Monday, May 5, 2014

I Am a Pushmi Pullyu

[image description: a pen-and-ink drawing of an animal that looks like the front half of two llamas, attached to one another at the waist. This is the "Pushmi Pullyu" creature from the Doctor Dolittle stories, an animal that gets nowhere because it wants to go in two directions at once.]

Like the famous creature from Doctor Dolittle stories, the Pushmi Pullyu, I am pulled in two different directions and, as a result, have a hard time getting anywhere at all. I have two strongly conflicting elements to my nature and only as I approach fifty years of age am I beginning to understand both elements enough to start finding a balance between them.

One half of me is an extravert. Yes, you heard that right. I am an Autistic extravert, the creature some would assure you doesn't exist. The official definition of an extravert is someone who gets their "juice" from being around people. I do love to spend time alone -- reading, writing, drawing, composing. Most extraverts are not "allergic" to spending time alone. But I deeply crave the company of people, their smiles, their thoughts, their play. I love group activities like dancing and drum circles. I love community events, especially colorful ones like Rainbow Gatherings and pagan festivals. I crave a large and diverse circle of friends. I want to be in the thick of things.

The other half of me is both sensory defensive and has C-PTSD. That half can't bear to be around people in numbers of more than 2 or 3 or for very long at a time. Bright lights, flashing lights, temperature highs and lows, strong smells, high-pitched noises, unexpected touch, rapid movement (think gaggles of children racing back and forth) are just unbearable for me. Crowds are a sensory nightmare. I simultaneously crave the press and chaos of a crowd and recoil in horror when I actually experience it. As a small child, I wanted to play with the other children but most often ended up hiding under the table from all their dashing about and squealing and stressful unpredictability.

On top of the sensory issues, years of brutal bullying and abuse have left me jumpy, suspicious, afraid of people, untrusting. I have a deep hunger to be part of a family, a circle of friends, a community, but when I find myself in the midst of people, I freak out, I snap, I react, I run away and hide. I just can't handle being around people and the sensory issues and C-PTSD build on each other in an ever-cycling feedback loop.

For years, these two halves of me were at war, just like the two halves of the Pushmi Pullyu battle over which direction to take. It didn't help that others would say things like, "toughen up," and "just give yourself time and you'll get used to it." I blamed myself for my dual nature and took it as a sign of weakness and inadequacy. If only I could just toughen up and stop being troubled by my senses! Or, conversely, if only I could drain away this childish need for others and be strong and adult enough to be truly happy alone!

But I wouldn't allow one half or the other to win and so I was living in a war zone. And every stress that came from forcing myself to endure emotional and sensory distress, waiting to "toughen up" and get used to it, added to the invisible wall between me and community. I began to live vicariously through movies and television shows. The Big Chill. Northern Exposure. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I drank up those scenes of community, togetherness, chosen family. I hungered deeply for that sort of connection myself, but whenever I tried to find it, I would just end up a trembling ball of anxiety and tears.

Admitting that I am a Pushmi Pullyu was at least half the road to recovery for me. I am working on the emotional issues, but the sensory issues will not go away -- they are neurological and hard-wired into who I am. I will always be a person who needs quiet, gentle, short contact with only a few people at a time. My goal now is seeking balance -- finding a middle path between the crowds I wish for and the solitude my nervous system requires.

It's a delicate balancing act and one I'm still working on. I wish I had known and understood these dynamics when I was a child. As a child, I was a bit like the "painted bird" -- the bird who is painted a different color from the rest of the flock. The painted bird has a strong instinct to fly with the flock but the flock does not recognize it as one of their own, so they peck and peck at it, even unto death. The poor painted bird just keeps flying back for more because it needs the flock and it doesn't understand why everyone keeps pecking it. It dies confused and bloodied, still struggling to rejoin the others.

That was me as a child, striving again and again to be part of the community that was bullying and torturing me so harshly. No matter how hard they pecked me, I still kept trying to be one of them. The end result of years of this dynamic is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: I have been "shell shocked" by bullying that sometimes became so violent that my life was at risk. And still, all I wanted was to belong.

There are many children out there like me. If you are parenting a painted bird child never say anything that could lead them to feel the blame for the abuse they are getting. I was told that I was bringing the abuse on myself and that belief was every bit as harmful to me -- a harm that still lingers with me today -- as the abuse itself. Protect your little painted bird. People will say "it's just good fun. All kids go through bullying. Yours just needs to toughen up a little." Say, "no! My beautiful, gentle child does not need to become tough and hard." and do everything you can to protect your child and find a safe place for them to grow and flourish.

And if your child also has sensory issues that are also causing them to be a Pushmi Pullyu -- eager to participate but melting down from sensory onslaught when they do, gently begin to explain to them, in ways they can understand at whatever age they may be, the idea of seeking balance. Help them to learn that they can't have everything or be everything but that they can find their own middle path that lets them get the most they can of as much as they can. Help them to learn to stand strong against those who would push with threats or guilt to try to force them to step out of balance with themselves. I have learned to say no when I need to protect myself and your child can learn it, too. (And hopefully your child will not require the nearly 50 years it has taken me to learn it!)

A Pushmi Pullyu is not an easy creature to be, but when the two front ends learn to co-operate, the Pushmi Pullyu can get twice as much accomplished. Being of two, conflicting natures has been stressful for me, but as I learn to find that place of balance -- a place that no one else can prescribe for me; I have to find it on my own and trust my own process -- I am coming to love the insights I gain from living with two halves pulling in opposite directions. I am coming to value who I am and where it has brought me in life.


  1. This is a wonderful analogy! I see the same conflict in my son. He looooves our family gatherings, he can't wait for the next get together. But when the family is here, he can quickly become frazzled. We have found that when everyone is seated at the table he becomes the most comfortable. He loves parties with kids, too, but he prefers the company of adults. I am glad there is another person out there that understands you can want the company of people, and have issues with it at the same time. This post is very helpful.

  2. thankyou for this. explains a lot about my son. -Mary

  3. This is so me!

    I think I cope better with aloneness than you do - I can 'turn off' my feelings of loneliness if I'm alone long enough - but I've come to the realization that I'm less happy when I don't have friends. But trying to get friends involves so much effort and risk, that I'm tempted to just give up and be alone.

  4. Thank you. This brought tears to my eyes as your description of being an autistic extravert and of being a painted bird as a child. That is my 4 year old. The developmental pediatrician has fought the autism diagnosis for a year now because he does not believe that any autistic person can ever show any extravert qualities. We are lucky that we have a school district that recognizes that he is autistic and provides preschool services and an IEP with only developmental delays as a diagnosis. The doctor finally gave us a rating scale for school, daycare and home that score on all three as "moderate asd level 2 likely" (dsm v criteria apparently) but he referred us to a psychologist saying again that my child is "too social". He is social but not in the way that neurotypical children are and the other children recognize this. He is the painted bird being pushed aside at the playground because he talks and acts different than they do. The speech therapist at school recently said he has a pragmatic delay. He also has his hands constantly in motion when he talks which doesn't bother me but is apparently off putting to other people. He tries so hard but he is at 4 starting to be aware of the rejection and he feels sad and confused. Then the sensory issues come if we're somewhere with a crowd and he tries hard not to let them bother him because he wants to be wherever we are but he can't help it and he presses close to me and just wants to leave.

  5. I am either a choleric supine or melancholic sanguine. For me, socialization is like exercise. It feels great when I do it and I enjoy it, but I'm exhausted when it ends.