I love my routine. If someone told me, “You have three weeks to go wherever and do whatever brings you joy,” I would roll those three weeks up into a measuring tape, and dole it out day-by-day, happily following my routine, no unexpected surprises, no deviations.
My day, when I am able to follow my routine, is a chocolate confection, each activity a small square that I savor as it melts in my mouth. I have already set and labeled alarms to help me move from task to task and I feel fluid, strong. I am productive and calm and blissful.
When there is any change, whether it is sleeping an extra ten minutes or talking on the phone, everything halts. That chocolate confection transforms into a thick mud, and I become stuck, sinking the more I struggle. The day is no longer broken up into sweet, luscious bites of chocolate; instead, it is a slick white wall. I can’t climb that terrifying wall. It is too slippery and too tall.
Plus, I am covered in mud, which has no good traction.
Everything is ruined, I think, and try to salvage some part of my routine. I always get some writing in, though later I just have to accept the damage and hibernate in my bed, watching episode after episode of “Frasier”. Then I reset by strictly adhering to my night routine, which sets me up to start anew the next day.
Change is so hard. It is rainfall on a holey roof.
It can be a light sprinkle, like a neighbor talking to me for several minutes on my carefully timed walk with my dog, Reko. It is brief and there is a chance to recover if I move quickly through the next activity.
It can be a shower that lasts for a day, such as when I stop by the grocery store for fifteen minutes on my way home from boxing or when the tree trimmer works in our yard, even though I never interact with him at all. I fall behind and just can’t ever really catch up. Mud. White wall.
It can be a heavy rain that takes days for the ground to dry and for me to recover. This is what it is like when the plumber comes to work inside the house or when we have a dinner guest. I don’t like my things to be touched and I am very territorial about my sanctuary, so at this point, it’s not just my schedule that is being affected. My sense of security and comfort are threatened, as well.
It can be a thunderstorm. That is when we have a guest stays overnight.
There can be some flooding, which requires special care. Things that are important to me are not important to other people, so I will have to spend at least one or two days after they leave cleaning and organizing so my home has order again. People lean against my cooking surfaces with their outside-clothes; they open cabinets looking for extra towels; they stomp through the house in their shoes; they close the toilet lid; they push the sofa out of the way to reach an outlet; they try to pet Reko and Ladu with their feet. They touch my stuff. Not only is my routine affected, but I am also exhausted from resetting my system.
Change can be a monsoon. For me, with Christmas comes a monsoon season. And Christmas 2017 was one of the heaviest of them all.
It began as a drizzle. In October, we found out that none of the petsitters who had stayed at our house in the past would be available over Christmas, so the company we used assigned us a new one. We were sent a link to her biography and asked to schedule a meet-and-greet. It went from cloudy (just having to arrange a petsitter makes the sun go away) to raining in a split second.
They had already sent us two new petsitters in the past ten months. I eat the same sandwich every single day. Those two statements do not complement each other. Plus I couldn’t schedule the meet-and-greet until after mid-December because that was when friends were driving from out-of-state to leave their dog with us while they traveled abroad. The petsitter needed to meet all the dogs she was watching. I had two months to think about this white wall of a person, this mannequin, to study her internet presence, to prepare for her visit, to be tied to a train track watching that headlamp bear down on me.
The petsitter became the symbol of how everything was going to be different soon.
Change is so hard.
Then, in mid-December, it suddenly became a deluge. First, the friends brought their dog to our home. They stayed overnight. Their sweet dog, Lilac, is part of our pack. But the humans … it doesn’t matter who it is, I struggle with guests. I want them to be like dolls so I can pose them how I want them, around the dining room table or on the couches, tiny little tea cups and saucers on the coffee table, and still feel safe.
The day after our friends left (and I cleaned, organized, and reset), the pet sitter visited. She was like a yellow slicker: practical, efficient, and no-frills. She immediately favored Lilac’s gentle pawing and repeatedly stated that Reko and Ladu played more roughly because they were boys. She pet them all, paid attention to my instructions, and seemed competent. After she left, Adrian and I stared at each other. I ventured, “What do you think?”
He said, grinning, “Man, she is going to have a hard time.”
What?! My anxiety catapulted into panic. “Well, maybe I should try to find someone else. I, too, am worried about the dogs. I want them to be safe.”
Adrian furrowed his brow. “I meant, she is going to have a hard time with our remote controls. Did you see how she didn’t even want to pick them up?”
The remotes? Although she was no longer a mannequin to me, I still wanted her to be a doll, albeit one who would love my dogs and sea creatures, feed them, snuggle them, and keep them safe. Remote controls did not factor into this. Dolls don’t watch television.
And thus began the treacherous mudslide of catastrophic thinking. Monsoon season had begun.
