Some holiday photos from Taborine Mountain – enjoy!
Some holiday photos from Taborine Mountain – enjoy!
This was an unusual novel, but a very enjoyable read.
Of course I’m biased in its favour because it’s set in Essex, county of my birth. In fact, it’s set alongside the very same Blackwater Estuary into which I fell as a child, in a sort of baptism of stinking black mud. I would have enjoyed this novel for the setting and memories alone.
I was interested, too, in the portrayal of an autistic boy in a time before autism was a recognised condition. It was subtly done, and I appreciated the way the boy was viewed, even by his own mother, with a kind of baffled incomprehension.
If the book had a topic, it was the clash of religion and science. In a way. But not in the sense of a rational argument, more as a study of relationships within the sensibilities of the Victorian era, which happened to feature a woman of science and a man of religion.
The ending, though, was strangely anticlimactic. For a novel whose heart was in the relationships between its characters, and in which the search for the Essex serpent was merely a means to explore this, ‘discovery of the serpent’ could not be enough. I needed more resolution.
Overall, though, this was a story told with impressive competence and well worth a read.
Something interesting happened to me this week – I had a 2-day long anxiety attack.
Which I guess is not something one would normally write about in a blog, but in fact, once you remove the fear of judgement (and get over the self-absorbed ‘why me?’ thing), it’s actually quite a fascinating phenomenon. And I wanted to share because it made me realise how many misconceptions I had (and presumably lots of other people have) over the topic.
First off, I did not equate what was happening to me as ‘anxiety’ at all.
To me, anxiety is that feeling somewhere between worry and fear that precedes an event you are dreading. That kind of anxiety serves a useful purpose – it makes you just uncomfortable enough to knuckle down and do what you need to do (e.g. revise for that exam, practice for that interview, etc.). Or it makes you so uncomfortable that you realise you’d be better off avoiding the dreaded event altogether. I know that feeling.
This was something different. The way I would describe it is having a nervous system in hyperdrive. Everything was amped up to the max, like switching to a more powerful battery. My thoughts were faster, more repetitive, and loud enough to miss half of what people were saying to me. Talking came easier than usual, though – faster and more impulsive. I had an intense need to keep moving (tapping my fingers, jiggling my knee, springing up and going for a walk), to release nervous energy. I felt myself starting to sweat. If someone had touched me from behind I would have jumped out of my skin. That first night I barely slept, but the next day I wasn’t drowsy – I was still wired.
It could almost have been fun, except that I was at work and I could have done without having my colleagues see me in that state, agitated and jittery. Would they think me a nervous wreck? And yes, when your thoughts are circulating, repeating, escalating, the smallest of negative thoughts can become a monster. A minor frustration expands until it truly feels like the end of the world. I didn’t get as far as a panic attack, but approached too close for comfort.
I wouldn’t have called the experience anxiety, though, because that’s putting things the wrong way round. It wasn’t anxiety causing physical symptoms, it was the physical symptoms – the hyperarousal of my nervous system – that was causing small anxieties to escalate.
Do you see the distinction? It’s important, if you’re thinking about treatment, because confusing the two types of anxiety might make you think, for example, that counselling sessions of the ‘talk about what’s worrying you’ kind are going to help prevent this kind of attack. They won’t.
So what was going on?
When I tried to explain to someone what was happening and they mentioned anxiety, my knee-jerk reaction was to deny it was any such thing. But then, being me, I googled it to check. Did what was happening to me match any type of anxiety disorder? Here they are:
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – excessive, uncontrollable worry about a range of ordinary situations like health, work or finances? Nope, this was an acute attack not a chronic condition. That doesn’t fit.
Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) – avoidance of social or performance situations for fear of being embarrassed or rejected? We-ell, I had considered this in the past to explain my difficulties with social interaction, but then I realised I had the letters the wrong way round; not SAD but ASD. So, no.
Panic disorder – associated with regular panic attacks, which are sudden, intense episodes of irrational fear, shortness of breath, dizziness and other physical symptoms? Not that acute, no.
