1. Exposure Therapy:
For years and years I thought if I just socialized more, if I just connected more, and tried harder to be like everyone else, my endurance level for social gatherings would improve and my anxiety levels would decrease. I believed that through repeated exposure that things would get better. That hasn’t happened.
I don’t have a fear and/or phobia to any one thing or event; therefore there is nothing I can focus on overcoming or having less fear about. My anxiety isn’t caused by anything I can pinpoint. My anxiety is caused by the way I process the stimuli in my environment and the way I respond to my surroundings. I am hyper-aware and my senses are turned up to the highest degree. I am also, despite self-training and studies, unsure of how to act in a social gathering, (e.g, how much to share, when to share, when to stop, when to respond, how to stand, how to look, when to be less honest, etc.); and as a result of my uncertainty, I have a constant inner voice reminding me of how to be. A voice that also self-corrects continually.
I need and long for structure and routine. My fear can be reduced if the same events happen in a similar way. However, inevitably changes occur. To say I will get better with practice or exposure is not an accurate statement. First of all, I am not wrong or in need of improvement. I am uniquely wired. One would not tell a person with a visual impairment that if she kept staring at a picture on the wall the image would become clearer, and one would not tell a person with a hearing impairment to repeatedly listen to a song on high-volume to improve his or her hearing. In the same line of thinking, one cannot tell me to continue going outside of my comfort-zone, to eventually gain a sense of security. I do not have the physical capacity. This is not biologically possible for me.
2. Positive Self-Talk/Cognitive Therapy:
While Aspergers can, and often does, have the comorbid conditions of generalized anxiety disorder, OCD, and depression, Aspergers is not the sum of its parts. A person cannot be treated for the comorbid conditions and then grow out of Aspergers. If anyone says they outgrew Aspergers or cured themselves, I don’t believe they had ASD to begin with. Unless they’ve feasibly learned how to reprogram their brain.
I do not think there is a way to change my brain. And as hard as my life can be at times, I don’t like the idea of my brain changing. Aspergers is not a mental illness. The “disorder” of Aspergers is believed to occur in the frontal lobe of the brain. Why and how the condition develops is still largely unknown. Though there seems to be a large genetic factor.
While positive self-talk has many benefits and can decrease episodes of anxiety and depression, and perhaps even diminish some OCD tendencies, it does little to help with the condition of Aspergers itself. No matter how much self-talk I give myself, I still respond in a fight or flight response pattern, when I am in a public place or at a public gathering. I do not want to feel this way, and do not choose to feel this way, but this is the way I feel.
Self-talk and cognitive behavior techniques can sometimes do me more harm than good. When I am panicking, no matter how many times I incorporate positive self-talk or implement cognitive behavioral techniques, (e.g., replace negative belief that is a falsehood with a true reality-based belief), my body continues to respond as if I am in danger. When I do in fact implement the self-talk, in an attempt to do the “right” thing or to “fix” myself, I then feel guilty when the technique does not work. I then question why I was not capable of applying such a simple concept to my own way of thinking.
No amount of practice, hard work, or scouring through books has increased the effectiveness of cognitive-based therapy techniques for me. And the more I use them, and fail, the more I feel as if I am wired in a way that is wrong.
What does help me is letting go and realizing that the panic is something I have to go through, and realizing that when I am on the other side I will be okay. And that there is nothing wrong with what I am doing or going through. It is just the way I am. So in a way I am using positive talk, but not in the traditional sense. I am not finding a false statement or belief that needs change and fixing it. Instead I am self-soothing and reminding myself I will be okay regardless of how I feel at the moment.
I use my thoughts as more of a security blanket. The best thing for me to do in times of anxiety is not to retrain my brain to talk better to me, but to retrain me to treat my brain better. The key being letting go and acceptance.
3. Thinking if I am more self-aware I will be able to control my thoughts and/or anxiety:
I can’t control myself sometimes. I thought if I read enough and studied enough that I could reprogram who I am at a core level. To a degree, spiritually and perhaps energetically, and maybe even genetically, I might be able to alter myself, depending on what doctrine I deem to hold some semblance of truth, but overall I cannot change this elemental core of Aspergers; and if I feasibly can, the answer repeatedly stealthily eludes me.
