Some more about Asperger’s and how it affects me

It’s very hard to have Asperger’s when you’re a highly-intelligent person who is able to mask it (though only through incredible, exhausting, constant effort). Especially when the mask falls, when you’re unable to keep it up anymore, and people get a glimpse of your reality and don’t know what to do about it.

I write about Asperger’s a lot. But there are still some things I don’t explain about it, and I think I should. Here is some more stuff about how Asperger’s affects me. (Note: this is not a comprehensive list. I could have written three times as much. But it would have got very boring.)

Please note: Do not tell me you understand, unless you have Asperger’s or autism too. The likelihood is that you may think you do, but you really don’t. Instead, please listen and learn. In return, I will listen and learn about your life, about the things that are relevant to you. I have a hard time when people say “I do that too, and it’s normal.” Usually that means they have not understood the extent of how difficult I find these things. Instead of ‘I understand’, consider saying ‘I hear you’ or ‘I’m listening’. Thanks.

– I get very tired from ‘pretending to be normal’. 

Trying to act like a neurotypical person is exceptionally hard work. I have to think about every single word I say, every gesture, every action, every aspect of social interaction, and more. I have to calculate things like when to speak in a conversation (every time, which in even a five-minute chat can be exhausting). I have to manage my emotions to a very careful degree – they make me do things that people respond negatively to, but I don’t know what those things are or how to avoid doing them, so I spend a lot of time sitting quietly and trying to work out if I’m showing any sign of emotion or response and whether it will upset people. I often go too far the other way and talk and talk and talk, sometimes inappropriately for the situation I’m in. I don’t understand sarcasm, although I have learnt about it by rote and through a lot of negative encounters with it, so now I can sometimes recognise it – but it’s always painful. I don’t understand most metaphors or analogies, and I have to pretend that I do, even when I’m deeply confused by something that someone has said (which could be something as simple as ‘I’m so tired that I’m about to drop’ – does the person mean it literally? – figuring this stuff out can take up all my mental and emotional resources in a conversation). My tone may be inappropriate, because I don’t understand about tone and what’s wrong with the words I’ve said, or what they may communicate in the mysterious word of the non-verbal. (If you think I’m being aggressive, please ask me what I mean, rather than assuming. I probably don’t intend to be!)

– I can’t easily follow (or understand) social rules and conventions.

One of the worst things here is when someone asks ‘How are you?’ First of all, I’ll tell them, whether they really want to know or not. Secondly, I always, always forget to ask about them. Social niceties are not easy for me. It’s not that I’m not interested. I’ll ask all sorts of things about the other person when it’s relevant to what we’re really talking about. I just can’t remember the rules. I won’t ask about your day or inquire about your children’s health. Remember: it doesn’t mean I don’t care. Tell me something real about you, and I’ll be fascinated and want to know more. I just really, really have trouble with small talk. Get to the point!

Earlier this week I had a great chat with an autistic person who is doing research that overlaps a bit with mine. We didn’t start with social niceties. We dove right into the details of our work, our lives, our research. Half way through the conversation I realised I hadn’t asked the other person anything about her life, so I asked a thing. But a thing that was relevant. I still don’t know anything small-talk-ish about her – where she lives, whether she has a family, what else she does other than her research. I know the important things, the things we were there to talk about. The rest I’ll pick up at some point, if I ever need to know. (Does it really matter anyway? If it’s important enough to her, she’ll tell me. If not, we’ll keep focusing on the big stuff.)

Relatedly, you may find I don’t make sense during a conversation. This is usually because I start talking about something that I think is relevant, but other people don’t understand my thought processes. Similarly, I very regularly misunderstand the meaning of others’ speech. Again, I spend a lot of my time trying to pretend I’ve understood. Like a deaf person pretending they’ve heard so that they don’t ruin the conversation, I may just nod and smile a lot, but not have a clue what you mean. I’m trying to learn to say “Could you please rephrase that?” – but it’s hard, especially when people get frustrated with me for not understanding.

– I have cognitive difficulties.

