The Incident

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Accumulation

There are usually two reasons why I might not update this blog for several days. One is that I’m too busy, doing too much out in the world and am therefore spending all my energy interacting with people out in the world and all my time simply doing whatever it is and therefore don’t have enough energy or time left over to write a blog post. The other is that I am simply unable to write at all because I cannot translate the thoughts in my head into sufficiently coherent words because I have run out of energy completely and it is all I can do simply to survive and get through the day.

Both of those situations have been the case this past week, which is why I’ve been absent. After a couple of really busy music events the previous week (and yes, I did leave two clear days between each for recovery), I then went out to lunch on Saturday, went running on Sunday, out to lunch again on Monday, and then had to drive over to the vet on Tuesday to collect a rat who’d had a operation.

It turned out that, when added to the musical activities of the previous week with bare minimum recovery time and no “well days” in between for me to gain energy, four consecutive days out of the house was too much for me (in fairness, I didn’t plan four days, because I’d forgotten about collecting the rat, and even when I did remember, just a drive to the surgery didn’t seem like it would be too much – but it was).

And then, on top of all this activity out in the world with noise, and interaction, and so on, there were other things going on. Several incoming messages to deal with, things I wanted to say and comment on, friends who needed support in various ways, a bit of family stuff (father starting chemo), a birthday, anticipation of the upcoming weekend (which is now happening as I type), and my spoon rations were stretched to their absolute limit. And last thing on Tuesday evening the very last spoon of my spoon overdraft was used and I went from “coping” to “not coping”.

With hindsight, the signs were there. Saturday lunch was the last “proper meal” I managed to eat, and my food intake got increasingly erratic over the next few days. I started to feel exhausted again. I gave up commenting on facebook posts I’d wanted to because I couldn’t find the words. Sunday I got wiped out by going for a run and lost speech again. And once I got to Tuesday night I managed about one hour of sleep in total.

I haven’t felt up to writing a blog post, not even a “poem style” one since then. I’ve tried on several occasions. I’ve lain in bed with the phone, sat on the sofa with the iPad, and at one point turned on the computer and managed to type a title before feeling so awful I had to go and lie down again. But that has been it. Today is the first day I’ve really felt anything other than absolutely dreadful.

And I finally figured out, yesterday, I think, WHY that is. Even if I had been wrecked on Tuesday evening I should have been OK by Friday if I’m thinking of the “two days for recovery” rule, which I’ve been applying and which has, on the whole, been reasonably successful.

But what I hadn’t figured on was the cumulative effect of stacking up many events on top of each other. I hadn’t figured that the two days are just what’s needed for recovery from doing something, but that they’re not enough for proper recuperation. If doing something takes me into spoon overdraft, then two days can usually get me back to a balance of zero, but if I don’t take MORE time alone with minimum sensory input then I never get chance to accrue any savings. I’m living on credit the whole time.

And now I’m paying the price. I was supposed to be going to the Air Tattoo yesterday with my friend. I was not well enough to go, not by a very long way. I wasn’t even well enough to e-mail him to tell him I wasn’t well enough to go, so my husband had to do it for me. It was left that there might be a possibility of going to park and view nearby tomorrow, but, as I type this, I don’t think I’m going to be well enough for that either. I’m still struggling to eat. My sleep is still really disturbed. And my mood is not, shall we say, at the top of its game.

And my husband isn’t here to do the communicating for me either because he’s out for the next two days running the 100K ultramarathon that I am missing terribly and want to be doing too, but am not well enough. I’ve been dreading this weekend for a few weeks now, knowing what sort of weekend I wanted it to be, what I wanted to be doing, and what I wouldn’t be doing, because of stupid burnout and being not well enough to have done enough training or anything.

And it’s turned out that I’m not even well enough to go and watch aeroplanes either. I’ve run through, in my head, the potential scenarios for tomorrow, and I can’t imagine how I’ll cope. There will be people, there will be noise, there will be nowhere to hide, nowhere dark to go. It will be a long day that will use spoons fast. Even in past years, before I knew I was autistic and before this particular burnout, it’s taken me several days to feel well again after going to an airshow – I now understand why. My husband has made sandwiches and has left them in case I go and need them, but my head just can’t make it work right now. I’ve been trying to get out of the flat for the last day and a half in order to do a few jobs – I need to go to the bank, my phone has run out of credit, and so on, but even that feels too much for another few days. I need more time, more space, more recovery.

All this makes me sad. Things that I want to do, things that I love doing, I just can’t. It also makes me afraid, afraid that people will stop asking, that they’ll think it might be “too much” for me and that decisions about what I do will get taken out of my hands because people will think they’re protecting me by not inviting me to play music or have lunch or go running or go to airshows or whatever. And I’ll miss out on opportunities that I COULD have taken (my functioning abilities are so variable that I can often do something one day that I have not a hope of doing the next, and vice versa) and on things I enjoy. I also worry that they’ll stop being genuine with me, thinking that I won’t be able to cope with difficult stuff, and I’ll end up with a confused “half-reality” which I absolutely don’t want, even if I can’t always help with that particular thing at that particular time.

