The dead mouse story.

The dead mouse story.

Central to this story is how little I can cope with dead things. Sure, not many people are great when confronted with death of any sort, but for me it lingers closer to the ‘phobia’ end of the discomfort scale. Even insects, I can’t bear to touch them if they’re dead. I’m perfectly happy to chat to a live spider; dead spiders give me chills and a deep sense that I’m about to be sick.

This is largely why I can’t stomach meat that still contains bones, or dishes that look like the animal they once were. If it wasn’t for the fact that you can strip away the bones and identifying features and be left with a piece of meat that looks like food and not an animal, I would undoubtedly be a vegetarian. It takes everything I’ve got just to dispose of chicken bones.

It’s a sensory trigger that, when I encounter something that is not a plain meat, my brain screams DANGER THIS IS NOT FOOD or THIS USED TO BE ALIVE. The repulsion that goes with it is so strong that it will end in me being physically sick.

So that about describes how little I cope with the presence of dead things.

When I moved into my new house, the silence began to bother me. I’ve never lived completely on my own, so being the only one moving about and making noise was both lonely and weird. The lawns were overgrown before I got the keys and cut not long before, removing any little homes creatures had made in the backyard while the house lay vacant.

Which is how I came to know Giles, a mouse who took up residence in my rundown little house around the same time as I did. I didn’t name him at the time. I’ve posthumously named him for the purposes of this blog in the hope a name brings empathy from readers, rather than the usual ‘mouse? Gross!’ response. It may help you understand how I got weirdly attached to this fellow.

I noticed him first when he scurried from the second bedroom, and toward the lounge room. At the time, I had no furniture to speak of, so I was sat leaning against the wall with a pillow from my bed as a cushion. My computer sprawled out on the carpet in front of me. He stopped at the entrance to the lounge, froze on the threshold between kitchen and my very unexpected presence.

We stared at each other for a long moment, and he raced back past the bathroom into the other bedroom. The sound he made was almost comforting, there was another soul in the house and even if it was a rodent that took the edge off an otherwise empty house.

Our exchanges were mostly like that. Caught unexpected, staring at one another and daring the other to move first. We came to a tentative truce. There were no signs of rodents in my kitchen, no nibbles to the boxes of muesli bars, no tell-tale droppings. For so long as that remained true, and Giles’s presence did not interfere with my ability to keep a clean and healthy house, I would take no action.

He was no pet, though. I didn’t encourage him to stay. I suppose that both the mouse and I lived our lives around the house, quietly hoping that if we were patient long enough the other would choose to leave. A fortnight later, I returned from work to find the edge of a bag of hot cross buns nibbled and crumbs across the bench.

I wish he hadn’t done that. I didn’t want to actively destroy him.

The next day, I purchased rat bait. My next fear became finding him on the floor, contorted in death–the thought made me feel ill–or worse, not finding him until the stench of decomposing rodent reached me from whatever crevice he had made his tomb. Every hour that I didn’t see him after that, I felt guilt ball in my stomach. Every time I saw him again, I felt relief that he wasn’t yet dead–and woe at this problem I still had to deal with.

A week after placing the bait, I was putting away fresh washed cutlery when Giles stumbled across the counter. Literally stumbled, as though he were drunk. We stared at each other again, and I pondered my next move. This was a chance to try and remove him from the house properly, but how?

I started with a shopping bag. Standard, thin plastic disposable bag from a recent lot of groceries. Then, with a cup I’d been planning to toss out anyway, I half-scooped half-flicked him into the bag and dropped the cup in alongside him. It was almost too easy. I tied the top of the bag, and stared at it.

Now I had Giles in a plastic shopping bag–where to from here? I bolted for the front door and threw the bundle out onto the dark front lawn.

There.

He was out of my house.

I relayed the events to a friend online, who firmly reminded me that Giles was not incapable of chewing through that thin plastic. By morning he would be out and back inside. She was right. I retrieved the bag from the front yard and contemplated my options again.

A swift knock to the head would be humane, if I did it right. What if I didn’t? What if I did it too well? My mind’s ear played a series of sickening cracks while I imagined his tiny crushed skull inside the plastic. No. I couldn’t physically do it. I needed to make sure he couldn’t get out.

I put the bag inside another bag, and tied it up. And those bags into third bag and tied that too. The plastic was not airtight, it punctured and ripped easily. I knew that from my years working in supermarkets. How many bags would be enough to ensure he was secure? Ten?

I settled on fifteen.

At some point it dawned on me that he would starve to death, and this was hideously cruel of me. I dropped rat bait into one of the layers, like cyanide for a spy taken hostage. He had a quicker way out should he need it.

The completed package I dropped into the black bin outside, and returned to the house to curl up over the monster I had become and try to assure myself that I’d done nothing more than try and maintain a healthy home.

It didn’t help much. The silence in the house echoed and expanded more with my guilt.

At first I thought I was imagining the second mouse, a hallucination driven by a desperate need to believe that I hadn’t ended Giles in a terrible way. I only saw this mouse, Giles II, in the spare bedroom and it was only after three sightings that I believed he was actually there.

The bait had not worked it seemed, and I had no opportunity to capture him in the way I did his predecessor. Reluctantly, I resolved that I would ask my local pest controller (who also happens to be my father) for rat bait more effective than the pellets I’d bought from the supermarket.

I didn’t get the chance.

This morning, while I wandered the house with a bowl of porridge in hand, trying to eat and dress myself for work simultaneously, I noticed an unusual lump on the lounge room carpet just by the TV cabinet. It hadn’t been there yesterday.

There lay Giles II, twisted with his front claws in the air, head tilted back, and deathly still. I felt porridge rise in my mouth, shock trembling through my body, I turned away and steadied myself at the kitchen counter. I had ten minutes before I had to leave.

All sorts of desperate plans came to mind. I couldn’t leave the body in the house like that, I could not walk out that door until it was somewhere that I didn’t have to look at it. I couldn’t use my computer, which sits atop the cabinet Giles II died beside. I couldn’t even cross the room to get my watch, which I wanted to wear to work.

