Learn With Me

I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the age of twenty, after actively struggling for several years. When I use the word ‘actively,’ I mean that, while I had had difficulties with all the things that turned out to be characteristics of Autism, they had become really hard to deal with and were having a serious impact on my life and my mental health. For example, I’d always found socialising confusing and stressful but I’d managed it for most of my life, thinking that that was just how I was built. Ultimately, that’s true but knowing where it comes from has been very helpful, both in validating that struggle but also in helping me to learn how to cope with those feelings. So, the diagnosis was a really big deal but I still think a lot about why it came so late and what that means.

In my opinion, there was one big reason why it took so long to get a diagnosis and that was the lack of awareness and understanding around both mental health and Autism, especially in women. Because Autism in women often presents very differently to the stereotypical male presentation, no one even mentioned it until we’d been looking for an explanation for more than eighteen months. I have a couple of blog posts about the process of getting my diagnoses coming up but the short version is that we started out by looking at my mental health. We went to various people but no one took my anxiety, my depression, and so on as serious problems, brushing them off as things that everyone deals with. So it took a lot of work to get even one person to recognise that what was happening was an actual problem, and then even more work to get them to see that that was part of a bigger pattern. And I know that all of that was down to this general lack of awareness about how Autism can manifest and again, how it can manifest in women.

I am very grateful to have my diagnosis, regardless of how long it took to get it but I do think that getting it so late has had a detrimental effect on me:

  • Expectations, my own and those of others – Having grown up assuming I was neurotypical, I have always compared myself to my neurotypical peers and hated myself when I couldn’t measure up. When I got to sixth form, I started to really struggle (mentally, socially, academically) and so the whole thing started to snowball. And because I was comparing myself so viciously to those around me who were coping so much better, I did great damage to my mental health and self esteem. Had I known that my brain worked differently and that I might need support, those two years of my life would most likely have been an altogether different experience. Even now that I know the difference is there, I still find it really difficult not to compare myself to others; I still often see myself as less capable or less intelligent or less whatever word is relevant to the situation.
  • The mental health consequences – While this is not something I can scientifically prove, the chances are that this whole process has had an impact on my mental health. Being repeatedly invalidated and brushed off definitely made my depression and anxiety worse. That invalidation may also have triggered the development of Borderline Personality Disorder; I’m not qualified to make a definitive statement on that but between discussions with my health professionals and my own research, it’s a theory if nothing else.

I’ve often had friends and family ask what they can do to help me and to be completely honest, I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure all of this out for myself: what’s affected, what helps, what doesn’t… Sometimes it feels like, just because it’s my diagnosis, people think I have this deep understanding of it. I’m definitely more clued in than I used to be but even two and a half years later, I don’t always know what to do when something comes up. I think the only thing I can say is this: “Learn with me.” This is a process, which involves a lot of trial and error and over-planning and screwing up. When it doesn’t work, it’s no one’s fault. We just learn and move on to the next thing. But hopefully, we can navigate it as a team rather than a group of individuals.

I try not to spend too much time thinking about how my life would’ve been different if I’d been diagnosed at a younger age because there’s little to be gained from it. It is how it is. But occasionally the thought creeps in and I imagine this life where I’m so much more productive and engaged and independent. I don’t know if that’s how it would’ve played out but it’s a seductive thought. But as I said, I try not to go down that rabbit hole. I think it comes down to this: there are people I wouldn’t have met and experiences that I wouldn’t have had if I’d been diagnosed as a child and ultimately, I wouldn’t give those up for anything.

Living With The Volume Up Loud

I have always been incredibly sensitive, ever since I was a little kid. It was one of the words used most commonly to describe me as I grew up. While it was usually emotional, I was also sensitive to what was going on around me and that seems to have increased over time. I can get overwhelmed by all the sensory information coming into my brain and I end up struggling to process it all. The processing can get stuck or I’ll zero in on one specific thing, like tunnel vision. It can also happen emotionally. The smallest thing can unsettle me and it can take hours or days to come back to myself. When I was diagnosed with ASD, someone described this really well to me: where neurotypical brains can filter out information that isn’t relevant (not ignoring it but not consciously processing it), neuroatypical brains can’t, so all the information comes in at the same volume and overwhelms the brain.

I struggle a lot with noise. Loud, sudden noises, like a slamming door or a fire alarm are very upsetting. It’s like they’re inside my body, inside my head, and before long, I can’t think and my anxiety overwhelms me. If it ends quickly, I can slowly force it back until I can function again but if it continues, it can lead to a meltdown where I lose all control of my emotions and thinking. It’s awful.

When it comes to studying or writing (although not songwriting), I need some background noise, almost to fill the space around me and in my brain. I often refer to the earlier example of information coming in through every channel: if I listen to something familiar, like a well watched TV show or audiobook, it’s like I’m filling some of those channels with something that I don’t need to process because I’ve already processed it, leaving me with only the channels I need to work on whatever it is I’m working on. Having said that, if there are too many different sounds going on, I start to get overwhelmed. It’s like my brain can’t balance them correctly, focussing on one too much and not hearing the others and so on. As you can imagine, that can make playing music quite difficult. I’m finally getting into the habit of carrying earplugs around but that has issues of it’s own: I find the sensation of essentially blocking my ears a difficult one, plus they’re pretty uncomfortable.

