Ask an Aspergirl

Essays and poems about Autistic experience, mental illness, & (post-) ABD life

Category: self-care

Cat story

So whatever happened to you getting a cat?” she asked after hearing how isolated I’d become this summer. I suppose I gave up in the idea. Maybe I talked myself out of it after my car met its demise a few summers ago. The pet deposit was nearly a month’s rent. I was worried how I would get to the vet if the cat got sick. Adopting a cat felt completely unrealistic and unsustainable — another “not yet” in a series of post-graduate maybes.

But when I got home, I decided to call my landlord’s office, just to see how expensive the pet deposit would be. I left room for hope and perhaps another point of connection. “People are still important,” she reminded me, “but having a cat could help you feel more connected — less in your own head.” I was surprised to hear that the deposit would be waived because my therapist had written a letter of support for me to get a cat as an emotional support animal.

I texted a friend of mine (because I’m also trying to reconnect with friends in their own busyness). We met for tacos and toward the end of our meal, I apprehensively brought up the idea of adopting a cat.

I’ve learned to feel guilty for the pleasures I allow myself. Maybe that’s because I’ve mostly lived in survival mode — to take up less space and want fewer things. To grow up needing little because I learned the cost of things early in life. To hint rather than ask directly for things I wanted. I justify the small purchases I make — the decaf lattes are accompanied by social interaction; I get a cheap meal to leave the house when I’m lost in my thoughts.

Adopting a cat seemed impossible, given the current circumstances of my life. I worried I wouldn’t be able to care for the cat if it became ill. That my budget would be stretched too thinly. And yet I followed up on this notion. I left room for joy, thinking of sustainability in emotional, rather than just economic terms. I asked a friend for help in navigating the adoption process. I allowed myself to connect with someone who didn’t see my need (or me) as a burden.

I visited the shelter I volunteered at a few years ago, when I’d visited the possibility of adopting a cat. I brought a list of names from the online listings, but those cats didn’t seem like a match. Then I met TC, a two-year-old tabby who seemed rather affectionate. I asked my friend who came to guide me through the process what she thought. She agreed that he was mellow and would help me calm myself.

Last Friday, I took home TC after the adoption application had been approved earlier that week. Once I gave myself permission to look into getting a cat, the idea didn’t seem like such an impossibility. “Your mental health isn’t a luxury,” I reminded myself. “I’m capable of caring for a cat; being with a companion animal will get me out of own head.” I made lists, consulted with friends, and researched cat care.

I’m finding my own rhythm lately — texting friends to spend time together and being more intentional about conversations in community spaces. I’m taking care of myself even when it’s hard. Coming home to a fluffy orange companion helps with this process. I’m making room for joy.

imageImage description: Sleeping orange and white colored cat rests his head on the leg of person wearing grey shorts. Both sit on a blue patterned couch.

Songs of disconnection and reconnection

Dear calves, you move me place-to-place — steadying me as I feel like shaking, am shaking, as body is here — brain across town. You linger with me as I hop and tap. Learning to remain here — pieces of me sustaining oneself.

Body and brain in disconnect, we find ourselves here — in the in-between. I fade, you see. Blonde eyelashes to block out the noise of outside — inside. Too close and too far away at the same time — trying to prevent an imminent shutdown. Letting it happen.

I wrap my arms around my diaphragm, trying to remember how to breathe, then sing instead. Keeping time in 4/4, 8/8, 16ths with my boots — shoes touch earth. Remembering how to ground.

Fading and remaining here — feeling in-between the tangles — finding myself here again. In the fear. In the death grip of pen to paper, I describe what I think happens when I fade away — both too far and too close.

Self-acceptance is letting myself go — practicing in the in-between. Letting myself just be there. In the fading being. Fitting. Belonging. Remembering to breathe, slowly and deeply.

You are here in this place. I am here in this place, she reassured herself.

It’s a mild form of dissociation, she said. I don’t lose time, so much as fade away in fear — to lose control is terrifying. To let body and mind part from utter exhaustion, to accept the fading feels like a loss.

Not me, yet me entirely; in this fear, I remain drawn back in rhythm and scripted dialogues — of a future calmer. Then now, of going on and then stopping entirely — pausing because she has no other option but to wait with a body betrayed — as her knees shake and mind runs.

She is here. Waiting with her breath — voice beside her.

The only way out of this is acceptance. Going through and eventually arriving at a place between utter exhaustion and latent calm.

On unfamiliar spaces

“I don’t recognize this space. Perhaps if I did I could find my way through it.” These thoughts seem to be on loop lately, as I’ve reached the end of the semester with two Incompletes and a bewildering sleep deficit. It’s hard to advocate for yourself when you’re in autopilot, using the social scripts you’ve accumulated — when describing yourself as okay seems to cover a wider range of emotional states. It’s difficult to convey how overwhelmed you’ve felt, while maintaining others’ confidence in your ability to eventually complete tasks.

