A night out on the town

Yesterday I voluntarily subjected myself to sensory overload. Otherwise known as a night out pubbing and clubbing.

I have never learnt the appeal of this choice of enjoying oneself, but I occasionally go when invited, because I think it’s important to share in celebrations with friends and fellow students, to show myself friendly and happy for them. I know that probably sounds a bit stuffy or disparaging, because that’s the kind of language people use when making fun of certain activities, but making fun or being stuffy is not my intention. I’m struggling to find words to express why I choose to do something so unnatural to me. I care about the people around me and want to show this – and am aware that I can find it very hard to show this. It’s very easy for me to inadvertently seem distant and aloof, and I am not good at banter, which is the way that people often show affection for each other. So choosing to go along to a social event is a concrete way of showing myself wanting to be part of the group and caring.

First we went to a pub. I had decided in my mind beforehand that I would buy the first round of drinks – because I know buying rounds is what is done when groups of friends go to the pub, and sometimes I forget or get confused as to when to do it, and if you don’t buy a round that is considered rude and looks like you’re taking advantage of people, whereas buying a round of drinks shows you’re friendly and being part of the group. I decided I should do it first, to get it over with, so I wouldn’t be worrying all night about when to do it and whether I wouldn’t get chance. So it was all clear in my mind what I would do – we would get to the pub and I would ask everyone what they wanted. I know from observation that this is how poeple buy rounds – they don’t declare it, but just ask everyone what they want. So this is what I would do.

It was all clear in my mind until we got to the pub. And then I took in the crowds of people gathered around the bar, people standing, people moving around in all directions with no clear destination, people moving then stopping, people standing then moving, people talking, shouting, laughing, and my mind felt swept away by a sense of chaos. I forced my mind to focus and realised the first step was how to actually get to the bar through the people.

The music was loud and rhythmic. I didn’t dislike it, as such, but it seemed to be pervading my body, taking away my clear sense of myself as an individual, so the boundaries between me and the music were not clear. I tried to focus on the bar, and my companions, trying to see what they were doing and following their lead. I would sometimes feel someone touch my back, to move me aside as they walked by. Every time this made me jump and took a while to process – why was a total stranger touching me? I knew it wasn’t rude. When I was younger I thought people were being rude and intrusive and it made made me angry, but I have since learnt that this is simply what people do in pubs and bars, because of the crowds, and the reduced inhibition from alcohol. They do it to everyone. People brush past people, or touch them to move them slightly, and it’s seen as normal and people don’t mind. But for me, each time it happens, I jump or freeze, momentarily shocked and distracted, losing my focus on getting to the bar.

My awareness and sense of self and general meaning became more and more fragmented. I was no longer a distinct being in my own space, with my thoughts clear. I was somehow merged with crowds and noise – invaded, violated, confused. I knew this was a pub and that people were here to have a good time, but the overall meaning of it eluded me. I didn’t – and still don’t – understand the appeal. My thought process was as follows:

Must buy a round of drinks. Must buy a round of drinks. How does that work again? Must find out what everyone wants. Where are they? How many of them are there again? Are they all here? Can I distinguish them from the many other people? They are all merging in, rather than a separate group. Okay, let me count in my mind – oh! My arm – who touched my arm? Who is moving past so quickly? Was I in the way? Must I move? Where are my friends? One’s over there – talking to someone I don’t know. Let me count – yes, I see all of them. Must ask them what they want to drink. Who to ask first? How will I remember all those drinks in my mind? It’s too loud – can’t focus, can’t hear myself think, can’t keep drinks in my mind. What if I forget and turn round to ask them again and I can’t find them, or I can’t remember whose I’ve forgotten?

To my utter relief, one friend said ‘Shall we buy rounds or just buy our own individual drinks?’ and it was agreed to buy individual ones. I focused on reaching the bar, ordering a drink, and taking it to a table with my friends.

Sitting at a table is good. Once I have a seat, I have a spot, which is my space, and no longer being invaded by strangers.  A wave of relief came over me as I sat down. I put my drink on the table and focused on my drink.

But then comes socialising. Socialising is hard anyway, but when your body and mind feel invaded by noise, and your ears are so full of noises of music and crowds that you can’t actually distinguish the separate noise of what your friends are saying, socialising reaches whole new levels of difficulty. My instinct is to zone out, because nothing makes sense, and the effort of making it make sense is exhausting, so it would be much easier to go with the flow and zone out. Then everything could just flow over me, as fragmented pieces of the world, making no sense, and not needing to make sense. But that would be rude – and defeat the whole purpose of going out with friends. So I make myself focus.

