I told the cop that I understood. He was a bit incredulous when I explained my side of the story. “It’s a sporting event…people are going to be loud.” I could hear the hint of mirth in his voice over the roar of the crowd. I doubt he was thinking: Geez, what did this autistic guy expect coming to a football game? I kept glancing over at my distraught family and ignored the other bystanders.
The Gator Fan (inside joke, he was really a Bengals fan) to my right tried to demonstrate (for the third time) the “Let’s go BenGAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALS!” fog horn call he had been making when I turned around to tell him to stop doing said noise directly into my ear every three seconds. Even the cop was annoyed at the third (and fourth and fifth) demonstration. But the guy kept doing it as if somehow reliving the moment would vindicate him or condemn me finally so he could go back to rooting on the home team.
I didn’t punch the guy. I never made a fist. When I said (I think, because my mind turned off and I went into a pure animal state of fight or flight) “Stop yelling in my ear!” he turned his cupped fog horn hands directly into my face and continued cheering his favorite team against the back of my skull. I lashed out. But not in anger.
I know it would be hard for most people to understand, and after the entire tale is told and I give you a better picture of my headspace leading up to that moment I know you’ll probably still think I lashed out in anger. But I assure you there was no anger in my body. All emotion had left, dumped into my bowels with forty gallons of adrenaline. I swatted his hands and that fog horn wail out of my own face in defense.
The Gator Fan commenced to pounding on my head with his closed fists. I have the evidence in the form of half a dozen goose egg knots on the top and back of my head this morning as I write this. His handlers tried to pull him off while his girlfriend yelled for me to stop. While he was pounding on my skull with his hands I was looking for my eye glasses which he had knocked off in his first strike. That’s why he was hitting the top of the head instead of the face. Myopia saved the day.
Security pulled us both out, and bona fide law enforcement presided over the affair. I was thankful for that. It calmed me down having someone in authority standing between us, even though my gut reaction was that I was completely in the wrong. After a few hours of analysis I don’t think so anymore. I made one bad decision: go to football game. Afterward the only other decision I could have made to have prevented the fight was to have gotten up from my seat a few seconds earlier and walked out to the concourse to give my assaulted nervous system time to process the overload. But I’ll get to why that didn’t happen in a few minutes.
The lady two seats to my left was yelling at someone fifteen seats away. The people in front of us stood up and were blocking our view of the field and waving their arms trying to get someone’s attention. The sun beat down eliciting a flood of sweat from my pores making me itch and squirm in my seat. I had nowhere to move or shift my body. It sounded like I was sitting on top of a loudspeaker. My painfully thick glasses distorted both the small forms on the field and the images on the screen and I was unable to distract myself and follow the game. I was hot, sweaty, confined, bombarded with sound, blinded by sun and a sea of moving visual stimulation, and then this Gator Fan crawled inside my head and started doing his fog horn.
Now, I’m not a football fan. Until a couple of years ago I had no idea how the game was played, what the rules were, or how in the world games could go on for so freakin’ long without everyone losing interest and going home. This story has nothing to do with my regard of the sport of football. I will say because my wife is interested in the game, and particularly in the Denver Broncos, that I have come to a certain appreciation of the game if not so far as to actually following and enjoying it. Basically I won’t get up and leave the room when a game comes on now. Before I couldn’t even muster the interest to let it play in my background. I’ve gotten past that. This story has nothing to do with football.
So when Mandy’s mom got us tickets to go see her beloved Broncos in Cincinnati I was excited for her and excited to go with her and share the experience. I like Cincinnati (oddly considering this story) and I always have fun hanging out with my wife. Our nine year old was excited too, as she is also a big Broncos fan.
Lily. When Fog Horn Gator Fan began signaling the barges on the river two feet from my ear I steeled myself against it and was trying to talk myself down. Given the sensory space and a little time I would have concluded that getting up and leaving the seat was prudent. But when Lily cringed against me every time he wailed, tucked her head in her lap, and covered her ears with her hands I became more and more defensive of my own space, but also of my daughter’s space. I know he could see her cowering directly in front of him. I know he could tell it was in reaction to his voice. Unless his judgement were somehow impaired I can’t imagine why he would keep doing the thing that was causing pain to the child in front of him unless he were a raging asshole.
Remember, I said anger did not play a role in my actions. I am here to reassert that. When I stood up and turned around there was no anger or any other specific emotion in my body. I was a hollow shell of numbness and weightlessness. I was invisible to myself. The attack had to stop or I was going to defend myself. And oddly, when he started hitting me with his fists the fog horn stopped and I think that was the moment when my tortured nervous system relaxed. I stopped being defensive when he started hitting me. I simply bent down to pick up my glasses while he pounded on the top and back of my head and his friends tried to pull him off of me.
