Packing

To return to the place
Where my old life ended
And my old self
Disintegrated
Into a million tiny fragments.

I messaged a friend
A year ago
And said
“It seems like I might have
Some sort of autism”

I laugh now at the terminology
And ponder what “sort” it might be
I’d quite like it to be purple
With a side order of cheesy chips
And a glass of beer.
Maybe also a beard
And nice eyebrows!

I digress

A tweet set me thinking:
Do I have a love-hate relationship
With this place?
I’m not sure.
I’m not given to loving
Or hating
Anything much.
They always seem
A bit strong
And the words are loaded
With overwhelm.

But

I got it.

The paradox in my head
About this place
At this time of year
After the events of August 2016…

Two words
Describe it
Perfectly for me

Supportive
And
Traumatic

The support of good people
I know they are good
My brain tells me
But they are still people
And
As always
With a crowd of people
I get that sense of
Disbelonging
That I always have.
No matter how much I belong
I never do.
And if I feel I might start
To be part of something
I get uncomfortable
And withdraw.

The trauma of multiple meltdowns
My life falling apart
The eventual admission
Of just how disabled I really am
And that to return
I need adaptions
I can no longer be
“A normal customer”
And I know the truth
About my life.
The eventual comfort
Of knowing why I can’t
Do what most people can.

I have nearly cancelled this trip
So many times.
Decided I cannot go.
Too much.
The risk of meltdown.
The inevitability of speech loss
In a place where face to face interaction
Is valued.
At what point do I just give up?

Apparently not yet.
Because I have started packing.
To return to a place of

Unsettling support
And
Reassuring trauma.

Where all the feelings get intermingled.

And the routine
Is simultaneously
Comforting and constraining.

The discomfort of becoming
Part of a community
Of never quite knowing
What to do
Or how to be.

But I am drawn back

Simple to say it is the music that draws me
But it is more than that.
Observing people.
Intrigue.
Maybe even as close
As I come to being
Part of a community.
Skirting the edges,
Watching from the sidelines
Because throwing myself
Into the middle
Breaks me too badly.

I cannot keep up the acting
Or make so many conscious decisions
Or remember how to chat
Or cope with the noise
Or concentrate that hard
On doing the right thing
Or on explaining
Why I am not doing the right thing
For days on end.
It is too exhausting.

Adaptions are being arranged.
Separate eating.
People knowing I am autistic
And need time out
To recover.
Disclosure not optional
For me.
Essential.

It feels strange.
After so many years
Of “just work harder”
To realise that I can’t.
And the only way I can do anything
Is with adaptions
To enable me to cope.

I feel sad that I cannot join in
“Properly”
But I have tried this
For so many years
And always the result
Is disaster.

Prior to my mask disintegrating
I could do 3 days
Before meltdown or shutdown.
Now it is more like
24 hours
Before I need to be alone
To recover.

But I have still not cancelled.
I am still going.
Facing things that terrify me.
But going to a place
I want to be,
Even so.
I said, a couple of years ago,
That if I wasn’t ill,
It would be perfect.
(I only knew myself to be “ill”
Back then).

It’s a place where the old, “strong” me,
The heavily masked me of my early 20s,
Would have flourished
(Although collapsed upon return)
But the me of now can barely cope
Because I am so burned out and mentally ill
After so many years of masking.

And now the place is imbued
With heavy significance.

Had I never gone there
Would I still not know I was autistic?

The question hurts my brain.

I cannot cope with the notion
That something involving people
Is so significant.

That makes me too vulnerable.

Part of me wants to stay away,
Forget.
Part of me needs to go back,
Remember.

Because everything changed.
My entire perception
Of my whole life.

It is all too big.

So I shall focus only on practical survival.
Arrangements.
Food.
Packing.
Loading the car.

I shall count socks
And think about jumpers
And try to organise things
As best I can
Because I know
My executive dysfunctioning
Means I will struggle
With the most basic things
After a short time.

Even the packing is a challenge
Right now!

Doing My Best

So we have come to August. And to the month in which, last year, people started to suggest to me that I might be autistic.

Today is the first anniversary of me starting seriously to fall apart, to not cope. A year ago today I sat in the leader’s seat of a viola section and a remark made to me by the conductor was the last straw after three days of total overload and unknowingly masking furiously without a break and I sat, tears rolling down my face, hardly able to speak. I think I managed to say “I’m doing my best” and that was about it. I was broken. I’ve reviewed that incident in my mind hundreds of times, often berating myself for not being tougher or more grown-up, for not coping as I should have done, for not acting with sufficient professionalism, but eventually I’ve learnt that how I coped (well, didn’t cope) that day was completely out of my control and there was nothing I could have done differently.

At the time, of course, I didn’t know that this meltdown (owing to circumstances, I suspect, a quiet, inward-turned one) was the start of many more that would occur over the next few weeks, nor that it was the start of something that would change my life for ever. I just knew that I felt very very bad and that it was probably some sort of mental health issue. I assumed that I’d go off and have a little rest or something and then be back to “normal” and carry on with life as usual. So I put my viola away after the rehearsal was over and went to have lunch in the dining hall, shaking and terrified, and struggling still further with the sensory overload that I was so used to that I didn’t even know it was making me worse.

I got through the rest of the day, sort of, feeling wrong and dissociated, and trying to do what was expected of me, but the breakdown of my abilities had happened and was irreversible, and by the next morning I couldn’t work out how to dress myself, couldn’t get to breakfast, and I knew I was in big trouble of some sort. My ability to act “appropriately” had fallen apart, and all I knew was that I was a broken down mess.

