On Being Diagnosed as Aspergers, Part 1

For Part 2, read here.

I’m not quite sure how this post will unfold, other than to know that a) like my despatches from Beijing or the Cold War’s diplomatic frontline it will probably be too long, and that b) some old BBC friends and colleagues may already be sighing, “Oh dear, there he goes again.”

Prompted by Fergal Keane coming out the other day with his PTSD, and especially by a piece about also-BBC Robert Greenall’s own recent diagnosis, I can acknowledge something many of those who’ve known me over the years probably clocked long ago.

I have – or as I’d rather put it, I am – Aspergers. Ridiculously high-functioning, but solidly on the spectrum.

It’s not something I caught, like flu. I now realise it’s central to what and who I am, and clearly have been, from the beginning.

How I wish I’d known.

The diagnosis has been formally confirmed by a psychiatric colleague in our shared EMDR Therapy field.

Her response when I asked her in the first in a set of tests now under way as to how certain she was that I am indeed Aspergers/autistic?

“One hundred percent!”

I’ve got a number of confirmatory andⁿ detailed things to check with the appropriate specialists (sensory stuff, IQ and how I use language), but to my relief and, yes, also gathering grief, I finally make some sense to myself.

Turning 70 in a couple of months, THIS, I realise, must be what I already felt two thirds of a century ago, in the winter of 1953/4, when at three-and-a-half, in one of my very first memories, playing unhappily on the floor of our cold new farmhouse home in North Norfolk I had a visceral inward sense that something was very wrong.

All through my childhood, if only teachers and the responsible adults around me had known, as I struggled awkward and isolated at primary and prep school, and bone-achingly miserable through boarding school after my parents divorced.

If only there had been kind, caring and informed adults who might have explained to my equally Aspergers (I’m sure) father and to his then still new and very unloved-by-me second wife (my mother is probably this way too) how unhappy I was, and why.

Being an Aspie is something I wish I’d known as I struggled with friendships at university (thanks guys for hanging in there with me nonetheless – you know who you are), taking refuge from relationship in academic and of course later journalistic hyper-achievement.

So many examples over a lifetime, but I wish I’d known it covering Tiananmen Square or the Romanian Revolution in 1989 and so much else for Reuters and then the BBC when, after a good start, my journalistic judgement would go out of the window the moment my emotions got firing.

Let no-one tell you that Aspergers people don’t feel stuff. Our problem, at least in my case, is that I was always, in almost every moment, utterly overwhelmed internally by emotion.

I wish I’d known this when my first marriage began to fall apart (1990s); when my second marriage began to fall apart (2000s); when I moved back home to North Norfolk (2010s) and my sibling relationships began to fall apart. (Notice a pattern there?)

I wish I’d known it when I was working with the Russian Service and as BBC World Service Regional Editor in the 1990s, a source of bewilderment to colleagues who couldn’t square my relational incompetence with having been such a respected and successful foreign correspondent.

I wish I’d known it in my parenting of our three wonderful kids, as for one thing a shared knowledge of their Dad’s difference (and hopeless inability to be and feel normal) might have spared them the misery of their own parents’ divorce and years of having to work out that this isn’t about what’s wrong with them.

I now understand why I’ve never written the book; why I would hardly ever dare ask a question at Foreign Office news briefings as BBC Diplomatic Correspondent, scribbling “I’m not happy” in the margins of my notebook; why I so struggled with the daily editorial meetings at the World Service; and why I remain so intensely relieved, almost every day and still often in dreams, no longer to be exposed on the journalistic front line.

I also understand why I’ve so often found myself being experienced as naive, insensitive and an obsessive nuisance: in the BBC German and Russian Services where I couldn’t help naming every perceived managerial injustice; when a decade ago I would wang on (as Katya Adler and her colleagues elegantly put it on Brexitcast) to anyone and everyone about climate change.

(I’ve given up doing that, by the way, not because of any emotional insight, but because I believe it’s far, far too late to avert catastrophe. But that’s another blog.)

