It’s an early summer day in June, the last day of finals. There’s a funny sort of feeling, when school ends. You stare out the window in class, glimpsing the beautiful promise of the outdoors, inhaling that sweet smell of possibility.
After leaving on the last day, I was driving around with my older sister, Hannah, when I brought up an idea that I had been rolling around in my head for the last seven months, since I’d found out my dad has autism.
He’d suddenly revealed this in a family therapy session, attempting to explain why he has little self-control, doesn’t understand social cues, and has a terrible temper. My mother had told my sister years before, but not me. I didn’t think it did anything to excuse his bad behavior: that he’d hit us occasionally as kids, his emotional neglect and just basic lack of demonstrated love.
But as much as I hate to admit it, I am—in some ways—like my father.
I’m temperamental, fail to demonstrate self-awareness in the moment, and am emotionally closed off. I’m pretentious, I think I’m better and smarter than others. I have a hard time making friends and talking to people, and I never know exactly how to act or what to say, just like him.
I asked my sister if she had ever wondered the same thing, if we, just like our father, are autistic. She took a short breath, released it, and kept on driving straight. “Well, when Mom told me Dad was autistic, she also told me you had Asperger’s.”
The street we were driving on was called Pleasant Valley Way. As the name suggests, the road winds its way through the short hills and valleys between two rows of tree-covered mountains. It’s been sort of the main street of my life thus far: My house is a few side streets off it, with my school a few blocks down and my synagogue right across the street. On a cool early summer afternoon like this one, the trees brush around in the wind, almost revolving, dancing in a strange and beautiful rhythm.
Hannah started nervously laughing, releasing 10 years of secret tension. She was 8 when my mother told her this, making her promise not to tell me.
Outside the wind was rattling the trees, making their branches spin. And inside the car I was yelling, mostly just in surprise, with maybe a bit of pride that I had correctly guessed my own condition, and the slow realization settling deep in my stomach that this was the truth, that this was something I would have to tell all my friends, and God, how the hell was I going to do that.
My mind was racing: I’m going off to camp in less than two weeks, and how am I going to tell all my friends there, my greatest friends, and how am I supposed to talk to my mother about this without getting my sister in trouble because she was never supposed to tell me, and what about Dad, and what does this all say about me and my past and oh God, is this the reason why I’ve never had a good relationship, is this why I’ve lost so many friends, is this diagnosis just a collection of all the things I hate about myself, and what about the things I do like about myself, and were they even real, and am I just so stupid that I can’t even realize what the hell is wrong with me, and do I actually have Asperger’s, and what am I supposed to do now, and just what the hell does this all mean?
A New Name for My Flaws
That day, that beautiful day in the middle of June, had not been a good one pre my sister’s reveal-of-a-secret-that-had-been-kept-from-me-my-entire-life. I had just gotten rejected from the National Honor Society, a devastating blow to the ego of a kid who has always been top of his class.
The reason for my rejection, as explained to me, was because of my occasional outbursts—fits of anger and impatience that I would have at teachers or fellow students. Example: math class, three months prior. I ask the teacher a question, some silly thing about whether a function could be its own inverse or something or other. She answers incorrectly. I correct her, and as if I haven’t already annoyed her enough by asking a question I obviously already know the answer to, I tell her that “I know I’m right.”
Naturally, I’m chewed out after class. The teacher tells me that I have “some nerve” for acting like that, and I honestly can’t disagree.
I’ve tried to justify these behaviors to myself as ‘not suffering fools gladly.’ In reality, I think it’s just me being a jerk, taking out my own insecurities on others.
The truth is, I simply do not like who I am. I am uncomfortable with myself, with everything I am and do. I always see myself as failing, and those failures are always my fault. Even if I’m successful, even if I’m happy.
In that car, on that day, asking my sister that question, I sought an explanation, which I then received. Asperger’s became the new name for my flaws, my mistakes, a shorthand for my personal failings.
I thought, initially, that a diagnosis would simply make it easier for me to feel better about being myself. That I could use it to excuse my mistakes, to justify poor behavior and never changing. But instead, in a strange way, it helped me.
Another Drive Upwards and Out
Two weeks later, I was back in the car, driving up through the Pocono mountains to camp. I’ve been going to Camp R since I was 10, and this was my last summer as a camper. My friends there are my greatest. Despite all my worries, the main debate raging in my mind was this: Would I keep this diagnosis from them, or risk the revelation and bear the consequences?
After a deep conversation late one Friday night, I felt ready, somehow, to share with a few people. I was sitting on our bunk porch with my friends D and M. These two are both able, in their own ways, to cleanly transition between ridiculousness and depth. D has a stunning degree of love for other people while still being a goofball; M is the same, but demonstrates his love far more through careful teasing. Like me, they both have issues with their dads, and perhaps our similarities are both a cause and result of our friendship for the past six years.
M was telling a story about a neighbor of his who, at the age of 15, was “diagnosed with every terrible thing. Lyme disease, cancer, scoliosis, you name it.”
