Blog Birthday!

A year ago today I shared the link to the first entry on this blog, having put it up the night before but not yet told anyone it existed (I wanted to “sleep on it” before sharing). My facebook memories stated that I was “really really nervous” about it and I certainly remember it feeling like a “big thing” at the time and hoping that people would treat me gently.

I didn’t actually state that I’d discovered I was autistic until the end of the third post. The first one was hastily written and rather patchy, and I wasn’t in a great place mentally at the time. I’d originally intended to wait until I had a formal diagnosis before I “went public” about being autistic, but my first assessment going so badly wrong meant that I had to change plans.

When I first set the blog up the title was simply “Finally Knowing Me” and I didn’t add the subtitle “An Autistic Life” until after I was formally diagnosed and started to become much more confident about the whole thing. I also didn’t know about tags and categories on the blog – just posting at all was a massive deal and I had to get my spouse to sit with me throughout the entire process in order to be able to do it at all.

Initially I didn’t post anything at all without him reading it first. I wasn’t confident enough. I was afraid of getting things wrong. I still am sometimes, and I want to write all sorts of posts about all sorts of things, but I also need time to absorb everything that has happened during the last 16 months – I find it hard to believe now that just 17 months ago I didn’t have the first idea that I was autistic and had very little knowledge of what autism even was. It has been a steep learning curve.

And I’m still learning. Following my diagnosis, just under 10 months ago, I became more confident about joining autistic groups online and interacting with other autistic people. Since then I’ve also been through an ADHD diagnostic process as well. There is a constant stream of new information, of new things, of articles and tweets and facebook posts and blog posts and so on. I have hundreds of links saved, so much still to learn and analyse and think about.

And I still wonder where I might fit into this world of neurodiversity, and what I might eventually contribute and how far autism will continue to be an interest I pursue in that “very interested” kind of way, and so on. For now I’m blogging less than I was, partly because I have needed a break for the sake of my health (I was beginning to become exhausted) and I’ve needed to take a step back, partly because I’ve become aware of so many more issues since I started blogging and I want to start to investigate and research more thoroughly (I need to read, I need to think, I need to learn – then I’ll be in a better position to analyse and write), and partly because I’ve been starting to rebuild my “real world” life a bit (getting back to music and running and seeing a few actual people from time to time).

I feel I have time to do some of those things now, in a way that I didn’t this time last year. I got frantic in October as I saw the number of views here plummet (as they would, since I wasn’t generating new material, and I was engaging less and less online as my health took a nosedive – I’m also a terrible publicist and not very good at publicising this blog beyond sharing each new post to facebook or twitter) but I forced myself to stop fretting. If only two people read each post then so be it, if someone “unlikes” the facebook page each time I post then so be it!

Which takes me back to a year ago. To the point where I decided that I HAD to start explaining what was going on in my life, and that I HAD to be openly autistic. And to the point where I concluded that even if nobody believed me and all my facebook friends unfriended me and dumped me for claiming the identity “autistic” for myself without official permission, then that was the way it would have to be.

That was the point at which I could no longer pretend. I saw it as a two way choice – either live openly and freely as an autistic person (and probably go on incessantly about it for a while), or kill myself. The former risked me ending up getting laughed at or disbelieved or alienated (all of which were potentially reversible), the latter ended up with me being dead (which, of course, is irreversible). And so this blog was started, as it was the best way I could think of of making the information available to people.

As it turned out I wasn’t disbelieved or anything else, rather the opposite. And this blog has since grown into something I’d never have expected a year ago. I wrote 170 posts in the first year of its existence (this is the 171st), which I’d never have imagined when I started out.

Who knows where it goes from here. I know it’s not finished yet. I know there’s more I want to do. I know I need to give my head processing time and that life continues to change. I know there is SO much more to learn, and that some of the issues surrounding autism and being autistic are complicated and that many are controversial. I don’t cope well with conflict, which means that I have to consider how “activist” I can be before it becomes seriously detrimental to my mental health.

I know that lots of people also produce vlogs and that accessing information presented only in speech is exhausting for me because where reading is something that takes very little processing for me, speech takes a great deal and I tend to save my “speech processing spoons” for real life interactions, which is when I need them most. Perhaps as I continue to recover from burnout this will improve.

My own life is also still very chaotic. We live in chaos, in a constant state of mental fragility, on a financial knife edge, everything precarious and uncertain and unstable. I’d like to use some of my energy to try to improve that a little if I can. The burnout of 2016 meant my life almost completely fell apart – I’m still picking up the pieces and trying to stick them back together in some sort of sensible order. It all takes time and energy.

