Managing stress

As I have been getting fully immersed into my new job, it has not been without its stresses. On top of new skills to learn and remember, and targets to meet, there is also the added complication of autism and communication. And now the end of my probation is looming. Joy.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about facing your struggles under pressure, it’s that you can either be overly humble and self-deprecating, or you can look for ways to improve and press on with your head held high. Chances are, there are people around you who want you to come out ok. And take it from me: letting your mistakes overwhelm you won’t solve anything.

Which is why, when under stress, it helps if I break down whatever I am dealing with into manageable chunks. Like essays at uni. I’d look at the topic I need to discuss, break it down into the main points, divide the word count between them, and voila, my essay had a skeleton. Figuratively speaking. Now I’m applying the same principle to work: look at my email of targets, organise all the notes I’ve made since day one, and highlight the things I haven’t mastered, so I can revise them. Somehow, these things seem less scary when you can see what you’re facing and how to face it.

Besides, in doing that, I feel like I’m setting reasonable goals for myself. It’s just a question of paying attention to your capacity, and, when setting goals, starting small. Often I make a list and highlight the priorities. Sometimes I just try one thing at a time. Either way, it feels both proactive and like I’m taking some of the pressure off. My worst habit, when facing any kind of workload, is to aim to achieve as much as possible, and between not having superpowers and being too stressed to do anything, I’m left feeling like a waste of space.

For now, though, my main coping mechanism is determination. Not from ambition, or a naturally motivated personality; if I relied on sheer character, I would still be in bed. The fact is, these past few weeks have been hard, and I’m scared. Scared of failing, scared of being a disappointment, scared I will lose the desire to prove myself. So while I run on fear-fuelled determination, excuse the decline in the quality and quantity of my writing. And remember: when things get challenging, you might not have control over the events around you, but you do have the power to keep trying.

 

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Ni hao! Where are you from?

The other week, my mother showed me a video on Facebook: What (Not) To Say To An Asian Person. It featured a couple of East Asian women explaining how to avoid making a race-themed social faux pas. Naturally, the comments section was full of words like “special snowflake” and “stop-whining-about-issues-we-have-never-experienced-but-are-judging-you-for-anyway*, ” and “how DO you talk to them?”

Which, to be fair, is an interesting question. The short answer is: if you talk like one respectable human being to another without making assumptions about the other person, then you’re probably getting it right. But I thought I’d break it down further.

For a start, upon seeing someone who may be in a racial minority, I like to assume that they speak English and don’t want to be singled out. Apparently, though, it’s perfectly acceptable to say a random greeting to them in a language that all people who look like them must speak – especially if you have no other reason to talk to them. Or to shout it through the window of your moving car. Ni hao! Konichiwa! Or be downright racist and shout “Great Wall of China!” at them to impress your mates. Right?

Wrong. It’s not simply saying hello. Do you have the same urge to shout a greeting to a completely white stranger? I never know why people do it, but if they want to be funny, clever, or cool, then they’ve got work to do.

And sometimes it is meant to be friendly. But having heard “ni hao” used as a slur – and even combined with catcalling – I just associate it with being made fun of. Besides, how do you know what language someone speaks? A white person, for example, could come from any continent in the world! Don’t get me wrong, if you’re fluent in their language, and they struggle with yours, then great. Otherwise, a simple “hello” or “hi” will suffice.

Interestingly, when my mum lived in Taiwan, she had a lot of passing strangers say “hello” or “good day”. If I ever went back to Taiwan and experienced this, I would be too amused by the irony of being in a reverse situation to usual to be offended.

As for asking where I’m from? Loughborough, England, UK. No, where am I really from? Born in Taiwan with a Taiwanese father, but raised British since age 4. What about my mum? British. Do I talk to, or visit my father? No. My ethnicity is no secret, but honestly, sometimes it’s like being questioned by the Spanish Inquisition! I like to think I just look like a dark haired British person, but the number of times I’ve heard these questions has disproven this. I don’t mind talking about the subject – it’ll come up naturally if you hang around with me long enough anyway – but I can’t help feeling a little self conscious when questioned on the first meeting.

I realise I’m being a bit sensitive. I think having a learning difference has made me fed up of being scrutinised for my differences, and I am working on that.

So there you go. Discussions like this so often lead to people thinking minority groups expect special treatment. If I need special treatment, I’ll swallow my pride and let you know, but apart from that, it’s the opposite. I just want people to get to know me for me, and learn naturally how to treat me based on that.

 

 

*Well maybe not those exact words…

The best you can give

When I play my violin at church, there are days when I pick it up and the music just comes naturally. I can sight read, play by ear, read guitar music, no problem. My debut at a new church worship band at the Maundy Thursday evening service, however, was one of many days in which I misread the music, kept hitting the wrong notes, and couldn’t harmonise to save my life. I was tired and anxious, and although I got a fair few compliments, I still felt unsatisfied with my performance.

