Content note: discussion of exercise
Just over a year ago, in the midst of a skin-peeling heatwave, I was to be found, a somewhat tired and dishevelled figure, in the upstairs of Pret on Cornmarket Street hunched over my laptop. I say tired and dishevelled because I distinctly remember a waitress giving me a pitying sympathetic smile as she cleared tables. I also remember feeling gut-wrenchingly exhausted, that all over fluey achey sleepy gnaw that comes after a week cycling from complete shutdown to uninhibited meltdown and back again, with overtones of horrible anxious energy, as if my body were still experiencing the vestiges of the previous week’s adrenaline rollercoaster. Anyway, there I was, not broken, but cracked enough to need to grit my teeth to hold the pieces together, wearing ear plugs, wishing I could let my self-consciousness give in to the part of my brain screaming at me to just put my sunglasses on and hang the potential suspicious side-glances, typing this blog post. A blog post in which I made the pact to spend the coming year learning how to adult as a late-diagnosed Autistic and to eventually finish my Finals.
So, how did I do?
In terms of degree class, I am still in the dark, but there will at least be a degree class as yes, I did it. Well, I finished my finals, I can’t really say on the adulting front, although I would say I am fairly adult now. Whatever I get on official paper to put a value on the months of revision and study, I can proudly say that I did it.
The past year has been a real struggle at times, as recorded in this Guardian article by the wonderful Frances Ryan, but it also hasn’t been a wasted one. I’ve started and stopped doing a lot of things that respectively add to and take away from my general wellbeing, which I guess I’ll outline here. This is by no means a definitive “How To Get Through Oxford Finals By An Autistic Student Who Could” type of blog post and I’d really like to make it clear that what works for me may by no means be possible for or even helpful to others, but yeah, here it is.
Having spent my late teens and early 20s in and out of various waiting rooms (GPs, mental health clinics, A&Es) in various shades of “oh-fucking-dear”, I am loath to write what I am about to write. I have shuddered internally as a litany of well-meaning medical professionals extolled the virtues of regular exercise – one doctor even going so far, as he filled out my Prozac prescription, to grin at me and cheerfully say “Of course, jogging is MY anti-depressant!!!”. I have nodded in faux-agreement at suggestions of yoga or mindfulness or yoga and mindfulness before hightailing it out of the room to crawl back home and hide immobile under the duvet. So I am prefacing this with the disclaimer that I am fully aware that exercise as a means of improving or maintaining mental health is something that can be inaccessible to many folks for many reasons, be they physical, mental or financial.
That said, with my mental health improved to the extent that I was no longer glued to a mattress or sofa with fatigue or anxiety (usually both), with access to a decent local leisure centre and with the help of a patient and motivating boyfriend, I have been able to integrate exercise into my general routine and have felt all the better for it. In fact, sometimes I get up and go to the gym/pool voluntarily. On my bike. I know, I can’t believe it either. I can’t really convey how much or how exactly this has helped, but it has definitely made a significant difference. A good part of this is probably the fact I’ve had no choice to get out and move more, having swapped a room in college in central Oxford for a flat eight miles away from Oxford city centre, 3/4s of a mile from the bus stop, but whatever, it’s really helped. I am now the sort of person who wants to tell you, at length, that you really should try yoga and yoga will really make such a difference to your life (now before I start waxing lyrical I’ll move on).
Mindfulness as well has really helped, and this comes after years of convincing myself that “MINDFULNESS DOES NOT HELP ME” and “THERE IS NO POINT” and “I HAVE THE KIND OF BRAIN THAT CANNOT BE QUIETENED BY SUCH HOCUM” and “SITTING IN A CORNER TIED UP IN MY THOUGHT SPIRALS OF EXISTENTIAL DREAD WILL DO ME *JUST* FINE THANK YOU VERY MUCH”. I’ve been using the Calm app (which does have a paid version but the free version is pretty good by itself) and trying to do something every day (which the app facilitates, I can’t say no to a good “you have an X day streak” carrot) has helped and there is a point to it after all.
This probably really proved its worth as the summer term began and I had to stop thinking “Oh Finals are ages away” and switch to “Oh fucking hell here we go.” Any mind is a busy one but an autistic mind is even more so. My thoughts have a tendency to latch on and lock in, which is very useful sometimes, but when it’s not something productive it’s an absolute bloody nuisance. So, commencing the week before Trinity term officially started, I began to obsess about failure. I don’t mean “If I get a 2ii my life is all for naught” thoughts of “failure”, I mean I genuinely had myself convinced that I was going to fail every single exam. (I’d of course quickly passed over the former worry in favour of the more catastrophic and tragic latter one, because why just obsess when you can obsessively catastrophise?) Cue a week of me in a state of intense on-edginess, frequent wailing and sobbing and intermittent moments of clarity which were quickly re-swallowed by the “You’re going to fail!” backing track.
It was understandable really; I was grappling with having to resign from a job I really really loved to sit these Finals, the memory of last year, the potential of reliving last year and that all-encompassing impending doom feel of said approaching Finals peppered with chronic impostor syndrome. I spent a couple of days as term started doing my “everything is OK” face before a final joyful extended low key meltdown day that involved floating between revision classes weeping and ugly crying in good measure. Luckily, my ever-patient tutors were able to discern my state (wasn’t difficult to be fair, at polite enquiries into how returning was going I didn’t say “not bad ta” but rivalled Donna Hayward realising something had happened to Laura in sudden onset despair). With the help regular encouragement, pep-talks, genuine sympathy at my predicament and eventually returning work that proved I do actually, contrary to my self-imposed truth, know a fair bit about my degree content, I got through it. With that atrocious start to term/Finals panic out of the way, I mellowed enough (with the help of mindfulness) to get myself up to and through the remaining exams. It was a struggle, though not an intolerable one, and it’s now done (!!!)
I couldn’t have got here with all the support that I have already mentioned (as well as that which I haven’t), I will be eternally grateful to all the people who have in- and advertently helped me through the past while. And me, I am a whole lot grateful to me too.