On ASD, Courage (Cowardice, Really), and Roommates

I haven’t had the greatest luck when it comes to roommates. My first roommate was very ill, and when I reported her illness to her parents, she lashed out at me (understandably; it’s hard to admit you need help) and I was more or less iced out of the apartment. But this isn’t about that incident. I hope she does well and continues to recover.

No, this is a story of the time period of my life during which I displayed the most cowardly behavior that I ever have. 

I do consider myself to be very social justice oriented, “woke” or whatever, and I try to do well by the people I interact with, and the people I’ll never get a chance to meet. I internally pride myself on these things. My life- its challenges, growth, purpose- means nothing if I can’t be good, can’t help people. So what on Earth was I doing from October 2019 to October 2020?!

As you all know, I’m on the Autism spectrum. Being assertive, for me, is a double edged sword. I’ve learned to practice it in order to achieve my goals, but the self punishing and doubt, coupled by the idiosyncratic way I speak, can make assertiveness a difficult task, painful in its aftermath. I also have serious social anxiety and childhood schemas that prevent me from sticking up for myself and others, especially (thanks ASD) when it requires doing in person, eye to eye.

I want to stress before you all hear this story that I was not assertive during this time period, and I should have been. There is no excuse for what I did. Almost everything I’m going to relay about my past actions goes against my value system, in every way. I deeply value anti-racism, feminism, kindness, emotional intelligence, honesty, and courage, though physically fulfilling those values in my daily life is an ongoing journey. None of those values shone through in this experience.

When you’re lonely, anxious, and new to an environment, it’s understandable that you may make some friends that you don’t really gel with. Going off to college and entirely re-establishing yourself socially is a big ask of a teenager, or in my case, a twenty year old. That isn’t an excuse for the friends that I made and enabled, merely the foundation upon which those friendships were built. 

The first impression I got of her was when she said, while at a meeting for the club at which we met, that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were “the same.” While I fundamentally disagree with that, it wouldn’t have been offensive had she not said it in the context of the University Republicans meeting she’d just attended, while praising the “socialist” and “communist” characterization of the two aforementioned politicians. I was instantly annoyed, and had I listened to that gut feeling, I likely would have a.) avoided much internal turmoil and trauma and b.) perhaps made a more meaningful impact on her politics and ideology.

We became fast friends, not because we had so much in common necessarily, but because we each began dating a boy. Those boys were close friends, and so became we. We did everything together; lunch and dinner, walking to classes, playing Smash Bros in the boys’ dorms, becoming executive board members of the club at which we’d met. We even went on a trip to a Caribbean island together… after knowing her for a mere four or five months. Believe me, I know. I’d be lying if I said the relationship ever felt good, but that should have been even more of a red flag! 

Every time she called me “retarded,” mostly after learning of my Autism diagnosis, I’d eventually retreat to my room and cry, but I had no one to consult about my fear and anger. I didn’t want to rock the boat, and her personality was such that the boat could be very easily rocked. 

Every time she would say the beginning of the n word, and make a joke about not finishing it, or make a “despite being 13% of the population” joke, or any number of other racist things she’d say, I’d call her out, but in enough of a joking way such that a fight wouldn’t be started. If we got into a fight, I’d lose everything. She knew about all of my traumas, mental illnesses, and medications. She could tell everyone at school about those things (spoiler alert!). I’d been trying to distance myself from my mental health problems while at college, and even in the face of the most grotesque expressions, I’d wilt. 

Every time she’d call a “novice” (freshman, essentially) on our club’s team an idiot, or a bitch, or doubt their intelligence, or belittle them in any way (whether to their face or behind their back) I’d protest, but barely. Barely just wasn’t enough- these were young people’s feelings, their lives, their confidence that I was dealing with, and I let it slide.

Every time she made an anti-Semitic joke, which was shockingly often, I’d protest, but similarly to the racial protestations. There were infinite opportunities to make jokes about Jewish people and the treasurer position of our club, apparently. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable they all made me, but it doesn’t matter. There is no excuse. I should have walked away.

People with mental illness often have trouble doing these sorts of things, especially those on the spectrum. A lot of my therapy since this all happened has been focused on both understanding why I wouldn’t call her out and leave the relationship, and forgiving myself for not doing so. This is a mental health website, after all, and I wouldn’t tell this story if there wasn’t a serious element of mental illness to it, one that made doing the right thing feel impossible. It wasn’t impossible, and I needed to do better, but that’s how it felt.

Folks, particularly women, who are diagnosed with ASD are particularly vulnerable to manipulation, trauma, and being diagnosed with PTSD. This is, among other reasons, because they are more susceptible to “social stressors” as well as being more commonly bullied and manipulated, just because it’s easier. 

I am not a victim in this situation. I’m much more similar to an enabler than either a victim or perpetrator. I had the choice (though I didn’t realize it at the time) to step away, stand up to her, or report her behavior to her friends, family, school officials. I eventually did those things, but only after she lashed out at me so aggressively that I was forced to. Again, I’m not proud of that.