And no one would be able to help me before I was horribly late for work.

I took a tea towel from off the oven, an old one, closing my eyes to drop it on the floor around where I remembered the body being. It floated and missed the first time, so I snatched it back up and tried again, still avoiding looking properly. The second drop was a success, and now I could at least enter the room without bolts of shock and disgust zapping my system.

Next, I found a bowl that I didn’t love, placing it over the raised lump beneath the tea towel. I didn’t want to feel the shape of Giles II under the fabric. I was willing to sacrifice crockery to that effect. In some of my unpacking I’d also found a magazine that had been kept for unknown reasons and was already marked for the bin–this I used to scoop the tea towel under the bowl and lift it all without exposing Giles II.

Poor Giles II, the bowl, the tea towel and the magazine all went into a plastic shopping bag, tied and into the black bin. Thankfully it’s also bin day and the truck hadn’t been yet. I scrubbed my hands and walked to work where I scrubbed my hands again, and then sanitised them with the alcohol-based gel at the register.

When the shock wore off, along with the sadness (I wasn’t as attached to Giles II as I was to Giles, but you’ve probably guessed by now that I don’t enjoy causing harm to anyone or anything) was a note of pride. Unexpected dead mouse in the living room is a good reason for a pretty extreme meltdown.

I faltered. It certainly knocked me, and I was still reeling a bit even while at work.

But I dealt with today’s problem in just under twenty minutes, so around the same time as you’d expect for the average comedy episode.

 

Uncomfortably rewarding: why I don’t hide the bad days online.

Uncomfortably rewarding: why I don’t hide the bad days online.

Over the past few months, I’ve come to alter the way that I blog and the way that I utilise my personal social media to show a more ‘balanced’ account of my experiences. We’re all guilty of posting only the best photos, of keeping our darkest moments to ourselves in an effort not to make those who follow us uncomfortable. I made the choice to break away from the ‘good-only’ approach to social media very consciously, but why?

When my experiences are good, I have the ultimate freedom to express them entirely. But when they’re bad? It’s a very public, and at times very uncomfortable, way to suffer.

Perhaps there are people who read this and think I’m utterly batshit for putting this material on the internet, where it can be found by people in my physical world (I link to each blog through my personal accounts, and there are other snippets of brutal honesty that go only to those accounts). What I post can be found by anyone who chooses to look: friends, family, potential employers, inter-dimensional beings from a future as yet undiscovered…

Am I mad for doing this? Probably. It’s a well certified fact that I am, in fact, delightfully weird. It’s not by chance though, it’s a decision I’ve made and followed through with after deciding the benefits significantly outweigh the potential for my writing to backfire on me.

First and foremost, I do it for me.

I would love to say that it’s based on some selfless desire to help others find their way through their own rough patches, but that would be a lie. The process of writing out and posting the good and bad in equal measure has become a method of self-care and healing.

Just writing out my experiences of the day takes the thoughts out of my head (where they are often whirling around in manic circles and refusing to find resolution) and into logical sentences. Once they’re out, I can begin letting them go.

Writing also forces me to think logically, to step back and analyse what happened and from that perspective I begin to see the alternate paths that weren’t immediately obvious at the time. Recognising those after the fact isn’t a bad thing–those choices are more evident the next time that situation rolls around, and I have avoided repeating situations because I know I have options. Writing also helps me cement information in my long term memory, so the lessons I learn are rarely forgotten.

It also provides an ongoing account of who I am at a given time, allowing me to look back and see the sort of progress that is invisible day-to-day.

The writing alone is only one part of the process. If it was, I could just as easily keep a diary and be done with it.

There’s a unique sense of responsibility that appears when I post something online. I have stated to the world that this is happening, and when the situation is an unpleasant one, it puts increased pressure on me to resolve the situation. Much like a writer might feel the need to resolve a plot point after a cliff hanger, even if no one reads a single word I write–the words are out there. The story must move on, must show progress, and it’s up to me to take actions that move toward a better point in the ‘plot’.

This is why you’ll often see a ‘balancing’ post after my less positive entries. I feel this weird drive to look deeper and find the better side of things, to share that reality alongside whatever self-indulgent misery I’ve put forth. While I do that as a responsibility to the ‘audience’, it balances my brain as well. If this was just a diary, there wouldn’t be that drive. In fact, without the public nature of social media, this would read more like a My Chemical Romance album.

It would be the opposite of the ‘only good’ social media view, it would be the ‘all bad’ private thoughts of depression. Neither is the whole person, and the latter is a mental trap too easy to fall into.

Social media also provides me with a platform through which I can explain myself in the best way I know how: through text.

I don’t give away a lot in my expressions. I especially don’t like to talk about how I’m feeling when how I feel isn’t good. The words don’t like to come together, I don’t like bringing the mood down, and if I’m in someone’s company I’d much rather be distracted and enjoying myself than talking about things I struggle with. I also have this horrible habit of breaking into tears whenever I feel ‘exposed’ in conversation. Text allows some distance and ability to craft explanations that are coherent.

This communicative impairment doesn’t discriminate. If I’m talking openly about these sorts of topics, it’s because I’ve either reached breaking point (with the accompanying emotional explosion), I’m drunk (I talk far too much when I’m drunk. Just ask my brother-in-law!), or I am pushing myself (or being pushed) well beyond my comfort zone. This is just a function of who I am, and finding ways to communicate around it has helped immensely. It’s unlikely I’ll ever be comfortable with direct conversation regarding myself.

But once I have written about something, and posted it publicly, the nature of the information changes. It goes from ‘innermost private thoughts’ (and I am an intensely private person) to ‘information in the public domain’. Everyone I meet theoretically could have read the material, and I should expect to discuss it. I am prepared to discuss it. I have considered it deeply, I have opinions and ideas and further solutions that occurred to me after the time of writing.

