Friday, January 29, 2016

Article: GABA and Autism

There are physical differences between an autistic brain and a normally-developing one.  Most commonly, the differences are noted in the connections between the parts of the brain.  All the parts of the brain are the same, but the wiring between them is different. 

This article highlights another difference: a neurotransmitter called GABA.  The article is kinda science-jargon-y, which I get because I studied psychology.  But not everyone has, so for ease of understanding...

GABA is a neurotransmitter, a chemical produced in the brain to accomplish a task.  GABA's task in specific, is to filter out extra data in the environment.  I described my sound sensitivity previously, but part of it is the inability to filter out excess noises.  Things like a fan in the background, birds chirping, some thoughtless neighbor blaring their music.  Your brain naturally selects relevant information from the environment, like the movie you're watching, and filters out everything else (fan, refrigerator sounds).

So this study did an experiment.  They got a group of participants to do a task with distraction, then measured their GABA levels.  As might be expected, normally-developing people with high GABA levels had an easier time with the task.  Autistic people, though?  Their GABA levels didn't affect performance.  It's not that the autistic brain is missing GABA, it's that the GABA isn't doing anything.

So what does this all mean?  Well... besides being another measurable difference between neurotypical brains, it might explain why autistic people are often more prone to sensory processing disorders.  I suffer from sound and light sensitivity.  Last Friday I wrote about another individual whose light sensitivity is different than mine.  Some people can't stand to be touched, and feel hugs as pain.  Temple Grandin is/was one of those people with touch sensitivity.  

Something I've personally noted: my doctor mentioned snagging what I'm calling "chill pills" now- a low dosage, mint flavored GABA lozenge (like a hard candy).  Just one of those is enough to mildly bludgeon my upset brain into a calmer frame of mind.  I tend to call that state of mind a sulk, rather than contentedness, but it's much better than throwing a fit.  So I think GABA isn't entire slacking off on its job for me.  But it has to be overloaded, first. The amount of GABA in one of those lozenges is far higher than the amounts that would be found in my brain.  So if my brain is slammed with a torrent of "filter out unnecessary noise" chemical, it cooperates.  But it doesn't necessarily cooperate if it's not being slammed. 

As I mentioned, I don't entirely find the results of taking GABA pleasant, so I'm not sure how I feel about potential treatments being developed from this theory.  But perhaps, if they can figure out just the right level of slamming, it wouldn't be unpleasant. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

LENS and Life, week of 1/19/16

Two weeks until Happy Fun Times, or possibly Nothing At All.  No sites this week, as the doctor is doing more convention-ing.  I mentioned my worries about my sensory strip to her.  Depending on what we do (and possibly how much my brain has shifted), I might experience the same thing as last time, or nothing at all.  We'll see.

Moving In Progress
In the meantime, it's time for allllll the stress.  Moving is a process of systematically dismantling your life, putting it into sterile little boxes, carting those boxes around to a new place that doesn't feel like home, and then trying to remantle it into something resembling your life again.

When I was little, we moved every few years.  This wasn't really on purpose, or a fact of my parents' jobs.  It's just how things turned out.  So I've lived in 5 states, as of this writing.  Those moves, between states, were much easier than this.  I had only a few boxes of possessions, almost no furniture, and the bulk of the moving was done by professional movers.

This move, there were no movers.  No evenly sized abundance of boxes.  There were shelves, tables, chairs, bed, and futon.  Those are all very heavy, especially up two flights of stairs.  Chris, naturally, took up the brunt of the burden in many cases, but much of the heavy things had to be done by two people.  So I did a lot of lying around uselessly when we weren't packing.  Watching my home of four years being dismantled, the first home I'd made for myself, was (and is) destroying my ability to get things done.

It's not just the stress of your home being dismantled around you.  It's more normal things, like not having my computer available to do work, or put my music on.  I could try to type things on my tablet, or play things from there, but the sound system and keyboard are terrible by comparison.  I have to be able to type fast enough to keep up with my thoughts, and I can't on a virtual keyboard.  I'm pretty sure my handwriting got worse and worse as I aged, not because I didn't practice it, but because I couldn't keep up with my thoughts while taking notes in school.  My handwriting is all but illegible now.  I took notes in college on my laptop partly for that reason.

So now I'm trying to write in the new place, but while watching one of my favorite movies.  That's probably detracting from my focus, but it's definitely adding to my comfort.  Between the stench of paint, the unfamiliar carpeting, and the chilliness of the apartment, I need the extra help.  My computer is here, but I'm actually only here to get the packages that're coming today, to this place.

One of them includes our new chest freezer.  All 10.6 gallons of it.  I, uh... I'm going to have to do a lot of cooking if I'm going to fill that.  But I guess now I have the option to buy half a deer or something.  I'm picky about my farmed meat, but other than asking for as clean a death as possible, I'll eat wild game.  I'm not really interested in learning how to butcher, so maybe if I'm really lucky, I can get someone to clean and cut it up properly.

