From Overload to Anger

Sometimes overload — whether sensory overload, social overload, or general emotional overload — feels like exhaustion. It feels like muddy thoughts, dull senses, and an overwhelming desire to escape. That’s often what it feels like, at least for me. But sometimes what overload feels like…is anger.

Let me back up. For most of my life, I didn’t know I was autistic, so I didn’t realize that I was extra sensitive to many sensory inputs. Sure, I could tell when sensory issues were bothering me, but in general I assumed that if they were bothering me, they would be bothering anyone. The situation alone was the cause, not the situation plus my (autistic) sensitivities.

What this means is that I assumed that other people would know they were creating an offensive sensory environment, and they just didn’t care. I assumed my assessment was an objective truth: it simply was too loud. Too bright. Too smelly. Too chaotic. Too upsetting. All the other people involved? They should have known this was too much.

And I would get so angry that they didn’t. Angry that I had to say something, to call attention to myself and the difficulty I was having. Angry that they didn’t just know. Because it should have been obvious…right?

But my assessment is always my assessment: the combination of me and the specific situation. Yes, some things would be too loud/bright/scratchy/crowded for almost anyone, and yes, sometimes people are inconsiderate. But often I would end up getting angry about something no one else even realized was a problem. It might be the annoying, distracting buzzing sound that no one was fixing because no one else heard it. Or the loud background music that kept me from understanding what someone was saying…because of my own auditory processing issues, not the music’s volume.

So I try to catch myself now when I start feeling this way, and ask myself whether the problem really is as self-evident as it feels to me, or if it’s partly my own idiosyncratic (and autistic) response to things. Of course, if it is the latter, I can still ask for the situation to be changed — and now I can ask in a way that acknowledges that other people may not have realized the problem, rather than angrily assuming they didn’t care.

And none of this is to imply any self-blame on my part; there’s nothing wrong with having sensory sensitivities and needing to take steps to be more comfortable. But being aware of those sensitivities, and how they contribute to my perception of a situation, can help me not only head off feelings of overload, but also recognize and own that perception before overload flashes into anger.

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Delayed Perception

As I’ve been learning more and more about autism since my diagnosis, I’ve come to recognize how different autistic traits manifest for me. (For a recent example, see my last post about black-and-white thinking.) It’s been an interesting process of translating descriptions of autistic traits and/or diagnostic criteria (which can be fairly abstract) into real-life examples — and it’s a process that would not be possible without the many first-person accounts by other autistic people in books, blogs, articles, and tweets. You’ve all helped me understand what a particular trait might “look like” in different autistic people, and so what it might look like in me.

What I’ve been noticing, though, is that while I can read about autistic tendencies and think, “Yes, I experience that,” it’s often hard to notice in the moment that I am experiencing them. Now, I think I’m a pretty observant, self-aware person — but things like sensory overload, or brain fog after stress, can still be affecting me without my conscious awareness. In a way, it’s just part of the nature of the beast — exhaustion after social activities makes any kind of thought more difficult, for example. Sensory overload from external sources makes it hard to notice my internal state. Eventually I notice that I’m feeling fried, but only after it reaches a tipping point. Up until then, I don’t feel myself getting fried.

And then there’s delayed processing. Delayed processing can give me an emotional reaction to something that happened long enough ago that it’s not part of my conscious memory anymore. That makes it hard to realize just why I’m getting emotional. Add to that a degree of alexithymia, so that I don’t necessarily even know what I’m feeling, and things can get very confusing, indeed. So I end up with delayed processing, and also delayed recognition that I am even still processing something.

No wonder meltdowns and shutdowns can seem to come out of nowhere!

So I try to pay attention to my internal state, and also build up greater recognition of the types of situations that are likely to trigger these difficulties. But I’m also trying to learn how some of those intermediate stages feel, like the point where I’m getting socially fried but am not quite there yet. I’m hoping that will help me head off those kinds of problems earlier, and just generally pace myself better when I’m out in the world.

Baggage

I’ve been getting a few glimpses lately of emotional issues that are resurfacing long after I thought I had dealt with them. This has led to some interesting thoughts (well, interesting to me; you can be your own judge after you read them).

Because I often don’t know what I’m feeling — at least not right away — I also don’t know how much emotional baggage is piling up from the events I experience. This has two parts to it, really: 1) it can take me a long time to realize how much of an impact something has had on me, and 2) even when I realize that, I forget that the event was having that impact the whole time I didn’t know about it. What I’m realizing now is that #2 is an even bigger factor than #1 when it comes to my long-term mental and emotional health.

Of course, #1 has layers to it as well. Even when I do recognize an immediate impact, for example, I don’t always realize the full extent of it until much later. For example, I got divorced from my first husband many years ago. This was obviously an emotional event, and I got emotional about it — but it took me many years to realize just how deeply it had affected me, especially when it came to my sense of self and my worthiness to be loved. I absorbed a deep sense of “not okayness” from that event, which has taken a long time to come to the surface.

Other things in my life have had similar delayed impact, sometimes decades delayed. But the thing that I realized with #2 is that delayed impacts aren’t really delayed; it would be more accurate to say they’re unconscious and therefore invisible. So I wonder if one reason things get harder for autistics as we get older — often leading to burnout — is that we accumulate more and more baggage we don’t know how to process. In fact, it’s baggage we may not even know that we’re still carrying, so we don’t know that it even needs to be processed. Of course it piles up.