Posting publicly effectively releases the privacy of my own thoughts and puts them in reach of open discussion. The more I do it, the more I’ve begun to feel comfortable discussing content that I haven’t posted. That has been amazing.

Being brutally honest about how I feel and why has been an exercise in freedom.

The secondary benefit is in how others respond to my writing.

It may not be what I seek to get out of this process of honesty, but each comment or like  or mention I get from someone who identified with my writing is the best bonus I could ask for. I never set out to inspire people (and I find it ridiculously humbling when I’m told that I have provided inspiration. Who, me? I’m a wreck half the time!).

All I aim to do is provide an account of who and how I am, as I go from good to bad and back again. The idea is to demonstrate to myself that there is no situation so bad that I won’t come back out of it stronger, so if that is reaching others and helping them feel the same? I’m pretty pleased with that.

It is a terrifying thing to do sometimes, to expose the complex and often confused nature of my thoughts. On some level I do feel an obligation to do it. As someone who was given an ability to communicate in written word to not use that ability to describe my experience (especially the features of my Aspergers/Autism) seems like a gross waste of ability.

The rewards of this public honesty have been huge. Even on my worst days, I feel more my ‘authentic self’ than I have in too long. It’s my life and it won’t be sunshine and rainbows all day every day, there will be posts that come that are uncomfortable and miserable. That’s life, regardless of mental state.

What’s important is that a better post will always be coming, and I look forward to sharing those immensely. I never did this in the expectation that my posts would be actually read, either, but I appreciate everyone following along on this quirky journey. You make it extra worth the effort!

Fantastically weird: why I’ll always love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

Fantastically weird: why I’ll always love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

I never believed in grieving for celebrities. How could you miss someone who’d never truly been present in your life? The belief was, as all beliefs are, inherently flawed.

Presence is more than a physical proximity. It’s more, even, than a direct and personal communication. Presence occurs when your life is influenced, for better or worse, by another being.

But I never truly understood this until the passing of Sir Terry Pratchett.

As I’ve described many times through this blog, I was a strange child. I knew I was strange. I saw the world in weird and colourful ways; I had a habit of looking at situations sideways and that confused my peers. In social constructs where clinging to ‘sameness’ was the method of survival, this left me weak. I was vulnerable for my crime of too much imagination, for my love of learning and stories and for pondering what my beloved cats got up to while I was not around.

I established books as my ‘safe place’ early in life. A book was a whole world you could fall into, cast off the noise of reality and be consumed by a life of adventure and magic. Like Bastian Balthazar Bux in The NeverEnding Story, I escaped to places where I could imagine myself as strong, capable, even heroic. There was a freedom I had between pages that I didn’t have in my primary school life. Stories were a coping mechanism, a joy, a proof that maybe… just maybe there really was a cupboard out there that would turn my toys to life (The Indian in the Cupboard was another key favourite.

Even as indoctrinated in the ordinary magic of books as I was, nothing quite prepared me for my first plunge into Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.

It happened by accident.

Mum, being the conscientious parent she was, took us to the library as often as possible. I would borrow huge stacks of books to devour, and then return late. We had a strict lights-off time at our house, and after I’d been caught pretending to use the toilet so I would have light to read, I sought a new solution to the ever-increasing problem of so many stories, so little time to read.

Audio books!

I went through dozens before I picked up a brightly coloured cassette cover with the title Interesting Times. I’d never heard of the author. It was read by Tony Robinson, though, who I knew as Baldrick from Blackadder and the Sheriff of Rottingham in Maid Marian and her Merry Men. I liked his voice, so I borrowed it.

I was eleven years old, I had not long changed schools, and I was truly beginning to feel that I was made in the wrong shape for this world. I was weird. Two schools confirmed it. But just four cassettes later (alas, I began with an abridged reading!) I was on a path to change the shape of the world around me.

Delivered in Tony Robinson’s uniquely expressive voice came ideas so marvellously twisted, yet so logical, I might have thought the same if given time. Here was the world as viewed by someone who also saw magic in the mundane, who also pondered the most bizarre ‘what ifs’. Most importantly:

Here was someone who had committed their weird view to paper, and who was not ashamed of it.

This was the first spark of belief that weird could be wonderful. I wasn’t the wrong shape for this world–the world was any damned shape you like, you only had to look to see it. If the people around me were only able to cling to what was safe and acceptable, this didn’t have to be my problem.

It took many more  years to be solid in that belief, but this was a beginning. This was proof. It wasn’t the same magic of the fantasy novels I consumed by the dozen, it was something more. I would always be enchanted by magical realms far removed from our own, but I didn’t connect with the authors of those in the way I did with Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett offered me the world I saw. A more colourful and curious version of reality, with characters so fantastical and yet so human (or inhuman as the case often was) that if I squinted through my eyelashes they might almost exist on this plane beside me. He took supermarket trolleys, sports, music, libraries, law enforcement and all manner of other ‘normal’, ‘boring’ things and gave them a twist of magic.

I was not the only person to have looked at an abandoned supermarket trolley, and wonder: how do they all get so far from their stores, and why?

I was not the only person to have thought up a bizarre and entirely unrealistic (yet somehow completely logical) answer.

Through his writing I began to realise that there must be others out there too. Yet more people who cherished the quirky and strange, and the way that the most unreal scenarios could explain us in a very real way. I picked up PyramidsGuards! Guards!, and Wyrd Sisters. Most books held me spellbound, testing the limits of my sideways thinking, they were more than stories. Some were mental exercises in themselves as his intricate plots twisted together in the most unexpected ways to form a conclusion.

And I wrote. I mimicked his style. In high school I began to truly find others who valued my quirks, and for them I wrote a series of stories in The Bare-footed Princesses series. Mostly they were terrible, full of in-jokes and my attempts to recreate the balance of warped reality, humor and drama that I found in Pratchett’s work. For all the hack-job writing these stories contained at the time, my friends enjoyed them.