I’d never really thought of myself as being sensitive when it comes to touch but the more I think about it, the more experiences come to mind. I’m pretty specific about the fabrics I can wear and there aren’t many things I can put on my skin. It doesn’t take much before it feels unclean and once that feeling sets in, I can’t shake it. It’s horrible. There have been a few days where even multiple showers won’t fix it. I’ve also had some pretty bad reactions to various soaps and make up products, even those labelled as suitable for sensitive skin. The most dramatic example of this was when I was given perfume for my birthday. I love the smell of it but wearing it causes this weird reaction: my eyes water, my nose itches, my throat hurts, and so on. The worst part is how badly it irritates my lips: the skin burns and splits and it can take days to heal. And I don’t even have to be wearing the perfume to have that reaction; I only have to be wearing something I once wore with the perfume. Washing and airing the clothes hasn’t seemed to help much but I’m holding out hope that it will eventually fade.

My relationship with food needs it’s own post (I’ll get there, I promise!) but I think it’s important to mention in this context. I am really, really sensitive when it comes to food, so much so that I can only handle pretty bland stuff. This used to be a big problem because my family is pretty adventurous when it comes to trying different recipes and that often caused stress and anxiety all around. I got labelled as a picky eater and the most common response was to push me to eat the things I didn’t like, assuming that the experience would get better. But it didn’t; I just got more and more anxious around food. But since the diagnosis, it’s been easier. Well, easier to manage. It’s something that people can understand and that has really lessened the pressure on me. Now, the people around me let me decide what I can and can’t handle. I struggle with both texture and with taste and that can make some food impossible to eat. I get so overwhelmed by all the flavours that I can’t taste any of them individually. It’s like throwing a load of different coloured paints together: you don’t see all the different colours, you just get one new colour and it often isn’t a nice one. And that links into being really sensitive to smell. Something that those around me can’t smell can overwhelm me like a fog. It gets into my throat and my eyes. I won’t be able to focus and often have to leave the vicinity.

There are other things that overload my brain and while they aren’t exactly to do with my senses, they feel pretty similar. I guess they’re based on intuition and it seems that my intuition can be as amplified as my other senses.

Being in a crowd of people also overwhelms me emotionally. I get overloaded with how everyone has a name, a favourite colour, family, friends (who all have names and favourite colours), foods they hate, superstitions, dates they always remember, phone numbers they always forget, movies they quote, and so on and so on and so on. I get overwhelmed by how much is in everyone’s lives and I end up feeling like I’m being crushed by the weight of that. I feel like I can’t breathe. Some days I don’t feel it so strongly but on the days where I feel really fragile, like I don’t have any skin, it’s very, very stressful.

Another thing that needs it’s own post is my reaction to other people’s emotions. I feel like a lightning rod for them, especially the strong ones. I want to write more about this at some point but again, it’s relevant here. When I’m around anyone feeling a strong emotion, I start to feel it too. Most commonly I feel other people’s grief. And there’s always guilt mixed in: they’re not my emotions so I shouldn’t be feeling them. But I can’t help it. And it doesn’t take long for me to feel overwhelmed by all of that.

All of these things become exponentially worse when I’m stressed or anxious which, of course, is when I feel least able to cope with it. I don’t know if it’s something I can change, or whether my brain is wired this way, making everything so intense. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s neither.

The Consequences of an Autism Diagnosis

During my attempts to get a diagnosis, I had many people giving me their thoughts on finding a label and that only increased when we started pursuing an Autism diagnosis. It was almost as bad as the amount of people telling me to have a bath or go for a walk to help my depression. Everyone had an opinion on it and the majority of people were, at best, wary and, at worst, completely against it. But I knew I needed a diagnosis – an explanation – for why I was struggling and now, two and half years after my diagnosis, it’s clear that it was the right move for me. I’m not holding it against those people because they were only trying to look out for me but it did add to the stress of the situation so I thought I’d write out some of the positives and negatives that I’ve experienced around my diagnosis.

POSITIVES

AN UNDERSTANDING OF WHY I WAS STRUGGLING – Before my diagnosis, I was very aware that something was causing me to struggle and I needed to know where that was coming from. I could see that I functioned differently and, until I had an explanation, that was because I was broken. That was how it felt. If a doctor told me it was something – something that had been researched, had a name, something that other people had – then it was something that I could do something about. But if it went unnamed and uncategorised, it was because there was something wrong with me. So, to learn it was Autism, was actually quite a relief. Rather than being an intangible black cloud that was swallowing my life, it had boundaries and patterns and strategies to work with. That was massively helpful to me.

A VALIDATION OF MY STRUGGLING – Before my diagnosis, I was consistently dismissed by doctors and other medical professionals when I tried to get help. If I mentioned anxiety, I was told that, ‘everyone gets anxious.’ If I felt that I absolutely couldn’t do something because something in my body was screaming not to, I just had to pull myself together. If I talked about my debilitating fatigue, I essentially got a shrug of the shoulders. Now at least people listen. They don’t always have the answers I want – sometimes they don’t have answers at all – but I’m no longer being dismissed.

