Part 102: Eye of the Beholder

Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I’ve had a tricky week. Last Saturday I went for a walk around the Waverley lake area of Rotherham. It turned into quite a long walk, and I hit some difficulties. To explain why, I have to backtrack quite a long way…

I’ve talked regularly in this blog about how, for many years before I found out I’m autistic, I used masking behaviours in order to fit in. These masking behaviours were pretty intense, and I achieved a certain amount of success, but eventually, the price I paid was horrendous. Long-term masking inevitably leads to autistic burnout, and in my case, the burnout almost finished me. While there has been some recovery, there will never be a full recovery, and I am in many ways a diminished version of my younger self. The masking I engaged in enabled me to construct various personae; outward-facing personalities that helped me fit in and cope with the neurotypical world. For an extended period of time, I was probably what some people would have called a big personality – a term I despise.

Quite often, particularly in the workplace, I was described as marmite. I could understand why I was labelled this way, because sometimes people would take an instant liking to me; a kind of highly enthusiastic instant friendship or romantic interest that usually left me baffled. I felt as though I didn’t deserve this positive attention. On the other hand, some people would take an instant, intense dislike to me, which left me equally baffled as I felt I’d done nothing to deserve such sudden, unprovoked negativity. I’m sure there have been some people who didn’t have much of an opinion either way about me, but it’s the extreme reactions one tends to remember, and I have often polarised opinion. I realise now, of course, that this is not uncommon among autistic people. Autistic people often have body language, resting facial expressions, and tones of voice that are subtly different from the “norm”. Other people might not be able to put a finger on why, but sometimes, something in our demeanour elicits extreme reactions. This is not the same as saying autistic people look autistic; never in my 54 years of pre-diagnosis life did anyone say I looked autistic. (As many of us know, it’s more common the hear the highly insulting, but you don’t look autistic. Don’t get me started.) But it does appear to be the case that often (maybe not always), autistic people have subtle differences in casual demeanour.

Like it or not, many people base an assessment of character partly or wholly on physical appearance. I understood this from an early age, and even before my teenage years, I was making aggressive statements about myself with clothing choices, and trying to make people visually identify me with “cool” (rebellious) social groups. The thing is, no matter how hard you try to mask as an autistic person, it is never 100% successful. Whether it be physical adaptations to your appearance, or adopting/suppressing behaviours, you can never totally conceal your true autistic self. This often put me in the peculiar position of being judged by my peers (and I do mean judged) as cool yet nerdy, driven yet lazy, determined yet fragile, tough yet weak, intellectual yet laddish, stable yet volatile, party animal yet anti-social, ladies man yet lonely, all at the same time. If I confused other people, I confused myself a damn sight more. I didn’t know I was autistic, and didn’t understand that what I was doing was masking my true self. I was in denial about the way I felt about, and interacted with, the world. Basically, I didn’t know whether I was coming or going through most of my adult life, and the fact I had success in any endeavour at all is remarkable.

Much of my masking was based on my internalised belief that I was weak and lazy, and if I just worked harder, and pushed myself further, I would get through okay. This was a dangerous error to make, although in retrospect it was perfectly understandable. As I didn’t know I was autistic, I didn’t understand how a world that everyone else found normal was utterly draining me. I was already working twice as hard as everyone else just to stay afloat. I kept telling myself I was just like everyone else, and the reason life felt so hard was because I was lazy and weak, and so I just had to man up and work harder, and keep pushing myself. Such was my level of ignorance, self-deception, and denial that even regular episodes of depression (which I now understand to have been triggered by spells of interim autistic burnout) failed to make me realise something was drastically wrong with my approach to life.

This internalised narrative; the self-loathing that came from believing I was just lazy and weak, has left an indelible mark on my mental health and my ongoing behaviour. Even though I now understand what was happening to me, I still find I regularly push myself to do more when I should be taking a break. Thus, I fail to recognise impending exhaustion. I seem to be unable to look at myself objectively when it comes to effort; the image I see is of someone who is a slacker. I dislike what I see. It’s rather like the instant dislike that some people have of me for no apparent reason. It’s visceral.

The self-loathing I experience extends to my physical appearance, especially when I’m not in good shape. Having gone through a prolonged period of depression some time ago, I recognised I needed to change something in my life. A few months ago, I decided to cut all alcohol consumption from my diet. I also cut out virtually all junk food. I forced myself to start exercising, and soon after, I changed job role, moving from a desk-based role to one that was more physically active. As a result, I’ve started to feel slightly better about myself, and I’ve lost a significant amount of weight. This led to some interesting results…

One thing I’ve noticed since losing weight is people react differently to me. Various people I know have commented on the change in my appearance, and have commented that I look happier. But the weirdest reactions have come from strangers. It seems the slimmer I get and the healthier I look, the more likely complete strangers are to smile at me. What on earth is going on with these neurotypicals? There seems to be a definite bias against people who are overweight – I know this from when my health problems of years ago led to me putting on a lot of weight in a short space of time, and it coincided with people in the workplace seeing me a less competent, despite the fact that my results continued to be good. Even with this in mind, I had not expected such positive reactions now from random people I pass every day on my commute, or when shopping, or at the gym, or whatever. It’s bizarre. But there are problems…

Firstly, although I know I’ve lost weight, when I look in the mirror, I’m not happy with my appearance. There is a part of me – the part that believes I am lazy and weak – who sees my reflection and insists I’m still awfully out of shape, and should be working harder, doing more, pushing myself further.

