Double Regret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Career Snake!

63-2017-01-02-18-20-57The statistics are, it seems, pretty grim. I haven’t verified the numbers, neither can I give you any details about how many of those considered are formally diagnosed or anything, but I continually see figures indicating that only around 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment and 32% in any form of employment at all. Even if we allow for quite a lot of error in those figures and consider that there might be people who are unfindable by official statistics compilers, it would still turn out that the proportion of autistic adults sustaining employment is pretty low, and that many of those who do have jobs are working well below their capabilities skillswise owing to the social, sensory, and organisational demands of most jobs.

I have been sliding down the career snake all my life. Despite my issues at primary school and continual bullying through secondary school, I did manage to get quite a good bunch of qualifications, as I mentioned in Expectations Gone. Admittedly, I dropped out of my first degree course, having entirely failed to do what was expected of me or to settle into any sort of proper work routine, but I did manage to succeed second time round and graduated with a good degree. Had you known me in my late teens and early 20s and looked at my qualifications you’d have predicted a bright future for me as far as employment was concerned. The Strong Woman mask also projected an air of confidence that would have added to this impression and it looked, back then, as though I was headed for great things – all I needed to do was put in the work and everything would be fabulous!

However, it was not to be. I did put in the work, lots and lots and lots of it. I based my ambitions on trying to find a career I loved that was compatible with the qualifications I had, and I worked and worked and worked at it. When obstacles were put in my way (I didn’t receive funding to do my master’s degree) I did everything I could to overcome them (got a job to fund myself through and took out a loan to pay the fees). I went without food and heating to save money in order to carry on studying to become an academic because that was the career I really wanted, and I worked until I could work no more.

I had fallen into the trap of believing the idea, still perpetuated today by some of these awful “life improvement” memes, that if you wanted something badly enough and you worked hard enough for it, you would get it.

That is, of course, a fallacy. You are unlikely to achieve your goals if you DON’T work for them, true, but you can’t reverse that statement and say that working for them means you WILL achieve them. It’s simply wrong.

But back then I believed that working hard was the solution. So I did. And by the time my ill-fated DPhil degree studies started to fail I was almost at snapping point with anxiety, financially in trouble, drinking heavily, and dissociating regularly. I didn’t know then that what I was experiencing was dissociation, but I do now. It was with considerable sadness and regret that I abandoned my studies, and with them my dreams, and decided that I simply couldn’t manage to achieve what I’d so badly wanted.

At that point I had no idea that I was even mentally ill, although I evidently was, very. I had no way of asking for help because I didn’t know what sort of help I might need. I had no concept that I had impaired executive functioning and organizing my life and trying to take care of myself while studying almost unsupported and while chronically short of money was simply beyond my abilities. I had the exam results and I believed, therefore, that the only reason I was failing was that I wasn’t putting in the work. It was the only reason I could think of.

A year later, armed with my original degree, I enrolled on a PGCE course. If I wasn’t going to be able to do research and teach undergraduates then I would modify the plan and teach schoolchildren instead. I turned out to be a pretty good teacher. I did well on the PGCE course and got my first job easily (my qualifications were somewhat over the minimum requirements, and my ability to teach “shortage” subjects proved useful). I started my new career, confident that this time all would be well.

Less than three months into the job, all was not well. There was definitely something very wrong with me. I was struggling. I went to my head of department and told him that things weren’t right. He told me that people as clever as me didn’t have problems and I’d be fine. I upped my work level to try to compensate for the things that were going wrong. It didn’t help. I went back to school after the Christmas holiday period and by February I went in search of a doctor because I felt so ill. I got to the surgery and collapsed onto the floor, hardly able to speak. The doctor picked me up and let me recover and I was then signed off work with “debility”. Nobody could really work out what was wrong with me, but I was clearly very unwell. The “debility” label was changed to “anxiety and depression” shortly afterwards and I entered the world of the mentally ill.

I decided that maybe that school had been too unsupportive for me and got another job in a very different school. I did slightly better for a while, but while there my mood started to become chaotic and elevated, and I went into a hypomanic phase (again, not known at the time, but obvious with hindsight). I was also still unable to survive financially – my starting salary was insufficient to cover the rent on my London flat and to service the massive debts I’d incurred while studying. So I applied for a promotion to Head of Department in another school, and got it!

