There’s been a big change in my life since I last updated my blog. I now have a job.
I created and am now managing a website for a local nonprofit, as well as handling all their social media and creating brochures and posters and forms for them. The tasks are all things I am comfortable with and come very naturally to me. This is the first time I’ve had a job that is a near-perfect match to my actual skills and aptitudes. I’ve turned out to be good at this job. I am getting a lot of positive feedback on my work from my boss and the public.
The job basically fell into my lap. My husband was already working part time for this organization, and the boss was saying to him that they really needed to hire someone who can do this kind of thing, and he said his wife can. He only said that because he thought that a work-from-home situation could probably be arranged, and when the boss asked to meet me that’s what I thought it was going to be. But that’s not what was offered, and I was so overwhelmed when talking to her that I agreed to everything she wanted. I left there with my head spinning, almost not even sure what had just happened.
It’s only part-time, three afternoons a week. I thought that would be manageable. Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder for me to be there.
The environment is loud, noisy, smelly and generally chaotic. I get a headache or nausea almost every time I’m there. I gagged at work twice yesterday. Meanwhile, most of my coworkers are deeply unhappy because our boss treats them badly, and of course I pick up on that. The atmosphere is tense.
Strangely enough, my boss seems to treat me better than she treats many of my coworkers, which greatly surprises me! (I suspect it’s because she’s the one who hired me, whereas most of them were hired by the previous manager and are more set in their ways, which are the old manager’s ways.) But even so, I don’t like her. She’s not a nice person. It doesn’t matter if it’s me getting treated badly or other people; it affects me either way. I like and respect a lot of my coworkers and feel they deserve to be treated better.
I don’t want to be there. My whole body feels consumed by dread when I have to go there. I like the work itself, but I don’t know how much longer I can keep going there to that place.
The vast majority of what I do can easily be done from home, and I wrote my boss an email before Christmas saying that I want to work from home most of the time and explaining why that would be a good thing for all concerned. No, I didn’t mention that I don’t like her or that I think she treats people badly! I just explained that I have health issues that cause fatigue and I also have sensory processing disorder which causes me to have trouble concentrating at work due to the all the sensory stresses in the workplace environment. I didn’t mention autism, because I still have never sought a diagnosis and I think that’s a pretty big claim to make to your boss when you have nothing to back it up. So I put the focus on my sensory issues and told her that I believe I would be far more happy, healthy and productive working from home.
My boss told me that we could have a meeting to discuss what I’d written in my email, but one thing after another has come up to prevent that meeting from happening.
I had originally taken this job on a three-month trial basis but as of tomorrow I will have been working there for four months. I keep showing up, but I am getting more and more miserable every day. I had some time off over Christmas and New Years and it reminded me how much happier and at peace I am when I get to stay home.
My husband and I both started attending employment counseling last week. After the first appointment, we came away with very different schedules. My counselor had me fully booked for workshops and appointments every day this week and into the next. Meanwhile, my husband was scheduled for only two workshops and one one-on-one appointment with a networking expert.
I had even been honest with the counselor about how overwhelmed I get and told her I can only handle part-time work (if that). She must not have understood what I was getting at. She would not have over-scheduled me if she had.
The workshops have proven to be pretty much useless. I already know how to write a resume. My problems are far more complex than that. What they’re teaching is so basic I think you’d have to be a complete idiot to get much out of it. I’m not saying I learned nothing though. I learned a couple of sneaky, unethical tricks to get my resume seen by potential employers. That’s the kind of stuff they’re teaching people.
There were really only two things I hoped to get out of all this, which have already proven to be complete busts:
I was hoping to get help identifying a new career path that is a better fit for me than office admin. The only thing that’s come out of this in that regard is the advice to “find a way” to make money using my writing skills. No shit. Easier said than done.
I was hoping there would be some kind of government funding for retraining, but my counselor told me on day one that there is nothing like that available.
I have ended up extremely overwhelmed and stressed by something that is proving to be of no value or benefit whatsoever. The problem is that I don’t know how to get out of it. It goes against everything in me to just not show up, so I know I need to cancel, but I don’t know how to. I will feel like I need to offer some excuse, but I don’t have one. And I don’t want to piss anyone off in a small town like this. In fact, my counselor even goes to my former church, which I intend to start attending again. If I bail out of all this without a good reason it’s going to be really hard to face her socially.
So I’ve continued to go.
My state of overwhelm finally came to a head today in a workshop on “Finding the Hidden Job Market.” This was the most useless workshop yet. It was basically hours of the instructor saying, “You have to socialize and talk to people to get a job in this town,” in a variety of different ways. I was already well aware of this. There’s no new way anyone can say it to make it any easier for me in practicality. So I was sitting there, feeling physically worn out from the week’s schedule, feeling tired from days of having gotten up earlier than my body can cope with, and with a blinding headache from the fluorescent lights. I was trying to look at the printouts I’d been given and the letters and words just started swimming on the page in pools of bright light, blending together, indistinguishable.
And then things took a bad turn, socially. She was talking about how if you’re new in town, employers are going to love that you’ve moved here, because…. she paused… she then looked at me and for some reason decided to single me out. “Do you and your husband have kids?” she asked me.
“No,” I said.
“But of course you will in the future.” Not a question. A statement.
“No,” I snapped, too loudly. “I’m already 43; if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s probably not going to.”
The room went silent for an awkward moment while everyone stared at me. Or at least I felt like everyone was staring at me. My face started to burn. I had overshared. Typical.
