I got married on Saturday.
In the days leading up to the wedding, I became increasingly and apparently irrationally frustrated with people asking me “Are you excited?” I even had an email from my sister with that as the title and nothing in the message! Close friends began warning people not to ask me.
Why was this question so upsetting?
Without the benefits of hindsight, it was hard to answer this question. The penny dropped on the day before the wedding, when I walked into my little venue to set up some vases that would be filled with wild flowers by my guests as they arrived at the ceremony. As I put the vases out I felt my heart quicken. The empty room was a still space, I was not moving fast or lifting anything heavy, and yet my heart was clearly beating faster in my chest.
I looked up at my fiancé, who was laying out vases on the window sills, vases that had belonged to my grandmothers, now both deceased, and another I had bought myself as a child in a Spanish market with my pocket money, “I think I am excited,” I said unsteadily, and he smiled.
Like many autistic people, I do not always know what I am feeling. This is not the same as not feeling it. I have the feelings, I just do not always feel the feelings.
The question “Are you excited?” and the expectation that went with it pointed out a couple of difficult-to-acknowledge things to me:
1) That I was supposed to be feeling something.
2) That I did not know the answer to the question.
Imagine being asked a math question in public and not being able to work out the answer, you would be a little embarrassed and want to move on from the topic. Now imagine being repeatedly publicly asked that question by people you know and love. You would have a sense of people ganging up on you, a sense of unfairness. My interoception (the sensory system that registers our internal feelings, including emotions along with physical feelings like hunger and thirst) might not work all that well, but my sense of injustice functions at full capacity.
As an autistic woman diagnosed in adulthood, I feel I am just getting the hang of being autistic. There is a knack to a neurodiverse brain and having the diagnosis has been very handy for getting clues about how to drive this thing.
All through my life I have had periods of time which I have referred to as “glazing over.” I feel as if I am watching life happen from behind a dozen panes of glass; sometimes I honestly don’t believe I am actually there at all. With my diagnosis I now recognize these periods as times of emotional shutdown, triggered not just by stress but just by the processing of multiple emotions. It is as if my emotional brain is a dodgy old computer, any amount of work makes it want to reboot and it takes a while to come back on line. While its cogs grind away, I stare out blankly at the world.
I was very aware that I was likely to end up staring through my eyes at my own wedding, separated from it by the layers and layers of glass. I did not want that. I wanted to be present. I took advice from other autistics in the days leading up to the ceremony, asking them how to avoid shutdown. It was always going to be inevitable, but by taking their advice on pacing, planning, and taking sensory check points through the day, I was able to be there at key points, if not quite for the whole day. Most importantly for me I was present as my husband spoke his vows to me. I saw him in the flesh, no glass separating us.
I was also aware that I was likely not to feel on the day. My first marriage failed in part because I did not recognize these times of not feeling as a function of my brain, and instead wrongly attributed them to a lack of feeling between my husband and myself. When you stand and promise love to someone you want to feel the love you are promising; for me it is not guaranteed that I will. As with the being present for the vows, I planned for this eventuality.
Have you ever seen a film in which someone loses their memory but writes notes to themselves to remind them of important things? Although they can’t remember the information, they trust it because it is in their own handwriting? I did something a bit like this. During the months of our engagement, at times when I have felt the love I have for my husband, I have tried my best to write it down.
Stored in my phone are all my scribbled expressions of love. Before I walked down the aisle I read through it. I might not be able to feel my love whenever I want to, but I can know it, and that counts for something too.
I am writing five days after we were wed, there has been no honeymoon (one change is enough, thank you very much), life is back to normal, we both went back to work straight away, and we still live in separate houses.
I am just beginning to feel things again. This weekend I will take myself on a honeymoon, a mini moon just for me. If you love someone like me who experiences emotional shutdown, letting them have time without stimulation is very kind. This weekend will just be me, a bed in a small cottage, my laptop and some food.
I am looking forward to feeling again. I cannot wait to look at the photos and feel the emotions from the day that I couldn’t process at the time. I consider this slow processing to be a perk, for someone else that day and all of its powerful emotions might have been over in one go, like a cake eaten in one sitting. How much nicer it will be to savor it bit by bit, enjoy each morsel, each moment.