Snapshot: Anxiety, depression, stimulatory behavior & negative thought traps.

On November 1st my husband and I took some friends out hiking at some nearby waterfalls. While we were out enjoying the beauty of nature someone smashed out a window in our car and stole my laptop, some electronics and photography gear that belonged to our friends, and some personal belongings stuffed into a backpack nearby.


It’s hard enough being stolen from. It’s hard enough having your vehicle vandalized. It’s definitely hard enough having your friends and loved ones affected directly as well; it’s violating, it’s hurtful, it’s depressing, it’s infuriating. But to make it just that much more of a slap in the face, they had to steal my outlet, my tool–and furthermore a purchase I’d been saving for over the last year and a half that would open many doors for my artistic/expressive needs; a purchase I’d just made barely a week before.

If I was a painter it’d be like they stole all of my brushes, paints, and canvas in one fell swoop.

Theft is theft. It hurts everybody in relatively the same baseline ways and I’m no different in this regard. However I can’t deny that I’m definitely having a unique experience (read: autistic reaction) to this event. Allow me to preface my experience with an explanation as to why that laptop is more than just an expensive piece of electronics for me:

I am currently in recovery from autistic burnout (something I will discuss in more detail in a future post) and psychological burnout from having a really intense work-induced panic attack back in August.


Autistic burnout is a state of physical and mental fatigue, heightened stress, and diminished capacity to manage life skills, sensory input, and/or social interactions, which comes from years of being severely overtaxed by the strain of trying to live up to demands that are out of sync with our needs.”

Dora Raymaker, PhD

My pathway to recovery involves heavy-but-slow processing through artistic means–I would say I may even get more healing from my creativity than I do from the weekly therapy I’m in (no offense to my therapist–she’s amazing, it’s just I process very slowly and art is something I can do that allows me to process at my pace whereas therapy forces me to try and process in an hour and half). One of the consequences of my burnout is that I sleep–a lot–and it takes me an hour or more every day to reconnect with my body and get out of bed. I don’t wake up morose or sad, I’m just depleted of mental & physical energy and so I wake in a “molasses state” and mental willpower is but a hoarse whisper.

Enter the current interests: blogging and digital artwork

Laying in bed for an hour every day, even if needed, wasn’t helping my anxiety any because I wake with a strong desire to dive into my interests, which bring me great joy and emotional release, but my body doesn’t want to respond and get out of bed and this can be very frustrating. I also don’t like feeling unproductive and it goes against my morning routine to sleep/be in bed past 8am, but I’m trying to allow myself to recover as I need right now, which means allowing myself that slow wake time while working on ways to slowly reduce it. But laying there, pining to get on creating while struggling to kick into gear, was becoming a depressing irritation regardless of my self-compassion and I knew there was a way I could fix it that I had been avoiding: finally buy the convertible (touchscreen) laptop I’d been saving for so that I could at least create while waiting for my body and mind to be ready to get out of bed. Plus in so doing I had a feeling I might rouse faster and be ready for my day more quickly if I could actually tap into my interests and boost my happy brain chemicals first thing..

You see…I had been saving bonus money from my current job since I started nearly two years ago. I hadn’t yet purchased it mainly because I struggle to make expensive purchases even when I’ve been saving for them; being that my husband and I are in an aggressive debt pay-off endeavor right now it’s extra hard to justify buying anything that feels “extra”. Further, I too often choose money over mental wellness when I have room for–and especially need–care for my mental wellness. This is rooted in intense money anxiety from growing up poor and witnessing countless, aggressive fights between my parents over money problems. So when I finally overcame all of that baggage (a whole two weeks ago) and decided to customize and purchase a convertible laptop that would open all of the creative doors that had been closed to me, it was kind of a big deal. That laptop represented freedom. It represented growth. It represented self-love because I saved up for it and gifted it to myself for all of my hard work and as a golden tool in helping me explore my autism since the computer was my platform for creativity and connection. So it was special in that it was an extension of me, a conduit of connection, and my most versatile artistic medium.


