One of My Little Quirks: I Hate Surprises

Photo by Stefano Mortellaro via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Stefano Mortellaro via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

It was hard to find a relevant picture for this post that didn’t creep me out. Pictures of surprise parties? No thank you. So please enjoy the above photo of a surprised-looking cat. Thank you for understanding.

I hate surprise parties. I hate surprises of almost every kind. Please, please don’t surprise me. I will probably not react the way you’re hoping I will, and it will ruin everyone’s fun.

My mom loves surprising people, but she has learned not to try it with me, because it’s the reaction she loves, and I do not provide an acceptable one. If I enter a room and the lights go on and people yell surprise, I will probably jump back (possibly injuring myself in the process), then stand there like a deer caught in the headlights, and then vomit. Not exactly a precursor to a good time.

I love to be able to plan things, including my own reactions to things. If I know in advance that someone’s planning to surprise me, I can expect it, plan for it, and mentally brace myself for it. Then I can jump up and down, smile, clap my hands, say, “Yay!” and everyone will be happy. That is a much nicer scenario.

I also don’t like it when someone tries to keep something from me or lies to me about certain details so they can surprise me later. I can usually tell something’s going on, but I’m not sure what. It feels like they’re just messing with my head and is very disconcerting. I get little enjoyment out of the end result if I was put through any kind of mental confusion to get there. Just don’t do it, please.

On the other hand, if I suspect someone’s trying to surprise me and I’ve mentally prepared myself for it, but I turn out to be wrong, that can be unsettling too. In one of the cities we used to live in, there was this independent bookstore/coffee shop that had a large seating/event area and often had art on display and performances by local musical artists. It was a pretty cool place, but we didn’t go there very often because it was a bit out of our way. A few days before my birthday, my husband told me we would have to go to that bookstore on my birthday since a colleague of his was doing a book signing there and it would be good to support him. Because I’m a planner by nature as well as an information junkie, I looked up information on the man, his book, and the bookstore, but I could find nothing, not even on the store’s online calendar, about this book signing. That seemed odd. And then it hit me: There was no book signing. There was going to be a surprise party for me, and wow, what a perfect location for it. How utterly astute of whoever had thought of it! If I were planning a party for someone like me, that’s exactly the location I’d pick! So I thoroughly mentally prepared myself for the surprise and actually started to look forward to it. I even bought a new outfit.

Guess what. It was a book signing. Happy birthday to me!

I don’t even like parties, and there I felt all hurt and dejected because there wasn’t one. So, I don’t like surprises, but I also don’t like things that look like potential surprises but aren’t. Those are, in themselves, surprises, in that they are not what I was expecting.

I can honestly see why some people find me difficult. There’s just no pleasing me.

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Other Sensitivities

Photo by Bill Selak via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Bill Selak via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

This is a follow up to my post My Worst Sensitivities. Here are some more of my sensory issues. I consider these ones to have less of an impact on my life than the ones in my previous post.

Tactile, Continued

Aversion to water. I hate the feeling of water on my skin, and especially in my eyes. I have never learned to swim for this reason. One of the very small number of spankings I ever received in my life was because I was refusing a bath. When my husband and I shower together, he says I have a look on my face like I’m in pain the entire time. Despite how much I hate it, I do shower every day, because I hate feeling dirty and smelling bad more than I hate the feel of water. But sometimes when I can get away with it, like when I’m not working, I put off my shower until later in the day because I’m not a morning person and that horrible feeling in the morning is too much for me.

Visual

I don’t like bright colours. I dislike animated TV shows and movies for this reason. I never really liked most children’s shows or cartoons when I was a child because of the bright colours. I especially hate bright red and orange. But the colours I do like, I love. My favourite is a soft greeny-blue.

Sound

I have sensitivities to loud noises and auditory processing issues.

When the fire alarm in the building I live in goes off, I shake uncontrollably, even if I know it’s a false alarm. It’s the noise itself that rattles me.

I can enjoy loud music if it’s music I like and have chosen to listen to, but it drives me nuts if it’s someone else’s. Conflicting noises also drive me nuts. My dad has the tendency to put the TV on, get bored and leave the room without turning the TV off, go into the next room, and put the radio on in there. When I can hear a TV and a radio at the same time, it makes me feel like I’m losing my mind or like my head’s going to explode. It is very, very unpleasant.

I also have trouble in crowded, noisy environments picking out the one voice that’s talking to me. This has always made church attendance difficult for me, as standing around in a crowded church lobby and chatting with people is the expected thing. Trying to skip this is frowned upon, as churches are big on “community” these days and I would even go so far as to say many of them worship community more than they worship God. Going home to read the Bible and pray? Bad. Standing around making small talk about the weather? Good. (I realize if you don’t believe in God, this may not seem like such a bad thing, but for me, believing in God is the one and only reason I’ve ever gone to church. I’m not there for anything else.) In these situations, I stand there and smile and nod and hope they’re not asking me any questions. I have sometimes told people I have auditory processing issues and I can’t understand what they’re saying to me. Sometimes we then stand there in awkward silence before they excuse themselves to talk to someone else, but more often they just keep chattering away and I keep nodding. I don’t know why I keep doing that after I’ve already admitted I can’t understand them. I think it’s just because I hate making people feel bad or uncomfortable.

There are some sounds I like that you wouldn’t expect me to. I love the sound of traffic on a highway. I find it quite soothing, even when I’m trying to fall asleep. I live near an airport and I don’t mind the sound of planes overhead. I also love the sound of rain and howling wind.

Other issues I don’t know how to categorize include:

Sensitivity to hot and cold. This could be related to my hypothyroidism or other health issues. It’s getting worse as I get older.

