Ask an Aspergirl

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

Tag: routine and ritual

A weekly sharing of stories and dinner

Study group watching Christmas special I remember being really nervous the first week I went to dinner group. A friend and I were invited for pizza and game night with a couple from church who hosts these weekly gatherings. I packed my Mary Poppins bag: a large blue purse containing my Tangle (a fidget toy), poetry journal, and a book (that night: Cynthia Kim’s  I Think I Might Be Autistic). I usually bring at least one book to social gatherings — just in case. Sometimes what I’m reading becomes a point of conversation, but other times, it’s a way to recharge.

We arrived that evening to meet a couple in their 30s, a sociology PhD student and an engineer. They seemed nice enough; a mutual friend, who’s also a community pastor, had introduced us via email. At this point in the story, it’s probably important for me to note that I mostly attend church for the people. It’s a familiar point of contact I’ve had for most of my life. Their small children let me play with them, which was a welcome distraction from the unfamiliar (although friendly) setting.

As we ate pizza, we were invited to share our backstories. In a way, this sort of free form conversation felt like the intake interviews I’ve sat in before: “So what brought you here today?” And so I began telling my story, more deliberately than I do when I’m feeling overwhelmed at a coffeehouse and start talking at the nearest person. I talked about growing up in a relatively isolated environment, having trouble trusting people, and recently realizing I’m Autistic. These were the sorts of details I’d ordinarily allude to in conversation, but instead I got to say everything all at once. This is who I am; I feel safe enough to share that with you.

I’ve since attended dinner group once a week, and I’ve been grateful for this intentional community. It’s a loose knit group of grad students, seminarians, undergrads, and working people. Thursday nights are my pause button, a time when I’m closer to sharing how I’m actually feeling. I could be frustrated and uncertain, utterly exhausted, yet not be alone in that space. I can sink into the comfort of the couple’s couch with a cup of  Roobois tea and talk through the confusion of the week.

We close with a time when people can review the week’s events and ask the group for prayer. Sociology PhD student says that rituals are important for communities like ours. We share and then reflect. I join in a familiar religious practice I don’t entirely understand, perhaps to honor our myriad of experiences (or the echoes of belief I still can hear). I’ve said before that I mostly attend church for the people. Maybe dinner group is an extension of this practice, a way of sharing in others’ internal narratives using a common language.

As the semester begins next week, I’m grateful for a group that reminds me, “The longest, coldest, darkest nights can be the warmest and brightest.”

Relatable narratives at work

Being Autistic working at a Developmental Disabilities Clinic is a strangely meta- experience. I see children and adolescents in the waiting room whose bodies move like mine.  Their parents sit beside them, waiting be seen by the student therapists who work in our office space.

Just watch. We’ll be okay. I wish I could tell you that, parent waiting outside in that little room with chairs and magazines. But you’re not like my child — or even teenager — they might say.

Yes, you’re partially right. I have circuitous verbal language, my own way of being in the world — lengthy task lists, but I’ve visited the land where your kid lives. I can pass as quirky, but not typical — until I freeze and appear utterly confused and incapable. I stand there watching. Knowing I should ask for help. Piecing together my words into a somewhat coherent whole.

Last week was a series of new experiences — first week at my new graduate assistantship (GA) as well as the start of the fall semester. I’m only taking two classes, but I’m doing remedial work for one of my statistics classes (another story for another day — if told at all).  I thrive in the midst of routine, perhaps because the overarching structure makes sense to me. If I miss cues, the routine provides a externalized reminders of the tasks ahead.

My cubicle is often covered in a series of sticky noted task lists. I tend to get lost when projects involve more than 2-3 steps and a larger supply list. I’m still learning my way around the office, but at least I know  where the stapler is and how the copier works. I wondered how I’d handle transitioning into this clerical position. I remember being excited to find a graduate assistantship in my field, but not ready to leave the familiarity of the library.

I’ve felt self-conscious stimming at work; I tap my fingers together. I keep wondering if my on-site supervisor notices all of the stereotypically autistic things I do. I have trouble processing verbal instructions, so I write directions for most projects I’m given. I’ve become accustomed to bringing my Tangle to work, worn as a bracelet twisted around my wrist or stowed in my purse. I stick my music player in my pocket when I find myself in worry loops and need distraction. I’m essentially providing my own accommodations at work since I lack a paper diagnosis and have accumulated coping skills.

As part of my GA, I do office work for my PhD advisor one morning per week. We rarely talk about how I identify as Autistic, but sometime ago we had a conversation about labels, which she seems to view as a means of obtaining supports. When I was first hired, she mentioned helping me create a weekly schedule for work, so I could develop a routine. She seems to understand my need for structure and clearly explained tasks.

When I need help in either of these work settings, I’ve learned to state the problem and describe how my supervisor could help. I have trouble generalizing, so I realized I either need lots of examples or plenty of time to ask questions. In a work setting, I worry this trait makes me appear overly dependent on others. I return with questions or clarifications until I can make sense of the task. I feel silly sometimes, but I’m practicing help-seeking, rather than sitting with my confusion.

Working at these sites I’m reminded of the interconnected nature of support services for developmental disabilities. When I searched for adult autism services I looked outside my college town because I knew most of the local service coordinators and community people. These are the families of autistic youth and school professionals with whom I interact. I know I can’t keep these worlds completely separate, but I needed space for my lived experience as an Autistic adult.

