526: Tis the Season to Shop: Aspie Style

1. Prepare by getting items out ahead of time.
I find my keys when I am in a non-rushed state. I keep my keys in the same place at home as much as possible, although I am not so regimented in my ways in dealings with my purse. However, abyss-purse-mouth aside, I try to place my keys in my hand before I leave a store, to avoid the stress of searching in the parking lot. And before exiting my vehicle to shop, I take out my ATM card, coupons, tickets, or the like. Take out what I need and put it in my hand or a nearby pocket. I then repeat to myself silently where I am putting the item(s). I do this because regardless of my employed ‘coping mechanisms,’ I still get anxiety in front of strangers, and have found the mere act of reaching into my purse to pull out my wallet and retrieve my ATM, when there is a potential audience, makes me blush and nervous. In the grocery store, I think about the people behind me in line and the person behind the checkout stand, and can’t help but feel their eyes upon me. I know I am not the center of their universe, and not important to them in the slightest degree. But I can’t help but to feel nervous, (if perchance their eyes hover upon me for more than a millisecond). Having what I need out and quickening the checkout process, by even ten seconds, somehow helps to relieve my anxiety. Plus, it’s one less step I have to think about, rehearse, and employ.

2. Ignore the lines. Choose the safest checkout.
I used to examine how many people were in line and choose which line to go through based on the length and potential wait time. I realized, with much exposure, that the length of the line generally means nothing, unless absolutely no one is there. At any moment, short line or not, anyone can have coupons, or need a price-check, or forget something. In addition, I have some weird spidey-sense, in which I am able to choose a short line that inevitably takes longer than all the other lines about. When it comes to shopping, I know I have triggers. Some include loud young children, loud scolding parents, people with extreme body odor, carts loaded with heaps of junk food and ‘garbage’, women with low-cut shirts with much “boobage” hanging out, and male grocery clerks. I am certain I am forgetting a barrel-load of other triggers. I am shy around men. And more shy around younger people than older people. So I generally try to choose an approachable-looking older woman to checkout my groceries. When one is not available, I find I feel most comfortable with a person appearing a bit ‘unique,’ like with nose and lips piercings and scattered tattoos or blue and pink hair. I feel much ‘safer’ around the ‘odd’ person. Perhaps I sense they might get me more than the typical folk, or at minimum not judge some of my odd quirks. And forget about self-checkout. That stuff makes me panic. So many steps and so much to do. Just scanning books in the library in the self-checkout is hard enough for me. And visualizing trying to self-scan in the grocery store makes my heart pump to the tenth degree, every time. I mean I am the girl self-preparing by reducing steps, why would I add a heap more?

3. Shop off hours.
I typically go to shop during mid-morning on a weekday. When I happen into a grocery store during rush hours, such as weekends or early evening, I am usually shocked by the wave of panic and need-to-escape that I experience. I don’t like loud crowds. I don’t like large crowds. And crowded loud aisles where everyone is maneuvering is the worst. I can feel people’s thoughts. I can almost hear their minds raging: Get out of my way! And I start to take on the persona of those around me. I quickly become exhausted and impatient. And I find myself judging how people can be so oblivious and absent. I wonder what I am doing there, and then physical pain sets in. I am the same in rush hour traffic, and forever thankful that is not a part of my daily routine.

4. Make a list and rewrite it again and again.
I like lists. They soothe me. They make errands less stressful. Ironically, in chuckle-fashion, most of the time I lose, forget, or misplace my list. But it was never about the list to begin with. I like to choose certain pens and markers and feel the way they write. I like to look at the words on paper. I like to cross out and highlight and remember things by marking them down. It’s even fun to find old lists and remember back to that day and recall what was a priority then and there. Something about words and lists and sorting is soothing. If I have to shop, I might as well add some self-soothing measures. If I remember the list, that’s a bonus. But even when I do, I often don’t follow it. In the end, a list is just one more task in a very busy-bombarded mind trying to keep up with the following of the subculture of the grocery store.

5. Stim while shopping.
I relax in some stores, when the crowds are not about and the store is clean, and the lights aren’t bothering me, and the music is not excruciatingly painful nor blaring, and the greeters at the front of the store are nice, and the aisles are neat and organized, and the items are well presented, and the heat isn’t too high and the room not too stuffy, and the smells not chemical-filled or musty. Then, when my sensory system isn’t on overload, and all ‘feels’ well, I enjoy myself. In fact, I seek out stores. I go to them several times a week. Not so much to spend money or to even shop, but to escape. Finding patterns, analyzing displays, counting how many of something are left, figuring out where I would put something if I bought it, and largely living in my imagination, are all benefits of a comfortable store. I calm myself by going window shopping and by looking at item after item, in row after row, and then deciding on one tiny thing. Something about stores enables me to relax through the distraction of ‘what ifs.’ It could be a furniture store or antique store or anything really, where multiple items are on display. My mind naturally itemizes and categorizes, fixes and organizes, counters and projects, creates and elaborates, and being in a place with many ‘new’ things enables my mind to feed. Yes, it’s a feeding of sorts. Akin to a vampire requiring blood: My mind requires newness.

