These days I’m often wordless. In their place I’m making a torrent of images, mainly shared on Instagram.
I’m an artist and creating visual responses is one way of processing my emotions. If entering lockdown in the UK felt like limbo, this at least had certainty and felt relatively safe. Easing lockdown in the UK is a hellish limbo of another kind, the sort that can seriously mess with your mind.
Like many other autistic people I have to work harder to process emotions than the average, so feelings sometimes arrive suddenly (explosively even), unwelcome and unannounced. This can begin with low level yet visceral physical unease which fails to register in my mind. There’s often a stealthy build-up of tension, I find. Also, vague feelings of malaise are all too familiar, so I tend to just bat them away as a matter of course. I can spend entire days playing tennis with creeping anxiety. I’ve got a great forehand and a smashing backhand too. I can even lob while typing – something I’m doing right now, actually.
I’m a cheerful autistic person up front, with an Eeyore undercarriage. Most of the time I’m up, though I am prone to sudden melancholy. I’ve learned that if this is not tiredness or hunger, there’s usually a third reason to analyse and thoroughly get to the bottom of before I can regain my usual cheer. With Covid-19 this has got a whole lot harder, and though I know it’s not just me, I’ve struggled to identify my extreme anxiety over lockdown easing. I now see it’s been a double whammy. Major change (well known autistic kryptonite) combined with confirmation of the terrifying chasm where responsible, ethical government should be. Simply put, we are not safe, we are not safe.
Getting to grips with this when your mind and body are playing nicely together must be difficult enough. Raw unprocessed anxiety can be immobilising. Grey exhaustion, aching bones, crawling skin, and a tight band around my head, seemed to overwhelm me quite inexplicably last weekend. I call this emotional flu’. Although I struggled to believe I was coming adrift, there was nothing for it but to ‘cave’. No more lobbing the ball, Covid-19 is not Wimbledon.
Because autistics often live with chronic anxiety anyway, and emotional processing takes time – owning that we’re not okay can be a much slower process. In the build-up to meltdown, for example, I’m prone to grumpiness and largely focused on keeping afloat. It’s a sure sign that overwhelm is on the up. Being a bit ‘out-of-sorts’ can quickly progress. Suddenly I’ve blown a gasket, seemingly for no reason, but behind the scenes extreme physical discomfort – emotional overload plus sensory stress – has peaked.
I start to register that I’m not okay when emotional flu’ sets in, when days pass and body and mind still won’t play ball. The only remedy is solitude and physical therapy – for me this is probably quite foetal and has to involve prolonged immersions in water. Slowing everything down allows me to catch up.
I think too that it’s harder to own to not coping (however temporarily) when you’re basically lucky. I live in a nice bubble and can shield. Rationally I tell myself I’m pretty okay (and I am). It’s important however to absorb the myriad emotional impacts of Covid-19 on all of us. I’m better off when I can say that I’m both enraged and terrified by our government. The virus in itself is frightening but we know that with the right management it can be contained. Right now this is what really hurts.
I hope that in understanding myself, and in sharing this brief account, I can help other autistics, family and friends. Reaching a resolution of feelings really helps. Giving your autistic loved one guilt-free time and permission to decompress is the best thing you can do.