Strategy Deployment

Yesterday I went out again, to something social, where I met quite a lot of people, and where I was out of the house for quite a lot of hours. I went to an afternoon symposium, a series of lectures, then to dinner, once again in my old college.

I employed similar planning strategies to those described in Out to Dinner: a couple of days’ rest beforehand, comfortable clothes, stim toys, dark glasses, and plans for an easy couple of days afterwards so I knew that I could take my energy levels into the red zone if necessary because once I was home I didn’t have to do anything at all except breathe (and that’s something that usually happens without my having to think about it).

Additionally I took some attenuating ear plugs (originally bought for potential use in noisy orchestras and recently discovered in a pile of stuff) and my recently acquired ear defenders, just in case I found a way that I could usefully use them.

It was an interesting afternoon and evening in many ways. It was interesting in the ordinary way in that I learnt some stuff from each of the lectures. I also saw several people I hadn’t seen for a few years, and some others I’ve seen more recently, and it was good to catch up with them. And, of course, it provided me with an opportunity to continue analyzing what I can cope with when I’m out in the world, and what I can’t.

Apart from the dark glasses and slightly more casual clothes than was the norm, the first thing that might have been described as slightly out of the ordinary behaviour was the way I sat during the lectures. I took my boots off and sat with my feet tucked under me, my legs up close to my body, in various formations throughout the afternoon. I nearly always sit, by choice, in some variant of this position.

Very interestingly, I went to a similar symposium in that very same lecture theatre a couple of years ago. I remembered sitting in exactly the same way. I wasn’t wearing dark glasses, but my clothes were still slightly more casual and I sat with my feet tucked up under me in the same way. And that was years before I knew anything about autism, about the beneficial effects of “pressure stimming” (I still have a whole blog post to write about that stuff sometime), and before I realized that I was doing something, perhaps a bit socially out of the ordinary, because that was something that my body needed to do in order to feel OK.

(As an aside, I made no other adaptions on that occasion a few years ago – and I remember it being one of the nights that I woke up in the small hours afterwards feeling sick, shaky and very very wrong – that was always the norm for me after such events. Now things are changing.)

My first real break with “doing what everyone else was doing” was at the tea break between sessions. I used the strategy that I’m now getting used to during the breaks of orchestral rehearsals – get myself a cup of tea then get out of the room with the voices and the noise and the crowds of people as quickly as possible. I went to stand outside in the quadrangle. I was joined by a friend (the one mentioned in the first sentence of Out to Dinner), who gave me a biscuit (a good idea, since I hadn’t yet managed to eat) and asked whether I was OK with him being there or whether I needed to be alone. Since I’m comfortable with him and he knows what’s going on in my life I was happy for him to stay. It wasn’t difficult out in the cool air away from the artificial lights and the noise of too many voices.

When we went back for the second session I knew that my senses were already beginning to tire as the sounds of the voices of those speaking seemed much much louder than they had done during the first session. I decided to try the earplugs. They helped. And not only did they help with reducing the volume of the speaker’s voice to a manageable level, but they really really helped with one of the most painful noises of all – applause. I’m now trying to work out whether there’s any way I can use them in concerts, because applause is a sound that I’ve always found, at best, unpleasant, and at worst, really very painful.

I also felt perfectly justified in wearing something in my ears to alter my hearing perception because there were several in the audience also wearing things in their ears – though they were trying to enhance their hearing and I was trying to reduce mine!

Interestingly, I also looked round to see what other people were doing in terms of stimming. I noticed someone rubbing their hands, someone playing with a pen, and someone jiggling their legs and playing with the hem of their trousers! I’m noticing all these things much more nowadays (again, there’s a whole blog post to be written about this – I have so many things I want to write about, but I can’t make all the words at once)!

After the second session there was a drinks reception in a very reverberant space. I stayed for only a few minutes because I knew it was seriously overtaxing my system. I left everyone else to it and went outside and sat on a step, rocking, in the twilight (and the freezing cold – really should have taken a coat) and put my ear defenders on. I was there for maybe half an hour until the cold got the better of me and I ventured back inside, still wearing my ear defenders, and eventually found a couple of friends and we headed off to dinner.

That time alone, cutting the world out, making everything as silent as possible (not completely silent, but significantly better), and stopping all interaction or worrying about sitting still, really really helped. I would have liked to be at the reception. I would have liked to have been drinking wine instead of elderflower fizzy stuff, I would have liked to be networking, chatting to friends, catching up with everyone, looking at the exhibits and so on, but I am learning that this is the sort of thing that I need to ration very very heavily in order to be able to stay well. This is one of the ways in which I am, perhaps, most disabled – I cannot take part in events such as noisy drinks receptions for any length of time unless I accept that it will have a seriously negative impact upon my health. I have long known that parties and so on tire me beyond belief and cause me to become seriously unwell afterwards – I do at least now know why and I can start to control things a bit.

Refreshed from my “time out”, I was then able to go into dinner, chat to people around me with some confidence, and to spend an evening in the Common Room, which actually turned out even to be enjoyable. My best friend ensured I was sitting in a reasonably advantageous position at dinner (as close to a corner as possible to avoid sensory input from all directions), I took care not to over eat, as before, and later, when I started to feel slightly dizzy and unable to comprehend words while standing and increasingly failing to take part in a group conversation, I went to sit down. I’ve also discovered that I find conversation much easier when I’m seated – If I’m not using energy to stand then I have more available to be able to convert thoughts to words!

