Happy New Year and welcome back to the Roaring Twenties! Everyone over to Gatsby’s mansion and we’ll dance the Charleston!
Sorry, I digress … After an extended leave of absence from this blog to focus on my studies, I finally have the most precious resource of time to reflect on everything I’ve gone through these past three or four months, acknowledge both my pride and my thanksgiving for having come through it in one piece and eagerly look ahead to what this new decade promises for me.
The past semester was certainly not without its obstacles, which is only to be expected in the final year of a 4-year degree but for which no amount of preparedness can remove the edge. In facing these challenges head-on, I learned so many invaluable lessons I have every intention of carrying forward to the rest of my studies and life in general. Above all else, I believe I’ve come to understand the autistic aspect of my identity far more intimately than ever before and by getting to know my true self that bit better, I have learned to push my strengths harder and be comfortable enough to know and admit my limitations to myself, thereby giving myself the breathing room I desperately need but rarely allow myself due to my perfectionist tendencies. Anyway, here’s my advice to myself as I start out in what will be by default the defining decade of my life:
- It isn’t a cop-out to ask for accommodations
As I’ve said many times before, I’m a relentless perfectionist, which alternately works to my advantage and to my detriment. Despite my being registered with my university’s disability services department, I have always stubbornly refused to ask for even the most minor of supports with my autism as the basis. Having gotten by for so long in secondary school with exactly the same opportunities and support my neurotypicals received, getting any kind of help, no matter how small and no matter how desperately needed, somehow felt like cheating and made my conscience uneasy. Any outcome that came of it would feel unearned to me and in truly Irish fashion, I’ve always clung by some force of magnetism to the “no pain, no gain” formula for success. It should hurt, I told myself, that’s how you know you’re doing it right.
I also tend to feel intense guilt when I see former classmates from school working part-time jobs to get them through their degree and managing to keep a hectic social life afloat while I have all the time in the world to focus exclusively on my studies and still manage to experience a paralysis around assignments and coursework which I always mentally translated to inexcusable laziness. I could never study and hold down a job at the same time (at least not with significant time management supports), but there’s no shame in acknowledging the limitations of my executive functioning and thinking better of pursuing a course of action that would likely compromise my mental health and lead to the mother of all burnouts, from which the recovery would be slow and difficult. That isn’t selfish or entitled, as I previously thought – that’s being reflective, sensible and self-aware.
I’m getting to know my limits, making my peace with them and taking ownership of them in the knowledge that asking for accommodations isn’t a cheap excuse or “playing the autism card”, but rather the right thing to do in fairness to myself, who has been stretching herself thin from Day One to meet the same expectations as other students, but with added hurdles which many of these students won’t have to face or even notice. The more I challenge the inner voice that tells me I’m inferior just because I don’t and sometimes can’t always go about things the same way as most of my peers and have a lot of catching up to do in order to be worthy of a decent future, the greater the strides I will make.
2. Never underestimate the power of network and community.
This one is an age-old cliché by now, but by this I mean so much more than exploitative networking to professional ends, but rather emotional and moral support from neurological peers, or as I like to think of them, my “tribe”, in times of strife. I wouldn’t have survived last semester had it not been for the priceless support of the Autistic Paddies, a group for autistic adults founded by the ever-amazing Joan McDonald who continues to be the social genie for Irish autistics by keeping us all connected, be it through the group chat online or regional meet-ups. Among this group’s many incredibly diverse members, many of whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting in person, I’ve always had someone to whom to turn in a crisis and from whom I could expect both immediate, rationally actionable advice and unconditional understanding. Whenever I found myself in sticky situations or unfortunate pickles which couldn’t possibly have been foreseen or helped, the group would be the voice of reason to my panicked, irrational despair and we would always find a way forward together. Conversely, I try to offer advice and emotional support wherever I can when someone else in the group is going through something difficult. The Autistic Paddies are my adopted family and since I was welcomed into the fold early last year, I’ve become prouder and prouder each day to belong to a community which is so centred around mutual support, respect and compassion. Once you’ve found your tribes, things do get a whole lot easier!
3. Respect your body – it can do incredible things and deserves proper care.
One of the most harmful consequences of my hyperfocus and my blindness to everything else in my life in the pursuit of perfectionism in my coursework is the toll it can take on my health. This semester, I burned out like I never burned out before and it happened earlier than ever before. Despite this, I ignored every desperate signal my body was giving me to slow down and stop pushing it so hard, which meant it continued to get worse as I graduated from wilful ignorance to genuine distraction. At the end of the semester, I was able to do the unimaginable and plunk down on the couch with the same involuntary vigour with which Donald O’Connor famously collapsed after dancing himself to utter exhaustion on the set of Singin’ in the Rain – but at what price?
I took a close look at myself for the first time since I started back at college and took quite a fright. My eyes seemed to be dwarfed, whether by the dark, almost charcoal-like lines underneath them or by the sheer strain of intense revision. My complexion was as pale as a sheet while my skin had broken out quite noticeably, making me wonder how long I’d walked around looking this sickly without realising it. If I’d been sick, I was too consumed by the anxiety of falling short on my grades to notice it and that wouldn’t be the first time. After this fright, I thought about all the incredible things the human body can do – heal itself when wounded, restore and regenerate overnight, have just the right amount of everything it needs to keep you going if you give it the food and exercise it needs. It’s a miracle worker and it deserves more respect than I’ve been giving it recently, so I’m learning to check my impulses and refrain from pushing it too hard, which is difficult but necessary. I hope I’ll see the benefit soon!
4. Quell the catastrophist in you and pass the mic to the self-assured woman who realises her own value.
Over the past month or so, I’ve already developed some practical strategies to prioritise my wellbeing and temper my self-confidence. For example, I took a break from Instagram before my exams in December, mainly so I could whole-heartedly dedicate myself to studying but an unintentional by-product of this process was the realisation that the break did my mental health the world of good. Since this mini-epiphany, I’ve been conscientiously spending less time not only on Instagram, but also on social media in general. In the absence of the demoralising impact of being fettered to (literally) incredible airbrushed dimensions where everyone is 110% perfect and expects to be regarded as such, I find the yoke of self-loathing unhitches itself somewhat from my being. After all, I never did train as an ego masseuse!
Additionally, seeking sensory input that I know to be soothing to me is always a game-changer when it comes to anxiety, sensory stress and low mood. For me, music makes everything instantly better and will always be an object of my fascination. On New Year’s Day, I walked out in the pale blue freshness of the evening, hit up my Spotify downloads for the perfect soundtrack and came upon an Eagles compilation. That familiar catalogue of chilled, wistful country music that was a staple in my family’s car repertoire and instantly transports me back to laidback, carefree summer drives from my childhood. Ideal for an anxious Annie like myself. I could not help but be comforted by the sunny idealism of the lyrics, even if always laced with a characteristic hint of melancholy. Things fall to pieces and you’ll run out of luck eventually, but it’ll all work out okay, so what does it matter? What’s the point in worrying and projecting yourself onto a future that will someday be a past in which you were never truly present. This year and this decade, I vow to participate and let a balanced version of me I can look back on with pride flourish. As the Eagles themselves would say:
“Lighten up while you still can, don’t even try to understand, just find a place to make your stand …. We may lose or we may win, but we’ll never be here again. So open up – I’m climbin’ in!”