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!

Vague Head

Yesterday I posted the following status on my facebook:

Somewhat “vague” today. Not bad, just somewhat purposeless and lacking in any sort of knowing what to do. I’m sure there’s something must need doing, but I haven’t quite figured out what it is. And my head’s doing that “wandery” thing where it can’t quite figure anything out!

And later, replied to a comment on that post with the words:

I’m in one of those moods where I want to write stuff. But the head is blank. There’s nothing there. The little translation people in my head who sort the words have taken a day off.

As it turned out, I wasn’t wrong that the little translation people had taken a day off. By the time I got into bed my spoken words were becoming somewhat nonsensical, and by the time my husband had fallen asleep, they’d gone completely. I didn’t manage to get any sleep myself until nearly 4 am, so it was a rather tedious night. Even by this morning I still wasn’t able to ask him what time he’d be home from work because I couldn’t summon the energy to form a sentence that long and complicated.

And I’ve spent most of this morning in a state of some sort of shutdown. And that sort of “sad” feeling pervades. And everything seems to be a bit triggering and there are so many things on facebook that make me angry but I don’t quite have the capability to debate them because I’m right at the start of this process and I haven’t yet got to the stage where I can analyse and present the arguments in a way I want, so I read that according to the labels I’m supposed to be “high functioning”, because I could speak as a child, and I feel so desperate because I can’t remember how to work my socks and it’s nearly 2 pm and I’ve not yet been capable of eating or drinking anything, but that’s OK, because I’m “high functioning” so my life must be brilliant, like those autistic people in silicon valley who can do computer things without crying and so on. And everything’s all jumbled up in my head and I can’t really quite get the spoons together to make sense of it all, so I just sit at home in my horrible dark messy flat, staring at the forms for the state benefits I don’t want to claim because they scare me so much but I know I have to because I cannot hold down a job and my husband’s working flat out and we’re still not breaking even. But it’s OK, because I’m “high functioning”, and my sort of autism would be described by most people as “mild”. And there are parents on groups talking about their autistic children as some sort of tragedy and saying that because their children are “severe” they will never be able to live independently and that the adult “mild” autistics don’t understand. Even those of us who cannot live independently – independent living is a distant dream for me, a world that I might never attain! And they even have children at all, which, to someone like me who was never able to have any, seems terribly ungrateful. And I see the success stories and the smiling graduation pictures and I remember how hard I worked (not at the subject, but at being able to live) to get through my degree, and the early morning drinking to enable me to cope with the world, and the picture that everyone else saw of a smiling person in mortarboard and gown and how much damage I was doing behind the scenes by pretending to be strong that by the time I was in my late 20s I was downing bottles of whisky and packets of pills in the hope that I wouldn’t ever wake up again.

And all this goes round and round in my head like some sort of mess, from which I hope, one day, to extract some sense, some coherent argument, some way of trying to explain all this to people that they will understand, that they will think about. And how important it is not to pressurize autistic people into appearing “normal” from the outside because it is doing us so much damage on the inside. And I sort of hope that people will realise why all this stuff is so triggering and difficult for so many of us, but I realise that many of them probably won’t, and just like I’ve had to learn in other areas of my life, there are times when I really should hide the offending posts on facebook and move on, because my own quality of life is often so poor that I need not to make it poorer by staying awake all night, nonverbal, triggered by all this stuff, and wishing that I’d never been born because my life is such a bloody awful mess. And even as I type that sentence I’m worried that I’m lining up “nonverbal” next to “triggered” and so on, and I want to go back and change it (but I don’t have the spoons) because it implies that nonverbal (which really should be called nonspeech anyway because typing is verbal, just not spoken) is bad, and it isn’t, at least not from the inside – it feels calmer and less stressful than trying to maintain conversation, which is often hard deliberate work. I usually find that I start to feel worse and worse when I’m trying to hang on to speech, but feel much better once it has gone, an inner peace that isn’t available when trying to communicate by talking. Yet so much of the outside world seems to see this silence as a bad thing. And I am confused. And now, reading that paragraph back, I realise how social media, which is largely responsible for triggering many of these thoughts, is simultaneously wonderful and difficult, because without it I would spend most of my life without any human interaction at all, but with it I am exposed to things that are often difficult to cope with. And there’s another whole blog post to be written about that too.