Fortunately, those around me (and some with whom I was communicating online) were largely sympathetic, and some of them were also knowledgeable, much more knowledgeable than I was, about what being autistic actually looked (and in at least one case felt) like. A year ago today I was only days away from people starting to ask if I’d considered the possibility that I was autistic, having both witnessed my behaviour and listened to my accounts of how the dining room and the vast numbers of people made me feel. This, added to my long history of mental health problems was enough to convince them, and for me to have heard the suggestion from enough people to go away in investigate the possibility thoroughly and to find out what “being autistic” actually meant.

Life has never, of course, gone back to “normal” and I suspect this will be the first of several “it’s been a year since…” posts as the anniversaries keep coming throughout the next year. Had life gone back to normal, you wouldn’t be reading this blog, nor, indeed would many of you have ever encountered me. The meltdown of a year ago today set in motion a chain of events that led to the most life-changing year I’ve ever had.

A year on, I’ve learnt so much. And am still learning so much. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to go back to the same place in a few weeks’ time. I have already returned for a weekend (as I recounted in Going Back) and I’m hoping to be able to go for longer.

There are two ongoing jobs on my jobs list at the moment. One is to finish writing up my assessment for this blog (I’m doing my best with that too, and with responding to comments and so on – apologies that my brain is working on such extended timescales at the moment) and the other is to try to work out what adaptions I might need to get through a week of orchestral playing, living away from home, without completely falling apart. I went last year, as far as I knew, as a very broken neurotypical person (though I don’t think I even knew the word neurotypical at that stage so would never have described myself thus), but this year I’m going back as an autistic person still recovering from a massive burnout.

Which is a huge shift. After over two decades of progressively worsening mental health I’ve become used to the fact that I have “issues” and can’t function like most other people can, but it’s now evident just how disabled I am (and I am disabled, and by more than just society and expectations because my executive functioning is so poor and my ability to care for myself is sometimes almost non-existent – there’s another whole blog post to write about that sometime when I have the capability). And admitting that to myself sufficiently to ask for help is massive for me.

I’m still, also, very much in the process of trying to work out what adaptions I actually need. It’s already been established that eating in the dining hall is beyond my capabilities because of the immense sensory overload, but even then there are still further issues to consider and I’m only just at the start of working out what they actually are. I’m working on them as hard as I can, trying to be as helpful as possible to the people who are trying to help me in order that I can keep playing orchestral music in that environment at all. There will, I’m sure, be times when things still go wrong, and this will be an iterative process as I discover ways to cope in the light of the new knowledge. I’m also feeling a little guilty about needing any adaptions at all, having spent so long just trying to work harder to deal with all the problems I’ve had, but I now find myself in a position where I simply cannot work any harder. I’ve spent my life doing my absolute best at everything I’ve ever done, working as hard as possible, with the result that my energies are spent. My perception of myself is rapidly changing. I have moved from the stage I was at when I wrote Farewell Strong Woman and Expectations Gone, but there is still a long way to go.

As I said to a friend recently, if I say I “can’t” do something, I really genuinely can’t and it’s not that I just don’t want to. But even so, it’s really hard to adjust to asking for help (which I was never very good at) and my social skills and understanding of how other people perceive me are not sufficiently good to know when people are happy to help, and when they’re thinking that I’m just a pain in the arse and it might be better if I gave up trying to do whatever it was because it’s really beyond my capabilities and the adaptions are just too much trouble for people. That’s something I’m still trying to work out too.

What I do know though, is that life has permanently changed as a result of the events of last August, and that returning to the same place, even with the same conductor (which is somewhat scary) and many of the same people, is going to be a very interesting experience if I can manage it. The expectations I had of my future life a year ago are so drastically different from the ones I have now that it still sometimes feels like I’ve stepped into some sort of parallel dream universe and that I’ll wake up one day and life will be back to normal again and I’ll think that was a jolly peculiar dream!

But it isn’t a dream (I don’t think)! It’s a whole new life, a whole new way of viewing my entire life, right back to when I was a very very small. The old life had been stretched and stretched right to its limit (and beyond on several occasions), but that moment, just before lunchtime a year ago today, was when it finally snapped, and people were there to witness it and to make the suggestion as to WHY it had snapped. And from that point it wasn’t about trying to fix the old life, it wasn’t about continuing to try to be “normal” or taking the “advice” that I’d been taking for so long about what would help (and often didn’t). Rather, it was about starting again, with a new set of parameters, building a new life with a different perspective on the world.

And that’s something I’m still doing. A year on from that moment I’m still trying to understand and to rebuild my life – it’s very much a work in progress!

The Preparation

Right from the start things were very different with the second referral. I think the triage service had given some explanation as to what had happened at the first place and had instructed the second place to see me as soon as possible, and we were also much better prepared and aware of what I might need in order to get through an autism assessment without having a giant meltdown part way through.

There was still, certainly, a lot of tension involved. The second place to which I had been referred was in the midst of a reorganisation period – it had, officially, closed and was being reopened under a different name and we had no real idea of timescale as far as when I’d be seen once the reopening had occurred. We also still had the first referral open, and had they been able to find someone to assess me at the first place there was a chance I’d have to go back there anyway. And, of course, there was the whole build-up to go through again, the nagging doubts that I wouldn’t be diagnosed autistic, that I would come home feeling broken and suicidal once more, and that there still wouldn’t be any formal answers as to why my life had been going so badly wrong for so many years.

I went through Formageddon all over again, once more trying to answer everything as best I could and to explain why I’d answered the more ambiguous questions as I had. We were also sent another (different) list of questions to ask my mother, so there were a couple more sessions of phone interviewing and learning even more things about my early life and how I was when I was very small. Everything was, as before, written down, duly answered, copied, printed, scanned, and so on, and sent to the assessment people.

