My lengthy post a month or two ago about my year since graduating prosthetics school spawned a series of thoughts and reflections about changes in my life and growth over the past year. I realized that, indeed, it’s been a tremendous year of change and that it’s helpful for me to take stock of this and acknowledge what I’ve accomplished in terms of self-improvement and will look to use this to inform my future growth. With my birthday rapidly approaching, I plan to consider what specifically I’d like to work on this coming year, after taking a temperature on my current situation. I’d like to focus on some positive growth and strengths here and then follow this post up with areas in dire need of triage.
I am starting to find ways to communicate more effectively and readily, and develop my skills in understanding and responding to various forms of communication. A well-honed ability to communicate verbally and non-verbally, orally and written, is a necessary vehicle for feeling connected, empowered, safe, happy, understood, and participatory in the world around you. This is still a significantly lagging skill for me. Certain modes of communication are incredibly challenging for me, deciphering meaning in my own native tongue is as obscure as a foreign language. Although my oral communicative abilities have improved, I’ve also found that instead of forcing myself to conform to typical routes of conversing, it is sometimes more productive and supportive of my needs to rely on those methods that I’m more fluently versed and natural (writing in particular) while my skills develop. Non-verbal language is still completely beyond my comprehension but at least I’m aware of the challenge, which puts me in a much more powerful position from which to close the enormous gap from current to goal level than my previous 28 years of “problem blindness.”
Becoming more aware of my communication challenges has also helped me learn strategies to optimize my success and comfort with various interactions, in turn, improving my relationships. This has shrunk my previously all-consuming feelings of isolation, loneliness, and confusion into a more manageable, though still apparent, issue. The world feels a lot less cold, overwhelming, and impersonal when you have a couple of meaningful connections. Even though my modus operandi and natural inclination is to flee from social situations and close myself off like a professional introvert, I am human: it takes love, companionship, and a handful of rich relationships to thrive. I’m working on fighting my tendency to push people away, which is self-sabotaging; it is the love and support from family and friends that I do critically need to heal some of my wounds and move forward with happiness and confidence.
This year, I’ve found my detective hat for solving some of the many, many problems or easily “misinterpretable” signals in my brain. The key to this improvement has surely been the increased awareness and knowledge that a correct diagnosis has afforded me. This, coupled with dedicated work in various forms of appropriate therapy, has enabled me to identify some of my weaknesses and challenges and then, when possible, start learning how to manage, moderate, prevent, or troubleshoot them. This is far from a seamless process at this point, but at least there IS the infrastructure for a process and some practice under my belt. Learning that I’m autistic is not a panacea or a cure-all. It’s also not without affect nor detrimental to my growth and adjustment in society. It’s just a reality that there are many autistic-related challenges (as well as other personal challenges I don’t attribute to autism) that I possess that are not readily preventable, amenable, or curable. Some, I may be able to affect with time and dedicated work, but others, I imagine are pretty unchangeable.
One thing I’ve become fascinated with is change and the process of change. It seems one of life’s ironies is that we often resist or are troubled by those changes that come so easily and unintentionally, while those we earnestly try to effectuate are stubbornly resistant. Take patience. I’m as impatient as they come, thanks to ADHD and my temperament in general. I’m aware of the problem, which again, I always feel is the first step in the process of fixing it. In fact, I’ve been aware for years and consciously trying to lengthen my attention span and my tolerance for waiting, among other patience-requiring activities, for several years. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, perceptible improvement. Circling back to my difficulty understanding nonverbal communication, again, a deficiency I’ve worked on at social skills therapy and it’s not becoming more natural nor easier to decipher. In contrast, I mourn the loss brought on by other unwelcome yet unpreventable changes. I hate that my long-distance vision has gotten worse in recent years.
While self-esteem seems difficult to improve, I did remark to my mom that this past year has been the first one since probably age 12 that instead of getting slowly or dramatically worse, it got slightly better. I consider that a big victory because even if some years it didn’t decline substantially, I not only seemed to stop the trend in its tracks, I surpassed the neutral stage and reversed the direction. I’d love to keep that going. More significant in improvement was the related concept of self-compassion. It’s not easy to love yourself and be kind to yourself when you feel like a freak, like you’re always messing things up, like you’re a reptile among mammals, always on the outside and not sure why yet longing to be on the inside, and feeling like somehow all of it is your fault. I don’t absolve myself from any responsibility I’ve had in my mistakes or missteps, but I do love myself more for all of the times I’ve tried my absolute best; it feels like sometimes I haven’t been playing with a full deck of cards. Moreover, it’s never too late to start living your life in a “better” way. I’ve gone through some pretty tough situations and I keep fighting through and meeting importantly, I keep resolving to make the most of things, try to understand how to improve, and dedicate energy and effort toward being my best even when it’s much harder than an alternative.
