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The fear reaction

When I was little more than three years old, I almost died. It was a normal day which became suddenly dramatic. My mother and I were on holiday with her auntie and my cousin. We went for a break in Morecambe, a seaside town in the North West of England.

We were walking along the pier and, as usual, I was running on ahead. We were heading for the end of the pier so I went at top speed to get there. Halfway along, there was a hole in the wood, at the point where there was a big drop and deep water underneath.

My mother has a distinct memory of one second I was running, then I was gone. I had run over the hole and just dropped.

Very luckily, my body thought for me and as I dropped I reached up and grabbed the railings near the top of the hole. When my mother and auntie hurtled along they found my little hands clasping the railings while the rest of me hung, waiting to be rescued.

I have no memory of this event, though I've heard it relayed many times. I don't think my mother ever quite got over the shock as it would have been the end if I had fallen. The water was deep and churned around the struts of the pier beneath and we used to go out of season, so it was cold too. I couldn't swim and probably wouldn't have been able to in the currents anyway. And the struts criss-crossed beneath the pier, so even worse, I might have been knocked unconscious on my way down.

Growing up and throughout my adult life, I've had a fear of falling. Ladders are a trial, I don't mind stairs but am afraid of walking or driving next to steep drops. Even the curly roads up through multi-storey car parks bring me out in a sweat.

In the ice and snow, I either clothe my feet in over-the-top snow shoes or make little old lady steps wherever I go as I have a deep fear of falling, even when it's only from my small height.

So, although I don't remember it, thanks to the replays from my mother and, quite possibly, a subconscious memory of the event, I hold within me a fear of falling and of deep water.

With therapy, I guess I might get past these but I don't think staying away from heights or deep water is necessarily a bad thing. What has been difficult is the unexplained fears which arise because of it. Not unexplained exactly, as I know where they come from, but when you are trying to climb a ladder to put up Christmas decorations, or to trim the hedge, people do tend to think you're being very silly if you start to wobble and need to cling to it, like a cat up a tall tree.

Even with the justification of my smaller self almost dying, people think you should get over it. After all, it's not as if you remember it properly and no harm was done, right?

I let them think what they like, reader, as I'm not for budging on this one. Why should I bend to peer pressure and place myself in a situation whee I know I'll lose sight of reason and give in to fear, so putting myself in danger?

This is how it can be with aspergers in life too - and it isn't as tenuous a connection as it seems.

With aspergers we learn what is scary at an early age and all our fears are reinforced as we grow. With me, I learned to fear social situations as other people do what they like and I'm stuck in the middle of the maelstrom with no way out.

This feeling of no control is exacerbated by the rules of acceptable behaviour: if you go somewhere, to be social, you don't just throw your drink in the bin and leave. You don't lose your temper through sensory overload and yell (then leave). You don't hide in the toilets so long that people think you have left. You don't hide behind your best beloved or nearest ample relative and hope no one notices you until it's time to leave.

Basically, it's not acceptable to leave, so you end up staying.

This is facing the fear, is it not? Well, no. This is the equivalent of me climbing the ladder to trim the hedge. I set up the ladder so it won't move, I look at it and mentally shake my fist at it. I know it's not so high and I can trim that hedge. It won't take long and I'll be proud of myself when it's over.

Except that even climbing the steps makes the ladder vibrate and I am reminded that it is a movable object, a thing designed to be folded up and put away. I am not on solid ground and even though I've done all I can to make it safe, I still feel the slight movement and I know I have to be careful.

All the way up (and all the way into the social situation) and I get on with what I have to do. Soon after, I misjudge my balance and the ladder wobbles. I wobble with it, at a slightly different frequency and the ladder begins to shake.

In the social situation I have done something out of the ordinary and realised, either by the reactions of other people or by past experience, that I have stepped out of line. I panic a little and so behave more unnaturally, then panic some more. It all starts to go wrong.

