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!

Recovery Time

I’m aware that I continue to be a bit absent from this blog at the moment. I’m finding getting the energy together to post is currently a bit more challenging than it has been, and the words aren’t flowing very easily.

I’d say there were probably several reasons for this.

1. I’m trying to get out into the world a couple of times a week at the moment – every time I leave the flat it uses huge amounts of energy and I need a lot of time to recover. But sitting in the dark by myself in a very small, cramped, untidy flat for around 14 hours a day on average isn’t very exciting, so I’m doing what I can to make life a little more interesting.

2. I’m using additional energy to communicate with my family following my father’s cancer diagnosis. I’ve fixed up to meet with him in a couple of weeks and that has become a priority for me.

3. I’ve finally admitted that studying maths is not going to happen for the foreseeable future, so I’ve been spending a little energy adjusting to that too. It was evident that it had become too much for me, but it was, to an extent, keeping my adrenaline levels up.

4. After months of really terrible eating patterns I’m making more effort to eat a bit better. I’m lucky enough to have a body that is remarkably tolerant of the problems my mind causes it, but I’m also aware that looking after it a bit is important.

5. I’m trying to sort out administration and paperwork and financial type stuff at the moment. Just because I’m falling apart and autistic and so on doesn’t mean that the electricity bills and so on stop. My husband is doing an amazing job caring for me, but he is only one person and I’m trying to contribute a bit to the running of our lives when I can.

6. My autism diagnosis is starting to sink in. I still need to go through my draft report thoroughly and get my follow up appointment arranged and think about the sort of support I need and so on. But, like giving up on the maths, the immediate and urgent need to produce evidence and the stress and adrenaline of pursuing the diagnostic process is over.

So, partly I’m trying to direct some of my attention elsewhere, but partly I’ve really seriously crashed energy wise. I tried to get up at 9 this morning, got as far as having a drink, then fell asleep on the sofa until midday. The months last autumn where I didn’t sleep at all are catching up with me now, the stress of the diagnostic process has left me exhausted, and I’m still considerably burnt out and trying to recover from what has evidently been an episode of severe autistic burnout. I currently need a lot of sleep, and even more rest, and as I’m using energy and executive functioning skills to try to eat regularly I have fewer resources available for turning on the computer and making blog posts.

I’m certain this is just another phase in the process, and the exhaustion is just something I have to deal with for now. My energy levels are very variable, and at the moment there’s nothing much I can do other than go with how things are and take the time I need to do the things that are most necessary.

I suspect this is all part of it. Discovering, in my mid-40s, that I am autistic is proving to be exciting, a relief, stressful, anxiety making, completely mind blowing, and, at the moment, utterly exhausting.

I’ll leave you with a few words (below, in bold) that I typed into the iPad the other day, but which I was too tired to turn into a blog post. Just the process of turning my thoughts into words is often hard enough, but then getting the right bits of computer and so on coordinated sometimes makes things impossible. Someone once suggested I should get an app for the blog – the thought of something so difficult (that sort of thing really is difficult for me) reduced me to tears – I’m sure my way of doing things is not the best, but the energy for learning something new simply isn’t there right now – new apps and things will have to wait until I’m better. My husband will testify that new computers and phones and so on have all led to meltdowns and tears and I resist technological change really strongly – even when it’s for the better – because it causes me such huge anxiety. I usually only change anything when I’m absolutely forced to!

I should add, however, that, just over three weeks after my diagnosis, I am continuing to feel a certain sort of “better”. I can already feel that although life will always be a struggle, there is an underlying mental wellness that I haven’t known for decades, if at all. And I now feel more confident in telling people that I am autistic and feel that I believe it myself much more. The process was difficult and exhausting, but, ultimately, for me, is already proving to be worth it. Accepting that I have a lifelong condition that will always limit me is not the easiest thing that I’ve ever had to do, but refusing to accept and embrace it won’t make it go away, it’ll just make my everyday life more difficult than it already is. It will take a while to work out exactly how best to live my life and to work out how to adapt it to make it as good as it can be, but having the formal diagnosis is already making that easier for me.

Yesterday,
I was out in town.
Conversation and coffee,
Socialising and shopping.

Not very much of the above,
Admittedly,
And nothing bad or especially
Difficult.

But enough
That

Today
I am quiet at home.
Tiredness and television,
Resting and recuperating.

