Sunday, 18 December 2011

Be Kind to Yourself This Christmas

The festive season is a difficult time for just about all on the spectrum, and I want to urge all spectrumites to be kind to themselves this year. Most of us get stressed out to the max. Some struggle to understand the whole point of it all. Others feel even more lonely and isolated than they do the rest of the year. Those who do throw themselves into participating, can fall into the trap of trying to have, or thinking they ‘should’ have, the ‘perfect’ Christmas, just like in the Christmas movies or in TV programmes or ads.

It’s important to remember that even NTs find Christmas a stressful time. There’s a reason why domestic violence statistics shoot up at this time of year, for instance. Many NTs also have dysfunctional families that make Christmas gatherings a nightmare. And then there’s the financial stress of gifts and extra travel and special foods, especially this year when even your average middle class person is struggling to make ends meet, and those on the breadline (which includes many of us, with our high unemployment rate) are beyond struggling and into desperation. So don’t think you’re alone in finding this time difficult.

There are practical things you can do to reduce Christmas stress. For gifts, avoid the nightmare of large department stores – instead try small speciality stores, or do your shopping online or through catalogues. Visit a farmer’s or craft market if there is one near you, they’re often great places to find that special and/or ‘different’ gift at a moderate cost. Alternatively, people are usually thrilled to get homemade crafts or baking, if you have a talent for these. If you have kids, or are buying for kids, don’t get caught up in thinking you ‘have’ to buy them expensive toys etc. Kids are often surprisingly content with less expensive items, especially those which involve crafts or physical activity – or that make a lot of noise!!!

Food-wise, stick to your normal types of food as much as possible, throughout the season. If you’re gluten or dairy free for example, make sure others who are doing any of the Christmas cooking know this, and ask for at least some of the food to be ‘okay’ for you. Make suggestions or give recipes if need be. At the very least, ensure you take some food that you know you can eat. And don’t be tempted by the sumptuous display on the table into eating what you know will mean you suffer later, or let yourself be nagged into it by inconsiderate or well-meaning but ignorant relatives. If you’re doing the cooking, keep it as simple as possible – you really don’t need to provide six different and elaborate main dishes and three starters for example. And ask others to cook/bring some food, eg a dessert or salad each, or some drinks. (Oh, and limit or stay off the alcohol if possible, it tends to make things get out of control very quickly.)

If you’re celebrating at your own home, it’s perfectly okay (even a good idea) to have a gathering of only those people you actually care about and want to be with on the day itself – whether this is a partner, your kids, friends or whoever. If you must have or go to a larger family gathering, or you want to, then ensure you have frequent ‘time out’, by going to another part of the house, or your room, or outside, for a walk if the weather permits it in your part of the world. As my family lives not too far away, I simply go home and rest for a few hours in the middle of the day, for instance, between the morning brunch/present giving and the Big Dinner in the evening. Have your own transport if you can – it makes getting away much easier. There is no need to make elaborate excuses when you do this by the way – if any explanation is necessary, then simply say you’re tired/overloaded/peopled-out, whatever works for you. If they don’t accept this explanation, say ‘I’m sorry, but this is what I need’, and do it anyway. Your own needs must come first, not the opinions of relatives.

If you have no-one to get together with, for whatever reason, and especially if you don’t have a lot of money, consider going to a community or charity dinner, if there is one near you. Better yet, volunteer at one. You get to very gently socialise while you peel potatoes, stir gravies and dish up Christmas puddings. If this is not your thing, then do make some effort to make something special to eat, it doesn’t have to be ‘Christmassy’ foods – perhaps your favourite food is oysters, or bananas! Also do something a little different, maybe play all your favourite songs or movies, play all your favourite computer games, or go for a walk in your favourite spot – whatever will make you feel like you’ve ‘celebrated’ in some way.

And let go of the idea of the ‘perfect’ Christmas. The movie/TV version is a commercialised, sentimentalised version meant to either sell the movie, or get people to watch the programme, or buy the product advertised. It has very little to do with the reality of most people’s Christmas – which more often involves things like kids running around screaming and bouncing off the walls because of over-excitement or too much Christmas sugar, Uncle George getting drunk on the sherry, Grandma falling asleep face down in the trifle, and at least one sibling or cousin having a Huge Fight with someone else and storming out vowing Never To Speak To That Bitch/Bastard Ever Again. (Okay I exaggerate, but these things do happen!)

Do what works for you, not what you think you ‘should’ do. If you have negative or confused feelings about the whole business, acknowledge them as valid, even if it’s only to yourself so as not to spoil things for those around you. It doesn’t mean they are any less valid or real. If you have to go through at least some of the rituals and palavers associated with the season, just grin and bear it with as much good grace as you can. Remember it’ll soon be over, and sanity return!!

And above all, be kind to yourself. Don’t thrash yourself trying to fit into a mold that is not you, and/or not right for your family and close ones. You have the right, even the duty to yourself, to celebrate exactly how you want to celebrate, and not how anyone else tells you, or tries to pressure you, that you ‘should’.

Because you’re worth it. Season’s greetings my friends. Have a good Christmas.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

And Yet Another Bit from my Book

Another excerpt from my book. This is probably the last one I’ll do, as I need to get on with actually writing the rest of it!!

