It has recently come to my attention that there is a physiological condition that encompasses a great many of the problems that have haunted me throughout my life. This particular condition interacts with many human functions, and can at its worst be quite debilitating, especially in some stages of life. The condition has been described for thousands of years, under different names, and has been studied scientifically for at least 100 years, yet the results of the research are almost unheard of by educators, health care professionals, politicians and the general public. According to this research, some of which is listed in the literature list, my condition can affect as many as 2 % of the population, and there are proven ways to diminish the distress of those with the condition and even turn it into an asset, yet very few environments are examined with a view to make necessary alterations for people with this condition. Instead, many societies actually aim to ignore this condition on purpose!
My condition has a name, or a few, to be more precise, but I refrain from using it here for very good reasons that you will discover as we go along. For now, you will have to contain your curiosity and wait patiently while I follow my agenda according to my plan. Pay attention, and do your very best to work with me, as opposed to against me, as you read this, and you will find your social competence boosted significantly by the time you are through.
As a newborn, I was a very fuzzy child. My appetite was unquenchable, and I demanded a lot of attention from everyone around me. My mother (who probably also has my condition, in addition to others) was driven to the very edge of her capacities by my intensity, and had to install precise control mechanisms to make sure I got fed approximately the correct amount of milk, and looked forward to when I would start eating normal food.
Unfortunately for my mother, things did not improve as I grew.
I was extremely sensitive to temperatures, never comfortable for long, always too hot or too cold, even if the conditions did not change enough to warrant my discomfort. I had huge issues with textures, especially if they had to touch my body. I remember purposefully ruining clothing made of itchy or scratchy fabrics, and refusing to wear several fabrics that were highly fashionable because they felt horrible to touch. And the food issue? Boy, did that get worse! I am probably the pickiest eater I’ve ever met, and always have been. Textures, again, is a big factor. Some textures, like pudding, cold cheese, and rich cream are still out of the question for me. I just cannot get it down; the gag reflex is triggered almost immediately. But as I grew up in a household of limited resources and mostly in the 70’s, I had to eat what was put before me, or not eat at all. So I’m quite familiar with starvation. Really. And the ensuing overeating (disorder) that has been my companion ever since other people stopped controlling what I ate. By the way, I also just HAD to eat things that few would consider food, because I needed to know what it was like. Some were not that pleasing, like earth or worms or certain leaves, others were quite nice, like little pieces of slate that I really liked chewing, or the silky shower curtain that made me very aware of my teeth (although the taste of that curtain was not very pleasant).
I was supersensitive to sounds. My first birthday was spent running around the house, a skill I learned that very day, in order to enjoy the sound of my brand new dress shoes. (I was also very, very proud of the fact that they were silver, not just boring black.) I was always singing, like a running commentary on my activities, without much regard for who might be listening. As I grew, I became aware that singing out loud in stores and such was not considered “normal behaviour”, so I started whistling instead. I needed music like I needed air, and still do, to this day. But not all sounds were pleasant. Sounds did not have to be particularly loud to startle me, and little noises, like the sound of insects or a ticking clock, could drive me absolutely crazy without seeming to bother anyone else. Anything that is out of tune has always been downright painful to listen to, it makes my back crawl and my ears itch intensely. If the duration of such sounds exceeds half a minute or so, I feel physically ill; nausea, dizziness and exhaustion sets in.
The lights of the Christmas tree that very first Christmas were apparently so intriguing that I have been told I pulled the three over at least three times during my “studies”. I had to touch at least one light bulb of every colour, probably to feel if the colours felt the same or differently, in order to understand why they looked different. Sunlight, on the other hand, was painful. Light sensitivity was luckily understood in my family, but not always outside of that context, so I have received many odd glances over the years due to my use of sunglasses. The sunglasses, and my regular glasses, need to be as clean as can be at all times, as any speck of dust or smear will cause me intense irritation.
Smells can be heaven on earth, like the gorgeous smell of freshly washed summer forest, or pretty much anything baked, or they can send me running out of a room trying hard to calm my stomach down. My poor ex husband could never enjoy his traditional African food without having to watch me struggle not to retch in front of him. I can smell which person on the bus lives with a smoker, and I struggle to breathe if someone within 3 meters of me wears more than a smidgeon of perfume or aftershave. But some people, on the other hand, smell so darn good that I could spend days with my nose at their throat…
I remember many a moment of enrapture over beauty from when I was quite small. The blueness of a flower could have me spellbound, and have me return to that same flower for day after day until it had withered and been replaced by another. Despite my sensitivity to cold, I have spent many an hour on my back in the snow at below -10 degrees C to enjoy spectacular starry skies, the moon and Aurora Borealis. I don’t think I can ever get enough of looking at the sky. Or flowers. Or rivers, or leaves, or mountains, or people, for that matter. It is so endlessly fascinating, isn’t it? Or is it just me?