Motion sickness, when I sit in the backseat of a car. This makes me not want to go anywhere with others unless I can sit in the front, but obviously insisting on sitting in the front seat on outings with people can come across as pretty obnoxious. It’s easier to just stay home.

Oddly enough, I love roller coasters and never get sick on them (although it’s been a while since I’d ridden one because I don’t know anyone else who can tolerate them). I think it’s because a roller coaster ride doesn’t last long enough for the motion sickness to kick in. I’m usually in a car for at least 10 minutes before I start feeling sick.

I might have more issues I’m just not thinking of at the moment, but the ones in this post and my previous post are the ones that immediately come to mind.

My Worst Sensitivities

Photo by DLG Images / www.directline.com via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by DLG Images / www.directline.com via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I have huge sensory issues. These are the worst ones:

Smell/Odor

The biggest one is odor sensitivity. This isn’t always negative. I can smell when someone bites into an apple in another room. I can usually tell when something is done baking from the way it smells. I can detect the slightest odor when no one else can, leading people to think I’m imagining things, but the source of the odor is almost always eventually located and I am proven right. My husband jokes that I should get a job as a sniffer dog at the airport.

Unfortunately, as I’m sure you can imagine, this leads to problems as well. I have been known to vomit if I smell excrement, sweat, or food that’s gone even slightly off. I am intensely uncomfortable if I smell cigarette or marijuana smoke. And I am nauseated by the smell of some cooking, especially curry, but also ground beef. Funnily enough, my mom says she was nauseated by the smell of ground beef cooking when she was pregnant with me.

My odor sensitivity is one reason I’m actually glad I’ve never been able to have children. I cannot change diapers or even be near a baby with a full diaper. People say, “It’s different when it’s your own,” but I don’t believe it would be for me, because (and I apologize if this is a rather crude thing to say) sometimes it’s not even different when it actually is my own, if you get my drift. You can imagine how difficult this can make everyday life for me.

I know at least one woman who loathes me and unfriended me on Facebook because I ran outside and threw up when I could smell dirty diapers in the church nursery. She’s one of those people whose life revolves around babies and children, so to encounter someone who is sickened by the smell of their natural functions is a great offense to her. In a way, I can understand. But I can’t help it.

Another problem my odor sensitivity has caused is with my in-laws. I am married to a Brit, and his friends and family always want to go out for “a lovely curry.” Unlike for most Caucasians here in Canada, it seems to be their go-to dining out or take-out choice. But I can’t do it. They say, “You can eat western food while the rest of us have curry,” but I can’t even be present where it’s being cooked or eaten. I will vomit. I have heard my mother-in-law on the phone with her friends talking to them about how weird it is that I don’t like curry, and how it negatively affects their plans.

Taste/Food Texture

I have food taste and texture sensitivities, as well as gastrointestinal issues. For texture, the worst is any kind of fat or gristle in meat, and I am grossed out by anything with bones. (I’m this close to becoming a vegetarian, but that’s a topic for another post.) When I go out, I stick to boneless skinless chicken breasts, shrimp, or white fish. I don’t like fish such as salmon, as it’s too strongly flavoured. At home I will eat roast beef, only if it’s boneless and I’ve cooked it in the slow cooker until it’s very well done and removed all obvious fat.

I don’t like most strongly-flavoured cheeses, and I don’t like spicy food unless it’s Mexican and as long as it’s not overloaded with cumin. In fact, Mexican is one of my favourite cuisines, taste-wise, even though it sometimes gives me a stomach ache. Speaking of stomach aches, I get horrible ones from bananas. I get mild ones from cucumbers and avocados. I like leafy greens, especially spinach, but it goes right through me. I also abhor the taste of coffee and won’t even eat mocha-flavoured desserts.

It is very difficult for me to eat at other people’s homes and I have had very bad experiences as a result. To compound this issue, I am prone to hypoglycemia, so I do need to eat regularly. If I find myself somewhere that has nothing I can tolerate, I can end up in a bad state. I have to try to remember to carry a fast sugar plus a protein bar at all times.

Touch/Tactile

I am sensitive to the feel of some fabrics and fits of clothing. I have hated corduroy my entire life. Touching it creeps me out as badly as nails on a blackboard. I also don’t like velvet or suede. There are others I have an aversion to that I don’t know the name of.

My sensitivity in this area has increased as I’ve gotten older. I used to be able to wear uncomfortable things for the sake of so-called beauty (like pantyhose back when they were still in fashion, or high-heeled shoes), but I can’t do it, or perhaps I’m not willing to do it, anymore.

Now I will only wear soft fabrics, preferably with some stretch in them, and nothing too form-fitting in my abdomen or arms unless it’s very soft and stretchy. In recent years I have shopped almost exclusively at Old Navy because I can always find affordable, comfortable clothing that fits me the way I want it to. I’m sorry if that sounds like a commercial. They’re not paying me to say that. They can if they want to.

I also don’t like physical touch. I remember my parents arguing about this when I was a child. My mom thought I should hug the relatives, and if I didn’t like it, I should get over it, because it’s the kind and loving thing to do. My dad thought I shouldn’t be forced to hug anybody. He doesn’t like hugging either, so that is one thing he’s always understood about me.

My aversion to touch got worse when I was about 7. I remember being cuddled up to my mom and smelling a certain odor coming from her body, and it just grossed me out to the point where I couldn’t touch her after that. I never explained that to her, and I don’t think I should have, but I think she’s since felt hurt by my rejection of her physical touch. Also, around the same age, I somehow came up with the weird idea that if people touched me, they would be able to read my mind, and I didn’t want that. It’s not that my thoughts were bad, it’s just that they were mine.

