A Week, Actually!

It turns out to be exactly a week since I wrote the poem in the previous post. I got as far as putting that post together yesterday, but never managed to post it because my functioning let me down and I ended up with a sort of partial shutdown followed by a sort of partial meltdown and abandoned plans to do anything at all except survive.

A pattern is starting to emerge. After some big step up in activity, to a big thing that takes so much energy and generates so much anxiety, the first recovery day is reasonably OK as I’m still just pleased I managed to do whatever it was and I’m still, to an extent, hyped up by having made such a massive effort.

However, the second day is usually the worst, and yesterday, around mid-afternoon, having turned on the laptop to post what should have been yesterday’s blog post, I suddenly felt dreadful and overloaded. It became obvious that I wasn’t up to doing anything at all (by that stage I’d still not even been able to get myself a drink) and I abandoned the notion of either posting on the blog or, indeed, doing anything else on my jobs list. I tried to put it into words and ended up with this:

There’s a certain relief
When I just
Give up.

When I stop trying
To do jobs
Or write blog posts
Or “achieve”
Anything.

I then fell asleep on the sofa for a while, then woke up feeling disorientated and only semi-verbal (I could have spoken if necessary, but forming words was massively hard work).

And I felt low. Not generally low, like some sort of long-term depression, but suddenly low and exhausted, like a shutdown, though it wasn’t a full shutdown of the type I often experience. And I had one of those moments that I’ve not had in a while now, but that were much more common several months ago, where I suddenly felt that life was so very very unfair and I didn’t want it to be like this.

In the absence of anyone I felt I could bother, I ranted into the “Notes” bit of the iPad.

Why me? Why do I have to miss so many opportunities? Tonight I just want to be normal. I want the career I was supposed to have. I want to be able to go out on a Saturday night with friends and not need days to recover. I want to be able to “work hard” and that work to produce success rather than exhaustion and failure. I want to earn my own money. I hate hate hate hate being dependent on other people. I want a proper life. I don’t like having to sit in a darkened room for hours on end in order to recover every time I do anything. I’m bored. Maybe I’m even lonely. Though to be honest I’m so fucking alexythymic that I have no way of distinguishing between boredom and loneliness. I’m so fed up with having so little energy and being able to do so little. I want to work hard at stuff and I just can’t.

And so on and so on and so on. Lots and lots of thoughts of that nature.

I tried desperately to pull myself together and finally got myself a glass of water and a snack, hoping that if I ate then I’d start to feel a bit better. It sometimes helps. But it didn’t really at that point.

I then scrolled through facebook a bit more, hoping for something to distract me. I joined a conversation on a group and because my words weren’t up to much I posted a link to something (on topic) from this blog. Next I knew, the message thing pinged and I had a message from some stranger who was a mod or admin or something on the group – telling me off because hadn’t I read the pinned post and blog links were not allowed and would I go back and edit my comment.

Already low. Already struggling. I burst into tears. I messaged back telling them just to delete me and have done with it. I couldn’t find which group. I probably read the pinned post when I joined, but so many groups, so many pinned posts, so many screens of compulsory trigger warnings, content notes, worrying about pronouns, blog links, not links, this sort of post, not for this group, and so on and so on and so on. I know these things are important for so many reasons, but at that moment I felt old, I felt like someone who grew up before the internet was invented, and I’m still learning, and I can’t learn all this stuff fast enough because my head is so overloaded at the moment. Maybe I should stop posting on the internet at all because I’m clearly an incompetent idiot who can’t even read the fucking instructions properly. I’m wrong wrong wrong. Even online I’m getting the social codes wrong. What hope do I have out in the real world. Maybe I should just crawl under the duvet and stay there until I starve to death?

Remember, this was all going through my head when was basically in meltdown. Too tired even to meltdown properly I just sat and cried.

My brain, meanwhile, was reminding me that this was day 2 after doing something big. Some sort of meltdown in whatever form was inevitable. The incident with the facebook page was actually just the straw that broke the camel’s back (by the way, does anyone else literally have a little snippet of video in their head, like a GIF, of someone putting a single straw onto an already overloaded camel, in which the camel then falls to the floor, its back broken? And does anyone then imagine the work a good vet would have to do to rehabilitate the camel, all for the sake of one measly straw? Or is that just me?), and everything had been building since the weekend, and gradually getting closer and closer as time went on. I’d spent the morning stressed about a post concerning cooking from scratch, which made me feel incompetent and stupid, I’d read another post about how life was too short to moan about things changing, which made me feel disabled because my brain struggles with change, I’d read something about women wanting motherhood and careers, when I have neither, which again made me feel useless to society, I’d failed even to be able to fill the kettle to make a cup of tea, and so my bloody camel was absolutely at maximum loading capacity.

Eventually I calmed down. I hid the group from my feed, poured myself a beer, and sat quietly on the sofa. I had a couple of short chats with a couple of people online, both of which calmed me. I watched the telly. And by the end of the evening things were pretty much OK again and I eventually put myself to bed, having had a couple of longer chats with a couple of friends online (my husband was away overnight, having been out for a late evening).

And this morning my functioning level is improved. I’m in the midst of making a cup of tea, and feel like I probably need to eat something reasonably substantial, having hardly eaten at all yesterday. I might even start to get a few things done.

And I now ask why I’ve written up what happened yesterday. Why have I spent the energy basically recounting feeling a bit rubbish, when my general approach to this whole “being autistic” thing is to be positive?

Maybe just to indicate that it’s not all sweetness and light, so that others who have similar experiences can relate? Maybe to try to convey to those people who see me at my most functional out in the world, and might be tempted to think that I’m absolutely fine, that there is a price to pay for doing the things I want to do? Maybe just because it helps me to sort my head out a bit and to process what happened and to move on? Who knows?

