Tag: head stuff

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.

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Good days happen!

Good days happen!

Today I’m having a good day. I’m not entirely sure why, there’s nothing amazing or stand-out about today that makes it much different to yesterday (which was less good). Sometimes the days just are and I have to roll with it.

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Maybe it’s because it’s Friday, or it’s just one day until the Bulldogs play the Giants for a place in the AFL Grand Final (I am so excited about this game!), or because the social media page I manage for my company reached 75 followers (they were at 51 when I took over in March), or it could even be because this morning I handled a work situation extremely well and delivered a hot lead to one of our salespeople.

It could be any of those things, or it could be none. Those sorts of things happen on bad days too, but today these little achievements feel extra good. Especially the work ones. I’m still in that stage where half the time I don’t feel like I know what I’m doing at all!

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Analysing good days takes some of the fun out of it, so I’ll try not to do that so much. What I do have to avoid is convincing myself that this is the beginning of everything being super shiny happy. That’s a trap I’ve fallen into so many times, and trust me, it doesn’t get easier.

Relapsing when you honestly and truly believe you’re getting better? It’s heartbreaking.

No one want to be sick like this. Some degree of positivity and hope is crucial to coming out of it, but it’s not the sole factor and telling yourself at the first sign of fog lifting that this time you’re going to charge your way back to full function and take on the world? It shatters in the face of reality. Expecting yourself to come back like that is unrealistic, even for the strongest of us.

This is the reality of depression:

  • It is a recurring condition. You will feel better, and you will get worse, and you will feel better again.
  • You will be stronger after every relapse, even if you don’t feel it.
  • Good days aren’t always a sign of recovery, but they should definitely be enjoyed!
  • No one recovers instantly. Unfortunately, that includes you. No one is a special depression snowflake. Recovery is an ongoing process of managing yourself, your thought processes, and your environment.
  • Recovery doesn’t mean you’ll never be depressed again. It means you’re competent enough at managing it that it no longer interferes with your life the way it used to.
  • Hiding it, faking happiness, forcing positivity, all of those ‘fake it until you make it’ strategies might make it look like you’re okay, but nothing is better for recovery than being honest and open when you’re struggling. Tell someone. You’re not a burden, you’re human.

Most importantly, if you’re trying to ‘pass’ as okay, do it for you and not for others. Don’t mislead yourself with the idea that you should hide what you feel to make other people comfortable. It’s not healthy. If they’re not okay with the conversation, they’ll say so.

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If you feel you need help, or just want to vent to someone: do it.

If you honestly feel better when you’re faking it, or if you want to pass for a reason that is important to you, do that. Basing who you are and what you do around others is a nice thought, but if it becomes the sole motivator in how you present yourself, it’s not healthy. Be yourself, unashamed. And still, talk to someone you trust.

Heck, even if you’re not depressed: talk to someone about how shitty you felt when you stubbed your toe.

But, back on some more fun topics, here’s some of the things that happen when I’m having a Good Day (capitalised because of the obvious importance).

  • I dance. And I do this in good moments on bad days. It’s not real dancing, more of a… half-skip walk with legs kicking out. Because body movement is fun!
  • I swing on things. Like my office chair. Or I spin in circles.
  • I feel like me. Without the crushing self-doubt and heavy emptiness, I’m free to do those weird and wonderful things that I love myself for.
  • I jump down the stairs. Holding the hand rails, of course, because I don’t want to die. I also jump up the stairs this way.
  • I sing and bop to anything that’s on. Sometimes I sing to calm my breathing too, and sometimes I can’t help it because there’s music on and I have to–but it’s more obvious and louder when things are good.
  • I talk. You’ve probably noticed that I have a lot to say, and a good day usually means that I’m likely to talk endlessly about the things that others don’t care about so much.
  • I laugh. Randomly. At things you can’t see or hear, because I just thought them up. Will I explain what’s so funny? Maybe not.
  • My imagination explodes. Yes, it’s always exploding–and occasionally depression leads down dark what-ifs that are actually super fascinating–on Good Days this imagination can get downright bizarre. Like a Simpsons dream sequence.
  • I love everything and everyone. Which I do anyway, but I feel it much much more on a Good Day.

Basically, Good Days are days of freedom. Days where I can be the person I want to be because I have the energy to do it, and the confidence to not care what people think.

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It’s quite similar to me being drunk. Enough alcohol and I can enter a state where all the self-imposed inhibitions lift, where I can talk to people without worrying about conversation protocols and whether this is really the right audience to be talking philosophy with.

When I’m having a Good Day? Everyone is the right audience to be talking philosophy with.

On a Good Day, I’m me with 100% extra authentic me, and you can either like it or walk away. These Good Days are what my first psychiatrist diagnosed as ‘hypomania’, but I think it’s far simpler than that. I don’t feel invincible by any stretch of the imagination, I just recognise a chance to let myself out of the cage and I go for it.

Because, in order to avoid the trap of hoping that a Good Day is the beginning of Complete Recovery, I take every day for what it is: Unknown.

