Work Vignettes: awful away-day aftermath

Close Up photo of a cup of black coffee, and an Open Notebook With Pen

July 2017 (one year, almost to the day, after autism identification).

Our team is at a Marketing Away Day.

We’re in a hotel in a leafy suburb of the city. But we’re indoors and, aside from refreshment breaks and lunch, confined for the most part to one room.

It wasn’t the best of starts.

No in-advance agenda. No printed schedule available on the day. No timings provided.

The event begins with a series of “ice breaker” exercises.

***

One is a sensory game involving blindfolds, jigsaw puzzles and verbal instructions, with everyone assembled divided into smaller competing teams. We’re against the clock and against each other.

My severely deaf colleague is, of course, nominated as the instructions-giver – it makes perfect sense that she shouldn’t be one of the team members having to rely on listening. The other two of us don our blindfolds.

She shouts instructions and we try to assemble puzzle pieces into a coherent whole according to her words.

All I can hear, the entire time, is the shouting and chatter from the other people across the room. One male colleague’s voice, in particular, cuts through all else in sforzando bursts.

I’m wondering when the break is.

I get panicky as I work my way through the game. I can’t hear my colleague well enough. I yelp at her for clarification. The pitch and volume of voice grows as I struggle to remain calm and concentrate.

I’m wondering when the break is.

Then we have a music quiz. Name that tune. More my area of expertise.

But I’m so on edge I get disproportionately embarrassed whenever I get an answer wrong.

And overwhelmingly disappointed when our team doesn’t win because I jumped in too quickly to answer a question, but then lost my ability to speak coherently.

(I think the tune was Gangnam Style, but never mind that.)

I’m wondering when the break is.

***

Coffee break time.

One of the colleagues who organised the ice breakers approaches me.

“I’m so sorry. We should have realised that a sensory activity was a bad idea. I hope you’re okay.”

“It’s alright, I’m fine”, I lie.

***

Most of the day is spent discussing our marketing plans for the forthcoming year.

A lot of talking. A lot of listening. A lot of sidetracking.

Our team works well, and I like most of them, but as a group of people, many of them (myself included) have an endless need to jump in, make ourselves heard, and to say our piece.

crescendo.

accelerando.

affrettando.

I’m getting a headache.

The Fire Exit sign is backlit, and the light is flickering.

There are so many noises in this building.

Pipes clanking.

Footsteps.

Doors opening and shutting.

Old-building creaks.

Nothing is played in unison. There’s no reassuring pattern to the prodding and poking of each sound. I inwardly wince at sounds. And I inwardly wince in anticipation of more sounds.

Would it be okay for me to slip out and take a break unprompted?

I know my manager said this was fine, but I still feel awkward about doing so.

***

Lunchtime. We eat. I feel the compulsion to interact with everyone.

Then I escape into the hotel grounds for some quiet, and some greenery.

I’m a little late back to the training room.

***

Afternoon session. Action planning. Back to the talking. Back to the listening.

presto.

Headache intensifying.

Heart rate rising.

A cacophony.

I can’t focus. Everyone’s talking at once. How can I be expected to contribute anything to this?

“Excuse me! I’m really sorry, but I can’t concentrate because everyone’s talking at the same time. Would you mind trying to slow it down?”

I catch one colleague opposite me giving an exaggerated eye roll.

Shit.

I really to sort this out with her later.

***

The end of the day. Finished. Migraine is in full swing.

I spot the eye-roller.

“Hi! I just wanted to catch you and say sorry for earlier. I was having a really difficult time. I hope things are okay.”

“Um, can we talk about this tomorrow? I really don’t want to discuss it now.”

“Sorry, but it would be great if we could resolve it now. I don’t want to leave it hanging.”

I can’t leave it. I’ll be dwelling on it all night if we don’t sort it out now.

“Look. I think you were really rude earlier. We’ve all had a very difficult day and I don’t like being spoken to like that.”

