1 year, 1 month and 24 days later…

…I walk into the clinic’s group room with my dad, my husband and meet the psychiatrist and the speech & language therapist (from my first two appointments).  The time is 10:00am.  We break the ice talking about tea before getting down to business.  We talk… a lot.  I cry… a fair bit.  My dad speaks… I speak… Paul doesn’t say too much, but what he says is helpful and relevant.  Hours pass.  Around 13:30 (at an estimate, because I wasn’t actively looking at my watch), the psychiatrist said that she was still unsure about me.  She felt that we had to address “the elephant in the room” before proceeding with the discussion about whether I am autistic or not – the underlying and apparent feelings of rejection I possess which run very deep.

The rejection primarily stems from my mother, which really is unsurprising; it’s just that I’ve just not had it reflected back to me in that way before.  I could sense the shift in her attention from the age of four and a half when my brother was born.  I could sense that she didn’t want me “in the way” when my brother was having his speech therapy sessions (with her best friend) and his occupational therapy sessions (because he had balance & coordination difficulties).  I could sense her pushing me away after I reconciled with my dad because I didn’t tell her straight away in case we fell out again (despite it being none of her business) because she thought we were conspiring against her somehow (ridiculous, I know).  I knew she had “wiped her hands clean of me” on 13th July 2008 when the last phone call I had with her concluded with her saying, “Have a nice life” before hanging up the phone to me indefinitely (still haven’t spoken with her since).

The second stem of rejection came around the end of high school.  I don’t think I could cope with the prospect of my school routine being thrown completely into turmoil by graduating and going to university.  I think I felt like my circle of friends were more ready to move on than I was.  I am obviously looking back on events that occurred over 14 years ago, so I can only guess what I was actually feeling at the time because a) I can’t completely remember and b) I don’t think I even knew at that time.  In order to feel some semblance of control, I felt like I needed to distance myself from my friends, completely cutting myself off from them.  I did not attend anyone’s graduation party and I did not have one of my own.  When my friends came round to try to talk to me to find out what was wrong, I refused to go out and speak to them.  I didn’t know what to say or how to face them.  I was hurting, I was embarrassed, I was confused.  I wanted to apologise but I didn’t know how or what to say.

The third stem of rejection was losing my job just after returning from our honeymoon.  In brief, I interviewed for a career enhancing position with an independent fostering agency after I had about three years of experience as a Local Authority social worker.  They briefly threw the word “recruitment” (of new foster carers) into the interview, and because I wanted the job, I said that I’d be open to learning about how to do it.  After I started, it became apparent that despite my job title officially being “Supervising Social Worker” my actual role was to go out and recruit my own caseload of new foster carers.  For someone without additional (and at the time unknown) difficulties, this would seem a steep request.  Counting from the day I started (1st December 2011) to the day they fired me (15th February 2012), a week and a half after I returned from getting married and having our honeymoon (15 working days off), I had actually worked for them for 36 actual days.  How in the hell was I supposed to recruit ten new sets of foster carers in 36 working days where the Christmas period was smack in the middle of it all??  I think it boiled down to a personality conflict with my line manager, who was on one day nice as anything, and the next day could be extremely unapproachable.  I didn’t like her approach and she didn’t give me any sort of actual support in doing the recruitment, even after I asked for help because she expected me to “use my initiative” but that’s very hard to do when you don’t even know where to start.  I’d spend 8 hours sat behind a table with leaflets on it and a pull-out standing poster behind me in a supermarket foyer, hoping somebody would come and talk to me (as I could not badger customers coming in or going out of the store).  It was hell.  It was demeaning.  It was embarrassing.  I’m glad I didn’t end up being there very long, but I’m painfully embarrassed to the pit of my stomach about being fired from there.  I had never failed at anything so severely before in my life and I wanted to die.  I was miserable for weeks and struggled to find long-term work after that.  After several short stint jobs (teaching assistant, outreach worker, SEN Casework Officer for three months), I finally landed the fixed-term contract with the authority just south of where I live and was there for ten months before landing the post I’ve been in for two years (as of the 1st of August).  I don’t talk about this period of my life much because it caused me so much turmoil and grief.  Not long after losing that job, Paul and I were faced with having to move out of the annexe and move into the house Paul grew up in, with his mother.  The plan had always been for this house to eventually become ours, but we were newly married, I was newly unemployed and had been faced with the biggest rejection I had personally felt in my young adult life.  While one could argue that the rejection from my mother would be more hurtful, she had been gradually rejecting me throughout my life, whereas the job rejection was far more personal and felt much more traumatic.  I think this experience has also reinforced my feelings of being unable to work at a higher level where I’d be managing people… I could not bear the responsibility of causing anyone else that kind of pain.

