Years ago here in the UK there was a series of adverts on TV to try to persuade people to make more phone calls and speak to people more often. The tagline was “It’s good to talk.” That might be true, but for some people it’s not easy. Continue reading
I have a deep connexion to the written word. The art of writing is one of my great pleasures in life, reading is another. Words are little parcels of meaning and reading one unwraps the gift to reveal a glittering treasure of ideas. Each one is a seed that takes root in the mind, growing and bringing forth sweet fruit.
When I write I use words to build a representation of my mind state. It’s not a simple, mechanical process although experience has made it largely effortless; it’s a creative endeavor in which I use my feelings and mental images as the template through which I shape a story.
I never start with an outline or any structural plan for what I intend to write: inside my mind there is no such linear organization. The ideas exist as a single entity, a gestalt. I see and feel the whole at once, aware of each part but much more aware of how their combination results in meaning that transcends any simple arithmetic of combination.
Words are pigments and brush strokes; the page is my canvas and I paint what is inside my mind, producing an imperfect representation in my drive to express my thoughts. I cannot hope to portray every detail, the intricate richness of what I see behind my eyes. Instead I strive to present a faithful impression, a sketch. To indicate through hints the underlying shape. To provide the dots that my reader can join in their own mind.
Writing is immensely emotive. These elements from my mind that I translate via my keyboard can be painfully intense, carrying as they do a wealth of emotional association. Analogy and visual metaphor have their roots in these feelings: they are the manifestation of my visceral, physical responses to stimuli via the vision-oriented functioning of my brain.
Sometimes it feels as if the ideas themselves are alive within my mind and it is they who strive to be heard through me. The act of writing becomes one of observing as they flow out onto the page. My hopes and fears, loves and loathings want to be heard and they tumble out as I watch, lost in the ecstatic bliss of creative release. To simply call writing a passion falls short: it is far more important to me than that.
I only heard the term validation recently, but quickly realized that I was familiar with the concepts behind it. It is very much about recognizing and acknowledging emotions, both in ourselves and in others, something that I find difficult. This would be true for anybody with alexithymia, and I’d presume is fairly common across the autism spectrum as a result.
I’m not a violent person in general. People who know me well have remarked on my placid nature. But I have a darker side: there’s a reason my mother told my wife to watch out for my temper…
I have a high level of tolerance for frustration or pain but when that state continues — whatever the cause — I become enraged. I shout, yell, scream; I throw things that are close at hand (although as an adult I nearly always have the presence of mind not to break stuff or throw it towards any person); I hit doors and walls.
As a child there were holes in my bedroom walls where I had punched or kicked through the plasterboard. I have punched and kicked through doors, or burst them from their hinges. In later life I have learned to punch solid brick walls where the only resulting damage is to my hands or elbows: this lessens my shame in the aftermath.
Because I do not want to act in this way. I know that my rages can frighten my wife. I have never aimed my rage at a person, although their actions might be the cause, and I believe that my inhibitions against harming a person or animal run too deep even for my rage to overwhelm. But even I can’t be absolutely certain. Because there have been accidents: a couple of times I have pushed somebody away from me after yelling at them to go away and they have fallen. I once hit my wife with the door I was pushing closed as I tried to keep her away from me; I didn’t even notice she was right behind me. Does this mean I could go on a rampage, attacking random people I encounter? I seriously doubt it: my drive is simply to release the anger and I have always aimed it at inanimate objects.
But I have caused people harm as a result of my involuntary violent outbursts. I am lucky that I caused them nothing worse than a bruise: I have to live with the consequences of what I do, whether my acts are conscious or not. As it is I always feel deeply ashamed once the anger subsides and I calm down. I feel guilt. I usually cry and shiver — it’s similar to the effects of shock. I will not — cannot — excuse my violence. But I can try to explain.
Why do I do it? That’s a very important question. I am usually able to communicate effectively but emotion is a minefield: I have alexithymia which means I have great difficulty identifying and describing my emotional states. Strong emotions, especially negative ones, are very stressful. Add to that the fact that I become practically non-verbal when under stress — words are in my mind but I can’t get them to come out of my mouth — and you have a recipe for disaster. I’m not able to communicate my state of mind or my immediate needs which adds to the sense of frustration.
