Feeling Down

Feeling Down

Depression is a fact of life for many Aspies. I find I go in cycles. I can be fine for months and then things will build up and overwhelm me again. Occasionally the depression is deep enough that I contemplate just killing myself and putting an end to it.

On a couple of occasions over the past 10 years I have attempted to commit suicide by taking a handful (literally a hand full of course: I’m an Aspie) of pills but they just made me vomit and that was their only effect. I wasn’t looking for help or attention; I made sure I was alone and wouldn’t be missed quickly. And until I wrote about it here only my wife knew.

Depression is emphatically not a shutdown although I find it contributes to them. I can often carry on my day-to-day life despite feeling depressed: it just tends to make me quieter and less inclined to interact with people. At work I will restrict my interactions to the minimum necessary to get the job done. This means I can go through whole weeks without conversing with any of my colleagues except when it’s work-related.

I have never suffered from loneliness. I am very comfortable in my own company; in fact I often prefer to be on my own because being around other people can be so stress-inducing. I think sometimes that stress of interacting with other people helps bring me down. It is the mental exhaustion which results from having to maintain such a high level of focus. Just so that I can hold a conversation in a social setting. Is it worth the effort? I sometimes wonder.

Right now I am feeling down but not (yet) depressed. I have worked 8 hours in my main job followed by 6 very busy hours in my second job as a barman so I am physically tired. Yet I am sitting here past 3am, writing this, because I have to deal with my feelings and writing helps.

My incipient depression might be put off for a while or it might hit me tomorrow. I don’t know. I know that the main cause this time is a strained relationship with somebody I’m close to. I just can’t seem to connect at the moment. They think I don’t care because I don’t show or express feelings much and have been unintentionally hurtful towards me. They are also not aware how much they are hurting me when they tell me I don’t care.

I feel like I should be used to it after experiencing it for so much of my life but I can’t help still feeling hurt when I get called cold or unfeeling.

Hurt Inside

Hurt Inside

How do you answer when somebody asks how you are?

Me, I just say “I’m grand” and leave it at that. It’s not that I never feel fine, but even when I’m feeling down I don’t like anybody to know it. I’ve always been a private person, keeping things to myself and it’s hard to break the habits of a lifetime. Of course it’s become habit because I find it so difficult to talk about my feelings.

It would be nice occasionally to have somebody to listen to me while I struggle to describe how I’m feeling but I’ve found that two things get in the way. Firstly I have to trust the person completely before I’m able to open up at all. Secondly they have to have the patience to let me take my time explaining.

I’ve found it can be easier to just write things down: I started writing an occasional journal in my mid-teens but kept it private. I did find it a help to put down how I felt in writing because I didn’t get the mental block nearly as much as when I try to talk about it. I have a ritual that has evolved over the years: I write longhand in a particular notebook by candlelight. I have always found the act of writing about my feelings to be ultimately cathartic but it is emotionally tiring at the time. It is as if I have taken some of the pain out of myself and put it away in my notebook. It still exists but it’s outside me. As this might suggest, depression or hurt is my main trigger for writing. I hardly ever write when I’m up because there’s no need to.

I can’t always find the time to be alone and write about how I feel, and when that happens the hurt remains inside me. The danger is that I have no other release for it until I shut down or suffer a meltdown. I find a shutdown is exhausting, not to mention the disruptive effect it has on my day-to-day life and relationships. So I think perhaps I ought to try to find somebody to talk to instead. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? If only it were that easy to form the kind of relationship where I can trust somebody to the necessary degree. Although I know plenty of people well enough to no longer feel uneasy in their company, I have never learned how to move the relationship to a closer level, so I never feel that I can impose on somebody by asking them to do something that personal for me.

So that’s why I expect I’ll just carry on saying “I’m fine” and keeping the hurt locked away inside until I find time to take it out and preserve it in my notebook like a pressed flower.

A Positive Conversation

A Positive Conversation

I had a short chat with an acquaintance last night about Autistic Spectrum Disorder. It was unprompted on my part: he was unaware as he started that I have Aspergers Syndrome. The conversation began when we got talking about what I do for a living and he brought up hacking and the case of Gary McKinnon. It turned out that he was well-informed about ASD to the extent that he knew it was a spectrum disorder and that while some people with ASD can be highly successful in their fields the autistic savant is not remotely as common as popularly imagined.

The conversation reassured me that there are NT people out there who know that ASD is much more than Rain Man or other stereotypes. It gave me some hope that the message is getting across and the condition is becoming more widely known. I remind myself that one swallow does not make a summer, but I still have a more positive feeling as a result of the conversation.

