Ask an Aspergirl

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

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Telling stories 

Once upon a time, there was a girl named Kat. She has another name, often used in her little hamlet (read as: college town + low-income rural community – white flight suburb + lingering BU students) of Wacotown. But she often wished she had a nickname, since she was a little elementary school-aged girl. So her poet persona became Kat. A misspelling of a shortened form of her middle name. Pseudonymously hers.

In 2013, she started a blog, assuming she was mostly talking to herself. This was before she divorced her bio parents. Before she created her home. Before she left her grad program. Before she joined a PhD program. Before she fled All-but-dissertation completed. Before she spent 10 days in May at a psychiatric hospital. Before she met Dr H and A. 

After: she entered and exited several depressive episodes. Some acute. More severe. After she met a therapist whom she trusts with her life. After she saw and sees a psychiatrist who believes her and helps her. After she stopped writing. After joy returned. Then left then returned. 

Now: hoping to hope and wondering where she is going. Reminding herself, sometimes hope is not knowing or believing at all. Hope is wondering. Service terrier in her lap, on-call for her and wearing his camo vest. Sleeping on her lap.

Image description: Black and grey terrier laying on a lap. He is wearing a service dog vest with colorful buttons pinned on it.

This is me telling my story. 

Before. After. Now.

This is why. This is why. This is why. I write.

The song of the stars

The song of the stars is so much quieter than I remember.

In this state, I’m rarely listening for the sounds of nature. I know how to listen to silence.

How to not ask the stories she’s aren’t ready to tell.


So I often sit with stories untold. Waiting until these little girls turned women too soon — still children too — whose emotions overwhelm them.

It’s okay to be angry. It’s good to be angry. It makes sense you would be angry. I’m here. I’m listening. 

Often this dialogue is merely subtext — between sips of coffee, entering conversation — forgetting nuances — social niceties —


I talk. She listens. She talks. I listen. The unsaid screams until it’s all I can hear, but I cannot name what happened. Because I can’t know. Won’t know. Often know.

But this isn’t my story to tell. It’s hers. I fill the silence with validation. With repetitions of the obvious. Until feelings return to the face before me.


Two women sitting together in a cafe. Facing a world that often demands our smallness — no space at all; until we are nothing but our fears. Our anger. Our right to feel hurt. Be hurt. These are forgotten. 

Forced to forget the past, we lose these little girls who felt everything. That hurt until feelings stopped. A circuit broken by the violence of words.


When she begins to say the words aloud — I make space for lies, half-truths, and not yets. I know the story, but I don’t. It’s like a half-remembered melody barely heard. But I can feel the rhythm of music unfinished.


Suspecting abuse, I stay quiet — because I’m making space for her words. I begin to ask hows. Whys are best unknown. Differential diagnosing in my head. 


How bad? How long? What would even help? Do you want help? 

All of these questions echo in my mind as I listen for the harmony of silences. Nonexistent parents. No caregivers. A girl who raised herself. 

This is she. This is me. This is all of us. Making family where that word brought only pain. 


We are survivors of who knows what. Relentlessly braving what should have never been. And I am here until she is ready to join this chorus of shouting starlight.

Into skies of grey and black. Imagining the blue and purple of who we could be. Are together in the nighttime.

Summer’s Ending

Why we share our stories

This evening was the last womyn’s writing circle for the summer. I suppose tonight marked summer’s ending, since we’re taking a break for September (when everyone’s schedules get hectic), even though I also started classes and had my first day at the new job today. Womyn’s writing circle was wonderful, as it always is. We shared food, made conversation, and even had our usual free write time toward the end of the night.

Writing

So this evening, dear readers, I’ll share the poem I wrote tonight and maybe post again later this week about my adventures with the bus system following Olive’s demise.

Finding, repairing, and (reluctantly) replacing things

duct tape smallerI took my bike to the downtown repair place / coffee shop after noticing that my tire needed to be replaced. I’ve been ignoring the poor thing for a month, hoping it didn’t have a slow leak (as the bike guy had previously said it might after pumping up the tire again). I’ve had my purple bike since I started grad school. I feel like an unfit bike owner sometimes: The poor thing is trying to rust away after being left to fend for itself in numerous rainstorms. Its back fender was held together with purple duct tape after the washer previously holding it together kept falling off. The leather on its seat has cracked from sitting in the sun and is also covered in layers of black duct tape that sort of matches it.

