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.

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.

An Event

I sit at the back, in the corner,
Quietly rolling the ball on my fidget cube
While my leg moves, involuntarily,
Hardly noticed by me.
Maybe I rock?
I can’t remember.
Since I stopped actively preventing what feels so natural
I am not always conscious of it,
Just like I do not always observe my breathing.

The parquet floor reminds me of years
Spent in public buildings.
I adore this pattern and its pleasing geometry.
It calms me.

They read poems, the poets, proper poets.
The theme of the evening – mental health.
Bipolar disorder all over the place.
I almost wonder if anyone in the room has not experienced
That wild fluctuations in mood and behaviour
That so many of us do.

My own system is on high alert.
It has been for hours.
I nearly didn’t make it.
Mid afternoon I felt so anxious, so unable to cope,
That I thought my entire being would shatter into a million pieces from the strain…
Like the glass panel in our sitting room did, ending up like crazy paving.
But 15 minutes beating my head against a cushion
Helped.

I sit, my legs now folded up beneath me, playing with my hair.
Machinery from the coffee shop behind me a persistent aural backdrop.
Traffic noise, horns, bicycle bells, the sound of footsteps in the street below.
British history books in my line of vision.

And words. Surrounded by words
(Not just the ones in the books,
But the loud ones, in the air).
I know I have to listen and make pictures from these words
Because there are no subtitles at a live poetry reading.
Maybe I should have acquired books of the poems at the start.
Never thought of that.

They speak well.
This is all good stuff. Mental health awareness.
Yes yes yes. It is. This is right.
So much of my own experience described.
These people know. They talk sense.
And it’s like they have been inside my crumbling head…
They have taken the same medications, felt those same effects.
I relate to what is said, even though I cannot say.
I would contribute, but my words are drying up.
There is open mic
(But no actual mic – so open air?
But we are indoors. Oh confusion!).
I stay silent. I am not a poet.
I leave the poeting to the poets
And the writing to the writers.
I am a foreigner in this world.

Afterwards, people chat.
I feel it, the heat, the familiar nearly nausea, as the sound of talking starts to overload my system.
The beads of sweat start to trickle down my back, just like they do every time I go shopping.
I retreat round the corner
And focus on the Russian history books.
Ivan the Terrible, Catherine the Great, Peter the Great.
Romanovs, Rasputin.
Trotsky, Lenin, Stalin.
Gorbachev, Putin, Litvinenko.
I am bizarrely fascinated by Russia
So this is a good place to be.
I covet a thick volume on Rasputin.

My husband finds where I am hidden.
I hug the poets, friends of mine, known online for years, some only just met in person.
All I can tell them is “Yes, all the things, yes…”
Or something like that.
I hope they understood what I meant.

As we get into the car I speculate that folk didn’t seem to mind me being there.
He makes some comment about me being the person in the dark glasses.
I had totally forgotten I was even wearing them.
I’m so used to that part now!

By the time we get home making words is difficult.
Exhaustion engulfs me.

But I did it.
Gradually working out
How to be in the world again.

But in this new life I am going out there as myself,
No longer pretending to be someone else. The act is gone.
It is all new.

Takes time
To adjust.

Speech Levels

During the days following my first autism assessment, the one that went terribly wrong and during which I was declared “too articulate” to be autistic, I did quite a bit of googling of various things in an attempt to establish whether I really was simply going crazy. I found something posted on a forum somewhere, I can’t remember where, about autism and speech. The person who’d written it described how their speech varied and assigned different speech capabilities “levels” from 1-4. Much of what they’d written aligned with my own experience, and it helped me to understand my speech capabilities and how they work.

I have since thought about this quite a lot and have eventually come to the conclusion that I have 5 main levels of speech. I have very little control over which level I’m actually at, and if I try to force speech when it isn’t there it can make me feel really very unwell – these days, now I know what’s going on, I force it less and less, just accepting that my speech isn’t always as it might be expected to be – it’s no big deal, and just allowing it to be as it is (or, indeed, isn’t) is actually starting to allow my health to improve somewhat, even though it makes things a bit more awkward socially.

Interestingly, my husband has always said that when I’m ill or tired or really low and depressed my speech becomes monotone, so I evidently have noticeable speech difference even just in tone of voice at these times, especially once I’m home in a safe environment and not deliberately trying to inflect my voice in the way that I know I should from years of conscious learning. The assessor who diagnosed me as autistic also picked up on the fact that I don’t have the sort of variability in vocal modulation that might be expected – and my range of vocal expressiveness is much more formulaic and limited than most people’s. I, of course, had never noticed this, since my normal has always been my normal!

