parable of the Baseball

Trigger warning: Ableism analogy, fictionalized gaslighting, bullying, and berating

Imagine, if you will, another world. The inhabitants of this world are mostly like the inhabitants of our world: They are warm-blooded, live in family groups, have opposable thumbs, small palates, large craniums, and have mostly lost the remnants of their ancestor’s tails. Like us, they have variation in their population, but at their most diverse, they are still are more similar to each other than they are to other creatures in their world.

Like us, they play games for recreation. Unlike us, they took a particular game past past-time and even beyond what most would consider an obsession. This game would not be baseball, precisely – they do live on a different world, after all, and so it’s extremely unlikely they’d independently come up with exactly the same game – but it’s close enough that I’ll just call it baseball.

Now, imagine yourself a resident of this world. In this world, baseball reigns supreme. It is so integral to the culture that people don’t ever have to explain the rules to each other since most have been playing since before they could walk steadily. They expect others will have the same intuitive feel and enjoyment of the game that they do, and mostly, they’re right. People can get promotions at work just by being really good at baseball, the most popular kids in school are always the ones with the best baseball skills, and every single world leader plays baseball at world-class proficiency. Being good at baseball is an unspoken cultural requirement for everything from getting a loan to being accepted to a good school to finding a job.

Except, here’s the problem: You’re not good at baseball. In fact, you’re bad at it. Very bad. You can throw… in the wrong direction. You can swing the bat very hard… and miss the ball entirely, and you would probably make a half-proficient catcher if you didn’t flinch at sudden motion and had better hand-eye coordination and maybe some faster reflexes. Okay, you wouldn’t make a half-proficient catcher at all, but you tell yourself that since you wouldn’t have to worry about tripping over your own two feet as catcher, maybe you should try for that.

To make matters worse, you never really picked up the rules that everyone else did. Because you weren’t as good at it as a small child, other small children wouldn’t let you play with them. So you didn’t get much practice. So you didn’t improve. So you became worse relative to your peers. So the other kids wouldn’t let you play. Etc.

Because everyone else has been playing approximately forever, they get the rules instinctively. When you ask why you can run to second base when there’s no hit but not to first, they shrug at you helplessly and say, “You just can’t.” which is not at all helpful to your lack of understanding of the rules.

You get teased for how bad you are at baseball, and it’s always blamed on you. “Well, I know the kids make fun, but if you’d just try to be better at baseball, maybe they wouldn’t make fun of you so much,” you’re told when you complain to adults. When you ask how you can get better at baseball when nobody will let you play, they punish you for having an attitude. Some adults predict that with that attitude towards baseball, you’ll never amount to anything in life.

At this point, you might decide to swear off baseball entirely. I can’t play. I don’t care. I’m not going to try. Except, people don’t let you not play in peace. You have to play, they tell you. You have to understand the game and be able to talk the language. It’s a life skill. You realize quickly enough that they’re right.

You have to play because people make judgements of those who don’t play – unfavorable ones. And there are lots of stereotypes about people who don’t play as sub-person freaks who can somehow manage to name the tree any leaf came from but can’t balance a checkbook. The questions you get are what convince you: If you can’t spot someone cheating, how will you avoid being taken advantage of? You can’t be allowed out on your own if you can’t tell when someone’s cheating! It’s for your own good. If you can’t keep track of where the ball needs to go, how will you keep track of the goal at work? Obviously people who don’t play well are unqualified for complicated – and therefore well-paying – jobs. How dare you not like baseball?! Don’t you realize how offensive that is?! Obviously people who are bad at baseball are rude assholes. Playing baseball teaches cooperation and teamwork! How can you work on a team without baseball? Playing teaches you the responsibility to take care of something outside of yourself. People who don’t play baseball are obviously irresponsible since they never learned to do that. People who don’t play baseball can’t do anything for themselves. They’ll never go to school or get a job. They need constant supervision because if you can’t play baseball, you can’t take care of yourself.