I know it’s important to make it look like I’m having a good time, to make people feel comfortable around me, and free to enjoy themselves without worrying about me, so I try to arrange my face in a sort-of smile. Not a huge smile, because to fix one’s face in a huge smile would look unnatural and creepy. So just a general happy sort of look. Even then, I’m aware of its fixed-ness, and try to alter it a bit, so it looks like I’m reacting to what people are saying. When others laugh, I laugh. I focus hard on their lips and try to lip-read. When people look at me to address me specifically, I concentrate extra hard and often say ‘pardon?’ because I didn’t understand.

I remember eye-contact. My eyes more naturally look down lower than the face – there’s too much information in the face, so when someone is not specifically talking, it’s easier to look at their clothes, which are neutral. But eye contact is important, so I make myself look at the faces, and in the eyes. As I am easily zoning out, I must avoid just staring at the eyes – must look at eyes for a few moments, then look away, then look back at eyes, then at forehead. Am I doing it right? How are people mentally responding to my eye contact attempts? I have no idea. I am sometimes aware of eyes fixating for too long, and make myself switch.

Some guy I don’t know comes to stand next to where I’m sitting, to the left of me, and talks to the girl next to me. She chats to him and they banter, not knowing each other, but able to banter. He is young and enthusiastic and fun, and she makes her eyes go big and look up at him. I try to analyse it, to make sense of it. It’s sort of a mating game, these whole bar interactions, where men come over and talk to women, and banter. Some kind of sexual thing – but yet not quite the mating game, because no one seems to be looking for a long-term mate. Just a sort of taste of it – maybe practice for future, or maybe to make them feel attractive and sexy.

My thoughts are brought short by sudden cold wetness! What happened? Everyone is shrieking with laughter. A drink has fallen over, and liquid is all over the table and all over my lap. The bantering man is apologising to the girl next to me, promising to buy her another one, while she’s saying that it’s fine. The drink is dripping from the table. I move my chair away, so the drips don’t go onto me. Everyone is still laughing and chatting about it. I remember that this drink was Southern Comfort and lemonade, and there is some satisfaction – some sense of order in chaos – identifying the exact type of liquid that is on my leggings and my legs.

A little later the friend to the right of me says that she’s getting wet. The drink has spread over the whole table and is now dripping onto her legs. The guy who spilt the drink didn’t think to wipe it up when getting a replacement drink. I don’t like uncontrollable liquid all over the table randomly dripping on different people, so I declare I will go get a cloth. I go to the bar and tell the barman that a drink has been spilt and ask for a cloth. He grabs a blue j-cloth and comes and wipes it himself. I watch the liquid get seeped up by the cloth, and also watch him miss bits. As he goes back to the bar, I see the table is no longer overflowing with liquid, but there are random islands of liquid on the table – little rings of liquid, merging together. I watch them, waiting for them to evaporate. They sort of evaporate, but sticky marks are left on the table The barman can’t have used soap. My mind focuses on the circles of stickiness – they are a good focus. Nice orderly geometrical shapes.

The pub closed at midnight, and then we went to clubs. But the description I’ve just given doesn’t really change a great deal for different settings. I had a couple of drinks, but was very careful to control alcohol intake so that I didn’t become dizzy. If I drink too much (and the threshold is pretty low for me!) then sensory overload is even harder to control, and zoning out harder to stop. My friends, however, drank quite a lot, and remained alert and cheerful and able to banter and know what was going on.

Several times I thought about the fact that my friends saw this night as a good, fun, relaxing time after the hard struggle of an exam they’d just had, and I realised that in terms of difficulty – concentration-wise, focus-wise, effort-wise – I would probably find the exam easier. I was amused by the irony of this. And yet I wasn’t unhappy – the people I was with were nice, easy-going people whom I like. Sometimes I’ve been out with people who seem to look down on me a little and can make snide comments, and this creates emotional discomfort as well as sensory discomfort. But this wasn’t the case here. There was friendliness and goodwill. Furthermore, I had made the choice to be there, and I was glad to be there, because I wanted to be with these people, and I was happy for them that they were so happy – and there was no doubt that they were totally enjoying the night out. And I wanted to be part of that – to share that with them, by being there.

I was also aware that, sensory-wise, the pubs and clubs we went to were not the loudest, and they didn’t have the intense flashing lights that make me automatically zone out. I’ve been to clubs that are so loud, with such intense flashing lights, that I’m actually unable to make myself focus, and zoning out no longer becomes an option that I can prevent by concentrating. So it was nice to have a night out where, although there was sensory overload, I was able to keep hold of some kind of focus.

