Still Complicated

After my autism diagnosis I was fortunate enough to be given two follow up appointments with the assessor, mainly, I think, to discuss how I felt about being diagnosed autistic once I’d had a little time to process it, and also to discuss the report and finalise paperwork and so on.

The first of those appointments was in April 2017, and I know that by that stage I’d already learnt quite a lot more than I’d known in February. Having a formal diagnosis finally gave me the confidence I needed to start interacting with other autistic people, and I was starting to discover that some of these people were more like me and some less like me. I slowly started to try to work out where I fitted into the autistic community and what role, if any, I might play in it in the future.

There were things that were obvious from the off. I’m not a computers sort of autistic, nor a gamer, nor do I seek particular solace in nature. Neither am I a hyperempath, nor particularly introverted, nor what most people would regard as shy! I can sometimes be quite extroverted, I have to work hard to try to interpret the feelings of others so as to try not to cause offence, I like engines and machines and cars and trucks and planes (and yes, trains too), but even syncing my phone to the computer or trying to do anything new with this blog can reduce me to tears.

But there were other things too. And, as we started to unpick all the features of me that were clearly related to me being autistic, we started to notice that there were quite a few things that weren’t explained by autism. And as I read more about neurodiversity in general and started to interact with people who were neurodivergent in many different ways and not necessarily autistic, something else started to emerge as a possible contender for consideration.

It was as though somebody had laid a whole load of objects on a table, each object representing a trait (this trait might be a “skill” or it might be a “difficulty”). As I’ve steadily been diagnosed with different conditions over the decades, these objects have been removed from the table and put into a bag labelled with the name of that diagnosis. When I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression a couple of decades back a few objects were removed from the table, put into a bag, and taken off to be given an antidepressant pill and some CBT. But there were still rather a lot of things there. The bipolar disorder diagnosis nearly a decade ago removed quite a lot more objects from the table and quite a lot more of my life was explained, but again there were still an awful lot of my “eccentric” traits left behind.

Then autism arrived. And a HUGE number of objects were put into a brand new bag with “autism” written on it. I took the bag and started to work through the contents and to try to deal with them as appropriate (e.g. there was an object that told me fluorescent lights made me ill, so I wore sunglasses and I now ask people to turn off lights when I can). Learning to understand all these traits, sticking them all together in the “autism bag” was revelatory and changed my life massively.

However, there were still things on the table. And once the autism traits had all been removed, it was clear that there was another outstanding diagnosis that would explain quite a lot more of my behaviour as both a child and during adulthood. It seemed unlikely that I really was a highly spontaneous autistic who just randomly did things out of routine sometimes or that the times when I missed details and struggled with mundane repetitive tasks were down to autism – and these traits were having a significant and often detrimental effect on my life. Chatting to other autistics online it became obvious that the mixture of traits I had were the same as those who were identified or diagnosed as being autistic but ALSO having ADHD.

I mentioned this to the autism assessor at my first follow up in April. She said that she was unable to diagnose ADHD because it fell outside her remit. She was absolutely totally certain that ADHD was not an alternative to the autism diagnosis because she was so totally certain that I was autistic, but she didn’t rule out ADHD as an additional condition that would be worth exploring elsewhere.

So we made an appointment with my GP, which, owing to terribly long waiting lists and difficulty booking appointments, entailed a 6-week wait. We used the precious GP appointment to briefly outline the results of the autism assessment and to broach the idea of ADHD. My GP referred us back to the mental health services, who were the people who were the ones to do ADHD assessments. And we settled down to wait, again.

Forms arrived a month or so later. I was away at the time so we didn’t manage to complete them straight away, however, eventually, in September, we completed Formageddon Round 3 – another set of questionnaires for me, a set for my spouse, and a set for my mother. I might write the process up in more detail at some point, but not today.

And so, at the start of October, I was given an appointment at the mental health services for what we believed would be a relatively straightforward ADHD assessment.

