anxious, shy, awkward, artistic and reclusive

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If I don’t get officially diagnosed with autism, then I can accept that. I will be relieved if I have it and I will be surprised if I don’t have it. If I’m not autistic, then perhaps I’m just one weird chick. I mean, it would be very convenient if it was confirmed that I’m on the spectrum, and it would ultimately make my life easier.

If I knew that I was on the spectrum, then I wouldn’t be so hard on myself for not conforming to what everyone else does and says. I wouldn’t try so hard to act normal. I would be more free to be who I truly am. That would be bliss.

If I don’t get an autism diagnosis, then I will settle for being a “depressed, anxious, shy, awkward, artistic and reclusive” person. Oh, yeah, and intelligent, as well. I can’t forget the most important part, can I? I will settle for being a reclusive and awkward person who can process reams of written information in a small amount of time and remember all the details. I will settle for being a human filing cabinet who likes to daydream. I will settle for being a creative loner who likes to bake and read books. I don’t mind being weird.

Hear that world? I don’t mind being weird. I actually prefer it, you know? I don’t care if I don’t fit into some box. I don’t want to be accepted if it means having to pretend to be something that I’m not. I prefer to be side-lined, brushed-off, ignored and avoided. Great. It gives me more time to do the things that I really want to do.

If I do get my autism diagnosis, then I will be selective with who I tell. I know that there are going to be friends who won’t want to believe it. (not that I have many friends) But that is up to them – it’s not my job to convince people of something that they don’t understand.

One good thing that could come of this is that I could probably use an autism diagnosis to avoid having to work in paid employment for the rest of my life. All I would have to do is mention my diagnosis at a job interview and voila; job opportunities are going to disappear before my eyes, just like magic. This prospect is strangely appealing to me.

Let me explain: I have never, ever liked working for other people or been accepted nor felt comfortable in the work-place. When I was young, I desperately wanted to be accepted and liked. I bent over backwards to try and do well in my place of employment, but I never fit in. I just wasn’t one of them; I was awkward and I made people feel irritated. I was an inconvenience, but they kept me around. I think they mainly kept me around because I was so exploitable, if you want to know the truth. I would do all the crappy jobs that no-one else wanted to do. And I kind of made myself ‘invisible’ while I worked.

I was a woman, I was young, and we live in such a misogynistic culture, anyway. I was always expendable, like a lot of women are, except that I was even more expendable, because I was different. In most jobs I’ve had, my employers just didn’t notice nor care about how I felt or how I was struggling. Sure, I never told them, which I admit was part of the problem. The few times I did speak up (about bullying, sexual harassment, being underpaid) I was made to feel that it was my fault, and my problem – and in the case of complaining about being underpaid, I was simply fired.

So, I won’t miss having a job. I took no particular pride in ‘having a job’ for the past twenty years or so. It was just something that you had to do, in order to get by. I would much rather be at home, painting and cooking, reading and gardening. If I can do something at home that will earn me a small income, then I will definitely pursue that. At the moment, I think I would like to go into cake-decorating.

If however, I have to live off unemployment benefits for the rest of my life, then so be it. It’s not a lot of money, but I already have everything I need.

Autism diagnosis looms closer

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The psychology clinic finally rang me back and so things are moving along. I could have my autism diagnosis within six weeks. The prospect is daunting. My first appointment is with a provisional psychologist; someone who is waiting for their registration paperwork to come through, so as yet they are not fully registered. Choosing this option sped up the process and also made it less expensive. The only little doubt I might have is that this person may not be as experienced as she needs to be. What if she misses something?

However, all her recent training is in autism, specifically women with autism. This is a huge step up from most psychologists who seem to know next to nothing about adults with undetected autism, or at least that is the impression I get. My own psychologist seemed a bit skeptical. I somehow felt that she thought that I was barking up the wrong tree, pursuing an autism diagnosis.

Usually when someone in a respected profession is showing such a lack of encouragement in my idea, I would back off and think “Yeah, I’m not sure. Maybe I should just leave things as they are? I might be being very indulgent, thinking that I’m autistic and wanting a diagnosis.” But not this time. I have been right about so many other things in life – who is to say that I’m not right in this as well?