And as I type this I wonder whether even to post it. Because I want to make proper, reasoned posts about all these things at some point, and I want to explore as many angles of the debate as possible. Despite my never having succeeded in academia, I am an academic at heart, a scientist, a person who tries to be as rational and logical as possible and to try to understand the opposing point of view in arguments, even if I subsequently dismiss that point of view.

But I am also just a person. A very broken person, with a lot of baggage still to unpack, a lot of self-esteem issues to deal with, a lot of practical problems to tackle, and a very very struggling head that doesn’t even think in words and needs to expend vast amounts of energy to translate the concepts and pictures and feelings into words in order to communicate them to other human beings. Even then, I don’t always get it right – it’s clear from replies to things that I say on facebook that others don’t always understand what I mean and maybe I’m not clear enough.

Note: I ran this post by my husband, who suggested that I add the words “I do understand that people who say ‘you aren’t broken’ are trying to be helpful but it is often the opposite of helpful so please, if you would like to know how to help, you can start by not telling me ‘you’re still you’ or ‘you’re not broken.’ Thank you.” (There’s a whole blog post to write about that at some point too – the extent to which I’m “me” or “broken” is massively complicated in my head and I need to work it out for myself, which will take some time).

I will do the proper blog posts at some point. The ones on my list, in which I discuss functioning labels, in which I discuss speech, in which I discuss how damaging internally it can be to an autistic person to try to behave socially in the same way as most other people can, and about how some of us who have been doing it unknowingly for decades have struggled to work out why life has consistently been so tough and gone so very wrong and have ended up so very broken and burnt out as a consequence of putting in so much effort for such a long time.

But I need more time for those. I need the soupy mess in my head to settle, so I can see. I need to do it when the translation mechanism is running smoothly and my head is clear and I’m not dealing with so many other things at once.

If I do decide to post this, then it will feel like one of the “braver” (to use a word that others have used to describe this blog) posts, because I am raising issues that are difficult, and I’m doing so without even having the capability to debate them, or with the backup of sufficient knowledge in my head, which feels like a rather frightening, and maybe risky, thing to do. But one of the things I was determined to do at the outset of this whole blogging enterprise was to try to be honest (or, at least as honest as I can be – there are things I have to leave unsaid sometimes to protect other people because my story is my own, to use as I please, but where it intersects with the lives of specific others I sometimes have to tread more carefully).

Maybe, however, it will be worth it if it encourages others to think about these issues. Although I know I’m already triggering myself massively just by typing this stuff up, never mind what will happen if I post it.

Perhaps the very best course of action at this point would be to go and see whether the connections in my head are working sufficiently well to make a cup of tea. And if they’re not, to get someone on social media to talk me through the process so at least I’ve had a hot drink today, even if nothing else!

Looking at Eyes

I was chatting on Facebook messenger with a friend of mine. We’ve been friends around 5 years, and she is probably, after my husband and best friend, the person I see most regularly in real life.

“So what colour are my eyes then?” she asked.

I paused for a moment, thought about her hair, which she dyes dark red, and it seems to match her skin, so I guess that before she dyed it it must have been dark. “Brown!” I respond.

“Er, no, they’re blue actually.”

She then asked me about the eyes of a mutual friend who I also see quite a lot in real life. Even darker dyed hair. I was confident about this one. Much more obvious. “Definitely brown,” I said.

“Nope, wrong again, she’s another like me with dark hair and blue eyes, except that hers are greyer than mine.”

I really wasn’t very good at this eye colour game. So far 0/2 on the eye colour score!

