The Last Few Weeks…

I’m not quite sure how to describe the last few weeks. Intense, maybe. There’s been a lot going on and I’ve done things and felt things that I’ve wanted to write about but couldn’t figure out how. So I’m writing this, with the good, the bad, and the weird of the last few weeks.

So first, I got to take part in a research study for the Centre for Research in Autism and Education at University College London. I’ve written about my experience with research studies before (here) so I won’t ramble on but I love doing them. It often feels like Autism takes opportunities away from me but this allows me to do something I’d never expected and that’s really exciting. I got to put the EEG cap back on and have my brain waves monitored while I did some computer tasks. It was investigating perceptual capacity in Autism (which I’ve written more about here) and it was really fun, like a Windows computer game from the nineties. And apart from trying to get the saline gel out of my hair, it was a really great experience.

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I also went and gave blood for the first time. That was very exciting! I’ve wanted to give blood for years but up until now I haven’t been well enough or I was on medication that disqualified me. So getting to do it was really exciting and a really cool experience. Everyone was really lovely and I’ve since had a text telling me where my donated blood has gone. So the whole thing was really special and I will definitely do it again.

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Despite these cool and inspiring experiences, my mental health has been pretty bad: I reached a new low with my depression. I feel like I’m always saying that the current period of depression is the worst it’s ever been but for me, there are real differences: new thought patterns, new emotional states, new lines, new fears. Each period of depression has a different colour. Anyway. It’s been really bad and really hard and I’ve had some desperate moments.

Medication wise, it’s been a rollercoaster. As per usual. I got myself all but off the Amitriptyline a while ago but I just wasn’t ready to try another medication straight away. It’s a tough process and I just needed some time to feel steady, even if that was steadily bad. Maybe not the most logical decision I’ve made but it made sense to me at the time. And ultimately it doesn’t matter now. I’ve started the Clomipramine, which is what everyone wanted me to do. Finding the right medication and the right dosage can be pretty gruelling and I just needed to be in the right mental headspace. I’m not sure how I feel about the Clomipramine but it’s still early days.

And on this last Monday, I went to see Maren Morris play an amazing, intimate show at OMEARA in London. The staff were great about making it accessible and I was let in without having to queue and there was a chair reserved for me – I really, really miss the days where I could stand for hours without a problem. And the show was fantastic. Maren is one of my all time favourite artists/songwriters and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to.

“When this wonderful world gets heavy and I need to find my escape… yeah, I guess that’s my church.” // @marenmorris was a complete dream tonight. Beautiful, beautiful songs, singing, and stories. My little songwriter soul is so happy. (x)

It might be blurry but I love this photo of me and @richardmarcmusic after the @marenmorris show tonight. We had SUCH a good time. We’re constantly listening to her music, whether we’re in a songwriting session or just chilling out and playing Mariokart. So we were two happy beans tonight. (x)

And now it’s December. Most of my family have birthdays in December and January and of course there’s Christmas and New Year. So that’s a lot of fun things but it also means a lot of high emotion and stress. It’s a tricky time. I’ve found Christmas difficult for the last few years so I’m going to have to be careful to manage my physical and mental health throughout this period. I’m going back to the post I wrote last year about managing Christmas with anxiety and Autism – if that sounds like it might be helpful, you can find it here.

I Rediscovered Swimming

One of the most common pieces of advice with anything mental health or mental illness related is to exercise. And while that’s not bad advice, it’s not necessarily good advice in the practical sense. It’s about as helpful as saying, ‘eat healthy’ or ‘get enough sleep.’ It’s something that has to be tailored to you. Specific types of exercise will help where others may make you feel worse. So you need to find the one for you.

For example, I hate running. I would love to love it but I hate it. I find it at best uncomfortable and at worst painful: it’s like my bones are rattling inside my body. I’ve heard this from others with Autism but I don’t know if it’s specific to that or whether it’s a coincidence. But anyway, running is not the thing for me. Swimming however…

I have always loved to swim. I love the feeling of moving through water and when I was a kid, I loved the silence that comes from being underwater. I would’ve given anything to be able to breathe underwater so that I could stay in that silence. That’s pretty ironic given that I would grow up to develop anxiety that is triggered by a lack of noise and distraction.

I got back into swimming a couple of months ago. At the beginning, my anxiety was so bad that I couldn’t even swim: the lack of stimulation for my brain meant that I just spiralled and my anxiety became completely overwhelming. So me and my Mum would walk and talk, planning the day or talking through whatever thing was on my mind that morning. Eventually my anxiety mutated into a different state and I was able to swim. It’s had such an impact on my life so I really wanted to write about it.

