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!

One Month On

I have how had my official autism diagnosis for a month. In that month, life has continued to change almost as rapidly as it did before I was diagnosed. My father’s cancer diagnosis has obviously changed my priorities with regard to how I spend my limited energy over the coming months. My financial situation has once more become difficult and precarious and is causing me considerable amounts of anxiety. And I have, with huge regret, realised that I cannot, at this time, continue with the maths degree that I so badly wanted to finish, so it is time to let go, to stop pushing, and to admit that I have simply run out of time and energy.

Obviously, life is still a long way from where I’d like it to be. My sleep patterns are still poor, which is not great, but they’re better than they were a few months ago. I’m now managing to leave the flat around twice a week, which is a slight improvement. When I do go out I am slightly better able to cope because I am more aware of which strategies work for me and I’m learning to give myself more recovery time afterwards.

I have now started, very slowly, to eat just a little better than I have been doing, which is no bad thing, since I saw a full-length photo of myself recently and was slightly shocked at how thin I looked. I finally weighed myself a couple of days ago and discovered that I’ve lost a stone since last summer, simply because I have felt too sick and anxious to cope with food. This is not good – I was not trying to lose weight, particularly not in that way, and I am just lucky that I was in good enough physical condition to start with that my body could cope. I am also still drinking too much alcohol in order to cope, but am starting to try to cut down just a bit in order not to do too much more damage to my physical health.

However, despite all the difficulties mentioned above, the persistent insomnia, the struggles to go out, and the continuing dysfunctional relationship with both food and alcohol, there are signs that things are improving. My husband and several friends have remarked that they perceive my underlying mental state to be improved and, even though I’m still getting some extremely sad, angry, and regretful moments, I’m starting to accept things as they are in a way that I didn’t before my formal diagnosis.

There were several people who said, before my diagnosis, that since I knew I was autistic, they knew I was autistic, and my friends and family accepted that I was autistic, there really wasn’t any necessity for me to pursue a formal diagnosis in order to understand myself. What none of these people understood, however, was my need for validation, reassurance that I hadn’t simply imagined the whole thing, and the huge huge confidence that the formal diagnosis has given me. This might not be necessary for everyone, but for me it was essential. And it really has made a massive difference to my life.

The formal diagnosis also, for me, marked the end of the old life, and the beginning of the new one. The process of discovery in the preceding months was like a sort of introduction, perhaps an overture before the curtain was raised at the beginning of the first act, or maybe the preface before the start of chapter one. My old life has been demolished, and now the process of rebuilding can begin.

There is obviously a lot of relief that the process of seeking a diagnosis is now over, and I feel, even more than previously, that my life now makes sense in a way that it never previously did. As I predicted in the last few paragraphs of Why Bother, the diagnosis has finally given me full permission to stop regarding myself as a naughty, lazy, failure of a human being. I also feel liberated from the pressure to “succeed” that has pervaded my whole life so far. There is still a long way to go and I still, frequently, feel that I am not entitled to breathe the air and that the world would be a better place without me, but I am still only a month into the new life, and there’s nearly half a century of the old one to analyse, reevaluate, and reframe.

Furthermore, I have to go through the process of mourning the life I might have had if only it had been recognised that I was autistic before I got to my mid 40s. There are still difficult topics to tackle – the mental health professionals who failed for two decades to recognise it, my childhood, the incessant, triggering, references to small children when I try to research autistic traits, and where I fit, if at all, into the autistic community (I am used to being alone and to shying away from being part of any sort of group, and discovering that there are others who experience so many of the same things as I do is, for me, somewhat disconcerting).

But one month after diagnosis there is a calm, even more so than that I felt after discovery. I strongly believe that there is a very good chance that my mental health will, eventually, be better than it has been for decades, possibly even than ever before. I am already, after just four weeks, much more confident about describing myself as autistic, and feeling that I have a right to do so. I’m also treating myself much more gently than I did previously – because now I have official permission!

I’m certain there will be yet more phases to go through, and not all will be easy, but maybe, just maybe, I will eventually rebuild a life that works. And it will be a better life than the one that officially ended four weeks ago.

