(re-posting from a few years ago, for the holidays.)
For a big chunk of my adult life, I put a huge amount of effort into avoiding people. I socially isolated, worked a graveyard shift, slept during what I called “the people hours”. I was good at this. Disappearing, I learned, is my one real talent.
The exception to this habit: every few years I would visit with my family at Christmas. Everyone would get together, do the traditional gift/meal/football-watching thing
This was a reliably awkward and uncomfortable visit. Always. It was never not awkward. Most of my family: suburban, overtly southern and wildly extroverted. Nice people, but very (even proudly) conventional.
To make it worse, I have a huge extended family and quite a few cousins that are around my age. They always seem to function as life metrics…the standard against which others compare me. I was alone; they were raising families. I was poor; they were well off. I worked a graveyard shift; they were all lawyers or investment bankers or Executives Not Otherwise Specified.
Nothing wrong with that in-itself, but they did tend toward the materialistic. They were status symbol collectors: over-priced cars, brand-name clothes, absurdly expensive gadgets, and so on.
The gadgets in particular mystify me. I’m low tech, easily lost by the jargon. This made it extra confusing when the cousins would take turns showing me their new mobile devices.
“M! Check out my new phone! It’s got [insert mind-numbing gibberish here]!“
I can never tell any of them apart. I’d see 10 different mobile devices and each one just looks like a cell phone that ate a laptop. A cousin would show one off, energetically explain its features. I would nod my head politely, wait it out.
The worst point of the day was always the first 10 minutes of any gathering. I would walk in the door and have to go around the room, greeting everyone. And every single person asked the same question: “Dating anyone yet, M? At all? Anyone?!”
My social disconnect and lack of romantic happenings had already created a huge amount of heartache for me, making their questions excruciating. I would roam around, greeting people, answering, “Nope, not yet,” thirty, forty times…dying a little more inside with each repetition. Grandma, just to work in a little variety, would say, “You gotta be a man and put yourself out there more! Why can’t you put yourself out there more?!”
For singles, outcasts, eccentrics and black sheep, the holidays can be a real bloodbath.
Back to the theme of cousins and their stuff-obsession: one time a group of us were together, having a holiday meal…and a female cousin said, “M, I hear you’re renting a house now.”
“What sort of curtain pattern did you go with?”
I stared at her.
She said, “I know, I know. Guys aren’t supposed to be into that kind of thing. But when we moved here, Bob just took over the whole decor process. At first he said, ‘Pick what you want, honey.’ But then he started looking at catalogs and he got so into it. He was like a kid in a candy store.”
Several people chimed in with their own curtain stories. “We went with this.” “We chose that”. It became a whole conversation. About curtains. Then they paused for me to answer.
The truth is that I when I moved into the house, I immediately nailed blankets over all of the windows. Thick blankets. Dense, impenetrable blankets through which no light shall ever pass.
However…this fact tends to make for awkward small-talk at holiday gatherings, so I wing it: “Yes, for a pattern I chose…blue curtains? Is that a pattern?”
“M, pattern means style. French? Country?”
“Oh. Mine are just big rectangles. The style is rectangular.”
People stared. I shoveled food into my face, tried to wait out the silence. They changed topics.
They take their materialism to an extreme. They have to have the latest version of any item, no matter how irrelevant. Cars, televisions, computers, and so on…everything has to be perfect. Like with mobile devices, I don’t understand what any of the jargon means about the stuff they’re into. Makes it tough to share their enthusiasm.
“M! Check out the new TV! It’s a [insert mind-numbing gibberish here]!”
“Wow. So there it is. Existing.”
I’ll admit being responsible for a large portion of the awkwardness during Christmas visits.
Speaking of television, after dinner everyone would sit around watching football. Which is torture because football makes zero sense. I refuse to believe that anyone can tell what’s actually happening during a game. It’s just crowds and noise and running and comically over-sized humans jumping into piles. It’s visual chaos.
And yet, there we sat after the Christmas meal, watching a sport I knew nothing about. Dad, uncles and cousins would chat non stop about which team is best, which players are great/terrible. I would just listen, memorize the discussion, rephrase what people were saying so that I seemed vaguely life-like.
The strangest phenomenon is the way some in my family blurt out monosyllabic expressions during key moments in a game. It can be a quiet, peaceful day. Mellow. People chatting, hanging out. Then suddenly a grown man is yelling, “Go! Go! Run!”
It always startles me at first. However, just because it seems socially acceptable in the moment, I’ll join in, yell a bit myself. “Boom! Pow! Whammo!”
I don’t think any of it ever matches up with what’s happening in the game, but it’s about the only fun I get during days like this, so I do it anyway. My favorite thing is to wait for a dramatic moment when everyone is yelling something in unison, like “Run!” I then yell out nonsense phrases like “Toast Feathers!” or “Chicken socks!”
Not that anyone notices, they’re too busy yelling. I do that purely for me.
Of course, people have to take pictures all day long. My light-averse eyes are never thrilled with it. I usually cringe, yet try really hard to smile, so it creates an odd effect. In every picture I’ve ever seen of myself, it looks like someone just gave me great news…as I was walking over a bed of hot coals.
The gatherings would end. I’d go home, shell shocked, and sleep off the social hangover. Maybe I’d skip out the next year or two. But eventually I’d go back, visit, get asked about my non-existent dating life, receive a tour of confusing electronics and listen to discussions about curtains and football. I’d take it all in, nod, periodically yell “Chicken socks!” and wait out the day.
Ultimately, I can’t tell if being on the autism spectrum makes the holidays seem strange…or if the holidays are strange and being on the spectrum just makes that fact apparent.