Need so much of the above,
Always,
Even when I have had a
Good time.

Not energy
Even
To post this
On the blog.

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.

Phased Process

62-2017-01-12-19-01-27I hope you will forgive a somewhat long and indulgent post today. Eventually I’d really like to produce material that will be helpful and instructive and so on, and I might even, once I have things straight in my own head, produce a book, or maybe even another, more “generally informative” blog. There are so many issues that are so important to investigate and to consider – everything from how best to nurture autistic children, through to how to support those even older than I am who make the discovery that they are autistic; a whole range of traits including communication issues and sensory sensitivity and executive functioning and so on; and a huge amount of discussion to be had on all manner of other issues that are only just finding their way into my head and I can’t even quite find the words for yet.

For the time being though, I’m still in the process of trying to get my own life sorted out, and some of these writings form part of the process. I currently have no support from the official services at all, no counsellor, no therapist, nothing, and so I’m aware that I sometimes use this space in lieu of such support. So some of what I write might just be pure waffle that I needed to write somewhere and here was as good a place as any. Some of the time I’m just trying to get things straight in my own head.

In the last week or so I’ve noticed things have changed again. Since the appointment date was fixed for the next assessment (my third try at getting a formal autism diagnosis after the first assessment was stopped by the assessor and the second one was cancelled) I’ve become noticeably more anxious again. My appetite has plummeted, having recovered somewhat, and I’m finding sleep less and less easy again.

However it does feel different from the last time I was waiting for my appointment, for several reasons, and I’ve been trying to understand why. I’ve also been looking back over the last six months, which seem to have comprised a series of “phases”, all of which have felt slightly different, and, I suspect, are part of the balancing process as my autistic neurology comes to terms with discovering, er, my autistic neurology!

The irony of discovering that my head isn’t very good at coping with change by discovering that I have the sort of head that isn’t very good at coping with change and having to cope with the change that ensues from that discovery is not lost on me!

So, we go back to July 2016. Back to the days of “normality”. Back to the days when everything felt ordinary, much as it had done for most of my life. A knowledge that I wasn’t well again and was possibly heading for another breakdown. A confusion as to why I couldn’t get my act together. And a general constant low level depressive mood and anxiety that I was so used to that I didn’t even notice it. I had a figure “zero” on my mood chart, meant to indicate my “norm”, what I regarded as a euthymic mood, but, in retrospect, it was far from “normal”, just what I was used to, as I eventually realised a couple of months later. During those times I would wake each morning feeling the usual struggle, the usual wonder what the point of it was, and the usual knowledge that everything was difficult and hard work, but that was just the way it was and things had to be done. That was normality.

And then we get to August, and going away from home. And my mental health (as I assumed at the time) starting to disintegrate. And, despite the few rumblings earlier in the year and a general “bit eccentric” sort of idea in my head, the “polite disbelief” at the initial concept of being autistic, exacerbated, I suspect, by me not really knowing what being autistic actually meant. I had no more knowledge than most of the rest of society at the time, possibly even less, owing to not having any children and being so uninvolved with the world. But by this stage I felt so absolutely dreadful that I was prepared to listen to almost anything to try to work out why my life kept going so very very wrong, and when you find yourself, as a 45 year old, behaving in a way that would be more naturally associated with a stroppy child and you have no way of controlling it or stopping it, then maybe it’s time to try to find out why.

So there was this initial feeling of disbelief. And also of the notion that I probably wasn’t actually really genuinely “autistic”, but just had one or two traits. I was one of those folk who was just a bit sensitive to life and because I was so mentally ill I just didn’t cope very well. I didn’t think, initially, that I would ever actually define myself as autistic, but saw the suggestions as merely an extension of eccentricity. Again, I still didn’t really understand the nature of the autistic spectrum, and neither did I have the first clue how many of my “eccentricities” would actually start to be revealed as autistic traits as I started to research.

And then I read the book with the list of traits mentioned in The Discovery. And started to take things somewhat more seriously. And went from “this is a side issue that might be useful to be aware of but things will get back to normal soon” to “mind blown, this is my entire life turned upside down”!

And the “polite disbelief” turned to “polite belief” turned to “******************” (there is no word that adequately describes suddenly discovering, after 45 years, that your entire life has been governed by your having a different neurology from the majority of the population, that you’ve been fighting all your life, and that you’ve discovered all this in a matter of weeks and your entire world has completely changed)! And there was huge huge huge shock. And even more huge shock as I started to research just how MANY autistic traits I had, and started to discover about all sorts of things that I thought were just me, weren’t. The whole “autism nicked my schizzle” phase!

