What a rough day. My best friend needed some surgery and I agreed to pick him up from the hospital, take him home and stick around until he was able to get around on his own. I was to wait for his call once he cleared the recovery room.
But when he did call, it was to say he had to stay overnight. There had been some complications and he was waiting to be admitted. Could I pick him up tomorrow?
“Sure, what time?”
“I don’t know. The doctor said he wants to see the dressings in the morning and might install a pump.”
I believe this is one of those pumps that delivers an anesthetic drip for the wound. Medically that’s not a big deal but there’s no telling when the doctor will show up. Could be early morning, could be as late afternoon.
To understand the depth of my anxiety over this, you need to know that I try really hard to avoid asking for accommodations for my autism. In fact, I almost never do. But let’s face it, if you are my best friend it’s because you give me the gift of letting down my guard and being my unfiltered self, without taking offense at things I might say. So this guy has seen me lose it on occasion and has a good idea of what happens when plans change at the last minute, and it isn’t pretty.
Intellectually I know that picking your best friend up from the hospital is non-optional. Emotionally all I could think about was all the plans I’d potentially need to cancel, two of which involve other people and are at set times. Last-minute schedule changes are bad enough. Open-ended ones like this really throw me. My friend knows this and the moment I ask him what time he needs to be picked up I regret it because now he’s going to be concerned about me.
That realization hit me hard. While I’m starting to melt down over the impact on my schedule tomorrow my best friend, who was unexpectedly admitted to the hospital after what was supposed to be routine surgery, is laying on a gurney with a phone pressed to his ear, groggy from anesthetic, dressed in half a paper gown, and he’s concerned about me.
I immediately resolve to quit thinking about myself and give him the support that he needs and deserves. Just as quickly, my brain goes into a tight loop. I know what I want to say but my brain can’t stop thinking about the mechanics of rearranging tomorrow’s schedule. Every time I try to put the right words to voice to support my friend, my train of thought is derailed. Internally, I’m stuck in this oscillation unable to speak or break out. As the seconds drag on I begin to panic and that only locks me in tighter. What he experiences is a very long and awkward pause.
“I can probably get someone…”
This breaks me free.
“No, no, no, I can do this.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, no problem,” I respond.
I’m devastated over letting him see this hesitation and tomorrow’s plans are still pressing on me like a particularly persistent child trying to interrupt a conversation, but I’m diverting maximum energy to my filters. Externally, I’m confident, calm and assuring. Internally, the needle on my mental fuel tank gauge is visibly sinking. I’ve got maybe 5 minutes before there’s no energy left to divert to the filters. I think I can pull this off. I’m determined to. Other than family, I have exactly one long-term close friend who I speak to regularly and he’s that guy.
“I’ve got another favor to ask.”
“Sure, how can I help?”
“Can you look in on my cat? I was planning to be home today so I didn’t leave out enough food.”
I had arranged to be available today so this was no problem. I was glad to be able to respond enthusiastically and without hesitation for a change. He gave me instructions for the cat and I told him not to worry, I have it covered. We hung up the phone and I tried to keep thoughts of tomorrow out of my head by concentrating on the tasks at hand.
Except, I didn’t have it covered.
When I tried to leave, I discovered the truck had a dead battery. My wife was busy volunteering at Matt’s school’s Father Daughter Dance and she had the car. I set up a charger on the truck and went back inside to try to get some work done while I waited. But no work got done because all I could think about was how to rearrange tomorrow’s schedule. The needle on my mental fuel tank gauge started to move again and it was already close to the Empty mark.
After an hour of waiting, the truck battery had only 12% charge and my mental fuel tank gauge bottomed out. There were no filters left. For anyone. Not even me it turns out, because in the ensuing meltdown I said some things about myself that were pretty unforgivable. Had anyone else said those things to me, the relationship would have ended. Breaking up with myself wasn’t an option but I did manage to not be on speaking terms with myself for the next hour.
It was at this point that my wife came home. The Daddy Daughter Dance was a big success and she was in high spirits. I explained my situation in as few words as possible and headed for the door. It was now rush hour and what had been a 20-minute drive had extended to 45 minutes or more so my mood had continued to tank.
