Wasting Energy

I pressed my back into the corner of the cold wall behind me, as hard as I could, hard enough to distract me from the need to twirl or flick my fingers or flap my hands, hard enough to counterbalance the brightness of the light emanating from the interior of the van parked in front of me, next to my stricken car. I’d changed out of my sunglasses into a pair of ordinary specs, because I knew that wearing sunglasses on a December evening would attract questions I didn’t want to have to answer.

My internal dialogue was on a repetitive loop: “Mask like fuck, mask like fuck, normal, normal, normal, mask like fuck, mask like fuck, normal, normal, normal…”

“How long have you lived in your current place then?” said the breakdown man.

I felt my spouse, who was standing beside me, tense. I knew the thought process that would be going through his head: “Why does he want to know? He’s going to come and destroy our lives isn’t he? How does knowing when we last moved house help with mending the car?”

I knew that dealing with this sort of inane chatter was my job in these circumstances. My spouse, who had managed, half an hour earlier, to make the telephone call to the breakdown services while I sat on the floor in the dark rocking back and forth in a total panic, would simply be unable to manage such questions, so it was down to me.

“About 4 years,” I said, using one of the learnt scripts I keep in my head for such occasions. “It’s handy for the shops,” I added, hoping this was good small talk. It seemed to be OK.

Further questions followed. I reminded myself that the man was probably just trying to pass the time, and that he probably didn’t intend this to be some sort of cross-examination under torture. I did the best I could to smile and chat, my brain feeling like it was working so hard it might actually explode, my body tense and stressed from trying to keep still, my back pressed hard against the cold wall for a bit of relief.

The computer sitting on the car engine finished its diagnostic work. The man started to show me graphs, figures, numbers, and to talk about the state of the car battery (totally knackered). I relaxed a little. This was relevant, and seeing graphs was calming and made sense. There was now a purpose to the conversation.

The breakdown man said he had a battery on the van he could fit there and then. Since it was 2 days before Christmas, late in the evening, and we were quite a few miles away from home, this was a good outcome. Battery specifications and prices were discussed, the battery was fitted, and a further few “social” remarks were made. I didn’t challenge his (incorrect) assumption that we’d been Christmas shopping, although I did remember to thank him and to convey appropriate seasonal wishes I think.

By the time I got home my speech had failed and I was utterly exhausted.

***

Since I discovered and disclosed that I’m autistic I’ve attempted consciously to conceal it, and to mask my autistic traits, on only a handful of occasions, such as the one above. That night I was low on spoons (energy), having already been out in the world for a few hours. We didn’t know what sort of breakdown repair person might show up, or whether they’d know anything about autism. We didn’t know what prejudices they might have (over the years we’ve found motoring to be a problematic area of life at times – my spouse doesn’t drive and the car is mine but because he looks like a man and I look like a woman (we’re both nonbinary) frustrating assumptions have often been made), and we didn’t have energy to educate or to explain – we just wanted to get home with a fixed car.

So the decision was made to mask, to act as “normal” as possible. Changing my glasses, removing the wristband I wear that says “Autistic” on it, remembering to smile and make some sort of attempt at eye contact if necessary, putting my tired brain into overdrive in order to interact and maintain speech, frantically searching through my mental library for scripts, remembering not to tell my entire life story or talk too much, no jumping up and down, no pacing around, no swaying back and forth or pulling at my hair, and definitely no flapping hands.

I managed it. But only just. Since going into burnout a couple of years ago (I’ll discuss burnout elsewhere), my ability to act non-autistically has been pretty poor and I’ve only been able to do so for very short periods of time without getting ill or having some sort of meltdown or shutdown. The whole carefully constructed facade that has characterised most of my life in the outside world for the last 4 decades has simply crumbled and fallen to pieces as I’ve run out of energy to maintain it. Some skills I’d previously learnt have become patchy or disappeared completely, my sensory system has gone berserk, and the amount of care I need has increased significantly.

Of course, everybody, whatever their neurology, masks to some extent. People “put on a brave face” when they have to deal with difficult situations, they dress up in uncomfortable clothes to go to formal occasions and job interviews, they walk into work on a Monday morning having had terrible weekends and sleepless nights and when asked “How are you?” respond with “Very well, thank you.” even if they feel absolutely awful and want to kick the cheery Monday morning questioner in a painful place. People with mental illnesses, chronic pain conditions, and even folk who are simply having a difficult time will experience an even greater need to put on some sort of a “public persona” at times.

