Hand Flapping

I wrote the words below (in italics) around eight months ago – before diagnosis, before forms, before I had any interaction with autistic communities online, right back in the early days of the “autism hypothesis” as I was then calling it. At that time I’d only just contacted my mother to start to ask about my early childhood, I’d heard the word “stimming” but didn’t really understand it, and I had no knowledge of autistic burnout or realization that I was experiencing it and had done so before.

I was yet even to receive the forms from the triage service or do any autism “tests” beyond the online one that I mentioned in The Discovery. I was still only just acknowledging that I even WAS autistic, and at that point I was only talking to a very small number of people about it and really only had Google and a couple of books to help me.

At the time I wrote the words I remember being really freaked out by them, even though I’d felt the need to write them. The whole concept of “just letting stuff happen” was so alien to me, having spent my entire life fighting to be “in control” and I was right at the start of the process of discovery. I had only just, a few days earlier, typed the words “I am autistic” for the first time and they still felt very foreign and strange and the whole notion of me being autistic seemed seriously wild – I didn’t spend a few years wondering or suspecting that I might be, as some people do – I’d gone from completely clueless to almost certainly autistic in the space of only a few weeks and my head was still reeling from the experience.

I didn’t even initially discuss them with either my husband or the friend with whom I was most closely corresponding about the possibility that I was autistic. I remember sending a rather coy facebook message to that friend saying I’d discovered something, but, initially it seemed too radical to say what – I’ve come a long way from then to now and my perceptions and levels of confidence have changed so much that I’m now publishing the words, which I couldn’t even send to my friend back then, openly on the internet!!!

But right from the off I knew I wanted to investigate the whole thing thoroughly. I wanted to experiment, to find out just what was going on. It was already obvious that the jiggly leg and the constant sitting with my legs folded under me and the gentle rocking and so on were likely autistic things and so I deliberately set out to learn to listen to my body and to what it wanted to do and to allow myself to experiment to see what happened.

Had I grown up knowing I was autistic and been part of any autistic community, this stuff might have been so commonplace in my life that it wouldn’t even have featured as a “thing to discover” but to me it felt new and big and important. I remember, much later, reading an account from another late diagnosed person saying it took them 6 months from diagnosis to reach that particular point. It took me only a few days from the point that I started to accept that I was autistic!

But I was deliberately experimenting. I am also pretty lucky in that I’m not the sort of person who feels shame about lots of stuff – I don’t have a deeply ingrained sense of “this is wrong” because I’ve always lived a somewhat random life, rather a long way from the middle of the “bell curve”! I knew by my teens that I was never going to be one of the popular “normal” ones and there’s no doubt that as I’ve got older I’ve increasingly adopted an attitude of “if they don’t like me as I am then I’ll just move on and not bother about it”. I have plenty of folk who do seem to be amused or entertained by me enough to stick around and whom I find interesting to be with so it’s not a big problem.

But, internally, this was for me, a big milestone, a big thing for me consciously to rediscover. And I remember, having typed the words “my autistic body” (perhaps an odd thing to type but it was what it was) looking at them with a mix of utter “this is so freaky and odd and new and scary and but ME?” and total “this is so comforting and reassuring and exciting and wow can this really be true” all at the same time.

September 2016

So, I’m staying overnight at my friend’s. I wake. It is 4 in the morning. When I wake I am overwhelmed with anxiety. Understandable. I’m away from home. I had orchestra. People. I talked a lot about autism to my friend yesterday afternoon and evening. My life is in such a period of upheaval and learning and turmoil. The revelations about my 4 year old self are still shocking me and rebounding inside my head.

I feel sick. Really really sick. I have felt this way here before. I have usually put it down to a large meal in college or too much alcohol. Neither of those is true for last night. A fairly small supper (I have learnt to eat small when things are unfamiliar because I know being out of normal routine is often stressful and makes me feel anxious and sick, so less food offsets the feeling).

Usually at this point I would try to keep calm and lie still. Breathing exercises. Mindfulness. Sometimes it works. But often I cannot get calm. The sick feeling rises. As I am emetophobic I get into a feedback loop. Sometimes I manage to fend it off but spend the next hour or so lying there feeling shaky and drained. Sometimes the worst happens. I end up in the bathroom and return, tearful and traumatised, to bed, where I might then drift into a troubled sleep, but the experience stays with me unless I spend the next few days working on blocking it from my mind.

Since it became apparent that I am autistic (there, I said it again) I have been experimenting. I have never known why I sit on the sofa at home and gently rock, but I do. It is calming. Maybe there is more in me. Something else. More long-repressed behaviours. I know I always fiddle with things. My hair. Pens. Cords. But maybe there are other things that are part of me that I am yet to discover.

I lie in the bed and decide to try something. To stop trying any sort of control over my body and mind and see what happens. My body starts to move. Rhythmically rocking backwards and forwards. It feels right. Then the strangest thing happens. I want to flap my hands. Really really want to. My arms emerge from under the covers. My hands begin to flap, fast, furious. I don’t know for how long, but the nausea and sick feeling subsides. I calm. Tears run down my face. I know I am going to be OK now. I flap a bit more, just to check. But I am calmer. The anxiety is reduced. I finally lie still.