Music and Mood

Music and Mood

I’ve always loved listening to music: I find it very soothing which is important as it helps me deal with the stresses that lead to shutdown or meltdown. My tastes run right through the spectrum from heavy and fast to light and slow and include such styles as heavy metal, blues, classical, folk and even some chart pop. In short, I’ll listen to almost anything as long as it has a structure to its rhythm and melody and it fits my current mood.

When I’m in certain frames of mind I get the urge to listen to a particular track or album. For instance if I’m agitated and I want to relax I might want to listen to a slower piece such as Echoes by Pink Floyd. Now this particular track is over 20 minutes long and once I start listening to it I can’t be interrupted or there’s a risk of a meltdown. I put my headphones on, cue the track, make sure I’m sitting or lying comfortably and press play. I tune out my surroundings and immerse myself in the music, experiencing the sensations it evokes. These are primarily physical sensations with any emotional sensations being a result of these rather than directly from the music.

Listening to Echoes the primary sensation is of floating with a wave-like ebb and flow that varies in intensity with the music. I also get visual impressions: shapes, colours, textures, movement. The high-pitched pings that start the track are bright white pulses in the middle of my field of vision that expand and fade like ripples from a raindrop falling on a still pool of water. Sudden loud instrumental sounds that burst in on the underlying melody are broad, bright oblique lines like a cross between lightning and bold strokes with a paintbrush. Other parts of the track call up pictures akin to waves breaking on a shore. It’s difficult to put the sensations into words accurately because of their complexity.

I never pay much conscious attention to the lyrics. I (mostly) hear the words but don’t think about the meaning at all: I’m too busy feeling the music and would have to disconnect to some degree to think about the semantic content. This would interfere with my enjoyment. In effect I treat any vocals as just another instrument. In this I differ significantly from my neurotypical [NT] wife. She will always listen to the words and this will have an emotional effect on her that I just don’t experience.

The way I lose myself in music has a similar effect to stimming. I find both to be calming and comforting: the fact that they occupy my conscious mind with rhythmic physical sensations is a definite parallel. This is how I can relax to a thrash metal album like Sound of White Noise by Anthrax just as well as I can to a “mellow” song like Albatross by Fleetwood Mac. I know from experience that this confuses a lot of NT folks who can have very different reactions to different kinds of music.

Letters Have Colour

Letters Have Colour

I realised some years ago that I associate colours with particular letters. I don’t know how common this is amongst people with Aspergers or whether it is even related. Some colour-letter associations are stronger for me than others:

  • A is always bright red. The following letters then graduate through orange to yellow.
  • M and letters around it are blue.
  • O, P and Q are purple.
  • S and T are green. R doesn’t have a strong association.
  • U is brown.
  • V through Z start mid-grey and get darker.

If I see one of those letters in a different colour it feels wrong and makes me uncomfortable. Strangely, I don’t have any similar associations for numbers or words. I wonder whether other Aspies experience anything similar?

How I Got Into Programming

How I Got Into Programming

My dad got us our first computer when I was 11; it was a BBC Model B+128 with a 40/80 track switchable double-sided 5.25″ disk drive. And it came with a manual. Printed. On paper! Not just how to connect it up and switch it on but full details of all the OS commands and the built-in BBC BASIC programming language. So I started using it, learning to program in BASIC, slowly at first but with increasing speed and confidence. I subscribed to Acorn User magazine and slavishly typed in the program listings. I was hooked!

BBC BASIC was an great language in an great environment for learning to program. It introduced me to control structures: conditions and loops. It had named functions and procedures (rather than the usual GOSUB in most microcomputer BASICs). It had floating point as well as integers. It had strings and a set of built-in functions for manipulating them. It could access the machine’s memory directly. It even had a built-in assembler. It gave me such a feeling of control over the hardware that I felt I could do anything with it.

When the 32-bit ARM2 Acorn Archimedes was released in 1987 I got one (one of the first batch of A305 machines with Arthur 0.2 OS), later upgraded to 1 MB RAM and Arthur 1.2; then RISC OS 2.0. I thought it was a marvellous machine, so fast and capable. I later upgraded to an ARM3-based A540 with 8 MB RAM and two SCSI hard disks for a total of about 160 MB storage. Huge for its time, especially for a home computer. I continued programming in BBC BASIC (version V included with the “Arc”) which included additional control structures (WHILE…ENDWHILE, multi-line IF…THEN…ELSE…ENDIF, CASE…OF…WHEN…OTHERWISE…ENDCASE), RETURN parameters in procedures, libraries (via LIBRARY, INSTALL or OVERLAY) and had a built-in full-screen editor, the ARM BASIC Editor or ARMBE. I reckon I probably spent the majority of my time in front of the machine in that editor, developing programs.

