Tag Archives: Autism

An Autistic Christmas

I don’t make a big deal about Christmas. Why would I? I’m not religious, and I don’t have kids. As far as I can see, those two things are the only reasons to make a fuss about what, to me, is just an orgy of conspicuous consumption.

However, both of my major relationships have been with women who like to mark the occasion, so for almost all my life, I’ve reluctantly engaged in the annual activities of finding a tree (or dragging the artificial one out from under the bed), putting up lights, trying to find relatives’ addresses to send cards, cooking a roast dinner, often having to ensure the company of one or other side of the family, before taking everything down and putting it away a few days later and breathing a long sigh of relief.

In my current relationship, we’ve reached a kind of equilibrium where we have a small table-top tree with a handful of decorations and lights, we send small presents to my parents and my niece, we don’t send cards, we go for a walk on the morning of the 25th, followed by a nice dinner that I usually cook, and that’s pretty much it. I’m OK with that.

This year I had the bright idea of inviting my ex to join my partner and I for Christmas lunch. Not my best idea as it turns out.

Let me give this some context.

When I ended my previous major relationship in 2010, after a few months of awkwardness my ex and I decided that we should try to be friends; my own thinking was that if we couldn’t salvage something, then what had the last 20 years accomplished? Or something like that, it’s hard to explain. But anyway, we tried, and it worked, and we get along very well as friends. It’s probably how we should have stayed in the first place to be honest.

Since starting my current relationship in 2012, I made it clear to my partner that my ex and I were on good terms, and since then we’ve met up together (all three of us) a number of times – dinner at our house, coffees at my ex’s, etc. At one point my partner remarked that it was a hard concept for her to wrap her head around, the fact that I was still friends with my ex, but that she was OK with it. Too bad I’m hopeless at reading between the lines, otherwise I might have realised that the cultural gap was too great (my partner is from south east Asia) and she was just trying to deal with it for my sake, while feeling deeply uncomfortable with the situation.

Us autists are often labelled as lacking empathy, which is actually not true. We can feel things like compassion very deeply, but often it can be overwhelming because our brains can’t process it properly, leading us to try and block it out and by doing that, giving the impression of being cold and lacking emotion. Either that or we feel compelled to act on our feelings in situations where non-autistic people might have more success reigning in their emotions and realising what is appropriate and what is not.

Anyway, it was compassion for someone that I thought might be lonely over Christmas that led me to suggest to my partner that we could invite my ex for Christmas lunch. She agreed, said it was a nice idea, and so that’s what we did.

It wasn’t until early Christmas morning that my partner sprang on me her real feelings, which was that she didn’t understand why I would want to be friendly with my ex unless there were still some feelings there, and that she had serious doubts about our relationship and my feelings. My heart hit the floor and my head filled with dread as I realised that I hadn’t understood any of the undercurrents in the situation for the past five years. Though, to be fair, when she had always previously claimed that everything was fine with us socialising with my ex from time to time, I hadn’t stood much of a chance of understanding.

Though I love my partner dearly, I’m not blind to her faults, and one of those is the ability to become quite sardonic and spiteful if she’s not happy with how she feels someone is behaving towards her. I’m not trying to be judgmental about it – everyone has their own way of handling bad situations, that simply happens to be hers. Me, I either retreat and hide from it, or just melt down into a seething rage, so who am I to talk?

But despite my partner behaving perfectly well while my ex was with us yesterday, her mood seriously deteriorated afterwards, with all kinds of comments along the lines of “I don’t think we should get married any more”, “I think you’re still in love with her”, “I think you’re confused”, and more.

The rest of the evening was spent with me trying to defend my position but at the same time offering to stop social contact with my ex, and my partner launching into me with spiteful rejoinders, not accepting what I was saying.

I’m not going to accuse her of being irrational, because I don’t think that’s either fair or strictly true. What I do know, however, is that the only thing that will mend this is time. Time for her to think more about the issues involved and come to some kind of understanding.

I hope we’ll be OK. We love each other to distraction despite each other’s faults, and when it comes down to it, I hope that will carry us through.

One thing she did say after my repeated questions of “why didn’t you tell me?” was that she feared my feelings towards her would change if she challenged the friendship.

