By David Finch
Author, 'The Journal of Best Practices'
It was a mild Tuesday morning in April and I was making the same breakfast I’d made every day for more than a year: eggs scrambled with cheese, oatmeal with fresh grapes—grapes help take my mind off the fact that my mouth is full of oats, which, at the risk of offending you horses out there, are truly disgusting—tea, and orange juice. Just another morning, really, except that there was an NBC news crew standing in my kitchen, filming everything I was doing.
The day before, I had met with a producer from NBC who briefed me on what the week would entail. We would shoot footage of my normal daily life for about a day and a half, and this would be used to supplement the story when it aired on Rock Center with Brian Williams. Once that was out of the way, my wife Kristen and I would sit down with NBC’s Kate Snow—one of the most thoughtful people on the planet—and talk about Asperger Syndrome, how it affects me and many others, and the lengths to which Kristen and I have gone to rebuild our struggling marriage after we learned that I fit within the parameters of this relatively mild form of autism.
Courtesy of David Finch
David Finch cooking breakfast as Rock Center cameras roll.
One thing that was never mentioned, however, was how much I would learn while spending a week in the company of a major television news organization. I learned, for instance, that it takes a shockingly large amount of footage to capture a grown man going about his day. Especially when that grown man keeps looking directly into the camera he’s been told a thousand times to ignore and displaying copies of his New York Times best-selling book for no legitimate reason.
I also learned that, in the estimation of NBC Universal, I am the single most fascinating person on the planet—something I’ve been desperately trying to convince my wife of for years. When I flip my underpants into the air with my big toe, spin around, catch them, and shoot them into the laundry basket, Kristen can’t bring herself to give me a high-five. NBC sends in a film crew.
Underpants-related shenanigans is one thing, but neither Kristen nor I could believe that my procedure for making breakfast would make for riveting television. I’m no Kevin Jonas. But NBC thought differently, and at 7:30 in the morning—an hour at which I’m typically disoriented and hostile—there I stood among three strangers and thousands of dollars worth of cameras, lights, and boom mics, scrambling my eggs and investing every ounce of energy I had into acting casual. Now I’m going to reach for the shredded cheese, I thought, errantly—but quite casually—reaching for my tea cup. Curses, I seem to have grabbed my tea cup. It’s okay. Just set down your tea cup and reach for the shredded cheese like it’s no big deal. Frick, dropped my tea cup. Double frick, just looked at the camera.
Having a camera rolling made me aware of my normal breakfast-making procedure, which caused me to screw it up time and time again. I felt as though I were a professional golfer forced to put conscious thought into his swing. I started boiling tea water after putting my eggs in the pan, rather than before. Duh! I forgot to wash my grapes individually and had to settle for washing them as a bunch. Unthinkable! I opened the oatmeal but forgot to grab a bowl to put it in. Triple frick!
I get it. This all sounds absurd. That’s because most people—and by “most” I mean 87 out of 88, according to the latest autism figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—making breakfast is not as much a critical process as it is a means to an end. Eggs are cooked, bread is toasted, cereal is mined for toys then poured, then the meal is eaten and immediately forgotten about. But my brain is wired differently—it deems most things a procedure. Even breakfast. When I am able to execute the procedure without disruption, the outcome is reliable and my mind stays calm. These eggs were prepared properly. Proceed to shower.
But when the process is disrupted, all hell breaks loose. If I were to throw caution to the wind and try toasting some bread while cooking the eggs, the eggs may burn, causing them to taste different or feel wrong in my mouth. This is an unacceptable outcome. I understand that other people have real problems, but to me and my Asperger-ish mind, an unexpected outcome in something as supposedly banal as eggs or (Heaven help me) oatmeal causes my mind to spiral into a panic. It bumps my train from the tracks and I spend the rest of the day trying to recover, brooding over what could have been. . . had my eggs not burned.
None of this makes me a bad person, of course, just different. But this sort of dependence upon routines and procedures wasn’t winning me any awards as a husband early on in my marriage, before Kristen and I knew I had Asperger’s. Nor was it helping me as a father. An important part of being married and raising children is knowing how to go with the flow, a function for which I was not factory-programmed. As evidenced by this footage gathered last April, in which I’m preparing food with the intensity and procedural precision of a bomb defuser. Or trying to, anyway.
