I lived in Chicago for many years. I’m a country girl, born and bred, and the yearnings for the green open spaces of my childhood, ultimately became too strong for me to stay. But, while I was there, there were many, many things about the city that I loved.
Public transportation was never one of those things. It was too loud, too smelly, and nearly impossible to maintain the personal space buffer I like to keep from people I don’t know. I hated taking it and did anything I could to avoid it. On occasion, I even walked the 13 miles from my apartment to downtown events if I had the time and I knew the trains would be overflowing.
These are all sensory reasons for avoiding public transit and admittedly they are stronger responses of sensory avoidance than most people I knew, but it’s still very different from the sensory processing troubles Charlie has.
I was perfectly able to take the train downtown if I wanted and it would have left me no more depleted for the day having done so. In fact, it would have probably left me with much more energy and many fewer blisters than walking 13 miles. I may not like it, I may be glad when it’s over, I may convince myself to splurge on a cab to get back home, but I am perfectly able to take public transit and continue on with my day as usual. It will have cost me no spoons, if you are a fan of spoon theory.
This is not the case for Charlie. These sensory experiences come at him like an assault. Ironically, one of his favorite things to do when we visit Chicago is to ride the elevated trains downtown. We will find the forward facing window in the lead car. Charlie will don his noise blocking headphones, sometimes plug his nose, and I will stand as a shield between him and the rest of the riders to minimize any unexpected touching as the train veers around corners. We will circle the loop and continue rumbling on up the north shore. Then we will get off, cross the platform, and do it all over again in the opposite direction.
My boys love this. Charlie loves it so much he endures it. The noise, the smells, the crowds, he endures them all even though I now know how painful it must be for him. Literally.
When we are done we have a now favorite restaurant, a dark place with high backed booths, we will order some food and Charlie will go to sleep. He will shut down for a while and try to replenish himself, as best he can, from all it took for him to do this thing he so wanted to do. When he wakes up he may be able to do another activity and he may not. We may have to return to the hotel and swim in the pool for him to sooth his body enough to carry on.
These are hard things for people to wrap their minds around. If you don’t live it, I can imagine how easy it must be to think I should just force him to soldier on.
I’ll be passing through Chicago again in a few weeks, alone with the boys for the first time, on my way to visit family. I initially planned to avoid going into the city altogether but the boys pleaded to go. They want to ride the trains, Tommy wants cinnamon rolls from a favorite breakfast spot, Charlie wants to ride the Tall Ships at Navy Pier and I’m a sucker for those sweet little faces.
So, I agreed and then immediately I felt the sheer panic of what I agreed to do and called some Chicago friends for reinforcements. I asked them to meet us at the hotel later, maybe in the pool, so I could have some time to talk with them and reclaim my own sanity during a time when I wouldn’t need to be focused so thoroughly on Charlie. I didn’t want the distraction out in the city of trying to catch up with friends I don’t see nearly enough and miss the warning signs of Charlie needing a break.
But, you know what comes next, I’m sure.
Why can’t we just do X activity instead?
Why can’t you just tell Charlie he has to do what you want for one day so you can see your friends?
Maybe if you didn’t coddle him so much he would learn to adapt better?
Over the years I’ve learned to stand my ground on these things.
I’ve accepted it’s hard to get if you haven’t walked in my shoes.
I’ve learned to keep educating.
I’ve learned some people will get it eventually.
And some people just never will.