It turned out a bit differently from what we expected. I’m not going to go into details right now, because my head is still doing a lot of processing, but suffice to say, things changed from what we were expecting (the time and personnel of the appointment were both changed just beforehand). It turned out that I was seeing my old psychiatrist from many years back, and, of course (though I already knew this) it was in the mental health centre I’d left many years ago and had been to rather a lot at a not very happy time of my life.

The triggering effect of being back in the place, with the person, coupled with the fact that I was, on this occasion, again deemed “too complicated” (warning for picture of self-injury if you click the link), was nearly disastrous. This time, however, unlike the occasion in November 2016, my spouse spotted the signs and suggested I take a break. I spent most of the appointment outside, rocking on the pavement and communing with a pot plant with a small white flower.

When I went back in for the last few minutes of the appointment my spouse had clearly explained a lot, and my autism report, which my GP had sent with the referral, had finally been read. It had also become obvious that there was something of a vacuum as far as finding anybody who understood both neurodiversity and mental health issues, and the ways in which they interacted, well enough to give me (an autistic person with bipolar disorder) an ADHD assessment. My psychiatrist, however, did think that there was someone who could be asked to help and that it was worth a try.

I’m not sure I was wildly optimistic at this stage. It seemed like the process of finding people who could actually work out what was going on in my head and help me put the objects from the table into bags and then deal with the contents of those bags, was just an uphill struggle. I pondered whether to just give up and go home and drink stronger drink, but in the end I was curious enough to wait to see what happened next.

Advertisements

Sheet Problems

Many of our sheets are
Still missing after the move
Many are old
And wearing out…

So I bought a new one.

I washed it
As I do with all new things
Because new things
Never feel right
Or smell right
Unless they have been
Washed in the usual stuff

(My mother once washed
My bedding
In a different sort
Of powder
When I was a child
And I couldn’t sleep
Because it smelled
So wrong).

I put the new sheet
Onto our bed
Yesterday.
I knew it was wrong
The instant I got into bed…

Scratch scratch scratch.

Scratch scratch scratch.

Scratch scratch scratch.

I feel now
As though I have spent the night
Sleeping on sandpaper.
I feel as though my skin
Must be red raw
From the experience.

I know it isn’t,
Logically.
And, as always,
Any outside observer
Would simply tell me
They couldn’t see anything
And not understand
The problem.

(My spouse has had
Years of me complaining
About wrinkles
In the sheets
And things not feeling
“Right”
While he is unable
To feel what is wrong).

So I am about to get up
Much earlier than usual
Because I cannot lie
On this sandpaper bed
Any longer.

And I will be changing the sheet
Again.
More energy used.
More washing.
Another failed thing
To add to the detritus
In our flat
Another waste of money
I don’t have.
Something else
I will struggle to throw away
Because I will feel sorry for it
And guilty that I didn’t love it.

Maybe the animals will enjoy it as bedding?

But, as my spouse said to me
At least we now know
There’s a reason that I
Complain about the sheets.

So that’s something.

But I still need a new sheet.

Which means shopping
In shops
Which is hard.
And the sheets are all in packets
So I can’t feel them first.

Or buying online
Where I also have to guess
Whether the sheet
Will be a good one.

(And, of course,
The good ones are more likely
To be the expensive ones
Which I can’t afford).

You’d think
That buying a new sheet
Would be something
Quite simple to do.

Not in my world it isn’t!

Another Step

Having admitted to myself that I was autistic, and having already approached the doctor to be referred for diagnosis, I knew there was something else important that I had to do. I had to let my family know what I’d discovered, and the obvious place to start with that was to call my mother.

I recorded my feelings about doing this:

Deep deep breaths. That was a biggie. Told my mother.

And then noted some of the things that she had immediately said when I’d told her that I would need information about my early childhood and please could she start thinking whether there were any incidents that occurred in my early life that she could remember, or any ways in which I differed from my brother (who is not autistic) when we were young, and could she possibly just start thinking back to the time of my early childhood and triggering memories because the assessment people would want to know.