My weirdness was appreciated.

His death hit me hard. I woke that morning, readied myself to leave the house–and checked Facebook. After digesting the news, I slowly dressed myself back in my pyjamas, crawled into bed, and resumed sleeping. I suppose part of me hoped that if I started the day again, it wouldn’t be true.

But it was. One of the fundamental building blocks from my childhood and teenage years was gone.

It’s likely I would have found other paths to accepting myself, these things are rarely denied for a lifetime. In this trouser leg, in this timeline, I developed faith in these key parts of myself through the work of Terry Pratchett.

I have most of the books now, and some (one or two) are unread. I may leave them unread for years to come. I rather like the idea that there’s still more pages out there of his that I haven’t consumed. A little bit left for later—whenever later comes.

Grief for an artist is strange, though. I am sad that we’ll never know what other strange and magical ideas he may have had. Perhaps we don’t grieve so much the person, but the impossibility of continued fresh material. What already is, will remain.

What already is, sits in libraries and in book shops. It waits. Not dead, not sleeping. Not even dormant. Each word is still as miraculous as it was the day I first read them, and will be to every reader who sees the world different and feels they are alone for it.

He may be gone, but the words, and his weird, live on.

On a hard road to a better place.

On a hard road to a better place.

The moral of today’s story is that no one knows your body and brain the way that you do, and it’s extremely important to back yourself if you don’t think a solution is working for you.

In the case of medical and psychological issues, your doctor can advise on the best course of action–but cannot intimately know the response (or lack of) from that action. This goes double for illnesses like depression and anxiety which are not as measurable as other physical conditions.

This doesn’t mean ignore the advice of your doctor. Your responsibility as a patient is to adhere to your treatment plan and keep your doctor informed as your body responds to treatment; the doctor’s responsibility is to evaluate the effectiveness of the treatment and determine if or how it should be changed.

When any part of that process breaks down, the well being of the patient is compromised.

I was first diagnosed with severe anxiety disorders in 2010, but it wasn’t until mid-2011 that I accepted medication as part of my treatment plan. The choice to take medication for a psychological disorder is deeply personal, and my first strategy was to see if counselling alone would work.

It helped to a point, but the reality was that the chemical balance in my brain didn’t allow enough space between a ‘trigger’ event or thought and the panic that trigger produced. Coping with anxiety is almost a sport–you see a ball coming at you, and in a split second you need to decide how to move your body in order to catch that ball successfully. Or be hit in the face with it. For me, medication slowed that process down enough that I was able to look objectively at the triggers and the thoughts that occurred, and deal with them in a rational way–before the panic hit my system.

In other words, I had the time to catch the ball.

My initial refusal was based on the belief that medication only offered the option to ‘numb out’ the feelings of anxiety or depression. I never wanted that. I wanted to learn how to cope with the onslaught of triggers and process them in a healthier way. This was (and still is) the over-arching goal of my mental health plan: to develop mental strength with the assistance of medication in the aim to be able to complete the same processes without it.

That is my goal, and those are my reasons for choosing medication. I don’t seek to judge anyone who chooses against it, nor do I judge those who accept they may never be without it. Those choices are entirely theirs to make, and if it helps them live well, that is what matters.

Initially I was prescribed Lovan (also known as Prozac).

Actually–that’s incorrect. My first script was for Lexapro, but within an hour of my first dose (which was a sub-therapeutic dose) I had an intense adverse reaction. But for the fact I lived at the time with a former ER nurse, I might have gone to the hospital. I was sick for three days. The dizziness was so intense that I couldn’t handle being upright, and had to half-crawl half-slither to the toilet to avoid passing out or vomiting. My very bones felt sore. It was like the world’s worst hangover met man flu.

I spent three days in bed, eating very small plain meals, and watching the Babar movie–a DVD I’d bought some months ago for the nostalgia.

I was terrified to go back to my doctor for another devil treatment. Fortunately, supportive friends dug their heels in and marched me back where I explained to my GP the incredibly bad reaction (which she didn’t seem to think was possible on such a low dose, but I wouldn’t accept any future in which I persisted with the medication). Then I was prescribed Lovan.

Adjusting to Lovan was an odd experience. I suppose it was unpleasant, I was quite nauseous (not to the level I was with that single dose of Lexapro, but enough to feel queasy at the thought of food and my appetite was greatly reduced), shaky, and felt ‘off the planet’ more often than not. Luckily I was on holidays, I don’t know how I would have coped physically in my job at the time. But mentally, the adjustment phase was really no comparison to the hyper intense anxiety that I was experiencing at the time.

Then one day… it was like…

Okay, this metaphor is going to get giggles, but it was like I could finally take my bra off.

Bra-wearers everywhere know there’s a unique sense of relief when you finally get home, put your feet up, and undo the blasted thing. Air rushes into your lungs, you feel free and unrestricted. And comfortable.

For the first time in a long time, I felt comfortable. I could breathe. The shaking in my hands stopped, I no longer felt that I was a split second away from tears or anger. I had the space to process my environment and turn away the thoughts that gave me trouble. With the help of an excellent clinical psychologist, I began cognitive behavioural therapy, where she taught me how to identify what was meaningful and what was not. How to retain control of myself in a situation where I could control nothing else.

My most memorable conversation was after a workplace incident where a senior staff member had upset me to the point where I’d had an intense panic attack. Just an hour into my eight hour shift I went home. I told this story to my psychologist, sure that she would validate my course of action. Instead, she said something I’ll never forget.

“You let that woman steal seven hours pay from you?”

The next week, instead of going home sick again, I spoke with my manager about the incident and with her help resolved to no longer be on the same shift as that staff member. Learning to think logically about the world, about the choices I could make for myself internally and externally, has played a huge part in how I react to depression and anxiety now.

Whether I could have achieved the same without the Lovan is difficult to say. I certainly don’t think I could have done it as fast, or as effectively without it.

