Community Voices: Nóra Nic Oireachtaigh and Bullying
The following piece is the final piece in our series covering bullying and autism. The first part discussed it in a professional context and the second (largely) discussed bullying in a school context. This final piece hopes to portray how yesterday’s bullying can potentially become tomorrow’s abuse. This article is recommended for a mature audience and will contain potentially upsetting material. Triggers include: substance abuse, physical violence, abusive relationships, suicidal ideation. If you are affected by any of the issues discussed in this piece, there will be a list of resources at the end.
Childhood bullying sets a pattern for life
The experience of childhood leaves many autistic people without the ability to recognise bullying and abuse, much less the tools to address such issues. Most of us have difficultly distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate treatment by the time we reach adulthood, because so many of the demands we were unable to meet as children seemed perfectly reasonable to the people making them and we spent our childhoods being punished for our failure to comply.
We have been conditioned to suppress our needs and feelings in favour of other people’s expectations. Particularly harmful is the forced touching that people regularly inflict on children; coercing them with guilt to hug and kiss people on demand. We learn from this that our bodies are not our own and that we must allow people to touch us even if we don’t want them to.
When we attempted to assert needs that differed from what was expected, we learned “that sort of behaviour won’t be tolerated”. By the time we reach adulthood, we have already internalised the message that we are inadequate, our behaviour is “wrong” and we must suppress our needs in favour of others’ demands.
My mother regularly called me a tyrant, when I reacted to overwhelming demands with extreme anxiety. I was constantly under pressure to wear “gender-appropriate” clothing (dresses and skirts made my skin crawl) and my lack of interest in most of the games other children played was seen as being deliberately difficult and unwilling to co-operate.
My father believed I was a cheeky upstart and applied the methods of physical discipline he presumably learned from his own parents. He saw these physical assaults as normal, but to me they were baffling and traumatising.
He did not like the way I looked at him. I squinted because my eyes were sensitive to light and it was my little sister who finally told me, in my mid 20s, that this made me look “disapproving”, until then I had no idea what I was doing wrong.
Many autistic people have strong feelings about numbers. For me this manifested as a physical aversion to seeing them written down; it gave me a splitting headache and made me feel physically sick. My teachers did not believe me when I told them the numbers made me feel sick. That was silly! They thought I was lazy and frequently pointed me out to the other children as someone who was highly intelligent, but just couldn’t be bothered. This gave the “normal” children a green light to pick on me. I spent a lot of time hiding.
These characterisations were confusing to me, as I was trying as hard as I could to understand and deliver what they wanted, but the attacks came out of nowhere, with no warning, all the time. Usually, nobody would even tell me what I had done wrong and I learned that even asking would make the attacker hit me harder or shout louder. Besides, none of the other children had this problem, so I fully believed I was defective from a very early age.
I had abilities the others didn’t have. I could solve (apparently) difficult logic puzzles without even trying; I was a musician from an early age and could assimilate tunes after hearing them once, although I couldn’t associate them with anything written down; I could feel harmonies in my body; and I had a much larger vocabulary than other children my age and a particular attention to grammar that made my speech rather formal when I spoke naturally. These skills did not help. They made me stand out, and I found myself often “dumbing down” my speech and pretending not to understand things, so as not to alienate myself further. It didn’t work, of course.
The adults in my family were drinkers and I started drinking when I was still in primary school. I started smoking in sixth class and I was taking hard drugs by the time I was 16. I was a vulnerable teenager and, although I had true friends, I was used and abused often enough that I was angry with myself for not being able to learn not to trust people.
It took many years of therapy for me to be able to put my early experiences in context. For most of my life I believed that I deserved it because I was defective. There was no diagnosis until I was 47 and I am still coming to terms with the light that sheds on the past.
I have been in a number of abusive relationships. I have had good ones too, with people who are still among my closest friends, but I have trouble functioning for very long as part of a couple and I seem to attract abusive types.
Autistic people are natural targets for predators, because we are trusting and pre-conditioned to believe all problems are our fault.
