A Holiday Bubble

From the age of about two years old, I’ve been going to a little town in Norfolk almost every year on holiday. While I was in school, we – me, my parents, and our dog – would go during the October half term but in recent years, we’ve been going in the early summer, before the schools break up. We stay in a caravan less than a ten-minute walk from a stunning sandy beach and I absolutely love it.

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Some people find it strange that we always go back to the same place but as far as I can tell, there are two basic types of holidays: going to explore and going to relax. Both have their pros and cons. This is definitely a relaxation holiday. It’s familiar and calm and beautiful. It’s a bubble away from reality where I can just be, in a way I can’t at home. And, of course, familiarity and Autism go together like fish and chips. We also ate a lot of fish and chips…

I’ve been back from Norfolk a few days and I just really wanted to write about it. After having had so much change with the house move, the changing of medications, and the decision to keep my cat’s kittens, it was really nice to be somewhere so familiar and safe. And as much as I love the cats, I really enjoyed having some dedicated dog time with Lucky. Because he’s now so arthritic, we have to be careful to not over walk him (his enthusiasm far exceeds his physical ability so he’s not much help there) but we manage a couple of trips to the beach, which he loved. He can’t really run anymore but there was a fair amount of skipping, one sure-fire way to know he’s enjoying himself. It’s very cute.

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The beaches in Norfolk are just beautiful. The closest beach, the one we jokingly call ‘our beach,’ is particularly close to my heart. Every year, I step onto that beach and everything just clicks into place. It’s subtle but I suddenly feel like my head’s a little clearer, like I can breathe more easily. Something inside me settles. It’s like I leave a little piece of myself there, that I miss all year round, and then, when I get back, it’s an overwhelming relief. I’ve spent some glorious evenings on that beach.

It was ridiculously hot all week so I spent a lot of time inside with all the windows and doors open. I’m really not good with heat. It’s something I’ve heard from quite a few other people with Autism; I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a link, given the hypersensitivity that often comes as part of being autistic. Anyway. It gave me the opportunity to do a lot of writing and catch up a bit with my diary (if you’ve read this post, you’ll know that my writing can be quite compulsive). That felt really good. I also rewatched some of my favourite films and played chess. The latter is something I haven’t had the concentration to do for months so that felt like a victory in itself, much more exciting than actually winning at chess.

Being there doesn’t eradicate my anxiety entirely but it does a pretty good job of dampening it. Sometimes anxiety feels like this constant vibration that I can’t stop, can’t take a break from. But in Norfolk I can. I still get anxious about specific things but that relentless vibration momentarily ceases. And that’s such a relief.

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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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