There are many incidents that remind me of my mental difference, the divergence in my neurology that makes “normal” people a ceaseless, discomfiting puzzle. One stands out in my memory, though, for the sheer spectacle of that difference: the time I was stuck in an elevator for the better part of an afternoon.
I was retrieving my laundry after it had finished drying. At the time, my laundry-transit apparatus consisted of a shopping cart with collapsible nylon bins in it; the cart also assisted in bringing trash outside and groceries inside. I brought the cart into the elevator, edged to one side to leave room for others. Between the basement and the first floor, eight other people entered. Between the seventh and ninth floors, the elevator shuddered to a stop.
Panic set in immediately…except for me. I was surrounded by strangers. My actions were irrelevant to those strangers. None of the emotional shields I kept handy for being around familiar people applied. I was not required to be emotionally present for anyone. I was not required to display a certain intensity or class of emotion in order to convince anyone that I was taking the situation sufficiently seriously. I was not required to bang my head helplessly against a wall of no solutions until the people around me decided this pointless self-flagellation ritual had run its course and I could go back to doing something useful. I faced no threat of being regarded as “unsupportive” or otherwise in dereliction of my duties for not emoting or participating in some prescribed way in non-service to an insoluble problem. I was not even required to press the “Call” button and shout at it over and over again until it made reassuring noises, because my eight panicking colleagues had that task in hand. For once, I was in a crisis situation that had absolutely nothing to do with me, and my response to it could be entirely my own.
No pretending that whether or not I emoted in the slightest would change when this issue got resolved. No pretending I had any power to fix the problem myself. No pretending any of this was more than a schedule-upending nuisance. Not pretending that something other than all the noise the other eight people were making next to me where I couldn’t get away was the worst part of this entire trial.
For the other eight people with me, the stuck elevator was a terrifying, claustrophobic crisis, burning into my memory the sound of that one gentleman shouting “We are stuck in the elevator!” For me, it was the most bizarrely liberating psychological scenario I had ever experienced, or will likely experience again.
None of what I did was for anyone else. My response was my own.
I folded the laundry. I neatly and meticulously paired socks. I rendered my underwear into repetitive squares. I carefully folded shirts into uniformly-shaped piles with the patterned side facing up, even the ones destined for hangers. I folded pants and nightgowns into symmetrical rectangles. I made a separate pile for the array of dish and bath towels, each a tower of order. I sorted the folded clothes back into the nylon bins by kind, to suit the drawer scheme they would fit into back at the apartment. For a while, the other eight people in the elevator looked on in awe.
When I finished, I moved the bins to one side of the cart and clambered inside it, sitting cross-legged, and waited. Thus, I gave the other eight people more room and assuaged my guilt at taking up as much of the elevator as the shopping cart occupied. Thus, even as my blatant display of nonchalance reminded them that their panic served no purpose, I made myself smaller, hidden, out of mind. Thus, I calmed my own nerves out of their other-people’s-noise induced irritation by bringing order to something. Thus, I made space to dissociate my way out of anyone’s way, owing no one anything more.
Eventually, the elevator lurched open misaligned with the eighth floor, and the repair crew bemusedly helped my shopping cart out. The other eight people took stairs to their destinations. I waited for the next elevator.
And I did not forget the strange moment when “calm under pressure” wasn’t a curse levied at me by people who liked their emotions more than mine.