For much of the last few weeks I have been strangely content. Many of the usual stress factors of my ‘normal’ life are gone and I am great at rationalizing and portioning ‘worries’ into bite sized morsels I barely notice. I am content with my own company, like my family and have sufficient resources for this not to be an uncomfortable period.
This is not why I’m calm. And because of that this strange contentment is…strange.
I have had years of tutorials on dealing with stress, because for a long time it was felt my anxiety and the cyclical burnouts I suffered from were stress related. Well, felt by anyone who was not me. I would carefully journal my life, highlight stressors and rate my feelings and get absolutely nowhere. Would track my monthly hormonal cycle and see that regardless of where stressors fell, my own internal chemistry was far more important to my anxiety levels than anything else. It is only relatively recently I discovered this was not just my imagination, but most likely PME – a condition where normal premenstrual symptoms gang up with other anxiety disorders to create a magnification of anxiety and depression.
I meander… Because of both my reported anxiety and the stressful nature of my life, agencies queued up to give mental health support through sessions on mindfulness, of being aware of your own cyclical thinking and of identifying unhelpful thought processes. I was sent to sessions where we stared at crystals, recited mantras highlighting our self-worth or lay in a dark room on cushions listening to stories to help visualise our strengths. This is cheaper and (less cynically) more effective than letting a parent/carer go to the wall and trying to tidy up the mess.
At the time, this felt pointless as it didn’t lessen my symptoms, but in actual moments of high stress I have a bounty of techniques I can turn to and recommend. But I don’t lean on them completely. When actual real-life stressors need a response, an internal crisis management system takes over and supercharges me.
In normal circumstances, when I am tuned in to my own body, I can be pushed into panic attacks by sensory over-stimulation. Simple things like walking round the supermarket can throw me into proper chemical fight, flight or freeze. Mainly these things are down to my autism and how I receive sensory information. A telephone call that I wasn’t expecting can make me throw up or faint. This is probably a result of cPTSD. Either way, being self-aware and emotionally literate but regularly unable to regulate my reactions is incredibly frustrating.
But in a crisis, if my brain were staring in ‘Inside Out’, a new character would enter the normal fray, kick all the usual gibbering characters into storage and take over. This character is completely steady handed and can defuse a bomb even when all the wires are the same colour. They can cook a meal for 20, while organising them into teams to get on with whatever else this crisis requires. They have a stiff upper lip and a can do attitude. Whether you need instruction or simply someone to get on with something, when this guy is in charge, I’m your person.
It is a type of functional disassociation. In the short term, having no connection to my emotions is really useful. Nothing can touch me. It’s like I become a pre-destined character in a story. Energy levels soar. The things that trouble me on a day to day basis are swept away by the super-solider version of me. I am, in many ways, the perfect team player in a crisis. It’s a pity this isn’t a real and is unsustainable for any real length of time. This lockdown is not the longest I’ve gone in super-solider mode, but it is longer than I can really cope with.
It was mid-January, this little soldier popped his head onto the bridge, gave a few orders and started a watching brief. The steady hand running the ship, but with an eye to the disaster appearing over the horizon. The epitome of “Keep calm and carry on” insomuch as that seemed to be the correct advice at the time. Nothing to panic about. We locked my parents down and checked the apocalypse freezer was stocked. I am the British middle class equivalent of a prepper, brought up by parents born in world war two and so used to rationing, storing and planning that this was an automatic reaction. While politicians were still prevaricating, my children had been prepared for uncertainty with a number of potential scenarios, food rationing began and notes went into school with contact details for friends to use if schools were closed.
Bear in mind, if my Christmas present shopping is not pretty much complete by late October, panic kicks in.
Some of this is down to how I manage a condition that is part of my autism, called pathological demand avoidance (PDA) of which I have a relatively mild version. I might disparage the myriad of courses I was sent on, but learning to understand how autism affects me has been really important in letting me emerge from the complete mess I was at 21 years old and turn into a relatively functional person. To avoid the demands which trigger, I plan ahead, constantly and without fail. “To fail to plan is to plan to fail”, could have written for a PDA affected person. I cannot handle deadlines, so I plan around them by moving them forward so much that there is no demand for them to be completed. That is a very calm and adult way of saying if I don’t structure things so I am in control, I would just sit in a chair and scream and nothing would get done. Ever.
So, for most of this period, I have been content. I am living out the planning and preparation made weeks ago and forecasting this situation to go on until September at least. I don’t miss other people and whilst the telephone is a nightmare, I can join video calls much more successfully, as seeing people gives me more communication cues and therefor less panic. The children follow our lead, are calm and in a new timetable, but one that is less demanding in many ways than normal life, so they are happy. Our family life is stable and productive. The lovely Mr Hunt is just as busy as ever saving the world from a computer desk in our home office, from which he has worked for seven years. I am however working a very different pattern, 30 hours a week of direct special needs teaching to a class of five students, but this is very fulfilling on a professional level.
This, though, is a brittle situation.
Even with everything as calm and as planned as it can be, in effect, my perfect world situation, I can feel the build of something. The tiny brain characters my own sweet inbuilt martinet forced into the cupboard in my brain, are staging an escape. They know I can’t keep this up. I can’t do my sort of normal and manage 30 hours of teaching a week. It pushes me to breakdown. In normal circumstances I top out at 25 hours one week a month.
Lurking, I can feel a desperate sense of exhaustion. A sort of rational panic without the physical reactions. The warning signs that tanks are coming closer to empty than is wise. I just need some emotional recharging, but the super solider doesn’t acknowledge emotions. I desperately want to cry, and I can’t remember how. Watch the concerns of others across my social media and want to feel something. Anything. A ghost of the real me is sick and tired of being cool and in control. I don’t want to be stuck here where nothing feels connected to humanity.
This is when I long to submit, the safest way of vanquishing the tyrant energy vampire in my head. But there is no time or place.
The children are home all the time we are. There is no Thursday morning rope play session on our calendar anytime soon. No spanking, where the only sounds in the otherwise silent house are the crisp slap of palm on my skin and the hitching breaths I try to control. There is no crying. No kneeling. No relief from being in fucking control.
To submit is like drowning and breathing at the same time. Like having a dislocated joint reset. The moments where I am not in control are the moments that give me the power to be in control. The pressure release valves that keep the engines moving steadily or provide regulation when I am struggling. When I fly, I can recharge.
I need space to be set free before I crash and burn.
I need to find my exit strategy.