Swimming pools have the potential to be very difficult for me, from a sensory perspective. When it’s busy, the sound bounces around and around, making it one big fog of noise, which makes me very anxious. And the fact that I’m so short sighted I can barely see without my glasses makes that anxiety even worse: I can’t see anything and the sound feels like it’s coming from everywhere and that causes me paralyzing anxiety. It’s how I imagine it would feel to be on a carousel but if the carousel was going at ten times the normal speed. It’s scary. The best times to get in a quiet swim seem to be first thing in the morning and last thing at night. I’ve been sticking to the morning; it makes for a more productive day for me.

Knowing that this is the time that allows for the best swimming experience, I’ve been getting up early and getting to the gym for about seven forty five (sometimes I even get the pool to myself, which is glorious). And knowing that I have to get up that early, I’m going to bed at a sensible time, rather than accidentally staying up until three in the morning. So a routine sort of formed by accident and that has been so good for me. My relationship with sleep has never been so good.

Exercise has always been difficult for me given my historic struggle with energy but also because ‘weight bearing’ exercise often feels very jarring. As I’ve already said, it makes me feel like my bones are rattling inside my body and each impact makes it worse. Sometimes it’s not that bad and I can be distracted by whatever I’m doing but sometimes it can actually be painful. So swimming is perfect. It takes that whole aspect out of the equation and makes exercise actually enjoyable. It reminds me of my arthritic dog: he goes for hydrotherapy and as soon as he’s in the water, chasing tennis balls, he’s like a puppy again. He loves it and I can totally relate.

The best thing about swimming is that it’s something that makes sense and that’s something I really need at the moment. The world feels hard and unfair and this is something that I can control. The more I swim, the stronger I get. I can see the results. I’ve been swimming most days for the last three months and I see my own progress: I’m swimming further; I’m swimming faster; I can see my body changing. It makes sense. That grounds me.

The one thing I do have to be careful of is my tendency to obsess: about the number of laps, getting to the next ten, getting to a hundred… Once it’s in my head that I ‘have’ to get to a particular number, there’s not much I can do to change my own mind and it causes me serious anxiety if I don’t reach the number I’ve ‘decided on.’ So I have to be aware of that. Sometimes I can avoid it by distracting myself or by deciding on exactly how long I’m going to spend in the pool but sometimes I just have to manage it. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

But overall, rediscovering swimming has been one of the major highlights of this year. It’s helped my physical health and my mental health, as well as my day to day life. So I feel very grateful to have found it again.

And since I can’t take my phone into the pool with me, here’s a photo of my dog, enjoying his fortnightly swim.

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Meltdowns, Halsey, Halsey, and Meltdowns

I’ve never really written about meltdowns before. Not long after I started writing this blog, I started taking Venlafaxine for my depression, which essentially numbed me to all my emotions. And since my meltdowns have always come from an emotional place, I basically stopped having meltdowns. But I couldn’t deal with not being able to feel anything: everything I do – writing, songwriting, relationships, choices – everything I do is based on emotion. So I came off that medication and my emotions (and my ability to think clearly) came back. But I hadn’t had any meltdowns until recently.

A couple of weeks ago, I was supposed to be going to see Halsey in London, something I’ve been looking forward to for years. Since I saw her in 2016. I love her songs – a masterclass in lyric writing, melody, production, songwriting in general – and she’s an incredible performer, one of the best I’ve ever seen. I particularly love the Badlands album: somehow the songs just make me feel brave. So I was really, really excited.

If you’ve been keeping up with my blog, you’ll know that my depression has been particularly suffocating recently and when it’s that bad, being out and around people is incredibly difficult. Sometimes talking about those emotions and the strength of them is helpful: just letting it out of my body lessens the pressure and makes it easier to cope but sometimes, like this time, it’s like a crack in the dam. It just started pouring out and I couldn’t reign it back in. I was desperate to get to this show though so I kept trying.

My Mum drove me to the station but when we got there, I couldn’t get out of the car. It was like a magnetic force preventing me from getting out of my seat, from making decisions. My Mum suggested alternative ways of doing the day but I could feel all the possible decisions and deviations spiralling away from me and I ended up shouting that I needed her to stop (all that anxiety and stress and emotion just exploded out of me). I just couldn’t. I couldn’t find the right decision but I knew when they were wrong. So my Mum said she was going to drive me to London and take me to the show. That’s the only way I was going to be able to go. So that’s what we did.

