I’m going to make a start today…just a tiny, cautious start feeling into this topic. It’s one I thought I had handled before but, the more I read about Aspie women, seeing myself in their accounts of how they emotionally respond to life, the more I realise I really don’t have my emotional duckies all lined up in a row. The common assumption goes that people with Asperger’s lack emotion, are cold and logical, even disengaged but I suspect this is a textbook misnomer and that those (certainly, women) with it probably consider this far from the truth; but, perhaps, have given up arguing with this pronouncement because its just so wrong or alien to them, as are so many neurotypical thought processes, that they just can’t be bothered to engage. I know that’s how I get when confronted by neurotypical lapses in logic, especially those directed at me; like I’m too weary to my boot straps to bother contradicting.
Yet something isn’t quite “typical” in me when it comes to emotions and I see a lot of it in other accounts. So, what isn’t quite working out for some of us emotionally…for those like me and perhaps, especially, those who then funnel their emotions into physical pain? Because I have known, for a long time (without a reason for it) that I do that very thing but where was all this emotion coming from in the first place, given the sea of me looks so very calm above the surface? After all, I’m about polar opposite to operatic. The only way to find out is to take the plunge yet to do so is the most daunting task you could set me, as it turns out, since it means tracking down and facing my emotions after all.
It was (yet another) section of Laura James account in her book “Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Girl in a Neurotypical World” that set my head to auto writing the beginnings of this post because it was like being in an echo chamber to read it; my kindle notes stretching out from the usual brief phrases or one-worders into long wordy paragraphs (if you have you ever tried typing long notes on Kindle’s inadequate keyboard you will know how frustrating it is yet I had to in order to keep up with myself).
The situation serving as a pivot in common was the point when her two sons left for university and all the intense emotions, including despair, that she experienced once they were gone from the family home. Having recently gone through the very same with my daughter, I found I could relate on so many levels I had never read about in any other account of a mother becoming an “empty nester”. For me (unlike James) its not that I’ve ever felt all that good at parenting, being too selfishly focussed on my deep inner pursuits and in need of the kind of sensory stability that parenthood blows to smithereens; but there can be absolutely no doubt I intensely love and feel responsible my daughter, and that she is quite monumentally important to my world and my sense of well-being.
James describes that she feels so responsible for her children because she “invited” them to come into the world; thus she sees it as her job to make everything nice for them, like she would for a guest coming to stay. I can’t tell you how much this description hits the parenting nail on the head for me and how diligently I have worked at trying to make her world just perfect since she was born twenty years ago. I don’t think I was in any way prepared for that effect of parenthood.My mother’s sudden death and the birth of my daughter, in relatively quick succession, blew my safe Aspie walls down as surely as though they were made from straw and its like I have been living two lives (one of which I can’t profess to control) ever since.
On the way home from dropping her final son at uni, James recounts how she cried on the journey; an unusual thing for her. The truth of this also hit me; because, for me to do this would be rarity indeed and show that some inner sanctum wall had been badly breached, risking wholesale collapse if reinforcements were not ready.
When I look across the course of my life, it feels like I cry all the time but this is only because it’s such a momentous event, wracking every nerve and fibre of me for long afterwards. Most of the time, I keep myself under close control…I see that now…as though to break the inner sanctum would be to unleash unholy hell on the world and myself. I don’t like to cry, it feels alien to me and leaves my feelings only more rattled than I was, most of the time. Sometimes, high emotion such as joy or the tingles I get from music can provoke it but that’s somehow different and is brief enough to glide through like damp velvet but sad tears are jagged and raw, dragging the flesh off me and I have learned to avoid them.
Its not that my emotions are simple or absent, its that (like everything else in my super-sensory world) they are unfathomably complex and bottomless and so I struggle to process them. In her response to how her husband described himself as excited but sad on her son’s departure, James declares “It seems amazing to me that he can distil his feelings into these two simple words…Mine feel like the sort of equation you see written on a huge blackboard by Stephen Hawking”.
