Sheet Problems

Many of our sheets are
Still missing after the move
Many are old
And wearing out…

So I bought a new one.

I washed it
As I do with all new things
Because new things
Never feel right
Or smell right
Unless they have been
Washed in the usual stuff

(My mother once washed
My bedding
In a different sort
Of powder
When I was a child
And I couldn’t sleep
Because it smelled
So wrong).

I put the new sheet
Onto our bed
Yesterday.
I knew it was wrong
The instant I got into bed…

Scratch scratch scratch.

Scratch scratch scratch.

Scratch scratch scratch.

I feel now
As though I have spent the night
Sleeping on sandpaper.
I feel as though my skin
Must be red raw
From the experience.

I know it isn’t,
Logically.
And, as always,
Any outside observer
Would simply tell me
They couldn’t see anything
And not understand
The problem.

(My spouse has had
Years of me complaining
About wrinkles
In the sheets
And things not feeling
“Right”
While he is unable
To feel what is wrong).

So I am about to get up
Much earlier than usual
Because I cannot lie
On this sandpaper bed
Any longer.

And I will be changing the sheet
Again.
More energy used.
More washing.
Another failed thing
To add to the detritus
In our flat
Another waste of money
I don’t have.
Something else
I will struggle to throw away
Because I will feel sorry for it
And guilty that I didn’t love it.

Maybe the animals will enjoy it as bedding?

But, as my spouse said to me
At least we now know
There’s a reason that I
Complain about the sheets.

So that’s something.

But I still need a new sheet.

Which means shopping
In shops
Which is hard.
And the sheets are all in packets
So I can’t feel them first.

Or buying online
Where I also have to guess
Whether the sheet
Will be a good one.

(And, of course,
The good ones are more likely
To be the expensive ones
Which I can’t afford).

You’d think
That buying a new sheet
Would be something
Quite simple to do.

Not in my world it isn’t!

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On The Sofa

Legs rocking,
Foot hitting the sofa back
Over and over again.
As usual.

Moving my wine
From hand to hand
So I can flap each hand
Even numbers of times.
Ah. Flapping. Happy.

Flicking my fingers
And waggling them
Fast.
Flick flick flick.

Occasional noises.
Just sounds.
Tonight a
“Nya”
Sound.
For no reason.

Wrinkling my nose
Which is my newest stim
Only a week old.
I don’t know where it came from
But it is.
So I go with it.
Wrinkle. Wrinkle.
Feels good.

Twisting my hair.
Allowed.
Picking my scalp
No no no!
Trying to let it heal enough
To dye my hair.

I rub my face instead.
Distraction.

Rock, hit, flap
Flick, waggle, sound
Wrinkle, twist, rub.

Just a normal evening.

Stimming.

A Silly Tale

My Executive is not functioning
Their suit is creased,
They cannot find their papers
And their briefcase
Is full of ash.

The ash is from my burnout
And it spills all over the office
In great clouds,
Covering everything
In a fine dust
That will take some time
To clean up.

In the meantime
My constant hand flapping
Is spreading the ash still further
And it reflects the light
Coming in from the windows
And makes stimmy patterns
In the air.

When the ash settles on the desk
I like to run my fingers through it
And make circles in it
And then wash my hands
Because it feels a bit weird
On my skin.
Sand is nicer to play with.

My Words keep going AWOL
But they never leave a forwarding address
They just disappear.
I think they go off for a holiday
Sometimes.
Or perhaps they’re just down the pub
Enjoying a few pints
And a pie and chips.

Maybe that’s why my Diagnosis
Was so late.
It was sitting in the pub
For 45 years
Eating pies and drinking beer
And because it has such
Severe
Time agnosia
It didn’t realise that it had missed
The last train.

Although it finds trains
Rather stressful anyway.
And leaving the pub
Would have meant change,
Doing something different.
So maybe
It just gave in to
The inertia.

And, of course
Because everybody has such poor
Communication skills
Nobody was able to tell anybody
Where it was.

And night after night
My Executive got home
And ate the same takeaway for dinner
Every night.
Because even before the burnout
They couldn’t function very well
And needed their friend Routine
Who liked to have the same thing
Every night for dinner anyway.
And keeping Routine happy
Was always good.

Mask bullied my Executive
And tried to make them function properly
And told Routine to stop being so stupid.

Mask was an annoying tit.
Irritating and itchy,
No matter how many labels I cut out of it.
It looked good though
Everybody told me so.

But it got too warm.
Overheated.
It kept trying to keep the Words
At home
But they kept slipping out
The back door
And vanishing.