Then she, apparently unfazed, went on to say something… now I will probably not quote this accurately, word for word, because my head was in such a whirl that I’m not sure exactly what she said… but it was something to the effect that if we had kids, we would be seen as more valuable to the community, because our kids would be going to school here and would be involved in things and would be seen as the future of the community.
So, wait. What? She’s telling me I have to procreate to be valuable to the community? That employers would be happy my husband and I have moved here if we had kids? Was she implying they’d be more likely to employ us if we were parents and could contribute to the future population of the town? Is that how people think?! I hope I misunderstood what she was getting at because that is fucked.
I remained silent during this little lecture.
Not long after that, she had each person do a role-playing exercise with her. We were supposed to pretend that she was a potential employer and we were introducing ourselves for the purpose of networking. As she went around the room, getting closer to me, I felt this tightness rise higher and higher up my body. I started wracking my brain trying to think of something to say when she got to me, but my head was in such a fog by that point that I was a complete blank. I could not string a coherent thought together. When I realized that, I started trying to weigh my options for escape. But again, my brain wasn’t really working. My first instinct was to run from the room. But that would attract so much attention. I hate attracting attention. And there was actually someone in a chair blocking the path from my seat to the door. I would have to ask them to move to get out. So that was out of the question.
That was as far as I had gotten in my thought process when she finally came to me. She stuck out her hand and said, in her role as potential employer, “Nice to meet you. What can I do for you today?”
I blurted out, “I’m so sorry, I cannot pull it together to do this right now. I have a blinding headache and am not okay. I don’t want to be difficult but I just can’t.”
“Oh yes, you’re so difficult,” she said jokingly. Then she made some comment about how you shouldn’t be approaching employers if you’re having a bad day anyway and moved on to the next person. Funnily enough, and perhaps fortunately for me, two other people declined after me. One guy said it takes him all day to think of something to say and he can’t handle being put on the spot like that. A fellow Aspie, maybe? I could certainly relate.
As I sat there, I was feeling so awful, physically and emotionally, that I started having — okay, don’t be alarmed here; I’m not suicidal — mental images pop into my head of me shooting myself. I wasn’t actively thinking about suicide, or wanting to do it, or planning it. I don’t even know how to use a gun. It was just these images, unbidden. I used to get them a lot when I was young, but it’s been a very long time since the last time it happened. In fact, it was here, in this town, where I used to have them a lot.
When I got home, I fell asleep for a couple of hours and when I woke up, I didn’t know what day it was. I thought I was waking up the next morning. It took a few minutes to gain my bearings.
I really don’t want to go back to that place. Am I a terrible person if I don’t?
So many times since I’ve been staying at home people have asked me, “What do you do all day? Don’t you get bored?”
No, I truly don’t. I don’t even really understand the concept of boredom. It’s not something I can relate to. I think the closest thing I’ve ever felt to boredom is the annoyance of being in a situation where I have to do or pay attention to something I’m really not interested in. But if I’m not doing anything, I don’t feel bored. There is way too much going on inside my head for me to feel bored. As I mentioned in a previous post, I have the tendency to space out and just think my own thoughts. I am completely content doing that.
But other than my spaced-out episodes, I’m rarely doing nothing. Even without a job, there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything I want or need to do. I think part of it is that I work slowly. A sink-load of dishes that would take my mom ten minutes to wash takes me an hour. Writing a blog post like this can easily take me an hour or two.
I do a lot of writing and reading. I’m a news junkie and browse the headlines and read a lot of news articles every day. And I take a lot of free online courses through the public library and Coursera. I’m learning Norwegian and French on Duolingo. I talk to my parents on the phone three times a week, and each call usually lasts for about an hour and a half. I don’t have a car, so when I run errands it takes me longer than it takes most people. I also walk on a treadmill for 40 minutes most days of the week.
I think my nervous system is so sensitive that I need very little stimulation to be comfortable. And when I am in a situation where there’s a lot of stimulation, like in a noisy, crowded, or busy environment, it takes me a long time to recover afterward. When I was working, I was overwhelmed and stressed out to the point of illness and meltdown.
Under my particular circumstances, I don’t know how I could ever be bored. This is something “normal” people don’t understand about me. “I would go stir-crazy if I didn’t have a job! I would be so bored!” they tell me, and I get the impression they consider that a virtue. I don’t know what to say. I don’t have the same experience.
So, I went to the concert. The evening went much better than I thought it would!
My husband and I got off at the right bus stop (something I always worry about when using public transit in an unfamiliar part of the city) and easily found our way from the bus stop to the venue. Things were a bit of a blur for me once we entered, which is how I always feel entering unfamiliar buildings, but my husband located our seats and I was delighted that for the first half of the concert, there was no one sitting next to me (other than my husband on my right, that is). That helped me adjust to the environment a little better than I otherwise would have.
I was wearing a little black dress with silver-coloured sandals, a long silver chain, and big silver earrings. And I was having a shockingly good hair day, if I may say so myself. It’s taken me until I’m almost 43 years old but I have finally figured out how to manage my naturally-curly hair. I was a mess when I was younger, but I am quite well-groomed now. The one negative thing about the night is that after all the effort I had put into my appearance, I was dressed inappropriately. (I really wish I could show you a photo of what I was wearing so you could see what I mean, but I’m trying to stay anonymous here. Which is the same reason I’m not naming the band. Revealing who it was and when it was can easily give away my location.) No one else was dressed even remotely like me. The audience was made up entirely of middle-aged people and all of the women I could see were wearing plain t-shirts and mom-jeans or other extremely casual outfits. No little black dresses. No dresses or skirts at all.