In hopes that it will help you get better at the game, you study it carefully, and maybe practice it with the help of special teachers whose job it is to teach kids who are bad at baseball. Now, you begin to improve, slowly, but the kids are now teasing because you need a one-on-one coach and you’re always having to think your way through it and always nervous you’ll do something wrong by throwing the ball to the wrong person or saying the wrong term in the post-game analysis. Quickly, you discover that people have no patience for the fact that you have to think your way through it step-by-step and can’t make the leaps of intuition they can. They start to make fun of you and question your intellect. You patiently explain – yet again – that it’s not that you aren’t smart, it’s that you’re not good at baseball.

“You’re not bad at baseball,” your parents tell you. “You’re just too self-centered to play with others.”

“You’re not bad at baseball,” your teachers say. “You’re just too lazy to put the effort in.”

“You can’t be bad at baseball,” your coach says. “You’re so good at spacial reasoning! No, it’s not that you’re bad at baseball, it’s that you don’t want to be good at baseball. You’re being defeatist.”

Sometime as you near high school you’re reading an article or surfing the internet or watching TV or what have you, and you see an article about aballism. You’ve never heard of aballism before, and you look into what it is. Turns out, it’s a condition that makes it very hard for someone to learn to play baseball! Suddenly, you have an explanation! You’re not lazy or self-centered or defeatist, you’ve got aballism.

You tell your parents about it, and they roll their eyes at you. “You can’t have aballism. People with aballism don’t ever go to fields, and you go all the time. Besides, they don’t think that baseballs really exist. You think that baseballs exist, right?”

When you answer in the affirmative, your parents say, “See? Stop this aballism nonsense. You’re just looking for excuses. You just need to work harder at your baseball.”

You start practicing on your own, when nobody else is around. Memorizing and rehearsing and working at plays, forming mental rules and flow charts so you don’t have to bog yourself down in a game thinking about what you need to do. Sure, sometimes you mess up and use the wrong rule, but as a general rule, you start to improve.

But you can’t shake the suspicion of aballism. Everyone in the articles about it seem so like you! Out of curiosity, you tell yourself, one day you look up strategies for dealing with aballism, and find a lot of the flow charts you figured out on your own duplicated in professional material, and a lot of the tips they have help you a lot. The strategies other people have always given you – how to find motivation to play, how to work harder at your conditioning,  getting better equipment so you look more like your teammates, etc, have always ranged from unhelpful to counter-productive, but this stuff works!

You hit another road bump: You realize that people have little respect for those who practice alone and follow rules. Fakes, they’re called. Two-faced. Dishonest. After all, how can you learn teamwork by practicing alone, and if they’re not playing how they naturally would, but rather doing what they think others expect them to do, how can you tell who they really are? You don’t see how it’s any different than what people who don’t construct these rules do subconsciously – nobody who’s good at baseball ever just sets the ball down and let their opponent have a free home run, after all – but when others start to criticize you for having the same response to a given situation every single time, you realize that it’s important not to let on that you follow these rules and build in some variation so it won’t seem so much like you’re a dishonest rules-follower.

You hear that there’s a stereotype of people like you: that those who don’t understand baseball rules intuitively and instead have to memorize them can’t understand the rules of morality. Some say people like you should be locked up to protect others. You feel more desperate than ever to cover up the fact that you’re bad at baseball.

Eventually, your rules start to take up more and more of your energy to follow as they become more and more complicated. Eventually, you reach a point where so much energy is being spent on your rules that you have nothing left for anything else. Then you start borrowing energy to cope with life. You run out of energy to borrow and crash. While you’ve crashed, you ignore your rules.

Others don’t understand. You’ve stopped trying, they tell you. You’re being difficult, they tell you. You’re not playing whole-heartedly, they say. It’s rude not to do your best at baseball, they chide. You’ll need the virtues taught by good baseball playership when you grow up, your parents warn. Sometimes you have to do stuff you don’t like doing, your teachers extort. But you have no more energy to give and a huge debt to pay. Once you’ve recovered, you start to follow your rules again.