I have heard mention of hand flapping. Has that found its way into my mind. Am I “trying” to be autistic, to prove something to myself? Au contraire, I was actually not trying to do anything except what my body felt it wanted to do. It felt natural. Normal. Although massively at odds with everything I have learnt from society over the last 45 years.

I wonder if my particular flapping is an autistic thing. So I grab my phone and Google autism hand flapping. My phone knows how to spell autism these days. I find a video of a man demonstrating flapping behaviour. It looks right. I read on a website that autistic children flap their hands and adults may go back to the behaviour as a way of relieving stress and anxiety. I don’t know if I am going back because I don’t know if I ever did as a child. Maybe so, but if that was the case I was almost certainly told to stop. Suppress. Do not exhibit abnormal behaviour. Nobody would have known back then what it meant.

I am slightly creeped out by the experience. The sense of calm the flapping induced was profound and remarkably quick. It clearly stimulated something that stopped the sick feeling, stopped the acute anxiety and stress. I feel very strange about this. I know it is an odd behaviour. Not something I have done in this way before. It was what my body wanted to do. And it worked.

I wonder what will happen over the coming weeks. As I come to terms with my autism what else will be revealed? I find the term “stimming” strange and unfamiliar. It was not a term I knew until very recently. Again, I worry that I am making myself autistic to fit the model. But every time I return to the fact that I have been autistic all along. It is not that I fit the model. It is that the model fits me. That I have found myself. Discovered needs in myself that were hitherto hidden. Years of lying in unfamiliar beds at night feeling sick. And I didn’t have a way of dealing with it. Now I do. That was what my body wanted. So that’s what I did. My autistic body. My differently wired head. My new life. My new start.

I am 45 years old and I am at the very beginning of my journey of learning to live like me. I have had fleeting moments, over the past week, where I have thought “when will life return to normal”. I know that old normal will never return. Yes, there is a part of me that is deeply unnerved by this whole autistic world. It’s so new. It has all happened so fast. Where is my old familiar life?

The old life is gone. I would not want it back.

***

Two Days Later

I have become a hand flapper. It has become important to me. I also like to rock, and to do things with my fingers, waggle my feet, bash my legs against the sofa back, and, of course, allow my leg to jiggle, rather than making the effort to stop what is often involuntary movement.

I was flapping tonight. Not because I was feeling particularly bad, but just to keep myself calm and to explore further the effect it has on me. I flapped for slightly longer than before. I felt a feeling in my fingers that was familiar, and pleasurable, and special. And it triggered a memory from long ago, very long ago, of the same feeling and I realised:

I. Have. Done. This. Before.

The realisation hits me. I did this as a child. I wonder why I stopped. Did someone tell me to stop waving my arms around? Did I gain awareness that other people didn’t flap their hands and as I was learning how to live by copying and observing I stopped? Did some kid at school bully me for it?

I wonder when it was. But I know now that I flapped my hands as a child.

Mind continues to be blown by all this stuff.

Breathe for goodness sake, breathe!

It turned out that I hadn’t just been flapping my hands when I was younger. As soon as I started to relax about it and consciously allow myself flap in front of my husband he said “Oh, you’ve always done that – though not quite as obviously as now”. Things I’ve always done with fingers and wrists when trying to make decisions or when stressed turn out all to be part of the same thing, but just on a smaller scale. I’ve since discovered that there are all sorts of times when I flap my hands, and these days I often hardly notice. Sometimes it’s when I’m happy about something, sometimes it’s for anxiety relief. These days I generally just go with it!

And, like so many autistic things, it possibly looks a little unusual from the outside. My husband (who also flaps his hands from time to time) frequently tells me I look like a T-Rex (I’m totally cool with that – I was a mad dinosaur fan as a kid and am still somewhat interested in them), and I suspect that some folk might find it a bit odd, but from the inside it’s just a natural form of expression and something that’s now very much part of my life.

The only thing I do have to make myself consciously remember from time to time is not to flap my hands while I’m holding a drink – that doesn’t work out well!!!

Clear Air

The storm didn’t really come in the form of a meltdown in the end. I was so exhausted that it morphed into a shutdown instead.

I’d had a really really busy day. The busiest in months. I went to play in a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah with a local choral society – playing my viola from time to time is one of the very few things I didn’t abandon completely when burnout hit. The gig entailed a three hour rehearsal in the afternoon, then being hosted at someone’s house for supper, then the concert in the evening, which also lasted nearly three hours.

I’d done a similar gig last December, but declined the supper invitation and spent the intervening time sitting in the car on my own. This time I braved supper – partly, admittedly, because it was done on a “get in touch if you don’t want to have supper” basis this time around and my “getting in touch” abilities are pretty poor at the moment!