The repair guy helped me get the purple duct tape off the fender and securely fastened the new washer to the web of metal frame outside my tire. I was sadly amused at the effort it took to peel off the tape, which stuck stubbornly to the metal, eventually needing to be cut away from that surface.

I don’t replace things easily. I don’t know if it’s my spendthrift grad student nature (that’s money that could be spent on tea) or my general dislike of change — probably a combination of these factors. I’m happier to use something that mostly works, rather than replace it with something that reminds me how much I miss its predecessor. Even things that are falling apart do so in a predictable manner. A family member passed on their toaster to me after noticing that mine refused to pop up on one side. I found myself asking them to demonstrate the superiority of their toaster before I could part with mine.  We had a toast-off between the models at breakfast that morning. Although the temperature markings had faded from their silvery toaster, it won.

I like secondhand things. When I first moved to my grad student apartment, I was glad I could furnish my apartment mostly with items I’d acquired from family members who’d parted with them (e.g., the white plastic table that sits in my kitchen) or found at local thrift shops. It was a cheap way to create a functional space. I still fondly use the garage sale television that a relative gave me prior to my leaving for grad school, which lacks AV ports since it was made prior to the commonplaceness of DVD players (yay for AV port adapters). I find it fascinating to think about the life of such items before I found them. It reminds me of glancing through the margins of a used book to see what the previous owner was thinking or what they’d found notable. The notes and underlining are a narrative of sorts. Maybe my furniture has stories as well.

Repairing things helps me to be conscious of the things that exist in my life — rather than immediately replacing something, I ask myself if it could be salvaged somehow. I feel a sense of accomplishment when find yet another use for duct tape to piece something back together or mend clothing  using what little sewing skills I have. In doing so, I accept responsibility for maintaining “my little corner of the world” (1).

1. “My Little Corner of the World” by Yo La Tengo — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1whpx9f9XA

There is life outside my apartment: Scheduling free time

Leslie Knopp finds time for self-care.

Leslie Knopp finds time for self-care.

I finally registered for fall classes a few days ago. I’ve had my advising plan (in a spreadsheet that my like-minded mentor emailed me no less) since May, so I was wondering why I waited until the end of July to complete the process. I told myself I was busy and would eventually get to it. Sometimes, I think I’m waiting for things to slow down to a manageable pace before I can complete any additional tasks, especially ones that involve scheduling for the future. Signing up for fall classes reminds me that sometimes grad school feels like I’m playing Tetris with myself as I allocate my time: one task moves and another quickly arrives to fill the space. The past few semesters, it’s helped to create a visual schedule that contains my weekly tasks written in brightly colored blocks. Somehow seeing everything I need to attend in front of me helps me feel better when school gets busy since I know where I need to be and when.

Waiting for things to slow down to a manageable pace rarely works for me. Things don’t just slow down on their own. I realized that I needed to schedule time to be around other people and do activities I enjoyed, especially as the semester grew busier. Scheduling self-care helps me to avoid isolating myself, which tends to be my default setting when I’m feeling overwhelmed with demands. I try to pick activities where I will be in contact with other people who share similar interests. If they asked about my week, I could respond honestly because these people were familiar points of contact. We had some context from our weekly conversations, but they were separate from my day-to-day life.

Finding free time is most important when I feel like I’ll never have enough time to get things done. When I’m convinced there’s never enough time, I tend to work until I’m exhausted and have trouble recognizing when I’m no longer making progress. I lose myself in research or writing. On those days, it helps to remind myself that there is in fact “life outside my apartment” (thanks Avenue Q). That life might be found in attending womyn’s writing circle or a dance aerobics class. In these places, I can focus on the present moment, the one where I’m responding to a writing prompt or following the instructor’s steps, rather than worrying about tasks later that evening. It’s difficult to worry and dance at the same time, for fear of falling over. I try to remember that taking a break is good; the work will still be there when I return.

