Very Very Tired

Imagine…

You ran a marathon yesterday
Or had a big meeting at work
Or took a difficult exam
Or moved house
Or finished a huge assignment
Or travelled a long long way
Or dealt with a family emergency
Or been to a large all night party

Or something else similar…

These are big things.

You might expect
To be
Very
Very
Tired.

And today you would need to rest.

In my autistic world
I know that if…

I went out of my flat yesterday
Or spoke to several people
Or had to sit still for a while
Or encountered harsh lighting
Or chatted for a few hours
Or had to wear particular clothes
Or sent a few e-mails
Or gone for lunch with friends

Or something else similar…

These would be big things.

I would expect
To be
Very
Very
Tired.

And today I would need to rest.

For years
People have asked me
“Why are you so tired?”
“What have you been doing?”

Until I knew I was autistic
I could only say
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t understand.”

I was just as baffled
As everyone else!

I know now
That
For me
As an autistic person

The cause of this
Utter
Debilitating
Exhaustion

Is simply
Existing.

Existing in a world
Where people communicate
Constantly
By talking.
Instinctive to many
But an effort for me.

Existing in a world
Where the input to my brain
From my senses
Is massive
And overloads my system
Until I can no longer cope.

Existing in a world
Where people sit on chairs
And care about appearances
And follow secret rules
That nobody told me.

It takes a lot of effort!

Strategy Deployment

Yesterday I went out again, to something social, where I met quite a lot of people, and where I was out of the house for quite a lot of hours. I went to an afternoon symposium, a series of lectures, then to dinner, once again in my old college.

I employed similar planning strategies to those described in Out to Dinner: a couple of days’ rest beforehand, comfortable clothes, stim toys, dark glasses, and plans for an easy couple of days afterwards so I knew that I could take my energy levels into the red zone if necessary because once I was home I didn’t have to do anything at all except breathe (and that’s something that usually happens without my having to think about it).

Additionally I took some attenuating ear plugs (originally bought for potential use in noisy orchestras and recently discovered in a pile of stuff) and my recently acquired ear defenders, just in case I found a way that I could usefully use them.

It was an interesting afternoon and evening in many ways. It was interesting in the ordinary way in that I learnt some stuff from each of the lectures. I also saw several people I hadn’t seen for a few years, and some others I’ve seen more recently, and it was good to catch up with them. And, of course, it provided me with an opportunity to continue analyzing what I can cope with when I’m out in the world, and what I can’t.

Apart from the dark glasses and slightly more casual clothes than was the norm, the first thing that might have been described as slightly out of the ordinary behaviour was the way I sat during the lectures. I took my boots off and sat with my feet tucked under me, my legs up close to my body, in various formations throughout the afternoon. I nearly always sit, by choice, in some variant of this position.

Very interestingly, I went to a similar symposium in that very same lecture theatre a couple of years ago. I remembered sitting in exactly the same way. I wasn’t wearing dark glasses, but my clothes were still slightly more casual and I sat with my feet tucked up under me in the same way. And that was years before I knew anything about autism, about the beneficial effects of “pressure stimming” (I still have a whole blog post to write about that stuff sometime), and before I realized that I was doing something, perhaps a bit socially out of the ordinary, because that was something that my body needed to do in order to feel OK.

(As an aside, I made no other adaptions on that occasion a few years ago – and I remember it being one of the nights that I woke up in the small hours afterwards feeling sick, shaky and very very wrong – that was always the norm for me after such events. Now things are changing.)

My first real break with “doing what everyone else was doing” was at the tea break between sessions. I used the strategy that I’m now getting used to during the breaks of orchestral rehearsals – get myself a cup of tea then get out of the room with the voices and the noise and the crowds of people as quickly as possible. I went to stand outside in the quadrangle. I was joined by a friend (the one mentioned in the first sentence of Out to Dinner), who gave me a biscuit (a good idea, since I hadn’t yet managed to eat) and asked whether I was OK with him being there or whether I needed to be alone. Since I’m comfortable with him and he knows what’s going on in my life I was happy for him to stay. It wasn’t difficult out in the cool air away from the artificial lights and the noise of too many voices.

