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Monday, 19 July 2021

A Difficult Decade; an Apology

Readers of this blog will know that I have long suffered with mental health issues, especially depression. I haven't made any secret of this, largely because I felt it was one small way of confronting the stigma which continues to be associated with mental illness.

It's been a difficult decade or so for me, including a minor 'breakdown' (as it would have been called) in late 2015 and several spectacular screw-ups which have been linked one way or another to my mental health.  It was, however, only around the end of 2019 that I began to realise that the depression might be more of a symptom of something else than the whole problem in itself. Reassessing some of my own problematic behaviour led to reading some online articles about Autism Spectrum Disorder, then some books, and taking some fairly well-respected tests(1). The results seemed pretty clear; I am 'on the spectrum'; neurodivergent. Now, this may not come as a surprise to a lot of you, but it did to me. Like a lot of so-called 'high-functioning' (problematic term) adults, I had managed to conceal my neurodiversity even from myself.(2) It was also a case of me having the usual caricature preconceptions of autism. I can't draw the Houses of Parliament from memory after having looked at them for a few seconds; I can't remember 80-digit strings of numbers; whatever. Indeed, for a lot of my lifetime, nobody really was aware of quite how broad the spectrum is or of how it can present over time, at different stages of life. I still don't have a formal diagnosis; the NHS has an 18-month-to-two-year waiting list and obviously (as it should) prioritises people who need more basic support in negotiating everyday life. Private organisations have 6-month waiting lists and a diagnosis can cost £2-3k. Fortunately I am in a position to set some wheels in motion on that front. I do have an opinion from a qualified professional (a specialist counsellor), though, and for now that's good enough for me.

What has become very clear to me is that most of my 'masking' strategies were age-related or even age-appropriate. I masked my uneasiness in social situations and not 'getting' the rules either by making a joke, being a clown or otherwise being consciously unconventional. We autistic (or likely autistic) folk tend to prefer straight talking and - as is well known - don't really 'get' meanings that are wrapped up in diplomatic-speak (this is possibly even more a problem in the UK)(3); my default setting to asking a question after a paper, if there was something I didn't agree with or wanted to discuss, was just to come out and say so; if someone asked me if X might be the case rather than Y, as I had suggested, my natural response is to say 'no - it's not'. You asked a question; I answered. What's the problem? If someone gave a bad paper or wrote a bad book, you say so, right? I never 'got' the idea that you'd be really complimentary about a piece of work and trash it in private conversation. To be honest, I still don't really get that, even if I have learned - slowly and painfully - not just to 'have a go' like I used to. It took me 20 years to learn to say 'thank you for your paper [etc]' before asking a question and to say 'thank you for your question; it's a good question...' before answering and it still seems unnatural, as though I am stiltedly reciting a script and that everyone must notice.

All of this was exacerbated by being of my generation. Most, if not all, of us have role models; we try to teach like the people who we respected as teachers, to write like the people whose writing we admire, and so on. This is especially important, though, to those of us on (or likely on) the spectrum. We learn to cope in social situations by copying the behaviour of people who seem to be good at it.(4) Now, when I was young what we'd now see as aggressive, 'macho' - even really unnecessarily dismissive - behaviour seemed to be the mark of the 'fearsome intellectual' (of whatever sex/sexuality). I remember an interview for a Junior Research Fellowship at Oxford when, after a well-known historian of Anglo-Saxon England really laid into me and this really knocked me over, I was told that the correct response was 'to come right back at them'. My PhD viva consisted of 3 hours of another well-known Oxford historian/archaeologist basically being rude about my work (after having told me at the beginning that I had passed, so that was OK). None of this was especially easy to deal with, especially when your default reaction when confronted by people who have the sort of cast-iron self-confidence that comes with a certain British socio-educational background, is to assume they must be right. In those days, spectacularly critical book reviews - often downright rude - were frequently shared with awe and admiration. Dorothy Parker/Margot Asquith-style put-downs seemed to be prized. Not by everyone, obviously (there were some people who were forward thinking), but it was a very common attitude, and some of the forward-thinkers seemed to be just as capable of being vicious in other ways. My first head of department (who once threw a set of keys at me and, on another occasion, shouted at me and told me I didn't do any work, in front of the whole department) was someone who shouldered their way to the very top of the profession. These things make a big impression when you have no instinctive idea of how to manage social situations. Although we have difficulty with unwritten social conventions, we autistics can simultaneously rigidly observe more obvious hierarchies/rules, so I tended to look up to senior folk that behaved like this. I still find it difficult not to treat the 'great and good' with probably excessive intellectual deference. They may not realise this! 