I spent most of the day updating addresses.  Chris thoughtfully started making a list of places he needed to update to not screw up our billing, rent, and other expenses, so I added mine to the same document.  He has 20-some.  I only have 12 or so, but it was more than enough to burn a couple hours.  Especially trying to cancel my Internet.  I swear...  Everything else was very polite and easy about updating or canceling my service.  Comcast?  "Oh no, we can't let you close your account.  You have to call us and sit in virtual line for an hour, then listen to us give you tons of crap about quitting."

I'm just fortunate I got a reasonably nice Indian call-center guy.  And probably fortunate that I told him I didn't want Internet at my new place.  Was sort've a lie, since we already have Internet here.  Annoyingly, it's Comcast.  I tried finding another company to go with, since I despise Comcast with the vitriol I normally reserve for blatantly arrogant, manipulative, self-righteous assholes.  Generally speaking, I try not to hate anyone.  Some people make it really hard, though. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

Accessible Lighting for Sensory-Friendly Environments

About a month ago, I was browsing Facebook and came across a fellow autistic person's commentary and explanation of their difficulties with lighting.  It seems they notice (suffer through) flickering in some kinds of lighting, like LEDs, but not in other kinds, like incandescent bulbs.  The flickering hurts their eyes, making some places downright painful and headache-inducing.

They linked to this:

And proceeded to explain: 
"Incandescent filaments react more slowly to changes in their power source, and kind of trail off the glow when shut off due to thermal persistence (heat maintaining the amount of light being emitted), so even though on alternating current the it receives power in a non-steady way, the bulb appears continuously lit. For LEDs, the reaction time is quicker, so that as electricity alternates the filament switches on and off rapidly, not maintaining glow in between. I perceive this as flicker and it is awful. (This would explain why I used to think LED lights were mostly non-flickery, since LED flashlights and that were on direct current power supplied by batteries.) Fluorescent lights also flicker at 120 hertz, making school definitely worse for me all the way through.
So that's what I mean when I talk about sensory-friendly vs inaccessible lighting; lights that flicker add constant extra sensory input (like a radio playing static) to everything else I'm trying to process, and lights that look steady to others unfortunately may not look steady to me. That the US has been trying to phase out incandescent bulbs bodes pretty ill for me and others who have overly keen perception of light."
If this doesn't make sense to you: all lights, even perfectly working ones, flicker to a degree.  However, the flickering differs depending on your type of light.  Incandescent bulbs continue to glow even after the loss of power, because of heat.  This ensures a steadier light source.  LEDs, however, simply shut off with no buffer. To someone with sensitive eyes/brain, this flickering is visible, distracting, and painful.

I don't personally have this particular superpower/annoyance, but I kind of relate by comparing my experiences with messed up fluorescent lights in classrooms or lecture areas.  Y'know the kind that just flicks on and off every few seconds?  Maybe it's not screwed in properly, or the bulb is on the end of its lifespan, or there's something wonky with the wiring.  But it's just that one bulb, and I glared at it through the entire lesson, while it incessantly flicked on-off. on-off.

So now imagine one of those bulbs in every room.  The light keeps changing, which makes it hard to focus on the presentation, or the person talking to you, or the job you're doing.  Now imagine every lightbulb is that lightbulb.  And still having to try and focus through that, all day, every day.  Now imagine no one knows what you're talking about when you react to that stupid flickery bulb, or mention it in conversation.

According to other posts in the conversation,  this person makes do with their situation by bringing a desk lamp with an incandescent bulb to work.  I imagine their home is also strictly sensory-friendly lighting. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

LENS and Life, week of 1/12/16

No sites today (but we can probably bet it will be 1 on Thursday, when I go).  I'm getting mildly uneasy that we're getting nearer to the week of mapping my sensory strip.  The last time we touched that site, I nearly strangled every thoughtless person in my vicinity.  I'm not as stressed these days, but it's not nice, knowing that's probably going to happen again.  I spent that entire week in pre-damage control mode, constantly having to talk myself down from unhealthy courses of action.

Do keep in mind that's vastly atypical for my experience with LENS, though.  Most weeks I barely notice a thing, but given my experience at Christmastime, it's clearly done plenty of good.  I'd've been a nervous depressed angry wreck every other year. 

Apartment Progress

We now have a new apartment.  I have yet to put in notice at the old place, because they still haven't given me back my $50 in erroneous late fees.  Y'know, for like the 6th time.  The staff at the office seem nice enough, but their corporate is entirely made of trolls, steaming turds, and sadistic cats as far as I can tell.  I wish I could yell at people like my dad does.  Not that I'd want to do so terribly often, but if I can actually find the people who deserve it, they could use a good harassing.  I'm sure $50 means nothing to them, but it's several meals or a tank of gas to me.

