Ask an Aspergirl

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

Tag: that which cannot be named

Polaroids sent from the past

polaroid by ed__209

polaroid of polaroid by ed__209 (via Flickr: http://goo.gl/OsKH32, Creative Commons – Attribution, Noncommercial)

As I made the phone call to my childhood pastor, I had a series of questions handwritten in the notebook sitting beside me on the plastic kitchen table:

How did our family look to you? What roles did mom and dad play — especially in context of what you knew? To what extent (if any) did you suspect familial discord — why or why not? What were your perceptions of me growing up — of our family, of mom?

I had emailed pastor the previous week, asking if he’d be willing to have a conversation about my experiences in his congregation while we attended there. I told my therapist a few weeks prior that I was dealing with familial grief as I tried to make sense of my childhood narrative. I wondered if anyone outside my family noticed that we were troubled. I’ve long since acknowledged that my parents did what they could to take care of us, but at the same time there’s a vague sadness, sometimes frustration, with that past.

I’m writing because I’ve wondered about some of my experiences back then; since we moved, I kept up with few people from that time in my life. Growing up, my family was rather insular, so since undergrad, I’ve been trying to make sense of my childhood and early adolescence.

When we began the conversation, I acknowledged my fears about making that phone call — how I didn’t want him to think I was asking him to betray my parents’ confidence, if they’d shared anything with him. I just wondered about his impressions of our family. He answered some of my questions, and I discussed my life now — finishing undergrad and beginning grad school, how I promised myself I’d see a therapist when I started college (how it helped), and connecting with like-minded women who validated my story.

I felt surprisingly safe self-disclosing and took some notes. His recollections of me were relatively consistent with my own memories of being a “quiet, shy, self-conscious” girl (who I recognize was also pretty anxious). He said I was bright and intuitive even then, and that he was proud of me. I felt affirmed by this process of further developing my internal narrative.

After the phone call ended, I messaged a friend of mine who knew about the situation — the one who encouraged me, saying, “This is so brave and cool of you. I feel like I need to tell you that you astound me with your courage on a regular basis.” I remember sitting on my floor couch reading her message before making the call — I reminded myself that I was brave in my attempts to fill in some of my childhood recollections.

Memory isn’t static. It’s dynamic. Ultimately we are the ones shaping our own narratives as we ponder details consistent with our stories and neglect those that don’t seem to fit. I’m learning to honor the emotional truth of my story, especially how it still reverberates with me now.

I feel as if I’m making a timeline of Polaroids sent from the past, but I’m waiting for the blurriness of the images to become a scene that makes sense. I long for a coherent narrative and maybe in the process, I’m arranging these images into a recognizable whole. My friend says, “It’s like you’re uncovering your story.” Maybe I’m creating it, too.

Emotionally vulnerable sticky notes

"Live Well, Love Much, Laugh Often, and Have Fun" by Kate Ter Haar (http://www.flickr.com/photos/katerha/6245064592/), Creative Commons - Attribution

“Live Well, Love Much, Laugh Often, and Have Fun” by Kate Ter Haar (http://www.flickr.com/photos/katerha/6245064592/), Creative Commons license – Attribution

“I  wish I could leave all of my emotional vulnerabilities on sticky notes.” – Passing comment I made to a friend before handing her a sticky note thanking her for providing a safe place to process through my anxieties.

She has provided me endless cups of Earl Grey tea, a listening ear, and a dog to pet when I’m feeling distant — who never seems overwhelmed when I share bits of myself, the things about which I fear others’ judgement. “We like having you around,” she reminds me when I come to the cafe for lunch. I wonder if she knows how long it takes for me to feel comfortable in a space.

I leave myself post-its filled with reminders that everything is going to be okay, but I rarely share them because that would show people how much I worry and the effort it takes to cope with that ongoing inner dialogue (“What’s the worst thing that could happen? THAT. Yes, that’s a pretty scary thought, but how would you deal with that. I’d _____. And that would work, right? I suppose so… So you’ll be okay? Yeah, maybe.” And the day goes on.)