This is one kind of meltdown. There seem to be different variations of them based on the situation. Usually, I can’t do anything after having one; usually I just have to go and sleep until I feel like myself again. But my desperation to go to the show pulled me through all of that somehow. It took me over an hour to be able to think clearly and make sentences again and by the time we got to the show, I was just about functional – I could walk, I could interact with others (although I still couldn’t make eye contact with anyone) – although I felt like I was in a different dimension to everyone else: we could see each other and interact but it was like we were on different frequencies. I’m mixing my metaphors I know. Meltdowns mess with your head.

It was an amazing show. Halsey shows are unlike any other shows in my experience. She gives everything to her performance. The energy is just off the charts, her vocals were incredible, and the stage/backdrops are complete works of art. The songs I loved before, I loved even more. The songs I liked before, I loved by the end of the show. The performances and the stories she tells about them make every single song special and I will hold on to all of it forever.

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Because of the meltdown, I was in a really strange headspace: I felt far away and disconnected and kind of lost. So I couldn’t enjoy the show in the way I would have had I not had the meltdown. But I did enjoy it and looking through my photos and videos makes me so, so happy and grateful and proud that I managed to get there. And it helped somehow. I can’t really explain it but it helped. It’s like it filled in all the cracks with gold, to use a Japanese art form as an analogy.

I got home, went to bed, and got up the next day, ready to do the whole thing again, although without the meltdown (or so I thought). As an autistic person and a concert lover, I really like to go to shows twice where possible. With the lights, visuals, music, the scream, the energy expended, the energy expended getting there… I find it incredibly difficult to process everything and I get overwhelmed very quickly. It all starts to pass through me without really landing. Fortunately, the only thing I really spend money on is concerts so that is something that I am sometimes able to do.

For several days after a meltdown, I feel really, really fragile. So my Mum – my hero – said she’d come to the show again. Thank goodness she likes Halsey too.  So we drove up to London, got to the venue, and really enjoyed the show. My god, Halsey is just so good. And seeing it twice just meant that I could take in all of it and that was just so amazing. Some of my favourite moments include (I could easily list everything but I’ll try my best to just keep it to a few):

  • The opening song, ‘Eyes Closed,’ will always be special to me because of the feeling it created. The energy in the room lifted by tenfold and it was the closest thing to magic I’ve ever experienced.
  • How she left it to the crowd by shout the lyric, ‘Do you call yourself a fucking hurricane like me?’ I wasn’t expecting that and the intensity of the crowd just took my breath away.
  • The visuals for ‘Hurricane’ were the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. And during the song, she shouted, ‘London, this song is a reminder that you do not belong to anybody but yourself!’
  • The little B stage that I thought was made up of LED lights but was actually covered in water (I really have no idea how to explain it) where she and her dancer stamped and kicked water into the crowd during ‘Don’t Play.’

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  • The volume of the crowd when everyone sang along to the stripped down version of ‘Closer.’
  • The way she sat and talked to us, the story she told about ‘100 Letters,’ and how she finished by saying, ‘You only get one you in this life. Do not waste it on someone who doesn’t appreciate who you already are.’ Maybe it sounds cheesy but in the moment, it almost brought me to tears. I’m tearing up even now as I write this. The shows were just one empowering moment after another and for that, they will always be incredibly special concerts to me.
  • The beautiful flower backgrounds for ‘Now or Never.’

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There are so many more moments I could name but I’ll leave it there. They were two really incredible concerts and I feel so lucky to have experienced them.

When the show finished, I was absolutely exhausted, physically and mentally. Walking down the stairs to the venue exit was physically painful. I’d specifically bought a seated ticked because I don’t have the energy at the moment to stand for such a long period of time but there were two girls who stood for the whole thing (almost everybody sat behind them ended up standing in the aisle so that they could see – they refused to sit down or move despite the disruption they were causing) so I kept having to stand up to see. My whole body hurt by the time it was over. Apparently that’s another unexplained Autism thing: fatigue and pain and so on with no obvious cause.

We made it out of the venue and were halfway across the street – standing on the traffic island – when an ambulance less than a few feet away turned on its siren. I don’t know if I can really explain it: it’s something so deeply rooted in emotions and sensory stuff that I’m still searching for the right words. I might never find them. But the sound – the high-pitched, ear-splittingly loud sound – just completely overwhelmed me in a split second. It was like it blew a fuse in my brain and suddenly I was screaming and my knees buckled and I would’ve hit the ground if Mum hadn’t caught me. At some point the screaming turned into crying and shaking and somehow my Mum got me onto the tube, back to the car, and home to my bed and my cats. It took most of the journey before my brain reengaged and I could think in complete sentences but even then I couldn’t talk. It just took too much energy.