I no longer believe people can read my mind. Maybe my life would be easier if they could, as my motives would no longer be misunderstood like they often are.

There are exceptions to my aversion to touch. I like touching and being touched by my husband (although there are things I can’t tolerate even with him, like being tickled), and I can hug my closest friends. And I love cuddling with cats, although I can’t always stay in one position for a long time like they want me to.

I have become pretty good at putting on an act, like when I used to attend church, where people hug all the time. I act like it’s okay and like I even enjoy it, but my skin is crawling with revulsion the entire time. And there was this one woman I couldn’t handle hugging because she had really bad body odor, so not only was I repulsed by the touch itself, but I nearly vomited every time she came near me. Then I was terrified of hurting her feelings if she realized I was vomiting because I thought she smelled bad. But then I actually did hurt her feelings because I started avoiding her. She became very aggressive, actually chasing me down and saying, “I’m not going to let you get away without giving me my hug!” (For what it’s worth, I heard her saying that to other people too, so I wasn’t her only target.) It was so horrible, I actually finally had to confess to her that I was uncomfortable with hugs. To my utter horror, she started to cry and she told me about how when she was a child, she desperately wanted someone to hug her and no one did, and that’s the reason it was so important to her to have hugs as an adult.

Immediately after the encounter, I went out to my car and had one of my meltdowns, crying and shaking and gasping for air. I was certain that I was a horrible person who had disappointed God with my lack of love and my callous treatment of one of His people. I felt that I’d be better off staying away from people entirely, instead of being around them and hurting their feelings so badly.

More of my sensitivities are mentioned in my next post.

Meltdown

Photo by Enesse Bhé via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Enesse Bhé via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

There may be times in my blog when I will mention having meltdowns. I’ve read that people with Asperger’s tend to have meltdowns, although I suspect it doesn’t always look the same for everyone. I’ll tell you what a meltdown is like for me.

First, I start to feel overwhelmed. This can be by external stimuli like being surrounded by people, lots of movement, hurrying, noise, loud voices, smells. Or it can be by my own emotions, triggered by people putting excessive demands on me, insulting or criticizing me, judging me, or (and this is the very worst) falsely accusing me of something.

Combine both external and internal pressures and it’s a recipe for disaster for me.

First, my brain gets fuzzy and it’s hard to think or concentrate. Then things start to get blurry, visually. My visual focus becomes narrow and I stop being aware of things in my peripheral vision. Then I start to feel a pressure rise up in my body, from my core, up up up, tightening my chest on the way, until it reaches my eyes. When that pressure starts is when I know I need to get someplace where I can be alone. If I can, the impact on my life will be minimal. If I can’t, like if I’m at work and can’t get away, it’s catastrophic.

There’s always this one moment that’s the tipping point. Once that moment passes, there’s no going back. Have you ever slipped on icy ground and tried to right yourself, but had this moment where you knew it didn’t work and you were going down? That’s what it feels like.

Once the pressure reaches my eyes I start to cry. Uncontrollably. I shake. Sometimes I have an asthma attack. Often I vomit. There is no way I can coherently explain my thoughts. People witnessing it think I’m immature and trying to get attention. I’m not. The last thing I want is attention at that point.

Eventually the outward behaviors stop. I go home, if I wasn’t already there (and I am usually not at home when it happens, unless my MIL is visiting). If it happened at work, I then usually quit that job. Seriously. I quit. In those cases I feel like I can’t handle doing anything different. If I don’t quit, I inevitably get “let go” soon afterwards anyway.

And then outwardly, I can seem okay. I carry on with my life. I talk, smile, eat, do errands. But for months after a big one, I barely clean my house, keep in touch with anyone, or even keep up with my hobbies. I am just utterly exhausted.

I get called “emotionally unstable.” I’ve never been diagnosed with any psychiatric condition though. I talked to one doctor about it, and also one counselor, but those discussions went nowhere.

When I feel like a meltdown is coming on, I try to avoid it, but my methods of avoidance usually piss people off, like walking away when it’s not appropriate to do so or blurting out something that other people take the wrong way.

One time when I was with my family in a restaurant and there were various other circumstances surrounding the outing like having house guests and having to drive in a city I hated with a car full of people, I could feel it coming. I said to them, “I really need people to not talk to me right now.” I didn’t know how else to say it just then to explain the overstimulation I was feeling. Fortunately, my family understood and gave me space, but a stranger (who unfortunately was in my direct line of sight, otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed) overheard me and looked at my mom and rolled her eyes, as if to say, “Ugh, what a drama queen.” That just about killed me, emotionally speaking. I do not want to be that person. I said to my mom, who was next to me, “How else am I suppose to say it when I feel that way? How should I say it next time?” My mom replied, “It’s okay. It’s okay how you said it. I knew what you meant.”

I should probably mention that my mom has not always been like this. My mom used to have huge anger issues and mood swings, and when I was a kid she could be downright verbally, emotionally, and even spiritually abusive. But she has changed and grown and is like a different person now. And she’s read things I’ve asked her to read so she does understand my issues now. I know I am fortunate to have that support.

But other people. Obviously other people are not going to understand the motives behind my words, actions, and outward signs of imminent meltdown, let alone the meltdown itself. And the fact that other people judge me for them makes them, and the fallout from them, so very much worse.

I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to not have them. I talked to my counselor about it and he offered suggestions for coping strategies, but they don’t always work. Either I don’t have the presence of mind to implement them, or when I do, other people thwart the things I try to do to protect myself.

It’s not like I have these meltdowns all the time. They can range from once every two to five years or so. (My last one was in March 2014, the one before that was in September 2010.) During the times I can get away with staying out of the workforce and not having my mother-in-law as a house guest (no one pushes my sensory and emotional buttons like she does), they’re pretty much nonexistent. But when they happen, they have a life-altering impact.

