Cycles of escalation

Every month, every year, I kid myself I’ve grown out of this. Every time, it comes back. Maybe less frequent, but no less intense.

It starts with a Morning. One of Those Mornings. You’ve slept through the night without waking – it might be the first time in months. A minor miracle! You should feel great. What you feel is awful.

But you’re up. You lose track of time in the shower. Coffee helps. A little.

Work through the day. Run at lunchtime. Drag your feet. Heavy. A little ball of something forms in your gut, unnoticed. An afternoon where everything resists.

Another morning. Another walk. Days pass. Those walks to work, they’re surreal: like flying; cased in a little bubble that skims the surface of the world but never quite to touch. There’s no contact with reality.

I don’t know what is important in this story. If I knew, I could stop it happening.

Too many people. Too many meetings. Tiny frustrations, building one after another after another with never the time to resolve. My mind, buzzing, overwhelmed. Angry. It feels like anger. And it’s clouding me, I can’t figure out the solutions. The moment I scream at a colleague and his eyebrows – his eyebrows, they must have hit the ceiling! – but it wasn’t that. It’s the bit where he says to the guy I’m sitting with: “help her”. And I’m sluggishly realising this is crazy, I’m acting crazy. So I make myself calm. I rein it in. If I can do that, it’s not real. It’s not a meltdown. I’m just undisciplined. I’m just emotional.

God help me I got through that day. And the next. I didn’t melt down. Right up until the minute I’m in my bosses office and I just randomly start crying. The minute I take him all the things that I know are tiny but they’re killing me and he has the answers. The minute I realise how far I’ve been bogged down in this mess of nothings and let it build up and up until my mind thinks I’m drowning, and it’s barely even real. It’s not even like I didn’t know – I knew. Intellectually, I knew. I just couldn’t defuse it emotionally. And now I’m crying at work all over again, all over, and the SHAME.

It’s the shame. Home now, looking back, I know it’s not OK to be that emotional – oh I do know. I know in the moment, but I can’t stop it. I have to be a grown up. I have to have constructive ways of using my frustration, diffusing my rage. It mustn’t come out sideways, the ranting or the tears, the exhaustion or frustration or relief – even the shame should be mine alone, but I can’t, I can’t hide it. However hard I’m trying to gain respect, to behave in a way that inspires trust, to be reliable, approachable, dependable – it doesn’t matter if they don’t know the next time I’m going to fall apart in front of them. It’s not someone you want to be working with. I’m just a child in an adult’s body. They can see it too.

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Running in the rain

Some days I wonder why I run.

Like the 10k I ran recently. I got out of bed feeling shaky and awful – a classic Saturday morning “overload hangover” from the working week before. Not sick, as such, but mixing autism with certain work activities can be like mixing grape and grain. It hurts the morning after!

So I got up, had my pre-race breakfast and coffee and drove to the start line, singing along to Bryan Adams on the way. Relaxed and easy. I kidded myself I felt better, at least enough to run. Tried to reconcile myself gently to the fact that although I had a target time for today, I was going to miss it, and that was OK. (Spoiler: it wasn’t OK. When you are autistic and you have a plan, and that plan involves the limit of exertion and exhaustion, and things don’t go right… it was never going to be OK!) Warming up felt like my body was lead. I pushed through it, stretched off, smiled and bounced and generally pretended to be up for it. Making a final trip to the ladies before the start, I caught a glimpse of my face in the mirror. It was a rather unattractive shade of grey.

Despite the glorious weather and the stunning off-road scenery, inevitably, it wasn’t a pretty race. I did eventually find my target pace around the 8th kilometre – but by then it was way too late. I was almost in tears over the finish line. But I did finish, and with no injuries. So perhaps not as complete a failure as it felt at the time.

Having comprehensively bombed at that race, I’ve nevertheless decided to start training again for a longer distance. There are a couple of 10 mile off-roaders near me around October-November time, tempting me with idyllic photographs of smiling past-years runners on country paths in the rare autumn sunshine – and of course that is the perfect amount of time for me to build up from a 10k. So naturally I go for it … but after that last race, I ask myself, why?

I was thinking about this again on my training run this morning. It was, as I like to put it, “piss-istently raining”. The wind gusted entertainingly, throwing occasional bursts of spray into my face. I slipped around stiles, mud sliding under the somewhat inadequate treads of my road running shoes. By around mile five, my ankles were screaming; my calves, having given up some time ago, sobbed quietly in the background. Why would do I do this to myself?

Because there’s something else. Something in the core of the pain and the wet and the cold. In every stride, smoothing and lengthening over miles from an invariably disjointed start, is something real and solid. Something strong.

The patter of rain on concrete. The rhythmic slap of wet ponytail against waterproof fabric. The wind in my face and the mud on my legs. Even though my calves are aching, I know they can do this. The rain has stopped being something to cringe away from and has become a relief. Wet leaves shower me with water, sweet and cool. In this bubble, in my stride, it’s just me and the next hill. There is nothing else in the world.

Walking, I think, is a complex activity. You go out for the day, maybe with friends. You take food and drink, layers for the weather and maps for the route. Walking events are a mass of people, chattering incessantly, making noise that drowns out the scenery. Climbing mountains, exploring coastlines: these are beautiful things that I love to do. But they take mental effort and planning.

Running is simple. Running is clean. During a race, the pack spreads out. I have space to stretch my legs, to lengthen, to live in the moment. Undistracted by people and noises, lacking the anxiety of location or direction, running is an experience pure and physical. Off-road, I drink in the scenery and revel in the feel of the ground, yielding under my feet. Training runs are quiet mornings, lost in thought, discovering rhythm. Giving my body the time it needs to find balance and focus. Resting my mind.

Yes, my legs are under-trained. Yes, there is effort and discomfort. But in the end, it is that running long distances gives me space to get away from the busy, overloading world, and recover myself.