I Never Talk to Strangers

"There is no ocean, John. There is nothing beyond the city. The only place home exists is in your head."

The 1998 film Dark City, directed by Alex Proyas and starring Rufus Sewell, is one of my all-time favorite films, right up there with Blade Runner, 2001, and Pulp Fiction.

In the movie, John Murdoch (Sewell) wakes up in a seedy hotel room in a strange city where it is always night. He has no memory of who he is, where he is, or how he got there, but he knows that something isn’t right. He finds himself with an overwhelming desire to get to a place called Shell Beach, a sunny seaside hamlet that is presumably his hometown. It’s a place where he believes he can discover his true identity and find the answers to all the questions that bedevil him.

John spends a good portion of the movie trying to get to Shell Beach, while piecing together the clues about his identity and the nature of the city he’s in. Shell Beach appears in postcards and on billboards throughout the city, and it’s even shown on the subway map. Unfortunately, nobody can seem to remember how to actually get there, and the subway line to Shell Beach turns out to be an express train that blows through the station without stopping. Every supposed path to Shell Beach ends up going in circles or turns out to be a dead end.

Through a series of events, John ends up in contact with Dr. Schreber (Kiefer Sutherland), the one person who seems to know what’s going on. John forces Schreber at gunpoint to take him to Shell Beach, and is led through a desolate quarter of the city down a canal and then through a maze-like series of dark alleys and corridors. They come to a doorway and open it.

What first appears to be a bright blue sky and ocean beyond the door turns out to be just another Shell Beach billboard. It is at this moment when John faces the reality that there is no ocean, no daylight, no blue sky. Shell Beach is nothing more than a figment of his imagination.

“There is no ocean, John,” Dr Schreber explains. “There is nothing beyond the city. The only place home exists is in your head.”

I had an epiphany like that last Wednesday when, after a lot of research and soul-searching, I came to the realization that I most likely have Asperger’s Syndrome. While online quizzes and Wikipedia articles are no substitute for a professional diagnosis, my findings were consistent and conclusive, and I have no reason to doubt them. All the traits and symptoms fit me to a T, and the stories of other people on various support sites could have easily been my own life story. After years of trying, the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle finally fit together, and the picture it formed is both a relief and a curse. Looking back, I’m shocked that it has taken me this long to make all the connections. This isn’t a disease that needs to be cured or a defect that needs to be corrected, but it’s something that needs to be accepted and dealt with as I move on with my life.

So, what is Asperger’s? GRASP.org is a good starting point, and here’s what they say about it:

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is generally considered to be a form of autism. Unlike the more severe forms of autism, people with AS exhibit little or no impairments in their speech (at most a mild delay in early childhood). But like many people with autism, they have a level of intelligence at least in the average range and often in the above-average or even superior ranges. And as with all other forms of autism it is characterized by varying degrees of deficits in social interactions and non-verbal communications. More specifically, people with AS have difficulties, sometimes severe, in perceiving the world from the perspective of another person and in “picking up” on the social cues (facial expressions, bodily gestures, tone of voice, etc.) that constitute such a significant part of many human interactions. As a result, having AS can mean having great abilities or talents in certain areas, but can also mean never living independently, never holding down a job for any extended period of time, and perhaps never even enjoying an intimate relationship. At the very least, it often means being an outcast and even subject to victimization in school, in the workplace, and in personal life.

(Full article here.)

Some common traits of Asperger’s:

Difficulty reading the social and emotional messages in the eyes: Those with AS don’t look at eyes often, and when they do, they can’t read them.

Check. I remember meeting a woman in a bar last year, and within the first five minutes of our conversation, she asked me why I wasn’t making eye contact with her. That thought had never even occurred to me, but I realized she was right. Unfortunately, sometimes I end up overcompensating for this, and my eye contact gets interpreted as a stalker-like glare. For whatever reasons, I find it almost impossible to maintain a happy middle ground between these extremes.

Making literal interpretation: AS individuals have trouble interpreting colloquialisms, sarcasm, and metaphors.

