For me, the mall is a yin-yang of heaven and hell.
On the one hand, there’s so much action and so many choices, sounds, smells, and cool things to look at.
On the other hand, there’s too much action and too many choices, sounds, smells, and cool (and not-so-cool) things to look at.
It might sound kind of fun at first, but it doesn’t take long before I’m overwhelmed and exhausted, my nervous system buzzing with tension, and my desire to retreat growing strong.
Too many people.
Too much acting, pretending.
Before I realized I was an Aspie, it was almost like I was locked into an internal contest of sorts, a “see? I can be ‘normal’, too. I can be just as cool and normal as you are.” I would feel (uncomfortably) like I was center stage, in the spotlight, and very much on the spot. I felt their crosshairs lock onto me. I had to work diligently and constantly to hide the exhaustion, the contempt I often began to feel for the shallow, pretentious, “plastic” types that frequent the mall much more often than I. I would feel the vibes from others start to build inside me (and try as I might, I couldn’t prevent this from happening). I would feel increasingly naked and vulnerable. I would make the trip as all-business as I could and get the hell out as quickly as possible. The entire ordeal would be taxing, grating, energy-sapping, and increasingly irritating.
So, obviously, I don’t go to the mall very often. In fact, I hadn’t been there since just before Christmas.
I found out I was an Aspie almost three months ago now. Doing the math, this means that this was the first time I dared to venture into the snake pit since I discovered my Asperger’s neuro-type.
Knowing what I now knew about myself, I was filled with uncertainty. I wasn’t sure how this was going to play out. I didn’t know how I would handle it. I didn’t know how I would behave or respond.
So, I was simply going to play it by ear.
Our first stop was our chosen department store for socks. I soon realized that had forgotten my cell phone (my usual go-to, draw-inward excuse for not having to interact, and also an excellent preoccupation/distraction tool) in the truck on its charger. My (very understanding) partner offered to go get it for me. I let him know that I didn’t feel the need for it just yet, since our Mall To-Do List was fairly short and straightforward, and our mall visit would be relatively brief.
Then, my partner wanted to consider some walking shoes from another store, necessitating that we venture deeper into the mall and its throngs of people (this is Father’s Day Weekend, mind you). This might take a while.
My partner told me that he was happy to let me go home once we were finished with the department store, while he embarked on his journey for shoes, offering to catch himself a bus back (he can’t drive; I’m the sole driver). I thanked him genuinely for his consideration (I really appreciate it!) and let him know that I was OK for now; let’s see how this goes.
A miracle happened. I felt free to be Me. I let myself Off The Hook. I gave myself permission to be…myself. I did what I needed to do. I behaved how I felt I needed to behave (within reason). This time, I didn’t try to force myself to act, to appear on par with everyone else, but I got in touch with my Inner Spectrum Side and let it roam a little freer. This meant feeling free to stare a lot, mostly at objects that caught my attention. This meant blatantly avoiding eye contact, without even a society-expected attempt to establish it. I played with my hands, interlocking my fingers. I twirled my hair. I gazed with wondering eyes and an empty expression. I didn’t care what anyone thought. I was with my partner and his much-needed and much-appreciated companionship and support.
I decided that I didn’t care if anyone looked at me.
I didn’t care what anyone thought.
I didn’t care if they thought I was a little strange.
I gently reached for his arm and he responded unmistakably, saying in no uncertain terms that he knew what this environment does to me, and offered an open-door policy of sorts on his support. He told me to do what I needed; if I needed to duck into a store out of a crowd or take a break and go outside, that was perfectly fine. If I needed to hold onto him, that was fine, too.
So, I was going to ask for his support when I felt I needed to. And I did; one thing I asked him to do for me was that in any situation where we find salespeople (at the kiosks or in the stores) talking to us, asking us questions, or trying to start conversations with us, that he be the liaison, the Go-To Representative for both of us, the one that speaks for either of us (including conversation directed toward me specifically). He agreed to do exactly that.
It didn’t take long before I started to feel a little “buzzy”, which is my “technical” term for my nervous system getting overstimulated or overwhelmed, a feeling that results from mild-to-moderate anxiety but sets in before that anxiety turns into irritation. When I began to sense this, I let my partner know, and we took preventive measures, one of which was the opportunely-timed discovery of a beautiful light-fixture display in one of the store windows. The store appeared dim and less crowded, even from the outside, so we ducked in.
