Christmas and Autism

Christmas and Autism aren’t hugely compatible. Lots of bright lights, noise, high emotions, family, socialising… It can all get too much. It can be a really stressful time. So I’ve been thinking about the past few Christmases and the one coming up and how I can make it restful and comfortable but also enjoyable.

Make sure you have the medication you need – To run out and go into withdrawal (depending on the kind of medication you have) is awful anyway but it’s adding insult to injury to have to go through it during a time that is characterised by its joyfulness. So make sure you know the dates your doctors/pharmacy will be closed and make sure you have the medication to get through that time. Please. If you need any extra motivation, do it for me. You do not need to go through that.

Plan presents with friends and family – I get really anxious about receiving gifts. I always worry that I’m not reacting positively enough, that I’m letting the giver down. I worry that they’ll see a microsecond of anything other than joy and that will upset them. Another anxiety about presents comes from the times when I feel really far away and disconnected from myself, something I often feel at times of high emotion. When I feel like that, something like being given a present doesn’t impact me the way it would if I didn’t feel like that and that brings it’s own myriad of emotions: guilt, frustration, loneliness, etc. I feel like I’m being ungrateful and the lack of personal connection to whatever I’ve been given makes me feel very alone, like people don’t know me. I know that it’s my head messing with me but that doesn’t make the emotions any less real. To counteract those feelings, I’ve started discussing present buying with my family and friends. Asking for things can feel really, really, REALLY awkward but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that talking things through does help. So we talk about that and we talk about what I want and what they want, the more specific the better. It does take out the surprise element but I don’t really like surprises anyway and if you have anxiety, chances are you don’t like them either. For example, for my birthday, the biggest surprise was which poetry book I got from a particular writer. It made the whole day so much easier on my emotions.

Get as much information as possible – I make a point to know what’s going on as much as possible. For me, the biggest anxiety is food so when it comes to the important meals (such as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – the ones where my family all get together), I make sure there will be at least a couple of things I can eat. I’m lucky because my family are very used to my struggle with food so they do take that into account when planning a meal and that means a lot to me. It makes a massive difference to my Christmas experience.

Space out social events – Obviously there are some things you can’t avoid but where possible, I try and space out the socialising to give myself time to recover and recharge. And knowing in advance allows me to prepare myself, physically, mentally, and emotionally. This makes it a bit easier to regulate my mood. Some things can’t be helped but my aim is to try and keep my emotions relatively even, rather than the tumultuous up and down that they can be, which is exhausting and upsetting.

Try not to beat yourself up about negative emotions – Something I also struggle with at Christmas is this feeling that I’m not enjoying myself enough, like if I’m not ecstatic I’ve somehow failed Christmas. I’ll look around at everyone and they’re all laughing hysterically at some ridiculous Christmas dinner activity (anyone else have those differently tuned whistles that you had to blow in a particular order to play Christmas songs?) but I feel like crying. I’ve had that experience a couple of times and it’s one of the most isolating feelings I can think of. It makes me feel so alone and disconnected from everyone and it’s horrible. I haven’t figured out what to do about this feeling yet but I think the first step is acknowledging it and accepting that it’s there. My plan is to try some of the things I listed in a previous post about connecting to the world around me. I’ll report back with whether it works or not.

Accept the anti climax – I often crash after Christmas and really struggle with the anti climax. That really drags my mood down. I’m hoping that spreading out the Christmas events will soften that a little and I plan to have some fun, gentle things to do to afterwards but again, I’m trying to acknowledge and accept it. I probably won’t be as calm about it when I’m in it; I’ll probably rage against it as is my default these days but I can but try. At the end of the day, that’s all you can do.

When you can’t get out of a stressful event, create a safety net – If there’s a stressful event that I have to go to, I plan as much as possible. I’ll scout out somewhere to retreat to or bring/find a friend who can rescue me if needed. I create a safety net for myself and often it’s existence is enough. It takes off the pressure.

