The morning was so hot in my bedroom that I was trying to stay still for a while longer before the energy expended by the barest movement continued yesterday’s sweatstorm full force. I was reveling somewhat sleepily, if that’s even possible, in dry skin and a faint breeze through the window, when my soon-to-be former husband called. I’m smart; I sleep with my cell phone next to me under the sheet, which lately has been shoved to the edge at one side– so very few calories burned. A while back, I had to change his ringtone from “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” by the Four Tops, to a simple sixties/seventies era “ring ring” so my stomach wouldn’t hurt every time he called. I don’t mind that he calls, although sometimes the memories make it uncomfortable.
He needed to get more of his tools and stuff out of the basement or the garage, or whatever, and he was calling to give me a heads up. He was saying something about getting a late start because he was on the phone talking to an acquaintance, a woman who had just lost her father, and he needed to go and get some things done but she seemed like she needed to talk, so he let her. This may seem like an innocuous statement. A nice thing to do, indicative of little in itself, but it woke me up completely; commandeered my attention like a sudden burst of winter air onto my hot face. I learned, from the psychologist who diagnosed him with Aspergers Disorder a couple of years ago, that if he came to a realization about a person’s emotional state– if he understood what they might be feeling–it would be an unusual thing. He can’t be expected to be able to do that. What we neurotypicals (persons not on the autism spectrum) learn about getting along with others in society from toddlerhood on, about paying attention to facial expression, inflection, considering intent, anticipating what may come next in a social interaction–none of these are skills that a person with Aspergers can learn. When you observe evidence of any of these, it’s a momentary gift. You can’t point it out and praise it with hope that it will linger in their memory. When they next encounter a moment where this kind of skill is needed, they can’t be expected to conger it. It happens or it doesn’t. The people close to them learn to either live without their feelings being understood, valued, considered or even acknowledged by them — or they stand back, as far back as they need to, in order to protect themselves.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to explain this. It helped in the denial period of my grief, to experiment with different ways to impart the same cold, hard information the psychologist told me. I wanted to understand it so well, that I could get right inside of it and “fix” it like a mistake in my knitting or crochet. I’ve come to understand why Jenny McCarthy and others work so hard to explore diets and causes and possible cures. The inability to do this social thing that most of us get the gist of in early childhood and utilize every day with varying degrees of success (but at least with basic understanding) is so unheard of in an emotional sense, that people I talk to never quite comprehend it the first time. They seem to start denying it immediately the way I did, as if this is so hard to imagine that it hurts just to hear about it. And of course, this may actually be an accidental observation that proves just how deeply emotionally fluent many of us are. How else would a person get to the first stage of grief about someone else’s problem?
I tried to discuss with him this core problem that developed between us after we were married, before we knew that he had Aspergers. I kept asking him why the fact that we were saying such similar things about each other didn’t give him pause. How could I understand that he was in distress because of us, and he think that whatever distress I was in was completely unrelated to him? He kept saying I was cruel because I didn’t show enough interest in things he liked, or do things the way he wanted them done. I said he was cruel to try to make me do the things he wanted when he never acknowledged my efforts when I did. This always sounds like an average marriage when I tell it to people. I think it’s because they think they’re reading between the lines. But what I’ve just written is very literal; there are no lines to read between. He and I are two people who respect psychology and relationship, and searched all over for what we thought would have to be simple answers, considering how much we loved each other. On a certain level we were so “in tune” that even the professional who diagnosed him had to finally acknowledge why we ever got together. Out of the blue, she witnessed us having a happy, passionate conversation there in her office, right front of her, none of which she understood. She could clearly see in that moment, that we were communicating well, souls touching even though she couldn’t follow our conversation at all. The only reason for our deep troubles was — is the unfortunate difference in our neurological makeups. We both need to be accepted for who we are, but for him (as the psychologist told me in no uncertain terms) I would have to be the one who understands and accepts, expecting none of that in return. It would continue to be unhealthy for me unless my own emotional needs simply went away or were met elsewhere. That kind of relationship makes sense when you’re parenting a child you’ve brought into the world, but not so much for an equal adult partnership. It didn’t work for my marriage. My emotional wounds from this relationship are still healing.
Anyway, this morning when he explained how he let someone talk to him because they needed to, the part of me that remembered him saying similar things, doing similar things when we were dating, felt vindicated. I had truly seen his open and generous heart, and I wasn’t an idiot to have married him, this man who could be so unintentionally brutal, who moves painfully along through this neurotypical world, wounding, with no comprehension of the pain left in his wake. I love him now from a distance.