When I started this blog back in September, I said I wanted to walk the South West Coast Path before I turned 40, but of course, I really wanted more than that. I was seeking the usual clichés: balance, contentment, challenge, happiness. The sense of feeling myself again. It’s the familiar wish-list of the thirtysomething mother. We had it all. We want it all back again.
But I knew, also, that my wish-list wasn’t quite the same as everyone else’s. Walking was both a symbolic and a practical act for me. I wanted it to bring me wellness and respite, certainly; but I also wanted to feel my feet on solid ground again. I thought I could walk back to a time when I knew what I was; when I was competent and sure-footed. Strangely, the more I explored, the more elusive that time seemed. The ground was crumbling under my feet.
In December, I learned that I have Asperger syndrome.
I hope that comes as a surprise to you. I hope I wasn’t the last to know. I have spent my whole life so far trying to cover it up, without understanding what I was concealing: only that I was different; only that, in my natural state, I wasn’t acceptable. It has mostly felt like I’m trying to zip an unruly bundle of clothes into a tiny suitcase. Every time I manage to restrain one, disordered corner (I talk for too long; I interrupt people), another one bursts out (I come off as aloof; I flinch when people touch me).
I grew up in an era when being on the autistic spectrum was not considered a positive attribute. Mind you, neither was being a friendless weirdo, but that’s another story. The thought of owning my new label still leaves me terrified: from now on, everything I say and do will be seen through the lens of autism. In many ways, I need that; I need my context to be understood. But I also want to be accepted as a person in my own right. My achievements are my own, and my mistakes are too. I hate the idea of being tolerated out of charity. I’ve fought all my life to be liked on my own terms, and I’m not letting go of that.
Mostly, I’m awash with relief at my diagnosis. Asperger syndrome is a secret I’ve been keeping from myself for a long time. Until a couple of months ago, I’d have told you that I love parties; that I’m a social animal. I wouldn’t have been lying; but, equally, that’s never represented the truth. I have spent my whole adult life believing that I love parties, and then making myself sick with anxiety in the run-up to them. If I attended at all, I hid in the toilets and then left early. Never once did I recognise this as a pattern, but apparently all my friends did. While I’ve been coming out – stutteringly, red-faced – nearly everyone has told me a story of my own disappearance at a social event. I don’t even remember half of them. It seems that I’m famous for vanishing.
I don’t have to go to a party ever again now, but I will. Perhaps just for an hour, just to show my face. Here’s the thing about being diagnosed with Asperger syndrome at 38: the worst of it is already over. I’ve worked out how to get by – successfully, actually – and I’ve found people who love me more than I love myself. And I love them, too, even if I’m sometimes baffled by how much feeling they manage to do.
That’s a joke, by the way. An Aspie joke. Everything I read seems to suggest they’re unlikely, but there you go. Over the last few months, I’ve had to accept that most of my assumptions about Asperger syndrome are wrong. I don’t think I’m alone in that. That’s partly because female Aspies are in the minority, and we’re different; but it’s also because it’s one of those popular labels that amateur psychologists like to bandy about, and they largely have no idea what they’re talking about. I have no right to criticise. I’m a learner-driver myself. Trust me, I’m still reeling from the shock that I’m the autistic one in my marriage.
But, anyway, this is supposed to be a walking blog, and thank goodness for that. I don’t know how walking led me to understand what I am, but I’m certain that it did. When I walk for a long time, my mind gradually blanks itself, and the natural sounds – water, wind, birdsong – calm me. In that space, the ground is laid for those big, life-changing thoughts. There was nothing conscious; no eureka moment. But one day, I was driving in my car, and a woman on the radio was describing life with Asperger syndrome, and I thought, simply, Oh yes; just like me.
There’s more to it than that, of course, but it’s enough for now. I’ll carry on walking and writing about it. It’s the best way I’ve ever found to reset myself. I’m not sure if I’ll be following quite the same walk that I planned, but then, I’m finding that a lot, lately.