Liberation!

Sometimes,
It is hard, tough, stressful.

Sometimes,
It is difficult
And I wonder
If life will ever
Feel OK.

But…

Sometimes,
It is beautiful.

Sometimes,
The utter delight
At having found myself
And having discovered
Who I really am
And how my life
Is meant to be

Feels like it wants
To make bubbles
And light
And magic
And colours
And sparkles
And joyousness.

I rock back and forth
And it feels GOOD
And RIGHT!

I play with my toys
And sit on my feet
And flap my hands
And rub nice things
All over my face…

And don’t worry about
Speech
Or eyes
Or “doing it right”
Or what is
“Expected” of me.

Because

I finally have freedom
And permission
To be who I am.

It has been
A long time
Coming,

But I am very glad
That this
LIBERATION
Eventually arrived!

Allowing myself
Just
To be
Autistic me
Is sometimes
A very
Very
Beautiful
Thing.

Double Regret

The original title of this post, which I devised when my mood was somewhat lower than it is today, was “Double Mourning”, but I ditched it as being too strong, and, in fact, not really factually accurate. It also reminded me of those terrible articles, which I’m certain are supposed to induce some sort of emotion, where parents write of their “grief” at discovering their child is autistic. An autistic diagnosis might be a shock, yes, and it certainly makes one think rather hard about rather a lot of things, but it is not really about grieving, especially when the diagnosis is so early that the child in question can be supported to be their full autistic self and get the best possible out of their life with the knowledge of who they are. The child is still there and has not changed – leave the “grief” for those who are genuinely bereaved, whose children have died, been stillborn or miscarried, or were never conceived despite much effort.

However, I can understand that any autism diagnosis is a huge shift in perspective, and can alter expectations and so on. And when that diagnosis comes late in life, although it is, in many ways, liberating and validating and a huge relief, it can also come with a lot of regret that it wasn’t spotted earlier, particularly for those of us who have been disabled by our autistic characteristics and whose quality of life has been generally poor. I have spent much of my life fighting against my neurology, trying to be a person I wasn’t, because I didn’t know who I was, and the effort that has taken has been huge.

And, to add insult to injury, I have spent my life working at absolute maximum capacity the whole time, trying my very best to live up to the high expectations that others had of me (because all they saw was a decent set of exam results so I really was told I could do anything, which turned out not to be true) and which, as a consequence, I eventually had of myself. I lived in a world where a grade B was a failure, where I was expected to be the best, to rise to the top, to be successful and to settle down and have a happy and fulfilled life. It didn’t turn out that way – as I discussed in Expectations Gone.

So while I am not mourning, I am having to look back and deal with two lots of what I shall call “regret” and this is where my situation differs from that of the small child – had I been diagnosed at 4, my parents would have had to replan my future, but there would be very little past to look back on, analyse, and very little to regret about how my life had thus far been conducted. At 45 I now face having to replan my future, whatever there will be of it, but I’m also having to come to terms with the events of the past and how both my being autistic and my not knowing about it has impacted my life.

I cannot help asking myself the question “What if I’d been diagnosed at n?” where n is a number between 0 and 45. Maybe one day I’ll try to do a post that conveys some of my thoughts on this, although, obviously, the whole thing is a hypothetical exercise. It is, obviously, of no practical use, but it’s a way of me working through my past and analysing the effect that being an undiagnosed autistic for 45 years has had on my life. And, because of the sort of person I am, I’m given to such experiments because they interest me. And since I have nobody to talk to about them apart from my long-suffering husband, they might well end up here at some point.

So while I’m playing “autism bingo” (see Disparate Facts) and scrapping my old plans and making new (hopefully exciting) ones, on my more introspective days I am dealing with two lots of regret, and I am sometimes getting really really sad, and sometimes really really angry, and sometimes wishing that I had a time machine and I could go back and have another try at life, with proper knowledge of my neurology and permission to be myself rather than having to act the Strong Woman for so long. There is a part of me that feels that 45 is too late and that my disastered life is beyond rescue now – the lack of any family, the failure of all the jobs, the huge debts, the chaotic living conditions, the shocking mental health, and my current poor quality of life make me wonder if it’s even worth the effort. But there is also a part of me that is interested to see what happens next, and to discover where things go from here, and to find out whether I can build a life that gives me some degree of either success or pleasure, or if I’m really really lucky, a bit of both – I have a husband, an insatiably curious mind, pretty good physical health in many ways, and maybe a few decades ahead to do some interesting stuff.

