Sunday, January 24

A New Autistic Understanding of Empathy

Dear Self:

Today I had a thought.

I know that nothing happens in isolation. The circumstances of my life, whether big or small, personal or public, can deeply affect people on the other side of the world. Good things and bad things that happen to me can be incredible blessings to others, and each of us can learn from the experiences of others.

But it's more than that. I had a glimpse today into the reality that, perhaps, life circumstances are more connected to others (and more influenced by them) than I really understand.

My example: 

I often make people feel uncomfortable, sometimes just by existing.

(It's not on purpose; I wish I could do something to make it never happen again. I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable, ever.)


Being attracted to guys makes some people uncomfortable. (Am I attracted to you? Maybe. It's unlikely. Even if I were, it wouldn't go anywhere. The law of chastity is pretty clear on that one.)

Being just autistic enough to be strange, but not enough to be obvious, makes some people uncomfortable. (Am I really that brash/proud/unthinking to not be able to pick up on what that person actually meant, or to break that social norm? Maybe. I'm just normal enough that people can attribute *all* of my social flaws to personality defects.)

Appearing highly confident (more like emotions just don't communicate as easily) can make some people uncomfortable.

Sounding "smart" (or having an obsession with selecting the right word for each sentence because of each word's inherent differences and nuances) can make some people uncomfortable.

Most of the things in my life can make people feel uncomfortable. And  many... and maybe even most... people have told me, and tell me, all the time, that they feel that way. That being in my presence (and it's magnified many times by those who spend a lot of time with me) makes them different... in a usually somewhat unpleasant way.

Side note.

When I realized that many people felt uncomfortable around me the first time... I immediately cut social ties with every person who was close to me but not family. The realization that I, just by existing, made people uncomfortable, was something I couldn't handle. Helping people feel loved and accepted and worthwhile is one of my biggest personal goals in life, and realizing that I was doing the exact opposite made me want to give up. I realized later that it was worth being around people even if it hurt me and them. Usually.

So I have a bunch of facets that can make me uncomfortable to be around. My best friend tells me that he feels inferior to me no matter how many times I try to build him up. My younger sister tells me that she doesn't feel creative when compared to me, even after creating really cool things. A girl once even went so far as to say that I was scarier as a judge (of her internationally acclaimed music performance) than the judges she was preparing for.

And what if God intended that?

What if God made me the way I am so that I could be a stumbling block? A stray thorn?

I realize that my trials can help people when they see or realize a greater perspective, but what if they're also designed to burden the people around me? To push them beyond their limits, try their patience, and bruise their self-esteem? What if my trials, the ones that burn me out and make me want to cry myself to sleep, were also sent to my family, associates, ward members, and everyone else in contact with me to try them as well?

Maybe this is obvious to everyone else, but until today it had never occurred to me.

When my sister got cancer, it wasn't my trial. It affected me, but not really all that much. When my brother had cancer, it was harder, but only because I was trying to help take care of him, our business, and graduate school all at the same time. I ran out of time and energy every single day, and that was my trial. The actual trial of leukemia never even got close.

I've talked with other people who had the same experience, and it had a massive impact on their lives. For some of them, it shook their faith. For others, it pushed them closer to God.

For me...

Maybe it's from the autism. Maybe one reason I struggle to empathize with people with experiences I haven't had is that they don't affect me the way they do everyone else. 

And perhaps that's also why it never occurred to me that my trials could be a burden to others.

Are there people who look at me and wonder the same questions I do? Are there people who can somehow feel the emotional pain hidden under the busy, successful outer layer?

I think there are.

And that adds a whole new facet to life. One that I hadn't thought about.



If I had had this insight/revelation six years ago, I think I would have made the decision to never reach out to people again.

Because my focus was on not hurting people. I knew that *some* people experience discomfort at the beginning of the relationship, but anyone who stayed got past that, right? And my problems were my own problems.

But they're not. My problems are your problems and his problems and her problems, and somehow just by existing the emotional pain I feel affects you.

That's why people have such a hard time with gay rights issues. And why news stories can affect political voting. And why so many people are deeply affected by things they know nothing about.