So this week’s “event” went well. It was also easier than previous times doing similar things have been. I suspect this is partly because I’m starting to see a bit of recovery from burnout, partly because I have a new-found confidence following my diagnosis (more on that in a future post), and partly because I’m learning what strategies work to help me get through such an event without ending up sick for days afterwards.

Admittedly, I had to adapt my behaviour quite considerably yesterday, I didn’t get out of bed until after 2pm today, and I wouldn’t have been able to hold much of a conversation this morning (I tried a little speech earlier but it was really hard work and since I’m here alone I didn’t even bother using that amount of energy for anything more than experimental purposes), but it’s progress. It’s working out how I can best function in the world and get the most possible out of life without destroying myself in the process!

Looking at Eyes

I was chatting on Facebook messenger with a friend of mine. We’ve been friends around 5 years, and she is probably, after my husband and best friend, the person I see most regularly in real life.

“So what colour are my eyes then?” she asked.

I paused for a moment, thought about her hair, which she dyes dark red, and it seems to match her skin, so I guess that before she dyed it it must have been dark. “Brown!” I respond.

“Er, no, they’re blue actually.”

She then asked me about the eyes of a mutual friend who I also see quite a lot in real life. Even darker dyed hair. I was confident about this one. Much more obvious. “Definitely brown,” I said.

“Nope, wrong again, she’s another like me with dark hair and blue eyes, except that hers are greyer than mine.”

I really wasn’t very good at this eye colour game. So far 0/2 on the eye colour score!

“Her mouth wiggles a bit at the corner sometimes and your teeth point inwards,” I proffered, in an attempt to show that my observation skills weren’t completely up the spout and I hadn’t been ignoring my friends for the last 5 years!

She laughed! And told me that this was further proof of her observation that even before I had the slightest clue that I was autistic my eye contact skills were, at best, somewhat idiosyncratic!

***

I was in the kitchen with my best friend. He asked me if I knew what colour the eyes of a mutual friend of ours were.

I thought about it. Our mutual friend has grey hair. I think it might have been dark when he was younger. Somehow I couldn’t quite imagine what colour eyes he might have though.

I admitted I didn’t know, and that if someone really needed that information from me then the only way I could supply it would be by looking at a photograph.

***

I mentioned eye contact in an earlier blog post. A discussion ensued on my Facebook wall. Somebody I went to school with between the ages of 13 and 18 commented on the discussion. She clearly stated that she remembered that whenever she looked at me I would look away very very fast. She said she thought at the time it was something that “clever people did.”

***

My husband says that when I do look in his direction I then don’t look away when most people would. He says it’s as if I point my eyes in that direction and then just forget and leave them there. It always slightly freaks him out!

***

So, it seems that I have been “faking it” as far as eye contact is concerned, probably all my life. I’ve certainly never been able to glean information about the state of a person from their eyes, beyond such things as closed = maybe asleep, or tears = maybe sad or happy. I’ve also observed that even when watching television I don’t look at eyes. I go through my life and think of people I know or have known quite well – relatives, friends, former colleagues. I cannot picture what any of their eyes look like. I know they must have eyes, but I cannot visualise any of them. But I can easily visualise mouths and noses, and, in some cases, ears.

This faking really has been fake. Even when I’ve apparently been looking at eyes, I haven’t taken in any information about them. I cannot picture what my own mother’s eyes look like. Not a hope.

This is still news to me. I wasn’t aware of anything beyond remembering instructions given to me as a child, probably by schoolteachers (I can’t remember) saying “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” So I did as I was told. For the next 40 years.

So why have I been faking it? Why is looking at eyes so weird?

I believe that the schoolteachers probably wanted me to look at them because they thought that it was an indicator that I was paying attention (which it wasn’t – I was, and still am, perfectly capable of paying attention to what someone is saying without looking at them – probably rather better that way in fact). I have also looked at fellow musicians when playing chamber music and so on, and again I think it’s just a sign to people saying “I know you’re there, I’m listening to your part, and I’m paying attention.” It doesn’t actually help me to pay attention, but I know that people think you’re paying more attention if you look at them. It’s a learnt fact and a practised technique. It’s been a large part of the mask. But as far as communication is concerned it’s meaningless to me except to show that I’m paying attention.

And, it seems that while I’ve been faking some sort of approximate eye contact I’ve been using massive amounts of energy to do so (as described in An Experiment) and been pretty much avoiding the real thing whenever possible.

And all this while not even knowing I was autistic. I had no reason to avoid eye contact. Not anything tangible. But I did this fake thing for decades. So it was obviously something that wasn’t quite comfortable for me.

And so recently I’ve tried to describe what actual eye contact (from the few moments it has happened unavoidably and sort of by accident, when I haven’t moved my gaze fast enough) actually feels like to me.

And the best I can come up with is that it feels a bit like being naked in public in front of an audience somewhere very very important and totally overwhelmed in a way I can’t describe, and a bit like being poked with a sharp stick.