So I’d had this massively long full-on day. I’d been totally open about being autistic and having mental health issues (I’m getting slightly better at talking about it all). I’d kept my sunglasses on for most of the day. I’d coped with eating while sitting on a proper chair at a table and even participated in the conversation over supper a bit. I’d left supper slightly early to give myself some space to be alone before the concert. I’d spent most of the interval sitting on the floor, wearing my ear defenders and rocking back and forth. And I had, of course, played all 90 pages of the viola part of Elijah – twice (perversely, although physically very tiring, that was actually the easy bit)!

I got home and downed a few glasses of wine and ate some cheese, then went for a bath.

And then felt exactly as I had done in the pub episode in Sudden Illness.

I suddenly felt absolutely dreadful, sat up in the bath, unable to keep still, and burst into tears.

And this is where what happens now deviates from what used to happen in the past.

In the past, I would have stoically continued, as I did in the pub, to act as “normally” as possible. I might well have ended up being sick, and would probably have got almost no sleep and have spent the night in bed lying awake, shaking, believing myself to have some sort of illness that I couldn’t quite rationalise. I have pushed on and on in such circumstances so many times.

And the result of that pushing has been a continual decline in my mental health, a continual drain on my energy, and the resulting burnouts and erosion of my functioning abilities. Trying to be strong has, in fact, weakened me. “Faking it until I make it” has not worked – in fact, the more I faked it, the less I made it.

So I sat in the bath and cried, and my husband came to investigate and found a distraught mess. He calmed me down and drank the orange juice that I had asked for not long before as I indicated that I couldn’t drink it. And he also realised that my ability to speak was completely gone. Fortunately he’s used to it – and actually rather reassured now that we know I’m autistic, having thought, for the last fifteen years, that when I didn’t speak to him for hours at a time I was actually cross with him for some misdemeanour!

Then I went to bed, and beat my head against the pillow for a bit, before finally settling down to sleep. And I did sleep, where, in the past, I would have been unlikely to.

The next day my words didn’t return until mid-afternoon. My system finally closed down, and I did little more than lie on the sofa and sleep from time to time. But I felt calmer. The tension had gone. The storm had passed. The air had cleared.

And now I understand why this happens from time to time it feels easier to cope with. I’m not getting ill in the same way I did when I tried to fight through and keep still and so on. Although, perversely, the behaviour I exhibit probably looks more disturbing and maybe even frightening from the outside, from the inside it is very different.

In the past, an outside observer would just have seen someone who seemed like they were unwell and therefore became quiet – I’d have looked as most people expected me to look. But inside I would have been feeling utterly terrible, utterly unable to comprehend why I felt so bad, and in a total state of panic and desperation.

These days an observer would see someone who was completely unable to talk, compulsively rocking, maybe flapping their hands, bashing themselves against things, and even (though I try not to do this too much) hitting their own legs and arms with their fists. The part of me that has spent over 40 years trying to fit into a neurotypical world knows that I must look odd, and even maybe distressing, to the outside observer.

But inside, these things calm me. Inside they feel instinctive and normal and OK and can very quickly make me feel much much better, better enough to settle down to sleep. Better enough to wake the next morning and know that it doesn’t matter if I still can’t speak and I have to draw a letter T on my husband’s skin with my finger to indicate that I’d like a cup of tea.

And he no longer thinks I’m just asking for tea that way because I can’t be bothered to ask properly. And I no longer force the words to return before they are ready, and my brain therefore has time to recover.

It still feels very new, because it is still very new, allowing myself to be like this. I know from reading posts on groups and so on that many late diagnosed autistic people struggle to allow themselves to be who they really are, after decades learning to live a different way. And I’m certainly not always finding it easy – the intersections with the outside world can be particularly difficult at times, and the change from the old life is huge. But I am determined to live as my real self – 45 years was quite long enough to maintain the act that so nearly killed me on many occasions.

So that is the way it now is. And my way is to allow myself to be as fully autistic as I need to be wherever and whenever possible. And to be open about it as much as I can.

And maybe it sounds really odd, but that actually makes me really really happy, because it feels so completely right.

The new life becomes more and more real as time goes on.

Low Confidence

Today is one of those low confidence days.

One of the days where I’m not sure if I’m getting it right, or wrong.

When I keep opening blank boxes on Facebook and Twitter and closing them again.

Where I can’t quite make my thoughts into words properly.

And I’m really uncertain that people will understand what I mean.

Because I am full of big feelings that I can’t translate.

When I look at the jobs list it seems long and complex and insurmountable.

I’m still trying to work out this new identity. Still trying to explain.

Still trying to write the posts I really want to for this blog.

My head is screaming at me that I need to do EVERYTHING. NOW!

Surely with enough willpower all is possible?

Wanting to be strong. Wanting to be efficient.

Wanting to sort my life out and achieve and succeed.

But the inertia is high and the functioning is low today.

I am still recovering after a busy time and a shutdown.

I am still having to remind myself that I am autistic and my mind needs a more forgiving approach than I have previously given it.

Now that my act is gone. Now that I’m working out who I really am.

These days I do not have the protection of a mask, nor the ability to recreate one.

