Out To Lunch

I went out for lunch yesterday. It struck me later that this was the first time I’d eaten out since before I began my transition, more than 18 months ago. But that didn’t even occur to me until hours afterwards: I was far too preoccupied. You see, I was meeting a young lady.

11742805_10203708980319697_4483407513116153502_nI wanted to make a good impression. It was a lovely, sunny day so I wore this new red dress (rather daring for me because it barely comes down to my knees) with a pair of red heels and spent nearly 30 minutes doing my face and hair. Excitement wrestled with nervousness as I drove into town.

I felt good; I felt confident as I walked from the car to the restaurant. It was five minutes of twelve: I was a little early which suited me. I would have time to get settled and make myself comfortable. It was early for lunch so the place wasn’t too busy and I could choose where to sit: I decided on a small two-seat table by the window where I would be able to watch for her arrival.

A waiter brought a menu; I explained I was waiting to meet someone and just ordered a sparkling water. I browsed Facebook to pass the time while keeping one eye on the passers-by. Nervousness crept in: what if she was late? What if she didn’t come at all? Would we get along face to face? We’d only chatted online before this.

I needn’t have worried. She arrived just a few minutes later and saw me through the window. She smiled and gave me a little wave; I reciprocated. She joined me at my table, ordered a water–still to my sparkling–and we started to talk. Somewhere during this we ordered food and ate but the meal was definitely a sideshow to the main event. Not that we didn’t enjoy it, it’s just that we were deep in conversation. Quite something for two people who are usually uncomfortable in social situations.

It was over too soon. She had to head off to work shortly before three, so after paying the bill we walked back to our cars. We hugged before parting and it felt wonderful. We will meet again.

I’m still working through my memories of yesterday: such a wealth of images, impressions and emotions. The pleasure of building a relationship with my daughter after so many years, the many ways in which she reminds me so much of myself. It’s difficult for me to connect the young woman I met with my memories of her as a baby and infant.

More than anything I feel so happy and grateful that she contacted me and that we are becoming friends. I feel a bond that I did not expect, a reawakening of the feelings that had languished, forgotten, in the dusty attic of my mind. I’ve missed so much of her life that I’m not sure I deserve to be invited back in with such welcoming acceptance. She is open, honest, caring and intelligent, and I am so proud to have her as my daughter.

Happy Flappy Tappy Aspie

My project at work went well yesterday. Really well. So well that I got excited — this happens when I’m pleased with what I’ve produced. Now, the thing about getting excited is that, as with most emotions, I feel it mostly as a set of physical effects.

Excitement starts with a tense feeling building deep inside. Not the heavy, paralyzing tension of anxiety but a light, bubbly, tension of anticipation that spreads out. Up my neck to my head, molding my features into a broad smile. Down my legs making them jiggle and my feet tap. And along my arms until it reaches my fingertips and gives me the urge to flap. By this point I guess I must be awash with endorphins and fireworks are going off in my brain!

I’m still working on quashing my learned inhibitions against the more attention-drawing stims that resulted from teasing at school. So I bounced lightly away from my desk with my hands twitching slightly as I contemplated the forthcoming pleasure of flapping them. I might even have skipped a little — I can’t remember. As I passed through the door into the stairwell I gave myself to the sensations and my hands started flapping involuntarily.

Oh, the euphoria of the release I felt! After so many years of suppression it felt incredibly good to ride the wave of emotion and allow my body to express itself naturally, even though it was in private. This was something I decided recently: I would work on overcoming my inhibitions so that I can be more myself. Because being true to myself makes me happy.

A happy, flappy Aspie — I wouldn’t want to be any other way. You see, for autistic people stimming is a way of modulating sensory input — which includes the effects of emotion — and helps greatly in coping with many situations, both good and bad. It helps with concentration because it frees the mind to focus on something else rather than the sensory stimulus. Suppression — the building of barriers and inhibitions as a result of pressure through disapproval, teasing or bullying — can be harmful. Without stimming it is that much harder to cope with emotional or stressful situations. Without stimming we are denied a means of expression as much as if our mouths were taped shut or our hands bound.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. Don’t deny that to autistic people just because the way we express ourselves is not your way.