So what's my conclusion today?

I've realized that sharing who I am openly can make people hurt inside, as well my intended goal - to help them heal.

Do I, out of supposed care for the people around me, hide my problems so that others can't vicariously experience what I do? Do I coat myself with a thin, hard veneer such that people can't catch what's inside?

Thankfully, in the last few years I've learned something important about how God works... and something important about happiness.

Happiness isn't about having an easy life or having things the way I want. Happiness isn't about knowing all the answers or understanding why or how things will happen. Happiness isn't about knowing the future or being in control. It's about trusting God, and following Him.

Learning to be happy takes time. It takes work. And, in many cases, it takes a lot of difficult experiences. Sometimes those experiences are inside us. And sometimes they're not.

I don't know how I feel about my newfound understanding. It highlights a bunch of red flags I didn't even know I had. 

But I think I'm ok. This helps me in my goal to not be afraid. When I understand the things I face, I can measure them, rather than cower in fear of the unknown.

Now I understand why I've had therapists cry during counseling sessions. I never got it before.

So my life, as hard as it is for me, might be hard for others, too. The seeming unfairness I've had to struggle with could be a struggle for someone watching me. And my own painful pathway could inflict emotional wounds on others when we've never even met.

I don't understand it... because that's not how my life works. But I got a glimpse today that, maybe, that's how it works for others.

If that's how it works, I'm sorry.

I'm sorry that anyone has felt my pain. And I hope that anyone watching me can find the light that I have... and feel the love of God as I have as well.

Sunday, January 17

Update: Alternate Day Feasting

It's been two weeks since I began Alternate Day Feasting.

And I like it.

I honestly *really* like it.

I feel better about myself, I feel better in the morning, I feel better during the day. I love being reminded to study the scriptures, and after two weeks, I'm not as hungry on my fast days. So I'm going to keep going.

As a recap, this is how Alternate Day Feasting works:

1. On Day 1, I eat as much as I like. I'm still vegan and don't eat sugar, so food is still pretty healthy.

2. On Day 2, when I'm hungry, I drink a glass of water and study the scriptures. Don't eat at all.

3. If someone offers me food and today is a Fast day, take some for tomorrow. If I want to eat something specific, make a plan to eat it tomorrow.

4. Exercise regularly. When I exercise, I listen to scriptures using headphones. It's something I did for a long time, then stopped... and it helps me enjoy the time I spend working out.

I thought it would be a major social issue. Social events and activities are based on food - and when whether I eat or not on a given day changes each week, that *ensures* that there will be some hurt feelings and some people who will wonder why I'm not eating.

But it hasn't been that much of an issue. I've tried some crazy diets. And, interestingly, it caused far more stress for people in social situations when I was on a super-strict diet (like no carbs) than when I'm fasting. People seem to be okay with fasting in Utah... even if it's every other day. I haven't done any major holidays yet though.

I told my family about how it works, and convinced my younger brother to try it as well. He still acts the part of a cancer survivor, and I think this will give him some new life. One of my sisters wants to try it as well.

I'm excited.

I'll say it again, I *really* like this.

I'm not a huge fan of the hungry feeling that sometimes comes on fast days, but that has lessened dramatically. And I can eat tomorrow. :)

Some more specifics for people who, like me, like the nitty-gritty details about my version of Alternate Day Feasting:

5. Each day matches with a calendar day - so midnight to midnight. This is for multiple reasons. First: to make it simpler for me and others. Today is either a food day, or it's a fast day. Second: to make it easier at the hardest parts of fasting - the beginning and the end. That way this type of IF (intermittent fasting) approach is in practice more like a 30-18 or 36-12 (36 hours of fasting followed by 12 hours of food - if food happens between around 8am and 8pm on food days) than a 24-24.

5b. There is an exception to that rule. Fast days begin faithfully at midnight, so I need to finish eating before then. But food days don't begin until I've slept. Regardless of how late I stay up on a fast day (including past midnight), I don't eat until I've slept for the night. Part of that is hormone balancing - I feel like letting sleep be a differentiator for my body will help it understand what's happening. The other part is to motivate me to go to sleep on time.