Remembering what I have been through these past few months.

It’s perhaps inevitable that I struggle a bit.

I need to take things gently.

Storm Clouds

It feels as though storm clouds are gathering in my head these last few days. I’m not sure why, and I can’t work out if there’s anything I can do about it, but I have that feeling that I’m building the sort of tension that will eventually lead to meltdown or shutdown. But not yet. Somehow the energy is yet to be released. Things are too controlled. Maybe, knowing I have a weekend of things to do out in the world means that I’m keeping control somehow. I have that feeling of wanting to cry, but not being able to.

It’s an unsettling feeling, though not totally bad. I don’t even think the overload in my head and the build up of emotions (many of which I’m struggling to identify for alexythmic reasons) is entirely negative. It’s just that I can feel a gradual build up. Of something. I’m trying to analyse what that something is. I’m trying to judge whether some sort of big stimming session would help. I don’t know. It’s a very edgy feeling.

This is the fifth attempt I’ve had at writing about it. What has emerged as a common theme in the first four attempts is that this state is a mixture of two lots of emotion. One lot could probably be called negative, and the other, positive. They are existing inside my head simultaneously, and both pouring these strong, but not totally identifiable, feelings into my system. I get emotions like this. I always have, except when too depressed, or taking large quantities of medication, which seems to blank many of my feelings out anyway. One reason I hesitate to take medication is that much of it takes away things that I value – my appreciation of music, my excitement in the world, and so on.

And so, these huge waves of emotion keep washing over me, and I’m trying to untangle them in order to deal with them. Maybe a therapist would help with this, but I don’t have one, so I’m trying to do it on my own. Although it’s becoming obvious from trying to write it down as best I can that the same things are recurring over and over and my mind is still trying to deal with them. I’ve almost certainly written about them here before, and I apologise for what is probably terrible repetition (my husband says that he is used to me saying everything 98 times) but it seems that this need for repetition, for reassurance, for rehearsing the same argument over and over is probably one of my autistic traits too – something I need to do to get things clear in my mind.

And so the negative thoughts:

The constant nagging knowledge that my life will be limited because I simply don’t have the productive energy that most people do because I’m using so much of my energy to cope with my environment and to process language. I don’t like being limited, but decades of experience have shown me that the consequences of not consciously limiting my life and of trying to “be like everybody else” are poor mental health and catastrophic burnout. I am furious about this. I do not want to have to limit my life, but I must, and I know I must. I have to learn to be gentler, and allow recovery time.

I’m still not fully able to explain to people what being autistic really means. I’m still encountering “yes, but we all get tired…” types of comments, and I’m not yet able to articulate in words that what I mean is something different and that I’m not on about it being the end of a long week and I just fancy a bit of a lie-in. I need to write a blog post about this, I know I do. It is nibbling at my insides (yes, it feels like that) and I need to deal with it. Ditto the current controversies about stim-toys and spinners. I have so many and various thoughts about the whole thing, but I can’t make them into words currently, and that is frustrating me.

And talk of schools and classrooms and so on keeps pulling me back to my own childhood, the door onto which I had closed, I thought for good, until last year, when it had to be forced open. And once it was open, it was really useful for getting my diagnosis, but it hasn’t brought back floods of joyful memories, but of a time when my main objectives were to stave off bullying, to learn to behave, and to achieve good results academically. I had no chew toys or spinners – so I chewed my tie and my jumper and I played with bits from my pencil case and got into trouble for doodling during lessons (among other things).

The late diagnosis thing still irks me. The fact that I had to get THIS broken before anybody noticed that I was autistic. The fact that I was born at a time in history when the world didn’t know about people like me. I’m still sad and angry and regretful at so much of the first 45 years of my life. I’m still furious with the mental health specialists who didn’t know. Today we talk about acceptance being preferable to awareness – even the most basic awareness 20 years ago of autism in those of us who were AFAB might have saved me so much heartbreak.

And here I am, a 45-year-old burnt out non-binary autistic, going through the menopause, learning who I am, trying to rebuild my life, and doing it, currently, without help from anyone except a husband and friends. And I often feel like I am breaking, like I just want to vanish off the face of the Earth, because my youth has gone, and I want to cry for all these things, because they’re still bothering me.

But the positive thoughts are also strong:

The relief at no longer feeling the pressure to be a high flyer. The knowledge that I have a disability (and yes, for me, it is disabling – there is much to be investigated regarding models of disability, but that is not for now) and therefore I can stop beating myself up when I don’t achieve what I thought I should be able to is reassuring. The knowledge that the levels of self-care that I need are now “permitted” is such a huge relief, so liberating, and even joyful. I don’t have to be some kind of superhero any more – I can built this new life and stop pretending to be someone I’m not.

Most people I know are being massively supportive. I’m hugely lucky to have most of them in my life. Far from being deserted by old friends, I’m still, even, making new ones, people who care enough to be interested, people who read this blog and who are helped, people who understand the difficulties, and some who do not but are investing their time and energy and are willing to learn and be caring and understanding. This makes what I could call “big feels” – I don’t have a better expression than that currently. Like so often these days, I just hope people know what I mean.

