I’m ruminating on something small that happened this week. It was so small that I suspect it passed by unnoticed by everyone except me. It wasn’t big or important but it shone a light on my weaknesses in a way that I hadn’t been anticipating.
I have far bigger challenges and far more pressing obstacles, so why is this one small thing demanding my attention?
The story begins on holiday (stressor one), with other people not just the ones I live with day-to-day (stressor two), we need to grab some food and so stop at a supermarket (stressor three, four and probably five too). Everyone on holiday with me knows that I’m autistic and has known me a long time (help one) and as soon as we get inside the shop I abdicate responsibility for the shopping list to my husband (help two).
It is loud and bright but one good thing about that level of background noise is that no one notices if you’re singing as long as you don’t move your lips. I begin singing as soon as I step through the doors – I’m not sure what it was, but given my son’s current obsession with Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds, it was probably from that (help three). I pause in my singing only to respond to people and I stop singing only when I step through those doors again to leave.
A mask has fallen over me. It’s a slightly panicky, helpful and cheerful mask (stressor six). I smile at everyone and try to look as though I do this all the time like a proper grownup (I do not do this all the time).
All seems to be going well and I notice that I am helpfully giving myself a mission to get through it; I want olives. I want specific olives that I am picturing in my head. I walk off to find olives and focus on one tiny detail of this ridiculously over-detailed space.
I can’t find what I want amongst the jars. One of our party wanders over to help and asks what I want. I tell them. They point out the Deli counter and gesture for me to follow them.
I find myself walking towards the counter with the utter certainty that I cannot speak to a stranger right now. I can’t. It is too much. My brain is whirring and starts retreating into my old patterns of excuses and reasons.
I glance at their olives and say they don’t have what I want.
“Just ask, they might have it anyway” (stressor 7). I can see what a reasonable suggestion that is. I’m speaking to this person. They know how eloquent and communicative I am. Why can’t I just ask the now very attentive staff member for the thing that I want?
Because I haven’t scripted for that. I don’t do that. I don’t ever ask the nice staff member for what I want. Not ever. If it was a lovely local shop that I had been going to regularly and knew the assistant and had built up a schematic for, then after a year or so I might feel I knew enough to do that, but never like this.
And I don’t have a good reason why I can’t. I don’t have the ability to explain in that place at that time, that that is not something I can do. I can do so very much but this spiky profile of mine still means there are everyday tasks that are so far beyond my reach whether or not I have a good reason for that.
Luckily I spot a pre-packed Deli section and I stride off towards it. I pick up the first olives I see and declare my task complete, hoping that it wasn’t too obvious that I was running from the interaction.
They probably didn’t notice. They might have thought that I didn’t hear their question or that I had been distracted by something or that I was just being odd again. It doesn’t really matter.
All I knew was that it was one more supermarket trip that I had to cut short. I find my husband, take the car keys and escape to the car, wishing that I’d stayed there in the first place, wishing that I’d never looked for olives, wishing that they will take their time so that I can be alone for a while.
I wish that everyone understood how I worked, but I don’t blame them when they don’t. One of my challenges is feeling as though it’s my personal job to educate everyone in a way that they can understand, when I’m not always up to the task.
I wish I had felt able to say simply, “I can’t,” safe in the knowledge that the response in the moment would never ever ever be, “Why not?”
Because if I can’t, I am at my limits and justifying that would take me beyond them. Sometimes I can’t. I didn’t give this person a chance to get it right, for fear that they would get it wrong and make things that much worse. One day I hope I can say “I can’t” aloud in any given scenario and it will be heard.