How Autism Fucked With My Mental Health

Announcement: I was in a really bad mood when I came up with this title. I’ve been turning an idea over in my head. I wanted to write about the intersection between autism and mental health and how it’s affected me personally. It sounded like a professional topic. And then I had to get pissed off and name it something petty.

Pettiness aside…

My therapist and I are taking this summer to do a bit of inventory. Basically, we’re going through each diagnosis one by one to see if we need to spend more time with anything or if certain areas need new goals. Is it exciting? No. But it’s more interesting than you’d think. It’s sort of like organizing your desk. You find cool things that you forgot you had, and it the end, the important things are much easier to find. It’s a win-win.

Imagine a 3 circle Venn diagram, with each circle labeled with one of my mental illness. It goes like this- Bipolar Disorder, OCD, and Anorexia. And at the middle of it all, Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Even thought diagnostic manuals like the DSM and ICD make it seem like each mental illness exists in its own tidy little squares, that just isn’t the case. Mental illnesses are messy and they find a way to interact with everything around them.

And all of this mingling makes diagnosing and treating mental illnesses and other disorders, developmental disabilities,  neurodivergencies, and learning disorders a complex endeavor. There are so many crossovers going on in my brain, it probably looks like a subway grid.

Autism and OCD:

Once upon a time, most psychologists and psychiatrists wouldn’t diagnose both autism and OCD in the same patient. There was considered to be too much overlap. It’s more flexible now, but when you really think about the similarities, you can almost see where they were coming from.

Autism and OCD overlap in two main ways. One, both of them are incredibly inflexible, and two, both have routines that they compulsively adhere to. Individuals with either disorder (or both) are also usually highly anxious, in a general sense and over specific situations. I have a lot of trouble knowing if I’m obsessing over something in an autism way (which my team and I agree is an okay thing) or if it’s in an OCD way (which isn’t good and generally needs intervention).

Autism and Anorexia:

An individual having autism and an eating disorder is actually quite common. A few decades ago, they would have been called ‘picky eaters’, but these days, it’s often diagnosed as Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Syndrome. I, however, have spent the better part of two decades with Anorexia Nervosa. It mimics autism symptoms surprisingly well though. In fact, I started on the road to an autism diagnosis because I was struggling with eating disorder recovery.

There’s an awful lot of overlap. Both disorders cause issues with rigidity (when it comes to food). Neither likes to have food routines changed and often have a short list of safe foods. And autistic meltdowns about eating or food can look almost identical to eating disorder panic attacks. Thanks to MRI studies, we even know that autistic brains look incredibly similar to those of patients with anorexia.

Autism and Bipolar Disorder: 

Out of everything we’re talking about, autism and bipolar disorder are the only things that can sometimes be considered ‘fun’. The beginnings of mania, with its extra energy and hyper creativity, is right up there with autism’s special interest joy and sensory bliss. Eventually, though, mania starts to become overstimulating and rub the autism raw. Even worse, depression can weight the autism down, forcing you into your head. The similarities are mood based and subtle, so it’s very possible for things to escalate quickly.

When we put it like that, rigidity, obsession, and control are common themes.

It’s so easy to feel like just one single thing is the complicating factor, but I’ve had enough therapy to know that it just doesn’t work that way. They say in regards to mental health that nature loads the gun and nurture pulls the trigger. I was already genetically disposed to having OCD, Bipolar, and Anorexia. On top of that, my life experiences also made me susceptible to mental illness. Add both of these things to the fact that it’s believed that autism is a genetic disorder present at birth and well, it’s hard to blame the autism for anything.

Does autism interfere sometimes with my mental health? Sure. But so do my physical disabilities like POTS, my multiple learning disabilities, and the fact that I’m Hard of Hearing.

I’m trying hard to channel the frustration that I sometimes feel into something more productive. Instead of being upset that autism, or any other of my mental crap, is quote-unquote ‘fucking up my life’, I take a good long look at whatever’s wrong and start figuring out what I can to do fix it, for me and for my communities.

Advocacy, self and otherwise, is something that I am lucky enough to be able to do. And I guess I can ‘blame’ autism for that too.

 

6 Essential Self Care Things

It seems as though I never think about doing self-care until it’s too late. Let me explain, at this point in my life I find the act of self-care pretty instinctual, and when I’m doing alright, I rarely have to think about it. It’s when my mood starts creeping downwards and my anxiety heckles raise, aka the exact time when I need self-care, I forget to do it.

Luckily, over the years I’ve developed tools, I track my moods and my self-care, I have lists of options, and I follow the buddy system and have people who can remind me to check in with myself.

I think these self-care categories are largely universal. Neurodivergent or neurotypical, people with mental health stuff and people without. Everyone will have their favorites and areas that work better for them, but all in all, I think this list offers full coverage.

