I recently joined a WhatsApp group for high-functioning people on the autism spectrum.  The conversation today turned towards autism vs. neurotypicality (the condition of not having autism or any other neurological issues), with several people describing autism as a “superpower” and one person asserting that autistic people are superior to neurotypical people in terms of both cognitive abilities and morality (the example of The X-Men was used as an analogy).  I found the latter view rather insulting to neurotypicals.  As for autistic superpowers… well, good for you if that’s how you perceive your traits, but in my life they have only manifested as disabilities (still not being diagnosed officially doesn’t help).

I posted a comment saying I would rather be neurotypical as most of my problems (employment, socialising, dating, not fitting into religious community) seem to be rooted in my autism.  Someone responded with a whole series of long comments saying that I need to be more positive and if I try hard enough with socialising, dating (etc.) eventually my hard work should pay off.  It was also asserted that I should see other autistic people as “my tribe” and not worry any more about having to find people who understand me.

I don’t want to play the easily offended snowflake, but I found this whole conversation massively insulting and off-putting, from the suggestion that all neurotypicals are back-stabbing, greedy liars (some of my best friends are neurotypical…) to the idea that if I just tried harder in life, I would succeed.  I’ve been struggling for over thirty years (since I started school) with social interactions, for twenty years or so with depression.  This person does not know me at all, yet she assumes I can easily fix things by changing my attitude.  It’s actually my attitude that is the product of years of unsuccessful struggling to fit in to societies and cultures/sub-cultures that are not good fits for me.  I try so hard to persevere, and I don’t get anywhere.  (This could be an example of where what autistic people perceive as “radical honesty” is actually just tactlessness.)

And just because other people see the autistic community as their “tribe” doesn’t mean I automatically will.  I have other attributes, particularly religion, that mark me off from many people on the spectrum.  I don’t think I will ever fit easily in any one group.  I think I will always be flitting between different groups and the best I can hope for is limited acceptance in each one.

I know people say I should be more open with people in my religious community about the way my depression and social anxiety get in the way of things like shul (synagogue) attendance and Torah study, but this type of interaction is the kind of thing that scares me off being more open.  If people who share some of my issues don’t get it, what chance people who don’t have any of them?

***

I’ve just been a mess of depression, anxiety and repressed anger all day.  I’m not sure where the anger came from.  I think it was set off by the WhatsApp exchange above, but mutated into general feelings that I can never fit in, which I guess is still connected to the feelings above,  as well as to thoughts of not fitting in politically and culturally, feeling that I will never be accepted in secular Western culture.  I’m not sure how I got onto that train of thought, but it’s where I was all afternoon.  (I’m not sure if reading things like this is a cause or an effect of this.)  Then when I was out shopping I saw a bunch of frum (religious Jewish) mothers with children and the mothers all looked a lot younger than me.  I also got an email about an educational event over the festival of Sukkot in a few weeks that made me feel that my religious values don’t completely correspond with my community’s.  So I feel I don’t fit in to secular Western culture, but I don’t fit in to the frum counter-culture either (saying “frum counter-culture seems weird, but it is essentially a counter-culture even if it is conservative).

I just feel emotionally overwhelmed today, which is probably unsurprising when you consider that I’ve been up for eight hours and have spent most of them feeling depressed, anxious, agitated, angry and attacked.  I don’t know how much is me being over-sensitive and how much is genuinely worth being upset about (if anything is “worth” being upset about).  I hate that things like this happen to me when my depression is bad, that I have this vulnerability to… I’m not even sure what I’m vulnerable to.  Criticism, other people’s anger, feeling abandoned?

I just wrote the following comment on the Mental Health at Home blog and it seems relevant here:

<i>”The author explores the idea of needing someone who is “strong enough” to love her, and touches on concerns about having kids with a serious illness and medications that would need to be stopped. She also writes about how difficult it is when fellow Christians equate her illness with a lack of faith”</I>

I can share all these concerns. The latter is part of the reason I don’t really talk about my issues with anyone in my community. In the Jewish community it would be phrased differently, as abstract faith is less a part of Judaism than Christianity. In Judaism it would be, “You should <i>daven</i> [pray] harder” or “If you feel depressed, go and learn <i>Torah</i>” but it’s a similar thing.

The funny thing is, I’m not sure if anyone ever said anything like that to me in real life. Maybe once or twice, but not often, because I haven’t told many people. I think I’ve heard about stigma other people have experienced online and in books and articles and was so scared that I don’t ever dare to stick my neck out.

***

It’s Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) in four days and I feel completely unprepared.  I’m not as unprepared as last year (when I seriously considered praying for God not to give me another year of life, in a reversal of the usual Rosh Hashanah prayers), but I still feel somewhat unready.  I suspect that my lapse into depression this week is a result of the coming month of Jewish festivals and my feeling of unpreparedness.  Paradoxically, I think the depression as per usual is setting me up to fail, making me too depressed and anxious to get to shul (synagogue) on time or at all, so that others notice my absence and judge me (or I feel that they’re judging me) or so I miss mitzvot (commandments) like hearing the shofar (ram’s horn trumpet blasts).  Then that will feed more depression and social anxiety for the later Yom Tovim (festivals) particularly Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) and Simchat Torah (Rejoicing of the Torah), the latter of which I will almost certainly skip because it’s just too difficult for me to cope with.

I just feel I’ve lost another day to my out of control emotions.  Another day out of so many months and years, even decades, lost to my emotions and mental illnesses.  Then the fact that I’ve lost so much time feeds the depression even more.

