My blogging experience and what I have learned from it

When I first considered blogging, I was trying to figure out how best to hone my writing skills. It sounded like a good thing to do, and in my head it was something that real writers did all the time. Except I wasn’t a real writer. So there was no way I was actually going to try it myself. Right?

Then when I was 19, I got Blogging for Dummies for Christmas. So naturally I decided to give it a try. Not that it would ever take off or anything.

Once I started, it was fun! I liked how much easier it was to express myself than in the real world. As time passed, both my blog and my life saw various chapters come and go. The turbulent university phase, where I experimented with poetry and that weird 4 temperaments reflection series. My internship and the aimless job hunting that came before and afterwards, during which I reflected on topics such as mission trips, rude customers, and whether or not autism should be healed. Seven years and about 180 blog posts after I started, I thought I’d reflect on what I have learned from blogging.

The first thing was the importance of writing with feeling. If something makes me feel, it should make other people feel. After my internship’s mission trip, I tried to capture the lows of an anxiety attack on the plane, and the highs of going on an adventure with friends. When my neurotypical “mask” was failing me, I wanted people to understand how draining it was to maintain in the first place. When I was despairing about how anti-vaxxers think autism is a fate worse than death, I wanted to emphasise how it feels knowing that some people think I’d be better off dead.

Similarly, if something makes me laugh, it should make other people laugh. The trick is to make it relatable. When I wrote about some of my embarrassing stories, I was prepared to sacrifice my dignity for the sake of entertainment. I wasn’t prepared for it to become one of my most popular posts ever. I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered by the attention or disconcerted by how many people were amused by my mishaps. But hey, it got a lot of laughs.

One of the trickiest things is getting the beginning and ending just right. Too long, and you’re rambling. Too short, and it doesn’t flow. To introduce and conclude a point, it pays to be conversational. But not go off on a tangent that distracts you altogether.

The other is striking the balance between opening up but not too much. This depends on what you – and people you write about – feel comfortable with. Anyone can read a blog, so for me it’s important to remember what I’m prepared to disclose publicly, and what I’m not.

And finally, with a blog, you have the power to use publicity for good. If an issue matters to you, write about it. If you have challenges that most people don’t, educate by sharing your perspective. More than ever, we have the potential to make even a small difference to whoever we reach out to. If nothing else, that has to count for something.

Mary’s moments of madness

This year has proven to be a time for many changes. Most of us are stuck at home. Social gatherings are banned. And very soon, I will be saying goodbye to one of my fellow New Wine Discipleship interns from my internship year: my friend Mary.

While I was settling into my bookshop internship, Mary had just arrived in the country from Ukraine, as the intern at the church I now go to. My first memories of her are vague, mainly because in a setting full of new people – like our weekly discipleship course – it can take me weeks to recognise and get to know everyone. But I managed to connect with people in my own time. I befriended the first person I got talking to properly and I met more on our shared commute.

My first bonding moment with Mary was a little different. About 24 hours into our Ukraine mission trip*, I needed her to show me the loo before our first church service. We had just reached the facilities when she suddenly said she’d forgotten how weird Ukrainian public toilets could be. I was halfway through wondering how toilets could be weird, when I saw for myself: they were very dirty holes in the ground. As I quickly decided I was not emotionally prepared to use one, Mary was laughing at the shock on my face which she has described as “unforgettable” many times since.

That was just the start of our many in-jokes. During our last discipleship day celebration, I tripped after one mojito, and Mary will never let me forget how I complained at length to her about how lightheaded I felt. A few weeks later, I started going to her church and joined her in the worship band. She became one of the main people I hung out with, and it’s fair to say we are complete opposites. Mary is a spontaneous, fun-loving extrovert. I’m an introvert who thrives on alone time and careful planning. Mary keeps me moving. I try to help her slow down when life gets busy. We have our differences, but I think we balance each other out. 

As you can tell, social events with Mary are never boring. On my birthday last year, we went to a Chinese restaurant with a calculator that read out Chinese numbers when someone pressed a button. After some experimental dancing to the noise, Mary asked the staff what it was, and accidentally scared them because they thought she was complaining. At a Christmas social, she got a magnifying glass in her cracker, and spent the evening pretending to be a detective and trying to see into people’s minds. When we shared a room at a weekend away, she kept dancing wildly to Taylor Swift music and singing into my hairbrush. She was also determined to learn how to do a Scottish accent. No, I don’t know why. Yes, I did ask.

