Writer and Author

Tag: Pandemic

A Different Operating System

Autism is having a bit of a moment. You must have noticed – you can hardly turn on the television or look on a news site without hearing someone famous has been diagnosed or some new understanding has been reached. It wouldn’t be the first time the media have seized on a subject and run with it but I have a sneaking suspicion there’s a perfectly sensible reason for the sudden approved awareness of autism. There’s certainly a reason why I’m noticing it more, which I’ll get to in just a second.

The last two years have been hard ones. Waves have lead to lockdowns, separation from the normal hustle and bustle of life. In the midst of all this death and uncertainty, a lot of people have had a chance to reassess, to look inward. For those with mental health illnesses it has been particularly hard as the constant change and the sense of unreality that comes with living through a global event. There is no way of avoiding the news. I started lockdown, way back in March 2020 with the intention to ride the waves and keep safe. I read up everything I could on masks and pandemics, then baking and dyeing techniques, then sofas – did you know how many webbing patterns there are for Ercol Windsor sofas? That is always how I have approached life, I research, I become an expert on tiny sections of things which stay lodged in my brain for years to come. The pandemic made me go into overdrive.

But as the months dragged on I started to think more. I started to realise that my reaction to staying at home all the time, to having control over the people I saw, the places I went, being able to cocoon myself in comfort when I felt anxious, to be childishly indulgent if the mood arose. It was only earlier this year I realised that all these little things, My geekiness, and antisocial tendencies, my weird tastes (when I like a food I will quite happily live on it for a prolonged period), the almost fetishisation of  certain combinations of colours and textures and the tendency to almost instantly want to make friends might actually all be part of the same thing. For the first time in my life the collection of quirks and twitches, strengths and weaknesses that go to make up me looked like they actually had a shape together and a name. A few weeks ago, I was given that shape, named that name. I am autistic.

A few short months ago if you had asked me about autism I would have pictured a little boy lost in a world of his own. I had assumed that autism, like ADHD was a childhood condition. When I was a kid autism was quite simply not something little girls could have…a bit like Scalextric and Meccano. Even if I had been tested for it back in the days when Jimmy Saville and Rolf Harris did children’s programmes and Liberace was the housewife’s favourite, I wouldn’t have been diagnosed as I don’t fit the diagnosis – I’m chatty and have been known to run into the centre of crowds. People often mistake me for an extrovert. I would never have fitted the diagnostic parameters. But science evolves and learns new things and is currently very interested in learning about women who were missed when they were children. It’s very common for women to be diagnosed as adults because, not only did we not fit the profile, we are also a lot better at “masking”.

All my life I’ve treated fashion as a costume. I dress as the person I need to be at any given moment. I have outfits that are my journalist outfits, other ones for when I’m teaching and if I’m doing something as a writer then it’s a different costume again. All this, I learn now, is masking. It’s why I feel all peopled out if I’d had a particularly social whirl (or met more than three people at once, to be honest). I’m happiest at home with time to think. My brain sometimes gets jammed with everything and just needs to be quiet to filter everything out. When I’m calm and have space I can think the world, but when the noise gets to much and chaos crowds in, it feels like a limiter has been placed on my brain and I simply can’t function.

I’ve heard autism diagnosis being described as “finding your tribe”, “finding out what planet you are from”. For me it has been a Kaiser Soze moment where everything fell into place and it keeps falling into place to this day. It’s not something that changes who I am but it sure as hell explains a lot. My brain isn’t weird or wrong in anyway, it’s just wired differently. It means that some of my senses are up to 11. It means that some things I just don’t get – I’m utterly rubbish at reading certain social cues. It means that when I get tired and overwhelmed I just need to stop. Most of this is just stuff that is intrinsically me so it’s been odd realising that actually it’s part of a state of being. I hadn’t actually realised that most people don’t experience the world the way I do (although, really I should have taken the hints a very long time ago).

I’m currently waiting to find out if I also have ADHD, a combination that isn’t that unusual but that would explain a great deal about how I work, and why I’ve struggled with certain things. All of this also goes some way to explain why I’m writing this this evening. I have always found it easier to write about emotions than to demonstrate them. This is a big enough thing about myself that I want to tell everyone – not just those who’ve supported me and been my friends but also those who didn’t give me a break for things I know now I had no control over. I feel like shouting it from the rooftops. I am explained!

