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A Little Space

photoSometimes I see in my daughter worrisome things about myself. And occasionally those things are fed by her monster.

When Schuyler’s most recent season of Miracle League baseball ended, the trophies hadn’t arrived in time for the last game. For kids who take their participation in a sport very seriously, and also for kids who depend greatly on routine, this was obviously not ideal. Last night, the coaches of her team threw a little party at a local pizza place, in order to at last hand out the trophies and close the season properly.

It wasn’t a large restaurant, and the available space for a large group probably wasn’t optimal. As a result, we were all condensed into a very tight area, with the kids all sitting together at one end and the adults at the other. From where we were sitting, I could see Schuyler trying to manage her place in the crowd, surrounded by her teammates. She had her iPad out, trying to communicate, but other kids were trying to take it away from her, not in a bad way, but simply to try to show her some cool things. These are kids for whom social interactions can be difficult and clumsy. More to the point, many of them didn’t understand that Schuyler’s iPad serves as her voice, and having others take it away from her, even for a moment, can make her very uneasy. And given the chaos of the setting, we weren’t able to help her very much.

I was proud of her, though. She seemed to be holding her own for a while. But as everyone’s food arrived, we suddenly found Schuyler standing next to us. She was on the verge of crying, with tears in her eyes.

“What’s wrong?” we asked. At first she just shrugged, but then she looked back at the tables full of boisterous kids having fun.

“I keep trying to talk,” she said finally, “but no one is listening. They want my iPad.”

We tried to talk her down, to tell her that they just wanted to have fun with her, and if she wanted to, she could put her iPad in its bag and just eat and have fun with them like she does at the games. But I recognized something in her eyes, a kind of panic. No one was doing anything wrong to her. They weren’t being mean or careless. But still. I understood.

“Schuyler,” I said. “Are there just too many people over there? Do you want to go sit by ourselves for a few minutes?”

She nodded, a look of relief on her face. She grabbed her plate and I grabbed mine, and as Julie remained at the table with the other parents and explained that Schuyler just needed a break, I went and sat at a nearby table with her. She looked better almost immediately.

All my life, I’ve felt anxiety when cut loose in large groups where I don’t know people very well. I’m fine at conferences, I think, because I’m there with a purpose, and the people I talk to know who I am and why I’m there. I’ve spoken at more of them than I can count at the moment, and I’m perfectly comfortable in that setting. But put me at a party, or a mixed media event like the ones I used to attend in Dallas right after the book came out, before the social anxiety just became a little much for me? I become overwhelmed by shyness, and panic. It frequently happened at a writers’ gathering I used to attend way back in the day, and I read accounts afterwards by people who described me as snobby or aloof. The truth was simply that I was paralyzed by my anxiety.

Schuyler seems to feel that same social anxiety, and it manifests itself in the same way. If Schuyler feels comfortable with even a few people in a gathering, she’s a social butterfly, and an explosion of personality. But it’s different when she’s on her own, with no supports and no comfortable narrative to follow. For Schuyler, with communication being as fragile as it is for her, her social anxieties can feed on her in ways I probably can’t imagine. She’s not on the autism spectrum, nor am I to my knowledge, but in those settings, surrounded by people she doesn’t really know but who come at her with a startling familiarity, a kind of sensory overload shuts her down.

I don’t know why it was so bad for her last night. It’s not like these kids were exactly strangers. But off the baseball diamond, they were different, and she couldn’t cope. And I got it completely. She needed a little space.

As we sat at our little table, she poked at her food with an embarrassed look on her face.

“Schuyler,” I said. “Want to hear a secret?”

She nodded.

“I was really glad you asked to move,” I said. “See all those other grownups? I didn’t know any of them, and I was having a hard time talking to them. I was feeling really overwhelmed, too. Just like you. Thank you for rescuing me.”

Schuyler smiled at that, and things were better. Her coaches came over after a while to check on her and to give her her trophy, and she said goodbye to the kids she knew as they left. She never did feel comfortable enough to rejoin them all, but she was happy with how it turned out, and I guess I was, too.

We’ve all got our monsters, and rarely do any of us have just one. Schuyler’s got a big, bad one, but she’s got some smaller ones, too. Social anxiety is one of her monsters, one that she shares with me.

And that’s fine, so long as we can find a little space from time to time.

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  1. Julie Vesely
    November 11, 2013 |
  2. Vicki Tennant
    November 11, 2013 |
  3. Sue
    November 11, 2013 |
  4. Susan
    November 11, 2013 |