“Whether you enjoy the event or not, the social hangover is inevitable”
By Catherine Londero
I am Autistic, have ADHD, and I enjoy social events. There is a common misconception that Autistic people avoid social events because we don’t enjoy them. What I don’t enjoy is the impact on my mind and body from attending them. This impact is called a social hangover. It is the feeling of sheer exhaustion and depleted resources that neurodivergent people experience after attending a social gathering.
Masking to hide my neurodivergent traits
A single social interaction can lead to tiredness and feeling drained but it takes a social event to trigger a social hangover. One of the main reasons for this is having to mask. I mask in front of others to hide my divergent traits and as an attempt to fit into neurotypical society. It is not good for my mental health but nor is a lack of acceptance for my true self. Masking is a defence mechanism.
It becomes especially hard to manage the mask when I am spending time with several other people. I have different masks for each individual. This means that seeing them all together makes it very complicated as I try to switch my mask with each conversation I have. I am working on removing my social mask, but it takes practice with each person. Seeing a few people at once means my default defence mechanism goes back up.
An enjoyable morning
When deciding if I will attend something, I have to feel there is value in it for me. I prefer to be with people I know well; old friends and family. I might enjoy an event with people who I connect with but I rarely take the risk. My recent experience highlights this nicely.
I had a lovely morning out with friends the other week. It was the first time we had got together in months and we were all there with our partners and children. During the morning, I felt great. We found the perfect spot for a picnic. The kids played nicely, leaving the adults to casually eat and catch up.
As soon as I got into the car to head home, my brain felt like it would explode out of its skull. A headache so bad it affected my speech and no amount of water or medication could soothe it. I knew I would be stuck like this for at least three days and possibly more. There is also a risk of getting a cold during that time, as my resources are low, and that means feeling unwell for two weeks at least.
A hangover without the nausea
I would definitely compare the impact of a social event to a hangover but without the nausea. I get a very bad head and often have pain around my neck. I feel shivery and then too hot. I crave sugary and stodgy foods and just want to lie in bed. The difference being social hangovers last much longer.
It not only affects me physically but mentally too. I feel on edge and struggle to focus my thoughts (even more than usual). This then leads to paranoia, as I know I am not in full control of my faculties. Then the unhelpful “what ifs” sneak in.
The fun I have cannot reduce the hangover
As my story shows, a good social experience will still lead to a social hangover. Unfortunately, it cannot be reduced by how much fun I have. However, a bad social experience can seriously impact the severity of the hangover. By this, I mean one which puts me under strain to hide my true neurodivergent self, or worse still where someone insults or offends me. It then becomes part of the hangover that I go over and over what was said and how I wished I reacted if only I could have processed it sooner.
This is another factor which makes social events exhausting, my processing time can be slow. I might be able to make unique connections at lightning speed but when it comes to social interaction, there is a delay.
I have found myself waking in the night, after a social event, and realising someone offended me and I didn’t say a thing. I then agonise over that conversation, trying to grasp the key information to work out how to resolve it in my own head. I can’t resolve it of course; I am just left with the gut-wrenching feelings of hurt, not even sure what the true cause was.
All about balance
So how do I handle this conflict? I want to do something but it causes me pain. It is a case of balancing it out. I have to be completely truthful when doing this otherwise it won’t work. I don’t have to share it with anyone but it is important that I am honest with myself about how the people I am meeting have affected me in the past. Are they sympathetic to my needs or is there a chance of a sly dig amongst the niceties?
Now I understand why I feel this way after social events, I put some boundaries and rules in place to lessen the impact. Any event that I know will cause me a social hangover needs to stand alone, leaving at least two weeks either side with very few plans. These timings depend on the event but I have found this a good balance and allows me enough time to recover.
Events to avoid
There are some events that include a combination of challenges that are simply just too much. The hangover would be so damaging it could last weeks and in that time you are vulnerable. It just isn’t worth it.
These types of events will have one or more of the following characteristics:
• Lack of detail
• Don’t know the host/organizers well
• The organizers don’t know you are autistic and/or you don’t want them to
• Lots of people attending that you haven’t met
• A host/organizer who is not supportive of making allowances for your Autism
If I have been invited to an event which features anything on this list, what do I do? Avoid, avoid, avoid!
Putting my own needs first
The biggest hurdle I had to overcome to make these decisions was to accept I might offend someone by declining their invitation. It is not offensive to decline an invitation if attending would cause you pain. You could even go a step further and say it is offensive to you that someone, if they know your situation, would even expect you to go.
I am very thankful to have friends and family who are very supportive. Before we decided on the picnic with my friends, a mid-week dinner in London was suggested. I told them that is not something I felt comfortable with and they came up with an alternative.
These are friends that have known me for 20 years. Even though my diagnosis only came recently, they accepted me for who I was from the moment we became friends. They didn’t question my struggles praise me for my gifts. That is the key. Neurodivergent people have gifts and if you can find friends who support that and accept your challenges then meeting them once in a while is worth the hangover (only just though!)
Putting myself first for my kids
Since becoming a mum I have become much stricter with how I spend my time. I have to be well enough to look after my children. A social hangover (possibly in the guise of an actual hangover) in my 20s was easier to overcome as I could rest up completely without having to think of anyone else. This isn’t an option anymore and I actually thank my kids for that. They ensure that I actually put myself first and value my own experience. I am no longer willing to struggle in silence and bow down to pressure just because someone wants me to make up the numbers at their social event. True friends will make allowances and understand if sometimes that isn’t enough for you to be able to attend.
No need to explain yourself
Since learning I am Autistic, I have become much more aware of why I struggle with certain tasks. This has given me the confidence to avoid these situations. Ultimately, so long as the person I am dealing with knows I am Autistic, there is no further explanation needed. If they want more then I point them in the direction of online resources so they can understand in their own way. It is not my responsibility to explain my Autism to them. If someone has read up about it and then has some specific questions for me and I feel it is coming from an empathetic place then I am happy to have that conversation.
Before I knew I was Autistic, I used to feel exhausted after a social event. I put it down to being run down and could never quite understand why it happened every time. Now I do know I am Autistic and that I get social hangovers, I can put things in place to minimise the hangover and avoid situations where the negative of the hangover completely outweighs the positive from the social experience. I recommend anyone else going through the same to work towards this balance, you deserve it.
I am an Autistic/ADHDer who writes children’s stories. I was recently diagnosed with Autism at the age of 39! I am a proud mum to two boys, aged 5 and 2. They are my inspiration and the reason I started writing children’s stories. I create neurodivergent main characters and use my stories to show children that they are perfect as they are, even if they feel different.
Through my blogs, I want to help raise awareness about neurodiversity and how it can affect so many people who don’t even know it applies to them. I have faced many challenges through being undiagnosed Autistic and if more people understand what to look for, then children can get support much sooner.