Take the time to think about the sad stuff if you need to – At Christmas, I can’t help but think of the people who aren’t there, who are gone for whatever reason. I miss them, not necessarily more than any other time but in a more obvious way. They are not there at Christmas dinner, there’s a glaring hole in your shopping list, and there’s no present from them on Christmas morning. I think we do a disservice to ourselves and our emotions to push that aside, because it’s a holiday about joy or because it’s too hard. But if it’s something you want to do, you have to do it in a way that works for you. Sometimes it feels right to raise a glass at dinner and sometimes it’s right just to take a few moments to think of them. Sometimes it’s right to flip through photo albums and sometimes it’s right to cry about it. Grief and sadness aren’t things you can do to someone else’s formula. But I think it’s important to take the time to remember and acknowledge the sad stuff, in whatever way you choose.

Ultimately, it’s all down to communication and planning. Planning, planning, and more planning, as always. That’s what I’m learning. I hope this has been somewhat helpful and that you guys all have the lovely, safe Christmases you deserve.

Originally written for Ambitious About Autism. You can find it here.

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Tired

If I could change one thing about myself it would be my energy levels.

I’ve struggled with fatigue for most of my life. When I was twelve, I suddenly got sick and missed a lot of school. I was nauseous and so tired that even walking upstairs was exhausting. I went to the doctor, had many, many blood tests, saw various specialists but no one could figure out what was happening. No one could find anything wrong. And yet I was still very unwell. The only clue we had was that the blood tests showed I had had Glandular Fever at some point. But that was it. Months passed and we tried lots of different approaches but nothing helped. I was managing a bit of school but it was only a handful of classes a week and even that exhausted me. I basically lived on the sofa, missing out on pretty much everything.

Just over two years in and someone suggested something called the Lightning Process. It sounded strange but I was desperate so we said yes. It’s a fascinating idea: changing the pathways in your brain to affect your body and your health. I went to the three-day training course but by the end of the second day, I knew something had changed. I felt completely different and it showed. I still had very low stamina but somehow I had more energy. It was like a switch had been flipped. I went back to school and although I did still struggle a bit, it was so much better than before.

Everything seemed normal until I was eighteen and doing my A Levels. The stress was overwhelming and before I knew it, I was drowning in exhaustion. Somehow, I made it through my exams but my mental health deteriorated to a point where I couldn’t start the next course I’d planned to do. I struggled with both anxiety and depression and my fatigue seemed – and still seems – to be inextricably linked. It’s not as simple as ‘I’m more tired when my mental health is bad’ but there is a correlation. Medication has helped and was one of the major factors in getting me through university but it’s still something I struggle with daily.

When I was diagnosed with ASD, I was told that fatigue isn’t unusual and sleep problems are common with Autism. Personally, I’ve struggled with insomnia but more often, I sleep long hours only to wake up as tired as when I went to sleep. It’s like sleeping is just a break between days; I don’t feel like I actually get any rest from it. I think that it’s also to do with how hard my brain is working all the time. Simply existing requires a lot of processing of information: my surroundings, what other people are saying or doing or feeling, sounds, smells, as well as my own reactions and emotions about all of those things. I have to actively process all of that and it’s exhausting. That’s a normal day. If something emotional happens, good or bad, it takes all of my energy to deal with that. To me, strong emotions are like fog and it can take days or weeks to work my way through it. Sometimes longer. I also live with a lot of anxiety, which has always done a number on my energy. That anxiety feels like a programme running in the background of my brain, using up my energy, physically and mentally.

It’s a constant struggle, a constant frustration. I know that I have less energy than the people around me but I can’t seem to change my expectations. I try over and over again to do the same amount as everyone else but I can’t sustain it. Sooner or later, I crash, completely exhausted. I’m getting better at managing my energy and building in recovery time but I can’t seem to stop myself raging against it. I can’t accept it. I feel a bit like one of those wind up toys that just keeps running into a wall. I want to do so much more than I have the energy for and that’s really, really hard to deal with. As is the long-term nature of it. You can’t just quit your life for a few days like when you get the flu or have a migraine. I’m not making light of those things – I’ve had and hated both – but the need to keep pushing forward despite feeling so exhausted and the anxiety about not making any progress wears me down in a way nothing else does. It affects every aspect of my life and it’s starting to feel like a part of me.

