How do you tell a tale that doesn’t want to be told? Where are the limits of conventional narrative?
I keep trying to examine ways to tell the story of my parents, or, more precisely, the story of me and my parents.
Finding a through line, though, escapes me. Even when I find anecdotes, they seem trivial, repetitive.
There is an overarching story, of course, from school to work to family, but somehow trying to follow that line erases what made my parents who they were. Their choices along that path don’t really inform the narrative, don’t make them come alive, don’t reveal their character.
My parents, undiagnosed and unheeded, were on the autism spectrum. They lived less in the big, shared world and much more in the world inside their own heads.
In that inner world, change doesn’t happen in the way standard stories suggest. We don’t learn from our interactions, don’t find new approaches, don’t adjust our choices.
Instead, we keep trying and trying and trying to apply the model inside of us to the world, usually getting frustrated when the people out there fail to adjust, don’t respond in the way we want.
We spin in place rather than growing & healing, going into our own spirals of thought, the cyclones of “woulda, shoulda, coulda” and end up coming out just where we always have, though more tired and more angry.
In our vision, the right way is clear, but we have no words to explain what that is, no way to get through to others.
This cycle happens over and over and over again, ad infinitum.
“This place is a mess!” my mother would shriek
“What do you need me to fix?” I would ask.
“Can’t you see? Can’t you see!” she would rail
Clearly, I couldn’t, but she was unable to make herself more clear, unable to create a strategy that we could agree on, unable to find a way to communicate effectively.
She was sure that people around her — her family — were deliberately sabotaging her happiness, keeping her in a spin of frustration, and hurting her in ways that she could not explain. It couldn’t be her failure, because the truth was so clear in her head, so others must be out to damage and break her.
My father was sweet at home, especially working hard to try and keep my mother sweet, but his battles were at work.
Those experts never understood what he was saying, always resisted him. This frustration lasted long into retirement as he kept trying to get technical papers published. The last time I brought him home from the hospital, he was clear that he wanted to work on his papers again, continuing this fight to his last days.
For me, the battles with my father were always over trying to make his papers accessible to others rather than just a reflection of the cycles in his own head. It was sharp fights, though the text would quickly fold back to old models and the brouhaha would start again.
These cycles were constant, repeating themselves for decades and decades, the same patterns over and over again.
Swept up in the routine, I ended up servicing their needs rather than building my own story, linear and growing. In the process, I became expert in seeing the cycles and finding ways to break them, offering new solutions again and again and again and again until they started to break into their spinning minds.
Learning precision and effective mirroring, I could create some change, though only at enormous cost to myself. It took massive amounts of time and energy to break into those patterns and get even slight changes, small new ways of seeing that lead to tiny changes in heavily conditioned choices.
People who have lived with this kind of mindset can tell how it affected them, how they were injured, for example, but parents stuck in a cycle were unable to see the real problems, and that caused them damage, but what we cannot do is explain why the people we loved were not neurotypical, were caught in their own spin.
When we try to tell stories, people just can’t imagine why they didn’t get it, didn’t learn and grow, didn’t have a nice linear narrative. After all, the reader gets the lesson in our stories, why don’t the people in them get the lessons? Why do they just continue doing the same, apparently stupid, things over and over again?
They don’t get the lesson because they are stuck in the loops, the cycles of their own peculiar way of seeing the world, stuck in applying the “woulda, shoulda, coulda” to a frustrating environment. Something is stuck, and it must be something outside of them, because how could they be stuck in a worldview that was clear, simple and very real to them?
I’m happy that I can help people stuck in conceptual loops find a way out. It is a fine skill to have.
I’m not so happy that it has cost me almost everything I wanted in my life. It has drained and crushed me to have to enter their world and repeat the same lessons over and over again while they were unable to enter my world, to be present to me.
I don’t think that it’s just humans on the spectrum who get caught in these cycles. Almost every human wants to impose their vision on the world rather than opening up to what is. That’s why the lessons of breaking the cycles are so important.
Some people get more trapped in the cycles than others, finding it so hard to break free that it is almost impossible. They certainly can’t do it by themselves, but even with the help of professionals, they cling to old habits, old expectations, old routines and old visions, unable to open to new views that allow new and better choices.
Trying to tell the stories of these people, even when they are your own family, becomes very, very difficult. There is no linear plot, no arc that the reader can track, no throughline that makes the tale driven and comprehensible. The forward steps are so small and hesitant, looped with steps back, that it seems to move at glacial pace, with almost no visible motion.
When you are trying to share your story, to help people understand why you are the way that you are, to invite them into your world, well, stories that don’t hold may as well cannot be told.