How did I get here?

I never heard of Aspergers when I was a kid. I remember when I first heard about autism (Temple Grandin). I felt like there was a certain kindred-ness I couldn’t quite explain. The vivid pictorial imagination; the social awkwardness.  But since I only ever heard of the more severe cases of autism, I didn’t really think that could be me.  I was highly verbal.  I could function in regular classes.  I had a terrible time socially, but so long as I was getting straight A’s, the teachers and therapists didn’t seem to think anything was wrong.  I made it through elementary and secondary school.  Things got easier in college.  My peers were less judgemental and I started to break through the low-self esteem that had plagued me through my adolescence.  I even started to learn some of the social skills I had missed.

Then, at 19, I entered adulthood all at once when my mother and only caregiver passed away.  I seemed to be far less prepared than other 19 year-olds.  I had not yet bothered to learn how to drive, and was terrified by the idea of financially supporting myself.  I dropped out of college and spiraled into anxiety and depression.  It took me years to pull myself together.  Adversity does not always make us stronger, at least not right away.  I don’t know if I ever would have worked things out without the help of my ‘Aunty’ (my mom’s cousin).  She let me stay at her place for a nominal rent.  I stopped stressing about ending up on the street.  I started to plan my future.

Over the next few years, I finished my biology degree, got more involved with Judaism, got a decent job, and got married.  Then I stayed at the same decent – but also stressful and dissatisfying – job for six years.  I was brilliant in college.  Why am I stuck doing boring administrative work?  Why do I let it stress me out so much?  Why can’t I seem to get it together to do what I really want?

I finally quit that job.  For the past year and a quarter, I have been working part-time for an online nonprofit, with the idea that I would spend my free time on putting together a more satisfying career.  I try, I fail.  Plans stall out.  It’s too hard.  I didn’t know why.

So back to Aspergers.  I have been having a much easier time socially lately.  Yes, I am still awkward, but I care less.  I am learning.  Meanwhile, I have a few good friends who accept me for who I am.  But every now and then it still bothers me.  Why was my childhood so hard?  Why am I have such a hard time now with productivity?  Could my social troubles and my productivity troubles be *gasp* related??

Why yes, they can.  I have been suspecting that I have Aspergers for some time.  But every time took a look online at the symptoms, there just wasn’t enough there.  Until recently.  I discovered that women are grossly under-diagnosed for Aspergers because they present differently.  Once I started looking at the symptoms for women, it all started to fit.  What I have is a system of intertwined talents and difficulties.  Every aspect of my personality is affected by this.

For the second time in my life, I am finding my people.  The first time, I found in the Jewish people a family that would accept me for all my differences, even if they didn’t understand.  Now, I’m finding people who actually do understand.  It’s really exciting.

And I’m learning how to navigate this labyrinth that is my mind.  Come wander the pathways with me.

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Finding Joy

I’ve been having serious problems with productivity lately.  More than normal.  Even when I’m in a “good” mood, it’s hard to get myself to care.  I really miss climbing.  Heck, I miss going outside.  In retrospect, the few times I’ve gone out to run errands, I’ve felt this feeling of elation, just seeing the sky.  The Spanish experiment is over.  The fact is, just because I find something interesting does not mean it gives me joy.  There are a million things I want to learn.  I have an insatiable greed for knowledge, but it does not give me joy.  It’s something that is hard to accept.  All my life I have been told that my intelligence is a gift – that I have to use it.  But it does not give me joy.  Exercise gives me joy.  Nature gives me joy.  That might not be where my talents lie, but that is what makes all the rest worth it.27177940055_c640da77b6_k

Three weeks healing my ankle, and I am hurting for exercise – something to tell me I’m alive.  Three weeks out, and I can finally walk without limping.  So I went for a walk.  Went to the park.  Climbed a tree.  Got some exercise.  Felt the wind on my face.  Came home feeling halfway human again.  Got some meals in me (’cause, yeah I’m so dispirited that even the things I have worked hardest on being consistent in – meals + sleep – were starting to slip).  This evening, I’m feeling real joy for the first time in weeks.  I keep having to catch myself from breaking into dance – it’s been a long day for my ankle already.