So, what are my five levels of speech?

Level 1
Fluent easy speech. As far as I know, this level of speech would appear totally typical from the outside and nobody would guess I had any speech issues at all (except, maybe, that I might appear exceedingly confident and dominate the conversation). It feels natural and not difficult and doesn’t use much energy. It might, I suspect, occasionally be a bit too fast, loud, or intense (this, I have been told by others, and I have always linked to the hypomanic phases of bipolar disorder in the past), and it’s more the sort of speech that I use when recounting a story, giving a lecture, or telling someone about something that’s already formed in my head or about which I am knowledgeable and confident. It hardly ever happens if there is interaction with anyone else, and it can be disrupted very easily if anyone stops me, interrupts me, or asks me a question. But the words flow just fine and it doesn’t feel difficult or use a lot of conscious energy.

Level 2
Fluent difficult speech. To the outside observer, I expect this level of speech appears exactly the same as does that of level 1, and, again, nobody would guess I had any issues at all. However, once interaction with someone else happens and I have to listen and interpret as well as talk, or I’m forced to start improvising and talking about something I hadn’t prepared for, from the inside it feels like much much harder work. Being able to continue to sound fluent and remembering to inflect my voice and use the right sort of language and so on is extremely tiring. Once I start to tire I’ll often get quieter and contribute to the conversation less. This is the sort of conversation that feels very different from the inside, but gives very little away to the outside observer. It’s probably formed the majority of my interactions with other humans over my lifetime, and although it serves me well socially and gives me quite good abilities in many ways it often makes me feel dizzy and sick, and if combined with sensory overload can often lead to meltdown if I try to maintain it for too long. It can leave me utterly exhausted, and the effort of producing it often means I need a full day to recover from the exertion of a fairly ordinary social occasion.

Level 3
Idiosyncratic speech. This is still good enough that I can communicate effectively, but, moving from level 2 there would be a number of slight oddities that could be noticed from outside. My word order sometimes gets mixed up (I can hear it as it emerges), and I start to substitute words for more readily accessible ones – I might, for example, be unable to think of the term “extremely bad” and say “very very very not good” instead, simplifying vocabulary. I’ll also simplify my tense structure somewhat. I’ve spoken like this within my own home and to close friends for years, but have usually tried to maintain level 2 out in public. At this level I also often leave out words such as “please” and “thank you”, because I am using speech purely for communication and someone like my husband knows that they are meant and I don’t need to use the extra energy to say them. My best friend informs me that he has heard many examples of this sort of speech over the last couple of decades. It has always simply been taken to be me being a bit eccentric or quirky, or even as some sort of humour. It is easier than maintaining level 2 though, and once I get to a certain stage in any sort of public conversation I will, again, simply be quiet.

Level 4
Fragmented speech. At this point it’s fairly certain I’ll eventually lose speech completely, but I CAN still talk, albeit in a way that is unmistakably atypical. I can use single syllable words, or sometimes ones with two syllables (but slowly). I will usually give up worrying about tenses, and there will be no noticeable sentences. It is the most basic spoken communication, but it’s sufficient for me to say, for example “drink” to someone and to get a drink. It is, however, really really effortful. Each syllable has to be deliberately constructed, consciously and with great care, as if learning a brand new foreign language. It feels like there is some sort of faulty connection in my head, and that connection is failing. If I need to communicate anything other than the most basic information at this point I will be typing on my phone and the person with whom I’m communicating will need to read what I’ve typed to really understand what I’m trying to tell them.

Level 5
No speech. This is when the words are gone. Just gone. If I open my mouth and try to make words, I cannot. It’s not a choice. It’s not even, like in levels 2 and 3 above, a strategy to maintain my energy levels. I can still make sounds. I can still hum tunes (wordlessly). But I cannot produce speech. It’s as though the connection between my brain and my mouth has been unplugged. I can usually still type perfectly coherent language (there is a disintegration of typing language sometimes, but it is much rarer) and all my communication will be by facebook message or typing into my phone or some similar method. However, even when I cannot speak at all and am totally mute, I can usually understand what is going on around me just as well as I can when my speech is at level 1. There is no loss of thoughts in my brain, no issue with being able to formulate arguments or learn or think or anything else. The thoughts are all there – I just cannot articulate them via my mouth. “No speech” is very much not the same thing as “no thoughts” and unless I am so deeply shutdown or in the midst of a meltdown or other crisis, I will be absolutely aware of what is going on around me – just not able to respond with speech.