And though I cannot change the past or do anything about my childhood or its difficulties, I’m now massively enjoying allowing myself to explore the world that has now opened up of toys and things to fiddle with and things that I can buy for myself without anybody to tell me not to. I can sit and stare at my glow in the dark spinner until it runs out of glow, I can roll the ball around on my fidget cube for hours at a time, I can have all the toys now that I never had as a child, and because I am old and spend the majority of my time at home alone nobody will tell me off for doing these things. I am making up for lost time in a big way, finally releasing all the bits of me that have been hidden all these years.

And the fact that the diagnosis has come at all, even this late, is still enough on its own to make me cry with happiness. The relief, the liberation, the knowledge of who I am and why I am and how I am. The permission to be something other, the explanation of why I’ve felt as I have all my life, and the solving of hundreds and thousands of mysteries from the last 45 years. The letting go of the old expectations, the shift to a neurological identity and a gender identity that feels properly comfortable to me, rather than one I was taught was the case. The hope that I will eventually recover from this burnout and will eventually get through this phase and that life will be better than it ever has been, and that I’ll eventually build a life that will be right for me.

And part of what is causing these emotions feels like some sort of huge “sigh of relief” from my entire being. I read about labels and words and why do I need the descriptor “autistic” if I know who I am. For me, I needed that descriptor to SHOW me who I am. Learning about what it means to be autistic is teaching me how to be who I am – because after 4 decades of acting roles, my real self has become somewhat obscured and needs a little help to emerge. I’ve had a lot of training to be someone else. I have a lot to discover. The minute I knew, and I allowed myself, and I learnt for the first time in my life to follow my instincts, things felt very very different.

And each time I’ve tried to write about this, these simultaneous bunches of feelings keep emerging, over and over again. Not even oscillating, like the states described in my earlier post, but together. Sadness and anger and regret alongside relief and liberation and happiness.

And the word at the end of every piece is still “autistic”, as if I’m still trying to make my head accept it fully, embrace it fully, and be able to go out into the world and live it fully. I want to do that, so very much. I know that it will not always be easy – but I do not shy away from difficulty and I never have.

Even writing it all down like this has actually changed how I feel, released some of the energy that I had when I started typing around half an hour ago. I’m calmer. The storm clouds have rolled on past for now. They will be back. The next meltdown and next shutdown will happen at some point, but typing everything up like this has had a healing effect for now, sorted things out a little. If anyone’s still reading, then thank you for indulging me. It has helped.

Double Regret

The original title of this post, which I devised when my mood was somewhat lower than it is today, was “Double Mourning”, but I ditched it as being too strong, and, in fact, not really factually accurate. It also reminded me of those terrible articles, which I’m certain are supposed to induce some sort of emotion, where parents write of their “grief” at discovering their child is autistic. An autistic diagnosis might be a shock, yes, and it certainly makes one think rather hard about rather a lot of things, but it is not really about grieving, especially when the diagnosis is so early that the child in question can be supported to be their full autistic self and get the best possible out of their life with the knowledge of who they are. The child is still there and has not changed – leave the “grief” for those who are genuinely bereaved, whose children have died, been stillborn or miscarried, or were never conceived despite much effort.

However, I can understand that any autism diagnosis is a huge shift in perspective, and can alter expectations and so on. And when that diagnosis comes late in life, although it is, in many ways, liberating and validating and a huge relief, it can also come with a lot of regret that it wasn’t spotted earlier, particularly for those of us who have been disabled by our autistic characteristics and whose quality of life has been generally poor. I have spent much of my life fighting against my neurology, trying to be a person I wasn’t, because I didn’t know who I was, and the effort that has taken has been huge.

And, to add insult to injury, I have spent my life working at absolute maximum capacity the whole time, trying my very best to live up to the high expectations that others had of me (because all they saw was a decent set of exam results so I really was told I could do anything, which turned out not to be true) and which, as a consequence, I eventually had of myself. I lived in a world where a grade B was a failure, where I was expected to be the best, to rise to the top, to be successful and to settle down and have a happy and fulfilled life. It didn’t turn out that way – as I discussed in Expectations Gone.

So while I am not mourning, I am having to look back and deal with two lots of what I shall call “regret” and this is where my situation differs from that of the small child – had I been diagnosed at 4, my parents would have had to replan my future, but there would be very little past to look back on, analyse, and very little to regret about how my life had thus far been conducted. At 45 I now face having to replan my future, whatever there will be of it, but I’m also having to come to terms with the events of the past and how both my being autistic and my not knowing about it has impacted my life.

I cannot help asking myself the question “What if I’d been diagnosed at n?” where n is a number between 0 and 45. Maybe one day I’ll try to do a post that conveys some of my thoughts on this, although, obviously, the whole thing is a hypothetical exercise. It is, obviously, of no practical use, but it’s a way of me working through my past and analysing the effect that being an undiagnosed autistic for 45 years has had on my life. And, because of the sort of person I am, I’m given to such experiments because they interest me. And since I have nobody to talk to about them apart from my long-suffering husband, they might well end up here at some point.