Making Mistakes in Spanish

So, as I mentioned last post, one of the benefits to exercise was just about having something fun to look forward to.  If I have a million things I want to do, why aren’t I doing any of them?  So I decided to pick one, only one, and really get into it.  I decided to learn Spanish.  I already have a ton of Spanish vocabulary and grammar from high school and college.  I am one of those odd people who actually does learn languages well in a classroom environment.  And remembers that language ten years later.  But I’ve had a problem putting it into action.  Another thing I recently learned about myself is that I have a slight audio processing problem.  Mostly, in English that just means I have a much harder time than most people understanding conversation in a crowded room.  I can’t separate the words from the background noise.  But in Spanish, it meant it was virtually impossible for me to understand native speech.  I couldn’t figure out where one word ended and the next began.  Here is where my Spanish lessons failed me.  My teachers had American accents.  My teachers spoke slowly.  I’m actually pretty disappointed in them for this.  Why didn’t you prepare us for actual conversation?  Well, this problem is pretty fixable.  I just need to hear more people talk in Spanish.  But what if I don’t like Spanish soap operas and Latino music?  I’m an odd duck.  I need to learn Spanish in an odd duck way.  So, I found some YouTube channels that teach science in Spanish.  I found some indie music in Spanish.  I bought one of my favorite science fiction novels in Spanish (El Juego de Ender, in case you are wondering)  I still have to take a look for some Spanish movies that I like.  As well as the normal, study the language stuff (I like Duolingo – as we learn Spanish for free, the program is using us to translate the internet).

I also picked up a language exchange app.  This is where I can text (or voice – eeek!) directly with native Spanish speakers.  The first time I tried it out, I used the dictionary, a lot.  There are still a ton of words I don’t know, and several that I am not confident with.  But then I had some conversations in English with them.  They weren’t afraid to say the wrong thing, they just did the best they could with what they knew.  And for the most part, I knew way more Spanish than they knew English.  So why was I being such a perfectionist?  That’s not how conversations really work.  *Listen to a sentence* – “Hold on I need to formulate the perfect response.”  You just speak.  You do the best you can.  So I stopped using the dictionary.  I can look up Spanish words whenever I want, except when I am in the middle of a conversation.  If I don’t know a word, speak around it.  Describe it.  Or say something else.  If I am unsure of a word, guess.  Half the time, when I look up a word, it turns out to be exactly what I think it is.  That’s half the time I SHOULD NOT be looking up a word.  I’m not writing an essay for publication.  I’m having a conversation.

Well, guess what?  This is something my brain is not used to doing.  I can feel the novelty of it tingling in my mind.  I don’t have to be right all the time?  I can make mistakes?  I don’t have to double check?  This could have repercussions way beyond Spanish.  This could change everything.  Last blog post?  Didn’t read before I published.  This one?  Not reading either.  Okay, so it won’t be perfect.  I won’t be as eloquent as I know I can be.  But it will be out there.  Where other people can read it.  And that’s really more important.

Impulse vs. Inhibiton, Meet Rock Climbing!

Okay, let’s start with the elephant in the room.  For anyone who is following my blog, you’ll notice I claimed blogging was my new obsession, and then promptly dropped off the planet for 5 months…  Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence…

So what’s up?  Well, short answer, I was wrong.  I wanted to have an obsession, so I picked something, but that doesn’t make it so.  I spend a lot of time in my head, wanting to engage in a hundred different interests and not doing anything.  Everyone has a balance in their brain – between impulse (the voice that says “do it”) and inhibition (the voice that says “don’t do it”).  It’s not so simple to say I’m scared or lazy.  It’s an equation.  Mine is just tilted.  I don’t make rash decisions.  I actually tend to make really good decisions, that is, if I get around to making a decision at all.  Mostly, I just think about stuff.  I think about so many things, it is hard to pick which one to pursue.  I want to build robots, study artificial intelligence, linguistics, foreign languages, the science of fitness, practice parkour, rock climb, swim, bike, hike, paddle, learn survival skills, learn musical instruments, philosophy, make Youtube videos, blog, teach martial arts, read science fiction, classical literature, learn to dance, study psychology, philosophy, theology, make art, write stories… It’s too much.  But that’s not the real problem.  It’s not too many things, because I don’t have to get to all of them.  I could be happy with a fraction of that.

The real problem is impulse vs. inhibition.  Every time I think of something I would like to do, I think of a reason not to.  Or I say, okay, but not right now.  Later.  This is what is it to have executive dysfunction.