“Her mouth wiggles a bit at the corner sometimes and your teeth point inwards,” I proffered, in an attempt to show that my observation skills weren’t completely up the spout and I hadn’t been ignoring my friends for the last 5 years!

She laughed! And told me that this was further proof of her observation that even before I had the slightest clue that I was autistic my eye contact skills were, at best, somewhat idiosyncratic!

***

I was in the kitchen with my best friend. He asked me if I knew what colour the eyes of a mutual friend of ours were.

I thought about it. Our mutual friend has grey hair. I think it might have been dark when he was younger. Somehow I couldn’t quite imagine what colour eyes he might have though.

I admitted I didn’t know, and that if someone really needed that information from me then the only way I could supply it would be by looking at a photograph.

***

I mentioned eye contact in an earlier blog post. A discussion ensued on my Facebook wall. Somebody I went to school with between the ages of 13 and 18 commented on the discussion. She clearly stated that she remembered that whenever she looked at me I would look away very very fast. She said she thought at the time it was something that “clever people did.”

***

My husband says that when I do look in his direction I then don’t look away when most people would. He says it’s as if I point my eyes in that direction and then just forget and leave them there. It always slightly freaks him out!

***

So, it seems that I have been “faking it” as far as eye contact is concerned, probably all my life. I’ve certainly never been able to glean information about the state of a person from their eyes, beyond such things as closed = maybe asleep, or tears = maybe sad or happy. I’ve also observed that even when watching television I don’t look at eyes. I go through my life and think of people I know or have known quite well – relatives, friends, former colleagues. I cannot picture what any of their eyes look like. I know they must have eyes, but I cannot visualise any of them. But I can easily visualise mouths and noses, and, in some cases, ears.

This faking really has been fake. Even when I’ve apparently been looking at eyes, I haven’t taken in any information about them. I cannot picture what my own mother’s eyes look like. Not a hope.

This is still news to me. I wasn’t aware of anything beyond remembering instructions given to me as a child, probably by schoolteachers (I can’t remember) saying “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” So I did as I was told. For the next 40 years.

So why have I been faking it? Why is looking at eyes so weird?

I believe that the schoolteachers probably wanted me to look at them because they thought that it was an indicator that I was paying attention (which it wasn’t – I was, and still am, perfectly capable of paying attention to what someone is saying without looking at them – probably rather better that way in fact). I have also looked at fellow musicians when playing chamber music and so on, and again I think it’s just a sign to people saying “I know you’re there, I’m listening to your part, and I’m paying attention.” It doesn’t actually help me to pay attention, but I know that people think you’re paying more attention if you look at them. It’s a learnt fact and a practised technique. It’s been a large part of the mask. But as far as communication is concerned it’s meaningless to me except to show that I’m paying attention.

And, it seems that while I’ve been faking some sort of approximate eye contact I’ve been using massive amounts of energy to do so (as described in An Experiment) and been pretty much avoiding the real thing whenever possible.

And all this while not even knowing I was autistic. I had no reason to avoid eye contact. Not anything tangible. But I did this fake thing for decades. So it was obviously something that wasn’t quite comfortable for me.

And so recently I’ve tried to describe what actual eye contact (from the few moments it has happened unavoidably and sort of by accident, when I haven’t moved my gaze fast enough) actually feels like to me.

And the best I can come up with is that it feels a bit like being naked in public in front of an audience somewhere very very important and totally overwhelmed in a way I can’t describe, and a bit like being poked with a sharp stick.

Which, when I put it like that, explains perfectly why I’ve faked it all my life and why I will now only even attempt it when absolutely necessary. Eye contact might be some wonderful communicative thing in some people’s worlds, but in my world it’s just rather creepy and uncomfortable.

I’m eccentric, but not “get naked in front of an audience until my brain explodes” and “be poked with a sharp stick” sort of eccentric!

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.

Be Prepared!