All part of life, I guess. And I said at the start of this blog that I wanted to be as honest about it all as I could. So maybe that’s why? Shutdowns and meltdowns (or the partial versions thereof that I experienced yesterday) are part of the deal, part of the autistic life. For me, they always have been, but now I have the vocabulary and knowledge to analyse them, so that is what I do. And it helps to put a day like yesterday into perspective to be able to look at it rationally now my thinking abilities have mostly returned.

Now I just have to gather enough energy actually to post the posts on the blog! And to put them onto facebook and twitter. And to start to reconnect with the world once more. Then I need to see what are the most urgent jobs that need doing from my list because, as is becoming all too apparent, I have to do what I can when I have the energy in order to get through days like yesterday when the energy simply isn’t there!

Storm Clouds

It feels as though storm clouds are gathering in my head these last few days. I’m not sure why, and I can’t work out if there’s anything I can do about it, but I have that feeling that I’m building the sort of tension that will eventually lead to meltdown or shutdown. But not yet. Somehow the energy is yet to be released. Things are too controlled. Maybe, knowing I have a weekend of things to do out in the world means that I’m keeping control somehow. I have that feeling of wanting to cry, but not being able to.

It’s an unsettling feeling, though not totally bad. I don’t even think the overload in my head and the build up of emotions (many of which I’m struggling to identify for alexythmic reasons) is entirely negative. It’s just that I can feel a gradual build up. Of something. I’m trying to analyse what that something is. I’m trying to judge whether some sort of big stimming session would help. I don’t know. It’s a very edgy feeling.

This is the fifth attempt I’ve had at writing about it. What has emerged as a common theme in the first four attempts is that this state is a mixture of two lots of emotion. One lot could probably be called negative, and the other, positive. They are existing inside my head simultaneously, and both pouring these strong, but not totally identifiable, feelings into my system. I get emotions like this. I always have, except when too depressed, or taking large quantities of medication, which seems to blank many of my feelings out anyway. One reason I hesitate to take medication is that much of it takes away things that I value – my appreciation of music, my excitement in the world, and so on.

And so, these huge waves of emotion keep washing over me, and I’m trying to untangle them in order to deal with them. Maybe a therapist would help with this, but I don’t have one, so I’m trying to do it on my own. Although it’s becoming obvious from trying to write it down as best I can that the same things are recurring over and over and my mind is still trying to deal with them. I’ve almost certainly written about them here before, and I apologise for what is probably terrible repetition (my husband says that he is used to me saying everything 98 times) but it seems that this need for repetition, for reassurance, for rehearsing the same argument over and over is probably one of my autistic traits too – something I need to do to get things clear in my mind.

And so the negative thoughts:

The constant nagging knowledge that my life will be limited because I simply don’t have the productive energy that most people do because I’m using so much of my energy to cope with my environment and to process language. I don’t like being limited, but decades of experience have shown me that the consequences of not consciously limiting my life and of trying to “be like everybody else” are poor mental health and catastrophic burnout. I am furious about this. I do not want to have to limit my life, but I must, and I know I must. I have to learn to be gentler, and allow recovery time.

I’m still not fully able to explain to people what being autistic really means. I’m still encountering “yes, but we all get tired…” types of comments, and I’m not yet able to articulate in words that what I mean is something different and that I’m not on about it being the end of a long week and I just fancy a bit of a lie-in. I need to write a blog post about this, I know I do. It is nibbling at my insides (yes, it feels like that) and I need to deal with it. Ditto the current controversies about stim-toys and spinners. I have so many and various thoughts about the whole thing, but I can’t make them into words currently, and that is frustrating me.

And talk of schools and classrooms and so on keeps pulling me back to my own childhood, the door onto which I had closed, I thought for good, until last year, when it had to be forced open. And once it was open, it was really useful for getting my diagnosis, but it hasn’t brought back floods of joyful memories, but of a time when my main objectives were to stave off bullying, to learn to behave, and to achieve good results academically. I had no chew toys or spinners – so I chewed my tie and my jumper and I played with bits from my pencil case and got into trouble for doodling during lessons (among other things).

The late diagnosis thing still irks me. The fact that I had to get THIS broken before anybody noticed that I was autistic. The fact that I was born at a time in history when the world didn’t know about people like me. I’m still sad and angry and regretful at so much of the first 45 years of my life. I’m still furious with the mental health specialists who didn’t know. Today we talk about acceptance being preferable to awareness – even the most basic awareness 20 years ago of autism in those of us who were AFAB might have saved me so much heartbreak.

And here I am, a 45-year-old burnt out non-binary autistic, going through the menopause, learning who I am, trying to rebuild my life, and doing it, currently, without help from anyone except a husband and friends. And I often feel like I am breaking, like I just want to vanish off the face of the Earth, because my youth has gone, and I want to cry for all these things, because they’re still bothering me.

But the positive thoughts are also strong:

The relief at no longer feeling the pressure to be a high flyer. The knowledge that I have a disability (and yes, for me, it is disabling – there is much to be investigated regarding models of disability, but that is not for now) and therefore I can stop beating myself up when I don’t achieve what I thought I should be able to is reassuring. The knowledge that the levels of self-care that I need are now “permitted” is such a huge relief, so liberating, and even joyful. I don’t have to be some kind of superhero any more – I can built this new life and stop pretending to be someone I’m not.

Most people I know are being massively supportive. I’m hugely lucky to have most of them in my life. Far from being deserted by old friends, I’m still, even, making new ones, people who care enough to be interested, people who read this blog and who are helped, people who understand the difficulties, and some who do not but are investing their time and energy and are willing to learn and be caring and understanding. This makes what I could call “big feels” – I don’t have a better expression than that currently. Like so often these days, I just hope people know what I mean.