I have to learn this stuff for myself, and I have to discover just what abilities I’ve been left with following the burnout of the last year, just how far I can push before I break, and what I can do to mitigate against the effects of going out into the world and doing things. I have to learn how the cumulative use of energy stacks up and what I can do about it. Even realising, this week, the difference that “accumulation” of spoon debt makes to me, it has become obvious why I’ve struggled so badly to hold down even part-time jobs. Even if I can get through the first week, the damage to my energy levels stacks up so I’m incapable of doing the same in the second week, and I eventually fall apart. Looking back now, it’s easy to see the patterns. And in a strange way, being able to see those patterns and understand why I lost the jobs is at least satisfying and persuades me, just a little more, to stop blaming myself (as I have done for years) for my many failures in the workplace.

Before my husband headed off to go running around the countryside we were able to discuss some of this. He reminded me that it’s still less than a year since the huge discovery that I was autistic (which is possibly the most life-changing thing that will ever happen to me), and it’s still less than 5 months since my diagnosis, and that I’ve actually come a very very long way from where I was back in December. I’ve recently done things that I could hardly have dreamed of back then, so it really is progress overall.

However, progress takes work and energy and costs spoons. Even if the general direction is upwards, sometimes things will go downwards. While I continue to be the sort of person who wants to go out into the world and do things and to push myself to my limits (or, let’s be honest, to test the outer reaches of those limits and to keep pushing until I break, which is probably going to continue to happen quite a lot because living a “quiet life” is so counter to my personality that in its own way it’s even harder than doing the pushing because pulling back also takes a lot of effort), I will, inevitably, break from time to time.

Today, however, just doing what I really need to do will test my limits. I need to pay the council tax, I need to contact my friend about watching aeroplanes, and I need to eat. All of those feel like really really big tasks right now, but they’re what I’m aiming for. Anything else will be a bonus.

Trail Return

So last weekend I went back to the place where I fell apart while playing music last August.

And this weekend I went back to the place where I fell apart while running in my last race before burnout hit so badly that I was forced to take a complete break from running, to the place mentioned in The Background, where I eventually pulled out of the race, believing that I had some sort of mystery illness because I felt so dreadful.

This afternoon we drove to what is, during that race, aid station 4 (and which is a car park most of the time). I parked the car in pretty much the same place as I sat with a race official almost a year ago, trying to explain that I was really not well, but I didn’t know how I was not well. I didn’t understand, then, why everything was so painfully loud and bright and hot, or why I felt constantly as if I was about to be sick or that I really felt that I needed to burst into tears but couldn’t.

I didn’t understand then why, at the previous aid station, I’d felt like the trees were coming towards me, I’d been unable to form the words to ask for a cup of tea, and the voices of people around me were distorted and incomprehensible.

Neither did I understand why the world around me seemed to be breaking into a million little fragments, and I couldn’t make sense of any of them, still less run an ultramarathon.

Back then I put it down to a combination of “mental health problems” and “maybe a virus”. It would be a few weeks more before someone suggested I might be autistic, and another month before I started to take the idea seriously.

I’ve gradually started to return to running over the last few weeks. I went out and did a couple of kilometres, then 5K, then 8K, and I also did 12K of strenuous walking earlier this week. All of this, however, has been on the road, mostly not far from home where the running was concerned.

But today was different. For the first time in a year I took kit with me and changed into it elsewhere (which requires a lot of executive functioning energy). I drove and parked out on the trail. And I did 8K of trail running, on gently undulating decent path, admittedly (it absolutely wasn’t fell running).

Once again I drank warm disgusting water out of the bladder in my backpack, once again I pushed myself hard physically (I’m actually pleasantly surprised at how much residual fitness I’ve retained, though I have some way to go before I am where I want to be). It was also a hot day, which added somewhat to the challenge.

And I chose to go back to the very same place where I’d fallen apart in the race nearly a year ago. To deal with the psychological stuff too, to run the same path that I’d previously staggered, before collapsing, ill and broken, by the side of the trail, from where I had to be rescued by race officials and a car to take me to safety.

Today was an interesting experience. The physical bit was actually quite easy, and I didn’t feel any great psychological impact, though the memories of sitting in a folding chair, sipping flat coke, and desperately trying to find words to convey to the race officials what was wrong with me (I didn’t know, of course) were very strong.

But, what I did experience, very strongly, was exactly the same sensory overload that I had done the year before. As I got back to the car and met up with my husband (who’d been running in the opposite direction – we rarely run together), the sick, dizzy, bad feelings overtook me and I knew I was totally wrecked. I sat in the car and suddenly felt the familiar ill feelings engulf me. My running kit was suddenly unbearably constricting and I simply took it off (my husband attempting to shield me from a man in an adjacent parked car – though by that stage getting the clothes off was all that mattered to me). I put my ordinary t-shirt on, then bashed my head against the door frame of the car several times, which helped, and my husband suggested that maybe we should walk around a bit to dissipate some of the evident tension.