The evidence so far:

This list refers to my experiences as an adult. There were also clues in my childhood, but due to there being so much information on autism in childhood already, I won’t go into my particular symptoms.

  • At 16 to 17 years of age: my sister asked me why I walked about on my tip-toes when I was bare-foot. She thought it looked silly. I said that it feels really comfortable
  • At 16 to 18: being obsessed with dieting, weight control, restricting food groups- sometimes refusing to eat if there was nothing available that was ‘on my diet’
  • At 18 years of age: Written report from the childcare course I attended saying that I was ’emotionally expressionless’, among other unflattering things
  • At 18 years: lived alone for 6 weeks when my parents went on an extended trip and absolutely loved the solitude – did not seek out peers or need company
  • At 19 to 20 years: the damning character reference from my ex-boyfriend Alex, citing my social awkwardness
  • At 19 years, someone I worked with making a big deal about how small my hand-writing was
  • At 18 to 20 years: my toxic friendship with Ellie, my lack of boundaries and inability to express myself – this relationship was terminated by me
  • At 21 years: informal counseling session suggesting I was troubled and possibly depressed
  • From 18 years to present: perpetual, unending exhaustion with unknown cause – no physical illness detected. Exhaustion particularly after socializing or social contact
  • From as far back as I can remember: insomnia (in spite of exhaustion) and nightmares
  • indigestion, muscular aches and pains, ‘sore shoulders’ and irritable bowel syndrome
  • Being told that I am talking way too loudly, or else mumbling – and not being aware of the volume of my voice (also having an unusual voice – sometimes people think I have an accent)
  • Being unable to recognize a face when I see a person out of context – for example if I see the person that serves me at the Post Office on the street and out of their uniform, then I don’t recognize them
  • The same applies for cars – I can only recognize a person’s car by reading the number plate – otherwise I have no idea who drives what make and model of car – (I do remember the colors of cars, especially if they are ‘pretty’ colors)
  • At 19 years to present: difficulty at work, difficulty multi-tasking, forgetfulness, told I am “vague”, victim of work-place bullying, fear of those in authority – multiple changes of employment – being fired from jobs multiple times – have changed careers several times
  • At 18 years onward: multiple relationships breakdowns, including romantic relationships and friendships- have a long list of ex-boyfriends, difficulties communicating my feelings, difficulties knowing what the other person expects of me, exhaustion after social interaction, excessive pondering and analysis of social interactions after they take place
  • Difficulty knowing when a man is making a pass at me, difficulty knowing if he is serious or just making a joke, if he is only trying to be nice to me, or if he is in fact a dangerous person with bad intentions
  • Feeling out of place, ignored, unwelcome or the opposite – feeling singled out, stared at, ‘put in my place’, reprimanded or corrected
  • At ages 22 through to 36: Involved in what I now see as an emotionally and verbally abusive intimate relationship with my ex-partner – at the time I was unable to articulate what was wrong with the relationship
  • At 36 years: Diagnosed with anxiety and depression by a psychiatrist and medicated – also suffered severe panic attacks
  • At 40 years: thinking that I would probably never marry, because I was just so bad at relationships
  • Persistent social anxiety, even after learning social skills, studying what other people do and say, staying on the side-lines at social events and even reading a book about body-language
  • Delayed emotional reactions – appearing very calm and straight-faced on the surface, and later having time to process emotions and falling apart
  • Difficulty following a conversation if there is back-ground noise present, difficulty following more than one conversation in social situations. No idea when to interject or how to begin participating in a conversation that has already begun
  • Since around 16 years: perpetually questioning the meaning of life and thinking I must be missing some clues…
  • Since forever: bumping into furniture, falling over, dropping things, breaking things by applying too much pressure with my hands
  • Being particularly distracted by how things smell, finding certain colors very entrancing, needing visual order in my home environment in order to feel relaxed, distracted and entranced by patterned surfaces, such as wallpaper
  • never actually feeling relaxed, unless falling asleep
  • Can not drive a car! I find it too confusing, and I can’t focus on more than one thing at a time, it makes me very anxious – I forget to indicate, drive too slowly, have difficulty driving in a straight line

And I’m sure I will think of a few more things before my appointment rolls around – this list is far from complete.

my first ever job was a nightmare

I secured my first job at age nineteen. My parents were so proud of me and I’m sure they were also relieved. I had a job. I was a productive member of society, working away in an institution/company along with a thousand other little workers, all being watched and dictated to and assessed. In my case, the assessments I received were poor. (No surprises there.)