Only a few weeks into the new job I had the breakdown that is now known as “the big one”. It is now evident that I was also in a period of huge autistic burnout. I made my first serious suicide attempts that autumn. My health was destroyed. I never fully recovered from that time, and the slide down the career snake accelerated massively. My days as a high flyer were over and it became a matter of “damage limitation”.

After I’d recovered sufficiently to rejoin the world, helped by my newly acquired husband, I did a bit of supply teaching, and got a part-time job for a while, but I wasn’t really up to it any more. I then had a succession of office jobs – administrator, data entry clerk, personal assistant, and eventually part-time administrative assistant in a small office. All of these jobs I found hugely exhausting and very very difficult. I would be struggling to drive home after a few hours at a part-time job, my eyes almost closing at the wheel. It didn’t matter how early I went to bed or how much exercise I took or how well I ate. I was just knackered. All the time. I finally went off sick from the last job, having, by this time, received a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder, and at the last meeting I had with my boss, the person from occupational health, and the personnel officer for the job, I was almost completely unable to speak. I had come to the end of my office work abilities.

Having failed as an academic, a schoolteacher, and an administrator, I had one last attempt at earning money for myself before succumbing to another cycle of hypomania and depression and breakdown. I answered an advertisement in the local newsagent from a woman who needed a cleaner one day a week. In some ways it was quite a good job. Although the pay was poor and I worked 5 hours without a break, I was often on my own, and I was quite good at it. It was hard physical work as I was expected to do the whole house, change beds, completely clean several bathrooms, and leave everything pretty much immaculate, often after the family had evidently spent a weekend partying. Eventually, however, 5 stone overweight from the quetiapine I was taking, my back and hip gave out under the pressure, sacroiliac pain radiating throughout my body, leaving me unable to walk, let alone clean an entire house in 5 hours. The woman also gave up work temporarily to have another child and I found myself having to cope with people around me and the new baby while I was working and it really wasn’t worth the pain and the triggering effect of the children in order to earn somewhere around what was minimum wage at the time.

By then I had a psychiatrist and a community psychiatric nurse. Both helped me back to some semblance of a life, and I gave up the idea of working completely because it was obvious by then that I wasn’t well enough. I recovered enough to do a part-time language teaching course, but the experience of the course left me needing months to recover. I started studying mathematics with the Open University in order to try to do something with my brain and, rather ambitiously, against all medical advice, did some supply maths teaching in a local secondary school. On the morning of my third day in the job I sat in the school car park in tears of utter exhaustion, knowing that it wasn’t going to work. I loved the job, I wanted to do it. I wanted to be out in the world, teaching, being part of something. But I just couldn’t. Every time I tried I just fell apart and felt so horribly horribly ill the whole time.

I have not worked since I left that job 6 years ago. For nearly a quarter of a century, while many of my peers were climbing some pretty impressive career ladders and becoming academics, businesspeople, scientists, professional musicians, headteachers, top administrators, and so on, I was sliding down my career snake. And no matter how hard I tried to climb back up the snake, the gravity was too strong. And every time I grabbed at a rung of an adjacent ladder, the rung broke and I slid yet further down the snake, before eventually falling off the bottom of its tail, onto the floor.

And it didn’t ever quite make sense why this kept happening, why I couldn’t keep the jobs. It didn’t add up that someone with my qualifications and evident abilities and absolute fierce ambition and desire to work and preparedness to graft and to put the effort in, couldn’t keep even the simplest of jobs. There seemed to be no reason why things just kept going wrong, time after time after time.

Even bipolar disorder didn’t explain it. My bipolar disorder is cyclic. I have hypomanic episodes every few years which lead to crashes into depression. Between those times I am usually stable, moodwise. I have also taken effective medication and developed strategies to help with managing my mood. The treatments and therapies I received for bipolar disorder did, in general, work for bipolar disorder.

But even in the stable times I was still getting sick, and sick in a different way, not a mood way, but an utter exhaustion and unable to cope and having to go off and be silent on my own sort of a way. In a way that has been a mystery for years.

