Studying Conversation

Studying Conversation

Partly as a result of my anxiety therapy I have been paying special attention to conversations recently, both those I have been involved in and others that I’ve observed, to learn more about their structure and the behavior of the participants. This has involved paying more attention than I would normally as well as trying to watch people, which I have found to be difficult for a number of reasons.

That first part, focusing on what the people are saying instead of considering my own responses, has had three effects: I find I am better able to recall details of what has been said, I interact less because the time I take to build a response means that the conversation has usually moved on, and it takes considerably more energy to maintain the level of concentration which leaves me feeling tired.

The aim of watching people was to try to observe non-verbal signals. Now, I didn’t expect this to be easy but it was worse than I had anticipated: in the nearly forty years of my life I have managed to gain no more than a very basic knowledge of body language. I can recognize smiles. I can sometimes pick up when somebody is angry or upset. But that’s about it: how do you look for signs when you don’t know what they look like? It’s not like people are holding up little flags. So if there are any signals that people use when they’re conversing they’re lost on me. It’s like the patterns that flowers have that only show in UV light which bees and other insects can see but humans can’t: if you can’t see anything there you can’t begin to interpret it.

The one thing I did think to try to watch was people’s direction of gaze… which involves looking at their eyes… in other words, eye contact. This is a common issue for those on the Spectrum: it’s difficult to strike a balance between obvious avoidance and staring. I tried it out on my wife, concentrating on her eyes while she spoke, and she told me it was intimidating and off-putting because I was staring so intensely. After that I decided not to try it out on others. Besides which, I rationalized that it would probably distort the behavior I was trying to observe in the first place!

My limited observations did allow me to hypothesize up to a point. I identified a distinction between functional conversation where the aim is to convey or acquire information, and small talk which doesn’t appear to fulfill any purpose. I tentatively suggested that it was a mechanism for establishing and maintaining social bonds, which my therapist agreed with. I have little or no problem with functional conversation because there is a purpose to the exercise. Whereas small talk… feels pointless. Do I really want to go around commenting on the weather to people? Why?

I guess a large part of my problem is that I don’t really understand social bonds (maybe I’ve just identified my next area of study). No real conclusions yet from all this: even with a focus for my observations I have not been able to gain much insight. But then this is a very common area of difficulty for those on the Autism Spectrum.

A Song of Ice and Fire

A Song of Ice and Fire

I’m currently reading A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin — I’ve just started the first volume of A Dance with Dragons — and I must say that I’m enjoying it immensely. There is a wealth of descriptive detail in the prose that paints vivid pictures of the vast setting of the series. The most obvious point of comparison would be the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but the semblance is only superficial.

Where Tolkien is concerned with the fight of good against evil and maintains a strong focus on his small band of heroic protagonists, Martin weaves a dance through shifting sands of uncertainty in which his extensive cast of characters behave in all too human ways, driven by self-interest, belief, revenge, lust and even, occasionally, honor. Lord of the Rings is a fairy tale where right triumphs over wrong, battles are glorious and deaths are either heroic sacrifices or the well-deserved reward for treachery. By contrast in Ice and Fire the characters are individuals, each with their own motivations, capable of anything within their own personal bounds. There is a moral ambiguity to many of the acts and the reader must decide for themselves where the characters stand. Battles are not big set pieces, regardless of their importance to the progression of the story; instead they are confused, claustrophobic, noisy, bloody melees where no single character has anything but a limited view of his immediate surroundings and plans are but chaff in the winds of chaos.

I’m in danger of making it sound impenetrably tangled and directionless but that is not the case. Martin handles the multiple threads of the story with assurance on several levels, from the interplay between individuals up to the scale of nations and dynasties. As in life, one can never know what goes on in somebody’s head, and while ofttimes his characters will behave predictably they are quite capable of springing surprises. It is said that art reflects life, and if that is true then Martin has ground and polished his mirror to perfection. As many reviewers have commented you can find parallels with many periods of history in these books. The most obvious because of similarities in the society — absolute monarchs, feudal lords, armored mounted knights — are to the European dynastic wars of the Middle Ages, not least the English Wars of the Roses. However his world is as diverse as our own and other cultures echo the likes of the Norse, the nomadic Scythians, or even the traders of the ancient east who traveled the Silk Road.