I actually had this moment where I was confused by the fact that there were only middle-aged people there until it hit me: I am middle aged! These are my peers! And as usual, I am out of step with them.
How do other people intuitively know what to wear to an event so they all look alike? I have educated myself a lot about such things since I used to get bullied as a youth for being unfashionable, but I still always seem to get it wrong. I’m either overdressed or underdressed, but I never nail it.
I was able to see the stage really well from my balcony seat and I liked having a bird’s eye view of things. Once the music started, it was very loud. You know how if you step out of a dark building into bright sunshine, your eyes take a minute to adjust, and until they do you can’t see very well? My ears are like that, and when I’ve told people that, they look at me like I’m crazy, so I gather that not everyone has this experience. But when the loud music started, it was so loud I could hardly hear it, all I could hear was noise. After a few minutes, my hearing adjusted and I was able to hear all the detail and subtleties of the music.
Unfortunately, the opening act was only mediocre, and it was rather dull sitting through their show. But once the band we were there to see took the stage, I was swooning in music-induced bliss. It is difficult to even explain the effect my favourite music has on me. I don’t think most other people, especially at my age, have this same experience and I can’t even find the words to describe it. It is just pure sensory pleasure, like a high. It courses through my body and makes me feel deep and amazing things. This explanation is so inadequate but it’s all I can think of.
This is a band I was into in the 80s and 90s, and I was impressed that after so many years they sounded in top form. Especially the guitar player. He blew me away with how good he was. I knew most of the songs by heart and, although I don’t sing (perhaps that’s a topic for another post), I mouthed the words. I even yelled, “Wooooooo!” a few times. Out loud. That’s something I could never do when I was young (I couldn’t make any sound come out of my mouth when I tried) but it comes out quite naturally now as an adult when I am excited by music.
When it was over, my husband and I went to the washroom and met up back in the lobby. We were standing there discussing getting a taxi and wondering if we should wait a bit since perhaps a lot of people would probably be trying to get taxis just then. I didn’t notice that we were standing right in front of a table. As I’ve mentioned before, I am really not visually observant at all. Like it’s a real problem I have. All of a sudden, the band came out and sat down at the table, with the guitar player, the one who has always been my favourite, the one whose guitar playing transports me to another place, the one I, to be perfectly frank, used to have romantic fantasies about when I was a teenager, sitting directly across the table from where I was standing.
I don’t have a lot of experience with this type of event. I wasn’t expecting that. I was not mentally prepared for such an eventuality. And I will admit right now that I am a hypocrite. Throughout most of my adult life, I’ve always said that if I ever saw a celebrity, I would not go up to him or her and try to initiate a conversation, because what could I possibly say that would be of any interest to them? I don’t mean that in a down-on-myself kind of way, I’m just being realistic. They probably get tired of awkward people saying stupid shit to them. And there are very, very few celebrities I would have any interest in meeting anyway. Despite how it may sound here, I am not generally the star-struck type (at least not now, as an adult). Celebrities are just people, and I’m not really a people-person.
But this seemed different. For one thing, this was one of the very few people I actually would like to meet. And I didn’t have to approach him. He was right there. And he was looking at me. And he looked friendly. And, not knowing how clueless and unsavvy I am, he probably assumed I meant to be there, at that table. So, despite having nothing prepared, I started blurting out what popped into my head, which was:
“Hi! I’m so excited to be here, because I’ve been a fan of your music since the 80s, but I’ve never seen you live before! When I first discovered your music I was living in the middle of nowhere…”
“Oh, where did you grow up?” he asked, with a smile. That threw me for a second. I first discovered their music in 1989 when I was 16, and at that time I was living in a new town, not the town(s) I had grown up in until that point. But after a few seconds of processing, thank goodness, I realized I didn’t need to give him a big explanation. I think I am getting better at this, as I usually have the tendency to, in the spirit of complete accuracy and honesty, over-explain things and include details that are irrelevant to the other person. So I told him the name of the small town where I lived when I first became aware of their music, which was really what he was asking anyway, despite the way he worded it. (See, this is another thing I am getting better at understanding: What people mean, not just the words I hear them say. I was clueless about such things when I was younger.) He had heard of the town and agreed it was a long way from anywhere, but then he said something about how I could have made a road trip to one of the big cities to see them (it would have been a 5 or 6 hour drive to one of the major cities from there). So then I felt like, “Uh oh, he’s thinking I’m not a real fan; that six hours is nothing for a real fan.” And I could hardly start explaining what I was like: Afraid to get my license, afraid of city driving, and at many times in my life, too poor to spend money on concerts. Once these things had changed, they had stopped touring. But then he said, “I guess either way that’s a pretty long haul,” and I nodded.
He asked me how long I’ve been living in this city, and told me that he did the opposite, moving from a big city to a small town and saying how much he loves it.
Then he said, kind of cheekily, “I’m [name],” and held out his hand for me to shake. I said, “I know!” and shook it. Duh. He said, “What’s your name?” And I told him. “That’s my wife’s name!” he said, and showed me a tattoo on his wrist. I couldn’t make out what it was, but I assumed it had to do with his wife and I said, “Cool!” He told me his wife is an author (I already knew that, but I pretended I didn’t because I didn’t want to seem stalkerish) and he explained that’s why living in a small town works for them, because she can do that from anywhere.