A number of times I would spend upwards of 12 hours at a stretch at the keyboard and some of the programs ran into thousands of lines. I wrote interpreters for scripting languages, bitmapped font editors, a parser for chemical formulae, a graphical plot of magnetic fields in a plane intersected by wires carrying current, and many others. I even wrote a kind of hypertext application inspired by the depiction of the “Guide” in the TV adaptation of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

It was on this A540 that I first encountered C. I got a copy of Acorn C and a book to teach me the basics. Once I grasped the concept of main() being the entry point for the program I was well away. The nature of BBC BASIC meant I already understood structured programming: conditions, loops, functions, and was used to thinking in those terms. It wasn’t long before I got hold of a copy of Software Tools in Pascal and coded the programs presented therein in C. I wrote a utility to implement IO pipelines on top of RISC OS’s pipefs (OS-implemented named pipes) so I could reproduce unix-style filters without needing intermediate files. I got a copy of Expert C Programming: deep C secrets and found it very informative and practical: it taught me a lot and by this stage I was proficient enough to program C professionally. I got my first job programming C on 16-bit DOS and Windows 3.1 despite having limited experience of those platforms: I was given the job on the strength of my performance on a C programming test at the interview.

I had had some limited exposure to a fairly new language called C++ that introduced something called classes. I didn’t really get a lot of exposure to it until the mid-90’s and it took a little bit of perseverance to get used to object-orientation. There were no templates in those days, at least not in the version of Microsoft C++ used where I worked, and exceptions were avoided because of concerns about performance. I really got the hang of it after taking a course in OO design which gave me the mental toolkit for thinking about classes naturally. The language support from Microsoft’s compilers improved over time and it was really with the move to 32-bit Windows and new development for that platform that C++ became my new programming language of choice. I got copies of and read Effective C++ and Exceptional C++ to learn about best practices.

It’s now some 15 years down the line and I consider myself a skilled C++ developer. (More to the point, so does my employer.) Along the way I’ve had exposure to several other programming languages, some of which I use regularly such as Python, sh, javascript, perl and awk while others I’ve used as and when the job has demanded it such as Java, C#, SQL, Visual Basic and several application-specific embedded scripting languages. I’ve dabbled with other languages such as Haskell, Lisp, Ruby, Pascal, Fortran and even Cobol at times just out of interest but never becoming fluent enough to use them as a first choice day to day.

So what started out as “just” a hobby is still, over 25 years later, my main hobby. The only difference is that I get paid to do it. I still feel the same joy and excitement when I produce code that does something neat. I get exactly the same satisfaction from my latest code to, say, ingest video and audio from an XDCAM disk as I did from my first BASIC program that just printed “hello, world” to the screen. What will I be doing in 10 or 20 years’ time? I don’t know, but I’m pretty sure I’ll still be programming and loving it.

What is Normal?

What is Normal?

Why is it that most people find it hard to accept when somebody looks or acts different?

I’ve been on the receiving end of prejudice, bullying and verbal abuse because I don’t “fit in”. I’m a person with Aspergers. I don’t think in quite the same way as a neurotypical (NT) person and I often don’t react in the way they’d expect. I don’t show much emotion. Some people seem to assume that because of this I don’t have feelings which isn’t true: I have feelings, I just don’t show feelings. So they keep pushing my buttons looking for a reaction. Do they not realise the hurt they can cause? I can’t understand their motivation. I tend to assume it’s accidental and they don’t realise what they’re doing because I literally can’t imagine that anybody would deliberately intend to upset someone.

I mentioned in a previous post that I can’t handle confrontation. I’ve been mocked because of this; called a wimp and so on. Now I’m not a small guy. I’m 5′ 11″ and 210 lbs, but I’m not saying that I could handle myself if I was attacked: I’ve got slow reactions and my coordination is poor. The one time I got attacked I was on the floor before I even knew what was happening. But how can people find fault with being peaceful? I’ve not got an aggressive nature at all: I’m quite passive. I remember when I played rugby the coach started pushing me about in the changing room before a match. I wondered why he was doing that, what had I done to deserve it? It was only later that somebody explained that he was trying to fire me up. But it didn’t work at all. I just stood there and took it, trying to figure out what was going on.

