Talking About It

I described, in Strategy Deployment, how I had dinner in College a few nights ago. The routines and protocols of such dinners are generally well-known to me, and one of those routines is a loose convention that you tend to chat to one of your neighbours during the first course of dinner and another during the second. It’s not a hard and fast “rule”, and who you actually end up chatting to depends a bit upon circumstances, but you can reasonably expect to talk to at least two people during the course of the meal.

On one side of me I had my best friend, who knows everything about what’s been going on in my life over the last eight months. He and I chatted, initially, across the table (we were on a corner) to his other neighbour. My main memory of that conversation was that we discussed the renovation of a pianola, owned by this other person – for me a nice, easy, safe topic of conversation, music and mechanics combined. No problem!

On my other side was another person I know reasonably well, a former tutor of mine from nearly 30 years ago, who I last saw at a dinner in 2013. As the main course arrived, he turned to me and first apologised for ignoring me during the starter (he’d been catching up with his other neighbour), as appropriate, and then he asked me, predictably, what I was doing these days.

There had already been a slight mention of the fact that we’d sat right on the end of the table, in the corner, when we first sat down. My best friend had explained that “there was a reason” we’d chosen those particular seats, and the fact that I was wearing dark glasses gave another clue that things were not “entirely regular”.

So, at the moment the question about “what I was doing these days” was asked, I had a choice. I could either (a) try my hardest to come up with some sort of conversation that made some sort of sense and would be adequate for the occasion, (b) ramble on a bit about “life being interesting” and “a few sensory issues” (to explain the dark glasses), or (c) just give the whole “I just got diagnosed autistic” speech!

A couple of months ago, when I went Out to Dinner, I was pre-diagnosis, and just being out of the flat at any social occasion at all was a huge thing for me. That evening, there were a couple of people there who knew what was going on in my life (one was my best friend, and another is friends on facebook and reads some of these blog posts), but a third friend didn’t know, and, two months ago I wasn’t ready to tell him, in person, by speaking. On that occasion I opted for option (b) and then e-mailed him after the event, sending him the link to this blog to explain more fully.

A month later, just before diagnosis, I was at an orchestra rehearsal, and wanted to explain to another non-facebook friend, what was going on. I managed, just, to get the words out, but was shaking and terrified, even though I knew that she was the sort of person who would be absolutely understanding and, like everyone I’ve so far told, she reacted by saying “Yes, of COURSE, that makes so much sense.” However, being able to articulate, in words, out in the big wide world, to other people who didn’t already know, that I was autistic, was still, at that point, seriously difficult.

Those of you who have been reading this blog since its inception must be wondering how this can possibly be. I’ve now been writing about being autistic, in as much detail as I can persuade my head to produce, for months. Yet just one month ago I could hardly form the spoken words to describe what was going on and two months ago I couldn’t do it at all. Of course, what might or might not have been evident from the early posts of this blog was the absolute fear when I posted The Discovery as to how my news might be received, especially as I was taking a huge gamble by disclosing after the disaster of my first assessment, as described in Too Articulate and Too Complicated. At that point I decided to disclose anyway since I couldn’t work out how to carry on living without doing so, and I got to the point where I’d decided that the risk of losing what remaining social life I had was probably worth taking in order to stop the feelings of no longer wanting to exist. But it wasn’t easy.

However, the blog moved on, the response has actually been amazing, and I’m now typing stuff about being autistic into one of my various devices on pretty much a daily basis.

But I still hadn’t reached the point where I could TALK about it to people who didn’t already know by reading the blog – at least not without almost falling apart on the spot and wishing the ground would swallow me up there and then and never spit me out ever again.

So, now returning to the point at which my former tutor turned to me and asked me “what I was doing these days”, what did I do?

I started with a couple of sentences reminding him that there was a “reason” I was sitting on this side of the table, I mentioned the dark glasses, and then I finally got to the point where I went for option (c) on my list above.

I’m certain I talked too much, and probably didn’t obey the proper rules of back and forth conversation. I also couldn’t quite multitask and eat my dinner at the same time. And my “I’m recently diagnosed autistic and this is how it came about and so on and so on and so on…” script is still very much in its embryonic stage (part of what I’m doing when I write these blog posts is teaching myself how to talk about it, part of what I’m doing when I read other blog posts and articles and books is giving myself the vocabulary to be able to talk about it, and starting to form my own ideas and where I fit in to the autistic world and how being autistic affects my life).

But, for the first time, I told someone who didn’t already know, and managed to do it without falling to pieces and shaking so much that I nearly dropped my drink, or starting to feel my speech fragment, and was able to have some discussion about it.

Admittedly, for me, dinner in College, at a place that has now been familiar to me for the best part of 30 years, feels like a safe environment. I’m lucky to be able to return to the social world, gently, in such a place, following familiar routines, and knowing that the people around me are likely to be sympathetic, and, on the whole, interested. So it was a good place to start.

