My mom told me a story once that I think about often, especially now. My first real outing in the world was a trip to the mall at around eight weeks old so my parents could buy me a dress for my baptism. I'd only been in the quiet, loving environments of my own home and my grandparents' house before this, and the mall was full of sights and sounds. It was too much for me. By the time we arrived home, I was jittery. My whole infant body was shaking, my eyes wild and unfocused, eyelids fluttering. (I texted my mom to confirm this story while writing this and she responded, "Oh... baby Allison... it took you hours to readjust.")
Another notable meltdown in my personal history also took kicked off at a mall. I was in middle school, and me and my brothers could get treats from the DQ/Orange Julius. For some reason, I decided to order a Mocha MooLatté, a sugar-packed blended coffee drink that tasted incredible. I continued to sip for an hour or so, as we drove to meet up with my aunt to go for a walk on the beach, and soon I felt like I wanted to scream while clawing my own skin off. My hair was in a ponytail and I swatted at it because the sensation of hair on the back of my neck felt like spiders crawling on me. I hung back behind my family, my mind racing. Something was wrong with me, clearly. I concluded that some disorder, latent in my genes all this time, had finally manifested. Both of my brothers had recently been diagnosed with ADD, I reasoned, and now it was my turn for a doctor to say I wasn't normal.
I decided to confide in my mother, a special education teacher. She would know what my symptoms meant. "What are you talking about?" she said. "It's the caffeine in that giant drink you got. You've never had even coffee before. I told your dad he shouldn't have let you order that."
Both anecdotes form the basis for a fun game to play the rest of my life: is it an external factor, or am I just Like This?
At 30 years old, I'm still fairly sensitive to caffeine and overstimulation, and I pay a therapist to address my weekly demands to know why I'm not normal. Research is still ongoing. (I think my star chart could help explain it? I once Googled "do people with big giant eyes take in too much visual stimuli," but from the results, I don't think my face is to blame.)
Intellectually, I know that the real reason for these feelings has nothing to do with whatever the answer is. While it might be helpful to figure out if I have ADD or some other diagnosis, treating it as something that's "wrong with me" is internalized ableism. And yet, knowing this doesn't stop me from comparing myself to people who were able to achieve impressive milestones in their lives, especially during the pandemic, and fixating on what deficiencies have prevented me from doing the same.
I wrote a semi-joking piece at the beginning of the pandemic about how poorly I handle discomfort. I love routine and structure. I need my Burt's Bees in arm's reach at all times. I once sent my college boyfriend a card that said "I love not camping," just as a reminder, because he was outdoorsy and I think camping sounds like hell.
I wrote that piece in April 2020, and 18 months later, I'm still too weak for this.My therapist will remind me that I have done things during the pandemic, like moving apartments and helping my mom clean out my grandpa's house and finding a job and leaving that job and also surviving during a fucking pandemic. But the gag is that We Live In A Society, and none of it feels like enough. I'll see people sharing beautiful mantras and reminders about taking care of yourself in this time, or about how the pressure to succeed is a capitalist nightmare that will grind you to your death, but none of that actually cancels out the shame I feel knowing that I should, by my own standards, be married with a nice house and a career and maybe a master's degree and definitely some creative opus that I could point to and say "Look, y'all, I made something of myself."
This week, I paced around my apartment in despair and frustration. My to-do list included organizing my clothes into the new piece of furniture I'd bought and set up, writing the Friday post, and finding a fucking job, and yet I couldn't bring myself to do any of them. Finally, it occurred to me that I felt extremely tired, so I lay down for a nap. A few hours later, I woke up in a sweat and felt so relieved. My "laziness" was the result of a fever. This was a DQ Coffee Moment, not a Mall Baby Freakout; there was an external factor at play here, not something within my own brain I need to overcome.
I am aware that neither scenario is something I can control, but it's easier to point to an external factor than cope with a weird thing that your brain does against your will. Being a human is bullshit.
I'm trying to stop punishing myself for the way my brain works. I need to remember Nadia Bolz-Weber's circuit breaker metaphor, and I definitely need to limit my Twitter intake. I can allow myself a nap when I need it, even if I don't have a fever. I would PREFER that the government give me money and health coverage and that everyone eligible would just get the damn vaccine so the world could CHILL OUT SLIGHTLY, but in the meantime I do have a really impressive candle collection that can be quite soothing. It is what it is! I'm an overwhelmed baby and the world is a bright, loud mall, and I must keep that in mind and navigate it as best as I can.