False Summits

68-2017-02-16-11-56-27When I was a child I did quite a lot of hill walking. In recent years I’ve taken to fell running. And, as anyone who walks or runs up hills or climbs mountains will know, one of the most disappointing and frustrating experiences is the moment when you trudge, exhausted, those last few steps to the top of the hill, but instead of being rewarded with a beautiful view and the moment of touching the triangulation point and knowing you’ve “got there”, all you can see ahead of you is another hill, seemingly bigger than the one you’ve already climbed. You know that if you want to reach the top then you’ll have to keep going, to carry on climbing, to drag your aching legs and burning lungs onwards, because otherwise you will descend, not with a sense of achievement, but with a sort of stale disappointment.

Once you know of the phenomenon of the false summit you can, to an extent, prepare for it. You can look at the contour lines on the map, you can make yourself aware that this is a multi-stage climb, you can take a sandwich or a little bite of something tasty as a reward for the smaller summits to encourage you towards the bigger ones. But the first few times you do a hill, when you haven’t remembered the map perfectly and it’s just a bit further than you think it will be, there is frequently that sense of disappointment as you have to dredge up yet more energy to go up that bit further and to keep climbing.

I googled “false summits” because I am wont to googling things. Google told me that false summits “can have significant effects on climber’s psychological state by inducing feelings of dashed hopes or even failure.” Google is correct, dashed hopes and failure were exactly what I felt after my first two autism assessments.

About a week after the failure of the first assessment I saw a cartoon, a bit like the one I’ve attempted to draw above, on an ultrarunning page. Obviously, it was meant there in the context of literally running up hills, something to which I can relate quite strongly these days. But, seeing the little person (who on the original was just falling off the crest of the first peak) with a new monumental task ahead of them resonated with me not only in a practical way but in a psychological way, as I was starting to realise that the process of obtaining a formal autism diagnosis was not going to be an easy one.

This is, of course, one of the reasons why self-diagnosis is widely accepted within most autistic communities – the process of getting a formal diagnosis is, for many people, very difficult and involves a great deal of stamina and perseverance, often at a time when a person is already compromised energy wise because the very process of discovering they are autistic has been triggered by some sort of crisis or burnout. Without my husband’s help I’m not sure how I’d have managed to get this far – it has been difficult and stressful in the extreme anyway, and how much more so it must be for those who don’t have someone absolutely 100% supporting them I cannot imagine.

So, as we approach assessment number three, I feel like I’m trying to trudge up the hill again, in the hope that eventually I shall reach the summit. I learnt from the first assessment that lots of forms, and lots of checking, and doing everything absolutely as well as I could was utterly useless in the face of someone who stopped the assessment because they said they couldn’t diagnose me. We were then promised that there would be someone available in January and the second assessment was booked – the promise of someone who could see me turned out to be a lie because there was no such person available and it felt like I arrived once more, with the triangulation point almost in sight, to be turned back because the path round that side of the hill had been eroded and slipped into the valley below. The stress of waiting for the second assessment and getting our hopes up once again was, of course, just enough to mean that the whole of the Christmas vacation time was spent stressed out and worried, which wasn’t great timing.

And so we’re trying again. I feel like my legs are exhausted. My lungs are shredded. I have eaten nearly all my sandwiches. My backpack is digging into my shoulders and I really really just want to get to the top now. I don’t know whether I will or not. I don’t know whether this is another false summit I see ahead of me. I don’t know whether, by the end of next week, I will still be trudging up this particular hill in all weathers, still trying to get to the top, or whether I’ll be standing on the top, the sun will come out and I’ll be surrounded by beautiful views.

Uncertainty all round. I see the hill in front of me, but I don’t know whether it’s really the top yet. My mind is struggling to focus on much else at the moment, but thinking of analogies to describe it all helps somewhat. I dissociated quite a lot before the first two assessments, once the anxiety had reached a stage where my brain simply cut out. Maybe it’ll be the same this time. At least I’m prepared for it now.

And if it turns out to be yet another false summit or the path is broken again then I might well end up, as I did after the second summit, coming back down the hill for fresh supplies of sandwiches (another referral to another centre and a repeat of the whole formageddon experience). Another return to base camp for supplies, another failed attempt, another lot of energy needed.

Getting an autism diagnosis is like some sort of crazy psychological endurance sport!

Can you tell the anxiety levels are rising fast?

False summits…

The last sandwich…

Forms and evidence…

Uncertainty pervading…

The future, just a question mark, at what might or might not genuinely be the top of the mountain…

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