The Best Advice I’ve Ever Recieved

Social anxiety has been a part of my life for a really long time. Those constant flashbacks to times I said stupid things that make me want to hide forever. The way I’ve sounded like Siri going wrong when I haven’t known what to say. And that the perpetual fear of social situations, that grew to meaning I didn’t want to go anywhere with people. Those were just facts of life.
These days, I take an antidepressant that helps me feel incredibly neutral. From there, I can have emotions that seem more relative to the individual situation. I don’t lie awake at night thinking about the stupid things I said that day, although that’s probably helped by the sleeping medication. I don’t fear people in general because I know that they will talk at some point in our interaction. Overall, being on that medication has changed my life.
Something else, however, has also made a massive difference to my life. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t therapy or a meeting with a psychiatrist. It was one of the many conversations I had with my former school support worker.
She, in all honesty, it’s probably the reason I’m here today as the person that I am. She listened to everything I had to say and took it on board, finding solutions to every problem I had and helping me at the lowest point in my life. She did so much for me that I still think of the way she did things, the way she help me and the things that she said that have made such a difference to my life.
In one of the long conversations that we had discussing everything about my life, diagnosis and problems I encountered she said something that seems to have changed my life. I was telling her how I found people so confusing and how my social anxiety just made me feel so awkward to the point where I hated every word that came out with mouth. Despite the negativity, I believe I mentioned something about my mind racing and forgetting everything I planned to say, every time I tried to talk. Her response changed everything.
She said “It doesn’t matter if you take a moment to breathe and think about what you’re going to say. No one’s going to make fun of you, in fact you’re just proving that you’re thinking through what you’re saying in an intelligent way. It’s a positive thing.”
I’m not exaggerating when I say that this changed everything. The first day of college I was trying to make friends and I was scared about what to say – everything in my mind went blank, so I paused. After a breath, a whole possibility of things to say swirled around in my mind. I chose one and the conversation moved on. In my job interview I was asked a question that made my mind go completely blank, so I paused. The words came back to me and I took a breath. I found something to say that didn’t make me feel like I was being ridiculous, it made me feel confident in the words that I would say. I could probably even go as far as saying that it helped me get the job.
I will never diminish the impact that the medication I take has had on the way I can communicate with the world around me without feeling like I hate myself. But I know it’s not just the medication. Sometimes, words of simple reassurance and basic advice can change the way someone thinks, and in turn, their life.

Labels: Why They’re Great

Up until the age of 15, I didn’t like myself very much. I thought of myself as ‘awkward’ and ‘weird’ in a way I couldn’t explain. Physical appearance hadn’t overly bothered me throughout my life but who I was inside had. I’d always felt different to my brother and sister, but growing older meant I felt different to everyone. I desperately wanted not to care but from the age of thirteen onward I was researching everything I could. Like physical and mental health conditions, hoping something would apply to me and someone could tell me what on earth was going on. The answer hadn’t really crossed my mind. By when, in the diagnostic appointment, they said “we think you’re autistic”, I was beyond relieved.

I’m autistic, not ‘weird’. A simple word summing up my entire life was all I needed. I’m not limited by a word that has given me the chance to live a proper life again. I can make friends and go “I’m Emma and I’m autistic, ask me questions if you want, I’m just telling you who I am”. I can get a job, telling my future boss “I’m autistic, and I want to help people learn, especially people who’ve struggled with understanding the world like me” (true story!).  I can tell the world “I’m autistic and I couldn’t care less if you look down on me for that. If you want to look down on me, get out of my life.” Most of all, I can leave the house being me, flapping my arms and not caring, if I want to. I’m not hiding who I am, because the effort it took caused a burnout-breakdown I never want to see repeated.

Not only that, but saying “I’m autistic!” or “I have anxiety disorders!” are, to me, useful descriptors that tells you who I am in a concise way. It’s way easier to say “I’m autistic” than “I flap my hands sometimes, can have vicious meltdowns, can’t communicate brilliantly, don’t understand social norms and codes, am hypersensitive to pretty much everything and have only seemed to talk about Harry Potter for the past six years”.

There’s this idea that labels limit you. I’ve had conversations before where I’ve even been talking about how much I love labels, only to be told “but, you don’t want to limit yourself, you’re not just autistic.” Not only does my life revolve around being autistic (more on this in my Language: Identity vs Person post) but I love the fact I’m am who I am. Being autistic isn’t limiting, a lack of support is.

I didn’t have support for the first 15 years of my life, and I hated myself.  Having a label, and the access to support that it brings, helped me learn to love who I am. How – in anyway at all – is that limiting? I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. And yes, to some people, labels seem ridiculous. They seem limiting and harsh and unnecessary. But I wear my labels like they’re my favourite clothes, and I’ve never felt more comfortable in my own skin.