Until I discovered I was autistic. And suddenly those things make sense. And all the failed careers and the lost jobs and eventual unemployment have an obvious cause. Throwing myself constantly into such busy overstimulating environments for years and years has, quite literally, broken me, over and over again. I never had a hope of doing most of those jobs – not because I’m lacking qualifications or not making the effort, but because I am simply unable to cope for extended periods of time in environments that are so hostile to me.

Different Language

08-2016-12-09-18-36-23Some of these blog posts are difficult to write. Some are emotionally draining and massively triggering – I’m working on one at the moment that I’m going to have to do paragraph by paragraph because it’s so tough, but I’ll get there in the end, and it’s a post that needs to be written, so I shall persist. Some are about things I want to say and the thoughts are all in my head in concept form but my words aren’t always in a great place so it takes a lot of effort to translate them into readable format.

Some, like this one, are difficult because I’m working at the very limits of my knowledge about a subject that I only started studying a few months ago and I’m still trying to work out what everything means and to construct my own verbal definitions of concepts that I instantly recognised from internal experience as soon as I knew what they actually were. I’m also still reading other people’s blogs and working out which ones I’ll want to share and so on – even blogging is something of a new world to me as my last efforts, years ago, were random and short-lived and I never really got into it in a big way.

I said in the post “Time Stood Still” that I initially called what happened to me at the end of the summer “some sort of mental breakdown” because that was the language I had available to me. That language, familiar to me from years of mental health struggles, diagnosed as anxiety, depression, and eventually bipolar disorder (I still believe these were not misdiagnoses, but they were only part of the full picture, and they are common comorbids with autism), is only partially accurate in my new changed world. I am now learning new terms, terms to describe things that have happened to me throughout my life, which I have only discovered since investigating autism.

What actually happened to me during late summer 2016 was that I entered a spell of autistic burnout. This is, apparently, not recognised by the medical profession, but is seemingly well-known among the adult autistic community in general, and those who are undiagnosed or hiding their condition in particular. I’ll try to write about it more fully when I have the ability to do so, but, for now, the best way I can explain it is that burnout occurs when an autistic person’s energy is exhausted, they can no longer hide their condition, and they go into some sort of extended shutdown and their autistic characteristics become very pronounced.

I believe that this is the second time in my life that I have been in autistic burnout. The first was in 2001, when I was 30. However, this burnout is different from the last, because during the last one I was additionally in a state of nervous breakdown and severe depression as a result of bipolar disorder, so that will have hidden the autistic traits somewhat. I also lived alone at that time so there was nobody around to observe much of my behaviour. And, of course, nobody knew about autism, still less burnout, and at that stage I wasn’t even diagnosed with bipolar disorder – I was just given a packet of citalopram and signed off work for a while, as had happened during a previous breakdown a few years earlier. I eventually saw a psychiatrist who sent me for group CBT for anxiety, and I gradually learnt how to live in the world again, though that was the point at which the high-achieving, high-powered me disappeared from the world. I got back to work, but never to the level I had before, and I never lasted very long in any job – it’s now obvious why.

Looking back, I can now very obviously see the similarities and differences between burnout and breakdown, and can even separate out the parts of the two that occurred simultaneously in 2001, when whichever state was the stronger at the time took over. In both states: I find life very difficult and struggle to function; there is a desire to hide away from the world; I have to cancel things, put my life on hold, and need lots of support. In both, there is strong suicidal ideation (and there have been attempts), and I struggle with basic self care such as keeping up with admin and maintaining a reasonable living environment. I also have dysfunctional relationships with both food and alcohol and any semblance of normal sleep pattern usually goes completely haywire. There are probably more things, but this gives an indication of what I experience during both breakdown and burnout.

However, there are also differences. In breakdown I am still and I oversleep massively. In burnout I hardly sleep at all and I move almost constantly. In breakdown it helps to get out into the world and to be around people. In burnout I need to be alone for most of the time. In breakdown light can elevate my mood. In burnout I’m so hypersensitive to light I sit in the dark wearing sunglasses. In breakdown I generally overeat and crave sweet foods and chocolate. In burnout I struggle to eat at all and want plain white savoury foods above all. In breakdown I can cope with ordinary levels of background noise as well as usual. In burnout I’m really sensitive to sounds and crave silence – even having to watch the TV with the sound turned off and reading the subtitles. In breakdown I have a consistently low mood and am chronically depressed without let up. In burnout my mood fluctuates wildly and periods of depression alternate with much more positive phases.

