I started this post while sitting in the QANTAS domestic terminal at Canberra airport. I was about to fly to Perth via Melbourne. I was relaxed and happy and ready to have an amazing time in Perth talking about Autism and meeting people I haven’t met before. This would seem a very ordinary occurrence – professional public speaker flies to other city for presentation. Not really a newsworthy headline. The funny thing is that for fifteen years of my life I would not fly. I was terrified. I saw every possibility of in flight disasters – engines falling off or stopping mid-air, terrorism, friendly armies accedientally shooting down the plane, pilot error and any number of other things. I simply didn’t travel other than on a train or bus. This all changed when I moved to Canberra in 2007 for work. My department paid for flights and removal expenses. To get to my amazing new life I had to catch a plane. I was so anxious I thought I might not be able to get on the aircraft at all. Once I boarded the plane I was hyper-aware of every noise. I looked at the flight attendants for signs of worry. I had a gin and tonic at 10 am! I wondered whether being seated in the front of the plane was better than the back if there was an accident.
Thankfully – and rather unsurprisingly – I got to Canberra in one piece. I realised I would have to get used to flying so I started working on my thinking. I told myself I would need to fly places because Canberra is quite a distance form other cities in Australia. I took a few flights in the first year and each time I became slightly less anxious, Nine years later and I can quite happily hop on board a plane and go wherever I ned to. I get nervous on take-off and landing but it is fairly mild in the scale of the sorts of anxiety I experience.
Fear is my constant companion. I have the Autistic’s anxiety and the terror of irrational things which comes from my mental illness. (For example I love my favourite Melbourne hotel but am always aware of ghosts because it is on the grounds of the Children’s Hospital and there must be spirits of unfortunate kids roaming about, angered that they didn’t make it to adulthood). Fear and anxiety are like nasty little twins in my life. One spurs on the other and I can really suffer as a result. In order to live my life I need to use a number of strategies around managing these aspects of my character.
My life is currently packed with things which I am anxious or frightened about. Here’s an average day: Wake up and feed Mr Kitty, then worry if he is OK because his fur looks a bit different to usual. Am I gong to come home to a deceased Mr Furryface? I give him an extra cuddle just in case and wonder if I need to call the vet. I walk the ten minute walk from Whimsy Manor to the bus stop. The old guy who walks past me every day carrying a stick and looking so angry even Autistic me who doesn’t get facial expressions can work it out. Why is he angry? Then as I go further I see a couple with two big dogs. I can’t see if they are on a leash. Will they attack me? And if they do, what if they attack my left leg with the skin grafts which is so fragile that I could lose it if I had a bad injury? I get on the bus. We nearly hit a cyclist and I am horrified. I get to work which is a pretty safe place most of the time, but I am feeling overwhelmed and sensitive What if I completely flip out and yell at my colleagues for no reason? What if I am inadvertently rude to a senior manager? Why is my supervisor meeting with my Director with the office door closed? Oh my gosh! Have I done some terrible transgression I am unaware of?? How long can I live on my savings if I am fired? I go home and am happy to find Mr Kitty alive and well and waiting for his dinner. I give him a bigger cuddle. I turn on the TV to the Antiques Roadshow and then Spicks and Specks – dramas and the news are always terrifying. I get my news form internet news sites because I can pick which articles I look at but even that can be difficult sometimes. I do a bunch of writing and advocacy things and then go to bed, getting right under the covers even on a hot day as for some reason I think the blankets ward of evil spirits.
The thing about my life is that I am constantly in that state but I have learned to operate within it and build strategies to manage it so I can do what I want to do. I sometimes manage to downgrade the level of fear or anxiety if I cannot get rid of it entirely. I made a decision a long time ago that I would not let anxiety and fear stop me from doing what I need to do. I accept that I go through a lot of suffering because of this but I have also achieved milestones which make me – and my family and friends too I think – quite proud. I know there are worth things than suffering and in my mind the trade off between doing what I want and experiencing a certain amount of terror and anxiety is an easy choice.
I know that most Autistic people have struggles with anxiety too. If I were to offer any advice it would be to accept that life is going to be a challenge – pretty much everyone’s life is, Autistic and on-Autistic alike. Anxiety and fear may well be your constant companions too, so try to learn to manage them with strategies where you can and ask for help when you need to. It can help to a actually visualise anxiety or other challenges as a character and tell them to go away. Things like mindfulness, distraction by doing something you enjoy, and strategies you can work on with a therapist or psychologist are really helpful for many people too. Medication is an option some people pursue although I would suggest caution and make sure you trust the doctor who prescribes it and you are the person making the decision about taking or not taking medication. It is possible to live a good life with anxiety issues but it can take a while to develop strategies that work for you. Remember you aren’t alone. Talking to others on the spectrum and/or those with anxiety challenges can help and make you feel less isolated.