Six Months Public

I don’t have time to write a long blog post right now as today I’m going out into the world to play music, to continue the process of discovering just how much I can push myself to do things and what adaptions I might need in order to be able to live the best life I can, and to keep rebuilding my life, which fell apart so spectacularly in the latter part of 2016.

However, I wanted to post something, to mark the six month anniversary of publishing The Discovery, which was the post in which I disclosed my autistic identity to anyone who cared to read the post. Only two posts preceded it, an introduction, and a bit of background, and I could never have imagined, six months later, just how much I would have learnt and written and connected with other bloggers and people in the autistic community. On that day, back in December, I was, to put it mildly, extremely nervous about what might ensue, and I still, at that stage, had no idea that the responses from most people I know would mainly be of the form “Well, of course you’re autistic, you mean you didn’t know” or “Well that makes total sense”!!!

I wrote about Disclosing Identities back in January, and I stand by what I wrote then. For me, full disclosure has been relatively smooth, although I am still getting back out into the world (like today) and I am still working on getting a smooth and brief script together to talk about being autistic in ways that are most likely to be understood and appropriate when discussing with people out in the world. I’m also still very much at the start of the process of working out what adaptions I might need in order to successfully participate in various activities and not end up having a meltdown or ending up too ill to function.

But, six months on from what was the real start of this blog (and might, at the time, also have been the end of it), things are OK. I am yet to be told that I “can’t be autistic” (or any similar phrase) and I’m still wondering whether that’s because I do, in some ways, fulfil autistic stereotypes (I do rock back and forth quite a lot, I am fairly random with eye contact, I do sometimes have full-blown meltdowns in supermarkets, and, yes, I do like mathematics and find it calming), or whether I’ve just been monstrously lucky to be surrounded by such supportive people!

Whichever way, six months from the nervous day on which I posted that first post, life now feels very very different. Still very much a work in progress, but a long way from how it was back in December.

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Hand Flapping

I wrote the words below (in italics) around eight months ago – before diagnosis, before forms, before I had any interaction with autistic communities online, right back in the early days of the “autism hypothesis” as I was then calling it. At that time I’d only just contacted my mother to start to ask about my early childhood, I’d heard the word “stimming” but didn’t really understand it, and I had no knowledge of autistic burnout or realization that I was experiencing it and had done so before.

I was yet even to receive the forms from the triage service or do any autism “tests” beyond the online one that I mentioned in The Discovery. I was still only just acknowledging that I even WAS autistic, and at that point I was only talking to a very small number of people about it and really only had Google and a couple of books to help me.

At the time I wrote the words I remember being really freaked out by them, even though I’d felt the need to write them. The whole concept of “just letting stuff happen” was so alien to me, having spent my entire life fighting to be “in control” and I was right at the start of the process of discovery. I had only just, a few days earlier, typed the words “I am autistic” for the first time and they still felt very foreign and strange and the whole notion of me being autistic seemed seriously wild – I didn’t spend a few years wondering or suspecting that I might be, as some people do – I’d gone from completely clueless to almost certainly autistic in the space of only a few weeks and my head was still reeling from the experience.

I didn’t even initially discuss them with either my husband or the friend with whom I was most closely corresponding about the possibility that I was autistic. I remember sending a rather coy facebook message to that friend saying I’d discovered something, but, initially it seemed too radical to say what – I’ve come a long way from then to now and my perceptions and levels of confidence have changed so much that I’m now publishing the words, which I couldn’t even send to my friend back then, openly on the internet!!!

But right from the off I knew I wanted to investigate the whole thing thoroughly. I wanted to experiment, to find out just what was going on. It was already obvious that the jiggly leg and the constant sitting with my legs folded under me and the gentle rocking and so on were likely autistic things and so I deliberately set out to learn to listen to my body and to what it wanted to do and to allow myself to experiment to see what happened.

Had I grown up knowing I was autistic and been part of any autistic community, this stuff might have been so commonplace in my life that it wouldn’t even have featured as a “thing to discover” but to me it felt new and big and important. I remember, much later, reading an account from another late diagnosed person saying it took them 6 months from diagnosis to reach that particular point. It took me only a few days from the point that I started to accept that I was autistic!

