David was kind enough to help me break my mental logjam by giving me a writing prompt of sorts, about his experience of discovering happiness during the pandemic through solitude in the woods.
I completely understand that, even though it’s not happening to me now. When I was a kid, my parents lived in a house with a big backyard, including trees I could climb. One of those trees was a mimosa, which when it bloomed was covered in delicate pink fuzzballs that looked like something drawn by Dr. Seuss. I used to climb that tree and stay motionless, sometimes for an hour or more at a time, while the sparrows came and went from branches near my head, and the hummingbirds buzzed up and eyeballed me before settling down to drink. The only happy parts of my childhood were spent in outdoor solitude like that.
Outdoor solitude is not an option for me where we live now. There is a yard and garden area, but it is shared and open amongst the six houses in our little condo complex. Often the other houses are empty — most of them are used as vacation homes — but at minimum there is a caretaker/gardener who lives on-premises and constantly roams about.
I cannot relax around other people. In certain rare circumstances, after years of experience, I can learn to relax around a particular person. Right now in my life, there are only two such people: Jak, whom I live with, and Stacy, who lives several thousand miles away.
One of the concepts that entered my life when I discovered I am autistic is ‘masking’. It’s a compensatory survival mechanism that many autistics, especially women, learn very early in life — the need to conform to a consciously-learned set of rules and behaviors so that one can ‘pass’ as neurotypical. Those rules and expected behaviors seem vast and ever-changing, and a misstep can cause people to recoil and label one ‘weird’, or worse.
The result is a kind of relentless tense self-consciousness. I am lucky to have found a life-partner who accepts me even when the mask slips, so inside my house I am mostly calm (although the giant windows in the main room do sometimes pose a problem). But outside, even the knowledge that the gardener might walk by at any moment leaves my stomach in knots.
All of the above is no different for me from normal, non-pandemic circumstances. The pandemic has thrown a whole extra quirk into things: I’ve developed agoraphobia.
I have been agoraphobic once before, when I lived in New York City in my late twenties. New York is brutal on autistic people, I think. When Greta Thunberg arrived on her boat for the climate summit, she told Trevor Noah, “Everything is so much, so big, so loud.” She stumbled over trying to explain what it was like to wake up in the harbor to the smell of pollution, causing Noah to quip, “That is an accurate and brilliant description of New York: it’s undescribable and it smells.” I feel you, Greta, I really do.
My NYC agoraphobia happened literally almost half my life ago, and I no longer remember exactly how the situation resolved. I know that I didn’t cope well; this was before I had self-diagnosed myself for depression and anxiety (much less autism) and sought out medication, so I had no pharmaceutical help, and my partner at the time was … not as supportive as one might wish.
The emotion, though, I haven’t forgotten. It came roaring back the first time I needed to run errands after being isolated in the house for around two weeks. Just thinking about leaving the house, as I was getting dressed and ready, sent me into a full-blown panic attack, shaking and crying.
I have a comfortable stock of anti-anxiety meds now, which I know would help a lot — but the catch is that I don’t dare drive while on benzos, because they can cause me to microsleep. (I learned this the hard way, some years ago in Seattle, when a moment’s inattention caused me to rear-end another car.) So since Jak would need to drive anyway, there’s been no reason for him not to simply run the errand on his own. And we’ve managed to work out delivery from Walmart and Costco so that most of our basic grocery needs are met without either of us going out.
The result is that it’s been more than three months since I’ve left my house at all. Well, I did walk out into the yard with Jak once to look at a giant orange moon — panicky and upset the whole time, but with Jak there I managed not to completely lose my grip. I have a block on even stepping out to the porch on my own, though. I avoid doing laundry, because I’d have to go outside to hang it (we don’t own a clothes dryer).
Even writing about this, with zero actual intention of stepping through a door, has made my whole body tense up. The idea that Outside Among People Is Dangerous always lurks just below the surface for me, and all it took to bring it to the fore was a little global pandemic. It’s only semi-rational; knowing intellectually that there is absolutely zero chance of catching a virus from walking out to the clotheslines doesn’t seem to make doing so any less difficult.
I probably should take a benzo one day and try hanging a load of laundry on my own, since that doesn’t involve either driving or interacting with people and therefore is technically safe. It might work. I’ll try that next week sometime.
Anything else is more complicated, because not only is covid-19 is a very real risk for me, but my future with regard to the pandemic is bleaker than most people’s: not even a vaccine will lessen the threat. But I’ll explain that on another day.