Now, in a few short weeks, Mary will be moving to Southend to work at a church there. If and when my church reopens, I will have to get used to life without her sense of fun, her crazy jokes, and her passion for God, her friends, and her job. There will be a big space in church for a long while, but I am grateful for the laughs we’ve shared, her kindness and support, and our last evening together on my birthday just before lockdown. If I can learn even a bit of her confidence and her faith, I will be proud!

Mary and I (left to right) playing at Hester and James’ wedding

Us (me left and Mary second left) combining our brains for a Christmas quiz. Mary thought I looked like a Native American in my paper hat

 

 

*Fun fact: our first day on the trip was exactly three years ago yesterday, according to my Facebook memories

 

To Charlotte and our work shenanigans

Last March saw the one year work anniversary of a colleague who, over the past year, has become a trusted friend. Naturally, I decided that that month would be just the time to write a celebratory blog post. And then the coronavirus crisis and the ensuing lockdown happened, and I just blogged about whatever was on my heart while I got my head straight. So consider this to be more of a 14 month work anniversary tribute. Introducing Charlotte!

During her interview last year, Charlotte managed to prove her worth in the most innovative way. Having been given a proofreading task to do, she was unable to extract the tip of the pen. In the time she was given, she not only managed to complete the task, but also managed to disassemble the pen and get by on the bare ink fibre alone. While she has never been able to live down breaking our boss’s favourite pen, the rest of us still applaud her determination to this day.

Since then, we have bonded over each other’s craziest mistakes and mishaps. As copywriters, we upload information about our products to our website. When she was still new, I made her laugh hysterically by telling her about one of my most famous typos: misspelling “fatty acids” in a pet food description as “farty acids”. She has made me laugh by accidentally selecting “Sweet Potato” instead of “Suede” from our materials list when filling in information for a shoe.

Then there was the arrow sign. When we were working on products from a hardware supplier, one of mine was an arrow sign sticker. I very nearly mentioned in the description that it was a right pointing arrow, and only just realised in time that an arrow can, in fact, point in any direction you want it to. Charlotte has never let me live this down, and so I had to give it a mention.

Sitting opposite each other enabled us to learn the art of communicating with just one look. Charlotte has a real knack for having the silliest moments – like accidentally emptying her backpack everywhere, or sniffing her panda-shaped stress ball like a recreational drug – just when I make eye contact with her. She sees the moment in my eyes when I decide I can’t be bothered to ask, and will inevitably laugh until she cries. We’ve agreed that if she took a drink every time this happened, she would be in hospital with alcohol poisoning by 9.15am.

Still, for all her quirks, she has been there for me many times. Most notably when I invited her over after work to make Christmas decorations for our work desk decorating competition. While making a paper chain, my stapler broke. But I was determined to finish what I started, and was sure I could fix it in a blink. Our craft session ended rather abruptly with Charlotte Googling “friend got a staple in her finger” while I thought about the stitches I was sure I needed and tried not to panic. Mercifully, all I had to do was prise it out with some disinfected tweezers. Charlotte nobly offered to help, but had never been so relieved to be turned down.

In all seriousness, I fully appreciate the companionship of working and laughing together throughout the week. On a bad day, she knows how to cheer me up. If I’m confused or frustrated, she helps me figure things out. So while we’re stuck at home, let’s take a moment to appreciate the good times with work friends, and to look forward to laughing at with each other face-to-face!

Sleep, lack of it, and things that can help

I have a love hate relationship with sleep. I love it. I hate not getting enough of it. And any of the following things can get in the way of it for me: background noise, physical discomfort, any worries, emotions, or nagging thoughts that won’t go away, anticipation of Christmas Day/a social event/something big happening the next day, worrying about not being able to sleep…to name but a few.

One of the biggest causes of insomnia for me is sharing a room with another person, especially in a new place. There have been at least a couple of occasions – one recent, one less so – where I have shared a room with someone on a weekend away, only to inadvertently startle them when they woke up during the night simply by being wide awake. And it’s not just being with another person in a new place. When I went camping as a teenager, someone thought it would be funny to set off an airhorn as a prank at the crack of dawn. At a weekend away in Blackpool I went to a few years ago, I got woken just after 2am by a woman screaming at a man, saying he would find her dead outside their room in the morning and it would be all his fault. Cheerful.