My family was upset. Lily was crying. I had ruined Mandy’s Broncos game. And the poor security supervisor had to decide whether or not to throw me and/or the Gator Fan out of the game. In the end GF went back to his seat and security tried to find us new seats in a sold out game. As we walked through the stadium on a quest for seats Boone told me he was getting ready to stab the guy when they pulled him off of me. He had his pencil and drawing pad because…Boone. He was joking, but I was painfully aware that my actions had an effect on my kids. They had front row seats to my impending meltdown. After a diligent effort on the supervisor’s part Mandy told him thanks, but we’d just leave.
I started to cry. Lily started to cry. The whole mess started only five minutes into the game. By the time the security guy walked off it was into the second quarter. A couple of nice ladies stopped and asked Lily what was wrong and somehow deciphered through the blubbering that we were going to leave the game and one of the ladies offered us her ticket. Mandy thanked her and said no, but she then told us her section had a lot of empty seats. We gravitated that direction.
In the end we finished out the game in better seats with a much more respectable crowd around us. No fog horns. No gator fans.
As the game started to wind down and a Broncos win was imminent many of the Bengals fans began to exodus from the stadium. With a couple of minutes of play left to go and the Bengals down by more than two touchdowns and the Broncos taking possession of the ball the mass exodus began. I hoped the Gator Fan’s fog horn was deflated. The win made me gleefully and sinfully happy.
I looked out at the stadium finally and said: “Where did all the orange go?”
My son, the one we jokingly call ‘Max' sometimes, the one who seemed non-plussed through the whole ordeal in the first quarter, said without hesitation:
“It smells like disappointment.”
Yes, I should have known being sensory defensive that a professional football game was not a good place for me to go. Yes, I should have removed myself from the situation before things got out of hand. Yes, yes, yes. But I think it is also important to point out that our country is going down a dangerous path where people find it socially acceptable to be rude and intentionally offensive. People think it’s perfectly okay to yell in someone’s face because BenGAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAALS! People think shoving a t-shirt with the slogan “Hillary Sucks But Monica Sucks Better” and “Trump that Bitch” in my kids’ faces as we walk down the street is acceptable behavior in a civilized society. We’re losing our civility, and it’s going fast.
I have mental health problems. My wife assures me that I’m not broken, but I know that the charade of my sanity is thinner than I would like it to be. For some strange reason I have shakily adapted to this too loud, too bright world without knowing how I did it. The fact that I can function in every day social settings is testament to the survivability of the human mind. By all rights I should be an addict at best or dead by my own hand or with a few suicide attempts under my belt already. I’m not saying this to be dramatic. I don’t understand where my strength comes from. It betrays me when I go looking for it as an ally but silently pushes me along through a world that I do not choose to live in.
I have mental health problems. And I’m tired of hiding them. I’m tired of pretending that I am who I want to be when clearly I am not.
I enjoy quiet places. Cities offend me on a primal level. As an intellectual stimulant I love cities, but my wiring is so knotted up that I can tolerate them only for short periods of time. I'm hyper-attuned to every movement of my neighbors. We live on half an acre and the residential density where we live is probably about one home per two acres in the immediate vicinity and more like one per ten acres within the creek. And I see and hear everything that goes on in my neighborhood. I have to sleep with a fan running to drown out the ambient noise of night. I'm beginning to realize that my sensory defensiveness is much worse than I try to convince myself on most days. I don't feel like I'm crippled by it, but my main focus in life is escaping the sensory overloads that are my daily and hourly existence to the exclusion of other good and noble endeavors.
What I experience is similar to PTSD. There are theories that traumatic births can cause sensory disorders. I was a breach birth. I don't think I have any early childhood traumas that contribute to this condition, but I can't say with one hundred percent certainty. And at forty-two years old I am beginning not to care the whys as much as the how can I live a normal life question. I cope because I am really, really smart and have been able to come up with effective work-arounds to allow myself to function and appear normal. But my smarts don't help me when I find myself cowering in a corner with my hands over my ears yelling na-na-na-na-na-na and hoping the world will just go away and leave me alone.
I didn't go to jail. I didn't hurt anyone else or get hurt myself (physically anyway) but I find myself grasping at a thinner and thinner thread trying to pull myself to shore in a raging storm that just seems to grow in intensity as I get older. I'm not able to fix myself from within. There is no owner's manual for this model and the windows are too fogged to see the way forward. It's time to pull over and try to flag down a ride to someplace where someone can help me.