Hello everyone, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. It’s Boxing Day! Christmas has been and gone, so it’s a belated season’s greetings and merry Christmas from me. Or is it? I certainly feel merrier that I did a few days ago, but I have an odd relationship with Christmas, as I am about to discuss.
I’ve received some lovely gifts this Christmas; stuff that has shown people really know me, and have put genuine care and consideration into gift choices. That’s quite important to me, as I will go on to discuss.
But before I say anything else, I should point out that I’m on some pretty strong painkillers right now, and I’m probably nowhere near as coherent as I think I am. This blog could end up being a piece of drug-inspired literary genius, but it’s more likely to look like someone shook the Scrabble bag, tipped out the letters, and hoped for the best. Anyway, here goes.
On Thursday 17th December, my steadily worsening back pain exploded into agony. I was immobilised and in the worst pain I have ever known. A panicked call to 999 from my wife could not get an ambulance; my condition was not deemed life threatening, I had no chest pain, and there were plenty of other people with more urgent needs. But nevertheless, I needed help. I literally wept with pain trying to get into the passenger seat of my wife’s car. By the time we arrived at A&E, I was more or less incoherent. I remember screaming No, no, no, over and over as three paramedics tried to get me out of the car. I remember being given gas and air. Everything else is a blur until I remember the A&E doctor telling me I would have to be admitted to the orthopaedic ward. I was in hospital for four days, living on a cocktail of morphine, diazepam, codeine and paracetamol. I was on a ward with three elderly gentlemen whose moans of pain and discomfort were distressing for me to hear, and kept me awake constantly.
I was discharged on the 21st, just in time to *ahem* “enjoy” Christmas. I’m still on all the meds I was taking in hospital. The problem with the nerve in my back will not be dealt with by surgery as things stand, as such an intervention could actually cause further problems. It’s a case of waiting for it to improve, something this condition usually does of its own accord over a few weeks.
So I did get to spend Christmas at home. I have long had a troubled relationship with Christmas. These days, I understand that some of my problems with Christmas depend directly from the fact that I see the world through an autistic lens. My feelings about Christmas have evolved over the years, and it’s fascinating for me to plot out out the changes. It looks like this:
As a child, I was always excited about getting toys, and hopefully, a stack of Marvel and DC comics, for Christmas. I had zero interest in the religious aspect of Christmas (although that didn’t stop me carol singing for pennies around local houses). I cannot remember a time when I ever believed in Santa (or Father Christmas as we called him back then). I was taught about Jesus and the virgin birth and so on at school, but even as a small child, it struck me as pointless nonsense. For me as a child, Christmas was purely a commercial opportunity to get “things”. I was always desperate to get things, especially superhero comics, that were my obsession almost from birth. Most of my childhood was spent in abject poverty, so Christmas was the time when I knew I would at least get something. My childhood was extremely unhappy, partly because of a horrible domestic situation, but mainly through trying to cope as an undiagnosed autistic kid. The accumulation of things (particularly comics that gave me a fantasy world to escape into) to try to offset unhappiness in life would be something that stayed with me well into adulthood.
AUTISTIC CHILDHOOD VERDICT: Christmas was about accumulating desirable possessions that ultimately failed to offset the unhappiness of childhood that was driven by undiagnosed autism.
As a teenager, I became more interested in making sure I bought Christmas gifts for other people. I particularly wanted to get things for my mother, as I was realising how much I owed her; how hard she’d had to work at keeping things together as a single mom. So the opportunity to show her some appreciation when I wasn’t in one of my meltdown / off-the-rails phases was eagerly taken. I was prone to angry outbursts as a teenager, and to periods of horribly deep depression. I felt like an outsider constantly trying to be part of something, anything, that would make me feel at home.
