The difference in a year

This time last year I was preparing for my wedding day.  Tomorrow will be our first anniversary so it feels apt to do a little reflecting on what changes this year has brought.

This time last year I was on fluoxetine, an anti-depressant, and had been for six months.  I remained on it for a further six months but I am currently off that medication.  It wasn’t the first time I had been prescribed fluoxetine and I have no idea if it will be the last.  Some people feel guilty for taking medication to aid their mental health.  I don’t. I needed the support at that time and it helped.  At present I am doing well without prescription medication to support my mental health.  This doesn’t mean that I am “cured”, it simply means I am in a better place and have some better strategies in my mental health tool box for helping me manage my mental health.

My biggest ongoing issue on the mental health front is social anxiety.  I still have anxiety attacks and I probably always will in some circumstances.  Where the anxiety flares up the most is when I am going somewhere I don’t know or to something with people I haven’t previously met or have had bad experiences with in the past.  I do my best to manage this without running away but I don’t always manage that.  When I do run away from situations I then feel ashamed of myself for giving in.  I shouldn’t feel that shame, I know that, but I do. I have discovered that I cope with things much better if I have a set task or role for the event or meeting.  It gives me something else to focus on and a job to do which help me feel useful.

This time last year I was waiting for counselling through the NHS.  I was extremely fortunate in having some cognitive behavioural hypnotherapy sessions with a hypnotherapist I know while I was waiting for NHS support.  These and my later counselling sessions helped me to work though some things and build some better strategies for coping in the future.

In July I started with a series of counselling sessions with a psychotherapist through the NHS.  I had eight sessions if I remember correctly and they were very helpful.  The therapy approach was a compassion based one, similar in some ways to cognitive behavioural therapy but with out the focus on changing thought patterns, more about accepting and trying to move forward.  It suited me.

One of the more stressful situations in my life last year was my employment.  I had been having problems with work related stress for a few years.  If I’d only had the work stress and no other areas of stress maybe I would have been able to manage better but I didn’t and when you get stress in too many areas something has to give.  I ended up going through the work capability process.  This is supposed to help support you back into work.  It is supposed to help but personally I found it a very stressful process to go through and not helpful in the slightest.  Part of that may well be down to personality conflicts, part down to my mental health, but I have to say that I still feel that part is due to the powers that be deciding that I wasn’t really worth supporting even after 19 years as an employee there.  I could feel very bitter about the whole thing but I don’t.  In July last year I was officially dismissed on capability grounds and it’s one of the best things that could have happened to me!

One of the immediate concerns on losing a job is how you are going to cope financially.  Well I had three months pay in lieu of notice to help with that transition.  As I had been off work on mental health grounds I decided to apply for ESA (Employment Support Allowance) which is a benefit for those not fit to work for whatever reason.  The forms are almost as horrid as the DLA and PIP ones (Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independence Payments) and I had to go to an assessment.  Needless to say I was deemed healthy enough to work.  While going this process for myself I also went through the process of applying for DLA for both of my children.  In their cases I was successful and that meant I could also apply for carer’s allowance.

The experience of going through the ESA process myself has been helpful in that I have a much better understanding of what others go though and can better support close friends and family going through the similar process of PIP forms, assessments and appeals.  It truly is a horrid and very stressful system!

In September last year I contacted the Riding for the Disabled Association Glasgow Group with a view to starting some voluntary work there.  My psychotherapist was very pleased with me at the time for taking this step without her suggesting I try and do something like this.  In October I had my induction and I haven’t looked back since.  I absolutely LOVE my voluntary work at the RDA stables.  I go there on Tuesday and Friday mornings during school term times and usually help with the classes that are on either leading or side walking, whatever is needed.  I’m now in the process of completing forms for my daughter to go on a waiting list for lessons there and to have lessons myself.  After about forty years or dreaming about learning to ride it looks like I’m finally going to be able to do it.  Most of the RDA lessons are designed for those with impairments of just about any type but they do also do a small amount of lessons for those without impairments.  If you want to know more please do visit their website, Riding for the Disabled Association Glasgow Group

In January I started taking my daughter along to dance classes with Indepen-dance. This is another fabulous organisation.  I’ve known of them for years as one of their staff gave music and movement sessions to my son several years ago now.  That wonderful person gave my son about a year of free sessions, enabled by another wonderful person who allowed us to use a suitable room in a place she owned and managed on a free basis.  So it’s lovely to be a formal part of the Indepen-dance family now with my daughter.  She absolutely LOVES her lessons with them!

