Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I hope you’re all well. I’m certainly feeling a bit more lively recently, and some of that must involve kicking alcohol – a decision I explained in last week’s blog. Following on from that, I thought I’d take the opportunity this week to discuss something I’ve been asked about a few times: My method of gaming my wellbeing; something I tweet about daily under the hashtag #DarrensDailyDigits. I’ve found this process incredibly helpful, and it played a major part in last week’s decision to quit the booze. I’m going to start by explaining the history that led to me needing a system for managing my mental health and general wellbeing. From there, I’ll explain how I came up with the system, and then how I’ve benefited from it. It all started when I realised I just couldn’t cope anymore. Come with me…
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I was first diagnosed with depression as a child. Depression continued to plague me all my life; through my teens, as a young adult, as a mature man trying to get on in the world, and into my current middle age. For a long time, I thought depression was my only mental health issue. At times, doctors did talk to me about anxiety as well but to be honest, for many years I didn’t really understand what anxiety was as a concept, regardless of how I suffered with it. What I also didn’t understand was my own erratic, sometimes aggressive behaviour, which I now know was due to a combination of meltdowns and over-stimulation. I also suffered from physical health issues over the years, such as digestive problems, mystery pains, and so on. Even when I was slim, super-fit, and going to the gym five times a week, I never really felt completely well. It was a combination of mental, emotional and physical issues. And through most of my life, of course, I had no idea I was autistic, only getting diagnosed at age 54. Throughout my life, the episodes of severe depression came and went. When they came, I usually opted for a course of anti-depressant medication, started to feel better, and then started to feel like the meds were making me worse, and so I came back off them. Coming off the meds triggered an energy boost, and so I would think the depression was gone. A few months later, the process would repeat. Again, and again. It was soul-destroying. I tried CBT, and that worked as well as the meds; an initial feeling that the therapy might help, followed by a realisation that it wasn’t really doing anything, and withdrawal from the treatment. It often felt like the treatments that would work for other people wouldn’t work for me; my problems kept fighting back. The real reason for this was, of course, that the underlying driver of my depression was not knowing that I was autistic. I first started heading toward long-term (permanent, in my case) autistic burnout in 2015. I finally hit rock bottom and was broken in 2018. I partially recovered from the burnout, but it’s true to say I have never been quite the same since, and I doubt I will ever recover further. Then, in the summer of 2020, something happened in my personal life to trigger deep and life-altering depression. I was off work for an extended period, and I was in despair for the future. While the problem that triggered this period of depression seemed to go away and resolve (it hadn’t really – it came back with a vengeance a year later), I was still left thinking, I cannot go on like this, lurching from one depressive episode to another. By this time, I had found out I was autistic. I honestly thought that this revelation would mean no more depression, so I was shocked to be in the dark pit again. I had to do something. I needed to break the cycle. One thing that troubled me was that I hardly ever seemed to realise when I was heading for a period of depression. It was like, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine… BOOM! Despair! What if, I asked myself, I could spot looming depression before it happened? What if I could see it coming up on the rails, and get out of the way? Would it be possible? How could I do this?
It seemed to me that there were different categories of things I should consider about myself when trying to work out what was in the future of my mental health. One obvious giveaway was low mood; if I was having increasing numbers of days where my mood was low, that would seem like a pretty obvious indicator that depression was looming. Another sign would be the frequency and severity of anxiety spells; I knew from previous moments of hindsight that increasing anxiety was a precursor to a spell of deep depression. Then I wondered what could my physical state tell me about what led to depression? My digestive issues always flared up when depressed or anxious, but flare-ups could also cause anxiety. It went two ways, both directions. Interesting. Another physical aspect of all this was getting exercise. When not depressed, I would exercise more. When depressed, I would feel less like exercising, but if I could make myself do it, then my mood would lift. Again, it worked in both directions. Even more interesting. There’s some kind of feedback loop going on. It works like this…
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There are certain activities that make me feel good, and lift my mood, to the extent that they might actually stave off depression and anxiety. If I’m not feeling too depressed or anxious, I’m way more likely to want to carry out these positive activities, which will, in turn, help me feel better, making me want to do more, and so the positive cycle continues, right? If I don’t do these activities, I’m effectively inviting depression and anxiety to an all-you-can-eat buffet; my mood will drop, my anxiety will increase, making me feel worse, so I will be even less likely to do what is good for me, making me feel worse, and so the depressive-anxious cycle intensifies. Makes sense, right? Hmm. Well, if it was all that simple, surely all I would have to do is force myself into a few days of positive activities, triggering feeling good, and the rest would take care of itself. But it doesn’t. Sooner or later, I always drift back to depression and anxiety. So what’s happening, really?
