My Love/Hate Relationship with Concerts: Stimming Joy & Sensory Overload

I’ve loved music as long as I can remember… from singing along to “Shout” by Tears for Fears on MTV before I could properly talk to stim-listening to the same Manic Street Preachers song repeatedly, music has featured in my life in one way, shape or form.

My first ever concert experience was 25 years ago today – 15th July 1993 at Melody Fair Theatre in North Tonawanda, New York.  I was 8 years old and attended The Moody Blues “A Night at Red Rocks” tour, my first outing alone with my parents since my brother was born a little over four years prior (he stayed with my grandparents while we went to the concert)… I remember feeling really excited to get the alone time with my parents, and I really liked The Moody Blues’ music.

(Before anyone decides to poke fun or anything, how many 8-year-olds do you know with their own taste in music that was not at all influenced by their parents?)

Because this was 25 years ago and I’ve slept a lot since then, I only remember snippets from the whole experience.  Melody Fair had a circular stage in the middle of a dome-shaped structure which slowly rotated throughout the concert (the stage, not the building!)… at one point as the band rotated past us, bassist John Lodge waved at me!  I remember one of my foam earplugs fell out (knowing me, I was probably fiddling with it because it felt funny or something) and I couldn’t believe how loud it was.  I looked to my dad for help and he whisked me out of my seat to the rear of the auditorium to put my earplug back in and settle me down.  We went back in and enjoyed the rest of the show.  I loved the feeling of being immersed in the music and seeing a band that I had only ever seen in music videos on TV in person.

We didn’t know back then that I was autistic or had sensory sensitivities; my dad was acting as a concerned and attentive parent, ensuring that his young daughter’s hearing was protected.

Fast forward 25 years.

I can’t remember how many concerts I’ve been to, but I’ve seen The All-American Rejects nine times between 2003-2012 and Manic Street Preachers nine times as well between 2010-2018, so that’s at least 18 concerts… Roger Waters three times (twice The Wall 2011 & 2013 and once US+THEM 2018)… Flight of the Conchords twice (2010 & 2018)… you get the picture.

The phrase “I like going to concerts” is a bit of a misnomer.  Being a pedantic amateur linguist, the more accurate phrase for me would be “I like actually being in my seat and watching the show in my own little bubble and ignoring the rest of the world around me while immersed in the music & lights”.  I have continued with wearing earplugs to concerts, more recently really enjoying using Flare Audio Isolate Mini earplugs, as the sound isn’t muffled and you end up listening through bone conduction.  The rumbling bass and pounding drumbeats reverberate through me and the lighting is colourful and fun to watch.  Being at the concert itself is a full-body stimming experience, which may be overwhelming for some, but when in the right headspace, I love it.

However, it’s the before and after that almost always ruins the enjoyable experience for me.

I’ll use our most recent experience attending the Flight of the Conchords show in Birmingham a few weeks ago as a prime example of what I struggle with most.

We were in the midst of the seemingly neverending heatwave in the UK… temperatures were between 84-90°F (29-32°C).  Very little breeze.  Not really humid, but quite uncomfortable.  My husband and I arrived at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) complex in Birmingham, parked the car and walked towards Genting Arena.  It felt like it was taking absolutely ages to get to our destination… the heat certainly wasn’t helping things.  We stopped to get something to eat about 3/4 of the way to the arena itself at The Piazza within the NEC itself.  Even going inside, there was no respite from the heat – no air conditioning, no real air movement at all.  The restaurant we stopped at wasn’t very busy to start, but quite soon loads more people arrived and the quiet table we had to ourselves soon had people sitting at every other table near us, and because they were quite close together, individuals would invariably brush past or bump into me as they were walking to their tables from ordering within the restaurant.  Once or twice, I could forgive, but by the fifth or sixth time, it was getting my hackles up, especially as I was still trying to finish my dinner.  As soon as we were finished, we moved away from the restaurant’s seating area and sat at another small table in the Piazza’s open area, spending a little time catching up on Facebook and the news in general for several minutes before heading to the arena.

The walk to the arena wasn’t too bad, other than having to negotiate walking around pairs and small groups of people, which isn’t easy when you have subtle proprioceptive difficulties and somewhat dyspraxic tendencies that are exacerbated by being fatigued and overheated.