But I was deliberately experimenting. I am also pretty lucky in that I’m not the sort of person who feels shame about lots of stuff – I don’t have a deeply ingrained sense of “this is wrong” because I’ve always lived a somewhat random life, rather a long way from the middle of the “bell curve”! I knew by my teens that I was never going to be one of the popular “normal” ones and there’s no doubt that as I’ve got older I’ve increasingly adopted an attitude of “if they don’t like me as I am then I’ll just move on and not bother about it”. I have plenty of folk who do seem to be amused or entertained by me enough to stick around and whom I find interesting to be with so it’s not a big problem.

But, internally, this was for me, a big milestone, a big thing for me consciously to rediscover. And I remember, having typed the words “my autistic body” (perhaps an odd thing to type but it was what it was) looking at them with a mix of utter “this is so freaky and odd and new and scary and but ME?” and total “this is so comforting and reassuring and exciting and wow can this really be true” all at the same time.

September 2016

So, I’m staying overnight at my friend’s. I wake. It is 4 in the morning. When I wake I am overwhelmed with anxiety. Understandable. I’m away from home. I had orchestra. People. I talked a lot about autism to my friend yesterday afternoon and evening. My life is in such a period of upheaval and learning and turmoil. The revelations about my 4 year old self are still shocking me and rebounding inside my head.

I feel sick. Really really sick. I have felt this way here before. I have usually put it down to a large meal in college or too much alcohol. Neither of those is true for last night. A fairly small supper (I have learnt to eat small when things are unfamiliar because I know being out of normal routine is often stressful and makes me feel anxious and sick, so less food offsets the feeling).

Usually at this point I would try to keep calm and lie still. Breathing exercises. Mindfulness. Sometimes it works. But often I cannot get calm. The sick feeling rises. As I am emetophobic I get into a feedback loop. Sometimes I manage to fend it off but spend the next hour or so lying there feeling shaky and drained. Sometimes the worst happens. I end up in the bathroom and return, tearful and traumatised, to bed, where I might then drift into a troubled sleep, but the experience stays with me unless I spend the next few days working on blocking it from my mind.

Since it became apparent that I am autistic (there, I said it again) I have been experimenting. I have never known why I sit on the sofa at home and gently rock, but I do. It is calming. Maybe there is more in me. Something else. More long-repressed behaviours. I know I always fiddle with things. My hair. Pens. Cords. But maybe there are other things that are part of me that I am yet to discover.

I lie in the bed and decide to try something. To stop trying any sort of control over my body and mind and see what happens. My body starts to move. Rhythmically rocking backwards and forwards. It feels right. Then the strangest thing happens. I want to flap my hands. Really really want to. My arms emerge from under the covers. My hands begin to flap, fast, furious. I don’t know for how long, but the nausea and sick feeling subsides. I calm. Tears run down my face. I know I am going to be OK now. I flap a bit more, just to check. But I am calmer. The anxiety is reduced. I finally lie still.

I have heard mention of hand flapping. Has that found its way into my mind. Am I “trying” to be autistic, to prove something to myself? Au contraire, I was actually not trying to do anything except what my body felt it wanted to do. It felt natural. Normal. Although massively at odds with everything I have learnt from society over the last 45 years.

I wonder if my particular flapping is an autistic thing. So I grab my phone and Google autism hand flapping. My phone knows how to spell autism these days. I find a video of a man demonstrating flapping behaviour. It looks right. I read on a website that autistic children flap their hands and adults may go back to the behaviour as a way of relieving stress and anxiety. I don’t know if I am going back because I don’t know if I ever did as a child. Maybe so, but if that was the case I was almost certainly told to stop. Suppress. Do not exhibit abnormal behaviour. Nobody would have known back then what it meant.

I am slightly creeped out by the experience. The sense of calm the flapping induced was profound and remarkably quick. It clearly stimulated something that stopped the sick feeling, stopped the acute anxiety and stress. I feel very strange about this. I know it is an odd behaviour. Not something I have done in this way before. It was what my body wanted to do. And it worked.

