When Did I Learn to Stop Telling the Truth?
And how can I bring more honesty into my interactions?
As a kid, I was extremely honest. Asking awkward questions loudly in supermarket queues, and making my Gran cringe with embarrassment.
“Granny Joan, why does that lady have a beard?” I famously asked loudly on the bus.
Granny Joan still does this impression of kid me, my tone very earnest and curious, and loud. I wanted, no needed to know why this unexpected thing was happening, and I couldn't be put off, so the legend goes.
I was undistractible. And unbribable too.
Oh, how I've changed.
Writing this, adult me feels horrified at the idea of someone thinking I'm writing this for the sake of comedy. Trans experience isn’t territory to mine for jokes, but I’m just using this anecdote to illustrate the truthfulness that was at my center. A truthfulness that is still there, only so much quieter. Over the years I became afraid to ask questions.
I needed to be socialized, of course, but it seems the process went too far, and I lost touch with an important part of me.
Lately, I’m trying to get it back.
This newsletter is called Polite Robot because of a mode I discovered after I got sober. I called it Polite Robot, and it was an intense people-pleasing personality that I rolled out when I was uncomfortable. I remembered it from my teens. Taking my cues from others and adapting myself to their preferences because I couldn't access my own.
Polite Robot usually emerged because I was with people who were dominant and extroverted, and not leaving space for me, the kind of people I spent a lot of time with growing up.
Everyone probably has a mode like this. People talk a lot about autopilot, for instance. But should we be on autopilot in our leisure time? With our closest family? And must autopilot feel painful? Because that's how Polite Robot has come to be for me.
When I first got sober, I joked about Polite Robot, but by the time I was diagnosed as autistic, five years later, I no longer saw the funny side. It was lost life moments I was discussing, and I’d begun to find that very sad.
I remember the mode from my teens, and even earlier. A frozen, quiet, polite version of myself terrified to speak in case they made a mistake. It felt like being locked in. Like being a ghost. Like not counting.
I would stand in a group of people and pray that no one spoke to me, because I couldn’t respond adequately. At the same time, I longed to connect. To be seen and heard and valued for who I really was. The vibrant, silly, daft person you would know if you made space for me. I played out scripts in my head, trying to guess the questions that might come so I could prepare an answer.
Drinking offered an escape, temporarily. I felt free when I drank, though I got myself into trouble. But it didn't bring me any closer to learning how to express myself in groups or make things happen.
When I think back to that kid version of me, with her irrepressible need for truth and her lack of concern over what others would think, it can be difficult to connect her with Polite Robot. What were the steps from one version of myself to another?
As I write these posts, I always think of all the non-autistic (as far as they know) people who endlessly say, “Oh, but everyone feels like that, don’t they?”
And I think they are probably right. Everyone does feel like this. Every kid gets socialized, after all. We each have to learn that it isn’t appropriate to stare at strangers who fascinate us. That it can upset people to ask personal questions about things you find intriguing about them.
I suspect, however, for the autistic child, this process of socialization might be more painful. It might require a gentler touch. And that if that gentler approach isn’t there, the child can retreat to their inner world, from where it can be difficult to call them back.
As Rudy Simone says in her book, Aspergirls: “Emotionally, we require an atmosphere of tolerance and non-judgement.”
This was certainly true of little me. And current me, tbh. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover an environment like this - tolerant and non-judgemental - until I got sober. Sure, I found pockets of this along the way, and people like this, but they were soothing islands in a sea of something more cynical and critical.
Over those years I suspect I offered this environment to my friends. Tolerance and non-judgmentalness were a part of my life, a part of my nature, but they weren't the norm. I didn’t seek out these things or cultivate them in myself.
I’m not sure I recognised their value.
I definitely didn't know how to offer them to myself.
Like many people before me, I had confused the defensive shell I had created to survive with my actual self. I didn’t seek out an atmosphere of tolerance and non-judgment, because I didn’t know I needed it.
These days, I understand that this gentle atmosphere is essential for my development. For reasons I don’t understand (autism? Critical messaging? Growing up in the non-empathetic zeitgeist of the 80s and 90s? A working-class background?) my real self is very delicate and fragile, prone to retreating at the faintest whiff of criticism.
Brene Brown talks about toxic shame, and millions of people relate. Susan Cain talks about introverts and millions of people relate. But growing up in the 90s, where was the encouragement for quiet, slow-paced, low-energy, gentle folks?
I took drugs and alcohol to become extroverted because it seemed like a requirement. That strategy stole years of my life. Though there were some fun times, too, naturally. And it’s possible that the strategy saved my life, too.
In the therapy that led to and supported my transition into sobriety, shame came up a lot. I remember my therapist asking if there was any time in my life in which I had felt acceptable, and I had to admit, that no, there was not.
I remember her seeming shocked by this. Maybe a therapeutic technique to help me relate to myself.
“Did you hear yourself, then?” she asked, and I wasn’t really sure I had.
It felt like she was trying to set up a teaching moment. From now on, I wouldn’t have to feel so embarrassed about my existence. I felt her willing me to have an epiphany, that I was ok just as I was. But I couldn’t do it. I was too ashamed. In a deep and essential way that felt very painful.
I didn’t understand why all my life I had struggled. Why had my relationships been so unfulfilling and painful?
I knew that this wasn’t the way other people saw me, and I also knew that that didn’t matter. My relationship with myself was the most abusive relationship of all the abusive relationships I had been in. And I didn’t know how to change it.
For years, shame felt like the air I breathed and the food I was brought up on. I had no idea how to integrate the different versions of myself, without feeling ashamed of the older one. Perhaps because each iteration struggled so much, and her coping strategies were so unhelpful. Dependence on people and substances and praise.
Learning about the autistic struggle for a sense of self is helping with this.
Nowadays, I have a circle of tolerant and non-judgemental friends and colleagues. We are helping each other learn and try out more assertive and authoritative behavior. We call it social experimenting, and we’ve had some glorious victories. I’m getting better at asking for what I need, and letting people know when their behaviour has negatively impacted me.
I am learning to express myself. To share my thoughts with others, and ask what they are thinking. It’s fun!
I’m experimenting with letting my family see the soft underbelly that seems to most of what I am. And they are growing and changing like I am. Our relationships are improving. Things are changing, incrementally, the way things do. I feel hopeful about the future.
I write a lot about the sadness I have about not getting what I needed growing up, but what if I’m wrong, and actually I got exactly what was required? The truth is, I’ll never know.
Maybe I would have come out this way, no matter what surrounded me. (I doubt it, but it’s possible!) In any case, this way, who I am right now, has to be acceptable to me. I’m working on it, and getting stronger. I hope you are, too.
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Chelsey Flood is the author of Infinite Sky and Nightwanderers, and a senior lecturer in creative writing at UWE University. She writes about freedom, addiction, nature and love at Beautiful Hangover, autism and self-compassion at Polite Robot, and is also working on a non-fiction book about getting sober, and a new YA novel.