The new place, on the other hand, seems a little tight for staff but the front desk/agent person seems to care about our experience.  I... can't quite get a handle on her, which leaves me paying attention to her words and actions, but other than being very particular about policies (nothing that bothers us), being difficult to get ahold of, and being really sick right now, she seems fine.  Email seems to be the order of the day with her.  I don't think I'll want to live there for years, but it should be fine for a single year or so.  House-hunting next year, at least at present. 

We've already taken most of Chris' storage unit, a bundle of my stuff, and most of his remaining stuff to the new place.  At this point we're sort of stripping the Sardine Can down to essentials, moving the nonessential stuff one box/plastic storage tote at a time, and then probably settling on a warmer day sometime soon to haul the rest of it.  Chris prefers sooner over later, but my period just started and "ouch" does not even close to summarize my condition right now. 

Stuff to do today (if I can muster the energy to move) includes packing the extra kitchen things, moving some more easily-grabbable stuff (like box fans, printer, air purifier) out to the car, and disassembling a set of poor man's bookshelves (four closet doors stacked with bricks between them). 

Potential Breakthrough for Cooking

So Chris and I might've gotten past an impasse on cooking.  Neither of us likes cooking, but apparently Chris really hates prep.  Chopping meat, vegetables, etc.  Inspired by my mother, I recently snagged five bell peppers and chopped them up, then froze them on a baking sheet.  Once frozen, they could be scraped into a bag and used by the handful as needed.  I did the same with some red onion and some chicken, later.  I don't particularly mind the chopping, so long as I can do it ahead of time whilst not grumpy, hungry, and tired.  (Well, raw meat is pretty much always gross, but that's less of an issue since I don't eat that much meat.)

So with those things, some other frozen foods, salsa and seasonings, and a packet of brown rice/quinoa, Chris threw together a nutritious meal a couple days ago and didn't make much fuss about it.  This is unusual, because usually both of us complain if we have to cook, and as such, we usually do it together.  It gets the food made, but isn't exactly fun. 

I asked him about it afterwards, and he said specifically that he didn't mind it as long as the frozen things were already there.  So I might have to go to Costco once we're moved in properly.  Onions, sweet peppers, maybe even broccoli, could be frozen the same way.  I can certainly still cook, but if he's willing to cook more often with that stuff available, it would go a long way toward making me not feel like a live-in, unpaid cook. I can also probably get him to help chop things on weekends, when he's not so tired out from work.  

Friday, January 15, 2016

Article: The Missing Generation

This is an article that talks about all the misdiagnosed older folks, which are only popping up now that we understand more about autism and how it manifests.  These people, in their 40s, 50s, and older, had to grow up without the benefit of the understanding I now benefit from.  As such, they often suffered misdiagnoses, anything from schizophrenia to bipolar disorder to OCD.  And often, that meant they were institutionalized.  (Mental institutions give me the heebie-jeebies because of this.  If I'd been born just a little earlier, that's where I might have ended up.)

These people are the 1st generation, as I term them.  There are very few of them that managed to blend into society rather than being institutionalized.  Some of those that did are Temple Grandin and John Elder Robison, the two great advocates of autism.  These people and their families struggled alone, with no real understanding of autism.  They simply did the best they could with what little they had, because autism wasn't to become more understood until much later.

I am the second generation, to my mind.  If I'd been diagnosed younger, I could have gotten started reading the writings of Temple Grandin and John Elder Robison, along with less well-known authors and psychologists.  Even now, diagnosed as an adult, I do benefit from those writings.  They help me make sense of my world and my perception of people and society.  But I still don't really have other, older autistic people in my life, to whom I can look up to.

That ability, hopefully, will be for the third generation: the autistic kids of today.  Autism is still somewhat of an unknown quantity, and while I can take some heart from writing, a living example of success is much more powerful.  Not every autistic person wants to stand up and be known, since mental illness and developmental differences are still stigmatized.  I intend to be an example for those kids, and the people of the second and first generations.  And an educator, for them and for people who aren't on the spectrum.  Perhaps one day, a generation of autistics will have a wide and strong support network, rather than having to struggle so hard to blend and achieve success. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

LENS and Life, week of 1/5/16

1 site today.  Slow and steady wins the race?

New Title: Coming Someday Soon
I might need to come up with a better title for these posts, in the event that LENS tapers off and stops eventually.  Maybe "Lanyards and Life" if I start getting invited to conventions?  "Laziness and Life" is a little too self-depreciating.  "Learning and Life" is very trite.   Perhaps I should settle on "Legwork and Life" until I can get to "Lanyards and Life."  Referring both to the fact that I'm trying to do 5 day/week exercise (mostly leg-cardio) and the fact that this career is currently in the "legwork" phase, that is, the phase where it's not a paying career and I'm just trying to make the needed connections and outreach to make it a career.