I’d like to thank the online Aspie/Autistic communities for providing me with a sense of belonging, of support, so that I have begun to feel confident about expressing myself naturally and honestly. On the subject of stimming there’s a short article about it from the BBC here, and a great blog post over at autisticook that has an illuminating survey of different stims.

Therapy? Experiences of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Ok. Time to hold my hands up – I’m in therapy. I’m nearing the end of a course of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help me deal with anxiety. Up to now there were only three people who knew this: me, my wife and my closest friend.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a therapy that is designed to teach new ways of thinking, to provide the client with new ways of dealing with problems that they face in their lives. It is very important to bear in mind that it does not promise any cure: in my case it will not stop me feeling anxious in certain situations. What it will do (I believe and I’ve not yet experienced anything to contradict this) is give me tools to manage my anxiety.

One thing that has struck me throughout the course is how obvious it all seems. In short, the steps have been to identify the causes of anxiety and rank them in order of severity, start at the bottom and develop ways to handle them. It’s that simple! But there’s something significant about the fact that the advice comes from somebody who has no emotional connection, who is impartial and nonthreatening. I feel that they have no “hidden agenda”, that they are not trying to manipulate me (even though in fact they are – that is the purpose of the sessions). It comes down to trust: I feel that I can trust my therapist and consequently I am very accepting of her advice.

The thing about CBT is that it is a learning experience like any training course. If you are not engaged then you will not learn. Period. I believe that if you don’t want to learn something then you won’t. You can sit through lesson after lesson but if you don’t apply and practice what you are taught then you won’t learn. I think this is why CBT gets some negative reviews – people come into it expecting some silver bullet that will cure them of their problems, but it doesn’t work like that. The sessions with the therapist are just to provide the foundations. It is up to the client to build upon them by practicing the coping techniques learned. It’s difficult to begin with – you have to expose yourself to the challenging situation before you can try to apply the lessons.

I guess people fail because they don’t put the effort into this part. But as I said to my friend earlier tonight, I wouldn’t have brought this up with my GP if I didn’t want to try to fix my problem. And if that means I have to do “homework” then I’m going to put the effort in because the end result will be worth it.

I did some research about CBT before I started the course – that’s my way – and the key fact I learned about it is that it does not claim to be a cure. In may case it will not stop me feeling anxious. I believe it is important to go into this kind of therapy with realistic expectations of the outcome, and in my case it was that it would not stop me feeling anxious – it might not even make me less anxious – but it would provide me with ways to handle that anxiety, to function despite the feeling.

In many ways the success of the treatment depends on how much effort the client is willing to put in. The key to graduated exposure (which is the type of CBT I am receiving) is that you make the effort to expose yourself to the situations.

I’ve found that one of the hardest aspects of this for me has been to remember that I have to attempt to interact with people differently. Remembering this instead of falling back on ingrained habits has been very taxing mentally. I’ve discussed this with my therapist and she agrees that being on the autism spectrum poses particular problems for this type of therapy: resistance to change, ingrained habits (routines), co-morbid conditions such as social phobia and sensory hypo- or hyper-sensitivity, and difficulties interpreting non-verbal communication.

To this end I’ve been set tasks including listening to the radio (interpreting conversational voices) and summarizing what I’ve heard, observing other people’s conversations (which is one of the most difficult tasks – trying to derive rules for conversation based on observation, because it involves trying to interpret the non-verbal signals), and making phone calls (to my friends initially – it’s starting small but if that’s where I want to end up then I’ll have to build my way up to it.

I reckon I’ve made progress, even if it’s not easily quantifiable by the simplistic measures recorded by the questionnaire I complete before every session. And that’s the most important part – as long as I feel that I’ve progressed and I feel more able to tackle these anxiety-provoking situations then I think I’m gaining a benefit from the therapy.

So, in summary, I believe it’s only effective if the client is prepared to put the effort in to practice the skills being imparted. If one doesn’t have a realistic view of the aims and purposes of the therapy and isn’t prepared to put in the work involved in learning the skills presented, then it simply won’t work. In this type of therapy the therapist is the pilot guiding the course but the client is the engine room providing the momentum.