Ben and I were discussing school yesterday and it came up that he thinks I just don’t have it in me to not give my absolute best on something even if the project or activity doesn’t call for it. This has been the case my whole life. I’m not one who finds it easy to relax expectations on myself or skate by with anything. School, life, jobs, hobbies, and perhaps even with self-improvement: I go all in. I feel anything else would be a breach of my loyalty and would be unjust. I am not content with satisfying requirements. If I can give more, I don’t want to hold back. Perhaps this is to my detriment, but it’s just how my brain is wired. I will literally lie in bed at night thinking of all of the ways I could have done something better if I leave any stone unturned, any idea or effort untapped, or any possible physical or emotional contribution to myself instead of donating it to the job, activity, or person I was serving.
At the same time, this can be counterproductive. Certain tasks probably take longer than they should, but since I tend to be fast with most things, rather than this being the issue, it’s more frequently a matter of me running out of stamina or energy to give multiple tasks in a day because I’ve already exhausted it on something else. I’m terrible at partitioning my attention and efforts to multiple outlets in one day. I also take a long time to recuperate after some things, especially socially-intensive activities or sensory-stimulating environments and since I only know how to go full-throttle, I can’t recharge as quickly or “enough” to muddle through the next thing like some people can. When you get me, you get all of me, but it’s not always as predictable or reliable as I’d like. This seems to be one of the problems I’ve had with some full-time jobs. My output is too exhaustive both in the sense of completeness and personal fatigability, that I’m often not ready to roll out again at 100% the next day. Since I seem incapable of being okay with not firing on all cylinders and just doing what I need to meet expectations, after a few days, I need a day off altogether to restock my reserves. The structure of most work environments in our country does not play to this strategy. Instead of emulating the high-intensity intervals of a world-class sprinter, it favors the endurance slog of a marathoner. The convention is full days in a row and my understanding is that most employees aren’t necessarily “on” every day and giving their everything, but that they do a good job most days and moderate their output during the week. Even if they are quite tired one day, they can get through. It’s not that I’m not dedicated, far from it. When I’m entrusted with the responsibilities of a job, I feel charged with so much purpose that it spills over and fills voids in my low self-esteem’s opinion of my lack of purpose as a whole person. I feel so committed and excited to have a role, to feel like an integral cog, to believe that people are looking to me to get something done.
My inability or immense discomfort to half-heartedly do things isn’t necessarily a curse, but it does have its disadvantages or consequences, mainly because of the mismatch between this inflexibility and conventions or structures in our society. It certainly prevented my participation in the strictly dictated residency requirements.
Another constructive change over this past year that hasn’t come without work is a shift toward a much more positive and optimistic outlook and ability to find silver linings or the good in an apparently bad situation. It’s understandable that I’d be pretty pessimistic, both with my personal strife and the climate of everything going on in the world right now, so it takes concerted effort to shift a depressive or “glass half (or completely!) empty” attitude to one of abundance and positivity. I can’t make a blanket statement definitively affirming that I’ve made a 180, but to give myself credit where it’s due, I have come leaps and bounds in a not easy seat from which to make that type of change. That’s one thing I can control and that gives me solace: my attitude and interpretation of events is within my command. This is a boon to me because I love to feel in control and I’m far from comfortable with things over which I cannot control, yet even though slight, that’s improving. I’m easing up a bit in controlling ways and discomfort and agitation with those things I cannot change. “Let it go” is one of my least favorite statements. I’m getting better at recognizing things I can’t change either.
While significantly less religious than some of my younger years, I have a deeper and more reliable general faith. Faith in the world, faith in things working out, faith in others, and faith in myself. Again, this is a wonderful but definitely surprising improvement given some of the things I’ve gone through. I’d venture to guess that it’s logical and likely that one would lose faith in humanity or the goodness in others when they’ve been violently attacked and assaulted. Similarly, it’s hard to maintain faith in God when you’ve been so brutally violated. Likewise, it’s difficult to have faith in oneself when you’ve felt out of place or messed up in some ways your whole life without knowledge as to why and concern that you’ve brought everything you’ve experienced on BECAUSE of those differences. As they say, you reap what you sew. I prefer to err on the side of neutrality and avoid getting too much into political or polarizing controversial issues mainly because I’m more comfortable being controversial- and confrontationally-avoidant because such situations overstress me and it takes more stress-tampering energy than I even have per day so it’s detrimental to add to that, but I’d be remiss in not mentioning that it’s also hard to have faith in the safety, peace, and hopefulness in the future with many of the political, social, environmental, and humanitarian decisions and current climate we are experiencing. When you’re a natural worrier, it’s hard to find the right balance if staying informed and actively involved in a manner within the confines of your capacity and letting go and having hope that things will be okay. When you’re as sensitive in every sense of the word as I am, you have to constantly set boundaries and respect your limitations to protect your physical and psychological wellbeing. Failing to do so will render me exhausted or even incapacitated, it will agitate my PTSD, which in turn, feeds right back into the overcapacity situation, sinking me further.
