I’m still here

Two years since my last blog post and I have changed almost beyond recognition. Thankfully there has been no relapse into the dark days of Summer 2014, just a constant effort to improve myself and my life.

These days I am (mostly) a confident, loquacious, vibrant, enthusiastic thirty-something. I still have moments where I need my own space, or a bit of quiet away from people, but my friends and family are understanding of my little time-outs and they’ll check on me to make sure I’m alright, which is a lovely thing.

Since 2014, I’ve continued to volunteer at events, something which, back in 2012, was a major catalyst for my emergence from the haze of Asperger’s to a wonderfully interactive and surprising world. This kind of activity has encouraged me to be happy and chatty and to try to be interesting, to help the people attending or participating in the event feel good about themselves. It’s a great feeling.

I still amaze myself when I become aware of who I am now. I’ll happily chat to people I’ve only just met, I’m no longer restricted by timetables and schedules, and change is something to be expected and encouraged. I’m all about the hugs now, and will actively seek to touch people instead of just tolerating them touching me. People seem to like me now (though they still think I’m a bit odd – in a good way), and accept my idiosyncrasies.

I’ve been reading back over this blog recently and it’s like I don’t recognise the person who wrote those blog posts. She’s another me, another time. But I’m glad I wrote about it all at the time, just so that I can see how things have changed.

The biggest change is probably that I now have a boyfriend. After years of fretting about kissing and relationships, and then finally doing something about it, this thing has actually happened surprisingly easily. I know that’s not what people looking to this blog for advice or help will want to read, even I’m frustrated about it! But in the end I just relaxed a bit, decided what I wanted, and somehow found it – one minute we were on our first date, the next we’re six months down the line, I’m almost comfortable with saying ‘my boyfriend’, and I’m being introduced to family and friends, and managing to make a good impression.

Hopefully this upward trend will continue, or at least plateau at a sensible level. I wonder what will happen next in my unusual life?

Burnout

Edit: If you’re of a sensitive disposition, you might not want to read this.

Traditionally, the end of the year is a time for reflection, looking back over the things that one has achieved that year, and thinking of ways to improve. For me, this year seemed to be going quite well, until about June. When I consider what I was like up to this point, it’s clear that I was verging on the manic, because I came crashing straight down into the worst meltdown, burnout, call it what you will, that I  have ever had.

At the time I was trying to do too much – ‘doing all the things’ is not a good idea for any length of time, even for a neurotypical person. Aspies are already over-processing and over-thinking everything anyway, so adding to this by stacking everything up in a precarious tower of stuff is not going to end well. Your body will tell you to slow down, and if that doesn’t work, it will make you slow down. I actually predicted way back at the start of the year that I would reach burnout at some point, but was naive about its potential impact.

It rendered me useless – a debilitating lack of energy meant that I could barely walk up stairs, and a complete lack of appetite or interest in food meant that I lost weight and was in danger of being physically ill. From being previously fit and healthy, with a strong appetite, this came as a huge shock. My routine mutated into crawling out of bed every morning, going to work, attempting to focus on what I was supposed to be doing, going home in tears from the effort of it, attempting to force myself to eat, trying to study despite the fog in my head and then crawling into bed at around 8 or 9pm, utterly exhausted.

I felt like I was staring into the abyss. I truly, seriously, considered ending my life. I couldn’t handle the thought of having an ever-present feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach for the rest of my life. I could not see a way out of the situation. I did not see how anything would ever get better. I felt like a complete failure. There did not seem to be any point in being alive.

…………………………………………………………………………………

More for the sake of my (very supportive) family and friends than my own sake, I decided to try and get through it. I distilled my life down to the bare essentials: work, study, sleep. I gave up my sporting responsibilities and stayed off-radar socially. I lived on foods that were easy to make and easy to eat, trying to maximise the nutritional value where possible (suffice it to say that I ate a lot of eggs). My one aim was survival.