“You know,” I said, “A similar thing happened to me…”
And that was it. I simply told them the story of how I found out about my Dad, considered it, confronted my sister, and made this discovery of Asperger’s. And since I had told it to them humorously, as though it was all a big joke, they took it that same way, comedically.
I gave them express permission to make jokes about it, knowing that this would allow them to breach the weirdness of the situation. M, in particular, made the best jokes; once, when someone brought up J.A.P.s (Jewish American Prince/ss; a pretentious and spoiled young Jewish-American), he turned to me and said, “You know J, you’re a J.A.P.”
“The f– do you mean?,” I asked.
“A Jewish Autistic Prince.”
I had told much of the rest of the bunk later that night, with the remainder finding out at random points throughout the summer.
The one response that always managed to annoy me, although it was exactly what I had worried about not happening, was how every time I told someone, they would always say, in the same flat yet kindly tone of voice, “It doesn’t make me see you any differently.”
That it was always this phrase, said in the exact same way, never failed to bug me. But I took away that I shouldn’t see myself any differently either, regardless of any flaws or mistakes.
Acting as though I was flawless, or the opposite, judging myself with a ridiculous harshness, would never move me forward. The only path, the one upwards and out, was acceptance, a transcendent forgiveness of myself in all that I was. Although it sounds paradoxical, only by accepting who I am, in everything both wrong and right with me, could I be who I wanted to be.
Confronting My Mother
By the time camp was over I felt in tune with my friends, all of whom had accepted me, making the discombobulated shock I always felt when coming home even sharper than usual.
The greatest readjustment was with my mother, the person who had kept this from me my whole life. I let the tension, the anger I had been building up at her throughout an entire summer of people accepting me, of me learning to better accept myself because of this revelation, steam for too long, until it finally boiled over.
“J, you’ve been cold and abusive towards me ever since you got back from camp,” she said, sitting down next to me at dinner one warm autumn night. “I don’t know why or what happened to you these past few months, but I don’t like it, and you need to change.”
“Does the word Asperger’s ring a bell?,” I blurted out.
Leaves had already started falling outside, but a summer wind still blew over the grassy backyard, as she stared at me blankly, frozen in apprehension.
“You kept this from me,” I continued, “not because you thought that it was good for me, not because you wanted me to grow up without any sort of stigma-”
“But we did,” she said, teary-eyed, with a slight quiver in her voice. “We didn’t want anyone to think differently of y-”
“I’m not f–ing finished.”
“Not because you didn’t want me to grow up seeming different, but because you simply didn’t want to be the mother of an autistic child. You didn’t want to bear the burden.”
While my mother said that she simply did what she thought was best for me, I felt, in my own blinding anger, that her actions were for her own benefit, because the truth was too difficult for her to accept.
Whatever her reasons for keeping this from me, I needed her to understand that she was wrong, and it only hurt to be lied to.
Our conversation, if it can be called that, ran for too long, sitting directly across from each other at that kitchen table, not really moving, just talking, as our food grew cold. Mostly it was just me getting everything that had hurt me out. And afterwards, I no longer felt so angry at her for keeping that secret. It felt like I had exorcized it all.
The greatest revelation, possibly besting the original one three months prior, was that, technically, I wasn’t the one she had really lied to. Apparently my parents thought I was autistic when I was a kid, but I fell a hair short of the official criteria. I still needed occupational therapy, however, so they found a diagnostic psychiatrist who agreed to say I had Asperger’s so it would be covered by insurance.
Somehow, that didn’t matter. Over the summer, I had been put into a state of flux, then immediately accepted in those months at camp, told that no matter what, I was and could be good enough. Gradually, by being accepted, I realized that I might have been similar to my father, but I wasn’t him.
My friends didn’t care about the words surrounding me—in a way, it only made them love me more. Why, then, should I care? All the growth and new sense of comfort I felt within myself, it was all separate from any diagnosis. And by seeing that I could choose how I would define myself, I began to change myself.
I started to journal more, to make new friends, to practice mindfulness, to seek greater opportunities. Eight months later, in another difficult situation with a teacher, I kept my cool instead of bursting out in anger–in fact, I didn’t even feel it. I simply reacted differently internally. “You’re handling this very maturely,” the teacher said. I didn’t even realize how calm I was until she said it.
It’s not a permanent state of peacefulness; it never will be. I will and do still have my doubts, my worries, yet the point is just to keep trying.
What I know now is that you are always in the process of remaking yourself, of being what you find you want to be. I desire, now, never to be fully comfortable, to always be able to change and grow, and still, paradoxically, to accept wherever I am. I want to keep that same sweet smell of possibility I had, driving forward on that road, on that sunny June day when I was 16.5.
- How does finding out about his diagnosis impact the way J.L understands himself?
- What about others’ reactions to J.L’s diagnosis feels affirming to J.L? If you were J.L’s friend, how would you support him when he told you?
- Speaking out about mental health diagnosis is often considered taboo, but what does J.L gain from naming his diagnosis and speaking about it to his family and friends?