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Sisyphus might be autistic
One of my earliest childhood memories was a birthday party at my friend Paul’s house.
Paul was my only friend pre-kindergarten. We spent a lot of summer afternoons slapping each other over the head with pool noodles and eating sand— real 90s kid shit.
On days when Paul wasn’t home, I’d sit in a little chair on my front porch, eating Cheez-Itz and waiting for his mom’s red Chrysler Town & Country to roll down the street and park four houses down. My parents were understandably a little concerned by this obsessive behavior.
“You need to learn how to be your own person.” I heard that a lot growing up.
We were annoying little children. Paul and I used to play this game called “bad guys.” We’d build a pillow fort and hide until somebody screamed, “The bad guys are here!!!”
That was our cue to run around the house high-pitched screaming at the top of our lungs. If my kids ever play this game, I will kill them.
I remember warm summer days at his next-door neighbor’s pool, swimming with his brother Jimmy and older cousin Megan. Jimmy was younger and couldn’t pronounce his “R’s” yet, so to him, my name was “Why-yan Guh-wam.”
Megan was as close to a crush as you can have at that age. She was a few years older than me. We didn’t talk much, if at all, but I would see her all the time, floating around in the periphery. She was a distant, mysterious mirage of strawberry-blonde hair, always up to something I was too young to understand.
Paul was a public school kid, I was a private school kid. I was Catholic, he was Lutheran. This meant we ran in different circles. We played at different playgrounds. We fucked different priests.
When I arrived at his party, I saw 15, maybe 20 kids. Complete strangers. They whirred around Paul’s finished basement like dogs at the dog park. I felt frozen in time, unsure of where to stand, who to talk to, or what to do with my hands.
I tried to talk to Paul, but he was deeply entrenched in a game of “bad guys” at the time.
“Hi Ryannnnn,” he squealed, spinning past me, three public school kids in pursuit.
Hi Ryan? That’s all I fucking get? Do you know how many Cheez-Itz I’ve eaten for you, motherfucker!?
I felt embarrassed, powerless, ashamed— all feelings I would grow very accustomed to over the next 30 years. I didn’t have the tools to make these strangers like me. I still don’t.
I was up shit creek without a paddle, only that creek didn’t end in middle school— it fed into the lake of high school, which fed into the river of college, which fed into the ocean of the rest of my life.
I was beyond upset. I found a chair in the corner and sat down next to my mother, who kept encouraging me to “go see what Paul’s doing.”
I was only five, but I could read a room. I knew when I didn’t belong somewhere. I folded my arms, scrunched up my face and let out the loudest frown I possibly could.
I sat like that for hours. I stood my ground.
The pizza came. I frowned. We played Pin the Tail on the Donkey. I frowned. They brought out cake and sang “Happy Birthday.” I frowned. Paul opened presents— mostly LEGOs. I frowned.
I frowned. I frowned. I frowned.
Then Megan walked up to me. I thought maybe she remembered me from the pool times. Maybe she saw I was unhappy and was coming over to cheer me up. Maybe she had a crush on me, too. You think a thousand thoughts in the moments before a pretty girl talks to you.
“What’s wrong with your face?” she asked.
The funny thing was, she wasn’t even trying to bully me.
It’d be one thing if she turned back to her friends for a big support laugh, but no. She was genuinely curious. What actually is wrong with my face? It’s a fair question.
What is wrong with a kid, so awkward, so anxious, so afraid of being vulnerable, so socially inept and resigned to his fate that he’d rather sit in the corner and pout than join in on the fun? Why would someone voluntarily choose to disconnect from other people? It seems so foreign to what we’re taught about human nature. Maybe there is something wrong with my face.
Maybe there’s something wrong with me.
I quickly realized the only way I was going to get through life was to hide the parts of myself that people might judge. I needed to plant myself squarely in a fear-based conformist mindset. In the autism and ADHD world, they call it masking.