However, I think the other thing that really helped was the confidence I have gained since I was formally diagnosed. I don’t think I could have had that conversation at this stage without that extra confidence.

But, whatever the circumstances, and whatever the reasons, it was the first time that I had been able to sensibly discuss being autistic with someone who didn’t already know. It was the beginning of being able to talk about it to other people – actual talking, not typing on a blog post, which is very different. I have known since the “autism hypothesis” formed, right back in August 2016, that if the hypothesis turned out to be true then I would need to find ways of talking about it, and I would need to construct scripts and work out how to explain to people (maybe, even in the fullness of time, be able to educate and inform and advocate, who knows). I’m not fully there yet, but I’m a huge step nearer than I was this time last week!

Still Processing

75-2017-02-24-13-42-19I’m in one of those slightly frustrated phases right now. One where my brain really wants to get on and do things and to try to sort out my life, but my mind is still very very busy processing recent events. It’s now just after midday on Friday and I feel as though I should be able to “just get on with it” now, although I’ve just calculated that it’s nearly 96 hours since I received my diagnosis, and, when I put it like that, it’s no wonder I’m still trying to take things in and trying to work everything out. And when I then remember that I’ve never been very good at processing feelings, it’s even less surprising.

My week so far has run thus:

Monday: Five hour autism assessment in an unfamiliar town, concluding with clear diagnosis that I am autistic. Drive home and sit, almost unable to move. Sleep a little. Eat a little. Drink wine.

Tuesday: Utterly exhausted. Hardly able to process. Wrapped in compression bashing myself against the sofa. Short blog post written but unable to post. Good feelings, but not ones I can articulate well. Relief. Shock. It’s real.

Wednesday: A bit more functional. Able to post on the blog and write a couple more posts in draft. Sort the house a bit. However, start to feel ill in the afternoon and completely lose speech early evening. Speech never returns all night.

Thursday: Attempt to get up at reasonable time but fail. Head won’t work properly at all. Publish one of the draft posts. Afternoon lose functionality and retreat under weighted blanket. Attempts to sort out jobs lists fail. Plan to do stuff tomorrow.

Friday: Finally make it out of bed around midday after frustrating morning in bed. Realisation that things I wanted to do today are beyond me. Just getting this far is an achievement. I also had a spell trying to establish whether I was lonely or bored – I’m not sure I can distinguish between the two.

If I stop beating myself up (not literally – though the impulse to tear chunks out of my skin is very very strong this morning and is taking a lot of energy to resist), then looking at this objectively, I see that 96 hours out from receiving an autism diagnosis at age 45, it’s actually not that surprising. I know from what I’ve read on forums and groups and in books that getting a formal diagnosis is an amazing thing, but I also know that it takes some processing, and moods can be erratic for some time afterwards until the system settles down. My brain and my learning and my reading knows all this stuff. And, I have to keep reminding myself, AUTISTIC BRAINS DO NOT LIKE CHANGE!!!!

I keep forgetting this last piece of information, and I always believed myself to be quite flexible, but when I actually started looking at the evidence it turned out not to be the case. I need a new handbag – my old one is too small (since the advent of multiple pairs of spectacles and lots of stim toys). I have a new handbag. It is very nice. I like it. It will be a very good handbag. But the notion of changing to a different sort of handbag is freaking me out. Bigtime. The new handbag has been waiting for a month so far. I am too frightened to take the stuff out of the old handbag and put it into the new one, because I know it will feel wrong for quite a long time until I get used to it. Autistic brains. Change. Don’t like.

And, of course, this is why we get so tired. Conscious brain has to be employed constantly to compensate for the strong messages coming from the autistic bit. There is the neverending internal fight between what I have always termed “brain” and “mind”. In my head, always, I have had to employ vast amounts of willpower from brain in order to overcome the evident illness (some of which now relabeled anxiety caused by autistic brain) of my mind. The terminology is a bit muddled here I know – I didn’t script this and am trying to write improvisatorily, which is rapidly turning into nonsense.

Back to the script.

What I HAD been hoping to do today was: sort out the jobs list, order a repeat prescription, send a few of the more urgent e-mails (I really need to sort my study situation with the OU because time is getting short, and if I’m to dine in College after a meeting booked for next week then I have to sign in), maybe visit my best friend (haven’t seen him for a couple of weeks and also need to catch up on meetings and assessments and collect my scarf, which I left there), call my mother (again, update on assessment, especially since she provided so much info about me age 0-4 and some beyond that too), hoover the flat (it’s at the point where if we had a visitor we’d have to provide overshoes for them to protect their shoes, but the loudness of the hoover and my sensory system’s state today probably mean that’s out), maybe do some maths (concentration nowhere near sufficient – I’m managing less than a paragraph at a time of my book on my current special interest (Chariots of Fire) at the moment), and what I really wanted to do was to go out and get a coffee and cheesecake (way too late now because the early morning quiet spell will be long finished, but I haven’t had coffee for so long), get a few jobs done (I need to go to the bank and buy one or two things), and maybe go and look at some food and see if I can get inspired to eat anything (I’m currently still on only about 1.5 meals a day, which really isn’t enough).

