Shape Shifting

Recently The Scientist said, “I’m concerned that your world is shrinking.”

I asked him why. He elaborated. I didn’t say anything substantial in response because, as so often happens, I didn’t have a coherent answer at the time.

But that statement has been roaming my brain for the past few days, measuring my current state of affairs against times past.

Shrinking implies something that was once larger or more abundant. Two years ago I was finishing up my long-put-off university degree. I was spending three days a week on campus, surrounded by people, interacting all day, commuting an hour each way, expanding my intellectual horizons. The Scientist and I also had frequent social engagements because we lived in an area where we knew quite a few people.

Since then? I’m back to working at home. My days have a predictable rhythm: wake up, workout, write, work, eat a few times in between. Some days the car never leaves the garage. The geography of my social interaction is smaller than it was when I was going to school. Or years before that, when I was working at a job that required interacting face-to-face with people all day long or when my daughter was in school and I had to shuttle her to events and such.

There was a time in between all those other times–a time when you could say that my world shrunk very small–and I found the kind of internal quiet that I hadn’t known existed. The Scientist and I moved far away from our roots, to the desert, to a place so remote that we regularly encountered coyotes on our evening walks and the nearest gas station–the nearest anything–was a fifteen minute drive.

In that place, I found a deep internal sense of quiet. I let go of a lot of old hurts. I started to understand myself.

Of course, life gradually crept in again. We formed ties. We put down new roots. I decided to go back to school. Gradually I began to feel a creeping sense of unease. The quiet I’d found receded as I found myself having to back out of that peaceful place I’d created for myself. One by one, I backed out of the rooms in my mind, turned off the lights and closed the doors, shutting away the parts of myself that I instinctively sensed wouldn’t survive being exposed to the outside world.

Until something inside me rebelled and refused to close another door. The place I’d found–it was hard to leave and harder to close away without knowing if I’d be able to find my way back. In retrospect, that internal rebellion–the tension that arose between the security of the peaceful place I’d found and the stimulation of the outside world I was being drawn back into–was the first step toward discovering that I’m autistic.

I didn’t know that then. All I knew was that something had to give.

The tension grew in a way it hadn’t before. I became acutely aware of the two very different places I lived in. There was this new place, which existed mostly when I was alone, that felt very natural. It was secure and comfortable and, most of all, quiet. I hadn’t been in a place that internally quiet in a very long time, certainly not since I’d reached an age that had two digits in it instead of one.

Then there was the other place, the one I’d taken for granted as being life, the one where I kept a stranglehold on everything to keep it from flying apart. It was a place that pushed me to grow and expand myself, but one where I lacked the natural ease I felt in the new place I’d discovered.

I tried shifting between the two places but that turns out to be impossible for me. In typical aspie fashion, I have no idea where the middle ground is. I can be here or there, but commuting between them isn’t something I can do on a daily basis. When I do shift–like I did after my recent trip, moving from the intense interaction of being with people 24/7 for 10 days to the quiet of home–it can take me weeks to rediscover my equilibrium.

That got me thinking about where the source of that equilibrium lies. I think it lies in my true self, the one that is more fragile than I’d like to admit and that I can close off inside a nice safe cocoon when I need to, safe from harm but inaccessible.

It’s scary to realize that I can intentionally dissociate myself, scarier even to think that for years I’d been doing exactly that without consciously being aware of it. At some point–probably very early on–closing off parts of myself became my main defense mechanism, a way to survive in a world I find hard to navigate and harder to understand.

That can’t be healthy. I don’t enjoy it. I wish my quiet self was strong enough to go into the world without having to close all those doors. Perhaps the place I’m in now, this revival of my quiet period as I’m starting to think of it, is my way of nurturing and fortifying my quiet self for whatever comes next.

On my trip, I felt like I had to close off myself less than I did in the past. There are some doors I can leave ajar, some lights that I can dim instead of extinguishing. Thanks to understanding my autistic brain better, I have coping mechanisms available to me now that I didn’t before.

It may be a few years before life shifts again and takes me into a new phase as it inevitably does. For now, I’m planning to make the most of this quiet period, writing and thinking and being with myself. I think a certain amount of withdrawal from the world–a redirection of my resources–is necessary for me to expand myself internally.