Yesterday was not a Good Day. Today is. Tomorrow? I’ll find out when I get there.

Right now, I’m making the most of the Good Day I’m having.

When even Milo doesn’t work.

When even Milo doesn’t work.

I’m exhausted. I’m always exhausted. How can I be this exhausted?

Sit down for ten quiet minutes and my eyes will start to close. Try to avoid it by standing up instead, and my knees begin to buckle with the weight of my body. Focus comes in fits and bursts, I’m writing things in increments. Doing small, bite-sized tasks that make the most of these energy bubbles before they burst.

You’d be forgiven for thinking poor routine is to blame. I do function better at night than I do in the morning, my natural inclination is to make the most of that time. That’s only an option if I don’t have to work the next day, if there’s a gap of less than eight hours between when I get into bed and the time I have to start work, I stress instead of sleep. Lately I’ve not been in bed later than 11pm, and I still feel like I’ve pulled an all-nighter.

Weekends I push it out a little more to feel more productive in the day. Otherwise it’s just an endless cycle of work, eat, sleep, repeat. I hate that hamster wheel feeling. There has to be more, there has to be something more than just surviving.

Surviving is all I seem to have the energy for, though. I come home from work so tired I’d go to bed at 6pm if that wasn’t weird. I have put myself to bed that early–and consequently forgot to eat that night. I forget to eat a lot of nights. I’m too tired to care about food.

I’m over-sensitive, too. Everything is a threat, an annoyance, another reason to be stressed. My shoulders are aching from being so tense all the time. I take things personally before my more rational side kicks in to correct me. It’s not about me, but it feels like it is and it hurts. I don’t understand what people mean, and it hurts.

A harmless joke leads to hours of me beating myself up because I took it seriously at first, and why couldn’t I see it was obviously not real? I should have known the voice on the phone was a work colleague–I’m so dumb. They must be laughing so hard at how dumb I am. I’m too tired for these jokes.

I feel dumb for all the times I couldn’t determine whether someone was serious or not. I feel dumb for all the times I didn’t understand what I was being asked. I feel dumb for all the things I simply don’t think to say or do, that it is a conscious effort to remember that people like someone to say ‘Thank you, that was delicious’ at the end of a meal. For all the things that are expected between people and I just don’t get them.

Some things, like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.. even ‘happy birthday’ I struggle with. Even though I’ve been told that no one minds if it’s ‘not genuine’ (which makes no sense to me, why would anyone enjoy inauthentic gratitutde?), the terms feel so repetitive and cliche that I don’t know how to say them and still express the genuine gratitude behind them. I try to work around the words, to use expression, inflection and alternate phrasing to demonstrate that I value them enough to put thought into how I thank them.

But if I don’t say the ‘magic words’, all that thought is for nothing. People would rather hear a hollow and too-repeated ‘Thanks’ than ‘That looks amazing! You’re the best!’ Why is that? Why are people so hung up on the idea that only a few words can truly represent gratitude? I’m doing my best to remember to say the right words at the right times, but I don’t always and when I get pulled up for it I feel so stupid.

Come on, these are things I should know. I was raised better than this. It’s not that I don’t feel it, but I get caught either in trying to compose words that adequately express gratitude (which I hate to admit, can leave me unable to speak sometimes), or it just doesn’t occur to me that I should say anything. Again: how could I not know? Maybe I get caught up in what’s happening and my attention has shifted too fast, or I don’t know–either way, I have to consciously stop and ask myself: ‘Did you say please? Did you say thank you?’

The more tired I am, the more I slip. I’m slipping a lot lately. Really silly mistakes, confusing information, reading things wrong. Earlier today a colleague walked in and said ‘Good morning!’ and what did I say? I said ‘Good night!’

I’m trying to focus. My eyes keep wandering across my desk, squinting with the light, and even though there’s only a few of us here today everyone is noisy. The air vents are noisy. Scraps of conversations that I’m not part of, both upstairs and down, are distracting. I’m going to spend lunch in a dark room, which is what I do now. That period of quiet rest stops me from breaking the phone when it rings in the second half of the day.

I really hate talking on phones. My phone stays on silent because if it rings I might actually throw it. Phone conversations are for when you need to know something right now, otherwise a text will do.

I don’t really know what to do right now. How can I be so burned out when all I’m trying to do is function like a proper adult?

Sigh.

I’m doing my best to keep going. I seem to have less and less to work with every day. The more I force it, the more broken I feel.

Come on, you stupid girl. No one said it was going to be easy. If you’re not succeeding, you’re not trying hard enough. Everyone else gets by. Why the fuck can’t you?

I don’t know. I really don’t know. I’m trying. I can’t keep up. I don’t know how people work through the week, do things after work and also on the weekends. I don’t know how anyone manages what they do without collapsing into a pile of shaking sobs on a regular basis. I don’t know how people remember to eat or do other regular tasks without someone (or an alarm) to remind them.

