Yesterday, I gave the first academic conference presentation of my career: a paper on narratives of cognitive/developmental difference vs “monstrous”/changeling difference in late antiquity and the Middle Ages.* You can check out the livetweeting from it here.
Overall, the talk went well and seemed to be very well-received. The Q&A session immediately following was very productive, from my point of view, and I had several people thank and/or congratulate me over the course of the day – not just people who knew it was my first talk and were offering support, but also people I’d never met before who were responding to the content.
And, as has become my norm in any setting where I’m talking about autism, I told them I was autistic.
I always wonder what people think when I disclose in an academic setting. No doubt some of them think I’m either “surprisingly articulate for an autistic” and/or “so high-functioning” based on the impression they’ve formed of me while I’m talking. I consider it my duty to give my audience the best work I can provide in the time I have, and I literally prepare for days ahead of time to ensure I can navigate venues smoothly, have sufficient “word power” in my reserve to talk through the allotted time,** and can generally give the best presentation of my work that I can. My work and my audience deserve no less.
But when people see me in that sort of venue, there are two things they don’t see. One is the aforementioned effort I put in before the fact to ensure they see what they see. The other is what happens after.
Last night, after a full day of conferencing including giving that paper, I came home and had one of the worst meltdowns I’ve had in months. The self-injuring kind. The “my body cannot possibly physically sob anymore and yet it won’t stop doing it” kind. The “I have actually lost the ability to verbalize even a single word” kind. (At one point I was actually trying to spell a word with my finger on the wall because I couldn’t get it out of my mouth.) The “when the crying finally stopped it was replaced with complete autistic catatonia” kind.
I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t stop crying. I went from “high-functioning” to “no-functioning.”
And all I could think was “wow, if only that audience could see me now.”
They won’t, of course. A great deal of my social energy is spent planning my presences so that nobody else ever does see me in that state. But that “me” is every bit as “me” as the one who presented that paper yesterday.
And last night was the first night in my entire life where it occurred to me that not only are both of those the “real me,” but that neither one is inherently better or worse than the other.
It’s true that I’d much rather be giving papers than losing control of my body during meltdowns. In terms of personal preference, there is a definite “better” or “worse.” But the fact that I have meltdowns – that meltdowns are the price I pay for putting on performances like that – does not make me a “bad person,” nor does it at all inspire me to stop being an academic.
Today, I did not actually go to campus. I stayed home, alone. I wrote and played computer games and listened to my favorite albums on repeat. Because, after an event as big as My Very First Academic Conference Presentation Ever, that was what I needed. I’m okay with that. I expected it. I’ll be back at Congress tomorrow.
It’s taken me a very long time to get okay with that. I wish it hadn’t. Because, ultimately, it’s not the pre-planning or the meltdowns or the self-care sessions that make my career possible. It’s accepting that those are what I need and they are okay that makes it possible.
*For those in the know: I referenced Gregory of Tours and the “Green Children of Suffolk” narratives in Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh, hence the 600-year time span.
**I started tripping on words badly at the end of this particular presentation, which is not unexpected when I talk for twenty minutes straight, but was painfully noticeable.