I wonder what will happen over the coming weeks. As I come to terms with my autism what else will be revealed? I find the term “stimming” strange and unfamiliar. It was not a term I knew until very recently. Again, I worry that I am making myself autistic to fit the model. But every time I return to the fact that I have been autistic all along. It is not that I fit the model. It is that the model fits me. That I have found myself. Discovered needs in myself that were hitherto hidden. Years of lying in unfamiliar beds at night feeling sick. And I didn’t have a way of dealing with it. Now I do. That was what my body wanted. So that’s what I did. My autistic body. My differently wired head. My new life. My new start.

I am 45 years old and I am at the very beginning of my journey of learning to live like me. I have had fleeting moments, over the past week, where I have thought “when will life return to normal”. I know that old normal will never return. Yes, there is a part of me that is deeply unnerved by this whole autistic world. It’s so new. It has all happened so fast. Where is my old familiar life?

The old life is gone. I would not want it back.

***

Two Days Later

I have become a hand flapper. It has become important to me. I also like to rock, and to do things with my fingers, waggle my feet, bash my legs against the sofa back, and, of course, allow my leg to jiggle, rather than making the effort to stop what is often involuntary movement.

I was flapping tonight. Not because I was feeling particularly bad, but just to keep myself calm and to explore further the effect it has on me. I flapped for slightly longer than before. I felt a feeling in my fingers that was familiar, and pleasurable, and special. And it triggered a memory from long ago, very long ago, of the same feeling and I realised:

I. Have. Done. This. Before.

The realisation hits me. I did this as a child. I wonder why I stopped. Did someone tell me to stop waving my arms around? Did I gain awareness that other people didn’t flap their hands and as I was learning how to live by copying and observing I stopped? Did some kid at school bully me for it?

I wonder when it was. But I know now that I flapped my hands as a child.

Mind continues to be blown by all this stuff.

Breathe for goodness sake, breathe!

It turned out that I hadn’t just been flapping my hands when I was younger. As soon as I started to relax about it and consciously allow myself flap in front of my husband he said “Oh, you’ve always done that – though not quite as obviously as now”. Things I’ve always done with fingers and wrists when trying to make decisions or when stressed turn out all to be part of the same thing, but just on a smaller scale. I’ve since discovered that there are all sorts of times when I flap my hands, and these days I often hardly notice. Sometimes it’s when I’m happy about something, sometimes it’s for anxiety relief. These days I generally just go with it!

And, like so many autistic things, it possibly looks a little unusual from the outside. My husband (who also flaps his hands from time to time) frequently tells me I look like a T-Rex (I’m totally cool with that – I was a mad dinosaur fan as a kid and am still somewhat interested in them), and I suspect that some folk might find it a bit odd, but from the inside it’s just a natural form of expression and something that’s now very much part of my life.

The only thing I do have to make myself consciously remember from time to time is not to flap my hands while I’m holding a drink – that doesn’t work out well!!!

Disparate Facts

I’m going to tell you a few facts about me. These things have always been true. They are, on the whole, things that I have always known about myself. For the last 45 years they have been steadily accumulating, and just regarded as my “quirks” by everyone who has known me and known about some or all of these things.

1. I never go to the cinema. Although I went a few times as a child it was never at my initiation and as an adult I’ve hardly ever been. The last time was over a decade ago and we left after the first 20 minutes.

2. I was really naughty at primary school, constantly on headmaster’s report, constantly in trouble for various things, and not really getting any significant work done.

3. I do not know the name of any other person (apart from my husband) in the town where I live. I do not know my neighbours’ names and have never spoken to any of them.

4. I am deeply unfashionable, never wear make-up or a bra, and am utterly unable to comprehend why, say, wearing socks with sandals could be wrong since it’s comfortable and easy.

5. I really like even numbers and most particularly numbers with lots of factors. I like square numbers, and I believe numbers have a sort of hierarchy where some are more relaxing than others.

6. I scratch my head a lot and pick the skin off my scalp. In my 20s I did so very very badly and had open wounds on the back of my head. I didn’t know why I did this, it was just a thing I did.