I’m sure there are more differences too, but those are the ones that I have thus far observed, along with the fact that most of my breakdowns have followed a period of hypomania (my bipolar disorder is classified as Bipolar II), and the two episodes of burnout have followed an extended spell out in the world building a life involving lots of social contact and lots of sensory stimulation. Whether there will be future episodes of either breakdown or burnout I don’t know. The knowledge that I am autistic will now enable me to change my life and possibly to avoid, or at least soften, any future burnout, just as all the work I’ve done over the years has helped me to recognise early signs of both mania and depression and to act on them early enough to reduce the severity of more recent breakdowns.

Everything is starting to make so much more sense now that I’m reviewing my life with the added knowledge of autism. Things that have puzzled me for years are finally becoming clear. Some of the snippets of memories I have from the 2001 breakdown that have never quite made sense with my other breakdowns – my reactions to sound and light, my desire to bang my head repeatedly against something, my lack of sleep, my inability to eat – now make sense when regarded as autistic burnout, and when I compare that time to the present day, it’s very easy to see.

This is one of the reasons that an autism discovery later in life is so big. It’s not just about the present and the future and a change in life from the point of discovery onwards, it’s also about redefining many many past experiences and, to an extent, rewriting the history of my life from a different perspective. It’s a life-changing discovery that changes all of life, from birth to death. The facts of the history don’t change, obviously, since this isn’t time travel, but the perception of past events and the sense now made of previously puzzling experiences by having a whole new language to work with is like a constant stream of new discoveries and realisations that really are mind-blowing!

Time Stood Still

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So, within the space of six weeks I had gone from total cluelessness to certain knowledge.

The “autism hypothesis”, as I was calling it at the time, had started to form, tentatively, some time around the middle of August. As the meltdowns became more frequent and severe, and my sensory system started to go into overdrive, it became impossible to ignore the idea that autism might, indeed, be an explanation for what was happening to me and for my inability to cope with the world, particularly when surrounded by people. It also appeared to explain at least 90% of the problems I’ve had throughout my life and I knew I absolutely had to investigate it – very thoroughly and in great detail.

My Amazon account records show that I ordered the book with the list of traits on 23rd August, having read the sample on my Kindle app. That was the day that I started to take the idea really seriously – I was home from the camping trips, back in my normal environment, and now had time to research the whole subject of autism and how it might (or, indeed, might not) apply to me.

Interestingly, 23rd August is also the date still shown on my tear off calendar for 2016. It’s as though time stopped that day. And, as I lie here in the middle of a chilly December night, typing this into my phone, it feels as though time is still stopped. Apparently it is cold outside and will soon be Christmas – I have hardly noticed. I felt slightly surprised when I saw the autumn leaves on the ground a month ago – then realised it was November. Since August my mind has barely acknowledged the passing of the seasons or the world around me. I might as well still be lying in a tent, unable to speak or move, listening to distant dance band music, tears rolling down my face. Much of the past four months still feels like some kind of surreal dream, but however hard I pinch myself, I never seem to wake up.

Part of the reason for this state is that I had some sort of mental breakdown at the end of the summer – at least that was what I initially called it, until I had enough information to realise it was actually something else. Much of my mind has gone into hibernation, unable to deal with everything at once, so entering some sort of unreal stasis. A bit like when someone dies – you just think you’ve started to move on and the grieving process has ended, then it hits you over and over again. Similarly my mind has been processing all this in bits at a time and it is still doing so, which is why many of these early blog posts might seem a little random or uneven at times. Sometimes there might be fluent informative writing, sometimes accounts from my past as my memory tries to process old experiences in the light of new information, sometimes diary-style posts, sometimes poetry-style writing, and who knows what else. Some of it might well be contented and happy, some is likely to be triggering and difficult. I don’t yet know. I don’t have the energy to plan in detail, but I do know that writing will be part of the process of sorting all this out in my head, and I hope that, just maybe, it might help someone else – even if just one person, it will be worth it. My mood is still so erratic that it can plummet or soar within a space of hours or even minutes, and although I’m trying to write each post over a day or so in order that they make some sort of sense and I can balance them out a little, raw emotion might spill out from time to time and I don’t expect I shall be able to sustain a regular and consistent writing style or pattern of posting – maybe there will be days with nothing, maybe multiple posts in a day. Who knows? It will be what it will be, as I try to work through the chaos that currently exists inside my mind. All I can do is try to tell it like it is, in the best way I can, which is what I’ve always done throughout my life.

