Never Gonna Give You Up

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(By the way, the title of the post is not altogether relevant.  It’s just that I have musical echolalia, and Rick Astely has been going around my head ever since Ash Wednesday, and I thought some of you ought to share my pain.  You’re welcome.)

One of the things that happens to all Vicars during Lent is that about a million people ask you what you’re giving up.  I’ve never really understood whether this is supposed to be small talk or an actual question requiring an honest answer.  Either way, it always strikes me as a bit too intimate and personal for an opening gambit while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil.  After all, the point of Lent is generally that you work on something you really struggle with.  If you try to give up swearing, for instance, it’s probably because you think you swear too much and it’s a bad thing.  So when someone asks you what you’re giving up, what they are really asking is “what do you consider to be your greatest failing?”  That’s not intrinsically a bad question, but I’m not sure it’s something you should necessarily have to discuss with someone you’ve only just met, or in a room full of people.

Despite the the fact that people ask me every year what I’m giving up for Lent, the question always manages to floor me.  After several years of floundering around uselessly, I’ve developed a strategy for dealing with it, and I’m ashamed to say that the strategy involves not quite telling the truth.  (Hmm, because lying is a really good thing to do during Lent… not.)  Unless I know someone really well, I’m just not willing to divulge that I’ve attempted to give up staying awake most of the night playing a computer game, or that I’m trying really hard to diversify my diet to include more than one item in any seven-day period. Why?  Because I don’t really need people to know that the reason I’m too knackered to do that thing they need me to do is because I’ve been up all night playing Township and eating Edam.   Mmmm, Edam.

To be honest, I’ve always struggled with the whole Lent thing. I don’t drink enough alcohol or eat enough meat to make those worthy things to give up, and some of the things that other people might call luxuries I regard as absolute necessities. Give up riding a horse for six weeks?  Never gonna happen.

I know that everyone can get a bit self-delusional about the difference between needs and wants, but I think this is especially tricky for those of us on the Spectrum.  There is a big difference, for instance, between *preferring* your beans not to touch your chips and *needing* your beans not to touch your chips, otherwise you will feel physically ill and you won’t be able to eat any of it and you’ll feel an overwhelming urge to scratch the skin off your own face and the whole world will EXPLODE.

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At the risk of sounding like Donald Rumsfeld and his things we don’t know we know, I reckon that for most people, all this stuff falls into three main categories:

1. Things we need

2. Things we don’t need, but we do want

3. Things we think that we need, but we actually just want

So, for instance, we all know that we need food and drink to survive – it’s no good giving up everything including water for six weeks of a Lent and presuming that you’ll still be in a good state to enjoy your Easter Eggs. On the other hand, we all know – however much we might wish it wasn’t so – that chocolate is not actually essential to our survival; we could stop eating it for six weeks without anything bad happening to our bodies at all.  But then there is the grey area of number 3 – all those things that we say we need but which are actually non-essential.  No, you actually will not die if you don’t check Facebook; and you really can leave the house without make-up; and guess what? Plenty of other people manage to get about on public transport, so maybe you don’t absolutely need to drive your car five minutes down the road.

But this is where it gets really complicated for Autistic people. We all have our little foibles, routines and – dare I say it – obsessions. Will I die if I can’t put on my favourite onesie as soon as I get home?  Absolutely not.  Will it rock my equilibrium, and prevent me from doing anything constructive for the rest of the day, and possibly the day after that? Absolutely.

At the heart of most of the current debate about Autism is the question of whether Autistic-ness (routines, stimming, perseveration and all that) ought to be curbed or encouraged.  That’s a whole can of worms I’m not even opening here (although it’s probably pretty obvious which side I gravitate towards).  But I do wonder whether it sometimes prevents us from making some informed decisions about the difference between our own wants and needs. In a shiny, happy world of Autism acceptance, I would be able to stay up all night playing games and eating cheese to my heart’s content, and then stay in bed all day and nobody would mind. In the real world, sadly, most of us have to have a stab at earning a living, looking after our kids or animals, buying groceries and preventing our homes from resembling rubbish dumps. That means that sometimes we need to make some hard choices, sorting out the things that are necessary for our wellbeing (horse riding) and the perseverations that have got slightly out of control and are threatening to derail our whole lives (Doctor Who DVD box set, I’m looking at you.)