I have tried every way imaginable to knock some sense into me when I go into a mode of shutdown, and there is nothing I can do, beyond pushing through the uncomfortable emotions.
When my anxiety is high, I become immobile. I cannot do simple tasks. I become extremely fatigued and unable to think in a linear fashion. I become trapped in a cycle or loop of thought. I can step back and see myself doing this. And the odd part is, I know what tools to implement that should supposedly pull myself out, but I also know they won’t work on me. I have tried. Nothing works to stop the anxiety when it is in full swing. It is like I have to go through the tunnel of darkness to come out cleansed and regenerated at the other end.
Days filled with too much sensory overload lead to days of shutdown. During this time life seems bleak and not worth living; however, it does not feel hopeless. I feel fed up more than anything, and exhausted by thought and life. My good hours are usually from when I wake up until mid-day. By mid-afternoon, I often become overwhelmed. This is when I can do little more than sit on the couch. I cannot listen to someone talk for long. It is like I am a computer and all my memory has been filled up. There is no more room left for input.
I have thought to scribe a list to remind myself during the high-anxiety, shut down times of what I need to do to feel better. However, when I am in shutdown, I know that no list of any sort will help. It doesn’t matter that I know why I am overwhelmed and exhausted. My brain is in lockdown. I am protecting myself from short circuiting. The last thing I need is logic or steps to follow. This cognitive reasoning only leads me into further shutdown and retreat, further bombarded by the outside. The only method that works for me is releasing control and letting myself go through the emotional process. If I do not let myself retreat, I will likely have a meltdown, in where I shout and cry. I need time to decompress and be alone. Time to process and discard of my abundance of emotions and thoughts.
4. Thinking that by knowing I have Aspergers I will be more likely able to change myself.:
With self-recognition of Aspergers my behaviors have shifted, but I haven’t changed. Before I didn’t understand my emotions. Before a major event, like a party at our house, when I didn’t know I had Aspergers, I would get extremely controlling and high-strung. I would order my husband around and start arguments. I would create chaos so I could release the tremendous fear building up inside of me. I didn’t know the fear was from thoughts of the upcoming events. My husband would often ask me why I was so angry and touchy before a party. I didn’t know. I thought I was a controlling person and needed everything to go my way to be happy. The problem was I knew innately I didn’t want to be a controlling person and I was never happy, regardless.
It wasn’t until I realized I had Aspergers that my behavior changed. Now, before an event, I no longer subconsciously create drama so I can release emotion. I didn’t consciously decide to change this; the change happened naturally with the discovery of my Aspergers. Now, I am hyper-aware of why I am upset. I recognize my emotions in detail and the triggers that set me into a state of anxiety. It might seem that knowing myself more would make the anxiety level decrease, but actually the anxiety is more intensified, because I am no longer subconsciously utilizing displacement. I am not displacing my own dread about an event into another event. I am not using or finding a scapegoat. I am not creating drama in order to diffuse my own tension. Instead tension keeps building and I have no way to release it.
Now that I am more aware of my own behavior and emotions, and the triggers, I do much more stimming, e.g., I flick my nails, flap my hands, clear my throat, click my teeth, and so forth. I also have anxiety dreams related to a planned event. And the day of the event, I have extreme fluctuations of emotions, and sometimes physical symptoms such as hives and/or stomach aches. I am now taking in the full of the experience and my body is responding. I don’t know if this is better or worse than the displacement. What is also happening is instead of “freaking out” before an event, I am often “freaking out” after the event. I feel very much like a child who holds herself together for the better part of the day, only to go home and have a meltdown.