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We got home, went to bed, and I spent the next few days recovering. In truth it took me over a week to feel like myself again and to process and commit to memory the amazing moments from the concert before the meltdown, before my brain shut down. It was a lot to make sense of. Meltdowns are traumatic and I don’t use that word lightly. I will write more about them, when I’m in a more stable, more composed place. I’m more than a bit all over the place at the moment. But this page here is an amazing resource so do have a look at that if you want to know more about meltdowns (and shutdowns).

And just in case:

Thank you Halsey (I never know whether to think of you as Halsey or as Ashley). Thank you for an amazing show and a treasured experience. It might’ve been a rough weekend but the shows were worth the meltdowns. Concerts make me feel alive, make me feel real. You gave me that and I’m really grateful.

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So I Wrote A Thing For World Mental Health Day

(Trigger warning for self harm.)

Today is World Mental Health Day.

If I’m honest, I’m not really sure what to say. I’m in the middle of the worst depression I’ve ever experienced and I’m very aware that my perspective, my opinions, my hopes are distorted by that. If this was a video, I might just sit and cry. But this day is important so I’m trying to pull myself together and put something out into the world that is (hopefully) positive (and maybe helpful).

This year’s theme is the mental health of young people. When it comes to things like this, I’ve never felt comfortable talking about anyone’s experience but my own. So that’s what I’m going to do. I hope that’s okay with you guys.

My experience at secondary school was a very mixed one. I spent the first three years dealing with some complicated health problems but by the time I reached Years 10 and 11 (ages fifteen and sixteen for those of you who don’t know the education system in England), I felt really settled. I loved learning, particularly English, Maths, History, Psychology, and Philosophy (real shout out to my teachers in all of those subjects). I got real satisfaction from working hard and that was reflected in my grades. I came out of secondary school with not unimpressive grades, especially when you consider I missed most of the first three years. So I felt pretty good about going into Sixth Form (A Levels/ages seventeen and eighteen).

But that was when it all started to unravel. I really, really struggled. I’d gone from completing the work with ease to barely scraping by. I couldn’t understand it: I was trying so hard and it didn’t seem to make any difference. And I couldn’t see it at the time, but my anxiety was getting worse and worse and what I now know to be depression was creeping in. But I didn’t know it was happening so I just kept pushing forwards. I spoke to a couple of people about the high anxiety I was experiencing but each one told me that anxiety is normal and that was the end of the conversation.

It all came to a head when I failed an exam, something that had never happened before. I’d been told I was all set for an A* and I came out with a U. I was absolutely devastated. I know now that our worth as human beings has nothing to do with grades but I was eighteen years old: I had only ever been valued based on my grades. It’s no one person’s fault but that’s how the education system in this country works. It needs changing.

But back to this little story. I don’t remember much after I opened the envelope and saw that U but I ended up in one of the less used college toilets, self harming repeatedly with a broken paperclip. I don’t know how long I was there (long enough that the automatic lights went off and I was plunged into a very appropriate darkness) but at some point, my friends tracked me down and coaxed me out of the stall. I still remember seeing my reflection: my make up all down my face, my hands shaking, and the scratches barely hidden by my long sleeves. One friend took me to a nearby café, bought me a hot chocolate, and just talked to me. And eventually I told her what I’d done. Her kindness and gentleness was so healing, not for the whole problem but for that very difficult day. I will never forget it and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay it.

After that, I dropped out of that course and clawed my way out with two A Levels and an Extended Project, far less than I and everyone had expected of me. I went straight into a music course but had to drop out two days in because my anxiety was so bad that I just couldn’t cope. I spent a year grappling with the anxiety and depression, trying the first of many antidepressants (so many) and trying to retake some of the exams in the hope that I could improve my A Levels (I didn’t end up opening the results of those until after I finished my degree, three years later, but that’s another story). During that year, I tried desperately to get help from the NHS to no avail: my anxiety was so bad that talking to people I didn’t know was practically impossible and they refused to help me if I wouldn’t talk. Eventually we were forced to go private, something that I’m endlessly, endlessly grateful has been possible. And I only managed to get my diagnoses when my university said they weren’t able to help me if I didn’t have an official diagnosis.

