Talking and Listening

As a runner who has mental health issues it was, of course, a foregone conclusion that I would watch a television programme entitled “Mind over Marathon” – an account of how a group of people who have a variety of mental health conditions train to run the London Marathon in order to help improve their mental health. The programme is presented by a good and sensitive presenter with a team of “experts” to help, and also features a couple of young princes who are advocates for mental health awareness.

As a blogger who is currently trying to use the written word to explore my feelings about various things it was, of course, a foregone conclusion that my brain would be fizzing with thoughts that needed translating and my fingers would be itching to get to the keyboard in order to do that work. How successful I will be in trying to impart some of those thoughts, who knows, but I’ll give it a try.

But first, two really really big disclaimers, or “health warnings” or whatever you want to call them, about what I want to write later on.

ONE

I am in absolutely no doubt at all that it is massively massively good thing to talk about mental health. I think it’s great that young royals are getting involved in the whole business and raising awareness and making mental health part of the discourse of current life. Anything that can be done to “normalise” words such as “mental” (one of the participants on the television programme mentioned how uncomfortable he was using the word because of the derogatory connotations it sometimes has) and, indeed, “autistic” (which I’ve heard people say mustn’t be used because it’s an “insult” – er, no, if people are using it as an insult then they are misusing the word) is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. To take words such as “mental” and “autistic” and treat them in some ridiculous Voldemortesque way simply continues to ignore issues that need addressing in many people’s lives.

I have seen many posts online indicating that “It’s all very well for wealthy figureheads to talk about mental health, but what about the ordinary folk?” I have heard those messages and, to an extent, agree, and in no way do I believe that “Prince Harry says talk about mental health” means that the job is done and that “awareness has been raised” and we can all now comfortably go back to ignoring the real, everyday, practical problems that people are facing. BUT, out of my bubble of friends and online pages and groups, most of whom are pretty savvy about mental health issues (“mental” is a commonly used word in my life and I’ve been open about mental health issues for decades), there are still those out in the wider world who are not taking these things on board (some of the comments on mainstream media facebook pages alone are enough to indicate this is the case), and if a high-profile person talking openly helps, then yes yes yes, all to the good. Yes, a young privileged man who has suffered exogenous mental health issues as a result of going through the process of grieving the death of his mother in the public eye is not one with which most of us can relate, but it is valid personal experience and he has used the advantage of his position in the public eye to open the discourse.

TWO

I am also in absolutely no doubt that exercise has a huge and important role to play where mental (and indeed physical) health is concerned. I absolutely don’t need to be convinced about the wonder of running – I’m an ultrarunner and in the ultrarunning community it’s well-known that people have overcome depression, addiction, and all manner of other difficulties through the power of running. I don’t need to be convinced to enter a marathon – I do that just because I like doing it. I enter the ballot to run London every year but am yet to be successful. Running is awesome and cool and fabulous. I’m currently frustrated because my own difficulties currently mean I’m struggling to run and I’m really really keen to get back to it and gently pushing myself in that direction whenever I have the energy. I do not need anyone to tell me about the excellence of running – the sheer wonder that comes from being out on the trails alone in the middle of the night, with the moths fluttering in my head torch, is more than ample to persuade me.

I am, however, aware that running per se (and particularly yomping around the countryside alone at night) might not suit everybody and that other forms of exercise are available. Some people prefer to have a team around them, some have physical impairments that mean swimming is gentler on joints, and there are many barriers to some people exercising at all – it’s by no means easy, and it’s no panacea, rather, part of a toolkit that can really help improve mental health in some circumstances. I am also aware of the dangers of exercise addiction and its link to eating disorders and that not every journey to run a marathon ends in a triumphant finish line smile – for some, the stress of training or the frustration of injury can make mental health worse, not better. But, with these provisos, and other similar ones, I absolutely see how wonderful exercise can be, and it can play a really important part in achieving and maintaining good mental health.

***

Having said all of the above, what do I now want to add? What actually prompted me to write this post? And how can I address the issues to which I have alluded above?

The moment that triggered it for me was the point in the programme where they were interviewing a young woman who was clearly struggling with coming to terms with a massively traumatic experience in her life several years ago. Her child died suddenly, and her husband, overcome by grief, killed himself shortly afterwards. And this young woman sat on the telly and recounted what support had been available to her at the time – or, more accurately, recounted that there had been NO support available to her at the time. Nothing.

I don’t know what has occurred with her in the intervening years, and neither do I have the energy to do a research project on it, but it strikes me as shocking that her issues are only really being dealt with FIVE YEARS LATER! Five years is a very long time to be in mental anguish before you are eventually picked up by a TV programme. And, even now, it seems that in order to get the level of support that the TV people are providing, in terms of “experts” and so on, the woman has to run a bloody marathon – literally! (Please see disclaimer TWO above – and, of course, the marathon is the point of the programme).

And, watching the programme I was struck, not by the rigors of marathon training (that’s all familiar stuff to me – I went, as an obese fortysomething, from couch to marathon in seven months a couple of years back, and the training, exercises, foam rollering, so on are all part of the deal), but by the level of support that these people were given. Admittedly, the support came with a rather large side order of “we’re going to film this so you’ll be exposing your emotional vulnerability on national telly”, which I didn’t have to contend with, but neither did I have a cuddly TV presenter or an “expert” come and look after me when I was shaking because of the stress of leaving the flat before going out on training sessions – I had to do that bit on my own. The TV marathon training programme is therefore not looking at the effect of exercise alone on mental health, because it is providing these people with someone to talk to, someone who will listen to their issues (both the people on the show who can give feedback, and those of us sitting on our sofas at home), and that listening is really important.

I have been talking about mental health online for around a decade now. I’m pretty cool with it. I very quickly became totally public about being autistic. I talk about both mental health and autism. A LOT (probably too much, truth be told). When I have been in mental health crisis I have posted on my facebook wall and the overwhelming advice has been “seek help”, “go to see your doctor”, “get referred to a specialist”, and so on. So I have tried, on many occasions, to do just that. But it is a fight, and if you are already struggling, already finding life difficult, and already reluctant to ask for help because you feel, somehow, that it is your fault you are feeling this way (there’s an awful lot of guilt comes with many mental health conditions), then fighting through the system to get the help you need can be a seriously tough process. And if you have nobody who can advocate for you then it’s even worse. Persuading someone to listen to you can be very very difficult.