When we went back for the second session I knew that my senses were already beginning to tire as the sounds of the voices of those speaking seemed much much louder than they had done during the first session. I decided to try the earplugs. They helped. And not only did they help with reducing the volume of the speaker’s voice to a manageable level, but they really really helped with one of the most painful noises of all – applause. I’m now trying to work out whether there’s any way I can use them in concerts, because applause is a sound that I’ve always found, at best, unpleasant, and at worst, really very painful.

I also felt perfectly justified in wearing something in my ears to alter my hearing perception because there were several in the audience also wearing things in their ears – though they were trying to enhance their hearing and I was trying to reduce mine!

Interestingly, I also looked round to see what other people were doing in terms of stimming. I noticed someone rubbing their hands, someone playing with a pen, and someone jiggling their legs and playing with the hem of their trousers! I’m noticing all these things much more nowadays (again, there’s a whole blog post to be written about this – I have so many things I want to write about, but I can’t make all the words at once)!

After the second session there was a drinks reception in a very reverberant space. I stayed for only a few minutes because I knew it was seriously overtaxing my system. I left everyone else to it and went outside and sat on a step, rocking, in the twilight (and the freezing cold – really should have taken a coat) and put my ear defenders on. I was there for maybe half an hour until the cold got the better of me and I ventured back inside, still wearing my ear defenders, and eventually found a couple of friends and we headed off to dinner.

That time alone, cutting the world out, making everything as silent as possible (not completely silent, but significantly better), and stopping all interaction or worrying about sitting still, really really helped. I would have liked to be at the reception. I would have liked to have been drinking wine instead of elderflower fizzy stuff, I would have liked to be networking, chatting to friends, catching up with everyone, looking at the exhibits and so on, but I am learning that this is the sort of thing that I need to ration very very heavily in order to be able to stay well. This is one of the ways in which I am, perhaps, most disabled – I cannot take part in events such as noisy drinks receptions for any length of time unless I accept that it will have a seriously negative impact upon my health. I have long known that parties and so on tire me beyond belief and cause me to become seriously unwell afterwards – I do at least now know why and I can start to control things a bit.

Refreshed from my “time out”, I was then able to go into dinner, chat to people around me with some confidence, and to spend an evening in the Common Room, which actually turned out even to be enjoyable. My best friend ensured I was sitting in a reasonably advantageous position at dinner (as close to a corner as possible to avoid sensory input from all directions), I took care not to over eat, as before, and later, when I started to feel slightly dizzy and unable to comprehend words while standing and increasingly failing to take part in a group conversation, I went to sit down. I’ve also discovered that I find conversation much easier when I’m seated – If I’m not using energy to stand then I have more available to be able to convert thoughts to words!

So this week’s “event” went well. It was also easier than previous times doing similar things have been. I suspect this is partly because I’m starting to see a bit of recovery from burnout, partly because I have a new-found confidence following my diagnosis (more on that in a future post), and partly because I’m learning what strategies work to help me get through such an event without ending up sick for days afterwards.

Admittedly, I had to adapt my behaviour quite considerably yesterday, I didn’t get out of bed until after 2pm today, and I wouldn’t have been able to hold much of a conversation this morning (I tried a little speech earlier but it was really hard work and since I’m here alone I didn’t even bother using that amount of energy for anything more than experimental purposes), but it’s progress. It’s working out how I can best function in the world and get the most possible out of life without destroying myself in the process!

Looking at Eyes

I was chatting on Facebook messenger with a friend of mine. We’ve been friends around 5 years, and she is probably, after my husband and best friend, the person I see most regularly in real life.

“So what colour are my eyes then?” she asked.

I paused for a moment, thought about her hair, which she dyes dark red, and it seems to match her skin, so I guess that before she dyed it it must have been dark. “Brown!” I respond.

“Er, no, they’re blue actually.”

She then asked me about the eyes of a mutual friend who I also see quite a lot in real life. Even darker dyed hair. I was confident about this one. Much more obvious. “Definitely brown,” I said.

“Nope, wrong again, she’s another like me with dark hair and blue eyes, except that hers are greyer than mine.”

I really wasn’t very good at this eye colour game. So far 0/2 on the eye colour score!

“Her mouth wiggles a bit at the corner sometimes and your teeth point inwards,” I proffered, in an attempt to show that my observation skills weren’t completely up the spout and I hadn’t been ignoring my friends for the last 5 years!

