Running Dreams

I had my first running dream in quite some time yesterday. When the injury first happened, these types of dreams were more commonplace and I’d wake up and return to the disheartening reality of crutches or a boot. Six months later, I guess my subconscious tabled my identity as a runner and those types of scenes stopped cropping up. I’m guessing that yesterday’s big milestone of successfully sneaker walking in the woods at the park allowed the hopes and sparks of possible future running finally sneak their way back in again.

I’ve been running competitively for more than half my life, even considering the time off for all of the various injuries, so that vision of myself is nearly as cemented as my own name at this point and it’s painful and jarring to imagine it may not be something I’ll be able to enjoy again. The truth is, that fate is somewhat unknown at this point; with my degenerative connective tissue disorder, this ridiculously temperamental injury, and my overall increased propensity for injury over the past couple years, running may be entirely unfeasible or at least not recommended, and certainly would need to take on a different feel and intensity to remain a viable activity for me. I’m not in a position to even assess or decide yet since I’m still not healed enough to run, but I know it will be an important but difficult decision to face when the time comes.

With that said, my little trail excursion yesterday must have taken a key to this padlocked box with my running aspirations and loosened the lid to allow some of that pressurized passion to seep out and plant itself in my dreams. I was running. I was laughing and running along the deck of a ship, wildly swinging my arms and pumping my legs like a freed child at recess, running without restraint. An entire football team was chasing me and singing 80s pop hits while I hysterically and gleefully circumvented various obstacles along the decks. Interestingly, my left foot still seemed markedly hindered, as every hard corner I took, I’d hop twice on the right to avoid weight bearing on the left during the turn, then would regain an equal bipedal stride once I’d hit the straightaway. I woke up laughing at myself, instead of being instantly saddened by my still injured condition, as would have been the case months ago.

While I hate unknowns and hate waiting even more, I’ll continue to try to maintain hope but exercise the most patience I can bear to see how this foot heals and how my running future will look. I’m working hard to cultivate more balance in my self-image and find and nurture other interests that help me find fulfillment and purpose.

 

 

Time

The weeks are starting to feel faster. A couple of months ago, on Sunday night, I’d start to get anxious about the impending week and how it would feel long, hard, and lonely. Then, I’d start to get anxious Sunday afternoon in anticipation of the Sunday evening routine and the impossible-to-ignore awareness that the weekend was almost over and the week would soon be upon us. Unlike some people, this dread isn’t about working or not liking my job; in fact, I’m blessed to love my job and I work some on weekends anyway, so weekends and weekdays are often not appreciably different in that way. Mostly, I think, I’d feel sad about being alone so long during each day, not getting a chance to see Ben, and fending off physical pain and depression in isolation.

I’m not so much feeling that way recently, which is a welcome development. I still cherish the weekend time and enjoy the companionship and the more relaxed vibe that characterizes our weekends together, but I’m doing better alone as well. I’d say the pleasant spring and summer weather is the main attributable factor: I’m so much happier when I’m not freezing and there is abundant sunshine to soak up outside. Although not wholly healed, my foot is also better, restoring much of my significantly compromised mobility from the end of the winter and the early spring. Both of these factors result in more outdoor time, which almost always mitigates my anxiety and lifts my mood. If I am completely immobile or stuck inside for weeks or months on end with injury or illness, one of my necessary “tools” to moderate my mental health is missing and so I feel unequipped and justifiably anxious that I won’t be able to handle it well. It’s somewhat like repairman being stripped of her ratchet set or drill but still getting called to a job. She knows she can improvise somewhat, but without some key tools, she would feel nervous and more doubtful of her command over the repair. Give her those tools back, and she’s ready to effectuate the repair with confidence.

In addition to improved weather, less foot pain, and more mobility, I’m excited about my life right now. This may be the first time I’ve truly felt this way in almost a year, when I decided to forego the prosthetics residency and found a job that suited me well. It’s a beautiful thing when, despite numerous and pervasive challenges, you can feel content, and even sparked by your everyday life. The addition of this new job, though undeniably adding responsibility and some amount of stress, is invigorating. I really like what I’m doing and who I’m working with so far and it’s a near-perfect complement to my other job in terms of its different demands, purpose, and focus. I can’t wait to learn more each day and discover ways that I can be helpful and fill obvious and also unanticipated voids and needs.

