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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!).

British Books Challenge ’17

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So, it’s always been my intention (if not actually realized as much as I’d have liked recently) to use this blog as an outlet for my Special Interests, one of these being books (and literature). This interest has been rejuvenated since I’ve become a bookseller and discovered one of the best perks of working in the book trade – free reading copies and proofs. I’ve been reading a heck of a lot more for fun recently, and sometimes devouring a couple of books a week, simply because I can get hold of such a range of new exciting publications! It’s a pleasure to talk about and review these books too (I’ve been more active on Goodreads lately, simply because I’m reading more) and I’m really looking forward to posting more about books on here.

I came across the British Book Challenge through Twitter and am excited to say I’m going to be taking part – the aim is to review one book by a British author (no holds barred on genre) every month. You can read more about entering (there are prizes from publishers and the like!) and the ‘rules’ here.

I’m not entirely fixed on what books I’m going to read, although I’ve got some definites. But here’s a potential broad outline and a few ideas of what I’m going to read – I am, of course, always open to recommendations!
I’m going to be focussing on women’s writing and other points of diversity, especially disability (there’ll be at least one autism book). My reading will also most likely be influenced by what I receive/stumble across as reading copies of books that are due to be published.
(I’ll edit this post as I choose/review books)

January: Butterfly Fish – Irenosen Okojie
February: Addlands – Tom Bullough
March: A Smell of Burning – Colin Grant
April:
May:
June:
July:
August:
September:
October:
November:
December:

Anyway, like I’ve said, I’m super excited to take part in this year’s challenge, and I look forward to chatting more about books on here soon!

Have a lovely festive season!

On shutting down

I’ve been meaning to write something about meltdowns/shutdowns for a while and the other day the latter happened, so I’ve put this post together from things I scribbled down during and after!
Shutdowns are an unfortunate side effect of processing emotions and senses differently and can come completely unexpectedly, but from the outside I suspect it doesn’t look like what it is. I dreaded letting work know that I couldn’t come in two days in a row, because how could I explain this? My hope with this post is to a) help any allistic readers understand what this is and b) maybe help any (newly-diagnosed) autistic people vocalise what this process is (assuming of course that my experiences are common – please let me know about this!).

I’ve had to call in sick to work today. I didn’t see it coming; I felt a little shaky when I got up and helped my partner get out the door for 7.15, but after coffee, toast and cereal, I felt a little more grounded. I was about to stand up and get showered and dressed, but the quick thought process of visualising what I needed to do – stand up, walk to the bathroom, remove clothes, turn shower on, put on shower cap and so on, right up to opening my drawer, choosing and putting on socks – made me freeze.
For a few seconds, everything seems suspended; I feel trapped, locked in one position while the traffic outside shouts at me. My body feels anxious and poised for flight, an intense urge to move quickly but I also feel unable to move, utterly unable. The thought is there but the action just won’t happen. At the same moment, my mouth feels welded shut; even if I wasn’t on my own, I wouldn’t have been able to call for help, and I’m not quite sure how anybody could help anyway.
I suddenly realise I’ve been tapping my fingers together, drumming out a rhythm. It’s like coming to for a second and I grab the notebook and pencil I’d left on the coffee table and begin to scribble, replacing the tapping with the movement of writing and the soft sound of the pencil on paper. I think in sentences the majority of the time and just letting my hand pour out the thoughts that are speeding through my brain, along with the sensory aspect, helps quell the feeling of impending doom, staving it off somehow.
I force myself after two minutes to break out of the hypnotic writing to stand up and totter to the bathroom. I throw up. I sit on the toilet seat and shake all over.
I give up and practically crawl into bed and lie still under the duvet. A few hours sleep should help me recharge and feel slightly more alive; the waves of anxiety and sensory overload are physically and mentally exhausting. I’ll feel tired and groggy and guilty later, convincing myself that I either failed or brought this on myself, on purpose. Losing control of executive function so suddenly and completely is frustrating, especially when you have somewhere to be and an obligation to others to fulfill.
I sleep until 4pm or so, drifting in and out to use the bathroom or stumble to the kitchen to grab handfuls of cereal out of the tub to hold off the hunger. I wake up properly, groggy but with a bit more energy. I manage to eat the lunch I packed myself that morning. I make dinner, spend the evening in the pyjamas I’ve worn all day, feeling tired and very low.

The next morning I wake up heavy like I’m weighed down by something inside me. I’m pinned. I sit up and immediately slump back down again. I try and get up, pour coffee, and sit on the bathroom floor for half an hour, contemplating the shower. It’s the same feeling as yesterday of being suspended in motion but muted by extreme tiredness and stirred up by anxiety, the kind that grabs you by the throat and makes your chest go all tight. I manage to shower, manage to put on clothes, but the feeling I’ve been pushing back eventually comes crashing in in full force; rising stomach, short breath, loudness like a wave. I manage to summon up the strength to type a surprisingly coherent email before I curl up and snivel myself back into agitated sleep.

Collaging #2

Until halfway into my (very slow) cycle ride home, I was berating myself (and the heavy shopping bags on my handlebars) for having ‘splurged’. Eventually, though, I reasoned with myself that splurging £20 or so in Poundland and the charity shops wasn’t so bad, as splurging goes. Besides, Poundland’s craft supplies game is currently about 100/10 and I couldn’t resist.

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I’ve been spending a fair amount of my free time collaging at the moment, mainly in the evenings after work. I tend to gravitate towards collaging or computer games, and I guess an evening spent constructing the perfect theme park is slightly less of an ego boost than filling a page in my sketchbook. As well, I have had a fantastic haul in the local charity shops recently; the people donating to charity shops here have amazing taste in coffee table books!
I’m quite particular when it comes to sourcing collage material when out charity shopping, otherwise, I’d end up with piles and piles of second-rate stuff that I’m less likely to want to use. I tend to go for books with a higher image to text proportion. the higher quality the paper the better, and I usually try and spend less than £3 (although I broke this and went up to £3.49 the other day when I stumbled across this in the Oxfam bookshop)…

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I’ll round this off with a quick selection of my latest collages, you can guarantee that with the clocks going back and 12 days off from work, I’m going to be buried under quilts watching TV and ferreting away through my new stack of books!

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