Then things started to melt
At the edges
Senses went a bit haywire
And there were explosions
And people started to notice.

My Executive stopped coming home some nights
And stayed at the office
To keep cool
And avoid the bullying.
Routine gave up eating
And sat in the corner
Rocking hard and hitting themself and tearing their skin.

And then when the Words got home
After a night on the town
They told me that my Diagnosis
Had been seen in the pub
And that closing time
Was fast approaching.
Last orders had been declared.

When my Executive
Returned from the office the next evening
They found Routine crying in the garden,
Clutching a fidget cube and a furry tangle.
My Words explained what had happened
By typing into an iThing.

Mask had got too hot.
Way too hot.
Melting down had increased
No time to cool.
Mask had cracked in the heat and would no longer stay on.

Sparks, flames, and total burnout.
Explosions so loud that ear defenders were needed.
Piles of smouldering ash everywhere,
Which my Executive tried to put into their briefcase,
Though they didn’t help with functioning
And eventually made a mess in the office.

But just as all seemed lost,
My Diagnosis finally got back from the pub
With an official Report
(And a kebab).

Mask should never have been worn for that long
Masks when worn for long periods
Can overheat
And are a burnout risk.
Safety procedures had not been followed.

Report said that
Routine needed care and love,
My Words should be allowed to come and go as they liked.
My Executive needed an assistant to function
(And would also have to sweep up the burnout ash,
Which could take a while).

Diagnosis explained that communication was hard
For everybody
And that Report had said so.

And everybody finally understood
What had been going on
And jumped up and down to celebrate.

Diagnosis was a bit drunk by now
So they went on the Internet
And ordered loads of spinners and toys and pretty lights
And everybody settled down
Under their weighted blankets
To recover from the events.

And they ate kebabs every night for months.
Because they always ate kebabs.
Because Routine liked them.

Lost Day

I woke early, feeling exhausted, and not a proper sort of sleepy exhausted, but an odd sort of depleted exhausted, like all the energy had drained out of me somehow and I could hardly move. I could hear birds, very very loud birds, wood pigeon calls burning the insides of my ears.

I knew I had to be somewhere today. I knew also that getting there would be difficult. I looked at the schedule for the rest of the week, which I had photographed and saved on my phone. I tried to work out what I might be able to skip without causing too much inconvenience or annoyance. My head wouldn’t think very well, so I started to try to type into my phone:

If this were real life and I’m at sensory levels of now and tiredness. Would be schedule looking.

This was how the language emerged from my finger. I knew it was wrong and that it needed editing. And I also know that when WRITTEN language becomes difficult and starts to go wrong in that way, that I’m heading into shutdown. This is something I’m starting to learn, now that I’m actually observing myself with some knowledge, rather than just declaring myself “ill” or declaring that “my head went wrong” as I have done in the past.

I attempted to speak. There was nothing. No surprise there. If the written words are starting to go wrong then the spoken ones are almost certainly non-existent.

It was still early. I still had to get a message to the outside world that I wasn’t going to be where I was expected to be. The best I could do was to message my husband a few words and hope he could interpret what I was trying to say in order to convey some sort of message to those who needed to know that I wouldn’t be appearing for rehearsals this morning. He received the following messages:

Fail now. Is. Words. Morning. Not.

Now. Schubert. Prob. Can’t.

Tell.

Write hard. Speak not. Food not. Later.

And because he has long experience of such communications, he was perfectly able to send a message saying that I wasn’t able to get to the Schubert rehearsal and had asked him to pass on the message and that I didn’t need food and wouldn’t be able to communicate for a while.

At some point during the morning someone brought me a cup of tea and left it outside my tent. I was unable to respond, unable to move from where I was curled up under the duvet, unable to do anything at all for a while. This is all absolutely normal for me at such times, which have been happening since my early childhood. My mother observed the behaviour, still remembers it well, going right back into my early childhood, and even had a word for it, zonking, which I mentioned in Losing The Words.

Having successfully conveyed a message of sorts to the outside world, my brain then simply closed off. I slept a bit. I lay there staring at the side of the tent, a bit of plain fabric being as much visual input as I could take. I didn’t move. I couldn’t move. I don’t usually remember much from these times, just a feeling of being utterly drained, no energy at all, and something like a deep depression, not being able to form thoughts properly, no ability to translate things into words, nothing. My head is simply closed for business and my body follows it. There is nothing to do at that point except wait – it’s like some sort of reset is required before my overstimulated and exhausted brain will function properly again. I don’t respond, I don’t communicate, I just lie there and breathe, nothing more.