Is my world shrinking?

Days later I let The Scientist know that I’d found my answer. What may appear from the outside to be smaller is on the whole simply changing shape. Again.

34 thoughts on “Shape Shifting”

  1. Just what I needed to read as I was entering a terrifically strong depression. Maybe just maybe I can head it off by accepting my need for quiet, instead of discounting it. – Thanks –

    1. Thank you for sharing this. It is beautifully written, and so descriptive. I have come late in life to my diagnosis, and the sense of dissociation is what led me here. I feel a huge sense of loss from having lived so much of my life with most of my self closed off. So many coping mechanisms took up most of my time and energy.
      Now, though, I find being closer to ‘me’ and accepting that as a truth brings a sense of calm that can carry me through the days with more ease. I also know how and why my life does not fit me well, and I am working on changing it to accommodate me, rather than the other way around. piece by piece. We’re ‘shape-shifters’ of a different kind ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thank you so much again, and very best wishes to you.

      1. Your last point – the one about changing life to accommodate you rather than the other way around feels so important. That’s a huge realization and one that I think we all need to come to at some point so we can stop struggling with fitting in, etc.

        Thank you for the wonderful comment and for sharing your thoughts. ๐Ÿ™‚ Each time I read a comment like this from someone who has found their way to their “original” self it makes me happy.

  2. I am glad you have found again the gift of your quiet self. Whether one is autistic or not, I believe this is something that adds to our life as we learn to spend time with our true selves, away from the world’s noise and many voices – and make return visits as needed.

    1. Thank you. It was a long time coming. Oddly, I think I’ve always spent a great deal of time with myself, but not with the quiet self I’ve recently unearthed. I didn’t realize the difference until just now when I read your comment. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. About 7 years ago, with some saved up money I quit my job that had me dealing with the public about 50 hours a week. I could not take the stress and anxiety and confusion of dealing with people anymore.
    I withdrew from the world entirely, having next to no face to face human interaction. It was peaceful, it was stressless, it was bliss. Every second my mind could do what it wanted, I could perservate as much as I wanted, stim as much as I wanted, dream as much as I wanted. I didn’t have to push myself to communicate, to understand. No heartbreak, no misunderstandings, no feelings of inferiority in social situations.
    I came close to gaining the ultimate peace from this. The peace of death. I gained almost 100 pounds and became so sedentary I got blood clots in my legs that resulted in a pulmonary embolism. Without challenge or fear or discomfort I don’t grow. I don’t live. As much as this human world discomforts and confounds me at times, without it I am nothing.

    1. It sounds like that was a really difficult time for you. I can see how extreme stress from so much interaction could drive you to the opposite extreme in search of some peace. The place I’m in–even when I’m at most withdrawn–is a bit different. I’m naturally a very active person. Although I don’t need a lot of contact with people, I do need activity so I tend to stay physically fit no matter what state of mind I’m in. I’m glad you were able to find your way back and reaffirm that you need to interact with the world, even if it’s difficult at times.

  4. Beautifully explained, thank you. The comment from ‘ratherunique’ above is also interesting and is what has been my fear should I not encourage my recently diagnosed daughter to carry on with her schooling. I know that, during school holidays,she ‘does her own thing’ and would never suggest going out anywhere herself. I was tempted many times, when she was bullied or having other difficulties at school, to go down the home schooling route but, apart from the fact that I am sure this would have caused conflict between the two of us, as I couldn’t even get her to do her homework if she didn’t want to, I felt that, difficult as it was/is, she needed to work through it, if possible, in order to live her life in this world. I think, whether you are Aspie or NT, you need a reason to get up in the mornings if you are to avoid withdrawal, depression and both mental and physical problems. I understand, of course, it is a thousand times harder to do that if you are on the spectrum but I hope she will one day lead an independent life and continue to take on the challenges the outside world throws at her whilst being able to enjoy her ‘quiet self’ when she is home. I live in hope ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I think it’s important to differentiate between withdrawing from social interaction and withdrawing from life. Even when I’m not in a place where I’m very socially active, I’m still very actively engage in the business of living my life and quite content. I’m working (at home, but I do have interact with people a fair amount by phone, email, etc.), writing, learning new things, walking the dog, working out daily, and doing all the stuff that need to be done like running errands. I’m among people but not necessarily engaged with them beyond what’s necessary to do what I need or want to do.