As I grew, that question became more of an issue. What I took to be normal, turned out to be rare. The summer before I started school, I had fun using a 12-step ladder outside our house as a multiplication tool. The last night, too excited to sleep, I traced and retraced my name on the wall with my finger, trying to get it to look really nice, but not getting it nearly as pretty as I wanted it to be. So I started school with a lot of eager anticipation, I was going to learn so much! Imagine, if you can, my disappointment when it turned out that nobody else even knew the letters or numbers, and that multiplication as well as joined handwriting belonged in year 3 and 4! I was completely stumped when ordered to sit still and wait for the others to learn, but I tried to comply. While I waited, I read my school books cover to cover, and did some of the more challenging tasks in the last half of the book. But when the teacher was actually teaching, I came alive! I eagerly participated in any lecture, with frequent comments and questions, though rarely remembering to raise a quiet hand and wait for my turn. It must have been very frustrating for my classmates never to get the time to think things through and come up with their own answers, and for the teacher to never get to ask those who could have answered, given half a chance, had I not butted in all the time. I do feel for them, truly, but it was very hard for me, too!
Reading the mood of other people seems to be a skill I have always had. Though I rarely knew what to do about it while younger, I always knew exactly who was happy, sad or irritated. Any trace of irritation made me feel extremely insecure, whether I was the source of the irritation or not. Any sadness, I felt as my own. The look in the eye of a lonely dog could bring me to tears, but I learned early on that the only emotions I was allowed to show were contentment and resignation. I was too intense, see. Way too intense! My emotions lay so thickly on my sleeves that it disturbed people, and my anger scared them. With good reason, too, it turned out, because I got so wrapped up in my emotions that I failed to take any notice of the people around me. On at least one occasion, this caused another person permanent physical injury. I understand now that my parents had to try to squash my outbursts, but as an adult it is very hard rediscovering forbidden emotions and their depths.
My mother once described me as “the weird kid”, the one she could never understand. I felt that way, too. As long as I can remember, I’ve felt different and apart from the rest, though I did not always understand why. My classmates picked up on this disparity from the norm on the very first day of school, and despite my best efforts, I spent nine years being picked on and excluded. They tried physical bullying twice, but both occasions ended up with a bully with a bleeding nose, and me being dragged along by my dad to apologize. I cannot remember a single occasion when anyone was made to apologize to me. But perhaps their parents had different behavioural standards. Mine demanded politeness and compassion. At the same time, however, my vice-principal father always sided with me in my disputes with my teachers. Of those, there were many! Respect for authority has never come easily to me, there has been rather a strong impulse to oppose authority in any form, especially if expected to respect some person based just on their position. Sometimes it seems like half of my life has been spent in what, to others, may seem like a power struggle. But for me, power over others has always seemed more scary than attractive; all I want is some degree of control over myself, my situation and my results.
The word “results” brings on memories of years and years of having to do group work, and hating every minute of it. Not once did I get a better result on a group project than on a solitary assignment. And not once did I not have to watch at least one other member of the group not pulling their weight. Oh, how I hated the inefficiency of group work; all that chatting about something completely unrelated, all that democracy that led to choosing the most popular solutions instead of the best solutions, and all that bad presentation! Most of all, I guess I resented the amount of time and effort required for group work. After all, since starting school I was used to spending most of my days researching, looking for complex problems, or daydreaming. I could not for the life of me understand why the teacher would have us do more than, say, three tasks of the same kind when there were so many other tasks around that were much more interesting. Neither could I understand the pressure to memorize.
This girl, who started school knowing how to multiply every number up to 12, could never manage to memorize the multiplication table, thus being humiliated in every math class for a full year. This very same girl could easily use any multiplication on the table in any context, because I thoroughly understood the riding principles and deeply appreciated the system of it, especially the beauty of the number 9, but it took me a couple of seconds longer than the limit imposed by our teacher, so I had to stand up, then get up on the chair for the second missed answer, and on the desk for the third. Of course, I was never asked the easier questions, those were reserved for some of my classmates. Those that came my way tended to be in the 6*8 to 8*6 square that I now know is the hardest part of the multiplication table for just about everyone. My teacher did not hide his joy in finally being able to point out a shortcoming in this walking encyclopaedia.
