Ask an Aspergirl

Pondering popular culture, generalized anxiety, and being autistic

Details and gist: The interplay between cognitive reasoning and emotional reasoning

When I think about people I know well, I picture the first page of a script — the part listing their preferences and backstory. I’ve noticed that although I’m not particularly intuitive about people, I can make sense of them using intrapersonal details. Maybe that’s why I like television commentary. Television writers know how to analyze characters and scenarios in ways that make sense to their readers [1].

My memory for intrapersonal details helps me maintain relationships. I’ve read about the dichotomy that autistics can experience between cognitive empathy and emotional empathy. Although we have trouble figuring out what someone might be thinking or feeling based on nonverbal cues, we can make sense of their experience using reasoning skills. I’ve learned to think of back-and-forth interactions as a logic puzzle: Based on what I know about this person, what could I say next?

Using cognitive reasoning to fill in gaps in emotional reasoning is probably a workaround I developed to ease myself into social situations. I don’t know what to say, so imagine myself entering the dialogue before I initiate conversation. As a kid, I tapped adults on the shoulder to get their attention and asked questions before the time for asking questions arrived. I suppose after receiving negative feedback for these social behaviors, I learned coping strategies for this lack of social intuition.

The only problem with these sorts of workarounds is the inevitable reluctance to enter conversations that accompanies my process. Trying to find my place in groups feels like a game of conversational tetherball. I don’t know how to begin speaking without inadvertently interrupting the current speaker.

My memory for details at the expense of gist can be scary when I’m trying to navigate potentially unsafe situations. A few weeks ago, a seemingly creepy guy at the library hugged me without prior warning (certainly didn’t ask for my consent). I didn’t recognize how disturbing his behavior appeared until he was already encroaching on my space. I missed the prior cues that he didn’t respect others’ boundaries.

I’m learning to avoid blaming myself when I miss these sorts of nonverbal cues. Yes, maybe I could have seen the signals earlier and avoided a scary scenario, but it wasn’t my fault that happened. Sometimes I love my detail-oriented nature. I remember people’s backstories in vivid detail, as if they were characters in a rich narrative.

When I talk with people who have been through familial trauma, I know what to say to them (and what not to say): Partially because I have shared experience, but also because I can see their narrative as a concept map — how their present and past intersect. This skill helps me listen and accept what they’re saying without needless questioning.

As frustrating as it can be to miss the forest for the trees, I’m “practicing being proud” of my memory for details [2]. My passion for information (and probably my path to graduate studies) comes from the same place that leads to missing gist. I can acknowledge and accept both of these parts of myself.

  1. http://www.avclub.com/tv/in-treatment/
  2. http://www.thenthdegree.com/proudpoem.asp

Expressive mediums: In crayon, poems, and imagery

Intricate tree stims I write because it helps me make sense of the world. I’ve journaled for as long as I can remember, mostly to get the sea of words from my brain to the page before me. Writing helped me see my worried thoughts; they became real, even though I couldn’t slow them down.

I remember when I first started seeing my therapist, I could only discuss thoughts and ideas. Finding feeling words that described my inner reality was much harder. Help-seeking is incredibly difficult when you’re not even sure what you’re feeling beyond bad and muddled. I could talk about the emotional experiences of fictional characters, but struggled to talk about myself. We used the third person often in those early sessions:

“Imagine you as a nine-year old girl living in those circumstances. What would she have been feeling then? Maybe you can tell me about that.”

I discovered metaphors and imagery in the midst of finding long-forgotten feeling words. I didn’t know how to verbalize my emotional states, but I could write about them. Then I’d read aloud what I’d written during my womyn’s writing circle. I started going to circle during my first semester in the PhD program. What a rough transition. I thought I’d have an easier time after switching from an applied practice program to a research-oriented program. I’d forgotten how difficult transitions can be — and so I wrote about these experiences. I talked about utterly perplexing social scenarios and traumatic events by channeling these memories into poetry and then reading those pieces aloud.

These days, I’m making sense of what it means to be a self-recognized autistic woman with co-occurring generalized anxiety and lingering grief. I’ve cobbled together mental health supports and social networks on campus and at church, and yet being who I am is exhausting sometimes. I talked with my PhD mentor last week about trying to find my fit in a department where I feel expected to pass as typical.

