Next Chapter: New Jiu Jitsu Academy

It has been a turbulent past few years. At the end of 2021 I had a major knee reconstruction surgery and decided that in my down time I would take charge of things and set the foundation for my comeback. After spending so long running myself into the ground physically, financially, mentally, etc. I declared 2022 to be the rebuilding year – so I would be going into 2023 in an overall healthier state.

New Academy:

I started with breaking from my old training academy, staying with my original coach of course. That’s a long story I won’t get into since I wrote about it already (Click Here for that post). It sucked so badly because I knew that change would affect more than just myself and would leave my students confused and feeling abandoned. However, I realized that whether I acted or not others were already being affected/hurt – so I may as well be an active participant instead of a powerless observer.

Since then, my coach dropped my old academy from the team affiliation and has opened up a new academy. Now those of us who prefer his teaching and training methodology can have a place to call home once again. I do feel guilt about the people I left behind who I care about, but also have to remind myself that they are (mostly all) adults capable of making their own decisions for themselves. Some of them will come to the new academy, some will stay where they are – either option is completely valid! I don’t care where people choose to train, if they are cool with me I’m cool with them.

The team has already added several new affiliate academies to our ranks in the past few months as well! I’m excited for the future of our team, and most of all getting to train again the way that I used to under my coach once more. That’s what got me from day 1 to top ranked at each belt level up through purple. I fell off on the rankings toward the end of purple belt since I wasn’t able to train full time with my coach anymore, and so many other things were changing around that time that I was clicked into survival mode long term.

There has been enough negativity over the past several years and I am just moving on and refusing to marinate in it now that I have other options. It has taken and will continue to take a lot of therapy to reach this point – but things are good now, and I don’t want to let the past overshadow the future.

I am looking forward to starting up a new Ladies BJJ program. Previously I grew one from the ground up using leftover time slots and no real support or backing. I did the marketing, lesson planning, networking, and follow ups myself. Now not only do I have enthusiastic support from my coach and his wife who own the new academy, I also have a team of experienced ladies on board to help me, and prime time training slots. No longer the afterthought!

Training:

I am finally able to train consistently again – and it feels amazing! It has been about a year and 10 months since my knee injury and I had started wondering if I was ever going to be back again. Being sidelined for so long is a major issue since Jiu Jitsu is my autism special interest – I can’t just pick something else to fill that space while I wait for the green light once again. I watched myself being migrated to the outside of the circle once again, where I spent my entire life up until I found Jiu Jitsu – and it brought back a lot of unpleasant memories/feelings.

So far I am just a little over two weeks into regular consistent training and I can already feel myself regulating and relaxing once again. I do still have to be cautious of my reconstructed knee, but I see my surgeon again on Dec 7 – that will be a year post-op and he promised to give me a final clear to compete again. So I signed up for the European Championships at the end of January. I won’t be in shape or in my regular weight class for it, but just getting on those mats again will feel so good!

Training in the new academy with all the old familiar faces just feels like a breath of fresh air – the world is as it should be again with coach and his wife as the co-owners. It is just amazing!

Autism Stuff:

About 3 weeks ago I went in to get started with my Autism assessment. Previously (10+ years ago) a diagnosis was suggested by a therapist but the process for official testing and diagnosis is very drawn out, and prohibitively expensive (several months’ worth of my then income). Drs who are able to do the official evaluation generally have long waiting lists and insurance does not usually cover the testing process.

My new job (as of the beginning of the year) offers excellent insurance that actually covers mental health testing with just a small copay. So I decided to take advantage of this and get the official testing done.

My usual preparation method for any new experience is that I will mentally rehearse every possible interaction and outcome so that I can know going into it what to do. Incidentally, this is why I don’t usually do last minute outings – since I haven’t been able to mentally prepare for all outcomes. I am not able to react appropriately on the spot, so I have learned over the years that I must spend the energy beforehand preparing all possible interactions in order to be able to connect with people in a way that gives them a favorable impression of me.

I was told I should not do this for my intake session or testing – my therapist friends told me that unfortunately they don’t evaluate you on how well you can adapt around your deficiencies. So while I don’t want to “play it up”, I also don’t want to mask and pretend to be okay with everything. The thought of not allowing myself to prepare meant the doctor got to do an intake on me completely keyed up. At the close of the intake she said, “well I don’t have to send you in for testing in order to confidently diagnose you as autistic, but we can go ahead with the testing if it’s not cost prohibitive for you.” I want the extra insight so I’m opting to do the testing process – which is scheduled for Dec 21 with a meeting with the doctor on Jan 23 to go over results.

So up until now I have operated on the premise that I am autistic, but there was just enough doubt that I put a lot of things in a mental “maybe” box… Now those maybes need to be sorted through. Realizing that growing up it wasn’t that I was stupid, or not trying hard enough to get on and fit in – it’s legit that my brain works differently, and I am disabled in that regards. Can I function in life? Absolutely I can, but it takes so much extra effort and I just want that struggle to be validated for the sake of my own mental health.

In Conclusion

Things are good and moving in a positive direction. I personally have a lot of healing to do, as does my local team, but we are all on the correct path now though and the future is bright!

I’m Thankful For My Injury

Warning: Lots of feelings here!

I’ve been down rehabbing a major injury for 18 months now. It has been difficult to be so removed from “my thing” for so long and I have gone through many phases of mourning, anger, and sadness. Now I am finally reaching “hope” since my surgeon has cleared me to ease back into training with a check in another 4 months to give me a final clear to compete once more (eye on the European Championships!)

