Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My Experiment

I want to tell you a story. This tale, although it may seem strange, tells of how I used an experiment to finally begin to overcome the struggles I have had since childhood, and how I finally started to see the into the souls of others. I am not perfect; I still have decades of progress ahead of me, and I in no way claim to be "done" with my struggles. But I have found great peace which has heretofore remained absent, and I want to tell you how I stumbled upon it.

Cut to the 27th day of last May. For some reason, that night I became acutely aware of my life as someone fundamentally isolated from others. I realized deep down that I have a disability which prevented me from connecting to anyone without great effort, and that I did not see that connection on the horizon anywhere in the future. So, I wept. Real grief overcame me, and when I recovered from the initial shock, I began to chat with a friend (another aspie) on Facebook about the issue. I asked him if he ever felt cut-off from others, and he told me to my surprise that he used to, but that he didn't feel that way anymore. I asked him what had changed, and he didn't really know, but I began to assemble the pieces in my head: my friend overcame these feelings in high school, when he started exploring the various facets of role-playing. Whether in acting, RPGs, or other places, I realized that his attempts to step into the skin of fictional character directly corresponded to his renewed ability to connect. And why shouldn't it? After all, isn't that what empathy is at its core?

So, I decided to experiment. Though the details are very personal and private, I will say that I began to write creatively, and to use a sort of fictional "avatar" in it to embody all the qualities I desired in myself (empathy, kindness, emotional intelligence, and virtue). I also greatly toned down my self-criticism, and I used this creative writing to pour out my inner emotions and subconscious thoughts. The results were surprising - I found insights in it that I did not consciously intend, but yet were very applicable to my life at that moment. This process was amazing - I learned more about myself than ever because of it, and I slowly became more self-conscious and self-aware. 

It was around this point in time that my family began a trip to France, and on the plane ride there a new development occurred. I began again to do this creative writing, but this time it was more difficult, and it was like a wall was erected between me and further progress. But I persisted, and I finally broke through. My heart then began to glow within me, and I started to feel great relief, like I had never felt before. For the next hour, I felt so much peace, love, and comfort that it was overwhelming - my heart was bursting, and I experienced what my religion calls a "burning in the bosom". If I could put it differently, it felt like a great weight which my heart had held for years was suddenly lifted, and like I was free.

As the plane landed and my family began to explore the streets of Paris, more developments occurred. Now, I had always been a toe-walker, and you can imagine my surprise when my parents pointed out to me that I was walking heel-toe! I didn't even think about it, and yet this symptom of Asperger's simply disappeared. And as of today, it is still gone. Other things slowly started to change, too - my posture straightened, my handwriting greatly improved, and I began to eat and walk more slowly and deliberately.

But the most remarkable thing to come out of my experiment happened at the Musée D'Orsay impressionist museum. I liked this particular museum much more than the Louvre, but of all the magnificent paintings there, I found my absolute favorites at the Vincent Van Gogh exhibit. As I walked into the side-room containing his paintings, I stopped in front of the following self-portrait:

As if the painting was screaming to me, I suddenly felt a strong sense of desperation, dejection, and despair radiate to me from the canvas. I looked into Vincent's wide-open eyes, and for some reason I suddenly had a real sense of what it was like to be him - I felt pain and depression emanate from his gaze, and I knew that he felt like all hope was gone, and that his eyes silently pleaded for help. This was not mere projection. When I entered the museum I was as chipper as possible, but this magnificent painting made me do a complete U-turn into Van Gogh's humbling despair. Still, I too had felt his feelings (perhaps in lesser degrees) but in that moment it didn't matter - Vincent's pain and my pain flowed together across the decades, and they seemed to become one. Again, I began to weep.

To hide my tears, I quickly stepped into the main area of the museum. It looked like this:

As if I was hit by a cargo train of glorious emotion, Vincent's pain became transformed into a new feeling - pure joy. The sunlight streaming in from the ceiling filled the room like palpable glory, and everything began to shine with radiant light. The colors became more vivid, the sounds more distinct, and everything, in short, became new. As I continued to shed tears, I looked around. The connection I felt with Vincent Van Gogh I began to feel with everyone I could see - I could see the boredness of the children, the raptness of the art fans, and the longsuffering of the unhappy families. I felt it all, and pain, joy, and love mingled together into a splendor of emotion like nothing I had ever felt. 

Other things began to improve upon my return home - I read and thought more quickly, I became more confident in social situations, and amazingly, I naturally made eye contact for the majority of the time. In fact, all these things continue to this very day. Now, I acknowledge that my success my wane over time, but I have had peaks and troughs of progress in the past, and the peaks (as perhaps this one will be) always overcome the troughs. But it makes me wonder: why? Nothing I had done over the two decades of my life had ever given me as much sheer connection as I started feeling in France, and so the only logical conclusion is that it has something to do with my experiment.

Why did it happen? Well, I have a theory: I have noticed that I do more activities using a "manual transmission" than neurotypicals. While most people do things like socialization and connection on autopilot, I need to do them with often-exhausting conscious effort. Thus, I think my experiment worked because it acted as practice for this subconscious action I found so difficult. But more than that, the fact that my fictional "avatar" embodied all the qualities I desired means that it kindled the specific part of my dormant subconscious which I needed. Rather, my capacity for connection lay buried, but writing vicariously as a figure who already possessed it allowed me to unearth it in myself.

Like I said, I have not fixed all my problems - I still obsess, and I still don't make eye contact as much as others. But I have gone leaps and bounds ahead of any progress I have made in the past, and I feel it would be irresponsible and selfish of me if I didn't try to share my joy with other aspies. So if you have Asperger's, I invite you to consider emulating my project. I do not mean in any way to impose my beliefs upon you, but if you've reached the end of your rope as far as hope for connection is concerned, the desire to help in me urges you to at least try it out. After all, the worst that could happen is that it doesn't work, and nothing would be lost.

But if you are interested, here's what I would suggest: do something creative. It could be literature, playwriting, poetry, painting, drawing, or even songwriting. But there are two catches:

1. Do it without any self-criticism. Pour your emotions and thoughts into whatever artistic medium you choose, and do it without thinking of how good it is or if other people would like it. In fact, don't think about it at all - just create.

2. Somehow embody in your work the qualities which you lack, but desire to possess. Thus, if you do the emotional outpouring of #1, reign it in only as far as to point it in the direction of those traits. This will seem awkward at first, but if you're like me, it will become much more natural as you progress. And hopefully, the traits will shine through in your everyday life.
I make no guarantee that this will work. But it has worked for me, and if there's even the slightest chance that it will help someone else, I am morally obligated to bring it to their attention.

That's all for now. If you're at all interested to learn the specific details of my experiment, email me and we'll talk. If not, have a wonderfully hope-filled day!

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