Some of the Little Things

I was looking back through the blog and I realised that you guys are getting all these big things in my life without really knowing much about me. I struggle with all things identity (which is a big thing for people with BPD) but I’m trying. I’m trying to figure myself out. I know little things, like favourite films and TV shows or whatever, but when it comes to who I am as a person, I feel very unsure. I’ll write more about that at some point but, for the moment, here are some of the little things:

  • I don’t drink tea or coffee.
  • My favourite books are The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, Finding Home by Cecilia Knapp (although that was a show first), The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Sounds Like Me by Sara Bareilles, and the Tomorrow When The War Began series by John Marsden. Oh, and I really enjoyed Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.
  • When I was twelve, I wrote a twenty thousand word story. It’s still on the hard drive of my computer.
  • I play guitar and piano, not super well but enough to write and accompany myself.
  • I love strawberry milkshakes.
  • My favourite colour totally depends on my mood but I will probably always love blue the most.
  • As a kid, I was obsessed with history, especially Ancient Egypt.
  • I really want to see the Northern Lights.
  • One of my all time favourite songs is ‘Wish You Were Here’ by Pink Floyd.
  • My favourite place in the UK is Norfolk and my favourite place outside the UK is Nashville, but I also loved Australia and New Zealand.
  • My favourite subjects at school were Maths, History, and Psychology.
  • I love Harry Potter and it was a huge part of my childhood. I read the last book in less than two days. My favourite book is Order of the Phoenix and my favourite film is probably Prisoner of Azkaban or Half Blood Prince. And whenever I had exams, I’d put them on in the background while I was revising. When I first signed up to Pottermore, I was sorted into Ravenclaw but I forgot the password and it was an old email address so I had to sign up again and I was sorted into Slytherin. And when I took an online quiz, it said I was equally all the houses so who knows.
  • Puns are my favourite type of humour.
  • I’ve never broken a bone, although I have cracked a rib.
  • My favourite movies are Cloud Atlas, Tomorrow When The War Began, I Robot, Nausicaa, and The Fault in Our Stars. And Arrival.
  • I love swimming.
  • I don’t think I’ve ever been in love but I have had my heart broken.
  • I’m fascinated by space and the universe.
  • I’m a big TV show person and I love Agents of Shield, Supergirl, Criminal Minds, Reign, Scott and Bailey, Fringe, Orphan Black, Nikita, Sanctuary, Stargate SG-1, Law and Order SVU, and Stalker. I have also enjoyed Doctor Who, Torchwood, Spooks, Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and Glee.
  • I love the musical Wicked and my favourite Elphaba is Willemijn Verkaik.
  • I’m terrified of going to the dentist.
  • I’ve always loved animals and my dog and cat make me so, so happy.
  • I have a degree in Songwriting.
  • I was born in London.
  • Amanda Tapping is my hero and I’ve been lucky enough to meet her. She is the loveliest human being alive.
  • I listen to a lot of different music but my absolute favourites are Taylor Swift, Sara Bareilles, Against Me!, Halsey, OneRepublic, Maren Morris, Lauren Aquilina, and Natalie Hemby. There are lots more but that could take a while.

So now you know a bit more about me. Hopefully this gives a little context to all the other stuff I post.

Moving Forward and Looking Back

A few months ago, my therapist moved to a different office and as much as she tried to smooth the transition, it was hard. It didn’t feel real; I felt like I was just waiting to go back to the old office. But last week, for the first time, I walked into the new office and it felt normal. It felt right.

A part of me does still miss the old office. A lot happened there. So this is a little tribute to the old office and my armchair there. A lot of different versions of myself sat in that chair. Depressed me, joyful me, panicked me, hopeful me, hopeless me… That room saw a continuum. It was the setting for a lot of important conversations. I said out loud things I never in a million years thought I’d share. I processed an Autism diagnosis, I talked about the people I’ve lost, I played each new song I’d written, I cried when I was too depressed to talk, I talked about giving up, I talked about changing the world, I even took my cat and her kittens.

That place will always be special but I’m getting used to the new one. I’m learning how me and my emotions fit into that new space and I think they’re starting to.