In the midst of the process, I have been doing an assessment and re-organization of my life. My goal is to build a better foundation for myself moving forward with my return to the competitive circuit. I was running on empty for so long; mentally, physically, emotionally, and financially. I never allowed myself to get caught up in any of these things because I felt like the forward momentum was the only thing keeping me upright and focused. I knew it was unhealthy, but I was trapped in a vicious cycle.

Financially, I had been living off about $1,200 a month (pre-tax) between teaching bjj classes and doing massages in my office. I got really good at living at that level – I used a combo of bus and bicycle to get around (60-90 mins commute each way/day), rented a small bedroom, and did most of my own cooking on the cheap. I would ride an overnight greyhound bus to tournaments in order to save on airfare and hotel expenses, got exceptional at trip planning (went to Europeans on $500 airfare and lodging included), would work tournaments to offset travel costs, and somehow managed to not go into debt.

Mentally/Emotionally I was running myself into the ground. Due to issues at my long-time academy (see This Post for that story) I lost all my main training partners and was still expected to perform at peak level. I couldn’t disconnect like my teammates who had left – so I had to pretend I was okay and keep focusing on my goals. It felt like walking up a sand dune – I was still able to reach my goals, but I had no energy left to celebrate or enjoy the view since I knew I had to go right back into the pit. Competing became more about the trip/escape than the actual event itself. I was desperately hopeful that if I just stuck it out, it would circle back to the way it used to be.

One of my autism features is that I can’t read subtext – if someone says something, I believe them. So many promises were made to me that things would get better “we are working on it”, “trust us to get this done” – I went emotionally bankrupt waiting to cash in those promised checks. I saw the pattern and still chose to trust it even though I knew better logically – because I couldn’t see another viable option.

I know I allowed myself to be manipulated: I hoped that in doing so things would get better and it would pay off where I was. Foolish hope I know, when all the people who cared for me were pushing me to give up and move on. I hate that in allowing myself to be manipulated it made me complicit in a system that hurt so many people that I care about. So far no one I have spoken with has laid any blame on me, but I apologize regardless of blame – and I think it is helping the healing process for everyone.

Getting injured force stopped my hamster wheel and left me in complete disarray – I’m almost at a point where I can be truly thankful for it. I eventually would have hit a breaking point mentally, and I don’t know that I would have recovered from that – and I know I was so very close.

I just parted ways with my therapist who has helped me through this transition process to leave my old academy for good. She admitted she was rooting for me to leave but of course professionally couldn’t insert her own opinion on the matter – Her that her relief/celebration when I told her kind of gave her opinion away of course. She also guided me toward a place where I can finally have an official ASD evaluation (scheduled for next month). I’m hoping that they will be able to help me identify areas that I don’t realize I’m compensating and help me find better tools to bring me those to balance a bit.

Financially I’ve gotten set up in a much better situation. I took a job working for a teammate as a project manager. Another autistic feature of mine is that I am really good at pattern recognition and organization of complex systems – so this job is a perfect fit for me. It also pays well enough for me to get my own apartment and (slowly) pay off my surgery bills. Since the majority of the other staff members also train bjj, we have mats in the warehouse where I’ve been getting my training groove back slowly.

The lynchpin was me finally leaving my old academy and breaking the cycle, and it took my injury shaking up things to do so. I have a lot of healing to do still mentally but my coach has my back, and I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

People have been messaging me all kinds of different things after my writing that initial “break up” article. I had people from outside my association/region relating to it, local gym owners commiserating watching the decline in my old academy’s local reputation, students wishing me well and being sad for me. I also had people telling me that I needed to share all the good things about my old academy since it wasn’t all bad – but the bad overshadowed the good too much and made me so miserable for so long that the best I could do was try to be balanced with my initial break up article.

There are a lot of feelings flying around, and my team has a lot of healing to do. It sucks so much to see how deep a wound has been caused by just a handful of people. What I appreciate is that our coach is taking active steps to help mend the hurt – because it proves that he genuinely cares. He hates giving up on people which is why dropping my old academy from the team association was such a drastic step for him. There are still many people there who are greatly loved, and it makes it that much more tragic of a development. Not being allowed to talk about things (however ugly and uncomfortable they might be) keeps things from ever really healing and is what enables a broken system to thrive. I’m thankful to have things out in the open – it’s not pretty, but we can focus on fixing it now.

Anyhow, feelings are messy but I’m finally starting to make sense of mine – I can visualize now what it will be like next year when I return to competition, and I can’t wait to show what I can do when I’m actually healthy again!

Jiu Jitsu and Autism Pt 4

It’s been requested over the last couple of years that I write a follow up post to my “Jiu Jitsu and Aspergers” series from back in the day. I thought I had gotten everything out with that series, and honestly it was a scary one to publish since I hadn’t disclosed my diagnosis to many people at that point. This might be a rehashing but there’ve definitely been changes since I wrote that piece 8 years ago! (Click Here to check out the article that started it all)

Two big changes:

The Aspergers diagnosis is now defunct and dated (as are the terms high/low functioning), my diagnosis is now simply “Autistic”. The other change being that I was promoted to my black belt last year.

So where does that leave me?

I’m still me. I’m learning and unlearning a lot through work with my therapist. Autism seems to have taken a recent spotlight through media representation, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Education and awareness is good in general, but media will of course represent the extremes of something from their own vantage point, not understanding what actually goes on in a brain that is wired differently than theirs. The stereotypical autistic person they usually end up portraying is the sensationalized version that is a small fraction of the diagnosis spectrum.