45-2017-01-04-16-45-19Baden-Powell had it right. The motto that I learnt as a Girl Guide in my youth, and which the Boy Scouts also used, was spot on as far as surviving life as an autistic person is concerned. Preparation is key. Planning is key. Unexpectedness causes panic, anxiety, and, as it did for me yesterday, meltdown.

I thought I’d done something fun and nice and innocent. I shared a short video on my Facebook timeline, showing a recipe for a pudding made from biscuits, chocolate, and marshmallows. I thought it was a bit of fun, I liked the way the marshmallows melted in the oven, and that people might enjoy watching it. I didn’t expect any negative comments beyond “So sad I’m on a diet at the moment” or “Don’t let my kids see that – they’ll want one”.

Then I got up (I’d posted the video from my phone in bed), went to the immense effort of putting clothes on, thought, since it was already around midday, that I should at least try to get some nutrition into me (I’m having quite a lot of issues with food and often can’t eat at all until the evening when anxiety levels have reached manageable proportions). I went to the fridge and knew that the one thing I might be able to face was some milkshake, and that that would be good because it would provide both hydration and nutrition, and I could take my medication with it. Sorted.

But there was no milkshake. We’d run out. I resisted the temptation to message my husband to tell him because he’s on the very edge of coping – working all hours, fixing the washing machine, providing massive amounts of care. When he fails (to get enough milkshake) it’s not because he isn’t trying his best but because he has simply run out of energy.

So, by now it was early afternoon. I still couldn’t eat. I looked at the mug on the kitchen side and tried to work out how I might get tea to be in it, and couldn’t, because my brain couldn’t work out the many complex steps involved. I used the only energy I had to get a glass and fill it with water, because my brain told me that if I couldn’t get nourishment I should at least try not to dehydrate. In the absence of milkshake, water was the best I could do.

Then I went back to the sofa and opened up Facebook. There were comments on the video. Not good ones. Along the lines of “It’ll give you a heart attack”, “It’ll give you diabetes”, and, simply, “Yuk”.

When I saw the word “yuk” I burst into tears. How could I have got it so wrong? I shared something that I thought was so innocent, and all I get is stuff about horrible illnesses and yuk. I obviously fucked up big time. This is what I made people think of. Great. Nice one me.

I tried to reply about what a screw up I’d made, but could hardly type because I was shaking so badly and could hardly see through the tears. I really was wrong. A socially inept pariah. I would have to give up social media too. Evidently now the mask had disintegrated and I was starting to be my full autistic self I was losing any rational ability to see what was good. My judgement was screwed.

Socialising outside the flat is already limited because of the sensory overload. It was evident in that moment that socialising online was also falling to pieces. My life was heading for a simple “get up, stare at telly and play solitaire, try not to kill self, go back to bed”. Forget people. I clearly didn’t understand them. They clearly don’t understand me.

I already strictly limit what I post on Facebook. I have extremely strong political views, which anyone who knows me will know. I very rarely post about them – not because they aren’t passionate and strong, but because I know my mental health is too fragile to cope with the inevitable debate it would create. I have to limit the amount of news I currently take in for similar reasons. It’s not that I don’t care, but that I can’t cope. And by “can’t cope” I don’t mean “makes me cry and feel uncomfortable” I mean “would tip the balance between thinking that I want to be dead and taking active steps to be so”. So I avoid the triggers, because it is the only way I will get well enough to lead any life beyond staring at the telly.

I also avoid a lot of animal cruelty stuff, for similar reasons and because I know it upsets people. I go out of my way to be uncontroversial. When I see posts that upset me or of things I don’t like or can’t cope with, 99% of the time I simply hide them from my feed. Even if someone posts a picture of their dinner and it looks perfectly vile, I just hide it, as I do with other things that I know most people find harmless, but trigger a deep and upsetting emotional reaction in me. If I compiled a set of specific “trigger warnings” for me, it would probably surprise the hell out of people – some things that trigger bad feelings in me are, in most people’s eyes, absolutely normal, yet other things that many people consider triggering don’t bother me in the slightest. I know that my brain doesn’t work the same as other people’s do. I got that years ago. I didn’t need to know about autism to get that – it was obvious as soon as I knew I was a person at all.