The problems I had trying to get an autism diagnosis in a psychological services department and my analysis of the situation are documented earlier on this blog (the only “treatment” available to me at that time was to “go to A&E” if I actually tried to kill myself). I was struck at the time by how little cohesion there was between the different services available and how there seems to be nobody available who can deal with all of my issues, as well as the fact that those with really low self esteem are seen in a building so dilapidated that the plants are growing through the wall! Even the superb autism service elsewhere that eventually diagnosed me as autistic, cannot, for example, suggest any medications that might help with the anxiety I get, and neither can they help me establish whether I also have comorbid ADHD (all the online tests and so on and research I’ve done suggest that I do), because that’s somebody else’s department (if I can ever find “somebody else” and can face the exhausting process of telling my life story, yet again, to another stranger).

So “seeking help” is not as easy as it might seem. In fact, for most of us, it’s really jolly difficult. I have heard tales of people who are totally broken being offered “telephone CBT” (when you’re vulnerable, you get rung up by a total stranger, who gives you your allotted time on the phone then hangs up, leaving you in a worse state), people who are unable to communicate with services they need because communication is only by post (not so good if you are frightened of opening the mail because of what it might say), and, people asking for help with fear of the telephone and who struggle to speak on the phone being given a leaflet and, yes, you’ve guessed it – told to call a telephone number!!!

Equally, “taking up exercise” is not as easy as it seems, especially when you’re mentally unwell. If you feel insecure and frightened walking down the street (many of us do) then you’re unlikely to find going out to walk or run very easy. Furthermore, if you want to swim, or join a gym, or get any sort of personal trainer, then it is expensive, even at reduced rate, and many mentally ill people are out of work and struggling financially – if you have to choose between paying your rent or joining a gym then you’d be pretty daft not to pay the rent. When I started running I was lucky – I had enough confidence to get out of the door and a husband who supported me all the way. I had enough money to get a pair of trainers and a sports bra to get started with (this wouldn’t always have been the case in my life), and I live in a place where many people run, and it isn’t a big deal. I also have serious hardcore willpower and a level of “persistence” that gobsmacks most people (possibly one of my autistic traits), but many do not. Though I know many people who are trying, some even apparently inspired by my own accounts of running and so on.

I fear I’ve raised more questions than answers here, and maybe that’s actually what’s needed. My experience in both the mental illness and autistic communities has been that so much of the support comes from within, from people also struggling. I am trying to work out what might have enabled me to continue in employment in order to help those might follow me and be able to maintain jobs where I couldn’t. I have developed strategies to support myself based on the writings of others whose blogs I read. There are groups and people everywhere trying to piece things together and help each other.

Equally, and, sometimes surprisingly, the running groups and fitness groups have also provided a source of support for me and, I observe, for others. Those who do not have the support of a TV programme have to look after each other, encourage each other, either to get out there for a run or whatever, to cope with the frustrations of injury, or to discuss the fates of toenails and so on. The online responses to people who are struggling with whatever aspect of their lives or training can sometimes be amazing.

However, online support can only go so far. And there is a danger that those of us in the mental health “world” exist in something of a bubble and that people outside of that world don’t realise just how tough it is to get help or to get out there and run a marathon when your mind is telling you to sit in your chair and wait to die or even to hasten the process by your own actions. What is really needed is concrete, joined-up support, and both mental health services and physical activities that are easy to access. That is a much much bigger ask, and I’m only one very ordinary person sitting alone typing into a computer, a person who is still struggling day to day, and trying to translate the thoughts whizzing round my head into comprehensible words, so I don’t really know what more I can do, other than keep talking and keep raising the issues.

And so I come to at least one conclusion, which is that programmes like “Mind over Marathon” and statements by young princes, are important. And they’re important because they raise issues that those of us who are just individuals with no resources and no power are unable to raise, because we cannot reach the people that TV programmes or princes can. They can persuade people who will never encounter somebody like me (for whom mental health is a normal part of daily discourse) to talk about their mental health issues, and they can encourage far more people to take up running or physical exercise than I ever will.

However, the worry with such high-profile campaigns is that people will feel that they have “done” mental illness. They’ve all watched the programme, they all know what it’s about, and, like with autism “awareness” there will be a general feeling of “yes yes, mental health, blah blah blah”, but mentally struggling people will still be showing up at their GP surgeries after weeks of angst about whether to attend the appointment because it’s all so scary, and will be given a telephone number, or a web address, or, at best, put on a waiting list that might be months, or even years, long. There are lots of small, quiet, voices out there, trying to talk about their mental health issues and begging for help.

There are also people like me, who are slightly noisier and more forthright and link to blog posts and so on and share mental illness stuff whenever we can, even though, sometimes, writing a post such as this one uses up all available energy for the day. Interestingly (and I’m not alone in this observation), when I share mental health stuff or posts from this blog (I know that this is, technically, an autism blog and that autism is not a mental illness etc etc) on my facebook wall, these days I get a small handful of “likes”, maybe 3 or 4 on average, if that. If I share a status about doing the laundry then I often get 30 or 40 responses! This suggests to me that people are ten times more interested in laundry than they are in autism or mental health issues!!! (Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that because facebook algorithms magnify posts that have already been liked and try to force people who share blog links to pay money for extra publicity and so on, but whatever the cause, the result is still the same).

On one level, it’s great to talk and to raise the profile of mental health issues, and it’s totally fabulous to run marathons if you can do it. If more people are encouraged to talk and run then that’s brilliant!

But on another level, there are many of us who are already talking about mental health issues (and in my case, now, also autistic issues), have been talking for years, and will continue to talk while we still have breath.

But is anybody listening?

Eight Weeks On

So, eight weeks on from my diagnosis, I’m once again pausing to observe the passage of that time, and, understandably, reflecting on how life has progressed since I sat in the room at the end of a five-hour interview and testing session and was told that I clearly fulfilled the criteria for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

Eight weeks ago today I was relieved and exhausted in almost equal measure, having been officially told the news that explained why my life had been so incredibly difficult and I had failed, consistently, to live up to the expectations and demands that that so many people (including myself) had for me. I had reached the end of the process of assessment, and the end of the “old life” and had, finally, got to a point where I could start to rebuild something new, gentler and more forgiving.

Because I’d already read so many other accounts of how things had been for other people, and because I’ve been around long enough to have experienced a lot of ups and downs, I was under no illusion that receiving my diagnosis would magically transform my life into some fairyland, or that I would miraculously be able to access beautiful support or that all the ghosts from my past would reappear and apologise for all the years they’d told me to work harder, do better, or whatever, or that they’d explain that they really didn’t know how difficult life had been and they wished they had. I was, of course, right to hang on to a healthy skepticism that things would miraculously “get better” – one advantage of being a bit old and a bit logical is that a belief in magic and sparkles and fairy dust is not on the agenda. This process of readjustment to my new knowledge and rebuilding my new life is not going to happen overnight, and nor is it going to happen at all without considerable effort from me.

