There is a meme going around Facebook, asking people to brag about their achievements for 2019. I haven’t achieved much this year, but I have learnt to be much more compassionate towards myself as I have learnt more about autism and how it affects me. Of course, a part of me is still doubtful that I actually have and it will be until I get an official diagnosis, but I have been treating myself as if I was autistic for a big chunk of the year.
One thing that occurred to me as I reflected on this and on how much better I feel about myself in general, is that why is it that I can show myself compassion as an autistic person, but I can’t as a person with mental illness?
I have been living with a diagnosis of depression for over 20 years and anxiety for maybe 15. While initially there was that initial relief at finally being diagnosed and feeling like there was a light at the end of the tunnel, with time that evaporated, as medication didn’t have a miraculous effect and I wasn’t cured. The treatments offered for depression and anxiety all put the onus on the patient to do something – eat better, exercise, socialise, learn new things, go out in nature, get a hobby, learn new thinking patterns. It’s just a whole bunch of “doing” things that are required of you at a time when the last thing you feel like is doing more things.
Seeing my symptoms through the lens of autism has given me permission to stop feeling guilty for not doing enough. I mean, no matter how much I exercise, or how well I eat, I will remain autistic. Yes, all those things do help with autistic burnout, but paramount among the fixes is rest and self-care, such as avoiding overwhelming stimuli. I no longer feel guilty for retreating to my blanket fort and taking a day to rest, because I understand that I feel burnt out, rather than depressed. It might look the same from the outside, but it feels so much different.
One thing I know now about autistic burnout is that it is more likely to occur the older one is. The longer one has been trying to fit it, to cover up, to deal with overwhelming stress, emotions and sensory stimuli. This makes sense. I have held my shit together for so many years to the point that I’m now no longer able to. Short exposures to people or stimulating environments are all I can take before I have to retreat.
Treatment for depression and anxiety is so exhausting. You pretty much have to be in an isolated environment, like a psychiatric hospital, where all you need to do is focus on the “getting better” things and none of the “life” things. Trying to do both doesn’t work for me. I tend to go for walks every day when I’m hospitalised, I participate in group and individual therapy and I pursue hobbies because I’m not overwhelmed by “life” stuff. Plus, I am bored out of my brain!
So basically, I feel like I’ve failed my treatment of mental illness and therefore it’s hard for me to feel compassion for myself. The depression feels like something I’ve brought on myself because I haven’t tried to fix myself hard enough or because I can’t think the “right way”. So, I can’t possibly be compassionate towards myself. But with autism, none of it is my fault. I was born that way and it can’t be changed. It’s my genetic makeup. Not my fault. And if it’s not my fault, I can accept it and I can be kind to myself. I can observe myself from above and see how I’m behaving, how I react to certain situations and how they affect me.
I still agonise over the things I’ve said to people, how I’ve behaved and I feel like I should wear a sign – “autistic, not rude”. I always feel like I’ve done something wrong. But at least I know how to explain these things to myself, even if I don’t always get a chance to explain it to others. And if I’m not autistic, does it mean that I’m just a bitch?
So this year I’ve learnt how to be compassionate towards myself. I don’t get mad at myself for feeling tired, or for not wanting to do stuff. I do what I can and as a result, I’ve been doing more. I actually feel like doing all the Christmas baking and cooking and this year, while last year, I point blank refused.
Even though I can’t afford any Christmas presents this year, I’m not mad or terribly sad, just matter of fact about it. OK, so no presents this year. I’ve told the boys and they’ve accepted it too. We’ll do some shopping after Christmas, as and when I can afford it, or not at all. Life isn’t about stuff. If they want more things, they can get jobs, or at least the older one can. I’m doing all I can to make money, and if I don’t make enough for their or my liking, then so be it. We have enough to pay the bills and that’s all that matters.
I started seeing a psychologist again a couple of months ago and after the initial brain dump, I don’t really know what to talk to her about. I feel like there is nothing to be done about the continuous overwhelming sense of exhaustion and the money stress. And that’s all that’s really wrong with me. Yes, I should be going for a walk every day and I do try, but it’s just not always possible. I know what my barriers are and I just can’t overcome them most of the time. Maybe tomorrow?
What about you? Are you able to feel compassion for yourself?