Jeremiah Savant’s Adventures in Mental Health
ELEVEN: Endgame, Part Two – Conclusion
In some ways, my head was spinning with the same anger that it had that day in the Practice Counsellor’s room just over a year ago. The amount of time wasted in hanging around for these people to make up their minds about seeing me was not only irritating in the extreme but something I considered to be dangerous – I had recorded several very emotional videos about the long empty wait and why I had to commit suicide… both out of desperation and as a protest. I always deleted them.
A year after my visits to the counsellor, two years after I had first seen the GP now I was waiting in a stairwell/hallway of the local psych centre to see Dr ‘Cambridge’. A Clinical Psychologist – a proper one; not one fresh out of college, not an apprentice, a mature woman with plenty of practice. In my preparations, I had sent her a letter in which I stated my own case for a diagnosis. I had written of people struggling with sexuality and gender identity recognising something similar in me, yet I have no confusion about my own… those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder recognised something of that in me – and someone who had written his thesis on it told me I definitely fitted several descriptors. It was a somewhat pompous piece, in which I tried to demonstrate my intelligence to avoid being underestimated, and my angry confusion so that I would not be patronised.
The one thing I never could work out was why I was always the only patient waiting in this familiar tiny space next to the fire exit – and it always seemed like I was the only person in the building (apart from the staff). News programmes continually bleated about how resources are always overstretched, so I would have thought I would hear an encounter group going in the main room, a muted bustle of people in and out of others… but no. As usual, I felt like I was in a place about to be closed down. Above me, Dr ‘Cambridge’ called my name, I trudged up the stairs – and into the same room as always. I made comments about how much I hated it because of all the times I had shed tears, felt I had been misunderstood (and so on) in it. Nothing else was available for now, so it would have to do.
I was in a confrontational mood, barely blinking and concentrating extremely hard… so my face was almost expressionless and I was keeping everything thoughtful and intense: I did not want to engage with her or charm her, I only wanted that diagnosis as a starting point. As we settled, Dr ‘Cambridge’ told me that she had picked up certain things from the letter, so she wanted to explore them before anything else; she also wanted to speak to my parents. I told her that they were too frail and with failing memories, so denied her permission… besides, much of what she wanted to know from them was so long ago that they would not remember.
It was not that I failed to understand many of her questions; it was more that I was unsure of what she was asking me. The questions seemed either incomplete or simply incorrect. This is an aspect of me that I always put part of it down to my experience in customer service and describing faults on things.
For example, one engineer patiently told me one day that saying a thing does not work was not actually useful to him: what he needed to know was HOW it was not working. I plugged in the portable TV in question and demonstrated that it was not turning on at all. He told me that a better way to describe the fault was, ‘will not turn on, no function at all, dead,’ in any part or combination. To me it became such a simple thing to do after that, to clarify things for people needing to get a job done. For me, it was the same with her questions. She asked me what I thought about friendship, and I asked how she wanted me to describe it – did she want a sentimental point of view, a description of the emotional involvement or a maybe a fairly simple definition? We navigated to a conclusion on that one by my telling her that friendship comprises of an agreed set of fluid and informal mutually beneficial social transactions. After all, if one finds that ‘a friend’ is always taking and never giving, or is disrespectful and meddling behind one’s back (even unpleasant to be with), then that ‘friendship’ clearly is one-sided and has to be walked away from… surely?
We discussed the time away, I controlling my tics and stammering as best I could – which was by now considerably more than I had been able to before – and she probing to find the answers to back up her suspicions (it appeared she considered me on the Autistic Spectrum). As we ran out of time, Dr ‘Cambridge’ gave me two standard diagnostic questionnaires to fill in and send back – along with the usual spiel about how there were no right or wrong answers. I retorted that it was something I knew all too well – she seemed a little pleased until I told her that in order to get answers that are either right or wrong, the questions first need to be correct… As with many such observations, I watched her trying to puzzle it out, then she asked me what I meant.
I told her that I could imagine what childbirth feels like to write it in a scene, but because I never will know exactly – not having the right organs – there would always be a nuance of truth or reality missing. Without the actual experience of something – from the inside, as it were – the exact phrase cannot be said, the correct question never asked. I told her that it was obvious to me that whoever wrote these questionnaires lacked that actual experience of the conditions they were seeking information about. Dr ‘Cambridge’ did not seem impressed at that. So, as always, it was to be a case of having to navigate the dark and dangerous waters of other people’s (mis)conceptions of how to ask me about me and get the right answer.
Once at home and looking through these supposedly accurate questionnaires, I realised that I was indeed familiar with them – and yes, I could see that questions were somewhat incorrect and there were definite assumptions about the conditions they were seeking to help diagnose…
For example, the repeated inquiries about a preference for ‘things’ over ‘people’: on the one hand, I had to disagree, as I have left behind some quite treasured possessions over the years – yet have managed in all my adventures to keep the majority of my cuddly toys from childhood. As a young child, I had seen classmates – and children my age on TV – take their favoured toy of the moment almost everywhere with them, so I decided to try it with a humanised knitted mouse my mother had made. Somehow, I knew that he was totally unique and utterly irreplaceable; as a result, I clung onto him tightly and was so stressed at the thought of dropping him and losing him in the crowd of giants milling around me that I vowed never to repeat the experiment… So did this mean I feel more connected to ‘things’?
