Content warning: This is a brutal one. Discussions of trauma, depression, self-harm, suicidal thinking and activity. Also discussions of painful recent news events. If you’re not having a good day, come back to this one later.
I hope you’re well. I am well, increasingly so actually. I spoke to a friend I hadn’t seen for a few weeks on Saturday morning and he told me I was looking better than I had for months. He was right, I was. I have been struggling with depression, ever since the summer. I didn’t properly start getting better until Sunday a week ago. I’m still depressed, but I’m slowly-slowly coming out of it. Problem is, I didn’t have a clue I was even feeling this way. That’s what this week’s blog is about.
Before I begin, I will be referring back to the concept of Alexithymia. I’ve written about this before, in the blogs below. I don’t know what happened with the thirds one, but it should lead you back to the first blog for Pride Month 2021.
Hey, welcome back after what, looking back at it, was a bit of a plea for increased clicks.
Yes, that is weird. Isn’t depression an illness that’s about feeling sad? What if you can’t access that feeling in the moment? What then?
My partner and I get each other. We’re both highly attuned to each other’s needs and communicate very well about them. We are aware of each other’s limitations and work together to try and act to the benefit of both of us. But that doesn’t mean we never have arguments.
Often, when my partner and I snap at each other, it’s because I deal with input very rapidly and he can’t. That has nothing to do with our levels of intelligence. He’s more intelligent than I am, if anything. He just has a relatively slow processing time. That means that discussions often feel one-sided. He makes a very strong argument, I work with it and try to find a rebuttal, he then nods. Nothing happens. The flow is interrupted. He just needs the processing time. Often, he will get back to me with some amazing insight, only for me to later make clear that I told him that, weeks ago. That’s not to say he is not an original thinker. On the contrary! But he just takes longer to digest complex topics of discussion.
I’ve been having really interesting conversations with my partner recently. He finds it difficult to assess his own emotions. At one point, he shared a painful memory with me. Two nights ago, he had just read the judgement of the Arthur Labinjo-Hughes. He will be doing so with a voice that’s crunched with hurt and his body shows the intensity of emotion that he must be feeling. But afterwards he will go back to the computer where he’ll have read the horrifying news and tell me he’s “fine.” That’s frustrating to me, because I feel lied to (one of my own trauma-issues). But he isn’t lying to me. He genuinely feels fine. Or, rather, he doesn’t feel the hurt his body is so clearly communicating. That comes later.
When it comes to emotional issues, it can feel like I’m crawling up the wall. When my eyes and ears see and hear something that’s immediately rebuffed by the person just expressing that thing, I feel frightened. I feel like I’m going slightly mad – especially common for people who’ve experienced gaslighting.
But he doesn’t mean it. He usually comes up to apologise later on, or forgets about it and tells me something joyful he’s remembered.
For me, I have that with depression. I can go through months of incoherent rage at myself. I get anxious on a daily basis, have meltdowns and shutdowns. I oversleep or cannot drop off. I eat far too much, my body never telling me it’s full. I watch porn for hours and feel nothing but a numbness and a distant fear of death. I try to engage with other human beings. I try to write but it’s all shit. I try to keep on top of things but fail at them. I get into fights with the people I love. My body crumples in on itself. I try to exercise but cannot manage a session. I gain weight and feel like a rotting hump of lard. I start punishing myself for thoughts of disappearing down a lake.
But until Sunday last week, when I turned a corner, I didn’t know I was depressed. I just believed that I was fine and all I needed to do was work harder. It was a long conversation with a friend that made me realise I wasn’t well and hadn’t been since July. I’d been overwhelmed and in pain. I still am a bit. But I’m now capable of looking back and seeing myself in a state of depression.
What helped me is that I now use an app to record days since I last engaged in addictive behaviours. I’m an alcoholic, I had my last drink on 5th March 2012. I was prescribed so much medication, for so long, that my body got addicted to them. I have problems with porn and binge eating. I now have been abstinent for nearly 9 days and that has led to a sense of control I don’t think I’ve ever felt before. I can talk more about my experiences with addiction, but also read Laura Kate Dale’s Uncomfortable Labels. It’s just that good. Please buy it from the publisher or Gay’s the Word, the best bookshop in the world.
Alexithymia and Mental Healthcare
Ok, so you can see how this issue, that affects many people but autistics overwhelmingly so, can lead to further obstacles in getting psychological support. If you are unwell but are unable to put words to it, are you even unwell? Yes, you are. Because ‘feeling low’ is not what depression actually means, at least not for us. For us, depression can manifest itself in a numbness, a greater likelihood to melt down and shut down and, particularly, anger. We can get angry at ourselves or at the people around us. Depression affects our sensory world and rather than colour things in a darker hue than usual, things are often bright – too bright. It can make us cold towards our previous interests or so frustrated at our current lack of capacity that we avoid it.
If we present with depression, then we must be assessed by a professional with a longstanding interest and specialism in treating autistic mental health. Preferably a fellow autistic, who will often† be immediately able to assess the issue at hand. If those people are not available (which, let’s face it, they’re not), we need to have our experiences validated. In reality however, that doesn’t happen. The consequences of this are known to anyone who’s read this blog before.
† Note, though, that not all autistic people are intuitively hyper-empathic. Some of us self-describe as lacking any capacity to intuit the moods of others. But that still might mean they are excellent at supporting others’ mental health, since they could be interested in mental health and pick up on it through cognitive means.