And I went from waking up each morning wearily wondering how much more of this difficult life I could take, to waking up (when I managed to go to sleep at all) with my heart pounding so hard I thought it would actually jump out of my chest and this word “autistic” just swimming, almost meaninglessly, round my head. The whole sense of shock and disbelief and whatonearthisthisaboutthen still raging through my system. A bit like when someone dies and you get those few seconds each morning before you remember and then you suddenly remember it all over again and your system goes into shock once more.

And by this time it was early September. And I was struggling to cling on to anything normal at all or to think about anything other than autism, and my Amazon basket was full of autism books and I couldn’t eat or sleep or do anything because my whole system was so utterly overloaded. I went through lists of traits over and over and over. Read blogs, books, anything I could get my hands on. My entire world became about autism, almost to the exclusion of everything else.

And hardly anybody knew what was going on. My husband. A handful of friends. The whole thing seeming so utterly implausible that I couldn’t possibly mention it. I was trying, even, to work out how to even comprehend that I could ever even imagine that I really was autistic. It was surreal, like I was on some sort of weird drug that made the world feel like a total dream. Shock shock shock. Huge shock. What? Me? Really? Over and over. This shock. So obvious. So so obvious. But such a huge shock. Why did this take so long? What now? What even is it all about? My world collapsing.

Then I went to see my doctor, my GP. And the minute we mentioned the word she said “Of course!” and it was totally obvious to her too. And then I entered this time of huge relief, and we started to go back over my life, over 4 decades of memories of stuff happening that had never been explained, and suddenly it was all explained. And I started to chat to a very tiny group of people, and started to unpick my life and started to work through it all. And the feelings kept coming, and I tried to describe them in Various Feelings, and we started to wait impatiently for the formal diagnosis to arrive.

And for most of September and October I hardly slept. And hardly ate. I spent the night times, slightly bizarrely, googling pictures of goats and posting them on my facebook wall. My husband brought me food each day and I nibbled at what I could, which wasn’t very much. My system was in such shock that I could barely function. I cancelled almost everything in my diary as my system just started to close down. I realise now that this was going into burnout and all my energy had just gone. My life seemed so totally crazy and totally different. And I kept wondering if anything would ever feel even vaguely “normal” ever again. And to top it all, the hot water broke in our flat and our living conditions descended from “chaotic” to “borderline disastrous”!

Oddly though, around September time, something else did happen which showed just how much of a toll the masking had been taking. Although I was in a really really strange state, the general level of depression lifted massively. Simply knowing, and understanding, took a whole level of depression away. This, I suspect, was the depression caused by acting, by suppressing who I really was, and had been with me for so long that I didn’t actually notice it was there until it lifted. There was also this sudden feeling that I could be gentle with myself and could stop the frenetic pushing to do everything and to be everything to everyone and to achieve achieve achieve, which had been the cornerstone of my life.

And then I discovered that if I stopped trying to push in that way that I could let myself relax in a way that I hadn’t done before and that if I stopped trying to sit still then my body moved in ways that society had told me for years were strange but from the inside felt totally right. And I spent up to two hours a day rocking and bashing myself on the sofa and all sorts of things emerged from me (I’ll do a post about it sometime) that had been there all along, hidden, just waiting under the surface to be allowed out. I discovered that even after 4 decades of learning and suppression, all my autistic behaviours were there and that all that had happened by me not flapping my hands or by making myself cope with sensory overload to appear “normal” was that I’d been getting progressively more damaged and ill and had sometimes used maladaptive strategies such as alcohol to try to deal with the anxiety.

And all through the autumn I gathered evidence for the assessment, which was set for the end of November. I called my mother and learnt things about my early childhood that I hadn’t previously know and which provided yet more evidence for the “autism hypothesis”. I read book after book, all of which confirmed it over and over and over. And anxiety was heaped on top of anxiety. And the only way I could settle at all was to drink and stim (note: do not inadvertently flap hands while holding a glass of wine – it doesn’t end well for the carpet or the wine)! And there were so many other things going through my head – sadness and anger and relief and excitement and things I’ve written about before and still can’t quite explain properly.

