Friday, July 13, 2012

It's Not You, It's Me. Officially.


I was diagnosed a couple of weeks ago by a specialist psychiatrist at a mental health clinic. I’ve felt for several years that I fell some way along the autistic spectrum, but my suspicions that I had Asperger’s became firmer this year as I realized I have characteristic oversensitivity to a number of stimuli that neurotypical people barely register.
You may have preconceptions about what a person with AS is like. I know I did. You might expect that we are emotionally dead, socially inept, and obsessed with repetitive hobbies. From the outside most of the preconceptions of AS are well-founded, based on how we behave and appear, at least in the most extreme manifestations. What I think is less well appreciated is what it’s like to have AS.
For me, it means I feel anxious all the time.
I don’t just feel anxious when there are lots of people talking, when there are bright lights, intrusive sounds, strong food smells, or certain sensations against my skin (although it’s far worse when any of those conditions apply).
I feel anxious all the time.
This explains why I started drinking alcohol whenever it was available at the age of sixteen, and didn’t stop until I was thirty-eight. It explains why when I stopped drinking I found myself in such a state of anxiety and depression that I was prescribed Fluoxetine for five years. It explains why upon coming off Fluoxetine I needed professional counseling for over a year.
And it explains so much more. I’ve begun reading about the condition and keep unmistakably recognizing myself every few paragraphs. Although I tried to look at first for texts pertaining to adult diagnosis (I’m 46 now), the descriptions of AS children are just as enlightening. They explain why I don’t have a Liverpool accent (AS kids copy the authority figures on the telly rather than their peers), why I didn’t play ball games, and why my intelligence didn’t translate into academic success until I specialized during higher education.
But these are external manifestations. What does it feel like for me, today, at 46 to have Asperger Syndrome? In a word, irritating. My compulsive pedantry doesn’t just mean I will correct your grammar or usage (under my breath or more audibly on a bad day) but that common errors and vulgar neologisms continue to grate against me just like the sensory overloads mentioned earlier. “Tune it out”. “Let it go”. I can’t. I wish I could. But I can’t. If your iPod headphones are leaking near me, or you have a habit of jingling your change in your pocket while you talk to me, it will torture me, but my social awkwardness renders me incapable of diplomatically asking you to desist. I gurn and tic a bit, especially when the anxiety builds up. It wears me out. When I visit you, if you have the television or radio on, however quietly, in the background, I will be unable to listen to what you are saying without a draining mental effort.
So, I crave solitude. That’s when I can find a kind of peace. That’s why I go running for hours at a time by myself. That’s why I play the piano (yes, the same few pieces over and over, and yes, I enjoy the scales and arpeggios as much if not more than the pieces), which is a solitary pursuit when you do it like I do. And that’s why I make excuses not to come to office nights out or leaving meals.
And yet, I’m married. Helen seems to be coping with the latest design fault to have emerged in her husband of eight years as well as she has with the others. I know I am an impossible punishment to live with. Can you imagine what it’s like settling down on a cold night to watch a DVD, only to be told that the central heating’s got to go off because of the noise? Or having a meal ruined because the table’s laid wrongly? Or having to repeat the simplest request because your husband is having an anxiety attack that has scrambled his auditory processing?
I’m the same person I was few weeks ago. How does diagnosis change anything? I’m not, and never will be normal. But I now know that in a sense, I’m not unique. I’m but one example of a closely studied phenomenon and that gives me some hope that I can find some mapped paths through this.
Having been diagnosed does not feel as exciting or special as I had hoped. The boring reality of AS, for me, is that I am usually anxious and exhausted. And unlike some glittering individuals with AS or high-functioning autism who proclaim that they are not disabled, but just different, I would swap this for being normal without a moment’s hesitation.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Rest and Reflection

When you hate your job as much as I hate mine, four days away from it make for a very therapeutic break indeed. This Easter was improved further by the occasion of my 46th birthday on Saturday. What this meant was a day free from compromise, and free from living up to the expectations of, or commitments towards other people. I didn't celebrate with a gram of cocaine and brace of courtesans, but instead spent the day with Helen, who I think was bemused at my paucity of indulgent ambition.

She brought me some smashing gifts from herself and her family in bed. How well they know me. If you ever chanced upon a high visibility cycling jacker, packet of liquorice allsorts, book on mindfulness, and yoga brick, you'd have a pretty good idea I was in the vicinity. Later, instead of committing to a grand day out in our walking boots, we tried some gentle urban exploration. A great fringe benefit of Green activism is that I have a much stronger sense of personal geography, and relish filling in the gaps on my mental map of the city I live in. We took woodland paths and local streets that don't lead anywhere, and I found rewarding new vistas less than ten minutes from home.

We were back on familiar birthday territory by the evening, although I had refused to book a restaurant in advance. I hazarded the opinion that I'd be comfortable somewhere that Frasier's Dad, Martin Crane would be, so we went where the diners were interesting, the food unpretentious, and the conversation unstilted. Then home, where, folk wisdom has it, married women do what their husbands fantasise about for the rest of the year with them. In my case, this is watching a complete early Doctor Who adventure. I chose "The Daemons", which is my earliest memory of the programme, from 1971, and it went down well, despite Helen's initial horror that it comprised five episodes.

Today is the 20th anniversary of John Major's election win, and my thoughts are cast back to who I was and what I was doing in Spring 1992. On my birthday, I went to London to see Spinal Tap play a low-profile afternoon  club gig, and I was reading Iain Banks' "The Crow Road". I was just embarking on a doomed, but fleetingly morale-boosting, dalliance, and rebuilding my self-confidence after having been bullied into leaving my job the previous Autumn. I think I would quite like my 26-year-old self, but oh, how I envy him his free time, and rather wish he could have applied himself more.

20 years later, I am still reading Iain Banks, specifically, his latest, "Stonemouth". I still care enough about music to be making trips to London to see one-off shows. And Helen and I have been together for twelve years, so I'm glad I wasn't put off looking for companionship. What's changed? Well, I have almost no spare time. I am making up for the lost time of my youth and trying to catch up and achieve what I realise I should have done earlier. That's why Easter feels special. I've even got time to write a blog entry.