Letting Go

Apologies for yet another of these “journal type” posts. I had hoped that this blog would be just a little bit more balanced than it has been recently, and I’d still like to explore particular aspects of autism and create something a bit more useful, but, as I said right at the start, it is also, for me, part of the process of dealing with life and of trying to work out where to go from here!

I have spent the last few days feeling utterly shattered. This is partly because I managed to leave the flat a bit more than usual at the end of last week, and partly because I am starting to absorb everything that has happened over the last few weeks and preceding few months. Furthermore, it has become obvious that trying to struggle through learning advanced mathematics and completing assignments and sitting an exam in a few months time is totally and utterly beyond me right now. No matter how much I “put my mind to it”, it just isn’t happening. There are some times in life where no amount of effort will make something possible, and this is one of them. I had the same experience when I abandoned my DPhil 20 years ago – I wanted it so much, I wanted desperately to complete it, but sometimes, no matter how hard you search, there isn’t any more energy there. At that point there is nothing to do but accept that you need to stop, to give up, and to recover as best you can and make a new plan.

The process of acceptance is something I’m finding a bit odd, and also rather confusing. On the one hand I feel a huge relief that I can stop, breathe, and take some of the pressure off myself, but on the other, I feel somewhat bereft and directionless and a bit lost and I’m wondering what I’m supposed to do now.

The basic answer to that last question is, of course, obvious. I have plenty of things that still need doing – there is laundry and admin and trying to remember to eat and take care of myself. I also have lots of books and DVDs and so on that should keep me amused for a while. To many people this might sound like a great holiday, some sort of lovely blissful time – I now have permission to lie around in bed at home, watching the telly, reading anything I want, eating as much chocolate as I like, while just making the occasional list and chucking a load of laundry into the machine from time to time.

Except that this isn’t a holiday. It isn’t a break from the tough stuff – it IS the tough stuff. It has now taken me over a week to get enough brain cells together to even think about making a list. I am struggling to eat anything at all during the day as it just makes me feel sick and I’m having to force myself to nibble small quantities of high calorie food just to maintain my weight. I can’t concentrate to read most days, and I often find the light and sound from the TV terribly overstimulating. Strangely, the laundry is probably the best bit of the whole lot, though the noise from the washing machine sometimes makes me want to beat my head against the wall!

The above paragraph makes it obvious that I’m still very much recovering from burnout, and explains why I’m so unable to do more than leave the flat from time to time and the very occasional thing. And, on one level, it does give me a set of goals to aim for – eating proper meals, reading a few pages of a book, sorting out the random papers on my desk. On a small scale I have goals.

But the larger scale is more problematic. And this is where the dichotomy between feeling relieved and feeling lost is pertinent.

Getting my autism diagnosis is a huge relief. Learning that the struggles I’ve experienced all my life are the result of my brain working differently from the majority of brains is hugely enlightening, liberating, and exonerating. I know now that I was never able to fit into the world in the way that most people can because I was different from the start and I always will be. I’ve always known I wasn’t like most other people, but never really thought much of it because it was the way the world was for me, but I continually failed at things in a way that shouldn’t have been the case given how much I was working for them. Acknowledging that difference is really really helpful – in the same way that when we were discovering we were unable to have children one of the most helpful things I read was a paragraph in a book that explained that one of the difficulties of being childless is that it immediately marks you out as “different” in society because so many people do have families (and spend a great deal of time talking about them) that you will inevitably be an outsider on many occasions. That paragraph made me realise something I hadn’t hitherto realised – I was already different (I knew that much before autism was even considered) and my failure to produce a family made me even more different, even more of an outsider in society.

Acknowledging that feeling of “otherness” was really important to me then, as it is now. I have changed from being “wrong normal” to “right different”, which is good, because it means I can finally relax (as much as that’ll ever be possible for me), be myself, and set myself more realistic targets that allow me enough time for rest and recuperation in between and take into account how much just being out in the world exhausts me and drains my energy.

Finally, breathe. Stop. The battle is over. I can pause. Phew.

But what now?

