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.’

 

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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.

The importance of being empathetic

When trying to summarise Asperger’s Syndrome to people, I tell them I lack three basic things. 1) Empathy. 2) Emotions. 3)…sarcasm. You get it? Come on, I was sarcastically saying I lack sarcasm…oh never mind, thought it was funny.

A few years ago, I found an article about a groundbreaking new theory: that AS people do not lack empathy but instead are overwhelmed by it. I mean, I could have told them that, but I’m just glad that somebody did.

True, some people with more severe autism may genuinely struggle to empathise. And you could argue that AS people who seem to show it are just demonstrating learned behaviour without any feeling behind it at all. Which would be dictating how a person on the spectrum is feeling, without actually knowing. And they say autistic people lack empathy!

For me, the theory in the aforementioned article is very much true. I have been able to pick up on others’ emotions very acutely since before I can remember. When someone I care about is crying, I genuinely struggle not to cry with them. Also, I hate conflict. Even when it doesn’t involve me, I can see where both parties are wrong, feel the heated emotion, and am powerless to do anything.

What I find harder is knowing how to react to people’s emotions. As a teenager, I would have been completely at a loss for what to do when someone was upset, then hated myself for not helping. Now, I’ve honed my natural empathy so that I know what a person needs from me, as well as how they feel. It gets easier once I’m in tune with how they think – having a similar personality, or knowing them a long time, helps.

A while ago, my stepsister-in-law asked me (not unreasonably): what are my thoughts on AS people typically being Thinkers, and how does being a Feeler* with Asperger’s work? I can answer now. Speaking logically when it’s best not to isn’t the same as being unemotional. It’s just that an AS person may not realise they’re being inappropriate. It doesn’t mean they won’t be upset if they offend someone. Trust me; my whole life, especially at secondary school, would have been a whole lot easier if this didn’t bother me. Or maybe I would have been even less popular? I don’t know.

Sharing my struggles – and having friends open up to me – has taught me a lot about the importance of empathy. It’s not just sympathetic words and and forced optimism. It’s feeling someone’s emotional burden and working out whether they’re seeking advice, practical help, cheering up or – most likely – someone who listens and understands.

 

 

*Basic Myers-Briggs terminology, you can look it up anywhere.

When things get too much…

1546304_855123871173450_5444187306995747447_nLife in the flat has been going pretty well overall, but right now I am at a bit of a low point. I try to be careful about posting depressing things on the internet because I know this can be attention seeking, so if I come across like that, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to.

For a start, my stepdad rang me yesterday to tell me our elderly ginger cat Thomas was going to be put down due to kidney failure. We adopted Thomas in June 2010 from a vet nurse who had saved him from being put down by the RSPCA who was unable to take care of him. Since then, he has survived much, eaten much, loved much and been loved very much in return. He was so outgoing, he was the perfect icebreaker whenever we had people over for the first time. He had what I always called “Puss in Boots” eyes – the way he would stare at someone while they were eating was the spitting image of the cat in Shrek. Then there were so many times when he nearly died, then didn’t, I can’t quite believe that this is the last time. I went back to say goodbye yesterday evening, and by 11 this morning he was gone.

Aside from Thomas dying, life in general seems to be getting on top of me at the moment. Maybe it will feel easier as the grief passes, maybe it will feel easier once I get on top of my work. I have four assignments due in before Christmas, possibly more Demon articles and am struggling to get to grips with various adult life skills. In some ways the last part hasn’t been too hard. In others, all the little mistakes I’ve made have made me feel like a bit of a failure at adult life. Apart from anything I’ve been trying to figure out for a while now why my self confidence crashes so hard when I don’t meet the standards I (or others) set for myself. Being sensitive is supposed to be a good trait, but it can be a double edged sword at times.

In short, I am having one of those days where it’s all getting a bit much. I spent most of last night staring tearfully at the ceiling feeling like a scared child as everything threatened to overwhelm me. Not good. Normally I try really hard on my blog to sound interesting, eloquent or at least vaguely funny. But recently I have come across blogs (including vlogs) where the main message is: it’s ok to be sad. I can fight back the urge to cry until I turn blue, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is no point pretending life is perfect. I’m not good at being open with my emotions, so am trying to be more so. Because in the long run, letting yourself be unhappy, cry, talk to loved ones, etc. not only gets the emotions off your chest, but also, to an extent, shows those close to you that crying, sadness and bad days are all a part of life.

So to conclude, I will try to make future blog posts more entertaining, and hopefully things will feel better soon. I’m generally very grateful for the good things in my life, both recent and longer term, and am hoping I can express myself more easily in writing than face-to-face conversation. I still managed to get this image of Thomas and Lionel seeing each other up there and thinking “Not you again!” In the meantime, I am just praying that God, Grannie and all previously deceased pets receive Thomas well.