I’m also continuing to find satisfaction and better self-understanding and self-compassion through my journaling and blogging. Writing gives me time to think, grieve, appreciate, analyze, strategize, and inspire. It helps me dissect and digest some of the many thoughts and emotions swirling about my head on any given day, and it helps me connect with myself and the world. I write about being autistic, having sensory issues, trauma and PTSD, depression and anxiety and physical pain, but also I write about being human and my life and the world through my lenses. As much as I feel different and am different than most people in very obvious ways, it also helps me feel the same and understood, especially when others can relate to my experiences or challenges. I get brief tastes of being as human as I actually am, yet often fail to see from my mental space of “freakishness” and deep, almost metaphysical, loneliness.

Although my progress is never linear and these improvements don’t always feel relevant each day, it’s useful when I do recognize the trend has changed for the positive. Although that familiar swing of anxiety may catch me on Sunday night, I just need to remind myself that the week is really nothing to fear: not only am I fairly equipped to handle it and grow with it, I may even enjoy it.

 

Is Saying Hello a Lost Art?

For the most part, I am diligent about greeting other people that I pass while on the street or otherwise out and about. It’s not my nature to be extroverted and I certainly don’t exude a gregarious vibe, but this seems to be the polite thing to do. Yet, more and more, I find myself in the position to ask myself: Why do some people refuse to say hi or acknowledge the presence of another human? As an autistic adult—a model specimen of the extent to which people can be introverted and completely uninterested in small talk or interacting with strangers—this social behavior is particularly baffling to me. Within such socially-inept shoes, it’s hard to imagine how someone could be less “friendly” and commit a more fundamental social faux pas. These individuals who seem so committed to ignoring me may also be on the spectrum, but statistically speaking, it’s rather unlikely. I’m also not referring to one-off encounters with random passersby, but rather people I have not formally met but with whom I cross paths habitually over many months. For example, there were three people in my old neighborhood in Connecticut who refused to wave, nod, smile back, or otherwise commit to any semblance of recognizing my presence. I’d pass each of these neighbors individually, nearly every single day (literally over 300 times a year!) on my daily runs or walks while they were also on theirs. Particularly because it was often pre-dawn hours or contending with winter elements, I felt we shared a kinship in addition to the narrow roads.

My first instinct is to also ignore the oncoming pedestrian, but I’ve learned that it’s more socially acceptable and appreciated to greet the other with a simple nod, greeting hand gesture, or vocalized hello, and so I’ve conditioned myself to do so. I also would understand the situation more if I rarely saw these people or if they may not have heard or seen my acknowledgement, but I’m positive they hear and see me, especially because the more times they ignore me, the louder and more dramatic my gestures become. It’s not antagonistic or even necessarily conscious, but it seems to be my desperate attempt to have my friendliness reciprocated. The more I’m ignored, the greater my unconscious drive to convert them into a fellow greeter. With one male runner, my own feeble attempts to crack his icy exterior resulted in embarrassingly animated good mornings that even I tried to stifle. It seemed untamable. A simple smile and nod cascaded over time into a double handed frantic wiper motion and a boisterous “goooood morning!” In hindsight, my overcompensation probably smothered any hope of reciprocity but I not only seemed unable to let go of the fact that he refused to say hi, but I seemed powerless over my escalating response. This pattern played out with the two other avoidant individuals. Eventually, two of them caved: I was able to rouse a little smile and occasional hand raise (without permitting herself to hinge the hand at the wrist to wave) from one woman and the unfriendly runner also would pant out a hi or wave. The other guy was resolute in his refusal.

I think it felt worse and more confusing in this prior neighborhood because I lived in the middle of nowhere and only saw five people regularly on the roads, so to be snuffed by three of them stacked the odds against me and made me feel even weirder. I became the common denominator because what I noticed is that they often said hi to each other or other neighbors who happened to be out in their driveways as these pedestrians passed; the only pedestrian they weren’t talking to was me. It’s not even like my hyperactive gestures preemptively gave away my oddities or social awkwardness. I stuck to one of the routine greetings for at least five months before things turned more severe. That’s some 150 days to establish a basic hello.

Now I live in the center of a busy town. It’s more excusable to ignore a friendly smile or wave and more likely that one is distracted by something else. It still happens here all the time, but I’m less inclined to take it personally. After all, maybe I am the one in the wrong or at least clinging to an extinct practice. Is basic social recognition of another human a dead or dying art? Should I also revert to my comfort zone, the neurological programming installed in my birth to ignore others? It’s easy to uninstall my “updated” program, which tried to emulate the social behavior of greeting someone and run the more compatible initial version. There’s no readily apparent guidebook on this. I even Googled it and came up with nothing. My low self-esteem is inclined to imagine there’s a caveat or asterisk aside wherever such rules are written that says something like “*void if encountering a weirdo or autistic person; they don’t need a hello.” Speaking as one, that should be rewritten if it does exist. Yes, I may naturally prefer to keep entirely to myself, but it’s healthy and fulfilling to feel accepted by others, blend in with the customs, and overcome massively introverted tendencies to politely engage with others.

