Running Dreams

I had my first running dream in quite some time yesterday. When the injury first happened, these types of dreams were more commonplace and I’d wake up and return to the disheartening reality of crutches or a boot. Six months later, I guess my subconscious tabled my identity as a runner and those types of scenes stopped cropping up. I’m guessing that yesterday’s big milestone of successfully sneaker walking in the woods at the park allowed the hopes and sparks of possible future running finally sneak their way back in again.

I’ve been running competitively for more than half my life, even considering the time off for all of the various injuries, so that vision of myself is nearly as cemented as my own name at this point and it’s painful and jarring to imagine it may not be something I’ll be able to enjoy again. The truth is, that fate is somewhat unknown at this point; with my degenerative connective tissue disorder, this ridiculously temperamental injury, and my overall increased propensity for injury over the past couple years, running may be entirely unfeasible or at least not recommended, and certainly would need to take on a different feel and intensity to remain a viable activity for me. I’m not in a position to even assess or decide yet since I’m still not healed enough to run, but I know it will be an important but difficult decision to face when the time comes.

With that said, my little trail excursion yesterday must have taken a key to this padlocked box with my running aspirations and loosened the lid to allow some of that pressurized passion to seep out and plant itself in my dreams. I was running. I was laughing and running along the deck of a ship, wildly swinging my arms and pumping my legs like a freed child at recess, running without restraint. An entire football team was chasing me and singing 80s pop hits while I hysterically and gleefully circumvented various obstacles along the decks. Interestingly, my left foot still seemed markedly hindered, as every hard corner I took, I’d hop twice on the right to avoid weight bearing on the left during the turn, then would regain an equal bipedal stride once I’d hit the straightaway. I woke up laughing at myself, instead of being instantly saddened by my still injured condition, as would have been the case months ago.

While I hate unknowns and hate waiting even more, I’ll continue to try to maintain hope but exercise the most patience I can bear to see how this foot heals and how my running future will look. I’m working hard to cultivate more balance in my self-image and find and nurture other interests that help me find fulfillment and purpose.

 

 

Time

The weeks are starting to feel faster. A couple of months ago, on Sunday night, I’d start to get anxious about the impending week and how it would feel long, hard, and lonely. Then, I’d start to get anxious Sunday afternoon in anticipation of the Sunday evening routine and the impossible-to-ignore awareness that the weekend was almost over and the week would soon be upon us. Unlike some people, this dread isn’t about working or not liking my job; in fact, I’m blessed to love my job and I work some on weekends anyway, so weekends and weekdays are often not appreciably different in that way. Mostly, I think, I’d feel sad about being alone so long during each day, not getting a chance to see Ben, and fending off physical pain and depression in isolation.

I’m not so much feeling that way recently, which is a welcome development. I still cherish the weekend time and enjoy the companionship and the more relaxed vibe that characterizes our weekends together, but I’m doing better alone as well. I’d say the pleasant spring and summer weather is the main attributable factor: I’m so much happier when I’m not freezing and there is abundant sunshine to soak up outside. Although not wholly healed, my foot is also better, restoring much of my significantly compromised mobility from the end of the winter and the early spring. Both of these factors result in more outdoor time, which almost always mitigates my anxiety and lifts my mood. If I am completely immobile or stuck inside for weeks or months on end with injury or illness, one of my necessary “tools” to moderate my mental health is missing and so I feel unequipped and justifiably anxious that I won’t be able to handle it well. It’s somewhat like repairman being stripped of her ratchet set or drill but still getting called to a job. She knows she can improvise somewhat, but without some key tools, she would feel nervous and more doubtful of her command over the repair. Give her those tools back, and she’s ready to effectuate the repair with confidence.

In addition to improved weather, less foot pain, and more mobility, I’m excited about my life right now. This may be the first time I’ve truly felt this way in almost a year, when I decided to forego the prosthetics residency and found a job that suited me well. It’s a beautiful thing when, despite numerous and pervasive challenges, you can feel content, and even sparked by your everyday life. The addition of this new job, though undeniably adding responsibility and some amount of stress, is invigorating. I really like what I’m doing and who I’m working with so far and it’s a near-perfect complement to my other job in terms of its different demands, purpose, and focus. I can’t wait to learn more each day and discover ways that I can be helpful and fill obvious and also unanticipated voids and needs.

I’m also continuing to find satisfaction and better self-understanding and self-compassion through my journaling and blogging. Writing gives me time to think, grieve, appreciate, analyze, strategize, and inspire. It helps me dissect and digest some of the many thoughts and emotions swirling about my head on any given day, and it helps me connect with myself and the world. I write about being autistic, having sensory issues, trauma and PTSD, depression and anxiety and physical pain, but also I write about being human and my life and the world through my lenses. As much as I feel different and am different than most people in very obvious ways, it also helps me feel the same and understood, especially when others can relate to my experiences or challenges. I get brief tastes of being as human as I actually am, yet often fail to see from my mental space of “freakishness” and deep, almost metaphysical, loneliness.

Although my progress is never linear and these improvements don’t always feel relevant each day, it’s useful when I do recognize the trend has changed for the positive. Although that familiar swing of anxiety may catch me on Sunday night, I just need to remind myself that the week is really nothing to fear: not only am I fairly equipped to handle it and grow with it, I may even enjoy it.

