Mirror

Here’s a secret I haven’t told anyone: After I got attacked, I refused to look in a mirror—clothed or naked—for about two years. I’m finally now working on it.

Unfortunately, I also seem to have an internal dialogue that believes that somehow my opinion doesn’t matter as much as someone else’s. I think that’s the predominant mindset of someone, like me, with low self-esteem (and boy, is that hard to change!).

Recently, I’ve started doing an admittedly embarrassing exercise to combat these issues. I hate the phrase. “killing two birds with one stone;” I prefer, “getting two for the price of one.”

When I go downstairs in the morning, it’s totally dark and still. It’s usually approaching 4:00am and the house has just a slight hum from the fan. I turn on the bathroom light and look in the mirror at my face. Out loud I say, “I am brave.”

In the moment, it doesn’t feel cheesy. Of course, documenting it in writing exposes me in a way that makes it sound beyond lame, but I’m admitting it because it’s something I need to do for myself. I try to make eye contact with my own reflected eyes and hold it for 2-3 seconds. This may sound trivial and easy, but I struggle with eye contact in general and have to make a very conscious, and often uncomfortable, effort to do so. It seems equally hard, if not harder, to hold eyes with myself. After the two years of feeling utter disgust and repulsion with my own body and employing a concerted effort to always avert my eyes to prevent myself from the disgrace of my own skin, it’s incredibly daunting and foreign to simply look at my face. If 2-3 seconds is all I can handle now, it’s still a big step, and I will recognize that.

The first day I did this, I didn’t even use the light, just the glow from my phone. I simply looked in the mirror for a second and said nothing. Then I walked away in shame and got on with my day.

After a few days, I mouthed the word “hi” to my reflected self and thought nothing of it. As I approached the living room to see my dog I thought, why did I just say hi? Then I realized: it was the first time I was re-affirming myself as someone that matters, as a person to respect, as someone to greet. It was like an introduction to or a formal acknowledgement of this person I’ve become since literally picking myself off the floor after my attack.

So then, I had a few days of mouthing “hi,” which slowly progressed to a whisper. One day, a “good morning,” then: “you are brave.” On that morning, I stared back for a second, trying to lock eyes in the mirror. I wondered, when I’m talking to my mirrored self, should it be you are brave or I am brave?

I walked away, worrying that any over-analysis would make me too self-conscious and drop the practice all together.

I fluctuate now. I’d like to say: “I am brave” but mirrors have always been weird to me (is this an ASD thing?). Either way, I’m hoping this practice will translate into an increased comfort in looking at my own face or body and slightly better self-esteem and confidence. I have a long way to go but I think this blog coincides with my self re-introduction and both are small steps toward validating my existence, my strength, and my ability to contribute something meaningful to some piece of this world.

 

Lifting

This is a tough one for me to write so I’m not sure if I will stay on topic or even get through it because I’ve started and abandoned it several times over the last few weeks. I think my best bet is just to try to remain direct and speak straight from the heart. Someday, hopefully, I’ll look back on these entries with little to no critical lens and just be glad that I documented some of my thoughts, challenges, and triumphs.

I’m putting the meat of this entry into that last bucket: I’ve finally started lifting weights again. It’s only been a couple of weeks so far, but I’m confident that I’m back into a habit that will stick. For anyone that knew me as a young adult, this probably comes as a shock. I’ve always loved working out, especially running. While I certainly have not abandoned the running and it continues to be a big part of my life, strength training has completely ceased for about 3 years. I can’t think of something more ironic (and shameful!) than a personal trainer refusing to lift or spend time in a gym. In fact, my previous blog was entirely fitness-based and a place where I shared exercise tips, information, and motivation for my clients and friends. Removing my content and deleting my site was just surface stuff; I also stopped my fitness routine outside of quite a few weekly road miles.

Why?

I don’t have a reason that likely makes sense to anyone but myself (and in hindsight, it makes little sense to me too) but it’s my reason so I’m going to own it and share it: I felt like strength training played a role in my attack and I thought that by stopping such activity, I would be safer and avoid another rape. My opinion is that some sexual assaults or violent traumas make us do things that don’t make much logical sense and that have certain faulty thought patterns and decision-making processes behind them. Trauma seems to aim its tranquilizing dart at some sort of rational thinking center in our brains, muting their normally helpful messages. Things that may make sense to a healthy person or even to that same person pre-trauma, no longer seem like the best course of action and instead, “fear-brain” is born and all she does is recognize rather noxious stimuli as anxiety-riddled situations and the only message she gives, she screams, and that is that everything is scary and you are hurting, you are broken, and you are at fault. Therapy alone doesn’t tame her. Support from family and friends can quiet, but not silence, her wrath. Time and unduly caution can take her dictatorship down a peg, but doesn’t get her to abdicate the throne. I can’t speak with authority on what does; unfortunately, I’m not there yet.