So why am I regretting TWO alternative pasts? And what are they?

The first is the past that I would have had had I not BEEN autistic. Of course, it’s impossible to tell what a non-autistic version of me might have been like, because autism doesn’t work like that and I’d have been a completely different person, but, if I look around at those who had similar backgrounds to me, then many of them went on to lead very different lives from me. The smiling group photos of friends I see on facebook, the people who enjoy going off on trips together, the people who meet up socially in their spare time and so on. And, of course, there are the families and jobs and houses that many have because they’ve been able to work and make money and use their qualifications to build a life in a way that I haven’t. I know, by the way, that this is not the case for everyone, and also that there are autistic people who have succeeded with families, jobs, houses and the like, but I’m trying to work out the things that didn’t work for me, for which I believe being autistic might have been responsible.

The non-autistic life was also the one that, until 8 months ago, I believed I had. It didn’t even occur to me to wonder whether I was autistic or not, because nobody had ever raised the possibility with me. I believed that I had failed very badly at life, and I was fairly certain that with the amount of work I put in and the skills that I had, that it was rather unfair that things kept going so badly wrong. Of course, the paradox here is that, had I been a different person, a non-autistic version of myself, there might have been areas where I HAVE succeeded that I wouldn’t even have considered because they’re part of my autistic self. Had I been a good socialite at college, I might have got a less good degree because I’d have been in the bar chatting rather than in the library reading every single reference to every single journal article. Had I been good at team sport at school, I might never have spent so much time learning music and it would not have become such an important part of my life. Had I been able to hold down a job properly, I might never had the time to care for so many animals, and so on and so on and so on.

So a big part of this autistic discovery is, to a certain extent, to “regret” that I wasn’t “normal” (both words in inverted commas, because they’re the closest I can get to what I’m trying to say, and I know all the “yes but what is normal anyway” stuff and I’m trying to convey that I’m using the words because they’re the best I can come up with at this point). There is a huge regret that I didn’t find life easier and that I worked so damn hard and because my neurology is different, I didn’t get the same results for the same amount of work that other people did. But I’m not sure the concept of actually BEING neurotypical has much meaning for me, since I haven’t the faintest clue what it might be like. I’ve discussed with neurotypical people and heard about how they only hear the conversation they’re actually having when they’re in a room full of people, and how they can talk about things they haven’t rehearsed, and how they don’t feel sick when they go shopping, and how they feel happier running in groups and chatting, and how they think that a night out at the pub is more relaxing than staying at home doing advanced mathematics, but these things are so far from my experience that I really have no clue what it might be like. One of the things I’d really like to do is to find more neurotypical friends and really discover what life feels like for them, because it’s utterly fascinating.

The second alternative past that I’m “regretting” (again, I use the word advisedly), is the one in which I KNEW I was autistic. There is probably more to say about this, and about the consequences of having known, in a future blog post (the exercise described in the 5th paragraph above). I am certain that had I known what my neurology was earlier in my life it would have helped me no end, although I’m also conscious that it’s much more complicated than that because we have also to take into account the way that the world has changed in the last 45 years, so there are really too many variables to consider. A diagnosis of autism in 1975 would almost certainly have resulted in my future being limited by the perceptions of others, for example, whereas such a diagnosis for a 4-year-old now would produce a very different outcome. I also avoided any efforts to “cure” me with horrific therapies, though I was sometimes harshly disciplined when I had meltdowns, which were taken to be bad behaviour, my sensory needs weren’t recognised so I went through a lot of pain, which I learnt to normalise, and I stored up a lot of inner trauma and anxiety as a result of being bullied, struggling with friends, and trying to be “normal”. But I was able to use the skills I did have. The very things that meant that nobody was able to tell that I was autistic in the 1970s and 80s meant that I was allowed just to proceed with life and as I grew up people just got used to the idea that I was who I was, quirks and all, and, to an extent, I just learnt what was expected of me and did it the best I could.

I’d have liked to grow up with a diagnosis. I’d have liked my parents to have been able to access groups on facebook, to learn that I wasn’t being awkward, that I wasn’t actually trying to be headstrong, or picky with my food, and that I wasn’t trying to be bad, although I always felt I came across as bad. I’d have liked my schools to recognise that I was putting in lots of work, even though it wasn’t the sort of work that they were expecting, and I’d like to be able to look back on my childhood now and see it as a happy fun-filled time, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t do that. I see it as a constant learning process that required behaving well and doing well at schoolwork. I’ve heard people describe childhood as some sort of “carefree” time, but I’m struggling to think of anything like that in my own past.