Then he looked at my husband and asked who he was, and I introduced him, feeling embarrassed that I hadn’t already done so. The whole time I was kind of feeling like a deer caught in the headlights so I hadn’t thought of it.
Then his band mate next to him said something and he turned toward him and they were talking and I, because awkward is my middle name, just wandered away. My husband followed. So I didn’t get an autograph, or a selfie with him, or anything. I left empty-handed. But I was kind of feeling like I was occupying too much of his time when other people were waiting (this is something I wouldn’t have thought of when I was younger, but all the criticism over the years has made me aware of such things), and I was worried that I was coming across as odd, and of course I hadn’t planned to have a conversation with him at all (and I really prefer interactions that are planned), and although I was happy and amazed that it happened in spite of my lack of intention, I was relieved to make an escape.
My husband says I did well. I had a normal conversation with him about normal things. That was good. A friend of mine said later that she would have been very nervous meeting an attractive celebrity, and mentioned that she once had the opportunity to talk to someone famous but got so nervous and tongue-tied she didn’t actually say anything, and it made me realize: As crazy as it may sound, I almost have an advantage over the average person in this area. I am always nervous talking to people I don’t know well. Nervousness is my baseline. I have learned to talk to people in spite of my nervousness. It’s uncomfortable, and I probably come across as awkward, but I can do it because I have to do it because social nervousness is always there for me. Talking to one of my all-time favourite guitarists did not feel any more nerve-wracking to me than talking to a church greeter in a church lobby or talking to my doctor every time I have an appointment. I was jittery and awkward, yes, but I am always jittery and awkward. That is my norm.
I am also comforted by the fact that he talks to a lot of people and will quickly forget me. He won’t be thinking, “That woman I met earlier sure was awkward.” He won’t be thinking of me at all. That is good. I can live with that.
My husband and I went out into the night air and it felt really good. There’s something special about the sensation of night air on my skin on a warm, late-spring night. It’s one of those rare things that makes sensory sensitivity a delight instead of the hardship it usually is. It was 11pm and I was surprised at how active the city’s streets still seemed at that hour. There were other people streaming away from the venue on foot and I felt like it was safe enough so I asked my husband if he wanted to get the bus home instead of calling for a taxi like we’d planned, and he agreed. It might seem strange that I suggested deviating from a plan, but the truth was, after all that I was socially worn out and I didn’t want to make a phone call or have to talk to a driver if I didn’t have to, and these things tend to fall on me to do because my husband thinks people won’t understand his accent (he’s often right about that, to be fair). So we walked the two blocks to the bus stop and after waiting a few minutes, caught the bus home without incident.
Really, other than my outfit, the whole night could not have gone better, under the circumstances. I’m still kind of amazed that the band member I like best is the one who sat down right in front of me. I would have been happy to meet the others, of course, but the fact that it was my favourite was especially cool.
It even turned out that my husband really enjoyed the music! He grew up in England where this band never had success, so he was not familiar with them and only went to the concert for my sake, but he enjoyed it so much he said he’d like to see them again the next time they tour (assuming they do continue touring, that is). Maybe next time, knowing that they might be available for autographs after the show, I can plan out what to say in advance and maybe even get an actual autograph next time!
I just wish I could get a message to my 16-year-old self and tell her about the conversation. It was a nice experience for me in my 40s, but it would have meant the world to me in my teens!
When I was a little girl, from age 2 to age 5, we had a dog named Rex. He was half border collie, half mystery DNA, and was the sweetest, most loving, most personable dog you could imagine. My mom used to let me play outside with him as my babysitter. He treated me like a little sheep, and if I ventured too close to the road, he would herd me back towards the house. He was completely trustworthy.
I loved that dog, and he was as much a “person” to me as any human was.
We lived on acreage at that time, on a beautiful piece of land with forested trails lined with ferns, wild berries, and trilliums. I named these trails “The Beautiful Ways.”
Unfortunately, my dad lost his job and my parents started to struggle financially. My dad sold the trees for wood and they were cut down. The Beautiful Ways were no more. Eventually my dad put the whole place up for sale. One of my uncles offered to let us move in with him in his apartment in town. The catch was that we couldn’t have pets there.
Since we couldn’t bring Rex, my dad shot him. I heard the gun shot from the house and it startled me, leaving me feeling shaky as sudden loud noises always had and still do. Then my dad came into the house and made me come outside with him and look at Rex’s corpse. I think he thought that was good parenting; that seeing Rex dead would help me to accept his death and move on from it.
My reaction still puzzles me to this day. I just stared at Rex’s body, feeling numb, as if the sight I was seeing didn’t mean anything or wasn’t completely real.
I feel something now when I remember back to that day. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach. I wonder if Rex sensed what was about to happen and felt any fear or betrayal. I cry when I think about this. He was such an incredibly good dog; he didn’t deserve that. His life was valuable, and he should not have been considered expendable.
This is going to sound crazy, but I pray for Rex now. No church ever taught me this (most of my spiritual thoughts and beliefs were not taught to me by any person or institution), but I tend to think that God created the universe, and since time is a property of the universe, God must exist outside time. That must be why the Bible says that to God, a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day. So I pray retroactively that Rex didn’t feel any pain or fear. It don’t know if that’s a legitimate or effective thing to do but I figure it can’t hurt.