“Most days, you’re ‘good’ quirky. That period when your [psych] meds weren’t working properly, you were concerning quirky. You’re in a field full of weirdos — just look around. If I ever thought you couldn’t do this [finish the PhD program], I wouldn’t have suggested you apply.”

After this conversation, I decided to let myself be more autistic. If I didn’t pass particularly well anyway — quirky (read as visibly autistic) on a good day — perhaps I didn’t have to try so hard to appear typical. I’ve learned to stifle my passions because they turn into monologues. I feel odd tapping my fingers when I’m overloaded. I started bringing my Tangle (a stim toy) to class and work. I sang to myself as I shelved and stimmed. I brought my 24-pack of crayons to church.

I’ve documented this process of letting myself be autistic in a series of poems and images that I decided to call stimmy art. I drew the tree and accompanying poem during a church service in which I felt triggered. Drawing trees is a grounding experience — a series of repetitive movements that becomes a vibrant picture. I can keep adding branches and foliage until I’m ready to stop.

In these expressive mediums, I let myself be what I need in that moment. I hope to feel decreasingly self-conscious when I engage in self-care. Laura Hershey — poet and disability activist — reminds me, “Remember, you weren’t the one who made you ashamed, but you are the one who can make you proud. Just practice” (1).

  1. “You get proud by practicing,” a poem by Laura Hershey — http://www.thenthdegree.com/proudpoem.asp

My writing process: A blog tour

Randle of CrandleCakes, a blog in which she talks about food and life, invited me to participate in the My Writing Process blog tour.  I met Randle at a gathering of fellow writers and enjoyed hearing her personal essays and short stories. I still find it fascinating how she intermingles narrative and recipes in her blog posts.

So with that introduction complete, I begin this discussion of my writing process:

1) What am I working on?

I write once a week on Ask an Aspergirl, a personal blog where I discuss my life as an autistic woman with generalized anxiety. Sometimes I write about my fondness for particular films or television shows — how these forms of pop culture have served as emotional mirrors.  I’m still working on a series of posts about seeking an autism spectrum diagnosis as an adult. Since I started the blog, I’ve been trying to figure out why seemingly easy things are hard for me and seemingly hard things are easy for me.

2) How does my work differ from others in its genre?

My blog explores how various aspects of my life interact. As I often say when asked to describe the various parts of my life, “It’s in the overlap.” I write about how my lived experiences influence my graduate research. Sometimes I post poems that capture my experiences in a given week. My writing is at the intersection of “I’m pretty sure I’m autistic; oh yeah, I’m a worrywart too; and growing up, things at home were hard.” I write about these pieces of my life all at once.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I write to connect with other women like me — maybe I’m hoping that if I share my story, it will feel real. I think about what I’m feeling and why I could be feeling that way, and then I write about this experience. Sometimes my life feels ridiculously meta, as I try to make sense of my social world and emotional life by looking for patterns in what happened. Writing keeps me from becoming isolated because it gets me out of my own head. Somehow reading my thoughts aloud is validating. I write hoping I’m not the only one describing this experience.

4) How does my writing process work?

I usually choose a particular theme or concept that’s been reverberating in my head all week. If a phrase or sentence comes to mind, I’ll text those words to myself. Sometimes I jot down little notes on the pieces of scrap paper I find at work and then doodle in the margins. I draw from conversations I’ve had, books I’ve read, or television episodes I’ve seen lately. I joke that I should come with footnotes since most of my posts are a combination of my experiences and the media I consume.

After gathering all of these ideas in my head, I sit down at my desk and start writing short notes about what to include. Then I write my narrative: What happened and how did I feel about it? A friend of mine says to “write at the wound” because this is where we find powerful pieces — in the scary, painful places. Sometimes I’m brave enough to go there. Other times, I let myself get gradually closer to these vulnerabilities.

Next week’s bloggers

I’d like to introduce you to several bloggers I’ve enjoyed reading, so you can learn about their writing process:

Alana of Sleep Wake Hope and Then

Alana writes about “adventures with her autistic mind.” She is a graduate student getting her Ph.D. in a biology-related field. She writes short essays and poetry about her experiences. She says, “This blog is the story of my adventures with science and learning about autism and figuring out how that makes me me.”

