It’s not all doom and gloom!

So, as we have established, this weekend has been a roller coaster of emotions (average for me really!), but rather than being all doom and gloom, I thought I’d share some good bits!

As you may know (or will soon find out!) I like to do art in my spare time, this weekend saw the completion of a long overdue commission, which I offered as a prize in a recent charity fundraiser I held for Friends of the Dartmoor Hill Pony. I’m fairly pleased with the overall result, but more importantly, the person who requested it has commented ‘That’s brilliant, thank you! Can’t wait to receive it. Many thanks for all your hard work!’ So as long as the new owner is happy, then I guess I should be too! If you want to follow more of my art, please check out my DeviantArt gallery.

22861771_1531258470262096_1920417328037088826_oSaturday afternoon I went for a jaunt into town to take my mind off of things, visited a music shop and bought a folk fiddle book – must start practicing the fiddle more. Was tempted to buy another guitar, I used to play a lot in my youth, but haven’t held one in years, maybe I will start playing again at some point. Took a walk down the High Street and through Cathedral Green (got a bit emotional but managed to hold it together – well saved), didn’t buy anything else, then headed home. It was good to get out just for a few hours. I rounded off the rest of my Saturday by binging on Once Upon a Time and completing the above drawing.

Sunday (today) morning was spent catching up with the ponies, but instead of work, work, work, it was more play play play. I spent some quality time with my piebald filly ‘Betty Blue’ and we enjoyed a brush and a short walk around the village. I bought her back and popped her back into the paddock to then be confronted by a jealous Star (a real Mommy’s Boy) who wanted to come out and play. So I bought him down to the yard, gave him plenty of fuss, lunged him a bit, got my leg over him (I’ve not backed him yet) and just sat and had a cuddle and a talk to him. Flo escaped her education, for today at least

The rest of the afternoon has been spent writing the previous blog post, practicing my fiddle, and having a clear up of my den aka bedroom where I spend 99% of my life when at home, emerging only for food when necessary. I’m trying to cut down on a number of possessions I have, I’m very much a person of ‘things’. I have a bookshelf full of books I have not read yet have had for years, but I cannot bear to part with them. I could be savvy and just buy digital copies and keep them in ‘the Cloud’, but it’s just not the same as seeing them you know? To be fair I have done well, I moved back to Devon with about three carloads of stuff, now I think I possibly have one carload at most. Ideally, I’d be one of these people that have very few personal possessions, just enough to fit in a rucksack, I’m minimalist, but not that minimalist just yet, I’m working on it.

For now I believe I need to work on some coursework before I fall behind, yesterday’s blip of mental health (or lack there of) has thrown me a bit off kilter, but nevermind, one must climb back up onto the proverbial horse and kick on and rejoin the battle. Onwards!

-Melissa

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People with Autism aren’t able to feel emotion or empathy – Bollocks.

It’s been a funny old weekend of extreme highs and extreme lows, in fact, if you plotted my mood out of 10 on a graph from Friday to the time of writing, it would look something roughly like this:Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 12.18.15

If you plotted my mood over a month, it would probably look even more crazy, maybe something similar to this:

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Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/2iHVDg5

An average day I can experience intense emotions ranging from high anxiety, contentment, happiness, impulsivity, anger, depression – and that’s just before 9am! So it baffles me when I hear the common misconception that people with Autism are unable to feel emotions – particularly empathy.  Now, coming from the person who cried at Shrek 2 when I thought the Gingerbread Man was being killed off, I can say from personal experience that I do feel empathy and emotions – if anything, I feel too much sometimes!