MAKING SENSE OF WHO I AM – The things I had been struggling with were taking over my life and, without knowing what caused it, that made me feel very lost. I struggle with identity stuff anyway but when all my thought and energy was being devoted to these problems, there wasn’t the space for anything else. With the Autism diagnosis, things became much more straightforward. Of course this may be different for other people but for me, I could put the Autism in a box in my brain and that allowed me to see what was there. I started to get more of a sense of who I was and who I wasn’t. There are differing opinions of whether you should define yourself by your Autism but it’s a massive part of my identity; looking back, I’m surprised I didn’t feel more lost.

ACCESS TO SUPPORT – Having an Autism diagnosis made it possible to get support, emotionally and financially. I’ve been able to get benefits, extra time on exams, flexibility in the arrangement of events, and so on. This has been so helpful and I’m so grateful for it. Of course I managed before but these things have made a great impact on my stress levels and have therefore made it possible for me to be more functional and more productive. And I’ve been able to enjoy myself where, before, I would’ve been paralysed by anxiety. None of that would’ve been possible without a diagnosis.

AN EXPLANATION FOR UNUSUAL BEHAVIOUR – Having ‘Autism’ as an explanation when people ask why I’m doing something a particular way or why I can’t eat a certain thing makes people a lot more accepting. While many people don’t understand Autism in detail, they do know that it can involve behaviours like these. For example, my family are much more patient with my food sensitivities than they were before the diagnosis because now they know where it comes from; they understood that I wasn’t being picky by choice, but because I was autistic. The focus has changed from putting myself through those tough experiences in the hope they’ll get easier to finding ways to help me manage them.

A CONNECTION TO OTHER PEOPLE WHO EXPERIENCE THE WORLD IN A SIMLIAR WAY TO ME – This is something I’ve only started exploring recently. For a long time, I needed to figure out how to be autistic, if that makes sense. I had to work out how to live with it, and adding more people into the equation was a bit too much to cope with. But now that I feel more together (at least in terms of the Autism), I’ve joined a group so that I can meet more people like me, i.e. similar age, gender, and diagnosis. This isn’t something that would’ve been possible without the diagnosis. And even though it’s so new, it has been really exciting. I’ve made some new friends and we’re having a lot of ‘oh my god, me too!’ moments which is surreal and wonderful and funny. Hopefully this is only the beginning of something.

BENEFITS TO MY MENTAL HEALTH – I cannot express how important it was to me to have my feelings and struggles validated, as they were when I finally got the diagnosis. Being believed was life changing. One of the theories as to why I developed Borderline Personality Disorder involves the continued invalidation I went through while trying to get answers for myself. I also had a lot of anxiety around the continued not knowing and I was severely depressed. Getting a diagnosis didn’t magically make things better but it was a huge weight off my mind. And it was movement; even if moving forward is scary, staying still is worse.

NEGATIVES

FEELING THAT THIS IS FOREVER – Pre diagnosis, there were many theories as to why I felt the way I did. But while I’d repeatedly flipped through those in my mind, I’d never really thought about what would happen after I got my answers. So while getting the Autism diagnosis was a huge relief and a generally positive milestone, I was still very thrown by all these other things that I hadn’t considered, and one of them was that Autism is a lifelong thing that I will have to deal with. When we thought it was depression for example, there was an end to it, the opportunity to recover. I know intellectually that although I won’t ‘recover’ from Autism and I will learn how to manage the difficulties, it did and still can make me feel very claustrophobic within my own mind. As irrational as it sounds, I’ve had moments where I’ve felt like, if I just tried harder, I would be able to break out of this ‘Autism prison.’ I swing back and forth on this feeling but, as you can probably tell, the positives of getting the diagnosis far outweighed the negatives for me.

I want to be clear that these positives and negatives are just from my experience. I know that many people have experienced stigma and have been badly treated because of their Autism but I don’t think I’m qualified to speak to those experiences. I don’t know what that feels like and I don’t want to speak for those people. So this is my experience. Hopefully it can be helpful.

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World Autism Awareness Week 2018

World Autism Awareness Week is here! This is a week that is dedicated to raising money and awareness around Autism and since I started this blog in August of last year, this is my first WAAW as a blogger. I wanted to do something a bit different to the usual programming so, this week, I’m going to post something Autism related every day. Hopefully these will be interesting and insightful for both those with Autism and those without. Let me know if there’s anything specific that you’d be interested in reading. I might not be able to manage it for this week but it’ll definitely go on the list to be written and posted soon!

For those of you who don’t know much about Autism, I thought I’d do a brief summary to ease you into the week.

Autism is classified as a developmental difficulty that affects how someone perceives the world and how they interact with others. It’s a spectrum condition so while all autistic people share areas of difficulty, they affect people in different ways and so Autism can have varying presentations; one person may dislike being touched and avoid eye contact while another may appear very sociable but be incredibly over sensitive to light and sound. Another may have both or neither. The first thing I was told after my diagnosis was that each autistic person is the expert in their own Autism because no one else can know it as we do. Every presentation is different.