“Do you want me to go with you?”
On the one hand I could use the company and under ordinary circumstances there’s nobody I’d rather spend time with than her. On the other hand, no filters. Foul mood. Blood pressure probably through the roof. I pondered her offer. Once again, for too long.
“Do you not want me to go with you?”
“I’m afraid I wouldn’t be very good company.”
“Look, I’m totally exhausted and I’m in a foul mood. My best friend is in the hospital, through no fault of his own, and somehow I’m mad at him. I’m mad he didn’t think to put out enough cat food for an overnight stay and I’m mad I have to rearrange my weekend for him. But I’m also mad at myself for being angry at him. What kind of monster does that? And if you go with me, I’m afraid I’ll take it out on you.”
As I blurt all this out, I’m hoping she doesn’t notice my voice trembling or that my eyes are glassy with the tears I’m trying desperately to hold back.
“All the more reason. I’m going with you.”
I have no defenses left at this point. I know that if I argue, I’ll blow up and the situation will become toxic. I try reasoning with her instead.
“If you go with me, how long before you can be ready?”
The answer to this is usually metered in quarter hours so I figured this was my out. I’ll just tell her I don’t have time to wait. She anticipates my objection.
“I’m ready now.”
As we drove, she talked about the new trivia game she’s been playing with our daughter, the school dance, and all the goings-on with the Parent-Teacher Organization. Slowly, she drew me into the conversation, then dropped the bomb.
“We should get something to eat while we are out,” she said.
Not sure if this was her way of reminding me that spontaneity can be good or if she was just hungry but I was getting the message. Plans can suddenly change for the better.
After feeding the cat we headed for the restaurant. On a Friday night at 7pm our first choice had a wait of almost 2 hours so crossed the street to a Mexican-themed restaurant we’d never tried. The place was not so empty on a Friday night as to arouse serious doubt about the food, but not so full as to have an exorbitant wait time. The perfect compromise between quality of food and quantity of wait, it was the Goldilocks of eateries: “this restaurant is juuuuust right.” And it was. The food was better than the moderate price called for and our server was top notch. We had a great time and by the time we left, I was feeling much better.
Many years ago my wife used to have panic attacks and would sometimes lash out at me viciously in anger. I didn’t know what exactly was wrong, only that this behavior was out of character for her and I refused to play the expected counterpart and lash back. Instead I didn’t take anything she said personally, I didn’t let her drive me away, and I insisted that in these moments she needed more of my love and support, not less. I would stay by her side for as long as it took, following her around or catching her in a bear hug if necessary, and eventually talk her down. It was like a mini-intervention, and it worked. There was a lot of anxiety at the root of these episodes and my standing by her rather than dishing out equal amounts of abuse helped to ease that.
So it is no wonder that she would use the same technique on me. The only wonder here is that I didn’t trust her enough to accept her first offer of company. That I made her finesse her way into coming along. She is the only person on Earth with whom I can turn off all the filters and be completely authentic. The physical and emotional relief that brings is indescribable and precious. I treasure those moments. People often say things about their partner that sound corny: “she completes me” or “she makes me a better person.” In this case it’s true. I do not know what I’d be today if she hadn’t been shaping my life for the last 30+ years but it isn’t this. There is no “me” without her.
I also don’t know what she had planned for this evening other than a quiet dinner at home and some TV. She might have caught up on emails or done some prep work for the upcoming Book Fair at the school. But whatever they were, she dropped those plans without hesitation because she saw I needed her. Because that’s what friends do. My best friend should not be deprived of that simply because I happen to be autistic. My autism isn’t his fault and my not being there for him isn’t the accommodation I want him to make for me.
Thanks to my wife’s intervention this isn’t even an issue anymore. I can say in all sincerity that I’m no longer worried about tomorrow’s plans. My mind is completely calm as I write this. No more meltdown, no more self-loathing, no more anxiety. Tomorrow my best friend is my top priority tomorrow and everything else will work itself out one way or another.
My wife taught me that. Again. She’s awesome and I love her for that.