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.
As I’ve mentioned a number of times, I have often been called “emotionally immature” or “emotionally unstable,” usually by teachers or bosses, and always after they’ve witnessed one of my public crying meltdowns. Until recently I’ve just accepted that I am those things, and I’ve even referred to my meltdowns as “emotional meltdowns” myself. It seems obvious: crying = emotion. But I’ve just been struck by the realization that I don’t cry in public out of emotion. It’s not because someone hurt my delicate feelings. It is from sensory overload. My public crying meltdowns are always from sensory or stress overload. If someone has hurt my feelings, that’s just the cherry on top, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a public crying meltdown due to hurt feelings alone.
While I am an emotional person and I do experience hurt feelings sometimes, I think I deal with them in a reasonable way in most cases. Only my very closest friends ever know how I’m feeling and that’s because I choose to share it with them, not because I’m out of control. When I need a purely emotional cry, I can wait until I get home and have privacy. I also don’t lash out in anger at people, and I never hold a grudge. I try to treat others in a mature and fair way regardless of how I feel. And as for marriage, which is the most emotional relationship of all, mine is very happy and harmonious, because we both treat each other with respect and when we disagree, we “fight fair.” Unlike my parents, who used to have huge anger issues and petty jealousies, I am actually pretty good at being married. My husband especially appreciates that I don’t play manipulative games like some people do.
But sensory overload is another matter entirely. When I experience sensory overload I lose all control. Once I reach a tipping point, I can’t hold it in. I cry, I shake, I wheeze, right then and there. I’m usually not feeling any emotion except embarrassment, and that’s only because I know people are looking at me melting down and I’m making a public fool out of myself.
People can only go by what they see and by their own experience. And if someone’s never experienced a sensory meltdown, they can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like or what may have caused it. All they know is that for most people, crying is an emotional response, so they jump to the conclusion that I’m freaking out because of out-of-control emotions, when that’s not the case at all.
If other people are going to put labels on me, or if I’m going to put labels on myself, I think it’s helpful to at least pick the right ones.
Friday morning around 4:20, the building’s fire alarm started going off.
I immediately jumped out of bed. My husband snored a few more times, and then, while I was pulling on my pants, sleepily asked, “Is that the fire alarm?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“I’ll find the cat,” he said. This is always a problem when the fire alarm goes off. Our cat hides. I think it’s partly because she doesn’t like the noise, and partly because she’s learned what the noise means: That she’s about to be shoved into her carrier and taken outside into the cold. It’s not her idea of a good time.
My hands shaking violently, not from fear but from the sensory assault, I threw my laptop, e-reader, phone, medications, and hairbrush into a bag. In times like this you find out what your priorities are.
My husband was still looking for the cat. “I’ll go see if I can find out what’s going on,” I said. This had happened many times before, and it was usually a false alarm. Also, we take comfort in the fact that we’re on the second floor, and the first floor is partly underground, which means our balcony is very close to the ground and we could comfortably jump off it if necessary. In fact, my husband sometimes jumps off it when he’s taking the garbage out to the dumpster, rather than going out the front and walking all the way around.
I went out of our apartment into the hallway and looked down from the top of the stairs. At the front of the building, there’s an outer glass door that’s always unlocked, then a vestibule where there are mailboxes and an intercom system used to buzz apartments, then an inner glass door that’s always locked, for which you either need a key or you need someone to unlock it by buzzing you in via the intercom. From my vantage point I could see that the inner glass door was completely smashed and the intercom phone was ripped out of the wall.
Other residents were gathered outside and some were lingering in the vestibule, avoiding going out into the cold. One neighbour came out of his apartment and stood beside me at the top of the stairs. “Da f%#k?” he said incredulously.
I went back into the apartment and reported all this to my husband. “I don’t smell smoke, but something’s definitely going on.”
I tried to make sense of what I’d seen. I’d think from the smashed door that it was a break in, but then why would the phone be damaged as well? Maybe these were just acts of petty vandalism. What else could the motive be? And was there actually a fire, or was the fire alarm pulled by the vandal as a further act of mischief?
Or maybe it was the result of a domestic dispute. Maybe someone’s ex wanted to be let into the building but was denied and flipped out. That would explain the vandalized phone. It did look like there may have been a lot of anger involved. I don’t understand that kind of anger, but I have witnessed it, and it’s certainly possible that someone’s angry ex could have just gone into a rage and tried to destroy everything around him. But wait a second, he smashed the door, so he could have gotten into the building. Was he in the building right now? Maybe the person he was going after pulled the fire alarm to get help.
Or maybe it was a thief, like I originally thought, and he pulled the fire alarm because he was trying to get everyone out of the building so he could burgle our apartments. Or was it even more sinister? Was someone trying to get everyone gathered out front so he could mow us all down? Was it terrorism? Our building’s management had recently sent out a letter informing us that they would be taking refugees into the building (which I am in favour of, by the way). Maybe someone didn’t like that. But again, why the ripped out, smashed phone?
We chose this neighbourhood two years ago because it was one of the safest neighbourhoods in the city, but crime has been increasing in the last couple months for some reason that is unknown to me, which makes me very uneasy. Being safe is a huge priority for me and I arrange my life accordingly.
My husband still couldn’t find the cat. I prayed that God would help us find her and then we did. My husband had been looking in all her usual hiding spots but oddly enough she wasn’t hiding this time. She was just lying on a shelf amongst some folded clothes, probably wondering what all the fuss was about.
My husband put her in her carrier and we finally hurried outside. The fire trucks had already arrived and the police arrived soon afterward. We waited outside for half an hour. It was chilly, but fortunately nowhere near as cold as it usually is this time of year.
Finally the firemen said they couldn’t find any fire and we could go back inside. They said they would work on getting the alarm shut off, but it still took another 20 minutes or so for that to happen.
I threw up as soon as we were back in the apartment. Because that’s what I do. Whether sick, stressed, tired, scared or just simply overwhelmed, I throw up. It happens on average a couple times a week. My husband jokes that it’s my hobby, but I hate it.
My husband and I went back to bed at about 6:00am. Usually our cat sleeps at the end of the bed, but she crawled up between us and draped herself over one of my arms. The three of us cuddled up together until my husband had to get up again for work.
I was a wreck for the rest of the day. Just utterly useless, exhausted, and completely worn out.
I want a house, but it’s not feasible right now. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which it ever will be. My husband’s work is a temporary contract. We have debt from when he was unemployed. I suck at holding a job. A rented apartment is the best we can do.
I pray for stability and security. I pray for a permanent job for my husband and for a safe, secure home of our own. I have been praying for this for most of our marriage. It’s funny how so many of my prayers are answered, but not this one.
“My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest.” ~ Isaiah 32:18
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.
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.