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 But it’s hard when the love you once had has been replaced by fear.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.

 

Out To Lunch

Out To Lunch

I went out for lunch yesterday. It struck me later that this was the first time I’d eaten out since before I began my transition, more than 18 months ago. But that didn’t even occur to me until hours afterwards: I was far too preoccupied. You see, I was meeting a young lady.

11742805_10203708980319697_4483407513116153502_nI wanted to make a good impression. It was a lovely, sunny day so I wore this new red dress (rather daring for me because it barely comes down to my knees) with a pair of red heels and spent nearly 30 minutes doing my face and hair. Excitement wrestled with nervousness as I drove into town.

I felt good; I felt confident as I walked from the car to the restaurant. It was five minutes of twelve: I was a little early which suited me. I would have time to get settled and make myself comfortable. It was early for lunch so the place wasn’t too busy and I could choose where to sit: I decided on a small two-seat table by the window where I would be able to watch for her arrival.

A waiter brought a menu; I explained I was waiting to meet someone and just ordered a sparkling water. I browsed Facebook to pass the time while keeping one eye on the passers-by. Nervousness crept in: what if she was late? What if she didn’t come at all? Would we get along face to face? We’d only chatted online before this.

I needn’t have worried. She arrived just a few minutes later and saw me through the window. She smiled and gave me a little wave; I reciprocated. She joined me at my table, ordered a water–still to my sparkling–and we started to talk. Somewhere during this we ordered food and ate but the meal was definitely a sideshow to the main event. Not that we didn’t enjoy it, it’s just that we were deep in conversation. Quite something for two people who are usually uncomfortable in social situations.

It was over too soon. She had to head off to work shortly before three, so after paying the bill we walked back to our cars. We hugged before parting and it felt wonderful. We will meet again.

I’m still working through my memories of yesterday: such a wealth of images, impressions and emotions. The pleasure of building a relationship with my daughter after so many years, the many ways in which she reminds me so much of myself. It’s difficult for me to connect the young woman I met with my memories of her as a baby and infant.

More than anything I feel so happy and grateful that she contacted me and that we are becoming friends. I feel a bond that I did not expect, a reawakening of the feelings that had languished, forgotten, in the dusty attic of my mind. I’ve missed so much of her life that I’m not sure I deserve to be invited back in with such welcoming acceptance. She is open, honest, caring and intelligent, and I am so proud to have her as my daughter.

Happy Flappy Tappy Aspie

Happy Flappy Tappy Aspie

My project at work went well yesterday. Really well. So well that I got excited — this happens when I’m pleased with what I’ve produced. Now, the thing about getting excited is that, as with most emotions, I feel it mostly as a set of physical effects.

Excitement starts with a tense feeling building deep inside. Not the heavy, paralyzing tension of anxiety but a light, bubbly, tension of anticipation that spreads out. Up my neck to my head, molding my features into a broad smile. Down my legs making them jiggle and my feet tap. And along my arms until it reaches my fingertips and gives me the urge to flap. By this point I guess I must be awash with endorphins and fireworks are going off in my brain!

I’m still working on quashing my learned inhibitions against the more attention-drawing stims that resulted from teasing at school. So I bounced lightly away from my desk with my hands twitching slightly as I contemplated the forthcoming pleasure of flapping them. I might even have skipped a little — I can’t remember. As I passed through the door into the stairwell I gave myself to the sensations and my hands started flapping involuntarily.

Oh, the euphoria of the release I felt! After so many years of suppression it felt incredibly good to ride the wave of emotion and allow my body to express itself naturally, even though it was in private. This was something I decided recently: I would work on overcoming my inhibitions so that I can be more myself. Because being true to myself makes me happy.

A happy, flappy Aspie — I wouldn’t want to be any other way. You see, for autistic people stimming is a way of modulating sensory input — which includes the effects of emotion — and helps greatly in coping with many situations, both good and bad. It helps with concentration because it frees the mind to focus on something else rather than the sensory stimulus. Suppression — the building of barriers and inhibitions as a result of pressure through disapproval, teasing or bullying — can be harmful. Without stimming it is that much harder to cope with emotional or stressful situations. Without stimming we are denied a means of expression as much as if our mouths were taped shut or our hands bound.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. Don’t deny that to autistic people just because the way we express ourselves is not your way.

I’d like to thank the online Aspie/Autistic communities for providing me with a sense of belonging, of support, so that I have begun to feel confident about expressing myself naturally and honestly. On the subject of stimming there’s a short article about it from the BBC here, and a great blog post over at autisticook that has an illuminating survey of different stims.

Therapy? Experiences of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Therapy? Experiences of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Ok. Time to hold my hands up – I’m in therapy. I’m nearing the end of a course of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help me deal with anxiety. Up to now there were only three people who knew this: me, my wife and my closest friend.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a therapy that is designed to teach new ways of thinking, to provide the client with new ways of dealing with problems that they face in their lives. It is very important to bear in mind that it does not promise any cure: in my case it will not stop me feeling anxious in certain situations. What it will do (I believe and I’ve not yet experienced anything to contradict this) is give me tools to manage my anxiety.

One thing that has struck me throughout the course is how obvious it all seems. In short, the steps have been to identify the causes of anxiety and rank them in order of severity, start at the bottom and develop ways to handle them. It’s that simple! But there’s something significant about the fact that the advice comes from somebody who has no emotional connection, who is impartial and nonthreatening. I feel that they have no “hidden agenda”, that they are not trying to manipulate me (even though in fact they are – that is the purpose of the sessions). It comes down to trust: I feel that I can trust my therapist and consequently I am very accepting of her advice.