We started to feel a bit happier when good e-mail contact was established between the assessment people and my husband. They acknowledged receipt of the forms and a few other bits of information we’d sent to them, and the appointment for my assessment was made. The third attempt to get a formal autism diagnosis was, it seemed, going ahead.

My husband then received an absolutely superb e-mail that felt very reassuring. It described the building where the assessment would be held, the lighting, the furnishing, and outlined that once we arrived we could organise the layout of the room to be as comfortable as possible. It was made explicitly clear that I was welcome to take cushions, blankets, fidget toys and so on with me, and that we’d agree on a schedule of breaks throughout the assessment time, which was given as around three and a half hours. An outline of the format of the assessment was also sent, and parking at the venue was also mentioned. It felt very encouraging and we started to believe that these might be people who actually knew how to communicate with us, who understood that we needed clear information and practical help.

They also made it clear that we were welcome to send information in advance and that that would be helpful to them and would also mean that if there were things I was unable to explain in spoken words on the day they would already have the information so that wouldn’t be a problem. We’d sent around 60 pages of notes and information to the first centre although there was very little evidence that they’d really looked at it and I felt a bit jaded about the possibility of sending things that I was working hard to produce that might likely never be looked at. However, we determinedly made ourselves take a “clean slate” approach and I set about providing as much information as I possibly could, including sending the original files of some of the early posts on this blog.

Then came an even more reassuring document – a more detailed outline of what we were going to discuss on the day, along with explicit statement that there were no “right” or “wrong” answers. It was made very clear that the assessment was not going to be about “passing” or “failing” some sort of test and that the criteria on which I would be assessed were not some sort of “cut-off” on a quiz, but on a whole lot of different things regarding the way I communicated, interacted, behaved, and so on. This was not a “box-ticking-getting-a-score” thing, but an exercise in observing me and finding out how I thought and felt and communicated.

I set about going through the outline, answering everything as best I could, and saving it to yet another document in the growing “Autism” folder on my computer – another document full of evidence and thoughts, another 10 pages to add. By the time I arrived at the assessment itself, I had sent over 120 pages of 11-point Calibri for the assessors to read, some of which we’d printed and posted, and some of which we’d sent by e-mail, the last batch just days before the assessment itself. The feedback we’d been receiving by e-mail suggested that the assessor was actually reading it too, and I was absolutely desperate not to miss anything out, to tell the full story, to supply as much information as possible. After all, they’d said on the appointment letter that the more information I could supply, the better, so I took them at their word!

The final bit of pre-arrival preparation was an e-mail to tell me exactly who would be at the assessment (two people, one of whom would be asking the questions while the other mainly observed so I wouldn’t have to cope with talking to two people at once), and to inform us that a parking space had been booked and would be signposted and to give us a mobile phone number to contact if we got into any difficulties on the day.

I think we were about as prepared as it was possible to be!

Summer School

One of the most striking things that happens to so many of us who are diagnosed or identified as autistic late or very late on in life is that as we learn about autism and what it actually means and how it affects our lives, there is this constant stream of “lightbulb moments” where events from the past suddenly make sense and can thus be reinterpreted very differently. Those of us who grew up oblivious to the fact we were autistic but just knew that life was very very difficult (and assumed, since it was all we knew, that that was the case for everyone but that they somehow coped with the difficulties better than we did) have a lot of reframing of our past to do and a lot of moments that we can now perceive completely differently as a result of knowing we’re autistic.

A couple of days ago I was looking through my “on this day” feature on facebook, as I do most morning, and this status from two years ago appeared:

It is so nice to be alone. Away from all the other people and “group work” (i.e. HELL). Just me, York Bowen viola music on the laptop, a bottle of wine, and a box of maltesers.

I was instantly struck by my relief at being alone and my assertion that group work was hell. I decided to have a look at some of the comments I’d made on the status and they made for further interesting reading:

I’m at Open University Summer School. There are people everywhere. They’re lovely people, but I’m just not good with lots of people all at once. They all have social skills that I just can’t do. The work itself is no probs, but then we’re told to “discuss this with the people sitting around you” and “work in groups” and all I hear is noise. I don’t have the filters for it. Everyone else chats and laughs and I feel lonely and isolated. I drove off campus this evening and found a Tesco to buy stuff then just drove, with music, on my own. It was the most soothing bit of the day.

I limit parties and things because I know they use so much energy and I often need a lot of time to recover. If I was an animal in the wild I’d be a polar bear or something that lived a largely solitary life.

Interacting with people all day is just exhausting. The maths is easy, and the people are nice, but there are so many of them, and it’s so tiring having to smile and pretend to be normal all day.

This is going to be a very very long week. People keep telling me I’ll love it. I’m not loving it. I arrived and broke down in tears and collapsed. If there was a way I could get out of it I would. I hate it.

All the above remarks in italics were written over a year before I knew I was autistic. As far as I knew at that time I just had mental health problems and, at the time I believed the only current issue I had was what I believed to be “normal” levels of anxiety. The disability officer from the course had even called me the previous week to check that I was OK (having read on my student record that I was listed as having bipolar disorder) and I’d assured him that I was between episodes and that everything was absolutely fine and I didn’t need any accommodations but thank you for asking etc etc. The only thing I did check was that I would have a bedroom on my own – I have known all my life that sharing sleeping space with anyone other than people close to me and selected by me is absolute anathema and on the occasions where I’ve been forced into that situation I’ve spent the night anxious and sleepless, desperately waiting for morning.

