It’s been a stormy few days. There’s been a strong wind pouring in over the sea and I’ve been watching the birds fight and fail to fly into it. First a flock of starlings gave in and threw themselves down to cling to the branches of an ash tree, then the rooks made a passable pass at their morning circling, but had to turn back after their swim through the air became a hovering-formation outside my bedroom window, then the collared doves fought hard to get to the birch-wood, but their puffed out chests lifted them higher and higher until each of the five were lobbed far back over the fields.
It’s been a few days of strong head-winds and effort, without a lot of moving forwards. Because sometimes that is how life goes, and sometimes not being driven backwards is more of an achievement than gaining ground.
Today has been put aside by me as a day of recovery. There is nowhere I have to be and nothing I need to do. Today all I have to do is exist.
There was a time, before my autism diagnosis, when I would have berated myself for needing a day like today. In fact I wouldn’t have planned to take one at all; I would have felt the headaches, the cloudiness in my thoughts, the loss of speech, and I would have turned the guilt at my failure into fuel for my fire.
I would have taken that self-loathing and turned it on myself. I would have said things like, “What’s wrong with you? No one else is reacting like this! Why are you so lazy? Why can’t you do this? It’s no wonder people don’t like you! Why can’t you be better?!”
Things I would never ever have thought about, let alone said to, my worst enemy, I was more than happy to say to myself. I was so angry with myself for not being like everyone else.
I had already got to a point where I was very good at pretending to be like other people; I could pretend to react in certain ways, I could pretend not to be bothered by sensory stuff, I could pretend I wasn’t different, but that didn’t mean that I wasn’t reacting as any other autistic person would in those situations. I was just good at hiding my pain.
Those days when I needed recovery time where real. I had been processing too much, I had overused my brain in ways that other people didn’t use them. I had consciously thought about every second, every action, every reaction, every movement and inference, and it was as exhausting then as it is now.
Back then I couldn’t predict what was to come. I would have to wait for a socially acceptable reason to slow down, I would have to wait until the exhaustion and pain took its toll on my immune system, and the feelings of mental exhaustion crossed into feelings of physical illness.
Even then I would push on through. The times I allowed myself to be ‘ill’ were my holidays, my weekends, my days off. The moment I stopped holding everything together a tsunami of pain would hit me all at once. I would save it all up and suffer, and I had no idea that I wasn’t just really unlucky about when I got ‘ill’.
I haven’t been ‘ill’ since I realised that I am allowed to rest when I’ve overdone things. Today is one of those days. I have fought that head-wind and now I will sit on a branch for a day and build up my strength.
I look back on pre-diagnosis-me in awe; she did all that, and she didn’t even have me on her side. She was so unwilling to give in, she was so strong when she felt so weak. So many of us, who got our diagnoses later in life, have been there. So many of us were unforgiving and unkind to ourselves when we didn’t know the reasons for our differences.
I am in awe at the power and strength of the late-diagnosed people I know. It is an enormous thing to carry through this world alone, and the day I realised that I was not alone at all, was a day that I will keep with me.
Sometimes people ask me what use an autism diagnosis is, and some days I don’t have the words to explain.
A diagnosis is a personal thing and there’s no one way to react to anything in this world, but for me, it changed everything. It confirmed that I am not faulty, it confirmed that I am just fine the way I am. It was the day that I stopped misunderstanding who I was and began to be on my side instead.