Which, when I put it like that, explains perfectly why I’ve faked it all my life and why I will now only even attempt it when absolutely necessary. Eye contact might be some wonderful communicative thing in some people’s worlds, but in my world it’s just rather creepy and uncomfortable.

I’m eccentric, but not “get naked in front of an audience until my brain explodes” and “be poked with a sharp stick” sort of eccentric!

Misunderstandings

61-2017-01-14-16-41-18“Big or small?” the barman asked.

I couldn’t believe my ears. Had he really just asked me that? This was just an ordinary pub, nothing particularly sophisticated, the sort of place where you order a pint and a steak and chips at the bar and eventually someone brings it over to a table with a gold number screwed into the corner.

We’d ordered our drinks, which were now sitting on the bar, and were just completing our food order. Steak and chips or something like that. Then the barman asked if we wanted any side orders. I thought that onion rings would be nice, so I said “Onion rings please” and received the answer “Big or small?”

I stood there at the bar, absolutely amazed that the pub sorted their onion rings by size. Utterly unable to comprehend this level of onion ring detail. I guessed that the big ones came from the outside of the onion and the small ones would maybe come from the middle. I thought the small ones would probably be quite cute.

I turned to my husband and asked him what he thought. He suggested big, and said that he might steal a few. I told him that he could steal a few if I had small ones…

And, of course, he laughed, because, on this occasion he’d understood correctly and I’d understood wrongly. This wasn’t anything to do with the size of the onion rings, but the size of the PORTION of onion rings. I’d completely misunderstood the barman’s question and gone off into a reverie of onion ring categorization that would probably only ever occur in some sort of gastronomic competition – certainly not in a very ordinary pub.

This is the sort of ambiguity that most people’s conversation seems to be full of, the sort of thing that people are supposed to understand as if by some sort of magic. The sort of thing that I’ve been trying to learn all my life, and have never quite got right. Close enough for survival most of the time, and because I’m generally quite affable and quite content to laugh at my own mistakes, it’s all just been put down to being a bit eccentric. Furthermore, there have been occasions where people have laughed at me and I’ve wondered what the joke was, until I realised I’d misunderstood and they’d actually assumed that my suddenly talking about, for example, miniature onion rings, was in fact my quirky sense of humour!

My husband is not immune to the “literal effect” either. He once volunteered to help at a party (partly because he had to be at the party and helping is one of his ways of avoiding having to make small talk – in general he’d much rather work than chat), so the hostess of the party said it would be really helpful if he could gather up empty glasses from around the house and take them to the kitchen.

A simple and understandable instruction – empty glasses to kitchen. Easy.

So, every time he saw an empty glass he took it to the kitchen. Each time someone took their last mouthful of wine or beer or whatever and put their glass down, he swooped in and took it to the kitchen, before there was even a microchance that it might be refilled.

The consequence was that people kept having to get new glasses and the supply of glasses ran out about half way through the party and the glasses had to be washed up so that people could carry on drinking.

But the instructions were clear – empty glasses to the kitchen, so that’s what he did!

I’ve apparently been making similar kitchen-related mistakes for many years. I go to have lunch fairly regularly with my best friend and his wife. I sort of know that I should help somehow, because my husband has told me that people are meant to offer to help in the kitchen, but to be honest it always seems so terribly complicated that I just sit there and hope that if I’m really needed to do something then someone will ask me – communal working is something I find really challenging.

Occasionally my friend’s wife has handed me 3 plates and asked me to put them onto the table. I have done this, reliably, exactly as instructed, for around 20 years. I take the stack of 3 plates from her and place them on the table.

About a week after it became obvious that the autism hypothesis was true and I told my friend and his wife that I was autistic, she suddenly said how much sense it made, and immediately mentioned the plates. Apparently for around the last 20 years, when handing me plates to put on the table, what she’s actually meant is that I should LAY the table, putting plates in situ in front of the places where people sit. And similarly with knives and forks.

I have been completely clueless about this hidden meaning. She’s always thought I was being slightly obstinate and unwilling to lay the table. I’ve believed I was doing exactly as I was told!!!

It seems that there are hidden messages all over the place in human communication that I often miss, even when they are apparently clear and written down.

Around 20 years ago I had a boyfriend for a year or so, and, as it became obvious that the relationship wasn’t going to be a permanent one and we started to drift apart, we both started to go our separate ways and move on. It wasn’t an acrimonious parting, just a recognition that things were now over.

I then got a new boyfriend, and started to move on with my life, and shortly afterwards received a letter from the old boyfriend. In this letter the old boyfriend wished me well, and told me that he had a new beautiful girlfriend and was very happy spending time with her now (or words to that effect). I read the letter and thought “That’s nice, he has a new girlfriend, I hope she treats him well and they’re happy together.”

The next time I saw my new boyfriend I reported that the old one had now moved on and showed him the letter. He took one look at it and said “There is no new girlfriend, he’s trying to get you back.” I was completely gobsmacked and couldn’t believe it for one minute. If he wanted to get me back then why on Earth would he invent a fictitious girlfriend? Why not say “I miss you, is there any chance we can see each other again?”

