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!

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.

Busy and Hot

When I woke for the first time today, at around four in the morning, I asked myself what I was going to do with the day. I had all sorts of plans in my head for things I might do, places I might go, what I might write. As it is, I eventually fell asleep again, and have now only just surfaced. It is nearly midday and I know that the plans I made in my head at four this morning are, on the whole, not going to happen.

And after a brief moment of beating myself up about it, I suddenly realised why I was so exhausted and why I haven’t written a blog post since Sunday and why I didn’t write the one I wanted to on Tuesday or the others that I still want to write (one in response to something) and why my admin is behind and I owe people messages and e-mails and so on – I have been busy!

The last two weekends I’ve been playing music. It’s been amazing and enjoyable, and brilliant to meet up with friends (old and new) and to play under a conductor who’s an absolute pleasure to work with. The concert was on Saturday night, so I was pretty wiped out on Sunday, but felt moved to write the rather rambling blog post on pride anyway. Monday I went for a short run, which, given my recent running activity, was a big deal. Tuesday I went to visit my best friend. Wednesday I went for a coffee then went to buy a few groceries.

And all this at temperatures above 30 degrees, which we’re really not used to round here, and which drain my energy rapidly. Furthermore, there is no airflow through our flat, so the only way to stop the hot air stagnating and to get any sort of breeze is to use fans. The noise of the fans is really not good for me and overloads me pretty much to the point of meltdown within a fairly short space of time.

Maybe, to most people, that level of activity and a bit of hot weather really wouldn’t be a big deal. When I think back to the “me” of the past, before two huge burnouts, before mental illness was even identified, that “me” would have looked at the “me” of now and thought myself utterly pathetic. I’d have been unable to comprehend why I couldn’t just get my act together and, with enough willpower, just get on with it.

Of course, the “me” of the past being like that, forcing myself to live that “normal” life for so long, doing what was expected of me and using vast amounts of energy and willpower to do so (largely because I assumed everyone else was doing the same), is a large part of what has caused me to have two major burnouts and to have arrived where I am now, with rather depleted functionality and very low energy levels.

Fortunately the “me” of now is starting to learn. And, a few minutes before writing this post, I realised not how LITTLE I’ve done over the last few days, but how MUCH I’ve actually done. And, I had, once again, to remind myself that my mind works a bit differently from most people’s and that I need more downtime, more space, and that things that come fairly easily to many folk, are actually rather challenging and energy consuming for me.

So the plans that I made at four this morning are now dropped, forgotten. Today I need to focus on self-care. I need to stay at home, even though the temperature in the flat is still 28.5 degrees and the place smells stagnant and nasty because neither of us has had the energy to do any serious cleaning and there’s no airflow because it’s so still. It’s not ideal, but it’s not a choice, because I need the solitude. I need not to go through the anxiety cycle of going out and working what to say to people and so on.

If, and only if, I have enough energy beyond that required for basic self care, I shall try to sort out the jobs lists and my diary, and sort out what I need to do, even if I don’t actually do it, but I expect it won’t get much further than that. As I’ve increased my levels of activity, and as I start to gain a bit of functionality as I emerge from burnout and from the whole “discovering I was autistic and getting diagnosed” thing and all the shock and relief and complete re-evaluation of my life, it’s tempting to think that I can just “go back to normal” without any consequences. But, of course, that isn’t the case.

And, interestingly, the blog post I wanted to write on Tuesday was the one outlining how I now am, four months after my diagnosis (it was the four month anniversary on Tuesday). And I’ve sort of gone and written it anyway – at my second follow up appointment it was noted that the increase in activity and my “recovery” carries a price, and that I need to remember that. This week that price has been that my head has become more and more muddled, I’ve struggled to hold conversations and to form words, I’ve struggled more with basic stuff at home, I’ve retreated once again into eating the same thing every day, and my decision-making capabilities have plummeted.