She laughed! And told me that this was further proof of her observation that even before I had the slightest clue that I was autistic my eye contact skills were, at best, somewhat idiosyncratic!

***

I was in the kitchen with my best friend. He asked me if I knew what colour the eyes of a mutual friend of ours were.

I thought about it. Our mutual friend has grey hair. I think it might have been dark when he was younger. Somehow I couldn’t quite imagine what colour eyes he might have though.

I admitted I didn’t know, and that if someone really needed that information from me then the only way I could supply it would be by looking at a photograph.

***

I mentioned eye contact in an earlier blog post. A discussion ensued on my Facebook wall. Somebody I went to school with between the ages of 13 and 18 commented on the discussion. She clearly stated that she remembered that whenever she looked at me I would look away very very fast. She said she thought at the time it was something that “clever people did.”

***

My husband says that when I do look in his direction I then don’t look away when most people would. He says it’s as if I point my eyes in that direction and then just forget and leave them there. It always slightly freaks him out!

***

So, it seems that I have been “faking it” as far as eye contact is concerned, probably all my life. I’ve certainly never been able to glean information about the state of a person from their eyes, beyond such things as closed = maybe asleep, or tears = maybe sad or happy. I’ve also observed that even when watching television I don’t look at eyes. I go through my life and think of people I know or have known quite well – relatives, friends, former colleagues. I cannot picture what any of their eyes look like. I know they must have eyes, but I cannot visualise any of them. But I can easily visualise mouths and noses, and, in some cases, ears.

This faking really has been fake. Even when I’ve apparently been looking at eyes, I haven’t taken in any information about them. I cannot picture what my own mother’s eyes look like. Not a hope.

This is still news to me. I wasn’t aware of anything beyond remembering instructions given to me as a child, probably by schoolteachers (I can’t remember) saying “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” So I did as I was told. For the next 40 years.

So why have I been faking it? Why is looking at eyes so weird?

I believe that the schoolteachers probably wanted me to look at them because they thought that it was an indicator that I was paying attention (which it wasn’t – I was, and still am, perfectly capable of paying attention to what someone is saying without looking at them – probably rather better that way in fact). I have also looked at fellow musicians when playing chamber music and so on, and again I think it’s just a sign to people saying “I know you’re there, I’m listening to your part, and I’m paying attention.” It doesn’t actually help me to pay attention, but I know that people think you’re paying more attention if you look at them. It’s a learnt fact and a practised technique. It’s been a large part of the mask. But as far as communication is concerned it’s meaningless to me except to show that I’m paying attention.

And, it seems that while I’ve been faking some sort of approximate eye contact I’ve been using massive amounts of energy to do so (as described in An Experiment) and been pretty much avoiding the real thing whenever possible.

And all this while not even knowing I was autistic. I had no reason to avoid eye contact. Not anything tangible. But I did this fake thing for decades. So it was obviously something that wasn’t quite comfortable for me.

And so recently I’ve tried to describe what actual eye contact (from the few moments it has happened unavoidably and sort of by accident, when I haven’t moved my gaze fast enough) actually feels like to me.

And the best I can come up with is that it feels a bit like being naked in public in front of an audience somewhere very very important and totally overwhelmed in a way I can’t describe, and a bit like being poked with a sharp stick.

Which, when I put it like that, explains perfectly why I’ve faked it all my life and why I will now only even attempt it when absolutely necessary. Eye contact might be some wonderful communicative thing in some people’s worlds, but in my world it’s just rather creepy and uncomfortable.

I’m eccentric, but not “get naked in front of an audience until my brain explodes” and “be poked with a sharp stick” sort of eccentric!

Sensory Reaction

78-2016-12-29-22-16-01An event
Occurred.

I knew
In my brain
That I should react.

But how?

In the past
I would use
Knowledge
To do what
Was expected.

But that was the mask.

So I searched
For real emotion
And found
Blankness.

A few odd tears
Annoyingly blocked nose.

But…

My husband
Speaking normally
Sound levels rocketing.
Quieter quieter quieter,
Please.

Turned the TV down and down
Until it was silent.
Subtitles only.
The sounds of
Electronics
Screaming in my ears.

And the light
Becoming brighter and brighter
A million watts of bulb
Was how it seemed.

