A Short One

I have just been out for a walk.

This might not seem like particularly startling news. Especially when I tell you that my walk was just 2 kilometres long and I was out for under 20 minutes (the 2km actually took 18 minutes, 24.7 seconds).

The fact that I know that much detail about my walk (at an average pace of 9:12 per kilometre) will tell those in the know that I didn’t just amble round the block randomly, but I took my Garmin (running watch) and measured time and pace and so on.

I also wore my running shoes. A pair that have done a couple of marathons with me.

All this might seem rather irrelevant, and a slightly strange blog post. Maybe so.

But it is important.

Because it is the start of returning, properly, to life. It is a tiny bit of something approaching “normal” in this huge sea of autism and mental health and newness and unfamiliarity.

Aside from one short run in January, I have not run since November. Granted, I didn’t run today, but I took the first few steps (2043, according to my Garmin) towards it. Back in January I was making a desperate last-ditch attempt to be well enough for my spring marathon (and ultra) season, but I really wasn’t well enough, and quickly gave up.

So now I have abandoned all races until at least the autumn. And I am starting over. And I am making it as easy as possible to start over.

Because at the moment I am still struggling with inertia, massively. I’ll write properly about autistic inertia sometime – it’s the feature that means our brains are very good at persisting with things, often for hours on end, but are terrible at starting and stopping or switching tasks. The effort needed to start something is huge, and takes a lot of energy.

Furthermore, I still have huge anxiety when leaving the flat. My senses are still in overdrive from the burnout. The world is still loud and bright and full of so much information that I feel like my head might explode. Previously I would have used energy to mask these feelings, consciously blocking out the input to my senses – doing so for years has both left me too exhausted to function and has been seriously detrimental to my mental health.

So, in as far as I have any control over things, I am determined now, to be me, and not to use that energy unless I absolutely have to for survival. Furthermore, since the energy to mask ran out I can’t do it. I don’t have the resources to act any more, so I have to live as I am, now acutely aware of my heightened senses, but also no longer making myself be strong, no longer forcing myself to block them consciously, even though they are sometimes overwhelming.

Couple all that with the anxiety I’m still getting just leaving the flat, and you’ll begin to see why going out for a walk was such a big deal today.

And so my strategy was to make this first outing as easy as possible, so that all my energy could be focused on getting out of the flat, dealing with the overwhelming light, sound, smells and so on, and overcoming that initial hurdle of actually starting anything at all.

So no running clothes yet (there’s a sensory issue with fabrics touching my skin which I will have to deal with), and not yet backpacks or belts or other such kit. Daytime clothes, my familiar handbag for keys, phone, and inhaler, but just two relatively easy adjustments to my normal “leaving the flat” gear – my running shoes and my Garmin.

Tiny tiny adjustments. Minimising the “difference”. In order to get out at all soley for the purpose of exercise, without the pressure of an appointment or another person expecting something of me.

And a “workout” so easy that it didn’t tax me physically. I know I can easily walk 2 kilometres, so didn’t have to put that part of it into the pile of obstacles in my brain, didn’t have to factor in a tough training session when persuading myself just to go out at all.

And I took a regular route that I run often, a known 2 kilometres. In the early afternoon when most people would likely be at school or work, and I’d have as little chance of encountering people as possible.

And so it happened. Starting over. Picking up fragments of my old life, the life that fell to pieces when I discovered I was autistic. The life that almost ended in December. The life that I now have to rebuild, differently, readjusting now that I know better what will help me to stay well.

The absence of either job or offspring in my life, coupled with my extreme burnout and wildly fluctuating moods, has meant that there has been very little “normality” of any sort during the last six months. Learning about autism and my being autistic has been fascinating, but I am also worn out by it – my entire life has been consumed by it for months. I need to ease off – my head is full.

It’s time to reclaim just a few bits of “normal” life.

Slowly, gently, with space in between to recover.

A couple of kilometres at a time.

Uncomfortable

Like a pendulum
Swinging wildly,
Undamped.
My mind has still
Not settled.

Where I fit
Into this new identity
Is still unclear.

I talk to people
And many of them
Expect answers,
Where I still have
Only questions.

Some days
There is despair
And a feeling
Of life being limited
Permanently.

Some days
There is hope
And a feeling
That life will improve
Substantially.

But where I fit
Into this new identity
Is still unclear.

I am suddenly forced
To confront issues
I had discarded
Years ago.

