Tag: school

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.

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My diagnosis, and how it makes sense.

My diagnosis, and how it makes sense.

It’s like someone is in my face yelling at me in German. I can kind of grasp if they’re happy or sad, but I don’t speak the language enough to truly understand what is being said.

A few months ago I began a process that would ultimately change the way I view myself, and my place in the world. In many ways, I’m still trying to process what it means to me–and the conflict of whether to disclose this discovery to my wider world.

I have chosen to publicly disclose, and to do so here to anyone with interest in the subject. I do so in the understanding that there is a great deal of misconceptions regarding the topic, and it is my hope that through this disclosure I am able to create better understanding of my experience. This blog contains only what I know to be true of myself. There are as many presentations of the condition as there are people who experience it.

This is my experience as an autistic woman.

 

Say what?

Yes, you read that correctly. I have been assessed as presenting with enough significant traits of Aspergers Syndrome to satisfy a formal diagnosis. I don’t much like the word ‘Aspergers’–not so much for the Sheldon Cooper connotation, more I just don’t like the combination of letters in it.

One of the key misconceptions about those with Aspergers is that they are fundamentally more capable than someone defined as simply ‘Autistic’. In the DSM-5, the leading diagnostic manual for mental conditions, ‘Aspergers’ has been removed as an independent diagnosis. I like that this opens the door to a much broader understanding of ‘Autism’, the capabilities and weaknesses of those who experience it.

 

So–are you ‘high’ or ‘low’ functioning?

This is another reason why removal of the ‘Aspergers’ label is important. The idea that some autistic people are more intelligent, more capable, and more useful to society is dangerous. It leads us to expect that those defined as ‘high’ functioning should be able to adapt to the neurotypical world and survive without any compensatory methods. On the other end, it allows us to believe that ‘low’ functioning persons have diminished value due to their autism.

This is especially true of those who are ‘non-verbal’. That is, someone who is functionally able to speak–but experiences an autism-related block that prevents them from conversing in a ‘normal’ manner. Their inability to speak has no relation to their intelligence or what they can contribute to the world. Many are very talented writers and express themselves through text.

Autism is not fundamentally an intellectual disability, though it can be for some. Therefore, those with autism should be approached and classified according to our unique strengths and weaknesses. Just like anyone else.

I am neither high, nor low functioning. I am a person with an autistic brain.

 

Then… what is autism?

Autism is a different operating system. It’s a way of thinking that is atypical compared to the general population. It is the experience of looking at the world, and knowing you see it differently to everyone else on the same bus.

In practical terms, autism is a profile of intense strengths and crippling weaknesses. What those strengths and weaknesses are varies across individuals. Although everyone on earth has strengths and weaknesses, those with autism experience a much greater gap between what they are good at, and what they’re not so good at.

For example, a ‘neurotypical’ (someone with a brain that functions the same way as most) or ‘allistic’ (someone who is not autistic) person may be ‘good’ at running and ‘bad’ at cooking. An autistic person with those same traits would be ‘amazing’ at running and ‘horrendous’ at cooking. The difference in skill (or lack of) is much more pronounced in someone with autism.

For me, I am excellent at writing. This is my primary method of communication and of untangling my own thoughts. I’m great with music–I have a natural sense of rhythm and ability to play instruments with deep expression. I have mostly untapped artistic talent. I am wonderful at conducting deep analysis, I can research a subject thoroughly and output text that allows others to grasp the concept. I can argue almost any point convincingly–if I can do it in writing. I can teach myself to do things. I find something to get excited about on almost any topic. Don’t believe me? I can even get passionate about cricket. I am loyal, enthusiastic, and I love streamlining processes and finding ways to make things more efficient.

I sound pretty wonderful, huh? Here are some weaknesses.

I am downright shocking at communicating directly with people. I tire out fast and become unreasonably emotional when I’ve gone past my ‘limit’. I need extreme amounts of solitude to recover. I don’t deal with light or noise particularly well. My ‘processing’ speed is much slower than the average person–I often don’t comprehend what you’ve said until a few seconds after you’ve spoken. I can’t deal with too much verbal information. I need time to sit back and make plans for things. I don’t handle plans changing. I don’t like situations that are vague. Often, I take instructions too literally or fail to consider beyond the task that was initially asked. I almost always miss the ‘hidden’ meanings in conversations. I am naive, overly trusting, and very… very easily hurt.

 

How much of that is autism, and how much is just… you?

Some traits are more likely to present in autistic people, but for the most part, these are things that are experienced by most people. It’s the combination and intensity of these traits that defines whether a person is autistic or not. It’s also in the reactions to these traits where the clues to autism lie.

All of the things listed there as strengths are things I am exceptionally good at. All of those weaknesses have the capacity to (and have) interfere with how I relate to others and the world around me.

So let’s look at some of the traits in detail, and I’ll explain what I mean.

 

Obsessions and special interests

When someone says ‘Aspergers’, most people think of an uptight person who is fanatic about one or two topics. Thanks to The Big Bang Theory, they most often think of Sheldon Cooper. This is most often true of persons with autism.

My interests were simple. I love stories. I still love stories. I will go to the ends of the earth for a good story.

This began my obsession with books (and collecting books) and writing. I picked up the ability to read very early in life, well before I started school (thanks to excellent parents!). My obsession with words and letters is a sort of sub-interest to this, and it’s all sort of branched out into a broader love of linguistics, communication, and the history of the English language. It fascinates me. But it all started with stories.

This love of stories has also evolved into a love of TV, movies and video games. The creation of fiction is one of the most beautifully human things we have in our world. Through it we can imagine worlds beyond our immediate reality, glimpse into the future and revel in the past. We can escape where we are, imagine things greater, and even brainstorm solutions for problems that don’t yet exist. Writing is a form of pure magic.

Music was another early obsession. The first ‘favourite song’ I remember was  Lover [You Don’t Treat Me No Good No More] by Sonia Dada. I loved the deep vocal tones and the beat. The child-friendly tunes of Peter Coombe played constantly through early life, and my first favourite movie was Disney’s Fantasia. Music is a language of its own that captures stories both explicitly and imagined in the listener’s mind. On my worst days, music is a soothing force that brings me back down.

My third and most obvious obsession as a child was cats. I used to be able to list breeds and their  characteristics. I had books and toys and a collection of ornaments–if ever I rattled on about something (as ‘Aspergers’ is known for) it was about one of these topics.

These interests evolved and shifted over the years. I’m fascinated by true crime now, with psychology and technology. I like to know what features new gadgets have, how new apps can change the way we do things, and what goes through someone’s mind when they commit a crime.

I am also interested in what interests other people. I have a deep desire to understand what draws people to one topic or another, and thanks to my ability to find something of interest about almost any topic, I’ve discovered love for subjects that are outside of my general ‘sphere’ of interest. Much of this was sport related, AFL and cricket, but also crafting tidbits and politics.

 

Why research something you’re not really interested in?

Good question. That leads back to another trait: I struggle to make general conversation with people around me if I am not adequately prepared to do so.

It started as a means of ‘having something to say’. I feel a strong sense of disconnection even around people I’ve known a long time, and particularly those with whom I don’t share a common interest. Talking about my own interests is generally not advised–I find they’re very specific to me and not of great interest to other people. Plus, if you get me started I’m rather hard to stop.