I just finished reading through Allie Brosh’s new book, adapted from her webcomic, Hyperbole and a Half, with some additional stories she added. There’s a scene in her chapter on her lengthy, arduous bouts of depression when she’s trying to figure out how to tell her closest friends that she doesn’t want to live anymore. She wonders if maybe she could just yell out how much she’s struggling and then just run away, so as she puts it, doesn’t “have to be there for the fallout,” but she does realize how “confusing and alarming” doing so would be (1). So how do you tell people you’re struggling, that sometimes the anxiety gets so bad that you feel like you’re slipping away. Other times, you can see the wave of worries coming for you, but can’t seem to make them stop.

My coping skills are considerably better than they used to be, but being emotionally vulnerable is still unbelievably difficult for me. So, as I mentioned in my first paragraph, sometimes I leave emotionally vulnerable sticky notes. I may not be able to verbalize what’s going on, but I can write it down and tell you about it. Sometimes doing so feels like engaging in a police informant negotiation in which one slides demands across the table. They look at them and acknowledge the statement; then the conversation continues. I find myself trying to establish a context for these sorts of conversations, but for those who know little about my backstory, this is challenging. I begin by writing a note and then trying to share it with the person across from me. Most of the time, they listen surprisingly well.

It’s funny; every time I’m open with someone about my social confusion or anxiety, even the troubled family background, I’m still surprised when people don’t go running for the hills. I picture the Killer Rabbit clip from Monty Python and I’m incredibly grateful, although a bit confused about why they’re still listening (2). No one has run yet, when I’ve revealed these parts of myself that were painful for me to experience and in a way this is reassuring (people are in fact good and kind), but it’s also befuddling.

These days when those sorts of conversations go well, in the moments following, I’ll find myself journaling about the experience. Maybe in this action, I remind myself that there are safe people who want to listen to my stories. These people welcome my studying in their cafes and petting their dogs as they pack up the days’ cookies and sweep the crumbs from the floor. In these places, I feel secure and loved.

  1. “Depression Part Two,” Hyperbole and a Half,  webcomic written and illustrated by Allie Brosh — http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2013/05/depression-part-two.html
  2. Killer Rabbit scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nvs5pqf-DMA

Backstories

i-need-about-1200-feet-or-something

Once upon a time, there was a quiet girl who grew up in apartments with people too distracted by their own problems to notice her, to ask how she was feeling, and so she struggled to describe her own emotional life, instead using words like “okay” and “busy.” [She felt self-conscious writing these statements, even self-indulgent, for fear people thought she was navel-gazing.]  More than anything, she wanted someone else to sit beside her and listen, to remind her that eventually things would be better. She could develop a life of her own, apart from her family — the people who noticed her slumped shoulders (“stop hunching”), but somehow missed the anxieties she felt, but could not identify. She learned to “fade into the wallpaper” or escape into young adult fiction when things became too painful to process.

Meanwhile, she journaled throughout her childhood and adolescence, reminding herself that she could see a therapist after she left for college (she mainly just wanted to speak her narrative aloud, maybe make some sense of it). And so she did, several of them — her first therapist in undergrad, joined a few therapy groups, and started seeing her current therapist last fall after life became particularly confusing. She worried about a lot of things, but in retrospect, this was understandable since things growing up were so unpredictable. She was terrified of change and felt lonely.

She felt overwhelmingly different from those around her. She thought she was odd and strange, as if the experiences she’d gone through growing up had left her irreparably broken. She wondered if she’d feel as disconnected and socially awkward as she did if her childhood was utterly normal. She felt ashamed of her backstory, sharing it only with those who came from similar circumstances or knew those who did.

I remember reading the forward to Rudy Simone’s Aspergirls and reaching the section where Liane Holliday says “Aspergirl” sounds like a superhero. She muses, “I don’t think anyone could read this book and not come to the conclusion that women who manage to come through the gauntlet of AS [Asperger syndrome] with any measure of success are both super and heroes” (p. 11). And dear readers, as some of you may have realized where I’m going with this metaphor by now, superheroes have origin stories — some might call them “backstories.”  These narratives explain who these characters are and how they came to be this way.

I suspect a lot of us have these backstories, but may be reluctant to share them for fear of what might happen afterward. What if people react badly? What if they still don’t understand me, even though I’ve shared this vulnerable part of myself? What if they use this information I’ve shared to hurt me in the future? Does telling my story to another person make things seem more real? These questions concern “right place, right time, right person” considerations I’ve had to make as I’ve considered issues of disclosure.