Once my dad was working again we moved out of my uncle’s apartment into a place where we could have pets. One day when I was 7 my dad brought home a new dog. But I never bonded with him. Rex, for some reason, had never aggravated my sensory issues, but this new dog did. He smelled really bad all the time, even after a bath. My parents must not have put much (or any) effort into training him, because he was unruly and uncontrolled, jumping on people and humping their legs. My parents didn’t walk him (and I didn’t realize at that age that dogs are supposed to be walked), they just let him defecate in the yard, which made the yard unsuitable to play in. Years later after my dad left and my mom and I were about to move into an apartment again, she took the dog to an animal shelter. I may not have been close to him like I was to Rex, but it still seemed a bit harsh to just heartlessly leave him at a shelter. But then, with my dad gone, at least murder wasn’t seen as an option.
My husband and I have a completely different attitude towards pets compared to my parents. Our cat is a member of our family and we love her. We would never consider moving into a place that didn’t allow pets. It was tough finding a rental that allowed pets when we moved to this city, but we managed to do it. We’d pretty much rather live under a bridge than not have our cat with us. I tell her sometimes, “We will always take care of you.” And I mean it.
When I was a teenager, I couldn’t wait to be old enough to live on my own. My dad had left just before I turned 14 and a couple years later my mom decided we needed a new start, so we moved to a small town of her choice a four-hour drive away. Unfortunately, I hated that town. This is going to sound really flaky, but I just got a bad, oppressive vibe there. Plus, it was really hard for me to make friends there, and it seemed like all the people my own age who were willing to have anything to do with me when I first moved there were heavy drug users. I drank alcohol, but illegal drugs were not my thing and being around them made me really uncomfortable. Meanwhile, I didn’t have a great relationship with my mom. She yelled a lot and was very critical. It’s like she took pleasure in pointing out things I was doing wrong and ways in which I was at fault for various things.
For example, sometimes my dad would phone and if I was friendly to him, my mom would scream at me, “How can you be so nice to him after the way he’s treated me? I’m the one who’s always been there for you! Where is your loyalty?” So then one time I refused to talk to him, thinking I was showing loyalty to my mom like she wanted. But then she yelled, “How dare you treat your father like that! No matter what he’s done, he’s still your father, and you have no right to disrespect him that way! If you keep doing this he’ll never come back to us!” This is only one of many examples. It was an ongoing pattern in our relationship when I was a teenager. I couldn’t do anything right in her eyes and I got yelled at for every little thing. It was unbearable. I don’t even have words to describe the pain and stress her yelling and criticism caused. Needless to say, home did not feel like an emotionally safe place for me.
I had dropped out of school when I was 14, but I was enrolled in a part-time education program by this point, and through that I got involved in a government-funded employment program for at-risk youth. They got me a summer job in an office, and when summer was over, I was kept on as a part-time employee. I was extremely good at not spending any money back then, so nearly every dime I earned went into my savings account. At 18, having saved up a small nest egg, and with my hours now being drastically cut at work anyway, I moved back to the hometown I desperately missed. Alone.
It never occurred to me that I might not be able to handle it. I had this boundless optimism (which is now long gone), and even though I had already failed at many things, it still never occurred to me that I might suck at life. I just thought anything would be better than living with my mean mom in that town I hated. And I was perfectly willing to work for what I needed. I assumed I was able to do that.
I initially rented a basement suite owned by a family friend. I assumed I would find a job right away, but it turned out to be harder than I thought. Part of the problem was the suite’s inconvenient location and the transportation issues resulting from that. I loved living alone, but seeing how quickly my little nest egg was diminishing just due to basic living expenses, I took a friend (the frenemy I wrote about here) up on her offer to share an apartment with her and her boyfriend. It seemed like a wise decision, as rent would be far cheaper and it was close to all amenities, making my job search much easier (there was no internet in those days; you had to pound the pavement, as they say). It actually went well at first, but then they broke up and my friend moved out.
Now here’s where I made one of my clueless social blunders. It didn’t occur to me that because my friend had moved out, I had to move out too. I liked the apartment and the location, and I got along well (platonically) with her ex-boyfriend. He was a really nice guy. It wasn’t like he had treated her badly; she had just gotten bored with him and wanted to move on, so I didn’t see how it could be a loyalty issue like when I was nice to my dad in spite of him treating my mom badly. But my friend got very angry at me for continuing to live there, and I was utterly clueless as to why. Now in retrospect I can understand that it was highly inappropriate for me to stay there, but I couldn’t see that back then. I was just baffled. I saw that apartment as my home. Why should I have to leave my home because of a decision someone else made? It was bad enough when my parents broke up and I had to go wherever my mom went, but I was an adult and could do what I wanted now, or so I thought. But it understandably led to a huge strain in our friendship.
And then a few months later my friend’s ex-boyfriend moved out too. He couldn’t cook and I certainly wasn’t doing that for him, so he found a room-and-board situation that included meals. And I couldn’t afford to pay the rent on my own, so after a disastrous situation resulting from placing an ad in the paper for a new roommate (which deserves its own post), I ended up having to move anyway.
The next couple years were spent moving from place to place and having roommate after roommate. In total I lived in six different apartments/suites with 9 different roommates. My living situation was a constant source of stress and worry. Some of my roommates were very unpleasant. One of them told me she thought I had a mental illness because I spent so much time in my room, but I was only doing that because being around her was a constant sensory assault.
I wished I could live alone again, but I just couldn’t afford it, even once I had found employment.
