The Goals That Governed My Life
or, How a lack of original thinking based on bad information dictated my life
I had a series of goals I wanted to have accomplished by the time I turned twenty-five. They were:
Absolutely none of these ended up happening by the time I turned twenty-five and to make things worse, I was on the verge of being a menace to society1 and therefore an even bigger failure in the eyes of the Mormon community.
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I turned twenty-five in 1999 and twenty-six in 2000 and beginning in 1998, my sense of accomplishment and self-worth had gone from I-don’t-know-what to non-existent and it was only going to get worse. As with my birth, there’s nothing particularly special or important about any of the years I spent in Utah. Outside of being just another face in crowds of tens of thousands of single Mormon adults, there’s nothing outstanding about that period of my life.
For a time I tried to go to school.
I got a job as an assistant database administrator was fired when one of the two owners decided to verbally lay into someone over a misunderstanding. That particularly employer felt entitled to yell at and belittle everyone2.
What I didn’t know when I turned twenty-five or twenty-six was how to set reasonable goals that included the element of time. Setting goals is easy. Look at what you want. Figure out what is needed to make it happen. Start working toward the objective.
One goal, getting married, is simple. It’s the execution that is hard. First, date. Second, meeting someone you want to marry. Third, propose. Fourth, get married.
Nowhere do those steps require reading books on dating or relationships. The goal itself doesn’t outline or focus on what it means to date or how to propose. The resources that might help when identifying when there is a sufficient enough connection between two people where a long-term relationship is warranted are lacking. In the Mormon culture, marriage is often an intentional precursor to having sex, which suggests the decision to get married in Mormonism is questionable as one objective is sex. There are a lot of questions that need to be explored in the dating and marriage process that are glossed over or ignored3.
When I thought as a teenager that I could be successful by age twenty-five, it made sense. I wanted to write and therefore if I wrote enough I’d become successful. This also meant I needed to submit my writing and if I did that enough I’d be published. What people don’t tell you is that rejection precedes success and rejection has different effects on different people. I got to the point where I decided my writing needed more attention and submitting my writing could wait4.
Outside of success in writing, my other goals were externally influenced:
I was told I wanted to be married and have children and it made sense for a RM5 to be married and have started a family by twenty-five.
I was told that I needed to have a college degree and a career.
I was told I needed to be active as a Mormon.
I was told if I did everything I was told, even if I didn’t succeed, I’d at least come to understand what God wanted.
At no point did anyone bother to tell me what was actually involved in accomplishing any of these goals. I had to figure that out on my own. Which meant finding book and trying to understand other people’s interpretation of the questions I needed to ask. A lot of these books are self-help, which doesn’t meant unreliable but aren’t always useful.
Of all my goals, the goal my parents wanted me to drop was writing. My mother told me, once, that writing needed to be like pottery for my older brother. Writing should be something I could enjoy in my free time, but not something I did to pay the bills or as a living. My father told me that I wasn’t good enough and probably wouldn’t be for a long time. He supported this, on multiple occasions, by telling me I was really bad at communicating.
By the time I was twenty-five, I’d come to realize that not every single goal I had needed to be accomplished in the timeframes I’d originally planned. For example, when I decided to stop taking night classes it wasn’t because I did poorly academically. I was a straight A student. Instead, I stopped taking classes because I could see that I wasn’t as dedicated to school at that time in my life as I was to working and buying books to read.
I’d literally asked myself:
What is the best use of my time?
A better use of my time was paying bills and rent and trying to pay down some debt I’d acquired. Having a full-time job made more sense than trying to work part-time and go to school for as many credits as I could afford to take.
It took me some time, but eventually working full-time, not going to school, and bouncing between jobs, being laid off or fired, and trying to understand my place in the world, I’d figured out basic priorities:
Instead of goals like writing or dating, providing for a family or a career, what I’d come to understand were the basic priorities that needed my attention. For many, these may seem like they are common sense and instinctual, but for me that wasn’t the case. I didn’t have a natural connection between necessities in life and the things I wanted.
Goals are things that are wanted and are not necessarily things that are needed.
What was also true about my goals, other than I didn’t possess the functional understanding to accomplish them was the lack of personal readiness to start.
Take dating. Before I graduated from high school I went on two dates with two different girls. The first one I knew from church and we went to see the movie Groundhog Day and then ate at Wendy’s. The second date I went on was with someone I met working at McDonalds and I took her to a church dance.
