I’ve been heading towards this post for quite a while. It’s not been a easy one to write. Hopefully, having done so will clear the internal decks a little bit, and perhaps invite some response from readers.
Long story short. I’ve got Asperger’s Syndrome.
What’s that, you ask? Well, bear with me, because it’s not a simple topic, either to explain or to understand. I’ll try to unpack it a little, explain what my life with Asperger’s is like, and then talk about what Asperger’s has to do with running.
Asperger’s is a neuro-biological communication disorder that affects key aspects of social awareness and interaction, language, usage and sensory integration. (That’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it?) It’s probably easier for you to understand if I explain what it feels like.
I find the basic elements of social interaction difficult. I’ve always had trouble developing or maintaining friendships. I don’t reciprocate social or emotional signals easily or well. I can drone on about a favourite topic, without noticing that people are literally walking away. I know an awful lot about very specific and narrow areas of interest. (I can tell you more than you ever want to know about 1st century Christian exegesis, for example, or the the minute details of the history of a certain make of British bicycle saddle.) I’m incredibly sensitive to sound, light, and other stimuli. Movies are very difficult for me. (I’ve only seen six in the past twenty years.) Watching a movie in a theater feels to me like being wrapped in barbed wire and having someone punch me in the head repeatedly. I find wearing clothes to be uncomfortable at best and painful at worst.
For me, living with Asperger’s is like always being in a small room with thick glass walls. I can see the world outside and the people in it, but I have a lot of trouble connecting to them. Over the years, I’ve learned coping mechanisms and skills. When I’m in social situations, I work very hard at paying attention other people’s faces, reactions, and what they’re saying. Until a few years ago, I couldn’t eat in a restaurant, because the sounds and movement around me made me virtually catatonic. Now, it’s difficult, but I can do it. I very seldom listen to music, don’t watch TV, and don’t listen to the radio, but I can listen very carefully to music in short doses. I have a wonderful marriage. I have friends.
And I run.
When I run, that little glass room gets bigger. Much, much bigger. I usually run early in the morning, when the world is quiet. Or I run on my treadmill, without music, without a TV or DVD player, just with the sound of my own breathing and my footstrikes to keep me company. I run most happily when it’s hot, so that I can wear as little as possible. I run barefoot, so I can feel as much of the world as possible. Running, especially running long distances at a slow pace, seems to calm my nervous system and allow me to integrate my surroundings. I’m almost always calmer, more relaxed, and more peaceful after a run. I’m more charitable to other people, more patient, and more kind than when I don’t run.
Part of running is racing. Most races involve a lot of other people. (The Vancouver Sun Run 10K, which I’m doing next month, has 50,000 participants.) The big races are part sports event, part entertainment, so they have bands, cheering spectators, and loud start guns or horns. All of those are difficult for me, and a little bit scary. But those big races are also celebrations and parties, and opportunities for me to practice my social skills. And the more running friends I have, the more often I see them at races, and the more I learn about interaction and friendship. Besides, there are always low-participant races like the Kingston 6 Hour I’ll do in June (which last year had only 53 participants) to keep things balanced.