The Guilty Brain of an Autistic Hermit

The Guilty Brain of an Autistic Hermit

Right now I should be writing about the sensational Saltaire Festival – an annual event loaded with great food, music and other cultural delights. However, having spent Saturday morning crying loudly in a shallow and cold bath in the dark because I haven’t cracked immersion boilers yet, and tweeting about it (of course), I could barely bring myself to get out of the tub to put a towel round myself, never mind playing Bradford community reporter. I sort of succumbed to a feeling of eternal acute despair about not being able to relax with the precious little time off I have, after a less-than-ideal second week in a 9-till-5 office job. It left me desperate for comfort, the way a kid needs scooping up and stroking after they’ve fallen over and grazed their knee. Perhaps, previously, I would have even called my mum for reassurance but these days I just have me, and my husband within reason to provide that bespoke nurturance that my confusing noodle is in need of.

Following the despair that comes with being overwhelmed as I so frequently am, came a sense of determination to find something to do that would help my mood and also a sense of acceptance that I was in need of looking after myself and that is what I was going to do. Occasionally I got a pang of anxiety when I browsed social media in intervals to see that the festival was in full swing and I could have gone there with my camera and made a really beautiful feature out of it. But it wasn’t to be. And that was okay because I spent time on Skyrim instead which involved a lot of exploring in itself. I did unfortunately got severely lost in Blackreach though having been away from the game for so long, so I ended up creating a new game with myself as a literally cat lady, or Khajit as it’s known on there and doing incredibly childish things like jumping on top of feast tables in halls and knocking all the platters and goblets off, or squatting directly or behind NPC characters, confusing them immensely. Basically I had a right laugh and gave me that sense of fulfillment I felt great pressure for my Saturday to provide.

I suppose what I’m getting at here is that you have to know yourself, and what it is that you need to crawl out of holes if you ever find yourself in them. If you have anxiety as I do, symptomatic of my ASD, you may find yourself allegorically speaking six-feet-under layers and layers of catastrophising and self-loathing. And that doesn’t define us as terrible people or whatever, but neither should we be bound to follow the cookie-cutter advice of magazines, occupational health messages, Wiki-How guides or even friends and family for weaving an emotional rope ladder out of the pit. And by that I mean going outside and doing life-like activities, for pleasure or practical reasons, maintaining a regular sleep schedule sans-naps (the most egregious of tips), and healthy eating as defined by whoever offering the advice.

Granted, it is real graft-work to attain that emotional intelligence if you haven’t already, to give yourself the time to work out how you tick. Also, it can be really stressful not being able to comfortably ‘give it a go’, trying to fit in with how normies cope. It adds a whole new dimension to the aforementioned hole, not only are we to promptly climb out of it so as not to cause a scene and make ourselves homeless by lack of commitment to work, for example, but also we should ideally do it in a way that has a empirically-supported tick-box next to it, or has involved retail therapy in some way, in-line with Western World® standards of being.

Even writing this right now has triggered a crescendoing chorus of little disapproving voices in my head I’ve constructed as ‘dummy critics’ so to problem-solve my way out of any negative feedback (or lack of feedback at all), and steel myself from censure: Oh here we go, drama llama, back at it again with the woe-is-me. Mrs cannot and will not just shut up and read a book or something, little Ms cannot keep it in. In my most strongest Kath Day-Knight inner-voice I have to sternly answer back: Look at me Nathalie, look at m-look at me please, look at me. Now, I’ve got one thing to say to you Nathalie, emotions are dramatic. And you have a lot of them a lot of the time because autism, something you’re still not sure of how to work with at all. Everyone else aside, you’re allowed to take up space, you’re allowed to say how you feel, you mean well and if anyone has a problem with that then that is up to them. 

It’s all well and good having these rationalising retorts handy for when meltdowns are imminent but in practice it’s pretty paralysing and sometimes the most that can be managed in a comfy outfit, a cup of tea and hours of video-games or YouTube or whatever can be handled given the amount of remaining energy left for a particular day. And that is okay too. Even if we might feel guilty for not getting the exercise we should be getting, or for eating more biscuits than we probably should have had in one go, or having to let down the people around us in order to prioritise our minds, to reboot and continue trying to navigate life with at least a basic amount of functionality, is definitely worth the initial pangs of iniquity. For now may be the time of napping and being a potato (of loveliness) but eventually and in our own time we’ll be able to cocoon out of our domestic shells and explore with our cups refilled and anxieties quelled for the time-being at least.

Huzzah.

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You’re not weird, you’ve got Asperger’s! Receiving a diagnosis at 24

You’re not weird, you’ve got Asperger’s! Receiving a diagnosis at 24

I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while but then it’s hard to put into words all the different components and angles that go into it. So I supposed the best thing is to work backwards.