And yet there remains in my mind a complete lack of understanding of the appeal of this sort of night out. Why do people choose this sort of experience as pleasure? And how does it function as a sort of relief from the stress of exams and a way of celebrating? I don’t get it at all. All I do is observe that it clearly does function in this way, and thus I speculate that the actual experience others get from this setting is totally different from the experience I get.

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19 Comments

  1. If I drink too much (and the threshold is pretty low for me!) then sensory overload is even harder to control, and zoning out harder to stop

    Yep. This is the case for me as well. And it’s usually far too overloading when I’m sober. I usually just end up not going to such outings in the first place, because I know I won’t enjoy them.

    I’ve probably lost friends this way, but I look at it as a positive: if these people were going to force me to go to stuff that made me uncomfortable, and didn’t understand why it made me uncomfortable, they probably weren’t the best friends to start with. I much prefer hanging out with people in fairly quiet places talking about geeky stuff– now that’s enjoyable. ^_^

    • Just to clarify – my friends weren’t forcing me to do anything. They were going out celebrating and invited me, and I chose to go, as I occasionally do. It’s an aspect of their lives that I’d never see otherwise, and part of me is always curious to discover the appeal of these nights out. But yes, I do definitely prefer hanging out with people in quiet places. 🙂

  2. Thanks for this. It’s very insightful, and of course, being me, I immediately came up with an analogy in my mind, which just works that way: Going out with your friends, for you, is like wading into a fast-moving river and allowing yourself to be swept along in the rapid current. Not a fun sensation for you. You need to constantly know where the shore is. If you loose track of it, you might wind up being sucked underwater and drown. But the others around you just allow themselves to be swept along by the current without needing to keep track of the shore. They only need to keep their heads above the water, and if they go under, they trust friends to pull them up. Your friends think river surfing is fun. You don’t. With your sensory sensitivity, this is understandable. 🙂

    • That sort of makes sense. Although I think, to take the analogy further, my friends have some sort of inbuilt navigator thing when they are swept along by the current, to ground them and give them some sort of sense of overall awareness of what’s going on and where they are. Because if I just let myself get carried along, I’d completely zone out or fall asleep or something. I wouldn’t be able to carry on conversation. I have to concentrate to understand the things that the others are understanding automatically. Maybe if I had this inbuilt navigator, it would be easier and more enjoyable.

  3. I think that was very nice of you to go out and celebrate with your friends, even though it was clearly not your favorite activity.
    I also have to say that I love the way you describe how it was for you, because I can almost imagine being there and being in your shoes, because your description is so vivid.

  4. You seem like a very thoughtful friend indeed =)
    Personally, I have no clue why those places are appealing to people either….I just don’t get it or enjoy it myself.
    Thanks for writing, it is always so wonderful to have someone be so honest and open.

  5. That is so interesting Fineline. I have always felt much like this about these sort of occasions and like you have developed coping mechanisms. In later life my main coping mechanism has been to avoid them as much as possible, choosing friends and a lifestyle that are least likely to expose me to this sort of event.

    How vividly you describe it all. It has never occurred to me before that this might be a symptom of some mild autism/aspergers tendency in me. I just thought I was very shy and odd.

    Thanks so much for posting this.

    • Hi MarilynAnn. I don’t think it means you necessarily have autism if you have some of these experiences. A lot of people have sensory hypersensitivity – it’s part of several conditions, and can just be a condition on its own too. And I think a lot of autistic traits are often just extreme versions of traits that everyone has to some extent. Of course, you could be on the autistic spectrum, but please don’t assume you are just because you can identify with some things I write. Lots of people who are not autistic have told me they can identify with some things I write.

  6. I’ve definitely experienced what you’re talking about. Fortunately for me moderate alcohol consumption reduces sensory overload and makes it much easier for me to socialize. I still have to work at concentrating but the background noise isn’t nearly as painful and overwhelming.

  7. After so many years of learning, socialization, and for lack of a better word, a chaotic mind, with no understand of why, and finally discovering that these seemingly unrelated symptoms fall in line with a general condition that others share is the first time I’ve ever felt the ability to relate to other people. Thanks for writing the post. If I had the ability to put experiences of going out on the town into words it would read almost identically to this. I especially can identify with the chaos of the noise and the desire to try to time eye contact and choose suitable facial expressions. When I went on my first date with my [future] wife she later said she felt as if I bored a hole through her by staring right at her eyes without ‘disengaging’. I was so afraid of moving my gaze away and appearing disinterested that I’m lucky I didn’t creep her out! I don’t know if others share this experience, but I never enjoyed going out to bars/pubs but I made myself do it. Even by myself more times than not. The desire to be normal, to figure out the algorithm of acting in those environments, was overwhelming. I kept thinking if I could just study it more, practice more, I could manage to do it and learn to enjoy it. Many times I’ve been told what I wasn’t or wasn’t capable of doing, and each time it has angered me and I have overcome it, especially with respect to education. As to the bar scene, I just never could get it right… Again, thanks for the post.

