I wish I’d known what a shutdown was when I hid in my Disney Princess Tent in a corner of SadistFaction’s apartment, waiting for the party to be over.
Some of you will remember that party, a few years back. It went until 3am. I had been excited to see my friends, excited to play. Until the party kept going, and going, and going. I was supposed to be staying the night, and at that point still lived on the other side of the city. I don’t handle cabs well (something about being alone in a car with strangers. Let’s not go there). So I stayed, hiding in a children’s tent Daddy had bought me to colour in while he watched hockey. I hid, and I shook, and I cried.
I remember friends checking in on me, and the assumption, as ever, was that I was not very good at handling being present when my Daddy was playing with other people.
Which, uh, yup, this is a true thing about me. Fact! I do not handle that well. It took me a long time and conversations with much wiser people than me to finally grasp that being poly didn’t mean I had to actually be comfy physically watching my partner play with others. Fancy that. That I wasn’t some green-eyed monster for preferring to just let him have his fun without me and come home for snuggles. Which is what I do now, which enables me to watch whatever I want on his huge TV AND have a satisfied Daddy come home to tuck me in. WINNER.
However. Hiding in the tent. That was something else.
When people think about Autism, one of the things they think about, whether they know that’s what it’s called or not, are the meltdowns. If you’ve watched a movie or TV show with a stereotypical portrayal of an Autistic person*, then you have seen a meltdown. Rocking and screaming or crying, head banging into walls, flailing arms, self-harm. Part of being Autistic means that it feels like the volume on everything – all your senses – is turned up to eleven all the time. So overwhelming environments, especially ones where you feel trapped – those are turned up to more like fifteen. Cue the headbanging (which, yes, I have had and continue to occasionally have this type of meltdown. And let me tell you, if you told young living-in-a-small-punkrock-free-town me that when I was thirty and marginally cooler and living in an honest-to-goodness city that this is still the only kind of headbanging I would be doing, she would be *sorely* disappointed.)
What I had in the tent, though, that wasn’t a meltdown. The meltdown came later, when everyone finally left, when I managed to shuffle out into the kitchen to wave goodbye to the last stragglers before collapsing in a sobbing heap on the floor, unable to breathe. Nope, in the tent, what I had was a shutdown. I have two theories about why you see more meltdowns than shutdowns in media portraying folks on the spectrum. One, anecdotally, shutdowns seem to occur more in women than men, and most Autistic characters in movies and TV are men (that’s a whole other rant). And two, shutdowns are just not that interesting, visually. It’s literally just like powering down your computer. Well, actually, it’s more like your computer overheats and crashes and you start to panic because you really really need to use it, like, stat, for something really important, and you’re not sure how long you’re going to have to let it cool down before you restart.
When I’m in a shutdown, I have very little ability to function. I generally go non-verbal, or if I am able to speak, it’s in short sentences, barely above a whisper. I cannot keep myself safe. If it happens in public, I am utterly vulnerable. My body more or less shuts down. I remember that party so vividly. I remember trying to force myself up and out into the main room, to speak, to cry out, anything. I couldn’t move my body, not even to go ask for help. I covered my ears. I curled up in a ball.
The thing that people don’t seem to get sometimes about what I experience is that it’s not the same as anxiety. That’s not to say that anxiety isn’t debilitating as well; I have expertise in that area as well. But the kind of overwhelmed that I get – it’s physical. It is a physical pain. Sensory overload is basically when all your senses go “nope, I’ve had it, that’s enough for me, thanks”.
I’m writing about this now because, honestly, I’ve been feeling bummed out about missing my friends from the scene. And I don’t need to justify myself to anyone, I know that. But it kind of helps to justify it to myself. I can’t go to parties anymore. Period. A couple of times a year, I go to a queer party, and I stay a couple of hours, and I leave before the playing starts. The specific events I go to are ones where I know I have a safe space, where I know that there are people there who understand my challenges and who know what to do if something happens to me. That’s it for me.
But I was at a munch on Saturday seeing wonderful friends, and everyone was talking about the party they were all going to that night, and I felt a pang of regret. I miss everyone so much. I really do. More than I can describe.
I’ve been working so hard on my self-care lately. I don’t want to dwell on bad things that have happened in the past. But out of the six years I’ve been part of the Montreal fetish scene, I spent about five of them trying to pretend I wasn’t Me, trying to pretend that if I pushed myself past my boundaries enough times then they’d stop being boundaries. And as much as I miss you guys, I don’t miss the shutdowns or the meltdowns. I don’t miss wondering what was wrong with me every Sunday morning when I’d wake up in tears.
There’s probably a happy medium for me somewhere. I’ll keep working on finding it, and I’ll keep treasuring the people who have taken such good care of me while I’m looking. But I won't regret taking care of myself. Not for one more minute.
With great love,
(*side note: I use identity-first language, i.e. Austistic person, not person-first language, i.e. a person with Autism. It’s not something I’m afflicted with; it’s a fundamental part of who I am that can’t and shouldn’t be separated out from me.)