There is debate as to what actually constitutes black and white thinking (BWT). Ironic, as the underlying theme of BWT is that things are true or false, right or wrong, good or bad with no gray area in-between. That’s the way I’ve always defined it and, once I began to believe I was autistic, I started to look for examples of it in my life. I found many, but there were also areas where I’m able to see nuance that others often miss. It’s not odd in autism for people to exhibit behaviors, such as rigidity, in some areas and not others. Hell, on some days and not others. A lot depends on how well we’re regulating sensory input or emotions at any given time. But this BWT thing seems more complicated to me, so I’m going to spend some time here thinking it out with you all.

People who know me as a writer and someone who loves to read often find it hard to believe that my undergraduate degree is in math. There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for it that has nothing to do with my love of math and everything to do with my need for solid facts. When I’m uncomfortable, I retreat to a place I feel comfortable and that’s a place where answers are predictable and I’m sure of what will happen. Reading that last sentence, I see that probably applies to everyone in some way. Do what you know, stay with what works, don’t fix it if it ain’t broken.

I think it’s deeper than that for me, though, or else I would have hit upon it sooner. In math, there’s a right answer for every question and you know when you’ve got it. In other subjects, for me anyway, there were always too many variables and not enough information. Give me an equation to solve and I’m on it. Even geometry when you had to prove things instead of solve for a specific number, I excelled because I could see what I was trying to prove and, if I can see it, I can figure it out. And that’s why I chose math. I was confused about what to do and which way to turn at that point in my life, so I turned to the most solid subject I knew and that’s math.

But when I reached modern algebra, the letters stopped standing for numbers. They stopped standing for anything real or tangible. I was in unfamiliar territory. My upper level geometry class spent the entire semester on non-Euclidian geometry where a line is really a curve and my brain broke. I couldn’t make heads or tails of anything at that point, but it was too late to choose something else. I was too far along.

Except I wasn’t. Not really. I could have dropped those classes and changed to something else. I could have taken time away from college to figure out what I really wanted. I could’ve joined the Peace Corps. But any of those options would have meant not graduating on time from the university I was attending. To me at that time, graduating from the school where I started within four years meant success and anything else was failure. It wasn’t about lacking the bravery to change course. I couldn’t see that there was another course. For me, it was black and white. If I was going to finish college, I had to stay on this course. Otherwise, I’d be a failure. Not just in school, but in life. Succeed at this or fail at life; those were my BWT options.

So, my black and white thinking stuck me with a math degree I had no use for. I couldn’t move forward in the field because I didn’t understand advanced math. That didn’t matter so much to me then because I had already decided to be a high school math teacher. When I decide to do something, as I discussed last week, I’m all in. That’s another example of black and white thinking, by the way. Being all in or out. I was going to be a teacher, so I gave everything I had to education classes and did just enough in my math classes to skate by. Because I didn’t need the knowledge from upper level math to teach high school math, so I just needed to pass those classes. And I did. Barely, but I did.

So I was a success, right? Not so much. Because, as it turns out, I hate teaching. I had my degree, so I wasn’t a complete failure in life. Yet. It all hinged, as it does in BWT on the next thing I found to throw myself all the way into. That turned out to be getting a fellowship for grad school. Not grad school itself; the fellowship. I thought of that as the first obstacle.

I volunteered in the lab of a professor whose class I did well in and I liked his teaching style. So, lab experience, check.

I took a class to improve my GRE and ended up with a good score. So, good test scores, check.

I chose a professor I knew would give me a good recommendation for the fellowship application. So, fellowship application submitted, check.

And then, fellowship! Check!

Success! Well, success on the fellowship, but that was all I was prepared for; I had barely given a thought to grad school itself, which is kind of like preparing for the wedding without giving much thought to the marriage. The relationship with a major professor is like a marriage in some ways and I had chosen mine for the fellowship, the wedding, not for the rigors of school.

It was time to be all in to grad school. The lab I had volunteered in to get experience for the fellowship application had belonged to my major professor. While volunteering there, I had learned how to follow some of the protocols the doctoral student used for her own research, but I’d learned nothing about doing actual independent research. I think part of that was my autistic brain not being able to generalize the information and part was not having any guidance. But that was okay. I’d learn that as I went along in the program. What I didn’t realize is there was no set program.