My appearance makes me stand out as well. I have long hair, usually tied back in a pony tail. I like to wear a hat. It’s usually a flat cap but I also have a black leather bush hat, a selection of Panamas and a Stetson (black). I don’t like to wear anything with writing or logos on it and I much prefer black. I prefer natural materials such as cotton and leather because they feel more comfortable. I will select an item of clothing based on how it feels ahead of how it looks. If it wasn’t for the fact that so much of my wardrobe is black I’d probably stand out even more: I really don’t care what I look like, it’s about utility. I get attached to certain items of clothing and wear them until they literally fall apart. I can’t even remember the last time I bought a new shirt, say, or a pair of jeans. Speaking of jeans, as a child I would never wear them. I found the material too stiff and rough, so I would always wear trousers. Naturally this made me stand out as all my contemporaries went around in jeans. They now produce jeans in softer kinds of denim so I invariably wear a pair of jeans (black) because they’re harder-wearing and don’t show marks as much (I tend to pick up marks on my clothes because I’m a little clumsy).

Behaviour and appearance: factors that make me stand out from the crowd. I know I sometimes attract attention because of this. I don’t try to; if anything I try to stay out on the fringes of things. Because along with the attention tends to come judgement and remarks or worse. I’ve got a theory that it’s a tribal mindset people have: the world is grouped into us and them. If you’re not one of us then you’re less than us. If you don’t look like us or act like us it means there’s something wrong with you. So we’ll persecute you. We’ll hound you until you give up and crawl away. This seems to be “normal” human nature. And it can lead to incidents like this murder of a woman for being “different”. At the time I occasionally heard people put the blame on her: “it wouldn’t have happened if she’d been normal”.

It’s absolutely pervasive. People band together based on what they have in common, whether it’s supporting a sports team, residing in a certain region, sharing a set of beliefs. They seem to unconsciously view anybody different, anybody outside their group, as a threat. I don’t fit in with any group. I’m me. Just me. Keep to myself, don’t bother anybody. So leave me out of your playground games: I’m not playing. I have no emotional need to feel part of a group. I do have an emotional need to be left to live my life in my own way. Respect that or just leave me the hell alone.

Appreciating Poetry

Appreciating Poetry

I read Autism vs. Poetry by Peter Seebach recently and it got me thinking about my own appreciation of some poetry. I say some because there is a whole host of material I find impenetrable because the meanings are too far removed from my direct interpretation of the words.

I had some limited exposure to poetry in English lessons at school. Some, such as Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, present me with few problems. This poem in particular lends itself to a literal reading; it conjures up vivid images but is purely descriptive. However I don’t have an emotional reaction to the words beyond delight at the skilful use of language, the economy with which so much is represented with so few words and the regularity of the syllabic structure. Mine is an appreciation of its technical merits.

I think this is why some poetry misses the mark entirely with me. Take Philip Larkin’s Home is so Sad. “Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,/ Shaped to the comfort of the last to go/ As if to win them back. […]”. This appears to be ascribing emotion and intentional actions to the inanimate. “But a home’s just a pile of bricks and mortar,” I protest. “It doesn’t make sense.” So although the words fit together into coherent sentences I face a gulf in understanding between the literal interpretation and the opaque metaphor and my only reaction is puzzlement.

I have seen people react emotionally to poetry and other art (music, painting, sculpture). I can’t understand the mechanism through which this happens. It appears that there is no conscious analysis of the work; it’s something like a “gut reaction”: instinctive. I don’t experience that at all. For example I visited the Louvre once and saw the Mona Lisa. I’ll describe it to you. It’s about 2 feet wide by 3 tall. It’s mounted on a wall behind a very substantial-looking glass screen and additionally there is a barrier that prevents you getting too close. The image is dark-looking, mostly greens, yellows and browns, and shows a dark-haired woman’s head and upper body. I just remember wondering what all the fuss was about! No emotional reaction to it, you see, and I don’t find something that’s just a picture of a woman to be very interesting.

Getting Away From It All

Getting Away From It All

Every now and again I need a break from things when I’m feeling under pressure and nearing meltdown. My preference is to go for a walk by myself in the countryside: I’m lucky in that regard because I grew up in the midst of farmland and now live in an area that, while not rural, has accessible natural areas.

Moor Green Lakes in the Blackwater valley is one such area. It’s a nature reserve alongside the Blackwater river and I can walk along the riverside and relax watching fish, ducks, swans and, in season, the aerobatic mayflies and dragonflies. While it does attract other people, particularly dog-walkers, there are not too many of them and there are enough bends in the path that I can keep them out of sight and forget that there is anybody else around.

