Reframing early adulthood

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, May 10, 2023, 5:05 PM | comments: 0

I've talked a bit about how I've spent a significant amount of time reframing my life in the context of now knowing that I have autism and ADHD. I imagine that some people might find this to be a little dramatic or weird or even attention seeking, which would reinforce one's lack of understanding around these conditions. But it's a hell of a thing to learn in midlife when you've always felt that you didn't belong, found social situations challenging or you either couldn't stick to completing tasks or were hyperfocused on them (or both). And really, I give Simon a lot of credit prior to my diagnoses, because seeing what he has gone through is a lot like seeing myself. And sometimes, that's heartbreaking.

My first wife, Stephanie, sent me a stack of photos that she had, from the days before digital. We met my senior year of college, so the timing there is relevant to the things I've spent a lot of time thinking about lately. I liked having a robust mop of hair in those days (the "Adam Johnson," if you will, but without the abs). College and my early professional years were chaotic. I found myself angry at the world for so many reasons. I didn't like myself because of my relationship with school work, my inability to establish romantic relationships and the way I was treated by people that I thought should be advocates.

College felt like a fresh start, because the social hierarchies of high school were rendered meaningless. Two of the "hot girls" from high school lived right upstairs from me, and they were restarting, like me. I found purpose in studying radio and TV, in part because I already had some experience working in municipal cable TV, and video editing was just obvious to me. I felt that I could mimic radio, too, and I was on the air my first weekend. I wouldn't say that I quickly felt a sense of belonging, but I did feel a sense of purpose. Socially I met a few women that I liked, and began the long pattern of quickly landing in the friend zone. 

I had romantic issues my first two years, but I think there are other reasons for this that had little to do with my diagnosed stuff. I also started to attract conflict with a few of my professors. It started when some alumnus questioned the way the radio/TV department functioned and didn't emphasize enough academics. I felt similarly, and I was pissed when they trashed the person in the press. Two of them acted as station managers instead of instructors, and did much of the "work" instead of deferring it to students. I called them out in a letter, with guidance from the department chair. As you can imagine, this didn't go well. I know now that the way I approached it wasn't great, but I also wasn't wrong. I felt a great sense of betrayal, too, because I thought these guys were there to advocate for me and my future, and yet they were tearing me down to other faculty (all of whom would tell me about it). Their egos were pretty fragile.

On the surface, one might think that it was me with the ego, but that's one of those fundamental misunderstandings about the neuroatypical. I believed that because I could observe a situation that was objectively not fair or correct, I could call it out. It had nothing to do with my opinion about myself. In my mind, I observed something  incorrect. That isn't narcissism or ego when autism is involved, it's just a logical conclusion that has only specific remedies. It's kind of funny that a common trait of ASD is the inability to recognize social contracts, because to me, describing an injustice is something we're supposed to do as a matter of societal participation.

This desire to see fairness has been a mixed blessing for me. Certainly advocating for people who are disadvantaged for any reason is a good thing. It's why I will always ally myself with anyone who is discriminated against. But I also view myself as wronged in many cases where it's either not personal or not about me. I can generally let small things roll off, but bigger things, in work or in transactional situations, it's much harder. The psychologist who did my ASD/ADHD screen suggested even that I may lean into victimhood. I disagree with that, maybe on semantics, because I'm only a victim if I can't overcome the situation, and I always do.

Task completion was something that really eroded my sense of self. In college it was the predictable and usual thing about not being able to finish things. It was particularly bad my senior year, by which time I felt "done" with school and was ready to move on. I vividly remember walking across campus in the snow feeling deep self-loathing about not getting projects done or not doing assigned reading. I thought this was a personality flaw, which makes it even harder to try and do something about it. It's natural to be defensive if some arbitrary standard makes you substandard. But ADHD is real, and it can affect you in ways that make it harder to follow through.

My first "real" job (I skip radio, because it didn't last) put me in front of politicians and educators as a committee of bosses. I knew the job, to start up a municipal cable TV operation, having been around it for years before. I mapped it out, built the first wave of things, generated several hours of programming per week, hire people, and got it done. Having to navigate competing interests, and telling some people "no" for things they wanted or expected, was a minefield, especially in a small pond. But just like the college situation, I believed I knew right and wrong, and there were some things asked of me that frankly were not even legal, or at least unethical. I would later learn that they contemplated letting me go, but fortunately I had the foresight to document the legal stuff, so it never came to that. It was a lot for someone my age, and I had what I now understand to be two classic autism meltdowns as a result of that job. Steph was completely supportive, thankfully, but I perceived these meltdowns as immature.

What I now understand is that we develop coping skills for what I call "the unreconcilable." Again, Simon helped me understand this. There are conditions and situations that simply don't make sense, and you can't arrive at a conclusion. What do you do with that? Today, I just try to identify it as something I can't make sense of, and work to file it away and redirect my attention toward something that does make sense. This does have a cost... repressing that frustration is mentally exhausting, but I don't lie on the bed flipping out the way I might have as a child (or really stressed out 20-something). And that job? The high school principal, in response to telling her no for something, said she considered me "one of the kids," despite my academic and professional experience. And when I asked for pay that was more in line with my counterparts in other cities in the county, and the teacher on the committee said we all make choices about our career, I chose to change careers.

Socially, I think I was pretty oblivious about my shortcomings as a partner in my first marriage. We share responsibility for that, but I do know that I was oblivious when it came to reading things that Steph wanted or expected from me. You could argue that no one has to read minds, but I see now that wasn't it. There were things that were important to her that I did not do, but I don't beat myself up about it the way that I used to. Picking up on social cues is still not always easy for me. People often tell me that I "tell it like I see it," but really it's because I don't always know when it's appropriate to apply a filter. I mean, have you read this blog? I just don't always see the social cues.

I want to point out that ASD and ADHD aren't all bad. There are things that I can point to that are, quite frankly, gifts. The biggest win of my professional life is still that I was able to become a software developer (I'm still uncomfortable with "software engineer," even though that's the accepted industry nomenclature). I was 23 when I started to mess with code, and I think when I built my first website with dynamic elements, at 26, I became a software professional, self-taught. Granted, the ADHD and/or autism may have provided the hyperfocus to learn, but it also got in the way of learning at times, because I was so outcome driven. I didn't care what the "right" way to code was, provided I got what I wanted on the screen. It took me until my mid-30's to get past that, but it resulted in getting a programming book published. And I could not have written that book without hyperfocus.

As I said, this is all pretty weird to reframe parts of your life, when you're just about over the midpoint. I have a long history of not liking myself very much, and it doesn't help that I generally disregard external validation. But there's definitely something to the way we're wired, and I hope we can learn to recognize those differences, and look at them in a different way. That's what I'm doing.


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