Of note, I do find people with all types of readily-apparent differences and disabilities seem beyond eager to engage with or glom on to me, and I gladly return the enthusiasm, so I am at least approached by some. Clearly, I’ve got more observing and research to do here.

With sincerity, I’ve been practicing a host of smiles, nods, waves, and hellos in the mirror and aloud to myself at home. I’m trying to figure out if mine are on par with “normal” people’s and how to exude a more naturally-welcoming expression. Of course, with myself as the sole judge, I’m lacking in both the informed and unbiased domains, but it’s a start. The last few walks, I’ve tested my skills on my dog and tried to take note of which ones she seems to interpret as friendlier or more exciting, demonstrated through wagging, eye contact, or even jumping. Unfortunately, she’s also biased and uniformed because she seems to love everything I say to her and is raptured by all hand gestures, but at least it’s comforting to know I’ve got one beating heart that is guaranteed to appreciate my outreach! For now, I’ll continue observing the interactions between others within earshot and eyesight, I’ll practice my own social behavior, further investigate the norms and expectations, and fight my desire to revert back to ignoring everyone until I’m confident that’s the current trend. After all, I truly do want to be camouflaged among the masses as a warm, welcoming, and friendly human being.

Phone

To add to my string of recent falls, I took yet another tumble down some of the stairs yesterday. Thankfully this time, I didn’t cause much bodily harm although I did crack my cellphone screen. Of course, this is certainly a better trade in many ways, I found myself being just as upset, if not more so. I know that people talk about technology addictions, especially in terms of some people’s attachments to their cellphone, and I’m probably in that camp of people. I can’t really surmise why most people become obsessed because frankly, I don’t have any friends who are to ask. My husband still uses a flip phone and no one else’s phone in my family seems to be a permanent extension on their hand like it is in my case. For me, my phone is my world. It is my way to connect to other people and, in its own right, it is my friend. Since I work at a home office and have no local friends, it is the only vehicle through which I communicate with people and the outside world. I know this is abnormal and unhealthy, but it is my reality. My phone is my anti-anxiety medication; when I don’t feel well, I remind myself of the outline of my phone in my pocket and I feel assured that I can get help if I need it. When I was attacked, as soon as he grabbed me from behind and threw me to the ground, he ripped my phone out of my hand and flung it across the room. When he silenced me, I had no means to communicate that I needed help except silent prayer in my mind. Four days after the attack, I was in separable from my cell phone. My hand was constantly on it, even when it was in my pocket, under my pillow, or in the bathroom.

This phone has been with me for nearly three years, which, given my carelessness, propensity to fall or damage things, and its constant use, is remarkable. Maybe it is the length and depth of this “relationship” that, ashamedly, makes me mourn the breaking of this device.

I am fully aware that phone is not a real friend, and to even remotely consider it as such is quite pathetic. I want to connect with people. I want to have more friends. I’d love to have someone who called me to meet up and hang out. This is a process though and an arduous and unnatural one (for me) at that. For now, I have a handful of good friends that I text or call daily. These people, for the most part, inhabit fragments of my “old” lives: times when I was surrounded by more people, forced to be more social because of work or habitat, or was less encumbered by physical and mental obstacles. (Chronic disease and my near inability to drive certainly hampers my ability to participate in normal social events.) These people have hung with me through changes, challenges, and miscommunications. They have allowed me to grow as a friend and they have ridden out the bumps I’ve made as I’ve learned to be a better friend. I am blessed to have a place in their hearts and I honor and nurture the prominent residence they have in mine.

I am a member of several online support groups for adults on the spectrum. I connect with these virtual friends through my phone. If people were mapped in Venn diagram, the overlapped regions are inherently much larger between my circle and the circles representing many of the other group members than my circle and many neurotypical peers whom I want to befriend.