Georgia of Feminist Aspie

Georgia writes about the intersection between feminism and autism, as she states, her blog “does what it says on the tin.” She also references Doctor Who in her posts and offers people virtual cups of tea. She wrote a wonderful ode to fangirls last November.

I look forward to hearing more about both women’s writing process.

The self-criticism machine

The self-criticism machine is sneaky. I can hear its gears slowly turning as words enter my brain and escape out of my mouth. I remember my first session with Dr. W (therapist lady) and the preface I expressed:

You’ll notice as we meet together each week that I interpret everything as criticism. No, seriously — everything. That neutral piece of feedback you provided, I will somehow interpret as “you are a deeply fucked up person who needs to change everything about herself.” This is how my brain works. I have no idea how to control its functioning.

Let me introduce you to the self-criticism machine:  Insert neutral statement into its cogs and watch my automatic thoughts about myself (“I am wrong.” “I don’t fit.” “I’m going to get stuck.”) spin these words into a deeply critical treatise on how flawed I am. This will subsequently be reinforced by actually critical things people have said to me and I have internalized — the casually spoken remarks that have chipped away at my sense of self. Perhaps you meant to sound constructive. Maybe I even needed to hear what you had to say, but your words will stay in my brain as a deeply critical statement about my being:

“You are wrong.” “You don’t fit.” “You’re not trying hard enough.” “I can’t believe you missed that.” — rinse and repeat

Unsurprisingly enough, I’ve learned to slow down the self-criticism machine using a combination of cognitive-behavioral strategies and a series of affirmations:

“You are enough.” “That thing you’re doing is so hard. I know that, but look at you. You keep trying and working, even though it’s difficult.” “There is nothing wrong with you.” “You are known and loved — because of, not in spite of — yourself.” “There are people who care deeply about you. They’ve stated that both directly and indirectly.” “You can do this.”

In the midst of all of this, I wonder, “How did I become so critical of  myself?” Perhaps in having to pass as relatively neurotypical (or at least quirky), I internalized a sense of shame about who I am — an autistic young woman who is visibly different. I’m so afraid of not finding a place where I fit — maybe because it’s hard to keep pretending to be normal (whatever that means). Passing is exhausting. I think I’m feeling the effects of this process as I enter my mid-twenties.

I’m learning to refer to myself as autistic in everyday situations — to mention my autistic traits in my day-to-day conversations — and I’m gradually shedding this internalized sense of shame. As I tap my fingers together in the local cafe, I’m giving myself permission to stim when I feel overloaded. When I send my PhD mentor or chaplain friend blog posts I’ve written about being an autistic woman in an NT world, I’m sharing the person I’ve always been. When I openly admit how hard it is to engage in small talk, I let  myself acknowledge that I’m struggling.

It’s okay to struggle, and in these conversations, the kind people I know — the ones with whom I can share my vulnerabilities — remind me they’re proud of me. They tell me I’m growing and strengthening. I’m becoming the autistic woman I’ve always been. She is freeing herself from the gears of the self-criticism machine as she inserts love into its cogs.

Autistic in academia (or how I ended up inadvertently studying myself)

“Many of us will become interested in psychology and the helping professions along the way, either because of our diagnosis or in search of it. We find we want to nurture and help others in their journeys because we know how hard it can be.” ~ Rudy Simone, Aspergirls

I am a PhD student whose primary research interest is the social experiences of autistic young women — the supports available for them and their everyday experiences. I am also an autistic woman — this is not a coincidence. In undergrad, I remember writing my freshman seminar paper on the consciousness-raising groups of second-wave feminism. These second-wave feminists spoke of how “the personal was political.” They saw how their individual experiences were reflective of community-wide issues.

For me, the personal has become academic. I first started reading about autism, specifically Asperger syndrome, because a friend of mine in undergrad had mentioned her diagnosis. Rather than be the person who asked nosy questions or said something unintentionally offensive, I decided to pick up Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger Syndrome. I read it cover to cover, and then began collecting blog entries and online articles in a folder on my computer. Perhaps I identified with the experiences of individuals on the spectrum, but I don’t think I realized that at the time. I just found the subject fascinating.

