All or Nothing
“I don’t understand people who say they’ve had enough. How can you have enough of feeling like this? How do you not want to feel like this longer? My brain works differently.” -Leo McGarry, The West Wing
I don’t drink. I never have. It was a decision I made when I was thirteen, and I did it out of fear.
Four years beforehand, I had a major depressive episode, and it was one of the scariest things that had ever happened to me. I was afraid that it might happen again. I had family members in the feelings business; I knew the odds.
I saw myself as fragile, and thought that any gust of wind or setback or minor trauma would knock me back down the rabbit hole.
And maybe this time I wouldn’t be able to climb out.
I knew that alcohol was a depressant, so I thought, well, maybe if I just don’t drink, the depression won’t come back.
But I didn’t stop there. I’ve always had this all or nothing attitude where my natural inclination is to go to extremes. If doing a little bit of something is good, then surely doing a lot of the same thing would be great.
So I also made the decision to never use recreational drugs of any kind. And to never drink coffee. Or gamble. Not even lottery tickets.
Every potentially addictive thing I hadn’t yet partaken in- which basically meant everything except caffeinated pop and refined sugar- was off the table.
Maybe that’ll keep the demons at bay, I thought.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that the thing I was trying to prevent was already in my brain, and probably always had been.
I have an addictive personality. It’s just how I’m wired. I don’t understand the concept of moderation. If I enjoy doing something, I want to do it all the time. If something feels good, then I want more and more. Everything in my life is all or nothing.
This is because of my autism. People on the spectrum tend to view the world in a black and white way. Things are, or they aren’t. We can analyze shades of grey if necessary, but most matters seem simpler than that.
If you like something, do it. If you like it a lot, do it more often. If it interferes with other things in your life, stop doing it.
In a perfect world, this computational viewpoint isn’t problematic. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
Because I made that judgment call when I was thirteen, these destructive tendencies actually haven’t done much damage. I eat a lot when I’m stressed, and my diet is crap. If there’s a bag of candy or box of cookies in the house somewhere, it won’t be there for long. I spend too much time on the Internet. Sometimes I overexercise, walking across the city until I’m exhausted and numb. Sometimes that’s a deliberate strategy. I embark on long walks until I’m so tired I can’t think. If I can’t think, I can’t feel.
My biggest problem is that I live in a world which wasn’t designed with people like me in mind. I’m hypersensitive. The world is too loud, too crowded, too smelly, too full of social interaction, body language, and facial expressions. All the systems I have to navigate on a day to day basis- everything from the layout of grocery stores, to online banking- was designed by people whose brains are wired differently than mine, and so these systems seem confusing and counter-intuitive to me.
People in the spectrum are forced to spend most of their time in environments which are psychologically toxic to them.
In addition to this, we tend to feel things more intensely than other people, to the extent that it’s difficult for us to sort out and articulate what we’re feeling. We can’t talk about our stress, and even if we did, people wouldn’t understand the cause of our stress, or they might downplay it. So we hit a dead end.
We need escape. We need relief. We need something to reduce the stress and take us away and help us cope.
And if a little bit of something feels good, then a lot of something will feel better, and maybe even more of something will fix the problem, for at least a little while.
Navigating through this non-autistic world has turned even our ordinarily benign emotionality and reasoning systems against us. The effect is cancerous.
In order to cope, a lot of people on the spectrum end up drinking to excess, or misusing drugs. Marijuana, I find, is the most common drug of choice.
It’s gotten to the point where substance misuse could be considered an unfortunate but distinct aspect of autistic culture. I believe it is a crisis. But nobody’s really talking about it, or making any plans to address it as a cultural issue.
If an autistic person smokes up too much, or gets drunk too much, their Maintainers will treat it as a problem that this particular individual has. Their identity as an autistic person might not even be considered relevant information.
But it is, in fact, the crux of the matter.
Because most of the time, when an autistic person misuses substances, it is a response to environmental stress. The problem isn’t inside the person. It is around them. Their substance misuse is only a symptom of a problem which is much bigger than any individual person.