Following the Manchester Arena attack last year, security checks at concert venues have been ramped up, which I’m absolutely fine with; however, I am always very self-conscious when I find myself fumbling with the zippers on my rucksack and there’s a queue of people behind me watching, as well as the security officer waiting for me to get my bag open… this little spike of anxiety makes me less dexterous and fumble more, which I then think makes me look guilty somehow, even though I know I’m not bringing anything dangerous or illegal in with me.

Once beyond security, the overwhelm begins.  The arena’s Forum Live area is “the place to grab some food, meet friends for a drink and listen to some fantastic unsigned acts on the Forum Live stage before the main event”… food stands, alcohol purveyors, merchandise stands, music performers, and even charity collectors from Guide Dogs UK – the poor dogs looked so miserable, it was so loud and hot.  There were people everywhere… it was so noisy, and trying to navigate through the crowd was causing another anxiety spike.  We joined a sort-of organised crowd queue system in front of the merchandise stand, which gave us time to have a look at what was available to buy.  I settled on a set of enamel pins – Bret & Jemaine’s faces and a stylised FOTC logo like the pop art LOVE sculpture.

After getting a pint of cider, we found our seats and settled in for the show.  I finally was able to settle down and feel calm.

Eugene Mirman opened the show and was very funny.  Having seen him in FOTC’s HBO show and being a voice actor for shows like Archer and Bob’s Burgers, it was a bit surreal to see him in person.

The Conchords took the stage to a warm reception from the crowd.  The stage set was very simple – a couple of chairs, microphones and their instruments (including a piano) – and the plain backdrop behind the duo acted as a canvas for a colourful PARcan light show.  The show itself was absolutely brilliant and I thoroughly enjoyed it… some new songs we’d never heard before mixed in with several familiar tunes from the TV show.

Then the show ended and it was time to depart.  The difference between the NEC and the NIA (now Arena Birmingham) is that the NEC, while near the Birmingham International Airport railway station, I don’t think many people travelled by train; due to the show’s scheduled end time, the last train would have already left.  The NIA is within short walking distance to both New Street and Snow Hill stations, and thus people tend to disperse in multiple directions from the NIA, whereas from the NEC, it seemed that the majority of people were heading in the same direction towards the car parks.

Walking out of the arena, I kept my earplugs in and I was so glad I did.  Even through my earplugs, it sounded like a cacophony walking through the Forum Live area towards the arena exits, almost like the roar of the ocean in a storm.  I clung to my husband so we didn’t lose each other in the crowd.  As soon as we got outside, I took myself off the footpath onto the grass to catch my breath.  I had to build myself up for the long walk back to the car.

Along the footpath to the car parks, there were pedestrian tunnels and pinch points along the way, which led to the throng of people to stop outright periodically.  Even though it was getting close to 11pm by this point, it was still quite stiflingly warm and I was exhausted… I just wanted to get back to the car.  I didn’t want to be stuck in amongst the crowd of people, hot and sticky and worn out.

When we finally got back to the car, trying to leave was nigh on impossible.  The cars were queuing, pulling out of their car parking spaces cutting others off rudely, and only inching forwards every few minutes.  We were stationary for nearly 45 minutes before we noticed that a second exit to the car park was opened, and we managed to loop the car around to leave that way.  Due to traffic jams (unclear as to the cause), we ended up taking a little detour to get back on the motorway we needed to head home whilst avoiding the long queues on the roads off the NEC campus.

Granted, this was highly unusual and we’ve never experienced a departure from a gig like this… the last time I was stuck leaving an event was easily back when I was still living in Western New York and was trying to leave a Sabres game from downtown Buffalo.

The sensory overwhelm and stress caused by all of this almost made me completely forget about the enjoyable experience I had at the show itself.

My biggest frustration is that being autistic and having sensory needs is not quite recognised by venues like this, nor even by government support offices (I tried applying for Personal Independence Payments to have evidence of need for access, but was declined because I’m too capable of looking after myself… that will be another blog for another day).  The NEC’s website has a section about accessibility for those with physical needs and disabilities, but no indication of how to support autistic guests.  Having a separate accessible entrance & exit and perhaps a shuttle between the car park & venue would have greatly reduced the stress I experienced.  I suppose it’s about raising these kinds of issues and making these venues aware of how they could support guests with invisible disabilities and conditions… but whether they would be open to accommodating us remains to be seen.

