Friday 4 November 2016

Round 3, Day 416: New thoughts on never being "normal"

After writing to celebrate being one year sober again this time around, I've been quiet online. Just in case anyone follows and wonders whether that means I've fallen away from being sober, no worries. I'm here, and I'm sober! I'm not actually counting days anymore, so when I post I have to go to the wonderful Living Sober site and see what the number says. Last time when I got sober I drank at somewhere around 500 days, so I'm keeping track of some numbers here at least until then.

Whew! OK, that's it for the accounting. But what's been going on?

Last time I wrote, I said I was heading into some serious thinking about myself. Who am I? What do I want? What makes me happy? Now that I'm sober, I feel like drinking was a period of partially putting myself under a big rock. The parts that fit with the world were allowed out. The rest either stayed put, or just came out when I could pleasantly blur myself.

Part of the work I've been doing has been paying attention to what's going on with me, and tracing some of it to what may be very old patterns. I've been doing that reasonably intensively for a month or so, and I am somewhat shocked with what I'm finding.

First, I have so much trouble with people. I'm drawn to people in some ways. I really do want to participate in the world. But being in a room with a group of people is so much work for me, in a way that I just don't think is the case for most people. I like the buzz of the city, but mostly I prefer it when it's kind of impersonal. Actually being in a room with people, I take on board too much of what's going on emotionally with them, and as you can't expect people to bring only their settled and neutral selves out in public, there is usually an awful lot going on. This feels overwhelming. Usually I experience this as, "They hate me." And even though I can (mostly) rationally get to knowing that this isn't true, it takes a fair amount of work moment-to-moment to stay aware that it's not true. That's exhausting, and I can only do it sometimes.

As an aside, I see that that's one of the reasons AA didn't work for me. I liked hearing the stories, but being around people who could come into a room and know how to be with the others was more alienating than recovering home alone. I'd do better out walking in the rain, and that's what I usually did do. It's a lonely road sometimes, though. (And please don't tell me I didn't try hard enough. I did this for several months. I tried staying at the end and stacking chairs. I tried going up to talk to people, who said "keep coming back" but looked like they wanted to add, "But please talk to someone else when you do come back." There might be a better way of doing this, and that might work for you, but what I am saying is that is was massively uncomfortable and it didn't get easier and no one was friendly and my attempts to be friendly didn't work, and I generally felt so alienated that I worried I was at greater risk of drinking than I had been without the meeting. That's my experience. Maybe not yours, but mine.)

Recently, I tried signing up for a five-week meditation session. But when I went to the first class, it was clear to me that I wasn't going to be able to tolerate being there. The room was stuffy, and slightly smelly, and there were 25 people sitting in uncomfortable straight-backed chairs (the kind that are too high for me, so my feet can't reach the ground), and the chairs were splayed around the room in a kind of squiggly oval. I was a few minutes late, so I couldn't settle myself before it started, and when I joined the class, I could feel my whole body buzzing with the energy of everything that was going on in the room. We were about to do an exercise that involved paying attention to ourselves, except that's what I'd been doing since I arrived, and I was hearing, very clearly, a single, clear message in my mind: "Get me out of here." After twenty minutes, I stood up, took my bag and mu meditation cushion (which I saw no way of using), mimed a stomach problem, and walked out into the night. Walking to my car and sitting for a few minutes before driving home, I felt such clear relief, the kind you feel when you didn't know you were thirsty and then you drink a tall cool glass of water and you go, "Ah, yes, that was exactly what I needed."

Also, I have been so overwhelmed by what I need to do lately that I haven't been able to do anything except the things that are absolutely necessary to avoid crisis. That doesn't stave off the crisis for very long, but it means I keep out of one many days. Other days I have to lie around reading a mystery as the only way I can drop out of the world. Or sleep for ten or eleven hours, just to restore myself.