Night Driving

Blazing,
Too intense;
Eyes are headlights in the dark.
Just one pair brings pain,
And too long a stare
Erases thought,
Takes the whole world
Out of my sight.

It takes time to bring it back,
To realize where I am
After the glare has passed.
And once the first has caught me,
It does not take many more
To disorient,
To dazzle,
To plunge me into danger.

What saves me then
Is silence,
And lessons learned
From night driving:
I drop my gaze,
Searching the ground
For the painted white line
That will lead me home.

Thanks, But It’s Just Tuesday For Me

I don’t really do Valentine’s Day. In fact, my husband and I tend to forget about it completely. (The day after, though, is our dog’s birthday, and she gets spoiled. Can’t forget that.) I know some people really enjoy having a special day to celebrate their relationships, but we just haven’t felt a particular need for one.

But my lack of affection for the holiday goes beyond that. It’s not just because the modern celebration of Valentine’s Day is marked by persistent advertisements for sparkly jewelry, mass-produced chocolates and cliched greeting cards, although that consumeristic element annoys me. And don’t get me started on all the gendered expectations around “dating” traditions, which seem to get thrown into high relief on this holiday. No, mostly it goes back to my memories of Valentine’s Day in grade school, and how much I hated it.

In the early grades, V-Day was a whole-class thing; everyone made cards for everyone, and placed them into little folded-paper “mailboxes” that we hung at the front of our desks. This wasn’t terrible, but it was awkward. I never knew what to write to anyone, and the cards I got were equally as vague. It never felt like any of the cards I got were actually written to me (and, to be fair, the ones I wrote were probably just as devoid of connection).

Later, of course, when kids were starting to pair off, Valentine’s Day at school started to take on the qualities of the romantic holiday adults celebrate. In junior high and high school, kids could buy candies or roses to have delivered to their “sweethearts” during class. I was always torn between terror that one of those deliveries would be for me — thus bringing me unwanted attention — and despair that no one would ever think of me in that way. To my memory, my first wish remained intact; I never received a Valentine’s delivery in school. But every hour of that whole day, each year, I would feel torn in half by those diverging desires.

None of this is meant to elicit sympathy; it’s not meant as a “poor, lonely me” story. It’s an illustration of the larger pattern of how I see this holiday playing out for large swathes of the population. Even as adults, people are bombarded with messages about how people are giving their loved ones gifts in a celebration of romance, and isn’t it wonderful that everyone’s so happy, and…aren’t you pathetic if you’re left out. I mean, isn’t that the flip side of seeing the holiday portrayed as if everyone is happily (and heterosexually, I might add) partnered up?

At least the public display of Valentine’s-worthiness that marked Valentine’s Day in school (I think some students even did these kinds of gift-delivery things in college, too) segues into something more private in adult life — but to me the holiday is still tinged with this worthier-than-thou feeling that leaves out so many people. And once I started to have my own romantic relationships, it never felt right for me to abandon my standing critique of Valentine’s Day and wholeheartedly embrace the gift-giving spectacle. It felt like that would be a sort of “too bad for those suckers, I’ve got mine now” attitude.

I feel the need to say at this point that I’m mainly talking about the cultural trappings of Valentine’s Day — the advertising, in particular, and practices like those I saw in school, where public displays of relationship status are encouraged in a way that (I think) is alienating to others. I don’t have a problem with anyone’s personal celebration of the holiday, or happy feelings on receiving gifts from a loved one. I like gifts, too. 🙂 But I also want to say that it can be a really crappy day for people who are feeling lonely, or who aren’t lonely but don’t fit the mainstream sexual/romantic relationship mold and are tired of having people think they should. Ultimately I just think it’s ironic that a holiday supposedly about love can feel so mean.

So a happy Tuesday to everyone who isn’t into Valentine’s, for whatever reason. And tomorrow you can celebrate my dog’s birthday instead. 🙂

Seen

I just want to be seen.

All of me, not just the parts I carefully choose to show you. That “me” is based on your preconceptions, my fears, and our history (or lack thereof). I just want to be seen.

I don’t want to be seen.

Let your eyes slide right past me, my words go unnoticed. When you ask me a question, I panic, fearing to reveal too much. I don’t want to be seen.

There is no contradiction here.

I just want to be seen…and loved for what you see. I don’t want to be seen…and rejected, ridiculed, reviled. Which direction I go depends on your reaction, and the reactions of all who have come before you, whether you know them or not. It depends on how much risk I want to take, to gamble that this time will be different. And you should know: the odds are not even.

Beneath the Snow

I’ve been in pulled-back mode lately, quietly creating underground. It’s still winter, after all, and not yet time for outward growth. But there is something more than that; I know I am affected deeply by many things in this world, but sometimes it takes me some time to recognize just how deeply. And there are many things that take me time to come to talk about, or write about, in a way that I can put out into the world.

Maybe that’s been my primary challenge when it comes to maintaining a blog. I start one in a period of expansion, of putting my words out there for others to read. But then comes a time of contraction, when my focus turns toward taking information in more than sending my opinions out. Often I am still writing, still creating, during this time, but it is more raw, not yet ready for public consumption. Or perhaps I am more raw, not yet ready to have my words read and judged by others.

Like the woods I live in, I need this time of (apparent) dormancy, of gathering energy for the next season of expansion. I look out on the snowy landscape and know that life is doing its work, as am I.