During my teenage years, I began a serious flirtation with religion, after my family got roped into a local holy roller type of church. I developed what some would call a serious fundamentalist Christian faith, in a church that actively practiced what they claimed was prophecy, healing, and speaking in tongues. It was absolutely nuts, but at the time I bought into it. I was at an age when I knew at some level that I was different than everyone around me; I just didn’t know what that difference was. I was desperately unhappy, and thought god might be the answer. But as with much of my younger life, there was another side to my personality, and I kept the two psychologically compartmentalised: Away from church , my other side was all about sex, booze, and apocalyptic post-punk electronic rock. It doesn’t take a genius to work out those two conflicting lifestyles were going to create problems for me. I would say my prayers, attend church and read the bible at Christmas, along with going out, getting blind drunk, getting into fights, and chasing any young lady who caught my eye. I actually read the bible from cover to cover, some parts several times. Reading the bible carefully is a pretty horrifying experience, and it played a huge part in me eventually becoming an atheist. But for a while, I was genuinely looking for a spiritual meaning in the bible, and in Christmas. The idea that god would take on human flesh, come down to this miserable planet he’d created for us, and say, “Okay, I’ll see it from your point of view for a bit, see what you’re all moaning about”, seemed like a hell of thing for a deity to do. None of this put me off getting drunk and aggressive at Christmas, of course. I was a walking contradiction. I was told that the things I was really interested in; sex, booze, cigarettes, the occasional fight, and some other stuff I won’t mention here, were sinful. The guilt trip that religion can inflict should not be underestimated. It has serious psychological consequences. This guilt combined with the sense of otherness (undiagnosed autism), to leave me feeling like an alien playing at trying to be human, and hoping I didn’t get found out.
I was part of the Threads generation, brought up in a cold war that threatened to boil over into nuclear madness at any point. This dovetailed perfectly with my religious beliefs, leading me to believe I was living in the end days; that the literal rise of the anti-Christ, the great tribulation, and the end of the world was imminent. Every Christmas day felt like a step closer to the Armageddon that would usher in the rapture for us lucky believers (if we stopped sinning), and a thousand years of tribulation, or the rule of Satan for all you unbelieving suckers. So much did I feel like I didn’t belong in this world (having no idea at that time that I was autistic) that entering the biblical end times felt like a pretty good option to me.
AUTISTIC TEENAGE YEARS VERDICT: Christmas was all about hedonism, religious lunacy, and guilt.
I quickly moved away from religion, largely on the back of seeing the constant lies and hypocrisy of the supposedly pious elders of the church. Prophecies that turned out to be bullshit, healings that failed, holy preachers who threw ridiculous temper tantrums… it was tiresome, dishonest bullshit. Furthermore, reading the whole of the bible put me in a position to see the many contradictions, and the utter nonsense of the belief system.
Despite having developed a deep distaste for religion, I still harboured a vague belief that some kind of god, in one form or another, did exist. It was a confused, illogical kind of belief that persisted, I suspect, because of the brainwashing techniques employed by religions; some of the thoughts and feelings that are drilled into you are difficult to expel.
At this phase of my life then, Christmas became less about religious celebration, and more about trying to conform to normal social activities. I convinced myself that putting myself through the torture of socialising with certain people I only ever saw at this time of year was some something I should so. Still completely unware I was autistic, and now a single father with full custody of my son, holding down a full time job, and leaving a broad wake of ex-girlfriends behind me, I was unconsciously masking; trying to do the things I saw other people doing in order to fit in. At Christmas, this meant conspicuous consumption, huge amounts of food and booze, and spending stupid amounts of money on gifts for people. Really unnecessary gifts. Every year, the Christmas tree went up. Every year, the Christmas album went on the music system. Hours were spent writing Christmas cards to family I barely knew, friends, work colleagues. I told myself I was having a good time. I mean, everyone else did this stuff, and they all seemed excited about Christmas, so surely, I was excited as well, because I was doing all the right stuff. Right? But the truth was, I felt hollow about the whole thing. It all felt like fakery; a gross commercial exercise.
One Christmas in particular, someone close to me pointed out a bunch of gifts I had been given for Christmas. I had done the neurotypical thing of being grateful, but the truth was, as was being pointed out, most of these gifts were things I would never use. They were cookie cutter gifts; things that had no relevance to me, that clearly showed the people who had sent them either knew nothing about me, or worse, didn’t really care but were sending gifts out of the Christmas obligation we feel to send gifts. They were the types of things you see in shops under the signs Gift Ideas. It was a wake-up call for me. I looked at my Christmas tree and thought, I don’t even like Christmas trees. Don’t get me wrong; I can appreciate the skill that goes into a beautifully decorated tree. Some of them look amazing. But to have one in my home just feels like something taking up too much space, with two many colours, and the flashing lights drive me bananas. I understand now, of course, this is an autistic trait in me; it’s basically over-stimulation. But back then, I just came to the conclusion that I was taking part in Christmas routines that felt like pointless crap. I was doing things that made me uncomfortable and unhappy, purely out of some sense of obligation to tradition, and trying to convince myself I was having a good time.
