Sunday, March 8, 2009

Miss Diagnosis

"Where I come from men do not just take musical instruments off the wall and play them." The grey haired woman shifted in her bar seat, sipped her lager, and glared at the old man who hobbled away.

"He probably wanted to impress you," I responded, "Taking the guitar may have been inappropriate but it is sweet and romantic too." I imagined him as a thief who borrowed the guitar to steal her heart. I stood next to the door of Bar Clay, a pub on the Berkeley Oakland border, waiting for my friends to grab their jackets so we could head down the street to another bar.

"Actually," she brushed her hair back exposing the handsome lines around her eyes that spoke of her wisdom. "he's a professor. He has assburgers."

"Did you just say assburgers?" I shuddered picturing a heinous venereal disease afflicting geriatrics. I wanted to bolt from the room.

"No. I said Aspergers." Her cheeks turned crimson. "Google it. It's a form of autism that explains why they are so intelligent but so socially inept." She smiled. "Will you hang the guitar back up on the wall?"

I grabbed the instrument by its neck and hung it on the wall, annoyed that she had ignored the professor and then flirted with me. I pulled on the door to catch up with my friends who had passed me during our brief conversation. As I headed to the sidewalk I turned and said, "I will look it up. Thank you."

A few weeks later, I stood below a pink tower of rainbow holds, watching a chunky twelve year old struggle up the wall of the Berkeley Ironworks climbing gym. Leo skated his feet higher, aiming to for a ledge ten feet off the ground.

"That's good. I want to come down." He hung on the rope half way to the cave. Stretching, his toes dabbed the ground.

"Are you sure?" I asked. I wanted him to climb a little higher. He had pushed well past his previous high point of laying on the ground. I liked Leo. He said funny things at random times. When I was a kid, I did the same thing and had even been chunky like Leo. My mother told me I had broad shoulders and then we would buy my pants from the husky department of J.C. Penny's. I wanted Leo to succeed. He just needed to try a little.

"Yeah, that is okay. I am all done." Leo pointed to the ground and I lowered him.

"Maybe we can time ourselves running up to the cave instead?" He said.

I smiled, grabbed my stopwatch, and said, "Sure, Leo. Is that okay with you Adam?"

Adam, the other twelve year old in our small group, nodded and we passed my stopwatch around. Leo clocked 1 minute 54 seconds round trip. Adam whittled his time down from a little over 1 minute to a reasonable 45 seconds. I did it in 7 seconds. Everyone was pleased. At the end of the session, I took Leo to his nanny.

"Thanks-you are so good to him." She smiled at me.

"No problem." I shrugged. "He is fun to be around."

"Yeah," she sighed. "He's lucky to have someone like you. A lot of kids think he is a bit strange..."

I thought about the relationship Leo had with Adam, and then how he acted around me. Neither Adam nor I noticed anything wrong with him. I tilted my head.

"He does have Aspergers you know?" Her commented made me angry. Suddenly, I noticed the nanny had an odd pear shape to her body.

Leo seemed like a normal kid. Smart, awkward, fine. I turned out alright and I had been the same way. I watched him pull his sweat pants up to his breasts, look down at his exposed shoes, and awkwardly try to tie his laces, unable to quite bend over and reach his toes. I remembered being clumsy when I was his age and not being able to reach my feet. I had struggled to be normal and felt like a stranger in my body. Most people called it adolescence.

"Well," I grinned at Leo. "He's a good kid. I don't know what Aspergers is, but he seems alright to me." I suddenly wondered if everyone that was just alright really had Asperger's.

"Okay Leo," the pear shaped nanny said. "Let's go. Goodbye James and thank you."

"Bye James," Leo said. I waved back to Leo, gathered my belongings, and headed home.

I dodged land mines on the walk to the front door of my room in Berkeley. The anarchists I lived with organized book fairs, leftist protests, and group meetings on gender politics and theories on society as a spectacle. but they acted like true anarchists when it came to cleaning the dog shit off the walk way-no one did anything but let it rot.