I fall back on instinct which is to lash out, to exhibit violent behavior. It is a reaction, just as screaming is a reaction to acute pain — rather than calmly stating “My word, that hurt”. As a child it was described as “temper tantrums”: that was the best description my parents could come up with. When I am in that state, which is thankfully very rarely, I do not have any other viable means of expressing myself. Instead of reaching the crisis point I have learned to recognize the early signs that I am heading in the direction of a rage and take steps to remove myself from the cause. Often this is as simple as walking away for a while until I feel calm.
For this reason I can understand that when an autistic person — adult or child — expresses themselves through aggression or violence they are displaying a reaction to pain, frustration or some other stimulus that is beyond their ability to handle. This understanding comes from personal experience in my case but isn’t hard to grasp. How many non-autistic people would become aggressive if unable to otherwise communicate their distress? What if they had a severe toothache but their mouth was taped shut? Imagine them trying to seek help in the face of that handicap and in the grip of such pain. Don’t you think they might exhibit some aggression?
Understanding is key. You don’t pour oil on a raging fire: you cool things down. Remaining calm in the face of the rage is so important; anything else simply feeds the flames. And understanding is not difficult to learn. Yes, it takes patience and practice. But when you care about the person experiencing the rage surely your first desire is to help them, to do what is best for them?
Humans may consider themselves apart but are still animals with all that entails. Even a domesticated animal — your dog or cat, say — can react with violence when in pain. Why is it that some people can understand and accept this behavior from their pet as natural but not see the parallels in a child? I may not be able to excuse the violence in myself but nor can I excuse a failure to understand its causes in those close to me, or close to anybody else who suffers something similar.
I am lucky in that I am able to analyze and explain what happened once the violent episode has passed. For those who are not so lucky and are not able to do this I can hope those close to them might gain some insight from my own experiences. I can’t say that the violence is avoidable but there are ways of handling it calmly that reduce its severity. And analyzing its causes can help you develop strategies to avoid the triggers. Above all, please remember that the violence itself can be as traumatic to the one experiencing the rage as it is to one observing it: it is disturbing to feel that you are not in full control of your own body, and on top of that is the shame and guilt in the aftermath.
Several times, especially in recent weeks, I have been put in an awkward, discomfiting position when out socially. One minute I will be feeling at ease among friends and then one person will start behaving badly – disparaging and insulting others, being antagonistic, even spiteful, and completely shattering my sense of calm.
This person absolutely refuses to accept that they might be in the wrong, instead reacting angrily to criticism and blaming anyone and everyone around them; the phrase “chip on the shoulder” comes readily to mind. I’m starting to wonder if there’s some psychological problem behind these personality traits – the Wikipedia entry for narcissistic personality disorder includes the following:
Narcissists have such an elevated sense of self-worth that they value themselves as inherently better than others. Yet, they have a fragile self-esteem and cannot handle criticism, and will often try to compensate for this inner fragility by belittling or disparaging others in an attempt to validate their own self-worth. It is this sadistic tendency that is characteristic of narcissism…
But this speculation does not address the issue at hand, namely that this person is causing an increasing amount of ill-feeling and upset. I know that I’m reaching the limit of my patience in dealing with this person’s demands and prima donna antics, and I’m far from the only one feeling this way.
I find that I am dealing with the stress caused by this person’s behavior by switching off from these interactions – I have become increasingly emotionally detached as a form of self-defense. While I still care, I am no longer willing to be subjected to this kind of bullying behavior.
Feeling emotions means seeing myself in different settings, each reflecting – to me at least – the nature of the sensation. This is obviously a consequence of a visual mode of thinking: my conscious identification and comprehension of my emotional state is driven by my recognition of the specific mental imagery.
To feel happiness is to take to the air, flying through the limitless skies with velocity in proportion to the degree of pleasure. Happiness is a strong, bright yellow like the summer sun, daffodils, buttercups or gorse flowers.
As happiness shades into ecstasy or excitement then the flight becomes aerobatic: swooping, twisting and turning through the air. There is an invigorating surge of glittering bubbles like swimming through the fizz of champagne.
In contrast, sadness is a leaden dullness, an unrelieved monotony of gray emptiness. Little or no motion, no possibility of escaping gravity’s pull that tethers me to the ground. Everything moves so slowly as if mired in a morass, and it takes such effort to overcome the inertia.
As sadness deepens into despondency and despair, so the gray darkens, chasms opening beneath my feet as I slip down, deeper and deeper into the abyss with what faint light there is steadily diminishing overhead, dwindling and fading to a point that eventually becomes imperceptible from the gloom all around. Add hurt – pain – to this and the edges become hard and sharp, pressing in on me, trapping me in their constrictions before piercing into and through me as the intensity becomes unbearable.