My level of satisfaction with life has also dropped – despite what might be perceived by someone from the outside (I’ve been seen playing music, going for a run, visiting a friend, and having a coffee) possibly indicating that I am happier with life and doing more “enjoyable” things, I’ve actually felt less happy, more frustrated, and generally more anxious. Yes, I’m really pleased that I got out to play in a superb concert and that I went for a run etc. because these are things I love doing, but they still drain my batteries, and a combination of the heat and trying to fit in other stuff has meant I haven’t been able to recharge properly.

Ironically, a viewer from outside who observed how little I’ve stimmed over the last few days might decide that it’s some sort of “improvement” and some sort of “your autism’s getting better” thing. In fact, the reverse is true. I desperately want to rock hard on the sofa for a bit, to wrap myself in compression, and to hide under my fleece blanket – these are all good and lovely things and part of how I cope with having to deal with the outside world. But I can’t cope with doing them at the moment because it is TOO HOT. So not only am I dealing with bad sensory stuff (noise of fans, feeling sweaty and nasty, smells stronger) because of the heat, I can’t mitigate with the good stuff.

So, in an odd way, I’ve looked more “normal” over the last few days, but the effect from inside is that I’m feeling increasingly dysfunctional and anxious and edgy and irritable. This “how autistic people look vs how they feel” thing is something I’m increasingly thinking about and want to write about some day, because I’m beginning to get the impression that the two are much more likely to be inversely than directly correlated.

In the meantime, I do observe that four months have passed since diagnosis, and that life is continuing to change. The people who wrote Tiny Glimmers back in January and Eight Weeks On back in April would have been amazed by what I have just written above and by what I’ve done in the last few weeks, so even where I’m still failing and still not achieving what I want to achieve (that will probably always be the case for me as my natural inclination is to constantly aim for more and to push to achieve goals and so on), I’m actually achieving much more than I was, which is, of course, progress.

But today “progress” will be achieved by resting and gentle tasks and self care, not by pushing on through. That way, I hope that I’ll be able to start to recharge my batteries enough to be able to do more running and music and socialising and to be able to think clearly enough to deal with admin and communication and to write more of the blog posts that I’d like to write!

Autistic Haikus

So this morning my
Executive functioning
Is rather broken

Yesterday speech was
Not coming so easily
As it sometimes does

I forget to eat
And I am very rubbish
At preparing food

Looking at eyes of
Most people is not helpful
And feels pretty weird

If I try to be
A non-autistic person
I get exhausted

Sometimes my head can
Have a disaster and ex-
Plode into meltdown

Strip lights are evil
And should be banished from the
Surface of the Earth

I remember things
With patterns and pictures and
Short films in my head

I am not good at
Sitting still or on a chair
Movement is better

My fidget spinner
Is one that glows in the dark
It is very cool

The fridge is sounding
Very very very loud
To my good hearing

Not knowing for years
I was autistic has bro-
Ken my mental health

Learning stuff is cool
I get interested in
Things rather strongly

As a kid I chewed
My school tie but now I have
Proper chewy things

Conversations are
Often rather hard for me
To initiate

I flap my hands and
Flick and twirl my fingers when
I’m stressed or happy

Being diagnosed
Autistic at forty five
Is a big relief

A Week, Actually!

It turns out to be exactly a week since I wrote the poem in the previous post. I got as far as putting that post together yesterday, but never managed to post it because my functioning let me down and I ended up with a sort of partial shutdown followed by a sort of partial meltdown and abandoned plans to do anything at all except survive.

A pattern is starting to emerge. After some big step up in activity, to a big thing that takes so much energy and generates so much anxiety, the first recovery day is reasonably OK as I’m still just pleased I managed to do whatever it was and I’m still, to an extent, hyped up by having made such a massive effort.

However, the second day is usually the worst, and yesterday, around mid-afternoon, having turned on the laptop to post what should have been yesterday’s blog post, I suddenly felt dreadful and overloaded. It became obvious that I wasn’t up to doing anything at all (by that stage I’d still not even been able to get myself a drink) and I abandoned the notion of either posting on the blog or, indeed, doing anything else on my jobs list. I tried to put it into words and ended up with this:

There’s a certain relief
When I just
Give up.

When I stop trying
To do jobs
Or write blog posts
Or “achieve”
Anything.

