Our New Wine family

“I don’t know what to expect from these meetings…I’m on the outside, wishing I knew someone closely, but not feeling comfortable enough to say anything…”

Ten months ago, I wrote myself a letter. I was at my course’s church, surrounded by other Christian interns, and we had been asked to write to our end-of-year selves. Two days ago, these letters were returned to us, and we were asked to take time to reflect on how far we’d come.

I was enrolled on the weekly New Wine Discipleship course as part of the internship I’m doing at a Christian bookshop. And if I’m honest, there were times when I thought I’d never find my feet there. Everyone was getting to know each other. No-one else had to calm down in another room when asked to write and perform a talk. We were all advised to “go deeper” with each other in conversation, and quite frankly, this terrified me.

In situations like this, you can either go running back to safety, or you can push yourself forward. So when I tried to act sociable and relaxed, or remember people’s names, or make a beeline for anyone I now recognised, that’s what I was doing.

I don’t know how I’ve gone from that stage, to thinking about how much I’m going to miss it, but I have. Each Monday session has been draining, but we’ve done so much together. Our first weekend away. Our Christmas party. The Ukraine mission trip. Jennie and Jan’s wedding. And finally, to go out with a bang, our end-of-year graduation ceremony.

Our last day was the most uplifting and exhausting yet. After opening our letters, we all sat in a circle with someone in the centre, while everyone else voiced words of encouragement and special memories. A real reminder of how we value each other.

But what could anyone say about me, the quiet one who always needs help? Let’s say I was humbled by how many things my friends appreciate about me.

Once half the group had stopped crying, we moved on to Jess’ game. In two teams, we each had to decode clues about where in the city we should go to, take a group selfie once there, receive the next clue, and so on. I don’t know why we had to run everywhere, but when my team decided to race, I started at the back, and out-ran all of them. Just saying.

And onto the most important part, the graduation ceremony! While we were hitting the town, Jess had prepared our paper graduation hats and certificates. Once we were assembled, she even dedicated a short speech to each of us before presenting us with our certificates. A true ceremony if ever there was one!

To end the festivities, we had drinks and a meal at a local tapas bar. Thinking about it, having a cocktail on an empty stomach and zero energy probably wasn’t my wisest choice. I shifted between feeling increasingly sociable, and overly anxious. And lightheaded. But hey, tripping over a downward step, and talking about my feelings to the next person* who would listen proved entertaining, if nothing else.

At this point, I’m going over my preferred word count to conclude with a personal shout out to everyone!

To Ruth B, my first friend on the course who looked out for me from day one, and who always goes the extra mile for the group

To Wole, whose God centred enthusiasm is unmatched, and whose random singing had us all in stitches

To Matt, a good worship leader who can start and finish any theological debate

To Ruth G, who I commute with, discuss the course with, and also happily be alone together with

*To Mary, who translated in Ukraine even though it wasn’t easy, and who let me chatter aimlessly about how I shouldn’t have had that cocktail

To Elijah, who also translated, and helped me navigate Ukrainian cafes

To Jan, who trod the Christian bookshop path before me so we could compare experiences

To Miya, who, in Ukraine, listened to me complaining about how useless I sometimes felt

To Jake, who, like me, started off in super-introvert mode, but is actually pretty fun to watch at a wedding disco

To Alex, whose sense of humour is equally questionable and brilliant

To Cameron, who made a good second-in-command in Ukraine

To Nathan, always the cool head in any tricky theological discussion

To Isaac, who frequently gives positive feedback on this blog

And of course, our leaders: David, who got us through the first tricky term, Jess, mother hen and vicar-to-be, and Simon, who led us through Ukraine and made sure I didn’t get lost. Hats off to everyone!

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DISCLAIMER: the photo belongs to Jess, not me

 

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Getting healed?!

A few weeks ago, a customer came into the shop, and, as customers often do, asked me a lot of questions at once that I was struggling to make sense of. When trying to get him to clarify what he wanted, I told him I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, and sometimes communication is confusing for me. But alas, there is hope, fellow Aspies. Because according to this man…I could ask God to heal me!

My reaction, as a Christian, is this. I believe in praying. I believe that people can be healed. I also believe that, just because God can heal, it doesn’t mean that He should, or will. I have to say, though, I wish my immediate response had been that eloquent. What I actually did was falteringly explain that autism is not an illness to be cured, but rather a difference in the brain, and that implying otherwise can hurt. He got it in the end, and surrounding colleagues and customers were impressed. So clearly I did something right.

But then I thought to myself, no matter how many times I hear how important it is to embrace our differences, I do get frustrated. I do wish I didn’t need extra help. I’m often fed up with my struggles, yet I couldn’t help feeling offended at the notion that I should change. Am I just acting like a special snowflake?