 

A Memory of “Nothing”?

This morning I have a memory of New York City and my sister. After I’d lived there for a couple years, she got a teaching job in the Bronx and moved to East Harlem. My memory takes place in her small studio in a walkup building on 3rd Avenue. While I lack any ounce of interior design sense, space organization, and taste for what “looks right” or “goes” together (especially with clothes!), my sister is a master of creating eye-appealing spaces and combinations. In just a few weeks and a shoestring budget, she had her place inhabiting the “cozy” and “chic” camps simultaneously. This memory I’m sitting with today isn’t any sort of monumental milestone or particularly notable activity. What I remember is best summed up as simplicity. After a combination of taking the bus and walking to her apartment, I stood, my face out the window, her light, breezy white curtains rippling along the wide window frame in the gentle summer air. The street below was bustling with cars, pedestrians, and street carts, mostly wafting the aroma of tamales and the joyous sounds of neighbors’ Spanish greetings as they bumped into one another. I drank in the vibrant scene and the surprising freshness of city air, my sister joining me in the window, along with her heavyset, but ever-so-soft cat, Bean. In my memory, nothing else happens. The memory is the moment of simplicity itself: standing side-by-side with my older sister, silently acknowledging to myself the magic of New York, the gift of her presence in the city, and the ties that bonded us.

Although it seems that memory should be categorized as one of little importance because there’s no “action” or describable event, there’s an impactful feeling that rushes back when I mentally put myself back on that Sunday afternoon. It’s a place I go to in my mind when I need to remind myself to take pause and soak in the moment because sometimes the moment drifts away too quickly and is gone before you are ready. Five years from now, this moment—lying on the floor in my little living room, listening to the choir of June morning birds, reminiscing, writing, and thinking—may become one of just as much importance as the August Sunday afternoon in East Harlem with my sister.

Research shows that strength gains or physical growth from exercise come during the rest, and not the work itself. Emotional and spiritual growth seems much the same: it’s not always the big moments that directly change us. Growth also happens from those big moments (and small ones) in the breath, the pause, between. This memory of “nothing” is actually a memory everything that matters and the significance of the seemingly mundane is in fact, the direction that deserves the greatest focus and appreciation.

 

Simple Joys: Shoes!

After nursing this foot injury and exercising every last muscle of patience in my body for six months, I finally had my breakthrough step yesterday: no crutches, scooter, wheelchair, or boot; two sneakered feet hitting the pavement. I was shocked, and slightly disheartened, by how strange and difficult it felt to freely move both ankles and walk unencumbered by a big, heavy, rigid plastic boot. I felt wobbly and unsteady, and yet so light. I told Ben the feeling could be modeled by making a stick figure out of uncooked spaghetti and then just dipping the ankles in boiling water, turning them into wiggly noodles. But that model would fail to capture the deepness and endurance of my smile. Like a baby, my whole body beamed while I walked. Although I can probably count the number of times I have cried from happiness on one hand (it’s just not a reaction I get with that emotion), tears of joy welled up as pain-free steps took me further down my road. It took nearly ten minutes of a slow, steady, somewhat braced gait to gain confidence in my stability and ability to walk without any accoutrements, and I didn’t want to overdo it, but by the time I had completed my loop and was back in the driveway, my body felt more like a graceful gazelle (or at least a well-adjusted deer) than a newborn fawn. My mind, however, retained all of the qualities of the newly birthed animal, full of wonder, thrill, pride, and elation. I lifted my arm triumphantly upon my arrival back inside, like when I would win something as a child.

And that’s exactly how I felt: like I won. I beat my mental demons telling me I’d never walk again without at least a boot, I beat the pessimistic prognosis from negative doctors, and I beat the intense anxiety I had preventing me from lacing up the shoes and trying for the past week or so, too afraid the pain would still be there or I’d set myself way back again on the road to healing. My smile lingered until bedtime and it cropped up a few times in the night too, when pain-free steps carried me to the bathroom. I feel good this morning as well; it doesn’t feel like yesterday’s short excursion see me back!

Image may contain: shoes

I’m not out of the woods yet and I still have a long way to go towards full recovery, but these literal steps were a huge figurative one. At physical therapy the other day, we measured the atrophy in my calf. We compared it bilaterally (to my right leg) and also to my measurements back in February when I first went, before the orthopedist told me I needed to be fully non-weight-bearing. Compared to its original circumference, my calf has shrunk almost 3 centimeters, which is more than an inch. It’s also about an inch smaller than the healthy right leg. Most striking was the change in ankle size (and corresponding strength and stability). Compounded with my SPD-induced poor proprioception and balance and my connective tissue disorder-related joint wobbliness and instability, I have a lot of work to do to rehabilitate this ankle and restore safety and function. Yesterday, I finally got to start. Since I wasn’t cleared to do any single-leg work on that side, I haven’t been able to even attempt many strengthening exercises, let alone stabilizing ones. It’ll be a slow process, with bumps and setbacks along the way I’m sure, but this hurdle I’ve cleared fills me with so much more hope, confidence, and genuine happiness that I think it restored my bone-dry patience tank enough that I’ve got the mindset and mental fortitude to be positive and patient, the two critical ingredients to get me where I want to be as quickly and healthfully as possible.