A swan on the Blackwater river

I took these pictures there last summer. It was a bright, sunny day but the path was shaded by trees and it was very comfortable. I lost all track of time and just kept on walking, not thinking about anything but just experiencing my surroundings. There is something about natural spaces that appeals to me: I loathe most cities with their crowds, noise, dirt and hard edges. Give me hills and valleys, fields and trees any day. Water in particular I find very relaxing. I have spent time in the Scottish Highlands around Lochs Tay and Rannoch and the English Lake District near Coniston Water and in both cases found the landscape a great help in promoting peace of mind.

My Mother

My Mother

I want to write some words about my mother. This isn’t going to be easy for me but I want to try to give some impression of the one person through my life who was always there for me, who I knew I could always rely on for support and who I miss more than I can express. I’m practically in tears now as I’m writing this, which as anybody who knows me can tell you is not like me at all.

My mother, Maureen Forshaw, nee Lowe, was born on 22nd October 1940. Her mother was Elsie Lowe, nee Broxton. She died in Wigan Hospice in the early hours of 19th December 2009 having lapsed into a coma a couple of days earlier after a long battle with cancer. Her initial ovarian cancer was not spotted in routine scans due to lack of clarity in the X-ray images and spread to her brain before being diagnosed. Despite aggressive treatment through surgery, radio- and chemotherapy her condition deteriorated over time ultimately leaving her barely able even to lift a cup to her mouth. Throughout her illness my father took care of her full-time, having retired from work before she first became ill. I can only admire him for his dedication over this period of about 3 years without a break. But even more than that I admire the way my mother handled her illness, rarely showing the immense frustration she felt with her failing body and remaining cheerful throughout.

She was born and grew up in Wigan, Lancashire, one of four siblings. Her father was a coal miner, one of the major industries in the area at the time. Although as a working-class family they were not wealthy she had a happy childhood and always remained very close to her immediate relatives. She met my father, James Forshaw, at a dance as a teenager in the 1950’s and they started going out together. They got married in the early 60’s after courting for a few years. My mother had fertility problems and was unable to bear children so they elected to adopt. I was adopted at the age of about 2 weeks in 1973 and my brother in 1975. As children we were always aware of having been adopted and it never caused any problems: as far as we were concerned we had one mother and father and that was that.

She had worked in a dentists’ surgery before I was born and later for the Home Office (British government). Very little is known about this latter work because it is covered under the Official Secrets Act: I understand that it was a part-time clerical position but she obviously never divulged any details. She gave up work completely before I started school and devoted her time to bringing up my brother and me. I’ve talked about myself elsewhere so I will just say that she had tremendous patience to be as calm and supportive as she was with me.

I can’t emphasise too much just how much I relied on her while I was growing up. Maybe I was spoiled but I can’t remember anything ever being too much trouble for her as far as we were concerned. She taught me to read and even write (a little) by the age of 3. She never put me down; she let me know when I had done something wrong (just being called by my full name, Benjamin, was enough of a clue as to what was coming) without getting angry or belittling me, and more importantly she always explained what I had done wrong and why it was wrong. It was as if she instinctively knew how to deal with somebody who has an autistic spectrum disorder. Equally importantly she always let me know that she was proud of me when I had achieved something. When I was going through my bad time during my school years she tried her best to help me and get me to open up about what was causing the problem and it certainly wasn’t due to any lack of persistence or caring on her part that it took me years to even talk about that time. Likewise when I finally returned home feeling very down after dropping out of university she never showed much of her worry or disappointment: she just reassured me and helped me get back on track towards a job.

She suffered several losses in her life. Her mother-in-law died very shortly after I was adopted. She devoted a lot of time to looking after her father-in-law following this, having him up for dinner every night at first, later reducing to 3 times a week until he died. Her father died aged around 60 of psittacosis as a result of his mining occupation. I can remember going to visit him in Wigan Hospice shortly before he died. Her brother Alan died in his 50’s of cancer and I can remember how much it upset her. She was the main one out of her siblings to spend time looking after her mother as she aged: her mother died in her late 80’s. She also lost a number of close friends over the years.

I received a phone call from my father the morning that she died informing me. In some ways it was a relief that she was no longer suffering with her illness. I needed to be alone with my thoughts and despite the cold weather and inches of snow on the ground I went out for a walk through the local woods. The serenity of the surroundings and the clean crispness of the snow helped bring a degree of calm to my thoughts and I reflected on times spent with her through my life.

She was a very special person who made a positive impression on everybody she met. Since she died I cannot get used to knowing that she isn’t there to support me any more. She was the unassuming rock around which the family was built. I doubt that I ever let her know just how important she was to me and how much I owe her. I hope I have done her memory justice with these few words, although I know that there’s no way I can give more than a brief insight into her life.