Then there are all-nighters. I have pulled exactly one of these in my life (intentionally, at least), and that was enough. I was on an Animal Management course at Brooksby College, and took part in a night of overnight lambing as part of my work experience. Picture it: a cold, damp barn in early March, and 11-12 hours patrolling the building aimlessly, fetching supplies, and watching sheep give birth. The resulting sleep deprivation made for an interesting day at college, in the shape of me struggling to hold a pen, and not remembering anything that was said to me, despite being awake. Not an experience to be repeated.

And sometimes things are rough, and sleep is the last thing I can manage. About a year and a half ago, late one evening, my mum was in a car crash. Immediately, despite text assurances from her and my stepdad that she was out of immediate danger, I sat up all night imagining what must have happened – and what could have happened. A year before that, my sister fell critically ill, and got turned away from A and E twice, only being seen to when she was at risk of dying. The night before I went to visit her, I was filled with all these scary images of her in agony, of her not surviving. At that time, I had the least to be dealing with, but that is one night I will always remember.

So how do I deal with insomnia? Here are some pointers I’ve come up with in recent years:

  • Wind down before bed. Even if it means going to bed a few minutes later.
  • If you can’t sleep, get up and do something soothing. Draw, colour, read a book. Then try again. For me, this turns a bad night into an ok night, and means that I…
  • …don’t spend the whole night feeling frustrated about being unable to sleep. Frustration will keep you awake in a vicious cycle if you let it
  • Try not to look at the time during the night unless you are sure it’s nearly time to get up. Doing this only makes me more stressed about how much more time I have to sleep
  • If unwanted thoughts, feelings, or worries are keeping me awake, I journal them. This helps me to look at them objectively and, where applicable, make decisions for the next day that will put my mind at ease

So, to conclude, what are your thoughts and advice regarding sleep? Make what you like of my points and experiences, they are relevant to me, but not necessarily everyone. And then get a good night’s rest. Sweet dreams from me!

Age “appropriate” interests

One of the earliest traits of Asperger’s is unusual interests – that is, things that might not appeal to people of a similar age. We’ve already established I was a strange child. The sealife encyclopaedias I used to want Mum to read to me at night when I was 4 are a testament to that. And it brings me onto a topic that, like many others, I stumbled across on Facebook: age appropriate interests.

A recurring debate within this topic is to what extent should autistic children – and adults –  be persuaded to take an interest in similar things to their peers? This is a tricky one, and it can be a morally grey area. Is it helping the person to learn and grow so that they are not stuck in the same patterns throughout adulthood? Or is it forcing them to be someone they’re not, just to please the rest of the world? Let us have a think.

For a start, is “appropriate” even the right word? It’s so subjective, and varies between different generations and cultures anyway. I texted Mum to ask her opinion, and had a quick phone conversation about my various interests growing up.

Far from worrying about what a weirdo I was (and arguably still am), she fell in love with my individuality, and found it baffling that my first teachers treated me as if I had just landed from outer space (rather than Taiwan). I liked wearing a different shoe on each foot. I read snake encyclopaedias cover to cover. I would often rather read, draw, or make things, than watch TV, much to my headteacher’s disgust. In short, I was quirky and intelligent. What’s inappropriate about that?

Throughout my childhood, I was interested in things aimed at younger kids, like my extensive family of soft toys. I was also interested in things for adults, like cat breeds and reading Watership Down. What I couldn’t be bothered with were toys and media aimed at my peers, as a small child and as a pre-teen. Dolls? Popular TV programs? Forget it. Other people disapproved of me carrying soft toys everywhere after a certain age. But my toy cats were my closest friends at the time. Why should I give them up?

As I became a teenager, I grew more self conscious, while other kids grew more judgemental. I learned the hard way that saying “I know all about cat breeds” wasn’t the best conversation starter in secondary school. Mum gently introduced me to the Now That’s What I Call Music CDs, and Mizz magazine. My stepdad had already started reading Harry Potter to me. Not because they wanted to change me, but to help me find common ground with other kids.