 

Keeping Things in Perspective

Depressing. That’s the single word I’d use to describe yesterday’s medical appointment. When I saw him a few weeks ago, although I also received what could be considered unfavorable diagnoses, the appointment was couched in more hope, a possibility of answers and treatment. This time, the diagnoses and their ramifications hung naked, with no silver lining disguise. By definition, chronic illnesses or disorders persist; they do not resolve and many, by their very nature, do not have cures or effective treatment. It’s more about managing the symptoms, mitigating them if lucky, and attaining the highest quality of life possible. On good days, when wearing positive attitude rose-colored glasses, this feels like enough, a pill, though big and uncomfortable, is possible to swallow. On other “weaker” days when the pain is just too obnoxiously loud to be ignored, the sunny attitude is stripped away, leaving what actually remains, the somber outcome, the harsh reality. Most weeks are populated by both emotional responses, although in the weeks that are especially peppered with more excruciating and frequently debilitating symptoms, the balance tips in favor of viewing the bleak outlook with the pessimism that it rightly warrants.

The reality and prognosis painted in yesterday’s appointment was particularly disheartening because the first appointment presented the vague description of my health problems in sort of an intangible dotted outline of what “could” (but hopefully wouldn’t) be. Yesterday, the outline was traced in permanent black marker, with all the gaps and white spaces filled in with distressingly boldly somber colors. I left feeling unusual clarity and unusual hopelessness and sadness. Maybe it was the unrelenting rain and March-like temperatures despite the calendar’s insistence that it’s early June, but I felt literally and figuratively cold, wet, and despondent. I couldn’t even form words in my head, just a feeling of endless grayness, swirling around a vacant lot.

It’s easier to imagine a more optimistic picture when things are presented hypothetically. When diagnostic tests objectively present undeniable data that solidify the hypothetical into reality, the important keystone maintaining that hope is removed, and it all comes crumbling down. Although it’s always possible to view the same situation with a different (and more upbeat) attitude, in the former pre-information stage, it’s a genuine optimism, and in the latter, it is feigned, which takes endurance to uphold.

I’ve faced many disappointments and challenges over the years that I was able to overcome or at least tolerate as my new “normal,” like absorbing a small ball of black clay into the multi-colored amorphous blob representing my existence. At first, it adheres to the surface, marring the appearance with an unsightly blemish, but after a few days and continually rolling, folding, and spreading, the blemish is adopted and blended in to the whole. I have built a fortress to shield my flame of persistence and hope from the resounding winds of pessimism, blowing continuously from varying angles to try and extinguish its glow. I will not resign my efforts to hope for the best and put on a brave front. Bad news is just an impetus to learn more, seek alternatives, and be grateful for what I do have. I’m blessed. Nothing I face is terminal; I’m not dying, and that’s more than many people can say. My conditions may be degenerative and manifested in more substantial physiological damage than we initially thought, but all that really means is more joint and muscle pain and less musculoskeletal and GI function. At the beginning of the day or the end, this is still a way more privileged, lucky, and healthy life than many people inherit. How truly thankful I am to have been born into my life, with the parents, family, friends, circumstances, opportunities, safety, and blessings that I am so abundantly handed every day. Any setback I encounter is surely a dream for someone else in her battle in this world. I fight for myself to be strong and that becomes much easier when I view every breath as a gift and every circumstance as a blessing. So maybe I choose to edit that first word. Depressing. I’m not quite ready to genuinely call it neutral, but for now, I’ll settle for disappointing. But, I can work with that.

 

Self-Disclosure Reluctance

I’ve had a couple of days to mull over my job interview and my reluctance to self-disclose my spectrum diagnosis. My husband probed me to consider why I had such a strong aversion to opening up about being autistic. “Your whole point on your blog is that it’s not something shameful that you need to hide,” he argued, which is true and a feeling I stand behind. However, due to the stark incompatibility between the nature of the position I was applying for and the prevailing stereotypes about autistic people, it felt too risky to divulge. Had I been interviewing for a position that was likely unaffected by assumed autistic weaknesses or one where typical traits would behoove one’s aptitude for the job, I likely would have been more inclined to be forthcoming. Unfortunately, this was far from the case in this situation and since it is a job I am actually interested in, the risk of misconceptions counting me out of consideration seemed much greater than the reward, which was simply the ease of sharing my diagnosis honestly and avoidance of the anxiety that ensues from needing to cover it up.

I’ve mentioned that I believe one of the hallmark symptoms that society associates with autism is a vehement lack of empathy and people skills. I wholeheartedly disagree with this stereotype and continue to find that the pendulum actually swings to the far opposite side of its empathy trajectory for myself and many of the autistic women I communicate with (I don’t know enough men to weigh in on this): we are often overly empathetic to the point of discomfort (I’ve written more about this here). That said, one of the reasons this stereotype prevails is that it used to be a deficit included in the traditional diagnostic criteria.

