How To Be

I’m aware that this blog is becoming a bit erratic. There is still the story of my diagnosis to complete. There are hanging bits of part stories about discovering I was autistic. There are still random bits of semi-poems intermingling with journal entries. And I have yet to write about significant topics in a way that I eventually hope will be properly useful to others. It’s all a bit of a mess really. And I still have comments to respond to, and so many times where I’ve stated that I need to write a whole blog post about something and haven’t yet. But I can only do what I can do. My spoons are often somewhat limited and I work pretty much to capacity at all times, so I can’t do more.

And that’s just on the actual blog. Inside my head it’s even worse. There are fragments of posts, ideas, notions, concepts and so on. I have note after note after note on my phone, half-typed half thoughts about various things. It feels like I need a year or more to go through them all and construct coherent writings from them. There is so much to do, I’m so behind with things that I need to do to keep my life just about ticking over. And there never seems to be enough time, and by time I mean the sort of time where I’m functional enough to achieve things.

Maybe, however, this erratic situation, this state of chaos, is actually reflective of my own state of mind and my own current situation, which is also erratic and chaotic. Over a period of 24 hours last week I went from hating being me and not wanting to exist, to being content and still feeling this huge relief of realising who I am. I am still struggling to speak or get out of bed some days, but can be quite capable on others. And I have also realised over the last couple of weeks, that when I am out of the flat, in public, with other people, I have a situation that is still not resolved, and not even close to being resolved.

I do not know How To Be.

The problem is this:

I have always been regarded as somewhat “eccentric”, and even, maybe, some would say, a bit weird. That’s OK, I’m cool with that, it’s not a problem to me, I’ve dealt with it long since. After over 4 decades of being a bit on the interesting side of things I’m pretty used to it. I got really upset about being bullied and so on at school until I was around 15, but by then I’d largely learnt that it was just part of life and although it wasn’t much fun, I’d learnt to act “normal enough” to survive out in the world. I’d learnt to live with it, to cope.

The problem, of course, was that in learning to act “normal enough” and in learning to cope, what I’d actually done was literally learnt to act. I’d built a mask, and a pretty effective one at that. And the mask that I built was one of a rather strong and confident person. I wasn’t the stereotypical autistic girl “flying under the radar” by sitting quietly in the corner in the class, unnoticed. I wasn’t failing exams or dropping out of school. I was strong-willed, brash, and externally confident (even internally confident to an extent, because however much of a failure I was at friendship and sport and so on, I could learn things and pass exams reasonably easily, so that was what I did). I was told that I was capable and could achieve great things (largely because of the exam results and my capacity for learning things), and so the mask that I built was one of a high-achieving confident young woman.

However, this mask came at a price, and that price was my mental health. Constantly “being strong” and “achieving” in the way that I did in my early 20s was breaking me inside, and by the time I got to my late 20s I was very very ill indeed, heading for the serious episode of burnout at around age 30, from which I never really recovered, and my life was falling apart.

Up until last year I continued with the masking process to a considerable extent while out in the world. I continued to believe that the strong me was the real me, and once I’d recovered from being mentally ill (I really believed I’d get better at some stage) I’d be back to full strength. However, that continual masking was breaking me yet again, and, perhaps inevitably, I fell apart again completely, in the summer of 2016. And by that time the world had caught up sufficiently for the events to occur that eventually led to me being diagnosed autistic.

And, because of the sort of person I am, having discovered I’m autistic I’m determined to BE autistic. I don’t consider it something to hide away, I don’t consider it something to try not to be. It’s a huge part of my identity, and after over 4 decades being “somebody else”, the relief at being a more authentic version of me is huge. I suddenly realise it’s OK to allow myself to eat the same thing day after day after day if it makes me feel better, I’m allowed to stop forcing myself to take part in group conversations until I’m so sick I’m at the point of collapse, I can stim and fiddle with things and know it’s not me being wilfully annoying but is just part of my neurology, and I’m finally learning how to be myself after decades of trying to be the person society expected me to be and failing at it.

Which is all very well when I’m at home, or with tolerant friends or someone who can care for me and explain. And is absolutely fine when I’m in safe environments and have enough spoons to take care of myself. All very lovely – in theory all I need to do now is to be my fabulous autistic neurodivergent hand-flappy rocking-back-and-forth sunglasses-wearing eye-contact-no-longer tell-it-like-it-is self! Neurology explains everything, no more need for acting! Yippeeeee!

However, I’m a grown up person. I have to live in the world. I have to go out to shops to buy food. I have to be able to deal with other human beings if I want a life beyond the television and the sofa. I want to participate in activities that will be full of neurotypical folk who think it’s great to have a spontaneous chat about nothing at all and that such a thing takes no effort, who sit and stand too close to me for comfort, who are irritated by my stimming, who will expect me to use polite social niceties that mean something to them, who don’t even know what being autistic means, and who mistake my lack of social finesse, my sometimes inability to speak, my lack of eye contact, and so on, for rudeness or disrespect or similar, which, of course, it isn’t, it’s just that my natural way of being is different from theirs.

