They used to call me spazz
When I was a kid, I used to be able to tell you the address, and phone number, and the names of everyone who lived there, and what year, make and model of car or cars they drove, and some other random stuff, too, for every house in my neighborhood, and I’m talking about well over a hundred houses. I’d extracted the information from reading the telephone book, and from asking questions, and from general observation. I would hold court at the Village Oaks swimming pool in north Stockton on summer nights, entertaining my mother and the future billionaire’s wife and whoever else was there with my strange gift for knowledge.
I also grew really fast, and I was uncoordinated as hell. People called me a spazz. I’d bump into walls, knock tables and chairs over, break stuff, conk my head on things, and oftentimes I had little control over my limbs. I also caused a little trouble with my mouth, so often I would shout out whatever popped into my head before I’d had a chance to mull over whether that was a particularly good idea. This got me into lots of hassles in class. I thought I was the class clown, but oftentimes my humor was so far outside of what my contemporaries thought was funny that I might have well been doing standup comedy to squirrels in the park.
Over time, I developed the identity of a misfit. I started hanging out with the other neer-do-wells in my neighborhood of postwar flattop houses, which in retrospect was pretty working class; Average man: flannel shirt, lubed hair, work dungarees and boots, drove a pickup truck with a camper shell and radio permanently tuned to KRAK Radio 1140, which played nonstop Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. And those guys didn’t like me too much. And if they did, well, one was advised to steer clear of those types.
So even though I was considered “gifted” and I always tested in the top one percentile in school, I couldn’t get my work done in any kind of timely manner, and my desk usually was a laughable, appalling mess. My report card typically had the box checked that said “Does not play well with others.” I had trouble relating to my peers, and those interactions became painful, especially once nascent adolescence fired up my hormones and, thus, my emotional reactions. I began telling my mom I didn’t want to go to school, and I would stay home and listen to records and watch daytime television, not the soap operas but the talk shows, like Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett. I developed a peculiar affinity for lounge singers, bad comedians and other random show-business personalities.
Around that time, I’d switched my obsession with addresses to record labels and catalog numbers. I had this thing where my mom — who in retrospect shared similar misfit qualities to mine — would bring me home 45-r.p.m. singles from the shop around the corner from the insurance agency where she worked. I would look at the charts for KFRC, KSTN or KJOY, the three big pop stations where I lived, or KSOL and KDIA, two R&B stations in the Bay, and when I would spot a title on a label whose design was unfamiliar to me, I would call my mom and promise to perform some chore in exchange for her bringing home the vinyl. As I was familiar with most of the mainstream center-label designs, she often would be bringing home singles on obscure R&B labels; three I remember vividly, because the music on these three records changed my life, were “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” by Otis Redding (Volt), “She’s Looking Good” by Rodger Collins (Galaxy) and “Tell It Like It Is” by Aaron Neville (Parlo).
I won’t go into the years of self-medicating here, because I’ve covered it elsewhere. Suffice it to say that one of the things I became painfully aware about myself in relation to others was that often there was a big disconnect between us. On rare occasion I would feel in sync with people; on others, it was like I’d landed from another planet and had nothing in common with anybody. Most of the time, that uncomfortable lack of connectivity was somewhere in between — just a bit off, but far removed enough that I’d feel like the odd man out in a roomful of people. I still feel that way quite often, but to a much lesser degree. And I’m much more comfortable in my own skin these days, which I attribute to being clean and sober for 17 and a half years, and being prompted by the resulting emotional pain to do real work on myself, to try to figure out what makes me tick. Oh, and over that time, I’ve discovered certain spiritual tools — prayer, meditation, forgiveness — that seem to help me get in touch with myself, and bring me into better relation with others.
Still, I’m just not quite there. Some days, I’m really out of it.
And lately, as I become more aware of just what it is that makes me different, my soul becomes washed over and drenched with the passing storms of deep sadness. I turned 55 last weekend, and I’m looking back at a lot: Not being able to keep it together long enough to finish school, and as a result, not living up to anywhere near my potential. Then, my broken relationships — a complete wreck of a marriage to someone who was damaged in different ways than I was, and then losing the love of someone I really felt a deep connection with. And my broken friendships — yes, I’ve got friends, but I’m generally just not capable of making a long-term connection with people, and I’m usually on the periphery of circles of friends rather than in the center, and oftentimes my friends just end up drifting off, like they shake their heads and walk away in dismay. And, in the last couple years, trying to keep rolling in a wrecked economy, where I can’t just go off and find some nondescript job and show up every day and hide out until I pull everything back together again, has made things tougher than I’d like them to be.
