The Non-Specific Anxiety of an Aspie

Anxiety is a normal, healthy human emotion. It comes in for a lot of stick these days, but everyone suffers from it at one time or another and it has evolved for a number of very good reasons.

First and foremost, anxiety keeps you safe. It alerts you to potential dangers, makes you better at threat perception, and discourages you from taking unnecessary risks. It encourages you to think of alternatives, prepare backup plans and expect the unexpected. Indeed, those who experience anxiety tend to be better prepared, and cope better when things go wrong, than those who don’t.

Anxiety can also push you to be better. If you’re anxious about an exam, you study really hard so that you ace it. If you’re anxious about giving a speech, you practice so much you deliver it like a seasoned pro.

Even social anxiety has its benefits. Worrying what people think of you, how to make a good impression, and not hurting their feelings actually makes you a nicer, kinder, more empathetic person who cares about and tolerates the thoughts and opinions of others. Consequently, you tend to be better liked than those who don’t worry how they’re seen.

All of which shows that anxiety is not something negative. Excessive anxiety, on the other hand – that’s a different kettle of fish altogether.

Autism and anxiety go together like syrup and waffles. I’m not going to talk about the anxieties Aspies suffer from altered routines, sudden change, sensory issues, societal expectations or social situations as these are well-known and extensively covered elsewhere. Instead, I’m going to address something surprisingly common but rarely discussed: the general, non-specific, all-pervading anxiety that all is not well with the world.

It’s a feeling that comes and goes, sometimes with identifiable triggers and sometimes not. Probably the most common time I’ve heard it affecting people on the spectrum, myself included, is after moving house. While it’s popularly said that depression comes from dwelling on the past and anxiety from dwelling on the future, this does not hold true for the anxiety I’m talking about, for it exists in the present moment and no amount of rationalising or reasoning can remove it.

I’ll give you an example. About ten years ago I moved into a block of flats. My flat was on the third floor and contained all my belongings. I had a sea view, an allocated parking space, an entry phone system and a concierge. I had my support workers coming in regularly, and kept up the same routine as I had in the previous place. I had everything I needed to feel safe and happy. So why did I spend two weeks curled in a ball on the floor whenever I had a spare moment?

I was terrified, but I couldn’t work out why. The door was locked and nobody could get in. I was on the third floor, so totally safe. I had working smoke detectors and my car was right beneath my window. I had my own curtains and bedsheets, my model, my Jeffery Deaver books and my Starsky and Hutch DVD boxset. I had my guitars, my phone, the internet. I had food, an oven, a washing machine. There was no reason I should feel anxious.

But I did. I was anxious all the time, only without an obvious cause. Despite knowing I was safe, having all the things that I needed to feel comfortable, and having support workers  come in, I had an ever-present feeling that everything was wrong. It’s not something you can think away. There’s nothing you can do to get rid of it. And nor can you distract yourself – this type of non-specific anxiety pervades your very being. It’s there when you wake up and when you go to sleep. It’s there even when you refuse to think.

I’ve known others who, after moving house, take months to finally settle and feel comfortable. Why do we feel this way? Who knows. It happens to me every time I move, even though I’ve lived in sixteen places. The same books in the same order on the same bookcase in a different house fills me with anxiety, and there is nothing to alleviate the dread.

I felt the same non-specific anxiety all day yesterday and most of today. So did my wife, who’s also on the spectrum. We’re going on holiday tomorrow and so we’re both anxious about that – the change of routine, fear of the unknown, and so forth – but this was not that. This was, again, the sense, the dread, that something was very wrong with the world, but we couldn’t really say what.

I think it was because we packed on Saturday, leaving Sunday and Monday to relax. Trouble was, neither of us could. Can’t start a new book because I’ve got one for holiday. Can’t write my novel because I’ve got to a convenient break. Can’t pack my hand luggage until the last minute. Everything felt wrong. Doing the same things – getting the kids up, getting them dressed, taking them to ballet – it all felt wrong. We couldn’t get comfortable, couldn’t relax, so anxious we couldn’t even distract ourselves from it.

I’ve spent two days pacing from room to room. Picking up the guitar, strumming for thirty seconds, putting it down. Flapping my hands. Trying to watch TV. Tidying the kitchen, the lounge, the playroom. It all feels wrong.

