And then the bandages came off…

Last week I was in a training session on Zoom — more precisely, a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion healing session. It was a small group, so as we went around and introduced ourselves, we were asked to share something that had brought us joy in the last week.

When my turn came, I had to be honest and say that nothing had brought me joy in the last week; that the dark tunnel kept getting longer and the light farther away. I was able to mention something that had given me a little lift —a blog I found here called Mickey’s Journey. Mickey’s parent posts pictures of his latest accomplishments and they are very touching. I see joy in those pictures that I have lost.

I have been struggling to come up with a metaphor for how I have been processing the autism diagnosis I received eighteen months ago (at age 57). The first few months were a honeymoon period of relief — but since then, a new reality has been sinking in.,

I just remembered a scene from M*A*S*H that seems to sum it up. Colonel Potter is telling one of his many WW1 stories. After being wounded in an explosion, he spends a month in a French hospital with bandages over his eyes. He is tended by a nurse called Colette and is very comforted by the sound of her voice and the touch of her hand. (For context, Potter, BJ, Hawkeye, Frank and Radar are stranded overnight in a broken-down bus and are passing the time sharing tales of “When love conquered all.”) Then the day comes for the bandages to be removed. And there she is. Colette. And obviously nowhere near as attractive as Potter had expected, because he jokes, “I pretended I was still blind!” He then goes on to say that love did indeed conquer all, but he “couldn’t have done it without the bandages.”

Nurse Colette represents my life — and all the things I have done. All the things I have cared about. All the things that have given me comfort. But now that the bandages are off, it does not look so good. There was a time — not so long ago — I had no regrets. Now I regret almost everything — all the way back to my first choice on my university application at age 17. I have made poor choices for friends, hobbies, education and jobs. I have allowed myself to be influenced by people who did not have my best interests at heart. I have allowed myself to be comforted by watching TV and drinking wine. I have filled dozens of notebooks with writing that no one will ever read.

Life is pretty decent right now. I have a good job that I can do from home. And I live in a nice neighborhood. But I have had a lot of disappointments and sadness along the way. And I have embarrassed myself so frequently without realizing it at the time. I can not think of a single event that does not make me cringe to think about. And on top of all that, despite having been using the internet since the early 1990s, I have become very fearful of being online, something that is almost impossible to avoid now. At least three times a week I am terrorized by fears that one of my accounts/devices has been hacked. Every surprise behavior of my iPhone prompts several hours of research to reassure myself it is either expected behavior or an annoying iOS bug. Unfortunately, my job is in IT, so my newsfeeds are always full of reports of the latest zero-day vulnerabilities and zero-click malware attacks on one platform or another. I am in a permanent state of fear.

I am not one for video games because my hand-eye coordination is lousy and my reactions are too slow. But sometimes I have had puzzle apps on my phone or iPad where I just try to top my best score. Most apps allow you to abandon a game without seeing it through to the end. Once I realize a game has gone off the rails and that I am not going to beat my best score, I tend to abandon the game rather than waste any more time with it. If my life were one of these games, I would probably abandon it and start over.

But I suppose I could put those bandages back on 🤕

A very different time

It is hard to remember life before smartphones and social media. But in 2001, my TV was my main connection with the outside world. I was unemployed after June and had no internet connection at home. On 9/11, I was just dallying at home all day with the TV off. I did not turn on the TV until 8pm PDT — and suddenly there was a lot to catch up with.

I am trying to imagine how the events would have unfolded with the technology of today. We are so much more reactive now because we get so much more information so much more quickly. Instead of an unlikely accident on an otherwise ordinary day, perhaps the situation would already have been escalated to a horrific extraordinary day on which anything might happen; and the South Tower would have been evacuated immediately after the first plane struck the North Tower; and people would have streamed out of Lower Manhattan by any means possible. Perhaps both towers might have been evacuated at the first suggestion of highjacked airliners headed for New York City. But the outcome might have been even worse, with terrorists leveraging social media to creat panic and chaos.

I watched the 9/11 movie recently released on Apple TV+. It documents how the events unfolded from the perspective of the Bush White House. Hard to believe now, but in 2001, Air Force One relied on terrestrial TV broadcast signals — so the president only got a viewable signal while Air Force One was over a city.

A very different time indeed.

Self-checkout impairment

For five years I worked in retail stores and I spent a lot of time at the checkout. So you would think that when a grocery store offers self-checkout, I would avail myself of that convenience — but I do not. I patiently wait in line to have a real person do it for me. This is somewhat embarrassing because I also work in IT and am hardly a technophobe.

Now that I know I am autistic, I am sure this is the major part of it. Self-checkout user interfaces are very wordy and interactive because they are trying to make the process user-friendly by guiding the customer step by step. But my processing is very slow — and I take forever to ring up just a few items. My impaired executive function also makes it a challenge to synchronize all the tasks involved: scanning the items; looking up items; bagging items; reading info on the screen and pressing buttons; bagging items; selecting payment method; finding the place to insert card/cash or tap phone; finding the place where the receipt spits out; and — having to wait for a real person to come and check my ID if one of the items happens to be a can of wine. And all the while, I am aware that in the time it takes me to ring up my basket, five people have already gone through the station next to me.

So, how did I manage to check out customers for five years?

Well, a POS system designed for paid employees is a bit different. There is less guided assistance in the user interface because there is the expectation that paid employees will be trained how to use it. And after a week on the job, you have figured out a sequence of steps you follow whenever a customer walks up and it just becomes automatic. Also, although you do not have much control over your space, there are little adjustments you can make when you start your shift; for example, if you are left-handed you might want to put the stack of paper sacks in a different spot. But I think it is mainly about being familiar with the system and knowing what to expect.

Perhaps if I went through a self-checkout every time I went to the store, I would get familiar with the process and it would become second nature. But only one grocery store on my itinerary has self-checkout. It is a Whole Foods store and the self-checkouts are often busy with staff fulfilling online orders!

I will just wait for a real person, thanks!