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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Backwards Binoculars

Over the years, I’ve had periods of feeling really far away. It often overlaps with my bouts of depression but sometimes it creeps in out of nowhere and I feel completely lost, untethered from everything around me. It fades in and out like a fog, sometimes with no warning and often there’s nothing I can do to dissipate it or avoid it. It can be really scary, especially when it first started to happen, but at the same time, it’s like I can’t really feel that fear or any of my emotions. I’ve described it in different ways but they all describe the same feeling: feeling completely disconnected from myself. But I thought I’d include a few of those descriptions because they give more of a sense of how it feels:

  • It’s like looking backwards through binoculars so everything seems really far away when it’s actually close. Sometimes I can almost see the black tunnels that would be the inside of the binoculars. This is the way I usually describe it; I think it fits the best.
  • I feel like I’m five miles back inside my head. I can’t reach anything or anyone and it feels like no one can hear me, the real me.
  • It’s like watching everything happen and feeling like it would continue as normal if I wasn’t there, almost like people wouldn’t notice if I disappeared. They’ll keep talking, leaving spaces for me and responding to what I would’ve said if I was there.
  • Similarly, it can feel like I’m invisible, like people will look right through me.
  • It feels like I’m stuck behind glass, like there’s glass between me and everybody else. I am physically separated from everyone. This is another one of my ‘favourite’ ways to describe it.
  • A variation of that is feeling like I’m wrapped in cling film: separated from everyone but also trapped. It makes me feel like I can’t breathe.
  • I feel disconnected from my life, my body, like I’m in control but it’s not mine. I’m moving my limbs but they feel oddly numb, thick and heavy and clumsy.
  • One of my earliest memories of this feeling is feeling like I was out of sync with everyone else. That’s a very lonely and uncomfortable feeling.
  • Sometimes it feels like I’m underwater. It’s like I’m surrounded by something other than air and there’s more resistance when I try to move.
  • The most recent description is that I feel like I’m sleepwalking and can’t wake up. This one overlaps with how I feel when I’m really depressed so it’s not the most reliable analogy, if that makes sense. It fits both.

To be completely honest, I’m not sure what causes it, given the overlap of the different mental health problems I struggle with. This is something I have a lot of anxiety about, not being able to pinpoint where individual problems come from. Everything’s connected to everything else. Everything influences everything. But from my own reading, it seems to be common in depression and in Borderline Personality Disorder. It’s often a coping mechanism for stress or overwhelming emotions. The Mind website has a great page about this. My experiences line up best with the description of ‘Depersonalisation’.

I still haven’t found anything that does much to help it but there are a few things that give me a few seconds of relief, of connection. Usually, it’s about tapping into my senses. That seems to bring me back to the world a little bit. So things like opening windows, sitting in the sun, touching leaves or flowers, stroking a pet, having a cold shower or holding something cold… they don’t fix it but they do have a positive effect. Even if it’s tiny, they do create small positive spikes in my mood. They’re like stars in a suffocatingly dark sky. With this, it’s more about getting through it than trying to fix it. It’s about creating one moment after another to carry you through to the other side.

I want to add that I’ve also used self harm to ‘wake myself up’ from this. I’m not advocating it; it’s dangerous and damaging and really difficult to get free of. But if nothing else, I’m honest and it has helped. When I’m in a really bad place, I don’t want to hear that I shouldn’t do it because it feels like the only thing that helps but when it’s not quite so bad, I try really hard to find other ways to cope. I try the things I’ve listed or I try to distract myself. I don’t want to get too far from the point of the post so I’ll come back to this in another post but I felt like I had to include it here.

Friends and family have asked me what they can do to help and if I’m honest, I don’t really know. It can be hard to think about that when I’m just trying to get through it. But I do want to help them help me. At some point, I will write more about this, but I do find it really helpful when the people around me let me set the pace and decide what I can and can’t manage. Sometimes a push is helpful but in this situation, it isn’t. A sense of control grounds me a little bit. Plus, there are some things that are just really hard to manage when you feel like you can’t connect to your emotions. For example, I find it really hard to write songs and be creative when I feel so disconnected from everything. So being able to (and feeling safe to) adapt my activities does help. And talking. Talking it through, figuring out solutions, letting off steam. That really helps.