Reflections Nine Months into my AS Diagnosis
Roger N. Meyer
Copyright © 1998.2006
All Rights Reserved
[This article is a slightly edited version of an essay first submitted to author/editor Echo Fling in March 1998. It has remained unpublished until now.]
One topic that has enjoyed little discussion to date is the issue of why Asperger Syndrome males fail at friendships, relationships and marriage. Why this matter hasn't risen to the level of "obvious" is surprising in the light of the recognized 4:1 diagnosis rate between men and women on the spectrum. That many, if not most AS males have not chosen to marry, or having once married, leave their relationships remains unstudied. Is this a choice or a chance phenomenon?
I chose not to marry at a time when classic Kanner autism was almost unknown in this country.
Despite its recognition in 1944, it was not until the late 50's that autism was introduced to the public through the publication of personal family accounts by parents of children on the spectrum. Only since the middle 80's have we seen autism's freedom from the toxic grip of Bettelheim's psychodynamic characterisations, and only since the early years of this decade has autism received attention as a neurobiological condition whose manifestations have started to be understood quite apart from a century of fraud-engendered psychoanalytic theory. Fifty years from the publication of Hans Asperger's paper in an obscure wartime psychiatric journal in Austria came the formal medical recognition of AS as a separate developmental disorder. In our time, swift communication and greater public sensitivity to hidden disabilities has prompts growing awareness of AS. Medically and societally, however, understanding of AS is still in its infancy.
Despite the best parenting efforts of my parents (Bi-Polar mother, AS father), I had such a profoundly unsettling childhood that early on I decided very self-consciously to never to allow "me" to happen to anyone else in my line." The family name Meyer dies with me, although I have one non-AS fraternal twin and one younger sister with borderline AS characteristics. Social conventions of formal marriage leave both of them with a different surname.
I remember a childhood and adolescence of nightly recurrent bouts of crying and inability to fall asleep. My sleep problems continue to this day, but by the age of twelve, I had my mind set. Then-unrecognized childhood depression is evident in photos of an unhappy infant, defiant and angry child, and the confused blank stares of high school photographs. My mother's family journals -- written until her death by suicide at the age of 72 -- vividly recall her anxiety about me and what impact I had on my siblings. Her worrying never ceased.
Nope. Never. No way could I conceive of duplicating my parents' marriage. I was unaware of mom's extramarital flings -- a constant during the first 30 years of her 45 year marriage -- and the Faustian prenuptual bargain my parents had struck with one another.
My father, a momma's boy and bachelor until the age of 40, was starstruck by this firebrand of a woman. My mother agreed to control her drinking, barbituate consumption and promiscuity, and to be a mother to their children in exchange for my father's promise to provide a house, additional income, and stability to her wild life. My father's end of this arrangement involved his promise to sever most connections with his old-time buddies. They never were to darken our doorstep. On rare occasions, "we" were to visit them. My mother was never to fulfill her first promises. Dad was stuck with his. He was unusual as an AS adult in that he was an insurance salesman. But he was not of the used-car variety. He was the youngest chartered life underwriter in the state, and among the first in his company. Because life and comprehensive health insurance was a specialization in the field, he developed life-long relationships with multiple generations of his clients, much to the extent that they became like family to him. They were, indeed, his proxy family. He relished those connections long into retirement.
Dad was the only male child of a syphillitic, failed haberdasher father who died when Dad was in his early teens. Father grew up in a household consisting of his disabled aunt, his mother's ailing mother, and his own mother, now a "single mother" who had defied social conventions of the turn-of-the-century to work outside the home before his father's death, but who became the sole family breadwinner once she became widowed. Because her husband's prenuptual philandery eventually led to his death, she swore off remarriage. She paid off the house mortgage and business debts, and singlehandedly cared for her single son, her infirm mother and her only sister -- six years her senior who was what was then called totally deaf and dumb. My father learned ASL as a third language to the family German, and demonstrated a lifelong compassion toward others with disabilities.