Lacking empathy doesn’t bode well for a position in the customer service industry or for any position that involves interacting with or caring for people. A potential employer may not be aware that being on the autism spectrum doesn’t automatically mean the candidate lacks empathy, is an ineffective communicator, and will not be able to show compassion and understanding toward customers or other employees. While the employer may know someone on the spectrum whose presentation contradicts these assumed deficits, it’s less probable than the likelihood that he or she does not. Again, had I been applying for a job that required meticulous fact-checking or number crunching, it would have been a different story and I would have felt freer to disclose without incurring undesirable fallout. Autistic individuals aren’t generally thought of as people persons so a position that requires this aptitude at the forefront would not be selected as the best fit. In a pool of other qualified applicants, an autistic person carries the stigma of a significant disadvantage and would likely be immediately rejected unless there was some coveted skill or otherwise notable advantageous aspect to their candidacy. Such standout benefits and accolades do not apply to me or my application. I’m qualified and a good worker, but it’s unlikely that I’m more so than anyone else. The irony is that I am great at delivering customer service aligned with the mission and values of a company with timeliness and care. While I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a terrible communicator in many regards (particularly as it pertains to social chitchat and interpreting the meaning of verbal and nonverbal messages within their context), I’m quite adept at professional communication and adhering to and mimicking the “voice” of a company, which enables me to interact in a manner consistent with the tone and message of a company in a clear and compassionate fashion. This is one skill I’ve honed over years of dedicated observation and practice; I’ve memorized rules, patterns, and expectations surrounding the language and structure of cordial professional communication. Equally important, I’ve learned to recognize or anticipate when I need help with a necessary interaction; I’m not afraid to reach out when the situation confuses me or necessitates guidance.

All this said, disclosing my autistic diagnosis felt unnecessarily risky and likely to compromise my chances at landing the position I really wanted. It seemed the justification and explanation requisite to dispelling the myths and stereotypes associated with autism to defend my qualification would be far too extensive than the video interview warranted. Like opening a can of worms, it would usher in a lengthy discussion that just felt overwhelming.

I don’t know if I’ll get the job or not. Likewise, I won’t know if failing to disclose will have affected the outcome. In this particular situation, I do have the hunch that the employer seemed to know I was on the spectrum or that there was something “different” about me. Whether this was because he somehow was informed through careful research (my publicly-accessible information does not make it easy to deduce) or through my mannerisms or answers during our video chat, I also don’t know. There’s certainly a chance that he had no idea and I read into his question and ascribed this meaning, but the way he asked it felt otherwise. So, I will wait in hopeful anticipation and I will consider how forthcoming I want to be with my diagnosis in the future. In a perfect world, I’d self-disclose without fear of negative ramifications; we aren’t there yet and I’m not sure I’m always ready to be a trailblazer, at least not when I really want the job. I’m hoping to experiment in the future and gain confidence in owning who I am without undesirable consequences.  More importantly. I hope to dispel the myths of autistic character flaws by striving to embody the best qualities, address my weaknesses, hone my deficits into strengths, and live, work, and interact as the best version of my authentic self.

Interview

Interviews rarely scare me. I’ve applied for hundreds of jobs over my working lifetime and gone on dozens of interviews. This is not hyperbole. One could argue this has largely been a waste of time, and sometimes it has been, but it has also helped me amass a ton of experience answering and asking important questions and diffusing the nervousness inherent in such meetings. Most of the time, I feel so practiced and familiar with the questions because they are often predictable ones I’ve previously tackled. I seem to be diabolically self-aware: uncannily so in certain aspects of my life and beyond blind (if such a condition exists) in others. Luckily, the former tends to apply to employment-related screening questions. Akin to how I study, catalog, and memorize social behaviors and expectations, I readily store and retrieve informative and eloquent responses to questions I’ve previously encountered. Even under pressure, I can grab from memory and regurgitate an appropriate response. For this reason, interviews don’t rattle me. Usually.

Yesterday, was an exception. I was confidently navigating a video conference interview for an interesting part-time job I happened upon in my current job search. (Even though I have a job that I love, I usually keep my eyes out for appealing and potentially viable opportunities because I’m an independent contractor so one of the few downsides of my position is its lack of security.) The questions were clear and I answered them comfortably. Admittedly, I did have more anxiety surrounding this interview than normal because the employer is a professional I’ve looked up to for a long-time, unbeknownst to him. His work is iconic in his field and he’s as much of a celebrity to me as Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston is to most (or whomever is hot these days!). I’ve followed his work religiously over the years and so to actually connect one-on-one, even in interview style, felt like an amazing and exciting opportunity. Of course, he knows nothing of me because I have no measurable public persona or impact, and certainly not one that would have spread to him. After the initial fangirl nerves reflective of being in the (virtual) presence of my guru were swallowed, I felt giddy and lucky to have the time to connect. This excitement lent a palpable energy to the conversation and somewhat of a natural rapport was quickly established. I figured this would bode well for my candidacy for the position because I seemed engaged, attentive, and genuinely eager, which I absolutely am. Then, things rapidly veered South: an unprecedented question.

“Tell me one thing about you that I can’t get from your resume or cover letter?”

It seemed like a fair, and interesting question, but it caught me off-guard. While I had been all too quick to answer the other predictable questions rather expressively and confidently, I took my first long pause and inserted the time filler, “hmmm…good question…” then repeated it as if asking myself the same thing.

I knew what I wanted to say (perhaps the elephant in the room of being autistic or my crippling PTSD and anxiety?), but I felt that would instantly quell my chances at the position and was too complicated to divulge without ostensibly trying to defend myself as still a capable worker (it’s amazing how the prevailing opinion is that these “issues” would make me a subpar employee).