I find it staggering that one person could conceive a work of such magnitude and maintain such consistency across so many points of view. For me the only disappointing aspect is that the series is still unfinished: a work in progress. I ought to say before I finish that I’ve not watched the HBO adaptation so I cannot comment myself on its fidelity (although I’ve heard positive reports). I’m not in any rush to see it although I expect I would enjoy it well enough: I’m too enthralled by the books for now, and no matter how good an adaptation may be (I greatly enjoyed the Lord of the Rings movies) I always value the written word.

Attachment and Anxiety: Relationship Problems

Attachment and Anxiety: Relationship Problems

I mentioned in a previous post that I suffer from insecurity in relationships because I don’t know how the other person feels towards me. In terms of Attachment Theory this would be described as preoccupied or anxious-preoccupied attachment, characterized by worrying about what others think of you and a need for approval and validation.

In my case I am aware that I have a disposition towards clinginess: I can become dependent on the other person for validation of my self-esteem, sometimes to the point of obsession. Being aware of this does help to a degree because it means I can moderate my impulses. I don’t mean that I’d stalk somebody, following them around everywhere – nothing that scary – but I without that self-restraint I’d quite probably be getting to the point of harassing them with the frequency of contact. This is not good. Obviously it can destroy a relationship if one party is too clingy and constantly seeks reassurance of their worth – it can be very wearing for the other person involved.

The trouble is… even though I am aware of how I am, I still feel insecure; still feel a need for the approval of others. It’s such a good feeling when I receive attention from somebody I care about, and they appear, to me, to reciprocate the friendship. And then, after we go off our separate ways and carry on with our lives, my doubts start to creep in and the insecurity builds: am I reading too much into the relationship? Do they care or were they just being polite? Am I, in reality, just a pain in the ass to them? Are they secretly glad to get away from my clingy behavior? And so it goes on.

I catastrophize (thank you Musings) when I send a text and get no response. The reality is most likely that they are every bit as bad as me when it comes to checking for messages and then remembering to reply when I get the free time to do so, but in my mind I imagine that they are sick to death of being pestered by me, that I’ve offended them, or even that the relationship exists only in my mind. I worry that I am being too demanding for attention and driving them away.

All these negative fantasies are distressing, driving my anxiety and dominating my thoughts to the extent that I struggle to concentrate on anything else. Recently I have begun to work on handling this situation by focusing on the positive facts about the relationship: remembering occasions and incidents that provide evidence of reciprocation. I also regularly remind myself that this negative speculation is groundless, that I have no reason to harbor such doubts. And I also reflect on the fact that somebody as poor at reading others as I am can certainly not draw those worrying inferences with any confidence – I simply do not know for sure how the other person feels and so rather than assume the worst I try to keep a balanced view. It’s not cured my anxiety but it does help prevent the self-destructive downwards spiral.

Now, if I could just work on developing a healthier attachment style I’d be happy! Still, any progress is a help and at least I recognize that a problem exists which is the first step in fixing it.

Financial Disaster Area

Financial Disaster Area

I screwed up again. Nothing new there: it’s a regular occurrence. This time I paid three bills twice, but luckily I’ve got the money in my account to cover it. Finances and me are not a felicitous combination: left to my own devices I will forget to pay bills, lose track of my balance and go overdrawn. Why should this be? I studied math to university level, I was an A student at school and won a Gold Award in a national mathematics competition, I’ve been working as a software developer for most of my adult life: I am completely comfortable with numbers and higher mathematics.