And I did get into all three of the above. I read all the Harry Potter books and looked forward to the next Mizz every fortnight. I still haven’t tired of certain Now 60-something songs. It’s a hard balance to strike, but my parents managed, and I’m grateful for it.

So that basically sums up my stance: if introducing someone to what their peers are into is genuinely helping them, then it’s worth a try. But don’t force it on them; it only encourages them to be ashamed of the way they are. Personal interests and popular trends often don’t last forever anyway, so why use either as a measurement of what’s appropriate? Whatever the person’s interests are, if you can honestly say you are prioritising their wellbeing – and not their image – then you’re on the right path.

Christmas goals – expectation versus reality

  1. Expectation: Get all my Christmas shopping over and done with by mid December at the latest. Reality: I don’t know what my family wants. My family also don’t know what they want. Cue a last minute browse round the shops >2 days before Christmas.
  2. Expectation: Get loads of uni coursework done before Christmas Day. Reality: Hopefully make a start on an assignment by New Years Eve. (Note – this was during my uni years, and is mercifully no longer applicable).
  3. Expectation: Make as much vegan friendly confectionery as possible, with my various vegan/lactose intolerant family members in mind. Reality: Make a plate of marzipan fruits and call it a day.
  4. Expectation: Protect the tree from the cats at all costs. Reality: Give up trying to keep them out of the same room and just accept whatever happens.
  5. Expectation: Make some festive decorations with a good friend from work for our desk decorating competition. Reality: Break a stapler. Attempt to fix said stapler. Accidentally staple my own finger. Spend most of the evening slowly and painfully removing staple with tweezers while both of us try not to freak out.
  6. Expectation: Write a deep, carefully thought through blog post that captures the essence of the festive season. Reality: After hours of procrastinating, start writing about the first thing that comes to mind, try to make it vaguely Christmassy, then finish it as quickly as possible so as not to be late for the Call The Midwife Christmas special.

I have always thought of myself as someone who loves Christmas. I still think this, but lately I’ve come to realise how draining it actually is. My mother has been working her backside off to make this a good one. My sister is in another pantomime, and will be getting back to work tomorrow. Meanwhile I’m still getting to grips with juggling work, cooking, and other aspects of regular life with present shopping, two parties, two dinner socials, a choir performance, and a church carol service.

In recent years, my attitude towards Christmas has shifted from childlike excitement at the beginning and disappointment when the tree comes down to enjoying it while it lasts, then appreciating the stillness that follows. It’s all too easy to get so caught up in trying to make it perfect that we wear ourselves out and lose focus of what’s important. I mean, I love all the special food, and presents, and making the place look lovely. But on reflection, I realised that my main priorities are these:

  • Quality time with the family
  • A break from everyday life
  • Appreciating what we’ve got
  • Making memories

When you think about it, the first Christmas wasn’t elaborate. I don’t get the impression that Jesus was born in splendour in that cold, dark stable. And yet, as the story goes, there were gifts, and there was love. So I try to appreciate what we have, without worrying about how to make things bigger and better. And as always, find the humour in the simplest things.

Having said that, I’m still disappointed that, despite literally bleeding for my festive looking desk, this is the best I could do (see below). But at least the staple incident brought a smile to the faces of many friends, in and outside of work. And if that isn’t the true spirit of Christmas, then I don’t know what is!

Under the weather

I’ve heard it said that autistic people, on average, tend to get ill less easily. I don’t know if this is true, but my immune system was definitely on my side last week when it got to my second annual appraisal meeting at work, and I hadn’t had a single sick day since I started a year and a half ago. Well done me, I thought.

Then the following weekend, I came down with a cold. I’ve put up with colds before. No biggie. After three days of trying to function normally with my temperature going up and down, however, I had to admit defeat. So on Tuesday, I swallowed my pride – along with some painkillers and some hot honey and lemon – and rang in sick.

Huddling in my room, too bunged up to catch up on sleep, I realised how out of practise I am at being ill. A clear testament to the privilege of being a very healthy person. What do sick people do all day? I spent most of that morning blearily wondering this, before giving in and making myself just sit quietly and read, or watch stuff on my laptop. In hindsight, that was probably all I needed; while I’m still shaking off the last of this cold, I noticed a marked improvement the next day.

