Saturday, 13 October 2012

Autistics and Fear

Many of us on the spectrum, especially at the ‘higher-functioning’ end, suffer life-long from ‘anxiety disorders’, spending a large part of our lives fretting about all manner of things – social, emotional, academic, work-related, etc, etc. I know that for a large part of my adult life, I probably met the criteria for some kind of ‘social anxiety disorder’, or ‘social avoidance disorder’ – the latter because I was trying to avoid the situations that sent my anxiety spiralling.

But let’s call this anxiety what it really is – FEAR. Fear of change, and new things that we’re not sure we can handle, so we refuse to try. Fear of making an error, or making a fool of oneself. Fear of ridicule, jeering, sneers, snubbing or bullying. Fear of tripping, either literally - our ‘clumsiness’ is often our curse - or figuratively, over other people’s unspoken expectations of us. Fear of our façade slipping, and people noticing our ‘weirdness’. Fear that other people will not want to know us, or be our friends. Fear of their anger or rejection. Often, just fear of other people, full stop. It is generally a constant background presence, nibbling away at our self-esteem. And sometimes this fear mutates into outright terror, which sees us frantically retreat into whatever refuge we can find. But at whatever level it manifests, it rules our lives. And ruins them, often.

Fear feeds our secret shame, and is fed by it. It lies behind our desperate attempts to construct that façade of the ‘imposter syndrome’. It arises from our pain, gives fuel to our anger, worsens our meltdowns, and propels us into ‘bridge-burning’. It keeps us ‘in hiding’ from the world, preventing us from trying new things that might benefit us, approaching people who might help us, asking the questions that we need to ask. It destroys our relationships, or prevents them even beginning. It can ruin friendships, whether budding or long-term. It’s a huge block to us having the lives we want, and deserve.

It’s my belief that the biggest thing we can do for ourselves, is to work on this fear. We may not ever be able to get rid of it entirely – I certainly haven’t – but we can reduce it to manageable levels, find ways to cope with what remains, and hopefully prevent those times when it spills over into sheer panic and terror. There are many ways to learn to handle our fears. I have found meditation works best for me. In the first few years after I began to meditate regularly, I went through a process of confronting my worst fears. I realised that what I was ultimately most afraid of was other people. It was a difficult time, yet ultimately rewarding, as by facing my fears, I began to dismantle their power over me. Even today, if I find my fears starting to ‘wind up’ again, putting more effort into my meditation is a key part of defusing them.

There are of course many other ways to confront and control our fears, and we each need to find what works best for us as individuals. Counselling and CBT, being more ‘up-front’ with people about our needs, lots of thorough preparation before facing new things, keeping a journal, writing poetry, painting or sculpting, dancing or listening to music, rigorous exercise, long solitary walks, being alone with nature, or – as a last resort, and if nothing else works – anti-anxiety medication. I have tried most of these at times (except the medication), and still use a lot of them regularly, along with meditation.

Yes, I know it’s hard, and I’m certainly not trying to minimise how difficult it’s likely to be. Our fears are HUGE, and often well-founded. But I feel it’s the one thing we can do, that’s within our control to change. We can’t change other people’s behaviour towards us – or very rarely – but we can change how we relate to the world, and change our lives for the better.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Aspergirls and Burning Bridges

Another excellent book I’ve just finished reading (courtesy of my local aspie group library) is ‘Aspergirls’, by Rudy Simone.[1] All the way through, I felt like she was talking about me and my life. One chapter in particular struck me though, and that was the one entitled ‘Burning Bridges’. Till I read this, I thought I was the only one who did this, but it seems it’s quite common, even more so with us females on the spectrum, she considers, than our male counterparts.

Basically, ‘burning bridges’ happens when something is not going right in our lives, and we simply don’t have the skills to do anything about it. So we do something drastic that severs that connection. It can be anything – ‘blowing up’ at a friend or suddenly dropping them, leaving a group or church or other association, having a serious meltdown at school, work or some public place that sees us expelled, fired, or banned from there; abruptly quitting a job or a relationship, moving house or even countries. The pressure has built up, we haven’t a clue how to fix things, so instead we self-sabotage, just ‘blow it up’ and walk away, our ‘bridges’ to that person or people or situation burning behind us. The trouble is, without help and support, we never do develop the skills we need to handle our problems (or not till quite late in life) and so we keep destroying our lives, over and over again.

This may seem a contradiction to the idea that autistics don’t like change, but there is one slight caveat to that. We don’t like change except when we initiate it. Abruptly destroying something, just throwing it away, can seem like the only control we can exert over a situation we don’t like. I know I have done most of the above over and over in my life, from childhood on, with the possible exception of public meltdowns (and there it would depend on how you define ‘public’ and ‘meltdown’), and moving country (which I definitely considered, but couldn’t do for practical reasons). I’ve destroyed or sabotaged or walked away from friendships, left relationships or destroyed chances I had of them, changed the places and people I socialised with or at, changed university majors several times, moved house many times, severed contact with people (often because I was too embarrassed by my behaviour to see them again), stopped going to shops or other places (again, because of embarrassment at my past behaviour), moved up and down the country, and generally started all over again, time and time again. It became intimately connected with my secret shame - I couldn't handle life well, and I knew it.

Sometimes, these changes weren’t under my control – a friend would move away, or a house I was renting would be sold. But mostly it was me and my own inner restlessness. I always thought the next place, the next person or group would solve all my problems, would be the one/s I’d fit in with at long last, would transform my life, or just transform me.

It never did of course. And eventually, like Rudy Simone, I was forced to stop running and face myself. And realise that I’ve undeniably hurt some people along the way, destroyed potential or actual friendships, and no doubt thoroughly got up many people’s noses. Looking back, I can see in some cases it was for the best that I did walk away from those people. But many another time, some help with learning how to recognise my feelings, express them in a constructive way, and to deal with conflict or unhelpful situations, would have changed my life considerably. This tendency to self-sabotage is a very real problem, and something we need help learning how NOT to do – and the younger we learn it, the better. This is where a mentor or advocate would be of huge help – they could teach us better ways to cope with the difficulties we have in life, whether they be sensory, emotional, social, academic, job-related, or indeed anything. Yes, I have more or less taught myself now, but it was hard. If someone had just taken me by the hand and said ‘there’s a better way’, how much easier my life would have been. How much less damage I would have done, to myself and others.

Perhaps things will be better for the next generation, perhaps they will get the support and guidance they need, whether it be from older auties, or non-autistic helpers and mentors. I certainly hope so.

[1] Simone, Rudy. (2010) Aspergirls – Empowering Females with Asperger Syndrome. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia.