That Was The Year That Was

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Beardy Thinky Man

I started 2013 as Ben, the man in black: long-haired, bearded with black jeans and a black leather biker jacket. I was often feeling uncomfortable when out socially, my relationship with my wife was rocky, and I was getting drunk regularly.

On the bright side work was going well: I continued to be happy in my job as a software developer. I was organizing darts competitions in my local pub.

But on a personal level the cracks were showing. By the middle of the year tensions at home were very evident and I had been contemplating separation. My wife told me several times that I wasn’t the person she had married: I had changed.

I guess I was aware of this subconsciously as a kind of dissatisfaction with my life, a feeling that things used to be better. If I could only go back to those happier, more innocent days… I was spending more and more time in introspection, analyzing myself, trying to figure out what was out of balance in the machinery of my mind.

I finally took steps to seek help with one of my problems: anxiety. I underwent a course of CBT to help me handle some of the situations where my anxiety was seriously affecting my ability to function. It helped with one small area of my life but I recognized that I had other problems and was suffering deeper and more frequent bouts of depression.

I started writing about more emotionally difficult subjects, trying to exorcise the demons of my past. Maybe some of this acted as a trigger, maybe it was just the build-up of stress, but I began to break down. I was feeling scared, sad, lonely, tired and trapped. My marriage appeared to be beyond salvation and my wife and I were at each others’ throats.

I ran away for a few days, staying with friends. I took time off work. I wrote a post that was as close to an admission of my true feelings as I had been able to come so far in my life. I saw my doctor and started treatment for depression. And finally I revealed to my wife a secret that I had held for about thirty years.

And over a few weeks, through a combination of my new-found openness — no more secrecy, no more pretending to be somebody I am not — and medication, I started to feel better. My relationship with my wife not only improved but became stronger than ever.

As this year draws to a close I am, at last, happy and optimistic about the future. It has been an exhausting journey and there is still a long way to go in terms of changing my body to match my gender identity. But I have had such support from my friends and especially from my wife that I truly feel accepted and loved.

So I’m finishing the year as Alexandra and I feel a long way removed from the person I was twelve months ago. After so many years — decades — I can be myself openly.

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Look, no makeup 😉

 

Relationship Problems: Validation Failure

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.

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Can You Hear Me?

Why do I bother trying to tell you I’m overloaded and need to be left alone? That your soapbox monolog — the volume of your voice and your emotion-laden tone — are hurting me, costing me so much energy to maintain self-control that I am becoming rapidly exhausted. Are you listening to me? Can you hear me?

I gave up; I wasn’t getting anywhere. Again.

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On The Edge

Unbroken path leads back
The way I came while on
Each side the land runs out
To fade in distant haze.

In front of me the void
Assures oblivion,
Patiently awaiting
That last small step of mine.

I don’t remember how
My feet conveyed me here,
Nor any of the turns:
Decisions lost in time.

On setting out the route
Lay wide and arrow-straight
As far as eyes could see;
We walked off hand in hand.

It matters not who first
Slipped from the other’s grip:
We each believed our paths
Led true. The distance grew

Until the day I found
We’d drifted out of touch:
I had never noticed
You straying from my side.

Glimpses offered hope that
Our paths would meet ahead:
I’ll wait for you forever,
Alone here on the edge.

Playing it Safe

Social situations are a minefield in which the slightest misstep can result in things blowing up in your face. I picture the situation as a narrow path – the “safe” area in terms of what I can say or do – with increasing danger of stepping on a mine – upsetting somebody – the farther I venture from the path.

Safe Path image © Ben Forshaw 2012

Since I am risk-averse I do not often test the boundaries of what people find to be acceptable behavior – mapping out the danger area – and when I do, I tend to do so carefully and deliberately in the hope that any negative reaction will be small enough for me to handle.

I find it difficult because different people have wildly different standards of what they deem to be acceptable. Not only that, but the boundaries move depending on context. There is only a small patch of common ground on which the majority of people I encounter socially can agree.

My starting position with somebody I have not met before is to play it very safe – speak when spoken to, no slang or swearing, no physical contact. Over time I will observe how they act towards me and others, and slowly begin to introduce those behaviors that they demonstrate – the assumption here is that they are less likely to be offended by something that they do themselves.

This is not an infallible method. That’s people for you – they’re not always rational, logical or consistent. It can be a case of “do as I say, not as I do” – how confusing! But slowly, gingerly, I can explore the envelope and work out just how far I am able to take things with those I know reasonably well.

Learning to be More Understanding

Over the past few months my relationship with a certain other person, whom I shall refer to as W, has been up and down so much that visualising the turns it has taken is enough to make me sea-sick. At the heart of the problem is difficulty in communication: W is neurotypical while I have Aspergers Syndrome.

When W is suffering with health problems or depression she will talk about it at great length in a highly emotionally-charged way and her language will become much more figurative and abstract than normal. I find this combination particularly difficult to handle. Because I know her so well I have learned to interpret the emotional cues in her voice – when she is feeling so tired and frustrated and even angry at her illnesses this comes through to me in her voice and mannerisms. I find the strong emotions very difficult to cope with and tend to shut down.

It appears that this response is not very helpful to W – how could I have known? My own reaction to pain – physical or mental – is usually to keep it all inside. I become more withdrawn – even though I might be yearning for some comfort, for a hug that will make me feel safe and less anxious. But in that state I can’t express how I feel or what I need to help me deal with it.

So it turns out that what I need at times like this is almost exactly what W needs too. And now we’ve figured it out. I know it sounds simple, almost trivial, but between my inability to speak about my feelings and my literal misinterpretation of W’s descriptions of her feelings – when I haven’t just shut down from the emotional overload – we’ve been failing to communicate. Which has been causing far too much unnecessary stress on both sides.

I’m not saying that we’ve completely resolved the problems – time will tell on that score. But we have reached a new level of understanding. I know it sounds contradictory but I’m learning to be more supportive by taking less notice of W – I have to partially block her out so that I avoid overloading and shutting down. So that I can continue to function and respond. Which all helps her deal with what she’s going through and in turn helps me.

Yes, it would probably have been easier for both of us to have ended the relationship rather than work hard at discovering problems and trying to fix them. But what seems easy in the short term often turns out not to be the best option in the longer term. We both feel that there is enough value in our relationship to make the effort of repairing it worthwhile, because when it’s working it is so strong and strengthens both of us.