Ask an Aspergirl

Pondering popular culture, generalized anxiety, and being Autistic

Dear shame, an open letter to April

Dear shame,

I’ve written you a lot of open letters lately. But today I declare in a soft, yet confident voice, get thee behind me. Shush. Fuck that. No more. You persist, but I ignore. You mock a generation of women like me — too much, not enough. Too late for you to be yourself. But wait. Listen to those who talk back to shame in its illusive forms. Who dare to declare themselves good enough, in-progress always, works of art.

No more, we shouted together. Retelling our stories into being; believing the contagion of voices. I believe her. I believe we. I believe in us. In community. In life. Here together. Fitting, belonging. Becoming until our seams are worn and our fabric tattered. We are here together. Being. Belonging. Together — ourselves.

Until our poetry becomes a chorus of voices and signs and symbols never before experienced. Heard. Understood. Hear. In this place. Fit. Belong. Linger in this hyper-reality. A 1-act play. This is an invitation, to be here in this present moment sharing truths we needed as little girls hiding in their rooms until the howling stopped. Until the violence paused. Not ended. We mourn together, until mourning comes with tears of piss and vinegar.

No longer alone. Here in this place. Together. Fitting. Belonging. Becoming what we never believed. We are anomalous survivors, you and I. Unicorns and Nessie. The less than 1 percent of folks, these women like us. Flapping with joy. Soundlessly clapping. Hands back and forth, bracelets jingling. Our tapping fingers sing in eighth notes. We join a symphony of voices.

Your own. My own. Computer generated, voiced, signed into being. We are here now, for one another what we always needed. Ourselves. A community of stories.

 

An unexpected visitor

Seedling

Drew McLellan (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This weight. This heaviness. This fog. An unexpected and yes, unwanted, visitor. I always thought depression would have more feelings. But this wait. This living in lack is too much for me. Bed is a respite from the drudgery of everyday life. Of pushing myself to do — again and again — until I cannot.

Being so tired all the time is tiring. In the exhaustion of being. In lack. In need. Overly anxious. Too much. Not enough. For me, for them — to get on with it. Shame is a weighty burden.

I want to give you up — a backpack of rocks placed on the shoulders of a small girl, now adult.

I long to molt. To shed this shame. A cocoon for wings — to leave it all behind. But shame is elusive — and it does not tolerate metaphors. It lingers in the broken places — my broken places. It hurt; I know.

Shame rips and tears and weighs me down. Berating me for this exhaustion. Too many words for you — for me, until there was only a blankness. But my words are slowly returning. To page, to life. I am returning to myself. Slowly.

Impatient with myself. This in-between hurts. I am restless for spring. Seeds to ground — looking for tiny sprigs of hope. To see. To savor. To water, then fertilize the soil with pills and words. As a rain of tears speckles the ground. Glittery raindrops appear beneath the soil. My roots and bones ache buried underground.

Healing is hard and I am impatient with time and this artful chemistry, when looking better comes before feeling better. Healing is hard, I remind myself yet again. And growth is slow — and often exhausting. Be patient little sprouts.

Take hope. Then leave aphorisms behind. Find your own words for being alive again. Roots run deeper still, even with little support. We grow so slowly. And patience, like hope, is hard to sustain in dry ground. But still, we hope. Because the absence of hope dries the soil. Seedlings need rain and fertile ground. A plan for living, being, existing. They cannot sustain themselves. Or live on hope alone.

And so we sit with these seeds buried deep in earth. Waiting for spring to arrive here.

Nuances and anomalies: An exploration of inspiration

I breathe in inspiration and and exhale hope — sounds like the beginning of a mantra. A phrase repeated, then believed.

But what inspires me — brings me life through metaphorical breath? These are “the nuances and anomalies of my day.” These are the things that bring me life — they are life. Mac and cheese Saturdays. Reminders that we’re glad you’re here. We anticipate and welcome your presence.