When I still had health insurance, I’d ask doctors if they could help me figure out what was wrong. A few years into being sober, I got diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, which made sense, and I read a bunch of stuff on that and it resonated, but it didn’t quite answer my questions. So I’m hyper. Plenty of people are, but they get stuff done, and they aren’t so woefully out of sync with the rest of the world. And toward the end of me being covered, I was discussing this stuff with one of the doctors at the big friendly McMedicine HMO I’d chosen for coverage, and this person, after I described all the stuff I listed above, and more, casually said:
“Maybe you have Asperger’s syndrome.”
I remember getting pissed off. “Yeah, right. I’m autistic. My [now-ex] wife calls me an autistic spazz all the time.”
I never pursued doing all the testing that would result in a formal diagnosis, but everything I’ve read since on Asperger’s fits me like a tailored suit. I’m guessing my mother had it to some degree, too. Over time, I’ve been able to mitigate some of the really uncomfortable manifestations of Asperger’s, via the self-awareness that developed, glacially, via a daily meditation practice. I can go to my breath now, and tune into the moment, and read people’s physical cues better, and connect with them more effectively. It’s not perfect, but I’ll take an improvement over what it was like before, any day.
But the tragedy, for me, is that I’m so far along in my life. I’m not working all that steadily right now, so the health insurance that would help me get some further testing, advice and treatment just isn’t available. Perhaps I should have gone to live in one of the civilized industrial nations, one with single-payer health insurance — or “socialized medicine,” for you Kool-Aid enthusiasts. But that’s neither here nor there.
I write this not out of self-pity, but in a spirit of understanding, and to say that I’m still pretty mystified why I don’t mesh all that well with the rest of the world, and to tell you that I really really really want to connect better with people. Fortunately, one of my gifts is the ability to communicate with you via writing, because I’m not getting constantly distracted by your eyes or face or what you’re saying and my brain isn’t rattling and vibrating all over the place and inserting rhythm tracks from old James Brown records in inappropriate spots. I can sit here and think about what I’m saying and type it and edit, and it seems to get a part of me across that doesn’t come through in other ways. So I guess I’m kind of a born writer.
Recently I saw this TED talk by a woman named Temple Grandin, and what she had to say just blew my mind. I’m part of a co-working community here in Sacramento called The Urban Hive, and one of the things they do is get together a couple of times a week to watch videos of talks from the TED website. Community is really important to me, because as disconnected as I sometimes feel, when I have those moments of connectivity, I really prize them. And what’s really cool about the TED events at the Hive are when we’ll watch something and then a discussion arises afterward; sometimes, what we talk about will be directly related; other times, what comes up will be tangentially related.
I’m glad the room was dark during the Temple Grandin talk, because I started crying. Now, I’m a guy who came up in the pre-touchy feely “rub some dirt on it” days of learning proper emotional responses, so I’m trained to shut down whenever the tears well up. Fortunately I was able to wrench myself back to Mr. Spock-style detachment, at least I don’t think I looked like somebody who was about to burst into tears in a horribly embarrassing manner.
What came up in our discussion afterward was the need for mentors. If I’d had someone who spotted what was going on with me when I was a kid, my life might have played out quite differently; instead of getting constantly slapped down by martinets who needed to make an example out of me to ensure the rest of the herd knew not to step out of line, I’d have found someone who recognized my innate gifts, and could have steered me in a positive direction, before I started messing around with altering my not-quite-formed consciousness with certain destabilizing substances. Once a kid reaches that point, he or she has a far more difficult time getting back on course, and is a lot harder to reach, in my opinion and from my experience. I might be a successful artist now, or a filmmaker, or a scientist. My writing might have gotten going much earlier, and I’d have a skein of books to my credit; I wouldn’t be still sketching out my first novel at age 55. Something. Anything. The creative young minds of this world need mentors, or at least the ones who have decks stacked against them do.
Good god, I hope this makes a little sense to somebody. —Jackson Griffith