Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Everything I Thought I Knew Was Wrong

(Note, this is a piece I submitted to The Mighty)

Most people would have looked at me in July of 2016, and thought, “He has got life figured out.”  They would have seen a person who had just defended his dissertation and earned his Ed.D in Educational Leadership, who was a few months from publishing his seventh novel, and a person who had a wonderful wife and an amazing daughter.  What they wouldn’t know is underneath that exterior was someone who thought, “I’m not good enough.  I have no friends.  There’s something wrong with me.  I’m worthless.”

In the fall of 2016, I was sitting in a departmental meeting at the college I work for and was listening to a presentation of Student Disabilities.  I would like to tell you that I can tell you what he talked about, but I had so many thoughts running through my head that I couldn’t concentrate on what he was say.  Also, there were nearly 100 people in the room, so I had to sit in the back corner and pray no one saw me, lest they would start talking about me.  What I do remember him saying was the majority of the disabilities his office dealt with were ones on the inside that most people would never notice.  What I really remember him saying is these disabilities are real.  All I could think is, “Those poor souls.  Someone out there has these thoughts of being worthless, or can’t even be in a room with a group of people because it bothers them so much.”  (I mean let’s be honest, at this point it had never occurred to me what was wrong, but that was the moment I started to wonder.)

In December, after the program I worked for, hired a new director, even though I had been co-running the program for over a year, the thoughts of worthlessness flooded me like a constant tidal wave.  Most mornings it was a struggle to get out of bed, much less face my students I try to prepare for college.  As I stood in front of a group of seniors talking about scholarships and making sure their FAFSA was complete, all I could wonder is what I was doing.  I was a complete, worthless fraud.  They had to see it, they must have seen it.  I was passed over for the job I was already doing, so strangers even saw it.  That was the low point. 

That weekend, I was on twitter and saw a lady who was in her 30s, had a Ph.D., and had self-diagnosed herself with Asperger’s.  I read her blog and was in shock.  The things she talked about sounded like my life, but I couldn’t have Asperger’s.  I was 42, they would have caught that by now.  It wasn’t possible.  I mean sure, sometimes when no one was around, I would make noises to amuse myself, or when I was nervous I would pace until someone saw me and asked me what I was doing.  Or maybe I clicked a pen, or tapped my foot, or tapped my thumb on my forefinger to relieve stress.  Ok, maybe I would have these rage moments, in which I found myself wondering who let this irrational person in my body screaming these things that were nonsense, then break down in a sobbing mess, and then five minutes later I was fine, but that’s just my way of dealing with stress…right?  So the question began to burn into my brain, and like everything else in my life, I began to obsess over it.  It took a while to find someone, but testing began.  What was supposed to take three sessions took four, and then it took the Psychologist sometime to make sure of his findings, but on that piece of paper, on February 15, 2017, I learned what I already knew, I had Autism and General Anxiety Disorder (I did ask, and he said if it had been five or six years ago, it would have been Asperger’s.) 

I scheduled some therapy at the university, but it was a few weeks away, so I did what I do best.  I started researching it on my own (hey, make it work for you, right?)  I had such mixed emotions.  I finally knew what was wrong, but what was wrong was incurable.  In so many places I read, “It’s manageable.”  I don’t know about you, but that sounds horrible.  That sounds like making sure someone is comfortable before they die.  At that moment, in the heart of some of my biggest doubts of myself in my life, I promised myself that I wouldn’t just survive anymore, I was going to live.  I was through wrestling these disorders, and fighting for air.  I was going to find a way to grab its hand and walk through life, and live.  Of course the first week, I had a meltdown.  However, for the first time in my life I was able to see it coming, I couldn’t stop it, but I saw it coming.  I decided I could beat it, it wouldn’t happen.  It did.  It was one of the worst meltdowns I ever had.  It was in that moment I understood why some people use the word manageable.  For the first time in a long time, I did something I hadn’t done, I didn’t get down on myself, but used it as a learning experience.  I examined everything in my life that lead up to it, and realized a few small changes could stop it from happening.

The next week my wife feared the worst.  I had three school visits, my daughter had two performances, three practices, a competition on Saturday, and my wife’s family wanted to have dinner that Saturday night, in public.  To her, there was no way I wouldn’t melt down.  I finally began my self-care.  When I went grocery shopping I put my headphones in and listened to music so the voices and noises wouldn’t bother me.  When I was somewhere that I could feel those levels building I politely left for a few minutes, or just left.  I let my wife take care of some of my daughter’s practices.  I have this feeling because I work shorter hours than my wife and she is the breadwinner that “I should” do things so she doesn’t have to.  I’ve learned, “I should” leads to me losing it.  By Friday night, I felt great.  I was absolutely amazed, but Saturday, with over 100 10 yr olds, all day, was going to be a test.  For the first 6 hours, it went great, but by 4:30 Saturday afternoon, sitting on some bleachers, with dozens of kid’s voices behind me, kids bouncing on the bench I was on beside me, and the lady in front of me not understanding personal space and had touched my knee three, nope, make that four, times, I could feel the meltdown.  I turned to my wife and simply said, “I need a break.”  She pointed to an open space away from everyone where I could go, “pace to my heart’s content.”  I was never more thankful.   I walked the crap out of that little area, and I was fine.  I took my daughter and met her family at the restaurant for dinner.  As the restaurant filled, and more and more people’s voices assaulted me, I began to worry I wasn’t going to make it.  I had finished eating, and my wife looked at me and asked if I was done.  I told her I was, and she said, “go.”  God bless her.  By the time she and my daughter got home, I was fine. 

Last week was the first time I felt like a real human in a long time.  The self-doubt is a little quieter, the worry is a little less, but most importantly, the biggest fear I had didn’t come true.  I just knew many people would think I made this up, was doing it for attention (which is the last thing I want!), or worse, make fun of me, have been nothing but supportive.  This is the beginning of my new story.  My old story ended a few weeks ago, because now, I know, and I understand.  I know some days will be horrible and a fight just to get through, but now there can be, and will be good days.  Entire, whole days that I can enjoy.  That is living, and that is what I’m going to do.  Everything I thought I knew was wrong, but I’m learning new things, and I’m going to make my life right.