7. If I spent 20 minutes or so in our storage unit I start to feel very very exhausted and sick. I have to sit down and I then deteriorate to the point where I have to go outside.

8. Sometimes I go really really quiet and just stop talking. It usually happens when I’m really exhausted or really stressed or I’ve just become really angry about something.

9. I cannot tell the time easily from a traditional clock face. Neither am I very good at telling left from right without thinking about it really hard and making writing movements with my fingers.

10. I was bullied all the way through school, even at secondary school where I wasn’t regarded as naughty any more, but as a bit of a geeky strange kid.

11. I’m a really rubbish cook. Before I was married I lived mainly on takeaways and toast, and I often forget to eat and have very little idea of how hungry I might be.

12. I sometimes get really really stressed and angry at everything in a really really short space of time and need to run away or hurt myself and I have absolutely no control over it.

13. I have never been able to keep a job for a sustained period of time and most of the jobs I’ve had I’ve left with some sort of mysterious mental illness, usually given as depression.

14. Left to my own devices I take my shoes off and sit with my legs crossed like in primary school assembly, or sometimes with them folded underneath me.

15. I get really stressed when I’m near the fridges in supermarkets. I usually leave my husband to do all the fresh food shopping and spend my time sniffing every single sort of fabric conditioner.

16. I have never had, or wanted, a satnav machine. I love looking at maps and if I have to go somewhere I don’t know then I look it up in advance and memorise the map.

17. If I am going to do an exam and I agree to meet up with people in the pub afterwards I will be much much more nervous about the pub than I am about doing the exam.

18. When I start a new hobby (or resume an old one) I take it very very seriously. I buy loads of books and research it online and often work on it late into the night.

19. My legs jiggle almost constantly if I don’t consciously try to stop them. I cannot sit still and have been known as a fidgety person all my life.

20. I will automatically assume, once I’ve finished writing this blog post, that you’ve already read it, even though I haven’t posted it yet! I will have to keep reminding myself that this isn’t the case!

If I had listed these facts a year ago I would have seen no connection between them whatsoever – they would just have seemed like a list of random unrelated facts. In fact, I would never have even contemplated making such a list – why on Earth would I have connected my inability to cook, with my avoidance of the cinema? or my behaviour at primary school, with the fact that I have never owned a satnav? or getting exhausted at the storage unit, with resisting fashion trends and not wearing make up? Thinking about these these things there seems to be very little connection, if any at all, between many of them.

Until you start playing “autism bingo”!!! I should imagine that, if I gave this list to a group of autistic people, many of them would look at it and say “Yes, me too, me too” or something similar. Obviously, not every single thing would apply to every single person (everybody’s different after all), but the minute I started researching autistic traits and examining my life, the above list of apparently disparate facts suddenly links up and makes perfect sense. It seems that I wasn’t really “quirky” in the way that I thought – these are all just standard manifestations of autistic characteristics!

I’m fairly certain that I will discover many more things that could be added to the list above as I continue to examine my life from an autistic perspective.

It really is about understanding.

Circles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Four-Year-Old,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you in 41 years’ time!

A Forty-Five-Year-Old from the future

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

Evolving Understanding

Now that I come to see it written down, that title seems really really strange. But I can’t think of a better one, so it’ll have to do. What I’m trying to say is really something along the lines of “I want to write about how my diagnoses (particularly with regard to mental health and neurology) and my understanding of those diagnoses and ability to discuss them has evolved over time” but that’s way too long for a blog title!

In addition to being autistic, I also have bipolar disorder (bipolar II to be precise – which means that my manic episodes are actually called hypomanic episodes and are somewhat more moderate than the full mania of bipolar I, but that my depressive episodes are generally longer and more extreme than the depressive episodes usually associated with bipolar I (there are also other forms of bipolar disorder, including cyclothymia (often called rapid-cycling) and, I believe, something about mixed states or not specified – my knowledge on current bipolar disorder designations is a bit rusty as I’ve not done much work on it recently and I don’t have the time to do a research project on it today)).

