The Cost Of Adaptive Behaviour

I can’t go on like this. I am burnt-out and exhausted. This, I have read, is common in autistic people, particularly those who have struggled for years to ‘pass’. It is called the cost of passing. It is essentially exhaustion brought on by the extra strain of pretending to be something one is not.

Tony Attwood summed it up well for me. He told me: ‘People with Asperger’s or autism expend a huge amount of mental energy each day coping with socializing, anxiety, change, sensory sensitivity, daily living skills and so on. So they’re actually expending more mental energy. Think of it as an energy bank account. They are withdrawing so much energy throughout the day just by surviving. It is why children at school, for example, have almost no mental energy left for the actual lesson – because they’re coping with the sensory, the anxiety, the social.’

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For Tony Attwood, late diagnosis for girls and women usually means a greater number of issues later in life. He told me: ‘The trouble is that girls are good at camouflaging it. We often don’t pick them up until they’re in their teens or older.

‘Those diagnosed late or in adulthood have worse outcomes. They didn’t get support and understanding at a formative time in their lives. What concerns me is that they created a scaffolding to survive, but that it may not have been the best approach and that sometimes that scaffolding has led to all sorts of issues and concerns, such as depression, low self-esteem, and not having an anchor in society.

‘I ask, When would you have liked to have known? and they say as early as possible. I thought I was stupid, mad, bad. I wouldn’t have been depressed. I wouldn’t have escaped into imagination. I would have handled things differently. I could have explained myself. People would have understood me. I could have been protected. And, after the euphoria of diagnosis and an explanation, there is the wish that it could have happened earlier. Then there is the fact that the scaffolding has been taken away. What do I put in its place? There’s almost a grieving for the lost person.’

-- Laura James, "Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World"

While I am only autistic by training — both my parents had Aspergers — I profoundly understand the long term cost of passing, understand the issues and concerns caused by inadequate support during formative times which created flawed scaffolding and restrictive, crippling armour.

Jesus Loves You.  Everyone Else Thinks You’re An Asshole.

I never, ever trusted that I fit easily into any group.   I knew that I had to work, and work hard, to be compelling and of value, but that even then, I was going to be the freak, the weirdo, the odd-ball, the goat.   I was routinely reminded what a shit I was, embarrassing to my mother and basically worthless because I didn’t make her feel proud, happy or serviced.

In my mind is a massive, lifetime archive of the times I screwed up, the times I felt stupid and ashamed.   This inventory started as lessons, things to avoid in the future, but over time it turned into a vat of shames, triggers to make me turn away from events that have touched me before, coding me into avoidance.

Avoidance, of course, is what I learned growing up.  My only agency was to be sly, and manipulative, working from the shadows to create whatever change was possible.  As a guerrilla fighter I stayed out of the spotlight, staying wacky, frayed at the edges, never assuming that I could participate in normative ways, always the clown with wit rather than the star living in the assumption of desire & adoration.

It was my training, my family shaping that lead me to this, but it was also my awareness of my queerness.   My trans was out as early as the therapist I was sent to in eighth grade, the minister I reached out to when I was 15.   The lessons I got from them were simple: stay in.   Keep it hidden, pass as whatever the hell you could pass as, no matter what the price of denial and losing the power of my formative years cost.   Adultified early?   Absolutely, which lost me the exploration of my own fluid possibilities, hardening me in a way that was out of any natural shape.

You can’t explain yourself when you don’t have words, which is why I have spent a lifetime searching down useful phrases, but when people are so stuck in themselves, all the words make no difference.   I knew that my words were only useful to me, not useful in a world where the audience only cared about their own needs.

I understood the lifetime price of this Morey Amsterdam joke the first time I saw it in the 1960s.

Scarcity, you see, captures the mind.

All those decades, all that loss, all that twisting into shapes not natural to me, all that brain coding which scarcity imprints.

And now, somehow, I feel the need to transcend that past.  And I have not been able to find any support structure which can understand, empathize, comfort and coach me in moving beyond the costs of a lifetime, the costs written on me because The Body Keeps The Score.

“I’m glad you are not one of my salespeople,” the slick Marketing VP told me, “because I can’t figure out what motivates you.   All your ports are filtered, so there is no way to push the desire buttons in your unconscious.”   Overthinkers who underachieve, yes.   The price of passing.  So much mental energy for defence that there is none to achieve flight.

My anchor is internal.   It had to be.  I played a lot on my own.  That’s powerful, but it is also limiting and lonely.

I had a dream the other night where I was with a huge group of family members in a tourist house in London.   I wanted to change, but I found there was not only no room and no time, but other people were picking out what I should wear.  I knew their choices would make me look clowny, but I tried, though I was upset.   Janet from The Good Place appeared, though she was more like her improv trained portrayer, the brilliant D’arcy Carden, and she said I should do what I like.   She helped me make selections of what worked for me, holding off the family by telling them that they had to let me make my own choices, that they had to listen to me.   I felt strong, seen, supported, so I started to riff, even wandering through the store performing, gathering an appreciative audience.   At the end, my sister in law still had to explain to me her point of view, what was really important, but I just smiled because I knew Janet had my back.

