Autism, me, and How I Met Your Mother

It’s been a bit of an odd couple of months, for me. You’ll remember, perhaps, that a few years ago I was blogging about autism, and how I think I may be autistic. I still think that, though I still don’t see what benefit a formal diagnosis would offer me. The more I look back on the first 42 years of my life, the more incidents and occasions I remember, which would seem to support this theory.

At the end of August, I had a bit of a dental crisis. Not a massive one – I’ve had toothache, in the past, that made me want to remove my own head with a machete, and it wasn’t that bad. But I was in pain, and I spent a week on antibiotics, at the end of which, I had the tooth removed, leading to another few days of discomfort, and general feeling sorry for myself.

In that time, I was looking for ways to console myself, and on two separate occasions, I spent a whole day on the sofa in my pyjamas, watching Netflix. Specifically, since I was looking for gentle, comforting TV, watching the American sit-com, How I Met Your Mother.

I think I’d watched the first four or five episodes previously, one at a time, months earlier. I wasn’t particularly into it, it was just an easy way to fill twenty-two minutes. What I found, now, though, was that I was feeling stressed, and in need of comfort and reassurance, and I developed an autistic obsession with HIMYM that was more intense that anything I’ve experienced in recent times.

I watched it constantly. There are nine seasons of How I Met Your Mother, and I covered them all in less than three weeks. My HIMYM peak was August bank holiday Monday, when I watched thirty episodes in one day – roughly ten hours, give or take. On other days, my real life intervened to prevent such levels of commitment, but mostly I resented it. All I was interested in doing was watching How I Met You Mother. I dreamed about the characters, I thought about them more than I thought of any of my real-life family and friends. I was the silent, sixth member of the gang, taking my seat at the booth in MacLaren’s bar.

The thing is, I’m not an idiot. I knew this was a level of obsession way beyond anything a normal person would indulge in. And whilst I was loving the show, and wanting to spend all my time immersed in it, I was also a little ambivalent about the experience. It’s possible to love something with all your heart, but feel completely trapped by it at the same time. And I was trapped. I wanted to be able to think about other things, to do other things, with real people, without feeling permanently distracted by the current plight of Ted or Barney.

To some extent, I chose to dive into the deepest part of the obsession, with a view to ploughing through it as quickly as possible. If I spent two weeks doing nothing else, I could get to the end of season nine, and hopefully, come up for air once it was over, and I knew how it ended. So that’s what I did – I forged ahead, until one memorable Saturday morning, when I watched the season finale, and like a punch to the gut, it was over.

I was devastated, and it’s very hard to say why.

Certainly, the season finale was an emotional one, and in fact, quite difficult to take. It did not resolve the loose ends in quite the way I was hoping, and being so emotionally involved with the characters, I sobbed bitterly over the fates of Ted and Barney. I am assured by friends who have watched it since, that it’s really not that sad. I don’t exaggerate when I tell you, I cried for most of Saturday, and couldn’t really talk about it without filling up, until about Tuesday, three days later.

I suspect that part of my strong emotional reaction was to a sense of loss. HIMYM had been my waking and sleeping companions for weeks, and once the last episode had passed, I had to accept never seeing them again – or at least, never seeing them do anything new again. I could, of course, go back to the beginning, which I did, immediately, but rewatching something is a different experience to seeing it for the first time. I would never again see a new episode. I would only be able to relive what had gone before, like flicking through a photo album after someone has died.

Do I sound too dramatic? I don’t think I’m exaggerating. That’s really how I felt.

I’m now in a position to tell you how the life-cycle of an obsession like this works out – for me, at least. I watched the whole thing in three weeks, with little space in my head for anything else. Then I started to watch it again, more slowly – perhaps only devoting a couple of hours a day, on a quiet day, and less, if I had other things to do. A little way into my first rewatch, though, I had a number of Thoughts, regarding the character of Barney, and how he developed during the nine seasons. So I opened up a document in Google Docs, and started to write down some of those thoughts.

Reader, I have written 16,000 on character development in How I Met Your Mother. It’s not wildly academic, insofar as I haven’t written an academic essay of this type since I finished my MA Dissertation in 2003, and in any case, why would anyone bother with proper referencing if no-one was ever going to mark it? But yes, phase two of obsession starts with a few paragraphs of Thoughts, and turns into a dissertation-length treatise. At least I was watching less, huh?

It’s currently early November, and I’m up to my third rewatch. This time is much slower, though. It’s much more like sliding in a warm bath at the end of the day. I watch an episode, maybe two (they are only 22 minutes long, after all), then move on to something else, quite voluntarily – not because I’m forcing myself away. And this is the third phase. I’ve absorbed all there is to absorb, I’ve expressed all that I’ve got to express, and now it slips back into a core part of my being, with all the other things I once loved passionately, and will always hold in great affection. The Chalet School books, Summer Holiday, When Harry Met Sally, The West Wing, How I Met Your Mother.

Apparently, an obsessive, immersive relationship with fiction is one of the ways in which autism in women and girls presents itself differently to autism in men and boys. The depth of my obsession might have been less, if I hadn’t spent all that time feeling sorry for myself over dentistry, and if my lifestyle didn’t give me so much freedom to drop everything and live in a fantasy for three weeks. I’m not sure I would have spent any less time on it, mind – it just would have taken longer to work itself out. In the end, I chose deep and fast over long and drawn out.

Anyway, it’s been an interesting time.

Anyone want to read a 16,000 word essay about how Barney is better than Ted?

Barney – the true hero of How I Met Your Mother

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