Sensory Issues:

Since my last posting on this topic, I have had to stop driving a car. It is just too much input/reaction for me to safely handle. On bad/low tolerance days I could focus either on; watching my speed, staying in the lines, or driving directions. I got speeding tickets because I was having to focus so hard to keep my car going where I wanted it and safely avoiding all the other moving (and stationary) objects that I just didn’t pay attention to speed, or I would be swerving in and out of lines while watching my speedometer. It all added up to more stress than it was worth to me. I switched to a combo of bicycle and the bus. The bike is easier because I don’t have to watch a speedometer, and can stop easily if I need a focus break. It was less convenient on the surface (especially given the state of the bus system in Nashville), but a better choice overall.

More recently I have started paying closer attention to my tactile sensitivities. Can I push through the day with a jacket sleeve touching the base of my thumb or an odd feeling fabric making up my gi pants? Yes, yes I can. But these little stressors add up and if it’s something within my own control, shouldn’t I control it and make it easier for me to handle the things I have no control over? As such I’ve done a closet purge and gotten rid of items that I find uncomfortable, got myself a floofy fleece hoodie to relax in at home, and am eyeballing an oversized Totoro plushie I found online.

I recognize now that while I can’t tolerate light physical contact, firm to hard is actually soothing. I’m guessing this is another reason why Jiu Jitsu is a good activity for me!

Pattern Recognition:

I’m starting to make some realizations about how deep my penchant for pattern recognition goes. I have realized that I don’t read people’s facial expressions emotionally, but I can recognize a change in their behavior pattern that tips me off if something (positive or negative) is up. So, the better I know someone (and get the hang of their normal behavior) the better I can read their emotional changes.

It’s frustrating because I can predict to pretty good accuracy an issue down the road – but no one takes me seriously if I try to point it out. Then the crisis hits and they all scramble to address it and I just heave a sigh.

In Jiu Jitsu it has definitely been an asset! When I figured out the mechanics of a triangle choke, I was able to easily apply the same thing from all angles (inverted reverse triangle finish anyone?) Learning my training partners’ movement patterns helps make me seem like I know a lot more than I actually do.

Special Interests:

My primary special interest has remained Jiu Jitsu – I’m going on 11 years now of it! It brings me great joy that I’m surrounded by people who don’t think it’s odd if I want to talk for hours about training techniques or theory.

It has been particularly difficult for the past few years. First, we had all the gym shutdowns with the coronovirus, and then just as we were getting into the swing of training again I had a very bad injury. I’ve been recovering for over a year now and haven’t been allowed to train properly (at all in the past 5 months post-op). I had the best possible sports osteopathic surgeon piece my knee back together again – he is confident I will be back to full impact with no restrictions, it just takes time.

Not being able to participate feels like a part of me is just a dark empty space that nothing can fill. I’m back on the outside looking in again. I have tried my best to keep myself engaged through teaching and watching film, but it is a pacifier that can’t be sustained. It has reached a point where I can actually see a life for myself where I never train again, and it terrifies me. I am determined that I WILL be back!

Social Stuff:

Being around the Jiu Jitsu community has made me feel much more competent and confident in social settings. Overall, I think the sport attracts the awkward misfits who are more accepting and forgiving of the awkwardness of others.

I have never dated, and probably won’t in the future. It is so difficult for me to maintain friendships that adding deeper levels just seems an insurmountable task to me, more trouble than it would be worth. Just know that if I count you as a friend, that means something.

I find it difficult to make a good first impression without feeling like I’m putting on a show of something that isn’t who I really am. The term is “masking” where I hide my natural pattern of speech behind a mask that is more socially acceptable. Everyone has always told me to “just be yourself and people will appreciate the real you!” – but in my experience that is a well-meaning lie. The real me is awkward, makes people uncomfortable with bluntness and vocal inflections, doesn’t have a filter on facial expressions, etc. Probably the reason that, while growing up, the other kids in my peer group thought I was “creepy.”

Nine times out of ten, if I greet people with the real me, it just doesn’t begin or end well. So many of my (now) friends have said that when they first met me, they thought I hated them. If I wear my goofball mask it is a predictable role that other people know how to relate to right off the bat. It’s less stress in the moment, but more stress in the long term. Sometimes I’m so exhausted when get home that I just sit down and stare at a blank wall for a solid hour before I’m able to start to relax with a book or movie.

That said, it’s better than it was before. I’m more aware of my limitations and am getting better at regulating myself. Controlling the things in my environment that I have control over means I have more energy to deal with the ones I can’t control. Since people with Autism have to expend more mental/emotional energy to do simple daily tasks, I have to conserve my energy where possible in order to make it through the day.

Anxiety:

I had a 3-day long anxiety attack last week. I learned something new from my therapist through it. Since my brain has no filter for the world I will eventually hit “critical mass” and my brain/nervous system just says “no.”

I say it’s like boiling a pot of water. Everyone else can boil their pot uncovered but I have a pressure cooker lid firmly in place. The pressure that would normally just dissipate from the act of heating up the water (aka, functioning in society) has nowhere to go for me.

Even as I explain it, it sounds like I’m just making excuses. Especially when people try to relate by saying “I think everyone is a little autistic” – which to me sounds like a minimization of my own difficulties. I can function if I try hard enough, so I must be lying or exaggerating. The toll it takes on me though is not sustainable over the long term.

In Closing:

Not a ton has changed really. I am still me. I am just trying to learn more about myself so that I can be a better human. Achieving my black belt was a huge saga that I will one day possibly share, but I need to be a little further removed from circumstances before I do that.

As I have risen in the ranks, I have felt the responsibility to look out for my fellow students. I would spend my weekend rehearsing all possible questions and interactions that I could come up with so that I could have an answer for someone as opposed to my classic deer in headlights stare. They know I care, even if I’m still a bit rough around the edges.