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1 year, 1 month and 24 days later…

…I walk into the clinic’s group room with my dad, my husband and meet the psychiatrist and the speech & language therapist (from my first two appointments).  The time is 10:00am.  We break the ice talking about tea before getting down to business.  We talk… a lot.  I cry… a fair bit.  My dad speaks… I speak… Paul doesn’t say too much, but what he says is helpful and relevant.  Hours pass.  Around 13:30 (at an estimate, because I wasn’t actively looking at my watch), the psychiatrist said that she was still unsure about me.  She felt that we had to address “the elephant in the room” before proceeding with the discussion about whether I am autistic or not – the underlying and apparent feelings of rejection I possess which run very deep.

The rejection primarily stems from my mother, which really is unsurprising; it’s just that I’ve just not had it reflected back to me in that way before.  I could sense the shift in her attention from the age of four and a half when my brother was born.  I could sense that she didn’t want me “in the way” when my brother was having his speech therapy sessions (with her best friend) and his occupational therapy sessions (because he had balance & coordination difficulties).  I could sense her pushing me away after I reconciled with my dad because I didn’t tell her straight away in case we fell out again (despite it being none of her business) because she thought we were conspiring against her somehow (ridiculous, I know).  I knew she had “wiped her hands clean of me” on 13th July 2008 when the last phone call I had with her concluded with her saying, “Have a nice life” before hanging up the phone to me indefinitely (still haven’t spoken with her since).

The second stem of rejection came around the end of high school.  I don’t think I could cope with the prospect of my school routine being thrown completely into turmoil by graduating and going to university.  I think I felt like my circle of friends were more ready to move on than I was.  I am obviously looking back on events that occurred over 14 years ago, so I can only guess what I was actually feeling at the time because a) I can’t completely remember and b) I don’t think I even knew at that time.  In order to feel some semblance of control, I felt like I needed to distance myself from my friends, completely cutting myself off from them.  I did not attend anyone’s graduation party and I did not have one of my own.  When my friends came round to try to talk to me to find out what was wrong, I refused to go out and speak to them.  I didn’t know what to say or how to face them.  I was hurting, I was embarrassed, I was confused.  I wanted to apologise but I didn’t know how or what to say.

The third stem of rejection was losing my job just after returning from our honeymoon.  In brief, I interviewed for a career enhancing position with an independent fostering agency after I had about three years of experience as a Local Authority social worker.  They briefly threw the word “recruitment” (of new foster carers) into the interview, and because I wanted the job, I said that I’d be open to learning about how to do it.  After I started, it became apparent that despite my job title officially being “Supervising Social Worker” my actual role was to go out and recruit my own caseload of new foster carers.  For someone without additional (and at the time unknown) difficulties, this would seem a steep request.  Counting from the day I started (1st December 2011) to the day they fired me (15th February 2012), a week and a half after I returned from getting married and having our honeymoon (15 working days off), I had actually worked for them for 36 actual days.  How in the hell was I supposed to recruit ten new sets of foster carers in 36 working days where the Christmas period was smack in the middle of it all??  I think it boiled down to a personality conflict with my line manager, who was on one day nice as anything, and the next day could be extremely unapproachable.  I didn’t like her approach and she didn’t give me any sort of actual support in doing the recruitment, even after I asked for help because she expected me to “use my initiative” but that’s very hard to do when you don’t even know where to start.  I’d spend 8 hours sat behind a table with leaflets on it and a pull-out standing poster behind me in a supermarket foyer, hoping somebody would come and talk to me (as I could not badger customers coming in or going out of the store).  It was hell.  It was demeaning.  It was embarrassing.  I’m glad I didn’t end up being there very long, but I’m painfully embarrassed to the pit of my stomach about being fired from there.  I had never failed at anything so severely before in my life and I wanted to die.  I was miserable for weeks and struggled to find long-term work after that.  After several short stint jobs (teaching assistant, outreach worker, SEN Casework Officer for three months), I finally landed the fixed-term contract with the authority just south of where I live and was there for ten months before landing the post I’ve been in for two years (as of the 1st of August).  I don’t talk about this period of my life much because it caused me so much turmoil and grief.  Not long after losing that job, Paul and I were faced with having to move out of the annexe and move into the house Paul grew up in, with his mother.  The plan had always been for this house to eventually become ours, but we were newly married, I was newly unemployed and had been faced with the biggest rejection I had personally felt in my young adult life.  While one could argue that the rejection from my mother would be more hurtful, she had been gradually rejecting me throughout my life, whereas the job rejection was far more personal and felt much more traumatic.  I think this experience has also reinforced my feelings of being unable to work at a higher level where I’d be managing people… I could not bear the responsibility of causing anyone else that kind of pain.