So, what is so different about autistic masking? Well, I haven’t yet done enough study or research to give a definitive answer (something I’d ultimately like to do is really investigate such questions – since I discovered, nearly two years ago, that well over 90% of people on the planet experience the world differently from how I do, I’d really like to find out about their experiences, but I haven’t had the energy so far). All I can do at this point is speculate. I think, perhaps, that much of the difference is to do with a matter of extent and from the number of situations in which a person feels they need to mask in order to fit in, not to cause a fuss, or to function in the world.

Back when I was well enough to work, I “acted” at job interviews. I suspect everyone does that. But what I’d one day like to explore is the point at which most people cease to act, start to feel like they’re in some sort of “comfort zone” (a concept I’d also like to explore sometime), and when they are basically able to “let their hair down”, be themselves, and have little or no anxiety (obviously, for those who have an anxiety disorder, this will be different). From what I’ve observed of people’s behaviour (unless the whole world is performing an elaborate act and everything is fake), I suspect that many people feel free to be themselves when out having a few drinks with their friends, playing sport, at a concert, going to pick up a few bits of shopping at the supermarket, watching TV with their families, or at home with a partner. These things might be more or less enjoyable, but most folk seem to be reasonably relaxed when I’ve seen them in these situations. I am not, and, perversely, I’m probably no more likely to be stressed in a job interview than I am having a few drinks down the pub because my stress levels are so high for so much of the time that the differentials between different situations are rather small. If you’ve ever encountered me in any of these situations and I appeared relaxed, it’s because I was masking.

The situations when I can essentially be “me” occur only when there is a locked door between me and the rest of the world (and even then, there is a fear the safety might be breached). The only other person who has ever seen the full real me is my spouse, although my best friend of many decades has been close. At all other times, I am on high alert, I am stressed, I am anxious, I am acting, to a greater or lesser extent. Alcohol helps me with the act, although it’s obviously not an ideal strategy. Some autistic people, especially late diagnosed ones who have been masking to everybody for decades, cannot even be themselves with their spouses.

I find it difficult to explain this matter of extent to people – I often post things on my facebook and am greeted with a chorus of “Oh, don’t worry about that, it’s absolutely normal, everybody gets…” which I suspect is meant comfortingly, but just makes me feel very invalidated and disbelieved. Maybe my communication style is misunderstood? Maybe I’m not adequately able to explain that it’s not a question of, for example, liking or disliking supermarkets and shopping, but that the energy required to cope with the noise and the light and the people and so on is such that even a short trip out can sometimes mean I melt down at the checkout to such an extent that I have to bite my own arm and bruise it (see the picture at the top of this post, taken earlier today) in order to cope.

Of course, by the time I’m melting down at the checkout, the mask has broken. In the past I’ve been accused of being drunk, been threatened with arrest, and often simply run away from situations I couldn’t cope with. One of the reasons autistic people DO mask and hide their unconventional ways is precisely to avoid accusations of drunkenness or getting arrested or even worse. Masking can sometimes be useful and even essential. That’s something I hope to discuss in the future.

Nowadays with more knowledge and less masking I can usually manage to buy a small amount of shopping by using strategies such as wearing sunglasses and ear defenders and allowing myself to stim (more on that another time). I’m fortunate in that my circumstances generally allow me to be openly autistic and I have no problem with being so. The result is that I’m starting to learn to conserve energy where I can and to use the limited resources I do have to try to improve my quality of life, which has, over the last few decades, generally been declining rather rapidly.

I have wasted a huge amount of energy over the decades trying to live my life in order to fulfil societal expectations. Sitting still, making eye contact, sitting in a chair with my feet on the floor, wearing various sorts of clothing, speaking when it is making me feel sick, dealing with pain from lights and sounds and textures, consciously trying to work out when to talk and practising what to say, trying to maintain employment in overloading environments, smiling when it is really difficult, trying to pick out one conversation when others are happening, forcing myself to go to social events, and so on. Even the simple experiment I did when I was first investigating the “autism hypothesis” as I called it, gave an indication of just how MUCH energy masking can use.