Yes! With day-to-day emotions, I do my best to categorise them with more utilitarian labels than they arrived with, adding practical thumb indexes or by charting patterns that I work to make sense of, often via my writing so that I can then let them go out into the world, all neat and tidy. It’s an endless task yet someone has to do it; said with the stalwart attitude of someone who thinks their actual purpose in life, with no days off, is to be a sort of librarian for the human experience. But things that defy categorisation, like love for a child, the muddled feelings I get in a room full of people or when confronted by a tirade of right winged ideals, blow my synapses. I feel so much emotion that even I can’t make head or tail, though I go inwards to do my best, tattering myself to pieces in the attempt. Expression of them to others isn’t my priority since nobody I have ever met is like me; in fifty years, they have never got it right when they proffer their best, and highly typical, suggestions of “you are feeling like this because of x….” or “its y you need to let go of/deal with/change”. No, no no, they are usually miles off the mark so I don’t even bother going where cross purposes and neurotypical misinterpretations run riot. At best, I nod my agreement only to discount every word of advice and return to my lair.
Instead, I carry my emotions around in armfuls, stuffing small tricky extras in my pockets; like when I try to go upstairs to bed in one trip, carrying book, headphones, glass of water, cup of tea, items of clothing under the arms and draped around neck… My curly wurly Ehlers-Danlos body, with its extra complex “tubes”, provides those storage pockets, as I know from my track record of having to tackle so much deeply-harboured pain. That the body is a giant emotion storage device is well known to every myofascial therapist worth their salt; the fascia acting like cling wrap to hold it all together. The slow-steady release of so much locked-up fascia by mine was like undoing the girdle that held me together and the tidal wave of emotions that followed is what floored me for the next five years; as though my Lego creation had dissolved into a pile of bricks to be sorted through on the floor. But what since then? Do I continue to squirrel new emotions away, unseen? Am I just continuing to rebuild my stash of emotions, squirrelled away in the dungeon of the body, and is that why I am so very weary and falling apart? But where else could I put them since I refuse to send out from myself anything that is disordered or unseemly? To do so would be to crash my very operating system in a way no neurotypical could truly understand.
My difficulty is not knowing how to make sense of so many emotions, even to myself. James uses an emotion colour wheel to help her identify hers as they happen and I realise I have also been trying to slow down, pay attention and to do something similar these last few months, like a child might sit looking at flashcards to learn words and their associations. Just pausing long enough to hear myself out and assess “OK, what have we got here?” before charging on into the next moment is a worthwhile thing for me to do, I find. Not being the full-time parent has given me the time to do this like never before; these days, I have lots of time to check in with myself.
And this I have particularly noticed: My trait is to follow up high emotion with a good dose of logic and practicality to stem the tide, as Laura James also describes about herself. The quicker I can turn my hands back to a practical task, the better…and so, as emotions threaten to turn to disarray and before high-exhaustion wipes the floor with me, I will throw myself into project-managing some crisis or put my back into the next logistical event to be arranged. Its why mini holidays have become a new pastime, a sort-of new “focused interest” out of the many that I have. As has always been the case, organising trips is my forte, a gift I have…my only problem being that I am not so very good at going on them. So here I am with all these pristine, meticulously arranged schedules involving travel to interesting places; yet, when it comes to it, my health seems to let me down each time another of them comes up in the diary or, at least, this has been the track record all year (perhaps always the case, but I seem to notice more now than ever).
I’m about to go away soon and I’m watching myself go to physical pieces again, just like the last time (which only reenforces my fear as that was a spectacular crash). Why oh why when I have looked forward to this so very much? When I dive the hidden emotions beneath the fray, I find that I am filled with regret at leaving my usual routine, my comforts, my uninterrupted ponderings on my own personal interests, the ability to sit and loose myself in my own favoured tasks for hour after hour, to be away from other people, plus all the safeguards and remedies I have to make my life comfortable at home…all of which have become more complex than ever of late. How will I do without my memory foam bed? The one sofa I can bear to sit on? A bath? My array of herbal remedies? I could cut to the chase and just say “My Routine”.
Of course, I throw myself into the fray with my organiser’s head on, right up until the last moment and all through the journey to get somewhere, to the point when I get to reassure myself all my arrangements came together as planned…but then I often collapse at the other side of it, increasingly on the holiday itself, like someone falling exhausted on the finishing line of a race. So I get ill or at least depleted and then…how much is this true…it feels as though my body minutely reacts in its own Aspie way to every change in its routine; the vegetables aren’t organic, the water is different, the bed feels odd, the neighbours are making noise and so it goes, or rather I go…all to pieces. Inflexibility is a terrible weakness in the “real” world but in my case it’s systematic. My father succumbed to it, point-blank refusing to go on holiday after a certain age and I think this is partly behind why I keep challenging myself with so many little trips…I simply don’t want to become as rigid as he did!
We Aspie’s rely so intensely on our routine that to take it from us is to pull a lynchpin; for though we may be supremely capable people doing whatever we do in the world, it is this routine that provides the solid foundation to it all. How oh how did I ever kid myself there was a spontaneous bone in my body, as I did when I was younger and trying so hard not to disappoint? Now I surrender; I am as rigid as they come and I can’t help it…am wired this way and age, and its physical challenges, only seems to make it worse since its effects are supremely physical as well as mental now. I have learned not to make too many changes around the time of other upheaval; so, sticking to the same breakfast cereal, clothing regime, music, shampoos and aromas etc while the sea starts to rock is a survival mechanism that used to go unnoticed. In fact, with hindsight, these survival techniques have always been there but were much more covert until my Aspie-ness came to light.
One of the ways I turn to practical task as a distraction from emotions has been as a parent and yet, the paradox, much of what I had to turn my hands to when my daughter was at home proved too overwhelming for me; her high emotions and challenging “outside” situations only mingling with mine to make them all bigger. Now she is at arm’s length, I cope so much better since her stuff comes in drips across the internet…less now she has a boyfriend…which comes as both a sadness and a huge relief. It depends on the task but if there is any risk of me joining her in her emotion pool then I am lost…drowned…sometimes for far longer than she is, since she has the resilience of youth and somewhat different wiring to mine. To me, her problems can feel like I’m being forced to jump into the deep end of a dark pool to save her though I don’t like to swim. To preempt sudden shocks, I like to test the water by checking her social media from time to time and you can tell she’s still in my every thought; I’ve saved every smiling picture of her since she left, doting over her anecdotes, but this arms-length phase is both a blessing and a catalyst to me. Overall, its easier to parent now than it ever was but I find myself all alone with my own emotions at last; perhaps for the first time in my life…and there is no avoiding them now, not when they obviously affect me so much more than I was admitting to myself.
So, this is just the beginning of a new phase; a slower, more paced, less avoiding phase of gentle yet brave inner observations and conversations, of noticing trends, of making better what I can, noticing patterns (my forte) so I can preempt or redirect the worst kinds of trends. Hopefully I can make some sense of some of the inner turmoil which, with no other outlet, was left trapped inside and with no option but to routinely pull the rug from under me. My first challenge is the upcoming break in my routine; I need to reclaim my longing to travel, without which I really would be left confronting a life on a sofa for the rest of my days. I know I have to work with this challenge, to wrap my head around it, in my usual Aspie way; but not in such a way as to suppress it but to help it find its own unique form of expression. I need to uncover a middle ground that allows both me and my emotions to cohabit more comfortably, and healthily, without blowing my need for order apart.
Its fascinating to me that the time my emotions come up the most powerfully, also in the most unruly, yet often quite inspirational, way (its a time when I seed so much of my writing) is at 4am in the morning since there is no logic at that time…none! In that early hour, I am some other, unbridled, version of myself and its long been a time for getting to know myself when there is no sleep to be had…but I see there is yet more to do during daylight hours (and yes, writing is a marvellous medium). First stop: how do I feel today? Well, I find I am uncharacteristically annoyed, no a MUCH stronger word (but I so dislike to hang around where there’s anger or hatred), at how much pain and disappointment is in my life; why do I have to feel so unwell just before a trip I’ve worked hard for and looked forward to? Don’t I deserve to feel like anyone else and for my body to work appropriately, predictably, without such intense and inexplicable pain coursing through it that I can hardly sit or stand or do normal things? There, I’ve made a start, giving it a colour of sorts if not quite the most appropriate adjective (I suspect I have to be prepared to be ruder in order to be more accurate). Whether I am just I skimming the surface here, with much more to discover, or deep diving the roots, remains to be seen but I am going to allow this area of self-exploration to become a new “focussed interest” with a notebook at hand because there is none more important to my own future wellbeing. I have no doubt I will be sharing more on this topic.