Summer School

One of the most striking things that happens to so many of us who are diagnosed or identified as autistic late or very late on in life is that as we learn about autism and what it actually means and how it affects our lives, there is this constant stream of “lightbulb moments” where events from the past suddenly make sense and can thus be reinterpreted very differently. Those of us who grew up oblivious to the fact we were autistic but just knew that life was very very difficult (and assumed, since it was all we knew, that that was the case for everyone but that they somehow coped with the difficulties better than we did) have a lot of reframing of our past to do and a lot of moments that we can now perceive completely differently as a result of knowing we’re autistic.

A couple of days ago I was looking through my “on this day” feature on facebook, as I do most morning, and this status from two years ago appeared:

It is so nice to be alone. Away from all the other people and “group work” (i.e. HELL). Just me, York Bowen viola music on the laptop, a bottle of wine, and a box of maltesers.

I was instantly struck by my relief at being alone and my assertion that group work was hell. I decided to have a look at some of the comments I’d made on the status and they made for further interesting reading:

I’m at Open University Summer School. There are people everywhere. They’re lovely people, but I’m just not good with lots of people all at once. They all have social skills that I just can’t do. The work itself is no probs, but then we’re told to “discuss this with the people sitting around you” and “work in groups” and all I hear is noise. I don’t have the filters for it. Everyone else chats and laughs and I feel lonely and isolated. I drove off campus this evening and found a Tesco to buy stuff then just drove, with music, on my own. It was the most soothing bit of the day.

I limit parties and things because I know they use so much energy and I often need a lot of time to recover. If I was an animal in the wild I’d be a polar bear or something that lived a largely solitary life.

Interacting with people all day is just exhausting. The maths is easy, and the people are nice, but there are so many of them, and it’s so tiring having to smile and pretend to be normal all day.

This is going to be a very very long week. People keep telling me I’ll love it. I’m not loving it. I arrived and broke down in tears and collapsed. If there was a way I could get out of it I would. I hate it.

All the above remarks in italics were written over a year before I knew I was autistic. As far as I knew at that time I just had mental health problems and, at the time I believed the only current issue I had was what I believed to be “normal” levels of anxiety. The disability officer from the course had even called me the previous week to check that I was OK (having read on my student record that I was listed as having bipolar disorder) and I’d assured him that I was between episodes and that everything was absolutely fine and I didn’t need any accommodations but thank you for asking etc etc. The only thing I did check was that I would have a bedroom on my own – I have known all my life that sharing sleeping space with anyone other than people close to me and selected by me is absolute anathema and on the occasions where I’ve been forced into that situation I’ve spent the night anxious and sleepless, desperately waiting for morning.

So I set off to Summer School without any adaptions in place. And I struggled from the outset. I arrived at registration in tears, desperate already to go home, but knowing that this was a compulsory course and I’d fail the degree without it. I sat through a lecture about group work and about how we were being assessed on our interactions with the other students (all of whom were complete strangers to me) and that we had to be actively participating and not looking at the ceiling or staring out of the window because we would otherwise be marked down. The fear started to rise. My anxiety levels started to skyrocket. I remember being desperate to get out and to go home. No degree was worth this amount of torture, surely?

And, as we moved into the group work session and I sat with three complete strangers trying to design some sort of mathematical modeling experiment, trying to look into these strangers’ eyes and to “look interested” and to do all the things we’d been told to do in the lecture, the tears started to roll down my face and then the crushing panic as the noise got louder and louder and the voices of the people around me started to blur into this horrendous and incomprehensible sound and then it felt like the walls of the lecture theatre were going to crush me to death, and the inevitable meltdown happened.

I sat in the corridor outside the lecture theatre rocking and crying until someone eventually found me. I can’t remember exactly what happened next, but it became obvious that I wasn’t going to cope with being a “normal” student. Some adaptions were made for me – I was moved to a different overall group with fewer people, and it was agreed that I would always have a seat near the door or on the end of a row, not in the middle of the room.

It helped a bit, but after a couple of days I was finished. I’d also pretty much stopped eating by this stage (the dining hall was another source of noisy clattering fear and social interaction, and any acquisition of food that required any input from me was impossible for me – I stood in front of a toasting machine one morning at breakfast and cried because I just couldn’t work out how to get toast – I would have gone hungry that morning had another student not made some toast for me and put it in front of me).

I was in touch, as usual, with friends and my husband via facebook. My husband offered to drop everything and come up on the train to see whether he could sort me out and calm me down and get me eating again. The course directors were initially reluctant – I wasn’t registered as needing a carer, and they were also suspicious that my husband would arrive and simply take me home. However, it was fast becoming obvious that I wasn’t going to last much longer on my own anyway so my husband was allowed to join me and he arrived and brought my “safe” foods and got me eating again and somewhat back on track and I managed to stay for the rest of the course.

I remained very stressed for the rest of the week, but as the end approached things did improve. I self-medicated heavily with alcohol and caffeine in order to cope, and landed up in a group with some very good people who helped me through the group work and seemed fine about having to sit near the door in every room (I’m still facebook friends with them, two years on). Perversely, one of the parts of the course that many people were worried about was the presentation to a room full of tutors and other students – for me it was the easiest and least stressful part of the whole experience! This seems to be the story of my life – I find things that others find so easy that they don’t even think about them really really challenging, and things that others find challenging I often find unproblematic!

And, it’s only now, two years after the event and eleven months after starting seriously to investigate the possibility that I might be autistic and what that even meant, that I can now understand just WHY Summer School was so difficult for me, and just how disabled I am and how much support I need at times in order simply to survive. Back then I didn’t have a clue about “sensory spoons” or that not having the ability to cope with multiple conversations in a room was the result of the way my brain was wired rather than me just being hopeless. I’d never heard the phrase “executive functioning” and couldn’t work out why an unfamiliar toaster might make me cry and I simply wouldn’t be able to work out how to use it. I didn’t know just how much energy I was using coping with eating whatever food they provided rather than my own routine “safe” foods that I usually had at home. I didn’t know why the lecture on group work made me so terrified, and I couldn’t begin to comprehend how the other students could spend all day in lectures and group work and chatting at coffee breaks and then go to the bar in the evening and STILL cope without crying and breaking and sobbing and rocking in the corridor – I just assumed they were geniuses of some sort with unlimited energy and resources and that I was broken and pathetic. I never even found the bar!

Now it’s all explained. And now I have to work out what to do when I go away from home on my own in the future. I still don’t have it worked out. I’m supposed to be going away in a few weeks’ time and I need to work out what accommodations might be possible and what I will need in order to get through the week. Then I need to communicate it to the people concerned, which is even harder. I’m struggling with it, even with the knowledge I now have, and when the confirmation e-mail arrived in my inbox the other day I went into a state of abject terror and nearly cancelled. I’m still trying to work out what to do so I don’t end up with a repeat of the Summer School scenario.

And although I now know why all these things have gone wrong, I’m still less than a year into the whole “knowing I’m autistic” thing. I have no problems with being autistic – it’s simply the way that I am – but asking for help has never been something I’ve found easy, and I’m still trying to work out exactly what “help” would actually be helpful, which is another huge job on its own! And after 4 decades of believing that when I couldn’t cope it was my fault and I just had to deal with it, the change in perspective is absolutely massive.

This is still, I keep reminding myself, a process. And, as I keep hearing from those who’ve been through the same process, it will take time.

I hope I’ll be able to work it out eventually!

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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.

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.