I have found, to date, the best way to handle my anxiety is to not turn it into the enemy, or something to be eradicated and ejected, but something to be accepted. The more I fight the anxiety, the worse I feel, for there isn’t any avenue that saves me or leads to rescue. I have to go through the discomfort in order to feel relief. The process is similar to a minor panic attack or adrenaline rush, but it passes, and the more accepting I am of the process the quicker it passes. I’ve noticed the same with my dog’s epileptic seizures. They used to last up to twenty-minutes; now when they begin I hold her and release my own fear. I accept she will go through the seizure and be okay. I send this feeling of acceptance to her, and do not fight her seizures. I then let her go, or hold her less closely, and ignore her in a compassionate way, as if telling her: This is not a big deal. Don’t give it power, and it will pass. Since incorporating this method, my dog’s seizures have decreased drastically in length, generally only five minutes, and sometimes less than a minute. My own anxiety is like a my dog’s seizure; if I just let go and trust it will be okay, it passes much quicker.
5. Believing that by making plans I will feel more structured and therefore I will experience less anxiety:
Sometimes lists help me; especially if there are no deadlines on the list. I like to make lists of chores or errands, and to cross out items as they are accomplished. I also like to rewrite new lists and to see how much the to-do items have diminished. Lists are my friends. Appointments on the calendar are not my friends.
I remember my father would always tell me a similar thing. I would ask him if we could get together on such-and-such day, and he would typically respond that he couldn’t tell me yet, and that deciding at that moment didn’t feel comfortable to him. He did better with last-minute plans. I didn’t understand at the time why my father acted this way. I felt cheated out of his life and not important enough to plan for. But today I understand my father more. He didn’t want to make plans because he didn’t want the stress of worrying about an upcoming event. I am the same way. I have been my whole life.
To me, the best days are days nothing is on the calendar. Even one appointment or obligation can make me anxious for hours beforehand, sometimes even days beforehand. The thought of having to pick up my son up from school each afternoon causes me stress. I leave at a set time daily, and the trip is short, easy, and non-eventful, but the stress does not dissipate.
Usually two hours before a scheduled event, I start to become very preoccupied with the time and the steps I will have to take to leave the house. Simple tasks, like showering or getting dressed, feel overwhelming. I can spend several minutes, processing and reprocessing the pros and cons of showering. I can create in my mind a half-dozen scenarios of what sequence I should follow in preparation for my departure. Even before I’ve started the process of getting ready, I am often mentally exhausted.
When I see an event on the calendar, I have a small panicky feeling inside, as I realize that soon in preparation for an event, I will experience something similar to post-traumatic-stress-syndrome.
This seems contradictory in nature to me: the fact that I do well knowing what to expect and with routine but at the same time I dread plans on the calendar. I look forward to well-structured days indoors at home. However, the repeated isolation and lack of adult company can lead to depression and feelings of isolation, loneliness, and inadequacy.
There is a continual pendulum of want inside of me. On one side there is the longing for company and stimulation outside the home, on the other side there is the longing to hibernate and not have to experience the anxiety involved in going out. This pendulum moves back and forth. If I am not careful, I can self-punish myself by wishing I was different and more normal. I am in a constant state of fluctuation, never centered, and always wanting.
6. Believing if I can just let go of Aspergers and get on with my life, I’ll be fine.
I joke with myself sometimes. I think if I write enough and share enough, I will process the Aspergers right out of me. Some silly part of me believes I’ll wake up and be cured of Aspergers, and if not cured, so much better able to function. The truth is I don’t need to be cured. I am not sick, or ill, or broken. I have been born with a brain that is different from the general population. If society was different, I would be responding differently. But society isn’t different.
I have tried over and over to change myself, to try to fit in, and to try to function, but the more I try, the more I find myself battling the same resistance. What I have found that works is contact with other people who understand me. I feel safe with most people with Aspergers, and to a degree safe with people who would classify themselves as a bit “quirky” or “shy.” I fit nicely with the odd balls and misfits.
I don’t need to let go of Aspergers, I need to let go of isolation and thinking there is something wrong with me to begin with. The more lovely souls I meet with brains wired like mine, the more I learn to appreciate my uniqueness and beauty, and the more I recognize the depth of my own intelligence and empathy.
I was created differently, but different is not wrong, and need not be terrible. With the right balance of release and acceptance, and with the right connection with like-souls, I am learning to navigate myself in this world. Where I used to believe I was dropped down on the wrong planet, I now believe that I am right where I am supposed to be.