And though I cannot change the past or do anything about my childhood or its difficulties, I’m now massively enjoying allowing myself to explore the world that has now opened up of toys and things to fiddle with and things that I can buy for myself without anybody to tell me not to. I can sit and stare at my glow in the dark spinner until it runs out of glow, I can roll the ball around on my fidget cube for hours at a time, I can have all the toys now that I never had as a child, and because I am old and spend the majority of my time at home alone nobody will tell me off for doing these things. I am making up for lost time in a big way, finally releasing all the bits of me that have been hidden all these years.

And the fact that the diagnosis has come at all, even this late, is still enough on its own to make me cry with happiness. The relief, the liberation, the knowledge of who I am and why I am and how I am. The permission to be something other, the explanation of why I’ve felt as I have all my life, and the solving of hundreds and thousands of mysteries from the last 45 years. The letting go of the old expectations, the shift to a neurological identity and a gender identity that feels properly comfortable to me, rather than one I was taught was the case. The hope that I will eventually recover from this burnout and will eventually get through this phase and that life will be better than it ever has been, and that I’ll eventually build a life that will be right for me.

And part of what is causing these emotions feels like some sort of huge “sigh of relief” from my entire being. I read about labels and words and why do I need the descriptor “autistic” if I know who I am. For me, I needed that descriptor to SHOW me who I am. Learning about what it means to be autistic is teaching me how to be who I am – because after 4 decades of acting roles, my real self has become somewhat obscured and needs a little help to emerge. I’ve had a lot of training to be someone else. I have a lot to discover. The minute I knew, and I allowed myself, and I learnt for the first time in my life to follow my instincts, things felt very very different.

And each time I’ve tried to write about this, these simultaneous bunches of feelings keep emerging, over and over again. Not even oscillating, like the states described in my earlier post, but together. Sadness and anger and regret alongside relief and liberation and happiness.

And the word at the end of every piece is still “autistic”, as if I’m still trying to make my head accept it fully, embrace it fully, and be able to go out into the world and live it fully. I want to do that, so very much. I know that it will not always be easy – but I do not shy away from difficulty and I never have.

Even writing it all down like this has actually changed how I feel, released some of the energy that I had when I started typing around half an hour ago. I’m calmer. The storm clouds have rolled on past for now. They will be back. The next meltdown and next shutdown will happen at some point, but typing everything up like this has had a healing effect for now, sorted things out a little. If anyone’s still reading, then thank you for indulging me. It has helped.

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!

Extreme FOMO

The post about saying farewell to the strong woman actually started off with the above title, but it grew into something else, so I’ll have another go at talking about extreme FOMO here.

Just in case there’s anyone reading who doesn’t already know and hasn’t already googled, FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out, and it’s defined on Wikipedia as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent” and goes on to mention the anxiety of missing out on opportunities for social interaction, fear of having made erroneous decisions, and regret.

Of course, everyone gets FOMO sometimes. I think it’s unlikely that anyone reading this hasn’t, at one time or another during their lives, either missed out on getting tickets for a concert, had to pull out of a race injured, been unable to attend a celebration owing to illness, or simply had to turn down an invitation because they had to be elsewhere at the time – such is the nature of a modern busy life. There are, basically, so many interesting things to do in this world that it would be impossible to do them all and difficult choices have to be made.

Like everybody else who has several interests, I’ve spent my life trying to juggle what I can do and how I will be able to live life as fully as possible. I’ve tried, where I can, to say yes to as many opportunities as possible, sometimes taking my viola to a maths class in order to go straight on to a rehearsal afterwards, or going to visit friends and taking running kit in order to participate in a race while I was at that location, or calling in on family with a carrier full of rats because I was attending a show somewhere nearby. I’ve also had days where I could have been occupied several times over and have simply had to decline invitations to play in concerts, run races, attend tutorials, go to dinner, be at a pet show, meet somebody, or whatever, because I’ve already been booked for something else and being in two places at the same time just isn’t possible.

Then there have been the other times – the times when the energy has run out. I’ve had these times all my life, and increasingly so as I’ve got older, where I pull out of something because I’m “ill”. And this “ill” has always been some sort of “mental illness”, or an indefinable malaise, bad enough to keep me away from whatever it was I wanted to do, but from which I seemed to recover after simply staying at home and doing nothing for a while. I know now, of course, that this “illness” was actually utter exhaustion and the feeling I often get before a shutdown, before I collapse, before my words vanish, and before my body simply makes me stop. I have no control over it, any more than I do over the violent meltdowns that occur if I keep overloading my system and continue “pushing through” and looking for more “inner strength” that just isn’t there.

In the past, I picked myself up after each episode of “illness” (shutdown, or in longer cases, burnout), and simply started building up my activities again. In the days when I worked I would return to work, gradually start taking on more challenges, and start to rebuild my career. By the time I had become so ill that working wasn’t an option I would resume studying, start to play more music, or do other things, because I’m interested in stuff, I’m interested in life, and I don’t actually dislike being out in the world doing things with people – I just find it really really difficult. But difficult is no excuse for not doing something – I’ve never shied away from the difficult!

And so we get to 2013, when I started to recover again after a particularly tough patch mentally. I started to do a few things, gradually stacking them up, with the idea that if I could build up my hobbies to an extent that I was leaving the flat every day and things were going well, then I might start to think about going back to work again. So I did more, and more, and more…

However, what you have to understand about this “more” is that it was “more” in my world. I knew plenty of people who were doing the same amount of music that I was, who also had full-time jobs, who also cooked dinner for their kids every evening, who were also studying for professional qualifications, who also went running in the mornings before work, and so on. I compared myself to them, and I knew that even with the amount I WAS doing, I was falling a long way short of a “normal life”. I wasn’t doing anything that wild by the standards of the people I was spending time with.

