I remember how I felt reading Emily White’s book, Lonely for the first time. I felt known, like she was putting words to the aching isolation I knew all-too-well. That was during my first year of graduate school, before I’d realized I wasn’t a school psychologist.
Before I knew I was Autistic (pre-ASD diagnosis, before I’d found women like me online — via WordPress, then Twitter and Tumblr); back then, I was merely odd and disconnected for reasons unknown. But Emily White knew my story; because she was lonely like me.
I recently finished her second book, Count Me In, in which Ms. White describes how she attempted to develop a sense of community — to feel more connected and make like-minded friends. The passage that stood out to me was about how we can map our social connections:
I can close my eyes and imagine physical spaces where I feel safe — where trustworthy people who accept both me and my disability (because they are both aspects of myself) exist. These are spaces where, as my refrain goes: “I am known and loved, because of, not in spite of myself.” With these elder women and friends whose families were as unsteady as mine, I feel safe. They know my backstory and my present states. The emotional weather patterns I’m still learning to discuss in plainer language.
Over the past couple of weeks, or maybe even the last month or so, my anxiety worsened. I’ve sought out supportive people. I’ve found myself stuck in public spaces, needing strangers’ help. My memory lingers on an afternoon at the library last week when I, mid-shutdown, didn’t feel present or safe because my processing had slowed to near halt. I monologued and tried to determine what I was feeling (mostly anxious).
For young women who listen well when I’m melting down at the library, who remind me people are good and caring, i give thanks. #nuances
— Kat (@Ask_anAspergirl) October 7, 2015
And so an undergrad whom I barely knew sat with me, as I tried to calm myself — to slow my breathing and find a pastry and coffee in the atrium. I remember being ashamed and grateful — into infinite loops, it seemed — the feeling burdensome and too much. But there I was being helped by a young woman kind enough to sit with me in the overwhelm — my overwhelm. I apologized a lot. She thanked me as she headed to class, and I safely walked to the bus stop. I couldn’t understand why she was grateful.
Vulnerability is terrifying. I spend much of my professional life hiding and explaining away the seemingly quirky things I do (read as: appear visibly Autistic when I stim and monologue). But when I become utterly overloaded ( >7 out of 10 on my loosely defined anxiety scale), passing is no longer an option. Unless I want to shift into the unpleasantness of uncontrollable crying and rocking that comes during my rare meltdowns. All I can do is try to steady myself. That’s enough to exhaust me.
Growing up, all I wanted was someone to sit with me and tell me what I was experiencing was real. That I would be safer soon and that it was okay to feel however I needed. I desired presence. I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes from Lars and the Real Girl:
“This is what we do when tragedy strikes. We sit.”
I’m finding community, even in my hardest weeks. I’m grateful for friends who have learned how to be present with me when I’m struggling — for those who ask how I am and accept the honest answers. They steady me, even in overwhelm. For safe spaces and people, I give thanks.