I couldn’t have really been in love, in retrospect, just confused about what I was feeling (which has so often been the case).
1: When asked which emotion I'm feeling, I frequently don't know the answer.
4: When other people are hurt or upset, I have difficulty imagining what they are feeling.
11: When I am upset I find it difficult to identify the feelings causing it.
16: I sometimes experience confusing sensations in my body.
18: Some people have told me I am cold or unresponsive to their needs.
27: I tend to rely on other people for interpreting the emotional details of personal/social events.1
In this series of posts, I will explore different autistic characteristics and how I understand myself within each of them.
One night is burned into my memory in a way that I can’t erase. One of the rare memories for me that retains its bristling detail, perhaps because those details are the things I wish to most forget. I was 22 and home for the summer, after my parents had moved away from my hometown. I was staying with old family friends, doing an internship, and just hanging out. I had met a woman whom I had instantly fallen in love with. We had one great night together and I immediately started acting like we were in a serious relationship. I didn’t know how else to be around women. Either they were strangers, or I was imagining proposing and planning out our life together (I ruminate on how my love interests are similar to my autistic special interests in this post). I couldn’t have really been in love, in retrospect, just confused about what I was feeling (which has so often been the case). But it was easy to convince myself that love was the state of being confused about your feelings. Isn’t that why there are so many poems and works of art about love?
This woman’s name was Giroux. Like the publisher. She was sweet, and calm, and quiet, but also somehow rebellious and unconventional and unpredictable. Her aunt and uncle had a vacation home around the corner from where I grew up, and she and her cousin were staying there for the summer. Giroux was working at the ice cream shop downtown. It closed at 11:00 PM, and we had arranged for me to meet her then and we’d have a little date. I don’t know what we would have done - nothing is open later than 11:00 PM. I guess we would have gone for a walk, looked at the stars, just found a place to talk. I was house sitting that week a couple of miles from downtown. Because our date was so late, I decided to walk.
This was the late 1990s. Nobody had a cell phone. It’s hard to remember what that was like. You had to call people on the landline, and leave a message, and then hope that they would check their voicemail. But I never thought to call home and check my voicemail. I’d have to use a payphone for that, and it wasn’t worth the disappointment of finding out that I had no messages, which would only reaffirm my sense of loneliness and my lack of friends.
I got to the ice cream shop a bit early, I think it was around 10:30, and so I just hung around the plaza acting like I belonged, but knowing I didn’t really. I was just pretending. The plaza is where throngs of high school kids would hang out on Friday and Saturday nights. With nothing else to do in town, people would meet there around 8:00 or 9:00 and just hang out, smoking, talking, and then they would collect in groups and caravan off to someone’s house whose parents were out of town, or to sneak into a hotel pool, or to go to one of the 24 hour restaurants in the parking lot of a strip mall somewhere. Carrow’s, Perkins, Denny’s, Village Inn - those were the only establishments a high school kid could go to at night. I never went to the plaza when I was in high school. My older brother did all the time, but it was never for me. Like so many things, I knew it wasn’t for me, but I didn’t know why.
I walked around the periphery, recognizing faces from high school, and many who had since gone off to college and were back in town for the summer. Suddenly I heard my full name pronounced in a surprised, sort of condescending tone. I looked up and saw the older brother of one of my younger brother’s friends. I think his name was Jason. I didn’t know him, but I knew who he was. He was staring at me with this weird smile on his face. I think it was incredulous, though I couldn’t have defined it that way at the time. “What are you doing here?” He asked, apparently rhetorically, because he didn’t stop and wait for me to answer. He kept walking, sort of laughing to himself as he passed by. I think he also said, though I can’t remember if he really said it or if my memory added it at some point later because it was implied by his tone, but I think he also said, “You don’t belong here.”
That scenario - the idea that someone would actually call me out, actually stop to tell me that I don’t belong - was probably the thing I feared most, and here it was actually happening. The deep inner knowledge that I’ve always carried with me, that I don’t fit in, that I’m not part of the group, that I don’t understand what everyone else is doing or talking about, was suddenly confirmed by a near stranger in exactly the way I always feared. But he was right. I knew he was right. What am I doing here? Tonight I was here to meet Giroux. That was my reason. Did everyone else down here have a reason? It seemed like they all just showed up unannounced, but perhaps I had that wrong? Did they all coordinate with one another beforehand? Did everybody here come having made plans to meet someone else who is here? That thought had never occurred to me. I always assumed everyone who belonged here would just come to the Plaza on Friday night confident that they would find a friend. Once again, I found myself questioning reality; the feeling washing over me that everything I thought I had understood about something was actually wrong.
