A blog advocating autism through my own personal experiences and insights.

A Switch in Passions

I have experienced a change in myself over the last half year that has caused me to reassess my life and where I’m headed with it in terms of goals, ambitions, etc. As I have elaborated throughout this blog, I have three large passions that I’ve rather built my life around: math, philosophy, and fiction writing. In the last half year, however, I have found that one of these passions has intensified, but that the other two have waned. While I am unclear as to why this occurred and whether this is anything temporary or permanent, I do feel the experience is worth sharing.

I’m currently completing a PhD in pure mathematics. When I entered the PhD program, however, I was fully aware that my other academic passion in philosophy was just as strong, if not stronger. As such, I considered doing a second PhD in philosophy after being done with the math PhD. I knew I had to make my applications as strong as possible to go for a graduate degree in philosophy. I had, after all, only done philosophy as a second major in my undergrad and did one graduate philosophy course during my master’s in pure math and wasn’t sure how this atypical philosophy background would be looked upon. As such, I made plans for making time to take some philosophy courses while completing my math PhD. I first, however, wanted to complete the major requirements for the math PhD including the course requirements and the written comprehensive exams before I attempted additional work in philosophy. It took two years for me to complete these requirements and afterwards, during last summer, I made plans to take another graduate philosophy course.

The strange thing about this was that when I signed up for a graduate philosophy course I felt I was only taking the course to strengthen my application. I wasn’t sure how passionate I was with philosophy at the moment, but I also knew my chance in taking philosophy courses was limited and so I signed up for one anyway. While the course was good and interesting in its own right and I did quite well in it, the more the course went on the more I realised I was no longer feeling passionate about it the same way I used to. The experience was rather surreal. It’s hard to describe, but I didn’t and still don’t, feel like the same person I was when I was very much into philosophy. I know for sure I was still passionate about it a year ago, and it’s hard to explain why the passion waned. During this third year in my math PhD, however, my mathematical research has picked up and I’ve made a lot of progress on two separate projects, both of which I’m very excited about and that I feel has led to an increased passion in math. As such, I ended up deciding to continue on in math and try to obtain a post-doc position in math afterwards, rather than going for another degree in philosophy.

My passion for writing fiction has also unfortunately waned. Like philosophy I cannot explain why this would be so and that I certainly felt this passion a year ago. In fact, I was feeling it up until last September. Last summer, I was doing a bit of research and plotting for a novel I was going to write. Yet, when October came around, it unexplainably vanished. Of course, I was busy not only with my PhD then, but also with the philosophy course I mentioned above. I therefore thought that it would be pointless to try pursuing writing at such a time regardless and thought I would attempt writing again this winter.

Winter has come and gone and very recently I tried to see if my passion for fiction writing really had waned. Even though I still didn’t feel like it, I forced myself to sit in front of my computer for on average half an hour per day for two and a half weeks to see if this passion could be recovered. I was coming up with a lot of good ideas for my current novel and didn’t think I was experiencing writer’s block. Unfortunately, much like with the philosophy, I felt the passion in plotting a novel had just been stripped away. After two and a half weeks was up, I thought it pointless to continue since I had hardly been feeling it for the time I wrote.

Again, I cannot explain why a 10 year old writing passion would suddenly disappear. My mind could just very well be caught up in my math PhD research for the moment and sub-consciously casting these other endeavours to the side or it could be something more permanent. If, however, I feel that philosophy and fiction writing are not suitable to pursue at this point in my life, then I won’t be pursuing them, at least not right now. If, later on, they come back, then I will act appropriately. For example, I could pursue a graduate philosophy degree later in life or somehow squeeze my way into a philosophy department after becoming a math professor. There have indeed been a number of philosophers who have started off their careers as mathematicians. As for writing fiction, that is something that has almost no constraints. All I need to do if the passion comes back is to pull up Microsoft Word on my computer and write. It all comes down to trusting your instincts to tell you what’s right for you and to be prepared to have regrets along the way. People change, people switch careers and endeavours, and have interesting life paths. As I have learned from this experience, even a passion that you can have for a long time and feeling that it has defined who you are can change.

