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Welcome Home Healing: An Existential Journey of Growth, Awareness, Connectedness, and Love

Introduction

This blog post is intended to explore my history of learning disabilities, relational growth, and discovery and embodiment as an autistic man. With this, I hope to not only provide a safe psychotherapy setting for autistic and other adults, but also an opportunity to return home. By that I mean coming back to your “self”, noticing what is new, exciting, and reintegrating things that were thrown away, rather repeating an old narrative about how you “should be”. This returning to “self”, moving fluidly with other people in different spaces, has changed my life. I am honored to share my journey of returning to “self” with everyone.

Suffering and Acceptance

On November 25th, 1986, I was delivered via forceps during a breached birth, which likely resulted in my lifelong struggle with a specific learning disorder with impairment in reading, an unspecified visual perceptual learning disability, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, predominantly inattentive type. At age three, such challenges became apparent as I struggled to pay attention in class, clearly identify various visual objects, and demonstrate sufficient reading, executive functioning, fine motor, and gross motor skills. So, Dr. Kathy Hanes, former Park School Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant, administered a psychoeducational educational evaluation, recommending occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, enlarged print for all readings, placement in a special education preschool class, as well as extended time on classwork and homework assignments.

While the accommodations prevented me from failing preschool, I continued spending hours of time completing coursework and homework, with few opportunities to develop friendships, pursue extracurricular activities, and most importantly, enjoy playing as a child. The school system never realized my needs, let alone the pain of being labeled as a disabled and defective other. I felt alone, sad, unwanted, overwhelmed, anxious, and frightened of failing, unable to articulate my need for help, support, compassion, and love. And so began the lifelong curse of feeling rejected, less than the other, never good enough, and anxiously trying to stay afloat, all of which remain painful creative adjustments (i.e. adaptions) to this day.

Upon entering elementary school, I continued struggling academically, as characterized by difficulty clearly conveying written ideas, comprehending visual information, and an extremely slow reading speed, all of which were noted in a “36-pointt difference” between my “verbal and performance IQ”. This was especially evident as I rushed through assignments, especially written ones that I did not understand, causing my grades to drop. For Dr. Hanes, Principal Hal Williams, and the first-grade teacher, Mrs. Roberson, my academic difficulties became so concerning that I was held back in school. That decision, despite purportedly being in my “best interest”, haunts to me this day as it reinforces feeling unwanted, less than the other, anxious, stupid, and fearful of drowning in work.

In seventh grade, I realized that even though the system was unsupportive, I had the power to change my life. This was a fundamental turning point where I began to advocate for my needs with teachers, tutors, and administrators, even as I continued spending inordinate amounts of time developing academic, organization, as well as basic life skills. In effect, I learned that if I was to succeed in life, I could not sit back any longer relying on other people to give me crumbs of assistance. With that, my grades and organizational abilities improved, providing the necessary scaffolding to graduate from my middle school.

Such growth continued in high school where I deftly negotiated with various players to meet my academic needs. My marks, especially after freshman year, went up, but at great personal cost. Specifically, every evening I studied until 12:30 AM to triumph in various courses. Sure, my efforts, coupled with 50% extended time on all assignments, enlarged written documents, the use of a computer for essays, text to speech software, and a quiet room to complete coursework, made a huge difference. But I also had an extremely limited social life with few opportunities to develop friends and date, something that I still resent.

Upon entering Guilford College, I continued to struggle academically, requiring the assistance of numerous writing tutors and my best friend for help. Such supports, while valuable, did not me prevent from floundering when faced with the overwhelming scholarly demands of higher education. Hour after hour, day after day, I hunkered down to finally learn the fundamentals of writing, something that the Ridgewood School System failed to provide. That, along with sheer grit, determination, and academic accommodations, allowed to me graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science.

As with college, I was unprepared for the rigors of New York University’s Masters of Social Work Program. Not only did I have to succeed academically, but also in field placements. Such demands tested my humanity, pushing me to the point of burnout and even, withdrawal from the program. So, I pushed hard for the NYU Moses Center for Student Accessibility to enforce my academic accommodations, emphasizing my rights and needs within an unemphatic system.

This advocacy paid off, allowing me to not only receive help, but also a sense of justice that I applied when serving vulnerable people. For the first time I realized that my learning disabilities were a gift, not just an overwhelming shameful burden to bear. Essentially, I embodied what I had rejected, becoming more human, vulnerable, and aware.

For the next few years, I worked in the social work field, primarily providing micro and macro interventions to people with serious and persistent mental illness. During this time, I discovered in couples’ psychotherapy that I was an autistic man. Initially, I rejected this “label”, not wanting to be like my brother, father, and uncle, all of whom are on the spectrum. Over time, especially with the support of my therapist Deborah and best friend James, I embraced my identity as a neurodivergent human being. With that came a sense of relief and curiosity in existence. I recognized and gradually embodied my uniqueness, compassion, love, and need to develop meaningful relationships. Sure, the unresolved social ostracism and trauma of an unsupportive academic system remained. And still, I honored and accepted myself as an autistic human being with needs that I started to fully meet.

Roughly two years after this discovery, my marriage fell apart, resulting in unfathomable anguish. I remember the day that my ex-wife, Jane, told me that our marriage was over. I felt horrified, abandoned, alone, depressed, and frightened. After all the work I put into the marriage, it had been ripped away from me. More than that, I loved Jane unconditionally, trying so hard to develop our relationship inside and outside couples psychotherapy. I never imagined facing existence without her…

So, I addressed my pain through individual psychotherapy, communing with friends, and eventually, enrolling in Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy (GA), a post graduate gestalt psychotherapy training program. Through GAP, I have learned to notice my suffering and needs on a bodily level, challenging an old narrative of “never being good enough”. With this and the novelty of giving and receiving love from another trainee, whom I consider to be a big sister, I have become more whole. I have integrated the presence of my big sister, friends, and others, noticing what I need moment by moment. In a sense, I am no longer alone, even during times when I feel that way. My friends, big sister, and the universe itself are with me no matter what! I couldn’t be more grateful.

Conclusion

Humans, especially neurodivergent ones, do not have to live in isolation from others and the universe itself. Growth and healing lie in what is, not the familiar cyclical narrative. I would be honored to work with adults moving from the “Grand Illusion” into the excitement, power, and wonder of novelty. Together we shall dance, creating beauty, art, and experience love itself. Perhaps we’ll witness St. Elmo’s Fire.

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