Let me be clear – I’m not particularly anxious about going on holiday tomorrow. My anxiety was all about the here and now. And how do you get rid of that? I’ve already dealt with my anxiety about the holiday by planning in detail, making backup plans, writing lists, checking and double-checking and triple-checking everything. The anxiety I’ve felt hanging around the house the last two days, walking the dog, going to town – it comes from somewhere else, somewhere I can’t clearly identify. It’s a horrible feeling that makes me want to cry, and sometimes I feel my chest constricting and my heart pounding away, and because it comes from nowhere, because there are no thoughts to challenge or problems to prepare for, there’s nothing you can do but endure it.

That’s what I mean by non-specific anxiety. As I said, sometimes it has an identifiable trigger – moving house, the days before holiday – but sometimes it’s just there, anxiety that serves no purpose and drives you out of your mind. So you learn to live with it and hope that, soon enough, you can stop feeling so afraid.

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Suffering fools: an Aspie perspective

As a person on the autism spectrum, I’m often told that, as a result of poor Theory of Mind and a lack of empathy, I am remarkably intolerant of people who do not share my opinions. This is not true at all. I’m remarkably intolerant of people who do not share my knowledge. That’s something different altogether.

I mean, if I know something, everyone else should know it too, right? How can they not? Are they stupid? Yes, poor Theory of Mind and a lack of empathy means I struggle not to be a dick to those less well-informed than me.

This wouldn’t be a problem if not for the fact that I know pretty much everythingThat’s another consequence of my autism – I’m obsessed with facts, I have no problem recalling information, and I care more about being right than people’s feelings. Whenever at job interviews I’m asked about my weaknesses, I reply that I’m a perfectionist and sometimes I work too hard (ha ha), and then quietly slip in that I don’t suffer fools gladly.

That’s an understatement – I don’t suffer fools at all.

Over the years I’ve learned to control it, mostly. I’ve come to understand that people don’t spend their time looking up facts and figures and memorizing them, so my favourite pastime is educating others about things that interest me and should therefore, by rights, interest all of mankind – the equivalent ranks in army, navy and air force, the reason the days of the week are so named, what distinguishes a barque from a barquentine, a brig and a schooner, and so forth. I’ve learned to appreciate that people might not have had the opportunity to come across these facts in their everyday lives and therefore I am more than happy to address the gaps in their knowledge – I’m a giver, you see.

But what I cannot tolerate – what really brings out the beast in me – is when people are unaware of things I think they really ought to know. Things that you don’t have to go and look up to understand. Things you couldn’t have missed unless you’ve chosen to switch off your brain and walk blinkered through the world. That’s when I go ‘full Aspie’.

Like when I meet someone who doesn’t know who won the Second World War. Or who the belligerents were. Or that Hitler was a bad guy.

How uninvolved with the world around you would you have to be not to know that? You didn’t know about the Arctic convoys or PQ17? Fine. Didn’t know about kamikazes or the Battle of Leyte Gulf? Forgivable. Didn’t know Hitler was a genocidal madman? Oh come on!

The reason I bring all this up is because I’ve got in a little trouble with a work colleague. She’s very nice and she does the job fine, but boy is she ill-informed about the world. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone quite as ignorant as she is, and it is triggering all my worst behaviour.

Right off the bat, she didn’t know what Brexit is. Admittedly, nobody does right now, least of all our politicians, but you’d have to be living under a rock not to know there was a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, we voted to leave by a small majority, and it’s torn our country apart for the past three years. Her excuse – ‘I don’t watch the news’ – makes me want to tear my hair out, or would if I had any. How she’s avoided hearing about Brexit, when it is the dominant topic on sitcoms, panel shows, current affairs programmes and at family gatherings, is nothing short of a miracle. What next? Who’s Trump?

Another time she came in all excited to tell me she’d seen a document – no matter how many times I correct her, she seems incapable of using the word ‘documentary’ – that said autism is caused by vaccination, and isn’t that amazing? Rolling my eyes, I said it might have been, twenty years ago before it had been thoroughly debunked and is now only believed by celebrities, crazy people, and whatever overlaps there are between the two. I proceeded to tell her all about the MMR scandal, and how, far from ruining his life, Andrew Wakefield is now a feted celebrity in America with no less than Elle Macpherson as a lover.

‘Elle who?’ she asked.

‘The supermodel? Nicknamed The Body? Magazine covers, catwalks, movies, TV? Was in Friends as Joey’s roommate? Ring any bells?’