The problem with psychological medication, even a very effective one, is that they often cease being effective. This occurred around two years into my taking Lovan. My dose had been increased once when it first became apparent that I was ceasing to function, and as the symptoms persisted my doctor and I made the choice to try a different product.

I was put on Effexor XR, 75mg daily. The process of weaning off Lovan and stepping onto the Effexor XR was horrible. Lovan requires extra time to exit the system, due to how it metabolises in the body. Over a period of three weeks, I changed medications. I remember it keenly, because I was at this time having more difficulties at work (at a new store I’d recently transferred to). I was still seeing my psychologist when I could afford to.

But I didn’t feel any sense of relief from the Effexor XR. There was no ‘bra off’ moment. The side effects of adjusting to the medication ceased, but that was about it. My life hit a smoother patch, and it wasn’t until the next difficult moment that I sought my doctor’s advice again.

I stated in that appointment that I didn’t feel any effect from the medication. My anxiety had remained low, but depressive symptoms were more evident than ever. I’d left my long-time job as a supermarket cashier and was struggling in a job with another company that refused to give me reliable hours. My doctor suggested that the difficulty was coming from there, and not from the medication being ineffective.

This is where I should have first stuck up for myself. Yes, my circumstances were difficult–and absolutely that was having a strong influence on my mental state. However, I knew the difference between how I had felt in rough times on Lovan, and how it felt now. When Lovan had been effective, I had the ability to function in spite of circumstances. At the time of the appointment with my doctor, I was crumbling under them. Mental strategies I had worked on with my psychiatrist weren’t able to help, as I didn’t have the ‘space’ around the problem to process it effectively.

The doctor said persist, so I persisted with the Effexor XR.

Around a year after first being prescribed Effexor XR, I moved interstate and back in with my parents. Not long after that, I sought out a doctor for support in dealing with the same anxiety and depression that had been present since stepping off the Lovan. As with anything, it came in waves and breaks that let me feel like I was okay for a time, but it always returned with great intensity. This was the primary reason that I argued the Effexor XR was ineffective–why was I experiencing such catastrophic recurring depression while on a medication designed specifically to alleviate that?

This new doctor agreed, and looking at my prescription, was confused. The dose I’d been on for over a year was (according to her) a dose only given for a week or so as patients adjusted to the medication. Normally it was doubled once the system began to tolerate it, and what I had been taking all this time was not enough to be therapeutic. She immediately doubled my dose, and once again–I felt no better or worse.

I still don’t know what is ‘high’ or ‘low’ for Effexor XR. At another appointment, with another doctor (once I finally found a doctor in my hometown that I felt comfortable with), I broached the subject of switching my medication. I was now on 150mg daily, which according to this doctor was ‘quite high’ and she was very cautious of upping it any further. She supplied me with a list of medications that she believed might be worth looking into. As some of them are not eligible for the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (the system that subsidises medications in Australia) she suggested I investigate them and decide which I would like to try next.

This is really when I should have acted, as here was a doctor that believed I was feeling no benefit from Effexor XR and was prepared to assist me through switching to a new medication. The timing, though, was bad–in that same week I got an offer for a full-time dream job. If I switched medication, I would be in the worst stages of withdrawal and adjustment at the exact point I started work. I put it off, and when life got smoother again I forgot about it.

As you do, when things are going well. You assume it isn’t broken.

But the cycle repeats, and repeats–the new job caused additional symptoms to surface, and I obtained a referral to a psychiatrist. I wanted to start from the beginning, to explain everything to an expert in medicine and psychology. I didn’t feel my medication was working, and I hoped that he would be able to help devise a treatment plan that better addressed my areas of concern.

For an exorbitant amount of money, what I got was a diagnosis of depression, a strong implication that it came from some sort of family abuse, and a script for a higher dose of Effexor XR. I left feeling cheated. Not only did I already know I had depression, I knew that of all the possible root causes, my family was not one.

From the beginning of our session he questioned my relationship with my family, and kept returning to that same line of questioning over and over. I could almost see his conclusion in his eyes, this dead-set belief that I had been abused as a child but wouldn’t admit to it. Nothing could be further from the truth. I may have felt disconnected at times, but never unloved or unwanted. Yet he persisted with this idea, and more than that–he pointedly dismissed any concerns I brought up as ‘part of who I am’.

Most of these concerns I now know to be Aspergers/Autism, but this psychiatrist was determined to reach the answer he wanted. I took my new script, and refused to book a second session on the way out. He had nothing of value to offer. I probably should have refused to take more Effexor XR as well. My dose was now 225mg daily.

And it still. Did. Nothing.

The troubling reality is that for over three years now, I have been taking this medication for one reason: to avoid going into withdrawal. It has created its own need. In those three years I’ve not experienced any relief that wasn’t also tied to significantly smoother life circumstances, I have not weathered any storms better than I would have without it, and while I pride myself on being strong (and I have survived and accomplished a lot!) not one bit of it has been due to the medication.

No doubt Effexor XR is a miracle and life saver for others, but it hasn’t been for me. The tendency for doctors to simply up the dosage and hope for the best is typical of psychiatric treatment, and not the fault of doctors themselves. Everyone responds differently to different levels of different medications. Perhaps at 225mg I would have experienced relief, the only way to know what is effective is to see what happens.

Finding the right medication is a little bit of knowledge, a fair amount of trial and error, and an enormous amount of luck.

This time, I’ve tried a different approach. I know that I experience both depression and anxiety, and they feed off each other. They both feed off negative obsessive thoughts, usually to do with low self worth. I have a number of other obsessive traits, and a number of compulsive traits that do make things challenging.

For instance, I currently have it in my head that I’m going to make cookies. I can’t do it right this minute, because I don’t have the necessary resources. But I can’t get the thought and the desire to make cookies out of my head, and this obsessive thought triggers the compulsion to buy anything and everything needed to make cookies. Even if I think I have something already at home, I buy it anyway.

