How to be a Kettle and Talk to Onions
Women with Asperger’s and autism slip under the radar again and again and again. We are so bloody good at “pretending to be normal” that we get away with it even when we shouldn’t and should instead be living a far less anxious existence.
If there were ever any doubt that I am not normal, today I squashed that flat.
I broke something precious for the first time in ages just to try to break a cycle and find some peace.
Usually I am an eternal sock-puller-upperer. And I am a professional protector. I feel it my duty to not drag people into what I am going through. This doesn’t mean I lie – if you ask me I’ll be honest, but I will do my best to protect people from the raw state that life has often left me in, and pick words that will cause the least damage. It’s not entirely successful but the times I have battled and won far outweigh the times I’ve caved. Feeling I need to punch my way out of a box is common for me but I pull up my socks, take a deep breath, strike the Warrior Pose, and think seriously about what’s worth making a fuss about and what’s not. My guess is that I have about a ninety percent success rate of busting through a day unscathed, and, importantly, without letting any scathing show. Yesterday, for example, I shouted, ‘I’m not finding this even remotely funny!’ at two onions when no one else was about, and spared the more sensitive creatures of the world my troubles. I know about protecting people, about putting people first, about internalising and keeping the peace. I mostly feel practical, productive and caring, and in tune with the world around me.
Apart from a couple of minor differences such as not driving and not participating in school-gate chat, I’m a fairly typical woman and mother. I often wonder if we made a mistake and I’m neuro-typical after all.
But then come the days when I remember the world is not my oyster, I am not free to make long term plans like everyone else or stick a pin in a map and see where I end up, and live a life being thrilled by surprise and adventure. I am at the mercy of Bad Sock Days and no amount of shouting at onions will help me. I take my adventures on a small scale, short-term whim: in the kitchen, in the garden, in my online book purchases. When I step away from my limitations I am taking enormous risks and the sense of failure gets to beat any sense of “at least you tried” far, far, far too many times to make many risks really worthwhile. Besides I don’t get the same thrill that other people describe. Life is adrenalin-fuelled every single day anyway – I don’t need to force it. Quiet days are my adventure.
So I’m mainly happy that I’ve found some way of combining control, happiness and being the best person I can be for my family whilst retaining a great deal more peace than I think many autistics achieve.
I can’t remember the last time I cried and deliberately broke something – I can go for long periods of time being very restrained, and for an autistic person I believe I do the internal talking to stuff very well indeed (I read somewhere that autistics are really bad at this. Please tell me if you think it’s not so). I pride myself on my ability to hold it all together and keep on keeping on for long stretches of time. Since I was very young I’ve almost pulled off conventional and I’ve been working hard at it ever since. I’m so very nearly a natural now. I occasionally see a flicker of “What was that?!” flash across someone’s face; only for a moment though and then I’m back to getting away with it. I adjust and readjust to fit others’ needs and am on alert for what those needs might be all the time. I’m often seen as less weird than “normal” people!
I seem to have a knack for putting my own needs aside for days. Other people’s happiness gives me happiness and I strive to recreate that satisfaction when I can. One of the stereotypes of autistic people is an obsession with a special interest to the detriment of all else and a tendency to bore others with that obsession. It doesn’t present in me quite like that. I do have a project-minded brain and I can obsess about all sorts of things but I mainly obsess about people and home-life, and spend my time organising myself around those. I enjoy listening to other people too and hearing about their lives. I am a quiet observer. My decisions about what to do every day are based on what is needed of me and I readjust this regularly as things change. It’s not something I have to think about too much and I’ve always had good instincts for my children’s needs. As parents, our struggles and rewards are the same as anyone else’s and we are pretty conventional and do pretty conventional things with our kids.
But today I felt so trapped and frustrated I didn’t know what to do and I knew there was none of that keeping on stuff in reserve. I felt life was picking on me, preventing me from having fun, I felt I was unable to appreciate a day with my family because something more powerful than my wishes, my plans and my organising – something even more powerful than night turning to day was controlling me. You can make it Monday, you can make it my husband’s day off but I can’t have it. There may as well be no Monday.
