Optimizing Sleep: An Experiment

I’ve always been sceptical about ‘advice’ when it comes to sleeping. Very few prescribed methods have worked for me. As much as I love the smell of Lavender on my pillow, it doesn’t help me get to sleep at all!

I have struggled with sleeping throughout my life. The father of my childhood friend is an osteopath, and when he lived nearby I found myself going to him for cranial massages. It was one of the few times in my life when I was able to experience good sleep on a regular basis. Alas! My friend and his father moved away. I couldn’t afford to pay for sessions with an osteopath (I had been lucky enough to have sessions with my friend’s father for free!), and so old habits fell back into place.

My sleep has been further compromised by Anxiety over the years. The root cause of my problem is an overactive imagination that is difficult to shut down. Like a lot of people on the autism spectrum, I have my own ‘world’ inside my head. Whilst being a fantasist is a huge part of who I am – and while it brings me a lot of pleasure – it does hinder me when it comes to nodding off. I think that my body has, over time, adjusted to my inability to sleep for long periods. As such, I ‘get by’ on a daily basis having had very little sleep.

But this week I have taken a stand. I have:

  • Stopped watching television and using the computer before bed
  • Gone to bed an hour earlier
  • Stopped reading before bed (a big sacrifice for me, but reading keeps my mind active)
  • Reduced any other external stimuli that might cause my mind to remain active (e.g. excessive socializing or being around bright lights)

 

The results are palpable. Already I feel more focused, calmer and less anxious. I’m less forgetful, less easily distracted and more capable of completing tasks in an orderly, logical manner. Even when I haven’t slept for long periods, I have still gotten out of bed the next day feeling well-rested (due to having spent more time in bed, feeling relaxed both mentally and physically). My mind, no longer racing at two hundred miles an hour, has settled down into what I call ‘standby mode’.

This is all part of my self-improvement plan for my twenty-third year. I know that if I can crack my sleep problem, I will be able to optimize the capability of both my mind and body by a thousand percent.

 

 

When the Devil Came Knocking: Anxiety and Time

This time last year I found myself in a serious crisis. I had absolutely no idea how to fight back.

I guess what began it all was leaving university. I was no longer certain that acting was what I wanted to do, but I sure as hell didn’t want one of those soulless ‘proper jobs’ either. Writing was my twin talent, so I thought that perhaps I could nurture that-but I had no plans as to how and doubted my abilities. I knew I needed to earn money in the meantime and so looked for menial jobs. At that stage I felt completely unemployable; nobody wanted me. All of my applications were either rejected or ignored. Eventually, I did find a job…which I loathed with every ounce of my being.

I felt totally stuck and uncertain about my future. I’ve often heard Anxiety described as ‘a fear of the future’ and this indeed was how I felt when the devil came knocking. I capitalize Anxiety because it is a recognised disorder, different from just feeling some ‘anxiety’ as a one-off. I had had run-ins with Anxiety in the past, but it soon became clear that this time things were different. Like a virus, it had somehow become stronger. The feeling of fear pervaded into every aspect of my life and quickly came to inhabit my thoughts. As an introvert, I have always needed a reasonable amount of time alone, but now I found myself spending the majority of my life away from other people. I became irritable, indecisive and forgetful.

I couldn’t seek counselling because counsellors require money. I had no job and so, therefore, had no money. The free ‘Let’s Talk’ service offered to me by the NHS put me on a waiting list, but they took so long to get back to me that I would have likely died in the meantime had my problem been serious enough. My parents weren’t able to truly understand what was happening to me because, much like Autism, Anxiety is an invisible disorder and I had no diagnosis as such. I found it hard to explain how I felt and why I felt the way I did.

Then came the worst part: the Anxiety became so dominant that it began to manifest itself as physical pain. I began to experience a gnawing pain in my chest on a daily basis, often without relent throughout each and every day. My panicked mind’s first thought was “HEART ATTACK!”

I found myself frequently visiting the doctor and becoming a hypochondriac, something I had absolutely never been before. On the rare occasions when I didn’t feel anxious, I would become aware that I was feeling relaxed and the Anxiety would kick in again. It didn’t allow me to relax. I spent eight months in flight mode, barely functioning as a human being.