So, what am I giving up for Lent?  Nothing. I can’t cope with that sharp transition that happens on Ash Wednesday from doing *whatever* to not doing it.  So this year, I started the work in advance, gradually working out what were the things that were really important and necessary at the moment, and what I could gradually begin to let go. I have no doubt that other things will take their places and become new obsessions (or maybe they already have – see ‘Edam’ above); but that’s not the point. It’s about working out the difference between a need and a want. And maybe for everybody – Autistic or not – that’s what Lent is really about.

Frozen

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When you’re a Vicar, alongside death and taxes comes a third inevitability.  It is that whenever there is some massive thing-that-everyone’s-talking-about, be it a major news event, a number one song or a blockbuster movie, some day you’re going to have to feature it in a sermon.

For the past year, I’ve been putting off preaching on Disney’s Frozen, because [cue gasps and cries of “Heresy!”] I just don’t think it’s a very good film.  That, and the fact that I didn’t particularly want to have ‘Let It Go’ stuck in my head for weeks afterwards.  But on Sunday, we celebrated Candlemas, and the combination of a liturgy which focuses on opening up the doors and a character in the Gospel reading called Anna meant that it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

To be fair, Frozen does stand up to some quite interesting interpretations about self-acceptance in general and Autism in particular.  I didn’t do more than give a nod to that on Sunday, but The Third Glance has an excellent post on it here, which is well worth a read.

I talked, instead, about stories which start with opening doors, and about how Candlemas is the ‘doorway’ festival, marking the transition from Christmas to Lent, Winter to Spring.  Traditionally in Europe, Candlemas was the time when people took down their Christmas decorations – although sadly this is now largely forgotten in England, apart from the few die-hards like me, who still insist that the tree is FINE in late January, and try not to notice that there are more pine needles on the floor than on its branches. The Americans have held onto this sense of transition much better than us, with the celebration of Groundhog Day, which originated in Germany and is virtually unknown in England.  In my Parish, we do have a little toy version of Punxsutawney Phil who sits on the pulpit at Candlemas, and we do also have a solemn announcement of his weather prediction at Mass; but that’s only because I am slightly obsessed with Phil’s beauty and feel it’s important to share my weirdness with the world. Also, because it allows me to say the phrase “Gobbler’s Knob” in Church.

Anyway, I digress.  The point is that I preached a really great sermon (if I do say so myself) all about open doors, and journeys of healing and growth, and the need to move forward and embrace new things, and all that jazz.

And then I went back to the Vicarage to take down the Christmas decorations.

Oh my goodness.  Why do I never remember how traumatic that is?  I find it stressful enough putting the decorations up in the first place (because, you know, change); but taking them down is a whole other world of pain.  I stressed, and cried, and rocked, and stimmed, and shouted at my friend alternately for not helping and for daring to touch things, and the whole thing took hours and was a bloody nightmare.  Apparently, it’s like this every year, but I honestly don’t remember that.  I had thought, beforehand, that I might feel a bit sad, but I was totally unprepared for the tidal wave of emotion that would overtake me, or for the deep depression that I am still experiencing 24 hours later.

I’m not good at feelings and empathy and stuff, but I would guess that my reaction to taking down the decorations roughly equates to the way people feel and behave at the funeral of a much-loved relative or friend.  That is clearly crazy, because (a) we’re taking about baubles, not a favourite granny; (b) I’m not losing them forever, just putting them away in boxes; and (c) I’ll be putting them all up again – in exactly the same places – eleven months from now.  But, crazy or not, it’s how I feel – I am actually, properly grieving.  So much for ‘love is an open door.’  I’m letting nothing go.

I’ve written before about my weird emotional attachment to inanimate objects and the sadness I feel about throwing things away, but this is the first time I’ve ever really made the connection that what I experience is a classic grief reaction.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross posits that in grief there are five stages through which we pass; but yesterday four of them hit me all at the same time.

The one that is missing for me is, of course, acceptance.  People who only know one thing about Autism generally know that autistic people don’t cope well with change.  I’m no exception to that rule, no matter how many sermons I preach about it.  I have enough trouble with the transition from putting on my socks to brushing my teeth, so I don’t think I’m likely to reach a place of zen acceptance about the death of Christmas any time soon.

