Finding (my) Autism – Part 5

I made a huge and entirely preventable mistake when I got home in September of 2020. I decided to wean myself off my SSRIs (antidepressants/anti-anxiety meds), which had been prescribed to me just before leaving to Barcelona in 2018 (but definitely not for the first time). 

I made the decision to stop without consulting a doctor. I made it because I was tired of taking a pill every day just to feel and be normal. I made it because I didn’t really believe the meds were helping me too much, or doing anything at all – I was taking them and yet I still didn’t feel okay, let alone “normal”. I made it because I thought I was ready. Because my psychiatrist, when prescribing them, had said “these will help you in Barcelona”, and I was back from Barcelona now, so I thought I could stop. That rookie mistake almost cost me my life, but it brought my attention to something I strongly doubt I would have noticed otherwise. 

When I started to crumble mere weeks into coming back, I blamed it on the pressure of re-assimilation. After being all on my own and living entirely independently in a foreign country for 2 and a half years, I was bound to have a reaction to coming back to my old and very busy  and very full-of-people life. But the depressive episodes I started to experience were far too intense, and far too frequent and debilitating. And the thing that scared me most about them was that they came out of nowhere. I had nothing to trace them back to. Nothing particularly painful or distressing would cause them. One day, I’d be laughing with my family and friends with an almost ease, and the next: I’m a mess. That terrified me. I didn’t know when to expect the depression or the rage or the tears; they came out of nowhere. Everything was suddenly triggering, and my skin was constantly on fire. When you don’t understand what is happening to you or why, it can be horrifying. I thought I was losing my mind. And in many ways, I was. 

One of the worst parts about what was happening was that I could feel myself disappointing the people who loved me. The people I loved. I’d have all my friends over, in my little room in my family house, and I wouldn’t know how to speak to them. I would sit silently, overwhelmed and anxious, one wrong word or move away from exploding. My friends would ask me what I wanted to eat and I would get so irritated I would snap and say something cruel. My mother would ask me to come sit with her and it would take all my energy to sit with her without suddenly starting to cry. “You’re different since you’ve come back” is something I had to hear almost daily. And I was. I knew I was. I was so different I could feel the people I cared about reassessing our relationship, taking a step back. 

I didn’t know what was happening to me, but I knew there were some things I could simply no longer tolerate. One of the biggest was the obsession with diet talk and thinness and beauty and how it seeped into nearly every single conversation with my friends. It was too much for me to handle, even though in the past I admit I must have contributed to such conversations sometimes. But now, I was noticing everything. How my friends’ obsession with the thin ideal was starting to trigger me, how it was taking me back to a place of body-hatred I thought I was past. When they talked about fatness (their own or otherwise) with repulsion, I felt shame again. And that made me awfully angry. I thought back to all the work I’d done on my self-image and self-love and felt it all slip away from me. In the past, these conversations happened around my thin(ner) body, so I could lie and tell myself it was well-meaning, nothing harmful! But now my fat body was right there with them in the room while they engaged in casual fatphobia and I didn’t know how to react. When I gathered the strength to do it, I tried to share how triggering that was for me, but it fell on mostly deaf ears. It was still keto this, cheat meal that, “I deserve these fries because I worked out today”, “I feel so fat!”, all day every day. And the isolation that created for me was incredibly heart-wrenching. 

Another was how empty and shallow my relationships began to feel. I would push myself so hard out of my comfort zone and through incredibly painful depressive episodes just to be around my loved ones, but then I was an irritable mess in the room, bringing everyone down. This hurt because I defined myself by my love for my friends. I put a lot of effort into creating and maintaining my friendships, a lot of work. But some friends mistook my sadness and anger and silence as anger at them, or as a newly-acquired boringness, or as sudden rigidity and/or an annoyance. I was no longer the “fun” friend. I was also no longer the “mom” friend either (signature me!), who was available to them at any given time for comfort or safety or a good time. I didn’t take care of them anymore the way I used to, or cater to their needs and whims (I could barely take care of myself!). I didn’t debate them on demand like I would before.

I started saying “no” to a lot of things, and that made me difficult. I was difficult to be around. I was suddenly very quiet, all the time, and when I spoke I had nothing good or interesting to say. At the beginning of my meltdown, I remember having an emergency session with my therapist, and through sobs saying something to her like “I have this nagging feeling I can’t shake that I’m gonna lose a lot of people by the end of the year”, and I was right. I said that to her sometime in January, some couple of months into me being back. By October of that year, almost half my friendships had dissolved. There was some hurt and betrayal and a lot of grief, but eventually it was best for all involved. We simply no longer got along. And that’s okay. Friendships end.