But I was getting tired. Really tired. Again. As soon as I got to any sort of level of activity that was approaching “interesting”, I started to suffer from this weird malaise once more. And, eventually, in August 2016, I fell to pieces.

And then I discovered I was autistic, and then I started to learn, and then it became obvious what was going on and why, every time I increased my activity levels, overtaxed my sensory system, or spent too much time with other people, I got ill.

So now I have to make a complete reevaluation of my life. I have to forget trying to “be like everybody else”, something that I’ve always found so incredibly difficult anyway. I have to try to kick the habit of turning up to a maths tutorial in running kit with my viola and a carrier full of rats, because far from being able to do a degree assignment and run a marathon and play in a concert and attend a show in the same weekend (which is probably more than most people would consider doing in any case), I am actually LESS capable than most people of doing all those things at once. Looking back, I’m not quite sure how I managed to do so much of so many of them for so long – sheer bloody-mindedness I think, and, of course, I’m now paying the price with a severe episode of burnout and rather dramatic loss of functionality. Maybe I can excuse “past me” for breaking “present me” so badly because “past me” didn’t know about autism, but there is now no excuse for “present me” to act so recklessly and break “future me” because I now have the knowledge and the responsibility to my future self to act on it!

So the life I rebuild from now will have to be different. If I thought juggling my diary was difficult before, it is now much more so, because I need to leave rest days between social events. I need to limit the number of concerts I can play in. I need to ask people for adaptions in some cases (which I absolutely hate doing, but the only alternative is to give up doing stuff completely). I have to decline invitations. I’ve already had to pull out of races, miss concerts I wanted to play in, miss meeting up with people I’d like to see, abandon my degree. I keep ignoring e-mails in my inbox that advertise things I want to go to, gigs, concerts, both listening and playing, festivals, events. I delete them and try to forget that I really want to be there but I just can’t go because I don’t have the spoons. I have to decline opportunities because they occur in the same week as something else I want to do, even though they don’t actually clash. During the next fortnight I have three things in my calendar and I know that I’ll need to sleep for a week afterwards just to get over the exhaustion.

And this makes me sad. This, for me, is one of the saddest parts of discovering I am autistic, of knowing, finally, what has made me so ill all these years, that my senses simply won’t cope with that much time out in the world, that every time I go to a party and chat to people I’m running my battery down, that if I want to go and stay away from home I’ll have to have special arrangements, separate eating if the dining hall is too noisy, not be able to contribute properly, fully, be “doing it right”.

I don’t much care if people laugh at me if I flap my hands in public. I don’t much care if folk think I’m “weird” (what the hell, I’ve been “weird” all my life and I’m used to it). I don’t mind if people have to correct me because I haven’t quite “got it” or if I don’t have very many friends (despite a glorious online presence, I see very few people in real life, because of the aforementioned energy problems). I don’t even care that much if I have the odd meltdown from time to time – they’re not much fun, but they finish eventually. I’ll find ways of compensating sufficiently for my poor executive functioning so I can survive, and I’ll eventually work through the anger and sadness at how my life was pre-diagnosis. And I certainly don’t care about nonverbal episodes or the absolute compulsion to eat nothing but white food for months on end – no big deal, speaking is hard work and white food is the best! Those things don’t worry me.

BUT THE FOMO DOES!

Yes, the FOMO bothers me very badly. The fact that I want to go and do stuff, but I have to limit myself if I’m to stay anything approaching “well”, and that I have to do that for the rest of my life, really does bother me. I have to turn down interesting stuff I really want to do – in order to spend the day on the sofa, bored out of my mind, scrolling through facebook and watching the telly because it’s all my stupid head is capable of doing. I have to regulate my life, I have to leave things I’m enjoying because I can feel my senses getting overloaded. I have to budget my spoons really really carefully or I’ll be able to do even LESS. That bothers me BIGTIME! I have lots I’m interested in, lots I want to do, and yes, even lots of people I want to see. I was already having to turn down opportunities when I was at my very best, and now I’m having to turn down even more.

Furthermore, I’m going to have to miss out on things such as drinks receptions, tea breaks, trips to the pub after concerts and so on. And these are the places where the networking happens. These are the places where someone comes up to me and asks if I’d like to play in a string quartet next month, and I won’t be there to be asked. I also fear that, having spent the last 3 years building up as a musician again, I’m now replying (eventually, in some cases) to say that I’m really sorry I can’t play in the next concert, and eventually people are going to stop asking me.

And the memes keep coming, telling me that autistic people shouldn’t be limited, and that great things can be achieved – but they don’t really work for me. I’ve had “no limits set” all my life and being autistic (and mentally ill, yes) has limited me anyway. When I’ve ignored the limits my own system has placed on me the effect has been catastrophic. This was not from some external agent, it was simply my own system breaking.

So now I have to learn to live a gentler life, to ask for help (which I hate), to decline invitations to things that I really want to do, and to limit myself because I know now that I can’t function like most people can, and that trying to make myself do so is really damaging to my health. Thus far, the FOMO is possibly one of the things that bothers me most about discovering I’m autistic, the knowledge that I will have to limit my life and as a consequence I will miss out on things I really wanted to do, whether they be concerts, races, studies, camping trips, rat shows, lunch with friends, dinners out, or whatever. I know I’ll be able to do SOME of these things and I will learn strategies to cope with many of them, but the need for rest in between is not something that sits easily with me. I’m not good at resting, I don’t like it, but I’m going to have to learn to do more of it.

Grrrrr!