I wanted to avoid appearing as if I was appropriating the experience of the local autism community. Maybe I still wonder if this identity is mine. I remain ‘out’ as Autistic with my close friends and grounding people, but at work I’m just seemingly quirky.

Cultivating safe spaces

Community hugIt’s been a little over a year since the blog began, or rather I began the blog. I’ve moved from jotting thoughts (and sometimes prayers) in well-hidden notebooks — thrown behind bookstacks or on high shelves — to sharing my poetry at open mikes. It has been quite the year.

When I considered the possibility I could be an Aspergirl — wondering what that meant, then gradually embracing that part of myself: I met fellow Aspergirl bloggers through reading and commenting in their online spaces. I’m feeling increasingly connected to other people whose stories are relatable.

When I began to read these bits of my narrative aloud — honoring my backstory and meeting like-minded women:  I became a regular at the neighborhood coffeehouse (barista friend says I’m  “earl grey latte girl”) and the local cafe with the good listening proprietor. I’m gradually unveiling my narrative in these spaces — “This is me and what I’m experiencing.”  I found a community of women writers through a flyer posted at that coffeehouse.

This has been a year of cultivating safe spaces and becoming (not finding) myself. I’m practicing self-disclosure and measured vulnerability: “right place, right time, right person” considerations in mind. This has been a year of coming back to myself as I’ve been learning to remain present, even as I’m waiting for waves of anxiety to pass — I’m learning to sit with them.

A little over a year ago, my chaplain friend suggested I start a blog. “Why don’t you call it, Ask an Aspergirl,” she said. I was a bit skeptical at first: “So I’m telling strangers on the internet about the worrisome and confusing things I’m experiencing? That seems weird.” And yet, I remembered telling my therapist, the previous semester, how I had few social supports, so she introduced me to chaplain friend and suggested I volunteer at the animal shelter. I’d been experimenting with social connections — maybe I could muddle through my thoughts via blogging — “It’s like curated journaling,” I thought.

I was sitting at the local cafe, waiting for a friend joining me for lunch, and remarked to the proprietor, “I have people now; when did this happen?” It was a wonderful feeling, but also unfamiliar. I know how to linger at a well-lit desk with a book and share thoughts with someone in line. It’s harder to maintain relationships. I forget people want me around until they say those exact words.

So dear readers, I’m reminded of a statement the cafe proprietor made as I think about my finding community this year: “You’d be surprised that most people you meet are lovely, if you give them a chance.” I’m glad we could have this conversation together.

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.”

Waiting for the world to slow down

It has been a long week. Jess gets that.

It has been a long week. Jess gets that.

As Prior Walter reminds us, “The world only spins forwards,” and sometimes it does so at an alarmingly fast rate. This past week has felt like a wave of homework, research projects, and work that will wash me away with it. I emailed one of my professors this week and reminded her that stress tends to exacerbate the symptoms of GAD (the persistent worry, inability to move on to the next project for fear of what will happen with the current one — then worrying so much about the future one you can’t get the current one done). We talked in person later that week and over a series of messages. I think she got it, if for a little while. My PhD mentor been really good about encouraging me to take things one project at a time, even if that means it will take me longer to get assignments to her desk. I think she’s beginning to realize how often I feel like I’m falling apart this time of year — when everything seems to be due, and I find myself wanting to watch a lot of escapist television. Thank goodness Mad Men is back! I also emailed her an article about the intersection between mental health programs and people with mental health conditions in those programs (1). Maybe that helped.

I find in these moments how much Rudy Simone’s statement that ritual and routine are an Aspergirl’s R&R (rest and relaxation in the usual nomenclature) resonates with me. Weeks like this, I spend hours at my favorite cafes in town writing papers and finishing up research assignments, all the while convincing myself it’s going to be okay, eventually anyway. I’m also in the process of looking for a summer job right now, so it just seems like a lot to balance. I like to think I’m ruining woman stereotypes everywhere because of my inability to multitask. I can do one task really well, if left alone to ponder and organize it before attempting to start that project, but add another in the mix, and I already start to feel a bit scattered. Going familiar places and doing familiar things helps me feel like I’m piecing myself back together.

I find myself scheduling my life more when my anxiety is running especially high. Even if that just means that Friday nights are “homework and everyone leaves me alone, so I can finally do all those household chores” night, as I catch up on Grey’s Anatomy between the laundry and the dishes. I love going to the Farmer’s Market on Saturday. The produce is nice, but I think more than anything else, I like making conversation with the familiar vendors there — the bread lady, the gardening co-op guy, the hippies who share cups of herbal tea, and the people I know from town whom I randomly see while I’m wandering. Saturday’s are also usually animal shelter days. My therapist has reminded me plenty of times not to take a dog home with me who’s just as anxious as I am, but that doesn’t mean I can’t comfort the frightened ones while I’m there. I love to see previously nervous dogs look completely calm after we’ve walked around the shelter trails for a while. I calm down as I talk with those dogs.

So dear readers, it’s the beginning of another weekend where my plans are always more extensive than time could possibly allow, and I’m realizing that I’ll probably never accomplish all the projects I set out to do when Friday arrived, but that’s okay. I’m learning to live with that meanwhile.

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