As far as gifts went, it hurt me to think that people I cared about were spending hard-earned money on gifts for me that I would never put to any use. It upset me to know they were literally wasting their money. How do you say to someone, I love you, but please stop wasting your money on this shit I neither want nor need. I don’t even think this is necessarily a purely autistic thought; I’ve heard many people make similar points… but we keep on doing it. One of the things that has made more recent Christmas gifts really nice is that people have clearly thought about what type of person I am, and have given lovely, appropriate gifts, rather than pointless tat. I hope I’m managing to do the same for them. When I give someone a gift, I want it to be a way of telling them I care.
I remember being in a management meeting one day at work, probably late November or early December. When it came to any other business, I said I wanted to make a suggestion. I said that instead of us all sending Christmas cards this year, we could all use the money we would normally spend on cards to make a donation to a charity. My charity of choice would be the NSPCC, and I’d be happy to collect everyone’s donations, make the payment, and get a receipt that we would display for all our colleagues to see. I was met with awkward silence. You could have heard a pin drop. No one said it was a good idea. No one ever took me up on it. People looked at me like I had two heads. Shortly after Christmas, as we did every year, the company provided a massive container into which people could dump their Christmas cards to be taken away for recycling. Ironically, the container was made of cardboard, which would itself need recycling. I cannot even begin to calculate how much money was spent on those cards that were just sent to be pulped a few days later. It boggles my mind. But I was expected by my work colleagues to take part in the exchange of Christmas cards, and treated as an outcast for not wanting to be part of this immoral waste of money.
AUTISTIC YOUNG ADULTHOOD VERDICT: Christmas was all about uncomfortable pressure to conform.
Starting in my mid-thirties. I embarked on a program of self-education. I went back to college, read widely, and took a degree with The Open University. My transition from being confused about spirituality and religion to outright atheism did not happen overnight. The process of letting go of long-held beliefs and spiritual hopes was simultaneously painful and uplifting. Reading a lot of science and rational philosophy changed my world view. Reading Dawkins and Hitchens in particular was, if I may fall back on a little ironic humour, a Road to Damascus experience for me. This change in my world view happened at a time when social media was really coming into its own. I was extremely active on Facebook at the time, and used it as a platform to shout loudly about my new atheistic approach to life. I was full of joy about the psychological liberty atheism had given me, but I was also angry at religion; at the harm it causes, and the lies and hypocrisy it perpetuates. My Facebook timeline was full of atheist and anti-theist posts. And of course, that was particularly the case around Christmas, when I really got on my social media soapbox.
What I was doing, I now understand, was a classic autistic behaviour: info dumping about my new special interest (atheism). And in what many would recognise as another typical autistic behaviour, I completely failed to grasp that many people simply would not agree with me. No matter how logical, factual and correct my atheistic soapboxing was, people didn’t want to hear it. A lot of people got pretty pissed off with me. I found Christmas, more than ever, a gross display of conspicuous consumption and a form of social mind control pressuring people into spending money that lots of them quite simply didn’t have.
AUTISTIC MATURE ADULTHOOD VERDICT: Christmas was fakery; religious fairy tales and commercial pressure used to control people.
I’m not as vocal about my atheism as I used to be. However, my horror at religion has deepened. My approach to Christmas has mellowed a little, though. Considering the pagan roots of Christmas, I try not to get too hung up on the Christian hypocrisy. Atheists like to have fun, and we should be allowed to have a party or festival every now and then.
Obviously, by now I know I am autistic, and while I still find social gatherings extremely difficult, at least I know why I feel that way, and the people closest to me understand and accept it when I reach my limit, and have to leave or go somewhere quiet. The days when I would cope with the noise and overstimulation of social gatherings by getting blind drunk are long gone.