When in my chosen psychotherapy field of EMDR I annoyed the sh*t out of senior colleagues in 2015 who briefly (and, yes, let’s be honest, painfully and unnecessarily) threw me out of our professional EMDR Association.
I threatened to go to law unless they let me back in, which they did, and it was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life.

I used to think that my unhappiness and awkwardness in relationships were primarily down to dysfunctional attachment experiences in early childhood, the area I now specialise in as a (very successful, which is nice) psychotherapist.

After all, I never knew hugs or physical soothing from either parent.

My mother, enormously well-intended but hopeless with emotion, was intensely self-absorbed. My father’s emotional growth stopped at six when he was sent from India where he was born (as was Mum, that was the era) to boarding school in England.

Andrei Sakharov, the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, noble Soviet-era dissident and one of the kindest men I ever knew, was the first male who ever hugged me, when I was leaving Moscow in 1975 after 20 months there as Reuters trainee.

I can still feel his stubble on my cheek as we said farewell in his flat on the Garden Ring…

My father died in 2009, and with his stepchildren and my stepmother barring my mother from his funeral, I didn’t go either.

My mother now approaching 93 has advanced Alzmeimers, the other A-Word, and although she hasn’t a clue what’s going around her, she’s brilliantly cared for in her own home by Getrude and Clara from Zimbabwe. We now have the warmest and even tender relationship.

Yes, attachment distress in those early years is a central part of my story. But I now realise with relief that it all has much more to do with how my brain works, and that in turn is something that even a further 10,000 hours of psychotherapy won’t change.

In fairness, such things of course weren’t understood in the 50s and 60s when it would have made the biggest difference. But I’m sad this was missed through a lifetime by those around me.

I’m sad, and where appropriate apologise (to family, to friends present and former, to wives likewise present and former, to colleagues over the years, to clients and supervisees) for the unhappiness that my Aspergers has caused those who at various times have tried to like, love and stay loyal to me.

I appreciate that, for some, to do so became too hard and too unrewarding.

Fair enough. But I need to say here how deeply and persistently those shutdowns, coming from those from whom I sought kindness and understanding, have hurt.

I’m afraid some of you probably also know who you are, but perhaps knowing that I really am Aspergers might help me at least if not others to let go of disappointments at friendships and relationships lost along the road.

I can of course also see a lot of the good that my Aspergers has done.

It drove my ridiculous and obsessive passion for languages, seeking in Russian, German, Hungarian, French, Spanish, Mandarin, even Serbo-Croat and Polish for a while, an emotional grammar that might at last help me to be understood.

Not that I knew at the time, of course, that this was my underlying motive.

It helped drive my determination in the late 90s and early noughties, with long-suffering colleagues at the BBC and the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma, to put trauma-aware reporting and emotional support on the international news agenda, wearing down resistances from management until they gave me what I was asking for, probably in large part just to shut me up.

My Aspergers has been part of the motivational mix behind some completely crazy bike rides, cycling to Budapest and back in 2008 to sort out two decades of complex love life (details upon request), and of course pedalling the length of New Zealand with Jutta, by then thankfully reinstated as partner and wife, on our tandem in 2016.

It’s helping me now, in the world of EMDR (where curiously I seem at last to be reasonably good at what I also love doing – perhaps in part, I now realise, because I’m an Aspie), to embed in our community culture a new awareness of the central importance of working in psychotherapy with our clients’ experience of attachment in early childhood.

There’s so much more that could be said, and maybe one day I WILL write that sodding book.

But early of a sleepless post-Brexit February morning, enough for the moment.

Though before I do conclude, a word of special appreciation above all at this turning point in my life to Jutta as my beloved first and third wife, remarried in 2013 (how brave you are…), with thanks for her breathtaking forgiveness and love, and with whom we’re together doing our best now, rather successfully actually, to Live Happily Ever After.

A long road, but getting there?


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Cyclist, therapist, singer, former foreign correspondent and climate change aware...


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