My moments of shame

Has anyone ever successfully cracked an egg by tapping it with a spoon without having to mop it off the table, the floor, and their clothes? Asking for a friend.

Most people, at some point, take a moment to wonder exactly how things will be for them by this time in ten years/one year/one week/tomorrow. Sometimes I take a step further, and wonder what cringe-worthy anecdotes have yet to happen? I’ve already got too many to remember, but thankfully, my mother has a memory like an elephant when it comes to things like this, and we decided that some of them were too juicy not to share on the internet. Enjoy! But don’t laugh too much.

For a start, here’s one I’d nearly forgotten about. A few years ago, we were just having our kitchen re-painted when we had a student knock on our door asking a favour. To explain the mess, I may have told him we were “having the painters in.” Not heard that euphemism? Go and look it up…

And that time in my then-violin teacher’s car, aged nine or ten, that I still haven’t lived down. I was with a bunch of her other students, on our way to an exam rehearsal, and I was definitely starting to outgrow travel sickness. So when the car jolted…and swerved…and sped up at random…etc., no way was I going to sink so low as to ask to get out for some air. Then I threw up all over the boy next to me. When I got home, my clothes and the car stinking to high heaven, I tried to tell everyone that “someone was sick.” And let’s face it, I wasn’t lying!

There have also been times when I have actually been a danger to myself. Most notably, during a secondary school residential trip. We were having breakfast in the hotel, and not only did I not see the sign saying not to put croissants in the toaster oven, I also had no idea that pastry is so flammable. The unfortunate toaster and its contents went up in flames, and the last I saw of it as I made myself scarce was my teacher whacking a towel on it.

And of course, among Mum’s personal favourites, childhood stories. I feel like she hasn’t got over every supermarket trip in which I loudly asked things like “Are we going to shoplift? Is it wrong to steal? How do people shoplift?” Or told any shop assistant we spoke to – in detail – about my parents’ recent divorce. Our supermarket, by the way, had a large sign above the door: “Thank you for shopping. County.” Always a precocious child, I pronounced the last word as “country.” But without the “r” sound…

Apparently, I’m to blame for whenever Mum embarrasses me; after all, it’s only payback for every time I pulled my knickers down in front of people as a toddler. Or insisted on going out with string around my neck so I could be a dog on a lead. But worst of all was when she and John were engaged. Being little, I had no qualms about enquiring about her personal life. And so in my mind, it was perfectly acceptable to ask – in public – “Is John going to s*x you when you’re married, Mummy?”

These days whenever that story comes up, my parents invariably joke about John determining Mum’s gender on their wedding day. In response, I remind myself that embarrassment is to be ridden out like any other emotional discomfort, hold my head high, and carry on with my life. Because why give them the satisfaction of succumbing to shame and being unable to laugh at myself?

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Handling conflict

Social skills are often a bit of a mystery to Asperger people. We misread faces and body language. We misunderstand certain instructions. We take a little longer to form friendships. That said, many people on the spectrum get pretty good at learning – or at least compensating for – skills like these. I like to think I’m one of them. But there is one social skill that I just don’t have yet: the ability to manage conflict.

In my last post, I talked about things that scare me. Conflict is one of those things. I sometimes wonder if it’s to do with early memories of family arguments, quickly followed by early memories of leaving behind everything I knew at the time. According to my mum, however, I was no better before then. My refusal to listen to any parts in Pingu story books in which characters got cross was a testament to that; my dear mother never tires of laughing at how often she had to change “shouted” to “said”. So clearly my personality played a part.

Is conflict particularly hard for autistic people? Look at it this way; any social interaction requires the brain to be on high alert for the implication behind words, and the very meaning of body language and facial expressions used. Now throw in some high emotions. Add a little anger, fear of making things worse, and a pinch of difficulty in expressing yourself eloquently. Sound hard to you?

As you know, AS people are often thought of as being logical and insensitive to people’s feelings. For me, the opposite is true. In the right frame of mind, I like to think I’m pretty logical. I can analyse myself, other people, and most situations objectively. Unfortunately, I soak up people’s negative emotions like a sponge. I’m bad at taking criticism, and I know it. I mean, when people have told me that, I’ve been offended, but I can believe it, with a bit of…well, objective analysis.

I’ve also had trouble setting boundaries for fear of offending, and it’s this that has caused many of my mistakes. At school, people would soon learn that they could help themselves to my stationery, or treats from my lunch, and be none the worse for wear. Yet anyone I complained to would offer the same crazy suggestion: say “no” to them, thus being selfish and hurting their feelings. I know, right? Unthinkable…

Fast forward to uni. The place where you form lifelong friendships. I thought the best way to maintain a friendship was to always put the other person’s wants and feelings before my own, and after a while, I became desperately unhappy. Which was a real wake up call.