Things very very uncomfortable.
Offspring. Female identity.
Neither of which I possess.
Autism forces these things
Into my consciousness.

Not to mention
My own childhood,
A door I had long since closed
Forced open for diagnosis.

Can open.
Worms everywhere.
Wriggling around,
Demanding attention.

The past
Begging to be analysed

But where I fit
Into this new identity
Is still unclear.

There is no stable backdrop
To my life.
Everything wobbles.
Precariously.

And my mind
Is trying to alter its perceptions
Of who I am
But progress is slow,
Like an ocean liner
Doing a three-point turn.

As I try to plan
For a changed future
I desperately search
For familiarity
And stability.

Autism is exciting,
Enticing, shiny, new.
But this very newness
Makes it also feel
Alien and unfamiliar.

I have never fitted
Into a community
I am not used to being
“Part of things”
As soon as I become so,
I feel uncomfortable
And withdraw…

Where I fit
Into this new identity
Is still unclear.

My past needs
Reframing.

My future needs
Replanning.

There is uncertainty ahead
How functional will I be?
What can I try to do?
What do I want to do?

Preserve the old
Familiar interests
(accepting my limitations)?

Embrace the new
And shiny interests
(accepting intimidations)?

I ask myself
And many times
I search for answers,
Where I still have
Only questions.

Where I fit
Into this new identity
Is still unclear.

My mind has still
Not settled.
It swings wildly,
Like a pendulum,
Undamped…

Where I fit
Still
Unclear

Unknown

Uncertain

Uncomfortable

Making Tea

It has just taken me around 2 hours to make a cup of tea.

“That’s ridiculous,” I hear you cry, “it doesn’t take 2 hours to make a cup of tea…”

And my sensible brain, my logical brain, knows you are right. I am a physically sound adult, with a perfectly reasonable brain, who has made hundreds of cups of tea in their lifetime, and making a quick cuppa, with kettle, water, mug, teabag, and milk all within easy reach should be something I can almost do with my eyes shut by this stage in my life.

But I can’t. Because I go to the kitchen, and I complete the first stage of the tea making procedure (fill the kettle with water) and my autistic mind (the bit with the impaired executive functioning – I promise I’ll try to explain all about executive functioning as soon as I can) simply stops processing at that point. My mind believes that the tea is made, because it has no further instructions – often, I cannot sequence tasks, so I do the first bit of the task and my mind makes a little tick in a box in my head and says “done”!

Twenty minutes later I remember that I was thinking that it would be a good idea to have a cup of tea. I look down at the place on the floor next to my sofa where the tea lives, and see a piece of carpet that holds only dust, hairs, a few bits of dubious provenance (I haven’t been up to vacuuming recently), and some vague tea stains from previous cuppas. But no actual tea.

So I return to the kitchen. And I put the kettle on to boil, because I realise that I didn’t quite manage that bit last time. This time I will FINISH the process, and I will get my tea. I am determined. Tea will be mine.

And then my mind ticks the box again…

I wander off, again, my mind once more tricking my brain into believing that the tea-making procedure is complete and I will soon be enjoying a cup of warm brown liquid of the type that many people from my particular part of the world find so comforting and familiar.

And, of course, I have failed, once more, to join the individual tasks together, and been unable to complete the (supposedly) simple task.

You’re probably starting to understand at this point just WHY it takes me two hours to make a cup of tea, and why there is such huge effort involved in such an endeavour. Each stage has to be thought of, consciously, separately, and the amount of processing power that a complex task like making tea can take is enormous. For years I have blamed this on simply being a bit “absent minded” (yes, everybody forgets things, everybody has put the kettle on to boil and wandered off) or on the strains of mental illness, but in my case it is extreme, and always has been. I’ve compensated behind the scenes as much as I can, but I eventually get to the point where I simply give up eating and drinking because the mental processes required to deal with them are so far beyond me that I just can’t work them out.

Then you need to add in another factor to the equation – inertia. I have always known that I had huge inertia, and have even used that word about myself for many years (probably since I learnt it in physics lessons when I was at school). I have discovered in the last few months that there is such a thing as “autistic inertia” (the thing that means autistic people have real difficulty starting tasks, stopping tasks, and changing from one task to another – this is another area I’d like to write about properly once I have the ability to do so, but for the time being, just imagine the very worst procrastination experience you’ve ever had, something you really really really didn’t want to do and were finding almost impossible to start, then multiply that by about a million, and you’ll get the idea)!

