I rented a room out in my house this past October. My middle son left for college. I had the extra room and needed the extra funds.
I didn’t realize having a stranger in my house would be detrimental to my mental well being. I thought I’d learned enough about me, and being on the autism spectrum, and coping skills, to be okay. At least for six months. Maybe even a year.
Not many days passed, before I found myself avoiding the stranger. Before I dreaded encounters. Before I kept track of every sound, phrase, and smell of irritation. Some mornings, I wore headphones and stared at my laptop, pretending that I was working, in order to avoid interacting. Soon I found myself frustrated over things that seemed inconsequential. Over and over disturbed. Over and over irritated.
I became someone I didn’t recognize. Defense mode abounded.
When they entered the room, if I wasn’t pretending to be working, or pretending to be content and happy, or pretending to be carefree, then I was turning my back to avoid eye contact, to catch my breath, to not have to suffer the consequence of social and sensory exhaustion. I couldn’t find answers for my discomfort and sense of doom.
I attempted to logically coach myself. But that quickly turned to self-shaming: “Why are you like this?” “What is the big deal?” “Can’t you handle a two-minute check in from someone who lives in your house?” “Why do you care what they think?” “This is your house.” “Be the mature adult you are!” “What’s wrong with you?” “Haven’t you learned anything?” “You will never learn.” Sigh.
I had a hard time knowing what was okay, and what wasn’t. Was it okay they put cardboard in the oven? Okay to run at bath at 5:30am in the morning? Okay to forget to use the recycle bin (15 times)? Okay to bang a door closed at 1am? Okay to ask for my food? Okay to complain in the morning? Okay to ask me for advice? Okay to . . . I didn’t understand what the rules were. I didn’t understand my part or their part, or how the parts ought work together. What was tolerance, what was too much, what was? Was this an ‘energy vampire’ or was I somehow flawed?
Some days I tried to make myself invisible, to dissolve into the background, become one with the pale-yellow wallpaper. Some days I tried to be their mentor, cheerleader, the one who would take them under my wings and offer guidance, my wisdom. Some days I stuffed the resentment. Some days I did not. Some days I complained to a trusted someone about the living situation. Inevitably, I felt guilty for ‘gossiping.’
“Was I truly incapable of connecting?” “Was I a heartless judge?” “Why could I sense everything that wasn’t right and not see what was right?” More voices came.
I questioned if my Netflix binge was too loud. Continually commanded, “Hey Google, turn down the volume.” My music to volume three. Were my phone conversations quiet enough? I went to the balcony; sat in the cold, for privacy and reprieve. I contemplated moving my sleeping quarters to a room off the garage. Wanted to abandon my own house to avoid the discomfort.
A month into the living arrangement, I steered away from all shared living spaces (like now); hid in my bedroom, too nervous to leave, afraid to go get a glass of water. Too tired to engage. Too tired to be someone I am not. Anxiety tripled, each time I heard them patter down the stairs, and then again every time they left the house. I wondered when they would inevitably return.
I counted the hours to their departure (like now), until I knew they had to go to work (2pm today).
With the stranger out of sight, I would scream aloud in my home, only because I was able. I would blare the music, only because I needed to control the noise. I would stomp, bang, yell. I needed to be drowned in my own control.
I had insomnia, night after night, afraid to sleep, only to be interrupted over and over by keys rattling, doors shutting, cackling laughter. I feared who they would bring into my home. Would they follow the rules? Would wet shoes be on the hardwood? Would there be a trail of cake crumbs?
My behaviors continued. I closed off conversation, left rooms suddenly, didn’t try to initiate discourse, stunted small talk. And then: felt guilt over my actions.
Again: “What is wrong with me?” Was I this? Was I this person with little patience, low tolerance, a lack of compassion? Was I incapable of accepting others? Was I that picky?
The script would drum: “I am difficult to live with. I am meant to be alone.”
The angst became too gigantic to push back. My days in my home were like a prison. And I was the warden. I finally found the strength to let the renter know I won’t be renewing the lease. It took me weeks to build up the nerve and to practice what to say. It took me days of calls to a friend. To get reassurance. I didn’t want to hurt feelings. It has always been easier to hurt myself . . . to avoid hurting another.
Now, as I know there is an end in site, that they will be leaving, I am processing and being gentle. I am telling myself that I did not fail. I tried. I was brave. I am avoiding the talk about ‘learning so much.’ As honestly, that phrase makes me sick to my stomach. I get tired of lessons. I’ve had enough lessons, enough for multiple long-lived lifetimes.
I am trying to convince myself that none of this was my fault. I am autistic. What did I expect to happen?
Perhaps I thought I could adapt or that the autistic parts of me (that made it difficult to be in the space of a stranger) would disappear. Maybe I thought ‘mind over matter.’ Maybe I slipped back into denial. Maybe, when I look in the mirror, and when others look at me, the autism isn’t always so clear. Maybe I need to embrace this part of my essence a bit more. To squeeze myself into love. To touch those parts of me with reassurance and self-acceptance. Essentially, I am okay. A reminder which resurfaces again and again.
The stranger is not gone. Not, yet. But with each new sound, smell, discrepancy, I am able to remind myself this is temporary. I am able to accept. I am able to move on and experience the day with more hope and peace.
My home is my safe haven from a world that exhausts me. A world that will always exhaust me. And that’s okay, too. I know why and I know it’s not something I can change or need to change. It just is.
For autism resources and to learn more about the author see myspectrumsuite.com