To quote Yoda, fear leads to anger. In my case that is certainly true. I quickly began to question why this was happening to me. When I couldn’t find a way to get better and everything felt futile, I would fly into rages. I deliberately shut myself away from my friends because I needed to be alone. At that stage I barely wanted to know myself, let alone force this new Joe upon anybody else.

The trauma I was facing was blissfully ignored by the rest of the world because it was mostly invisible. I knew I had to force change. I was beginning to exhibit symptoms of Depression. The two often go hand-in-hand. In the end, I spent half a year on happy pills, not to treat Depression but to treat and calm the Anxiety that had become serious enough to warrant prescribed medication. I don’t know whether the pills actually worked or not, but I believed that they would and that perhaps had something to do with my recovery. The other key ingredient to my salvation was time. My body and mind needed time to deal with the Anxiety, much in the way that a computer needs time to upload new information.

I also changed my mentality. I forced myself to be productive and actively invited positivity into my life. My productivity as a writer had stalled indefinitely because I had become incapable of seeing anything through, always criticizing myself and feeling mentally drained before I had even begun my work. But I kicked back and eventually the wall barring my way was broken. That’s not to say that I’m free of it entirely, but I have made significant progress and now rarely experience the pain that had caused me so much distress.

Finally, and perhaps most crucially, I allowed myself to get away for a while. It took a lot a lot of forward planning and preparation financially, but I did it. In the end it took a trip to New Zealand to help me to let go, and to remind me that life is, after all, worth living.

Peace and love,

Joe

Rule 1: If You Try to Please Everyone, You Please No One

As social animals, our brains are wired up in a way that makes pleasing others important to us (for the most part). Whether the person in question is a member of your family, your boss, your partner, a friend etc, you put in place methods geared towards making them happy, so as to maintain relative peace and contentment in your life.

But then you fall into the trap. In trying too hard to please others it is very easy to neglect your own needs and so subsequently disappoint yourself. If you try too hard to please everyone, you please no one; least of all yourself.

As human beings, we try to pursue our own goals and fulfil our own ambitions, no matter how simple or far-fetched those may be. To have to give up those ambitions in order to please somebody else can be soul-destroying, especially if you do not feel that there is a big enough return on their part. There is no feeling worse than that of complete dissatisfaction with oneself. Being forced to give up your goals and dreams can leave you feeling powerless. I know from experience that it can lead to periods of extreme anxiety and even depression. It will only get worse if you do not take control of your life and ensure that it is YOU (and nobody else) who is sitting in the driving seat.

Imagine for a minute that you are in a car and that everybody else you know is in a separate car travelling along the roads around you. If your life’s journey is like that of a car travelling along a motorway, and you are the driver of that car, you need to be making the decisions or else you will have an accident. YOU need to decide how slowly or quickly to drive. YOU need to decide which exits you are taking, which way you are turning and where your final destination is. YOU need to decide when it is time to hold back, and when it is time to overtake and leave other cars behind. Sometimes your decisions will cause accidents; other times they will benefit both you and the other cars around you. On occasions, you will also need to give way to other cars, it is true, but first and foremost in your mind should be your own destination.

Don’t let anybody else stop you from achieving your goals. Whatever you want to do, go out there and do it.

If you are unhappy with your circumstances, what are YOU going to do about it?

Why I Would Never Take a ‘Cure’ for Autism

In some ways, I am hesitant when it comes to writing about this. The subject of a ‘cure’ for autism and whether it is both viable and acceptable has been hotly debated for some time, with many on and off the spectrum citing the reasons for and against it.

I, for one, am thoroughly against it; but don’t take that as an ultimatum. I never deal in ultimatums and respect the opinions of everyone who reads this. My condition is high-functioning, meaning that I tend to have less difficulty excelling socially, practically and academically than those who are low-functioning. Whilst I struggle with the concept of socializing, have a plethora of unusual special interests and have a hard time with a variety of practical tasks, I am nonetheless helped rather than hindered by many of my autistic traits. For the most part, I live what might be considered a ‘normal’ life: I have a job and a reasonable number of friends, I date on occasions and am rarely considered to be especially ‘different’ by others. Since autism is invisible and does not have a ‘look’, I appear to most people as just a quietly-spoken man with a few quirks. I don’t regularly experience meltdowns as so many others on the spectrum do.