I went to church activities. I danced with all the girls. I spent time with friends, some of whom were female. I did all of the things I was supposed to do, based on my limited understanding, and didn’t pair off with anyone. Then I went on a mission (another goal I was told I had) and when I came home I went on some dates with one of the two young women my mother specifically asked me not to date. When it was clear to me she wanted more out of the relationship than I did, I stopped seeing her.
When I moved from Texas to Utah and lived with my grandparents Taylor, one of my objectives was not to bring anyone to their house. This included friends or girls I might be spending time with. Eventually, after a few months looking for work and living with my grandparents, grandma asked, “Do you like boys?”
No, grandma, I don’t like boys.
Grandma’ problem, my maternal aunt’s problem, was that I didn’t bring people around. There was no visible evidence of me dating. No one met the people I was associating with outside of my younger brother. Which meant, in their Mormon thinking, that I had a problem and clearly my problem was my sexuality.
There were two primary reasons that I didn’t date.
First I didn’t want to marry someone related to me8.
Second, I didn’t feel like I was mentally or emotionally ready to date.
For me, not dating wasn’t about being attracted to someone. The noise in my head suggested there was a significant level of uncertainty about dating and relationships, asking girls out and trying to understand them, and my intellectual and emotional time was better served in other pursuits. All of this were things I knew about myself and things I was open to talking about had anyone bothered to pay me enough attention to ask.
I know my parents were aware of my differences in 2001 when I convinced them to go to church with me while living in South Salt Lake City. One of the speakers during Sacrament Meeting9 was male, single, and my age. My mother turned to me and said, “I wonder what’s wrong with him?”
Up until that moment, I’d never wondered what my parents thought about me. There were the periodic check-ins and my father sitting me down to account for my spending and time, but this was different. I turned to my mother and said, “What do you mean?”
She said, “He’s attractive and not married, what’s wrong with him?”
I said, “If that’s true, what’s wrong with me?”
My mother said, “Nothing is wrong with you. You’re special.”
I said, “Why am I special and nothing is wrong with me and he isn’t special and something is wrong with him?”
My mother avoided answering the question as my parents suddenly had to leave. The conversation got to be personal and intimate and instead of making an observation or asking questions or even thinking I might be worth an answer, she changed the subject and left.
As I’ve stated before, my mother doesn’t produce defective children. Yet, in 2001, eleven years before I’d be diagnosed with ASD, she both admitted to me being defective and then avoided talking about or admitting to what she’d done. For my parents, admitting to a verbal faux pas was too much.
By establishing a hard-and-fast rule on when young men should be married and whether or not my parents or the Mormon community understood what they were doing there existed an enormous amount of pressure to be someone I wasn’t. For Mormons the term applied to unmarried young men is:
Menace to society.
My goal of not being married and turning twenty-five and then twenty-six and older was that I was broken and a disappointment. I’d failed at what many may consider one of the simplest requirements to being Mormon: marriage, because I was actively failing at dating and having normal relationships.
If I wasn’t dating or married, then I had another option to be successful, another goal I could‘ve worked on and succeeded at: Career.
By the time I’d turned twenty-six I’d moved to Dallas, Texas for work. I’d been working in technical support for an anti-virus company and had worked my way up a couple of ladders so that I was in a higher level of support. The company had offices in different parts of the United States and I was considering, after living in Dallas, applying for work with a different team in Seattle, Washington. In my mind, if I wasn’t writing professionally I could work on being better at what I was doing.
One problem with ASD and work is often found in upward mobility, which was one of the bigger problems I dealt with as an employee for different companies. I’d be hired and promoted and then I’d hit a wall or ceiling and I’d be stuck and unable to advance or move. I took the job in Dallas because the subcontractor I’d been working for in Utah had told me I wouldn’t be advancing in the company anymore. Rather than be trapped and because the parent company had been asking me to come work for then, I took the job and left. When I was in Dallas, part of my job was writing and editing knowledge base articles, which was fine. I also had a coworker who literally couldn’t sit near anyone else and, for some reason, would do what I said. Eventually, I got tired of waiting for an opportunity to move within the company and took another job.
This job wasn’t in support, it was as an installation manager for specialized networks in high end business class and resort hotels. My job was to make sure everything was installed, configured, and troubleshot before having the hotel sign off on the work. Ideally, I’d be on an airplane on Monday morning to start the install and back home Friday evening.