Bah Humbug!, or What Christmas Means To Me

I dread this time of year – the Christmas holiday. An endless all-you-can-eat buffet of bright, shiny, colorful, twinkly, saccharine, plastic, superficial, empty-hearted, compulsory frivolity and joy to all. The cracks of the rest of the year are papered over, temporary patches to support the pretense that we are all getting along famously and having a good time. It’s all over the TV commercials – smiling families gather around the dinner table to share the feast, seasonal bonhomie ramped up to the max.

Amid the repeated-ad-nauseam Christmas songs, the wall-to-wall sparkling lights and baubles and the commercial brands lashed tightly to old traditional symbols I can’t help feeling that the whole experience is empty, devoid of meaning. Christmas has become its own parody, a cheap, mass-produced knock-off that has smothered the original beneath its glittering red and white, snow-carpeted facade.

Christmas died long ago: its dried husk is buried deep beneath strata of tinsel and fairy gold. With a wonky plastic angel stuck on top.

For me this time of year is not about giving or receiving gifts. It is not about parties and feasting. It is not about excessive consumption – gluttony if you will – of any kind. It is not about decorated trees, homes or streets. It is not even about the Christian religious festival.

For me it is the time of year when the darkness is closest at hand. When the long, cold nights harbor age-old fears of loneliness and hunger. When people used to gather round their fires to share warmth and protection, and to pray that the winter would end; that the sun would soon return to warm the land.

For me it is a time for thinking of the people I care about, those I love. This has become a season of unrealistic expectations, unattainable goals, impossible dreams. A season when so many people will fall short of the targets they set themselves, whether they didn’t manage to lose that weight to fit into the new party dress, or they saw Dad get drunk Christmas Day and fight with Mum, or they didn’t get that one special present they’d set their heart on. A season when people feel disappointed, hurt, alone.

I will not buy presents; I will not send cards. I will find my pleasure in what I can do for those I am close to. If I can make somebody smile, or help them feel that they are not alone, help them feel that they are appreciated and valued… then I believe that would be a worthwhile gift.

Kindred Spirit

Come sit with me and we can watch the world go by;
That’s all I ask. I won’t mind if you want to try
Some light discourse, then later we might take a stroll
And pass some time there by the river as it rolls
Beneath the trees and winds its way down to the sea:
A quiet time. And if in turn you ask of me
Just company, why then I should feel truly blessed
For I’ll have found a soul to share my time of rest.

The Great Escape

My wife doesn’t understand me! Well that’s not an unusual thing for a husband to say. But in this case I am referring to something quite specific:  my love of science fiction and fantasy.

I have always loved reading – as a child I spent many hours lost in books, something that has never changed as I have aged. From my first sci-fi experience with the works of Arthur C. Clarke via Frank Herbert and Larry Niven to Iain M. Banks, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman I have found so much pleasure in their works. There is something about their writing that speaks to me.

Of all the authors I mentioned it is the last two that I have a particular affinity for. There is an appealing intelligence behind their words – they play games with language that I can only dream of emulating. They have a poet’s feeling of the sublime subtlety in choosing a particular word that conveys exactly the right nuanced meaning. Or even multiple meanings. It is this depth that I find so satisfying.

I have encountered some other authors whose works do not provide this sense of connection. One in particular was the Harry Potter books of J. K. Rowling. I persevered through two or three pages but found that the writing was too mechanical, too plain. I found it to be simplistic – lacking any flair in the use of language. The stories themselves might be very entertaining – they are certainly hugely popular and successful. But for me there must be something more.

What I believe my wife fails to understand is that for me the subject matter is almost secondary to the pleasure I derive from beautifully created words. To be sure I enjoy a good tale, but it must be told in a such a way that the journey is as engaging as the destination. It is largely an artistic appreciation – I enjoy the precision evident in the construction, the master craftsmanship on show.

The opposite I find to be off-putting. The visible flaws in the output of less skilled writers jar discordantly and I find myself repelled. It is like a musician hitting the wrong notes in a recital – I end up focusing just on the mistakes and that prevents me getting enjoyment from the piece.

For me reading a good piece of writing is an immersive experience. I am engaged on both an intellectual and emotional level – I can enter a state of flow and lose myself in the procession of words. It is addictive and seductive at once – a guiltless, hedonistic pursuit, and one from which I gain immense pleasure.