This is one of the most fascinating aspects of Asperger’s, in my opinion, and I would love to open up a discussion and have other Aspies share their special interests, what triggered them, etc. Most of the research and literature on autism uses the phrase “special interest” to describe the “highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus.” This post will be the first in a series to investigate the nature of special interests in autism.
Early on in my exploration of autism, I recognized immediately the cycles of special interests in my life and reflected on them in writing. To me, though, the phrase special interest falls short of the experience of these cycles. For me, obsession feels more apt a word to describe the experience, as they completely dominate my mental faculties and behavior to the point where it almost feels outside my control. Some of these experiences have been more intense than others, but they have all been related to music.
My first experience with special interests was between ages 8 to 11 when I discovered a Pure Moods CD that included beautiful and sad-sounding songs, like Enigma’s “Return to Innocence” (the one referred to in the blog’s name). I began dancing around this time in my life. And what started out as a play/pretend, fantasy experience to music grew from that time to the present into a sort of calming meditation, the ultimate stimming experience! To this day it is my safe place, a most profound place, the closest I’ve ever come to anything “spiritual.”
The most intense cycle happened as my most recent obsession and was triggered by the band Depeche Mode.
I wrote extensively on the experience as I worked on a memoir a few months ago, and I’d like to share it here for anyone who may be interested. The excerpt is unedited and rambling in places, but it is also a raw recording of obsession in my life, as I was right in the height of it during this writing.
I’d also love to hear about others’ special interests in the comments. Thanks for reading, and have a great week!
An Aside on Obsession
Dead leaves were falling and piling up next to the concrete of Blake Metro Park’s 4-mile walking trail. I’d caught one day out of the two that week when it didn’t rain, and the heat seemed to be torturing anything trying to grow and hold on through the last week of August. I could see hints of fall in the brown and rust colors on the ground, but the 92-degree heat made it feel like it was still months away.
In my ears, Dave Gahan belted out the first line of one of my (new) favorite tracks off the album Songs of Faith and Devotion, “I feeeeeeeeeeel youuuuu…”
As I jog down the last few yards of the hill, I get ready for my usual sprint down the end of the hill and go as far as I can through the next few turns that wind through a dense area filled with trees before opening onto a view of the field. I use the momentum to get the sprint going, and the music in my head helps motivate me to push as hard as I can.
During those first few moments into the sprint, I feel like I’m flying, and it’s one of the best things in my life. It feels like I’m moving toward something; something big, something important. The park and this trail are my home away from home. I come back as often as I can, which, given my occupation, is pretty often. I park in almost the same spot (depending on where the sun is), in the same lot, and enter the trail at the same entrance point. I always listen to music if I’m running or a podcast if I’m just walking and enjoying the day. This trail is connected to a lot of musical obsession cycles I’ve experienced since moving to the city.
That week in August, my heart was being eaten alive by Depeche Mode, and it was on that trail where I first listened to the album Violator front to back through my headphones. I can even pinpoint the spot where “Enjoy the Silence” began playing.
The trail is connected to these cycles in one sense because I spend my time there listening to the music. But it’s also the place where I can go and run to relieve my body and mind of the tension and pressure of the obsession.
In the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, the section on autism criteria includes: “Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus” (DSM-5, 2013). When I was first researching autism during my training at Anderson, it was this phrase that really caught my attention.
During my life, I’ve experienced several of what I call “obsessive cycles.” They are characterized by some kind of trigger, usually a combination of visual and aural sensory input. This trigger is recognized in me as something that goes beyond beautiful. There is a realm of indescribable effect, maybe something like touching Plato’s “Forms.” The only connection I can use to try and describe it is to experiences in spirituality. People have experiences during meditation or spiritual practice that they recognize as something beyond their “normal” everyday experience. And this experience is not only good, but beneficent to the extent that they attribute the experiences to their Gods. For some, this experience is enough to prompt them to dedicate the rest of their lives to their religious or spiritual studies. Whatever this experience did for them, they decided their only course was to place it at the center of their lives as the central meaning or purpose for living.