Reactions to Diagnoses

79-2017-01-05-13-36-21“Diagnosis” is a word that has featured rather heavily in my life recently, and even more so during the last couple of weeks. It’s a word that is loaded with all sorts of associations, both good and bad. A diagnosis can provide relief or despair, enlightenment or desperation. It can be something wanted and welcomed, or something that is most definitely not welcome and not wanted. But I would suggest that a diagnosis of almost any description provides information, and therefore the ability to make choices based on that information.

One of the first (and simplest) diagnoses I received was that of asthma. It was clear, once the doctor had assessed my lung function and made the diagnosis, what I needed to do. I was prescribed inhalers (and later pills), given advice about using them, and sent off to enjoy my new breathing capabilities (and new found ability to exercise). Once flu jabs were introduced I also started having one each year to reduce the likelihood of getting the sort of infection that might aggravate my already sensitive lungs. Although having asthma isn’t the greatest thing in the world, the fact that I received a diagnosis and can therefore get appropriate treatment is, in general, a really positive thing. Discovering that the reason I still had a persistent cough after many many months (I was drinking 2 bottles of cough syrup every day and not improving) was the result of my being asthmatic rather than having some more sinister problem was actually a great relief.

And so, a week and a half ago, I received my autism diagnosis. It’s not been quite as simple as getting a diagnosis of asthma, and the way I “use” (for want of a better word) the diagnosis will be very very different. It’s going to take quite a long time to work out how I live my life from now on and I’m going to have to continue to learn about autism, how it affects me and my life, and how I can best utilise my skills and compensate for my impairments to maximise my quality of life and productivity in the future. I’m already starting to adapt strategies that I’ve used for many years while coping with anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. I’m refining my notion of spoons (do read about Spoon Theory if you’re not sure what I’m talking about) and have already started to think in terms of “sensory spoons” and “social spoons” (thinking this way makes it easier for me to work out how much energy I have available for different sorts of activities). I’m considering how I can adapt the mood diary, which I’ve kept since my diagnosis of bipolar disorder, to include things relevant to autism – maybe how my various sensory systems are behaving, how good my executive functioning is, how exhausted I’ve been, what the state of my speech has been, how much my stimming has differed from whatever my “normal” turns out to be, and that sort of thing. I’m already certain that receiving this diagnosis is a positive thing and, although things are very difficult at the moment, I’m confident that they will eventually be easier as I adapt to my changed circumstances.

However, I was not the only member of my family who received a diagnosis last week. And I now have permission to say what it was that threw me into such a state of shock when I was told about it just six days after my autism diagnosis. I’ve been very much keeping quiet about it until I had explicit permission to mention it because we very much subscribe to Silk Ring Theory in our household, so as far as my autism diagnosis is concerned, I’m at the centre of the ring and I get to decide how to handle it and what I disclose. But somebody else’s diagnosis is entirely a different matter. However, this other diagnosis has affected me very significantly, and I hope that those who read this blog who are closer to it than I am will understand my need to mention it here.

A few weeks ago my father went for a routine health check with his doctor. Nothing very exciting – as far as anybody knew at that point he was a reasonably fit and healthy man in his 60s. Some blood was taken for a blood test, and when the results came back they were rather alarming. He saw a consultant just a few days after I received my autism diagnosis and received his own diagnosis – of advanced prostate cancer, which his consultant believes in his case will “see him off”. He then spent the next few days breaking the news as gently as he could to those of us who are close family members – my stepmother who was at the appointment with him, my mother, my brother, and me, followed by a few others. The prognosis is not fully known at this stage. There will be scans and histology and maybe biopsies (I’m not really very knowledgeable about all this stuff – though much more so than I was a few days ago). Current estimates vary between 12 months and (a “very slim chance”) 5 years (although there is always the tale of the outlier who survives much longer against the odds – it would seem that absolutely exact predictions are not possible). There will, obviously be treatment options discussed and weighed up, but the news that my father, who we’d sort of assumed would follow my grandfather into his late 90s, might well not reach 70, is a huge thing to absorb. My whole family is in shock, and my stepmother is in for a particularly hard time, for reasons it is not my place to write about here.

So, my life has been turned upside down yet again. My priorities are changing rapidly. I had hoped that after my diagnosis had sunk in, one of the effects it would have would be to go through some of the difficulties I had as a child, and also, particularly, some of the problems I’ve had with my father through my adulthood – many now obviously caused by undiagnosed autism and communication difficulties. For every event I’ve had with a boyfriend (such as that described in Mysterious Argument) there have been a dozen similar incidents with my father. I recall one from my late teens where we’d had “a fight” about something and I couldn’t explain any of it and I kept opening my mouth to speak to try to say something and couldn’t (I realise now that it was a nonverbal episode following a meltdown). There have been times throughout adulthood where communication has failed and not knowing I was autistic has meant that we have been unable to understand why things kept going so badly wrong. I was hoping to have years to go through all of this stuff and to be able to get back to the times when I was a younger child and my Dad was basically my hero, the one who was like me, and got me, and we could settle into a more comfortable relationship than has been the case through some of the more difficult years of my life.

But that now has to happen soon. I am already making plans to go to visit (he lives some distance away) and my brother is trying to work out how to organise things so that I can manage them. Considering I’m only managing to leave the flat around once or twice a week at the moment, it’s going to use a very great deal of energy. My father is, predictably, handling the whole thing by learning, and researching, and finding out all that he can. He’s taking a very practical and philosophical approach to it all. Exactly as I would have expected. One of the other reasons I’ve been silent on this blog for much of the week is that all my communication energy has been taken up communicating with my family. I spoke to my mother on the phone (she’s the only person I usually speak to at all on the phone, so that was reasonably smooth), and also to my brother (my words started to fragment somewhat, so we’ve now returned to e-mail), and my father and I have exchanged e-mails with things we hope to do together over the next few months. I hope I can find enough of the right words to say the things I want to say and to make some good memories for after he’s gone, because through all the difficulties and so on, he’s still my Dad and…

My reactions this week have been, maybe, predictable for someone six days out from an autism diagnosis. I described in Sensory Reaction how my system initially responded to the overload in my head. My husband worked only part of Monday in order to keep an eye on me, and to try to make sure I ate. Monday I basically felt completely numb. Tuesday I spent almost entirely dissociated, with no hope of any sort of functioning at all. By Wednesday my words were fragmenting and disappearing. Only yesterday afternoon did I regain any semblance of functionality, and it’s still very very brittle.