I’ve been more open about my diagnosis in the past couple of years. I think it’s because I have come to accept it more and feel more confident. That said, I’m actually awaiting an official assessment through an ADA approved evaluation center. I’ve been diagnosed by several therapists but if it’s not done through the approved evaluation center it’s not considered “official”. It’s an expensive drawn-out process, which is why I haven’t done it before – but with the salary from my new job I will be able to afford it!

Emerging From the Cocoon

img_3690So I haven’t put up anything in so long because honestly, I just haven’t had the heart or energy to do so. I’ve gone through several depressive phases where only my dog could make me get out of bed or smile. I’m currently on an upswing and feeling reflective… So here’s to almost a decade of training!

The things that scare me the most are the very things I need in order to grow. The more I learn about something (i.e. leg locks, takedowns), the less they frighten me. It may be another decade before I gain any proficiency in applications, but there is a direct correlation between knowledge and reduced fear.

It doesn’t matter where someone trains. We have the same base goal to improve and can respect one another on that basis. If you’re cool with me, I’m cool with you. We don’t have to agree on philosophy in order to get along. I will not let what other people say overrule my personal experience with someone. Anyone can talk, but I know what I know.

I’ve always felt worse when I surrender to laziness and skip training. Everything seems easier on the other side of training and I’ve never regretted pushing through to train against my own laziness. In contrast, I’ve learned to recognize that sometimes it’s not good to push through (i.e. injury or mental health day). It’s all about learning and judging myself honestly.

Every gym has its own environment and won’t be a good fit for every person who walks in. I recommend to everyone to try different places to see where you fit best. If you try to make yourself fit into the wrong place it will put a damper on your love of training. Doesn’t mean one place is better than the other, it just means one place is a better fit for you personally.

You learn more as an instructor sometimes because it forces you to look at moves from all different angles in order to teach it effectively to students who have different learning styles than you do. Taking on an instructor role has made me a better student, since I try to pay closer attention to details taught so that I can answer questions. Basically it makes me more accountable since I have people now who look to me for their instruction and inspiration – and that honestly terrifies me. I don’t want to fail them. I want each of my students to have their very best chance to learn to love jiu jitsu. Will they all fall in love long term like me? Not likely. However, if they can gain something worthwhile from their time in class then my job is done. You don’t have to commit for life in order to enrich your life through martial arts training.

If I have a private lesson with someone, I go and immediately try to teach it to someone else in order to make sure the concepts are locked into my brain. Sometimes they end up doing it better than me, and that to me means I understand the concepts and my body just needs to catch up with my brain

Having a black belt does not automatically make you a good person. The process of training does weed out a lot of ego issues, but sometimes it can feed into it as well. I’ve had friends oppressed by instructors, as well as lifted up by them. People are people regardless of their belt rank.

I find that I do judge higher ranked belts by how they treat those below them. I came from a more classical style of martial arts where a core teaching is that the job of the upper ranks is to nurture and help those below them grow. White belts are our future blue belts, and purple, and brown, and then black. They will become the kind of black belt we make them into starting from day one. They are our legacy – how will we mold them?

Not comparing my own progress to those around me is nearly impossible for me to do. I have to make a constant effort to make the comparison to last week me, instead of the person sitting on top of me at the moment. I fight my own battles, as do all of my training partners. They don’t really know what I might be dealing with, and I don’t really know what they have going on. So kindness and compassion is key. Now kindness doesn’t mean we don’t try to beat the tar out of one another, but if I know a team mate is having a bad day I just try to give them a little extra leeway mentally as needed. I might be the one having a bad day next time.

We get pretty personal with one another. And jiu jitsu training and competition can involve some breakdowns. I really appreciate that I have surrounded myself with a good circle of people who support and love me if I let them know I’m not in a good headspace. The same people will push me to succeed just as hard when they know I can handle it. My goal is to give back as much as I can!

img_3551One of my most popular blog articles has been about my Aspergers diagnosis. I have found my jiu jitsu family to be such a eclectic group of weirdos that I am able to blend right in. It has been so healing for me to feel accepted by a group – it has reached a point that even when I have bad days I still know and believe that I won’t loose my place in the group. This means more to me than they will ever know, and I thank everyone for that. 

In conclusion (for now), jiu jitsu has truly become my lifestyle. My daily life revolves around it and I spend more time at the training academy than I do at home. It is no longer something I do, it is just part of who I am. I’m excited to see what the next year will bring for me – lots of changes and plans in the works!

 

What’s In A Team?

I was never much of a team sport player during my growing up years. I was just your classic socially awkward, coke bottle glasses wearing nerd. I found that when I was working on projects in school, being in a group would take twice as long to turn out an inferior product as if I were to do the work on my own.

So I stopped trying to be part of a group.

If I was forced into a group, I would just find a shadow to hide in and do whatever grunt work was tossed at me as I attempted to ignore all the inefficient processes going on around me.

I never really “got” what being a team member was all about.

Until Jiu Jitsu

I was used to doing everything on my own. Maybe the Aspergers had something to do with my inability to connect with others, but I found that working inside my own little bubble of systems was too efficient to make expansion worth the effort.

There is only so much Jiu Jitsu you can do by yourself. I woke up one day, and found that I had somehow managed to integrate myself into a real team – without even realizing it was happening! There was a two part pivotal moment that made me a believer.

