This is 59: Julia Lee Barclay-Morton, PhD Responds to The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire
"My autism diagnosis has affected me so profoundly it’s kind of blown the aging thing off the chart in terms of identity issues..."
From the time I was 10, I’ve been obsessed with what it means to grow older. I’m curious about what it means to others, of all ages, and so I invite them to take “The Oldster Magazine Questionnaire.”
Here, Julia Lee Barclay-Morton, PhD, responds. - Sari Botton
Julia Lee Barclay-Morton, PhD is an award-winning writer/director, whose writing has been produced and published internationally; her debut book-length hybrid collection, THE MORTALITY SHOT is now available for preorder from Liquid Cat Books; recent publications in Prairie Schooner, [PANK], Heavy Feather Review, and, as winner of Nomadic Press Bindle Contest, chapbook of White Shoe Lady. She founded Apocryphal Theatre when in London (2003-11); her experimental stage texts were streamed as part of a 22-hour radio project in collaboration with Viv Corringham, commissioned by Radio Art Zone. She lives in NYC with her husband and cat, where she coaches writers, paints, makes theater, and teaches yoga, while working on a hybrid memoir about being diagnosed on the autism spectrum at 57. More at TheUnadaptedOnes.com
How old are you?
Is there another age you associate with yourself in your mind? If so, what is it? And why, do you think?
That’s an interesting question. I think in some ways I am always in my late 30s in my mind, because that is when I finally bust out of my shell and began to have the guts to seek out my own voice. I had been directing other people’s work up until then, but for a number of reasons, decided it was time to see what I could create with actors on my own, and then I found myself writing what I referred to as stage texts. Between the lab work with these actors and the new texts, a whole new life emerged, one that in some ways I am still living.
I was recently diagnosed on the autism spectrum, and in looking at many of the common traits of autistic people, seeming younger than you are is one of them.
Do you feel old for your age? Young for your age? Just right? Are you in step with your peers?
I guess I feel young for my age in regard to what stereotypically my age means, but then again maybe because of the people I know, I don’t feel so far out of step with my peers who are also writers and artists and theater people. I was recently diagnosed on the autism spectrum, and in looking at many of the common traits of autistic people, seeming younger than you are is one of them. So that may play into it, too. Most autistic people don’t prune their synapses, which is the usual trajectory into adulthood for neurotypical people. It’s like the brain says ok I need this neural pathway and that one, but I don’t go over there a lot, so off you go, whereas autistic people’s brains don’t do that. So, I think this leaves us with a more childlike sense of both wonder on the one hand, the ability to see patterns where others don’t, but also can be overwhelming at times, because all the options for how to let in any sensory experience are available all the time. Aside from all that, most people think I am younger than I am, for whatever that’s worth.
What do you like about being your age?
I am glad I made it here. The average life expectancy for an autistic person is 56, so I guess that means I have done something right. Or just been lucky. I like the fact I have life experience, and feel grateful I have gotten healthy again after long haul COVID, which I attribute to having just been trained to certify as a Kripalu yoga teacher a few months before COVID hit. And a lot of other work I did to heal my autonomic nervous system. I don’t know if it has to do with being my age or not, but my focus now is on the long haul, ensuring I “strengthen the container” as my yoga teacher trainer Rudy said to us a lot. Having ended up in hospital with a TIA and dissection in my carotid artery related to long haul COVID showed me I was mortal in a very specific way, which focuses the mind. From then on, I knew I had to heal anything that could be healed, including CPTSD from past trauma, which means getting underneath your body’s unconscious responses to even out the autonomic nervous system. I took another training dealing with healing the vagus nerve, which is like the switching station between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, and that healed most of the rest of my long haul symptoms. As I was doing that training, research was coming out about how COVID wreaks havoc with the vagus nerve. My vascular neurologist has been open to all this new research, because as she told me back in August 2020, “In April, we were looking at each other and saying is everything we learned in medical school wrong?” COVID has taxed everyone, including world class doctors, in terms of how it works. But what I have done with my own challenges is followed my deep intuition as to where to go for healing. I have learned that over 35+ years of recovery, therapy, trauma work, meditation and yoga. It’s a lot of work, but for me it’s been a crucial component to my healing.
There will always be people telling women how to look or be, and no matter how any woman looks or is, at any age, there will be vicious criticism.
What is difficult about being your age?