I also don’t see much value in small talk. It was a part of the ‘cashier’ routine that I had to do for work, which I think cheapened it even more. In the job it became reflexive and ingenuine. People talk too much as it is, I don’t see any need to waste words about the weather when I could be making a proper and meaningful connection with the people who matter.

So I began researching tidbits of information that fell into their interests. Facebook makes this incredibly easy! Facebook is literally a feed of things other people are interested in, articles you can read and videos you can share. This is one of my best compensatory methods and is invaluable in helping me to begin and carry conversations.

 

Do you have emotions?

That’s another misunderstood trait. Autistic people often have trouble processing or reading emotions from other people, and also in expressing the emotions they feel. That’s not the same as not having emotions.

I feel the state of others around me keenly. It’s like a thick fog–I can’t avoid it. This ‘empath’ trait is sought after and is linked to emotional intelligence. Except in my case (and in the case of other empathically sensitive autistic people), although I’m getting the information–there’s not much I can do with it. I don’t understand it.

I understand the basics of it. Good emotion, bad emotion. Beyond that, I’m lost. It’s like someone is in my face yelling at me in German. I can kind of grasp if they’re happy or sad, but I don’t speak the language enough to truly understand what is being said. All I know is it’s right in my face and it’s damn uncomfortable. When others around me are stressed or upset, I begin to get stressed and upset because of the tension, and not knowing how to release or break it.

Like many autistic people, I don’t read faces, tone, or situations well. So all of that information is just confusing and makes it hard to cope. There’s a constant analysis going on in the back of my brain, trying to discover the meaning as it unfolds. This is a skill that is acquired over time and experience, and while I’ve got better at it over the years, it’s still exhausting and far less accurate than that ‘intuitive’ understanding that allistic/neurotypical people have.

As for my own emotions? They’re strong. Incredibly so. There are two forces here that make it hard for others to understand my emotive state, and one is simply that I am terrible at making the right face at the right time.

I am a severe sufferer of ‘resting bitch face’. Often I have to consciously change my expression to reflect happiness or sadness, and this I do solely for the sake of not looking ‘weird’. Left to my own devices, my face would rarely shift. The same is true of inflection in my voice, I have to remember to speak in a way that ‘matches’ how I should be feeling.

The second is practice at stillness. This is an unrelated and learned skill. When I was bullied in early school years, the first advice I got was to never let them see me cry. I went far beyond that and taught myself a poker face that (combined with inborn reduced expression) I presented to the entire world.

There are days where I am incredibly expressive. I express myself outside of facial expressions, too–I run and jump and spin and talk a million miles an hour. These are the days when I am most myself, and most comfortable being who I am. When I am being ‘weird’ I don’t have to be ‘still’ and I can let go.

I struggle with letting go a lot. A lot. Experience tells me that if you act outside of what is expected, only bad things will happen.

 

How do you handle conversation?

To be honest? Not well. Unless it’s on a topic that I know a lot about, or have researched, I struggle. My slower processing speed can make it very hard to keep up with the pace of a conversation, and before I say anything, it needs to be formed, checked for appropriateness, and rehearsed in my head before it leaves my lips.

If I don’t go through that process–you never quite know what I’ll say. I can spurt out irrelevant or even offensive things without meaning to. I have to actually think quite hard about what is okay to say in front of the audience I’ve got, and to word it in a way that can’t be misconstrued. When you don’t really understand the extra connotations that others spot in terms of word choice, facial expression and tone of voice (remembering that mine does not flow naturally!) it becomes very important to watch what you say.

There are so many social clues and contexts and hidden meanings that I just… don’t comprehend. It’s only recently that I learned that commenting on how nice someone’s food looks/smells is the same as asking for some. I didn’t know that–and I would often compliment my housemate’s cooking based on the sight and smell. Not in the slightest did I expect that I should be offered some. I just wanted to say something nice based on an observation. That food did smell good!

In short, any of those more subtle aspects of interaction I need to learn the same way as I learned to tie my shoelaces: with practice and experience.

Starting conversations is probably the hardest for me, especially if they’re about myself. Those of you who primarily encounter me through this blog and other online channels might think that’s absurd. All I do here is talk about myself!

In person, it’s a very different story. First, it’s much easier to start a conversation that is light hearted and that you know will be well recieved by your conversation partner. So if I start conversations, it’s more likely going to revolve around their interests.

The second thing you need to understand, is that I’m driven by a deep and unshakeable fear of rejection. I’ve had this constant knowledge all my life that I am somehow different, that I don’t function in the same ways as other people, and for the most part I’ve been deathly afraid of demonstrating that difference. I fear that when people come to know me as I see me, they will see ‘that’ thing that makes me ‘other’ and that will provide enough reason for them to turn away.

I’ve always wanted to be out of the spotlight, away from scrutiny, scared that any minute I will be discovered. It’s felt a lot as if I’m some sort of alien trying to masquerade as a human, trying to learn their ways and fit in but never quite managing it. Fearing every time I slip up and show myself that I’ll be hunted down and outcast once and for all.

That’s a pretty heavy belief to have when you’re seven or eight years old, yet it’s one of the oldest ones I have. I don’t remember ever feeling any other way. I didn’t believe I had a right to be myself, because what I was was obviously ‘wrong’ and didn’t fit here.

The people I struggle to talk to most are the ones in my physical realm. Online is online. Yes–I have amazing friends that I hold in very high esteem and my life would not be the same without them. But even so, if, when I reveal my true self to them, they shun me?

I can turn them off. The internet is full of block and delete buttons. The emotional cost will still be high, but I won’t run the risk of seeing them down the street. They won’t be at family gatherings. I can tell them anything I like with that safety net.

I also get to speak with them using a method that allows me the most clarity: via text. I very rarely speak the more difficult things. When I do, the right words never seem to fit in my mouth, or I sway the conversation to make light of things and change the meaning entirely. Spoken conversations never go the way they should. I always end up saying something I didn’t mean, or not explaining things well enough and the whole exercise ends up being pointless.

This blog allows me a medium. It’s open and visible to people in my physical and online realms alike. These are my words as I wish I could speak them, explaining myself in the way I’ve always wanted to–and far more powerfully now that I have some understanding of why I am the way I am.

 

What do you mean ‘slow processing speed’? You’re smart, right?

For a given value of ‘smart’, yes. I’m great at navigating photoshop, but at this point in my life I can’t drive. People far less switched on than me can drive, so why can’t I? That’s the trouble with the ‘smart’ label. It assumes that smart in one thing is smart in all things. I am definitely not. No one is.

I have definite intellectual strengths. However, it can take me a little longer to get there. How fast or slow you process things has nothing to do with intelligence.

It’s a bit like RAM in a computer. If the average person has 16GB of RAM, I’m probably running on 12GB. Therefore, I am less efficient in how I deal with things around me. My extreme sensitivity also means that a lot of that ‘processing power’ is taken up by interpreting information from external sources. So there’s very little left to deal with the immediate situation.

This is most obvious in conversation. I have particular trouble with ‘verbal information dumping’, or basically when someone gives me a lot of instructions or ideas in a single conversation. In transferring that information from the short term (or RAM) to long term (HDD, haha!) memory, there’s not always enough RAM/short term memory to store the information… and pieces get lost.