I’m not saying it was easy – in fact, simply surviving for those four or so months was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I spent so much time crying for no reason other than feeling unfathomably sad and helpless. It took me all summer to regain some semblance of energy, and I missed out on glorious weather, social events, and the opportunity to just relax. Those months were some of the longest and loneliest of my life, though my excellent mother was there to offer advice, twee inspirational pictures, sympathy or just a hug whenever I needed it.

One thing that helped me through was reading about suicide in a chick-lit novel (of all places). It was described as “a very permanent solution to a temporary problem”, a phrase I know many have issues with, but which helped me a lot. Whatever my current woes were (and they weren’t actually that bad), they would not last forever. Ending my life would be a solution but not one I could reverse. Who knew what awaited me in the future? Wouldn’t it be a shame never to find out? What if ‘tomorrow’ was the day everything worked out fine but I missed it because I was no longer alive? And finally, how would I feel if my life was taken from me, if it was not my choice? I had considered ‘ending it all’ because I could, it was a nice little get-out clause that I could use if I needed to. But, some people do not have any choice in the matter, and I felt that it was insulting to them to throw away my life as if it meant nothing at all.

By the end of the summer, and with my final essay handed in, I was working on getting back to normal. I began to talk to people again. The impenetrable fog cleared from my head and I found that I had an appetite and energy for food, exercise, life. My mother remarked that I seemed to be getting back to my normal self, and the feeling of dread slowly disappeared from its place beneath my ribs.

I’m still only at about 85-90% of what I consider to be my full capacity, depending on how much sleep I’ve had or whether I’ve eaten well or not. That last 15% is going to take some time to come back. I don’t want to push it too much, for fear of breaking the fragile inner peace that I have rebuilt. But the main point is that I’m heading in the right direction. I’m following a Pinterest board of inspirational sayings which is surprisingly helpful… sometimes we do not realise that other people are going through the same thing we are. My favourite picture is this. I’m going to print it out and frame it at some point, just to remind myself that though the journey is not over yet, I have travelled so far since I began.

I still have a long way to go, but I'm already so far from where I used to be, and I'm proud of that

I kissed a boy and I liked it

Yes, it’s true, I have finally kissed a boy – though it’s probably more accurate to say that ‘a boy kissed me and I liked it’..!

I think this post was the beginning of me thinking that I should really do something about the whole ‘never been kissed’ thing. Then last year was like the year of trying and sort of not getting anywhere. So this year I was persuaded by my friend to use a dating app called Tinder (more on that in a future post), and after a few failed conversations with various people, I managed to arrange a date with a guy (see, I’m really making progress here!).

I’ll be honest, I spent most of the first date in a state of complete and utter terror. My first real date with someone I was actually interested in! But it all seemed to go well and we were already talking about the next date before the first one had ended.

Fear-wise, things did not improve for the second date (I spent most of the day thinking of ways that I could cancel it) mostly because of the inevitability that something was going to happen, because of it being a second date. Fortunately my compulsion to answer questions honestly came in handy because he asked *the* awkward questions about my love life and experience, which meant that everything was out in the open very early on – such a relief, because it’s not exactly something I was willing to bring up in conversation but I couldn’t see how anything would work if I didn’t explain, if you see what I mean. That’s not to say I wasn’t embarrassed about having to tell someone things that most ‘normal’ people don’t even consider.

Happily, he was very understanding, and before I knew it (and with plenty of panicky swearing going on in my head), I was no longer the girl who had never been kissed.

 

Romantic frustrations

Last year was a bit of a revelation in terms of my view of love and lust and everything inbetween. I feel like I’ve come a long way since I wrote this confessional post way back in 2012. This post is going to be quite an honest one too, so be warned!

After a traumatic first half of the year in which I felt like I was slipping and sliding towards the inevitable end-of-the-world disaster that turning 30 was going to be (it wasn’t), I spent the summer feeling like a teenager and going through all the stuff about love and lust that my neurotypical peers went through at least 15 years ago.