  1. My coach (a new concept as well!), decided to teach me how to do a few moves from spider guard. He told me that most people start out working in closed guard, but that he thought I would be able to make good use of the position. I practiced the moves, all the while thinking “This is silly. I will never use this.”
  2. My first competition a couple weeks later. It was a crazy whirlwind, but I fell back on the move that I thought I would never use, and it worked. My first competition submission was a triangle choke, set up from spider guard. I won 3rd place that day.

Going out to eat (buffet!) with the rest of the team after that competition, for the first time in a long while, I felt like a contributing member of a team. I have come to understand quite a few things in the last several years because of this.

  • There is a limit to what I can achieve as an individual.
    • No matter what the field is, I have limits of knowledge and ability. However, with good team mates, we help each other beyond what our own individual limits are. Together, we are more.
  • On a good team, everyone has the same or similar goals.
    • In my school, some are there to get/stay in shape, some are just having fun, some are hobbyist competitors, some are serious competitors. However, our base goal is all the same: to improve our Jiu Jitsu.
  • It’s okay to feel like the weak link on a team.
    • I was the weak link when I first started out, and some days I still am. However, I came to realize that if I am the lamest duck on the mats, I can only improve from that point. It means I have effectively surrounded myself with people who are more successful that I am. That mojo is gonna rub off, and I’ll be there to collect it!
  • I have a responsibility
    • Just as I find myself bolstered where I hit my limits, I have a responsibility to my team mates to help them when they hit their own limits. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses within a team – but as a team, we fill in the gaps for one another and it becomes one amazing impregnable force!

Conclusion

Jiu Jitsu has been a major touchstone in my life. This is just one of the aspects in which it has affected my world view. How has Jiu Jitsu affected your life? Please share!

For more information on spectrum disorders and BJJ, I wrote much more detail in an earlier post “Jiu Jitsu and Aspergers Part 1“.

Jiu Jitsu and Apergers Part 3 – Social Frustrations

It has been quite a while since I have shared anything in relation to my Aspergers. The transparency is sometimes difficult since I’m constantly having to double and triple check that I am staying within socially acceptable boundaries of communication. I have been having some difficulties in the past year that I am going to just expand upon. If anyone has any feedback that may help, please share!

Before we dive into current issues, here is a quick summary of Aspergers. For more detailed background information on my specific style of Aspie-ness, I have included links to my earlier articles at the bottom of this one.

Aspergers is a neurobiological disorder in the high functioning end of the Autism Spectrum. It is typically diagnosed in childhood but I was diagnosed as an adult. I’m just going to take a quote from the Autism Spectrum Education Network webpage since they cover it pretty well!

Individuals with AS and related disorders exhibit serious deficiencies in social and communication skills. Their IQ’s are typically in the normal to very superior range. They are usually educated in the mainstream, but most require special education services. Because of their naivete, those with AS are often viewed by their peers as “odd” and are frequently a target for bullying and teasing.

They desire to fit in socially and have friends, but have a great deal of difficulty making effective social connections. Many of them are at risk for developing mood disorders, such as anxiety or depression, especially in adolescence. Diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorders should be made by a medical expert to rule out other possible diagnoses and to discuss interventions.

In the past couple years of immersing myself more into the Jiu Jitsu community, I have started to develop some good acquaintances into actual friendships – a HUGE milestone for me. The difference between the two is that an acquaintance is someone I am friendly with. A friend is someone who I can trust that I don’t have to project a perfect self at all times around – without fear that a slip up will taint the relationship. I enjoy being around both groups and there may not be any noticeable difference in my behavior from an outside perspective.

My biggest fear is that I will do or say something stupid, hurt someone, not be able to read the normal social cues, and therefore continue on like nothing is wrong. In other words, I’m not a jerk, I’m not insensitive – I just honestly don’t know something is wrong. If I know something I did caused tension it is devastating to me. As much as I have spent my entire life trying to tune in to what is going on, I miss so much of what people are thinking or feeling.

Yes, this post was triggered by a specific event that occurred recently. I thought I was doing so well and now I find I’m still stuck in the cycle. The difference between now and childhood is that kids are more likely to tell you up front if you are acting like a freak.

So what now?

Most of my blog posts are written in one draft because I’m just typing what I am thinking. Even if I am not able to figure out a solution to a problem, just writing it out helps immensely with organizing my thoughts so I can think clearly again. So where does that leave me?

Still working on it.

I have definitely considered seeing a psychologist with experience in delayed diagnosis Aspergers/Autism but that would require trusting someone else with what goes on in my mind on a much deeper level than I ever have, and I’m really not up to that.

I think I am going to start sharing more of the details of my diagnosis with more of my team mates and friends. If they are more aware of my difficulties, maybe it could keep dialogue open so they can verbally let me know when I’m starting to cross boundary lines before I become a complete annoyance that no one wants to be around.

I am definitely open to questions if anyone has any. I’d rather be asked than misconstrued!

More articles in Aspergers series:

Part 1 – My Aspergers

Part 2 – It Fits

Addendum – A Mother’s Perspective

I close with this video for your amusement and education. The character of Sheldon from the TV show “The Big Bang Theory” has been described as having Aspergers and I definitely relate. Note the inappropriate attempt at teasing, followed by the heartfelt explanation. I feel like I live in a world where everyone knows how to read minds except for me.

A Mothers Perspective on Aspergers

After reading my posts about My Aspergers, my mother wrote me an email response giving her perspective. It’s not really Jiu Jitsu related, but this is my blog and I can upload whatever I like here! Ha!