Community gives me life — inspiration to draw. In the faith of others when I do not believe myself. I am called to mourn with, be with, experience with. I breathe out words. Breathe in story. Life. Hope.

I breathe in becoming from the safety of community. When I don’t know where the hope comes from — and stare incredulously back when reminded of its existence — I breathe. I experience life as it is. I breathe out expectation. Breathe in love for myself. Notice the self doubt, wishing for inspiration, little reminders of what could be.

I let myself hurt for what cannot not be — breathing through the sadness, forgetting possibilities. I fear for hope. Inspiration is so easily squashed. What happens to ideas that never become themselves?  Whose existence is never made known. Only whispered.

How do I know when inspiration is real? Is it a ghost? A phantom dream of what I never had, could never be? Is inspiration hope waiting to be squashed? Lost before it can be found again.

Inspiration whispers, this is why. I want to believe her. Me. I want to believe in the possibility of hope. Is inspiration from the broken spaces? How does she mend? Can she create out of nothing, but fear and longing? How does she survive to become herself?

Is inspiration the thing itself or what comes before? How does she endure — to create in the blank spaces in between?

 

Write a love letter to yourself

Dear self,

I see you struggling on. Naming yourself, then seeking further validation. You needed that. That’s okay.

I love you even when you don’t know who you are or where you’re going. You’ll find your way. Perhaps you’re making it too.

I love you for trying — for self advocating — for continuing on. I love you when you’re tired and unsure of yourself — and wonder why you went to grad school.

I love you even when you are uncertain — I’m proud of you for taking care of yourself, even when it’s hard.

You are finding your words again — and even in the silences, your words matter — you do too.

Perhaps all those years of PBS helped after all — I tell you what Mister Rogers did — how you are valuable just by being you.

I know you wonder how people like you make it in the world — on their own — all alone. I wish I had a crystal ball to show you or a pair of spectacles from which to view post-grad life. But I don’t.

Even still, I love you for considering the possibility of hope — and will be — of passing through the fog when it will not dissipate.

May you learn to trust yourself — that the words you struggle to find to describe your feelings are enough, even when they feel inadequate.

Maybe your listener will surprise you.

You are not bad. You are not wrong. May you see what you have to give — because of not in spite of — yourself.

I hope you no longer have to hide. That you’ll find spaces where you feel safe. But when you need that cloak of protection, that’s not your fault. You are not wrong, but perhaps the situation is.

I love how you keep going. Routines are not magic, but perhaps they’ll guide you through the fog. Your ship is sturdy enough, even when the waves and winds grow strong.

I know you’re scared, but even still you’ve learned to ask for help. You’re finding the words to guide you through.

I love you for who you’ve been — who you are and who you are becoming.

May you sit with the girl in that room and let her know that she is heard. That her voice matters.

Because the door is open and the yelling has ceased, even though it echoes through memory.

I’m proud of you for taking her to safety.

And for enduring the storm together.

 

I am / I am not

I am here — this I know — and yet I am not. My feet hit the ground, while my brain travels further away; to worries of what will be — to what is not yet. I am okay. I am not okay. I no longer know what that word means. I’m trying to describe a state distant from myself. Could we avoid that dialogue entirely?

I am a writer. I am not writing. Not for me, but for a broader scientific voice. I’m not ready — for the morning to come again — for the night that lingers. I want to see outside myself. I am too far buried in this ever-present tired.

I am not fast enough, I fear. I sit with an unfinished document — ideas explored at the surface level. I am not me. I am coping and doing and telling myself the things I need to do. I am lingering over spaces — with lengthy pauses between actions.

I am not sure how long I will feel this way — a low battery — a flickering light — a buzzing hum. I feel the words coming more slowly, processing at a pace that feels heavy. I am unsure. I sit with scribbled words, trying to name a state I’d rather see leave. But it is absence. I find myself again in these fleeting moments of connection.