The psychiatrist said she would not be doing her job properly if she did not address this with me, which I understood and thanked her for because this will ultimately help me be more mindful and recognise things more readily when I find myself feeling down.  Thankfully, she explained how she didn’t think the rejection exclusively explained all my other difficulties.  The other element that stumped them was my ability to read and anticipate from others’ facial expressions, body language, and vocal tones.  I explained that I did train in graduate school to be a social worker who did counselling, as well as studying psychology in undergrad, so it’s hard to say if this is a natural ability or if I have just learned and retained this because of my level of intelligence.

They both said that having read through my information (the many, many pages of it) and speaking with me, there were definite moments where they felt it was clear that I was autistic, but then I’d do something unexpected and sway them back to thinking I wasn’t.  They explained how they have seen many women over time, some blatantly obvious and others who have learned how to mask and cope so well, and that I’m probably at the highest functioning end that they’ve seen – they joked that they’ll need time in a dark room to recuperate from this diagnostic process!! – but that they felt that it would be beneficial for me and my mental health to have a diagnosis at this time, and that if in the future (whether it be the upcoming weeks, months or years) I chose to not disclose it to people or not recognise it in myself anymore, then that would be my choice.  However, I don’t think that is likely to happen, considering that since I had my “moment of clarity” at the Birmingham Autism Show on the 19th of July 2015, I’ve gone through 420 days (or 1 year, 1 month and 24 days) of wondering and seeking validation… and at 14:30 yesterday afternoon, I walked out of that clinic with a smile on my face and a feeling like a massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders.  I walked out into the sunshine with the diagnosis of autism that I had been hoping for.  I feel like while the journey to validation has come to an end, my new journey has just begun: to continue sharing my story, to continue sharing information, to continue adding more to the collective voice of women around the world with autism who may not yet know it or do know it and need help being believed.  We all know our own truths.  This is my truth… tell me yours.

One Hurdle Overcome… One More Left?

Okay so I know I’ve been off the radar again for a little while, so thank you to those of you still hanging in here with me.

Since I last posted about the Autism Shows I attended, I’ve kinda gone into self-preservation mode… working in Special Educational Needs, the end of an academic year is always a trying and manic period of time with schools and parents rushing to get things sorted out for September and us caseworkers get caught in the crossfire.  Whilst I was exceptionally pleased to have had places in special schools obtained for not one but two of my cases (when it was looking unlikely due to lack of spaces), I was finding that my sensory differences were getting the better of me in the office the more stressed and anxious I was feeling.  I have been effectively wearing my sunglasses almost nonstop whilst in the office (only lifting them to the top of my head to speak to a colleague so I could focus better) as well as my iPod (because the noise created in an open-plan office is enough to drive me batty).

I emailed the Autism Assessment Team again on the 5th of July about what kind of time frame I was facing in relation to the Occupational Therapist referral, as I was starting to feel even more acutely anxious about everything.  I reiterated my sensory issues in the office and also wrote the following:

I am so sorely disappointed with everything to do with this diagnostic journey and I had certainly hoped that this would have been resolved already. I simply do not have the financial ability to pay for a private assessment and feel like I’m being treated as a hysterical woman that should not be reacting to things the way I am…  I feel like I’m being punished because I have learned and adapted ‘so well’ over my life thus far because I had no choice but to do so; just because someone has learned to cope does not mean that they don’t experience difficulties at all.

I reiterate again that “the woman in the questionnaire” was the honest and true me… I am experiencing such levels of traumatic despair at the fact that I am not being believed and I do not feel like this is being taken into consideration. I don’t want to go to my GP, break down and get signed off work because all of this being too much for me to deal with, but I almost feel like I have no choice but to do this, even though it won’t make things any better on the work front because the work will still be there, along with everything else!!