And here is where the lost feeling comes in. Because the problem with not discovering you’re autistic until you’re 45, and with having achieved good exam results at school, and with having spent your entire life striving for “success” of some description is that without that ambition and those goals and those life plans, you feel somewhat cast adrift – I’m free, yes, from the expectations that I will now ever “get better” and be a high-flying something or other, but I’m also, now, somewhat directionless – floating around in an ocean and I don’t know which way to swim. The training I received in my youth was all based on me getting a good career, living a “normal” successful life. All my assumptions about my life included a full-time job, a family, and a house – that was the life I was prepared for. I never learnt about the benefits system, or what to do if you can’t work, or how to relax, or how to ask for help and support – none of those things was on my radar. I’m having to learn them pretty much from the beginning, in my 40s. This is a big ask – a complete rethink on my life philosophy. I’m also going to have to work out what I can actually do with my life that will take me beyond simply staring at the TV all day every day, because, even with my changed reality, I hope to be able to do a little more than that at some point.

So I look around and try to ascertain what others do with their lives. How do people who have neither a job nor family fill their days? What is life then for?

It seems like a wonderful opportunity – I’m sure there are people tied to jobs and families who would love to spend time travelling or pursuing hobbies or whatever, but I’m not only decidedly short on finances for travelling and so on, but just being out in the world with people exhausts me so much that any hobby would need to be mainly solitary and done at home. I’m not really looking for answers here, just pondering, and I know in my brain that I need to wait until I’ve recovered further from burnout before I can start to see what level of functionality I actually have and what I’ll ultimately be able to do.

So, I am liberated, free from the need to “perform” any more, free from the need to act the confident high-powered strong woman who I pretended to be for so long. But I am also cast adrift, directionless, like a balloon released and left to its fate, and I believe that I just have to go with both of these things for the time being. The old “rules” are gone. My life has been redefined. And there is no point fighting it, no point trying to cling on to “the way things were before”, because no matter how much I wanted that life to work, it didn’t, and the only way to move forward is to let go, relinquish control, and trust that some way forward will eventually emerge.

Changed Life

My life is an interesting mix at the moment. I say “interesting” because one of my ways of coping with things is to be “interested” by them and to learn. Feeling emotions is, on the whole, difficult and complicated, and I’ve never received any training in how to feel things, so it confuses me somewhat. However, the education system I went through did provide me with ample training on how to learn and analyse things, so I tend to retreat into learning and analysis whenever possible. My head is wired in such a way that I have wondered all my life why school spent so much time teaching me the easy stuff (for example, mathematics), but so little teaching the difficult stuff (for example, what to do in a tea break at work). I realise now that that might be because many people don’t naturally go off and learn mathematics for fun just because it’s interesting, and most people seem to have some innate knowledge of how to cope with tea breaks and haven’t had to spend years observing other people to learn what to do and how to handle such problematic situations.

Anyway, there are two conflicting strands intertwining in my head at the moment. The shock of my father’s diagnosis (see Reactions to Diagnoses) is still very present (although now, over a week in, I am starting, slowly, to process it), and I’m beginning to work out how to adjust my life in order to spend some time with him during the next few months. I’m trying to focus on sorting out the practicalities of visits and arrangements at the moment, and my priority is to use whatever energy I can to do what I need to do in a timely manner.

But I’m also acutely aware that I currently have very limited energy. Interestingly, other things in my life have suddenly become less important. I have, for the time being, abandoned any thoughts of participating in running races. I am still very burnt out, and while I recognise how wonderful running is for me and for my health in general, what I need right now is to learn how to stop pushing myself and to rest. Coping with the overstimulation out in the world is something I’m finding difficult at the moment, and pushing myself into massive physical exertion only overtaxes my system further. I’m also having huge sensory issues with running kit, which is a different sort of fabric from my usual soft cotton t-shirts, and I cannot reliably wear such clothes at the moment without sometimes encountering waves of nausea. Furthermore, getting dressed at all is often still really challenging for me, so getting changed and changed again uses up so much energy that it’s really not a valuable use of resources. And that’s before I start on the hours of build up needed even to leave the flat at the moment! I fully intend to return to running seriously again, especially the long distances that are so fabulous, but I can easily put it on hold for now, while I recover. I need to get my energy back, work out how to deal with the crowds at races so I don’t end up crashing out of them like I did last year, and maybe I’ll ease myself back in via halves and marathons first, then return to ultras in 2018.