So I set off to Summer School without any adaptions in place. And I struggled from the outset. I arrived at registration in tears, desperate already to go home, but knowing that this was a compulsory course and I’d fail the degree without it. I sat through a lecture about group work and about how we were being assessed on our interactions with the other students (all of whom were complete strangers to me) and that we had to be actively participating and not looking at the ceiling or staring out of the window because we would otherwise be marked down. The fear started to rise. My anxiety levels started to skyrocket. I remember being desperate to get out and to go home. No degree was worth this amount of torture, surely?

And, as we moved into the group work session and I sat with three complete strangers trying to design some sort of mathematical modeling experiment, trying to look into these strangers’ eyes and to “look interested” and to do all the things we’d been told to do in the lecture, the tears started to roll down my face and then the crushing panic as the noise got louder and louder and the voices of the people around me started to blur into this horrendous and incomprehensible sound and then it felt like the walls of the lecture theatre were going to crush me to death, and the inevitable meltdown happened.

I sat in the corridor outside the lecture theatre rocking and crying until someone eventually found me. I can’t remember exactly what happened next, but it became obvious that I wasn’t going to cope with being a “normal” student. Some adaptions were made for me – I was moved to a different overall group with fewer people, and it was agreed that I would always have a seat near the door or on the end of a row, not in the middle of the room.

It helped a bit, but after a couple of days I was finished. I’d also pretty much stopped eating by this stage (the dining hall was another source of noisy clattering fear and social interaction, and any acquisition of food that required any input from me was impossible for me – I stood in front of a toasting machine one morning at breakfast and cried because I just couldn’t work out how to get toast – I would have gone hungry that morning had another student not made some toast for me and put it in front of me).

I was in touch, as usual, with friends and my husband via facebook. My husband offered to drop everything and come up on the train to see whether he could sort me out and calm me down and get me eating again. The course directors were initially reluctant – I wasn’t registered as needing a carer, and they were also suspicious that my husband would arrive and simply take me home. However, it was fast becoming obvious that I wasn’t going to last much longer on my own anyway so my husband was allowed to join me and he arrived and brought my “safe” foods and got me eating again and somewhat back on track and I managed to stay for the rest of the course.

I remained very stressed for the rest of the week, but as the end approached things did improve. I self-medicated heavily with alcohol and caffeine in order to cope, and landed up in a group with some very good people who helped me through the group work and seemed fine about having to sit near the door in every room (I’m still facebook friends with them, two years on). Perversely, one of the parts of the course that many people were worried about was the presentation to a room full of tutors and other students – for me it was the easiest and least stressful part of the whole experience! This seems to be the story of my life – I find things that others find so easy that they don’t even think about them really really challenging, and things that others find challenging I often find unproblematic!

And, it’s only now, two years after the event and eleven months after starting seriously to investigate the possibility that I might be autistic and what that even meant, that I can now understand just WHY Summer School was so difficult for me, and just how disabled I am and how much support I need at times in order simply to survive. Back then I didn’t have a clue about “sensory spoons” or that not having the ability to cope with multiple conversations in a room was the result of the way my brain was wired rather than me just being hopeless. I’d never heard the phrase “executive functioning” and couldn’t work out why an unfamiliar toaster might make me cry and I simply wouldn’t be able to work out how to use it. I didn’t know just how much energy I was using coping with eating whatever food they provided rather than my own routine “safe” foods that I usually had at home. I didn’t know why the lecture on group work made me so terrified, and I couldn’t begin to comprehend how the other students could spend all day in lectures and group work and chatting at coffee breaks and then go to the bar in the evening and STILL cope without crying and breaking and sobbing and rocking in the corridor – I just assumed they were geniuses of some sort with unlimited energy and resources and that I was broken and pathetic. I never even found the bar!

Now it’s all explained. And now I have to work out what to do when I go away from home on my own in the future. I still don’t have it worked out. I’m supposed to be going away in a few weeks’ time and I need to work out what accommodations might be possible and what I will need in order to get through the week. Then I need to communicate it to the people concerned, which is even harder. I’m struggling with it, even with the knowledge I now have, and when the confirmation e-mail arrived in my inbox the other day I went into a state of abject terror and nearly cancelled. I’m still trying to work out what to do so I don’t end up with a repeat of the Summer School scenario.

And although I now know why all these things have gone wrong, I’m still less than a year into the whole “knowing I’m autistic” thing. I have no problems with being autistic – it’s simply the way that I am – but asking for help has never been something I’ve found easy, and I’m still trying to work out exactly what “help” would actually be helpful, which is another huge job on its own! And after 4 decades of believing that when I couldn’t cope it was my fault and I just had to deal with it, the change in perspective is absolutely massive.

This is still, I keep reminding myself, a process. And, as I keep hearing from those who’ve been through the same process, it will take time.

I hope I’ll be able to work it out eventually!

The Preamble

I have become increasingly conscious over the last few weeks that there is a significant part of my “autistic journey” still absent from this blog. I’m also conscious that I have so far erred on the side of pointing out some of the inadequacies of services available, and that the only account of an autism assessment I have thus far published is a pretty scary and negative one.

It is true that I have encountered some difficult times during the diagnostic process and that there is much that could be improved. I still look back to the end of November 2016 with some horror and still hope to be able to feed back what happened at some point (one reason I try to type things up is so that they don’t vanish from my mind). And I also look back further to other “care” I have received, including the unhelpful GP who, two decades ago, told me to stop crying and sent me away with a packet of citalopram, and the counsellor I saw, a decade ago, who told me that it was my fault I didn’t fit in with the people at the office and I needed to try harder and learn to wear make-up and be able to discuss it and so on. These times were not good.