But here’s the crux for why I would personally eschew any kind of cure at all costs.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that I had been given a cure. My special interests are important to me and define a large part of my personality. To lose the intensity of those interests (which are intense as a result of me having Aspergers) and to have them reduced to a somewhat more ‘normal’ level would be utterly intrusive and destructive to me as an individual. It would be as if a stranger had taken over my mind and altered the very foundation of how it works. I wouldn’t know myself. I would be starting over; and the fact is that I like the way my mind works, far more than I dislike it.

If you thoroughly dislike autism for how it affects your life, then perhaps the cure is for you. But if such a cure existed, I wouldn’t take it unless I was forced down kicking and screaming.

The Social and Emotional Experience of Going ‘Unplugged’ for Two Weeks

A few years back I had the opportunity to go ‘unplugged’ for two weeks: that is to say that I found myself on holiday in Cornwall, staying in a beautiful little apartment right next to the village pub in Polperro, a perfect getaway with 10 out of 10 views across the harbour. The only thing it lacked was-you guessed it-phone signal.

Of course, there were plenty of other ways for me to get online if I had really wanted to; but I was intrigued, perhaps even a little excited – about delving into two weeks without being answerable to the wider world that the web puts you into regular contact with.

If you don’t have a Facebook account you are considered by many to be a hermit in this day and age. I was certainly enjoying the new-found freedom. I found that my social life and relations with my family improved to no end without the influence of the internet and social media to otherwise distract me from the rest of daily life. Granted, we were on holiday, which added to the sense of relaxation.

To begin with, the nagging impulse inbuilt within my brain kept reminding me that I should be checking my phone and laptop. Surely somebody must have sent me an urgent message that required my immediate attention? As I later found out, during the two weeks I had been away I had received around 50+ notifications from Facebook, several private messages and upwards of 100 emails.

How many of these notifications were essential ‘must-reads’?

I would say less than 5%, perhaps even as low as 2%.

Doubtless, your own results, if you were to undertake this social experiment, would be different. During this period I used the phone only as a time-telling device. I would have used it to take calls, but I don’t think I received any even when outside the apartment.

The experience freed me, albeit temporarily, from what often feels like an unfortunate compulsion. The effects were evident for many weeks afterwards, seeing how little time I spent on social media until old habits crept back in and I found myself fully ‘plugged in’ again.

How my Autism Affects Me

I feel as if I say this until I am blue in the face, but it’s worth repeating: autism does not have a ‘look’ and is an invisible condition. Not everybody on the spectrum shares the same traits and none of these signs on their own can offer conclusive evidence that somebody is autistic. Nevertheless, there are a number of telltale signs that may indicate whether somebody is on the spectrum.

Some of these ‘classic’ signs include:

  • Difficulty interpreting social situations (both verbal and non-verbal communication), e.g. inability to detect jokes, sarcasm, meaning behind facial expressions and tone of voice etc
  • Not expressing emotion through the face or voice-speaking in ‘monotone’
  • May either be verbal or non-verbal. Some people on the spectrum may not speak at all or may only speak very little. Others may speak very clearly (and maybe over-elaborately) but nonetheless will struggle to pick up on many of the social cues taken for granted by neurotypical (non-autistic) individuals.
  • Appearing to be insensitive or uncaring, rarely going to others for comfort and preferring to retreat into their own space when feeling overwhelmed socially, spending a large amount of time alone and behaving in ways that others might find strange or immature (another post in and of itself)
  • Repetitive behavioural patterns such as always following the same exact daily routine (eating the same food each day for example)
  • Trouble grasping practical, motor-related procedures, e.g. working a machine or tying shoelaces
  • A difficulty with accepting changes to a routine
  • Highly focused interests that often become obsessive, sometimes obscure in nature
  • Over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to sounds, touch, smell, tastes and so on, sometimes leading to anxiety or bodily pain

Everybody’s autism is different. For example, somebody with low-functioning autism could (or could not) be a person who barely speaks at all, doesn’t regularly show any clear emotion through their face or speech, and is upset enough by a change to their routine that it leads to a meltdown, by which I mean a sensory overload which causes something akin to what a neurotypical person might experience with a panic attack. They could struggle with numerous motor-related tasks to the point where they may need a carer to look after them on a daily basis. Like I said, that is an example. Nobody, whether high or low-functioning, possesses the exact same set of traits.