This makes it impossible for me to work. I’ve been extremely fortunate to get some benefits over the last few years but it’s still very, very stressful. I find it so difficult to adjust my thinking, to adjust to my new reality. I keep trying to meet the standards I’ve grown up believing I need to reach only to feel like a failure when I can’t reach them. The idea of even a part time job fills me with blinding panic because I know that I am physically incapable of doing all the tasks that would be required of me. Some days, even having a shower feels like climbing Mount Everest. I want to link to this Tumblr post because I think it explains the relationship between energy and the tasks you’re trying to do really well.

And it’s not just physical energy; it’s mental and emotional energy too. I get overwhelmed and burnt out really quickly, I think because I feel everything so intensely. A job that doesn’t account for that would have a devastating effect on my mental health and even though the world is starting to think about mental health and spread the message of putting you’re mental health first, I still feel incredibly anxious about this area of my life. I feel like having so little energy means I’m lazy. I feel like a burden for not having moved out, for not being able to be independent, for not having a job. Everyone I know has had jobs that they didn’t like and I feel like I’m entitled for wanting a job that I like and can do with the limitations I have. I feel like I shouldn’t want more than my neurotypical peers, like I should just get on with it and stop expecting special treatment. And yet, I know the limits of my mental health and of my body. These two sides keep clashing (which I’m sure doesn’t help my energy levels). It’s a horrible place to be stuck in and I can’t help but think that it’s connected to getting an Autism diagnosis so late: I grew up with the same external expectations as everyone else but a different internal capability. I know that now but it’s hard to hold onto that when the voices in my head are telling me that I’m just not trying hard enough. That one is a constant, in every area of my life.

I’ve often used being a Mac in a PC world as an analogy for Autism: most of the functions are there but they’re in different places or you have to find an alternate way of doing something. And I think it’s true here as well. When you run a programme that isn’t meant for the system you’re using, it doesn’t work as well. I think that’s a good analogy for being neuroatypical in a neurotypical world. I feel like I have not been designed for this system and so I don’t function as well as the people that have. Or maybe the system hasn’t been designed for me. It’s a chicken and egg situation. But you get my point. For whatever reason, I feel incompatible with my environment and that takes up a hell of a lot of energy.

I don’t really have any answers to this problem. I’m not even sure how to finish this post. This is something I struggle with daily and at the moment, I feel very worn down by it. I don’t want to spend my whole life planning in recovery time, replying to ‘how are you?’ with ‘tired’. I don’t want my life to be decided by my energy levels but I’m scared that it will be.

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The Importance of Pets

The last post was a heavy one with lots of emotional stuff in it so I thought I’d go for something that was a bit more light hearted this time – try and maintain a kind of balance. So here we go. The animals in my life have had a really big impact on my mental health so I thought I’d introduce them and talk a bit about the positives of having pets when you struggle with mental illness.

This is Lucky, our thirteen-year-old Labrador. We first met him when he was two days old and we’ve had him since he was about eight weeks old. He’s endlessly friendly and enthusiastic. One of my favourite things about him is how unashamedly excited he gets about everything: people arriving, food (even though it’s the same thing everyday), any kind of attention. It’s a good little reminder to appreciate the good things, even if they are everyday occurrences. As he’s gotten older, he’s become very sensitive, especially to people’s emotions. At it’s most extreme, he’s left the room when people on TV get upset. Poor boy. I can relate to that.