My spouse assures me that it will all be sorted eventually (he’s an optimistic type), and also reminds me that as far as autism and autism advocacy and so on is concerned, it’s still really early days for me. I look at the work of others and feel very far behind, but then I realise they’re often months or years further along their own journeys and I’m still really new to all this.

To those of you still reading, and particularly those who’ve been reading from the beginning, huge thanks. Sending virtual first birthday cake to you all!

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How To Be

I’m aware that this blog is becoming a bit erratic. There is still the story of my diagnosis to complete. There are hanging bits of part stories about discovering I was autistic. There are still random bits of semi-poems intermingling with journal entries. And I have yet to write about significant topics in a way that I eventually hope will be properly useful to others. It’s all a bit of a mess really. And I still have comments to respond to, and so many times where I’ve stated that I need to write a whole blog post about something and haven’t yet. But I can only do what I can do. My spoons are often somewhat limited and I work pretty much to capacity at all times, so I can’t do more.

And that’s just on the actual blog. Inside my head it’s even worse. There are fragments of posts, ideas, notions, concepts and so on. I have note after note after note on my phone, half-typed half thoughts about various things. It feels like I need a year or more to go through them all and construct coherent writings from them. There is so much to do, I’m so behind with things that I need to do to keep my life just about ticking over. And there never seems to be enough time, and by time I mean the sort of time where I’m functional enough to achieve things.

Maybe, however, this erratic situation, this state of chaos, is actually reflective of my own state of mind and my own current situation, which is also erratic and chaotic. Over a period of 24 hours last week I went from hating being me and not wanting to exist, to being content and still feeling this huge relief of realising who I am. I am still struggling to speak or get out of bed some days, but can be quite capable on others. And I have also realised over the last couple of weeks, that when I am out of the flat, in public, with other people, I have a situation that is still not resolved, and not even close to being resolved.

I do not know How To Be.

The problem is this:

I have always been regarded as somewhat “eccentric”, and even, maybe, some would say, a bit weird. That’s OK, I’m cool with that, it’s not a problem to me, I’ve dealt with it long since. After over 4 decades of being a bit on the interesting side of things I’m pretty used to it. I got really upset about being bullied and so on at school until I was around 15, but by then I’d largely learnt that it was just part of life and although it wasn’t much fun, I’d learnt to act “normal enough” to survive out in the world. I’d learnt to live with it, to cope.

The problem, of course, was that in learning to act “normal enough” and in learning to cope, what I’d actually done was literally learnt to act. I’d built a mask, and a pretty effective one at that. And the mask that I built was one of a rather strong and confident person. I wasn’t the stereotypical autistic girl “flying under the radar” by sitting quietly in the corner in the class, unnoticed. I wasn’t failing exams or dropping out of school. I was strong-willed, brash, and externally confident (even internally confident to an extent, because however much of a failure I was at friendship and sport and so on, I could learn things and pass exams reasonably easily, so that was what I did). I was told that I was capable and could achieve great things (largely because of the exam results and my capacity for learning things), and so the mask that I built was one of a high-achieving confident young woman.

However, this mask came at a price, and that price was my mental health. Constantly “being strong” and “achieving” in the way that I did in my early 20s was breaking me inside, and by the time I got to my late 20s I was very very ill indeed, heading for the serious episode of burnout at around age 30, from which I never really recovered, and my life was falling apart.

Up until last year I continued with the masking process to a considerable extent while out in the world. I continued to believe that the strong me was the real me, and once I’d recovered from being mentally ill (I really believed I’d get better at some stage) I’d be back to full strength. However, that continual masking was breaking me yet again, and, perhaps inevitably, I fell apart again completely, in the summer of 2016. And by that time the world had caught up sufficiently for the events to occur that eventually led to me being diagnosed autistic.

And, because of the sort of person I am, having discovered I’m autistic I’m determined to BE autistic. I don’t consider it something to hide away, I don’t consider it something to try not to be. It’s a huge part of my identity, and after over 4 decades being “somebody else”, the relief at being a more authentic version of me is huge. I suddenly realise it’s OK to allow myself to eat the same thing day after day after day if it makes me feel better, I’m allowed to stop forcing myself to take part in group conversations until I’m so sick I’m at the point of collapse, I can stim and fiddle with things and know it’s not me being wilfully annoying but is just part of my neurology, and I’m finally learning how to be myself after decades of trying to be the person society expected me to be and failing at it.