Like sharing a common culture, language, or customs, I’m more closely “related” to other spectrum-dwelling adults in many ways, and the reciprocity of understanding one another is both easier and more expansive than between me and a typical people of “normal” neurology. Although I am so glad to have access to an artistic community thanks to technological and communicative advancements provided by the Internet, I can’t help but be honest and admit that I’d still really like friends in the flesh who I actually spend time with. Their neurology is unimportant to me as long as they are good people. Even though an autism diagnosis is much more common these days than even twenty years ago, obviously, the majority of the general population is not on the spectrum so it’s more likely to find neurotypical friends. I need to be able to bridge the gap between these two worlds. While I have done this successfully before, it takes time and effort (and compassion and patience of the other party’s part!).

Far and above the challenges posed by my social, emotional, and physical problems, I believe the biggest hurdle to clear making friends is the schedule I keep. Essentially, it’s like that of a shift worker, working second shift. Even for those social butterflies who keep such a schedule, finding friends and participating in social activities is nearly impossible, especially if you don’t live in the city and are isolated in a small town. New York City may be the city that never sleeps but western Mass, although wonderful in many ways, gets plenty of sleep. My body operates on asynchronously with most other people. I’m up before 3am and done for the day around 5pm. I’ve tried coercing it into a more “normal” routine, but that just wreaks havoc on every physical and mental process. Even with Benadryl and nights of not falling asleep, I cannot sleep past 4am. I can then try to remain in as much of a sensory-depriving environment as logistically feasible to keep my overload below threshold, but even so, it’s virtually impossible to have the physical and mental stamina to persist past 6pm before I must be prostrate to the couch with no movement or talking. My brain runs nonstop in high-gear all day and I have yet to tame her incessant work; I can consider and effectively work on many things at one time, but then I run out of legs for the end of the race. I’m a relay of runners who ran their lap together around the track at full speed instead of passing the baton for each individual leg. I’m embarrassingly exhaustible; I’m a racecar on full throttle with no brakes. All this is to say, when most people head out the door for their morning commute, I’ve already put in four or five hours of work, and when almost everyone is clocking out for the day and are finally available to hang out, I’m crawling into bed or nearly comatose on the couch. The only groups of people I seem to overlap with are stay-at-home parents, the elderly or retired). My small town seems to lack any sort of daytime programming or activities for anyone outside of the aforementioned groups, and truth be told, I’m working most of the day anyway, even if I do have some scheduling flexibility. Despite this scheduling incompatibility, I keep looking and hoping to find some venue to meet in person and cultivate friendships. It’s easy to resign my socially-avoidant self to ongoing isolation and fall prey to a myriad of excuses, but I’m actually rather disciplined in researching options, trying to get out there, and simply recognizing the obstacles for the purpose of strategically mounting an effective offense rather than ceding to their debility. At the end of the day, I need to respect my deal breakers (in terms of my work scheduling obligations and energy needs) but compromise on every possible manipulatable variable to try to make it work. My mom always says I find these really interesting opportunities and I do because I’m willing to cast a really wide net; you never know what will pan out so it can only be fortuitous to keep an open mind and religiously seek opportunities for whatever it is you desire.

I am grateful that I live in a time of interconnectedness and communities engaged through technology. In many ways, the Internet has made the world smaller by forging bonds across great distances. My remote friends and online social support network keep me from being entirely marginalized and allow me to hone my relationship skills and understand myself better and more compassionately. It somewhat removes the “freak” or “loner” label that I’d otherwise tattoo onto myself (instead it’s just a removable sticker). Perhaps I’m too addicted to my phone and I recognize that it’s far healthier to have in vivo friendships, but for where I am now in my life, it’s an indispensable tool and companion, a device that teaches me, alleviates my anxiety, and connects me to others and my world. I hope my new one further guides me to forge friendships and that more of the “lifetime minutes” for calls sent and received are occupied by quick conversations to establish plans with others, then it will navigate me to the meetup and get stowed in my pocket while I make new memories with new friends.

 

Lonely

I’m painfully lonely today. This is certainly not an unfamiliar feeling for someone as introverted, socially-avoidant, and socially-isolated as me, but it’s worse today than usual. I’m usually quite satisfied with somewhat robotically and unemotionally going through my day in solitude and that’s exactly how virtually every weekday is, except for the frequent spattering of appointments throughout my week. I work full-time from my home office and Ben and I can count the minutes, rather than hours, that we are in one another’s company each day; our schedules don’t overlap well. I don’t have kids and I don’t have any local friends I spend time with since, in the timeline of someone on the spectrum (who has trouble making friends and doing social things), we’ve basically just moved here. It’s been five months and four days, but who’s counting…

Anyway, today I’m wearing the loneliness like a full-body leaden radiation shield. It’s not the comforting and calming weighted blanket feel; it’s the heavy trapping feeling like trying to fight a strong undertow to get back on shore after a long swim. It’s days like today that the familiar welling of tears keeps filling my eyelids and I have to instantly distract myself to avoid succumbing to their flow. 