I was only able to find minimum-wage jobs (not surprising, given my lack of education). The first one was at McDonalds, where I started working a few weeks after moving in with my friend and her boyfriend, but I only lasted six weeks. The noise and the fast pace were more than I could handle and I ended up having a crying meltdown and getting labelled “emotionally unstable” by my boss, so I quit in a state of overload and humiliation. About a month later I landed a job in a mall bookstore and worked there for about 15 months.
I performed fairly well at the bookstore, despite the stress of dealing with customers, but I had a difficult boss. I got to be good friends with one of my co-workers (whom I’m still friends with to this day), and our boss became very paranoid about the friendship. She accused us of plotting against her (which was a completely false accusation; I wouldn’t know how to plot against someone even if I wanted to, and I have certainly never wanted to) and forbade us to speak to each other. One time, she saw us smiling at each other across the store and demanded to know what we were up to. We were “up to” nothing. We were friends, and we smiled when we saw each other; it was as simple as that.
I have always tended to get sick a lot (mostly bad colds/coughs and nausea/vomiting) when I’m in the workforce, so my choices are to either come in to work sick and get criticized for that, or call in sick a lot, and get criticized for that. During that time, I tended to call in, but then my boss accused me of calling in sick because of hangovers! She even wrote it in my employee record! Again, another completely false accusation. I have never called in sick because of a hangover in my whole life. I did drink socially, but I’ve never been falling-down drunk in my life and I have rarely had anything resembling a hangover. But I guess in her mind, there could be no other explanation for such frequent illnesses. It is odd, I admit, but I have always been this way and nothing I have tried has helped.
The work environment became increasingly tense, and soon the boss had become paranoid about the entire staff. Apparently another staff member overheard her telling someone that she intended to find reasons to fire the entire staff so she could start fresh with a new “uncorrupted” staff. This was because she thought one of the staff members (fortunately not me) was a troublemaker and was poisoning everyone else against her. It was insane; there was nothing like that going on. But she did start firing people one by one and I knew it would happen to me eventually. I dreaded going in there every day, not knowing if that day might be the day. One day I couldn’t take all the stress anymore and I quit. I knew it was unwise, as I had nothing else lined up, but I had reached a breaking point and I knew I would soon be fired anyway. Knowing that potential employers always ask why you left your last job, I knew it would be better to say that I left of my own volition than that I was fired.
In the following weeks, my former boss did indeed fire every last member of staff. In one case, she rummaged through a staff-member’s bag and found a roll of toilet paper, which she then accused her of stealing from the staff bathroom. My close friend was let go with the reason, “The length of time you have now worked here has made you overqualified for the position for which you were originally hired.”
For about three months I desperately tried to find another job, to no avail. Then some awful things happened with my roommate. I had come full circle; this was actually the same person who was my first roommate, the friend who had broken up with her boyfriend and moved out; we had since made up and moved in together again. She said she didn’t want to live alone because she had an ex-boyfriend (not the same one we had lived with) who had been violent with her and was continuing to threaten her, and she thought living with a roommate would offer some level of protection. It didn’t. She ended up getting assaulted by him and I was called to court as a witness (it turns out he had actually been on a bit of a rampage that night, so assaulting her wasn’t the only charge). But having reconciled with him before the court date, she lied in court to protect him and got angry with me for telling the truth. She moved out of our place and in with him (and eventually married him). We had been friends our whole lives but have not spoken to each other since that day. Her choice, not mine. I did not reject friends back then, no matter what, even when I probably should have.
Meanwhile, the guy I was seeing at the time was fast losing interest in me, dashing my hopes for something serious to develop there. A mutual friend he’d confided in told me he had developed feelings for someone else, so I asked him about it. I wasn’t angry (I never got angry about anything back then; it was almost like a weird deficit in my emotional repertoire), but I did want to know. He admitted it was true, but he got angry at the person who told me, which made that person angry at me. I apologized, but she said, “I don’t have time for this juvenile bullshit,” and never spoke to me again.
Emotionally, I hit rock bottom. I had tried and tried to make it on my own. I had been running on adrenaline for two years. I was exhausted, and I was getting physically sicker by the day (probably partly because I couldn’t afford to eat healthy food, or much of anything, really). I’d lost a couple friends, lost my boyfriend, had no job, my money had run out, I couldn’t afford rent on my own, and my mom had been calling me on the phone daily, begging me to move back in with her. I remember just sitting there thinking, okay, what are my options? Everything I had tried had failed, so I narrowed it down to two: I could either kill myself, or I could move back in with my mom. Killing myself would take a certain amount of courage and impetus that I just didn’t have. So I chose the latter. And it felt like a death of sorts anyway.
I do not enjoy games. When I play against another person, if I lose, I feel bad about myself, and if I win, I feel guilty for possibly making the other person feel bad. Logically, I realize that most people aren’t as sensitive about such things as I am, but emotionally, the concern is still there.
Funnily enough, my dad says he’s the same way. He feels his aversion to playing games is related to his Finnish heritage. He says Finns fundamentally want everyone to be equal, and playing competitive games forces you to try to be better than other people. He doesn’t want to be better than anyone else, but he also doesn’t want anyone else to be better than him, not even for the length of time it takes to play a game. It’s just not an enjoyable thing for him. Or for me. (Disclaimer: I realize not all Finns feel this way, otherwise there would be no competitive sports in Finland!)
I’ve heard people talk about how children should learn a healthy sense of competition. Needless to say, I never learned that. I still don’t understand it. And if I’m completely honest, it’s not something I want to learn. I don’t like the whole idea of competition. Why can’t people just do their best at things, without comparing themselves to others or trying to be better than others? I am just not wired to understand this.