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Cried when I thought animators were going to kill this guy in Shrek 2. No lack of empathy here! (image courtesy of http://bit.ly/2zNPqCI)

The problem comes about when one has to demonstrate empathy to other people. For example, if your dog dies, inside I feel very very sad for you, I am able to put myself in your shoes and imagine how I’d feel if I were in that situation. I want to hug you and tell you everything will be OK, that your dog is in a better place than this planet, and that he’s being looked after by your ancestors, but something inside me prevents me from actioning that feeling of empathy. Something pins my arms to my sides and locks my mouth shut, my anxiety goes through the roof and I have to remove myself from the situation. This I believe is where the misconception comes from, we can feel the empathy but just cannot display it – and it’s really, really shit.

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What I feel like when I want to display empathy. (Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/2gSSg5h)

I would like to be able to hug my Mum sometimes when we’re having a good day, or at Christmas, for example, to thank her for a present, but I can’t, my arms get pinned to my sides and my anxiety goes into overdrive, it’s so frustrating and it makes me look so heartless when I am not. I didn’t cry at my Nan’s funeral, I couldn’t comfort anyone, I just wanted to run away from it all and hide, I did a reading, in the same monotonous voice devoid of emotion, I dread to think what this must have looked like to people. Out of all the crap that goes with Autism – the loneliness, dysfunctional relationships, inability to make and keep friends, this bit trumps them all at being the worst.

‘What looks like coldness and aloofness to the outside world is actually a response to being overwhelmed by emotion. It is an excess of empathy, not a lack of it, that plagues those with Asperger’s.’ – 

Dr. Roberson hits the nail on the head with this statement, it is not that we lack emotion and empathy, if anything we experience it on a colossal and overwhelming scale. Yes, we find it difficult sometimes to put ourselves in other’s shoes, but this is different to having compassion for other people’s situations. My desire to run away from situations that are fraught with emotion, shows not that I am a heartless soul, but that I really, really do care, so much so that my brain is being overloaded by the whole thing. Autism does not take away your ability to feel, it just makes it a bit tricky to express. Remember this before accusing your Aspergian colleague/friend/family member that they aren’t being very sympathetic.

-Melissa

The masks we wear

With Autism comes anxiety – This shadow of anxiety follows me around at every waking moment, and when I am still enough, will whisper things to me, that there is a high probability I will be inclined to believe.

OK, confession time – I have been on Facebook. I know, I know it has only been what? Ten days? Oddly enough though, it’s not the endless scrolling down my newsfeed filled with crap that I miss, no, I am actually really missing the groups I was a part of and would check daily for new content: Autistic Not Weird, Friends of the Dartmoor Pony, Inspired Equine Assisted Learning, New Life Horse Care Sanctuary plus my Open University module groups to name but a few. So upon checking these groups and feeling satisfied (if not slightly deceitful), I then found myself back on my newsfeed confronted with the below image, and I was starkly reminded why I decided to cut back on my relationship with Facebook in the first place.

IMG_4195Aside from my Facebook detox, life has generally been plodding along much the same as ever. The horses still need tending to twice a day – mainly because they have a habit of trying to go swimming in their water bucket and tipping it over, and my faithful pooch still enjoys her twice daily walks – though I’m sure she’d secretly prefer to stay in bed. The chickens require feeding and cleaning and of course, there is the daily chore that is employment. Coursework continues to come my way thick and fast – though I am really enjoying it, and I have been introduced to the binge-worthy series of Once Upon a Time on Netflix.

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‘Once Upon A Time’ – So binge-worthy! (Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/2zSeh8W)

One thing I have noticed since my Facebook detox is that I am taking fewer photos now, and I find myself sometimes feeling a little bit sad that I have no space nor reason to instantly share the latest photo of my dog being adorable or my pony pulling a funny face. I know I have this blog, and I guess I could upload photos here, but then when I stop and think about it, I wonder why I used to take and upload so many pictures to begin with. I wonder what it was that drove me to feel the need to share every detail of my daily life with 150+ people who actually realistically I hardly knew – not really anyway. Was it a need for social approval? That by uploading a picture of me smiling with my dog, it put out a public image of ‘Hey look at me, I’m happy, here’s me with my dog, look at how happy we are, isn’t life great?’, when actually realistically I was probably thinking ‘Hey look at me and my dog, this little dog is what holds me together on a daily basis, without her I don’t know where I would be, isn’t she amazing?’. It makes me wonder how much of what we see on social media is true, and how much of it shows people putting on a mask of perfection to cover up their imperfect lives.