At church, as with many areas of life, I’m often in awe of people who bring everyone together effortlessly, or give a flawless talk, or are more musically gifted, or…you get the idea. I have watched several friends take a lead role in a service, or other event, and afterwards, reassured them that they did it so well, and that no-one would have noticed they were struggling. They might struggle with anxiety, they might speak English as a second language, they might think they don’t have the right personality or skills, or their circumstances might have made it hard. The audience, however, are unlikely to be judging them, because whatever they are doing is important.

I tell them this while wishing I was as gifted as them. Often the way, isn’t it, when you forget to retain your own advice. And remembering all that is easier said than done, because we cannot guarantee that we will not get a negative reaction. I’ve made all too many autistic social slip ups that have – at best – resulted in odd looks, if not hostility. But when we have a job to do, and we want to do it properly, we don’t have to let our weaknesses stop us.

We are all the same in that we all have weaknesses. A mix of character flaws, things we’re not good at, or even just our current mindset. Living with Asperger’s, for all its fine qualities, is a daily reminder of that. Literally, at times. You misinterpret people, you melt down, you have poor physical skills. Yet just because we take longer to learn some skills, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn, or that we should shy away from challenging situations. Sometimes we are acutely aware of our struggles, sometimes other people can see them more objectively. Either way, the very essence of doing something for God and the church – and the people in your life – is giving them the best version of you that you can give.

The importance of pets

Throughout the stress, confusion, and complexity that is life, sometimes we have to take a step back and enjoy the simpler things. It could be returning home to a friendly face waiting hopefully for your return. It could be having someone to cuddle when you’re down. Or it could be having someone so desperate to be with you that they force your bedroom door open with brute strength so they can walk all over your sleeping form.

If you’re thinking of a beloved pet, then I’m with you all the way. If not, then what sort of people have you been raised with?

I don’t know about you, but for me, our cats are a solid part of the family. Having recently lost our beloved, cuddly, dopey old Tango, I think this feeling is particularly high at the moment. My budgies, my sister’s hamster, and our grandparents’ dog were a big part of my childhood. Many of my friends and family have animals that they love. So I’m going to try to do justice to the importance of pets.

For a start, I don’t know where I would be without Bouncer, my unofficial Guide Cat for the Autistic. At nearly 14 years of age, he hasn’t retired from calling me until I follow him, leading me into a specific room, then calling again if I don’t follow. I’ve got to hand it to him, without his conscientiousness, I would never be able to find the way to my own room. Then there’s Suri, our resident feline policewoman. When it’s time to feed the cats, the others dare not get too close to our feet lest she repeatedly punch them in the face until they retreat. She has her uses even when off duty; once she settles on your lap, you have a very valid excuse to put off being productive until you can get up again.

Then there’s companionship. True, you can’t share reflections on the human condition, or entertaining life anecdotes. At least, not if you want a two-way conversation. But there are many things about pet company that you can’t beat. Physical affection, for one. If you stroke an animal, or pick it up and hold it close, it can be comforting to both parties. Do that to a person, and it’s just not the same somehow…

More importantly, animals don’t hold you to the same standard as people do. I’ve never worried that animals find my Asperger’s off-putting, judge my Biblical understanding, or disagree with any of my moral principles. Heck, they don’t even mind if you’re in a state of undress. Again, most people are funny about that… But pets have an uncanny ability to forgo social expectations and just be, and if you find that contagious, even if just for a few moments, it can only be a good thing.

 

 

 

Tango and Bouncer, the mirror twins

George

Thomas eating broccoli

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Suri guards the Christmas tree

 

 

Asperger’s and faith

Last year, during my weekly New Wine discipleship course, I had to lead morning devotions for one session, and I was asked to discuss how being on the autistic spectrum affects my faith. My immediate reaction was to think that having Asperger’s Syndrome isn’t relevant to every little thing in my life. I mean, there are plenty of factors that have shaped my beliefs, and my attitude towards church. But is AS really one of them?

It would be nice if I had some fascinating backstory of how I became a Christian, but the truth is, I was raised going to church. I was very lonely as a teenager, and it was while my confidence was at rock bottom that I got more involved with church youth activities. I went from being unable to talk about autism to being able to explain how it affected me without being afraid of judgement. Here was a social scene that was outside the norm, and as well as fitting right in, I was learning what being a Christian was really about. So in that sense, autism did have a role to play.

Churches in general are often a real mixed bag. From the outside, it would be easy to see Christians as either deluded, self righteous fools, or as people who cannot be anything but kind and inclusive to their neighbours. But people just aren’t that black and white, and Christians are no exception. And I would be lying if I said Christianity has been an easy ride for me, because it hasn’t. There are opinions I struggle to agree with, and many more issues I don’t even understand.

Besides, a church community is a social group like any other, and that means people, and mixed messages, and complex relationship dynamics. At the beginning of my discipleship course, I was surrounded by other young people who I would be spending a whole day with every week. Some people already knew each other, some didn’t, but we were encouraged to “go deeper” with each other from day one, and the very idea spooked me.

