As I wrote in another post a while back, sometimes it hits me. And this morning it really, really hit me.
And I did something I’ve never done before.
Since my official diagnosis, exactly two months ago today, I’ve been – as usual – in numerous situations at work where I’ve been required to ‘network’. Communicate fluidly, fluently, and with facility. Be my best interacting self.
Two weeks ago, I was away at a conference for three days. I networked furiously, contributed to discussions, tweeted insightful nuggets of wisdom against the official conference hashtag from my professional Twitter account, drank wine, danced my ass off at the gala dinner, and successfully co-presented a workshop session (I have no qualms about teaching, presentations, public speaking or the like. I very rarely even get nervous. I’m usually well-prepared, and I’m usually the expert). It wasn’t until the train journey home that I mentioned to anyone that I was autistic.
(That ushered in a fascinating in-depth exchange, lasting the entire journey, with the fellow delegate I was travelling with. But that’s an aside.)
My department colleagues all know. They’re supportive. They were making ‘reasonable adjustments’ for my needs before I’d even got a diagnosis; before my ‘problem’ even had a name. When I did announce my label, it was all cool.
But today, I entered new territory.
A three-hour-long planning workshop. People from four different departments. A small room for the size of the group. Hot, stifling, crowded, and cramped. A packed schedule of group discussions, with activities planned to keep us busy even throughout the coffee break. Fluorescent lights. Construction noise outside. Some machine or other outside that occasionally issued an irritating high pitched “beep!”. Occasional moments where I was put in the spot to answer questions about services delivered by colleagues in my team about which I had limited knowledge.
And all of this when I was tired from being a parent of small children, from limited sleep, and from the fact that this time of year is kinda busy for me at work. My brain already works overtime, every day. And right now there’s overtime on top of the overtime.
For most of the morning, I managed. But gradually, my anxiety levels built up. I knew I had only a short window to do another piece of work before I’d be in another meeting all afternoon. I was frantically trying to interact with these colleagues whom I hardly knew, worried about how I might be coming across, whether my mannerisms were odd, whether I was being too controlling, or too awkward.
And all the time, getting hotter and hotter, more and more uncomfortable, more and more overwhelmed. I could feel the tears starting to build up; not quite yet breaking through.
And half an hour before the end of the workshop, I said it. To the people on my table. Colleagues, but ones whom I hardly knew.
“I’m really sorry. I’m autistic, and I’m starting to get overloaded. I think I’m going to have to leave now.”
There. The first time I’d been up front to people beyond my immediate team, and in the immediate context of a particular work situation.
I wish I hadn’t felt the need to utter the word “sorry”. I still couldn’t help being embarrassed. I hope that’s something that I eventually learn to get over. But I felt I had to be honest. Why make up a lie – or a euphemistic, veiled reason for leaving? Better this than bursting into tears.
I’m not sure what they’ll have made of it. One of the people came out with me, sat with me for a while, and helped calm me down (she had relatives who are looking into whether they might be “on the spectrum”).
The others on my table might have found it odd. Awkward. Uncomfortable. But maybe, later on, they might think back and wonder. Possibly do some finding out. Or maybe not. Who knows?
But I have been honest.
A line has been crossed.