I’d like to say I’ve learnt a lot since then, but I still find conflict hard. I want to be able to let other people’s quarrels wash over me. I want to know how to manage disagreements in a way that strengthens a relationship. But over the past couple of years, I’ve realised that standing up for your needs isn’t selfish, or unthinkable, because you can do so without tearing the other person down. Most importantly, everyone deserves to be heard. If nothing else, try to hold onto that.

What scares me?

My childhood, as some of you know, got off to an interesting start. But there is one early memory that spooked me deeply. It left me a quivering wreck, and has stayed with me to this day. It was a scene of carnage and destruction. It was the day Thomas the Tank Engine crashed through someone’s house. On TV. Yeah.

As you can see, I had a sensitive disposition as a child, which, in many ways, hasn’t fully left me. I’ve had several irrational fears throughout my life. Weirdly, Halloween has never been among them. I’ve never been an avid fan of it – my family as a whole are not interested – but it has inspired me to reflect on the things that have scared me at some point. Before you read any further, don’t judge me.

After Thomas, my next fear was anything that made a loud bang. Balloons, party poppers, and I think at one point even Christmas crackers. My mum wonders if it has anything to do with arriving at a party – still shaken after a nasty, pre-divorce fight between my parents – at the precise moment everyone in the room let off a load of party poppers.

My most intense fear – mercifully no longer the case – was probably fireworks. I remember being about six, and attending some kind of outdoor entertainment. Without warning, the sky exploded with hundreds of the damn things, and I remember screaming, trying to run, and spending the rest of the evening buried under a blanket, crying. Mum remembers a similar occasion when there was an unexpected display during some late night shopping we were doing. I panicked, fled, ran across the road, ran into the nearby supermarket, and was completely unreachable.

At first, even being indoors didn’t help, and it was with Mum’s patience that I slowly became more able to watch fireworks out of the window, and later, step outside the flat with them going off in the distance.

Another weird thing I struggled with as a kid was escalators. In my defence, why would I trust a surface that moves beneath my feet? Similarly, I was also afraid of walking on anything slippery – and still am, if I’m honest. This is most likely my dyspraxia manifesting itself, but I sometimes put it down to trying rollerblading, falling over, and sinking my teeth into my bottom lip. Yowzers.

I like to think that as a young adult, I’ve become less fearful. I mean, I’m less scared of spiders than I used to be. I can tolerate the occasional small/thin legged one in the same room. But there are spiders, and then there are the huge, hairy tarantula clones that randomly appear in the bath, come summer and autumn. Not my cup of tea in the slightest.

Lastly, one that I’m not proud of: vomiting. As a child, I was terrified of illness in general. If someone at school started feeling sick, I’d have an anxiety attack. I wouldn’t eat food that was even slightly old, or at risk of exposure to germs. Ironically, I would get so worried about getting ill, I would start feeling ill. Which then worried me sick. Pun intended.

Nowadays, I’ve come to accept that illness is inevitable, an unlikely occurrence, and usually short-lived. Regarding specifically vomiting related illnesses, I’ve been working on that over the years. But I will say this for myself: it was my fear of stomach bugs that motivated me to aim for five fruits and veggies a day, to give my immune system a good fighting chance. Wouldn’t you call it a blessing in disguise?

Tango’s tale

Cats are aloof, they say. Cats are dignified, they say. So tell me, any of you, has anyone ever seen a cat quite like this one?

If you know me – or at least my blog – very well, then you will have met Bouncer. Pictured above is his brother.

What prompted me to suddenly give Tango a bit of screen time was something actually quite sobering. Earlier this week, with little warning, he took ill rather dramatically. Having vomited copiously in at least two rooms, my mum and sister found him in a state of collapse. While the picture above indicates, not entirely incorrectly, that collapse is a normal state for him, he was rushed to the vets, put on a drip and kept in overnight.

Meanwhile, we were told he probably had something wrong with his heart. I inwardly accepted that this blog post was going to be something between an obituary and a eulogy.

To get a diagnosis, he had to be taken to a feline heart specialist in Derbyshire. Two car journeys, a heart scan, and a three-digit-long fee later, it turned out there was nothing wrong with his heart. So much for that.

Tango’s defining trait has always been his docility. At least one of the vets described him as “such a dude”, and at no point during his x-ray at the vets, or heart scan in Derbyshire, did anyone feel the need to anaesthetise him. For him, there seems to be a very fine line between illness-induced lethargy and normal behaviour. He barely woke when, as an animal care student in my teens, I had to give him a physical health-check for an assignment. I think he was a bit disconcerted when I started flexing his legs, but I was finished before he even got around to reacting.

We went on holiday a few years ago and left the cats in the care of one of my stepbrothers who, at one point, rang Mum and John, because he was worried about Tango. Needless to say, we had to reassure him that no, nothing was wrong with Tango, and yes, lying with his legs in the air and rarely waking up is perfectly healthy behaviour. For him.