It can be very hard for me to get people to believe this one. I don’t *seem* cognitively impaired. But I am. I have some serious memory problems (please don’t be offended if I forget your name or something you’ve told me about yourself). I also find it very hard to recognise faces, which means that if I meet you for the second time, I may forget that we’ve met before. Please excuse my constant “Have we met before?” type questions. (I’ll soon remember, when we start talking.) I also have some theory of mind difficulties, which means I spend most of my time trying to work out other people’s intentions and getting it wrong. (It is exhausting.)

– I have overloads and meltdowns.

This is one of the most difficult things about Asperger’s. Out of nowhere I can get sensory overload or emotional overload that can lead to a meltdown. (For more info about what sensory overload is, see here and here.) At which point I start looking and sounding like a child having a tantrum. I find this so embarassing, as a professional and an adult and so on, that I usually do my best to disappear and have these on my own. I never want anyone to see – it will affect my self-image and your view of me. But at the same time, I often secretly wish someone would help… :(

– Wishing I wasn’t like this affects my mental health.

I experience obsessive thoughts, especially over ‘getting things wrong’ socially or otherwise. (Spending 24 or 48 hours being able to think about only one thing, literally, is not fun. It happens a lot.) I have high anxiety, which often comes out in more obsession – I may only be able to talk about one thing for a few days, and that can seriously piss others off. (SJ knows this one well.) It can look like I’m only thinking about myself, when in fact, I just want to put my mind at rest about a thing that’s worrying me (which can be anything from that cable on the floor that someone may trip over, to a thing I need to fix but can’t yet, to the health of another person and whether they might die…) I experience a lot of depression. I sometimes self-injure. I sometimes wish I were dead.

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I share these things on my blog, not because I want attention (in fact I spend my life trying to avoid drawing attention to myself and trying to avoid people noticing I’m different), but to avoid misunderstandings. It’s the worst thing in the world when I get it wrong – when I get anything wrong – and offend, upset, frighten, confuse, irritate or frustrate someone. I don’t want to do any of things.

But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to be ‘normal’ either. I am different, and that’s good. The problem isn’t with me. It’s with the society that expects me to behave in a certain way, to fit in, and demands things from me that I can’t give – not without exhausting myself and spending my life pretending to normal. As you can imagine, the result is often intense anxiety, depression, and worse. But it shouldn’t be. I shouldn’t have learnt to hate myself for being different. I should be able to love and appreciate the beautiful variety that I contribute to in the world.

Cross-posted to my disability blog.

Honour in Speech: Speaking about Other Religions

It’s that time of year again. The time of year for ‘zombie Jesus’ jokes, entirely inaccurate memes about Ishtar, and dismissive comments about Christian cultural dominance. Even the relatively inoffensive Facebook posts that speak about Christianity and other Abrahamic religions in ‘we’re better than them’ terms, always seem to turn up annually during this season.

This year, it is an atheist who is teaching me most about honourable speech about other religions. SJ, my long-suffering, spiritually-curious atheist spouse, is shifting religious festivals so quickly that they’re practically becoming a chaos magician. And every single word out of their mouth about every one of these religions, including ones they’re not observing this year (like my own), is deeply honourable. I hear a lot of complaints about how atheists talk about our religious traditions – but I’ve not heard nearly so much respectful, honourable speech towards other religions from Pagans. I haven’t heard it from myself.

I understand why some Pagans react negatively to Christianity, and need to blow off steam. Gods know, I know what it’s like to grow up in an environment where your religion condemns you, constrains you, and even directs spiritual and emotional abuse at you. Yet, none of that gives me the right to condemn a whole religion. The only people responsible for that were the specific people in the specific churches I grew up in.

It helps that I also had wonderful, deeply spiritual experiences in Christian contexts, later on in my spiritual journey – to the extent that I haven’t *entirely* moved on from Christianity, and will probably always have some associations with it. (You could call that karma, if you like. I call it holding myself to my confirmation promises.) I’m aware that not everyone has had those experiences, and not everyone will be understand why I continue to find Christianity such a foundational, beautiful spiritual path, despite all its potential and actual issues. That’s OK… as long as others respect that I have a different perspective from them.