My mysterious new hobby is a sporting one, involving a lot of training and increased fitness which has resulted in a massive boost in body confidence for me. The summer was filled with various events, at which, to put it bluntly, there were a lot of attractive, fit, half-naked young men! I know that I said a couple of years ago I couldn’t cope with the sight of naked flesh; well, the events of the summer have forced me to cope with it, and I even like having a good ogle now! If I’d stayed as coy as I was, I would never have got anything done at any of these events.

I also had to see a physio to help with an old niggling problem that was getting in the way. After the initial trauma of the first couple of sessions (‘Ohmigod, he’s touching me, I can’t relax even though he keeps telling me to, what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to relax?!’), I began to like being touched. A lot. It probably helped that he was young and attractive too! By the time the course of physio finished at the end of the summer, I had developed a craving, a need to be touched. Alas, I still mostly give out ‘don’t touch me’ vibes so I think there were probably very mixed signals.

However, at the after parties for the aforementioned events, people began to get comfortable with me and I with them, so much so that by the end of the summer, I was managing some (slightly awkward and not very relaxed) bodies-touching dancing with men for pretty much the first time in my life. Having recently watched Dirty Dancing, I’ve decided that it was all like this scene, where Baby is enthusiastic but clueless and a bit freaked out:

Finally, an old crush got back in touch and, having discovered, like everyone else this year, that ‘I’ve changed’, proceeded to get a bit (OK, a lot) naughty and rude via text message. On the one hand, this was great as I got valuable experience in what to say in these kinds of conversations; on the other hand, he found many of my responses too literal and quite frustrating (nothing new there then). By the time I’d worked up the courage to write a deeply honest email explaining everything, he’d already moved on. Sigh.

The only other thing that’s happened this year is a fleeting interest from someone who initially found me ‘interesting and attractive’ but over the next few weeks revealed that he also found me ‘intimidating’ because I am ‘aloof, ambivalent, rarely smile and very serious’. And I thought I was a lot less scary these days…!

In my post from July 2012 I said that I was actually interested in a relationship but I think that even then I was still scared of the idea, terrified of the unknown, and actually unwilling to ‘give’ myself to anyone. This summer has changed all of that. Now I just have to find the right person. They’re out there somewhere, right?

Knowledge is power…now what to do with it?

I spent 2012 coming to terms with the realisation of having Asperger syndrome; in contrast, 2013 was much more about taking that knowledge and working out what to do with it.

Knowing that I probably have AS has, of course, changed the way I look at life. I suddenly understand why I sometimes struggle in social situations, why people often find me a bit odd, why I am so very particular about things like food and music and people. In 2013, I aimed to let AS inform what I did without letting it dictate my life.

While I’ve been trying to work it all out, I’ve often thought of a quote from the second book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Subtle Knife:

“You’re trying to do two things with your mind, both at once …. Just sort of relax your mind and say yes, it does hurt, I know. Don’t try and shut it out.”

In my world, that translates as, ‘You’re trying to be normal and cope with symptoms of AS, both at once… Just sort of relax your mind and say, yes, it is confusing and difficult and the AS makes life complicated, I know. Don’t try and shut it out.”

So this means acknowledging the presence of AS and the ways that it can affect everyday life, but sort of…ignoring it.
Saying, ‘Yes, nights out are confusing what with all the flashing lights and loud music and crowds of people and social interaction, but you know what? I’m just going to enjoy dancing and the rest of it doesn’t really matter.’
Thinking, ‘I’m nervous about people invading my personal space because it’s a bit uncomfortable, but you know what? Sometimes people really need a hug, and sometimes it’s nice just to be held.’
And knowing that, ‘Some people are going to think I’m weird because I use long words and don’t interact with other people like a neurotypical and sometimes I say strange things, but you know what? Some people aren’t going to like me, and I’m not going to like some people. It’s no big deal.’