Was I rude? I don’t think I was that rude. I’m sure I said “excuse me”.

“I know, I’m sorry. But this day’s been incredibly difficult for me to cope with. You know I struggle with all the sensory stuff, with listening and so on.”

“That’s fine, but it was difficult for all of us. You know, I bring a lot of myself to this job, to this team. I don’t appreciate you being rude, and I’d rather not talk about this any more.”

“Okay, bye. Sorry.”

Why do I keep apologising?

I feel my face getting hotter.

The pressure of the world forcing its way down upon me.

All senses smashing together as one. Atoms in a particle accelerator (but what remains after the smash in this case?).

A crescendo of emotions, inner and outer noise.

forte.

fortissimo.

***

I walk out through the main entrance gates, and as I walk, the tears come.

The world simultaneously closes in and zooms out.

Oscillation. Then a sonic boom.

I feel myself walled off from it by an invisible force field.

The tears stream.

I start to wail.

I punch my fists into my thighs.

I start to scream.

fortississimo.

I lean against a wall. I can barely hold myself up.

Another colleague finds me. Hugs me. Takes me to a nearby pub, buys me a drink and listens to me as I rant and rave. My headache remains, but I gradually become calm. My colleague offers kind words and no judgement.

Later, I take the long route home. stentando.


[Image: Close Up on The Coffee and Open Notebook With Pen, by Marco Verch. Creative Commons 2.0 licence.]

Work Vignettes: the verbal warning (Awkward Coffee #1)

An off-white, disposable coffee cup with a plastic lid, placed on an off-white surface, against a blank white background.

Image credit: John Beans (https://myfriendscoffee.com/)

September 2002 (14 years before autism identification).

It’s Monday morning. The start of a new term. Last week was College Enrolment Week.

***

(Just a few days ago, I had been clad in a cheap, over-sized, garishly yellow “Here to Help” staff polo shirt. Small, black insects had clung in loose but numerous clusters to the stingingly bright, sweat-soaked synthetic fabric.

For one extended workday, I’d been assaulted by noise, questions, crowds, confusion, chaos, jostling and overwhelm. Body odour, food smells, raised voices, untidy piles of papers, leaky pens, thirst. No hiding places.

Afterwards, I had trudged, head pounding, sweaty-polo-shirt sticky and migraine sick, back to my friends’ flat. I’m staying with them short-term while I find somewhere else to live, after a recent, sudden relationship breakup.

After a brief slump in their sofa, some food, and brief interactions with my friends and their two-year-old daughter, I’d lain myself down on the mattress in their spare room and cried until I was too exhausted to stay awake.)

***

My line manager has invited me to the college canteen for a coffee.

“I need to talk to you about last week.”

“Okay…”

“I know it was a very busy time, but I have to let you know that some of your behaviour was unacceptable. It’s one thing to get flustered, but I absolutely cannot abide swearing.”

“I’m really sorry. You know I’ve just recently come off the medication the doctor gave me. It takes time to get out of my system – they didn’t stop the prescription soon enough. It’s making it difficult to control myself.”

“I really think that’s no excuse. This is a college. It is not acceptable to speak like that in front of students.”

“I know that. I’m so, so sorry. I’m just having a really difficult time. The breakup was awful. You were away when it all happened. It’s so hard. It’s going to take me a long time to get over it. I’m really stressed at the moment.”

“I know you’re having a difficult time. We all have struggles. But it’s important to keep your personal life separate from work. You mustn’t let these things come out in front of people.”

Clattering from the kitchen.

Chatter from nearby tables.

Searingly bright sunshine streaming through the window behind my manager, silhouetting her face and making me squint at her through barely-open, scrunched-up eyelids.

I can still see the spidery clumps of dark blue mascara that coat her eyelashes, but perhaps it’s my mind’s eye filling in the blanks.

I can feel my face getting hotter. I imagine it getting redder. My eyes…

“Let this be a warning on this occasion. But I cannot have this sort of thing happen again.”