Of course, lined up like this, it’s obvious that someone who has had the week I’ve just had wouldn’t have a hope of doing all of that. Maybe just being able to list it here will be a start on sorting out the jobs list and trying to work out what really DOES need doing and what can wait for a while.

It’s also been on my mind all morning that I’ve still not managed to get back to proper running. This is not surprising, since I’m still very much in burnout, and the diagnostic process has taken a huge amount out of me, but it’s now looking less and less likely that I will be able to do any of the spring races I still have booked. One of my favourite marathons is unlikely to happen, and with it will go the expensive hotel room I booked last year. I don’t have the energy to do anything about it. Maybe we’ll go and stay there anyway, although at the moment the thought of going to a crowded city to watch a marathon I should have been running in just feels scary. I’d rather be on a deserted beach staring at the sea by myself. I’ve known for ages that my first hundred miler, booked for May, just isn’t possible in my current state, but saying goodbye to it is hard, and to the other marathon I had booked. Again – although I have to do this, it’s change, and again, change doesn’t sit easily with me.

So add all that to the inevitable exhaustion from Monday and it’s no wonder things are a bit rocky right now. I’m also almost climbing the walls waiting for the report from the assessment people, even though they told me clearly and straightforwardly, that it could take up to a fortnight because there was a lot of material to go through and times and so on and don’t panic. But still. I’m impatient.

And, my head is, predictably, making words in a very erratic manner. There are either too many of them (see above) or too few (see below). Writing the words below was probably my biggest achievement of yesterday! Who knows what my biggest achievement of today will be – I’ll have to see what I can manage. But I also need to keep reminding myself that the biggest thing of my life has occurred over the last 6 months and that 96 hours ago it was officially confirmed, and my head will still be processing it all for a while yet and I do need a fair bit of time just staring at a pea factory, curled up under my blanket, and rocking back and forth and so on.

I
Am
Autistic.

Three words.
Define my life.

I knew that
Before the assessment.

But

Now

It is
Real.

Knowledge.
Relief.
Validation.

But also change.

My head
Still
Processing.

I am autistic.
I am autistic.
I am autistic.

Dear head,
Got that now?

I am autistic.
I am autistic.
I am autistic.

Yes, really.

What’s odd is:

Nothing is different
And
Everything is different.

The feelings
(Various)
Strong strong strong.

Huge waves
Of emotion
Alternate rapidly
With
Numbness.

I still need
To let go
And relax

But
Too soon.

Although
Yesterday
My words gone
All evening.

Let the news
Sink in.

Absorb it.

It is big.

Take
Everything

One

Step

At

A

Time.

Phased Process

62-2017-01-12-19-01-27I hope you will forgive a somewhat long and indulgent post today. Eventually I’d really like to produce material that will be helpful and instructive and so on, and I might even, once I have things straight in my own head, produce a book, or maybe even another, more “generally informative” blog. There are so many issues that are so important to investigate and to consider – everything from how best to nurture autistic children, through to how to support those even older than I am who make the discovery that they are autistic; a whole range of traits including communication issues and sensory sensitivity and executive functioning and so on; and a huge amount of discussion to be had on all manner of other issues that are only just finding their way into my head and I can’t even quite find the words for yet.

For the time being though, I’m still in the process of trying to get my own life sorted out, and some of these writings form part of the process. I currently have no support from the official services at all, no counsellor, no therapist, nothing, and so I’m aware that I sometimes use this space in lieu of such support. So some of what I write might just be pure waffle that I needed to write somewhere and here was as good a place as any. Some of the time I’m just trying to get things straight in my own head.

In the last week or so I’ve noticed things have changed again. Since the appointment date was fixed for the next assessment (my third try at getting a formal autism diagnosis after the first assessment was stopped by the assessor and the second one was cancelled) I’ve become noticeably more anxious again. My appetite has plummeted, having recovered somewhat, and I’m finding sleep less and less easy again.

However it does feel different from the last time I was waiting for my appointment, for several reasons, and I’ve been trying to understand why. I’ve also been looking back over the last six months, which seem to have comprised a series of “phases”, all of which have felt slightly different, and, I suspect, are part of the balancing process as my autistic neurology comes to terms with discovering, er, my autistic neurology!

The irony of discovering that my head isn’t very good at coping with change by discovering that I have the sort of head that isn’t very good at coping with change and having to cope with the change that ensues from that discovery is not lost on me!

So, we go back to July 2016. Back to the days of “normality”. Back to the days when everything felt ordinary, much as it had done for most of my life. A knowledge that I wasn’t well again and was possibly heading for another breakdown. A confusion as to why I couldn’t get my act together. And a general constant low level depressive mood and anxiety that I was so used to that I didn’t even notice it. I had a figure “zero” on my mood chart, meant to indicate my “norm”, what I regarded as a euthymic mood, but, in retrospect, it was far from “normal”, just what I was used to, as I eventually realised a couple of months later. During those times I would wake each morning feeling the usual struggle, the usual wonder what the point of it was, and the usual knowledge that everything was difficult and hard work, but that was just the way it was and things had to be done. That was normality.