An Open Letter From My Mother

Looking back over 28 years, now knowing that you have been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, a lot of things now fit into place.  As a parent, you guilt yourself with questions like “how could I have not known” and “how could I have let my child down”; “how could I not notice their suffering”?  Back in those days, however, even though I was interested in different psychology issues and read a lot on the subject, including autism, it never even once occurred to me that there was something “wrong” with you in that regard.  You were our wonderful firstborn beautiful baby and you were perfect.

 Probably the first thing that stands out in my mind as something different from the norm was when you were about three years old.  We were at one of the Stoller Family Reunions at Lake Billy Chinook.  These annual gatherings had many, many children, since there was a big batch of “cousins” who all had children around the same time.  You wanted nothing to do with playing with the other children.  You preferred to go from adult to adult and talk one-on-one with them.  You especially loved spending time with your Uncle Don Sadler and would talk on a variety of subjects on a level much older than your years.  I also remember when you were four years old and in preschool that when I would take my time working in the co-op preschool, about 3 days a month, you never left my side.  I assumed that once you got used to the program you would gradually begin to play with the other kids, but that rarely happened.  Even after two years at the preschool you still would clamp to my side whenever I was working there.  When I wasn’t there, the teacher said you preferred to sit and read in the book corner or sometimes play by yourself.  We just thought that you were shy.  Since your brother was just behind you in age, I was a typical busy mom and didn’t really notice anything unusual.  We always considered you to be our beautiful, talented, extremely brilliant, somewhat quirky (in an affectionate way) and precious daughter.

 You excelled in school academics, but had trouble making friends.  By first and second grade you had a plethora of somatic illnesses that did concern me, as they did correspond to the school days; headaches, stomachaches, extreme bloody noses that were difficult to stop, to say the least.  You looked anemic very often.  Several times I took you to the doctor for blood work and a check-up.  After repeated tests and exams that were negative, they told me that they felt it was due to stress.  We did not know the reason for the stress, but since it related to school, we made the decision to homeschool.  I will say that we saw a reduction in those symptoms after that, although I get some criticism from both friends and family members who said I needed to “force you to learn to get along with other children”.  It was interesting to me that some of this advice came from people who HAD no children at that time!  You spent most of your time, when not schooling, in your bedroom reading, listening to music and/or involving yourself with your “critters”.  There was a wide variety, from frogs and lizards that you caught and fed crickets to, cats, dogs, gerbils, hamsters, your precious bunny, Oreo, guinea pigs, and chinchillas.  Chinchillas were your passion for several years.  You bred and sold them and they were a big part of your life.  Sunny, your first chinnie, was your special little buddy for some time.

 Interestingly, although you always had a fairly large “personal space bubble”, even as a teenager you would sit with me in church and spend most of the time leaning up against me.  Your lack of friends was always a concern and you never really bonded with your peers, but rather your animals were your best friends.  I think the other kids looked upon you as an oddity and they didn’t know what to do with you.  When they got a little older and more tolerant and tried to make friendly overtures to you, you would not accept them and would withdraw.

 Understand, that at this time no red flags went off.  Yes, you stayed in your room a lot with books, but so did I when I was a teenager.  Your dad also didn’t have a lot of friends growing up–he was too busy–so neither of us thought that this behavior was anything other than a personality trait.  It was concerning that you had a hard time balancing interests, although it is something that was less obvious when you were very young and is more prominent now.  When you took up martial arts, you would practice the form every day for hours.  You were very focused….but, your dad also had that trait, so we didn’t really think much of it at the time.  What became interesting and concerning to me as you grew older was that I noticed more that you focused on only one thing at a time and put all your time and energy into it.  When it was the chinchillas, you knew everything about them.  When it was the martial arts, you went at it full steam.  Then it was Bible college and music.  You had never taken piano lessons until college, but now you can play awesomely.  You also took voice lessons.  During your music phase you played, composed, sang, recorded and had lots of wonderful memories.  It is sad to me that as you moved through each of these phases, you would end one when you started another.  I was worried that you couldn’t find balance in your life and that still is something I know you work on.  It is sad to know that you once spent 3-4 (or more) hours a day practicing piano and now you rarely play and want to sell (or have already sold) your keyboard.  You left chinchillas behind you long ago.  As a parent, I would have liked to see you continue with the things that gave you so much pleasure, but in more balanced doses, but that may be something that takes a lifetime for you to do.

 Of course, now you have BJJ and just like your other interests, you give this one 150% of your time, focus and energy.  It shows, of course, in how well you have done and how you have progressed.  This worries me, of course, because I don’t want you to get hurt, especially with the line of work you are in, but you are an adult and I have to trust you to know your own limits and take care of yourself.

 Looking back, now, I sure wish we had known them what we know now about Aspergers.  I feel guilty that I couldn’t give you the tools you needed to help you cope better during that time.  Do I wish you didn’t HAVE Aspergers?  That is a trick question—of course every parent wants their children to not have to suffer or go through difficult times.  We want to make it all better.  However, I realize that this is who you are.  If you didn’t have this disorder, you would not be YOU.  Of course we would love you, but you would be a different person and I can’t imagine you as anyone other than Nicholle, yourself.

 Most of all, I am happy that you finally got peace with this diagnosis because then the world started making sense to you and things became clear.  I’m sure it still is a challenge, but you know and understand the WHY that is your thought and sensory processes, and that clarity helps bring order to chaos.

In Closing:

Thank you Mom for sharing! It means a lot to me, and just maybe it will help someone else as well!

Jiu Jitsu and Aspergers pt 2 – It Fits

Wow!

I really wasn’t expecting such a huge response from part 1! I thought a few of my friends might read it and find it interesting. Let’s just say the last week has been a bit overwhelming. Thank you everyone!