      I know parents who homeschool their autistic children and parents who don’t and I can see a case for both. Homeschooling requires a huge commitment and I know I never could have done it, so I get where you’re coming from there. ๐Ÿ™‚ I have the same hope that you do for your daughter – it can be hard to find that balance and sometimes even harder to maintain it. It seems that for many of us, it’s a work in progress.

  5. So beautifully written. I also had a late diagnosis and am just making contact with myself after nearly 30 years of being totally spaced out. I was just writing the exact same thing in my diary last night. Two years ago I emerged from a 2 year ‘reclusive’ state back into the world of employment and a relationship only for things to go tits up again…living ‘normally’ was horrendous (taken advantage of and mistreated by my boyfriend, getting so confused socially, working in an awful job where I was again taken advantage of and so on). I got rid of all and closed myself off to the world. I am just emerging from a few months of total shutdown, being told by my counsellor to “get out of my flat and socialise more”, being told by others that I am depressed…me telling everyone that I am actually so much more at peace and happy in my current “shut-off” state and that all the world’s social expectations are what lead me to ‘breakdown’ every few years. Friends are concerned and want me to get back to that ‘popping, vibrant person’ (an act I can never sustain for very long as it is not my true self and is horribly exhausting physically, mentally and emotionally). My re-emergence this time is going to be a truer self than whatever the world has previously seen. If I lose friends and never have another relationship, so be it! I am happy and that is all that matters. I have found a job that involves lots of nature and minimal people. Those close to me I hope will realise “enough pretending” – let her be her. My world is tiny – though I think I could handle small. I like it that way. ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Oh, reading this made me happy. ๐Ÿ™‚ I like your resolve to emerge from your cocoon as your truer self. I’ve been slowly moving in that direction and it can take a bit of adjusting on the part of others, but it also feels more natural. The people who truly love us will continue to do so as we change and grow (ideally). The challenge a ttimes seems to be getting them to understand that it really is a better place that we’re in and that it’s okay and, in fact, necessary at times for us to step back from the world a bit.

  6. this was really lovely and as someone who is pretty high on the introversion scale there was much I could relate to. The expanding and contracting of my world is such cyclical thing. Generally if I get sometime to myslef it does not occur to me to invite anyone else along, I so revel in being able to open those doors in my mind and hang out freely, but then I come to points where I really crave the synergy with other people and it sort of wholly changes my personality at those times. Until once again the point comes when I feel utterly drained by it and retreat back. ebb and flow. ebb and flow. i am glad i recognize it with age now and just let myself go with it.

    1. Thank you. ๐Ÿ™‚ It does feel cyclical when you’re able to step back and see the long view. Being able to look back over a few decades to see the bigger patterns emerge is one of the nicer things about getting older.

      I can’t say I’ve ever found myself craving synergy with other people (except my immediate family, but I assume you mean some wider social circle?). I do start to miss the stimulation of new things, places, activities, etc. Then I’ll decide that we need to spend New Year’s Eve at Disney World or I’ll sign the dog up for obedience classes or take up yoga again. I toyed with the idea of going back to school for a graduate degree but I have a two big projects I want to finish up first. Then . . . who knows.

  7. I can relate to your blog completely. I had a few years when I found I had time to be quiet and ‘with’ myself every third weekend when my children went to spend the weekend with their father; it was a time that I cherished and others could not understand why I didn’t feel lonely. This was whilst I was at Art School and once I finished, I again found that safe place when my children left for school in the morning and I walked with my dog or worked in the studio. These days, now living with my partner, it is something that is almost impossible to find. I work in paid employment 2 to 3 and a half days a week, leaving little time to create my art and I find that my energy levels are seriously compromised from input overload and not having the time to ‘switch off’, daydream and just ‘be’. I agree that these times are essential for self growth, it is not only where learning of ourselves occurs but other insights that for me, help to fuel my art.

    1. I’m so glad you’re finding things you relate to. It’s always nice to hear from a new reader!

      I’ve definitely found that when I’m in a quieter place, I’m much more creative. I could never manage to write as much as I have in the past year while I was also trying to juggle a job that required a lot of face-to-face interaction or a similar level of interacting. It’s as if I can draw things in around me and then dive deeply into myself or I can spread everything out in many directions while keeping my internal processes closer to the surface and less engaged.

