I’m quite willing to admit and indeed happy of the fact that I am deeply peculiar. An arrogant proclamation, but one that I think most who know me would agree to, and indeed probably most who read this blog and don’t know me in person (all of two people I imagine) would agree to this as well. This is a story of how one person very closely involved in my life, namely my father, took this peculiarity and tried desperately to label it; the result is not quite a self-fulfilling prophecy, but a series of damaging effects that I am pleased to be finally working my way out of as a side-consequence of the psychotherapy I’ve been having in relation to my present academic issues. Those who know me in person in Sheffield (as opposed to Oxford) will know that I have an extremely poor relationship with my father, and I suspect that this stuff is a large part of that—or, if not in the first place, it’s kept the animosity from my end going. He has never retracted his claims nor apologised, or if he has, I haven’t seen it, and so I find myself unable to forgive which is sad.

Another thing I shall admit at the outset is that I do not deny that I do have some acute psychological issues. The most obvious that all who have met me will know is that I get various ticks, habits, repetitive movements etc. that come and go; at the moment I like to shake my head and gratuitously equalise the pressure in my ears by holding my nose and blowing, in the way one does during an aeroplane’s descent. I thought I was probably pretty far up the scale with this stuff but apparently I’m not, the key thing being that I’m quite capable of stopping these things if I want. At various points in my life I’ve committed to stopping some habit and I have. Another appeared, and essentially I got bored. But I am told that, chances are, if I wanted to I could cut it entirely and at some point, when I care enough, I probably will. I am slowly understanding that I might have a lot more anxiety in my head that I am aware of, clued in a little by the knowledge that such ticks tend to be a response to anxiety to soothe it away.

I do not view my present academic issues as the same kind of malady. They are not something that I would give up if some wish-granting being said that s/he could take them away for me in an instant, as I probably would with that detailed in the previous paragraph. The aspects of my psychology that are unusual come in both good and bad. It is a very positive thing that I have an extremely high resilience to peer pressure (with the negative upshot of occasional stubbornness when it’s not a good thing and, indeed, against my better judgement), but my attitudes to my work at present, and to things such as sexuality and to human talents and skills are all screwed up. But none of these things exist without the others and they are all tied up into myself and, naturally, that’s not something I wish to do away with. Consider: I tie my pursuit of philosophical understanding very tightly to almost all the other aspects of my life, and I suspect that this being a little too tight has led to some of my present issues—though I do not feel qualified to speculate beyond that—whereas shaking my head or whatever isn’t an important aspect of my character, even if the reasons for it explain some other such aspects. In short: the mental life I have once my present issues have been understood and resolved is too much a function of what has gone before for it to be useful to label, classify and single out disorders or illnesses.

So we come to the beginning of the tale, back at school. I am unclear about what went on at primary school, but one thing I do remember was a great deal of concern over my handwriting. I had decided that I wasn’t going to conform to a standard on something that didn’t matter; in the same way that from the age of four I decided that colouring in neatly wasn’t interesting, finishing such activities as quickly as I was able in order to return to Maths or English (so, reading), so did I decide that neat handwriting wasn’t important. There were foolish extremes of thought here. In response to the opposition of teachers and parents, I dug in and worked myself into a corner where I tried to defend the thesis that finishing an activity and moving on to the next was all that mattered, going to great lengths to see how little I could do and still say that a task was “done” based on how it had been set, even when I really hadn’t completed very much. Another fun story is when we were story-writing in year four—an activity that I usually loved, but I suspect that the topic seemed foolish to me or something—where I wrote an extremely short story and then, when the teacher told me I should extend it, I argued that then it wouldn’t be my story anymore, because my story was short. I am proud that I had the strength of mind to hold to all this, even if I disagree with the opinions themselves now—my handwriting is very neat for a Maths student assuming I’m not rushing, and indeed neater than my sister’s is now, whose writing was always the standard to which my parents used to hold me, back then. Their response to this was to get the school to give me a few meetings with people from Sheffield’s Special Educational Needs department, who assessed my motor skills to see if that might be why my handwriting was so bad. I think I had a diary at some point to fill things in in, and I am pretty sure this wasn’t a handwriting diary, so I suspect I was accused (this confrontational language is expressive of my school days as I will explain below) of other things as well, but I am having trouble recalling them specifically, which troubles me a little.

