Wasting Energy

I pressed my back into the corner of the cold wall behind me, as hard as I could, hard enough to distract me from the need to twirl or flick my fingers or flap my hands, hard enough to counterbalance the brightness of the light emanating from the interior of the van parked in front of me, next to my stricken car. I’d changed out of my sunglasses into a pair of ordinary specs, because I knew that wearing sunglasses on a December evening would attract questions I didn’t want to have to answer.

My internal dialogue was on a repetitive loop: “Mask like fuck, mask like fuck, normal, normal, normal, mask like fuck, mask like fuck, normal, normal, normal…”

“How long have you lived in your current place then?” said the breakdown man.

I felt my spouse, who was standing beside me, tense. I knew the thought process that would be going through his head: “Why does he want to know? He’s going to come and destroy our lives isn’t he? How does knowing when we last moved house help with mending the car?”

I knew that dealing with this sort of inane chatter was my job in these circumstances. My spouse, who had managed, half an hour earlier, to make the telephone call to the breakdown services while I sat on the floor in the dark rocking back and forth in a total panic, would simply be unable to manage such questions, so it was down to me.

“About 4 years,” I said, using one of the learnt scripts I keep in my head for such occasions. “It’s handy for the shops,” I added, hoping this was good small talk. It seemed to be OK.

Further questions followed. I reminded myself that the man was probably just trying to pass the time, and that he probably didn’t intend this to be some sort of cross-examination under torture. I did the best I could to smile and chat, my brain feeling like it was working so hard it might actually explode, my body tense and stressed from trying to keep still, my back pressed hard against the cold wall for a bit of relief.

The computer sitting on the car engine finished its diagnostic work. The man started to show me graphs, figures, numbers, and to talk about the state of the car battery (totally knackered). I relaxed a little. This was relevant, and seeing graphs was calming and made sense. There was now a purpose to the conversation.

The breakdown man said he had a battery on the van he could fit there and then. Since it was 2 days before Christmas, late in the evening, and we were quite a few miles away from home, this was a good outcome. Battery specifications and prices were discussed, the battery was fitted, and a further few “social” remarks were made. I didn’t challenge his (incorrect) assumption that we’d been Christmas shopping, although I did remember to thank him and to convey appropriate seasonal wishes I think.

By the time I got home my speech had failed and I was utterly exhausted.

***

Since I discovered and disclosed that I’m autistic I’ve attempted consciously to conceal it, and to mask my autistic traits, on only a handful of occasions, such as the one above. That night I was low on spoons (energy), having already been out in the world for a few hours. We didn’t know what sort of breakdown repair person might show up, or whether they’d know anything about autism. We didn’t know what prejudices they might have (over the years we’ve found motoring to be a problematic area of life at times – my spouse doesn’t drive and the car is mine but because he looks like a man and I look like a woman (we’re both nonbinary) frustrating assumptions have often been made), and we didn’t have energy to educate or to explain – we just wanted to get home with a fixed car.

So the decision was made to mask, to act as “normal” as possible. Changing my glasses, removing the wristband I wear that says “Autistic” on it, remembering to smile and make some sort of attempt at eye contact if necessary, putting my tired brain into overdrive in order to interact and maintain speech, frantically searching through my mental library for scripts, remembering not to tell my entire life story or talk too much, no jumping up and down, no pacing around, no swaying back and forth or pulling at my hair, and definitely no flapping hands.

I managed it. But only just. Since going into burnout a couple of years ago (I’ll discuss burnout elsewhere), my ability to act non-autistically has been pretty poor and I’ve only been able to do so for very short periods of time without getting ill or having some sort of meltdown or shutdown. The whole carefully constructed facade that has characterised most of my life in the outside world for the last 4 decades has simply crumbled and fallen to pieces as I’ve run out of energy to maintain it. Some skills I’d previously learnt have become patchy or disappeared completely, my sensory system has gone berserk, and the amount of care I need has increased significantly.

Of course, everybody, whatever their neurology, masks to some extent. People “put on a brave face” when they have to deal with difficult situations, they dress up in uncomfortable clothes to go to formal occasions and job interviews, they walk into work on a Monday morning having had terrible weekends and sleepless nights and when asked “How are you?” respond with “Very well, thank you.” even if they feel absolutely awful and want to kick the cheery Monday morning questioner in a painful place. People with mental illnesses, chronic pain conditions, and even folk who are simply having a difficult time will experience an even greater need to put on some sort of a “public persona” at times.

So, what is so different about autistic masking? Well, I haven’t yet done enough study or research to give a definitive answer (something I’d ultimately like to do is really investigate such questions – since I discovered, nearly two years ago, that well over 90% of people on the planet experience the world differently from how I do, I’d really like to find out about their experiences, but I haven’t had the energy so far). All I can do at this point is speculate. I think, perhaps, that much of the difference is to do with a matter of extent and from the number of situations in which a person feels they need to mask in order to fit in, not to cause a fuss, or to function in the world.