So I ended up walking circuits of the car park, flapping my hands wildly, while my language fragmented and sentence structure fell apart, and I ended up monosyllabic.

My husband, who is quite accustomed to me being a little out of the ordinary simply remarked “You really are mad as a box of frogs aren’t you?” I concurred, and pondered the madness of frogs in boxes, as I usually do!

By the time I felt well enough to get back into the car to drive home my speech had completely gone, and as I type this, 3 hours later, it is just returning, in effortful monosyllables (and I’m still really stimmy and unable to sit still). However, with the loss of speech, the ill feelings started to subside, and I was able to drive us home perfectly well.

And I’m pleased, because I did something today that would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago. I’m still very burnt out, still a long way from well, and I now know that one of my major challenges when running out in a world with so much light and noise and so on is to deal with the effect that the sensory overload has on my system. It’ll be even more challenging during races when I’m going to encounter other people in large numbers, and going to have to find a way of explaining how much energy it takes to speak to them or to process their words if they speak to me. There’s a whole lot of learning and so on still to be done.

But today I got back out onto the trail. I managed to do something I haven’t done for nearly a year, and I observed how far I can push myself before my system breaks.

And it’s so much easier to deal with now I know WHY it happens. There’s a long way to go until I figure out how to deal with it all, but at least knowing what I’m dealing with is a good starting point!

It was good to be back. Doing what I love, starting the journey back to long distances, when I hope to be out there on the trails, running through the night again, and experiencing the magic that is ultrarunning!

Busy and Hot

When I woke for the first time today, at around four in the morning, I asked myself what I was going to do with the day. I had all sorts of plans in my head for things I might do, places I might go, what I might write. As it is, I eventually fell asleep again, and have now only just surfaced. It is nearly midday and I know that the plans I made in my head at four this morning are, on the whole, not going to happen.

And after a brief moment of beating myself up about it, I suddenly realised why I was so exhausted and why I haven’t written a blog post since Sunday and why I didn’t write the one I wanted to on Tuesday or the others that I still want to write (one in response to something) and why my admin is behind and I owe people messages and e-mails and so on – I have been busy!

The last two weekends I’ve been playing music. It’s been amazing and enjoyable, and brilliant to meet up with friends (old and new) and to play under a conductor who’s an absolute pleasure to work with. The concert was on Saturday night, so I was pretty wiped out on Sunday, but felt moved to write the rather rambling blog post on pride anyway. Monday I went for a short run, which, given my recent running activity, was a big deal. Tuesday I went to visit my best friend. Wednesday I went for a coffee then went to buy a few groceries.

And all this at temperatures above 30 degrees, which we’re really not used to round here, and which drain my energy rapidly. Furthermore, there is no airflow through our flat, so the only way to stop the hot air stagnating and to get any sort of breeze is to use fans. The noise of the fans is really not good for me and overloads me pretty much to the point of meltdown within a fairly short space of time.

Maybe, to most people, that level of activity and a bit of hot weather really wouldn’t be a big deal. When I think back to the “me” of the past, before two huge burnouts, before mental illness was even identified, that “me” would have looked at the “me” of now and thought myself utterly pathetic. I’d have been unable to comprehend why I couldn’t just get my act together and, with enough willpower, just get on with it.

Of course, the “me” of the past being like that, forcing myself to live that “normal” life for so long, doing what was expected of me and using vast amounts of energy and willpower to do so (largely because I assumed everyone else was doing the same), is a large part of what has caused me to have two major burnouts and to have arrived where I am now, with rather depleted functionality and very low energy levels.

Fortunately the “me” of now is starting to learn. And, a few minutes before writing this post, I realised not how LITTLE I’ve done over the last few days, but how MUCH I’ve actually done. And, I had, once again, to remind myself that my mind works a bit differently from most people’s and that I need more downtime, more space, and that things that come fairly easily to many folk, are actually rather challenging and energy consuming for me.

So the plans that I made at four this morning are now dropped, forgotten. Today I need to focus on self-care. I need to stay at home, even though the temperature in the flat is still 28.5 degrees and the place smells stagnant and nasty because neither of us has had the energy to do any serious cleaning and there’s no airflow because it’s so still. It’s not ideal, but it’s not a choice, because I need the solitude. I need not to go through the anxiety cycle of going out and working what to say to people and so on.

If, and only if, I have enough energy beyond that required for basic self care, I shall try to sort out the jobs lists and my diary, and sort out what I need to do, even if I don’t actually do it, but I expect it won’t get much further than that. As I’ve increased my levels of activity, and as I start to gain a bit of functionality as I emerge from burnout and from the whole “discovering I was autistic and getting diagnosed” thing and all the shock and relief and complete re-evaluation of my life, it’s tempting to think that I can just “go back to normal” without any consequences. But, of course, that isn’t the case.