So, once I’ve sat down on the sofa after supposedly finishing making my tea, I find it almost impossible to move to get up again. And, once I’m up for the next stage in the tea making I sort of forget how to sit down again and end up wandering round the flat (which doesn’t take long because it’s rather compact) in a sort of bemused manner trying to work out what I was supposed to be doing.

My impairments in ability to sequence and complete complex tasks (such as making a cup of tea) and inability to start/stop/switch tasks have been things I have lived with all my life, and I’ve made gargantuan efforts to compensate for them by using enormous amounts of brain energy, consciously forcing myself off the sofa, consciously making myself try to think of the next stage in the tea-making process, and so on, which has, of course, made me really really exhausted. Despite enormous willpower (I have no shortage of willpower – I’m the kind of person who can run 60km on a busted leg to complete an ultramarathon etc etc) I have never been able to learn to make a meal with any reliable success or managed to change from one task to another without a significant break in between and a lot of effort. When I have tried to do these things it has very quickly led to shutdown or meltdown.

And, as I’ve progressed through life, things have got worse, not better. I was probably at my peak ability sometime in my early 20s, when, like most people who are young and reasonably fit, I had more energy than is the case now. But still it wasn’t sufficient, and by working so very hard to try to be “like everyone else” at that stage in my life and by believing the hype about how “cooking from first principles is somehow “better”” and trying to do what was “best”, I stored up years of damage that only became apparent when my mental health fell apart in my late 20s.

Now I know better than that and am learning that I have to work with the mind I have and not fight against it, although that in itself takes rather a lot of strength, and learning to ignore the “advice” so freely given by those who don’t actually have a clue just how incapable I actually am, is going to take a bit of getting used to. My life has been about striving for achievement, and improvement, not about adapting and taking things more gently – that’s a huge shift for me.

And just at the moment I’m doing more external things than I have been over the last few months. My executive functioning issues had improved slightly, but as I’m now using energy to do a bit of music (which I want to do), deal with benefits forms (which I need to do), fix to see my father (which I both want AND need to do), and arrange my follow-up appointment with the autism team (which I also both want and need to do), I’ve noticed a decline in my ability to function within the flat, a need to stim more, and a more regular loss of words – the energy to do other things has to come from somewhere!

Of course, doing what I’m now doing in terms of activities would have been impossible a few months ago, so there is progress, but it’s very interesting to note how much my basic abilities, with such things as tea making, suffer when I’m diverting energy elsewhere and can’t use it to patch over the holes in my mind where those particular connections are missing.

But I did get a cup of tea today, eventually, so that was an achievement!

Extreme FOMO

The post about saying farewell to the strong woman actually started off with the above title, but it grew into something else, so I’ll have another go at talking about extreme FOMO here.

Just in case there’s anyone reading who doesn’t already know and hasn’t already googled, FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out, and it’s defined on Wikipedia as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent” and goes on to mention the anxiety of missing out on opportunities for social interaction, fear of having made erroneous decisions, and regret.

Of course, everyone gets FOMO sometimes. I think it’s unlikely that anyone reading this hasn’t, at one time or another during their lives, either missed out on getting tickets for a concert, had to pull out of a race injured, been unable to attend a celebration owing to illness, or simply had to turn down an invitation because they had to be elsewhere at the time – such is the nature of a modern busy life. There are, basically, so many interesting things to do in this world that it would be impossible to do them all and difficult choices have to be made.

Like everybody else who has several interests, I’ve spent my life trying to juggle what I can do and how I will be able to live life as fully as possible. I’ve tried, where I can, to say yes to as many opportunities as possible, sometimes taking my viola to a maths class in order to go straight on to a rehearsal afterwards, or going to visit friends and taking running kit in order to participate in a race while I was at that location, or calling in on family with a carrier full of rats because I was attending a show somewhere nearby. I’ve also had days where I could have been occupied several times over and have simply had to decline invitations to play in concerts, run races, attend tutorials, go to dinner, be at a pet show, meet somebody, or whatever, because I’ve already been booked for something else and being in two places at the same time just isn’t possible.

Then there have been the other times – the times when the energy has run out. I’ve had these times all my life, and increasingly so as I’ve got older, where I pull out of something because I’m “ill”. And this “ill” has always been some sort of “mental illness”, or an indefinable malaise, bad enough to keep me away from whatever it was I wanted to do, but from which I seemed to recover after simply staying at home and doing nothing for a while. I know now, of course, that this “illness” was actually utter exhaustion and the feeling I often get before a shutdown, before I collapse, before my words vanish, and before my body simply makes me stop. I have no control over it, any more than I do over the violent meltdowns that occur if I keep overloading my system and continue “pushing through” and looking for more “inner strength” that just isn’t there.