Since the company was a start-up, I worked for a series of start-ups back in the late 90s and early 2000s, we often had a lot of different responsibilities. As an installation manager, I not only managed people, but I was responsible for the quality and speed of the sign off. There were standards that needed to be met, some of which were the percentage of rooms that were online when we finished the install, and I took all of this seriously.
Part of my job as an installation manager was taking new employees and subcontractors and teaching them how to do different parts of the work. To do this, I’d started keeping notes and writing things down so there was a process whereby people would be taught and shown how to do the work. When I got stuck in a hotel in Atlanta, Georgia for six months troubleshooting an install I’d not been the assigned manager on and had taken over because the assigned manager had more time with the company than me, understanding the system was almost a hobby for me. It was enough of a hobby that I quickly understood the problem wasn’t the install. It wasn’t the punch downs (we piggybacked on the phone lines). It wasn’t the servers. The problem that kept that hotel from being finished was the hardware we were installing.
All of the evidence at hand supported my conclusion and when I’d share that with my manager and his bosses I was told I was wrong. The system, theoretically, would work and if there was a problem it was me not the specialized hardware. What I didn’t know at the time was that this problem had existed in a lot of other hotels. Rather than try to troubleshoot and fix it, the other installation managers went into the servers and deleted rooms to make the hotel look like it was one-hundred percent online, because it was.
The problem I refused to back down on wasn’t that the rooms weren’t connected, it was that the servers couldn’t see individual rooms over a certain number. Remove some of the rooms the server is supposed to be monitoring and the system looked like it was working fine. Until it wasn’t.
During that install I was worried every day that I was going to be told to pack up my bags and come home. I was fired. I got to the point where I actively expected to be fired and I found out later that I was on the chopping block10. Rather than having a series of successful installs, I had a hotel that couldn’t be signed off. This was costing the company and the hotel money every day I was there. I was an outlier giving the conmpany a black eye.
Eventually, and quietly, they brought me back to Salt Lake City and sent someone else to update the firmware on the in-room devices. It turned out the problem was the hardware after-all, but admitting that wasn’t an option. If they pulled me from the hotel and sent someone a little more senior, then everything looked good for the company. I was the problem and as far as that hotel was concerned, the problem had been taken care of.
After Atlanta, once the firmware issue was fixed, I was more faster and more efficient than everyone else when it came to installing the system in hotels. I didn’t just understand it, when I did my first walkthrough I could identify problems and fix them before we needed to install hardware into small rooms or piggyback on bad the telephone lines. Instead of leaving on a Monday and praying for a Friday return, I was home by Wednesday signed off on the install and monitoring things from my apartment.
Eventually, this led me to changing jobs and becoming a technical writer where I could take all of the work I’d been doing in hotels and create the documents and training materials that were used by the company. Because we were still a relatively small startup, that also meant the CEO would pull me into projects and if there was a need for a letter or something other project that didn’t fit cleanly into someone’s job description, I was the one who would do the work. Instead of being worried about being fired or laid off, I found myself in a position where I was safe. I also found myself becoming stagnant and bored and in need of something else.
I’d gotten to the point of being a writer, but I wasn’t happy and it wasn’t what I wanted. Had I found a career? Maybe. I’d certainly found a job I could do and people liked me in that position. What I was having problems with was imagining myself in that position for the next twenty or thirty or forty years. I couldn’t. When the company stared laying people off, I volunteered.
After that, I’d do a stint at a Novell spin-off before my contract with the company was cancelled. My manager wanted other writers and refused to give me work. When I was escorted out of the building, I told his manager what had happened. Neither of those men survived Novell reabsorbing the company. I’ve worked as a contract technical writer, copywriter, and as a general writer over the years, but as a career technical writing isn’t for me.
I learned that some goals need a lot more defining. It was never enough to say I wanted to write and then work toward that end. Nor was it enough to say I wanted to work in IT or technical support and hope that I could make things work. However, by becoming a technical writer or working in IT and technical support I learned that while I may be good at both, I have a limited tolerance level for both.
I learned that my writing goal, my career goal, my goals in general weren’t broad goals that could be fulfilled by simply finding something close. I had specific goals.
I didn’t want to work for a tech company and write documentation. I wanted to write books about things that interested me. I wanted to write fiction.