Every day I wake up and try my very best to be ‘normal’, but instead of applying makeup like the majority of women, I apply a figurative mask of normality which I must wear at all times between the hours of 9:00am and midnight. It’s kind of like being an actress and starring in a really mental soap opera called ‘Life’. Every day, I need to try and remember all the crazy rules and regulations that society has, and try not to flout any of them and risk exposing myself as someone who upsets the status quo. On top of trying to remember all these sometimes illogical rules and regulations, I also have to combat a high level of anxiety which is always looming in the background, like some grim, dark and foreboding shadow waiting to pounce and take hold. This shadow follows me around at every waking moment, and when I am still enough, will whisper things to me, that there is a high probability I will be inclined to believe.

‘You know you’re gunna mess this up right?’

‘You know this nice good feeling you have? Yeah it won’t last’

‘You’re gunna scare xxxxx away you know if you keep going on the way you are’

‘You know that xxxx doesn’t actually like you, they’re just talking to you to be polite’

‘You know that you really piss this group of people off right?’

‘Are you sure you want to go for that job? I’m not sure you’re capable’

‘No, you definitely shouldn’t do that, that’s way above your capabilities’

‘xxxxx hasn’t texted today, perhaps that means they’re just not that interested in you’

‘None of your friends have emailed you to check up on you, perhaps they weren’t your friends after all’

‘Your dog is five years old now, you know, maybe that’s half her lifespan already’

‘This nice tranquil life you have won’t last’

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A pictoral representation of the anxiety that seems to follow me. (image courtesy of http://bit.ly/2qBKUlv)

These thoughts rush through my brain every second that I am still, which is one of the driving forces behind my desperate need to always be on the move. Every waking second must be spent doing something. Either some kind of physical activity, or program to watch, coursework, art etc. I am mentally unable to sit still, relax and switch off, which is a bit of a curse. The constant and terrifying fear that I will lose those that matter most to me haunt my every waking hour, and I have no idea how on earth to make it go away – any other way other than to keep moving.

Perhaps by moving, I am almost internally running away from the shadow? By moving, perhaps the shadow won’t be able to get to me? Perhaps other people have these shadows as well, but they too put on their daily masks, only theirs are more digital? I do wonder if everyone else is this insecure, and whether actually how I feel is completely normal? At the opposite end of the spectrum I wonder what daily life is like for those not afflicted by this black fog, what must it be like, to live blissfully untouched by anxiety, to be confident in yourself and your everyday actions. To not be worried that xxxx hasn’t read your message, or hasn’t invited you out in a very long time, I wonder what it would be like to walk in the shoes of another.

Well that’s quite enough dreariness for one day, for now, my coursework awaits. I’m actually really enjoying this week’s material, it is entitled ‘Animal Minds’, and my first module essay is around this subject, which I will publish on here once the deadline has passed. On a final note, given the content posted above, please do take the time to reach out to your friends, they may have the same black fog following them around, and even just a message asking how their day is going, or inviting them out for a coffee could really make all the difference, I implore you to make the time to reach out.

Love and peace,

Melissa

‘Winter’s Coming’

Good afternoon campers,

As you can see by the view from my window, winter is indeed coming as per the House of Stark’s predictions. We are currently in the grips of the latest storm named ‘Brian’ (Not a very stormy name, by the way, I always imagine Brians to be meek and mild people), anyway….

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Current view: Gloom.

