Saturday, September 23, 2023

Asperger’s, and the Meaning of Love

It’s been a week. It doesn’t quite feel like I should write the line of, “I’m married” yet here I am, on a plane with my wife, headed on our honeymoon. 

I’ve spent the last week trying to write about the wedding day, but it’s a blur, and it’s been too emotional to write about. I’ve been perplexed as to why I’ve been unable as I’ve been able to write about every other fantastic event, and not so fantastic event that’s happened to me. But this? This is different. Boarding the plane, I finally understood why. 

Before the wedding, many people told me that “the day would be a blur” and it was, people told me that, “don’t lock your knees or you’ll pass out” which thankfully there was no passing out. What they didn’t tell me was that I would experience an emotion unlike any other. A realization of what it means to love, and the often impossible thing for me in thinking about another person.

The hardest part to explain to those that don’t understand Asperger’s is that, at the same time, I can have the deepest of empathy while not thinking about another person. It’s opposites, isn’t it? This deep caring of others while not thinking about others at all. 

Thinking of others doesn’t come naturally. It’s difficult to explain without sounding like an egotistical self-centered jerk. This isn’t the case as there isn’t a conscious effort to tune out others, but rather the programming in the brain isn’t there due to the extreme amount of processing my brain does on everything else.  Also, it may be part of a protection mechanism as it can be overwhelming to think of another person, and all that comes with it with emotion, hopes, and dreams. With that so, that makes the next part of this story so extraordinary.

Kristen, my so to be wife, was about to walk into the church. The moment everyone had tried to prepare me for was at hand. The priest, a couple months prior, said, “the moment you two stand at the alter, hand-in-hand, will hear the most marvelous words any human can hear as you here ‘I take you, forever.’” Forever was almost here, and as I saw her enter, she looked angelic. I was taken off-guard, and my entire life flashed before my eyes in an intense tsunami of emotions, and this made me process emotions I often push aside.

With each step she took closer, I became more ill-at-ease as I felt the love I feel for her. I knew I did love her, and I hope you don’t take this post as I, “what? You just realized you loved her right then and there!” That’s not the case, but for us with Asperger’s, we often will try and not fully acknowledge or feel emotions due to the gravity they put on us. They can be unfiltered, consuming our existence, therefore it’s better to have them in the background as we try and outrun them. When getting married, there is no running away, and instead of wanting to hide from them, I let them in. 

She was now at the alter. Her had handed her off to me, we walked to the alter together, soon to be as one, and when we looked into each other’s eyes there was no desire by me to avoid eye-contact. We were staring into each other’s soul and I had the deepest of yearnings to never make her sad. It’s such a simple sentence, but this thought is as one I’ve never had like this. This isn’t to say I’ve had opposite feelings of being uncaring should I make someone sad, but this was a preemptive sensation; one of that, should I make her sad, I’d be doing a disservice to the universe. 

Love has been a mystery to me. Read my book Finding Kansas and you can get a glimpse of the struggle I had trying to make sense of what it meant. I worried it was an impossibility for me, but as the dam broke and it couldn’t outrun feeling the emotion, I found out that its something I shouldn’t run away from because it’s the greatest feeling, and the priest was right. Saying my vows, and hearing hers, were the grandest words I’ve ever heard, and understanding that I can experience love deeper than first imagined gave me an understanding of the meaning of love, and I can only hope I don’t try and outrun this feeling.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Block

This is highly abnormal for me, but I can’t write. I’ve sat down a dozen times this week with the title “Wedding” and I can’t begin. The day was so amazing that it’s, for now, too emotional to write about. I’ve had events that were bad cause this, but never something that was good. A most unusual sensation, but highly wonderful!

Monday, September 18, 2023

A small post

The weekend is a blur. I’m still recovering from the monumental day of my wedding, but did want to share my first selfie with my wife. I’ll be writing a longer, in-depth review of the day, but for today I’m still regaining my senses after 12+ hours of socializing. 

Friday, September 15, 2023

A proposal video

With the wedding tomorrow and today being rehearsal day, the ability to write something awesome just isn’t there, so in case you missed it in January, here’s the way I proposed. 

