Alexandra Leaving

Alexandra Leaving

I’d thought about leaving so many times. Going back through some old posts last night, even back to when I first started blogging, it was abundantly clear to me that I had been feeling depressed, lonely and trapped for years.

It was something I discussed occasionally with people I trusted. Not that I had many of those. But I was always more scared by the uncertainty of the unknown than I was of remaining somewhere that didn’t feel like a home. My fears always drove me back.

I tried. But it’s hard when the love you once had has been replaced by fear. Too many angry outbursts, too many times when my needs were dismissed, too many times when my anxiety reached overload. I tried to explain but when I never knew how what I said would be received it was impossible to be completely open and candid.

Even when I did manage to speak up, the import of what I was saying became lost in translation. These weren’t shared feelings or experiences; I might as well have been speaking a foreign language. Situations where my daughter or neurodivergent friends would grasp it immediately, not need it to be spelled out in detail.

In the end it had become obvious that living in that place with that person was harming me. Day by day my mental health was declining with anxiety and depression making it difficult to function. I was struggling with work, I was struggling with self care. Well, not just struggling: I was failing.

I knew the signs. I’d been through similar times before although every time it happened it brought me further down, hurt me more, killed another piece of my soul. So this time I asked for help. I went to my doctor, I referred myself for counselling. And I talked at length with my daughter.

At my second counselling session I all but broke down in tears as I described how I felt, how a steady drip, drip, drip of teasing, controlling behaviour, threats (even when later retracted) and aggressive actions had built up to the point where I didn’t feel safe. It doesn’t matter what the motivation was, whether harm was intended: it was emotional abuse and it did cause harm.

I explained how I was afraid of losing my job because my mind was in too much turmoil to focus. I explained how every time I tried to think of what I needed to do to get away I quickly became overwhelmed with the magnitude of it all.

My counsellor was brilliant. She helped me organise my thoughts so that right in the middle was my goal, “To Get Out” and around it were the factors that I needed to address.

CounsellorBrainstorm
The actual brainstorming chart my counsellor made in our session

I came out of there feeling enabled, that this was something I could achieve. I phoned my boss at work and explained everything (and I mean everything) to him. Because I was that anxious about it I came straight out and asked him if I still had a job to get back to: he reassured me. I felt so much better after that.

In conjunction with my doctor I worked out a schedule that would get me back to working regularly, and my boss was very supportive, saying that I should do what I had to do, take as much time as I needed, and asking if there was anything I needed from him or the company.

So, knowing my job was secure I went to my bank to see about taking out a loan for setting up a new home, which went through without a hitch giving me the funds I needed to cover fees and buying furniture.

My daughter helped me look for a new place, and we made a shortlist. I prepared myself and managed to phone up and make appointments with the letting agents to view two of them, the first on the very next day which was a Saturday. To cut a long story short we both loved the first place we looked at and I started the process of securing the lease.

Just two weeks after that viewing I got the keys and moved in to the place I’m sitting in now, a month later. My home. And it really does feel like home. It’s a lovely flat in a beautiful location, but more than that it is a nurturing environment where I feel comfortable and safe.

To borrow the most apt of phrases, it is as if I have come through an unseen metaphorical door. As if I escaped from a cage to live in freedom. My counsellor was in shock at the speed of the change in me: she had never before seen somebody go from tears and hopelessness in one session to joy and optimism in the next.

I’m not the kind of person who worries that it might all be a dream and on waking I’d be back to the harmful existence I had before. I know this is real, that this is my new life. It feels like a rebirth, even more so than my gender transition. I’ve broken the shell that confined me, emerged from the egg and I’m stretching my wings.

I’ve said before that I never managed to live independently. I’m not independent now. Oh, I can feed and wash and clothe myself, and I can do the things that need doing around my home. But I also have a network of friends who I can turn to if I need support. I live by myself but I am not alone.

My friends on Facebook and the people I work with could see how happy I was when I got out of the situation I was living in: a relationship that was ultimately toxic and slowly killing me. I got my drive back, my motivation. I started to enjoy working again. I got up in the mornings feeling ready for the day.