It still upsets me to talk about. I asked and asked and asked for help but no one either seemed able or willing to help me. I would not be as twisted up now had that not been the case. The information and support was not available to me, it wasn’t available to my family, and it wasn’t available or deemed important enough (I’m not sure which is worse) to the medical professionals I saw. That has to change. It is not acceptable.

Now that I’ve told my story, I want to include some other important, relevant stuff.

The first thing is that I want to link you to Hannah Jane Parkinson’s recent article in The Guardian. She makes the very important distinction between mental health and mental illness. And this is where, I think, physical health and mental health are most comparable: your mental health is something you take care of (or don’t) everyday, by eating and sleeping well, exercising, talking through your emotions, and so on. Mental illnesses, similarly to physical illnesses, can be caused by not taking care of your mental health but there can also be genetic factors, environmental factors, and just hard stuff going on in your life.

WAYS TO HELP YOUR MENTAL HEALTH:

  • Talk – Talk through your feelings with someone you trust.
  • Keep a journal – This way you can air your thoughts and feelings in private.
  • Keep in contact with friends – It’s really easy to get busy and fall out of touch but spending time with people you love and feeling connected to other people is so important.
  • Exercise – This doesn’t mean every or any kind of exercise will help. On a personal level some types of exercise can potentially hurt your mental health. You just need to find the one that does help and then it will really help. I always recommend swimming because it’s non-weightbearing and therefore causes less strain on your body when you’re potentially already struggling with physical symptoms, like fatigue.
  • Eat well/drink sensibly – Everything we put into our bodies affects our minds.
  • Be mindful of your commitments – Yes, social interaction can be really helpful but if you’re taking on too much, it will take more from you than it gives you. And then you won’t be able to cope as well with whatever else is thrown at you.
  • Ask for help if you start to feel mentally and emotionally overwhelmed – Fortunately it’s starting to become easier to access support and counselling but even if it’s a struggle, it is a struggle worth going through.
  • Spend time with animals – It’s scientifically proven that being with animals is good for your health!

WAYS TO HELP YOUR MENTAL ILLNESS:

  • Work with a medical professional/therapist that respects and understands what you’re struggling with – Finding one can be the mission of a lifetime but having that presence in your life whose sole purpose is to help you through your struggles is incredible.
  • Medication – If you’re prescribed medication, take it diligently.
  • Try to keep track of your triggers – Knowing what they are doesn’t always prevent them from sending you into a complete spiral but even one spiral avoided is progress.
  • Create a support system – This isn’t something you can necessarily do without help but, over time and with the help of people who care about you, building a circle of trusted people who will support you through whatever it is you’re going through is so special and helpful.
  • Take time off if you need it – This is one I think we all struggle with. It’s a learning curve for a lot of us but it is important and can prevent small problems from becoming big problems.
  • Find a stress reliever – Whether it’s reading, or watching every episode of your favourite TV show, or doing something artsy like watercolouring, taking a break from all the stuff in your head is well worth doing.
  • Create a safe space for yourself – Living with a mental illness is exhausting and so having somewhere where you can just exist without thinking or masking is so important.

And of course, there is overlap between these two lists.

Where we go from here, I’m not sure. The information about mental health and mental illness is spreading and spreading and more and more people are speaking up. Now we need the right systems to support it: doctors, treatment, government officials who advocate for positive change. For now, that’s all I know. For now, I’m just trying to manage one day at a time.

(And a gentle reminder, my debut single, ‘Invisible,’ which I wrote about my experiences with my mental health is available on iTunes and Spotify and all those places and all proceeds go to Young Minds, a charity that supports young people in their mental health.)

Birthday Rules

A few years ago, I found this post on Tumblr about celebrating ‘grown up birthdays.’ This person talked about how stressful they found birthdays as an adult and so they’d implemented two rules: do something you wouldn’t normally do and buy yourself something you wouldn’t normally buy. They said that, since starting these rules, each year has been distinct and memorable.

I really like this as an idea. I can definitely relate to feeling anxious around birthdays: I always feel like I’m not enjoying myself as much as I should be, like I’m not happy enough. It’s silly but it gets me all twisted up. And when I was in school and university, my birthday always felt rushed, what with the start of the academic year.

More recently, as I’ve been struggling more with my mental health, I find myself thinking something like, “This is the year I’m going to feel better,” or “I’m going to feel better by my next birthday.” It causes me such anxiety. And the longer this period of depression goes on, the more anxious I get. I’m aware that it’s not a helpful thought to have but it’s not an easy one to unpick. But maybe a possible answer is to associate my birthday with positive memories.

