Therapy Vignettes: the awkward silence

A hastily-sketched digital painting of a shadowy female figure seated by a window shaded by blinds, gazing attentively but ambiguously towards the viewer.

[Note for non-UK readers: in this, and similar posts, I use the term ‘counsellor’, synonymous with what others call a ‘therapist’, i.e. someone who works in a one-to-one confidential setting providing listening/talking therapy and support.]


Autumn 2000 (15.5 years before autism identification).

I’m in a dimly-lit room in the secluded, greenery-shrouded portacabin that (at this point in time) houses the university counselling service.

It’s cold and grey outside. Late autumn. Close to my birthday.

Taupe vertical blinds shade the anonymous nearly-square window.

A cube-shaped cardboard box, ornamented with a pink, purple and cyan floral pattern and dispensing crisp, white tissues, sits on a low wood-effect table.

***

I’ve been seeing the counsellor for a few sessions now.

All since – upon my return from a long day manning a society information desk at the Freshers’ Fair, and on catching sight of the sight of piles of unwashed crockery and pans in the kitchen – I broke down uncontrollably on the floor in the back doorway of our student house, and my friends insisted I see someone about how I was feeling.

And here I am again.

And here, once again, is the same silence.

***

It always starts this way.

Having greeted me as she led me to the therapy room, the woman sitting opposite me has remained silent since we both sat down.

Earnest, attentive eyes on me.

Waiting.

It’s always like this.

What does she want me to do?

What are the rules here?

Is this the way all counselling sessions are supposed to begin?

I try to work out my opening gambit. What is the first thing I should say in this situation? What does she want me to say? Talk about how I’m feeling? Talk about what my week has been like? Actually ask her what’s supposed to happen?

And if I don’t speak, will she eventually prompt me?

Or might it be possible that the entire 50 minutes passes by without a single word?

And how might that help me?

Would she actually allow that to happen?

I just don’t know.

I wish someone would actually tell me what’s supposed to happen. It’s making me agitated.

Earnest, attentive eyes on me.

Waiting.

***

At last, the silence becomes too much.

I resign myself to breaking it – hoping that, as I start to speak, I’ll gradually work out what I actually want to say, and that, gradually, I’ll become at ease with speaking to this stranger staring earnestly and attentively at me.

I take a deep breath…


[Image description: A hastily-sketched digital painting of a shadowy female figure seated by a window shaded by blinds, gazing attentively but ambiguously towards the viewer.]

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.]

And now I draw in colour.

I’m a little sporadic with my blog posts at the moment. Things have been busy.

We’re approaching Christmas, it’s the end of a long and very difficult term at work, the kids are full-on, I’m tired, and whatnot. And the truth is, the past few months have been somewhat dark. That happens sometimes.

But something else has happened.

I’ve been drawing. More, and more, and more.

I love to write. But my occasional brain-body disconnect means that no matter how adept I am with words, I can’t always summon them to the fore. Images flow from my mind to my hand to the paper far more readily.

Since I wrote my lament at the loss of my one true passion, I’ve been reclaiming it. And the funny thing is, even as my days have sometimes been very dark so far this autumn and winter, my drawings have been vividly bright.

Why now? I’m not quite sure. But where once I drew in nothing by greyscale, I’m rejoicing and revelling in colour as I did when I was a small child. And where once I drew nothing but people, I’m now drawing landscapes, fantasy scenes, monsters, repeating shapes…and people. A stylised landscape: the foreground, trees, rocks and a crow in silhouette; behind, also silhouetted, a river and a town with smoking chimneys; behind, hills in reds, pinks, purples, and browns, and a cloudy sky

Perhaps it’s because, after so many years of confusion, self-scrutiny, and self-doubt, I finally understand something of who I am. I’m more comfortable with who I am. I like who I am. And even as I struggle with overwhelm, the weight of uncertainty, of change, and of responsibility, and with negotiating even some of the basics of adulting, I encounter the awe-inspired, imaginative child inside me somewhat more these days. I welcome that child.

Why do I choose the colours I use?

My favourite colour is green. I love the natural world.

And yet I’m hardly ever inclined to use it in my drawings. I’m drawn towards warm, fiery tones, or otherworldly palettes of turquoise, pink, and purple. I feel compulsively drawn to these hues. Perhaps it’s because they reflect something of how I see the world – the way so many colours other than green seem to shimmer and glow like fairy lights against the green background of nature.

Perhaps I’m simply drawn towards the fantastical. So often, I’m overwhelmed by too much of the mundane.

Whatever it is, it flows. Alien city scape, with orange sky, binary sun system, and tall skyscrapers in a range of colours. An elevated railway runs across the centre of the image, and spacecraft of varying sizes fly across the background.

The perfectionist in me often curses my still-developing, still-emerging technique. I have a way to go. And at the moment, my scale is small. An A5(ish) plain-paged Moleskine journal that fits in my bag; a collection of Stabilo fine liner pens.

I have a sense that I’m probably going to want to go bigger at some point.

But for now, I’m just enjoying it. I’m taking joy from it.

And when my days and nights are dark, that’s what matters.


[Featured image description: alien desert landscape in oranges and reds. A rough, stony, curving road runs through the middle of the image, along which three distant silhouetted figures (resembling an adult and two children) walk. In the background are cliffs, hills and volcanoes in purples, blues and browns. A binary sun system shines in a darkening sky. Strangely coloured desert plants dot the scene.]