Pivot: remember when I told you at the end of Part 3 how I noticed a pattern and everything made sense? Let’s go back to that. And to the beginning of this essay, where I told you I stopped taking my SSRIs. I’ll tell you how those two things are connected.

I don’t want to be angry at my previous self because she didn’t know any better, but stopping my SSRIs when I did was… not very smart. Things went downhill from there really fast. You know about the depression and the anxiety and the difficult conversations I had to have with family and friends to keep myself from losing myself. All those goddamn boundaries! I thought I was overwhelmed and sad because I felt isolated and alien and exhausted from all that emotional labor, and that was a big part of it, sure. The confusing part was the rage I started to experience. Now, I’m comfortable with rage in the right setting. Context matters, and anger can be right and righteous. But this rage would  implode inside of me out of nowhere. I was angry, all the time – at everyone. And because I was angry, I couldn’t speak, because if I spoke up I would say something hurtful, and I didn’t want to hurt the people I loved. 

I’ve mentioned silence and not speaking a lot since I’ve started writing this series. I’ve done that because silence is really, truly excruciating for me. Those months where I couldn’t speak came after years and years of me suffering writer’s block after the death of my father (in 2015), and compounded that immense pain. Reader, you are reading an essay series of mine, so you have some idea what words mean to me. But let me elaborate briefly: I am an incredibly expressive person and words are my weapon of choice. They always have been. When I was very young (I’m talking 7/8 years-old) and got into fights with my mother and couldn’t confront her face-to-face (because I’d lose my voice, see?), I’d write her long extensive letters of apology or sadness at the injustice I’d thought I’d suffered. I’ve been a writer for most of my life now, and a spoken-word poet, so I don’t just have the need to write, but also the need to read it out and perform it. Words have always mattered to me. They have been my lifeline and my saviors. And silence was starting to kill me.

The depressive episodes and the rage and the silence led to isolation and shame and a lot of suicidal ideation. I won’t pimp my pain out, but I will tell you it hurt. A lot. And it made me feel extremely alone, so much so that I would turn my phone off for weeks convinced no one would give a fuck. Which made people angry at me. Which in turn made me angry. It was a vicious cycle. And no one was happy, least of all me. I was suddenly Crazy, with a capital C. Watch out, she’s gonna explode!

But I was lucky to have my therapist. She knows and I know that I couldn’t have survived those months without her kindness and love and her availability in my emergencies. She stuck with me and validated all my pain and hurt, even when that meant just an entire 50-min session of her watching me sob, wordless and without explanation, through video. (Thank you for always making me feel seen.)

My mother was my anchor in a lot of ways too. I will admit, with shame and a lot of regret (because I was wrong, so so wrong), that I thought my mom would be my biggest obstacle when I came home. I thought it was with her that I’d have to have all those difficult boundary-setting conversations, that it was with her where the struggle would be. But to my surprise (and I will never again be surprised by her love), she was the one who gave me the most space and unconditional love. Every single boundary I set, she accepted – at face value. Every request I made – for privacy, or help, or space, or love – was granted, no questions asked. She accommodated me so much, I’m getting teary right now just thinking about it. She accepted it all. I don’t know what I did to deserve a mother who, in a time where I felt all my friendships and siblings slipping away from me, showed me love and understanding and respect and compassion. She could see that I came back different, but she was ready and willing to accommodate the new me anyways. No questions asked. With love and open arms. She even got me new size 14 clothes so I’d be “comfortable in my new body”. My god, the ways she saved and loved me. (May I never breathe a day without you, mama. I love you so much.)

So I had some okay(-ish) days sometimes. Days I could semi-function, anyways. Somehow that was the most confusing part. Because I didn’t know which days I would wake up and want to call up my friends and which days I’d wake up crying and wanting to die. It was the perceived randomness that freaked me out. I didn’t know when the next episode was coming, but I knew I only felt “okay” about one week a month (at most). The rest: a mess, a bitch, insufferable, sobbing non-stop, beating myself up for texting my therapist on her holiday. In one of those emergency sessions, sometime in June, in passing, I say to her: “I don’t know what’s happening to me, but it’s starting to feel cyclical”. 

For some reason, my own thought sticks with me, and weeks later I am analyzing my period app data and trying to figure out a pattern – trying to figure out if when I said “cyclical”, my mind had noticed something my conscious self hadn’t. My mind does that sometimes. And I notice a correlation between my period dates and my episodes at their worst – a very strong and significant one. And I google “severe depression around period”. The first result:

Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder: Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is a condition in which a woman has severe depression symptoms, irritability, and tension before menstruation. The symptoms of PMDD are more severe than those seen with premenstrual syndrome (PMS).

Premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD) is a more serious form of premenstrual syndrome (PMS). PMS causes bloating, headaches and breast tenderness a week or two before your period. With PMDD, you might have PMS symptoms along with extreme irritability, anxiety or depression. These symptoms improve within a few days after your period starts, but they can be severe enough to interfere with your life.

How is PMDD managed or treated?

Your healthcare provider may recommend one or more of these treatments to help manage PMDD:

  1. Antidepressants to help manage your brain’s serotonin levels.

First thought: holy shit! Second thought: how the fuck has no one ever taught me about this? Third thought: how exactly am I gonna get an official diagnosis when I can’t function or trust doctors enough? 

Things made sense: I had been treating a condition I didn’t know I had, PMDD (that “activates’” or “develops” at any point in life, apparently), with my SSRIs. And when I came back to Riyadh and stopped taking them, the re-assimilation without the support of the SSRIs was a deadly combination for me. Of course I crashed. Of course I crash cyclically.

Convinced I’d solved the entire riddle of me, I send my therapist a text saying: “I think this is what’s going on with me. Can we discuss on Thursday?”

Within minutes: “Yes, let’s. You shouldn’t have to suffer like this.”

Finding (my) Autism – Part 2

You know how most people kept saying that nothing in the world could have prepared them for the unprecedented chaos of covid-19? I was not one of those people. Born with fear and anxiety in my blood, I had always learned to expect the worst. And because I always like to be prepared, I do my extensive research beforehand, I dig into the past, I try to see what history can teach me about today. 

This is why as soon as I got wind of a little virus creeping into the everyday news cycle, I knew what to do. By then, I’d read about the Spanish Flu and watched hours-long videos on the effects of pandemics and the global responses that followed. I listened to historians give speeches about the devastating after-effects. I knew about the death and destruction one little viral disease could bring about. And I knew, for a fact, in my heart, that this virus wasn’t just going to “go away” in 2 or 3 weeks. I knew I had to quarantine quickly. I was, after all, all alone in a strange city, away from all my family and loved ones. If something happened to me, there would be no one to help or even know. I lived alone.

So I confined myself to my apartment very early on, even before the word “quarantine” became a popular word, before it became very widely used. It was mid-February, and I had decided that I was not leaving my apartment ever again. No, sir. Maybe not until August! When I told my therapist I wanted our sessions to be virtual from now on, she agreed. So we kept doing our weekly sessions online, where she began to witness the strangest reaction to a global pandemic anyone ever could.

Because you see, the problem I faced when the initial shock and fear and panic attacks and thoughts of mass death wore out was not that I was starting to get lonely. Quite the opposite, really. The problem after the first month of total isolation was that I was beginning to love it. And I didn’t want it to end. Being completely alone was making me the happiest I think I’d ever been. And worried, I began to ponder what that really said about me, as someone who defined herself by her love of her people and who craved human connection and intimacy deeply. But I shoved those dark thoughts and all that doubt aside.

I remember very vividly a moment about 3 months into the pandemic where I ashamedly confessed to my therapist that “I think I might be… thriving?” And I was. I had created my own daily routine and my own little world and I was beginning to love every single second of it. I was free of others’ expectations and demands, and free from having to be in public and be perceived by other people. I was free to find out who I really was. And boy, what a shock it was when I found out who that was. 

I would wake up every morning at 7 am, open my big french windows to let the sun in (I had direct sunlight through my windows from about 7.30 am until 10.30 am), position my chair right in front of it, and bask in the sunlight. I would usually sit there in a swimsuit just so I can feel the sun directly hit my skin. My music played in the background and I would sing along, drink my coffee, and take in the sun’s kisses. It felt euphoric. I loved watching the empty streets. Catching glimpses of my neighbors who – in the spirit of covid-19 solidarity – would smile and wave at me. Sometimes I’d opt for a towel on the floor in front of the window and trick myself into thinking I was on the beach (which turned out to be better than the beach, because I hate the beach, because ew! sand! and because I’m terrified of open water). I’d read some poetry and have long calls with my loved ones where we’d update one another on our new covid lives. 

What also happened during those basking-in-the-sun moments was that I allowed myself to face my physical body for the first time, too. Across from the chair I would usually lounge on was the open window, which reflected my body back to me with alarming precision. During the hours I would sit there in the sun, my body stared back at me aggressively. There was no other way to position the window door, this was the only way it could be left open to let the sun in. So I’d have to sit there, hours on end, enjoying the sun on my skin, and trying to avoid looking away from the window door that had now turned into a mirror. 