The psychiatrist said she would not be doing her job properly if she did not address this with me, which I understood and thanked her for because this will ultimately help me be more mindful and recognise things more readily when I find myself feeling down.  Thankfully, she explained how she didn’t think the rejection exclusively explained all my other difficulties.  The other element that stumped them was my ability to read and anticipate from others’ facial expressions, body language, and vocal tones.  I explained that I did train in graduate school to be a social worker who did counselling, as well as studying psychology in undergrad, so it’s hard to say if this is a natural ability or if I have just learned and retained this because of my level of intelligence.

They both said that having read through my information (the many, many pages of it) and speaking with me, there were definite moments where they felt it was clear that I was autistic, but then I’d do something unexpected and sway them back to thinking I wasn’t.  They explained how they have seen many women over time, some blatantly obvious and others who have learned how to mask and cope so well, and that I’m probably at the highest functioning end that they’ve seen – they joked that they’ll need time in a dark room to recuperate from this diagnostic process!! – but that they felt that it would be beneficial for me and my mental health to have a diagnosis at this time, and that if in the future (whether it be the upcoming weeks, months or years) I chose to not disclose it to people or not recognise it in myself anymore, then that would be my choice.  However, I don’t think that is likely to happen, considering that since I had my “moment of clarity” at the Birmingham Autism Show on the 19th of July 2015, I’ve gone through 420 days (or 1 year, 1 month and 24 days) of wondering and seeking validation… and at 14:30 yesterday afternoon, I walked out of that clinic with a smile on my face and a feeling like a massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders.  I walked out into the sunshine with the diagnosis of autism that I had been hoping for.  I feel like while the journey to validation has come to an end, my new journey has just begun: to continue sharing my story, to continue sharing information, to continue adding more to the collective voice of women around the world with autism who may not yet know it or do know it and need help being believed.  We all know our own truths.  This is my truth… tell me yours.

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One Hurdle Overcome… One More Left?

Okay so I know I’ve been off the radar again for a little while, so thank you to those of you still hanging in here with me.

Since I last posted about the Autism Shows I attended, I’ve kinda gone into self-preservation mode… working in Special Educational Needs, the end of an academic year is always a trying and manic period of time with schools and parents rushing to get things sorted out for September and us caseworkers get caught in the crossfire.  Whilst I was exceptionally pleased to have had places in special schools obtained for not one but two of my cases (when it was looking unlikely due to lack of spaces), I was finding that my sensory differences were getting the better of me in the office the more stressed and anxious I was feeling.  I have been effectively wearing my sunglasses almost nonstop whilst in the office (only lifting them to the top of my head to speak to a colleague so I could focus better) as well as my iPod (because the noise created in an open-plan office is enough to drive me batty).

I emailed the Autism Assessment Team again on the 5th of July about what kind of time frame I was facing in relation to the Occupational Therapist referral, as I was starting to feel even more acutely anxious about everything.  I reiterated my sensory issues in the office and also wrote the following:

I am so sorely disappointed with everything to do with this diagnostic journey and I had certainly hoped that this would have been resolved already. I simply do not have the financial ability to pay for a private assessment and feel like I’m being treated as a hysterical woman that should not be reacting to things the way I am…  I feel like I’m being punished because I have learned and adapted ‘so well’ over my life thus far because I had no choice but to do so; just because someone has learned to cope does not mean that they don’t experience difficulties at all.

I reiterate again that “the woman in the questionnaire” was the honest and true me… I am experiencing such levels of traumatic despair at the fact that I am not being believed and I do not feel like this is being taken into consideration. I don’t want to go to my GP, break down and get signed off work because all of this being too much for me to deal with, but I almost feel like I have no choice but to do this, even though it won’t make things any better on the work front because the work will still be there, along with everything else!!

