#TakeTheMaskOff: authentic vulnerability

Cartoon drawing of Mama Pineapple, a white female-presenting person with chin-length red hair. She is clenching her left fist in order to make her bicep bulge. Tears are streaming down her face.

One of the things I’ve always hated about myself is how easily I burst into tears, and how often I cry.

That’s not to say I’m ashamed of it. It’s my natural reaction to surprise, bad news, overwhelm, discomfort, confusion, and a whole range of other scenarios, situations and feelings. It’s just how I am.

The reason I hate it is not that it shames me, but because it draws others’ attention to me at times when I’m feeling especially vulnerable. And my very dramatic outward displays of emotion make me vulnerable. I am left exposed, demarcated, spotlighted, in a way in which others are not.

I’ve been crying a lot over recent months. I’m cagey about talking too much about the reasons for this on this blog, because while I’m often very candid and open on here, many of those who read my words know me in person, including some people I work with.

Currently I’m contending with huge amounts of change. I’ve lurched from one period of uncertainty to another. This particular dark cloud, while it has evolved and morphed in shape and outline, has been hanging over me for well over eighteen months. Its form has been given greater definition in the past couple of months, but still that form has yet to settle into a state of finality.

I’ve had bad news delivered to me, and many people around me, in very exposing, “public” settings.

I’ve had reassuring structure and routine ripped out from under my feet. I see gaping nothingness in front of me, however much others around me try to reassure me that the unknowns will come to an end at some point.

I’m experiencing a form of bereavement – not over a lost loved one, but over the loss of a particular combination of relationships, things, environments, and a way of being that I’ve loved, and that has made me feel supported, contented and happy for a good few years, even while I’ve contended with many difficulties elsewhere in my life.

Throughout it all, I’ve been told to remain professional, and to “try to use my coping mechanisms” to manage my distress.

But I’ve been unable to prevent myself from crying.

I’ve been unable to prevent myself having meltdowns. At work. At home. In public places.

It’s all too much.

My sense of vulnerability raises my already-pretty-extreme levels of anxiety.

How do others perceive me?

Can I truly be regarded as competent? Professional? Capable? Able? Trustworthy?

***

The truth is, I can be all these things, and vulnerable. Such qualities are not mutually exclusive.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve always been open about my autism.

My reasoning is that I struggle to be quiet about aspects of truth about myself; and that I simply wouldn’t want to be around anyone who looked negatively upon me as a result of knowing that I’m autistic. It’s a part of me, and by rejecting my autism, anyone who does so rejects me.

But my emotional vulnerability is as much a part of my autism as my sensory sensitivities, my pattern-spotting abilities, my attention to detail, and the deep joy I experience when working on things that interest me.

I am not ashamed of that vulnerability, but I now feel I need to go further than such a state of neutrality; of not-negativity.

I have started to embrace it as a fundamental personal truth.

Sometimes, it means – as someone I know recently put it – that I’m “taking one for the team” in more readily displaying those feelings that others around me feel internally, but are unwilling or unable to convey to the outside world. I’m raising awareness.

My vulnerability is authentic.

My vulnerability is real.

My vulnerability is human.

And – perhaps perversely – my ability to allow myself to be vulnerable makes me strong.

Crying is cathartic. The pressure is released. This can sometimes take hours, but it does go. And when my tears have all been shed, and my wailing and sobbing has quietened, I’m exhausted, spent; but the tension is gone.

I know I’m alive, I’m here, and I can carry on.

Right now, I can’t keep up appearances. I can’t pretend I’m fine. I can’t currently wear the mask of acceptable social interaction very much of the time. I’m having to cope with too much.

And while crying can be useful, and I’ve done the Very Helpful Thing of making others aware of how serious things are, no-one should be repeatedly subjected to So Much Stuff that they dissolve in a puddle of tears on an almost daily basis. It’s tiring. It’s not a modus operandi I’m keen on.

Hence time off work, and limited time online. I’m trying to keep my life as quiet as possible at the moment. I need to rest, recover, and recuperate.

But I’m still here.

I’m authentic, I’m vulnerable, and I’m human.

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This machine needs a tune-up.

Section from Charles Babbage's Difference Engine No. 2, one of the first automatic computing engines
A section from Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2

Right now, I’m struggling to overcome autistic inertia in order to write about my struggles with autistic inertia.

It hasn’t escaped the attention of some of my readers/followers/friends that I haven’t written or drawn anything for quite a while. Two whole months in fact. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to write things; I’ve had plenty of ideas for topics I’d love to write about. I’ve even heard the words of ready-written blog posts skittering through my head.

I simply haven’t been able to get my brain into a state where I’ve felt physically able to do it.

My last blog post was at the end of The Dreaded Month of April. I needed a month off in May – partly because of overwhelm and burnout from so much Awareness; partly because the rest of my life was also pretty hectic at that time. I also got a hefty whack of bad news early in that month, and then a whole load of work-specific stress, and then we got into June, and I still wasn’t anywhere near ready to write or draw again. And then more life stuff got in the way; I wasn’t ready, and anyway, I didn’t have time.

