I recently spent a few days at a conference where I had the opportunity to share my story with an audience of about 60 people. I was not only telling about my lived experience with suicide loss as an autistic adult, I was also advocating for crisis supports for the autism community. I wanted to do this, knowing ahead of time that nothing good is ever easy.
Attending the conference required me to travel about 2/3 across the continental US, present a Thought Leader speech for an hour, be exposed to many types of social situations, and to accept help (not one of my strengths). My comfort zone was stretched beyond recognition.
First, flying is for the birds. The sensory challenges on an airplane can be compared to a torture chamber. The smells are just best left un-smelled. Touch is imminent, abrasive, and can last as long as the flight depending on how full the plane is and who you are sitting next to – or between. When my ears are not popping due to cabin pressure, they are being assaulted by a cacophony of noises, such as babies crying, people talking or chewing or sneezing, shuffling of feet, and the rustling of over a hundred people trying to get comfortable. I also felt all kinds of emotions as I was tightly packed together with everyone else on the plane. Earbuds, a favorite jacket or sweater to cocoon in, focusing on your own allotted space, and reading a good book are some ways to diminish the sensory challenges of the inside of an airplane.
Additionally, in an airport, time is not honored – it is either bullied and shoved around – or neglected. Knowing that time can be a variable in traveling can help alleviate the stress of delayed and cancelled flights.
At the conference, the social interactions with people, although my interactions were positive, left me feeling like a deflated balloon. I enjoyed talking with the people I met; even so, the process of making small talk for a lengthy period of time just leaves me feeling spent. For me, it’s easy to get beyond the breaking point of socializing, even if I want to do it and I’m having a great time. Self-care has to be a priority, even when there seems to be no time for it. I thought I could manage all the social interactions of a huge conference as the co-chair of the Autism and Suicide committee, which added more talking, and catch up with self-care when I got home. Nope, self-care has to be in real time.
Sharing my story brought out a hoard of traumatic memories that shattered my sense of safety to the point where I needed help to finish the conference and make it home. I needed help in presenting my third and final workshop, and in coping with the vividly realistic traumatic memories. All my coping skills were maxed out and I still needed someone to help me get back on track. I accepted the help offered by my friends at the conference. Walking and talking, sitting quietly together, encouragement, ideas on diminishing traumatic memories, and being understood was healing for me.
Here’s the million dollar question… Was it worth it?
Yes! I think it was worth it. Like I said at the beginning, nothing good is every easy. Advocacy for crisis supports, resources, and suicide prevention is needed for the autism community. The trip definitely brought me so far out of my comfort zone that I couldn’t even find it for a while, but that was temporary. The story I shared and the advocacy work I did there was permanently received with open hearts, other autistic adults found out they weren’t alone, and the autism community had a voice about our needs around the issue of suicide. I’ll say it again – nothing good is ever easy, and I’ve found that my comfort zone got a bit bigger through all those growing pains.