Experiencing the feels…

All of that was taken when my laptop was stolen–at least that’s what it feels like. They didn’t just take the thing, they took all of that time and effort spent working for those bonuses that I saved while spitting on all the time and effort of psychological work it took to overcome money anxiety enough to buy a golden tool for myself. They set me back to where I was before and therefore stole my progress. They stole my artwork and writing projects that were saved locally on the hard drive, as I’d had it such a short time (only a week) and was so excited to create that I began creating before bothering to finish setting up all of my cloud drives and Microsoft tools.

This causes me loss-related anxiety. It’s a struggle to sit at this desktop PC, with all of its physical discomforts, anyway, and write in my blog that I should be writing in from a more comfortable, less over-stimulating position on my laptop. It’s hard not to think about the theft and re-live all of the emotions again, followed by the inevitable partial shut down I go through while they scramble through my brain and then slowly pass, leaving the mental carnage behind. Creating is a major challenge: I stim like crazy while I sit here, trying to keep my insides feeling calm and connected because my cells otherwise feel like they all want to explode out of my body. I’ve never been good at sitting still at desks and it’s only a matter of time before the causes of the incessant stimming wear me out and I’m too drained to continue, too depleted to focus or care. This inhibition to my productivity was solved in the purchase of the laptop. It directly contributed to a reduction in anxiety, depression, and increase in overall wellness through reduction of daily over-stimulation while doing something I enjoy. Now back to square one.

So I’m struggling with intense emotional consequences, a drastic increase in stimulatory behaviors that are taking over much of my days, and a major setback in healing from my autistic burnout. My focus and executive functioning are already in extreme peril from said burnout, waking only for my interests and now in a depressive slumber again. It’s hard not to feel completely morose over that–the lights have switched off upstairs and I can’t create in the dark.

Enter the negative thought-traps

It’s hard to stay afloat because I keep sinking below the surface of the sea of negative thought traps. The very first thing that crossed my mind when I walked up to the car and noticed the rear passenger window was missing (nope, not missing–just in pieces all over the ground and all over the interior) was that it was my fault. I instantly blamed myself for even bringing my laptop in the first place, then further leaving it in the car fully knowing the risk (in fact, I even had a weird gut feeling that day that I shouldn’t leave it behind in the car but…I did, anyway, which only served to inflame my self-directed anger even more). “I shouldn’t have brought it!” I kept wailing; “I’m so sorry, you guys, this is my fault. They were going right for it–if I hadn’t brought it, hadn’t left it in the car, they wouldn’t have broken in to get it and none of your stuff would have been taken, either. This is on me!” Thankfully my partner and my friends were not having any of that nonsense, reminding me that people make their own choices and that person/those people chose to violate us and steal our belongings when they could have chosen not to. While I understand that they behaved according to their own will and ethics (or lack thereof) I still struggle with accepting that I didn’t “create the situation” in which we got robbed, violated, and our vehicle vandalized. Every day thus far I’ve gone through the mental gymnastics, the tumbling through that maze of self-blame and mis-directed aggression (“you deserve to have your laptop stolen for being dumb enough to bring it a second time when you were well aware of the risk the first time”). Eventually I stick the landing (“no one deserves to be stolen from and we shouldn’t have to worry about these things”) but the routine is exhausting.

I am not to blame. I am not worthy of my hate, but I am worthy of love and compassion. But damnit why didn’t I make the perfect call in that situation and have total control over every aspect of my life at every given moment? How dare I not be omniscient and omnipresent! Tall order. Welcome to my life.


What’s next?