But whether we have good or bad experiences of religions, and whether we have any experiences of them at all, I personally feel that honour in speaking of them is important. I’m not convinced by the argument that they treated us badly first. If a few outliers did, they don’t speak for the whole religion. And even if every member of a religion you’ve ever encountered has treated us badly, does it mean we should retaliate with the same?

But I mostly think how tragic it is when we fail to learn from the great spiritual wealth that other religions have to offer us. SJ and I had a big argument recently about whether the major religions of the world have more in common, or more differences. But in the end, that debate doesn’t matter. What we can learn from each other, through both our similarities and differences – that’s what excites me. That’s why I still go to Christian events (under certain circumstances), even when my Pagan friends make cracks about how I’m going to be seen as a Christian again. It’s why I do interfaith work, even when my fellow interfaith activists and I confuse each other. And it’s why I stand up and demand that others respect Paganism – including colleagues and friends who clearly don’t understand where I’m coming from – and who don’t have to, but who I do expect to respect my position anyway. (I wear a pentacle at university sometimes – even though that is not my own symbol – in order to stand in solidarity with other Pagans.)

We all deserve to have our sacred truths spoken of respectfully. Every single one of us. Christians, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, Jains, Mormons, those who are ‘spiritual but not religious’, those who follow New Age traditions, Pagans, reconstructionist polytheists… All of us.

That doesn’t mean that those traditions are beyond criticism. I have no problem with satire, and I don’t personally believe we have any need for blasphemy laws. (Though I have Opinions on the failure of the European Court of Human Rights to protect people’s rights to manifest their religions. A secular society doesn’t need be a repressive society. Though that’s a bigger debate for another time.)

But it does mean, to me, that I am personally responsible for being mindful of what I say about other religions, how I say it, and what effect I can have on others in the process. I want to be known for honourable speech about the faiths of others. I’d like it if Paganism could be known for that… but I’m only responsible for myself. And I can only do my best.

SJ’s latest post, on Pesach/Passover, talks a bit about the magic behind some of its rituals. You might like it.

My Goddess has a Sense of Humour: Random thoughts of the day*

IMG_20150401_084035Asking Her why I feel blocked in a particular situation led to: my need for a miracle (the Star), the suggestion that I do a deal with the Devil, the Empress and Emperor side by side (Beara looking the Christian god in the face, hand on hips, going “Is she yours or mine?”), and the Hermit (me, getting in the way of myself). That’s all a pretty good picture of how I’m feeling at the moment.

The above picture shows the Battlestar Galactica tarot deck I’m working on. It’s not finished, but I already adore it. I’m currently working on Wands, which are a difficult suit to start with. Lots of Gaius Baltar, for some reason. I also want to start on a Narnia oracle deck soon. That should be easier: grab the characters, let them speak.

On an entirely different note: I was just discussing April Fools with another person with Asperger’s, on twitter. We agreed that we rather hate it. Tell us something and we’ll believe you. Why wouldn’t we?! Metaphor. I find it difficult.

What I’m reading at the moment: Devoted ed. by Alkistis Dimech (wonderful), When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God by Tanya Luhrmann (also very good, though I keep forgetting it among all the other things I’m reading), The Poet’s Ogam by John-Paul Patton, Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life by Meredith McGuire (excellent) and The Druid’s Primer by Luke Eastwood (review to follow as soon as I finish it). I want to write more book reviews at this ‘ere blog, so let me know if you’d like me to share my thoughts on any of the above.

In pain and illness news: Things are really quite bad at the moment. I can’t do much with my right arm (too much sitting at the computer typing – what’s a postgrad student to do?) and my lower back is all messed up as usual. I’m pondering how these things relate to embodied spirituality, at the moment. I’m learning so much from my participants, whose bodies frame and contain their spiritual lives much more than mine does.

In otheIMG_20150401_102627r news: Dilly Cat!

This is a shot I took lying on the floor alongside the bed in my office. She likes ‘under the bed’ a lot at the moment. But she’s willing to come out for cuddles when it’s quiet.

*I’m hoping ‘Random thoughts of the day’ posts will be a new series here. You will be hearing more pointless ramblings from my life. Rejoice.