As I grew up with my twin sister and then my younger sister, what distressed us all was the constant tension in our household. Fights about money were often accompanied by threats of suicide or leaving us by my mother. Chronic worries about her childrearing, her bouts with manic depression, her binge-purge eating disorder (lifelong), barbituates and drinking all contributed to a walking on egg shells atmosphere. Mom and dad found their twins impossible competitors in the same school, and separated us into different classrooms from the second grade on. Later we were to attend separate schools. I loved my twin dearly. Both of our parents worked outside the home, and while they hired live-in housekeepers, there was a steady, underlying tension over child-rearing boundaries between those three adults in our household. My twin and I learned early that the key to parent attention was intense and unfair competition between ourselves and our younger sister. Tattling on one another was our weapon of choice.
My father's rages appeared especially focussed on me. Perhaps he saw much of himself in me. His occasional bouts of black depression and catatonic disconnectedness at such times also led to mother's threats to separate from him. She was oblivious to the chronic effect upon the family of her own bouts of depression, the low swings of her undiagnosed Bi-Polar condition.
Our grandparents provided confusing, inconsistent models of extended family life. My father's mother was a stern yet physically fragile woman once we were of age to know her. Nana really seemed unable to express tender emotions yet we could feel her palsy-like shaking as she kissed us. Mother's parents had volcanic tempers, typical to many of the large-family Lithuanian and Georgian immigrants of their era. They loved one another deeply, and were studied contrasts in their marriage. Grandfather had such a temper that we and all our summer lakefront cabin neighbors heard his fulminations halfway across the lake as he swore a never-ending blue streak pulling at the balky Montgomery Ward Sea King outboard motor. Grandmother suffered from what we only later knew as early onset Alzheimers. During our childhood, she displayed an impish, infectious sense of humor, a wickedly fast, cutting tongue, while at the same time remaining warm and conforting. As children we knew that upon spending just that extra amount of time in their company, the "other side" of their marriage would emerge, and we learned our own family's equivalent of "Fish and visitors smell in three days."
Seeing no other family modelling, and displaying the classic incapacity to generalize, I assumed that this was what manhood, raising children and family life would be for me in the future. I remember repeating to myself, mantra-like, each night before finally collapsing into nightmare-riddled sleep, that I would never "do that." Marriage, raise kids. I could not conceive of repeating the cruelty, abuse, manipulation, deceptions and hatreds of my parents' marriage, nor was it possible to imagine bringing children into the world like myself.
Many AS adults had rough childhoods, and memories of that experience may have led many to avoid marriage or not have children in their marriages. This phenomenon may be more true for men than women because of the cultural expectation that men be the principal family providers, role models for their male children, emotional partners to their spouses. While they may intellectually understand the first third of the script for family life, from the small insight we currently have about marriages that have survived the test of time, most AS men appear unable to master the second and third part of the script.
A contributing factor to non-marriage may be profound dissatisfaction with their worklife. Many are unemployed, underemployed, or consider themselves fortunate to have secure employment, but nonetheless fear that the sky might fall at any moment. While the same issues arise for AS women, the social expectations attached to traditional male identity appears to magnify stress on men.
Except for the very recent past, bachelorhood for males has historically been more acceptable than a single existence for women. It is associated with self-centeredness and lack of emotional attachment. For some it has meant promiscuity (not usually an issue for AS adults). The fact of non-marriage and reluctance to enter long-term intimate relationships may blind others to some single persons' deep compassion and concern. They often act as mentors, substitute grandparents, and other caregivers, but with the difference that they can withdraw at any time of their choosing. My father did that with his insurance clients as proxy families. He was able to control the conditions of his interactions with them in a way he couldn't in our own family, and to the end did not understand that instrumental relationships with his clients and their family members were different than emotional ones.
AS adults with these characteristics suffer a special kind of pain: they want the love and support for others they never understood was being directed towards them at a time when early childhood understanding would have made a difference in their lives as adults.
This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer. It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes. Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation. No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement. Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.