The Big White Room

Since taking the Venlafaxine, I’ve felt different. I’ve felt a little bit lighter, mentally and emotionally. In some ways this is better but in some ways it’s not. Depression is such a heavy feeling but now I feel a bit like I’m floating away. I feel kind of lost, or like I’ve lost something really important. In a weird way, I miss feeling depressed. No, that’s not right. I don’t miss it, but I feel kind of lost without it. And feeling like that makes me very anxious.

Objectively I understand why I feel this way: I’ve spent a lot of time feeling depressed. It’s familiar. It’s certain. It’s a world where everything is in focus with clear and sharp edges. Now the edges are fuzzy. I feel like I don’t know who I am or what I’m doing. And emotionally, I’m finding that really hard to get my head around.

I know who I am when I’m depressed. Those emotions overwhelm me, they define me. Depression takes over my personality, or becomes the biggest part of it. It affects everything. It’s like depression takes up all that space. But now, there’s suddenly all this space that wasn’t there before. It feels a bit like when you stand in the middle of a really massive empty room. It’s quiet. It’s cold. It makes you feel so small and lonely. And if I look at myself in that big white room, I don’t know who I am. I don’t know if I’m optimistic or pessimistic. I don’t know if I’m a good person or a bad person. I don’t know if I’m loud or quiet. I know some little things but not the big things.

I do recognise the opportunity here, the opportunity for things to be different: to fill the room with new things. That thought is both thrilling and terrifying. But I’m not sure I’m there yet: I’m still pretty overwhelmed by how big this room is, how empty it is. I don’t know where to start.

I’ve thought a lot about identity, both mine and in general. It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time and something I want to write more about. But I think your identity is made up of the things about you that don’t change, the fundamental aspects of your personality. I don’t know much about myself but I do know that I’m very sensitive. I’ve always been sensitive and I can’t see it ever changing. So I guess that’s a part of my identity.

I’m not sure my depression is gone but I’m not drowning in it anymore. And that’s scary. I’m so used to it that I’m not sure who I am without it. When I’m depressed, that big white room is so dark that I don’t know that all that space is there, so I don’t even know the room is that big. But now I know it’s there and it’s very compelling. I keep turning it over in my mind. As I said, I know who I am when I’m depressed. I want to know who I am when I’m not. So I guess that starts now. It’s a brave new world.

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One Woman With Autism

Ask anyone about Autism and they’ll most likely describe the stereotype: difficulty socializing, a ‘lack of empathy’, specific and focused interests. But, as with everything, it’s so much more complex than that, especially for girls and women with Autism. While there are various statistics on the ratio of boys to girls, it’s clear that there are many more girls and women with Autism than was originally thought. And because the diagnosis of Autism has always been based on the male presentation of Autism, it can be really difficult for girls and women to get diagnoses and support. I can’t speak to anyone else’s experience but I can speak to mine.

I was a shy kid. I was so shy, and so anxious, that I couldn’t be left at after-school clubs or activities. I was petrified and cried until my Mum would take me home. I was constantly told I was too sensitive, that I took things too personally, that I needed to grow a thicker skin. And that really upset me – but then I was being too sensitive, wasn’t I?

These issues continued through my childhood and into my teenage years. I was always anxious and strived for perfection in everything. I was a vigilant rule follower; I couldn’t, and still can’t, break a rule for anything. I was terrified of turning in homework late, convinced it was an unforgivable act. The one time I did forget a piece of homework (because I’d taken it out of my bag to check I’d packed it and then forgotten it in a panic about being late – another constant anxiety), I cried in a corridor and my hands shook when I told my teacher. It was fine, of course, but it didn’t help my anxiety. I was so scared of doing something wrong, of getting into trouble.

In addition to that, I never felt like I quite fitted in. Anywhere. I felt like I was stuck behind glass, separated from everyone else and unable to break through it. Everything seemed so much easier for everyone else; everything they seemed to do effortlessly took all of my energy, leaving me exhausted. I couldn’t understand why I just couldn’t cope as well as everyone around me. For some unknown reason, I couldn’t function as well as everyone else and that made me feel like I was broken. Despite all of this, no one clocked that there was a problem, not a doctor, not my family, not me.