Check. I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve misinterpreted somebody’s joke or smart-ass remark. Oh, you really don’t have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell me? My bad. (Oddly enough, though, I’m sarcastic as hell when it comes to my own sense of humor.)

Being considered disrespectful and rude: Prone to egocentric behavior, individuals with Asperger’s miss cues and warning signs that this behavior is inappropriate.

Check. Although I can usually handle myself in social situations nowadays, or at least manage not to look like a complete ass, I find myself having to make a very deliberate effort at things that seem to come naturally to most other people. I was born without a social filter, so I have a tendency to either say what’s on my mind or (more likely) not say anything at all. Read on:

Honesty and deception: Children with Asperger’s are often considered “too honest,” and may even proclaim themselves to be “honest” or “frank” as a way of explaining their behavior. They have difficulty being deceptive, even at the expense of hurting someone’s feelings.

Check. I’m incapable of lying or deception, no matter how much there might be a need for it. Not that I’ve never tried, but I suck at it. By the same token, I generally assume that other people are always being honest and truthful with me, and it’s always a big shock to my system when that turns out not to be the case.

Inadequate nonverbal communication: their facial expressions, hand gestures, and other forms of body language, are usually limited.

Check. My intentions have been misinterpreted so many times that I seem to have developed a perpetual poker face in response, an Invisible Anti-Intimacy Force Field™, and it can only be deactivated by a select few who have earned the proper security clearance. If somebody tries to breach it without authorization, my internal defenses instantly go into red alert, and my IAIFF™ automatically activates an additional layer of armor plating. (I used to be much less picky about who I gave security clearance to, but after a few people with less-than-noble intentions got past the IAIFF™ and did lots of damage, I had to tighten up my security protocols a bit.)

If you’re reading this blog, you’ll note that I have a much easier time communicating via the written word, and it should come as no surprise that a significant portion of my social interaction takes place in chat rooms, instant message windows, and on various online discussion forums. Whenever I’ve developed romantic feelings for somebody online, things always seem to go fine until we actually meet face-to-face.

Becoming aware of making social errors: As children with Asperger’s mature, and become aware of their inability to connect, their fear of making a social mistake, and their self-criticism when they do so, can lead to social phobia.

Check. If you really want to torture me, just throw me into the middle of a party full of strangers and tell me to “mingle” for a while. Sometimes I get lucky and engage in some decent conversation if I meet the right person, but more likely I end up going home even more lonely and depressed than I was when I showed up.

Better yet, find a way to put me on the spot and watch me squirm. A couple years ago I was at a bar with some people I barely knew from my health club, and it turned out to be Karaoke Night at that particular bar. Oh, joy.

A couple people from our group took turns at the microphone and generally made jackasses of themselves before somebody had the brilliant idea that I should go up and do a song. They may as well have asked me to shove a sharp pencil through my left eyeball, which incidentally, I would have gladly done rather than sing karaoke.

I resisted, but of course that only fueled their desire to see me up there. When it became apparent to me that these assholes weren’t going to drop the idea, I finally got up from the table and walked toward the microphone, with my group wildly cheering me on behind me. I kept on walking, past the microphone and out the front door, got on a bus, and went home. I never spoke to any of those people again.

Differences in speech: They display less speech intonation than neurotypical persons. Their speech may be perceived as “flat.” However, those with AS also possess superficial fluency in day-to-day conversation.

Check, sort of. If I’m talking to people that I’m comfortable with (usually the same people who have gained security clearance to bypass my Invisible Anti-Intimacy Force Field™) about subjects that interest me, I seem to do just fine. Many other times, though, I generally sound about as emotional as Stephen Hawking giving a lecture about particle physics.

A sense of paranoia: Because of their inability to connect, persons with Asperger’s have trouble distinguishing the difference between the deliberate or accidental actions of others, which can in turn lead to a feeling of paranoia.