When the words return and I find release.

I am lost in this space of wandering through, wanting to simultaneously reject and claim the names for the milemarkers. I am here. I am not here. Uncomfortably far away from myself, longing to return to a place I recognize. I map my journey so far; longing for patterns and sensemaking. Where I made a wrong turn — settling into metaphors of storms and roads.

These intentionally drawn diagrams try to show me where I am. In the all-too-long middle. In what I fear will never be. I am not sure of myself anymore. I’ve been derailed a series of times — only to return here — too fast and too slow — utterly overwhelmed, then exhausted.

I don’t know how to be here, but I am nonetheless. I am unsure of present — future — will be. I don’t trust my words to adequately describe this space. I fear I am not enough for this. I want to describe what I cannot name — to say it aloud would be to enter a place of not knowing.

I see myself going through the motions, wishing for more explicit directions. A model to follow. A certainty I wish I believed. If / then — a recipe for what next. A paint by numbers for a life I’m still exploring.

I am working through; I am managing — still trying to understand these concepts. Sometimes dialogue feels like Mad Libs. I fill in what is expected. Unsure of how to further describe this weary silence.

 

On tessering

“How are you?” It’s a question that begins most of my conversations these days; I’m never quite sure how to answer. Most of the time, it seems like an acknowledgement of the other person’s existence, not an inquiry about our deeper feelings.

This is not the time for me to unpack my emotional states or the worries I’ve tried to quell all day: How I can’t seem to shake the idea that something is wrong with me and my subsequent actions are making me feel worse. How I often wonder if I’m missing something. When I fear I’m not enough.

This is merely a time for social niceties. When I respond with “okay” or if pressed further, with “managing.” Managing what exactly? The world around me? My own anxieties? Because both tasks seem daunting.

What if I’m tessering? But that response would require greater context. I would like to look outside of this exhaustion and fears that I’ll always feel this way — to see a kind of hope, a will be that hasn’t arrived yet. In A Wrinkle in Time, tessering is a more efficient form of travel between time and space, but the in-between still hurts. That’s where I am now.

“What if you stopped contingency planning?” she asked. What would it be like to just be here? “I don’t know,” I responded. Because this is the space I’ve inhabited for as long as I can remember. I don’t know how to be in the present without looking further ahead and subsequently worrying about how things could fall apart (because of me). Self-doubt is vicious.

Some of this is ableism. I’ve internalized the norms of a society that doesn’t recognize disabled experience as a way of being in the world. So when I’m utterly exhausted, it must be my fault, and I should have coped better (forgetting how much harder it is for me to steady myself).  There are fewer models for graduate students like me. I’ve mostly learned to self-accommodate; I create structure when I can (wishing more was in my control) and seek help in coping with my anxiety. I take meds; I attend therapy. But I’m still tired.

I recognize that this weariness is normative among graduate students, but it seems to hit me harder than others. I’ve reached the end of yet another exhausting semester where I’ve pushed myself to keep writing and breathed my way through shutdowns. When I’ve just stopped because my processing was too slow to continue working. When I feel lacking as a grad student. When I fear for what’s next for someone like me. For me.

I keep an ongoing mental list of the things I’ve managed to do while anxious and/or exhausted. Sometimes reviewing this list helps. In the middle of things, there isn’t an endpoint, a definitive will be if I follow these steps. I’m tessering because I’m not completely certain of my destination. I hope for what will be in the midst of not knowing.

I feel pressured during these holidays to gather myself back together. To rest intentionally and then return to school ready to write (and ignore my feelings). There must be an in-between, but the “how things got better” narrative dominates. I’m afraid to admit when I’m still struggling. What if my academic supporters lose patience with me?

Perhaps more graduate students like me are struggling to balance self-care and productivity? Maybe even wondering why they’re still pursuing a goal that feels so abstract? Are we hiding out of shame and self-preservation?