I am not someone who is eligible to diagnose any other person with mental illnesses. In the past, I have latched onto diagnoses that have been given to others, and perpetuated the idea of those given diagnoses. As such, I won’t be diagnosing her at all. That being said, she absolutely displayed signs of obsessive cleaning habits, to the point where her life was becoming less manageable than it otherwise would have been.

I’m not the cleanest person, I’ll admit. It’s related to executive dysfunction which is, again, related to ASD. That being said, when she and I made the decision to live together in the Fall of 2020, I understood that I would need to keep the common areas clean. I bought two trash cans (one for the kitchen), bought our vacuum, and many of the cleaning supplies. I was committed to keeping things cleaner than I ever had. And that I did!

My personal room may have been covered in clothes, but I did my dishes, cleaned the countertops, emptied the trash often, and was as conscious as possible of leaving out crumbs and food. But, as is characteristic of obsessive cleaning, nothing I did was good enough for her. One fateful day, I left a couple of pans rinsed in the sink, as the dishwasher was still running and my contamination OCD prevented me from washing dishes by hand. Never fear, the apartment featured a dishwasher! She got home from the great outdoors while the dishwasher was still running.

She then ran into the bathroom, facetimed her boyfriend, and began sobbing as she rambled on and on about how I’d left dishes in the sink, how nasty that was, and how much she missed her boyfriend. I realized that it was probably partially related to the long distance relationship stressor, coupled with whatever she’d experienced that day, but I also knew that she was aware that I was hearing every word. After about half an hour of this, she retreated to her room and slammed the door. The dishwasher’s term ended, I emptied it and put in the new dishes, and then knocked on her door. I’d always heard the adage that it is better to address roommate problems head-on, so that’s what I did. The conversation that followed was fine; she admitted to nothing she’d said, and I wasn’t going to press her on it for fear of confrontation.

The next day we had a similar interaction, wherein we both cried as I was making a cake in the kitchen. She’d similarly previously complained, purposely as loud as possible, over the phone to her boyfriend that I’d been in the kitchen “all day” (narrator: it was forty five minutes, beginning at 12:30 and ending at 1:15), and after another testy conversation that night, I was beginning to get nervous about our relationship, but nothing could have prepared me for the next morning.

My boyfriend was there for all of this, and because of how nervous I was feeling, he decided to spend the night with me. We also decided that I should go home the next morning to get some breathing room. The plan was to catch the earliest- 7:30 or so- train and head home to New York. Somehow, she anticipated this, and was waiting in the kitchen for me at 6:00 am.

The next few minutes were a blur, but I do remember crying, staying stone still and perfectly silent as she hurled insult after insult at me. I was a bitch, I was a slob, I was “psychotic” and “crazy” because I “take all those medications” (she’d seen my extensive prescribed medication stores), I deserved all of the past trauma and abuse I’d received in relationships, I was manipulative, I was a horrible person, I had no friends. She said she would take any remaining friends I had and turn them against me. She said she would stay in the kitchen 24/7 if she had to in order to drive me out of the apartment. I shook my head. She smiled at me, in a Disney villain sort of way, and said “oh, you will, you’ll see.” There was more, but I don’t remember it. It truly was a blur.

My boyfriend marched me out of the apartment and down the hall. I suddenly became acutely distressed, her words running through my bloodstream like pinpricks dipped in acid. I would have no friends! I was a terrible, psychotic person! I was sobbing. It was a mess.

Long story short, I sent out an email that day to my school’s crisis response team, expressing what had happened. Unbeknownst to me, they were required to open an investigation into what had happened, due to the disability-based harassment. She was also suspended from our mutual club’s executive board once I notified them, until such time as she decided to apologize and attend a disability related training. It was a culmination of a lot of factors, plus her explosion at me, that led to this outcome. She never did the training, and never returned. 

She’s since told all of our mutual friends an undoubtedly scandalous set of lies about what happened, but everything I just typed is the whole and complete truth, in case you’re reading this. But ultimately, this isn’t for the friends I lost, or the friends who still enable her. 

This is for people who should want to understand ASD, who want to be anti-racist social justice folks. I’m never going to sit here and say that my enabling her behavior was right or justified, no matter what reason there could be for it. I’m never going to excuse what I allowed to happen. It’s especially sickly considering that I only stood up to her, exposed her words and behavior to the club she was an executive board member of, after it became unsustainable personally, for me.

I’m going to continue to reflect on what happened and how I can improve myself going forward. How can I grow the kind of backbone that will allow me to put my values into practice? How can I develop therapeutic tools to meet my interpersonal goals? How can I stick up for the disabled community?

After this happened, she posted to her Instagram story a fundraiser for Autism Speaks, connected to her sorority. Setting aside the irony of that, I want to use this opportunity to explain, during Autism Acceptance Month, that Autism Speaks is a HATE GROUP. It describes ASD as a condition to be treated, fixed, and most of all, feared by parents and doctors. AS is actively harming my life and recovery (related to other mental illnesses and my confidence), and the lives of others with ASD. I urge every nationwide sorority to abandon it and choose another “philanthropy,” but more on that later.

For now, heed my words and stand up to the people in your lives who exhibit bigoted behavior. I wish I had, but all I can do now is move forward and better myself.

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