I have spent some time in the attic this week, in the corners I didn’t dare step into before, armed with a feather duster. I wrote before that coming out of depression has left me feeling raw, that is still true. The stabs of anxiety and even the sheer intensity of lights, sound and touch were muted, but now, day by day, everything is being turned up. Last weekend I had a Meltdown, I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of those I’ve had over the last three years. It was in the come down from that, that I realised I’ve almost forgotten how to deal with that level of emotion. Hence climbing the ladder to the attic to dust the cobwebs and skeletal spiders away from a few memories to see what is there.
I am autistic. This anxiety goes hand in hand with the way I experience the world. It isn’t about making it go away, it’s about learning to deal with it. I have tried shutting myself in a box and keeping the world at a distance; to a degree I still do that, I remain, after all, in my snow globe. If I isolate myself, melt downs are much less likely. I’m not happy like that though. I want to engage with the world, I’m finally beginning to do so again, Meltdowns are the price of that. It makes more sense to learn how to deal with feeling like my head is going to explode than to live in the false hope that it will never happen again.
My search through the attic turned up some interesting things. I seem to have lurched from unhealthy coping mechanism to unhealthy coping mechanism while learning a few genuinely useful things along the way. As I have put so many times in so many different words to so many people, I don’t understand my own emotions. It is like there is a faulty connection between what I’m feeling, how my body is reacting and what I’m thinking. I don’t realise I’m stressed until I’m on the brink of a Meltdown. I might recognise the feelings of tension, but while my mind is distracted, it doesn’t occur to me that things are building up, if I’m thinking happy thoughts in the moment, I’m fine. Then there will be a noise, or someone will say something I find irritating or things won’t go exactly according to plan and it’s like something inside me snaps. A fiery tidal wave rushes through me and suddenly I feel like I’m hovering somewhere just behind my head watching as someone else screams with my mouth.
I do have the tools to deal with that, though I don’t keep them in the attic because they are useful for other things too. In the past people – and by people I mean therapists and mentors – have brushed off this disconnect from my own feelings as though it’s unimportant and something I just have to accept. Neither of those things are true. If, not just when I’m stressed, but at random moments throughout the day, I stop and pay attention to where my thoughts are, to how my body is feeling and to those loosely defined sensations that are emotions, eventually I will learn to recognise the patterns there. Then maybe I’ll be able to deal with the anxiety before it bursts free on its own. You see that was the other thing I discovered as I rummaged through the attic: I have learned consciously what other people pick up instinctively.
There is another new door in my snow globe cottage, one that I suppose alluded to last week. The door goes to a room I have shied away from for a long time. It is the bedroom door. Of course it is. The dust and cobwebs covering it have been brushed away and the hinges oiled. It swings open now. Opening a new door inside the snow globe cottage is a strange feeling. Each time it is as though some Pandora’s Box of emotions opens up and floods through me. Each time I feel slightly less numb than before. Less numb and more anxious.
I have a girlfriend. She’s brilliant, she’s beautiful, she’s more of a geek than I am and she inspires me to be more, because I feel more myself when I am with her. So why is it the bedroom door that’s opening? Partly because I’m running out of rooms in this TARDIS like cottage of mine, but I’m not yet ready to venture outside. Partly because of all the rooms in the house, the bedroom is the room one associates with romance. It’s a cosy space. Warm and safe. There’s a fireplace on one wall and a bookshelf to the left of it. At the same time there is an edge of uncertainty even as I sit on the edge of the mattress. Unlike the other rooms, this one isn’t only mine. Odd things that seem slightly out of place (it’s the gadgets and the superhero comics) remind me that this is something I’m sharing with another person.
It’s in equal parts amazing and terrifying because here is something I barely have a template for. I feel safe with her, I find myself trusting her despite my instinctive distrust of people in general. The more I get to know her the more I want to get to know her, for once in my life I’m falling more for the person than the idea of the person. I’m scared of clinging too tightly too quickly. I’m scared of doing the opposite and distancing myself out of fear. I’m scared of messing things up because I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m scared because I don’t have the kind of instincts other people do. It’s no good telling me that I’ll know if something isn’t working, because chances are I won’t. It’s no good telling me to trust my feelings, because eloquent as I can be with words, more often than not I can’t find the words to describe what I’m feeling. The connections between emotions, triggers, thoughts and responses are somewhat faulty in my mind.