Also, after staring at several pages of words that start with L, the letter L no longer looks like a letter.

Stuff to catch up on since last post... whoof.  Okay.

The Engagement
So at Christmastime, when Chris and I got approval from our respective parents, he had not, in fact, proposed.  We basically just discussed the prospect and mutually agreed.  I did, however, kind of want an actual proposition.  So being the sweetheart that he is, Chris agreed.  Rather than spending a bundle of money, he cleaned out the tub so I could have a nice bath, cooked a double batch of beef stew (yum), lit of a bunch of those tiny tea candles, and scattered rose petals about (along with putting the remaining 10 in vases).

The beef stew turned out pretty good, and we had a good chat about the future and what we meant to each other.  It was pretty awesome.  I know the cultural ideal is to pop the question somewhere expensive and public, with an outpouring of extremely romantic words, but that honestly doesn't appeal to me.  I hate having my emotions on display.  So this was much more pleasant and meaningful.

We still don't have a date because of the next point of business...

Apartment Hunting
Continues with a vengeance!  It must end! (please?  I'm so tired of meeting new people...)  At this point we've visited 5-6 places, and put in two applications.  It looks like the last one is going to be our favorite, not because I'm worn out, but because the place is spacious and has basically everything we want for a reasonable price.

We were looking for lots of space (so both of us can be comfortable), 2 bedrooms, a reasonable price, garbage disposal, trash, parking for two cars, maintenance on site, lots of 3 prong outlets, included snow removal, AC/heat, and decent soundproofing.  There were other things we wanted, like a dishwasher, central AC, storage unit, and a no-smoking policy for the outdoors.  We got basically everything we wanted.  So this should make things a lot less stressful.

I don't mind living in a sardine can much, but it's not a good situation for living together.  That said, the moving process is going to be stressful...  I have my minivan, which carries a lot of stuff.  So on weekends we can probably just load the thing up and go back and forth a bit.  Still, I'm not overfond of living in two places at once, constantly wishing you had this thing or that thing in the other building, and tossing things into boxes only to take them right back out again.

Other Life Improvements Incoming
So one thing Chris has been having trouble with is sleep.  His bed is substandard at best, right now.  He prefers a nice soft bed, and hasn't really had much luck with that in either the bed he bought for his life in CT or the bed he's using right now.

I, on the other hand, am fairly happy with my Sleep Number bed (a gift from my generous grandmother) but it won't do for us as a couple, since it's twin sized.  The solution is to get another one of similar quality to the first, but bigger.

We've been tossing the idea around for months at this point.  The only major issue with the idea is the cost.  Chris noted that they were having a sale a few days ago, so we stopped by to check out the available discounts and beds.  It turns out we get a discount, since I count as an owner.  More importantly, as long as you make the regular payments on a Sleep Number bed, they don't charge interest on financing for 2 years.  And you could finance the entire thing, without minding a down payment.

Given how poorly Chris has been sleeping, we opted to buy a bed that same day: a p5 model.  It's not too plushy (as Sleep Numbers go), but should have plenty of soft for his back and plenty of firm for mine.  After budgeting carefully, we figured we'll be able to make the monthly payments without too much issue.  So that's going to happen.

I'm keeping my bed, though.  It's too good a bed to ditch, and we have a second bedroom.  We probably won't have guests much, but between that and the fact that I'm definitely a night owl, I think it'll still get use and appreciation.

In addition to the bed, Chris and I now have a Costco membership.  This would be all but useless to us, except that we're also planning to get a chest freezer.  Costco and other bulk stores are great for businesses and large families, and usually terrible for small families, single people, and couples.  Other than toilet paper and paper towels, you don't usually need an industrial-sized anything.

However, there are a few things Chris and I go through pretty quickly: ground bison, frozen fruit, and granola bars, for instance. These things are much cheaper at Costco.  My current freezer is practically stuffed full, but with a chest freezer, I would be able to cook soup, stew, or stir fry far in advance, then simply store those meals for later.  This is, as far as I can tell, the prime tactic for people who hate cooking or are simply time-crunched.  I've been vastly limited in my ability to do such things, given that my freezer is probably 3 ft. square or less.  $200 for a 7 sq. ft chest freezer should fix that.  And the more stuff I put in it, the less the freezer itself has to work to keep itself cold.  So lots of incentive there. 

Friday, January 8, 2016

Auti-Sim, an online autism simulator

Link here.

This turned up on my Twitter account (realautistic) via the /r/autism subReddit.  The game itself is hosted on an online game website called Kongregate. 