I need to know:
a) that the referral to the Occupational Therapist has been made
b) that the appointment will allow full exploration of my sensory differences and strategies to mitigate the stress and anxiety that they cause me
c) what the time frame is for me to be seen because this particular unknown is unbearable

Speaking to my dad about this all, he believes me and agrees that I may very well be autistic and he was astonished that no one from the service contacted him to discuss his questionnaire. I was given the impression that there was nothing of significance in his questionnaire to highlight things that may point to a positive diagnosis; he explained to me that he spent a lot of time on his questionnaire and had fully expected someone to contact him in some way to discuss things further. As such, he will be attending the appointment on the 11th with me and my husband Paul.

Having been to the Autism Shows both in London and Birmingham a few weeks ago has further validated me and given me more fire to pursue this diagnosis. It is very apparent that the further away one lives from London, the harder it is for females to be diagnosed as autistic. If anything, it’s a shame that I attended my appointments prior to attending the Autism Show, because I have come away armed with far more information than I had previously and several well-respected professionals in the field agree that the diagnostic criteria used is based on the young male presentation of Autism and does not take gender variations into consideration, least of all the cultural differences with me being born and raised in America (because I speak perfectly understandable English, I think this element was not taken into consideration at all, as per my letter of the 13th of June).

My mental health should not be suffering as much as it is because of all of this.

Thankfully, I received a response from the OT (I’ll call her Emily) the next day (as I had sent my email outside of office hours).  She said that she was fully booked until late September/early October, but asked if I would be happy to take up any cancellation appointments should they become available.  She also briefly explained what the appointments would entail and that a written report would be provided afterwards.

I wrote back saying that I would be glad to take any cancellation appointments, but that just knowing that it would be late summer/early autumn was extremely helpful; it allowed me to “park” my anxiety so to speak, as there was no point in me staying angsty about it.

Fast forward to Monday the 25th July.  I received an email from Emily saying that a cancellation had come up on Wednesday the 27th July in the afternoon.  I responded straight away saying that I would accept the appointment.

Going back to the same clinic building where I had left so upset and (without wanting to sound too dramatic) a bit traumatised, my anxiety was rapidly climbing upwards, despite me actually feeling relieved that I was finally on my way with the OT component of my diagnostic journey.  I explained this when we got into the room and Emily suggested I try a few assistive items, including rolling balls with rounded-tip spikes on my thighs (where deep pressure receptors are high in concentration – it felt nice on my thighs but not on my hands), weighted lap pads (2kg each – which didn’t do much) and a weighted blanket (7kg – I really liked this one, despite the warm weather on the day).  Emily advised that I only keep the weighted blanket on for about 15-20 minutes and that the effects should last for about an hour or two.  We spoke for a bit, me answering open-ended questions about my sensory sensitivities and sensory-seeking tactics, and after what only seemed like a few minutes, Emily suggested that I take the blanket off… I was absolutely amazed at how calm I felt because it happened completely subconsciously.  When we finished the open-ended questions, we went on to the Adult Sensory Profile questionnaire (Based on the intersection of two continua [neurological threshold and behavioral response/self-regulation], this model describes quadrants identified as Low Registration, Sensation Seeking, Sensory Sensitivity, and Sensation Avoiding), ranking my sensory experiences from 5% or less of the time, 25% of the time, 50% of the time, 75% of the time, or 95% or more of the time (there were word associations with each ranking that I can’t remember but the numbers helped me personally be able to rank myself with each question).  When we were done with the questionnaire, we scheduled a follow-up appointment the next week to discuss the outcome of the questionnaire, how sensory processing works and strategies to help me moderate my sensory differences (because there’s no “cure” for it, just management, which I understood).