In the face of facts (it’s gone, I’m broke, life must move forward) I’m doing what I can to try and recover our losses and get back my artistic outlet. I don’t like asking for help, never have, and I especially don’t like asking for money and therefore never do, not even from my parents. As such it wasn’t an easy decision and it comes from a genuinely humbled place of existence, but I’ve had to create a GoFundMe account and ask for financial assistance from our community. I’m not a person putting her hand out and begging for spare change–a person with needs but nothing to give in return. My art and writing might be therapeutic for me but it helps others as well, and it connects me to my local creative community (and them to me) in a way that allows me to contribute to local art culture overall and I believe in the broad value of art to humanity. Importantly that feeling of connectedness to humanity, as an autistic woman who’s always felt “alien” and therefore disconnected from her kind, is vastly important to me.

Having something to offer back makes me feel better about having to ask, but I still feel the sting of embarrassment about it all–that it happened, that I can’t afford to replace the stolen items myself, that I have to ask for help. But I know people will help if they can, if they want, and it’s not an obligation but it generally makes people feel good to help others, it spreads positivity. I try my best to do that–to bring positivity into peoples’ lives. On my quest for help a man reached out to me on social media to inquire about the incident. When I looked at his profile I found that he had his own GoFundMe running so I opened it to read about his cause. This man, an avid adventurer and motocross rider, had an accident during one of his rides and broke his back, rendering himself a paraplegic who can no longer do the things he once enjoyed. His current cause is to raise enough money for stem cell therapy to hopefully help him regain the use of his legs while he continues intense physical therapy and adjusting to life in a wheelchair. I don’t know this man but he’s a fellow human who’s also in need and, really, his needs are much bigger than mine, so I donated to his cause even while I need money for mine. I didn’t save the world but damn did it feel good to do something for someone that I know will have a positive impact some day if it’s not already. The world can be a bleak Hell sometimes; helping lift each other up makes a Heaven on earth.

It’s hard to want to create right now–the energy and focus aren’t really there as you’ve read–but I want to keep making art and wellness campaigns for my community. While certain projects are on hold and production is slower now without the convertible laptop, I’ll continue to work at pulling myself out of bed every day and maintaining my drive to create enjoyable, thoughtful content for my followers and community. In the meanwhile, if you, the reader, wouldn’t mind taking a moment to share our GoFundMe campaign (and perhaps donate if you are able and willing) we would greatly, ENDLESSLY appreciate your gift of kindness and compassion.

~xoxo~

foreword

Words can be elusive. Thoughts and feelings are hard to understand and even harder to communicate. Sometimes I find it easier to explore and understand what I’m feeling through art. I’ve struggled my whole life to ever consider myself artistic. Art, I always thought, was something people did to create things for the sake of creating and they did it because they were artistic in nature. It never occured to me that perhaps people were creating things as a form of expressing inner conflicts, feelings, and thoughts they couldn’t otherwise adequately express in words. It only occured to me that I did that. “I’m not making art, I’m letting my mind sort itself out.” Aren’t we all? For a rigid thinker like me, something abstract like art can be difficult to fully comprehend.

To me the creation of art is how I speak to the world and how I process my experiences, gaining a better understanding of myself–I don’t think of it as being art but alternative words or snapshots for me to ponder of what lies beneath the maelstrom of my conscious brain.

Painting has become a primary source for processing my internal landscape. Others look at my paintings and see art, I just see feelings and thoughts and a heavy amount of information. Importantly it has become one of my favorite methods for exploring some of the harder, more difficult-to-understand aspects of my autism, such as meltdowns.


Snapshot: Sensory Meltdowns


| part I |

Sensory overload is a massive topic and I’m certain I’ll be writing several posts about it because it does tend to largely inspire the style of my art. This post in particular focuses on the confusing nature of sensory-induced meltdowns as expressed through a painting that was done as I was recovering from sensory overload from processing several data-heavy conversations, confusing information, and getting additionally overwhelmed by loud auditory stimuli. This painting is meant to convey one particular, overarching aspect of overload for me: chaos.

every line a sensation / every dot a sound / every swirl a sight / total meltdown

When you look at this, what do you see? There are layers upon layers; dozens of colors, dots, and dabs; swipes and scrapes; spatter and glitter and gobs of paint all to create texture (the metaphoric layers of processing). The lines seem like they’re trying to form shapes but they get lost in confused swirls, interrupted by swipes of color (information) going in varying directions with different destinations that all seem lost in a web of larger information. Thoughts try to form but get nowhere (dots, dabs) and focus is fractured by walls that spring up and block the ability to grasp concepts long enough to fully understand them. Every attempt to organize the chaos into something sensible is met by yet more chaos–the closer one looks the more lost in detail they become. The overload is all of the paint on a single canvas giving you too much to look at, too much to sort through, too much to comprehend.