While other people bonded within the first month, I got off to a shaky start and I thought I’d never get used to it. It would have been so easy to withdraw and keep everyone at arm’s length, but I made myself get to know them, remember their names and make friends. Before I knew it, I had completed my first mission trip and was talking about everything I had learned in front of an audience. Seems that God really does see us through these things!

Which brings me back to my morning devotions talk. Having been on the course for three months, I reflected on my experiences at church so far, and the message I wanted to share came to me. So that morning, I got everyone to discuss the passage in Genesis in which Moses insists that he doesn’t have the skills to lead. And the thought I left open to discussion was: We all have something that shakes our confidence in our potential. Moses’s was his fear of public speaking. Mine is having a form of autism. What’s yours?

Purpose

It’s a common image, isn’t it? You study, you graduate, you see the rest of your life ahead of you, and you’re desperate to find your purpose in life. And then you despair when you realise you don’t have one. Right?

People have many different opinions on big topics, like purpose, and fulfilment, and some might even say destiny. At university, with all the learning you’re (hopefully) doing, it’s so easy to think the world is your oyster from then on. And optimism is important, because you need to feel like you have something to be really living for. But adulthood is hard, and if you only expect to be moving forward on a steady upward slope towards your dreams, life will be disappointing.

Then at the other end of the scale, you could argue that there’s no point dreaming. Nothing lasts, nothing is certain, and you’ve just got to deal with whatever you’re given. I’ve never been inclined to agree with this attitude, because you never know what you could achieve if you keep dreaming and planning. But even just writing that argument has got me wondering: is there any truth in that?

After months of job hunting, disappointment, and finding ways to stay busy, I’m struggling with feelings of disillusionment at the moment. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I’m working on book drafts, Demon magazine editing,* and this blog, and have often considered starting podcasts. Writing is how I communicate best, but sometimes it feels like nothing more than an old childhood dream. As a Christian, I hear, or read about, so many inspirational stories about people who have beaten far worse odds and survived by the sheer strength of their faith, and as much as I keep praying, I can’t help wishing I had that strength.

Facebook, by the way, for all it’s many fine qualities, does nothing to help here. Rather, it taunts you with glimpses of how successful your friends and acquaintances seem to be, whether socially, romantically, or in the world of work. Thus creating a standard that is about as reachable as the end of a rainbow. But your goals in life don’t have to be like that.

We all seem to have a need for certainty in our lives. It’s like a basic emotional need so that we have at least some foundation for the way we live. I do believe in having a purpose, but I also believe there is a trick to it. You’re not born with it, you don’t find it – you choose it, plan for it, pursue it, and if it doesn’t work out, you choose another. You might not have full control, but the direction you try is your choice.

 

 

*The Demon is the magazine of my old uni, De Montfort University. Despite my lack of interest in sports, I’ve somehow become the News and Sports editor. My role comprises correcting other people’s work, repeatedly announcing deadlines, and reeling at the thought that I’m the only person on the team who remembers when the Demon was a newspaper. Riveting stuff.

 

Is freedom of speech really free?

This was a popular topic of debate in my journalism lectures at uni. In fact, some people got so wound up in their freedom of speech that the rest of us would spend the best part of these lectures sitting back and watching, as at least two people passionately argued their stance on free speech, or politics, or whatever. I don’t know if the best part was when someone would still be sulking after the lecture about not getting the last word, or when comments beginning “Your mum” were thrown around. Either way, quality entertainment.

What does freedom of speech really mean anyway? I like to think there’s more to it than simply being able to say what you like, but honestly, that is how most people seem to take it. I was musing on this the other day when I read a Facebook post that was nostalgically remembering the good old days when one could make a joke without having to worry about insulting women, racial minorities, LGBT people, etc. Really, it’s so tough being in a generation where everyone has a voice, not just heterosexual white men…

When people make statements online – for whatever cause – conflict in the comments section will inevitably ensue. And you can bet at least one person will defend their viewpoint by using the “free speech, free country” card. But people who try to be “PC” in their use of speech are stigmatised and mocked. Apparently casual racism, or sexism, or whatever, is fine, but trying to show respect and compassion towards other people makes you subject to ridicule.

And none of this answers my question.

The way I see it is this. Freedom in any form isn’t as simple as being able to do whatever you want, with no regards to the consequences. Think about growing up. You spend your childhood being heavily dependent on your parents, then your teen years testing their boundaries and your own limits. You take matters into your own hands, and when you fail, you get angry when your parents still make sure you get your comeuppance just when you thought you were entitled to more privileges.

But your parents don’t give you more freedom because they stop caring what you do. Rather, they do so because they are trying to trust you to make your own decisions without having to be told. At any stage in our lives, we will inevitably abuse our privileges, and the consequences will be no less real.

Make sense? We are free to voice our opinions, but that doesn’t make it any more ok to attack others. No-one is always fully right or fully wrong. Conflict may be unavoidable, but if you manage it by defending your side without tearing down someone else’s, you’re making a step in the right direction.