Love on the Spectrum in Real Time

Joel

Is it break-up, make-up or wake-up?

by Joel Ashton-Fogle

Love is confusing at the best of times. This accounts for the huge industry of self-help books, relationship counsellors and literature written over the centuries. Love seems to be an enigma to even the most typical neurotypical. How do we find it? How do we keep it? What the heck is love?

I am a 24-year old male who is on the autism spectrum who is also diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I would like to invite you into my mind and into my heart. I hope this will help others who are similarly navigating a relationship roller-coaster ride. Perhaps we can try to make sense of this together and I welcome your comments.

My inclination is to jump to my current confusion. But I can hear my mother’s mantra now: “Give the context! It will help us understand better”. So, here’s the back-story:

As a teenager I was desperate to have a girlfriend. I didn’t have a clue about social signals (still haven’t). I was also a fairly good-looking boy. Girls would look at me and twirl their hair and, according to my sources on YouTube, that meant they liked me. I was also awkward, clumsy and had a profound speech impediment. I hadn’t a clue about personal space. I’d unknowingly, stammer in a girl’s face, asking for a date. Fortunately, I did not offend by being so invasive but, unbeknownst to me, I entertained a lot of people at my expense.

Girls accepted dates, stood me up, and then posted about how funny this was on Facebook. Guys offered to ask girls out for me if I paid them. I did all but set up standing orders with some of these “friends.”

I was ‘set up’ time and again. Each time I believed, in earnest, that I stood a chance of dating someone and each time I’d be left, the brunt of a publicly humiliating joke. I did not have the emotional vocabulary at that time to know that I was experiencing ‘shame’. I also did not transfer the learning from one situation on to the next. I spent almost 10 years of repeated awkwardness and humiliation. Although I received counseling in social skills and had the support of a loving mother, I was fixated on getting a girlfriend and everything I learned seemed to go out the window when a girl was involved. Getting a girlfriend became the obsession and I accepted the advice of my peers first and foremost.

I had my first relationship at age 22 with someone who said she loved me but, in fact, “used” me as a back-up plan, repeatedly returning to her ex-boyfriend. (but only after she had drained both my bank account and my physical and emotional energy).

I met my second girlfriend on a social media platform. She looked like the ‘Trophy girlfriend’, stunningly beautiful and, I was told she was “out of my league”.
Our dates took place in malls where I would spend the little money I had purchasing her heart’s desires.

She told me “If you love me you’ll buy me…” I believed her. She dumped me when I ran out of money.

And this brings me to my current situation. I met B almost 2 years ago. She was different. She was kind, intelligent and had inner beauty. We seemed to complement each other. Her disabilities are of a physical nature while mine are mental and neurodevelopmental. I recognized amazing qualities in her and learned compassion and empathy from her. I stayed with B while she was in hospital and she supported me following my recent recovery from a major depressive episode.

I moved back to my mother’s home as part of my recovery plan and B stayed with us for most of the summer and fall.

It was a nurturing family unit. B and I had our own personal space together and privacy but also had the back-up support of a loving mother who was our biggest ally. Mum is a professor and she supported B in registering for college and has advocated for the both of us in setting the framework for social services, housing etc.

I proposed to B last August and she accepted. She was placed on the waiting list for accommodation at my semi-independent residence and our plan was to get our own apartment there together.

I registered for a graduate course in Behavioural Science and B applied for a programme in Early Childhood Education. It looked like our future was clear, stable and would be wonderful.

We hit a bad patch several months ago while I was very ill and hospitalized with mania and later recovering with months of hypomania.

I corresponded with some girls on a well-known dating social network site. To be honest, I don’t even recall doing this, but the evidence was left there before me. Both B and my mum were clear on the impact this could have and how we had to work out a strategy so that it wouldn’t recur. I realize that I seriously jeopardized my relationship by this action and this is a lesson that has transferred and will not be repeated. I am on a cocktail of psychiatric medications and have been ‘euthymic’ (or ‘baseline’) for the past two months and will continue on a maintenance dose long-term. B said she forgave me and we worked together on strategies that made our relationship work.