Ageism. It’s the great unsaid and yet pervasive discrimination. Arguably it’s worse for women, but I am not even sure about that, having watched men after a certain age try to find work. Our culture worships at the temple of youth, and that is not going to change. Five years ago, I decided to become full time self-employed and have succeeded in making my living as a writer, coach, artist, and yoga teacher. In this capacity, my age is a virtue, but I would not want to be trying to get hired in a job right now.
What is surprising about being your age, or different from what you expected, based on what you were told?
I don’t know if it’s surprising or even unexpected, but definitely different than what is portrayed, I don’t really feel that different. I mean I do have to pay attention to more physical stuff of course, but other than that, I feel quite young in many ways, which is both good and bad. I don’t feel like there is stuff I can’t do or artistic risks I can’t take, which is good, but I also tend to forget all I have done and the experience I bring to the table, which is not so good. I wish I could own more of what I have done and accomplished. I’m always surprised when I look back and see that.
I am glad I made it here. The average life expectancy for an autistic person is 56, so I guess that means I have done something right.
What has aging given you? Taken away from you?
It’s given me 59 years of experience of life on earth, including living in multiple cities and countries, multiple marriages, multiple theater companies and ways of making a living. I feel like I have lived many lives, which is actually true. I grew up moving around a lot, and continued that restlessness into adulthood, though I have lived in NYC longer than anywhere else, it’s the one place on earth I never have to worry about being “too much.” However, aging has taken away my ability to recover super quickly from strenuous mental or physical activity, and since the hospitalization in 2020, I no longer feel immortal.
How has getting older affected your sense of yourself, or your identity?
Honestly, my autism diagnosis has affected me so profoundly it’s kind of blown the aging thing off the chart in terms of identity issues, except that I was diagnosed only last year. So, I have to absorb the fact I have been living with an entirely different neurotype and way of seeing the world that for 57 years registered as “something is really, really wrong with me,” but now I see as “oh, wow, I was born with different factory settings and some of it is really cool.” I know at some point there will have to be profound grieving for the many years I did not know that, but right now, it’s still just this huge relief, and most everyone I know who has been diagnosed over 50 feels the same way. On the other hand, because younger people '“get” neurodiversity with an ease that most people my age and older don’t, I find myself relating quite fluidly with Gen Z and Millennials, who are instantly accepting. From that age group, I never hear things like “you don’t look autistic” or “wow, that makes you so vulnerable.” On the other hand, the other women I have met around my age that are recently diagnosed and I get along with even more ease, because there is a profound understanding of what we have been through over the years, and how traumatizing it was. When we were young, had we been diagnosed, and as girls that was almost impossible, we could have been sent to horrible institutions or given treatments that are sadly still done today to make us “seem” less autistic. These so-called treatments traumatize the autistic child and cause PTSD in adulthood and increase suicidality (which is why the average life expectancy is so low). So, in that sense, I am grateful I could mask for the years I did. However, as I got older, I had this feeling in the back of my mind continually, which got more insistent with each passing year, of “when are the wheels going to come off this cart?” I knew I was doing a dancing seal act, but I didn’t know why. I had assumed it was trauma related, and it was, but it was also the trauma of being autistic while trying to “pass” as allistic in a neurotypical world.
I have to absorb the fact I have been living with an entirely different neurotype and way of seeing the world that for 57 years registered as “something is really, really wrong with me,” but now I see as “oh, wow, I was born with different factory settings and some of it is really cool.”
What are some age-related milestones you are looking forward to? Or ones you “missed,” and might try to reach later, off-schedule, according to our culture and its expectations?
Well, my very first book is coming out! It’s a hybrid collection called The Mortality Shot, made up of essays and stories and a stage text—so embracing all my different writerly voices—that relate directly or indirectly to mortality. This feels like an event, a debut, that should happen in your 20s or maybe early 30s, so…definitely late! But excited this is happening now. Though sometimes I can feel “behind” in this regard, I am proud of myself I got here at all, since I could not even think of myself as a writer at all until my late 30s. I was surrounded by writers and didn’t want to compete. I was afraid of being visible. I also knew it would end my first marriage if I had any success, and indeed it did. The day I found out my first play would be published, my first husband said he was leaving. Yes, he was a writer. For the record my current (third) husband has been nothing but supportive and preordered books as soon as he could. So, maybe I have learned a thing or two.