1. Sensory Things– This one’s easy. I don’t know about you, but my body uses sensory devices to unconsciously soothe me. That’s a really nice way of saying that when I’m stressed out I rock. Rocking isn’t the only sensory means I use to care for myself. I like swings, I like hot hot hot showers (as long as my face doesn’t get wet). I also use stim toys like tangles and squishes and slime. My hard of hearing side as well as my autistic side both enjoy as-loud-as-it-can-go-speaker-vibrating-would-probably-cause-hearing-loss-if-I-wasn’t-half-deaf music.

These aren’t the only options though, some people like ice packs and essential oils and fish tanks and a million other things. If you use your senses to experience it, then it counts as sensory!

2. Comforting Things- This one is highly personal, but I think it’s one of the more important categories. I know when I’ve had a godawful day I want nothing more than stuff that makes me feel safe. Disney movies (Moana, Big Hero 6, and The Emperor’s New Grove to name a few), my weighted blanket, and preferably a pet (or 2!)  are my ideal combination.

Some people really like tea. Some people like rewatching all 9 seasons of The Office (or Buffy, or Scrubs). Some people like big fuzzy sweaters. Some people like going for a run. If it makes you feel good right down to your soul, then it’s likely a great candidate as a comforting thing.

3. Connection Things- Autism can make this more complicated than for your average person, but it’s still useful. Most of us aren’t overly social, even if we enjoy people. I have a great time in small groups where I know everyone well. My ultimate nightmare either a roomful of people, or talking 1 on 1 to someone don’t know. *shudder*.

There are lots of ways to feel connected if you’re willing to think out of the box. Connection can totally happen with people you meet on Tumblr or Discord or WordPress (hint hint). I love going to coffee shops to read or write because just being around other people gives me a connected feeling. So find your connection to the world and don’t let anyone tell you that it’s wrong!

4. Creative Things- Sometimes when I’m in a brain space where I need self-care, the only thing that will work is the act of creating something. I think it’s the feeling you get when you can hold something tangible in your hands that you made.

Luckily, there as many was to create as you can think of. I’m partial to things like knitting that have repetitive motions, and Sticker by Number books that have a huge creative bang for its minimal effort buck. Other mediums include Perler beads, crochet, painting, sewing, and polymer clay. You can also incorporate a Special Interest and double your self-care!

5. Movement Things- I hate admitting that movement is good for me. I’ve always hated doctors telling me I’ll feel better if I  just ‘go for a run’. Well, it’s true. Not the running part, I hate running, but finding ways to move my body that I enjoy can really help. I love riding my bike and playing with Winnie (who is still full of puppy energy). I also, despite being 31, still love to climb and jump off things.

“Good” movement is different for everyone. So walk through your neighborhood and stretch like a downward facing dog and become a ninja warrior and play a team sport. It all builds up. So jump and twirl and spin your cares away!

6. Organize Things– There is nothing more satisfying than having everything in order, and I can always tell that I’m stressed when I start making lists of things. This year during finals week I reorganized my whole to-read list on Goodreads- all 1300 books of it!

There are lots of things to organize though. Alphabetizing your books or sorting t-shirts by genre or color. You can sort Tupperwarewear or photos, plus you can make lists! Favorite movies, places you’d like to travel to, and go-to meals are just a few of them. If you need inspiration, Marie Kondo has a Netflix show called Tidying Up that’s both soothing educational.

There we go, my top 6 essential self-care categories. Think I missed something? Let me know! The more self-care options the better in my opinion!

Why Am I Here?

No seriously, do you know why I’m in the kitchen? Because I don’t.

I may joke about a lot about being old, it’s mostly a product of having spent the past few years mostly surrounded by people who are 5+ years younger than me. On one hand, this is great, I get to keep up with what’s new and popular, but on the other hand, people tend to assume that I’m about 22. It’s flattering (I think).

I know that I’ve said before that nothing makes you feel older than foot pain, and I stand behind that, but I’d like to add an addendum that says that memory loss also makes you feel infuriatingly old. No matter what my intrusive thoughts say I know that I don’t have any super weird and rare medical thing going on. My trouble remembering stuff is a combination of mental health issues and totally normal aging.

Still, I say “I don’t remember that” an awful lot these days.

I don’t remember a lot of things these days. I can’t remember if I fed the dog or not, I can’t remember what I had for lunch. I certainly can’t remember why on earth I’m in the bedroom and I can’t remember where I left my book. Actually, those last two could be related. If challenged, I can only remember what I just said about fifty percent of the time and can remember what you said even less of the time.

