MENTAL HEALTH: Walking the troubled path of autism

Penticton man describes his life with autism and the mental illness side effects it has caused.

George Noriega takes a break from his work out in the gym. He goes several times a week to keep both his mind and body in shape.

George Noriega takes a break from his work out in the gym. He goes several times a week to keep both his mind and body in shape.

At an early age, George Noriega knew he was different from most of the other kids. What he didn’t realize was the living hell those differences would make his life as he got older.

Without the early intervention needed to guide him along his troubled path of autism, compounded by the added side effects of chronic anxiety and depression, he had difficulty with almost every aspect of his existence.

“I was kind of a loner, I grew up in Arizona, out in the woods, so I would just take off with my .22 rifle and spend an awful lot of time alone. Then like a lot of boys like that (with similar conditions) I got picked on relentlessly and I didn’t finish high school and got into a lot of trouble,” recalled Noriega, who is now 60 but wasn’t diagnosed until he was in his 40s. “Prior to being diagnosed, when a lot of things go wrong in your life, you know as a child, a teenager young adult and adult, you can’t help but wonder is there something wrong with me, or is it everybody around me, or is it both?

“Looking back there’s a lot of things that you said you regret and can’t take back and a lot of things that you’ve done that you can’t do over. In life you don’t get any do overs.

Noriega feels that thought would be obvious to most people, but for him that’s not the case.

“It’s easy for lines to get all blurred. You say something wrong or that gets misinterpreted then maybe you think to yourself, maybe it’s better not to talk to anybody, but then you don’t fit in and you can be bounced out of your job. Unfortunately, I’ve had that experience too many times.”

Noriega now lives in Penticton with Teri, his wife of 15 years and while he admitted the first part of his life was “more sad than happy,” since meeting Teri, getting diagnosed and the help he needed, all that has turned around — not perfect — but much better than it was.

“I’ve spent most of my life, well like when you see National Geographic you see the salmon swimming upstream and one of  them jumps into the mouth of the grizzly, that’s me,” said Noriega with a wry grin as he talks about his former world.  “I have a lot of empathy for the salmon. Life is like the river, but instead of going with the flow you go against it, and to add insult to injury when you jump, you jump into the jaws of death, like can it get any worse than that?”

With his recent decision to “come out,” Noriega hopes to be able to help others by talking to them about why it is so important for parents to recognize the cries of help from their children who may suffer from the condition.

“I want people to know that it doesn’t go away,” he said. “When you’re young, the caregivers are mom and dad, but when you’re a young adult who is going to take care of him?”

While the medical terminology regarding his conditions continue to change, initially it was Asperger’s Syndrome, then Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Noriega points out no matter how you add up the numbers the end result is the same.

“You may be able to read Socrates in Greek but you can’t change a light bulb or fix a flat tire,” he explained.

Many of his autism symptoms vary degrees of what Noriega described as “the good, the bad and the ugly.”

Under good, he includes having an above-average IQ, three degrees, including masters in education — which were all awarded with honours — and being able to be laser-focussed on a work task.

Under the heading of bad he includes the fact intervention and research is generally geared towards kids. And the ugly were the “meltdowns” or fits of anger he often experienced.

“The experts forget that we do grow up and do not remain as children,” said Noriega. “If you delve into the literature you find a lot of these people, especially males, end up committing suicide or not being able to be able to hold down a job, failed relationships, just a lot of misery. Autism is not fixable, it can be mitigated but there is no cure.”

According to George, who ironically spent most of his career working at jobs such as a youth mental health clinician, child and family counsellor and other related jobs, Teri has been the saving grace.

It was only after living together for some time she noticed something wasn’t quite right and the couple’s, long and often difficult road to some sense of normalcy began.

“I had no idea (about George’s condition) but eventually I put two and two together,” said Teri, who has a graduate degree in nursing.

“People like this, they don’t get it, the light bulb doesn’t go on, they learn to cover it up and they become very, very good at covering it up and they’re not sure what they’re covering up. Really, people with autism are just like everyone else, only more so.

“It’s exhausting because when there is a disability and you didn’t know about it, then all of a sudden how we can make this work? But I never met anybody who tries as hard.

I really have to be aware of my limitations and his limitations of my strengths and his strengths and bring them together in a relationship and make them work for us and it is.”

Her husband agreed: “We’ll make it. My life is now more happy than sad.”

Links to the other stories in this series: