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Safe havens

Last night I dreamt that I was driving down the centre of a little town on a steep hill. The roads curved and wound round the houses, narrow enough to make me worry about meeting another car. They were so steep I couldn't slow down enough, I just couldn't press any harder on the brake and I was desperately holding the car back in first gear to help slow my descent. I was even bending backwards, away from the steering wheel, as though I could help by pulling that too.

In the dream, the roads were very familiar to me. As I went round one corner, I even thought to myself, I know this road all too well. There were bumps in the surface where it had been covered over too many times and, now I'm awake, I think I was reminded of the old road in the village where I grew up.

Down and down I went, turning more corners and never knowing when I would reach the end. And worse than not knowing, and even worse than the fear of this out-of-control descent, was the knowledge that I had done this before and I'd do it again.

A vague thought went through my head as I drove: 'How many times do I have to travel this road before I know how to drive it properly?'

It doesn't take a psychic to work out that these awful, twisting roads are my route through life. Surrounded by the normality of a town, I am still unable to control my descent and it never seems to end. Even though I've travelled the route before, I still don't know which turn leads to the way out. And I still have the terror of coming up to each junction, not able to stop or even see if there is anything coming.

This is so much like the aspie life, isn't it? That sense of knowing where you are and what you're meant to be doing, but then feeling and acting as if it's the scariest thing in the world and you have no idea what to do. That gut-wrenching terror of being on a downward spiral again, with everything flashing past you and no way to stop.

If it was an uncontrolled spin, then maybe we wouldn't blame ourselves. We could say, there was nothing to be done, I was out of control. But like in the dream, there was some element of control. I had brakes and a gear stick, I had a wheel to change direction; I just couldn't get them to work properly, or to be effective enough to do more than slightly slow me down. Although I wasn't travelling at breakneck speeds, I was going too fast to be safe or in control.

So, fast enough to see it all fly past but slow enough to know what the ride is supposed to be like. Too fast to stop in time, slow enough so you see the junction coming up and have time to flinch back in your seat, braced for impact. Fast enough that I knew I was powerless to do anything, slow enough for me to realise, even in the midst of the dream, that I had my two sons with me.

How much worse is it, in this aspie thrill-ride, to find you're not alone, in a bad way? To be taking your loved ones with you on your uncontrolled spiral into whatever comes after the next junction?

I tried to wrestle control by telling myself to enjoy the ride. This worked as well as you might expect and by the time I reached the bottom of the hill, I was rigid with fear. There was a blip then, and the roads were left behind at last.

My destination was the beach. We were on a normal trip and I knew we were going somewhere nice. The beach is as significant as the twisted roads. The open sea, viewed from a beach, has always meant freedom to me.

From a very early age, my Granda and I would wander along the beach, choosing pebbles and shells, making up imaginary lives for the people in our sand castles. Then we'd go to the ice cream shop and, eventually, he'd say to me, 'Well, Mam will be wondering where we are!' He didn't mean his mother, he meant my Grandma and I used to think it was funny that he pretended to be frightened of her, as if he had to do as he was told.

Funnier still, when we got back she would actually tell him off, about how long we'd been out, why I had only one sock and set off with two, why I was filthy again and why did I have to get more ice cream in my hair than my mouth?

I'd show her the shells I'd collected and she'd purse her lips, nod and say, 'Yes, very nice,' in that clipped way that annoyed grandmothers do so well. I never understood why she couldn't see the magic in the shells and always wondered why she didn't come to the beach too.

Of course, what she was doing was being at home, living a normal life, holding the fort until my (no doubt aspie) Granda came back with small me. She'd have done all of her housework, maybe gone to her job down the hill where she cleaned for a Doctor and his wife. There would be washing on the line and apple pie in the oven for tea. By the time my Granda had his boots off and was in his chair, the tea would be brewing and we'd have biscuits.

My Grandma did all the stuff aspies tend to take for granted, ie she made the world work for us. She liked a nice house, clean and tidy and everything in its place. My Granda could escape to his sheds for some peace but in the house, we did as we were told. She took nothing for granted from the ironing not doing itself to never assuming you could do things later on.

I never used to wonder what she did all day as by the time I was there, she was sitting in the kitchen. I think I assumed she sat in the kitchen when I wasn't there too. But what she did was make sure that the potential chaos of living with my Granda was always waylaid by the order she brought to our lives.

He could be as eccentric as he liked, so long as he took his boots off at the door and kept his wood in the shed. His coat had to be hung at the door too, for smelling of creosote and paint. She could do nothing about his socks and would often sit there, unconsciously glaring at them when he annoyed her. His massive feet, with woollen socks slipping off the ends, somehow offended her in their neat kitchen.

I tell you all this because I realise, finally, that the freedom of the beach is an interlude. The real freedom in our aspie lives is a safe haven, like the one my Grandma made in her later years. A place that was always the same, just as she liked it. The tea trolley wheeled out, home made cake or pie and colourful biscuits. The housework, a secret art to me, made it all stay the same and be as we wanted it too.

I didn't realise at the time that, by coming home to her house, with everything in its place and the step gleaming and wet as we stepped over it, she was making it a home for us as well as herself. She liked things to be a certain way and wouldn't deviate from her standards, but she did it because that was how you made a house a home for your family.

When we came back from the beach, my Granda grinning at the thought of his 'Mam' being angry, he always had a small pot of ice cream in one hand for her. He'd pass it over, without ceremony, and she'd take it, not meeting his eyes because she was busy being mad at us and couldn't afford to see the glint dancing in the blue.

Later, as we ate apple pie, she would eat her ice cream, savouring it. Then she complimented it, once it was safely past the time when her compliment could in any way be mixed up with our earlier telling off. She still wouldn't look at my Granda as she did it though because, right on cue, his eyes lit up and waited to catch her unawares.

My dream reminded me that I'm always, in some way, out of control on a steep hill. I'm never going to have my foot off the pedal, even if I'm on a flat road. That's just the way it is and I do have to take things as they come and not panic the whole time.

However, I shouldn't always be heading to the beach. Escape isn't a necessity, freedom is a word with many places to call its own. I think, too often, I assume that the next corner, or the next, will grant me the freedom and serenity I've been looking for, if I can just get there safely.

I've had it wrong, readers. That freedom and serenity doesn't have to be a big, wide open space like the beach, it can be a small, safe space like home. Our havens are what we make them and aren't always hidden round unseen bends in the road. Sometimes, they've been here all along, just where we are, ready for us to notice them.

Today, I'm going to take another look around me and see what is right in front of my face, instead of what is out of reach. It's time for me to appreciate the safe haven close to hand, for a change, the one that doesn't mean setting off at speed, my children in tow, as I hunt for the next step to freedom.

This time, readers, I'm looking just across the room to see what was always with me.


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