I then fell asleep on the sofa for a while, then woke up feeling disorientated and only semi-verbal (I could have spoken if necessary, but forming words was massively hard work).

And I felt low. Not generally low, like some sort of long-term depression, but suddenly low and exhausted, like a shutdown, though it wasn’t a full shutdown of the type I often experience. And I had one of those moments that I’ve not had in a while now, but that were much more common several months ago, where I suddenly felt that life was so very very unfair and I didn’t want it to be like this.

In the absence of anyone I felt I could bother, I ranted into the “Notes” bit of the iPad.

Why me? Why do I have to miss so many opportunities? Tonight I just want to be normal. I want the career I was supposed to have. I want to be able to go out on a Saturday night with friends and not need days to recover. I want to be able to “work hard” and that work to produce success rather than exhaustion and failure. I want to earn my own money. I hate hate hate hate being dependent on other people. I want a proper life. I don’t like having to sit in a darkened room for hours on end in order to recover every time I do anything. I’m bored. Maybe I’m even lonely. Though to be honest I’m so fucking alexythymic that I have no way of distinguishing between boredom and loneliness. I’m so fed up with having so little energy and being able to do so little. I want to work hard at stuff and I just can’t.

And so on and so on and so on. Lots and lots of thoughts of that nature.

I tried desperately to pull myself together and finally got myself a glass of water and a snack, hoping that if I ate then I’d start to feel a bit better. It sometimes helps. But it didn’t really at that point.

I then scrolled through facebook a bit more, hoping for something to distract me. I joined a conversation on a group and because my words weren’t up to much I posted a link to something (on topic) from this blog. Next I knew, the message thing pinged and I had a message from some stranger who was a mod or admin or something on the group – telling me off because hadn’t I read the pinned post and blog links were not allowed and would I go back and edit my comment.

Already low. Already struggling. I burst into tears. I messaged back telling them just to delete me and have done with it. I couldn’t find which group. I probably read the pinned post when I joined, but so many groups, so many pinned posts, so many screens of compulsory trigger warnings, content notes, worrying about pronouns, blog links, not links, this sort of post, not for this group, and so on and so on and so on. I know these things are important for so many reasons, but at that moment I felt old, I felt like someone who grew up before the internet was invented, and I’m still learning, and I can’t learn all this stuff fast enough because my head is so overloaded at the moment. Maybe I should stop posting on the internet at all because I’m clearly an incompetent idiot who can’t even read the fucking instructions properly. I’m wrong wrong wrong. Even online I’m getting the social codes wrong. What hope do I have out in the real world. Maybe I should just crawl under the duvet and stay there until I starve to death?

Remember, this was all going through my head when was basically in meltdown. Too tired even to meltdown properly I just sat and cried.

My brain, meanwhile, was reminding me that this was day 2 after doing something big. Some sort of meltdown in whatever form was inevitable. The incident with the facebook page was actually just the straw that broke the camel’s back (by the way, does anyone else literally have a little snippet of video in their head, like a GIF, of someone putting a single straw onto an already overloaded camel, in which the camel then falls to the floor, its back broken? And does anyone then imagine the work a good vet would have to do to rehabilitate the camel, all for the sake of one measly straw? Or is that just me?), and everything had been building since the weekend, and gradually getting closer and closer as time went on. I’d spent the morning stressed about a post concerning cooking from scratch, which made me feel incompetent and stupid, I’d read another post about how life was too short to moan about things changing, which made me feel disabled because my brain struggles with change, I’d read something about women wanting motherhood and careers, when I have neither, which again made me feel useless to society, I’d failed even to be able to fill the kettle to make a cup of tea, and so my bloody camel was absolutely at maximum loading capacity.

Eventually I calmed down. I hid the group from my feed, poured myself a beer, and sat quietly on the sofa. I had a couple of short chats with a couple of people online, both of which calmed me. I watched the telly. And by the end of the evening things were pretty much OK again and I eventually put myself to bed, having had a couple of longer chats with a couple of friends online (my husband was away overnight, having been out for a late evening).

And this morning my functioning level is improved. I’m in the midst of making a cup of tea, and feel like I probably need to eat something reasonably substantial, having hardly eaten at all yesterday. I might even start to get a few things done.