Executive function is like the air traffic control center in your brain, telling your brain which activities to engage in and for how long.  My brain tells me to think about things.  Constantly.  Do things?  Nah, not yet.  Keep thinking.  Some days it gets so bad I can’t convince myself to do anything but daydream (punctuated by meals and sleep), for three days straight.  And the meals and sleep is something I’ve been working on.  It sounds a lot like being lazy.  And maybe it is.  But maybe we actually have “lazy” all wrong.  Maybe lazy isn’t simply not caring about getting stuff done.  Maybe lazy is caring and fighting yourself vehemently, but still losing the fight.

So, I thought I was going to be a blogger.  Maybe I still am.  I can’t answer that now.  What I can say is I am working on figuring my brain out and working with it.  As I discover more and more about autism, I learn more terminology to describe myself.  When I first learned about executive dysfunction, I was excited.  A word for my problem!  Awesome, I am halfway to a solution.  Well, it took me 32 to get the first half, and the second half doesn’t look like it’s gonna be quick either.  There have been dozens of “solutions” for executive dysfunction, the problem is none of them actually work.  Most of them are just thought experiments.  “Set mini goals for yourself.”  “Make a contract with yourself.”  “Focus on your long term goals.”  “Create a reward system.”  These seem to work in the short term, because quite honestly, anything works in the short term.  It’s new and exciting, and we WANT it to work.  I can’t tell you how many productivity apps I have been through.

Not to say that putting a name to it has been completely useless.  I did find this article, that points out the one thing that actually has been show to improve executive function – exercise.  Okay, great, I love exercise.  I hardly ever get around to it, because there is always something more important that I am doing, or more accurately, avoiding doing, but exercise just rose on my list quite considerably.  Now how to escape the catch-22 and find it within myself to go out and DO the exercise?

Well, I found a solution for a while.  I joined a climbing gym.  I like climbing because there is a tangible reward associated with the exercise – I made it to the top of the wall.  I can do a 5.6, great what about a 5.7?  (Yeah, I’m pretty much a noob, give me a break).  The gym I joined has the added benefit of having a parkour space as well.  Did I mention I like balancing on things?  I had been balancing on the rails near my house, and then I tried the slack line at the gym.  It is SO MUCH HARDER than rails, that the next time I tried them, it was a breeze.  I was practically dancing!

And does exercise work?  Mixed results.  After the first time at the gym, I felt like a superhero – able to conquer any task in my path!  I made a doctor’s appt (had been sitting on the back burner for a while), popped by my friend’s house and went swimming, did some other tasks I’d been avoiding.  Nothing was too hard.  Nothing got relegated to “later.”  But it didn’t happen every time.  Sometimes, I left with tired muscles, but didn’t really get full-body winded (apparently a requirement for brain activation).  Sometimes, I left ravenous, and by the time I had eaten, I was already losing that elusive mental state.  I needed to find that perfect balance of real aerobic challenge combined with enough food to refuel quickly and move on.  And of course, with enough time left in the day to make use of the boost.  But there was another benefit to climbing as well.  It was FUN!  I am normally so busy thinking about everything that I want to be doing with my life, that I don’t get around to plane old fun very much.  Well, I tell you, it is a lot easier to get through the boring stuff if you have an exciting activity to look forward to in just a few days.

Well, that was all well and good until I sprained my ankle coming off a bouldering element two weeks ago.  Now what?  I mean, eventually, I’d like to get back to climbing, but what do I do in the meantime?  I guess I need to find a form of exercise that doesn’t require ankles?  I dunno.

 

Don’t let Great be the enemy of Good.

Perfectionism/ Completionism

“Don’t let Great be the enemy of Good,” my boss likes to say.  He has no idea what a struggle this has been for me.  When I was a kid, I would refuse to write essays because it wouldn’t come out it perfectly.  My mother would tell me, “Write a C paper!” but I couldn’t do it.  I’d rather not try than try and fail.  In college, I came to the realization that it wasn’t just on the assignment as a whole that I warred with perfectionism, it was every little step.  Somehow, I never mastered the concept of first draft, second draft etc.  Everything had to be perfect as it hit the page.  I would write the first sentence.  Stop.  Read it.  Edit it.  Think about what sounded best to follow it.  And onward.  Perfect step by perfect step.  It was excruciating.  But it was the only way I could do it.