There was one woman in particular who bullied me – I was very fearful of her and tried to hide from her, when I could. She worked in tandem with another awful woman with a very strange hair-cut. They both spoke to me like I was an imbecile with a hearing problem. They were very condescending, catty, loud and angry. I was sure that I would be fired, and the fact that I wasn’t fired just meant that this terrible twosome had no real power.

However, by staying employed, I remained at their mercy. The humiliation of being fired would have been painful, but I was actually worse off psychologically, staying under the influence of their abuse. I should have just left that job, although my parents would have been furious with me for giving up. It was their worst fear that I would be unemployed and unproductive. I suppose I must have been afraid of their judgement, too. I couldn’t just give up, so I endured the job and tried to hide my feelings of distress and depression.

Sadly, it seems that I was not successful in hiding my feelings. I remember once coming across a funny little cartoon drawing, pinned to an office cupboard. The drawing showed a succession of silly faces with various expressions. The cartoon was meant to be a lighthearted take on how stress could effect a person at work. There was a smiling face, a neutral face, a frowning face and so forth. The very last face appeared to be cringing in terror. There were beads of sweat dripping off the face and a wide grimace drawn for a mouth. Someone had written my name underneath this face. My full name.

I never found out who wrote down my name. I never asked for the offending cartoon to be removed. I might have laughed and then never looked at it again. But that picture and my name written down for everyone to see and laugh at really hurt me deeply. People could see my distress and yet they made fun of me. It was humiliating and baffling. I actually didn’t realize that people were so mean, until then.

I felt defeated. Why didn’t I leave? Fear. I was fearful being there and I was fearful of leaving and of trying something else. I wanted to prove people wrong by staying. I wanted to be a good employee, after everything. And I did try. Jesus, did I try.

I recall once being told off for laughing inappropriately at work. That was embarrassing. I didn’t know I had been laughing inappropriately – I was trying to be cheerful. I was also reprimanded for forgetting things and not being able to prioritize tasks. Once a senior staff member told me that she had received some concerning reports that I was ‘very vague’.

One time I caught some of my fellow junior staff members talking about me. That was totally weird and unexpected. They seemed baffled by me and couldn’t believe that I had done so well academically – I wonder in hindsight if they speculated that I had cheated on my exams or something? I only know that although I was intelligent and actually very good at processing information, I came across as I bit of an air-head. I always felt confused and uncomfortable and defective.

This was such a demoralizing time in my life. I wish someone had been able to take me under their wing and help me. I wish I had known where to go and what to do. I do wish I had left that job and gone off to university where I belonged. Where I could study things I was interested in, by myself and in peace. Where my type of intelligence was put to some kind of use. Where at least I would have had some self-esteem restored by getting high grades. But no. I stayed there. I didn’t have good instincts for self-preservation. I was trapped by my own disillusionment.

As time wore on, I did improve my job performance in increments. I slowly, slowly learned how I was supposed to act by watching others and by speaking like they did, and pretending to be interested in what they were interested in. I also developed a rebellious streak at this time. I worked out how to get as much as I could from the company (without doing anything illegal) while I was there. Looking back, I see that there really was not much to gained from that company! That job was completely without any perks. It was all suffering and despair, and had no redeeming features. I left there exhausted and depressed.

I often feel like writing an anonymous letter to my first place of employment, all these years later. I would take some satisfaction in detailing all the things that I suffered through there. But I’m sure no-one would read it. I sometimes wonder if those two revolting women who bullied me are dead yet? They would each have to be around eighty or more years of age, if they are still clinging to life, somewhere. Are they happy? Who knows?