But my new boyfriend was right. Not very much investigating showed that at that time the old one didn’t have a new girlfriend. And the letter was just some sort of ploy – apparently I was supposed to feel jealous or something. One which, of course, completely backfired because I had no way of understanding this sort of game, no way of comprehending that there was some sort of hidden message in the letter – like almost everything in life, I simply took what it said at face value.

There have been many of these sorts of incidents over the years – too many for me simply to have been “a bit slow on the uptake” or to have just ordinarily misunderstood quite so often. I’m certain that everyone misunderstands communication from time to time, but I seem to do it rather more often than most people do, and I know I spend a lot of time deconstructing sentences in my head, trying to work out exactly what they mean and attempting to understand what the other person is really saying, and I often get it wrong. I’ve learnt and learnt and learnt to try to read what people mean when they communicate, but there have always been holes in the learning, and I’ve always been thinking very very hard and very very consciously about what things can mean. I learn from each mistake – I now know that onion rings come in portion sizes, not actual sizes, I now know that putting things onto a table sometimes means laying a table, and I now know that boyfriends pretend to have new girlfriends as a way of trying to persuade old ones to return to them. But all of this is learnt, consciously learnt, one mistake at a time, and I still don’t really understand why people don’t just give more accurate instructions.

I’m still learning, still working it out, but at least I now know that the reason I get things wrong is because imprecise instructions that assume I have a level of social knowledge that I don’t have are really confusing to me. As I start to remember these seemingly innocuous and isolated incidents they’re linking up to form a consistent pattern of things that I misunderstood, or didn’t pick up on. I’m a fast learner, so I keep learning, and I copy copy copy other people who seem to know what to do, but I don’t have the inbuilt social knowledge that other people have.

The social games that so many people seem so fond of are totally lost on me. However hard I try to learn how they work, I always seem to be running along behind all the social people, trying to catch up, trying to figure it out!

But the whole thing is a massive effort, and a whole load of trying to guess what exactly I’m supposed to be doing!

Too Loud

53-2016-12-29-22-14-42I sat in the masterclass, trying to hear what the teacher was saying to the student, straining my ears against the noise coming from my left. A woman who was sitting a couple of seats away from me was taking notes – with a pencil, and the sound of it scratching on the paper was getting so loud that I could almost hear it drowning out the voice of the teacher. I glanced round the room to see whether anyone else had noticed, but if they had they were giving no indication that they were the slightest bit worried by it.

I’ve noticed that since I’ve been in burnout my sensitivity to noise has increased dramatically and my ability to filter out extraneous sounds has declined substantially. I’ve always had issues with background noise, and usually I’m working really hard to filter out the things that I want to hear from those I don’t – this takes a huge amount of energy and I can only usually do it for a finite amount of time before some sort of meltdown occurs.

Interestingly, the noise in the eating place last summer (see The Discovery) was one of the main contributing factors to my eventually being identified as autistic. Not being able to cope with the noises of food, plates, eating, talking and so on AND then having to eat my own food was one of the big triggers that made me seriously anxious and I ended up figuring that it was so stressful being in that environment that the best thing to do would be just to give up eating while I was there because the whole food experience had become so very difficult. Of course, that wasn’t a great strategy, and explaining my difficulties and being given dispensation to eat somewhere quieter was a rather more realistic approach!

Eating noises in particular are something I find very hard to cope with and, as I’ve seen memes on the internet, I’ve gathered that there’s a name for this – misophonia – which is apparently something else not really recognised by medics. So I have a double problem – I can’t cope with quiet eating situations because the individual noises are too stressing, but I can’t really cope with noisy ones too well either. Catch 22. Maybe I should just accept that communal eating is a jolly unpleasant experience and stay away from it completely? Or maybe a more sensible solution might be to limit it and be aware that it takes extra energy!

But it’s not just eating. We don’t have a separate kitchen at home, just an area at one end of the sitting room. When my husband is cooking, particularly if he’s frying anything, the sound of the stuff in the pan can sometimes quite literally hurt my ears. I also get similar problems with cutlery clanking on plates, or pots and pans being rattled and so on. Even when there’s no cooking going on, I sit there waiting for the fridge to stop making a noise so I can get some peace. I really would be the world’s worst kitchen worker!

Usually I manage to cope with most of the noises in the everyday world. Like bright lights, they exhaust me and I need to recover from them. Like with light I’m trying to figure out a way to dull them somewhat, especially now I know that I’m not hearing the same things that other people hear (not because there’s anything wrong with my ears, but because the way my brain processes sounds is rather different). Unlike with light it’s more difficult. Wearing sunglasses is an easy adaption – I’ve worn glasses since I was a teenager and have to wear them anyway to be legal to drive the car and to be able to see. Glasses are no big deal.

Earplugs or headphones are an entirely different matter. I can tolerate having earphones in for a short while, but I’m permanently slightly uncomfortable with them in because of how they feel in my ears. Apparently there are people who can sleep with earplugs in – I don’t know how because they drive me nuts after a very short time. I have worn earplugs at airshows and so on, but the sound of my own voice is then totally unbearable and I only keep them in for the noisiest jets. I would also feel very vulnerable out alone without being able to hear what’s going on around me, because I use my hearing so much as a safety mechanism – maybe the advantage of hearing so much of the background noise upfront is that I notice things like footsteps behind me or the whistle of wind in bicycle wheels when I’m about to cross a road, or similar. I haven’t yet solved the noise problem – that’s very much a work in progress!