In a perfect world I would still be processing my autism diagnosis at this point, but the world is very much not a perfect one. I am, however, trying to use my father’s diagnosis as information to guide my actions (just as I take inhalers for asthma and just as I am learning to adapt my life to living a way that works for me as an autistic). I am rethinking the things I need to do in my life over the next few months and will be trying to find some sort of a balance that gives me time with my Dad, time to keep myself as well as possible, and maybe works out a way to leave some other parts of my life available to me in some form in the future. There are things I can simply drop for now and pick up later (they’re the nice easy ones), but there are some things that might not make it through because I simply can’t manage them and the option to continue in the future isn’t there. That’s just the way it has to be. Life happens and priorities change.

Diagnoses really do change lives – in all sorts of different ways.

Out of Routine

66-2017-01-28-14-04-07If you asked me whether I was the sort of person who was absolutely fixed on routines and set ways of doing things, I’d probably say that I wasn’t. I’d probably say that I thought I was very flexible and adaptable.

If you asked my husband the same question about me, he’d probably give you a totally different answer. And, as usual, he’d be right.

I’m just coming to the end of 4 days that have all been different from “normal” and all different from each other. And I am knackered. Utterly knackered. I feel unsettled, edgy, and totally exhausted. I really really really want a “normal” day tomorrow.

The routine break started on Friday afternoon when I went over to visit my best friend. We spent a pleasant evening together and I stayed overnight (his wife was away, and when she’s away it’s reassuring for someone to be there just in case any help is needed, so I sometimes provide an elderlysitting service). We had a pleasant evening, but by my current standards there was a lot of conversation, and my sentences started to fragment by the end of the evening.

By Saturday morning forming words was really hard work. I tried to explain to my friend that it was a bit like attempting to converse in, say, Hungarian. My attempts to say “Hungarian” didn’t end well – in fact, they didn’t end at all, because I simply couldn’t say that many syllables at one go by that stage. I typed on my phone to explain that I was going to go home, and he got his magnifying glass out to read the typing – attempts to communicate almost descending into farce!

I then came home and completely lost all ability to speak for about 3 hours, then fell fast asleep.

My husband went off to work on Saturday night, so I recovered a little overnight and on Sunday morning, then spent Sunday afternoon and evening trying to finish a maths assignment – I’m still clinging on to the idea that I might just salvage my Open University degree, though it’s still not certain that I will. But I eventually got around 80% of the assignment done, ready to submit. The willpower required was huge, absolutely massive.

This morning was an early start, to take the car in for its M.O.T. test. It was not a good early start. I felt sick and stressed, exhausted from the weekend, and worried about having to leave my phone on all day and discuss car things. And added to the stress was sadness, as my husband found my lovely little Robo hamster, Stim, had died in his nest. There are feelings about that that I’m not really processing because there isn’t headspace and I have to do practical things.

When I went to set off to take the car, my scarf was missing, which nearly sent me into a tailspin – it turns out I left it at my friend’s house – so I had to find another one.

Then things started to improve a bit.

Driving is actually, still, something I find OK. By myself in the car, my own space. I can cope with it most of the time. The people at the garage know me, and are good and efficient and got to work on my car while providing me with a courtesy car.

I still hadn’t had anything to eat, and thanks to the lightness of the traffic and the efficiency of the garage, it was early. I decided to chance a coffee at my usual coffee shop, which I’ve largely avoided since discovering I was autistic, mainly because some of the people who work there know me well enough to chat to me and make the sort of small talk that I find difficult. Ironically, at the moment, I feel more comfortable either with people who know the full story and the whole autistic thing about me, OR people who are total strangers and have nothing to compare the “me” of now with because they didn’t know the “me” of the past. Becoming my autistic self has been really easy from the inside – all I have to do is stop acting and be myself. But the interface with the outside world is very much still a work in progress.

Anyway, thanks to the fast turn over of staff in coffee shops, both baristas were total strangers, which made life much easier, so I had my usual latte and cheesecake (and a croissant, which I was nearly unable to eat, but managed in the end). I’m trying to eat as much as possible, because I’m conscious that my eating ability might well deteriorate further as the forthcoming assessment approaches.

I then managed to do one job at the bank and top up my phone, before attempting to buy a couple of things at the supermarket.

The supermarket proved too much. I felt sick and dizzy and my head started to throb, the lights obviously way too much for my already taxed system. I located the courtesy car in the car park and drove straight home.

My husband had managed to scan my maths assignment for me so I could submit it electronically, so I logged on and sent it, just managing to stick to the extended extended extended, specially extended again, deadline.

I then rocked on the sofa until I fell asleep.

The garage called early afternoon. The really good news was that the car had passed its M.O.T. test. Which was excellent as much because I simply couldn’t cope with the interaction of dealing with sorting cars out beyond the basics at the moment. Last year it needed so much work done that they handed it back and said it was practically a “new car” because so much had needed replacing, so maybe I was due a good year.

I collected it, then finally did manage to do a little shopping for some of the heavier and bulkier items so that my husband doesn’t have to carry them all on the bus.

