Monday, February 25, 2008

University Failures

I was told to edit this for “tone” but it says what I want it to say. I am tired of being told to be patient, that “now” isn’t the time to be angry. Now is definitely the time to be demanding action. I should have been a lot more proactive a lot earlier. Waiting was pointless.

I came to the University of Minnesota’s Dept. of Rhetoric thanks to a DOVE (Diversity of Views and Experiences) Fellowship. My wife and I relocated from California because we had the impression the department and university would be inviting, supportive, and, most of all, a place where I would not be excluded due to differences.

It should be no secret to anyone that my fellowship and my studies are the result of a severe brain trauma. I have talked to many of my peers and some faculty about the injuries and their consequences. I never hide the following conditions:

  • Palsy and partial paralysis from neurological damage;
  • Six years in a body brace for spinal damage;
  • Chronic pain, migraines, and hypersensitivity to inputs; and
  • Diagnosed as “limited functioning” autistic, with high-functioning characteristics.

I have offered to talk to our department about autism, developmental disorders, and how I perceive experiences. I have conducted five seminars for other departments and universities (ACTC campuses). I have tried my best to explain to faculty my differences. I could explain everything from my vocal patterns to my uncontrolled movements. I could have been a force for education and appreciation. Of course, that was my naive idealism.

Instead, one faculty member told me my research was potentially harmful, causing a false sense of hope for the disabled. Another told me that auto-ethnography was not a valid form of research. The most recent conflict has a faculty member telling people I am a danger and a threat to others.

If students and faculty had been a close community, they would be aware of my willingness to answer questions. If this department were a real community, people would ask how I am, instead of talking about me as “odd and conceited” (as one student had the honesty to state, giving me the opportunity to educate and share).

Imagine if the department had invited me to speak, as Lisa K. from Disability Services suggested last year. Imagine being a department willing to learn and accept difference, instead of reacting out of fear and misunderstanding. Imagine actually knowing a little more about how someone experiences writing and rhetoric.

Instead, I have dealt with conflict after conflict. I have been advised by faculty not to “disclose too much” about myself. Forget that — fear of the unknown and fear of disclosure is why I am in constant conflict with this department.

If you want to know something about any colleague or peer, including me, you should be able to ask. You should be able to understand and appreciate difference. Instead, the Dept. of Writing Studies is preoccupied with internal strife and “power” struggles. Honestly, students should not hear arguments or be pitted against each other. Professors should be role models, not acting like high school children. It should have been our professors, our mentors, creating an environment in which we could be open and share our motivations for research and study.

Now, I am fighting just to remain at the university. I believe the entire mess that is currently my life could have been solved if other students and all the faculty had taken the time to ask questions and know me. Open exchanges, however, are not the nature of this department right now.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Struggling Along

Not even two months into the year and I am exhausted. I'm possibly the most exhausted I have been since moving to Minnesota. It is the mix of university nonsense, cold weather, aching body, renovation disorder, and so forth. When one of our "kids" became ill Monday night, it was one more thing on my mind. My kids are the closest friends I have, and I need friends right now.

The university nightmare continues. I never felt like I belonged here, so having issues with any faculty member only intensifies the alienation. It isn't that I want to be liked or want to be friends with anyone here — but I definitely do not want to be disliked. I have a lot of anger and disappointment as I feel the university hasn't been very accepting of me. I mainly want to be left alone, allowed to work.

Physically, I am shaking more often than I have in the past year. I shake violently at night, when I should be sleeping. I tremor and cramp, especially my right arm. The pain is excruciating. My stomach is also burning, with near constant heartburn and worse. I've been taking extra "acid reflux" OTC medications. As the headaches have started to return, I know my concentration is affected.

I want to sleep for a few days. I really want some time away from the university, the weather, and this place in general. For the rest of my life, I know that Minnesota will represent the things I dislike. I will always associate this place with increased pain and emotional exhaustion. I cannot wait to leave as soon as possible.

As my wife has commented, this would have been less miserable if people would have been more understanding. Too bad I had no idea it was a bad idea to move here. Now, I have to make this work. Somehow. I have to be strong enough to make this choice work, despite the physical cost it now presents.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Difficulties and Will Power

It would be an understatement to write that my time in Minnesota has been a challenge. After this most miserable, humiliating week, I spent today wondering if I am capable of finishing my university program. My self-doubt and self-criticism were familiar to me, and to my wife. It is depressing, for lack of a better word, to feel isolated from the university, my peers, and even my instructors.

When a professor or a peer seems to dismiss me, I need to rebuild myself. I need to prove to myself that I am not worthless simply because I lack social skills. I should not be ignored simply because my mind is so atypical.