And then the first assessment came and the ensuing disaster plummeted me into crippling depression at the start of December (the full story is in part B of the Blog Guide). I had a series of long shutdowns and episodes without speech, and eventually the spell was broken and I went from no sleep to oversleeping and gradually starting to eat again as my body started to try to repair itself. That phase is the one that has recently ended. And then I made the decision to go public about being autistic and started this blog.

At the start of December I wrote about how Time Stood Still, and I was still in a state of disbelief and still felt that I would, at some point, wake up and it would be August again and I would just have had a really strange dream. I’d gone from disbelief, to tentative belief, to huge shock, and massive relief, and lifting of long-normalised depression, and enormous anxiety, to crushing devastation and invalidation, to starting to fight back, and still my head wasn’t really there, wasn’t really prepared to believe I was autistic without a diagnosis.

But things are different again now. Partly because it is a different year and we have been through the annual time of the short days and I am now, just occasionally, starting to notice the outside world again. Partly because I survived the very very bleak times following the first assessment. Partly because I am now publicly autistic and the reaction to my disclosure has been so overwhelmingly positive and accepted that it has gone a long way to help with the damage done at the first assessment. Partly because I have now learnt so much about autism and am finding strategies to find my way through and have started to engage with the autistic community and to discover how many of my own issues are common to other autistics. Partly because I am not now viewing the forthcoming assessment as a definitive point – I’m aware that getting a formal diagnosis might actually be a long and arduous process and from what I have read, this is not unusual in older people, particularly those assigned female at birth. Partly because there are indications that I might be emerging to some extent from burnout and I do have slightly more functionality than I did a few months ago. Partly because I am starting to learn what my autistic traits are and am learning to work with them rather than fighting against them.

But possibly mainly because I am now writing about being autistic and producing my own narrative to help with the process of discovery (and occasionally writing long indulgent posts like this one). I am learning to talk about it in a way that I would have found unthinkable back in September when even typing the word “autism” into a search seemed so alien and scary that I’d have to go for a little lie down afterwards to recover. I am finding out that going through this huge range of emotions from ecstatic jubilation to suicidal depression is “absolutely normal for the newly-discovered middle-aged autistic” (and probably newly diagnosed autistics of all ages and, to an extent, their carers too) by continuing to read. And, I’m starting to think about a way forward and very very gently getting back to one or two things that, to me, signify “normal life”. It’s slow, and the path is very wobbly and up and down, but it is going, gently, in the right direction.

None of it is particularly easy. And my autistic brain is still fighting furiously with my knowledge brain as they try to reach some sort of equilibrium in my head and sort out what on Earth to do about everything. But I sometimes think that they might, eventually, find some sort of way of working together.

And in the meantime the only thing to do is to accept this latest phase of anxiety regarding the assessment and to cope with it as best I can. I don’t know how many more phases there will be to go through before life achieves some sort of “new normal” and neither do I know when or what that will be. Maybe I will need to write more “head sorting” material in the future in order to make sense of it all and I’ll have a whole new analysis of the process in a few months’ time!

This blog is an interesting beast. No matter how much I want to write about some things and no matter how much I plan, sometimes my head just needs to write what it needs to write.

And letting it is part of the process of discovery!

Autistic or Broken?

58-2017-01-21-22-05-52Yesterday, I put up a post on my Finally Knowing Me page on Facebook (feel free to like/share – it’s all public) about my levels of confidence of receiving a formal autism diagnosis. Before the first assessment I was 80% confident of getting a diagnosis, but 20% doubtful, but, since the first assessment, my confidence has plummeted and now the percentages are reversed and I’d say it was more like 20% confident and 80% doubtful.

Then there was some stuff about expectations and evidence, and how CBT taught me to use the evidence available to disprove my negative thoughts, but actually that’s a really bad idea because the evidence doesn’t disprove them, it reinforces them (there’s a whole blog post to be written about all that stuff at some point).

Something in the post triggered one of my friends to make a comment to the effect that I should remember that I wasn’t broken, but had a different way of seeing the world.

And that comment then triggered my head into realising what it is that’s so frightening about the prospect of not getting a formal autism diagnosis and being officially classed as autistic.