Meltdown Memory

It’s a simple image, grandparents surround by their grandchildren. It’s a family celebration of their golden wedding anniversary, and part of that is taking photos outside of their house; everyone is dressed up nicely in new clothes, most likely brought for the special occasion. The oldest, and thus tallest, grandchildren stand at the back, while the two youngest stand one either side of the sitting-down grandparents. Everyone is smiling, including the girl to the right. However, she has blotchy cheeks as she does so. Her smile is not quite as genuine as the others, even though she’s delighted to be there. She’s been crying but hopes it doesn’t show. The girl to the right is me.
It’s lovely to stay with – or near by – my grandparents, their house has always seemed to be a happy place for me. I’ll never forget, nor fully lose, the excitement associated with the early morning get-up to visit them. Admittedly, it’s the only time I willingly get up before 7am. There’s memories of dressing up with the special dressing up clothes, kept in pink cardboard chest in my grandparents bedroom, or playing shops with the set of small cardboard boxes and plastic tins, using the plastic shopping basket they were kept in. As I’ve got older, the memories are more of interesting conversations with Grandpa and height jokes with Nan. Memories extend further than this, though, as most surfaces and walls hold pictures frames, displaying other memories. These range from school photos of us grandchildren and graduation pictures of both children and grandchildren to holidays in a variety of locations and or important birthdays. And, of course, among them is the golden wedding anniversary picture.

I remember it surprisingly well, but then again, I often do with days like this. I’m fairly certain that we – my mum, dad, brother, sister and I – were staying with my auntie, although there’s a chance we were at a hotel. This time is not quite as clear as later on that day would become. We’d gotten dressed up into our nice clothes and headed to our grandparent’s house. There, we chatted a little, before preparing for pictures. It was just before we would begin taking them that I realised something: I’d forgotten my jewellery.

I was only eight, and the jewellery was not impressive nor important. I believe it was a necklace with my name on that a friend had brought me from her holidays, and possibility a bracelet too. It wasn’t important but it distressed me in a way that’s difficult to explain to neurotypicals. I was supposed to wear it. I’d packed it for the reason of wearing it. It then felt wrong without it. It then began: the meltdown.

I didn’t have a word for it at the time, and to everyone – including myself – it seemed like a childish tantrum. It’s important to distinguish that it wasn’t. I’ll go more into this is the next post I have planned, set to work on the informative side of this but for now, here are the simple differences: it didn’t have a purpose, I wasn’t looking for a reaction, I wasn’t trying to communicate something I wanted. I was distress by the situation not being as I expected.

Looking back, it seems small. I have meltdowns quite a lot, I always have, but they’re normally over larger things than forgetting something, unless things have been getting to me. Maybe the noise of everyone greeting each other, the social event, the eye contact I was making or the difference in routine contributed in some way? Maybe it’d been things from weeks ago that I’d pushed down that resurfaced? Maybe I wasn’t fully physically well, making me more vulnerable to such a meltdown? Maybe I was still adjusting to the first-time-ever-worn clothes? Or maybe it was simply the necklace and the necklace alone.

Whatever caused it, I vividly remember having a meltdown in my grandparents back bedroom. I remember a lot of tears, difficulty breathing and general confusion. Again, something I plan to go into next time, but I can only describe it briefly as being in the sea, trying to swim but the waves are too harsh so you give up. It’s hard to focus on what is actually around you, the creatures you might see or the brilliant day it is, because you’re dealing other things.

I can almost hear my mum reassuring me that it’d be okay, to no avail. At the worst point in a meltdown, I can’t be calmed. You’ve got to ride the waves with me for a while, before we begin to swim again. My cousin came in, a couple of minutes later, kindly offering me her necklace, but I declined. It didn’t change the fact I’d forgotten my own. Again, float before you swim.

When the height of it all passed and things began to get better, a level of panic set in. Cue the next stage of the meltdown: desperately trying not to cry because you’re worried of how the blotchy face will show in the pictures, but crying seeming like the only way to deal with the anguish caused by the situation.

I think, more easily consoled this time around, my mum dusted a little powder onto my face to reduce the redness, while she reassured me that I didn’t need a necklace, it probably wouldn’t be noticed in the pictures anyway. The same with my red face. To be fair, it isn’t that noticeable, but photos, for me, have always vividly triggered memories. Combined with the fact meltdowns have always remained in my mind, more vivid than photos maybe, mean I remember it clearly.

The rest of the day, once again, falls into the realm of a blur. Nothing is quite as prominent as the meltdown, but I’m sure I loved the time spent there, as it was time spent with my grandparents and family.
This post is something that’s been playing on my mind recently, and as I mentioned, I hope to create more informative follow-up. It’s a reflection for me, part of collection of them I’m beginning to post, on autism things that I didn’t know had a name at the time.

Finally, I’d like to thank my wonderful Nan and Grandpa for supporting me through everything and accepting me for who I am. If you end up reading this, I hope you remember how wonderful you are (and how short you are, Nan, not that I’d ever let you forget!)