I’m trying so hard to be normal, to do normal things, to work and socialise the way I’m expected to. I’m trying to remember the rules and say the right things, to not break down, to keep my crazy out of everyone’s way.

I’m trying, and I’m failing.

Frustratingly undiagnosed

Frustratingly undiagnosed

Labels are a weird thing. Some we crave, because it gives a sense of belonging. Others we fear and reject, for the stigmas that come with it. Labels can be limiting. They create social boundaries that we define ourselves by, labels are the facets of our many-sided selves. What we show to the world depends on which face we want to display. Which label we want to be seen under.

Loss of a label is… confusing.

I knew it was coming. The whole point of arranging to see a psychiatrist and starting the diagnosis process all over again was because I didn’t feel that ‘fast-cycling bipolar’ was accurate. It fit some of the symptoms, appeared to explain some behaviours, but left more questions than it answered.

The diagnosis itself (or, the addition of a label) came with came with a series of confronting questions. I began to doubt myself when I felt good, worried that I was ‘too good’ and in fact sicker than the days where I felt rotten. I began to wonder if I was as quirky or off-beat as I prided myself on being. How much of it was me and how much was a symptom of the illness?

Me: Are the days I feel good and dance in the supermarket a lie?
T: You dance in the supermarket on your bad days. That’s who you are.

Trying to draw the boundaries between what was me and what was a product of bipolar was exhausting. And because my ‘good’ days were very good–I also worried that dealing with the bipolar would take away the light at the end of depression’s tunnel. However bad things got, I knew that a day would soon come where I would feel productive and content.

Me: I don’t want to lose the good days that I do have.
C: What if I told you they could all be good days?

At the time it made enough sense, and I accepted the diagnosis. I was pretty desperate. I knew that something was not right–something was not being managed.

The mood stabilisers prescribed did little more than knock me out. What was supposed to be a ‘weaning dose’ put me to sleep for upwards of twelve hours, with no indication that this would lessen with long-term use. Even if I was mentally awake, my body felt so incredibly heavy and sluggish that movement was impossible. I suppose you could describe the emotional situation as ‘stable’, but realistically it was as if someone had wrapped my world in heavy grey wool.

I wasn’t having intense emotional outbursts. I wasn’t having anything. It was worse, even, than numbness. Sleep felt like a coma, waking was a superhuman effort, and I lived for the next moment where I could just lie down and rest. I wasn’t even particularly exhausted, just heavy.

I stopped after a few months. I found that I much preferred my erratic moods to the weighted ‘stability’. I felt more like myself. I tried again a few times, when repeated ‘episodes‘ were causing me distress, but the result was always the same. All I felt was frustration and loathing, with no energy to express it.

So I found myself, a year after that diagnosis, seeking the counsel of a different psychiatrist. I didn’t want to poison the well by mentioning that I had a bipolar diagnosis first up, though my anxiety and depression were immediately clear.

I wanted to start from scratch, lay out what I was experiencing, and see what his initial beliefs were. Toward the end of the session I explained that I had been given a bipolar diagnosis, but was unsure if it explained what was happening.

There were a few things that happened during that session that peeved me. I think he liked the sound of his own voice, as he frequently talked over my responses with more questions. He asked, repeatedly, if I’d been mistreated as a child–which I understand is information plenty of patients want to conceal, but there are only so many times I can try and explain that my childhood was very safe and my family loving before I start getting shitty at someone trying to ‘uncover’ information to the contrary.

But what annoyed me most of all was how dismissive he was when I tried to explain things that I felt were important. He waved them away with the statement ‘Well that’s just who you are’… but is it?

First, in spite of an expensive degree in psychiatry, this was still just a man I’d known for all of forty minutes. And not, to my knowledge, someone who could read my mind. If I don’t have a full understanding of myself, I very much doubt even an experienced doctor could have a solid enough understanding to wave things away like that.

Second, whether its part of ‘who I am’ is irrelevant. I was trying to bring to his attention some facts about myself that I find distressing or challenging in my daily life. I’m not comfortable accepting them as part of myself until I have some understanding of why they are, and how I can work with them. He flat refused to engage any discussion on things like my social awkwardness, communication issues, or in fact–anything else I tried to bring up.

Every aspect of the conversation was brought back to his questions, which seemed to center on one theory: I had a shitty childhood, so I was having a shitty adulthood.

I don’t accept that. There were aspects of my childhood that weren’t so fun, but they didn’t make my childhood wholly shitty. I did learn some counter-productive coping mechanisms, some bad thought patterns and emerged negative self-esteem. Most kids do, and some learn more than others.

Those flawed thought patterns are responsible for some of the anxiety and depression. But before the thought patterns can occur, they need a trigger–an event that starts the circle. Like when things change too fast, when I’m misunderstood, when things aren’t as I expect, when I’m tired and fed up with being around people, when I’ve retired to somewhere quieter and start hating myself for not being able to keep socialising.