Thursday, September 14, 2023

An Aspie's Wedding: Enter Kristen

It's 2021, and I'm in my second season with the NTT INDYCAR Series. A relationship isn't fully on my mind because of the hectic schedule I'm in the midst of, but at the start of May I decide to try "one last time". I can't recall how many "one last times" there were, but that time I vowed that this was it. 

As I flagged that year's Indianapolis 500, I did have a thought that, "wouldn't life be so much more spectacular if I could share this experience with someone?" This was a stark contrast to the previous posts in that I equaled a relationship with happiness. I had grown, and I didn't even realize it.

Milo Ventimiglia was the honorary starter for that year's race, and I thought that such a photo, as this one, would make my profile a bit more noticeable. It worked. Although I must say I wasn't vain enough to make it my profile picture, that would be too much, but it was there, and a week after a race I matched with a person named Kristen, from Saint Louis, and we traded a couple emails where we spoke of our love of travel, and when she asked me where I'd most want to go I mentioned, "Reunion island. You've probably never heard of it but it's famous for having the most shark infested waters, one of the most active volcanoes in the world, and it's the place where the aileron washed ashore from MH flight 370." She wasn't sold on the island, but the next email she asked me, "Are you doing anything fun this weekend?" 

When she sent that email, I was up in Detroit for that weekend's INDYCAR race on Belle Isle, so yes, I would be doing something fun. I didn't mention what work I did on my Match profile, so I said, "Yes, I'd say so and you can watch it on NBC this weekend." Whoa! Where did that come from? I'm not one for sly segways, but she took the bait, and the email onslaught continued the rest of the week.

This Kristen was proving to be highly intriguing. There was something different about her, and I feared the email I had to write her stating that I was still almost a month away from getting back to Saint Louis as we still had races in Road America, and Mid-Ohio before I'd return home. When finding someone intriguing, that's a long time. Would she be willing to wait so long to meet? It turned out, she was.

Our first date was a classic example of not preparing as The Cheesecake Factory at the Galleria mall was a two plus hour wait. So, instead of us both driving across town to the Chesterfield Mall, she offered to drive us, which gave us even more time to talk. And talk we did! 

The following two hours were stories of where we've been, where we want to go, and laughter. Quickly, I noticed I didn't have to be someone else. Finding that special someone, I now believe, is a 50/50 event in that you, yourself, must accept who you are. Each of my previous relationships were doomed due to my attempt to change when change is not possible. A couple months into our relationship, we went to a play and there happened to be some heavy base, perhaps there were drums there which is my worst sensory issue I can have, and I was able to say it without shame. Okay, maybe there was a bit of self-loathing in there, but I didn't hide this challenge of mine. 

A month went on, and I had another multi-week away stint as INDYCAR had several races back-to-back. I didn't know what to do with Kansas Kitty, and she offered to take her in for that time. Now, Kansas Kitty can be a bit of a pill to those she doesn't know, and Kristen had let me know that she was not a pet person. At all. Like, zero pets is a good number. She told me how Kansas Kity at her house would go with shut doors and above all Kansas Kitty would not be allowed on her bed. I laughed, because already Kansas Kitty had shown that she could tolerate Kristen, and after toleration comes the need for affection for the feline. And cats can be highly demanding.

As I was in Nashville, I kept asking her for the "daily mews" and each day Kansas Kitty got closer, and closer, and I think by day three she was sleeping on the bed. Quickly, Kansas Kitty won her way into Kristen's heart, so this meant she was kitty approved. 

Kristen was also quickly becoming more than anything I had ever known. With each conversation, and each date, I was learning that it was okay to be me. I didn't need to change for her, and she didn't need to change for me. It sounds trite, and cliche, but this dynamic was laying the foundation for an unspoken level of respect that transcended anything I thought possible. As I traveled the racing circuit, I noticed myself yearning for just five more minutes with her at dinner, or just driving down the road. What was this? Was this even possible?