What had always just been a feeling of not coping started to take over other areas of my life. I’d always done well as school, despite missing more than eighteen months when I struggled with an unidentified illness that caused debilitating fatigue. My lowest grade at GCSE was an A (although I was disappointed with not having achieved more A*s). I got to Sixth Form and everything changed. Suddenly every class, every test was a struggle. Learning and applying knowledge had always been something that had come easily to me, something I’d enjoyed, and all of a sudden, it had become so difficult and that was incredibly distressing. My anxiety got higher and higher and depression started to creep in. I was constantly exhausted and just getting through the day started to feel like an impossible task.

The turning point came when I failed an exam. I locked myself in a toilet stall and scratched at my arms over and over with a broken paper clip, desperate to feel anything other than this howling feeling of failure that came from somewhere deeper than I’d ever experienced. I don’t know how long I sat there and I don’t remember much of that day, but that was when my family and I started to realise that there was something really wrong.

A lot went into getting my diagnosis. I’ve lost count of all the doctors I’ve seen, the amount of times we left without any answers, the amount of books we read. I’ve been diagnosed with multiple mental health problems and tried a lot of different medications. I tried various therapies like CBT and EMDR. Nothing helped. But due to my Mum’s never ending commitment, I ended up at the Brighton and Hove Neurobehavioural Service and after several hours answering questions, I walked out with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. To start with, I was too exhausted by getting to that point to take it all in but slowly, everything started to make sense. All these disconnected pieces of my life and my personality began to click into place.

I’ve always felt emotions strongly. If something goes well, I feel like I’m bulletproof. If something goes badly, I can end up in a meltdown: crying, shaking, screaming, and often self-harming. Either that, or I go into shutdown where I retreat to my room and lie in the dark, unable to think or talk properly. Sometimes a meltdown leads to a shutdown and it can last for days, or even weeks.

I’m extremely sensitive. To a lot of things. A change of plan, loud noises, bright lights, unfamiliar people and places, all of those things increase my anxiety, making it difficult for me to function, to make decisions, to interact with people or the environment around me. Processing that information takes a lot of energy and I’m easily exhausted and overloaded. Too much sensory information, too many demands placed on me, the closer I get to a meltdown. It’s a fragile existence, like walking on a tightrope.

I’ve never had trouble with empathy, with ‘stepping into another’s shoes’. Or more accurately, I’ve never found that difficult to do. My struggles tend to be with the other extreme: I’ve been told I’m too empathetic. I frequently experience other people’s emotions as if they’re mine and with such strength that I feel completely overwhelmed. It’s strange and upsetting to, for example, feel grief for someone I didn’t know. It can feel like I’m intruding even though all I ever want to do is help because I know how strong those emotions can be. It’s incredibly difficult for me to see someone upset and not be able to do anything. It can also be very difficult to do something as simple as walk down the street. I just feel overwhelmed by how big everyone’s lives are, how much makes up a person: memories, favourite colours, foods they hate, things they want to happen, things they don’t want to happen, phone numbers they’ve forgotten, songs stuck in their heads. I could go on forever. And when I’m surrounded by people, I feel all of that pressing in on me. It makes it hard to breathe.

Socialising is difficult. Again, processing all the information around me takes a lot of energy: a person’s words, body language, tone, how other people are reacting, everything going on in the background. It’s hard work. It feels like everyone else has a rulebook that I never received and so I’ve had to learn how to be social. Where everyone else processes all this information automatically, I have to actively process it, which takes a lot of energy. So it’s not hard to imagine why I’m tired out very quickly by social situations. Of course many people don’t notice this and have no idea that I’m autistic. Even the visible signs go unnoticed, like my difficulty with eye contact. Aside from the fact that I have no idea how long you’re supposed to hold eye contact for or which eye you’re supposed to look at it, I also feel very vulnerable when someone is looking into my eyes, like they can tell what I’m thinking and feeling.