Back when I was well enough to work, I “acted” at job interviews. I suspect everyone does that. But what I’d one day like to explore is the point at which most people cease to act, start to feel like they’re in some sort of “comfort zone” (a concept I’d also like to explore sometime), and when they are basically able to “let their hair down”, be themselves, and have little or no anxiety (obviously, for those who have an anxiety disorder, this will be different). From what I’ve observed of people’s behaviour (unless the whole world is performing an elaborate act and everything is fake), I suspect that many people feel free to be themselves when out having a few drinks with their friends, playing sport, at a concert, going to pick up a few bits of shopping at the supermarket, watching TV with their families, or at home with a partner. These things might be more or less enjoyable, but most folk seem to be reasonably relaxed when I’ve seen them in these situations. I am not, and, perversely, I’m probably no more likely to be stressed in a job interview than I am having a few drinks down the pub because my stress levels are so high for so much of the time that the differentials between different situations are rather small. If you’ve ever encountered me in any of these situations and I appeared relaxed, it’s because I was masking.

The situations when I can essentially be “me” occur only when there is a locked door between me and the rest of the world (and even then, there is a fear the safety might be breached). The only other person who has ever seen the full real me is my spouse, although my best friend of many decades has been close. At all other times, I am on high alert, I am stressed, I am anxious, I am acting, to a greater or lesser extent. Alcohol helps me with the act, although it’s obviously not an ideal strategy. Some autistic people, especially late diagnosed ones who have been masking to everybody for decades, cannot even be themselves with their spouses.

I find it difficult to explain this matter of extent to people – I often post things on my facebook and am greeted with a chorus of “Oh, don’t worry about that, it’s absolutely normal, everybody gets…” which I suspect is meant comfortingly, but just makes me feel very invalidated and disbelieved. Maybe my communication style is misunderstood? Maybe I’m not adequately able to explain that it’s not a question of, for example, liking or disliking supermarkets and shopping, but that the energy required to cope with the noise and the light and the people and so on is such that even a short trip out can sometimes mean I melt down at the checkout to such an extent that I have to bite my own arm and bruise it (see the picture at the top of this post, taken earlier today) in order to cope.

Of course, by the time I’m melting down at the checkout, the mask has broken. In the past I’ve been accused of being drunk, been threatened with arrest, and often simply run away from situations I couldn’t cope with. One of the reasons autistic people DO mask and hide their unconventional ways is precisely to avoid accusations of drunkenness or getting arrested or even worse. Masking can sometimes be useful and even essential. That’s something I hope to discuss in the future.

Nowadays with more knowledge and less masking I can usually manage to buy a small amount of shopping by using strategies such as wearing sunglasses and ear defenders and allowing myself to stim (more on that another time). I’m fortunate in that my circumstances generally allow me to be openly autistic and I have no problem with being so. The result is that I’m starting to learn to conserve energy where I can and to use the limited resources I do have to try to improve my quality of life, which has, over the last few decades, generally been declining rather rapidly.

I have wasted a huge amount of energy over the decades trying to live my life in order to fulfil societal expectations. Sitting still, making eye contact, sitting in a chair with my feet on the floor, wearing various sorts of clothing, speaking when it is making me feel sick, dealing with pain from lights and sounds and textures, consciously trying to work out when to talk and practising what to say, trying to maintain employment in overloading environments, smiling when it is really difficult, trying to pick out one conversation when others are happening, forcing myself to go to social events, and so on. Even the simple experiment I did when I was first investigating the “autism hypothesis” as I called it, gave an indication of just how MUCH energy masking can use.

Masking is exhausting. Utterly utterly draining. I’ve had people say to me many times over the years “But WHY are you so tired? What have you been doing?” and I’ve been unable to work it out. Even in my 20s I used to collapse with exhaustion on a regular basis. The brutal truth is that for an autistic person simply EXISTING in the world is knackering – never mind trying to hold down a job or have any sort of social life. And many of the standard recommendations for “improving mental health” (such as seeing more people in real life, spending less time on the internet, sitting still and being “calm”) simply make matters worse – solitude, rest, and stimming are much more useful tools. We need a LOT of downtime in order to recover from what, for most folk, are the ordinary things of life.

And this is at the core of the problem of masking. The perpetual acting, the perpetual stress levels on a par with what most folk would feel when at a job interview, the huge physical effort of sitting still and coping with sensory overload, and the conscious process of trying to work out how to interact with other human beings eventually takes its toll. In the short term it can lead to a meltdown (as it did with me in the supermarket the other day). In the long term it can destroy mental health and lead to autistic burnout.

Many autistics mask for years, putting in huge amounts of work to try to fit in to the world. Those of us who were diagnosed very late avoided some of the therapies that essentially force autistics to mask by using punishment when they exhibit autistic behaviours, although we were often taught to “behave properly” and the cane in the corner of the headmaster’s study was a constant threat throughout our childhoods. Some autistics become so good at masking that when they present for diagnosis they are turned away or misdiagnosed and when they tell people they are autistic they are met with disbelief and invalidation.

