Anxiety in Context

As part of my human services class, I wrote about the differences between an approach that attempts to help a person by understanding their problems in the context of their environment, versus one that focuses on something like childhood trauma as the root of their trouble. I used an example from my own life to illustrate the point I wanted to make, and given the content of that example, I thought the essay could pull double duty as my blog post for this week. 🙂

By focusing on the individual in context, we can take into account environmental factors that may be influencing a person’s internal state and related behavior. This approach locates the source of problems as being in the relationship between the individual and her environment. Potential solutions, therefore, will take into account environmental changes as well as personal changes, perhaps even extending up into changes in law or cultural expectations.

In contrast, a focus on personal history, such as childhood trauma, locates the source of problems as being within the individual herself, and seeks to address them on that level. Potential solutions will then revolve around personal changes within the individual herself, and not larger structural changes in society. It could be argued that considering the role of childhood trauma is taking the individual’s environment into account, but it is the environment of the past, and specific to that person’s history.

When I first started therapy, I was primarily seeking help with anxiety. Part of this manifested as high levels of social anxiety when interacting with other people. We discussed childhood experiences for quite some time, and I could definitely relate incidents of childhood bullying, betrayal, and ostracism to the anxiety I continued to feel in groups of people, or when meeting someone new for the first time. This located the problem within me, in my particular history and its reverberations.

Years later, however, I gained a different understanding of my social anxiety when I learned that I am autistic. Instead of this social anxiety arising specifically from past experiences, I saw it as arising from a life spent in a world that expected me to think and behave like everyone else, all while not knowing that I was autistic. In a way, this may still sound as if I am locating the problem within myself, specifically in my autism, but in truth the problem comes from the interaction between me and an environment that does not expect or understand neurodivergence.

This has become clearer to me as I gain more experience interacting with other autistic people. When my ways of thinking and acting are understood and accepted, I do not feel the same social anxiety that I do in other contexts. In other words, my social anxiety is a product of me being in a particular environment; if my environment changes to one with different social expectations, the anxiety goes away. Even just knowing that the problem is a transactional one makes a difference on those occasions where I can’t change the environment. Understanding where I might have difficulty allows me to change my approach, and also helps avoid excessive self-blame if things still go awry. I can see my anxiety as a bad environmental fit, rather than entirely a personal failing.

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Keeping My Cool

Snow-covered hemlock trees with the morning sun behind them

I hate conflict. Really, seriously dislike it. I always end up feeling terrible after (and during) an argument, even if I feel that I was completely in the right. Part of it is that I always do want to consider other perspectives; I want to be fair, and hear the other side out. But what this feels like internally is this: I absorb the other person’s viewpoint, and really take in what they’re saying. It can even feel like I am adopting their point of view, “trying it on” to see if it makes sense to me. But then I end up getting defensive, because it feels like my own perspective is being overwritten, and I’m afraid of losing my own viewpoint. I feel like I have to claw my way back to my own thoughts and feelings, and that can be scary.

On top of that, I generally don’t feel like the other person is doing the same thing, so I end up feeling like I am losing ground, wavering in my conviction by even pausing to consider the other point of view. But I really do think this ability to take on other perspectives, to suspend judgment for a moment and really try to see where they’re coming from, is a strength, and that society would be a lot better off if more people did this. So it’s not that I want to close myself off and stay dogmatically attached to my own opinions — but I do want to avoid that feeling of defensiveness that arises.

What I try to come back to is this: people are free to disagree with me, and I am free to disagree with them. I don’t need to convince everyone to agree with me, and in the end it’s not possible to get everyone to agree on everything. This is freeing to remember, and allows me to step back from seeing an argument as a battle that can be won or lost, and instead think of it as an interaction that might show me something interesting.

I’m not always able to remember this, but when I do, it calms me down immensely. I am not responsible for single-handedly “fixing” the world, or for changing everyone’s minds. Even when the issue is something I consider extremely important, even vital for people’s well-being, this is still the case. Often it’s just not the time or place for a particular argument to be accepted, but I also know that very often people hear and dismiss things that they later come back and reconsider. So maybe I’m planting a seed that will bear fruit later — I may never know. The only thing I can control is how well I make my case; whether that changes the other person’s mind is up to them.

Making Things

I really enjoy making things. That goes for creating intangible things like written works and computer programs, but I really find it satisfying to make something tangible with my hands. So I’ve picked up a number of crafting skills over the years, some more in-depth than others. I tend to cycle through them over a long enough period that I end up having to re-learn things when I return to them, but I also pick up skills fairly quickly so it works out fine.

