Vague Head

Yesterday I posted the following status on my facebook:

Somewhat “vague” today. Not bad, just somewhat purposeless and lacking in any sort of knowing what to do. I’m sure there’s something must need doing, but I haven’t quite figured out what it is. And my head’s doing that “wandery” thing where it can’t quite figure anything out!

And later, replied to a comment on that post with the words:

I’m in one of those moods where I want to write stuff. But the head is blank. There’s nothing there. The little translation people in my head who sort the words have taken a day off.

As it turned out, I wasn’t wrong that the little translation people had taken a day off. By the time I got into bed my spoken words were becoming somewhat nonsensical, and by the time my husband had fallen asleep, they’d gone completely. I didn’t manage to get any sleep myself until nearly 4 am, so it was a rather tedious night. Even by this morning I still wasn’t able to ask him what time he’d be home from work because I couldn’t summon the energy to form a sentence that long and complicated.

And I’ve spent most of this morning in a state of some sort of shutdown. And that sort of “sad” feeling pervades. And everything seems to be a bit triggering and there are so many things on facebook that make me angry but I don’t quite have the capability to debate them because I’m right at the start of this process and I haven’t yet got to the stage where I can analyse and present the arguments in a way I want, so I read that according to the labels I’m supposed to be “high functioning”, because I could speak as a child, and I feel so desperate because I can’t remember how to work my socks and it’s nearly 2 pm and I’ve not yet been capable of eating or drinking anything, but that’s OK, because I’m “high functioning” so my life must be brilliant, like those autistic people in silicon valley who can do computer things without crying and so on. And everything’s all jumbled up in my head and I can’t really quite get the spoons together to make sense of it all, so I just sit at home in my horrible dark messy flat, staring at the forms for the state benefits I don’t want to claim because they scare me so much but I know I have to because I cannot hold down a job and my husband’s working flat out and we’re still not breaking even. But it’s OK, because I’m “high functioning”, and my sort of autism would be described by most people as “mild”. And there are parents on groups talking about their autistic children as some sort of tragedy and saying that because their children are “severe” they will never be able to live independently and that the adult “mild” autistics don’t understand. Even those of us who cannot live independently – independent living is a distant dream for me, a world that I might never attain! And they even have children at all, which, to someone like me who was never able to have any, seems terribly ungrateful. And I see the success stories and the smiling graduation pictures and I remember how hard I worked (not at the subject, but at being able to live) to get through my degree, and the early morning drinking to enable me to cope with the world, and the picture that everyone else saw of a smiling person in mortarboard and gown and how much damage I was doing behind the scenes by pretending to be strong that by the time I was in my late 20s I was downing bottles of whisky and packets of pills in the hope that I wouldn’t ever wake up again.

And all this goes round and round in my head like some sort of mess, from which I hope, one day, to extract some sense, some coherent argument, some way of trying to explain all this to people that they will understand, that they will think about. And how important it is not to pressurize autistic people into appearing “normal” from the outside because it is doing us so much damage on the inside. And I sort of hope that people will realise why all this stuff is so triggering and difficult for so many of us, but I realise that many of them probably won’t, and just like I’ve had to learn in other areas of my life, there are times when I really should hide the offending posts on facebook and move on, because my own quality of life is often so poor that I need not to make it poorer by staying awake all night, nonverbal, triggered by all this stuff, and wishing that I’d never been born because my life is such a bloody awful mess. And even as I type that sentence I’m worried that I’m lining up “nonverbal” next to “triggered” and so on, and I want to go back and change it (but I don’t have the spoons) because it implies that nonverbal (which really should be called nonspeech anyway because typing is verbal, just not spoken) is bad, and it isn’t, at least not from the inside – it feels calmer and less stressful than trying to maintain conversation, which is often hard deliberate work. I usually find that I start to feel worse and worse when I’m trying to hang on to speech, but feel much better once it has gone, an inner peace that isn’t available when trying to communicate by talking. Yet so much of the outside world seems to see this silence as a bad thing. And I am confused. And now, reading that paragraph back, I realise how social media, which is largely responsible for triggering many of these thoughts, is simultaneously wonderful and difficult, because without it I would spend most of my life without any human interaction at all, but with it I am exposed to things that are often difficult to cope with. And there’s another whole blog post to be written about that too.

And as I type this I wonder whether even to post it. Because I want to make proper, reasoned posts about all these things at some point, and I want to explore as many angles of the debate as possible. Despite my never having succeeded in academia, I am an academic at heart, a scientist, a person who tries to be as rational and logical as possible and to try to understand the opposing point of view in arguments, even if I subsequently dismiss that point of view.