I don’t know. But not every struggle is a problem that needs to be “cured”.

I recently had an interesting message exchange with a friend who, as we were chatting, was watching a documentary about children on medication for conditions like autism and ADHD. She asked me how I felt about that. Now, I respect people’s decisions here. It’s up to the individual. If medication proves more beneficial than not, then good for them. But I’m wary of people who treat Asperger’s as an illness, when it’s not caused by germs, or hormones, or bodily harm. So I gave her the following analogy.

Imagine a group of people, all from the same country, faced with someone from another country and who speaks a different language. Chances are, they are lonely. They want to communicate, but they find their limited vocabulary very frustrating. They might wish they were the same as everyone else, but should everyone be praying that they suddenly become British? Or American, or the nationality of your choice…

No. Of course not. It’s up to them to learn English (or whatever), and it’s up to the others to be patient with them. And it will always be their second language. But with enough learning and patience, they may speak fluently, and become a popular, respected group member. And they can bring to the table a language and a culture that everyone else barely knows about.

Do you get what I’m saying? In a similar way, learning differences can be a bummer. But they don’t have to stop you from flourishing. The trick is working through it, seeking support when you need it, and finding a way forward.

 

Ode to Jennie – marriage, madness, and much more

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At a wedding, you hear all manner of speeches. And I never did get to give my “intern of the bride” speech. So here it is.

After 10 months of messing around in a shop together, on Saturday 1st July I got to celebrate the marriage of one of my dearest, craziest friends Jennie, and fellow New Wine course member Jan*. It was fun, it was heartfelt, and it was an event that my colleagues predicted from the moment Jan became the intern at the bookshop where we work. Well, that’s what they say. Jennie hotly denies it.

Anyway. My first memory of Jennie, assistant manager extraordinaire, was at my interview last August, as Jan’s potential successor. Picture it: the bookshop’s back office, papers and packaging everywhere, and me, dutifully answering every question my now-boss was firing at me. Jennie, meanwhile, was sitting to one side silently judging me. If she had a beard, I bet she would have been stroking it.

Weeks later, and the dynamics in our relationship had changed enough to be able to communicate “difficult customer alert!” with just one glance. We bonded over our love of to-do lists, and it wasn’t long before the ones she wrote for me included “squash the world in a garlic press” or “High five yourself and then the nearest apple.” And when our conversations got too weird, we mastered the ability to stop whenever a customer came in, and resume without missing a beat once the shop was empty.

For all Jennie’s quirks, the main reason we’ve become so close is that we never felt under pressure to befriend each other. I mean, we’re super introverts. We don’t thrive under high social demands. Although I did rely on her to show me how things were done, other than that, we happily kept our heads down until we were comfortable enough to talk properly. I’d say that was a major breakthrough.

And somehow, we just connected. I love it when that happens. She has shown infinite patience with me, by the way, no matter how many times I screw up because I thought I knew what to do. Wedding preparation has been stressful for her, but throughout it all, she has remained kind, funny, and brilliant at everything she does.

She has also very generously given me a say in certain aspects of the wedding. I have to say, I think my suggestion of a giant, hollow chocolate orange as a carriage was a stroke of genius, even if she did say I’d be the one pulling it. And her hen do: 9.30am – 5pm, in a Christian bookshop, selling books, eating biscuits, and winding each other up.

And now the wedding has come and gone. Apart from anything, it was fun! It was another bonding experience with the other New Wine interns, and we had a lot of laughs playing air guitar in time to some good old disco music. I feel honoured to have attended, and know that they will have a wonderful, long life together. Jan is friendly and funny, and it has also been a pleasure to get to know him along with the other interns.

Now, in just a few weeks, they are moving to Mattersey, Nottinghamshire. Jan will be going to Bible college. Jennie will have a new job. I’ll be twiddling my thumbs in a shop where no-one sneaks up behind me, then laughs when I scream. Or finds endless good things to say about me no matter how wrong I prove them.

Jennie, thank you for a great year. Keep on doing amazing things in life!

 

 

*Think German, and pronounce the J as a Y. Please. He gets sick of being mistaken for a woman.

 

Life so far: growing up, autism, and 100 blog posts!

Years ago, I often thought about starting a blog. With my big dreams of becoming an author, it sounded like the sort of thing that all the high-flying writers are doing. Of course, it was just a crazy idea I had. Nothing serious. Right?

On receiving Blogging for Dummies for Christmas, I thought I’d at least show my appreciation by doing a quick summary of my world as a trial blog post. Now, four years and 99 posts later, my blog has definitely stood the test of time. It’s my way of reaching out, entertaining, and making my mark.

And this is my 100th post! So I thought I’d offer a much bigger summary of my life up until now.