I do miss my philosophy and writing passions and do wish I still had them. It is like having a desire to desire something. It took a bit of time to accept that this happened, but I also feel it has led to a new level of self-acceptance for me. Also, it has currently made time for other things, such as reading, doing Zumba, planning things with friends, which are things I still enjoy.

A theme that I have used throughout my blog is how to cope with feelings of loneliness when they arise. Loneliness is a prevalent feeling a lot of us experience, not only to those of us with autism, but much to the general population as well. There are several ways to try to cope when these feelings of loneliness and/or depression arise. Last summer, I went through a bout of loneliness and depression and, as such, I was looking for techniques and strategies to cope with it. For example, I was seeing a counsellor and browsing the internet for resources. Then I stumbled upon a bit of advice I found on one internet webpage that gave me pause. Mainly because the idea was so simple, yet I hadn’t heard of it before.
The idea was to take a break from social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, etc because they don’t really help social relationships. People can be cruel on these sites and seeing people report doing fun activities by “updating their status” can give rise to a lot negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions, such as jealousy, sadness, depression, etc., especially if you’re currently going through a difficult time already.
As soon as I read this advice, I knew that Facebook (which is the social media site I use the most and the one I’ll be referencing for the rest of this post simply because it’s the one I’m most familiar with) was indeed having this effect on me. For the time being at least, I felt taking a break from it would indeed be a good option. I stated my proposed break as a status, which included alternative ways to contact me if anyone I had on Facebook wanted to do so. I also stated that I would be back in September, which was a month and a half away. I felt that would be ample time to give me a chance to recover.
I also started doing some other internet searching to see if there was anyone else who felt the same way I did about sites like Facebook. It turned out a lot of people actually felt the same way and some had posted, for example, youtube videos describing this problem with social media. I even asked a couple of people I knew about how I was feeling, and they actually confirmed that they had similar stories regarding Facebook. I also believe Facebook gave rise to these feelings before, but I never really acknowledged them. For example, I can be a perfectionist so it would make sense that I would be prone to such feelings as jealousy and so I didn’t give those feelings validation in the past. Seeing other people comment on exactly the same thing, however, made me see and feel it wasn’t just me and that I wasn’t alone with this issue.
I also feel it’s worth pointing out that you don’t even have to be addicted to Facebook or be an extreme Facebook user (posting statuses every day and having 1000’s of Friends) for it to be easy for these feelings to get to you. I’ve always been a pretty moderate user. It took me 3 years to become interested in posting a profile picture and to post statuses on a regular basis I only currently have 200+ Friends. Once I started posting statuses, however, I really grew to liking the idea of posting something on the internet that automatically everyone could read. It was like having celebrity status. Of course, not only was Facebook allowing me to do this, it was also allowing others to post as well. It made it very easy to treat Facebook like a popularity contest. All you have to do is compare the number of likes and comments to different statuses.
Another thing I’ve learned from this realisation is that what people’s lives are really like and how they’re portraying them on the internet is often very different. When I talked to a friend about this issue with social media, she agreed and said she had interacted with friends who were having a lot of problems with their jobs, yet they would always post on Facebook how happy they were. The rub is that when you look at someone’s Facebook wall (which is where they’re posting all of their statuses) what you’re seeing more often than not is just one shade of reality or one side of their life. People aren’t generally going to post their own problems with their lives on sites like Facebook. This observation also helps explain why the negative feelings arose in the first place. You’re comparing what you know as your life to how someone else wants you to see their own life. This, however, is a false comparison. The other person will have much more control over how they portray their life on social media than how their life is actually going. A lot of the time, this isn’t even the person’s fault. It’s very easy to sub-consciously post something that makes it look like you’re happier than you really are. Even I’m guilty of this. I’ve looked through some of my old posts and sometimes I’ve thought, wow, I certainly wasn’t that happy at that particular time. Of course, however, our thoughts can be irrational, even when we’re rationally aware of the falsity of this comparison.
While I have spent the majority of this post examining the negative aspects of social media, I feel I should at least end with a positive note. After my break from Facebook, I did return to it and still have an account. I still post a status every once in a while, even if it’s not as regular as before, and I use this feature wisely. In other words, I use it for the convenience to, for example, let people know I wrote another blog post and to post big news such as getting through an academic milestone or to post my grandmother passing this fall (my uncle didn’t realise she had passed until he read my post and was very grateful for it). I take advantage of such positive aspects of the site, which also includes planning events with friends and talking to multiple people simultaneously on the message feature. Currently, at least, this is all how Facebook is serving me best.
Different people will also use social media in different ways. While a good number of people will treat it like a popularity contest, there are some who mainly use it to stay in touch with family who are far away, to talk to several people simultaneously (both of which happen to be a contributing factor to why I stayed on), or to play the games that are on that site. As my other grandmother likes to say, “Everything in moderation.”
Regardless of one’s relationship with any social media site, however, it is often a good idea to ask yourself the question: are you controlling it or is it controlling you?