And so I come up with a dilemma. As I’m starting to emerge from burnout and beginning to go out into the world again a bit more, I’m finding that there are times I slip back into the old mask, which is probably inevitable after 4 decades of living that way and it becoming such a practised part of my act. It’s very obvious when I do though, because I start to feel very ill and bad rather quickly and I don’t have the stamina to maintain it for very long. There are also times when I catch myself doing something really obviously autistic (like losing speech or flapping my hands or something) and realise that if something went wrong or somebody challenged me, I’d be in deep trouble without being able to explain properly what was going on and with no carer on hand to help. And how DO you deal with a stranger who is standing so close to you that their “person vibes” are making you feel ill, when they don’t even understand the concept of “person vibes” (which, incidentally, is a term I just invented now)? They think you’re being awkward, but you’re not, it’s just that you can’t cope with that much person that close in that time and place.

I have no answers at this stage. But I’m coming up against the same problem that I read about from the parents of autistic children, but for myself, not a child. I’ve seen discussions about the extent to which autistic children should be pushed and made resilient and able to cope in life, and the extent to which they should be encouraged to be their fully autistic selves with all that that entails. I’m now considering to what extent I need to continue to use the mask I’ve developed in order to survive in the world and to what extent I can allow all my autistic traits and tendencies to dominate. On the one hand, trying to make autistic people “look” neurotypical can be massively damaging to mental health (don’t I know this from bitter experience), and how well we “fit in” or “look normal” is no measure of success in an autistic life because it denies who we are and can cause huge burnouts, but on the other hand we have to survive in the world somehow and that needs a certain amount of resilience and coping ability, especially given how little support there is in most societies for autistic people, particularly those of us who are adults. Add on to that the complications of late diagnosis and the concomitant identity crisis that arises from this huge change in life, and it’s easy to see how difficult it is to know how to proceed from here.

And this is not just about societal attitudes, but about practical survival and physical health. I’m not at the stage where if the supermarket discontinues my usual food that I don’t eat at all, but I did sit and cry for half an hour the other morning and declared that I wouldn’t eat or drink that day because we’d run out of the milkshake that I usually have when I first get up. My autistic brain said NO in big shouty letters, and I had to use my rational “learning” brain to argue with it. I had to allow myself to recover from what was basically a mini-meltdown over a milkshake, and then gently persuade myself that I was going to eat and drink and it would be OK to drink something different until my husband could get to the right shop to get the right sort of milkshake. This all takes energy (and, in my case, a very understanding husband), and it’s nobody’s fault – it’s just the way my brain works being at odds with what I know to be good for my body and overall health!

And going out into the world and coping with everything that the external world throws at me takes even more energy, even when people are trying their utmost to understand and be helpful. I’m quite good at it because I’ve been practising for a long time and I’ve learnt a lot of social skills which I can maintain quite well for the duration of most social events as long as I get enough downtime in between, but I’m also determined to be as autistic as I need to be where possible, because it’s so much easier, more relaxing, and SO much better for my mental health.

Also, while knowing I’m autistic is an amazing liberating relief, and while I really like being autistic me because it’s so natural and right and comfortable, I also rather liked the strong capable mask person (which is possibly understandable – since I created a persona it probably made sense to create one of someone I liked rather than someone I hated). I don’t want to lose some of those strong bits (being “tough” is something I enjoy in many contexts), and I still need some of that resilience to survive and to live any sort of sensible life.

However, I know that, aside from the briefest of interactions, I have to be open about being autistic. I read of people who hold down jobs and don’t tell their employers that they’re autistic – that wouldn’t be possible for me as I’m too obviously different, and at my best I can maintain that level of mask for only about 3 days absolute maximum, even when I’m going home in the evenings. In the past the jobs have just failed, and I’ve lost them. Without significant and noticeable adaptions there are things I simply can’t do. At the moment I’m not even close to being able to work, but if that ever changes then there’s no way I could hide such a big part of me. I can currently act neurotypical for an hour or so at most these days, certainly not long enough to hold down a job!

So I’m now stuck in a bit of an inbetween state, trying to work out where to go from here, trying to work out how I can take this new discovery, be myself, be openly autistic, enjoy the benefits that brings to me, even manage to advocate for other autistic people and educate others about autism, but still manage to live a life that doesn’t mean I’m sidelined for things, or unable to participate in many of the sort of events that make life interesting and worth living.

This post has turned out to be more a list of questions, of musings, of ponderings, than anything else. Maybe, a year on from discovery, six months on from diagnosis, and slowly emerging from burnout, this is a phase I have to go through. I have to ask the questions before the answers will start to emerge. I have to consider how I’m going to live my life, what I’m going to push myself to do, how much I can ask for adaptions to do things I’d be unable to do without them, how much I’m going to give up on some things because it’s too much, and where the balance will eventually lie. Maybe there will never be a full balance, but some sort of compromise between the bit of me that craves adventure and activity and the bit of me that needs solitude and peace.

And after two thousand words of analysis and consideration…

I still don’t know How To Be!

I am still having, consciously, to make decisions about whether to present the old mask to people, which is practised and known and I can do only for short lengths of time, or whether simply to “be myself”, which is new and unfamiliar to me and others and requires explanation and education but is so much more relaxing and feels so much more honest and authentic.

I suspect I’m still learning, trying things out, sometimes getting it wrong, sometimes getting it right, discovering what works and what doesn’t. I suspect that learning How To Be as an authentically autistic person who can actually manage to do things out in the world without getting constantly broken will be an iterative process, and I’m still very much at the start of that process.

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