I like to think I’m pretty stoical when it comes to discomfort, but some of my childhood memories imply that I took a while to get there. Namely when I developed a bladder infection aged five. I was notoriously bad at taking medicine at that age, and would gag so dramatically when it was forced upon me, it was actually disturbing. To top that, I was throwing up a lot, refusing to use the toilet, refusing to co-operate for the doctor, and screaming the house down. It got so bad that my poor mother joined in the screaming after a while. How I got better, I’ll never know.

I spent most of my childhood being irrationally worried about illness. You could blame it on my trip to the smallpox museum with my now-stepdad. He found the whole thing fascinating, but the wall of photos of pock-marked children will stay with me forever. More seriously though, it was probably an unfortunate mix of common sense (illness is bad and needs to be avoided) and neuroticism (knowing something is bad and wanting to take EVERY possible measure to avoid it). I panicked if someone in class felt sick. I refused to touch stale food. I was even afraid of going to bed and waking up with a tummy bug. Irrational, I know, but I do remember thinking it.

Having narrowed down these fears to specifically vomiting or deadly illnesses, I got a grip and learned to stop complaining. Unfortunately as a teenager, I even took this too far. I developed what looked like infected insect bites, and put up with them for three weeks. Three lots of antibiotics and several medical appointments later, it turned out I was not only running a fever, but had a rare staphylococcal skin infection and was at risk of blood poisoning. Definitely worth complaining about.

So as you can see, my approach to illness has zigzagged somewhat over the years. I’m still squeamish about vomit, but that aside, my rule of thumb is: eat healthily, rest well, and you’ve got a good fighting chance. And when your immune system does give in? There’s no point in beating yourself up for not functioning at full speed. Make the most of the chance to be quiet, comfortable, and still for a day, and hopefully that’s all you need to get back on track.

 

My first signs of autism

Having long outgrown my phase of hating talking about my Asperger’s, I have since had many conversations about the topic. And recently, one or two people have asked: how did my parents first know I was autistic? Good question.

I don’t have a problem with people asking, let me get this straight. What I do struggle with is answering. It’s a past-tense version of the even more common question – how does autism affect me? My immediate inner reaction is much the same: how do I explain something that feels completely normal to me? My parents could probably give a 10 hour talk on the subject if you asked them, but somehow, most of the time they aren’t there to answer the question for me.

Besides, I quite like not relying on them to talk for me. So I did a bit of research and dug out my old school reports and other SEN* related documents. Voila, a basic summary of a small, autistic me.

Special interests: I had an in-depth knowledge of animals. My favourite bedtime story at one point was a sealife encyclopaedia, and Mum and I spent many happy evenings reading about different types of sea slug. At a snake exhibition, 5 year old me thought there was nothing strange about announcing to the host: “I had no idea corn snakes were polymorphic!” Years later, my go-to conversation starter was “I know all about cat breeds!” When faced with a task at school that involved pictures of various animals, I pointed to the duck picture, and asked what breed of duck it was. The answer was – a line drawing!

Reactions to sensory stimuli: Apparently I was an unusually placid baby…except when people touched me, then I would scream in their face, an urge I still have to fight if someone I don’t know touches me, haha. During any noisy school activities, I would cover my ears if the other children were being too loud…but failed to notice a fire alarm that went off while I was particularly engrossed in some drawing. I was obsessed with food…but would gag dramatically on foods with certain textures, or pretty much any medicine. Yeah, I was a bundle of contradictions.

Interactions with people: I didn’t pick up on facial expressions, body language, and social expectations, and consequently, kids either got bored of me, or took advantage of my naivety. If someone asked me if I wanted to play with them, I would just give an honest “no”. I struggled with concentration and working memory in lessons, and needed an adult to repeat things to me one-to-one. I would show physical, mental, and emotional signs of exhaustion a few weeks into each school year simply from trying to keep up. Yet when given intelligence tests, with just one adult and no kids for company, I kept declaring how much fun it was!

I could go on for ages, but I think you get the idea. Growing up on the spectrum wasn’t fun, but I did it, and I largely have my parents to thank for that. Besides, I like to look back at these things and laugh. Because when you were as weird as me as a child, you just have to!