I started making my fall schedule and although I’m still trying to wrap my mind around working part-time while attending classes, it’s better seeing things on paper. Does school feel real yet? Not yet, but it’s still a month away. It seems that every semester, I find myself wondering if this will be the one where everything falls apart. But then it doesn’t — I finish the project or make a B in the class and wonder how I’d convinced myself things were going to end so badly.  I know by now that I tend to anticipate negative outcomes. When I start to go down the rabbit hole of what ifs, I have a few options to diffuse the worry: I can ask myself how I would cope with the most feared outcome or I can distract myself (sometimes both). Spending time around people helps me get out of my own head either way.

Scheduling free time seems a bit counterintuitive, so far it’s been an effective strategy for me. It’s comforting to glance at the laminated visual schedules posted on my walls reminding me that I won’t be staring at my textbooks indefinitely. There are places I can go and people I can see — people who will earnestly ask me about my week and have stories of their own to share. So dear readers, how do you practice self-care in the midst of busyness?

Room to breathe

i-want-to-sit-in-one-forever

As I was sitting in one of the cafes I frequent, a friend asked how my summer was going so far. It’s been a busy few months with summer school, the part-time job, and figuring out my fall schedule (still not sure about that last item — getting closer).  We talked for a while, and she said it sounded like I finally had some room to breathe. I suppose I do since I’m just working  in the afternoons. It’s been nice to have the mornings to myself for slow breakfasts and Netflix. I’ve even had the chance to start watching Orange is the New Black, which is turning out to be a decent character dramedy (1, 2).

I thought it was interesting that my friend mentioned the importance of finding room to breathe. She saw me last month having lunch at the same cafe when I was in the middle of summer school and visibly stressed out. I have trouble hiding when I’m anxious about schoolwork, even more so when I’m worried that other people are noticing how scattered I’m feeling. There was a typed page of responses on my coffee table (now sitting in a plastic sleeve that I’m probably getting back out once the fall semester starts) that I could use when I started feeling overwhelmed. Once I get to that point, I can’t seem to stop the tape running in the back of my head exclaiming, “I’m never getting this done” or “There’s too much.” But I could deliberately remind myself, “There’s a lot and that’s scary, but I will read and do what I can” as I breathed deeply.

I’ve noticed that I forget to breathe when I’m feeling particularly anxious. I may not even know what I feeling, but I get the sense that I’m not really there or processing things as well. My pulse speeds up, and my breathing becomes shallow. I’ll need people to repeat their questions and give me time to ponder my responses. In those moments, I feel as if my brain is trying to wander away from me as I try to describe what is going through my head. If someone asks what I’m thinking then, I tend to respond with “I don’t know…” and hope they’ll wait for me to find the words. I usually do; it just takes longer for me when I feel like I’m slipping away. Sometimes the anxiety gets to me before I realize it.

During those times, it helps to focus on my breathing: I wrap my arm around my stomach and feel my diaphragm slowly rise and fall. When I have my mp3 player with me, sometimes I’ll listen to slow, familiar songs and sit for a few minutes while I breathe deeply. “Sophie’s Theme” by Richard Marvin is one of my favorites for such times (3). Other times, I’ll look to see if I have a small object in my bag to trace with my fingers and move between my hands — palm-sized stones work well since I can feel the grooves with my thumb and index fingers. Focusing on the novel, sensory experience of holding the stone helps me keep my thoughts in the present  moment — “What does the rock feel like between my fingers? How could I describe it?”

For me, finding room to breathe means noticing spaces in my life where I feel calm. Summer is usually a time for me to watch indie films or marathons of missed television shows and read for pleasure. Grad school summers tend to be busier with summer session and fall quickly approaching, but I’m trying to find a schedule that works for me during this time when things are a bit quieter.

  1. “Orange Is The New Black”: Taking Privilege to Task — http://www.msmagazine.com/blog/2013/07/17/orange-is-the-new-black-taking-privilege-to-task/
  2. New Netflix Show “Orange is the New Black” is a Complex Look at Sex, Gender, and Prison — http://bitchmagazine.org/post/new-netflix-show-orange-is-the-new-black-is-a-complex-look-at-sex-gender-and-prison
  3. “Sophie’s Theme” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2SI9UeQ-tNk

The banality of talking and why it saved me

From Alison Bechdel's graphic novel, Are you my mother

From Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Are you my mother

The banality of talking and why it saved me

Wonderful piece about therapy and why it helps: Here’s an excerpt —

“You fear the judgment, you fear the backlash, you fear that maybe somewhere in your internal muck, that you are lying, and that things really aren’t that bad and if you just sucked it up and do what your working class folks taught you to do, then things would be okay. Talking was reserved for the things that would make people comfortable and happy, not for the things that were not understandable.”