Masking is exhausting. Utterly utterly draining. I’ve had people say to me many times over the years “But WHY are you so tired? What have you been doing?” and I’ve been unable to work it out. Even in my 20s I used to collapse with exhaustion on a regular basis. The brutal truth is that for an autistic person simply EXISTING in the world is knackering – never mind trying to hold down a job or have any sort of social life. And many of the standard recommendations for “improving mental health” (such as seeing more people in real life, spending less time on the internet, sitting still and being “calm”) simply make matters worse – solitude, rest, and stimming are much more useful tools. We need a LOT of downtime in order to recover from what, for most folk, are the ordinary things of life.

And this is at the core of the problem of masking. The perpetual acting, the perpetual stress levels on a par with what most folk would feel when at a job interview, the huge physical effort of sitting still and coping with sensory overload, and the conscious process of trying to work out how to interact with other human beings eventually takes its toll. In the short term it can lead to a meltdown (as it did with me in the supermarket the other day). In the long term it can destroy mental health and lead to autistic burnout.

Many autistics mask for years, putting in huge amounts of work to try to fit in to the world. Those of us who were diagnosed very late avoided some of the therapies that essentially force autistics to mask by using punishment when they exhibit autistic behaviours, although we were often taught to “behave properly” and the cane in the corner of the headmaster’s study was a constant threat throughout our childhoods. Some autistics become so good at masking that when they present for diagnosis they are turned away or misdiagnosed and when they tell people they are autistic they are met with disbelief and invalidation.

I’m probably one of very few late diagnosed autistics who hasn’t been told “But you don’t look autistic!” or disbelieved (in fact, when I published The Discovery most people simply said “Well, of course you’re autistic – you really didn’t know?”). My mask was evidently somewhat transparent as far as visible traits were concerned and it turned out that even with the huge effort I was making I didn’t actually succeed in fooling many people and those who knew me and knew anything much about autism (which I didn’t) weren’t surprised at all. I’d also long since accepted that I was one of society’s weirdos and grown comfortable with that (in fact, I still feel very strongly that I used to be rather special and interesting but now I’ve actually discovered I’m nothing more than a common or garden autistic)!

I’m also now beginning to realise that a huge part of MY masking was not just trying to “appear normal” but was actually trying to lead a life that was way beyond my capabilities. “Taking off the mask” for me is not just about openly stimming, wearing dark glasses and ear defenders, and allowing myself to look noticeably different from other people (I’ve actually found that bit pretty easy). It’s much more significantly for me about learning to rest, learning to pace myself, working out new ambitions, new goals, ones that might, once I’ve recovered from this burnout as far as I’m ever going to, actually be possible and within my capabilities. In short, working out how to spend my remaining time on the planet living a life that isn’t going to damage my mental health still further or cause any more huge burnouts.

That’s still very much a work in progress!

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Also Being Autistic

Bizarrely, the point made in the last post, that I find it hard to imagine how life could be good again when it’s bad and hard to imagine how it could be bad again when it’s good, was proven when I finally clicked publish on that post and immediately felt a weird sense of dishonesty.

I wrote the post a few nights ago, in one of the good phases, put it onto the blog site in draft, and numbered it to be posted next. But by the time publishing time came, I was struggling again, and it felt a little weird to post something so unrepresentative of my current state.

I also suddenly worried that I’d equated lack of social imagination with lack of empathy. If I did, then I didn’t mean to – I’m still trying to figure all this out and this blog is a learning and analysing experience for me as well as something for others to read if they wish to. I still need to find proper words to describe all these things better. I still need to organise and structure my thoughts better, and I’d like very much to be able to explain all these terms properly.

This constant back and forth, constant switching between feeling wonderfully neurodivergent and fabulous and relieved to have discovered who I really am, and feeling frustrated at how limited my life is and how difficult I find things, is still characterising my life quite strongly at the moment. I described some of the effects this has on me in Oscillating, and it continues to be true. I suspect it might continue to be true for some time to come.