Light off.
Lamp off.
The pain of the light from the TV
Until that too extinguished.

I hid my face
Behind a blanket
To shield from the
Reflected light
Of my husband’s laptop.

I had a bath
In almost darkness
With a tiny camping lamp.

Then went to bed.

My head
Totally
Overloaded.

My reaction:
Extreme
Sensory
Sensitivity.

Too Feely

59-2016-12-15-10-49-11Just last week, in my facebook memories, there appeared a status from a year ago. My husband and I had been having a conversation, prompted by something we’d seen on the TV, about how well we slept. I had said at the time that having a husband who pulled the bedsheets and altered their tension or made wrinkles in them was definitely detrimental to good sleeping.

A year ago I didn’t have the first clue I was autistic. I had never heard of sensory processing disorder or any of these sensory sensitivity issues. But I knew, absolutely knew, that one wrinkle in a bed sheet was a disaster! Always had been. Bed sheets should be flat and smooth, with even tension throughout. Anything else was bad. I’ve always been a bit “princess and the pea”ish about where I’ve slept, arranging things so I can’t feel wrinkles, and making sure nothing felt “wrong”!

And it’s not just about bedclothes. Right back to my childhood I remember things that made me very very uncomfortable. I grew up in the 1970s, when polo necked jumpers were very popular – I remember pulling at the necks, trying to make them bigger and looser to stop the feeling that I was being strangled. It was even worse when they were made out of wool and to add to the strangled feeling there was this tearing cutting feeling everywhere it touched my skin, as though I’d fallen into a bramble bush or something. I remember being desperate to have a pair of jeans because they were fashionable, but then feeling utterly terrible when I tried to wear them (this was before lycra and stretch made such things wearable) and they felt like they were cutting me in half at the waist.

I also remember, as a child, being in a school play and having to wear make-up as part of my costume. The teacher put lipstick on me and instantly it felt absolutely horrible. Totally disgusting. I told the teacher this and she told me that I’d understand when I grew up and that grown up women loved lipstick and wore it every day. I had a brief flirtation with the stuff in my teens, but it still felt, and smelled, and tasted, absolutely vile. I think I wore foundation twice, before chucking it in the bin because it made me desperate to wash my face because I felt so horrible and dirty and it smelled so bad. I’m 45 now, and I still haven’t become that grown up woman that the teacher told me I would, and now I know that I never will, and the teacher was wrong.

Another of the “grown up woman” things that I ditched in my 20s was the bra. I can bear to wear a wide strapped sports one for the duration of a run, but while I’m actually running only. If I try to drive home after a race or training run still wearing it then I start to feel sick, the cutting pressure across my back, the feeling of the straps digging in, like someone’s trying to slice my skin open. I haven’t worn a bra in daily life for over 20 years, and I never shall again.

The same is true of anything made out of lace. I developed a certain tolerance as I grew up and things did improve as fabrics became better, but still, when I buy an item of clothing, I FEEL it. I will choose the thing that feels good over the thing that LOOKS good EVERY TIME! I also spend time every morning when I put on my socks, lining up the toe seams so they are symmetrical and perfect. I know there are some people with sensory issues who don’t like to wear socks at all – I am not one of them – the feeling of bare feet on the soles of shoes and sandals is not pleasant for me – I would rather wear socks. I am a person who wears socks with sandals, and I don’t care how many stupid memes tell me it is unfashionable – it is comfortable, and that is way more important.

I also mentioned, in The Discovery, how I cut the labels out of my clothes. I don’t know why people put labels into clothes, but every time I buy something new I take it out of the bag and go over it and remove the labels. I assumed that everyone did this, since it is such a routine and normal part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I then wash it before I wear it because the stiffness of anything that is likely to touch my skin is horrible. I don’t like the scratchy feeling or the way new clothes smell. I am a person who exists most happily in old t-shirts, elasticated-waist jogging bottoms, and fleeces. I can dress up smartly for an evening, and sometimes do, but it is always temporary, and the posh clothes are off the instant I’m back in the door.