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The answer to the conundrum is actually quite straightforward, and twofold. Firstly, how I feel and what I do isn’t only down to me. I live in a world of competing and conflicting pressures. Pressures can be good or bad, but they are always there. And many of these pressures are out of my direct control; work, illness, bad traffic, the pandemic, getting divorced, whatever. Sometimes, no matter how far into the positive cycle I am, some negative triggers can come along and either explode that positivity or erode it gradually. Secondly, I’m autistic and I live in the neurotypical world, experiencing all the overt and subtle discriminations and aggressions that come with it. It’s exhausting and debilitating. The world chips away at me, and so I need constant repair work. A sudden, massive trigger outside my control is almost impossible to set up defences for in advance; these things happen in life. But the gradual, chip-chipping away at my sense of wellbeing is something I should, in theory, be able to spot and mitigate against. The way to do that could be, I thought, a tracker. I had noticed with hindsight, for example, that in the period leading up to a severe depressive spell, I would spend increasing amounts of time losing myself in a (very specific) pointless computer game, rather than reading or writing. It was a “tell”. Not exercising was another “tell”. I needed to track this stuff, in a way that reflected the positive/negative cycles aspect, so I could spot problematic trends in both my behaviour and how I was feeling. I decided I would track my mental activities (reading, writing) and my physical activity (exercise). I would also track my diet (healthy eating makes me feel better, although I love my curries, pizzas, and bacon), and my alcohol intake. I would track my physical sense of wellbeing in one specific area (digestive issues), and more generally, as in, do I feel physically okay? This measure would be influenced largely by the various types of physical pain I experience daily. I would track my mental and emotional wellbeing on two fronts; depression/mood, and anxiety. Finally, I would measure something that would reflect my ability to function in a wider, more generalised sense on a daily basis; do I feel well enough to attend my place of work? The question I had to answer next was how to measure all these metrics…
There was a potential for the system to get too complicated, which would have been counter-productive, so I opted for a scoring method I remembered well from my days in management; the traffic light system: Red = bad, Amber = caution, Green = good. I would score each metric red, amber or green. I would give myself one point for every green, a minus-one point for every red, and a zero for every amber, meaning I could get a quick, daily total score for my overall wellbeing. Also, if I did the scoring on a spreadsheet showing the actual colours, I would have a stark visual representation of the trends. So, if I could see a red trend on depression and a red trend on physical activity, for example, that might be telling me something. If I could see a red trend on depression beginning after a red trend on, say, alcohol consumption, that would be telling me something else. This is all stuff that I should have known anyway; it’s kind of common sense. But there has clearly been a blocker between my common sense and what is actually happening to me. This system would, I hoped, remove the blocker. The last thing I had to sort out then was what exactly constituted red, amber, or green on any given metric. I had to be clear and consistent on this, otherwise the system would be worthless. Here’s what I decided:
Sometimes, I will not stick exactly to these parameters, particularly when it comes to editing a piece of writing. It’s entirely possible to spend, say, two hours going over a piece of work, but only changing a few dozen words. I’d still award myself a green for this.
I’ve been using the system since August 2020, and I’m very comfortable with it. But has it actually provided any benefit for me? The best answer I can give is to say that since the depressive crash I had in August 2020, while my mood remains something I have to carefully manage, I have not suffered another catastrophic depressive crash. It is months since I’ve hidden inside a computer game. There have been days when I have gone out in freezing, driving rain, snow, or windstorms just to ensure I am physically active. I have completed my third novel (apart from pre-publishing checks). And I have made a decision to go teetotal for a while, possibly permanently. My attendance at work is now well within the required parameters. I’ve managed all this even though I have gone through splitting up from my wife, selling my home and struggling to find somewhere else to live, while dealing with a slipped disc in my spine, and a calcified tendon in my shoulder. I honestly don’t think I could have kept myself on track without having this graphic representation to look at, and being able to analyse it and ask myself, Okay Darren, where are you at? Seeing a bunch of reds, or a problematic trend developing, encourages me to do the right things to break a negative cycle.
Anyone can use a similar system to this. It doesn’t have to be the same metrics as I use. Many people will be able to come up with a fancier spreadsheet or app for it (I briefly tried an app for this, but it wasn’t quite right). It’s just as easy to use a pen and a notebook to track this kind of stuff, too. It’s helped me, and maybe it can help you or someone you know.
That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care, be good, stay proud.
Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.