Thankfully, there’s also a weird ‘transitional’ memory that I’ve noted, which is kind of like a backup for the RAM/short term. It doesn’t catch everything, but often if it’s been a long day full of information or if I’ve been given a lot of options regarding something, during my next quiet moment I’ll take some time to go through all of the concepts that were presented and process them properly.

This is generally what I’m doing while staring at the TV, playing video games, or scrolling through Facebook. I’m going back through the day and consolidating my memory.

 

What do you mean ‘extreme sensitivity’?

My sensitivity to almost everything is perhaps the least known fact about me. Even to myself, I didn’t realise what the source of discomfort was until it was pointed out.

I don’t tune things out well. That dripping tap? The radio across the road? That bird that hasn’t stopped for the last hour? I hear each instance as keenly as I heard the first. I have exceptional hearing, and the same goes for my sight and smell. But as I lack the ability to subconsciously tune out background sensations, my attention is constantly split between what is immediate and what is not.

I’m sitting at my desk right now and I’m hearing that bird, the fan in my computer, my fingers on the keys, that weird sound of the sky at night, cars move up and doors open, the neighbours in their pool, the saliva in my mouth. All of these have equal sized pieces of my attention.

I can feel my foot pressed against the chair, my hair prickling at the back of my scalp, sweat drying on my forehead and how itchy my nose is (my nose is always so annoyingly itchy!), my chest aching from a breath I was holding, my one roll of fat resting comfortably in my shirt, my bra straps itching across my shoulder blades, my trousers stuck to my leg with the heat. I can feel how heavy I am and how my hands shake when they come to rest. Again, none of these are ever tuned out. I am always this aware.

My vision is even more intense. I’m highly sensitive to bright light, and the fluourescent bulb above is reflecting off the white walls and table and box in front of me, a sharp contrast to the black computer screen, keyboard and tower. The black lines are wiggling and jumping around, creating after images in green and purple. The text on the screen is wiggling about like it does. How I ever learned to read, let alone love doing so, is actually a miracle. The granular colours of visual snow are drifting about, as usual. I’ve never known anything different. I’m now aware of how much it drains me, and how important sunglasses are.

Often it feels to me like my skin has been peeled  away, leaving every nerve raw and exposed. Every sound is a booming cacophony, every touch is a hot knife. It drains and builds, reducing my tolerance to anything more until I literally can’t handle anything more. In those moments I need to escape. I need to drastically reduce the amount of sensory information coming in, or I will go into meltdown.

 

Meltdown? You have meltdowns?

Yes. That is the actual term for what I call ‘episodes’. It’s a release, an expression of being so incredibly overwhelmed that literally nothing more can be tolerated.

Mild meltdowns are shaking and crying, but they go far more extreme. Screaming into pillows and raking my nails up and down my skin, trying to distract myself from a weird feeling that I can only describe as thrashing around inside my skin. As if I can feel my bones shift violently about inside me, trying to get out. I can’t catch my thoughts in a meltdown, they’re fragmented and swirling in a hurricane. There’s lightning snapping at the synapses in my brain, making me think things I don’t want to think.

I am lucky, very lucky, that at the same time I often go into a sort of ‘paralysis’. I freeze and feel myself fighting under my skin, but come to no real physical harm. The desire for violent acts is there, I want to punch walls and kick glass and run out on the road and scream at cars–but I can’t, and I don’t. I don’t move until rational thought comes back to remind me how dumb those thoughts are.

Frustration is the strongest feeling. Frustration that I can’t control it. Frustration that I didn’t know where it came from. Frustration that this is a thing that doesn’t seem to happen to other people, and I must be broken for it to happen to me so frequently.

I experience some form of meltdown roughly once a week. A bad week will have them once or twice a day, some of them being very severe. The experience takes a huge toll on my energy and a long recovery time. Exhaustion also adds to the underlying stress that leaves me prone to meltdowns, so if one severe one occurs, more usually follow.

There’s no cure for this. No way to control it, but to observe how I’m reacting to the situation I’m in, and take steps to minimise overstimulation where I need to. It usually means stepping away in social situations, saying ‘no’ when I want to say ‘yes’, and generally avoiding too much sound and light than I can handle. That reduces the frequency.

They will always happen. That’s simply how it is.

 

Uhh… violent acts? That doesn’t sound fun.

It’s not. It’s really not.

Like many autistic people, I experience emotions at an extreme level. I react to situations in a very intense way that I don’t fully understand. There’s no real language to explain those moments. I know that I’m feeling something highly complex, and often there’s a strong desire to communicate what I’m feeling–but I’m left without the tools to do so.

One method of expressing this frustrating pain is to convert that feeling into a physical object, something that others can see and comprehend. It is in the world, it’s real, it’s not a figment of my imagination. Depending on my state of mind, the impulses range from scratching my skin to the above-mentioned running on the road.

I need to underline here that never in the almost-thirty years of having these types of thoughts have I acted on them any further than to scratch my arms and legs. Nor will I ever go beyond that. So much meaning is lost in the conversion from emotional to physical that it literally makes no sense to do so, and above all else, I am a highly logical being.

I have a ‘voice’ (not a real voice, but I often consider it a separate entity) that pipes up when intrusive thoughts jump their way into my brain. My more rational self poking holes into the violent suggestions that flash up like annoying pop-up advertisements.

The best example of this rational voice is from the day that the most bizarre intrusive thought suggested that I should take the office scissors and cut both my hands off at the wrists. I was having a bad day and feeling under a lot of pressure, things kept changing every other minute, and I was well beyond my limit.

Rational voice says: ‘Okay, so you very painfully cut through the bone of one hand with blunt office scissors… exactly how do you plan to cut the other hand off? You can’t use scissors with a bloodied stump, dickhead.’

I laughed. That’s often the case. Either rational voice points out how illogical/messy/plain dumb an idea is, or the gaps in the impulse’s logic are too hilarious. Either way, there has never been a chance of action on any of these more extreme thoughts. Nor will there ever be.

 

I bet you don’t like things changing around. Sheldon Cooper doesn’t!

I sure don’t. Some of Sheldon Cooper’s autism characteristics are ones that I do share. Rigid thinking and an inflexible sense of order are one.

I start my day with a sort of mental plan, a sequence of activities that will get me from waking and to the end of the day. I tell myself every morning that although I have this road map for the day, things will come up and I will need to adjust as necessary.

Haaaaaahahhaa. If only it worked that simply!

I get very frustrated with late changes to my plan. I’m quite okay with someone texting me 4-5 hours out from doing something that they’re now unable to, as that gives me enough time to process this information and adjust the plan accordingly. Texting me ten minutes before leaves me with a sudden gap in my mental schedule, and a sense of loss at how to fill it.

The same happens with being given activities to do. I need time to process that something must be added to my mental schedule, and time to figure out how I will best approach the task. Starting something the minute I’ve found out I need to do it is incredibly uncomfortable. It fills me with that unprepared sense of anxiety, not unlike the worry that you left the hair straightener on while you went shopping. I can do the task through it, but at the cost of that anxiety pushing me closer toward a meltdown. At the same time, the distraction caused by that unsettled feeling means I may not do the task as well as I normally might. I wasn’t prepared for this, I didn’t go in with a plan, and this is the result.

You might think it doesn’t matter, that not all tasks need a plan and approach–that I should just relax and do things regardless. In that case, you’re missing the point. Taking the time to mentally slot the task into my sense of order is how I am able to relax. I have a very defined system for how I go about the world, and the majority of it involves a period of consideration prior to action.