 

 

* Special Educational Needs

A trip down memory lane, and what I will remember from it

When I was little, my mum took my sister and I to Lee Abbey in north Devon, a Christian holiday and retreat centre we returned to many times throughout the rest of my childhood. Having reached a pretty big low at that point in our lives – not that I was massively aware at the time – meeting my now-stepfather that week was, in hindsight, a sign that things were about to turn around. But I wasn’t interested in minor events like that. Not when I had a whole three storey building, complete with open fields and woodland trails, to explore.

In that holiday, and subsequent ones, I went on numerous adventures. I played my violin at one of their entertainment evenings and had my photo featured in their brochure. I climbed a whole 2 feet into my first and only tree. I got knocked over by a child on a bike when I was playing outside. I discovered room 401, the highest room in the building. Wild times indeed!

Fast forward to early August 2019. At the ripe old age of 26, I felt it was high time I grew up and attempted my first solo holiday. After scouring the internet for cheap package holidays abroad, I decided to take a trip down memory lane and back to Lee Abbey.

I’ll be honest, it was partly because going abroad alone still looks too complicated right now. But I also wanted to see how it would feel to revisit a part of my childhood, and what I might take from it. And it was great. My room was directly below room 401. I went on solo walks every day just to immerse myself in the outdoors, or to explore Lynton. Despite my social awkwardness, I got chatting to dozens of people from all walks of life during mealtimes. My poor tree had been reduced to a stump, but hey, you can’t have everything.

So what have I taken from all this? Here are a few little things:

  • How easy it is to get back into creative activities, such as drawing and painting, in a place with minimal WiFi
  • The simple joy of sitting in a secluded outdoor spot high above the sea with your journal, book, and bottle of ginger beer
  • The relief of being far from work and city life for a while
  • How much smaller old childhood haunts somehow become when you retrace your steps as an adult – when did those massive staircases get so much shorter?
  • The necessity of changing your routine briefly just to refresh your faith and your perspective on life

To conclude, here are just a few photos:

Tales from the gym

Exercise has always been important to me. I’m no athlete – my parents both run regularly, my mum was a Pilates instructor for many years, my stepdad swims, and my sister is a qualified dancer and actress, leaving me feeling like the family couch potato. In my defense, I have been going to the gym regularly for several years now. I don’t claim to love it, but nevertheless keep it up because I know it is good for me.

Last month, I moved to be closer to my job. If you had asked me then if I had any worries about this, the actual moving process would have been top of the list. Joining the gym that is conveniently across the road from where I work wouldn’t. Moving day came and went pretty smoothly, with little to report. My new gym, meanwhile, has probably caused me to burn more calories from sheer stress than from the exercise itself.

I spent my first visit being unable to find anything; namely the entrance to the building, the lockers, the lockers that had functioning locks, the labels on said locks telling me to use a 10p coin (instead of a £1 coin), and the gym itself. I could barely be bothered at this point, but thought hey, I’m new here, of course everything’s confusing, things can only get better.

Oh how wrong I was.

When I returned, I filled in a membership form. Come the third time, I tried to get in as a full member, except that the staff had no record of my membership on their system. Their most logical explanation was that I must have put my form in my bag and taken it home. Needless to say, there was no sign of it, nor any way that I would have been allowed to go ahead with my workout without handing it in first.

Which indicated that they must have mislaid it. Complete with my bank details, written loud and clear. Not good.

Feeling pretty fed up about this, I politely but firmly raised the issue with someone at the desk. They just told me to fill in another form. I reiterated that someone here had left a document with my bank details on it lying around goodness knows where for all and sundry to see. This interaction was repeated a couple of times before I gave up in frustration.

I then sent an email via the city council, retelling the story and highlighting the GDPR* rules at stake, which gave them a bit of a nudge. After some careful scrutiny of their CCTV cameras, a member of staff discovered that I had not filled in the entire form, and the person who had taken it had shredded it, but left no notes on the system. To compensate for all the stress – and the fact I’d needlessly changed my debit card – they gave me 2 weeks free membership.

Of course, not every staff member believed me during that 2 week period, or was able to find the notes explaining why I was getting in free. But it’s the thought that counts.

And now I am a full member. What could go wrong now?

 

 

*General Data Protection Regulation