Monday, August 4, 2014

On Details Versus Big Picture, and Transitions

On Details Versus Big Picture

I just had the most lovely couple hours, adjusting to my new apartment, and doing nothing but doing nothing in a remarkably pleasant way. I should add I almost never do nothing. Ever. Doing nothing is usually very scary, but was surprisingly pleasant today. Usually I am so bombarded by sensory and emotional stimuli from the world that I have to find a way to DO stuff, other stuff, other more desirable stuff but stuff nonetheless, just so I can drown out the negative stimuli. It gets to be a war in my body, negative stimuli comes in, I try to balance it with an equal amount of output, a war of input and output ensues. I did not quite realize that one of the reasons I think I am such an intense person is that because I am so sensitive to sensory, emotional and physical stimuli, and because I take in SO MUCH, the only way I can regulate myself (which I do quite unconsciously) is to create an equal stream of output. The reason I talk, write, emote and express so much, probably even the reason my body moves and fidgets so much, is to create a stream of output equal to the input so as to be balanced and regulated.

So, all that to say that doing nothing is a luxury I have hardly ever experienced. I am never relaxed enough to do nothing. The thing is, if the environment around you is not completely calm and okay, you are agitated no matter what is happening, and when negative stimuli is coming in, you have to be DOING SOMETHING to overcome that feeling. So doing nothing to overcome it and sitting still or not being active feels like torture most of the time.

But the last three days since I have moved into this apartment, I have found myself doing nothing for the longest stretches of time and not having it be unpleasant. It's an extremely weird, foreign, strange feeling that I can't quite figure out what to think about. Pleasantries like "I'm glad you're enjoying your apartment," or "I'm glad it is going so well" don't seem to describe it in the least, and frustrate me. Am I enjoying it? What is this feeling? How can I describe this feeling when I am hardly aware of one? How can I exist if I am not feeling anything? That is what I have been thinking lately, and it is so weird. I am used to extremes of emotion. How do I even know how to describe what I am guessing is a feeling of peace or calm? Will it last? Can I  trust it? Will it happen again? These thoughts I keep thinking, among others.

I wrote the following about the last few hours tonight.

I can hardly remember what ive been doing. I got distracted so pleasantly by the Sara Evans CD that was playing on my CD player, which I just found today.

I sat on the bed caught in the rapture of  the music, the beauty of her voice,  the feeling of love that came over me. I listened to every CD I found earlier twice... lost in the wonder of the sound of their voice. Eventually, I decided to make dinner... ground beef... didnt come out great but it didnt matter because the phil vassar cd was completely entrancing me in a kind of peaceful positive emotion I have rarely experienced. I am so used to  emotions being big... extreme... I can barely recognize peace or happiness if it's  not big huge joy. Nate says when I get happy I get so happy he couldn't even imagine. To be released from the pressure of always having to be THAT happy, though, to be free to feel happiness on a more normal scale... it feels weird but good! I sat on the bed, having my usual resistance to eating but knowing I should, feeding myself one piece of beef at a time,and for once focusing more on the buttery smooth amazing sound of Phil Vassar's voice than the feeling of the food in my mouth and stomach. I had the idea that I'd clear off the side table and put some of my stuff I unpacked on it, and acually got excited about it, but after I went to put my dish away I felt tired and went to sit on the bed and listen to the music some more. Then, spontaneously, I grabbed the book that was on the bed, lied down and started to read.

Which might not sound like anything special except for I never do anything spontaneous, I haven't been relaxed enough and calm enough to focus on reading a book in two months and I never do anything without a careful calculation of all the possible risks and benefits involved, a careful planning out of every aspect of it, and without first reassuring myself of all the things I will do after it and reassuring myself that whatever I did before it went okay and Oh before you do that can you please solve this problem, and that problem , and find a solution world peace while you're at it? ..... there is so much damn THINKING involved in switching between  activities, and my life in general, no wonder I have trouble with transitions. That's a big thing in autism - trouble with transitions. I couldn't tell you why, but I could definitely tell you I had that particular trait.