Lately I’ve been focused on crochet; earlier this month I made a pair of fingerless gloves for an old friend I’ve gotten back in touch with, and another pair for my husband. I just started getting back into chainmail crafting as well. I’ve mostly made chainmail jewelry in the past, but I’m working on a new dice bag now, since I’ve also gotten back into playing Dungeons & Dragons on a regular basis.

Both chainmail and crochet can be very soothing, with repetitive patterns and attractive materials that I enjoy working with. They also both create textures that I find very pleasing to look at and touch. The pouch I’m making is formed as a widening circle, and the rings are small enough to form a dense weave that is essentially a flexible metal fabric. (They may not be the most efficient size to use, but I really like the effect.) The light glinting off the rings is also very soothing; my eyes keep getting drawn back to where it is sitting on the table, waiting for me to add to it.

At various times I’ve also enjoyed wood burning, leather working, metal stamping, and various types of jewelry making. I used to sell some of my jewelry on Etsy, but didn’t really put a lot of effort into marketing it. I’m actually thinking about reopening that shop soon, and expanding it to include examples of the different types of crafts I enjoy, as well as different themes that interest me. There’s nothing in there now, but I’ll share a link when it’s open. I’m calling it “Incurably Eclectic.” 🙂

Flat circle made up of interwoven stainless steel rings

 

Doesn’t Feel Like Spring Yet, But…

My spring semester starts on Thursday of this week. I’m taking two in-person classes this time; I didn’t really like the experience I had with an online class last semester, and I found two I wanted that meet back-to-back on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I’m really looking forward to both of them, for different reasons.

The first one is Introduction to Human Services. I’ll admit this initially sounded a bit bland to me, but it’s the prerequisite for most of the other degree-specific classes I’ll need, so I wanted to take it soon. And I figured that at the very least it would give me a wider overview of the field I’m potentially looking to move into. But after I met with the professor and saw the syllabus, I started to get really excited about it. He’s got some very interesting projects incorporated into the coursework, and I think I’ll really learn a lot.

The second class is Social Psychology. After falling in love with sociology last semester, I was psyched (hah) to see this on the schedule, because it feels like a logical complement to that. (Does it make sense to say something “feels logical”? Makes sense to me, but it just occurred to me that it’s an odd formation. But anyway.) According to my preliminary understanding of how they relate, sociology focuses on the large-scale social structures that exist outside of the individual, while social psychology looks at how the individual navigates that social world. Both are particularly interesting to me as an autistic person, because the social world has never made intuitive sense to me, but studying it analytically has helped me understand it better.

I also think that being autistic is actually an advantage in this area of study, because I think I take less for granted as “just the way things are.” The “way things are” often strikes me as utterly bizarre and nonsensical, and therefore I treat it as something that needs to be analyzed and explained, rather than taking it for granted. I think most people navigate social norms like the proverbial fish in water—it’s a comfortable, familiar environment, but also entirely invisible. In that case, it can take some work to learn to see the details of that environment, much less question why they are the way they are. But I feel like I’ve been questioning aspects of social interaction all my life, which is why the systematic study of social life has really appealed to me.

That’s got me seriously wondering which direction I want to be moving in. I went back to school with the idea of eventually getting a Master of Social Work degree, with the aim of working with other autistic adults in a professional capacity. There is such a disconnect between the lived experience of autism and the attitudes and beliefs about it held by most clinical professionals, and I am interested in helping to bridge some of that disconnect. But there is also a disconnect between the autistic experience and the attitudes and beliefs of autism researchers, and that is also a possible direction for me. My previous scientific training would assist me in that realm, too.

But, for now, I am continuing onward with these two classes. I think they will combine well as a way to continue to test the waters to learn what I might like to do; one will give me an expanded sense of the options available in the human services/social work field, and the other will continue my education in the social sciences to see if my education should bend in that direction instead. To be honest, I kind of expect I’ll end up with some hybrid approach; I never have been able to decide “what I want to be when I grow up,” mostly because I have never wanted to be just one thing. I’ve gotten to be comfortable with that, though, so for now I’m willing to just keep studying and see what happens.

Caught Up In Other Modes

I’ve been mostly in absorption mode lately; I’ve been reading a lot, internalizing information and perspectives that point toward some intriguing connections that still need time to simmer. In addition to that, most of my writing efforts have been directed toward updating and editing a novel I wrote several years ago, and I find that when I’m in editing mode it’s harder to generate new material. So it’s been tough to decide what to blog about lately. The thoughts that have been sparked by my reading aren’t quite ready to put together in a coherent way, and with most of my creative energy directed at the novel, it’s hard to pull my head out of that to write something else.