I’m probably one of very few late diagnosed autistics who hasn’t been told “But you don’t look autistic!” or disbelieved (in fact, when I published The Discovery most people simply said “Well, of course you’re autistic – you really didn’t know?”). My mask was evidently somewhat transparent as far as visible traits were concerned and it turned out that even with the huge effort I was making I didn’t actually succeed in fooling many people and those who knew me and knew anything much about autism (which I didn’t) weren’t surprised at all. I’d also long since accepted that I was one of society’s weirdos and grown comfortable with that (in fact, I still feel very strongly that I used to be rather special and interesting but now I’ve actually discovered I’m nothing more than a common or garden autistic)!

I’m also now beginning to realise that a huge part of MY masking was not just trying to “appear normal” but was actually trying to lead a life that was way beyond my capabilities. “Taking off the mask” for me is not just about openly stimming, wearing dark glasses and ear defenders, and allowing myself to look noticeably different from other people (I’ve actually found that bit pretty easy). It’s much more significantly for me about learning to rest, learning to pace myself, working out new ambitions, new goals, ones that might, once I’ve recovered from this burnout as far as I’m ever going to, actually be possible and within my capabilities. In short, working out how to spend my remaining time on the planet living a life that isn’t going to damage my mental health still further or cause any more huge burnouts.

That’s still very much a work in progress!

Advertisements

Reactivation

This blog,
Inactive for the longest time
Since it began.
Months and months
Without a post.
Comments unmoderated
And unanswered.

Apologies.
I will get to them
When I can.

So why now?
Why am I attempting a return?

The reason odd.
Makes me uneasy.
Because I am “joining in”
With something.
Or,
At least,
I’m going to
Attempt
To join in
With something.

I have generally,
Throughout my life,
Spent more time
On the edge of communities,
Observing,
Rather than actively participating.

Even when
I’ve thrown myself wholeheartedly
Into a community of any sort
I’ve usually withdrawn
To the edge
Or even departed completely
Pretty quickly.

Likewise with the autistic community,
I maintain a position
On the edge.
Observing.
Learning.

I do not know whether this is because
I find the whole notion
Of any “community”
So very very alien
To my way of being.

Or because
Everything is still so new
And I am so very very
Underqualified
To contribute.
A beginner,
Observing those
With way more confidence
Than I possess.

Maybe.

I don’t yet know
If I will have anything worthwhile
To contribute
Or what my energy levels
Will permit me to do.

To what extent can I “join” any project
As me?
To what extent will I have to mask
My true self
To participate?

The subject matter chosen by others,
The timings chosen by others
(If I even manage to stick to them)!

(Although I don’t discount
The possibility of posts
On other subjects too)!

But,
I feel it is time to try,
Time to return,
Tentatively,
To this blog.

My life
Still very much under review
As I try to figure out
What to do with
However many years
Comprise my future.

And how to live those years
As best I can
As an authentic autistic me.

How to survive in the world
And meet basic needs,
How to build some sort of life
That provides sufficient satisfaction
And is worth the effort,

And how to do this while
Spending as little energy as possible
Pretending,
Acting,
Masking.

October

October has been a tricky month. My blogging abilities finally ran out. My spoon rations finally fell below the numbers required to maintain this blog. I was forced to take a break and to deal with life and there was no energy left for blogging.

I am still recovering from what has been a tough few months. My head is still only sporadically clear enough to achieve very much of anything. Depression is threatening. I am trying to seek help, which is proving exhausting, triggering, and difficult. I have finally reached the point where my head needs a pause to assimilate all that I have learnt about autism in the last year and a bit. Processing time. A reboot.

I feel I’m failing here and should be able to hold it together better – this is probably a hang up from decades of being told I can do anything and I’m strong and capable. The truth is that I am not, and I currently don’t have the energy to do more than crawl out of bed some days. I look at the blank days on the blog calendar but I am mostly powerless to fill them, or even to advertise old posts. It feels like negative achievement, like going backwards. My energy levels are very variable though. I need to focus on self care and getting through the days.

There is a great chaos in my mind of things that I want to discuss, things that I want to blog about, but I currently can’t. There have been successes (playing music and returning to running half marathon distance (slowly)), but these things use vast amounts of energy for me and I have not had adequate recovery time. I’ve also been in touch with family members, seen my mother, communicated with my father who is in the midst of chemotherapy, been out and about for coffee and shopping a bit more, and been trying sometimes to take pressure off my husband who is still working seven days a week. This all takes energy.

Going back to the mental health services to ask for help has proved triggering and difficult and I still don’t know where it will lead. I’m certain that in addition to being autistic I also have ADHD, but the process of obtaining a diagnosis is not going smoothly thus far. I still have no access to appropriate counselling or medication – the process of trying to get either is draining in itself.

Social media has not felt as safe and supportive as it sometimes does – I sent out a call for help on facebook and received some hurtful and gaslighting comments from people I counted as friends. One is now blocked, several I have filtered, some might remain so, some will not but will need explanation I’m not currently able to give. Over two weeks after a huge meltdown I am only just returning gently. The bruises I inflicted on myself that night are almost healed. I will sort things when I have the energy, but that is not now. I’m finding twitter almost impossible, the back and forth nature of it too much like “conversation”, which I find much harder than simply typing a paragraph. The short nature of tweets breaks up my thoughts and I can’t focus on threads and so on. I have, however, taken to Instagram – the visual nature of photographs is working better for me at the moment.