So… it’s not the numerical or arithmetical aspect that gives me trouble. It’s executive function (EF). Or rather executive dysfunction, specifically as it relates to planning and working memory. I’ve tried to manage household finances over the years but I always come unstuck, losing track of what’s paid, what’s due and how much money remains in the account. I’ve tried using written accounts, spreadsheets, internet & mobile banking and still I fail to keep on top of it.

Of course the household budget is not the only area where I suffer these or similar problems, but it is the most serious. I can’t multi-task – I am only able to concentrate on doing one thing at a time, which can be a limitation in the kitchen when I’m trying to toast bread at the same time as frying bacon. I’ve lost count of the number of times it has resulted in burnt toast since I forgot about it being under the grill until I smelled the burning! And at work I have problems with meetings – I sometimes forget about the meeting until after it has finished, or get confused about what day it is scheduled. And this is with a reminder on my PC: without one I am totally at sea.

Grocery shopping is another problem area (even without the associated sensory issues and the severe discomfort caused when they reorganize the shelves, but that’s a whole other subject). I have a routine – no surprise there – where I make a list first, sorted according to the store layout. I pick up the items in list order, and I still miss one or two items as often as not.

It’s a curious, sometimes frustrating state of affairs. I can hold down a full-time job, I can drive, I even run a darts competition in my local pub. But I can’t live independently. There are key areas where I need assistance that center around running a household: finances, laundry, cleaning, maintenance. I know that I have the skills to perform these tasks, which is the most frustrating part. I just lack the organization to do them consistently in a timely manner. I’ve tried, I really have. I’ve lived on my own for periods when I was a student as well as when I first moved away from home permanently to take up a new job. And every time it has been the same end result: things fall apart after only a few weeks.

It’s a benefit of being married that I have somebody else in the home whom I can rely on to do the organizing, to balance the books, and to remind me when jobs need doing. As I said to my wife only this morning, I don’t know what I’d do without her.

Social Insecurity

Social Insecurity

People talk to me. I talk back. Sometimes I feel comfortable with it. But do they like me? I don’t know and there are times when that bothers me. Like many Aspies I have great difficulty reading people, recognizing and interpreting their body language. Together with the gaps in my understanding of social conventions this means I’ve got my work cut out trying to push the envelope of interaction.

There are a number of people I know socially; I talk with them sometimes and it all seems friendly enough. But that’s as far as it goes. I very rarely invite people to join me in some activity because I don’t know how they will react — I don’t mean whether they will say “yes” or “no” but whether they would feel I had crossed some boundary, broken some social rule.

From my observations of people it appears that it is common amongst friends to arrange to do things together, while people who are mere acquaintances don’t do this. I’ve never been able to grasp how one advances an interpersonal relationship beyond the initial stages. Sometimes it just seems to happen but I don’t understand the mechanics.

I suspect that conversation has a lot to do with the process. (Just my luck I guess – that’s not one of my strengths.) From what my wife and others have told me it appears that there are non-verbal signals that are used in conversations, perhaps below the level of conscious communication, that influence the other party. It might as well be telepathy as far as I’m concerned, but I’ve witnessed occasions where my wife has inferred accurate interpretations of people’s state of mind without even exchanging a word! It leaves me stunned, like seeing a great illusionist perform: I’m just left wondering “how did she do that?”.

Anyhow, I’m digressing a little. To get back to the main topic, I’ve developed a… theory, if you like. A working hypothesis, a conjecture, which is that these non-verbal signals are important in establishing and strengthening social bonds because they provide information about what the other person is thinking and feeling. I’m handicapped by an inability to recognize and interpret these signals, so all I have to go on is what the person says with a few tentative impressions based on tone of voice.

That’s all well and good but I’ve learned that you can’t always rely on taking what people say at face value. They might be teasing, they might be following social conventions (such as “being polite”, or, in other words, exhibiting socially-acceptable insincerity). I can’t tell so I behave with caution, treading warily up to the boundaries of what I know to be acceptable. My self-imposed boundaries, which are an amalgamation of the rules I’ve constructed to circumscribe my behavior.