What I learned was that my idea of a career wasn’t finding a forty-year employer. Some job where I’d work Monday through Friday, nine-to-five, and hope the company was in any way as loyal to me as I was to them. I also happened to be an adult at a time when the ideas of staying at one company for an entire career was becoming passé, retirement plans were being outsourced to 401Ks, and pensions were quickly disappearing from the company ledger.
By the time my mother was questioning what was wrong with other people for not being married and avoiding talking about what made me different, I was already beginning to realize that the goals I’d been working toward weren’t realistic. Not because they were bad goals, but because those goals didn’t mirror who I was or what I wanted to accomplish in life. Not knowing about ASD at an earlier age and adapting and adjusting for that reality meant I was constantly behind everyone else and struggling to keep up. Hating myself for not dating, not being married, and not having something I‘d refer to as a career or even a long-term job.
I was simply existing and I could see this affecting my parents. I could see them reacting to how my life was progressing. I knew they were working in the background and I knew my father was trying to move my life forward for me11.
Simply existing came to a head in 2003 when my father, because of my older sister, decided to tell me exactly how I was screwing up my life, I was twenty-nine.
There was a sequence of events that preceded this conversation. I’d gotten a job for a small wanna-be MLM in Sandy, Utah and realized I didn’t care for the work. Thinking I had another job, I quit. The other job didn’t happen and I was out of work and couldn’t pay rent.
My parent’s asked my older sister to let me live in her basement. She agreed. My father called to tell me he would be at my apartment the next day to move me from where I was living to my sister’s house. It took me a couple of hours, but I told him not to come. I’d created the problem and I would figure out how to fix it. In a rare moment of listening to me, my father agreed not to drive six hours one way and stayed home.
I found a roommate, but then lost the roommate because he was convinced not to leave a bad marriage. I was offered help on paying rent, but my landlord’s decided they would let me out of my agreement so they could rent to someone else. I was ready to put everything I had in the back of my Jeep and figure it out, but was once again offered a place to stay in my sister’s basement. This time I took it and moved everything I owned to her house.
When I moved into her house, the clutch went out on the Jeep and while I know how to drive without using the clutch pedal, I had to park facing out and I couldn’t come to complete stops at lights or stop signs. My older sister offered to loan me the money to pay for the parts I needed to fix my Jeep and I accepted. Around this same time, I was offered a temporary job fixing data transmission issues between a local trucking company and their customers and now had a job.
The trucking company had an open plan office and I found the amount of noise from the people I worked around and the drivers who came to check in with their dispatchers, and in general was a bit too much and got a ride with my older sister to a store where I could buy headphones that covered my ears. The headphones cost about thirty dollars, though my older sister felt like I’d spent a lot more on them instead of paying her back.
Eventually, my sister decided I was making significantly more money than I was and decided that I was intentionally cheating her and asked that I pay rent. Which I agreed to do. However, paying her rent also meant I couldn’t immediately pay her back what I owed. I was also attending the Mormon Singles Ward near my sister and trying to be more social and started dating someone.
As with my grandparents, I never felt the need or desire to introduce the people I associated with to my sister or her family, or my parents, or my other siblings, which meant that I was spending unknown time outside of her house. It didn’t matter that I was an adult and almost thirty. My older sister had other ideas, none of which included listening when I tried to talk to her about life, dating, my job, or other things. Nor was she particular interested in treating me like an adult.
Eventually, my girlfriend had a bad day and wanted to talk. I told her to come over to my sister’s house and we could talk. My sister came out and met my girlfriend and in less than five minutes decided this was the girl I was going to marry. To quote my older sister, “I know love and John is in love12.”
Eventually my parents announced a trip from Colorado to Utah for a family wedding, some cousin was getting married. During the trip my father told me he wanted to talk to me about something, but first Church. I have no idea how long the wedding and events lasted, but I do know that my parent’s got back around midnight, which is when my father decided to lay into me about exactly how I was screwing up my life.
According to my father, I was screwing up in the following areas:
I know that there had rarely been a point leading up to this interaction where I’d been completely closed off about my goals and choice. Yet, this was the climax of my interactions with my parents. It became clear that they didn’t listen to me nor did my older sister. In both cases, I may have been speaking, but no one was listening.
More important, my father had a single objective: to evict me from my sister’s house. He gave me two weeks. If I wasn’t out in two weeks he’d show up with his truck and move me out.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why this conversation at this time?