I am conscious that I still need to respond to comments here, some of them wonderful, thank you. There are many things to which I want to respond, but simply can’t yet. I will as soon as I’m able, I promise. I’m missing discussion on Chris Packham’s TV programme on autism because my brain won’t process what I want to say. I have so many thoughts, but I can’t currently form them into anything I can publish. I also had many and various thoughts about the “me too” hashtag on social media, thoughts and feelings that kept me from participating in the whole thing. And I’ve had times of serious gender dysphoria in the last couple of months that I’ve had to find ways of dealing with. There are so many complex issues swirling around in my head and I’m trying to sort them out as best I can.

I feel like I am missing the Zeitgeist somewhat. There are lots of posts going round about autistic hyperempaths, to which I can’t relate because empathy doesn’t come naturally to me and I spend a lot of my life working really hard to try to understand feelings (both my own and other people’s). I want to explore the ways in which I fit autistic stereotypes and the ways in which I don’t. But my brain won’t currently cooperate. There are so many things to write about, so many. So much to explain that I want to explain as fully as I can. And so much of it is triggering and difficult, and I fear conflict, which makes it even harder.

I need time. I need space. I need to organise my thoughts. I also need to organise my life – I have now landed us with a summons for non-payment of council tax, not even because I didn’t have the money to pay the month’s instalment, but because my executive functioning was so poor that I couldn’t make my head work to do the job. My spouse has also had to type e-mail responses for me to copy and paste and has had to complete student loan deferrals and so on because I have simply been mentally paralysed by such tasks.

There is much still to discuss. There are many things I want to blog about. I’m trying to make notes when I can. I’m trying to think of ways of explaining things to people. I’m trying to work out where things go from here.

But I’m also trying to hold some semblance of life together. Things are difficult right now and I don’t know when this difficulty will ease.

I will return when I can.

Also Being Autistic

Bizarrely, the point made in the last post, that I find it hard to imagine how life could be good again when it’s bad and hard to imagine how it could be bad again when it’s good, was proven when I finally clicked publish on that post and immediately felt a weird sense of dishonesty.

I wrote the post a few nights ago, in one of the good phases, put it onto the blog site in draft, and numbered it to be posted next. But by the time publishing time came, I was struggling again, and it felt a little weird to post something so unrepresentative of my current state.

I also suddenly worried that I’d equated lack of social imagination with lack of empathy. If I did, then I didn’t mean to – I’m still trying to figure all this out and this blog is a learning and analysing experience for me as well as something for others to read if they wish to. I still need to find proper words to describe all these things better. I still need to organise and structure my thoughts better, and I’d like very much to be able to explain all these terms properly.

This constant back and forth, constant switching between feeling wonderfully neurodivergent and fabulous and relieved to have discovered who I really am, and feeling frustrated at how limited my life is and how difficult I find things, is still characterising my life quite strongly at the moment. I described some of the effects this has on me in Oscillating, and it continues to be true. I suspect it might continue to be true for some time to come.

The warm fuzzy feelings in Being Autistic are real. I AM happy to have discovered my neurology and to have solved so many mysteries from my life. I have no issues with people thinking I’m strange, or with stimming in public, or with stigma from anyone immediately around me (I realise this makes me massively privileged – when my friends see me flapping my hands or rocking back and forth they don’t tell me to stop, they just check with me that it isn’t an indication that I’m in any sort of distress). In many ways it’s all good. Lovely stuff – stick on the dark glasses and ear defenders, take my phone everywhere in case my speech fails, carry on with life. Proud autistic stuff, rainbow infinity symbols, stim toys, clothes without labels, and not a worry about what society thinks. Even before I was a nonbinary autistic I was an AFAB who hadn’t worn make-up or a bra for over 20 years and was happy existing in socks and sandals without caring what others thought. I’ve been miles away from many societal “norms” for decades, and I have enough confidence not to worry about that most of the time. If people like me and want to be friends with me on my terms, great, if they don’t, then no big deal. Now I have a reason to explain just why I fail to comprehend society’s codes I feel even more justified in being myself and not worrying about it. I am fully “out” as autistic to anyone who cares to know (and probably people who don’t too) and absolutely happy with that (to be honest, anyone who knows anything about autism can figure it out in about a minute anyway if they meet me – I do present as stereotypically autistic in many ways and even if I try really hard to mask, at the moment I’ll last only about an hour before I start to collapse or get sick). Additionally, I can take the pressure off myself to be “strong” so in many ways it’s even better than before – I can ditch the self-blame, I can relax, I can just enjoy being me.