I have spent years wondering how people can go to work all day in a dress, with tights, and high heels. I have marvelled at how they endure the pain of wearing a bra day in day out. I have been overwhelmed by their toughness, their resilience, and their fortitude in the face of what must be so devastatingly painful, and I have long known that I could never be like that. I had a job once that required me to wear a suit. I lasted a month. Just getting dressed for work each morning was so traumatic that I was in tears every day before I even left the house. I eventually went off sick from that job and never returned to it.

In the same way that I have to remove labels from clothes, I also feel a need to remove stickers from books. If I’m reading a book and it has a barcode sticker with an ISBN number on the back and I can feel the raised sticker as I hold the book it distracts me from what I’m reading to the extent that I don’t take the information in. Just as with clothes, I get home from a bookshop and remove anything that might interfere with the smooth surface. Where other people might not notice, I do.

And I was astounded to read, in one of the many books I’ve been reading on autism, about the autistic woman who, when kissed by anyone who left a slightly damp patch on her cheek, instantly felt the need to wipe her face. I am exactly the same. There feels something so terribly wrong, like the surface has been disturbed, and I need to straighten it, to stop the feeling of blemish, of cold and wet.

I am also sensitive to what is on my fingers, and, for many years, have washed my hands in such a way that I thought I had some sort of obsessive washing tendencies, but I realise now that the cause of my handwashing antics is actually to do with sensory issues. I cannot BEAR to have sticky or greasy fingers. Given the option I will eat cakes or pastries with a fork to avoid touching them with my hands, and this isn’t, as I’d wondered, a germ-related thing, but the dislike of feeling sticky or dirty. If you see me eat a bag of crisps then I will most likely wipe my hands on my trousers after every single crisp. If I’m in a place where I can, I’ll also get up and wash my hands afterwards. If I’m out, then I will do everything I can to eat a cake from the packet without touching the cake – I’m quite skilful at it. And when I’m in a position when I can’t do any of these things, it uses extra energy, extra resources, and makes me more tired, more likely to go in the direction of meltdown, and so on. I’ve long marvelled at people who seem so unfazed by eating with their hands, or by people who seem, so effortlessly, to put their hands into mixing bowls when baking, or who think gardening is therapeutic, yet it involves touching soil, which is, for me, a very unpleasant sensation.

I’m the same with crockery and cutlery. My husband is quite used to me sending mugs or knives or forks back because they “feel wrong”. He doesn’t have the same sensory issues that I do (if anything, he is undersensitive to such things), but he will wash them again and again, to make them right. I have, on occasion, been home alone and “my mug” has been greasy in the sink and I have spent all day without a cup of tea as a result. This is what happens on my worst days. On days when I have more energy I will steel myself to wash the mug, and then wash my hands afterwards until they’re back to how they should be, and how they feel right.

It’s a constant balancing act, but what’s so extraordinary is that these things have all been part of my life for decades and I’ve never had the faintest idea why.

Until I started reading books about autism and sensory issues!

Bingo!

Too Loud

53-2016-12-29-22-14-42I sat in the masterclass, trying to hear what the teacher was saying to the student, straining my ears against the noise coming from my left. A woman who was sitting a couple of seats away from me was taking notes – with a pencil, and the sound of it scratching on the paper was getting so loud that I could almost hear it drowning out the voice of the teacher. I glanced round the room to see whether anyone else had noticed, but if they had they were giving no indication that they were the slightest bit worried by it.

I’ve noticed that since I’ve been in burnout my sensitivity to noise has increased dramatically and my ability to filter out extraneous sounds has declined substantially. I’ve always had issues with background noise, and usually I’m working really hard to filter out the things that I want to hear from those I don’t – this takes a huge amount of energy and I can only usually do it for a finite amount of time before some sort of meltdown occurs.

Interestingly, the noise in the eating place last summer (see The Discovery) was one of the main contributing factors to my eventually being identified as autistic. Not being able to cope with the noises of food, plates, eating, talking and so on AND then having to eat my own food was one of the big triggers that made me seriously anxious and I ended up figuring that it was so stressful being in that environment that the best thing to do would be just to give up eating while I was there because the whole food experience had become so very difficult. Of course, that wasn’t a great strategy, and explaining my difficulties and being given dispensation to eat somewhere quieter was a rather more realistic approach!