So when it comes down to it, what we have is that my partner has been lying about this issue for five years, simply because she was scared of losing me if she challenged the situation, when if she’d just been honest we could have resolved it so easily. That doesn’t make me feel great. Part of me is angry at her for assuming that her honesty might damage our relationship, and part of me is angry at myself for not seeing that it might be a problem, even if not discussed.

Today she’s back at work (another stress in her life – the hours are long and tiring and her employers don’t seem inclined to grant her request for reduced hours) and, although I have a long to-do list, I haven’t really been able to think about my own work. The best way to describe my activity today is probably “mooning around”.

There are more nuances to this story that I haven’t gone into, but they don’t change the essence of the problem, which is that I just don’t understand how people think unless they spell it out to me.

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Tolerance and Triggers

I think in some ways as I get older I’m actually getting less tolerant of things that irritate or upset me.

Or maybe I’m intolerant more these days because I know I’m autistic, therefore my intolerance has (to me at least) a valid justification or root cause so I’m more inclined to allow myself to feel it and give in to it rather than try to miserably soldier on?

Take today for instance. I had been persuaded into acting as a witness for the marriage of a friend of my partner. Unfortunately this meant attending the celebration as well, which took the form of a sit-down dinner for 10 at a local hotel. Normally I would just say no to anything resembling a gathering of more than about 4 people, but I didn’t really have a way to back out of this one, having already been at the registry office to attend the ceremony and sign on the dotted line when required to do my witnessing.

Unfortunately there were two aspects to the event which conspired to bring me to a near-meltdown situation.

Firstly, the bride’s sister was there with her husband and children, and I know for a fact that her husband physically and emotionally abuses her and the children. There’s no way on earth that I’m going to be civil with such a monster, so the only option was for me to ignore him, which gave the event an awkward flavour right from the start.

Secondly, the dinner was a buffet, which itself just rubs me up the wrong way. Why would anyone opt to help themselves to rapidly cooling dishes of congealing food, just so they can have more than one plate of it, and overeat themselves sick, when down the road there are perfectly good restaurants where they actually, you know, cook the food specially for you and bring it to you at the optimum freshness and temperature?

Sadly buffets are very popular in Malta, where the skinflint populace seems to favour quantity over quality and feels they’ve saved money when actually the experience is vastly inferior to, you know, a proper restaurant, and all they’ve done is binge on crap when a moderate freshly cooked meal would be so much healthier and tastier.

And the worst thing about today? Having to watch my fellow diners continue to go back and back to the buffet tables and stuff themselves silly long after I’ve finished my single plate of indifferent main course and sickly-sweet dessert. It got to the point where I was at risk of banging my fists on the table and shouting “Enough! Don’t they feed you at home? Or are you all fucking bulimic and heading off to vomit later?”

My rapidly deteriorating mood must have given me away to my partner (who inevitably knows my ‘tells’ better than anyone) and she made our excuses so that we could leave early. That put me temporarily in the doghouse with her because we missed the cake (MORE fucking food) but in the end she knows that when I have to leave a situation, I really have to leave it, otherwise I’m liable to lose it completely.

So, a pretty horrible day all in all. But I wonder whether I might have stuck it out a few years ago, before I was aware I was autistic, or whether the outcome would have been just the same and I would still have been heading towards a meltdown – but without knowing why.

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Cold Fire

Austistic people have meltdowns. The condition is famous for it. Sometimes things get so overwhelming that the part of us which copes with life and regulates our behaviour just shuts down, and the result is usually something akin to a temper tantrum or emotional explosion.

I have what I’ve learned to call meltdowns from time to time. But it seems to affect me a little differently than many autistic people.

I don’t (usually) fly off the handle. I don’t physically collapse into the fetal position and cry or scream. What I get is a cold rage that burns inside me, and that wants to do harm. To someone, to something, anything.

The things that trigger this in me are many and varied, and there doesn’t seem to be much consistency. Feeling out of control is one common factor though – if I can’t control my environment or circumstances, I’m at more risk, I know that much. And if someone causes something to happen in my life that I think is unjust, that also heightens the risk.