I am twelve years old, drifting around the school playground at lunchtime. Nearby, some kids want to play a game of Four Square, but there are only three of them. They invite me to play. It’s a simple game, and at first all is well. But then, as soon as a queue forms of other kids wanting to play, the original players turn to me, and tell me, “You can go now”. I back off and walk away in slow confusion, suddenly aware of two things – I have been used, and I Am Not Wanted.

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. Alas not so. At primary school, I had been, if not exactly favoured, at least not totally excluded. But my peers were growing up fast, their interactions becoming more sophisticated and complicated. As a child, I had been drilled in some basic rules of social interaction by my parents –hello and goodbye, please and thank you, wait your turn and don’t stare at people. These were no longer enough, and my ‘difference’ was becoming more obvious. Around me, girls were sprouting breasts and hips, and becoming interested in boys and flirting, pop groups and film stars, makeup and fashion. I was still reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, wishing I could find buried treasure and secret passages, and wanting to be George, the rebellious tomboy (I thought the other girl, Anne, was wet). I was also late physically maturing, which didn’t help much.

It also didn’t help that the intermediate took students from several primary schools, and almost none of the kids I had spent the last six years with, who were used to me, were in my classes. My new classmates didn’t know me, and rapidly made it plain they didn’t like me much either…

One big challenge at intermediate, and secondary school also, was sports. We’d had to do them at primary, but little prowess is expected of young children. By twelve or fourteen, however, it’s expected you will know at least a few of the rules, and have acquired at least a little skill. Not me, alas! I had never been particularly well co-ordinated. I’d taken forever to learn to tie my shoelaces for instance, my grandmother – she of the lush garden – had finally shown me, step by patient step, how to do it. I’d done ballet for several years, but I would soon give it up, as I was slowly realizing I would never be much good at it. Unfortunately girls then weren’t allowed to play rugby, which I might have enjoyed because of the backyard games with my father; we had such delights as netball, cricket and hockey instead. Netball I found frustrating, cricket I’ve always rated one notch above watching paint dry, but hockey was just a nightmare. One PE class, standing on the field in my usual daydream, I suddenly realized the ball was headed straight for me – and in the wake of it, a pack of girls were thundering down on me, sticks raised, faces murderously grim. SQUAWK! I whacked the ball wildly away from me – one of the few times I actually managed to hit what I was aiming at – of course it was in the wrong direction and my teammates yelled at me, but I didn’t care. I was simply relieved not to be a target anymore. (And they said girls couldn’t play rugby because it was ‘too rough’. Go figure.) But the worst thing was not understanding why so many people got so wound up about sports, yelling out things like get him! Kick it! Run with it!, and generally acting like it was the end of the world if ‘our’ team lost. It’s only a bloody ball! I wanted to yell. Why did they get so excited? Other things were far more important, in my view.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Christmas, Parties, and the Long-Distance Loneliness of Being an Aspie

The Christmas party season is upon us. Over the weekend, two different sets of neighbours have had parties. Last night, when I stepped out onto the deck for some fresh air before going to bed, I listened to the raucous merry-making from one of them. I don’t know these people (they’re rental houses, and the tenants change frequently), nor did I have any especial wish to, or to join their party, but as I listened to people enjoying themselves (or seeming to), I realised there is still a part of me that wants to be ‘normal’. (This isn’t only at Christmas time of course, it just seems more, I dunno, poignant, maybe, then.)

It’s the part of me that wishes I was the kind of person who isn’t consumed by anxiety when invited to a social event, who looks forward to it with anticipation, walks into one with confidence, is energised or relaxed simply by being there, who can dive into conversations with gusto and always knows the right thing to say, and who just LOVES being a part of one of those laughing crowds that always seem to be having SUCH a great time…

It’s the part that’s suffered through decades of social awkwardness and clumsiness, of ‘conversations’ that consist of me blurting out inanities or babbling something stupid or rabbiting on about my current favourite topic, or being totally tongue-tied and freezing up completely, or standing on the sidelines ignored by others, with drink in hand feeling stupid or bored or anxious or just plain baffled, or hiding in toilets, or so overwhelmed by anxiety at the thought of said social occasion that I never got there in the first place.

The part of me that still wishes I was able to ‘do’ that kind of thing, and all the other things that NTs do oh so, so easily.

Even though I don’t want it enough to stop being me.

It’s not that I can’t (now) go into a social occasion and make at least a facsimile of ‘small talk’, at least enough to get by (it’s only taken me several decades to learn this), or that I don’t know that not every NT is a confident social butterfly either, or that I don’t now have aspie/autie friends who also aren’t into the socialising/party thing, or that, like I said, I would want to stop being me, with all my autistic quirks and idiosyncrasies. It’s not even that I think parties are wonderful places to be, or that the people who wildly enjoy them are models to emulate or the type of people I would want to get to know. Far from it.

I really can’t explain it totally. I only know that last night, standing outside in the dark, alone, listening to the sounds of people having what seems like fun, and conscious of my lifetime of ‘outsider’ status, being an aspie suddenly felt a very, very lonely thing to be.