As a horse owner, winter is my busiest time of year, it means attending to my herd twice per day without fail- there is no option of ‘they’ll be OK for tonight I’m sure’. The digestive system of a horse is different to that of a human. A horse’s stomach is constantly producing acid – even if it is not chewing/eating. The repercussions of this are that the horse needs to be constantly, or near constantly, eating, so as to soak up the acid. If the horse goes a period without eating and is moving around, the acid can splash the stomach walls and cause painful ulcers. In the  spring and summer, the horse is turned out to pasture and effectively feeds itself, however in the winter when brought down off of the pasture and onto the yard, I must ensure that they have permanent access to forage such as hay, the occasional bit of grazing if the ground is dry, and some commercial feed. Then, of course, there is the twice-daily chore of mucking out the stables and yard area and ensuring access to fresh water at all times, and this is just the basics! It does not include foot care to prevent foot rot, grooming to check for injuries and rain scold or yard maintenance. All in all, winter is a blooming busy time. That being said, even the run-up to it is hard going – this year I lifted 170 bales onto a trailer from the field, then lifted them again to load them in the barn – in 3hrs. Each bale weighs approx 20kg, so that’s 6.8 tons of hay moved – not bad going. There’s the weekly clearing of muck from the paddock, filling of water troughs and of course exercising the ponies. Sounds like hard work I hear you say? It is, but it’s so worth it.

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Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/2gtjdc6

I have always had an affinity with horses (and animals in general). I find them easier to understand and communicate with than people, they say what they mean and there’s never any hidden agenda, when communicating with an animal you will get instant, honest feedback. They don’t judge you, they don’t care about your looks, the way you dress, your musical tastes or your abilities. They are not wrapped up in what happened in the past, or what might happen in the future, all that matters to them is the present, I think we could learn a lot from animals and learning to live ‘in the now’.

I like to think of my little herd of three Dartmoor Hill Ponies (DHPs) as my daily dose of therapy. They provide structure and routine to my day, my day starts and finishes with them and the jobs I need to do for them to keep them content and healthy. Sometimes, when daily life becomes too much, I will go and sit up the field with them, either in a fold-out chair or just on the grass if it’s dry, and they will come over and greet me if they choose. They have also been known to lie down with me, and there have been times when all three have been laid out on the grass and I have joined them and snuggled into their soft warm fur. If you stop and think for a second, this is really quite a beautiful and remarkable thing – a prey animal letting a predator lay with them, feeling safe enough to fall asleep with their heads on the lap of the predator – that is the pinnacle display of trust if ever there was one.

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My ponies listen to me talk to them, sometimes it’s just idle chit-chat, other times, I’ll empty my sometimes chaotic mind to them, and they listen quietly, display affection, and then go about their day, reminding me that maybe I should too. What’s done is done, what’s said is said, and in the words of the wise baboon ‘Rafiki’ from Disney’s The Lion King ‘The past can hurt, but you can either run from it or learn from it’.

So maybe the lesson we should all take from this post is that the past is done, you cannot change it, period. The future is unknown but will be influenced by what happens now, so in order to obtain the future you desire, you need to think more about the present and less about what has come before.

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‘Ah yes the past can hurt, but you can either run from it, or, learn from it, so what are you going to do?’ (image courtesy of http://bit.ly/2yZdPst)

 

I’m still on my Facebook sabbatical, though have been nipping in to steal photos (but not checking those red boxes!), and to be honest I feel amazing. I feel so much more productive and alive, and just generally happier. I’m not getting the urge to scroll anymore, and am able to fill my time with more productive things which is great. I’ve been reading more, doing art, and this afternoon I plan to get started on week 3 of my latest Open Uni module which is proving interesting. Friday night and into yesterday morning I produced my first piece of digital art in many years, inspired by the poem ‘The Raven’ by Edgar Allen Poe, it features a Raven perched upon a bust of Pallas Athena. The poem is very inspiring and I feel I will produce more art in response. You can read the poem here or listen to an audio version with instrumental (worth a listen for sure) here.

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“And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door”     The full-size version can be viewed here on DeviantArt.