This is an imperfect example because I don’t consider myself religious or “spiritual,” whatever the hell that even means. But what I’m drawing from the example and applying to my own cycles of obsession is that experience of having everything else erased because some subconscious nerve that has dominated your reality your whole life has been touched; what remains after that is the connection to that nerve. The connection itself is some untouchable, ethereal thing that is sacred because of its unfathomable grip on the source of your will to live. Every day, all that you do, all that you think, is drawn back to that thing, that connection, whatever it is, and everything else is secondary. Maybe like young love. Imagine being in love with someone who doesn’t exist in a physical body that you can interact with but as a chemical inside your brain, with access to everything that makes you who you are, free to touch and twinge and play tricks and make the experience as easy or painful as it wants. Couple this with the hypersensitivity of emotion and sensory input I experience every day and perhaps you begin to see what I’m talking about when I say “obsession.”
In my adult life, I’d say over the past ten years or so, an added element began showing itself whenever one of these obsessions begins to form.
And that is pain.
A type of pain that I still, after many years, have trouble pinning down and defining. The most exquisite pain mixed with obsession I’ve ever experienced is my most recent obsession with the band Depeche Mode. It feels silly just typing those words. But it’s part of why I’m sitting down now to try and describe the feelings I experience and am experiencing.
The pain itself occurs when I’m not in direct contact with the obsession in terms of sense. In the morning making coffee, getting ready to go downstairs and start working, I’m not listening to their music. The pain manifests like a gaping hole in my chest and in the back of my mind. It’s like the pain of being out of touch with something you love, having missed it for too long. But it is also rooted in the knowledge that there is never going to be a time when I have direct access to the source of that obsession. I can narrow down the idea of the “source” being the people in the band, both past and present: Vince Clark, Martin Gore, Alex Fletcher, Alan Wilder, and Dave Gahan. That seems clear enough. But that doesn’t cover it. The more I’ve grown and learned about music, the more I understand that there is usually an army of people behind any great album or production. Ok, so we factor in the various producers, record labels, tour managers, the people who made amazing tours a possibility, D.A. Pennebaker and Anton Corbijn. It’s still a matter of human beings in the world whom I will never have the chance of meeting. And this is the source of the hole in my heart…but is that right?
I think about it more deeply. What would I even say to those people if I personally met them? During the first few days of the Depeche Mode obsession cycle, I would daydream about being on a talk show after having become a famous producer when suddenly the host mentions a surprise the show has planned and out walks the members of Depeche Mode, Dave Gahan in his gaudy red shoes and Martin with glitter under his eyes, Alex in the back with sunglasses and an unreadable face. I can imagine precisely what I would do. I would jump up with my hand to my mouth and run to hide behind my chair. I’d crouch, overwhelmed with emotion, and start crying. I’d realize I couldn’t continue hiding behind furniture on live TV, so I would stand up and cordially approach the men and shake their hands, maybe mumbling incoherently that it was an honor and, oh wow, I can’t believe this is happening. At the end of the day, what do I really have to say to such people that hasn’t been said before by millions of other fans? Is there something I could say that would prompt an invite to a coffee shop for an intimate conversation about god knows what? Probably not. And even if this happened, everything in my mind that defined who these artists are would be shattered after confronting the fact that they exist as human beings alongside me in the world. It is easy to imagine them as exactly what you want them to be in your mind and as you watch them at their finest on stage or speaking eloquently in interviews. As I thought this through, I realized that the pain aspect of my obsession did not stem from not being able to meet them in person.
So I looked deeper. I quickly recognized a similar pain, though not as intense, that I feel when I think about my time left on this earth and the things I always wanted to accomplish by certain ages and the fact that I wasn’t famous or accomplished in any area. I’d created things, lots and lots of things, but somehow the fact that I was still without a community of people who appreciate what I’ve done, even in its amateurish, unpolished state, was a failure in my mind. I’m 31 at this moment, sitting and writing these words. Surely it is common for people to look back on their lives at this point and think about all the things they dreamed they would have accomplished by now. Perhaps this brings on the type of pain that I feel, not so much sadness as anxiety and urgency. I start turning my thoughts to take on a positive tone. I’m only 31, I have lots of time to finish writing that book or produce those songs, etc.
So that sounds promising as an answer, right? I’m feeling the pain in response to a combination of realities that are essentially tied to my own shortcomings. I am not in a position to meet those responsible for the source of my obsession, and I have also not produced music that has had the same response. Still…there is more. I know there is more to it than even these illogical notions of failure. Though I do believe that the pain comes from a mixture of all these emotions and thoughts.
