Happily Ever After Starts Here

By Jill Wilbur Smith

Last Labor Day weekend, we attended my niece’s wedding in Michigan. It was a beautiful affair, held in a barn on property that’s been in my brother-in-law’s family for generations.

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About three hours into the evening, my sister came up to me looking concerned. “Emily just got upset and said she was leaving,” she said. In the old days, I might have gotten upset myself and frantically looked for Emily to try to calm her down. But on this night I didn’t.

“She’ll be OK,” I told my sister. “I’ll check on her in a while. Don’t worry. Go enjoy your party.”

Then I got another drink and continued to mingle with family. About 30 minutes later, Emily emerged from the house. She had found a quiet corner in which to sit and recharge. She came back to the party happy and calm. I was glad that I hadn’t run after her.

I’m trying to put an appropriate amount of distance between my daughter and me. I don’t mean that I’m abandoning her. I’m simply working to let her find her way. Because I’ve learned that the way she navigates out of painful situations is rarely the way I would guide her.

That’s difficult for me. I always want to help. To soothe. To be the one to listen and make all of the bad feelings go away.  But that’s asking too much of myself. And expecting too much of her.

So, I’m trying to give Emily the space she needs. To understand that she doesn’t always enjoy being in a throng of people, even if those people are family. That the way she connects with others isn’t the way I connect with them. Her happy looks different than mine.

Earlier this summer we attended the wedding of one of my other nieces. It, too, was a joyful affair attended by almost every member of my extended family. I could have danced all night, raising my red solo cup in song and toasting the happy couple.

As much as Emily loves her cousin, the evening was too much for her. But unlike the year before, Emily didn’t get upset and disappear. Instead, she calmly said to me “I’ve had enough for tonight. I’m going to go wait in the car.” I gave her a hug and told her we weren’t ready to leave, but that we’d join her when we were.

I gave her the space she needed, but I didn’t sacrifice my own needs in the process. And it was OK. No drama. No stress. No guilt. Just two women defining happiness in their own terms and accepting their differences.

That might seem like a small thing, but for me it’s significant. It’s taken me a long time to accept that the things that make me happy aren’t always the same as the things that bring Emily joy. That reality used to make me sad. I felt that Emily was missing out on an important part of life. But I now recognize the fallacy of my belief. I’m beginning to accept that her happily ever after, although different than mine, will be happy. I confess that I still have my moments of longing, but it’s a start.

 

 

Odd Ducks Anonymous

By Emily Smith

As a young woman on “the Spectrum,” as all autism-like disorders may be dubbed, I am sometimes frustrated by the degree to which people will prematurely, and incorrectly, judge me as inept in the arena of sociability. Now, before I progress any further on that subject, let me assure you: people who judge me this way are often more correct in such judgments than I would always care to believe. Not entirely correct, mind; they’ve got a point. And as my maternal grandfather might’ve once said, if they part their hair right, it won’t show. A kinder way of saying, you might be onto something, good buddy, but I just don’t give a damn.

I suppose the best way to begin this massive endeavor called the Fractal, might be to make a small personal confession. They say the first step is admitting you have a problem— or, in my case, a quality that occasionally causes problems. As my “gentle readers,” you’re officially part of my group now, so let’s jump right into the chaotic roil. Fasten your seatbelts, everyone.

My name is Emily…

“HI, EMILY!”

And I am an odd duck.

What do I mean, exactly, when I declare myself an odd duck? Well, for one thing, I’m the kind of person who isn’t afraid to use an awkward and possibly outdated phrase like “odd duck” to get the proper point across. If anything, its awkwardness makes the phrase fitting, more opportune, almost charming in a rather dopey sort of way. I’m a painfully honest, right-up-in-your-face word blurter who cannot always restrain her internal dialogue to those safe little thought-bubble clouds that most of the populace carries around out of habit. This affords me a great deal of automatic stress relief, as well as a range of expressive freedoms; at least in the realm of interpersonal calm, I breathe rarefied air. Of course, the flip side of this is that I can hardly swing a dead cat in a circle without smashing into someone else’s delicate feelings. Heck, I might’ve just caught some grief for a dead cat joke there. Wouldn’t be the first time.

I’m also a self-professed geek, which doesn’t usually bolster my “image.” I’ve rolled an awful lot of funny-shaped dice in my time. I more often ponder “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” than “the real world, here and now.” It sometimes lands me in hot water, especially if someone is trying small talk. The world of imagining is big. Not more important; by no means haughty. Just big. Thinking big while talking small, you’ll find, lends a person the look of constant boredom with the world as it actually operates. As repercussions of geekdom go, this is about the only one that sometimes catches me wishing I were a little more “normal.”

Social awkwardness and/or geekness may deter people from learning my true personality, but I make an unswervingly loyal friend. A peer without peer, as it were. For loved ones who approach me with painful scars and burdensome personal secrets, I unconditionally drop my fog. I listen without judgment; I comfort without doubting motives or questioning sorrows. In my experience, neurotypicals rarely display this trait. They seek few social burdens. Perhaps they sleep better for it. How rare and valuable, then, must a seeker of social burdens prove.

My own seeking originally sprang from the fear that my friends were false and would leave me. At least in my youth, they were; and they did. I still fear losing those I love more than is healthy, but my fears more often give way to an appreciation for friendship that few could claim to match. That is what my autism means to me, and what I hope it may mean for others. My oddball exterior, when allowed its foibles, gives way to a gooey center. Call me a friend; it is yours.