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.

Horse Sense

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I love horse riding.  I’ve only been riding for a couple of years, but it’s quickly become a very important part of my life, so much so that I wonder how I ever survived without it.  It isn’t a ‘special interest’ or a ‘passion’ in the classic autistic sense – I mean, it is special, and it is an interest, and I am passionate about it; but it’s a bit different from the months I spent getting no sleep because I was playing Fishdom or the time in my life I knew absolutely everything about the role of dispossession in the confessional conflicts of 17th Century England.  It’s considered a bit pejorative and un-PC to call these things obsessions, but to my mind, there is definitely something obsessional and almost addictive about them.  It is wonderful and exhilarating to have an all-consuming interest like that, and sometimes they can even be useful (guess what I wrote my Masters Thesis on…); but they do tend to take over your life.  When I realise that I am rapidly developing a new special interest, mingled in amongst the excitement is a heavy dollop of apprehension, because I know that this is likely to screw up my work life, my sleep pattern and possibly my bank balance for a while to come.

Horse riding is different.  Within ten minutes of getting on a horse for the first time, someone told me I was ‘a natural.’ I didn’t feel it then, but I do feel it now – which is not to say that I’m a particularly good rider (I’m not), but just that something clicks for me and somehow it just feels right.

So the hour a week I spend on horseback has become vitally important to me.  It’s the one time when I don’t worry about ‘passing,’ when I don’t think about making eye contact or saying appropriate things or stimming or not stimming.  It’s also the one hour of my week when I don’t think about my overflowing filing system or the forms I haven’t filled in or whoever in the Church happens to be cross with me at the time – although, bizarrely, I sometimes find that by the time I’ve finished, I’ve formulated some sort of solution or action plan about a seemingly intractable problem that I may have spent the week worrying about, but didn’t even realise I was thinking about while I was riding.

Increasingly, my weekly riding lesson has become sacred time – in both a general and a theological sense.  And, week by week, that time has stretched to include not only the riding itself and the time with the horses before and afterwards, but also the journey to and from the stables.  I deal with emails on the bus up, and listen to music on the bus home again; it’s a little routine of me-time, and it makes me deeply happy.

But today, finally, the inevitable happened.  I got on the bus, and sitting there waving at me was one of my Parishioners, with a free seat next to him.  Don’t get me wrong, I like this chap immensely; but nevertheless, it was painful to have to forego my usual bus withdrawal activities and spend the entire half-hour journey making small talk instead.

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On the way back from the riding school, a funny thought suddenly occurred to me.  Every single week, we spend about half the lesson working on the lunge, and that means that every single week I spend about half an hour talking to my riding instructor.  Not talk about leg aids and posture, but just chat – about anything from animals to the news to the other people who ride there, and sometimes even the weather.  Basically, I guess, we make small talk; and, do you know what? It doesn’t bother me a bit.

As I walked back to the bus stop, I tried to work out why it’s so easy to make thirty minutes of conversation while I’m riding and yet so difficult to do it on the bus.  To be fair, I like my riding teacher a lot; but then, I like that Parishioner a lot too.  There just didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it.

I suppose the train of thought must have been making me feel a bit stressed out, because as I walked, I began to notice that I was stimming.  Just low-level stuff – a bit of flapping, a bit of thigh-tapping, a bit of running my hands along walls and suchlike – but definitely stimming nonetheless.  And then the answer hit me.

See, I’ve got this weird stim, something I’ve ever seen anyone else do.  It’s not an anxious stim; and, although I sometimes do it when I’m getting excited, it’s not exactly a happy stim either.  It’s more of a “something good is in process” stim – it happens when I’m close to figuring something out, or saying something that I think is important, or listening to something which is making ideas start firing off in my head. I have to be sitting down to do this stim, and what happens is that I start rocking from side to side, not moving my legs or any part of my torso, but shifting my whole upper body weight from one hip to the other in a rhythmical movement.  Sometimes this graduates into a gentle, almost imperceptible, rocking motion as I move my torso back and forth.

I’ve only been doing this stim for about two years, and I’ve never understood where I picked it up or what it’s all about.  Until today.  Because today I realised that whenever I’m formulating ideas or working stuff out,  I start riding an imaginary horse.

This is a marvellous discovery.  If I could just spend my entire life on horseback, the world would never be a problem again.

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