After a few hours I regained the ability to type and to form words and typed some of the thoughts that had by then started to emerge from my head into the notes app on my phone. Having established that I could once again produce proper typed sentences, I was then able to contact the outside world by facebook without my husband having to make the sentence structure for me. It was lunchtime. I was aware that I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything all morning (and couldn’t have – something else my mother had observed about zonking was that food was an absolute no during those times, and when I have attempted to eat or to keep functioning I have simply ended up physically sick and it’s been assumed I had some sort of bug or similar).

Somebody brought food and left it outside my tent. I was unable to thank them except online, but was able to eat by mid-afternoon, and was, it seemed, by this stage, quite hungry – even though I didn’t feel any sort of hungry, once I started to eat it was obvious that I was.

It took another couple of hours for the shutdown to be properly over and a further hour for spoken words to fully return. Although I can’t always tell when I’m going IN to shutdown, or that that’s what it is (though I am getting better at recognizing it as I’m learning), it’s really obvious when I’m emerging because I start to stim again, I start to rock and to move and get back to what for me is “normal”, a state of dynamic equilibrium as I like to think of it. For me, being still either means I am masking furiously and working hard to stay still, or I am ill and in shutdown, or I am asleep, or, occasionally, that I am relaxed under a weighted blanket or completely immersed in something or similar. The rest of the time I move, and that movement restarting is always a good sign – it’s the feeling that you didn’t know something was wrong until it was solved, and the minute it’s solved it was obvious how wrong it was before!

My sensory system remained on high alert for the rest of the day – I managed to go and sit in the audience to hear some of my friends singing and playing music, but used earplugs against the applause and was deeply grateful to a friend who asked others to move away from me to give me some space during the performance.

By mid-evening I was able to drive home, where my husband had “the food” (whatever I’m currently eating we call “the food” – I have cyclic obsessions with food where I eat the same thing every day for months, and always have done) ready and waiting for me, and I spent the evening doing all the familiar routines and being with the animals and recharging properly ready for the next day.

But what should have been a day participating was basically lost to a massive shutdown, and there was nothing I could do about it. I would have liked to have been in the rehearsals that morning. I would have liked to go to tea that day. I would have liked to join in the celebratory feasting and dancing (although I knew that the feasting would have been a non-starter anyway and I’d have been eating alone somewhere quiet), but I couldn’t.

But at least I know what causes these times now, and I have a word for them, shutdown, which makes sense to me and enables me to understand what’s going on. At least I have people who are willing to understand it too and to bring me food and so on and to help me out when it happens. And I know that I’m not getting some sort of illness (as has been suspected on many occasions in the past) and that I will feel better in a few hours’ time – I just need to wait, to be on my own, and to have as little input into my system as possible.

Last year, when the same thing happened, all I knew was that I felt inexplicably awful and couldn’t even tell anyone how or why. I spent a night silently crying in my tent in the dark, without food or help, with nobody even knowing where I was because I’d lost all ability to communicate and wasn’t even able to type a message to my husband. And short of “something mental health related or maybe a virus”, I had no idea why I was like that.

This year wasn’t ideal. It’s not really how I want to live my life, missing out on good times, having to skip rehearsals, having to sit on my own because my system can’t cope with much social interaction or noise, and so on. But it is better than the distress of previous years, than the anguish of desperately trying to function, trying to make things work, having to call in with some “unknown illness”, making myself worse by continuing to try to speak or function as I “should”.

I don’t like having to live this “half life”, which is what it feels like. But knowing why these things happen means I’m much less self-blaming, much kinder to myself, gentler to myself. And simply allowing the inevitable shutdown to run its course and not trying to push myself out of it means that I actually recover more quickly and am generally healthier as a result. Maybe once I’m more fully recovered from the recent burnout I’ll be able to do a bit more – I do hope so.

It does still all feel very much like a work in progress still. I have my answer as to why these things happen to me, but I now have to work out the best way to live, which I haven’t quite managed yet.

Packing

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

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

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

I digress

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

But

I got it.

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

Two words
Describe it
Perfectly for me

Supportive
And
Traumatic

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

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

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

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

Unsettling support
And
Reassuring trauma.

Where all the feelings get intermingled.

And the routine
Is simultaneously
Comforting and constraining.

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

But I am drawn back

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now the place is imbued
With heavy significance.

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

The question hurts my brain.

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

That makes me too vulnerable.

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

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

It is all too big.

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

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

Even the packing is a challenge
Right now!

Doing My Best

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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