I hope you will forgive a somewhat long and indulgent post today. Eventually I’d really like to produce material that will be helpful and instructive and so on, and I might even, once I have things straight in my own head, produce a book, or maybe even another, more “generally informative” blog. There are so many issues that are so important to investigate and to consider – everything from how best to nurture autistic children, through to how to support those even older than I am who make the discovery that they are autistic; a whole range of traits including communication issues and sensory sensitivity and executive functioning and so on; and a huge amount of discussion to be had on all manner of other issues that are only just finding their way into my head and I can’t even quite find the words for yet.
For the time being though, I’m still in the process of trying to get my own life sorted out, and some of these writings form part of the process. I currently have no support from the official services at all, no counsellor, no therapist, nothing, and so I’m aware that I sometimes use this space in lieu of such support. So some of what I write might just be pure waffle that I needed to write somewhere and here was as good a place as any. Some of the time I’m just trying to get things straight in my own head.
In the last week or so I’ve noticed things have changed again. Since the appointment date was fixed for the next assessment (my third try at getting a formal autism diagnosis after the first assessment was stopped by the assessor and the second one was cancelled) I’ve become noticeably more anxious again. My appetite has plummeted, having recovered somewhat, and I’m finding sleep less and less easy again.
However it does feel different from the last time I was waiting for my appointment, for several reasons, and I’ve been trying to understand why. I’ve also been looking back over the last six months, which seem to have comprised a series of “phases”, all of which have felt slightly different, and, I suspect, are part of the balancing process as my autistic neurology comes to terms with discovering, er, my autistic neurology!
The irony of discovering that my head isn’t very good at coping with change by discovering that I have the sort of head that isn’t very good at coping with change and having to cope with the change that ensues from that discovery is not lost on me!
So, we go back to July 2016. Back to the days of “normality”. Back to the days when everything felt ordinary, much as it had done for most of my life. A knowledge that I wasn’t well again and was possibly heading for another breakdown. A confusion as to why I couldn’t get my act together. And a general constant low level depressive mood and anxiety that I was so used to that I didn’t even notice it. I had a figure “zero” on my mood chart, meant to indicate my “norm”, what I regarded as a euthymic mood, but, in retrospect, it was far from “normal”, just what I was used to, as I eventually realised a couple of months later. During those times I would wake each morning feeling the usual struggle, the usual wonder what the point of it was, and the usual knowledge that everything was difficult and hard work, but that was just the way it was and things had to be done. That was normality.
And then we get to August, and going away from home. And my mental health (as I assumed at the time) starting to disintegrate. And, despite the few rumblings earlier in the year and a general “bit eccentric” sort of idea in my head, the “polite disbelief” at the initial concept of being autistic, exacerbated, I suspect, by me not really knowing what being autistic actually meant. I had no more knowledge than most of the rest of society at the time, possibly even less, owing to not having any children and being so uninvolved with the world. But by this stage I felt so absolutely dreadful that I was prepared to listen to almost anything to try to work out why my life kept going so very very wrong, and when you find yourself, as a 45 year old, behaving in a way that would be more naturally associated with a stroppy child and you have no way of controlling it or stopping it, then maybe it’s time to try to find out why.
So there was this initial feeling of disbelief. And also of the notion that I probably wasn’t actually really genuinely “autistic”, but just had one or two traits. I was one of those folk who was just a bit sensitive to life and because I was so mentally ill I just didn’t cope very well. I didn’t think, initially, that I would ever actually define myself as autistic, but saw the suggestions as merely an extension of eccentricity. Again, I still didn’t really understand the nature of the autistic spectrum, and neither did I have the first clue how many of my “eccentricities” would actually start to be revealed as autistic traits as I started to research.
And then I read the book with the list of traits mentioned in The Discovery. And started to take things somewhat more seriously. And went from “this is a side issue that might be useful to be aware of but things will get back to normal soon” to “mind blown, this is my entire life turned upside down”!