I was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2010, although I had evidently been self-diagnosed for some time before that. I briefly wrote about my experiences back in July 2009, and I was clearly already comfortable with the self-attributed label at that time, so I suspect I had been self-diagnosed for some while before then – I really can’t remember. I have openly and comfortably spoken to anyone who cares to listen about bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety for many years now, and I’m currently learning to do the same regarding autism. As it’s bipolar day today I had wondered whether simply to share my previous writing about my experiences with bipolar disorder, but when I looked up those writings my rough style and my evident lack of knowledge were just a bit too grating, so I decided to write this post instead.

And so we come to the notion of evolving understanding. It is clear from my 2009 writing that my own understanding of my mental health and neurology has evolved massively in the last 8 years. It is also clear that the understanding of autism in general has evolved massively over the last 8 years. And it is also clear that some of the issues in my life that I attributed to bipolar disorder back in 2009 were obviously related to my being autistic, as this quote, from 2009, shows:

“Every so often I get stressed, sometimes for no apparent reason. And sometimes, as happened when the treadmill broke recently (it was really just the last straw), I go over the edge. I cry uncontrollably, I am unable to focus on anything and incapable of making even simple decisions. Work becomes impossible. I feel terribly guilty. Eating normally becomes impossible. My senses go haywire. I shake uncontrollably. My legs HURT. And the world becomes a very frightening place, full of bright lights and loud noises, where even little old ladies with sticks seem to move at the speed of light. It is worse in the mornings. And, as I am now discovering, rather hard to write down in a way that makes any sense.”

Bipolar disorder, particularly bipolar II, and particularly in those who are AFAB (Assigned Female At Birth), has traditionally been a common misdiagnosis in the days when the understanding of autism was poorer than it is today. I did wonder, when I received my autism diagnosis, whether my bipolar disorder diagnosis would be removed, because so many of the ways the two conditions present and interact can be similar. However, bipolar disorder is also a common comorbid condition with autism, and the prevalence of bipolar disorder in the autistic population is far higher than in the population as a whole. During my assessment there was a long discussion about my mental health and about how bipolar disorder and autism interacted in my life, and I’ve also mentioned this interaction in the post about Different Language. The conclusion was reached that bipolar disorder is, for me, a comorbid condition alongside autism, and the two have to be considered together.

It’s also obvious now, from the quote above, just how many of the characteristics I ascribed entirely to bipolar disorder in 2009 were actually part of my being autistic (“My senses go haywire” and the subsequent descriptions of sensory problems associated with light and sound are obviously autistic characteristics, in hindsight). For the best part of a decade, bipolar disorder was blamed for pretty much everything that was “wrong” with me, and for a decade or so before that it was simply “anxiety and depression”. As life has progressed I’ve steadily acquired more diagnoses (and more “labels”), which might be seen as bad in some ways, but is actually providing me with much greater understanding of how my head works, and I hope, eventually, how to control it sufficiently to live a life of reasonable quality.

Perhaps, when I’m a bit more able to focus than I am currently, I’ll write a bit more about bipolar disorder and how it affects me and how it fits into my life. I’ve spent most of the last decade becoming reasonably competent at managing the condition, through a combination of medication, various talking therapies, mindfulness, and, possibly most important of all, keeping a daily mood diary (which I did for years until summer 2016 when the “autism hypothesis” was formed and things went completely crazy – once I am a bit more settled I shall set up a monitoring system that takes both bipolar disorder and anxiety and autism into account). Although some of these treatments were not totally suitable for me because they exacerbated issues caused by undiagnosed autism, they did, on the whole, work for management of my bipolar disorder – what I need to do now is to adapt them so that they’re working WITH my neurology to improve my mental health, not against it.

And my understanding of mental health issues and neurology continues to evolve, as, I hope do the understandings of others. Part of the reason I write this blog is to try to understand things myself (it is well-known in teaching circles that explaining things to other people is a good way to test understanding) and also to try to help others understand the complicated world inside some of our heads!

I do, however, fear that I’ll look back on that last paragraph (and possibly most of the rest of this blog) in 8 years’ time and think that my “rough style and my evident lack of knowledge were just a bit too grating”, just as with the 2009 writing, so maybe it’s time to stop here.

Euthymic bipolar day to you all!