‘No.’

‘Moving on.’

The next snafu was when she insisted that September 11 was an inside job and the Twin Towers were brought down by explosives in a controlled demolition, which inspired this rant (9/11 – the Truth) a few weeks ago. In the course of that conversation, it became clear she didn’t know who Osama bin Laden was, had never heard of Al-Qaeda, didn’t know why Palestinians might be upset with America, wasn’t aware of the previous attempt to blow up the Twin Towers in 1993, had zero knowledge of how the Twin Towers were built, and thought that despite its name being the World Trade Center, it was residential. But no, she was convinced it was the naughty government that did it and nothing I said would change her mind.

Another time I discovered she had never heard of the Cold War, or the USSR, or knew that we pointed nuclear missiles at each other with our fingers hovering over the launch button for forty years. Her excuse this time gave me a nosebleed – ‘I wasn’t around then, it was before I was born.’

Yup, we can’t know anything that happened before we were born. Since I was born in 1979, I don’t know who The Beatles were; don’t know about the moon landings; slavery; the Holocaust; Queen Victoria; Vietnam; Woodstock; the Kennedy assassination; or Martin Luther King, Jr. If only there were some way I could discover information about the past, information I could access from anywhere in the world with a mobile phone signal, whether in written, audio or visual form…you can see how hard I had to work not to call her out on this bullshit!

When my manager asked me how things were going with her, I was honest. She’s a good worker, she’s good at her job, but oh my gosh I just want to scream at her for being so…I don’t know what word to use. If she was on a quiz show, I’d be shouting ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’ and ‘dumb-ass’ at the screen, like I did this evening to the guy on The Chase who thought Charles de Gaulle was from the Middle Ages. But I don’t think she is ‘thick’, for want of a better word, just completely blissfully ignorant of anything you might expect a 30-something to know.

My manager told me I had to accept that not everybody is into the same things as me. Fair enough, I said: maybe she’s just totally cut off from politics so doesn’t know about Brexit; wasn’t properly trained, so doesn’t know that vaccines don’t cause autism; has never heard of Elle Macpherson because she’s never opened a magazine; believes whatever rubbish people tell her as she has zero knowledge of geopolitics or structural engineering; and is unable to learn about the past without access to a time machine. Okay. It drives up my blood pressure, but I’ll find a way to get past it.

But I really struggled to hold my tongue when I discovered, in a conversation about the murder of Lyra McKee, that she’d never heard of the IRA.

‘The IRA.’ Blank stare. ‘The Irish Republican Army.’ Blank stare. ‘Oh my god, are you seriously telling me you’ve never heard of the freaking IRA? The Troubles? The army patrolling the streets? The bombings? The Guildford Four? The Birmingham Six? Bloody Sunday? They fired mortar bombs at 10 Downing Street. They killed the Queen’s cousin.’

‘When did it happen?’

‘Since the late 60s.’

‘Before my time.’

‘They blew up the BBC in 2001. You’d have been 14.’

‘No, I don’t remember that.’

Well, I got cross. I got cross because it frankly boggles my mind that somebody can live in this country and not know that for a period of thirty years, 3500 people were killed on our streets either for or because of the cause of Irish Republicanism. I got cross because I grew up in the 1980s, and even as a child was well aware of the risks of bomb attacks whenever I went to town, got on a train or saw an unattended bag. And I got cross because I was profoundly affected by the 1993 deaths of three-year-old Jonathan Ball and twelve-year-old Tim Parry, a boy almost the same age as me, killed by an IRA bomb planted in a town centre.

It more than boggles my mind – it offends me that somebody should be so ignorant. She will have come across it multiple times in her life – at school, on Remembrance Day, in films and books and music and everyday conversation. She knows all the words to Zombie by The Cranberries and has seen the music video, what the hell did she think that was all about? It means she’s chosen not to take it in, not to pay attention, not even to notice it, and whether it’s my autism or just me, I find that impossible to understand.

But the real bust up, the real head-to-head, came from something small and insignificant, as do all straws that break the camel’s back. It came when she picked up a roll of fly paper with the words Fly Paper on the side and said, ‘What’s this?’

‘Fly paper.’

‘What’s fly paper?’

‘You don’t know what fly paper is?’

‘No.’

‘Oh my god, have you spent your whole life living under a rock with your eyes closed, how the hell can you not know what fly paper is?’