Obsesssive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) – unwanted thoughts and impulses (obsessions), causing repetitive, routine behaviours (compulsions) as a way of coping with anxiety? No. Well, OK, I did mention repetitive thoughts but I’m pretty sure that’s the ASD again.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – a group of stress reactions that can develop after witnessing a traumatic event. Symptoms include (1) Re-experiencing the trauma, (2) Avoiding reminders of the event, (3) Negative changes in thoughts and mood after the event, (4) Feeling ‘on edge’ and overly aroused? Well… yes. Number 4 would fit. Except that I haven’t been in a situation traumatic enough to produce PTSD.
One thing I was pretty sure of was that however one might label this attack, it was related to ASD. Certainly it had the usual hallmarks of being bizarre, nonsensical and inexplicable. Truth be told, it’s happened a few times before, though I was less aware at the time, and it seems to be a cyclical thing, with an acute incident every few weeks.
All my internet searches were telling me was that autistics are at increased risk of anxiety. But what kind of anxiety and why? Googling was getting me nowhere; I couldn’t find a single site that could offer an explanation that fit.
And I really, really wanted to know, with all the existential angst triggered by thoughts such as: “Why is this happening to me now, when I never had a problem before?” And “Oh shit, is this going to get worse?”
And then I found something, in Temple Grandin’s book “Thinking in Pictures”, and I realised why the author is held in such high esteem; she has remarkable self-awareness and insight. Though my few attacks have been blessedly brief and mild in comparison to the levels of anxiety she’s dealt with her whole life, I recognise the same underlying mechanism at work:
“…I started living in a constant state of stage fright, the way you feel before your first big job interview or public speaking engagement. But in my case, the anxiety seized me for no good reason…”
“I now realise that because of the autism, my nervous system was in a state of hypervigilance. Any minor disturbance could cause an intense reaction. I was like a high-strung cow or horse that goes into instant anti-predator mode when it is surprised by an unexpected disturbance.”
“I figured out that my nerve attacks came in cycles… I also knew from past experience that the attacks would eventually subside. The first relapse occurred during a new equipment startup at a meat plant. Stress can trigger a relapse. I just toughed out the nerve attack, and it finally went away….”
“I realised that I often had periods of several months when my anxiety was quite low, and then suddenly a panic attack would flip a metabolic switch and my nerves would go from a tolerable 75 mph to a horrible 200 mph. It would then take several months for them to subside to 75 mph. It was like switching the speed on an industrial-strength fan by pushing a button. My nervous system instantly jumped from a brisk breeze to a roaring hurricane.”
“Dr Jack Gorman and his associates at Columbia University describe a process called kindling, which may explain such sudden increases in anxiety. In kindling, repeated stimulation of neurones in the limbic system of the brain, which controls the emotion centers, affects the neurones and makes them more sensitive. It’s like starting a fire in kindling wood under the big logs in the fireplace. Small kindling fires often fail to ignite the logs, but then suddenly the logs catch on fire.”
“Most of my problems were not caused by external stresses such as a final exam or getting fired from a job. I am one of those people who are born with a nervous system that operates at a perpetual state of fear and anxiety. Most people do not get into this state unless they go through extremely severe trauma, such as child abuse, an airplane crash, or wartime stress. I used to think it was normal to feel nervous all the time, and it was a revelation to find out that most people do not have constant anxiety attacks.”
Funny how much more insight one can get from reading the personal account of one sufferer than from any number of internet articles. Makes me think, you know, for all the scientists who are studying autism spectrum conditions, they seem no closer to getting the full picture than I am to producing the Unifying Theory of the Universe.
Oh, and if reading Ms Grandin’s words makes you concerned for me, don’t be. Unlike Ms Grandin, I wouldn’t say I feel nervous all the time or live in a perpetual state of anxiety. The occasional high-jinks of my nervous system have been little more than an inconvenience.
Anyhow, I do have two thoughts from all this.
The personal one is that, thanks to some stressful life events combined with my ASD, I seem to have developed an intermittent (and hopefully temporary) nervous condition with similarities to PTSD. Lucky me!