So I’d posted a video of a pudding, and got this massive negative reaction. My brain immediately challenged the assertion that eating such a thing would “give a heart attack” because all available evidence suggests that people eat puddings every day without suffering myocardial infarctions and I don’t go into restaurants and see defibrillator machines being wheeled out with the dessert trolley. This was clearly some sort of “small talk banter” that is factually inaccurate but that I know people engage in. Ditto the diabetes claim, which irritates me every time I see it on a post of sweet food but the same people don’t post similar comments on other carbohydrates. Nobody ever comments on how much the slice of toast is raising my blood glucose, on how much the obesity you get from eating too much of anything and doing too little activity to burn it off is the contributing factor that can lead to diabetes in some people. Both the heart attack and the diabetes comments come from a general healthy eating thing and not too much sugar (or whatever is the health fashion at the time) but this ignoring the real facts to make some kind of “soundbite” is part of the world of small talk that drives me crazy.

I’m simplifying massively here. I’m not a medic and I know there are papers galore on this stuff written by people who’ve done the studies. But these glib assertions I see irritate the hell out of me every time. I’ve learnt, over the course of many years that this is what people do. I don’t understand why they do it. But they do. Usually I have enough energy just to like the comment and move on. But yesterday I didn’t. Every scrap of knowledge about heart disease and diabetes from the appropriate branches of my brain flooded my head and overwhelmed me (this is quite normal – one comment like this frequently triggers a huge wave of information release, and information that is not in word form, so I can’t even produce it to debate in real time).

And then I read the one comment that wasn’t about disease. And it simply said “yuk”. And everything along the lines of “if you can’t think of anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all” came flying at me. Why did this person have to be so horrible? Maybe they don’t like chocolate? Or marshmallows? OK. So just move on. Surely? But no, they have to tell me that I’ve shared something horrible, that repulsed them. To make me question my sanity.

At that point I feared a whole slew of comments about this awful awful disease-ridden vile thing I’d shared. I’d clearly got it so so wrong. So I deleted the post. The most I could then manage was a tearful emoji on my wall, and one further comment before my words disappeared. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even make enough words to type a coherent sentence. I closed Facebook and sat there wishing I had the means and the energy to end my life.

Then, once the meltdown subsided, I thought “Oh shit, husband might be worried”. So I opened Facebook again and found a message from him – just a question mark. He knows when not to involve unnecessary words. I did the best I could to explain, and to say that there was a whole load of shit broken out on my wall but that I was still almost nonverbal so couldn’t even do anything to explain what had happened. Neither could I even thank those who were being nice, nor enter into the discussion that had started involving cake, and eating issues in general. Fortunately we can communicate without sentences. He knows what I mean, even when the language is only partially formed.

So he did his best to explain, and I’m now doing the full job, via a blog post, because what happened raises one of the things I’ve known all my life. I need to be prepared.

Almost everything I do is planned. If I am going out somewhere then I look it up beforehand. If I need to leave the flat to buy a pint of milk then I prepare for several hours. I have it in my head. When I go and visit my friend I know what will happen. His wife will open the door. We will say hello, I will go upstairs to my friend’s office, sit in the usual chair, and he will just finish the e-mail he’s writing then we will chat. All these normal things are routine. Done before. I prepare for them in my head, but I am fairly certain of the outcome of my actions.

If I am doing something risky or unfamiliar I prepare myself. I know it will be hard. I know there will be unknowns. I know these unknowns are stressful. Therefore I prepare. I put a mental guard up. This is exhausting and takes a lot of energy to do, so I only do it when I have the available energy or when I absolutely need to. So, if someone invites me to, say, play in a new orchestra, I have to factor in the energy of the guard, because I’m going somewhere unfamiliar, meeting new people, and so on. I also have to make new scripts for these occasions, and know that I might even have to improvise conversations and people might ask me questions I haven’t thought of or discuss things unfamiliar to me. So I have the guard. It uses energy. But it protects me.