She still breathes when I breathe, she still regularly plays violent flashbacks of that morning no matter how many new memories I create, she still makes my heartbeat triple when I hear someone at the door and makes my ears ring as I fight passing out when someone surprises me from behind. And she still does her best with her domineering nature to prevent me from feeling “normal” and free.

As incorrect as the logic may be, I became afraid to work out because I didn’t want to get raped again. I knew the man that attacked me. In fact, I’ve heard this is often the case and in one survivor support group I was in, all but one of us did. How creepy is that? I think at least some of those other women didn’t choose to let that person into their life initially. It’s not their fault at all. It may have been a family member, a babysitter, a parent’s boyfriend, etc. Me? It was my choice. This person was someone I talked to at the gym, someone I worked out with, someone I gave fitness advice to, someone who told me I was attractive because I was strong and lifted. And there you have it.

While I thought nothing of that comment at the time and completely dismissed it, it clearly worked its grubby little hands into my subconscious. Once the acute aftermath of the trauma had subsided and I was pretending to go on about my life, that little message would not stand to be silenced. All of these months later, I still have been heeding to her crippling advice. I have not lifted a weight, not done a push-up, and denied myself from the strength training I enjoy in the hopes that my weakness will make me ugly (I should say uglier since I’ve never felt pretty), and protect me in the ways my muscles and strength did not the day I was so horrifically attacked. I think that’s another reason that lifting (and even personal training) has been so unappealing to me since that day. I felt like a fraud. I had this self-image that I was a strong, fit young woman certainly able to defend her body. But I wasn’t. When I needed to call upon my strength, it failed me. He did pull a knife on me, so “logical brain” says I couldn’t have defended myself because I couldn’t try, but “trauma brain” tells me I did try and I failed hard. I can’t say that she’s right because I couldn’t fight back, either from paralyzingly fear, shock, or the drawn knife blade but part of me still listens to her and hates my body for letting me down. That part has gotten its time in the sun for too long. And so, I choose to be courageous. I choose to lift.

While my emotional and mental strength has grown since that day, my body has weakened. I am nowhere near my old benchmarks, which is humbling and somewhat humiliating, to say the least, but I’m doing it, I’m loving it, and I’m taking back control.

I wish I could say that conquering this milestone has put evil “trauma brain” to rest and extinguished her fire. It hasn’t. It’s barely just the start. I’ve been working hard in therapy for a couple of years now to shake her but she’s clinging on. Hopefully, this step is one of many and someday, she’ll fade out like the last candle on the cake that stubbornly keeps flickering back up with each blow, finally ceasing in a silent little curl of gray smoke, carried upward and blending into the clouds like a tiny whisper of powerless vapor.

Gradual Germination

 I have a lot of difficulty sleeping. It’s never easy to fall asleep and staying asleep is a nightmare (pun intended), as I am plagued with terribly violent dreams from my PTSD. My doctor has also told me that people on the spectrum often have symptoms of insomnia because of the sensory problems as well as from disruptions in melatonin and one’s circadian rhythm.

Sensory processing problems, for me at least, do seem to peak at nighttime. I think this is largely because they tend to build over the course of the day, like a crescendo in a musical piece that finally breaks into the final cord (or some sort of sensory overload meltdown) at night. I end the vast majority of my days with a terrible headache. My tolerance for sensory stimuli is completely exhausted by 5:00pm. Even a tiny sound—a gust of wind at the window, breathing, my own audible heartbeat against the mattress—drives me bananas. These sounds amplify with each passing second. An uneven whir of the fan (the infamous “pulsing” as it’s known in our home) is my nemesis, its rhythm paving paths of irritation on my cortex. I hate the slightest flicker of light; my poor husband fumbles around in the dark trying to get things. Even his cellphone glow (and he has the old, pre-smartphone type with a tiny screen!) bothers me.  My skin is the worst offender. I won’t even get into that right now because my intention for this post is rapidly getting buried among my sensory complaints!