So while I’m playing “autism bingo” (see Disparate Facts) and scrapping my old plans and making new (hopefully exciting) ones, on my more introspective days I am dealing with two lots of regret, and I am sometimes getting really really sad, and sometimes really really angry, and sometimes wishing that I had a time machine and I could go back and have another try at life, with proper knowledge of my neurology and permission to be myself rather than having to act the Strong Woman for so long. There is a part of me that feels that 45 is too late and that my disastered life is beyond rescue now – the lack of any family, the failure of all the jobs, the huge debts, the chaotic living conditions, the shocking mental health, and my current poor quality of life make me wonder if it’s even worth the effort. But there is also a part of me that is interested to see what happens next, and to discover where things go from here, and to find out whether I can build a life that gives me some degree of either success or pleasure, or if I’m really really lucky, a bit of both – I have a husband, an insatiably curious mind, pretty good physical health in many ways, and maybe a few decades ahead to do some interesting stuff.

So why am I regretting TWO alternative pasts? And what are they?

The first is the past that I would have had had I not BEEN autistic. Of course, it’s impossible to tell what a non-autistic version of me might have been like, because autism doesn’t work like that and I’d have been a completely different person, but, if I look around at those who had similar backgrounds to me, then many of them went on to lead very different lives from me. The smiling group photos of friends I see on facebook, the people who enjoy going off on trips together, the people who meet up socially in their spare time and so on. And, of course, there are the families and jobs and houses that many have because they’ve been able to work and make money and use their qualifications to build a life in a way that I haven’t. I know, by the way, that this is not the case for everyone, and also that there are autistic people who have succeeded with families, jobs, houses and the like, but I’m trying to work out the things that didn’t work for me, for which I believe being autistic might have been responsible.

The non-autistic life was also the one that, until 8 months ago, I believed I had. It didn’t even occur to me to wonder whether I was autistic or not, because nobody had ever raised the possibility with me. I believed that I had failed very badly at life, and I was fairly certain that with the amount of work I put in and the skills that I had, that it was rather unfair that things kept going so badly wrong. Of course, the paradox here is that, had I been a different person, a non-autistic version of myself, there might have been areas where I HAVE succeeded that I wouldn’t even have considered because they’re part of my autistic self. Had I been a good socialite at college, I might have got a less good degree because I’d have been in the bar chatting rather than in the library reading every single reference to every single journal article. Had I been good at team sport at school, I might never have spent so much time learning music and it would not have become such an important part of my life. Had I been able to hold down a job properly, I might never had the time to care for so many animals, and so on and so on and so on.

So a big part of this autistic discovery is, to a certain extent, to “regret” that I wasn’t “normal” (both words in inverted commas, because they’re the closest I can get to what I’m trying to say, and I know all the “yes but what is normal anyway” stuff and I’m trying to convey that I’m using the words because they’re the best I can come up with at this point). There is a huge regret that I didn’t find life easier and that I worked so damn hard and because my neurology is different, I didn’t get the same results for the same amount of work that other people did. But I’m not sure the concept of actually BEING neurotypical has much meaning for me, since I haven’t the faintest clue what it might be like. I’ve discussed with neurotypical people and heard about how they only hear the conversation they’re actually having when they’re in a room full of people, and how they can talk about things they haven’t rehearsed, and how they don’t feel sick when they go shopping, and how they feel happier running in groups and chatting, and how they think that a night out at the pub is more relaxing than staying at home doing advanced mathematics, but these things are so far from my experience that I really have no clue what it might be like. One of the things I’d really like to do is to find more neurotypical friends and really discover what life feels like for them, because it’s utterly fascinating.

The second alternative past that I’m “regretting” (again, I use the word advisedly), is the one in which I KNEW I was autistic. There is probably more to say about this, and about the consequences of having known, in a future blog post (the exercise described in the 5th paragraph above). I am certain that had I known what my neurology was earlier in my life it would have helped me no end, although I’m also conscious that it’s much more complicated than that because we have also to take into account the way that the world has changed in the last 45 years, so there are really too many variables to consider. A diagnosis of autism in 1975 would almost certainly have resulted in my future being limited by the perceptions of others, for example, whereas such a diagnosis for a 4-year-old now would produce a very different outcome. I also avoided any efforts to “cure” me with horrific therapies, though I was sometimes harshly disciplined when I had meltdowns, which were taken to be bad behaviour, my sensory needs weren’t recognised so I went through a lot of pain, which I learnt to normalise, and I stored up a lot of inner trauma and anxiety as a result of being bullied, struggling with friends, and trying to be “normal”. But I was able to use the skills I did have. The very things that meant that nobody was able to tell that I was autistic in the 1970s and 80s meant that I was allowed just to proceed with life and as I grew up people just got used to the idea that I was who I was, quirks and all, and, to an extent, I just learnt what was expected of me and did it the best I could.

