My Autistic Anxiety Snowball

Billy (pronouns: they, them, their)

One source of anxiety for me is knowing that people don’t say what they mean. They skirt around the truth because they expect people to translate. This convention works well for some, because hearing the truth would be too painful; inferring the truth is gentler. The problem for me is I never know whether I’ve translated correctly. There’s a constant uncertainty that makes it hard to trust people, even my closest friends and family. As I understand this phenomenon more, it becomes easier to navigate, but it is still cumbersome.

In addition to my challenge with translating other people’s words, I have to constantly consider the fact that people will inevitably translate my words even though I often mean things literally. It’s as if people expect me to exaggerate because that’s just part of modern day human communication. I don’t like to exaggerate one way or the other because I don’t want my words to get translated. Only in my late twenties did I begin to understand these unwritten “rules.” I’m learning how to soften my words before saying them, because they’ll get translated or interpreted more harshly than I intend them. The misunderstandings I’ve endured have left me with a sense that I need to walk on eggshells.

Another source of anxiety for me is my highly empathetic nature. I often feel as though the veils are thin between me and other individuals, and the general environment. Valuing my own needs doesn’t come naturally; I have to be intentional about centering them or else I forget them. Boundaries are weak; I get easily drawn into other people’s needs and struggles. I feel their anxiety for them. My inclination is to try to help solve their problems, even when that means contorting myself into a puzzle piece of just the right shape to fit into someone else’s puzzle. This leads to poor decisions that neglect my own path.

Poor boundaries and communication challenges have led to decreased confidence in my ability to maintain healthy relationships. Conflict and tension in my close relationships are stressful because they make me feel like my relationships aren’t stable. The anxiety has a snowball effect; as relationships become more unstable, it becomes harder to get my basic needs met. Interdependence is a need that everyone has, but especially people like me who live a more unconventional life. Due to my sensory sensitivities, I am rarely able to drive, ride public transportation, or go shopping. Furthermore, I am not able to work full time. I rely on others for housing, food sharing, transportation, and assistance navigating the bureaucracies of modern day society.

The State does not recognize my need for assistance from others and does not give me access to a paid caregiver. My existence depends on the generous loving support of my community. This fact alone brings me anxiety. I’ve always been a relatively solitary person who finds comfort in being able to meet my own needs because people are busy with their own lives and their own needs. The pandemic’s impact on my life, as well as my experience with aging through my 20s have left me more reliant on others and less able to be autonomous. Nobody can exist in a vacuum, but we all need varying amounts of alone time. I need lots of alone time or else I become overwhelmed by people. I love my people, but I need restorative breaks where I can temporarily be in a vacuum. Having my life so intertwined with others’ means I can’t always have the alone time and space that I need. The stress of having conflict with the very people I depend on, is one of my greatest sources of anxiety. I put a ton of time and effort into those relationships, (perhaps more than necessary). It’s enough to give me migraines sometimes. This further increases my sensory sensitivities, thus furthering the snowball effect.

Right now, everything in my life is stacked and arranged in such a way that it is functional, though delicate. Sometimes it feels like an intricate, beautiful house of cards that could topple from a sloppy touch. It is because of the support from my community that my basic needs are met. I have stability. That’s more than most people can say isn’t it? Mutual aid is paramount for people with any sort of oppressed identity, but especially disability. My needs are met, but there are so many more autistic people who cannot say the same. People contort themselves in all sorts of ways in order to get their basic needs met and survive. This only creates further trauma and exacerbates needs.

Because my basic needs are met, I have time and space in my life to explore creativity, practice mindfulness, and work on improving my mental health. Aside from community support, mindfulness is the other major pillar in my life that allows me to live fully despite anxiety. I have a solid ritual that I begin and end every day with, involving meditation, qigong, drawing and writing. My mental health is so dependent on the structure of this ritual that my life is not as flexible as it used to be. I am blocked from some activities and jobs, but ultimately I am thankful for it because it allows me to breathe and be who I am. My creative outlets allow me to process my thoughts and communicate my unique way of understanding the world. This is an effective way to slow down, take a snapshot of my insides, and let others see and understand a glimpse of a sliver of me. Of course some gets lost in translation, but if anything does manage to get across, I am satisfied.

Images provided courtesy of the author and reproduced with permission.

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