But I may not actually make the cookies for months. I might even know while I’m buying these items that I won’t have the desire or drive to actually bake for quite some time, but I need to get the resources now.

And this happens with everything. I decide I want to have a nice bath, so I purchase all sorts of bath goods. Tools for a new hobby. New sketch books, pencils, clothes for a particular occasion, make up, kitchen items, I become obsessed with completing these arbitrary ‘collections’ that I need to achieve a particular task that my mind won’t let go of.

The cookies are just one example–and I will make them, I am damned determined to now, of how these obsessive thoughts can drive compulsive behaviour. Now imagine that same level of obsession as it focuses on negative factors of the self, as it takes anxiety triggers and refuses to let go of them.

I believe that the key to alleviating both my depression and anxiety is in reducing that obsessive thought pattern. I can effectively refuse the arguments put forward by the obsessive thinking, but I’m not able to stop the thoughts from returning. It is a function of Aspergers/Autism, so it’s unlikely that I will ever completely free myself of it, but I can learn to reduce the severity and the effects.

This is something I will address with my psychologist, but as I am also looking to move away from Effexor XR, I did some investigation into what medications other female aspies found useful.

I found the results… very interesting. I read a lot of accounts from women who had found Lovan/Prozac effective for a limited time, and who had negative experiences on Effexor XR. This validated my belief that from the very start I didn’t feel it was working as intended. Many of these women had come to the same point of taking Effexor XR to avoid going into withdrawal.

I will repeat again, though: Effexor XR is an excellent medication when it works for you. None of this is evidence that it doesn’t work, just that there are people for whom it is less effective. Trust your body! Only you truly know if it is working or not.

I read on to discover what medications these women had switched to, whether they had found anything that was equally or more effective than they had found Lovan to be. Most of them mentioned sertraline, marketed as Zoloft.

Interestingly, Zoloft is especially effective in reducing obsessive and compulsive behaviour, which I have identified as a key factor in how my anxiety and depression develops.

So back to the doctor, this time armed with information and a direct request to be put on Zoloft. After taking everything into account, she agreed that Effexor XR was absolutely not working for me, and that Zoloft was a good logical choice. I feel especially confident with this choice, which may be more effective than any active ingredient. Even if the result is a placebo effect, it will be an effect that benefits my life–and that is worth it.

This is my last week of taken Effexor XR. Withdrawal from Effexor XR is… horrible. I have missed doses, had situations where I was unable to get my script filled in time, and it hits you like a truck within hours. Because I am still taking some, it hasn’t quite hit yet. I’m not looking forward to when it does.

Dizziness, nausea, ‘body zaps’, extreme irritability, elevated anxiety and intense mood swings are just some of the things I can look forward to on my journey this week. But, as I am currently working fewer hours due to circumstances beyond my control, now is the time to do it. The adjustment to Zoloft will be similarly unpleasant. Anyone who thinks that medicating a mental illness is an ‘easy way out’ has no idea what is truly involved.

There is nothing easy about adjusting to psychiatric medicine. It takes weeks of feeling like hell, and only after months do you see any true result. If you see a result.

But the rewards outweigh the risks, in my opinion. If I can reduce the occurrence of obsessive thoughts, so much of my life will be freed up. My wallet will thank me, for one! I will be able to reduce compulsive behaviours that are harmful, or that reduce my ability to function. It may also help me to be more flexible when it comes to making plans and adapting to changes.

I feel good about this. I’m glad I finally pushed for the change, and as much as this change over period is going to suck, it will be worth it.

Medications don’t work the same for everyone. So if you’re truly not feeling any benefit from something, it’s important to really back yourself when talking to your doctor. Only now do I feel ‘validated’ in my belief that the Effexor XR wasn’t effective. I should have believed myself and pushed for change earlier.

Here’s to a hard road to a better place!

 

Debunking the dangerous ‘lack of empathy’ stereotype.

Debunking the dangerous ‘lack of empathy’ stereotype.

On most desktop computers, there are separate switches for the tower (the actual computer, the bit that ‘thinks’) and the monitor where output is displayed. If you turn on your computer, but not the monitor, the computer can do all the work it likes–but nothing will be displayed.

I often compare computers to the autistic brain; I find there are a lot of similarities. This is one. It’s a gross over-simplification but it goes a long way to explain how autistic people are so often accused of being void of empathy. So much so that the cold and unfeeling autistic person has become something of a stereotype.

Autistic people are very capable of empathy. Our ability to display that feeling is impaired. Our computers are functioning, but often times the monitor is switched ‘off’… or on another channel completely (and trust me to switch to a television comparison now just to confuse the issue).

For me, it’s a case of the monitor being off most times. I have to remember to change the position of my face to reflect the appropriate feeling for the moment. It doesn’t come naturally. It’s a logic-based process that says, ‘You’re feeling happy now, you should be smiling!’ and so I turn the corners of my mouth upward.

Manual smiling can get painful, by the way.

There are times where my feelings are so strong and I’m so caught up in them that the expressions form themselves–but that’s rare.

I’m also chronic for the pseudo-condition ‘resting bitch face’, which is the tendency to look worried/tired/angry. This is just the way my face falls when I’m not giving it direction, and it doesn’t mean I feel the way it looks. Usually I’m so deep in thought that I’ve relinquished all active control of my facial expression. I could be having a hilarious daydream, but to the outside world it looks like someone’s upset my apple cart and I’m about to tear strips off the next person who bothers me.

For others, it’s less a case of the monitor being off and more a case of it being on the wrong channel. They may exhibit expressions and behaviour that make little to no sense in context with the situation around them. This could be misinterpretation of the situation, not knowing how to react in a situation (and giving it a best guess), or it could be as simple as the mind reaching a different emotional reaction to that which is normally expected.

I watch a lot of true crime specials, and the way people read each other after a homicide is troubling to me. So much that I hope I’m never directly involved in such a situation because (aside from the obvious) I worry that my lack of reaction, or incorrect reactions, would be misinterpreted as possible guilt.

