Two years too long

I try not to let things get to me. I have a tendency towards strong emotional responses when faced with unfairness, injustice or blatant prejudice, regardless of whether it’s directed at me or others. I try to put that in a box. Unless I can take action to change the situation, I do my best to ignore realities that hurt me to feel. But still, every so often, something will set me on fire.

I saw this, from the NAS:

And it made me SCARY mad.

I’ll never forget the night I realised I was autistic. I was walking home from a concert I’d cried all the way through, with the friend that had kept quiet all that time. We walked three miles in the middle of the night because I said I couldn’t face the bus. I dropped a line about probably being “a little bit autistic”. And he said, “yeah”.

I got home and looked it up on the internet. Luckily I found the National Autistic Society, rather than anything more sinister. But still, it was about 2 weeks before I could really stop crying.

The concert was on a Friday. I spent half the night reading up on autism – seeing myself everywhere, my face reflected in the little things. I read about how to go about getting a diagnosis: what to tell the doctor and how to prepare. I made notes, volumes of notes, about how I fit the criteria. I wrote constantly. I cried, on and off. I slept in between.

There were people who scraped me up off the floor during that time. They could be on the phone, made sure that I ate. They came over when I needed them. Although I hadn’t even known myself before – I didn’t know how to be a friend – they were there for me. They were friends, good friends, even though I wasn’t. I didn’t deserve them, and I was so, so lucky I had them. They probably saved my life. But that’s not what this story is about.

I went to my GP the following Monday. I sat in the waiting room for an hour, holding everything in. Before I knew it didn’t matter if I rocked, it couldn’t hurt anyone, I held myself rigid. I clutched the printout I’d made: a bullet-pointed list under each criterion. I took it in with me, and burst into tears.

My GP was great. She took the printout to read. She didn’t let it faze her that I cried, that I was strangely calm and coherent while I cried. She took me seriously, and told me she didn’t know what the procedure was, but could she phone me. Then she phoned me that night after work, and said there was a form for referral. Since I knew myself best, would I like to fill it in and send it back to her? A couple of weeks later I got the letter from the NHS saying the waiting list was long, but I was on it. And things went quiet.

It was well over a year before I heard from them again. The diagnostic service was amazing. They treated me with compete dignity and lack of fuss, accommodated my anxieties as a matter of course, and gave me all the right information to feel comfortable. They knew what I needed without me even having to ask! But by the time I had an NHS diagnosis, bringing with it precious access to the local autism support group, it had been almost 18 months.

Two years is too long.

In the meantime, I’d been lucky. Incredibly, impossibly lucky. I was able to get funding for a private diagnosis. Within six months of everything falling apart, I had official recognition. I had documents that entitled me to support at work. I had access to some limited expertise. No longer stranded, with this glimmer of a safety net, I could begin to build from scratch for myself an identity that was real. Yet for those six months, I had nothing. I was nothing.

I kept my job. I kept my house and my car. My family supported me. The people around me, although they never knew it, kept me from suicide. I was given time and space to recover. I built a shell, a hollow of myself – and it somehow held. For six months. I would not have survived for two years.

Two years is too long.

My GP did everything right – more than right. She listened to me, read what I’d written, realised I knew what I was talking about, and made it easy for me. Not everyone has it that easy.

I have friends, now, seeking diagnoses. People I care about, stranded and struggling. You can’t hope to get a referral unless you’re struggling. One’s GP flat out says she can’t make a referral. Another can’t even get a face-to-face appointment with the GP: only a phone consultation. I couldn’t have had that conversation over the phone – how can they? Of course: they can’t. I walked into my GP surgery and had a referral within two weeks. They’ve been fighting these barriers for months. And that’s before the clock even starts.

Two years is too long.

This isn’t a political campaign from the NAS, in the sense that they’re supporting any one particular party, but it’s the first campaign that’s ever really hit me. If you’re in the UK: register to vote; then do. I’ll vote. It’s small. It’s all we can do.

When good (wo)men do nothing

“I’d never know if they were autistic or just being rude”.

To the person who said this to me, from a position of power, as an excuse for not putting into practise anything they’d learned: here is what I wish I’d been able to convey at the time.

As an initial aside: yes, you could know. They might even actually tell you; but otherwise, you’d just have to make an effort. Not unlike the effort I make with non-autistic people, every single day. If you’re needing some ideas: how about judging that person on what they’re trying to do, rather than how they “look” in the moment or the exact words that they say? You could try questioning those immediate, intuitive conclusions you jump to and ask yourself: did they really say what I’m reacting to, or did I interpolate that into the space between their lines? You could step back for a moment and consider: is it possible that what they said just now isn’t actually about me? Could I, perhaps, be reading too much into this? Should I be taking this so personally? I know that kind of thinking isn’t easy – it does take a bit of patience, and you might have to practise a few times before you get it right. But you can do it, if you try.

