What’s the difference between fear and cowardice?
What’s the difference between fear and cowardice?
The first time somebody remarked to me explicitly about how much thinking I do I was 16 years old. It was a sunny, hot afternoon in June, the Summer before my senior year in high school, and Renée [not her real name] and I had been lounging and chatting in the swimming pool of an inn owned by her parents. I had just achieved completion of the sort of relentless, protracted, exquisitely detailed, unwittingly rude, professorial monologue we aspies are known for when she grinned and said “Wow, you really think a lot!”, followed up a couple of hours later with an unexpected “I love you”. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that last surprising announcement, so after a clumsy hug we said goodbye, and then she climbed aboard a bus to New York City and disappeared from my life.
She didn’t die or anything like that, but we never spoke to each other again. And although I’ve always thought it was simply one of those things that happens, it has really just now occurred to me that it may actually have been my own fault we lost touch. I know I never contacted her after that, and since I hadn’t told her that I loved her in return, she may have felt too vulnerable to risk contacting me. That sounds a little tragic, I suppose, but the birth of my twins a few years ago caused all my regrets — about losing Renée and in fact anything at all — to evaporate, at least all those that had accumulated prior to their birth; because had any of it been different (due to the Lorenz butterfly effect of chaos theory), they almost certainly would never have been born. Yes, of course, perhaps I would have had different children, but I’m in love with the particular children that I have. So if losing Renée played even an infinitesimally tiny role in bringing them into this world, then I’m quite at peace with that. In any case, over the years I have thought now and again about Renée; and I recently learned from a mutual Facebook friend that she’s still alive and well out in California somewhere, in fact running a world-famous annual art festival. That makes me feel happy for her.
Over the decades, one consistent reminder of her has been the occurrence about once per year of roughly the same remark, made by some new person in my life who has finally gotten to know me well enough to bear witness to the fact. Although it’s usually stated more bluntly — something like, “bro, you think too much!”
And it’s true, at least sometimes. On occasion I can get so deeply absorbed in thinking that I can hardly do anything else, or at least, anything else that requires thinking. When that happens it’s like I lose total control over my own mind. I use different images to convey what this is like for me.
Sometimes I say it’s like my mind is a pit-bull, in that once it gets its jaws clamped around some topic, idea, or problem it’s nearly impossible to pry those jaws apart. Sometimes I say it’s like my mind is a locomotive, or maybe a horse that has busted out of the barn and is racing across a field. I think my favorite image is that of a furnace — ablaze between my ears, which blasts and roars and broils over whatever idea, topic or problem my brain has selected for cooking that day.
Generally speaking, if I’m not sleeping then it’s a good bet that I’m thinking more or less intensely like this about something, and in the rare moments where I’m not, even then I’m obsessively shopping around for my next obsession.
Every so often my mind’s pit-bull latches its jaws onto a topic with unusual ferocity, in which case I describe it as “losing my marbles”, and I believe these more extreme manifestations qualify as autistic meltdown, although my own meltdowns differ somewhat from the traditional version in a couple of ways. For one thing, it seems I retain full executive control over most of my own observable behavior — which is to say there is really almost no particular observable behavior that I feel irresistibly compelled to do (rock, scream, bang my head against a wall, pee on the floor, etc.). I think the only exception to that rule is the actual thinking itself, which really feels to me like it’s just happening automatically, and even though I can force myself for brief moments to think about something else, the moment I relax my guard the horse is off and running again across the exact same field and in the exact same direction (so to speak).
Also, autistic meltdown is typically described as an intense response to feeling overwhelmed by sensory stimulation (sights, sounds, etc.), but for me it’s different. Although I do recognize in myself a couple of mildly anomalous patterns of sensory experience, those never provoke meltdown. For me meltdown is an intense response to feeling overwhelmed by a problematic situation. What happens is that first I detect that I’m trapped in some no-win predicament — “between a rock and a hard place”, as they say, with no path to success, “doomed to fail”, etc. — and then what happens is that “my thought-furnace ignites” and I begin to think, and to think a lot, as Renée put it that day in the pool, although she had only ever observed a relatively mild form of it.
And what is all this thinking about? Well, generally speaking it can be about whatever happens to engage my sense of curiosity at that time, but when it comes to a true meltdown event, the topic at hand is quite specific: I am trying to figure out how to rescue myself from the predicament that provoked the meltdown. For me, autistic meltdown is fiercely goal-directed. When my thought-furnace cooks, it is cooking up solutions.
However constructive it’s hoping to be, when I look back at the flotsam and jetsam that pollutes the wake of my life’s course, I’m forced to admit that all of this thinking can be quite destructive. For example, in recent years such intense thinking has caused me to forget to give my daughter the anti-seizure medication she needs to take twice a day. I’ve also forgotten about running bathwater, only to be reminded of it 45 minutes later, after 100 gallons or so had already spilled out into the hallway. And numerous times I’ve had to quit jobs or even been fired because I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about something long enough to get any work done.
But even my everyday, non-meltdown, baseline autistically obsessive thinking can be destructive, at least over time — something like the way a river running over rock can eventually carve out a canyon — because unless the people in my life wish to talk about whatever it is my brain happens to be focused on at that particular moment, then I find it quite difficult to concentrate on whatever he or she imagines we are discussing. Pretty much everybody who relies in some way on my being able to shift my attention to their needs has to struggle with the fact that I’m usually lost in thought, living in my own little autistic la-la land, and that can take it’s toll on any relationship.
I think sooner or later Renée was going to realize this about me, and I probably would have lost her one way or another. And actually, now that I think of it, maybe that’s what she was trying to tell me in the swimming pool that day, and why I never heard back from her.