In the past, I picked myself up after each episode of “illness” (shutdown, or in longer cases, burnout), and simply started building up my activities again. In the days when I worked I would return to work, gradually start taking on more challenges, and start to rebuild my career. By the time I had become so ill that working wasn’t an option I would resume studying, start to play more music, or do other things, because I’m interested in stuff, I’m interested in life, and I don’t actually dislike being out in the world doing things with people – I just find it really really difficult. But difficult is no excuse for not doing something – I’ve never shied away from the difficult!

And so we get to 2013, when I started to recover again after a particularly tough patch mentally. I started to do a few things, gradually stacking them up, with the idea that if I could build up my hobbies to an extent that I was leaving the flat every day and things were going well, then I might start to think about going back to work again. So I did more, and more, and more…

However, what you have to understand about this “more” is that it was “more” in my world. I knew plenty of people who were doing the same amount of music that I was, who also had full-time jobs, who also cooked dinner for their kids every evening, who were also studying for professional qualifications, who also went running in the mornings before work, and so on. I compared myself to them, and I knew that even with the amount I WAS doing, I was falling a long way short of a “normal life”. I wasn’t doing anything that wild by the standards of the people I was spending time with.

But I was getting tired. Really tired. Again. As soon as I got to any sort of level of activity that was approaching “interesting”, I started to suffer from this weird malaise once more. And, eventually, in August 2016, I fell to pieces.

And then I discovered I was autistic, and then I started to learn, and then it became obvious what was going on and why, every time I increased my activity levels, overtaxed my sensory system, or spent too much time with other people, I got ill.

So now I have to make a complete reevaluation of my life. I have to forget trying to “be like everybody else”, something that I’ve always found so incredibly difficult anyway. I have to try to kick the habit of turning up to a maths tutorial in running kit with my viola and a carrier full of rats, because far from being able to do a degree assignment and run a marathon and play in a concert and attend a show in the same weekend (which is probably more than most people would consider doing in any case), I am actually LESS capable than most people of doing all those things at once. Looking back, I’m not quite sure how I managed to do so much of so many of them for so long – sheer bloody-mindedness I think, and, of course, I’m now paying the price with a severe episode of burnout and rather dramatic loss of functionality. Maybe I can excuse “past me” for breaking “present me” so badly because “past me” didn’t know about autism, but there is now no excuse for “present me” to act so recklessly and break “future me” because I now have the knowledge and the responsibility to my future self to act on it!

So the life I rebuild from now will have to be different. If I thought juggling my diary was difficult before, it is now much more so, because I need to leave rest days between social events. I need to limit the number of concerts I can play in. I need to ask people for adaptions in some cases (which I absolutely hate doing, but the only alternative is to give up doing stuff completely). I have to decline invitations. I’ve already had to pull out of races, miss concerts I wanted to play in, miss meeting up with people I’d like to see, abandon my degree. I keep ignoring e-mails in my inbox that advertise things I want to go to, gigs, concerts, both listening and playing, festivals, events. I delete them and try to forget that I really want to be there but I just can’t go because I don’t have the spoons. I have to decline opportunities because they occur in the same week as something else I want to do, even though they don’t actually clash. During the next fortnight I have three things in my calendar and I know that I’ll need to sleep for a week afterwards just to get over the exhaustion.

And this makes me sad. This, for me, is one of the saddest parts of discovering I am autistic, of knowing, finally, what has made me so ill all these years, that my senses simply won’t cope with that much time out in the world, that every time I go to a party and chat to people I’m running my battery down, that if I want to go and stay away from home I’ll have to have special arrangements, separate eating if the dining hall is too noisy, not be able to contribute properly, fully, be “doing it right”.

I don’t much care if people laugh at me if I flap my hands in public. I don’t much care if folk think I’m “weird” (what the hell, I’ve been “weird” all my life and I’m used to it). I don’t mind if people have to correct me because I haven’t quite “got it” or if I don’t have very many friends (despite a glorious online presence, I see very few people in real life, because of the aforementioned energy problems). I don’t even care that much if I have the odd meltdown from time to time – they’re not much fun, but they finish eventually. I’ll find ways of compensating sufficiently for my poor executive functioning so I can survive, and I’ll eventually work through the anger and sadness at how my life was pre-diagnosis. And I certainly don’t care about nonverbal episodes or the absolute compulsion to eat nothing but white food for months on end – no big deal, speaking is hard work and white food is the best! Those things don’t worry me.