And while all this is echoing round my head, just like during bereavement, the outside world continues to exist. Bills need paying, clothes need washing, food still has to be bought. And I have had to use every ounce of energy to keep up and to try to maintain as much of the life I have built over the last few years as I can, to decide what to keep, what to drop, how I can function. My husband has been and is still being, utterly extraordinary, propping me up wherever he can, communicating on my behalf, and still going out to work and earning the money that keeps us off the streets since I’ve been unable to work for most of my life. I have said many times over the years that I would not be alive today if it were not for him. Most people think this is some sort of flippant statement. It is not. It is completely serious.

I am operating in some sort of “safe mode” at the moment. Just doing the absolute basics. While the world around me continues its daily routines and its seasonal changes, I feel as though I am held in some sort of suspended animation, while my autistic brain, which was never very good at coping with change (now we know why), tries to come to terms with the biggest change I’ve ever experienced in my life.

The Discovery

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Although I was completely unaware of what was about to happen in my life, with hindsight, there were a few clues. And some people have since commented that they weren’t completely surprised by the outcome.

Looking back, there were occasional messages and odd comments made, I assumed, in jest. I largely ignored these, assuming crossed wires or fanciful imaginings. Panic attacks. Stress. That is all. I get so many messages telling me that eating more vegetables or taking some magic supplement or giving up gluten or wine or whatever would solve all my problems that I tend to smile and say thank you and leave it at that.

There was also some stuff on the internet. A video of a kid in a shopping centre. It’s supposed to show something. I don’t understand it. I just assume it’s a bit rubbish. Then a quiz. Just for a lark. Internet quizzes are notoriously daft. I think one once told me I should be a goat farmer in Borneo. I score several times in the mid-40s out of 50 on this internet quiz. Ha ha I say. Internet quizzes. I return to my dreams of goat farming.

However, within three days of leaving home to spend the summer living in a tent and playing orchestral music things start to go wrong. Badly wrong. Extreme “panic attacks” as I’m still calling them. Running away to hide in a shed as the result of one small thing upsetting me. Nights silently crying in my tent, unable to think, speak, or even put my torch on. The feeling of sickness and exhaustion that engulfs me half way through every rehearsal. My inability to focus, to play properly, to cope with any more than just sitting there. My reactions to apparently ordinary things is often so extreme that I completely lose control of myself. This leaves me drained, exhausted, and somewhat embarrassed.

I know I have mental health issues. I’ve had them for decades. I also know that eating in the big room with lots of noise and people is unbearable for me. So the people make an accommodation for me and let me eat outside. I don’t like having to be different, but maybe it’ll sort things out. I am sitting with someone who asks me what my diagnosis is. I tell her – bipolar disorder. She asks me whether I have ever considered…

Of course I haven’t, not seriously. Why would I? I smile and say “maybe”. Then I chat to someone else during a tea break. We sit side by side. She describes so much of her life that makes so much sense to me. She seems to understand what I say in a way that most people don’t. When the words run out we simply stop talking and drink tea. It is easy and feels unpressured. We don’t look at each other once throughout the conversation. That feels right. More relaxing, less exposed. I know something about this person. I start to think.

When I return home there is a book waiting for me, sent by a friend who has been following my trials and tribulations on Facebook. She says “I think you should read this.” Since it would be terribly bad form not to read such a gift, I start to turn the pages. And the pennies start to drop. Slowly at first. There are similarities. Yes. But me? Really? No! Well, maybe. But this is how my life is. This is just normal life, surely? It’s certainly normal life for me.

I buy another book. A book with lists of “traits”. The slot machine in my head hits the jackpot and the steady drip of metaphorically dropping pennies becomes a deafening cascade of metal discs. This, improbable as it at first seemed, appears to be the case. I do the Internet quiz again, several times, taking it more seriously this time. My most oft-repeated score is 47.