There were questions about whether I could tell what people were thinking and if I liked numbers; do I prefer animals to people and can I spot patterns in things..? Actually, yes I can… and the pattern I was spotting indicated an old-fashioned and very restricted prejudicial view that people with an autistic condition are supposed be number-crunching and disconnected; who care not one jot about anyone or anything except our own instinctive needs and comforts… who do not have much by way of emotions. But when ‘In Crisis’, my emotions seem to batter me like a tornado… so how did that work?
Question after question about interacting with other people – yes I can do it, I just do not like it very much… I find most people and their interests a bit dull – not that I blame them as I know it is my reaction to them… Can I tell ‘this’, do I know ‘how to’ that and is the other ‘distressing’ to me? ‘Do you get emotional watching films?’ Of course I do – films are an entertainment, designed to create an emotional response. A ‘good film’ fully engages your attention, makes you laugh, cry, scream and jump in surprise – regardless of the actual quality of the film-making. It takes you away from being yourself for a while, puts you in exciting and dangerous situations, gives you some kind of wish-fulfilment… plus, for me, it’s an opportunity to freely experience guided emotions in complete safety – and if in a cinema, the shared (yet somehow still private) experience is the closest I can get to joy unbounded… except for the ‘Dropped Teddy Shot,’ which freaks me out in the extreme. It’s always a panicked scene of a crowd being evacuated before impending disaster, and the carried child is equally carrying Teddy (or some other cuddly), which – HORROR – slips from the child’s grasp (close-up of the child too traumatised to cry, cut to Teddy getting trodden on by several pairs of feet).
Despite knowing how it works and why it is used, that particular motif never fails to deliver me a wallop – which I am only now teaching myself to enjoy, after many years of dreadful anticipation upon spotting the setup. The only thing worse than the ‘Dropped Teddy Shot’ is the ‘Will The Dog Almost Left Behind Make It To Safety?’ shot as it runs after the speeding car (etc). Yet – to repeat myself – such blatant emotional manipulation is what films are for, and if we do not get that connection, we feel cheated… at least, I do.
I would have to modify many of the questions in my head, because I know what to do in social situations, again, I just do not like doing it. I do very much enjoy being the centre of attention at a social gathering, thank you very much – if it is a gathering where people are doing their ‘party pieces’, because I am an actor/writer by inclination… but that is not what they expect, is it? The answer they are looking for is that I like hiding. Can I be diplomatic about differences in personal tastes? Of course. Most people decry what they do not like as, ‘rubbish,’ and I consider that just plain rude – like calling someone else’s opinion, ‘stupid,’ when it may not even be wrong and misinformed, merely different.
It was all about if I COULD do various things to do with others… in my view, it would be better to ask if I felt safe doing these things. Or if I could be bothered about them. Just because I cannot see the overall point and profit in needlessly causing offence does not mean I give too hoots about other people’s feelings. I do not particularly care. It simply strikes me that the world, its devices and other people can be unpleasant enough, why add to the misery?
What exactly did it mean, though, this ‘empathy’ the tests were designed to look for, and why were there no direct questions about ‘compassion’? There are times when I am stressed, in despair and needing comfort and support – surely if I hope to receive it from friends I must give it also, in the spirit of mutual co-operation? To me, these questions seemed to be confusing emotional connections with understanding someone else’s pain and distress or happiness and joy. My view is that empathy and compassion are not emotional things at all, they are useful tools for making each day slide by that little bit more easily – and best used without being cluttered up with the cloying sentimentality of emotions (strangely, many have considered me a good listener and gentle advisor, something I never understood).
Each question was a wrestling match, causing me to battle myself and attempt to work out what it was that they thought they were trying to ask me to tell them… Finally completed, I sent the forms off, and when the time came, attended the follow-up session. It was in a different room, and Dr ‘Cambridge’ went through some of the answers with me and gave me my scores (I had ‘failed’ yet again and passed as normal). I was devastated until she continued by telling me that my intelligence allowed me to consciously work out and learn ‘normal’ behaviours that people usually simply pick up; that my age and the development of ‘coping strategies’ I have put in place also tended to mask and skew the results. Then, she told me what she was going to write in her report letter, that I would have a copy and…
She gave me a diagnosis. ‘Autistic Spectrum Disorder, specifically Asperger’s Syndrome.
It was just like the time between a really powerful flash of lightning and the huge booming rumble of thunder in storm a few miles away in the dark middle of a hot humid night. A kaleidoscope of fractured memories twirled and overlapped in my mind – too many to describe. They flitted and darted, spun lazily and burst like bubbles. On the one hand, almost everything about me had been explained in those few words; yet on the other, nothing still made sense.
My life had changed entirely, but conversely stayed the same. Such a new and momentous thing, however, so small and familiar… I could not take it in. It was like suspecting a relationship – or job – would be ending soon, and finally having That Talk (with whoever) which finally finishes it. The silence continued and I truly did not know what the appropriate response would be: should I continue being apparently stunned as if I had no idea, or jump about in triumph?
And, of course, what now for the future? There probably is no treatment for this, which is regarded simply as a different way of being. Counselling for management, perhaps? Back to the Mental Health Team? What? Support group, surely – this is a lot to take in, especially at my age.
“Okay,” I asked, somewhat shakily. “So we have a diagnosis, now what?” Dr ‘Cambridge’ regarded me with eyes which suddenly, somehow, seemed hooded and reptilian. Then, slowly, she said one word:
If you would like to speak with Jeremiah Savant, or have any questions about this series, feel free to get in touch.