This fall has been quite an eventful time for me. For starters it has been one of the rougher school terms for me, but I still made quite a bit of progress in it (more on that in the next blog post). On the other hand, however, one of my grandmothers passed away, which happened at the end of October. My family was able to fly me home for a memorial service we had for her in early November and I got to see a lot of family I didn’t normally see regularly growing up (everyone on my mother’s side of the family lives quite a distance away). It still seems only yesterday that my maternal grandfather passed away in Summer 2005. My Nazzer grandparents lived very near us and, as such, they were an important part of my childhood. I gave speeches at my grandfather’s memorial service when I was only 16, then at my grandmother’s 90th birthday party 4 years ago, and then again at her service this fall.
My relationship with my grandfather Don Barkeley Nazzer was a really good one. For one thing, we both had intellectual minds and we would talk about math and stuff (he was a civil engineer). When I was 12, for example, I started exploring my grandfather’s books and he ended up giving me quite a few intellectually stimulating books. In one of the books he gave me (if you really want to know what the book is it’s Mathematics: A Human Endeavour by Harold R. Jacobs) he even wrote inside the cover
“This book is now the property of John Charles Saunders. From his grandfather, Don Nazzer Dec. 26, 2000. Enjoy it!”
Looking at this handwritten note today is what helps keep his soul alive inside me and knowing how proud he would be of me if he could see where I was today. Back then, as well, I was very interested in antique calculators and I started to collect slide rules. I was fortunate enough that my grandfather had two of them that I got and still have in my possession. I also had other fun times with him. When I was a kid, my grandparents had bought me a lego set for my birthday. I wish I could say that we had built it together on that day, but I actually just let him build it first and I sat behind him, occasionally looking over his shoulder. Also, when I was a teenager he taught me how to use a ride-on lawnmower for mowing the grass at their summer place.
I also look up to him, as well as my grandmother, for their healthy lifestyles as well and how independent they both were until each of them passed away. My grandfather’s passing was very unexpected even at his age of 86 ½ and when he was in the hospital from multiple heart blockages the doctors were very impressed with how healthy a man he was. The only possible sign would be that my grandmother had gotten a little more dependent on people during the last year of her life, but she was still living alone inside her own house even up until her passing two months shorts of her 94th birthday (which would have been today and more amazing still my other grandmother who’s still around is still living alone inside her own two-storey house at 97 so I certainly have some very good genes!). I feel it’s the way we should all go, living life to the fullest until it’s time to go.
My relationship with my grandmother Margaret Irene “Sunny” Nazzer was also good, but it was a little different. She certainly loved me just as much. I’m glad she lived long enough to see me now and was always proud of my accomplishments and my intellectual mind. Unlike my grandfather, however, she was an extrovert (which I like to think is at least partly where I got my own extraverted qualities from so it looks like I inherited something good from each of them). When I was little and my parents brought me in to visit them, she would try to get me to talk more than I naturally did, even though it was like pulling teeth sometimes. My parents would also have my grandparents look after me and my sister sometimes and one time when my grandmother was tucking me into bed she would sit by my bedside and listen as I told her stories based on childrens’ movies I had seen. After my grandfather passed, she attended my high school graduation, my undergrad university convocation, and even convinced my parents (who were initially a bit hesitant in allowing her) that she should fly out to see my masters’ convocation even though she was 91 at the time!
Since my grandmother’s passing, I have inherited a few more of their belongings too. My grandfather has this neat mouse pad for his computer that looks like a rug with a complicated rug pattern on it and I also got a lot of his cuff links. As well, I also inherited a rug and a large wicker chair and a wooden case that my grandfather had since he was younger than me.
Both have been cremated and their ashes are now buried in a cemetery near where their summer home is. My memories of them will be life-long cherished.