In some ways, I don’t actually feel ready even as I write this, but I’m desperately trying to break the ‘do nothing – feel awful about it – react to feeling awful by not wanting to do anything – do nothing – feel awful…’ cycle.

Currently my life is in a state of flux. Work-wise, I’ve passed from one state of uncertainty into another. I currently have very little structure to my working day, and I’m finding it harder and harder to contend with this as each day goes by. Having limited structure and routine, and fewer impending demands, actually makes me less resilient to sudden changes or disruptions than I would be if there were more going on. They seem starker somehow than they do when my brain’s computer already has the Responding to Stuff Quickly program already loaded, because I’m having so emphatically to switch my mode of being each time something – anything – happens.

I’m therefore easily startled, horribly irritable, even more fidgety than usual, and my blood pressure’s running a little too high.

I currently have lots of time. So why can’t I get started on the things I love, and that make me feel happy and fulfilled?

I need to be wound back up. Set in motion.

This post wasn’t intended to be a brilliant piece of writing. Apologies for that. I’m merely trying to pull this somewhat cranky machine out of the mud, clean it, oil its mechanisms and somehow get it moving again.

This post is written as much for me as it is for anyone reading. I do so desperately want to be writing again.

And I will.

I just needed to start somewhere.

[PS: I did, however, write an autism-themed blog post for work last week that I was actually very pleased with. I’m sharing it here in case anyone is interested.]


[Image credit: Lars Plougmann]

#AutismAcceptance/#AutismAppreciation doodles ‘n’ scribbles, no. 29: My brain likes to sabotage my efforts. A lot.

Digital cartoon image. In the top right hand corner, a disembodied pink brain with a smiley face, eyes and little cartoon arms chatters away. In the bottom left hand corner, Mama Pineapple, a reddish-haired white femme-presenting person wearing a purple long-sleeved top, looks upward in despair, whilst shaking both fists. The background is grey, and the brain, and Mama P, are surrounded by lots of words and phrases denoting complete and total distraction from the task at hand (whatever that is. Probably something very important and difficult).

I love my brain for many reasons. It has brilliant ideas. It sees wonder everywhere. It’s good at learning stuff. It allows me to experience everything both in fine, nuanced detail, and on a grand, dramatic scale.

It’s also a bit of an arsehole, because it tends not to let me get on with stuff.


[Image descriptuon: Digital cartoon image. In the top right hand corner, a disembodied pink brain with a smiley face, eyes and little cartoon arms chatters away. In the bottom left hand corner, Mama Pineapple, a reddish-haired white femme-presenting person wearing a purple long-sleeved top, looks upward in despair, whilst shaking both fists. The background is grey, and the brain, and Mama P, are surrounded by lots of words and phrases denoting complete and total distraction from the task at hand (whatever that is. Probably something very important and difficult).]

#AutismAcceptance/#AutismAppreciation doodles ‘n’ scribbles, no. 18: Robots

Portrait orientation fineliner pen drawing of 28 brightly coloured robots of various sizes, shapes and types, with a range of facial expressions and poses. This is not a ‘scene’ but a series of individual images - the only background is the page on which they have been drawn.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, by now, that the stereotype of autistic people as emotionless, empathy-devoid, monotonous-voiced beings with no inner life might have been chucked out of the window forever. But it still seems to persist, even as we work to change the narrative.

I am fully human. My brain is simply a different machine from that of a neurotypical person.

I do quite like robots, though.


[Image description: Portrait orientation fineliner pen drawing of 28 brightly coloured robots of various sizes, shapes and types, with a range of facial expressions and poses. This is not a ‘scene’ but a series of individual images – the only background is the page on which they have been drawn.]

#AutismAcceptance/#AutismAppreciation doodles ‘n’ scribbles, no. 16: Ooohhh! Deeeetails!

Cartoon Mama Pineapple, full colour. A white female-presenting person with brown midlength hair clipped to one side. She is wearing a pink top, and has her hands clapped together an a lovestruck, dreamlike expression on her face. The words “Oohhh! Deeeetails!” Are written above her, and coloured love hearts radiate outwards from the image.

Autistics like me see, hear, and feel the details. Everywhere. We can’t stop our brains from detecting everything. When we’re vulnerable, tired, stressed, or anxious, or already overloaded, it’s hard to cope.

But sometimes, details can be delicious. When I’m relaxed, I revel in them. And sometimes, drawing my focus towards one particular detail or cluster of details keeps the rest of the clutter out of view.


[Image description: Cartoon Mama Pineapple, full colour, drawn in felt tip. A white female-presenting person with brown midlength hair clipped to one side. She is wearing a pink top, and has her hands clapped together an a lovestruck, dreamlike expression on her face. The words “Ooohhh! Deeeetails!” Are written above her, and coloured love hearts radiate outwards from the image.]