And, of course, sound has the additional problem over sight in that it isn’t just the filtering of noise that’s the issue, but a lot of the time coping with sound requires the auditory processing of language too. It has now become obvious that spoken language doesn’t come naturally to me and filtering out conversations from other conversations is something I’ve always found really hard work – which is why I’ve often found myself at parties following a conversation that I’m not even part of and when I’m then asked to contribute have had to ask what has just been said as if my hearing was a bit dodgy!

I’m fairly confident that when I’m recovered from the current burnout things will get a bit better. During most of my life I’ve generally preferred having music playing to having silence – music is a huge and very important part of my life. Interestingly, sometimes, background music (as long as it isn’t too loud) can be a steadying influence on me when I’m surrounded by talking and conversation. It feels to me as though it enters my head on a different channel from conversation – it goes straight in and has meaning instantly without the translation mechanism needed for words. However, when I had the 2001 burnout I couldn’t cope with music at all and craved total silence most of the time. This time around it hasn’t been quite as bad, but all my volume controls have been turned right down and I need everything very soft. On bad days I can’t watch the television with sound and simply put the subtitles on and read them instead. I have managed to play in the occasional concert and the music itself hasn’t been too bad, but the applause at the end of the show is very very painful at the moment. Again, I’m hoping this will improve.

Of course, living in a flat with 3 lots of neighbours is really not ideal in this situation. And the fact that I’m only getting out about once a week means I’m spending an awful lot of time listening to the neighbours’ doors squeaking, their showers running, the noise they make in the corridor outside, the car alarms in the car park below, the dogs barking, and worst of all, the noise of the primary school kids arriving in the morning (the primary school is very close to our block of flats). The voices of babies and small children produce the same effect that knives clanking on plates or people chewing or pencils scratching on paper do. I’m guessing it’s something to do with the frequency of the sound or the structure of the wave or some similar thing – maybe I’ll research it one day, but for now it’s just simple observation.

And, like everything else, now I know how much energy I’m using to cope with filtering noise and trying to focus in on what I actually need to hear, I’m going to have to adapt things a bit. More recovery, more time spent in silence (or the closest I can get to it, given my living circumstances), more time on my own. We’ve also discovered how to disable the entryphone to our flat (nobody ever visits unscheduled anyway) and we now have all ringers on phones permanently turned off. Social occasions will have to be prepared for, recovered from, and rationed to things I really want to do. Having to cope with the sheer amount of noise in the world is yet another thing that drains my energy and causes exhaustion, overload, and sometimes meltdown.

Out to Dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Achievement

47-2017-01-22-11-23-13This morning I went running. For the first time this year. The first time since early November. I only did 2 kilometres, at a pace of 7:15 per kilometre. Neither long nor fast. Under normal circumstances I’d hardly consider such a run worth putting my shoes on for – I’m an ultrarunner and I like to be out there for a long time. My usual idea of a “short run” is anything up to half marathon distance or so. My usual idea of a “long run” is one that takes a whole day and involves backpacks and nutrition and so on – maybe the “autistic intertia” that makes starting and stopping activities so difficult is actually an asset in ultrarunning?

However, during the last few months I’ve been so burnt out, so stressed, so frightened to leave the flat most of the time, that running simply hasn’t happened. Just the effort of putting kit on has been completely beyond me, and I’ve looked, slightly sadly, from time to time, at my pile of much-loved running shoes in the hallway, desperately hoping that I’ll be well enough to put them on again one day.

Running is one of the things that might, in autistic terms, be described as one of my “special interests”. I’ll discuss the whole concept of “obsessions”, “special interests” or whatever they’re called at some point – I tend just to think of mine as things I like, but I do recognize that when I like something enough to bother with it at all, I really do bother with it. The first day I put a pair of running shoes on and moved slightly faster than walking pace for one painful minute, I began a journey that would lead me to a 100 kilometre ultramarathon just 9 months later. I read the magazines, I’m obsessed with the kit, the nutrition, and so on. I have a steadily growing pile of books about running, and I love following online trackers of races and feats of endurance running whenever they’re available.

This last few months though, I’ve had to sit and watch as others actually did the running. I simply couldn’t manage it. Over the autumn I pulled out of two halves and four marathons, all of which I really wanted to do. I’ve realised that races are going to need some strategies to cope with – it has become obvious that when other runners chat to me it severely impairs my running performance, even people cheering me on uses language-processing power that means I have less energy available for the actual running. I absolutely hate having my name on a race vest – it freaks me out when random people suddenly shout my name – it is not encouraging for me, it is spooky and weird.

I have also always resisted joining a running club. People tell me the camaraderie is wonderful, and that the beers in the pub afterwards are lovely. But, to be honest, I’d rather give up running than have to join a club – I want to do running for running’s sake and one of the reasons it works for me as a way of getting fit is that I can do the actual running completely on my own. I like the quiet, the repetitive action of one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again, the same thing, lost in my own world. The minute someone talks to me that spell is broken and I am dragged back into a world where I have to work out other people and what they want and why they have spoken to me and what they are hoping to get out of this conversation. I’ve even been asked during races “What do you do?” WHY? Why, when I’m 20 miles into a marathon, would a total stranger ask me a difficult and complicated question that would take nearly all my resources to answer if I was sitting down and had a lot of breath and time to think about it? I don’t understand.