I even think for several minutes about what path I will take through the house before getting up to go to the toilet.

I don’t think there’s a single person I haven’t frustrated with this particular aspect of myself. Just ask my poor English teachers, who watched me sit in front of a blank page for hours before beginning to write!

 

So what is your ‘sense of order’?

Everything and everyone has a place and a way of being that I have come to expect. Changes to that can unsettle me very fast. One of my first major breakdowns spiralled from my family moving home–and I didn’t even live there at the time.

I get very attached to places and objects. Mum had the same microwave for so many years that their current one still looks wrong to me. I get upset when my favourite foods are discontinued. I hate when people change cars. Our local radio stations changed their names just the other week and I am not okay with it.

I love the idea of holidays, but the reality actually sucks. Everything is out of place at once. Christmas is a chaotic rollercoaster of visitors and nothing being the way it usually is. As much as I love the season and having people around, it’s not the norm and it becomes unreasonably stressful. During special events and holidays, I need far more time to recover than in an average week–purely because I have to keep re-creating my mental schedule around the chaos.

 

Do you understand sarcasm?

Another stereotype, and one that has a good real basis. I understand sarcasm from people I know exceptionally well. Sometimes. Not all the time. I understand sarcasm when it is hyperbolic and accompanied by a distiguishable ‘sarcasm’ tone of voice.

Our family is one that likes to tease each other in that good natured way that families do. I do it as much as anyone else, but even with family I have to second guess whether what they say to me is truth or joke. Or perhaps if it is a truth cloaked in humour. I never really know. I just laugh and try to think of something witty to say back. At least, now I do. I know that’s what is expected now.

Before I really understood that, I would shrink back or into a book and try to vanish. I would get offended or upset and retreat. What was fun for others was confusing and confronting for me, but I never knew how to express that feeling.

With people I don’t know, the confusion is a thousand times worse. Ask anyone who’s ever flirted with me–most of them get shut down so fast because I’m convinced that they’re playing some sort of joke on me. I get very defensive because I don’t fully understand what’s going on, and defensive is all I’ve got to protect myself with.

 

Do you hate social things?

Quite the opposite, if you’d believe that. I love having people around, even if it does get highly uncomfortable for me. There are certain environments that I hate, such as clubs and music festivals, but for the most part I’m extremely happy when surrounded by the people who matter to me.

There are ways I can push through, and the key one is alcohol. Alcohol dulls my senses and disables most of my filters, so I have a lot more processing power available to enjoy social situations. I refuse to lean on it as a social tool, but in situations where it is acceptable to drink and be merry, I do indeed drink and be merry.

The bonus of alcohol is that in disabling those filters, I’m generally more my authentic self and I don’t give a shit. It’s good training for being able to do that sober!

 

Why did you seek diagnosis?

I changed jobs, from a part time retail gig to a fulltime position as a marketing coordinator. Now, I have a long adjustment cycle for any type of change, but even when I normally should have been settled, I wasn’t.

I was experiencing difficulties I’d only encountered once before–when I was working full time as a network technician. I was tired and unfocused, unreasonably emotional all of the time, and I was struggling to get work done. When I got home, I would collapse on my bed and go straight to sleep. Most nights I was too exhausted to eat.

My productivity suffered for it, and I was beginning to think I was incapable of doing this wonderful new job. In spite of how much I loved it, I couldn’t seem to keep up with the changing priorities and multiple tasks that I was expected to have going at any given time. My brief foray into telemarketing was a complete bust, as I talked over people or said the wrong things, or worse–froze up when the conversation took an unexpected turn.

I had no idea what was wrong. I reached some very low points where my sense of worth was less than nothing. I contemplated returning to the job that provided me very little satisfaction and cried myself to sleep. How could I be so bad at something that I loved so much?

Many things happened in my fight to understand what was happening, but the key moment was an article shared on Facebook. It was on the ‘lost girls’ of autism, girls who were overlooked or misdiagnosed under the belief that autism isn’t something that occurs in females.

When I found a list of behaviours and symptoms, I just stared at the screen–and cried. I’d never read such an accurate description of my experience.

From there I went on a fact-finding mission, reading books and blogs and matching those experiences to mine. The result was almost always tears: of relief, because finally I wasn’t as weird as I thought. There were women out there just like me.

I wasn’t failing at my job because I was dumb. It was structured in a very different way to my previous job. I didn’t have the long gaps between short shifts to recover mentally. I was also working three times as many hours in a week, which is a lot for an autistic person. I shifted from being crippled by self-doubt to proud of what I had managed.

I am an autistic woman who is successfully holding down a full time job. Statistically, that’s quite an achievement! Many other autistic women are not able to manage full time work.

The choice to be properly assessed and formally diagnosed was a personal one. Because these autistic traits were causing issues at work, I felt I needed more than a Google search worth of answers. I needed solid strategies to help improve my productivity and create more balance in my life.

I did some research and located a psychologist who specialised in female autism. My experience with being allocated a local therapist was very hit-and-miss, so this way I was able to choose someone that I felt had the understanding I needed to give me useful answers. I read both Aspiengirl and Aspienwoman by Tania Marshall, and from there I felt reasonably confident that she could help me.

Tania Marshall does more than just diagnose, and as an adult, I needed more than just a label. Her view of Autism/Aspergers as a different wiring of the brain, and an opportunity to leverage super talents was one that I could get behind. Working with her I was able to understand both how I process things, and to begin building a road map toward better self management.

 

Are you glad you discovered your illness finally?

The process has been hard, and very confronting. The first thing I had to adjust on diagnosis was shifting the way I saw myself from having an ‘illness’ and ‘disorder’ with anxiety and depression, to being a person with a ‘condition’—a person with autism.

It may not sound like much, but the difference is huge. Autism isn’t something you cure. It isn’t something you can cure. I’m not sure I’d want to even if I could–it’s the source of my strengths as much as it is the source of my weaknesses. Like any other person, I need to manage those weaknesses and optimise my strengths. Unlike any other person, failure to take care of myself and to manage those weaknesses will result in a meltdown.

I’m very glad to have found this answer. So many things in my life make more sense through the lens of Autism. I struggle to let go of things before I fully understand how they occurred, so now that I have a better understanding of some of the more shameful events in my life, I can finally forgive myself for them. I finally know how and why they occured.

I can finally stop thinking of myself as broken, stupid, and a failure. Instead, I have been someone trying to survive in an alien world, living under the incorrect assumption that I should be able to survive the same way as everyone else.

I can’t. I need my own way, and that’s perfectly okay.

Importantly, I am not ill. I am just different.

Diagnosis for me meant that I was able to see more clearly the experience I have. It gave me the language to describe it to others. It gave meaning and hope that I could not just eventually be free of the more damaging effects–but manipulate my strengths into superpowers.

I always was and always will be autistic.

 

Isn’t everyone a ‘little bit autistic’?

Yes… and no. Everyone has traits that are commonly found in autistic people. But to say that everyone experiences them in the same intensity and with the same consequences as an autistic person is to completely disregard how painful and frightening a meltdown can be.

You might not like that itchy tag at the back of your shirt. For me, it will itch and itch and itch until I either escape it, or I break down.

 

Were you vaccinated?

Sigh. Yes. As you’ll notice, I also didn’t die of measles, mumps, or rubella.