But it was the 1970s. Nobody knew. And I forgive those who didn’t see how much I was struggling because they didn’t know what to look for and because I didn’t know either. It was just the way it was back then.

However, when it comes to adulthood, I have very different feelings. By the time I was in my mid-20s I was already very mentally ill. The masking that I’d learnt through childhood was already taking a heavy toll on me, and if I’d known in my mid-20s that I was autistic and had had the opportunity to learn what I know now then I believe my life would have been very very different and I’d be in a much better position with a much better quality of life than I have now. I’ll try and work out why that is at some point, and exactly what I would have done differently, partly because it might inform my own future and I can, I hope, stop making the same mistakes I’ve been making for the last 20 years, and partly because it might be useful for others, who are in their 20s and recently diagnosed.

What I do know is that I’m reading a lot of articles online about “late diagnosis”, and I read and read and read and it sounds exactly like me, and then the punchline comes: “and it was like this for the first 25 years of my life”!!!! And I sit there and think “25? That’s TWO DECADES AGO for me!!!” I feel old. I’m middle-aged. I’m in the middle of the menopause. My hair is grey (it is grey at the moment because I can’t dye it because I’ve destroyed my scalp too badly). Some of my contemporaries are grandparents. How is 25 LATE for anything? At 25 you have almost your whole life ahead of you. You have a maximum of around 20 years’ masking to undo, you can be YOU for almost all your adult life!!!

Now, of course, I realise that this is my perspective as a 45-year-old. And I am encountering people who are newly diagnosed autistic in their 50s, 60s, and even older. I’m sure a newly-diagnosed 70-year-old would look at me and think how young I am, how much opportunity I still have (especially with my relative physical fitness), and would ask me what on Earth I was complaining about. And, of course, they’d be right, that my lot in life is considerably better than theirs was in very many ways (though also worse in others – I believe there are ways in which some aspects of the past were more advantageous to autistic people than some aspects of the modern world – that’s yet another blog post for the future).

However, when I look back on my life and wish, desperately, that I had known I was autistic, the point that I really wish it had been discovered was somewhere in my mid-20s. This was the point at which my mental health took a huge nosedive, the point at which life started to become seriously seriously tough for me and moved from anxiety into severe depression and when the suicidal ideation became suicide attempts and I didn’t understand why things were so very bad. Had I had the knowledge about my neurology back then that I have today, I could have, instead of going through months of hard CBT to try to cope with supermarkets, realised that they did indeed make me sick and I wasn’t being pathetic and the answer was to spend less time in them and wear dark glasses. Instead of reading the guides to good mental health that told me to spend lots of time with friends because that would be good for me and forcing myself to go to the pub after rehearsals and so on, I could have gone home and saved that energy. I’ve spent a lot of the last 20 years PUSHING through, fighting through, being strong, making myself do the tough stuff because I looked around and everyone else could do it so I knew that I should be able to as well. But the cycle of push, get sick, fail went round and round, and in 20 years of mental health service use, nobody suggested autism. That, I really do regret.

I survived my childhood. I even did reasonably well academically. It wasn’t amazing, but it wasn’t the spectacular disaster that the last 20 years have been. I’m also now questioning how anxious I really am, and wondering whether the high levels of anxiety contributed to our being unable to have children, and if I’d allowed myself enough downtime and been aware of just how anxious I was, whether it would have helped. That, of course, I can only speculate, because it’s impossible to know. I am just coming to realise how high my anxiety levels have been all my life, but because they’ve always been that way, I’d never really noticed them. With my diagnosis has come a relief, a liberation, and a permission to relax and be myself that I’ve never felt before in my life. I don’t have to try to “achieve” any more, because I work on a different system and I have to operate by different rules in order to compensate for the way I perceive the world. Now that I do know, I can start to figure out what works and implement it. I can start to work on reducing anxiety, on planning a future that’s not based totally on striving to be the best or work the hardest, because those things aren’t suitable for me.

And I really do wish I’d known all this 20 years ago. The biggest regret I have is not that I am autistic (I’m not sure, in many ways, that that’s even a regret at all, because the notion of a non-autistic me simply doesn’t make any sense), nor in some ways, is that it wasn’t spotted in childhood (and getting the 2017 “diagnosis” for my 4-year-old self has, in many ways made peace with that anyway), but that I have spent a quarter of a century of my adult life not knowing I was autistic. THAT is the big regret.

And that’s the bit I’m most still struggling to come to terms with, the bit that needs the most work. I still need to do the thought experiments for “What if I’d been diagnosed at 40, 35, 30, 25, 20…?” I still need to work out how my own history intersects with my experiences in the mental health services, the knowledge of autism (particularly among those of us assigned female at birth), and I still need to work out where to go from here.

There’s not much I can do apart from keep going with it all. Reports from those who’ve been through similar experiences suggest it will take a year or so. I’m still less than 8 months post-discovery and less than 8 weeks post-diagnosis, so it’s not surprising I’m not there yet!

Circles

Amazingly, this is my 100th post on this blog. When I first posted to it, last December, I didn’t know whether it would ever get beyond The Discovery, and it was really just a convenient way to let people know that I had discovered I was autistic. In the last four months the blog has seemed to acquire a life of its own, and, from time to time, a few people seem to read it. I can hardly believe that it’s only around eight months since the idea of my being autistic was even suggested – in that time I’ve learnt so much about myself and my life and just how much being autistic has influenced me during the last 45 years.

One of the criteria for receiving a formal diagnosis of “autism spectrum disorder” under the current system is that autistic traits and behaviours need to have been present throughout life (because autism is a lifelong condition). Consequently, the diagnostic process involves a lot of looking back through life and, particularly, back to early childhood. I’m fortunate enough to have a mother with a good memory who is still alive and was able to supply me with lots of information about my early life (I’ll write more on that another time), and it has been interesting to discover what she remembers about my childhood and how it relates to my own memories and experiences.

I’d like to indulge, if I may, in a little imaginary time travel, back through my life, to what, for me, has become an important point as far as my life as an autistic person is concerned. I start from now, 2017, when I am 45 years old, newly diagnosed, and slowly recovering from an episode of burnout. As I go back through my life I think about the 39-year-old receiving a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, the 36-year-old who still couldn’t cook a meal, the 33-year-old who got randomly ill on holidays, the 29-year-old who spent nights bashing their head against the wall and drank bottles of whisky and ate packets of pills and hoped never to wake up again, the 26-year-old who sat at their desk trying to write their doctoral thesis while feeling like they were in a bubble and the world was unreachable, the 23-year-old who graduated top of their class but who ate the same thing for dinner every night and drank alcohol before breakfast every morning, the 19-year-old who couldn’t learn from lectures and dropped out of their first degree, the 16-year-old who was still being bullied at school and whose best friend was a cat, the 13-year-old who was routinely pinned down on the floor of the toilets by the other kids, the 9-year-old whose headmaster thought they were being abused at home, and, eventually, my time travel stops in a primary school in Bradford in 1975, where a little girl sits on the steps of a temporary classroom, crying.

The little girl is crying because it is playtime and she hates playtimes. She hates small children. They are noisy and they run around all over the place in a disorganized manner, and some of them step on the cracks in the pavements which means that very bad things will happen, and they are mean to her and some of them eat sweets in the morning which is against the rules, and so she cries, and she waits, desperately, for playtime to finish, so that she can retreat to the safety of the classroom where there is a teacher who might protect her, and where the children sit down and where it is quieter.

I know these things about the little girl, and have always known them, because I remember them. I remember many things about being 4 years old, but, as I started to question my mother, I discovered that there were things about my 4-year-old self that I didn’t know. One of these was that my teacher summoned my parents to school because she was concerned about me. I didn’t interact with the other children, and, most particularly, I wasn’t learning to write. I just sat and made my pencil go round and round in circles, filling page after page with scribbled circular patterns. The teacher said she’d never encountered a child like me and didn’t know what to do.

Finding out about this “circle drawing” was the first of many rather surreal discoveries about myself that I’d never have made if I hadn’t started asking questions because I was gathering information for an autism assessment. It shocked me somewhat, and I felt a huge sadness for that frightened stressed little kid, trying to withdraw from the world into something comforting, trying to survive in what felt like a very hostile environment. I cried many tears for her, because I couldn’t go back in time and help her, and I knew what she would have to go through before she finally understood why life was so tough. Just after diagnosis I wrote the letter below (complete with muddled tenses) to her, and during the information-gathering stage I went to a shop and bought pens and paper and drew circles and coloured them in. Because that was all I could do.