I do all my training alone. Even when my husband and I train “together” what we actually do is get changed into kit, tell each other approximately where we’re going to go and how far and what time we expect to be back, and then arrange to meet back at the car or wherever. The only times we have actually run together (once during a race that was going wrong when he was trying to protect me from people talking to me, and occasionally for safety reasons in rough conditions) we do not chat. We just run. That’s the beauty of running for me – it’s a solitary sport, something I control myself, which rarely involves other people or communication, a far cry from the bullying and dread that is my abiding memory of having to play team sports at school. I used to enjoy swimming until the sensory overload and proximity to other people in swimming pools made it unbearable.

But I enjoy races. I like to see what’s going on. I love looking at other people’s shoes and kit and so on, I like to see the ways races are organised, I like the welcoming sight of the next aid station and the excitement of seeing what goodies they might have available (sitting eating porridge and lemon tarts and drinking soup after nearly 24 hours out on a trail, cold and wet with a busted leg, is a special and wonderful thing). I like having a goal to aim for, a medal to put round my neck saying “I achieved something that I never thought I would”, and I like to make training plans and work out which days I’m going to devote to a long run and which foods I’m going to try to carry and pushing my body to its absolute limit.

I could give up races and confine myself to training or “virtual” races, but that isn’t my aim. I’m going to have to get fitter in order to compensate for the people – where many folk find the race “atmosphere” enhances their performance, it impairs mine, so I’m going to have to train harder. I have a marathon booked for the start of April (along with a very expensive hotel room). I’m now wondering whether I might actually be able to do it. I certainly haven’t given up. I was also planning my first 100 mile race in May, which probably looks unlikely at this stage – although there is an option to drop down to the 24 hour challenge, which might be a possibility. I’m keeping my options open for the moment.

One thing is certain. My obsession with running has not abated during my enforced rest period. In fact, I’ve become somewhat interested in historical sprinting while sitting in front of the TV with the DVD of Chariots of Fire on repeat for the last month. I’m now reading avidly almost everything I can lay my eyes on about Harold Abrahams, Eric Liddell, and the 1924 Paris Olympics, finding out the real stories behind the film, my head filling with little snippets of knowledge, which I won’t start listing here because I haven’t finished the process yet and it would already be more than a blog post’s worth!

The only books I have read in the last few months that haven’t been about autism (or science/maths text books for “work” type reasons) have been running books – not only those about historical figures, but contemporary tales of marathons and trail running. I’ve struggled to read much at all because my concentration is so poor, but, aside from the autism section of my personal library, running books are the others that have made it to the top of the pile.

But this morning I actually managed to run again. I woke up feeling as though I could, and having spent several days thinking about it, I decided to see whether I could actually do it. The hardest parts were, as they usually are, getting out of the flat in the first place, and then returning to the flat at the end. We share a communal staircase with everyone in the block, and we both live in utter terror of meeting a neighbour on the stairs and having to chat about something unexpected. Going out is actually better than getting home because we can hear people in the corridor outside so we simply hide behind the front door and wait for them to go, but the possibility of getting into the block and being nearly home but then bumping into someone is an anxiety we live with every time we get home from anywhere – the relief and ability to breathe properly again when we finally close and lock the door behind us is massive.

The run itself was lovely. I was pleasantly surprised that I haven’t lost as much fitness as I might have imagined – maybe up to two hours a day rocking hard on the sofa and bashing myself violently against a cushion has been good cross training? One of the things that has also been better about this episode of burnout / mental illness than during previous episodes is that I went into it very physically fit. Previously I’ve not only been mentally very low, but I’ve also been very overweight (I used to be a person who struggled to climb stairs, even lifting my legs with my arms to go up steps at one stage) and extremely unfit and incapable of walking any distance at all. The physical fitness has helped no end – running has turned out to be a very good “special interest” to have acquired.

And this morning I finally started to increase my fitness again, just a tiny bit. I can’t imagine this will be a totally smooth ascent – I’m not pushing anything hard at the moment because I know that the only real cures for burnout are solitude and rest, but now I’ve been out once, remembered I can do it, and been through the familiar routine of putting kit on and so on, maybe it’ll be a little bit easier next time. And although I’ll never be a sprinter at the 1924 Olympics, I might manage to get good enough to run again in one of my favourite marathons in one of my favourite cities in April.

A very special friend of mine in a distant and beautiful part of the world wrote one of the books I am currently reading. It is called “Run Gently Out There”.

That is exactly what I hope to keep doing.

Be Prepared!

45-2017-01-04-16-45-19Baden-Powell had it right. The motto that I learnt as a Girl Guide in my youth, and which the Boy Scouts also used, was spot on as far as surviving life as an autistic person is concerned. Preparation is key. Planning is key. Unexpectedness causes panic, anxiety, and, as it did for me yesterday, meltdown.

