Art Experience

There’s something about a good piece of art that speaks to me. No, it’s more than that, much more: there’s something about it that resonates, a positive feedback loop. My initial visceral gestalt stimulates my mind and senses, filtering them through that raw emotion so that the detail becomes imbued with context.

The tone of the piece in its entirety informs each part, marking and tying it into the coherent assemblage. Reductionism is destined to fall at the first hurdle: just as an individual instrument cannot hope to convey the sense of the entire orchestra, so one component of an artwork can only offer a faint hint of the scope of the whole.

As I ingest the artwork through my senses — seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting — it becomes part of me while simultaneously I see myself reflected in it, part of it. There can be no illusions here, no falsehood. We are both laid bare, opened to deep scrutiny, and the further I stare into the piece the further I see into the very core of my own being.

This is communication of the highest order, as far beyond language and words as the works of Shakespeare are beyond the first scribblings of a child. And yet there is a simplicity to this dialog verging on the magical. A conjunction of my mind and that of the artist, synchronized through the medium of the art.

The experience of art is one that transcends language to wash through the mind, and when it is over the signs of its passage remain. The person who stepped up to the piece is not the same one who later walks away.

Why Feel Ashamed?

Shame has been at the forefront of my thoughts recently. I wrote a couple of posts about things I had not been able to talk about before because of the shame I felt: self-harm and violence. And before that were other bloggers’ thoughts about shame: autisticook, Musings of an Aspie and feminist aspie. But what is shame all about? What makes something shameful?

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Breakdown Timebomb

Handling strong emotions is extraordinarily difficult. Trying to keep them under control – rein them in – is like trying to close a suitcase packed with so many clothes that they threaten to burst out from every side.

I am caught in the currents of my feelings, one minute floating calmly and the next being pulled under by the rip tide or whirled around in a maelstrom of despair before sinking down in darkness. The illusion of control lies shattered around me as I huddle fetus-like in the middle of an barren landscape, no feature to break the monotonous emptiness fading to the horizon in every direction. Out here there is only loneliness. No sound. No breeze. Nothing moves, not even me. Yet within my mind nothing is still: huge, demanding thoughts and emotions slug it out in a battle for my attention while I struggle to avoid being overwhelmed.

And then, as softly sudden as the bursting of a soap bubble, the turmoil subsides and I experience a period of relative calm.

I feel the need to escape – a basic animal instinct to flee from threat. But there is no path to the place that draws me because it exists only in my memories, in the past. An illusory golden history, a carefree time of happiness. An amalgam of times and places synthesized into idyllic fantasy. Such a temptation!… to slip away into this perfect dream world.

A number of factors have likely contributed to my current state of mind but they all boil down to one thing: change. Too much has changed and is changing in too short a space of time and it all pushes me out of my comfortable routine existence into an unstable, unpredictable, disorientating state of uncertainty and confusion. I’ve not been sleeping well as a result, compounding the problem with tiredness – I feel tattered, ragged, frayed, worn out.

Please, somebody stop the world. I want to get off – I’ve had enough of this ride.

Crash Landing

Soaring high in clear blue sky,
Lifted on wings of pure joy:
Perfect day. Come out to play,
Join in the game, don’t be coy.

Troubled times kept out of mind,
Pleasure has hid them from sight.
Shadows loom and threaten doom:
Even such days end in night.

Falling fast, it ends at last:
Broken wings tattered and torn.
Hello pain, we meet again.
I pray hope rides in at dawn.

Self-censorship

Censorship. It’s a word with many negative connotations, associated with authoritarian states and restriction of freedom. But on an individual level it is something most people practise without even being aware of it. Things left unsaid. It may an attempt to spare somebody hurt; it may be to avoid leaving oneself open to attack for voicing an unpopular opinion.

Sins of omission. Being unwilling to speak out because of the possible consequences. Is this a bad thing? Does it depend on context? Is it acceptable not to tell somebody something because you feel it may hurt their feelings? Is it unacceptable to keep an opinion to oneself because it differs from the majority view? Or is that simply self-preservation?

