This is a backdated post from November 19th-24th, 2017
Thanksgiving was bad. Not a disaster; it could have been much worse. I could have ruined everyone’s dinner and didn’t. But from my perspective, it was bad.
I’ll try to explain what I feel, though it will only be a pale approximation.
Since my diagnosis of autism, I have turned my very analytic brain to observing my own behavior, and am often frustrated because I do not have words to describe certain feelings or experiences. Reading about autism and the accounts of other autistic people has helped a lot, giving me some vocabulary through which I can start to better understand what is going on in my body and mind.
For example, I have always had a hard time in stores (I also wrote about this here), and get “shopped out” easily, and when I try to push beyond that, I “freak out.” This is how my family has always described it, but we—myself included—never really understood what was going on inside me, what was triggering a reaction, and what could be done about it, besides avoiding stores.
But now that I have vocabulary to talk about sensory overwhelm, I am able to look at the same experience and notice how the lights in the store affect me, the competing colors of the many product labels, the proximity of so many people, music and announcements over the loudspeaker, smells from food, perfumed cleaning products, and more, and how I can’t tune any of it out. I never understood what was triggering me before, I just “freaked out.”
One more example. I now realize I have a hard time with transitions; switching between one task or activity and another. Before, I would often cancel plans at the last minute, even for things I wanted to do, because just leaving the house to go somewhere was too overwhelming. Or I would work on a single task for 6, 10, 14 hours straight, with hardly a pause to pee or eat, because I couldn’t bear stopping, even if I wanted to. Or I would be hungry, and go through the work of making food for myself, or have it put in front of me (thanks, Mom), and then let it sit there and get cold, sometimes for an hour, all the while wanting to eat it, because taking the first bite was too intense. Again, transitions are hard.
Before we knew about the autism, these things just puzzled or frustrated us, but now that I have language to describe some part of these experiences, they become more understandable. It isn’t a cure; they still happen, but it feels less shameful because I can understand why.
Back to Thanksgiving.
Okay, right, I was going to explain what I am feeling.
I used to say that I was introverted, because that was the best description I had for wanting to spend so much time alone, but introverted never felt like the right descriptor. The difference between my autistic brain and an introverted personality is that when I approach a social situation, which I define as any situation involving another human being in even the most basic, predictable, or low-key way, my only means of navigating the interaction is to analyze every individual detail separately. I do not “pick up on” body language or “read between the lines” or “sense” what is going on or “just know” what is expected as most people do. To me, these things are not “obvious.” I am so sick of people telling me they are.
If I am sitting across from someone, I have to logically analyze every detail. Now they’re leaning forward, raising an eyebrow, crossing their arms, there was a three second pause between my asking a question and their answer. Everything goes through my head as if through a computer program.
If raised eyebrow, options are: intrigued, disgusted, surprised. Most likely answer, option 3. Next task.
If pause before answering, options are: surprise, thinking about response, reconsidering intended response, distracted by another thought. Most likely answer, option 2. Next task.
If crossed arms, options are: feeling defensive, offended, cold. Most likely answer, option 1. Next task.
All of these analyses take energy. And the more people in the group, the more energy it takes. The more things are going on around us, the more energy it takes. The higher the stakes, the more I pay attention, and more analysis I do, so that takes more energy.
If I am going into a situation with little energy to start, I am able to do less analysis, so I will have less information to work with, and the less likely it is that we will have what looks to you like a normal social encounter. The kind of encounter where you might not even notice I’m autistic, or maybe it’s just a little off, but not wholly awkward or hurtful or offensive.
Because it takes an extraordinary effort for me to be able to function socially half as well as you do without even thinking.
Back to Thanksgiving.
Due to various schedule constraints, I couldn’t leave Virginia until four days before Thanksgiving, so I didn’t get the pleasant, leisurely drive back across the country that I needed in order to arrive refreshed. I made the drive in three full days—breaking the 10,000 mile mark on the way, yay, and saw the gorgeous sunset pictured above—and was tired when I arrived at my mom’s.
Surprisingly to me, my extended family actually likes me and was looking forward to spending time with me, and my aunt was there to greet me. There was absolutely nothing that she did wrong, but I was exhausted from three long days on the road, and instantly overwhelmed. So as not to be offensive to her, I summoned up my last reserves of energy to be nice and chat for half an hour before she went home, and I went straight to bed.
The next morning, the day before Thanksgiving, my aunt took two of my younger cousins, my mom and I out for breakfast and that officially did me in. Again, nothing was objectively wrong with that, I just had absolutely no energy to deal with a) analyzing the many details in a conversation with other people, b) two of those people taking more analysis because they are less predictable as children, and c) being in a busy restaurant with all the sensory input that went with it and that I can’t tune out.
Long story short, I had no temper, no patience, no empathy and no interest in anything, for about the next month. No kidding. It took me about that long to recover.
Thanksgiving dinner itself, the next day, after my mom dragged me out of the house and got me to my aunt’s and uncle’s, was okay only because I kept moving rooms to find a quiet corner to be by myself, and went outside for a while to hang out in my van when it got too much, and my family was gracious enough to give me the space I needed to take care of myself.
Then I went home and slept for a month.
Okay, that was a long intro for a very short story. But for once I didn’t want to simply leave it as “I got overwhelmed” because that doesn’t help you to understand what is going on inside me. Why I get so easily overwhelmed.
My aunt recently described it this way. Everyone has a bucket for how much stimulation they can take before overflowing, and everyone’s bucket is a different size. Martha’s bucket is a bottle cap.
When I am feeling good, when my bottle cap is nearly empty and I have energy, I can actually be pleasant to be around, and want to go out and try different things, and sensory issues and transitions and all the other stuff don’t bother me quite as quickly. But it doesn’t take much for my bottle cap to fill up and overflow and that is when I get, well, let’s call it “unpleasant to be around.”
How big is your bucket?
I hope this helps some people understand me a little better, or at least spark a discussion. What is your experience like? Let me know in the comments below. I don’t think I’m alone in navigating the world like this, but it is definitely not the norm.