My wife and I’s ordeal with our washing machine is (hopefully) nearing its conclusion. After numerous phone calls and repeated engineer call-outs it has finally been written off and we’re going to get a new one. From a different manufacturer. We’ve been without it for nearly two weeks now and don’t we know it – hand washing is hard work. There is a laundrette locally but I can’t use it – the unfamiliar environment and people cause me too much anxiety. And my wife’s not physically able to get there. So we’re stuck in the laundry equivalent of the dark ages!
It’s not until they go wrong that you realise how much you rely on these machines: washing machine, dryer, cooker, freezer. How on earth did people manage before they had them? No wonder a whole day used to be set aside for doing the laundry.
And then there’s the hassle of getting replacements. At least the internet saves having to physically travel round a bunch of stores to compare models and brands. But you still need to use the phone when it’s an insurance- or warranty-related problem, so it ends up being extremely stressful and exhausting. Not to mention time-consuming: I’ve spent a total of about an hour on the phone over the past couple of days – including the time holding in a queue before I even got to speak to a person. That’s a ridiculous amount of time to sort out a fairly straightforward problem.
Anyway at least we’re now going to be getting a shiny new machine, so this story has a happy ending – a cause for celebration… and speaking of celebration, Happy Thanksgiving to all the Americans out there!
I have times when I feel such utter frustration and helplessness, times when I feel buried under a growing mountain of pending tasks, times when almost everything I touch seems to go wrong or fall apart and I don’t know what to do to fix it, times when I just feel trapped by the flow of events – pulled in so many different directions that I feel dizzy and overwhelmed: adrift.
At times like these there are some things that help me get through, none more so than the support of kind words from friends. That gives me just enough of a boost – a positive feeling of hope and self-worth – that I can face the situation and start to deal with it instead of feeling dwarfed and powerless by the terrific enormity of what is facing me. I need to have my mind at peace to handle difficult, stressful situations – this is a great challenge to achieve and I often need help. That little bit of support, telling me that I’m doing OK and I’ve got somebody behind me who can catch me if I fall.
That’s all I need to reduce my anxiety and insecurity to a level I can manage, a level at which I can think straight. Because when my mind’s thrashing about, floundering, wasting energy in an attempt to keep afloat, it can escape my notice that I’m not really out of my depth – I’m just so flustered and panicky that I don’t realise I can touch the bottom and instead feel as if I’m drowning. That’s such an unpleasant sensation. The relief I feel when somebody helps me find my feet and steady myself is immense.
I’m struggling to think of one word that will describe the feeling of acute mental discomfort and anxiety I get when I hear somebody making hurtful remarks about anyone I know. I don’t know if there is a word for it: maybe those people never feel like this. It would explain how they are able to behave in that way.
This feeling I get is so intense that I find it hard to describe, especially when I try to tell the people causing it how they are making me feel with their malicious comments. I don’t do that very often – it invariably ends up with them turning on me. But it still makes me angry that they feel so superior that they have the right to put others down.
And then they try to justify themselves by saying they are being honest and direct. No, they’re not. They’re simply being rude, voicing their opinions behind people’s backs and presenting gossip and rumour as fact. I’ve noticed that they never explain why they hold those opinions. There’s an arrogant, unspoken assumption that the reasons are so obvious that any “right-thinking” person would be in agreement.
I don’t know how to handle this kind of behaviour except by walking away – it upsets me so much that I overload. I feel that I’m letting the target of the comments down by not standing up and defending them, but I’ve tried and I can’t handle the stress of the confrontation that results.
I guess there are just some people out there who are hazardous to one’s health – poisonous if you like. Certainly incompatible with my peace of mind and general well-being.
Every now and again I get a flashback of some smell. I can’t explain it; I don’t know what triggers it, but it’s every bit as vivid as my visual memories. I get it with taste as well. It can be incredibly frustrating at times because I often can’t identify the smell or taste despite it being such a strong sensation, as if I were smelling or tasting whatever it is right at that moment.
In that respect it is different from my normal memories of smells or tastes – they are nothing like as involving. Normally, to recall the taste of something I have to imagine eating or drinking it, and the memory is but a dull echo of the reality. But with the involuntary sensation of a smell it really is as if I am experiencing it right there and then. I can draw a deep breath through my nose and it sets off my olfactory nerves like fireworks. Even though I’m not actually smelling anything – there’s no odour in the air.
The strange thing is that my senses of smell/taste are not very acute. I often have trouble differentiating smells, so most perfumes smell about the same to me and I can’t distinguish between wines, say, by the aroma. I even find it difficult to tell if milk has turned by sniffing it – the first indication is usually when my wife tastes it in her cup of tea. I once – years ago – made cups of coffee at work and only realised something was wrong with the milk when I spotted the curdled bits floating. So it’s a mystery to me why I should experience these illusory flashes on what are very much secondary senses to me.
I refer to them as flashbacks rather than hallucinations because they are familiar as sensations that I have experienced first-hand in the past, not inventions of my mind. It happened earlier today – the inspiration for this post – when out of the blue I smelled Apple Sourz. I know that I smelled it yesterday when I was cleaning an optic that had been used to dispense that drink at the pub. I only wish I knew why the memory of that smell suddenly surfaced so vividly.