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I worry that being open and honest in describing how I’m feeling and the difficult times my wife and I are going through might upset or hurt people who care about us. I don’t know the answer to this one. In general I am opposed to censorship and in favour of freedom of speech. But do I have any right to decide to withhold information that could affect other people’s view of me? To offer them an incomplete picture? Doesn’t that equate with dishonesty? I feel uncomfortable if I contemplate offering false information or deliberately omitting details. If the two situations feel the same doesn’t that mean they are the same? I believe they are, at least in my mind.

So I’m left with this conflict between wanting to avoid causing anybody distress and being open. So far I have leaned towards being open. I am aware that this can cause some of my readers to feel sympathetic pain and that is a cause for concern to me. But I believe that to hide the difficult facts and only write about the good times would be misleading. It would give the impression that I live in some ideal, perfect world where nothing bad ever happens. The truth is that like everybody else I face a range of situations, go through highs and lows, triumphs and disasters. I strongly believe that I have to present an accurately balanced account; I try to do so here.

I apologise if anybody has found what I write here to be distressing; that has never been my intention. But that is how life can be at times. Would life’s highs provide such elation were it not for the contrast with the lows?

Empathy and Selfishness

I fear I’ve been behaving selfishly recently. I don’t want to make excuses – just try to explain. As I wrote recently, my wife is very ill at the moment and her physical pain, exhaustion and isolation are causing severe depression.

I find that I resonate with how she is feeling. I feel her depression like a deep, black pit; like a hundred hooks in my insides drawing them down into the depths, leaving a void yearning to be filled with anything other than the aching emptiness. I find it very difficult to function in the face of such intense emotion – and I am only feeling it second-hand, picking up the echoes of what my wife is experiencing!

I just don’t know how to handle the situation; these feelings. I don’t know what to do for my wife to help her with her depression. I feel lost. So, selfishly, I have been withdrawing and taking refuge in familiar routines. I’ve been alternately detached and irascible with her instead of being supportive. I know that’s wrong and I want to be supportive – it’s proving to be a big challenge.

My reaction to strong emotions is not at a conscious level – it is sheer gut instinct. Such feelings push the buttons of my primitive fight-or-flight response and my conscious mind has to fight hard against the tide to overcome these basic instincts. It doesn’t always succeed and that is when I overload.

Imagine, if you can, how a pet dog would react to its owners having a row in front of it. The dog can’t understand what is causing the situation but can pick up the emotional overtones and becomes distressed. Perhaps it slinks off, tail between its legs, and cowers in a corner, whining. And over time the dog will become more wary and it will take time and effort to overcome its reluctance to approach, its fear of being in that situation again.

Neurotypical people don’t react like that dog, and so don’t expect that other people would either. But some autistic people don’t have the ability to handle these emotionally-charged situations. We can’t rationalize the causes when we’re experiencing such distress. All we can do is react instinctively. There’s a very good article on this subject on the Autism and Empathy blog.

When I fail to react to somebody in the way that they expect, when I react in a way that appears unfeeling, irrational, selfish – that is often the result of all too much feeling on my part. Feeling – emotion – so strong that I can’t rationally cope with it and my mind regresses to a more primitive mode of operation: instinct, the primitive drive for self-preservation.

Sunfall

The sun is out and shining bright,
The grey skies banished by its light.
Though rain was falling yesterday,
Now clouds have drifted far away.

Just like the weather’s wax and wane,
My moods will fall, then rise again
From thunder’s roll and tempest’s blow
To skies of blue and peace below.

But would the sunshine warming me
Feel half as good were it to be
Without the contrast of the cold
That had me lately me in its hold?

Worst of Times; Best of Times

The last few days have been a time of striking contrast. I have plumbed the cold, dark depths of sadness and soared high on bright waves of euphoria. Both Friday and Saturday nights were very low points – it was so difficult just to carry on. I don’t know how I’d have got through without the distraction of work – for those hours I could just do the job and not think about my problems. But outside of work I had nothing to occupy my mind – no persona to adopt, no mask to hide behind. And so I felt the full impact of my negative feelings.