I’ve spent this fall semester wondering what happens to people like me — those of us who can push ourselves to manage, but ask for how long. I’m three classes, one preliminary exam, and an oral exam away from proposing my dissertation. And yet I sat in front of my PhD mentor talking through options, asking myself if I was capable of finishing my graduate program. Sleep eluded me this semester, even as I visited my old psychiatrist hoping to find a pharmaceutical remedy with minimal side effects. With the insomnia came my lingering self-doubts.

I text myself the statements I want to internalize. The kind words I need to hear when I’m frustrated with my own limitations and fearful I’m worsening the situation.

“You are doing what you can with the the resource that you have. Even though I feel stuck, I’ll find my way through.”

I’ve struggled to find time (or energy) to write this semester. I feel like I’ve been in triage mode this semester: creating new timelines when the previous ones were unmet and trying to ask for help without oversharing. I wanted to find a coherent narrative amongst my struggling through: This happened, so I did that, and that’s why things resolved. I’ve longed for a linearity that doesn’t come so easily.

Perhaps I’m creating a narrative that doesn’t exist yet.

And so she learned to imagine these things were possible, that she could manage, not in spite of, but because of.

What would you think of someone who’d been through all of that, who was where you are now?

She’d be pretty amazing.

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

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.

Intuitive responses and self-consciousness

in·tu·i·tive (adjective)

/inˈt(y)o͞oitiv/

  1. using or based on what one feels to be true even without conscious reasoning; instinctive.

Synonyms: instinctive, instinctual; innate, inborn, inherent, natural, congenital; unconscious, subconscious,right-brained, involuntary, visceral [1]

Sometimes I have trouble picking up on social nuances: I may overlook when someone wants to switch topics or needs to leave because I’m monologuing. I’ll run through mental flowcharts in my head when I’m figuring out whether a statement seems relevant (or for that matter socially appropriate — will they judge me if I say _____ ). Maybe I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing; maybe I have no idea what to say. I use scripted dialogue in unfamiliar social settings and then inevitably lapse into pop culture references — maybe I need footnotes.

My mom says as a kid when I was having trouble with a task, I said, “It’s hard for me,” rather than “I can’t do it.” Maybe that’s why I’ve developed workaround for dealing with social confusion. I make sense of social situations by looking for patterns, developing analogs, and creating rules. I impose structure on ambiguous scenarios; I ask for examples and further explanation when I can. Sometimes I’ll ask close friends or my therapist for a script when I’m at a loss for words.

I’ve deliberately learned to manage my anxiety levels. Maybe some kids naturally learn to calm themselves as stressful situations resolve, but growing up, I lived with uncertainties. My body knew I was anxious before my brain did. I could feel my anxieties in my shoulders, but couldn’t identity the accompanying emotional experience. I knew I worried a lot, but I wasn’t sure how to lessen the radio static.

There’s a self-consciousness that comes with knowing that some aspects of one’s being don’t come intuitively. I’ll wonder if I’m the only person who talks with herself in 2nd person to self-soothe: “This scary, but you’ll manage. You can do this because ____. You know that. I’m proud of you for doing ______.” I’ll realize I’ve created elaborate social rules in an attempt to understand how to behave in novel situations.

Maybe engaging in tasks that feel intuitive can be a form of self-care. My self-care consists of comforting rituals and routines (Aspergirl R&R, as Rudy Simone would say): My apartment sometimes serves as my hide cave. It’s quiet and dark; after a long day of managing anxieties and others’ expectations, I’ll crash in front of my computer to read blogs or watch Walking Dead. I take the bus to the local cafe a few days a week because the people there are kind and the pie is delicious. I’m learning to sleep when I’m tired and seek quiet when I desperately need it.

I’m asking myself, “What do I need at this moment?” Sometimes my responses include realizations that I need help, but have no idea how to ask for it. Help-seeking makes me feel vulnerable and burdensome. I feel strange talking myself through anxiety-provoking situations or taking frequent breaks when addressing stressful tasks. “But other people don’t have to do this!” I muse frustratedly.

Maybe they do — a friend reminded me, “You’re judging your insides based on other people’s outsides.” I’m listening to my needs and seeking feedback from trusted people. I wonder if  I’ll become kinder to myself in the process.

  1. Definition from Google (used “define: word” function) – https://www.google.com/#q=define:+intuitive

Resilience: Book review and further ponderings

resilient lady on book coverTherapist lady: “While you’ve got your notebook out, there’s a book I think you might find to be useful — Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by Southwick and Charney.”

Aspergirl: “You’re going to have to spell that.” *Writes memo to self in pocket-sized purple notebook (also filled with jottings and poems).*

Dear readers, as I’ve previously discussed in Backstories, I’ve experienced periods of emotional isolation and attempted to make sense of my own internal narrative. In the space between a couch and chair, I’ve talked through how I see the world because of events in my past and how my sometimes irrational, yet emotionally valid, thinking shapes my current perceptions of the world.