And I now ask why I’ve written up what happened yesterday. Why have I spent the energy basically recounting feeling a bit rubbish, when my general approach to this whole “being autistic” thing is to be positive?

Maybe just to indicate that it’s not all sweetness and light, so that others who have similar experiences can relate? Maybe to try to convey to those people who see me at my most functional out in the world, and might be tempted to think that I’m absolutely fine, that there is a price to pay for doing the things I want to do? Maybe just because it helps me to sort my head out a bit and to process what happened and to move on? Who knows?

All part of life, I guess. And I said at the start of this blog that I wanted to be as honest about it all as I could. So maybe that’s why? Shutdowns and meltdowns (or the partial versions thereof that I experienced yesterday) are part of the deal, part of the autistic life. For me, they always have been, but now I have the vocabulary and knowledge to analyse them, so that is what I do. And it helps to put a day like yesterday into perspective to be able to look at it rationally now my thinking abilities have mostly returned.

Now I just have to gather enough energy actually to post the posts on the blog! And to put them onto facebook and twitter. And to start to reconnect with the world once more. Then I need to see what are the most urgent jobs that need doing from my list because, as is becoming all too apparent, I have to do what I can when I have the energy in order to get through days like yesterday when the energy simply isn’t there!

A While, Maybe?

I’m still a bit behind with quite a lot of things, including stuff that I’d like to write here. Technically, today should be another rest day after the busy two-day weekend I’ve just had, especially as it’s the first time I’ve been out of the house for most of the day for two consecutive days in a very very long time. I’m also conscious that the weekend was preceded by a busy week and that my head isn’t working quite well enough to say what I want to say yet. The thought to word translation mechanism isn’t running smoothly – it feels as though it needs a drop of oil on the machinery or something.

It was an interesting weekend. Saturday I managed fairly well, although forming words became more and more difficult as the day went on, and by the end of the evening I was finding trying to translate my thoughts really laborious and hard work. Sunday morning was difficult – even my comfiest and loosest clothes felt scratchy and constraining, and I spent most of the day feeling gently nauseous. I never even attempted to remove my darkest sunglasses – even through them it was as though the brightness had been turned up to somewhere beyond maximum, and when I got home it felt as though my entire system was in overdrive. I rocked hard and bashed myself on the back of the sofa for a bit then fell asleep under my weighted blanket, which helped.

But it was a successful weekend. I managed to do approximately fourteen hours of orchestral rehearsal and concert, and both my playing and physical robustness were pretty reasonable. Not as good as they were in the past, but better than I expected in the current circumstances.

There were friends and allies there, including an old friend I hadn’t seen for years, and with whom it was good to re-establish contact. I wasn’t as social as I’d have been in the past, and not as much as I’d really like to be able to be for both networking and just getting to know folks purposes, but since I’m now officially socially inept rather than merely empirically so, I feel rather less guilty about going off on my own to eat lunch, taking a proper break from people now and again, and sitting in a corridor wearing ear defenders, rocking back and forth on my own. This is all OK now, and a great relief too.

I could easily have sat and sobbed about half way through Sunday afternoon, but didn’t. Having an explanation for why I feel so suddenly emotional about apparently nothing some of the time really does make it easier to deal with. Makes it easier to rationalise in my brain. It’s actually OK just to feel wrong sometimes, especially when I’ve been out in the world surrounded by people and noise and lights for hours on end. There’s a reason for it.

And years of musical training help – focus in on the playing, which is what I do, which is why I was there in the first place. In the same way as I went to the autism conference because of the intense interest and need to learn and pursue that interest, I keep returning to the world of orchestral and chamber music playing because I am driven there by that interest and the need to keep doing it and keep learning. Music is probably the longest lived “interest” I have and has persisted throughout my life, only vanishing when I’ve been severely depressed or deep in burnout. Trouble is, orchestras inevitably involve people – so I have to do quite a lot of work (being with people) in order to get access to the playing!!!