It looks, from the outside; I’m sure, like a child angry at not getting her own way. It feels more like a lone battle and a desperate grasping to regain control of myself. There’s an intense frustration in having no control. The inability to put one’s finger on exactly what is to blame is, I suppose, infuriating but there’s no real anger – just an immense physical fighting instinct whilst simultaneously longing for peace. Wanting to bat away a mosquito, perhaps, only there is nothing there but the knowledge that something is after me. So what the hell do I bat at? I have to feel I’m doing something in my defence. The loneliness and helplessness and a sense that this is a journey I am taking on my own and I don’t want to go on has me running in circles trying to find a place of calm away from the turmoil but it hounds me. I want to tell someone, I want to talk about it but I’m an adult, I’m a mother and moreover there is no reference point for what I’m feeling. I’ve never heard anyone talk about this situation before. It’s all “why?”s and no answers. Add to this a history of never talking about this to anyone ever in my life and I’m left with mental energy and physical energy formed from an urge to escape rather than an enthusiasm for anything. This useless energy and the need for everything to stop leaves me with an urge to throw something. Throwing seems to give me a sense of hurling the unwelcome, unproductive energy away from me.
I didn’t want anything from anyone, I wasn’t cross with anyone so I chose things. Unfortunately today I chose my iPad to throw because of the sound it would make as it hit the radiator.
Now I’ve had a little time to think about it, I think I know why it happened today. I think I was waiting until it was safe: until there was another adult in the house, another adult to take my place. I could go and throw something alone and away from everyone. I think this morning’s meltdown has been building for some time and there are probably allsorts of triggers. I don’t really know. I never do. It’s all guesswork. All I know is I couldn’t do anything until it was over. We had made plans, but I had to step out of them. I had to admit I couldn’t be involved. I tried to put my feelings and reasons into words but I couldn’t. I paced as I waited for everyone to leave the house, I distracted myself by grabbing clothes from the wardrobe and piling them onto the bed in some kind of pretence of a clearout. The constant physical movement and using up of energy was useful if nothing else.
When everyone had gone and I felt the silence, I walked around the empty house, tears flowing so fast and hard that my face hurt and I was temporarily blinded. I had to stop and sit down to cope with the physical exhaustion heavy crying brings. As I sat waiting until I could move again, I noticed a noise like a whistling, stovetop kettle just as it begins its crescendo. I always found that sad murmur just before the whistle disturbing – to me it sounds like a wounded animal. I realised the noise was coming from my throat. I missed my family, I wanted to be with them, I didn’t want days like this, and I didn’t want to subject them to my turmoil either. What I really wanted was to belt out the emotional pain I felt but instead I had trapped it inside my throat.
When I see caged animals running themselves at the bars of their prison, chewing on themselves, repeating a head movement rhythmically or pacing in a small space, I recognise the pattern of a living thing that has had to contain one or more instincts for too long and has been forced to live a life they weren’t completely designed for. I recognise the need for something physical – even pain to create a release. I recognise the powerlessness, the feeling of being trapped, of not being able to run away. Of no other choice.
Some captive animals may perform better than others. Believing they have all their needs met we can be fooled into thinking their lives are good enough. But we are always forcing them to be something for us, and therefore we are not being entirely fair to them.
But what about animals born in captivity – those who know no different? Or maybe they do…? How much do they sense or feel that life is somehow not as it should be?
I think autistic people are like animals born in captivity. We are always forcing ourselves to be something for other people and therefore we are not being entirely fair to ourselves. And unwittingly other people are not being entirely fair to us. We are trapped in systems where society cannot be rearranged for us. Instead we have to rearrange ourselves constantly for society.
It’s impossible to describe to a non-autistic person why we don’t do things we want to do. Why we turn down fun, why we let people down. Sometimes the most simple yet pleasant experiences seem impossible, and how on earth can we explain that?!
Taking it right down to the most basic human needs might help perhaps. Sometimes it’s even impossible to eat: to carry out the everyday function of fetching food, lifting a fork to one’s mouth and then swallowing – let alone digesting. Similarly, it can be impossible to sleep sometimes. It feels as if everything has to stop while some other mystery process has to take place, perhaps.
Sometimes things are cancelled, sometimes offers are simply never taken up, sometimes things do happen but they are awful and I don’t cope. I can’t decide whether it is a day to talk myself into or out of something. I juggle with different reasons regularly and struggle to decide which reason it is each time.