And it runs thus:

If I DO receive an autism diagnosis, and I do fulfil the criteria for being classed as autistic, then that diagnosis will effectively tell me that I have a different way of seeing the world. It will say to me, and to anyone else who cares to take any notice of it, that my neurology is different, that I have a different way of understanding people and communicating with them, a different way of organizing my body, a different way of perceiving light and sound and feeling and so on, and also that this difference has been there all my life (so it explains why my life has gone wrong in so many ways in the past) and that it impairs my ability to function within the bounds of “normal” society. It will also mean that certain things that have been interpreted for years as me being naughty, or picky, or a bit forthright, or disorganised, or lazy, will all now be explained by me just having a different sort of brain.

Conclusion: I am autistic.

However, if I DON’T receive an autism diagnosis, and I don’t fulfil the criteria, the reverse is true. I will not have that protective label. I will not be classed as having a different way of seeing the world. I will be considered, as I have been all my life, as a bit quirky and eccentric. Maybe I’ll manage to get a diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder or similar so that my sensory issues are recognised, but that will not help me when I lose my words and am unable to use the telephone. Maybe they’ll say I’m traumatised now, but not recognise my struggles as a child and I will know that I was simply really really bad while trying not to be. Maybe it’ll be back to just bipolar disorder and “ordinary” mental illness, but that won’t explain why my inertia is so high and my executive functioning is so poor. And, when I compare myself to those people who do have an autism diagnosis yet are able to hold down jobs or run homes or whatever, I will know that I can’t do those things not because my brain is different, but because I really am just a mess.

Conclusion: I am broken.

OK, it’s not quite as simple as that, because you have to factor in the fact that I am, evidently, very broken even if I am autistic, partly because I also have bipolar disorder and severe anxiety and so on, and partly because going undiagnosed and unsupported and trying to live a “normal” life for 45 years and suppressing my autistic traits has led to two major burnouts and been very damaging, especially to my mental health, which is shot to pieces. Being autistic doesn’t preclude brokenness any more than being non-autistic protects from it. And equally, there is justification for my difficulties in life as far as having mental health issues alone – my bipolar disorder is sufficiently impairing that it would probably have impacted upon my ability to work and care for myself even if autism had never entered the picture. Furthermore, it might well be that I have enough autistic traits to impact on my life significantly, even if I don’t fit the clinical definition or cannot provide enough evidence.

Add to that the imperfections of the diagnostic system, the fact that in my case it is relying on memories from many decades ago to fill in gaps about my childhood, the 40+ years I’ve been learning and masking and covering up all my difficulties and giving an Oscar-winning performance on the outside while falling apart on the inside, and it really isn’t an exact science.

But, even so, this is at the nub of the situation: if they say I am autistic then I’m not broken, but if they say I’m not autistic then I am broken.

And if I judge myself by non-autistic standards then I’m a terrible failure and my life has been a pointless disaster (but with caveats about mental illness) and I see very little hope for the future because I simply can’t work any harder or be any better than this – I am basically a broken, failed, weak human being and I always will be.

But if I judge myself by autistic standards then I’ve achieved an amazing amount and been incredibly strong throughout my life (even at great cost to my health) and I see that there really might be hope that I could live a gentler, happier life and achieve goals that are more suitable for me – in a few years’ time I could possibly be a mended, successful and strong autistic person.

And all this is swirling round my head at the moment, like some sort of primordial “soup”, out of which sentient life (or in my case, a moderately functional mind) might or might not eventually emerge. It’s almost exactly 6 months now since I had my first meltdown while away on a camping trip – 6 months ago I didn’t have even the vaguest notion that I would ever be thinking of myself as autistic, or that I’d even know a fraction of what I now know about autism, about myself, about my childhood, or about many people around me. At that point I just believed I was a bit tired and that life would carry on as normal once I got home.

So my head is trying to make sense of it all. I’m trying to work out the extent to which I’m autistic, broken, mentally ill, traumatised, and so on. I’m trying to find a health professional who will actually help me with all of these things. I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that I now identify as a non-binary autistic person. I’m trying to live through ordinary day to day life and remember to eat and so on. I’m trying not to let other aspects of my life (music, study, running and so on) fall completely by the wayside. And I’m still in the process of recovery from burnout and waiting to see exactly what level of functionality I will have once I’ve stabilised.

No wonder I get a bit wobbly from time to time.

Uncertainty and Fear

57-2017-02-01-17-28-33I finished the forms. I spent all of yesterday’s energy on them. And today I feel sick and exhausted. But that was to be expected. I’m also really stressed that all the things I was planning to try to do this week haven’t happened. But I can’t do anything about it at this stage. Every time I just feel like I might be getting things back on track I run out of time and energy again.