Then, during recent Covid lockdown, B returned to live with her family. Things began to change. She was too busy to talk to me a lot of the time. She arranged to move back in with us on New Year’s Eve but changed this arrangement at the last minute, postponing for a week. She postponed again a week later. And then again. I was confused. She spoke to me in an angry voice that didn’t make any sense and then she refused to take my calls.

I received a text message saying “I can’t do this anymore.”

What does that mean? Do what? Text? Refuse my calls? Watch Netflix?

Then she changed her status on Facebook. She had been “in a relationship” and now she was “single.”

This was a clear message to me that I understood. It looked like break up. But I don’t understand fully why nor if this is the case.

Over the past few days B began communicating…sort of. She said she needs “time to think”. What do neurotypicals think about in these situations? She wasn’t clear and I got further confused. I asked if we were breaking up. I rely on clarity or my brain feels chaotic. She didn’t say we were breaking up but also didn’t say we weren’t.

I haven’t been able to sleep or eat with this confusion. Yesterday she said she loves me but that her family disapproves of the relationship. That’s something tangible that I can get my head around. That’s also something we can work with together.

Then she said she wants me to be “part of her life” as a friend. Later she said she still loves me and we will stay together. And later still, she texted me that she loves me but “can’t see this relationship going anywhere”.

I feel as though I am already navigating enough confusion in the currently very-confused world but this lack of clarity is really making me feel sad, depressed, exhausted and anxious. My chest hurts. It actually is physically painful. My mum says that this is the feeling of grief and loss; that it is something almost all people feel when we think we are losing someone we love. Mum says that there’s sadly no shortcut; that people often try to bury their hurtful feelings and some people self-medicate but it’s important to accept even these hurting feelings as being valid, to process them and then we can move forward. She says she wishes she could take this pain away but she can’t and that I will get through this. All I know, at this moment is that it hurts so much and I just want the feeling to go away.

I don’t know what today will bring. When B says she still loves me I am over the moon. I become happy in an instant. If she tells me we are over I will feel dreadful but at least I will know where I stand.

But this ‘nowhere land’ of “I still care about you” or “I want you in my life but not as my boyfriend” has no meaning for me. Maybe it’s meant to be kind but it isn’t kind. If I can’t quantify it, I am confused. When I am confused I get very anxious. When I get anxious all kinds of things are triggered and then things spiral downward. Of course, even though I am aware of all of this, when I’m experiencing it “in the moment” there’s often no ‘amber alert’: it goes straight to ‘red’ without any flag warnings at all, straight to “meltdown”.

I share this as my real-time processing and I hope I might update in a comment later.

Thank you for sharing my story so far. It may resonate with some who also feel that clarity and consistency may not bring happiness but they do bring stability.

Joel

I am 24 years old, am an Early Childhood Educator, Musician, Writer, Poet, Motivational Speaker and Social Justice Advocate.

I am also Neurodivergent. “Multiple Complex Needs” is how it used to be phrased. I have been diagnosed as Autistic, having Bipolar Disorder, PTSD, Developmental Delay, Ankylosing Spondylitis (an autoimmune degenerative arthritic condition) and am partially-sighted.

I was a ‘micro-preemie’ born 16 weeks early at 24 weeks gestation and weighed 600 grams at birth (slightly over 1 pound). I’m of the first generation of micro-preemies who have made it into adulthood. As a young child, my prognosis for survival was bleak. Then the prediction for my cognitive, social and emotional development was grim. I certainly have had, and continue to have, a fair share of challenges, especially if you look at my life through a ‘Neurotypical’ lens. But my lens is neurodivergent. I’d like to offer you the opportunity to have a look through the spectrum of my lens. I submit my poems and articles with gratitude.

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