Book Review: ‘Hoodoo: Folk Magic’, Rachel Patterson

Patterson, Rachel (2013), Hoodoo: Folk Magic (Pagan Portals series). Moon Books.

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On the whole, I would usually prefer to read about another culture’s folk magic from someone who is from that culture. Hoodoo, in particular, is one of those culturally-embedded practices (embedded in African-American culture, in this case) that it’s easy to misappropriate. Those of us outside of north America should be especially aware of this, since we don’t know all the history of oppression and suffering that is the cultural context of hoodoo. But there are ways to practice being a good guest when relating to another culture’s folk magic. However, it can be overwhleming to try and jump right in, and it’s often unwise to do so without a great deal more knowledge than most foreigners will have. That’s where a beginner’s book can be very helpful. Here, Rachel Patterson introduces the reader to hoodoo in a very accessible way. This is a book written by someone like you, working from a Pagan perspective in Britain. That makes this a good introduction for people without much experience of this particular form of folk magic or its wider culture.

Also called conjure or rootwork, hoodoo is an African-American folk magic practice, often with a strongly Christian flavour, and with influences from Africa, the southern United States, and beyond. This book introduces some of the key concepts and practices in hoodoo: working with roots, mojo bags and doll babies; foot track magic and candle/lamp magic; baths/washes, oils and powders; prayer and petitions; working at the crossroads; working with spirits, and many other ideas. It’s a really comprehensive overview of the practices, but at a beginner’s level.

Rachel Patterson is not afraid to admit that she isn’t as familiar with hoodoo as she would like to be, which is a refreshing change from writers who claim to be experts in something and then turn out… not to be. In places, this led me to wonder whether she could have done more research on one or two things. At the same time, it makes the subject much more accessible for her audience. For British readers in particular, Rachel’s relative unfamiliarity with American culture and history means she takes nothing for granted on the part of the reader – for example, she introduces terms and cultural concepts that a complete beginner will find very helpful.

This is a starting-point book. Start here – but then move on to more in-depth experiences of hoodoo. We live in a global world, and you don’t have to go to the USA to find out more (although it’s extremely helpful if you can!) There’s lots more information out there, from the Lucky Mojo podcast, to books written by conjure folk themselves, to histories of hoodoo and some of the people associated with it, and even anthropologies of American folk magic and hoodoo. The world is your crossroads. Enjoy!

Language, transphobia and hurting others (even if unintentionally)

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EDIT (22/3/15): The producers of the podcast in question have said that they will edit it to remove the slurs (see latest comment on this post). I know that a lot of trans people and their allies will appreciate this. Thanks to Damh for this.

A podcast I admire has engaged in language that has hurt some of its trans listeners. Language that the producers could have edited, but chose not to.

At the same time, I’ve discovered that a polytheist group I used to think very highly of has been expressing violently transphobic sentiments about camps/conferences and women-only spaces. (I’m not linking to the places where, as I haven’t talked to members of this group since it happened so I don’t want to highlight them without right of reply – but the evidence is out there for everyone to see anyway.)

You’ll probably remember the trans-phobic incidents that took place at Pantheacon a few years ago.

All these things are connected, even though the latter two are obviously much more serious than the first. Language hurts, excludes and marginalizes, and it can create environments where certain types of behaviour become considered acceptable or unacceptable.

The comments here are relevant, especially Quill’s comment (about half way down the page) and the following ones. Quill and others talk here about the complex history of certain trans-phobic words, and why they are received as trans-phobic, even if the intention is not to harm. You can deeply hurt people without meaning to. The question then becomes, what are we going to do next? Are we going to acknowledge we all make mistakes, apologise and try to rectify the situation? Or are we going to dig in our heels and say “I didn’t mean it like that?” That can heap pain onto pain, and we can become a major part of the problem. And I, personally, don’t want to be part of the problem.