Perhaps the third element, which I’ve only realized in this moment, is something even more intangible, and it brings to mind the writing of my favorite author, Yukio Mishima, in his novel, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, about beauty.
Strange (to understate) reactions to beauty have been recorded for a long time. While looking for some quotes from the novel to illustrate my thoughts about beauty and pain, I came across an article that outlined some of these phenomena in conjunction with the confrontation of and apprehension toward beauty in the world:
“Beauty sometimes reaches a level of intensity that can lead to pure pathology. The Jerusalem syndrome, for example, is experienced every year by pilgrims visiting the holy city. Overwhelmed by their emotions when experiencing the old city, their pathology is characterized by hallucinations, paranoia, continuous declamation of holy texts as well as other symptoms. It is interesting to see that there is an inverse syndrome, experienced by a few Japanese people visiting Paris when they discover the extent of the discrepancy between what they were imagining the city to be, and what it really is. The Stendhal Syndrome, on the other hand, comes from the pathology experienced by French author Henri Beyle a.k.a. Stendhal when he was visiting Florence for the first time in 1817. Overwhelmed by the intensity of the works of art he was able to see almost simultaneously, he is said to have almost fainted and had hallucinations. This pathology, since then clinically recognized, kept his name since then.”
So an adverse, if not painful, reaction to beauty is not entirely unusual, even though none of these really click in terms of what I’m experiencing. The article goes on to describe the main character in Mishima’s novel, Mizoguchi, who is based on a young Buddhist monk who burned down the Golden Pavilion a short time before the book was written. In the novel, Mizoguchi is an incredibly mediocre individual who is confronted with an absolute beauty as described to him by his father for a time before actually seeing the temple. Though initially underwhelmed by the temple after having envisioned an impossibly majestic idea of the temple in his mind based on his father’s descriptions, he is gradually eaten alive by the imposition of this perfect beauty in his mind. He turns to destruction as a means of freeing himself from this torment. And when his hopes of the temple being destroyed by enemy raids are unfulfilled, he takes it upon himself to destroy the temple by burning it to the ground.
There are many incredibly poignant passages in the book around the concept of beauty, pain, existential crises, and, strikingly in line with the discussion in this chapter, music as something synonymous with life. Most of these passages are copied straight from my copy as words I highlighted while reading through for the first, second, or third time. I’d like to look at these passages and connect them with my effort to pin down the pain of obsession, and perhaps from there find a pathway toward understanding the pain that Depeche Mode is inflicting on me!
“The special quality of hell is to see everything clearly down to the last detail. And to see all that in the pitch darkness!”
As an Aspie, I like to draw on the saying that refers to “missing the forest for the trees.” In other words, I can focus to pinpoint accuracy when it comes to details and those things that I am interested in, and I am especially good at performing what many others would consider tedious tasks (hence my gravitation toward book editing and learning how to mix my own electronic music productions). What is oftentimes missed is that while I can sometimes revel in getting lost in these tasks, I can simultaneously be aware of their ultimate futility in the face of impermanence and death. What’s more, sometimes my missing the forest for the trees is thrown at me indirectly by people as if to point out my obvious lack of common sense. “Who in the world doesn’t know this or that?”, “How have you grown to adulthood without knowing how to do that?”, etc. Many times, this happens after I’ve taken a risk by injecting something into a conversation when the topic lingers toward something I care about. In revealing knowledge of obscure information about the topic or something that I am proud to have learned, I also expose myself to the possibility of being asked a more obvious question or someone bringing up more generally known facts and being revealed as having completely glossed over these aspects.
The idea of hell and pitch darkness in this quote I interpret for myself as the torture of being acutely aware of life, both in terms of consciousness and heightened physical sensitivity, while being completely in the dark regarding the purpose or explanation for life, or all those fundamental questions that are asked in philosophy. In the absence of religious beliefs there is a very difficult existence and trial on a daily basis to continuously prop yourself up in some way to continue with life. French writer and philosopher Albert Camus defined this well as the “absurd” in his The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays:
“Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
Without getting to far off into a tangent, I will just say that Camus does not end the observation here but goes on to argue for the more hopeful of two options, those being suicide and rebellion. To rebel in the face of knowing you may never have answers to the questions you spend your whole life asking—that is a remarkable feat of bravery.
