It has just taken me around 2 hours to make a cup of tea.
“That’s ridiculous,” I hear you cry, “it doesn’t take 2 hours to make a cup of tea…”
And my sensible brain, my logical brain, knows you are right. I am a physically sound adult, with a perfectly reasonable brain, who has made hundreds of cups of tea in their lifetime, and making a quick cuppa, with kettle, water, mug, teabag, and milk all within easy reach should be something I can almost do with my eyes shut by this stage in my life.
But I can’t. Because I go to the kitchen, and I complete the first stage of the tea making procedure (fill the kettle with water) and my autistic mind (the bit with the impaired executive functioning – I promise I’ll try to explain all about executive functioning as soon as I can) simply stops processing at that point. My mind believes that the tea is made, because it has no further instructions – often, I cannot sequence tasks, so I do the first bit of the task and my mind makes a little tick in a box in my head and says “done”!
Twenty minutes later I remember that I was thinking that it would be a good idea to have a cup of tea. I look down at the place on the floor next to my sofa where the tea lives, and see a piece of carpet that holds only dust, hairs, a few bits of dubious provenance (I haven’t been up to vacuuming recently), and some vague tea stains from previous cuppas. But no actual tea.
So I return to the kitchen. And I put the kettle on to boil, because I realise that I didn’t quite manage that bit last time. This time I will FINISH the process, and I will get my tea. I am determined. Tea will be mine.
And then my mind ticks the box again…
I wander off, again, my mind once more tricking my brain into believing that the tea-making procedure is complete and I will soon be enjoying a cup of warm brown liquid of the type that many people from my particular part of the world find so comforting and familiar.
And, of course, I have failed, once more, to join the individual tasks together, and been unable to complete the (supposedly) simple task.
You’re probably starting to understand at this point just WHY it takes me two hours to make a cup of tea, and why there is such huge effort involved in such an endeavour. Each stage has to be thought of, consciously, separately, and the amount of processing power that a complex task like making tea can take is enormous. For years I have blamed this on simply being a bit “absent minded” (yes, everybody forgets things, everybody has put the kettle on to boil and wandered off) or on the strains of mental illness, but in my case it is extreme, and always has been. I’ve compensated behind the scenes as much as I can, but I eventually get to the point where I simply give up eating and drinking because the mental processes required to deal with them are so far beyond me that I just can’t work them out.
Then you need to add in another factor to the equation – inertia. I have always known that I had huge inertia, and have even used that word about myself for many years (probably since I learnt it in physics lessons when I was at school). I have discovered in the last few months that there is such a thing as “autistic inertia” (the thing that means autistic people have real difficulty starting tasks, stopping tasks, and changing from one task to another – this is another area I’d like to write about properly once I have the ability to do so, but for the time being, just imagine the very worst procrastination experience you’ve ever had, something you really really really didn’t want to do and were finding almost impossible to start, then multiply that by about a million, and you’ll get the idea)!
So, once I’ve sat down on the sofa after supposedly finishing making my tea, I find it almost impossible to move to get up again. And, once I’m up for the next stage in the tea making I sort of forget how to sit down again and end up wandering round the flat (which doesn’t take long because it’s rather compact) in a sort of bemused manner trying to work out what I was supposed to be doing.
My impairments in ability to sequence and complete complex tasks (such as making a cup of tea) and inability to start/stop/switch tasks have been things I have lived with all my life, and I’ve made gargantuan efforts to compensate for them by using enormous amounts of brain energy, consciously forcing myself off the sofa, consciously making myself try to think of the next stage in the tea-making process, and so on, which has, of course, made me really really exhausted. Despite enormous willpower (I have no shortage of willpower – I’m the kind of person who can run 60km on a busted leg to complete an ultramarathon etc etc) I have never been able to learn to make a meal with any reliable success or managed to change from one task to another without a significant break in between and a lot of effort. When I have tried to do these things it has very quickly led to shutdown or meltdown.
And, as I’ve progressed through life, things have got worse, not better. I was probably at my peak ability sometime in my early 20s, when, like most people who are young and reasonably fit, I had more energy than is the case now. But still it wasn’t sufficient, and by working so very hard to try to be “like everyone else” at that stage in my life and by believing the hype about how “cooking from first principles is somehow “better”” and trying to do what was “best”, I stored up years of damage that only became apparent when my mental health fell apart in my late 20s.
Now I know better than that and am learning that I have to work with the mind I have and not fight against it, although that in itself takes rather a lot of strength, and learning to ignore the “advice” so freely given by those who don’t actually have a clue just how incapable I actually am, is going to take a bit of getting used to. My life has been about striving for achievement, and improvement, not about adapting and taking things more gently – that’s a huge shift for me.
And just at the moment I’m doing more external things than I have been over the last few months. My executive functioning issues had improved slightly, but as I’m now using energy to do a bit of music (which I want to do), deal with benefits forms (which I need to do), fix to see my father (which I both want AND need to do), and arrange my follow-up appointment with the autism team (which I also both want and need to do), I’ve noticed a decline in my ability to function within the flat, a need to stim more, and a more regular loss of words – the energy to do other things has to come from somewhere!
Of course, doing what I’m now doing in terms of activities would have been impossible a few months ago, so there is progress, but it’s very interesting to note how much my basic abilities, with such things as tea making, suffer when I’m diverting energy elsewhere and can’t use it to patch over the holes in my mind where those particular connections are missing.
But I did get a cup of tea today, eventually, so that was an achievement!