There is also the burnout to consider, and my mental health in general. At my follow up appointment I was advised to book an appointment with my GP to discuss my mental health in general and where to go from here. I wonder whether there will be more referrals, more discussions, and to what extent maintaining any semblance of mental wellness is, for me, going to be a lifelong task. I suspect only time will tell, as I adjust to the knowledge that I am autistic, as I learn what works, and as I start to try to work out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life – that is currently a very big question on my mind, both in terms of what I am able to do, and what I might actually want to do.

But, at this juncture, I am trying to identify how things now are, eight weeks on. It’s almost in the spirit of keeping some sort of journal, perhaps to refer to later, to measure progress. I look back now to what I wrote in Tiny Glimmers, just over three months ago, and, although it might not feel like it sometimes, and although my life still appears to be rather poor quality in many ways, and terribly terribly limited, I can see that things are generally better, and that I’m achieving a little more. I also have the confidence of my diagnosis, the feelings of validation that it gave me, and just that tiny bit of support I’ve had (help with forms, a follow up appointment, reassurance that I’m correct on many things and not going crazy, and suggestions for what I might do next), which have made a massive difference.

Interestingly, when I wrote Tiny Glimmers, I’d been trying to organize my paperwork and sort out my jobs lists and just get things a little more organized. I did the same yesterday, so maybe this is part of the process of taking stock, moving on, and trying to consciously plan and be proactive in life rather than just reacting to crisis after crisis and just “coping” whatever way seems most possible at the time. I did mindfulness meditation for several years (and have not ruled out returning to it when I’m in a more suitable place for it – now is not the right time) and one exercise that I found useful and adapted was to “check in” with feelings and to notice how they were. I adopted a method, during silent practice sessions, of using some of the time to analyse how things were, both physically and mentally (I know the two are not entirely separate systems, but I found it useful to examine each separately because my physical and mental health are so wildly different in their presentation – my physical health and fitness is probably on the “better” side for someone my age in my circumstances, and my mental health is certainly substantially worse).

So, I’d sit and take note of all the various bits of my body, usually picking up on various niggles caused by 50K training runs and the like, trying to work out whether the hip-strengthening work I was doing was easing the ITB (iliotibial band) issues I had for a brief spell, establishing whether my breathing was getting better with the new inhaler, that sort of thing. Mental wellness was, of course, more complex and involved trying to work out exactly where I was on the mania-depression scale, whether I was sleeping, eating properly, levels of anxiety and suicidal ideation and so on. But the exercise was helpful, because it enabled me to decide either to alter my training schedule or do more targeted exercises (physical) or to turn down or cancel things to remove pressure (mental). I had, without knowing it, developed a very basic knowledge that I needed to conserve social and sensory spoons. The “checking in” process really helped with that, and was one of the positives that I drew from the mindfulness I learnt in an attempt to prevent me relapsing, once again, into severe depression.

And now I’m using the “checking in” technique over a longer timescale, and I observe that although my mood and functional abilities are still very wobbly, and still varying wildly from day to day, the good days are better than they were, and the number of really really bad days has lessened. Like the tiny glimmers I observed back in January, there are little fragments of a new life that are now starting to show themselves occasionally, little moments where I am interested in SOMETHING again, and feel that one day I might have the energy to rebuild life and actually make it a bit better, rather than just surviving day to day, and, sometimes, hour to hour. The person who wrote Tiny Glimmers would have looked at the person typing this now and seen a veritable superhero – out of the flat now twice a week on average, starting to think about the future because I’m starting to think that I might actually HAVE a future, and making very tentative plans for the new life.

I know that everybody’s circumstances are different, and that there are many external complicating factors (burnout, family circumstances, comorbid conditions, reactions from others, and so on) during the period following an autism diagnosis. And I know that what I write here also varies wildly as my mood fluctuates and as I try to come to terms with the past and plan for the future. I’ve read accounts and heard from other people that it will be a year or so before things are likely to improve significantly, as my autistic brain is using a massive amount of processing power just to adjust to my new identity and therefore I have less energy for other things. However, using the best powers of logical analysis that I can summon, and viewing the evidence in my own life and in past posts of this blog, I can say that things are a little better now than they were a few months ago. It’s not dramatic – it isn’t “Hey, here’s an autism diagnosis – problems all solved” (and, to be honest, if it was like that then I’d be a little concerned because it’s so unrealistic), but it has made a noticeable difference to my life in a generally positive way. It’s slight, and it’s an upward trend rather than a continuous ascent (there are still a lot of sad and angry bits to work through), but it is, nonetheless, an improvement.

Double Regret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Circles

Amazingly, this is my 100th post on this blog. When I first posted to it, last December, I didn’t know whether it would ever get beyond The Discovery, and it was really just a convenient way to let people know that I had discovered I was autistic. In the last four months the blog has seemed to acquire a life of its own, and, from time to time, a few people seem to read it. I can hardly believe that it’s only around eight months since the idea of my being autistic was even suggested – in that time I’ve learnt so much about myself and my life and just how much being autistic has influenced me during the last 45 years.

One of the criteria for receiving a formal diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder” under the current system is that autistic traits and behaviours need to have been present throughout life (because autism is a lifelong condition). Consequently, the diagnostic process involves a lot of looking back through life and, particularly, back to early childhood. I’m fortunate enough to have a mother with a good memory who is still alive and was able to supply me with lots of information about my early life (I’ll write more on that another time), and it has been interesting to discover what she remembers about my childhood and how it relates to my own memories and experiences.

I’d like to indulge, if I may, in a little imaginary time travel, back through my life, to what, for me, has become an important point as far as my life as an autistic person is concerned. I start from now, 2017, when I am 45 years old, newly diagnosed, and slowly recovering from an episode of burnout. As I go back through my life I think about the 39-year-old receiving a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the 36-year-old who still couldn’t cook a meal, the 33-year-old who got randomly ill on holidays, the 29-year-old who spent nights bashing their head against the wall and drank bottles of whisky and ate packets of pills and hoped never to wake up again, the 26-year-old who sat at their desk trying to write their doctoral thesis while feeling like they were in a bubble and the world was unreachable, the 23-year-old who graduated top of their class but who ate the same thing for dinner every night and drank alcohol before breakfast every morning, the 19-year-old who couldn’t learn from lectures and dropped out of their first degree, the 16-year-old who was still being bullied at school and whose best friend was a cat, the 13-year-old who was routinely pinned down on the floor of the toilets by the other kids, the 9-year-old whose headmaster thought they were being abused at home, and, eventually, my time travel stops in a primary school in Bradford in 1975, where a little girl sits on the steps of a temporary classroom, crying.

