Part 40: Surviving the Hall of Mirrors

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I don’t want to sound too British, but how ridiculous has the weather been? Waterproof parka one day, shirtsleeves the next. *Puzzled shrug* On the subject of clothing, I had something pleasant happen this week. You might remember I’ve talked a bit recently about how I’ve enjoyed getting back into exercising at the gym, despite my anxiety. Well, I’ve been working out pretty consistently for a while now, and noticed I was having to tighten my belt a bit more. In fact, I was having to tighten it too much, and the waistband of my trousers was rucking up as a result. Turns out I’ve dropped a waist size. This has meant having to cough up some cash to buy new trousers that fit me properly, but, y’know, eggs and omelettes. Of course, I wouldn’t be me if it hadn’t crossed my mind that maybe it wasn’t the exercise paying off that had triggered my weight loss, but some horrible illness looming. Fortunately, I can laugh off that kind of anxiety at present.

I can see an improvement in my physique in the mirror, which really good news because how I feel I look plays a huge part in my self-confidence. The health problems I put up with for several years that stopped me exercising really hit me hard in the self-confidence stakes as my weight ballooned.

When I bought those new, smaller-waist trousers this week, it set me thinking about how we look at ourselves physically, and what we see in the mirror does to our overall perception of ourselves as people. As is often the case with me, one train of thought set off another, and I started thinking about not just physical reflections and appearances, but also mental reflections; what we think of ourselves, and how this builds into our internalised autobiographies. This set me wondering: It seems obvious that our physical appearance, or perhaps more accurately, our perception of our physical appearance heavily influences what we think of ourselves, and thus the life story we tell ourselves. But what if that influence works in both directions? What if the internal autobiography we each create as we process our experiences and memories affects how we physically see ourselves. What would that mean?

A few days ago, I found myself in a situation where I had to have a small-talk conversation with someone. These days, I embrace the fact that I’m not keen on small talk, but I accept sometimes there is no avoiding it if you want to get on with people. The small talk turned to career background, and I found myself handling questions about what I’d done in the past, and how I’d come to do my current job. I answered the questions in a friendly, engaging way I think, and every answer I gave, along with all the conversational add-ons, anecdotes, and trivia I’ve learned to deliver in a lifetime of masking, were 100% factual and correct. But it wasn’t the truth. You might be wondering what I’m talking about. Surely, if I was being 100% factual, I was telling the truth, right? Well, yes and no. You see, I left something out of my career background story. And this missing ingredient is pretty key to understanding who I am. I left out the huge shaping force that my mental health issues have played in my life. I left out how a prolonged mental health crisis led to two career changes and, eventually, an autism diagnosis. In the context of where I am now – fully embracing my autism and fiercely proud of being autistic – that was, I guess, a hell of a thing to leave out. But it was just the way that conversation went; I wasn’t convinced dropping the mental health hand grenade into polite conversation with someone I barely knew was the right thing to do on that particular day in that particular situation. (Compare that with another conversation I talked about in a previous blog, in which the subject of my autism came up naturally, and led to a really cool chat.) So, the biography I related to this guy in the latest conversation, while consisting of entirely factual elements, gave him an impression of me that lacked something essential to get a real idea of who I am. How often, I wonder now, do we pull that trick on ourselves?