Special Days

I’ve never really been a person who makes a big deal out of “special days”. I’m the one who never sends Christmas cards, the one who sends birthday cards to everyone at the same time about once every five years, the one who never bothered with bonfire night or Halloween or sending valentines or waiting until Easter day to eat chocolate or marking nearly any other sort of “occasion”. I should imagine that greetings card retailers would very soon go out of business if everyone was like me. The only days that have been an exception have been New Year’s Day, when I’ve tried to set goals for the coming year, pancake day, when we have pancakes for supper, and our wedding anniversary, when we have potted meat for breakfast!

Since the advent of the internet, however, these “special days” seem to get rather shoved in my face. And many of them are really ones I’d rather not think about. This time of year seems to be awash with “days”, and I’m not really enjoying the whole “day” experience very much right now.

On Sunday it was Mother’s Day (or Mothering Sunday, depending on your preference). As an infertile childless person, Mother’s Day really really doesn’t work for me. It’s a reminder, every year, of something big and painful and missing in my life. I know I’m not the only one who feels this way about it, for a variety of reasons. This year I tried to spend most of the day staying off facebook, but that was also, in its own way really tough – I now have very little life that isn’t online, and cutting myself off from my only real social life can feel really lonely at the moment because I’m not well enough to do anything else that would otherwise distract me for the day. I had been coping, just about, with life until then, but that really was the last straw, and I’ve really been struggling since.

Then, of course, next weekend, we have April Fool’s Day. Another day when I’ve tried, by and large, to stay away from any sort of internet or TV until midday. I have never understood the premise of April Fool’s – it seems to me to run thus: tell a lie, then when someone believes your lie, tell them they’re stupid! And some people, for some reason, find this funny. I KNOW I don’t get this sort of humour – I never have, and my memories of the day as a child were that people constantly told these lies, then told me I was stupid, and the whole thing is an exercise in embarrassment and humiliation. I got to the stage where I simply didn’t believe ANYTHING anyone said on April the 1st in order to save everyone the trouble. I’m quite happy to declare, these days, at the outset, that I know I’m an idiot, I know I can’t tell if it’s a joke if you don’t put a winky face by it, and please don’t complicate social interaction further by deliberately saying stuff that’s false (the same applies, by the way, to the internet “jokes” where someone then “catches” you and sends you a message telling you that you “fell for it”).

And now, to add to the pain of Mother’s Day, and the humiliation of April Fool’s day, there are two “new” days to add into this time of year. It is, apparently, World Bipolar Day on April 30th and Autism Awareness/Acceptance Day on May 2nd.

So here am I, an autistic person with bipolar disorder, sitting here wondering what I should do about this. Because here am I, supposedly articulate intelligent blogger with insider knowledge of both bipolar disorder and autism, and I should really really be doing something about these “days”.

But I am stuck. I cannot “perform to order”. My husband writes a weekly “column” for an online magazine, and has to produce this thing week in week out, whatever the weather, however many meltdowns his wife had that week, and however many times he was required to go to the shop that day because the only damn thing she’d eat was milkshake and cheese and we’d run out of milkshake and didn’t have the right sort of cheese. He performs wonderfully – he is a skilled enough writer that even when his spoons are running low he can still write, just as even when mine are low I can drive a car and play an orchestral viola part without much difficulty. However, I am NOT a skilled writer. What might or might not be apparent from this blog is that, although I might post the posts on consecutive days, I often write three or more in one sitting but then don’t post them all at once. I have days when I can barely even write a facebook status – so the thought of having to produce something particular for a particular day throws me into a horrified paralysis where I can’t produce anything at all.