Knowledge is power… and, in this instance, I know what to do with it.

Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-changes (and how to cope with them)

I always used to struggle with New Year. The rational part of my brain knows that it’s ‘just another day’ but the slightly irrational, Aspie part of my brain worried about the potential changes a new year would bring, and baulked at the prospect of a shiny new 365 days for which I didn’t have a plan or a timetable. Aspies love to know exactly what’s happening, when and how; we prefer routine and a closely timetabled life.

Now I have learnt to see the new year as an opportunity for personal growth, setting myself resolutions that include learning something or improving some aspect of my personality. The idea of a whole year of unknown potential no longer fills me with dread. I think this helped a lot with breaking free from the tyranny of a rigid routine, and I have worked hard to maintain my freedom.

I wasn’t always so comfortable with change. I used to have to know about things a good few weeks in advance. I can remember bursting into tears at work because they moved me to another desk – literally adjacent to the one I had been sat at! – with only five minutes notice. Last minute changes of plan would often upset me too, and give me a feeling of dread in case anything bad happened (it never did).

These days, I am often more comfortable with changes than my neurotypical acquaintances. I have taught myself to approach change with a sense of calm and serenity, and to lose the need to know everything, all of the time. Sometimes it is just healthier to ‘let go’ and let events wash over you.

Change is often inevitable, so I try to think, ‘What’s the point in being freaked out by it? There’s nothing I can do to stop it’. Sometimes the change will be for the better, sometimes for the worse, and sometimes it won’t actually make a difference at all. So, why worry?

The National Autistic Society website has some guidelines and advice on helping people on the autistic spectrum to deal with change.

A helping hand

I’ve had this song stuck in my head for a while now, and it’s had me pondering how many Aspies suffer with depression.

I can remember beginning to be ‘depressed’ in my teens; I spent a lot of time crying for no reason and generally being miserable. Ditto my years at university, where I stayed in all the time and was often in tears, either for no apparent reason, or in frustration at how confusing life could be. I’ll be honest though, there was a sort of comfort in being miserable all the time. It was a default mode and I was too scared of change, and of what life might be like if I wasn’t depressed. It was easier to just give in to it.

A family crisis in my mid-twenties finally made me see a medical person and get some anti-depressants … I was practically suicidal and one of my best and oldest friends dragged me to the local hospital before I did something stupid. I always thought that taking anti-depressants was a sign of weakness, that I could get by without chemical help. But, soon after I began taking the daily 20mg of Citalopram, I began to notice a real difference. It was as if a mist had cleared from around me. I began to notice things and people and to feel a lot more ‘connected’ to the world, for the first time in years, possibly even for the first time ever.

By the time I stopped taking them a year later, slowly lowering the dose over a few months as advised by my doctor, I had already been able to make changes to my life. This is all way before the Asperger’s revelation, so there was still a lot of doubt and confusion, and I had a few small relapses. But having experienced what it was like when I was lifted out of the depression by the SSRIs I was taking, I didn’t want to revert back to the miserable, fogged, crying days. I learnt to spot the signs of an imminent downturn in my mood and deal with it in whatever way was necessary. These days, the only downturns I get (generally) are part of PMT, and I just have to try really hard to remember that it is the hormones talking!

I don’t know if my mental health issues have been due to Asperger syndrome (there is a family history of depression, but it’s hard to know if those affected were also Aspies), but I am definitely happier these days, especially since the big AS realisation. It’s easy to let what’s going on in your head dictate how you live your life, but often, it can be more constructive to just tell it to shut up and get on with it. And don’t be afraid to take that helping hand, whether it be anti-depressants, friends or family.

Small Talk

This cartoon from Savage Chickens struck a chord with me recently:

Large Talk - Savage Chickens

I’ve always had a tendency to try and have intense, involved conversations on nights out and at social events. I think people find it quite unusual (though they don’t usually walk away quite as precipitately as in the cartoon!). I’ve been pondering this a lot recently, especially because I’ve been following the many insightful and familiar-sounding comments on this very subject on Undercover Aspie’s first blog post, and pondering what stage I am at in the ‘small talk’ section of my big self-improvement project.