Just this morning, I called the psychology clinic yet again, about getting a formal autism diagnosis. I left a message. I’ll just keep trying. If I ever do manage to get assessed, then I do believe that it will make my life easier in some ways. Just knowing that I really am different and that my struggles are not imagined would be so helpful and reassuring.

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on being different

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Coming to terms with the distinct possibility that I am on the spectrum is both exhilarating and daunting. In my own mind, I am 95% sure I am autistic, after reading countless other first-hand accounts of middle-aged women who were diagnosed later in life. It’s like my life suddenly makes sense! It’s a wonderful feeling – like the secret meaning of existence has suddenly been revealed to me. It’s like having a revelation – everything has changed!

Now I know why I got into so much trouble with relationships and employment. Now I know why I didn’t ever fit in anywhere. Now I can see exactly why alcohol and prescription drugs were so incredibly appealing to me. Why I always wanted to escape, why I didn’t want to tell anyone else how I felt, why I just knew people wouldn’t understand me. I really was ‘different’, but hidden in plain sight.

I looked normal, even pretty. Because I always took care of myself to a meticulous degree to ensure that I “looked normal”. I styled my hair, shaved my legs, dressed beautifully, wore make-up, polished my shoes and plastered a smile on my face. I was always smiling. People used to comment on how much I smiled. (My ex-partner loved my smile, until one day he told me that I was smiling inappropriately, and it embarrassed him.)

Now I know why I was always overwhelmed by emotion, paralyzed by social anxiety and struggling with disillusionment and ambivalence. I know why I always fell prey to exploitative people, even though I was extremely intelligent and rational. Now I know why there have been quite a few narcissists in my life! My diligent, conscientious side made me a perfect audience for them, always listening, always trying to be ‘good’ and kind and considerate.

If one thing has come of all this, I now feel a lot freer to be myself. I don’t want to try so hard to connect to other people, I no longer want to put on a show for them. I no longer want to pass as ‘neuro-typical’ just to make other people feel comfortable. I think it really is okay to be different and have other people say “well, she’s different”.

The daunting part of all this comes with knowing that like most autistic people, I will probably never hold down a regular job…. something which I have become resolved to over the past few years, anyway. The problem is not that I’m not social enough to ‘fit in’ at work (although that is certainly an issue). The problem is that my on-going, unrelenting anxiety makes it difficult for me to perform under pressure. Multi-tasking is difficult for me and so is time management. Any kind of criticism just causes me to shut down and retreat, hence I never get along with my superiors.

It’s interesting that a lot of people like me end up in PhD research programs, where we can work independently in our own home environments and focus consistently on one topic and one topic only. We don’t have to talk to people. We don’t have to do more than one thing at a time. We get to pursue our own interests. We only have to see our advisors every month or so. If we get stressed during the day, we can sleep for a few hours. We can even take the day off. This kind of flexibility is a God-send.

I still haven’t heard back from the psychology clinic where I am supposed to be getting my ASD diagnosis appointment. I hope this does not mean that they are incompetent. I am going to give them another call next week. I really would like to talk to someone there.

On a lighter note, last week I got a section of my hair dyed a brilliant shade of orange. It was my little treat for myself, acknowledging that I am different and showing that difference to the world. It’s my way of saying “this is me”. This rest of me still looks conventional, but just this one little thing looks different. This one little clue.

narcissist at large…

A problem came up during the week: it’s my friend the narcissist again, at large and dangerous. She reduced another friend of ours to a shaking, teary mess with her verbal attacks. That friend then rang me and reported what happened while she was crying and distressed. How terrible it all was. Things have really gone from bad to worse now.

Later, after being told that her verbal aggression was not on, the narcissist did text back to apologize to our friend, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m more or less done with the narcissist now. For all I know, she may take her uncontrolled anger out on me next. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she did.

So far, she has only subjected me to her on-going ridiculous rants against the world. These rants have not been specifically directed at me, although there is a lot of anger towards her other friends coming out, so she might be restraining herself from targeting me. It’s only one step further to her actually going ahead and letting it rip against me; and I have done nothing but try to support her.