***

Deep breath.  I’m going to post this now rather than later in the evening as per usual.  I’m going to forget about the emails I was supposed to write today and the charity appeals I wanted to donate to as well as the job adverts E. suggested I look at (sorry E.  Maybe later this week).  Tell myself I did make some scary phone calls and sent some emails (including one about volunteering at a museum).  Daven Ma’ariv (say the Evening Prayers – sorry, no midweek shul attendance this week), eat dinner, watch TV for a bit, try to feel a bit better and work on my novel for a while and do a little bit of Torah study before bed.

Thanks for reading.

11 thoughts on “The Trouble with Tribes

  1. I don’t think there is anything I can say to make you feel better about all of this but I do hope that you feel better soon. Everything will be okay. I try to always remind myself of that. So sorry that the comments on the WhatsApp upset you. I think they were just trying to make you feel good in their own twisted way. Obviously they didn’t. Me personally… I wish I had friends that were like me. I also like that I have one friend that’s not like me… She doesn’t understand me and never will but I love her positive energy and advice that is full of love and happiness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel a bit better now, thanks, just from being able to say, “I’m having a really bad time at the moment” and taking time out in my day to deal with that rather than try to force myself to do things, but end up just procrastinating.

      Yes, I think the people on WhatsApp were trying to be supportive, I was just looking at things in very different ways from them.

      It is hard when you don’t have friends who are like you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m sorry that the conversation upset you so much, I get like that too anytime I voice an unpopular opinion. I’m not a big fan of the tribe ideology myself, it can be good to associate with people that are like you but it’s easy for that to become toxic too. I know, I’ve been on both sides of the whole tribe thing and both were equally undesirable in the end.

    Good for you for giving the group a different perspective even if it was hard for you – that perspective may not have been appreciated by that one person but maybe others were given pause by it but just didn’t speak up. You never know the impact you have on others!

    That all being said, it sounds like a really rotten experience so I’m sending hugs and good wishes your way. Take care of yourself, do something extra nice if you can and keep writing – you’re incredible!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your supportive comment!

      With tribes, I guess it can be good or bad depending how you use it. Some people can say, “This is who I am, but I don’t mind if you’re different” whereas other people can have a strong sense of superiority of “their” group, which I guess was what I encountered today.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think there’s a certain level of privilege in claiming that autism is a superpower. Maybe that’s true if you have some securely attached relationships or circumstances are such that you don’t have to “fit in” with other people, but not everyone is in that position. I think it’s rather simplistic to suggest that just because you’re autistic, all autistic people are your tribe.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I feel really uncomfortable with the whole “autism superpower” trope in the autism community. It’s funny, I reacted very strongly against Greta Thunberg when she first appeared and I couldn’t work out why, as I’m by no means a climate change denier. In the end I decided that a lot of it was the way she was being presented as a superpowered person on the spectrum, that her supporters were saying, “Oh, she has autism and black and white thinking, so she sees right and wrong amazingly clearly!” And that’s not my experience of black and white thinking in my life at all; my family get really frustrated when I start thinking in very stark black and white terms and even I can see it’s a problem sometimes. So I feel very uncomfortable with that.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That idea, often voiced, that our illnesses could be easily fixed if we just tried harder or did xyz is very offensive and can be harmful if WE buy it and start believing we’re somehow not doing enough. Only someone who has serious mental health diagnoses and things like autism have a clue what it’s really like. It sounded like that group was not a very good one (or at least like some rather simple-minded people were on the chat that night). I’ve never found “A” tribe, only tribes in which I share a few things. It does make it feel hard when others seem to flit about so easily and enjoy their socializing. I feel on the outside, too, and it’s very hard.

    I wonder if you write your book on autism or depression and anxiety from an observant Jew’s standpoint if that might kind of open up your world. Some people would read it, and word would spread. There’d probably be more understanding by others in your shul. And I would think other Jews with autism or mental health issues would come out of the woodwork and you’d feel less alone. It sounds like it’s a subject that sorely needs to be written and talked about. I’d be interested in reading your book.

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    1. Yes, I think it is dangerous to start believing that we could change our illness so easily.

      I do hope that writing a novel about autism and mental illness in the Jewish community might open my world up like that, but I don’t want to put too much expectation on it. I know it’s a slightly weird reason to write a book, so that other people would understand me. But maybe I’m just more open about it than some other writers.

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  5. You wouldn’t believe how many bad experiences I’ve had on forums! There’s something horrible about how people act on them and treat others! These days, I’m thinking that one’s “tribe” is better seen as a group of friends from different places, who may or may not know each other. But you’ve got to watch out for forums!! Vicious, scary places! I’ve had way more luck with blogs, social media, and emailing people! Forums…. they’re just scary!!

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    1. This is really my first experience on a mailing group or forum (I was on a smaller email mailing list at university, but that wasn’t so active and most of us knew each other in person), so I’ll see how it goes.

      I’ve been scared off social media. Facebook is just a way of upsetting myself at how awful my life is compared with everyone else’s “perfect” life. And Twitter was just people being angry about stuff that generally wasn’t worth getting angry about.

      I like blogs too, but of the three subject areas I like to read/write blogs about (mental health, Judaism, Doctor Who), only the former seems to have many blogs these days. I used to follow lots of Jewish and Doctor Who blogs, but they’ve vanished! I think Doctor Who fandom moved to Twitter and Jewish blogs possibly to Facebook, but I’m not sure. And as I said, I don’t do Facebook or Twitter.

      Liked by 1 person

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