Adventures in a Neurologically Mixed Marriage

DuckThe other morning over eggs, Tom confessed that he thinks I have Asperger’s Syndrome.

Now Tom’s not a mental health professional, but after he received his adult Asperger’s diagnosis, he might have developed a tendency to see a little bit of Asperger’s in everyone. Or, who knows? Maybe, he’s right.

I tend to be very sensitive to energy – to sights, sounds, touch, texture, taste. I have trouble with eye contact. I don’t understand why people will pretend to be something they’re not. I develop special interests and get lost in episodes of time-suspended hyperfocus. Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, but perhaps it is enough to start considering the possibility that the premise of our blog could be fundamentally flawed.

After all, I’ve been the NT, the neurotypical component of the Aspie and the NT since we started. Are we going to have to change our domain name? Call up GoDaddy and explain, “Well, I thought I was an NT, but as it turns out, I might have been wrong. Is TheAspieAndTheAspie.com still available?”

So out of an abundance of caution, I have already located a Groupon code for us to get a new GoDaddy domain name for 99 cents, because as it turns out, Groupon has free coupons for bloggy type services like that now: https://www.groupon.com/coupons/stores/godaddy.com

I love sleuthing through search engines to find discount codes and coupons. It’s an area of insatiable interest for me, and it makes Tom smile and say, “That looks a lot like an Aspie special interest, hon.”

But despite my excitement at finding a good discount, I really do understand that maybe the cost of a new domain name shouldn’t be your top priority when your life partner suspects that you have a serious, previously-undiagnosed, incurable neurological condition.

The thing is, we’ll probably never know. As I understand it, Asperger’s Syndrome can manifest differently in girls and women. If we’re smart and quiet and reasonably socially successful, we can fly under the radar at school. If we’re not on the more severe end of the spectrum, we might be called unique and quirky instead of flat out weird. And by the time we reach adulthood, we’ve already learned to navigate the previously incomprehensible social scenarios that we’d likely be tested on during a clinical, diagnostic interview.

I am analytical by nature, but still, I wonder how much it really matters if I avoid a big party because of introversion, or because of anemia-related fatigue, or because of a possibly undiagnosed developmental disability. Do we all need to describe ourselves in terms of a verified syndrome in order to justify our choices and actions? How much do labels really matter, now that we’re grown ups? In fact, how much are these fancy labels being used, not to help heal the parts of us that are hurting, but to ensure that we continue feeling separate and inferior?

So at this point in my life, I’m not sure that a diagnosis, or the ruling out of a diagnosis, would really make a bit of difference. To me, the far more important challenge for Tom and me is to love and accept ourselves, the way we are, at the age we are, in this particular moment. Maybe we’re Aspie; or maybe we’re NT. Or maybe our specific patterns of mood and behavior will one day fit into a nice, neat category that hasn’t been identified yet.

Inside our bodies, we’re all made of the same thing, the same molecular components, and the same driving desires to love and connect. And inside our souls we all carry the same spark of the divine that connects us to every other sentient being and transcends all those scary-sounding labels that we’ve accumulated over the years and given so much weight.

So maybe I’ll keep being the NT, or maybe I’ll join Tom as a self-identified Aspie. Or maybe we’ll just keep the domain name and keep this blog, and change the focus of the discussion to relationships and self-acceptance. I’m not sure. The jury’s still out. Maybe Tom and I will talk about it more tomorrow, in the forum where all our important decisions are introduced and considered, at the breakfast table, over eggs.

When Emotions Attack!

 

Obnoxious Cello Guy (OCG) stood up from his perch in the back of the orchestra’s cello section to argue with the Principal Cellist over bowings, or fingerings or God-knows-what. It was the third time that rehearsal. From where I sit in the bass section, OCG blocked my view of the conductor. I missed my entrance three times.

I was mad.

Not just that kind of eye-rolling jeez-what-an-idiot mad, but mad to the point of wanting to throttle the bastard. I fumed all through rehearsal, ranted and raved to my colleagues at dinner, boiled during the concert, fumed all the way home and finally woke up Linda to tell her my tale of being wronged by an insensitive cellist.

This is unusual for me. I’m normally a very easy-going and cool-headed kind of guy, and I rarely ever get mad. It really disturbed me.