And the “polite disbelief” turned to “polite belief” turned to “******************” (there is no word that adequately describes suddenly discovering, after 45 years, that your entire life has been governed by your having a different neurology from the majority of the population, that you’ve been fighting all your life, and that you’ve discovered all this in a matter of weeks and your entire world has completely changed)! And there was huge huge huge shock. And even more huge shock as I started to research just how MANY autistic traits I had, and started to discover about all sorts of things that I thought were just me, weren’t. The whole “autism nicked my schizzle” phase!
And I went from waking up each morning wearily wondering how much more of this difficult life I could take, to waking up (when I managed to go to sleep at all) with my heart pounding so hard I thought it would actually jump out of my chest and this word “autistic” just swimming, almost meaninglessly, round my head. The whole sense of shock and disbelief and whatonearthisthisaboutthen still raging through my system. A bit like when someone dies and you get those few seconds each morning before you remember and then you suddenly remember it all over again and your system goes into shock once more.
And by this time it was early September. And I was struggling to cling on to anything normal at all or to think about anything other than autism, and my Amazon basket was full of autism books and I couldn’t eat or sleep or do anything because my whole system was so utterly overloaded. I went through lists of traits over and over and over. Read blogs, books, anything I could get my hands on. My entire world became about autism, almost to the exclusion of everything else.
And hardly anybody knew what was going on. My husband. A handful of friends. The whole thing seeming so utterly implausible that I couldn’t possibly mention it. I was trying, even, to work out how to even comprehend that I could ever even imagine that I really was autistic. It was surreal, like I was on some sort of weird drug that made the world feel like a total dream. Shock shock shock. Huge shock. What? Me? Really? Over and over. This shock. So obvious. So so obvious. But such a huge shock. Why did this take so long? What now? What even is it all about? My world collapsing.
Then I went to see my doctor, my GP. And the minute we mentioned the word she said “Of course!” and it was totally obvious to her too. And then I entered this time of huge relief, and we started to go back over my life, over 4 decades of memories of stuff happening that had never been explained, and suddenly it was all explained. And I started to chat to a very tiny group of people, and started to unpick my life and started to work through it all. And the feelings kept coming, and I tried to describe them in Various Feelings, and we started to wait impatiently for the formal diagnosis to arrive.
And for most of September and October I hardly slept. And hardly ate. I spent the night times, slightly bizarrely, googling pictures of goats and posting them on my facebook wall. My husband brought me food each day and I nibbled at what I could, which wasn’t very much. My system was in such shock that I could barely function. I cancelled almost everything in my diary as my system just started to close down. I realise now that this was going into burnout and all my energy had just gone. My life seemed so totally crazy and totally different. And I kept wondering if anything would ever feel even vaguely “normal” ever again. And to top it all, the hot water broke in our flat and our living conditions descended from “chaotic” to “borderline disastrous”!
Oddly though, around September time, something else did happen which showed just how much of a toll the masking had been taking. Although I was in a really really strange state, the general level of depression lifted massively. Simply knowing, and understanding, took a whole level of depression away. This, I suspect, was the depression caused by acting, by suppressing who I really was, and had been with me for so long that I didn’t actually notice it was there until it lifted. There was also this sudden feeling that I could be gentle with myself and could stop the frenetic pushing to do everything and to be everything to everyone and to achieve achieve achieve, which had been the cornerstone of my life.
And then I discovered that if I stopped trying to push in that way that I could let myself relax in a way that I hadn’t done before and that if I stopped trying to sit still then my body moved in ways that society had told me for years were strange but from the inside felt totally right. And I spent up to two hours a day rocking and bashing myself on the sofa and all sorts of things emerged from me (I’ll do a post about it sometime) that had been there all along, hidden, just waiting under the surface to be allowed out. I discovered that even after 4 decades of learning and suppression, all my autistic behaviours were there and that all that had happened by me not flapping my hands or by making myself cope with sensory overload to appear “normal” was that I’d been getting progressively more damaged and ill and had sometimes used maladaptive strategies such as alcohol to try to deal with the anxiety.