But I am also just a person. A very broken person, with a lot of baggage still to unpack, a lot of self-esteem issues to deal with, a lot of practical problems to tackle, and a very very struggling head that doesn’t even think in words and needs to expend vast amounts of energy to translate the concepts and pictures and feelings into words in order to communicate them to other human beings. Even then, I don’t always get it right – it’s clear from replies to things that I say on facebook that others don’t always understand what I mean and maybe I’m not clear enough.

Note: I ran this post by my husband, who suggested that I add the words “I do understand that people who say ‘you aren’t broken’ are trying to be helpful but it is often the opposite of helpful so please, if you would like to know how to help, you can start by not telling me ‘you’re still you’ or ‘you’re not broken.’ Thank you.” (There’s a whole blog post to write about that at some point too – the extent to which I’m “me” or “broken” is massively complicated in my head and I need to work it out for myself, which will take some time).

I will do the proper blog posts at some point. The ones on my list, in which I discuss functioning labels, in which I discuss speech, in which I discuss how damaging internally it can be to an autistic person to try to behave socially in the same way as most other people can, and about how some of us who have been doing it unknowingly for decades have struggled to work out why life has consistently been so tough and gone so very wrong and have ended up so very broken and burnt out as a consequence of putting in so much effort for such a long time.

But I need more time for those. I need the soupy mess in my head to settle, so I can see. I need to do it when the translation mechanism is running smoothly and my head is clear and I’m not dealing with so many other things at once.

If I do decide to post this, then it will feel like one of the “braver” (to use a word that others have used to describe this blog) posts, because I am raising issues that are difficult, and I’m doing so without even having the capability to debate them, or with the backup of sufficient knowledge in my head, which feels like a rather frightening, and maybe risky, thing to do. But one of the things I was determined to do at the outset of this whole blogging enterprise was to try to be honest (or, at least as honest as I can be – there are things I have to leave unsaid sometimes to protect other people because my story is my own, to use as I please, but where it intersects with the lives of specific others I sometimes have to tread more carefully).

Maybe, however, it will be worth it if it encourages others to think about these issues. Although I know I’m already triggering myself massively just by typing this stuff up, never mind what will happen if I post it.

Perhaps the very best course of action at this point would be to go and see whether the connections in my head are working sufficiently well to make a cup of tea. And if they’re not, to get someone on social media to talk me through the process so at least I’ve had a hot drink today, even if nothing else!

Talking About It

I described, in Strategy Deployment, how I had dinner in College a few nights ago. The routines and protocols of such dinners are generally well-known to me, and one of those routines is a loose convention that you tend to chat to one of your neighbours during the first course of dinner and another during the second. It’s not a hard and fast “rule”, and who you actually end up chatting to depends a bit upon circumstances, but you can reasonably expect to talk to at least two people during the course of the meal.

On one side of me I had my best friend, who knows everything about what’s been going on in my life over the last eight months. He and I chatted, initially, across the table (we were on a corner) to his other neighbour. My main memory of that conversation was that we discussed the renovation of a pianola, owned by this other person – for me a nice, easy, safe topic of conversation, music and mechanics combined. No problem!

On my other side was another person I know reasonably well, a former tutor of mine from nearly 30 years ago, who I last saw at a dinner in 2013. As the main course arrived, he turned to me and first apologised for ignoring me during the starter (he’d been catching up with his other neighbour), as appropriate, and then he asked me, predictably, what I was doing these days.

There had already been a slight mention of the fact that we’d sat right on the end of the table, in the corner, when we first sat down. My best friend had explained that “there was a reason” we’d chosen those particular seats, and the fact that I was wearing dark glasses gave another clue that things were not “entirely regular”.

So, at the moment the question about “what I was doing these days” was asked, I had a choice. I could either (a) try my hardest to come up with some sort of conversation that made some sort of sense and would be adequate for the occasion, (b) ramble on a bit about “life being interesting” and “a few sensory issues” (to explain the dark glasses), or (c) just give the whole “I just got diagnosed autistic” speech!

A couple of months ago, when I went Out to Dinner, I was pre-diagnosis, and just being out of the flat at any social occasion at all was a huge thing for me. That evening, there were a couple of people there who knew what was going on in my life (one was my best friend, and another is friends on facebook and reads some of these blog posts), but a third friend didn’t know, and, two months ago I wasn’t ready to tell him, in person, by speaking. On that occasion I opted for option (b) and then e-mailed him after the event, sending him the link to this blog to explain more fully.