So there you have it, another week draws to a close, it’s been productive, inspiring and it’s been interesting to give this blog writing malarkey a go. I hope you like what you have read so far, any feedback is welcome, here’s to another week.

Melissa

Internet friendships are no less valid than ‘real’ friendships

ASD: It’s a daily struggle of trying your best to be English in Spain (and other weird analogies)

For those of us on the High Functioning (slightly outdated phraseology I know!) end of the Autism Spectrum, forging and maintaining friendships can be tough. I would wager that approximately 70% of my time is spent feeling like I am inhabiting a completely different planet to the ‘Neurotypical’ (I don’t use this phrase to demean) population, who seem to speak their own language, which at times can be quite foreign and alienating to me.

Imagine if you will, you have taken a trip to Spain, armed with a small amount of Spanish vocabulary – Hola, Como estas? You enter a supermarket and are looking for some items that you just cannot for the life of you find, so you go and ask the supermarket assistant, trying your best to speak their language “hola, ¿dónde está el pan?” (thank you Google Translate) but maybe you failed to perfect the accent, or you stuttered, or perhaps your body language wasn’t up to scratch. The store assistant looks at you confused and starts to talk to you, but this level of language is waaayyy above your comprehension of the local lingo. You try desperately to get the assistant to understand what you are looking for but to no avail. Maybe you start raising your voice in a bid to get them to understand you? The assistant takes offense to this (to be fair you have just shouted at him) and so, frustrated, you leave the shop without your pan de molde.  This weird analogy is what it is like to have ASD. It is a daily struggle of trying your best to be English in Spain, and never quite grasping the finer intricacies of the language.

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It can be frustrating feeling like an alien, particularly when people don’t understand you! (Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/2yvLrO1)

Now, by language, I’m not referring to linguistics, by and large, my linguistic capabilities are perfectly reasonable. No, I am talking about the finest intricacies of human communication and the various rules that are observed within the neurotypical population, rules that seem bizarre to me and which do not come naturally. For example, when having dinner with a group, if someone offers you the last potato, by literally asking ‘would you like the last potato?’, APPARENTLY, it’s actually really rude to take it, so the correct answer to this question is a polite ‘no thank you’. As someone who is atypical, and therefore considered abnormal, this neurotypical unwritten rule really baffles me. Why ask the question in the first place? This is but one example of the many rules and rituals that are adhered to and performed that seem to come naturally to those who have been born with a neurotypical brain. It’s considered normal for people to say one thing, and then mean something entirely different, and then blame the person for not understanding them (and they say I’m the crazy one!). These rules, however strange, allow you to function socially in a completely normal fashion and integrate neatly into society. 

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Unwritten rule: Never take the last piece of food, even when offered and even when they insist. It’s a trap! (Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/2yUWXDa)

For me, however, I was born without those natural abilities, and I never learned them, to me they didn’t make sense, they were strange and pointless, and here lieth the problem – I break the rules, and this freaks people out. There are rules everywhere to allow you to know what to say and do in certain situations. For example, in Britain, if someone walks into you, you must apologise to them immediately – despite it not being your fault, in fact in Britain you must apologise from the moment you get out of bed for your very existence. Friendships, romantic relationships, family relationships – all have various rules and rituals attached to them, and being on the spectrum, there is a lot to learn, and to be honest, pretending to be normal is exhausting!

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Image courtesy of http://bit.ly/2l2h1NZ 

Growing up, I would make friends and within weeks lose them, because I didn’t follow their rules, and it scared them away. I was THAT kid, the complete target for bullies in the playground. I was THAT kid that no one wanted to hang around with. Making friends is tough for a kid with ASD, and even still is as an adult! But there is one thing that has made it easier – the Internet.