I woke up and cried.

Could I ever have been protected and safe, away from the enormous, draining, lifetime cost of adaptive behaviour?

Doesn’t really matter now, anyway, does it?

Unanchored

The Doctor had a sex change.

Now that they are in the body of actress Jodie Whittaker, Doctor Who is a woman.  Reviewers praise the performance, saying the 13th Doctor now has “malleable status,” moving from palsy to authoritative as needed, not staying in as fixed a role as a man might.

“You don’t look like an alien.”

“You should have seen me a few hours back.   My whole body changed.  Every cell in my body burning.  Some of them still at it now.  Reordering.   Regenerating.”

“Sounds painful, luv.”

“You have no idea.  There’s this moment, when you are sure you are about to die, and then, you’re born. It’s terrifying.  Right now, I’m a stranger to myself.  There’s echoes of who I was and a sort of call towards who I am and I have to hold my nerve and trust all these new instincts.  Shape myself towards them.

“I’ll be fine. In the end.  Hopefully.   But I have to be, because you guys need help, and if there’s one thing I’m certain of, when people need help I never refuse.

“Right?  This is gonna be fun.”

That moment, that self awareness, came when faced with the kind of challenge and conflict which clears the mind.

“We’re all capable of the most incredible change.  We can avoid while still staying true to who we are.  We can honour who we’ve been and choose who we want to be next.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m glad you asked that again.  Bit of adrenaline, a dash of outrage and a hint of panic knitted my brain back together.

“I know exactly who I am.  I’m the Doctor, sorting out fair play throughout the universe. “

The doctor found their anchor, and so was able to act without fear, without the kind of self doubt that corrodes away the power of so many of us raised human.

I knew that I needed an anchor to keep me strong and focused as I approached transgender expression in the world.   Why do I do this?   Is it just for indulgence or for some kind of truth?

Real is the word that vexes me most in this binary world.   For things to be “real,” many say, they have to fit nicely into binary categories, be this or that.  Male or female, man or woman, good or evil, privileged or oppressed, patriotic or destructive, one of us or one of them, whatever or whatever we believe its opposite to be.

Reality, though, is much more nuanced, more faceted, more complex than that.   As much as we might feel comforted dividing into binaries, the quantum state is truth; observation creates the form.

The 13th Doctor knows they are really the Doctor, so has no reason to doubt or justify why in this moment they are wearing a bra.

Many transpeople fall into this trap when they want to present themselves as anchored in a way that binary thinking people must accept.  “I am really who I am right now!   This is who I always really was, no matter what you saw me as in the past!   Questioning me is questioning reality, because the reality I assert is the only real reality ever!”

I knew that this kind of anchor would just drag me down, forcing me to deny or hide the facts of my extraordinary life, my stories of exploration, and the truths that I worked so hard to unearth from the conventions of society around me.   I would have to police myself to placate anyone who might question me, have to defend myself from challenging connections, have to surrender my hard won voice.

My transgender nature is part of my work, my calling.   That’s the anchor I found to save me, the idea that there have always been people created like me because we serve an important role of connection in human culture.

“In societies that are rigidly binary, rituals of gender crossing remind us of our continuous common humanity.”   That’s been my anchor since I first heard it said by anthropologist Anne Bolin in 1994.

While that is a sensible and powerful anchor for me, I don’t find that it keeps me anchored well when I don’t have explicit, focused work to do.   This is a problem because it means I am not ready to do the work that comes along in everyday life, not able to be present in a comfortable and assured way.

Where I am most unanchored is not in my trans expression, it is in my essential, sharp humanity.

When we are young, we create strategies to handle the challenging assaults we face.   Those strategies are not considered, though, not build in context, so they can end up being more draining that empowering, more ballast than anchor.

My family was not encouraging, not affirming, not empowering to me.   My common name in the house for years was “Stupid,” at least until the therapist told my parents to cut that out.

Like most boys, my value was not seen in my special grace and beauty but rather in what I could and should do to serve.   I was seen as a human doing rather than a human being.  This is reflected in the first post on this blog, from 13 years ago now.

My anchor in trans expression is in doing, in the work I have been called to do.

It isn’t, though, in being.   Just being trans in the world feels indulgent, selfish, an in-your-face kind of challenge that just isolates me, calling me to wear the kind of social armour queers are heir to in a world where reality is expected to be compliant and binary.

To do, my anchor can be abstract, conceptual and cerebral.

To be, though, my anchor must be emotional, celestial and bright.

That’s not at all easy to do with no deep anchor in my own beauty.   My anchor became doubt, questioning why I was so intense, so fluid, so queer and so irritating & offensive to others, including my own mother.