My husband and I start to make notes. To compile data. I dredge up memories from childhood. Of bad behaviour. Of the junior school headmaster who questioned me about home life as he thought I was being abused – he sensed something wasn’t right, but didn’t know what. Of being bullied from reception to sixth form. Of hours on the swing. Of fear of the telephone. Of biting my nails until they bled. Of sitting alone in my bedroom most of the holidays. Of crying at playtimes.

And through my early adulthood. Of abandoning trolleys in supermarkets. Of exhaustion so severe that I would collapse or be sick. Of crippling depression and suicide attempts. Of my inability to sustain employment or be financially independent. Of my notorious inability to cook a simple meal or remember to eat. Of waking up most mornings for the last quarter of a century thinking “How long can I keep going with this life that has no place for me and that I find so difficult?” Of cutting labels out of my clothes, being unable to wear bras or tight waistbands. Of lying in bed shaking after social events. Of deadlines missed. Of the hours of planning needed to get out of the house. Of jiggling my legs and playing with my hair and chewing up pens and rocking gently backwards and forwards on the sofa. And so on and so on and so on. Pages and pages and pages of it.

I make a double appointment with my GP. We take the notes. The pennies start to drop in her head too. She remembers an incident where the local swimming pool called the surgery when I was detained there, apparently violent and extremely distressed. Meltdown. Too much noise. Too many people. Somebody kicked me. Invaded my space. I couldn’t cope. I gave up swimming.

My GP writes the referral. I go to a rehearsal that night and then away for the weekend without it really sinking in. But knowing that my GP believes me. Relief. A sudden feeling that all that had gone wrong in my life all these years was Not My Fault. A communication issue. Different perception of the world – over and under active sensory systems. Not just fussy. Not naughty. Not lazy at all – in fact, quite the reverse. My life, which I had long viewed as a string of failures, I now see as remarkably successful, given what I was dealing with. I achieved so much while masking a condition that made life so difficult.

Alongside the relief, I feel a sense of sadness that this was not spotted earlier. That I have lost my youth to illness and difficulty. That I am deeply in debt, have received almost no support, and have spent my life being told that I am so intelligent I’ll be able to cope and that I should work harder, smarter, manage my time better, just get my act together. Impaired executive function makes these things very difficult, especially when I’m already working at my limit to cope with the sensory overload and the complexities of interacting with other human beings. Time agnosia means that I’m actually an expert in time management, but still struggle with deadlines. I thought it was like this for everybody, but that they somehow had access to energy I didn’t and they were tougher than me.

I start the wait for the formal diagnostic procedure which I know might take months, and continue to gather evidence, while trying to cope with my fears of the diagnostic process. However, it is so obvious what has been going on all these years that I absolutely believe it. I speak to my mother and learn about my early life. I was a 4-year old who sat on my own and obsessively drew circles all day and couldn’t be persuaded to write. The teacher said she’d never encountered a child like me, but in the early 1970s nobody knew what to do about me – other than removing the paper to stop the circles. My only memory of that time was crying every playtime as I was mercilessly bullied and the playground was painfully noisy.

I start to adapt my life, and things get easier. I realise how looking at people’s eyes saps my energy. I can do it, but there is a cost. I consciously start to spend more time alone. My next pair of glasses will be tinted despite the fact that I can’t really afford them because it will help the confusion and nausea I get in bright conditions. These adaptions also come with a sadness that I know I will have to exclude myself from many social situations if I am to stay well. I will have to change my life for ever if I am not to pay a heavy price. If I plan to go to a dinner or social event I must leave two blank days in my diary for recovery. And the chances are I will end up feeling sick and in meltdown too.

But I also discover behaviours long hidden that feel beautiful and soothing and joyful to me. And I allow myself to explore what my body naturally needs to do to be comfortable and happy, even if it is counter to what I have learnt about societal expectations over the last 4 decades. The word “stimming” is brand new to me, but it turns out I’ve been doing it much more than I thought throughout my life. Now I discover how I can dissipate some of the immense stress I feel by flapping my hands and sitting on my feet and simply not forcing myself to stay still. My whole system breathes a huge sigh of relief.