I know what you’re thinking: “Hang on, weren’t you bitching about the terrors of the internet in your previous post?”, well yes, I suppose I was, but here’s one thing the internet has done right. It has allowed those who struggle with social rules that one must observe in face-to-face contact, to make friends! The internet is one massive community sub-divided into categories. If you’re into Star Wars, there’ll be forums you can go on and find like-minded Jedis, how about astronomy? Yup, there are forums for that too and you can even find out if there’s a local group near you. Every subject imaginable will have an online community attached to it, and that’s the first step to friendship – find someone who’s interested in what you are! I did just that, and have found my longest friendship to date – 14 years and still going strong. The internet bought two like-minded people together and allowed them to communicate in a way that meant they weren’t hindered by complex social rules and rituals, just text on a screen, all very literal, easy to understand, no hidden meanings, just pure and simple communication. But these people don’t have to stay on a screen, you can meet them in ‘real life’ too, my good friend Charlie, whom I actually consider my best friend, has met with me a number of times now and it’s great. We both have an understanding of each other’s quirks, and there’s no pressure to ‘be normal’, we can just be ourselves and enjoy each other’s company (as far as introverts can enjoy company anyway!).

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Myself and Charlie in Dumbledore’s office at the Warner Bros Studio Tour, London.

Some people would argue that internet friendships aren’t real friendships, but I disagree, because this one person I met on the internet as a teenager, has stayed with me longer than any ‘real friends’ who have passed through my life quicker than a racehorse at Ascot. My first relationship which lasted just shy of eight years started on the internet, and of course, there’s the wonderful world of online dating apps as well which makes finding a partner just that little bit easier should you not frequent bars and pubs to pick up people the old-fashioned way. The internet may have its’ downsides, but for me personally, it has made making friends just that little bit easier (though it turns out even the internet isn’t immune from rules – but that will be for another post).

I hope you have enjoyed reading my musings, I could go on for hours, but would not want to keep you any longer. Stay tuned for the next installment…

Melissa

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Myself, earlier, in the rain up the yard.

Anti-social media 

Taking a sabbatical from Facebook

I have decided to challenge myself to give up my use of Facebook for the next 30 days. My reasoning? Well, the fact I have labeled it a challenge is one.

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I cannot remember the point at which my mind became so consumed by the power of Facebook, but I’m positive I remember the time before its’ advent. The days where the Internet (or my usage of it at least) was much simpler. I remember coming home from school and for an hour or so each evening switching on the then “family computer” to talk to friends on MSN messenger. There was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Snapchat and certainly very little in the way of “likes” – and as such no pressure to obtain those much coveted little red notification bubbles.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that Facebook is all doom and gloom, Facebook, in fact, has and continues to do a lot of good. There are groups raising awareness for charities and causes, pages to sell your unwanted items, projects to help spread joy in times of hardship and terror, (#AHEART4MCR and #AHEART4LDN springs to mind), but like everything, it has its dark side.

I found myself spending what seemed like (and probably was) hours scrolling through the endless news feed which featured very little in the way of what my friends were doing but instead featured large groups full of memes and cat pictures (not complaining though!). I could easily waste an evening scrolling when I could have achieved so much more in that time. I could have read a book, watched some inspiring Ted Talks, learned my violin, produced some art or even done some coursework for Uni – all so much more meaningful than cat pictures.

So here I am, I have been Facebook free for nearly 48hrs, and you know what? It’s not as scary out there as I thought. I still instinctively reach for my phone to scroll when I have a free minute, waiting in a queue for example, but I’m scrolling the news app rather than some mindless dribble.

This instinctive need to scroll, to look at something, to be unable to stand still and be in the real world is something I will continue to work on, but for now, I feel I have taken the first step to having more time, time which will be well spent, and everyone has to start somewhere right?
On another note, prior to my Facebook sabbatical, I left a message on my page explaining what I was going to do, along with my email address should anyone wish to write to me. Noone has done yet, so perhaps this social media is not so social after all?

I will continue to add my thoughts to this blog, I’m not 100% which direction the blog will go so I’m just going to roll with it and see what happens. Thank you for taking the time to read it. 

Melissa