My other thought is that, if this kind of attack is what is meant by autistics being prone to anxiety, I think that ‘anxiety’ is the wrong word. Or at least, it is woefully inadequate to describe what’s going on. Wouldn’t it be better explained as autistics having a more sensitive nervous system, so that sometimes a seemingly minor trigger can lead to a prolonged state of hyperarousal, including heightened levels of anxiety?
If you have to reduce it to a label, call it autistic hyperdrive. That sounds so much cooler.
Lucky me got to visit some outback towns this week, while I was out doing fieldwork.
In hindsight, I wish I’d thought to get a few more photos, but at the time I was occupied with work and logistics and stuff. So a few of these are mine but most are scrounged off the internet.
Day one: Winton (population 954).
Winton’s dual claims to fame are that it’s the birthplace of the song “Waltzing Mathilda” and it hosts a quarry full of fossilised footprints, known as the dinosaur stampede. There’s a dinosaur museum, too.
Not that I had time to go see any of this, but still, it’s interesting to know. Apparently in the early Cretaceous, about 100-95 million years ago, Winton was on the eastern edge of the vast inland Eromanga sea, home to countless dinosaurs and plesiosaurs. Enormous quantities of sediments were deposited in this sea, forming sandstone and mudstone to depths of up to 400m. In extent, it’s basically what is now the huge underground aquifer of the Great Artesian Basin.
So I got to see the end result of all that sedimentation as we drove west out of Winton on the Kennedy Developmental Road. First there were mesas, where a former plateau has eroded away except for remnant sandstone caps. The things that look like grass tussocks are actually spinifex, which has green spikes in place of leaves.
And then, on the long drive to Boulia, there was a landscape that actually kind of freaked me out. Where there was once sea is now three hundred kilometres of nothingness, the flat horizon wavering with mirages and the lower sky reddened with a band of dust. In places there were swathes of scrubby trees, but these were prickly acacia, a declared weed. Here’s a shot from the car window, looking at a distant plateau:
Further on we were back into mesa country, like these at Cawnpore lookout:
And then the town of Boulia. Based on its prominence on the map and the fact of it being a regional centre with its own Council, it was… well, all I can say is that it was a bit smaller than I expected (population 440). You could stand in the street and see to either end of the town. And when I went to the store for supplies, the mandarins were $13.50 a kilo. But, hey, it has 3-D pedestrian crossings:
That photo’s off the internet, when I was there they were in need of a new coat of paint, and had lost that 3D effect.
Apparently, Boulia is also famous for its camel races, but, yeah, I didn’t see any camels, either. Had a weird dream about them, though (which I put down to an excess of sun and a schooner of beer. What can I say, we were staying in the pub).
My only concern, about an hour into the drive north out of Boulia, was an urgent one: in a landscape of unending flat scrubby plains, where the heck is one supposed to go to the toilet? Luckily, I was saved by a little place called Dajarra (population 150), which has not just one but two blocks of public toilets! The roadhouse (below) also provided a very decent egg and bacon toastie (with three slices of bacon, onions and BBQ sauce). M-mm.
Heading to Mount Isa we got into a different geology. Here we’re in metamorphic rocks, which were older sediments that have been subject to immense pressures and thrust upwards. In the roadside slopes there were all kinds of rock, from ironstone gravels to sparkling pyrite-bearing schists and dykes of pegmatite and quartz. I grabbed a few samples:
Day Four: Mount Isa (population 18,678)
Mount Isa is basically a mine with a town attached to the side. The Mount Isa inlier hosts the largest deposits of lead, zinc and silver in the continent, formed 1,650 million years ago from percolation of hot, metal-rich brines through sea-floor sediments. They also mine copper at the Enterprise mine, which is the deepest and hottest in Australia with a shaft extending to 1,900m below ground. On the drive into town we passed steel towers that are air vents for the underground workings. You can just about see the Mt Isa silver mine in the background of my photo:
I can’t say I’m too fond of Mount Isa, to be honest, though I only stayed the one night. I had time to kill in the morning before flying out, but the riverside footpath shown on the tourist map didn’t seem to exist any more. There was an acrid tinge to the air, probably from all the sulphur dioxide given off by the workings, and there were posters up with messages about “living safely with lead”.