I thought I’d done something fun and nice and innocent. I shared a short video on my Facebook timeline, showing a recipe for a pudding made from biscuits, chocolate, and marshmallows. I thought it was a bit of fun, I liked the way the marshmallows melted in the oven, and that people might enjoy watching it. I didn’t expect any negative comments beyond “So sad I’m on a diet at the moment” or “Don’t let my kids see that – they’ll want one”.

Then I got up (I’d posted the video from my phone in bed), went to the immense effort of putting clothes on, thought, since it was already around midday, that I should at least try to get some nutrition into me (I’m having quite a lot of issues with food and often can’t eat at all until the evening when anxiety levels have reached manageable proportions). I went to the fridge and knew that the one thing I might be able to face was some milkshake, and that that would be good because it would provide both hydration and nutrition, and I could take my medication with it. Sorted.

But there was no milkshake. We’d run out. I resisted the temptation to message my husband to tell him because he’s on the very edge of coping – working all hours, fixing the washing machine, providing massive amounts of care. When he fails (to get enough milkshake) it’s not because he isn’t trying his best but because he has simply run out of energy.

So, by now it was early afternoon. I still couldn’t eat. I looked at the mug on the kitchen side and tried to work out how I might get tea to be in it, and couldn’t, because my brain couldn’t work out the many complex steps involved. I used the only energy I had to get a glass and fill it with water, because my brain told me that if I couldn’t get nourishment I should at least try not to dehydrate. In the absence of milkshake, water was the best I could do.

Then I went back to the sofa and opened up Facebook. There were comments on the video. Not good ones. Along the lines of “It’ll give you a heart attack”, “It’ll give you diabetes”, and, simply, “Yuk”.

When I saw the word “yuk” I burst into tears. How could I have got it so wrong? I shared something that I thought was so innocent, and all I get is stuff about horrible illnesses and yuk. I obviously fucked up big time. This is what I made people think of. Great. Nice one me.

I tried to reply about what a screw up I’d made, but could hardly type because I was shaking so badly and could hardly see through the tears. I really was wrong. A socially inept pariah. I would have to give up social media too. Evidently now the mask had disintegrated and I was starting to be my full autistic self I was losing any rational ability to see what was good. My judgement was screwed.

Socialising outside the flat is already limited because of the sensory overload. It was evident in that moment that socialising online was also falling to pieces. My life was heading for a simple “get up, stare at telly and play solitaire, try not to kill self, go back to bed”. Forget people. I clearly didn’t understand them. They clearly don’t understand me.

I already strictly limit what I post on Facebook. I have extremely strong political views, which anyone who knows me will know. I very rarely post about them – not because they aren’t passionate and strong, but because I know my mental health is too fragile to cope with the inevitable debate it would create. I have to limit the amount of news I currently take in for similar reasons. It’s not that I don’t care, but that I can’t cope. And by “can’t cope” I don’t mean “makes me cry and feel uncomfortable” I mean “would tip the balance between thinking that I want to be dead and taking active steps to be so”. So I avoid the triggers, because it is the only way I will get well enough to lead any life beyond staring at the telly.

I also avoid a lot of animal cruelty stuff, for similar reasons and because I know it upsets people. I go out of my way to be uncontroversial. When I see posts that upset me or of things I don’t like or can’t cope with, 99% of the time I simply hide them from my feed. Even if someone posts a picture of their dinner and it looks perfectly vile, I just hide it, as I do with other things that I know most people find harmless, but trigger a deep and upsetting emotional reaction in me. If I compiled a set of specific “trigger warnings” for me, it would probably surprise the hell out of people – some things that trigger bad feelings in me are, in most people’s eyes, absolutely normal, yet other things that many people consider triggering don’t bother me in the slightest. I know that my brain doesn’t work the same as other people’s do. I got that years ago. I didn’t need to know about autism to get that – it was obvious as soon as I knew I was a person at all.

So I’d posted a video of a pudding, and got this massive negative reaction. My brain immediately challenged the assertion that eating such a thing would “give a heart attack” because all available evidence suggests that people eat puddings every day without suffering myocardial infarctions and I don’t go into restaurants and see defibrillator machines being wheeled out with the dessert trolley. This was clearly some sort of “small talk banter” that is factually inaccurate but that I know people engage in. Ditto the diabetes claim, which irritates me every time I see it on a post of sweet food but the same people don’t post similar comments on other carbohydrates. Nobody ever comments on how much the slice of toast is raising my blood glucose, on how much the obesity you get from eating too much of anything and doing too little activity to burn it off is the contributing factor that can lead to diabetes in some people. Both the heart attack and the diabetes comments come from a general healthy eating thing and not too much sugar (or whatever is the health fashion at the time) but this ignoring the real facts to make some kind of “soundbite” is part of the world of small talk that drives me crazy.

I’m simplifying massively here. I’m not a medic and I know there are papers galore on this stuff written by people who’ve done the studies. But these glib assertions I see irritate the hell out of me every time. I’ve learnt, over the course of many years that this is what people do. I don’t understand why they do it. But they do. Usually I have enough energy just to like the comment and move on. But yesterday I didn’t. Every scrap of knowledge about heart disease and diabetes from the appropriate branches of my brain flooded my head and overwhelmed me (this is quite normal – one comment like this frequently triggers a huge wave of information release, and information that is not in word form, so I can’t even produce it to debate in real time).