I need to know:
a) that the referral to the Occupational Therapist has been made
b) that the appointment will allow full exploration of my sensory differences and strategies to mitigate the stress and anxiety that they cause me
c) what the time frame is for me to be seen because this particular unknown is unbearable

Speaking to my dad about this all, he believes me and agrees that I may very well be autistic and he was astonished that no one from the service contacted him to discuss his questionnaire. I was given the impression that there was nothing of significance in his questionnaire to highlight things that may point to a positive diagnosis; he explained to me that he spent a lot of time on his questionnaire and had fully expected someone to contact him in some way to discuss things further. As such, he will be attending the appointment on the 11th with me and my husband Paul.

Having been to the Autism Shows both in London and Birmingham a few weeks ago has further validated me and given me more fire to pursue this diagnosis. It is very apparent that the further away one lives from London, the harder it is for females to be diagnosed as autistic. If anything, it’s a shame that I attended my appointments prior to attending the Autism Show, because I have come away armed with far more information than I had previously and several well-respected professionals in the field agree that the diagnostic criteria used is based on the young male presentation of Autism and does not take gender variations into consideration, least of all the cultural differences with me being born and raised in America (because I speak perfectly understandable English, I think this element was not taken into consideration at all, as per my letter of the 13th of June).

My mental health should not be suffering as much as it is because of all of this.

Thankfully, I received a response from the OT (I’ll call her Emily) the next day (as I had sent my email outside of office hours).  She said that she was fully booked until late September/early October, but asked if I would be happy to take up any cancellation appointments should they become available.  She also briefly explained what the appointments would entail and that a written report would be provided afterwards.

I wrote back saying that I would be glad to take any cancellation appointments, but that just knowing that it would be late summer/early autumn was extremely helpful; it allowed me to “park” my anxiety so to speak, as there was no point in me staying angsty about it.

Fast forward to Monday the 25th July.  I received an email from Emily saying that a cancellation had come up on Wednesday the 27th July in the afternoon.  I responded straight away saying that I would accept the appointment.

Going back to the same clinic building where I had left so upset and (without wanting to sound too dramatic) a bit traumatised, my anxiety was rapidly climbing upwards, despite me actually feeling relieved that I was finally on my way with the OT component of my diagnostic journey.  I explained this when we got into the room and Emily suggested I try a few assistive items, including rolling balls with rounded-tip spikes on my thighs (where deep pressure receptors are high in concentration – it felt nice on my thighs but not on my hands), weighted lap pads (2kg each – which didn’t do much) and a weighted blanket (7kg – I really liked this one, despite the warm weather on the day).  Emily advised that I only keep the weighted blanket on for about 15-20 minutes and that the effects should last for about an hour or two.  We spoke for a bit, me answering open-ended questions about my sensory sensitivities and sensory-seeking tactics, and after what only seemed like a few minutes, Emily suggested that I take the blanket off… I was absolutely amazed at how calm I felt because it happened completely subconsciously.  When we finished the open-ended questions, we went on to the Adult Sensory Profile questionnaire (Based on the intersection of two continua [neurological threshold and behavioral response/self-regulation], this model describes quadrants identified as Low Registration, Sensation Seeking, Sensory Sensitivity, and Sensation Avoiding), ranking my sensory experiences from 5% or less of the time, 25% of the time, 50% of the time, 75% of the time, or 95% or more of the time (there were word associations with each ranking that I can’t remember but the numbers helped me personally be able to rank myself with each question).  When we were done with the questionnaire, we scheduled a follow-up appointment the next week to discuss the outcome of the questionnaire, how sensory processing works and strategies to help me moderate my sensory differences (because there’s no “cure” for it, just management, which I understood).

Fast forward again to Thursday the 4th August – my second appointment.  I was given the validation that I do experience some sensory differences which are made more apparent/acute depending on my mood (i.e. the more stressed I am, the more sensory sensitive/sensation avoidant I become), which made sense.  We talked through the report and strategies and how the body processes sensory information and where we ideally would like to be in a middle ground between agitated (extreme high end) and lethargic (extreme low end).  Emily also provided me with a list of suggestions for the workplace, because it was clearly identified that I was able to cope in office spaces before but that this particular office space (since we moved to it in October 2015) has been progressively having an impact on my mental well-being the more my sensory differences have been agitated.  I was grateful for the list of strategies/suggestions given and looked forward to discussing them with my manager the next day [side note: chatting about it with my manager was so positive; I sent her an email summary of our discussion which she is going to send to HR to see what can be done to help me out – will update when things happen!].  The suggestions for modulating my sensory differences were quite extensive, many of which I do to some degree already, and I will actively try to put these strategies to use and hopefully improve things for myself.