BUT THE FOMO DOES!

Yes, the FOMO bothers me very badly. The fact that I want to go and do stuff, but I have to limit myself if I’m to stay anything approaching “well”, and that I have to do that for the rest of my life, really does bother me. I have to turn down interesting stuff I really want to do – in order to spend the day on the sofa, bored out of my mind, scrolling through facebook and watching the telly because it’s all my stupid head is capable of doing. I have to regulate my life, I have to leave things I’m enjoying because I can feel my senses getting overloaded. I have to budget my spoons really really carefully or I’ll be able to do even LESS. That bothers me BIGTIME! I have lots I’m interested in, lots I want to do, and yes, even lots of people I want to see. I was already having to turn down opportunities when I was at my very best, and now I’m having to turn down even more.

Furthermore, I’m going to have to miss out on things such as drinks receptions, tea breaks, trips to the pub after concerts and so on. And these are the places where the networking happens. These are the places where someone comes up to me and asks if I’d like to play in a string quartet next month, and I won’t be there to be asked. I also fear that, having spent the last 3 years building up as a musician again, I’m now replying (eventually, in some cases) to say that I’m really sorry I can’t play in the next concert, and eventually people are going to stop asking me.

And the memes keep coming, telling me that autistic people shouldn’t be limited, and that great things can be achieved – but they don’t really work for me. I’ve had “no limits set” all my life and being autistic (and mentally ill, yes) has limited me anyway. When I’ve ignored the limits my own system has placed on me the effect has been catastrophic. This was not from some external agent, it was simply my own system breaking.

So now I have to learn to live a gentler life, to ask for help (which I hate), to decline invitations to things that I really want to do, and to limit myself because I know now that I can’t function like most people can, and that trying to make myself do so is really damaging to my health. Thus far, the FOMO is possibly one of the things that bothers me most about discovering I’m autistic, the knowledge that I will have to limit my life and as a consequence I will miss out on things I really wanted to do, whether they be concerts, races, studies, camping trips, rat shows, lunch with friends, dinners out, or whatever. I know I’ll be able to do SOME of these things and I will learn strategies to cope with many of them, but the need for rest in between is not something that sits easily with me. I’m not good at resting, I don’t like it, but I’m going to have to learn to do more of it.

Grrrrr!

Strategy Deployment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny Glimmers

36-2017-01-08-13-54-23-1One of the questions that constantly goes through my head at the moment is “When will life get back to normal?” I keep wondering when I will get to the point when I just wake up and get on with life and it will feel anything other than totally crazy or surreal or weird. I wonder what it’ll be like to wake up without my heart racing and feeling sick and disorientated and really rather odd.

Then I realise there will be no going back to normal. Only forward to a new normal. My perception of myself and the world is so changed that life will never be the same again. This is not to say that it might not be better than it was before in many ways, and possibly worse in others, but what is absolutely certain is that the old “normal” is gone and I need to find a new one.

I wonder how long this process will take. I know I need to rest, but I am already getting very very bored. My whole life has been spent working absolutely as hard as I possibly could at absolutely everything I could manage – and it has made me very very ill. I know I have to learn to stop. I know I need to regulate how much I do, take things gently, and learn how to protect myself from the demands of the world. I am becoming aware of just how hard I’ve worked all my life and the terrible price I’ve paid in terms of health, trauma, and so on.

But, and this is a big but, I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on the sofa watching daytime TV. I might have a very broken mind and a very damaged mind, but I also have an exceedingly lively and curious and enthusiastic one, and an extremely hungry brain that basically likes life best when it can be an information hoover!

So I am having to learn balance. Which is quite tricky for me, because balance is not one of my greatest skills. I tend to be a bit of an “all or nothing” sort of person. If it’s worth doing something, then it’s worth doing it to the absolute maximum, otherwise I might as well not bother.

Last week was, given all the problems with the assessment process, very difficult. I am also still extremely burnt out, currently very disabled by the whole thing, and finding the whole living business exceedingly tricky. But, since I’ve been in burnout before, I know that it is likely that things will improve. I was very very sick in the autumn of 2001, but did manage to get married in the summer of 2002. I’m looking at that timescale now and wondering how fast I’ll be able to get back to some sort of reasonable functionality.