If I did decide to post something controversial on my Facebook wall I would only do it when I had a lot of energy. I would put my guard up. I would expect negative comments. I would be prepared for debate, and for it to feel rough, and to trigger emotions, and to feel dangerous and scary. I would have already scripted answers to many of the questions I anticipated. I know there are certain people’s timelines that are full of triggers and scary things. Certain groups that I can only cope with sometimes. I only look at them when I have my guard up (sometimes only when my husband is at home with me so we can discuss whether my reaction is correct or not).

I prepare myself. I know that the new thing or the controversial post or the triggering group needs to be approached only when I’m feeling up to dealing with them.

But, when I posted a video of someone making a pudding, I was not prepared. The wholly negative reaction that video produced sliced through my system like an electric shock. I allowed myself to look at the Internet without my guard. As myself. Soft vulnerable bit exposed. Being myself (as people are so fond of telling me to do) means being exposed to hurt and difficulty. Because what is banter to many people is not to me.

This is why being oneself is so hard. Why so many autistics (and also, I suspect, people with anxiety disorders, PTSD and so on) withdraw from social life even, sometimes, when they are lonely. It is a form of self-protection. Because the way our brains are wired means that if we are totally “ourselves” then we expose ourselves to situations that cause distress because many people don’t understand how seriously we can take things that are understood as “social banter” by most people. If we go the alternative route and mask our feelings, saying the “right thing”, and putting our guards up, then we might well appear successful and have “normal” reactions to posts on Facebook and so on, but the cost in energy is huge. And that is why we become so utterly exhausted.

Yesterday, needless to say, was lost. I achieved none of the things I’d hoped to. I managed to eat a piece of toast in the late afternoon and a few chips for supper. No need to worry that I’m getting obese – I’m losing weight at the moment simply because I have so many days when I’m too anxious to eat properly or my autistic brain won’t let me eat anything other than milkshakes or whatever the current “thing” is!

My head now knows though, that posting even something apparently innocent can trigger a meltdown and a mess. Maybe I need to approach even online interactions with more caution. Maybe there are people there who haven’t read any of this blog (I’m fairly terrible at promoting either it, or the page, because I can’t quite believe anyone would actually be interested in any of it) and don’t know just how fragile I am at the moment.

Maybe I need to prepare myself for difficult comments because everyone won’t see a pudding as a nice innocent thing.

This is why the world is so complicated and difficult. Doing anything at all seems to bring a whole load of unpredictable consequences. My brain doesn’t cope well with that. It doesn’t understand. And when it reaches its limit, it goes into meltdown.

Disintegrated Mask

38-2016-12-30-16-06-29I’ve referred to the term “masking” on a few occasions on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve yet really discussed it. One day, when I’ve really become knowledgeable about autism, and have actually had time to process all this properly and let it sink in, I really hope to be able to write some sort of proper guide to all the terminology and to be able to explain things in a logical way, but for the time being, I’m writing mainly from my own experience and the knowledge that I’ve been able to acquire from books, blogs, and discussions during only a few months. If it’s a bit jumbled or incomplete, then please forgive me, because I’m still trying to make sense of most of it myself.

I was prompted to write this post after making a couple of phone calls, one to renew the car breakdown cover (there wasn’t an online option) and the other to order a repeat prescription (I’m trying to work out how to access the online system, but it requires codes and so on, so haven’t been able to do it yet). I was struggling to understand the person on the end of the phone in the first call, and by half way through the second one my word order had completely disintegrated. I was able to sort what I needed, not particularly linguistically elegantly, and it didn’t massively matter that I was somewhat disjointed, but it got me to wondering how on Earth I’ve managed telephone calls (way more complex ones than I’d just made) previously.