A month later, just before diagnosis, I was at an orchestra rehearsal, and wanted to explain to another non-facebook friend, what was going on. I managed, just, to get the words out, but was shaking and terrified, even though I knew that she was the sort of person who would be absolutely understanding and, like everyone I’ve so far told, she reacted by saying “Yes, of COURSE, that makes so much sense.” However, being able to articulate, in words, out in the big wide world, to other people who didn’t already know, that I was autistic, was still, at that point, seriously difficult.

Those of you who have been reading this blog since its inception must be wondering how this can possibly be. I’ve now been writing about being autistic, in as much detail as I can persuade my head to produce, for months. Yet just one month ago I could hardly form the spoken words to describe what was going on and two months ago I couldn’t do it at all. Of course, what might or might not have been evident from the early posts of this blog was the absolute fear when I posted The Discovery as to how my news might be received, especially as I was taking a huge gamble by disclosing after the disaster of my first assessment, as described in Too Articulate and Too Complicated. At that point I decided to disclose anyway since I couldn’t work out how to carry on living without doing so, and I got to the point where I’d decided that the risk of losing what remaining social life I had was probably worth taking in order to stop the feelings of no longer wanting to exist. But it wasn’t easy.

However, the blog moved on, the response has actually been amazing, and I’m now typing stuff about being autistic into one of my various devices on pretty much a daily basis.

But I still hadn’t reached the point where I could TALK about it to people who didn’t already know by reading the blog – at least not without almost falling apart on the spot and wishing the ground would swallow me up there and then and never spit me out ever again.

So, now returning to the point at which my former tutor turned to me and asked me “what I was doing these days”, what did I do?

I started with a couple of sentences reminding him that there was a “reason” I was sitting on this side of the table, I mentioned the dark glasses, and then I finally got to the point where I went for option (c) on my list above.

I’m certain I talked too much, and probably didn’t obey the proper rules of back and forth conversation. I also couldn’t quite multitask and eat my dinner at the same time. And my “I’m recently diagnosed autistic and this is how it came about and so on and so on and so on…” script is still very much in its embryonic stage (part of what I’m doing when I write these blog posts is teaching myself how to talk about it, part of what I’m doing when I read other blog posts and articles and books is giving myself the vocabulary to be able to talk about it, and starting to form my own ideas and where I fit in to the autistic world and how being autistic affects my life).

But, for the first time, I told someone who didn’t already know, and managed to do it without falling to pieces and shaking so much that I nearly dropped my drink, or starting to feel my speech fragment, and was able to have some discussion about it.

Admittedly, for me, dinner in College, at a place that has now been familiar to me for the best part of 30 years, feels like a safe environment. I’m lucky to be able to return to the social world, gently, in such a place, following familiar routines, and knowing that the people around me are likely to be sympathetic, and, on the whole, interested. So it was a good place to start.

However, I think the other thing that really helped was the confidence I have gained since I was formally diagnosed. I don’t think I could have had that conversation at this stage without that extra confidence.

But, whatever the circumstances, and whatever the reasons, it was the first time that I had been able to sensibly discuss being autistic with someone who didn’t already know. It was the beginning of being able to talk about it to other people – actual talking, not typing on a blog post, which is very different. I have known since the “autism hypothesis” formed, right back in August 2016, that if the hypothesis turned out to be true then I would need to find ways of talking about it, and I would need to construct scripts and work out how to explain to people (maybe, even in the fullness of time, be able to educate and inform and advocate, who knows). I’m not fully there yet, but I’m a huge step nearer than I was this time last week!

One Month On

I have how had my official autism diagnosis for a month. In that month, life has continued to change almost as rapidly as it did before I was diagnosed. My father’s cancer diagnosis has obviously changed my priorities with regard to how I spend my limited energy over the coming months. My financial situation has once more become difficult and precarious and is causing me considerable amounts of anxiety. And I have, with huge regret, realised that I cannot, at this time, continue with the maths degree that I so badly wanted to finish, so it is time to let go, to stop pushing, and to admit that I have simply run out of time and energy.

Obviously, life is still a long way from where I’d like it to be. My sleep patterns are still poor, which is not great, but they’re better than they were a few months ago. I’m now managing to leave the flat around twice a week, which is a slight improvement. When I do go out I am slightly better able to cope because I am more aware of which strategies work for me and I’m learning to give myself more recovery time afterwards.

