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When Autism and Social Anxiety Send Me Into Fight-or-Flight Mode

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I’m scared to go outside. Daily, I have to talk myself into it.

“If you go to dinner with your family, you can order a beer.”

“Just open the door, walk to the car and get inside.”

“You can listen to your favorite song on repeat and sway the whole way there, but you have to go to this family get-together. OK? It’ll be all right. It’s good to be around people.”

But is it good to be around people? Sometimes I hear my hemispheres debating. One side panics about the upcoming Q and A on my job status, our July wedding, whether or not my fiance’s seizures have been getting better; while the other side reassures, “If you go,” “Just go,” “You can go.” I’ve no choice but to soothe myself; I rock on the couch in front of the breakfast of steak, egg and potatoes, my favorite, which means it’s a usual breakfast. I like repetition, ritual, small comforts, and my fiancé knows this, so he makes our ritual breakfast on Saturdays or Sundays. He puts a hand on my knee, eyeing me with worry when he thinks I can’t see it.

This happens at least one Saturday or Sunday a month.

I also worry about going out when it’s time to visit the supermarket, the pet store, ADA meetings with my employer, loud restaurants and anywhere else that’s commonly crowded, and delicious and flourishing small businesses for ice cream, coffee or a greeting card. About the only places that feel safe are gardens, nurseries, and the two classrooms I teach in at Fresno City College and College of the Sequoias.

My social anxiety didn’t used to always follow so close against my heels, though. While I’ve never enjoyed being in crowded rooms or bumping shoulders at conventions, I was able to navigate populated areas without any visible issues in my teens and 20s. I could go anywhere in Orange County, Los Angeles, and now my home in Fresno, as long as I had a quiet space later that night, a book and a cup of mint tea. But now I’m 32, and I’m healing from four months of panic attacks as a special education teacher with an emergency credential.

My local school district is suffering from a teacher shortage, so I thought, rather than struggling to pay bills as an adjunct professor, why not help autistic children as a special education teacher? I have this B.A., M.F.A., four years teaching university and community college, a life as an autistic person… All I needed to do was spend half a grand on examinations and certifications and two grand on my first teaching credential class; I could make this happen.

But I didn’t make it happen. While I’d always struggled with major depressive disorder, my social anxiety flared up like never before; 80-hour work weeks were not enough to keep peace between me and my higher-ups. I couldn’t navigate the new social climate of K-12 education as quickly as others adapted. I ate lunches under my desk. I went home early with migraines, panic attacks and shutdowns that ended with me fetal-positioned on the floor. They’d hired lots of us new teachers, what with the school hemorrhaging half its staff the last three years, and I was overstimulated constantly. I’m not sure if my amygdala ever turned off.

Today if I go anywhere but the half the house I usually frequent, my amygdala lights up like a firework. I am forever aware of doors, hallways and exits. My breathing slows in the car, yet in the wind outside the college, my veins race beneath my wrists; to calm myself, I stare at my wrists, at the blood moving through them. One of the neat things about sensory sensitivity is vibrancy of color, attention to detail and the beautifully variant wrinkles of skin.

I’ve continued teaching at Fresno City College and College of the Sequoias. I only have one class at each campus this semester, and my students are wonderful human beings. We have the most exhilarating discussions during class and after class. My main goal is to keep our environment stress-free, so we can focus on progress, on each other and on our writing.

A couple times a week, in the midday when it’s not as hectic outside, I talk myself into walking through Tower District for a cup of chai, and this is healing. My therapist has me on a treatment plan of gradual exposure to help with the current state of my social anxiety.

This story originally appeared on Kourtnie’s blog.

Originally published: April 2, 2018
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