People who are used to me are quite accepting of my random conversational tangents these days. I try to tone it down with people who I am less well-acquainted with, or give it a bit of a humorous twist (something I seem to be getting much better at). Past a certain point on nights out – when they turn the music up, or when everyone has gone past that stage of drunkenness – I make a conscious effort to stop with the conversation and start with the dancing or people-watching instead. Weirdly, one of my ‘popular‘ friends has recently said how jealous she is of my ability to have proper conversations with people at social gatherings, whereas she feels compelled to mingle and do the small talk thing. Ironically, I’m jealous of her ability to do that! It’s a real truism that you always want what you haven’t got, eh?

Why I will never be one of the popular girls

It’s finally happened. I am now the dreaded age of thirty.

Many people have identity crises, re-evaluating their life when they hit thirty; it’s like the official end of carefree youth and the beginning of responsible adulthood. I recognise that many people will have been doing respnsible grown up things for years beforehand, but I think being thirty is still a bit daunting no matter who you are, what you do or how much you’ve achieved.

I’ve been having birthday-related crises since my late teens. ‘I haven’t achieved anything and I’m so ooooold,’ I would wail. This still happens, if I’m honest, and although I have achieved many things between my late teens and now, I still often feel like it isn’t enough. But that probably comes from having ridiculously high standards and expectations. Last year’s identity crisis is continuing and I’ve been re-evaluating my past a lot anyway, as a result of my favourite I-think-I-might-be-an-Asperger’s-girl article. I’ve also recently taken up a hobby that has thrown me into numerous new situations with a lot of new people, and I’ve had a real chance to see how my hard work learning how to socialise has paid off. I’ve reached one main conclusion – I will never be one of the popular girls.

As I’ve said before, I was an odd, aloof, serious child, and whilst I try my best as an adult, I am just not someone who can cope with social situations with ease. At school, whilst I wasn’t unpopular, I never really fit in to any of the groups. At uni, there were only a few girls on my course so we hung out together, but the only reason any boys dared to join our group was because of the presence of smiley, chatty, flirty girls – ie. not me. Whilst at uni, I stayed in almost all the time, because I hadn’t yet learned how to cope with parties, which probably didn’t help with my popularity!

With my new hobby, there have been a number of opportunities for socialising recently, and whilst I got by without freaking anyone out by spouting random facts or monologuing, I began to see just how much better people are at being social than I am. Their effortless flirty words and gestures, ability to make small talk, easy manner and enjoyment of light physical contact made me feel completely inept and most definitely the odd one out (emphasis on the odd ;)). I’ll be honest, I started to get very down about the whole thing, feeling frustrated that my hard work had come to naught (or so it felt), that my friends were always going to be more popular than me, that often people just don’t ‘get’ me (or vice versa). It probably doesn’t help that a lot of my close friends are the popular type of person, and so I felt like I was always going to look bad next to them.

I spoke to my mother (often helpful in these situations) about this, and she had two things to say to me:

1. ‘You do realise that most people go through all this at seventeen or eighteen, don’t you?’

Fair enough. Good to hear that even neurotypicals go through it all, albeit at over a decade younger than I currently am. I’m a (very) late bloomer!

2. ‘Do you think you might be projecting your expectations of how people will react to you on to them?’

This also rings very true. If I expect people to be ‘repulsed’ by me and my strange ways, I will give out an aura of don’t-speak-to-me, and, obviously, people won’t speak to me. Thus begins a vicious cycle.

I’ve reached the conclusion that all I can do is be as ‘normal’ as possible, try to smile more, make light-hearted conversation, and not worry if someone invades my personal space. These are all things that I have improved on significantly over the last few years, but sometimes I need reminders of just how far I’ve come. Instead of being envious of my easygoing sociable friends, I need to watch and learn even more – I will never achieve what they have naturally, but I can aim for something close.

