Anxiety and Theory of Mind
By Lisa Macafee
My nephew is deciding where to attend high school. They are debating between a school very close to their house and a school a ways away.
This elicited waves of intrusive thoughts and memories from high school and I worry-exploded all over my sister-in-law (sorry, my friend!).
One of the problems I had in high school was that I struggled (still do) with theory of mind.
Theory of mind is the ability to easily take others’ perspectives in mind. Of course, if I am thinking about it directly, I will be able to think about how ____ might make ____ person feel, but what I miss are the subtleties.
For example, I never told anyone how terrified I was every day of school because at any moment I could fall into the chasm or despair that fissured all around me because I assumed everyone knew. Or that everyone felt that way. Or that people who loved me knew because how could they not?! I see now as an adult how absurd that is. How could anyone know my innermost world if I didn’t share it with them?
We autistic folk struggle with this.
I was so miserable in high school that I got up one day from the very nice group of girls I had sat with all through middle school and walked away. They very not my people. They were nice, but so normal. I couldn’t relate to the things they were saying anymore, and trying to was exhausting. We call this masking. Masking wears us out.
For a week or so I just walked around the school alone. The chasm of despair threatened. Eventually, I sought out other kids sitting alone and sort of collected them together for social warmth. If all the loners were together, we wouldn’t be loners anymore. Brilliant.
I had made a pact with myself. The deal was that I wouldn’t have to kill myself if I could be useful to someone else. I felt like such a burden to others around me and so immensely lonely that this was the best I could do for myself.
What I think is shocking in retrospect is that I never thought to ask for help. I just assumed that if I should have had help, someone would have given it to me.
Because no one saw my private hell, I assumed I deserved it.
My friends dubbed the group of misfits I collected “Lisa projects”. In a way, they were right. The project was saving myself, and they were helping me do it.
My anxiety for my nephew is real because my fear was so tangible in high school. I carried a knife on me every day. A knife! I can see now that if I had pulled a knife in a fight and the other person also had a knife that one of us may have died, but in my 16 year old mind, having a knife meant I was super scary and the other person would just back off.
I had reason to fear for my safety. The group of friends I collected were misfits and got picked on. I would periodically have fits of rage where it was as if I was having an out-of-body experience.
Once, some skinheads had picked on and threatened a Jewish friend of mine. I can’t believe this was me, looking back, but I went over to their group alone. I sat sown in the middle of their little group and calmly said that I had heard that they wanted to beat up my friend because he was Jewish. I said that if they needed to beat someone up to feel good about themselves, I came to offer myself. That I was a girl and couldn’t possibly put up much of a fight, so if that’s what they needed, then they should go for it! If not, then stop threatening my friends.
Who was that girl?! I would never have done that if I had thought about it, but there was no thought. I was just there. It was like I was watching myself from above. Damn, girl! So yeah, I carried a knife.
I didn’t know this kind of life was unusual. I thought everyone had similar issues. My father was the survivor of all sorts of abuse and lived in an orphanage for part of his life, so in comparison to that, my life was a cake walk. Having taught high school for 11 years and counseled in community college for four years, I know now that my experience was not typical. My experience was a bit of a shit show, really.
I lived with this bargain – believing myself so unworthy of life that I needed to earn my existence through service to others – well into my 30s.
The ever-present gloom and suicidal ideation only went away when I had Rowan, my daughter. She is six today. I am 39. Something seemed to change in my hormonal make-up when I got pregnant with her that helped me. I am very grateful.
The fear and anxiety for others doesn’t go away. I see a lot of myself in my nephew. I pray to the endlessness that their experience is not like mine. I encourage them to tell me if they want to talk. I don’t’ want to assume that they need help like I did, but I don’t want them to suffer in silence like I did. I want a better life for them than what I had.
If I had known I was autistic and had words for non-binary then, I wouldn’t have felt so alone. I wouldn’t have felt like a freak all the time. I would have been able to identify as different, not bad.
I still want to live a life of service. The younger generations need us to make their lives filled with less pain than ours were.
Hello friends! I would like to publish writings from myself and other people with autism as snapshots of how autism has affected them, since there are so many misconceptions and confusions about adults with autism.
Some background: I completed a 12 unit certificate program to be able to serve autistic students and am angry at how the program focused only on little boys as autistic and completely left out adults, the trans autistic population, and girls/ femmes/ women autistics. I am currently pursuing a PsyD to do more research on autism and gender.
Please contact me if you would like to add a story! If so, please send me your piece, publish name, title, and an image (can be a picture related to your content, your picture, an autism meme, etc).
I am interested in publishing this collection, because people don't know enough about us (but sure do assume a lot). Also on Facebook!
Lisa Macafee, autistic counselor with a hankering for social justice.