And all through the autumn I gathered evidence for the assessment, which was set for the end of November. I called my mother and learnt things about my early childhood that I hadn’t previously know and which provided yet more evidence for the “autism hypothesis”. I read book after book, all of which confirmed it over and over and over. And anxiety was heaped on top of anxiety. And the only way I could settle at all was to drink and stim (note: do not inadvertently flap hands while holding a glass of wine – it doesn’t end well for the carpet or the wine)! And there were so many other things going through my head – sadness and anger and relief and excitement and things I’ve written about before and still can’t quite explain properly.
And then the first assessment came and the ensuing disaster plummeted me into crippling depression at the start of December (the full story is in part B of the Blog Guide). I had a series of long shutdowns and episodes without speech, and eventually the spell was broken and I went from no sleep to oversleeping and gradually starting to eat again as my body started to try to repair itself. That phase is the one that has recently ended. And then I made the decision to go public about being autistic and started this blog.
At the start of December I wrote about how Time Stood Still, and I was still in a state of disbelief and still felt that I would, at some point, wake up and it would be August again and I would just have had a really strange dream. I’d gone from disbelief, to tentative belief, to huge shock, and massive relief, and lifting of long-normalised depression, and enormous anxiety, to crushing devastation and invalidation, to starting to fight back, and still my head wasn’t really there, wasn’t really prepared to believe I was autistic without a diagnosis.
But things are different again now. Partly because it is a different year and we have been through the annual time of the short days and I am now, just occasionally, starting to notice the outside world again. Partly because I survived the very very bleak times following the first assessment. Partly because I am now publicly autistic and the reaction to my disclosure has been so overwhelmingly positive and accepted that it has gone a long way to help with the damage done at the first assessment. Partly because I have now learnt so much about autism and am finding strategies to find my way through and have started to engage with the autistic community and to discover how many of my own issues are common to other autistics. Partly because I am not now viewing the forthcoming assessment as a definitive point – I’m aware that getting a formal diagnosis might actually be a long and arduous process and from what I have read, this is not unusual in older people, particularly those assigned female at birth. Partly because there are indications that I might be emerging to some extent from burnout and I do have slightly more functionality than I did a few months ago. Partly because I am starting to learn what my autistic traits are and am learning to work with them rather than fighting against them.
But possibly mainly because I am now writing about being autistic and producing my own narrative to help with the process of discovery (and occasionally writing long indulgent posts like this one). I am learning to talk about it in a way that I would have found unthinkable back in September when even typing the word “autism” into a search seemed so alien and scary that I’d have to go for a little lie down afterwards to recover. I am finding out that going through this huge range of emotions from ecstatic jubilation to suicidal depression is “absolutely normal for the newly-discovered middle-aged autistic” (and probably newly diagnosed autistics of all ages and, to an extent, their carers too) by continuing to read. And, I’m starting to think about a way forward and very very gently getting back to one or two things that, to me, signify “normal life”. It’s slow, and the path is very wobbly and up and down, but it is going, gently, in the right direction.
None of it is particularly easy. And my autistic brain is still fighting furiously with my knowledge brain as they try to reach some sort of equilibrium in my head and sort out what on Earth to do about everything. But I sometimes think that they might, eventually, find some sort of way of working together.
And in the meantime the only thing to do is to accept this latest phase of anxiety regarding the assessment and to cope with it as best I can. I don’t know how many more phases there will be to go through before life achieves some sort of “new normal” and neither do I know when or what that will be. Maybe I will need to write more “head sorting” material in the future in order to make sense of it all and I’ll have a whole new analysis of the process in a few months’ time!
This blog is an interesting beast. No matter how much I want to write about some things and no matter how much I plan, sometimes my head just needs to write what it needs to write.
And letting it is part of the process of discovery!