For the most part, I like the way I am, Aspergian ways and all. If I truly have Asperger’s as I suspect, I wouldn’t want to change that, because I like my gifts and interests and I wouldn’t want to lose those. But one thing I would change is my tendency to have meltdowns. They are horrible, humiliating, and debilitating.

Perhaps if the world were different. Gentler, quieter, more accommodating and tolerant of differences. But changing the world is a lot to ask.

“I was so happy, I was literally floating on air!”

Photo by J. Michael Raby, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by J. Michael Raby, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

You were literally floating on air? No, I don’t think you were.

As a child, I took everything people said literally. I have very clear memories of doing this.

1. When I mentioned something a boy had said to me, my dad asked, “Is he a boy you go to school with?” I thought carefully about the question and then replied, “No, I don’t go to school with him, I go to school with Jason,” referring to another boy whose mom gave me a ride every morning. While the boy I was initially referring to was in my class, I was thinking about the words go to, so I thought my dad meant who I literally travelled there with. The boy I had been mentioning got to school another way, therefore I did not see him as someone I went to school with.

2. When having a class picture taken, the teacher said, “Put your hands in your lap.” I looked down at my lap, not sure what exactly she meant. I tried to reason it out inside my head: Okay, when I sit on mom or dad’s lap, that’s on their lap. If that’s on, what’s in? I concluded that if the top of the thighs was on, there was only one place that could be considered in. So I pressed my hands together and stuffed them down in between my thighs. When I saw the resulting photo, I realized I’d gotten it wrong. Every other child sitting down in the photo had their hands neatly folded on top of their lap. In this context, “in your lap” meant the same thing as “on your lap” and I was apparently the only child who never would have guessed that.

3. For some unknown reason, there was a pile of boards stacked up beside the school building (that would never be allowed to happen these days, but nobody cared about safety back then). A friend of mine pointed at them and said, “On Friday, let’s use those boards to build a pedal car and pedal it to Disneyland.” I agreed to it and went to school that Friday actually thinking I was leaving for Disneyland that day. I didn’t know how to build a pedal car, but I assumed she did, since she proposed the idea. When she never mentioned it again, I was bewildered, disappointed, and a little relieved all at the same time. (We are friends to this day and still laugh about this.)

4. A certain celebrity at the time had the same name as me, and every time she would come on TV, my mom (who has always had the tendency to see significance in utterly insignificant things) would gleefully make a big deal about the woman’s name and say, “You’re just like her!” I remember examining this woman for similarities other than our shared name, and not being able to find any, announced that I wanted to be called something different.

5. I was a little older when this happened, but I had a friend who was from Ireland and often talked about her Irish heritage and Irish pride. One day when I was in a bookstore I saw a book about Irish myths and legends and I thought of her, so I bought it for her as a gift. (For what it’s worth, I thought the book was pretty cool and I would have liked it myself at the time, despite having no Irish heritage whatsoever.) When I presented it to her, she said, “Oh right, because I’m Irish, I’ll like anything to do with Ireland!” At the time I felt pleased that she liked the gift. It was only years later that I remembered the incident (I have an extremely good memory, to my detriment at times) and realized she was being sarcastic and the gift was actually a social blunder.

As I aged I learned to understand figures of speech and other nuances of language, as well as things like flights of fancy (2000 kilometres to Disneyland by self-propulsion, anyone?), mostly due to my love of literature, reading, writing, and English class. But there are times to this day when someone uses deadpan humour and I think they’re serious, even though I can use deadpan humour myself.

I think some people might hear (or read) me using figures of speech, metaphors, similes, slang, sarcasm, etc. and think that I must not have Asperger’s. But if you would have known me as a child and young adult, you might get that I probably do.

Social Skills, Then and Now

Photo by Jake Stimpson via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Jake Stimpson via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

When I was a child, no one had any idea that I was (possibly) autistic. I don’t think people knew a lot about Autism/Asperger’s back then. My parents and teachers considered me socially awkward and emotionally immature, but it was assumed it was because I was an only child. They thought if I were around other children more, I would gain the social skills I was lacking.

So, I was forced to join Brownies, gymnastics (wow, was that ever a bad fit for me!), and various church groups. I hated all of it. To this day I hate group dynamics and group activities. I usually like being with people one-on-one but I loathe being with people in groups.

After there was talk of having me skip grades and it was determined that I lacked the social maturity to be with older kids, my mom considered home schooling me so that I could advance academically at my own pace without being held back by my peers. She ended up deciding not to because she thought if I stopped being around other kids at school, I would never learn those all-important skills.

As it turned out, I never got better at social skills by going to school or participating in extracurricular activities. It was by taking the initiative to read self-help books, and then once the internet came along, by reading posts in discussion forums which helped me learn how other people think. I learned more that way than you would expect. For example, someone would post something like, “Help, there’s this creepy girl at school who wants to be friends with me!” And from the description of what the girl was doing that was so off-putting, I learned what not to do. It was very enlightening, and if it weren’t for the internet, I probably never would have been able to “eavesdrop” on conversations like that and mine them for clues about how to correctly interact with people.

I know there will be people reading this thinking, “You can’t learn social skills by reading!” But I really did. Reading is the way I learn, and it works well for me because I can do it in a non-overstimulating environment. If I’m overstimulated, which I always am when there’s a lot of people around, I absorb nothing.

