Part of a group

How do you feel in a group setting? Last month’s Ukraine trip was just one of many experiences that demonstrated how I respond to being with a lot of people. I hasten to add that it was definitely one of the more positive ones! But it did come with its challenges, and right now I’m expanding on a point I made last week.

While we were out sightseeing, one of our translators asked me why I didn’t talk much to anyone else. I was a bit lost for words. I had been talking to people. Thinking about it, however, I’d chatted to several people for a minute or two, but not really at length. Why?

All I can say to that is, this is usually the case in groups, and always has been. Yes, it’s Asperger related, but beyond that, I don’t know why, any better than anyone else. Autism experts would say something about me not reading non-verbal social cues. I say I’m being normal in my way, the others are being normal in their way, yet somehow I’m at the edge of the group.

To some extent, this is ok. I alternate between a little socialising, listening to everyone else’s conversations, and zoning out entirely. But if I want to really bond with people, it’s hard when there are so many of them! My best friendships have been built on one-to-one time in a quiet, socially safe environment, often when the two of us have something to do together.

Group situations are different. You’ve got lots of people to choose from. And they have lots of people – who are not you, and are probably way more charismatic –  to choose from. When there’s information for you all to take in, it’s going to get passed around, changed, and worded differently or incorrectly. When you put it like that, can you see why autistic people struggle?

When I joined the choir at uni, despite my love of music, my heart was never in it. I was invisible. I didn’t feel like I belonged. When I tried to explain my struggles to people in charge, they said I was doing fine because they hadn’t felt like they needed to help me with anything. At one point, we took part in a huge university choir competition in London. From about 4.30 am that morning to 2.30 am that night, I was surrounded by people, often to the point where I could barely move. There was a lot of waiting around, moving around, stuff happening all the time, and no-one explaining anything to me. I hated it.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: my friends on the trip were great. They made sure I understood everything, they stopped me from getting lost, and some of them had a fair bit of quality time with me. And that’s basically what a group member on the spectrum needs.

Life of the party, me…

DISCLAIMER: not my photo

Next stop: Ukraine

You know when you have such an adventure filled time that you can’t wait to tell everyone about it? And when you get back and they ask, it’s like you’ve just developed travel memory loss? Yep. This is me right now.

And I still don’t know where to begin. So just sit back and watch, as I try to cram travel, stress, adventure, raccoons, toilets, friends, fun, prayer, culture, *deep breath* into one post.

To recap: as part of my Christian internship, I am doing a weekly discipleship course with other Christian interns. And last week, our leader was due to speak in churches in Kiev, Ukraine. Voila, my first mission trip.

If I’m honest, my attempts at being positive about the trip were wearing thin towards the big day. I find big groups a challenge. Airports even more so. What I hadn’t bargained for was having a panic attack just after take-off. Of all the places to be gripped by fear of the unknown, of vomiting publicly, of everything worrying me, it had to be thousands of feet above the ground, surrounded by people, with no way out.

Yet throughout the day, my friends cared. They prayed for me. Looked out for me. My friend Ruth stayed with me throughout the journey, and chatted to me when I felt bad again. I used to wonder how chatting could possibly calm an anxiety attack. I was wrong. It really takes the edge off.

Yes, being mildly autistic in a group of people exploring new territory was tough at times. I find it harder to form bonds in a group. I got fed up with needing help mixing, or understanding what was going on. I wanted to be on the same level as everyone else, but it wasn’t always possible.

You know what, though? I got the help I needed, and I’m fully grateful for it. Because that’s how a good group works, and I would do anything in return.

Besides, there was plenty to laugh at. Like the man with his pet raccoon*, who wouldn’t let one of my male friends take a picture, but was happy to take a selfie with a passing young lady. Or when Mary, who is Ukrainian, introduced me to Ukrainian public toilets: holes in the ground. I decided I’d rather wait for two hours.

In short, this trip saw me at my most exhausted, but there were times when I felt more exhilarated than I’d felt in a long time. I had late night, heartfelt conversations with the girls. I ran through sprinklers** like a fool with the others. I ate till I could burst. We laughed. We took photos. We were alive.