The little girl is crying because it is playtime and she hates playtimes. She hates small children. They are noisy and they run around all over the place in a disorganized manner, and some of them step on the cracks in the pavements which means that very bad things will happen, and they are mean to her and some of them eat sweets in the morning which is against the rules, and so she cries, and she waits, desperately, for playtime to finish, so that she can retreat to the safety of the classroom where there is a teacher who might protect her, and where the children sit down and where it is quieter.

I know these things about the little girl, and have always known them, because I remember them. I remember many things about being 4 years old, but, as I started to question my mother, I discovered that there were things about my 4-year-old self that I didn’t know. One of these was that my teacher summoned my parents to school because she was concerned about me. I didn’t interact with the other children, and, most particularly, I wasn’t learning to write. I just sat and made my pencil go round and round in circles, filling page after page with scribbled circular patterns. The teacher said she’d never encountered a child like me and didn’t know what to do.

Finding out about this “circle drawing” was the first of many rather surreal discoveries about myself that I’d never have made if I hadn’t started asking questions because I was gathering information for an autism assessment. It shocked me somewhat, and I felt a huge sadness for that frightened stressed little kid, trying to withdraw from the world into something comforting, trying to survive in what felt like a very hostile environment. I cried many tears for her, because I couldn’t go back in time and help her, and I knew what she would have to go through before she finally understood why life was so tough. Just after diagnosis I wrote the letter below (complete with muddled tenses) to her, and during the information-gathering stage I went to a shop and bought pens and paper and drew circles and coloured them in. Because that was all I could do.

You will now realise why the “profile picture” on this blog and on the facebook page is what it is, and why I chose that particular picture for the post in which I revealed publicly that I am autistic. Today’s picture is from a similar, but different, drawing of circles.

The most important question I had for my autism assessor during my follow-up appointment was something like this: “If I had been 40 years younger, would I have still been receiving an autism diagnosis at this point in time, i.e. in 2017?” Her answer was that I would have. And she went on to say that, with the knowledge of the present day, the point at which I would have been identified as autistic would have been the point at which I went to school and sat on my own drawing circles and my teacher was concerned about my behaviour to the extent that she summoned my parents in to discuss it. That coupled with things we know about my behaviour at nursery the previous year, and various other things during my early development, would have triggered a diagnosis.

For some reason, knowing that, if I were 4 years old today I would be being diagnosed autistic, as a 4-year-old, is important to me. I have tried to think about why that is, and I came to the conclusion that the diagnosis my 45-year-old self received in February, although it covers my entire life, is a diagnosis for the future, for planning, for strategies, for rebuilding my life. The “diagnosis” my 4-year-old self received, retrospectively, in the follow-up appointment yesterday is, for me, the diagnosis that starts the process of making peace with my past – it feels like some kind of justice for that distressed little girl, crying on the steps of the classroom.

Of course, the other reason that age 4 is so significant for me as far as being autistic is concerned is that, as I started school and had to work out how to survive, it was the time I started to mask. It was the time that I started to learn what to do by watching other people, teaching myself to interact with other human beings. The social codes that came so naturally and intuitively to most others, who sought out human contact, were things that I had to learn through a cognitive process. I’m only just beginning to understand this, and how it has impacted my life. Being undiagnosed protected me from being “written off” or “cured” or whatever, but it meant that I worked fearsomely hard to try to make the world work for me and expectations were made of my abilities that I simply couldn’t fulfil. I believe the damage to my mental health started around that time – as an undiagnosed 4-year-old trying to fit in, learning to sit still, learning to socialize, and to do as I was told to avoid punishment, I was storing up the trauma that would eventually result in decades of mental illness and suicidal ideation (which switched to active attempts to end my life in my late 20s).

I’m certain I’ve mentioned it before, but one of the things that is so interesting about an autism diagnosis later in life is that it not only suggests strategies for coping with life better in the future, it also makes sense of the past. I cannot change the past, obviously, but getting the “diagnosis” for my 4-year-old self is another step in accepting it and understanding it.

Dear Four-Year-Old,

I was talking about you recently, to some nice people.

I was remembering what it was like for you at playtime at school. I was telling the people about the three big girls who used to be mean to you, and how noisy it always was at playtimes, and how much you wanted to get back to the safety of the classroom where there was a teacher who might protect you from the other children, who were frightening and who you didn’t want to be with.

I was also talking to your mother recently. She was telling me how she and your father were summoned to school to talk to your teacher, because there was a problem. In fact, there were a few problems.

I know you could already read very well before you went to school, and the teacher wasn’t very pleased about that, because she was supposed to teach you to read but you already could. She wasn’t very happy with your parents, who had supplied the books.

I found out from your mother that your teacher was concerned because you weren’t learning to write, like the other children were. Instead of writing you just sat and made circles in your writing book, using up all the paper, and any other paper available. Your teacher said that she had never met a child like you, and she didn’t really know what to do. Your parents didn’t know what to do either, so it was decided that you would not be allowed any more books so you didn’t damage them or use up the paper by drawing circles on it.

I know where you lived. I remember the street. I also remember that some kids from the street let your Space Hopper down and you were really unhappy about that because you loved bouncing up and down the street on it. And even though there was a man who worked at the garage and took it to blow it up again it wasn’t quite as bouncy as it had been before, which was sad.

I could send this to your address, which I still remember well, even though you only lived there briefly. But it would never reach you, because the mail can only go forwards in time, normally a few days or weeks. It cannot go backwards 41 years, which it would need to to reach you.

Neither can I come back in time myself, because there is no time machine. But if I could, I’d talk to your parents and teacher. And I’d try to explain that you are a bit different from most other children, and I’d give them a list of things they might look out for, and I’d work out what they could do to try to help make your life a bit easier, because I know that your life turned out to be very very hard in so many ways.

I’m not sure how convincing I’d be. A crazy person from the future, nearly as old as your granny is in your time. And, of course, there would be so many problems anyway because most of the information I have now is from books that will not be written until decades after the time you live in. I have a magic machine that allows me to read lots and lots of information about kids like you, but it won’t work in your time, because it relies on things that haven’t been invented yet.

If I could come and see you I’d try to protect you. I feel sad that you had to go through what you did, and I feel sad that your life was so hard and nobody knew how hard it was. I’d like to tell you that it got better soon, but I can’t, because you have many years of really hard stuff still to go through and many many tough times ahead. Life will be harder than you can even imagine right now. I’m sorry I can’t do anything about that, but you will find a way through, and eventually you will find out why it is like that.

