Living with Autism During a Pandemic

I know that everyone is talking about this right now and I’d rather not because it makes me so anxious but there are a couple of things I want to say and then hopefully this blog can go back to being a Coronavirus free zone. I know it’s scary for a lot of people and there’s a lot of information and advice being thrown in your face so I just want to document my experience so far and write about the things that are helping me to minimise my anxiety.

I think the first thing to say is that I hate change, as I know many autistic people do. I especially hate sudden change because it gives me no time to process what’s going on, which causes me a lot of anxiety. It also messes with my emotions, leaving me feeling unsettled and sick and empty and twisted up. I can’t really explain it properly; it’s such a specific feeling.

The first big thing to happen was Tin Pan South, the festival we were going to Nashville for, was cancelled, which meant we had to decide whether or not still to go as it could be more expensive to cancel our flights. But as the news from other countries got more serious, we decided that we didn’t want to go and get stuck there so we had to make the difficult decision to cancel. I was gutted. I am gutted (we were supposed to be flying out today). I was so looking forward to the trip and to the festival that, not only was the change stressful, it was very distressing too. And then, of course, there was the stress of getting the money back. With the travel ban, we have since managed to get everything refunded or in credit but it was incredibly stressful, in addition to all the stress coming from the news about the virus. I have family who would be in serious danger if they caught it so, even though I’m in much less danger, I was  terrified of unknowingly transmitting the virus to them. I still am so we’ve all been self isolating apart from essential trips like picking up extra medication and so on.

And then, suddenly, everything started happening. All of the concerts I was going to got cancelled, which isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things but they are the bright spots in my life that get me through when I’m in a bad place, which I arguably am right now. So that’s been difficult, especially the suddenness, as I mentioned earlier. Then one of my best friends was suddenly on a plane home, which was very upsetting (although, of course, I understand and support her in wanting to be with her family); one minute we were making plans for the next day and the next she was messaging me from the plane. That change has been hard and I’ve cried a lot about it. Plus, just as I’ve  started to get into the groove of going to therapy again, we’re having to switch to video sessions, which I thought I was fine with but turns out I’m struggling with. And then there’s just all the not knowing what’s going to happen or how long this is going to last. So there’s been a lot of change really fast.

I actually feel quite traumatised by all the changes. Stuff like this always messes with my head and with my emotions and I end up feeling like it’s causing brain damage, like parts of my brain are being permanently warped and will never recover.

The week after all of these changes happened (most of them happened over the weekend and into the Monday), I wasn’t going to go to uni. Many of my friends and classmates weren’t going, having gone back to their families abroad and within the UK, and I just couldn’t bear to be there and see it without them all with so little time to adjust. I just felt so unsettled and restless and anxious. I don’t think I’d’ve been able to concentrate if I’d been there.

My course discussed it through our WhatsApp group (we’re a small course) and ended up emailing our programme leaders to say that we didn’t feel safe and that we didn’t feel it was responsible for us all to be there, to travel in on public transport, and so on. Very few people went to the classes and I think it was later that day that it was announced that the course would be moving to online classes. I’m yet to see how smoothly that goes. They’re not moving our assessment deadlines, which many people are very upset about, something I definitely understand. There are a lot of reasons to feel an extension is necessary. My mind changes from hour to hour; I don’t know whether I’d want an extension. Yes, there’s massive anxiety affecting my life that makes it hard to work but at the same time, we don’t know how long it’s going to go on for and I’d rather just get the assessment over, if that makes sense. I don’t know. I don’t know what I want.

Me and my Mum – my household – are self isolating, apart from necessary trips out (getting the necessary supplies to stay in, getting supplies for the cats, getting what we need to allow us to work from home, and so on – making it possible to self isolate for as long as we need to). It’s weird: I usually spend days at a time inside but suddenly I’m really claustrophobic and restless and anxious and it’s been less than a week. I don’t know where that’s coming from. Maybe I’m just so full of anxiety that everything is making me anxious.

So, having said that, I wanted to list for you a few of the things I’m doing to try and minimise my anxiety:

