Thursday, August 22, 2019

Old essay: In the Most Unlikely of Places

Found this, written 10 yr ago 2009/10, don't want to lose it,
posting it here:
Written about Marion.....Sigh.
Lived there 2009-12.
I miss her so much. 
Wonder if will ever find anyone like her again. 
Oh well.

In the Most Unlikely of Places 

published in the July-August 2010 issue of Autism/Asperger's Digest

I moved back to my home state of Maine three months ago, to a house in the greater Portland area two miles from where I grew up. I had been traveling around the country for the last two years, looking for a place where I fit. I was twenty five and looking to find a place to settle down. I answered an ad on Craigslist for a room to rent, knowing very little about the people I would be living with. I am now living with a 92 year old woman, Madeline. Madeline is still very active and still quite sharp. She can only be described as vibrant, passionate, and animated. I love her for it. I love the emotion in her voice, and the stories she tells. I like how she has an opinion on everything. There is passion and feeling in her voice when she tells her stories, something I feel is missing from most people's communications today.  

A very odd thing happened when I moved in with this woman, though. I started hanging out with her. This might not sound so odd, but consider this. I have never exactly been the kind of person who  can "hang out" with other people. My Asperger's Syndrome, a high functioning version of autism, makes me more than a little bit socially inept, and makes it difficult for me to figure out how to make small talk and conversation appear natural. I am socially awkward and have to put a lot of effort into everything I say. It takes a lot of energy to think out what I want to say, and how to say it, and a lot of energy to make things flow. Because of this, conversations can be exhausting for me. I can never just "hang out" - there is too much anxiety involved in not knowing what will come next. So I usually take the "hit and run" approach to conversations - go in for as long as I can stand it, and then leave. 
There's more to it, though. I have a lot of anxiety around people for other reasons. I get very worried about what people are thinking of me. I get worried about people criticizing me. I fear getting into conversations on subjects I am not prepared for. I dread the possibility of getting yelled at. Sometimes I feel like I am always doing something wrong, and the more time I spend with people,  the more chance I will get yelled at for somthing. It makes me nervous, skittish, uncomfortable. I feel often as I can't sit and relax around people because I just know the conversation is going to turn to something I've done wrong. I can get very defensive with people.  

Obviously, this skewed version of thinking makes being around most other people more than a little uncomfortable, and trust is something that has been hard for me to develop. Which is why what happened next surprised me so much. When I met Madeline, it was hard not to be won over by the warm smile on her face; her whole face lit up with the glow of her kindness. It was like turning on a heat lamp; you could bathe in it. And so I did. I found myself spending more and more time with her, sitting in a large, comfortable armchair, across from her, while she watched her TV programs and I read the newspaper. I was drawn to her stories. 

She likes to tell stories about things that happened to her when she was younger, or just give her opinion on the news. It doesn't matter what she says; when I am sitting there, listening to her, talking to her, a kind of forcefield envelopes me.  I feel safe and calm with her. I feel more centered. I like her. I start to spend more and more time sitting with her, until I am spending most of every evening with her and can't imagine what I ever did before she came into my life. We watch old reruns on TV that we both like - "All in the Family" and "Seinfield," mixed in with some newer shows. I rent movies for us, and we both laugh at the escapades of Chance, Sassie and Shadow trying to find their way home in Homeward Bound, or tense in our seats as another blast of fire shoots into the sky in Dante's Peak. I have found an unlikely ally.

At first, I think to myself, what am I doing? I'm sitting in a chair, relaxing and talking with someone. I'm doing everything I thought it wasn't possible to do for years. What is it about her that is allowing me to not only be able to spend this much unstructured time with another person, but actually to make me want to seek it out? I think about it. And I realize the reason I am so afraid to be with most people is because I am afraid of judgement. Madeline doesn't judge me. She doesn't try to change or "fix" me. She's just herself; and in doing so, she allows me to be myself. Madeline wants company and someone to tell her stories to, and when you get right down to it, that's what I want to. At the ages of 25 and 92, born in radically different times with very different backgrounds and life experiences, we both just want what people for all across time have wanted: to be heard, and to be appreciated. It isn't so hard to build a relationship off of that basis. 

It's the simple things that matter. I soak up the emotion and excitement in her voice when she greets me every day. When she turns her attention on me, I feel like she is focusing on me 100%. When she says "How are you?", she really means it. She seems genuinely glad to see me, and this boosts my spirits. Who wouldn't want to be with someone who was glad to see them?

They talk about fancy therapies, psychological theories and models of deficiency, but in the end, you really can change the world with a smile. I don't know what the future holds, and I am all too aware of the problems I still have, but I know one thing: I am beginning to feel what it is like to trust. I am starting to feel the sense of connection that comes from spending time with someone without being afraid of them. And I hope that never changes.