However, I can also look back into the history of my mental healthcare and pick out some people who were really good and really helpful. The locum GP who first referred me to a psychiatrist, realising how terribly ill I was, my current GP who has been totally supportive throughout, and a team of people who really did help with issues relating to my mental health and bipolar disorder in particular – an excellent CPN (community psychiatric nurse) and several charity workers who were brilliant. And I can look back into more recent history and see that the triage service (the stage between my GP appointment and my autism assessment) were also as helpful as they could be, and that I eventually ended up having a thorough, helpful, and successful autism assessment, carried out by people who really did know their stuff and really did help me to work out what was going on.

The only comparison I’ve thus far made between the two assessments I went through has been that in A Tale of Two Assessments, but now is the time to expand upon that post a little, and to try to write up, as best I can, five months on, what happened at that second assessment (or, indeed, third, if you count the assessment that was cancelled only hours before it was due to happen). Unlike the first assessment, which I didn’t write up for nearly a month because it was so triggering and upsetting, I’ve left the second assessment until now partly because external factors intervened (my father’s cancer diagnosis, various events to which I was committed, the need to sort out admin that had piled up prior to diagnosis, working on the report with my assessor) and partly because I have simply been exhausted and trying to process the whole thing. I knew, from reading what others had said on the topic, that getting a diagnosis would come with a whole load of conflicting emotions, and my assessors had also told me that alongside the relief would come a whole lot of other stuff, so I was prepared to go through another set of ups and downs like those described in Various Feelings.

What I had been less aware of is just how exhausted I would be, not only from relief because the fight to be recognized and validated was over and my life finally made sense and so on, but also from the energy used to gather the information over the preceding months. Looking back now, I can see that my life, from the end of August 2016 onwards, was almost totally taken up with researching autism. I read over 20 books, hundreds of blog posts, and spent hours and hours making lists, going through traits, going through my life, discussing with a few trusted friends, filling in quizzes and forms and questionnaires. The enormity of the discovery sent my mind into overdrive, and throughout September, October, and much of November I hardly slept or ate, was permanently on a sort of hypervigilant alert, and had a really intense time of discovery, of learning about my early childhood, of piecing things together, and of finally learning how to listen to my body and allowing myself to stim intensively, often for hours each day. Four decades of masking suddenly ended, the energy to pretend gone, completely burned out, and autistic me emerged somewhat powerfully.

Then came the first assessment and the crisis that followed it. My burnout finally reached the stage where I spent a lot of the time in shutdown, increasingly nonverbal, and retreating from the world, just trying to survive. However, the job of getting a diagnosis was still not done, so I kept pushing and pushing, started this blog, gathered more evidence, went through more stress, and my husband worked like crazy to get me the second referral to the team who eventually diagnosed me. Having been through the six months prior to February, it’s not really surprising that once the objective was achieved, I was utterly exhausted. And I still have to cope with being autistic, in my mid-40s and in perimenopause, working out where to go from here, and trying to maintain sufficient levels of self-care not to fall apart completely. I’ve also, tentatively, started to sort out the pieces of my life that were abandoned several months ago and have started to get back out into the world a bit more and begun the process of working out where I go from here, as I’m finally beginning to regain a bit of functionality again.

But now I am as ready as I’ll ever be to fill in the gap in the story of my diagnosis, the tale of the time between Weekend Journal and An Announcement, and of the five hours of my life that gave me the validation and permission to be myself and confirmed that what I’d learned over the preceding six months was true, confirmed by somebody who clearly knew what they were talking about and was willing to give me as much time as I needed to explain, to talk, to work things out, and who made the experience as smooth as it possibly could have been. I can’t yet predict how many blog posts telling this story will take, nor how long it will take me to write them all, nor what other posts I might feel moved to write in between times, before I complete the whole “diagnosis” story, but once I’ve documented the whole process I’ll try to find some way of linking everything up so anyone who’s interested can follow everything sequentially. I’m in the process of trying to organize the whole blog a bit better anyway.

It’s strange now to think, just over five months later, about those five hours on that day. It was a day that had been long awaited in several senses – the time after the first assessment had felt like an eternity, the months following the discovery had been intense and focused almost entirely on getting a diagnosis, and the four decades of a life that didn’t quite work had finally got to the stage where all those little things that weren’t quite “right” would be explained and validated by one sentence on one rather surreal day.

It was certainly one of the most significant days of my entire life!

Trail Return

So last weekend I went back to the place where I fell apart while playing music last August.

And this weekend I went back to the place where I fell apart while running in my last race before burnout hit so badly that I was forced to take a complete break from running, to the place mentioned in The Background, where I eventually pulled out of the race, believing that I had some sort of mystery illness because I felt so dreadful.

This afternoon we drove to what is, during that race, aid station 4 (and which is a car park most of the time). I parked the car in pretty much the same place as I sat with a race official almost a year ago, trying to explain that I was really not well, but I didn’t know how I was not well. I didn’t understand, then, why everything was so painfully loud and bright and hot, or why I felt constantly as if I was about to be sick or that I really felt that I needed to burst into tears but couldn’t.

I didn’t understand then why, at the previous aid station, I’d felt like the trees were coming towards me, I’d been unable to form the words to ask for a cup of tea, and the voices of people around me were distorted and incomprehensible.

Neither did I understand why the world around me seemed to be breaking into a million little fragments, and I couldn’t make sense of any of them, still less run an ultramarathon.

Back then I put it down to a combination of “mental health problems” and “maybe a virus”. It would be a few weeks more before someone suggested I might be autistic, and another month before I started to take the idea seriously.

I’ve gradually started to return to running over the last few weeks. I went out and did a couple of kilometres, then 5K, then 8K, and I also did 12K of strenuous walking earlier this week. All of this, however, has been on the road, mostly not far from home where the running was concerned.