  • Keep a routine – I’m not talking about being really ambitious. If you’re like me and you struggle with Autism and/or mental health problems, diving into a really ambitious schedule just means I end up crashing and burning and then feeling terrible. So when I say ‘keep a routine,’ I’m talking about the little things. I’m talking about getting up at a reasonable time, showering, remembering to eat, getting fresh air (even if it’s only opening the windows and getting out into the garden, if you have one)… Things like that. Yes, it’s motivating to be productive so if that feels possible, go for it, but it’s also important to be gentle with ourselves during a time of such great stress.
  • Keep to a regular sleep schedule – With nowhere to go (if you’re self isolating), it’s easy to just stay in bed, get up late, and then end up going to sleep at four in the morning. It’s really, really easy. But I’m trying to go to bed at my normal time and get up early, like I do everyday. It’s much better for my mood than if I stay in bed for hours. A regular sleep schedule is actually proven to reduce stress, help you to avoid getting sick, help you think more clearly, and a multitude of other things, all useful at a time like this.
  • Stay on top of my medication – This is a fairly obvious one but if you take medication, make sure you’re stocked up and that you take it diligently. I take a regular antidepressant, a regular anti-anxiety, and then I have an anti-anxiety to take as needed. And, as you can imagine, I’m needing it a lot right now. So I’m constantly listening to my body so that I’m aware of when I need to take it as early as possible, so that I avoid the unnecessary anxiety. Of course, there’s huge anxiety going around but there’s also anxiety that we don’t need to feel and if we can avoid it, then I’m all for that.
  • Start and end the day with something calming – I’m dealing with a lot of anxiety (as we all are) so I find it helpful to start and end the day with something that relaxes me. For me, this is usually writing my diary because it empties some of the stuff out of my brain and helps me feel like I’m not trying to hold onto so much. It’s all safe, but I don’t have to actively hold it in my head. So letting some it go is like being able to breathe deeply again.
  • If the news is too much for you, ask someone in your support system to keep you up to date on the important announcements – My anxiety has always been triggered by the news and it’s even worse now so my Mum listens to it, filters out all the noise and fear and things I don’t need to know and gives me the important, relevant information. This has been so helpful since there’s been so much confusion and misinformation and fear mongering. If this isn’t possible for you, check your national news once a day and then try not to look at it again. Because there isn’t as much information as there is news time, there’s a lot of speculation and opinion and it doesn’t do any good to get sucked into that spiral if you’re already really struggling with anxiety.
  • If you have to work or study, try to do it in manageable chunks (which will be specific to you) – As I’ve already mentioned, I still have an assessment deadline. I still have an essay due. So, even though I’m really struggling to focus because of all the anxiety (which means it’s taking so much longer than it normally would), I’m trying to work on it everyday so that it doesn’t pile up and so I don’t end up overloaded and overwhelmed (it hasn’t helped that I’ve had multiple problems with my laptop in the last few weeks). It’s hard, especially since it’s now much more difficult to get help with it, but hopefully the slow and steady approach works.
  • Indulge in simple things that improve your mood – This is not a trick question. If there’s something simple that makes you feel better, let it make you feel better. Some of the things that boost my mood (even temporarily) are having the fairy lights on, burning my favourite candle, spending time with my cats, watching my favourite movies and TV shows… You’re allowed to feel good, to try and feel okay even in the face of this big, scary thing and if something really simple does the job, then go for it.

If there was ever a time for looking after yourself mentally (and obviously physically), it’s now. I hope some of these tips are helpful and let me know if there’s anything that you find helpful in stressful times such as these. As I said at the beginning, hopefully this blog can go back to being a Coronavirus free zone after this post because I know it’s triggering for a lot of people, myself included. But if I find any helpful resources for getting through this, I’ll definitely share them because I figure we could all use all the help we can get.

To Define or Not To Define

Every few days, I’ll be scrolling through one social media or another and I’ll see a post baldly stating, ‘Don’t let your mental illness define you!’ or ‘You are more than your mental illness!’ These have always irritated me but I didn’t really stop to investigate why. But I’ve been thinking a lot about identity recently, both in the personal sense and the abstract, and I think I’m starting to make sense of it.

As a person, I can be a bit perverse. If someone tells me I can’t do something, I instantly feel compelled to prove them wrong. And so, when these posts tell me that I am not defined by my mental illness, a part of me starts yelling, “But I am defined by my mental illness!” Childish, I know, but true. The thing is that I don’t necessarily think that that is a bad thing. Of course I’m defined by my mental health problems: they take up significant time and effort and emotion. Why wouldn’t I feel defined by something like that? It has defined me, it has shaped me in the same way that any big part of my life has, like my love for songwriting has, like my love and loyalty to my friends and family has. Anything that has caused significant emotion in me, whether it be good or bad, has become a part of me and sometimes those parts are big parts.

But an important thing to remember, I think, is that our identities are constantly shifting and changing. What defines us now won’t necessarily define us in the future. With everything that happens to us, our lives get bigger and grow around the old parts, the same way the roots of trees grow around any obstacle they find in their path. Right now, my mental health overwhelms pretty much everything but that may not always be the case. The medication might start to work, helping me to manage the symptoms, or something bigger might happen in my life. The point is things change.