      I hope that your life eventually shifts again so that you can find the time and mental resources to switch off and be in a way that supports your art and creativity.

  8. Like everyone else here I say thank you for writing this. I have just come from a mere two days peaceful retreat in the country back to the overload that is my life – business, meetings, commuting and living in a big city.
    I probably shouldn’t be writing now because I feel so upset after a couple of fraught people-centered situations this afternoon. But your blog feels like a safe place to share, so I hope it will be okay for me to write even though I am feeling emotional.
    I’m tired. Soul tired. I don’t want the vivid work life I have somehow created for myself; director of a small start-up company and a larger art project. I am very torn between the ‘right’ way to live my life – engaged, socially involved, contributing financially, ambitious, and the way I feel that I need to live – quiet, reclusive, slow, one thing at a time, disengaged socially.
    I think that the challenges of being a ‘high-functioning’ Aspie are grossly underestimated and there is not enough recognition or acknowledgment of the appalling toll that the modern world inflicts on us (and introverted people in general).
    I don’t know how to do anything else though. I just keep going.

    1. It means a lot to hear you say that this feels like a safe space.

      I think it’s okay to not want “the dream” as a certain way of life is often built up to be. I spent a bunch of years being very driven, ambitious, etc. in my work and it was ultimately not as fulfilling as I expected. I was successful but I was also exhausted. Over the last few years I’ve made a deliberate choice to scale back and try to balance things like work success, social obligations and such against my need for life to be less “in my face.” But that’s a hard choice to make because it can feel like failure or at least not trying very hard. And then there is the feeling of, as you said, I don’t know how to do anything else and I should be grateful for the talents I do have and make good use of them.

      I think that the challenges of being a โ€˜high-functioningโ€™ Aspie are grossly underestimated and there is not enough recognition or acknowledgment of the appalling toll that the modern world inflicts on us (and introverted people in general).

      Absolutely. People assume that if you have certain things (a job, a relationship, etc) then you must have things pretty well figured out and have “overcome” your ASD or something. It doesn’t work like that at all. There are periods where I find it hard to predict my functioning level from one day to the next and something that was no problem yesterday might be a serious impediment to getting stuff done today.

  9. Personally, I don’t think my world is shrinking. It did for awhile, but now I feel like it’s expanded (even though it does look very small) especially since I’m starting to accept myself and also have coping mechanisms for handling problems and self-doubt. It’s a great feeling-almost like yes, I know I have problems socially, and yes I do get my breakdowns still, but no, it’s not that big of a deal for me.

    OOT: Are executive functioning and executive reasoning one and the same? If it is, that would explain a lot about why I’m having trouble preparing for this graduate admissions test and figuring out the pace of doing the problems. Oy.

    1. Acceptance feels like such a gift to me, still. It’s like a powerful talisman I’ve been given and haven’t quite figured out how to wield yet. ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s great to hear that you’re finding power in it and feel like your world is growing as a result.

      I’m never heard the term executive reasoning. Executive function refers to all of the higher level cognitive functions like planning, initiating and inhibiting behavior, monitoring and troubleshooting problems. Planning and carrying out a strategy for a challenging exam definitely falls under executive function. Just the thought of studying for a graduate exam makes me shudder. I remember when my husband took the GRE I helped him memorize vocabulary words and by the time the exam rolled around, I pretty much had the whole list memorized in alphabetical order. ๐Ÿ™‚

      1. Thanks! It took a lot of reading self-help guides that tell you like it is and blogs such as yours to really get me to that point. Now I feel a lot more comfortable saying “I can’t read people” and explaining it away as a version of “socially awkward” to most people as opposed to trying to hide it. It’s so weird opening up to people like that, considering I’ve also been pretty closed off for the most part, but also freeing, at the same time. Plus it seems to decrease the amount of obsessing I have over whether or not I come across as awkward…because, let’s face it, I AM awkward. ๐Ÿ˜€