I’m trying to keep a bit of music going, but, for now, only familiar and relatively low pressure stuff. This time last year I was preparing to play solo Hindemith as part of a gig, and to perform a concerto in the summer, but this year I am sticking to a bit of gentle orchestral stuff and maybe a bit of fun chamber music should the opportunity arise. Nothing that requires hours of intensive practice or any great pressure – even the pressure of finding concert clothes and getting out of the flat to the gig and being surrounded by people and the sensory demands of the outside world is quite enough to cope with.

The other really difficult decision I need to make might well be forced upon me anyway soon. For years now I’ve been studying maths with the Open University. It’s been brilliant, but it’s also been a really rocky ride because my health has failed so many times over the years. Things have also changed massively with the way that the courses and degrees are organised and funded over the years, and for the last couple of years I’ve been desperately trying to finish my degree before it vanishes completely. The University have been very good, and the tutors I’ve had have been nothing short of excellent in their support, but I fear that I have now reached the end of the line. I cannot see how I can continue to work at the level I need to for the time being. Unlike running and music, however, which can be picked up when I’m better, I fear this really is the end for the maths. Had this happened 10 years ago I would simply have taken a year or so out then carried on, but that is now impossible (very long boring story to do with government funding, modules, student loans, deferrals, degree programmes and so on).

My husband is going to try to contact the OU and see whether there is anything to be salvaged (if there is, then we’ll do it), but that, in itself, is a problem because they will only speak to me and I’m not up to having the discussion right now. The problem with needing help is that in order to get help you have to be well enough to ask for help and if you’re not well enough to ask then you just slip off the radar and vanish – the same happened to me with disability benefits – I just gave up. I can’t contemplate any of it at the moment – all my energy is needed just for survival. Furthermore, any hopes that I would eventually “get better properly” and be able to use a decent maths degree (during the times I *can* work my marks are often high and might, with good health, have led to an excellent degree) to establish a good career, are now gone. The problems I have with energy levels and executive functioning and coping out in the world when surrounded by other people are the result of me being autistic and that is permanent. Just finding enough strategies to COPE at all with life is going to be a big deal – I now know that the possibility of a “successful career” is gone and that if I ever manage to work again it will have to be a very different sort of work from that I had in mind when I hoped to “recover” from whatever it was that meant I kept breaking.

So, life feels like it is changing rapidly. Priorities are altering, and the upheaval continues. My life, which, a year ago, I had been hoping to build up, has shrunk back down to something much more modest. Doing 100 mile races, performing concertos, and getting a good maths degree all seem to be in a different universe right now. My relationship with my family is in the process of changing significantly, my ambitions for life are undergoing a time of readjustment, and my entire identity has altered. I’ve moved from simply “not being very female” to actively describing myself as non-binary and I’ve discovered a world I couldn’t even have imagined existed a few months ago. It’s also still only seven months since the chain of events started that would lead me to discover, a few weeks later, that what I’d regarded as “normal” for the last 45 years was in fact “autistic”, and eventually to be diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder just 2 weeks ago today. It is all really really life-changing.

Interestingly though, two weeks after diagnosis, my husband has remarked that for all the current problems in life, he perceives an underlying wellness in me that he hasn’t seen for a very long time. For all the upheavals, and all the strife, and the current difficulties, it would seem that the process of accepting who I really am IS eventually going to lead to a better life. It has become obvious from the “facebook memories” feature that for all my external optimism about life a year ago I was already really struggling, and the signs of impending burnout were already there – the life that I was still rebuilding was unsustainable, but I just didn’t know it.

And, now I am finally emerging from the diagnostic procedure itself, then, following shortly afterwards, the news from my father, I am starting to accept my changed life in a way that I wouldn’t have done previously. The angst I felt before diagnosis (even when everyone round me was telling me that of course I was autistic and go gently on myself and so on) is starting to recede and I feel, oddly, like a “more confident autistic”. For the first time in my life I am learning to take pressure OFF myself. For the first time ever, I’m able to tell myself that my head DOES work differently from the heads of most other people and that it’s true, what I mean by “tired” is different from what many other people mean by it (not all – obviously there are those who have other chronic conditions and illnesses and so on – I’m not referring to them, but to the population as a whole, to the people who CAN go out to work every day and so on). I am learning that being autistic means that my system gets exhausted JUST BY EXISTING, and I therefore need more rest than most people do. I am allowing myself to rest more FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MY LIFE, and I’m no longer forcing myself to constantly push through the bad feelings.