Workin’ 9 to 5

After writing that title for this blog post, I now have the song stuck in my head!

I recently began to evaluate my working life through the lens of being an Asperger’s female, and pondered over some of the problems I’ve had in the decade or so since I started full-time, grown-up work. It all began because a colleague asked me, in a disbelieving way, ‘can’t you anticipate what the boss wants, and get the spreadsheet ready for her?’. Well, actually, no I can’t anticipate what the boss will want from me. Aspies often struggle to predict what someone will do or say because there are simply too many possibilities. So, with that as number one in my list of ‘things I’ve struggled with in the workplace’, here’s the rest of the top ten:

1. I struggle to anticipate or predict what people expect of me.

2. Difficulty in making small talk and complete cluelessness (and wariness) about things like shaking hands with a customer has never really impressed any of my managers.

3. I need fairly detailed instructions when I’m asked to do something, which comes down to that ‘too many possibilities’ thing again. Some of the people I’ve worked for have found this frustrating – though I’m sure they’d rather I get it right first time than do something wrong.

4. Aspies often feel safest when they have a strict routine. When this means lunchtime and breaktimes at very specific times, and these don’t happen as planned, colleagues have often wondered why I’m getting myself into such a state about it. Thankfully I am not so bad with this since last summer!

5. The Asperger’s ‘Processing Face’ – often, when a manager or colleague asks me to do something that does not have one straightforward answer, I do what I call my ‘processing face’, which is essentially a blank expression that happens while I process the information and all of the possible ways of achieving the requested goal. People tell me I look fed up or angry when I do this (I’m not – usually), but I guess that’s just how my face is!

6. ‘Taking the initiative’ is often a struggle. The few times I’ve tried, it’s not really worked out, for various reasons. I don’t like to step outside the guidelines that have been set for me on a particular project, and I’d usually need to ask so many questions to check that I’m doing the right thing that it really couldn’t be called ‘taking the initiative’ any more!

7. I find myself getting really closely involved in the details of things, often losing sight of the bigger picture and just indulging in the part of the project that I find really interesting. I can see why this might be annoying for an employer, though it occasionally has its advantages.

8. Being pedantic about things and correcting people. For example, if they used the wrong name for a product or colleague etc, got an acronym the wrong way round (grrrr), or asked me to do a particular thing when they meant something else. Obviously, I have come to realise that sometimes it is wise to stay quiet, correcting it solely in one’s own head, or if there really is a desperate need to share, phrasing it in a polite way often helps 😉

9. Forgetfulness. This is a common Asperger’s trait, possibly because we have so much going on in our heads on a daily basis. I try really hard not to forget things, and use a combination of post-its, task reminders in my emails and getting colleagues to remind me of things to try and help me through.

10. Appearance matters. It took me a while to get into this, learning that I had to look professional. Aspies are often unconcerned by personal appearance (as per this blog post with its mention of ‘wash and wear’ hair – definitely sounds like me!). Women especially are still expected to make an effort and look good, whereas I think men can get away with it a bit more!

On the other hand, being an Asperger’s girl in the workplace has its good points. With my focus on the details, I’m a great proof reader and I love proof-reading and editing documents. I’ve been the go-to person for this in all of my jobs so far, and people respect me for my ability to do it. I have been known as the Human Wikipedia in every job so far. People come to me with questions about random things all the time! I try hard to be a ‘fountain of all knowledge’ instead of just a smug know-it-all (apparently it’s all in the delivery of the information). There are doubtless more good things about being an Aspie in an office, which I will add as I think of them!

PS A bonus one I’ve just thought of: 11) I’m not very good at coping with meetings, much like the issues around interacting with large groups that are discussed (and commented on by me!) in this blog post from Undercover Aspie.