Ask an Aspergirl

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

Tag: self-care

Managing is an illusory concept.

Sitting in church, I wrote a poem about what it’s felt like lately living with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). My refrain remains that GAD can be exhausting, but for me, it’s a manageable mental health condition characterized by chronic — sometimes functionally impairing — worry. It is an anxiety disorder I experience as an excess of thoughts that refuse to leave.

Of course, today would be the waves passage. I’ve lived in this metaphor for such a long time. At times, it is utterly exhausting, but to verbalize it is liberating. Yes, this is a thing. In all of the pain and shame of living in the fear and worry loops.

When you fear the waves will overwhelm and pull you under. These waves don’t just lap at my feet, not anymore. I cannot tell if these anxieties have lessened or worsened — maybe both. And so I live in this coping, managing, becoming. Surprisingly well.

For the past month, I’ve worked on preliminary exams — the take-home, 5 essays in one kind. I submitted the entire packet of essays via email to my PhD advisor, along with a note describing its contents. July was an utterly exhausting month, but if I’m completely honest with myself, the GAD has been unrelenting for some time. Like many people diagnosed with GAD, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t worried about something.

I’ve grown familiar with heightened anxieties as stressors increase. When finals week approaches or I have a major project due, I feel completely scattered and lost. My thoughts feel as if they will overwhelm me. My brain goes to the place where my social filter goes to die. Perhaps because whatever self-regulatory skills I’ve learned over the years have been forgotten. Instead I focus on coping with the present moment, so I can escape the inevitable worry loops that arise.

I imagine managing as an act that will somehow make the GAD easier to ignore. Really though, I’m learning to get through these days. I make task lists and daily schedules during particularly stressful times in the semester. I talk to myself as if I’m a preschooler, rather than a PhD student in her mid-20s. In these moments, I try to remember that I’m struggling and whatever I need to do to return to a steadier emotional state is okay. This is managing.

Lingering questions written in memo books

I was sitting at a conference this weekend, making a list of questions to ask my therapist when we met the following Thursday: Will I always feel this exhausted as I muddle through my anxieties? Everything I’ve read about GAD says the worries get worse under stressful circumstances, but the condition itself never goes away entirely. How do I manage knowing that lingering radio static may just be part of my day-to-day existence? Why am I so drawn to the narratives of autistic women? I remember you mentioning that these anxieties were probably making it more difficult for me to engage socially, but what if this is just part of me. What if this is me?

“The symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder tend to be chronic and wax and wane across the lifespan, fluctuating between syndromal and subsyndromal forms of the disorder. Rates of full remission are very low.” (1)

The previous Thursday, I met with the chaplain fellow I’ve seen since the semester started. I hadn’t slept well the night before and felt terribly scattered. I just started talking and couldn’t seem to stop. I was already having difficulty managing my anxieties and on top of that, felt I was moving so much slower that usual. I wasn’t processing things well and couldn’t seem to quell the waves of anxieties that hit once I stop moving.

If I don’t stop, I can engage in autopilot. If I completely avoid my feelings by throwing myself into a task, I can see the worries, but not experience them entirely. In the in between spaces, when I’m talking with a safe person, everything seems to hit all at once. I realize how terrified I am of the uncompleted assignments and open-ended projects. My compartmentalization — the only thinking a week-and-a-half in advance — seems to fail me.

There are a few friends I can text when my worries overwhelm me — when the static seems to be growing louder and the volume knob is stuck. I’m trying to be honest with myself when I feel this badly: I acknowledge the worry rather than try to fight against it. I can’t will it away. I attempt to talk myself through it, using the cognitive-behavioral strategies I’ve learned in therapy, and feel my breathing as I wrap my arms around my diaphragm (looks like I’m hugging myself). But sometimes the worries linger anyway; my friend texts back, reminding me that I’ve managed before and will this time too.

Sometimes when I feel utterly terrible, I feel like I’m lying to myself when I insist that I’ll eventually be okay. In that moment, “all I could see was myself” (reminded of the conversation Paul has with Sophie). But I also remember, “This is coming from me. Because this is coming from me, I can make it stop.” Maybe not all at once, but by caring for myself in the meantime and acknowledging I need help, I can slow the worries down. I manage the best I can most days and remember that will be enough. I’m enough.

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.

Intuitive responses and self-consciousness

in·tu·i·tive (adjective)


  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) –

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.):

It’s more like the zombie apocalypse than an oncoming asteroid

Since I began college, December finals has been a difficult time for me — primarily because I find myself confronting feelings of impending doom. I become convinced that this will be the semester that everything falls apart: when I can’t finish my research papers for lack of information or time and when I fail my exams miserably (even though I studied the semester’s material quite thoroughly). The hardest part is knowing that these feelings are most likely irrational in nature, while at the same time acknowledging their existence — the emotional reality of the situation.

I remember talking with my therapist a few semesters ago about this sense of imminent failure — that my graduate school career was mere weeks from falling apart — and her referring to this experience as “the gorilla looming over you.” We ended up creating a list of responses I could make to my irrational thoughts about completing projects and help-seeking. Last week I found myself placing the “responding to the gorilla” list nearby my laptop as I worked on a research proposal due the following day.

In conversations about finals in graduate school, which tend to be project-based rather than exam-based, I developed an analogy that made sense to me: “It’s [finals] more like the zombie apocalypse than an oncoming asteroid.” Finals in graduate school are based on a series of steps that lead to a final product, and in my case, involve a considerable amount of self-doubt and emotional turmoil. Managing these thoughts and feelings oftentimes feels like fighting off zombies: You take care of one and others seem to keep coming. They attack you on the way down and you find yourself exhausted after confronting them. An oncoming asteroid (one big test) would almost be easier — you study; you take the test; there’s a sense of finality to the experience. The zombies keep on coming…

As I type this analogy, I’m also reminded of the song and accompanying attacking creatures analogy from the musical [title of show], “Die Vampire Die!” (1)

“Listen closely, a vampire is any person or thought or feeling
that stands between you and your creative self expression,
but they can assume many seductive forms. Here’s a few of them!”

So during this season of final projects and papers, I’m honoring the emotional reality of my anxieties connected to finishing projects and papers, while also recognizing their inherently self-defeating nature. I’ll remind myself, “There’s not enough time for me to do everything, and I may not have everything read or done, but that doesn’t mean the rest of the class is going to go badly.” I’ll manage the metaphorical zombies and vampires in the meantime.

  1. Die Vampire Die! — from the musical [title of show]:

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.


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.

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?

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