I’m finally letting go of the notion that I need to be all things to all people – I scroll past questions on facebook that I know I could answer, but sometimes I let someone else take the question because I know that typing a lengthy answer will tire me. I look at some of the posts and “advice” in the self-help and fitness related groups and books and I know now that this advice might work really well for neurotypical people, but that it doesn’t work for me because it doesn’t take into account that my neurology is different. Autistic people need a different version of the “self-help” manual – one that takes our neurology into account, one that recognises our differences and the extra work we need to put in in order to exist in the world and the fact that being with other people is utterly exhausting for many of us (maybe I’ll write one sometime)! I am starting to recognise that in order to stay well I have to question much of the “received wisdom” about life, and much of what I’ve learnt through the years. I need to adapt the advice, rethink the strategies, and alter my life accordingly.

And although I’d been learning lots and lots of this on my own, had disclosed my autistic status on this blog (see The Discovery) to anyone who cared to read it, being validated by a professional has, for me, given me the permission to change my life and to feel justified in doing so, which is why what happened two weeks ago today was so important. It turns out that even if the rest of the world was absolutely convinced that I was autistic and did everything they could to help and reassure me, the person who really needed convincing was me.

Too Feely

59-2016-12-15-10-49-11Just last week, in my facebook memories, there appeared a status from a year ago. My husband and I had been having a conversation, prompted by something we’d seen on the TV, about how well we slept. I had said at the time that having a husband who pulled the bedsheets and altered their tension or made wrinkles in them was definitely detrimental to good sleeping.

A year ago I didn’t have the first clue I was autistic. I had never heard of sensory processing disorder or any of these sensory sensitivity issues. But I knew, absolutely knew, that one wrinkle in a bed sheet was a disaster! Always had been. Bed sheets should be flat and smooth, with even tension throughout. Anything else was bad. I’ve always been a bit “princess and the pea”ish about where I’ve slept, arranging things so I can’t feel wrinkles, and making sure nothing felt “wrong”!

And it’s not just about bedclothes. Right back to my childhood I remember things that made me very very uncomfortable. I grew up in the 1970s, when polo necked jumpers were very popular – I remember pulling at the necks, trying to make them bigger and looser to stop the feeling that I was being strangled. It was even worse when they were made out of wool and to add to the strangled feeling there was this tearing cutting feeling everywhere it touched my skin, as though I’d fallen into a bramble bush or something. I remember being desperate to have a pair of jeans because they were fashionable, but then feeling utterly terrible when I tried to wear them (this was before lycra and stretch made such things wearable) and they felt like they were cutting me in half at the waist.

I also remember, as a child, being in a school play and having to wear make-up as part of my costume. The teacher put lipstick on me and instantly it felt absolutely horrible. Totally disgusting. I told the teacher this and she told me that I’d understand when I grew up and that grown up women loved lipstick and wore it every day. I had a brief flirtation with the stuff in my teens, but it still felt, and smelled, and tasted, absolutely vile. I think I wore foundation twice, before chucking it in the bin because it made me desperate to wash my face because I felt so horrible and dirty and it smelled so bad. I’m 45 now, and I still haven’t become that grown up woman that the teacher told me I would, and now I know that I never will, and the teacher was wrong.

Another of the “grown up woman” things that I ditched in my 20s was the bra. I can bear to wear a wide strapped sports one for the duration of a run, but while I’m actually running only. If I try to drive home after a race or training run still wearing it then I start to feel sick, the cutting pressure across my back, the feeling of the straps digging in, like someone’s trying to slice my skin open. I haven’t worn a bra in daily life for over 20 years, and I never shall again.