I left still preoccupied about my third appointment with the psychiatrist next week on the 11th with my Dad & Paul… she said that the appointment should help, regardless of the outcome.  I said again how I’ve been waiting a very long time and in that time have constructed this identity around being an autistic woman, which felt shattered to pieces after the second appointment.  Emily was sort of hinting at how a label of autism could sometimes be more detrimental than helpful and that I should think if it could be anything else…

One of the questions in the first appointment was if I had experienced any abuse in my life, which I flatly replied, “no.”  When Emily asked again in the second appointment if I had experienced any sort of abuse or trauma, and I made the throwaway comment that my mother cutting me off eight years ago probably wasn’t great and that through this process I’ve begun to wonder if she too is autistic… it was then that Emily said I should think if it could be anything else.

I had a 25-minute drive home ahead of me, and when I was sat in a queue of traffic trying to make it onto a main road near a very busy roundabout, a little gremlin popped out of a dark corner of my brain… something that had come up both when I was working as a social worker and in SEN… attachment disorder can present with a lot of the same characteristics as autism.  My heart sank.  Could all of this be attachment issues??  Does my mother have attachment issues which permeated her parenting??  It became far too much to bear.  I got home and was hardly able to speak.  I handed Paul the report and the workplace suggestions and sat silently on the sofa with the TV off.  Paul read the report and thought it all looked really positive, so was naturally confused as to why I seemed so out-of-sorts.  When I briefly explained, he didn’t know what to say.  I turned to my phone and sent a message to my fellow American expat Katherine (mentioned in Birmingham Autism Show) because if anyone I knew would know anything about this, it would be her.

I have to leave it there for now… more very soon. xx

Losing A Parent Through Isolation, Not Death

Here’s the true story of how I started losing my mother, Ann, in late 2005/early 2006 and completely lost her in mid-2008, just as I was leaving the US to move to England. (Names and place names have been changed.)

I did not speak to my Dad for the majority of my junior year of undergrad (Aug 2004 – May 2005), as this was when the divorce was wrapping up (either the 11th or 13th December 2004 – it was close to Ann’s birthday – “the best 50th birthday present ever” in her words) and my Dad’s and my relationship hit a bit of a rocky patch and it was easier for me to just not speak to him so I could concentrate on myself at university.  Talking about it with him years later, he was devastated by this, but we have both agreed and reconciled that it needed to be that way at that time; thankfully, our relationship has remained strong ever since and it continues to strengthen.  I’m proud to call him my Dad.  He sacrificed a lot to make sure that my brother and I were never without; I don’t know if I’ll ever truly be able to express to him how grateful I am for all that he has done my whole life.

By the summer, I needed help with my computer, so I “extended the olive branch” and arranged to meet up with him after I was settled in my dorm room for the summer on campus for my summer job.  He came to work on my computer and we ended up having a long heart-to-heart, all-cards-on-the-table conversation.  I confronted him with several questions that had been bothering me for the last several years, which he openly answered.  After a quite difficult discussion, I felt like things had been sorted, but (understandably) I was going to approach things with caution because I didn’t want it all to blow up in my face again.  As such, I did not tell Ann straight away that he and I had reconciled because (knowing what she’s like) if it all blew up again and we fell out, she’d just go “well I could have told you that was going to happen”… she was very good at that.  So when I eventually told her that Dad and I were on good terms again (including that when I finished undergrad I was going to move in with him and Rita in the summer to commute to Uni for grad school), and needless to say, she did not take it very well.  Even though I explained that commuting from Suburbia (7.3 miles) made more sense than Smalltown (19.9 miles), especially in winter, she just saw that I had “switched alliance”, even though a child should never have to pick sides between their parents, no matter their age.