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. This knowledge is simply good to have. It allows me to understand myself better but it is not the whole story. For the first time in a very long time I feel like a whole person. I no longer feel fractured but a complex, complete entity. It was a strange thing to find out as a result of lockdown but there you go. And perhaps that’s also why autism is having a moment right now.

The Way We Live Now

Do we all have stashes of toilet roll now?

We live in a strange new world. A world where a delivery of toilet paper is anticipated almost as much as the new Hilary Mantel, where a silence has fallen on sports grounds and cinemas and more people are tuning into the nightly news than Strictly Come Dancing. We have all learned how to wash our hands all over again and now lots of us sing while we do so. We are learning new uses and combinations of words – social distancing, cocooning. It is like living in a sci-fi film.

The university made the decision to move all teaching online on Monday. I’ve spent most of this week working out how on earth I’m going to deliver teaching without actually being in the same room as my students. I worked remotely for two years for a company where my teammates were sometimes in three different countries, before that I was freelance for a decade. Working from home doesn’t bother me and technology doesn’t phase me but there is something exquisitely infuriating about realising that even though it’s a while since I’ve done either, the technological solutions are no less annoying and just as apt to wig out when they are actually put to the use they were supposedly designed for.  In case any of those students are reading this, don’t worry I’m not talking about the stuff I’m going to be teaching you. The first few days passed in a flurry of panic, trying to assess the new reality. After weeks of being told the coronavirus was a concern but under control and nothing to worry about suddenly we’re all at DEFCON 1 and life as we know it has come to an abrupt pause. Nothing is as it was but for those of us that worry every flu season because the wrong dose could potentially mean months of incapacitation, there’s a strange sense of vindication. I’ve been paranoid about touching door handles, cash machines and public transport for months now, it’s kind of nice to know that most people are now on the same page – even if it does mean you can’t get toilet roll for love nor money.

If you are someone who has spent most of their lives waiting for the end of the world – and that does tend to be the scenario I catastrophise to, then there is a sense of familiarity with all of this. I grew up in a time when the threat of nuclear war seemed very real indeed. The early 80s was a period of intense sabre-rattling between the US and what was then the USSR. In 1982, the Home Office was running practise scenarios for a nuclear strike on Britain. Between 1984 and 1986, TV programmes like Threads, Z for Zachariah and When the Wind Blows shaped the cultural imagination. Being a kid at that time you knew something was up. Even the children’s programmes showed death and disaster – I particularly remember Dramarama Spooky, which ran in 1982 and featured an episode where a schoolkid is haunted by the girl who died when his school was hit by a doodle-bug bomb during WW2. There were the outlines of a family on the pavement outside the town hall, which I stepped over every morning. I knew they were just paint but I’d seen enough and heard enough to know that they represented all that would be left if a nuclear bomb hit. As if to reinforce the sense of impending panic, the fire station that stood beside my school had a habit of testing its old air raid siren every time we had a class with the windows open. I grew familiar with a noise that my mum and my grandmother had left me in no doubt meant death. It was around that time that BBC radio did an adaptation of the War of the Worlds and I discovered John Wyndham. These stories shaped my imagination, they became a genre I have sought out ever since. I’ve always loved a good dystopia.

So some of this feels familiar. The idea of having stores of food is one I’ve had all my life. My mum was a war baby and always had her tin cupboard well-stocked. I’ve spent too much of my life in in not particularly well-paid jobs not to know a thing or two about buying in bulk and making things last. That doesn’t make any of this less scary. I’m worried for elderly and vulnerable friends and relatives. I’m worried for myself but there’s always a little voice in the back of my head telling me “it’s ok, we know how this goes”. It’s an annoying little voice because yes, we know how things go and that why I’ve been avoiding door handles and obsessively washing up after using public transport for weeks!

As I said yesterday, this is a personal blog. It’s my way of getting this all straight in my head. This seems like a time to shout into the void so I’ll be doing it as often as possible,

 

 

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