It wasn’t until grad school, after I was asked if I ever wondered about being on the autism spectrum, that I started to consider the possibility that I was autistic. I have a bachelor’s degree in psychology, so my first concern was that I’d somehow convinced myself that I was autistic: “What if I have psych major syndrome?” (like medical student syndrome – when med students become convinced they’ve contracted the ailments discussed in class – but for mental health conditions).  I called my friend who was a special education (SPED) graduate student while I was in undergrad.

Me: When you first met me as a freshman, did you ever wonder if I had Asperger syndrome?

SPED Friend: That thought crossed my mind, but I noticed how well you got along with the students I mentored, so it didn’t really matter.

During the spring of 2013, I read everything I could find about the experiences of autistic women, starting with Rudy Simone’s books and later finding autistic adults’ blogs. That was also my first semester in the PhD program. As I read about autistic adults’ experiences, I suppose I was weighing them against my own. I remember talking with my SPED friend and her noticing I seemed less afraid of identifying with the Asperger label.

It was a strange time because from reading the academic literature, I knew Asperger syndrome would be absorbed into the autism spectrum that summer. What would I call myself then? I settled on Aspergirl — it was safe, perhaps because it was never a clinical label. It was a portmanteau (Asperger + girl) created by another autistic woman. I kept writing for myself, while I read about the experiences of autistic young adults in my coursework.

This summer, both of my research projects concern the social-emotional experiences of autistic women. When asked how my research interests developed, I’m running out of  ways to allude to my autistic self. At most, I can mention my friends with Aspergers or how I identify with this population when I talk with fellow educational researchers. I wonder if it would be easier to be ‘out’ (of my autism closet) if I had a clinical diagnosis.

There’s one person in my department — my PhD mentor — who knows I’m autistic. She has been amazingly supportive, but sometimes I imagine what it would be like if I could openly acknowledge this part of myself.

“I am an autistic woman whose research is directly informed by her lived experiences.” Now if only I could say that aloud more often.

On labeling myself and wondering why I feel silly

Of course they are

“So that happened. I felt scattered all over the floor by the end of session:  ‘I just want someone to acknowledge that these things I’m experiencing are actually things!’ And of course they are.” <– text to a friend sent post-therapy

“In the space between weird and clinical label is a lot of self-acceptance and working through these hard moments (very real things).” <– note to self

Silly is dismissive. Silly says conciliatory things like “I’m sorry you feel that way.” And yet sometimes I feel silly when I label myself. I need to hear someone outside my own head say, “I think you’re right. The characteristics you’re describing are consistent with the experiences of an autistic person. You’re autistic.”

Last week, I finally talked with my therapist about realizing I’m an autistic woman and wondering what to do with that information.

“I hear your experiences. I know they’re real, even though I’m not here to label you. But I’m here, and we’ll talk. I want to honor your narrative and self-definitions”

“What if someone in this room could tell you who you are — because you can. I see how hard you’re working to understand yourself.”

As I described the ASD traits I’d seen in myself and how I felt like I had to prove I was autistic, my therapist noticed I was growing increasingly anxious. I looked down at my shaking hands, reminded that my body tends to know I’m anxious long before my brain does. I’ve been seeing the same therapist for long enough to know that she won’t invalidate my experiences and yet finding the words to have this conversation felt terrifying.

My sister was one of the few witnesses to my growing up since my parents were distracted by their own issues. She lovingly reminds me that I was a quirky kid who wore a lot of sweater vests and used unusually large words for my age. I wonder if my autistic girlhood went largely unnoticed.

Maybe I’m waiting for someone else to confirm these experiences — to hear my narrative and help me make sense of it. Part of me still worries that I’ve created an unnecessarily elaborate explanation for why I have trouble fitting in with others. But last session, I asked my therapist to piece together a list of clinicians who evaluate adults for ASD. I think I’m ready to see where this process goes, even though it’s scary.

I’m learning to trust my own thoughts and feelings as I find the words to describe myself. They are real and certainly not silly.