You will now realise why the “profile picture” on this blog and on the facebook page is what it is, and why I chose that particular picture for the post in which I revealed publicly that I am autistic. Today’s picture is from a similar, but different, drawing of circles.

The most important question I had for my autism assessor during my follow-up appointment was something like this: “If I had been 40 years younger, would I have still been receiving an autism diagnosis at this point in time, i.e. in 2017?” Her answer was that I would have. And she went on to say that, with the knowledge of the present day, the point at which I would have been identified as autistic would have been the point at which I went to school and sat on my own drawing circles and my teacher was concerned about my behaviour to the extent that she summoned my parents in to discuss it. That coupled with things we know about my behaviour at nursery the previous year, and various other things during my early development, would have triggered a diagnosis.

For some reason, knowing that, if I were 4 years old today I would be being diagnosed autistic, as a 4-year-old, is important to me. I have tried to think about why that is, and I came to the conclusion that the diagnosis my 45-year-old self received in February, although it covers my entire life, is a diagnosis for the future, for planning, for strategies, for rebuilding my life. The “diagnosis” my 4-year-old self received, retrospectively, in the follow-up appointment yesterday is, for me, the diagnosis that starts the process of making peace with my past – it feels like some kind of justice for that distressed little girl, crying on the steps of the classroom.

Of course, the other reason that age 4 is so significant for me as far as being autistic is concerned is that, as I started school and had to work out how to survive, it was the time I started to mask. It was the time that I started to learn what to do by watching other people, teaching myself to interact with other human beings. The social codes that came so naturally and intuitively to most others, who sought out human contact, were things that I had to learn through a cognitive process. I’m only just beginning to understand this, and how it has impacted my life. Being undiagnosed protected me from being “written off” or “cured” or whatever, but it meant that I worked fearsomely hard to try to make the world work for me and expectations were made of my abilities that I simply couldn’t fulfil. I believe the damage to my mental health started around that time – as an undiagnosed 4-year-old trying to fit in, learning to sit still, learning to socialize, and to do as I was told to avoid punishment, I was storing up the trauma that would eventually result in decades of mental illness and suicidal ideation (which switched to active attempts to end my life in my late 20s).

I’m certain I’ve mentioned it before, but one of the things that is so interesting about an autism diagnosis later in life is that it not only suggests strategies for coping with life better in the future, it also makes sense of the past. I cannot change the past, obviously, but getting the “diagnosis” for my 4-year-old self is another step in accepting it and understanding it.

Dear Four-Year-Old,

I was talking about you recently, to some nice people.

I was remembering what it was like for you at playtime at school. I was telling the people about the three big girls who used to be mean to you, and how noisy it always was at playtimes, and how much you wanted to get back to the safety of the classroom where there was a teacher who might protect you from the other children, who were frightening and who you didn’t want to be with.

I was also talking to your mother recently. She was telling me how she and your father were summoned to school to talk to your teacher, because there was a problem. In fact, there were a few problems.

I know you could already read very well before you went to school, and the teacher wasn’t very pleased about that, because she was supposed to teach you to read but you already could. She wasn’t very happy with your parents, who had supplied the books.

I found out from your mother that your teacher was concerned because you weren’t learning to write, like the other children were. Instead of writing you just sat and made circles in your writing book, using up all the paper, and any other paper available. Your teacher said that she had never met a child like you, and she didn’t really know what to do. Your parents didn’t know what to do either, so it was decided that you would not be allowed any more books so you didn’t damage them or use up the paper by drawing circles on it.

I know where you lived. I remember the street. I also remember that some kids from the street let your Space Hopper down and you were really unhappy about that because you loved bouncing up and down the street on it. And even though there was a man who worked at the garage and took it to blow it up again it wasn’t quite as bouncy as it had been before, which was sad.

I could send this to your address, which I still remember well, even though you only lived there briefly. But it would never reach you, because the mail can only go forwards in time, normally a few days or weeks. It cannot go backwards 41 years, which it would need to to reach you.

Neither can I come back in time myself, because there is no time machine. But if I could, I’d talk to your parents and teacher. And I’d try to explain that you are a bit different from most other children, and I’d give them a list of things they might look out for, and I’d work out what they could do to try to help make your life a bit easier, because I know that your life turned out to be very very hard in so many ways.

I’m not sure how convincing I’d be. A crazy person from the future, nearly as old as your granny is in your time. And, of course, there would be so many problems anyway because most of the information I have now is from books that will not be written until decades after the time you live in. I have a magic machine that allows me to read lots and lots of information about kids like you, but it won’t work in your time, because it relies on things that haven’t been invented yet.