Home is the place I return to
After the day’s work is done.
Hanging my coat on
The hook by the door
And leaving my troubles behind.
When I’m at home with my feet up,
I’m lost in a world of my own,
Reading some book or
Just gathering wool,
Relaxing my turbulent mind.
Rain may beat down on the windows,
Wind whistle under the eaves.
Inside these walls I
Feel cosy and warm,
In sanctuary I am enshrined.
Standing in their perfect lines,
Mustered for their last parade,
Company on company
Of the fallen lie in rest.
Scars that once defaced the land
Faded with the passing years,
Veterans of wars long past
One by one rejoined old pals.
Battles are still being fought,
Soldiers sacrifice themselves.
Owing all our lives to them,
We honour them this day.
Humour. Sarcasm. Teasing. What do these all have in common? They all involve somebody saying something that isn’t true. Somehow I’m supposed to be able to recognize that and react appropriately (whatever that means). Okay, it’s not quite as bad as all that. Often there’s context and other indications such as sheer implausibility that pretty much give the game away. NT people appear to pick up the signs much more easily than I do – I don’t know whether there are subtleties of tone or body language that give it away because I’m pretty much oblivious to those.
My normal reaction to anything somebody says is to take it at face value unless I know that what they are saying is incorrect. Teasing and sarcasm give me the most problems because what they say might be true. I have to respond as if they are being straight. It means I get laughed at sometimes but that doesn’t bother me these days – it used to but I’ve got thicker-skinned over the years and more confident in myself. I’ve learned to make a joke of it, laugh it off, sometimes deliberately take things literally to a ridiculous extreme. That had an unexpected bonus: people started to expect me to be literal and seemed to take account of that more often when speaking to me.
What does bother me about teasing is that I find it hurtful because I believe what they are saying. Even if the person turns round later and says “I was only joking. I didn’t mean it.” the damage has been done. I trust that person less. In my mind I feel that I have to be sceptical about anything they may say to me in the future, treating them like the boy who cried “wolf”. Once I start thinking like that, something has been lost in our relationship – it is less close, less trusting. There are people with whom I start from a position of disbelief when they say anything at all to me. I’d take some convincing before I would believe them if they said the sky was blue.
I can look you in the eye
When I talk to you sometimes,
Or when you speak to me. My
Instinct is suppressed: thought crime.
I would rather look away,
At the walls or into space,
But I had to learn to play
Your social game. I misplaced
My natural self. This mask
I hide behind forever
Part of me. I only ask
You spare a thought, whenever
I evade your gaze. Comfort flees
My mind faced with such a stare;
Swiftly borne by the hot breeze
Of fear. You are unaware
Just how strong are my urges.
Compulsion to turn aside.
Panic rises, heart surges,
Primal need to run and hide.
Just when you think you’re getting the hang of acting “normal” something happens to bring you back to reality with a bang. I got wrongly accused of doing something bad the other day – the details don’t matter. It was something I would never dream of doing; nevertheless I stood accused of it.
I reacted naturally, which is to say I failed to make eye contact, I displayed “inappropriate” facial expressions such as smiling, I didn’t respond immediately. All this was taken to be a display of guilt by my (neurotypical) accuser. What can you do in such a situation? The more I protested my innocence the more I was told that I was “acting guilty”.
I’m an honest person: I feel too uncomfortable to contemplate lying. Besides which, I find it hard enough to remember the details of what did happen, never mind trying to remember some invented scenario. Being accused like that and then not being believed – having my response taken to be evidence of deceit – was deeply hurtful.
My accuser in this case was somebody who prides themselves on being a good judge of character, on having great empathy. But there was no sign of any of that when dealing with me. Their instinctive reading of non-verbal cues led them totally astray when faced with somebody on the autistic spectrum. I’m led to believe that this subconscious empathy as displayed by most neurotypical people relies on the person being observed also being neurotypical and reacting in a “normal” way. They can’t read the signals correctly if there is any deviation from this – their unconscious assumptions fail to hold true. The trouble is that with the assumptions being unconscious, there is no realisation that they even exist.
It’s been said before elsewhere, but neurotypical people lack empathy when dealing with autistic people. They don’t often notice when we feel anxious or threatened, they misinterpret our feelings based on our behaviour. They seem to have an off-the-peg, one-size-fits-all model of human behaviour, while I (I can’t speak for other people on the spectrum) build a bespoke model for everyone I know.
Generalizations don’t work with outliers – it’s true of all statistical models. And in statistical terms, people on the autistic spectrum do fall outside the normal range when it comes to behavioural traits. That’s “normal” as in an average across a population. I’m quite aware that I have some areas where I fall within normal bounds; others, especially relating to social skills, where I’m well outside.
I strongly resent my natural reactions to an accusation being taken as signs of guilt or evasion. I don’t think I should have to conform to neurotypical standards of communication to be believed. Where was the vaunted empathy of this person in my case? I’d call it a spectacular failure. Did they end up enlightened? No. I just got a dismissive “you’re weird”. They weren’t willing to take the time to analyze and understand me – time that autistic people have to take if they want to interact more fully with neurotypical people. I don’t think I’m wrong to feel angry about this.