It may have been the pause, the flash of panic that graced my face, or some tell sign I obliviously revealed earlier in the interview, but in my pause, he added, “you know, anything personal like a challenge or condition you face or something you’ve learned about yourself.” Does he already know? Is he goading me to self-identify? I wondered.  My face instantly glowed a hot red, like when your using the Paint app and select the “fill” or “dump paint can” icon and the entire figure is flooded with color. Don’t blow it, I pleaded. My entire operating vocabulary was suddenly locked up and the only words floating within reachable grasp were those that most hopeful job candidates would keep far from any resume: autism, anxiety, weirdo, PTSD, raped-and-ruined, depression. With each half-second that passed, I could feel my mutism mounting an aggressive offensive, so I picked the least “incriminating” of the limited options still available to me, “depression!” I blurted out as if it were the solution to the final puzzle on Wheel of Fortune. Say something else, I begged of my brain. “Uh, I have chronic depression.” That doesn’t sound good I thought. I was afraid to watch his reaction on the screen but forced myself to make momentary eye contact with his video. He shifted, perhaps uncomfortably, and waited to see if I was going to say more. Nothing. “Oh,” he added, as if hearing awkward news on a first date when you’re trying to be polite but secretly disappointed or disgusted.

The energy from the entire conversation plummeted and was swallowed by each of our computer screens, leaving a vacuous and stale hum of the remote connection. Whereas before, we were volleying eloquent ideas and relaying enthusiasm with each pass, the silence now was stifling. I seemed entirely unable to even formulate a coherent sentence to thank him for his time and end the call. I considered simply x-ing out of the window and blaming technical difficulties, but God threw me a bone. I took a few deep breaths, aware that my back was now sweating under my sweater, and found my voice: “yeah, I have chronic clinical depression and it’s something I battle on basically a daily basis, but I’ve learned to cope and keep it at manageable levels.” Good start, I thought. “It’s like any problem. It’s simply a challenge that I’ve been dealt but it makes me stronger and as I’ve matured, I’ve discovered productive ways to handle it.” Give an example, I encouraged myself. “Like my dog,” I offered. “I’ve found so much joy in spending time with her and I feel like I connect with her in a meaningful way. There’s something very grounding about pets and caring for her brings me happiness.” Call in the generators. It was as if I summoned the energy back and resuscitated the conversation enough to at least give it a moonshot of a surviving chance. “I love my dog too,” he offered. “What kind do you have?” “A golden retriever!” He said. “Awesome!” I said, which, although not the most prolific response, was better than nothing.

Shortly after, we wrapped up the meeting in a slightly less awkward fashion. What I figured was just going to be a rote interview, turned into more of a stressful stimulus that I envisioned. My uncharacteristic nervousness left me surprisingly sweaty and I had to rinse off and completely change outfits before moving on to the next thing!

The whole experience made me wonder why it’s so hard to share personal information about the struggles we face. Everyone has some challenge, so I’d think it would feel more natural, or at least less mortifying and self-sabotaging, to admit them. I partially blame my self-esteem and imagine it’s never as opportunity-killing as I imagine it to be, but I think the stigma surrounding mental illnesses and autism is still a reality and such information can hurt one’s chances for a job or a second date or whatever the objective might be (save for therapy?). I have vowed to be more upfront and try to increase awareness, so I’m hoping that if this job doesn’t pan out, or even if it does, down the road, I can be more open with any self-identifying questions and not fret so frantically about the implications. Especially if I wait until I’ve demonstrated my value and command of the position, it shouldn’t hurt my reputation and instead, hopefully would dispel some of the incorrect perceived weaknesses or conflicts with my viability and merit as an employee and person.

 

Stunned into Silence

My selective mutism completely overtook me yesterday. I went several hours without the ability to speak. The little voice I was eventually able to conjure up was so feeble and small, it was like a hushed mother trying not to wake the baby in her arms. This time, it wasn’t directly tied to a medical appointment, although I did have one later in the day that I seemed nervous about. For this reason, I’m not sure that it was entirely separate and more likely, my tension and anxiety in anticipation of the appointment played a role. Still, it typically hasn’t been the case that I lose my voice prior to an appointment. Instead, I’m usually quite chatty until I enter the waiting room, and effectively smothered like a fire extinguished by a woolen blanket. 

The precipitating event yesterday seemed to be an emotional explosion in the morning. After trying repeatedly and unsuccessfully to reach Ben via his phone, I panicked that something was wrong with him and adrenaline coursed through every last millimeter of vasculature in my body. This call was already one fueled by stress because I was having debilitating dizzy spells and so I was contacting him for support. When he didn’t answer after many, many attempts, my irrational brain immediately jumped to worst case scenario stuff (car accident, bad fall, etc.) and skipped all of the more likely and less dire potential causes for his lack of reachability. (He just inadvertently fell asleep.) In fact, these sorts of realistic possibilities were not even considered for a fleeting moment; my trauma brain took over and immediately assumed the worst and only the worst.