Change is so hard.
Over the next four days, which, in retrospect, seem to have lasted about three weeks, I slowly became more rigid, as though my very bones and soft tissue were permineralizing and I was becoming a fossil. I worked on my book and ate my everyday food and sat very still, mute. When I could speak, it was with small mouth movements and monosyllables. The future became the white wall, extending in all directions. The mud became a tar pit, and I was sinking, sinking, sinking.
Any minor observation by Adrian picked me up and threw me across the room, my body slamming against a wall, flopping onto the ground, where I lay, helpless. A simple, “that board on the deck is warping” sent an avalanche of fears through my head: Ladu’s little paw getting stuck between the wood planks, an animal pushing up from under the deck to prey on the boys, the petsitter twisting her ankle.
I would say, “do you think you would have time to fix it before we leave?” as that surge of terrible images flowed through my brain. This was a deck still under-construction, as I had already explained to the petsitter. The dogs ignored it in favor of a veranda that was equipped with dog beds and couches.
Adrian would answer, “I’ll try, but if not, I will do it when we return.”
When we return? Didn’t Adrian know that this was it? There was no “when we return”. There was now and a blank wall. I would stare at him, silent, until he grew uncomfortable. I was not angry; I was thinking and concentrating on my thinking.
There was a voice inside that tried to soothe me, to remind me that this was just my catastrophic thinking, and then that white wall would loom and I began to leave little notes around the house for the petsitter. “Please do not run dryer unless you are home and awake” and “Please do not leave aquarium lights on when you leave.” I made Adrian leave notes for the remotes and the devices to which they were connected. I began adding to the instructions binder, including detailed characterizations of Reko’s, Ladu’s, and Lilac’s personalities. I described their appearances.
Change is so hard.
And then the fifth day arrived and with it a plane flight. The deluge became a torrent. I do not travel well on airplanes. I often have silent meltdowns, tears pouring down my face like raindrops on a windowpane. I wear noise-cancellation headphones and a hoodie and notice every single ping and pop that picks my body up and throws me against the fuselage. Plus, the pet sitter. Plus, the flight back.
The night before we left, Adrian and I watched our favorite show together, sticking to our weekend routine. I was so stiff and everything stung my body, as though struck by sleet . Finally, I said, “I am a monster. I am impossible to live with. No matter how hard I try, I am not okay.”
Adrian said, “What can I do to make it easier for you?”
I cried, “Aside from staying home, nothing would make it easier.”
Adrian averted his eyes from me and said, “If you want to stay home …”
“It’s not about wanting to stay home,” I wailed. “I was just answering your question. Nothing will make it easier. I just have to deal.” I sobbed and sobbed. “Please know that I love your family and I want to see them. I just don’t do well with change. Too many changes. Nothing will make it easier.”
But, I think I may have been wrong about that.
That downpour continued during our four day trip to visit his family. Once again, my life was moving from one activity to the next. Only now, instead of being at home with my beloved routine, I was at my mother-in-law’s, pacing in front of that white wall. I would wait for the breakfast email from the petsitter, hearing my phone ting its notification. Received! Time to wait for the lunch email. Got it! On to the wait for the dinner email. And so on, for four days.
There was also the plane flight back bookending the completion of our visit. It just sat there, waiting, like a giant taloned bird, unheeding of the water cascading over feathers, down hooked beak, puddling around raptorial feet.
And then the taxi home from the airport. Breathe.
And then the dogs rushing at us. Breathe.
And then walking through our rooms, savoring it all: the sunset, the assuaging nudging of paws on the backs of our knees, our stuff, my stuff, me. I even enjoyed the resetting routine, inviting Adrian in to my process for the first time in all of our years together.
There is that with my recent awareness of my autism — the unmasking for my husband, rediscovering each other, emotional intimacy.
Change is so hard.
How may I have been wrong about nothing making it easier?
- What if I paid for the petsitter to visit while we are in town? To spend an hour with the dogs and really learn their routine?
- What if next time we declined to sit for our friends’ dog when we, too, are going out-of-town?
- Instead of internalizing it, what if I talked through my catastrophic thinking with Adrian?
- What if I saw my therapist more frequently in December?
Change is so hard and I am still recovering from Christmas 2017. I guess I thought that knowing that I am autistic would mean that I can automatically handle all of the things that had previously challenged me. But those challenges are still there and, like everything else, they require work.
I think change is always going to be hard for me, but that doesn’t mean I will not be able to find ways to manage it better. Just like inflatable armbands for beginner swimmers, I will find the water wings that will help me float the next time it floods. That way, I can drift on my back alongside that sleek, insurmountable wall, instead of trying to scale it. I will bob up and down and keep an eye out for rainbows, the ones with pots of chocolate at the end.