Fear is cold; a blue/white arctic landscape through which the wind blows relentlessly, sculpting the ice into faerie castles with towers like scimitars, and whipping the snow up into blizzards. As I begin to panic I am picked up by the wind, and left falling endlessly, arms thrashing in vain as I try to slow and stop my irresistible descent.
Anger is a curious one. Other people speak about “seeing red”; however I cannot honestly say that red is associated with the feeling for me. Anger is a huge black and silver steam locomotive, belching smoke from its stack and spouting prodigious jets of steam from its pistons as it speeds, unstoppable, along gleaming straight steel rails, wheels flashing so quickly that they are just a blur, making the very earth tremble with its immense power and trailing an immense white plume back along its path. This thundering titan seems to me to be the embodiment of dreadful might.
And finally, calm – serenity, peaceful solitude – is walking through woodland on a balmy summer’s day, sunlight filtering through the lush green canopy to project dappled shadows on the gray/green/brown tangle of the undergrowth. Not another person around; it is just me and the creatures of the woods – birds fluttering among the branches, squirrels bounding sinuously up trunks and along the limbs. Perfect natural harmony all around me.
I’m struggling to think of one word that will describe the feeling of acute mental discomfort and anxiety I get when I hear somebody making hurtful remarks about anyone I know. I don’t know if there is a word for it: maybe those people never feel like this. It would explain how they are able to behave in that way.
This feeling I get is so intense that I find it hard to describe, especially when I try to tell the people causing it how they are making me feel with their malicious comments. I don’t do that very often – it invariably ends up with them turning on me. But it still makes me angry that they feel so superior that they have the right to put others down.
And then they try to justify themselves by saying they are being honest and direct. No, they’re not. They’re simply being rude, voicing their opinions behind people’s backs and presenting gossip and rumour as fact. I’ve noticed that they never explain why they hold those opinions. There’s an arrogant, unspoken assumption that the reasons are so obvious that any “right-thinking” person would be in agreement.
I don’t know how to handle this kind of behaviour except by walking away – it upsets me so much that I overload. I feel that I’m letting the target of the comments down by not standing up and defending them, but I’ve tried and I can’t handle the stress of the confrontation that results.
I guess there are just some people out there who are hazardous to one’s health – poisonous if you like. Certainly incompatible with my peace of mind and general well-being.
How do you tell somebody that you sympathise with them; that you understand what they are going through and just want to do or say something that will help them cope with it and – hopefully – help them feel better?
I have a deep aversion to any reliance on trite stock phrases: “I’m sorry”, “Chin up” and all that. They always strike me as insincere and demonstrative of a lack of thought. I like to try to cast my words in an original way – to make my message personal and unique to the person and situation. And that can create problems for me because I need time to compose my response. It’s so much easier in writing but that doesn’t help at all when you’re face to face with somebody who is telling you how they feel. Dealing with emotional content in conversation requires a lot of effort at any time. So I struggle, end up muttering “Sorry” – if I can say anything at all – and feel bad for not managing to come out with what I wanted to say and falling into the trap of cliché.
Still, I’m as bad on the receiving end. I say “Thank you”. Then I start thinking that that’s not enough – I think it sounds like it’s just an automatic response, without any thought. I worry that the person will think I’m ungrateful or insincere. So I want to expand on it but I can’t easily think of appropriate words on the fly – I end up feeling frustrated with myself on top of whatever it was in the first place! Not the other person’s fault – it’s pressure I put myself under.
It would be so much easier if I didn’t feel when people I care about are troubled – when they are feeling sad or hurt. Most of the time I don’t know what to do to “fix” the problem and that hurts me because I think I’m letting them down. And I can’t say all this to them at the time – I can’t tell them how I feel about their situation. I could write it here but that’s clearly not the same. Are a few muttered stock words like “I’m sorry” backed by my full conviction better than another person’s empty words of reassurance uttered in tones of sincerity? I don’t know. Perhaps the end result is more important than the intent, at least to the listener.
All I can really do is tell them that I care about their situation and I want to help if possible. Would it work if I just said that? Or does it sound like a politician’s response to some disaster? When I run the words through in my mind there’s no emotional inflection – it’s like a string of syllables without any semantic aspect – sounds without meaning, empty. I’m saying what I mean and even I am unconvinced, so how could I convince a person I’m speaking to that I am sincere? Writing is a much more comfortable medium in which to express myself.
Sitting in its bowery shade,
I relax against the old tree.