For me, sometimes hope means worrying about the future. Because that action assumes I’ll find my way through now. Sometimes the best I can do is to acknowledge both realities: that I don’t know how my exhaustion will resolve, but a future where I’ve cared for myself and completed my PhD exists. Maybe I’m even earning a sustainable income in a context I enjoy. Maybe.

I imagine myself looking at a door to a world parallel to my own. Where what will be exists and hope lives. I stand in its entryway as I remind myself, “You are doing the best you can with the resources that you have. That’s enough. And so are you.”

Into entropy

In such turbulent times, I feel smaller and lapse into doubt and disbelief. When suffering is so relative and my life feels rather slow. And yet my mind worries, perhaps coming from before. But this day-to-day is long enough. I cannot imagine mass-scale casualties or loss of lives. And ideology of violence and  hatred feels too abstract.

Chaos reigns, said the fox. We go into entropy. My thoughts overly examine will overwhelm. When there are not enough lists to contain the will be’s on this tiny dot of green and blue. It’s hard to imagine a year from now without falling apart into blank pages — all I see is not yet and I don’t know and the vast lostness of what I cannot know yet.

This turbulence happens on a micro-scale: missed bus, forgotten meds taken close enough, trying to imagine  recreating my network of professionals.  I stare into the storm of will be’s, when the list of nows could overwhelm.

There will always be things left to do is hope and reassurance.  Damnation and statement of fact. I could imagine myself through this space, but I lack the imagery.  In these turbulent times, my problems feel small and yet this life of doing enough and being with this precarious enough.

I feel like a spider whose web is facing winds and rain; nearly blown away, but threads remain. In these turbulent times, I cannot process everything at once, or see beyond myself. Global pain is an abstraction. Over there captured in imagery that comes to my screen in 140 characters and infographics.

We share personal narratives to make sense of these larger patterns. A chorus of me toos on #ThatAbleistScript. My day-to-day barely touches this larger space — mine is getting by and hoping for more; while doing what I can, wondering if it’s enough.

My emotional weather is enough to track. Problem-not-to-scale are problems enough. Tracking the befores and afters, hoping a pattern would emerge. Because sensemaking is comforting. And yet so much of this storm predates me.

I don’t know how to have a conversation with you. Instead we talk of cooking fish and doing errands. There’s a script we’re both following with parenthetical dialogue. The storm passed; is passing — but the narration is absent.

In these turbulent times, I need an emergency power-down switch. Before overload comes, I wish my brain would tell me how I’m feeling. And yet that usually comes from fictional characters. Body and brain in disconnect — sometimes asleep at the controls.

In these turbulent times, I’m catching up with myself. Running down checklists of tasks I wish weren’t mine. Making up certainties from an imaginary will be. I’m not there yet. This waiting place is task enough. What next? A fictional future appears.

I tire more easily these days. As if my body knows what my brain will not reveal. In these times, normal is relative, ill-defined. I have so many stories that remain my own, but what if community emerged.

What if we are creating this busyness? In failing to rest, we miss this obligation to ourselves. I get lost in the not yet, fearing what I cannot anticipate. External turbulence is pervasive, yet inexperienced. The end draws near for some, yet here we are.

It all seems so random — maybe this turbulence is entropy, the chaos of a universe behaving like a toddler, toys scattered across the floor. Until Legos press into skin — leaving indentions.

How can we can we steady ourselves in a space unknown. Unexplored. Too vast to imagine anyone but ourselves. People not like us become monsters, dissidents, the ill-fitting. Am I us? Are you us?

What keeps our planet steady when we are not? We are pieces of stardust in a seemingly limitless galaxy. We are nothing and everything. We are enough to be with this chaos.

These spirits are absence.

The spirit of grief lingers with me, through time and space, not easily described or grasped. It aches, sometimes desperately and violently, until I can feel no more. We live together in a space barely explored. Where words are deprived of their meaning. When the violence of metaphor barely explains what it is like to live here in this.