I do have my own specific interest: writing, in all forms, but my favourite is songwriting. I’ve read a bit about these focussed interests and apparently the interests in the female presentation of Autism tend to go under the radar because they can be similar to a neurotypical girl’s interests, like animals, TV shows, books, particular singers or music groups. It’s the intensity that’s different. I’ve never simply liked something; once I’m interested in something, nothing else matters. When I’m writing, I lose all sense of time. I recently spent ten hours working on a particular piece and only stopped because I noticed my hands shaking. When I looked up, it was dark and I realised that a whole day had passed and I hadn’t eaten. Writing, and writing songs, is everything to me. It’s the only thing I want to do, the only thing I want to do for the rest of my life. It’s hard though, because there’s a big part of me that feels like my life isn’t worth living if I’m not doing that one thing, if I’m not doing songwriting. The music industry is tough as hell so it’s terrifying to think like that. But that’s the truth.

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Of course there are other symptoms and this is just one presentation of Autism. As the specialist that diagnosed me said, we are the experts of our own Autism. But, in my experience, it’s really hard. And it’s made harder when there’s so little understanding around the way Autism affects girls and women. Life post-diagnosis is difficult but at least I know what I’m struggling with. I’m learning what helps and what doesn’t. Not knowing was awful. I felt like I was drowning, like I couldn’t even find the surface. And the years of asking for help and being turned away made it worse. The lack of awareness and understanding about how Autism affects girls and women has real consequences. The time it takes to get a diagnosis and the repeated invalidation causes problems of their own. The people supporting me now think that that was part of the reason I developed Borderline Personality Disorder, a mental health problem that involves instability of mood, behaviour, and self image. And I will never forget one particular doctor’s opinion, that maybe that’s just how life was going to be for me. That remains one of the most upsetting experiences of my life and years later, I’m still struggling to believe that I will ever be happy.

I am so lucky to have found the people who are supporting me now and I feel it because I know that without them, there’s a very real chance that I wouldn’t be here now. But there are so many people without this support. There needs to be more information, more awareness, more understanding of Autism in women. Too often it goes unidentified and the effects of that can be worse than the struggles caused by the Autism itself.

Eye Contact

A while back, I found a really good article on The Mighty about Autism and eye contact. As someone with Autism, this is something I really struggle with and something that makes socialising very stressful. People mistake it for rudeness when it’s often a coping strategy, a way to make the situation more manageable. It’s something that seems effortless for everyone else while I feel like I didn’t get the rulebook.

For me, eye contact is a multi-faceted issue.

The simplest part of it is that I simply don’t know which eye to look at. Especially when I’m standing close to someone, I don’t know where I’m supposed to look. That makes me very self-conscious and distracts me from what the other person is saying.

I also feel like I’m really on the spot, that I have to answer immediately if I’m making eye contact. I get very anxious in social situations because I feel like I can’t process quickly enough to keep up with the conversation so looking away gives me time to react and think and then respond.

Then there’s the feeling of it being too confrontational. I find confrontation very, very stressful because of feeling like I can’t process what’s happening fast enough. And that’s without all the emotions associated with such a situation, another thing that makes processing difficult. So anything that feels remotely confrontational is something I shy away from.

The biggest part of it is that it feels so, so personal. When I’m looking into someone’s eyes, I feel like they can see what I’m thinking and feeling and that’s terrifying. I feel so exposed and so vulnerable. It makes me feel panicked and so it just feels safer not to make eye contact.

The act of looking someone in the eye takes up a lot of my energy and concentration. It’s exhausting and overwhelming. I can’t think and so I can’t engage in the conversation. Just because I’m not looking at you, doesn’t mean I’m not paying attention. I am. In fact, I’m more focussed.

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‘What It Feels Like To Die’ by Claire Wineland

I found this video a little while ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Claire Wineland talks about her experience with death in an incredibly thoughtful and insightful way. Death is a subject that I’ve always found really hard to talk about (even think about, to be honest) so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I clicked on the video, or even why I clicked on it. But I’m so glad I did. Claire is very eloquent and I was very inspired by her honesty and sincerity. This video hasn’t solved my anxiety but it feels a little less blinding. I guess it’s validated my fear, made me feel like that’s okay. And I think some of her sense of wonder has rubbed off on me a bit. It’s really worth watching.