Obviously, there are differences. I am now 15 years older, and therefore have less energy than I did and am now dealing with the menopause as well, but I’m also fitter from running, which will help. I’m more damaged than I was and have lost more functionality, particularly as far as speech and executive function is concerned, and having burnt out again, might be more permanently impaired (from what I’ve read about autistic burnout), so I might never get back to the same level again, but I now KNOW that I’m autistic so I can build a new life using appropriate strategies and might, at the very least, stop any more damage being done. Back in 2001 I had the assistance of medication (which I don’t at the moment – any medication that might be beneficial is waiting until after formal diagnosis for discussion), but I have now found out how much various forms of stimming (I promise I’ll write a proper blog post about that sometime) can benefit me and help me cope with life and I’ve learnt to listen to what my body needs in a way I never previously did.

So I wonder how long it’ll be before I can really get on with my life again, and, as I lie on the sofa under my blanket bashing myself against a cushion for hours at a time, I wonder how long this episode of burnout will last and whether there’s anything I can do to expedite the process. I have heard talk of those who have been through this sort of thing taking several years to recover fully! I’m not massively keen on that timescale – I know that it might take a year or so to really get settled with everything and process the mess in my head, but I’d really rather like to be at least basically functional a bit sooner than that if I can.

When I look back to September and October I realise just how bad I was at that time and I know I have improved considerably since then. I’m now fully out publicly as an autistic, which has helped so so much as I now no longer have to deal with the strain of any sort of masking or hiding. I’m still envious of those who have their formal diagnoses, but I’m no longer sitting on my hands when people discuss anything related to autism, desperately wanting to shout “ME TOO, ME TOO,” and being completely paralysed by the fact that I’m still hiding my identity behind a mask. That has helped A LOT!

The last few days have also seen some tiny glimmers of hope as far as a few bits of “normal” are concerned. I’m typing this on a Sunday afternoon. On Friday I played my viola for a while, not a proper practice session, but just enough to remember that I could still do it. Yesterday I managed to do a bit of admin – I went through the assorted jobs lists on scraps of paper and sorted the tasks into levels of urgency and wrote them out in some sort of sensible order, categorizing them into related areas so it’s easy to see what I hope to get done. I also made a list of all the people I need to contact regarding concerts, and so on, a list of races that I’m still entered for, and a calendar template so I can start the process of deciding which gigs to accept and which I must decline, which races in the future I might actually be able to do, and which I will have to miss.

Even getting to the stage of being able to think about playing music, going for a run, doing any maths or science, sorting out my calendar, is, at this stage, a massive step forward. From an ordinary life point of view it really doesn’t sound like much, but from where I’ve been and where I still am, it’s huge. A tiny glimmer of light, but in a very dark world it makes a lot of difference.

And today I managed to get out of the flat for the first time in over a week – the first time in 2017 that I’ve actually seen the outside world at all. We went into town, parked up, and had coffee. The coffee shop was way too busy and noisy for me to sit in, so my husband went in and bought the coffee for takeaway while I stood outside bashing my back repeatedly against a pole which carried a sign about when, and for how long, parking was permitted on the street. We drank the coffee outside, then bought some cheese and a few groceries (again, I stood outside on the street, twirling my fingers, while he paid), got in the car, and came home. It wasn’t a long trip, but it was a successful one, and I am reminded that the world outside exists. I’m now feeling very agitated and queasy and will probably crash out later, but that’s part of the deal so I might as well accept it.

Small those these things are, I’m glad that I’ve managed to do something these last few days. Yes, I’ve lost words, yes, I’ve had to do massive amounts of stimming to cope, yes, I’ve been struggling to eat, but I have at least had a bit of hope that the rest of my life won’t be restricted to staring at the TV and playing solitaire on the iPad.

I want to save my maths degree and the book project, I want to participate in some of these gigs and continue to improve my playing, I want to get out there with my running shoes on and do marathons and ultras again, and I want to find that new “normal” life and not be quite so incapacitated as I currently am. The motivation is there, even though I’m still very very unwell and every bit of progress takes a mammoth amount of willpower and effort.

I’ve made an extremely tiny jobs list for the week ahead. It feels like progress. At least I now know what I need to do, which might be the first step on the way to actually doing it.

Tiny glimmers in the darkness…