I am not spontaneous. I cannot pack a bag and fly off to Europe tomorrow, or up and go to the beach on an hour’s notice. I do not impulsively engage in crazy activities with my pals that turn into shareable moments on social media. The very thought of such things is terrifying and if dragged into them, as I have sometimes allowed myself to be for fear of ruining someone else’s fun, I am plagued with anxiety throughout, do not enjoy them in the least, and need extra time afterwards to recover from something everyone else found refreshing and worth the loss of a weekend.
This occurred to me while I was watching a show where a couple spontaneously has sex on a floor with wet paint, ruining their clothes and shoes in the process. Yep, that’s right, I’m not thinking, Oh, how romantic, but, I’ll never get this off these boots and I really love these boots and what about my hair and what if paint winds up in my mouth and it will be under my fingernails for days… and, well, to say that I wouldn’t be in the moment probably belabors the point. (I did notice, however, that there was no paint in the bed or in anyone’s hair in the next scene. I guess they took a shower or something?)
When I “spontaneously” decide to do something, it means I have spent lots of time researching, planning, imagining possible hitches and how to respond to them, and sometimes even rehearsing what I’m going to say and do prior to the actual event. By now, my ability to appear spontaneous is plenty good enough to slide past people who wouldn’t imagine otherwise (or don’t care).
This allows me to have the “fun” of spontaneous activities without the agitation that comes from being roped into one unprepared. Most neurotypical people have no problem going along with a friend’s idea to drive two states over just to go to a White Castle on a Saturday night. Meanwhile, I’ve already checked that the weather will be nice enough for a long drive, figured out the route, selected possible pit stops, made sure not to drink too much coffee that day, and gotten together with people at such a time so that when I “spontaneously” suggest it we’ll have time to get there, eat, and get back home before midnight. And then I’ll even volunteer to drive! Aren’t I fun?
If all this sounds like an awful lot of work for a fun night, well, there you go. When back in high school a whole bunch of us decided to run around the sewer system one summer night without flashlights (or cell phones; this was before cell phones), I was the kid who worriedly pointed out that we were going to be on the front page of the newspaper the following day when we all drowned. What a delightful companion.
Unfortunately for me and others on the autism spectrum, if something isn’t familiar or planned along with options for multiple contingencies, fun doesn’t happen. Stress happens. Anxiety happens. Worst of all, we lose rest and sleep (not the same thing) and I don’t know about other autistic people, but if I get less than eight hours of sleep two nights in a row, forget it, I am about as useful as a clogged toilet (and about as much fun).
My other idea of fun is to sit around and do something I’ve done a hundred times before because I’m good at it. Usually it’s a solitary activity like a word game on my iPad, or, if I’m feeling adventurous, coloring with my thirty-six different colored pencils (in a special canvas pouch with slots for each one, arranged by color) in a relaxation coloring book. As a kid I kept my legos in ziplocs arranged by size and color. My sister thought this was ridiculous and just threw everything in the bucket together after she played with them. I couldn’t play with them again until I’d separated them all back into little piles. Because I needed to know exactly what I was working with before I started. Whee.
I can’t start if I don’t know where I’ll finish. I can’t allow myself to be carried along. I can’t have faith that I’ll get what I need on the way. I have to bring everything, plan for everything, hang on to everything; I have to be (figuratively as well as literally) in the driver’s seat.
When someone is navigating while I’m driving, I want to know not just what the next turn is, but the one after that so I can prepare. Is there more than one lane? Do I need to be in a particular lane? Will I have time to change lanes? How many lights are there until it happens? Does this lane end before I have to turn? Although I’ve been driving for nearly thirty years, I don’t want to have to improvise while following instructions because I can’t do both at once and it takes time for me to mentally switch between one and the other. And, I have no sense of direction. When I turn, the whole world turns with me. Which way was I facing a second ago? Which way am I facing now relative to then? No clue.