The aftermath of the weekend is interesting. I’m very tired. My word translation is off. I can feel myself struggling to say what I want even interacting online. I’m more triggered than usual by things – someone on facebook extolling the virtues of “cooking from scratch” made me really angry (I didn’t comment, just ranted at my husband a bit – he’s used to it). I drank rather more than I should have done last night. I’m still finding sounds too loud and lights too bright. And my executive functioning (ability to get my act together and do stuff) has taken something of a battering, as has my task initiating and switching ability.

None of this is surprising, given that I’d had an evening rehearsal the week before, then the final meeting with the autism assessment service, then stayed up all night watching the results of the General Election as they were announced, and then spent a weekend out in the world. Those things between them have used up nearly all my energy in the past week.

However, what’s different from how things have been for a long long time is that allowing the language system and functioning system and sensory system to decline, and just going with it now I know what’s happening, means that I am not ill after such activity as I would have been in the past. Not making myself chat to people at lunch breaks, spending time stimming quietly on my own, only making eye contact when absolutely necessary, not forcing words in order to “be polite”, and so on, all mean that I’m not feeling that awful “sick” feeling that I’m so familiar with to anything like the extent I would have done in the past. I probably appear slightly “odder” from the outside, but on the inside I’m actually calmer, and also, currently, considerably less depressed.

And I’m tired yes, but not quite so bone-numbingly exhausted as I might have been. Partly, I suspect this is because I’m continuing to recover from burnout, but even though I’m going out into a world that won’t always understand me or the way I work, the fact that I understand myself already removes a whole load of pressure, so this huge internal pressure I’ve always felt to “succeed” is now off.

I realise this is another rather erratic rambling blog post. And I’m still conscious that there are things that need sorting here. I’ve also been sporadic on the facebook page and not had much energy for twitter. I did manage to write one of the “poem things” after the first evening rehearsal though. At the time I didn’t manage to post it, so I’ll include it here.

The outside world,
Even when friendly
And something
I want to do,
Is sometimes
Utterly
Utterly
Exhausting.

Last night
I returned
To an evening rehearsal.
People
Noise
Lights
So. Much. Input.

This morning was spent
In bed.
Mostly asleep.

When I got up
And dressed
My clothes felt like
They were trying
To suffocate me.

It took many attempts
To write a Facebook status.
I have still failed to make
A cup of tea.
Even filling the kettle
Beyond me.

I don’t know how long
It will be before
I have enough energy
To post this
On the blog.

A while, maybe?

My Conference Day

As usual, my curiosity got the better of me. I wanted to know, to find out more, to increase my knowledge of what was going on with autism research, and to see some of the people who had thus far been just names on book spines or people I’d encountered in internet discussions. And so, when I came across a link on facebook to a one-day conference, organized by the National Autistic Society, on Autism and Mental Health, I initially saved the link, then, in a moment of confident madness, signed up to attend.

It turned out to be a really really interesting day. For very many reasons. I learnt a lot!

I was expecting it to be supremely challenging and had already baulked slightly at the confirmation e-mail, which had stated that parking was limited and that those who couldn’t park would have to use a park and ride service (there seemed to be no thought for those of us who often find public transport almost impossible), and, despite my best attempts to be early, heavy traffic meant I arrived rather later than I wanted to. Fortunately the hotel staff directed us to a nearby place to park – which was great in that I didn’t need to walk a long way in lieu of taking a bus, but made me edgy because it didn’t tally with the instructions in the e-mail.

However, I wasn’t actually late, which was a huge relief, and I went in to register in a very busy foyer area – I found my own name badge and was then handed a scratchy lanyard and a spiral bound conference “pack” (more of a “book” than a “pack” really). I noticed many displays of books and so on, which I hoped to look at later, and managed, with considerable effort, to collect a drink and a pastry on my way in – I hadn’t been able to eat before leaving so figured some nourishment would be a good idea. I then headed into the hall, where around 400 people had gathered.

A woman in an NAS t-shirt was close by the entrance. I asked if it was possible to have a seat on the end of a row. She told me that “there might be some over there”. There weren’t, so I sat on the penultimate seat on the front – at least there was space in front of me that way. Someone else came and sat on my other side, making me feel crushed into the small chair which was crammed right up to the chairs next to it. This was going to be really hard work. Exhausting and difficult. The stress levels started to rise.