We did a couple trips together and nothing had changed. Each day was fresh, revitalizing, and even in the mundane there was excitement. I thought there had to be some sort of trick, or magic potion for there to be a relationship that could work, but this was... effortless.

This... this marvelous relationship scared me for a while because of my history. Surely there would be some sort of disaster, and while I was open with my feelings on most things, I still lulled around this heavy weight which delayed my ability to say, "I love you." Those three words... those words have the heaviest weight of all words in the English language. To say those is to expose one's soul, and I struggle to say these words to my parents even though I know I do, and the months went by and Kristen sort of hinted that she was expecting those words, but she never prodded. This made me love her even more! A couple more weeks went by and suddenly, and without warning, I opened the door, and she responded, "Aw, I love you too!" 

The next racing season began and there was never a word from her questioning my hectic life. Yes, in the heat of the season when I was completely worn down, she asked, "Is this worth it?" And when I said, "yes" she replied, "I know." 

Again, if you have to change for someone, I doubt the proverbial road will stay intact. My previous relationships were all destined to failure. With Emily it was because I didn't know who I was. Even if I had never been diagnosed, the results would have been the same. With my next girlfriend it was always going to play out the same because we each had this image of what a relationship should look like instead of what it is really like, but with Kristen... there wasn't an effort to change anything. It was easy, effortless, and time flew by.

I had it in my mind, from the first time I was there in 2016, that I would someday propose to my future wife on the top of that volcano, and I'll retell this story in tomorrow's blog, which tomorrow is my last day as a single person.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

An Aspie's Wedding: Same Song Different Verses

My book got published, I discovered I could present in front of people, and I had a full-time job for the first time in my life. It was 2010 and slowly, the belief about not having a job, and friends started to thaw, but could I be happy? I, sadly, tied happiness to being in a relationship, and try as I might, a relationship just wasn't in the cards. That is, until summer 2013.

She was from China, and after a couple dates, we went Facebook official. It's actually harder to think about this time period than it is back in 2003. Maybe it was because I was at full tilt all the time with presenting across the state of Missouri over 100 times a year, and my 20+ races I worked all across the country on the weekends. With the intensity of my schedule, and the importance of my work, I had no ability to see the cracks in the road I was on.

A relationship can quickly go from a week to a month, to six months before you know it. I tried to convince myself that I was happy, overlooking the serious incompatibilities between us. I still had no ability to stand up for myself, or to explain myself to another person verbally. One night, when we went to a concert at Powell Symphony Hall, she saw a friend and introduced me to her. Being a social outing, and in a crowded place, I was in a highly defensive state. What does this mean? In this state, my eyes are constantly scanning the room, and I can't easily engage in small talk. I kept looking at my then girlfriend with the look of begging to end this barrage of questions she was asking me to describe to her friend all the things I do, but the room kept filling up with more and more people and the background chatter was escalating to a near deafening level. I couldn't hear her questions, and she angrily told her friend, "Well, I guess he doesn't like you!"

After the concert, on the drive home, she lectured me, "Aaron, you have to talk more. What will my friends think of you if you do that again? You need to talk. That's all there is to it." It was Christmas 2003 all over again. I can't help that state of being in that environment. I'm capable of marvelous things when the environment is right. Equally, I'm capable of highly awkward social encounters when it's a noisy, crowded, and random environment. 

I was hurt deeply, but I held it to myself. Life tip for you: Don't do that. The following months were akin to an airplane that has lost the rear tail and is in a long, spiraling downward spiral to the ground below. With each week I resented those words, and I think she began to attempt to cure me. I was thrust in uncomfortable environment after uncomfortable social encounter. One thing about Asperger's is that there's no cure. I can grow, and have grown immensely, but if you're under the impression that you have the power to simply make all the challenges go away then, well, eventually that downward spiral hits the ground.

It was awkward, it was painful, and I doubt I'll ever be able to write about that breakup, but I have talked to her since, and she has apologized for trying to change me the way she did. As with Emily, we both were younger than our ages and while I had professional maturity, the knowledge of the need to express myself wasn't there and this relationship was destined to end the way it did.