TV also helped.* When I was a kid, there were a few years where my parents had determined that TV was evil and was poisoning young minds, so we didn’t have one (and then later when we did, we lived in a rural area where there was no cable and we could only get two channels). I feel that really set me back. Not only had I lost one of the only areas of commonality I had with other kids (leading me to ask questions like, “Who are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?!”), but I lost that window to the world and that opportunity to observe people interacting from a safe, non-overstimulating place. Not that TV always depicts the world or people’s interactions accurately, of course, but without it, and before the internet existed, a kid like me was almost completely cut off from the collective consciousness. If you’re already weird, it’s a great way to get even weirder, because you have nothing to compare yourself to. I couldn’t compare myself to the kids at school or in groups, because I’m unable to be observant when I’m overstimulated.

I’m an avid TV viewer now, and combined with the internet, it keeps me in touch not only with pop culture, but also with societal norms and values.

I think I am far more socially skilled as an adult than I was as a kid, and I think most people who know me would agree. (Unfortunately — and this may seem like a contradiction — I am also more socially anxious now. In other words, I perform better outwardly, but I feel worse on the inside. Perhaps that could be a topic for a future post.) I think I appear normal to most people. It’s not until they start asking me questions about my lifestyle and interests that they find out I’m weird. I’m not entirely sure if appearing normal is a great thing though. It just causes people to have expectations of me that I can’t live up to.

I think I’m one of those people who you either love or you hate. The small number of true friends I’ve accumulated over the years think I’m the nicest person they’ve ever met. I’m a good listener, I’m accepting, loyal, and I never expect people to be anything other than what they are. I’m horrified by the thought of hurting people’s feelings and even though I sometimes blurt out the wrong thing, especially if I’m overstimulated, I try very hard not to. Even then, my friends often tell me they value my honesty.

The people who don’t like me, loathe me. They think I’m an unfriendly, lazy, oversensitive, overemotional, stubborn oddball and who knows what else. I can only go by the things people actually say to me (I’ve been the recipient of an insane amount of criticism over the years).

I actually have less interest in sociability now than when I was a kid. Back then, I may have hated groups, but I did like people and want friends. Now, other than my desire to spend time with my long-time friends, which I can’t do because they live too far away, I almost don’t care anymore. I find it too exhausting to meet new people. Starting over from scratch with someone and having to answer all their questions and participate in all their social stuff just doesn’t feel worth it. If I found people I could really connect with like the friends I already have, I would love it. But the people I might have the ability to connect with are probably hiding somewhere like I am.

I find them on the internet sometimes. In Texas, in England, in Sweden. It seems I have to comb the world to find people I can relate to.

*Just to clarify, I’m not saying TV is always a positive thing for everybody. There might be people for whom TV shows become an unhealthy obsession and obscure reality, leading to absorption in a world of fantasy. But I’ve never been that way with it, and for me it’s been a positive thing.

Behind Frenemy Lines

Photo by Hartwig HKD, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Hartwig HKD, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

I had a friend growing up whom I’d known since birth, as our mothers were close friends. She was a year older than me and she was always in my life until we became adults. I never had siblings (that I knew of at the time, that is), so she was the closest thing I had to a sister.

If we’d met in any other way, I don’t think we would have become friends, as we had very little in common. Unlike me, she was extremely outgoing and socially skilled, and I met many, many people through her. Every guy I dated in my teens, I either met through her or through someone else I’d previously met through her. I absolutely would have been a virgin until age 31 if it weren’t for her. I was incapable of finding anyone to date without her, at least until the internet came along.

For a while, she and I called ourselves best friends and we spent time together every day. When other kids were mean to me, she comforted me and talked to me as if she were on my side. I later found out, however, that she mocked me behind my back and even once conspired with my bullies to get me to a certain place so they could beat me up while she watched. At the time I didn’t know why she wasn’t doing anything to help. I assumed she was scared. The truth was, she was in on it. That was a tough truth to face. But even after I found out, I forgave her and we rekindled our friendship. The thing is, I didn’t even have the capacity to be angry or to hold a grudge. I liked everybody, I was willing to be friends with anybody, and I would have forgiven anybody for anything.

But back to that day I got beat up. I remember walking with her to the gathering she’d invited me to and getting a prickly feeling on the back of my neck. I blurted out, “I have a feeling something bad is going to happen.”

“Me too,” she replied.

Yes, I bet she did. She’d helped to plan and orchestrate the evil that was about to be done to me. And why? Because I was uncool. A geek. A loser. To maintain her own social status, she had to prove to the other kids that she was like them, not like me.

I should have turned around and gone home when I got that prickly feeling. Why did I always walk into trouble like that, even when I obviously knew better? I trusted my intuition enough to voice it but not enough to act on it.

If I truly am autistic, it sheds a new light on the whole incident.

Congratulations, “friend,” you threw a younger autistic kid who trusted you to the lions.

Congratulations, bullies, you beat the shit out of a younger, literally defenseless autistic kid.

Nice human-being-ing. Good job.

It’s been said that autistic people lack empathy. Do the neurotypical bullies who beat up autistic kids have empathy? Should autistic people be “fixed” to be more like them?

See, I might be autistic (or I might not be — does self-diagnosis count?), but I have never deliberately hurt anyone in my entire life. If everyone were like me, there would be no fighting, no crime, and no war.

Who needs to change?

Self-Defense, Verbal and Otherwise

Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Photo by Marg, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

For much of my life I had problems defending myself. Partly because I didn’t quite know how to and partly because when under pressure I would become paralyzed and/or mute. People just did whatever they wanted to me.

One incident happened when I was in grade one (just to clarify, I’m Canadian; we call it grade one, not first grade). I was outside the school during lunch hour and some teachers came hurrying towards me and firmly told me that I needed to come to the principal’s office.

