“That’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Major Major counselled him kindly. “We’re all afraid.”
“I’m not ashamed,” Yossarian said. “I’m just afraid.”
– Joseph Heller, Catch 22
OK this does have ink in it. It also has a lot of other stuff in it so if you’re here for the ink and pens and nothing else this may not be the post for you, friend. I will be writing more concise, straightforward review posts soon because I have a bunch of things to review. Concisely.
Cw for mental health stuff and neuroscience nerdery.
You may be surprised to learn that I am not Temple Grandin. Certainly I was astonished when I found this out. Many people seem to be unaware that there’s more than one autistic woman in the world. I don’t know if this is Simon Baron-Cohen’s fault, but I’m going to assume that it is because I hate him. Anyway. A point that Temple Grandin makes when she’s doing her weird cow whisperer stuff is that the main emotion many – if not most – animals experience is fear. I’m going to assume she’s right about that because what the hell do I know? Sounds plausible. She then goes on to say that the main emotion that people on the autism spectrum experience is also fear. Or anxiety, I suppose. Which… HOO BOY.
You’d think that wouldn’t be all that helpful to read, wouldn’t you. You’d think “well, someone who’s always afraid knows they feel that way, so they’re not going to get much out of having it pointed out.” But the reason why it is helpful to have it pointed out is that we don’t necessarily realise that other people don’t feel that way. For someone who is always afraid, or always sad, or always exhausted (or often all three because those bastards are friends) and thinks that the world they experience is the same as everyone else’s, the only explanation for why other people seem to find things much easier is “I guess I’m a wussy, morbid lazybutt. Well damn.”
I first realised that I might have a bit of an anxiety issue when I was about ten. This may have been when I first really took it on board that other people were enjoying experiences which paralysed me with fear: parties; fireworks displays; rounders games and so on. That was odd. They didn’t appear to be afraid at all. That was also odd. And sort of infuriating. And then I started to realise something. I paid attention to my feelings. I was afraid. I did this repeatedly over the course of a few days. Am I afraid now? Yes I am. Now? Yeah. I realised that fear never left me. It hung out with me at night, at breakfast, reading, handwriting practice, PE (nice of you to bring your Fear Army there, Fear), violin practice, dinner. Eventually it dawned on me that perhaps this was odd. I raised the possibility of it with my mother. Lacking the right words to express “shit shit shit I am constantly terrified. This is weird, right? Please tell me it’s at least a little bit weird and/or fixable” I was only able to tell her that “I’m worried all the time. Like ALL the time. And I always think the worst thing is going to happen.”
Her response was a little unhelpful. “Well I suppose if you always expect the worst, you can’t be disappointed.” And then the subject was dropped for many more years.
It’s now 27 years later. Am I still constantly afraid? Yes. I’d love to say that I got it all to go away but I didn’t. I do, however, have a few more insights into this fear, and how to live with it. I also have more control of my life because I’m a grown-up now. In addition to the ASD I have a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and I have a bunch of anxiety-fighting prescription medication. These things also help. Almost everyone on the autism spectrum has a struggle with anxiety. Many people both struggle more than I do, and are less able to communicate what’s going on for them, AND are unable to understand/master the kind of sarcasm that makes it all a bit better, because disability can be a real bitch like that. So this is my particular take on it and how it applies to me. With sarcasm.*
Autism is associated with some weird stuff going on with the amygdala, which is a deep, primal region in the temporal lobe of the brain. If you want to know what’s going on with autism and the amygdala, get yourself to pubmed and you try to figure it out, because it’s still Citations At Dawn for the scientists. The one thing that they agree on is that autistic amygdalas are weird.
The amygdala is part of the limbic system, which controls emotions, and the amygdala itself is mostly responsible for the emotional state of AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA. Mostly fear, little bit of rage. Fight or flight. But because pretty much every bit of the brain does some other shit alongside its main job, the amygdala is also involved in social interaction (particularly perception of emotions and emotional reciprocity) and facial recognition. So my own perception of what’s going on in my head is this.
Prefrontal cortex: OK guys, social interaction incoming. We can do this, but we’re going to need your input, amygdala, to bring the emotional perception into this.
Amygdala: What? I’m supposed to be doing something? Er… Was it…
Sympathetic nervous system: Right, that was the code word, everyone. We are definitely going to die now. You might as well just go nuts.
Parasympathetic nervous system: Yeah I’ve got nothing. That was indeed the code word. Gonna die.
Prefrontal cortex: No! That was not the thing!
Amygdala: Oh they’ve gone away. Whew! Wait… did that person have a face? I didn’t catch it. Fusiform gyrus this is our joint project, right?
Fusiform gyrus: Sorry, I’m also known to be a bit weird in autistic people. Did I miss something? A face? Bah, it’ll be fine. What are the odds of ever having to recognise that person ever again?
I’m pretty sure that’s how it works. Anyway, there are some hardwired neurological issues there that you just can’t fix with a stiff upper lip and some gin. But there are other layers to this anxiety. Let’s say that the stuff above is layer 1. Layer 2 revolves around the other things that can go wrong for us that are tied in with our neurology in a less immediately obvious way. Often these are problems because the world isn’t set up for us and our sensory weirdnesseseseses: terrifying sirens! Scritchy jumpers! The Northern Line! Everybody talking at once like a bunch of crazybutts! That person who smells really bad! Oh come on, I’ve cooked this for you – just TRY it!
I once tried to have this conversation with a therapist who did NOT get it.
Her: So. You have a fear of sudden loud noises.
Her: So that’s an interesting phobia. Let’s process that.