But I would pick you up and hold you tight and tell you that you will, sometimes by strength, sometimes by accident, find a way to keep going through it all for at least another 41 years. There will be things that will help – your parents will not really understand you and they will not know for a long time that you really need extra help and support, but some of the things they do will help anyway. They will continue to supply books, which will help. They will get you a friend who is more comforting than any school friend could ever be, who will have soft fur and will purr for you. And they will let you do some of the things that make life feel better to you.

You know that recorder? The one you chew (yes, I know about that – I’ve still got it somewhere, and your teeth marks are still on the mouthpiece), keep playing it, and the other musical instruments you will learn in the future, because they will be really important to you. Keep reading and keep learning all the other stuff too – being interested in things and learning things is going to be one of the ways you survive in the world.

I will never be able to tell you this, but in 41 years time I will find out about the circle drawing, and I will draw some circles for you, because that is the best I can do for you. Because I am grown up now I can buy lots of really nice paper, and loads of books, and felt pens, and I can draw neat circles now and make patterns and colour them in – you’d have loved that!

When I finally tell the nice people all this, and I tell them about you and about all the other things your mother has recently told me, they will finally understand. And they will tell me some information that will explain why your life didn’t work out the way it was supposed to.

I can’t come back in time to care for you, or to explain. I wish I could.

But I will eventually find out why it all happened as it did and I will discover what makes life so hard for us. There is a word that describes people like us, even though nobody will apply that word to you in 1975. We are autistic.

The nice people listened, and heard all about you, and about the person you became, and they told me that my discovery was correct. You had a different sort of head. I have a different sort of head. We were never designed to fit into the world in the ordinary sort of way.

Stay strong little person. You will survive, and in 41 years you will understand. And you will finally be listened to and believed. And it will make life feel better and you can start to work out how to make an easier future.

See you in 41 years’ time!

A Forty-Five-Year-Old from the future

P.S. In 10 years’ time some girls at school will tell you that you’re too ugly to get a boyfriend. They are lying. You find someone who understands you perfectly and you will have a wedding with really nice cake!

Whatever You Call It

So, the dreaded “Autism whatever-you-call-it Day” has arrived. The day that, in theory, should be about autistic people and their needs and so on, but, from what I’ve gathered so far, seems not quite to work out that way (remember, I’m still really new to all this, and still learning, so I’m not going to go into detail about some of the more frightening aspects of the “light it up blue” campaign (please don’t light things up blue – many autistic people hate it, as they also hate the “puzzle piece” symbol), because I need to do further research and thinking before I’m confident enough to discuss some of the things I’ve been reading over the last few months – as far as the “politics” of autism are concerned, I’m very much still at the “listen and learn” stage).

However, as a newly-fledged autistic blogger, I eventually succumbed to the need to make some sort of statement about this day/week/month or whatever. I believe it was originally called Autism Awareness (and was then taken over by a particular organisation), but that the autistic community are now pushing it towards Autism Acceptance, and I’ve even seen several suggestions that it should be called Autism Appreciation! So, I’m going to look at awareness, acceptance, and appreciation, and consider just a few of the things I’d like to see more (or maybe less) of, as far as autism is concerned. This isn’t an exhaustive list, nor am I claiming to act on anyone else’s behalf, and where I’ve mentioned “most autistic people” I am acting, at this stage, only on the impressions I’ve received in the short time I’ve been part of the autistic community. I’m also conscious that the style is a bit rough, and it makes some generalisations for which I don’t currently have “hard” evidence, and that it also addresses non-autistic people rather heavily (if there is any element of “patronising” then it really isn’t intended, though I’m worried it might come over that way). Trying to make the thoughts into words is sometimes a little tricky – I am still very much a novice at this.

Awareness

1. I’d like everyone to be aware, really properly aware, that most autistic people are ADULTS. Autism is a lifelong condition and it doesn’t magically stop when someone reaches a significant birthday. Yet the mainstream focus on autism seems to be almost universally geared towards children – many autistic adults are unsupported, have poor access to diagnostic facilities, and are finding life tough. Many of us went through years of struggles before we even knew we were autistic and are burnt out and traumatised by the experience, yet when we search for information we are faced with a barrage of articles about children. This is not to downplay the importance of care for autistic children and the fantastic job that many parents do in trying to understand and care for their kids, but today’s autistic children will become tomorrow’s autistic adults – and once they’re not cute any more or their parents are no longer around to look after them they will very likely continue to need support.

2. I’d like people to be aware that most autistic people prefer to be referred to as “autistic”, not as a “person with autism” (though not all, and it’s always wise to ask people how they like to identify themselves because it’s their choice). My own thought is that “With autism” implies that some version of the person exists “without autism”. But autism is not an “add-on” – you can’t remove it somehow – the only way to make an autistic person “non-autistic” is to murder them, and I’m seriously not in favour of that approach for very obvious reasons! I’d also like people to be aware that many autistic people really really hate “functioning labels”. I have a whole blog post to write, one day, about the use of “high-functioning”, “low-functioning”, “severe”, and “mild” and how utterly inappropriate these terms are to describe an autistic person – autism is a condition that presents in so many different ways in such a variety of people that dividing the autistic population up based on some arbitrary criteria and how they are perceived in the non-autistic world is both nonsensical, and, to many, deeply offensive.

3. I’d really really like ALL health professionals to be more aware of autism and the needs of autistic people. Really aware. So that nobody will ever show up at a GP surgery and be told they “can’t be autistic because they make eye contact” or “there’s no point diagnosing adults because there’s no support”. So that nobody will have to spend years fighting for their daughter to be diagnosed, and go through multiple misdiagnoses because the professionals don’t know what to look for. I spent 20 years in the mental health system – not one of the professionals I saw suggested that I might be autistic – it was left to some friends I met by accident through a couple of my interests to point it out to me, and I then had to battle through a diagnostic process which nearly killed me, and where I encountered a psychologist who clearly knew very little about autistic people, how to treat them, or what some of the characteristics of autism even are. Awareness of autism in the medical profession is still, at best, patchy.