I stared at my big belly, the one I grew up hating, the same one everyone around me taught me to hate – the same one some people claimed didn’t even exist! -, and fell in love with the way the sun was reflecting off of it. I’d squeeze it and make it into funny shapes and let it wiggle and giggle. I stared at my “thunder thighs” and instead of thinking I wish they would go away, I found myself caressing them with love. I’d never noticed that my thighs were so incredibly soft! My big forearms no longer bothered me. I felt the power they held. I’d always had freakish upper-body strength and the bigness of my arms reminded me of that gift. My developing double-chin made me feel cute and laugh roaringly every time I opened my phone’s front camera by mistake. Even my flat ass was suddenly adorable to me, as were my big hips and love handles. I was falling in love with my body. Or rather, I was unlearning all the hate I was taught to give it. I remember distinctly saying to my therapist something along the lines of:

“If this was all an experiment on how being around people can negatively affect body image, the results would be very conclusive. I’ve never felt better about my own fat body than I do now, in total isolation. Around other people all I can do is hate it.”

When the sun moved away from my window, I’d take to the couch and watch TV shows. I’m something of a TV show enthusiast, so I filled my days with dramas and comedies and psychological thrillers and sci-fi and every single thing that interested me. I’d eat on my own time, but I always made sure I was well-fed enough to stave off an IBS attack. My stomach explodes when I starve it, so I try to remember to feed it lest it unleashes its anger on me.

Other quarantine activities included long video calls with my loved ones. It was their love and care and attention that kept me grounded. They made sure I never felt lonely. They made sure I never felt too far. There was also therapy once a week every week, where I’d update my lovely therapist on how well I was doing. If she was surprised, she feigned it well. And she provided me with support and validation and reassurance I could not have survived without.

Around 10 pm usually I’d go to bed. Nothing left to do with my day. And then I’d wake up tomorrow and do it all again, in the exact same order. It was bliss. It was quiet. It was heavenly. I was thriving.I was happy. I was happy?! And despite my mother’s pleas, I decided to stick it out all alone in Barcelona until August as I originally intended. She worried, but I convinced her it was the right thing for me. So she let up, scared and anxious as she was. I loved her for that.

One blissful July day, I turned on Netflix and found that my favorite comedian had a new show. “Douglas” by Hannah Gadsby had just been released, and I was filled with excitement to see what she had to say now. Her “Nanette” had changed my life two years ago. And her particular brand of humor was exactly my cup of tea (Hannah Gasdby fans, get it?!).

What I didn’t know was that “Douglas” was essentially a show about Gadsby’s autism. 

What I didn’t know was that she was about to plant the autism realization seed in me. 

So right after I watched the show – the show where a woman who I related to and felt a kinship with, a woman who mirrored me and my experience in more ways than one, described her late-diagnosis of autism, I was shaken. This was a woman who, like me, could get up on stage, charm hundreds of people, who had a fantastic sense of humor and a passion for truth-telling. And she was autistic. I didn’t think people like her (or me) could be autistic and be able to do all that.   

So I went online and took an Autism test – which said “high probability of autism”. I didn’t know what to do with that information. Plus, who would believe me? 

I put my phone away in shock and disbelief, and I didn’t talk about (my own or otherwise) Autism again for almost 2 years.

Finding (my) Autism – Part 1

What my therapist had just suggested took me completely by surprise. I think I was too stunned to answer, so she asked a second time, “have you considered dropping out of the master’s program?” and waited patiently for an answer. 

I tried to explain that not only had I not considered that option, that thought had literally never crossed my mind. “Of course not.” was all I could form in terms of a reply. Of course not. I was sure she could see my confusion.

She pressed on, “If you stopped the program now, are you worried that you’ll have to go home earlier than you’d planned?”

“No, that’s not it. I can stay here in Barcelona with or without this master’s degree.”

She continued: “Is it a legal thing? Would your visa be revoked if you dropped out?”

“No, my papers are already sorted. I can stay here legally until August regardless.”

She went on: “Can you afford the loss of the tuition you already paid? And the living expenses you’d need to stay?”

“Yes, I paid for the program myself and it wasn’t too expensive. It’d be a waste but it wouldn’t put a dent in my finances. And I have enough money to stay comfortably.”

“I see,” she nodded, “so technically… if you dropped out of the program you’re so clearly struggling with, nothing truly bad would actually happen, would it?”

I pondered her question, flustered. “But like… I’m already halfway through the entire program. I only have one semester until graduation. I’ve invested a lot.”