It wasn’t until early this morning that I was able to connect the dots and make sense of that. I remember exchanging a couple of really helpful emails with one of my sisters last year about PTSD and emotional fallout from traumatic events. I had reached out to her for advice about my problems with PTSD after the attack because she had survived a bike accident years earlier, and while quite different in nature, still certainly a traumatic event to overcome. I correctly figured that she might have some tips or at least solidarity with some of the emotional demons I was facing. She told me that she had very little PTSD and was pretty much over it now but that she still would get incredibly mad at her own husband when he was unreachable, even though she couldn’t draw any connections between not being able to communicate with him and her accident. As I lay on the rug this morning thinking about things like I do every morning, trying to meditate and relax, my sister’s words suddenly helped me understand what went on with much more clarity.

Not only do I hate not being able to reach Ben if I feel like I need him, but it instantly transports me back to the first moments after I getting up from my attack because after I attended to my immediate physical problems, I sought out my phone, which had been tried from my hands and flung behind the couch, to call Ben. I called. No answer. I called. No answer. Then he texted to remind me that he was out to lunch with friends and he would contact me when he got back to the office. Instead of asserting the urgency and severity of my needs, I just felt rejected and alone. Of course, had I told him that I just got brutally attacked and raped, he would’ve been home or at the nearest hospital to meet me, as soon as the first available cab could wiz him there. I blame the complete shock I was in, the searing pain, the greatest depths of fear and disgust I had ever experienced on my inability to voice my needs. My therapist has since told me that this is a fairly normal post-traumatic response. I simply wrote back “fine,” and by the time he did call me back, I was completely consumed by silence. I just texted back that I no longer want to talk, which was technically a lie because I did want to talk but I was entirely unable to. It’s fair to say I went into a hibernation of sorts after that. I completely disconnected in all sorts of ways from him and everyone else in my life at that time for several days. Needless to say, I have more than just anxiety at face value when I can’t reach Ben when I don’t feel well; it’s inseparable from the horrific memories surrounding that dreadful day. 

Anyway, after I was finally able to wake him with call after call, I exploded at him in a tirade of tears and shouts about how he terrified me and I thought something happened to him; although unfair and irrational, I spoke the truth and my feelings were deeply seeded and real. 

The entire outburst lasted all but a couple of minutes, but it relegated me to that of a meek nonverbal mouse for six hours. I felt like an outline of a human form, one that could be blown into scattered fragments like a summer dandelion puff. Even when I walked the dog, my thoughts were just mouthed in inaudible configurations of the words I intended to say and my muscles felt melted along my bones like the feeling that only comes after being physically spent at the end of a hard race. 

By mid afternoon, I was able coax out a small voice, which was a relief because I rarely feel unable to speak for so long. I think it’s an emotional issue more so than a physical one, my autism therapist says these sorts of “shutdowns” can happen.

Even though I’m often upset and juggling a lot of demanding issues, I rarely lose my cool. I’m one of the least confrontational people I know and almost always internalize fear, anger, hurt, or overwhelm instead of letting it surge out. This unfamiliarity adds to my discomfort and shock when it does escape in a demonstrable way. I thrive on stability and predictability, and any sort of fitful anger or hysteria uproots my feeling of control, even if it is a farce in reality and unhealthy to bottle up. 

The most difficult part of the experience was explaining myself to Ben. Although I don’t concede that my exaggerated response to not reaching him was justified, I do now acknowledge why I have this post-traumatic reaction. My sister is one of the most even-keeled and logical people I know, so if even she has had similar irrational behavior, it further provides me understanding of my own panic.

The mutism must be the way my mind recoils in an attempt to restore equanimity after an emotional torrent like the echoes of deafening silence after a massive explosion. It’s an uncomfortable place because I’m the silence, I cannot express my thoughts or needs. In the silence, my brain runs discounted showings of the memories of the attack, flooding “TV screens” in my mind with simultaneous screenings of lived trauma. The verbal silence seemingly opens a permissive and inviting gate for the memories I try to suppress to air on full blast enshrouding me in the disgusting fearful garb that cloaked my entire conscious and unconscious mind post-attack. Why can’t I burn these memories and watch them rise in lofts of ash far up into the sky? Why can’t I always operate with self-control, logic, patience, and calm? When will my resilience become foolproof and my strength no longer be an act? I can’t answer these questions and I’m guessing that the answer may not be what I hope it to be, that’s why it’s more productive to focus on what I can change and the progress I have made. Yesterday’s outburst was not progress but unpacking its roots was a substantial step forward. Before today, I had no concrete grasp on what was precipitating such unduly magnified reactions. I speak frequently of wanting all of this PTSD stuff to vanish, and I do, but I’m sure there are invaluable lessons and some purpose that I am deriving from this place of pain and this space in my life. I will do my best to trust in the process of my healing, the outward expansion and inward growth that I will glean, and hope that each experience and tribulation is like a crucial piece of the foundation or scaffold from which my “building” as a human becomes better, stronger, and more useful to those around me. 