Anyway, all of this was OK when I was a young/er academic. You can be a clown, a joker, and also a bit brash - a bit of a fire-eater - when you're a young man in academia.(5) There were some of the great and good that took against me in c.1991 and have never accepted me since; I always assumed this was a class thing (and to some extent I still think it was) but I now realise this was probably mostly because of my social difficulties. But generally you can get on pretty well as an 'enfant terrible' - up to a point. If you work hard and you are a good teacher, being unconventional, a joker, etc., is 'cool' and you can get away with being a bit of a hard task-master on occasion; it was all part of the package that was 'Guy'.(6) But - for obvious reasons - none of this still works when you're in your late 40s/50s and a 'senior professor'. Well, the reasons are obvious if you have some sort of natural understanding of social situations and how they work. If you don't, well, not so much. My masking strategies have serially failed and left me very exposed. And unhappy. In consequence I have done a number of silly things, some of which I regret for reasons other than that they made me look like a twat.

Part of the problem has also been that I treat most people in pretty much the same way (this is classic ASD behaviour) but, having that possibly excessive deference to my elders, I have expected the respect due to the status I have earned, not in obvious deference, but just in respect that I might know what I am talking about and am good at what I do. I think that was what I saw as the pay-off for me generally being informal with people of whatever status (I am not saying that any of this is logically consistent or 'correct'). I have often, as a result, got really angry when I have thought people were talking down to me (of course they may very well not have been). It's symptomatic of a classic ASD obsession with fairness and justice. Unfortunately I have often not realised how what I say has different effects on different people. To be basic, when I say 'oh don't be a dick' to an old friend and (now) fellow-prof, it has very different effects to when I say the same thing to a post-grad, although I mean it no differently. This may seem obvious to you... That's the point. I have had to learn all this and it has taken too long.

The discovery that I am very likely on the spectrum has been a lot to take in. A considerable amount of that has been like turning a light on all sorts of my life; why I am the way I am. Some of it has been regret; if only I had known this when I was [whatever age], either I maybe wouldn't have behaved like that or I would have known how to explain it, or how to get support.(7) Sometimes it makes me retrospectively angry (or yet angrier): so that's why those people bullied me, marked my card in career terms. I have essentially taken partial retirement because of the ongoing failure of my employer to take account of mental illness. It's really not been a retrospective 'get out of jail free card' for my bad behaviour, though; quite the opposite. Previously if I had a melt-down with someone, although I might have wished, for myself, that I hadn't done it I comforted myself with the idea that at least I was in the right. Now, quite apart from realising that the effect of my words might have been much more hurtful than I supposed (see above) or intended, I also realise that there was also a very high chance that I had the wrong end of the stick and that I had not understood the situation at all.

So, with that in mind I would like, here and now, to make a public apology to the following, all of whom I have lost my rag with either in person or online in a way that - regardless of anything else - was inappropriate, offensive and possibly hurtful:

Mr Jack Wiegand
Dr Jen Edwards
Dr Jon Jarrett
Dr John Jenkins
Dr Rachel Stone.

Regardless of any other rights and wrongs, I shouldn't have said what I said in the way I said or in the context in which I did so.  There are doubtless others who deserve such an apology; I may therefore add to the list above. There are certainly other people I have had rows with in public and have gone about things the wrong way; let's just say that either, for one reason or another, I don't feel as bad about them or I have publicly apologised before..

It's possible that I will blog more about my experience of neurodiversity in academia, or possibly set up a new blog for that. In the meantime, thanks for reading.


1: The common tests are problematic, as is fairly well known, but the problems seem to concern subjects who aren't white males. Funnily enough, my own demographic appears to have been the default setting (hardly anything surprising about that, and far more widespread in medicine than just in issues of psychology/psychiatry). More socially disadvantaged or marginalised groups tend to 'mask' in more extensive and different ways. As far as I can tell, though, these tests are OK for white males.

2: To the extent that when I went through the tests with my partner I would be reading out symptoms and saying 'well, that's not really me is it?' and she'd reply 'er, hello? What about x, y and z?'

3: Once, when I was about to something that turned out to do me a fair amount of harm, a senior colleague told me that I needed to 'think carefully' before doing it. So I thought carefully about it. And did it. Afterwards he said 'obviously I meant you shouldn't do it; you should have realised that'. 

4: Check out my writings about social theory. This all seems to take on a new significance now.

5: This again points up all of the everyday sexism in academia, as well as in the diagnosis of autism.

6: I had a colleague over a decade ago now who told me how impressed he was that all the students just refer to me as 'Guy'. I was pretty cool in those days, even if I say so myself, but that was then. 

7: Obviously, for someone my age, the frustration is only increased by the fact that awareness of many relevant aspects of ASD simply didn't exist back then.