“Do you think maybe the reason people don’t respond to you is how you talk to them?”
I’m doing a really good job of controlling myself right now. I’m sitting with one of my supervisors (my department has two of them because it’s too much work for one person) and our human resources administrator, and trying to explain in unemotional, but not accusatory, terms why I lost my temper on the treatment floor a week and a half ago.
That I was frustrated. That my extremely valid concerns about the fact that the way instruments were being packaged and sterilized in the instrument person’s absence was so subpar that it was interfering with my ability to perform my own job, and that despite the fact that I was one of the only people trained in it, I was not permitted to do it and had to spend hours fixing the mistakes of untrained people at the expense of doing my own job. That I had expressed these concerns continuously and been ignored.
“Listen, I can’t hear how I sound,” I answered. “I do my best to mimic someone who is honestly trying to be helpful rather than hector-y, but as to whether or not I’ve succeeded, I simply can’t tell. This is one of the features of my Asperger’s. It’s something I can’t control.”
The administrator stepped in, mindful as ever of the company’s adherence to the Americans with Disabilities Act. “What can we do to help you?”
You can tell people to stop being so goddamned sensitive and suck it up.
“I would actually really appreciate a little more tolerance. Not everything is a personal attack, you know? I’ve had to be trained by people here who don’t care about their own tone of voice and I just let it go. I thought that’s how things were.”
My supervisor picked up the thread, “Well, that’s not how things are here. If someone says something to you and you feel like it’s insensitive, you need to tell us.”
I am completely incredulous. “Really? Every little thing?”
She replied in the affirmative.
“Um,” I took a moment to figure out how to express my skepticism without being insulting. It always takes a moment. I’ve learned that if I don’t take that moment, people don’t think autism, they think asshole.
“That’s not been my experience,” I decided. “I guess maybe this isn’t the norm? But the places I’ve worked have all had more of a ‘suck it up’ mentality.” As in, grow the f*** up, it’s not always about you, something that has been expressed to me many times, by many people, throughout my adult life.
My supervisor continued, “If someone is speaking to you in a manner that is insulting or hurtful, you need to say something about it to me or [the other supervisor].”
There was no disguising the disbelief in my voice; even I could hear it. “Seriously?”
My mind kept going back to being in surgeries with doctors losing their tempers and throwing instruments around. Or the fact that one of my co-workers has no bones about ripping someone down to size, has done it several times since I started working there, and has never been sentenced to any sort of probationary days off. Meanwhile, I threw a stethoscope – into a corner, away from my co-workers – in a meltdown once and got a disciplinary write-up that went in my permanent record.
So, to say I’m withholding judgment on this fact would be, um, kind of an understatement, in the classical neurotypical way of being vague and ambiguous that continues to catch me off guard.
I hadn’t meant to bring up my recent exhaustion, but it seemed like a good opportunity, so even though it was off-topic – a BIG no-no for neurotypicals, I felt I had to at least plant a flag that might be recognized later.
“So, “ I said reluctantly, “I wasn’t going to bring this up, but the new job and hours I’m doing have left me completely drained. I was going to give it 12 weeks – it’s been 10 – but I just haven’t adjusted. I don’t have any energy at all when I leave here. I haven’t been able to do anything other than work and sleep. So that mental exhaustion may have contributed to me not being able to control my temper as well as I might otherwise.”
Silence. Dumbfounded stares. Clearly, I had just wandered into another critical error.
But it was the truth. When I was hired, I worked Tuesday – Friday, 10 hour shifts, with a three-day weekend. I did appointments two days and was a surgical assistant two days. It was a nice balance, two days exposure to the animals in the exam rooms and two days in a receptive environment to my sensory processing challenges in the operating rooms. It was perfect.
Then one surgeon retired and the others changed their schedules. All of a sudden, there was no need for me to do appointments on Wednesdays. Worse, if I were to work Mondays, it would have to be something that fell under the deceptive title of “patient care,” which was surgical admissions, hourly in-house patient treatments, radiographs and blood work for the appointments that needed them, invoicing, and discharges. It necessitated a level of multi-tasking and executive function that I, frankly, do not and will not ever possess. When first offered to me, I balked, terrified.
However, I was later informed that my bosses had been dismayed (let’s not say non-plussed, even though I’m pretty sure that would be more accurate) by my lack of interest in “helping the team.” So I went back a few weeks later and offered to train for it, try it out, see how I did.
And, as should have been expected, I am terrible at it. I just keep forgetting things. I’ve been doing it for over two months and my skill level has barely exceeded that of trainee. Plus, by about the 8-hour mark, I’m completely mentally tapped. I feel like my brain has gone through a wood chipper. I’m a zombie, barely able to complete even the simplest of tasks.
Worse, I’ve lost my three-day weekend. I’m on for two days, off for one in the middle of the week, and back on for another two. My sleep schedule is in tatters. Even though I’m getting 9 hours of sleep a night, I now have to wake up at different times on different days and I’m a mess. I am slipping into dangerous mental fatigue territory, and pretty soon, I may start having to take days off. Something has to change.
And I am wandering into the minefield of self-justified anger. This isn’t the job I applied for, isn’t the job I was hired for, and not only do I suck at it, but even my underwhelming level of competency leaves me with an overwhelming loss of mental energy. I used to look forward to going to work. Now I don’t want to get out of bed. My friends insist that I need to say something about it. I’m afraid of offering ultimatums.
I don’t know what to do. I desperately wish I weren’t autistic and could just slide into the new position with the same ease that anyone else of my apparent intelligence could. And my unfairness button, always on a bit of a hair trigger, got activated, too. None of the other assistants had to change their positions, or schedules, or days. They all got to keep their three-day weekends.
Today is my day off. I don’t want to work tomorrow. I need the sleep.
Actually, what I need, more than anything, is for someone else there to understand what it’s like inside my head, inside the head of an autistic person. All of the effort I have to expend to perform at even this mediocre level. How hard this is on me, how demoralizing, to feel like this, to try as hard as I can and still come up short, putting in all of the effort I can and still failing in all the ways that matter, failing to control my emotions, failing to get better at this job, failing to see where the boundaries are to keep from crossing them, failing to bear up under the mental stress of feeling like a failure all the time.
Inside, I can feel the cracks starting to form. I don’t know where my breakpoint is, exactly (thank you, autism, for my substandard interoception), but I know I’m getting close. And my friends are right; I need to say something to someone before I have a classic, full-blown meltdown at work because I can’t find a sharpie or something.
But what do I say? And who do I say it to? And what happens then?