‘Because I don’t, okay? And you having a go won’t change the fact that I don’t know what it is, so why don’t you just tell me?’

‘It’s sticky paper that you hang up to catch flies!’

And I won’t tell you what I said next. My manager tells me I need to be more tolerant of people who have had different life experiences than me. I get that, I do, but surely there are limits, right? I wouldn’t get annoyed with someone who has genuine reasons for their ignorance –  they have a learning difficulty, they have only just moved here from another country, they’ve been in a coma the past fifty years – but someone who is, by all accounts, ‘normal’ has no excuse or justification for being so ignorant.

Like I said, maybe it’s my autism or maybe it’s just me, but I cannot understand how people like this even exist – people who either don’t know or don’t care who’s running the country, don’t know about major things that are happening or have happened in the world around them, don’t even know about pop culture. What on earth do they do with themselves? What do they talk about with their friends? I don’t get why somebody would come across a word they don’t understand, or hear something referenced that they’ve not heard before, and not look it up. Do people do this? Go through life so happily ignorant that they simply skip over everything they see and hear that they don’t understand? How can they understand anything?

Let me put it this way. If you don’t know about politics (Brexit, Trump, the growing polarisation of society); current affairs (Climate Change, #MeToo, terrorism); pop culture (Star Wars, Kurt Cobain, Batman); high-brow culture (Jane Austen, the Mona Lisa, Picasso); science (medicine, plate tectonics, evolution); or history (Pompeii, the Crusades, Pearl Harbor); then what the hell do you know? And where have you been all your life? And why should I listen to anything you have to say? Because without knowledge to back it up, your opinions are worthless.

Hmm. So maybe I am remarkably intolerant of people who don’t share my opinions. Or maybe I just don’t suffer fools gladly.

I don’t look like a monster…

…but I definitely feel like one. It’s hard not to when you make your closest loved ones cry multiple times every day.

It happens when you have a precocious almost-four-year-old, a wilful one-and-a-half-year-old, and a wife who would rather be a best friend to our daughters than a parent.

I see more tears than smiles. I say no far more often than I say yes. While my wife gives them toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream, I take away toys and sweets and chocolate and ice-cream. My weapons are the naughty step, the counting to three, the threat (never followed through with) of bed without supper.

I am the one who says, ‘You’ve watched enough TV,’ before switching it off. I am the one who says, ‘No, we can’t afford it,’ while driving past the restaurant on our way to homemade spaghetti bolognaise. Time for bed, time for bath, brush your teeth, put your shoes on, you need a coat, just behave, no, no, no.

And then once they’re in bed, I lay into my wife – stop buying so much, you’re spoiling them, the house is a tip, why did you give them sugar at bedtime? You have to toughen up, they’re walking all over you, I don’t care if they like having a tent in the living room, I’m taking it down. If you want to go on holiday, stop wasting your money on takeout. No, we’re not getting a gosh-darned rabbit, you don’t even look after the pets we’ve got. Another one? You want another baby? The two we’ve got are running me ragged and you want to add to this chaos?

So she goes to bed around half-eight every night, and I sit alone on the sofa and check to see if I’ve sprouted horns from my forehead.

How do my kids see me? When they don’t hate me, they seem to like me, but certainly from the eldest, the hate comes through far more often than the love. I’m definitely the mean one, the one who shouldn’t be crossed, the one who isn’t fun. I’m the one she wants to leave behind on family outings, and who isn’t invited to her birthday. I’m not the one she hugs and kisses and gives affection to, no matter how much I want to be.

And yet, I’m also the one she turns to whenever she’s in need of help. I’m the one who sorts out her ouchies, who wipes her bottom and fixes her toys. I’m the one she shouts for in the night to scare away the monsters. I’m the one that takes her to the doctor, the hospital, who gives her the medicine and puts on the cream. I’m the one she knows will be there for her, looking out for her, whether we’re friends or not.

In life, in relationships, we all have a role to play. Mine is the rock you cling to in stormy waters. I first noticed this at university, when I realised all my friendships were one-to-one, and consisted of meeting people in cafes so they could tell me all their problems and confess their deepest, darkest secrets. I wouldn’t see them for a few months until it was time for another counselling session. They had plenty of other friends to have fun with – I was the friend they needed when things got serious.

And that is the way it is with my kids.

I feel very lucky to be able to fulfil this role.

And awfully lonely because of it.

I guess even monsters have feelings.