The warm fuzzy feelings in Being Autistic are real. I AM happy to have discovered my neurology and to have solved so many mysteries from my life. I have no issues with people thinking I’m strange, or with stimming in public, or with stigma from anyone immediately around me (I realise this makes me massively privileged – when my friends see me flapping my hands or rocking back and forth they don’t tell me to stop, they just check with me that it isn’t an indication that I’m in any sort of distress). In many ways it’s all good. Lovely stuff – stick on the dark glasses and ear defenders, take my phone everywhere in case my speech fails, carry on with life. Proud autistic stuff, rainbow infinity symbols, stim toys, clothes without labels, and not a worry about what society thinks. Even before I was a nonbinary autistic I was an AFAB who hadn’t worn make-up or a bra for over 20 years and was happy existing in socks and sandals without caring what others thought. I’ve been miles away from many societal “norms” for decades, and I have enough confidence not to worry about that most of the time. If people like me and want to be friends with me on my terms, great, if they don’t, then no big deal. Now I have a reason to explain just why I fail to comprehend society’s codes I feel even more justified in being myself and not worrying about it. I am fully “out” as autistic to anyone who cares to know (and probably people who don’t too) and absolutely happy with that (to be honest, anyone who knows anything about autism can figure it out in about a minute anyway if they meet me – I do present as stereotypically autistic in many ways and even if I try really hard to mask, at the moment I’ll last only about an hour before I start to collapse or get sick). Additionally, I can take the pressure off myself to be “strong” so in many ways it’s even better than before – I can ditch the self-blame, I can relax, I can just enjoy being me.

However, there is a flip side. I am still coming to terms with the fact that I am not the Strong Woman of my mask. My day to day existence is, for the most part, relatively low quality. Most days I spend between 14 and 24 hours on my own in a grubby, overcrowded, dark flat, trying to recover from the days and times when I CAN get out and do things. I look at my former colleagues from college days, many of whom have houses, children, and jobs, and I have none of those things. Certainly my inability to sustain employment is down to me being autistic (and, maybe even more so to remaining undiagnosed for 45 years – I never asked for adaptions at work because I didn’t know I needed them and I lost every career and job I ever had), and my consequent large debts and relatively poor living conditions are a result of that. I read memes that tell me if I want something I have to work for it. I have done nothing less than work as hard as I possibly can all my life and the things I wanted didn’t come – those memes sound like cruel lies to me. I spent a pleasant evening socialising and drinking with friends a couple of weeks ago – the resulting overload caused an entire night of meltdowns and panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. Everyone else went to bed and woke up with a slight hangover. Every so often I ask “Why me?” and then I feel guilty because I am betraying the neurodivergence movement and I become frightened of those autistics who tell me that autism is not a disability, just a difference, but I am so very disabled by it so very often – no work, no money, some days I am a 46-year-old who cannot even get myself a hot drink or work out how to get enough food to sustain me or even manage to get dressed properly. And not all of this is “society’s fault”, it is just the way that life is and is often a result of simple practicalities. I am actually surrounded by non-autistic people who are doing their absolute damndest to understand me and to help me and to compensate at every turn for my disabilities – they are brilliant and loving and patient and I am very very lucky with them, but I am still struggling. And at those times I wish I was “normal” (yes, yes, yes, I know the old cliché that there “is no normal” etc etc, which, to be honest, to those of us who are so far up one end of the bell curve that we cannot even see the middle of it, sounds a bit trite), at those times I wish I could go to work for a week (even part-time) and go down the pub for a few hours on Friday night and enjoy a weekend with the family, which I can’t. I wish my gender was one that was recognised and understood by everyone (that is society’s fault), but it isn’t. That is the sort of “normal” I wish for…

I could go on. There is still much to explore. There are two sides to this, the dark side, where I just want all this to go away and to live a regular life (and, yes, I use the word “regular” advisedly, as I do the word “normal”), and the wonderful quirky side where I can finally be me and enjoy it and live a life that is right for me. Practicalities constantly intrude on me “being myself” because I have to eat and drink to stay well, I have to find enough money to survive, and unless I never go anywhere or do anything ever again I have to interact with other human beings in a way that often makes me very uncomfortable. To an extent, there is a part of me that needs some interaction too – less than most people I suspect, but not none at all.

I suspect these thoughts will continue for some time. I am still new to all this, only just over a year since I discovered I was autistic. As far as being knowingly autistic is concerned I’m only just learning to walk, at age 46, after over 4 decades of trying to be something else and failing at it. I’m also still very burnt out and still trying to find help, still waiting for referrals to services, still trying to discover if there is any medication of any description that might help (I can’t take many of the things that might help because of co-occurring conditions). Perhaps things will improve as time goes on – it’s still really really early days for all this stuff.

It’s also a big switch, a total change in life parameters, and I suspect I’m still fucking things up quite a lot. Still not explaining myself right – remember, I’m also very alexithymic, which doesn’t help. I’m still working it all out. It’s all still evolving, much like this entire post evolved out of a simple feeling that I should add a short explanation about the previous blog post.

Strange times.

NOTE: Since I wrote the words above, I feel different again. At the time I intended to post Being Autistic, I was in such poor shape that I couldn’t even turn the computer on to press publish and I had to do it the next day. I’m actually in better shape again now, happier, more relaxed. That’s how quickly things keep shifting, how fast the oscillations sometimes are. But I won’t write yet another post about that at the moment because this cycle could go on for a very long time!

Being Autistic

Right now
Being autistic
Is giving me
Warm, fuzzy, lovely
Feelings.

It is so obvious
That it is who I am,
My identity,
My way of being.

Feels so right.
Lovely.
Like a big hug
Rocking
Happy
Autistic.

Loving that
I do not have to be
Part of society
In the usual way.
Happy inside my head
Just waggling my fingers
So lovely.
Nothing else matters.
For hours.

Smile smile smile.

One of my huge
Autistic traits
Is that my
Social imagination
Is very very poor.
(It scored me
Very high
On the ADOS).

That means
I cannot imagine
What it is like
For things to be different
From how they are
Right now.

I struggle to imagine
What it is like
To be someone else
(And, for the record,
I AM also an autistic
Without much
Natural empathy.
The empathy I have
I work hard
To achieve
Because I like the people
But I have to learn
And really work at it
(Unlike my spouse,
Who is a hyperempath)).

Anyway, I digress.

So, right now,
I struggle to imagine
What it is like
To be that other person,
That person who
Doesn’t want
To exist any more.

I remember that
There is a version of me
That wants to die
That finds life
Unbelievably hard
That constantly asks
“Why me?”
That hates the life
I am forced to lead.

A version of me
Who wishes I was
“Normal”
And could just chat
Could just be out in the world
Without sensory overload
Could just get up
And make a cup of tea
And go to work
Like so many
People can.

A version of me
Who is struggling
To come to terms
With being autistic
Because of the way
It limits my life.
And who is frustrated
Because they are unable to live
The life they had expected to.

A version who
Wishes they were
Less disabled.
And also wishes they
Fitted neatly
Into the gender binary
And didn’t
Cry and feel bad
At gendered toilets.

That version of me,
However,
Seems to be
Miles away
Right now.

That person has written things
I can hardly understand.
But that I will work hard
To process
Intellectually,
Academically,
And will publish here
From time to time.

But right now
The person who is here
Is content
To be
An autistic enby.
With a new identity,
A new name, even.

It’s all good.
Because it fits.
And it’s right.
And it’s me.

And at times like these
“Autistic”
Is the sweetest word
In the whole language.

Why did it take me
So long
To discover
How perfect
It is
For me?

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.

Wild Idea?

A year ago today I posted the following status on my facebook wall:

What a day. Along with flu jab and asthma review, a very successful meeting with the doc who listened to a whole load of my waffling and has put in a referral to the sort of docs who will try to fathom what’s going on between my ears!*

Feels like a huge relief and real progress.

*good luck with that then folks!

Since, at the time, I wasn’t telling very many people about the “autism hypothesis”, I didn’t elaborate further on my visit to the doctor. It was easy just to talk vaguely about what might or might not have been going on between my ears and also to refer, as I did in another post, to “head stuff” because it had been well known for years that I had considerable mental health problems and I was already totally open about them, so, for most people that probably covered it.

What I didn’t mention at the time was that we’d purposely made a double appointment with my GP, and that I took my husband and about a dozen pages of notes with me. We’d made the notes while out on a walk a few days earlier (“Starting to examine my childhood”, from Still Here), taking 25 kilometres and six hours and several cups of coffee to persuade my brain to start thinking back to my childhood, and to pause every so often while my husband wrote my rambling thoughts down in a notebook he was carrying. I think very much better while on the move – in the car, walking, running – so it seemed like a good way to approach things. It had been a strange process, forcing myself to think back and to remember things I hadn’t thought about for decades – as far as I was concerned, the “real childhood memories” file had been closed long ago and I just remembered the sanitized version as part of my life narrative. I certainly hadn’t tried to remember the difficult bits, the painful bits, the bits that were needed for an autism diagnosis.