There are different rules for different degrees of familiarity: I may act in certain ways with people I consider friends that I never would with people I do not know well. The difficult question for me is how do these other people feel about me? Do they consider me a friend at all, or am I just some guy they occasionally talk to in the pub? Am I being presumptuous by thinking that there is anything more to the relationship? And how do I find out?

This uncertainty underpins my insecurity about social relationships: I just do not know where I stand with people, I don’t know how they regard me. Perhaps I’m deluding myself and the people I think of as friends don’t reciprocate: perhaps they just tolerate my presence for some reason. How can I know?

Aspergers Blues

Aspergers Blues

It’s hard to write about depression. The symptoms keep getting in the way of my words, and for somebody who loves words as I do that is disheartening.

Where to start? Well, I’ve been suffering bouts of depression for years. It can last for a few hours or several days but it is not usually an unrelenting pit of despair. I have spells when I’m feeling, if not exactly “up” then at least neutral. But then I’m back down again.

These days I don’t become inclined to harm myself, although in the past I’ve cut myself and taken handfuls of pills (my body didn’t go along with the plan and I just vomited). Instead I usually seek solitude, which can be easier said than done.

I want to cry but my eyes remain stubbornly dry. I want to curl up in a dark corner and hide from the world. I want to be left alone and I want somebody to just hold me and make me feel safe and protected. I get so tense that I feel as if my muscles are locked in place, yet I have so little energy that I can’t bring myself to stir. I detest the sensations, feeling a lack of sensation. It’s a complex, contradictory, utterly confusing state of mind.

It’s getting to the point where I’m reluctant to relax and enjoy myself because I know that sooner or later I’ll come crashing down again, and the shock of the contrast is like jumping into a cold plunge pool from a sauna. I’m forever waiting, anticipating and expecting the next low point.

Of course there are triggers. Rocky patches in relationships. Anything that causes stress and exhausts me leaves me vulnerable. It’s a common aspect of Aspergers that we have limited physical and mental resources: we tire easily, and that state of exhaustion means that problems quickly become overwhelming.

What can be done about it? The obvious answer would be to avoid becoming so worn out – I might even say burned out – that I can barely function let alone stave off the blues. My particular problem lately is that as the sole carer for my wife, who’s not in good health, I have no respite. There’s no break from it, even if my strong sense of duty and responsibility would allow it.

I missed a couple days of work last week because the depression hit again after becoming exhausted dealing with my wife, who is also feeling great frustration and low spirits because of illness. It doesn’t help that I pick up the echoes of her feelings – who says Aspies don’t have empathy? – but I don’t have the mechanisms to cope with these reflected emotions.

In fact, the night before I had spent two hours or so in the company of a friend and left feeling happy… until I got home and returned to the stressful overload. I’m not coping well at all lately: it’s all getting to be too much of a strain but I’m stubborn as an old mule and I won’t give in until my mind and body call an involuntary time out. Unfortunately that’s exactly what happened and a week later I’m still not really over it, still depressed.

There are no silver bullets. There is nobody who can wave a magic wand and fix the problems. Miracles don’t happen (even if, like my wife, you have strong religious beliefs). I don’t believe there is any higher purpose to suffering: adversity doesn’t make you strong. It just grinds you down until you haven’t the strength to even lift your head from the dirt.

The funny thing is that now I’m back at work I can get focused on the job and function normally on the whole, although I’m feeling more tired than usual and it’s taking me longer to get ready in the mornings – I’m not moving so quick. A case of special interest to the rescue, possibly.

Time flows like molasses in winter;
I am caught in its viscous embrace.
Struggling to break free
As a fly in a web,
Waiting for the poisonous attack.

I am a cornered mouse,
Teeth and claws no threat
To the predator stalking me.
The black cat, Nemesis,
Will not be driven off.

To fight an invincible foe,
To cast the die, burn the bridge
And cross the Rubicon; a dream
Wherein I cast off the fetters
And rise, Prometheus unbound.