A voice came over a loudspeaker asking people to fill up rows from the middle. More squeezing in, more crushing up. This was in stark contrast to the poetry event I’d attended a couple of weeks earlier where it had been announced that people should feel free to move chairs off to the side, to sit on the floor, and to be comfortable. Today was not going to be comfortable at all, rather the reverse. I took my fleece off and the person next to me invaded my space with their prickly jumper and even more prickly hair, making my arm flinch – it was like being prickled by a cactus the whole way through. I wedged my fleece between us in an attempt to avoid further prickling. The person on my other side (evidently also autistic) tried to move as far away as possible but was not confident enough to move their chair at that stage.

There was a short introduction by two people: Lorraine MacAlister, who was wearing a fascinating blue top with sort of “open-plan” arms, and Rachel Townson, and then the first of the day’s plenary sessions, from Tony Attwood, began. I’ll discuss the content of all the conference sessions I attended in a separate post because I took 11 pages of notes in addition to the mini reproductions of the slides that were part of my conference pack, and even I know that there might be a sensible limit to the length of blog posts sometimes!

About half an hour into the first plenary I knew I wouldn’t be able to get through the whole thing sitting “properly” on my chair. I could feel the sweat starting to trickle down my back and knew that the nauseous feelings I get in such situations wouldn’t be far behind. I moved my chair forward ever so slightly in the desperate hope of getting some space, and eventually took one of my shoes off and folded my foot underneath me, which really helped. I also put my attenuating ear plugs in, because I was becoming aware that the amplified speech was already overloading me, and this was going to be a long day – if I didn’t want to become a practical demonstration of an autistic meltdown for the assembled company I was going to have to take some action to avoid it.

I focused on taking notes, something I’ve learnt over years of being a student and taking minutes in office meetings. The material was not unfamiliar to me, both from reading and, sometimes, from personal experience, and I was on a mission to learn, so taking notes and following the slides seemed like a good strategy in any case. While there is much about Attwood that is controversial (I’ll be writing about that later), I was still, at that stage of the day, observing and taking in information, and hadn’t reached the “analysis” stage.

The second speaker, Wenn Lawson, was instantly relatable in a way that Attwood hadn’t been. I was still desperately uncomfortable, squeezed into the tiny chair, without sufficient space to stim as I felt I needed to (a discreet fidget cube will only get me so far if my body is predominantly contorted into a “normal” sitting position), but the calmness of Lawson’s delivery helped to bring the anxiety down somewhat. I was still much disturbed by the noise of pages turning, and even more so by the feeling of the air on my arms from those close to me turning their pages, but I knew I’d manage to get through to the break time by this stage.

Break time meant relief from the chair. I knew everybody would be moving anyway after the break, because the conference was splitting into three “streams”, each focusing on different areas. I got up and went to the back of the hall and out to the foyer where refreshments were available. And that was as far as I got. I knew, from the way in that tea was going to be problematic for me – hot water, tea bags in wrappers, milk goodness knows where, complication complication complication. I’d just about managed it once, at the start, when the foyer was rapidly emptying. This time there was no chance. I even struggle to make a cup of tea in my own kitchen much of the time, and I knew that in these circumstances it was beyond me. I stood and looked at this sea of people and thought “Bollocks! This is the bit where I need a carer and I haven’t got one” and for a brief moment thought that attending at all might have been a mistake. I might even have gone home at this point if I’d been able to get to the exit, or if I hadn’t been determined to “complete”, in the way that I so often am!

So I went back into the hall, unrefreshed, and resigned myself to the fact that I probably wouldn’t be able to eat or drink or use the toilet all day (the toilets were also in the foyer place). They’d said there was a quiet room of some sort, but I had no idea where it was. They’d said to ask. I’m not sure I could have found words to ask anyone, even if I could have worked out WHO to ask from within the giant sea of humanity threatening to wash me away in a tidal wave.