And then, a week ago today, I was sitting here. Well, actually sitting and feeling restless, then getting up and pacing, then trying to sit again. My thoughts going round and round: should I? Should I not? A dilemma: do I tell someone how I feel? Is that fair to them if they don’t feel the same way? Might I ruin a friendship? Could it even work?

I talked to my daughter. I talked to a dear friend. I knew what I wanted to do, but I needed to work up the courage to take that chance. The emotions were so powerful that I was overwhelmed. But in the end I sent my message.

And then I waited. Minutes have never passed so slowly, a lifetime between each tick of the clock. They responded! This person I have fallen so much in love with loves me too!!! And so I am flying, lifted high by the joy of love.

Two people who felt some spark between them, who are both starting to grow and learn who they can be at a point in their lives when that had no longer seemed possible. It’s a wonderful experience to be sure, but how much better it is, how much more meaningful and joyful when there is somebody with whom to share the journey.

 

Reach Out, I’ll Be There

Reach Out, I’ll Be There

Yesterday evening (UK time) I posted a status on Facebook where I set out how I was feeling due to depression and anxiety.

Just venting here.

I’m exhausted. My anxiety keeps flaring up with no obvious triggers, the depression is with me more and more. I’m getting seriously eye-rollingly sick of feeling like this so much of the time.

I’ve got some seriously strong urges:
– To run away to old, familiar places.
– To lock myself in somewhere safe, curl up in the fetal position and stay there.
– To just sit here and cry.

I’m feeling kind of trapped. I feel like I’m failing. I’ve not got the strength left to keep on fulfilling my responsibilities. But there’s no escape, no respite. I don’t want to play any more but the merry-go-round won’t stop and I can’t get off.

It wasn’t generally visible: I restricted it to people I feel safe sharing more sensitive, personal things with. And, typically, I worried that it might have been attention-seeking.

I had not slept well all week; I somehow unproductively scraped through a day’s work with the assistance of much music, and was feeling enervated and pretty hopeless. Again. I think that it wasn’t so much attention I wanted as just a little acknowledgement. A bit of solidarity to help me feel less isolated.

I never used to reach out like this. I would keep it all in and try to handle it on my own. Well, I was prepared to do that this time too: I was seriously weighing up the pros and cons of self-harm. The knife is still where I put it, within easy reach. I didn’t need it in the end.

Reaching out worked. I never used to have any kind of network, any group of friends I could turn to for support when I was struggling. In recent years this has been getting steadily better. I still feel a reluctance to impose the burden of my feelings on anybody. But they are a compassionate bunch and what I received was caring and supportive.

They helped me reach the point where I could make an important decision: to visit my brother. It was something my daughter and I had talked about. We both feel a connection to that part of the country, a link to happy times in the past. In a way this really is fulfilling one of the urges I felt: running away to an old, familiar place.

I phoned my brother, checked when he would be around, and then organised what dates my daughter and I could manage. Suddenly I had an escape, the promise of some respite, and I started feeling positive. I messaged one of my best friends to share the news: we ended up chatting for hours, well into the night!

I slept well, cuddling my plush toy penguin as usual, and woke up an hour before my alarm feeling better than I had for ages. Before lunch the time off work was booked, as was the hotel. I can’t deny I’m feeling incredibly excited about the trip.

More than anything I am amazed by how much different I feel just within 24 hours. To go from despair bleak enough to make cutting myself seem an attractive option, to this hugely positive feeling of anticipation and excitement. I wish I could bottle the feeling and save it for the next time.

I know I will feel down again, the depression is always there in the background. It’s not a case of, “Hello darkness, my old friend.” Circumstances affect my mood: it swings between highs and lows. But the highs don’t shine a beacon of hope that is visible from the depths, and the lows don’t drag me down when I’m soaring. All I can do is live in the moment and respond to it in whatever way I am able.

But one thing I have definitely resolved to do is to make time to keep in touch with my friends and, as much as I am able, to go and meet them, spend time with them. They are well worth the effort.

