June 28, 2008

  • overload

    Long before I learned I'm aspie, I knew I had problems handling things.  I didn't know why.  I tried really hard to tough it out and could never understand or explain to people why I get crabby, or super introverted, or bizarre.  For a long time as a child I blamed it on other people being stupid, or places I went being boring.  As I got older I blamed it on culture molding the masses into something I felt rebellious against.  As I get older still I thought I'm the one to blame, but not because I'm a bad person.  I just figured I'm not a people person, or I'm not into whatever, or I don't have much in the way of patience.
    Turns out all that is completely wrong.
    I was born with my nervous system hard wired to be 'on' all the time.  No one ever knew this, of course.  I was obviously intelligent, but also obviously intolerant.  I was a difficult child, I was a difficult teen, and I am a difficult adult.  I ~try~ to enjoy things and have friends, but I fail miserably, and sooner or later I give in to the sinking feeling that I'm failing again, and I don't know what to do to fix it.
    Finding out I'm aspie was a relief and a half.  Well, it was also angsty, but it sure is nice to know the root of me being difficult.  It's all actually very simple.  It's not 'me' at all as a person that is the problem, it's the way my brain handles sensory input.
    From the moment I was born, lights, noises, odors, surprises, sudden change, new places, anything you can imagine, all went 100% into my brain.  Most people have a built in 'filter' that helps the brain switch tracks, or dull one function in favor of another.  For instance, ignoring a room full of people in order to have a conversation with a friend.
    I can't do that.  I can't turn off a room full of conversations.  I hear them all cutting in on the one I'm having and have to say "What?" many times.  I used to think I had a hearing problem, because I seemed unable to hear what a person next to me was saying, and then I learned it's more like an auditory processing problem.  If there is a lot going on, consonants get lost or jumbled up, and if someone talks too fast, I have to ask them to slow down and repeat themselves.  Some people react like I'm kinda dumb when I do that, but they don't know I have to focus really hard just to hear them over everything else going on in the background.  Given that I can speed read and retain technical info very easily, this seems backward, as if my brain is smart in one way and not in another.  But it has nothing to do with smart.  It's my nervous system pumping dozens of things into my brain all at once, and I don't have a shut off switch for what is irrelevant.
    I used to think I liked going to the mall, or to the movies, or shopping.  I also noticed other people used to really like my company until I became a real drag, and from there on I was unable to hide getting cranky or getting a headache.  Sometimes I'd be ok for awhile, other times it wouldn't take long for me to get a bad attitude.  And that's what we all thought it was, just a general bad attitude.  I would let my crankiness take me into griping about something, and then I got to be a drag.
    Over time I began to notice that simply being somewhere would make me sick.  Being in loud places full of people gives me migraines, and then I'd have to deal with the headache and nausea on top of trying to be social.  Driving at night wasn't really a problem as far as I could tell until I noticed that I got such bad tension headaches that I had to avoid night time driving.  Movie theaters became such a challenge that the only way I could get through a movie was by taking a muscle relaxer and a pain killer.  Having to stand in a long line at a store or sit for awhile in a hard chair in an office or school of any kind for meetings or events made me feel so bad that I almost wanted to get a hammer and smash things.
    After I learned I had Asperger's and that I go into what is called sensory overload, I started experimenting.  I went with Scott to a big home show, a huge room full of demonstration booths at the fairgrounds.  It was noisy and chaotic, wall to wall people, blaring lights from very high ceilings, and I think I lasted about 45 minutes before I got such a severe migraine that we had to leave.  It was that or I was ready to literally curl up into a ball and just lay on the floor.  Within an hour of leaving, the headache and nausea were nearly gone.  Since then I've noticed that I can do things to cut down on the overload.  I can wear dark glasses (which many people automatically assume means a black eye or being wasted), and I can put something in my ears to either muffle the noise or redirect it to something I can focus on, like familiar music that I can play over and over.  Certain rhythms automatically cut down on the overload immediately.
    I've had difficulties all my life with coworkers, sitting in church, driving long distances, walking into stores and restaurants...  I am extremely sensitive to perfumes and hair sprays, motion sickness and light flickering, food and chemical odors, fluorescent lighting, and most of all, a cacophony of noise.  If you combine any of these, such as walking into a noisy food place, I very quickly lose my sense of feeling grounded and float away into a blur of confusion.  Just having to stand in a line and quickly decide what to order off a menu under these conditions is so stressful that I generally just grab the first thing on the menu that catches my eye, unless I'm familiar with the menu and know what I want.  I can't describe how miserable I feel trying to focus through all that.
    Scott is a nice guy, extremely patient with me, but he did tease me one time in Walmart and said he felt like he was being followed by a retard.  I was flapping my long sleeves together and staring up at the light and nearly running into people while I chewed my tongue because I was so spaced out from the noise and light and overwhelming variety of things to see.
    When my kids were growing up, I HAD to stay focused.  I was able to shop and get them to school and hold a job, because I HAD to.  But I also had to medicate to be able to handle all these things.  I've noticed I need far less medication now that my kids are grown and I don't have to handle these things any more.  Scott and I go shopping together once a week, and since he does the driving and pushes the cart, and my list is already all in order, I am free to space out and be weird, which, I've gotta tell you, is such a relief.  I no longer get migraines and crabby just going shopping, simply because I can space out away from all the sensory overload.
    In the last couple of years since I've learned I'm aspie, I have run into a variety of people who feel bad about themselves because they seem to be intolerant of other people, and they have no patience for being places that other people enjoy.  I've noticed that this comes from not just aspies, but people with OCD, ADD, Tourette's, and other challenges.  I'm thinking that perhaps there are a number of us who experience sensory overload while we are dealing with our other challenges, and we mistake these things for flaws in our personalities.  Perhaps they aren't flaws after all so much as our nervous systems not being able to switch the load around so that we can focus on the fun things or what is being said.
    Perhaps we should take another look at crabby people who seem to have low tolerance levels.  I know from my own experiences it is really hard to be nice and chatty with a coworker when I'm dealing with stuff like overwhelming cologne or perfume smells, a radio or tv yapping in the background, bad or cheap lighting, uncomfortable furniture, a phone ringing somewhere, smelling someone's food or cigarettes down the hallway, or even just someone being too chatty and having to process it all.  Ah, but everyone has to go through that, you say.  Ah, but not everyone has to go through that with a nervous system that tailspins them into migraines, I say.
    I think there is a simple solution.  Instead of the crabby people constantly kicking themselves for not being up to par on keeping the smile firmly in place and making the correct eye contact and nodding in all the right places and risking a chain reaction of everyone in a workplace or school or party or meeting gossiping or griping about them behind their backs if they fail to socially perform to the satisfaction of others, all we have to do is say You know what?  I'm aspie, which means I'm crabby by nature without any warning, so once I go into overload, I apologize for whatever I do or say that offends you, because my nervous system really jerks me around and I feel like crap when it does.  Just let me know when I start to get annoying, and I'll see what I can do to fix it.
    How's that?  I like honesty.  I think it's only fair to warn the happy smiley people they are about to get eaten, at least in our thoughts.  And if they don't 'get it', well, they can run screaming later.  After all, they had fair warning.

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