It would make this post conceptually very neat if I could say that I am frozen in the face of change, but that feels like the wrong metaphor.  The word ‘frozen’ suggests sharpness and stillness, but yesterday was more like a tornado, and today has the blunt, muffled quality of being buried in mud.

So let’s cycle back to Punxsutawney Phil instead, and talk about a different movie: Groundhog Day.  I’ve never seen it, but from what I understand, it concerns a man who is forced to re-live the same events until he learns to deal with them better, or make better choices, or become a nicer person or something.  Every Candlemas, I take down the Christmas decorations, and apparently every Candlemas I am thrown into paroxysms of grief about it. Thus far, I appear to have learnt nothing from this repetition at all; but maybe now that I’ve blogged about it, it might stick in my mind for next year.  Even if I can’t stave off the waves of emotion, perhaps I can be a bit better prepared for them and batten down the hatches in advance.

In the meantime, a bit of perseveration seems as good a self-care strategy as anything else; so I shall just continue singing along with this rather awesome video:

Adventures in Time and Pace

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So it’s four o’clock in the morning, and I’ve been up all night watching the BBC coverage of the American midterm elections.

Why? You might ask.  And actually, that’s a really good question.

I don’t care about the American midterm elections.  I’m not affected by them in any way whatsoever.  I didn’t even know they were happening until the coverage started. I have no idea what the keystone pipeline is, or why Georgia and Louisiana have a different voting system from everyone else, or what the difference is between senators and governors.  I don’t know why the right wing party is red and the left wing party is blue, which is clearly the wrong way round and makes me irrationally angry.  I have absolutely no idea why Iowa is important, or even where it is.  In fact, the only thing I know about Iowa is that Riley Finn came from there, and I spent all of seasons four and five hoping that he would be eaten by a giant hell-fiend so that Buffy would never have to sleep with him again.  Perhaps someone will introduce him to the new senator who’s good at castrating pigs.

Anyway, I stayed up to watch the election coverage because that’s what I do.  I’ve kept an all-night vigil with the BBC for every General Election and local council election, and even some local British elections I wasn’t voting in; so tonight something in my brain went, “Ooh, election; must stay up and watch.” Despite the fact that I don’t understand this election.  Despite the fact that I don’t care about this election.  Despite the fact that I am going to feel like crap in the morning.

This is not just a case of getting absorbed in something and staying up too late (although God knows that’s part of it).  It’s actually a problem with time.  There’s a part of my brain that registers what time it is, but somehow I can’t make the cognitive transition from random information to useful concept.

This has catastrophic implications for leaving the house:

It’s 8:30.  You need to leave at nine.
Uh-huh.
It’s 8:45.
Yep.
It’s five to nine.
I know that, I’ve got a watch.  Do you think I’m an idiot?
OK, it’s 9:15. You were supposed to leave quarter of an hour ago.
WHAT?!  WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME?

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Time ought to be a me-friendly concept; it’s logical, regular and predictable, which are things I like.  But somehow I’ve never mastered it.  I couldn’t read a clock face until I was 12, and even with digital clocks I still get a bit confused about how many minutes are in an hour or seconds in a minute.  I’ve had a lot of microwave disasters in my life.

Even without the minutes-and-hours thing, I just don’t seem to experience time the way other people do.  I know that the passage of time isn’t exactly a fixed experience for anyone (as in, an extra five minutes in bed lasts about 30 seconds, whereas five minutes at a cold bus stop goes on for an hour and a half).  But I really struggle to calculate how much time has passed, or estimate how long I need to do anything.  Despite a lifetime of evidence to the contrary, I’m still convinced that I can get up, get dressed, drink a cup of tea and get out of the house in less than ten minutes.

As stupid as it sounds, I’ve never quite mastered the idea that if I do this thing that takes an hour, that will make me an hour later for the next thing. I experience time as something totally fluid, infinite and malleable, which is obviously crazy, because who in the world thinks like that?

My inability to grasp everyone else’s linear perspective means that my life tends to swing between inactivity and blind panic.  In many ways, the Priesthood is a wonderful life for someone with wonky executive function and time management issues, because I don’t have to be in an office at 9:00 am every day, and I can take an hour here or there to decompress if I need to.  But it does require you to be able to create and manage your own work schedule, which is something I spectacularly fail to do.  Yes, of course I can email the funeral directors and watch the American election coverage and update this blog and have a shower and get nine hours sleep all in the same night.