I’m also getting a little better recognizing and solving my needs, ranging from the basic biological ones to complex emotional ones. It probably sounds bizarre that a thirty-year-old struggles with identifying and satisfying her biological needs, but with SPD, my interoception is significantly restricted, so it’s not obvious to me when I’m hungry, cold, hot, tired, needing to use the bathroom, full, etc. I don’t get grades or levels of perceptible signals; there’s simply no indication so I’m absolutely oblivious of a need cropping up and then suddenly, it’s a nearly dire situation. I don’t think this has changed unfortunately, but I have been able to try to be as tuned into my body and as mindful of signals as possible, possibly catching things a step before an emergency. More useful has been the implementation of a time structure to remind myself to address these needs at physiologically normal intervals. Google alerts has been a blessing, reminding me to get a drink, have a snack, get up and use the bathroom, scan my body for signs of temperature dysregulation, etc. I may not be able to change the root of the problem, but I can create management solutions. More striking and equally important is my improved ability to accurately evaluate my emotional state in a timely manner. This is more of a universal challenge and one that should remain a lifetime pursuit. Prior to this year, I seemed to lack the correct verbiage for each emotion. In myself, I could only recognize sad/depressed, happy, lonely, or anxious. Since I was only working with these four categories, there was a lot of gray area in which a different emotional state (angry, lonely, irritable, frustrated, overwhelmed, excited, confused, etc.) was incorrectly placed. This actually extended to my ability to read and interpret the emotions of others in a more profoundly limiting way. People with either “mad” or “happy” and pretty much nothing in between. That meant that anything slightly less than happy or all negative emotions were “mad.” This has consequences besides simply mislabeling; misinterpreting the emotion of the person you are talking with not only can make it hard to understand them and connect appropriately, but can also impact your own mood, self-esteem, and comprehension of the conversation. It often leads me to think that people were mad at me who weren’t and then to blame myself for things that I (and probably they) knew were my not my fault but because they seemed “mad” at me while talking to me, I internalized this anger and the associated guilt. One of the exercises I did during diagnosis (and then many times subsequently in social skills therapy) was to match facial expressions to moods or name the emotion based on a photo or drawing. I got one out of twenty on my first try, even though it was multiple-choice! How is that even possible? You’d think I’d at least get five right from sheer probability and guessing! Worse yet, I was rather confident with some of them, which meant I was not aware that this was necessarily difficult for me, which further meant that I did not carry doubt with me during potentially confusing conversations so I wasn’t asking if I was interpreting correctly; I assumed I was. Being able to properly read emotions has a profound impact. In my own self, it helps me to consider my actual needs and how to solve them or communicate effectively about them. For example, I have rarely consciously experienced anger in my life. It’s probably been there, but I mislabeled it as sadness or depression and then went about a course of action with that incorrect emotion in mind. Finally, one day a few months ago, I found I was angry. I had already learned to identity frustration at times, and I thought that I was frustrated and sad. One Sunday morning in February, I had a complete meltdown, a childish temper tantrum. I lost control in a way that is thankfully uncommon (throwing things that were within arm’s reach and slamming full seltzer bottles on the floor (which transformed into rockets). I was yelling and crying. It is mortifying to admit this but I do so to make a point: it took that tirade for me to recognize finally, that I was angry (to be fair, with good reason, because we were talking about a consequence of my attack). Prior to that, the only response to the attack that I was cognizant of was sadness. I was sad and depressed that it happened to me. I had not an ounce of identifiable anger. When people would ask me why I wasn’t filled with feelings of revenge, I’d look at them confused and say, “I’m not really mad at him, I’m sad he did that to me.” I see that statement now and how flawed and painful it is. I remember calling my mom shortly after the outburst in concern. I was immensely uncomfortable with this new foreign feeling- this anger- because I didn’t know how to manage it or how to understand it. Although I’m sure I had felt angry in my prior thirty years, when it’s camouflaged as sadness, it takes on more of that persona and is morphed from its truly raw mad nature. With others, it helps me to respond appropriately both verbally back in dialogue and emotionally myself, and build clearer and more satisfying connections. I am using an app on my phone now to practice identifying emotions but I also check with the person I’m talking with sometimes to take informed stock of the situation, asking things like, “are you mad at me?”, “did that make you feel frustrated?”, “is there something I’m doing that’s confusing you?” Or “how did that make you feel?” I was concerned that this would bother the other person but the truth is, most people just want to be heard and understood so they are more than happy to clarify and express their feelings. I think it may help elevate my self-esteem over time as well because I won’t feel so confused or alienated and I may take on less blame or burden that I have. I tend to over-empathize so it can be tiring at times, but also more rewarding; connections are clearer and more meaningful.