What I’m good at, luckily, is memorizing and reversing long lists of instructions, so I get around pretty well. (Much better, now that there’s GPS.) Like the rest of my “normal” appearance, my extracurricular functioning is an elaborate construction of workarounds and mechanisms. TGA is so nice to everybody. It’s great how she treats everyone the same way. What seems an exertion is actually a shortcut – since I don’t know what the finer gradations are, everybody gets the exact same thing; janitor, server, doctor, kid at the bus stop, guy standing behind me in the checkout line. If I had to spend the time to figure out the precise combination of friendliness and politeness required for each interaction, it would be so overwhelming I’d never leave the house.
Even though, to be honest, most days I’d rather not leave the house, logistically speaking, that just isn’t practical. So I reserve all of my R&D energy for my “fun” stuff. Activities and experiences are carefully catalogued and cross-referenced, in detail, according to time, place, event, and type of companion[s].
The main drawback is I’m lonely more often than I should be, all things considered. Most group interactions require so much concentration that I can’t engage in any meaningful way. I’m lonely at home, lonely at work, and lonely at gatherings. I can’t simply go out and enjoy people’s company. Happy hour? Neighborhood barbecue? Birthday party? I scrounge for as many details as I can ahead of time and then make sure to either bring someone I know with me or strategically arrive when my friends are already there. I have to minimize unexpected events and new person interactions, of which I can only manage one or two during any given outing. I have perfected the art of “putting in an appearance.” It’s all I ever do.
Play a game I’ve never played before? You mean learn something new while still concentrating on behaving and speaking properly in a recreational group setting? You have got to be kidding. When I hear the word “icebreaker” I want to break something over the person’s head. My idea of breaking the ice is making one tiny crack in one person once every few weeks and after two years I’ll have three friends.
While I imagine there are plenty of introverts out there who share the same warm feelings for parties and icebreakers that I do, generally speaking, we are a culture of gregarious, improvisational, adventurous people. I am a cautious, overwrought turtle in a world of ecstatic rabbits. I am not going to win the race. I don’t want to be in a race. I don’t want to turn something into a race “for fun” because it just makes it more complicated.
When everyone gets together for a pick-up softball game, I offer to keep score; that is, sit in one place the whole time and only concentrate on whomever is next to me on the bench and a small set of numbers. When I go on a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip with some women friends, I pack a first aid kit, sewing kit, bobby pins, safety pins, tampons, baby wipes, and an extra pair of one-size-fits-all black leggings along with my own necessities. (And a portable white noise machine with a battery backup in case we lose power. People look at me funny sometimes but I ignore them. Sleep is more important.)
I don’t remember becoming like this. But I imagine that with each trip, each activity, a new item was found to have to plan for, so that now, even a short vacation requires a full suitcase. When my best friend drove down to see me for a day from New York with nothing but deodorant, a toothbrush and a change of underwear, I was awed. That is so not me. It will never be me. The thought of it was enticing, but also horrifying. Only one pair of underwear? What if she needed another? What if the deodorant broke in her bag? What if the weather changed and she was cold? Where do you put the toothbrush after it’s gotten wet?
But I do know that as ridiculous and burdening as this all sounds, it has, in a strange sort of way, set me free. Of all those unpleasant experiences that I was cajoled into, some are now able to be enjoyed since having been gotten through and logged. It may be that I can only relax into something I’ve planned for, but even the planning has been done so often and for so many things that it’s a routine of its own. I have lists of what to pack for different vacation lengths to different types of places such that my turnaround time is fast enough to suit a last minute timeline; I know exactly what to wear if it’s going to be in the 40’s all the way up to the 90’s (anything outside that range does not qualify as a vacation; extra planning will be required). These lists have everything from mascara to phone chargers and include taking out the trash and setting up the furballs with some extra chow before I go. My meds are memorized, as are my snacks (do NOT talk to me when I’m hungry). My favorite jewelry and hair ties are kept in a different place than the rest so I can just dump them in a ziploc [sic] and tuck them into the suitcase. My travel set of toiletries is never unpacked.
Except the toothbrush. So it can dry.