“I don’t know. I really don’t know.” Those were the last words I said before a solid minute’s worth of silence. After being married for seven years, my wife and I had a “heated discussion” that was almost an argument. That was unusual in itself. But even more unusual was that I was at a loss of words. Her question? “How can I help?”
Now, our marriage is an interesting one already. I am a software guy with a diagnosed case of Autism, with an anxiety disorder and sensory overload disorder to boot. My diagnosis is such that unless I tell people I have Autism or they know what to look for, I can often hide under the radar. But even so, it does have significant impacts on my day-to-day life. In contrast, my wife is a lawyer that has a heart of gold, preferring that people play together nicely. When they don’t, she is the one that is not afraid to step in and do or say what needs to resolve the situation. But uniting us together is the fact that we both have big hearts and open minds. The combination of that with humor and laughter has always been a major component to our success in marriage.
But in this case, I was stumped. Earlier in the day she had told me that she wanted to go on a vacation to Florida with her family. During a pandemic. On an airplane. With people she doesn’t know around her. I really didn’t know what to say. I remember ranting and raving about it, but as to what I said at that moment, I don’t remember too much of that. It was all a blur. My logic and my emotions were all over the place.
Here is where things get interesting: I know we have two different points of view on things like this. While my wife is weird (heck, she married me!), she is solidly neurotypical with only a middling amount of introvert. Even with her being cooped up in our house since April, she has been going into her workplace once or twice a week since our state allowed it during the summer. Even with this, I can tell that not being able to get out and stretch her legs among people is chewing away at her sanity. I know that her going on vacation with her family is a good thing for her. It is what she needs.
For me, it is a completely different equation. Starting with the little things, going on a vacation with crowds of other people around is just not a lot of fun for someone with sensory overload disorder. Trying to mitigate the effects of that disorder is many times more exhausting than dealing with anything else. Adding to that, my anxiety disorder and my Autism are acting the part of tag team wrestlers. My Autism takes the first shot with an elbow, keeping me isolated from groups of people that I know care about me. Then my anxiety disorder takes control with an Irish Whip, either complaining that I am getting too little information about the current state of the pandemic and economy, or too much information. Then my Autism tags in with a high-five, hyper-focusing on one little thing that I think I heard or didn’t hear. Finally, my anxiety tags in with a hurricanrana, trying to figure out all the possible situations that can happen and ways to deal with each of them. 1
I struggled to figure out what metaphor to use to explain the vicious cycle that escalates in my head. While I haven’t watched professional wrestling in years, I believe it is the best metaphor by far. At its heart, professional wrestling is a show. For me to communicate with people every day, I must act a bit to communicate clearly. Professional wrestling contains the good guys, or faces, and the bad guys, or heels. Just like in the shows, sometimes my positivity and clarity win, and sometimes my anxiety and lack of connection with others wins. And as anyone who has followed wrestling will tell you, behind the bright white smiles, coifed hair, and shiny outfits are people that are often hurting doing the thing they love to do.
Thinking about how to answer that question as I write this article, where am I now? I still don’t know. I do know that in terms of where I am, I am currently fighting my own personal wrestling match day-by-day. There are some days where the good guys win and some days where the bad guys win. Some of the days I am acting for my audience, and some of the days I am trying to be my honest self with them. Just like a wrestler needs to understand where they are in the ring relative to the others, I need to understand where my wife is relative to where she needs to be. And yes, somedays I am controlling my anxiety and Autism, and somedays it controls me.
And forgive me if I it seems like I am singling myself out from the people around me and the stress they are experiencing. But there are two things that I feel make a big difference. My Autism and anxiety do amplify each other, sometimes out of control. Also, I don’t have the option of resorting to things like alcohol or other things to help me forget for a while. Quite the opposite, those things tend to amplify how I feel even more. I don’t get a break… but I am okay with that. This is something I have dealt with every day of my life, this tug-of-war going on inside of my head. Yeah, it is exhausting. It is so unbearably exhausting at times. But the flip side of that is: I know I can handle it.
While I still don’t have a good answer for her question, I am working on it. What I do know is that our solutions to how to deal with the stress of this pandemic are going to be on opposite sides of the spectrum. As much as it would be a terrible idea for me to think about, I believe that her flying down to Florida with her family is one of the better things she can do for herself. In contrast to her approach, I do know that a lot of the things that I need to do are small and personal. More mental breaks. Increased exercise. Making better choices when eating. No big silver bullets, just little things that add up over time.
And I guess that is okay. The important thing I realized in all this is that we are asking ourselves the right questions. “How are you?”, “What are you feeling?”, and the important one: “How can I help?” I know I don’t have that answer for her on that last one, I am working on it. I do know that part of my answer is this article. It’s making sure others, people with Autism or not, ask themselves, their friends, and their loved ones those questions.
I grew up in Southern Ontario in the 80s. Yes, I watched wrestling. Everyone I knew did. ↩
So what do you think? Did I miss something? Is any part unclear? Leave your comments below.