Background to recent events
When my children were born, I struggled to be a grown-up human and do all the things that parents had to do. I failed spectacularly: I blamed myself for my failure and so did everybody else.
I have been periodically suicidal since I was a child and I was overwhelmed by the force of the post-natal depression that stayed with me for years. However, I couldn’t give in to suicidal thoughts, because I was not willing to scar my children for life. Once suicide was no longer an option, I started taking therapy seriously.
I had abandoned formal education when I was 14, so I went to college as a mature student. Before the end of my first year, after work experience, I was given a full-time job as a sub-editor in a national newspaper. For once my autistic hyperlexia worked to my advantage. However, it was stressful for me to interact with other people all day. I felt like an actor and I had to learn “workplace banter”. I strongly suspect I misunderstood the rules and offended people.
Once, during a slow period working on the finance pages, I was explaining to the sub next to me how society could function more efficiently without money. I looked up and everyone in the room was looking at me with shocked/disgusted expressions. It hadn’t occurred to me that denouncing money as an institution would be taken as a personal insult by financial journalists.
I predicted the imminent financial crash in 2006. At the time I was dismissed as a “pinko commie” by one of the reporters. I met him in a pub after the crash and reminded him of my prediction and he started shouting at me. This shocked me. I always thought his nasty comments were “banter” and I honestly never realised that he hated me.
I obviously made other enemies I wasn’t aware of, because when my next contract expired they did not offer me a new one and gave no explanation for this. Nobody had questioned my competence that I am aware of. To be fair, the union offered to take my case, but I realised I was exhausted from this job, so I didn’t pursue it and began working as a freelance.
I did a lot of work for the NUJ as a lay member and I thoroughly enjoyed the democratic and inclusive nature of the trade-union world. I learned a lot about co-operating with others and realised that work is much easier if you’re doing it for a good reason. Making money is not a good enough reason to do a job.
I have always suffered from depression and anxiety and these got worse throughout this time. Panic attacks and palpitations got so bad I thought I was having a heart attack. I was referred for tests and, after finding nothing physically wrong, I was referred for Cognitive Behavioural therapy. This helped me manage the panic attacks, but I still had trouble coping with everyday life for reasons I didn’t understand.
In 2011 I was used and betrayed by someone I had thought was a friend. This had a terrible effect on me and I had a breakdown. I needed to get out of Dublin and I began spending more and more time in Galway.
I met a man in Connemara I had known for years, but not well. We became good friends. He was married, but by his account his marriage was not a real marriage, as he and his wife had not been close in many years. A friend of mine died in 2012 and while I was grieving I started a relationship with this married “friend”. The relationship quickly became emotionally abusive, but, as usual, I believed it was my fault and spent four years trying to fix it.
Life in Connemara suited me, however, and I decided to find a home there and learn to speak Irish fluently. Unfortunately, my plan proved harder to execute than I had anticipated.
The housing crisis was just taking off and Irish classes were all beyond my financial means. I looked for affordable learning resources. I sent letters and emails to officials, but, although the summer visitors are well catered for, I found little in the way of ongoing support for adults trying to learn Irish with limited resources.
The learners’ session
Since I had experienced such difficulties with conventional educational myself, I have always felt driven to find alternative ways to facilitate learning. I also have a habit of taking on large problems in exchange for small ones. When I have problems getting what I need, I have to take on the system that caused the problem, rather than just finding a way around it. This seems to be relatively common among autistic people, we are campaigners by nature.
I have spent time teaching and I had learned a lot from my students, just from hearing them explain their specific difficulties. Many of them said things I never would have thought of. Some issues are common, but every person has their own way of looking at things. It’s not a flaw, just a difference, and differences can be accommodated much more easily than most people would have you believe. If you can understand how each person is approaching their learning, it’s really not that hard to make the necessary adjustments.
I felt all learning, and particularly cultural learning, should be based in Kropotkin’s principle of Mutual Assistance and I put this idea to the test when I met two aspiring musicians, one with “learning difficulties” and one who had started late in life, both of whom had been discouraged by experienced teachers who felt they had poor prospects as musicians.