What does this feel like? It’s entirely over-whelming, sometimes frightening. My mind is out-of-control and I feel slightly disconnected from my body, like the sensations are incongruent with my experience, and that lends its own anxiety. The emotions are too many, too fast, too confusing and I’m not good at identifying them in real-time. The frontal lobe of my brain feels like someone put a spike through it. The harder I try to focus the more everything scatters, the more my head pounds, and if I try too hard for too long to process I get disabling migraines that can wipe me out for an entire day or two.

Sometimes it’s like too much pressure in my head and body. Sometimes it’s like a hundred voices (but not actual voices, just hundreds of lines of information feeding into my psyche at once and I can’t focus on one). I become intensely emotional but I don’t know what emotions I’m experiencing or why. I become exhausted, irritable–angry, even–and lash out at whatever is nearby, be it a person or an inanimate object: “Stupid fucking chair!!” *kicks chair over* And to think…all it did was catch my sweater as I walked by it…hardly worthy of the violent outburst it received.

But my mind is in so much chaos, so much pain; my body is confused and feels like lightning is zapping me–not like a tingling sensation but like a jumpy, fiery, dangerously-energized charge that is unstable and makes everything seem more aware…like every skin cell is more alive than it’s ever been. It makes sitting still and staying focused almost impossible. It makes the soft, concerned touches from my husband feel like hot fire pokers, cold ice picks, needle-encrusted gloves, sandpaper fingers. It makes me jump, recoil, tense up.

If I’m lucky enough to not be shutting down at the same time I can actually say, “Please don’t touch me,” but far too often I’ve already succumbed to selective mutism and just ended up pulling coldly away from his touch, curling into a fetal position, communicating with my body messages I never intended to send because they weren’t congruent with reality: “Don’t touch me, I don’t like you right now. I’m mad.” Or in somewhat better cases I just go rigid and hug myself while he hugs the brick wall that I’ve become, trying my best to allow contact that he needs but I can barely stand.

Side note: Since my diagnosis I no longer force myself to allow contact when I’m over-stimulated and my husband now understands my need for physical and emotional space while I recover from sensory overload and/or meltdowns. I think it’s important to work with one’s neurodivergence rather than against it.

Exhaustion invariably follows these sensations. My brain is keyed up, my body is keyed up, and more often than not I’ve been stimming incessantly to maintain a sensation of connectedness to my body, to help me focus and calm, and that takes a toll as well. When you rock, sway, count (use your brain resources), bounce, and pace like a caged tiger you tend to amplify your physical and mental exhaustion, but the trade-off is maintaining enough of a connection to your physical being that your mental being doesn’t descend into full panic.

Take another look at the painting; thousands of strokes and dabs. If each stroke and each dab represents a sensation, thought, stimulus…could you hold your own and not explode? Like a balloon being over-filled, a person can only take so much before they burst into little pieces. Being on the autism spectrum just means that my balloon (stimulation tolerance) fills up rapidly–sometimes too fast to catch before it pops (and when it pops confetti just gets everywhere). And thanks to how hard it can be to find all of the little balloon pieces amongst the confetti mess, it takes me a much longer time to put the balloon back together again. And as you might have guessed, a repaired balloon can be more susceptible to future pops if not properly repaired.