And, interestingly, the blog post I wanted to write on Tuesday was the one outlining how I now am, four months after my diagnosis (it was the four month anniversary on Tuesday). And I’ve sort of gone and written it anyway – at my second follow up appointment it was noted that the increase in activity and my “recovery” carries a price, and that I need to remember that. This week that price has been that my head has become more and more muddled, I’ve struggled to hold conversations and to form words, I’ve struggled more with basic stuff at home, I’ve retreated once again into eating the same thing every day, and my decision-making capabilities have plummeted.

My level of satisfaction with life has also dropped – despite what might be perceived by someone from the outside (I’ve been seen playing music, going for a run, visiting a friend, and having a coffee) possibly indicating that I am happier with life and doing more “enjoyable” things, I’ve actually felt less happy, more frustrated, and generally more anxious. Yes, I’m really pleased that I got out to play in a superb concert and that I went for a run etc. because these are things I love doing, but they still drain my batteries, and a combination of the heat and trying to fit in other stuff has meant I haven’t been able to recharge properly.

Ironically, a viewer from outside who observed how little I’ve stimmed over the last few days might decide that it’s some sort of “improvement” and some sort of “your autism’s getting better” thing. In fact, the reverse is true. I desperately want to rock hard on the sofa for a bit, to wrap myself in compression, and to hide under my fleece blanket – these are all good and lovely things and part of how I cope with having to deal with the outside world. But I can’t cope with doing them at the moment because it is TOO HOT. So not only am I dealing with bad sensory stuff (noise of fans, feeling sweaty and nasty, smells stronger) because of the heat, I can’t mitigate with the good stuff.

So, in an odd way, I’ve looked more “normal” over the last few days, but the effect from inside is that I’m feeling increasingly dysfunctional and anxious and edgy and irritable. This “how autistic people look vs how they feel” thing is something I’m increasingly thinking about and want to write about some day, because I’m beginning to get the impression that the two are much more likely to be inversely than directly correlated.

In the meantime, I do observe that four months have passed since diagnosis, and that life is continuing to change. The people who wrote Tiny Glimmers back in January and Eight Weeks On back in April would have been amazed by what I have just written above and by what I’ve done in the last few weeks, so even where I’m still failing and still not achieving what I want to achieve (that will probably always be the case for me as my natural inclination is to constantly aim for more and to push to achieve goals and so on), I’m actually achieving much more than I was, which is, of course, progress.

But today “progress” will be achieved by resting and gentle tasks and self care, not by pushing on through. That way, I hope that I’ll be able to start to recharge my batteries enough to be able to do more running and music and socialising and to be able to think clearly enough to deal with admin and communication and to write more of the blog posts that I’d like to write!

A Short One

I have just been out for a walk.

This might not seem like particularly startling news. Especially when I tell you that my walk was just 2 kilometres long and I was out for under 20 minutes (the 2km actually took 18 minutes, 24.7 seconds).

The fact that I know that much detail about my walk (at an average pace of 9:12 per kilometre) will tell those in the know that I didn’t just amble round the block randomly, but I took my Garmin (running watch) and measured time and pace and so on.

I also wore my running shoes. A pair that have done a couple of marathons with me.

All this might seem rather irrelevant, and a slightly strange blog post. Maybe so.

But it is important.

Because it is the start of returning, properly, to life. It is a tiny bit of something approaching “normal” in this huge sea of autism and mental health and newness and unfamiliarity.

Aside from one short run in January, I have not run since November. Granted, I didn’t run today, but I took the first few steps (2043, according to my Garmin) towards it. Back in January I was making a desperate last-ditch attempt to be well enough for my spring marathon (and ultra) season, but I really wasn’t well enough, and quickly gave up.

So now I have abandoned all races until at least the autumn. And I am starting over. And I am making it as easy as possible to start over.

Because at the moment I am still struggling with inertia, massively. I’ll write properly about autistic inertia sometime – it’s the feature that means our brains are very good at persisting with things, often for hours on end, but are terrible at starting and stopping or switching tasks. The effort needed to start something is huge, and takes a lot of energy.

Furthermore, I still have huge anxiety when leaving the flat. My senses are still in overdrive from the burnout. The world is still loud and bright and full of so much information that I feel like my head might explode. Previously I would have used energy to mask these feelings, consciously blocking out the input to my senses – doing so for years has both left me too exhausted to function and has been seriously detrimental to my mental health.

So, in as far as I have any control over things, I am determined now, to be me, and not to use that energy unless I absolutely have to for survival. Furthermore, since the energy to mask ran out I can’t do it. I don’t have the resources to act any more, so I have to live as I am, now acutely aware of my heightened senses, but also no longer making myself be strong, no longer forcing myself to block them consciously, even though they are sometimes overwhelming.

Couple all that with the anxiety I’m still getting just leaving the flat, and you’ll begin to see why going out for a walk was such a big deal today.

And so my strategy was to make this first outing as easy as possible, so that all my energy could be focused on getting out of the flat, dealing with the overwhelming light, sound, smells and so on, and overcoming that initial hurdle of actually starting anything at all.

So no running clothes yet (there’s a sensory issue with fabrics touching my skin which I will have to deal with), and not yet backpacks or belts or other such kit. Daytime clothes, my familiar handbag for keys, phone, and inhaler, but just two relatively easy adjustments to my normal “leaving the flat” gear – my running shoes and my Garmin.

Tiny tiny adjustments. Minimising the “difference”. In order to get out at all soley for the purpose of exercise, without the pressure of an appointment or another person expecting something of me.

And a “workout” so easy that it didn’t tax me physically. I know I can easily walk 2 kilometres, so didn’t have to put that part of it into the pile of obstacles in my brain, didn’t have to factor in a tough training session when persuading myself just to go out at all.

And I took a regular route that I run often, a known 2 kilometres. In the early afternoon when most people would likely be at school or work, and I’d have as little chance of encountering people as possible.

And so it happened. Starting over. Picking up fragments of my old life, the life that fell to pieces when I discovered I was autistic. The life that almost ended in December. The life that I now have to rebuild, differently, readjusting now that I know better what will help me to stay well.

The absence of either job or offspring in my life, coupled with my extreme burnout and wildly fluctuating moods, has meant that there has been very little “normality” of any sort during the last six months. Learning about autism and my being autistic has been fascinating, but I am also worn out by it – my entire life has been consumed by it for months. I need to ease off – my head is full.

It’s time to reclaim just a few bits of “normal” life.

Slowly, gently, with space in between to recover.

A couple of kilometres at a time.

Talking and Listening

As a runner who has mental health issues it was, of course, a foregone conclusion that I would watch a television programme entitled “Mind over Marathon” – an account of how a group of people who have a variety of mental health conditions train to run the London Marathon in order to help improve their mental health. The programme is presented by a good and sensitive presenter with a team of “experts” to help, and also features a couple of young princes who are advocates for mental health awareness.

As a blogger who is currently trying to use the written word to explore my feelings about various things it was, of course, a foregone conclusion that my brain would be fizzing with thoughts that needed translating and my fingers would be itching to get to the keyboard in order to do that work. How successful I will be in trying to impart some of those thoughts, who knows, but I’ll give it a try.

But first, two really really big disclaimers, or “health warnings” or whatever you want to call them, about what I want to write later on.

ONE

I am in absolutely no doubt at all that it is massively massively good thing to talk about mental health. I think it’s great that young royals are getting involved in the whole business and raising awareness and making mental health part of the discourse of current life. Anything that can be done to “normalise” words such as “mental” (one of the participants on the television programme mentioned how uncomfortable he was using the word because of the derogatory connotations it sometimes has) and, indeed, “autistic” (which I’ve heard people say mustn’t be used because it’s an “insult” – er, no, if people are using it as an insult then they are misusing the word) is a good thing as far as I’m concerned. To take words such as “mental” and “autistic” and treat them in some ridiculous Voldemortesque way simply continues to ignore issues that need addressing in many people’s lives.

I have seen many posts online indicating that “It’s all very well for wealthy figureheads to talk about mental health, but what about the ordinary folk?” I have heard those messages and, to an extent, agree, and in no way do I believe that “Prince Harry says talk about mental health” means that the job is done and that “awareness has been raised” and we can all now comfortably go back to ignoring the real, everyday, practical problems that people are facing. BUT, out of my bubble of friends and online pages and groups, most of whom are pretty savvy about mental health issues (“mental” is a commonly used word in my life and I’ve been open about mental health issues for decades), there are still those out in the wider world who are not taking these things on board (some of the comments on mainstream media facebook pages alone are enough to indicate this is the case), and if a high-profile person talking openly helps, then yes yes yes, all to the good. Yes, a young privileged man who has suffered exogenous mental health issues as a result of going through the process of grieving the death of his mother in the public eye is not one with which most of us can relate, but it is valid personal experience and he has used the advantage of his position in the public eye to open the discourse.

TWO

I am also in absolutely no doubt that exercise has a huge and important role to play where mental (and indeed physical) health is concerned. I absolutely don’t need to be convinced about the wonder of running – I’m an ultrarunner and in the ultrarunning community it’s well-known that people have overcome depression, addiction, and all manner of other difficulties through the power of running. I don’t need to be convinced to enter a marathon – I do that just because I like doing it. I enter the ballot to run London every year but am yet to be successful. Running is awesome and cool and fabulous. I’m currently frustrated because my own difficulties currently mean I’m struggling to run and I’m really really keen to get back to it and gently pushing myself in that direction whenever I have the energy. I do not need anyone to tell me about the excellence of running – the sheer wonder that comes from being out on the trails alone in the middle of the night, with the moths fluttering in my head torch, is more than ample to persuade me.