Also from the comments section:

Oh crap. Now I’m all weepy. I remember my 4th or 5th therapy appointment after some terrible things happened, I said to my therapist, “But I’m just telling you the  same thing over again! What’s the point?”

And she said, “You’re going to tell this story over and over again. It’s going to have a different beginning and a different end each time depending on where you think this begins and how it will end. Different sights, smells and sounds will make their way into this story. You’re going to tell this story until you can look at it from a distance and say, ‘That caused me great pain and it made me feel sad and afraid for a long time. It still makes me feel sad and afraid, but now I know how this story goes and I know how to control it. I’ve worked out the details and now it’s just something that happened.’ Other stories are going to come up, and you’re going to tell them over and over again, too, but each time, it’s going to become easier to get to that point were you look at them from a distance.”

And that, I think, is the point of therapy. You keep massaging the details of everything until you can step away from what has been going on and find a little way to be present not in what happened, but in what is happening now.

I love this essay by Audre Lourde because it is true. I’m in a womyn’s writing circle, and being there, I’m consistently reminded of how healing it can be to tell one’s story. The pain already happened, but it helps to verbalize it, to put words to a seemingly indescribable experience.

UBUNTU!

I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood. That the speaking profits me, beyond any other effect.

I was forced to look upon myself and my living with a harsh and urgent clarity that has left me still shaken but much stronger. Some of what I experienced during that time has helped elucidate for me much of what I feel concerning the transformation of silence into language and action.

In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions became strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences. Of what had I ever been afraid? To question or to speak as I…

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Change is [f-cking] hard, pt II

Annie realizes that change is saddening.

Annie realizes that change is saddening (and probably maddening for that matter).

So dear readers, we’re taking a break from our discussion with words because I’ve encountered a series of opportunities to cope with change today [or just had a ridiculously hard day, apart from my seeing the women (or womyn, if you prefer — feminist spelling) in my writing circle]:

  • My psychiatrist moved her practice outside the community mental health clinic where I was receiving services, so I had to find a new pdoc (1) in my college town. Not an easy task when you’re still in graduate school, although thankfully I had the day off anyway, just didn’t want to be spending it gathering psych paperwork and doing an intake interview again. Intake interviews are easily the most annoying part of mental health care, other than long wait-times to see a pdoc, because it requires you to rehash your entire history with someone you barely know, let alone trust. Not fun. Thankfully, my therapist did call me last week to let me know this change in treatment providers was coming soon (“So I know how you react badly to change, so just to let you know…”] — probably best thing she could have done at that point. I just really hate change, on a visceral level.
  • My lovely old car, Olive, got towed while I was studying at a local cafe since the nearby restaurant was frustrated that students tend to borrow their parking lot when the cafe parking lot is full. So by now, you’ve probably already guessed that my lizard brain was freaking the f-ck out when it heard they were starting to tow nearby vehicles. I saw my car get attached to the tow truck, but it was already too late. She was gone. Goodbye Olive, until tomorrow at least, when my friend who knows how such things worsen my anxiety spectrum condition takes me to rescue Olive from the tow lot. Poor thing. Post-towing, I found myself texting friends for rides and then chattering with nearby people I barely knew. Usually, the first sign that my anxiety is worsening is that I start talking excessively and rapidly, so I was just glad that the womyn around me were so kind. They nodded and smiled, in the process allowing me to deal the best I could in that moment. One of them even gave me a ride home (thank you awesome lady)!

I was really glad that I attended writers’ circle tonight, even though it was just for a while since I had to return to my laptop to finish a psych report for work. One of the ladies mentioned how our group was like the island of misfit toys — we’re all a bit quirky, but no longer weird in the moments we share together, which I found vaguely comforting.