6. I can add another fast day to the mix, but not another food day. It's not suggested, as the added fast day replaces a food day... and that means not eating for 3 days. Water fasting for 3 days won't hurt anyone who doesn't have hormonal or sugar imbalances... but I'm already going to be fasting 15 days a month. I think I'm good.

7. If Fast Sunday falls on a food day... then I'll either wait to eat until everyone else breaks their fast, or I'll have a special fast the day before. It doesn't change the cycle.

8. Holidays will be interesting. Because there are other people involved. But while it's totally not normal to fast at Thanksgiving... no one will disown me if I do, right?

While I may feel good about my diet and feel good physically, I have to be real with myself. Alternate Day Feasting isn't the best thing the world has ever seen. It's not going to fix all my problems. It may have some neuroprotective effects, but it isn't likely to cure autism. And while better physical health may give me better emotional resiliency, it's not going to make me superman by any stretch. 

Look at today as an example: I feel great physically, and most of the day I've been really happy. Today is a fast day. Then something emotionally rough came along. I say rough, but most people probably wouldn't think twice about it. In my case, I got knocked down, found myself second-guessing everything I try to do, and felt like garbage. I'll be ok in another hour. But my minuscule emotional and social capacity hasn't changed.

I'm excited. Tired, stressed, concerned for a dozen different things... but also excited. And that's a feeling I want to hold on to.

Monday, January 11

Socio-Emotional Armor

There are only a few things that make me hurt deep inside. Most of the time my emotional grief, while I may write about it passionately here on (G)MG, is fleeting. Tears dry, my memory somehow disappears, and the only proof it ever happened is stored on a blog server who knows where.

I sometimes use the metaphor of social armor. Some people have thick armor that keeps them safe from social blows (intended or not), and others don't. It's not a perfect metaphor, because there are different types of social impacts that can have dramatically different effects depending on who you are... but it sort of works. In my case, I don't have much, or any, armor - so even a grazing blow will probably make me bleed. Disappointment, betrayal, grief, frustration, and pain all hit me hard enough to make me concerned about melodrama. But underneath armor there's another part to the metaphor - how does your social self respond to actual injury? Does it allow deep cuts to fester and scar for a lasting memory? Does the pain cripple you for days or weeks? Or does it do something totally different? In my case, I feel like I heal quickly. So the grazing blow that caused minor bleeding or the vital strike that made me want to die stops as fast as it began, and it's like nothing even happened. And, in most cases, I honestly don't remember it.

Over the last few years, I've developed a set of social armor that deflects at least a few of the things that used to hit me hard, but there are some things that bypass the outside and hit me no matter what.

People are one of those things.

Specifically, watching people develop relationships. Watching people make friendships, fall in love, get married, have families, or just grow closer to the people around them... it's one of the most beautiful things to watch, and one of the hardest.

It's beautiful to watch my best friend with his family. To listen to their bantering, hear their jokes, know exactly when his mom is going to be exhausted with it all, watch them laugh, and feel the incredible bond between all of them.

But that beauty is bittersweet. My family is close. We talk and banter, joke and laugh, and when I'm with them, there are times that I feel like I belong. There are even times when I smile with my best friend's family. Yet the same socio-emotional body that stops the bleeding within moments rejects positive emotion as it does negative. Somehow, again within moments, all the feelings of belonging drain out, leaving only emptiness. I forget the experience just as quickly, and the emptiness pervades, no matter how many people are around me and no matter how deeply I draw on the emotional reservoirs I try to keep alive.

I think that's why being around people, and watching people develop relationships, is so hard for me. I've thought before that perhaps I just never felt like I belonged, and my life has been a constant search for that feeling - and that I envy people their progression because I've never felt anything like it. I've even written that here before. But I think reality is different. I think that sometimes I do truly fit in, that sometimes I do find situations where everything feels right. Life is literally perfect, and I'm simply happy to be with the people that surround me... but, for whatever reason, the feeling disappears just as fleetingly as it comes, and my memory wipes it just as fast.