I began coming in early for my own session to go through a few tunes with these two. Before long others joined us and we had a learners’ session going where everyone helped each other and we spent a lot of time talking about different people’s perspectives on learning.
These two musicians, as well as many more who joined the session over the years, are now playing regularly in sessions.
The Irish learners’ club
I had no luck finding an Irish course that I could afford. I attended a conversation group, but this did not satisfy my need. Like most autistic people, I find it impossible to focus on my interests for only an hour or two a week. I wanted to understand Irish inside out, I wanted complete comprehension of its complicated grammar and colloquial differences in speech patterns and how they influenced the musical tradition. I wanted to immerse myself in it until I became it.
There were no resources to facilitate my hunger and fixing this problem became my latest mission. I formed the idea for a club to act as hub to bring native speakers and learners together and try out activities that would appeal to learners and native and fluent speakers alike.
Although I hoped to get a grant and I sent my ideas to everyone I thought might have some influence, I had no luck, so I set up a crowdfunding campaign and started the club anyway. I recruited a handful of native speakers as facilitators and raised money to pay them through donations.
I encountered problems with other people straight away. I’d taken for granted that everyone understood what I was trying to do and supported it. However, it became obvious very quickly that most of them had very conventional attitudes to education and regarded my “weird” ideas about grassroots administration as my personal idiosyncrasies, rather than core principles.
One of the first shocks was a proposal from one of the facilitators that all meetings be held exclusively in Irish.
I just have to insert a brief aside here to say that now that I know lots of autistic people, I have discovered that this problem is almost universal for us. Many of the things neurotypical people normally do and say can seem quite insane from an autistic perspective, for instance when they go along with things they disagree with, just because their social “role” requires it.
This was obviously one of those occasions. It seemed obvious to me that a club run by learners of a language could not conduct meetings in the target language, because, by the time they were competent to do that, they would no longer be qualified to run the club. Apparently, though, this was not obvious to most people and almost everyone attempted to adhere to the rule, which resulted in miscommunication and many misunderstandings.
My insistence on speaking in English so that everyone would understand was regarded as belligerence. This went on until two Italian members of the committee, who had arrived with no Irish at all, threatened to quit, but I was seen as the instigator of the rebellion.
The next obstacle was their refusal to allow a certain person to participate, because he was not born in Connemara and he spoke “the wrong sort of Irish”. This was completely contrary to the core principles of the club. Even if it were desirable to shield learners from exposure to other dialects, this particular person had been living in Connemara for more than 20 years.
However, once again, everyone went along with it, even though privately many of them told me they didn’t agree with it. It took over a year to overturn it with a vote. I thought that would be the end of it, but it was just the beginning.
There were snide remarks and vague insinuations aimed at me from the beginning and these intensified as time went on. Like most autistic people I am used to nasty comments and I have difficulty distinguishing between banter and insults, so, even though I was uncomfortable about the remarks, it took me a long time to be certain that they were not essentially good-natured.
I didn’t know what to do and all the people I tried to discuss it with made it seem trivial. I felt invisible. My feelings didn’t matter. I was just being silly. I had to pull myself together and get on with it. People were depending on me.
In late May 2016, I discovered that my partner – the married man whose marriage wasn’t really a marriage, with whom I had been struggling through an emotionally demanding, on-and-off relationship, for four years – had done exactly the same thing to several other women and, as far as his wife was concerned, their marriage was definitely still on.
I had another breakdown. He had been one of the first facilitators I had recruited and I hoped he would resign gracefully now, but he did the opposite. He had made a habit of letting me down for the entire four years of our relationship, but now he was reliably on time for everything. It was like having a stalker.
I asked the committee to make arrangements so that we could divide our attendance. I was willing to step down from some of the activities and I felt that we could come to a workable compromise if he were willing to do the same.
Not only did they refuse to accommodate this need, one person actively encouraged his stalking by trying to trick me into agreeing to work with him on a number of occasions.
