When Being Social Destroys You

This is the story of how a recent social event destroyed me.

Photo by Morgan Basham on Unsplash

I think my own unmasking as a voluntary aspect, and an involuntary one. For instance, I voluntarily stim in public, or leave events when I’ve had enough. However, I used to sleep full nights without any issue. I used to be reflux free. Yet, my sleep got progressively worse over the years, and I started getting reflux too. This involuntary unmasking started even before my cancer.

“Oh, but you don’t look autistic!”

If you are autistic, you know how much we love people to tell us that we don’t look the part of the autistic individual. No, we don’t have autistic tattooed on our forehead. Autism is mainly an internal condition that sometimes has an external manifestation. The fact that folks don’t see our internal condition does not make our autism any less troublesome.

Yesterday, I went to a monthly bi brunch. The place we usually went to is unavailable. So this event was held in a location I’m not very fond of. It is essentially a sports bar. As a sports bar, it is most likely a decent location, but I’m not into sports, so I don’t generally go to sports bars.

I had been there once before, for the same event. When I was there, one part of the bar was unusable due to ceiling issues. We ate in a part of the bar that is particularly awful for acoustics. Everything echoed pretty badly. There was also rather loud music playing. I had a hard time engaging in conversations. I vowed never to return, if I could help it.

Last month, the organizers decided to go to the same place. At that time, true to my vow, I decided to skip. I explained my reasoning to other people, but I did not come up with an alternate location. Being autistic, it is not like I tend to go out a lot. Oh, I do go out, but I tend to go to places that I already know.

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This month, I decided to go against my vow and to go again. I do like to see people, so I figured I’d grin and bear it. This time, the area of the bar that had been closed previously was actually opened, and we did eat there. Acoustically, this was a better deal than the other half of the bar. This aspect of the event was better than I had anticipated.

However, the food was still not what I was really looking for. Don’t get me wrong, the food I ordered tasted fine, but this food is fine for a sports bar. Sports bar food is not what I am after. The food, however, is not the only problem I experienced.

During the event, I felt totally fine. One of the organizers kept checking on me from time to time, and every time I answered truthfully that I was doing fine. The event coincided with the local pride parade, so people were asking me if I’d walk in the parade or watch it. I answered no to both questions, while still leaving open the idea that I’d watch it.

In retrospect, I’m bloody glad I did not walk, or even watch the parade. See, I was not fine, but I wouldn’t discover this until after I came back home. I was able to take the subway, and to drive myself from the subway station to my apartment. However, as soon as I entered my apartment, I crashed, hard. I spent the rest of the day fuzzy-headed. I took a 30-minute nap. It was helpful, but not enough.

Now, the day after, I’m trying to figure out what hammered me so much. I was at the brunch for maybe one hour 30 minutes. I’ve been to longer events before. Heck, the same group holds monthly bi board games, and I don’t typically come back hammered from those events. They easily last twice or three times as long as the time I spent at the bi brunch.

My top theory right now is that it is the combination of location, and having to socialize with an entire slew of newcomers that did me in. Some of them had been to the event before, but I had not met them. At any rate, this amounted to the same for me, since they were new to me. We were around 30 folks, if my math is accurate. There were a lot of conversations occurring all around me. My hearing ability is such that I easily get confused when there are too many conversations going all at once.

At first, I thought it was just the sheer number of people that did me in, but I don’t think so. I used to be able to go to conferences with many more people without any trouble. I’ve more recently been at events of easily over 100 people, without crashing afterwards. I think the difference is that at the conferences, and the recent events, I did not have to socialize. So it is having to socialize with so many people in a subpar location that is the problem.

I’ve crashed before like this, but I’ve never previously done a postmortem that takes my autism into account. This is the first time that I link the two. As I mentioned above, there is an involuntary aspect to my unmasking, and perhaps the fact that I have a harder time with social events is part of this involuntary unmasking.

What should I have done differently to avoid crashing? Maybe I shouldn’t have gone at all. For sure, if I had not gone, I wouldn’t have crashed. Still, I like to see people. So what should I have done at the event to avoid crashing. Maybe I should have taken one of the small booths to avoid the crowd. Also, at some point, there was a little voice in my head asking whether I should go back home early. I decided to ignore it, but maybe I should have listened to it.

I felt fine during the event, and I’m sure I appeared mostly fine to other people. This is the irony, if you will, of autism. You appear fine, but your nervous system is in overdrive, trying to process everything happening around you. It is later that you have to pay for the time that your nervous system was in overdrive.

Don’t get me wrong. I was glad to be there, but I’m trying to figure out how to have my fun without paying for it dearly afterwards. Being exhausted like I was after one hour and thirty minutes of socializing is not normal. How can I avoid this cost? That’s what I’m trying to figure out. I know that some of it is on me and my ability to listen to my own needs.

Now, I know that some of my neurodivergent siblings have an even harder time than I do with socializing. When you design events without taking our needs into account, you are effectively excluding us. I know that you are not deciding that autistic people are not welcome. However, through self-selection, autistic people decide to not go, and your community is the poorer for it.

I have an event today too. This one is for autistic people, and it is held in a conference room in a library. It will easily last twice as long as the event yesterday, but I expect to come out of it without crashing.






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