I have tons of blog posts that explain social pain that I can't remember anymore... and hidden in the archives, I have others that talk about intense happiness that I've forgotten just as completely. I'm sure that I don't fit in as much as I wish I could, but perhaps the conflating factor of my experience isn't just not fitting in - maybe it's that fitting in doesn't have the lasting impact on me that I, or others, would expect.

If that's the case, and my bucket is constantly draining, that could potentially help me understand how to find greater emotional impact from situations that can be guided or structured.

Let's go back to the armor metaphor. 

If I have heavy armor, the best way to ensure minimum pain is to spread social trauma out over time. As long as everything is somewhat minor, and never more than just a grazing blow, nothing will get through. I'll be whole at the end of the day without much effort. Major blows cut right through and will probably leave major scars, give me motivation to make even thicker armor, and may take me out of commission for a while.

If I have no armor, or really light armor, the best way to minimize pain is actually the opposite. Grazing blows throughout the day would maximize pain, and even though I may heal quickly, they still happen. If there are ways to structure the social experience such that, instead of frequent grazing blows, I deal with infrequent massive ones, then the pain is actually minimized. Major blows will hurt, but disappear quickly and leave no mark.

I feel like socio-emotional armoring is designed to minimize pain. I've seen armoring grow as an effect of prolonged difficult situations like verbal abuse... and also as a result of major trauma like rape, betrayal, sexual abuse, or even catastrophic accidents. Armor can give people the ability to function in a difficult world while they work to heal major wounds. 

But oftentimes the socio-emotional armor that people create for themselves doesn't just affect the ability of social trauma to get inside. It also restricts positive social impacts... and so, perhaps, the armor metaphor doesn't just help me understand how to structure difficult social situations. It could also help me see how to structure positive ones to gain the greatest possible benefit.

I'm somewhat skeptical of this. But let's see where it goes. For those of you new to (G)MG, usually I don't write knowing where my thoughts are going to take me. I just write.

So if I have major socio-emotional armor, and I'm protected from minor negative situations, then perhaps I am also insulated from positive emotional ones. To maximize my personal happiness, I'd want to seek out major positive experiences, then draw out the deep, lasting impact of those experiences over time. Little daily positive things aren't as likely to give me joy as events or situations that can bypass the armor and get inside.

For me, since I don't have much socio-emotional armor, and good feelings disappear just as quickly as bad, it's more important for me to have small, frequent positive encounters than to have major ones. Big experiences may bring big happiness, but they won't last for long, and a handful of smaller experiences could bring the same total result with potentially much less planning or effort.

That was definitely not where I was planning to go with this post.

I was thinking it would be about the difficulty of watching people develop relationships, and then introspection into how I could improve my own relationships, how I could be a better friend, or how I could overcome my fears. I even wrote a paragraph about all the different people that made me envious thinking it would fit somewhere later in the post. It didn't.


I don't have any desire for social armoring. But I do want to be happier in my life. I have some control over negative social situations, but I heal quickly, and controlling negative social situations is about pain mitigation, not improving happiness , so that's probably not the most important place to put my focus. So maybe I'll try to work on the positive side... and find lots of little things to make me smile.


I wonder how it works for everyone else. Maybe it works the same way - and some people will need big, planned events, and others will need little ones that happen all the time. And if I can match the ways that I serve people to their personal needs - whether big or small - then I can have a greater impact on their lives. I think I'll talk to my best friend about that and see if it matches... then figure out how to structure positive and negative experiences in our friendship. 

I think I may already know the answer.

Thursday, January 7

Alternate Day Feasting

I'm trying a new eating lifestyle to see how I like it. I call it "alternate day feasting." Most people would call it alternate day fasting, but I want to remind myself to feast on the scriptures during the time I don't eat every other day... and why focus on not eating, when I get to eat whatever I want tomorrow?

I've been drawn to it for a while, and have just begun to try it. With alternate day feasting, I eat whatever I want (my norm anyway - anything vegan without sugar) on Day 1, then I just drink water and don't eat any carbs (or much at all) on Day 2. The goal is to move my body into processing ketones, but allowing me to keep a mostly normal lifestyle every other day. Sort of. People tout longevity, better immune function, and a host of other pluses as positive benefits to alternate day fasting.

