Empathy and Selfishness

Empathy and Selfishness

I fear I’ve been behaving selfishly recently. I don’t want to make excuses – just try to explain. As I wrote recently, my wife is very ill at the moment and her physical pain, exhaustion and isolation are causing severe depression.

I find that I resonate with how she is feeling. I feel her depression like a deep, black pit; like a hundred hooks in my insides drawing them down into the depths, leaving a void yearning to be filled with anything other than the aching emptiness. I find it very difficult to function in the face of such intense emotion – and I am only feeling it second-hand, picking up the echoes of what my wife is experiencing!

I just don’t know how to handle the situation; these feelings. I don’t know what to do for my wife to help her with her depression. I feel lost. So, selfishly, I have been withdrawing and taking refuge in familiar routines. I’ve been alternately detached and irascible with her instead of being supportive. I know that’s wrong and I want to be supportive – it’s proving to be a big challenge.

My reaction to strong emotions is not at a conscious level – it is sheer gut instinct. Such feelings push the buttons of my primitive fight-or-flight response and my conscious mind has to fight hard against the tide to overcome these basic instincts. It doesn’t always succeed and that is when I overload.

Imagine, if you can, how a pet dog would react to its owners having a row in front of it. The dog can’t understand what is causing the situation but can pick up the emotional overtones and becomes distressed. Perhaps it slinks off, tail between its legs, and cowers in a corner, whining. And over time the dog will become more wary and it will take time and effort to overcome its reluctance to approach, its fear of being in that situation again.

Neurotypical people don’t react like that dog, and so don’t expect that other people would either. But some autistic people don’t have the ability to handle these emotionally-charged situations. We can’t rationalize the causes when we’re experiencing such distress. All we can do is react instinctively. There’s a very good article on this subject on the Autism and Empathy blog.

When I fail to react to somebody in the way that they expect, when I react in a way that appears unfeeling, irrational, selfish – that is often the result of all too much feeling on my part. Feeling – emotion – so strong that I can’t rationally cope with it and my mind regresses to a more primitive mode of operation: instinct, the primitive drive for self-preservation.

Foggy Morning

Foggy Morning

Travelling down the lanes,
Passing fields and trees
Existing in memories:
Fog-shrouded, invisible
To sight. There is no world
Outside this small bubble
In which I make my way.

It was not always so.
Leaving home this morning
Orion’s stars shone bright;
The Hunter watched over
As my journey began.
The clear skies boded well
For an easy passage.

But before the first mile
Had passed beneath my feet
Misty tendrils began
To creep across the road,
Harbingers of the shroud
That soon would wind the land
In damp opalescence.

I love the intimate
Smallness, my senses’ sphere
Reduced to human scale.
Nothing can be perceived
Beyond: I am alone
In this immaculate,
Intangible softness.

On the Wing

On the Wing

Standing here, confined to the ground,
I watch the birds as they fly past;
Intently watch their darting grace –
Then suddenly my mind takes off.

Treetops slip by far beneath me
As I race above the earth,
Winging my way across the woods;
Released from gravity’s burden.

I dip my wing and twitch my tail,
Heading in a new direction
For the moment. No end in mind,
Content in my dream of freedom.

Inside A Torture Chamber

Inside A Torture Chamber

I spent for too long at the hospital yesterday accompanying my wife as she went through a series of tests and scans. The X-Ray/Ultrasound department has recently moved to a refurbished suite and it’s all new and shiny.

Too shiny. The lighting makes its white walls harshly bright. It’s all straight lines and square corners with no relieving softness. I know hospitals are clinical – obviously – but do they really have to look so cold and unfriendly? I was feeling on edge when we got to the department reception desk. Luckily my wife dealt with the receptionist – with the bright lights, echoing footsteps and other voices all claiming my attention I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying at all. We got directed to a small waiting area off one of the corridors – an alcove with a row of six chairs on each side, facing each other. About half the chairs were occupied; I took one at the end away from the corridor with my wife sitting next to me.

I feel uncomfortable in waiting rooms at the best of times; I get very anxious when people are sat looking at me. And I don’t like to feel I’m being overheard when I talk to somebody, so I was inhibited from speaking with my wife. I ended up just sitting there, stimming in a fairly subtle manner by tapping one thumb on the other with my hands together, fingers intertwined – trying to keep reasonably calm. However the pressure of having other people facing me in such a small space was making me increasingly anxious. (I have similar problems using public transport – that’s why I will walk miles rather than catch a bus.)