Eating noises in particular are something I find very hard to cope with and, as I’ve seen memes on the internet, I’ve gathered that there’s a name for this – misophonia – which is apparently something else not really recognised by medics. So I have a double problem – I can’t cope with quiet eating situations because the individual noises are too stressing, but I can’t really cope with noisy ones too well either. Catch 22. Maybe I should just accept that communal eating is a jolly unpleasant experience and stay away from it completely? Or maybe a more sensible solution might be to limit it and be aware that it takes extra energy!

But it’s not just eating. We don’t have a separate kitchen at home, just an area at one end of the sitting room. When my husband is cooking, particularly if he’s frying anything, the sound of the stuff in the pan can sometimes quite literally hurt my ears. I also get similar problems with cutlery clanking on plates, or pots and pans being rattled and so on. Even when there’s no cooking going on, I sit there waiting for the fridge to stop making a noise so I can get some peace. I really would be the world’s worst kitchen worker!

Usually I manage to cope with most of the noises in the everyday world. Like bright lights, they exhaust me and I need to recover from them. Like with light I’m trying to figure out a way to dull them somewhat, especially now I know that I’m not hearing the same things that other people hear (not because there’s anything wrong with my ears, but because the way my brain processes sounds is rather different). Unlike with light it’s more difficult. Wearing sunglasses is an easy adaption – I’ve worn glasses since I was a teenager and have to wear them anyway to be legal to drive the car and to be able to see. Glasses are no big deal.

Earplugs or headphones are an entirely different matter. I can tolerate having earphones in for a short while, but I’m permanently slightly uncomfortable with them in because of how they feel in my ears. Apparently there are people who can sleep with earplugs in – I don’t know how because they drive me nuts after a very short time. I have worn earplugs at airshows and so on, but the sound of my own voice is then totally unbearable and I only keep them in for the noisiest jets. I would also feel very vulnerable out alone without being able to hear what’s going on around me, because I use my hearing so much as a safety mechanism – maybe the advantage of hearing so much of the background noise upfront is that I notice things like footsteps behind me or the whistle of wind in bicycle wheels when I’m about to cross a road, or similar. I haven’t yet solved the noise problem – that’s very much a work in progress!

And, of course, sound has the additional problem over sight in that it isn’t just the filtering of noise that’s the issue, but a lot of the time coping with sound requires the auditory processing of language too. It has now become obvious that spoken language doesn’t come naturally to me and filtering out conversations from other conversations is something I’ve always found really hard work – which is why I’ve often found myself at parties following a conversation that I’m not even part of and when I’m then asked to contribute have had to ask what has just been said as if my hearing was a bit dodgy!

I’m fairly confident that when I’m recovered from the current burnout things will get a bit better. During most of my life I’ve generally preferred having music playing to having silence – music is a huge and very important part of my life. Interestingly, sometimes, background music (as long as it isn’t too loud) can be a steadying influence on me when I’m surrounded by talking and conversation. It feels to me as though it enters my head on a different channel from conversation – it goes straight in and has meaning instantly without the translation mechanism needed for words. However, when I had the 2001 burnout I couldn’t cope with music at all and craved total silence most of the time. This time around it hasn’t been quite as bad, but all my volume controls have been turned right down and I need everything very soft. On bad days I can’t watch the television with sound and simply put the subtitles on and read them instead. I have managed to play in the occasional concert and the music itself hasn’t been too bad, but the applause at the end of the show is very very painful at the moment. Again, I’m hoping this will improve.

Of course, living in a flat with 3 lots of neighbours is really not ideal in this situation. And the fact that I’m only getting out about once a week means I’m spending an awful lot of time listening to the neighbours’ doors squeaking, their showers running, the noise they make in the corridor outside, the car alarms in the car park below, the dogs barking, and worst of all, the noise of the primary school kids arriving in the morning (the primary school is very close to our block of flats). The voices of babies and small children produce the same effect that knives clanking on plates or people chewing or pencils scratching on paper do. I’m guessing it’s something to do with the frequency of the sound or the structure of the wave or some similar thing – maybe I’ll research it one day, but for now it’s just simple observation.

And, like everything else, now I know how much energy I’m using to cope with filtering noise and trying to focus in on what I actually need to hear, I’m going to have to adapt things a bit. More recovery, more time spent in silence (or the closest I can get to it, given my living circumstances), more time on my own. We’ve also discovered how to disable the entryphone to our flat (nobody ever visits unscheduled anyway) and we now have all ringers on phones permanently turned off. Social occasions will have to be prepared for, recovered from, and rationed to things I really want to do. Having to cope with the sheer amount of noise in the world is yet another thing that drains my energy and causes exhaustion, overload, and sometimes meltdown.

