Fear and Self-loathing

Fear and Self-loathing

Funny old week. Funny old life, actually, and no mistake. I mean, it really brings it home to you, brings you down to earth with a jolt that might even knock some sense into your tired old grey matter, my girl.

It’s all so… Normal, I guess. No, that’s not it. Not what I meant. Close but no cigar, as they say. Whoever “they” might be. Did you ever wonder about “them”, wonder why or even how they say so much and everybody knows what they’ve said, but nobody knows who they are?

I did. I wondered. Sat awake nights thinking about it. About lots of the things people say. I bet most of the ones who’ve said things to me over the years don’t even remember half of what they said. Not half. Probably not even a tenth of the words they casually tossed at me. Like you’d throw scraps to a dog.

But that was better than the ones who aimed sharp words in place of stones. Teasing they called it. Horrible word. Dressing up their malice in bright clothes to make believe it was fun. I think it was fun for them. Fun to point at the odd one, make sure she knew she was on the outside.

“Sticks and stones” is what I got told when I objected. “Words can’t hurt you.” Those words right there hurt me even more because they told me I was alone.

Being alone. It is my normal, I’m used to it. Everybody leaves me in the end. Still, on the bright side if I’m on my own then there’s nobody there to hurt me more. Just me and my past, strolling hand in hand down memory lane.

Yeah, a dead-end street, that. Past the gutted wrecks and garbage, scabrous walls with the remains of graffiti. Don’t look too closely at where you’re treading, avoid the eyes that peer from shadows.

I remember when all this was trees, when the sun shone and I would run around, laughing. But that was before. You know they say you can never go back? Them again, they get about. Never go back. You want to know why I can’t go back? Because I never managed to leave.

The old home town, you wouldn’t recognise it. All that time, all those lives, gone. Dark now.

Yeah, funny old week, like I said. Being close to Death will do that, you know? All those thoughts of mortality, all that pent-up grief, all the weight of realisation that you don’t deserve to be the one left.

I should ask them why, next time they’re around. Who knows, maybe this time they’ll tell me.

Anyway, I’m doing fine. Thanks for asking. That’s what I’m supposed to say, right?

And you?

#Brexit – A Letter to my MP

#Brexit – A Letter to my MP

Dear Ranil,

I’m contacting you as one of your constituents [address redacted] because I have grave concerns regarding the handling of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

My daughter is [age redacted] and has been living in Sweden for about 18 months with her Swedish partner. [Personal details redacted] the continuing uncertainty regarding her status as a UK national living in a EU country after the 29th March is causing her immense distress. Nobody, not the Swedish authorities and certainly not the UK government (it seems) are able to provide guidance as to what will happen to her.

I also have concerns regarding the preservation of the Good Friday Agreement in the event that the UK does not manage to avoid coming to the end of the withdrawal period without an agreement in place. I remember all too well the IRA mainland bombing campaign, the bombings in Manchester and Warrington especially since I grew up near Wigan and my father worked in the city centre of Manchester in a street that saw damage from that blast. I rightly fear a return to those days if the peace agreement that has lasted half my life is not protected.

My feelings about the unutterable folly of Brexit aside, I urge you and your colleagues in parliament to seek a rapid conclusion to this sorry episode so that we can all finally have some stability in our lives. After promising strength and stability, Theresa May triggered Article 50 without any clear idea of what our future relationship with the EU would look like, and she has led the UK into some of the most turbulent times I’ve experienced in my 45 years. I am watching in dismay as our global reputation sinks below the waves that surround us.

The past two and a bit years since the referendum have been truly awful. I’ve felt constant anxiety and I’m not sure I feel like I belong in this country given the isolationist direction in which it is heading. I have ties of friendship and family across Europe (and beyond) and having my EU citizenship taken from me against my will feels like a betrayal, and not one I think I can easily forgive.

Yours,

Alexandra Forshaw (Miss)

Night Terrors

Night Terrors

Day 4 of 30 Days of Poetry

A horizon just before sunrise, the land dark, the sky shading from orange through gold to a deepening blue. A few long, narrow, dark clouds parallel the horizon, accentuating the coloured bands of the sky.
I watch the night approach with wary eyes,
The time when legion tiny fears with bold
Defiance coalesce. I bate my cries,
While deep in strangled guts my blood runs cold.

A thousand icy raindrops trickle down
The arching column of my naked spine
And pool their leaden weight: wishes drown
Bequeathing butterflies with aim malign.