I am, however, aware that running per se (and particularly yomping around the countryside alone at night) might not suit everybody and that other forms of exercise are available. Some people prefer to have a team around them, some have physical impairments that mean swimming is gentler on joints, and there are many barriers to some people exercising at all – it’s by no means easy, and it’s no panacea, rather, part of a toolkit that can really help improve mental health in some circumstances. I am also aware of the dangers of exercise addiction and its link to eating disorders and that not every journey to run a marathon ends in a triumphant finish line smile – for some, the stress of training or the frustration of injury can make mental health worse, not better. But, with these provisos, and other similar ones, I absolutely see how wonderful exercise can be, and it can play a really important part in achieving and maintaining good mental health.

***

Having said all of the above, what do I now want to add? What actually prompted me to write this post? And how can I address the issues to which I have alluded above?

The moment that triggered it for me was the point in the programme where they were interviewing a young woman who was clearly struggling with coming to terms with a massively traumatic experience in her life several years ago. Her child died suddenly, and her husband, overcome by grief, killed himself shortly afterwards. And this young woman sat on the telly and recounted what support had been available to her at the time – or, more accurately, recounted that there had been NO support available to her at the time. Nothing.

I don’t know what has occurred with her in the intervening years, and neither do I have the energy to do a research project on it, but it strikes me as shocking that her issues are only really being dealt with FIVE YEARS LATER! Five years is a very long time to be in mental anguish before you are eventually picked up by a TV programme. And, even now, it seems that in order to get the level of support that the TV people are providing, in terms of “experts” and so on, the woman has to run a bloody marathon – literally! (Please see disclaimer TWO above – and, of course, the marathon is the point of the programme).

And, watching the programme I was struck, not by the rigors of marathon training (that’s all familiar stuff to me – I went, as an obese fortysomething, from couch to marathon in seven months a couple of years back, and the training, exercises, foam rollering, so on are all part of the deal), but by the level of support that these people were given. Admittedly, the support came with a rather large side order of “we’re going to film this so you’ll be exposing your emotional vulnerability on national telly”, which I didn’t have to contend with, but neither did I have a cuddly TV presenter or an “expert” come and look after me when I was shaking because of the stress of leaving the flat before going out on training sessions – I had to do that bit on my own. The TV marathon training programme is therefore not looking at the effect of exercise alone on mental health, because it is providing these people with someone to talk to, someone who will listen to their issues (both the people on the show who can give feedback, and those of us sitting on our sofas at home), and that listening is really important.

I have been talking about mental health online for around a decade now. I’m pretty cool with it. I very quickly became totally public about being autistic. I talk about both mental health and autism. A LOT (probably too much, truth be told). When I have been in mental health crisis I have posted on my facebook wall and the overwhelming advice has been “seek help”, “go to see your doctor”, “get referred to a specialist”, and so on. So I have tried, on many occasions, to do just that. But it is a fight, and if you are already struggling, already finding life difficult, and already reluctant to ask for help because you feel, somehow, that it is your fault you are feeling this way (there’s an awful lot of guilt comes with many mental health conditions), then fighting through the system to get the help you need can be a seriously tough process. And if you have nobody who can advocate for you then it’s even worse. Persuading someone to listen to you can be very very difficult.

The problems I had trying to get an autism diagnosis in a psychological services department and my analysis of the situation are documented earlier on this blog (the only “treatment” available to me at that time was to “go to A&E” if I actually tried to kill myself). I was struck at the time by how little cohesion there was between the different services available and how there seems to be nobody available who can deal with all of my issues, as well as the fact that those with really low self esteem are seen in a building so dilapidated that the plants are growing through the wall! Even the superb autism service elsewhere that eventually diagnosed me as autistic, cannot, for example, suggest any medications that might help with the anxiety I get, and neither can they help me establish whether I also have comorbid ADHD (all the online tests and so on and research I’ve done suggest that I do), because that’s somebody else’s department (if I can ever find “somebody else” and can face the exhausting process of telling my life story, yet again, to another stranger).

So “seeking help” is not as easy as it might seem. In fact, for most of us, it’s really jolly difficult. I have heard tales of people who are totally broken being offered “telephone CBT” (when you’re vulnerable, you get rung up by a total stranger, who gives you your allotted time on the phone then hangs up, leaving you in a worse state), people who are unable to communicate with services they need because communication is only by post (not so good if you are frightened of opening the mail because of what it might say), and, people asking for help with fear of the telephone and who struggle to speak on the phone being given a leaflet and, yes, you’ve guessed it – told to call a telephone number!!!