But today was different. For the first time in a year I took kit with me and changed into it elsewhere (which requires a lot of executive functioning energy). I drove and parked out on the trail. And I did 8K of trail running, on gently undulating decent path, admittedly (it absolutely wasn’t fell running).

Once again I drank warm disgusting water out of the bladder in my backpack, once again I pushed myself hard physically (I’m actually pleasantly surprised at how much residual fitness I’ve retained, though I have some way to go before I am where I want to be). It was also a hot day, which added somewhat to the challenge.

And I chose to go back to the very same place where I’d fallen apart in the race nearly a year ago. To deal with the psychological stuff too, to run the same path that I’d previously staggered, before collapsing, ill and broken, by the side of the trail, from where I had to be rescued by race officials and a car to take me to safety.

Today was an interesting experience. The physical bit was actually quite easy, and I didn’t feel any great psychological impact, though the memories of sitting in a folding chair, sipping flat coke, and desperately trying to find words to convey to the race officials what was wrong with me (I didn’t know, of course) were very strong.

But, what I did experience, very strongly, was exactly the same sensory overload that I had done the year before. As I got back to the car and met up with my husband (who’d been running in the opposite direction – we rarely run together), the sick, dizzy, bad feelings overtook me and I knew I was totally wrecked. I sat in the car and suddenly felt the familiar ill feelings engulf me. My running kit was suddenly unbearably constricting and I simply took it off (my husband attempting to shield me from a man in an adjacent parked car – though by that stage getting the clothes off was all that mattered to me). I put my ordinary t-shirt on, then bashed my head against the door frame of the car several times, which helped, and my husband suggested that maybe we should walk around a bit to dissipate some of the evident tension.

So I ended up walking circuits of the car park, flapping my hands wildly, while my language fragmented and sentence structure fell apart, and I ended up monosyllabic.

My husband, who is quite accustomed to me being a little out of the ordinary simply remarked “You really are mad as a box of frogs aren’t you?” I concurred, and pondered the madness of frogs in boxes, as I usually do!

By the time I felt well enough to get back into the car to drive home my speech had completely gone, and as I type this, 3 hours later, it is just returning, in effortful monosyllables (and I’m still really stimmy and unable to sit still). However, with the loss of speech, the ill feelings started to subside, and I was able to drive us home perfectly well.

And I’m pleased, because I did something today that would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago. I’m still very burnt out, still a long way from well, and I now know that one of my major challenges when running out in a world with so much light and noise and so on is to deal with the effect that the sensory overload has on my system. It’ll be even more challenging during races when I’m going to encounter other people in large numbers, and going to have to find a way of explaining how much energy it takes to speak to them or to process their words if they speak to me. There’s a whole lot of learning and so on still to be done.

But today I got back out onto the trail. I managed to do something I haven’t done for nearly a year, and I observed how far I can push myself before my system breaks.

And it’s so much easier to deal with now I know WHY it happens. There’s a long way to go until I figure out how to deal with it all, but at least knowing what I’m dealing with is a good starting point!

It was good to be back. Doing what I love, starting the journey back to long distances, when I hope to be out there on the trails, running through the night again, and experiencing the magic that is ultrarunning!

What A Year!

It’s my birthday tomorrow!

Don’t panic – this isn’t some sort of crisis of ageing, or plea for cake (though I’m not averse to cake), or any other similar thing. I have no issues with birthdays – been having them all my life and am generally pretty chilled about them.

I do always have a little moment of thinking about the actual number though, and usually, when I move from an odd to an even number it’s really satisfying – especially if it’s a really good even number with loads of factors, or some nice symmetry or something. 46 could be worse – a year of life for every chromosome is quite satisfying, and the fact that its prime factorisation is 2×23 echoes the chromosomal connection, since chromosomes come in pairs, enhances that satisfaction (even though 23 is a much larger prime factor than I’d ideally end up with for maximum numerical pleasure). That it’s made up of two adjacent even numbers pleases me, as does the fact that the digits add up to 10. I’m sure I’ll be thinking of many more advantages and disadvantages of 46 as a number over the coming year!

So today is the last day that my age will be 45. Unusually for an odd number, I find it really pleasurable. Prime factorisation of 3x3x5 is good, the fact that it is the sum of the digits is even better, and, of course, it is a multiple of 5. Multiples of 5 are the most preferable of all the odd numbers to me, so being a “5” is always good. Furthermore, the digits add up to 9, which is a square number (nice) and it is, itself, a triangular number! All this is good!

However, aside from an excuse to enjoy a bit of prime factorisation and so on, and maybe eat some cake or have slightly nicer wine for the evening, birthdays do make me pause, just briefly, to remember birthdays gone by and to reflect on the past year.

And this year I’m looking back at the last 12 months and basically thinking “Crikey! Did all that really happen?” in a really really big way.

Really really big!

Because 45 is always going to be the age I was when I discovered I was autistic and when I received my diagnosis.

I’m still struggling to explain just why such a discovery and diagnosis is such a big thing (though talking to others who have been through the same has revealed that I’m not the only one who regards this as such a big thing, as life-changing, and probably even life-saving (or, perhaps, life-prolonging, because I have to die sometime, just a case of whether that sometime is sooner or later)). I am, of course, still trying to get my head round the whole thing in any case – the discovery was only 11 months ago and the diagnosis less than 5 months ago, and on my last birthday I was still totally clueless about my neurology and about many of the things that have occupied my mind for most of the last year.

I wasn’t someone who’d “suspected for a while” (though I always knew I was a tad on the eccentric side and generally did things my own way, and I’d been aware all my life that the world was generally confusing and often difficult, and so on – but I assumed that was just the way life was for most folk and they just had more energy than I did), so I really have gone from “completely oblivious” to “diagnosed autistic” in a rather short space of time.