So my speech varies between “articulate” and “nonverbal”. It’s not as simple as an either/or, but is a sliding scale, and I move between the levels fairly often, depending upon my level of tiredness, my mood, my circumstances, who I’m talking to, and what the sensory environment is. Most of this movement is beyond my control – if my words start to fragment and depart there is nothing I can do about it. I have, in the past, maintained level 2 rather heavily as part of my mask – the price for doing so is quite sizeable and leads to situations such as that described in Sudden Illness. It also results in the immense exhaustion I’ve felt over the years, and I’ve found that just allowing myself not to worry about speech and to let it ebb and flow as it naturally does has already helped my health and energy levels enormously. There is a sense of inner peace I get once the words completely go, a sense of calm, recharging, and stopping fighting.

In the past I didn’t know why, but I knew that once the socialising had finished, once I stopped trying to talk to people, once I went home from the restaurant after an evening sitting outside on the pavement, shaking and feeling terribly ill, once everyone else had gone home and it was just me, I breathed a sigh of relief and started to feel better. I always got a certain feeling, one that I’m still struggling to describe, but I can identify very easily, once I was alone and starting to feel better. It’s only recently, as I’ve been seriously experimenting with trying to speak, that I realise that is the feeling of speech being gone. Maybe one day I’ll be able to describe it a little better.

As I said in the previous post, this is still something I’m trying to analyse and to figure out. I’m still working on how I communicate to the rest of the world that speech is often either very hard work and requires intense concentration or is not possible at all. The amount of time I spend at each of the five levels I’ve outlined above is still fluctuating as I continue to adapt to my changed life and as I continue to recover, slowly, from the burnout that was already starting around a year ago. This is very much an ongoing process for me.

Also Remember

Sometimes I am too tired
And cannot always
Summon up
The energy
To release
The tension
By moving
Rocking
Bashing.

Sometimes it doesn’t quite work
And the safe strategies
Will tip over
Into less safe ones
And I want to hit my legs
And tear my skin
Because I need more
Than movement alone
And safe bashing
Can provide.

But I must also remember
I have a heavy weighted blanket.
Over eight kilogrammes
Of reassuring pressure
That I can place over me

And when I return
From the third day out in a week
Exhausted,
Unsettled,
Desperate to feel better
Somehow.

I can crawl under my blanket
And feel calmer
And better
Anxiety subsiding
Nausea retreating
The urge to hit myself
Disappearing

And I am still
And calm

Grounded
Reassured.

Must Remember

The anxiety
Huge.

The feelings
Wrong.

Me,
Wishing there was some magic solution.

How do I stop feeling
So terribly out of balance,
So terribly wrong.

So I listen
Really listen
To my body

And the answer
Comes

I know it
As soon as I just give in,
Listen,
Forget what might appear right
To the outside world.

So I bash myself against the sofa
All of me
Over and over and over
Rocking
Hitting
Safely

Not playing with a toy
Not gently rocking
But stimming
Hard

Just giving in
To what feels right

The sort of thing
I don’t see discussed often.

Beating my back and head against the cushions

It is beautiful

And I start to feel better,
Calmer,
Happier,
More right.

Finally relaxing.

I really must remember this.

It is important.

Part of my life.

And I am still startled
By how strong the need
And how powerful the effect

And just how natural it feels.

Totally right.

One day I will try to study it
And explain
Properly

But for now
I simply do what feels right
What is evidently hardwired in to me somehow

Because I can
And it makes me feel
Better.

Out Walking

It is bright
Even through my darkest sunglasses.
Blossom scattered on the ground.
Curtains in windows uneven.
The chipped edges of the paving.
And leaves, each one defined.

It is loud
Even in the quiet part of the day.
Birds screaming a constant barrage of noise.
My handbag strap squeaking.
Construction site out of view but loud.
Car engines approach from either side.

It is strong
Even though I’m used to smells and feels.
Something flowering, overpowering scent.
Tobacco smoke from someone unseen.
Trouser seams rubbing on my legs.
The wind, assaulting my skin all over.

It is scary
Even though I am not in danger.
My heart pounds, but not from exercise.
A man with a dog, I’m instantly nervous.
I focus on walking, moving forward.
Until I reach the safety of home again.