So here we go…

Rule #1: Do something you wouldn’t normally do.

I had a couple of thoughts about this one but then one just fell into my lap and just seemed perfect.

My dog has had hydrotherapy for years. He’s fifteen and very arthritic and it’s helped massively. Plus it’s probably the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen. He used to surge through the water after tennis balls, kicking so hard that the hydrotherapist had trouble figuring out which joints were working and which weren’t. But now it’s much calmer. He knows the ball will be there when he gets there. Anyway.

Usually he works with a hydrotherapist but this time, the hydrotherapist taught my Mum and me how to do it. And oh my god, it was hard work. They make it look so easy! Trying to gauge how much he’s extending and the angle his legs are at when fully extended was really tricky but as an experience, it was so much fun. I was exhausted afterwards but I really, really enjoyed it and it was a special experience.

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Rule #2: Buy yourself something you wouldn’t normally buy.

I get very anxious about spending money (this post is turning into a list of things I get anxious about…) so carrying out this rule was probably a good exercise in challenging that anxiety. Anyway.

For as long as I can remember I’ve loved typewriters. I like how they look, I like how they sound, and I love the tangible quality that they attach to stories and poetry and words. I’ve been fostering one – if that makes sense – for the last couple of years and I love it dearly but there’s always been one I’ve had my heart set on. It’s the most beautiful typewriter I’ve ever seen and then a couple of weeks ago, I saw one for sale on Etsy. I’ve had these rules in mind for a while and given how rarely it happens to see this exact typewriter for sale, I went for it.

It’s so beautiful and it does actually still work. I haven’t had time to try it out yet but I’m really excited to.

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Despite my current mental health struggles, it was a good birthday. It was quiet and low key but with some really positive experiences. It was a good day.

When Things Get Really Bad

Since I last posted on here, literally all I’ve done is survive.

After putting up last week’s post, I went to therapy, which just about wrecked me. It was really hard going. I don’t want to get too into what we talked about and what I’m currently struggling with because I’m really struggling with it and I’m still figuring out how to put all of it into words. But I think the gist of it is important to include: I’m struggling with ‘feeling’ autistic, like I’m never going to be able to function the same way as everyone else. I don’t know how to cope with a thought like that. And that has really triggered my depression, in a massive way. I feel like I say this every time, but it feels like the worst place I’ve ever been; but maybe I say it every time because each time takes more out of me.

It looks so small and simple when I write it out like that. But in reality it’s powerful enough to overwhelm everything.

I left therapy feeling absolutely drained. I didn’t know how I was going to get through the day, get through the week to the next session. But somehow I did, one minute at a time. This week has been about survival because sometimes that’s all you can manage – I feel like I’m standing on the very edge of the black hole that is my depression and it’s taking all of my focus to not get pulled in. So while I feel like I’ve achieved nothing, I’ve actually achieved everything. At least that’s what I’m trying to tell myself.

So I thought I’d write down what I do when I’m in this place, where the only thing I can do is survive:

Each day, I get up at seven and go to the gym to swim for thirty minutes. I always want to do more but through trial and error (usually error), I’ve found that this is the amount I can do and still kind of function. If I push on, I end up falling asleep during the day and screwing up my sleeping pattern or I end up in a place where everything makes me cry. So I’m trying to be sensible and build it up slowly.

I get home and head for the living room. I curl up on the sofa, turn on the TV and continue the rewatch of whatever TV show I’m watching (currently The Mentalist). I’m not really watching; it’s more about having familiar, comforting background noise so that the scary thoughts can’t get in. Then I find something that will distract me from all the overwhelmingly difficult things. The activities that work best for me are playing piano and printing, cutting, and sticking pictures from Tumblr into notebooks. And sometimes reading a book works, if I have the concentration to actually read.

And I use those things to get me through the day. I spend time with the animals in my house. I’m lucky enough to have a Mum who works from home so that I can have someone with me when I need to have someone with me. I try to eat well.

And then I go to bed not too late and start all over again.

It’s a hard thing to get my head around and I’m aware that I’m very hard on myself. Because even though I genuinely believe that sometimes all you can do is survive, I find myself getting desperately upset that I’m ‘not doing anything.’ I feel like I’m not trying hard enough – in my mental health, in my music, in my life – and that I should ‘push through it.’ And it’s so hard to think that when I feel so overwhelmed by my depression.

And, outside all of that stuff, someone I care about is in hospital and no one really knows what the outcome is going to be. So I’m trying to manage all the anxiety around that too but it’s like trying to stand on ground that’s constantly shifting.

