I’m currently writing, with Ethan, a chapter for an e-book on what it’s like (for both people) to live within an AS/NT partnership. Our topic is family occasions and the idea is that I’ll write about some family occasions that I’ve experienced with Ethan and then Ethan will give his take on the same situations.
The process of comparing our different views to the same events is enlightening!
Without giving too much away, I talk about a family Christmas at my sister’s house when about thirty people were having a jolly old time: and two weren't. Ethan spent the evening switching between looking vacant and detached or disapproving and contemptuous. Sometimes he managed to roll out all four looks simultaneously. I was miserable because it was yet another social gathering in which Ethan was being rude, disengaged and downright unpleasant. And I felt embarrassed, frustrated, upset and angry at him. I just wanted us both to be able to relax and have a nice time. I distinctly remember looking past the faces of a roomful of laughing, happy, sociable people during a game of chubby bunnies and seeing Ethan glaring at the scene unfolding before him with a look somewhere between confusion and disgust, and my heart genuinely sinking into the pit of my stomach. In my head (as it had been many times before and has been since) that was the end for us.
When Ethan showed me yesterday what he’d written about the same occasion, I realised that I’d never actually asked him before to explain to me what was going on inside his head at the time. Ethan talks about the noise, about trying his hardest to engage and be sociable but having to almost instantly give up on conversation with people as the surrounding noise of people, music, kids shouting and other conversations, made it impossible for him to hear what a person was saying to him. He talks about how he was noticing the dog and cats and seeing little fingers touching food on the buffet table – wondering about the cleanliness of the house and whether, prior to us arriving, the dog and cats had been sniffing around the food too. He was thinking about how bright the room was and the poor quality of the lightbulbs. Then, during the playing of Chubby Bunnies (a custom he’d never heard of, let alone encountered) he was genuinely confused. To him, this wasn’t a game. It was gluttony. There was no point to it, nothing fun about it, no challenge to it; just another opportunity for people – even children – to stuff their faces with more unhealthy food. Thus began an internal scrutiny of the parents in the room for letting their children gorge themselves on so much sugar. I don’t know what he must have thought when I had a go – who did he have to blame for that?!
I realise that all of this doesn’t make for a very fun person spec. But it does explain where he was coming from. His brain simply could not by-pass the practical aspects of what he was seeing: how is stuffing yourself with marshmallows until they drop out of your mouth fun? Sensually, he was over-stimulated, anxious and completely out of his comfort zone: he was drowning.
My reaction was to glare at him, to mutter quietly to him about what a miserable, awful person he was, to tell him how he had ruined the evening for me and probably for everyone else. Psychologically, instead of throwing him a rope, I pushed him further under.
Things are a lot better these days. We’ve had a diagnosis for one – so a whole new level of understanding has opened up to us both. And we’ve learnt to cope better with social situations. It’s required us both to adapt – Ethan more than me – and to make some changes to what might be our default settings. And we’ve adopted some techniques and compromises to make life easier.
We’re still together so we must be getting better at understanding each other’s worlds. Writing the chapter for this e-book is just another part of the journey.