Check. Many times I feel like I was born with a third eye in the middle of my forehead, but for some reason everybody else can see it except for me. Although people are usually too polite to mention anything about it directly to me, they always talk about it amongst themselves whenever my back is turned, and it’s always on their mind whenever they’re forced to interact with me. See that group of attractive women at that table over there? The ones laughing and giggling? They’re talking about me and my third eye. And that friend of mine who declined my Facebook friend request or never responded to my message? She actually hates people with third eyes, but doesn’t want to hurt my feelings by saying so. I just know it.

Managing conflict: Being unable to understand other points of view can lead to inflexibility and an inability to negotiate conflict resolution. Once the conflict is resolved, remorse may not be evident.

Bullshit. That paragraph is wrong, and I’m right! End of discussion.

Sense of humor: Although jokes can be grasped at an intellectual level, the emotional worth of humor is not appreciated. Smiles and laughter may appear unnatural with some people with AS.

I actually have a pretty healthy sense of humor, but I find humor in unusual places and situations. The more absurd the better, which is probably why I love shows like South Park, Seinfeld, and Monty Python. That stupid pun you made? I’m not impressed. But a goose and a toddler fighting each other in a boxing ring, with spectators placing bets on the outcome? That would be fucking hilarious.

Awareness of hurting the feelings of others: A lack of empathy often leads to unintentionally offensive or insensitive behaviors.

Check. Although it’s rarely deliberate (and if it is, there will be no question about it), I’ve no doubt left a long trail of bruised egos and hurt feelings in my wake. Most of my lessons in interpersonal relationships have been learned the hard way, and I’m sure I still have many more lessons to learn. It’s not that I don’t have empathy; it’s just that I have a very hard time showing it.

Repairing someone’s feelings: Lacking intuition about the feelings of others, people with AS have little understanding of how to console someone or how to make them feel better.

Check. My close friends know that I’m a good listener and that I’m always willing to hear what’s bothering them, and sometimes I can even offer practical advice on whatever problems they’re having, but I’ve never really been good with the whole consolation thing. I’m trying, though.

Recognizing signs of boredom: Inability to understand other people’s interests can lead AS persons to be inattentive to others. Conversely, people with AS often fail to notice when others are uninterested.

Check, although I’m getting better about this one. I used to talk people’s ear off about things only I found interesting, but I think I’m getting better about cutting myself off when the other person obviously isn’t interested. That’s not to say I still don’t occasionally slip into old habits, though.

Reciprocal love and grief: Since people with AS have difficulty emotionally, their expressions of affection and grief are often short and weak.

Check. Affection and physical touch are difficult issues for me. If I’m being touched by somebody I have feelings of affection for, I generally can’t get enough of it, but I’m very clumsy and awkward when it comes to initiating physical contact. For people I don’t have feelings of affection for (and this includes the vast majority of people out there), I prefer not to be touched at all. I don’t mind a handshake or maybe even a quick hug, but anything else will probably rub me the wrong way.

In romantic relationships, I live in mortal fear of making an advance and being rejected, so I usually end up playing it safe by simply never making any advances. On the very rare occasion when I’ve made the first move, it’s usually ended up being very forced and awkward.

The good news is, each time a relationship successfully advances to the next level of physical intimacy, I can usually maintain that same level of intimacy without too much trouble. For example, early in my relationship with my first girlfriend, the simple act of holding her hand represented a huge step for me, and I had a very hard time trying to get to that point. Once we got to that point, though, I never had a problem holding her hand afterwards.

Sex, though, is something I struggle with a great deal. Later in that same relationship, we had a date in which I came over to her place for dinner, and then we cuddled together on her sofa to watch a movie. After the movie, we began making out. So far so good, as we had done this a few times before and I always enjoyed it.

This was probably the heaviest we had ever made out to that point, and I was horny as hell. Problem was, I had no idea if she wanted to go “all the way” that evening or not, and I really had no clue how to find out. I soon found myself having a full-blown panic attack there on her sofa, as my heart began pounding and all the oxygen was sucked out of the room. I’m not sure what I was more afraid of: That she wanted to have sex and I was going to disappoint her by not performing well enough (or at all), or that she didn’t want sex and I was going to ruin the relationship by attempting to go for it against her wishes. Nothing happened, and I ended up going home and taking a cold shower that evening. To this day I have no idea what my girlfriend was thinking, and by the time it occurred to me that I should have just asked her, the moment was long gone. I do fine when the boundaries are clearly explained and understood, but I’m terrible when the rules are unclear.