I write all this down, because I think that women with autism are particularly prone to being exploited by others. We just don’t have great boundaries and so we put up with a lot of nonsense from people. I even remember once, many years ago, telling my sister- “I just don’t understand how much I’m supposed to tolerate from people.” As though the amount of abuse you should be able to handle was scientifically quantifiable!

Of course, back then, I would have not considered bad behavior in others to be ‘abuse’ as such. I would have just thought of it as strange and scary behavior and possibly blamed myself for it.

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autism and exhaustion and misdiagnosis

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Just looking at my list of problems as a young adult, you might suspect I had Borderline Personality Disorder, which is a misdiagnosis that some women with autism end up getting. I had a history of broken relationships, I was depressed and I used alcohol to cope. I wasn’t suicidal or self-harming, however. I didn’t suffer emotional melt-downs, but rather emotional shut-downs. I would retreat and not want anyone to see my pain.

I think that one of the main differences between myself and someone who did have BPD, is that I loved spending time alone. I didn’t need anyone else to validate me, as opposed to someone who is Borderline, who I understand is someone who is very dependent on other people and is fearful of being abandoned or rejected. I was not particularly fearful of rejection, because I already understood myself to be ‘set apart’ or innately ‘cut off’ from other people.

(I’m sorry if I am doing a very poor job of explaining BPD, if anyone reading this actually has this condition – which I believe is distressing and serious.)

I was frequently hurt by others, however. This hurt made me run away from them. It did not make me try to manipulate them or try to win their favor. It was more that I became exasperated and defeated by the hurt I frequently experienced at the hands of others. I made me very self-reliant and independent in every way you can imagine. It certainly made me very unlikely to seek help, which is the great pity of it. Never-the-less, if I had sought help, I doubt I would have been diagnosed with autism. But I think my anxiety and depression could have been helped by on-going support.

One of the biggest problems I had during my early twenties was that I struggled to cope with working full-time. I found it difficult to focus on more than one thing at a time, I had a lot of trouble switching between tasks and prioritizing tasks. Time management also proved daunting. On top of that, I was afraid of my superiors and didn’t know how to ask for assistance from them. For a supposedly intelligent person, I did not excel in the work-place and lived in fear of being fired. I was very anxious at work and my anxiety affected my ability to remember things.

After work, I was always so exhausted, that I started going to bed early- sometimes as early as 8.30 pm. I would sleep for ten and a half hours easily, even eleven hours. The next day I would still be exhausted. I began to suspect that I had anemia or chronic fatigue syndrome, although I was rarely sick and did not even catch a cold very often.

I was anxious about taking sick leave and felt I would have been looked down on in the work-place for taking leave, even though I had ample evidence to show that everyone one else took leave when they weren’t well. It’s so strange looking back – I should have just taken time off and had some tests done for the physical exhaustion that I suffered. But then again, how could I be sick? I was young and healthy.

In spite of all, this I managed to hang in there at my job, and it was there that I met my new ‘best friend’ – Bella.

adulthood and other shades of hell

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One of the first signs that I might be suffering from depression came to surface under an interesting set of circumstances. After I dropped my boyfriend Alex, I immediately began dating a nice man named Tristan. When I say ‘immediately’, I do mean immediately, as in, within days. I met Tristan through the people I was by now working with.

As part of his studies, Tristan had to set up a kind of practice counseling session to demonstrate his counseling skills. Tristan was a chiropractor who was doing some further study; he was very ambitions and motivated. He used me as his guinea pig and recorded our counseling session in order to hand it in for assessment.

In the session, I started crying and feeling very sorry for myself. I was also incredibly defensive in answering Tristan’s probing questions. It was all so embarrassing, looking back. If I had not been so clueless and emotionally immature, I would have never have let Tristan use me as his subject. He played the session back to me and I saw myself crying, searching for answers and feeling out of place and emotionally exposed. I was also angry. It was cringe-worthy.