Anxious, trouble, troubled, but only after the fact. In the excruciating now — would be too much for her to handle. I would be too much in overwhelm. Fearing she would encroach upon my space — my anxiety — to handle. To throw pills and magic words at an illusory condition. To will myself here and have my mind wander anyway. To accept myself as I am. But you need me to be better — but that’s not myself.

I have so many metaphors to describe these lingering spirits of worry and overwhelm — as they loop and surpass I and then. I lose myself in imagery, trying to describe what outsiders cannot feel. These ghosts of what was and is. How I grieve for what never was. As I become myself, the violence of words plagues me — as anger and unintended cruelty visit me in yet another form.

A brain against itself cannot stand; but it can breathe, sit, be with the moments I wish away; on floors of clean, well-lit spaces, as I wonder if I’ll always be here. Clinical language cannot describe this viscera. It just is. I sit with my worries and unsteadiness until I safely return. Sometimes after the flood of words and the torment of shame relents.

I sit here waiting and hope is here too; a ghost of memory reminds me why I cannot pray to far away or up close. I was abandoned unto this. So here we sit with a community of ideas and bodies. Of an after this, when we live here.

Grief is like a boomerang, distant storm clouds that shake bodies into memory, into being together in the inexplicable nothing. In the why would God; why do we still believe in anything; when it breaks so easily. My words go into air as I grieve for an idea that becomes being. Here in this place; fitting; belonging.

I was talking to a ghost. A paternal who never was; could never be, as grief cycled through generations of men and abandoned us here in the echoing silences — between the floods of angry words. Here we are after the storm. It is too quiet. Can’t they hear the distant thunder? See the cracked earth? The dead leaves — crumpled under feet as earthworms turn to soil.

In the post-conflict of grief, I sit and sing and be with a figure I’ve never known well — a jello-molded god of what was not. Can I be disappointed in non-existent, maybe is imaginings? Is it easier to find a ghost than to implicate absence? I’m angry with an idea, but today we sit with a grief I share, but never knew myself.

You hurt, I cry. As you speak of a kind man I never knew. I wish I did. Mine leaves me vaguely written well-wishes. Any more contact beyond these ghosts would hurt me too much.

Sometimes i don’t believe my own phantom pains. Wondering what could have been, if they, if I… But these what might be’s are only ghosts. And I am here with aching grief — inserting hope into a pain I am only beginning to explore. These wounds are deeper than I know.

I wait to be minimized. For a proclaimation of not enough pain to count. But ghosts don’t care. They linger and remember the was and is. As I hope for what will be after the violence of memory.

Being in community and sitting together

Sometimes I feel like Larf the Sasquach from Ashley Spire's storybook.

Sometimes I feel like Larf the Sasquach from Ashley Spire’s storybook.

I remember how I felt reading Emily White’s book, Lonely for the first time. I felt known, like she was putting words to the aching isolation I knew all-too-well. That was during my first year of graduate school, before I’d realized I wasn’t a school psychologist.

Before I knew I was Autistic (pre-ASD diagnosis, before I’d found women like me online — via WordPress, then Twitter and Tumblr); back then, I was merely odd and disconnected for reasons unknown. But Emily White knew my story; because she was lonely like me.

I recently finished her second book, Count Me In, in which Ms. White describes how she attempted to develop a sense of community — to feel more connected and make like-minded friends. The passage that stood out to me was about how we can map our social connections:

I can close my eyes and imagine physical spaces where I feel safe — where trustworthy people who accept both me and my disability (because they are both aspects of myself) exist. These are spaces where, as my refrain goes: “I am known and loved, because of, not in spite of myself.” With these elder women and friends whose families were as unsteady as mine, I feel safe. They know my backstory and my present states. The emotional weather patterns I’m still learning to discuss in plainer language.