I believe stories are powerful, especially the ones we’re afraid to tell for fear of how others might react. Maybe in these moments, we ask ourselves, “What’s the worst thing that could happen and how could I handle that?” Disclosure of any sort is an ongoing conversation with oneself and others: How much do I share? How much do I feel comfortable sharing, remembering that there are no right answers, only ones that feel right for you in the moment.

I’m finding that in sharing my own story, I’m gradually shedding the shame that surrounds my backstory. But like anything else, this is a process, one in which I’m constantly reminding myself: “Shoulds [what I should do…], oughts [ought to do..], and musts [must do…]” have no place in my decision-making. The people that quiet girl wished were sitting beside her back then are listening now.

Lizard brain and other metaphors

keyboard-lizard

Conversation I had in therapy this week:

Aspergirl:  [something about feeling as if my brain hasn’t evolved enough to help me cope with stressors — poor lizard brain — extended metaphor, but also self-depreciation cloaked in intellectualization]

Therapist lady: So I’m going to let that self-depreciating statement disguised as intellectualization [poor lizard brain] go…

Aspergirl: But thank you for calling me on that.

Therapist lady: That’s what I’m here for… [session continues]

And thus begins a conversation about the limits and reasons for my metaphor usage: whether I’m describing waves of anxiety or feeling as if my fully humanoid brain is lizard-like because I’m having trouble calming myself. I suppose in a way, I’m othering myself  when I pity my lizard brain, but at the same time, that phrase seems to help me be compassionate toward myself when I’m experiencing ridiculously heightened levels of anxiety.

I don’t blame myself for feeling that way; I just recognize that in that particular moment, I seemingly can’t use my higher reasoning skills to lessen my anxiety. Instead, I resort to talking to myself in soothing tones and reminding myself that it’s all going to be okay (“so stop freaking the f-ck out, poor lizard brain”). I wonder if my therapist was just surprised to hear me use the lizard analogy in such casual terms. That’s how I often deal with the ways that GAD creeps into my life and never really fades away.  I seem to live with a nice moderate level of anxiety on a good day, the kind I can lessen with meds and CBT tech.

I think about my Aspergirl traits in a similar manner. At some point, I lost track of how many times the campus librarians have had to remind me to lower my volume — I actually bequeathed them a card system one day, so we could have a mutually-understood system for conveying that message (green = good; yellow = getting a bit loud; orange = way too loud –> seriously lady, you’re in a library — there is no red because that color is scary).

I joke about how when they handed out the volume controls, I didn’t get one, but that doesn’t mean such situations aren’t terribly frustrating. Maybe that’s where making light of things can fail us, when we forget the emotions behind the joking, but I don’t think I have. I say I’m directionally challenged — lack an internal compass — so I’m grateful to the person who invented GPS (fear of being lost: where the GAD and actual possibility of getting lost easily meet).

I like metaphors. Maybe it’s the bibliophile in me. Probably the one that’s helped me the most over the past year or so is the wave metaphor for anxiety. I’ve written entire poems about how oftentimes I can see the next wave of anxiety coming and hope to have a friend sitting nearby me on the beach as it laps our feet. I was reminded of Stevie Smith’s poem, “Not Waving but Drowning,” when my therapist mentioned something about how I may be trying to signal my significant distress as my speech becomes increasingly rapid as my anxiety rises (1).

That resonated with me — she’s always very careful with the words she uses, to the point where I’ve heard the phrase, “Now I could be totally wrong about this, but I have an idea about that,” countless numbers of times, but I appreciate that. Words are incredibly powerful things, and we both recognize that — usually meeting in the middle as the session continues.

So dear readers, now I’m reminded of J.K. Rowling’s passage about the power we attribute to words, so I’ll quote it here:

“Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” ~ Albus Dumbledore (p. 298, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone)

Naming things helps me feel a sense of control in an often chaotic universe. That’s probably why I’ve always enjoyed words. I was that kid in elementary school who was completely and utterly fascinated with gigantic words such as antidisestablishmentarianism (one of the longest words in the English language). How about you, dear readers, what metaphors do you find yourself commonly using for your mental states or relationships with others?

  1. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/guide/177868#poem

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.

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