“I know how you feel.”, “Everyone feels that way sometimes.”, “What you’re feeling is normal.”, ad infinitum. These are all well-intentioned phrases that I would appreciate never hearing again.
I mentioned the phenomenon of gaslighting in a previous post. Though the term ‘gaslighting’ is most often used to explain the behaviours of a third party, it can easily be applied internally, with pretty insidious results. When someone gaslights another person, they diminish that person’s experience through manipulation with the end result of their subject feeling as if they are, for lack of a better word, crazy. I do this to myself. All. The. Time.
As someone who has spent her whole life in pursuit of normal, I have covertly sought answers to my idiosyncracies. These little investigations start out with a quick Google and escalate in no time to reading full-blown academic articles with a Wikipedia window open for impromptu auxiliary fact-finding. Taken individually, the answers that I find are not overwhelmingly indicative of anything being abnormal about me – excellent news when one’s primary fear is abnormality resulting in abandonment and ostracism. These singular answers often put me at ease in much the same way as hearing “What you’re feeling is normal.”, etc. once did.
These dozens of seemingly innocuous and even occasionally cute little idiosyncracies taken on balance, however, scream a big old, “Girl, you are weird as hell.“. As much as our culture likes to romanticize being one in a million*, ‘special’ isn’t always a cake walk; for me, it’s more of a… laborious salad saga.
Megan’s Mentally Laborious Lunchtime Salad Saga
Everyone is Judging Me
When I have forgotten to bring my lunch to work, a chronically occurring issue, I have several options:
- A). Go hungry and survey the staff kitchen for charitable stale carbohydrates.
- B). Purchase M&Ms from a small, and yet apparently hospitable, vending machine that once contained an estimated 500 ants – a middlingly sized village by common standards.
- C). Purchase an overpriced salad from a coffee shop down the hall.
- D). Visit the massive food court across the lawn from my office.
- E). Visit a nearby restaurant with another person.
A less mentally-encumbered person than myself might deduce that my options improve quite dramatically from A to E and would probably advise accordingly. That person, dear reader, while perhaps pure of heart and clear of mind, is blissfully ignorant of Megan’s Mentally Laborious Lunchtime Salad Saga.
E. cannot happen because I have forgotten my lunch. If I have forgotten my lunch, I had fully intended on eating said lunch and so have not fortified my faculties in preparation for such an endeavour. I do lunch dates by appointment only and my truancy rate is still embarrassingly high. One might suggest that I eat alone at one of the nearby restaurants but, dear reader, they don’t know me like you do. I ate alone once at Earl’s. I felt so badly for the waitress that she had to deal with a solo diner that I tipped her too well, suspiciously well, and that’s how you cultivate a reputation as a lesbian serial killer.
D. requires minimal one-on-one interaction and allows me to eat my lunch in solitude but has several hefty downsides:
- The food court is located across the lawn from my building. This impeccably manicured lawn is crawling with late-adolescents and same-aged peers. They will silently judge me and they will do so with the same fervour that characterizes our demographic as the destroyers of mediocre North American family chain restaurants.
- I am dressed in business casual attire but more closely resemble an undergraduate than an employee. This visual paradox is “a problem” that will inevitably draw silent judgement. This problem creates a reasonable likelihood that I will have to pretend to be an undergraduate student for the benefit of the slightly patronizing cashier who has struck up a small-talk conversation with me based on their perception that I must be an undergraduate student with negligible fashion sense. Finding out that I am not an undergraduate student would probably make the cashier feel both self-conscious about their assumption and simultaneously disappointed. I don’t want that baggage.
- There are too many damn choices in the food court. For me, the Paradox of Choice is a mutually-exclusive directive to either impulse buy all of the things or to commit fully to an entirely random option, lest someone notice my indecision and silently judge me. My most recent food court purchase was six packs of Mr. Noodle, three Clif Bars, and a Cherry Coke Slurpee. I enjoy precisely none of those items.
C. is the winner of the day by a slight margin because the candy machine down the hall, option B., dispenses an offensive number of M&Ms per quarter and I didn’t get a degree in economics to be duped by an ant castle and A. I avoid anorexia triggers such as skipping meals.
The underwhelming salad of choice is located in a cooler within a busy coffee shop that is approximately 500 metres from my desk via hallway. In preparation, I steel myself for the imminent autistic anxiety gauntlet, sneak out of the office through the back door due to an irrational fear of someone noticing that I’m mobile (God forbid), and take the long way around my floor of the building to reevaluate the offerings of the ant merchants. The walk from my office to the coffee shop takes about five minutes but often feels like 50 as I attempt to walk “normally”, make “normal” eye contact, avoid being noticed by strangers and casual acquaintances, and control the anxiety of an impending transaction wherein I will forget to grab a fork and I will have to return to the counter for the utensil and everyone will silently judge me.
The rest of you, apparently.
Now, knowing that I am inherently abnormal, phrases that attempt to comfort me by distorting my experiences to fit within neurotypical bounds fly in the face of my entire life experience of innately knowing my otherness. Experiencing this unintentional denigration of my experience causes me to feel even more alienated and, whether merited or not, shamed. These feelings can very easily spiral into a personal gaslighting bonfire where I question my abilities and sanity. If I have spent the better part of 26 years trying with all of my might to be normal and someone whose opinion I value believes that I am, in fact, normal, then what the hell is wrong with me? If others can seemingly excel and buy salads with relative ease when they are experiencing the very same sensations as I, why is it so hard for me? Am I crazy?
I do not fault others for this incongruity, they are empathizing with me in the best way that they know how. Perhaps ironically, neurotypical people, unlike people with autism, can intuitively empathize. Regardless of my particular empathetic handicap though, I think we’d all be hard-pressed not to agree that empathizing entirely with someone whose fundamental experience has been demonstrably radically different from one’s own must be impossible.
You don’t know how I feel and that’s okay – I can’t intuitively understand you either – I’d rather be genuinely understood as different than feel a farce.
*Based on the least conservative estimates, the probability of being a “high-functioning” autistic woman is just shy of 1/1,033. Based on the most conservative estimates, those odds fall sharply to 1/166,666. In the liberal case, there are likely to be 260 other women and girls like me in the city that I live in. Conservatively, there might be one other person like me within 5,000+ square kilometres. BRB, installing a lightning rod and buying lottery tickets.