The Power of Attitude

As a young child, I was remarkably upbeat, happy, optimistic, and hopeful about my future and that of the world. Anything seemed possible and I had wholehearted confidence in my ability to transpire my dreams into my reality. Mostly, I credit my parents for fostering this attitude of wonder and self-assurance; they provided me with ample opportunities to explore the world and my capabilities and never set boundaries or limitations on what I was capable of, even if they had their own (realistic) doubts. I certainly had my fair share of physical and emotional falls and fails, but they never seemed to set me back with much permanent or lasting impact. I had a lot of behavioral problems, particularly in my first years of school and in social situations that my older sisters never displayed, and to say that I presented more of a parenting challenge throughout my entire childhood is a gross understatement. In hindsight, it’s clear that much of my misbehavior, rambunctiousness, and hair-pulling frustrating confusion was a product of my undiagnosed autism and sensory processing disorder. At the time, my hyperactivity, finicky-ness, and even “bratty and immature” behavior was attributed to ADHD and my position as the youngest of three girls. Needless to say, the routine misdemeanors, punishment, timeouts at school, less-than-stellar report card marks for behavior (and penmanship) did little to curtail my mojo and I remained a spunky, relentlessly positive kid.

Something began to shift in the months before my tenth birthday. As if double-digits inherently ushered in the cessation of innocence, verve, and faith in oneself and the world, my mindset and affect began to dramatically shift. In the manner in which a windup toy peters out as the duration of its chatter and clatter lengthens after the initial spinning charge, my zest, vigor, and sunny outlook faded in favor of a restrained, timid demeanor.* Doubt replaced hope, worry and anxiety trumped my carefree nature, pessimism extinguished optimism, and my self-esteem plummeted. Within a few months, depression clouded out the very happiness and joy that had previously bestowed upon me the nickname “the happiest girl in the world,” used lovingly, but earnestly, by my dad. A switch had been flipped and my internal world, which colored my external one, changed.

As with most things which are rarely black or white, solely good or bad, some changes brought on by this metamorphosis were beneficial: my behavior, now so reserved, no longer landed me at the back table or time-out position at school, instead, teachers remarked that I was well-behaved. The more I restrained my body and physical hyperactivity and conformed to the expectations and qualities of a mature and “good” student, the more wildly and feverishly my brain ran. There was a constant barrage of anxieties, questions, troubles, fears, and even panic. Sure, there were also hopes and constructive thoughts, mulling over things learned in school, observations made out and about, and intellectual curiosities much like those that characterized my kid brain, but it became harder to hear these over the sheer volume and strength of the pessimistic thought reel. Little did teachers know that as I sat there studiously at my desk, the littlest one in the class with a big brain and bright responses to assignments, I was filled with internal angst, confusion, and sadness. My “proper” behavior was actually just paralysis induced by depression devouring my energy and ubiquitous pensive concerns. Shortly after, I developed an eating disorder that proved to be a formidable foe for the next eight years. The depression and anxiety fueled the anorexia, which in turn, sunk me into more severe depression and calamitous anxiety.

I wish I could say that some other momentous birthday or other occasion caused the same radical about-face in my outlook as did turning ten, but truthfully, nothing had been as exorbitantly formative in changing me. With that said, particularly in recent years, I have found a better balance and allowed some of that positivity, hope, and verve to weasel its way back into my psyche and shine through the constant cacophony of worries, bleak and dispirited thoughts, and emotional pain. My inner strength and confidence have mounted as I’ve triumphed over difficulties and become a curious and dedicated student of myself. For me, self-awareness has had an instrumental role in increasing self-compassion. I’ve even surprised myself in the authenticity of my mental fortitude and strong drive to seek and recognize the silver linings in spite of some tremendous adversities I’ve faced in recent years. I’m proud of things that I’ve overcome and the resilience of my positive attitude when it would be so understandable to completely crumble.

Some days, in accordance with the idiom “fake it ’til you make it,” the optimism and emotional fortitude is somewhat of an act, a tiring attempt to feign stability and tenacity. Although exhausting, there does seem to be some payback from this practice, but thankfully, sometimes the attitude is genuine. My foot injury is an example of the former turning into the latter. After it seems like surgery was in evitable, I experienced slight improvement in the pain and swelling after weeks of nonexistent progress. I have long heard that having a good attitude through illness and injury is scientifically proven to improve healing and perhaps my desire to avoid surgery was so primal and deep that I truly convinced myself that my foot was healing. It’s not. I have objective evidence from imaging studies that fail to demonstrate an iota of progress; it’s exactly the same as it was four months ago. At first, I couldn’t believe the results; I was so assured it was physically healing because my conviction in maiming a positive outlook became so powerful. I cancelled the postponed surgery date in favor for the conservative route.

Once the initial shock delivered by the MRI’s report on the stagnant state of my foot, I sat with my feelings. In the quiet of the predawn hours where all my clearest thoughts reside, my pride and optimism stripped away, I felt the throbbing pain, the familiar ache from the initial months of injury. The pain had not just returned, it had never really gone away. I had just become committed to silencing it in hopes of encouraging my body to actually resolve it. It looks like I will need the surgery after all.

Of course, I am very disappointed I will have to have the surgery and because I have medical anxiety, I am certainly anxious for that day. However, although I was mad at myself a couple of days ago for my inability to honestly assess the pain and progress of my foot, I choose to remain proud. It’s not easy to be hopeful and positive in the face of a bad injury, let alone the larger obstacles I have faced. As the sands of hopefulness and confidence ran out of the hourglass that ushered in age ten, I lost so much more than just the innocence of childhood. It’s taken two decades to build back some of what I’ve lost and so I will honor and admire all of the positive attitude triumphs, enthusiasm, and growth mindset moments that I can cultivate.

