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Teeter-Totter II

by on August 31, 2020

I can’t sleep.  Well, I’ve been asleep for several hours, but now I’m wide awake.  I’ve had sleep issues since I was born; apparently I cried the first three months of my life.  It’s no wonder; I’m autistic and the way I feel about certain things – lights, noise, textures, odors, people, can be really intense.  If I experience adverse reactions today, I can almost guarantee as a newborn infant I was experiencing adverse reactions to stimuli in my environment. 

When I can’t sleep I’m not necessarily worried, although I’ve lived with anxiety in various forms most of my life.  I clearly recall being around six years old, telling my sister late one night that I had “butterflies in my tummy” when I couldn’t sleep.  That was anxiety, which for me usually begins in the gut.  Today the anxiety has dramatically decreased especially now that I know I’m autistic.  I no longer have to exist with the constant confusion of yesteryear, wondering about social situations I experienced, at times almost on the verge of paranoia.  One of my mantras, said to me by a wise friend, has been, “Don’t create plots.”  Well, I tried not to, but it wasn’t always easy.  Still, I’m extremely grateful for the suggestion; adhering to it helped reduce the threat of paranoia.

Having a wonderful collection of special interests from which to choose helps reduce anxiety and calms me; when I can’t sleep I might think about one of them in an effort to while away the time.  Further, special interests can be so powerful in the autistic mind I might automatically think of them upon waking, and a special interest is typically my last thought before falling asleep.  This may even be why I’ve experienced a fun, fascinating dream life about ones that figure so importantly in my life.  Special interests can come and go, but the most dominant, influential ones (Benjamin Franklin, as an example) stick around like a dear friend.  I used to be confused about my own mind (“Why the heck am I thinking so intensely and joyfully about someone who’s been dead since 1790?”).  I would even imagine Benjamin Franklin traveling through time/space, visiting me as I later showed him scientific achievements along the way.  My imagination can be really vivid, and for years – even decades –  these imaginations helped with anxiety, confusion, and sleep issues.  They still do today. 

Part of being unable to sleep can include analyzing experiences and circumstances from the previous day or two.  I view these situations like files that need to be tucked away in a cabinet at the end of the day or the desk will be a mess when I return to work.  I was practicing the “Sterile Cockpit Rule” long before I ever knew what that was.  There are some things I simply can’t abide, such as returning to a disorganized workspace the next day.  It can be distracting and even overwhelming – something I used to call “bad feng shui.”  

The same applies to my bedroom.  The first thing I do upon rising in the morning is throw up the window blinds and make my bed.  I can’t return to a messy bedroom after a messy day at work.  A messy mind and a messy home are very much related, and can add to my existing sensory overload.  Messes are visually overstimulating, depressing, and even anxiety-producing for me.  I work in a cluttered environment that is overcrowded with product and people; it is extremely important for me not to upset my balance by living with too much “stuff” on my own time. 

So I’m thinking about the meltdowns at work I experienced on Saturday.  The balance was upset – the precarious tightrope walk I go about as I interact in an overwhelming environment filled with…people.  People throw me into overload more than anything else because they do things that upset the balance.  Humans can be demanding, noisy, obstinate animals.  So can dogs, but for whatever the reason, the things dogs do don’t upset my balance.  Sure, the sound of little dogs yapping can be something of an irritant, but in my mind the doggie irritant is always because of something humans have done or failed to do.  So I’m never annoyed at the dog; I’m frustrated with the human in charge of their “care.”  

When I’m experiencing or about to experience a meltdown, it seems to be that “one extra thing” that throws me over the edge.  Those things vary in their intensity; sometimes how I react even seems out of my control.  Explaining this is difficult because I don’t want to be misinterpreted.  I’m clearly responsible for my actions, but I also have what some call an “invisible disability.”  Further, I don’t “appear” autistic (as though anyone can).  But when I act exactly like myself, an autistic person, this can confuse others and possibly even hurt their feelings.  All of my co-workers and managers know why I’m differently abled, and I constantly remind them of this.  I’m doing my best to maintain a conversation about ASD so that I can avoid hurting the feelings of others, harming myself, or wind up quitting or being terminated.  Again. 

While I can’t sleep there is a specific incident from Saturday that stands out from the others.  I’ll call the co-worker involved Ted, and I really like Ted.  We have our differences; to my knowledge Ted has never worn a mask during the deadly global pandemic in which we find ourselves.  I find this socially irresponsible but I overlook it to an extent because Ted does have many other decent qualities.  I wish he wouldn’t politicize an issue that doesn’t require it, thus posing a risk to himself and others.  But overall I like him; he’s an intelligent, calm, hard-working individual.  He’s open to conversations about mental health and disorders we need to learn about in the workplace so we can get along with others:  ASD, ADD, ADHD, even OCD.  Ted has a good sense of humor and despite the absence of a mask, possesses a respectable amount of self-awareness.