Last, but not least, we did what we came to do. We took part in church services. People at church got healed of physical pain. People on the streets got a chance to feel heard. Some believe, some don’t, but for me, the most important thing was showing them a bit of love.

In conclusion, I want to give my love and thanks. To Ruth, once again, and her dad, our leader, who was so patient with me whenever I was weary or confused. To our translators. To everyone who donated towards this trip. To my parents for their support. To the four friends who contacted me during the week to ask how I was. To certain people who helped me not get lost at the airport or the underground. To the interns whose house I stayed at the night before. You are all wonderful people!

 

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DISCLAIMER: the first and third photos aren’t mine

When I was 19

Guest article on depression by one of my closest friends:

‘When I was 19 years old, I made a friend called Kevin.

We first met as I was walking home. He called my name, a curious voice amongst the grey surroundings. When I turned, he made no move, but stood observing a little distance away.

He returned a few days later. This time there was a knock at the door, a light tapping that only I could hear. But there were no introductions. We spent the day sitting together in my living room, peacefully occupied with our own thoughts.

Our acquaintance continued for several weeks. We got to know each other: he learnt about my friends and family; I learnt that he disliked leaving my side.

It was curious how my friends never spoke to him. They noted his presence; I saw them watch him from afar. They asked after me, and still made plans. And although Kevin was never invited, he was always there, at every event and every party. As time passed he was with me more often than not – a distraction from priorities, who took me away from my friends to sit with him alone.

He showed me an island of his, a small, vicious crag of rock isolated by roaring wind and towering sea. We went for day trips, some sick lovers’ retreat; he revelled in the lonely violence of the place. He took me more and more, and it wasn’t until I looked up and saw my friends waving to me from the shore that I realised I had not returned for weeks. And even as I begged, he would not let me leave.

The mainland looked so beautiful from the island; I ached to go home. I recalled the sunlit meadows, misted forests, still water beneath a sky on fire. But as time went on, the memories dwindled. I could see the sun rising above the clifftops, but could not remember how it felt to sit beneath its rays. I could see the wind breathing across the grasslands, but could not remember how it felt across my face. Worst of all, I could see my friends waving, but could not remember how to wave back.

Time passed. I stopped living and simply existed. Kevin was always by my side; he didn’t leave once. We barely spoke. It’s no wonder he became bored of my presence, searching for more ways to entertain.

There are several ways of causing hurt; he used all of them.

I never really considered that I would ever hate to live. Now, my old life on the island was what filled my dreams. I wouldn’t have to go home; I wouldn’t have to see my friends. I could stay, on the island, with him forever. If only he would stop, I would gladly give up everything. Sleep only delayed the pain; and eventually every breath was sharp and every thought was scarred.

I thought that if I hurt myself, he would leave me alone. He was willing to wait. But even this caused a greater sorrow, spiralling like electricity across the mainland. A web of pain was forming, glowing nodes of orange, pulsing light surrounding me, my house, my friends’ houses. Every muscle I moved sent ripples far and wide.

Things had reached a climax when one day, I realised that Kevin was not directly by my side. A few days later, we were again apart. And a few days after that, and after that – and one day I felt a touch of warmth flit across my face; I turned and saw the island across the water.

Nowadays, I hardly see him. We meet occasionally as the months pass by, as I wander through a life worth living; and the clouds are sparse beneath the glorious sunshine.’

 

From barely functioning to melting down

When I’m somewhere outside my comfort zone – anywhere new, busy, or with a lot to remember – I will go into the mental equivalent of power saving mode. I keep my head down, remain on the sidelines, or wherever it’s quietest, and withdraw into my own head.

If I have an obligation to be in this place, I will do what I think is expected, but, though polite, will not be at my most sociable. Nor my most attentive. My brain is doing only what it has to. As soon as is socially acceptable, I will recharge in the seclusion of my own room, and start to feel more human pretty quickly.

Now turn it up a notch. I’ve been in such a place too long, or there are too many demands being made, or maybe I’m in a difficult situation with a person. At this point, even power saving mode is wearing thin. Until it becomes…meltdown mode.

