A Creative Take on Sensory Processing: Conclusion4 min read

If you haven’t already, click here to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series.

I look back at all of this as a twisted blessing. Each inci­dent added another brick to my wall. I see pain, and I run the other way. My sister inher­ited our dad’s reck­less­ness, and I inher­ited our mom’s over­pro­tec­tive­ness to bal­ance her out.

Sometimes I don’t under­stand it. I could never touch a cig­a­rette when three of my grand­par­ents died from smoking-related con­di­tions, and I told myself I would never start drinking alcohol knowing addic­tion runs in our family. My sister picked up both habits in high school.  

When I see cig­a­rettes, I don’t see cancer,  I see the look on my mom’s face when she found out her mother had suf­fered a stroke.  When I see alcohol, I see a hole in the wall, my mother crying her­self to sleep. I feel the need to pro­tect her the same way she always pro­tected me. But it isn’t a lack of com­pas­sion. My sister has always been the more com­pas­sionate sib­ling. She feels with immense pas­sion. My shield just has more layers.

Autism is one layer. I didn’t have any friends, so I avoided peer pres­sure as a teen. I didn’t drink at par­ties because I didn’t go to par­ties. My friends say milk is my second layer. In my first decade, milk made me hyper and aggres­sive. Over time, it stopped having an effect. Yet people still joke that milk is my drug.

I’m hyper­ac­tive. I drink a lot of milk. But the two are not related. But you bite one teacher at one swim­ming lesson after drinking one giant glass of milk, and no one ever lets you live it down. Nonetheless, when my friends are drinking wine, I’m usu­ally slurping milk.  It’s a sen­sory plea­sure. The smooth con­sis­tency of milk feels good going down.

My senses are another layer. I never wor­ried about being tempted to try smoking, because the smell of tobacco hurts my nose. Even thinking about drinking, I can smell stale beer wafting from the bottom of a tackle box, melding with the scent of fish guts and rot­ting bait. I always thought that that memory alone was enough to keep me from ever trying alcohol.

But even as I write this, I can’t figure out why it didn’t. I don’t know what made me taste that Moscato. I know why I didn’t swallow it. I know why my tongue retracted. But why did I let the poison touch my tongue in the first place? Simple curiosity doesn’t explain it. I had never had any interest in trying wine before that day, and in the moment, I wasn’t thinking about what it would taste like.

Over the years, I have been asked so many times why I don’t drink. I never give an answer. Want a beer? Can’t, I’m afraid I’ll wake up a raging alco­holic. It’s a bit of a mood killer. Tasting it would allow me to say unequiv­o­cally I don’t like the feel of alcohol in my throat.

That is much easier to explain. I had a built-in safety net. I knew I wouldn’t like the taste. My brain wouldn’t let me. My sen­sory sig­nals are off honking their horns in traffic. I wanted to prove to myself I wouldn’t like liquor. I wanted another reason to hate it.

But I know how stub­born my taste buds are, which make me think there’s more to the story. The way I process sen­sory input shapes my atti­tudes towards what I expe­ri­ence. I hate mush­rooms because I loathe how they feel inside my mouth. I asso­ciate trains with embar­rass­ment because my friend tapped my shoulder at a train sta­tion and everyone at Union Station heard me shriek in pain.

Intimacy is always an emo­tional whirl­wind. My reac­tion to touch is highly influ­enced by my stress levels. What feels com­forting one day, can leave me so over­whelmed the next day that my brain shuts down, and I am reduced to a zombie car­i­ca­ture the rest of the day.

None of this I can con­trol. Emotions are easier to manage. It’s easier to con­vince your­self you’re in com­mand. That night I had friends all around me. The cups had rainbow polka dots, and it’s impos­sible not to smile when you’re drinking out of a cup with rainbow polka dots. I had people treating me the way I always wanted my family to treat me. There was no pres­sure. Only under­standing.

Maybe I wanted one alcohol-related memory that I could look back at as a happy one. I laughed about the inci­dent. Tongue dip­ping a wine glass is weird, but it is so quin­tes­sen­tially me. The look of horror on my face after­wards made everyone giggle. In losing con­trol, I was able to take some con­trol back.

I had a memory of alcohol that didn’t involve my par­ents fighting. Back then, I could not have imag­ined a time when I wouldn’t have to watch my dad drink away his life every day. The beer was as much a part of his iden­tity as autism is for me. He lost his career to it. He lost his house to it. He lost his self-respect.

It took losing all his money, being arrested three times in a span of  a month, and nearly falling to his death in a fishing acci­dent to cajole him into going to rehab. I don’t have to think about alcohol until the next time my sister fails to take my dating advice.

I don’t have to, but I will. I don’t have to because I know how to bury pain. My walls have only grown stronger. Emotions. Deception. I can play that game. But the sound of tape rip­ping off a tape dis­penser will always drop me to my knees.


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