But what I really wanted to tell you is that your attitude, right there, is the reason that people like me need medication. It’s the reason we’re underemployed. It’s the reason we feel valueless, despite our unique skills. It’s the reason so many of us are driven to suicide.

Let’s think for a moment about what you just said. Your words said:

  • It’s more important for me, from my position of power, to judge, than it is for you and people like you to be treated fairly
  • I need to be able to label people as “rude” more than you need to be able to communicate
  • Upholding my neurotypical standards as the default in every interaction is important enough to justify ostracising anyone who cannot achieve them

And behind those words, in context – even as an autistic who struggles with implications – you’ve told me a whole lot more. You’ve told me that despite what you’ve learned about adult diagnosis rates and the stigma of disclosure, you still won’t treat anyone without an openly declared official diagnosis with anything other than prejudiced contempt. You’ve told me that you’ll continue to judge everyone according to those unwritten neurotypical “rules”, regardless of their ability or the impact of your judgements. Better that, after all, than to let someone “get away with” being “rude” to you. You’ve told me that in your “normal” social sphere, everyone is guilty until proven innocent.

One of the reasons I didn’t say anything at the time was because I know, deep down, that there is nothing I can do to change your mind. I know you know the facts – we went to the same training course on autism. I know that you went of your own volition, because you were interested in learning more. And yet I see that interest is skin deep for you: purely, trivially academic. You do not see that there are people in your world, like me, for whom this is a lived reality. You will not acknowledge that those affected by these issues are living and working invisibly, close beside you. And so you are incapable of putting the facts you’ve learned towards changing your behaviour or challenging your prejudices, to make us invisible people that tiny bit safer in an inhospitable world.

You are not the first. Nor will you be the last. Your attitude is as endemic as it is poisonous. People like you are the reason so many autistics suffer from anxiety; from depression; even from PTSD. Nice people; good people; decent people; who nonetheless ruthlessly perpetuate suffering by their quickness to judge and unwillingness to learn. Suffering that is all the more criminal for being so easily avoidable.

Someone once said, “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”. You heard the facts, you followed the implications, and you did nothing. You are complicit in this evil. You are responsible. You.

Nice people

I’m struck sometimes by the cognitive dissonance there seems to be in the heads of a very specific breed of “nice people”. Nice people know how you feel. Nice people sympathise with you. Nice people make soothing noises when you break down and cry, and tell you that everything is going to be OK. But tomorrow those nice people will do sweet F.A. to make it so.

Nice people, you see, don’t need to change. Their sympathy is enough. They know how good they are with people – they’ve been told so all their lives. They couldn’t possibly be part of the problem.

The problem with these “nice people” is their pride. Whether or not unconsciously, they are proud of being nice. Their natural way of being makes others feel comfortable. It’s a role they know from heroes in stories and leaders in films, the aspiration of many. They share others’ pleasure and soothe their pain; and they draw what is a perfectly innocent satisfaction from their social value.

Honestly, I do understand. It’s rewarding beyond measure to know that you can help or inspire another person. There is a deep, quiet joy in being able to support a friend or loved one, in the everyday things of life as well as the crises. I can imagine how that situation being normal, and not the beautiful exception, might shape a person’s self image; and might shape what they come to expect from the world.

Nice people know, with quiet certainty, that their value is intrinsic. This is their gift. They always know what to do and what to say. They’ve never had to think about the impact of their actions. That impact has never – to their knowledge – been anything other than good.

And then they meet me.

Actually, it’s not only me. It’s anyone they meet from the Other Side: poor, frail, depressed, sick, disabled. Anyone whom the system does not support. Anyone from whom, in fear or in pain or through simple lack of ability, the social niceties in just one of many crises might slip away.

Nice people are hurt when you snap at them to STOP causing you pain. Nice people feel pressured when you beg for their help. Nice people know the best way do things is gently, with trust and with patience. They’ve never had to step out of their own heads to feel what you feel. And that’s the danger, right there: that they’ll treat their own passing sadness with more urgency than your desperate, existential need.

Nice people are used to feeling respected. They’re not used to holding back their feelings when someone is rude to them. They’re not used to thinking about the “why” before they complain. They don’t know your pain. They don’t mean to hurt you. But they do.

Nice people are wonderful when things are going well. When you’re passing and functioning and ready to have fun. And nice people can be great at propping you up for a while, just until you get back on your feet. They can be there for you. They know all the sorts of crises that normal people go through – losing friends, breaking up, divorce, bereavement – and they really do mean well. They want to be able to use their skills to help you. But they are so sad, so disappointed, when you can’t be fixed.