“I mean, seriously, Linda—what the hell is wrong with me?”

“Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance,” said the sleepy voice on the other side of the bed, “You’re at Anger.”

Anger. Yep, that would be about right. The Kübler-Ross Model, AKA The Five Stages of Grief, describes the process we humans go through when tragedy strikes—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Put another way:

I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!

I’m So Angry It’s Not Butter!

If I’m a Better Person, Could It Be Butter?

I’m So Sad It’s Not Butter!

I Can Finally Accept That It’s Not Butter.

In December 2012, my father was diagnosed with advanced esophageal cancer. During an attempt to surgically remove the tumor, the doctors realized that his cancer had spread throughout his body. The surgeon predicted he wouldn’t last to Christmas 2013, but he managed to hang on for two extra months. He passed away quietly in March 2014.

The incident with OCG happened one week after my Dad’s passing.

Somehow I thought I would be immune to the Five Stages. Dad was 81, lived a long and happy life and was pain free and in full mental capacity all the way to the end. Hell, he even wrote and programmed his own memorial service. I really miss him, but I am very lucky that I got a chance to say goodbye.

I’m sure there is an evolutionary reason for the Five Stages. While I understand experiencing loss as sadness, I don’t understand why the other emotions come along for the ride. They crop up at the damnedest times. For whatever reason, we have to pass through the Five Stages of Grief to move on with our lives.

I guess I need to apologize to OCG.

©2014 Tom and Linda Peters

 

Ghost Cat

Ghost Cat pic

She says:

 It’s spring in LA and I had the door cracked open to get some fresh air. I was working at my computer when I saw a furry gray streak out of the corner of my eye.

“Buddy!”

I jumped up to follow what I thought was the cat that normally lives outside, but when I turned the corner a split-second later, the cat had vanished. I walked down the corridor to the laundry area, looking for evidence of the feral intruder, but there was nothing but empty space and silence. I scouted around a bit then gave up.

When I went back to my desk and looked out the window, I could see Buddy outside on the woodpile, lounging in the sun. So who had just run through the room?

Later that night, I told Tom about it.

“Was there any sound?” he said.

Come to think of it, there wasn’t.

“It’s Ghost Cat,” Tom said.

He says:

I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise, really, since we live in a 100 year-old house. After all that time and all the folks who have been through here, it’s only logical to assume that something must be haunting the place. In our case, it’s a little gray kitty.

At first, Ghost Cat was a gray streak seen periodically out of the corner of my eye, usually when I was in the kitchen preparing dinner. After awhile I could sense him staring at me, disappearing as soon as I would look in his direction.

By all rights this should be freaking me the hell out, but it doesn’t. One aspect of Asperger’s Syndrome is the ability to simply accept the world around you with little or no judgment. Bourbon on the right. Chicken in the oven. Louis Armstrong on the stereo. Ghost Cat at your feet, staring at you.

Having Ghost Cat has some distinct advantages over other varieties—he doesn’t shed, he doesn’t make Linda sneeze, and I haven’t seen a single Ghost Mouse the whole time we’ve lived here.

And like the full-bodied, living, breathing, meowing variety, Ghost Cat doesn’t seem to particularly care about whether I’m there or not. Maybe Ghost Cat has Asperger’s too.

©2014 Tom and Linda Peters

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Way of the Whale: A Novel by Linda Peters

You may have seen the phrase – The Blackfish Effect – popping up in the media lately, referring to a backlash against theme parks that display orca whales. Rock stars are cancelling shows and little kids are lobbying to change class field trip destinations.

My Blackfish Effect was that I wrote a novel from the point-of-view of a killer whale who finds it hard to follow rules in a world that doesn’t make sense to him.

In case you’ve been on a media blackout for the past year, Blackfish is a documentary film that tells the story of Tilikum, a killer whale who was taken from the ocean as a baby and housed in theme parks to perform for the public. He killed three people.

I’ve always been interested in whales and dolphins. I’ve traveled to Alaska to see orcas in the wild, and kayaked around San Juan Island hoping to have my own close encounter. But after seeing Blackfish in the theater, I became absolutely obsessed.