One of the common analogies for Autism compares brains to the operating systems on computers. If every one else is a PC, autistic people are Macs; each system is sensitive to different things, programmes that are designed to do the same things look and run slightly differently, icons and folders are in different places, even the keyboards are different. This isn’t something you can change; as far as I know, you can’t reformat a human being… There’s no cure but then it’s not an illness. Having said that, a person can learn how to manage the difficulties of their own presentation over time, which can make them easier and less stressful to deal with. Some may need more support than others, especially if they have additional needs like a learning disability or mental health issue, both common with Autism. We still don’t know what causes it (although we do know it isn’t vaccines) but research is being done and currently shows that there are many factors at play, including genetics, the development of the brain, and the environment.

As previously mentioned, there are specific areas of in Autism that people struggle with to varying degrees:

Struggling with social communication is the most well known difficulty in Autism. Some autistic people may not speak at all or may have limited speech; some have excellent language skills. Many find it hard to understand jokes and sarcasm, interpret facial expressions and tone of voice, and make sense of abstract or figurative language. These things can make a conversation confusing and overwhelming, and many autistic people need time out after socialising to recharge. When the expectations in a conversation seem unclear or the emotions of others hard to understand, an autistic person may talk at length about themselves or something they’re interested in because these are things they know and feel confident talking about. Rather than being insensitive or rude, it’s very often an attempt to connect with others while navigating a very complicated situation. It often feels like everyone else has read a rulebook on life that you were never given which can feel very isolating.

Change can be very difficult for someone with Autism; the world can feel very confusing and unpredictable and so many autistic people prefer to have strict routines to control that anxiety. This can mean eating the same food over and over again or adhering to a specific timetable throughout the day. When there’s a change in plans, an autistic person may need time beforehand to adjust their thinking. Rules are also important and they can feel difficult or even impossible to break away from, even if someone in authority has said it’s okay.

Another of the better-known characteristics of Autism is that an autistic person may have a very intense interest that is apparent from a young age. Sometimes they change but sometimes they’re life long, anything from a particular instrument to the mechanics of aeroplanes. Of course, a person without Autism can be very interested in these things but it’s the intensity that’s different: an autistic person may find it difficult to think or talk about anything else and may pursue it to the exclusion of everything else. These interests are vital to the autistic person’s happiness and wellbeing and so it can be massively helpful if that interest can be channelled into a related job, area of study, or hobby.

Many people with Autism have difficulty processing their environment and can quickly become overwhelmed by light, colour, smells, and so on. Personally, I particularly struggle when I’m surrounded by people: there’s too much information to potentially take in, from their names to favourite foods to the films they hate. Experiences like this can cause severe anxiety and coping with that anxiety can manifest in lots of different ways. Some people chew their nails, some have panic attacks, and some display behaviours like rocking or banging their head against something; these repetitive, familiar actions can help to shut out the stressful stimuli and keep that person calm.

It’s also important to note that there can be dramatic differences between men with Autism and women with Autism. The statistics have always said that there are more men with Autism but it’s starting to become apparent that it is massively under or misdiagnosed (as anxiety or Bipolar) in women because they often present in ways that are very different to what is commonly regarded as Autism. They may seem to socialise effortlessly and show no disruptive behaviour but this seems to be because women are somehow able to mimic ‘normal’ behaviour; plus there is still significant societal pressure on women to be polite and to avoid causing a fuss or drawing any negative attention, which has most probably contributed to this. Instead they commonly experience serious anxiety in social situations, struggle with overwhelmingly strong emotions, and their focussed interests may be things that girls and women would already be interested in, such as a TV series or a hobby like make up or reading, which means they’re not automatically recognised as a sign of Autism.

I intended for this to be a short post but, again, it’s become quite long. Whoops. So with that said, I will leave you with some useful links and The National Autistic Society’s video for this year’s National Autism Awareness Week and Too Much Information campaign. Funny story: I actually applied and then auditioned to be in this film. I didn’t get it (obviously) but it was a really awesome experience and I would definitely love to work with them on another project in the future.

They described the idea to me during the audition and it’s turned out so well. I can definitely relate to the experience depicted.

Useful Links:

I also recommend checking out any local Autism charities, support networks (Facebook is a good place to look – type in the name of your town and ‘autism’), and services. These can make a really big difference in the day-to-day life of an autistic person.

See you all tomorrow!

World Poetry Day 2018

I admit it: I forgot that today was World Poetry Day. My brain seems to be very limited at the moment, like it can only hold so many items and adding one just pushes another out. That’s my excuse at least. But, in case you didn’t know, I freaking love poetry. I love writing it and I love reading it. It’s especially great when my concentration has all but deserted me but I still want to read and be inspired and learn; one of the things I love about poetry is how it can come in almost any form. Hopefully there’s something for anyone.