The whole process of discovery and realisation took about six weeks. Six weeks of public meltdowns, many tears, massive amounts of learning and reading and researching, acute anxiety, way too much wine, almost no sleep, difficulties eating, and hours and hours of discussion with my husband and one or two others. The culmination is the biggest thing that has happened to me in my life. Ever. No question. The thing that will eventually enable me to be more myself than I have ever been, happier than I have ever been, despite the inevitable challenges that interacting with the world will continue to present.

A few days after the visit to the GP, unable to wait, as I had hoped, for the formal diagnosis, I type the words that finally make sense of my life, that feel like coming home to where I should be. It feels very strange, almost unnerving, but it also feels right. Very very right. To finally realise and admit what should have been obvious all along, but which nobody saw until this year.

I am autistic.

The Background

02-2016-12-08-13-47-41At the beginning of August 2016 I was living a normal life. Maybe not “normal” in the sense that many would call normal, but normal for me. I’d just turned 45, my husband and I were about to celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary, and we’d still failed to unpack or sort the chaos in our small flat following a rushed move a couple of years earlier. I spent my days studying when I could, playing music, running, being with our animals, and forgetting to eat lunch. All as usual.

I had, however, started to feel unwell again during the previous year. I’ve struggled with my mental health for decades, and was diagnosed first with anxiety and depression, then later with bipolar disorder. But I’d been reasonably stable since around 2013, had started to play the viola in orchestras again, and had generally spent much more time out in the world, reconnecting with friends, trying to rebuild my life, in the hope that I might one day be able to work again and be back to some sort of genuine “normal”.

But my health had started to decline. I’d had to drop a concert and several chamber music sessions, withdraw from my Open University study yet again, pull out of some races I’d planned to run, and by July I’d been back to my GP and picked up a prescription for the medication I’d successfully come off in 2013. It seemed obvious that I was headed for another breakdown, another episode of depression.

However, looking back now, there were things that didn’t tally with the descent into breakdown. For many years, I assiduously kept a mood diary. Just a simple cross in a box each day, to indicate an elated or depressed mood. My mood was still reasonably stable. A little under, but nothing that would indicate a severe mood shift. On the same chart I had a box into which I’d write a “score” for anxiety each day. The anxiety measurement was consistently high, and rising. That anxiety perhaps explained why I spent so much time feeling sick, why I would suddenly panic and shake for no apparent reason. I needed to calm myself somehow.

I was also perpetually exhausted. Going out to rehearsals sapped my energy and left me worn out and needing to sleep for days. I couldn’t drag myself out of bed much before ten or eleven, even on the best mornings. I’d go shopping to the supermarket and buy a small trolley load of groceries then come home and need to sleep for a couple of hours before I could put them away. That would then be me finished for the day. Going out for lunch or dinner would entail a two day recovery period. I’d had times like this before, but things were getting noticeably worse – no matter how well I ate, or how much mindfulness I practised, or what CBT tools I used, I was bone-numbingly exhausted whenever I went out.

A few people suggested chronic fatigue syndrome, but I knew that wasn’t right. I was still running, and once I’d recovered from the exhaustion I could easily do a 50K training run. Although I was really struggling at races – at the Brighton Marathon expo I’d had to take my husband with me to collect my bib as I’d been hardly able to speak to tell them my name. When other runners chatted to me during marathons I felt my legs get weaker. I got to an aid station only 30K into an ultra (no distance for me) and was unable to get a cup of tea because I had a huge panic. I sat by the side of the trail, shaking and in tears, before eventually pulling out of the race, assuming I had the flu because I felt so ill.

But the summer was approaching. I knew things would be quieter and I’d be able to catch up on sleep and get some rest. I could also pause my training schedule, chill out a bit, and I’d planned to spend much of the summer playing orchestral and chamber music and catching up with friends. I knew it would be busy and I’d be camping, but I also knew it was something I enjoyed. I’d even bought a new tent!

And so I set off with my tent, but without any idea of what was going to happen. I didn’t know then that I was only days away from something that would start to trigger a chain of events that would change my life for ever. Neither was I aware that the next few weeks and months would be an emotional rollercoaster like nothing I’d ever experienced before, and that the biggest discovery of my life was about to occur.