And this is Lucy, my two-year-old cat. She’s all energy and adventure, in the daylight hours anyway. Come the evening, she’s very happy to curl up on my bed with me. She sort of reminds me of a teenager that doesn’t want to be seen with her parents because it isn’t cool but once there’s no one around, she enjoys a good cuddle. She loves Lucky and often tags along on the evening walk around the block. I absolutely adore her. She’s incredibly calming to watch and play with; she’s so present and that’s really good for my anxiety. And having her sleeping beside me helps me to sleep because I can focus on her breathing (and purring) and block out any anxiety I have.

She also had kittens last year, which was a great holiday from real life. They were gorgeous and when I was watching them or playing with them, everything else fell away. It was like the world outside my bedroom didn’t exist. They were the only thing that helped me when Christina Grimmie was killed. I’d been watching her videos for years and she was the same age as me; it was very upsetting (and I’m still dealing with the emotions of that but I’ll save that for another post). Watching them play and wrestle and explore my bedroom with such focus and such fearlessness was very soothing. I’m so grateful to have had them for that period of my life. And I was very aware that, as one of the few humans in their lives, I was affecting who they would become, consciously or not. It made me feel like I was making a difference, even if it was only on a small scale.

But back to Lucky and Lucy. They frequently accompany me to therapy (although not together). Neither are actual therapy pets but having one of them with me often helps, especially when we’re talking about really tough stuff. They can be a distraction, a tension diffuser, a comfort.

So there you have it: my animals. They are so important to me and have such an impact on my life that I couldn’t not write about them. I hope you enjoyed this and if you need me, I’ll be curled up with either or both of them.

BPD and Feeling Abandoned

Feeling abandoned is a big thing when it comes to Borderline Personality Disorder. And events as everyday as someone not immediately responding to a text can trigger that feeling. The smallest slight can be incredibly upsetting and anything bigger can feel devastating. It’s never ending and exhausting. And with the fear of being abandoned hanging over you, relationships (of any kind) can be very stressful. They can feel like a waiting game, wondering how long it will take for the other person to give up on you.

As someone with BPD, I feel emotions very strongly and when something upsetting happens, it feels like I’ve been hit by a massive wave and it’s all I can do to find my way back to the surface. The emotion overwhelms me and there’s no room for logical reasoning. It doesn’t matter what else is going on; all my energy is taken up trying to process all of that feeling. It can take weeks to recover and I feel more fragile each time.

And what makes it more difficult is the fact that it’s not completely irrational; there is ‘evidence’ to support the fear. People have abandoned me in the past, both voluntarily and involuntarily, so whenever I try and talk myself out of the panic, my BPD lays out all these examples, ‘proving’ to me that I will always be abandoned. It’s an exhausting cycle.

I’m not going to go through my history of feeling abandoned, example-by-example, but there is one experience that I want to share. I think it’s too important to leave out. A few years ago, someone really important to me cut ties when I was in the lowest place I’d ever been (something they were aware of). I felt completely abandoned and it had a massive impact on my mental health and view of the world. I was so hurt and so confused and for a long time, those emotions overwhelmed everything. I felt broken. But slowly, that weight lifted. It took two years but I’m finally free of it. And that’s amazing. But it’s not the end of it. That experience has affected me, especially when it comes to my relationships and my anxiety around them. And like I said, it’s hard to talk myself out of that fear when I feel like I’m about to go through all that again.

I’ve wanted to write about this for a while but I wasn’t sure how to frame it, if that makes any sense. But a conversation with one of my best friends brought all of this to the surface.

So let me tell you a story:

One of my best friends had just come back from a trip to the US and was desperate to go back. I was in a pretty fragile place already (dealing with another situation where I felt like I was being abandoned) and watching her plan her next trip abroad felt a lot like she was abandoning me. I didn’t want to say anything and I felt guilty for feeling the way I did: she was building her career and she was so excited and here I was, wanting her to stay. But in the end, I had to say something. We’ve always talked everything through so, even though I was terrified of sounding needy and pathetic, I reached out and told her how I was feeling. She knows a lot about my mental health difficulties so I told her how I struggle with feeling abandoned and that I might need some extra reassurance around her upcoming trip.