The thing about CBT is that it is a learning experience like any training course. If you are not engaged then you will not learn. Period. I believe that if you don’t want to learn something then you won’t. You can sit through lesson after lesson but if you don’t apply and practice what you are taught then you won’t learn. I think this is why CBT gets some negative reviews – people come into it expecting some silver bullet that will cure them of their problems, but it doesn’t work like that. The sessions with the therapist are just to provide the foundations. It is up to the client to build upon them by practicing the coping techniques learned. It’s difficult to begin with – you have to expose yourself to the challenging situation before you can try to apply the lessons.

I guess people fail because they don’t put the effort into this part. But as I said to my friend earlier tonight, I wouldn’t have brought this up with my GP if I didn’t want to try to fix my problem. And if that means I have to do “homework” then I’m going to put the effort in because the end result will be worth it.

I did some research about CBT before I started the course – that’s my way – and the key fact I learned about it is that it does not claim to be a cure. In may case it will not stop me feeling anxious. I believe it is important to go into this kind of therapy with realistic expectations of the outcome, and in my case it was that it would not stop me feeling anxious – it might not even make me less anxious – but it would provide me with ways to handle that anxiety, to function despite the feeling.

In many ways the success of the treatment depends on how much effort the client is willing to put in. The key to graduated exposure (which is the type of CBT I am receiving) is that you make the effort to expose yourself to the situations.

I’ve found that one of the hardest aspects of this for me has been to remember that I have to attempt to interact with people differently. Remembering this instead of falling back on ingrained habits has been very taxing mentally. I’ve discussed this with my therapist and she agrees that being on the autism spectrum poses particular problems for this type of therapy: resistance to change, ingrained habits (routines), co-morbid conditions such as social phobia and sensory hypo- or hyper-sensitivity, and difficulties interpreting non-verbal communication.

To this end I’ve been set tasks including listening to the radio (interpreting conversational voices) and summarizing what I’ve heard, observing other people’s conversations (which is one of the most difficult tasks – trying to derive rules for conversation based on observation, because it involves trying to interpret the non-verbal signals), and making phone calls (to my friends initially – it’s starting small but if that’s where I want to end up then I’ll have to build my way up to it.

I reckon I’ve made progress, even if it’s not easily quantifiable by the simplistic measures recorded by the questionnaire I complete before every session. And that’s the most important part – as long as I feel that I’ve progressed and I feel more able to tackle these anxiety-provoking situations then I think I’m gaining a benefit from the therapy.

So, in summary, I believe it’s only effective if the client is prepared to put the effort in to practice the skills being imparted. If one doesn’t have a realistic view of the aims and purposes of the therapy and isn’t prepared to put in the work involved in learning the skills presented, then it simply won’t work. In this type of therapy the therapist is the pilot guiding the course but the client is the engine room providing the momentum.

Bah Humbug!, or What Christmas Means To Me

Bah Humbug!, or What Christmas Means To Me

I dread this time of year – the Christmas holiday. An endless all-you-can-eat buffet of bright, shiny, colorful, twinkly, saccharine, plastic, superficial, empty-hearted, compulsory frivolity and joy to all. The cracks of the rest of the year are papered over, temporary patches to support the pretense that we are all getting along famously and having a good time. It’s all over the TV commercials – smiling families gather around the dinner table to share the feast, seasonal bonhomie ramped up to the max.

Amid the repeated-ad-nauseam Christmas songs, the wall-to-wall sparkling lights and baubles and the commercial brands lashed tightly to old traditional symbols I can’t help feeling that the whole experience is empty, devoid of meaning. Christmas has become its own parody, a cheap, mass-produced knock-off that has smothered the original beneath its glittering red and white, snow-carpeted facade.

Christmas died long ago: its dried husk is buried deep beneath strata of tinsel and fairy gold. With a wonky plastic angel stuck on top.

For me this time of year is not about giving or receiving gifts. It is not about parties and feasting. It is not about excessive consumption – gluttony if you will – of any kind. It is not about decorated trees, homes or streets. It is not even about the Christian religious festival.

For me it is the time of year when the darkness is closest at hand. When the long, cold nights harbor age-old fears of loneliness and hunger. When people used to gather round their fires to share warmth and protection, and to pray that the winter would end; that the sun would soon return to warm the land.

For me it is a time for thinking of the people I care about, those I love. This has become a season of unrealistic expectations, unattainable goals, impossible dreams. A season when so many people will fall short of the targets they set themselves, whether they didn’t manage to lose that weight to fit into the new party dress, or they saw Dad get drunk Christmas Day and fight with Mum, or they didn’t get that one special present they’d set their heart on. A season when people feel disappointed, hurt, alone.

I will not buy presents; I will not send cards. I will find my pleasure in what I can do for those I am close to. If I can make somebody smile, or help them feel that they are not alone, help them feel that they are appreciated and valued… then I believe that would be a worthwhile gift.

Kindred Spirit

Kindred Spirit

Come sit with me and we can watch the world go by;
That’s all I ask. I won’t mind if you want to try
Some light discourse, then later we might take a stroll
And pass some time there by the river as it rolls
Beneath the trees and winds its way down to the sea:
A quiet time. And if in turn you ask of me
Just company, why then I should feel truly blessed
For I’ll have found a soul to share my time of rest.