And then we get to August, and going away from home. And my mental health (as I assumed at the time) starting to disintegrate. And, despite the few rumblings earlier in the year and a general “bit eccentric” sort of idea in my head, the “polite disbelief” at the initial concept of being autistic, exacerbated, I suspect, by me not really knowing what being autistic actually meant. I had no more knowledge than most of the rest of society at the time, possibly even less, owing to not having any children and being so uninvolved with the world. But by this stage I felt so absolutely dreadful that I was prepared to listen to almost anything to try to work out why my life kept going so very very wrong, and when you find yourself, as a 45 year old, behaving in a way that would be more naturally associated with a stroppy child and you have no way of controlling it or stopping it, then maybe it’s time to try to find out why.

So there was this initial feeling of disbelief. And also of the notion that I probably wasn’t actually really genuinely “autistic”, but just had one or two traits. I was one of those folk who was just a bit sensitive to life and because I was so mentally ill I just didn’t cope very well. I didn’t think, initially, that I would ever actually define myself as autistic, but saw the suggestions as merely an extension of eccentricity. Again, I still didn’t really understand the nature of the autistic spectrum, and neither did I have the first clue how many of my “eccentricities” would actually start to be revealed as autistic traits as I started to research.

And then I read the book with the list of traits mentioned in The Discovery. And started to take things somewhat more seriously. And went from “this is a side issue that might be useful to be aware of but things will get back to normal soon” to “mind blown, this is my entire life turned upside down”!

And the “polite disbelief” turned to “polite belief” turned to “******************” (there is no word that adequately describes suddenly discovering, after 45 years, that your entire life has been governed by your having a different neurology from the majority of the population, that you’ve been fighting all your life, and that you’ve discovered all this in a matter of weeks and your entire world has completely changed)! And there was huge huge huge shock. And even more huge shock as I started to research just how MANY autistic traits I had, and started to discover about all sorts of things that I thought were just me, weren’t. The whole “autism nicked my schizzle” phase!

And I went from waking up each morning wearily wondering how much more of this difficult life I could take, to waking up (when I managed to go to sleep at all) with my heart pounding so hard I thought it would actually jump out of my chest and this word “autistic” just swimming, almost meaninglessly, round my head. The whole sense of shock and disbelief and whatonearthisthisaboutthen still raging through my system. A bit like when someone dies and you get those few seconds each morning before you remember and then you suddenly remember it all over again and your system goes into shock once more.

And by this time it was early September. And I was struggling to cling on to anything normal at all or to think about anything other than autism, and my Amazon basket was full of autism books and I couldn’t eat or sleep or do anything because my whole system was so utterly overloaded. I went through lists of traits over and over and over. Read blogs, books, anything I could get my hands on. My entire world became about autism, almost to the exclusion of everything else.

And hardly anybody knew what was going on. My husband. A handful of friends. The whole thing seeming so utterly implausible that I couldn’t possibly mention it. I was trying, even, to work out how to even comprehend that I could ever even imagine that I really was autistic. It was surreal, like I was on some sort of weird drug that made the world feel like a total dream. Shock shock shock. Huge shock. What? Me? Really? Over and over. This shock. So obvious. So so obvious. But such a huge shock. Why did this take so long? What now? What even is it all about? My world collapsing.

Then I went to see my doctor, my GP. And the minute we mentioned the word she said “Of course!” and it was totally obvious to her too. And then I entered this time of huge relief, and we started to go back over my life, over 4 decades of memories of stuff happening that had never been explained, and suddenly it was all explained. And I started to chat to a very tiny group of people, and started to unpick my life and started to work through it all. And the feelings kept coming, and I tried to describe them in Various Feelings, and we started to wait impatiently for the formal diagnosis to arrive.

And for most of September and October I hardly slept. And hardly ate. I spent the night times, slightly bizarrely, googling pictures of goats and posting them on my facebook wall. My husband brought me food each day and I nibbled at what I could, which wasn’t very much. My system was in such shock that I could barely function. I cancelled almost everything in my diary as my system just started to close down. I realise now that this was going into burnout and all my energy had just gone. My life seemed so totally crazy and totally different. And I kept wondering if anything would ever feel even vaguely “normal” ever again. And to top it all, the hot water broke in our flat and our living conditions descended from “chaotic” to “borderline disastrous”!

Oddly though, around September time, something else did happen which showed just how much of a toll the masking had been taking. Although I was in a really really strange state, the general level of depression lifted massively. Simply knowing, and understanding, took a whole level of depression away. This, I suspect, was the depression caused by acting, by suppressing who I really was, and had been with me for so long that I didn’t actually notice it was there until it lifted. There was also this sudden feeling that I could be gentle with myself and could stop the frenetic pushing to do everything and to be everything to everyone and to achieve achieve achieve, which had been the cornerstone of my life.

