After graduating college in 1998, I decided to pull a disappearing act. My social deficits had not improved over time…I was alone, confused. I didn’t understand how to move forward in my life, so I withdrew. I established new routines that allowed me to both avoid people and more easily manage my sensory issues. For the next decade, I worked a graveyard shift, slept during the day, and had very little contact with the rest of the world.
The one exception: at least once a year, my parents would insist on visiting. They’re nice people, but they’ve never understood my differences. Where I’m from- a small, rural area- difference is considered to be a bad thing. If a trait is different, you’re supposed to just hide it away and proceed as if it doesn’t exist. Because of this, I’ve learned to keep interactions with my parents as brief as possible, minimize the awkwardness. I like them well enough, but the shorter a conversation, the better.
Still, an annual visit would happen. A memorable one ocurred just after I moved into a new apartment. They wanted to see the new place. I didn’t see how that could go well. They made the trip anyway. Awkwardness: in effect.
Mom calls. In her relentlessly cheery voice, she says, “We’re coming up!”
I look around at my crappy, shoe-box sized apartment and think this may not be a good idea.
“I’m sick,” I tell her.
“Aw. We’ll bring medicine,” she replies.
“I have the bubonic plague. Very contagious.”
“I’ll make soup!”
The call ends. I mentally organize my liquor store options.
Next day, mom and dad arrive. They look around the apartment…and their faces collapse.
The room is dark. There are no lamps. No television. The only furniture in the living room is a 2-person couch. Mostly, though, they stare at the wall where I’ve nailed blankets over the windows. I have done this at every place I’ve ever lived due to a painful aversion to lights…yet it still confuses them. They stare and stare at those blankets. Attempts to explain my aversion never sink in, probably because it doesn’t fit their mental cookie cutter for what my life is supposed to be like. (From what I can tell, their mental cookie-cutter for me is shaped just like normal, which I think is pretty funny.)
Dad takes a seat on the small couch, stares at the back of his hand. I take a seat on the floor, stare at my shoes. Mom walks over to the fridge…opens it; it’s empty. She opens the freezer…it’s stuffed with a dozen or so frozen rectangles. She closes the freezer…looks into the fridge again…asks, “Where’s the rest of your food?”
I scratch my head, think that one over and say “I don’t understand the question.”
She sits next to dad, fake smiles her way through the awkward silence. The fake smiling: it’s basically her personality screen saver.
Mentally, I dig around, try to access the small talk files. I line up a few good options, pepper them with questions. They answer. It goes quiet again. Mom fake smiles.
At one point, dad bristles and says, “You’re living like some kind of hermit.” Which is progress. The year before he called me a “shut-in”…I think “hermit” is definitely an upgrade; kinda feels like we’re bonding.
I give him a thumbs up. He sighs
I definitely understand their reaction. At their place, they’re used to perpetual lights and sounds; day and night, they keep televisions going full blast and a radio spurting out talk radio. At my place, they probably feel like hostages in a sensory deprivation tank.
Also, mom recently described visiting some of my cousins who are close in age to me. They’re all bright, happy people living in large homes filled with Normal Stuff and Expensive Crap. Mom was impressed. I think she can’t help but compare my situation to theirs. I think it makes her a little sad.
I never know how to explain to them that I’m not thrilled with my life either. I’m depressed, in therapy; I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder. I don’t know how to get better…I just know that when I do, my life still won’t look like their definition of success. There’s just too much distance between us.
So, I don’t say anything. We just sit, stare, pass around small talk questions and answers.
Mom keeps looking over at the wall-blankets. Finally, she says, “Why don’t you let us buy you a nice set of curtains? It can be a house warming gift.”
“But with curtains, you can keep it dark…they’ll just give you more options, let you change the lighting whenever you need to.”
“That’s nice, but no thank you.”
Mom thinks it over, says “If I can’t buy you curtains, can I at least buy you a floor lamp?”
I could easily say no, but it seems like a simple way to make them happy. A little token gesture from time to time never hurts.
I say, “Let’s do it.”
We load up, go to a big store. We stare at floor lamps. Mom says, “I found it! This is the one you need!”
It’s the largest, brightest lamp in the store…maybe of all time.
“This is the lamp that I don’t want,” I tell her. “In the entire world. This is the one. You found it.”
We look at others, compare/contrast, negotiate. It’s a whole thing. Ultimately, we default upon the simplest lamp there…a straight rod with a shaded bulb at the top…done. We buy it. We go back to my place. I put the lamp together…make a new spot of glow in the apartment. Boop.
Mom says, “Much better…and you know, you can pin those blankets back, let a little more light in here, really change the feel of the place.”
I sigh, rub my eyes…mentally organize my liquor store options again.
Eventually, they leave. I disassemble the lamp, box it, pitch it into the closet.
I put it back together one year later when my parents visit again.
They look around, say, “Hey, you still have the lamp!”
I say, “Yes!”
We sit, stare, fake smile, wait out the awkwardness. They leave. I box up the lamp, pitch it in the closet.
And so on. Forever.