Out to Dinner

53-2017-01-28-14-04-07A few weeks ago I got a message from a good friend of mine. He and another couple of friends were planning on dining in College, as they do from time to time, and he wondered whether my best friend and I would like to join them, as we do from time to time. It’s usually a very pleasant evening, and a chance to catch up with people we don’t see that often, especially as the friend who sent the message lives abroad and travels a lot.

Usually I’d message back by return and get signed in to dinner straight away, no question, the only limitation being whether I was already booked to do something else that evening. However, even though my diary is looking really really empty at the moment, I hesitated. An evening in College can be very tiring, as I described in Sudden Illness, and in my current state of burnout I really didn’t know whether I could cope with it at all.

I sought advice from my husband, who is often wise in these situations. He suggested I sign in anyway and then cancel if I really wasn’t well enough. It seemed like a good plan, so that’s what I did. I rather hopelessly didn’t manage to message my friend back, but I did at least sign in, and started to prepare for the biggest social thing I’ve done for many months. At the time I signed in I didn’t know whether such an evening would be totally beyond my capabilities, but I thought I’d give it a try.

And so the strategies went in to action, and a rather embarrassingly large amount of preparation and thought went into a simple evening out to dinner.

First, the diary. I made sure that I didn’t push myself or attempt to leave the flat for two full days before the day of the dinner. Enforced rest. Enforced quiet. Save energy. Save save save. On the day itself, I made myself rest in bed all morning. By the time the anxiety kicked in mid-afternoon I was up, but under my weighted blanket in the dimly lit sitting room, exposing myself to as little input as possible to keep my energy as high as it could be.

I also decided to wear as comfortable clothes as I possibly could within the constraints of looking “reasonably tidy”. A pair of elasticated trousers I usually wear for concerts, a soft t-shirt, a fleece jacket, and a soft scarf. Fiddle toys in the jacket pocket, chew toy round my neck under the scarf. Absolutely everything as easy as it could be and as comforting as it could be. And, of course, the tinted glasses that have now become my usual eyewear.

I expect I’ll do quite a lot more of this sort of thing in future and much of it will become automatic for me, but for the moment a lot of it is new, and a lot of these things are things I’m trying to see if they work and see if they help me conserve energy to do the things I want to do without getting as exhausted and stressed as I have done in the past. I’m experimenting to see how much rest I need beforehand, how much recovery time, what sort of balance I need to achieve between behaving as a reasonably responsible adult in public and being as comfortable as I can in different situations, and what strategies I can employ to help.

I also made the decision not to drink more than a taste of each wine with dinner and to drive home afterwards, partly because introducing a lot of alcohol into the mix might alter my sensory or social responses in either direction, and partly because I could go home to a place where I had the comfort and safety of my own rules, my own familiar arrangements, my sofa and telly and weighted blanket and so on, with no need to pack any bags or do anything beyond getting through the evening and then driving a familiar route home. I’ve mentioned before that driving is one of the things that comes naturally to me and I can do quite comfortably even when very stressed about other things.

Going home had the added advantage on this occasion of complete solitude because my husband was out speaking about mental health issues and was then planning on a working night, and was also going to be out for most of the next day, so not only would I wake up in my own bed, I wouldn’t have to engage in any conversation at all. If I felt absolutely terrible the next morning then I could just stay in bed for as long as I wanted.

It actually turned out to be a very good evening to have had as my first real social event in many months. There weren’t too many people signed in to dinner, so it didn’t feel crowded or overly pressured. My best friend organized the seating such that I was at the end of the table and he was next to me, so I wasn’t sitting next to a stranger. My other good friend sat opposite, and another of our group next to him, so I was surrounded by allies and friendly sympathetic people, two of whom already knew what had been going on in my life.

Nobody seemed unduly fazed by the fact that I was gently rocking back and forth, and I managed to eat most of all the courses of my dinner (though didn’t push it – tasted everything, but stopped eating long before I usually would). The familiarity of the setting (I’ve been eating in that hall since I was 18) helped a lot, and the dangly bits on the sleeves of my academic gown actually turned out to be an excellent stim toy!!!