And then I discovered that if I stopped trying to push in that way that I could let myself relax in a way that I hadn’t done before and that if I stopped trying to sit still then my body moved in ways that society had told me for years were strange but from the inside felt totally right. And I spent up to two hours a day rocking and bashing myself on the sofa and all sorts of things emerged from me (I’ll do a post about it sometime) that had been there all along, hidden, just waiting under the surface to be allowed out. I discovered that even after 4 decades of learning and suppression, all my autistic behaviours were there and that all that had happened by me not flapping my hands or by making myself cope with sensory overload to appear “normal” was that I’d been getting progressively more damaged and ill and had sometimes used maladaptive strategies such as alcohol to try to deal with the anxiety.

And all through the autumn I gathered evidence for the assessment, which was set for the end of November. I called my mother and learnt things about my early childhood that I hadn’t previously know and which provided yet more evidence for the “autism hypothesis”. I read book after book, all of which confirmed it over and over and over. And anxiety was heaped on top of anxiety. And the only way I could settle at all was to drink and stim (note: do not inadvertently flap hands while holding a glass of wine – it doesn’t end well for the carpet or the wine)! And there were so many other things going through my head – sadness and anger and relief and excitement and things I’ve written about before and still can’t quite explain properly.

And then the first assessment came and the ensuing disaster plummeted me into crippling depression at the start of December (the full story is in part B of the Blog Guide). I had a series of long shutdowns and episodes without speech, and eventually the spell was broken and I went from no sleep to oversleeping and gradually starting to eat again as my body started to try to repair itself. That phase is the one that has recently ended. And then I made the decision to go public about being autistic and started this blog.

At the start of December I wrote about how Time Stood Still, and I was still in a state of disbelief and still felt that I would, at some point, wake up and it would be August again and I would just have had a really strange dream. I’d gone from disbelief, to tentative belief, to huge shock, and massive relief, and lifting of long-normalised depression, and enormous anxiety, to crushing devastation and invalidation, to starting to fight back, and still my head wasn’t really there, wasn’t really prepared to believe I was autistic without a diagnosis.

But things are different again now. Partly because it is a different year and we have been through the annual time of the short days and I am now, just occasionally, starting to notice the outside world again. Partly because I survived the very very bleak times following the first assessment. Partly because I am now publicly autistic and the reaction to my disclosure has been so overwhelmingly positive and accepted that it has gone a long way to help with the damage done at the first assessment. Partly because I have now learnt so much about autism and am finding strategies to find my way through and have started to engage with the autistic community and to discover how many of my own issues are common to other autistics. Partly because I am not now viewing the forthcoming assessment as a definitive point – I’m aware that getting a formal diagnosis might actually be a long and arduous process and from what I have read, this is not unusual in older people, particularly those assigned female at birth. Partly because there are indications that I might be emerging to some extent from burnout and I do have slightly more functionality than I did a few months ago. Partly because I am starting to learn what my autistic traits are and am learning to work with them rather than fighting against them.

But possibly mainly because I am now writing about being autistic and producing my own narrative to help with the process of discovery (and occasionally writing long indulgent posts like this one). I am learning to talk about it in a way that I would have found unthinkable back in September when even typing the word “autism” into a search seemed so alien and scary that I’d have to go for a little lie down afterwards to recover. I am finding out that going through this huge range of emotions from ecstatic jubilation to suicidal depression is “absolutely normal for the newly-discovered middle-aged autistic” (and probably newly diagnosed autistics of all ages and, to an extent, their carers too) by continuing to read. And, I’m starting to think about a way forward and very very gently getting back to one or two things that, to me, signify “normal life”. It’s slow, and the path is very wobbly and up and down, but it is going, gently, in the right direction.

None of it is particularly easy. And my autistic brain is still fighting furiously with my knowledge brain as they try to reach some sort of equilibrium in my head and sort out what on Earth to do about everything. But I sometimes think that they might, eventually, find some sort of way of working together.

And in the meantime the only thing to do is to accept this latest phase of anxiety regarding the assessment and to cope with it as best I can. I don’t know how many more phases there will be to go through before life achieves some sort of “new normal” and neither do I know when or what that will be. Maybe I will need to write more “head sorting” material in the future in order to make sense of it all and I’ll have a whole new analysis of the process in a few months’ time!

This blog is an interesting beast. No matter how much I want to write about some things and no matter how much I plan, sometimes my head just needs to write what it needs to write.

And letting it is part of the process of discovery!

Out to Dinner

53-2017-01-28-14-04-07A few weeks ago I got a message from a good friend of mine. He and another couple of friends were planning on dining in College, as they do from time to time, and he wondered whether my best friend and I would like to join them, as we do from time to time. It’s usually a very pleasant evening, and a chance to catch up with people we don’t see that often, especially as the friend who sent the message lives abroad and travels a lot.

Usually I’d message back by return and get signed in to dinner straight away, no question, the only limitation being whether I was already booked to do something else that evening. However, even though my diary is looking really really empty at the moment, I hesitated. An evening in College can be very tiring, as I described in Sudden Illness, and in my current state of burnout I really didn’t know whether I could cope with it at all.

I sought advice from my husband, who is often wise in these situations. He suggested I sign in anyway and then cancel if I really wasn’t well enough. It seemed like a good plan, so that’s what I did. I rather hopelessly didn’t manage to message my friend back, but I did at least sign in, and started to prepare for the biggest social thing I’ve done for many months. At the time I signed in I didn’t know whether such an evening would be totally beyond my capabilities, but I thought I’d give it a try.

And so the strategies went in to action, and a rather embarrassingly large amount of preparation and thought went into a simple evening out to dinner.

First, the diary. I made sure that I didn’t push myself or attempt to leave the flat for two full days before the day of the dinner. Enforced rest. Enforced quiet. Save energy. Save save save. On the day itself, I made myself rest in bed all morning. By the time the anxiety kicked in mid-afternoon I was up, but under my weighted blanket in the dimly lit sitting room, exposing myself to as little input as possible to keep my energy as high as it could be.

I also decided to wear as comfortable clothes as I possibly could within the constraints of looking “reasonably tidy”. A pair of elasticated trousers I usually wear for concerts, a soft t-shirt, a fleece jacket, and a soft scarf. Fiddle toys in the jacket pocket, chew toy round my neck under the scarf. Absolutely everything as easy as it could be and as comforting as it could be. And, of course, the tinted glasses that have now become my usual eyewear.

I expect I’ll do quite a lot more of this sort of thing in future and much of it will become automatic for me, but for the moment a lot of it is new, and a lot of these things are things I’m trying to see if they work and see if they help me conserve energy to do the things I want to do without getting as exhausted and stressed as I have done in the past. I’m experimenting to see how much rest I need beforehand, how much recovery time, what sort of balance I need to achieve between behaving as a reasonably responsible adult in public and being as comfortable as I can in different situations, and what strategies I can employ to help.

I also made the decision not to drink more than a taste of each wine with dinner and to drive home afterwards, partly because introducing a lot of alcohol into the mix might alter my sensory or social responses in either direction, and partly because I could go home to a place where I had the comfort and safety of my own rules, my own familiar arrangements, my sofa and telly and weighted blanket and so on, with no need to pack any bags or do anything beyond getting through the evening and then driving a familiar route home. I’ve mentioned before that driving is one of the things that comes naturally to me and I can do quite comfortably even when very stressed about other things.

Going home had the added advantage on this occasion of complete solitude because my husband was out speaking about mental health issues and was then planning on a working night, and was also going to be out for most of the next day, so not only would I wake up in my own bed, I wouldn’t have to engage in any conversation at all. If I felt absolutely terrible the next morning then I could just stay in bed for as long as I wanted.

It actually turned out to be a very good evening to have had as my first real social event in many months. There weren’t too many people signed in to dinner, so it didn’t feel crowded or overly pressured. My best friend organized the seating such that I was at the end of the table and he was next to me, so I wasn’t sitting next to a stranger. My other good friend sat opposite, and another of our group next to him, so I was surrounded by allies and friendly sympathetic people, two of whom already knew what had been going on in my life.

Nobody seemed unduly fazed by the fact that I was gently rocking back and forth, and I managed to eat most of all the courses of my dinner (though didn’t push it – tasted everything, but stopped eating long before I usually would). The familiarity of the setting (I’ve been eating in that hall since I was 18) helped a lot, and the dangly bits on the sleeves of my academic gown actually turned out to be an excellent stim toy!!!

Afterwards, something that would usually be a slight disappointment was something that actually did me a favour. The small number of people eating in meant that there was no formal dessert (formal dessert involves sitting at another table, generally more obligation to converse, and following customs regarding port, eating of fruit, and so on). Instead, the fruit was on plates in the Common Room sitting room, so I was able to take my boots off, sit cross-legged and comfortable on a sofa, and be much more relaxed.

And I sat and sipped a cup of coffee, and then some mint tea, and had a chocolate and a raspberry. And played with my fiddle toys a bit, and even chewed my chew toy a bit, and people looked at old photographs, and chatted, and I didn’t make myself chat except when I felt like it, and the evening actually turned out to be quite a relaxed one, surrounded by understanding friends in a non-threatening environment. If I appeared odd to anyone, then they didn’t comment or weren’t worried or both.

I was reminded of the line from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency where Reg remarks (on revealing that he’s been living in the same set of College rooms for 200 years) that “one of the delights of the older Cambridge colleges” was that “everyone is so discreet. If we all went around mentioning what was odd about each other we’d be here till Christmas.” There are some aspects of my dark blue home that are very similar to the characteristics of his light blue alma mater that Douglas Adams incorporated into his brilliant stories (side note: count how many “previous blog posts” are shown in the list on each page of this blog – though you probably won’t need to now you’ve seen this remark in the context of this paragraph)!