In my adjustment from my former life as a dirtbag rock climber, to one of a normal functioning member of society, I felt confused. I was a deer in head lights in the city of Berkeley. And then on the walk to the porch, I would slip on dog shit. The sliding around made me feel unnaturally clumsy. Further, I had been acting awkwardly, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people. While the phenomenon mainly occurred around people I did not know well, it concerned me greatly. Was I really having identity issues or did everyone else just not know what to make of me?

I tried talking about my problems to my close friend Mandi, she said "James, I wish you could see a therapist sometimes." Then she ended our conversation.

My identical twin brother emailed me from Thai Land, where he was training as a kick boxer. He told me, "Just talk to more people. Find a girlfriend." He was closest to the truth.

They both told me I was a little weird. How could I disagree with them? They knew me so well. Without adequate funding I did not know what to do, so I looked to internet gurus for advice. I Google searched a few words that described myself.

"Intelligent, socially inept, clumsy." I hit the search key. A number of descriptions about nerds, and dorks popped up. And then in the middle of the page was a description of Asperger's Syndrome.

"Well," I said to myself. "I already know I am a nerd and act like a dork. There's nothing wrong with that but there seems to be something wrong with me. Maybe that's why I am really smart but say weird things all the time. Maybe that' why I feel like I have so much in common with the professor and Leo. Maybe that's why my friends think I am so weird." Confronted with so many maybes, I continued searching the internet. Suddenly, I realized the truth of it all. I had contracted a severe case of Asperger's.

In 1944, Hans Aspereger, an Austrian pediatrician, noticed a pattern among his young patients. The adolescents displayed abnormalities including verbosity, abrupt transitions, literal interpretations, and mis comprehension of nuance. They used metaphors meaningful only to themselves, they had formal or idiosyncratic speech, and they had oddities in loudness, pitch, intonation, and rhythm. Further they showed audio or visual abnormalities. They had an enhanced perception of small changes in patterns such as arrangements of objects or well-known images.

Whenever I tried to meet new people, I displayed symptoms of Asperger's. Though sometimes shy and reserved, I could be loud. I used idiosyncratic speech; I used expressions that only I understood. I talked about rock climbing with strangers and said phrases like "gnarly", "burly", and "jedi-enhanced drop knees". I noticed small changes in people, especially women I saw on a regular basis. When they wore different clothes, cut their hair, or just about anything, I could tell. I had visual abnormalities.

I stayed up late, pacing my room, rolling in the chair in front of my desk. What was wrong with me? Did I really honestly, have Asperger's? I read discussions about the syndrome, searching through internet forums. I had an uncanny ability to relate to other people with this problem. This suggested that I was part of the group.

I worked my fingers to the cuticle, pounding at the keyboard, searching the internet for answers, I found gurus like R. Kaan Ozbayrak, a doctor who had received his degreee in Turkey, worked in psychiatric wards for Massachusetts children, and had published volumes on Asperger's. The academic work sounded definitive, correct, and in many cases applicable to myself. I scrolled through stories of diagnosed children, like Elizabeth Andress, who had large vocabularies but lacked social skills. In elementary school, I was known for my large lexicon and total lack of friends. I related to the stories.

I stomped through my room, sat down in my chair, and then abruptly stood again. In a moment of panic, I shouted," Oh god! That's me. I do have Asperger's!"

"Shut up James!" An anarchist screamed through the thin walls.

"I can hear you talking to yourself." my house mate Lee yelled. "And it's three in the morning!"

Suddenly, she stood in my room. "And just to let you know, you do not have Asperger's. You are being an egotistical jackass, thinking you can diagnose yourself."

She stopped huffing, looked at me, and said, "Now, relax and go to bed."

The clock read

"God," I thought, "she was right."

I was delusional, thinking I could diagnosis myself by reading about it on the internet. I calmly laid in my bed, slowing my thoughts. Why did I believe I could answer my own questions? I inhaled. Why did I constantly think I was right? I exhaled. Was I a self centered asshole? I breathed. I was. I sometimes told girls that I was kind of a big deal and then acted like a jerk to impress them. I rose from my bed, walked to my chair in front of my desk, and I typed a few words about my enormous ego. I wanted help. I hit the search button on Google. Suddenly, I realized the truth of it all. I was a perfectly normal single male. I was a megalomaniac.