What? Me Anxious!?!

Posted: August 26th, 2017 | Author: | Filed under: Autism, Personal | 3 Comments »

My wife has commented that I never spoke about anxiety or being anxious before I was diagnosed. And she’s right, but it’s been an ongoing challenge to untangle and understand the reasons why that’s true. In part, the self-conception I’ve developed over the years and which I work hard to portray reflects more the goal of my performance than my reality. I’ve worked hard to appear flexible and easy-going, but that requires that I constantly manage the tension I feel when things do change or the unexpected happens. So I’ve developed an outwardly calm demeanor that more or less works. Family members, in particular, often see through it, but it generally seems more effective than not.

As I continue to discover what alexithymia is and how it operates for me within my personal experience, I also see that I can sometimes simply pick an emotional label for a given physical state whether or not it’s the correct label. Many years ago, I think I subconsciously decided the way my body and mind feel most of the time when nothing significant is occurring should be labeled ‘calm and relaxed‘. When I’m in that state, I’m ‘fine‘ by my standards. The key thought is ‘by my standards‘ since that’s the only perspective I truly knew. The discovery that my norms are often very different from the things most people consider typical has been an ongoing part of my process of learning what it really means for me to be autistic.

I have a number of family members who do struggle with anxiety. And it can spike and interfere with their functioning. They sometimes need medication or space to breathe to prevent it from overwhelming them. I thought I understood what they were experiencing, but I now see I was interpreting it through the lens of my own experience and not theirs. The wave of physical and mental internal experience I believed they were battling I equated to things I experienced which I now understand are better labeled ‘meltdown’, ‘sensory overwhelm’, or ‘shutdown’. A few times in my life, I’ve been so overwhelmed by the mental and physical barrage the result was much more severe than a meltdown, but did not result in a shutdown. From later descriptions I was given they resembled some sort of dissociative state. My body did not protectively cease active functioning as it more or less does in a true shutdown, but my mind was no longer truly processing anything coherently. Those were meltdowns on steroids that should have been full shutdowns, but for some reason weren’t.

The last such instance, when I was 22 years old, caused my neighbors at the time to call 911 out of concern and led to an involuntary admission to a psychiatric hospital. When I recovered, I went with the simplest solution they proposed (a suicide attempt) and followed all their protocols to quickly get released and off their radar again. I’m not unintelligent and I can be somewhat good at working systems when I am forced to do so. I’ve worked to never reach that point again and to date I’ve been successful.

It’s only when I was diagnosed and was able to relate my personal experiences to the more appropriate autistic terms that I was truly able to hear and process the physical and mental states most people equate with anxiety. They describe a tightening in their chest and an increased heart rate. They have a heightened awareness of their environment and a sense that everything is pressing on them. Perhaps their breathing becomes shorter or more rapid. They feel like they aren’t getting enough oxygen. Their mind starts racing. They freeze and can’t speak or move. Basically, it’s all the symptoms associated with a heightened amygdala fight, flight, or freeze response and more.

But those descriptive physical and mental reactions more or less describe my typical state, the one I had labeled ‘calm and relaxed‘. It spikes every time I have to confront a change or anything unanticipated and manage my reaction. At times sensory input starts to feel more overwhelming or changes suddenly and I have to pull things back under control. It spikes when I’m entering a new group or new situation, so I always have to breathe and adapt. Heck, things spike when I have to make a silly phone call. The sensations spike hard when I sense an interaction going wrong or when I’m suddenly confronted with the reality that it already has. I’ve discussed the racing thoughts with my therapist and they apparently aren’t the same sort of catastrophizing most people experience with anxiety. Instead, I’m either predicting or forecasting things that actually can and often do go wrong based on my own now extensive past experience or I’m stuck cycling through an encounter that did go wrong, especially when I can’t figure out how or why it went badly. That sort of state is again more or less a part of my ‘normal‘. As long as I have things under control and it’s not a meltdown or shutdown, I’m ‘fine‘ by my standards.

And so I came to understand that the correct emotional label for the way I usually feel is ‘anxious‘ and not ‘calm‘. In fact, when I pay close attention to the way people describe anxiety as it is expressed in their body and mind, I realize that my ‘normal‘ would be experienced as an at least somewhat debilitating attack of anxiety by most people. The sensations accompanying my ‘minor‘ routine spikes during any typical day would often be experienced as actual panic attacks by most people, at least if I’ve understood their descriptions correctly. And the things that are truly overwhelming and debilitating for me seem to lie beyond the experience and comprehension of almost anyone who is not also autistic.

So it’s not that anything changed with my physical or emotional state after I was diagnosed. Rather, I realized I was using the wrong emotion word and began using the correct one instead. I always knew my mind worked differently than people around me. Everyone has always been aware that I don’t act or react the same way as most people. But I never realized I actually experience and process the world around me differently than most people do. I related the words they used for their experience of the world to my experience and often used the wrong word or was harder on myself than I should have been. That’s the part of being autistic so many people don’t seem to grasp. This is the only way I’ve ever experienced reality. I have no basis or standard for comparison. The non-autistic experience is as foreign to me as I’m sure my experience is to most other people. Until I work it out through the process of deduction and elimination, I don’t even know what’s different in our experience and what is similar.

Some of the differences between allistic and autistic experience are actually differences in our metaphorical knobs being tuned differently. I was discussing repetitive movements with my therapist and the soothing and calming effect they have. They aren’t involuntary tics, nor are they compulsions in a clinical sense. They are, however, powerful and it requires an act of will to modify or suppress them. But the sorts of things we label repetitive movements are largely not exclusive to autistic or even neurodivergent people. As my therapist noted, everyone uses them and they have the same calming or soothing effect for all people. Twisting hair, tapping fingers, chewing pens, rocking under stress and a host of other repetitive movements are common for every human being. It’s the frequency, intensity, exaggerated range, and sometimes uncommon nature of autistic repetitive movements that stand out. But when you recognize that our ‘resting’ physical and mental state and our ‘normal’ sensory experience of the world around us would likely be considered debilitating by many allistic people, the greater frequency and intensity of soothing movements makes perfect sense. We need more calming and soothing action simply to function.

So yes, I’m anxious, pretty much all the time. I just didn’t know that’s what I was supposed to call it.


3 Comments on “What? Me Anxious!?!”

  1. 1 digitalnicotine7 said at 1:44 pm on September 3rd, 2017:

    I love how you can put these things into words so well. Reading it was like having an elusive itch finally scratched. Thank you, it’s such a good feeling to recognize understanding and commonalities in others.

  2. 2 Scott Morizot said at 1:57 pm on September 3rd, 2017:

    Thanks! Now I just need to really start believing I’m not weak at all. I’m gradually realizing that the things I manage on a daily basis would be considered overwhelming by many people.

  3. 3 digitalnicotine7 said at 6:17 pm on September 14th, 2017:

    Random reminder: You’re so strong. Look at all you manage! It’s going to become more and more apparent as you learn all the things you’ve done all your life to accommodate autism, without even realizing. You may want to work out an “I’m so much stronger than I realized” dance. (Assuming empowerment compels you to dance, that is.)


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