Acceptance

1. Fully accepting autistic people and our ways is, for many people, going to be challenging, and those non-autistics (also called allistics) who lead the way as allies to their autistic friends and family will, to a significant extent, have to fight against their OWN neurologies. I know quite a lot about fighting one’s neurology – I’ve spent 40 years doing it – it isn’t easy. Worrying about “how things look” or “what people will think” has, sometimes, to be ditched when dealing with autistic people. Picture yourself in this situation: You’ve gone out to coffee with a hungry friend – that friend approaches the counter in dark sunglasses and orders their regular coffee and snack without looking at the barista, the snack is sold out, your friend starts to sweat and gets anxious and walks away from the counter, leaving you to choose an alternative snack, pay the bill, and deal with the barista. You get the coffee, take it over to the table, where your friend is sitting, rocking back and forth, and scrolling frantically through their phone. People on the other side of the shop are looking at your friend, who doesn’t thank you for the coffee and barely acknowledges your arrival. A gang of kids comes in and starts laughing at the two of you, your friend starts to wave their hands around, which makes you even more conspicuous, and then screams hysterically, jumps out of their seat, and runs out of the shop and up the road in tears, leaving you to sort out the resulting chaos. If you’re still cool at that point and totally accept that your friend’s behaviour is entirely beyond their control and is the result of their being autistic and you totally accept it all then I think you’re wonderful! And you’ve just had coffee with me on one of the days where I’ve made myself cope in the outside world when I needed to be somewhere, when the option just to curl up and stay at home wasn’t available.

2. Accepting autistic people doesn’t just mean accepting the visible either. I am one of those autistic people who visibly stims. I always have to some extent, and now I know how good for me it is I control it the absolute minimum possible – it’s easy to see. I wasn’t asked about repetitive movements at my assessment because there was no need – it was obvious! With me it’s a case of “love me, love my stimming” – simples!!! However, there are many autistic people who don’t visibly stim, who might be waggling their toes inside their shoes, or subtly pressing parts of themselves against something. There will be nothing to see, but they might be finding it really difficult to follow a conversation or cope with being downwind of someone wearing strong perfume. They might have changed their clothes 20 times before leaving home because they were having a bad sensory day. They might have spent the previous night in tears because their favourite blanket was in the washing machine or the shop had run out of the only thing they could possibly eat for breakfast. They might, themselves, be anxious about asking for adaptions and not be quite as brazen as I often am about such things (sometimes I’m very brazen, other times I find it more difficult). Accepting the invisible can be particularly challenging for many people, but to fully accept every autistic person it is essential – the words “but you don’t look autistic” can, I’ve read so many times, feel invalidating and hurtful. Personally, I’ve never had those words said to me (see the start of this paragraph, which probably explains why), but not every autistic person is like me, and questioning somebody’s identity based upon some kind of stereotype of what autistic people are supposed to “look like” is really not cool. Autistic people are varied in their looks and behaviour, just like everybody else!

3. Because autistic people have different ways of perceiving the world and quickly become overloaded, especially in certain environments and around people, we need a LOT of downtime. Accepting that your autistic friend is still your friend and still values you even though they’ve cancelled your meet-up yet again is tough, but is part of the acceptance. Sometimes we really do need to be alone and stare at the wall – maybe for several days. We often need to do things that seem, from an allistic, social, point of view, rude. I am much more likely to be able to cope with having dinner with you if my phone is on the table next to me and I take breaks from talking to you to play a game or retreat into cyberspace – this, I understand, is regarded as rude in many social circles. It is not rude – it is survival, it is coping with overload. Furthermore, for those of us who are sporadically nonverbal and have times when we can’t speak, such devices are our communication tools, and, often, knowing they are there and we can resort to typed communication provides us with sufficient security that we can actually get through a meal and contribute to the conversation because our anxiety levels are lower. Next time you see a child with an iPad in a restaurant, don’t automatically assume that it’s an example of “bad parenting” or similar – it might be the difference between that family being able to go out to lunch or not. We are not necessarily great communicators – we are unlikely to phone you spontaneously, or be very good at getting back to you quickly (sometimes sending an e-mail takes a lot of effort) and we might miss subtle allusions and misunderstand social codes and we often cope rather better if you talk to us in clear, uncluttered language, but we are nearly always doing the best we can – this means we can get exhausted very very quickly. Many of us struggle to keep our homes tidy and clean – if you visit, do not judge us by conventional standards, because we can’t always keep up in the way that might be expected. “Pushing on through” when we are finding things difficult is often, for us, NOT the answer, and might actively damage us (Note: I am aware that some of this doesn’t just apply to autistic people, and there are many others with other conditions who have similar struggles). We can’t operate with the same set of conventions that many other people can because we’re working on a different system with different energy levels.

Appreciation

1. Although we do need time and space, many autistic people really really want to participate in life. If you want to appreciate our enthusiasm and skills, then bear with us and KEEP INVITING US! Sometimes we will have the energy, and we will want to spend time with you and enjoy the things we have in common with you. Sometimes, even if we can’t make it, we will really value the invitation. Many of us have a lot to offer, and we’re happy to share our time and skills with you, even though we’re not often the greatest publicists on the planet. To fully appreciate autistic people takes time, and possibly a little more effort than is usual (believe me, we’ll be making as much effort as we possibly can – it goes both ways – many of us are doing our absolute damndest to fit into the world, even though it is incredibly difficult). Many autistic people have a great deal of knowledge about a great many things – we’re often prolific learners and when we’re interested in something, we can become VERY interested in it indeed – some autistic people can make great careers out of their interests and appreciating talents is just as important as supporting through the difficult bits. (I realise I’m using “we” here, without having consulted with any other person, but I hope you’ll forgive the generalisation based only on my observations thus far – I do make an attempt, from time to time, not to make all of this exclusively about me, because, lovely as it is to be appreciated, I’d really like all other autistic people to enjoy appreciation too). Don’t give up on autistic people because we need a bit of extra consideration – there are autistic people who never speak but write books, and there are autistic speakers who can present brilliantly but miss out on the opportunities for networking in the bar afterwards, and so on. Being autistic is an important part of an autistic person’s identity, yes, but so, often, is being an artist, musician, scientist, poet, writer, sportsperson, someone who cares for animals, and all manner of other things. Appreciate all this stuff for its own sake too! Never underestimate what is going on in our heads, even when it’s not immediately apparent from the outside.

2. If an autistic person shows up at your party, or comes to your event, or spends time with you, then appreciate this – they are likely to have put in a huge amount more effort to have shown up than most other people will have. This statement is in NO WAY intended to induce any sort of guilt or to stop you sending invitations (see above), but just to make you aware that what you see on the surface might not be the full story. I am currently at the stage where, in order to recover from any major time out in the world, I need two full days blank in my schedule where I am mainly alone, mainly in a dimly lit place, and free to stim for hours or watch the same film on repeat, or similar. But most people who see me out in the world will not know that. Most people who watched me play in a concert the other night will be unaware that I spent two full days with a blank diary earlier in the week in order to prepare and that I now have two further blank days in order to recover enough energy for next week’s commitments. Being autistic means, as I’ve already mentioned, getting more tired than most people who do the same stuff. Appreciating the effort made might often mean just being aware of that effort, and, when somebody turns down an offer of a post-gig drink, for example, don’t argue with them or push them, don’t feel slighted when they need to take time out or sit on their own during a tea break, or can’t contribute in quite the same way as everybody else – appreciate the effort that has gone into being there at all, and know that you are the recipient of massive amounts of energy because you, or your event, or whatever, is appreciated and valued by them.