Apparently, I was being accused of breaking a window. I didn’t know why. I was not aware of having broken any window. But adults were saying I did, and I was completely trusting of adults, so I believed them. I believed that I had somehow broken that window without realizing it. As if maybe I had been running along and accidentally kicked up rocks from my shoes with such force that a window was broken. That sounds really implausible now, but it was the only explanation I could think of at the time.

Not that I expressed such thoughts. I couldn’t make any words come out of my mouth. I sat there silent, bewildered, and waiting to see what would happen.

By some miracle, my name was cleared without me having to do or say anything. I don’t quite remember what happened, but I think the real culprit confessed. I was free to go.

Flash forward 10 years. A bully girl attacked me and proceeded to beat me up really badly. By then I had learned to use my words. I kept saying, “If you have a problem with me, can’t we talk about it? Let’s work this out.” But she just yelled, “Shut up, loser!” The beating continued until an elderly couple came out of a nearby house and yelled that they were going to call the police. She left and the couple took me into their house and talked to me. “Why didn’t you do anything?” the man asked. “Why did you just let her do that to you?” I had no answer.

The problem was, despite having been able to find my words, I was not able to bring myself to physically fight back. I thought about it. I tried to envision it. But my body wouldn’t move. Other kids were cheering on the fight but there was no fight. There was no struggle. It was just one person pounding the other to a pulp. I suppose I looked like a coward but I wasn’t really afraid, just confused, sad, overwhelmed, and inexplicably paralyzed. I didn’t know why, so I couldn’t explain it.

Fortunately, once I was an adult people stopped inflicting violence on me. But I continued to find myself in situations where I was taken advantage of, misunderstood, or falsely accused, and I continued to be really bad at doing anything about it. I did try, but was horribly ineffective. Many times I was told, “You need to learn to stand up for yourself!”

Finally in my thirties I went through a year of counseling, and my counselor and I talked about strategies for standing up for myself if the need arose.

Then when I was 40 years old, one day at work, someone made a false accusation against me which was brought to my attention by my angry boss. I managed to stay calm and I explained to him why I was not guilty. He remained skeptical, as the person who made the accusation was highly regarded. He ended the conversation with, “I just want to get to the bottom of this!”

I knew it would not be difficult to prove my innocence. I compiled documents and e-mail exchanges that did get to the very bottom of the situation and revealed exactly what had happened. Basically, the whole mess was the result of someone requesting to book the facility for a certain date, me rightfully denying the booking because the facility was unavailable on that date, and them showing up anyway, leading to a whole shitstorm of consequences. It was 100% not my fault and the documents I provided proved it.

The following week was my 6-month performance review. I was told that while my work was of a consistently high quality and while I had always demonstrated a conscientious attitude, a courteous demeanor, and a high ethical standard, I was too defensive and had an unhealthy need for vindication. I told my boss that if he was referring to the incident of the previous week, perhaps I had misunderstood, but he’d said he wanted to get to the bottom of the situation. Since I had in my possession everything that could show him exactly what had transpired and why, I thought he would want to be made aware of it. My words only proved his point that I was defensive and he told me this was an area where I needed personal growth. I then made the mistake of blurting out that for much of my life I’d never defended myself, but I’d gotten counseling to learn how, and the fact that I could do so now meant I had achieved personal growth. He just stared at me. Then he made up a reason why I was fired.

It seems that I can’t quite get it right. I’m supposed to stand up for myself, but I’m not supposed to be defensive. I don’t know where the line is, and I still don’t know what I did wrong in the work situation (other than the part where I admitted that I’d had past issues that had required counseling, but things had already gone terribly awry by that point anyway). I know I am socially awkward, but I can’t imagine anyone not defending themselves or providing documents that proved a false accusation false. I’ve observed that most other people in the workplace are not pushovers and do not take any crap. But it seems like when other people do it, it’s accepted, and when I do it, I get it slightly wrong somehow, and it’s not accepted. I would be willing to change, but I’m never sure exactly where I’m going wrong.

The Puking Pipeless Pied Piper

Photo by Benjamin Griffiths, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Benjamin Griffiths, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

*Warning: This post may be triggering for those with odor and gag reflex sensitivity.

Through no effort of my own, I seem to be some kind of Pied Piper for cats and dogs. Is this an Autism/Asperger’s thing?

As I mentioned in a previous post, when I was a small child I used to go for walks in the woods with my dog and cats. They would all follow me or walk alongside me completely of their own volition. No leashes or harnesses. This does not seem weird to me, but my mom often brings it up. She says she’s never seen anything like it. She says even other animals would join in sometimes. It was like a fairy tale.

Animals have always appeared to be drawn to me. Dogs I’ve never encountered before get really excited when they see me, as if they already know who I am and think very highly of me. As if I’m some kind of celebrity in the canine world. If I’m with a group of people, I’ll be the one dogs run to.

Photo by Nadir Hashmi, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Photo by Nadir Hashmi, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

Often I’ve been told things like, “He’s not usually like this with anyone. He was abused before we adopted him and is afraid of new people.” Meanwhile, he’s frantically wagging his tail, jumping all over me, and trying to lick my face.

Photo by Eric Danley via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. Photo has altered from original (slightly cropped).
Photo by Eric Danley via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. Photo was altered from original (slightly cropped).

I’ve even had aggressive dogs calm right down and sit down submissively at my feet. My mom is afraid of dogs because she’s been bitten before, but I have never had a dog act aggressively towards me in my whole life.

Cats are naturally more aloof than dogs, but they like me too. (My cat is cuddled up on me as I type this.) Again, it includes cats who don’t usually warm up to people. I’ve inadvertently pissed people off by somehow managing to be a magnet for a previously feral cat that they’ve just claimed will only come to them. These cats will saunter right up to me and push their head into my hand so I will pet them.