If you think that’s paranoid and crazy, check out the Amanda Knox special on Netflix.

She’s not alone in being suspected because of her reactions. Lindy Chamberlain is another high profile case that utilised her behaviour after the death of Azaria and throughout the trial process as a sign of guilt.

I don’t pretend to know what happened to Azaria Chamberlain, nor am I convinced of Lindy Chamberlain’s guilt or innocence. I’m certainly not claiming that Chamberlain and Knox are autistic, either, only that their lives have both been upturned in part because they did not react the way they were expected to.

And there lies a very dangerous expectation, for everyone, and especially for  those on the autism spectrum. The expectation that every person will react to a situation in a similar way, and that deviations from that expected behaviour are wrong.

Greater understanding that there are infinite ways to respond to a situation, and that each person will respond in their own individual way, will set free so many from fear of their own personality. Clinging to ‘sameness’ is a human desire that continues to fuel fear and hate, between races, religions, nations, anyone of difference.

We are so much more diverse than social expectations allow.

In regard to empathy, we all feel it. We all respond to it differently, we all show it differently. Some are able to disregard it. Others are slave to it.

The notion that autistic people are not capable of empathy is a myth. It’s far more common that the autistic person is less capable of displaying it.

In some cases, myself included, the feelings of others are present in the air. Like a solid, electrifying force that grows with the intensity of feeling. I know the feelings are there, I know there is an emotion being communicated, and I feel it so keenly that it burns.

But I don’t understand it. I don’t have the ability to take that force, break it down into its parts and know that what you are sending me is happiness, or anger, or fear. It’s another language, one  I can’t interpret, and the force of it leaves me paralysed and unable to act.

My own feelings, I have so many of. I feel deep sorrow, and boundless joy. I don’t always know what to call them, nor do I always know how to deal with them. They lie behind a face that moves as I tell it to, but they are still there.

I repeat. They are still there.

And what to do about it? I don’t know. I like to know when my behaviour isn’t what’s expected, and perhaps this comes from a place of wanting to fit in, to be seen as ‘normal’ among others. But isn’t that just as damaging?

After all, if I put on a successful mask, learn to behave as others do–if we all conform to this expectation–how will any of us learn to embrace and understand the true diversity of the human mind?

Some things, I will change. Some things I won’t. My reactions, expressions and the way I approach the world is my own. Even if that is to have no visible reaction, that’s simply how I am. I cannot be judged from the outside. Knowing me requires conversation, patience, and a mind open to the idea that not all body language speaks truth.

I have feelings as much as any other person, autistic or not. It just takes some digging to see them.

How I compensate for my lack of social understanding (and how that also is a trap).

How I compensate for my lack of social understanding (and how that also is a trap).

One of the key stereotypical aspects of autism/aspergers is the inability to read the finer points of social interactions. It’s true of most people I know with an ASD diagnosis, and like any autistic feature it presents differently in each individual.

There is, I’ve discovered, a secondary issue that comes with this lack of social awareness that develops as autistic children become autistic adults. It seems to be more common in those with an internal presentation, but who am I to say I know what goes on in anyone’s head?

The problem is this: we are aware that we have social deficits in reading situations, and overcompensate.

Deeper understanding of an interaction isn’t natural to me. It doesn’t arrive in a neat little package at the time, I don’t listen to someone’s words and thing ‘they mean something else’ or ‘this is definitely genuine’.

Instead, I take in the information and react to it on face value. If someone says they’ll do something, I nod and agree–yes, they will do it. If someone delivers a back-handed insult, disguised as a compliment, I’ll take the compliment first. Perhaps I’ll get a small inkling that there was something else going on… but I won’t know instinctively what the person was actually saying.

Not until later.

Deciphering the ‘true meaning’ of an interaction is more like wading through a literary text and picking out the themes and symbolism to work out the author’s message. It’s time consuming, inexact, and based on the premise that the other person put as much effort into coding the message as you did to decode it.

Everyone does a little of this after-process, especially after odd interactions. For me, it occurs after almost every conversation. It keeps me up at night, trying to work out what cues I may have missed and how I should have interpreted a situation differently. It’s an active process that requires quite a lot of brain-power to complete.

And it’s the basis for oh-so much anxiety.

Because here is the problem. I am aware that I have an impaired ability to decode situations on the fly. I also have thirty years experience in social interactions, and learnings from those that can be applied to analysing new situations.

My tendency isn’t just to miss the meaning of an interaction as it takes place, but to read too far into interactions when I analyse them later.

I find myself critiquing word choice, stance, tone, level of distraction–all things that I know academically can communicate extra bits of information. I look back to past interactions with that person and try to match up the similarities like a forensic investigator.

So I’ll get offended by throw-away lines that I decided were ultimately an insult because of how the person ordered their words; my default setting is to err on the side of caution and look more for threats I may not have seen.

Sometimes I get it right. Sometimes I even see things that those gifted with intuitive understanding of interactions don’t see. My process is based in logic and prior learning, so if human beings were rational things it would always be spot-on.

This compensatory method of deciphering interactions after the fact is a dual-edged sword. On one hand, it allows me to mask my lack of understanding by providing me with the information I missed at the time. On the other, my awareness that I miss things drives me to look for more than is actually there.

Tragedy of a cat-lady

Tragedy of a cat-lady

There are moments where I feel like a child for the way I react to things. More often than I like, and also in the way that I hold onto things that should have been long past. It’s embarrassing, and I do feel ashamed for these feelings that I just can’t seem to let go of. It’s dumb. I know it’s dumb. I’m an adult… and I shouldn’t be sad over things that are really pretty minor.

Yet, they’re still devastating to me.

One of these bigger wounds that won’t heal is the loss of my two cats. This is where people usually roll their eyes and go ‘oh no, not this again’ because for most people, they were just a couple of animals I talked too much about. Still talk too much about.