And so the evening was a success. I drove my good friend and best friend back to their guest house and home respectively, then drove back home myself. When I got back I definitely felt that I’d been through some sort of “assault on the senses”. My ears were ringing as though I’d been at a loud rock gig, and I was slightly dizzy and nauseous and certainly not capable of doing anything more than collapsing onto the sofa underneath my weighted blanket. I stayed like that for about an hour, just curled up with my iPad, waiting until I felt a bit better. After about an hour I had enough energy to rock and bash myself against the back of the sofa, then after another half hour I started to feel distinctly better. I put the telly on, muted, and one small lamp. After a second hour I was well enough to get up and get a glass of wine and put some music on very very softly. Three hours after getting home, I finally had enough energy to have a short bath and get into bed.

I slept on and off for about 4 hours in total, and now, at half past one in the afternoon of the next day, I’m finally out of bed, dressed, and have managed to make myself a cup of tea and write up the evening while it’s still fresh in my mind. I actually feel much much better than I thought I would today – maybe that’s the result of the planning, and the care, and allowing myself the 3 hours to calm down properly before going to bed. I think it’s also a question of managing expectations – I KNEW when I decided to go last night that it was going to be a big deal in the state that I’m currently in (a month earlier and I would have been too unwell even to consider it). So none of it is a surprise. I know why I feel like I do during and after social occasions now, and just knowing means that there is a whole level of worry that there is something ELSE wrong with me that is now gone.

I’m also aware that things will continue to improve for a while yet as I recover from the burnout and as I adapt and get used to how things now are. Exactly how much functionality I’ll regain is still unknown, but early signs are that I won’t actually spend the whole of the rest of my life as disabled and impaired as I was a couple of months ago. Once I’ve stabilized I will be able to do a bit more, especially if I manage my life a bit more appropriately now that I know what needs managing.

This sounds completely mad, writing it up. So much planning for one evening out. Three hours to recover sufficiently to put myself to bed when I got home. Most of the rest of the next day spent in bed. It seems insane from any normal perspective. It must seem mad when viewed through the eyes of the well.

And I ask myself whether one night out to dinner is worth all that effort, and the answer is a resounding YES. Partly because it was simply a lovely evening with nice people and I felt cared for and loved and lucky to be where I was enjoying the food and the company and the surroundings. But also, crucially, because it gave another glimpse back into the “normal” world, a world not dominated by assessments and psychologists and psychiatrists and mental illness and difficulty, and a world worth fighting to get back to.

In many ways it was just a simple evening out, but it was also another of those glimmers of hope that I will eventually be able to function reasonably well in the world again and enjoy some of the things that make life rather better than just “struggling to get through each day”. I used a lot of energy last night, but early indicators are that I actually got some energy back too, which is better than I could possibly have hoped for.

Two Days

44-2016-12-31-12-56-09So you’ve had a two day respite from my random ramblings. Two days of peace and quiet. But now the spell is broken again and I’ve returned!

Interestingly, the reasons I’ve not posted for a couple of days have been absolutely at opposite ends of the scale. On Monday I had a really really bad day, utterly exhausted, no motivation for anything. Even the thought of turning on the computer to write anything was way beyond me, and most of the day was lost to a kind of depressive “I don’t want to be here” sort of haze. The evening was a little better, but by then I was too exhausted. Yesterday, however, I had one of the best days I’ve had in a while. I went out on my own, did a few errands, even managed to have a coffee, and then came home and, since my brain was still functioning reasonably well, started working on some of the admin tasks I now have piling up on my to do list.

My life is often very variable like this, and I have very varying capabilities on different days. I’ve still not really learnt about this in the light of autistic traits, though my brain is flashing at me that I did read something about it somewhere but I can’t exactly remember where and I need to add that to the list of things to investigate in the future. It’s very often the case that I can do something quite well on one day, but be completely incapable of doing the same thing the next day, and vice versa.

Obviously, days like Monday are utterly utterly miserable. I hate the days that are filled with sadness and regret, those days where I really don’t want to be alive any more. I hate feeling so weak and powerless, unable to function properly, stuck inside the flat when there is so much I want to do, unable even to perform simple tasks because my brain simply won’t work. I feel sad that I’m not getting up and going to a productive job (yes, really, I’d love to be able to do a job). I hate the fuzzy feeling in my head, the nausea when I forget to turn the main lights off, the way my heart rate skyrockets whenever someone in one of the adjoining flats or the car park below makes a noise.