I’m not a violent person, and I think my cultural inhibitions against physically harming someone are far too strong and deep-seated for me to lash out physically. I’ve never hit anyone, ever – despite being physically abused as a child (or maybe because of it).

But when a meltdown happens, I’m still acting on a visceral subconscious instinct – I have no way of stopping myself doing what I do. And what I do is normally self-destructive in some way – either I find myself making social media posts that are likely to lose me friends, or I verbally abuse someone who could easily harm me if they chose to, or I destroy a possession that I would never normally want to lose, or I act out of spite against someone who has never given me cause to, or make an irreversible decision that will harm me in the long run, etc.

It seems my rage, when it erupts, is always directed inwards, whether directly or indirectly. When I do these things, it’s me that gets hurt by the consequences in the long run. And on some level, while I’m in the throes of such an incident, I actually do know this. But it doesn’t stop me. It’s like I have to let it play out until I’m calm and back to myself again.

No doubt a psychiatrist would have a field day with this, and would find causes in my childhood – quite aside from the fact that I’m autistic. And I’m certainly aware that I have a lot of unresolved rage against my parents.

I do consider from time to time whether I should start up again with regular counselling, like I had for a few years after giving up alcohol. But the only counsellor I trust is now living abroad, and it’s harder to properly connect via Skype rather than being in the same room.

So I’m hoping that by writing this post, and forcing myself to examine what happens in a meltdown, maybe I can start to find ways to ‘head it off’, or handle it better somehow. I never want to have a meltdown, and I always hate myself after it’s over. Maybe one day I’ll find that I can control it better. I hope so.

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Knowing your limitations

Before I knew I was autistic, I have many memories of agreeing to do things way outside my comfort zone, because I guess I figured I had no excuse not to do them.

Things such as attending parties, going to work social events, dinner parties, group activities – they were what normal people did, and I didn’t feel I had a valid reason to say no, so more often than not I said yes and then had a thoroughly miserable time at whatever the event was, usually feeling awkward and out of my depth, hating everyone around me and hating myself for having failed to find a good excuse to get out of it, or for not being strong enough to just say no without giving a reason.

It used to take me days after each event to recover, after having spent days or weeks before the event dreading it, with my anxiety levels building almost to breaking point.

Now, as a self-aware Aspie, I understand why these occasions were so unbearable for me, and I know that, despite what some people say, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to be gained by trying to do something outside my comfort zone. “Oh look, I did something outside my comfort zone!” “Oh wow, how do you feel?” “Like shit.” “But it must have been good in some way?” “Nope, can’t think of anything.” In fact I think autistic people don’t have a comfort ‘zone’ so much as a reinforced concrete barrier, through which it is pointless to try and go.

Why would I put myself through that hell, when I could simply, you know, not do it?

So I say no. No to dinner parties, no to group barbecues on the beach, no to New Year’s Eve gatherings. Being self employed now means that work events are a thing of the past thank goodness. I don’t mind eating out with a friend, or even two friends at a push, but they have to be good friends – friends who know my character and accept it. And I don’t have many of those.

I was almost persuaded to attend a big event later this month (a school reunion some 30+ years after we all left school) – and I even bought flights – but several weeks after saying to an eager friend that I would go, I took a look at myself and realised that my anxiety levels were through the roof, my skin was breaking out like a teenager, I was having nightmares about the event, and other aspects of my life were suffering. So this is now a no, too. It’s just not worth it. And to be honest, out of the 200+ people in my year at school, I only wanted to talk to a handful of people anyway. The rest I either had no wish to talk to or hardly knew. And me, as a former alcoholic, in a room with possibly 100 people, almost all of them drinking to excess? No way in hell. A small sacrifice for peace of mind, and a lesson re-learned and reinforced.

POSTSCRIPT: It’s now the day of the event and I know I made the right decision. My skin has cleared up, I’m sleeping better and my anxiety levels are back to normal (which is to say, I have always lived with anxiety but now it’s manageable again). There’s a small part of me that’s a little sad about not getting to see two or three people in particular, but the sadness doesn’t translate into regret. And maybe I’ll get to see them in the future, in an easier situation.

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