The vaccination-causes-autism myth is completely bogus. There was never a time in my life where I was not autistic. The rise in autism diagnoses is due to the greater understanding of autism and its traits, not the increase in vaccinations.

Autism is primarily genetic. For any autistic person, there are family members who display fragments of autistic traits. Those traits are passed on, creating a profile that carries enough autistic traits for the individual to be deemed diagnosably autistic. The chance of my own children, should I have any, being autistic is incredibly high.

I will never understand the argument against vaccination on the grounds it causes autism. I would much rather this, than a preventable illness.

 

If you’re autistic, shouldn’t it have been caught in school?

For boys, this is most often the case. Girls are diagnosed on average two years later–and more and more women are discovering themselves at the age of thirty or higher. These older women (myself included) were in school at a time where the idea of girls being autistic was still a foreign one.

What happens in a lot of undiagnosed women is a cycle of not coping, where the woman is fine for a time–and then everything falls in a heap. There’s time for recovery, and then it begins again. It goes on until the woman goes into what is known as ‘autistic burnout’ or ‘autistic regression’.

 

Autistic regression?

Basically, a surge in autism symptoms. The individual is too run down or burned out to tolerate the things she did before, in the way she did before. Compensatory strategies that used to work are no longer as effective, and meltdowns become more frequent and more intense.

This is what drives most women to seek more answers. For me, changing my job was what drove me into a state of autistic regression, and I’m still trying to dig my way out of it.

 

Why can’t you just shrug it off and keep going?

Well-meaning advice suggests I should be able to tough things out, and push through. Some days, yes, that’s possible and productive. It’s not a strategy for the long-term, though.

Constantly pushing past my limits, not listening to my body when it demands rest, continues the cycle of not coping. It results in recurring burnout, each episode worse than the one before. In women who were not fortunate enough to be diagnosed, who continued trying to achieve things in the same way as their allistic peers, that burnout became permanent.

Nervous breakdowns, permanent fatigue, and critically reduced tolerance to sensory input? That’s definitely not a life I want to lead. So taking care of myself now, tolerating what I can and taking the time to recharge when I need to is highly important.

I need to accept myself as an autistic person, and make decisions accordingly.

 

How else do you cope?

I do a lot of things to cope on a daily basis. Wearing sunglasses (including inside at work), taking breaks during social activities, and having something I can hyperfocus on to ‘recharge’ if I can’t step away–those are some of the basics.

When I get home, I change into comfortable clothes that don’t cause excess sensory input. I spend my lunch breaks in a dark room, and you can usually find me resting with my eyes closed. Not asleep, but processing and blocking out the light for a while.

I get my nails done professionally, partly because it feels good and I like the uniqueness of it. It makes me feel like I stand out for the oddball that I am. But also because it flattens the tips and allows me to release pressure by scratching, without doing any damage. I get glitter polishes because watching the light sparkle is soothing to me, and can help stabilise me when I don’t have the ability to retreat.

I try to walk a line between avoiding things that induce meltdowns, and maintaining an active life. That’s a balance I’m still learning.

 

How are you still rambling?

I honestly don’t know. I hope this gave you a bit more insight into my world of Autism. I would love to answer any questions you have, or hear your own experiences.

My high school musical

My high school musical

In the summer before I started high school, I looked at myself in the mirror. I had a haircut that was (in hindsight) terrible, and no idea how to style it to look like anything beyond a limp helmet. Make-up was the last thing on my mind. I’ve written about my experiences in primary school, and high school was very different.

I remember looking at that mirror as intensely as I could, repeating: ‘You’re going to be awesome. All these people are going to like you. Whatever it takes, I’m going to be accepted and popular’.

It felt like a pretty positive mantra at the time. High school was my fresh start. I’d be like every other year seven out there, thrown out of my comfortable (or in my case, uncomfortable) primary school environment into a jumble of anxious students trying to make their way in a new system. I was excited. Mum had said she met her best life-long friends in high school, and that’s what I hoped for myself.

I could scratch primary school from memory, I just had to do better this time around!

And then year seven began.

The school I went to was unique in a few ways. First, the ‘home group’ we were assigned to attend five minutes before the start of classes in the morning, and five minutes after lunch, wasn’t organised by year level or class groups. It was a mix of students across the 7-12 grades, all in the same house.

My home group was 25, and I was in Melba. I was absolutely shattered to find out it was red house. Red was a gross and obnoxious colour, all my life I’d been in green house. This was the luck of my draw though, and it was through the home group system that I met my very first high school friend.

She was quiet. Probably overwhelmed as I was by the older kids who gently teased us about being the ‘babies’. She had a huge pencil case full of gel pens in every colour you could imagine. We sat together because we were both year seven, and over the first few weeks I gathered up the courage to ask if I could borrow one of her pens.

Thus began one friendship I still treasure today.

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A ‘sweet marjoram’ sign in the school garden misread by H as ‘sweet marijuana’ sparked  a stories about our school as an ingenious drug farm.

The other thing about high school, was that it combined kids from a variety of primary schools. I was now back in the same environment as some of the girls I’d followed around before changing primary schools, and people I knew from the primary school I graduated from were also there.

For some reason, this didn’t make me anxious. It was exciting, a chance to mend bridges—especially now that my best friend from my graduating primary school class was willing to socialise with me in public (her other friends had gone to different high schools).

Another girl I recognised from even earlier days, when I haunted the primary school playgrounds and tried to figure out my place in it all. I distinctly remember her swinging on the monkey bars. What drew me to her was her hair–it was long. It was so incredibly long, I was in awe. I must have been about eight when I awkwardly introduced myself. She said ‘I know’ and swung away. This girl was at my high school too!

So many familiar faces and I was determined to make an effort, get known, be friends with people and generally succeed at life in a way I didn’t feel I had yet. People did it so easily in books and movies, my own little sister barely had to walk into a room before she was beloved by all–so it had to be possible for me too.

I started with my friend in home group, who we’ll call H. H and I were in different year seven classes (year seven being the only year at this school where students were in the same groups for all classes). We discovered a mutual love of gel pens, I began collecting them but I’d never match her impressive collection. She was also quirky and didn’t think it was weird when I took ideas to the extreme.

H was in the same year seven class as N, the girl with the amazing long hair. H also spent her lunch times in a group with girls that I didn’t see were appreciating her value, so once I’d established a solid friendship with her, I asked if she’d come hang out with me and my then-closest friend B.

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N hated maths. I would often draw in the margins of my notes, scribbles designed to amuse others or make them feel better.

M was a girl with extremely frizzy hair that I also remembered from primary school, and she was in my year seven class. Her passion for cars, The Beatles and North Melbourne, which she unashamedly displayed, made her intriguing to me. I can no longer remember who else was in the highly dysfunctional 7E of the year 2000–I remember we had more behaviour plans than any other year seven group in that year.

I’m pretty sure teachers still talk about us and twitch at the memory.

I wasn’t a ringleader by any standard, I was barely even a participant–but I laughed at the disruptions and played along when one of the boys jumped into a recycle bin to escape our English teacher.

Groups began forming, as they do in high school, and it became very clear very fast that there was an ‘elite’ group of popular girls and guys, and I was not destined to be in it. My attempts to attract the attention of these more popular sorts were fruitless, I was either invisible or annoying or mocked for trying, but that didn’t matter.