Depression and anxiety explain a lot of things, but they don’t explain why, on my sister’s hen’s day, I ended up in a dark room confused and crying. I wanted to be out having fun. I wanted to be enjoying myself like everyone else, but no–I was sobbing in frustration because as much as I wanted to go back out and rejoin the party, the very thought of going back to the noise made me feel sick. It made me shake.

I did calm down and rejoin, but I don’t know if I can accurately describe how incredibly horrible it is to want something so much, and at the same time feel physically ill at the thought of it.

It wasn’t a panic attack. I know the difference. It was an episode, and nothing in the psychiatrist’s self-confirming theory explains it. But he didn’t want to hear about any of that. Only the things that made him sure of what he already believed.

I have an appointment booked with him again, I’m still debating on whether I should go. I do think he’s right about it not being bipolar, but the rest doesn’t seem right. Without the bipolar diagnosis, I’ve been feeling a bit more lost.

Where I once had a condition I could google and look for support, stories, and management strategies–I have nothing. I don’t know where to look for ways to help myself, and I really want to find ways outside of medication.

I want to identify all the things that I do differently, my strengths and weaknesses, learn how I can develop and work with them. I want to optimise my brain and my way of life, rather than fight it into ‘normality’. There are things I do amazingly well, and things I am catastrophically bad at.

If I can get a handle on that, there’s no reason I should ever be depressed. I will know the best ways to be productive. I will know the best ways to calm myself, motivate myself, and all the things I need to do to find happiness. I’ll be able to accept the mistakes I’ve made and am yet to make. Because I will understand.

Right now, I don’t understand. So all I am… is frustrated.

 

Eye Spy

Eye Spy

I’ve got some questions, especially for people who know me relatively well. Also for those of you who are bizarrely not adverse to eye contact.

First: do I make eye contact when I’m speaking to people?

I’m honestly not sure. It came up in a text conversation with a friend overseas. Thinking about how to answer that made me extremely curious and aware of the things I do when holding a conversation.

I don’t like eye contact. Making eye contact requires a super-human level of effort that I’m not prepared to put in when the result makes me feel uncomfortable. When you’re making eye contact, are you supposed to look someone directly in the eyes? Is that where your focus is supposed to be?

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It’s possible that I am making eye contact in a normal and comfortable way, maybe I’m interpreting the idea of eye contact as a focused stare. It feels like a stare. No matter how many times I blink, the weirdness of it doesn’t go away.

Eye contact makes it harder to focus on other aspects of the conversation, too. Like–the actual conversation. If I’m making (what I think is?) proper eye contact, the rest of the world seems to fade out and all I can see is just eyes. Goodbye mouth, nose, and eyebrows… you are just a pair of eyes at the end of a big black tunnel. Feels like it’s almost physically sucking me in. It’s creepy.

I’ve never been told one way or the either that I make too much or too little eye contact. I’ve experimented with forcing it (all the guides on being successful mention eye contact) for the duration of a conversation, or letting myself be more comfortable and allowing my eyes to wander where they will.

No one has ever commented. That’s probably a politeness thing.

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When I force eye contact, I seem to be less aware of my surroundings. Is that the creation of interpersonal intimacy? If so, I really don’t enjoy that. Partly because I miss chunks of what’s being said. You know, the words–the point of having a conversation. Experts say that the eyes can communicate a lot, but I think all mine have to say when making eye contact is ‘GET ME OUTTA HERE!’

I’ve noticed that I watch lips a lot. I like the way they move. I like the way faces move in general. I like seeing where the light falls on the different planes of the face and how it shifts with different expressions.

Thanks to GIFs animated with subtitles, I’ve begun to decode lips as an information source. In GIFs that contain a person speaking, even without the dialogue subtitled, I can usually guess most of the words spoken and even the tone. I know, because I go back to find the same clip with sound. I sure can’t read someone’s lips across a room, but I can read the odd word or mood. I think that’s pretty cool.

So I guess it makes sense that if I don’t make much eye contact, it’s because lips are way more useful. I’m also still looking in the general area of the face, which could be mistaken for eye contact. Or maybe the flicker of my gaze up to the eyes and back to the lips is eye contact. Seriously, I want to know: is eye contact something you’re supposed hold for more than half a second?

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Still, I prefer conversations where there’s no expectation to look at the other person at all. Talking in the car is my favourite. I prefer to sit beside people rather than opposite them, or to be in a situation where it’s acceptable (or even expected) to pay visual attention to something outside of the conversation partner. Dates where I’m sat across the table from someone are incredibly uncomfortable and I generally end up fidgeting with the salt shaker and staring at my hands.

As a kid, I remember being told by my peers that I needed to ‘open my eyes’ more. They made me practice sitting with my eyes as open as I could possibly force them as practice. Subtle bullying or a genuine attempt to help, who knows? I like to think that it was genuine. There were a lot of things they tried to ‘fix’ about me. Perhaps it started with pity, a genuine desire to rehabilitate my poor friendless self, and somewhere along the line it just went bad.

