Collaging: ‘Mariella’

I remember when I first heard the song Mariella by Kate Nash when I bought Made of Bricks back in 2007. Now when I listen to it, I realised the words struck a chord because the eponymous Mariella is very much autistic coded – a little girl gluing her lips together with Pritt stick so she *never* has to speak. I’ve been working on and off on a series of collages of the song, and still haven’t finished – so I thought I’d upload the first two pages at least!

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My autistic senses: #1 sound

An aspect of autism that I didn’t know until I first researched it was the sensory experience, and I imagine this is something that most people are unaware of. We see autism first and foremost as a social impairment with the sensory difficulties as a very occasional afterthought. Now however, I have realised the way I process the world around me is a lot more prescient than how I relate to other people. Since my diagnosis I’ve come to understand the way I move through the world, the physicality of being autistic, and, more importantly, I’ve been able to put in measures to help manage it. I don’t have an official diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder; it was intimated in my assessment and to get it on paper I’d have to go private. Besides, knowing that sensory things are an issue for me seems to be enough.

Having thought about it, one blog post on sensory processing is going to turn into a mountain, so I’ve decided to break it down into a couple (hearing, sight and touch). Today I’m going to talk about sound (clearly). Now it would be disingenuous to suggest that this is the experience of every autistic person. However, in reading other autistic people’s personal accounts, either in books, blog posts and threads on Twitter, I’ve been able to find commonality between our experiences. You read along and nod.

Through reading other autistic personal narratives, I’ve discovered ways of describing things that then show me something I hadn’t previously been able to verbalise myself. For one, until recently I had never even considered the fact that the way I see, hear and feel my way through life could be different to an allistic person. I always assumed that the discomfort I experience from sound was something that everybody experienced – they were just better at dealing with it than I. I’m now completely overhauling how I approach things, or at least slowly pinpointing the ways that auditory processing issues work and how I can work around them.

I’ve always had very sensitive hearing; whispering sends me spare. It feels like somebody tickling your ear with a feather. You can’t move away and you just get slowly more and more irritated, until you feel you might explode, physically and mentally. Understandably, primary school and high school classrooms could be a nightmare. Libraries too, as I discovered during my undergraduate degree. I was regularly internally apoplectic if somebody near me whispered, breathed too loudly, or typed loudly and unpredictably. Equally frustrating was nobody else seemed to get as frustrated as I did. I sat my Finals in a separate room, with earplugs. This made an incredible difference but still wasn’t perfect; in one exam the invigilator decided halfway through that it was the perfect moment to remove her laptop from its case and clean out the keyboard by blowing. Admittedly the fury at being disturbed seemed to mix well with the exam adrenaline and it was one of my best papers, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

Loud noises aren’t enjoyable either. One morning as a bookseller, I was balancing a full till-tray on one arm whilst logging into the till with the other. The sound of the till drawer springing open made me leap backwards, sending a shower of change everywhere. Emergency sirens are the worst; when an ambulance passes by on the street the noise wipes out everything. It hurts my ears and drowns out my thoughts as it blares round and round and over and over, well after the actual siren is long out of earshot. Hearing is always physical – I clap my hands to my ears and wince and shudder.

Sometimes I feel as if I live in a constant wall of sound. Tuning things out seems to be an issue, but this is difficult to explain. For example, right now, as I sit at my computer I can hear: the music from my speakers, the fridge buzzing in the kitchen, the cars outside, my typing on the keyboard. Recently when having a meal out I noticed that I was trying to listen to the conversation with my mum and boyfriend whilst also listening to the table behind us talk about how they like their coffee, and hearing the woman on the next table tell the waitress that they didn’t have a voucher. These all seem to coexist at once, I am simultaneously aware of them all.

This is why I like to wear headphones, particularly when outside. Trying to hold all these different things in your consciousness is very exhausting. Music is all-encompassing and predictable if I know the track. It is a nice feeling. I can focus on the lyrics, the notes, the different layers (e.g. guitar, bass, drums, how they all fit together) and think about what will come next. Since I got my first Walkman aged 10, I have often listened to the same song over and over. I once played “When You Were Young” by The Killers solidly on the walk to and from school for a week or so. Music becomes a predictable backdrop, an endless loop that makes it a lot easier to deal with the visual unpredictability of the outside world. This is essential on my regular commute which involves a ten minute busy, crowded, cramped and noisy layover in central Oxford.

I do occasionally wish that things were different, especially when not hearing things leads to awkward social mishaps or getting things wrong. Because I don’t seem to be able to tune things out, I often don’t hear what people say straightaway. When people expect a reply I’m only just realising what it is they said and then I seem rude, so often I try and guess, and a few times I get it wrong. What can you do though? Wishing for things to be different gets me nowhere. Instead I do my best to get by and hope that soon this less acknowledged side of autism receives more recognition and understanding in our noisy allistic world.

07/06/2017

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.

05/02 – Inertia, British Book Challenge

So, in December I very excitedly posted informing the world that I would be taking part in this year’s British Book Challenge and promised a post at the end of January with my first review, which … well if you scroll back you’ll see that this didn’t happen.

I would say I’m not quite sure how this happened, but I know I can chalk it up to good old autistic inertia. The best explanation I’ve come across so far for explaining inertia and related issues is this post by Luna Lindsey.

Specific to me, I feel like when I have free time and shit that I need to get done, I will sit and think of what I need to do and then all the *other* things I need to do. Then I will feel overwhelmed by all these options and will procrastinate/get locked into something low effort like endlessly scrolling social media feeds. Then I get nothing done. Then I feel terrible for not getting anything done and the whole cycle continues. The annoying thing is this eats into productive time but also eats into non-productive time, I end up in this kind of stasis that isn’t productive but simultaneously isn’t relaxing because I’m tormenting myself for not getting up and starting something. This probably isn’t an autistic-only issue, but there is the flipside of the coin when you’re an autist (hyper-concentration and focus).

I’ve reinstated the Bullet Journal as a means of waging war against this irritating side effect of an autistic brain and have been seeing gradual improvement…if I make the effort to use it (which occasionally doesn’t happen). Today (Sunday) I had an amazingly productive day (which prompted a ‘blog schedule’ being written, which I really am going to try very hard to stick to).

Hopefully this will mean a turning point in what seems like a never-ending battle against chronic “I’ll do it later” and ending up in peaks of intense productivity and then troughs of nothingness. Hyper-focus is a boon but it can be exhausting and I’m hoping that I can try and regulate the useful bits and iron out the less useful.

Anyway, here’s hoping I can pull this off and be back next week (according to the schedule) with a couple of reviews of books I’ve read lately!

PS. Partner and I spent a very fun half hour looking up different dog breed mixes. My ultimate favourite was a Golden Retriever/Dachshund so it seems a good end point. Hope everybody has a good week!

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Collaging

Just a quick post this evening to *finally* get around to uploading some collages I scanned quite a while ago. Whilst I adore my job as a bookseller, working in retail during the Christmas period has been rather stressful and at times somewhat frustrating – It feels like I’ve just been spending my evenings either burnt out and trying to recharge or about to burn out and needing to conserve energy. I’ve had to be fairly strict about self-care and not overexerting myself and was *so* proud of myself when I made it through December without any major shutdowns (and thus not missing any shifts).

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I love The X Files. I also love finding books about the paranormal and UFOs and such, and it was super fun to source images and text that went with these pictures. Plus glitter. Always lots of glitter.

I made another X Files themed collage recently and I can’t wait to upload it some time soon!
Anyway, I’m off to hibernate until the New Year (when I’ll be back with BOOKS! And MORE COLLAGES! And of course MORE AUTISM!).