And I find myself in the slightly odd position of being rather knowledgeable about being autistic, simply because that has been my lived experience of the world all my life, which is rather strange. And, of course, because when I then get interested in something (such as autism) I get VERY interested, I’ve learnt a whole load of stuff that I’d never even have imagined existed this time last year! And most of it basically describes me, and my life – and I turn out to be rather less unique and different than I’ve always assumed! This is also odd – I was a quirky, crazy, eccentric, and rather batty neurotypical person who had basically failed at loads of stuff and was seriously mentally ill (all of this so I thought, though I’d never have used the term neurotypical because it wasn’t part of my vocabulary), and then suddenly I wasn’t – I was a really rather ordinary and quite stereotypical autistic person who’d been trying to be something I wasn’t for decades and had broken myself in the process (quite a revelation)!

And I’ve spent much of the last year thinking about all this, and learning, and realising that I AM, in fact, very stereotypically autistic. And as soon as I put autism into the equation, my life makes sense in a way that it never has done previously. And as soon as I realised what had been happening all these years and ran out of energy to mask, it all seemed so very very obvious!

And all this happened when I was 45. From first suggestions, formation of hypothesis, through self discovery and the diagnostic process, discovering other autistic people, taking my first tentative steps into becoming part of the autistic community, becoming a blogger, and starting the process of reframing my past and pondering what might make a more suitable future than the one that I’d been working towards all my life (and failing to achieve).

There’s loads more to do and loads more to learn. I’m still reading and watching and working out how to respond to people’s questions. I’m still trying to work out how to respond to my OWN questions – this is not something that happens overnight, and my views on things are still constantly changing and evolving in the light of new information. This is a process that will probably continue, to a greater or lesser extent, for the rest of my life.

But one thing is fixed. For the rest of my life, the year during which my age was 45 will forever be one of the most important years of my life (maybe even THE most important). The twelve months that have just happened have undoubtedly changed my entire identity (yes, it really IS that big – I am of course “still me” in many ways, but the knowledge I have gained in the past year means that my life will never be the same again – my past looks completely different now, and the way I live my life and feel about myself and my place in the world has changed forever – this is not a bad thing, rather a great relief and liberation from years of pretending to be someone I wasn’t)!

Tomorrow will be my first birthday as a known autistic (obviously, I’ve been autistic on all my other birthdays, but just didn’t know). I’m not sure how I feel about it (thanks alexithymia), but I sort of think it should be significant somehow. Perhaps I’ll work it out at some point. I think maybe there is a sense of moving on and continuing to rebuild my life and continuing to experiment and to work out what I’m actually going to DO with however many years I have left on this planet (that isn’t yet obvious to me, having had to ditch many of my previous expectations), but also a year of “this time last year”s ahead, as I continue to process everything that has happened and to review each milestone in my autistic journey with the benefit of a year’s hindsight.

But whatever happens in the future, what happened when I was 45 will stay with me for ever. 45 will never be “just another age” for me. Not only did I get my diagnosis at 45, but the whole process happened within that year. I can’t imagine I’ll ever have another year like it again.

My mind’s still a bit blown by it all really!

But, on balance, in a good way!

Going Back

I returned
To the place
Where life
Fell apart
Last year.

To the scene
Of so many
Meltdowns
And tears
And disasters.

To the memories
Of fear
And difficulty
And wondering
Why
I couldn’t
Just get on with life
Like most others
Could.

A whole day
To pack.
The journey there
Dissociated.

Focusing on
The practical.
Doing the most
Essential bits.
Taking as much
Time out
Alone
As possible.

Starting to learn
To accept
Help
Even though
It is counter
To everything
I have ever
Worked for.
Having to change
My mindset.

Struggling sometimes
Someone talking
To me
When I wasn’t able
To process speech.
Conflicting instructions.
Near meltdown
But not quite.
Speech gone
For just over
Five hours.

Consciously being
With other people
When I couldn’t speak.
Instead of texting in
“Sick”
And staying away
As I would have done
Previously.

Senses on overload
Lights too bright
Music distorted
I knew it sounded
Wrong
As if being played
Through a
Faulty
Amplifier.
Not what Mahler
Intended!

Knowing
Some things
Would help
But lacking
The ability
To do them.
Inertia.
Energy.

Living away from home
Minus usual care
And routines.
A few meals
Missed,
Some medication
Missed.
Executive functioning
Declining
Sensory spoons
Depleted
Social spoons
Deficit.

Feeling guilty
Because
I wasn’t able
To contribute fully
To everything.

But

People helped.
No rehearsals missed.
Near constant
Low level stimming
Was fine.

And mostly
The music
Was wonderful,
Not distorted,
And I can
Still
Play
The viola.

Learnt so much.
Started to understand
Just WHY
So much of
This stuff
Has always been
So hard.
Now I understand.

Beginning to adapt
To the new life
With the new knowledge.
Starting to accept
That I need
To do things
A bit
Differently.
Consciously
Saving energy
Where possible
Now I know
What uses it.

There is more needed.
It isn’t all solved
Yet.
I still find
Asking
For adaptions
Really hard.
Partly because
It is so new
And partly
Because
I don’t yet know
What is possible
Or what I need.

But I am starting
To realise
Why some things
Feel bad.
And always have.
And even though
They still do
Understanding WHY
Helps.
And I can start
To notice
How things
Drain my energy.
And why being
Near to other people
Is tiring
And why “washing”
With vile slimy wipes
Makes me feel
Even worse
Than I already did
Without my bath.
Sensory hell.

It is still
Very much
A work in progress
This new life.

And I need
So much
Recovery time.

But it is possible
To enjoy
Something
I had thought
Might
Be beyond me
And so
Lost for ever.