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I’ve wandered from my point… again. I don’t remember precisely where the half-open eyes thing came from, but I do remember it was a conscious decision on my part. I saw a lot of things on TV, or things my siblings did that I tried to imitate for the same effect. Things I felt would make me more sympathetic, more appealing to others. Things I thought would endear me to new friends that I could then keep for a happy lifetime.

It probably came from an advert. Some elegant supermodel. I remember one other facial expression I practiced, a positioning of mouth and tongue that made a baby on the TV look so cute I wanted to snatch him up for myself. It made me look moronic. In fairness, I was eight.

As far as I know, I now open my eyes properly. Or at least, it’s a strain to hold them open further. Sometimes I do that to try and make them look bigger and more round.

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For those of you who do make prolonged eye contact, I’ve been told it feels very rewarding. Like a long-distance hug. I have questions for you.

  1. Do you experience that same fade-out of the rest of the world?
  2. How long do you maintain contact before breaking away?
  3. When you break away, do you resume it almost immediately, or do you have to look at something else a bit before you return to more eye contact?
  4. What percentage of a conversation do you think you should be making direct eye contact?
  5. Do you get bothered by people who don’t?
  6. Do you feel uncomfortable not making eye contact?
  7. Is it really that nice making eye contact with people or is that some sort of myth?
  8. Is what I describe myself doing eye contact or not?

I’d love to hear experiences across the board, but especially from people who do seek out eye contact. You can leave your responses here in the comments, or on my Facebook page here!

Asking ‘R U OK?’… and how to respond.

Asking ‘R U OK?’… and how to respond.

I love the concept behind ‘R U OK?’ Day. I know more people suffering from mental illness than I do who are free of it. They are wonderful, warm, generous people who fight their own minds every day to complete simple tasks like waking up, getting dressed, even just finding the motivation to feed themselves.

Yet somehow, most of them still hold down steady jobs and complex social lives. These people are my heroes. Some of them will read this and think, ‘Is she talking about me? I struggle with X, but–I’m not that special. She must mean someone else.’

No. I mean you. You, and the others like you who throw yourselves into the rush of every day when your body screams to stop. Who have once, twice, so many times ended up crying in front of doctors, desperately begging for help. Who have sat and wrestled with yourselves while thoughts of hate and self harm sprang up in your mind like unwanted pop-up adverts.

You, who have lost some battles, but won others. You’re everyday heroes.

In light of R U OK? Day, this is my guide for conversations starting with the sentence ‘Are you okay?’

  1. ‘Are you okay?’ 
    Ask without judgement. Be gentle, it’s a deeply personal question. Be light and casual, as if you’re asking about the weather. Don’t put them on the spot in front of others, try and keep it private.
  2. If they say yes–accept it.
    Even if you know there’s something they’re not telling you, move on. You might not be the person they feel comfortable talking to. If you know them well, you might ask if they’re sure and give them a second chance to speak.

    Don’t push if they keep resisting. Say you’re willing to listen if they ever want to talk, and leave it at that. Realising you’re not their preferred confidante sucks, but your interest and concern might be enough to push them to open up to someone else.

  3. If they say no–don’t freak out.
    Four simple words: ‘How can I help?’

    Truth is, you probably can’t. Or the ways that you can help out may seem stupid or insignificant. To a depressed person nothing is insignificant. The tiny things like bringing their favourite chocolate bar mean everything, because it demonstrates that they are important enough to not only be remembered, but that someone remembered what chocolate bar they love.

  4. Don’t try and solve them.
    Some people listen with half a brain while the other half is planning solutions. Don’t. Listen to the problem with your whole brain and brainstorm solutions with the person if they invite you to. They may already have a plan in place. Even if they don’t, it’s so important to address the person before the problem.

    If the first thing that comes out of your mouth is ‘Have you thought about…’ or similar, the person is likely to feel less like a human being and more like something broken to be fixed. It’s natural to want to help someone out of their hurt, but don’t start there.

  5. Don’t normalise (invalidate) their experience.
    There are some silly things that get said in these conversations that can be unintentionally hurtful. Anything that equates depression to a ‘normal’ feeling like sadness can stop someone from seeking further help. It can lead to them believing what they feel isn’t worthy of medical attention, that everyone suffers the same as they do.

    Unless you’re a medical professional trained to identify the difference between regular low mood and diagnosable depression, don’t normalise what they’re feeling. Some phrases that are unfortunately common:

    ‘Everyone feels like this sometimes.’
    ‘It’s a rough patch, you’ll get through!’
    ‘Chin up, it’s not as bad as you think.’
    ‘You’ve just got to be a bit more positive.’
    ‘It will pass, just keep trying!’

    Though the intention of the words is good, all of these carry the message that how the person feels is either not ‘real’ or just a part of everyday life. I’ve written a bit more below about the difference between depression and sadness.

  6. Do acknowledge their experience.
    There is one thing you can always do when someone expresses their struggles to you. No matter what the subject is or how complex the problem, you can say this: ‘That sounds horrible, I’m sorry you’re struggling with that.’