Out of morbid fascination, I decided to try it.  I say "morbid" because the simulator is meant to demonstrate how it feels to have sensory issues.  I already have sensory issues.  As such, the game was very likely to give me a headache.  And it did, in fact, succeed.

The game is very simple. It sets you as a kid on a playground, perhaps in a school yard or community playground.  You have basic movement controls (left, right, forward, back, and jump) and camera control (using the mouse), but can't interact with anything or anyone.  (also nothing except you moves)

You start in a safe area, a quiet corner away from the other children.  If your volume is turned on, you can hear the sounds of kids on a playground: shrieking, chanting, calling to each other, with occasional thumping or thuds.  You can hop on the playground equipment, but depending on how close to the other children you go, you start to suffer.  Your vision starts going snowy, like static on the television.  Everything gets painfully louder.  The longer you stay, the worse it gets, until you stumble away. 

Or curse audibly at the screen, get a headache, and stumble away, if you're me.  I've only seen a few sensory overload simulators before, and I hadn't realized how loud it would get.  I queried my fiancee, and he said it was definitely unpleasant.  When you flee away from the other kids back to the edge of the area, the overloading quiets down in a few seconds.  I really wish my overloading quieted down that fast, but it wouldn't be a very good game if once you'd gotten overloaded, you had to sit for an hour somewhere quiet and alone.

The other children are all faceless, wearing the same clothing, and don't look at you or respond to your approach.  This mirrors something I tend to deal with in reality: faces are immensely difficult for me to memorize, and names are even worse.  Clothing changes day by day, so even if all the clothing is different for each person, it's useless as an identifier in the long run.  Finally, the others not responding lines up with the fact that the "weird kid" on the playground usually gets ignored, or worse, mocked.

Other things I noticed about the game:
  1. The colors (especially the sky) are unusually bright.  This is, as I understand it, a kid thing.  Kids often draw the sky in a bright blue, and I read somewhere that this matches their reality.  They see the color of the sky more vividly than we do.  I don't have a scientific reference, but I remember I did spend a lot of time looking at the sky when I was little.  It was bright and pretty and often had puffy clouds or jet trails in it.  
  2. Included in the play equipment is a merry go round (with another kid on it).  Some kids on the autism spectrum find solace in stimming, which can be anything from flapping your hands to full-body spinning.  I'd hoped that perhaps the spinning would allieviate or at least tone down the overstimulation, but no luck.  Same idea with the swings, which I spent much time on as a child.  I think I mainly liked them because they got me up high, but some stimming might've been involved too. 
Finally, the developer of the game included a very important aspect for autistic kids that don't blend well: escape.  If you hop up on the play equipment behind you at the start of the game, you can leap the fence keeping you inside the play enclosure, and from there, run as far away as you'd like.  Autistic people, especially ones that don't speak but even ones that do, will sometimes bolt.  You'll be standing there with them, everything seems to be fine, and off they go.  This causes the parents and caretakers a lot of anxiety, as you can imagine.

I'm not actually sure if they included that option on purpose, or if this is an unfinished version of the game, but I'm glad it was there.  If I'd made the game (no idea how, so props to them for doing so and putting so much effort into it), I'd've made the sounds of the children fade into silence as you get further away, leaving you alone with the calming silence and the beautiful outdoors.

Of course, they'd need to set a timer for your kid to get dragged back to the playground, too.

Overall, this Auti-Sim simulator is good teaching tool in proper context, which I hope I've provided here.  Please do give it a try.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

LENS and Life, week of 12/29

One site today.  

Oof.  This might've been the best Christmas in a decade, but that didn't mean it was any less exhausting.  I effectively ran a metaphorical marathon this Christmas, complete with tons of traveling, a party with 25 new people, flailing between one event and the next, and much much much family time.  After all that exertion, I almost (but not quite) stuck the landing in getting back to my normal life in Michigan.

Yesterday early in the morning we got back from Detroit.  Directly after that, despite sleeping less than 5 hours, I threw myself into unpacking.  Last Christmas some of the smaller presents quite literally sat around until October or November, due to my inability to find a place for them.  I was determined that this Christmas, that would not happen.  I think I succeeded!  Clothes all put away, small edibles stored where I can easily devour them, larger presents put away, gift cards redeemed, etc.  I still need to stow my suitcase (actually, I need to get a new suitcase), but other than that I'm done!

Chris and I are looking for a place to live together in lieu of a house.  At present, I live in a tiny studio apartment of unnecessarily high rent costs for minimal conveniences.  He's hoping to get a 2 bedroom so we can have lots of space.  To that end, when he got out of work, we went to go see an apartment complex somewhat closer to his workplace.  It was pretty good, but was lacking a few features we'd like.  So we'll keep looking, but may end up there.  There are two other places, one of which I will likely see later today.  I'll be a little sorry to ditch this little apartment. It was my first home that was actually mine in name, rather than simply a dorm room or apartment.