Fast forward again to Thursday the 4th August – my second appointment.  I was given the validation that I do experience some sensory differences which are made more apparent/acute depending on my mood (i.e. the more stressed I am, the more sensory sensitive/sensation avoidant I become), which made sense.  We talked through the report and strategies and how the body processes sensory information and where we ideally would like to be in a middle ground between agitated (extreme high end) and lethargic (extreme low end).  Emily also provided me with a list of suggestions for the workplace, because it was clearly identified that I was able to cope in office spaces before but that this particular office space (since we moved to it in October 2015) has been progressively having an impact on my mental well-being the more my sensory differences have been agitated.  I was grateful for the list of strategies/suggestions given and looked forward to discussing them with my manager the next day [side note: chatting about it with my manager was so positive; I sent her an email summary of our discussion which she is going to send to HR to see what can be done to help me out – will update when things happen!].  The suggestions for modulating my sensory differences were quite extensive, many of which I do to some degree already, and I will actively try to put these strategies to use and hopefully improve things for myself.

I left still preoccupied about my third appointment with the psychiatrist next week on the 11th with my Dad & Paul… she said that the appointment should help, regardless of the outcome.  I said again how I’ve been waiting a very long time and in that time have constructed this identity around being an autistic woman, which felt shattered to pieces after the second appointment.  Emily was sort of hinting at how a label of autism could sometimes be more detrimental than helpful and that I should think if it could be anything else…

One of the questions in the first appointment was if I had experienced any abuse in my life, which I flatly replied, “no.”  When Emily asked again in the second appointment if I had experienced any sort of abuse or trauma, and I made the throwaway comment that my mother cutting me off eight years ago probably wasn’t great and that through this process I’ve begun to wonder if she too is autistic… it was then that Emily said I should think if it could be anything else.

I had a 25-minute drive home ahead of me, and when I was sat in a queue of traffic trying to make it onto a main road near a very busy roundabout, a little gremlin popped out of a dark corner of my brain… something that had come up both when I was working as a social worker and in SEN… attachment disorder can present with a lot of the same characteristics as autism.  My heart sank.  Could all of this be attachment issues??  Does my mother have attachment issues which permeated her parenting??  It became far too much to bear.  I got home and was hardly able to speak.  I handed Paul the report and the workplace suggestions and sat silently on the sofa with the TV off.  Paul read the report and thought it all looked really positive, so was naturally confused as to why I seemed so out-of-sorts.  When I briefly explained, he didn’t know what to say.  I turned to my phone and sent a message to my fellow American expat Katherine (mentioned in Birmingham Autism Show) because if anyone I knew would know anything about this, it would be her.

I have to leave it there for now… more very soon. xx

2015… over already?

The 31st of December.

The last day of the year.

A lot of people become reflective about the year that’s gone past and tell sanctimonious stories of how selfless they were and how they will be an even better person next year.

Some may call me a pessimist, but I prefer to identify a bit more as a realist.  This year has been very challenging in many ways.  The remortgage was a fucking nightmare, but I am grateful that the effort put in has paid off handsomely.  I’m looking forward to living alone with my husband for the first time since April 2012… nearly four years… that’s longer than we were together when we got married (three years to the day).  As hellish as things got, I have to reframe it and look at it like this: if we made it through this less-than-ideal living situation and stuck it through together, then our relationship is stronger than either of us may have perceived previously.  That is something to be very grateful for and proud of.

I also look at this year as a year of two halves, as it was in June when I had the realisation that perhaps the overarching explanation for why I have always felt different may be because I may have undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome.  The more I read, the more I am validated and the more I am convinced this is the case.  I just wish that the diagnostic process didn’t have such a long waiting list because I’m sure if I was able to present my evidence, I’d be rubberstamped straightaway.  I know that a diagnosis will not suddenly make me okay or normal or whatever, but it helps me to explain my subtle quirks so much better.  I have spent so much time and energy my whole life to appear “normal” to others whilst feeling like I’m wading through treacle in order to function.  It’s exhausting.  I worry that because I’m articulate and appear sociable that people won’t accept my suspicions of a diagnosis and will discredit me.

Case in point, just last night I sent a “break-up” email to the Musical Director and Section Leader of the acapella chorus I started attending in August and joined in November (after finally passing audition) because it wasn’t shaping up to be quite what I was hoping for or expecting.  I wrote a page and a half email explaining my feelings, yet I was terrified about sending it to these two women.  I spoke to my Dad and read him the email, breaking down crying as I read the last paragraph.  In the body of the email, I had referred to my suspected Asperger’s and that as they haven’t seen me in a broader context, they would not necessarily have picked up on my quirks.

