Tips for Coping and Thriving as an Adult on the Spectrum With Anxiety
The hand I’ve been dealt has been a tough one. I like to think I’ve made the most of it so far, but I know I could improve on many facets. I’ve been gifted with several talents. What most people I interact with don’t know is I am on the spectrum. I have meltdowns set off by triggers. I have stemming behaviors. I have major social issues. Working and living in a neuro-norm world, it is a struggle to blend in. But, as Dr. Seuss wrote, why fit in when I was born to stand out?
When I go to a store, grocery or otherwise, I have great intentions of getting whatever I went there for; however, I never am quite ready for the onslaught of anxiety once I’m there. I go prepared with my list. I try to pick a time of day that won’t be busy and I won’t have to talk to anyone. I keep my list short so I’m in and out. I use the pickup feature my grocery store has available so I don’t have to speak with anyone. But there are times my list is added to, or I have to go at a busy time due to urgency, or I feel guilty when a family member asks me to go with them to the store. My experience begins: the scores of shoppers (anxiety rising), the child running in the aisle (anxiety rising), can’t find my brand (mild panic beginning), a baby starts crying (panic is growing)… I must get out of here. The parking lot is peaceful, but I’m not in my car yet. My car is not home. I must get home. Driving is now somehow super stressful because everyone and every light are keeping me from being home. Finally home. Put on soft pajamas. Lie on sofa in a curled up position with a blanket and my dog. Rub my feet together until the tops are raw. Husband comes home. I am so much better.
Or when I go to a restaurant. It’s a different environment but similar ending. Children running amuck, baby crying, loud noises, table settings don’t match, someone we know comes by and touches me. Good heavens, don’t touch me! Don’t ever touch me! I’m nearly in tears before the entrees arrive. I’m irritable and short with my loved ones who are just trying to help.
Scenario three: my employer now knows I’m on the spectrum. Once I had to explain the hyper-emotionality I express when I have a one-on-one meeting with a supervisor. It can be pleasant or not-so-pleasant in intention, but my emotions take over and I start to cry uncontrollably in most of those meetings because I’m terrified. I explained to my boss and to coworkers that I’m really uncomfortable with confrontation and my response is usually crying. It doesn’t have to be a confrontation. If I anticipate confrontation, regardless of the actual circumstance, I will be so anxious that I’ll cry regardless. As of that point, they just thought I was super emotional. I had to explain I was on the spectrum to my boss when my doctor changed my medication to another and I had a negative side effect making me extremely hostile and aggressive towards my co-workers and customers for about 10 days. His concern, along with my husband’s raised eyebrow, prompted my husband to insist on an immediate medicine change. I’m happy to say the current regimen is working wonderfully and I have been very pleasant to be around. I still have meltdowns in my workplace that leave me feeling like I don’t belong there. Leaving me feeling like I have no business being in public …or do I?
I can honestly say my husband and daughter are my heroes. They’ve learned my tells and know when and where I’ll likely be triggered and what to do to help me. I’m learning how to help myself too because my daughter is away at college and I don’t have my partner in the store anymore.
Some of the things my husband and daughter have done to help me out to prevent my triggers or to help bring me back to balance and calm in these situations are:
1. No surprises. If we are going to be spontaneous, give me some time to wrap my brain around the idea. I’ll probably come around if I can have some say in this.
2. Let me collect things. If I like owls, let me collect owls. If I like dragonflies, let me collect dragonflies. If I like fleur de lis, let me collect these. I understand you don’t want me getting a tattoo of these, but let me obsess in something harmless, please, even if it’s watching my TV show over and over for five days straight. I feel like I’m socializing when I watch my favorite characters.
3. Remind me to bring my headphones to the store. When it gets a little loud or hectic, I can listen to my music and drown out the sound. If music isn’t working, remind me I have earplugs in my purse. And if nothing is helping, get me out of there. We can always go back at a better time. (One time, my daughter grabbed me by the hand and pulled me to an almost empty aisle and told me to look at the ceiling. She told me I was the only person here. No one is on the ceiling, it’s my happy place. She brought me from 9 to 2 in a few seconds, and I adore her for that.)
4. If we are in a restaurant and I start to panic, it is OK to get our food to go and get out. It will likely be a more pleasant experience for all of us. Sure, I can take something before we go to make sure I’m at ease, but if worse comes to worse, don’t make me sit there trembling, stuttering and self-soothing.
5. If we are going to social events, make sure I know enough people there who I can talk to and not have to meet more than a handful of new people at a time. The people we know are used to my quietness-turned-conversation-stealer and don’t mind. It’s part of who I am. I’m different than most of them, and they like that about me. They don’t pressure me to socialize, but when I share, I feel proud of myself. I know I can always sneak away with you. Thank you for that.
It’s not a perfect list, but it’s something my family does to thrive if and when I’m struggling. It doesn’t happen frequently anymore because I have self-coping ways that help me deal with the stressors. These are:
1. I keep a coin in my purse that I can rub in my hand to calm down.
2. I psych myself up for social interaction by asking who will be there and preparing myself for what we might talk about such as appropriate conversation topics.
3. I remind myself to stick somewhere between one and three points when I’m having a conversation with someone.
4. I make sure my Bluetooth headphones are charged so I’m not disappointed in the store if I need to use them.
5. I bring my tablet everywhere so I can sneak away and read, browse Facebook, or play a game to feel like I’m at home for a few minutes.
6. I take my medication daily. My condition is co-morbid, and medication helps me function. I thrive when I take my medication. By taking it, I am more balanced and my family isn’t as worried about me. Not everyone needs medication though. You do you.
These things have helped my family and me thrive while dealing with the idiosyncrasies that I live with. I’m 41. I’m not afraid or ashamed of my condition. I try to find the humor in it. And I try to live my best life with it. I’m blessed to hold a job, have a family and be able to reflect on what is working and what is not. I hope you read this and gain some encouragement, whether it’s something you didn’t think to try or encouragement that you are not alone.
Take care of yourself. You’re worth it.
Getty image by Oinegue