6. And regarding the capitalistic ritual of Black Friday in America, a cultural tradition that has seeped out of its Friday boundary into the bordering days, past and present, no way. Not going. Not understanding the need nor the hype nor the want. Feeling sorry for the workers. Feeling sorry for society. And wishing we lived in a place where people lined up like that to feed the hungry. Enough said.

Day 220: I Gotta Be Me

My ten-year-old son made his way towards the aisle lined with big, bulky twenty-dollar televisions. “Those are ancient,” he commented. “Yes, they are,” I answered.

We were at Goodwill, a national chain that sells used items. After twenty minutes of strolling together, looking at various treasures and collecting a few homeschool materials, I had explained to my son, amongst other things, the complexity of college statistic textbooks and why he might not be interested in purchasing one today, the perplexity of eight-track tapes and how they don’t sell new players any longer, the oddness of bowl-shaped old hair dryers that went atop the head, and the sad reality that this store didn’t have used goldfish.

As we wrapped up our mini-excursion, and the mini-lessons, we stood in line to make our purchase. Seeing us there, a fellow lady customer, standing in front of us in the checkout line, motioned to our mostly empty cart, and said, “Please, go first. You don’t have much.”

I smiled and replied, ” Thank you. I do that, too, let people go in front of me. That was kind.”

As she backed up her cart and we swapped places, I noted there was a Starbuck’s coffee cup in her cart. I don’t normally drink coffee. It turns me into a very dynamic thinker who believes she can solve all the world problems, if given an hour. In fact, during my walk today, around the lake, I think I completed three blog articles in my head. As today, I had coffee.

At the store, I turned to the young lady, motioned to her coffee cup in the front of her cart, and said, “I left my Starbucks in the car. I can’t wait to get back to it.”

As soon as the words left my mouth, I felt like a goof. I always feel like a goof when thoughts quickly brew and percolate in my mind, and spit themselves out before I have time to stop them.

After I blushed, this kind customer, a woman about half my age (say twelve), began a full-blown monologue that sounded something to the tune of:

“I thought about leaving my coffee in the car. But I didn’t. I brought it in. It’s the same coffee I always get. I don’t know why I always get the same flavor, white mocha, but I do. It’s silly, but I always get the same. Maybe I should try more variety. I was going to leave the coffee in the car. I was. I wasn’t sure I should bring it into the store, but then I thought, what if I die. I mean, what if I drop dead, and the last thing I think is: I should have brought my coffee. I mean if you’re going to die, you might as well have had coffee first. Who knows. This could be my last day. My last hour. And here I’d be dying without my coffee. And with the way my life’s been going lately—lots of personal crisis and stuff, that just makes me upset. Well, this coffee is a real treat. If you know what I mean. I need to treat myself, now, more than ever. Plus, I’m anemic, and I get so cold. That’s why I’m wearing this. (Motions to two or three layers she’s wearing, and the high neckline of her cotton sweater.) I must look pretty silly wearing this in the summer. But my anemia, it makes me very cold. I shiver sometimes. I have to dress this way. That’s why I’m shopping. This cart had my whole fall wardrobe. Can you believe it? The whole season, right here.”

When she was finished, she grinned wider. At first I was speechless, as I watched my son’s eyes grow from super large and then shrink back to normal size. But I was certain to politely validated the lady, before I set out to pay for my few items.

Hours later, I keep smiling knowingly to myself as I visualize the woman with the mulit-layers and white-mocha coffee. I keep hearing her words in my head, seeing her cart full of clothes, and watching her weave her story.

I can’t help but think that my big guy in the sky (multiple gods, or woman or tree or void, depending on your beliefs) is smiling down with a wink and saying, “See how grand it is to be quirky! See how grand to be you!”

I can’t help but here the phrase I gotta be me resonating in my mind.

I can’t help but chuckle in delight.

I can’t help but like myself a little better.

And as a bizarre-o side note, I do have this rare superpower. I can tell when white paper cups with lids are empty.  Amazing, I know.  When I’m watching a movie or sitcom, when the actors are drinking from paper coffee cups, I can tell they don’t often have a full cup. And I can tell when people in real life have hardly anything left in their cup. It’s true! I haven’t figured out how to use this rare, and now probably sought after, superpower. But stay tuned. I’m sure to find out soon! I just hope no one tries to steal my superpower from my amazing mega brain!