On the other hand, I could choose it, choose to make mental health a ‘defining’ part of my life. I could choose to turn it into something, to use my experience. And I think that that is something I need to do. I don’t think I can ignore what is such a significant part of my life or view it as something to just get past. That feels disrespectful to the amount of time and effort and emotion that I – and the people in my life – have had to put into this. If life is about the journey rather than the destination, then this is an important part of the journey and, like every significant moment, I will be adding this to my backpack to carry with me.

Moving House When You’re Autistic

So I just moved house. It was not fun. I am going to write about it in more detail – I think the experience might be useful, maybe for someone trying to understand how change can affect a person with Autism – but I’m not ready to do that yet. It was really difficult and I’m still pretty emotional about the whole thing. Change is notoriously hard for people with Autism but I think the permanence of a change like moving house is particularly difficult. I definitely learned some lessons during the process so I thought I’d share them.

Some context before we begin: Not only were my family moving, we were separating into different houses, which was something I hadn’t been expecting. That was a real shock to me and made the whole thing even more difficult. But we’re still close and live close enough that we still see each other as much as before, which I’m really grateful for. Now I live with my Mum; I’m not ready to move out.

Right, here we go.


TIPS

Prepare for emotions, yours and others – First, however you feel is okay. It’s a big deal. Whether you feel everything or nothing, it will take time to work that out. And just when you think you’ve dealt with all of that, it’s time to move and it all comes back. There were lots of tears on the day of the move, as well as the few days after. It’s emotional and stressful and exhausting: the perfect mix for someone to get upset. I think the only thing you can do is be gentle with yourself and each other and give people space when they need it.

Build in as much time as possible – Moving house is exhausting and emotional. And packing at the last minute just makes it worse. Giving yourself time allows you to be careful and methodical and it means you can take breaks if it gets too much.

Label the boxes – The destined room is not enough. By the time you’ve packed everything you own and transported it to your new home, you’ll have no idea where anything is. And every time you need anything, you’ll spend at least twenty minutes digging through all the boxes in order to find it. It will drive you up the wall.

Pack a suitcase – You know me: preparation, preparation, preparation. Make sure you have a bag of things you’re going to need for at least the first week. You might think that you can get yourself sorted in a couple of days but chances are you can’t and you really don’t want to find yourself out of things like clean clothes and make up remover. You don’t need that on top of the stress of moving. Also, remember to check the weather forecast before packing, just in case you find yourself caught unawares by a heat wave with only jumpers to wear like I did.

Try to create a safe space for yourself – Moving house is messy and if you’re anything like me, being surrounded by clutter for extended periods of time makes me feel very claustrophobic and panicked. So, both before moving out and after moving in, I tried to keep one area calm and somewhat neat to give me a space to decompress and recharge in. I wasn’t always successful at keeping it tidy but for the most part, it helped.

Set a reminder to put all your food in the fridge – The last thing you need is all your food going off and with a million things to remember, you’ll most likely forget something. Let that be something else.


QUESTIONS TO THINK ABOUT

How much help do you need?

Depending on your capabilities, you may need to enlist some help to move everything, whether that’s professional movers or friends and family or both. You really don’t want to get halfway through moving day and be unable to keep going so make sure to think carefully about what you need and ask for that help well in advance.

Do you need to be there on moving day?

This obviously depends on whether you’re moving with your family or by yourself: the demands on you will be different. In my case, my family knew how difficult the whole experience had been and so suggested going to see a friend while the removal people did their thing. They thought that the empty house would upset me but I felt like I needed to be there; it helped me say goodbye.

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Do you need a clean slate or do you need to keep things familiar?

As already mentioned, change is often hard for autistic people so you might feel the need to keep things as similar as possible, such as furniture and when decorating. But on the flip side, many people with Autism feel emotions very strongly so a change might actually be the less overwhelming option. It wouldn’t be healthy to be constantly reminded of an upsetting event.

Do you need closure and if so, how can you get it?

I definitely needed to say a real goodbye. I’d lived in that house for fifteen years; I felt safe there and there are a lot of memories associated with it. For a long time, it felt impossible to leave. So, once I could consider it, I thought a lot about what would help me leave, knowing that I wouldn’t be coming back. So, on the last day, we took some pictures of me in my room and then I put a letter I’d written for a future resident under a loose floorboard. I can’t tell you why or how but that did help a bit.

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ADVICE FOR FRIENDS AND FAMILY

If you’re telling an autistic person that you have to move, be clear. Give them all the information. Especially when there’s so much emotion, it can be hard to process what’s going on so anything that isn’t explicitly stated may get lost.

Give them as much warning as possible. Something like this is really difficult to process – there are so many emotions involved – and it came take time to absorb and make sense of.


So I think that’s everything. I hope this has been interesting and helpful. One last thing to add: I found this article recently that is more relevant to someone moving out of their family home and thought it was definitely worth including here.

Moving Forward and Looking Back

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

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

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