3. And, lastly, appreciate what autistic people themselves have to say. There are lots of us around – we’re everywhere, and many of us have plenty to say for ourselves (as you’ve probably noticed) in the form of books, blogs, and so on. As I’ve already mentioned, we’re a varied bunch, and our opinions on things differ depending upon circumstances, background, and so on. We’re not some sort of bunch of “autistic clones” who are all exactly the same as each other, but we do, often, understand each other in ways that, perhaps, allistic people don’t – even the most highly qualified allistic autism researchers and those who care for autistic people do not experience things from the inside, although many of them do make a great contribution, but in a different way. If you want to know what it’s actually like to be autistic, then asking people who are autistic is, perhaps, a good place to start. Many of us are glad to be asked (though we might take a little time to respond, and, remember, our ways of communicating responses might be a little unconventional). I am, of course, all in favour of autistic appreciation – any time anybody wants to appreciate this particular autistic (and their blog), you’d be very welcome. Appreciation in the form of good lattes, wine, cheese, nice soap, and an endless supply of fuzzy tangles is particularly welcome!!! 😉

As to lighting anything up blue, please don’t. There are various other campaigns such as “light it up gold”, “red instead”, and even “tone it down taupe”, which are, I believe, initiated by the autistic community. I have gone for the colour orange at the top of this post – orange is reasonably close to red, gold, and taupe, and is also the complete opposite to blue on the colour wheel. Thought that might be appropriate!

My “awareness, acceptance, appreciation” duties now discharged as best I can on this day, this blog will now continue, quietly, to do whatever it does in its own way.

Vague Head

Yesterday I posted the following status on my facebook:

Somewhat “vague” today. Not bad, just somewhat purposeless and lacking in any sort of knowing what to do. I’m sure there’s something must need doing, but I haven’t quite figured out what it is. And my head’s doing that “wandery” thing where it can’t quite figure anything out!

And later, replied to a comment on that post with the words:

I’m in one of those moods where I want to write stuff. But the head is blank. There’s nothing there. The little translation people in my head who sort the words have taken a day off.

As it turned out, I wasn’t wrong that the little translation people had taken a day off. By the time I got into bed my spoken words were becoming somewhat nonsensical, and by the time my husband had fallen asleep, they’d gone completely. I didn’t manage to get any sleep myself until nearly 4 am, so it was a rather tedious night. Even by this morning I still wasn’t able to ask him what time he’d be home from work because I couldn’t summon the energy to form a sentence that long and complicated.

And I’ve spent most of this morning in a state of some sort of shutdown. And that sort of “sad” feeling pervades. And everything seems to be a bit triggering and there are so many things on facebook that make me angry but I don’t quite have the capability to debate them because I’m right at the start of this process and I haven’t yet got to the stage where I can analyse and present the arguments in a way I want, so I read that according to the labels I’m supposed to be “high functioning”, because I could speak as a child, and I feel so desperate because I can’t remember how to work my socks and it’s nearly 2 pm and I’ve not yet been capable of eating or drinking anything, but that’s OK, because I’m “high functioning” so my life must be brilliant, like those autistic people in silicon valley who can do computer things without crying and so on. And everything’s all jumbled up in my head and I can’t really quite get the spoons together to make sense of it all, so I just sit at home in my horrible dark messy flat, staring at the forms for the state benefits I don’t want to claim because they scare me so much but I know I have to because I cannot hold down a job and my husband’s working flat out and we’re still not breaking even. But it’s OK, because I’m “high functioning”, and my sort of autism would be described by most people as “mild”. And there are parents on groups talking about their autistic children as some sort of tragedy and saying that because their children are “severe” they will never be able to live independently and that the adult “mild” autistics don’t understand. Even those of us who cannot live independently – independent living is a distant dream for me, a world that I might never attain! And they even have children at all, which, to someone like me who was never able to have any, seems terribly ungrateful. And I see the success stories and the smiling graduation pictures and I remember how hard I worked (not at the subject, but at being able to live) to get through my degree, and the early morning drinking to enable me to cope with the world, and the picture that everyone else saw of a smiling person in mortarboard and gown and how much damage I was doing behind the scenes by pretending to be strong that by the time I was in my late 20s I was downing bottles of whisky and packets of pills in the hope that I wouldn’t ever wake up again.

And all this goes round and round in my head like some sort of mess, from which I hope, one day, to extract some sense, some coherent argument, some way of trying to explain all this to people that they will understand, that they will think about. And how important it is not to pressurize autistic people into appearing “normal” from the outside because it is doing us so much damage on the inside. And I sort of hope that people will realise why all this stuff is so triggering and difficult for so many of us, but I realise that many of them probably won’t, and just like I’ve had to learn in other areas of my life, there are times when I really should hide the offending posts on facebook and move on, because my own quality of life is often so poor that I need not to make it poorer by staying awake all night, nonverbal, triggered by all this stuff, and wishing that I’d never been born because my life is such a bloody awful mess. And even as I type that sentence I’m worried that I’m lining up “nonverbal” next to “triggered” and so on, and I want to go back and change it (but I don’t have the spoons) because it implies that nonverbal (which really should be called nonspeech anyway because typing is verbal, just not spoken) is bad, and it isn’t, at least not from the inside – it feels calmer and less stressful than trying to maintain conversation, which is often hard deliberate work. I usually find that I start to feel worse and worse when I’m trying to hang on to speech, but feel much better once it has gone, an inner peace that isn’t available when trying to communicate by talking. Yet so much of the outside world seems to see this silence as a bad thing. And I am confused. And now, reading that paragraph back, I realise how social media, which is largely responsible for triggering many of these thoughts, is simultaneously wonderful and difficult, because without it I would spend most of my life without any human interaction at all, but with it I am exposed to things that are often difficult to cope with. And there’s another whole blog post to be written about that too.

And as I type this I wonder whether even to post it. Because I want to make proper, reasoned posts about all these things at some point, and I want to explore as many angles of the debate as possible. Despite my never having succeeded in academia, I am an academic at heart, a scientist, a person who tries to be as rational and logical as possible and to try to understand the opposing point of view in arguments, even if I subsequently dismiss that point of view.