Questions are powerful and magical in their own way, but so is the simple act of confident presence, in trusting our own nature.

My endless search to find an anchor that lets me be comfortable and assured simply being in the world still is a quest for something that escapes me.

Then again, I’m not from Gallifrey, rather just an human.

Playing Alone

“Have you ever found people to play with you?” she asked, following a support group we facilitated where I had brought out my inner Southern Belle, going all Sugarbaker to talk about the importance of play to discover our shadow selves.

“You must have played alone a great deal as a child,” echoed in my mind, asked by a gal with whom I took a course in early childhood development in my freshman year of college.

Telling my sister about the question, she immediately understood.  “No, you never had a group to play with,” she remembered, reflecting on a lifetime.

From its beginning in 2005, the tagline on this blog has been “The Loneliness of a Long-Lost Tranny.”    That loss and the resulting loneliness comes from one place,  a deficit of mirroring which directly comes from the lack of safe play pals, of people who not only get the joke but affirm and extend it.

If you invest enough time and effort, some say, others will catch up to you, creating understanding and connection.   This only works, though, if you stay fixed, offering a point they can find.   I am unable to stay still, though — always hopping — which also means the distance to my viewpoint is a moving target.   My continuing creative play is always exploring, always enlightening, always expanding & renewing my vision.

I love entering the stories of others, sensing our shared world through their experiences, their own eyes, ears and hearts.   This is the way I gain a wider view, engaging the surprises of other voices, other visions.

Yet I have been unable to get a clear understanding of my own possibilities through this engagement.   When I walk in the world, I don’t know how I am seen, of how I can express myself in new and graceful ways with confidence and assurance.   The lack of mirroring drives me to silence & avoidance, falling back on old patterns rather than trusting that my own blossoming is visible and beautiful.   Assurance fails me, so I go back to the strategy I learned so very long ago when I was so very young, playing alone.

Taking care of others, reflecting them from my concierge role comes by habit, but being cared for beyond what I know is seen as my own intense, overwhelming and prickly nature, just isn’t in my experience.   People grow and heal in their own time, focusing on their own challenges, not being able to enter mine.

My play is always queer, not just repeating patterns but searching for new.   I need the surprising, the witty, the cutting.   Exploring is play for me, creating beyond expectation.   “Make Me Laugh, Think or Come” said the old t-shirt, and while I have had to pass on one of those options, that makes me more passionate about the other two.

Playing stops me from fitting neatly into some predetermined role, instead staying liminal, in the doorways which offer connection.   It is that play which kept me alive and aware, even when the world — and my family — seemed to want to crush me.

I couldn’t easily play with the boys or with the girls, and couldn’t play with others who couldn’t understand my family experience.

Not having anyone to play with, though, has left me very alone, profoundly lonely and a bit lost.

We each need someone to back our play, to play straight,to throw a flag on the play, guiding us back into safer spaces.     The sparks off interactions open us up, melting our fears and taking into new possibilities.

Not having those kinds of people, I tend to stay as invisible as possible, simply pulling on jeans and polo shirts.  We costume ourselves for other people, identity, competence, attraction and more coming into play, but if you aren’t going to engage others, don’t think they will play nicely with you, well, why bother going to all that trouble?

My play tends to be cerebral and creative more than being routine or physical.    Finding an audience for that kind of play is hard, but finding someone who can enter that world, share and expand it, someone to play with is much, much harder.   Relying that someone else will be there, a co-conspirator, a fellow cast member, a playmate, is important to trusting your heart enough to take risks of exposure and creation.

Stories are much more powerful when they are shared, held in trust between people rather than just questioned as solitary thoughts.  Together, they become dreams, real and remembered, with someone else to remind you of them when you forget or when your faith just slips a little bit.   Tossing energy back and forth always multiplies it, while trying to hold onto it alone just leaves it wilted, diminished and eventually corrupted.

In the glow of shared tales we can emerge from behind our individualized armour, knowing that we are not alone and lost, ready to be picked on.   Sunlight bounces, growing healthy in a way that hiding in the darkness never can.

When we hold conventional beliefs, standard expectations, commercial needs and assimilated rules, our play is constrained by social norms.   Like any marginalized person, I understand the regular dreams, but they never met my needs or desires.   I can enter that mindset, but only with the effort of an outsider, while insiders usually can’t even fathom why anyone would want anything other than the feeling of safety being comfortably normative offers them.

Did I play alone a lot as a kid?  Yes.   Have I ever found a group of people to play with?   No.

Does that leave me feeling long lost and lonely?   Hell yes.

I know that I need reinvention, rebirth to get me back into social roles which offer rewards, the practical, emotional and intellectual rewards that come from sharing my gifts with others.   The vacuum I exist in does not offer me the energy that comes from sharing stories and possibilities, from playful enthusiasm and exploration.

It’s just that after decades of trying, I still don’t know how to find those committed, energetic and understanding playmates.