Unfortunately, the doctoral student I’d worked with as a volunteer took that fall semester off. It was just me and another first semester PhD student in the lab and she knew less than I did. The doctoral student came back to the lab that winter livid that we had depleted her supplies without replenishing them. Neither of us knew how or even that we needed to, order supplies. Our professor didn’t provide any guidance. I can’t blame him for that; I didn’t ask for any. I didn’t want him to know what an incompetent loser I was. Say hello to some more BWT. I was chosen for this fellowship and, if I didn’t know what to do, I was a complete failure. I couldn’t see beyond that to the part where I was still a student and this was part of what I was supposed to learn.

One day the professor told us that someone important was dropping by the lab and to make sure we were working on an experiment. So we made a gel and ran an experiment and everything was great. Until, after the visit, our professor asked what we were using the data from our experiment for and we didn’t have an answer. He was angry and I’m still not sure he had a right to be. We had done exactly as he’d asked. The incident didn’t jar him into giving us anymore guidance, though.

It didn’t help that I was not doing well in my classes. My professor had talked me into the classes on my schedule. Once again, I didn’t think I had a choice. I’m actually still not sure I did. One of the classes he talked me into was physical chemistry. My professor assured me it wouldn’t matter that I hadn’t had undergraduate pchem. The hell it didn’t. I have never in my life studied so hard for anything, but it didn’t help. I couldn’t manage a test grade above 60%. The instructor pulled me aside after the final and told me if I’d been in the chemistry program he would have failed me, but because I was not in their department, he gave me a B (anything lower would have meant repeating the course). Another class that fall had no text book. I didn’t know it at the time, but I cannot learn anything without some sort of written material. After the first test, the instructor basically told me I couldn’t be taught and needed to drop the class.

I had put everything I had into grad school that semester and failed miserably. To me, that meant I was a colossal failure as a person. Somewhere along the way I realized that I had chosen the wrong major professor. I had no interest in his work with plant proteins; I wanted to work with human DNA. He didn’t see why it would make a difference to me, since we were working at a cellular level. He actually got bored when one of our guest lecturers talked about human DNA. I inquired about changing focus and professors, but that would have meant giving up my fellowship as well. Also, I only knew of two professors I would have wanted to work with and didn’t think either of them would accept me as a student. It never occurred to me to talk to either of them or to look around for another professor. Losing the fellowship would mean ending the PhD track for me because they were intertwined in my mind. One just didn’t exist without the other.

Toward the end of that fall semester, I learned that there would be a genetic counseling master’s program starting in the biology department. They would be interviewing students that spring and the program would start the next fall. I had found the next thing to throw myself into.

I didn’t want to talk to my professor in person because I didn’t want to admit to his face that I had no idea what I was doing, so I wrote him a letter resigning from the program and slipped it under his door.  He was, of course, taken completely by surprise. I did end up talking to him in person and he told me I would be wasting my talent in genetic counseling, that I needed to stay in the doctoral program. But I knew he was wrong and there was nothing he could say to convince me otherwise. It was black and white for me.

There were four of us in the genetic counseling program; three women and one man. I adored the women. One of them was a bridesmaid at my wedding. The guy, though. He rubbed me the wrong way from the moment we met. I think it was when he told me he had earned a triple major (biology, chemistry, and something else) as an undergraduate when what he really had was a degree in interdisciplinary studies. There’s nothing wrong with interdisciplinary studies, but it’s dishonest to try to pass it off as a triple major. To this day I don’t know if he was trying to pass himself off as smart and hardworking, he was neither, or if he really didn’t know the difference between the two types of degrees.

And, once again, BWT rears its ugly head. For me, he has to be either utterly clueless or completely conniving. One or the other and certainly nothing in-between.

Apparently I had a lot more to say about BWT than I realized. Since this is already a long post and I’m starting to move on from how it effected my education to how I apply it to relationships, I will stop here and continue the relationship discussion in next Friday’s post. So this will be a multi-part post, though I don’t know how many parts there will be yet. Ooh, suspense. 🙂 You’re welcome.