Aside from this sort of stuff there was some extremely weird behaviour from me in Y2/Y3 when my parents split up. As I say I’ve always had a bad relationship with my father and I think I might have tried to replace him with my male class teacher somehow? I am not sure, and the memories are faded and limited only to this: I developed the thought that I just had to be the furthest forward on the carpet when the class would sit on it together, to the point where I would sit on the teacher’s shoe (grasping his leg for support when needed) so that I was definitely at the very front. This stuff is limited to a fairly narrow time frame and I have no explanation or insight into it, and I’ve never done anything like it before or since. So perhaps in the malady category. I certainly don’t consign any of the handwriting or story writing stuff to the maladies bin.

When it came to apply to secondary schools, my father placed a lot of stress on finding one that had a good record on special needs, because to him, this is what I had. I have introduced this terminology here and above in the primary school stuff, but my memories aren’t clear enough for me to plot out when I started to hear it, and perhaps it was used before I was old enough to actually understand and recognise its usage. With my parents split up and living in two different parts of the city, and my primary school having a strong feeder school relation with a secondary school not in either of their catchment areas, I actually had five schools to choose from, and while I can’t remember my own reasons for choosing Silverdale, my father’s were clear. My mother was probably pretty neutral between the schools. The specific things that Silverdale ‘did for me’ were mainly limited to giving me an hour a week with the so-called Learning Mentor, a pleasant woman who would try to convince me that I should conform less to a Kantian ideal on honesty, and had me fill in a lot of worksheets on social skills and empathy. The reason I went to these at the expense of lessons, you ask? These lessons were PE and the filth of boys secondary school PE lessons appalled me. I still had to go once per fortnight for Y7–9, and oh how I dreaded it. To grab someone and rugby tackle them? To run around the field where there was so much mud to be slipped in? To use those changing rooms? I am not succeeding at describing the fear I felt at that time once per fortnight. I think that it would have only taken maybe three or four years before my self-confidence was at the point where I would have outright refused to be involved in such lessons, and would have argued my way through the school’s management structure—what I mean here is that if I had been four or five years older on entering secondary school, I would have had none of it. It would have been brutal, and I would have probable come out the worst because of course the teachers have nothing to lose and in my much smaller world, I had so much that could have gone in such a confrontation. So perhaps it was for the best. I think that appeal of liberalism to me is at part based on my hatred for what I saw as imprisonment. Over-exaggerated, because it’s just a PE lesson? Yes, it’s just a PE lesson to you and me now, because our worlds are larger. It wasn’t to me back then, and it’s important that we both respect that.

The other thing at secondary school was my father’s campaign for an official label, and the label he wanted to apply was that of Asperger’s Syndrome, the far end (that is, the end closest to normality) of the autistic spectrum. So he had me assessed a few times, and the learning mentor tried to get me to read books on the topic—I refused, not sure why—and I was told what I found difficult, and what I could never be good at, and this was all very important. To me none of this mattered; I had fantasy stories to read, Maths to do, essays to write, computer programming to learn and science to learn about, all of which I held in the esteem I hold (my pursuit of) philosophy in now. I did, though, have an opinion on it, and it was extremely defensive. It distresses me a great deal how little I remember of the specifics of these various checks and talks. I remember visiting somewhere where I played some kind of racing game on a N64 or something in the waiting room, but why was I there? To me, I was fighting a war against my parents and against the education authorities who I saw as unreasonably in cahoots with them. They wanted to change me from who I was, they thought something was wrong with me, that my oddness, which I cherished as much then as I do now, was something they wanted to force out of me and I was scared and I did what I could to oppose them. I do not now believe that this was anyone’s aim, because I am sufficiently optimistic about the goals of my parents and of the education profession, but I think it says a lot about the situation that I felt the need to be so confrontational. I trusted no-one. In my small world, I was at war to defend what mattered to me.

The parental dynamic; I’m sure you’ve noticed that my mother has been barely mentioned here. In general she disliked my father’s labelling and used to say to me “you don’t have Asperger’s Syndrome, you have some aspects of it, if that” and I clung to this. In her view, as she explained to me later when I was in a position to understand her, one should look upon people holistically and avoid stereotyping and labelling. And in general I think she disliked what went on at school and these various assessments, though going along with them at times when she found me difficult to live with (most definitely a function of both our personalities). I should say that I never had an actual diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, unless it was being hidden from me which I doubt, and my mother’s line that I paraphrased above was basically the line of the authorities. It’s this clash that I think leads to my substantially higher regard for one parent than the other and the consequent deterioration of one relationship.