But then I was flying home in a 34-seater SAAB, on the “milk run”, with stops at 3 towns on the way. This little place is Julia Creek, known for it’s “Dirt n Dust Festival” and triathlon:
On the 20 minute hops between towns, the plane didn’t get up to normal flying height, which meant we got bounced around by a tailwind and updrafts. A short break on the tarmac at Richmond and then up for more turbulence on the way to Hughenden. Everyone was clutching their stomachs and trying not to groan.
Overall it was an eye-opening trip, but I was pretty glad to see the (relatively) greener landscapes of home. Hope you enjoyed sharing my outback interlude.
Well, still no novel writing going on here. It’s been a difficult few weeks for me, bordering on traumatic if I’m honest, but I’m not ready to write about that yet, I’m still processing it all. Still, I wanted to write something here because… I dunno… it seems silly to have a blog and never write anything in it. So here I am.
This is my effort at a bit of pop psychology, another post related to Aspergers. Not really sure why I wanted to write it. Maybe just to understand myself better, or help you guys understand me, or in a roundabout way help you understand yourselves, from a neurodivergent point of view.
So, it happens sometimes that I’m talking to someone and their manner towards me changes and I have to think back to what I’ve said and try and work out how I’ve offended them, or what it is about my words or my manner that’s turned them off. Actually – scratch that – it doesn’t just happen sometimes, it happens a lot.
I can often work out what I did wrong, given the time and space to think about it. Too late, of course, to change that person’s perception of me; and without much hope that my no-longer-particularly-plastic brain will adjust enough to avoid repeating the mistake next time, all I can do is get frustrated with myself.
One of the mistakes I make is to be overly negative. Yeah, just like that ^^
From what I’ve read, negativity is a pretty common problem among those on the spectrum. Together with literal thinking and too much honesty, negativity and a pessimistic attitude are probably what cause us so many problems in job interviews and the like. These are behind our (perhaps justified) criticisms of previous companies/ bosses, our cautious assessment of our own abilities and ready admission of our faults.
So I’ve been mulling over why. That is to say, I’ve been thinking about why I tend towards negativity and how that ties in with my own personality, on the assumption that it might be similar for others. Let’s explore a few hypotheses:
Maybe this is how it seems to others, but no, I’m not buying it. It can’t be the whole truth because when people call me out for negativity, it usually comes as a surprise to me. Generally speaking, when I made the negative statement I wasn’t feeling particularly miserable or blue, nor was I intending to be that kill-joy who ruins the mood and gets everybody down. It’s actually rather upsetting to realise that’s the way I’ve unintentionally come across, when I was just trying to make conversation.
Admittedly, they do say depression is a common co-morbid, but not all of us are sufferers. People just mis-read us when it comes to mood, as they mis-read us in so many ways. There has to be more to it than this.
For reasons that I won’t go into here, many of us keep our emotions dialled down to zero. (Incidentally, this is why we can have trouble making decisions – because we’re trying to work through all the variables using only facts and logic, without the moderation of feelings). It also means that when we talk to you, we’re likely to favour statements of fact.
In that millisecond before an utterance passes my lips, my mind runs through a checklist, something like this: Is this statement true? Or does it fit with the available facts? Is it justifiable? Can it be logically implied? What others take as a pessimistic comment may be, for me, a simple statement of the facts as I see them.
Running through that mental checklist takes time, and people don’t want to wait forever for me to speak, so I might not finish the list. Sometimes you just have to say something, anything, before they decide you’re cognitively impaired or mute. So I might not get as far as asking myself “Is this statement appropriate in the circumstances?”
And because my emotions are dialled down to zero, I might not think to make another important check: “How is this statement going to make people feel?”
Hence you get James Damore pointing out to Google that women are less able than men to work in tech. The poor guy had the double Asperger whammy of taking Google’s freedom of speech policy literally, and no understanding that such comments, however logically justifiable, are bound to offend.