The only game I play right now is Scrabble on Facebook. I play with my mom, and we have an agreement that we won’t be competitive or even look at scores, we’ll just use it as a way to spend time together long-distance and to have the fun of making words. I like words. The only problem is, then other people on Facebook can see that I’m playing and they try to start games with me. Every time I see that someone has started a game with me my heart sinks. I can’t just ignore it, because that might make them feel bad or rejected. They might wonder why I’ll play with my mom and not with them. But when I play with anyone other than my mom, I feel it forces me to play strategically and competitively, or else look stupid to my opponent. Every move becomes fraught with anxiety and stress. I realize it shouldn’t be that way, but it is for me.
The types of games people play at parties are even worse, because they’re usually overstimulating and require quick thinking. People get all loud and boisterous, which due to my sensory issues makes quick thinking almost impossible for me. Again, I end up looking stupid.
Board games add another level of awkwardness for me. I’m clumsy, and I’ve been known to knock pieces off boards by accident. That’s embarrassing.
I don’t even enjoy playing games against a computer though, so perhaps it’s not just about my issues with competitiveness, sensory overload, or physical awkwardness. And the role-playing games some of my friends like hold no appeal for me. To me, it just feels like a waste of time. It’s strange that I feel that way, since I have no qualms about wasting time in other ways. I guess it’s because I just don’t enjoy them. Maybe it’s the make-believe aspect that I have an aversion to in these cases. I’ve never been good at or interested in make-believe. My imagination is very limited.
Because I’m seen as a geek in other ways, I think people expect me to be a gamer, but I have no interest in all that. It’s yet another way in which people just can’t quite figure me out.
And it all adds up to yet another thing that makes socializing awkward and draining for me. It seems like people often want to play games when they get together socially, and I either refuse, or go along with it for the sake of being friendly but can’t fake having a good time for long. And I’ve noticed that other people seem to feel hurt or offended when you don’t enjoy the games they like to play. This makes me feel horrible, as I hate hurting people’s feelings!
A work meltdown I had several years ago was the result of a culmination of a number of factors.
There was a bad smell in the building that had been making me gag. I mentioned it to my boss, who mentioned it to the janitor, who apparently tried to eliminate it, but I could still smell it. No one else could smell it, so I was treated like it was all in my head. I plugged in an air freshener near my desk (perhaps that was too presumptuous of me, but I was the only one who worked in that area; everyone else had their own office), and that helped, but in my absence it was removed. I casually mentioned to my boss that my air freshener had gone missing. He told me he had removed it because it bothered his sinuses, which of course I understood, but it still left me smelling the bad smell, and I had trouble concentrating on anything as long as I could smell it. He must have mentioned it to his wife, because she then gave me a big vanilla-scented candle as a gift, saying her husband had always been able to tolerate those. I kept it right next to me on my desk and it helped a lot, even unlit. But one day I came to work and it was gone. I mentioned to my boss that my candle had gone missing, and he said he and some other people had wanted to use candles downstairs, and he had taken it down there.
My boss told me about something he was planning, saying he wanted feedback from a critical thinker, so he could plan how he would respond to other critical thinkers who he knew would have a problem with it. He said, referring to how to get other people to accept it, “It’s all in how we package it.” The problem was that his plans were, in my opinion, unethical and dishonest. Since he was asking my opinion, I gave it to him as diplomatically as I could and without using those two words, but it still got awkward. Of course, he went ahead with his plans, and the worst part is, there was a man who was basically a victim of it all but had no idea why things were playing out the way they were. This man even came to me for advice and I did my best to advise him without actually telling him the truth, as I was required to keep my boss’ scheme confidential and to be complicit with it. This all completely went against my principles and left me feeling sickened with guilt and disgust.
A coworker I got along really well with quit, and told me it was because he felt he was being treated badly by our boss. This left me working alone with the boss every day, after things had already gotten awkward.
As well as my job duties, I was expected to take on a “volunteer” project in my “spare time.” I had done a similar project the previous year before I worked there, and I was expected to do it again. I had determined, based on coping strategies I had learned from my former counselor, who was the very same man who was now my boss, that the only way I could manage this without overload was to set very clear boundaries and deadlines. The project required contributions from a number of other people, and I had set a deadline for these contributions which I made clear to everyone involved. On the day of the deadline, someone e-mailed me and said her contribution wasn’t ready, and asked if she could get it to me the following week. I replied and said I was sorry, but if I were to complete the project in time I needed everything that day. My boss found out I had said that, and he confronted me. He said I was being too rigid and I “wasn’t showing enough grace to people.”
Then came the meltdown. Right in front of him, I started to shake and cry uncontrollably. I then ran out the door to the front porch of the building and vomited over the railing. I sat down on the steps and shook and wheezed for several minutes.
Once I was able to regain control, I went back inside and as calmly as I could asked him if I could go home and calm down. He agreed. I said I would come back that afternoon to finish my work. I gave him my word that I would be back.
When I got home, I was crying again. My husband was home, and I could barely speak to tell him what had happened. I just cried and cried. Finally he managed to get the gist of the situation. When I returned to work a couple hours later, he went with me, and helped me complete my tasks. My boss looked at us and said nothing. He knew my husband socially and probably found it awkward.
Before I left that day, with my husband’s encouragement, I handed in my letter of resignation.
