Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Rules and Routines

One of the lingering symptoms of Asperger's that I still have in force is the way I tend to do everything the same way every single time.  And when I say 'everything', I mean that literally.  When I eat at a restaurant, I almost always eat any side dishes first, then the main course.  When I'm eating a meal at home, I usually eat it counterclockwise by turning my plate that direction and I always eat the entire portion of any given food before I move onto the next instead of skipping around.  When I'm on the computer, the order of open programs on my taskbar is: AIM, Firefox, Excel, Notepad, other.  If they somehow become out of order, I fix it.  And those are just two random examples - I think that every time I do something new, I use that as a template for every time I do it again.

Now, in some respects this is a normal thing.  The fact that I always put my glasses, watch, and rings in the exact same spot when I go to bed some would call just being organized.  And in most cases, the reason why I do things in that order is for a specific reason - I've thought about the best way to do it (though in some cases the difference is negligible), and I can forever do it that way and be assured that I'm doing it the best way.  I wash my hair before I wash my face when I take a shower because water flows downwards and if I washed my face first, water made dirty by my hair could get on my face.  Where it gets to be abnormal is that I have a 'rule' for how I do almost literally everything, I do it almost religiously, and it makes me a bit uncomfortable when I don't.

And though it may help me be organized, it also causes me a lot of problems:
  • If I don't have a rule for something, like how often I vacuum my bedroom, it usually doesn't get done and if I need to do it then it takes me a lot more mental and emotional energy to figure out when and how to do it.
  •  I have a very, very, very hard time changing an existing rule - one of the problems I had in my last job doing custodial work was that I'd be missing a particular spot with my cleaning, someone would tell me to not do that anymore, and I'd have an extremely hard time remembering to add that to my routine.  It's always hardest when I have to change a rule for someone else and their reasoning makes no sense to me - in fact I'm more likely to try and find a way to continue doing it my way without them knowing if I can get away with it.
  • The discomfort I feel when I have to break a rule can get really bad and make me extremely anxious - how bad it is depends on the rule.  If I both logically and emotionally recognize that the rule is trivial, then I can easily shake it off, but if I think that the rule is at all important then my emotional response to it is well out of proportion.  Even when I recognize that my emotional response is out of proportion, I find myself having to compensate for the increased stress somehow.

Now, much of this may sound a bit like OCD - it shares the symptom of rigid routines with Autism, but I think I there's a solid difference.  From what I understand about OCD, the person feels compelled to do things in a particular way out of fear that something, often specific, will happen if they don't do it that way.  This is not what I experience.  I also get anxious when I can't follow my routines, but it's not necessarily because I fear something bad will happen.  Sometimes it partly is - some of my rules and routines are that way to prevent something bad from happening - but the main problem is merely the wrongness of it.

And that's not necessarily an abnormal feeling.  In fact, look at this for a moment:  2 + 2 = 5

Do you see how wrong that looks?  Doesn't it make you feel just a tiny bit uncomfortable?  Is there not a part of you that wishes you could edit this blog post for me and change that 5 to a 4?  Because that's the feeling I get when I break one of my rules, only much, much more intense.  And this is what I feel makes an Autism style routine different from an OCD routine - that feeling.  And the only ways I've found to get rid of that feeling is to either do the thing again the 'right' way, do something additional that makes me feel like any negative impact of doing it the 'wrong' way has been fixed, or to distract myself somehow - often by doing something else the 'right' way.

This is one of those things that was worse when I was younger.  For one thing, the rules that I had were conceived of by a child who wasn't as good at coming up with rules that are functional.  Another is that I would try to insist on other people following my rules - that usually doesn't work out so well.  And that uncomfortable feeling was a lot worse and I was much less able to alleviate it when I had it.  But as I got older, my rules became better - most of them are either of the trivial type or the actually functional type.  I also learned to essentially 'keep my rules to myself' and simply tolerate the fact that the rest of humanity does things wrong - that goes hand in hand with learning that I don't have to correct other people about anything, whether it's how they do a thing or some fact that they're getting wrong.  And handling the uncomfortable feeling goes hand in hand with how I handle any kind of stress - I take a deep breath, reassure myself that it will be fine, and keep forging ahead.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Explaining This Blog's Existance

So, what is this blog, you may ask?

Well, it all started this morning... Or did it really start when I was born?

However it really started, I had my weekly appointment with my therapist this morning. I've been seeing her for a couple of years now, every Tuesday, and she's been extremely helpful to me. But she commented on the level of awareness and insight I have on my situation. Personally, I blame my many years of receiving cognitive behavioral therapy for that - I'm really quite familiar with how my mind works. Unfortunately, being aware of how my mind works is infinitely easier than changing how my mind works from what it is to something a bit more functional, but that's why I have a therapist in the first place.

She asked me if I'd ever considered writing about it. And I have, actually, especially more recently. I'm in a bit of an interesting spot, mentally. I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome when I was 12 years old - so about 17 years ago. (That makes me 29 now.) However, I'm definitely in the shallow end of the Autism spectrum, especially now. Many of the symptoms I was experiencing back when I was a child have eased off a lot since. I don't think any of them have left me completely, but I've learned to work with and around them well enough that I tend to come across as 'pleasantly quirky'. Unless you know enough about the spectrum to see that I'm a very specific kind of quirky, that is.

But this puts me in the position where I'm enough on the Autism spectrum to have first hand experience with most of the symptoms and other issues that entails, aware enough of how my mind works that I can usually explain it very well, and I'm usually good at figuring out how it's different for a neurotypical. I'm only really shaky about that last one - sometime I'll explain some thought or feeling I have and the person I'm talking to will tell me that everyone experiences that. I love it when that happens - it makes me feel just a bit more like I belong with the rest of humanity.

Of course, there's more to my story than an Asperger's diagnosis - as you may or may not have guessed by the title of this blog, I also have a problem with anxiety. I've also had some experience with depression, PTSD, and panic attacks and probably a few other things, but aside from the anxiety it's all mostly in my past instead of the present. In fact, the anxiety problem passed up the Asperger's problem in the order of importance a long time ago. And I can explain how any of those issues work in my mind just as easily.

So after we talked for a bit about it, my therapist suggested that I could blog about it. She said that it can be difficult to find first-hand accounts of this sort of thing, especially from anyone on the Autism spectrum who can explain it well, so it would be valuable to other people if I wrote it for other people to read. I also suspect that she suggested it because it would be therapeutic for me too - therapists are sneaky that way.