These are the days I don’t want to live any more, the days I often have to work hard to stay alive. Although, on Monday, I was so low on energy that I figured never having existed at all would have been easier than actively having to die. I pondered owning a time machine and going back in time to force my mother to abort me, before realising that such an action would set up a temporal paradox that would have Emmett Brown “Great Scott!”ing all over the place. So I stayed in bed for much of the day, which I didn’t enjoy much either, then decamped, listlessly, to the sofa, where I watched an old drama on the TV because I didn’t even have the energy to put a DVD into the machine. I didn’t manage to eat until around five in the afternoon.

Someone on my facebook wall asked if there was any correlation between nutrition the day before and how I felt the day afterwards. There isn’t (except the day after I’ve had a very poor food day I often feel a bit “out of sorts” and that “out of sorts” often turns out to be hunger), but it got me thinking about what correlations there might be. And, once I started to look, there was a big huge one staring me in the face!

For years, I’ve had terrible Mondays. And they’ve been much worse since we moved to the flat. And now it seems obvious that the reason I’m so devoid of energy on a Monday is because of the weekend. At the weekend I’m more likely to go out, more likely to push myself to leave the house, more likely to see people – partly because we can park in town on a weekend and go and have coffee, partly because people are often around at the weekends, and orchestral gigs are often at the weekends, and partly because I am in the same room as my husband 24/7.

When we lived in the house this wasn’t the case – it was big enough for us to have separate rooms to go to, but the flat is not, so we are only metres away from each other all the time, unless one of us goes out. Even *that* level of communication, as opposed to being completely on my own for an average of 14 hours a day during the week, is enough to tire me significantly. And because it didn’t really occur to me, I’ve never made an allowance for it, like I do when I’ve been out to something more obviously social. But although I love being with him, I need solitude. I think he feels the same. We do work together, but we really need our space, especially at the moment with so much else to deal with.

I wondered, on Monday, as I sat there, trying to survive, still desperately miserable about the lack of formal diagnosis (when I started to think that people should be putting trigger warnings on posts about diagnosis I knew that I was really distressed about it), whether I’d reached the lowest point of this whole thing (or certainly a very low local minimum, comparable to that following the first assessment or the time back in the autumn when the hot water failed). I even tried to write about it. There wasn’t much there though, forming thoughts into words was very difficult, and the few lines below took all afternoon to transcribe from the mess in my head.

Rock Bottom?

Have I got there?
Any further to go?
Or is this geological nadir?

Still undiagnosed.
Still burnt out.
Still waiting.

Even written words hard today.
Really struggling.

When will diagnosis be?
When will burnout recovery be?
How long do I have to wait?

Life on hold.

Fortunately, things did start to improve. My husband arrived home in the evening with a part to fix our broken washing machine and while I sipped wine he set to work installing said part. I didn’t manage to test the machine until the next day, but am delighted to report that it now works again!

The next morning I felt a little better, so decided to try to do some of the things I really needed to do. I got up at a fairly reasonable time, even had a small amount of toast for breakfast, and then left the house, on my own! I went to the vet surgery to settle up our bill and collect some ashes. I went to the doctor’s surgery to collect my prescription and to register for online access to the prescription service – having almost lost my words and had them suddenly go into random order on the phone convinced me that it was worth registering to be able to do it online. I bought a sack of animal food from the local country store. And I went for coffee.

I haven’t had a drink in coffee on my own for months. I’ve sometimes managed to get a takeaway coffee to drink in the car, but the effort of communicating with baristas through the noise of the shop has been my absolute limit. If my husband’s been with me then he’s ordered and I’ve managed to sit in, but I haven’t managed to do both for quite a long time. But it was quiet, and as I stood at the counter in my sunglasses, bouncing up and down on my toes, I assessed that there was a quiet corner and I’d be able to manage.

So I had my coffee in. And because I was staying in I had my usual (regular latte and a piece of lemon cheesecake). And I managed. And ate my cheesecake. And drank my coffee. Which was excellent! Admittedly, I rocked back and forth in my seat the whole time, but it didn’t seem to present any problems to the world, so I just sat there quietly doing my own thing. Going out for coffee might seem everyday and trivial to many people, but for me, at the moment, it is a monumental achievement!

When I got home the good day continued, which is why you didn’t get a blog post. Unlike Monday, it wasn’t that I didn’t have the energy to make one, but that I had enough clear-headedness to do something more than writing blog posts. And while I had that sort of clarity in my head I wasn’t going to waste it – so I set up a calendar for 2017, and a list of dates on which I’ve been asked to do things, and a list of people to contact about those things. I sent a few e-mails, just the first ones, mainly the simple things that were either wanting information that was easy to access, or that were gigs I definitely can’t do because I know they’ll be too much. I still have more people to contact, but the ball is rolling. Life became just that little bit more sorted. A little bit better. I am getting there.

And as for today, I’d say it’s been middling, which I’m quite pleased with, given how much I got done yesterday. In my more optimistic moments I allow myself to believe that Monday really was rock bottom and things might improve from now on, though I know that this isn’t a strictly linear process, and there will likely be many more ups and downs before things finally settle into something a bit more equilibrious.

We can only wait and see what happens tomorrow!