(I want to add that although it might sound easy, it wasn’t. Part of me – a big part of me – was convinced that expressing these feelings would be the ‘final straw’ and that she would abandon me on the spot, that I had finally become too much to deal with. This is something that I think is often misunderstood about BPD. This reaction is not because of the other person; it’s because of the BPD. The other person could be the most reliable person in the world. It doesn’t matter. It’s the BPD telling you that everyone will leave, that you’re not enough to make the other person stick around. So defying that and telling my friend how I felt was very, very scary.)

And this is the important bit: how my friend reacted. Instead of telling me I was being ridiculous or brushing off my request, she responded compassionately. She told me not to feel pathetic or guilty, that she understood why I was feeling the way I was. She asked me how she could help, and said that she would do whatever she could to make it easier for me. She said, “I am not going to leave you.”

It was such a relief that I burst into tears. It meant (and still does mean) so much to me. She validated my feelings, asked me what she could do, and gave me the reassurance I needed. I wish everyone responded this way. Perhaps ironically for a condition with such close links to invalidation, these feelings often get written off as being oversensitive or overdramatic. And in my experience, that only makes it worse. Things are better now that the important people in my life understand where these feelings come from; before the diagnosis, the only explanation was that I was very sensitive and therefore needed to ‘toughen up’. It was a fault. And that’s what I thought too. But now that we understand it, we know how to handle it, how to approach it.

I will likely need to hear this again and again to combat my fear of being abandoned but that doesn’t minimise the importance of this moment. As I’ve said, change is a series of moments like these, moments I hold very close, like charms on a charm bracelet.

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A Fear of Fireworks

I hate Bonfire Night. I really, really hate it.

When I was fifteen, I was at the cinema with my two best friends. We were in the middle of a film when something brushed through my hair and landed between mine and my best friend’s feet. I don’t remember now if I knew it was a firework or whether my survival instinct just kicked in automatically because I was out of my seat in a split second. I tripped over a bag as I raced down the row and someone hauled me back up, dragging me with them. My memory of those few seconds is weird, almost as if belongs to somebody else.

But, fortunately for all of us, someone from the row in front of us had stamped out the firework before it had gone off (while threatening to cut the balls off the person who’d thrown it). The lights switched on and a cinema employee came running in to see what had happened. Someone had come up the back stairs, thrown a firework into the crowd, and then done a runner. It looked like someone had thrown a pebble into a pond, we’d all moved outwards, standing almost in a circle with the firework in the middle. There were offers of compensation and calling of ambulances but everyone was okay, apart from the shock of it. I don’t think it had really sunk in because they rewound the film and we sat through the rest of it, although the three of us held on tight to each other until the film ended. On the bus home, we all jumped every time someone hit the buzzer for the next stop.

I was freaked out but I didn’t really take it in until the next time I saw fireworks. I was with my family, we were a significant distance from where they were going off, but I went into a panic. I felt like my ribcage was shrinking or like my lungs were swelling and I couldn’t breathe. I wanted to run. I wanted to run until I physically couldn’t anymore. And after talking to my Mum about it, I realised where that feeling had come from. Worst-case scenario, that firework could’ve gone off in our faces. I don’t want to think about the consequences of that.

Over the years, I’ve avoided fireworks wherever possible. But I haven’t been able to block them out completely. Even when I’m curled up in my room, I can hear them. I don’t have quite the same dramatic response as I did but they’re still a source of anxiety. Every time I hear one go off, my stomach twists. I can’t relax; it’s like there’s a current running under my skin.