I think that, if I keep writing, I’m going to end up going in circles: ‘it’s okay to focus on surviving’ to ‘I should be trying harder’ and back to ‘it’s okay to focus on surviving’ and round and round and round. So I’m going to stop here. But regardless of all my anxieties and negative thoughts, I know that it’s okay to focus on surviving. And I hope you know that too.

Getting A Diagnosis – The Autism Edition

This is something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while but it’s such a big topic that I was very daunted by just how much I needed to include. I’d open a word document, stare at it for ten minutes, and then switch to something else. You’ll see what I mean. Getting a diagnosis is a complicated and emotional process that is so different for everyone but I had no idea how difficult it would be when we started pursuing it. So I thought I’d write out my experience, just to put out into the world one version of the story. Maybe yours is similar, maybe it’s different. Hopefully you’ll get something out of it either way. And if you’re trying to get one, maybe this will give you some idea of the hurdles. I don’t want to scare anyone off; it was a brutal experience but it was absolutely life changing and life saving, both for my mental health and for who I am as a person.

I’m going to split this into two posts because although they’re linked, the processes for getting the mental health diagnoses and getting the ASD diagnosis were very different for me. I don’t know if that’s the same for everyone. This post will be about getting the ASD diagnosis and follows on from the one about my mental health diagnoses. If you’ve read that one already, you’ll know that it took several years to get to that point.

During our search – mine and my Mum’s – for an explanation as to why I was struggling so much, Autism came up several times. We didn’t pursue it straight away because I didn’t fit what we knew of it and because multiple health professionals had dismissed it. So we focussed on the mental health perspective and managed to get those diagnoses in January 2015. But it kept coming up and after talking to practically everyone we knew, we ended up at ASSERT, a local charity that supports people with Autism Spectrum Disorder. On their advice, we contacted the Brighton and Hove Neurobehavioural Service and that resulted in an assessment (in August 2015).

The assessment itself was pretty intense: three hours of answering questions about my life and my experiences, followed up by another appointment where it was all explained to me. The woman who assessed me was lovely, which made it easier, but it was exhausting. Afterwards, I received an eight page report with all the relevant information. I know I’ve already written a post about the presentation of Autism in women but this is the more detailed, clinical side of it, to give you an idea of what was asked and what went into getting an Autism diagnosis.

The questions – and the report – were broken down into several sections:


DEVELOPMENTAL HISTORY

As a child, me and my brother played make believe games that involved the creation of very elaborate worlds, with characters and histories, and they often lasted for months, if not years. My other staple ‘game’ was arranging my toy animals into “carefully crafted scenes.” I did this over and over again, in a “notably ordered and systemised” way.

I was incredibly shy and although my speech and language were ‘well developed,’ I did struggle socially. I didn’t have many friends but the friendships I made were incredibly important to me (“the very commonly observed capacity for young women on the spectrum to make very intense, uncompromising attachments to individuals”) and the loss of those connections was “deeply traumatic.”

I did well in school because I had “an unyielding need for perfection” and a “capacity for intense engagement in subjects.” No one (including me) noticed any difficulties because I was quiet and hardworking (“like many young women on the spectrum”) but having said that, I was absolutely exhausted by school. I’d get home, collapse on the sofa, and kind of zone out, almost leaving my body. Time would pass and while I was still functional, it felt like I was on autopilot until I ‘returned’ to my body. That was how I processed school and how it completely exhausted me.

The one thing that I did notice and struggle with was my absolute need to follow every rule: “Lauren has a lifelong sense of right and wrong and cannot deviate from rules.” I’ve always struggled with the way people seem to know which rules are important, who they apply to, and so on. And even when there was good reason to break a rule, I could not do it.

“Moving to the chaotic, unstructured, unfamiliar sixth form [was] deeply traumatic. It was at this point that her meltdowns and mental health became of acute, identifiable concern.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.

RECIPROCAL SOCIAL COMMUNICATION

“Although Lauren has worked hard to integrate socially, she has clear lifelong social difference.” Socialising has always felt incredibly complicated and stressful. “Lauren has the almost universal autistic sense of feeling ‘alien’ (or as if behind glass) from other people. She feels exhausted by the social world. People are mysterious and chaotic to her, and although she is highly observant of others and learns and copies social behaviours, the possibility of unpredictable social behaviour provokes acute anxiety. She shows evidence of the triad of impairment but this is scaffolded and obscured by her intelligence and vigilance.”

Eye contact is tiring and uncomfortable. It feels so intimate – too intimate. And I don’t know which eye you’re supposed to look at.