    People wrestling with mental illness frequently doubt the validity of their feelings, so having someone else acknowledge the struggle is powerful. It could be what they need to accept they need proper help and take those first steps. Even if they’ve already sought treatment, that acknowledgement means a lot.

  7. Accept and respect personal boundaries.
    Speaking up can be overwhelming and exhausting, and they may wish to be left alone after. If they seem uncomfortable, ask ‘Would you like me to stay?’ and respect the answer.

    If they are happy for you to stay, don’t expect to keep discussing their mental health. A lighter subject change may be in order, or even just sitting in comfortable silence. Conversely, they may wish to continue explaining their feelings to you. The conversation ends when it ends. Don’t push for more.

So what do I know about it?

Mental illness is a subject I feel very strongly about. I began my own mental illness ‘journey’ (I suppose you could call it that?) with an anxiety diagnosis at age 22. I’d always been that way, an extreme level of anxiety to me felt normal. Realising that not everyone lived in the shadow of dread was a revelation for me. I am still a highly anxious person, I probably always will be. Seven years on, I’m far better at managing the more damaging sides of panic disorder, social phobia, and generalised anxiety disorder.

Beneath the anxiety, depression began to make itself known. For the record–depression isn’t a mood, it’s not a sadness. Sadness is a symptom of depression. Sadness happens when you look outside to the things you used to love and feel nothing. Sadness happens when you know there are things you should be doing, but the drive to do anything is gone. Sadness happens when you go to sleep at night and don’t care if you wake up. Sadness happens when you have depression, but depression is not sadness!

Depression is a sense of inescapable emptiness and isolation. You’re a flat battery. The cycle of knowing you have to live –> having no motivation to do it –> self loathing for your inability to do anything is where the negativity comes in. Depression is frustrating. It’s heartbreaking. It feels like you’ve broken up with everything you used to love and now there’s nothing left in your life. Nothing that inspires you.

Depression is not the same as a bad week or a rough day. It’s not something you snap out of overnight. It’s not something that will be better if you just ‘get a good sleep’, or ‘relax and see some friends’. It’s something you fight every day to escape, some days harder than others. It’s feeling helpless and lonely, even when there’s nothing wrong in your life.

It’s not always brought about by big and dramatic events. Sometimes it just is. Sometimes it’s a sudden crash from coping to not coping, sometimes the slide into depression is so subtle that you don’t realise until you’re drowning. It’s waking up one morning and realising: I don’t remember the last time I felt good about something.

Depressed people do have good days. A laugh doesn’t mean they’re lying–about depression or what they see is funny–but it’s one bright distraction in a dark night. Some wear masks to hide the pain and stop dragging others in.

Talking helps, as long as the conversation acknowledges the true weight of the issue. The more we write off depression as ‘being really sad’ or something you can ‘smile through’, the more we turn people who truly need help away from seeking it.

Help them realise they are worthy of a doctor’s time and effort. All you have to do is say, ‘I’m sorry, that sucks’.

The articulate monkey dilemma

The articulate monkey dilemma

One of the compliments I often get is that I am ‘articulate’. It makes me laugh every time, the idea is so absurd to me. I’m not blind to my own strengths, but I don’t believe that being articulate is one of them. At least–not most of the time.

There are two situations in which I can be articulate. One is here, in writing. Writing gives me the ability to slow down, put the words out there in the order I want to present them. Ensure that nothing has been missed (and to go back and review, making sure nothing has been left out!).

There’s no ‘negotiated communication’ in writing, where what I want to say alters by the response of my audience. When I’m speaking, I’ll often gloss over things or even stop talking at all if I think the person I’m talking to isn’t interested. I’ll make heavier subjects lighter, pick and choose the parts I think people want to hear based on how they react.

True, people will read into this whatever they want to–but the actual message doesn’t change. Once written, I lose control over it. I no longer get to curb and polish on the fly, either people will read or they won’t. Either they will understand what I see, or see something else entirely.

The other situation is in ‘rehearsed’ or ‘performed’ speaking. Best example is always in class presentations or job interviews, which I do very well in. Odd, isn’t it? For someone who feels anxious and uncomfortable in social situations, I am bloody good at public speaking. I get nervous, but once I’m up there and get going, it’s a whole new me. A confident, expressive, informative and articulate me.

But that’s not me so much as it’s the result of so much rehearsal. Hours upon hours meditating on what to say, what order to say it, what words to use. How slow to speak, when to speed up, how to accentuate my points with gestures and facial expressions. Sometimes I’ll have a proper script, sometimes I’ll rehearse it out loud… but the majority of it is internal.

When I’m watching TV… rehearsing.

Listening to music… rehearsing.

At work… rehearsing.

Any moment where my brain isn’t completely consumed by another task at hand, I am rehearsing.

Sounds exhausting–and it is. Fortunate though, right, that those sorts of presentations are far and few between? Yes, but they’re only the obvious examples.

Need to talk to a friend about a complex and potentially hurtful matter? Oh, I definitely need to rehearse that. There’s no way I’m walking into that situation before I’ve thought out how the conversation might go (and its hundred variants), played them through my mind and assessed the merits of each approach.