In fields of dreams run nightmares, pounding hooves
A drummed tattoo that shakes the shadow ground
Releasing wraiths: their terrifying moves
Sketch promised horrors, banshee screams resound

Until the golden light of dawn brings calm:
I wipe my fevered brow with sunshine's balm.
Dancing To My Own Tune

Dancing To My Own Tune

Masks

Although it’s only recently I’ve been hearing the term masking — the first time I can remember was in conversation with my very dear friend Patricia — I didn’t need to have it explained.

Putting on the metaphorical mask, adopting that persona, playing that role…

Oh yes, I know what that’s all about. Metaphors might be intangible but they are real. My whole life was an attempt to do what people around me wanted. To be who they wanted and expected me to be. The perfect child, the model student, the star employee, the ideal spouse.

In any human social group there is pressure to fit in, to conform so that you are accepted as one of the group. Most people adapt their behaviour depending on where they are or who they’re with, but these aren’t masks: they’re fine-tuning. It’s like adjusting the volume on the TV but keeping it tuned to the same channel.

Masking isn’t like that. Masking is attempting to put on a whole new persona. It’s method acting where you become the part you’re playing. Your character is authored by the people around you, it’s not your own creation. You’re dancing to somebody else’s tune.

While it can be very convincing — some autistic people are talented professional actors — when you’re filtering every word, every gesture, every reaction through that mask it becomes exhausting. And you don’t get to exit stage left and nip backstage for a breather. You’re in character almost every waking moment.

One danger of adopting a character so completely is that you can lose touch with yourself. You become so accustomed to acting the part that you blur the boundaries between real and pretend as you strive to become the mask. It’s a long road back from that place.

Being something, someone, that you’re not carries a price. It causes mental stress as you work to suppress your instinctive behaviours and reactions in favour of the ones that allow you to fit in. The threats and fear that drive the process — fear of failure, of ridicule or abusive harm — are very real and cause harm in the medium to long term.

This driving force is powerful: it has to be to push us so hard and so far. And the result — fitting in, appearing to be like our peers — might sound like a reasonable goal. It’s the aim of interventions like ABA and other behaviourism-based therapies. But regardless of whether it’s driven by a practitioner or by peer pressure it can cause deep, lasting trauma.

I didn’t only grow up autistic (even if I wasn’t aware of the fact): I also grew up transgender. To me, the parallels with masking as an autistic person are very clear: I, an autistic female, was expected to appear to be a neurotypical male.

I can’t easily separate the two aspects of my being: my gender and my neurotype. The teasing and bullying I went through was because I didn’t act NT enough or male enough to match peer expectations. I tried. I watched people around me, studied them, tried to copy how they acted. Constructed my mask to hide behind.

Being autistic isn’t about the list of symptoms in DSM or ICD – that’s just the medical establishment’s way of drawing neat lines around a bunch of us and sticking a label on the resulting box.

Being autistic is how I experience the world and react to it. That might cause certain observable effects that get written down and turned into a diagnosis, but living it is something that can’t be captured in words because an autistic frame of reference is different from a neurotypical one.

Autistic people can often recognise each other. We pick up on signs and cues that exist below the level of conscious awareness: we feel that pull of recognition when we see ourselves reflected in others. Because we can relate to each other through shared experiences, our similar responses to situations, we often feel more comfortable and at ease in each other’s company.

Recognising my own reflection, seeing myself in others and having them see themselves in me, is very familiar to me from meeting other autistics. But it’s equally applicable to my gender.

For about as long as I can remember it was other girls and women I saw as mirrors of myself. I could never relate strongly to male peers: I was never able to see myself as belonging there.

Just as being autistic isn’t a list of symptoms from the diagnostic manual, so being a woman isn’t a list of attributes either. There are such things as gender roles and traits, but they are a consequence of gender, not its cause or essence.

I’m not autistic because I struggle in social situations or because I was echolalic and frustratingly literal as a child: that is inverting cause and effect. I am autistic whether or not the signs are visible to others. I’m just as autistic when I’m chatting to a colleague at work as when I dance and flap.

Likewise, I’m not a woman because I have breasts and hips, or because I cry over emotional movies, or because I wear dresses sometimes. Those don’t define my gender, they are simply an expression of it. I was just as female before my body started to develop, I’m just as female in jeans and tee-shirt toting a toolbox.

Neither my neurotype nor my gender are things I had any choice about: they’re just the way I am. Trying to force me to be something or someone I’m not — conversion therapy by any other name — doesn’t work and causes me harm. I can act out a role under duress with a certain degree of success, but it takes a toll on me.

Ultimately I had to take off the mask. The strain of performing constantly broke me. Not all the damage it did can ever be healed: there is some baggage I will always carry with me.

But my burden is small compared to what it used to be, my steps are light. And the tune I dance to is my own.