In search of a coherent narrative

But seriously legal pads are awesome

“But seriously legal pads are awesome” by Derek Schnake (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I can picture myself in a series of spaces in which salient conversations happened:

Consultation room where I pondered taking anxiety medication
Steps outside the local cafe where I grieved for lost things
Office where I felt blindsided by expectations I couldn’t meet
Between two chairs where I alluded to the possibility of being an autistic woman

I suppose I’m in search of a coherent narrative. I know what happened and when, but the hows and whys are much harder to understand. When I blog or write poems about these perplexing, often emotionally fraught, scenes, I’m recreating what happened. Maybe I’m looking for patterns in the events that led up to that moment and the ones that followed.

Lately I’ve been making lists about why I think I’m autistic (or to use the DSM-5 verbiage — meet criteria for autism spectrum disorder). I’m not sure who I’m trying to convince that I’m autistic — myself perhaps or the imagined clinician who asks why no one noticed me earlier. I remember talking with my previous psychiatrist:

“So it says here [in your chart] that you’re concerned about having Asperger syndrome.” “I wouldn’t say I’m concerned,” I reply. “It just seems like a strong possibility in light of my experiences.”

“So why pursue an ASD diagnosis in your mid-20s?” I ask myself. I’m still not sure if I have a concrete answer. Perhaps so I could request workplace accommodations in the future. That sounds reasonable, right? But it’s more than that.  I’ve been trying to account for my struggles at work and social settings that remain unexplained by GAD or longstanding familial conflict.

“If you’ve managed for this long, maybe you don’t need a diagnosis.” “Depends how you define managing,” I’d counter. “I started a blog as a repository for the complicated thoughts and feelings I had about someone else labeling me — an armchair diagnosis, couched in an open question. I left my master’s program because I couldn’t adapt to its ever-changing professional environment. I thought there was something wrong with me. Now I think there’s something different about me. I would like to know what that is. I suspect it’s autism.”

I’ve been trying to talk with people in my offline life about wanting to be autistic. Mostly this has manifested as references to my previous posts sent in emails or carefully written on legal sheets (1) and forwarded links to other autistic women’s stories (2, 3). I want my close friends and mentors to understand my thought process, but it’s hard to find audible words. Instead I’m relying on written ones to serve as conversational bridges. When the words do come, they arrive in floods I can’t seem to contain.

“So what do you want to do with these questions of identity?” my therapist asked the last time we talked. At that point, I didn’t know how to answer. Maybe I still don’t, but as I talk at/with friends about this search for a coherent narrative, I’d like to explore the possibility that being autistic is part of my story.

  1. http://askanaspergirl.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/overlapping-overarching-narratives
  2. http://notesoncrazy.com/2013/07/i-think-i-need-this/
  3. http://autistwriter.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/cara/

Tessering between known and felt realities

When I encounter competing deadlines (and subsequent fears of  inadequacy), I have trouble seeing past the experience.  It helps to talk with my PhD mentor as these concerns build — when the waves of anxiety crash so violently that I feel pulled under and sleep fails to arrive. She listens when I’m struggling and continues to remind me that I’ve gotten through these situations before — sometimes in response to my distressed text messages sent in the midst of looming projects.

I hold onto others’ words and faith in my abilities when I doubt myself. I adapt conversations I’ve had with the supportive people in my life — therapeutic figures, PhD mentor, and close friends — into monologues I can reread (and eventually internalize) when I’m feeling stuck.

“I don’t want to push you to see this image of yourself — a strong, competent woman who’s been through and dealt with a lot this year — but I see her, and I suspect other people in your life do as well. Someday you will too.”

“You will get through this. Just one day at a time. And those of us who support and care about you, we are here for you as life keeps happening.”

It’s helped to have people in my life I can talk with when I’m feeling stuck. I’ve had a lot of these conversations via text and email, probably because I can write the gist of my concerns and ask for help before I stop myself from doing so. I have an easier time transferring my worried thoughts to written words rather than trying to insert these concerns into real-time dialogue.

Before I started talking with other people about my muddled thoughts and feelings, I journaled nearly every day. When I started therapy, I brought these pages with me as a way of sharing what I felt unable to verbalize. These days, I’ll ask my friends and mentors to read sections of my poetry notebook  when I don’t know how to say what’s been going on in my head. In doing so, I invite my conversation partner to meet me in the midst of my worries.