Going somewhere that involves being around someone I don’t know well, or have that much in common with? I’ll make an arse of myself if I don’t rehearse. I also research. Facebook is a great way to covertly follow different topics and easily find tidbits of information that can be then worked into conversation. That’s how I do it. That’s how I keep up.

Putting in an order at McDonalds? Better rehearse while I’m waiting in line. Don’t forget to clearly express ‘no cheese’, somehow that always gets missed. And add ‘coke for the drink’ so they don’t have to ask. Oh and make sure you say ‘large meal’, that way they’ll have all the information they need and we won’t have to fluff around getting my order straight.

It literally applies to all conversations. Even conversations among the most trusted people in my world, especially group conversations, I am often largely silent. And then I will speak up, hoping to say my piece before the topic changes. By the time I speak, I’ll have rehearsed that one phrase 6-8 times in my head, questioning whether I should say it.

You should see how often I have to discard well-prepared statements because the conversation changed or (another issue I seem to have a lot) I wasn’t sure how to break in to speak. Or, I start speaking, and… realise no one cares and stop. I often try to break in to conversations at the wrong time, end up talking over people and backing off. The more people involved, the more complex it all gets and the more likely I am just to sit and listen.

Obviously, I should just stop rehearsing and learn to be ‘me’. Talk on-the-fly, don’t get so anxious about what you’re going to say that the chance to say it passes! I’m only hurting myself by holding back my contributions, right?

I really don’t know. My rehearsed, thought-out responses are at least that: thought-out. Like my writing, they are more capable of saying what I intend than any attempt to speak without script or rehearsal. Working in customer service, the communication exchange for that role was so repetitive that you could have replaced me with a robot and nothing would change. It was a script I could recite even on days where I felt completely empty.

Once I’m outside the scripts and the rehearsal, I’m lost. This is why I laugh when people call me ‘articulate’, even though almost all they get to see is actually quite articulate. They don’t see my inner debate on how to speak with someone, they don’t watch the sentences fall together until I like them enough to give them breath. They don’t feel my frustration in knowing I should have something to say, but not having anything available.

So what does happen when I’m unscripted? There’s a couple of reasons it can happen.

One, I’m in an extremely good mood and I’m with someone I trust. I get extremely chatty when I’m happy, and I desperately want to talk to people about everything that I think is wonderful or interesting. I still edit myself if I think what I’m saying isn’t going well, which usually means shutting up about whatever I’m rambling about and asking more about something the other person wants to talk about (I’m aware that not many people really want to hear about my fascinations… it bores them.)

Two, I’m drunk in a good way. When I’m drunk and happy, it’s much like me being happy only I won’t stop and spare you the details of whatever I’m ranting or raving about. In both cases, I often talk fast and I can jumble my words in the excitement to get them out. I want to tell you absolutely everything I can before I start censoring myself again. This is probably the purest form of me. Annoying… but I don’t give a shit. You can sit and listen to me.

Three, I’m overwhelmed.

If I’m overwhelmed, you’ll be lucky to get anything at all. In computer terms, all of my RAM is taken up trying to process what is going on around me and I literally don’t have the capacity to formulate an output. I’m basically that spinning wheel cursor, trying my hardest internally to get something happening–but it doesn’t. Sometimes that just means that I stay silent until I’ve worked through enough to bring other systems ‘online’ again. Note that I also struggle with carrying out other actions while overwhelmed, like… lifting a hand, or removing myself from a situation.

Not all situations give me the time and space to process and then speak. That’s where it can get ugly. Often I want to have a response, but don’t. Sometimes I am supposed to have a response, but I don’t have anything rehearsed and ready. It’s like the whole English language has vacated my brain and I’ve lost the ability to string coherent sentences together. The more pressing the situation, the harder it is to recover. I’d be a terrible journalist under pressure.

This isn’t one of those situations where if I just ‘try harder’ the words will come, or where I’m being silent out of guilt, or to aggravate another person. I literally, completely and absolutely, cannot speak. I can’t underline that enough. I don’t have access to the words to respond.

Occasionally I will manage a small nod and a ‘yep’/’nope’–this is the closest I have to a ‘script’. This is the closest I have to a rule for dealing with these situations. This is the only speech that I know is ‘acceptable’ in the situation. The only reason I can do that much is to make the conversation end. Placating the other person until I can retreat and process, and think up all the things I should have said.

That feeling when you think up a great comeback days too late? Me. All the time. Every conversation ever.

The last reason is that I want to break out of rehearsed conversation, or I feel a need to. No, I don’t like that almost every word out of my mouth is reviewed and edited and examined (before and after saying it). Sometimes I want to speak in situations I’m not ‘prepared’ for, or have what feels like ‘honest’ communication with someone. It’s almost always a train wreck.

Unless I’ve considered how a statement might play out among people, it usually gets taken the wrong way. People assume I’m talking about something else, have an opinion outside of the one I’m trying to communicate, or otherwise hear something that I don’t intend to be saying.