I’ve always struggled with making phone calls, particularly when it’s someone I don’t know. Because I’m only hearing someone’s voice, I feel like I’m not getting enough information to ‘read’ the social interaction and so I get really anxious about saying the wrong thing or getting overwhelmed and missing things. I can just about handle it with people I know, where I’ve learned the ‘conversational rhythm.’

It’s a myth that people with Autism aren’t empathetic. I’ve always felt like my empathy is overwhelmingly strong, to the point where it can actually incapacitate me. For example, after finding out that a friend was severely ill, I was so distressed that I was barely able to get out of bed for about three days: “[Lauren] is prone to fixating on helping people and is often very upset when this is not possible. Women on the spectrum are often highly sensitive to suffering in others and are drawn to the ‘caring’ role. This can leave them socially and emotionally vulnerable.”

I get overwhelmed very quickly, because I can’t process things as quickly as they happen. The best way I’ve found to process stuff (experiences, sensations, emotions) is to write everything down: “Lauren writes everything down in micro-detail and through this process she has learnt much about the human state and the social world that is not intuitive. The detail and perseverative nature of this recording is authentically aspergic.”

RESTRICTIVE AND REPETITIVE BEHAVIOURS (NEED FOR SAMENESS)

I’ve always had the intense focus and ‘restricted interests’ that people often associate with Autism. I’ve bounced from one to another to another my whole life. When I was twelve, I wrote a twenty thousand word story that I researched in “encyclopaedic detail.” I even knew the longitude and latitude of where all the characters were throughout the story. Every detail is important: “Authenticity is of enormous importance to her.” A truer statement was never made and it’s true for every part of my life, from my songwriting to the clothes I wear.

I’ve also always had a “strong need for sameness and routine.” I didn’t even really realise it until I was asked. Everything I ‘routinely’ do has a very precise order: “She has certain non-functional rituals that she needs to perform in order to feel safe and soothed.” And any change – big or small – can send me into a spiral of anxiety, which can lead to a meltdown. “She has a need for perseverative repetitive activity to soothe her anxiety and dampen the flood of intrusive information. She has the same TV programs on and listens to the same audiobooks again and again.”

SENSORY SENSITIVITY

I have always been “highly sensitive to sensory phenomena.” I struggle to manage and process se nsory information but with sound and taste in particular. But all of my ‘sensory sensitivities’ increase when I’m under stress.

“[Lauren] appears to be particularly affected by multiple streams of sensory experience: finding, for example, places where people gather cacophonous, overwhelming and she is swamped in anxiety about all the possible permutations of each person’s life.” When I walk down the street, I’m overwhelmed by the fact that every person I pass has favourite colours, foods they don’t like, phone numbers they can’t remember, important dates coming up, and so on and so on and so on. It’s beautiful and terrifying and exhausting.

One of my biggest issues sensitivity-wise is with food and I’ve struggled with it all my life. I’m very sensitive to taste and texture so I can only eat plain foods and I hate having different foods touch each other. I find pretty much everything to do with food overwhelming: the ingredients in a meal, the preparation of food, all the sensory information… This is apparently a common autistic experience.

“Some evidence of hypermobility which is a unifying diagnosis with autism.”

CONCLUSION

“The essential features of ASD as specified in DSM-V are persistent, pervasive and sustained impairment in reciprocal social communication and social interaction; and restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests, or activities and may be most apparent in difficulties in processing and responding to complex social cues. These symptoms are present from early childhood and limit or impair everyday functioning.” My assessor took in everything we’d told her and determined that I met the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder, at level one, which is ‘requiring support.’ I meet all the difficulties likely to be experienced at this level.

“It is apparent that Lauren also has issues pertaining to personality disorder. She was vulnerable to the development of personality disruption due to the complexities of her developmental difference and her experience growing up (essentially as a ‘square peg in a round hole’) was sufficiently complex and invalidating as to cause her enduring distress and propensity for emotional intensity.”

Getting the diagnosis itself was very affirming but the conclusion of the report was also really positive: “She has amazing potential and I am really hopeful that, in time, this explanation will come to be a meaningful map for a resilient and contented future.”


This isn’t a complete report, just some snippets to give you an idea of what the session was like and some of the traits that make up an Autism diagnosis. It’s not a checklist or the ASD criteria. I just remember having no idea what was going to happen and the anxiety that that caused me. So if I can make it less scary for someone else, that’s something I really want to do.

(Again, no relevant photos but here are some from around that time.)