It’s been over two years since they were rehomed.

Yes, rehomed. They’re alive and happy, living in the care of a wonderful couple. I couldn’t wish for more for them. I know they’re adored, as they deserve to be. They’re not gone completely from the world, it should’t hurt this much still, should it?

It always has, though. The reality of living in a country town and only having outdoor cats was that they often came to early ends, be it by car, snake, or otherwise. When they went missing, I scoured papers for a possible ‘found’ notice. When they passed, I cried myself to sleep for months. I feel sick to my stomach when I look at certain small breeds of dog after what two of my family’s dogs did to a litter of kittens.

I mourned all of them intensely. Topsy, Turvy, Jessica, Misty, Belle, Zelda, Gomez. My sister’s cat, Quinn, and Mum’s cat Laser.

I loved them deeply, but even then there was something special about the crew I adopted in Queensland that went beyond even that love.

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Bond, ‘Rental Bond’, Mr Bond, Mr B… or sometimes just B. My housemate and I adopted him after his initial owner gained a housemate with allergies. He had a habit of sitting like a person, and was very particular about being clean. He slept in my room at night and pretended like he could keep me safe from loud thunder.

Bond’s favourite trick was to get on top of things. He liked climbing up and sitting on your shoulders, even when he became bigger and super heavy. You could bet that if you stood still for half a minute, you’d have Bond trying to find a place to sit on you.

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When I had bad days, it was always Bond who came to me. He was an absolute sweetheart, and he just seemed to know when I wasn’t okay. He’d cuddle up and start licking my hair down nice and neat.

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Percival, Percy, Percy-boo, and a lot of the time just Boo.

We adopted Percy as soon as he was ready to leave his mother, a Burmese-cross. He was the dominant little fatty of his litter, and though he bossed his mother around we were worried about introducing him to Bond–who’d got quite big.

So we distracted Mr B with a bowl of his favourite–tuna chunks–so he wouldn’t immediately attack the new kitten as soon as we set Percy down. That was a match-up we got so very wrong.

Soon as his paws were on the floor, Boo marched up to the bowl and pushed away a very surprised Mr B. Bond never got the upper paw over Percy, though they did learn to share.

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The boys eventually became best friends. Like Bond, Percy didn’t like sitting like a ‘proper’ cat. Both boys had very affectionate homes before us, so they may never have realised that they are not actually people.

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They were smoochy boys. It wasn’t uncommon to wake up to the pair fighting over the best spot next to you.

It was a strange family we had, my housemate and these two rascals–but I loved it. I loved coming home and being greeted by those two (very annoyed, because how dare I go out!) fuzzy faces, and I loved that I could sit on the couch with one or both by my side and never feel quite alone. Percy did love our binge-watching of TV shows, though he got annoyed if I tried to actually use the computer for too long.

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And if I happened to sit on the couch with a blanket, you could just bet this would happen.

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There was a lot going on in my personal life while I had these boys at my side. My work situation went drastically downhill, and only went from bad to worse as I opted for another job (that didn’t work out). I loved where I lived, but missed my human family in Victoria. Without reliable work I felt worthless, anxious about everything from whether I was developing a tumor (I wasn’t, and I knew that) to fear of the world ending.

There was a lot that I wasn’t coping with. I felt sick just leaving the house–but I did it. I never wanted to eat, but I did it. I spent months unable to sleep properly, but I still kept trying.

Not because I valued myself enough, I didn’t. Not at the time.

But because if I didn’t get the groceries and look after myself, the boys would go hungry. When I fed them, I remembered that I too had to eat. And when I hadn’t managed sleep for a day or so, it was usually Bond who would sit heavy on my chest and bat my face if I tried to move.

My phone is still full of their photos, my head is full of their stories, and woe to anyone who asks because I will speak of them as if they are truly still my boys.

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Vesper, or V.

Vesper was the third feline addition to our family–somewhat later than Percy and not too long before we moved to Victoria. She’s a lilac point Burmese, and though she came from a home of many cats, she truly did deserve a place on her own. She has this now, living with a disabled woman who relies on her company.

With us, Vesper never truly got along with the boys, but she loved to sit on the couch just above my head and watch what I was doing. Initially she was adopted by a housemate we had, who was supposed to be staying longer, but had to return to her home overseas far sooner than expected. I made the choice to rehome Vesper in Brisbane before we left.

Strangely, her new home ended up being in Victoria anyway.

I never felt that she was ‘my’ girl in the way I felt of the boys, but she was a darling all the same. The one and only time she accosted me for a cuddle was one horrible afternoon when I’d been unable to sleep properly for almost three days. She sat on me and purred me to sleep.

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Needless to say, I adored them. They gave me so much more than I could ever give them. How do you repay anyone, especially a cat, for giving you hope and purpose and reason when you need it most? Even on the worst of my worst days, my mood responded to their contact.

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I got very excited at the prospect of moving the boys to Victoria with me. They were such an important part of my life, and I had a chance to finally share that directly with my family! I was proud of them, incredibly so. I couldn’t wait for my family to meet these two furry heroes who made bad days tolerable and good days amazing.

It was a pretty silly thing to get excited over, I guess. But the boys were a part of my world that I was glad I could take with me.

I wish things had worked out better. If I’d been able to find work, or a place to live, or anything in time–perhaps they would have been able to see what I did.

Instead, I found the boys a loving home where Bond now wanders freely around a farm–and Percy (the sook!) prefers to stay inside and away from anything remotely scary. It’s the best solution that was available, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt.

It still hurts. I lived for a while in a shared house, alongside two cats–and that helped a little. Especially when Lily came into my room to kill spiders for me, and Doc would have long conversations about why I hadn’t fed him yet. Even though I wasn’t the one who fed him.

Now, I live in a house on my own and the hurt is amplified so much more.

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Is it stupid? Is it as childish as it feels to still feel the hurt this fresh after almost two years?

I know they’re happy. That should be enough, right?

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