Equally, “taking up exercise” is not as easy as it seems, especially when you’re mentally unwell. If you feel insecure and frightened walking down the street (many of us do) then you’re unlikely to find going out to walk or run very easy. Furthermore, if you want to swim, or join a gym, or get any sort of personal trainer, then it is expensive, even at reduced rate, and many mentally ill people are out of work and struggling financially – if you have to choose between paying your rent or joining a gym then you’d be pretty daft not to pay the rent. When I started running I was lucky – I had enough confidence to get out of the door and a husband who supported me all the way. I had enough money to get a pair of trainers and a sports bra to get started with (this wouldn’t always have been the case in my life), and I live in a place where many people run, and it isn’t a big deal. I also have serious hardcore willpower and a level of “persistence” that gobsmacks most people (possibly one of my autistic traits), but many do not. Though I know many people who are trying, some even apparently inspired by my own accounts of running and so on.

I fear I’ve raised more questions than answers here, and maybe that’s actually what’s needed. My experience in both the mental illness and autistic communities has been that so much of the support comes from within, from people also struggling. I am trying to work out what might have enabled me to continue in employment in order to help those might follow me and be able to maintain jobs where I couldn’t. I have developed strategies to support myself based on the writings of others whose blogs I read. There are groups and people everywhere trying to piece things together and help each other.

Equally, and, sometimes surprisingly, the running groups and fitness groups have also provided a source of support for me and, I observe, for others. Those who do not have the support of a TV programme have to look after each other, encourage each other, either to get out there for a run or whatever, to cope with the frustrations of injury, or to discuss the fates of toenails and so on. The online responses to people who are struggling with whatever aspect of their lives or training can sometimes be amazing.

However, online support can only go so far. And there is a danger that those of us in the mental health “world” exist in something of a bubble and that people outside of that world don’t realise just how tough it is to get help or to get out there and run a marathon when your mind is telling you to sit in your chair and wait to die or even to hasten the process by your own actions. What is really needed is concrete, joined-up support, and both mental health services and physical activities that are easy to access. That is a much much bigger ask, and I’m only one very ordinary person sitting alone typing into a computer, a person who is still struggling day to day, and trying to translate the thoughts whizzing round my head into comprehensible words, so I don’t really know what more I can do, other than keep talking and keep raising the issues.

And so I come to at least one conclusion, which is that programmes like “Mind over Marathon” and statements by young princes, are important. And they’re important because they raise issues that those of us who are just individuals with no resources and no power are unable to raise, because we cannot reach the people that TV programmes or princes can. They can persuade people who will never encounter somebody like me (for whom mental health is a normal part of daily discourse) to talk about their mental health issues, and they can encourage far more people to take up running or physical exercise than I ever will.

However, the worry with such high-profile campaigns is that people will feel that they have “done” mental illness. They’ve all watched the programme, they all know what it’s about, and, like with autism “awareness” there will be a general feeling of “yes yes, mental health, blah blah blah”, but mentally struggling people will still be showing up at their GP surgeries after weeks of angst about whether to attend the appointment because it’s all so scary, and will be given a telephone number, or a web address, or, at best, put on a waiting list that might be months, or even years, long. There are lots of small, quiet, voices out there, trying to talk about their mental health issues and begging for help.

There are also people like me, who are slightly noisier and more forthright and link to blog posts and so on and share mental illness stuff whenever we can, even though, sometimes, writing a post such as this one uses up all available energy for the day. Interestingly (and I’m not alone in this observation), when I share mental health stuff or posts from this blog (I know that this is, technically, an autism blog and that autism is not a mental illness etc etc) on my facebook wall, these days I get a small handful of “likes”, maybe 3 or 4 on average, if that. If I share a status about doing the laundry then I often get 30 or 40 responses! This suggests to me that people are ten times more interested in laundry than they are in autism or mental health issues!!! (Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that because facebook algorithms magnify posts that have already been liked and try to force people who share blog links to pay money for extra publicity and so on, but whatever the cause, the result is still the same).

On one level, it’s great to talk and to raise the profile of mental health issues, and it’s totally fabulous to run marathons if you can do it. If more people are encouraged to talk and run then that’s brilliant!

But on another level, there are many of us who are already talking about mental health issues (and in my case, now, also autistic issues), have been talking for years, and will continue to talk while we still have breath.

But is anybody listening?

Eight Weeks On

So, eight weeks on from my diagnosis, I’m once again pausing to observe the passage of that time, and, understandably, reflecting on how life has progressed since I sat in the room at the end of a five-hour interview and testing session and was told that I clearly fulfilled the criteria for a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder.

Eight weeks ago today I was relieved and exhausted in almost equal measure, having been officially told the news that explained why my life had been so incredibly difficult and I had failed, consistently, to live up to the expectations and demands that that so many people (including myself) had for me. I had reached the end of the process of assessment, and the end of the “old life” and had, finally, got to a point where I could start to rebuild something new, gentler and more forgiving.

Because I’d already read so many other accounts of how things had been for other people, and because I’ve been around long enough to have experienced a lot of ups and downs, I was under no illusion that receiving my diagnosis would magically transform my life into some fairyland, or that I would miraculously be able to access beautiful support or that all the ghosts from my past would reappear and apologise for all the years they’d told me to work harder, do better, or whatever, or that they’d explain that they really didn’t know how difficult life had been and they wished they had. I was, of course, right to hang on to a healthy skepticism that things would miraculously “get better” – one advantage of being a bit old and a bit logical is that a belief in magic and sparkles and fairy dust is not on the agenda. This process of readjustment to my new knowledge and rebuilding my new life is not going to happen overnight, and nor is it going to happen at all without considerable effort from me.