And without even a pause for breath, my mother remembered being summoned to my primary school (as I’ve described in Circles) when I was 4 years old. She recalled me learning to read at age 3. She recalled my nursery teacher commenting on my behaviour at nursery. She recalled something about a hearing test at 7 months that went wrong because I didn’t behave like a 7 month old should and the person administering the test telling her off about it. She told me how I didn’t respond to spoken words as a baby, only to singing, and how I hardly slept and constantly fidgeted in my pram.

And all this was instantaneous recall, the moment I asked, with no pause for thought. Memories from over 40 years ago. Little things, none of which seemed significant at the time, and none of which was ever followed up (because it was the 1970s and I seemed healthy as far as anyone could tell and when my mother asked what babies were supposed to do (I was the first child and my parents were young and inexperienced) she was told that all babies develop in their own ways so not to worry about anything), all started to indicate that my development when I was very young was, in fact, rather a long way from what would be considered “normal” by most people.

This first conversation was, it turned out, only the “tip of the iceberg” as far as my childhood was concerned. There were further pieces of information to follow, and I’m still, really, in the process of absorbing them all and trying to go through the questionnaires that we did as part of the assessment process. Maybe I’ll manage to write about it all thoroughly at some point, but that point is not yet.

My instant reaction to these revelations was to make a bunch of hashtags:

#theplotthickens
#wouldseemivebeencausingtroubleforalongtime
#thiswholethingisratherextraordinary
#ialwaysknewiwasabitunusualbutbloominheck

I subsequently went through a phase of finding these discoveries about my early life really rather odd and weird, and in many ways, traumatic. It was strange to think that there were things I’d never have discovered about myself and my early life if I hadn’t been going for an autism diagnosis. My husband and I had started to document my own memories of childhood a couple of weeks earlier, but this phone call to my mother took things to a whole new level, because I started to discover things that weren’t part of my existing life narrative.

Furthermore, since I was never able to have any children, I didn’t know whether the things my mother was telling me about my early life had any resemblance to any sort of “normal” childhood development or not, and I ended up having to do a lot of really triggering research to find out, research that brought back horrible memories of infertility clinics and pain and heartbreak and failure, so it turned out to be a triggering and difficult experience from that point of view too.

And, of course, my own memories of childhood had to be activated. And many of them weren’t that much fun either – I was bullied consistently through school and even when teachers tried to find out why things weren’t as they should have been, they weren’t able to come up with any answers, despite sometimes trying, as I described in Head’s Office.

These things are things I still haven’t yet worked through, things that still upset me, things that I know would have been picked up if I was a child today. I can’t help feeling that had I known that I really was different when I was growing up, not just naughty, that I would have felt less bad, been less self-blaming, and not become the suicidal burnt out adult I now am. I’m still not really in a place where I can consider all the things I want to consider – I have to do it a bit at a time, because it is difficult.

My mother, somewhat comfortingly, said to me a few months after that first conversation, that she wishes she had a time machine. Of course, there are so many factors at play that it’s impossible to say that changing one thing would have produced this result or that result (I KNOW all the stuff about autistic kids being “written off” and told they’d never be able to get anywhere in life – I had exactly the OPPOSITE problem and was consistently told how bright I was and given massive expectations accordingly, expectations that I could never fulfill so I was doomed to failure). However, maybe I’d not have been chastised for meltdowns, not been forced to wear wool polo necks which hurt me and so on, and not have learnt, through my early years, to behave and to internalise everything because I was frightened of the consequences and the punishments.

Furthermore, because I learnt fast and turned out to be academically able, by the time I was at secondary school exam stage nobody worried about me. I was succeeding academically, top grades of my year, therefore I must be happy. What nobody knew is that I hardly bothered revising for my O-levels because I assumed I’d be dead by the time the results came out. I didn’t tell anyone because I’d learnt by then that you just didn’t talk about that sort of thing. You worked hard, you behaved, you churned out the exam results, and everyone was happy. It was all part of the act.