Whilst it’s difficult as an autistic person to find ways of having fun in a neurotypical world, I have to say I do kind of like to see other people get excited about things they are going to do at Christmas. I’ve reached a place where I understand that parties and festivals are necessary social events where people need to blow off steam; I tolerate that social phenomenon more easily now. But the overspending, the waste and the conspicuous consumption does upset me still.
Another thing that upsets me deeply at Christmas is the way so many people end up stressed, worried, angry and resentful when Christmas fails to live up to the ridiculous expectations society imposes on it.
Every year I hear people say how much they are looking forward to Christmas; I see the planning and work they put into it, and then I see them exhausted and depressed at the result. And I hear other people saying they are dreading Christmas, and saying they want to be left alone, to treat it as a non-event, as it’s going to be crap anyway. But then they seem upset as their prophecy self-fulfills, as they spend tie alone rather that with people who care about them.
And then to add into all this, there are the things that too many of us don’t like to think about: The homelessness, the domestic abuse, the sheer misery of working class people well and truly caught in a poverty trap that makes a mockery of the idea of a merry Christmas. And there are the family disputes; fights, hurts, misunderstandings, grudges and so on that keep people apart at a time when the cultural expectation of Christmas is that those people should be together. The failure to comply with the social expectation multiplies the hurt already present exponentially, and causes so much pain and resentment. I’ve seen this affect people close to me, and it breaks my heart.
The pressure and expectation Christmas demands of people; the absolute insistence on having a great time, focuses too much attention on what people are doing, what they are cooking, what gifts they are buying, and not enough attention on thinking about how people feel, and what they need. We don’t think enough about forgiving people who have pissed us off when we simply can’t understand what has gone on in their lives for them to have behaved that way. We don’t often enough say, I’m not happy with how things have gone, I’m hurt, I’m upset, but I don’t want to hate you; I want things to improve. And the other side of that coin is that we don’t say sorry enough. We don’t go to people and say, I’m sorry things are not good between us, but I care about you, and I hope things can improve. Christmas, a time when so much expectation is on us to have a good time, seems like the perfect time of year to do that kind of thing. But we don’t do it. We bottle up anger and resentments; sometimes petty, sometimes serious. And in a few years, we’ll all be dead, and that pain will have achieved nothing.
Christmas has no religious or spiritual meaning for me, but there is no escaping its cultural influence and pressure. Why on earth can’t we channel that pressure into positive things, instead of piling misery on ourselves by spending too much money on crap, and harbouring resentments against people who, essentially, are just as human and imperfect as we all are?.
Roughly 32% of people on the UK will have paid for their Christmas spending on a credit card this year. Nearly half of UK people will have failed to even budget for their Christmas spending. According to Age UK, over half a million people aged 60 or over will have spent Christmas alone.
We are doing something wrong here, aren’t we?
AUTISTIC MIDDLE-AGED VERDICT: Christmas as an unavoidable cultural phenomenon is an opportunity for spreading happiness that is consistently missed because people are too busy falling for commercial hype, and dwelling on historical personal hurts, slights, and offences.
There is a lot wrong with this world, and most of it, I suspect, is based on how people see other people. Racism, gender inequality, ableism, you name it; these are issues in which one group of people sees another group of people as somehow lesser, when the truth is we are all the same. I think we sometimes take this approach into interactions with individuals as well. We can demonise an individual who has pissed us off all too easily. when maybe we should just stop and think a little bit more carefully about what has caused a person to behave a certain way. In fact, we might never know what drives a particular person’s behaviour, and we shouldn’t actually require that understanding before offering some forgiveness and consideration. I personally have been guilty of absolutely detesting a person because of something she did, only to find out later that behaviour was entirely driven by a mental health problem. We ended up getting on really well with each other.
So here I am, profoundly atheist, talking – someone would say preaching – a message of tolerance, acceptance, and forgiveness as I reflect on Christmas, and championing empathy as an autistic person, knowing that, stereotypically, autistic people supposedly lack empathy. It’s a strange life.
Be nice to each other, people. And when someone is horrible to you, take some time to consider whether that person really is an utter arsehole, or whether they are just dealing with something dark and troubling they simply cannot explain to you.