If you’re neurotypical you have the benefit of your brain sorting through all/most of that information in real time and mostly on a subconscious level. For example, if your body says, “My bladder is full,” the NT brain can translate and communicate that clearly and effectively. For me the message “your bladder is full” is not translated in real-time and not as a clear message. I will, instead, receive mixed information or information that feels “anonymous”, i.e. I know my body needs something but I don’t know what is needed and I don’t know what part of my body is sending the signal. I instead start to feel anxious, jittery, scattered, agitated, and begin stimming to re-establish a connection with my body that feels as if it’s drifting. It can take me anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours to realize I need to pee. As a result of a lifetime of this delayed comprehension of my senses (topped-off by intense focus on special interests that made it excruciating for me at times to break away from my interest to satisfy the droll needs of my physical body) my bladder is…needless to say…not as strong as it used to be.

Exploring my autism through art has been tremendously helpful because it takes longer to formulate a clear understanding of my experience and feelings than it does to let my hands express it for me on canvas. I need a lot of time and space (both physical and mental) to figure out what’s going on inside and the process of painting is a gift to myself of deliberate dedication to sorting, acknowledging, and releasing all of the information swirling and crashing through my being so that I can make room for yet more (because the world, and life, is relentless). It is my hope that through continued painting I will learn more about the patterns of how I process so that I can be more wise in the ways of navigating my internal landscape in real-time. At least, for now, it provides me the opportunity to process more efficiently after-the-fact.

As I continue to explore my experiences through art I hope they lend–if nothing else–a more colored-in picture of a female autistic life.


Disclaimer: My experience does not reflect the experience of all people on the autism spectrum. While some of the symptoms that I discuss can be common for those with ASD that does not mean that my experience of my symptoms is the same as how others experience the same symptoms. No two people are alike and, indeed, no two autists are alike, either. Furthermore, how females experience autism spectrum disorders is often quite different from how males experience them.

Spotlight: Comfort/Insistence on Sameness –Breakfast style

In my mind there are two types of people in this world: those who love breakfast and those who don’t. I’m not so sure about those who don’t. . .

Personally, I love breakfast and could eat it for every meal of the day, every day. Not only do I need to eat breakfast in order to calm the ravenous beast that is my belly upon waking, but I just really struggle to function if I don’t have it first-off. And forget about just grabbing some left-overs from the night before, I have to have breakfast food or nothing is right–especially not my stomach.

Of course it can’t stop there, oh no–we must take it a step further because it can’t be just any breakfast food, really.. It must be avocado toast.

Side-bar: I’ve always been very particular. Very. When I was a kid I would have meltdowns at the dinner table if my “special spoon” was not available for me to use. I insisted upon it day after day, meal after meal; breakfast, lunch, dinner–if it required a utensil it had to be my special spoon. (I can still remember the beautiful curve of the cursive ‘W’, the elegant twist of the floral etching along the gently crenulated sides. I miss that spoon…) Not much has changed since then except that spoon is long gone (taken and discarded in my parents’ effort to rid me of my “bratiness”, aka insistence on sameness).

Instead these days I just insist on eating the same meal(s) again and again, like ‘cado toast. I am capable of eating other meals for breakfast but nothing feels right in my world if I start my day with anything other than that satisfying and delicious avocado crunch. If I can’t eat the toast until 1pm and had to eat something else to ease the morning hunger, it isn’t until 1pm that I feel like I’m not either ill (scattered, agitated, drained) or frantic if my stress levels are already high. Because of this it’s important to start my day the same–it sets me up for success, it makes me dance-level happy, it lets my body know it’s taken care of and lets my mind know its needs will be met.

Day 1 to Day 1 million: Two pieces of gluten free toast topped with two slices of tomato each, lightly salt & peppered, with 1/4 of a large avocado spread over the toast and also peppered, topped with a handful of basil leaves. And if I’ll be doing some muscle training that day I’ll add an egg or two on the side–sunnyside-up. Hey, don’t knock predictability, it’s the best comfort food.

Avocado toast? But isn’t that basic AF?

