Before starting, I must clarify something: I am not a mental health specialist, nor do I have any studies in that area. This article refers only to my experience in dealing with a mental condition that wasn’t diagnosed until quite late in my life.
Since I have memory, I have always been considered as “weird” by my peers and most of the people surrounding me. In my first years of school I was already signaled as different, with the subsequent history of abuse (physical and verbal) and harassment in general. I don’t know if it was this rejection by my equals that made me seek refuge in books, or if it was my interest in books that marked me as different. The end result, however, was the same: incapable of forging long-lasting friendships, I stayed isolated from my fellow students and their jokes, strikes, etc., which lasted until my last day of school.
Though depressing and damaging, fortunately this abuse never reached a really dangerous level: as far as I can remember, I never suffered any lasting injuries because of it, nor did I ever consider the idea of suicide. It did, however, leave a deep imprint of mistrust on my peers, no matter how friendly they seemed to be. Let me give you a small example. One of the most typical pranks during my school years was to put small needles on the chairs during the recesses, so it would prickle when one sat down. My sense of distrust was so ingrained, that until my third or fourth year of university, I always checked the chairs before sitting down.
As time went by, I realized exactly what made me different from the others. To this day I sometimes have problems understanding non-verbal language, with the subsequent problems for communication at all levels, added to an enormous difficulty for lying. This last aspect sounds more like a quality than a disadvantage, until we consider how much of common courtesies and social customs revolve around falsehoods or outright lies. Finally, a great capacity for connecting with people much older than me, which further alienates me from people of my own age, who tend to see me as strange because of this.
So it was that years went by, until I finally got into university. During the first few years it became impossible for me to make any friends: my school experience had left me aggressive and suspicious, seeing any approach by other students as a possible attack and overreacting to any offense –whether real or imagined. It’s not strange, then, that my schoolmates soon learned to avoid me as if I had the plague.
Given the stress of this situation –added to the null interest I had in my studies- I started going to my university’s gym more and more often, until one day I decided to give the Tae Kwon-Do classes a go.
At the beginning, it wasn’t easy for anyone: not for me, not for my fellow students, and certainly not for my instructor. Having as a training partner someone gruff, aggressive and incapable of reading even the most basic non-verbal cues is an experience I wouldn’t wish for anyone. Fortunately, both my instructor and my fellow students showed a patience that, seen in retrospective, was nothing short of miraculous, and for which I’m grateful to this day.
Slowly and painfully, the situation got better. Being near the same group of people almost every day helped me develop some of the social skills that for most people come instinctively during their adolescence. Together with the relaxation that comes from constant physical exertion, this helped me to slowly lower my aggressiveness levels.
This progress followed its course through the years, until one day I found myself as an assistant instructor, having to teach the class in absence of the head instructor, help the newcomers, etc. There was no shortage of slips and mistakes, but the general opinion was that I’d become a very different person from the madman that entered his first class so many years ago.
Reflecting on my situation, I got to the conclusion that I was simply different from the rest of human beings, and that was that. However, it was only in March of last year –three months before I turned 30- that I found out how outside the norm I was, after being diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
It is a slight manifestation of autism, characterized by almost all the signs I’d been showing since I was a child: great difficulty to understand social rules and non-verbal language, physical clumsiness, interest in very specific subjects, etc. After a whole life knowing I was different, I finally knew exactly what that difference was.
I don’t claim that practicing martial arts was a miracle cure for my adaptation problems. Undoubtedly, knowing about my condition at an early age would have been an enormous help to deal with its unpleasant consequences. However, I also don’t doubt that, if I hadn’t started that practice, I would be much less than I am today.