Starting with Taipei, Taiwan, Wednesday 17th March 1993 at 1.13pm. My parents joke about how typical it was of me to come out at lunchtime. To which I say, how many people do YOU know who were born in the middle of the day, week, month, and academic year, on their due date?

People sometimes ask me what I remember about Taiwan. Kind of awkward because my earliest memories include me and my (British) mum hiding from my (Taiwanese) dad after they had been fighting. But hey, I also remember playing with our pets, walking through mountain scenery, and my 4th birthday party. It wasn’t all bad!

Just after said birthday, my pregnant mother and I hastily headed my grandparents’ way – Cam, Gloucestershire. My sister was born. I started school, and was happily oblivious to my teachers telling Mum how weird I was and blaming it on bad parenting. Then we found a council flat.

A year later, while we were on holiday, my now-stepdad made his debut. From then on, he kept turning up on our doorstep. And we on his. This went on for about three years, until he and Mum married, and we invaded his house for good. Did I mention what a cute bridesmaid I was?

Now in Loughborough, I ended up at a school that was actually competent, and hey presto, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. My response to the news? “Oh…can I have a piece of cheese?”

Secondary school pulled my head out of the clouds with a jolt. It was a scary world of social hierarchies, sport, and teachers with varying levels of empathy. I struggled with friendships. I struggled in classes. Most of all, I struggled to accept that autism was nothing to be ashamed of.

But gradually, I got involved with various social groups at church, and I finally started to make friends and open up about my difficulties. Meanwhile, I was studying animal care at Brooksby College. It comprised manhandling animals of every size and species, essays, poo, and overnight lambing. Pretty grim, but I passed with straight distinctions!

Because I wasn’t ready for uni afterwards, I did a couple of years of home study, and realised that my heart was in becoming an author, not a vet nurse. The second year proved eventful when my Grannie died of cancer, and I still regret not visiting more. But it was also the year I started at De Montfort University, studying Creative Writing and Journalism. It was challenging, and falling out with my friend when we tried living together was hard. That said, I learned more about writing than I ever had before, and I don’t regret it for a second.

And now, here I am, coming to the end of my Christian bookshop internship. It’s been a great year, with great people, and I can’t help wishing I had more time left. But few things in life are permanent, and as I reflect on my significant life events, I do wonder what the next one will be.

 

 

To John: a very happy, hot, and sunny Father’s day

As usual on a Sunday, I am trying to come up with witty, informative reading material that really captures my chosen subject. Unfortunately, it’s so hot, I’m struggling to think of anything remotely clever. Fortunately, my chosen subject has reassured me that he is not remotely clever. Introducing: husband to my mother, father to my stepbrothers*…my stepfather John!

When John first turned up in our lives, we were a single parent family – Mum, five year old me, one year old sister Rhian – living on benefits. My father, for all his apparently fine qualities, had not come up trumps, my earliest memories comprising me and my pregnant mother hiding in her locked bedroom after a particularly nasty fight.

A year on, and we were on a single parents week at a Christian holiday/retreat centre. I don’t remember much about those early stages, except that this man who Mum met during the week kept visiting. And sleeping in our living room. It’s been 19 years, and in retrospect, moving in with him was probably a hint that he was here to stay. Or we were.

I’ve told John several times that of all the dads I’ve had, he’s definitely in the top 50 per cent. He fits all the basic “dad” criteria to a tee. He makes predictable jokes. He makes them again. He sings out of tune. Over the years, he’s helped me and my sister with revision, job applications, and unwanted bits of food. Or food that he mistook for being unwanted. And, despite his earlier assurances, he’s actually pretty clever.

Plus, he’s had a role in many a family anecdote. Like when, pre-marriage, he took six year old me and two year old Rhian to the smallpox museum. Picture it: photos of hideously scarred, dying children everywhere, and a video all about a disease that killed everyone. Mum knew it hadn’t been a success when we came back white as a sheet, and unable to finish our dinner. It seems that John’s stepdad potential could only go up from there.

And of course, bedtime reading. It was John who got me reading people stories as well as animal ones, when he said he was going to read a surprise book. He did a good job of hiding the cover as well; I only got a split-second glimpse of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone before he started reading.

During my sister’s Enid Blyton phase, he had a real knack (or was it need?) when it came to livening up tales of pious schoolgirls with zany French teachers. Not satisfied with his old trick of inserting funny words, he had to give each character a badly-portrayed accent. Welsh? Afro-American? Dalek? You name it.

Yep, John is very much dad material. And I fully appreciate what he’s done for us. I’ve often thought it must take dedication to take on someone else’s kids and help raise them as your own. So I want to raise a glass to all dedicated fathers, and specifically those who take on the role, no matter how late in their children’s lives. Who better to teach me how to quickly predict a dad joke?