The vast majority of the work was my responsibility. There was no money to cover expenses and I was unwaged, in poor health and making the 30-mile return trip most days, as well as regular trips to Galway for banking. All the time, the insults and insinuations continued to worsen.
The stress was really taking a toll on me. I was unable to sleep, my panic attacks returned with a vengeance and I went into a deep depression. Consequently, I asked and then begged the committee to address the problem. In hindsight, I suppose the more desperate I got, the crazier I sounded and the easier it was for them to put it down to my mental-health problems.
I had felt I had no choice but to be honest about these issues after my 2016 breakdown, because it would obviously affect my ability to run the club. I had foolishly expected that explaining my issues would help the others to understand my limitations and that, since I was doing the vast majority of the work, they would offer me support, or allow me leeway, in situations which would obviously be difficult for me.
However, once I had admitted to having prior mental-health problems, the bullying I reported could just be put down to the fact that I was nuts and nobody took me seriously.
I questioned my own sanity every day. I was lucky to have a supportive GP who kept in touch to make sure I didn’t kill myself. As my mental health continued to deteriorate, he tried to arrange emergency psychiatric intervention.
All that came of that was that a woman rang me and asked me how I was, I said I was suicidal and she said that I would have to come to Galway if I wanted help. I told her that I was barely able to get out of bed and that if I were able to get in the van, drive to Galway, find a parking space and the money to pay for indefinite parking, and then walk, alone, into a big noisy building full of people and bright lights, I would not need help.
She got tetchy with me, as neurotypical people often do when you point out the obvious, and eventually I just hung up. I never heard from her again. No wonder there are so many suicides.
Club meetings were chaotic and misunderstandings were frequent. Several people still insisted on speaking exclusively in Irish, although time was now allowed for translations. It was time consuming and exhausting and not at all conducive to good communication.
As I was the one who had to implement the decisions, I got the blame for the issues that arose from misunderstandings. These were condescendingly attributed to my poor grasp of Irish or my inability to listen and I would be openly insulted and treated with contempt for my stupidity. There was a vague suggestion that I had some master plan. I never found out exactly what that plan was, but one person frequently made remarks such as “I know what you’re up to”.
Another kept making references to my “behaviour”, but when I asked him to be more specific about what I was doing that bothered him, he said things that made no sense to me.
One time it was because I sat in the wrong chair and another time he told me his friend was afraid of me because I stuck my tongue out (in a foolish effort to lighten the mood). This was utterly baffling to me, but when I asked him to explain what, specifically, it was about these things that was wrong, he got angry and accused me of being selfish.
All my pleas for help were dismissed. At first I got a patronising, pat-on-the-back response. I was told to “just ignore it” and asked “can’t you just be brave?”. These are actually things people said to me while I was suicidal; having multiple, intense and exhausting panic attacks every day.
Eventually they just ignored me completely. When I would write an email to the committee about the latest incidents and ask for help, I would receive a response with no reference to what I said or, just as often, no response at all.
I was completely invisible. Nobody cared.
Eventually I gave up and resigned. This seemed to shock a few people (apparently I had not made the extent of my difficulties clear until then) and they had emergency meetings to put in place a system to deal with bullying.
However, when I asked if I could use the new system to resolve the problems so that I could return, I was told that it couldn’t be used retrospectively.
I went back several times to try to resolve it, but nobody was interested. Two people actually promised help and then changed their minds and stopped talking to me with no explanation.
I have never managed to get a clear understanding of what I did that was so wrong, but I get the clear impression that everyone agrees it was my fault.
I left Galway for good. It’s not the first time I have had to leave an area because of bullying, abuse, judgement, disapproval and social alienation, but it has been a little harder to keep going each time it has happened.
This time, I had no serious drug or drinking problem to blame for my failure. I worked as hard as I could and gave more of myself than I have ever given to any community, but it wasn’t enough. I have nothing more to offer.
If I haven’t managed it yet, I am not going to learn to decode the neurotypical modes of speech and behaviour at this point and I am too worn out to keep trying. I am 48 years old and I am no closer to understanding what I did wrong than I was when I was four.
Nóra Nic Oireachtaigh