A few months later, I met someone else and spent over a year seeing if she liked me. It became awkward for me, and I regressed back into thinking that a relationship equaled happiness. This, probably, made every action of mine seem unnatural which never allowed for a relationship to ever begin. From that, I got into another relationship that, again, my inability to communicate led to the end of it. 

Yes, it's my wedding week, which probably has you wondering why I've spent three days talking about everyone except my fiancé. One, it's provided stories to relate to you as a quick look at the challenges of being on the autism spectrum and being in a relationship, but it also is to paint a picture of who I was, and why meeting Kristen was so incredible.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

An Aspie's Wedding: The First Broken Road

I've told and retold the story of my diagnosis. My doctor didn't really know what it was, I looked it up online, and the first thing I read stated that, "people with Asperger's will never have a job, never have friends, and will never be happy." What I haven't fully described is what happened with Emily, so let's look back for the first time on the full story.

In my presentation I mention I broke up with her on Christmas, via text message. This is true, but then I'll say that I've only talked to her once since 2003. This isn't entirely the case as we did finish up that year's bowling league. However, there was no real conversation. Why did I break up, though? It started with her looking up Asperger's and her misinformation that added gasoline on an already explosive bombshell.

"Aaron, do you think that you say that, when I talk about love, you say 'I'd miss you if you were gone' is caused by Asperger's? I read that people with autism can't love, and I don't think you can." She harped on that for a week, and I was already thinking that I was sentenced to a life full of misery, and this was getting reinforced daily. 

If she had all of these thoughts about my inabilities in life, why was she still talking to me? To rectify this, I had to figure out if she still liked me. To do this, I decided I had to break up with her but with my inability to speak emotions, I resorted to a text message.

It's hard to think back to the phones back then, but I had a silver Nokia flip phone and text messages weren't all that easy. They cost 10 cents per message and the lettering had to be used by clicking each number one, two, or three times as there was no keyboard. Hard to imagine that now, right? Anyway, I sent the message and it just happened to be the evening of December 24th. I was riding back to Saint Louis from Indianapolis, and I think I sent it around Effingham, which is about halfway, and I awaited a response. And I waited. We got home, and the hours went by. 

I stared at my phone waiting for it to light up. There was more on the line that just this relationship. My future as a human was on trial. If she couldn't accept me with this diagnosis, then who could? I had known her for four years, and now with the new label I had, all had changed.

Sunrise came. It was Christmas morning, and nothing. No text back protesting my breakup, which that's all I was looking for. I wanted validation that I wasn't broken. You see, with the level of autism awareness that didn't exist, I allowed those words on the internet, and her words, to define my entire being. She didn't know it, and I didn't realize it, but I was being sentenced to a lifetime of solitary existence with just the slimmest chance of parole. Yes, I wouldn't be in a literal prison, but internally I was slammed into a state of stasis. As I finally went to sleep, I accepted the fact that no one could ever accept me as I was.

This is where the story ends in the presentation, but yes, I did see her on Mondays and Wednesdays. It was awkward, it was quiet, and I had no idea how to handle it. As the bowling season ended in 2004, I tried to call her one afternoon, but it went to voicemail. A few minutes later, her number called me, and I elatedly answered, but it wasn't her. It was some guy, and he said he had heard about me, and how awful I was, and that if I ever called her number again, he would make sure to break all of my fingers and toes. It was a very precise threat, too precise, but naturally I panicked about it, and any chance of accepting who I was became lost in these words.

Looking back on this it all seems so silly. Breakups happen. While I may have been 21 then, I was much younger than my age socially, but most of all it was the timing of my diagnosis. I knew that, more than likely, Emily was not the person for me, but with the damaging words I read, she became the only lifeline to normality, and when it was cut, I figured my chance at any life was over.

The next ten months were essentially lost time. I became proficient on racing games on the Xbox, and it was nothing for me to spend upwards of 16 hours a day climbing the leaderboards. With each game I became the best in the world, there was a hollow feeling. Eventually, I'd start writing Finding Kansas in 2005 and it wasn't until I finished it that I realized that I was more than my diagnosis, but nonetheless I would carry around the albatross of sadness from this broken road. I wish I knew it then, but it's these experiences that do let a person know that, when they find where they need to be, they'll know it even more.