If I could come and see you I’d try to protect you. I feel sad that you had to go through what you did, and I feel sad that your life was so hard and nobody knew how hard it was. I’d like to tell you that it got better soon, but I can’t, because you have many years of really hard stuff still to go through and many many tough times ahead. Life will be harder than you can even imagine right now. I’m sorry I can’t do anything about that, but you will find a way through, and eventually you will find out why it is like that.

But I would pick you up and hold you tight and tell you that you will, sometimes by strength, sometimes by accident, find a way to keep going through it all for at least another 41 years. There will be things that will help – your parents will not really understand you and they will not know for a long time that you really need extra help and support, but some of the things they do will help anyway. They will continue to supply books, which will help. They will get you a friend who is more comforting than any school friend could ever be, who will have soft fur and will purr for you. And they will let you do some of the things that make life feel better to you.

You know that recorder? The one you chew (yes, I know about that – I’ve still got it somewhere, and your teeth marks are still on the mouthpiece), keep playing it, and the other musical instruments you will learn in the future, because they will be really important to you. Keep reading and keep learning all the other stuff too – being interested in things and learning things is going to be one of the ways you survive in the world.

I will never be able to tell you this, but in 41 years time I will find out about the circle drawing, and I will draw some circles for you, because that is the best I can do for you. Because I am grown up now I can buy lots of really nice paper, and loads of books, and felt pens, and I can draw neat circles now and make patterns and colour them in – you’d have loved that!

When I finally tell the nice people all this, and I tell them about you and about all the other things your mother has recently told me, they will finally understand. And they will tell me some information that will explain why your life didn’t work out the way it was supposed to.

I can’t come back in time to care for you, or to explain. I wish I could.

But I will eventually find out why it all happened as it did and I will discover what makes life so hard for us. There is a word that describes people like us, even though nobody will apply that word to you in 1975. We are autistic.

The nice people listened, and heard all about you, and about the person you became, and they told me that my discovery was correct. You had a different sort of head. I have a different sort of head. We were never designed to fit into the world in the ordinary sort of way.

Stay strong little person. You will survive, and in 41 years you will understand. And you will finally be listened to and believed. And it will make life feel better and you can start to work out how to make an easier future.

See you in 41 years’ time!

A Forty-Five-Year-Old from the future

P.S. In 10 years’ time some girls at school will tell you that you’re too ugly to get a boyfriend. They are lying. You find someone who understands you perfectly and you will have a wedding with really nice cake!

One Month On

I have how had my official autism diagnosis for a month. In that month, life has continued to change almost as rapidly as it did before I was diagnosed. My father’s cancer diagnosis has obviously changed my priorities with regard to how I spend my limited energy over the coming months. My financial situation has once more become difficult and precarious and is causing me considerable amounts of anxiety. And I have, with huge regret, realised that I cannot, at this time, continue with the maths degree that I so badly wanted to finish, so it is time to let go, to stop pushing, and to admit that I have simply run out of time and energy.

Obviously, life is still a long way from where I’d like it to be. My sleep patterns are still poor, which is not great, but they’re better than they were a few months ago. I’m now managing to leave the flat around twice a week, which is a slight improvement. When I do go out I am slightly better able to cope because I am more aware of which strategies work for me and I’m learning to give myself more recovery time afterwards.

I have now started, very slowly, to eat just a little better than I have been doing, which is no bad thing, since I saw a full-length photo of myself recently and was slightly shocked at how thin I looked. I finally weighed myself a couple of days ago and discovered that I’ve lost a stone since last summer, simply because I have felt too sick and anxious to cope with food. This is not good – I was not trying to lose weight, particularly not in that way, and I am just lucky that I was in good enough physical condition to start with that my body could cope. I am also still drinking too much alcohol in order to cope, but am starting to try to cut down just a bit in order not to do too much more damage to my physical health.

However, despite all the difficulties mentioned above, the persistent insomnia, the struggles to go out, and the continuing dysfunctional relationship with both food and alcohol, there are signs that things are improving. My husband and several friends have remarked that they perceive my underlying mental state to be improved and, even though I’m still getting some extremely sad, angry, and regretful moments, I’m starting to accept things as they are in a way that I didn’t before my formal diagnosis.