I’ve learned how to ask for help or seek help when I need it. I like to be independent and feel like I’m not only the captain of my own ship but a fully capable and strong one at that. We all need a variety of types of help at different times. Sometimes it’s as simple as an unclear task at work or one for which you are not experienced. Instead of suffering through or wasting time trying to decipher the convoluted instructions or tinker with things aimlessly, hoping to land upon the solution, in some cases, it’s better to just ask for clarification or guidance. It doesn’t show you are stupid or clueless; in contrast, it can demonstrate that you understand your weaknesses or inexperience and that you prioritize clear communication and instruction. It can be that your supervisor or coworker simply wasn’t as clear in his or her explanation or request as that person thought. Of course, at times, it is best to tackle what you can and self-teach where possible, but implementing this strategy judiciously saves time and frustration and improves the outcome which should be the goals of all involved parties. I’m also learning how to seek help with the bigger challenges and physical and emotional needs with less intimidation and shame. As I said, it’s normal to need help at times; that’s why there are jobs for physicians, therapists, or support groups and why we have family, friends, and community. Being afraid to ask only hurts yourself and in most cases, other people want to help if they care about you, so they welcome the opportunity to assist or will direct you elsewhere if need be.
I’m letting go of caring about what other people think of me as well. You can’t control someone’s reactions so it’s better to live with authenticity, integrity, and conviction. I will do my best to continue to become the best version of myself and try my hardest to avoiding hurting or otherwise offending others, but I am trying to be proud of who I am and not be too bashful or apologetic and compromise my personality, ideas, ideals, and morals and own my all quirks. It’s easy to advise others to “just be you; you’re great!” but it’s hard to turn that mirror toward yourself and give yourself the same permission. Going through life trying to be a constant people-pleaser is exhausting and less fulfilling; it also sends the subliminal message to yourself that you’re needs or ideas are less valuable than the other person or that in some way, YOU need the change yourself to be more likeable, useful, relatable, smart, adjusted, successful (or any other of a myriad of adjectives). In the end, you feel burnt out, confused, and lesser. I’m weird. I’ve got a lot of quirks and challenges but I’m a good person. As arrogant as it sounds (quite an unusual color for me), I have a lot to offer in my relationships, job, community, and piece of the world, so it’s silly to deny myself and others that gift. In this way, it’s good to respect the boundaries I set for myself and say “no” when I need to, instead of clinging to the idea that I should cater to everyone else’s needs before mine. A balance is good. Comparing myself to others is also destructive to my self-esteem; it’s okay to be different and it’s also okay to be flawed.
I’m slowly getting a little more flexible. I’ve never been one who easily goes with flow, but I’m trying to loosen the bone and become a little less rigid. I think this is part of my presentation of autism, but it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to adjust. In this way, I’ve had to reexamine my priorities and be okay with the need or desire to change some goals and dreams. For example, I am prioritizing understanding myself and connections with others much more than I used to. Things like running fast are taking on a lesser value. Also, I always thought I would have children by this time. For numerous reasons that I will enumerate another time, that’s not going to happen any time soon and likely not at all, so I’m working in shifting my “ideal picture” of my future to reflect plausible, but also fulfilling, plans, without feeling devastated beyond reproach when things need to be reexamined and changed. Dreams change and that’s okay. Definition of success changes.
Lastly, I’m happy to report that I am truly living with much more gratitude. An attitude of abundance breeds even more emotional prosperity and thus, more to be thankful for. This practice brings a lot of joy and lessens pain. I’m also taking things at a slower pace, where possible, and have found this to bless me with the opportunity to find inspiration and beauty all around me, in small gestures, in nature’s pearls, in the wonder and charm of everyday occurrences and phenomena. This attitude feels genuine and has a powerful effect on restoring that very faith in myself and the world that I so desperately need. So, as I continue into my thirties, I am hopeful that my future will be brighter and happier, my confidence will be greater, my relationships richer, and my love for myself and those in my life—and even life itself—will be deeper.