What is a meltdown, anyway? It’s something people with autism experience. It’s something people with mental illnesses experience. It’s feeling something snap inside you and suddenly having to leave the room because you can’t take any more. It’s crying because of some minute trigger that unleashed festering negativity. It’s snapping irrationally at those nearest to you. It’s doing anything to shield your senses from the world around you. It’s being too stressed, bewildered, and unfocused to function. It’s…it’s…it’s…

Well, it’s lots of things really. And no two people melt down in the same way.

For me, meltdowns are mostly internal. I don’t have big, emotional outbursts, because it just isn’t in my nature. I feel that mental “snap” inside me, and I might cry, or try to escape, but usually I’m just stuck in a daze, with my mind in turmoil and my social skills gone. Outwardly, on the other hand, there’s little noticeable difference between that, and power saving. So it looks like I’m doing ok.

How do you deal with a meltdown anyway? Write down what it means for you, and the situations you might struggle with. Useful for showing to people for future reference, and can help you understand yourself better, too. When facing a high-stress environment – for me, it would be airports, very large train stations, or my graduation ceremony – plan when and where you could take a breather. Learn in advance what to expect from the occasion. Stick with someone who understands you well. And bring a book, or an ipod, or anything that helps you calm down.

Whichever coping methods you come up with, try to use them while power saving mode is still working. Because the more you are struggling, the harder it may be to communicate your needs. It’s not easy telling others about what feels like a weakness, especially one that the majority won’t have experienced. But the people around you have a right to know. And you know what? You have a right to not suffer in silence.

First world cat problems

Today, I asked four cats what their biggest pet peeves are. This is what they said:

“I think one of my pet peeves is when I’m lying in front of the fire, and I get too hot, so I have to actually move. Which means I get cold, so I have to move back. AGAIN. I hate it.” Suri, aged 5

“For me, it has to be when I’m just chilling with my girl, or catching up on sleep, or whatever, and one of the humans interrupts me by making me have breakfast or dinner. Humans can be such killjoys.” Bouncer, aged 13

“When I’m lying in front of the fire,

and I get too hot, so I have to actually move…”

“I thought the worst thing was not getting enough credit for checking the humans are still breathing every night. Wrong. It’s not being able to do it at all because they always close the bedroom door. #unappreciated” – Tango, aged 13

“Sometimes my food bites back. Just when I think I matched wits with it and won, it attacks me from within and bursts forth back the way it came.” – George, aged 4

“I feel like I can’t tell anyone, but I can’t help feeling jealous of the computer in my room. I secretly wish it would just disappear, so that my human would forget all about it, and focus on me, and me only.” – Bouncer

Where’s your computer now? Check MEOWT! – Bouncer

“When you want to be stroked, and you literally have to headbutt someone’s hands or stand on whatever is distracting them so that they get the hint.” – Suri

“It really drives me mad when people won’t stop stroking me until I show them my teeth. Not everything’s all about you, you silly humans!” – Suri

“For some reason, my humans and housemates alike expect me to have finished eating the top layer of my food in just 20 minutes. Come on folks, why the rush?” – Tango

“Why do humans have to be so greedy? Mine takes up at least 25% of our chair and 50% of our bed. It’s like enough is never enough.” – Bouncer

Finally owning this bed – Tango

“I think beds have it in for me. They trick me into thinking they have no limits, then just when I roll over, they disappear from beneath me. I feel like nobody gets how hard this is.” – Tango

“I don’t think my housemates really understand me. I thought it was perfectly acceptable to inspect another cat’s bottom at length whenever I want. Guess not.” – George

Girl power at its finest – Suri

“I’m the only girl cat, and no-one tells you how exhausting it is, hitting the boys in the face when they bother you, or trying to grab their food without getting caught. All that just to prove my girl power.” – Suri

“When I roll over, beds disappear from beneath me.

Nobody gets how hard this is…”

“When you get nice and cosy with your friend’s preferred human and he takes it waaay too seriously.” – George

Come on, lighten up, man! – George

“When your housemate has the nerve to suck up to YOUR human right under your nose, and she doesn’t instantly rehome him.” – Bouncer

The good side of Asperger’s

A lot of people these days try to put a positive spin on being a bit different. I realise that I covered this a couple of posts ago. Because I wanted to make it clear that it’s ok to acknowledge the negatives. But my personality makes me the sort of person who, if I’m not careful, gets weighed down by the bad stuff. I think the aforementioned post, and many other (written and verbal) rants from me have shown this.