I tried to have a child with my second husband, but that ended in a traumatic miscarriage, so that milestone was out, because my uterus has issues (long story). And as for owning anything, please picture me laughing hysterically. I have spent my life making choices for my own artistic voice, even when I didn’t know what it was. I now also know that being autistic is why I could never hold down a fulltime job, so the whole home ownership thing is off the table. Unless someone happened to rain money down on me, but I don’t think that happens in real life, only movies. I also will not put any small amount of money I do have in the stock market, because I think profit like that is unethical and kills other people. And yes, that is an autistic kind of ethic, I now know. The kind that makes allistics think I am a bit extreme. Oh well.
What has been your favorite age so far, and why? Would you go back to this age if you could?
This might sound corny, but honestly, right now, my favorite age is right now. Because I am physically and mentally stronger than ever before. I mean sometimes I wish I had the energy of my younger selves. I miss living overseas sometimes, and I wish I could travel more again. I do wonder when we ever get out of pandemia, that kind of thing. But I would not want to surrender my hard-won knowledge about being autistic and having the guts to have my writing out there, and finally unmasking and letting myself and others see who I am without implicit or explicit apology. I feel in many ways my writing life has just begun. And I am kind of excited to see what happens next. I haven’t felt that in a long time. I am working on a memoir about this journey, and it’s exciting to see a new voice emerge.
Having ended up in hospital with a TIA and dissection in my carotid artery related to long haul COVID showed me I was mortal in a very specific way, which focuses the mind. From then on, I knew I had to heal anything that could be healed…
Is there someone who is older than you, who makes growing older inspiring to you? Who is your aging idol and why?
My aging idols are mostly visual artists, because these women were not recognized until they were in their 70s or later, like Louise Bourgeois, Lee Krasner, and the still-alive and extraordinary Bettye Saar. Women who just keep making their work no matter what. As for authors, while she was recognized earlier, she did not get her full due until her 80s when she finally won the Nobel Prize (having outlived this dude on the panel that hated her and told her so every year she was nominated) Doris Lessing is my super hero. I read The Golden Notebook first when I was in my early 20s, and it was the very first time I had read any adult female characters who felt like anything I recognized as close to my own experience. And these women were in their 40s, so they were a template. And her writing was there always whispering to me, it’s possible to tell the truth as a female writer, it’s actually possible. And she outlived the haters. That is my goal.
What aging-related adjustments have you recently made, style-wise, beauty-wise, health-wise?
I don’t believe in age-related style or beauty. I believe you find what you love and you do that. The end. I think the whole age-related style and beauty bullshit is advertising/capitalist driven. There will always be people telling women how to look or be, and no matter how any woman looks or is, at any age, there will be vicious criticism. Any woman who raises her head above the parapet will be shot at. So, my advice to women and girls of all ages is: you can’t win that game, so don’t play it. Please yourself.
Doris Lessing’s writing was there always whispering to me, it’s possible to tell the truth as a female writer, it’s actually possible. And she outlived the haters. That is my goal.
I have discovered that another common trait of autistic women is we don’t tend to care about this stuff as much, so there you go. I don’t. As some of you might know from my Oldster Magazine essay about my grandmother, Jani, I was also raised by some women who were not big rule followers. While they paid attention to fashion, they tended to fashion their own, and I definitely have. One British friend referred to my fashion sense as “12-tone dressing,” which I love. I was in my 40s then, and I’m still at it.
In terms of health, I think I covered that in earlier answers, but yes, I do a lot more for my health including daily yoga, qigong and now cardio, too (the whole routine takes about an hour). I also take Ayurvedic supplements and vitamins and try to eat a heart healthy diet, which means less of my beloved cheese. Happily for me, however, the world has seen the light, so I don’t have to give up coffee, which is now officially good for you. Hallelujah! Coffee is life! I have meditated every day since 1995, and I have meditated every day with coffee. I also had coffee in my Kripalu thermos during yoga training. No One Gets to Take Away My Coffee.
What’s an aging-related adjustment you refuse to make, and why?
What’s your philosophy on celebrating birthdays as an adult? How do you celebrate yours?
I like celebrating them. I don’t have any specific way. In the beforetimes, I tried to be in Scotland on my beloved Orkney Isle, where I go to write whenever humanly possible. But now, I do what I can. My birthday is in June, so it can be a nice time of year, but in NYC it can also be super hot and sometimes stormy, so I play it by ear. But yes, I do celebrate somehow. I am proud of every year. I got clean and sober when I was 23, so I should probably not be here, and after being in hospital in July 2020, I have felt particularly grateful for each birthday. As Raymond Carver once famously said about his second chance at life, all the rest is gravy.
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