We’d already been at the surgery for some time before the appointment with my GP because it was also time for asthma reviews and flu jabs, so we’d seen the asthma nurse and discussed inhalers and so on first. By the time we were in the waiting area for the doctor I was ready to go home. I regretted that the only way of getting to the surgery was by car and so I couldn’t even have a drink to try to calm myself down. We sat and stimmed in the waiting room (although we still didn’t refer to it as stimming at that point as we’d only seen the word a few times and weren’t quite sure what it actually meant), and I was determined not to bottle it and give up.

I didn’t even know, back then, what “self-diagnosis” was. It didn’t occur to me that, having found something that might be “wrong” with me, my first course of action wouldn’t be to go and see a doctor, not because I had any notion of being “fixed” but because I believed that, as with bipolar disorder, with which I had considerable experience, autism was something the medical profession might help me manage (that turned out to be somewhat optimistic on my part)! I also, even at that early stage, needed official permission to “be autistic” and the thought of telling anybody that I was without an official piece of paper seemed far too wild to even consider. My thoughts on official diagnosis were developed further as time went on, and I examined some of them in Why Bother?

Once we’d been called in for the appointment, the conversation ran something like this:

Me: Hi Doc, this is going to sound well random and well weird and you’ll probably think I’ve gone even more bonkers than I usually am, but I had a bit of a strange summer and my head went a bit wrong and a bunch of folk said they thought I might be autistic or something so I read a couple of books and we made some notes about all sorts of stuff and, er, here we are, and, yes, I know it’s a bit barmy and a seriously wild idea and stuff and… but anyway… erm… well…

(all the time, jiggling my leg, flapping my fingers, and staring fixedly at a bit of badly done paintwork in the corner of the room)

I then looked hopefully at my husband because I’d run out of what to say next.

The doctor saved both of us having to say anything.

Doc: Oh of COURSE! It’s so absolutely obvious now you mention it. So sorry for not knowing earlier, but with only short appointments and so much to get through and so little time to spend with you…

(then, the doc paused, as if a thought had just come out of the blue)

Doc: Didn’t you have an incident at the swimming pool a few years ago? And they called us here and said you were violent and aggressive and you came in and said you weren’t violent at all but you were scared and distressed and they’d got it all wrong…

(there followed discussions of meltdowns, of how these episodes had been happening all my life, and of various other things, and by this time I was rocking hard in the chair and the pennies were dropping fast in the doc’s head, just as they had in mine a couple of weeks earlier)

The referral for formal assessment was being started before we were even out of the door. My GP had needed no convincing whatsoever. I didn’t know then that that had been the easy bit, and that finding somebody who could actually diagnose me as autistic would take a whole load more work, and that “letting the medics take it from here and look after me” wasn’t an option, and that I’d have to do my own research, fill in forms seemingly infinitely (that’s what it felt like at the time), and that I was only at the beginning of a very long journey, but that journey was underway.

I left the surgery and went round to my best mate’s house for tea. I told him that yes, the doc thought I was autistic too. He already knew what was going on and was totally cool with the whole idea and thought it made absolute sense. I then went off to a rehearsal that evening, and then away for the weekend to play music, still very fragile and broken after the summer, still reeling from the discovery, but starting, already, to accept myself as an autistic person, even at that stage. I still hadn’t actually said that I WAS autistic at that point – every time I mentioned it to anybody it was “it’s been suggested that I might be autistic” taking the label (or diagnosis, or whatever you want to call it) for myself without anyone giving me permission to seemed to be terribly presumptious at that stage, so I stuck to “might” and “a possibility” and so on.

The fact that my GP believed it made a huge amount of difference though, and something that had been “just an idea being pondered by me and a few mates” became something a little bit official. We’d told someone “proper”, who hadn’t dismissed the idea, and had, in fact, confirmed it.

I regained a little bit of confidence. Maybe I wasn’t totally crazy after all. Maybe this wasn’t some sort of “weird thing that happened over the summer but now we’re back to normal life everything just goes back to how it was and the “holiday romance” is over!”

It still felt really odd. Two months earlier I’d had absolutely no inkling that I might be autistic at all. I wasn’t one of those people who’d “suspected for a while” because I didn’t have enough knowledge of anything to suspect. I’d only started taking the idea seriously and investigating it properly myself about three weeks earlier. The whole of life felt so very peculiar and weird and like it had all gone a bit crazy somehow. My mental state was still fragile, and was, in fact, although I didn’t know it at the time, getting worse. Things felt wrong…

…but things also, suddenly, after over 4 decades of a different sort of wrong, felt right.

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.