In my ladder scenario, this is where I stop everything and grip on, waiting for it to be still. Sometimes this works, mostly I feel the sweat pricking out on my brow and I close my eyes, hoping the panic will pass. Often I climb down for a minute to recover before deciding if I'm going back up.

In the social drama that seems to be unfolding, I also stop everything and become the odd person, motionless in the middle of the room. People might ask me if I'm feeling okay, assuming I'm ill, though they know by looking at me that ill isn't quite the right word. They want to help but are made uneasy by my behaviour and aren't sure what to do.

This is the place where I grip on and decide that I either carry on as if nothing has happened or climb back down and recover. When you are on your own, trimming the hedge, you have no one to please but yourself. In the social arena, you have to take account of other people.

The social equivalent of gripping the ladder while you regain your balance is the point when you will be approached and singled out for concern, which makes it all worse. Being able to leave and come back might help (though once free it's doubtful you would come back), but unlike your hedge, people do notice when you flee a room as if you're being chased.

Anything you do in a social situation feels as though you're making it worse and drawing more and more attention to yourself. This might not be true, you may not stand out as much as you think, but what is true is that it is a mirror of a real-life, solid fear of something which manifests as strange behaviour and reactions.

When you're reacting to learned fear, like the fear of falling or the fear of other people, you are reacting in a way that keeps you safe. If you fear falling, it makes sense to get down from the high place. Other people should be left behind until you feel better. Both are equally dangerous in the aspie mind.

What helps is if you have someone to hold the ladder. I would prefer them to do it for me, to go up and trim the hedge while I am safely on the ground. For the ladder, this might work and is more acceptable. When it comes to social situations, you can't get other people to do it for you.

If you have to be there, let your supportive other be there too. Don't hide behind them (at least not physically, it makes people stare), but do let them hold things steady for you. Let them guide conversations or step in if you flounder. Let them be the kind hand on the ladder, stopping it from shaking even before it starts. Let them be there for you.

To this best beloved, or good friend or sympathetic relative, I need to say one thing. Your kindness may be boundless and you may know your aspie as well as you know yourself, but one thing should be understood. Without wanting to sound ungrateful, if your aspie says 'Don't leave me alone' before you set off, then please, Do not leave them alone.

This is true of all situations where your aspie needs your support, social or otherwise. It is completely transferable. If they do not want to be left, do not leave them.

This is more important than I can tell you. The number of times I've gone somewhere, with a supportive person, begging them not to leave me and they agree, genuinely and with sympathy. Then you get there and, sooner or later, they do leave you, for normal reasons. They go to get a drink or to the toilet or see someone they know and chat for a minute. This is being left alone.

To the non-aspie, being in the same room or briefly exiting for a natural reason, is not the same as deserting their aspie. But it is the same thing. It's not that it only takes seconds for panic to set in ( 'But I was only gone a minute, what could go wrong?'). It's more that panic set in well before we got there and was only waiting for an excuse to burst out again. The sight of your safe person with their back turned to you, walking away, is all it takes. It's a terrifying image.

Ladders, people, everyday challenges, whatever nightmare sets off your adrenaline and makes you reach for safety, be aware it is a proper, understandable, sensible response. It may not feel like it and it may not be possible to explain that way, but it is.

For you, for reasons known or unknown, this thing is a terror and must be stopped. It's a simple idea and reacting as you feel you should is the best response. You can worry about why you behaved that way later, when you're safe. For the moment, be safe and move away, with or without the help of other people.

Yes, I am advocating flight instead of fight, readers. I know there are plenty of times when this isn't practical, but I also know we have no way of facing and subduing our fears if we are expected to do so in the middle of the fear itself. Our only hope of overcoming them is to be able to look back and see them from a safe distance. Then, the next time, you might be able to face them, or the time after that.

Finding out what scares you is the first step to overcoming it or working out how to avoid it. Don't be bullied into being brave just because that's what everyone else does. They are not you and only you can say, without doubt, this is what scares me and I will not face it today.


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