If, like me, you struggle with verbalising depression when it happens to you, then immediate treatment might not be what will stop you spiralling. Instead, it’s about building a life for yourself that is likely to reduce your chances of burning out, getting depressed, or both (like what happened to me).
John Coffey and Emotional Porousness
Alexithymia is not the only issue that affects my mood and my capacity to read it. There are also the moods of other people. I call this emotional porousness. The walls between my sense of self and the rest of the world are inconsistent, like paint that runs together. I’ve written before about how autistic people aren’t unempathetic robots, but that we have far too much of it. What we lack is a clear limit between ourselves and the rest of the world. The world is too much – we’re overwhelmed.
The other day I was watching this video by Princess Weekes on Stephen King and his usually terrible treatment of Black characters in his fiction. It’s awesome and I will defend every point she makes, if I’d be needed. Have a watch here if you haven’t already:
It reminded me of being 13 years old and watching The Green Mile on video, having taped it on VCR and having to do so with breaks in between. I found the movie unbearably painful to watch. I identified strongly with John Coffey (played by the now sadly-missed Michael Clarke Duncan) and I wasn’t sure why. I don’t think I had a Christ complex, but I felt somehow “seen”, as I might say now.
At the age of 13, I was aware that this film spoke to my identity as a queer person (which I denied at the time) an autistic person (which I denied and had strong-armed a therapist into removing under threat of harming myself. At the time, I had thought that was the most important thing to happen to me on Tuesday 11th September 2001) and even just as someone odd who tried to be funny and supportive constantly. I felt the constant need to be “on”. I faced bullying and was physically attacked quite a few times, as well as the casual homophobia of Dutch society in the early 2000s. I somehow saw myself in John Coffey’s place. I was situated on a pedestal, but by those same people I could be eaten alive. My existence, like John Coffey’s was a toy for others to play with.
I also very much linked my deep and unbearable empathy with John Coffey’s. I felt other people’s emotions so harshly, especially my mother’s. I couldn’t stand to watch the auditions for the Dutch version of Pop Idol, which were widely shared and celebrated at the time. Despite the fact that they were modern madhouses where the audience point and laugh. I would often allow other students to emotionally offload onto me, expressing their sadness and anxiety for me, so they could move on. I would drink that pain up and come home feeling horrendous, on top of the exhaustion of simply going into school every day. Like John, I felt that pain intensely.
I did a lot of reading that year on race and racism and I started to feel awkward about comparing myself to a Black man in 1930s America, who is painted as having learning disabilities. Well, that was my main fear. More than being found out to be gay, to be told: “Look, we made a mistake. You need to live in a home for children with learning disabilities,” and that everyone would tell me that it was for the best and that I’d be happy. Yes, I had a lot of internalised ableism but that didn’t unpack itself as early as I started unpacking my own attitudes on race.
I agree completely with Weekes’ analysis of him as a Magical Negro, existing solely for the use of the white protagonist. But I’d like to add an autistic addendum to it. John Coffey’s capacity to emotionally absorb the pain of others is one that autistic people share. I at least do. When I’m tired, I drink up the pain in a room, because it’s safer to let pain fester in me than it being in other people. I’ve never read The Green Mile, nor have I watched the film since 2001. Still, there is a lot of John Coffey – or, at least, how Coffey is reacted to – in the characterisation of van der Lubbe in Teeming.
Writing an earlier part of this blog, I was checking the name of the boy who was murdered, referring to the case my partner got incredibly angry about. I fell down a bit of a rabbit hole. When reading some of the current reporting, an unsettling thought occurred to me. If an autistic child were to die this way, their death might very well be explained away as self-harm (particularly the bruising and head injuries) and the salt content in his blood would have been a sign that he had strange disordered eating. If Labinjo-Hughes was autistic, then I am pleased that his killers faced some form of justice, but still, would his autism not have been a factor in his death?
If he had been neurotypical, Labinjo-Hughes’ case might have escalated sooner. Otherwise, it is indicative of a system that doesn’t serve the needs of children, regardless of neurotype. Even at a time outside of lockdown, social services might not have been able to recognise an autistic child in distress, they might have seen the blood results and, knowing that autistic people can have disordered eating, left it to continue.
https://autismmemorial.wordpress.com/tag/abuse/page/2/ has included Arthur in its memorial pages. In my research, limited as it was, there was barely any mention of autism. Apart from the father’s quote about “ADHD or autism”, a neurodivergent reading of this case is deafening in its absence. Having done many safeguarding trainings in my time, I fear this will be used yet again to blame individual social care professionals rather than change the system by funding it properly, for once, which is shared by some of the social work professionals interviewed about the case.
The absence of any mention of autism could also be valuable. Perhaps the media is aware that the public’s sympathy for a murdered boy wouldn’t extend to one who is autistic. I can see that logic, it just makes me sad about the great british public if that’s so.
Without seeking to make any assumptions about a case that’s just come to an end, I could see an autistic 6-year old pretend to others that everything was alright. With all the consequences that come with it.
I had this blog read to me by my partner, who agreed that I should post this blog. I gave him a hug, calling him: “Alexithymic boy. My favourite boy.” He made a “huh” noise. I asked what did he mean? “It’s just taking a while to go in.” I then laughed for a full minute.
Lots of love, I’ll see you next time!