The Truth Will Set Me Free – My Journey Thus Far With Aspergers

There are some of you reading this who have known me a long time and also have been aware of some of the struggles I’ve faced throughout my life. Up to this point, it has been somewhat an emotional rollercoaster, with some very ecstatic peaks and some very dangerously low troughs. But through this, I have managed to learn more about myself every day, particularly in the last year…

To start with context, I actually didn’t start speaking properly until I was in primary school. Prior to this, I didn’t speak or interact with anyone at all. My mother took me to doctors and psychiatrists, some of whom diagnosed me with full-blown autism and were apparently  insistent on placing me full-time in an institution (God knows what would have eventuated if that had gone ahead).

Fortunately, my pre-school teacher was someone who was smart and had quite a bit of foresight. I would spend a lot of time by myself at pre-school just playing with puzzles and reading books, instead of playing with the other kids as one would expect at that age. So rather than forcing me to play with the others, she simply gave me more books and puzzles to read and play with. It was her who mentioned this to my mum and also mentioned a special class that they ran at the primary school next door…

So for 3 years, between Kindergarten and Year 2, I was placed in a special class at that school and another. Now this class was somewhat ahead of its time in terms of the type of education provided, and served two purposes:

  • It was officially classified as an English as a Second Language class, so I was effectively in the same category as children who had migrated to Australia, and
  • It was also geared towards children with high IQ who had difficulties with emotional expression and social interaction.

Some of my fondest memories of school were from those 3 years. Unfortunately, the NSW Government at the time decided to cut funding to this program, and as a result, I was thrusted into the mainstream education system as of Year 3.

From then on, I was always the socially awkward one at school, the one who would constantly get bullied, the one who was so gullible that he would believe everything that everyone told him. High school in particular was a very daunting place to be, especially the one I was at for all of 6 years (trust me, I was glad to see the back of it when I finally got my HSC). There were occasions where my parents almost pulled me out in favour of home-schooling, it was that bad.

As the title of my blog implies, I have no artistically creative capabilities and never demonstrated this in school. My brain purely seems to function on logic, patterns and routine (and has for as long as I can remember), which is why I loved Maths (and surely enough was my best subject in high school). This has actually worked to my advantage in recent years, which you will read about shortly.

But even after finishing high school and starting university, I still found myself very awkward around people, even those ones I considered my friends at the time. I was a very good listener, but would sometimes have to fake emotional reactions if they told me deep stuff, because (as I did not realise at the time but would discover later in life) I was unable to read non-verbal emotional and social cues, and this would have a major impact on the way I related to people. It was also a catalyst for the destruction of a couple of close friendships a few years ago. Eye contact was also a major biggie for me, as it was just never natural (I lost count of the number of times growing up when I got told to look people in the eye when talking to them – I dreaded the thought of doing that).

I also participated in improvisation for a number of years, as I wanted to gain skills to help me think on my feet (and also I loved the people with whom I did it, both in Sydney and here in Melbourne). And yet again, I hit a brick wall with it as there was always something in my brain that couldn’t let go, couldn’t relinquish control to just BE in the moment. I knew it was happening, but when I actually had it told to me by my improv facilitator, it shattered me to bits. All I wanted was to be good at something, and yet I felt I had failed (by now this was a common occurrence in my life, but the pain always feel awful, no matter how many times you experience it). Not surprisingly, I moved on from improv and decided to just focus on my work and my job. In saying that, I did actually gain some skills from it that I otherwise wouldn’t have, so not all was lost there.

The first time I heard someone mention me and Aspergers in the same sentence was a few years ago, when I was out on a date with a guy from Grindr. He noticed that I was always looking at my phone whilst he was talking. I was listening to him, but was distracted at the same time by what was happening on Facebook (we’ve all been guilty of this, I’m sure). He then said that I could have Aspergers. The most I knew about it at the time was associations with autism and Tourettes, strangely enough. so I shrugged it off at the time. Little did I realise then that it would come back and hit me again a couple of years later…

A lot of you already know that I am also a group fitness instructor who teaches a lot of Les Mills programs. I discovered group fitness (and Les Mills) not long after I relocated to Melbourne in 2005. I started participating in BodyJam at several gyms and found that it was something that I loved, but not only that, I was good at it! And that made me feel so good about myself inside. I continued with this on and off for 3 years until I finally decided that I wanted to do my training to become a BodyJam instructor.

And in November 2008, I officially became part of the Les Mills family.

Over the course of the next 2 years, I added on 3 more programs to my repertoire (BodyVive, BodyStep and BodyPump). I originally trained in BodyPump with no intention of actually teaching the program, but rather to gain more knowledge in weight training principles. However, as soon as I taught a class, I was in love with it.