I have now started, very slowly, to eat just a little better than I have been doing, which is no bad thing, since I saw a full-length photo of myself recently and was slightly shocked at how thin I looked. I finally weighed myself a couple of days ago and discovered that I’ve lost a stone since last summer, simply because I have felt too sick and anxious to cope with food. This is not good – I was not trying to lose weight, particularly not in that way, and I am just lucky that I was in good enough physical condition to start with that my body could cope. I am also still drinking too much alcohol in order to cope, but am starting to try to cut down just a bit in order not to do too much more damage to my physical health.

However, despite all the difficulties mentioned above, the persistent insomnia, the struggles to go out, and the continuing dysfunctional relationship with both food and alcohol, there are signs that things are improving. My husband and several friends have remarked that they perceive my underlying mental state to be improved and, even though I’m still getting some extremely sad, angry, and regretful moments, I’m starting to accept things as they are in a way that I didn’t before my formal diagnosis.

There were several people who said, before my diagnosis, that since I knew I was autistic, they knew I was autistic, and my friends and family accepted that I was autistic, there really wasn’t any necessity for me to pursue a formal diagnosis in order to understand myself. What none of these people understood, however, was my need for validation, reassurance that I hadn’t simply imagined the whole thing, and the huge huge confidence that the formal diagnosis has given me. This might not be necessary for everyone, but for me it was essential. And it really has made a massive difference to my life.

The formal diagnosis also, for me, marked the end of the old life, and the beginning of the new one. The process of discovery in the preceding months was like a sort of introduction, perhaps an overture before the curtain was raised at the beginning of the first act, or maybe the preface before the start of chapter one. My old life has been demolished, and now the process of rebuilding can begin.

There is obviously a lot of relief that the process of seeking a diagnosis is now over, and I feel, even more than previously, that my life now makes sense in a way that it never previously did. As I predicted in the last few paragraphs of Why Bother, the diagnosis has finally given me full permission to stop regarding myself as a naughty, lazy, failure of a human being. I also feel liberated from the pressure to “succeed” that has pervaded my whole life so far. There is still a long way to go and I still, frequently, feel that I am not entitled to breathe the air and that the world would be a better place without me, but I am still only a month into the new life, and there’s nearly half a century of the old one to analyse, reevaluate, and reframe.

Furthermore, I have to go through the process of mourning the life I might have had if only it had been recognised that I was autistic before I got to my mid 40s. There are still difficult topics to tackle – the mental health professionals who failed for two decades to recognise it, my childhood, the incessant, triggering, references to small children when I try to research autistic traits, and where I fit, if at all, into the autistic community (I am used to being alone and to shying away from being part of any sort of group, and discovering that there are others who experience so many of the same things as I do is, for me, somewhat disconcerting).

But one month after diagnosis there is a calm, even more so than that I felt after discovery. I strongly believe that there is a very good chance that my mental health will, eventually, be better than it has been for decades, possibly even than ever before. I am already, after just four weeks, much more confident about describing myself as autistic, and feeling that I have a right to do so. I’m also treating myself much more gently than I did previously – because now I have official permission!

I’m certain there will be yet more phases to go through, and not all will be easy, but maybe, just maybe, I will eventually rebuild a life that works. And it will be a better life than the one that officially ended four weeks ago.

Recovery Time

I’m aware that I continue to be a bit absent from this blog at the moment. I’m finding getting the energy together to post is currently a bit more challenging than it has been, and the words aren’t flowing very easily.

I’d say there were probably several reasons for this.

1. I’m trying to get out into the world a couple of times a week at the moment – every time I leave the flat it uses huge amounts of energy and I need a lot of time to recover. But sitting in the dark by myself in a very small, cramped, untidy flat for around 14 hours a day on average isn’t very exciting, so I’m doing what I can to make life a little more interesting.

2. I’m using additional energy to communicate with my family following my father’s cancer diagnosis. I’ve fixed up to meet with him in a couple of weeks and that has become a priority for me.

3. I’ve finally admitted that studying maths is not going to happen for the foreseeable future, so I’ve been spending a little energy adjusting to that too. It was evident that it had become too much for me, but it was, to an extent, keeping my adrenaline levels up.

4. After months of really terrible eating patterns I’m making more effort to eat a bit better. I’m lucky enough to have a body that is remarkably tolerant of the problems my mind causes it, but I’m also aware that looking after it a bit is important.

5. I’m trying to sort out administration and paperwork and financial type stuff at the moment. Just because I’m falling apart and autistic and so on doesn’t mean that the electricity bills and so on stop. My husband is doing an amazing job caring for me, but he is only one person and I’m trying to contribute a bit to the running of our lives when I can.