Jim Carrey makes it seem a lot more fun than it actually is. There were no dance numbers for me, no Cuban Pete, no chick-chicky boom— just 30 years of chronic exhaustion from being in constant fight-or-flight mode.
School was basically impossible. I couldn’t mask around that many people for that long. I used to eat lunch in the bathroom. Those 30 minutes alone were the highlight of my day.
You may be socially awkward, but are you “I’d rather eat my ham and cheese sandwich over a steaming bowl of shit than be forced to interact with my peers” awkward? Get on my fucking level, bro.
In class, I was a ghost. I never spoke, even after teachers repeatedly reminded me that participation was a big part of my grade. I’d sit in the back and try not to move or make eye contact with the teacher. I’d pretend to not know what page we were on so the teacher would scold me instead of making me read out loud in front of the class. It was easier to feign incompetence than be vulnerable like that. Forget about learning, I was just trying to breathe.
I’d get home exhausted and collapse in a heap, irritable at the slightest provocation. My parents would barge into my room on some “How was your day?” bullshit and I’d say the minimum amount of words necessary to make them go away. They saw it as me being a moody teenager. They didn’t see how much pain I was in.
I don’t think my parents ever understood me, which is probably why I’m so rejection sensitive. Rejection sensitivity dysphoria is a common symptom in people with autism and ADHD. After you’ve spent 30 years trying and failing to make people like you, eventually, you get pretty frustrated. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You walk around on high alert for even the slightest sign of rejection because your confirmation bias only allows you to see the negative. When rejection inevitably hits, it brings back all those childhood memories, the shame, the embarrassment, the daddy issues all flood back in this “here we go again” rush of rage.
I didn’t know how to communicate how I was feeling, and as a result, I became very emotionally volatile and self-destructive. I took a lot of that frustration out on my parents. It was an immature reaction from someone completely out of answers.
They were trying to prepare me for the real world, where nobody tries to understand neurodivergent people, they just expect you to abandon your soul and conform to the status quo. For someone like me, that’s suicide. My round-peg brain was never going to fit into this square-peg society. It was just a matter of time before the autism hit the fan. They just happened to be the closest when that grenade went off.
Finding alcohol changed everything. For the first time, I was able to unmask in public. I could make small talk, go on dates, have friends and socialize— so long as alcohol was there to soften my edges. It made me exactly who my dad wanted me to be— outgoing, type-A, a guy with the confidence to get shit done.
I could finally be myself, and if people thought I was strange, I always had an excuse. Alcohol became the scapegoat.
Instead of telling your friend, “Sorry I Irish Goodbyed, I was having a panic attack because I interpreted something you said as rejection and went into fight-or-flight mode,” I can say, “Haha sorry bro, I was soooo drunk” and magically, everyone understands. We’re only allowed to be strange when we’re fucked up. For some reason, we like to keep our strangeness compartmentalized. Like my parents used to tell me, there’s a time and a place for everything.
I started drinking heavily. I was so desperate to unmask. I could see happiness, far away in the distance, I just didn’t have the means to get there. Alcohol became my vessel, and vice versa. It was easier to slide into drinking culture than face the world as a probably autistic adult.
Alcohol starts off as a good improv partner, but if you’re not careful, you’ll eventually “yes and” yourself into full-blown addiction. Or worse, you’ll start pursuing a career in stand-up comedy.
My 8-year stand-up comedy phase
My first time doing stand-up, I had to drink like eight beers just to get on stage. I showed up an hour before the show and immediately started pounding Busch Lights. I’d just gotten out of a bad relationship and was ready to step off a roof, but decided to try this first.
It was so unlike me. I was afraid to talk to the cashier at the gas station, how was I going to do stand up in front of 70 people? I could feel their judgment emanating from behind the curtain. I almost had a nervous breakdown in the bathroom before my set. I thought about leaving and never coming back, never showing my face in Cedar Rapids again.
Instead, I talked for two and a half minutes to complete silence. I got one laugh the whole set, on a line about gang members wearing khaki pants.