I could write a bit about the novel, I suppose, but as I think I’ve mentioned earlier, I don’t really like to talk about works in progress. I will say this, though, which amused me when I re-read it last month: I had decided to revisit this story to see if it would work with a clearly-identified autistic main character. What I found was that the only thing lacking was the “clearly-identified” part—this character was already so autistic that I had to laugh. I wrote her long before I started learning about autism and my own identity as autistic, but clearly I had put enough of my own tendencies into her that yes, the story would work with an autistic woman at the center. It already had one.

Changing My Routine

I’m enjoying a little time off at the moment; I’m in between school semesters, and my primary job hasn’t had any projects for me for the past couple of weeks. That means I’m going to have a light paycheck or two, but it’s been really refreshing to have time to read things outside of coursework, and to work on projects that have allowed me to really dive deep in a way I haven’t been able to for a while. It’s been good.

I am also trying to use this time to change up my daily routine, specifically how I structure my mornings and evenings. I tend to find this really difficult; I realize it’s hard for most people to change their habits, but on top of that, I don’t really have a set daily routine. So it’s not just a matter of changing what I do at various times, it’s getting myself to maintain a routine in the first place.

That feels ironic to me, because so much has been said about the fondness we autistic people have for our routines, and how little we like it when things change. In some ways I’m no different, but at the same time I like to have flexibility in my schedule as well. Some days I have more energy, or more creativity, or more ability to focus, and I’d prefer to be able to take advantage of those days in a way that makes sense, instead of having to do the same exact thing every day.

So while I do prefer “sameness” when it comes to doing the things I do (e.g., I like to do them in the same way, and I dislike being blocked from doing them that way, or stopped from doing them at all when I had planned to), that doesn’t always translate into routine. Unless I have some external pressure, like a fixed starting time for my work day, I just don’t maintain a daily routine.

To some degree, I really can’t; the fact that my job doesn’t always provide consistent work means that I don’t have the same schedule from day to day. My class schedule is not the same every day, either—and on days when I have class and work, I have to arrange my schedule differently in order to fit everything in. Add to this the aforementioned preference for paying attention to my varying energy/creativity/focus levels, and I much prefer to vary things as necessary.

I do like some degree of predictability, though, at least on a week-by-week basis. I hate last-minute scheduling that adds something new on the same day, and if I have to reschedule something I would rather push it out to the next week than try to fit it into a week I already have laid out in my head. Because I do — I can see the “fixed points” of the coming week laid out ahead of me like an obstacle course. That gives me some idea of how to fit other work in around them, and some sense of which will be my busy days. When I wake up in the morning, too, I automatically start reviewing those fixed obligations, to get a feel for how I need to time everything else, like work and study and meals and dog walking. Adding in another commitment, even (ugh) a phone call, can throw that timing right off, and everything needs to be reshuffled.

I think most people don’t realize how much effort it takes to do all that reshuffling in my head when the “fixed points” get moved. They probably see me as inflexible when really I’m just overwhelmed because I know how much energy it takes — and that’s extra energy on top of what I need to actually do the things on my schedule. So as soon as I hear about last-minute schedule changes, I’m already spinning out all of the contingencies that ripple out from that change, all the things that need to be rearranged from the carefully-timed plan. It usually all works out (I try not to schedule myself too tightly) but until I’ve got a new plan, I’m anxious. And the less time I’m given to fit in the new thing, the more anxious I get.

Unfortunately, I don’t often get the level of predictability I would prefer, and that is one thing I would really like to change about my work situation. But since I do have this downtime now, I am hoping that I can set up some morning and evening habits that will start to feel established before my obstacle course of a schedule gets filled up again.

New Year

I’m not really into New Year’s. I don’t do New Year’s Eve celebrations, and I don’t make resolutions. I usually get impatient with year-end retrospectives as well; I lived through the year, after all, and I don’t need a recap. But I find myself thinking about the changing of the calendar year anyway, because this past year brought so many new ventures, and the coming year promises to include still more.

Mostly that’s because I’m always starting new ventures and taking on new projects. I set weekly and monthly goals for myself, as well as daily to-dos when I need to keep up momentum. Resolutions seem rather arbitrary and redundant because of that; there’s nothing special about making them at the start of a new year, when I essentially make them all the time.

But there’s still a cultural tendency to look at things by calendar year — 2017 was the year I started going back to school, for example, even though I’m only halfway through my first “school year” back. So I can look back at 2017 and see how much has changed, and forward to 2018 and project how things might continue. And whether or not I see it as a strict dividing line, there is still an air of “out with the old, in with the new” that pervades this time of year that gets me thinking in those terms, at least a little bit.

So however you approach this changing of the dates, I hope you find a satisfactory end to one arbitrarily-designated cycle around the sun and look forward to a fulfilling start to the next one. Waes hael!