Spirals

CN for self harm, for those of you so inclined.

Reading back, I left my last post on a rather ambiguous note. My wife commented on it at the time – she wasn’t quite sure whether to be concerned that I had sounded more negative than I felt, or that I might be feeling more negative than I had been sounding until that point. At the end of April, things had been better than ever before for a couple of months, which I particularly put down to moving into a warm house, and to our newish habit of making time at the weekends to walk on the beach or in the nearby country park. Life was stressful, but I was amazed to find that I was coping with it.

May was mad. I was working hard at getting some software for my thesis research to behave itself, and my business was busier than usual, especially towards the end of the month when I was getting ready to go away for a fortnight. I thought the holiday would be a chance to recharge, but I spent most of it too worried about my research deadlines to relax, and not quite warm or dry enough most of the time either – which was expected given that we were staying in a caravan in the Welsh mountains, but it seems that my body wasn’t up to that little extra bit of stress.

Since returning in mid-June, things have frankly been going downhill fast. Those odd bad days that started happening in May, that I put down to PMS/endo and stress at the time, increased in frequency. I could feel my body struggling to regulate itself, simultaneously exhausted and agitated – maybe I was so burnt out that my body had resorted to stress hormones to keep me going rather than the nice productive energy I was enjoying in the spring. I found myself staring into space, going back to bed, having frequent meltdowns, and slowly becoming unable to find safe, temporary reasons for each of these incidents. A couple of weeks ago I had to start considering that I was burnt out to the point of meeting the criteria for depression. Again.

It is possible that you have to be a bit weird to find comparing and contrasting depressive episodes an interesting use of time, but since I am me, I have been doing so, and I’m assuming that if you’ve read my blog for any length of time you probably have the patience for these tendencies of mine. So, a contrast. Pre-EMDR, this situation – feeling trapped between unable to cope and yet forced to cope – would remind me of every other time I had felt this way, until I was lost in memories of being desperate and alone and unable to see that there were some important differences between then and now. It would literally not occur to me to tell anyone what was going on, because my brain was stuck back in the day when no one was there to tell. This time I have been commentating the whole thing – to my wife, my therapist, the nice Facebook group for autistic women I belong to, and to anyone else who might need to know or be able to help. My university knows that I’m behind schedule, and I have an extension for my thesis. My therapist has been instructed in the ways of “dear god please don’t try to determine my emotional state from my face and body language because they are contrary and don’t play nicely together”. I have an appointment with my GP in 10 days or so. I don’t feel alone with all of this.

Compare. Despite my sense that I am not currently feeling or thinking like any past crap is triggered, I have still reached the point at which I am unable to stop thinking about inflicting pain on myself. I can’t tell you how frustrating this is, because removing the trauma-related feelings from the equation has meant that I’m not as fully present in that compulsion as I used to be, I can still logically AND emotionally understand that self harm would only make this situation worse – and yet, the urge is still there. But it makes sense: this is my nervous system communicating with my consciousness, telling me that I am at breaking point, and cannot continue without either implementing changes which will slowly reduce the amount of stress piling on top of me, or releasing an emergency pressure valve.

Contrast. I am a step or two back from the position I was in last time this happened. I can see the entirety of what’s going on, and I can determine the mechanisms. I have written this year about the sensory, cognitive, and social stressors I have to deal with on a daily basis, and when things are going well, I just about have the capacity to discharge that amount of stress. But when additional stressors put me over capacity for more than a week or so, everything starts falling apart. My executive function declines, so the tasks that I already struggle with take twice as long to complete. The extra cognitive effort involved in keeping myself functioning means that I have no concentration left over for reading for pleasure, planning and carrying out relaxing activities, or coping with social events, so I lose a lot of the things that help me stay afloat when life isn’t so hard. I get behind with tasks I can usually power through when my brain isn’t so chaotic, and this lengthening to-do list adds to the stress. With fewer resources to deal with every day stressors, my usual sensory hypersensitivities become more distressing than usual. These all feed into each other – more stress, higher cognitive load, fewer pleasurable things, less ability to stay on top of tasks and sensitivities, more stress, etc – until the point at which my brain tries to get me to reach for that emergency pressure valve.

Contrast. I used to be surprised when I was suddenly hit by this intense compulsion to self destruct: it felt like I would just wake up one morning and there it was, fully formed and impossible to resist. Where it came from, and why it arrived at the times it did, were beyond me. Looking back now, I can think of periods five, ten, fifteen years ago when the same spirals were forming well prior to the point at which stitches were required, but in addition to traumatic memories absorbing my focus and obscuring my view of those contributing factors, I was also completely at a loss as to what was actually causing me stress. PTSD was obvious, but less obvious were things like full weeks on placement where I had to constantly communicate with a team, university assignments which involved me having to interpret my tutors’ requirements, arrange my thoughts into a logic order, and communicate them clearly, medication side effects or illnesses which heightened my sensory sensitivities, and so on. All of those things that neurotypical people around me seemed to cope with 90% of the time – at least without cutting themselves – were beyond me 90% of the time, and I didn’t know why. Now I do, and that also helps me retain perspective on the situation.

A person I know (I would like to say a friend, but I am unsure how to determine when someone is a friend versus an acquaintance, and I’m not sure I deserve that term in relation to her yet) from the autistic womens’ group I mention sometimes has recently been using creative metaphors from the Wizard of Oz to describe her own struggles with mental health, including the cyclone as a metaphor for anxious, whirling thoughts. I have an image of a cyclone too – not as depicting the contents of my head, but more the behavioural spirals I am describing here, with the compulsion to self harm being the point of touch down. Tornadoes are formed from clouds that have built up a large amount of rotational speed in the air before they hit the ground to cause havoc. Not every system which rotates above a certain speed will touch down, and some tornadoes appear with very little warning after rotation is either very quick to develop or not noticed in time. With increasing meteorological knowledge, more advanced warnings are often possible. However, recently I was reading about an app (I will return with the link later if I can find it again!) which uses observations by a large group of experienced amateur storm chasters to predict tornadoes, and many of the reviewers mentioned that the app warned them several minutes before their town’s tornado siren went off. This reminds me of what I am trying to achieve. By monitoring the direction and speed of my spiral’s rotation, and by crowdsourcing observations from the people around me, I can predict how likely it is to reach the ground, when this might happen, and how much destructive power it might have.

My use of the metaphor works when looking back from where I have come, but breaks down when I consider where I would like to go. There have been attempts to ‘adjust’ the weather, but these have had unpredictable effectiveness at best. Conversely, I hope that one day I will be able to slow, stop, and reverse future spirals’ rotation before they hit something important. This time I know from experience that if I can get through the next couple of weeks intact (which would at least indicate that I am on my way to developing a sturdier storm shelter), the tornado is likely to regress back to a rather menacing looking cloud. And that’s quite enough to be contending with for now.

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