“What kind of gang has a business casual dress code? Are they allowed to wear jeans and Hawaiian shirts on Fridays? Who is this gang’s HR lady?”
It got a smattering of guffaws.
Good enough for me, I was hooked. I threw myself completely into stand-up. I basically made it my entire identity. I’m a comedian. I write and tell jokes. This is what I do. I had to convince everyone, including myself.
I read Steven Pressfield’s “The War of Art” and got all serious about my craft. I rehearsed jokes for hours, pretty much any time I was alone. Every facial expression, every vocal inflection— my neighbors probably thought I was nuts.
I rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed until the words just floated out of me like hot gas. I became one with the bits. I willed myself into becoming likable.
After a TON of trial and error, things began to click. My material would crush in most good rooms. Even if my presentation was a little stiff, people could tell I put effort into my jokes. They could tell I respected their time, which is enough to put you ahead of 75% of open mic comedians.
I started getting booked. People trusted me enough to not ruin shows, which is the first big hurdle to get over in comedy. As long as you can be, like, reliably OK, you’ll get booked until the end of time. You’ll be a corpse in the ground and random bookers will still be sending you Facebook friend requests. You just have to learn how to not alienate people. Even in comedy, you have to play the game.
At first, I was terrible at the game. I wanted all the older comedians to like me and they definitely did not. I was a punchline to them, someone to stand in the back of the room and talk shit about. That Penguin’s Wednesday open mic was like high school all over again. For whatever reason, I kept coming back.
It took me two years to really start feeling accepted by other comics. I got second place in a comedy competition and it was like I had arrived. From then on, I was rubbing shoulders at the adult table. People started talking to me like a person and not over me like I’m just some asshole. I started to figure out this whole social hierarchy thing. It helps if you’re funny.
Desperation is a big turn-off and stand-up made that painfully clear. Donny Townsend, the guy who beat me in that comedy competition, was always so cool and detached. Did he get nervous before shows? Right before we went on stage that night, I asked him.
“Nah,” he said. “I don’t really give a shit.”
He proceeded to have easily the funniest set, on a night when a lot of people bombed because they were so nervous. That night I realized the easiest way for me to get good at stand-up was to stop caring. If I wanted to get the audience to let go, I needed to let go myself. I had to learn how to not give a shit. I had to relearn how to be strange.
The higher I climbed in comedy, the less I enjoyed it. Suddenly, it wasn’t about having fun and experimenting. Now, I was selling a product. There’s a lot of money riding on these shows. The reputation of the club is at stake. The pressure is on. You better be ready to deliver.
I went from caring, to not caring, to being told that I have to care again. I was told to get serious about comedy. Seems like an oxymoron to me.
My doubts about comedy accelerated when I stopped drinking. The nerves came back. I’d get cold sweat and catastrophic diarrhea before every show. We’re talking serious diarrhea here, the kind that kills people in Africa. I only lasted four months sober in comedy.
It took me the longest time to admit that I just didn’t want to be there anymore. I was so married to this idea of becoming a comedian that it was preventing me from taking the next step as a person.
The moment I knew it was over, I was in Chicago, doing some awful Tuesday night showcase with like 14 people in the audience. None of the comedians before me did well and I completely psyched myself out, bombing for 15 minutes straight. There comes a point in every bomb when even you wish you would get off the stage.
Around the 8-minute mark, I started having an out-of-body experience. The record kept playing but my attention started to drift. I did something I’d never done before. I started making eye contact with audience members.
Even after all my years on stage, I still avoided eye contact like the plague. I used to pick a spot above their heads and focus my attention there. I didn’t want to pick up on any stray rejection. I didn’t want some Karen’s facial grimace to knock me off my game. Once they see you sweat, it’s over.
For whatever reason, at this show, I broke my golden rule.
I saw a table of glazed-over boomers picking at their chicken wings behind a wall of empty Michelob Ultra bottles. I saw a black couple who looked pretty checked out. I saw a table of 20-something white women staring at their phones. A table of former frat dudes chatted loudly in the back.