Which is why, dear reader, tomorrow I will be tired, panicked and excessively cranky.  If you happen to see me coming towards you, you should probably take a leaf out of the Doctor’s book and run.

Saturday Night Fever

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So, Saturday night has come and gone, and yet again I got very little sleep.  In fact, the grand total of one hour’s sleep.  Much as I’d love to claim that this was because I was dancing the night away or enjoying good times with a gang of friends, the truth is rather less exciting.  I’m tired, cranky and feeling hungover, without having drunk a drop or danced a step.  And before you say, ‘Well, so what if you’re tired? Staying up late doesn’t matter on a Saturday,’ please just remember what I do for a living.  Sunday morning is not a good time for me not be firing on all cylinders.

The truth is, I never sleep well on Saturdays.  Sleep has always been a problem for me – I stay up far too late, and am pathologically unable to wake up in the mornings.  It’s not even as though I can claim it’s insomnia; once I do get into bed, it’s rare for me to be tossing and turning or lying there awake, and I almost never wake up in the night.  My trouble is that I just sort of forget to go to bed.  I often don’t realise that I’m tired, or if I do, I only realise it with half of my brain – and unhelpfully, that’s never the half that follows up the realisation with “hey, let’s go to sleep.”  Usually, I get caught up in work, or surfing the internet, or ‘just one more episode’ of Doctor Who, and before I know it, it’s three o’clock in the morning.  Or four.  Or five.

This happens to me most nights of the week, but Saturday nights – well, they are in a league of their own.  I know full well that Saturday is the one night of the week I really do need to be well-rested, but somehow that never seems to translate into the willpower to finish my work at a sensible hour, get a bit of downtime and then get myself into bed.  And even if I do manage to catch a few hours of shut-eye, it’s rarely good quality, useful sleep that makes me feel rested or refreshed.

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This is a nice graph from an iPhone app called Sleep Cycle, which promises to measure your sleep rhythms and wake you up at an optimal time.  It’s got rave reviews on the App Store from people who say they have never been woken up by any alarm clock ever, but now leap up from their beds every morning with a spring in their step and a song in their hearts.  I could sleep through the proverbial bomb going off in my bedroom, so, despite my scepticism, I decided it was worth a try.  Actually, it doesn’t work.  I still sleep through the alarm, just as I always have done, but the app does play nice ambient noise while you’re falling asleep, and give you neat graphs like this when you wake up, so it wasn’t a total waste of 69p.

Anyway, I digress.  The point is, as you can see, I don’t sleep well on Saturdays.  I’ve always taken longer to wind down on a Saturday, but at the moment I’m only getting one or two hours in bed at most, which is patently ridiculous and unsustainable.  It’s not as if I’m even just pulling an all-nighter to get stuff done for Sunday (although that’s not unknown either).  This Saturday, for instance, I was up all night reading internet articles and blog posts about Perseveration.  No, the irony is not lost on me either.

The bizarre thing is, I’m not even stressed out about Sunday mornings any more like I used to be.  In days of old, there used to be a couple of difficult folks in my congregation and I’d spend hours lying awake worrying about what they would say or do the next day – but not any more.  In my previous Parish, I didn’t have anyone to check that I was out of bed at the right time, so I would stay up all night just to make sure I didn’t sleep in – but that’s not relevant any more either (thanks, long-suffering Waker-Upper).  So in the past, not going to bed on a Saturday night was – well, if not entirely healthy, at least functional and vaguely rational.  But now it’s neither of those things.  I just can’t seem to break out of the pattern.

Thanks to my marathon night of web surfing, I now know that there are at least two broad definitions of Perseveration.  (Well, probably more than two, but all this vocab is still new to me, so let’s not complicate the issue too much.) Usually, when people use the term Perseveration, they mean it in the sense of getting caught up in an action or a special interest, to the exclusion of everything else – like, for example, spending all Saturday night reading blog posts.  But Perseveration can also mean continuing to carry out an action or behaviour pattern even when it’s no longer relevant, useful or functional – like, for example, spending all Saturday night reading blog posts.  So, it turns out that I have been perseverating by perseverating.  And what am I perseverating about? Perseverating.

I hereby invent the term Meta-Perseveration.  Anyone who knows how to break this insidious cycle should feel free to get in touch.  Preferably before next Saturday night.