Being an Atypical Extrovert

I sometimes surprise myself when doing some self-reflecting into who I really am and how I would characterise myself. One thing that I discovered really only now about myself is that I am an extrovert. In the past, I never really associated myself with that term despite knowing about the terms introvert and extrovert for over six years. In fact, when I first heard of the terms, I immediately went for the term introvert. And until about a month ago, I never really about it further until I made comment to my family about it to which my mother said, “No, I think you’re an extrovert.” I believe this is because I’m a rather atypical extrovert.

I first heard the terms when I was in the middle of my undergrad at Acadia. I was discussing with a counselor I was seeing then about my difficulties in social interaction, which brought about. I forget the original definitions we used for introvert and extrovert, but whatever they were they led me to believe that I was an introvert. This was probably because I have a few qualities that introverts typically possess. For example, I tend to think before I speak and I like to work on my academic work alone with few interruptions. I think I made the error that introversion and extroversion rely heavily on how one behaves when alone or with other people. In my mind, I was thinking “this person talks a lot so they’re an extrovert” or “this person talks very little so they’re an introvert”. It really only dawned on me now that, while that reasoning may be true in many if not most cases, neither implication is true. It’s very possible to be a quiet extrovert or a loud introvert. They aren’t oxymorons.

For example, (as in my case) a person who is quieter than average isn’t necessarily quieter by choice. Due to other characteristics they possess, they find being quiet easier, more comfortable, more convenient, etc. I’ve discovered this is the case for me. I’m not as loud spoken as a lot of extroverts are, but this is due to circumstances that are quite challenging for me to control if not out of my control altogether. I didn’t choose to have a different perspective when it comes to socializing due to my autism (not saying that’s a bad thing!), or to be shyer than other extroverts, or to have social anxiety. I will admit I often get envious and even jealous of extroverts who don’t have these roadblocks in the way and who follow their natural desires without showing much sweat. However, I am taking steps to address such things, which I will tell about in a future blog post.

Trust me, if it weren’t for these things, and I believe I would be striking up conversations with people (new and old) every which way I turn at social gatherings, striving more forcefully for attention and to be in the spotlight and trying to be the life of every party. Since coming to this realization, I’ve done some research on the internet to see if anyone felt the same way. It turns out quite a few people do. Physical behaviours actually have very little to do with where you are on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. What really defines introversion and extroversion is your natural preference.

In growing up, I was always known in school for being the quiet one and even I was convinced then that my desire was to be in solitude. It’s difficult to distinguish what you want to do and what you find easy to do when you’re still growing up. I was always an extrovert. It just was (and still is) easier to act more introverted than I actually am.

Last winter, I was dealing with a problem. It’s too private to even post on this blog, but in any case what it was is irrelevant and it was quickly resolved anyway. Like I usually do when a problem arises in my life, however, I normally talk to people about it to help find solutions and also since my perfectionistic mind can often distort a healthy perspective hearing someone else’s perspective on it can help combat it.

