Sometimes, I look like I am playing a part in a comedy skit. I bob up and down or push on my face or stomach when you talk to me. I stare at the wall and don’t come close to making eye contact. I start breathing like I just emerged from underwater. If we walk down the sidewalk, I may hop jerkily from side to side, making sure to miss the cracks and touch every square of pavement just right with my feet. I may run into you as I turn to avoid the colored floor tiles I cannot touch. If you see me counting on my fingers under my breath on the bus, I might explain that I am trying to prevent the other riders from hearing my thoughts. If you sit in “my” seat, I will probably just stand awkwardly nearby until you ask what’s the matter and I am forced to admit that I cannot physically sit in another seat.
I don’t really mind those times as much as you might think. I feel uncomfortable because I worry about being judged (who doesn’t?) but I also feel honest. Some of the weirdness is medical illnesses (the OCD, the anxiety) that I am always trying to beat, but some of it is just me. Take the eye contact, for example. Direct eye contact makes my skin prickle and makes me feel exposed, naked. It makes me feel like bright lights are shining into my eyes, letting the person I am talking to peer inside my skull. Sometimes, I can fake eye contact by glancing quickly at a person and trying to look at their nose, but concentrating so hard on maintaining normal-ish eye contact is so distracting and disconcerting that I lose track of the conversation. I know that it seems like I am not listening if I am staring at the wall, but when I am stressed or overwhelmed that is truly how I listen best.
There are many times when I seem like I am playing a comedy skit character, but there are other times when you wouldn’t know anything is different about me at all. I never speak unless spoken to in class. However, a couple of my courses right now require group work. Inside, my heart may be pounding and I may feel sick, but to my group members I may seem like I am interacting fairly calmly. My breathing is normal. I am faking some eye contact. If I were to tell them then about my handful of diagnoses, would they doubt me? Would they ask, like my gynecologist this week, “Do you really have Asperger’s?”
There is an undeniable contradiction between the (fairly) normal person who emerges occasionally and the life I lead the rest of the time. I take eight pills in the morning and eight in the evening just to stay stable, to be able to attend class at all, to spend any time whatsoever as the normal person you spoke to for two minutes in class instead of spending all my time as the woman in the first paragraph. Every time I go to class, or leave the house at all, I am putting forward my most average self (with a great deal of effort). It creates a lot of cognitive dissonance for me to know that I appear fairly normal at times, that people might sometimes not believe that I experience what I do on a daily basis.
Sometimes I doubt myself and think maybe I am exaggerating everything in my own mind. Maybe I really am just the person that others sometimes see when I sit in class. But… it is never long before the comedy skit starts up again. It returns to remind me that we are each of us different people in different situations – I am that “normal” person in class, but I’m also the person drawing stares in public. Just because the person who sits next to me twice a week doesn’t know my whole life story doesn’t mean that it isn’t real.
Update: It has been a couple of years since I last wrote, so I thought I would add a quick update. I am still in school (five years in), but will be graduating with my Bachelor’s in Psychology in the Fall of 2016! I could not be more excited.