Through a series of mutual connections, familiar faces drifting together, we’d begun to form a hap-hazard group of our own. We weren’t misfits our outcasts, we weren’t social pariahs. Mostly, we were just a group of girls that had things in common and got along very well.

Music

One of the most important experiences occurred for me in the first term of year seven, when I was asked to lead a group from my old primary school around on a tour. The tour took us by the music room, a place I previously hadn’t thought much of. I’d learned a bit of piano through the years, but in all honesty–I became so expert at cajoling my piano teacher to play things for me and spell everything out, that I got to high school unable to read music at all.

The intermediate band was in the band room, and they were playing the theme from Jurassic Park. It must have sounded awful to a trained ear, but to me it was all-encompassing. I lost myself so deeply in the sound that I had to be prodded by a teacher to continue the tour. From that moment, I knew I had to join the band.

I’d tested well musically, my sense of pitch was good and I had a natural affinity for rhythm. I wanted to play trumpet, I decided. My parents, understandably, felt differently about this, and suggested I focus on my studies for a year–see how I felt about the band at the beginning of year eight.

I agreed to this, and became determined to get grades so perfect there would be no reason to say I couldn’t join the band in the following year. Not long after this, I attended a church service (I honestly can’t remember why) where a woman played the most absorbing tune on a clarinet.

Once again, I was enchanted.

How about the clarinet? I suggested to Mum, and perhaps she was relieved that I no longer wanted to bring a trumpet into the house. She thought it was a good option, and I took that as permission to ask my classroom music teacher (there are many amazing people in my life, she is still one) how I might go about starting on clarinet in the following year.

She suggested I would be best off trying it out first, seeing how I felt about the instrument before I made a commitment. There was a spare rental one–would I like to take it home? I agreed readily, and once I was shown how to assemble it, I brought it home with me.

I felt guilty at the time, suddenly realising that perhaps in bringing a clarinet home I was disobeying my parent’s wishes to not start music before year eight. I think I tried to hide the instrument at first, I don’t recall–but I loved it. My parents saw how much I loved it, and caved. I joined the junior school band half-way through year seven.

Year Eight

Year eight brought us the ability to select our own classes, and themed classes designed to increase student engagement. I stared for hours at the subject guide, poring over it to find the absolute perfect arrangement of classes. Should I do a history class that focused on medieval times? An English class about journalism? I was definitely doing a music class, that was a given.

Year eight music was actually a concert band, with the focus on performing at the Melbourne School Band’s Festival in the second semester. I’d fought to get into the band at all, I wasn’t leaving it here.

It was my favourite class by far. H was a trumpet player, as was M. D, who was part of the group I’d been ‘friends’ with in primary school, was a clarinetist as well. She was good, and I aimed to be like her from my squeaky third row. The band allowed for socialising across the normal cliques, we all had something in common–even if it was just terrorising our poor teacher.

The class allocation system wasn’t perfect, though. Clashes meant often having to select a class you weren’t interested in, or (worse) had no friends in. The system allowed for students with particular interests to move ‘up’ or ‘down’ levels and learn with students at their ability level, even if they weren’t in the same numerical grade. I was encouraged to get into second-level (year nine) English classes as a way of giving myself a head start.

In classes where I had friends, like the ever-zany K and T who I’d not known before coming to high school (but they were in the band!), I was happiest. I did all of those things that normal students do: talked while the teacher was talking, passed notes, made inappropriate jokes and fed off their energy.

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‘Titler’ was the product of a reading error by me, and K’s random sense of humour.

In classes where I was without those friends, whether that was by poor scheduling or by selecting classes a year above the normal level, I was almost another person entirely. Shy and withdrawn, I spoke only when called on–spent most of my time writing in a small exercise book to show the others when we all got out of class.

That was another thing. They loved my writing. We would make up characters for implausible situations, and I wrote about them. My writing was funny, and apparently addictive. At least–if H’s constant demand for more was any clue. The weird ideas and thoughts I’d had my whole life found another life of their own on paper, and were consumed by actual friends who genuinely appreciated what I wrote.

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Making shadow scenes with people who don’t laugh at you for making shadow scenes. The best of all friendship goals. This is from my 18th birthday.

They weren’t the only ones who would have, but at this point I was terrified of anyone else reading my writing. I believed no one else would quite ‘understand’ it, that they would read into the stories as if they were code, and either begin to believe things about me that weren’t true… or discover the ‘true’ me and find her repulsive. It was never about praise or criticism, always a pure terror of being misunderstood or found out.

I think I covered more notebook pages with these stories in high school alone, than I have with actual class notes in my entire academic career.

K was the sort of girl who would turn up to a regular party in fancy dress–just because she could. She turned up to one event with a washing basket strapped to her back and claimed to be a Ninja Turtle. I admired her open eccentricity, and in a way she gave me courage to be more open and hold back less of my opinions and ideas. I could never match her level, though.

She was staying at my house one night, and we’d got our instruments out (K played the trumpet) to practice. This really just meant swapping instruments and attempting to play them for shits and giggles, and it spawned what we thought would be the most hilarious prank ever.

We would go into band class with each other’s instruments and sit down at each other’s places and begin to rehearse as though nothing was out of the ordinary. Imagine! A clarinetist trying to play trumpet, a trumpet player trying to play with the clarinets! Oh the absurd hilarity! We were sure it would give our temperamental teacher a meltdown.

Of course, it didn’t. Like all good teachers, he ignored the bad behaviour and we switched back out of boredom.

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Some of us as Under_Score, secret agent school girls.

My fight to catch up to the other clarinetists somehow ended in me becoming quite a strong player, and my ability to read music was coming along even faster. I was moved up to join the front row first clarinets, and half way through the year was invited to come along to senior band practices as well–something year eights only did if they had years of instrumental experience behind them.

The trumpet still intrigued me, though. I asked about the chances of trying some lessons, and was grudgingly allowed to attend the group lessons. My brother was now a percussionist in the junior band, so rather than waiting outside and being bored–I began to play trumpet with the year sevens as well.

That year, I went to Sydney with the senior band. I had a couple of friends in the year above now, who were also in the senior band, so I didn’t feel at all alienated without my core group of friends.

So on it went.

Our group shifted and changed through the years, people drifted away–people drifted in. There was no power structure to it, no pecking order. Not everyone was treated wonderfully all of the time, but I would struggle to describe a social system much better than what we had. It was inclusive, it celebrated people for who they were, and even if it wasn’t the hugely popular clique a more naieve me had imagined to herself while staring in the mirror, I was fast coming to realise that this was much better.

I hated maths. At first, because it all seemed rather obvious. Some stuff I’d learned in primary school, other things just made sense. I got bored easily and tended to rush work, often copying down the wrong numbers and therefore getting the wrong answers. Being wrong frustrated me, so the obvious conclusion was that maths was wrong.

Maths lessons began to curiously be replaced by additional music lessons. Whether that be practice for a concert, or yet another instrument I was learning (by the end of high school I could play at least a few tunes on clarinet, trumpet, saxophone (aka clarinet easy mode), flute and trombone).

I wasn’t great with fractions. Decimals made more sense. Why express something as a fraction with a remainder, when you could have a nice decimal number? My avoidance made me reluctant to use them, or learn how they really worked. Until my sneaky instrumental teacher took it upon himself to teach me maths using what I loved: music notes. And I’d gone to all that trouble of escaping maths for music…!