Monday, September 11, 2023

An Aspie's Wedding: Where I Was In 2003

It's fitting I finished my Finding Kansas Revisited project last week as this week... this week is wedding week. My wedding week. It's odd to write that. Surreal, really. I never thought I'd write such a thing. I never thought this would happen. But it is. This week. And... I can't believe it.

Last week, I did finish that book project, but I also saw a post on Facebook of the standings sheet of a bowling league I used to be on. It was from 2003, and I figured that would be the place to start this week as I look back on how I got to this week.

Seeing that scoresheet brought back a flood of memories, but it was hard to truly appreciate the scope of it. This was April 30th, 2003, and I was still a bit under nine months from learning I was on the autism spectrum. In reality, this sheet almost happened at the halfway point of my current life, and almost everything was different in my life then, but it was steeped in routine.

It was Wednesday, so my girlfriend at the time, Emily, and I probably had pizza earlier in the night, and then we both bowled in the early league before I would bowl in the late league which this sheet is from. While the routine was nice, there was a high level of frustration in my life. I knew something was different about me, but I didn't know it was going to be such a seismic event when I'd find out, but there was also a severe level of angst as I wondered what the future would hold. 

Perhaps most 20-year-olds are in a race to figure out life, and I too was one of those. With that, however, came many times of being unable to communicate my hopes, dreams, and emotions. Emily would often bring up the future and my future, then, would just come back to racing. It was my only focus. I knew I'd make it in racing. Granted, I thought I'd be the next multi-time champion of any given major series, but so often Emily was looking for an answer that included her and, being on the autism spectrum and not diagnosed, I had no idea that she was looking for herself to be included in the answer.

This scoresheet has turned out to be a time capsule for me as I was just over a month from having everything in my life change. In June, I'd move from my mom's to my dad's, and my childhood pet, Missy the Maltese, would pass away at the age of 16. It was then a blue until October, when I'd move to Vegas for a month to instruct at a racing school, and then the fateful month of December when I'd receive my diagnosis.

I'm not sure if others can have such a profound moment as I've had by getting lost in the names of that standings sheet. If my life were an interstate highway system, that moment of that sheet would be the sign warning of a fork ahead. Everything was about to change, and before I'd get anywhere near the celebration that's going to come on Saturday at my wedding, the dark days would have to be endured.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Finding Kansas Revisited: The End

There I was, in Kisumu, Kenya, room 312 of the Imperial Hotel, and I was at a life milestone. It was October 2006, and I knew a journey I never intended to set out on was coming to an end. Just 19 months prior, I almost died in this town due to the being held captive by the mob, and after surviving that ordeal I wondered why I was spared, and I realized that my writing's might be worth something besides just trying to explain my existence through written words.

As I opened up the laptop, my hands were shaking. While I never thought of my words as being a book, I did keep everything in a running Word document, and it was time to conclude the journey. 

To do so I had to summarize my chapters up to that point. What had I learned? I looked out the window to the West, towards Lake Victoria, questioning who I was. Emily's words kept haunting me, "You have Asperger's, you can't love others." To have something concretely stated like this put me in a box, and I believed it. And, when you believe something, it often comes true. This was the first moment I realized I was more than my diagnosis, and that I had unlimited potential. 

If you read the book, you can instantly pick up on the change in tone. No more was I writing out of a corner of self-loathing, but instead I announced to the world that, yes, I'm not normal, but I'm more than any label. 

When I got to the final words, I looked out of the window a long time and I can assure you that I never could've imagined the heights I'd reach. You've been on the journey with me if you've read my book, been to any of my presentations, or have followed my blog for any short while. The heights though... wow! I've given 1,046 presentations to 95,985 people. I've presented to the top levels of the FBI in Washington D.C., and I fulfilled the impossible dream of becoming the starter for the NTT INDYCAR Series including the largest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500. 