But I am also just a person. A very broken person, with a lot of baggage still to unpack, a lot of self-esteem issues to deal with, a lot of practical problems to tackle, and a very very struggling head that doesn’t even think in words and needs to expend vast amounts of energy to translate the concepts and pictures and feelings into words in order to communicate them to other human beings. Even then, I don’t always get it right – it’s clear from replies to things that I say on facebook that others don’t always understand what I mean and maybe I’m not clear enough.

Note: I ran this post by my husband, who suggested that I add the words “I do understand that people who say ‘you aren’t broken’ are trying to be helpful but it is often the opposite of helpful so please, if you would like to know how to help, you can start by not telling me ‘you’re still you’ or ‘you’re not broken.’ Thank you.” (There’s a whole blog post to write about that at some point too – the extent to which I’m “me” or “broken” is massively complicated in my head and I need to work it out for myself, which will take some time).

I will do the proper blog posts at some point. The ones on my list, in which I discuss functioning labels, in which I discuss speech, in which I discuss how damaging internally it can be to an autistic person to try to behave socially in the same way as most other people can, and about how some of us who have been doing it unknowingly for decades have struggled to work out why life has consistently been so tough and gone so very wrong and have ended up so very broken and burnt out as a consequence of putting in so much effort for such a long time.

But I need more time for those. I need the soupy mess in my head to settle, so I can see. I need to do it when the translation mechanism is running smoothly and my head is clear and I’m not dealing with so many other things at once.

If I do decide to post this, then it will feel like one of the “braver” (to use a word that others have used to describe this blog) posts, because I am raising issues that are difficult, and I’m doing so without even having the capability to debate them, or with the backup of sufficient knowledge in my head, which feels like a rather frightening, and maybe risky, thing to do. But one of the things I was determined to do at the outset of this whole blogging enterprise was to try to be honest (or, at least as honest as I can be – there are things I have to leave unsaid sometimes to protect other people because my story is my own, to use as I please, but where it intersects with the lives of specific others I sometimes have to tread more carefully).

Maybe, however, it will be worth it if it encourages others to think about these issues. Although I know I’m already triggering myself massively just by typing this stuff up, never mind what will happen if I post it.

Perhaps the very best course of action at this point would be to go and see whether the connections in my head are working sufficiently well to make a cup of tea. And if they’re not, to get someone on social media to talk me through the process so at least I’ve had a hot drink today, even if nothing else!

One Month On

I have how had my official autism diagnosis for a month. In that month, life has continued to change almost as rapidly as it did before I was diagnosed. My father’s cancer diagnosis has obviously changed my priorities with regard to how I spend my limited energy over the coming months. My financial situation has once more become difficult and precarious and is causing me considerable amounts of anxiety. And I have, with huge regret, realised that I cannot, at this time, continue with the maths degree that I so badly wanted to finish, so it is time to let go, to stop pushing, and to admit that I have simply run out of time and energy.

Obviously, life is still a long way from where I’d like it to be. My sleep patterns are still poor, which is not great, but they’re better than they were a few months ago. I’m now managing to leave the flat around twice a week, which is a slight improvement. When I do go out I am slightly better able to cope because I am more aware of which strategies work for me and I’m learning to give myself more recovery time afterwards.

I have now started, very slowly, to eat just a little better than I have been doing, which is no bad thing, since I saw a full-length photo of myself recently and was slightly shocked at how thin I looked. I finally weighed myself a couple of days ago and discovered that I’ve lost a stone since last summer, simply because I have felt too sick and anxious to cope with food. This is not good – I was not trying to lose weight, particularly not in that way, and I am just lucky that I was in good enough physical condition to start with that my body could cope. I am also still drinking too much alcohol in order to cope, but am starting to try to cut down just a bit in order not to do too much more damage to my physical health.

However, despite all the difficulties mentioned above, the persistent insomnia, the struggles to go out, and the continuing dysfunctional relationship with both food and alcohol, there are signs that things are improving. My husband and several friends have remarked that they perceive my underlying mental state to be improved and, even though I’m still getting some extremely sad, angry, and regretful moments, I’m starting to accept things as they are in a way that I didn’t before my formal diagnosis.

There were several people who said, before my diagnosis, that since I knew I was autistic, they knew I was autistic, and my friends and family accepted that I was autistic, there really wasn’t any necessity for me to pursue a formal diagnosis in order to understand myself. What none of these people understood, however, was my need for validation, reassurance that I hadn’t simply imagined the whole thing, and the huge huge confidence that the formal diagnosis has given me. This might not be necessary for everyone, but for me it was essential. And it really has made a massive difference to my life.

The formal diagnosis also, for me, marked the end of the old life, and the beginning of the new one. The process of discovery in the preceding months was like a sort of introduction, perhaps an overture before the curtain was raised at the beginning of the first act, or maybe the preface before the start of chapter one. My old life has been demolished, and now the process of rebuilding can begin.

There is obviously a lot of relief that the process of seeking a diagnosis is now over, and I feel, even more than previously, that my life now makes sense in a way that it never previously did. As I predicted in the last few paragraphs of Why Bother, the diagnosis has finally given me full permission to stop regarding myself as a naughty, lazy, failure of a human being. I also feel liberated from the pressure to “succeed” that has pervaded my whole life so far. There is still a long way to go and I still, frequently, feel that I am not entitled to breathe the air and that the world would be a better place without me, but I am still only a month into the new life, and there’s nearly half a century of the old one to analyse, reevaluate, and reframe.

Furthermore, I have to go through the process of mourning the life I might have had if only it had been recognised that I was autistic before I got to my mid 40s. There are still difficult topics to tackle – the mental health professionals who failed for two decades to recognise it, my childhood, the incessant, triggering, references to small children when I try to research autistic traits, and where I fit, if at all, into the autistic community (I am used to being alone and to shying away from being part of any sort of group, and discovering that there are others who experience so many of the same things as I do is, for me, somewhat disconcerting).

But one month after diagnosis there is a calm, even more so than that I felt after discovery. I strongly believe that there is a very good chance that my mental health will, eventually, be better than it has been for decades, possibly even than ever before. I am already, after just four weeks, much more confident about describing myself as autistic, and feeling that I have a right to do so. I’m also treating myself much more gently than I did previously – because now I have official permission!

I’m certain there will be yet more phases to go through, and not all will be easy, but maybe, just maybe, I will eventually rebuild a life that works. And it will be a better life than the one that officially ended four weeks ago.