Then came home and collapsed.

I feel wrung out, worn out, completely exhausted by the whole thing. This is probably a terribly dull blog post, an account of dull domesticity, but it has provided me with a way of getting some of the thoughts that were in my head organised and sorted so I can use the space for moving on to the next things I have to do.

I’m now counting down the days to the assessment. I want to send more material to the assessors. There is so much, and I don’t want to miss anything. I still fear they will not believe me, because all available evidence suggests that they won’t. And there is that voice always in my head, that every time I write about difficulties talking, or going shopping, or wearing scratchy clothes, or whatever, always, there is someone who says “Yes, I have difficulties talking/shopping/wearing scratchy clothes” (or whatever it is). And so the reinforcement that everyone has the difficulties I have and that I am just normal but bad and fussy and lazy, continues.

And since I’ve already had 2 failed assessments I am now starting to doubt myself again.

And I wonder what will happen if they say no. Will it be the end of the road?

If I am not autistic, then why do I keep losing speech? Why do I have these times where I can’t work out how to put my socks on?

Like has happened throughout my life.

Maybe I SHOULD go for a brain scan? The woman at the first assessment started talking about brain injury – did I have some big accident and I’m so screwed up by it that I’ve forgotten it completely?

Doubts doubts doubts, all the time. If the psychologist before couldn’t see it, and years of psychiatrists couldn’t see it, then why will it be any different this time?

I begin to think I am losing the plot…

Or maybe I’m just feeling completely despairing and totally all over the place because I’ve had so much on and been so out of routine and had so little time alone.

I did manage to write a little “poem thing” (I’m still not sure if they’re really poems) over the weekend, but I didn’t have enough energy to post it, so here it is now:

I stayed…

…overnight with my best friend.

Lovely evening.
Takeaway curry.
Chatting.
Discussing.

In the gloom, for me,
Even though his eyesight
Struggling.

He made the call for takeaway
Even though he’s not fond
Of the phone.

Me rocking, stimming,
All strategies
Throughout the evening.

I slept
Moderately well.

I woke
Tired and quiet.

My words
Not fluent at all.

I departed
To get home.

I arrived
Quiet and tired.

My words
Completely gone
For three hours.

***

I could have gone out for breakfast.
I could have stayed for coffee.
I could have collected my stuff from our mailbox.

Except that I couldn’t.

Typing my words on my phone
To my friend who needed a magnifying glass to view them.

Aware that I needed to drive
And wanting to be home before complete shutdown.

***

This is the hard stuff.

Missed opportunities.

Truncated life.

I don’t much care whether I can speak
Technology deals with that.

But I do care
That I have to miss breakfast
At a nice place

Because I can’t cope.

And I do care
That I have to come home
Instead of living
A full life.

Career Snake!

63-2017-01-02-18-20-57The statistics are, it seems, pretty grim. I haven’t verified the numbers, neither can I give you any details about how many of those considered are formally diagnosed or anything, but I continually see figures indicating that only around 16% of autistic adults are in full-time employment and 32% in any form of employment at all. Even if we allow for quite a lot of error in those figures and consider that there might be people who are unfindable by official statistics compilers, it would still turn out that the proportion of autistic adults sustaining employment is pretty low, and that many of those who do have jobs are working well below their capabilities skillswise owing to the social, sensory, and organisational demands of most jobs.

I have been sliding down the career snake all my life. Despite my issues at primary school and continual bullying through secondary school, I did manage to get quite a good bunch of qualifications, as I mentioned in Expectations Gone. Admittedly, I dropped out of my first degree course, having entirely failed to do what was expected of me or to settle into any sort of proper work routine, but I did manage to succeed second time round and graduated with a good degree. Had you known me in my late teens and early 20s and looked at my qualifications you’d have predicted a bright future for me as far as employment was concerned. The Strong Woman mask also projected an air of confidence that would have added to this impression and it looked, back then, as though I was headed for great things – all I needed to do was put in the work and everything would be fabulous!

However, it was not to be. I did put in the work, lots and lots and lots of it. I based my ambitions on trying to find a career I loved that was compatible with the qualifications I had, and I worked and worked and worked at it. When obstacles were put in my way (I didn’t receive funding to do my master’s degree) I did everything I could to overcome them (got a job to fund myself through and took out a loan to pay the fees). I went without food and heating to save money in order to carry on studying to become an academic because that was the career I really wanted, and I worked until I could work no more.

I had fallen into the trap of believing the idea, still perpetuated today by some of these awful “life improvement” memes, that if you wanted something badly enough and you worked hard enough for it, you would get it.

That is, of course, a fallacy. You are unlikely to achieve your goals if you DON’T work for them, true, but you can’t reverse that statement and say that working for them means you WILL achieve them. It’s simply wrong.

But back then I believed that working hard was the solution. So I did. And by the time my ill-fated DPhil degree studies started to fail I was almost at snapping point with anxiety, financially in trouble, drinking heavily, and dissociating regularly. I didn’t know then that what I was experiencing was dissociation, but I do now. It was with considerable sadness and regret that I abandoned my studies, and with them my dreams, and decided that I simply couldn’t manage to achieve what I’d so badly wanted.

At that point I had no idea that I was even mentally ill, although I evidently was, very. I had no way of asking for help because I didn’t know what sort of help I might need. I had no concept that I had impaired executive functioning and organizing my life and trying to take care of myself while studying almost unsupported and while chronically short of money was simply beyond my abilities. I had the exam results and I believed, therefore, that the only reason I was failing was that I wasn’t putting in the work. It was the only reason I could think of.