Let’s move on to the second quote from Mishima’s novel:
“Whatever happened, it was essential that the Golden Temple be beautiful. I therefore staked everything not so much on the objective beauty of the temple itself as on my own power to imagine its beauty.”
This certainly rings familiar as I think about obsession cycles throughout my life that deal with creators…well, that’s all of them, actually. Behind every obsession, there has been an artist who has given their creation to the world. As the audience, we observe the creators while they are in the spotlight, whether they are performing or speaking or even answering questions and signing autographs on the street, perhaps a clip here and there gets posted on YouTube from a fan’s phone. We think, as fans, that we know these artists intimately, and on some level, we do. You can tell when you are watching a genuine, deep performance by a performer by the expression on their faces, the emotion they project, etc. (unless they are good actors, of course. But we would probably convince ourselves even in this light that we are seeing some sacred, intimate side to them because it makes us feel close to them). But no, we do not know these people, no matter how much we are in love with what they created or how close they claim their creations are to them. I’ve already covered this as being a facet of the anxiety and pain in the midst of my obsession. I feel I know them, but I am afraid that this ideation is wrong or flawed in some way and that I am being lied to. If this isn’t authentic, where is the essence of the beauty that is holding me captive? It is much more attractive to believe that I am seeing and hearing truth, because otherwise I am being made a fool of, and that is an absolute fear of the darkest quality.
“‘Finally I have come to live beside you, Golden Temple!’ I whispered in my heart, and for a while I stopped sweeping the leaves. ‘It doesn’t have to be at once, but please make friends with me sometime and reveal your secret to me. I feel that your beauty is something that I am very close to seeing and yet cannot see. Please let me see the real Golden Temple more clearly than I see the image of you in my mind. And furthermore, if you are indeed so beautiful that nothing in this world can compare with you, please tell me why you are so beautiful, why it is necessary for you to be beautiful.’”
This quote resonated with me as it deals with the attempt to share your passion or obsession with others who are not on the same page. The feeling of isolation in your obsession can make the reality of it even more difficult. This, too, is a relevant aspect of the pain of my obsession.
“Tsurukawa was the only person to whom I had revealed my strange attachment to the Golden Temple. Yet in his expression there was nothing but the usual fretful look that I was accustomed to seeing in people who were trying to make out my stuttering. These are the faces that confront me. When I reveal important secrets, when I appeal to people about the resounding feelings with which the sight of beauty fills me, when I try to bring my very viscera into the open—what confronts me is a face like this. This is not the sort of face that people usually turn on others. With perfect fidelity this face is copying my own comic fretfulness; it is, so to say, a terrifying mirror of myself. At such times, however beautiful the face may be, it will be transformed into an ugliness exactly like my own. As soon as I recognize this, the important thing that I wish to express collapses into something of no importance whatsoever, like a roof tile.”
The next few quotes address music specifically, and I’ve chosen to include them as illustrations of the power of music and the part it plays in nearly every obsessive cycle I’ve experienced in my life. The quotes touch on all of the more difficult aspects of experiencing powerfully the intoxicating and taunting impermanence of music. Further, it draws a connection between the experience of life and the experience of music. While we chase and do not receive the revelation of life’s mystery revealed, we continuously come into contact with the edge of enlightenment through music, only to be thrust harshly back down to earth again. Keep in mind the speaker’s view of the Golden Temple as the embodiment of perfection and Beauty, perhaps like Plato’s ideal Form.
“Nothing is so similar to life as music.”
“Music is like a dream. At the same time it is, on the contrary, like a more distinct form of consciousness than that of our normal waking hours. Which of the two really was music, I used to wonder? Music had the power at times to reverse these two contrary things. And sometimes I was easily able to embody myself, as it were, into the tune of the ‘Palace Carriage’ that I was playing. My spirit was familiar with the joy of embodying itself in music. For in my case, unlike that of Kashiwagi, music was truly a consolation.”
“Whenever I finished playing my flute, I used to wonder: ‘Why does the Golden Temple disregard this action of mine? Why does it not blame me or interfere with me when I embody myself like this into music? Never once has the temple disregarded me when I have tried to embody myself in the happiness and pleasures of life. On every such occasion it has been the fashion of the temple to block my effort instantly and to force me to return to myself. Why will the Golden Temple only permit intoxication and oblivion in the case of music?’”
