It’s with a profound sense of quiet and calm that I share something with the people who read my hard-to-understand thoughts: I am not doing well. I am utterly anxious and need to address it all the time by engaging in rituals All The Time. I’m mentally unable to get interested in things that used to fascinate me, like the news or even that old standby, music. It’s like my brain can’t focus on anything that requires extensive attention. So for this month’s topic, I want to write about what that anxiety feels like so that parents can have a better understanding of what their children are feeling, especially if they are non-speaking and highly tuned into the sensory streams around them.
My main sensory stream is other people’s emotions. It has always been that way, even as a toddler. NT’s [neurotypicals] can’t really understand the way this appears, so let me give an example. When I was little, I used to go to what my parents called my step-grandparents’ house. (Both sets of natural grandparents lived far away.) They used to throw big dinners and invite lots of fellow Serbians to their house for holiday feasts. Theirs was a smallish condo in Beaverton, and on the ride over from North Portland, I would listen to my parents discussing who would be there, what were the circumstances of the holiday (as it might be a family saint’s day which was new to my mom’s list of cultural events), or remembering previous years;’ gatherings.
My father’s emotions would be excited and relaxed, while my mom’s would be anxious and nervous as she prepared herself for an evening of uncertainty. What I remember most vividly is that she would sort of steer clear of the people who were not very acclimated to American life and use the bathroom a lot! Meanwhile, my dad would just step right in and soak up the familiarity of being among his people. I can still picture him sitting close to my step-grandfather with one arm around his shoulders, engrossed in a story about politics or some local gossip. My parents each had completely different experiences while in the same surroundings.
I guess it’s the same for me, but I am out of sync with everything all the time. I am in a foreign land, and I don’t speak the language very well. I get by with a few key phrases, but culturally, I am lost. From time to time I run into another visitor, and we send each other supportive thoughts. Relying on family members to help navigate was my main source of survival as a child. Now I make some decisions on my own – not a lot, but I’m getting there. But I still feel like an alien most of the time, and it shows in my stress levels and rituals which are the way I cope.
I get a lot of comfort from being in a consistent environment where I am in control. It works to balance out the anxiety which arises from each unknown or unexpected change. But how that anxiety manifests in the time of COVID-19 and wildfires and BLM [Black Lives Matter] is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Somehow it’s a mix of being home like we got snowed in and the mountain passes are blocked and giant groups of bees swarming to find a new hive in the first safe spot they find. I get so backed up that I shut down to time and necessary functions like eating breakfast in the morning instead of at 4:00 pm. No one knows when this combination of stressors will end, but I imagine we will make it through with a better idea of the extent to which we tolerate challenges. I hope we have patience and kindness for each other until then.