Yes, a teacher called me that, in a derogatory tone of voice. It did not surprise me one bit, as kids had been calling me that for as long as I could remember. And they were sort of correct, I admitted to myself. I did walk around with all kinds of odd knowledge stored somewhere within, rarely knowing how or when that knowledge had found its way in. Such knowledge also had a way of forcing its way out, preferably loudly, at inopportune moments. It became embarrassing to me that I always knew something about everything, this was not the normal state of affairs. The other children, the popular ones (and the not-so-popular ones, I guess, though I must confess I paid them little attention) had limited knowledge, and it became abundantly clear that this was the correct way to be a pupil. So I started acting like them. Or at least, I thought I did. Unfortunately, everyone in school already knew me, so when I stopped answering questions correctly and doing my homework and then some in year three, it was taken as insubordination, and I got detention after only three days. It worked, I never had another detention, ever, as I realized that those who were in detention with me were those I least sought to resemble, and that my behaviour reflected badly on my father. I was left with but one option: stay in the role of walking encyclopaedia when an adult was present, otherwise do as little as possible and hide as best as possible. I had to just suffer the consequences for not being able to stop my inquisitive mind, even though that meant reading through pretty much the entire library, and asking way too many questions.
There were other problems, too. My vocabulary was far too large for my age peers, and too precise even for most of my teachers. I remember one high school Norwegian teacher berating me for using a very rare word to describe an appearance in an essay, implying that I had used the term incorrectly. I stood rooted to the spot in the hallway as he asked me, in front of everybody, if I could explain what the word meant. Though my feet were locked, my mouth somehow gave the precise dictionary definition, and then I went on to explain why the more commonly used words were not usable in that context due to their different connotations. It was another one of those social situations that made me feel very awkward and unsuitable. My classmates said they felt embarrassed for the poor teacher. What he felt, I can only imagine, he never told me, but I doubt he walked away feeling successful and happy.
I often made others cringe, unfortunately. I probably still do. Actually, I know I do. I upset them, too. Sometimes people get really aggressive with me and cast me as an egotistical show-off, telling me I try to put them down. This always takes me by surprise, and makes me very, very sad, because it hardly ever happens that I wish to do that to anyone. Sure, there are four or five people that have passed through my life that I would like to see taste some of their own medicine, but that’s it! The rest of the world is fine by me, I’m not out to belittle or attack anybody. To be so misunderstood, and to realize that others think of me as someone capable of treating others that way on purpose, hurts me immensely (did I mention that my emotions are a tad out of whack, like in WAY too intense?). Especially when such claims are made by people I love. Because my emotions are so strong, I love intensely, too, and am fiercely loyal. Not just to lovers, family and friends, by the way, but to any group or employer that will have me. Of course, that makes it even harder when rejected. I will remain loyal to someone who has rejected me for years and years, sometimes even in spite of bitterness, and look for ways to please them. Not good, I know, but that’s just another aspect of this condition of mine.
As should be clear by now, my life has not been a privileged one, at least not so far (there’s always hope, right?). There are many aspects of me that grate on other people, and that make me miserable, as well. Those aspects described here are all part of what I have so far only called my “condition”. What I have written so far should be evidence clear enough that this condition is not especially enviable, yet I still hesitate to call it by its rightful name(s). Why?
I will answer this question by inviting you to partake in a thought experiment. Imagine that my child and your child are friends, and have been pretty much since birth. They are quite different, and their relationship overflows with loud conflicts, yet they clearly appreciate each other and their friendship. How would you feel if it started becoming clear that my child had a substantial talent for football, while yours was just averagely gifted? Would you feel insulted or belittled? Not? How about if I started talking about how I had noticed that my child’s talent was being squandered by the football coach, who insisted that my child waited on the bench more and played less. Also, when my child got to play, s/he was instructed to pass the ball on as soon as possible, to level the field for the rest of the team, so that they could become better. Do you feel insulted now? I thought not. Perhaps you even feel FOR my child and the concerned parent?
Then let’s try with another talent. Let’s say my child is slowly, but surely, emerging as very talented at singing pop songs. Your child sings on key most of the time, and has quite good rhythm, and would love to compete on “Idol”, but you know there’s little chance of him/her getting through, and a fair chance the child will be hurt by participating. My child, on the other hand, just might have exactly what it takes to make it all the way not just to the auditions, but to the grand final, perhaps even beyond. Remember, our children are the same age, and would both like to be famous singers. One just happens to be more suitable to the task than the others. I imagine you would feel sorry for your child, and try to find another strong suit to build up. You may want to say something about how people are different, and some are good at one thing, some at another. The experience would probably be hurtful, but would you feel as if I had personally wronged you? I’d sure hope not! Even if I started gushing about how talented my child was, you would probably feel compelled to agree and celebrate along with me.