So as this entry will post in the new year, I'll mention a couple things I'd like to do this coming year (starting now, but really getting serious come January).

1.  I need to start cooking more.  On this trip, I was fed lavishly by both my mother and Chris' mother.  The food was delicious, but more than that, it was filling.  It stuck with me.  I noticed that as the day wore on, I didn't get hungry and tired and miserable as much.  That could be partially because I was eating too much, but I'd bet it's also because the food was varied and nutritious.  In the past I've been trying to cook and eat more healthily, but it's hard because I hate cooking and don't have much freezer space.  Perhaps I can acquire more freezer space in the next place, but either way, I need to step up my game.  The more energy I have, the more likely I am to get things done and feel good about it.  And I need that right now.

2.  Somewhat contrary to point 1, I'd like to lose about 30 pounds over the course of the next year.  I was trying to lose 10ish last month, and it really just didn't work.  I limited calories, I stepped up my exercise, I started cutting sugar out of my diet, and lo and behold, I weigh just as much as I did before I started paying attention.  This is depressing.  Also bad for my knees.  It needs to stop.  I lost my 5 days a week momentum for exercise when the holidays began, but I'll be working my way back up to that as things settle down.  If Chris and I end up moving, I'll get some exercise hauling our stuff around, too.  Ideally, with better eating and the same amount of exercise, I should actually shed pounds.  If I don't, I'm going to have to head to the doctor and get my glands checked.  Maybe I can do that in conjunction with getting my sleeping checked...

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Christmas Report 2015

Well, this holiday season was... uh... unique.  In the past I've spent holidays depressed or overall just uncomfortable most of the time.  This holiday season, I spent running around like a maniac, trying to see everybody and do everything as much as possible.  Two important discussions had to happen.  Surprisingly (to me) I didn't have a mental breakdown more than once, and that one wasn't even for very long.  Someone emotionally suckerpunched me, but I might've gotten through the entire holiday tears-free if she hadn't.  So a pretty good holiday by comparison to other years!

Getting There
We (Chris and I) left on Friday the 18th, a full week before Christmas proper.  This was because we wanted to spend time with both his parents and mine, and also because it turned out he had more vacation days than we'd originally thought.  So the 18th was full of driving.  14 or so hours of driving.  Oh boy...

I used to just drive the whole bebolten trip myself, in one shot, with no breaks.  It was miserable, but it got me there quickly.  This year, Chris and I drove in shifts.  2-4 hours per shift, as equal as we could get it.  His idea.  It worked pretty darned well, and while both of us were quite eager to be done with the trip, neither of us were miserable at the end.  Well, except for the backaches.  We took his car, which has shoddy back support.  We splurged on some fast food on the way.  In my defense, I chose stuff that had almost no sugar in it.  (You wouldn't believe how hard that is in fast food.  Everything is chock full of sugar.  I ate mozzarella sticks twice.)

The First Few Days
 ...weren't so bad.  We opted to stay at my parents' house, which I feel more comfortable in than at Chris' parents.  The real reason for doing so was Chris' lungs, which are asthmatic.  The area itself annoys his lungs, but his parents' house in particular, being so old, makes him wheezy and miserable. So with his mother's blessing, we moved into my room and my brother's old room.

We spent some time in the morning recombobulating (opposite of discombobulating), got some foodstuffs for my morning smoothie, then went to see a mutual friend of ours.  Several relaxing hours of hanging out (and much sugar, because his mother is serious about holiday sweets) ensued!  It was a good time.  I wish we could hang out with him more often, but we'll have to settle with gaming over the Internet.  I've been trying to drag him to Michigan, but sadly he does not seem terribly inclined to do so.

The next day was Sunday, and it involved church, a handbell concert, and seeing the new Star Wars movie with Chris' family.  All of which was fine, if travel-intensive.  Won't spoil the movie here, but do go see it.  It's not a flawless movie, but it was fun to watch and I think it's done some excellent things.

After that, the entire Monday save the early morning was spent with Chris' family.  This was also the day I finally informed the family I'm autistic (Important Discussion 1 of 2), and passed his mother my business card for this blog.  So it's probably safe to say she'll read at least a smidgen of my writing.  I'd previous tabled this discussion because I prefer to be a person first, autistic second.  I didn't inform Chris himself that I'm autistic until months after we'd been talking regularly and he'd asked me out.  That was so he would get to know me for me, and then learn the diagnosis and what it meant as it related to me specifically.  Autism is not a nice, well defined, simple diagnosis, and the people with it are vastly different.  Also I hate being stuffed into a box labeled "mentally unwell."  That box can also read "subhuman" depending on who you're talking to.

