[Feature image description: close-up view of the trunk of a Weeping Willow tree, viewed from behind the metal railings of a bridge, diagonally leading away from the bottom left to the top right of the image. The tree is resplendent with masses of bright green leaves hanging downwards. Behind the tree and its branches, a calm river, with a grey stone wall on the opposite bank, is vaguely visible. Photo taken in the grounds of University College Cork.]
A couple of months ago, I was away presenting a session at a conference in the Republic of Ireland. I’m a very infrequent traveller, especially abroad, and so I was pretty pleased with how I got on with getting there. Okay, I allowed far too much time between taxi to the railway station and my train’s departure time, and far longer than necessary at the airport before my flight, because I get anxious. Air travel is an unfamiliar activity for me; I wasn’t sure what to expect, I hadn’t travelled from this particular airport before, and I wanted to allow for any unexpected incidents, occurrences, or disruptions to my itinerary. Getting anywhere “just in time” leaves me stressed, agitated, and liable to meltdown at the smallest trigger.
I had the luxury of a day to myself before the conference. Time alone is something I crave, and rarely get. I had a glorious afternoon walking extensively, visiting art galleries, exploring the streets, sampling the food. A lingering bath in my hotel room. Uninterrupted time to read a book. To say that this was refreshing and rejuvenating would be the biggest bloody understatement imaginable.
That evening, there was a pre-conference drinks reception. Finger foods. Lots to drink. And my God, I networked like a pro. Like a boss, as goes the modern vernacular.
The next day was a full day of workshop sessions. The conference was deliberately “unplugged”, which meant no tech, no PowerPoint, no videos. Delegates had been asked to read papers in advance and be prepared to focus on discussion when in the sessions. The emphasis, therefore, was on listening, and on spoken interaction. I had one session to chair, and another to present. By the end of the day, of course, I was tired. My employers had only paid for me to attend one of the three days, but that in itself was pretty demanding.
Despite the intensity of those two days, I managed well. I enjoyed it. And I had a day off work once I got home to sleep, rest, and recuperate. But throughout it all, there was one thing that bothered me. That angered me.
And it had nothing to do with work, or autism.
It had nothing to do with poor wifi coverage, extra high sensory demands, or fellow presenters not adhering to the strict guidance about the format of the sessions. It had nothing to do with exhaustion, anxiety over social interactions with strangers, or the fact that, upon setting up for my own session, I realised I hadn’t brought some of my kit with me (don’t worry folks; it was nothing essential, and I coped well regardless).
No. It was none of those things.
You see, I have no full-length mirror at home. And so I often move around blissfully ignorant as to how my clothes fit my body, how “thin” or “fat” I happen to be looking on any given occasion, or whether what I’m wearing is flattering or otherwise.
From time to time I do glance at my reflection in shop windows, or the ground-to-ceiling glass panels of modern office blocks (pity any poor person sitting on the other side; but then, they’re probably used to it). And I’m quite particular about clothes and how they look on me.
But a full-length mirror is just one of those things we haven’t ever got round to buying. The house my husband and I have lived in since late 2006 still resembles a tatty student dwelling. We’ve updated some rooms, but now that we have small children, and a distinct lack of spare funds or precious spare time, much of our home resides in a state of notable dishevelment. Our bedroom doubles as a storeroom, our toddler son is also still in with us a lot of the time, there are other bits of the house we need to work on before we get round to our so-called master bedroom, so buying a pristine new mirror isn’t exactly high on our priority list.
So occasionally I get caught out. Often it’s when I see myself in photos, captured unawares. But that evening, it was a mirror.
Before heading out to the conference drinks reception, I bathed, got dressed, did my hair and makeup, and all the usual “getting ready for an evening out”-type things. I looked in the full-length mirror of my hotel room, to check all was to my satisfaction.
And I looked again, aghast.
I had had no idea how fuzzily undefined my waist appeared in my chosen outfit; how much it merged with my hips; and how much my thighs merged onwards and upwards in the opposite direction. No idea how seemingly vast was the expanse of my (not actually that enormous) belly. No idea just how small and out-of-proportion my bust appeared in relation to everything else.
And to think – oh, silly me – that I’d been pootling about quite happily in this outfit on numerous occasions, enjoying the many textures, patterns and colours of the details on that tunic top, thinking I’d looked okay in it! What must have possessed me? How dare I?
And then I got angry.
Here I was.
A professional woman, here to deliver a workshop based on the highly acclaimed work of my team, its submission accepted on merit after being rigorously assessed by a judging panel. A woman with two university degrees, a postgraduate teaching qualification, and senior fellowship of a national professional body. A wife of a loving husband and mother of two wonderful children. A person with many friends. A writer of words which, on the basis of comments and messages I have received, have resonated with so many. Someone with wayward biomechanics, anatomical oddities and congenital joint abnormalities, and with limited time to exercise because of a full-time job and young children, who has somehow managed still to maintain a fairly decent level of fitness.
And on top of that, I’d achieved everything I had achieved despite years of confusion, torment, anxiety and depression, living in a word that wasn’t build according to my needs; twisting, bending, and contorting my very being to try and fit into a space that was an unnatural fit to me.
And here I was, worried about my bloody appearance.
Like so many women, I’d spent a lifetime trying to do the same thing to my physical body that I had been doing for so long to my behaviour, my outward personality, and my responses to the world around me. And after all these years, after all that has happened to me – good or bad – I was still preoccupied with wanting my body to be something other than it was. A body with faults, yes. But a body that is mine, that has done so much, and that has been with me through everything.
Even after coming to terms with the life-changing news that I am who I am, that I’m autistic and that’s okay, I was still dealing with the same crap, on top of everything different.
Many autistic people do not care in the slightest bit about what others think of them. But to say that we are all this way is a gross generalisation. I am not one of these autistic people. This is one area where I cannot relate to so many of my neurosiblings.
Sadly, sometimes, I care all too much, and for all the wrong reasons. And that added layer of “womanly” insecurity on top of it all does no-one any favours – me least of all.