I’d have liked to grow up with a diagnosis. I’d have liked my parents to have been able to access groups on facebook, to learn that I wasn’t being awkward, that I wasn’t actually trying to be headstrong, or picky with my food, and that I wasn’t trying to be bad, although I always felt I came across as bad. I’d have liked my schools to recognise that I was putting in lots of work, even though it wasn’t the sort of work that they were expecting, and I’d like to be able to look back on my childhood now and see it as a happy fun-filled time, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t do that. I see it as a constant learning process that required behaving well and doing well at schoolwork. I’ve heard people describe childhood as some sort of “carefree” time, but I’m struggling to think of anything like that in my own past.

But it was the 1970s. Nobody knew. And I forgive those who didn’t see how much I was struggling because they didn’t know what to look for and because I didn’t know either. It was just the way it was back then.

However, when it comes to adulthood, I have very different feelings. By the time I was in my mid-20s I was already very mentally ill. The masking that I’d learnt through childhood was already taking a heavy toll on me, and if I’d known in my mid-20s that I was autistic and had had the opportunity to learn what I know now then I believe my life would have been very very different and I’d be in a much better position with a much better quality of life than I have now. I’ll try and work out why that is at some point, and exactly what I would have done differently, partly because it might inform my own future and I can, I hope, stop making the same mistakes I’ve been making for the last 20 years, and partly because it might be useful for others, who are in their 20s and recently diagnosed.

What I do know is that I’m reading a lot of articles online about “late diagnosis”, and I read and read and read and it sounds exactly like me, and then the punchline comes: “and it was like this for the first 25 years of my life”!!!! And I sit there and think “25? That’s TWO DECADES AGO for me!!!” I feel old. I’m middle-aged. I’m in the middle of the menopause. My hair is grey (it is grey at the moment because I can’t dye it because I’ve destroyed my scalp too badly). Some of my contemporaries are grandparents. How is 25 LATE for anything? At 25 you have almost your whole life ahead of you. You have a maximum of around 20 years’ masking to undo, you can be YOU for almost all your adult life!!!

Now, of course, I realise that this is my perspective as a 45-year-old. And I am encountering people who are newly diagnosed autistic in their 50s, 60s, and even older. I’m sure a newly-diagnosed 70-year-old would look at me and think how young I am, how much opportunity I still have (especially with my relative physical fitness), and would ask me what on Earth I was complaining about. And, of course, they’d be right, that my lot in life is considerably better than theirs was in very many ways (though also worse in others – I believe there are ways in which some aspects of the past were more advantageous to autistic people than some aspects of the modern world – that’s yet another blog post for the future).

However, when I look back on my life and wish, desperately, that I had known I was autistic, the point that I really wish it had been discovered was somewhere in my mid-20s. This was the point at which my mental health took a huge nosedive, the point at which life started to become seriously seriously tough for me and moved from anxiety into severe depression and when the suicidal ideation became suicide attempts and I didn’t understand why things were so very bad. Had I had the knowledge about my neurology back then that I have today, I could have, instead of going through months of hard CBT to try to cope with supermarkets, realised that they did indeed make me sick and I wasn’t being pathetic and the answer was to spend less time in them and wear dark glasses. Instead of reading the guides to good mental health that told me to spend lots of time with friends because that would be good for me and forcing myself to go to the pub after rehearsals and so on, I could have gone home and saved that energy. I’ve spent a lot of the last 20 years PUSHING through, fighting through, being strong, making myself do the tough stuff because I looked around and everyone else could do it so I knew that I should be able to as well. But the cycle of push, get sick, fail went round and round, and in 20 years of mental health service use, nobody suggested autism. That, I really do regret.

I survived my childhood. I even did reasonably well academically. It wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t the spectacular disaster that the last 20 years have been. I’m also now questioning how anxious I really am, and wondering whether the high levels of anxiety contributed to our being unable to have children, and if I’d allowed myself enough downtime and been aware of just how anxious I was, whether it would have helped. That, of course, I can only speculate, because it’s impossible to know. I am just coming to realise how high my anxiety levels have been all my life, but because they’ve always been that way, I’d never really noticed them. With my diagnosis has come a relief, a liberation, and a permission to relax and be myself that I’ve never felt before in my life. I don’t have to try to “achieve” any more, because I work on a different system and I have to operate by different rules in order to compensate for the way I perceive the world. Now that I do know, I can start to figure out what works and implement it. I can start to work on reducing anxiety, on planning a future that’s not based totally on striving to be the best or work the hardest, because those things aren’t suitable for me.

And I really do wish I’d known all this 20 years ago. The biggest regret I have is not that I am autistic (I’m not sure, in many ways, that that’s even a regret at all, because the notion of a non-autistic me simply doesn’t make any sense), nor in some ways, is that it wasn’t spotted in childhood (and getting the 2017 “diagnosis” for my 4-year-old self has, in many ways made peace with that anyway), but that I have spent a quarter of a century of my adult life not knowing I was autistic. THAT is the big regret.