For such a placid cat, he is a bit funny about late-neutered males. He hated Basil, my late grandmother’s cat, on sight. While Basil bullied Bouncer relentlessly, Tango pursued Basil with a Mr Hyde persona if he so much as looked at him; it was as if, for every blow Basil gave Bouncer, Tango would dole out two. When George kept turning up in our garden as a stray, it looked like he was in for similar treatment. Now, give or take the occasional fur-flying squabble where collars go pinging off, they seem to have come to a truce. In fact, George is fascinated by him, and doesn’t seem to understand that, while bottom sniffing has its perks, Tango doesn’t share his enthusiasm for it.

Now he and Bouncer are 13 1/2, having joined our household when they could still fit in one hand. Tango may be the soppiest cat I’ve ever met, but I’ll say this for him: in his own way, he’s stoical. He may be inclined to roll off beds in his sleep, he may panic if your keys rattle too loudly. But, as the brother who drew the short straw healthwise, he continues to be his usual trusting self throughout eczema medicine, eyedrops, and at one point a cone collar, being forced upon him. And while we’ve all been losing sleep over the thought of losing him, he has dealt with the ordeal with his usual unconditional trust and affection. Couldn’t we all learn from that?

Customers versus shop assistants

A while back, I found a quote on Facebook, which – to paraphrase – went something like this. When a shop assistant goes home, and someone asks how their day at work was, you, as a customer, are part of the answer.

I’m coming to the end of my Christian bookshop internship, and I have seen all manner of customers. Different ages, races, walks of life, you name it. Many interactions I have with them are fairly bog standard. Hello, can I help with anything? I’ll have a look…they’re right there/no we don’t have that in stock. That’ll be pounds, do you need a free carrier bag? Thank you, have a nice day!

And some people know exactly how to brighten someone’s day. Some regulars actually give us chocolate. Or a bottle of juice each. Some even need a listening ear. They’re ill. Lonely. Disillusioned. They see the shop as a safe place to vent, and I always feel honoured to have gained someone’s trust.

But of course, some drive you crazy. They expect all shop assistants to know everything. They take it very personally when something they swear we had 10 years ago is unavailable. Before opening time, they might be waiting outside the unopened door, then getting huffy with us for not opening, because they need to get back to where they’ve parked illegally. Or they come waltzing in straight past the opening times stuck at face level, one minute before closing time, and ask when we close. Before spending ages browsing.

Another thing that frustrates me is when people ask for a very specific item, but can’t give me a title, author, or publisher. A Moroccan leather Bible? Tempting to say “Damn, sold the last one five minutes ago.” A Church of England booklet on the rite of confirmation? Said customer was very cross with me for not finding this, when they’d come “all the way from London” and we’d “never let them down until now!”

Yes, some people can be downright unpleasant. We recently had someone ask us to change a £20, and make it quick, thank you very much. We were reluctant; having done so earlier had left us short of change, and we needed to preserve what was left for real customers. The person asked if we would give them change if they bought something, and got angry when they realised we had enough for that. They were more cross with my poor colleague, who was trying to explain to them, and even said so to “reassure” me. You know how it is when you feel more angry when someone messes with your friend than with you? I do!

This, by the way, was hours after my other colleague, who speaks English as a second language, got yelled at by someone for struggling to understand them and not speaking clearly enough. And about a week after I listened to a customer’s complaints about life and compliments on my job performance, only to learn they had been banned for making sexual innuendos.

To finish, I would like to thank every customer who shows nothing but respect, good manners, and the occasional treat (!!!). And to the minority? Kindly remember that shop staff are not God, or computers. We just want to survive the working day, and get home to our families. Don’t you?

Our New Wine family

“I don’t know what to expect from these meetings…I’m on the outside, wishing I knew someone closely, but not feeling comfortable enough to say anything…”

Ten months ago, I wrote myself a letter. I was at my course’s church, surrounded by other Christian interns, and we had been asked to write to our end-of-year selves. Two days ago, these letters were returned to us, and we were asked to take time to reflect on how far we’d come.

I was enrolled on the weekly New Wine Discipleship course as part of the internship I’m doing at a Christian bookshop. And if I’m honest, there were times when I thought I’d never find my feet there. Everyone was getting to know each other. No-one else had to calm down in another room when asked to write and perform a talk. We were all advised to “go deeper” with each other in conversation, and quite frankly, this terrified me.

In situations like this, you can either go running back to safety, or you can push yourself forward. So when I tried to act sociable and relaxed, or remember people’s names, or make a beeline for anyone I now recognised, that’s what I was doing.

I don’t know how I’ve gone from that stage, to thinking about how much I’m going to miss it, but I have. Each Monday session has been draining, but we’ve done so much together. Our first weekend away. Our Christmas party. The Ukraine mission trip. Jennie and Jan’s wedding. And finally, to go out with a bang, our end-of-year graduation ceremony.