My parents read it as well, and I guess I just took for granted that they should understand me. My Mom said she wished I had written that out years ago for them and she is currently composing an article on what it was like raising an undiagnosed spectrum child. I’m quite interested to learn her perspective!

All right, that said, on to part 2. If you haven’t already, check out part 1.

Human Contact

My biggest challenge when starting Jiu Jitsu, was my sensitivity to human contact. I don’t really even know why, but I’ve always been very aware of my personal “bubble” and would cringe and flinch away if someone else initiated contact. It’s weird I know. I love hugs, but have to be the one initiating them. I don’t know how to describe it other than it mentally hurts me and almost feels physically painful if someone else initiates contact.

Somehow, Jiu Jitsu has actually helped to reduce this sensitivity and I think it is the fact that BJJ gives me a flow chart of movements to follow. I’ve learned that for every action my opponent makes, I have at least two options that I can respond with. I don’t have to freak out because I know the appropriate response in a format that I understand.

This has helped me relax a lot with human contact even outside of the gym. I still have my off days but, for the most part, I don’t tend to jump when someone decides to spontaneously hug me.

Social Skills

This is another biggie. I’m blessed to have lived in Nashville for going on seven years now and have been surrounded by amazing people who love me. I make a social “boo boo” and they usually just shrug and say “well, that’s just Nicholle” and move on. (Shout out to my amazing friends!)

Still, I have never felt like I was able to really meld myself into a social group. I mentally knew I was included and accepted, but never really could fit. Believe me, that has been the source of many tears over the years!

The combination of my conversational deficits and inability to read (or speak) non-verbal language, partnered with my one track mind really doesn’t make for a good party conversationalist. I have to choose between not speaking at all (appearing shy); or letting my one track, non-graceful thought train loose on the world (appearing arrogant or stuck-up). Given the choice, I prefer the first option. I’m not shy, but must appear so in order to keep my slip ups to a minimum.

Enter Jiu Jitsu!

When I got into Jiu Jitsu, I found myself surrounded by a community of people who didn’t find it odd that I wanted to talk about “bio-mechanics behind the proper placement of feet for the most energy efficient results when doing a tripod sweep”. In the past, I would discover an amazing concept, share it with someone, and be met with just a blank stare. Now, I am greeted with enthusiasm, and usually an exchange of even more cool information!

Oh wow! So this is what a real conversation is like! It is a lot easier when I am surrounded by people who are just as obsessed as I am. It makes me feel normal and accepted.

This helps me out immensely because I get to practice having actual real conversations with people! Since I started training, I have been getting better at holding conversations outside of the gym as well. Practice makes perfect!

No luck improving my non-verbal communication skills so far and I’m kind of giving up on the whole idea. Instead, I have started letting people know when I meet them that I take things literally and at face value. This foreknowledge helps to clear up misunderstandings much more easily.

Sensory Overload

Big competitions are interesting. I find the best thing I can do to keep from being overstimulated is to work at the competitions. If I have something to focus on, I am able to block out all the excess sensory input. I particularly enjoy working as a Ring Coordinator for IBJJF competitions. I love to set things in order and that job requires a huge amount of organization skills to make everything run perfectly. Good fit no?

If I’m at a tournament and am not working, I will be cheering on a team mate (or anyone I know). Without an “assignment” I’m usually wandering around like a lost puppy trying to find some task to do. It’s impossible for me to relax in such a busy environment, so I opt for distraction. Headphones and a book is my favorite combination.

Patterns!!!

About a week after 2013 Worlds, right before I got my blue belt, I had one of those “ah ha!” moments. Suddenly, I saw the moves I had been learning and practicing for the previous year in a whole new light.

Everything has a pattern. I remember arguing with my Dad that there is no possible way that a computer program can do something randomly – there is always a formula that the computer uses (aka: a pattern), and that formula is concrete, so it can’t produce something that is random.

Rabbit trail aside: I’ve started to see the pattern of Jiu Jitsu. I don’t understand it all yet, but I can see it when I roll and little bits and pieces are coming together. This really excites me!

The Journey

I started Jiu Jitsu because I wanted to challenge myself. I wanted a physical activity with a goal in mind – but I’ve always been horrible at sports. In P.E. I was always the last kid picked, even after kids half my size. I had enjoyed TKD as a child however and decided I would go the martial arts route. So glad I did!!!

My coach, Shawn Hammonds, is amazing! I have never had a coach or a team before, and that is really what initially got me hooked and kept me coming back. They challenge me in a way that I have never experienced before, and I like it. I’d always craved someone to push me just a little bit harder, instead of being satisfied with what I had already done. I don’t think that’s a trait of Aspergers – maybe there is more to my personality than just that eh?

One of my favorite things, is that I’m allowed to have a bad day around my team. I can totally break down, freak out… whatever. They just shrug and it’s back to normal the next day. I don’t have to stress over being perfect and always on guard like I used to always be – except for when sitting on the side of the mat after class… you never know when someone is going to randomly jump on your back while you’re just chilling!

Less than a year into training, I expanded my team and added Raijin Fight Wear to my corner. It was a chance meeting on Twitter for which I am so thankful! I was amazed that a company would want to sponsor me, as a white belt, before I had even competed internationally! We exchanged messages and they told me that they loved my enthusiasm and would love to have me representing them. They have been cheered me on and encouraged me all through 2013 and then signed me on again for 2014. They are a quality company that matches my “strive for excellence” personality well and I plan to represent them all the way to the black belt podium and beyond!

My team has gone through a lot of transition in the last year. I may write some about it later, but that would be a monster of a rabbit trail right now…

What Now?