Needless to say, I employ a strategically designed, carefully rehearsed sleep routine every single night, with the goal of “optimizing sleep hygiene” for better rest. Still, it’s far from good sleep and even further from flawless, which is why I find myself up every morning between 2:40 and 3:40am with a mind that is ready to start the day. As for my body, sometimes it leads the charge and is raring to go, while other times it feels as it should at 2:40am: like cement has encased it.

The other morning, I came down to find the flower pictured in this post in its full blooming glory. The bulb was gifted to me by my mother-in-law for Christmas. While I love flowers, plants, trees, and gardening, I am quite far from having that coveted “green thumb.” Historically, it seems like all my stuff initially grows and then, suddenly, completely succumbs to some sort of dramatic death. (To be fair, that was usually in the mouth of our curious Siamese cat growing up, who seemed to have a constant hankering for my “experiments” growing beans, seeds, and even moldy bread for a Girl Scout badge!)

Anyway, I stuck the bulb in the little pot, plunged it in the provided soil cake, watered it once, and put it on the shelf behind the TV. Oh, but she grew!

Without water for 9 weeks (only the initial wetting of the soil cake), without adequate light, without the TLC my plant deserved, she blossomed. My point in sharing this seemingly boring story is to make an analogy. Even though it’s hardly debatable that I deprived my plant from the things it needed, it survived. It thrived, in fact! The plant had everything it needed inside of its cells. It grew strong roots that are wildly trying to escape their plastic cage; it grew a tall, thick, luscious stem with healthy leaves; and deep vibrant red flowers with silky petals. Had I provided more water and light, I imagine it may have been an easier journey towards maturation, and perhaps today’s growth state would have been reached sooner. However, for nine quiet weeks, my plant used its own resources to figure out how to not only survive, but to thrive and express its beauty. We are much the same way. All of us have an incredible internal strength, a resilience to grow and succeed even if the stakes are against us, even when society, science, health, etc. appear unfavorable for us to prevail. Much like the plant, while there may be an optimal environment or helpful constituents for our survival, we carry within the knowledge, the power, the awareness of our needs, and the drive to grow into strong individuals.

Sometimes situations don’t feel fair. We look to blame luck, “God,” society, etc., and frankly, I think a lot of situations in our world aren’t fair (too many to name), but my hope is that we can all be like my plant, able to persist, so that someday, when it’s least expected, there is something beautiful that we are quietly (or boldly) projecting and breathing into the spaces around us. While we toil away and face challenges and pain, we are laying each strong cell in a calculated and purposeful arrangement, ripe with fortitude and care, into a structure—a life—that has meaning and value.

 

 

Oh, and I do plan to water this plant! Just because she can survive on her own, doesn’t mean she should have to. Be someone’s light and water: loving and supporting someone is never the wrong choice.

 

The First Step

I’ve been diagnosed and labeled with all sorts of things in my life, spanning the full gamut of medical and mental health issues, and while most transitions in my life seemed to bring about a host of new symptoms and resultant diagnoses, nothing really tied the whole picture together. Nothing ever truly explained why I felt so different, so off, and so close yet so far from everyone and everything I wanted to be. The one consistent thing in my life seemed to be the fact that I struggled with things that other people didn’t seem to struggle with and that I also didn’t know how to articulate these challenges. The irony was, for a person who is exceptionally gifted at finding patterns, I saw no method in the madness, no similarity in the symptoms and difficulties, and no way to predict or understand when something was going to be tough for me.

It wasn’t until early summer of last year, just before turning 30, that the pieces finally came together: I was diagnosed with autism. I, like many, received what they consider “a late diagnosis,” which is particularly common in women because of both a lack of understanding in terms of the presentation of autism in women, leading practitioners to miss the diagnosis, and to our uncanny ability to camouflage amongst neurotypicals by learning and emulating their behavior. (We are good at memorizing patterns (even in social behavior), perhaps to our detriment!)

For me, autism explains so much. It’s funny, because I think one of the symbols used by the autism community is the puzzle piece and although I don’t know much about this, I do know that for me, receiving this diagnosis was like finding that puzzle piece (or two) that slipped under the rug and finally fills the blatant gap in the middle of what should be a complete picture. In my own ignorance, I had no idea what autism was really like, especially in women, for which it can be quite different than media portrayals (think “Rain Man”…I’m nothing like that!).

