Tim and I have been together 20 years. I’ve known him since we were 13. We’ve been through most of life’s major moments together. We have a good understanding of each other, and align on most parenting and basic life decisions.
By his own admission, I know him better than anyone else ever has. But I have struggled to make sense of parts of his personality that have caused us such grief; his cool, detached emotional distance, and his fiery, scorching rages. These extremes have framed our lives together, dictating our relationship in ways both simple and profound.
As I have said repeatedly, Tim’s best quality by far is his willingness to seek a solution when he recognizes there’s a problem. For the last six years, we’ve been examining this particular polarity, sussing out what underpins this stressful dynamic. Our working thesis for many years was a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, delivered to Tim when he was in his mid-20s. Carefully monitored medications have helped to a certain extent, preventing some symptoms, not touching others.
But no medication improved his temper. His practice of meditation helped, but changing circumstances got him off that habit. And while meditation helped his reactive outbursts, it didn’t affect his detachment.
Adding to our friction is my native tenderness, a sensitivity that led me to music and writing, my emotions bleeding through everything I do. I don’t much like the word “empath,” but the description is appropriate. According to Dr. Judy Orloff, who wrote several books on the subject, “Empaths are highly sensitive, finely tuned instruments when it comes to emotions. They feel everything, sometimes to an extreme . . . Intuition is the filter through which they experience the world. they’re . . . world-class nurturers.”
The number of times I was told I’m “too sensitive” makes me uncomfortable with this description. I have trouble seeing the good in being sensitive, because it’s been used as an insult so many times. But sensitive is what I am. I have worked diligently to separate myself from situations that are not my responsibility, to avoid letting emotional situations control my decisions socially or professionally. That is not an easy task for me, but I’ve learned some techniques.
With me being an exposed nerve, and Tim being a downed power line sparking all over our world, life has rarely been calm. I have the hardest time detaching to a safe distance with Tim, because I love him and want to be around him. But if you’ll recall, his emotional detachment is the other fragment of necessary information; I can only attach to him to a certain point, beyond which he is unreachable.
These are the characters, Portland’s “know thyself” ethos is the setting, now here’s the plot; After years of therapy separately and together, we finally have a concrete reason for this isolating schizm; Tim has been diagnosed with Asperger’s.
The roots of his detachment and his rage are the same; he has trouble processing sensory input, and so he avoids it by detaching; when he can’t avoid it and it overwhelms him, he lashes out in a rage.
Several therapists have gotten us to this point. Individual counselors for him and for me, a couples therapist for us together, and now, finally, an autism specialist, who placed Tim on the spectrum.
Because he holds a steady job and manages real-world functions, he has High Functioning Autism, or Aspberger’s. I’m not completely clear on what terminology to use yet.
I’m relieved to have an explanation for what we’ve been through. I spent many years blaming myself for not being _________ enough to make him happy; quiet/tidy/passive/polite/you name it, I felt guilty for not being it. But as with all issues relating to another person’s happiness, it has nothing to do with me. He has completely different stuff going on that he has to deal with.
So here we are, now 50 years old, living in a mostly empty nest, trying to incorporate a brand-new diagnosis of a developmental disorder. Some scholars suggest there is comorbidity with Aspberger’s (ASD) and bipolar disorder (BP). Tim’s had a clinical diagnosis of central auditory processing disorder, a neurological disorder, since college. We may find these are all part of the same issue.
This has always been our reality; now we understand the reasons why, the facts behind the behavior. Now we know what’s changeable and what isn’t.
Now we figure out how to make a life around this diagnosis. Because this isn’t something we can wish away or medicate away or pray away or ignore; this is fact.
Tim’s strength–seeking out a solution when he realizes there’s a problem–will serve him well in this phase of his life. He’s auditioning autism-spectrum-disorder (ASD) therapists over the next few weeks, and getting back to regular meditation. I’ll have to lean more heavily on my own self-care tactics to help myself through this transition. With everything else we’ve managed in 20 years together, we will manage this too, I am certain. I have no idea what that will look like, but maybe I’ll drop a line here if things get interesting.
I’m willing to bet that things will, indeed, get interesting.