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From the pit of a school production. Chocolate at the ready, playing flute always made me dizzy!

I remember trying to get my head around sin, cos, and tan and their applications. I just didn’t get it, even though the teacher had explained several times all the right calculator steps to find the answer. It wouldn’t stick. I kept asking him: Why? Why does that make the answer?

I always needed to know why. Like a perpetual three year old, I understood things more from how they came to be, rather than an abstracted process to find the correct answer. Other things I just knew.

No one really taught me spelling, grammar, or how to write. I could point out every mistake in a newspaper article, but I couldn’t tell you why it was wrong. It just was. It looked funny, or it sounded funny. A teacher remarked on an essay that my writing style was almost rhythmic, that I somehow managed to sum up points like the ending of a song.

She’s not wrong. There’s a rhythm in my head, almost like writing poetry. If the words don’t conform to it, I find another way to say it. I find a way that fits this unheard rhythm.

It wasn’t until university that I was explicitly taught how grammar worked, though, which came as a shock to me (who thought I knew everything about writing).

I had my bad days, and weeks, and months. I remember being overwhelmed by things that seem so minimal now, stressed to the point of sickness over assignments. Though I had the most amazing group of friends anyone could wish for, I still did feel awkward and shut out of the ‘popular’ groups, and I could never understand why.

It was like I didn’t even speak the same language as they did.

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At one point we had a trivia team. We were supposed to be called ‘Noodle Face’ but K forgot the l when she wrote it down.

I made another friend in the year above me, who I thought was the exception to this. She seemed to have this natural ability with other people that I clearly did not possess, and for some reason she took interest in me. We ended up working at the same supermarket. She wasn’t a big fan of my other friends, and her friends weren’t a big fan of me–so for the most part we didn’t hang out during school times.

I could never figure her out, though. She would go from fine to upset with me in a matter of seconds, and I never knew what I’d done wrong. She’d never tell me, either. Even once she’d ‘forgiven’ me, I wasn’t allowed to know how I’d overstepped into the ‘bad friend’ zone, only that I’d done it and I was lucky to be allowed another chance.

I counted her a friend, though, and I didn’t want to upset a friend–so I did anything in my power to avoid upsetting her. Later we would share a house, and I would try to fend off any insult my presence made by purchasing things I thought she would like, and leaving them on her chair–like a cat appealing to her owner.

She explicitly said that if I wanted to have my friends from high school over at the house, I would need to tell her so she could vacate. They were weird, she said, and she didn’t like them. In response, I let contact with the likes of H and N drop for far too long.

But that occurred some years after graduation. In school, I was just delighted that she thought I was worthy of her attention.

Final years

One thing I’d had drilled into me from the start of high school: to go to university, I would need to do well enough to get a scholarship.

I wanted to go to university. I wanted it more than anything. I wanted to live a fancy life in Melbourne, away from my home town, where again I would be cool and confident and have all my shit together. I imagined that, once at university, everything would really come together and I’d be a real person.

So I had to do well, and I put a lot of pressure on myself. My entire future was at stake (so I thought), this was my only chance to get out of town and live the life I’d always dreamed of!

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‘Draw a secret agent crab!’ they challenged me. I still maintain the trench coat is not cheating.

I chose subjects poorly. Though I loved music, my theory skills were terrible beyond the basics. I picked a maths subject beyond my capabilities because I was too proud to achieve less.

Throughout my high school career, I’d started writing stories and poems that captured what had occurred on band excursions–taking things to surreal extremes–and posting them on the noticeboard. These also went in the end of year ‘Tour Book’, a hefty folder of music jokes and stories, comics, and goodness knows what else I could be bothered printing out, that was used to entertain the band during long road trips.

When I expressed to one of my music teachers that I was considering a career in music, she commented: ‘That would be a waste, you should go into writing.’

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Another one of N unleashing her hatred of numbers.

Still, I persevered with my subject choices. I dropped what little weight I had. I didn’t study where I could be seen, which cut my study time to what I could manage while my sister was occupied outside of our bedroom. I was anxious. I couldn’t sleep at night, or wake up in the morning. I’d also discovered the joys of the internet, where I was able to connect with other offbeat creatives like myself.

I began tutoring a couple of private school girls on essay writing, helping one improve her grade from a C- to a B+. I began to think about teaching as a career, and when I mentioned this to a very picky (but lovely) English teacher, was given the critical eye before a final: ‘I trust you with that’.

It turns out I can’t teach, by the way. I was given the task of correcting journal entries written by six-year-olds, and apparently you can’t be that harsh as a teacher.

I began to complain to my doctor about chest issues, where my heart felt like it was going too fast all the time. I was given a heart monitor to wear for a day, but I never went back to find out the results. I was simultaneously afraid that there was something terribly wrong with me, or that I’d used important equipment for no reason at all.

Some months later I had a fainting episode that I didn’t connect to anxiety until much later. The pressure I’d put on myself to do well had stopped me eating and sleeping properly, I’d never been wonderful at focusing (except when I became lost in things) but now focusing was near impossible.

I can point it all out now as symptomatic, but at the time I had no clue that what I felt wasn’t normal. It was unpleasant, and I didn’t want to worry anyone with my feeling unpleasant, so I never really spoke up about what I was experiencing. It was just… being me. The joys of being me.

Toward the end of year twelve, when it was clear that I had little to no chance of passing maths, my maths teacher gave me a gift. He said, he would always be there to support and teach me if that was what I chose, but he wouldn’t think less of me if I decided to give up on maths and focus on getting good scores in my other subjects.

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This was what I did when I couldn’t focus in maths. Cheers to endlessly patient friends who let me draw on their arms!

It was the permission I didn’t know I needed. I was quite literally falling asleep in his class. Not from boredom, but pure exhaustion. The same English teacher who approved of my intent to teach English said, ‘The numbers don’t matter, but words do’ which was her way of reminding us that even if we got a terrible score in English it would still be one of the four subjects that counted to our final score.

I could let maths slide and hope it was my worst class, the one not counted. It wasn’t a cure from the constant anxious state I was in, but I knew I was allowed to forgive myself giving up on this one subject. More importantly, my teacher wouldn’t be offended or hate me for doing so.

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Part of our weird and wonderful group the night before graduation.

In the end…

My score wasn’t what I hoped it would be. It was enough. I went to uni. I didn’t have a word for the distress I was feeling in my later high school years (anxiety) until I was almost 25. I learned the hard way that year twelve isn’t the end, and first year of uni isn’t the only beginning.

I’m on my third university now. I’ve been to TAFE twice. I’ve changed career plans from teaching, to just writer, to computer network technician, to technical writer, to public relations writing, and now.. to what I’m in: content marketing.

I’ll do a post on that particular journey another time. I’ve definitely taken a long way around, and I’m not even sure if I’m ‘there’ yet. There’s a lot more about myself that I need to get a handle on before I can begin to shape my environment to one that works for me.

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Drawn before Year 12 exams. I had an unhealthy relationship with text and drop-shadow.

But these bits of study have all developed skills that are useful in my target career, and will continue to be useful even if tomorrow I decide I’m going to be a firefighter (never. going. to happen).

High school was a horrible and stressful time that I have nightmares about going back to. But Mum was right–I did make some amazing friends that I will have for a life time. I had some of the most important experiences of my life to date, been influenced by some of the best people I’ve known, and developed parts of myself that I continue to be proud of.