Besides the other people problem, and the probelm of feeling like I can't quite get anything done, there's the problem of getting too easily overstimulated. This is something I've had my whole life, but I've been paying close attention to it lately, trying to see if there are ways I can set up my life so I can cope with what's coming at me. It's partly why I've been trying out things like yoga and meditation classes, and partly why I've been thinking about how a person would feel way overwhelmed and overstimulated in a quiet room doing yoga (which happens to me more often than not.)

Several weeks ago at work, we had had a flood and so we were working in a temporary set-up that was so unbelievably busy and noisy. I felt like my whole body was vibrating. I spoke with a woman who is kind of a co-worker about it (she had a master key that could open a quiet room I was arranging to use later in my shift and I was explaining why I needed to do that) and she said something about having friends "on the spectrum" and understanding exactly what I meant. I knew she meant the autism spectrum, but I was kind of gob-smacked. What did she know that I didn't? A week later I asked her about it, and (after clarifying that she hadn't meant any insult) she said she had quite a few friends with Aspergers (now called high-functioning autism in the new blurry category of the DSM5), and she assumed by my description of my problem that I was signalling to her that I was, as she put it, "on the spectrum."

I went home and looked it up, and of course, being me, I read a few books and a whole lot of articles about all this, and then I did the many online tests you can do to see if you have any of the features of Aspergers. I have been somewhat stunned to find out that I do. I score up into the middle to high ranges of people with Aspergers, well beyond the cutoff points that indicate you might want to get this checked out. Apparently Asperger's looks very different in men than women, and most of what I knew about it came from pop culture stories about men with Asperger's. I'm not Stephen Hawking or Bill Gates or even Temple Grandin. But the descriptions of women with Aspergers are terrifyingly apt. They capture the exact way I find myself to be a little bit weird. They sound like me.

I'm just coming to terms with this and trying to figure out what to do. I may talk to someone about getting an official diagnosis. It costs money, but it can also help get some services and accommodations at work when needed. But it costs money, and you get little in return for that, and even the experts say that once you're an adult and there are very few services to help, sometimes just knowing is enough.

Emotionally, I have conflicting reactions to what I'm learning about myself. On the one hand, I am saddened to think that I'm not going to find my way to the kind of "comfortable with people and OK in the world" normal that I had been hoping to reach. But the more important part of all this is a huge relief. Whenever I describe a problem that seems insurmountable to me (like something with people, or getting overwhelmed with tasks or sounds or something like that) people often explain how I need to do things differently, as though I hadn't been trying to do that my whole life. Seeing that I may be different in a way that I can (and have) learned to work with but never quite change means I can maybe stop trying to find a way to be a person I'm not. I may not be able to get over extreme jumpiness, aversion to loud noises and bright lights and extreme sensory anything, difficulty with people, or problems with getting some things done. But I can accept myself as myself, and find a way to live that works for me.

(It also helps explain some of what I loved about alcohol. Drinking was a way of turning the volume down on the whole world. God, I loved being able to do that! Interestingly, there's at least a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that people with Asperger's drink as a way of helping negotiate the otherwise overwhelming social world, and that's sure true for me, though I know it's also true for many people who are what the Aspies call "neurotypical.")

This past year has been very different from my first year sober. I think I have a better handle on the things I need to change, and on what matters to me in living a good life. Starting to learn all this about myself fits pretty well with that. Three years ago I thought I'd quit drinking for a while and then become a normal drinker. Later, when that wasn't on, I thought I'd get sober and be one of the sober people who ends up with a big warm group of sober friends, but that's not my life here either. Now I think I'm getting rid of any images of "normal" altogether. It may just be that I'm a little bit weird in a way that no amount of time sober or yoga class or therapy can change. I think I'm OK with that. I'm getting there, anyway.

Because all this is so tough in person, I'm all the more grateful to be able to come here and talk about it with you all. Thanks as always for walking the road with me, and for your kind support. Wishing you peace and joy.