Afterwards, something that would usually be a slight disappointment was something that actually did me a favour. The small number of people eating in meant that there was no formal dessert (formal dessert involves sitting at another table, generally more obligation to converse, and following customs regarding port, eating of fruit, and so on). Instead, the fruit was on plates in the Common Room sitting room, so I was able to take my boots off, sit cross-legged and comfortable on a sofa, and be much more relaxed.

And I sat and sipped a cup of coffee, and then some mint tea, and had a chocolate and a raspberry. And played with my fiddle toys a bit, and even chewed my chew toy a bit, and people looked at old photographs, and chatted, and I didn’t make myself chat except when I felt like it, and the evening actually turned out to be quite a relaxed one, surrounded by understanding friends in a non-threatening environment. If I appeared odd to anyone, then they didn’t comment or weren’t worried or both.

I was reminded of the line from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency where Reg remarks (on revealing that he’s been living in the same set of College rooms for 200 years) that “one of the delights of the older Cambridge colleges” was that “everyone is so discreet. If we all went around mentioning what was odd about each other we’d be here till Christmas.” There are some aspects of my dark blue home that are very similar to the characteristics of his light blue alma mater that Douglas Adams incorporated into his brilliant stories (side note: count how many “previous blog posts” are shown in the list on each page of this blog – though you probably won’t need to now you’ve seen this remark in the context of this paragraph)!

And so the evening was a success. I drove my good friend and best friend back to their guest house and home respectively, then drove back home myself. When I got back I definitely felt that I’d been through some sort of “assault on the senses”. My ears were ringing as though I’d been at a loud rock gig, and I was slightly dizzy and nauseous and certainly not capable of doing anything more than collapsing onto the sofa underneath my weighted blanket. I stayed like that for about an hour, just curled up with my iPad, waiting until I felt a bit better. After about an hour I had enough energy to rock and bash myself against the back of the sofa, then after another half hour I started to feel distinctly better. I put the telly on, muted, and one small lamp. After a second hour I was well enough to get up and get a glass of wine and put some music on very very softly. Three hours after getting home, I finally had enough energy to have a short bath and get into bed.

I slept on and off for about 4 hours in total, and now, at half past one in the afternoon of the next day, I’m finally out of bed, dressed, and have managed to make myself a cup of tea and write up the evening while it’s still fresh in my mind. I actually feel much much better than I thought I would today – maybe that’s the result of the planning, and the care, and allowing myself the 3 hours to calm down properly before going to bed. I think it’s also a question of managing expectations – I KNEW when I decided to go last night that it was going to be a big deal in the state that I’m currently in (a month earlier and I would have been too unwell even to consider it). So none of it is a surprise. I know why I feel like I do during and after social occasions now, and just knowing means that there is a whole level of worry that there is something ELSE wrong with me that is now gone.

I’m also aware that things will continue to improve for a while yet as I recover from the burnout and as I adapt and get used to how things now are. Exactly how much functionality I’ll regain is still unknown, but early signs are that I won’t actually spend the whole of the rest of my life as disabled and impaired as I was a couple of months ago. Once I’ve stabilized I will be able to do a bit more, especially if I manage my life a bit more appropriately now that I know what needs managing.

This sounds completely mad, writing it up. So much planning for one evening out. Three hours to recover sufficiently to put myself to bed when I got home. Most of the rest of the next day spent in bed. It seems insane from any normal perspective. It must seem mad when viewed through the eyes of the well.

And I ask myself whether one night out to dinner is worth all that effort, and the answer is a resounding YES. Partly because it was simply a lovely evening with nice people and I felt cared for and loved and lucky to be where I was enjoying the food and the company and the surroundings. But also, crucially, because it gave another glimpse back into the “normal” world, a world not dominated by assessments and psychologists and psychiatrists and mental illness and difficulty, and a world worth fighting to get back to.

In many ways it was just a simple evening out, but it was also another of those glimmers of hope that I will eventually be able to function reasonably well in the world again and enjoy some of the things that make life rather better than just “struggling to get through each day”. I used a lot of energy last night, but early indicators are that I actually got some energy back too, which is better than I could possibly have hoped for.