        A review course for the GMAT, the exam I’m studying for, actually said it requires “executive reasoning.” I think it might have meant executive functioning instead. It’s described similarly: you have to sift through a lot of information in one question, figure out what’s relevant, plan out a strategy, and use that to solve the problem(s) efficiently (in this case, under 2 minutes). No skipping, either! It’s going to be a fun exam lol

        1. Maybe it becomes easier to open up when we know that there’s a reason for the way we are, rather than feeling like we have to hide some random shortcomings or personal failings. I’m working on letting go of being self-conscious about my awkwardness but it’s deeply ingrained. The funny thing is, I seem to be self-conscious about stuff that people reassure me is fine and not at all self-conscious about the stuff that makes people truly uncomfortable and apparently comes across as very weird. ๐Ÿ™‚

          Good luck with the GMAT. It does sound like they mean executive functioning, although maybe they “executive reasoning” as in reasoning like an executive – it is a business school exam right?

          1. Thanks! You’re definitely right, as well, but I’m starting to see how much executive functioning is required for this particular exam too! I have a tendency to not let go of a question even when I know it’s taking way too long, or as someone told me, “fumble around until I get the right answer without any strategies to tackle it efficiently.” So, we’ll see how it goes! ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. I like the idea of “shifting” and agree that what looks like “shrinking” can be a changing of shape to better suit. I fought against my Aspie/introvert traits for so long that it just left me exhausted and frustrated, like there was this beautiful, rich green field outside the door, waiting for me to run barefoot through it, but all this other “stuff” was keeping me from walking through that door into the field of quiet.

    After decades of interaction that was very intense at times, I retired and could work on “being” instead of “doing” and really could listen to myself. It’s been gentle, creative, healthy, healing. I tried to (and still try to do this) have a social interaction a couple of times a month (and I’m married, but he is as introverted as I am, so we tend to not be around each other a lot, even though we love each other. We’re happy reading in different rooms, etc.) Other times, yeah, I’ve noticed on a few Fridays that my car hadn’t been moved from Monday to Friday. Not having to keep up a social facade has left me with enough energy to do things I really enjoy: write, learn, play, think. It’s all at a beat or two slower than they way you’re “supposed to” live, and that’s the most comfortable pace for me. I find myself living healthier when I have plenty of quiet time, probably because I’m not trying to anaesthetise myself from how jangly I feel when I’m trying to live like an NT.

    1. You make a really good point about how our resources are finite. If we’re using them to keep up a front or having to constantly reset our systems after getting overloaded from too much social/sensory input, then those are resources that we don’t have available for doing other things, like being creative. It sounds like you’ve been intentional in slowing down the pace of your life and that’s been a good thing. The quiet definitely gave me a chance to finally listen to myself, too. Kind of surprising what we hear when all of the racket dies down, isn’t it?

      Also, I have to say, I’m a big fan of whatever the grown-up version of side by side play is. ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. I need time to digest your beautiful and eloquent post. I feel my own life, hanging by a thread–not a self-ending thread, but a my-God-can-I-really-do-this thread. I am grateful to finally understand why I have so much difficulty. I am comforted reading your words and those of the other commenters and feel validated. I appreciate you talent for writing and insight.

    1. Thank you. โค I found the comments on this post validating too. It's one of those hard to write about subjects. As other mentioned, there is a unspoken social pressure to live in a particular way and that way often doesn't suit us.

  12. I’ve found that I can only overextend myself so much for so long before I have to repay my mental resources debt, with interest. As I get older (relatively speaking – I’m in my mid-20s), I’ve gotten better at recognizing when I’m overextending myself, and thus better at avoiding over-extension in the first place. During my teen years, I lived in a state of combined terror and exhaustion, which led to a deep situational depression, in part because I wasn’t allowed to live at my pace (the rest of it had to do with bullying, the victim-blaming I received from pretty much all of the adults in my life at the time, and the complete lack of even a token effort by authority figures to take the situation seriously, even when I was being assaulted and given death threats).