“‘How shall I put it? Beauty—yes, beauty is like a decayed tooth. It rubs against one’s tongue, it hangs there, hurting one, insisting on its own existence. Finally it gets so that one cannot stand the pain and one goes to the dentist to have the tooth extracted. Then, as one looks at the small, dirty, brown, blood-stained tooth lying in one’s hand, one’s thoughts are likely to be as follows: ‘Is this it? Is this all it was? That thing which caused me so much pain, which made me constantly fret about its existence, which was stubbornly rooted within me, is now merely a dead object. But is this thing really the same as that thing? If this originally belonged to my outer existence, why—through what sort of providence—did it become attached to my inner existence and succeed in causing me so much pain? What was the basis of this creature’s existence? Was the basis within me? Or was it within this creature itself? Yet this creature which has been pulled out of my mouth and which now lies in my hand is something utterly different. Surely it cannot be that?’”
“When people concentrate on the idea of beauty, they are, without realizing it, confronted with the darkest thoughts that exist in this world. That, I suppose, is how human beings are made.”
…That, I suppose, is how human beings are made…
As I walk down the stairs with my cup of coffee, preparing to sit down and work for a few hours, the pain is with me. The resonance of having discovered Depeche Mode a few days ago. The feeling goes deep and taunts me, as if to say, this is the exception to the rule of life. Most of the time, things will be gray, stagnant, unexciting, status quo. And this is comfortable. Rather tranquil than surrounded by continuous explosions, after all, right? But in the quiet, here on the stairs, I would die to touch what is just out of reach, sending down this feeling of rapture and truth in music, but with a thin, almost imperceptible veil that keeps me separate. What’s more, I can’t listen to music for a very long time before my sensitive ears become fatigued and I have to stop for a while. But it is more complicated than just beautiful music. The pain is complicated by more social and human aspects as well. I am part teenage girl fainting in front of the stage at the beautiful boy on stage who is projecting this signal from heaven toward her. I am also cut off from this person, and this, perhaps, can be even more acute because I know somewhere deep down that this is, in fact, a citizen of my world! Another human being! To whom I have more plausible access than to the ethereal beauty and emotion of the music. Then there is our latest discovery, that of pain caused by comparing my own musical accomplishment and feeling the weight of my 31 years while still feeling like a child in many key ways. And finally, we have the evidence of human reactions to beauty in the world which, while not perfectly understood, provide a little comfort in the knowledge that it is not just me being peculiar.
So what now, then? With this knowledge, where does it lead me next? There is one more quote highlighted in my copy of Mishima’s novel, and it reads as follows:
“…‘What transforms this world is—knowledge. Do you see what I mean? Nothing else can change any thing in this world. Knowledge alone is capable of transforming the world, while at the same time leaving it exactly as it is. When you look at the world with knowledge, you realize that things are interchangeable and at the same time are constantly being transformed. You may ask what good it does us. Let’s put it this way—human beings possess the weapon of knowledge in order to make life bearable. For animals such things aren’t necessary. Animals don’t need knowledge or anything of the sort to make life bearable. But human beings do need something, and with knowledge they can make the very intolerableness of life a weapon, though at the same time that intolerableness is not reduced in the slightest. That’s all there is to it.’”
As Camus put it, rebel. Rebel against the absurdity that life keeps throwing these obsessive cycles in my face and sometimes I feel helpless to combat them. For, certainly, as illustrated by Mizoguchi in Mishima’s novel, it is a battle.
All of these words, I feel, lead me closer to an understanding of my experience with pain and beauty in the world, though my sensations do not draw me to destruction, like Mizoguchi, but rather to creation.
However, as a final quote from the book, the speaker does consider his act of destruction in burning down the Golden Temple as an act of creation; a work of art, in fact.
“…yet I like to believe that the deed itself was my own original creation…”
Thus, I recognize in his words my own inspiration in the face of the pain and obsession to create, myself.
While I’m sitting in front of the computer with my coffee and whatever current project I’ve been assigned, I am counting down the hours until I am free to pursue the only release from the pain I’ve ever discovered—my own acts of creation. This, I’ve come to acknowledge, is itself an act of rebellion. Once I can redirect the dark thoughts surrounding the existence of beauty and the pain of being permanently disconnected from it, I can concentrate on raising myself up to the level of the obsession by creating out of that emotion my own expression of that pain. It is the only salvation, and the only way I know to survive.