We have returned the forms and my second referral has gone through. My husband had an e-mail from the assessment centre today and we now have a date for my third assessment – it is in a few weeks’ time, at the end of February. It was quite a detailed and helpful e-mail, although my name was written with the wrong spelling throughout.

So now we start the wait again. The e-mail did speak of assessing whether I just had a few traits, and might be not enough for a diagnosis, and it would be unknown whether they would tell me on the day. And all sorts of other unsettling things. All sorts of unknowns and uncertainties.

And so the uncertainties are once again raging through my own head. Am I imagining all this? Will I once again be sent away with no answers and no help? Will I “fail” the test? And if I do, can we even contemplate the energy to do it again or will we simply give up? And if we give up, then I just have to try and live whatever years of this life I have left as best I can, and the whole autism business will join the whole childlessness business as one of the great unknowns, but the nightmare ended not by the menopause but by my death.

As time goes by I’m now getting less and less confident about the whole thing again. Life has always been like it is. I have struggled for years with it and nobody has ever officially given me an answer that makes sense of it all. I’m not that confident that they will now, given how badly the first assessment went and how they just cancelled the second one (see part B of the Blog Guide for the full story).

When I got the date for the first assessment I was nervous, yes, but I was also excited that it might be the biggest day of my life and the day that provided the answer as to why my life has gone so badly wrong in so many ways for so many decades.

Now I have the date for the third assessment, there isn’t excitement. I’m just scared. Scared that it’ll be as bad as the first, and that I’ll yet again be not believed, and that I’ll be sent away and there’ll be no closure and we’ll just have to stay alive and carry on alone somehow. I feel that this process should have happened years ago, maybe when I was a child with a parent to look after me, or in my early adulthood, before I was middle-aged and exhausted by everything, before I went through two major burnouts, back when there was still hope of building a life, maybe even of being supported enough to survive in the workplace and not ending up as useless as I’ve now become.

But at least the next assessment is in a different place, with a different person. With any luck I won’t ever have to go back to the first hospital ever again, which would be good.

This is another of those “therapy/journal” blog posts. This process is very hard, with many ups and downs, and in the absence of any sort of therapist, some of the downs will inevitably find their way here.

The irony being that getting another appointment, in only a few weeks’ time, from the second referral centre (meaning I don’t have to go back to the hospital), is actually a really big and positive step forward, and my brain knows this. My brain also knows that they can’t possibly tell me what the outcome of the assessment will be until they’ve done the assessment (otherwise there would be no point to autism assessments and diagnoses if they just diagnosed everyone), so of course it’s a whole load of uncertainty, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

Because the fear of it all going wrong again is still there.

Too Loud

53-2016-12-29-22-14-42I sat in the masterclass, trying to hear what the teacher was saying to the student, straining my ears against the noise coming from my left. A woman who was sitting a couple of seats away from me was taking notes – with a pencil, and the sound of it scratching on the paper was getting so loud that I could almost hear it drowning out the voice of the teacher. I glanced round the room to see whether anyone else had noticed, but if they had they were giving no indication that they were the slightest bit worried by it.

I’ve noticed that since I’ve been in burnout my sensitivity to noise has increased dramatically and my ability to filter out extraneous sounds has declined substantially. I’ve always had issues with background noise, and usually I’m working really hard to filter out the things that I want to hear from those I don’t – this takes a huge amount of energy and I can only usually do it for a finite amount of time before some sort of meltdown occurs.

Interestingly, the noise in the eating place last summer (see The Discovery) was one of the main contributing factors to my eventually being identified as autistic. Not being able to cope with the noises of food, plates, eating, talking and so on AND then having to eat my own food was one of the big triggers that made me seriously anxious and I ended up figuring that it was so stressful being in that environment that the best thing to do would be just to give up eating while I was there because the whole food experience had become so very difficult. Of course, that wasn’t a great strategy, and explaining my difficulties and being given dispensation to eat somewhere quieter was a rather more realistic approach!

Eating noises in particular are something I find very hard to cope with and, as I’ve seen memes on the internet, I’ve gathered that there’s a name for this – misophonia – which is apparently something else not really recognised by medics. So I have a double problem – I can’t cope with quiet eating situations because the individual noises are too stressing, but I can’t really cope with noisy ones too well either. Catch 22. Maybe I should just accept that communal eating is a jolly unpleasant experience and stay away from it completely? Or maybe a more sensible solution might be to limit it and be aware that it takes extra energy!