There are
So many
Good things
I don’t want
To lose.

Maybe
I can keep
This one.

I went back.

I survived.

Not That Autistic?

I needed to go out this morning to do a few jobs. Go to the bank, bit of shopping for the next couple of days and for the weekend when I’m doing stuff (“stuff” needs a bit of preparation), petrol in the car, and so on.

So I left the flat feeling pretty much as normal as I ever feel. I got in the car, drove to the first car park, found a spot, parked, got out, and walked, briskly as always, through town to the bank.

And as I went, I thought “I’m out now, and, really, actually, seem pretty much like a normal person. Maybe I’m not that autistic after all?”

Then I got to the bank. There was a queue. And the lights were bright even through my darkest glasses. I stood in the queue moving from foot to foot, chewing my fingers, scratching my head, and occasionally twirling my hands.

Then I went to look at coffee shop number one. It was full. There was a queue. I decided to give it a miss.

Then I went to supermarket number one. Where I bought the same food that I’ve been buying for several weeks now, even though I’m really rather bored of it. But somehow buying and eating anything else during the normal daily routine seems so desperately desperately WRONG. So I bought the same stuff as I usually do.

Then I went to look at coffee shop number two. It was also deemed too full with a queue. I decided that it wasn’t for me.

Then I went to supermarket number two. Where I bought yet more of the same things I buy every time. Where I once again went to the auto checkouts. Where I flapped my hands at the nuts because I couldn’t see some the same as I’d had last time and had to get the closest but they were different (of course they were, it was a different supermarket, but I had to convince my brain, actively, that these nuts would be OK, even though they weren’t those nuts).

Then I went to get petrol. There was a woman in the petrol station proclaiming she’d lost her pen in a very loud screechy voice. I wanted to put my ear plugs in because the screeching was so painful.

Then I got home. And a workman had parked in our private, numbered, parking spot. The notion of not being able to put the car back in the right place sent my anxiety spiralling. I asked him politely to move and instead of simply doing so, he argued back with me and I was forced to debate with him to get my own parking spot. I finally did manage to park my car in my own spot, but by that time the spoons had run out.

Then I had a complete meltdown in the car – screaming, bashing, tears, and so on.

Eventually I calmed down sufficiently to get the shopping from the car to the flat and to rant somewhat on facebook where I got support from an ever-patient bunch of friends.

Then I realised I’d lost my ability to speak. It’ll probably be back later – it usually is.

I set off this morning thinking I was “not that autistic”!

Hmmm!

Still Very New

A year ago
Things had started
To go wrong.
Depression maybe?
Anxiety
Growing fast.
Things had not been right
For several months.
I didn’t know why.
Autism was not
Even considered.
I was just
An anxious eccentric.

Ten months ago
People started
To suggest that I might
Be autistic.
Which, I have to admit,
Was a bit on the weird side
Because as far as I knew
I was just me.

Nine months ago
After a bit of research
And discovery
And, well, if I’m honest,
Having my mind blown somewhat
By the whole concept
And
In the face of so much evidence
That to deny it
Would be a supreme act
Of illogicality
I accepted
And I wrote
“I am autistic”
For the first time.
And started to believe
That maybe
All my failures
Were not my fault
And I wasn’t lazy
After all.

Seven months ago
The first assessment.
Disaster, meltdown, damage.
Invalidation.
Despair
And serious thoughts
About whether I could even
Go on living.
My whole identity
Fallen to pieces
My whole life
A pointless waste.
Feeling guilty
Simply for
Breathing the air.

Six months ago
I had started to blog
And to engage
With other people.
Figuring that even
If everyone thought
I was a total idiot
Then maybe, just maybe,
That was better
Than being dead.
My logic being
That being a friendless idiot
Has potential for reversal
Whereas being dead
Does not.

Five months ago
A second referral,
Elsewhere.
We had to work for it
Quite hard,
Never giving up.

Four months ago
DIAGNOSIS!
Officially autistic.
Life changed
For ever.
Even though
It was already known.
I needed
Confirmation
Validation.
Big relief.
Mysteries solved.
A new confidence.
New hope.

Two months ago
Life gradually improving.
Slowly.
The first signs
That maybe
Burnout
Wouldn’t be for ever.
Acceptance
Learning
Gently starting
To rebuild
My shattered life.

And now
I continue to oscillate.
Part of me wants
To be an expert
An advocate,
And to learn
And educate
And debate the issues
And to be a confident
Articulate
(Most of the time)
Authentic
Autistic.
It’s not very difficult for me
To behave in ways
That are obviously autistic
All I have to do
Is stop trying not to!
But
Part of me still believes
That I don’t have the knowledge
Or abilities
For all of this
And that I’m out of my depth.
Because
I’m just a small person
Trying to figure all this out
And sometimes
I wish life
Would just
Get back to normal.
Though, to be honest,
I’m really not sure what “normal”
Even means any more.
Why is this all happening
To me?
I do not have
All the answers.
I just want to hide.
It all feels so uncertain.
I feel insecure.
Not confident.
Is the confident autistic
Yet another act?
My identity continues
To wobble
On its axis.
Trying to sort what is
Genuinely me
While maintaining
A person
Who can survive
In society.

Balance.

Difficult.

So I look back.
Two months
Four months
Five months
Six months
Seven months
Nine months
Ten months
A year

And I remind myself
That autistic brains like mine
Need time to cope
With change.

I have years of lived experience
I learn fast.
Yes.
But I also struggle.
And I need time
And space.

Looking back
At just how much has happened
In less than a year
Is a good reminder.
That I don’t have to have
All the answers
Yet
Because, for me,
All this
Is
Still
Very
New.