I had troubles galore during the FIFA Women’s World Cup remembering which countries were in which group. This would normally be something that I’d take great joy in memorizing but while was I sure that Norway had just played Nigeria, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what the other two teams were in Group A. I’m sure you’re hanging on the edges of your seats with me so I’m happy to inform you that the other two Group A teams were France and South Korea.

For me, this whole thing is more of an annoyance than anything else, but like everything else about being in a marriage, Jess is affected too, and I feel bad about that. We’re not the sort to bicker about everything but there was some general crankiness on both sides before we realized that I was missing some key memories.

So, theory time. We all know that my hearing is not great thanks to super calcified eardrums, could it be that I’m simply not hearing things? That covers some stuff, but it doesn’t explain why I forget where I’m going or what I was doing. My quality of sleep has suffered greatly with the breathing troubles, but I have doubts that sleeplessness could be that big of a factor.

I could be losing my mind. It could be alien abductions. Hypnotism is always a possibility.

No matter what, I feel like I’m going crazy, which is so frustrating because up until recently I’ve been feeling decidedly less crazy than usual. And honestly, if I was going to pick a crazy, I’d do something cool like Synesthesia, not Forgets Just Enough to Be Annoying Disorder (not a real disorder).

I suppose that until this thing sorts itself out, I can just remind myself that Neville Longbottom had a terrible memory too and he turned out pretty awesome.

 

 

5 things I learned from ACT therapy

Once upon a time, there was a human named Meesh, who didn’t know that ignoring their mental health could end in disaster. They hid their worsening issues from everyone, including themselves.

The details aren’t important, but needless to say, they ended up in a place that was so unstable, they couldn’t fix it themselves, and ended up in something called Higher Level Care, which involved spending 10 hours a day in therapy.

But the therapy wasn’t as effective as everyone hoped, and they were stumped. It was only after Meesh was diagnosed with autism that a different type of therapy was tried. That therapy was called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and it made a difference like no therapy before had.

I’m sure you figured out that that story was about me (given that I used my name and all). ACT was the only therapy I’ve ever really connected with, but because I’m me, I like a lot of it and hate a bit of it.

But I like enough about it to share some of what I know with you, so here we go!

1. That I have values- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy teaches that everyone has values. Whether it’s family or education, humor or empathy, we all have things that important enough to keep fighting for. This seems a little bit obvious at first. Of course, I care about things, I’m not a robot. But at least for me, learning to lean on my values when I was having a hard time with something became comforting. It gave me a clear, on paper reason to keep going. Here is an example of a values list

2. That sucky stuff is going to happen and that’s ok- Many ABC Therapies, especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) drive me nuts. They are all about changing the way your brain thinks. I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent my whole life trying to do that, and it’s never worked. ACT teaches the opposite, in that you can’t always control what your brain does, but you can be prepared for it, so it’s less scary and overwhelming. I’ve always felt like this is a more realistic point of view.

3. How to make a good plan- Another tool that ACT gives you is the ability to make a plan for when things go bad. It figures, if you have a plan full of positive coping skills sitting in front of you, you’ll be less likely to use the negative coping skills. This had a surprising effect on the rest of my life as well. Executive Dysfunction shows its head for me in the inability to plan efficiently or make lists. Having someone who was trained to teach these things and go over it step by step with me (multiple times) made me significantly better at it.

4. That I hate visualization– “Imagine you are on a beach”, “Picture your thoughts floating down a river”, “Visualize your life in 5 years”. Instructions like this are my nemesis because I can’t actually make pictures in my brain. If I close my eyes and tell myself that I’m on a beach, I can imagine the smell of salt, I can imagine the sounds of the waves, but I can’t picture anything but a blank wall. It’s frustrating, especially when you’re being asked to do it multiple times a day. I’m telling you this because in any therapy there will be stuff that doesn’t work for you, and this doesn’t mean that the therapy isn’t a good fit. It’s perfectly valid to use the parts that work, and leave the ones that don’t work behind.

5. Grounding is stim-friendly- Grounding is awesome. It is using your senses to help keep you in the present, and to help you calm yourself. It is made for us autistic folks. To ground, I use weighted blankets, essential oil rollers, sour candies, sensory toys like putty and beads, and I play counting games with myself. Grounding works differently for everyone. I’ve met people who like to color, people who like to talk to friends, people who like to put smelly lotion on their hands. It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as keeps anxiety or meltdowns or dissociative episodes from escalating. Grounding isn’t necessarily unique to ACT. CBT and especially DBT use it too. Here’s a list of grounding suggestions 

When I talk about stuff like this, I’m never trying to sell you on anything, I just figure if I which I’d known about something sooner, someone else might too.

As always, friend, I wish upon all of you good mental health and lots of self-care!