Afterwards, I was exhausted for months. That happened in September, and it wasn’t until at least January before I felt like I came out of my fog. My house was a mess. My friendships had been neglected. I don’t even know how I spent my time during those months. It would be a huge exaggeration to say I was nearly catatonic, and yet somehow I can’t think of another word. It’s like I was inside myself and was too exhausted to come out.
I try to think of what I could have done differently to avoid the meltdown. For one thing, I should never have taken a job working for my former counselor. The whole thing was a bad idea and was probably in itself a breach of ethics on his part. At the time, I was just so flattered that someone who already knew everything that was wrong with me, including my sensory and emotional sensitivity, would offer me a job I hadn’t even applied for. I started thinking that maybe it was meant to be and that it might be a job where I could actually thrive. I have always been good at the tasks of those kinds of jobs; the work itself has never been the issue.
Unfortunately, the very coping strategies he’d taught me as my counselor, he did not allow me to implement in the workplace as my boss.
While I never should have taken the job, once I had, I suppose I could have asked before bringing in an air freshener. I had to do something, as due to my odor sensitivity I couldn’t function with the bad smell, but I suppose taking the initiative to solve my own problem without getting permission was seen as me not knowing my place, or something like that.
Another thing I could have done differently was not given my true opinion of my boss’ plans. That would have prevented some of the awkwardness that resulted. But it still wouldn’t have solved the problem, since once he went ahead with them I still would have felt guilty for my required complicity with them, and the guilt would have been even more intense if I hadn’t at least offered any words of protest.
I also should not have agreed to do the volunteer project. That was too much to take on, and I only did so because it was expected and I didn’t want to rock the boat, as I already felt awkward with my boss. Once I had taken it on, however, I still think I had the right to set a deadline. I actually suspect that my boss’ accusation about me not showing enough grace to people may have been more about what I had said to him about his plans than about me enforcing a deadline for submissions for the project. He was already seeing me that way, but it was only in that situation that he said it.
So I don’t know. I suppose I made wrong choices, but everything I did was to try to cope. It’s just that my efforts to cope caused problems between me and my boss and were then thwarted by him.
There is an interesting twist to this story. This former boss and I are not on bad terms. He gave me a glowing work reference and although my husband and I have moved away, he and his wife keep in touch with us and when they’re in our area they visit us. We all just kind of pretend none of this ever happened. Once when I did try to broach the subject he told me he has nothing but positive things to think and to say about me, and we left it at that.
When I was a kid, the Golden Rule was drilled into my head: Do to others what you would have them do to you. Because I tended to take things literally, I tried to follow this by treating people the way I wanted to be treated. This backfired. It turns out, the way I want to be treated isn’t the way most other people want to be treated. I would be more successful by following the spirit of the rule rather than the letter of it, so to speak. In other words, treat other people the way they want to be treated, not the way I want to be treated. Of course, this adds a layer of complexity, as I first have to figure out how other people want to be treated. I imagine it’s so much easier if you already think like most other people do.
I could provide dozens of examples, but for now I’ll offer just one:
My husband and I have moved many times. Being Christians, by which I mean we believe in Jesus Christ, in each city we’ve moved to, we’ve chosen a new church to attend. This is always a very overwhelming experience for me. Everything about modern evangelical church services is designed to entertain and to stimulate the senses. And before the service even starts, there’s having to walk through a crowded foyer and trying to find a seat in an unfamiliar environment. (Also, I’m aware that you can be judged for where you sit — I’ve heard pastors say from the pulpit that the people sitting in the back aren’t serious about their faith or about being at church.) With my sensory issues, I get so overstimulated, everything becomes a blur. The very last thing in the world I want at that point is someone coming up to me and talking to me and asking me questions about myself.
Because of this, if I see a person I don’t recognize at church, I do not go up to them. I respect them by giving them the space and time to get their bearings. That is how I want people to treat me, so that is how I treat them. That, to me, is kindness.
Imagine my surprise to learn that most people come to church wanting to be welcomed and looking for a sense of community, and they will never return if no one talks to them the first time! They will go away hurt and they will tell people what an unfriendly church it is!
The key would be to have the ability to read people, I suppose. To be able to look at someone and tell if they want to be approached or left alone. But reading people is notoriously tough for Aspies. Despite the stereotype, I am actually capable of reading people quite well, but only in a calm environment with little other sensory input. When I’m already overstimulated, like at church (yes, even after I’ve been going there for a while), my head’s in a whirl and detecting such subtleties is just not likely to happen.
My sensory sensitivity isn’t all bad news. I am also capable of receiving intense pleasure and joy from the right sensory input. These are the things that make life worth living:
The smell of rain.
The smell of bread baking, or something with cinnamon, cloves, and apples.
The scent of plug-in air fresheners. A lot of people with odor sensitivity don’t like artificial smells, but I love them, if it’s the right type of scent. I like cinnamon and cloves, vanilla, nuts, and some fruity scents. I don’t care for most flowery ones.
Flavoured, loose leaf black tea, like chai or anything nutty and/or chocolaty, brewed strong and served with lots of sweetener and whole milk.
White rum with club soda and lime over ice.
Having my back gently stroked (by my husband). This is my favourite thing in the world. I also like having the top of my foot gently stroked. I often rub the top of my foot against the sheet-covered mattress when in bed.
Long hair on my bare back.
Stroking my cat’s fur.
Wearing an over-sized, soft, comfy sweater.
The way the air feels in the fall. Crunchy leaves under my shoes. Crisp air and cool breezes.
Beautiful scenery. Rolling hills. Cityscapes. City lights.