There is also the burnout to consider, and my mental health in general. At my follow up appointment I was advised to book an appointment with my GP to discuss my mental health in general and where to go from here. I wonder whether there will be more referrals, more discussions, and to what extent maintaining any semblance of mental wellness is, for me, going to be a lifelong task. I suspect only time will tell, as I adjust to the knowledge that I am autistic, as I learn what works, and as I start to try to work out what I’m going to do with the rest of my life – that is currently a very big question on my mind, both in terms of what I am able to do, and what I might actually want to do.

But, at this juncture, I am trying to identify how things now are, eight weeks on. It’s almost in the spirit of keeping some sort of journal, perhaps to refer to later, to measure progress. I look back now to what I wrote in Tiny Glimmers, just over three months ago, and, although it might not feel like it sometimes, and although my life still appears to be rather poor quality in many ways, and terribly terribly limited, I can see that things are generally better, and that I’m achieving a little more. I also have the confidence of my diagnosis, the feelings of validation that it gave me, and just that tiny bit of support I’ve had (help with forms, a follow up appointment, reassurance that I’m correct on many things and not going crazy, and suggestions for what I might do next), which have made a massive difference.

Interestingly, when I wrote Tiny Glimmers, I’d been trying to organize my paperwork and sort out my jobs lists and just get things a little more organized. I did the same yesterday, so maybe this is part of the process of taking stock, moving on, and trying to consciously plan and be proactive in life rather than just reacting to crisis after crisis and just “coping” whatever way seems most possible at the time. I did mindfulness meditation for several years (and have not ruled out returning to it when I’m in a more suitable place for it – now is not the right time) and one exercise that I found useful and adapted was to “check in” with feelings and to notice how they were. I adopted a method, during silent practice sessions, of using some of the time to analyse how things were, both physically and mentally (I know the two are not entirely separate systems, but I found it useful to examine each separately because my physical and mental health are so wildly different in their presentation – my physical health and fitness is probably on the “better” side for someone my age in my circumstances, and my mental health is certainly substantially worse).

So, I’d sit and take note of all the various bits of my body, usually picking up on various niggles caused by 50K training runs and the like, trying to work out whether the hip-strengthening work I was doing was easing the ITB (iliotibial band) issues I had for a brief spell, establishing whether my breathing was getting better with the new inhaler, that sort of thing. Mental wellness was, of course, more complex and involved trying to work out exactly where I was on the mania-depression scale, whether I was sleeping, eating properly, levels of anxiety and suicidal ideation and so on. But the exercise was helpful, because it enabled me to decide either to alter my training schedule or do more targeted exercises (physical) or to turn down or cancel things to remove pressure (mental). I had, without knowing it, developed a very basic knowledge that I needed to conserve social and sensory spoons. The “checking in” process really helped with that, and was one of the positives that I drew from the mindfulness I learnt in an attempt to prevent me relapsing, once again, into severe depression.

And now I’m using the “checking in” technique over a longer timescale, and I observe that although my mood and functional abilities are still very wobbly, and still varying wildly from day to day, the good days are better than they were, and the number of really really bad days has lessened. Like the tiny glimmers I observed back in January, there are little fragments of a new life that are now starting to show themselves occasionally, little moments where I am interested in SOMETHING again, and feel that one day I might have the energy to rebuild life and actually make it a bit better, rather than just surviving day to day, and, sometimes, hour to hour. The person who wrote Tiny Glimmers would have looked at the person typing this now and seen a veritable superhero – out of the flat now twice a week on average, starting to think about the future because I’m starting to think that I might actually HAVE a future, and making very tentative plans for the new life.

I know that everybody’s circumstances are different, and that there are many external complicating factors (burnout, family circumstances, comorbid conditions, reactions from others, and so on) during the period following an autism diagnosis. And I know that what I write here also varies wildly as my mood fluctuates and as I try to come to terms with the past and plan for the future. I’ve read accounts and heard from other people that it will be a year or so before things are likely to improve significantly, as my autistic brain is using a massive amount of processing power just to adjust to my new identity and therefore I have less energy for other things. However, using the best powers of logical analysis that I can summon, and viewing the evidence in my own life and in past posts of this blog, I can say that things are a little better now than they were a few months ago. It’s not dramatic – it isn’t “Hey, here’s an autism diagnosis – problems all solved” (and, to be honest, if it was like that then I’d be a little concerned because it’s so unrealistic), but it has made a noticeable difference to my life in a generally positive way. It’s slight, and it’s an upward trend rather than a continuous ascent (there are still a lot of sad and angry bits to work through), but it is, nonetheless, an improvement.