For more info on the difference between high and low-functioning autism, I recommend this article here:

https://www.verywellhealth.com/high-and-low-functioning-autism-260599

Let’s now give a profile of me and how I’m affected by autism according to the points I laid out above. Specifically, I have a form of autism known as Aspergers so I will refer to my condition as both autism and Aspergers below.

Generally speaking, I come across as a polite, well-spoken man. I have an excellent (in my case above average) knowledge of language and words. Growing up I sometimes spoke over-elaborately, using complex, unusual words in conversation simply because I knew them, without giving any thought to whether they were appropriate to use in that situation. Nevertheless, I do not pick up on many of the social cues that others take for granted. Internally I often feel uncomfortable in social situations, particularly ones that involve large groups of people, but these symptoms rarely manifest themselves in an obvious physical way beyond me ‘shutting down’ and keeping to myself. It may take me longer to realize that somebody is making a joke or being sarcastic for example. It is also worth noting that my condition (at least in my case) renders me totally incapable of being able to determine whether another person is interested in me romantically. I will not pick up on the body language or social cues that indicate attraction. Therefore the unspoken rules of flirting are totally lost on me. The only way I can possibly know if somebody is interested in me is if they tell me so outright.

I have a good understanding of facial and vocal expressions which is a trait that many with the condition do not possess. On occasion, I may appear to be insensitive as I do not always consider the effects that my words or lack of empathy have on other people. This is somewhat remedied by the fact that I am quick to offer comfort once I realize somebody has been upset by me or is otherwise distressed.

With or without the Aspergers, I am an introvert by nature. I honestly think that is part of me regardless of being autistic, though no doubt enhanced because of it. I spend the majority of my time alone following solitary pursuits such as reading or writing. I will happily go out on my own to engage in activities others would see as social events, such as going to the cinema to see a film. Whilst I have only a few close friends, they are all people who I trust completely and feel totally comfortable with. My policy with friends has always been quality over quantity, and I rarely exhibit too many of my classic autism traits when in the company of the people I feel secure with. In my case, anxiety definitely brings a lot of my autistic traits to the surface. If I am doing something practical and I know somebody is watching me, I will find the task much harder. This may not seem too unusual until you realize that my autism puts me at an inherent disadvantage when it comes to carrying out motor-related tasks.

I have always had difficulty grasping many practical things that others find easy. For the most part, I am capable of completing the majority of daily tasks without much trouble: things like cooking, driving, doing housework etc. Other things pose much a greater challenge. It took me many years, for example, before I could tie my shoelaces without help. Putting together something from scratch (like a kit lawnmower) is my idea of hell on earth. My hand-eye coordination is undeveloped in comparison to others of my age. Sometimes I may approach practical tasks in a manner that appears illogical to non-autistic people, because of the different way in which my brain functions. Often I still get the task done to the same standard, however, which is why I often become annoyed when others try to ‘correct’ my way of doing things. It is not necessarily right or wrong, just different.

Whilst routine is important to me, I do not need to follow a rigid unwavering pattern. Big changes to my established routine are certainly jarring to me and often require a bit of preparation on my part. I will never like the concept of change, but I’m perhaps more accepting of it than others on the spectrum.

As some people will know, I have a number of highly intense interests (sometimes obscure ones) that I pursue with great passion. Sometimes these interests can become all-consuming. Some of them are only temporary interests whilst others have been ongoing throughout my life. Growing up as a child, some of the things that became obsessive interests included church clocks, bird-watching, elephants and mammoths, military vehicles and films such as The Jungle Book, Ice Age and the Star Wars saga. My interest in Tolkien and his fictional world of Middle-earth has been a lifelong interest that has retained its intensity throughout the years and into the present. I am a powerhouse of knowledge on the subject (if I do say so myself). The one part of my life’s routine that is truly repetitive in the autistic sense is that I keep returning to these interests and in doing so often fail to ‘widen my horizons’ as non-autistic do when they explore new areas of interest. I regularly listen to the same music to the exclusion of everything else, for example.