About two weeks ago I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is essentially high-functioning autism. You may or may not know that autism is a spectrum and even in the high end of Asperger’s there’s varying levels of functioning – but more on that later. The process of diagnosis involved an initial screening process using the AQ test (you can Google it, have a go yourself if you like), followed by a three hour interview with a clinical psychologist. Actually the interview bit ran on a lot longer than this because if you know me, you know I have a very complex history and have faced a bunch of adversity I won’t go into here but the long and short of it is that because my parents have always had their own stuff going on, my mental health and behavioural/social functioning had never been taken into account. So I was raised neurotypically (‘normal’).

Despite this, I’ve always felt weird and still do. Like I’m experiencing the world behind a piece of glass and everyone around me is living this life in a way entirely alien to me – presently I’m in Edinburgh studying my Master’s, and I can say with confidence that I only have one friend (a kindred spirit of sorts) out of over a hundred on my course. I see people around me hugging and huddling together, chatting away and making plans, and walking out of lectures to go for lunch, or go round to each other’s flats, and I’m sat surrounded by them, silently gawping, wondering how on earth they’re doing it.

Aside from feeling a million miles away from fellow humans, I get overwhelmed in the same way that Internet Exp- sorry Microsoft Edge gets when you open more than two tabs. I’ve always considered this to be perfectly normal but not so much: I strategise practically every element of my life – mornings, bedtimes, mealtimes, teeth brushing patterns, walking patterns, reading patterns, listening to music patterns, leaving the house patterns, to name a few. I like to have an idea of precisely how things are going to play out no matter how incremental. Naturally that means I’m processing quite a lot of information consciously and not only is this pretty draining, if you add a social interaction into the mix, or multiple tasks that need managing at once, I’m going to start leaking…and I literally do if we’re talking about sweat. What I’ve considered for years to be an anxiety disorder, has in-fact been anxiety symptomatic of the fact that everything everywhere is happening all the time and I’m absorbing every molecule of it.

As a result of that, studying gets kind of bothersome and time-consuming because I have to focus on every word, speed reading really isn’t an option. And with 5 exams, a 5000 word report, a 2000 word essay, and an 8000 word dissertation looming, you can appreciate that I feel le fucked most of the time. Having some understanding as to why I get so bogged down in my own brain definitely makes it easier to take a step back and have a “hey, you’re doing an autism, go cuddle your teddy bear for a bit” moment…I’d say this is in lieu of my husband being absent but I’ve had TD since I was 7 years old and he’s been the most consistent source of support I’ve ever had so ya know, sorry not sorry. In-fact I’ve read that cuddling and interacting with soft, squishy materials is generally very comforting for autistic folk so maybe he’s been an effective coping strategy this whole time!

There’s other bits and bobs about Asperger’s that ticks a lot of boxes in how I operate but you can find out more about that with a cheeky google, if I went through it all you’d be here…well for at least 3 hours and you’re not being paid to sit through this unlike the lovely clinical psychologist I saw. What I will say though is that for someone with Asperger’s there’s stuff I can do very well. For instance, I can present myself as if with confidence socially, and I can maintain eye contact, and I can empathise or laugh on cue. That’s not to say my responses are false in any way, it’s more that I’m able to respond based on the fact that I can objectively understand how I should behave in certain situations – when someone is clearly upset I know it’s important to be kind and try to sympathise with them. This is perhaps why I’ve slipped through the net until now, I’ve been militantly raised to be polite and well-behaved, and so generally I can pull it off (as long as you don’t pay attention to how much I’m shaking or sweating).

It only really occurred to me to get it looked into from studying learning difficulties like Asperger’s as part of my psychology Master’s. As soon as I read up on it, it dawned on me like a sonic boom. And then I got the positive diagnosis.

So then what now? What now indeed! At 24 I’m already a grown-up (mostly) and have done most of my fundamental identity formation/social/learning approach training that comes with parenting and schooling, the secondary socialisation train went years ago. Being told that I’m wired a bit differently and that I can adjust my thinking and behaviour to better complement it is all well and good, but how the bloody hell do I do that?! It’s not like I can call up a local school and ask if a SEN teaching assistant will be my sensei, and I their grasshopper to teach me the ways of the Aspie. Kids that get diagnosed early on get prepped and ready through to adulthood in a way that plays to their strengths, it would appear that adults such as myself have to do a little bit of going backwards before really progressing onward.

The sunny side of this is that I may be granted adjustments for assessments and study support in the next few weeks with thanks to my university, and once I’m done with my Master’s I can seriously consider joining a local support group for adults with Asperger’s. And I’ll continue to search for some kind of guidebook for people in situations like the one I have found myself in, I’m but a wee, slightly-autistic lamb lost in a limbo between neurotypical normies and well-adjusted aspie masters.