Me: Well I don’t think that it’s really a phobia, because those are irrational and this is a fear of actual physical pain. It makes me feel like white hot needles are being driven into my brain. Well not like that, because there’s no pain reception in the brain itself. So more like actual pain that feels like the pain you’d expect there to be if white hot needles were being driven into a brain that somehow can feel pain.
Her: Right. But no actual harm is being done to you though, is it.
Me: Is physical pain not harm?
Her: I mean that the noise isn’t actually hurting you in any way.
Me: It causes me actual. Physical. Pain. That is the definition of something hurting.
This therapeutic relationship did not work out.
Then there’s level 3. Level 3 revolves around being the type of total weirdo who gets everything wrong, constantly, when called upon to deal with the rest of their species. Really all you can do is blunder your way through this screwing up and hoping to learn. If you’re lucky you can mostly avoid hurting anyone and turn the rest into eccentricity as an adult, particularly if you’re clever as well as autistic. I have (I think) managed to do so. But whatever social skills I have now I worked like a total bitch to gain over the course of many years. I’m not even going to go too much into that journey, because it wasn’t much fun. I get around it now by communicating mostly online, where the odds are less stacked against a spectrumite, and referencing everything to a kind of database of rules of interaction which I have in my head. And then I verbalise everything: does this bother you? Are you in favour of -? Did I cross a boundary there? Are you fed up with me talking about pens? Those requests for information and grounding are not pitches for reassurance. They are the equivalent of a blind person thwacking about with their stick to figure out what’s in front of them. I will use my words with you, because they’re all I have when things get confusing for me.
Another thing I noticed as an undiagnosed autistic kid was that people mocked me for the things that scared me and reassured me over things that didn’t. I have never been afraid of: heights, dentists, the dark, ghosts, any animals bigger than a crane fly (because FUCK the spindlies) or needles. I adore flying. I pretty much love taking exams. I’m cool with death. But I was very, very frightened of the sound of the alarm on my parents’ teasmade. I would hear the kettle start to hiss from the next room and run downstairs to try and block the sound out. Likewise the toaster: loud, unpredictable. Unbearable.
We got the talk about “your bodies will be changing soon, kids. It’s all okay even if it’s scary. Feel free to mash your bits as much as you want to but don’t do it in front of other people. OK off to the playground you all go now.” I was not remotely phased by puberty – I mean, I knew the tits were going to show up at some point, right? Nobody warned me how difficult it would suddenly become to navigate socially, though. There was no warning that the things the kids were saying around me would quickly turn into another language which sounded like the English I knew but clearly wasn’t. I would become confused, then frustrated, then angry about my failures to understand what the actual fuck was going on. Rough times.
It’s gone dark hasn’t it. I didn’t mean to do that.
It’s quite important not to treat some instinctive fears as more valid than others. That is actually true for all kids, not just those of a neuroweird persuasion.The absence of fear is not a virtue and when it is presented as one it further marginalises people who are already struggling with the fuckery of a rogue amygdala. If you are someone who laughs at someone else for being afraid of something that doesn’t scare you you’re being a dick. Never do that again.
What we can do is be more accepting and aware of fear as a human experience. And we can recognise thar even the fear of fear itself is a human experience. Have you had a panic attack? Yeah, they’re grim. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t challenge our fears, but not wanting to have a panic attack is a valid reason for not wanting to do something. If you don’t find a way to challenge that panic it won’t go away. But if you’re not able to do that today, underneath all of the stuff you’re carrying about, I hear you.
How do you gauntlet slap fear then? By being honest about what scares you and rewarding yourself for doing the things that are hard, even if you or someone else thinks they shouldn’t be hard. By admitting to others that you’re afraid. so that they can be okay with their own fears. And then challenging every last one of those adrenaline drenched motherfuckers that you can.
For this I have a Bwave Box. It is a cardboard box covered in wrapping paper and stickers that were designed to be given to kids who went to the dentist. Because as we know there is powerful bravery sorcery in those stickers. My Bwave Box is full of chips of polystyrene and ink samples procured for me by my Beloved. When I do a brave thing I get to do the lucky dip thing and grab an ink sample. It is more exciting than you even know.
So my latest brave acquisition is this Blue Crab from Organics Studio. An ink so far off my radar that I had no idea it existed. Like all the other pen nerds I went crazy for the OS sheenbeasts and ignored everything else. I’m also not keen on blue ink generally and I don’t think I’ve ever bought one that didn’t sheen or shimmer or make me a cup of coffee. To me blue is the ink that comes with crap pens. It’s one out of the three choices of ink I had when I was 12 (blue, black or blue-black if you really wanted to go wild), because WHSmith don’t believe in FUN. And neither do Aurora, apparently. But I have other options now, Mrs Sever. You’re not the boss of me, Mrs Sever. You’re not even head of house anymore.
At some point I’ll introduce Lord Dippington IV but he deserves a post of his own so I’ll jump straight to Blue Crab.
It’s rather a flat ink. Unlike its OS buddos it has no sheen and there’s not much by way of shading. It’s a slightly murky medium blue with a hint of green that does actually remind me of the sea. There’s seaweed down there somewhere. It’s heavily saturated but flows well. It’s an ink that I would never buy in a million years but I’m sure someone out there will love it. If we all liked the same things as me, wouldn’t it be a bor- wait what am I saying? It would be a fantastic world! With tamanduas and segways everywhere!
And now we move onto the wise and immortal words of Gene Belcher.
* You may have heard that we spectrumites don’t really get sarcasm. In many cases that’s true. But those of us who do get it wield it like a goddamn warhammer and are the most sarcastic group of mofos you will ever meet. No prizes for guessing which group I’m in.