Although I had sensory issues with food growing up and deliberately avoided trying anything new, this has become much less of a problem as I have aged. I don’t tend to initiate physical contact (e.g. a hug) with another person unless I am very close to them. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t enjoy it, however. In all likelihood, this stems more from a lack of confidence than from my Aspergers. Not reading social cues clearly doesn’t help, which is why I generally leave it to others to initiate that kind of thing with me if they want to. Loud noises or any noise that is particularly unexpected can sometimes unnerve me, though this wouldn’t necessarily be obvious to anyone else. During the days of my church clock obsession, this happened regularly: having waited around for anywhere up to an hour for the bells to chime I would suddenly get nervous during the last few minutes of waiting. It was the anticipation of the noise, not the noise itself, which caused my nervous reaction. I don’t recall ever having any sensory issues involving smell, colours, lights or anything else.

There are also a number of positive traits I have inherited as a direct result of my autism. By and large, I think the positive traits outweigh any difficulties that autism has caused me; but that’s for another post, in future.

Joe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The First Time I Witnessed an Autistic Meltdown

I was probably about fourteen by the time I witnessed a serious autistic meltdown. That might sound strange, seeing as I’m on the spectrum myself, until you realize that my condition is very high-functioning, meaning (in my case) that I appear to exhibit less signs of my condition than somebody who is low-functioning.

It was at secondary school, then, that I met the first person I had ever known who was outwardly autistic. Autism is an invisible condition and it does not have a ‘look’, nor does everybody on the spectrum share the same traits. Nevertheless this individual displayed a number of the telltale signs that indicated he was on the spectrum: he spent almost all of his free time alone, spoke in a very monotone voice and had a number of unusual, often obsessive interests that some might consider offbeat or even immature. I noticed this, and, needless to say, less sympathetic individuals noticed it too.

I will always remember the day it happened. It was the height of summer, the last day of term before the holidays. The school bus was packed; everybody was going home and many of them were bringing their friends home too.

I don’t know why the young man in question was late to the bus, but unfortunately for him, he was. He always sat alone on the bus in a seat by the window and didn’t like it when somebody sat in the seat next to him. That, I now realize, was his routine. Following exactly the same established routine on a daily basis is often crucial for those on the spectrum. It is necessary for them if they are to feel comfortable.

Sometimes I would sit next to the young man in question and talk to him because I recognized a kindred spirit. I also wanted to show him that I cared, as few others ever seemed to talk to him. I never discussed autism with him, or anything else that I thought might distress him; we only talked about the things I knew he was interested in. I always got the feeling, however, that he would have preferred to be left alone and I respected that.

Back to the day it happened. On this particular occasion all the window seats were taken, meaning that the only available ones were end seats next to other people. I remember feeling uncomfortable myself whenever I had to ask somebody if the seat next to them was free and whether I could sit there. It literally made my skin crawl. I could see from the moment he stepped onto the bus that he was intimidated by the mass of people and the lack of seats. I would have offered him a place if I myself had not been sitting next to somebody else (and a stranger at that).

Eventually, thank heavens, somebody did offer him a place; but that was after the meltdown.

Yes, he had a meltdown. It was a big one.

It was as if he were a kettle waiting to boil, or a volcano building in pressure before an eruption. His whole body started to shake and he stood rooted to the spot. Soon the nerves were replaced by anger and he began to wail furiously, again and again. By the time he had finished it was as if minutes had passed, though in fact the whole incident was over in the space of around thirty seconds.

Throughout, I had sat there with my head in my hands, waiting for it to end. Everybody else, almost without exception, drowned the poor boy in a chorus of laughter. I’m ashamed to say that I did nothing, worried about what would happen to me if I spoke up. I also knew that speaking to him about what happened would probably upset him further; I hope that in some way I am giving something back to others on the spectrum in the form of this blog.