But I have one or two strengths that meant I survived. First, I had, sensibly as it turned out, taken a couple of snacks and a bottle of water with me in my bag. Secondly, I might be very low on executive functioning skills and I might also be very mentally ill a lot of the time, but physically I’m pretty robust. My system can survive on snacks. I can go all day without a wee if needs be and if I budget fluid intake carefully. So I headed for the safest place I could find, which was the corner of the room where the next session was to take place. I moved a chair off the end of a row and put it next to the wall so I’d be able to rock without bashing into anyone else and pressure stim against the wall, and I got out my phone and retreated into my world, with my friends, where I knew I’d have loads of support.

I discovered online that there were other autistic people there having exactly the same problems that I was. The phrase “not autistic friendly” popped up, and I knew, at least, that I wasn’t the only one who was having difficulties. On my own facebook wall I updated my friends, and had a brief chat on messenger with one of them. Tension released somewhat. There were people there who could rescue me by talking me through it online if necessary.

My improved seating arrangements, with both shoes off now, sitting comfortably with my legs crossed up on the chair, back against the wall, made the next session much easier. The autistic person who’d been sitting next to me in the first session was nearby and had clearly had enough of chair sitting too and moved, sensibly, to the floor, which was quite a nice red stripy carpet that I’d be happy to have in my sitting room given the choice. Khalid Karim turned out to be an engaging speaker and the subject matter was actually more interesting than I’d anticipated.

Then was lunchtime. I stood up and wandered, again, to the back of the hall to see whether there was any possibility at all that I’d be able to access lunch. There wasn’t. Not a hope. I stood for a few minutes and assessed the situation then returned to my seat and to the internet on my phone. Some of the other autistic people online had managed to find the quiet room and said it was lovely. I looked in my conference pack to see if there was any information as to where it was, but there wasn’t, so I abandoned that idea. I ate the snacks I’d brought with me and sipped my water, just enough to prevent total dehydration, but not enough to need to access a toilet.

I chatted to my friends on facebook again – one of them even offered to ring the hotel and try to get some food sent to me (I have some superb friends), and found myself accidentally listening to something about autistic teenagers, presented by Lorraine MacAlister, which had a moment that made me say “YES!” to myself, and gave me hope that somebody somewhere is actually listening to autistic people.

And then it was back to Tony Attwood for the rest of the afternoon. It was rather an Attwood-heavy day all in all! I was, however, reasonably comfortable in what I now regarded as MY seat (by that point I’d have happily wrestled anyone who tried to move me). Even though people were still eating and still trying to access lunch, Attwood refused to delay the session, basically saying that people “should have been faster”. I’d be interested to know HOW they could have been faster, since 400 people trying to eat from a buffet in a crowded foyer in 50 minutes is such a tall order!

It was somewhere during this session that Attwood’s “humour” really started to grate on me. I wrote something in my notes about the quantity of wine I would need this evening in order to recover from some of what I was hearing, then, having vented slightly in ink, returned calmly to taking notes about schizophrenia. I have an academic training. I use it when I need to. I had got to the point where I was starting to critique this man. And I was still gathering information. Information is my currency.

After a final tea break (during which I didn’t even attempt to leave my seat) there was a final plenary. I watched them undivide the room back into its full format and those who were still there (which, creditably, was most people – though not so many as earlier) returned to the room. I was pretty tired by this stage, but continued to listen, while starting to reflect on the day. I was also getting desperate for some solitude and some respite from the loudness of the amplification and the constantness of so many people, but I stayed until the end.

I’d vaguely hoped to see the book displays on the way out when it was quieter, but all was packed away when I returned to the foyer, so I was never able to access them, so I just left. Fortunately the car was close by, and as I got in and locked the doors behind me I felt a certain sense of achievement that I’d done it. I’d just sat and listened to a session about how kids store up all their tension throughout the school day then go home and could release in by smashing up the recycling (a strategy of sorts I suppose), I felt like this was the end of my school day, but instead of smashing up the recycling I contented myself with the calming effect of beautiful gear changes, slotting into gaps in the traffic when changing lanes, getting out of town from memory, going back via the motorway, and feeling the freedom of being back in my own space.

I finally got to eat that day when my husband returned home from work via the chip shop! And I did have several glasses of what might be termed “maladaptive strategy” to go with my chips!