So there I am in this small waiting area with too many strangers looking at me, the harsh light making me feel even more exposed and uncomfortable. I can feel I’m getting close to a sensory overload. And then somebody goes through the door in the corridor just outside this alcove. How to describe the noise made by that door? If you’ve seen those old horror films where the castle door slowly closes to the accompaniment of a tortured squeal from its stiff, rusted hinges you’ll know exactly what this door sounded like. That did overload me. I had to shut my eyes every time that door opened or closed because it was as if somebody was shining a spotlight into them. It hurt. I was starting to ache from the tension across my shoulders and up my neck.

I thought to myself that they couldn’t have designed a more effective environment to torture somebody with sensory processing issues if they had tried. I just felt like curling up in a corner and shutting down but I had to keep myself going to keep my wife company. By the time we got out of there I was tense and exhausted and just wanted to rest. It took a massive effort to avoid shutting down and left me drained. I’m not sure how much support I gave to my wife but at least I was there and mostly responsive. I find it hard to believe that a hospital could get its design so wrong in terms of providing spaces for people that are comfortable and promote a calm state of mind.

Rising Stress Revisited

Rising Stress Revisited

A couple of days ago I mentioned a major cause of worry but couldn’t go into detail. Well, it’s to do with my wife. She had the results of tests on a tennis-ball-sized lump that was removed about three weeks ago and it was not good news. She doesn’t want me to go into detail so I can’t be more specific.

She has been very ill since the operation – internal bleeding causing a swelling as if she had a butternut squash under her skin and acute, chronic pain. I don’t know how she has managed to stand it so far – I doubt that I could.

But the worst part for her as a gregarious, outgoing person has been the isolation of being stuck at home apart from my company when I’m not at work and occasional visits from friends. This is causing depression.

Now I feel selfish talking about my feelings when she is going through so much but I need to write it down to help me get through. I am mostly coping, thanks to the distraction of work, but it is her depression that I find the hardest to handle. I see and hear how she is feeling and I come so close to being overwhelmed that I feel as if I’m on a knife-edge where the slightest push will tip me over the edge.

I came within a fraction of a meltdown tonight – ended up punching a door frame. I’ve got my equilibrium back now but I feel under tremendous strain. This situation is very likely to continue for weeks if not months and I’m worried that I’m not going to be able to cope if I’m having difficulties after only three weeks.

I’m telling myself that I have to keep it together for her sake but I feel as if I’m failing because she is suffering. I’m not managing to meet my own expectations as regards being there for her: I have work commitments to meet to make sure we have money coming in to keep the roof over our heads and make sure the bills are paid, so as much as I’d like to I can’t be with her 24/7. My employers have been very understanding and supportive and I thank them for that, but obviously I can’t be absent long-term and expect to still be paid after my annual leave has all been taken.

So I’m putting myself under pressure to care for my wife adequately, to keep going in my job, and also to try to help keep the household running by doing as much as I can. I try to keep telling myself that I’m not doing too badly for someone who has struggled to look after himself in the past. But I still feel as if I’m being selfish by taking time out for myself – some down time on my own to try to unwind and help myself keep going. I feel as if I could and should be doing more for my wife, but at the same time realise that I need to make sure that I am here over the weeks to come. I really can’t afford to let things get on top of me so that I overload. I’m worried as hell but I can’t let that distract me until the situation improves.

To All The Bullies

To All The Bullies

There are some people out there who enjoy hurting others. I’m not talking about the sadistic psychopaths detained in high-security hospitals and prisons, although there are similarities. I’m talking about bullies. Those contemptible people who inflict mental and sometimes physical abuse on those they perceive as weaker.

I’ve suffered the teasing, taunting, name-calling and threatening behaviour. I’ve felt too afraid to even bear to be within sight of any of those responsible. I’ve ended up with depression, withdrawing – literally locking myself into the safe haven of my bedroom.

I would wonder why I had been singled out, what I had done to deserve such hateful treatment. Typical victim mindset, blaming myself – assuming the fault lay with me. Because I never fitted in: the quiet, shy one on the edge of things. Always nervous and awkward in social situations and with a set of unusual behaviours such as hand-flapping and repeating my words to myself that made me stand out.

I’d love to be able to say that I rose above such things and didn’t let the bullies bother me. But it wouldn’t be true. It bothered me to the point of breaking down in tears of pain and frustration. I ran away with my tail between my legs. I never confronted any of those responsible – that’s something I can’t handle. I shut down when faced with that kind of situation – confrontation and aggression.

I think it would be understandable if I hated those who had bullied me. But I don’t. I fact I don’t think of them individually at all, but rather as a class of people who are poisonous and to be avoided. They are narrow-minded, insensitive, morally-deficient and totally unnecessary and unwanted in my life. I have absolutely nothing to do with them. I carry on with my life, stick with the people who are my friends, and exclude any who would harm me.