And you get me, just trying to make friendly conversation, saying something which fits my idea of truth but is implicitly (or even explicitly) critical, of others or myself.
The trouble is, people don’t want to hear uncomfortable truths; they want to feel good about themselves and about what they’re doing. They’re not going to continue a conversation that makes them feel awkward. If we want a favourable reaction, we have to make our interactions positive and uplifting.
So how to people do it? This whole positivity thing?
My argument is that I’m just as positive as anyone else on the inside. Maybe even more so. The issue is one of communication, of displaying that positivity externally by communicating in a socially acceptable way. Hence my argument is that positivity is not only a mindset but also a social skill. And social skills can be learnt, in theory.
I say “in theory” because I’m a little cautious, nowadays, in assessing my ability to improve my social skills. I guess years of trying and failing have taken a toll. It’s tempting to just give up.
So when I read this paper on the value of learning to reframe negative statements more positively, my first thoughts were cynical. It’s hard to believe such a simple technique, learnt over a few 10-minute sessions, could have long-term beneficial effects.
But perhaps I should re-phrase that:
Experience has made me cautious about the benefit of social skills interventions, but what do I have to lose? This reframing may be worth a try.
I know it’s been a while. That was me puzzling over whether to keep going with a “writer’s blog” during a prolonged period of not actually writing.
Finally figured I might as well keep blogging my thoughts on things, even if I go way off the original topic. In fact, topics will probably jump around all over the place, because I guess that’s what my mind does.
Right now, I feel like showing you some of the prints and posters and stuff I have in my bedroom, and what they mean to me. Hope you enjoy.
I got two more posters yesterday, so I’ve got a few blue-tacked up there now. (And if you’re wondering why I still stick up posters like an adolescent instead of buying ‘grown-up’ art, all I can say is I just impulse buy what I see, and I don’t visit art galleries nearly as often as I walk through shopping centres).
This one is not a poster, it’s a print and I can’t remember where it came from, though the name might be a clue – “Islet in the Terraced Rice Fields of Bali”:
Sorry about the reflections on the photo, I tried holding up a dark jacket behind me to block them out, but without success. I don’t have curtains in my room (it’s a sleep cycle thing). Anyway, I love looking at this one because of the patterns of the contours. It connects with my love of nature and natural patterns, and also my abiding interest in landform and maps. Doubly whammy!
For similar reasons, I have a poster of Hokusai’s “The Great Wave”:
With this one, the interest is more in the artist’s unique rendering of the natural patterns, with the wave-foam appearing like hundreds of grasping fingers. This artwork has been quoted as an illustration of the fractal nature of the world, with its wavelets on top of waves. How can you not love that?
Here’s the other new one I got, I don’t know who the artist was for this, but it’s published by Reindersposters with the title “Where’s the bike gone?”:
This is another double whammy one, for me. Partly it’s a pattern and colour thing, that just attracts my eye and encourages me to get lost in the details. Looking at it, I get a feeling like a meditation within the boundaries between the real and the artistic, the solid and the abstract. PLUS it’s got a bicycle in. So I like bicycles, OK?
Couldn’t resist a Lord of the Rings poster, could I?
I’m told this one is quite horrible, and I can see what people mean. There are a few dead orcs lying around, and the artist has a weird take on eyes.
But I like seeing a pre-movie interpretation of the characters. It reminds me of why I love reading books so much – every story can be interpreted a hundred different ways. The Lord of the Rings tale that lives in my head is unique to me, it’s mine alone, the tale to rule them all, my precious.
The artwork’s a bit crude in this one, but I appreciate the sentiment. I am, you see, a deeply happy person.
Which probably surprises you, because I know I come across as negative, and it’s true I always consider the downsides, the risks more than the rewards. And I do struggle with the overwhelming complexity of the world, and with people and their expectations.
But I do take enormous joy from the world and I do, essentially, like people. This is a reminder that it might be worth expressing that, now and then.
This little artwork I picked in Bali years ago I never framed so it’s now a bit worse for wear (yes, it is curled, and yes, that is dust on the bottom).