For once having done several activities today with almost no transition, and no thinking needed, I can start to understand why most transitions are so fraught. When the world feels so dangerous with sensory hypersensitivity and every other sort of sensitivity that exists, you are preparing yourself for war every time there is a transition, even if you're not consciously aware of it. You don't know what is coming next and you have to get your battle on. Even if it's something you've done a million times, it's not likely to be something without danger, because let's face it, almost everything we do out in the world has a barrage of sensory information and feels like overload even if it's something we like - and it's usually not. Our minds are very good at focusing on the small details and terrible at the big picture. So, focusing from one detailed activity to another means a lot of change in focus, and a lot of anxiety. When you FINALLY get your mind focused on doing something, having to stop and go through all that again to do another activity can feel like murder, so no wonder we like to hyper focus on one activity for a long period of time.

There was this analogy in this book I spontaneously started reading tonight that I really liked. It said, "Most people live their lives knowing that all the frames of action, all the details of their life, fit into a big movie frame. We can put the frames together and watch the movie. People with autism can only see the individual movie frames and not the movie. They can't run the projector. They see only fragemented information, bits and pieces, a frame here and there and can't put it together into a movie frame." Something like that. Oh, but that makes so much sense! When all you can see, feel experience or know is what is happening in the moment ,it is going to feel really freaking overwhelming because there is no sense of context, there is no sense of anything else existing. There is no sense of WHY anything is happening. There is no sense of why you should put up with XYZ hassle, pain, difficult thing - most people know that when you have pain and discomfort, they are just steps you have to go through in order to reach your goal. But people on the spectrum have trouble understanding what that big picture is. What are we trying to reach? What will happen if...? There doesn't seem to be a world that exists outside of the present moment. Context is almost always missing.

When I was in college, one of the first coping mechanisms I somehow intuively learned to do to cope with the overwhelming amount of anxiety that would hit me seemingly out of nowhere and paralyze me was to list for myself everything I had done that day so far, and everything I was planning on doing later.

I had no idea why this helped, I couldn't explain it to anyone, nor would I have ever had the chance to. It just occurred to me to do, I started doing it, and the anxiety would met away.   I would have moments, all the time, where I would just stop and feel like I couldn't move and often I would fall to the floor crying. Somehow, I learned and taught myself... that all I had to do was say "Okay, I got up at 10, and I had breakfast, and had a conversation with XXXX, and went to this class, and I did this and that, and now I'm doing this, and after this I will go to the computer lab and work on my paper for history, then I will eat, then I will go to the computer lab and do emails and then I will go to bed..."

 It may seem obsessive, but even if there was only one or two things on that list before or after, it centered me, it gave me a sense of place and time and a world outside of the emotion, thought or feeling I had at the moment. I never questioned why it worked, although I did in the years that would follow when I become more self-aware. I just knew it was something I had to do that took the anxiety away almost instantly. I was giving myself a sense of context.. a sense of place.. a mental structure that for other people just seems to be there automatically. Other people seem to have this built in understanding of so much. A built in understanding, for example, of how their actions, thoughts, feelings will impact others. A built in understanding of... things I can't quite grasp yet but was always able to articulate they were missing. It's just that no one ever believed me. How can I tell you what's missing when I don't know what it is? I know enough to know it's missing and you have it, but when people brush off my concerns with "Oh, everyone experiences that," I feel like they can't possibly understand - because they take it for granted that they have these things, they cannot understand what life would be like to live without them.

The other thing I'd do when I would get anxious and agitated was to grab a piece of paper and write down all the things that were making me anxious, then make myself slow down, think about each one slowly, process my thoughts about each one slowly, and then go on to the next one. It wasn't even so much about finding a solution to the anxious thought or problem, although I tried to make that part of it. It was that all these intense emotional thoughts were hitting me so fast and so hard and so all at once that I couldn't process them or function. So once I learned to write them down and think about them more slowly, I could process them and go on. I'd just do it with pieces of scrap paper sitting at the back of the computer lab or wherever was a quiet, empty space in college. I'd be upset, ask people for paper, write it down, go through all the thoughts slowly in my mind and then be okay again.
Probably the forerunner of all the writing about my thoughts I do on Facebook, my diary and emails now - because without writing about them, I can't slow my brain down enough to actually process the thoughts without becoming extremely overwhelmed by them. It's very interesting to consider where these coping mechanisms came from, how they developed, why they developed, and to try to give myself the enormous credit I probably deserve for somehow coming up with them. Instead of, of course, blaming and chastizing myself for my way of thinking, doing, coping and being as different from others. Of course it's different from others. My brain is autistic. It's not going to work the same way as others' no matter how much I want it to. I will learn that eventually.

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