It was my Soo Bahk Do instructor’s certification that finally taught me how to write.  Somehow, I misunderstood the requirements.  Instead of requiring one 5-page essay on a choice of five different topics, I thought I had to write all five.  Eight years of training, two years of teaching, and I wasn’t going to get my certification because of a bunch of stinking essays??  No way.  I knew that these essays wouldn’t be graded.  They just had to exist.  So I wrote.  I sat down at a computer, undammed my mind, and made the words flow.  For the first time in my life, I stopped second-guessing everything that hit the page.  I was on page two and I had four more of these things to pump out.  It didn’t matter what hit the page!

Funny thing was, when we got to the test, they never looked at my essays.  Some of my fellow instructor candidates hadn’t written anything.  The testing board asked all of us to write one essay together as a group.  But those essays that were never reviewed changed writing for me forever.  It opened a portal in my mind that had been closed.  I don’t have to write perfectly.  It is simply a tool of communication that is at my service.

Still, I struggle with perfectionism/ completionism in other aspects of my life.  I don’t take risks, I don’t go for what I really want, because I am afraid I might fail.  Somehow, in my mind, that is unbearable.  When I do make a mistake, owning up to it is terrifying.  When I scratched a parked car with my vehicle, I sat there for ten minutes giving myself a pep-talk before I could gather the courage to leave a note under their windshield.  It’s not rational.  Everyone else is allowed to make mistakes.  But it is incredibly painful for me.

Then there’s the completionism element.  When I do take on a task, it has to be done in the best way possible.  I don’t just buy a pair of socks, I compare 20 pairs on a dozen criteria, and there better not be two equally good options!  Sometimes I want to stop reading a book, but I haven’t come to a ‘good stopping point’ yet, so I force myself onward.  Video games and TV shows too.  I have to watch the whole thing, even if I’m not enjoying it.


This week is the Jewish holiday of Passover.  Judaism teaches that every year at this time, we are not only commemorating the deliverance from Egypt, we are re-experiencing it on a spiritual level.  The Hebrew word for Egypt is ‘Mitzrayim‘ – literally ‘Limitation.’  Every year at the Passover season, it is our duty and our privilege to free ourselves from our limitations.

This year I am trying really hard to move beyond perfectionism and completionism.  I am taking all the ‘I shoulds,’ ‘I have tos’ and ‘I can’ts’ out of my head and examining them.  It is not easy, and it is not the sort of thing you do once and move on.  But it is a good time to start.

I need to be aware of the fact that I don’t actually have OCD.  Yes, I like things to be a certain way, but I can deal with them being otherwise.  I watched a BBC series about teens struggling against their OCD.  They have these obsessive thoughts and the only way to put them to rest is through compulsive behavior.  I don’t have obsessive thoughts – well, not like that.  So, although I may feel compelled to behave a certain way, there are really no consequences if I can find it in myself to resist.  If they can fight their compulsions, I can certainly fight mine.  Mostly, all I need is the awareness in the moment that I am acting out of compulsion, not desire.

So far I have:

  • Noticed errors (or content/ style that could be improved) in different forum posts I’ve made, and let them stand.
  • Cleaned the whole house ‘good enough’ rather than going crazy on one area, and not having time to do others at all.
  • Given myself permission to use disposable dishes for the week of Passover (In the past, I have used disposables, but still washed and reused them.  Ideologically, it was better – I’m a big environmentalist – but, sometimes it is okay to put my mental health first).
  • Allowed myself to be happy with my Passover seder experience, even if it wasn’t perfect (I didn’t say all the words in the book).
  • Put down books when I wanted to.
  • Published this post without editing it a dozen times and even though there is so much more I want to say.

These are all acute scenarios.  I have yet to address the pervasive fear of failure that plagues me from entering into truly risky endeavors – like business ventures, but it’s a start.

Special Interests

So, today I was asked in an Aspie group, “What is your special interest?” and it took me a moment to answer.  What is a special interest?  What makes it different than a regular interest?

Musings of an Aspie helped me out.  Special interests are more intense than regular interests.  We research them.  We are constantly thinking about them.  We spend vast amounts of time on them – even when we ‘should’ be doing other things.

Do I have a special interest? (Though, honestly, can we call it something else?  I’m not five anymore…)  I don’t feel like I’ve been doing that lately.  Then again, I’ve been pretty stressed out and dissatisfied with life lately.  If you read my previous post about hyperfocusing, you know I’ve been focusing on some stuff that ultimately doesn’t do anything for me (TV, video games).  I think I’ve been trying to be normal for too long, and it isn’t working.  If I allowed myself to really spend some serious time hyperfocusing on things I enjoyed, perhaps I wouldn’t feel the constant need to hyperfocus on garbage.