Hair-trigger Sensory Hell

Hair-trigger Sensory Hell

I’m sat here writing this and my focus is everywhere, darting around the room like a frantic animal seeking escape. I’m twitching, every little sound makes me jump.

So many sounds. There’s no escape. All outside my door here. All threatening. I’m terrified. I hear a bang (something dropped?) and scream! I’m alternating between holding my head in my hands and sobbing, and the rapid breathing of a panic attack.

My headphones don’t help. They don’t cancel everything. And even if they did I still feel the vibrations.

Literally. Every. Sound. I’m a receiver with the gain turned up way past maximum. There is no escape. No way out. I’m flapping my hands, I’m repeating, over and over and over and over and over and over, “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”

And it doesn’t stop. I know how this ends. I’ve been here before. This is overload. Population one. My needle is pushed against the stop and every tiny increment is testing the strength of the fuse. It will blow.

I don’t know when. Maybe not even today, but at some point it will go. And I will be in meltdown. I feel it: some elements are leaking past my barriers. I’m trying to suppress it because I have to keep functioning. I have to keep going at any cost.

And I know that’s foolish. I know that the longer I strain to delay the inevitable the bigger the crash. And I still do it.

I’ve reached a lull. A brief spell where I can let the tension I hadn’t even realised was in my body dissipate. When I can breathe slowly and deeply. When I can rebuild my strength ready for the next assault.

Sensory overload is not something you get to switch off when it’s inconvenient. It usually comes on with a vengeance at times of stress. Talk about kicking you when you’re down!

This one has been building for a long time. Over months. The stress is why I’ve referred myself for counselling. I can’t write about it, not now, not yet. I’m not able to face those demons today. But one day, hopefully, I will.

Changing Your Mind – Thoughts on TMS

Changing Your Mind – Thoughts on TMS

Over the past year, and especially since the publication of Switched On by John Elder Robison, there has been a lot of attention around a therapy called TMS (or rTMS–Repetitive Transcranial Stimulation).

It’s something I have deep reservations about but others have written passionately and eloquently on the subject. What I want to consider is why somebody would choose to undergo such a therapy that literally changes their mind.

I’m no stranger to the negative feelings that arise when considering the gap between how I perceive myself and what I see when I look in the mirror: that’s a big factor in my gender dysphoria.

I also know first-hand how it feels to be teased and ridiculed for hand flapping, physical clumsiness, social awkwardness, unusual speech patterns and eclectic interests. I’ve had life-long difficulty making and maintaining interpersonal relationships, and I have times where I feel keenly the lack of people with whom I feel comfortable opening up about my problems and feelings.

I understand the drive to make physical changes to one’s body. After all, I’m in the process of seeking treatment to modify my own body, bringing it into closer alignment with what I see in my mind by erasing or concealing male characteristics and developing female ones.

There are two parts to my gender dysphoria. First there is my need to have other people respond to me as a woman, reinforcing my gender identity. Second there is my need to see my own body physically match the mental image I hold.

So as a trans woman I am actively seeking treatment to make changes to my body. This is in contrast to my feelings about my autism. Both my gender identity and my autistic identity go to the very heart of who I am.

The thing is, although I will happily modify the physical characteristics of my body I wouldn’t consider altering my mind. My neurology is inextricably tied to my identity: I feel that changing my mind would make me into a different person.

There’s a line there. I’ve put a foot over that line a few times, testing the water so to speak. I’ve experienced the effects of drugs that affect the workings of the brain: alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, SSRIs (anti-depressant).

Some of them have positive aspects. For example, alcohol reduces my social anxiety. But there are negatives too: I make poor decisions under the influence of alcohol because it inhibits my self-control and risk-aversion: I’ve gotten myself into some dangerous situations as a result.

Speed (amphetamine) left me unable to concentrate, marijuana was relaxing but caused mild hallucinations and a degree of paranoia. The SSRIs reduced the intensity of my emotions, leaving me feeling numb: in the end I had trouble focusing and engaging with things in my life.

These were all temporary effects: my mind returned to its usual functioning state in time for which I was grateful. You see, I wasn’t myself when under the influence of any of these drugs.