Look, I’m a lot of things but basic ain’t one. However this blog post isn’t about defending my choice in breakfast foods or railing against the idea of “basic-ness”, it’s about me taking a moment to honestly address a trait that can sometimes be disabling but is, truthfully, a trait I like to laugh at myself for and take lightly when I can: insistence on sameness. So in the spirit of humor–yes, my brain just insists that I be a “basic bitch” every day and eat my avocado toast. If it means I get to start my day with the confidence that success is in the cards for me, so be it.

So about that insistence…

What happens when I don’t get to have my avocado toast? Probably not the same thing that happens to your average neurotypical adult and it varies based on how well I’m functioning that day:

Higher-functioning days = I can cope, with mindfulness practice, and I can find a suitable alternative and lean on a different sameness for comfort (such as morning coffee). Heaven forbid I’m out of coffee, too, or so much for “higher functioning” in that case. 😖

Lower-functioning days = Cope? BAHAHA! 😭 Melt. Down. You’d think the world was ending or something; sobbing, shouting, throwing stuff, slamming doors, frantic stimming/pacing, hyperventilating, often followed by a period of dissociation (shut down). In other words, explosion followed by implosion and unintended nutrient depletion because it’s harder to force myself to eat something different than it is to just not eat anything at all.

Clearly it isn’t just avocado toast. It must be magical. Or drugged. Or this girl has crazy OCD.

Or…perhaps this is just what it can look like to be neurodivergent; specifically, to be on the autism spectrum. It doesn’t look like this for everyone on the spectrum, but this is a facet of how it is expressed in me. I’m not going to get philosophical, psychological, or too terribly thoughtful at all here because this post isn’t about diving deep, but rather dusting off the surface so that the picture is a little clearer. For example, in this picture one might see how females on the spectrum can sometimes be misdiagnosed with anorexia and struggle with proper nutrition for years because their doctors don’t understand it’s autism and not self image issues or anxiety. 🤔 (Being particular, having sensory sensitivities triggered by textures and smells, and insisting upon sameness can be a daily challenge when it comes to getting proper nutrition (not to mention the whole gamut of digestion issues that come with ASD) but all that’s for another blog entry!)

If my executive functioning was consistently at its lowest I would starve. The more stress I am under, the lower my executive functioning; the more I insist upon sameness, the more susceptible I am to meltdowns and shutdowns from changes in routine, the harder it is for me to make decisions and take action, and the longer my periods of dissociation can last (this is where I really struggle to get my needs met because I struggle to communicate them when/if I can even recognize what they are). Eating becomes stressful, almost burdensome and anxiety-inducing, and the double-edged sword that is predictability is either my savior or destroyer because I can either find comfort in the reliability of that same breakfast every day, or I can find turmoil in its absence.

It’s a little thing, this desire for avocado toast for breakfast. In an autistic world, however, it is literally everything: a detail that, if bypassed, can collapse the entire structure of a day, week, or longer depending on my overall stress load and level of functioning at the time. Today I might get excited at the idea of my partner making me gluten-free blueberry waffles and eggs just how I like them, and I can negotiate the acceptance of this different breakfast with myself, but tomorrow even the suggestion of a different breakfast might spin me out.

Solutions make challenges fun.

Needless to say, when I travel out of town I take my own panini press (the whole gluten thing, yo) and fixings for ‘cado toast so that I can set myself up for success every day (some genius I owe to my husband). In this way I feel kind of spoiled when I travel because I know my breakfast will be my (current) idea of the best ever. This is how I adapt when adapting itself is a challenge–by setting myself up for success in being who I am, because trying to force myself to be neurotypical–as I have done for 34 years–has done nothing but destroy my psyche, self-esteem, and hold me back from being the best version of myself. And yep, the best version is my authentic autistic version despite how “dysfunctional” that might sometimes look. By spending the time to work with my challenges rather than constantly battling them and demanding that I be “more normal”, I have come to finally love something more than I love avocado toast (that isn’t also my husband):

Me.