The bullies may or may not care that I have excised them from my life – either way it doesn’t matter to me. Because I now accept how I am – I’m content to be myself. Different is good in my opinion. I have supportive friends and a loving wife. I got told I’m “special” by one of my friends last night – little things like that make me feel good about myself. I have people who care about me. Why would I allow negative, destructive influences into my life? So I’m not even going to say goodbye to the bullies from my past – they are long gone and aren’t missed.

Rising Stress

Rising Stress

Here’s hoping for a quiet weekend. At least things are going well in my main job. Everything else though…

Tonight will be my first shift in the pub with the new manager. I’ve met her already when I got introduced Tuesday night but it takes me a long time to get used to a person so I feel comfortable. Hopefully she’ll be pretty laid back and leave me to get on with things. I’m anxious about it, worrying about what might happen – trying to plan how I’ll handle various hypothetical scenarios. But I just don’t know her well enough to predict how she will behave. So I’ll be stepping into the unknown when my shift starts.

There’s other stuff going on outside work that I can’t go into yet that is causing me a huge amount of worry as well. While I usually handle stress in particular areas of my life by compartmentalising and concentrating on other things, in this particular case it’s intense enough to leak out and affect everything else. The end result is that I find my stress levels increase and the danger is that it affects my ability to cope with my normal routine. I can’t concentrate as well and I experience sensory overload much more easily, which then makes it more likely that I will shut down. I’m worried about shutting down because I am caring for my wife while she is ill, and I am obviously no use to her if I can’t function. So the stress and worry is spiralling upwards because I feel anxious about worrying in the first place. It’s completely irrational. It makes me want to scream!

So I’m sitting here hoping that things run smoothly over the weekend. I’m not sure how much more stress I can handle and I’m inclined to head for the hills at the first sign of trouble. But there’s this little part of me that’s watching with interest to see exactly how high the levels can get before something breaks. Seems I can’t get away from analysing myself the whole time.

Breaking Chains

Breaking Chains

Growing up, the corner shop
Was like an Aladdin’s cave.
Exciting exotic riches
To be had for pocket change.

Each shop had unique delights:
A quarter of some sweet treat
Or the latest comic book.
You knew where to find it all.

Every town had character:
Independent retailers,
Established eighteen-something,
Or at least before the war.

The cafe on the high street
Where my grandmother drank tea,
The bookshop I frequented:
Many happy hours for me.

Most of those shops are gone now,
Replaced by the soulless clones
That have spread just like a plague:
Uniformity rules now.

I often think I could stand
In any town without knowing
Where I might be in the land:
Everywhere now looks the same.

Mall culture dominating
With the old guard dead, passed on.
Reflecting in nostalgia,
I regret the march of time.

In Camberley or Wigan
The global brands have stolen
The identity that once
Made each town special to me.

In Defence of Corvids

In Defence of Corvids

Collective nouns are a curious breed – they often carry the prejudices of those who coined them. So for the pretty, colourful birds you have an exaltation of larks, a charm of goldfinches or a murmuration of starlings. But the large, black members of family corvidae have not received such sympathetic treatment.

A murder of crows; an unkindness of ravens. What have these birds done that they deserve such negative associations? For in fact corvids are among the most intelligent of our feathered friends. This intelligence has been reflected throughout history by the roles played by ravens and crows in mythology across various cultures, particularly Native American and Norse. Not merely bystanders in various myths and legends, these birds often play a central part as protagonists and messengers.

Some North American tribes’ shamanistic traditions depict Raven as the creator of the world. The chief god of the Norse peoples, Odin, was so strongly associated with ravens that he was known as the “raven god”; his pair, named Huginn and Muninn, being the god’s eyes and ears in the world of men, Midgard. Crows and magpies too have long been seen as spiritual beings, mediators between the realms of the living and the dead. Also to this day there persists a belief that should the ravens residing at the Tower of London ever leave, the kingdom will fall.

My personal belief is that crows, ravens, rooks and the other members of the corvid family are admirable, highly intelligent birds with an air of mystery and spirituality about them and a charming, insouciant – sometimes cheeky – manner. No wonder they have featured as tricksters so many times in mythology. And I love the black plumage with its subtle glossy iridescence.



The rock stands firm against the waves
That batter and break with each tide.
But even rock in time will cave
And crumble, being washed aside.

But standing fast through winter gales,
The willow, storm-tossed in the fields,
Has learned to bend and not to fail:
To the might of the wind it yields.

Some people may be like the rock,
Inflexible, ’til nought remains
But broken shards and sudden shock;
Dreams drowning in a sea of pain.

So like the willow you must bend,
Adapt to changing circumstance.
Go with the flow, and in the end
Once trouble’s past: deliverance.