There were several people who said, before my diagnosis, that since I knew I was autistic, they knew I was autistic, and my friends and family accepted that I was autistic, there really wasn’t any necessity for me to pursue a formal diagnosis in order to understand myself. What none of these people understood, however, was my need for validation, reassurance that I hadn’t simply imagined the whole thing, and the huge huge confidence that the formal diagnosis has given me. This might not be necessary for everyone, but for me it was essential. And it really has made a massive difference to my life.

The formal diagnosis also, for me, marked the end of the old life, and the beginning of the new one. The process of discovery in the preceding months was like a sort of introduction, perhaps an overture before the curtain was raised at the beginning of the first act, or maybe the preface before the start of chapter one. My old life has been demolished, and now the process of rebuilding can begin.

There is obviously a lot of relief that the process of seeking a diagnosis is now over, and I feel, even more than previously, that my life now makes sense in a way that it never previously did. As I predicted in the last few paragraphs of Why Bother, the diagnosis has finally given me full permission to stop regarding myself as a naughty, lazy, failure of a human being. I also feel liberated from the pressure to “succeed” that has pervaded my whole life so far. There is still a long way to go and I still, frequently, feel that I am not entitled to breathe the air and that the world would be a better place without me, but I am still only a month into the new life, and there’s nearly half a century of the old one to analyse, reevaluate, and reframe.

Furthermore, I have to go through the process of mourning the life I might have had if only it had been recognised that I was autistic before I got to my mid 40s. There are still difficult topics to tackle – the mental health professionals who failed for two decades to recognise it, my childhood, the incessant, triggering, references to small children when I try to research autistic traits, and where I fit, if at all, into the autistic community (I am used to being alone and to shying away from being part of any sort of group, and discovering that there are others who experience so many of the same things as I do is, for me, somewhat disconcerting).

But one month after diagnosis there is a calm, even more so than that I felt after discovery. I strongly believe that there is a very good chance that my mental health will, eventually, be better than it has been for decades, possibly even than ever before. I am already, after just four weeks, much more confident about describing myself as autistic, and feeling that I have a right to do so. I’m also treating myself much more gently than I did previously – because now I have official permission!

I’m certain there will be yet more phases to go through, and not all will be easy, but maybe, just maybe, I will eventually rebuild a life that works. And it will be a better life than the one that officially ended four weeks ago.

Letting Go

Apologies for yet another of these “journal type” posts. I had hoped that this blog would be just a little bit more balanced than it has been recently, and I’d still like to explore particular aspects of autism and create something a bit more useful, but, as I said right at the start, it is also, for me, part of the process of dealing with life and of trying to work out where to go from here!

I have spent the last few days feeling utterly shattered. This is partly because I managed to leave the flat a bit more than usual at the end of last week, and partly because I am starting to absorb everything that has happened over the last few weeks and preceding few months. Furthermore, it has become obvious that trying to struggle through learning advanced mathematics and completing assignments and sitting an exam in a few months time is totally and utterly beyond me right now. No matter how much I “put my mind to it”, it just isn’t happening. There are some times in life where no amount of effort will make something possible, and this is one of them. I had the same experience when I abandoned my DPhil 20 years ago – I wanted it so much, I wanted desperately to complete it, but sometimes, no matter how hard you search, there isn’t any more energy there. At that point there is nothing to do but accept that you need to stop, to give up, and to recover as best you can and make a new plan.

The process of acceptance is something I’m finding a bit odd, and also rather confusing. On the one hand I feel a huge relief that I can stop, breathe, and take some of the pressure off myself, but on the other, I feel somewhat bereft and directionless and a bit lost and I’m wondering what I’m supposed to do now.

The basic answer to that last question is, of course, obvious. I have plenty of things that still need doing – there is laundry and admin and trying to remember to eat and take care of myself. I also have lots of books and DVDs and so on that should keep me amused for a while. To many people this might sound like a great holiday, some sort of lovely blissful time – I now have permission to lie around in bed at home, watching the telly, reading anything I want, eating as much chocolate as I like, while just making the occasional list and chucking a load of laundry into the machine from time to time.

Except that this isn’t a holiday. It isn’t a break from the tough stuff – it IS the tough stuff. It has now taken me over a week to get enough brain cells together to even think about making a list. I am struggling to eat anything at all during the day as it just makes me feel sick and I’m having to force myself to nibble small quantities of high calorie food just to maintain my weight. I can’t concentrate to read most days, and I often find the light and sound from the TV terribly overstimulating. Strangely, the laundry is probably the best bit of the whole lot, though the noise from the washing machine sometimes makes me want to beat my head against the wall!