But the cycle repeats. Crash, recover, overload, crash, recover, overload. You can’t emulate good baseball playing and be healthy at the same time. Your crashes get deeper, your recoveries take longer, your overloads come quicker.  You get depressed and angry.

You graduate. Fake it enough to get into a decent school. Nothing special like your parents did, and they complain that you are so smart and if you’d just applied yourself to your entrance game the way you do to your video games, you could’ve gone anywhere. You decide you want to go into a field that has a reputation for being sedentary and a stereotype of being populated by those who are bad at baseball. If you work alone, you won’t have to talk baseball, and if you take on extra work, you’ll always have a handy excuse to avoid an after-work game. That’s your plan, anyway.

You make friends with those who also are bad at baseball. You spend a lot of time with each other doing things that aren’t baseball. Sometimes you play other ball games, always with consideration for what makes each other bad with ball games. Sometimes you even play baseball. Not always, and only with people who don’t mind the odd ball fumble or throw to the wrong base.

One day, one of your friends says something that strikes deep into your core.

“What’s so wrong about being bad at baseball?”

Trap questions

First of all: I hate trap questions.

Okay, that out of the way. I’d better explain what the hell I mean by “trap questions.” Because different people mean different things by that phrase.

Here’s what I mean when I use it: Questions that give the appearance of a real choice when no real choice is present. Often, they come with consequences (being chastised, punished, thought rude, etc) if you don’t answer “appropriately.”

What they look like: When a parent asks a child if they want to do a chore and the option to decline said chore is not really present. When a friend asks someone to go out with them but isn’t actually willing to accept a no. When your boss asks if you’d be “okay” with taking on some overtime, and, legal protections aside, you know damn well it’ll bite you when it comes time for promotions or what have you if you decline. Etc.

Growing up, trap questions were a favorite of my mother. As a kid, it felt like she was purposefully trying to trick me so she could have an excuse to punish me for being honest. Giving her as much benefit of the doubt as possible, she has mentioned in the past that she feels she’s being rude when she makes outright requests of people so it’s possible she felt she was being polite by resorting to trap question and there’s some unspoken social rule I’m missing there. I miss a lot of unspoken social rules, so that’s not nearly as unlikely as it is for most people.

Which, actually, brings me nicely to the major problem I have with this form of question: It’s dishonest. And for people who are utter shite at reading social cues and body language (like yours truly), we get tricked into thinking there’s a real choice when there isn’t and then are blindsided when the other person is hurt or offended by our answer.

It didn’t help at all that my response to my mother’s offense (and often doling out of punishment for said offense) was less-than-helpful for resolving the situation, as I was usually both completely bewildered by her reaction and outraged at what – to me – was an unwarranted and disproportionate punishment: What do you mean I’m having an attitude? You asked if I wanted to vaccuum the floor! You know I hate vaccuums! I answered honestly! Why is that wrong?! No, I am not being rude, I’m being honest! I’m not talking back, I don’t know why you’re angry! Why do I have to go to my room?! 

…. annnnd initiate meltdown, end scene.

The problem here, I say with the benefit of hindsight, is a fundamental breakdown in communication caused some people’s tendency to say one thing while meaning something completely different interacting unfavorably with the fact that I don’t do subtext well. Now that I’m an adult, you might have to hint at what you’re talking about a dozen times before I go, “Oooooh, you mean Park and Josie are dating! I get it! Wait, why are you shushing me?”

As a kid, I didn’t do subtext, figurative speech, or hinting at stuff at all until I was about 17. I averaged 85% in high school English, and only lost marks on symbolism. Symbolism was worth, *drumroll please* 15% of the final grade. I was bad at it. Really bad. I was the kid who would respond to, “Zip your lips!” with “But my lips don’t have a zipper” and genuine confusion and who thought that the Robert Frost poem about stopping in the woods on a winter’s night was about some guy on a long trip who really needed to find a rest stop.