Which is all very well when I’m at home, or with tolerant friends or someone who can care for me and explain. And is absolutely fine when I’m in safe environments and have enough spoons to take care of myself. All very lovely – in theory all I need to do now is to be my fabulous autistic neurodivergent hand-flappy rocking-back-and-forth sunglasses-wearing eye-contact-no-longer tell-it-like-it-is self! Neurology explains everything, no more need for acting! Yippeeeee!

However, I’m a grown up person. I have to live in the world. I have to go out to shops to buy food. I have to be able to deal with other human beings if I want a life beyond the television and the sofa. I want to participate in activities that will be full of neurotypical folk who think it’s great to have a spontaneous chat about nothing at all and that such a thing takes no effort, who sit and stand too close to me for comfort, who are irritated by my stimming, who will expect me to use polite social niceties that mean something to them, who don’t even know what being autistic means, and who mistake my lack of social finesse, my sometimes inability to speak, my lack of eye contact, and so on, for rudeness or disrespect or similar, which, of course, it isn’t, it’s just that my natural way of being is different from theirs.

And so I come up with a dilemma. As I’m starting to emerge from burnout and beginning to go out into the world again a bit more, I’m finding that there are times I slip back into the old mask, which is probably inevitable after 4 decades of living that way and it becoming such a practised part of my act. It’s very obvious when I do though, because I start to feel very ill and bad rather quickly and I don’t have the stamina to maintain it for very long. There are also times when I catch myself doing something really obviously autistic (like losing speech or flapping my hands or something) and realise that if something went wrong or somebody challenged me, I’d be in deep trouble without being able to explain properly what was going on and with no carer on hand to help. And how DO you deal with a stranger who is standing so close to you that their “person vibes” are making you feel ill, when they don’t even understand the concept of “person vibes” (which, incidentally, is a term I just invented now)? They think you’re being awkward, but you’re not, it’s just that you can’t cope with that much person that close in that time and place.

I have no answers at this stage. But I’m coming up against the same problem that I read about from the parents of autistic children, but for myself, not a child. I’ve seen discussions about the extent to which autistic children should be pushed and made resilient and able to cope in life, and the extent to which they should be encouraged to be their fully autistic selves with all that that entails. I’m now considering to what extent I need to continue to use the mask I’ve developed in order to survive in the world and to what extent I can allow all my autistic traits and tendencies to dominate. On the one hand, trying to make autistic people “look” neurotypical can be massively damaging to mental health (don’t I know this from bitter experience), and how well we “fit in” or “look normal” is no measure of success in an autistic life because it denies who we are and can cause huge burnouts, but on the other hand we have to survive in the world somehow and that needs a certain amount of resilience and coping ability, especially given how little support there is in most societies for autistic people, particularly those of us who are adults. Add on to that the complications of late diagnosis and the concomitant identity crisis that arises from this huge change in life, and it’s easy to see how difficult it is to know how to proceed from here.

And this is not just about societal attitudes, but about practical survival and physical health. I’m not at the stage where if the supermarket discontinues my usual food that I don’t eat at all, but I did sit and cry for half an hour the other morning and declared that I wouldn’t eat or drink that day because we’d run out of the milkshake that I usually have when I first get up. My autistic brain said NO in big shouty letters, and I had to use my rational “learning” brain to argue with it. I had to allow myself to recover from what was basically a mini-meltdown over a milkshake, and then gently persuade myself that I was going to eat and drink and it would be OK to drink something different until my husband could get to the right shop to get the right sort of milkshake. This all takes energy (and, in my case, a very understanding husband), and it’s nobody’s fault – it’s just the way my brain works being at odds with what I know to be good for my body and overall health!

And going out into the world and coping with everything that the external world throws at me takes even more energy, even when people are trying their utmost to understand and be helpful. I’m quite good at it because I’ve been practising for a long time and I’ve learnt a lot of social skills which I can maintain quite well for the duration of most social events as long as I get enough downtime in between, but I’m also determined to be as autistic as I need to be where possible, because it’s so much easier, more relaxing, and SO much better for my mental health.

Also, while knowing I’m autistic is an amazing liberating relief, and while I really like being autistic me because it’s so natural and right and comfortable, I also rather liked the strong capable mask person (which is possibly understandable – since I created a persona it probably made sense to create one of someone I liked rather than someone I hated). I don’t want to lose some of those strong bits (being “tough” is something I enjoy in many contexts), and I still need some of that resilience to survive and to live any sort of sensible life.