However, there is a flip side. I am still coming to terms with the fact that I am not the Strong Woman of my mask. My day to day existence is, for the most part, relatively low quality. Most days I spend between 14 and 24 hours on my own in a grubby, overcrowded, dark flat, trying to recover from the days and times when I CAN get out and do things. I look at my former colleagues from college days, many of whom have houses, children, and jobs, and I have none of those things. Certainly my inability to sustain employment is down to me being autistic (and, maybe even more so to remaining undiagnosed for 45 years – I never asked for adaptions at work because I didn’t know I needed them and I lost every career and job I ever had), and my consequent large debts and relatively poor living conditions are a result of that. I read memes that tell me if I want something I have to work for it. I have done nothing less than work as hard as I possibly can all my life and the things I wanted didn’t come – those memes sound like cruel lies to me. I spent a pleasant evening socialising and drinking with friends a couple of weeks ago – the resulting overload caused an entire night of meltdowns and panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. Everyone else went to bed and woke up with a slight hangover. Every so often I ask “Why me?” and then I feel guilty because I am betraying the neurodivergence movement and I become frightened of those autistics who tell me that autism is not a disability, just a difference, but I am so very disabled by it so very often – no work, no money, some days I am a 46-year-old who cannot even get myself a hot drink or work out how to get enough food to sustain me or even manage to get dressed properly. And not all of this is “society’s fault”, it is just the way that life is and is often a result of simple practicalities. I am actually surrounded by non-autistic people who are doing their absolute damndest to understand me and to help me and to compensate at every turn for my disabilities – they are brilliant and loving and patient and I am very very lucky with them, but I am still struggling. And at those times I wish I was “normal” (yes, yes, yes, I know the old cliché that there “is no normal” etc etc, which, to be honest, to those of us who are so far up one end of the bell curve that we cannot even see the middle of it, sounds a bit trite), at those times I wish I could go to work for a week (even part-time) and go down the pub for a few hours on Friday night and enjoy a weekend with the family, which I can’t. I wish my gender was one that was recognised and understood by everyone (that is society’s fault), but it isn’t. That is the sort of “normal” I wish for…

I could go on. There is still much to explore. There are two sides to this, the dark side, where I just want all this to go away and to live a regular life (and, yes, I use the word “regular” advisedly, as I do the word “normal”), and the wonderful quirky side where I can finally be me and enjoy it and live a life that is right for me. Practicalities constantly intrude on me “being myself” because I have to eat and drink to stay well, I have to find enough money to survive, and unless I never go anywhere or do anything ever again I have to interact with other human beings in a way that often makes me very uncomfortable. To an extent, there is a part of me that needs some interaction too – less than most people I suspect, but not none at all.

I suspect these thoughts will continue for some time. I am still new to all this, only just over a year since I discovered I was autistic. As far as being knowingly autistic is concerned I’m only just learning to walk, at age 46, after over 4 decades of trying to be something else and failing at it. I’m also still very burnt out and still trying to find help, still waiting for referrals to services, still trying to discover if there is any medication of any description that might help (I can’t take many of the things that might help because of co-occurring conditions). Perhaps things will improve as time goes on – it’s still really really early days for all this stuff.

It’s also a big switch, a total change in life parameters, and I suspect I’m still fucking things up quite a lot. Still not explaining myself right – remember, I’m also very alexithymic, which doesn’t help. I’m still working it all out. It’s all still evolving, much like this entire post evolved out of a simple feeling that I should add a short explanation about the previous blog post.

Strange times.

NOTE: Since I wrote the words above, I feel different again. At the time I intended to post Being Autistic, I was in such poor shape that I couldn’t even turn the computer on to press publish and I had to do it the next day. I’m actually in better shape again now, happier, more relaxed. That’s how quickly things keep shifting, how fast the oscillations sometimes are. But I won’t write yet another post about that at the moment because this cycle could go on for a very long time!

How To Be

I’m aware that this blog is becoming a bit erratic. There is still the story of my diagnosis to complete. There are hanging bits of part stories about discovering I was autistic. There are still random bits of semi-poems intermingling with journal entries. And I have yet to write about significant topics in a way that I eventually hope will be properly useful to others. It’s all a bit of a mess really. And I still have comments to respond to, and so many times where I’ve stated that I need to write a whole blog post about something and haven’t yet. But I can only do what I can do. My spoons are often somewhat limited and I work pretty much to capacity at all times, so I can’t do more.

And that’s just on the actual blog. Inside my head it’s even worse. There are fragments of posts, ideas, notions, concepts and so on. I have note after note after note on my phone, half-typed half thoughts about various things. It feels like I need a year or more to go through them all and construct coherent writings from them. There is so much to do, I’m so behind with things that I need to do to keep my life just about ticking over. And there never seems to be enough time, and by time I mean the sort of time where I’m functional enough to achieve things.

Maybe, however, this erratic situation, this state of chaos, is actually reflective of my own state of mind and my own current situation, which is also erratic and chaotic. Over a period of 24 hours last week I went from hating being me and not wanting to exist, to being content and still feeling this huge relief of realising who I am. I am still struggling to speak or get out of bed some days, but can be quite capable on others. And I have also realised over the last couple of weeks, that when I am out of the flat, in public, with other people, I have a situation that is still not resolved, and not even close to being resolved.

I do not know How To Be.