I’ve kept it because I like it, and I’m not even sure why. Might be a pattern thing again.
Or maybe it’s just for the memories. Pushing the little hired jeep up the slope from the beach. Buying enormous green mangoes from a stall beside the road. Hiking up a volcano and eating a breakfast of ginger tea and eggs cooked in a steam vent. Watching the dancers in Ubud. Good times.
And here’s my dreamcatcher ->
As usual, I am years behind the trends, buying my first dreamcatcher just when they’ve become totally passe. But that’s me, I live a decade or two behind the times.
I just think this one is incredibly beautiful. Don’t you?
Thanks for joining me on a tour of my bedroom, see you later!
What the hell am I even doing?
That was my thought as I sent an email to work, requesting a special consideration for my ASD.
Considering I only just got the permanent job and am still on probation, it felt stupidly impulsive. And I can be impulsive, I’ll be first to admit that, but I’m pretty sure I’m not stupid. Yes, okay, I now accept that I have a developmental disorder, that I might not be quite up where I should be on a social and emotional level, but I’m not stupid. There’s always a reason.
This one dates back 5 years. Being a ‘live-in-the-present’ sort of person, I rarely think back to the past and have a terrible memory (probably atrophied from lack of use 😀 ), so I can’t recall exactly what happened. All I know is I took time off work because I’d lost the ability to cope, I was burnt out. And what I do remember was not understanding how that could have happened, because I actually enjoyed my job, I liked my colleagues, and I wasn’t under a particularly heavy workload – it just made no sense whatsoever.
Now, after reading about others’ experiences with autistic burn-out, the picture is clear. This is what happens to those of us who remain undiagnosed by mid-life, the ones with mild traits, who’ve learnt to mask their difficulties and live a normal life. Normal activities for others can be uncomfortable for us, they create a little extra stress. Over time, it builds up. Maybe I’d just been juggling too many projects, going to a few too many client meetings, maybe I’d lost my head altogether and attempted to engage in verbal negotiations. Repressed autism demands payback.
Well, now I have another job, and I’m enjoying it even more than the last. The work is right up my street and my colleagues are great. I felt comfortable enough to disclose my ASD to my line manager and his reaction was just like my parents, a non-plussed: ‘but there’s nothing really wrong with you, is there?’ Which is good, because that’s where I want to be at, and how I want to be perceived.
Sitting there at the back of my mind is fear. Not fear of how I might be perceived, it’s greater than that. It’s fear of losing it all – the job, the colleagues, my self-esteem, everything, through another burn-out. I’m willing to do just about anything to avoid that.
So what can I do? I figured the only way is to increase self-awareness of my limitations and do my best to stay within them. I need to recognise the situations that cause me stress and instead of just “sucking it up” as I would have in the past, I need to learn how to avoid them. I have to stop pretending I can do the same as everyone else without consequences. Basically, I have to loosen up my self-control and allow myself to be more autistic.
So that’s why, when something at work was bothering me, when I was put in a situation which I felt I should have been able to handle – which anybody else would have been able to handle – but which was actually stressing me out, I gave in. Well, I tried making it a suggestion. Then I tried outright asking for what I wanted. And when nobody was getting it – because how could they? It wasn’t a problem for anyone else – I sent an email essentially saying, ‘I’m on the spectrum, this is an issue for me, and I need your support’.
It felt bad, having to do that. ‘Uncomfortable’ doesn’t even begin to describe the feeling, the uncertainty and vulnerability. The trouble is, I know how bizarre this must seem to others, that someone who seems to be normal and capable might suddenly start claiming to be autistic and in need of special treatment. Too weird, right? It wouldn’t surprise me if they start thinking me to be – I don’t know – self-serving? Attention-seeking? Mentally unstable?
But this is what it is to have ASD, isn’t it? Being Asperger is to be chronically misunderstood. We do things that are perceived as odd and defy expectations. What people don’t understand is that, just because we have trouble expressing why we do what we do, just because it makes no sense in their eyes, doesn’t mean there’s no reason.
There’s always a reason.