Except that the act had a massive cost for me – the thing that had eventually made me as well-behaved a child as I was able to be, turned me into a mentally ill twentysomething and a burnt out thirtysomething. And nobody really knew why until I was in my mid forties.

Getting an autism diagnosis late in life is a weird thing. It opens all sorts of cans of worms that have been sealed shut for decades. I had long since closed the door on my childhood, and on everything to do with children in general, sealed away in a place in my head marked “Do not open – just move on with life!” but I was forced to reopen the door, to take the cans off the shelves, and to let the worms loose all over the place. It was part of the assessment, and it is part of coming to terms with why my life has turned out as it has. It’s something that needs to be addressed as best I can in order to move on and try to build some sort of future with whatever life I have left. I’m not sure it was something I particularly wanted to be doing at this point in my life – having just moved away from all things child-related after my own failure to have any, the last thing I needed was to go back to my own early life – but it turned out to be necessary, and perhaps going through the painful stuff now means that there will be less of it buried and I’ll eventually be less mentally ill as a result, more at peace with it all, and maybe, possibly, more at peace with my own childlessness and consequent response to children, which is something I still struggle with terribly.

And, as I have read in so many places and am experiencing for myself, getting an autism diagnosis late in life is not only about the future, and learning how to live from now on, but also about reframing past experiences, reviewing all of life that has gone before, looking back at so many times when things have gone wrong, or been inexplicable, and looking at them from an autistic perspective. It’s part of the process of making sense of life, and, of course, the later the diagnosis, the more of life there is to go through.

And in my case, it’s not just me who is reframing past events. Many of my friends have now made sense of experiences they’ve had with me over the years. My husband now understands things that have long been slight oddities in our marriage. And my family are trying to understand the whole thing.

I made the first phone call to my mother a year ago today. It had taken nearly 45 years for her to find out why her non-sleeping fidgety baby had messed up a hearing test at 7 months old. As soon as I asked the right questions and explained what I’d recently discovered, it became obvious.

I didn’t even know I’d had a hearing test at 7 months until I started gathering information for an autism assessment!

Lost Day

I woke early, feeling exhausted, and not a proper sort of sleepy exhausted, but an odd sort of depleted exhausted, like all the energy had drained out of me somehow and I could hardly move. I could hear birds, very very loud birds, wood pigeon calls burning the insides of my ears.

I knew I had to be somewhere today. I knew also that getting there would be difficult. I looked at the schedule for the rest of the week, which I had photographed and saved on my phone. I tried to work out what I might be able to skip without causing too much inconvenience or annoyance. My head wouldn’t think very well, so I started to try to type into my phone:

If this were real life and I’m at sensory levels of now and tiredness. Would be schedule looking.

This was how the language emerged from my finger. I knew it was wrong and that it needed editing. And I also know that when WRITTEN language becomes difficult and starts to go wrong in that way, that I’m heading into shutdown. This is something I’m starting to learn, now that I’m actually observing myself with some knowledge, rather than just declaring myself “ill” or declaring that “my head went wrong” as I have done in the past.

I attempted to speak. There was nothing. No surprise there. If the written words are starting to go wrong then the spoken ones are almost certainly non-existent.

It was still early. I still had to get a message to the outside world that I wasn’t going to be where I was expected to be. The best I could do was to message my husband a few words and hope he could interpret what I was trying to say in order to convey some sort of message to those who needed to know that I wouldn’t be appearing for rehearsals this morning. He received the following messages:

Fail now. Is. Words. Morning. Not.

Now. Schubert. Prob. Can’t.

Tell.

Write hard. Speak not. Food not. Later.

And because he has long experience of such communications, he was perfectly able to send a message saying that I wasn’t able to get to the Schubert rehearsal and had asked him to pass on the message and that I didn’t need food and wouldn’t be able to communicate for a while.

