How many times have you been told that you don’t pay attention enough, aren’t aware enough of your surroundings, or even worse, that you have your “head in the clouds” all the time? I heard this quite often, especially as a teenager and coming from my absolutely favorite aunt (NOT!). If you remember my post from a while back that talked about EMSs (early maladaptive schemas) and negative core beliefs, you’ll remember that sometimes we form these beliefs based on negative feedback from significant figures in our childhood – parents, relatives (well-meaning or not) and the like. So as a result of her negative comments, I developed a sort of hypervigilance which basically required me to pay attention to everything in my environment. Literally.
You can imagine that for someone on the autism spectrum, this would be downright tiring. And it was. I was constantly scanning my environment for details, dangers, etc., especially when I would move from one environment to the next. It would take me a while to get comfortable when I arrived into a new room, got out of the car and went into the house, and so forth (you don’t want to even know how taxing it is to try to notice EVERYTHING – including passing scenery – when you’re in a moving vehicle as a passenger). When I was in my early twenties, I dispensed of this habit: unfortunately, some events in my mid-twenties reactivated a healthy (again, NOT!) dose of post-traumatic stress disorder that I had mostly gotten rid of with help from my fiancé – the same PTSD I’ve mentioned that I am battling right now. And with the PTSD came the hypervigilance and the environment scanning. The only good thing that has resulted from this is my tendency to store visual details, which I can access later for my writing.
I recognized near the end of last week that this practice was downright exhausting and no longer worth my time, so I decided to stop completely. I decided that I was only going to pay attention to what was important, or what caught my notice. And couple of days later, this new approach paid off.
A Loud-Mouthed Walrus
My fiancé and I were in a local quick-service restaurant, eating breakfast before we commenced running our errands for that day. After we’d ordered and received our food, I picked up the food-laden tray and turned around to carry it to an open booth and found…a female toddler running across my path. I had to stop suddenly to avoid bumping into her or knocking her over. I thought nothing else of it and followed my fiancé, who was carrying our drinks, into the dining area where he’d spotted several empty booths. We sat down and then commenced eating.
Shortly thereafter, we happened to notice the same female toddler running wildly around the restaurant. We found ourselves annoyed at the whole display, but kept trying to eat our breakfast. During the little parade of whirling strawberry blond hair that was doing figure-eights and stumbling across the tile floor, we noticed that she belonged to a young teenager, who herself was eating with a man whom we later learned was her father. Of course, distracted by the bratty parade, we couldn’t help but look in their direction. I turned away and resumed eating. This was about the time that the older man began to issue loud complaints interspersed with plenty of cursing – evidently he thought we were staring at him.
Every now and again, I’d look over in the direction of the brat parade, and then look back at my fiancé and/or my food. The man began to complain LOUDER, even threatening to tell the restaurant manager. This continued on for about fifteen minutes. However, during the whole time, I was not even aware that he was complaining about US. So we kept sitting and eating – and the whole time, I kept wondering exactly who it was that he was complaining ABOUT, dismissing the whole thing as one overly touchy and grouchy man running his mouth.
Finally, he became so loud that I could not stand it, and we were nearly finished eating. I looked at my fiancé and I said, “I will go get a bag for the rest of this stuff, and I suggest we leave – I’m getting tired of the negativity over there.” At this point, I was still not aware that he was complaining about us. I was repelled by the negative vibes from this man, but only very mildly nervous as I rose up from the table and walked over to the counter to ask for a to-go back. Following my fiancé’s suggestion to refrain from looking in the direction of the old man, teen mother, and the brat, I made my way to the counter, asked for the bag, quickly walked back to our booth, and began bagging up our remaining items. After I was finished, we dumped our garbage and left the restaurant.
It was not until we’d exited the door and were walking into the parking lot that I turned to my fiancé and asked, “Was that man talking about us?”
My fiancé said that yes, he was, and that he was angry and upset over the whole affair. “But we weren’t staring at him,” I replied. My fiancé responded that no, we hadn’t been, which launched into a conversation about what a moronic asshole the man had been and our speculation over what could have made him so touchy.
I started to think about this whole incident and realized that the entire time, I’d been oblivious to the fact that the man was complaining about us. I then realized that had I not been oblivious to this fact, I would have likely gotten angry, walked over to the man, and possibly confronted him – which would have yielded potentially disastrous results. So you could say that in this case, my obliviousness saved our hides.
WTF? I can hear some folks out there (including my deceased and least favorite aforementioned aunt) exclaiming. You can’t be serious. But oh yes, I am. I needed proof that my old approach of hypervigilance was not only unnecessary but also a good reason to dispense of said behavior, and oddly enough, this incident provided both. You see, by the fact that I didn’t realize that the man was angry at and complaining about us, I was able to eat breakfast and then act calmly, deciding to pack up and leave what could have been a very nasty situation. So, this flies right in the face of anyone who ever told me that I needed to “get my head out of the clouds” and “pay attention more”.
I don’t think I would say that said obliviousness pays off all of the time, but at least this incident proved to me that I think better without the whole bag of junk I’d been carrying around as a teenager as a result of negative conditioning and PTSD. What I mean by the “bag of junk” is the emotional responses, ego responses, and reptilian brain-type responses that my system would have normally conjured up had I even been aware that the man was complaining about us. My flight-or-fight response did not engage quite so quickly, and I wasn’t frightened of the man or the situation. And I have a feeling that I’m not the only Aspie out there carrying around a “bag of junk” due to childhood bullying, abuse, or other negative events in life.
I am beginning to think that the key would be to manage our responses so that we aren’t overwhelmed by fear, hatred, or other negative emotions that would cloud our judgment when responding to a stressful situation: in essence, turning off the “Oh My God” response that we might feel within us, along with the tightening chest, the quaking nerves, and the lumps in our throats. As I write, I am remembering that some who’ve commented on this blog before have documented that they are able to do just that. An observer might conclude in these situations that we have no feeling, but I would respond to that assertion with two statements: 1) if someone in that situation was to turn his/her feeling on, he/she might become a frightened, paralyzed jellyfish unable to act or think, and 2) I would invite a comparison between Aspies/Auties who do not have significant amounts of trauma/PTSD/etc. versus those of us who do.
Look for more about this subject later, but right now I’m putting this out into the Universe for feedback, comments, and so forth. So, talk to me. What do you think?