I’m a bit wary around posting other people’s work and of breaching copyright stuff so, rather than share some of my favourite poems, I thought I’d share some of my favourite poets. I first found most of my favourites of Tumblr, including Trista Mateer, Nayyirah Waheed, Angelea Lowes, Michelle K, and Noor Shirazie. Oh, and Caitlyn Siehl. And Schuyler Peck. I know that’s a lot. But hopefully you’ll all find something you like somewhere in that list. They’re all incredible writers and their poetry never fails to inspire me to write. I’ve also found several amazing poets through their performance work such as Raymond Antrobus and Cecilia Knapp (who I’ve written about before). And then there is, of course, one of my best friends, Maya, who has been writing my favourite poems since the moment I met her more than ten years ago.

I also want to share a few of my own poems. As I said, I love writing poetry but it often comes lower on the list of priorities than I’d like it to. But events like World Poetry Day and National Poetry Month always bring it back to the forefront of my brain and reinspires me. So, while I go and dive into my notebook to do some writing, I hope you enjoy some of these pieces that I’ve written over the years.

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I actually wrote this during National Poetry Month a few years ago now and although I’m not sure why, it’s still one of my favourites.

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Of course, a lot of my poetry is about living with anxiety and depression and so on.

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And the last one I want to share is one that always makes me laugh. Of all my poems (or mini poems like this one), this is the one that seems to have ‘caught on.’ Not many weeks go by without someone tagging me in an Instagram post featuring it. When I wrote it, I remember being so infuriated that everything – every book, every film, what felt like every single thing – was geared towards love and romantic relationships and how alienated I felt by that. It’s just something that’s never really been a priority for me. And that frustration turned into this mini poem which apparently spoke to a lot of people.

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If you’d like to read more of my poetry, some of it is posted here. See you in the next post!

Surviving Is Better Than Not Surviving

Trigger warning for self harm. Please don’t read this if it’s something that will upset you or trigger you. I only want this to be helpful, never harmful. I also want to add that, while I’m not promoting or endorsing it, I’m never going to say, “Just don’t do it.” It’s just not that simple. My hope is that more openness on this subject will make it easier for people to access support and therefore not feel the need to do it.

It’s been on my to do list to write more about self harm ever since I posted the first piece. It’s one of those things that I will never get tired of talking about, never get tired of raising awareness for. There are so many misconceptions around it. I mean, I get it: there’s something inherently un-understandable about wanting to hurt yourself, unless you’ve gone through it. And even then, it’s massively complicated. Feelings are weird and pain is weird; it’s not surprising that people struggle to make sense of it. But I’d like to think that things will get better, hopefully sooner rather than later.

I was inspired to write this post after watching a YouTube video, ‘Living With Self Harm Scars’ by Claudia Boleyn. I’ve been watching her videos for more than a year now and I particularly love her videos about mental health. Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and self harm still aren’t commonly talked about so to find someone describing their experience, both positive and negative, and giving advice is invaluable. And to find someone so thoughtful and eloquent is even better. I really relate to a lot of what she says.

She’d posted a video in which she wore a short sleeve shirt that exposed some scars from self harming and had received several messages about how validating it was to see someone with visible self harm scars, without shame or drama. So, as a response, she’d decided to make a video discussing the importance of living with these types of scars, which I found both interesting and useful, even as someone with ten years of experience with self harm. She put into words so many emotions that I’ve felt but for a long time couldn’t vocalize. Had I had something like this when I was younger, life would’ve been very different.

The video isn’t necessary for the rest of the post to make sense but I really recommend watching it:

Some of the things she says are so true it’s painful.

One of the biggest things about self harm is the release you get from doing it. My emotions get so strong sometimes that I feel like there isn’t space for anything else in my body, in my brain. There isn’t the space for my lungs to expand; I can’t breathe. It almost feels like the emotion is crushing me and the only way to survive is to open up my skin so that it can escape. It’s like a pressure valve. Once I’ve done it, I feel like everything stabilises and I can think more clearly. If there’s a problem, I can deal with it and if there isn’t and it’s just an overload of emotion, I can take care of myself a little better than I could if I hadn’t. As heavy as it sounds, Claudia describes it as ‘a way of not killing herself,’ which is a feeling I can empathise with. I’m sure many others can too. I’m not saying it’s a good thing and I’m not encouraging it. It is NOT a healthy coping mechanism. But that logic isn’t very persuasive when you’re dealing with such overwhelming emotions. Claudia also talks about this: “It’s not good for you in any sense… but it’s something. It felt like doing that at least proved that there was something there… And it just felt like this huge build up of feelings and I had to do something to get rid of it and doing that… was something.” I can completely relate to that and I think that’s a feeling that is often exacerbated by how difficult it is to get a diagnosis because having something is better than having nothing.

