Yesterday my mom visited with my nephew who is just two weeks shy of his first birthday. My mom forms one of the three vertices of my triangular support system. In fact, we talk every day and those conversations (which are always the real stuff of life and not just about the weather) are often a highlight of my day! She’s also my dog’s favorite person in the world: one mention of the word “grandma” and she starts cocking her head to hear more and whimpering in excitement. String together “grandma coming” and you’ve got a full-on frenzy of jumping, sneezing (her excitement reaction), and whining. I’m somewhat the same way, albeit with a bit more of a muted and controlled reaction.
Though she always makes me feel better, I push my mom (and others) away when I’m at my very lowest. I tell her not to come, I cancel plans, and while I keep up the daily phone calls, I keep them brief and more impersonal than our normal deep talks. Part of this is the social challenges of autism intensified by the depression, which makes the mental picture of entertaining “company” completely exhausting and unappealing. As depression zaps my energy even more than it is already usually taxed with SPD, this becomes an insurmountable ask. Secondly, it’s self-preservation. Such a deep state of depression feels shameful and I want to hide from those I love so they don’t see how much I’m struggling. It’s too tiring to cover it up and pretend to be “fine” and it’s too embarrassing to be real and authentically express my emotional pain. With that said, ultimately, it’s self-sabotage. By avoiding my mom (or others), I’m denying myself the opportunity to get help with my problems, to talk and spend time with someone who not only loves me unconditionally, but is an amazing listener and resource. I wish I didn’t do it and even when I cancel plans, it sends me deeper into despair and I immediately regret the decision and start crying. I’m crazy!
My nephew is a real charmer and my sister and brother-in-law have done an amazing job raising him so far and he is their first. The kid exudes happiness and wonder like nothing I’ve ever seen. He approaches everything with a smile so big and unwavering that it looks like his happy cheeks will topple him over they are so bright and expressive. There’s something about young children that’s always been reassuring and soothing to me.
For instance, I used to be so fearful of airplanes that I chose not to travel when certain opportunities presented themselves. When I did fly, my phobia was so debilitating that I’d break into a panic attack as soon as we pushed back from the gate and started taxiing toward the runway. Even though a space shuttle and an airplane are quite different, after watching a video of the 1986 spaceship challenger’s launch, I could not separate the vision of the plane blowing up in flames at takeoff. Flying is also a sensory nightmare. The rumbling engines, the hissing cabin air, the sudden lowering or raising of the wheels that make an audible and perceptible clunk, the stuffiness, the inability to move freely, the ear pressure, the nauseating sensation of changing directions or altitude quickly, turbulence, and the inability to regulate your own temperature easily are just a few of the flying challenges that are particularly exacerbated for those with SPD. Those, I can manage a bit now like anyone else. The crippling fear the plane was going to be engulfed in flames? I got over it. I’m not afraid at all anymore. I just started watching young kids around me on the plane. Although most people hate being seated near a toddler or small child because of the inevitable crying, I hoped for those spots. Watching children’s reactions during takeoff calmed me. Babies rarely cared. Toddlers went along playing and were blind to the fact that the engines were roaring, our altitude was rapidly changing, and that stomach-turning feeling of lifting off was upon us. Even more, young kids excitedly pointed out the window, shrieked with glee, or clapped. The naivety of children is refreshing and can be reassuring for someone who is constantly fighting the chokehold of anxiety. Their ignorance is bliss, even for me.
A parallel can be drawn between the reassurance I felt on planes with children and the power of my nephew’s awe, enthusiasm, and undeniable joy to elevate my mood and reestablish some pleasure in the simple things around me. It was impossible to not smile while watching Eamonn (my nephew) totter around stumbling towards things with such palpable exuberance. A stick. The arm of a chair. An old plastic cup. His favorite, of course, the dog. How thrilling!
Even though social interactions are exhausting for me even when I’m not depressed, they come with an inherently wonderful tradeoff: they are able to refill the tank. When they left, I felt a familiar sadness creep back over me. This isn’t as bad as it sounds because it meant that I was afforded a pause from such pain while in their company and some of that goodness and love lingered with me even after they were gone, bringing my baseline up. My takeaway for myself on this one is two-fold: don’t hide from those that love you just because you’re too depressed to be social (it’s worth the effort and transparency) and approach the little things with joy and wonder because life looks even more beautiful and less hostile with those glasses.