What those nice people don’t realise is that we can’t all be like that. Some of us have lives where being on your feet and fully alive is the transitory thing. Some of us can’t rely on being there for others, not at just any time. Some of us save ourselves in anticipation of those glorious days when we’re not sad, frightened, confused or in pain. Some of us mourn those selves that barely see the light of day.

Some of us need “nice people” to be different. Some of us need them to realise that speaking up, again and again, when your basic needs aren’t being met isn’t selfishness: it’s survival. That being in constant exhaustion or confusion can preclude giving away parts of ourselves to support others. That making one choice between being realistic about our capabilities or chronically unreliable doesn’t make us bad people. It’s just that we didn’t have the choice you had. To be nice.

I am sad, and that’s OK

A couple of months’ posts since I started this blog have already covered some ups and downs. I’ve written about autism and touched on the “side effects” – overload, anxiety and sometimes depression. I’ve written about moving forward; about seeking and finding solutions. In doing so, I’ve learned a bit more about articulating my needs and the things that work for me.

I like to think that one day, people might read this blog and learn. Maybe for some people, it might shed some light into the gaping holes of how autism is portrayed from the neurotypical perspective. Maybe one day it could even give words to people who need them, the way I looked for words in autistic blogs when I first realised who I was.

Words are hard. Using them to articulate my needs is even harder. I remember, almost two years ago now, when I first disclosed to a colleague how much I was struggling. I didn’t know I was autistic: my problem was depression, along with the overwhelming weight of just looking after myself that everyone else seemed to do so easily. I’d just started on antidepressants for SAD, and I felt like a complete failure. Knowing what happened to me every autumn and winter, after planning and researching and doing everything I could to attack the seasons unmedicated, I felt like I was done. I was convinced I would lose half of my life, every year, to this horror of exhaustion and hopelessness. I just didn’t know how to go on. And then I was dumbfounded when this person came back to me later and said: “I am here for you. What do you need? What can I do?”

I had no answer. I didn’t know what I needed. I’d never realised it was even OK to need anything. No one had ever asked me that before.

Since then, I have learned. Coming through that process of medication, CBT, lost inhibitions and the realisation of an overwhelming fear; drowning under the weight of my own true identity and the stigma and misinformation surrounding it; paper-thin coping mechanisms swept from shoddy foundations; my life and self stripped bare, naked and vulnerable. I survived. I learned.

I learned that the difference between “things I need” and “things that make my life easier” is subtle. I learned that there are things I need in order to achieve a certain level of functionality, but which I can survive in the short term without. I learned that the collective absence of many things that make my life easier translates into a need. I can do without some of these things, but I will need others to compensate. I read about spoon theory and spoon distributions and reticulating splines. I learned how to build my life around this unique distribution of needs, and how not to be ashamed of doing so. And in doing so, I stopped surviving and started to live.

But one thing I have not yet learned is how to articulate this to people who do not understand. Most of my followers here are somewhere on the spectrum, or have experience of mental health problems. You can relate, through your own experiences, to that frustration of not being able to control your own responses, or the massive impact of the tiny triggers that transform your life into a hell. Those accusations of over-reaction; that subtle minimisation and dismissal of your needs. You keep reading and you know this, and you understand.

The people I need to reach right now are the people who don’t understand. The people who don’t see that just because it’s not about fitting a wheelchair through a doorway, it’s still an access need. That complication of explaining that yes, each of these single things I can do or do without, with a disproportionate amount of effort – but if you make me face them all, every day, then it is literally impossible for me to get anything else done. Where my gestures of goodwill – “yes, OK, I can cope with this level of stress for a week or two” (cancels all non-essential activities and battens down the hatches) – are taken to mean that my access needs are not a priority. The people who don’t understand that I am used to abusing myself for others’ comfort, and that if I am not literally shaking with fear, I will probably be able to carry the lie that everything is totally fine. “I’m just tired.”

I am sad because I am trying so hard to make these people understand. I am sad because so far, despite months of patient effort, I have failed. And I am sad because of the increasing likelihood that this will damage my life and prospects for years to come.

I need not to wallow, while at the same time not beating myself up for feeling sad. It’s OK to feel sad when this sort of thing is happening. But I still have to get up tomorrow morning and smile as I negotiate. I have to stand up for myself, but oh so patiently. I have to pretend that my needs are not needs, are not urgent. I have to pretend that they are not hurting me. I have to engage on their terms.

This the social model of disability. This is society excluding, for no adequate reason, those whose needs they don’t understand. It’s OK to be sad.