In my experience at least, trying to cut myself off cold from the only thing that helps me get through doesn’t help; it just makes the need worse and then there’s potential for me to do more damage. So I do my best to be safe while working on my issues in therapy so that one day, I can stop because I’m okay and not because I’m suppressing the urge. Because if that’s the case, I’ll always come back to it. To quote Claudia: “If you’re a self harmer then I think it’s always in the back of your mind as, like, a coping mechanism… The problem is: it’s always there so you always have to avoid it and avoid triggering it.” To give up self harming is a really big ask, and an even bigger one if you’re trying to do it without support. And if it’s too much for you, or for you to do all at once, that’s okay. I don’t feel ready to stop but one step at a time. The fact that my therapist supports this is a huge deal to me and it’s one of the things that told me that she was the right person. This has greatly lessened the pressure on me and has helped both me and my family to work through it a bit. I used to feel so guilty that I was hurting or upsetting them so I hid it and that was doing it’s own kind of damage. But now that we have a plan, now that we’re moving in a forwards-like direction even if it isn’t always easy, everyone seems to be coping with it better. I can’t imagine what it’s like for them to see me in that place but you can’t put that on top of the emotion that makes you want to do it; it will eat you alive. I think the only way forward is to try and talk about it with someone and do what you can to avoid it if possible.

I don’t have quite the same experience as Claudia does. That’s fine. Every response to self harm is a valid response. However you feel about it is okay; it’s your struggle. She talks about feeling annoyed and upset about having self harmed and wishes she hadn’t done it whereas I’m not (yet?) in that place. She talks about how it releases all that feeling but then you wake up the next day and feel like you’ve let yourself down. But, while that is quite a negative response, the way she talks to herself is very positive: “I’m just taking it as a stepping stone and saying, ‘Okay, you took a step backwards but you can take five hundred more steps forward. It’s fine.’” She talks about having a certain pride about them because they’re proof that she got through a really tough time. She can look at them and feel compassion and forgiveness for the version of herself in those moments: “It’s a part of me and it’s a part of my past and that’s okay. And I wouldn’t erase it and in a way, I wouldn’t want to because I’ve learned so much going forward.”

For me, self harm is usually a survival strategy. It’s getting through a moment that I feel like I can’t possibly get through. Maybe it’s the worst possible way to get through it but it’s better than not. So when I look at the mark the next day, or the next month, or the next year, I remember that moment: I remember getting through. I remember feeling like I can’t survive another second and then I remember the calm afterwards. I remember that I did what I had to do to survive. I wouldn’t say I’m proud of that – or proud of the scars – but I’m certainly not ashamed of it. Maybe one day I’ll find something that gives me that feeling without doing any damage to myself. How wild and glorious would that be?! But that’s the end goal, not the next step.

My other use for self harm is to mark a traumatic event. I think one of the hardest things about struggling with your mental health is the fact that people often can’t see what you’re going through and I needed it to be seen. I felt so traumatised by the strength of the emotions and by the meltdowns and I just couldn’t process that without a physical, identifiable injury to associate it with. Again, I’m not saying that this is a good method of coping but it was all I had at the time. Now, I have other things to try. I haven’t yet found anything that works but what’s important is that I’m trying, even if I don’t want to sometimes. This is a whole other issue that I do want to talk about at some point: to someone who hasn’t ever self harmed, the idea of not wanting to stop doing something that is so bad for you is weird, but is a feeling that is often associated with self harm. That feeling can be very isolating because many people don’t understand it, and many more react badly to begin with. And feeling misunderstood can really exacerbate the feelings that lead a person to self harming. I think that discussing self harm and learning about it can only help with that. There will be people who say that bringing awareness to it will encourage people to self harm and while that may be true to a certain extent, the amount of people it could help would massively outnumber that.

People do ask about the scars. I’ve personally never had an unkind response to them; it’s usually just awkward. Even if someone doesn’t actually bring them up, I see them notice and it can get really uncomfortable because no one knows how to handle it. Claudia mentions being embarrassed about people seeing them and talks about how she has tried in the past to cover them up. Sometimes that’s just easier. It’s so complicated and it’s hard when people don’t get it or jump to conclusions. There’s the typical, “You’re asking for attention,” which has always frustrated me no end. I’m not sure when asking for attention became such a negative thing. Of course, there will always be people who abuse the compassion of others, but I would hope that our first reaction would still always be to try and help. If someone is asking for attention in some way, they probably need it, even if the reason why isn’t immediately apparent. I never tried particularly hard to hide what I was doing because I think that, subconsciously, I wanted someone to draw attention to it and see what I was going through. But at the same time I didn’t feel able to talk about it.

Sometimes people see the scars and assume that you’re ‘showing them off’ when you don’t cover them up, which is weird to me. I’m not sure why you’d want to ‘show off’ or ‘flaunt’ the evidence of a moment where you’d gotten so low that you had to physically take it out on your body. When you think about the lengths people go to to hide their scars – wearing long sleeves in a heat wave, making endless excuses as to why you can’t go swimming, hiding them with make up or bracelets or tattoos, spending every second thinking about your scars and how you’re going to make sure that no one sees them – it’s clearly not a straightforward issue. And as Claudia says, it’s not showing off; it’s a form of body positivity, of learning to be comfortable in your skin, regardless of what that skin looks like. That is a hard thing; it’s something that should be supported, not torn down.