To the late secondary school, sixth form and university dynamic, then. By this point there are no more authorities, because not only did I have the self-confidence and bravery to defy any attempts to take my anywhere (and of course once at university it’s irrelevant), the advent of sixth form meant the end of compulsory PE, at which point I knew that I could throw it all off. For five years I felt that I had played along, in order to get out of PE. “Getting out of PE” was my mantra, what I saw as the immovable wall protecting my individuality, and now I had no need of it. I think I can probably safely stop using this confrontational language at this point, and revert to the tone one uses when discussing adult relationships, because now we’re into a Sean pretty close to the Sean writing this; I hope it’s clear that I don’t see this as a war now, because that is absurd, but I use the language because that is the language appropriate to my memories.

In the sixth form the combination of my willingness to be different if I thought it was right together with a new self-confidence now that I was free from shackles imposed on me by others led to a great flourishing of mental personality. Let me make it clear: I feel extremely arrogant and self-righteous writing these next few sentences, because my cynicism leads me to think that I was probably just another stereotype, nothing special. The thing is, I genuinely don’t think that at secondary school I was just another odd student who was quite bright—conforming to one stereotype or another—but instead, based on talking to teachers I knew well and other pupils there with me and then afterwards, I really did stand out and in some sense leave a mark on the school. The head of philosophy/only philosophy teacher there says there would have been no A-level philosophy course without me spurring it on. I founded and ran for over three years—with fierce independence—the school’s debating society, which I shaped into a philosophy club, essentially, quite different to your traditional independent school debating society (to be clear my school was most definitely a state comprehensive). This society created a new appreciation for real intellectualism in a certain group of people, a group which it expanded and brought together to analyse, and bring down to liberal principles and to the heart of the matter, standing so very firmly against the memorise-some-facts nature of GCSEs and A-levels. I had various proteges too; I remember my mother telling me once that one of their parents (who had a younger sister who was friends with my sister) said that she really appreciated all I’d done for her daughter to train her up in this stuff. After I left the school, my form teacher told me that a dissenting voice had gone. The school’s decisions went unchallenged because in the past I had always made a noise about things, and that the school’s atmosphere had changed.

Writing that last paragraph leaves me very uncomfortable, because I do not have such a high opinion of myself. Most of this comes from teachers who knew me. The usual response is that the teachers are simply doing their jobs and have no real relationship with me; well, for at least three or four of them, I am not convinced. This is not to say there were not enemies. I would have the occasional spat with the head of sixth form in particular, who recently called me a loose cannon who she didn’t want back in, when another teacher told her that I wanted to come in and promote Oxbridge as part of a campaign to increase applications from state schools. But as I say this is written more excitedly and exaggerated than I tend to think myself, an effect exacerbated by the way in which I feel I have shrunk somewhat since coming to Balliol—but that is a topic for another time.

This is background to the most positive aspects of my life that I am now going to try and feed into a description of my father’s continued insistence on his labelling. There’s no assessments or special treatment, and there’s nothing coming from anyone but him, but—and now I shall drop into the present tense, for the situation in the sixth form and the situation now is the same—he continues to turn to the person next to him and comment, ‘that’s his Asperger’s’, when I have, say, expressed a strong opinion. Something he has managed to stop doing is going through his explanation of me to other adults I interact with; one particular example of this that I remember was when we once went to the cinema with a friend of my sister’s and their parent; he explained to her my condition. But to, say, my sister, it continues. He’s expressed his disdain for an aspect of our lifestyles, let’s not consider that as an argument but merely as a symptom, he can’t help it. My father started a master’s degree some years ago in autism and switched from being a French teacher to working in the autistic unit at a Sheffield school, and this only makes things worse; it’s almost as if he sees it as part of some quest, started by bringing up an autistic son. I think he even labels himself under some of this. He would say to my sister “look at how he walks, he’s a bit clumsy, just like the autistic children I look after at school.” He doesn’t think I am capable of running my own social life, so he asks me “have you seen James recently”, James being a close friend who happens to live across the road, and he’ll go “why don’t we invite James round to this thing we’re doing” or whatever. This is so patronising and disrespectful of the relationships that I have with my closest friends, for not only am I more than capable of having those relationships without his assistance, but he also clearly has no understanding of them if he limits it to James; he is one of my three or four very close friends, the others of who are never mentioned. Once, after an evening of this sort of stuff, I had enough and just walked out, back to my mother’s to spend the night.