I feel silent reassurance
Permeate the air around us:
A slow calm aura of confidence
Born of radical connection.
A living, breathing extrusion;
More of the earth than upon it.
The semblance of eternity,
Changes slower than perception,
Illusory stasis when seen through
The quick shutter of our short lives.
Part of me wants such attachment
To my home – anchored fast – roots deep,
Gripping strongly without effort.
I envy the regularity
Of its natural existence:
Day follows day, blurs into one.
Does the tree in turn feel envy
At the longevity of rock
Against which human endeavours
Are so fleeting? Vistas of time
Viewed through myopic eyes soon blur,
All distant objects lost in mist.
To be alive is to be quick.
Thoughtfulness replaced by motion
As we rush through life, eyes fixed
On the future. Peripheral
Vision unheeded, we ignore
The richness of our here and now.
I stopped to think, reflect. A time
To open up my senses to
My present. Let the future come
Later. For these precious moments
I am the tree, I am the rock,
I just am, now is forever.
I first heard The Wall when I was 16. I’d already got a copy of Dark Side of the Moon and had spent many an hour lying in my darkened bedroom – door closed, eyes shut – just listening to it from start to finish. There’s something in particular about Pink Floyd that resonates with me – I can lose myself in the music, becoming totally involved. The sensations – visual, spatial, tactile – conjured up in my mind complement the sound wonderfully.
The Wall connects on another level though – it’s one of the few works where I find many of the lyrics have meaning for me. The second track is The Thin Ice:
“If you should go skating
On the thin ice of modern life
Don’t be surprised when a crack in the ice
Appears under your feet
You slip out of your depth and out of your mind
With your fear flowing out behind you
As you claw the thin ice”
This speaks to me of the superficiality of society – how fragile the social structures are that I rely on to support me, and how that support can disintegrate leading me to a breakdown, overwhelmed by my own fears, desperate for help.
The recurrent themes of the album are alienation, fear, desperately seeking connection with others, rejection, bullying and abuse leading to depression and mental overload – meltdown/breakdown, withdrawal and isolation. I can identify with all of these.
But the track that I feel the greatest affinity for is Comfortably Numb. It begins with a doctor approaching the protagonist: “Hello/Is there anybody in there?” – I’m in shutdown brought on by an emotional overload. I can see and hear what’s going on around me – what people are saying to me – but I can’t respond.
“[…] I can ease your pain […] Can you show me where it hurts?” is the misinterpretation of my state by people around me. They intrude, disturbing me and I try to shut them out – to create a barrier in my mind and block them. “There is no pain you are receding […] You are only coming through in waves/Your lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying” – I’m succeeding in blocking them – filtering them out of my sensory inputs.
“I can’t explain/You would not understand/This is not how I am.” This is my inability to express how I’m feeling. The fact that even if I could describe how I feel, it would be so removed from your own experiences that you could not empathise with me. The dichotomy between my calm, unemotional exterior and my inner turmoil that causes you to misinterpret my feelings.
The song’s perspective switches back to the doctor: “OK/Just a little pin-prick […] I do believe it’s working […] Come on it’s time to go.” This is people trying to change me, to force me to conform and behave in a “normal” fashion – a sometimes painful experience.
The song concludes: “When I was a child/I caught a fleeting glimpse/Out of the corner of my eye/I turned to look but it was gone/I cannot put my finger on it now/The child is grown/The dream is gone.” The illusions that I had in childhood have been dispelled – I can’t even clearly recall the innocent naivete of those days. It can be a hard, cold world and it makes no allowances for those who are different – who have difficulty coping.
“I have become comfortably numb.” If I don’t open up – if I keep myself to myself and don’t get close to anybody, I can minimise my chances of being hurt. I can try to keep a lid on my emotions, I can try to stay uninvolved. I can try to make myself numb – not to care – so that I won’t feel the intensity of emotions, so I won’t feel such pain – so I’ll be comfortable. I’ll be able to function in the world at large but it will be at the expense of losing an important part of myself.
“Comfortably numb” – it’s dangerously attractive, a great temptation to be numb and never feel fear, pain, anger. But such a cost. Never to feel happiness, love, excitement. And that would be a cost far too high for me to bear. So I will suffer the bad times, the depths of depression and the agonising pain in the knowledge that when the good times come round again it will be on a wave of exaltation. The contrast – the ups and downs, highs and lows – the sheer emotional rollercoaster is part of what makes us human and alive, and to abandon or deny that would be to diminish ourselves; it would be a living death.