The sheer simplicity of one psychiatrist’s answer to the problem of living with a non-typical brain startled me into the realization that if the people around us are satisfied that our behavior conforms to cultural expectations, we are given a pass on whatever deviant – or wonderful – thoughts and feelings may be active in our minds. It’s the flimsy appearance of conformity that counts; it’s how criminals and sociopaths “pass” as normal. Asperger individuals rarely resort to neurotypical deception; why would we?
During my freshman year in high school, severe depression gripped me and would not let go. In desperation I asked a teacher for help. In those days parents had to consent to evaluation or treatment of a child under eighteen and teachers could not intervene in any way, but she urged me to broach the subject at home, which I knew would be fruitless.
My mother became hysterical. No psychiatrist was going to blame her for my problems. My father protested that he would lose his security clearance, which meant that he would lose his job and the family would be ruined. Did I want to be responsible for all that? It was a formative moment: I knew then that I was on my own until age eighteen. I would somehow have to tough it out.
In the 1950s, parents faced little interference. Family privacy was sacrosanct. Much that went on inside neighborhood houses was not healthy, but the label ‘dysfunctional family’ was not yet current. Whispers of alcoholism or spousal defection might circulate, but in the end, it was their business. As long as a man went to work and kept the family clothed and fed, he was exempt from criticism. A wife must place her husband on a pedestal and her behavior must be seen to be without fault. In order for the family to present an acceptable façade to society, children were expected to behave politely in public and to respect all adults, not necessarily a bad thing. Unlike today, children were conspicuous advertisements for their parent’s parenting skills.
It is not surprising then, that within this social context, my unpredictable bouts with fear and anxiety were held to be willful. According to our pediatrician, extravagant feelings of anger or fear in a child were due to a lack of self-control and selfishness, which could be corrected using punishment. These condemnations terrified me. If I couldn’t control myself, I would not be loved and protected. Each time I blew up in frustration at my inability to conform, I became more frightened and withdrawn. I not only feared being abandoned; I was abandoned. Adults became sources of disturbing ideas about children and not sources of help or comfort.
No one knew that my inability to adequately perform socially was the effect of a having a non-typical brain. The adults around me assumed that my reactions were calculated to disturb The Social Order, which is a daunting responsibility to place upon a kid.
Although at age eighteen I was free to seek psychiatric care on my own, the mental health professionals who treated me missed a realistic diagnosis completely. A serious manic episode in my twenties did not ring any alarm bells and it took another ten years of seeking help before a nurse (not a psychiatrist) finally “got it.” Asperger’s was not on the horizon for females, and having been diagnosed bipolar, that was final. Lithium really did work to stabilize my moods, and yet, there was all this “social stuff” leftover. It would be years before females would be diagnosed Asperger, which for me meant thirty more years of frustration.