Grief is a bit more difficult. It’s not that I don’t ever feel grief, it’s just that I’ve usually done a pretty good job of keeping it bottled up inside me. When I let it out, it’s usually in private. I always attributed that to my classically British stiff-upper-lip family background, but maybe there’s more to the story. When my paternal grandfather died in 1993, I didn’t shed a tear until a year or two later, and then only when it was triggered by something completely unrelated. At that point, I sobbed for hours.

Lack of participation in chitchat: They are not generally interested in, and do not participate in idle chat and gossip.

Check. Sorry, hair stylist, but I’m just not interested in discussing the weather with you. Sorry, taxi driver, but I’d much prefer to look out the window and not engage you in inane banter. Sorry, roommate, but I really don’t give a flying fuck about the Giants game. Sorry, date, I’ve tried my best, but we can only fill so much time talking about what was on TV last night.

Preference of routine: They prefer routine work, and are not able to cope well to changes, even small ones. Such disruptions from routine can cause stress and anxiety.

Check. I have a daily and a weekly routine, and although it has a certain amount of built-in flexibility and isn’t carved in stone, I find myself getting upset if that routine somehow gets disrupted. My morning cup of coffee while reading the New York Times, stopping to grab another cup of coffee on the way to work, taking a short walk outside during my lunch break, sleeping in on Saturdays, my Sunday brunch at Le Monde, my glass of sherry on Sunday evenings: These are all little things that, as long as I can keep them up, somehow assure me that things are right with my world. If I move to a new city or these routines somehow get altered, I always feel a bit off-kilter until they’re re-established or until I develop new ones.

Coping with criticism: People with AS are compelled to correct mistakes, even when they are made by someone in a position of authority, such as a teacher. For this reason, they can be unwittingly offensive.

Check. This used to get me in trouble all the time at my last job, where my bosses took any correction as a direct threat to their authority. Luckily I’m now at a job where my input is welcomed and encouraged, and I’ve developed a reputation for being sort of a quality control guru. I can’t turn in any work unless I’m confident that it’s flawless, and in written communications, I generally regard sloppy grammar and spelling as crimes against humanity.

Speed and quality of social processing: Because they respond through reasoning and not intuition, AS individuals tend to process social information more slowly than the norm, leading to uncomfortable pauses or delays in response.

Check. I can’t always get my mouth to say what my brain is telling it to say. I can rehearse entire, drawn-out conversations in my head in which I perfectly articulate all the things that are on my mind, but when it comes time for me to have such a conversation in real life, I usually end up freezing and stammering.

In addition to the traits listed above, many Aspies have a very low tolerance for intense light sources or sudden, loud noises. I know I certainly do: I prefer low light levels at home and generally prefer overcast days to bright sunlight.

When it comes to sound, I love steady sounds such as rainfall, the ocean, subway train motors, or air conditioners (in fact, I find it almost impossible to sleep without some sort of background white noise such as a box fan), but I have a hard time dealing with very sudden or abrupt noises such as banging pots and pans. I also find it impossible to follow a conversation if there’s a lot of background noise, such as at a loud bar or party.

The other night I was riding the subway home, and the guy sitting across the aisle from me was subconsciously tapping his fingers on the metal grab bar… It just about drove me up the wall, and I probably would have moved to the next car if my stop hadn’t been coming up shortly.

Right now my roommate is closely following college basketball games on TV, and I’ve been trying to figure out why I loathe basketball with a passion that passes all human understanding. I’m now pretty sure it has something to do with the squeaking of the players’ shoes against the polished wood floor of the court, the crowd cheering and yelling, the referee’s whistle, and the loud buzzer that sounds periodically throughout the game. All those sounds are like fingernails on a chalkboard to me, and they make me want to throw a brick through the television whenever my roomie has a game on.