So I feel guilty, because I should be doing something spectacular for these days. I should be making memes and posting them on the facebook group. I should be explaining bipolar disorder and autism to everyone I meet in the street. I should be helping others with both conditions (conditions was the best word I could think of here) to understand and to feel less alone and more loved and all sorts of other lovely positive feely helpful stuff. And I really can’t do all that just at the moment, because I don’t have the spoons. In recent months I’ve spent a lot of time on groups with autistic people – I’m becoming aware of the vast variability in people’s experiences of autism, I’m learning how offensive many autistic people find the “puzzle piece” to be and how it’s tied up with all sorts of harmful and damaging therapies that attempt to make autistic people “look normal” from the outside, while breaking them inside (one of the advantages of not being diagnosed as a child is that nobody actively tried to “cure” me, although the exterior pressure to conform and to behave “normally” did damage me very badly anyway – I looked great in my early 20s, and if I’d been known to be autistic as, say, a 23-year old, then I’d have been held up as a model of “success” and my graduation photos would, doubtless, have been turned into memes and plastered all over facebook if it had existed, but the damage was being done inside to such an extent that by the time I reached my late 20s it was a totally different story – they wouldn’t have been making memes about my life at 29, which largely consisted of breakdown, burnout, spending night after night banging my head against the wall, and downing bottles of whisky and boxes of pills in an attempt not to wake up the next day or ever again).

And I should be telling this tale. And I should be learning all the politics and finding out which organizations are listening to autistic people and which are not. I feel like I should be going online and telling parents to let their autistic children flap their hands and jump up and down and communicate in ways other than by speech and eat soft food and wear comfortable clothes and so on and so on and so on. And, as an autistic person who can communicate by writing, I should be advocating for all autistics to be able to be themselves because none of us should have to mask or pretend or to be abused or to damage ourselves in order to “fit in” with a world that is difficult enough to cope with anyway.

But I’m still struggling with my own issues right now. I’ve had my diagnosis for only just over 5 weeks. I didn’t even have a clue I WAS autistic until just over 7 months ago. I’m still adjusting. I look at the people who have written much better blogs than this and had books published and all sorts and I feel like I should be doing the same (I was brought up to be a high achiever – the fault of the exam results discussed in Expectations Gone) but then I remember I’m really very very new to all this. I’m also coming to terms with my own childhood whilst being exposed to parenting issues in a way that is really tough as I’d largely withdrawn from anything to do with childhood or children prior to autism stuff entering my life. And I’m in the midst of the menopause and getting used to the idea that my father has terminal cancer and trying to navigate the stresses of applying for benefits so we don’t end up bankrupt. So my head is rather full.

I lay in bed this morning wishing I’d never met my husband – because he is the one who has kept me alive and if I’d never met him I’d be dead by now and all this malarkey would never have happened. I’d have cosily committed suicide some years ago and my affairs would all be long since dealt with. (This sentence did, of course, prompt me to think that there must be a “suicide day” too, so I googled it and discovered that it’s not until September, so I don’t have to worry about that one for the time being, which is a relief). But that’s how low my spoon drawer is right now. (I KNOW this place, I’ve been there many times, and I’m not in immediate danger so don’t worry about sending the cavalry – my executive functioning is too poor to do anything drastic right now in any case and my autistic adherence to routine is keeping me going in a bizarre sort of a way). I’m better than I was earlier today, but in order to start to feel better my speech had to vanish – I have spent most of the day today completely nonverbal from a speech point of view (I often feel very very ill and extremely bad just prior to my speech disintegrating, and when the words go it is usually a big relief). Fortunately I didn’t have to be anywhere today or make any telephone calls!

And so, for now, I come to the conclusion that the best I can do is point people to this blog, which is the place that, so far, I have best managed to explain the many many thoughts that are in my head, and where I have translated more thoughts into words than, possibly, I ever have before. Of course, I’m not very GOOD at pointing people to the blog (although I’m trying), because I’m possibly one of the worst publicists in the history of publicity, but it’s here, and it is what it is. For myself I need to practise enough self-care to get through all this. I need to try to eat and drink regularly. I need to continue to use this blog as something to help me, rather than something to stress me (I’m not, after all, being paid to write it, and nobody asked me to write it – I sometimes wonder if anybody’s even reading it, although indications are that a few people are glancing through it from time to time).

Maybe I’ll see something on facebook that will trigger a blog post relevant to one of the “days”, or maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll be more equipped to talk about awareness or acceptance or whatever next year, and I need to cut myself a bit of slack for now – I can’t answer every question on facebook or call out every mistaken post or fight with everyone who posits some crazy idea – I just don’t have the energy. I’m very much having to choose my battles right now!

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!