I guess my point is that given the complexity of the human brain and the way its many regions interact it is not possible to adjust one aspect without affecting others. Just as a particular drug affects a small number of electro-chemical interactions in the brain with wider-reaching side-effects, so a therapy like rTMS that alters a small region must cause knock-on changes across the entire organ.

My opinion is that it is not like tuning an engine, a relatively simple system with a limited degree of interconnection and feedback between its components. It’s more like introducing a foreign species into an existing ecosystem. The effects can be slow to manifest, and predictions are error-prone due to the complexity and chaotic nature of the system.

There is no way to know what other effects rTMS would have. It might reduce my social anxiety, but even if that was all it did it would make me respond differently to people I interact with (like alcohol). And if my thoughts and behavior are changed then I’m no longer the same person.

I don’t want to change who I am: I’m comfortable with my identity as an autistic trans woman with all that entails. Changing my body doesn’t affect my personality, my thoughts: I remain me. Changing my mind makes me into somebody else. I would lose the essence of what makes me this particular unique individual, and the thought of that fills me with dread.

This leads me to suppose that for somebody to even contemplate such a thing they must not like who they are. Internalized self-hatred, blaming their neurology for what they see as their failings. It’s like body dysmorphia projected onto the ego, the sense of self. The antithesis of neurodiversity’s principles; an inability or refusal to accept one’s differences.

I see this as a result of thinking colored by the medical model of autism that sees it in terms of pathological deficits, as opposed to the social model which instead looks to society’s failures to provide suitable accommodations and acceptance as the causes of disability.

There’s nothing wrong with my mind: I have no reason to change it. I can’t say the same for the society I live in.

The Thief Of Time

The Thief Of Time

I’ve been putting off writing this post. No, seriously, I must have fired up the WordPress editor ten times now and each time I’ve found some distraction to take me away from writing.

Procrastination. Deferring tasks until the last minute and then rushing to complete them by the deadline.

It’s not that I sit there idle, wasting the minutes and hours while I could be working productively. I rarely have any difficulty finding activities to satisfy my need for interesting stimulation.

It’s rather that I need a certain level of stimulation to engage with a task. To feel motivated enough to start it. Dishes pile up in the kitchen sick because although it only takes about five minutes to wash them (I’ve timed it–doesn’t everyone?), and I don’t find the task onerous, I fail to summon enough interest in the activity until it’s nearly bed time and I feel a sense of urgency.

As a child homework presented the same obstacles, except for the few instances such as essay writing that I felt enthused about. To be honest, most homework is a mind-numbingly tedious repetition of what was already learned in that day’s lesson. I used to complete most assignments in the break time before class.

The same afflicts me at work to this day. I’ve been known to spend hours or days coding on personal (although still work-related) projects at the expense of what I’m due to deliver. That work gets put off until I feel that the time remaining fits my gut feeling of the effort required. Having said that, I have a good track record of delivering on time.

That last point is important. I’m fulfilling my obligations. In many ways I view my procrastination as a positive thing. The focus that is instilled in me by the pressure of the impending deadline concentrates my mind wonderfully.

Where otherwise I might tentatively poke around, mind not completely on what I’m doing and consequently making bad choices and failing to consider problems in sufficient depth, instead it’s like a finely-tuned engine running at its peak. It becomes easy to sink into the comfortable mental flow where it all just happens without the sensation of effort.

There’s a fine line between the energizing pull of a looming deadline, fueling the fires of creative endeavor, and a crippling anxiety triggered by fear of failing in my task. I’ve become adept–at least in the absence of external factors that strew tacks in my path–of maintaining my balance on that razor’s edge.

It’s exhilarating, such a sense of capability, of almost unbounded potential. It feels as if I can achieve anything I set my mind to. The sheer pleasure! It’s an addicting experience but one that appears to cause no harm.

They call procrastination the “thief of time” but I disagree. For me it’s a form of time management that maximizes my overall productivity, the key to unlocking my highest abilities. Far from stealing time from me it gives me the ability to use my time to its fullest potential.