There were a number of reasons for my unhappiness – being in situations I did not want to be in and feeling trapped, picking up strong negative feelings from somebody close to me and being unable to handle the empathic pain, shutting down in public and attracting unwanted attention when I just needed to be left in peace – it all combined into a destructive overload where I was fighting against myself to avoid a meltdown, to avoid lashing out. I was sleeping badly, not eating well and – although I didn’t realise it – becoming physically and mentally exhausted. Even watching my team (Wigan Warriors) win the Rugby League Challenge Cup on Saturday afternoon didn’t affect my mood to any great degree.

Sunday didn’t start well. However I had a busy shift that afternoon at the pub – the time flew by and I got a buzz from it. I also had some supportive feedback from the couple of “down” posts I’d published the previous nights which lifted me. So I was feeling somewhat better by the evening and, even better, relations with this person I’m very close to were considerably less frosty – this is somebody I love very much but we have communication issues from time to time when she gets very openly emotional and I overload and become uncommunicative. I know it doesn’t help the situation but it’s the only way I can handle the emotion I feel as a result.

But anyway, there were signs that things were getting back on track so that helped. And that evening I had organised an event in the pub – a darts and quiz night. It’s a measure of how comfortable I feel in that environment that I felt able to put myself forward for such an event – organising and hosting something lasting two and a half hours. I had ten teams of two competing and I was nervous as anything starting out even though I knew all the people taking part. I managed to round them all up, explain how it was going to work and get things started. After three rounds of questions I was feeling under pressure and took a short break. My legs were shaking and – I found out later – I was exhibiting a couple of tics that my wife could easily identify as signs of my nerves. I was wondering what the heck I had got myself into – why I had put myself in this situation. I felt it might be slipping out of my control. I hadn’t been able to plan the event in detail because I’d not known how many entrants there would be on the night – I was out of my comfort zone and – to a degree – making it up as I went along.

It was about ten minutes later that I got things going again with the next round. The break had calmed me enough and I felt I was getting on top of things – I felt that it was running more smoothly. Nobody had complained yet – in fact a couple had told me it was going well, and that gave me a bit more confidence. By the time we finished two people had made speeches thanking me and called for a round of applause as appreciation for an enjoyable night. Everybody there told me they had had a good time and that I had done a good job of running it. I felt pleased – but more than that I was utterly exhausted. I slept well – over ten hours – and it was Monday morning when I was feeling more refreshed that it sank in and the elation hit me. I found myself flapping my hands in the shower! I feel a real sense of achievement for carrying the evening off successfully, and I know that even a year ago I would never have been able to stand up and speak in front of a group like that – let alone direct the proceedings.

I’m not in any hurry to repeat the experience – it was nerve-wracking and exhausting – but I feel proud of myself for doing a difficult job competently and managing to handle my anxiety. Thanks are also due to the people who took part on that night and were so supportive towards me – I couldn’t have got through it without certain people telling me early on that I was doing well and giving me a well-needed confidence boost.

I Can’t Cry Any More

My tears won’t come. I feel so close to breaking down in tears lately but for some reason I just can’t do it – my eyes remain resolutely dry. Although inside I might be despairing, on the outside there are no cracks in my mask.

Only the people reading this have any idea of the pain I carry inside. I am not able to show it or speak out about it. So I write instead and expose my feelings in this way.

Few of the people I have seen over the past few days will have garnered any hint of my hurt. I have kept it inside. I can still speak to them, laugh along with them, give every appearance of being my usual self while under the surface I am in turmoil. I actively hide it these days.

One if the factors that makes handling it more difficult is that I can’t talk about how I feel to anyone. I don’t mean that there is nobody I feel close enough to; what I mean is that I am literally not able to speak about my feelings. When I am under the added pressure of oral communication the words get stuck in my throat and I can’t get them out – I become mute.

It is not that the words themselves are blocked. Rather it is that I have a flood of words running through my mind but such is the intensity of emotion accompanying them that I involuntarily shut down. I would not even be able to read what I have written out loud.

Tears, words and other demonstrations of my emotions are not something I merely find difficult: they are mentally and physically almost impossible. Instead I am sitting here into the small hours again, writing these words as my way of dealing with my emotional pain. And by expressing my feelings in this way I am better able to cope with them.