I’ve decided that there is just too much to say about this topic to fit it into one or two posts – so I’m going to make it a series that I’ll add to a little bit every Saturday. The rest of the week I’ll be doing my regular updates and random ramblings. If anyone has any questions about anything I talk about, please don’t hesitate to ask me. I can’t guarantee that I’ll know the answer, but I will do my best to find one!

Jiu Jitsu and Aspergers pt 1 – My Aspergers

This is a post I’ve had in my brain for quite a while, debating on if I should share, and decided to just go for it. Hopefully it ends up making sense! In this first post, I’m just gonna go over what my Aspergers is like. In my next post, I will be explaining how this affects my Jiu Jitsu, and how BJJ has helped me.

Five years ago, I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. Aspergers is an Autism Spectrum Disorder – I’ve heard some people describe it as “high functioning Autism”

So what does that mean for me? Well, each person is a unique case, so I’ll run the risk of megalomania, and just tell you about me.

Sensory Processing

First off, I’m hypersensitive to sensory input. I adore music, but can’t handle most concerts because of the combination of light, sound, movement, etc just puts me into overdrive and I end up going “space cadet” – I don’t really know how to describe it other than that, I just shut down to barely functional levels. It was really bad once and I had to be led out of a building in a semi-catatonic state – Scared a friend of mine pretty badly!

Stimming

Now I do have a way around this. It’s called Sterotypy, or “stimming”. When I was a kid, I would get stressed and start very slightly rocking my upper body in a circular motion. My Mom thought it was because I was dizzy (and even took me to a doctor for vertigo) – sorry Mom, I just didn’t know how to explain it at the time. I wasn’t dizzy; it just made me feel better to do it. The repetitive motion seemed to numb me enough that I could keep myself together – I felt like I would fly apart at the seams otherwise.

As I have gotten older, I have learned how to stim without it being so noticable. I can put my hand in a pocket and flip a coin, touch my thumb and fingers together, etc. Usually I’ll get a far away look on my face, and people assume I’m thinking deep thoughts. I’m not – my mind is actually blank at that point.

Patterns

I absolutely ADORE patterns. Once I find the pattern in something, I quickly excel at it. I love playing classical piano, and can sit there for hours just lost in Mozart and Beethoven. I also love drawing (see some of my artwork here), and organizing things.

Yes, I do have that compusion to organize things. My closet is a perfect rainbow of color, and my books are divided by category and then alphabetized by author last name. Oddly enough, there are some things I obsess over organizing, and other things that I couldn’t care less about – not sure what that’s all about…

Obsessions

I always have one thing – maybe two – that I am interested in. Always. And I learn everything about it. I’ve been obsessed with bugs, with mud, with animals… I raised chinchillas for several years. As a 12 year old child, I could sit down and show you detailed genetic information about each chinchilla and their possible offspring.

Whatever I’m focused on, it gets 150% of my attention – neglecting everything else. It’s all I can think about and talk about. I have gotten much better about trying to spread out my conversation topics – since not everyone wants a 45 minute monologue about anything, much less the newest particle physics discovery. Also, I make sure I pause every 10-15 seconds while talking to allow the other person to respond. Practice has made this work a lot more smoothly for me – but sometimes when I get excited I just keep talking. I don’t take offense to someone telling me to shut up for a min – so if I ever do this, just stick a hand up and call for a break.

Social Cues

Here’s where I stumble the most. I am absolutely hopeless when it comes to social cues. Reading facial expressions, vocal tone, body language… it’s a nightmare of misunderstandings for me. I’m sure I’ll get it some day, but I have to rely on what people say, since if I try to read non-verbal language cues, I usually make gross errors.

On the other side of that coin, I don’t know how to use proper facial expressions/etc. I have gotten a bit better, but as a child I was typically stone-faced and “unreadable” to most everyone. Even now, I watch my videos and I feel something is “off” but i don’t know what it is. I still have problems with eye contact as well – I fake it most of the time.

Social Flow Charts

Believe it or not, my brain operates a lot like this. I have very complex social flow charts in my head that script most of my social interactions. This doesn’t mean that what I say isn’t sincere! I just can’t figure out on the fly out to correctly say what I intend.

And yes, when I lose my filter, Sheldon = Me.

MORE Social Stuff

Right now what I’m focusing on is trying to have actual conversations with people. The normal conversation goes back and forth, as the topics change and meander around. This problem, for me, goes back to my script. If someone brings up something that I don’t know an appropriate response to, I panic. This usually then results in either me blurting out something completely ridiculous (mental short circuit), or trying to re-direct the topic back to familiar territory.

I’m starting to get the hang of asking questions instead of just diving off the conversation ship. The problem with questions, is that it takes me off script and that is where I tend to make more social mistakes (and trust me, some of them have been horrendous!) Thankfully, I am currently surrounded by people who, for the most part, shrug off my mistakes and just move on. So in that safety, I am slowly growing and learning!

Frustration

All of this put together made for a very frustrated individual. I thought I was an idiot for not being able to fit in and be part of the group like everyone else. I may not have known how to express emotions properly, but I still felt them. I felt trapped inside my body and just didn’t know how to get out, or ask for help.

I’ve adapted quite a bit  in the last several years. People who know me as an adult are usually quite surprised when they learn I have Aspergers. Those who knew me as a child tend to nod and say “well that makes a lot of sense…”

If there were a cure, I wouldn’t want it. I love how my brain works. Sure, I can be a bull in a china shop at times where social graces are concerned – but I have learned to cover fairly well in the last several years. Jiu Jitsu is one of the things that has really helped me a lot in that regards, and I will expound on that in part two of this post.

Click Here for Part 2!