 

*The reason that turning ten served as an impetus for such change is complicated and I’m not sure I fully understand it, but I will attempt to evaluate it at a subsequent time.

Web

I have chronic nightmares. Sometimes they are so realistic and frightening that my brain won’t let my tired body go back to sleep afterward for fear of being transported back into the horror. Usually, they include pieces of my trauma or at least feelings or phrases that I had or heard during the attack. It’s surprisingly hard to get someone’s evil words out of your head even when they treat you utterly inhumanely and you don’t respect their opinion. Not every nightmare necessarily includes my attacker, even if it does include reminders of the attack, and even still, not every nightmare relates to that. My therapist says that this type of gross sleep disturbance, even long-term, is normal in these situations.

The other night, my sleep brain had me in the familiar supine position with the feeling of a suffocating body cracking down on my ribs. I couldn’t see his face, but I had the knife blade and choking sensation. Thankfully this time, unlike in real life, I was being tortured over something that now seems comical: that I had never read Charlotte’s Web and didn’t know the story. I woke suddenly in my usual gasping-for-air panic, relieved that it was unrealistic enough to know it was just a bad dream and that I wasn’t going to live through another torturing just for failing to read an iconic children’s classic.

Still, I decided perhaps this was a subliminal message that I should read the book; after all, I’d give anything to make the real memory go away, and since I can’t seem to do that, I can try to resolve the petty issues in some of the less-severe nightmares.

As unpopular of a sentiment this likely is, I generally do not enjoy reading literature. I’d venture to guess that 49 times out of 50, I gravitate towards a nonfiction book over fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, or any type of creative literature. I seem to really struggle to imagine things that are not portrayed extremely realistically; even then, if the context of the book is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in at least some tangential fashion, it’s frustratingly challenging for me to relate to or get into. Luckily, perhaps due to my strange empathetic skill, I do seem to possess a strong innate ability to see similarities in many superficially different topics. Many struggles have the same universalities.

For the record, there certainly have been many great literary works I’ve enjoyed, but the ease, speed, and appreciation with which I enthusiastically devour nonfiction pieces far and beyond outshadows this number. I think it has something to do with the fact that I am essentially unable to picture anything I’ve never seen. I can listen to the most detailed description of something and absorb all of the words and their essence, but be completely blind to conjuring up a mental image of that description. Consequently, it’s hard to develop relationships with the characters or storyline. I imagine that my substantially challenged ability to read facial expressions and understand people also gets in the way of bonding with or at least following the thoughts, emotions, and decisions of characters. When discussing my evaluation results with the neuropsychologist, he said this can be a challenge for those on the autism spectrum; it’s not a complete lack of creativity, but more of a difficulty imagining a different reality. You’d think then that I’d be fine watching movies since the ambiguity is removed or the guesswork is taken out of imagining how things look, but I mostly only enjoy documentaries, food TV, or shows where you get to know the characters so well over time that their mannerisms, expressions, motives, and language, become more understandable. In any fantastical book or even fictional storyline, I find myself completely lost. I’m unable to follow the plot or keep track of the characters in most cases because I’m missing crucial pieces of information.

I don’t know if this is the reason that I’ve never read or seen Charlotte’s Web. Since the library had it on the shelf and it looked short enough to squeeze in between various obligatory readings, I figured it was worth a shot.

I liked it. I was astonished at how much. As I suspect most people do, I cried when Charlotte died. In retrospect, perhaps this is the reason my parents didn’t encourage me to read this book when I was younger. Although it’s presented as a children’s book, it not only deals with many adult themes, but it also is emotionally mature. Ultimately, I think that’s what makes a good piece of literature: it has a lasting impact on a person and it can be universally understood across the ages or types of people (even if it’s fictional!). I was overly sensitive and emotional as a child-which, apparently is a quality that I have not shaken-and after physically throwing my body on the floor and flailing my limbs in a fitful tear-filled meltdown after the dog dies in John Reynolds Gardiner’s Stone Fox, I’m guessing my parents steered me toward more soundly upbeat stories. I guess I wasn’t ready for the pain and sorrow of reality…

Charlotte’s Web deals so beautifully with the themes of friendship, sacrifice, the circle of life, ingenuity, love, loyalty, and growing up. Despite the significant need to suspend disbelief and buy into the conversations and relationships between the animals themselves and Fern, I found it surprisingly easy to relate to the different characters and imagine it enough that I could follow the storyline (it helped that it was basic enough because it’s intended for children!). I wonder if the fact that I seem to understand animals better than people in real life played to my advantage as well!

While I found many powerful quotes in the book, particularly pertaining to friendship (and one depressingly relatable one from Wilber about unhappiness and loneliness) my favorite of all was delivered by Fern’s pediatrician, Dr. Dorian, after her mother asks him if he had heard that the spider was spinning words in her web.

He replied: “I don’t understand it. But for that matter I don’t understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle.”

How true on so many levels. For me, it was a reminder to appreciate the small things—the magic in the mundane—and to not always be chasing something bigger and better. Sometimes, the very best things are the things we easily take for granted and it isn’t until there’s a blatantly clear sign of something miraculous that we pause enough to consider that the simple act itself—the thing that’s been there all along—is something wonderfully special as well.

(Nature is amazing.)