There’s obviously a lot more to talk about when it comes to self harm but this is already a lot longer than I’d originally intended it to be! This is something that makes me really emotional and fired up so I could probably write a book on it. It’s so important to talk about and talk about openly and honestly. I wish I’d found someone writing about it or recording YouTube videos about it when I’d started struggling with all the things I talk about on this blog. Had I, and the people around me, had more knowledge and awareness about all of this stuff, my ‘mental health journey’ would’ve been very different.

Snapshot #1: Country2Country Festival as an Autistic Person

So, while this isn’t specifically a post about mental health, it is about how my mental health affects my life and the things that I want to do so I think it’s still relevant and maybe useful to someone else. There still aren’t a huge amount of resources for people with Autism and music festivals aren’t a naturally autism friendly situation: they’re loud and busy and overwhelming. The obvious advice is to avoid the conditions that cause you distress but when you love music and live music, it’s not that simple. This thing that I love is also a great stress. So it has to be about balance. Am I having a good time? Is this taking more than it’s giving?

So, let’s begin. For those of you who don’t know, Country2Country is a country music festival in London, Glasgow, and Dublin. In London, it’s three days at the O2 Arena with little stages throughout the complex and a big arena show in the evenings. I love country music and I love the country music community in the UK so there are a lot of positive moments but a lot of stressful ones too. I thought I’d write out a little overview of the festival, the good points and the bad, and how the whole thing fitted into the picture of my mental health and experience of Autism.

The biggest consideration for events like these is my lack of energy, especially with my recently increased struggles with fatigue. Standing is a huge part of any festival and for me, standing for extended periods of time (and by that I mean more than a few minutes) results in shaking, dizziness, and overwhelming nausea. Not to mention the disproportional levels of fatigue that build and build until I physically can’t stand up anymore. Most of the shows are standing, especially the ones during the day. And like any concert, there’s the expectation that you stand, as if standing means you care more than someone who’s sitting. My fatigue has been so bad lately that I only went to shows where I knew I could sit down and even then, I really struggled. I had to really pick and choose what I could go to and that came down to an upsettingly short list. But I was determined to enjoy what I could manage.

My 2018 C2C experience began on the Thursday night with a Songwriters’ Circle where a group of songwriters take turns playing songs they’ve written (that have often been released by other artists) and sharing stories about writing them. I love these events: they’re usually pretty laid back and very inspiring. It is one of my favourite things to hear songs as they were originally written and to hear how they turned from nothing into something. I was almost at the back but I was just so happy to be there. The line up was Brett James, Luke Combs, Nicolle Galyon, Kip Moore, and Natalie Hemby who is one of my all time favourite songwriters so I was very excited and they did not disappoint. They played old favourites as well as new songs but I think everyone agreed that Natalie’s performance of her song, ‘Jealous,’ recorded by Labyrinth, completely stole the show. Although I must also give an honourable mention both to Nicolle’s performance of ‘Consequences,’ recorded by Camila Cabello, and Luke Combs’ new songs. And to round off the night in the most perfect fashion, I managed to hang out with Natalie for a few minutes after the show and she was even lovelier than I remembered. So with that as a first night, the standard was set pretty high!

My excitement was so high that I did crash afterwards. I was completely overwhelmed by nausea twice on my way home, to the point where I had to sit on the ground and just breathe until it faded. This is one of the side effects of my most recent medication (for depression) and it’s one of the worst I’ve experienced but once it passed, I was okay. The emotional energy I get from live music and from being inspired and from talking to these wonderful people is unlike anything else. I could live off that night for days, even weeks, and that’s without the rest of C2C. It’s like feeding a dying fire; I come back to life.

Having had to go back home to Brighton, Day 1 of C2C began with travelling into London. My first event of the day was a very exciting one: an exclusive listen to The Shires’ upcoming album. I’d applied for a ticket and not gotten one but one of my friends in the UK Country community offered me their plus one. I can’t put into words how much that meant to me. I’ve been listening to The Shires since their first single came out and I actually went to one of the events they held when releasing their first album. I’ve already said it but I absolutely adore the UK Country community: I’ve met so many wonderful people (and now great friends) while queuing for gigs or while waiting in meet and greet lines and it is just the kindest, most generous group of people. For this event in particular, I saw so many people offering their tickets to people they knew desperately wanted to go and I was so touched to witness that. Personally, I had three people offer me a ticket because they all knew how much I wanted to be there. How amazing is that?! You’ll get no spoilers from me but it was better than I’d hoped it would be and I felt honoured to be there. Ben and Crissie are such lovely people and it has been so special to watch their journey up to this point. I’m honestly so excited to listen to all of these new songs over and over when the album comes out.

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We weren’t allowed to use our phones in the session so, for the purposes of this blog post, I took a photo of The Shires appearing in the official highlights video.

