A Soupçon of Delight

As we all know, I am a slave to lists.

I list everything I need to do, both personally (laundry, call my aunt) and professionally (create a new web page, send some emails). Rather than check them off as I complete them (because that’s hard to see at a glance), I highlight each completed task. But remember – this is me. I can’t just use whatever highlighter comes to hand.

First, I buy a multipack of highlighters. I prefer the liquid kind with a little window that lets you see when it’s running out. The pack has to have between five and eight colors – four or less is too few, nine or more is too many. Next, each one is assigned a number. There is no logic to this – sometimes it’s whatever order they came in the package, sometimes it’s in rainbow order, most recently I had my mother close her eyes and pick them out of my hands. The number is recorded on the cap where it is easily visible. Each Monday, I exchange the current highlighter for the next one.

Once they’ve been assigned numbers, the highlighters become one consolidated thing, like a jigsaw puzzle. And you know what happens once you lose a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, don’t you?

Maybe for you, it’s not that big a deal. You just know that Monet’s Water Lilies has a single blue and green piece missing from the upper left corner. You know it’s probably under the couch, but it’s just not worth the hassle to move the couch, look between the cushions, whatever. It doesn’t bother you. But you are not I.

For me, once a puzzle is missing a piece, it’s garbage. It’s as though a single piece out of the 1500 holds the interpretive key to the whole. It is damaged beyond saving. This is also at the heart of why I hate the puzzle piece image for autism – to me it implies brokenness, uselessness. I’m not missing anything – I have fucking superpowers compared to a lot of people.

Back to the highlighters. Once one of the set is used up, lost, or damaged, the whole set goes. You don’t need to tell me it’s wasteful. You don’t need to tell me it’s illogical. I know. But knowing is different than feeling, isn’t it?

So, six weeks ago, when the purple highlighter (#6 in the current set) went missing, I went into a bit of a panic. I cleaned my entire office. I turned my bedroom upside down. I looked in every disgusting nook and cranny of my car. I grilled my family, who all know better than to casually borrow something as precious as my highlighters. This particular set only has six, so I have been telling myself for three weeks that it’s okay if I don’t find it. I can just pretend this set only had five, and go back to the first color.

It’s funny how we lie to ourselves.

I had put “get new highlighters” on my list last week, sure that Mr. Purple was gone forever. Then I got out my weekend bag to take a trip to the Highland Games. As I was putting my list book, my other notebook, the loose sheets of paper on which I make notes, two pens just in case one runs out, two extra pen cartridges just in case the two pens both run out (even I am looking at this and rolling my eyes)…I found the purple pen. Six weeks ago, my husband and I had done a little writing/piping retreat, so of course I had taken it and forgotten it in the suitcase.

So now I’m literally dancing around in the kitchen, laughing and celebrating the homecoming of Mr. Purple. True, he was technically in the house the entire time, but still, it was 42 long days separated from his family, and we were all mourning him. So, please join me, Ms. Green, Mr. Yellow, Missus Blue, Mx. Orange, and Señor Pink in welcoming our friend home. Life wouldn’t have been the same without Mr. Purple.

A Year in My Head

I was looking through my memories on Facebook and found this from a year ago (two weeks after losing my house in a fire):

“…Everyone, to include my psychiatrist, has remarked on how well I’m doing. How together I have things. How resilient I’m being. Here’s what’s going on inside: When things are apocalyptic (my house is gone, the plague is making a resurgence, Trump has largely dismantled our government) the only solace I have is routine. I make lists. I check things off my list. I pick one task at a time, and do the thing. I take meetings where I focus on the task at hand, because that keeps me from dwelling on things that are out of my control – when we’ll be able to even go and look through the wreckage, what might be left, etc. If I’m not working, that’s all I have – thinking about my nonexistent house.

I am overstimulated to the point of collapse. Everyone eats too loudly. Too much light in my mother’s spare bedroom. The dining room table is too high (why does my tiny little mother have a bar-height dining table??). There isn’t anyplace I can sit comfortably and work. Those things are hard, but moaning about it won’t change them – they are my reality for the next few months. I’m hoping that by then, we’ll have worked out a lot of the kinks and I can feel productive….”

That was the day my therapist basically said to me “of course you’re on the spectrum – what did you think?” For a year now, I have been evaluating things in a very different light. At the time I wrote that, I felt like a raw nerve. When I get stressed, life looks like a fight on the old Batman tv show.

Everything is too bright, too loud, too fast. When I’m stressed, I feel everything in my skin in a way I’ve never tried to describe, but I always think of it as being “negatively charged.” Not only do I not want anything to touch my skin because it’s so hypersensitive that any touch is painful, but even sounds, bright lights, and unpleasant smells create a physical sensation that, because I cannot properly express exactly what’s wrong, makes me go directly to crying. It’s like being an infant in an uncomfortable diaper – I am inconsolable, but unable to communicate the source of my distress.

Six weeks after losing my house, my husband and I moved into a rental about 30 minutes from our old house. It’s on a quiet street in a wealthy suburb, so the houses are on large lots and everything in our neighborhood is quiet and tidy.

And yet, the feeling of discomfort persists. Every time I leave the house, it’s like I can physically feel the neighbors’ eyes on me, and in my mind, they’re judging me for going out so often. And every time, I have to say to myself “I used to have a [whatever I’m going out for], and I need it!” As though I need their approval to buy a new ladle or laundry basket or lamp. I feel defensive, even though in reality, our neighbors have been nothing but wonderful to us.

This is my constant battle: I don’t want to let anyone down. Ever. In any way. Even when they expect nothing from me. I also am constantly on the edge of a complete breakdown.

I keep that breakdown at bay with lists, spreadsheets, and as much routine as I’m capable of creating (another by-product of my brain – I am unable to create habits of any kind). But every interaction with another person puts a little wobble in the balance I’m trying to create. What did they mean by that? Does that wave mean they want me to talk to them, or can I keep walking? How good of an excuse do I need to get out of going to their party/taking their phone call/helping them with their project?

I am often told that I have everything together, that I am someone that people look up to for my ability to organize. I understand that it is always meant as a compliment, but each bit of praise for my ability to keep myself from exploding in a cloud of anger and despair is another expectation I have to meet. To lose my shit, to fail, to be unable to do something would be to let someone down, and that’s the thing I fear more than anything.

This is what it looks like in my head – an immense mountain made of individual grains of fear, anxiety, depression, and confusion being separated into manageable piles with a pair of tweezers.