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An aspie at Christmas-time

Okay, this is often the big one for many families, aspie or not. Christmas can be a time of fraught emotions, high temper and stress caused by so many different things at once, you end up wondering if it's all worth it. The cosmic rule is that there must be at least one Christmas argument, and this can be like the single match in a box of fireworks.

Of course, there is the good side too. As I've mentioned before, I love Christmas - adore it in fact - but no matter how I love it, I'm still prone to the stresses of the season. What I've described could be any Christmas in a lot of homes, but imagine all these difficulties combined with the aspie mentality. If a normal day can stress you out in strange and unusual ways, then it's safe to say that Christmas is a front runner as a spectacular problem area.

When I was little, my mother and I would do the Christmas run-around, the one where you visit all the relatives you barely ever see and catch up. It's a good thing to do, a worthwhile way to touch base with them and show you care. If you live close enough, it's so much better than a card in the post. How we both hated it, though! The mental effort involved in going into all those different homes and being friendly and sociable with people we weren't close to anymore. We were still pleased to see them, it was just a supreme effort to be these bubbly personalities for hours on end. By the end of the day, home would seem like a glittering oasis, waiting to welcome us back to sanity.

Worse than this is the visiting you endure from other people. When they come to your door, carrying presents or cards and a wide smile, what can you do but roll out the bubbly personality again? Exept this time you have the uncertainty of how long they'll stay or what you should do with them while they're here. Everyone is expected to be sociable at Christmas, it's a standard response to the season. We are all suddenly supposed to show how much we care about each other, even if we don't really care at all.

What I find happens is, you show the caring to the people you don't really know anymore, then when it comes to displaying your emotions for the ones you do care about, it won't come out right. You see, if you don't see someone much, it's easy to pretend for a little while that you've really enjoyed coming out and visiting them, or even welcoming them into your home. It can seem hard, but it's a limited-time experience. Once you're apart, you can relax again.

With people you do care about, they know you much better and can tell when you're pretending, or forcing it, or over-egging the pudding for the occasion. They can tell if your smile was pasted on just before you walked through the door. They can see the desperation in your eyes, except they'll translate it as anger or drama.

Also, with loved ones, even those you don't live with, you generally have to spend longer with them at Christmas. Even if it's just a visit, you'll usually take more time over it than with people you don't know so well. Which means, you have longer to mess it up and upset people - not that you often need more time to do this, of course.

My earlier post about surprises covers how we aspies often feel about presents (scroll down to the bottom half of the post if you want to by-pass the general parts).

The difficulty is in showing the correct emotions at the correct time. For heaven's sake! If only I could flick the switch that says 'show feelings', then this would be fine. I'm so busy avoiding eye contact with the present-giver that I don't have enough reaction space left over to show delight and often end up looking blank (for a change, ha-ha).

And then, if I could flick the emotion switch on Christmas day, would it be wise? What if I was completely honest and showed real emotion for each present, or relation, or my actual feelings on the belching over the Christmas dinner, or talking over the movies? Hmm, on reflection, it might be better to leave the reactions as they are. At least a blank face gives less offence than a face taking on a sudden likeness to a troll who was expecting goat and instead got new thermal underwear to keep him warm while he's loitering under the bridge.

It is definitely the little things that make Christmas difficult, though. You don't have to go through massive arguments to suffer from other people. All you need is constant interaction with them, in your home or theirs, with no proper excuse to leave and hide in your room. You have a situation at Christmas where it is not acceptable to hide, leave, not talk, drift off to the planet Nog or give monosyllabic answers to every question.

It's the time of year when it can be a blessing to be the one responsible for dinner. Yes, wrestling with a giant bird in the kitchen is preferable to sitting in the living room, talking to people. Being in charge of the food is also a wonderful excuse to regularly leave the room, so that you give the appearance of being sociable but don't have to stick around too much.

I would give two warnings here, though. Don't sound too sharp when you refuse offers of help, or you will give the game away that you prefer the kitchen to your guests. And for those of you who imbibe, do not, whatever you do, have a full glass of wine every time you're alone with the bottle.

