Autism And Big Emotions

Emotion has always been a bit tricky for me. The big emotions of life are every bit as challenging as the everyday smaller emotions that we all experience. No-one knows this about me (apart from everyone who reads this blog!) but I am just like Keith Brymer Jones from Pottery Throwdown (New Statesman article about Keith) in that I could cry at over a beautiful toast rack.

I first noticed this when I began teaching over 20 years ago. The school was a Catholic school and many of the children did Irish dancing. One pupil was the under 10’s (or similar age) British Champion who was, quite frankly, amazing. I knew nothing about Irish Dancing but anyone could see that he was very talented. He often danced at the end of a term and it was always an event. I noticed I was overcome with emotion and wanted to cry (tears of happiness, not sadness) and had to stop myself. I also noticed that no-one else felt this.

Throughout the years I’ve listened to music, watched films (anything with children and animals I find very difficult. That’s why I’ve never gone to see War Horse at the theatre because I know I won’t be able to control my emotions), read books, seen performances that have all made me feel very emotional and I’ve fought to keep that emotion in rather than letting it out.

I never understood why so I learned to dig my nails into my hand in order to give my brain something else to think of rather than what I was experiencing.

The other side of me can be very, strangely, emotionless. When I am under stress I often disassociate and can tap out of my emotional state quite easily (but not when it’s about children, animals, performances, music etc) a good example of this was when I had an epidural for one of my births and the midwife commented that during the process my heart rate didn’t increase which she found surprising. Looking back this wasn’t a supprise to me because I didn’t feel I was ‘there’ at that point as I had disassociated from the situation. Nowadays I know this is happening and can use it to my advantage for situations when I need to: having a filling at the dentist a couple of months ago is a really good example of this.

Feeling emotions and being emotional can be two things that some autistic people have difficulty with. Some autistics feel emotion but not in the neurotypical way where something is experienced and this causes a rational emotional response that can be controlled and has an ending. I often experience irrational feelings of emotion that I can’t control that seems to go on. Just last week we made the sad decision of selling our narrowboat which I found incredibly emotionally difficult. It’s a boat. An inanimate object that’s not usually something people become personally attached to but I had. I cried in the brokers office when a lovely lady asked, ‘Would you mind asking why you’re selling the boat?’ And as I answered the massive wave of emotion overcame me and I just cried. I then found myself apologising for crying and putting myself down all while crying. I felt the same when my previous beloved car had to be taken to the scrap yard. It’s irrational; it’s over the top and I can’t control it. It’s just the way my brain works.

I find this also affects my other emotional responses too. When I was younger and I started laughing I often couldn’t control this laughing and would not be able to stop. I remember being sent out of a room many times because I couldn’t stop giggling and this irritated my parents enough to ask me to leave the room. I would often find myself in a corridor in a house trying desperately hard to stop laughing/giggling not knowing why this happened to me. Again, I noticed it didn’t happen to my siblings or other children that I knew.

I can get quite angry quite quickly. This isn’t something that many people know about me at all and, in fact, I am constantly surprised when people comment on how calm I always seem to be. I feel confused when they say this because to me I don’t feel calm at all. But that’s how it’s always been, that I’ve had to internalise my feelings because I knew that laughing too much was odd and upset my parents and that crying at things that made me happy wasn’t the right thing to be doing and I think that’s when I learned to suppress my emotions and that’s when the masking started -I’m convinced. When you can’t be yourself because you’re told off for doing so or you see that being yourself isn’t what people want or expect you to do then you have to try to be someone else that they do like and not want to send out of a room.

I think I’ve tried to avoid emotion. I don’t like the feeling of being out of control so it’s better to just not put yourself in that situation in the first place. Since my diagnosis though I’ve tried to live a more authentic life and be the me that I’m supposed to be, which was hard at first because I’m no too sure who that is. I knew that selling the boat would be emotionally hard and I could have asked my husband to take care of it all but I chose to do it myself. I held things together during the initial consultation (despite getting up that morning and just sobbing) and this was a huge achievement for me. I then cried when we left the keys -when the lady then asked why we were selling it- and I cried in the car in front of the children and also in the service station during the inevitable family day out wee stop, on the way home.

Authenticity for me is about not avoiding but embracing the difficult situation and allowing myself to feel the emotion I’d previously blocked. I did this and it felt empowering and it also felt real and who I am supposed to be.

That’s not to say that I’ll be crying at everything and not digging my nails into my hand anymore. It is a start though, and I want to continue to feel all of the colours of human emotions.

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