From kindergarten through my sophomore year of college, I’d say my special interest obsession was science – of one form or another.  Then, when my mother got sick, I suddenly lost interest in academics.  I couldn’t handle an obsession that I was evaluated on.  I threw myself into teaching Juggling Club.  Then getting my Soo Bahk Do instructor certification.  Then a relationship I was in (never a good idea as an obsession, take my word for it).  Then acrobat school in China (yeah, I went to China.  I’m pretty sure that qualifies for intensity).  Then Judaism [I’m ba’alas t’shuva.  If that sounds like a foreign language to you, that’s because it is.  Basically, it means I grew up knowing just a little bit about my Jewish heritage, and decided to learn a whole lot more and practice a whole lot more.  It could be argued that every single Jewish convert and ba’alas t’shuva has a special interest in Judaism (at least for a few years) – Autistic or not].

Lately?  I’ve been pretty interested in exercise and sports science, but I haven’t been pursuing it with the intensity that ‘special interest’ seems to dictate.  Maybe it’s time to change that.

Okay, soon, but right now, I’m pretty interested in finding out how my mind works and blogging about it.  Enough that I wake up in the morning thinking about what I want to write, and feeling an intense need type it out before I do anything else for the day.  I think an obsession has found me.blogging

[Yes, those are my hands.  No, I am not an old lady (though I hope to be one day) – I have eczema.  Now instead of asking boring questions, how about this:  How did I manage to take a picture of BOTH of my hands?]

Hyperfocusing

 

I am learning about my mind.  One of the things that is different is my tendency to hyperfocus. When I hyperfocus on something important, I’ve been calling it ‘being productive.’ When I hyperfocus on something unimportant, I’ve been calling it ‘escapism.’ I’ve only recently come to realize that they are two sides of the same coin. Hyperfocusing is a difficulty with attention regulation – specifically shifting focus from one thing to another. Basically, when I am focused on something, I am REALLY focused. I have difficulty breaking focus even if I ultimately want to. I filter out sound and other distractions. Words go in one ear and out the other. Heard, but completely unprocessed.

This can be a useful skill. If I hyperfocus on a project or studying, I can work for hours without breaks or loss of quality.

However, my hyperfocusing can be a huge roadblock when I focus on the wrong things. Personally, I tend to hyperfocus on TV, video games, daydreaming, even inner monologues. I lose hours, sometimes days. I want to stop, but it is really difficult.

It’s like an addiction. I see ‘just around the corner’ some sort of completion. I have to get there. Once there, another sense of completion is visible just on the horizon. Now, I have to reach there! And, like an addiction, the longer it goes on, the worse it gets. I feel guilty about all the time wasted. I feel anxious about all the tasks piling up. So, to escape the feelings of guilt and anxiety, I submerge myself deeper in hyper-focusing.

My best defense is not to start in the first place. Video games are the worst, because they are formulated to give the player a sense of ‘completion,’ like, every five minutes. Or even worse, to give you one every few hours, but make it feel like it’s only five minutes away the entire time. I try not to play video games at all. It is just too hard to break free.

I don’t really watch much TV either, but my husband does. Often, I am trying to get things done around the house, and I get captured by the TV. That’s what it feels like – caught in some trap. People will try to talk to me, and even though I know the people are more important than the show, I CANNOT shift my focus. I’ve learned to request that they turn off the TV when speaking to me. Sometimes, I’ll wear headphones to drown out the TV, and sometimes my husband will wear them (he watches TV on the computer) so I don’t get sucked in.

Daydreaming and inner monologues are more nuanced. It is easy to say, don’t start doing something external. How do I keep from starting an activity that only exists in my head? I’m not sure I have an answer. Luckily, video games and TV are the more difficult subjects for me to break focus with.

Even, with strategies in place, I flounder. For years, I have been frustrated and angry at myself. Why can’t I get done the things I need to do? Why am I such a space cadet? I want to be stronger than this. I want the ability to choose my ultimate desires over my proximate ones! I try, and try. I’m not getting any better at this. It simply does not go away by pushing myself.

However, I have noticed a trend. The pull of escapism seems to be directly related to the amount of stress I feel. When I address the source of anxiety, I gain freedom. Of course, no one can hope to live a stress-free life. But, at least I can understand that I function better when I treat myself with more compassion.