How we travel

When asked how I’m doing these days, I often reply, “I’m managing.” I’m reminded of the passage in A Wrinkle in Time in which Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit describe tessering. I feel like that ant sometimes as I navigate these felt and known realities: I’m making progress in my academic and social-emotional world, even when I feel stuck and afraid of the future. I imagine myself falling apart, but then I don’t. In the midst of these fears, I do the next thing and act as if I will be okay.

I’m trying to let go of the idea that I’m supposed to be calm amongst anxiety-provoking scenarios. Long before I learned I met diagnostic criteria for GAD, I described myself as a worrywart. I’m currently living in a perfect storm of interpersonal and academic stressors, and yet I’m grateful for the people I’ve found who know my struggles don’t negate my abilities. That community helps me tesser.

 

Because of, not in spite of, yourself

“You are known and loved — because of, not in spite of, yourself. You have people who care about you.” These are the reminders running though my brain and eventually a list of names fills the page.

I’ve often wondered what to do in the midst of uncertainties, and I keep coming back to this phrase: “You are known and loved.” By whom? I feel like I’m leaving my faith behind; sometimes it’s leaving me and yet these words stay — perhaps known by the people I’ve let in via shared stories, acknowledgment of emotional states.

I grew up reminded that I was loved and yet feeling known as well was harder. My pen knew me; my journal knew those lines that forced themselves from my brain onto the page. To be known is to be acknowledged, seen for who you’re afraid to be — as it no longer matters what you’ve been expected to express.

I’m trying to come up with a dialogue beyond these scripted lines. This is hard, finding the words amongst the pressure of okay to come — not knowing how to express these thoughts and ideas. “How are you actually doing?” “Is ‘I don’t know’ an acceptable response?”

I’d like to know — drawn in to a place where the words expressed and the reverberations in my brain match. You are known and loved — by yourself perhaps. The others are a secondary, ongoing portion of this process.

In the sharing, in the telling, you are known. This is the closest thing to what’s actually going on for me now. Sometimes I fear I’m too much for you, so in the brief asides and references, the bypassed words said at twice the speed — to be noticed or retracted — maybe I’m waiting for permission.

In these roundabout ways, I come closer to acknowledging myself — the litany of concerns I’m wondering if I can transform into a narrative. In longing to be heard, I wonder where to start — you are known and loved — in the metaphor and pasted together phrases This is what is, and I know it’s frightening and overwhelming at times, but this is where you are.

Found in the knowing; seen in the monologue that hopes to be shared; loved in what is — even when it’s a list of worries. Because of, not in spite of, in the just is.

Light

"lights dancing in the darkness" by Thomas Lieser

“lights dancing in the darkness” by Thomas Lieser (CC By-NC-SA 2.0)

All of my light references seem to be biblical — let there be… burden is… light, I suppose. And yet I also find light oppressive; too bright, too sunny as I sit in my hide cave — as I’ve so labeled my dimly lit space. Low lights are calming. My little apartment is surrounded with small sources of light — a desk lamp, light by the kitchen table, lights above, lights below.

Blinds and curtains hide from the encroaching sunlight — keeping me in its grey grasp; when it’s all too much, I dim the lights.

I suppose my street used to be fully lit. The street lights stand as witnesses to an earlier time — when it felt safe to venture outside in the dark — making a path to a no longer there grocery, a neighborhood that spreads to the highway — no longer a walkable space.

And there was — darkness and calm — heaviness, burden — uneasiness — bugs circle the few remaining porch lights, often left on by mistake — forgotten sources.

Light — there was — there is — in the cars that pass by, the few neighboring businesses that remain as the block turns over — to condominiums and high rise apartments. Don’t they need lights — a space to cross without feeling wary of the figures behind you, in front of us — the ones we avoid in the dark.

Maybe they won’t see us jumping from light to light.

Why are there so many streetlamps — but so few in working order, we wonder — trying to decide if it’s too late to run a quick errand. There was light, but they are fading. Light passes by. Never stays.

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sleep wake hope and then

Pondering popular culture, generalized anxiety, and being autistic

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