Over the past couple of weeks, or maybe even the last month or so, my anxiety worsened. I’ve sought out supportive people. I’ve found myself stuck in public spaces, needing strangers’ help. My memory lingers on an afternoon at the library last week when I, mid-shutdown, didn’t feel present or safe because my processing had slowed to near halt. I monologued and tried to determine what I was feeling (mostly anxious).

And so an undergrad whom I barely knew sat with me, as I tried to calm myself — to slow my breathing and find a pastry and coffee in the atrium. I remember being ashamed and grateful — into infinite loops, it seemed — the feeling burdensome and too much. But there I was being helped by a young woman kind enough to sit with me in the overwhelm — my overwhelm. I apologized a lot. She thanked me as she headed to class, and I safely walked to the bus stop. I couldn’t understand why she was grateful.

Vulnerability is terrifying. I spend much of my professional life hiding and explaining away the seemingly quirky things I do (read as: appear visibly Autistic when I stim and monologue). But when I become utterly overloaded ( >7 out of 10 on my loosely defined anxiety scale), passing is no longer an option. Unless I want to shift into the unpleasantness of uncontrollable crying and rocking that comes during my rare meltdowns. All I can do is try to steady myself. That’s enough to exhaust me.

Growing up, all I wanted was someone to sit with me and tell me what I was experiencing was real. That I would be safer soon and that it was okay to feel however I needed. I desired presence. I’m reminded of one of my favorite scenes from Lars and the Real Girl:

“This is what we do when tragedy strikes. We sit.”

I’m finding community, even in my hardest weeks. I’m grateful for friends who have learned how to be present with me when I’m struggling — for those who ask how I am and accept the honest answers. They steady me, even in overwhelm. For safe spaces and people, I give thanks.

To be believed…

If you were to be believed, if you told the stories that remain unshared, what would you say?

My parents fought; that’s the easy way to tell this story, but that isn’t true. Not really, and the loss I feel in that telling hurts, desperately and violently. And I ask myself why I’m lying. For them? For me? For all of us not ready? Because I’m not ready.

For that face

that follows the telling.

I am believed, but scattered too — as unspoken things come to light — always too soon. I’m not ready and neither are you — never will be for this litany of sorrows. No substance to blame, a simpler before to predate an angry after. Only a sadness described: “My dad wasn’t a nice man; I wanted to be better,” he said. “I can’t.”

This hurts to speak, to write, to be. I know. The pressure of heart and mind reaches my pen, my hand, my being. My side is pain. Tension in the telling. I am here and there in the telling. My dad yelled. I hid.

In science fiction and tessering narratives. In families not as sad. In stories I could recognize. I tessered to — traveled away from here. To an unfamiliar better; but that room of spackled ceiling and little girls hiding — one distant, the other all-too-present — remains, and they hurt.

I tell you — sitting across from me —

“All families have problems.”

“Not like this.”

I want to shake them, but instead I nod. “I guess so.” This hurts; I know. I try to speak again — of never knowing safety, then having to patchwork it together in a dwelling that is solely mine, with only the company of an orangey tabby.

You are safe; you are here — a repetition I hope to believe, need to believe. Sometimes do and it hurts. “Excruciatingly so?” The woman across from me, the sage, inquires. I am here and there simultaneously.

My thumb and forefingers cramp, in the memory of being misunderstood. Where is belief without mutual understanding, a shared pain? I wish you did — but you don’t. How could you? You want to believe me, but don’t know how.

So we sit with a coffee or two between us, as I share this lengthier tale.

autisticmotherland

Writings from autistic motherhood

a true testimony

Karrie Higgins is a writer in Salt Lake City, Utah, currently at work on "Superman is my Temple Recommend," a grimoire/memoir about the nexus between magic, forensics, and faith. Image: close-up shot of Karrie’s hands holding up a parchment paper that reads, “I am trying to get as honest as I can” in Deseret Alphabet.

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