6. My autism diagnosis is starting to sink in. I still need to go through my draft report thoroughly and get my follow up appointment arranged and think about the sort of support I need and so on. But, like giving up on the maths, the immediate and urgent need to produce evidence and the stress and adrenaline of pursuing the diagnostic process is over.

So, partly I’m trying to direct some of my attention elsewhere, but partly I’ve really seriously crashed energy wise. I tried to get up at 9 this morning, got as far as having a drink, then fell asleep on the sofa until midday. The months last autumn where I didn’t sleep at all are catching up with me now, the stress of the diagnostic process has left me exhausted, and I’m still considerably burnt out and trying to recover from what has evidently been an episode of severe autistic burnout. I currently need a lot of sleep, and even more rest, and as I’m using energy and executive functioning skills to try to eat regularly I have fewer resources available for turning on the computer and making blog posts.

I’m certain this is just another phase in the process, and the exhaustion is just something I have to deal with for now. My energy levels are very variable, and at the moment there’s nothing much I can do other than go with how things are and take the time I need to do the things that are most necessary.

I suspect this is all part of it. Discovering, in my mid-40s, that I am autistic is proving to be exciting, a relief, stressful, anxiety making, completely mind blowing, and, at the moment, utterly exhausting.

I’ll leave you with a few words (below, in bold) that I typed into the iPad the other day, but which I was too tired to turn into a blog post. Just the process of turning my thoughts into words is often hard enough, but then getting the right bits of computer and so on coordinated sometimes makes things impossible. Someone once suggested I should get an app for the blog – the thought of something so difficult (that sort of thing really is difficult for me) reduced me to tears – I’m sure my way of doing things is not the best, but the energy for learning something new simply isn’t there right now – new apps and things will have to wait until I’m better. My husband will testify that new computers and phones and so on have all led to meltdowns and tears and I resist technological change really strongly – even when it’s for the better – because it causes me such huge anxiety. I usually only change anything when I’m absolutely forced to!

I should add, however, that, just over three weeks after my diagnosis, I am continuing to feel a certain sort of “better”. I can already feel that although life will always be a struggle, there is an underlying mental wellness that I haven’t known for decades, if at all. And I now feel more confident in telling people that I am autistic and feel that I believe it myself much more. The process was difficult and exhausting, but, ultimately, for me, is already proving to be worth it. Accepting that I have a lifelong condition that will always limit me is not the easiest thing that I’ve ever had to do, but refusing to accept and embrace it won’t make it go away, it’ll just make my everyday life more difficult than it already is. It will take a while to work out exactly how best to live my life and to work out how to adapt it to make it as good as it can be, but having the formal diagnosis is already making that easier for me.

Yesterday,
I was out in town.
Conversation and coffee,
Socialising and shopping.

Not very much of the above,
Admittedly,
And nothing bad or especially
Difficult.

But enough
That

Today
I am quiet at home.
Tiredness and television,
Resting and recuperating.

Need so much of the above,
Always,
Even when I have had a
Good time.

Not energy
Even
To post this
On the blog.

Letting Go

Apologies for yet another of these “journal type” posts. I had hoped that this blog would be just a little bit more balanced than it has been recently, and I’d still like to explore particular aspects of autism and create something a bit more useful, but, as I said right at the start, it is also, for me, part of the process of dealing with life and of trying to work out where to go from here!

I have spent the last few days feeling utterly shattered. This is partly because I managed to leave the flat a bit more than usual at the end of last week, and partly because I am starting to absorb everything that has happened over the last few weeks and preceding few months. Furthermore, it has become obvious that trying to struggle through learning advanced mathematics and completing assignments and sitting an exam in a few months time is totally and utterly beyond me right now. No matter how much I “put my mind to it”, it just isn’t happening. There are some times in life where no amount of effort will make something possible, and this is one of them. I had the same experience when I abandoned my DPhil 20 years ago – I wanted it so much, I wanted desperately to complete it, but sometimes, no matter how hard you search, there isn’t any more energy there. At that point there is nothing to do but accept that you need to stop, to give up, and to recover as best you can and make a new plan.

The process of acceptance is something I’m finding a bit odd, and also rather confusing. On the one hand I feel a huge relief that I can stop, breathe, and take some of the pressure off myself, but on the other, I feel somewhat bereft and directionless and a bit lost and I’m wondering what I’m supposed to do now.