Photo by Peter Stevens via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. Photo was altered from original (cropped).
Photo by Peter Stevens via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. Photo was altered from original (cropped).

A long-time friend who has witnessed this happen to me many times once said that animals sense that I am just completely harmless. But a lot of people are harmless. This seems like something else.

People have often said that I should be working or at least volunteering with animals in some capacity, but I have a problem. I am extremely, cripplingly sensitive to odors. If I so much as get a whiff of excrement or even a wet dog (among many other things), I will vomit. This has caused problems for me many times in life.

I try not to let it happen. At home I keep a bottle of scented oil from The Body Shop nearby so I can immediately get another scent into my nostrils. I try to use mind-over-matter to think of other things and ignore the revulsion. I have a specific song that I quietly sing to myself as a distraction: My Favorite Things from The Sound of Music.

My husband now tries to help me by singing it to or with me when he sees that I’m about to spew. More often than not this is all to no avail and the inevitable happens. If I can’t get away from the smell, I will continue to dry heave even after my stomach has long been emptied, making it impossible to function in any useful capacity.

Obviously there is no way I can volunteer in an animal shelter or start a dog-walking service. I would be useless. It’s hard enough sometimes to have a pet, but our cat brings so much joy to our lives that we work around my issues. Outside of my own home I would not be able to have so much control. The litter box is kept in a storage closet with the door left open just wide enough for our cat to enter. Every time I need to be near the closet door I breathe through my mouth (this doesn’t always work because if the odor is strong enough I will smell it through my mouth too). My husband handles all the litter box and cat puke issues. That was our arrangement before we adopted her and is the only way we can manage having her. If my husband goes away to a conference or something, I have to get someone else to come and scoop the litter box. It is difficult to explain to people why I require this and I know they don’t understand and probably just see me as a fussy princess who finds icky things unpleasant, but it is so much worse than that. It is completely undoable for me. I’m sorry I’m like this. I hate being judged.

I hear about volunteer opportunities for animal lovers and think I would be ideal for them if only it weren’t for my odor sensitivity. I especially love cats and I wish I could handle having more than just one, but more cats mean more odor. I watch kitten cams on Livestream, which I greatly enjoy and find to be quite therapeutic, but it’s not enough. Whenever I hear of homeless or sick cats my heart just aches for them and I wish I could take them in.

Photo by California Chan via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. Photo has been altered from original (cropped).
Photo by California Chan via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons. Photo has been altered from original (cropped).

It’s frustrating to feel or be told that I have some kind of gift with animals and yet not be able to do anything about it. So is this an Autism thing? I mean, I know the sensory issues are, but is the animal-magnet thing? Since I’ve suspected that I have Autism, I am seeing a lot of aspects of my life in a potentially new light.

Age (In)Appropriateness, Part 2

Photo by Georgie Pauwels, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Georgie Pauwels, via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

Continued from Age (In)Appropriateness, Part 1.

I had stopped going to church in my teens, and decided to start again when I was 26. By then I lived in a different town and didn’t know anyone at the church I’d chosen to attend, but I had become very interested in learning more about God and my reading on the subject had ceased to be enough to satisfy me. When I was younger, church youth groups had always been overstimulating for me with all their noise and games, but I thought now that I was an adult, I could join an adult small group that would be more my speed. I spoke to the pastor and he recommended a specific group based on my location and interests.

As soon as I showed up at the group meeting, my age was an issue. There was no one there under about 45, which didn’t bother me at all, but they seemed discombobulated by my presence. First of all, they didn’t believe I was 26 and estimated me to be about 16. (So when I was 10 I was perceived to be 16, and when I was 26 I was still — or again — perceived to be 16!)

Once I cleared up their misunderstanding and assured them I was an adult, they allowed me to stay and I continued to attend their weekly meetings, but I never felt truly welcome. They often made comments to me about how I must have thought the group wasn’t the right fit for me, how they thought they were too old for me, or how they were certain I would be better off joining a group with “other kids.” Their words made me feel uneasy, but I don’t think I truly understood what they were getting at.

Then one Sunday, an unfamiliar woman at church approached me in a very friendly manner. She said she was trying to get her 18-year-old daughter to join the church’s College and Career group and she wanted me to befriend her daughter, encourage her to join the C&C group, and attend it with her. At the time, I didn’t know what was going on, but in retrospect I realize the woman must have been sicced on me by the members of my group. It was framed as if I’d be doing a good deed for this 18-year-old, helping her feel welcome and get more involved, but I’m now convinced that the real motive was to get me away from the “grown ups.” They’d been saying they were too old for me, but I’m now certain they thought I was too young for them. Their scheme worked and I quit my adult group and joined the C&C group, feeling that I had no choice. (For what it’s worth, that 18-year-old has ended up being one of my best friends in the world to this day, despite our age difference, so at least something good did come out of it.)

I didn’t enjoy the C&C group. It was officially designated for young adults aged 18 to 28 but I was the only participant older than 20, except for the leader who was my age. Like all church C&C groups, it was intended to serve as a transitional group for those who were too old for youth group but not interested in or ready to join an adult group. It’s great that these groups exist for those who want them but it did not feel like the right fit for me and I felt like a fish out of water. I was dressed more like their parents than like them, and almost no one there was actually interested in studying or learning like I was. It was all about having fun and hanging out. We even had to perform Sunday School-style “action songs,” like the one below:

Sometimes the leader even got us to perform them in public places other than church, and unlike in the above video, there were not even any children present. Apparently we were the children! I’d never enjoyed things like that when I was a child, so imagine my horror at being coerced into it when I was between the ages of 26 and 28. The whole thing turned into a freakin’ nightmare in more ways than one, but that’s perhaps a topic for another post.