At some point during the morning someone brought me a cup of tea and left it outside my tent. I was unable to respond, unable to move from where I was curled up under the duvet, unable to do anything at all for a while. This is all absolutely normal for me at such times, which have been happening since my early childhood. My mother observed the behaviour, still remembers it well, going right back into my early childhood, and even had a word for it, zonking, which I mentioned in Losing The Words.

Having successfully conveyed a message of sorts to the outside world, my brain then simply closed off. I slept a bit. I lay there staring at the side of the tent, a bit of plain fabric being as much visual input as I could take. I didn’t move. I couldn’t move. I don’t usually remember much from these times, just a feeling of being utterly drained, no energy at all, and something like a deep depression, not being able to form thoughts properly, no ability to translate things into words, nothing. My head is simply closed for business and my body follows it. There is nothing to do at that point except wait – it’s like some sort of reset is required before my overstimulated and exhausted brain will function properly again. I don’t respond, I don’t communicate, I just lie there and breathe, nothing more.

After a few hours I regained the ability to type and to form words and typed some of the thoughts that had by then started to emerge from my head into the notes app on my phone. Having established that I could once again produce proper typed sentences, I was then able to contact the outside world by facebook without my husband having to make the sentence structure for me. It was lunchtime. I was aware that I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything all morning (and couldn’t have – something else my mother had observed about zonking was that food was an absolute no during those times, and when I have attempted to eat or to keep functioning I have simply ended up physically sick and it’s been assumed I had some sort of bug or similar).

Somebody brought food and left it outside my tent. I was unable to thank them except online, but was able to eat by mid-afternoon, and was, it seemed, by this stage, quite hungry – even though I didn’t feel any sort of hungry, once I started to eat it was obvious that I was.

It took another couple of hours for the shutdown to be properly over and a further hour for spoken words to fully return. Although I can’t always tell when I’m going IN to shutdown, or that that’s what it is (though I am getting better at recognizing it as I’m learning), it’s really obvious when I’m emerging because I start to stim again, I start to rock and to move and get back to what for me is “normal”, a state of dynamic equilibrium as I like to think of it. For me, being still either means I am masking furiously and working hard to stay still, or I am ill and in shutdown, or I am asleep, or, occasionally, that I am relaxed under a weighted blanket or completely immersed in something or similar. The rest of the time I move, and that movement restarting is always a good sign – it’s the feeling that you didn’t know something was wrong until it was solved, and the minute it’s solved it was obvious how wrong it was before!

My sensory system remained on high alert for the rest of the day – I managed to go and sit in the audience to hear some of my friends singing and playing music, but used earplugs against the applause and was deeply grateful to a friend who asked others to move away from me to give me some space during the performance.

By mid-evening I was able to drive home, where my husband had “the food” (whatever I’m currently eating we call “the food” – I have cyclic obsessions with food where I eat the same thing every day for months, and always have done) ready and waiting for me, and I spent the evening doing all the familiar routines and being with the animals and recharging properly ready for the next day.

But what should have been a day participating was basically lost to a massive shutdown, and there was nothing I could do about it. I would have liked to have been in the rehearsals that morning. I would have liked to go to tea that day. I would have liked to join in the celebratory feasting and dancing (although I knew that the feasting would have been a non-starter anyway and I’d have been eating alone somewhere quiet), but I couldn’t.

But at least I know what causes these times now, and I have a word for them, shutdown, which makes sense to me and enables me to understand what’s going on. At least I have people who are willing to understand it too and to bring me food and so on and to help me out when it happens. And I know that I’m not getting some sort of illness (as has been suspected on many occasions in the past) and that I will feel better in a few hours’ time – I just need to wait, to be on my own, and to have as little input into my system as possible.

Last year, when the same thing happened, all I knew was that I felt inexplicably awful and couldn’t even tell anyone how or why. I spent a night silently crying in my tent in the dark, without food or help, with nobody even knowing where I was because I’d lost all ability to communicate and wasn’t even able to type a message to my husband. And short of “something mental health related or maybe a virus”, I had no idea why I was like that.