But it’s not just eating. We don’t have a separate kitchen at home, just an area at one end of the sitting room. When my husband is cooking, particularly if he’s frying anything, the sound of the stuff in the pan can sometimes quite literally hurt my ears. I also get similar problems with cutlery clanking on plates, or pots and pans being rattled and so on. Even when there’s no cooking going on, I sit there waiting for the fridge to stop making a noise so I can get some peace. I really would be the world’s worst kitchen worker!

Usually I manage to cope with most of the noises in the everyday world. Like bright lights, they exhaust me and I need to recover from them. Like with light I’m trying to figure out a way to dull them somewhat, especially now I know that I’m not hearing the same things that other people hear (not because there’s anything wrong with my ears, but because the way my brain processes sounds is rather different). Unlike with light it’s more difficult. Wearing sunglasses is an easy adaption – I’ve worn glasses since I was a teenager and have to wear them anyway to be legal to drive the car and to be able to see. Glasses are no big deal.

Earplugs or headphones are an entirely different matter. I can tolerate having earphones in for a short while, but I’m permanently slightly uncomfortable with them in because of how they feel in my ears. Apparently there are people who can sleep with earplugs in – I don’t know how because they drive me nuts after a very short time. I have worn earplugs at airshows and so on, but the sound of my own voice is then totally unbearable and I only keep them in for the noisiest jets. I would also feel very vulnerable out alone without being able to hear what’s going on around me, because I use my hearing so much as a safety mechanism – maybe the advantage of hearing so much of the background noise upfront is that I notice things like footsteps behind me or the whistle of wind in bicycle wheels when I’m about to cross a road, or similar. I haven’t yet solved the noise problem – that’s very much a work in progress!

And, of course, sound has the additional problem over sight in that it isn’t just the filtering of noise that’s the issue, but a lot of the time coping with sound requires the auditory processing of language too. It has now become obvious that spoken language doesn’t come naturally to me and filtering out conversations from other conversations is something I’ve always found really hard work – which is why I’ve often found myself at parties following a conversation that I’m not even part of and when I’m then asked to contribute have had to ask what has just been said as if my hearing was a bit dodgy!

I’m fairly confident that when I’m recovered from the current burnout things will get a bit better. During most of my life I’ve generally preferred having music playing to having silence – music is a huge and very important part of my life. Interestingly, sometimes, background music (as long as it isn’t too loud) can be a steadying influence on me when I’m surrounded by talking and conversation. It feels to me as though it enters my head on a different channel from conversation – it goes straight in and has meaning instantly without the translation mechanism needed for words. However, when I had the 2001 burnout I couldn’t cope with music at all and craved total silence most of the time. This time around it hasn’t been quite as bad, but all my volume controls have been turned right down and I need everything very soft. On bad days I can’t watch the television with sound and simply put the subtitles on and read them instead. I have managed to play in the occasional concert and the music itself hasn’t been too bad, but the applause at the end of the show is very very painful at the moment. Again, I’m hoping this will improve.

Of course, living in a flat with 3 lots of neighbours is really not ideal in this situation. And the fact that I’m only getting out about once a week means I’m spending an awful lot of time listening to the neighbours’ doors squeaking, their showers running, the noise they make in the corridor outside, the car alarms in the car park below, the dogs barking, and worst of all, the noise of the primary school kids arriving in the morning (the primary school is very close to our block of flats). The voices of babies and small children produce the same effect that knives clanking on plates or people chewing or pencils scratching on paper do. I’m guessing it’s something to do with the frequency of the sound or the structure of the wave or some similar thing – maybe I’ll research it one day, but for now it’s just simple observation.

And, like everything else, now I know how much energy I’m using to cope with filtering noise and trying to focus in on what I actually need to hear, I’m going to have to adapt things a bit. More recovery, more time spent in silence (or the closest I can get to it, given my living circumstances), more time on my own. We’ve also discovered how to disable the entryphone to our flat (nobody ever visits unscheduled anyway) and we now have all ringers on phones permanently turned off. Social occasions will have to be prepared for, recovered from, and rationed to things I really want to do. Having to cope with the sheer amount of noise in the world is yet another thing that drains my energy and causes exhaustion, overload, and sometimes meltdown.