It was pure heaven. A small store, without very many people. No overhead lighting, just the ambient light emanating from these beautiful, handmade Turkish semi-Tiffany-style lamps. These lamps were made of beads and little stained-glass squares, pieced together perfectly in a mosaic of exquisite color and detail, completely surrounding the refreshingly-old-school-incandescent light bulb inside. I could have stared at each one for an abnormally long time, taking it all in and “patternizing” all of the little pieces in several different ways. And then I noticed the center display of beautiful hand-woven scarves, of excellent weight and quality, and incredibly soft, lovely texture. It was almost intoxicatingly pleasurable to handle them, to feel them on my skin. There was no loud music; the only music playing was some contemporary/modern belly-dance music, softly sourced from a flat-screen TV that showed Middle Eastern cultural images in slide-show form. There were no aggressive commission-based sales tactics; the store was manned by a couple of middle-age Turkish men (as opposed to chatty young women) and they were soft-spoken, polite, and respectful. All-in-all, a calming retreat, and a delightful experience.
Recharged and “reset” after our enjoyable detour, we headed back out into the crowds to conduct the rest of our business. I continued to innocently avoid all conversation, remaining decidedly ignorant to any conversation except that from my partner. I continued to gaze, stare, play with my hands…and my new scarf. I bought one of the scarves at the Turkish store, because not only was it beautiful and well-made, but also because I collect scarves (not voraciously or compulsively, but I’m always on the lookout and I don’t mind accumulating a small collection), and the Bonus Aspect was that it gave me something “female”, “age-appropriate”, and culturally/socially-“acceptable” enough to play with. I think that’s what we call stimming…
In the shoe store, my partner browsed, and I gazed at the displays, taking in all of the shoe styles and colors. That didn’t take long, and I get bored fairly quickly and easily, so I found an unoccupied bench in a lesser-crowded part of the store and pulled out my phone for the first time. I allowed myself to be somewhat consumed by it, since unfortunately (and I can’t seem to help this) families begin to grate on me. To clarify, I’m happy to see happy people and intact, peaceful families out having fun; that’s not the issue. I think what is the issue is that in my momentary glimpses of Father’s Day people-watching out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that although this was supposed to be a day dedicated to dads everywhere, and most families attempt to do something Dad would like to do, very few of the dads actually looked happy or content. I felt a little sorry for those dads…kind of. (Then I remembered that it takes two to create a family.)
After we made our other stops, we made our way back through the mall; I thought I’d take a side-trip into the store of a major higher-quality computer retailer, because I could always preoccupy myself, entertain myself, and “zone out” for a little while. This had been yet another store in which I could socially-acceptably escape and focus on something I liked, with the added bonus that people don’t try to talk much to you, and they wouldn’t expect a long, conversational response. That store left me more disappointed; it’s all about these ridiculous watches now; with their finite retail space, they decided to devote much more of it to the watches than I believe the watches warranted, and in so doing, they had taken a lot of their more practical, useful items off the counters. So that segment of the trip wasn’t as successful or fulfilling.
So, we escaped into the little Turkish store again, for just a few minutes this time, and I was able to recharge and “reset” myself again. Its low-key atmosphere played into all of my senses in just the right way, without “scratching” any of them “raw”. Once I felt like “all was well with my world” inside, we ventured back out for the final stretch back to the truck.
I did a self-check on the way back home, and I verbalized this with my partner. I was amazed–utterly shocked–that I didn’t have that “frayed” feeling that I often feel (kind of like my nerves had been frayed and were raw, chafed, and starting to come apart).
In fact, I was rather calm and “chill”.
In fact, I almost felt like I hadn’t gone to the mall at all!
I realized that in all probability, no one had really seen me. No one had judged me. No one would’ve remembered me anyway. (All of which is perfectly fine with me.)
My partner complimented me, saying (with his under-expressed enthusiasm which he feels much more strongly than he expresses outwardly) that I had done very well and that the event had seemed rather painless for me today.
I thanked him for the acknowledgment and encouragement, as well as his support. I lightly cautioned him (well, both of us) that I might have different ability and tolerance on different days. My threshold might be higher on some days, lower on others. The same applies to my energy levels, my adaptation ability, and just about everything else.
But the Maiden Voyage to the mall is in the books, and so far, my success rate is 1 for 1.