One of the people I ended up talking to about it was my sister Carolyn. She was sympathetic and told me to keep her updated about it and, in fact, she said she wanted to communicate with me more anyway. My relationship with Carolyn throughout our lives has probably not been the closes in the world. There might have been a little bit of sibling rivalry, but we certainly loved each other even if we didn’t express it in the closest of bonds.

We’re also different in a few ways, which most likely caused us to grow a little apart. For example, I’m much more of an academic than she is. I’m in my third year of a PhD while she after high school took a year off and didn’t really know what she wanted to do at the time. Since then, however, she’s found her dream passion in cooking and got both a culinary arts degree and a hospitality management degree and she’s now working in hotel management and eventually wants to become a chef. While her path in life might have been a little more disconnected than mine, I never believed that this was because I was more intelligent than her or anything like that. In fact, I sometimes feared she was intimidated. I just see her path as demanding a different (but certainly not less) kind of intelligence. I’m sure that the meals I make in my home can’t hold a candle to what my sister is capable of in the kitchen. I also sometimes wonder what it must really feel like to lead a slightly disconnected path in life (this is actually something in general that graduate students sometimes do, positing ‘what if’ scenarios since graduate school is quite demanding and “delays” your entry into the “real world”).

At any rate, in response to my sister’s request to remain in contact, I sent her another email and we’ve since had a couple of email correspondences since then. I feel I was more open with her about what is going on in my life. Doing so in writing like in an e-mail was a great method for me to achieve this since I could make sure it was exactly what I wanted to say and I could take my time with it, which helped combat perfectionistic thoughts in the process. Making yourself vulnerable in describing your short comings, your struggles, and your weaknesses I believe is a key component for any relationship to become closer. I’ve talked to Carolyn about how we’re corresponding and we both agree it’s making us feel closer to each other.

Carolyn also has a great philosophy on life, which I completely agreed with it when she told me. She said that everyone’s life sucks in some way or another and that if people though all their problems into a pile and actually saw how big the pile got, they would see that their life isn’t as bad compared to everyone else’s that they’re making it out to be. She also said it was okay to be unhappy and to let out your misery (so long as it was in private).

In a world like today where often family members may not be particularly close, I count myself lucky to not be in such a situation and to be close to a lot of my family including my only sibling.

On Accutane

10 years ago when I was in my teens I developed a typical problem that teens often go through. Such a problem is acne. When it developed, it wasn’t the worst case of acne in the world, but it was too significant to be ignored. As such, for the next several years after that, I was put on a combination of antibiotics and skin cream medication. While such medications might have helped a little, they unfortunately didn’t do a significant amount for me. I would go through periods where my face would look okay and then have several pimples, zits, etc. appear. I hated having them and picked at my face a lot. I knew that it would only make my acne worse, but I couldn’t help myself.

When I was seeing a university counsellor for a completely different reason, she made comment about the acne and asked if I had seen a doctor about it. I informed her of the medications that I had tried and how nothing had worked out. It turned out that she had had an acne problem herself and then had gone on a drug called Accutane to help cure it. It did have some significant possible side effects associated with it, but it had been proven useful in a lot of cases. I went to a doctor was referred to a dermatologist who gave me a consent form to sign to take Accutane and a booklet to read on it.

I was very excited as this was a huge chance for my skin to actually improve in any kind of permanent manner, but I also knew I had to be careful and read the booklet careful to beware of things I shouldn’t do and possible side effects. Such things would include for example not drinking any alcohol as the combination of Accutane and alcohol. Thankfully I don’t drink a lot anyway so for me this wasn’t a huge deal.

During the first week that I took Accutane my skin actually got worse than better. I had been informed beforehand, however, to expect this and I should see improvement in two weeks. I kept at it and then my skin started to calm down. When two weeks was over, my skin was really smooth and I thought it was a miracle. Then for the next month and a half until now it has only been getting better. I did have a minor breakout here and there, but the breakouts disappeared within days and haven’t returned at all. I’ve now been on Accutane for two months and it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made. The only side effects that I’ve experienced so far is dry lips. The Accutane works by reducing oil production and, as such, dryness of the lips is possible. The dermatologist had to give me an ointment for it and I’ve become very attached to my lip balm, but that should get better eventually.