I quickly put this episode behind me and wished him luck with his project. Little did I know that this wasn’t the last I would hear about the counseling session. The feedback from Tristan’s teacher was that I was a very troubled young woman who had some pressing problems. She felt for me and hoped I’d ‘recover’ or at least sort things out. Something to that effect.

I wonder why Tristan never urged me to seek help? Or perhaps he did; it seems reasonable that he would have done. He was a caring professional. But I would have fobbed him off, and told him not to be silly. I didn’t need any help, there was nothing especially wrong with me, was there? (Well, I would say that yes, there was!) Help may have been there for me all along, but I was so completely unaware of my own short-comings that I did not know how to accept help. I would have found seeing a professional daunting and intimidating.

At the same time I was unhappy, perpetually confused and exhausted. I drank too much, and I had begun to gain weight. The exhaustion was all-consuming. If ever I had a spare moment, all I wanted to do was sleep. My friend Ellie plagued me to spend time with her and my boyfriend always wanted to to be out and about, dashing here and there. It was all so hectic.

I couldn’t fathom how people lived this way – being busy all weekend, and never stopping in any one place for a decent stretch of time. Going out night-clubbing had been alright when I was unemployed and could spend my weekdays recovering, but with a job to go to, it was all too much.

Having a boyfriend was nice, but I had to spend time with his friends, his Mum, his work-mates…. so many people and obligations. It’s not that I didn’t like people, it’s just that I didn’t need so many of them, milling about everywhere, all the time. I didn’t know what to say to them and I found conversations draining. I was still petrified of new people and my fear made it difficult to concentrate on what they were saying to me. I got the feeling that most people brushed me aside and were not interested in me, anyway.

Tristan was my third serious boyfriend in four years. According to everyone else at the time, he was the most ‘suitable’ of the three. And guess what? He didn’t last the distance, either! Tristan applied for and attained his dream job in another state. I assumed he would start talking about the prospect of me eventually moving there too, to be near him. Or at least he would want to secure my first visit there, to spend a few weeks getting to now that place.

But No. Tristan did not talk about anything like that, our future together as a couple remained unspoken. I waited and I pondered. I wasn’t going to be the one to bring it up. I felt rejected, like I was not an important piece of his life. I didn’t know what to say to him, so I said nothing.

In hindsight, I think Tristan was afraid of emotional intimacy and that is why he was attracted to me. I could be aloof and appear very self-contained and independent. I also liked spending time by myself, so on the surface at least, I looked like I had it together in some respects, as though I didn’t need a man. I never made any demands on Tristan.

Tristan had said some strange things about marriage and parenthood- things that I didn’t agree with. This was at a time when I thought I might have children – one day. I certainly did not want children in my twenties, thank you very much. Life was already so full of things to do that I was struggling to cope.

Some of what Tristan said seemed misogynistic. He implied women were parasites who attached themselves to men. He believed that men were forced against their wishes to procreate with women, when all they really wanted to do was drive fast cars and have a good time! This was all news to me- I was so naive at that time. I didn’t know that men could think that way – especially not educated, intelligent men who appeared to be kind and caring.

After a while, I started to lose interest in Tristan and started to go out and about with my newest friend Bella. I did not make Tristan an immediate priority in my life. I tended to be busy on the weekends, when he wanted to see me. I actually broke off the relationship with him before he even moved away to take his dream job. Another one bit the dust.

I never received any kind of report from Tristan as to the defects in my personality. His Mum did ring me up once and say how much her son was missing me and how much out break-up had hurt him. This surprised me, as I had honestly thought that he just wasn’t into me.

In summary so far

I will add the ill-fated ‘counselling session’ with Tristan to my increasing list of evidence that something was not quite right with me.

In total we have:

  • the damning character reference from my ex-boyfriend Alex, citing my social awkwardness
  • the written report from the child-care course I attended, saying I was ’emotionally expressionless’
  • my toxic friendship with Ellie, my lack of boundaries and inability to express myself
  • informal counseling session suggesting I was troubled and possibly depressed
  • perpetual, unending exhaustion with unknown cause
  • multiple relationships breakdowns