When I was a small kid, I went on a day trip to the coast (Skegness I think, but it could have been somewhere else), and somehow found myself in a so-called Funhouse, with a Hall of Mirrors. You had to slide down a steel slope, clamber up the opposite slope, and there in front of you was a wall-sized mirror that warped your reflection out of all recognition. I lingered in front of it for a while, pulling faces, waving my arms, wiggling my hips, and so on. It struck me as odd back then without me really understanding why, that a mirror could distort my appearance so much. It strikes me as even more bizarre now. Not the science – I get that; I know how mirrors work. But the concept of a warping mirror is unnerving. The photons bouncing from one surface to another to stimulate my optic nerve so that my brain creates the warped image are the same photons that, if reflecting from a standard mirror, would trigger my brain to create a different, more accurate image. But is there any mirror that can give you a 100% accurate reflection? Even if there was, you won’t really see that image. What you see is not an image travelling through your eye into your brain, but an image concocted by your brain in response to stimulation of the optic nerve. The difference is stunning when you think about it. What we see whenever we see ourselves is a visual fiction. And what we tell ourselves about ourselves is also a fiction. It is known to science that our memories are not recordings of events that are stored in our brain. No, our memories, however vivid and real they seem, are mental reconstructions. Our memories are grossly faulty and inaccurate. We forget, confabulate and create to come up with a series of memories that are often far from the facts. So far, so established science. What fascinates me even more than the unreliableness of memory, is wondering what processes are involved in the creation of our internal autobiographies: What drives the mechanism that deletes some memories, creates totally false memories, conflates events into merged memories, and so on? Is it purely random electrical firings in the brain? I don’t think so. Intuitively, it seems reasonable that our mental and emotional states would play a part in how our memories are flagged and encoded in our brains. For example, I might have a memory of a real event, say, crashing my car. Let’s say this is a factual, more or less accurate memory, because we can verify it with CCTV recordings of the accident. So, I have a factual memory of the event, but what were my feelings at the time of the event? Was I terrified I came close to death, and so still have traumatic flashbacks to it? Or was I furious with the idiot who ploughed through a red light to cause the collision? Or was I euphoric at surviving a near miss, leaving me determined to do more with my life and treat every day as precious? Each different reaction to the event would, I suspect, colour the memory of the event in a different shade, and – importantly – frame the event differently in my internal autobiography. For example:

  • “It was the worst day of my life. I honestly thought I was going to die. That kind of thing stays with you. I still have nightmares. Ever since then, nothing seemed to matter to me anymore. It was like life had no point, because an accident could kill you at any moment. I couldn’t hack my job anymore, so I quit. I didn’t even care what happened…”
  • “When I got out of the car, lucky to be escaping alive, I saw the other guy who’d come through the red light, and I just lost it. He had almost killed me. I gave him a good hiding, and from that point, I decided no one was going to push me around ever again. And when my boss acted like an asshole to me, I told him to shove his job. I’d be my own boss in future…”
  • “It was the day that changed my life. Ever since I walked away from that wreck, I’ve looked at life differently. I make sure I take time to appreciate everything and everyone around me, because every day is a gift. I look for the opportunity in everything. And so, when the chance came to quit my job and take a new direction, I grabbed it with both hands…”

You can see how it would work, right? Our mental and emotional states apply a context to everything we experience. We then use the contextualisation to fit the event into our internal autobiography, putting it into a series of logged causes and effects, presenting our life stories like a series of toppling dominoes. Rarely if ever do any of us describe our life stories as a series of completely unrelated, random occurrences. We literally tell stories about our lives. This is something that fiction writers have always known and exploited. It has been theorised that the reason people tell and consume stories is to make sense of life. Stories with an engaging start, gripping development, and satisfying conclusion bring order to chaos. But really, if we are totally honest, we know that lives are actually full of randomness, and that the universe is a fickle place utterly indifferent to us.

Successful people; those who have worked hard and risen to the top in their fields, acquiring fame and fortune along the way, are often asked to give talks or write books about how they achieved their success. Time and time again, these people say the same things, and those like Napoleon Hill have become experts at it: Work hard, keep your ambition in mind, and never, ever give up. If you stay at it, and want it enough, and never give up, you will achieve your dreams. And of course, that is all utter bullshit.

There is a thing in life, a logical error, known as survivorship bias. In the context of what I’m talking about here, we can call it success bias. Let’s have an example of actual survivorship bias to start with:

Let’s say that there was a tsunami that hit a fishing town, and tragically drowned many people. As fate would have it, a group of survivors were members of a swimming club who happened to be in the area. The media reports the story, saying that the group’s swimming prowess saved them from almost certain death as the tsunami hit. What the media didn’t report, though, was that dozens of the people who died were also very powerful, experienced swimmers, as residents who had lived by the sea all their lives. In interviews, the swimming club survivors attribute their survival to the hard work they put into their training. But that is just their survivorship bias at work. The truth was, they got lucky. They just happened to be in one of the less severely hit areas.

Success bias works the same way. The successful people who crow about their hard work, sacrifice, determination and sheer self-belief as the cause of their success, effectively insult all the millions of people who work at their dreams for their whole lives with the same effort, commitment, and belief, but ultimately fail. Successful people generally don’t come out and say, “Look, I got lucky, okay?” Audiences don’t want to hear that. They want a story of triumph, something that gives them hope or inspiration, because they don’t want to believe that luck is the driving factor in almost everything in their lives. And you can bet the successful people telling their stories believe every word they say when they tell us they got their rewards because they kept trying and never gave up. That is the way we create our internal narratives; cause and effect. We bring order to the chaos, and believe that order equates to meaning.

Of course, many people do understand survivorship bias, success bias, and the lies we tell ourselves. It’s not a secret. But I feel confident that many people who push the never giving up results in achieving your dreams philosophy either don’t understand survivorship bias or just prefer not to think about it, and so edit it out of their internal autobiography. This means they are creating their autobiography while lacking or deleting certain key facts. It’s a bit like me telling someone about my professional choices without mentioning the massive impact my mental health issues had on those choices. The story might include factual events, but will make no genuine, truthful sense at all. At this point, you may be asking, Darren, what has this got to do with autism? Allow me to explain.

I remember sitting in a GP’s office, and hearing him say, “I’ve got a long background in autism. I can’t give you a diagnosis, that’s not what I’m here for, today. But as far as I’m concerned, you are 100% on the spectrum.” Nineteen months later, I finished my autism assessments, and sat in the office of the specialist, who said, “You are on the autism spectrum.” It’s difficult to put into words the effect those two events had on me. The impact was devastating, in that it forced me to reassess everything about myself. I had built up various narratives about my life. I had told myself what sort of person I was. I had created an intricate timeline of events; successes, tragedies, heartbreak, betrayal, you name it. But I had done all of that while looking at my reflection in a Funhouse mirror. I hadn’t been in possession of all the facts, and so like someone who ignored survivorship bias, or like someone who was seeing a warped reflection, my whole internal autobiography was skewed. The memories had been reconfigured and grossly fictionalised in my personal narrative because I hadn’t known I was autistic, and hadn’t understood how living five-and-a-half decades as an unaware autistic person in the neurotypical world had falsified everything I thought I knew about myself.

In the ten or so years leading up to my diagnosis, my self-confidence had plummeted. It’s not an exaggeration to say I often hated myself; my personality and my physical appearance. I often felt my weight gain was a reflection of some flaw in my personality, which made me hate myself a bit more, which exacerbated unhealthy behaviours. That was how my internal autobiography affected my physical appearance. And so the spiral descended. Immediately after my autism diagnosis, my self-confidence dropped even further. Everything I saw and heard about autism initially seemed negative. So why then have my self-confidence and willpower started to recover and bounce back so strongly over the last few months – particularly when there has been some significant upheaval in my life? Trying to be as objective as possible, I can point to only one major factor: I have learned about, and embraced, what it really means to be an autistic person. The shock of the change; that Road to Damascus moment of having it confirmed that I was autistic, led to a place of clear objectivity about myself that I guess few people ever get to experience. It took some time to sink in, and some time to start to learn (that journey is ongoing). But once I came to terms, I started to understand who I really was, rather than just the fake narrative I had built previously. I had exited the Funhouse, and left the Hall of Mirrors behind.

I sometimes read things from people wondering whether they are autistic. Should I get a diagnosis, they ask, or, Should I do some research, and self-diagnose? My answer would be yes, do either of those things. Find out. Get your answers. You deserve to know. If it wasn’t for my diagnosis, I’m not sure I would have survived the Hall of Mirrors.

That’s all for this week, people. Until next time, stay safe.


Why Do I Write This Blog?

When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism.  I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation.  With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery.  Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers.  I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.

You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.

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