There are four main reasons I can think of:
The Anxious Excitement Reason. I am looking forward to something so much that my cortisol goes bonkers and I experience the same symptoms as fear. Even when I know this is the reason I become anxious about my anxiety and can’t remember why I wanted to do the thing in the first place. Pulling out would mean an end to my symptoms and I would feel safe. This is usually the only time when I should consider pushing on through and taking a gamble with my anxiety but it’s a fine line and there are times when staying home really is best for my health. It’s a hard one to explain to people and is the one that causes the most upset. For weeks or months (even years) afterwards, it’s often distressing to try to deal with my decision. People simply can’t understand.
The Social Exhaustion Reason. I have already pushed myself through things that have drained me and overloaded me, and however much I want to do this thing (or not) I am exhausted and don’t have the energy to make it happen. It’s just not possible and I know I will have no words left in me. I may even be mute for a while.
The Uncertainty Reason. Some thing or things about the event will be so unfamiliar or out of my control that I can’t cope with all the unknowns and I can’t foresee how I will react to situations for which I haven’t planned. If I don’t know exactly how or when I will be getting home I panic about being trapped, for instance. I also fear my own performance and know I will probably not cope. Again I become anxious about my anxiety and everything becomes about trying to feel well.
The Meltdown Reason. For me this is a rare and rather frightening one. It comes like lightning, shocking me and terrifying me when it arrives out-of-the-blue. Rather like pre-storm heaviness, I can feel something building but I’m not aware of the extent of my agitation until something has gone wrong. And it can go wrong quite quickly. Because my concerns are so foreign to the rest of the world, I am not able to voice or communicate them, and I am left at the mercy of something extreme. Usually a fairly eloquent person, I find words in short supply while a physical and mental pressure bears down on me. For the sake of other people I try to find words, but they are all wrong and I hear myself say things I’m not thinking. They are just spare words. Spit words. Missiles. Somewhere deep within me there is a tiny guiding force telling me to get away from other people and give up on communication for while. This reason is complicated. It is an entity all in itself. Another character perhaps. It sits on the chest of who I am and who I want to be and what I want to do, and says, ‘No. No. You can’t move. You can’t do this, that or any other thing.’ The energy is different. It’s less anxiety and more frustration. My guess is that it comes after anxiety and is some kind of fallout I’ve stored until I’ve stored too much. It is perhaps a useful and healthy release to give my body a break from all the internalising I have to do. I know very little about what is happening. All I know is I can’t do anything until it passes. Fortunately it can pass quite quickly if I act. I hate it and I fight it. It always wins though. I have to give up my right to decide to push on through and give up my right to choice and simply let go.
The way I make choices, therefore, cannot be the same as for most other people. Sometimes I simply can’t make choices. I am not allowed to. The world as it is – as it was designed by other humans – is not mine in the same way it is for other people. I have to repeatedly stop myself from making any kind of long-term plans because I know I am not consistent.
So today I am missing something I was looking forward to, something I would have enjoyed. Returning to my captive animal analogy: some days a banana through the bars of the cage may be the most delicious most-welcome thing and I desire it terribly – so yes, the “It will be nice and you would enjoy it” argument is true to a point, but a day chilling out in the rainforest is even more necessary, and when all is said and done, I must bow to the instincts of the caged animal who has missed the world she was taken from and is not looking for thrills and enjoyable experiences all the time but for a peace that can only be found from following one’s instincts.
The times I’ve written about bad days, bad experiences, the bad stuff about having Asperger’s far outnumber the times I’ve written about the good days, the brilliant days, the mediocre days. And yet the good and mediocre days are the ones that really fill up my life. They are about getting on with stuff and are often really rather boring and normal to read about. I tot up minor struggles with noises, lighting, smells, busy shops, too many people talking at once, and live with anxiety daily if not hourly, but I accept that this is my life, this is my normal and I internalise and find ways around things. I cope, and my life is mostly boring and normal – and for that I am grateful. But I think it important to share with other autistics – and anyone else good enough to read this – some of the difficulties we experience, and try to put those crashing days into words so that people like me don’t keep on feeling we have no reference points for our lives and experiences. There’s stuff going on in our heads that no one understands anywhere near well enough yet. We don’t even understand it. It’s time understanding moved forward a bit faster, and what better way than reading about raw feelings and actual experience as it happens rather than only ever picking up a textbook written by experts who are not autistic, or a humorous novel based on mocking autism stereotypes?