However, I know that, aside from the briefest of interactions, I have to be open about being autistic. I read of people who hold down jobs and don’t tell their employers that they’re autistic – that wouldn’t be possible for me as I’m too obviously different, and at my best I can maintain that level of mask for only about 3 days absolute maximum, even when I’m going home in the evenings. In the past the jobs have just failed, and I’ve lost them. Without significant and noticeable adaptions there are things I simply can’t do. At the moment I’m not even close to being able to work, but if that ever changes then there’s no way I could hide such a big part of me. I can currently act neurotypical for an hour or so at most these days, certainly not long enough to hold down a job!

So I’m now stuck in a bit of an inbetween state, trying to work out where to go from here, trying to work out how I can take this new discovery, be myself, be openly autistic, enjoy the benefits that brings to me, even manage to advocate for other autistic people and educate others about autism, but still manage to live a life that doesn’t mean I’m sidelined for things, or unable to participate in many of the sort of events that make life interesting and worth living.

This post has turned out to be more a list of questions, of musings, of ponderings, than anything else. Maybe, a year on from discovery, six months on from diagnosis, and slowly emerging from burnout, this is a phase I have to go through. I have to ask the questions before the answers will start to emerge. I have to consider how I’m going to live my life, what I’m going to push myself to do, how much I can ask for adaptions to do things I’d be unable to do without them, how much I’m going to give up on some things because it’s too much, and where the balance will eventually lie. Maybe there will never be a full balance, but some sort of compromise between the bit of me that craves adventure and activity and the bit of me that needs solitude and peace.

And after two thousand words of analysis and consideration…

I still don’t know How To Be!

I am still having, consciously, to make decisions about whether to present the old mask to people, which is practised and known and I can do only for short lengths of time, or whether simply to “be myself”, which is new and unfamiliar to me and others and requires explanation and education but is so much more relaxing and feels so much more honest and authentic.

I suspect I’m still learning, trying things out, sometimes getting it wrong, sometimes getting it right, discovering what works and what doesn’t. I suspect that learning How To Be as an authentically autistic person who can actually manage to do things out in the world without getting constantly broken will be an iterative process, and I’m still very much at the start of that process.

Energy Budgeting

I have a fairly busy week coming up. There are things in my diary that I’ve agreed to do that involve other people and are therefore “fixed” and would cause stress to me and others to cancel or change. There are also jobs that I really do need to do this week because not doing them would cause consequences (paying bills, dealing with various messages, making decisions about what to commit to over the next few months so other folk can plan, and that sort of thing). So I’m a bit stressed, and a bit anxious about how I’m going to cope with it all.

Part of what has happened over the last few weeks is that my state of “wellness” has shifted slightly. I’m far from “well” or able to live anything approaching what might be thought of as a “normal” life, but I’m no longer so ill that it’s obvious my life can only consist of getting out of bed, staring at the telly for a few hours, and then going back to bed again, which was how it was a few months ago. I can now manage to leave the flat on my own from time to time, even though it exhausts me, and, consequently, I’m doing rather more than I have been for many months.

But this increase in activity comes at a price. Each time I increase what I’m doing, a bit of functionality drops off somewhere else or I end up, on the days I’m not out in the world, back to being so ill that I can barely get out of bed. I managed to get to the conference the other week, and then to write it up as fully as I could, but the result was that I then spent two full days barely able to do anything and retreated back under my blanket on the sofa, stimming almost constantly, and not really managing to eat properly. You might have noticed that, as I’ve been doing more I’ve been blogging less. I only have so much energy and cannot use it everywhere at once.

And so I need to budget my energy. If I’m going to have enough energy to do the things I want to do in life (or, at least, as many of them as possible – I’d really have liked a full-time job and a family and to have been able to have a hobby or so on top of that, but I’m realistic to know that, for me, those things simply aren’t possible), then I’m going to have to save my energy rather carefully and work out what things drain my energy and what things give me energy, and how I can balance the two.

Which is, of course, why, stupidly, I’m up and out of bed before 10 in the morning this morning, too much in my head to go back to sleep, and now sitting at the computer writing a blog post about it!!!

The irony is not lost on me that I’ve woken up this morning feeling not too bad and am struggling to rest in the way that I know I should be doing if I’m to get through the rest of the week without falling apart. I’m just hoping that I can get the important jobs like bill paying done today so that at least I can allow myself to crash out later in the week if I need to, and I can spend all available energy dealing with the inevitable anxiety that seeing people (some of them new) and going to places (at least one of them unfamiliar) later in the week will inevitably cause.