Our last day was the most uplifting and exhausting yet. After opening our letters, we all sat in a circle with someone in the centre, while everyone else voiced words of encouragement and special memories. A real reminder of how we value each other.

But what could anyone say about me, the quiet one who always needs help? Let’s say I was humbled by how many things my friends appreciate about me.

Once half the group had stopped crying, we moved on to Jess’ game. In two teams, we each had to decode clues about where in the city we should go to, take a group selfie once there, receive the next clue, and so on. I don’t know why we had to run everywhere, but when my team decided to race, I started at the back, and out-ran all of them. Just saying.

And onto the most important part, the graduation ceremony! While we were hitting the town, Jess had prepared our paper graduation hats and certificates. Once we were assembled, she even dedicated a short speech to each of us before presenting us with our certificates. A true ceremony if ever there was one!

To end the festivities, we had drinks and a meal at a local tapas bar. Thinking about it, having a cocktail on an empty stomach and zero energy probably wasn’t my wisest choice. I shifted between feeling increasingly sociable, and overly anxious. And lightheaded. But hey, tripping over a downward step, and talking about my feelings to the next person* who would listen proved entertaining, if nothing else.

At this point, I’m going over my preferred word count to conclude with a personal shout out to everyone!

To Ruth B, my first friend on the course who looked out for me from day one, and who always goes the extra mile for the group

To Wole, whose God centred enthusiasm is unmatched, and whose random singing had us all in stitches

To Matt, a good worship leader who can start and finish any theological debate

To Ruth G, who I commute with, discuss the course with, and also happily be alone together with

*To Mary, who translated in Ukraine even though it wasn’t easy, and who let me chatter aimlessly about how I shouldn’t have had that cocktail

To Elijah, who also translated, and helped me navigate Ukrainian cafes

To Jan, who trod the Christian bookshop path before me so we could compare experiences

To Miya, who, in Ukraine, listened to me complaining about how useless I sometimes felt

To Jake, who, like me, started off in super-introvert mode, but is actually pretty fun to watch at a wedding disco

To Alex, whose sense of humour is equally questionable and brilliant

To Cameron, who made a good second-in-command in Ukraine

To Nathan, always the cool head in any tricky theological discussion

To Isaac, who frequently gives positive feedback on this blog

And of course, our leaders: David, who got us through the first tricky term, Jess, mother hen and vicar-to-be, and Simon, who led us through Ukraine and made sure I didn’t get lost. Hats off to everyone!

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, shoes and outdoor

DISCLAIMER: the photo belongs to Jess, not me

 

Getting healed?!

A few weeks ago, a customer came into the shop, and, as customers often do, asked me a lot of questions at once that I was struggling to make sense of. When trying to get him to clarify what he wanted, I told him I have Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism, and sometimes communication is confusing for me. But alas, there is hope, fellow Aspies. Because according to this man…I could ask God to heal me!

My reaction, as a Christian, is this. I believe in praying. I believe that people can be healed. I also believe that, just because God can heal, it doesn’t mean that He should, or will. I have to say, though, I wish my immediate response had been that eloquent. What I actually did was falteringly explain that autism is not an illness to be cured, but rather a difference in the brain, and that implying otherwise can hurt. He got it in the end, and surrounding colleagues and customers were impressed. So clearly I did something right.

But then I thought to myself, no matter how many times I hear how important it is to embrace our differences, I do get frustrated. I do wish I didn’t need extra help. I’m often fed up with my struggles, yet I couldn’t help feeling offended at the notion that I should change. Am I just acting like a special snowflake?

I don’t know. But not every struggle is a problem that needs to be “cured”.

I recently had an interesting message exchange with a friend who, as we were chatting, was watching a documentary about children on medication for conditions like autism and ADHD. She asked me how I felt about that. Now, I respect people’s decisions here. It’s up to the individual. If medication proves more beneficial than not, then good for them. But I’m wary of people who treat Asperger’s as an illness, when it’s not caused by germs, or hormones, or bodily harm. So I gave her the following analogy.

Imagine a group of people, all from the same country, faced with someone from another country and who speaks a different language. Chances are, they are lonely. They want to communicate, but they find their limited vocabulary very frustrating. They might wish they were the same as everyone else, but should everyone be praying that they suddenly become British? Or American, or the nationality of your choice…

No. Of course not. It’s up to them to learn English (or whatever), and it’s up to the others to be patient with them. And it will always be their second language. But with enough learning and patience, they may speak fluently, and become a popular, respected group member. And they can bring to the table a language and a culture that everyone else barely knows about.

Do you get what I’m saying? In a similar way, learning differences can be a bummer. But they don’t have to stop you from flourishing. The trick is working through it, seeking support when you need it, and finding a way forward.