The basic answer to that last question is, of course, obvious. I have plenty of things that still need doing – there is laundry and admin and trying to remember to eat and take care of myself. I also have lots of books and DVDs and so on that should keep me amused for a while. To many people this might sound like a great holiday, some sort of lovely blissful time – I now have permission to lie around in bed at home, watching the telly, reading anything I want, eating as much chocolate as I like, while just making the occasional list and chucking a load of laundry into the machine from time to time.

Except that this isn’t a holiday. It isn’t a break from the tough stuff – it IS the tough stuff. It has now taken me over a week to get enough brain cells together to even think about making a list. I am struggling to eat anything at all during the day as it just makes me feel sick and I’m having to force myself to nibble small quantities of high calorie food just to maintain my weight. I can’t concentrate to read most days, and I often find the light and sound from the TV terribly overstimulating. Strangely, the laundry is probably the best bit of the whole lot, though the noise from the washing machine sometimes makes me want to beat my head against the wall!

The above paragraph makes it obvious that I’m still very much recovering from burnout, and explains why I’m so unable to do more than leave the flat from time to time and the very occasional thing. And, on one level, it does give me a set of goals to aim for – eating proper meals, reading a few pages of a book, sorting out the random papers on my desk. On a small scale I have goals.

But the larger scale is more problematic. And this is where the dichotomy between feeling relieved and feeling lost is pertinent.

Getting my autism diagnosis is a huge relief. Learning that the struggles I’ve experienced all my life are the result of my brain working differently from the majority of brains is hugely enlightening, liberating, and exonerating. I know now that I was never able to fit into the world in the way that most people can because I was different from the start and I always will be. I’ve always known I wasn’t like most other people, but never really thought much of it because it was the way the world was for me, but I continually failed at things in a way that shouldn’t have been the case given how much I was working for them. Acknowledging that difference is really really helpful – in the same way that when we were discovering we were unable to have children one of the most helpful things I read was a paragraph in a book that explained that one of the difficulties of being childless is that it immediately marks you out as “different” in society because so many people do have families (and spend a great deal of time talking about them) that you will inevitably be an outsider on many occasions. That paragraph made me realise something I hadn’t hitherto realised – I was already different (I knew that much before autism was even considered) and my failure to produce a family made me even more different, even more of an outsider in society.

Acknowledging that feeling of “otherness” was really important to me then, as it is now. I have changed from being “wrong normal” to “right different”, which is good, because it means I can finally relax (as much as that’ll ever be possible for me), be myself, and set myself more realistic targets that allow me enough time for rest and recuperation in between and take into account how much just being out in the world exhausts me and drains my energy.

Finally, breathe. Stop. The battle is over. I can pause. Phew.

But what now?

And here is where the lost feeling comes in. Because the problem with not discovering you’re autistic until you’re 45, and with having achieved good exam results at school, and with having spent your entire life striving for “success” of some description is that without that ambition and those goals and those life plans, you feel somewhat cast adrift – I’m free, yes, from the expectations that I will now ever “get better” and be a high-flying something or other, but I’m also, now, somewhat directionless – floating around in an ocean and I don’t know which way to swim. The training I received in my youth was all based on me getting a good career, living a “normal” successful life. All my assumptions about my life included a full-time job, a family, and a house – that was the life I was prepared for. I never learnt about the benefits system, or what to do if you can’t work, or how to relax, or how to ask for help and support – none of those things was on my radar. I’m having to learn them pretty much from the beginning, in my 40s. This is a big ask – a complete rethink on my life philosophy. I’m also going to have to work out what I can actually do with my life that will take me beyond simply staring at the TV all day every day, because, even with my changed reality, I hope to be able to do a little more than that at some point.

So I look around and try to ascertain what others do with their lives. How do people who have neither a job nor family fill their days? What is life then for?

It seems like a wonderful opportunity – I’m sure there are people tied to jobs and families who would love to spend time travelling or pursuing hobbies or whatever, but I’m not only decidedly short on finances for travelling and so on, but just being out in the world with people exhausts me so much that any hobby would need to be mainly solitary and done at home. I’m not really looking for answers here, just pondering, and I know in my brain that I need to wait until I’ve recovered further from burnout before I can start to see what level of functionality I actually have and what I’ll ultimately be able to do.

So, I am liberated, free from the need to “perform” any more, free from the need to act the confident high-powered strong woman who I pretended to be for so long. But I am also cast adrift, directionless, like a balloon released and left to its fate, and I believe that I just have to go with both of these things for the time being. The old “rules” are gone. My life has been redefined. And there is no point fighting it, no point trying to cling on to “the way things were before”, because no matter how much I wanted that life to work, it didn’t, and the only way to move forward is to let go, relinquish control, and trust that some way forward will eventually emerge.

