SENSORY OVERLOAD AND THE HOLIDAYS

Ah, the holiday season. A joyous time for friends, family, feasting, celebration, unbridled materialism, etc. Some of us love the festive feel–Deck the Halls, stockings hung by the chimney with care and all that warm, fuzzy crap. Our nearest and dearest with their smiling faces gathered around a table heaping with enough food to feed a starving country for a year, finding the perfect gift for that special someone, kissing under the mistletoe, all of it. It evokes happy childhood memories of decorating a six feet tall evergreen with our beloved heirloom baubles, of tearing through carefully wrapped packages on Christmas morning (emphasis specifically on Christmas because that is the holiday my family celebrates).

And of course, of family functions.

Personally, I love my mom’s prepared-from-scratch Thanksgiving dinner. I love decorating the tree. I love Christmas shopping for the people I care about, and I love opening gifts with my immediate family every Christmas morning. I cherish our time-honored traditions. I’m not some holiday-hating Grinch, I’m really not. But I hate the family gatherings that inevitably take place at this time of year, and it isn’t because I hate my family.

It’s because their extraordinary loudness gives me sensory overload

My entire childhood, I dreaded getting together with family. I could never quite put my finger on the reason–again, I genuinely like most of my relatives–and my dread intensified with each passing year. Again, I had no idea why. All I knew was that I really, really hated the holidays. I was well aware that the whole production was supposed to be fun, and naturally, I wondered what was wrong with me–why couldn’t I have fun like everybody else?

Christmas Day was always spent at the cozy home of my beloved maternal grandparents. Grams and Gramps loved the holidays, and I loved Grams and Gramps. They couldn’t understand why, literally every other day of the year, I loved to spend time at their house with them. Hell, I couldn’t understand.

I chalked it up to social anxiety, that I feared the inevitable comparisons to my cousins, and that I came out on the losing end of those comparisons every single time.

I chalked it up to depression. It made sense–who in my situation wouldn’t be depressed by having to see all their normal aunts, uncles, and cousins out there living their normal lives? Who wouldn’t be depressed about being the ugly duckling who had no prospect of someday becoming a swan?

Anyway, I know it made my grandparents sad that Christmas made me so damn dismal. They loved their family even more than they loved the holidays, and that one special day of the year when everyone sat around their dining room table to eat Grams’s lovingly prepared Christmas dinner… well, it made them happier than anything. Gramps would sit at the head of the table and beam with pride as he watched his children and grandchildren dig in, laughing at the same old stories and getting sentimental about years gone by, but me? I sat there in obvious misery.

Grams and Gramps loved me to pieces, so I know it must have hurt them to see me sitting there looking so damn dejected on their special favorite day of the year. I’m sure I ruined at least a few Christmases for them, and I deeply, deeply regret that.

But I didn’t know. No one did.

It was the noise. The loud, raucous laughter, the din of everyone talking over each other, and the chaos of a big, happy family celebrating all together.

When I was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, I was at long last able to put two and two together. I learned about sensory overload and how people on the autism spectrum have heightened sensitivity to outward stimuli, including loud noises. In my case, loud noises are excruciating. They make me feel like my brain is quite literally rattling around inside my skull. They make me physically uncomfortable, to the point of unbearable tension and a frantic desire to flee the scene. I crave stillness, peace, and quiet. I need it.

After thirty some-odd holiday seasons, I now know that I need to take a break from the noise and confusion whenever it all gets to be too much. I go someplace quiet and just relax for a while, away from the racket, and I do this as often as necessary. I don’t care if it looks weird. It preserves my sanity, and I make no apologies for that.

My only wish is that I had known all this a long time ago. I wish I could have enjoyed Christmas with my grandparents when they were here. I wish I could explain to them what my problem was, that it had nothing to do with them or the family in general–that it was because of the way my brain was wired. That I wasn’t being miserable and putting a damper on everything on purpose.

I still don’t look forward to these annual family celebrations. It still gets to me, and I still feel like the one person who isn’t having a good time–for me, every holiday gathering is an ordeal, and I just have to grin, bear it, and get through it to the best of my ability. I still breathe a sigh of relief when it’s over for another year, but now that I understand my discomfort has a valid neurological reason, I no longer feel guilty for it.

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