  8. I’ve never understood how people find drinking and socialising fun. Now I understand with my Asperger’s. Pubs were even worse before smoking was outlawed. I have a very low threshold for alcohol (I get stoned from a quarter glass of wine from the fruit before any alcohol effects) & I hate the taste & smell of beer. Vomiting in public is something I would find humiliating, yet people that drink lots boast about it. Strange creatures!

  9. I have experienced what you experience in loud places like bars or clubs, but I respond differently. One, I always go with someone who will watch out for me. Because I fully intend to allow myself to zone out and merge with the music and sounds. I love to dance, and it is an all encompassing and overwhelming experience because it feels like the music is me and there is no space between us.

    I was not always good at dancing, but I learned the moves in much the way you learn language. I repeated the steps without comprehension in practice, learning it like muscle memory, so that I could do the steps again without thought or concentration.

    I imagine a concert experience (I’m imagining an orchestra) is much better for us because the music is completely overwhelming. It may be contrary to our nature to stop analyzing everything, but it is possible to completely fade out and just experience it, devoid of concentration.

    If you do decide to try this, dance alone and have someone to keep people away from you. People touching me interrupts everything, and I have to orient myself. I guess you wouldn’t have to go to a club to experience what I’m talking about. I am similarly overwhelmed with just my iPod.

  10. Capriwim:

    You must be one of the bravest people I’ve ever met, in person or online. Not to mention one of the most loyal. I could *never* do that.

    Well… I guess I do, kind of, in a *very* reduced way; I go out to coffee shops and to restaurants with friends. And even alone. But they’re definitely not nearly as overwhelming as pubs!

    It doesn’t help, of course, that I won’t touch alcohol with a ten-foot pole. Not necessarily that I disapprove of it – a glass or two of wine can be beneficial to one’s health, apparently – I just: A) am an alpha control freak with respect to control over my mind (which wouldn’t surprise me as being a side-effect of the ASD); and B) can’t tolerate the taste of alcohol. Pretty much every type of alcohol-related drink I’ve tried has a horrible aftertaste to me (my parents – wisely, I think – started letting us have occasional sips of their beer or wine at dinner when we were old enough to ask if we could try some). Even medication with alcohol in it has that aftertaste. Even brandy butter (which I somewhat enjoyed due to the sugar and butter) has that aftertaste, which is part of the reason I’ve stopped taking it. *shrugs* So, that’s a reason to not go out drinking.

    But yeah, the way you describe the experience, it’s very vivid and I can *see* what’s happening. That’s why I said you must be one of the most loyal people I’ve ever met: to do that for your friends, so that they could fully enjoy the end of exams (which, if you’re part of a group, tends to mean that you need to be present as well) means an awful lot.

    (So, how many days of quiet and dark did you need after?)

  11. I’m 27 and I’ve only recently been diagnosed with AS. For most of my life I’ve had real difficulty understanding the things that most people take enjoyment from in life, clubbing/pubbing is among the highest on my list of social activities to avoid. Though, like you, I do very occasionally indulge my friends and go along with them if they are celebrating something big as I don’t want them to think I don’t care and these trips seem to be important to them for some reason.

    Reading your post (though it was made a few years ago now) has really set my mind at ease a great deal, knowing that the way I feel on these nights out is not abnormal, it’s just different to most other people. It’s nice to see somebody else describe the situation pretty much the exact same way I feel about it.

    I especially connected to your extended thoughts on how and when to smile, I’m often told after events that my face “was tripping me”, which upsets me a great deal because I wasn’t intending to send a message of disapproval or of having a bad time, but to me facial expressions are very hard to master, I spend a large amount of my time looking into the mirror practising different smiles and laughs, trying to make them look as natural as possible so that I can use them in social gatherings, but because until very recently I’ve never had any explanation for the reasons behind this, people tend to respond negatively to the fact that I’ve failed, instead of positively to the fact that I’m trying.

  12. That’s a very accurate description of how I feel in the same kind of situation! I always end up zoning out a lot, and in some way it’s kind of pleasant, the overflow of sensory inputs gets all mixed in a homogenous random noise, kind of cancelling its distracting effect. However trying to focus on anything outside of my head becomes extremely hard and tiresome.

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