All images ©️ A.R. Nibbs 2017.

Performance

I’ve been something of a performer all my life.

At primary school, it was drama. I never got to be the heroine or the pretty princess, but that didn’t bother me (mostly). Gleeful, gorgeous, grotesque riches were bestowed upon me in the form of ‘character’ parts: witches, ghosts, and anyone requiring an accent. I got to play around with voice, mannerism, posture, stature and facial expressions in ways that I found utterly delicious.

The move up to secondary school ushered in a small fish:big pond tale of bit parts, walk-ons, clumsy full-cast dance scenes and dressing-room boredom. I was never simply “glad just to be involved”; I wanted to act, damn it.

And so music took over. After a brief spell contending with the solitary, arduous torture of beginner piano, I plumped instead for the trumpet. You couldn’t escape it. You could play it in all kinds of genres. And you could play music with other people, in actual bands, before you actually even had to be any good at it.

The loudness was the point. I loved the fact I couldn’t hide; or rather, that I could hide myself behind that brazen, brash brass instrument. I could be the centre of attention, without the audience’s attention being solely centred on me.

Performance did, however, extend way beyond theatre and music.

Every day was, and is, a performance.

I’ve rejected any early-in-my-identification-as-autistic notions that I ever “masked” my autistic traits. I wouldn’t have had a clue what on earth I was trying to mask, for starters. It was pretty apparent to a lot of people that I was a bit (well, a lot) weird.

Still, perhaps stage makeup is a mask, of sorts. I performed the role of a girl. A proper girl, like all the others. I wasn’t trying deliberately to cover up aspects of my own self; I was simply playing the same role I’d always believed others also had to consciously “act out”.

I didn’t do it with uniform, or universal, success, of course. There was so much I simply didn’t get about being a proper girl. And yet. The tone of voice. The mannerisms. The (only partially feigned) interest in beauty and fashion. The purchasing of teen girls’ magazines. Shopping. The fancying (at least romantically) of boys at school. All that I could sort of manage.

But it still felt bewildering. And never quite real.

I was far more comfortable with the mixed-gender groups of friends I knew outside of school. My gaggle of gig-going buddies. The fellow musicians in the district orchestra and concert band. People with whom I could bond over genuine shared interests, irrespective of each others’ gender.

I was never a boy. I never felt like one, nor ever wanted to be one. I was never even a tomboy.

But still I struggled to perform the role of the normal girl.

And yet, as an adult, as people wanted to call me a woman, so I wanted to continue being referred to as a girl. “Woman” felt like someone else. I disliked “Miss” but rejected “Mrs”, or my husband’s surname, when I married – again, “Mrs” didn’t sound like me. It sounded too…grown up. Old, even. It still does.

(I go by “Ms”. Part of me occasionally gets half-tempted to switch to “Mx”, in part to annoy the people who don’t even like “Ms”. But my life is complicated enough already, what with me being openly autistic and everything. I just wish people would always use first names and nothing else, really.)

I don’t have problems with being a mum, or being called one. That one fits.

But I still feel like I’m always performing a role. Playing a part. The competent adult. The consummate professional. The confident parent. I even struggle to understand how to properly be an adult child to my parents. That script can be particularly hard to read.

I don’t feel as if I “perform” the role of friend. I care too much about friends, and friendships, to be anything other than as genuine as I know how.

Everybody performs. We all switch personae according to context, situation, environment. And most of all, who we’re with.

But we autistics so rarely get to take off the costume and be fully ourselves.

So often, the very way in which I’m openly autistic is in itself a piece of performance art. I could easily dull the sensory impact of bright lights with a very discreet pair of shallow-framed tinted glasses. But no; I walk into conference plenary sessions wearing oversized vintage-look shades. I revel in doing so. I could subtly stim in work meetings by playing surreptitiously with my engagement and wedding rings, or the cuff of my sleeve. But no; the Tangle is in my hand, and my hand is on the desk. So often must I write, rehearse and memorise the scripts for my many upcoming performances in the role of the pseudoneurotypical woman, that I grab any chance I can get to “be autistic”.

And when I’m out and about, I confess it: I play up to the camera.

I flick, fidget, sing, hum or nod my head to the music on my mental jukebox more obviously in public these days in part because I don’t give a bloody hoot about who objects to my doing so, but also because, deep down, I hope another autistic person is nearby, noticing.

I’m an actually autistic impersonator of an actually autistic person, performing an exaggerated version of my true identity for dramatic effect. It’s freeing. Liberating. Fun.

But it’s merely signals and signifiers. Camping up a stereotype. It’s real, but it’s not the full story.

I’m at my most autistic, under normal circumstances, when I’m at home – either because I’m tired, stressed and meltdowny, or because I’m being a kid, with my kids, and able to play. And when my daughter and I go on makebelieve adventures, we are always ourselves, wherever we travel to.

But I’m only ever able to be truly autistic, without the added dramatic effect, or even affect, when I’m with other people like me. And that’s rare.

Performance can be enjoyable. Joyous, even. But sometimes I need to remove the layers of panstick, and just be me.


[Featured image by Arch’educ. Image features a wooden theatre stage. A deep red curtain hangs closed over the stage, touching the stage floor.]