You may not have been mentioned in this directly, there are far too many of you. But you know who you are, I hope. I would not be who I am without you.

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Weird Primary Friendships

I used to hide behind trees and watch the other children play. I’d observe friends laughing and skipping, running around the playground and wonder–where could I get one of those? I wanted things to be like in books and on TV, where everyone had that one special friend who knew them inside out.

I’d drift from group to group, looking for a place that had a me-size hole but I never really found anything. When it became painfully obvious I didn’t fit in, I moved on. Sometimes to pester my little brother and his friends, because, he was my brother and he had to play with me.

I have a lot of memories of building sandcastles on my own, wandering the school yard, and being told off for trying to walk and read at the same time. There was a little spot in the library that became my favourite, curled up under the fire extinguisher in a tiny alcove that housed the W-Z books. Authors with surnames starting with W/X/Y/Z became my favourite, they became synonymous with this safe and solitary place I’d made for myself.

Books were a double-edged sword though. The Babysitter’s Club especially (in spite of the first few chapters that were almost identical repetitions of the same information depending on the leading character, and I skipped these pages) hammered hard the importance of friendship groups in life. I wanted one, I wanted it so bad I dreamed about it.

I’d always wanted a close friend. A twin, preferably. For pillow fights and staying up telling stories. It was the driving force behind my demand for a sister (who was a very disappointing lump of screaming flesh when she arrived, not at all what five-year-old me was hoping for). At eight years old, I still hadn’t managed to secure this all-important best friend thing.

Somehow, something was different about me. Something other kids saw and avoided. I was terrible at sport, and too good in class. I got on with adults best. I thought that cats were (still are, fight me) the most majestic creatures and I devoured information on them. I collected hundreds of cat ornaments with the help of family. I could spend hours arranging them across the table by height or colour, or what ones I liked best on a particular day.

Cats were the key, I decided one day. An aunty had given me a packet of cat stickers that I’d been hoarding (I’m always afraid if I use something up, I’ll have a better use for it later and regret it) for a special occasion. I couldn’t think of any better reason. There was a girl in my class who was bright, funny, popular.. and most importantly, she loved cats. There was a starting point here.

So I opened the pack of stickers, and removed one sheet. One for her, one for me. Hers I put into an envelope and wrote her name on it in the best, neatest handwriting I could manage. We were in the same class, and my handwriting was infamously horrible. My pen license had been revoked three times. My sheet of stickers went back into my drawer for safe keeping, where my sister later found them and stuck them all over the wardrobe door.

I’d so cleverly disguised my writing that she didn’t know it was me. I held onto the secret, afraid that if she knew, I’d be ridiculed. I didn’t know why–I never knew why–other kids avoided being around me longer than a lunchtime. I’d put sincere effort into this. I was afraid of rejection. I was afraid that like the older kids, who actively called me names by now, she would reveal a disgust with me that I’d then have to face every day in class.

I don’t remember why I confessed. I just remember doing it. She was surprised. Delighted. We talked about cats, and I was invited to gather with her friends. I thought I’d ‘made it’ finally, and I’m pretty sure my parents and teachers alike breathed a huge sigh of relief when I managed this sort of normality.

There was a pretense of protection there. One of the main antagonists in my life was my new friend’s cousin, and with so many other girls around I believed I was safer and more secure. More accepted. Some days I was.

None of this was miserable for me–not even the periods of loneliness while I tried to find my place, it was my normal. I wanted to fix it, but it wasn’t unpleasant all the time. I had three siblings I could boss about, and older cousins that I considered good friends. Being bullied by older kids was less than fun, but again–it came with a sense of normalcy that bothers me now more than it did then.

The group was large, and there was a pecking order. I was always at the bottom, but I never saw it as a slight. I was happy just to be part of things. When they tied knots in my hair, telling me they were ‘braiding’ it, I believed. When, for the duration of an entire day, they pretended they couldn’t see me, I started to believe I actually was invisible.

What I struggled to believe was that these girls, who I adored and wanted to be like, would betray my trust.

There were upsides and there were good times, too–I stopped focusing as much on classwork and interacted more with my new friends. I spent an entire afternoon ignoring the maths work I was supposed to be doing, and joining with a friend as we telepathically tried to encourage a storm to start. We didn’t want to go out and play sport that afternoon. By fluke, the rain came just in time.

I went to parties and joined netball teams, and agreed with the things they did, disagreed with the things they didn’t. I was always easily swayed by strong opinions. I changed my football team because I didn’t want to be ‘wrong’. Essendon was overrated. I had legitimate fun, and discovered interests I wouldn’t have otherwise. I don’t regret any of it. I repeated a year of school to ’emotionally and socially catch up’, which changed my world. No longer was I in the same grade as older kids who taunted me, I was now in the same grade as these new friends.

A year or so later, I moved schools just before the start of fourth term. The idea was to get a head start settling in before my final year of primary school, and I knew it would be far more manageable in the mornings and afternoons. The new school was closer. Plus, their Grade 5/6 camp was to Canberra. Canberra!

Two weeks into the new term, I was… as you would expect. Drifting in a sea of new people at school, and desperately calling my old friends when I got home. They tolerated it for a while, until one afternoon I finally got told: ‘Stop calling, we were only friends with you because we felt sorry for you’.

I don’t remember if I ever called again. I do remember crying for hours.

I was awkward and shy at the new school. I talked too much when I should have shut up, I beat a grade six boy out of his prized ‘best at maths’ title. I answered teacher’s questions and read the sorts of books that only ‘good readers’ could read. I was simultaneously a show off and shy, no matter which way I went it didn’t endear me to the others at all.

Children have a sixth sense for oddness. Difference. The older they get, the keener it is, and they can’t put words to it. Just mistrust and avoidance. You’re weird, I don’t like that. I didn’t know how I was weird, and I promised myself every day that I would find out, I would fix it, and then I wouldn’t be a bother. People would like me.

Some people did. Kids who had to sit beside me in class got to know me better. I’ve always been creative, curious, and quirky. Those are fun things! But playground structure meant that, even though one girl swore to the moon and back that we were best friends for life–we weren’t allowed to be seen spending time together. She was strict on that.

So I drifted, and looked forward to after-school visits and sleep overs. Spice Girls and telling each other stories, dropping plastic bottles of water from the treehouse until they split on the concrete. Good, happy memories.

When I graduated primary school, I made myself one promise: I wouldn’t let that happen again. I would have friends I could spend time with in class and at lunch. I would be what I had to be, do what I had to do, and I would be like the others so that I could be part of it all. I would succeed, this time. Changing primary schools hadn’t given me that chance, but twelve-year-old me was determined. High school would be it.

And it was. But in a very different way.

I found friends that not only wanted me around (genuinely!), they still do (suckers). They wanted me to be me. I found people who wanted to bounce ever-increasingly weird hypotheticals off each other, and who didn’t roll their eyes when I got answers right in class. They asked for help. They gave me help.

I don’t hold a grudge against the ones I knew before. Kids are kids, and I was a weak target. I can’t ignore the good that I got out of it. I choose to be thankful for it, and for the lessons I learned the hard way. A good many of those girls are adults that I can now have a great conversation with. They had their own demons to rise above.

This was my story. If I could go back? Sure, I’d like a happier story. But I’d be a different person, without a lot of the things I have now.

And what I have now is pretty awesome indeed.