This year wasn’t ideal. It’s not really how I want to live my life, missing out on good times, having to skip rehearsals, having to sit on my own because my system can’t cope with much social interaction or noise, and so on. But it is better than the distress of previous years, than the anguish of desperately trying to function, trying to make things work, having to call in with some “unknown illness”, making myself worse by continuing to try to speak or function as I “should”.

I don’t like having to live this “half life”, which is what it feels like. But knowing why these things happen means I’m much less self-blaming, much kinder to myself, gentler to myself. And simply allowing the inevitable shutdown to run its course and not trying to push myself out of it means that I actually recover more quickly and am generally healthier as a result. Maybe once I’m more fully recovered from the recent burnout I’ll be able to do a bit more – I do hope so.

It does still all feel very much like a work in progress still. I have my answer as to why these things happen to me, but I now have to work out the best way to live, which I haven’t quite managed yet.

Hypothesis Formation

Yesterday, the following status appeared in my facebook memories from one year ago:

Did all that just happen? Now to try and remember what I was doing 3 weeks ago. And to consider what to do with the new information concerning how my head reacts to stuff.

At that point I didn’t mention on my facebook wall that it had been suggested by several people that I might be autistic. I just vaguely alluded to “new information” about “my head”. As far as I was concerned, the notion of me being autistic seemed extremely strange, extremely unnerving, and, as far as I knew at that point, extremely “not me”!!!

Oh, how I laugh at that last bit now!!!!!

I certainly wasn’t going to start chattering on about it on facebook at that time, and, as far as I can remember, I was still really regarding the whole “me being autistic” thing as one of those slightly wild ideas that folk have and that would eventually fall by the wayside as being just another one of those theories. I didn’t want to post something up on my wall, be shouted down by a whole bunch of people, and then unfriended by a whole bunch more. I wasn’t confident enough of anything at that time to mention the idea to more than my husband and one or two friends.

However, the fact that several people had, independently, suggested that I might be autistic was enough to make me take the idea seriously enough to do some research and see if I might find out what was at the root of their suggestions.

I did what anyone brought up with a toe in the world of science would do. I formed a hypothesis, which I called the “autism hypothesis” (i.e. proving the hypothesis would mean that I had gathered enough evidence to confirm that I was autistic, and disproving would mean that there was insufficient evidence and I wasn’t autistic and I could ditch the whole idea and just go and have a drink and forget about it).

So then I had to investigate the hypothesis. Gather evidence. Find out what this whole “autism thing” was actually about!

A friend of mine had sent a copy of Liane Holliday Willey’s Pretending to be Normal to me and I’d read it with a certain amount of bemusement – apparently it was something to do with autism, but it just seemed like a fairly ordinary account of someone’s life as far as I could tell. It was enough to convince me to investigate further, but I needed more INFORMATION! Actual information, not a life story.

And so I did the modern day equivalent of what my father told me to do when I was young. Back in my childhood if anybody wanted to know anything the answer was always to “get a book from the library” and to find out that way.

I have not been into a lending library for many many years (I think the last time I went into one was for a job interview and I was unsuccessful). And I don’t believe a lending library would have been much help to me.

So I tried Google, which was also no help because it presented me with page after page of search results about small children and parenting and so on. The world of adult autistic blogs was still inaccessible to me as I didn’t know what I was looking for, or that it existed, or how to find it. And it certainly wouldn’t have occurred to me at that stage that there were groups for autistic people on facebook or hashtags on twitter or anything of that sort.

So I went back to what I knew, which was books, and typed “adult autistic” into the Amazon search bar. And discovered a book with a promising title: Cynthia Kim’s I Think I Might Be Autistic (or as it subsequently became known in our household “The book with the pencils in the wrong order”).

And on the 23rd August 2016 I downloaded the sample from the start of the book onto the Kindle app on my iPad and had a look at it.

