Sunday, February 24, 2013

Coming Out as Me

This year, I made a rather unusual New Year's resolution. I resolved to be myself. Maybe that's overstating. Really what I resolved to do was to stop fighting myself in those areas where fighting myself is a losing battle.

I did not make a resolution to lose weight (though I'm certainly giving it a shot). Not to read X number of books. Not to exercise more. Not to stop procrastinating at work until I drive myself and various of my coworkers insane. (Sorry 'bout that, coworkers.)

I made a resolution to let myself be me, even when that's not really a comfortable thing for everyone around me.

It'll make more sense, maybe, if I explain a little about where my head has been a lot for the past, oh, six months or more. It's been thinking about the best ways to advocate for N as he moves toward middle school. (It's a hard one: Middle school, to me, marks the beginning of the "it's not so cute to be quirky" part of life. It's not-so-coincidentally also the time when six times as many kids will be in N's grade, meaning 5X or more kids who have never met N, don't know him and how he ticks, and don't have any protective instincts towards him. I do not heart the idea of middle school for this child. At all.)

I've also been thinking back to my own middle school and high school experiences, which I was able to navigate somewhat eerily without major incident, considering that I had some quirks of my own...including a tendency to still suck my thumb (in eighth grade. in class. HOW did I survive?) and to chew on ballpoint pens until they exploded all over me.

Somewhere along the way, I read some of Stimey's posts about her recent Asperger's diagnosis. (Someday, when I'm a better writer, I'll be able to put into words just how amazing it is to have so many people in my life who have had such a significant impact on how I think, even if I don't really 'know' them in the usual senses of that word. I don't even want to think about the kinds of mistakes I'd be making every day if I didn't have the enormous special-needs community to wander about in. It's like sipping from a never-abating fountain of wisdom. Sometimes, I feel like I'm drowning in choices and possibilities, but oh, how much better than drowning in fear and uncertainty.)

Now, I don't think I'm an Aspie. But I do think that I'm diagnosable with...I don't know; maybe not with something on the spectrum, but with sensory integration issues that in many ways mimic at least some of the characteristics of ASD. When I was a teenager, back when all I knew of autism was Rain Man, I used to not-completely-jokingly joke that I had a subclinical form of autism (like I said, 'spectrum' wasn't even close to being in my vocabulary) because I had always, for as long as I could remember, not only sucked my thumb but rocked back and forth to soothe myself. I did it so violently in first grade when I needed to stand and read or recite that my teacher would put her hands on my shoulders to root me in place. (At which point I would lose my place, unable to think about anything except needing to rock.) I did it in high school during a public speaking course I took. When I got my first magazine job, my boss (a spectrummy guy if ever I met one) and I used to rock in unison when we talked; we worked on the 31st floor of a building and our colleagues used to joke that if we didn't cut it out, we'd start the whole building swaying.

Add that to the thumb sucking, and the pen chewing, and a nail biting habit that frequently has me bleeding from my fingertips, and an inability to wear socks because they 'squish' my feet and I can't concentrate, and any of a hundred other similar habits...and you've got something. Something that, had I put my finger on it before my 49th year, might have made it easier for me to get through life. Something that, as I near 50, or maybe just as I spend more time trying to make the world fit my son a little better, rather than forcing him to do all the changing to fit the world, makes me wonder whether I really have to keep trying so hard to be what everyone else is. Whether I have to keep forcing myself into places and situations that make my heart thump in fear and anxiety.

And so, my resolution. To not always force myself any more. To realize that it's not getting easier for me to go places I've never been before--because my anxiety over how to drive there and where I will park (seriously, that's the bulk of the fear) is so overwhelming. To realize that I will never EVER enjoy being in crowds, and that the density of people that defines "crowd" for me is increasingly decreasing. To accept that I don't like loud restaurants, and that I really don't like loud bars, and that I will never enjoy roller coasters, and that I really do hate scary movies, because I'm missing whatever it is that gives other people the post-scary-movie-or-ride rush, and I only get the scary.

I could go on and on. But you get the drift.

My resolution has a catch, however. I am now allowed to simply say no to any of the above long as I don't lie about it, as I have been wont to do in the past, making excuses for not wanting to go to concerts or movies or new places rather than being honest about why I wasn't going. Now, I can just say no, so long as I fess up about why. "I'd love to hear that concert," I might say, "but it's going to be too loud for me." "That's a movie I simply won't enjoy; you should go without me."

Because, you know what? I've learned these past several years to be proud, rather than apologetic, about who my son is, to talk about the ways autism permeates his life, and to thereby subtly insist that people accept him for who he is. And it's time for me to model that same kind of self-advocacy for him by also doing it for myself. To take a deep breath and convince both myself and the world around me that there's nothing wrong with being anxious, or overwhelmed by noise or temperature or the sensation of socks on my feet. And to do so without lying to anyone about it, without being ashamed of being a 49-year-old woman who still chews on pens and can't get a manicure because she has no nails and won't call the Chinese or pizza delivery numbers because she's scared of talking to strangers on the phone.

And I'll tell you, it's been ridiculously freeing. As is so often the case, not only do I feel better because I'm not pushing myself to 'man up' in situations that never end up well, but half the time, just saying what my concerns are means that a solution can be found. When I recently turned down an offer for a lunch from a friend at work because she wanted to go to an area I knew would be hard to find parking in, she simply asked, "How about if I drive?" Done. When a friend was enthusiastic about a special-occasion dinner at a restaurant I knew has live music and gets crazy crowded, I asked her if we could go somewhere else on a different night; she got to do both, and I got to gracefully bow out of what would have been an anxiety fest for me without hurting her feelings.

None of this, sadly, is going to save my pens or my nails. But it has saved a very small piece of my sanity. It even allowed me, tonight, to reply to a friend's thank you email after the Oscar party we had at our house with an acknowledgment of the fact that I took a number of "shut myself in my room for five minutes and chill out on Facebook" breaks. "I always love having everyone over," I wrote, "even if I can only handle the full-on sensory assault in smallish batches."

And I do love it. Even more when I can take breaks. When I let myself enjoy it my way, without beating myself up about being who I am.

It's only taken 49 years, but I'm getting there. And, hopefully, blazing a trail wide enough for N to be able to follow now, TODAY, rather than after years of unnecessary accommodation in the hopes of making himself be who he isn't.