I went on a Google binge and read everything I could find about killer whales and captivity. I watched YouTube videos of a massive orca holding its trainer twenty feet underwater by the ankle. I wanted to understand why these animals attacked the people who were caring for them. I wanted to understand why audiences were told that swimming with captive orcas was safe.

I spent entire days immersed in incident reports and animal profiles, then curled up at night to read another chapter of Death at SeaWorld.

“I’m not sure why I’m spending so much time on this,” I told Tom.

“It’s your special interest,” he said.

Tom understands obsessions and special interests. He turns them into careers, like Grammy®-nominated classical musician, or hobbies, like ukulele collector or purveyor of persimmon tarts.

Mine turned into a novel.

I am happy to say that I published Way of the Whale: A Novel a few weeks ago! Tom and I collaborated to launch this whale of a story out into the world. He did the music for the book trailer. I hope you enjoy our trailer and will give my novel a read!

You can get “Way of the Whale” on Amazon:  ‪http://amzn.to/LoOoU9

You can watch the trailer here:

©2014 Tom and Linda Peters

She said:

We were sitting on the couch scrolling through the just-released list of 2014 Grammy®* nominees when we saw Tom’s name in the classical section. I screamed. Tom stared straight ahead stone-faced.

“You’re a Grammy® nominee!” I said, trying to elicit a more enthusiastic response.

But Tom was quiet and stoic, looking much like Harold, the porcelain phrenology head that stares down on us from the bookcase.

“I’m ecstatic,” Tom said, finally.

And despite the lack of a matching facial expression, I believed him. I learned early in our relationship that the best way to find out how Tom is feeling is to ask him directly. When I try to figure out how he’s feeling from his body language, I almost always get confused.

Case in point:  My musician husband had just been nominated for a Grammy®, the biggest award in the music industry, and he looked about as interested as he does when we discuss which kind of laundry detergent to buy.

He said:

Here’s the thing. I feel emotions very, very deeply; they just don’t always show up on my face or in my body language. Until Linda, this has caused a lot of problems in my relationships. I’ve been accused of being selfish, self-centered, unreasonable, angry, depressed and downright uncaring, all because I don’t react the way people expect.

You really can’t know how I’m feeling by simply looking at me. You have to not only ask me, but also trust my response. While this is classic Asperger’s Syndrome, I think it also applies to NT relationships.

You see, I really was ecstatic. At the tender age of 5 years old, I fell in love with the sound of the symphony orchestra when my father sat me down in front of his hi-fi console stereo—remember those?—and played Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture for me. When I got to the part with the synchronized cannons, I was hooked. My mother once caught me conducting Beethoven’s 5th with an entire symphony orchestra of stuffed animals.

It has been my dream to be a musician since that time.

Now, at the ripe old age of 50, I find myself nominated for a Grammy® award along with my colleagues Aron Kallay, Vicki Ray and Willy Winant for a recording of John Cage’s The Ten Thousand Things. For a musician, this is the pinnacle, and something I never thought would happen.

When the 2014 Grammy® nominations were announced, I anxiously scrolled down, heart racing, and there it was: John Cage: The Ten Thousand Things was nominated!

I was ecstatic.

My face might not have shown it, but really. I was.

©2013 Tom and Linda Peters

*OK, I know the ® is totally pedantic, but the Recording Academy® requires it.

We were in a hotel room on Catalina Island when Tom came to bed fretting. 640px-Interieur,_detail_van_behangsel_in_de_linkerkamer_op_de_eerste_verdieping_-_IJsselstein_-_20424548_-_RCE

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“The tile pattern in the bathroom floor,” he said. “I can’t figure out where they started it.”

Tom sees patterns everywhere, in everything. When he enters a hotel room, he has to figure out the pattern in the carpet, on the bedspread, and in the bathroom tile. He does all this calculating quietly. We had been together for several years before he even mentioned it.

“Wallpaper is the worst,” he said. “It’s very imprecise. I have to figure out how the pattern repeats — if it goes top to bottom or left to right — and where it ends. Then I have to figure out where the seams match up, which color was printed first, and in which order each piece was hung.”

“Sounds exhausting,” I said.

“Doesn’t everyone do that?”

When I read about Asperger’s, doctors say that patterns are soothing for someone like my husband.

“It’s not soothing,” Tom said. “It’s very disruptive. They drive me crazy.”

Me:      Then why do you look for them?