The problem is this:

I have always been regarded as somewhat “eccentric”, and even, maybe, some would say, a bit weird. That’s OK, I’m cool with that, it’s not a problem to me, I’ve dealt with it long since. After over 4 decades of being a bit on the interesting side of things I’m pretty used to it. I got really upset about being bullied and so on at school until I was around 15, but by then I’d largely learnt that it was just part of life and although it wasn’t much fun, I’d learnt to act “normal enough” to survive out in the world. I’d learnt to live with it, to cope.

The problem, of course, was that in learning to act “normal enough” and in learning to cope, what I’d actually done was literally learnt to act. I’d built a mask, and a pretty effective one at that. And the mask that I built was one of a rather strong and confident person. I wasn’t the stereotypical autistic girl “flying under the radar” by sitting quietly in the corner in the class, unnoticed. I wasn’t failing exams or dropping out of school. I was strong-willed, brash, and externally confident (even internally confident to an extent, because however much of a failure I was at friendship and sport and so on, I could learn things and pass exams reasonably easily, so that was what I did). I was told that I was capable and could achieve great things (largely because of the exam results and my capacity for learning things), and so the mask that I built was one of a high-achieving confident young woman.

However, this mask came at a price, and that price was my mental health. Constantly “being strong” and “achieving” in the way that I did in my early 20s was breaking me inside, and by the time I got to my late 20s I was very very ill indeed, heading for the serious episode of burnout at around age 30, from which I never really recovered, and my life was falling apart.

Up until last year I continued with the masking process to a considerable extent while out in the world. I continued to believe that the strong me was the real me, and once I’d recovered from being mentally ill (I really believed I’d get better at some stage) I’d be back to full strength. However, that continual masking was breaking me yet again, and, perhaps inevitably, I fell apart again completely, in the summer of 2016. And by that time the world had caught up sufficiently for the events to occur that eventually led to me being diagnosed autistic.

And, because of the sort of person I am, having discovered I’m autistic I’m determined to BE autistic. I don’t consider it something to hide away, I don’t consider it something to try not to be. It’s a huge part of my identity, and after over 4 decades being “somebody else”, the relief at being a more authentic version of me is huge. I suddenly realise it’s OK to allow myself to eat the same thing day after day after day if it makes me feel better, I’m allowed to stop forcing myself to take part in group conversations until I’m so sick I’m at the point of collapse, I can stim and fiddle with things and know it’s not me being wilfully annoying but is just part of my neurology, and I’m finally learning how to be myself after decades of trying to be the person society expected me to be and failing at it.

Which is all very well when I’m at home, or with tolerant friends or someone who can care for me and explain. And is absolutely fine when I’m in safe environments and have enough spoons to take care of myself. All very lovely – in theory all I need to do now is to be my fabulous autistic neurodivergent hand-flappy rocking-back-and-forth sunglasses-wearing eye-contact-no-longer tell-it-like-it-is self! Neurology explains everything, no more need for acting! Yippeeeee!

However, I’m a grown up person. I have to live in the world. I have to go out to shops to buy food. I have to be able to deal with other human beings if I want a life beyond the television and the sofa. I want to participate in activities that will be full of neurotypical folk who think it’s great to have a spontaneous chat about nothing at all and that such a thing takes no effort, who sit and stand too close to me for comfort, who are irritated by my stimming, who will expect me to use polite social niceties that mean something to them, who don’t even know what being autistic means, and who mistake my lack of social finesse, my sometimes inability to speak, my lack of eye contact, and so on, for rudeness or disrespect or similar, which, of course, it isn’t, it’s just that my natural way of being is different from theirs.

And so I come up with a dilemma. As I’m starting to emerge from burnout and beginning to go out into the world again a bit more, I’m finding that there are times I slip back into the old mask, which is probably inevitable after 4 decades of living that way and it becoming such a practised part of my act. It’s very obvious when I do though, because I start to feel very ill and bad rather quickly and I don’t have the stamina to maintain it for very long. There are also times when I catch myself doing something really obviously autistic (like losing speech or flapping my hands or something) and realise that if something went wrong or somebody challenged me, I’d be in deep trouble without being able to explain properly what was going on and with no carer on hand to help. And how DO you deal with a stranger who is standing so close to you that their “person vibes” are making you feel ill, when they don’t even understand the concept of “person vibes” (which, incidentally, is a term I just invented now)? They think you’re being awkward, but you’re not, it’s just that you can’t cope with that much person that close in that time and place.

I have no answers at this stage. But I’m coming up against the same problem that I read about from the parents of autistic children, but for myself, not a child. I’ve seen discussions about the extent to which autistic children should be pushed and made resilient and able to cope in life, and the extent to which they should be encouraged to be their fully autistic selves with all that that entails. I’m now considering to what extent I need to continue to use the mask I’ve developed in order to survive in the world and to what extent I can allow all my autistic traits and tendencies to dominate. On the one hand, trying to make autistic people “look” neurotypical can be massively damaging to mental health (don’t I know this from bitter experience), and how well we “fit in” or “look normal” is no measure of success in an autistic life because it denies who we are and can cause huge burnouts, but on the other hand we have to survive in the world somehow and that needs a certain amount of resilience and coping ability, especially given how little support there is in most societies for autistic people, particularly those of us who are adults. Add on to that the complications of late diagnosis and the concomitant identity crisis that arises from this huge change in life, and it’s easy to see how difficult it is to know how to proceed from here.