The words can come out jumbled, awkward, I have to stop and rephrase. I confuse things and definitely don’t say what I’m trying to say. There’s nothing articulate about it. A thousand monkeys on a thousand keyboards probably scripted what I have to say. It’s not that I’m speaking without thinking, but I’m not thinking enough. Like running a spell checker over a document and not seeing red lines, assuming it’s all good to go–where normally I’ll go through each line and painstakingly draw out all the grammatical errors. The words used wrong. Put things in a better order.

It’s usually closer to what I mean to say (at least, I think it is), but rehearsing and scripting takes time. ‘Casual’ conversation is work. It takes a level of attention and processing power that is above and beyond other casual activities… like watching TV. And even then, I still often don’t get out what I want to–because I’m editing the words as they come out of my mouth.

Friends who let me babble on about whatever has sparked me when I’m chatty–thank you. Thank you for letting me ramble your ear off in my fast and tangential way. Even if you zoned out partway through, or weren’t listening at all–still thank you. It actually means a lot for me to feel I don’t have to shut down the conversation because you’re not interested.

On the other hand, if you’ve noticed that I do turn topics away from something that clearly interests me, and you don’t feel bored or bothered by it–tell me. I absolutely suck at taking hints and reading situations, and I’m constantly looking for signs that I’m making people annoyed or uncomfortable. Good old me interprets the benign as a reason to stop, and manages to completely ignore actual cues to give up.

I love talking about the things I love, though. I really want to share them with people, and show the people I love the things that are fascinating to me.

Sometimes I worry that the excessive rehearsal and consideration I give to my words also results in them being void of emotion. I’ve been accused several times throughout my life of ‘indifference’, and I’ve never been sure why. I’m pretty much all-or-nothing. I throw myself at things until they break me, I take so much pride in the work that I do that when it’s criticised.. yes, I feel personally hurt. I know that rationally I’m going to make errors and they’re not the end of the world, but my work is an extension of me.

I don’t feel differently of things because they’re less important. My parents once remarked that I used to make ‘shitty coffee’ as a means of getting out of being asked to make them–they thought the story was an amusing anecdote about a spiteful child. Thing is, I took great pride in the coffees I made even if I didn’t want to make them.

What I think happened was there was a phase where I would pour the hot water into the cup with just the instant coffee and sugar in there, and then add milk. This was because if you added the milk first, not all of the coffee dissolved and there were ugly brown spots floating on top. It didn’t look like good coffee, and the way to fix that was do the hot water first.

Nevertheless, I didn’t find out about my ‘shitty coffee’ making until I was an adult. Which sparked, as comments like that always do, a full analysis of how it could have been understood that the reason was I don’t care. Why does this reason keep coming up? Most of all, how do I fix it? Short of pointing to the subject and directly stating ‘I care very much about this’, how do I communicate that everything I do I consider to be a part of myself and my stamp on this world?

Questions about my sincerity and other emotional states have been raised over time, too. It’s kind of a shock to realise that something you believed you were expressing has become so warped in transmission that people aren’t sure if you mean it. I blame a poker face built on years of not letting bullies see me cry. Add that to the fact that I am oblivious to most social cues, and I guess what you see from the outside is a cold hard bitch (yes, I’ve been called that too).

Speaking of social cues… did you know that when someone comments on something you’re cooking (like, ‘Oh wow! That smells amazing!’) that you’re supposed to offer some? I actually just learned this from a book. Is this really a thing? Have I been offending people by not offering what I’m making? Worse, have I been sending my housemates the message that I want their food when I compliment how wonderful the house smells at dinner? It does smell nice! They’re amazing cooks!

The whole thing leaves me feeling very confused and a little isolated. I’ve always known I’m socially awkward, but I’m only more recently becoming aware of this huge disconnect between what I think I’m saying–and what’s being heard. I’ve even had relationships end over it, because he thought I didn’t care and wasn’t invested while I could not think about anything else but the next time we would see each other.

I like communication that is direct and concrete when it comes to feelings and plans. I love debates that are abstract and philosophical, but when it comes to information that I need to rely on, I hate having to second-guess what someone meant. I hate the idea that people second-guess me because I’m not making whatever signals I should be making.

Ask me. If you feel my behaviour is out of place with what I should be displaying, ask me. I’d rather have a five minute conversation that is mildly awkward than a prolonged period of someone being upset or confused by me and having no idea why. I can’t see myself from the outside, either, so I think so long as no one comments that I’m doing things right.

Apparently I’m not. When people ask, it gives me the opportunity to reflect on what I did, said, and how it was received. That’s information I can store away for future reference and correct myself going forward.

And if it so happens that asking me leads to me being unable to speak, don’t freak out. Say what you need to say, accept that I can’t respond in that moment. I’m listening and I’m hearing you, and I’m probably frustrated to tears because not being able to get words out is its own kind of torture. The more rational and direct you are, the better I can process things. State the situation as you see it, and give me some space to process.

I’ll get back to you with answers a when I have them.