And the answer is, of course, that they had been made by the Strong Woman, to whom I said farewell in that earlier blog post. They were made as part of the act, the act that has now collapsed, and has left me in this state of autistic burnout, which I discussed in the post about Different Language. This burnout, which I’ve also seen called “autistic regression” can result in loss of functionality, which might even, to an extent, be permanent. It can also mean that autistic characteristics become very pronounced, as mine currently are. I don’t know exactly how functional I will be in what ways once I’m recovered from this burnout (I know I was never the same again after the 2001 burnout), but I already know that my mask is gone and I am now autistic to my core. It’s a huge part of my identity, the only thing that makes sense of my life, and, like I said right back at the start of this whole process of discovery, it finally means I can be myself. If I mask at all in future it will be only in circumstances where it really is essential for my safety and will only be on a very temporary basis.

So, masking is the term used to describe what is happening when an autistic person hides their autistic traits from the world and doesn’t let other people see the difficulties they are having. Literally putting on a mask, and acting. This masking (as far as I can tell) doesn’t have to be a conscious process, and certainly wasn’t in my case, because I spent 40 years masking without having the faintest clue that I was autistic – I just knew that life was very very hard work and I spent a lot of time getting much more tired than other people my age doing similar things. I also became very mentally ill, failed at many things that my peers seemed to accomplish with relative ease, and, it seems, have also internalised quite a lot of trauma concerning my life.

From the reading I have done, all this seems to be pretty much normal for people who reach middle age unaware that they are autistic. While, obviously, everything is not true for everyone, it appears that there are several commonalities among those of us who have survived this far but been clueless about our neurology all our lives. We are often unemployed, in debt, estranged from families, mentally ill, suffering from trauma, living alone in unstable situations, and have several failed relationships behind us. This is what happens when autistic traits are suppressed, when we sit still, and socialise more than we can cope with, and look at people’s eyes, and deal with too much sensory input, and try to organize ourselves as well as our peers, and attempt to be flexible and accommodating, and try to survive in the workplace, and so on in order to “fit in” with people around us, and when we don’t have adequate downtime alone to recover or to be absorbed in our own interests.

I have many of those difficulties, though not all, and the 4 decades of masking have certainly taken a massive toll on my health. I believe it is likely I started masking when I started school, by copying other girls in my class. I can’t remember what happened prior to that time. However, masking really isn’t a healthy thing to do, and I suspect that the enormous effort I have been making throughout my life to behave in the way that most people behave has played a huge part in the crippling mental illness I’ve suffered for the last 20 years or so of my life. Even in my teens I remember being stressed. As I revised for my O-Levels I wondered if it was worth the bother because I might be dead by the time the results came out. But the message I received from those around me was that this was exam stress and therefore normal. Oddly, I didn’t feel particularly stressed about the exams, but that was what it supposedly was, so I didn’t question further.

I maintained that mask, more or less, for 4 decades, pouring massive amounts of energy into it, coping with the anxiety by shutting myself away, using alcohol, and I eventually succumbed to mental illness. I learnt a set of social skills that were pretty good, given how many autistic traits I now know I have, and any holes in the mask were attributed to my being a bit “brusque” or “stroppy” or “direct”, though as I’m talking to people, it turns out there were things there all the time that people noticed that weren’t quite as they might have expected. I really hope to ask people who’ve known me over the years what they observed, and see how well these observations tally with the new found knowledge. As far as I knew I was just your average person and actually rather sociable, but it now seems that wasn’t quite the case. Maybe my inability to survive for any length of time in the workplace should have been an indication of just how much work I had to do just to manage to live in the world at all.

However, in August 2016 I went into autistic burnout. I was exhausted after a busy year, and after just 3 days away from home without time alone behind a locked door, which I’ve always needed to recharge my batteries, the mask started to disintegrate. The energy to maintain the act was gone. The small holes in my mask became large cracks. The cracks joined up. And the autistic me beneath became obvious. Once that happened, there was no going back.