And this is not just about societal attitudes, but about practical survival and physical health. I’m not at the stage where if the supermarket discontinues my usual food that I don’t eat at all, but I did sit and cry for half an hour the other morning and declared that I wouldn’t eat or drink that day because we’d run out of the milkshake that I usually have when I first get up. My autistic brain said NO in big shouty letters, and I had to use my rational “learning” brain to argue with it. I had to allow myself to recover from what was basically a mini-meltdown over a milkshake, and then gently persuade myself that I was going to eat and drink and it would be OK to drink something different until my husband could get to the right shop to get the right sort of milkshake. This all takes energy (and, in my case, a very understanding husband), and it’s nobody’s fault – it’s just the way my brain works being at odds with what I know to be good for my body and overall health!

And going out into the world and coping with everything that the external world throws at me takes even more energy, even when people are trying their utmost to understand and be helpful. I’m quite good at it because I’ve been practising for a long time and I’ve learnt a lot of social skills which I can maintain quite well for the duration of most social events as long as I get enough downtime in between, but I’m also determined to be as autistic as I need to be where possible, because it’s so much easier, more relaxing, and SO much better for my mental health.

Also, while knowing I’m autistic is an amazing liberating relief, and while I really like being autistic me because it’s so natural and right and comfortable, I also rather liked the strong capable mask person (which is possibly understandable – since I created a persona it probably made sense to create one of someone I liked rather than someone I hated). I don’t want to lose some of those strong bits (being “tough” is something I enjoy in many contexts), and I still need some of that resilience to survive and to live any sort of sensible life.

However, I know that, aside from the briefest of interactions, I have to be open about being autistic. I read of people who hold down jobs and don’t tell their employers that they’re autistic – that wouldn’t be possible for me as I’m too obviously different, and at my best I can maintain that level of mask for only about 3 days absolute maximum, even when I’m going home in the evenings. In the past the jobs have just failed, and I’ve lost them. Without significant and noticeable adaptions there are things I simply can’t do. At the moment I’m not even close to being able to work, but if that ever changes then there’s no way I could hide such a big part of me. I can currently act neurotypical for an hour or so at most these days, certainly not long enough to hold down a job!

So I’m now stuck in a bit of an inbetween state, trying to work out where to go from here, trying to work out how I can take this new discovery, be myself, be openly autistic, enjoy the benefits that brings to me, even manage to advocate for other autistic people and educate others about autism, but still manage to live a life that doesn’t mean I’m sidelined for things, or unable to participate in many of the sort of events that make life interesting and worth living.

This post has turned out to be more a list of questions, of musings, of ponderings, than anything else. Maybe, a year on from discovery, six months on from diagnosis, and slowly emerging from burnout, this is a phase I have to go through. I have to ask the questions before the answers will start to emerge. I have to consider how I’m going to live my life, what I’m going to push myself to do, how much I can ask for adaptions to do things I’d be unable to do without them, how much I’m going to give up on some things because it’s too much, and where the balance will eventually lie. Maybe there will never be a full balance, but some sort of compromise between the bit of me that craves adventure and activity and the bit of me that needs solitude and peace.

And after two thousand words of analysis and consideration…

I still don’t know How To Be!

I am still having, consciously, to make decisions about whether to present the old mask to people, which is practised and known and I can do only for short lengths of time, or whether simply to “be myself”, which is new and unfamiliar to me and others and requires explanation and education but is so much more relaxing and feels so much more honest and authentic.

I suspect I’m still learning, trying things out, sometimes getting it wrong, sometimes getting it right, discovering what works and what doesn’t. I suspect that learning How To Be as an authentically autistic person who can actually manage to do things out in the world without getting constantly broken will be an iterative process, and I’m still very much at the start of that process.

Lost Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fail now. Is. Words. Morning. Not.

Now. Schubert. Prob. Can’t.

Tell.

Write hard. Speak not. Food not. Later.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing My Best

So we have come to August. And to the month in which, last year, people started to suggest to me that I might be autistic.

Today is the first anniversary of me starting seriously to fall apart, to not cope. A year ago today I sat in the leader’s seat of a viola section and a remark made to me by the conductor was the last straw after three days of total overload and unknowingly masking furiously without a break and I sat, tears rolling down my face, hardly able to speak. I think I managed to say “I’m doing my best” and that was about it. I was broken. I’ve reviewed that incident in my mind hundreds of times, often berating myself for not being tougher or more grown-up, for not coping as I should have done, for not acting with sufficient professionalism, but eventually I’ve learnt that how I coped (well, didn’t cope) that day was completely out of my control and there was nothing I could have done differently.

At the time, of course, I didn’t know that this meltdown (owing to circumstances, I suspect, a quiet, inward-turned one) was the start of many more that would occur over the next few weeks, nor that it was the start of something that would change my life for ever. I just knew that I felt very very bad and that it was probably some sort of mental health issue. I assumed that I’d go off and have a little rest or something and then be back to “normal” and carry on with life as usual. So I put my viola away after the rehearsal was over and went to have lunch in the dining hall, shaking and terrified, and struggling still further with the sensory overload that I was so used to that I didn’t even know it was making me worse.