Usually I have something pushing me to do things like this. At the core, I don't have a burning reason for this one - just a tug at my mind that's been there for a while. And I got a bunch of chia seeds on sale. Chia seeds don't have any carbs, are great to eat alone, and are awesome to eat on my almost-fasting day. I don't want to follow an optimally-balanced-weigh-out-all-your-food-and-only-eat-exactly-what-you-need diet, but I'd definitely like to continue to improve my health. I still have major issues that maybe diet could influence. 

I'll see how it turns out, how I feel, and how the social consequences run. I read somewhere that I should feel hungry for the first 4-5 fasting days, or until my body has gotten used to the longer cycle and doesn't need quick carbs to function. I'm sure hungry right now. But I can eat tomorrow... and I got extra scripture study in today.

Tuesday, January 5

Open Again

The move is complete. Nature's Fusions is moved to its new location, and The Soap Factory opens its doors again tomorrow for customers at our new location on center street in Provo. The last few weeks have been stressful and chaotic - trying to move the store, then simultaneously maneuver all the legal issues, tax and licensing, more licensing and fees, plumbing and power and gas and signage and parking and new equipment to make the space look beautiful.

It took a lot of time. I guess it took longer the last time we opened a store... but this time we were on a time crunch. It just felt like a lot of long days, with me and Mitchell putting in lots of hours.

But we open tomorrow, which means that we're ready. Well, we have to be ready even if we're not.

The chaos of moving overlapped with New Years. This year I just went to sleep on New Years Eve. I didn't go anywhere or do anything... I just went to sleep.

My goals this year are across the board. One is to take better care of my body. I already eat well, but exercise has been sporadic. With a gym literally next door and a membership where I can take a friend each time I go, I'm hoping that this year can be different.

Another goal is to be more positive. This one ties to my main goal for the year - to be less afraid.

When people meet me, the last thing they imagine me to be is afraid. Proud? Probably. Outgoing? Maybe. Awkward? Yeah. Shy? If you catch me at a difficult time. But afraid? No. Not David. And yet I am. I live in constant, ever-present fear. 

Very few people have ever been able to see my fear. Most see the person I am trying to be - outgoing, passionate, friendly, happy - and can't see past the outer shell to see deep into who I am. 

The reality is that sometimes I sit at home alone in tears because I am afraid to call or text someone, afraid to go outside, and afraid to do anything but sit there. 

I know that sounds melodramatic. And absurd. It is. It's also real.

Some of my fears are unfounded - I could probably go watch a movie on Netflix without anything terrible happening in my life. 

Other fears are rooted in experiences from my life. If I call someone, or text them, or email them, there's a good chance that I'll do something that will stress our relationship... and then the friendship will be over. Even if I have a good excuse, it may still happen. With a couple relationships, I feel comfortable enough that I can make a phone call or send a text without jeopardizing everything, but most never get to that point.

Is that logical? Maybe. Maybe not. But it is a constant, real fear that I face, and it literally keeps me from doing anything with anyone, ever, or reaching out to others unless there is a good excuse, unless I'm invited first. Life is about reciprocity, and gripping fear makes it close to impossible for me to join.

So my goal this year is to be less afraid.

I don't know how it will happen, or what to do to make it happen. The fear is founded on bad experiences, so maybe making good ones will help it go away. But am I appreciably different from the guy who destroyed fledgling relationships not that long ago? Or will it just be the same end result?

Even if I am still the same person, maybe it's worth overcoming the fear anyway. Fear doesn't come from God. Faith does. Blind faith doesn't, and I can be aware that I'm walking on dangerous ground... but I can learn to have faith in God and trust Him even if everything goes wrong. In some situations, it hasn't gone all wrong. I greet people at Church because I want to reach out, and I don't think anyone hates me for that.

I guess that's my answer. It's worth trying for a lot of reasons. Opening up and showing the real me is something worthwhile. Because people are worthwhile. Because I'm worthwhile. And because overcoming fear is a good thing to do, even if all the fears come true.

I have a long way to go.