Once I had recognised that I was autistic, my ability to mask convincingly for anything longer than an hour or so fell apart. People with whom I interacted in person were gradually told, and I had to tell some people on a sort of “need to know” basis. Now the very last piece of my old mask has gone. I first started trying to write about masking the day before I published the blog post that announced my autistic identity to anyone who cared to read it and to my friends on facebook (which has, for many years, been my main social world). And as I wrote, I counted down the hours to the moment I was fully “out” as an autistic person, completely disclosed to anyone who cared to know.
So masking has ended. There will be no more acting beyond that required for survival in the outside world. I am already wearing dark sunglasses in supermarkets, twirling my hands while out in the world, taking my tea to a quiet corner by myself during rehearsal breaks, and making decisions about how much social contact I can manage. I’ve also turned the ringer off on the phone!

Exactly where I’ll end up when things settle and I have recovered from the burnout is still unknown. Part of me feels extremely nervous about it all – my whole identity is in a state of confusion and chaos. But part of me is so very very relieved that the mask has gone and I’m actually quite content to accept my new self, because it is so much more comfortable than the old one was. For over 40 years I’ve hidden so many stresses and difficulties because I thought that everyone else was hiding similar difficulties. Now I know that isn’t the case and I need to adapt life a little because my perception of the world is a bit different from most people’s.

An Experiment

10-2016-12-08-13-32-07Back in mid-September, when the autism hypothesis was still just a hypothesis and the notion of declaring myself to be autistic was still something I considered seriously wild, I did a little experiment. Part of me is a scientist, and it seemed that doing experiments would be a good way to test the hypothesis.

I play in an orchestra from time to time that holds its rehearsals over 2 weeks, a couple of nights each week, on Wednesdays and Fridays. I was playing in this orchestra in September, leading the viola section, just at the point where the autism hypothesis was getting really serious.

So I did a bit of experimentation, controlling for all but two variables as best I could. I’d had the same amount of rest, the traffic was similar, I’d eaten similarly As much as possible was the same, except for two things I decided to change in the second week.

Week 1 – I went to orchestra. I did everything exactly as usual. I behaved as usual, acting as I have done in such rehearsals for years. I got home from the rehearsal and everything was exactly as it has been for years when I get home from rehearsals. I walked into the flat, dropped my viola in the hallway, and then collapsed onto the sofa, feeling sick and exhausted. It took an hour or so to feel well enough to sit up and have supper. Exactly as normal.

Week 2 – I went to orchestra. The same orchestra. I changed two things about my behaviour. First, I consciously didn’t attempt to make any sort of eye contact with other people except when absolutely necessary for musical reasons. Secondly, at the tea break I went and fetched a cup of tea and took it off to a quiet corner by myself, and didn’t stay in the room where most people were congregated and chatting.

Then I drove home, the same drive, at the same time. I walked into the flat, took my viola into the bedroom and put it back in the place where it lives. I then went through to the sitting room and was able to sit upright on the sofa and open the post and very soon afterwards was well enough to eat supper.

It was dramatic. A significant difference. All I’d done differently was not looked at eyes and not stayed to chat in a noisy room, full of conversations, during tea break. But how I felt when I got home was very very different.

I found it hard to believe that looking at people’s eyes and chatting during tea breaks took so much energy. It seemed like such a crazy idea. But subsequent similar experiments have all produced similar results. I really had been using so much energy to do things that I’d regarded as absolutely normal for years and years.

Furthermore, I had tacitly assumed that other people also got home from rehearsals and social events in a similar state of collapse – and I now started to wonder whether this was actually the case. It had been my normal life for so long that I didn’t even question it. For years, when I’d told people that I was tired, they had told me that they got tired too, and I believed, therefore, that what I was experiencing was absolutely normal. It now seemed that maybe it wasn’t.

It was only just over a week after this experiment that I declared the autism hypothesis to be true. I had reached the point where the accumulated evidence was so compelling that it was impossible to ignore.

I’m still somewhat startled by it all.