Since then, I have added on 4 additional programs (yes I am addicted and no I am not ashamed or embarrassed to admit it). Les Mills has helped to build my confidence and eye contact a lot, as it is vital that we as instructors are constantly screening the floor to ensure that everyone is moving safely and effectively. But it is also Les Mills that indirectly lead me back to the topic of Aspergers…

One of the most difficult courses one can do with Les Mills is a 2-day Advanced Instructor course (AIM2) where they literally deconsruct the way that you teach and rebuild it in a different way. Two days of very emotionally, physically and mentally draining content and teaching.

The AIM2 I did in the middle of last year was for BodyPump, and it was being held in Sydney. It was the one program where I felt the most natural – it had specific structure, the technique was clear cut, and because of that, I coached it the best out of all the programs that I did (in my opinion). However, the universe had other ideas…

Just after I enrolled for AIM2, my stepfather became terminally ill. He and my mother had been together for close to 12 years, and he had just been diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia. He had only a few weeks to live, so I made arrangements to fly home to Sydney for a few weeks to say my final goodbyes. Again, the universe threw a curveball…

At the beginning of May 2014, the night before I was due to fly up, he passed away. I was devastated that I didn’t get to say goodbye to him in person, but was determined to get up to Sydney as soon as I could to be with my mum. The funeral was a beautiful affair, and I had the opportunity to speak a few words (my way of saying farewell). For the first time in a long time, I was overcome with such emotion that I broke down in tears as I said my final words.

My emotions were still rather raw for the following few days, particularly as I was also worried about Mum and how she was coping with her grief. And then I saw an opportunity to attempt to distract myself – the AIM2 I had enrolled in was the following weekend!

As alluded to above, everything you know as an instructor gets crushed and rebuilt from the ground up. With so many emotions running through my head, mostly due to the ordeal of having to deal with my stepdad’s death combined with the course itself, my body and mind had lost a lot of strength and I was not at my peak.

At the end of the second day of AIM2, we had done our final presentations and were given our results. You were given either an Advanced or Elite result. When I got my result, my heart sank – I had achieved neither. It was like all the other times I had come so far only to be told that I had failed.

One of the pieces of feedback I had been given was that I didn’t make enough eye contact with people on the floor (even though it was something I knew I was doing well) – and that cut through me like a sword. I slowly made my way home to Mum’s house that evening and wanted to collapse in a heap with all my emotions piling on top of me. Mum obviously knew that something was wrong as soon as I walked in the door.

I didn’t elaborate on the result, but I did ask her about eye contact and why it was so hard for me to do it all these years. It was then that Mum brought up the magic word…

Aspergers.

She revealed that she and my stepdad had spoken about it quite a lot, and they reckoned it was something that might be affecting me. Whereas before with my Grindr date I brushed it off as a joke, this time I was determined to find out more information about it and what it entailed, as I wanted to know what I was dealing with. I even posted on a BodyPump group on Facebook about it to ask, but didn’t get much of a response apart from a very condescending reply by a Les Mills Master Trainer (which obviously wasn’t very helpful to me).

So I kept quiet about it and only told a few friends about my suspicions. As the months passed, I read and researched more about Aspergers and how people lived with it, but was stuck because I was unsure on how to organise a diagnosis of it to be sure. As such I was content for the time being knowing that there was finally a plausible explanation for everything I had felt and experienced over the years.

At the end of 2014, I was very lucky (and indeed quite blessed) to meet a fellow BodyPump instructor in Sydney who also happened to be a Psychology student. I ended up going to a party she was hosting for New Years Eve, and it was there that I admitted to complete strangers in person (including her) for the first time that I suspected I had Aspergers. Since then, she has been nothing but supportive and someone with whom I could actually be truly myself without fear of judgement. And for me, that gave me the strength I needed to finally embrace myself and open myself to the world, but also importantly, to pursue the diagnosis. If you are that person and you happen to be reading, please know that I am forever indebted to you.

As of time of writing, I am still in the process of trying to organise a referral to discuss an official diagnosis of Aspergers, but this is something that is hopefully getting closer to fruition (it is quite a lengthy and at times difficult process to establish). I have also just officially become a member of Aspergers Victoria, which offers official support and guidance for anyone diagnosed with or suspected of having Aspergers (for more information you can visit their website at www.aspergersvic.org.au).

There is a well-known saying, “the truth will set you free”. For me, Aspergers is my truth, and it has allowed me to become more free as a human being. I would be more happy to chat with you about it personally if you have any questions.

Enjoy!