It pleased me from the start. It provided what I wanted – information, an outline of the diagnostic criteria for autism, and the start of a list of questions that was evidently continued beyond the free sample that I had. This book was speaking my language – it had facts and lists and promised to provide me with exactly what I’d been looking for to start to work on proving or disproving the newly-formed hypothesis.

My Amazon records show that I ordered the paperback copy the same day. And that was the day on which Time Stood Still for me. The 2016 calendar STILL shows 23rd August as the date, and maybe it always will. In Time Stood Still I referred to some sort of mental breakdown, which I now know to be a huge episode of autistic burnout.kn

It was to be months before I started to emerge from that burnout (and I still haven’t, fully) and from that moment almost my entire life was taken up with investigating the newly-formed hypothesis and, later, with trying to obtain a formal diagnosis.

I read the criteria from the sample of the book on my iPad over and over again, and waited for the paperback to arrive in our mailbox so I could try to work out what the diagnostic criteria actually meant, and whether any of them had any relevance to me.

With all that’s happened in the last 12 months, and with the knowledge I now have, it seems utterly extraordinary that it was only a year ago that I started seriously to investigate the possibility that I might be autistic.

And I certainly wasn’t telling anyone who didn’t need to know about it at that stage!

If anyone had told me I’d be blogging about it publicly within 4 months I’d have thought they’d gone mad!

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!

The Incident

I can still remember the moment, even though it was some years ago now. It was the moment the woman kicked me, and then shouted at me, and I went into a total panic, terrified, unable to articulate anything, unable to cope, and my senses went haywire and I needed to scream and run away and not be where I was any more and everything felt terribly terribly wrong.

Running away at that moment, however, was really really difficult. The best I could do was to get to the side of the pool, get out as fast as I could. Shaking and trembling I managed to retrieve my stuff from the locker, put minimal clothes on over my wet costume, then slammed the locker door, screamed in anguish, and ran towards the exit of the leisure centre, and to my car, and to safety.

Except that I never reached my car. The manager of the leisure centre stopped me and wouldn’t let me leave. She made me sit down and I started to feel really sick. She started talking about police. I started to think “Oh fuck, this is seriously bad news”. I managed, just, to say the words “Mental health” to her, hoping desperately that once she realised I was in the middle of what I believed at the time was a really bad panic attack she’d let me go. She didn’t, although she did decide not to call the police on me, but instead called the local doctor’s surgery, taking my name from my leisure centre admission card.

Eventually I was deemed calm enough to be allowed to leave, and I returned home, where I then received a call from the surgery, which didn’t help matters at all because it reignited the panic. I slammed the phone down on the doctor, desperate to be left alone.

I never went back to that particular leisure centre, even though I had a membership that had some time still to run. I swam a few times again at a different pool, until it became too much and I just gave up swimming, even though it was something I loved doing, and, at the time, was the only regular exercise I took. Somehow it was just too difficult and the memories of that “panic attack” were just too painful.

I saw my own GP shortly after the incident and tried to explain to her what had happened and to get the incident erased from my medical records. It had been reported and noted that I was “violent and aggressive”, which I disagreed with. I didn’t feel violent or aggressive – I felt scared and distressed and not in control of my actions or my head, like there was some sort of explosive reaction inside me that I was powerless to stop. There was no violence. If anything I was trying to STOP anything that might have been perceived as violence, trying really hard to stop whatever it was that was making the world feel so awful at that moment.

My GP was sympathetic but said she couldn’t erase the record completely, however, she would add to my notes to put my side of the story on there and to point out that I had a history of these rather extreme “panic attacks” and that none of it was my fault. It was a damage limitation exercise at that point, but it was the best I could do.