Absent

Aware
That I am a bit absent
At the moment.

Trying
To deal with so many things
At once.

Feeling
Quite unwell and stressed
And anxious.

Absorbing
So much big news about
So many things.

Using
So much energy constantly
Just to cope.

Needing
To remove as much pressure
As possible.

Struggling
To deal with the newness
Of so much.

Stimming
Though not as much as
I need to.

Dealing
With yet more forms
And reports.

Worrying
About some of the outcomes
Of these forms.

Attempting
To get out of the flat
Sometimes.

Resting
As much as I can because
I need to.

Finding
Life is rather exhausting
And challenging.

Wanting
To do so much more
But waiting.

Retreating
Back into the familiar
When possible.

Observing
That I’m out of my depth
Frequently.

Noticing
That my thoughts are often
Scrambled.

Intending
Still to write informative posts
About autism.

Taking
A little more time and space
Than previously.

Replenishing
Energy and thoughts and words
For a while.

Changed Life

My life is an interesting mix at the moment. I say “interesting” because one of my ways of coping with things is to be “interested” by them and to learn. Feeling emotions is, on the whole, difficult and complicated, and I’ve never received any training in how to feel things, so it confuses me somewhat. However, the education system I went through did provide me with ample training on how to learn and analyse things, so I tend to retreat into learning and analysis whenever possible. My head is wired in such a way that I have wondered all my life why school spent so much time teaching me the easy stuff (for example, mathematics), but so little teaching the difficult stuff (for example, what to do in a tea break at work). I realise now that that might be because many people don’t naturally go off and learn mathematics for fun just because it’s interesting, and most people seem to have some innate knowledge of how to cope with tea breaks and haven’t had to spend years observing other people to learn what to do and how to handle such problematic situations.

Anyway, there are two conflicting strands intertwining in my head at the moment. The shock of my father’s diagnosis (see Reactions to Diagnoses) is still very present (although now, over a week in, I am starting, slowly, to process it), and I’m beginning to work out how to adjust my life in order to spend some time with him during the next few months. I’m trying to focus on sorting out the practicalities of visits and arrangements at the moment, and my priority is to use whatever energy I can to do what I need to do in a timely manner.

But I’m also acutely aware that I currently have very limited energy. Interestingly, other things in my life have suddenly become less important. I have, for the time being, abandoned any thoughts of participating in running races. I am still very burnt out, and while I recognise how wonderful running is for me and for my health in general, what I need right now is to learn how to stop pushing myself and to rest. Coping with the overstimulation out in the world is something I’m finding difficult at the moment, and pushing myself into massive physical exertion only overtaxes my system further. I’m also having huge sensory issues with running kit, which is a different sort of fabric from my usual soft cotton t-shirts, and I cannot reliably wear such clothes at the moment without sometimes encountering waves of nausea. Furthermore, getting dressed at all is often still really challenging for me, so getting changed and changed again uses up so much energy that it’s really not a valuable use of resources. And that’s before I start on the hours of build up needed even to leave the flat at the moment! I fully intend to return to running seriously again, especially the long distances that are so fabulous, but I can easily put it on hold for now, while I recover. I need to get my energy back, work out how to deal with the crowds at races so I don’t end up crashing out of them like I did last year, and maybe I’ll ease myself back in via halves and marathons first, then return to ultras in 2018.

I’m trying to keep a bit of music going, but, for now, only familiar and relatively low pressure stuff. This time last year I was preparing to play solo Hindemith as part of a gig, and to perform a concerto in the summer, but this year I am sticking to a bit of gentle orchestral stuff and maybe a bit of fun chamber music should the opportunity arise. Nothing that requires hours of intensive practice or any great pressure – even the pressure of finding concert clothes and getting out of the flat to the gig and being surrounded by people and the sensory demands of the outside world is quite enough to cope with.

The other really difficult decision I need to make might well be forced upon me anyway soon. For years now I’ve been studying maths with the Open University. It’s been brilliant, but it’s also been a really rocky ride because my health has failed so many times over the years. Things have also changed massively with the way that the courses and degrees are organised and funded over the years, and for the last couple of years I’ve been desperately trying to finish my degree before it vanishes completely. The University have been very good, and the tutors I’ve had have been nothing short of excellent in their support, but I fear that I have now reached the end of the line. I cannot see how I can continue to work at the level I need to for the time being. Unlike running and music, however, which can be picked up when I’m better, I fear this really is the end for the maths. Had this happened 10 years ago I would simply have taken a year or so out then carried on, but that is now impossible (very long boring story to do with government funding, modules, student loans, deferrals, degree programmes and so on).