Chris absolutely hated that we didn't tell his family.  Hated hated hated.  He's usually pretty easygoing, but he didn't like having to be evasive about it.  I was candid about pretty much everything else, including that I'm sensitive to light and sound, and I did talk about my volunteering at Puzzle Partners and  my plans to write a book and educate about autism.  Like Chris, neither of his parents are stupid.  So his mother guessed, but didn't say anything beyond trying to pry the information out of Chris.  Suffice it to say, Chris got very tired of making excuses for me.  So now that's all over and it remains to be seen how the fallout will land.

The Flex Days (not as flexible as I'd've liked)
The next couple days weren't marked off for either family, sans that both dinner slots were taken.  We were planning on taking those days easy, splitting them between the two families, or getting some shopping done, perhaps.

Well... we got the last one done, anyway...  My uncles are both hard to shop for.  So unfortunately, I spent a good portion of the time trying to find just the right thing for one of them.  And mainly being unsuccessful.  Also, nearly at the last minute, Chris decided we should go and see one of his friends from college, and visit "his old stomping ground" as he put it.  I have mixed feelings about this friend, but given that Chris gave up living there to come be with me, I didn't want to say no.  So we went, and it turned out to be pretty okay.

The first of the two marked off dinners was a nice dinner with my parents.  My mother cooked, and she made some excellent bison stew.  It was somewhere between stew and pot roast, in the end, but quite tasty and served with various sides.

The second dinner was with both sets of parents at the local fancy restaurant.  We dragged them there to get the families together and also to get their blessing, because this (Important Discussion 2 of 2):

Check the fingers if it's not making sense.
So technically Chris hasn't proposed yet, but because I'm vastly nontraditional and he's okay with that, we basically agreed that we'll be getting married sometime next year.  The next step was to find a ring, which we did.  It was annoyingly expensive, so we split the cost of the ring and decided that it would serve as my wedding ring.  (Seriously, why would you buy something super expensive and then not wear it once you got another one?  Bah.)  All that was left was to get our parents together, see how well they got along, and ask politely for their blessing.  I didn't really expect any objections, and I didn't get any.  My father was the only one who actually remembered to formally bestow his blessing, once the subject was broached, but I got the feeling Chris' parents were pleased as well.

When the check for the meal came, I tried to ninja it (grab it stealthily) from the table so I could pay it.  Chris and I aren't really well off, but it was a special occasion.  I really thought I was going to get away with it, because my dad was distracted and he's the best at ninjaing checks.  But in a stunning turn of events, my mother, who usually never involves herself in the antics, stopped my attempt dead by killing my check-stealing arm's momentum.  Which sadly gave my dad enough time to notice the altercation.  So I lost the check, which was then split between both parent sets.  Someday, I will properly ninja a check from my parents.  But apparently not this Christmas.

The Double Whammy
Which brings us to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.  Christmas Eve was spent with Chris' family.  I managed to escape the decorating because I need to prepare for running a D&D adventure for Chris and his brothers.  Of course, that meant that I had to run an adventure for Chris and his brothers.  Lots of talking, lots of sitting still, and lots of face to face.  I like both his brothers, mind, or I wouldn't have done it.

Also exhausting was the ever-present camera flash and the sounds of food prep.  I'm light and sound sensitive, especially when tired, and their house is dark.  So basically every photo (sans those with me in them) involved the flash, and that meant a lot of them having to warn me, and a lot of me hiding my poor eyeballs behind my hands.  I hope there aren't too many pictures of me like that.  It's not exactly a dignified posture.

The food, though, was delicious.  Apparently Chris' parents raised a couple sheep previously, so then they had lamb to serve us.  Also, during their work as large animal veterinarians, they acquired some frozen pheasants.  I'd never had pheasant, and rarely had sheep, so both were treats.

We had birthday cake for dessert.  Chris and I had planned to get his mother presents, but we also wanted to treat her a bit, so we planned to make a cake.  As it turns out, we badly needed my mother's help to make the cake.  Fortunately, she kindly made herself available despite not being able to taste the cake.  It turned out well, and was enjoyable.

Christmas day was a whole 'nother animal.  The morning was fine: presents and breakfast with my parents.  Sadly, that wasn't even a third of the day.  Most of the day was either spent at my aunt's huge party, or traveling to and from that party.

The party was... extensive.  My aunt and uncle have a largish house, and they threw the party there.  My aunt's entire family was there, some 25 people.  Each of which we had to be introduced to.  Thankfully they didn't seem to mind that we were basically poleaxed by the whole thing.  I spent a portion of the first hour showing people the ring and announcing our (soon-to-be) engagement.  Mostly the responses were "oh, congratulations!" which as far as I can tell is about par for the course.