My face hasn’t been so clear in 10 years and it’s been an utter relief. It’s raised my confidence to have an improved appearance and I like how my face looks when I look in a mirror. I keep my fingers crossed that the Accutane still continues to work and that this acne problem has now gone completely away.

Growing My Hair Out

In April of last year, 2014, I decided to try something that I’ve never done before with the exception of when I was a very young child (which at that age doesn’t really count). I decided to try growing my hair out. I decided to try this for a variety of reasons and it’s been a pretty eventful journey in the growth of my hair.

I believe I was a bit tired with my old self and wanted a change and I wanted to experiment. A few months into my PhD, I felt great and happier than I had been in my entire life. It’s been the first time I’ve lived completely on my own and making my own living (even if I’m technically still a student) and I believe it was this independence that sparked the will the experiment since I now had the mentality that since I was living my own life I could live it however the way I wanted to. Hair growing seemed to be the perfect new activity to take on. I knew a lot of guys who were also growing their out, but at the same time it’s an activity that’s not so common with the male population that it didn’t take away the thrill of being unique in one more way. I also admire the long hair girls and women typically have and I also felt I wanted to have some of that beauty for myself. It also feels erotic to have longer hair. When I find a girl I want to be with (who will ideally have long hair), one of things I would like to do it is play with it and run my hands through it. However, given a girl may or may not enter my life for another few years yet, growing out my own hair temporarily satisfies this desire.

Whenever I’ve gotten haircuts in the past, I’ve always let my hair grow out a little by about two inches before going back and getting those two inches chopped off. In June 2014, two months after deciding to let my hair grow out more, I realized that I achieved the maximal length of it before getting it cut in the past. But instead of going for another cut, I simply let it grow out some more. Just a couple of weeks later, I felt a sensation that I hadn’t felt for over 20 years and had forgotten about. My hair was making more contact with the sides of my head. It felt like molasses slowly pouring down or like a soft cushion on top of my head. I was excited. It was incredible I continued to wait as patiently as I could for more of it to happen.

As the months wore on, my hair reached down to touch my earlobes and eventually covering them. The so-called awkward stages came, although for me I seemed to still look good. I just wanted my hair longer. I loved how my hair made contact with my cheeks, but I also went through periods when the sensation was too much. Thankfully, last fall, my hair was long enough to be able to be tucked behind my ears whenever I wanted to “free” my cheeks. Now over a year later, I’ve discovered it’s long enough now to be able to tie back into a descent ponytail with few strands escaping. I currently wear my hair this way or if I want to feel my hair brushing against my cheeks and chin (it’s chin-length now!), I’ll wear it down.

I’ve also put more maintenance into my hair than when it was short. When it was short, I always just shampooed in the shower and occasionally brushing and combing it. Now, however, I’ve decided to go with a new brand of shampoo, added a conditioner you put on and wash out in the shower, as well as a stay-in conditioner for afterwards. The type of product that I really like to get for all this are the OGX products. Their products are natural, sulfate-free and some of them smell like milk and coconut. Their stay-in conditioner is called Argan Oil of Morocco and really makes my hair extra soft and silky and manageable, which feels great! I’ve also brought a blow dryer to dry my hair more quickly. I’ve even gone as far as buying a couple of barrel brushes that I use when blow drying to experiment with different ways to shape my hair. I don’t really mind this extra maintenance really. It’s been fun so far.

I don’t know how long I’ll want to keep the long hair, but so far it so far has been worth the experience in growing it out. I wasn’t completely sure how long I would manage to stay the course, but I’m pretty pleased I’ve managed to stick with it for over a year now. I will also soon have the option of donating it if I ever decide to do that. At least for right now, however, having long hair just feels right.