Over the two years of grad school, I barely saw or heard from Ann.  In my first year, I was living with Dad & Rita, interning in the city, and spent a lot of my time on campus or at a friend’s place writing papers late into the night.  By my second year, my course load was lightened a bit (thanks to doing two summer courses), I had moved to Littletown (less than a mile from where she worked at a supermarket) with a friend from the graduate programme and was interning at two schools in Biglittletown (i.e. much closer to Smalltown than Suburbia or the city).  Ann never once came to see my apartment, and when I showed up at the house in Smalltown one day when I finished my internship early, I was given the cold shoulder upon arrival, being told, “you know I don’t like cold-callers”… not realising that I had to make an appointment to visit the house I grew up in!!  She was pushing me away with both hands, despite me trying to maintain a link.

Ann has also succeeded at turning my only sibling, my brother Danny, against me as well.  Rita’s youngest daughter had messaged Danny on Facebook, which led to Danny blocking me on Facebook, because Ann convinced him that I was behind it all.  I realised that he blocked me and spotted him in the Student Union at my university (where I was finishing grad school and he was a freshman) – which wasn’t difficult as he’s over 6’5” with bright red hair – and he was not interested in hearing my side of the story… he said he’d unblock me but to this day, he still hasn’t… that was roughly April 2008.  So I ended up losing my only biological sibling before I lost Ann because of the poisoned thinking she had instilled in him.  Growing up, my Dad always reiterated to us both that we have to be each other’s best friends, as one day we may only have each other.  Funny, but Ann never echoed that sentiment.

I had to corner her at the supermarket one day to get her to sign a document for my UK passport – which was a declaration stating that both she and my Dad were legally married at the time of my conception and birth – but knowing what she’s like, I had to say it was for a work permit identity document rather than my passport, because if she knew it was for my passport, she would have refused to sign it – and I had far too much riding on it for her to mess it up for me at that point.  She would have flipped out also over the fact that my Dad informed me of his previous marriage – a detail which she forbade my brother and I ever being told – because I would have found out anyway when applying for my UK passport (needed to provide the Divorce Decree from his first marriage and the Marriage Certificate from his marriage to my mother).

The last conversation I ever had with Ann was on Sunday the 13th of July 2008.  I can’t remember the entire conversation, but the one aspect that rings in my head is her final statement to me: “have a nice life.”  No goodbye, no “I love you”, nothing.  Just “have a nice life.”  Talk about gut-wrenching and devastating to hear from your own mother – the woman who carried you and brought you into this world… who kissed and hugged you when you were crying inconsolably or painfully ill.  I was 23 when Ann disowned me, but today at 31 I’m still bearing the emotional scars.

I planned our wedding without my mother.  I didn’t get to go try on wedding dresses with her, or pick out a cake or anything with her, like most girls do when they’re about to get married.  I couldn’t invite her because I knew she would not have made the effort to travel to the UK, plus it would have been too difficult for my Dad (he’s been emotionally damaged by her too).  I’m eventually going to go through my first pregnancy without her to ring and complain about morning sickness or ask what her experiences were with me and my brother.  I will have to explain to our hypothetical children that they have a grandmother who lives in America, but that she doesn’t talk to their mummy so they won’t ever know her.  How is that going to make sense to them?  Will they fear that when they reach 23 years old that I’m going to stop talking to them too, like some sort of sick family tradition??

I had thought that she would have broken her silence towards me when my Grandpa was ill in hospital and ultimately passed away… nope, I had to find out through an email from my Auntie Pam (married into the family so no actual blood relation to me) that Grandpa was in hospital, and through a Facebook message from my aunt Theresa (Ann’s younger sister) that Grandpa had passed away in the night.  I cried for days and still cry when I think about him.  I couldn’t afford to fly back for his funeral, and even if I could, I doubt I would have been welcome thanks to Ann.  Earlier this year when my Grandma passed away, again I found out through another family member (my cousin Jean, Theresa’s eldest and closest in age to me) and not from Ann.  That pain from both of their passings cut me deeper than I could have imagined and reopened the old wound from 2008 that I thought had healed over.  THAT PAIN NEVER GOES AWAY.

When one actively chooses to write off one of their own children, it’s not over when you exchange those final words.  It’s like throwing a stone into a still pond; the ripples keep going on for ages before the water stills itself again… which will be after the culprit’s demise, no doubt.  This is worse than mourning a death, because you know that person is still alive and going on with their daily life, and you can’t help but wonder if you ever cross their mind like they cross yours every day.

I mourn the loss of the person that I thought my mother was.