And that’s the bit I’m most still struggling to come to terms with, the bit that needs the most work. I still need to do the thought experiments for “What if I’d been diagnosed at 40, 35, 30, 25, 20…?” I still need to work out how my own history intersects with my experiences in the mental health services, the knowledge of autism (particularly among those of us assigned female at birth), and I still need to work out where to go from here.

There’s not much I can do apart from keep going with it all. Reports from those who’ve been through similar experiences suggest it will take a year or so. I’m still less than 8 months post-discovery and less than 8 weeks post-diagnosis, so it’s not surprising I’m not there yet!

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.

Normal Ears

12-2016-12-15-17-49-17A little story about ears!

One day, when I was in my early 20s, I was chatting to someone about something (I can’t remember what) when I suddenly bashed my hand against the side of my head. It was an instinctive reaction, something I often did (and sometimes still do) when my ears did their things. These “things” were (and still are) sudden high-pitched whistles, whooshing noises, a sort of ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum sound, and a ringing noise, similar to that you get after being at a loud gig.

The person I was with enquired about my behaviour and I explained that the ears were doing their thing, like ears did. You know?

The person didn’t know. Apparently their ears didn’t do things. However, this person did ask me whether I had tinnitus, when I went on to explain what my ears usually did.

I didn’t believe so. I’d never heard of tinnitus, but when I started to investigate what tinnitus was, it did seem to describe what my ears did. What I considered normal behaviour for ears did seem to be called tinnitus. So that was that. I had tinnitus. I was perfectly used to it, as it had been going on as long as I could remember, and most of the time it’s only mildly annoying, so I just let it get on with it and carry on as usual, just occasionally bashing myself on the side of the head, looking round to see where the noise is coming from, or asking my husband if it’s real or if it’s me!

But the real point of the story is this – I didn’t know there was anything strange about ears making funny noises because my ears had always made funny noises. I remember them doing it right back to my early childhood. It didn’t occur to me to ask anyone else what their ears did because I just grew up assuming everyone else’s ears were the same as mine and that was normal behaviour for ears!

The discovery about tinnitus didn’t actually provide me with any new information about my own ears – it made me realise that other people’s ears were different. I found out that there were loads of people whose ears didn’t make noises! Weird!

A large part of discovering I’m autistic has been pretty similar. As I started to read book after book after book and went obsessively through lists of traits, I didn’t initially think “this means that I’m autistic”, rather, I thought “My normal life seems to be described by this word autism.” What the autism books were describing were things I regarded as commonplace, normal, ordinary. I didn’t go round asking people whether they cut labels out of clothes – it’s had always been such a normal part of life that I assumed everyone did it. I didn’t ask people whether they went home and rocked back and forth on their sofas because I just figured they did once they were on their own. I assumed everyone scripted their conversations and practised them over and over. I assumed everyone who ate pastries with their fingers got a crawling feeling from the grease and a desperate urge to wash their hands. I assumed it was normal to get back into the car feeling exhausted and nauseous after going shopping. And I assumed that everyone else also ended up sick, tearful and exhausted if they stayed away from home for more than a couple of nights. Because these things were my normal and always had been. Pretty much everything in the autism books was describing my very ordinary unexceptional life.

One of my initial responses to this was to be somewhat bemused that many of what had been considered my quirks and eccentricities were being described and claimed by this thing called autism. Which led to me exclaiming to a friend on one occasion:

Autism nicked my schizzle!!!!!

(I have a way with words from time to time)

And it really did (and still does) feel like that. For 4 decades I regarded myself as perhaps quirky and eccentric (there was no denying that I wasn’t totally “conventional”) but basically just absolutely ordinary. I imagined that other people perceived the world in the same way I did because I didn’t know any different, and I put any differences in their behaviour down to the fact that they were keeping quiet about their struggles, just as I was, and the notion that they were all just stronger than me and could cope with these things better than I could.

This is, of course, one of the reasons it took me so long to discover that I am autistic – only when I got to the point where I couldn’t sustain the act, and some of my more extreme autistic behaviours emerged rather dramatically and regularly in front of other people, was the subject actually broached.

And I still feel that a large part of the discovery is actually not discovering what I’m like, because I already knew that, but discovering that there’s a whole load of people out there who perceive the world differently from me. People who wear scratchy clothes and don’t notice, who naturally sit still on sofas, who have easy spontaneous conversations they haven’t rehearsed, who don’t think eating croissants with a fork is much more comfortable, who just go shopping and feel pretty much the same when they leave the shop as when they go in, and who can go away from home and live communally for a week without ending up sick or in tears of exhaustion or rage!

This is mind blowing! All this time. All these people. Just living in the world. Going about their business. And experiencing the world in a rather different way from me. Not needing to take days to recover from things. No wonder they can do jobs and achieve so much where I can’t. They’re not stronger than me after all. I’m not as weak as I thought I was. I just perceive the world in a different way from most people. My normal isn’t as normal as I thought. After 4 decades I’ve discovered my normal is actually something slightly different from most people’s!

It’s quite a discovery to have made! I’m still somewhat astonished by it all!