A few months back, I went on a “jag” about Alexithymia (click here to read posts I’ve tagged for the topic) — the inability to recognize your emotions. I’d taken an online test about it, out of curiosity, and when the results came back, it got me thinking.
And thinking some more.
And then, while recently reading Odd Girl Out by Laura James, it didn’t take long for the topic to come up, altho’ obliquely. There’s a lot in the book that she touches on briefly and then moves on — which works for the flow of the book, especially if you understand what you’re looking at and can relate to it. For others, though, I think some gems can easily get missed. So, my plan is to (intermittently) follow along “after her” and put a little more explanation / context to the book. If you read it carefully and stop to consider what’s on each page, you’ll get a pretty damn’ good primer for what the interior world of an adult, late-diagnosed autistic woman is like.
But of course, people aren’t necessarily going to understand the significance and meaning of what they’re looking at. So, that leaves it to autistic folks to help put some context around it. I actually hope more late-diagnosed women (and men) do the same and post some interpretive commentary on their blogs, because this is a great opportunity to enlighten the mainstream about our issues. It’s an open door, so let’s not hesitate to step through.
Anyway… where was I? Oh yes… Alexithymia. Emotions. Not doing well with them. At all. Getting overwhelmed by them — good or bad — and not being able to name them. Needing words to sound like they mean. And wanting (more than anything) a neutral life that simply flows.
No sudden movements. Just the steady unfolding of days, predictably and quietly.
Sounds like nirvana to me.
Seriously, it does. As much as I want to believe I can push myself at the pace of the rest of the world, as much as I want to keep current with everything that’s happening, to not stand out as a “problem”.
Good feelings really can be as overwhelming as the bad. They still demand surges of energy to process and experience. Even if the surge of emotion is “good”, it still makes my adrenaline spike. And when that happens, my biochemistry makes it well nigh impossible to process information with higher thought. Everybody’s body does the same thing. That’s how we’re built, pretty much — stress hormones shunt energy and capabilities away from higher thought and focus them on raw survival.
That’s not usually a problem for (neurotypical) others, but it’s a big issue for me. Because I rely on higher thought processes to get through my day. It’s how I interact with life. It’s how I make sense of things. It’s how I stay safe. So, when emotions run high and my thought process gets dragged down into realms of oversimplified brute survival, it’s like chopping off a finger while I’m trying to type up a sensitive legal document that can land me in a whole lot of trouble if I mess up. Other people apparently feel invigorated by drama and stress, but I get so “turned around” and confused and disoriented, it makes everything worse.
I am not at my best, when there’s unwarranted drama — especially the kind that is illogical and purely for entertainment purposes. A whole lot of people frequently create drama to make themselves feel better, God help me. When that happens, I get dragged down into a pit of despair and disorientation that heaps even more stress on me and makes it even harder to think and process my surroundings.
In fact, the processing isn’t just about thoughts and emotions. It’s about sensory details. We autistic folks can be so “tuned in” to every sort of input around us, that we need every shred of higher reasoning we can spare, just to navigate the basics. So, when we’re inundated by stress hormones that shut down those faculties, we can literally be endangered — unsafe — threatened. Because in our diminished state, we can misinterpret clues from the world around us. Walk in front of a bus. Get mugged. Be lured into dangerous situations. Get taken advantage of, preyed upon, laughed at, even beaten up.
It’s no joking matter. Having our faculties impaired in any way literally puts us at risk. And when you’ve been through enough of those kinds of experiences (as so many autistic adults have), you develop a zealous love of sameness, neutrality, equanimity. The peace of mind and calmness of body that some people think is optional (or that you just do at a zen retreat) is not optional for us. We must have it. Or the real-world consequences can be severe.
So no, stress is not good for us. Emotional upheaval can be a problem.
And that goes for good kinds of upheaval, as well as the bad. Basically, anything that pumps up your system with drama hormones is a liability. It’s something I strive to avoid — and how ironic that I live with a bit of a drama queen. Laura James’ descriptions of the discrepancies between her temperament and her husband’s… well, that sounded familiar.
So, yeah — emotions. Wild fluctuations (which seem to be the norm, these days) are not my friends.
Plus, half the time, I can’t figure out what the heck I’m even feeling. Seriously, I have this pretty intense disconnect between what’s going on with me emotionally and my awareness of it. I’ve never really given it much thought, despite my partner’s repeated complaints that I’m “emotionally shut down”, and multiple therapists’ insistence that I must be deeply wounded, to be so “out of touch” with my emotions. I developed a bit of a complex about it, actually, taking everything they were saying to heart, and believing them. After all, they were the experts, right? And with one therapist after another telling me the same thing — almost like they’d been consulting with each other on the side — I figured they knew something I didn’t.
Actually, they didn’t know half of it. They knew far less than half. Maybe 1/67th, tops. And there was really no reason for me to develop a complex about it. Because how I process information from the world around me is just different from how they do it. I’m not damaged. I’m wounded, yeah, but in ways completely unlike what they think. I’m not “shut off” from my emotions. I just process data from the world around me in very different ways. And it takes a whole lot out of me, when I have to work overtime at processing under stressful conditions. Fatigue makes everything worse, and one thing leads to another… and before you know it, I’m in a state. They didn’t relieve my existential distress by poking and prodding at how I process emotion. They actually made it worse — which was great for them, because it locked me into a cycle of repeated problems that they were so convinced they could fix.
They weren’t fixing anything. They were creating problems. And I still resent them for it.
Well, I can’t get all tweaked over what others do. I’m Autistic. My Aspergers is in full-swing, in all its neurodivergent glory. Rather than relying on others to figure stuff out for me, I need to take matters into my own hands, figure things out, sort them out, and keep my life operating in ways that suit me. And I generally do.
I’m bumping it up a notch, too, developing some tools I can use to better manage my life, as well as sort out the emotional stuff I’ve got going on. I’m developing a system of Dynamic Strengths Mapping (DSM for short – mwahahaha) where I have a list of my strengths and a list of my relative weaknesses, and I “map” my specific strengths and abilities to my challenges.
I’m still mulling over the exact approach. I’d thought about creating a drag-and-drop web app. But that’s not visual enough for me — too much would be hidden. Then I thought about using index cards, so I can match many discrete strengths to my complex challenges. But that seems like it could get out of hand — too big, too hard to manage — and it would be really easy to duplicate information and confuse myself. So, I’m back to the spreadsheets idea, with some color coding thrown in for good measure.
I know I’ve got challenges on a regular basis. And I need a more efficient way of handling them. This DSM approach makes a whole lot more sense to me than just marinating in my misery, making myself feel awful — just awful — because I can’t figure stuff out. That’s ridiculous. Figure stuff out is what I do best. So, it’s time to work through this, come up with a workable approach, and then share it out to others who may find it useful.
Who knows? Maybe others are already doing this. I Googled “Strengths Mapping” + autism and found a lot of different approaches, but so far nothing that’s really dynamic, like this, applying specific strengths to varying circumstances. Well, whatever. I need this tool, and others might, too.
So, I’ll build it.
And the answers will come.
If you haven’t read Odd Girl Out, you really should. And take note of the details. There’s a lot in there that can slip by, if you’re not paying attention.