For most of my life, I feel like I’ve lived two lives that are concurrent but not parallel. They bump into one another, they pull and push, they fight me for dominant expression because in any given moment, only one really gets to show its face. I have the life that I try to live externally: Here, I am a student of the world. I constantly observe, catalog data, categorize, and try to present myself the way I see in those around me. I carry on conversations by learning what to say, I go out, I laugh, I try to join activities, I work. This life exhausts me because it’s foreign to me. It’s a constant game of trying to understand, of calculating, of interpreting. It is somewhat like playing a character. It’s stressful because there is always the risk of messing up, which could open the windows for the other part of me to come out, to expose my weirdness. It wipes me out so much that prolonged periods of such behavior caused doctors to be concerned about my physical health: was it chronic fatigue, lupus, another underlying autoimmune issue? The other part of me looks just like everyone else at first glance. But I’m different. This part of me can’t stand the feeling of socks, tags, certain shoes, or seams so much so that it causes vomiting. It prevents me from tolerating things touching my skin in certain ways. I can’t wear my hair down and people call me a tomboy. Some people who have known me for 10 or 20 years have never seen my hair down. This part of me can’t take noises, especially repetitive ones. I can’t tolerate certain food textures without gagging, and while in full disclosure I did have an eating disorder as a teenager, I have since learned this is unfortunately common for women on the spectrum for a host of reasons, one of which I imagine is sensory-based. My list of sensory issues is so vast that it could be its own tome, but I will just say, for me at least, it is the most difficult part of my autism. In addition to affecting the five senses everyone thinks about, it also impacts proprioception, vestibular function, and what is known as interoception (the ability to sense internal stimuli such as hunger, body temperature, the need to use the bathroom, etc.). The sensory processing challenges of autism make it hard to be comfortable in my own skin, in the “comfort” of my own home where we can control the environment as much as possible. The real world? That’s a minefield of sensory bombardment; it’s one of the main reasons pretending to be normal is so exhausting.

The sensory challenges aren’t the only difficulties that the “real me” faces, and I’ll go into these more classic ASD-related difficulties another time, I imagine. The sad truth is that women, particularly undiagnosed, on the spectrum are at risk for various comorbidities like major depressive disorder, eating disorders, sexual assault, among others. Unfortunately, all of these have applied to me and I suffer the consequences of them today. While I could get into each of them separately and maybe will eventually, I share this because it’s one of the main reasons I’m choosing to speak up about my autism. Yes, it’s true that people on the spectrum (and people who aren’t) have lots of wonderful gifts. And yes, it’s true that we can blend in very well and “act normal,” evade diagnosis, and “be successful” in work, relationships, and life. But it’s also true that autism isn’t a minor challenge. It’s a real diagnosis that indicates a difference in the brain. Our brains aren’t worse, they aren’t better, but they are different. The issue with late diagnosis is that it further engrains the feeling of “differentness,” of confusion, and can exacerbate the challenges of the “disorder.”

My feelings of weirdness, loneliness, and a lack of belonging and understanding myself has caused major self-esteem issues and depression, so much so that at times in my life, I’ve been heavily medicated and suicidal. My inability to sense danger and to read people well likely contributed to my attack. That single day saddled me with what I will honestly admit is pretty debilitating PTSD. While I’m doing a lot better since that trauma in many ways, quite frankly, I have no confidence it won’t happen again unless I avoid people, which I don’t want to do. Had I known I was autistic younger, I may have devoted more attention and invoked more specific training to understand predators or at least how to defend myself. If nothing else, it may have alleviated some of the blame I put upon myself for so long.

I want to make it clear that I’m not bitter or upset that I wasn’t diagnosed earlier. I don’t blame all my weaknesses, challenges, and poor choices on being autistic. Receiving the proper diagnosis, even if “late,” simply provides more clarity for which to understand myself and learn to cope better, love myself more, be a better partner and friend, feel healthier, recognize red flags or challenges before they derail me, and feel less alone and confused. The day you stop learning and growing is the day you stop living. My goal is to begin to embrace who I am, to get to know myself better, to let others into my world a bit more, and to do my piece by opening up a little so that more people are aware of the tribe of autistic women. My hope is that increasing awareness will bring earlier diagnosis and possibly prevent some of the battles I faced for younger girls on the spectrum. An autism diagnosis doesn’t guarantee the struggles I have, it doesn’t justify my mistakes or shortcomings, but it is a bit like finally getting glasses when you’ve been squinting, stumbling around, and seeing everything blurry for years. I guess this analogy is particularly apropos for me: I just got glasses! So, to each person that reads this, whether I know you or not, thank you for your time, your interest in this topic, and for helping me start this discussion. Please connect and question me in any way that feels right to you. We are all at different parts of our journeys and in different paths but ultimately, we all, I hope, are just trying to do our best.