Just over three years ago we moved to a different area, and to a place within easy walking distance of a swimming pool. I was aware that it was there. I took up running shortly after we moved and ran past it fairly regularly. Before the “incident” (as it is now known) I’d have been straight down there and joined, but I hesitated, because swimming had ceased to be my thing, even though it had very much been my thing for many years. Running was now my thing – it was safer, easier to be alone, with no time constraints, and so on. However, I did eventually take out a membership, which I only used once – after I’d run my first marathon someone said to me that swimming was a really good way of recovering, so I went down to the pool and did 42 lengths (one length for each full kilometre of the marathon distance) a couple of days after the race.

Then last September I went to see my GP again, following the suggestions from several friends that I might be autistic. My husband and I took quite a lot of notes we’d made about my childhood and my subsequent life and a list of things we’d taken as examples of autistic traits that were listed in various books we’d used for research. I think I started by saying something like “This is going to sound really random, but some folks have suggested I might be autistic…” before letting my husband take over the narrative because it all felt so weird.

My GP almost literally kicked herself and said something along the lines of “Of course, why didn’t we see this earlier?” or similar. And then, in a further “lightbulb moment” she mentioned, unprompted by us, the “swimming pool incident” and at that moment it became obvious that what had happened that day, several years earlier, was not a panic attack but an autistic meltdown (one of rather a lot of such things that have happened over the years). Bizarrely, the incident I’d tried so hard to have erased from my medical records actually confirmed the autism hypothesis, and my GP was writing the referral for a formal autism assessment pretty much before we’d even left the room.

After that one post-marathon swim, well over 2 years ago, I never went back even to the new pool. I discovered quite quickly that I could recover from marathons perfectly well without swimming, and something I’d enjoyed as a child, absolutely loved as a student, and done reasonably regularly throughout adulthood simply disappeared from my life. I had running now in any case, so it really didn’t matter whether I swam or not.

I’ve pondered for the last year or so whether I’d ever swim again. I vaguely have in mind that I’d like to do a triathlon some day, so thought that swimming might feature in my future somehow, although it was always “in the future” and since I don’t currently have a working bicycle or anywhere to keep one, triathlon is still firmly “in the future” and will probably require another house move in any case.

But last week a friend of mine went swimming. And I was suddenly rather envious. And I googled the opening hours of the pool to see when they might be. And I found my swimming bag, as it had been left, over 2 years ago, with costume, goggles, towel, and so on, all ready to go. Maybe? Just maybe? Then this morning on my facebook memories from a few years back there was a status saying that I’d been swimming for the first time in a year (evidently one of the times I was trying to get back into it, but that didn’t stick).

And the temptation was finally too much. Armed with the knowledge that it would be a total sensory overload experience and that how far I’d get with it depended not upon my physical swimming ability, but upon my system’s ability to cope with noise and light (even though my goggles are slightly tinted, they’re not as dark as I’d like) and being in close proximity to other people. KNOWING this was the case I was better prepared than I have been in the past, and the magic of the internet was also able to provide a little graph showing when the “least busy times” were, so I picked the time when it was likely to be emptiest (over lunchtime as it turned out), and it was indeed quite empty in the main pool.

And I bought a single swim, not a membership, so there’s no pressure to go again. If it turns out to be something I can manage to do regularly I’ll consider a membership at that point – rather than going in fast and crashing out, I’m trying to take it gently, one swim at a time, and not pushing how long I stay in the pool until I work out what my sensory system can cope with because I really really want to avoid a repeat of the meltdown scenario, which should be easier now that I know what it was all about and what caused the “incident” all those years ago.

Being back in the water was lovely. My arms aren’t as strong as they were, and my cardio isn’t what it was a couple of years ago (I already know that from recent running exploits), but I happily swam 40 lengths – I thought I’d go for a kilometre to be gentle, rather than the mile that used to be my regular swimming distance for many years. I was conscious that the real challenge wasn’t the swimming at all, but just being in the pool with people and noise, and I was trying to monitor how that felt. So far, so good, although I was pretty wrecked when I got home and needed total dark and silence for a while to calm down.

Who knows what happens next. One swim at a time for the moment. But I’m hopeful I’ll get back something that I used to love, now I know what caused it to go wrong several years ago.