I’m learning to cope with change, but the process is f-cking hard. I’ve tried to make light of how much trouble I have dealing with such things, but it’s still pretty overwhelming at times, especially since change seems to come all at once. One thing in the universe falls, and I expect everything else to go down with it — probably some blend of fortune-telling and catastrophizing (2), I suppose, but that’s okay since that’s how I feel as I sit in front of my laptop with a cookie baked in my microwave and a leftover, rewarmed mug of tea.

Life is okay even when things are hard, and it seems to be spinning at a rate beyond my comprehension.  Sometimes change is merely additional therapy fodder for the week; at least that’s what I’ve been continually reminding myself lately: “You will be okay; this is a way for you to practice the CBT techniques you’ve learned and talk with therapist lady about how things progressed.”

As Prior Walter says during the closing scene of  Angels in America, “The earth only spins forward,” so I suppose all we can do is learn to cope in the meantime.

  1. Term oftentimes used on http://www.crazymeds.us/pmwiki/pmwiki.php when referring to the person who prescribes your psychiatric medication, whether they are a nurse practitioner, primary care physician, or a psychiatrist. It’s basically shorthand — Crazy Meds, whose tagline is “finding treatment options that suck less,” includes a great meds database and also a forum for people taking psych meds.
  2. http://psychcentral.com/lib/2009/15-common-cognitive-distortions/
  3. http://www.diclib.com/therapy%20fodder/show/en/amslang/T/553/180/0/4/10211  [Therapy fodder is in fact a thing.]

Mutts mirror us.

Priscilla is an all around great dog who doesn't like to be bullied, is submissive around people and can be a little head strong.

“Pricilla is an all around great dog who doesn’t like to be bullied, is submissive around people, and can be a little head strong.” [Est. DOB: 3/08/2010; Arrival Date: 3/08/2012 — She’s about 3 years old. I walked with this sweet whippet/terrier mix today.]

My therapist has only given me three pieces of advice during the entire time that I’ve met with her (mostly just listens and asks thought-provoking questions):

  1. Consult with your physician about taking anxiety medication.
  2. Meet with the kindly lady chaplain whom my therapist  knows, so I would have an additional social-emotional support during the week.
  3. Volunteer at the local animal shelter since she noticed I seemed much calmer when discussing my experiences interacting with dogs.

Over the last year or so, I’ve completed Items 1 and 2 on the above list, but was still trying to find time to address Item 3: Volunteer at the local animal shelter. I finally made the drive out to the country today to find the animal shelter and loved the experience of socializing and walking with a dog. I found myself making casual conversation with Priscilla as we walked, saying things such as “Oh you like those trees, huh?” As I walked around the green space with her, I was reminded of something my therapist said a while ago, “Dogs mirror us [our emotional states] — that’s why they’re comforting to people who experience anxiety.” She reminded me that if I ever get a dog, to find one that’s mellow, not nervous, probably because people tend to pick dogs that share their temperaments (e.g., hard-core runners who adopt greyhounds) .

The universe has a strange sense of humor. When one of the shelter managers handed me Priscilla’s leash, he told me, “She doesn’t like to get too close to other dogs, but she loves people.” Priscilla is such a sweet dog; like most dogs, she loves to have someone scratch her head, stroke her back, and rub her belly. I noticed how fearful she was of other dogs when we reached the edge of her comfort zone. I’ve felt a similar fear response myself: She froze, and her tail pointed straight behind her. Poor dear. In those moments, I said calming things and found myself identifying with her anxiety. Mostly we just walked around the trees, as I jabbered on and she sniffed interesting things, and as we avoided the other dogs. When it was time for me to return Priscilla to her kennel, she appeared increasingly fearful, the closer she got to the other dogs. Every few yards, she paused for a minute and indicated that she wished to be petted. Then I guided her back toward the kennels.

Apparently I can visit the shelter multiple days a week to volunteer, so I will probably see Priscilla and dogs like her in the coming weeks and months. It was strange for me to think about how Priscilla felt just as uncomfortable around other dogs as I feel around people sometimes. In a way, the experience of being with her through that fear of others was vaguely comforting because I felt understood. Priscilla got it somehow, which was wonderful since it’s so hard to explain clinically significant levels of anxiety to those who’ve never experienced them before.

Having an anxiety spectrum condition is like being in a club that you never really asked to join, but you deeply respect and hear the stories of its fellow members anyway.

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