My wife, loving and caring person that she is, reminds me that others do benefit from my existence. My words do help other people. My impulse to say what I think might shock and even offend, but maybe what I am driven to express needs to be said by someone like me.

I do become defensive, in order to salvage my own sense of worth. I need to remind myself that I am not only intelligent, but rather literally a "genius" on some silly IQ scales. (At some point it became politically incorrect to use the term "genius" and I was then "exceptional" or "superior" — which seem even stranger than "genius" to me.) Anyway, I have to be elite somehow. I need to feel like I have some special value, or I would surrender to the negativity. Silly, childish, and egocentric, I need my Mensa card to remind me that I am not worthless.

This need for self-affirmation is not ideal, but I need the extrinsic. I need someone else, some other group, an external measure, to reassure myself that any wounds to my ego are temporary. It isn't conceit that compels me to these external validations — it is the perceived insults of others. It is the need to remind myself that I am equal to those around me, even if I lack some skills that would certainly improve my life.

Sometimes, I wish for a brain that was silent. I have tried meditation. I have tried to control myself... but without success lately. There are simply too many external stimuli for me to relax. As a result, I am in physical and mental "overload" in this environment. That other people cannot accept my limitations makes me feel like an alien, an outsider, and even an intruder.

This leaves me with nothing but my external validations. My wife telling me I'm worth something, especially to her (and the cats) helps me push ahead. Autism mailing lists and newsgroups remind me these feelings of awkwardness are part of who I am. Mensa discussions also remind me that I am, for lack of a better word, disabled. I am atypical — but that's not a bad thing.

These are the random thoughts of someone fighting to stay and work and succeed in an environment that values the very skills I lack: the social, the interpersonal, the human. I am torn between wishing I were normal and trying to assert that my difference, my curious brain, is special and valuable. If there were no people like me, the world would not be a better place.

In fact, I believe something would be lacking without us odd, weird, alien, geniuses. So I refuse to surrender. I will prove myself equal to the challenges. I must.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Classes and Anger

I walked out of a class tonight, angry and frustrated. There is a great deal I could write about how I feel and what annoyed me, but the essential information is that there is a limit to the stresses I can tolerate. Even though I speak on surviving college, the reality is that I still am not equipped to handle some events — or some personalities.

The classroom is of a miserable, hyperactive, media-saturated design with six flat-panel video screens, two LCD projection units, and an unrelenting buzzing from strangely flickering fluorescent lights. (The buzzing is amplified via metal reflectors of some manner.) The entire room buzzed, vibrates, and leaves me shaking in agony.

Even after leaving the room, a persistent, high-pitched tone did not leave me until well after midnight. I was physically shaking, near tears, and wanted nothing more than to have silence. Real silence. But just try explaining such an overload to anyone who does not experience literal pain in some settings.

So, I'm in distress and the professor, instead of asking if something is wrong, laughs. She tells me to relax. When I reach a stage of panic, when even the slightest thing bothers me, she says “Some of us need to take a deep breath and learn to relax.”

How unperceptive can a person be? How cruel to laugh at a student experiencing anxiety?

Instructors don’t know how to deal with me. More importantly, I don’t know how to deal with them. This is especially problematic when I can evaluate their relative intellectual abilities and perceive both a lack of knowledge and a lack of innate intelligence. (That might sound like an exaggeration, but many ASD individuals can quickly evaluate the logical abilities and basic knowledge of others.)

Yes, I think this professor was intentionally ignoring my plight. Why? Because it was unusual and disruptive. Even when I wanted to explain I didn’t feel well, there was no opening to explain the stress. I don’t want to hear justifications that she “didn’t understand” because that has been too common a refrain during the last two years.

I am frustrated. I am also disheartened, disillusioned, and feeling rejected by a system that should be willing to understand and even question what causes differences between people.

There is a great deal of “conceit” people detect when in reality I simply know what I know and find no reason to couch my knowledge in artificial politeness. If I do not think someone is paying attention to my needs, I will say so. This professor had already determined I was a conceited know-it-all (another student mentioned this to me). I was in a situation already poisoned by misunderstanding. I was a “problem” already.

In a minor effort at restraint, I’m going to stop writing in an attempt to relax. The reality is, I do not forget, forgive, or tolerate people who annoy me. I have a deep distrust of many academics, and it is only getting worse the more I come in contact with some of them. The great challenge is that I must deal with academics to eventually be one.

Ironic, isn’t it? It is too bad that I didn’t pursue the sciences or math, where attitudes might be closer to my own. But, I am a writer.

The universe has a sense of humor, I suppose.