As I continued to go to church, my age was always an issue. I was always too young. When I was 28, a woman in the church talked me into signing up for a certain international ministry’s “leadership training course,” giving me a spiel about how I had the characteristics of a potential group leader. With my passion for learning and studying, I naively thought maybe this was my calling (not realizing at the time that you also have to be good with people to be a leader). I spent money I couldn’t afford to take that course and while there, they did nothing but try to sell books and other materials to me and the other participants. I soon realized it was pretty much just a money-making scheme for them. Nonetheless, when I completed it I approached the woman who’d recruited me and asked for her advice on how to go about setting up my own group. She looked at me like I was crazy and said, “You can’t lead a group! You’re too young!” Then she conceded, “Maybe you could volunteer with the youth group and work with teens.” Meanwhile, there were female adult group leaders in the church who weren’t much older than I was. But they were already married with kids and were perceived and treated differently than I was.

Speaking of marriage, I was 31 when I got married and planning my wedding was awkward, as everyone who met me during the process thought I was too young to get married. A saleswoman at one formal shop assumed I was shopping for my prom. One woman I spoke to said, “You can’t be getting married. You look 12 years old!” 12?! My perceived age was actually dropping!

(Fortunately, my husband looks young too, otherwise I guess people would think he’s a pervert.)

During our marriage, we have moved a lot for the sake of my husband’s career, so we’ve experienced being the new couple at church many times. In our thirties we had to turn down many invitations to College and Career groups.

Even now in my forties, it’s awkward to meet new people because they make false assumptions right off. I continue to find that church women my own age talk down to me or want to mentor me, assuming I’m a new, young wife, while women in their early twenties approach me saying how good it is to see another married woman their own age at church. People also talk to me as if I “haven’t had kids yet,” even though at my age, if it hasn’t happened yet, it probably won’t.

A couple years ago, at the most recent church my husband and I attended, a middle-aged couple invited us out for lunch one day and told us that while we’re living in this city they’d like to be our substitute parents. I just smiled and said thank you, not wanting to make a big deal out of the age thing. Later the woman asked how long we’d been married and I said 9 years. She reacted with shock, apparently doing mental calculations, and said we must have gotten married very young. I told her our ages and she slammed herself back in her seat, bugged out her eyes, and said, “That’s insane!” She couldn’t believe it. After that, she was mean and snarky to me, making snide comments about how I was probably after her husband. Like, what?! If I was in my twenties, or whatever age she thought I was, she wanted to be my mother, but if I’m 40, I’m a possible threat to her marriage?! I am still baffled. I don’t get it.

My hair hasn’t yet started to go grey and the only wrinkles that have appeared are small ones below my eyes which no one else seems able to see except me. I still get carded at the liquor store and it’s even been insinuated that I’m using a fake ID, since I supposedly cannot possibly be the age that is indicated on it. One time, a man demonstrating kitchen knives in a department store refused to give me a promised sample knife because he wasn’t allowed to give them to minors. Even friends seem baffled by my appearance sometimes. Recently when meeting up with an old friend after years apart, she exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, I’d forgotten how freakishly childlike your hands and feet are!”

Meanwhile, the way I feel inside has changed a lot, but perhaps not in the way you’d expect. When I was in my twenties, I felt older than my age. Other twenty-somethings always seemed so energetic in a way that I wasn’t, they weren’t as serious as I was, and unlike them I was useless at keeping up with things like trends or fashion. Now that I’m in my forties, I’ve done a 180. Thanks to the internet, I’ve gotten much better at keeping up with what’s popular. I am not very observant when I’m out there in the world because I’m usually so overwhelmed but when I’m online I enjoy finding info on what’s currently in fashion and figuring out how to implement it for myself. My musical tastes have changed as well. People seem to expect me to like the classic rock I listened to when I was young but for the most part, I can’t stand it. I love new music, especially indie and electronica, and am always seeking out new bands to listen to. I’ve also gotten less serious as I’ve aged and in some ways have loosened up quite a bit.

Most new people I meet now who are my age are parents, are completely (understandably) wrapped up in parenting, and post memes on Facebook about how you don’t truly grow up or become an adult until you have children.

So I feel like I was never really a child, and now somehow I’m not really an adult either. It’s like I’m not any age, as if somehow I’m exempt or excluded from progressing through life in a normal way or in a lineal fashion.

The only people I still feel I can relate to are my long-time friends (most of whom, funnily enough, either aren’t married or aren’t parents, or both), but I don’t live near any of them anymore. I have zero social life in my current city and have even stopped going to church (which has been a wonderful relief and has eliminated a lot of stress from my life, but is no reflection on my faith or how I feel about God). When I go out shopping or wherever, I feel like I’m a GenX’er in disguise as a Millennial, not deliberately, but rather by some freak cosmic mistake.

I’m not saying this to brag. (Perhaps I should add that I am not beautiful or hot. I never, ever get hit on. I don’t look good, I just look young in some kind of freakish, woman-child kind of way.) I know I’m supposed to feel flattered when people don’t believe I’m 42 but I don’t. I feel misunderstood and as if people think I’m being deliberately deceptive. But like I told that 20-year-old when I was 15, I’m not trying to do anything. I just am what I am but it’s never been quite right or appropriate for my age, apparently.

I never understood why this is the case until I read Aspergirls, which mentioned that it’s quite typical for females with Asperger’s syndrome to act and appear younger than their age. So if I really do have Asperger’s/autism, I’m “normal” for a female with autism, I guess. I suppose it’s nice to feel typical for once, even if it is only typical within a very specific subset of people.