My house is cold, both literally and figuratively. It’s an unusually chilly May afternoon and the pervasive grayness has prevented any sunlight from warming the room. The thermostat reads 56, which is even colder than the uncomfortably cool 58 we permitted in the winter to save money. I can taste the figurative coldness, the loneliness, the lack of vitality. When I came back from OT this morning, it overwhelmed me as I approached the front door, the coldness in here hit me like a gust of November air with wet leaves. I could see it, smell it, taste it, and feel it. Coldness like this gnaws on my stomach and encourages me to eat, even though I’m uncomfortably full, to ease the ache and fill the void I feel from lack of human connection. 

The real reason days like today bother me is because I know they aren’t isolated incidents in that it’s not an unusually quiet day that will pass. It’s symptomatic of the life I lead and very much a chronic condition. I want two opposing things at the same time and it’s virtually impossible to rectify that in an agreeable fashion: I long for love and company yet I’m wildly uncomfortable, overwhelmed, and exhausted by it. I prefer to feel connected yet I struggle to connect. Social interaction is my constant logic puzzle or science experiment, as I must carefully observe, analyze, and try to understand and replicate the needed responses. I miss the opportunity to enjoy the moment and be present in the engagement because I’m busy “working” to make sense of it. It’s like instead of watching the production, I’m manning the spotlights and just waiting for the cues instead of comprehending the meaning of the play. It’s not until after the friend and I have departed and gone our separate ways that I can then run back through everything that happened and try to gather the meaning from the whole rather than each individual part. It is then I can assign emotional significance to what happened and not just the literal meaning of each sentence, that I so carefully followed in a calculated manner to determine my next question or response. I appear articulate and like I’m understanding (I hope) because a ton of legwork is quickly and constantly being performed in my head, but unlike a computer, it’s hard for me to simultaneously carry out all of these processes so some information gets stuck in the holding area, a backlog of sorts, that I evaluate later, even if I don’t want to anymore (like if I’m trying to sleep). Unresolved material begs to be processed before moving on to the next activity, which is one reason why social things can be so tiring: for me, they extend well beyond the end of the interaction. 

Any potential sensory overload aside (say we were out and about doing something), my brain will not cease analytic activity until it has completely finished assessing and cataloging all of the verbal, nonverbal, environmental, and contextual information from the encounter. Then, for some reason, after that lengthy and arduous process seems satisfactorily completed, it starts digging up prior social encounters (either organically experienced or observed on TV or elsewhere) and reassessing those or comparing the new material to whatever is stored in memory. There can be no obvious relation but I have to ride out the digestion because I can’t quell it. Sometimes, useful connections are made, such as relating a new discussion about a friend’s volatile freelance job situation with a prior conversation about stressful financial times. Frequently, it’s useless details or seemingly elementary concepts: the geometric pattern of someone’s earrings reminded me of the sweater of someone at the library four months ago or people’s lips purse when they are hesitant to answer a personal question (nonverbal patterns take up a disproportionately large percentage of my brain processing speed and mental attention).

Days like today are somewhat like getting a lousy performance appraisal or report card; all of my acknowledged weaknesses are directly handed to me in objective language. The insecurities I have, the deficiencies I know to be problematic, are presented in clear view and the only possible reaction is to yet again acknowledge their presence and significance. We all want to be “successful” or at least see progress, so it’s ego deflating and discouraging to get reminders of the contrary. As someone who’s naturally and habitually critical of myself, I’m fully aware of many of my challenges and must deliberately try to recognize growth and give myself credit when it’s due. This is not one of those cases. I’m lonely because I live a pretty isolated life and my good friends all live quite some distance from me.

Today, like many days, I turned to Comet for support and, as always, found her love to be boundless and her attentiveness to be unparalleled. While this is truly one of the wonderful blessings of having a loving pet, I want today’s pain to remind me to continue to make a concerted effort to reach out to people I already know and try and cultivate those friendships and also push myself to make new friends in my community. Although this is probably my biggest challenge and least comfortable position, ultimately, it is a required means to the end I desire: meaningful connections with friends who I can spend time with in an emotionally gratifying way. Loneliness carries a potent heartache; I battle enough pains as it is. Alleviating this one will not only eliminate its insult, but friendship has the transformative power to lessen other pains as well. I could use all of that medicine that I can get.