Tom:   I sometimes think that Asperger’s is a “disorder of order.” Looking for  patterns is a compulsion; it’s not curiosity.

Me:      Is it like OCD?

Tom:   With OCD, there is a fear of stopping the routine or pattern. With me, there is  no fear. Nothing bad is going to happen. Noticing the pattern is just an annoyance. I wish it would stop.

Me:      Outside of hotel rooms, what other places do you see patterns?

Tom:   Nature loves patterns. Everything in nature has a pattern. It’s very predictable and there are a limited number of finite outcomes. I think that’s why people with Asperger’s tend to like studying things like weather and  astronomy.

Me:      What about people? Do people have patterns?

Tom:   There is no discernable pattern to human interaction. Maybe that’s the reason that social interaction is so difficult. Human-made patterns don’t make sense to me. People operate on an instinctual level. It’s not logical.

Me:      And what about the music you write and play? Does pattern recognition help you compose?

Tom:   Music is all pattern. It’s a closed system. The reason to keep writing or playing a piece of music is to resolve the pattern. If I had to stop in the middle, it would bother me very much.

Listening to Tom talk about patterns made me wonder if the “Asperger’s experts” are wrong about how people like my husband feel on the inside.

Maybe applying NT logic to a condition that operates from a fundamentally different type of logic is another human-made pattern that makes no sense.

©2013 Tom and Linda Peters

Photo: “Interieur, detail van behangsel in de linkerkamer op de eerste verdieping – IJsselstein – 20424548 – RCE” by Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 nl via Wikimedia Commons

What do you do when your husband freezes in a river full of moving people?

"SchafherdeInKoeln" by © Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons), 2002 /. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

“SchafherdeInKoeln” by © Túrelio (via Wikimedia-Commons), 2002 /. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

After a Go-Go’s concert, we got up to leave the Hollywood Bowl bleacher seats with thousands of other people. Tom’s hand gripped my shoulder.

“Are you all right?” I said.

He gripped harder and we crept toward the exit. I knew something was wrong so I tried to guide him. People were pushing from all sides. It was like rush hour on the 405 Freeway and there was no place to pull over.

“We’re almost out,” I said.

But as soon as we squeezed out of the theater, many lines of people converged from the various exits. We were in the middle of this crushing mass, trying to walk downhill.

“Wall,” Tom said.

I aimed for the snack bar building, about 20 yards away. We were oozing along with a somewhat raucous crowd of tipsy concert-goers, and the momentum was preventing us from reaching the perimeter.

And then Tom froze. He wouldn’t move or respond to me.

He says:

One of the hazards of Asperger’s Syndrome and ASD is something I call brain-lock. People on the autism spectrum tend to be hypersensitive to everyday stimuli that people not on the spectrum have the ability to ignore. Brain-lock occurs when too much sensory information comes in and the mind seizes up.

A crush of humanity triggers brain-lock in me.

At the end of the concert of 80’s bands, I held back and waited for the crowds to thin out. I know my limitations. There seemed to be a break so off we went. That’s when the crush began. I gripped Linda’s shoulders and let her lead me through as brain-lock descended. I honestly had no idea of who, what or where I was. It’s like standing in the eye of a swirling hurricane of colors, sounds, sensations and thoughts, where nothing—even your own existence—makes any sense.

“Are you all right?” I heard Linda ask through the swirling blur of loud Hawaiian shirts, shouting voices, the feel of bodies crushing in on me and the smell of stale margaritas. What she was saying made no sense to me.

I tried parsing out the words.

Are—R?  Arrrgh?

You—U? Ewww? Ewe?

All right?—Al Wright? Awl rite? All left?

“Wall,” was all I could manage. I knew if I had something solid, I at least stood a chance to get my bearings and just make it all stop. If nothing else, I knew it would eventually end when enough people left. We couldn’t make it. There were just so many souls in this river of humanity that the wall was about as far away as the moon. We kept going.

Eventually we reached an open area and I dove for the nearest people-free space. I vaguely remember clinging onto the railing of a closed snack bar, gasping for breath until my brain unlocked and the world slowly returned to normal.  The hurricane subsided and I was myself again.

Just another middle-aged guy in a Hawaiian shirt

©2013 Tom & Linda Peters