Some quotes from the video:

  • “What I am opposed to is the notion that you can do death properly.”
  • “You can’t just let go. Because the whole point is that, when you’re dying, you should want to be alive. Because you’re losing every single possibility that was ever in front of you. You’re losing the person you could’ve become, the things you could’ve done, the things you could’ve made with you life, you’re losing that. And no matter how spiritually enlightened you are, or how many times you’ve thought about death and think you’re okay with it, you will grieve that when you’re dying. You will grieve the life that you could’ve lived otherwise and there’s no way to get around that.”
  • “The whole point of being alive is that you ARE alive and that you can make something with this.”
  • “We’re literally the manifestation of some kind of underlying brilliance to how everything works.”
  • “I don’t think that people realise that you’re not supposed to go peacefully.”
  • “The truth is the whole point of dying is to be scared, because that means your life meant something to you. You should fear dying. You should be terrified of it… Because life does mean something.”

No, I Can’t Stop Pulling My Hair Out

I first started pulling out my hair in August 2014 and looking back at everything that happened that summer, it’s probably not surprising that I developed a compulsive behaviour. I was already struggling with my mental health and then, in the space of a few weeks, an important relationship fell apart and I had to have my cat (who I’d had all my life) put to sleep very suddenly. And I was just about to start university. I was overwhelmed by my anxiety and depression and in the lowest place I’d ever been. I was probably desperate to regain some control and when something started affecting the texture of my hair (my money is on the new medication, Phenelzine, which I’d just started taking), my inner perfectionist went into overdrive, tearing out the hair that felt different. At first I was fixing the problem – getting rid of the hair that felt different to the rest – but, of course, it grew back, creating a whole new problem. Then I was tearing out the regrowth, as well as the rougher stands, and the whole thing snowballed. Very quickly it reached a point where I felt like I physically couldn’t stop pulling, as much as I wanted to.

At that point in time, I didn’t know what Trichotillomania was and I’m still not entirely sure how I came across it but for those of you unfamiliar with it, I’ll give you a little summary. Trichotillomania is a condition where the person feels compelled to pull their hair out (whether it’s from their head or any other part of their body) and is unable to stop themselves from doing so. Although there are different theories (including mental illness, self harm, and addiction), there is still no known cause and there has been very little research into treating it. While checking my facts to write this, I came across a description on the NHS website which, for me, is very accurate to what it feels like: “They will experience an intense urge to pull their hair out and growing tension until they do. After pulling out hair, they’ll feel a sense of relief.” It feels like there’s electricity under my skin and it builds and builds and builds until I can’t bear it anymore; the only way to stop it is to pull out my hair. Then I can breathe again.

I tried to stop but I always ended up pulling again. It honestly felt like it would’ve been easier to break my own fingers than to stop pulling out my hair. It was only the discovery of a bald spot that shocked me into stopping. I don’t know whether it was vanity or anxiety about how out of control it had become but somehow that gave me renewed focus and motivation. I tried everything I could think of: sheer willpower, sitting on my hands, wearing a hat 24/7 (which, bizarrely, has become part of my image as a singersongwriter), fidget toys, jewelry that I could fiddle with. Ultimately I think it was a combination of these that helped me stop pulling.

I managed a whole year. The first few days were awful. The feeling of electricity under my skin magnified, so strong that I couldn’t concentrate, and I’m not sure when that started to fade. But it did. And slowly my hair grew back. But the urge never went away and just passed the year mark, I started pulling again. The relief was huge. And now, over a year later, I’m still struggling with it.

What I think many people don’t understand about this condition is that it’s not voluntary. I’ve had so many people tell me to ‘just stop pulling’ and that’s really upsetting to hear because I don’t want to pull out my hair. I don’t want to sit, surrounded by strands of my own hair. I don’t want this. I can feel myself doing it and I can’t stop. Sometimes I can stop that action but as the tension gets worse, I end up pulling again – it feels like an endless cycle of trying to stop but knowing that I’ll inevitably start again. It’s so hard. And if the bald patches, uneven length, and permanent damage to my hair weren’t enough, that’s only part of it. There’s an emotional impact; it’s not just ‘pulling out hair’. There’s shame, embarrassment, guilt, and frustration. I hate that I can’t stop, that I can’t seem to control my own body. (It’s also worth pointing out that I also struggle with physical pain in my arm and shoulder from the repetitive motion.)

But I’m not giving up. I’m not sure what I’m going to do next but I’ll find something new to try, a different angle to tackle it from. I won’t give up. I can’t, because I don’t want to live like this.