I got through the rest of the day, sort of, feeling wrong and dissociated, and trying to do what was expected of me, but the breakdown of my abilities had happened and was irreversible, and by the next morning I couldn’t work out how to dress myself, couldn’t get to breakfast, and I knew I was in big trouble of some sort. My ability to act “appropriately” had fallen apart, and all I knew was that I was a broken down mess.

Fortunately, those around me (and some with whom I was communicating online) were largely sympathetic, and some of them were also knowledgeable, much more knowledgeable than I was, about what being autistic actually looked (and in at least one case felt) like. A year ago today I was only days away from people starting to ask if I’d considered the possibility that I was autistic, having both witnessed my behaviour and listened to my accounts of how the dining room and the vast numbers of people made me feel. This, added to my long history of mental health problems was enough to convince them, and for me to have heard the suggestion from enough people to go away in investigate the possibility thoroughly and to find out what “being autistic” actually meant.

Life has never, of course, gone back to “normal” and I suspect this will be the first of several “it’s been a year since…” posts as the anniversaries keep coming throughout the next year. Had life gone back to normal, you wouldn’t be reading this blog, nor, indeed would many of you have ever encountered me. The meltdown of a year ago today set in motion a chain of events that led to the most life-changing year I’ve ever had.

A year on, I’ve learnt so much. And am still learning so much. I’m hoping that I’ll be able to go back to the same place in a few weeks’ time. I have already returned for a weekend (as I recounted in Going Back) and I’m hoping to be able to go for longer.

There are two ongoing jobs on my jobs list at the moment. One is to finish writing up my assessment for this blog (I’m doing my best with that too, and with responding to comments and so on – apologies that my brain is working on such extended timescales at the moment) and the other is to try to work out what adaptions I might need to get through a week of orchestral playing, living away from home, without completely falling apart. I went last year, as far as I knew, as a very broken neurotypical person (though I don’t think I even knew the word neurotypical at that stage so would never have described myself thus), but this year I’m going back as an autistic person still recovering from a massive burnout.

Which is a huge shift. After over two decades of progressively worsening mental health I’ve become used to the fact that I have “issues” and can’t function like most other people can, but it’s now evident just how disabled I am (and I am disabled, and by more than just society and expectations because my executive functioning is so poor and my ability to care for myself is sometimes almost non-existent – there’s another whole blog post to write about that sometime when I have the capability). And admitting that to myself sufficiently to ask for help is massive for me.

I’m still, also, very much in the process of trying to work out what adaptions I actually need. It’s already been established that eating in the dining hall is beyond my capabilities because of the immense sensory overload, but even then there are still further issues to consider and I’m only just at the start of working out what they actually are. I’m working on them as hard as I can, trying to be as helpful as possible to the people who are trying to help me in order that I can keep playing orchestral music in that environment at all. There will, I’m sure, be times when things still go wrong, and this will be an iterative process as I discover ways to cope in the light of the new knowledge. I’m also feeling a little guilty about needing any adaptions at all, having spent so long just trying to work harder to deal with all the problems I’ve had, but I now find myself in a position where I simply cannot work any harder. I’ve spent my life doing my absolute best at everything I’ve ever done, working as hard as possible, with the result that my energies are spent. My perception of myself is rapidly changing. I have moved from the stage I was at when I wrote Farewell Strong Woman and Expectations Gone, but there is still a long way to go.

As I said to a friend recently, if I say I “can’t” do something, I really genuinely can’t and it’s not that I just don’t want to. But even so, it’s really hard to adjust to asking for help (which I was never very good at) and my social skills and understanding of how other people perceive me are not sufficiently good to know when people are happy to help, and when they’re thinking that I’m just a pain in the arse and it might be better if I gave up trying to do whatever it was because it’s really beyond my capabilities and the adaptions are just too much trouble for people. That’s something I’m still trying to work out too.

What I do know though, is that life has permanently changed as a result of the events of last August, and that returning to the same place, even with the same conductor (which is somewhat scary) and many of the same people, is going to be a very interesting experience if I can manage it. The expectations I had of my future life a year ago are so drastically different from the ones I have now that it still sometimes feels like I’ve stepped into some sort of parallel dream universe and that I’ll wake up one day and life will be back to normal again and I’ll think that was a jolly peculiar dream!

But it isn’t a dream (I don’t think)! It’s a whole new life, a whole new way of viewing my entire life, right back to when I was a very very small. The old life had been stretched and stretched right to its limit (and beyond on several occasions), but that moment, just before lunchtime a year ago today, was when it finally snapped, and people were there to witness it and to make the suggestion as to WHY it had snapped. And from that point it wasn’t about trying to fix the old life, it wasn’t about continuing to try to be “normal” or taking the “advice” that I’d been taking for so long about what would help (and often didn’t). Rather, it was about starting again, with a new set of parameters, building a new life with a different perspective on the world.

And that’s something I’m still doing. A year on from that moment I’m still trying to understand and to rebuild my life – it’s very much a work in progress!