So when my mother chose to hint at what she wanted with a trap question rather than being explicit about it, I missed the hint. In effect, she was saying, “Please vacuum the floors,” while I was hearing, “Do you want to vacuum the floors?” and responding to that mentally with, “Dafuq? Who wants to vacuum floors? Why are you asking me this?”

And so when I responded, “No, I don’t like vacuums,” what I meant was, “No, I don’t want to vacuum the floors because I don’t like vacuums,” while she heard, “No, I won’t do my chores! Neener neener!” And she responded accordingly.

This ongoing conflict (among others – many, many others) helped to make me certain of three things: Firstly, all adults – my parents included – hated me. Nothing I could do was right to them, and since my peers and sibling seemed to be able to talk back with relative impunity while I got hammered into the ground every single time for stuff that wasn’t even talking back as far as I could tell, the only other possibility, as far as I could tell, was that they hated me. Secondly, all adults enjoyed seeing me suffer, and doled out severe punishments for their enjoyment rather than for my benefit. And, thirdly, that when I wasn’t giving them sufficient cause to punish me, they would set up a trap – like with those trap questions – to get me anyway. Now that I’m older, I’m not sure how much of this is true, but I mention it to illustrate the view I had of parents, other kids, and adults in general at that point. They were things to be wary of, and not to be trusted, because in my view, they were actively malicious towards me.

Things improved to some degree when I adopted, “No, I don’t want to, but I will if you want me to,” as a scripted response sometime around when I turned 11 or so. I was still genuinely confused about whether or not I could take my mother’s questions at face value or not, and so I always responded with that to illustrate my confusion with whether or not I legitimately had a choice. My mother would still passive-aggressively snipe at me about being snotty if I read a trap question as an ambiguous one (which was pretty much always), but she usually wouldn’t hand out punishment for it. Unless I responded with, “How am I snotty? I’m being honest!” innn which case it usually ended up with us screaming at each other and me grounded. Again.

So around 14, I started to assume that all of my mother’s questions were malicious traps and that I needed to just say yes to everything so she wouldn’t be able to punish me anymore. Problem: This means everything. My mother had accidentally (or, perhaps, not-so-accidentally, but I’m trying to give the benefit of the doubt here as much as thinking about my parents’ actions in context with the rest of my childhood and growing-up make it difficult to do so) trained me to comply and acquiesce to everything and fear every question as a possible source of punishment. Do you want ice cream? Can’t say no because I don’t know if it’s a legit choice or if I’ll be yelled at for not being gracious so I’ll say yes. Do you want to learn guitar? Not particularly since I’d prefer the violin but I don’t know if I’ll get yelled at for pointing that out so I’d better say yes. Etc.

At 14, I still was unable to tell trap question from legit question (and, at 25, I still can’t), so the only other possiblity, as far as I could see, was to assume everything was a trap and comply, comply, comply. It has taken me the 8 years since I moved away from home to go to uni to unlearn terrified compliance and realize that it’s okay for me to say no sometimes. Now that I’m older, as well, I’ve changed my scripted resposne from “comply at all costs” to “ask for clarification.” “Do you mean ‘please do _____’ or are you asking me whether I want to do it?” This can sometimes get others rolling their eyes at me if their meaning seems obvious to them but thus far it has avoided huge blowup screaming fights with the extended family like I used to have.

And, anyway, that’s why I hate trap questions. Because 1, I can’t tell the difference between trap and legitimate question, 2, I fear social sanctions for misinterpreting, 3, trap questions have a lot of emotional baggage attached to them thanks to misinterpretations as a kid, and 4, I don’t think it’s too damn much to ask that when people present a choice to me, that choice should be a real one.