One of the most significant Aspie traits is that we tend to have obsessive interests in various subjects; anything from trains, fire engines, Latin, church liturgy, books, deep fat fryers, you name it. I’ve had a number of such interests that have come and gone over the years, but there are a few particularly strong ones that I’ve had forever, and they never seem to go away.

When I was a kid, I was designing stuff left and right: Buildings, trains, sailboats, space ships and space stations. Other kids would play with Transformers or G.I. Joe action figures; I’d be designing my 27th dream house. Now I’m in the architecture business and I design buildings for a living, so I guess I can’t really call it a hobby anymore. Architecture has lost a bit of its novelty since I started doing it for a living, but I still enjoy it most of the time, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. Ask me to solve a difficult design problem, or put me out on a construction site, and I’m like a kid in a candy store.

In a somewhat related vein, I’m fascinated by how cities develop and grow, urban infrastructure, and comparisons between cities. Give me a chance, and I’ll bore you to death about the symbiotic relationship between New York and Chicago.

I also love trains, especially electric passenger trains such as subways. I love learning about the trains themselves, as well as the infrastructure that supports them. I can identify every class of subway car on the NYC subway system, and I can tell you all about the differences between the former IRT, BMT, and IND systems. Always the life of the party.

Like our friend John back in Dark City, I’ve been spending my entire time in this world looking for clues, trying to find out why I’m different, and getting frustrated when none of the paths I take to find my own Shell Beach ever seem to work.

I never gave up hope that I would eventually get things sorted out. I just needed to find the right job, finish my degree, marry the right woman, move to the right city, wear the right clothes, put on the right cologne, and somehow everything would fall into place and I could live the normal, well-adjusted life that most other people make look so easy.

Now I’m standing there in front of the wall, finally aware that there is no Shell Beach, no special place that feels like home, no magic solution that will make everything right. Like it or not, this is a permanent part of me and it isn’t going to go away. I can’t go home because I’m already there, and always have been.

So, how do I feel about all this?

On one hand, I’m feeling a great deal of anger, resentment, and sadness that I’ve pissed away 32 years of my life trying in vain to “fit in” and “be normal”, and feeling that my social awkwardness and lack of empathy were the result of some sort of moral failure on my part… Only to now discover that this is who I really am, and it isn’t going to change. My issues were plainly visible to my parents and all my teachers, but nobody lifted a finger to find out what the deal was. For 32 years I’ve been told by well-meaning but clueless people that, “You’re just shy,” or “Just be yourself,” or “Things will work themselves out when you’re ready.” I’ve been constantly whipped, beaten, bullied, and shunned for being different, and I’ve been made to feel like I have some sort of horrible character flaw for being socially awkward, not showing the proper amount of empathy, or neglecting my schoolwork in favor of exploring my interests. More than one potential girlfriend has told me that I give off the vibe of a stalker or serial killer. Hearing that on a first date certainly does wonders for the self-confidence, especially when you’ve heard it so many times before.

On the other hand, it’s a huge relief to feel like I’ve finally put enough of the jigsaw puzzle together to have some clue about what makes me tick, and I’ve already found some great support sites online that seem to be full of interesting people I can actually relate to. It gives me hope that I can find some like-minded people to build a community with, and maybe find somebody to share the rest of my life with. Imagine being a foreigner in a strange country your entire life, having different customs, speaking a different language, and never fitting in despite your best efforts. Then, out of the blue, you stumble into a neighborhood in some forgotten corner of the city where everybody speaks your language and shares your culture. It may not be home, but at least it’s a safe place.

Looking back, many of my closest friends over the years have been people who also show at least a few Aspie traits, and who went through similar nightmares while growing up. It shouldn’t have been that way. Nobody should have to grow up feeling like they’re alone in this world.

The good news is that Dark City has a happy ending, and John discovers that he has the ability to create Shell Beach on his own terms. I guess I’ll have to do likewise.

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