What You’re Feeling is Normal – The Salad Saga

“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 will forget to grab a fork and I will have to return to the counter for the utensil and everyone will silently judge me.

Salad

                       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.

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& The Sky Did Not Fall

There is a good reason that my mom calls me “Chicken Little”. She still likes to recall to anyone with even a passing interest in her eldest daughter (me) how I once stated calmly to a visiting relative that I would highly prefer that I die in my sleep – entirely outside out of any semblance of an even tangentially-related context and much to the bemusement (and concern?) of the visiting relatives around the table. I maintain to this day that that was a perfectly rational thing to bring up and discuss at the breakfast table at the tender age of four. It was irrefutably more logical than a chicken fearing that the sky will fall, at any rate – sorry, Chicken Little.

The first thing that I did this morning was ask my beau if he had yet been made aware of the appropriate scientist-approved protocol to avoid nuclear fallout. He hadn’t and so he immediately received a detailed verbal brief borne of genuine concern for our future and necessitated by my having had a particularly vivid dream several hours prior. We hadn’t even had coffee yet.

At 26, I am afraid of the dark because who in their right mind wouldn’t be?! I am profoundly disabled without my contact lenses and I’m supposed to be at ease in a situation with zero visual stimulation?! Even without a varied and vivid imagination like mine, it is inconceivable to me that the inability to access a sense wouldn’t be inherently terrifying. Shout out to my rather significant sensory-motor symptoms!

To be clear, I do not exist in a constant state of imaginary, imperil-driven panic. I am well aware of the probabilities of an inordinate number of specific and terrible events occurring but I will be damned if I’m caught with my proverbial pants down because I haven’t at least played out the scenarios in my head. As awful as regularly daydreaming about navigating doomsday circumstances may sound, I thoroughly enjoy both the mental gymnastics of gamifying (most of) them and the satisfaction of my imagined self making it out alive. Come at me, Sharknado.

The scenarios that get my palms sweaty on a good day and precipitate hours-long panic attacks on a bad day don’t involve apex oceanic predators hitching rides on freak wind storms, they involve interacting with neurotypical people in everyday life.

What I am here to say today is that I have told my intelligent, kind, warm, ad infinitum “safe people” that I have self-diagnosed autism

& the sky did not fall.

 

 

The Chamelienne

This blog is going to make use of “I” far more often than this writer is comfortable with. This writer hopes to nurture a blog that might help people like her, and their loved ones. Eventually the writer might graduate from using “I” to carefully dispensing guidance and support to a nebulous and expansive “you”, if you can stand her that long.

My name is Megan. I am a 26-year-old woman and I have self-diagnosed autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This is new to me.

While I wait to receive responses from two counselling firms and several unfortunate souls with public email addresses, autism specializations, and geographically convenient locations, I thought I’d start a blog. I’ve made the very personal decision to seek a more formal diagnosis for a few reasons, not least of which is my tendency to gaslight myself, but am waiting for some wheels to turn and next steps to be made before this can happen. I will post about the decision to seek diagnosis once I have done more research and spoken to some professionals for perspective.

I may often go into more detail than is strictly necessary but I do so with the intention of creating common ground and a safe space to discuss life with autism from a woman’s perspective through rich and unadulterated description. Wherever possible, I will do my best to link to publicly-accessible and credible sources.

I solemnly swear not to sugar-coat.

I have always been different in both overt and nuanced ways. My otherness gradually took on a burdensome weight during the early years of my primary education, which began when I entered Kindergarten at 4 years old. As I studied my peers in an attempt to suss out the essence of their normalcy, I found solace in the company of books (non-fiction and fiction), solitary imaginative play, educational television programmes, and adults who found me to be precocious and dear. It did not take long, however, for this weight to overpower me.

I did not let the weight of my otherness crush me. My burgeoning existentialism provided the impetus that drove me to obsessively study other girls and mimic them in all respects with a clinical tenacity. Each September marked the selection of a new and unwitting ‘prototype’ for me to strive to emulate until late-June. My observations eventually led me to develop informal and semi-rigid constructs to typify my peers. Once I had identified a peer (or group of peers) as belonging to one of these constructs, I would modify my behaviour accordingly, often based on what I had voraciously consumed from my “research materials” (i.e. reading teen magazines like instruction manuals on how to be a passable and acceptable version of myself).

For as long as my vivid memory serves me, I have been a chameleon. My aggressive pursuit of the enigma of normalcy has been a relentlessly destructive force in my life to-date; stretching relationships well past healthy boundaries, aggravating my mental illness cocktail, and annihilating my sense of self. I have always struggled to conceptualize how others have a “voice” in their heads, as I have most often experienced something not dissimilar to a maelstrom. Thousands of internalized rules pulse through my brain and attack me whenever I am not in a safe space. My psyche is like an autoimmune disease that attacks every thought, posture, movement, and behaviour that does not conform to my carefully-crafted and inherently-flawed internal construct of normalcy, perhaps best described as dreadfully akin to a sort of “breed standard”. Staying safe means staying hidden, like a chameleon who only sheds her clever patina and dons her pale, milky scales while she sleeps.

In my early 20s, after a brief 6-month stint as a ‘bar star’ in a seedy rock and metal club (not the minerals), it began to become apparent to me that there was something materially and insidiously awry with my psyche – I was fundamentally different from others in a nearly tangible way. Since that painful revelation, my mental illness resume of diagnoses has filled up faster than the first year film studies class at my undergraduate alma mater – chronic depression, anorexia nervosa, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), probable attachment disorder, panic disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The latter diagnosis was almost comical given my extreme aversion to doing anything (i.e. fidgeting or being hyperactive) that might draw unsolicited attention to me. Thankfully, mental health care has been reasonably accessible – thanks for footing most of those bills, mom – and I’ve had the pleasure of working some shit out with no less than a half dozen therapists over the past 15 years, with another clipboard-wielding, chaise-lounge-owning professional confidante in the chutes.

Autism was never on the proverbial map (shout out to my exploratory detours, “gluten intolerance” and bipolar disorder) when I embarked on my self-inflicted 20-year existentialism tour and mental-illness-resume-building exercise but, like a one-way ticket to Gary Indiana, it’s the card I’ve been dealt.