“But you’re here seeing me because the first half was so hard to deal with and so unenjoyable for you that you’ve developed agoraphobia and you keep dissociating and having panic attacks and being completely unable to go to class…”

“I know…”

“And that doesn’t sound like it’s sustainable. Are you worried that if you drop out your mum would be disappointed?”

“A little. A lot. She’s a perfectionist with high standards.”

“From what you’ve told me, she’s a very understanding person who loves you a lot. She might not take it the way you think. Plus, you just finished your first master’s program just last May and already have one master’s degree. This one was just supposed to be another addition to your academic arsenal. You never actually needed it, did you? You called it your “passion degree” as opposed to the previous more practical ones. But are you actually having any fun? Do you actually feel passionate about it? Are you learning anything? Are you finding the course content enjoyable?”

My head was spinning. What she had just suggested to me was nothing short of blasphemy. I am the perfectionist daughter of a perfectionist mother who had never ever (been allowed to) quit. And there I was, contemplating dropping out of a prestigious program at a prestigious Spanish university after having completed more than half the hours I’d need to graduate. 

All I could say back to answer all her questions was “No. It’s been awful.” 

“Well, then think about it. Just weigh the pros and cons and try to imagine how it would feel to not continue putting yourself through all this pressure. And if you want, we’ll talk some more about it next time.”

This conversation with my therapist took place in February 2020. I had just finished my first master’s program in May of 2019 and then immediately started my second master’s program in September of 2019. I was superwoman, you see. Plus, I wasn’t ready to leave my beautiful Barcelona and go home just yet, so this was an exciting solution to my dilemma. By June of 2020 I would have my second master’s degree in hand, then stay out the rest of my visa until August and then finally go back home. It was a solid plan. I’d be welcomed back an intellectual hero. My mom would be so proud of me. And then I could get my pick of jobs with my 2 graduate degrees in hand, find an apartment and live independently, learn how to drive, and I would live happily ever after. 

And then I burnt out. Hard. Halfway through my second program, I was no longer able to leave my apartment to attend classes. I was severely depressed and deeply anxious. I was never at university long enough or after class or at mixers to make any friends. I wasn’t able to complete assignments without panic attacks followed by hours of dissociation, and I felt my professors growing annoyed with my flakiness and perceived lack of effort. So I dragged myself to an English-speaking therapy clinic close to my apartment and met the aforementioned therapist and asked her to write me some kind of note I can present to university to explain my many absences and short-comings. “I’m really depressed and I think I’m becoming agoraphobic and I need to explain that to my professors” was how I think I started our session. 

When, by our second session, she gently suggested to me that dropping out of my program might be something I’d want to consider, I was confused. Mostly because I had never registered that as an option (me? a drop-out? never!), but also because I couldn’t understand the train of thought that led her to make that suggestion. 

Let me explain. She wanted me to quit something because it was hard for me to continue doing it and because it was causing me physical pain and mental anguish. But for me, that was the case with almost everything in the world all the time ever. If I had to quit something every time it was hard or caused me physical pain and mental anguish, I’d never leave the house. What she didn’t understand at the time was this: I experience almost every thing with a tinge of pain and discomfort. And no one had ever told me that was enough reason to just stop.

But I took her advice and I did. I wrote to my university to tell them that even though I was due to graduate in 3 months, I wanted to drop out immediately. And no, I didn’t want to claim the credits I already completed. They had questions and wanted me to know a refund wasn’t possible. I said I knew and didn’t care. They asked if there was anything that could be done to make me stay. There wasn’t. My mind was made up. I couldn’t possibly face going back to that place again. 

I dropped out of my program in February 2020. You know exactly why this is relevant. The plan was, I would spend the remaining 6 months of my visa learning to relax. My friends and family would continue to visit me with consistent regularity and I would fill my time with rest and the company of my loved ones and maybe even explore my creative side again. 

I graduated from my bachelor’s in 2015, and then immediately started working full-time after graduation. I worked in advertising and strategy – and excelled, to a certain extent – for 3 years before deciding to pursue a master’s abroad on a whim. I applied, got accepted, and left my hometown. The day after I arrived in Barcelona, my program started. And so I faced my own limitations in a new city for the first time. 

What I didn’t know when I dropped out of master’s program number 2 was that covid-19 was right around the corner. And the resulting chaos that ensued and the forced solo quarantine I was about to face would bring about changes and epiphanies that would have been impossible without that kind of profound isolation and alone time. What I didn’t know was that I was about to face myself – my real self, my alone self, my unmasked self. The self who I’d kept hidden from everyone up until this point, even myself.

It was a period that I now lovingly refer to as: The Great Unmasking.