    Your talk of cutting back on social engagements and staying home more often reminds me of a three year period a while back, where pretty much all I did was pursue my hobbies and go to school. No parties. No going out with friends. Few movies. No drinking. Etc. I’d reached my point of no return after making the huge mistake of trying to Do University the way my parents and everyone else seemed to expect a young person to Do University – live in residence, work a social job while going to class and taking too many extra-curriculars. I crashed for the last half of second year (I – normally a straight-A+ student – received no As, 2 Cs and five Bs that semester, and I’m fairly sure at least one of my Cs was a pity pass, and I melted down in class at least four days a week for the last two months). I realized I’d over-extended myself and cut everything far back in third and fourth year and for the first year of my MSc. I’ve since added in a bit more social stuff, but only as my energy level allows, and I’m far happier for it.

    The opposite side to this self-knowledge coin is that my willingness to tolerate over-extension is much less than it was when I was younger and wasn’t allowed to avoid over-extension. I’ve gotten used to not feeling like my stomach is trying to tie itself in knots and tear up my abdominal wall and to not living so exhausted that if I sit still, I’ll fall asleep wherever I am. So I can come off less of a joiner than I used to because I’m more defensive of my mental resources. On the other hand, I’m happier and less anxious, so I imagine I’m more comfortable company for others than the girl who would apologize pretty much with every second sentence.

    1. Your teenage years and the start of University sound really rough. I can really relate to the idea of having to repay with interest. The long-term toll of getting socially overloaded can be many times the original energy expended. I’ve been amazed to read how many of us have taken a “quiet period” out of necessity and emerged from it knowing that we had to make major changes in our lives. This is going to sound like a strange analogy but it reminds me of the saying that an alcoholic has to “hit bottom” before they can be read to ask for help, get sober, etc.

      It’s so good to read that you’re feeling better about yourself and healthier and have found your own best pace for living. ๐Ÿ™‚ Choosing quality interaction over quantity can be hard given how society will sometimes judge those choices, but so much more fulfilling given our limited resources.

      1. I had no diagnosis growing up, so it was quite rough all the way through schooling. It was pretty good before I hit school, but kindergarden started rough (the loud and chaotic classroom scared me and hurt my ears, I hid in a cupboard, and the teacher didn’t notice when the class moved to music, and they finally had to search for me at the end of the day because I’d fallen asleep…. so I got detention and a grounding for scaring everyone on my first day) and it went downhill from there. They vacillated between wanting to skip me 3 grades because of my academic prowess and hold me back 2 because of my behavior all the way through.

        So, yeah, “rough” pretty much sums it all up. I read your adult diagnosis series, and right now I’m in the sense-making and healing the child stages and saving for a formal evaluation.

        1. Detention on the first day of kindergarten! Wow, that is a tough way to start out.

          My school wanted to skip me a grade because I was ahead academically but my parents vetoed that because I was socially inept and they were afraid I would have been completely overwhelmed, which I’m sure I would have.

          I’ve found that I sometimes need to revisit the healing and sensemaking and mourning stages. It’s not the more linear process but gradually I’m spending less and less time on the hard parts of reconciling being autistic with being me. I hope you’re able to get your evaluation in a reasonable amount of time. It’s such a huge expense.

  13. On the 6 June you replied to Cobin: ” Iโ€™m working on letting go of being self-conscious about my awkwardness but itโ€™s deeply ingrained. The funny thing is, I seem to be self-conscious about stuff that people reassure me is fine and not at all self-conscious about the stuff that makes people truly uncomfortable and apparently comes across as very weird.” I have noticed this a lot on other Aspie blogs, but more to the point, much of the discomfort others speak of is not at all bothersome to me: I don’t get it, I’m not aware (very much at all) tthat there is a problem (:-). And then, of course, I don’t see my difficulties in relating to others nor why I have such loneliness forever. AS has opened my eyes! BTW, that test on OKCupid: 117, 79, 127. Pragmatics, ugh! So the result is Socially Odd. Yep, ’tis why so often I believe and others suggest I’m an alien from sowhere else. A thick skin protects, but it also encases and constricts.

    1. That test has so many issues. The underlying principles are valid but the scoring is a mess. Anyhow, I think my life has followed a sort of curve where when I was young I was blissfully unaware of my differences. Then came years of having my behavior corrected or being told I was different from my peers, which made me aware that certain things were odd. As an adult, many of those things are no longer as socially relevant but I’m still self-conscious about them. The truly odd–the things that other people will tell me they’re uncomfortable with–that all goes right over my head until someone points it out. ๐Ÿ™‚

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