The same is true of anything made out of lace. I developed a certain tolerance as I grew up and things did improve as fabrics became better, but still, when I buy an item of clothing, I FEEL it. I will choose the thing that feels good over the thing that LOOKS good EVERY TIME! I also spend time every morning when I put on my socks, lining up the toe seams so they are symmetrical and perfect. I know there are some people with sensory issues who don’t like to wear socks at all – I am not one of them – the feeling of bare feet on the soles of shoes and sandals is not pleasant for me – I would rather wear socks. I am a person who wears socks with sandals, and I don’t care how many stupid memes tell me it is unfashionable – it is comfortable, and that is way more important.

I also mentioned, in The Discovery, how I cut the labels out of my clothes. I don’t know why people put labels into clothes, but every time I buy something new I take it out of the bag and go over it and remove the labels. I assumed that everyone did this, since it is such a routine and normal part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I then wash it before I wear it because the stiffness of anything that is likely to touch my skin is horrible. I don’t like the scratchy feeling or the way new clothes smell. I am a person who exists most happily in old t-shirts, elasticated-waist jogging bottoms, and fleeces. I can dress up smartly for an evening, and sometimes do, but it is always temporary, and the posh clothes are off the instant I’m back in the door.

I have spent years wondering how people can go to work all day in a dress, with tights, and high heels. I have marvelled at how they endure the pain of wearing a bra day in day out. I have been overwhelmed by their toughness, their resilience, and their fortitude in the face of what must be so devastatingly painful, and I have long known that I could never be like that. I had a job once that required me to wear a suit. I lasted a month. Just getting dressed for work each morning was so traumatic that I was in tears every day before I even left the house. I eventually went off sick from that job and never returned to it.

In the same way that I have to remove labels from clothes, I also feel a need to remove stickers from books. If I’m reading a book and it has a barcode sticker with an ISBN number on the back and I can feel the raised sticker as I hold the book it distracts me from what I’m reading to the extent that I don’t take the information in. Just as with clothes, I get home from a bookshop and remove anything that might interfere with the smooth surface. Where other people might not notice, I do.

And I was astounded to read, in one of the many books I’ve been reading on autism, about the autistic woman who, when kissed by anyone who left a slightly damp patch on her cheek, instantly felt the need to wipe her face. I am exactly the same. There feels something so terribly wrong, like the surface has been disturbed, and I need to straighten it, to stop the feeling of blemish, of cold and wet.

I am also sensitive to what is on my fingers, and, for many years, have washed my hands in such a way that I thought I had some sort of obsessive washing tendencies, but I realise now that the cause of my handwashing antics is actually to do with sensory issues. I cannot BEAR to have sticky or greasy fingers. Given the option I will eat cakes or pastries with a fork to avoid touching them with my hands, and this isn’t, as I’d wondered, a germ-related thing, but the dislike of feeling sticky or dirty. If you see me eat a bag of crisps then I will most likely wipe my hands on my trousers after every single crisp. If I’m in a place where I can, I’ll also get up and wash my hands afterwards. If I’m out, then I will do everything I can to eat a cake from the packet without touching the cake – I’m quite skilful at it. And when I’m in a position when I can’t do any of these things, it uses extra energy, extra resources, and makes me more tired, more likely to go in the direction of meltdown, and so on. I’ve long marvelled at people who seem so unfazed by eating with their hands, or by people who seem, so effortlessly, to put their hands into mixing bowls when baking, or who think gardening is therapeutic, yet it involves touching soil, which is, for me, a very unpleasant sensation.

I’m the same with crockery and cutlery. My husband is quite used to me sending mugs or knives or forks back because they “feel wrong”. He doesn’t have the same sensory issues that I do (if anything, he is undersensitive to such things), but he will wash them again and again, to make them right. I have, on occasion, been home alone and “my mug” has been greasy in the sink and I have spent all day without a cup of tea as a result. This is what happens on my worst days. On days when I have more energy I will steel myself to wash the mug, and then wash my hands afterwards until they’re back to how they should be, and how they feel right.

It’s a constant balancing act, but what’s so extraordinary is that these things have all been part of my life for decades and I’ve never had the faintest idea why.

Until I started reading books about autism and sensory issues!

Bingo!

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.