 

 

*one of whom features here

 

The pet lovers’ dreaded debate part 3: double standards

What bothers you about people’s attitudes towards animals? There are a million answers to this. Farms. Unethical breeding. Negligence. The internet is full of protests about these issues, and because they are bigger and more serious than what I’m blogging about, I should probably cover them myself one day. But for now, I’m coming back to an old pet hate (pun fully intended): cat prejudice and double standards.

First, hear me when I say this. I love cats. I relate to them. I mean, I don’t automatically bond with people I don’t know. And I don’t think they are better than dogs, because who are we to call one species “better” when, in the human world, most of us stand for equal rights?

People claim that cats control us. Plenty of cats do try to persuade you to feed them when they’re hungry just by staring at you and following you into the kitchen. But so do dogs. The reason we have to train dogs is so that they know who’s in charge. Do you see? Any pet can wrap you around its paw, if you spoil it. If you stick to a strict feeding schedule and don’t give in to your pet’s every whim, then they are not controlling you.

Also, believe it or not, cats are capable of being trained; it’s just that teamwork isn’t in their nature. Why judge them for this? I hated group projects at uni myself! If you reward a dog for learning something new, it will react as if it has successfully pleased its pack leader. If you reward a cat, it will react as it would to a successful hunt – it used its brain and got a tasty treat as a result.

Then there is scent marking. Dogs and cats do this in similar ways; one of them being physical contact. A dog will jump up at you, a cat will rub against you, and in doing so, both are claiming you as their own. Why do humans hug? For the same primitive reason. It helps secure a connection. People find this thought endearing in dogs, and like the idea that the dog is excited to see them. Why does a cat do it? Ask any cat hater, and they will claim cats are trying to own you, want to trip you, or are impatient to be fed.

If a dog bites a human, people will (correctly) insist it isn’t the dog’s fault, it’s the owner’s fault for training it wrongly (or not at all) or the other person’s fault for ignoring its body language. The same happens with a cat? Apparently cats are just nasty. People are quick to defend a dog’s flaws that were caused by human influence (or lack of), or biological nature, or are an unfair generalisation. And rightly so. Because these are vulnerable animals we are talking about. And cats are no different here.

Cats are not living for world domination, and to think so would be anthropomorphising them unrealistically based on cat prejudice hyped up by fiction. If any creature lives for world domination, it’s the homo sapiens. Cats simply live to survive as comfortably as possible. Don’t we all?

Any more thoughts on this issue? I may have covered them here or here. Or possibly even here, for cat/Asperger comparisons. Otherwise, fire away!

Bouncer’s usually the one to initiate our after-work catch up!

 

Part of a group

How do you feel in a group setting? Last month’s Ukraine trip was just one of many experiences that demonstrated how I respond to being with a lot of people. I hasten to add that it was definitely one of the more positive ones! But it did come with its challenges, and right now I’m expanding on a point I made last week.

While we were out sightseeing, one of our translators asked me why I didn’t talk much to anyone else. I was a bit lost for words. I had been talking to people. Thinking about it, however, I’d chatted to several people for a minute or two, but not really at length. Why?

All I can say to that is, this is usually the case in groups, and always has been. Yes, it’s Asperger related, but beyond that, I don’t know why, any better than anyone else. Autism experts would say something about me not reading non-verbal social cues. I say I’m being normal in my way, the others are being normal in their way, yet somehow I’m at the edge of the group.

To some extent, this is ok. I alternate between a little socialising, listening to everyone else’s conversations, and zoning out entirely. But if I want to really bond with people, it’s hard when there are so many of them! My best friendships have been built on one-to-one time in a quiet, socially safe environment, often when the two of us have something to do together.

Group situations are different. You’ve got lots of people to choose from. And they have lots of people – who are not you, and are probably way more charismatic –  to choose from. When there’s information for you all to take in, it’s going to get passed around, changed, and worded differently or incorrectly. When you put it like that, can you see why autistic people struggle?

When I joined the choir at uni, despite my love of music, my heart was never in it. I was invisible. I didn’t feel like I belonged. When I tried to explain my struggles to people in charge, they said I was doing fine because they hadn’t felt like they needed to help me with anything. At one point, we took part in a huge university choir competition in London. From about 4.30 am that morning to 2.30 am that night, I was surrounded by people, often to the point where I could barely move. There was a lot of waiting around, moving around, stuff happening all the time, and no-one explaining anything to me. I hated it.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: my friends on the trip were great. They made sure I understood everything, they stopped me from getting lost, and some of them had a fair bit of quality time with me. And that’s basically what a group member on the spectrum needs.

Life of the party, me…

DISCLAIMER: not my photo