By now you are bound to wonder where I am heading with all this. Are you dreading what is coming up, do you have some kind of sense that I will catch you out? I hope you dare read on, I am not writing this to be mean to you, remember! But I will admit that it might hurt when you realize that some of your preconceptions need re-evaluating. Brace yourself; be strong as I lead you into the third scenario:
Our children have been in school for a couple of years. Since you are my friend, I confide in you when I need a shoulder to lean on. Now I tell you I am worried about my child, because I have noticed that s/he is struggling socially. The other children seem to pull away from the overreactions of my child, and my child clings on to his/her friends to such an extent that the others feel stifled. In addition to this, there are the daily complaints about how boring the classes are, how little the other children know, and how incredibly slowly they learn. I tell you about how, when helping my child with the homework, I completely understand the child’s frustration, as there’s page up and page down of exactly the same kinds of tasks, and I cannot see the point of forcing my child to repeat that much. Are you starting to feel uncomfortable yet? It gets worse… I then proceed to tell you that I have noticed a profound difference in my child’s behaviour depending on the company. With one or two of the little friends, my child hardly gets into any conflicts. They play happily along for hours, and never want to separate. It seems that these very few children share some characteristics with mine: they are verbally strong, have vivid imaginations, bubble over with ideas, are extremely inquisitive, have large amounts of general knowledge and are very quick learners.
By now, a lot of parents would feel highly uncomfortable. Some would be waiting rather impatiently to hear me say that their child was like mine. If this comparison was not forthcoming, they would start fishing for clues that I did not consider my child, and a few of my child’s friends, superior to their own child. I can sympathize with this. And I kind of understand the frenzy parents can get into if I happen to let slip that word that I know is taboo, but I still use, almost in spite: gifted. Yes, I just called my child gifted, without immediately assuring you that yours is gifted, too! How does that make you feel?
Perhaps you are confident enough to feel OK with this, perhaps you are able to step back and evaluate. If you do, you might discover that you do not really know how to tell the difference between a gifted person and one who is not so gifted. Most people appear to withdraw at this point, saying something like: “We are all different, perhaps you are right. If your child really IS gifted, you should work very hard to make sure the child learns social skills, though!”
Does this ring a bell with you? Why? Where did you learn that being gifted means having low social skills? Why is it important to point out? Would you feel the same way if I had come to you with the opposite problem, that my child was retarded?
Are you rebelling yet? Most of the people I know are extremely engaged at this point of a discussion. I used another taboo word, and I’m about to throw in the third and worst: intelligence. To make matters worse, I will even claim that my concerns for my child are so strong due to my experience of life at the lonely upper end of the IQ scale.
I actually, really said it, in words! Bad me, smack my fingers! How dare I claim to be more intelligent than you? Why do I need to insult you like this? Am I so small that a mere number like my IQ score is all I have to show for myself? If I really am that smart, why not work on my social skills so that I can stop alienating people and use my hyped-up brain power for some good in this world? As my friend, you say, you find it pitiful and very sad that I should let this tiny part of what a human being is become so important. Surely, my heart is much more important than my intelligence? Have I even taken a proper test? Then how can I claim to be so smart? And why on earth would I try to push my poor child to focus on the intellect alone, why not focus on other skills, such as social skills, to help the child fit in and be of service to the world? I am about to ruin my child for life by demanding academic performance and downplaying everything else, especially if I keep telling my child how intelligent s/he is, as that will only alienate my child from age peers for life.
At this point, I choose to go all the way, and tell you about that day when I first walked into a room full of Mensa-members. I tell you how I, for the first time in my entire life, felt immediate acceptance, inclusion and welcome in a group. How conversation just flowed effortlessly, without any of the awkward sneaking around by the walls, watching others interact. How passionate the discussions were, and how interesting! And how hard it was to leave this group and go back to my normal life.
Did you feel more sympathetic to me after the last confession, or was the mere mention of the word “Mensa” enough to make your blood boil? It apparently does, for a lot of people. I knew that Mensa-members were perceived as nerds by most of the population (including myself, until I met them), but I was surprised when friends of mine recently told me that Mensa was a despicable organisation for people who liked to think they were smarter than everyone else, and that the purpose of meeting was to compete over the highest IQ-score. By the way, did I know that IQ-scores are highly controversial to researchers, and that everybody knows that all such a score tells you is that a person has managed to do well on one test? If they were truly smart, they would apply their intelligence elsewhere, preferably on improving social skills, because the smartest people of all are those who feel no need to brag about how smart they are…