My husband is going to try to contact the OU and see whether there is anything to be salvaged (if there is, then we’ll do it), but that, in itself, is a problem because they will only speak to me and I’m not up to having the discussion right now. The problem with needing help is that in order to get help you have to be well enough to ask for help and if you’re not well enough to ask then you just slip off the radar and vanish – the same happened to me with disability benefits – I just gave up. I can’t contemplate any of it at the moment – all my energy is needed just for survival. Furthermore, any hopes that I would eventually “get better properly” and be able to use a decent maths degree (during the times I *can* work my marks are often high and might, with good health, have led to an excellent degree) to establish a good career, are now gone. The problems I have with energy levels and executive functioning and coping out in the world when surrounded by other people are the result of me being autistic and that is permanent. Just finding enough strategies to COPE at all with life is going to be a big deal – I now know that the possibility of a “successful career” is gone and that if I ever manage to work again it will have to be a very different sort of work from that I had in mind when I hoped to “recover” from whatever it was that meant I kept breaking.

So, life feels like it is changing rapidly. Priorities are altering, and the upheaval continues. My life, which, a year ago, I had been hoping to build up, has shrunk back down to something much more modest. Doing 100 mile races, performing concertos, and getting a good maths degree all seem to be in a different universe right now. My relationship with my family is in the process of changing significantly, my ambitions for life are undergoing a time of readjustment, and my entire identity has altered. I’ve moved from simply “not being very female” to actively describing myself as non-binary and I’ve discovered a world I couldn’t even have imagined existed a few months ago. It’s also still only seven months since the chain of events started that would lead me to discover, a few weeks later, that what I’d regarded as “normal” for the last 45 years was in fact “autistic”, and eventually to be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder just 2 weeks ago today. It is all really really life-changing.

Interestingly though, two weeks after diagnosis, my husband has remarked that for all the current problems in life, he perceives an underlying wellness in me that he hasn’t seen for a very long time. For all the upheavals, and all the strife, and the current difficulties, it would seem that the process of accepting who I really am IS eventually going to lead to a better life. It has become obvious from the “facebook memories” feature that for all my external optimism about life a year ago I was already really struggling, and the signs of impending burnout were already there – the life that I was still rebuilding was unsustainable, but I just didn’t know it.

And, now I am finally emerging from the diagnostic procedure itself, then, following shortly afterwards, the news from my father, I am starting to accept my changed life in a way that I wouldn’t have done previously. The angst I felt before diagnosis (even when everyone round me was telling me that of course I was autistic and go gently on myself and so on) is starting to recede and I feel, oddly, like a “more confident autistic”. For the first time in my life I am learning to take pressure OFF myself. For the first time ever, I’m able to tell myself that my head DOES work differently from the heads of most other people and that it’s true, what I mean by “tired” is different from what many other people mean by it (not all – obviously there are those who have other chronic conditions and illnesses and so on – I’m not referring to them, but to the population as a whole, to the people who CAN go out to work every day and so on). I am learning that being autistic means that my system gets exhausted JUST BY EXISTING, and I therefore need more rest than most people do. I am allowing myself to rest more FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE, and I’m no longer forcing myself to constantly push through the bad feelings.

I’m finally letting go of the notion that I need to be all things to all people – I scroll past questions on facebook that I know I could answer, but sometimes I let someone else take the question because I know that typing a lengthy answer will tire me. I look at some of the posts and “advice” in the self-help and fitness related groups and books and I know now that this advice might work really well for neurotypical people, but that it doesn’t work for me because it doesn’t take into account that my neurology is different. Autistic people need a different version of the “self-help” manual – one that takes our neurology into account, one that recognises our differences and the extra work we need to put in in order to exist in the world and the fact that being with other people is utterly exhausting for many of us (maybe I’ll write one sometime)! I am starting to recognise that in order to stay well I have to question much of the “received wisdom” about life, and much of what I’ve learnt through the years. I need to adapt the advice, rethink the strategies, and alter my life accordingly.

And although I’d been learning lots and lots of this on my own, had disclosed my autistic status on this blog (see The Discovery) to anyone who cared to read it, being validated by a professional has, for me, given me the permission to change my life and to feel justified in doing so, which is why what happened two weeks ago today was so important. It turns out that even if the rest of the world was absolutely convinced that I was autistic and did everything they could to help and reassure me, the person who really needed convincing was me.