So just for once, I thought I’d look at my Asperger’s with a brighter outlook. DISCLAIMER: I don’t mean to brag – while some of the following is what people say about me, this is focusing on AS as a whole, not an individual’s personal strengths. Enough rambling!

Firstly, while people do exaggerate about this, it is true that Aspies are more prone to above-average intelligence than most. And many have skills that are less common in neurotypicals. Some might have a great sense of pitch. Others may be gifted artists. As for our special subjects? Well if you want to know more about cats, or Myers-Briggs personality functions, or anything about the mind, you know where I am.

Then there’s understanding people. Being on the spectrum means you may struggle with this. But for me, at least, it’s on-the-spot social interaction that’s tricky. Once you’re aware of this, you may spend a lot of time trying to make sense of the social world. And you know what? A slightly “outside” viewpoint can lead to a different, and maybe even deeper, understanding of people.

Also, AS people are known for being unwavering and just a little stubborn at times. Making decisions isn’t easy. Going back on them is twice as hard. But I’ll say this. If you have this tendency, chances are, you’re reliable. You keep to a predictable way of doing things. If I’m doing something new and significant, I will carefully plan. Or try to. As for breaking rules? They’re probably there for a reason, and unless they’re not going to work, I’m not breaking them just because I can.

And lastly, this one goes out to everyone in a minority. It might not be a walk in the park, but you have the potential to reach out to people like you and help them feel less alone. Think about it – you could be a role model! Everyone finds it comforting when they find someone they can relate to, and I’m no exception. Sometimes we “token minorities” have to stick together. So why are you still reading this post? Go out there, make someone’s day, and shine!

Easter musings

It’s Easter Sunday, and the immediate family members are busy socialising after a slap-up roast. I, on the other hand, am doing what I do best: hiding in my room hunched over a computer, thinking I should be more productive. And of course, eating chocolate. Because that’s what Easter’s about. Right?

I’ve been trying to think of possible Easter-y things to say on my blog, and for a while, I was on the brink of not bothering. Not because I can’t be bothered with Easter, but because I couldn’t think of anything to say that hasn’t already been said on the internet a gazillion times. After a little reflection, I do actually have a couple of thoughts to mull over. So I’m making this post a quickie.

As a Christian myself, the idea of being able to be Christians despite our imperfections because Jesus was crucified has often puzzled me. Crucifixion sounds like a brutal way to go. And all people, back then and today, are imperfect. But what is the connection between these two facts? I was thinking about this a while back, and realised: the physical consequences of the events of the Easter story aren’t important. Rather, it’s the idea of absolute good surrendering to absolute evil and still winning.

I’ll be honest; reading this back makes me realise there is still so much I don’t understand. But then I pretty much live in that realisation. Besides, whatever your personal beliefs, no-one can claim to have all the answers about big topics like this.

And then this gem from Mum, who I made famous (practically) a couple of blog posts ago. To complete today’s dinner, she made a simnel cake. What’s a simnel cake? This is*:

Image result for simnel cake

The marzipan balls, by the way, represent each of Jesus’s disciples. While there were 12, most simnel cakes miss out a ball for Judas, who betrayed Jesus. Mum, a firm believer in social justice, has included a 12th ball on hers. Firstly, because Judas was guilty for what he did. Come on, he hanged himself! Secondly, it was supposed to happen. And lastly, as Christians, and as decent human beings, forgiveness is key. Especially when it’s been over 2,000 years.

So those are my two thoughts for the day. Working in a Christian bookshop, there’s plenty of inspiration around me for a blog post like this. Then again, between tidying greetings cards, keeping the Easter egg stack symmetrical, and saying “Yes, we do have palm crosses…can I take your surname please?” to the fifth person on the phone that day, remembering to latch onto it isn’t easy.

 

 

*(DISCLAIMER – neither the cake, nor the photo, are ours. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/topdrawersausage/4492925419)