A few minutes before 11:00 I went into the ice cream shop. The lights were uncomfortably bright and revealing. The stale end-of-day air had a vaguely unpleasant smell, combined with the scent of cleaning solution that the employees were spraying as they wiped everything down for the night. I noticed immediately that Giroux was not behind the counter. My heart raced a bit, and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. I asked one of the employees cleaning up if she was around. He asked if I was the guy meeting her after work. I nodded. “I’m sorry,” he explained, “she went home sick. She called and left you a message at the place you're staying. She felt bad about it - she was hoping you’d get the message before heading over.”
I left the ice cream shop feeling somehow cheated. My heart was pounding. My thoughts were racing around my head. I was nervous. I was embarrassed. I was angry. I felt like I had found the love of my life and we only had a few weeks together while we were both in the same place for the summer, and she didn’t recognize it, and she was squandering our limited time. It didn’t occur to me that she was actually sick. I immediately assumed it was an excuse to avoid seeing me. “I’m not going to let her do this,” I remember thinking, “I’m not going to let her sabotage our relationship like this!” This was love, I thought, this was the real thing that people in the movies spend their whole lives looking for. Didn’t she recognize that?
Her place was about a mile from the ice cream shop and I immediately started walking at a frenzied pace to find her. As I hurried down the dark, familiar streets connecting downtown to the neighborhoods I grew up in, retracing the sidewalks I’d walked a million times, I was relentlessly focused on Giroux, “I’m not going to let her do this!” I think I actually said out loud as I walked. I hadn’t had a sip of alcohol but I felt as if I was drunk. Things were moving fast. The sidewalks, trees, and houses were flying by. My heart kept pounding. My fists were clenching. I was walking faster and faster. The irrationality of what I was doing didn’t occur to me, of course. I was sure that I was doing the only reasonable thing to do in this situation - to find Giroux, to see her, to let her see me. I don’t know what I really wanted - perhaps to demand an explanation?
I got to her door and banged on it, as if it was some kind of emergency. I didn’t think about the fact that it was 11:30 PM. Her cousin answered and looked at me. “Oh,” he said and left the door open as he walked back to the couch he had emerged from. I stepped in. Giroux was in her pajamas, looking sick, standing near her bedroom door.
“Hi,” she said, softly.
“Didn’t we have plans?” I demanded, raising my eyebrows and looking urgently at Giroux’s sweet, somewhat innocent face, not thinking to ask her how she was feeling or to apologize for showing up like this.
“Yes,” she said, “I called and left you a message. I just don’t feel well. I was hoping they’d tell you at the shop if you didn’t get the voicemail.”
“They did tell me,” I said, offering no explanation for why I had barged into her living room despite the fact that I had been given the message that she was home sick and our date was canceled.
“Oh,” she said, looking a little confused.
“It’s just that,” I tried to explain, “We had plans...” As I tried to explain, I realized that I didn’t really have a reasonable explanation to offer.
“It’s OK,” she said, “I’m just not feeling well. I’m sorry, I was hoping you’d get the message. Let’s talk tomorrow and figure out another time.”
I started to calm down. For the first time since I left the ice cream shop, my heart rate slowed. My sense of anxious urgency was replaced with awkward embarrassment. It was as if I was waking up from an episode of sleepwalking, looking around and thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” I don’t remember what happened next, but I do remember feeling ashamed and embarrassed. I walked home, it must have been several miles, all the while trying to rationalize my actions to myself, trying to reassure myself that what I had done was not that crazy, that my intentions were pure, that I wasn’t a horrible person. But what was I thinking? Why did I think it was OK for me to barge into her apartment? Why didn’t I just get the message and go home? What were these feelings?
For years afterward, the memory of that night would haunt me. It would hover in the background, reminding me of my weirdness, my inability to understand or interact with people, my stupidity, my awkwardness. It would make me nervous and queasy when I thought about it, make my heart rate quicken, fill me with that feeling that I’ve done something wrong, that I’ve made some horrible mistake. I can recall the memory now without having those feelings, but I took decades for that to be the case.
Only now can I look back to that night more than twenty years ago and realize that perhaps I was having a meltdown. Thinking back on it, it seems I was out of control, that my emotions were so riled up I wasn’t able to consciously think through my behavior, or to just pause a moment and think about what to do. I can postulate now that my inability to understand and interpret feelings (what I recently learned is something common in autistic people and it has a name - alexithymia) caused the confusion that I felt and might be a rational explanation for my strange behavior.
I don’t ever want autism to be an excuse that I use for acting inappropriately, but being able to look back and this event and others like it and use autism as a lense to understand what was happening has been a huge relief for me. Now that I have this perspective to evaluate life through, I can identify what is happening and perhaps use that knowledge to articulate my needs - either to myself, or to the people close to me. I can better avoid situations that might lead me to have a meltdown, for example, or I might be able to encourage myself to just sit down and stop what I’m doing until I feel more in control. I’m not sure what would have been different in this situation if I had the language of autism that I have now, but it gives me some comfort to realize that it isn’t simply a matter of me being a strange, obsessive, creepy, flawed human.