And then I read the one comment that wasn’t about disease. And it simply said “yuk”. And everything along the lines of “if you can’t think of anything nice to say then don’t say anything at all” came flying at me. Why did this person have to be so horrible? Maybe they don’t like chocolate? Or marshmallows? OK. So just move on. Surely? But no, they have to tell me that I’ve shared something horrible, that repulsed them. To make me question my sanity.

At that point I feared a whole slew of comments about this awful awful disease-ridden vile thing I’d shared. I’d clearly got it so so wrong. So I deleted the post. The most I could then manage was a tearful emoji on my wall, and one further comment before my words disappeared. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even make enough words to type a coherent sentence. I closed Facebook and sat there wishing I had the means and the energy to end my life.

Then, once the meltdown subsided, I thought “Oh shit, husband might be worried”. So I opened Facebook again and found a message from him – just a question mark. He knows when not to involve unnecessary words. I did the best I could to explain, and to say that there was a whole load of shit broken out on my wall but that I was still almost nonverbal so couldn’t even do anything to explain what had happened. Neither could I even thank those who were being nice, nor enter into the discussion that had started involving cake, and eating issues in general. Fortunately we can communicate without sentences. He knows what I mean, even when the language is only partially formed.

So he did his best to explain, and I’m now doing the full job, via a blog post, because what happened raises one of the things I’ve known all my life. I need to be prepared.

Almost everything I do is planned. If I am going out somewhere then I look it up beforehand. If I need to leave the flat to buy a pint of milk then I prepare for several hours. I have it in my head. When I go and visit my friend I know what will happen. His wife will open the door. We will say hello, I will go upstairs to my friend’s office, sit in the usual chair, and he will just finish the e-mail he’s writing then we will chat. All these normal things are routine. Done before. I prepare for them in my head, but I am fairly certain of the outcome of my actions.

If I am doing something risky or unfamiliar I prepare myself. I know it will be hard. I know there will be unknowns. I know these unknowns are stressful. Therefore I prepare. I put a mental guard up. This is exhausting and takes a lot of energy to do, so I only do it when I have the available energy or when I absolutely need to. So, if someone invites me to, say, play in a new orchestra, I have to factor in the energy of the guard, because I’m going somewhere unfamiliar, meeting new people, and so on. I also have to make new scripts for these occasions, and know that I might even have to improvise conversations and people might ask me questions I haven’t thought of or discuss things unfamiliar to me. So I have the guard. It uses energy. But it protects me.

If I did decide to post something controversial on my Facebook wall I would only do it when I had a lot of energy. I would put my guard up. I would expect negative comments. I would be prepared for debate, and for it to feel rough, and to trigger emotions, and to feel dangerous and scary. I would have already scripted answers to many of the questions I anticipated. I know there are certain people’s timelines that are full of triggers and scary things. Certain groups that I can only cope with sometimes. I only look at them when I have my guard up (sometimes only when my husband is at home with me so we can discuss whether my reaction is correct or not).

I prepare myself. I know that the new thing or the controversial post or the triggering group needs to be approached only when I’m feeling up to dealing with them.

But, when I posted a video of someone making a pudding, I was not prepared. The wholly negative reaction that video produced sliced through my system like an electric shock. I allowed myself to look at the Internet without my guard. As myself. Soft vulnerable bit exposed. Being myself (as people are so fond of telling me to do) means being exposed to hurt and difficulty. Because what is banter to many people is not to me.

This is why being oneself is so hard. Why so many autistics (and also, I suspect, people with anxiety disorders, PTSD and so on) withdraw from social life even, sometimes, when they are lonely. It is a form of self-protection. Because the way our brains are wired means that if we are totally “ourselves” then we expose ourselves to situations that cause distress because many people don’t understand how seriously we can take things that are understood as “social banter” by most people. If we go the alternative route and mask our feelings, saying the “right thing”, and putting our guards up, then we might well appear successful and have “normal” reactions to posts on Facebook and so on, but the cost in energy is huge. And that is why we become so utterly exhausted.

Yesterday, needless to say, was lost. I achieved none of the things I’d hoped to. I managed to eat a piece of toast in the late afternoon and a few chips for supper. No need to worry that I’m getting obese – I’m losing weight at the moment simply because I have so many days when I’m too anxious to eat properly or my autistic brain won’t let me eat anything other than milkshakes or whatever the current “thing” is!

My head now knows though, that posting even something apparently innocent can trigger a meltdown and a mess. Maybe I need to approach even online interactions with more caution. Maybe there are people there who haven’t read any of this blog (I’m fairly terrible at promoting either it, or the page, because I can’t quite believe anyone would actually be interested in any of it) and don’t know just how fragile I am at the moment.

Maybe I need to prepare myself for difficult comments because everyone won’t see a pudding as a nice innocent thing.

This is why the world is so complicated and difficult. Doing anything at all seems to bring a whole load of unpredictable consequences. My brain doesn’t cope well with that. It doesn’t understand. And when it reaches its limit, it goes into meltdown.