A year later, armed with my original degree, I enrolled on a PGCE course. If I wasn’t going to be able to do research and teach undergraduates then I would modify the plan and teach schoolchildren instead. I turned out to be a pretty good teacher. I did well on the PGCE course and got my first job easily (my qualifications were somewhat over the minimum requirements, and my ability to teach “shortage” subjects proved useful). I started my new career, confident that this time all would be well.

Less than three months into the job, all was not well. There was definitely something very wrong with me. I was struggling. I went to my head of department and told him that things weren’t right. He told me that people as clever as me didn’t have problems and I’d be fine. I upped my work level to try to compensate for the things that were going wrong. It didn’t help. I went back to school after the Christmas holiday period and by February I went in search of a doctor because I felt so ill. I got to the surgery and collapsed onto the floor, hardly able to speak. The doctor picked me up and let me recover and I was then signed off work with “debility”. Nobody could really work out what was wrong with me, but I was clearly very unwell. The “debility” label was changed to “anxiety and depression” shortly afterwards and I entered the world of the mentally ill.

I decided that maybe that school had been too unsupportive for me and got another job in a very different school. I did slightly better for a while, but while there my mood started to become chaotic and elevated, and I went into a hypomanic phase (again, not known at the time, but obvious with hindsight). I was also still unable to survive financially – my starting salary was insufficient to cover the rent on my London flat and to service the massive debts I’d incurred while studying. So I applied for a promotion to Head of Department in another school, and got it!

Only a few weeks into the new job I had the breakdown that is now known as “the big one”. It is now evident that I was also in a period of huge autistic burnout. I made my first serious suicide attempts that autumn. My health was destroyed. I never fully recovered from that time, and the slide down the career snake accelerated massively. My days as a high flyer were over and it became a matter of “damage limitation”.

After I’d recovered sufficiently to rejoin the world, helped by my newly acquired husband, I did a bit of supply teaching, and got a part-time job for a while, but I wasn’t really up to it any more. I then had a succession of office jobs – administrator, data entry clerk, personal assistant, and eventually part-time administrative assistant in a small office. All of these jobs I found hugely exhausting and very very difficult. I would be struggling to drive home after a few hours at a part-time job, my eyes almost closing at the wheel. It didn’t matter how early I went to bed or how much exercise I took or how well I ate. I was just knackered. All the time. I finally went off sick from the last job, having, by this time, received a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder, and at the last meeting I had with my boss, the person from occupational health, and the personnel officer for the job, I was almost completely unable to speak. I had come to the end of my office work abilities.

Having failed as an academic, a schoolteacher, and an administrator, I had one last attempt at earning money for myself before succumbing to another cycle of hypomania and depression and breakdown. I answered an advertisement in the local newsagent from a woman who needed a cleaner one day a week. In some ways it was quite a good job. Although the pay was poor and I worked 5 hours without a break, I was often on my own, and I was quite good at it. It was hard physical work as I was expected to do the whole house, change beds, completely clean several bathrooms, and leave everything pretty much immaculate, often after the family had evidently spent a weekend partying. Eventually, however, 5 stone overweight from the quetiapine I was taking, my back and hip gave out under the pressure, sacroiliac pain radiating throughout my body, leaving me unable to walk, let alone clean an entire house in 5 hours. The woman also gave up work temporarily to have another child and I found myself having to cope with people around me and the new baby while I was working and it really wasn’t worth the pain and the triggering effect of the children in order to earn somewhere around what was minimum wage at the time.

By then I had a psychiatrist and a community psychiatric nurse. Both helped me back to some semblance of a life, and I gave up the idea of working completely because it was obvious by then that I wasn’t well enough. I recovered enough to do a part-time language teaching course, but the experience of the course left me needing months to recover. I started studying mathematics with the Open University in order to try to do something with my brain and, rather ambitiously, against all medical advice, did some supply maths teaching in a local secondary school. On the morning of my third day in the job I sat in the school car park in tears of utter exhaustion, knowing that it wasn’t going to work. I loved the job, I wanted to do it. I wanted to be out in the world, teaching, being part of something. But I just couldn’t. Every time I tried I just fell apart and felt so horribly horribly ill the whole time.

I have not worked since I left that job 6 years ago. For nearly a quarter of a century, while many of my peers were climbing some pretty impressive career ladders and becoming academics, businesspeople, scientists, professional musicians, headteachers, top administrators, and so on, I was sliding down my career snake. And no matter how hard I tried to climb back up the snake, the gravity was too strong. And every time I grabbed at a rung of an adjacent ladder, the rung broke and I slid yet further down the snake, before eventually falling off the bottom of its tail, onto the floor.

And it didn’t ever quite make sense why this kept happening, why I couldn’t keep the jobs. It didn’t add up that someone with my qualifications and evident abilities and absolute fierce ambition and desire to work and preparedness to graft and to put the effort in, couldn’t keep even the simplest of jobs. There seemed to be no reason why things just kept going wrong, time after time after time.

Even bipolar disorder didn’t explain it. My bipolar disorder is cyclic. I have hypomanic episodes every few years which lead to crashes into depression. Between those times I am usually stable, moodwise. I have also taken effective medication and developed strategies to help with managing my mood. The treatments and therapies I received for bipolar disorder did, in general, work for bipolar disorder.

But even in the stable times I was still getting sick, and sick in a different way, not a mood way, but an utter exhaustion and unable to cope and having to go off and be silent on my own sort of a way. In a way that has been a mystery for years.

Until I discovered I was autistic. And suddenly those things make sense. And all the failed careers and the lost jobs and eventual unemployment have an obvious cause. Throwing myself constantly into such busy overstimulating environments for years and years has, quite literally, broken me, over and over again. I never had a hope of doing most of those jobs – not because I’m lacking qualifications or not making the effort, but because I am simply unable to cope for extended periods of time in environments that are so hostile to me.