The above paragraph makes it obvious that I’m still very much recovering from burnout, and explains why I’m so unable to do more than leave the flat from time to time and the very occasional thing. And, on one level, it does give me a set of goals to aim for – eating proper meals, reading a few pages of a book, sorting out the random papers on my desk. On a small scale I have goals.

But the larger scale is more problematic. And this is where the dichotomy between feeling relieved and feeling lost is pertinent.

Getting my autism diagnosis is a huge relief. Learning that the struggles I’ve experienced all my life are the result of my brain working differently from the majority of brains is hugely enlightening, liberating, and exonerating. I know now that I was never able to fit into the world in the way that most people can because I was different from the start and I always will be. I’ve always known I wasn’t like most other people, but never really thought much of it because it was the way the world was for me, but I continually failed at things in a way that shouldn’t have been the case given how much I was working for them. Acknowledging that difference is really really helpful – in the same way that when we were discovering we were unable to have children one of the most helpful things I read was a paragraph in a book that explained that one of the difficulties of being childless is that it immediately marks you out as “different” in society because so many people do have families (and spend a great deal of time talking about them) that you will inevitably be an outsider on many occasions. That paragraph made me realise something I hadn’t hitherto realised – I was already different (I knew that much before autism was even considered) and my failure to produce a family made me even more different, even more of an outsider in society.

Acknowledging that feeling of “otherness” was really important to me then, as it is now. I have changed from being “wrong normal” to “right different”, which is good, because it means I can finally relax (as much as that’ll ever be possible for me), be myself, and set myself more realistic targets that allow me enough time for rest and recuperation in between and take into account how much just being out in the world exhausts me and drains my energy.

Finally, breathe. Stop. The battle is over. I can pause. Phew.

But what now?

And here is where the lost feeling comes in. Because the problem with not discovering you’re autistic until you’re 45, and with having achieved good exam results at school, and with having spent your entire life striving for “success” of some description is that without that ambition and those goals and those life plans, you feel somewhat cast adrift – I’m free, yes, from the expectations that I will now ever “get better” and be a high-flying something or other, but I’m also, now, somewhat directionless – floating around in an ocean and I don’t know which way to swim. The training I received in my youth was all based on me getting a good career, living a “normal” successful life. All my assumptions about my life included a full-time job, a family, and a house – that was the life I was prepared for. I never learnt about the benefits system, or what to do if you can’t work, or how to relax, or how to ask for help and support – none of those things was on my radar. I’m having to learn them pretty much from the beginning, in my 40s. This is a big ask – a complete rethink on my life philosophy. I’m also going to have to work out what I can actually do with my life that will take me beyond simply staring at the TV all day every day, because, even with my changed reality, I hope to be able to do a little more than that at some point.

So I look around and try to ascertain what others do with their lives. How do people who have neither a job nor family fill their days? What is life then for?

It seems like a wonderful opportunity – I’m sure there are people tied to jobs and families who would love to spend time travelling or pursuing hobbies or whatever, but I’m not only decidedly short on finances for travelling and so on, but just being out in the world with people exhausts me so much that any hobby would need to be mainly solitary and done at home. I’m not really looking for answers here, just pondering, and I know in my brain that I need to wait until I’ve recovered further from burnout before I can start to see what level of functionality I actually have and what I’ll ultimately be able to do.

So, I am liberated, free from the need to “perform” any more, free from the need to act the confident high-powered strong woman who I pretended to be for so long. But I am also cast adrift, directionless, like a balloon released and left to its fate, and I believe that I just have to go with both of these things for the time being. The old “rules” are gone. My life has been redefined. And there is no point fighting it, no point trying to cling on to “the way things were before”, because no matter how much I wanted that life to work, it didn’t, and the only way to move forward is to let go, relinquish control, and trust that some way forward will eventually emerge.

One Day After…

72-2017-02-22-12-26-06Head closed
Like a shop
Stocktaking
Sorting.

Body wants pressure
Tight, reassuring
And movement
Repetitive.

It is like a dream
But real.

So much
Explained.
Life finally
Makes sense.

Trying to work out
The feelings.

Many of them.

Relief.
Belief.

Lots of things
I can’t yet identify.

Still seems
Extraordinary.
Me.
Autistic.

But they examined
And tested
And said
It is true.

Very very grateful
For validation
Acceptance
Respect.

None of this
Even heard of
A year ago.

But now
A new future
Ahead…

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!