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This time? It starts in a random conversation with a Twitter friend… an autistic mother of an autistic school kid…
@IsntJen… I love that handle. Anyway…
IsntJen and I are tweeting back and forth about elementary school. As in, surviving it… autistically.
To be precise… the bullying.
IsntJen has a valuable perspective… both surviving it herself… and caring for her son.
She gets me thinking…
So, I bring up learning to dissociate… to disconnect in different ways… from reality. Bullies in the schoolyard. Bullies behind the teacher desks… And disappointed parents in the doorway. Waiting at home.
I’ve had this conversation before. I’ve heard a dozen different names for it. From dozens of different autists.
“Numbing out.” “Tuning out.” “Shutting down.” “Putting on blinders.” “Spacing out.” Sometimes… mentioned along with “masking.”
I suspect many of us dissociate.
I suspect many of us don’t know we do it.
AND… I suspect many of us learned to feel shame… and fear… about our common behavior.
Like we were taught to feel shame… about rocking. Or humming. Avoiding eye contact. Being alone. Lost in thought. Overwhelmed. Hyperfocused. Intensely interested.
These are autistic differences. But medical pros can not help themselves. They use “clinical”-sounding names. Deficiencies… Disabilities… Illnesses.
My final thought on dissociation…?
“Fuck this noise. I have no reason to be ashamed I dissociate.”
One odd autist’s… odd observation…
Dissociation has this advantage…
I’ve come to enjoy the sound of my own voice.
I’d like to let you in on this peculiar, personal joy.
Let’s begin with…
Various things in my life have led me to a perpetual state of self-loathing. Can’t stand to look in a mirror. Can’t easily look at photos of me. I can get the dry heaves watching videos.
My voice? An overwhelming revulsion.
My life has led me to states of dissociation. Various methods… at first, involuntary… of tuning out.
Everybody dissociates to some degree. You might momentarily lose awareness of your surroundings… or your internal sensations.
Ever get lost in a book so deep you forgot to eat?
Ever start a playlist in the car… or say, a podcast… only to find yourself pulling into the driveway… with no memory of the trip?
Ever been stunned into silence by sudden bad news.. and lost the thread of a conversation?
Ever daydream… bored in school?
Most of us zip in and out of mildly dissociative states. Like when we’re bored. Worried. Entranced by something amazing. Frightened by something dangerous…
Mild dissociative states are natural. They help us cope. With life. Momentarily.
But painful experiences that scar us… traumas… can lead to severe dissociation. Not momentary. Not controllable.
Not only are they not helpful… They make career or home life… nearly impossible.
And not all trauma comes from single, extreme events… like rape or violence. Persistent abuses… like shaming, bullying, criticism… also have damaging, life-changing effects.
Psychological dissociation shows up in 5 shapes:
- gaps in time (in the lingo, “amnesia”)
- feeling disconnected from body, thoughts, emotions (“depersonalization”)
- disconnected from your surroundings (“derealization”)
- separated from parts of yourself, hearing internal voices (“identity alteration”)
- confusion about who you are (“identity confusion”).
Some folks like me experience mysteries such as…
- Not knowing where you’ve been the last few hours… instead of making that mission-critical business meeting.
- Sudden snappings back to consciousness, cruising 75 miles an hour, startled you’re an hour past your home exit… with no memory of how you got there.
- Spending 2nd & 3rd grades in detailed fantasies of your homeworld Krypton and actually being Superboy. Thinking, if my classmates only knew…! Until a teacher’s anger crash lands you back on Earth.
- Hearing words echo in the room… only to realize they are in your voice.
- Watching events unfold as if done to somebody else… or by somebody else.
- Spending most of highschool doodling… with a Bic pen in a notebook. Using the classroom clock to time how long you hold your breath. Or learning to slow your heart… like a yogi.
- Then there are the blackouts, and… among other things…
- Adoption of personas. “Alters.”
Besides autism spectrum disorder (ASD), we are frequently diagnosed with extra mental or personality conditions… co-morbidities… that may be influenced by being autistic.
One of mine… Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified. Now renamed, Unspecified Dissociative Disorder. For some reason.
The psychiatrist issuing it told me that I met the old criteria for “multiple personalities,” but added that the diagnosis was “no longer in fashion.” That year.
But part of my experience doesn’t fit “multiple personalities.”
I had a rather thin, high, flat voice as a kid. Until I practiced in front of my bathroom mirror… the bored, sarcastic sneer of Jeffrey D. A popular wise guy. In 7th grade.\
I mimicked the booming, lumberjack laugh of my inspiring high-school music teacher, Mr. Freeman. By the end of college? I almost sounded natural.
I practiced the frantic delivery of AM radio DJs. The dry humor of talkshow host Dick Cavett.
And clearly… I’m no stranger to the quirky charms of Garrison Keillor… or Leonard Cohen.
I can tell you honestly…
I both remember practicing voices. And, at the same time, I can tell you this was not a conscious process. Somehow it was automatic.
I think of my 1-year-old grandson… discovering his body… his voice… by mimicking me.
Over the years, I did… slowly… gain a fair amount of conscious control. Over the mannerisms, word choice, facial gestures. Sorta like what I’ve read about method acting.
Call it cosplay… walking around town. Safe… because I’m in character. I actually dress like the “pretend rock star” I, um, ya know… pretend to be. Black clothes. Black sunglasses. Mohawk. Approaching 70.
Even if I have… forgotten… from time to time…. that I am “in character.” For long periods. Months. Years. A decade… or two.
I suspect it’s just me masking as an autistic person. Just as many, many autistic folks report not realizing, before diagnosis, that they had “masked” their entire life. Mimicking & adopting character traits that let them pass as normal (“neurotypical”). Many, like me, actually rehearsing in the mirror… without realizing it was… “different.”
I’ve come to think I have a wardrobe FULL of masks. Maybe others do too.
And I just haven’t gotten the memo yet…
Seventy years of masking… I’m still not sure what’s mask… and what’s flesh.
What has all that got to do with my voice…?
My voice IRL tends to be stagey. As if I’m a character on TV, or professor giving a lecture, or talk show host….
You know. False.
Just today my wife said she wished you guys could hear my real natural, relaxed voice. Not this podcast character, Johnny Profane…
Whose voice really gets under my skin.
But here’s the deal. Over the years since #LateDiagnosis of autism at 63, I’ve given myself permission to talk out loud. To myself. And answer back…!
Something I was shamed out of as a child. At home. In school.
At first, I tried to stop holding back when I was alone. But gradually, in front of my wife… when I shop in a store…
What a relief!
Something about putting my thoughts through my vocal-processing brain centers helps me focus, think critically, and REMEMBER…
And… a bit at a time… I became accustomed to hearing my voice.
And then, one day… I didn’t feel nauseated as I watched a video of my wife Kimmie & me playing music together.
And then one morning…
I thought, “That’s a rather soothing, pleasant voice,” as I lectured myself about putting away the dishes Kimmie had washed for me.
And it’s possible…
That I finally short-circuited the internal self-loathing…
Because I talk in character.
So I was not enjoying MY voice. That’s forbidden to this self-loather.
I was enjoying his voice. Which IS permitted.
Enjoying MY voice.
What a remarkable day.
Me and my dissociation… we earned it. Together.