Secondly, although I know I have worked hard to make changes to my life, the part of me that thinks I’m lazy and weak prevents me from really understanding how hard I have worked, and thus disguises any impending exhaustion. Since March, I’ve been going to the gym three times a week, lifting weights. I’ve gradually increased the weights I’m using. I’ve also been doing a job that is much more physically demanding than my previous desk job. I have a tricky commute to work, and because of certain health issues I have that co-occur with autism, I get up very early indeed every weekday. This means if I’ve had a gym visit the night before work, I’ve not had much sleep. Last Friday, after a hard week at work, I did an evening session at the gym. I got up early Saturday morning, and met a friend for the aforementioned walk around Waverley. I was tired, and had only a quick, small breakfast. I took a bottle of water and a small snack for the walk, not realising how much distance I was going to cover, or how hot and humid the weather was going to be. We started the walk at about 11:00, and by 15:30, on the final stretch, I began to feel a bit off. I told myself I was being weak; the walk had been on easy, flat terrain. So I carried on. But then I started to feel dizzy, and started to wobble on my feet. Eventually, I had to say to my friend, “Erm, I think I’ve got a problem, here.” Fortunately, we were close to a pub-restaurant. We went in and got out of the sun. I had two large soft drinks and some food, and began to feel a bit better.


Some images from the Waverley Walk…



It doesn’t take a genius to work out I was dehydrated, sleep-deprived, had not eaten enough, and had started to build up some long-term exhaustion from physical activity. You would think I’d see the signs, learn my lesson, and take a break. But the inner critic was telling me I’m not working hard enough, so the very next day, I went to the gym, and did quite a big, heavy session. I’d actually managed a good night’s sleep Saturday, after the big walk, and I was telling myself I was fine now. I did the gym session okay. I went to work Monday, and was feeling tired, but okay. By Monday afternoon, I was exhausted, though. Tuesday, I was exhausted all day, but still did my job, and masked well enough that no one spotted anything. Wednesday came, and I was struggling. It was supposed to be gym night, and after work, I had actually got my gym kit ready, when I realised, I can’t do this. I’ve hit the wall

I stood in my bedroom, gym kit on my bed, thinking, I really must go to the gym, and simultaneously thinking, I’ve got nothing in the tank. I looked at my reflection, and saw how much slimmer I looked than just a few weeks ago… but not slim enough, not toned enough, nowhere near enough hard work done. I can’t lose this momentum, I told myself. But I had nothing. I put the gym kit away, went to bed, and slept like the dead.

This enforced rest was difficult for me. But fortunately, I was able to drown out the voice telling me I’m a lazy, weak loser, and accept I needed to relax and recharge. I decided to skip the Friday gym visit as well, get some rest, and not beat myself up. I’m writing this blog post on Saturday (one week after the Waverley Walk) for publication on Sunday morning, and I’m intending to go to the gym Sunday afternoon, having had a week to recover.

This whole situation is an example of the daily battle I fight with my inner critic, and it is an autism thing. From childhood, I felt the need to mask just to fit in and, hopefully, thrive a little. But it was so hard for so many years, hence the autistic burnout. All through my pre-diagnosis life, I looked at what I wanted from life, couldn’t achieve it, and put it down to being weak and lazy, rather than just being different. The damage is permanent. As far as my inner critic is concerned, I still never work hard enough, never push myself enough. Even when I’m flaking out on my last legs, I see myself the same way people who take an instant dislike to me do. Their negative opinions seem more real than all the positive reactions I get. Positive reactions feel undeserved; negative reactions just feed my inner critic. I’ll never feel good enough because before my diagnosis, I’d lived a lifetime of not fitting in, unable to make the connections and build networks like other people were doing, being baffled by neurotypical interactions, failing to make the progress I desired, and assuming this was all because I wasn’t good enough and wasn’t working hard enough. It’s ingrained, now. Decades of not knowing I was autistic, struggling with the neurotypical world, and internalising the hate from all those who would not accept my differences, have left scars.

I will never put this blog behind a paywall. I want anyone, anywhere, to be able to access this content at any time. There are costs incurred running this website, however. So if you like what I’m trying to do here, please feel free to show your support with a small contribution via buymeacoffee.com.

That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.

Darren

You can find The Autistic Writer on all your favourite social media channels


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.


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