The main festivities ended with a Yankee Gift Swap (like a white elephant gift exchange, only with gifts you might actually want.  Mostly).  Thirty-three people lined up to go through the wrapped presents.  Chris' present (a massive box of Lindt truffles) got stolen four times, while my headphones/portable battery charger/gift card combo got stolen once.  People were mainly good humored about the whole thing, fortunately.  After that, my aunt's side of the family sort've drifted off, leaving one of the largest piles of dishes I've ever seen in my life.  Chris took exception to this, and started washing the ones that couldn't go through the dishwasher.  I was busily hiding in a back room, but he called me to dry the dishes he'd finished with, so I ended up lending a hand. 

In the meantime, my mother and father broke out the piano and carols, which I enjoyed immensely.  My parents are both trained musicians, and I don't get to hear them sing and play very often anymore.  After they got through four or so carols, they quit to help with the dishes.  I'd set up my tablet to play The Messiah, which I'd sung in the past and enjoy very much, and my father drifted over to listen and sing along.  Even aging, his voice is still excellent, and listening to him enjoy the various difficult solos and chorus parts of The Messiah was really fun.  It made drying the piles of dishes much less of a chore.  

Well, until another relative broke it up, anyway.  I guess The Messiah wasn't the Christmas music she wanted to hear.  So I spent the rest of the dishes fuming over the loss of my sanity-restoring  music.

My aunt practically fell over herself in expressing her gratitude about the dishes, though.  I was initially really not pleased about drying a mountain of dishes, but the worse option would have been her having to do all of them herself.  After thinking about it, I was reminded of a saying: "House guests enjoy themselves and then leave, but family sticks around to clean up afterwards."  I was tempted to repeat the saying, but realized it might've been slightly insulting to my aunt's family (since they didn't stick around, after all).

After the dishes came presents, and after presents we all went home.  Except Chris and I, who had to stop and see the two friends from previously.  Both of them had missed the news of the ring and soon-to-be engagement, and we didn't want to miss telling them in person.

So at that point, we got back to my parents' place around midnight, just in time to hurriedly throw things into suitcases and the car.  Around that time I checked my messages and email, only to find an upset message from another relative.  She was very upset that I didn't call her with the news of my impending engagement, and the messages had the taste of passive-aggression to them (sucker punch 1 of 1).  So on top of the exhaustion from the holiday and the whirlwind of everything, I now felt emotionally awful twice over.  I'd emailed her and her husband with the news, and had talked to her husband earlier in the day (and told him the news), but I guess that wasn't good enough.  So then there was about 5 minutes of carefully concealed crying, because my parents really didn't need me being upset around them to add to the stress, because... about 5 hours later, it was time to drive 11 hours to get to the last stop before home.

The Penultimate Destination
Detroit.  While I saw one of my grandmothers at the big party on Christmas Day, the other had to wait until two days later.  She's bedbound, so it was us visiting or not seeing her at all.  Off we went.  We also had the luxury of seeing my only cousin and her husband.  I'd only met her husband about a month prior, at a funeral, so it was good to see them again.  It was the second time in probably a decade, maybe more.  I got the sense that her husband was trying to feel out the family some.  Which is perhaps understandable.  It's not like he'd really gotten to know us much.

Chris and I opted to get them presents.  Nothing huge, because we're not well off and we didn't really know their preferences for presents anyway.  Additionally, they're sorting through my aunt's estate, so they hardly need more knicknacks or things sitting around.  We got them good quality hot cocoa and some cookie mix- tasty things, but easily consumable.  They seemed very pleased with our choices, which in turn pleased me.  Definitely money well-spent.  I hope to see them again next year.

My grandmother in Detroit is doing as well as can be expected.  She was a little vague, but still basically aware of what was going on.  I find it a little difficult to be around her for long periods of time, as my awkwardness sensors have been finely tuned to keep me from sticking my foot too far down my throat.  Unfortunately, awkwardness abounds when you can't tell if she's understood you or her attention has wandered or if she's just thinking.  Also trying to think what to say is hard.  She wasn't particularly surprised to see the ring, either.  Apparently there were a number of bets going on both Chris' hat and the timing of our engagement.  Go figure.

The Trip Home
After all that, we stayed one more night in Detroit and headed back to Grand Rapids nice and early (read: 6am).  Chris had work on Monday, so I opted to drive so he could sleep in the car.  This was vastly boring for me, but worked out.  We got him to work at 9am, and he started in on his job like we hadn't been across the state on waking up.  I went home and proceeded to unpack the entire car myself (it took 10 trips, I counted).  Then I unpacked all the presents and my suitcase.  Then a winter storm started, and I had to go pick Chris up from work.  He worked from home after we got back, but it was still silly.  Suffice it to say I slept pretty well that night.

And that was the Christmas vacation, at medium length.