“Okay. I’m really, really sorry.” The tears have started. I bow my head towards the table, so that neither of us sees the other’s face.

I realise it’s going to be time to get back to the office soon. There’ll be students to see.


[Image description: An off-white, disposable coffee cup with a plastic lid, placed on an off-white surface, against a blank white background.]

#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.

#AutismAcceptance/#AutismAppreciation Doodles ‘n’ Scribbles, no. 26: post-meltdown rainbow/star stim-doodle

A doodle, in portrait orientation, of five-pointed stars outlined in black fineliner pen, and filled in with colouring pencils in rainbow colours. Some stars overlap others, and they vary in sizes.

This image is much more overtly a “doodle” than some of my others. I started it in a manager’s office at work, where I’d been give some space and time to recover from a severe crying meltdown in response to some bad news, delivered some six months ago. after a period of uncertainty.

I see it as being more of a stim than a piece of art. The repeated stars somewhat irregular in position and size but nevertheless predictable in shape, the comfort and reassurance of a palette restricted to seven colours, albeit bright and cheerful ones, but in muted pencil instead of loud pen – all these things served to soothe the pain of my shaken, chaotic senses and emotions.

Plus, rainbows and stars. What’s not to like?


[Image description: a doodle, in portrait orientation, of five-pointed stars outlined in black fineliner pen, and filled in with colouring pencils in rainbow colours. Some stars overlap others, and they vary in sizes.]

On meltdowns

The other day, someone on Twitter – an autistic person who doesn’t experience them – asked me what it feels like to have a meltdown. It’s not a subject I especially like talking about – I’ve attempted to write about it several times on this blog, got frustrated, and given up.

This past week, I had one of the most distressing, disorientating, debilitating meltdowns I’ve had for quite some years. Three days after it happened, I’m still exhausted. But the immediacy and severity of this recent experience gave me the language to tweet a thread about how it feels (for me at least), and it appeared to be something others found useful, so I’m expanding that string of tweets here, so it may reach a wider audience.

Bear in mind here, every autistic person’s experience is different. The following words do, however, give an illustration of what a meltdown is like for this particular autistic writer.

I’m an autist who experiences long build-ups to meltdowns, and I’ve discovered that this isn’t true for everyone. Some of my neurosiblings crash without any prior warning – or, at most, an hour or so of feeling like something is imminent. Perhaps it’s my anxiety. Perhaps my senses of introception, introspection, and the fact that I am by nature highly self-reflecting and -analytical. Whatever it is, I can usually tell I’m “due” a meltdown, even if I can’t quite tell exactly when. That uncertainty only adds to my anxiety.

It’s usually preceded by a few days of feeling “fizzy” – like a cola bottle that’s been shaken up but the lid’s still tightly on. Often in these periods, I need to stim a lot. Huge, exaggerated, full-body stims. I’m one of those autistics who pretty much stims 24/7, but these are bigger. I need to sway, rock, spin, vigorously shake my hands, windmill my arms, swing my legs, stamp, pace, clap.

If I can get out and properly exercise, I can sometimes keep the bad stuff at bay; if not, the pressure continues to build.

Usually, when I’m approaching the Actual Meltdown, I feel like everything is amplified. Especially human voices. They feel dramatically louder than normal. It feels as if everyone is shouting DIRECTLY INTO MY EARS. The sound of humans shouting is one of my biggest anxiety triggers anyway. It’s a sound that instantly sets my heart racing, stiffens my shoulders, and puts me in fight-or-flight mode.

But all speech feels like shouting when I’m approaching or mid-meltdown. And I have this sense, also, that everyone is speaking in a different language.

This “foreign”-ness is only one small part of a much bigger, more complex sense of dissociation. I feel like I’m not entirely there, like I’m in a parallel universe, but the one everyone else is in is visible to me. I’m immersed in it, without being in it. And yet, touching or interacting with anything in that universe feels as dangerous as being exposed to Kryptonite.