Basically, I was driving 58 miles after a day at work to participate in a 15-minute warm-up to then sit for the next two hours while the rest of the group sang repertoire songs with maybe a 10-minute crack at the end of the evening at one song that I had been sent the teaching track for (after all benefits of the warm-up had worn off).  One evening when I had suspected that I’d be sat doing nothing for the majority of the session, I brought my Kindle to sit and read, thinking that would be less distracting than checking Facebook or playing games on my phone.  Halfway through, I was approached by my Section Leader and told that my reading was “distracting to others on the risers” and to please stop.  Needless to say, I was shocked to be told off like an errant child at school and that took the shine off the apple and left a sour taste.  After a few weeks of not making the long journey, I decided it was time to just put my views down and make a clean break.  I referred to my suspected Asperger’s because I wanted to give a bit of context to my feelings, but I really worry that they’re going to read it and not believe it.  I can’t verbalise how upsetting it would be for me if they react negatively to it all.  I apologised for wasting their time… what it boils down to is that I like singing in a choir because it’s a double sensory experience – the singing itself in harmony with others and listening to the harmonies around you.  Performing is not the most important thing for me; it’s the singing itself that matters most to me.  I’m devastated and horribly embarrassed that I’ve gone this long trialling it and pulling the plug so soon after joining, but I really feel like it’s for the best.  I’m going to try finding a community choir to join where I can just go sing and not worry about being a pitch-perfect performer and just enjoy the activity of singing.

One of the things that touched my heart so much last night was after I finished reading my email to my Dad, he said that what I wrote was perfect and that he wouldn’t change a thing – that he is very proud of how I write and how I’m able to articulate myself in writing.  That made me feel so good when I really needed it because I felt so utterly horrible about what I had hanging over my head.  I feel like it’s been very positive that I’ve started this blog and that I’ve been able to utilise this creative outlet to get my thoughts out, even though my overall reach on the interwebz is quite limited.  I wish that I could write professionally like some of the female authors of books about their experiences of late diagnosis of Autism/Asperger’s… but one has to have a slightly wider reach in order for that to happen.  It’d be nice if a publisher or similar came across my blog and was like, “we love how you write! Please write for us!”  But I’m not going to hold my breath.

Oh, and I sent the email after I hung up with him and have yet to receive a response; needless to say, I am dreading opening up my inbox now because I don’t know if I can face the response just yet.

I’m not one for going out on New Year’s Eve… can’t stand the crowds, drunk people, loud music, or anything that comes along with it.  I saw something on Facebook (might have been a Buzzfeed thing) with Jennifer Lawrence’s picture on a late-night talk show in the States where she is quoted as saying something along the lines of: “I hate New Year’s Eve; I always end up drunk and disappointed.”  Being the wife of a guy in a reasonably good covers band, more New Year’s Eves than not have been spent as just me and the cat, and tonight will be no different.  I blame the media for hyping up how great New Year’s Eve is when really it’s just another midnight… because I like dates and numbers, it’s nice to mentally “turn the page” and “clean the slate”, but other than that, I just don’t see the point of going nuts over it.

In conclusion, this year has been quite challenging in several ways (mortgage, unsuccessful job interviews), but it has been punctuated by a handful of really nice occasions (weekend away to Croyde with friends, Manics concert at Cardiff Castle, meeting up with a friend from elementary school in London, and my cousin’s week-long [yet all too short] visit for my birthday to name a few).  Rewind The Film has just started on my iPod playlist of the Manics’ chronological albums playlist (the only way to listen to a band’s back catalogue), which has been described by Nicky and James as being a very reflective album (as they enter middle-age), and it certainly seems to fit the mood I’m in right now.

To those of you who took a chance and signed up to follow my blog, my sincerest thanks.  Please feel free to share with others, as I hope that my writing can help validate others in their everyday lives in one way or another, suspected Aspie or not.  I wish you all the best for the new year and having a clean slate… the sense of renewal is nice and comforting.

Much love,

Cherry Blossom Tree xx