Then I understood. My sister had decided on who she wanted me to marry. She’d seen love and in that moment she’d made a series of decision for me. When I broke up with my girlfriend, my older sister saw this as some kind of betrayal and instead of asking what happened or telling me what she wanted or needed from me, she went running to mommy and daddy. My older sister wanted me punished and didn’t want to be the bad guy.
By the end of what is now the last time I will ever allow my father to speak to me like that, I was angry and seeing red. I planned to get into my Jeep and drive until either the Jeep broke down or I ran out of money or I hit the Atlantic ocean. When I pulled out of the driveway, I realized I was too tired to simply take off and decided to get some sleep. When I woke up, I had a new plan. Which was to move out of my sisters house, pay her back everything she was owed, and by July 2004 move out of Utah to places east.
What about goals?
My goals didn’t change nor were they necessarily wrong. I’m married and have children. I have bachelors and masters in fine arts degrees. I’m still dedicated to writing and once I earned my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing my parents, who could finally come to ceremony in celebration of something I’d accomplished, were less resistant to my goals about writing.
I’m still not published and I don’t have a career, per se. but I do have a family and I have been to school and I continue to study and work on my writing. My life is radically different today than it was when my being an adult and trying to get from being labeled a menace to society to someone who wasn’t an embarrassment, but it doesn’t reflect what my parents or the community they belong might approve.
None of which makes me sad. As I’ve said, I’m estranged from my parents and other members of the family. This took no effort on my part. Literally. The moment I stopped trying was the moment they stopped having contact with me.
Yet, I discovered a goal that I wasn’t aware of in trying to accomplish the goals I had and the goals I was told I should have. I found answers to why I could see and feel I was different from the people around me, my parents and siblings, the members of the Mormon communities I was part of. Had I been focused on this first, things might’ve been different. Or had my parents been willing to accept the possibility that, based on my mother’s mantra, I was defective then things could’ve been better.
Instead, I did got married and had children and when I realized that my behavior was a problem that could become too big in my relationship with my wife, I found the motivation to figure out what was wrong and how to begin fixing me. Having ASD isn’t curable nor is it something I can change. What I can do is figure out how to live in a world of people who either can’t understand me or won’t do the work necessary to understand ASD and move forward.
Today, my goals are still to write. I still want to travel internationally. I still want to publish. In some ways, I’m still looking for a career and am happy to be a stay-at-home parent to a four-year-old with ASD. I’m also still learning how to plan better, add an appropriate element of time to goals, and working with my wife on how we move forward.
This is the story I’m trying to tell. The story of figuring out what it means to be ASD. The story of how to live life. The story of how to be an adult when being grownup isn’t as defined as maybe we’d like it to be. I’m looking for answers to help explain my past, but also to help my ASD son’s life moving forward. Hopefully, I’ll also help other people in the process.
In Mormonism, a menace to society is a man who turns twenty-six and is unmarried. I plan to write more about turning twenty-six as a developmental milestone, but for Mormons this is a bad thing.
I could write “It’s complicated,” but it’s never complicated. Being fired was retaliatory and it was also justified. The bigger issue was the owners of the company chose to continue
All of which I’m still trying to figure out after fifteen years of marriage, TBH.
Not before I’d acquired a significant stack of rejection letters, some of which I might still have.
RM stands for returned missionary, the designation given to young men and young women as well as older couples and older women who’ve served Mormon missions.
Thank you Ted Lasso “Futball is Life.”
Lately, this has been through an app called Slowly that lets me write letters to people all over the world.
Utah deals with pandemics of birth defects and handicapped children and I had come across studies that suggested one reasons as the genetic closeness.
In Mormonism, Sacrament meeting is when the congregation gets together and instead of a priest or pastor preaching, members of the congregation get up and share talks on different gospel related subjects. This is also the meeting where the congregation partakes in the sacrament or communion (body and blood of Christ).
In making the decision on whether or not to fire me the company approached the two brothers who also worked there. They were asked whether or not they would quit if I was fired. In both cases, my brothers told the company they had nothing to do with me and they weren’t going to quit. Fire me. Keep me. They didn’t care.
Remember me not dating someone I was related to?
Love will be a topic I spend a lot more time on later and in touching on this I will now point out that my older sister’s concept of love and marriage is severely flawed.