I realized in that moment— I don’t care what any of these people think. Why would I? Who even are these people? Why did I sit in traffic for two hours to be here? What am I trying to prove? Would I actually be these people’s friends if I knew them in real life? Can these people relate to me on any level? Do they even try? If not, why should I? Why should I trust their judgment over mine? Why did I even care in the first place?
That’s the question that broke me. Once I realized the answer, I was able to let go of the story I’d been telling myself.
I had to finally look my biggest fear in the eyes to realize that it didn’t scare me anymore.
I still mask. I still act overly polite and passive in social situations because I’m trying to avoid rejection at all costs All the repression makes me want to blow my fucking brains out. Maybe if I was just honest from the beginning, I would’ve gotten the support I needed. I might’ve gotten guidance on how to navigate life as a probably autistic person. Instead, I’ve had to figure it out on my own and it’s left me really traumatized and jaded. All this rage comes from 30 years of having to pretend like I’m someone else so society will accept me. But once I got that acceptance, I realized it wasn’t even worth the effort.
I’ve spent a lot of time around other humans and overall I’m not impressed. I prefer spending time alone. If I could live in an “I Am Legend” type situation, where it’s just me and my dog walking around an abandoned city, I would choose that version of the apocalypse every time.
Quitting stand-up was just the latest domino to fall on my individuation journey. I’ve deconstructed my parents, religion, school, stand-up comedy, my own ego… Eventually, you start scraping the bottom of that deconstruction barrel and realize there’s not even really a “you.” You’re just a product of your genetics, beliefs and socioeconomic situation. You get through life by telling yourself an evolving story, and by the end, no two stories are the same. You’re a singular asteroid in the asteroid belt, bouncing chaotically between different relationships, societal pressures and identities. You are nothing, you know nothing, and the closer you come to admitting that to yourself, the closer you are to finally becoming the real you.
That’s the process I’m in right now— deciding which beliefs, decisions and actions best represent me. I’m basically doing an audit on my entire life. Rebuilding from ground zero.
Becoming strange is a long, arduous process, not for the faint of heart. It involves letting go of the idea of yourself, leaving guilt and shame behind, reclaiming your autonomy and becoming the main character of your own story again.
I have to continually ask myself: Is this something I actually like?
If a perfect life is one where I maximize the amount of time doing the things I love, then what steps do I need to take now to create that brighter future for myself?
For me, this means trying to get a work-from-home job, prioritizing my mental health over people-pleasing, allowing myself to be upset, even when it might cause a conflict. It means spending more time in nature, taking long walks with my dog, writing more, reading more, breathing more.
Most importantly, it means not spilling even a single ounce of diarrhea over somebody else’s opinion.
The biggest hurdle is fully letting go. Really deciding— and I mean really deciding— that you don’t care what other people think about you. That’s hard. That’s a challenge. That requires a lot of emotional unpacking and self-evaluation.
Why do you care so much? Why do you need these people to like you? What’s the deeper issue? I don’t know, Indiana Jones. That’s your Ark of the Covenant to chase.
For me, I think it’s overcoming this idea that there’s something wrong with me. For 30 years, I’ve been obsessively trying to figure out why I’m so different than other people. I was 13 when I first learned about depression. I was in college when I first heard the term “introvert.” I wasn’t diagnosed as bipolar until last year. The TikTok algorithm is pretty convinced I have undiagnosed autism and I think it might be right.
It’s possible that I’m just an autistic guy who figured out how to convince everybody that he’s not autistic. I have no idea. Regardless of what’s “technically” wrong with me, I’ve made a choice: I’m going to do the shit that makes me happy and surround myself with people who allow me to be myself.
From the outside looking in, I could see how people might think I’m losing my mind. I’ve made a lot of questionable decisions over the past three years, but there’s been an internal logic to all of it. Life is like a maze, you tend to hit a few dead ends before you find your way.
I’m becoming strange. More importantly, I’m starting to appreciate my own strangeness. I’m not losing my mind. I’m on the doorstep of finding it.
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