I’m terrified because I care about her so much already. I love her. I know the words for that feeling. I love her and half of my mind is screaming that it’s far too soon while the other half is protesting that it’s not a thing you can set a time limit on. Sometimes you just know. Relationships are confusing because the rules aren’t fixed and the lines move. I’m trying to just let it be, but it’s taking conscious effort. If I ramble and if I spew or giggle with giddy excitement like a prepubescent girl with her first crush, my appologies. So much of this is new to me. Perhaps that is the thing that scares me most, right now I feel like I’m standing on the edge of something I never thought I’d get to have.
Autism is seeing the world differently.
It’s been my Facebook picture for a while, but I’m only beginning to really get my head around what it means to me. Yes Autism is seeing the world differently, but the thing is sometimes I forget that other people don’t see things the way I do. I’ve reached a point now where I’ve stopped expecting people to know what I’ve been up to even though they weren’t with me just because I know. I know that people have different opinions to me, so on an intellectual level I’m aware that the world I’m looking at through the distortion of my snow globe is different to the world other people see. But still I forget. It still takes me by surprise when people don’t know things that seem obvious to me or when people make an issue out of something that in my world isn’t one.
Over the past few years it’s been hard to keep in mind that seeing things differently isn’t a bad thing. Just sometimes though, I wish other people could see the world through my eyes not so that they could understand the too sharp, too loud, too muchness of autism, but so that they could see that we are all people. When you grow up feeling like an alien because no matter how much everyone around you loves you the world just doesn’t make sense, you have to take people exactly as they are. There are people you like and people you don’t. People you agree with and people whose opinions you think are idiotic (Mr Cameron, Mr Osborne, I’m looking at you) but still you see them as human beings. You still see the person in front of you. You don’t have a preconceived idea of what a person should be like based on their age or gender or race or sexuality or any of the other myriad of labels people use to define themselves. You can’t because you don’t have a fixed idea of what any of those things mean, because there are no fixed boundaries and in your world that makes any kind of definition arbitrary. So use labels as guidelines rather than definitions. You accept the labels another person chooses for themselves, because you’ve had to learn that labels are how we identify ourselves to other people and only the person themselves can know how they want to be seen and understood.
When I first realised I liked girls, I didn’t feel conflicted the way other people do. I felt conflicted because I thought that I should feel conflicted about the fact that I liked girls not boys. But I didn’t. Because in my world it was just a fact and not something that mattered. I have a girlfriend now. She is one of the most wonderful, lovely, patient people I have ever met. She is also transgender. But to me that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because she is beautiful and kind and so very understanding. It doesn’t matter because female is the label she chose for herself, so how could it be wrong? It doesn’t matter because I don’t have a fixed idea in my mind of what it means to be a girl, all I see is the person. All I am is a person.
Autism is seeing the world differently. Sometimes I wish that came as effortlessly to everyone else as it does to me. Maybe the world would be a kinder place.
I won’t say that I am recovered. There have been times over the past three and a half years that I have let myself think that I’m better because in the moment I feel okay. Sometimes I even feel like I’m flying, like I really can do anything, but then the next moment everything comes crashing down again. So I won’t say that I’m recovered. I’ll say that I’m in remission. In this moment right now, I am not depressed. Maybe in a few years’ time, if I’m still okay, if I have managed to keep from falling back into the darkest depths of the pit, I’ll say that I’ve recovered.
The cottage inside my snow globe is opening up more and more with each passing day. In a cordoned off part of the attic are piles of boxes filled with memories. Some of them can stay there, but perhaps some could be dusted off, moved to one of the bare rooms on a lower floor to be enjoyed again. There are after all quite a few empty rooms. It isn’t just that they lack furniture, it’s that they are bare shells. Brick work and floor boards. Spaces waiting to be shaped. I’ve spent so much of my time boxed into the spaces I felt safe in that the other rooms of the house have been left untouched. Now that the shadows of depression have faded I can finally explore the cottage fearlessly and decorate as I choose. I can finally start getting to know the adult I’m growing into. It could be frightening, the idea of beginning something new and starting from scratch. Exploring these new rooms’ means stepping out of the familiar, it means accepting that I’ll have to learn and that I will make mistakes. Right now it’s more exhilarating than frightening.
I want an exercise room for Jado Kuin Do, Pilates and Yoga. I want to move my sewing machine out of the attic and give it a space of its own. I want a quiet space for meditation and a section of the library dedicated to Neuroscience. I want to reorganise the attic so that I have more writing space. There are other empty rooms, I’m still not sure what will fill them yet, but I’m not in a hurry. I am still inside the snow globe and maybe I always will be to one degree or another, but there are certain people who are beginning to be able to reach me through it and that makes all the difference.