What can I say? It’s just really hard to scramble an egg while being shot in HD. By the time I finished stumbling through my doomed breakfast routine more than an hour after we began, I was already spent. I felt discombobulated and confused. Though I liked them all very much, I was ready for everyone to go back to New York. But we had only just begun. There was plenty more footage to shoot, plenty more situations in which I’d be forced to act casual. Many more hours to pretend I wasn’t going completely insane. Which is hard to do when you’re surrounded by people wearing shirts with peacocks on them.
As we continued shooting, the question posed to me repeatedly throughout the day was, “What would you normally be doing right now?” The producer wanted to capture me doing what I typically do throughout the day: compulsively flicking light switches on and off, sitting in solitude and fleshing out story ideas in my notebook, and staring at my own penmanship. Oh, you know, the usual. With the NBC crew hanging around, it occurred to me that this was really all I ever did on a weekday when I wasn’t lecturing somewhere or on a firm writing deadline. I couldn’t help but think that my life was a lot smaller than I ever would have imagined. And what was up with all the light-switch flicking?
After filming me staring at a wall for the better part of an hour, the crew was delighted to learn that it was time for my weekly coffee date with Kristen. Once a week, Kristen and I make time to meet for coffee or go for a long walk while the kids are in school. These morning dates give us an opportunity to reconnect and talk about whatever is on our minds—an opportunity to spend some good hours together.
Explaining this out loud to the NBC news producer made me remember how fortunate Kristen and I are to be able to do stuff like this. Not just because we can find time during the day, but because we actually want to. While there is a lot of good that comes with being wired as I am, certain characteristics of Asperger’s made being a worthy partner for Kristen more than a little difficult for me. By our third year of marriage we had grown apart, mostly because it appeared I no longer cared about her, even though we’d been best friends since high school. We continued treading difficult, confusing waters until our fifth year of marriage, when we learned that I have Asperger’s.
With that discovery, we were handed invaluable information about why some things were such a challenge for me. Things like processing Kristen’s perspective and emotions; anticipating, understanding, and being responsive to her needs; making a simple breakfast in under ninety minutes. These sorts of “quirks” had taken a serious toll on our relationship. But with my diagnosis and with Kristen as my guide to the neurotypical world, I could learn new behaviors that would not only make me a better husband and father, but also a happier, more fulfilled person. So, I did. We committed to restoring our marriage and our best friendship, and now, four years later, Kristen and I are dating each other again and having the time of our lives. Not a bad outcome for a guy who sits around staring at the wall all morning.
Seeing my life through the lens of a camera reminded me how fortunate I am to be living a life that I love, and how hard Kristen and I have worked to get here. But although I’d come a long way in being the husband and father I wanted to be, my life was still profoundly limited and controlled by obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, and rigid routines. These are not exactly signifiers of wellness, but rather symptoms of a self-tormenting disorder. I had always known this, but I became acutely aware of just how difficult I was making things for myself when a microphone was clipped to my shirt and I was asked to narrate my typical minute-by-minute routines to Kate Snow for two solid days. I couldn’t eat burned eggs. I had to wear a certain pair of pants. Before turning off a light, exiting a room, opening a door, shutting a door, locking a door, unlocking a door, turning off my phone, closing a faucet, closing a drawer, setting down any object whatsoever, or punctuating the end of a handwritten sentence—and that’s only part of the list—I had to perform a specific mental ritual in a specific manner. No wonder NBC thought I was interesting. As I explained to Kate that week, any deviation from the usual ritual could result in chaos, and few things are more torturous to someone with Asperger’s than chaos.
For some reason, saying all this out loud into a camera (and into the stunned eyes of an NBC news correspondent who had seen a lot in her career), knowing that my wackiness would be broadcast to a national audience, made things click for me: My life does not need to be this hard. This torment, I thought, lives and dies by my permission, by my choices. It ends now.
I felt an immediate need to liberate myself from my own nonsense. I didn’t want to be the person who believed that a certain pair of pants could do magical things in his life. I made up my mind after NBC left to stop the obsessive thinking, abandon the compulsive behaviors, and free myself from my addiction to routine. And just like that, a new journey was underway.
A few months later, NBC returned to follow up on our story and to see how everything had been going since our first interviews. As they wired me for sound and checked the lighting on their cameras, I wondered what it was they were hoping to capture this time around. I imagined the camera trained on my hand as I thoughtlessly turned off a light switch and exited a room, and I couldn’t help but laugh. Wait till they see how boring I am now.