One of the reasons that saying a final farewell to the “strong woman” mentioned in the previous post is difficult is that it involves a serious ditching of expectations. I’m confident that I can find some sort of “different strength” as I adapt to my changed circumstances, and I’ll certainly give it my best shot, but the fact remains that it’s a big change, and remember – autistic brains do not like change!
So, I grew up with a certain set of expectations. Those expectations grew partly from my home circumstances and family background, partly from my apparent independence and headstrong nature, but also, massively, from my academic results. It was clear that I was academically bright, and therefore the assumption was that I would be successful.
I tend not to mention the top end of my academic achievements because, well, it seems a bit tasteless much of the time. But, in this context, I’d like to point to two defining moments in my life that directly contributed to people (including me) forming rather high expectations about what I would achieve in the future and the direction my life would take.
The first was when I received my O-Level results at 16. I was one of only three people in my year group of around 450 students who received straight A grades. That immediately marked me out and changed the expectations for my future. I was no longer just a reasonably bright kid, I was now someone that school had marked out for Oxbridge entrance, and someone who had to start fulfilling a role. When I started 6th form and asked to do A-Levels in music, maths, and French, it was made clear to me that people with O-Levels like mine had real prospects so a “mixture of A-Levels” wasn’t permitted. It just wasn’t done. My A-Levels were to be chosen for purpose, not pleasure. I’m not commenting on whether any of this was right or wrong – it was just the way it was.
I did eventually go to Oxford to read chemistry, but dropped out after a year then took a year out to get A-Level music before going to London to study music, which was what I’d wanted to do all along, but for a variety of reasons hadn’t been able to do first time round. Not only did I get caught up in the excitement of living in London, a place that had long fascinated me, and I got to spend nearly all my time engrossed in studying music, which was a huge obsession for me, but I also started over armed with lessons I’d learnt in Oxford.
For starters I’d been to freshers’ fair in Oxford, signed up for loads of things, and ended up too busy, so I didn’t go in London. Neither did I make any attempt to make friends in my halls of residence – I just shut myself in my room. The only friends I made were fellow musicians. I also wrote up all my lecture notes every night from the start because I had realised by then that I was incapable of learning anything from auditory input in lectures. I still am. I take good notes in lectures and meetings because I’m unable to process most of what is being said in real time so I have to review it afterwards. It is probably for this reason that I dislike the radio – I rarely listen to talk radio or audio books but prefer the visual input of the television, which I frequently watch with subtitles. If I listen to anything without pictures then it is music, not spoken words.
So, at the end of my music degree, the second expectation-creating event occurred – I got a rather decent First, in fact, the top degree in my year, and, once again, I was headed for a high-flying life. Academia beckoned. A glittering career. Success. So that was what I aimed for.
And then mental illness started seriously to hit.
And the expectations started slowly to fall. And have generally been falling ever since, though there have been little raises along the way – I turned out to be a pretty good school teacher, but couldn’t sustain it. I was a brilliant data entry clerk, but couldn’t cope with office life. I gradually started downplaying my qualifications in the hope of being able to get “easier” jobs that I might be able to keep, but I never managed to sustain those either.
However, I kept a lot of my ambitions. As I started to recover from the last episode of bipolar depression I allowed myself to start thinking ambitiously again. Yes, I was old, yes, it would be harder, yes, I’d have to do something slightly unconventional, but maybe, just maybe…
But I was still kidding myself. It wasn’t until I started to look back at my life from a different angle that I realised how difficult it had been, how I’d not actually been able to work, be financially independent, or care for myself properly for more a few months in total out of my whole life. Despite the qualifications and working as hard as I could, it hadn’t succeeded. If I was honest with myself, the ambitions were really gone years ago. As I got older things were getting worse, not better.
But until this year I clung to them. I still had that bit of belief that I would finally be successful in the way I had always expected to be, maybe just a bit late.
Then. I am autistic.
And all my ambitions. Shattered into a million tiny pieces.
The expectations finally gone. After so many years working my butt off to fulfil them. So many years trying not only to survive in a hostile environment for me, but also aiming seriously high within that world, wanting to be the best, the most successful.
Looking back at my life from a different angle (as I can now do) does show me how difficult it has been. But, since I’m being as objective and logical about this process as I can be, and exploring both the negatives and positives about discovering I’m autistic, I am also considering the flip side. I’m somewhat gobsmacked by just how much I did manage to achieve. There are many things that I failed at dramatically, but there are also things I am quite proud of. I was developing strategies (copying up lecture notes, for example) to help me cope with my impairments, simply by using observation and problem-solving techniques. I did all this on my own, just doing what worked, without knowing why. I learnt and I learnt and I learnt. All the time.
Nobody ever told me I’d achieved so much despite all the difficulties I was having, but I even did well enough at some things at certain points in my life that I was told how well I’d done anyway. Which was quite something. Admittedly, in the great scheme of life it didn’t do me much good to gain such high expectations that all eventually came to nothing, but it points to an ability to learn being a strength I do possess, and something I can perhaps build on in the future.
Because my old expectations are destroyed, yes. My ambitions are gone.
But they should have been gone years ago. They were always unrealistic.
And now that they are properly gone, and I know why, and I know that there is no sense aiming for something I shall never have a hope of achieving, I can start to work on finding some new ambitions, more suitable ones. I am goal-driven, and always have been. I need ambitions and goals and things to aim for – that is a large part what gets me out of bed in the morning, keeps me alive.
It’s just going to take a bit of time to work out what the new ambitions might be. While I’m still dealing with the loss of the old ones, I am starting to ponder what the new ones might be. Some will be things I make a conscious decision to pursue (and might even be gentler variants of some of the old ones), but some will unfold as I continue to work on the new life.
If anybody had told me six months ago that by the end of the year I’d be writing a blog about discovering I was autistic I’d probably have thought they were having a bit of a funny turn or something!