As much as I’d like to order the world to stop setting off fireworks, that’s just not possible. I can’t control that but there are some things I can control, things that make the experience a little bit easier:

  • Create a calming environment – Fireworks going off outside my window is stressful enough without adding extra anxieties. So I try and remove the unnecessary ones and surround myself with safe things. For me, that’s familiar things. So on Bonfire Night this year, I took myself up to my room and curled up in bed with my cat and one of my favourite TV shows.
  • Try to distract myself – Giving myself something to work on helps to shift the focus from my anxiety. Otherwise I’m just waiting for the next firework to go off, amping up my anxiety even more. What works depends on how anxious I am or how tired I am. Sometimes it needs to be something simple, like playing a game on my phone, something that doesn’t require a lot of brainpower. Sometimes it needs to be something that takes up every inch of my brain, like playing the piano.
  • Making sure I have support – While there’s nothing anyone can actually do to help, having people checking in on me and making sure I’m okay (or at least not completely losing my shit) does make me feel a bit better. Or a little bit less panicked. And I’ll take what I can get. I think it just brings me back to Earth a bit when my anxiety starts to spiral out of control.

None of these things fix the problem or remove my anxiety but as I’ve written before, sometimes that’s not possible. Sometimes all you can do is get through it and try not to make it worse. This anxiety has gotten better over time; the sound of fireworks no longer sends me into a panic attack. Maybe one day I won’t even blink when I hear one go off. Maybe I won’t even notice it. But until that day, I’m just trying to make it through with as little anxiety as possible.

Side Effect City

Just over a month ago, I started taking Venlafaxine for my depression. I’ve tried lots of different anti depressants in the past, many of which I had a bad reaction to, so I was nervous. Weaning myself off the Phenelzine was hard and I was very, very depressed but somehow, I reached a point where I felt ready to feel different. It was a bit like breaking the surface after being underwater. I was, and still am, desperate to feel better.

Week 1

I started on a very low dose, half the lowest therapeutic dose, so that my body could get used to it. But despite that, I felt the effects straight away and incredibly strongly. I was very nauseous. It was so bad that I couldn’t really concentrate on anything else; all my concentration was focussed on not throwing up. It made me dizzy and I was tired all the time. I did check with my psychiatrist to make sure it was okay to keep going with it and he said it would pass so I focussed on tolerating it.

The other immediate change was my sleep. I went from struggling to wake up before eleven (and I mean really struggling: it felt like I was drowning) to being wide awake at eight o’clock in the morning. It was bizarre.

Week 2

The nausea faded around the beginning of the second week, which I was very grateful for. My mood, while still pretty low, was stable, and I was still waking up much earlier than I had been able to previously. However I started having headaches and I was exhausted all the time, which made it very hard to do anything.

Week 3

In the third week, I went up to the lowest therapeutic dose. This caused a pretty dramatic reaction. For the first few days I was so tired that I fell asleep in the middle of the day, something I haven’t done in years. But despite that, I was waking up even earlier, between six and six thirty am.

By the middle of the week, I couldn’t concentrate at all. I couldn’t hold a conversation, I couldn’t follow the storyline of a forty-minute TV episode, I couldn’t even play a game on my phone… That was scary, but I couldn’t even really feel that because I couldn’t seem to process the emotion. I started to feel faint and very shaky and that went on for several days. If I stood up for longer than a couple of minutes, my legs started to shake and my hands shook so badly that I couldn’t hold a pen. That was very unpleasant.

Week 4

Most of the fourth week was lost because of severe, unexplained leg pain that had me in tears. My psychiatrist didn’t think it had anything to do with the medication and DVT was ruled out but other than that, we don’t know what caused it. I’ve been taking painkillers since and it’s been better. So that tired me out and overwhelmed everything else. But since then, the shaking has mostly stopped and I’m back to waking up between eight and nine in the morning.

This week is the first where I’ve felt different mentally and emotionally while taking Venlafaxine. I wouldn’t say I feel better but I’ve been feeling a bit lighter. That feels very strange and a bit scary. With this new lightness, I’ve been feeling a bit lost which I’ve written about here. I’ve been so depressed for so long that I can’t remember what it’s like to not be depressed. But despite all of those confusing emotions, I am pleased that this medication is starting to work. It will probably take another month or so to really know how it’s affecting me but it’s looking positive and I’m really grateful for that.

One Woman With Autism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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