Realizing that this wasn't truly the end, I wrote that I knew I could have a "prosperous life" as I reflected back that, as I began my writing journey, I didn't want to exist. Life, love, and prosperity were impossibilities, I believed, but even though I had achieved little as I finished the book, I knew I was capable. What did that look like? I had no idea, but I was ready for whatever would come, and I knew something would. 

So, in the end, of this reflection back on who I was, I know most of all that the inability to love was the biggest fallacy I believed because, in just eight days, I'm getting married.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Finding Kansas Revisited: Aliases


            This was a prophetic chapter and I say this in every presentation that I use this concept in. I know I did skip ahead several chapters, but my thoughts on those chapters were just more of the same of material I’ve already covered.

            Anyway, the story I use about not having fuel at the race is something that still holds true at races to this day. Well, not having fuel isn’t an issue as I only flag, but if I asked to go get a certain tool from any given crew I clam up. I can display the flags with vigor and passion, but if you ask me to be put in a position where I need to interact to acquire an item it’s difficult. This is due to “Alias”. I can play a role just fine, but if it’s personal I mat struggle.

            In presentations I state this and say, “If you see me off this stage you may not recognize me.” I don’t know if people believe me when I say this, but for those that have they do believe it. It also had to be confusing to my coworkers when I was worked, or my classmates and teachers when I was in school. 

            When I wrote this I never imagined that I’d have a stage alias but in life sometimes we don’t know what we are capable until after the fact and even then sometimes we may wonder how we do the things we do. Never could I have imagined the heights I’d reach, and the stages I’d speak on.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Finding Kansas Revisited: If I Were Dying of Thirst, Would I Ask For a Glass of Water

 This chapter was inspired by the events of being in Marshalltown, Iowa on the weekend of July 21st, 2006. One side note about that weekend, I had one of the oddest red flag situations on the practice day as deer overran the back straightaway. Deer aside, the stories from that Sunday are prime examples of, “I think therefore you should know” which I didn’t have that quote then, but this concept of not asking for water if I were dying is due in part to, “since I know I need water than you do to!”

            There’s two other examples of this, one was with Greg, the kart shop owner, at a race in Michigan. We were loading the trailer and I was pulling the karts in and he was pushing. We got to the end and my back was against the shelves but he kept pushing not realizing. This hurt extremely badly as I had 600lbs of equipment being pushed into me but I didn’t speak up. I was stuck in “1,000 Outcomes” in that, if I spoke up, how mad would he be?

            Even after I started presenting, I was working a race in 2010 and it was dry, hot, and windy. A perfect combination for dehydration and in a break someone drove by and asked, “Hey Aaron, you need a break?” to which I thought about it and said, “No.” Why would I say no? I needed that water, and my book title prophecy was very much trying to become true, but I said no because since I knew it he already knew it and he simply didn’t give me the water. Several minutes later I broke the prophecy and I did ask for water, but I use this example in presentations to teachers because if I need help then you already need it. As with other chapters this may seem like a simple chapter, but read it again to get under the surface and understand the elements in play.

Friday, September 1, 2023

Getting Recognition

When I present to employers or individuals on the spectrum, I often will stress that, “it’s important to get a job in the field you love. Our passion often shines through and I firmly believe passion is something that can’t be faked and potential employers will notice it.”

This past weekend, the NTT INDYCAR Series visited Saint Louis. I did my usual job in the flag stand but NBC’s INDYCAR X page took notice and shared

It’s an odd sensation to get a shoutout like this. I love my job. I worked to get this position my entire life, and yet when I receive an accolade like this, I’m unsure how to react. I am proud of my work, but my joy comes in the work itself. The pressure of the job, the adrenaline, and the sensation of ice flowing through my veins one minute before the race is a sensation I only get at this job. For myself, that’s the joy and when I get a shoutout, I’m unsure how to handle it. 

Don’t get me wrong, it is flattering, and a bit cool to have a National outlet recognize me, but I’m doing this job because I love it, and whether I’m working a kart race, or an INDYCAR race in front of a national television audience, I’m going to enjoy it all the same.