The build-up keeps happening. Everything gets louder. Bigger.

Closer, and yet at the same time more distant.

And then, something – one final thing – will cause the crash.

The biggest thing is crying. I’ve always been a cryer. I don’t cry at the things other people cry at, but cry at things other people don’t cry at. But my meltdowns pretty much always involve uncontrollable crying. They always have done, from childhood, through my teens, right the way through my adulthood, and that’s still the way things are today.

I feel my face getting hotter, my body starting to tingle, the tears forming. Long before it happens, but still utterly unpreventable.

There’s an embarrassment-in-anticipation. I know I’m going to be the Crying Adult. And then the waters break on the shores that are the cheeks of my face. And then the waves keep crashing in.

If the final trigger (bear in mind: the trigger of a meltdown is simply the last straw, not the sum total cause) is something a particular person has said or done, I’m likely to swear, berate, and shout at that person. I hate this. I hate being unpleasant to people. So not only must I endure the devastating embarrassment at the meltdown itself, there’s the all-consuming guilt about possibly upsetting someone.

In these times, I feel utterly terrified. Completely and utterly shocked, Every. Time. It. Happens, by my complete and utter loss of control. If anyone tries to interact with me, touch me, or even get anywhere near my personal space, I will shriek, screech, and flail my arms. I’m terrified by the invasion, the intrusion. The interaction itself highlights to me that I’ve drawn attention.

And yet I cannot use verbal language coherently enough to explain.

But I’m tortured because whilst I don’t want to make a scene or have strangers adding to the overload and overwhelm, I’m simultaneously desperate for someone to give me a massive, firm, bear-hug. To hide me, cocoon me, and shield me from the shock waves that travel from their universe into mine.

Whilst I nearly always cry, sometimes I don’t swear, scream or shout. Sometimes I simply need to run. Get out. Get away.

But even when I do this, the inner storm rages on until it blows itself out. The parallel universe that is not my own still exerts its extreme pressure upon me.

But eventually, it subsides. And then I’m spent.

All of this exhausts me. I will always need to lie down. Usually I’ll need a lot of sleep. Quiet. Darkness. And the next day, I’ll usually feel similar to how I feel the day after a migraine. Completely wiped out.

Often, I will actually get a migraine. All of this is neurological, you know.

And yet, I know the meltdown was necessary. The lid had to come off that cola bottle.

Meltdowns are hideous. And they are not the same as temper tantrums.

They’re not behaviour; they’re a neurological reaction.

A reaction to too much.

Too much change.
Too much surprise.
Too much information.
Too much stress.
Too much stimulation.
Too much worrying.
Too much interaction.
Too much time spent making oneself “acceptable”.
Too much time without sleep.
Too much energy expended.

And this is the same for autistic children and autistic adults.

The neurotypical world is hard for us. There’s much that I love about my brain, and being the way I am. But know this: we have to work hard every day to exist in a world that isn’t our own.

And so, if you see an autistic person who is experiencing a meltdown, be gentle with us. Give us space if we need it.

We suffer enough at unintentionally becoming public spectacles. Even if you don’t understand it, be compassionate. So don’t gawp. Don’t point. Don’t stare. Don’t ridicule, berate or attack us.

Don’t punish us.

If you love and care for an autistic person, notice when things seem to be getting too much. Don’t express unreasonable demands or make any but the most necessary of changes. Keep the environment as gentle and calming as possible.

And if they do come crashing down, give them time to rest and recover afterwards. They will be worn out. Emotionally, mentally, and physically. Look after them, but respect them.

And overall, be kind.


[Featured image description: a line-drawing of a white female-presenting person with chin-length hair, wearing a winter coat with fluffy cuffs and collar, holding their hands over their ears, eyes closed, tears running down their cheeks. They are surrounded on all sides by a mess of dark, painted colours, which appear to be closing in on them.]