By Wendi E. Powers
My parents, brothers, and nieces live where I was born and raised in Florida. I left Florida in 1988 after an extremely abusive (and thankfully short) marriage. My new home in Tennessee offered the distance needed for healing to begin.
For several years, I was unable to step foot back in that state. When I was finally able to return (complete with a showdown with the ex, one that I won), I would not stay more than a few days. Part of it was fear that the ex would keep his horrendous threats of violent revenge, but there were other issues as well. And while I deeply loved my Florida family, I needed emotional safety even more. Last week I returned from a five-day visit. It is a yearly visit I determined to do once I was able to attend college. Twenty years later, I still take my annual spring break.
It was good to see the folks and play in the sand with my brother: reminding us both of those sunny days when we dug fire-pits and blew up miniature Nazi Army men using my chemistry set- something I am certain my mother had no idea we were doing. We swung by the old church/school and talked with the newest pastor about the ever-dwindling congregation, which was down to less than a quarter the number of parishioners from our day. Considering our numbers were less than two-hundred at its peak, it almost felt like visiting an elderly neighbor whose face aged ten years for every yearly stop-in.
Everything changes. And THAT is a big problem for those of us on the Autism Spectrum…as you are most likely well aware. The fact that emotional pain can cause physical pain is well documented even in Scientific American 2010:
People have told me that ‘everyone’ hates change, and ‘everyone’ feels sad when visiting people and places altered by the cruel sands-of-time. These statements made me feel ashamed that I was not as brave or strong as ‘everyone’ else who could cowboy-up to visit relatives. Former co-workers wielding iPhones dripping with virtually limitless footage of aunts, uncles, old-school classmates, trips to amusement parks visited when a child and re-visited as an adult, smiled and cheerfully talked about their spring vacations. Me? I had a tendency to slink away from work for a week and return with the hope that no-one questioned my absence (or my curious lack of photographic evidence.) If ‘everyone’ felt the way I did, how could they stand the pain of looking at the proof of time’s destructive personality?
As an autistic individual, I have never appreciated change. If something was working, there was no reason to make any alterations. My ideal universe was one of efficiently static perfection. Sure, as a child my arrangement of shells by color and size brought me great joy. The fact that removing pebbles from the beach was initiating a change did not bother me until I was well into my teen years. As an adult, bosses tried to convince me workplace changes were a chance to celebrate learning something new. Bull do-do on that! My brain ran like a Kentucky Derby winner on Red Bull when it knew what to do. But saddle me up with anything other than what I understood, and you might as well put me to pasture. The mental strain of trying to unlearn what I already knew, and then relearn the thing in a slightly altered way, caused my chest to burn. No kidding. I actually went to the ER once thinking I was having a massive coronary after the boss decided to change my work hours by 30 min.
Visits back to the homestead can be just as physically painful. Logically, I know my family members will have aged a year. I also know they will see I have aged. The count of my gray hairs tends to increase proportionately to my girth. But I know my eyes will train themselves on the structural changes experienced by all dwellings as they age along with their inhabitants: the cracks in the bathroom tile will be just a little longer, water faucets might have an extra drip or two per minute, and the number of feathers on dad’s old stuffed parrot is sure to be suspiciously reduced. You get the idea.
Watching family members age is a difficult thing for anyone. Not only are we reminded of our own mortality, but we are reminded of our weakness in keeping pain away from those we love. “Getting old is not for wimps!” as my best friend likes to remind me. Watching others grow old is also not for wimps, IMHO. My autistic brain already tends to overthink every possible scenario given any situation. But considering the current cost of medical attention, the burden of healthcare (at least in the USA) leaves many folks without adequate preventative care. For example, my younger brother, who has worked his whole life in food service, does not have dental care. When a tooth finally presents a problem, the most he can afford is to get it pulled rather than filled or crowned. And while I (along with millions of other people) would like nothing more than to pay for the healthcare of our family members, we are just not able to afford it. Staying in good health is a luxury for too many people. And that makes me feel sad, depressed, and ashamed at myself for being unable to “fix” them. Watching my family members age without proper healthcare physically hurts me.
With every visit, all of these changes become overwhelmingly apparent. Planning my yearly spring trip results in a mild depression. Afterward, the second wave of depression hits. So one might wonder why I go down there at all since it hurts so much? The answer is because I love them. They will always be my family. And, even though the trip is fraught with emotional splinters due to those uncontrollable changes, a few of the changes are surprisingly pleasant!
Growing up, my teen years were somewhat boring. My parents had moved us to the country in an effort to keep us out of trouble. While it is true that our one hundred student K-12 Christian school failed to produce drug-lords, mobsters, or other sinfully fun personalities, the students managed to raise the dander on our pastor/principal a few times by holding clandestine dance parties. Unfortunately, my lack of social graces resulted in very few invitations. The result of this situation was a 16 yr young kid who found fun by playing “Dukes of Hazard” with the family car (a 302 V-8 Boss Mercury Monarch – thank you very much). Because all the roads within about 20 miles were soft-sand, drifting and other insane maneuvers were mastered by yours truly after a few short months. The only problem with all of that was my teen brain did not understand that the family car was structurally very different from the stunt cars shown on TV. It was not long until a failed universal joint ended my short career as a terrorizer of the road.
Several years after leaving home, the roads were finally paved. Along with paving, the county added numerous stop signs. Because I gave myself the nervous shakes every time I recalled my own driving insanity of those glory days, I was a bit delighted seeing those two changes. Better late than never!
Along with improved roads came a population boom. The growth in humanity resulted in new businesses, restaurants, and even a hospital right down the road. Growing up, it took about 30 minutes to reach the closest McDonalds. Considering the bothersome thoughts I periodically have worrying about my family out driving around with teens who are as crazy as I was when I was that age, I am relieved to know they are close to almost anything they need. That is another wonderful change.
I suppose the changes must balance themselves out when it is all said and done. The emotional pain of those spring break trips is now almost like a sunburn. It hurts at the time, but the memories make it all worthwhile. Anyway, that is what I did on my spring break!
Born in Florida, I spent my childhood being bullied for reasons I did not understand. Autism spectrum disorders were unknown to my family or teachers. Taking everything literally, unable to read facial expressions, and emotional ruptures, resulted in being an outcast.
Today, art therapy provides me with a way to share my experiences and emotions with the outside world.
Digital art by Wendi Powers