I genuinely loved hanging out with everyone and catching up afterwards but it wasn’t long before I started to struggle. I powered through for a while but when my legs started to shake, I had to call it and headed back to where I was staying, although I did have to sit in North Greenwich station for a while because the shaking and dizziness got so bad. I would love to be able to wander around and spend the day listening to artist after artist but it’s just too much for me: my lack of energy, the constant high level of noise, and the overwhelming amount of people. With the latter two, it’s like my brain becomes overloaded and that can trigger a meltdown. I haven’t written about meltdowns very much so far on this blog (although I mentioned them here – a more in depth post is on the list, I promise!) but one way to explain it would be to imagine tapping on glass that has a crack in it. While one knock doesn’t do much damage, they build up and eventually it shatters. That’s how incoming sensory information feels to me. When I reach overload, I experience extreme anxiety and that can lead to crying, screaming, self harming, etc. Obviously that’s not something I ever want to experience in public, with people that I don’t know, where I don’t feel completely safe, so I have to be aware of how close to that point I am and retreat to a safe place when everything starts to feel too much. I went back to where I was staying and had a couple of hours of quiet time before heading back to the O2 for the arena show.

Kelsea Ballerini was my priority with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s headline set coming in second; I would have to assess my capabilities throughout the night. Getting into the O2 Arena always stresses me out: there could be a problem with the ticket, they might not let me take my bag in, the metal detector could go off and they’d want to pat me down… All of those things cause me a lot of anxiety before going into a concert but fortunately everything went smoothly this time (having said that, that anxiety still takes a lot out of me, even when the things I’m worried about don’t come to pass). It always surprises me that people can’t seem to tell how anxious I am because to me, it’s everything. It’s all I can think about. But as I said, it was simple, so that anxiety didn’t turn into anything else.

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“Can I be Kelsea Ballerini when I grow up? What a fab show. I loved every second of it. I may have cried a little bit because I want to write songs and sing them too and I want it so badly but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We are made to love things and I love music unapologetically.” (x)

Kelsea Ballerini was fantastic. I’ve now seen her three times in the last year and she’s such a great performer. I got completely lost in it and that was wonderful, even if I did cry a bit because I want that to be me so badly – that’s not something I can ever really separate myself from. But I had a really awesome time, and I actually managed to lose myself in the music and not feel so self-conscious about enjoying myself. Normally, I can barely move for feeling so exposed to everyone’s opinions. So that was really fun. Also, we all need someone to look at us the way Kelsea looks at her audiences…

By the end of her set, I was feeling very shaky and since I wanted to be well enough for Sugarland the next night (I’ve been waiting eight years to see them live!), I decided to go home. That was derailed a bit by some stuff going on with a friend that didn’t exactly help my anxiety and by the time I got home, I was completely exhausted. As is normal after days and evenings of high emotions, it took me a long time to get to sleep but then I slept so deeply that when I woke up, I was so disorientated that a week could’ve passed. Apparently the previous two days had tired me out more than I’d thought because I slept for most of the day and only really managed to get up in time for the arena shows. I was pretty shaky and anxious but having some of my family with me definitely helped.

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Sugarland were freaking awesome. One of my parents played me a few Sugarland songs about eight years ago and ever since, I’ve absolutely loved their voices, their songs, and their energy. If I’m jamming out in the car, it’s most likely to a Sugarland song. So we were both super excited when they announced that they were getting back together and even more so when they were on the line up for C2C. We sang and danced (while sitting down) through the whole thing and it was so, so fun. It couldn’t have been better. I mean, there were more songs I wanted to hear but I do understand that they couldn’t just keep playing until they’d performed their entire repertoire. Mostly… Anyway, I was and am a very happy bean for having finally seen them live. It was a dream come true.

“I didn’t think I could love Sugarland any more than I already did but after last night, I absolutely do. The show was incredible and after waiting eight years, it was a dream come true. Apologies to the people behind me for all the crazy dancing and dramatic singalong.” (x)

The headline act of the night was Kacey Musgraves who I have loved since her first album. When I bought my tickets, I decided that I wanted to see her more than anyone on the Sunday so I decided to push myself to stay for her and then not go the next day. I was okay with that trade off and it was worth it. I’d sort of forgotten how much I love her and her writing style and it was so great to hear both my old favourites and some new songs from the upcoming album. I struggled a bit with the graphics on the screens; they made me a bit dizzy and gave me a headache. But it was a great show and I can’t wait for her to come back to the UK in October. I was worried about being in the underground with masses of people so we left a little bit early and had a relatively easy journey home.

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“Kacey Musgraves is a princess. I’m loving the new songs.” (x)

It was a good weekend, if a tiring one. I spent the next day in bed, tired and achy and a bit overly emotional, but that’s not an unexpected consequence of an event like this. It takes a lot out of me, on lots of different levels. Because of all the thinking and restricting and careful planning, it wasn’t too bad but I wish it were easier. I wish I didn’t struggle so much and I wish my abilities and my needs weren’t so incompatible with the way the world typically works. Being out in the world is stressful and overwhelming and most places don’t come with a built in quiet room to hide out in while I recharge. It doesn’t help that I find it really difficult to ask for support. I feel like I’m failing for succumbing to these problems and that I should be strong enough to power through, which I think comes from being diagnosed so late: I’ve spent my life thinking this way and it’s not an easy habit to break.

I hope that this has been helpful, or at the very least gives an insight into what it can be like to go to a festival such as Country2Country when you have Autism, when you struggle with your mental health. The positive moments are unrivalled but the difficulties are freaking difficult.