Everyone reading this probably knows that my partner is non-binary gendered – meaning they consider themselves neither a woman nor a man. It’s been a long road for me to get to some understanding of that, and I have failed a *lot* along the way. I’m working hard on doing better, not least because when I got ill (three months into my relationship with SJ), they didn’t even consider leaving me, though lots of people around them said that leaving was a good idea. They’ve gone WAY above and beyond the call of duty with me. That’s part of why I feel the need to do the same for them. And when they come home, and have been mis-gendered all day (i.e. called ‘she’, by people who know better), or has been verbally attacked in response to their gender presentation, and they’re in floods of tears, and I can’t help… I feel so helpless, and so angry. And I want to change the world. And I can’t. It would be so easy for me, as a non-trans person (a cisgendered* person), to ignore and overlook this stuff – but I need to NOT ignore it, or its effect on people.

I am very frustrated by injustices in the Pagan community at the moment. It’s something I’m really, really struggling with. Some of it is making me afraid to attend in-person Pagan gatherings, or to engage with other Pagans in certain online space. Because I don’t actually want to walk into spaces where I’m supposed to be sharing ritual or discussion with people, and end up feeling marginalized and hurt, or see others being marginalized and hurt.

I am one person and I can’t solve all the problems. I wish I had more people around me who wanted to help. I wish there were, for example, more disabled people and allies campaigning for radical change of attitudes and inclusivity towards disabled people in our communities. I get sad, being reminded of how much more we need to work towards all kinds of equality in the Pagan and druid communities. Surely we, who know how all life is interconnected, and therefore how much we can do harm to each other, can do better.

I want to see clearer equality policies in Druid and/or Pagan groups, that really, practically address things like exclusion of disabled people, transgendered people, black and ethnic minority people, and many others. I want to see the people responsible for those policies consulting with those groups, to avoid mistakes. (OBOD’s ban on people with certain mental health problems doing their grades is a major issue in point.) I am running all over the place, exhausting myself, trying to offer myself as a resource for this. But there are only so many doors I can bang on, before I realise that they’re not going to open to me.

And then… what?

And as I write this, I feel this great love** for this wonderful, flawed community of beautiful humans, the modern druid community, that has embraced someone as weird as me. And I know there’s always, always hope. Somewhere.

In other news, I miss my raggle-taggle bunch of druid-y friends up north today.

Love, as always, from your sensitive, thoughtful urban druid. (For whom sensitivity sometimes becomes a curse. But it’s one I’d never ask to have lifted. Not on this turn around the Wheel.)

Resources
Galop, which does a lot of work around LGBT hate crime, and their page on transphobia
Polytheists Against the Gender Binary and Gender Normativity, especially the ‘how to help’ section
A free, interesting book on the subject: Gender and Transgender in Modern Paganism

*That simply means someone whose gender identity is the same as their biological sex.

**Apologies for soppiness. My usual crunchy shell of cynicism doesn’t seem to be working today. Would someone please turn it on and off again for me? Thank you.

You know me? You don’t know me

I am not a reconstructionist.

There. I said it. I feel better now, I think.

I was strongly drawn to reconstructionism in the beginning. It seems so academic. (The fact that most academics would find what reconstructionists do rather… inaccurate and confusing, is an entirely different issue.) It seems so clear. Got questions about a deity? The answers are out there, waiting to be uncovered by (usually amateur) archeologists/linguists/folklorists/mythicists.

Except they aren’t. And I feel, increasingly, that this is not a way to do religion or spirituality.

I love looking for clues in the stories of the land. My deities can all be spotted there, or at least, shadows of them – including Baoi (Beara), Dovinia/Duibhne (of the Corca Dhuibhne people), and the Three Sisters (Lasair, Latiaran and Gobnait-who-is-sometimes-Inghean Buidhe-or-sometimes she’s-one-of-the-others-and-sometimes-she’s-Crobh-Derg). But they are, as you can see even when I just try to say their names, not all that easy to pin down. The Three Sisters are deeply rooted in the land around Cork and Kerry, and if you ask the locals about St Latiaran, they will know who you mean, and they will tell you stories about her that you’ve never heard before. But these deities also have precedents across the water and across Ireland. Does that make them any less local? No. It makes them a far bigger mystery than they first seem. The clues are there, but they will slip out of your hands when you try to grasp them. Continue reading