OBSESSED? Or, Is It PERSEVERATION?
Jessica has always had a tendency to become obsessed with certain people. As she was growing up, we had used the word “obsessed” as a descriptor when Jessica was perseverating. Eventually, for Jessica, the word “obsessed” became connected with feeling like she was being bad, or getting in trouble. Finally, she began to say, “You are not to supposed to say that word.”
Autism is a lonely world. It is difficult to have close friends much less a network of friends, and I believe that is a major contributor to Jessica’s strong attachments to some people. It fills up some of the void. She substitutes talking to and hanging out with friends with thinking about, talking about and pretending to talk to these other people she feels she has a close attachment to.
If a person has not been on the receiving end of or a witness to Jessica’s overly attached affection, then it may be difficult to understand what I am talking about. It is very much an autistic thing. It is like perseverating but on a much much deeper level. Jess is not ‘obsessed’ about the activity in most people’s daily lives. She does not care what they are wearing nor how they fix their hair. She does not care what they eat nor where they shop. She does not care what they are doing at home nor what they are doing at work. But, she does care about them.
Most of all, she cares if everything is the SAME. She cares IF they are at their home or IF they are at work. Are they okay? Are they sick? Have they moved? Have they changed jobs? These are the things she worries about. She totally fears something changing. For if something changes, then they might become absent from her life forever.
When Jessica fears something is changing or has changed, then an all out anxiety or panic attack will kick in. When that happens, it affects everyone she is close to. Not just Hannah and me, who live with her, but also her grandparents, aunts and uncles, some cousins, and friends.
Each time Jessica gets to that point of being obsessed about someone, it becomes a source of stress for everyone, not just at school, not just at church, but especially at home. She will often talk about the person all day every day. Just because we may be pros at experiencing this, we do not feel any less stress when it happens.
It is impossible to convey the extent of the distress we all experience when Jess is in a state of worrying about one of these friends. The episodes are extremely intense and can last from a few hours to a few days.
During that time, we all practice patience and deep breathing, but sometimes that is just not enough and we feel at a loss of what to do to help her so that we can help ourselves. We often feel like we are at our wits end.
Each time we are in the midst of an episode, we are creative with methods to attempt to put an end to it. Even though we have experimented with different methods, so far, we have not found a clear-cut answer. We have tried staying calm, understanding, loving, reassuring and supportive. We have tried being firm, adamant, loud and authoritative. We have tried reasoning rationalization. There is no one solution.
We have also tried for many years to figure out the formula to predict which people Jess is likely to get that way about. Although there are things many of the people have in common, it definitely does not fit every instance.
Gender – Women
Voice – Many of the people Jess have been attached to in the way I have described have had a quiet voice. Some of them have had a raspy voice, and some have either not talked much, or been non-verbal altogether.
Demeanor – Along with the quiet voice there is often a tendency for the other person to not be very talkative, or, to hold back during conversations and not be as open with feelings and emotions as other people might be. They are often the kind of people who do not readily share about themselves, and it prompts Jess to dig deeper.
Health – Of course, we have a health factor. Jess loves hearing what is wrong with people so that she can take care of them. People that in some way fit the descriptions above, and also have health issues, get to join Jessica’s club.
The first time Jessica attached to someone in this way, she was still a child and it was a church friend. After that it was an aunt, then, a couple of coaches. At some point along the way, it became extended family, including Christine that I mentioned in THE NIGHTMARE post. Once Jess moved from the school for the blind back to a county school, it became a friend in class. Later, she found her favorite bartender ever! There are and were others as well.
The bottom line is that oddly enough, it leads to social isolation. Not just for Jess, but also for me. When she is overly attached to someone in that way, I often have to remove her from situations where the person is present. It might be because she is dominating their time. Or, it might be that she is getting upset because she feels she can not get to them to talk, or it could be because she insists on asking personal questions that a person does not want to answer.
It is not as simple as redirecting her to talk to someone else. It is not as simple as redirecting the conversation to a different topic. It is not as simple as saying, stop asking her those questions. It just does not work that way for Jessica. As a matter of fact, those things are nearly impossible. Quite honestly, very often the stress becomes more than I can bear. In those cases, we leave, removing ourselves from the gathering altogether.
That makes me sad. I want people to like Jess and enjoy her. I do not want people to pity her. I do not want people to feel the need to avoid her. Unfortunately, I understand why they do sometimes. The other thing that makes me sad is that to remove her, I must remove myself. There are many times I have left places where I would have really enjoyed staying for a while. When that happens, it gets me down for a little while, but I try not to dwell on it and just move on. For, as my son quite frankly reminded me,
it is what it is.