But he began a tradition with me that has now become a frustration, even an issue that can upset my precarious balance and throw me off the teeter-totter.  I should have said something about it long ago; from my experience, things don’t go well when I avoid them for too long.  And this seemingly innocent tradition with which I’ve put up has become even absurdly comical at times.  Until it is no longer comical.

That happened on Saturday, and the tradition is today’s pandemic-popular “Elbow Bump.” 

Ted means well.  He seems to know that I prefer being “one of the guys,” even though I do not wish to be male.  I’ve never wanted to be a man; I simply like things to be equal and fair.  I’m a feminist.  I’m not a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued by a big, strong, man; I get annoyed when a man rushes to a door to open it for me as though I’m incapable.  I prefer being asked if I need help than having a man assume I need or want it.  The times I need assistance aren’t because I’m a woman; something might be too heavy for me because I’m too small or not strong enough to lift or carry it.  That happens even to…men!

So I think the Elbow Bump, the thing that threw me off the see-saw on Saturday, was begun in an effort to make me feel like “one of the guys” since it seems to be something The Guys do these days.  I don’t observe women elbow-bumping; it is always male customers.  But an elbow bump can mean several things for me.  When I’m already on sensory overload, which is pretty much all the time in my work environment, added stimuli can send me over the edge.  That one more thing can be a phone incessantly beeping when someone has been on hold too long, or human touch. 

So here it is – how I feel about unsolicited human touch.  It can really irritate me, physically and psychologically.  If or when I become annoyed depends on the person and my current mood.  Worse yet, skin-to-skin contact can almost make me feel ill, especially when unexpected or with someone of whom I’m not truly fond.  This isn’t anyone’s fault.  It isn’t Ted’s fault.  In fact, the Elbow Bump almost seems to be a part of Ted’s routine in the morning and at the end of the day.  But it’s also summer in Atlanta.  The Elbow Bump in a hot store in short-sleeved shirts is also going to be a sticky, sweaty affair that is currently causing me to cringe as I think about it.  But I feel this is a necessary exercise and worth sharing.

I shouldn’t have let it go as long as I did.  Saturday was a particularly rough day for me as a cashier, a woman, and especially an autistic human being.  I was again reprimanded in the office for something I did, although once again the customer’s perspective was wrong.  It was a day of crowds and sensory overload, and then my cash drawer was $30 short when I was ready to leave.  My cash is nearly always precise; I count change back to customers bill by bill.  My well-meaning, sympathetic supervisor tried to assuage my mounting frustration but made it worse (not her fault).  The cash worked out, but the feelings hadn’t yet.

After all of these frustrations, tears, meltdowns, even some angry feelings, here comes Ted at the end of the day.  And I just knew what he was about to do –  something that has caused me even to hide from him to avoid the sensation.  I was immediately filled with turmoil that turned to anger – anger at Ted for his seemingly innocent, albeit annoying tradition.  Angry at the incidents from the day.  Angry at myself for failing to have a discussion about bumping elbows.  All of these thoughts took place in what felt like the space of a second or less.  My brain sometimes processes information so quickly that people half my age can’t keep up with it.

Ted moved in, ready to make contact.  Instead of taking him gently aside as I’ve been known to do under better circumstances, my overloaded self loudly proclaimed, “Ted, I love ya, but I HATE HUMAN CONTACT!”

Poor Ted.  He didn’t know he was going to throw me off the teeter-totter.  Worse, I avoided eye contact with him and immediately stormed away, unable to handle the result of that meltdown.  I have no doubt Ted won’t be mad at me, but I’ve now forced myself into a conversation with him I should have had long ago.  It isn’t easy for me to do that on a good day, so it definitely wouldn’t have been easy on Saturday.  But it’s overdue and must be done.

Sometimes it takes an accident, a spill, a fall off the see-saw for me to implement best practices at all times.  While I’m not looking forward to the apology, something I’m used to doing, I know Ted will have empathy.  I’ll reassure him it wasn’t his fault, and that I should have let him know long ago.  I live, I learn, and yes, sometimes I have to laugh.  

But at least I won’t have to Elbow Bump anymore, and with that thought, it’s time to get some more sleep. 

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  1. I think one of the more difficult lessons we learn is that setting boundaries for ourselves also means setting boundaries for others. Then, we often have to diplomatically state – and sometimes explain those boundaries. After doing our best we can only stand back and examine the reaction of others. Their reactions will speak of their character, and shape the way we interact with them further, if at all.


    • danarenee71 permalink

      Thank you Marco. I always appreciate your wisdom and experience, and carry it with me wherever I go.



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