Day 216: Let the Grumpy Lady Pass

Let the Grumpy Lady Pass

“Guess what happens if you eat a raw snail? They have a parasite that goes into your brain and eats it. And our brain is not prepared for snail parasite. And you can’t defend it. It’s pretty much if you eat a raw snail, it’s all up to the snail if you live or die. If the snail has the parasite, you die!”

I am looking at snails with new eyes now, since my son’s enlightening comment on parasites. I have also reassured myself over and over that the chances are null that I will accidentally eat a raw snail and die from parasites eating my brain away.

Words are powerful, how they can alter the way you once viewed a person, place, or thing….even snails. Words can change the course of a life, too. Certainly happened for me. Just yesterday, in fact.

It was early afternoon, and I was strolling down the aisle in my favorite grocery store, when I spotted a blonde mother with five children. The oldest of her children, a young girl, was carrying her plump baby sister. The other three youngsters were little tots, all boys, ranging in height by a couple of inches from the next.

I stared, because that’s what I do when I’m processing. And about a dozen thoughts traveled through my mind all at once. I examined the mom’s facial expression, and instantly wondered if she was happy or frustrated with the shopping excursion. I noticed two of the boys had little shopping carts and that as a collective clan the family had barely gathered any groceries—just a couple bags of snack food. I evaluated and reevaluated, concluding that the mother enjoyed the attention of onlookers watching her shop with her little crew of miniature hers. In fact, I am quite certain she liked the attention. There were several of us shoppers trying to maneuver around the cute little ones, a line of about five or six of us squeezing our way down the aisle.

I was still watching and evaluating as I crept my cart forward. When I was near the mom, she eyed me closely. Then she turned to her troop and said, “Wait,” putting her arms back in stern gesture, “Let the grumpy lady pass.”

Immediately my right eyebrow shot up. Had she meant me? I was fairly certain she had. I rolled my eyes up and gave a quizzical expression, and then moved onward. A few steps ahead, I stopped to retrieve a can off the shelf. I noticed another lady standing close behind me. Feeling extremely self-conscious, and a bit flustered, I said, “Oh, I am sorry, if I am in your way.” She said, “No problem at all. But maybe you can help me find the artichokes.” I did. We scanned together, and I pointed them out with my over extended finger, while smiling big and glancing the direction of the meanie mom, as if to say, “See, how cheerfully helpful I am!”

Five aisles later, and I couldn’t get the meanie mom out of my mind. Was my expression seriously that sour? For a moment, I wished I was an always-smiling golden retriever.

By the time I reached the last aisle, my thoughts were still wrapped around the incident. By then, I had rationalized that the meanie mom wasn’t a very patient woman, and certainly wasn’t showing an effective example of behavior to her children. But I also reckoned she likely was juggling a full plate and was having a tough day. I also decided, with a mischievous little smile, that her husband, if she still had one, probably didn’t like her.

At the checkout area, I found the safest checker I could—a round-faced, middle-aged woman with a friendly natural grin. At the end of any shopping excursion I don’t look for the shortest checkout lines, I look for the least-threatening face. Typically, I chat it up with the grocery checkers as they are scanning my items. Conversation helps the time go faster, and alleviates some of my anxiety. Not much makes me more self-conscious than a line of strangers watching me; especially when they are waiting with those daunting expressions, seemingly cursing my high-piled grocery cart and wishing they’d chosen another route.

“I hope I don’t look grumpy,” I said, as I approached the checker and eyed the nametag Marge on a purple blouse. (Interesting conversation starter, don’t you think?)

I then explained, with rapid fire, what had happened on the aisle with the meanie mother. Marge smiled and responded kindly, and we bagged the groceries together. I told her about my Aspergers, and the man at the park who gave me his number as a result of my practice smiling, and she told me about her grown son with Aspergers. Turns out she homeschooled her son. He is now twenty and doing very well. We exchanged a lot of information and support in only a few minutes. I dodged the evil glares from the people in line. We were packing up the groceries rather slowly.

As Marge was bagging up the last of the food, she looked up at me, and said, “The main reason I homeschooled my son was because when he went to school he had to become someone else. He couldn’t go to school and be himself and still be accepted. He had to let go of who he was. God made my son in perfection. I wanted my son to be able to be who God intended.”

A bell went off in my head right then. My middle son was struggling in middle school even though  he was attending part-time. His anxiety was very high and depression was setting in.

I decided then and there to not send my son back to school and to instead homeschool him fulltime.

Later that day, as I calculated the probability of choosing the one checker out of a few dozen that so happened to have homeschooled a son with Aspergers, and as I processed that typically I would have not mentioned my Aspergers to a checker at a grocery store (had I not been upset), I smiled to myself about that mother and her five string of words that had changed the course of my life: Let the grumpy lady pass.

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