I’m slowly learning to set better boundaries with people who’ve hurt me in the past and remembering to spend time recharging after problematic social  interactions. As I often remind myself during these times, this isn’t easy, but I do believe that this is doable. You will get through this, slowly but surely (and then you will practice intentional self-care — read as marathon Community episodes with tea).

My therapist sometimes gives me homework assignments to do in the weeks between our sessions. The funny thing is that she’s relatively non-directive, so usually her suggestions come in the form of “might help if you…” or “I wonder if you could…” and I tend to at least try what she’s mentioned. Reading Southwick and Charney’s book about the neuroscience and social science research concerning resilience seemed like a worthwhile use of my time (1).

In the book, resilience is defined as “the ability to bounce back after encountering difficulty” (p. 6). Southwick and Charney cite Harvard psychologist George Vaillant who uses a vivid metaphor to describe resilient individuals: They are a “twig with a fresh, green living core. When twisted out of shape, such as a twig bends, but does not break; instead it springs back and continues growing.” I remember relating to that description because it resonated with me — I’ve been learning to listen to my backstory, while I appreciate how I’m endured both in spite of and because of it. I suppose I’m resilient.

I finished reading Resilience today. It’s the kind of book that I needed to read in small doses, sort of like one would practice creative writing or mindfulness meditation. I found it to be incredibly useful, partly because it helped me to develop some context for my narrative, and also because it informed my future self-care (so when I’m feeling _____, I could ____). In the book’s final chapter, after telling resilient people’s stories and explaining  the brain’s responses to painful events, Southwick and Charney list 10 resilience factors for individuals (p. 171). These factors are listed below and described in more detail in the preceding chapters:

Fostering optimism; facing fear; solidifying moral compass; practicing religion and spirituality; attracting and giving social support; imitating resilient role models; physical training; mental and emotional training; enhancing cognitive and emotional flexibility; and finding meaning, purpose, and growth

The illustration on the book’s cover reminds me of the young woman that Natalie Merchant describes in her song, “Wonder” — “With love, with patience, and with faith; she’ll make her way”  (2).

  1. Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney
  2. Natalie Merchant’s music video for “Wonder” (It’s basically a huge sing along, and I love it.): http://youtu.be/6zpYFAzhAZY

The Doctor and the warm blanket of pop culture

Young Amelia and DoctorAfter a particularly difficult weekend, I remember telling a friend how the period following emotionally fraught social gatherings felt like being hungover. I had no desire to move anywhere or see anyone, and the lights in my apartment needed to be dimmed. That day after, when I was feeling completely and utterly shitty, felt best spent hiding under a blanket, marathoning an intricately plotted television show. Mind you, this process only works for about a day — then the part of me who’s learned  self-care strategies beyond hiding in my cave-like hermitage pushes me to spend time around other human beings. I’ve learned by now that long term self-isolation tends to make me feel worse.

So that’s where I found myself yesterday: On my floor couch (two cushions adjacent to one another, facing my coffee table, reminiscent of a couch), watching Doctor Who Christmas specials and knitting a hat I’d started weeks ago. I’d survived the holidays through a consistent stream of CBT-based self-talk and promises to myself that the minute everyone left, there would be a ridiculous amount of television available.

For me, pop culture (e.g., indie films, folky singer-songwriters, and episodic television) feels like a warm blanket. I can respond to things on a television screen or song in ways I can’t in my everyday life — I’m allowed to yell at characters for making life choices that hurt others and have extended conversations about the minutiae of plotting. I talk at my screen as if the characters could hear me; that’s probably why I watch television alone when I’m in a terrible mood — I worry what people would think of me if they saw me angry with fictional characters.

Back to the warm blanket thing — I suppose it’s comforting to have a medium in which I can process strong emotions that I’m not entirely ready to face in the real world. I sympathetically cry with characters who have experienced hurts similar to my own and celebrate with characters learning to make healthier life choices. As I watched Doctor Who yesterday, I alternated between finding joy in characters’ emotional growth and weeping when things just didn’t seem fair. In the warm blanket of pop culture, I begin to acknowledge those emotional states I can’t seem to slow down enough to recognize in my everyday life.

I long for a consistent narrative as I attempt to understand the painful bits of life. Maybe television, films, and emotionally evocative music provide that for me. It’s an emotional mirror for those times when I can’t label what I’m feeling, but can see it in others. So dear readers, I’ll close with the Eleventh Doctor’s closing monologue from this year’s Christmas special:

“We all change. When you think about it, we’re all different people all through our lives, and that’s okay, that’s good, you gotta keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this. Not one day. I swear.”

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If you are afraid to write it, that's a good sign. I suppose you know you're writing the truth when you're terrified. [Yrsa Daley-Ward]

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