If you do, you'll get progressively happier every time you return to the living room, but dinner will suffer and, so much worse than this, your inhibitions will pack their bags and have an overnight stay somewhere else. This leaves you free to tell your relatives that you don't see why they can't eat with their mouths shut, or say excuse me before leaning their woolly arms over your dinner, or ask you about your love life, or why we have to hear that story again, at the dinner table, over food.

The downside to not being able to imbibe is that you're stone cold sobre through the whole of the visit and can process every belch, mannerism, annoying habit, personality deficit or repetitive gesture your relatives make. It does also mean you're probably the only one still awake after dinner, which can be a blissful experience, especially if you manage to take charge of the TV controls before everyone nods off.

In my experience, if I can maintain a cool distance from my own irritations, I pass through the vale of antagonism to the hillock of hilarity. In other words, without the aid of alcohol, everything will become funny. This is great when it helps me to appear cheerful with people I want to slap, but not so great when you pass that stage and your sense of humour is the thing helping you get past your inhibitions. So, instead of alcohol making you tell it like it is, you end up joking about the bad habits going on around you. Oh yes, soooo funny. Funnier still when you see their faces change and they're forced to laugh, because it is Christmas after all.

Except, it doesn't stay funny for long - just long enough to make you look like a loon with no manners. Christmas, like any other time, shows how unacceptable it is to bring up the behaviour of others, no matter how bad it is. As always, aspies have to learn how to behave well in a normal world, while bearing up under the strain of other people's peculiarities. I've no idea why it's okay, for instance, for Aunty Gladys to ask me if I have a boyfriend every time she sees me, but it's not all right for me to ask her if she still isn't allowed in the bingo hall.

Readers, I did intend to offer solutions to Christmas stress, but all I seem to have done is outline the difficulties we might have this holiday season. I do apologise, I hadn't realised it was a problem without a solution. I can only say, do the whole thing in little bits as much as possible.

Like when I organise the food, take your opportunities to leave the room and rest. Think of it as a power rest, if you like, rather like a power nap without the sleep. Even if it's only a few seconds, take a deep breath and soak up the peace of the moment.

Try not to give in to any impulses which will come back to haunt you, like explaining exactly why Aunty Gladys isn't allowed in the bingo hall to those relatives who don't know the full story. I know, when you're under pressure, how tempting it is to pay it back to the people causing you trouble, but don't do it: usually they think they're being pleasant and making conversation and don't mean to drive you insane.

Take pleasure in the people you do want to see this season, even if you're seeing them online and not in real life. Friends come in all guises and you don't need to feel stuck with the real-life versions, who you have to let in the door because they saw you before you saw them. Some of your rest time could be spent with your online friends, a place of solace when your physical surroundings seem to be closing in to stamp on you with heavy boots.

If all else fails, do be rude and hide in your room. It's only you being difficult again, after all. Everyone knows how awkward you are, it shouldn't be a surprise. This should be your back up plan, though, as it isn't good to bail out completely and leave others to pick up the pieces.

Compromise, if you have family or a best beloved who will look out for you. Tell them to fill in the gaps with any visitors if you disappear for a while. Tell them you won't go missing for the full day, if you can help it. It's so much easier to re-enter the room if you know a kind soul has told a white lie on your behalf, as then people won't make a fuss over your absence or your reappearance.

All in all, readers, I do still love Christmas, but I'm not blind to the problems caused by being an anti-social, routine-loving aspie in the midst of fellowship and song. Do try to feel some of the wonder of the season, the glow of excitement or the contentment and peace of the dream of Christmas.

Don't try too hard to deal with it like everyone else. Whatever the time of year, or the occasion, you are still you and it will always be that way. Try to enjoy yourself and relax. You never know, this might be the year when everything almost goes to plan, or when  you don't care that it doesn't.

No matter what, hold fast to your blanket and look to your loved ones for help. Christmas only comes once a year, so sooner rather than later, it will all be back the way you want it to be.


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