It’s also particularly difficult to budget my energy at the moment because I don’t actually know how much energy I have to start with. In terms of spoon theory, I’m currently being given a number of spoons at the start of each day but I don’t know how many there are (I’m sure others with variable conditions will relate strongly to this feeling). In terms of monetary budgeting, it’s like working with a bank account without a balance available – I might have enough in there to go on a spending spree and buy whatever I like today, or I might go out and try to buy essential food and not have enough to pay for it. I simply don’t know, so it all feels like a bit of a guessing game right now and all I can do is keep trying to find out where my limits are.

What I do now know is that the only way to manage these energy levels is to let them settle as I stabilise after burnout, to work out just how much functionality I have in what areas, and then to start to look at how I can optimise life in general to be as good as it can be. I’m still accepting that it’s never going to be the sort of life I anticipated it would be when I was in my late teens and early twenties, nor the life that many other people expected me to have at that time. I’m still trying to figure out what I can do and get to a point where there is some sort of stability in my life. Currently, it all feels rather unknown and rather challenging and rather uncertain.

I could, of course, decline the offers to meet people, to play music, and to go out to dinner. I could give up the idea of ever running in big races. I could abandon plans to continue studying and learning. And I could decide to spend the rest of my life watching daytime TV, scrolling through social media, and playing with the animals. It became evident years ago that I can’t hold down a life-sustaining job for any length of time and I am not able to live independently. It also became apparent some years ago that having a family wasn’t going to be in my list of options either.

However, I’m interested enough in things that I don’t want to abandon all my goals and I do want to get back out into the world as much as I can. But, unlike in the past, I now have knowledge that makes me experience almost everything in life very very differently. I feel like I almost went into hibernation back in September 2016, and I’ve spent months, mainly hidden away in the flat, exploring my real identity, finding autistic communities online, learning the language of the autistic world, discovering things about my past, learning to listen to my body, having hundreds of “lightbulb moments” where I suddenly realise that there’s something ELSE I have always done because I’m autistic, and also allowing myself time and space to come to terms with what has happened and to recover from the huge burnout that had been building for some time.

But getting back out into the world uses energy. It uses energy in unexpected ways. Every time somebody asks me the question “What do you do?” it saps my energy levels massively because I have no simple answer and have not yet developed a reliable script. Every time people expect me to have “normal” social skills, or to chat in a group, or to be able to process the sheer amount of speech in the world, I get exhausted. Every time I have to explain because I’m meeting people who don’t know me online and don’t read my blog, it’s knackering. Every time I hear someone using person first language or functioning labels and so on I want to scream at them, I want to make them understand, but that all uses energy – things that are taken for granted in autistic communities online are totally foreign to most people in the outside world and, as is so often the case, the only way to deal with it is self-advocacy (ironically, I have a communication disability but in order to get my needs met in the outside world I have to be able to communicate effectively in a way that is exhausting and difficult to me)!!!

None of this surprises me, of course. Some of it I’ve known for years, and some of it is very easy to deduce when I think back to a year ago when I’d never heard of “burnout”, “stimming”, “inertia” and so on (I promise I’ll write proper blog posts explaining terminology at some point – it’s something I really want to do, but I can only process all these things at a certain pace and I can’t do everything at once). I know that there’s no reason why most people would have the faintest clue of what it’s like to experience the world as I do (and, of course, it turns out that I don’t know what it’s like to experience the world as they do either) and I’m now having to work out the interface between me, now unmasked, totally public and “out” and determined to be as authentically autistic as possible, and the world outside that won’t always totally understand me.

And it all uses energy. Lots of energy. And I don’t know whether I even have that much energy much of the time. But, ten months after discovering it was very likely I was autistic, six months after the low point of the aftermath of the first assessment going so badly wrong, and nearly four months after diagnosis, I’m starting to gather just enough energy together to do a few “normal” things out in the world. And since I’m no longer masking, or pretending, I’m hoping that I’ll gain quite a lot of energy from that – enough to compensate for the energy I’ll use doing all the necessary explaining.

So energy budgeting is very much something I’m thinking about at the moment. I’m starting to gather resources, starting to think about how I could make a system that will work for me (much like my old “mood diary” did so effectively in managing my bipolar disorder) in monitoring things, and what some of my goals for the future are going to be. Since I now know I have quite substantial limitations on what I can do because my neurodivergent brain needs so much energy to process “ordinary” things, I’m going to have to choose my goals and activities quite carefully!

This still feels like very very early days. There is still a long way to go. But it’s a start!

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?

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.