My father wrote me a letter recently when he read about my academic issues on this blog, and some of the sentiments there were pretty unpleasant to read. He talked about my good relationships with teachers at school, and said “why do you think I was friends with Mr X and Mr Y?”, suggesting it was rather utilitarian. This is demeaning to the both of us. As a teacher, he knows most of the teachers in Sheffield (anyone else with teachers for parents will understand how this works), and I would have thought that his friendships with these individuals was about more than that. On the other hand, I think that my relationships with them were (and are) about more than that too. He wrote about how he’d built up a layer of protection around me which I had rightly broken free from when the time was right. Yeah. All he did was give me a semi-permanent sense of being surrounded by pits filled with a tranquillising gas, leaving me desperate to escape falling into a deeper mediocrity than the modern man is forced into by default. I felt so angry at his words.

Now we come to the very recent, when I had my first few sessions with the university counselling service over my current academic issues. At the absolute beginning, when the counsellor walked over to sit down, she had a folder and said that she’d be looking through it, and immediately I was right up on high alert. It had come back. The records of my previous transactions with these sorts of authorities had somehow resurfaced in Oxford’s filing system. Once my mild panic died down I realised how very improbable this thesis was, but I didn’t stop second guessing the counsellor for a good while. I was so very suspicious of her and found it so hard to absolutely trust her. I wanted to be there and I wanted to engage but old instincts got in my way. So we discussed this story, since I correctly identified it as the source of my unease, and I went through all the stuff and so then she said “so what was it that you were almost-diagnosed with?” and I said “Asperger’s Syndrome”. There was silence, so I said “you looked surprised” and indeed she was. She said that it wasn’t a term she would ever think of in relation to me, that she had encountered people she would apply the label Asperger’s Syndrome but that they were nothing like me. By this time I’d explained the thought of my mother’s that I might have certain symptoms of it, and so she asked me what symptoms, and I said that I was supposedly lacking in empathy and social skills. She said that this was true of so very many people in varying degrees, and that it would definitely not apply to me in any significant sense. She then affirmed the view I share with my mother that labelling isn’t a very good idea, and one should view others holistically. This was a massive weight off my shoulders, in two key respects: firstly, the agreement that labels aren’t good, but then that even if that’s wrong it doesn’t matter because the label definitely doesn’t apply in my case. I do not have insurmountable issues that I can only learn to cope with and work around, in fact, I don’t have anything even approaching that. I have many psychological twists and turns, some of which could do with straightening, but no incapacity or malady to be found.

The reason that this was a significant weight off my shoulders is that while I might have generally claimed that I didn’t care about my father’s labelling because everyone is an individual and trying to categorise like that isn’t useful is that this claim didn’t penetrate very deep. One showing of this is my reaction to the counsellor and her folder, and another is my fear of falling into behaviours of the kind of children my father works with. An example of this is the word ‘routine’, which I always feared because I would think, “the mentally ill often need routine and can’t deal with change—I must avoid having a routine to avoid vindicating my father’s view” and so I would shy away from establishing routines and find it hard to commit to them because of this. I also found these things affecting my willingness to defend my old-fashioned conception of friendship and of social activity; is introversion, a character trait most advantageous in many scenarios, something I must avoid in order to avoid vindicating my father’s beliefs? (This one became particularly relevant since coming to university and still bothers me a lot.) Knowing that it is all more a reflection of my father’s mentality than my own—having this come from an authority, the counsellor—made it possible for me to start to drop these attitudes and frustrating ways of thinking, which I’m now working on pushing out. Routine is good (I actually seized up a little when writing that; it’s still here), especially when you’re having a difficult time for other reasons, and in fact in all cases.

I do not doubt my father’s conscious intentions towards me, even if I used to, but the results of his actions which even now continue (after he’s heard the counsellor’s comments) have profoundly damaged me. His demeaning of my relationships with both teachers and people of my own age group angers me so much, because I value those relationships and his reaction to them all feels to me as if it is trying to take away that value, because supposedly I’m not capable of having it. I am pleased to be lifting myself out of these bad, defensive habits gradually, now that the niggling doubt, grown stronger since coming to Oxford, that “maybe he was right and I am disabled in this way”, has begun to be dismissed by the dismissal of my father’s enduring diagnosis as utterly incorrect.

comment T10SLAOIRTGP0670

Always nice to have a bit of an acquaintance’s backstory fleshed out. Thanks for sharing.

Comment by edward.jacobs Wed 18 May 2011 19:02:36 UTC

Always nice to have a bit of an acquaintance’s backstory fleshed out. Thanks for sharing.

Comment by edward.jacobs Wed 18 May 2011 22:13:41 UTC