The school year has progressed reasonably well for both kids.  There’s been glitches along the way but that’s life.  I am blessed in having two wonderful autistic kids.  I have been for an adult autism assessment myself but did not meet formal diagnostic criteria. I have however had a few lovely peer confirmations of my neurodivergent state.  I am proud to be a neurodivergent Druid.

In February I started a Counselling Skills course and I’ve recently received the official certificate for that.  I’ve written about my experiences and what I gained through that process elsewhere.

I’ve also had changes in my patterns of devotion over the last year.

So a year of marriage has seen me though all these things and more.  My wonderful husband Neil has been further developing his photography skills – do look at his site Awen Photos and have a look at some of the wonderful images he has taken.  I’ve also seen much more of Scotland with him than I did before as going out and finding new and interesting places to take photos is something he loves doing.

It’s been a year with many unexpected changes and generally I do not like unanticipated change. I tried to stay employed but that didn’t work out.  The results of that change have been much better than I could have imagined and Neil has supported me though it all.

Thank you Neil and happy anniversary my darling!

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Orkney part 2 -guided journeys

Breakfast at our accommodation was excellent and very good fuel for the day ahead.

At 9am our wonderful guides Helen and Mark Woodsford-Dean of Spiritual Orkney joined us. We hadn’t met them face to face before although I had known Helen online for a while. I’d contacted Helen while we were planning the honeymoon trip to ask if she had availability in her calendar for the week we were going to be in Orkney.  She did and we had an exchange of emails and Facebook messages to arrange things during which she planned an itinerary for us based on what I’d told her about the sort of things we wanted to see.

It is possible they might have shown us a couple of places if we’d asked out of friendship  but personally I would have felt guilty taking up their time and expertise during the peak tourist summer season when tour guiding is one of the ways they make a living.  Besides we wanted to see lots of places and having experts showing us around was something we wanted to do. And not just expert tour guides but fellow Pagans and people we knew a bit about.  I can not stress enough how delighted we both are that we went down this route.  Helen and Mark are lovely people and great guides.

Our itinerary for our first full day included the Stones of Stenness, Barnhouse Neolithic Village, Ness of Brodgar, Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae and a couple of hours on the Brough of Birsay.

As we journeyed around we were treated to a wonderful combination of archeological information, including from their own experiences digging at the Ness of Brodgar, and local folklore.

I’m not going to write huge amounts here about these wonderful places for a couple of reasons.  One is that so much has already been written about them, the other is that the experience of being at these places is unique to each person.  What I do have is a few of my husband’s photos to share as a picture can be worth a thousand words.

 

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Stones of Stenness

One of the more profound experiences for me visiting these places was that, thanks to Helen in particular, I could understand more about these places than I would have done otherwise.  Little details that helped me see something more of that ancient way of life that I’m pretty sure I would have overlooked without her explanations. Encouraged by Helen to really look at the houses of Skara Brae for example I could see not only the similarities between each structure but also the little differences that made me think of the way we all like to personalise our own spaces when we can.

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Skara Brae

On the Brough of Birsay (which is reached via a tidal causeway) we saw puffins, fulmars, razorbills and skuars flying from nests and resting places on the cliffs.  We also saw the Viking ruins there with their excellent drainage systems (again I’d never have realised what we were seeing without Helen pointing them out).  We also had the opportunity to scramble through a cave towards the top end of the Brough which Helen referred to a rebirth cave.  It was a couple of steps down to the entrance and then as you made your way through the cave it narrowed  until you came to the opening at the other end and had to crawl to get out.  While we didn’t have the opportunity to make a full formal ritual around doing this it still had that rebirth effect for me at least.

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Puffins on Brough of Birsay

Our second day was also spent with our lovely guides and on that day we visited the cliffs at Yesnaby, Kirbuster Farm museum, the Broch of Gurness, the Tomb of the Dogs, Rennibister Earth House, Happy Valley and Unstan Cairn.  Again I’m using some of my husband’s photos to help show something of our experiences but as there’s less written about some of these places I’ll try and write a bit more too.

The cliffs at Yesnaby are wild and parts of the landscape look like they have been transplanted from another world.

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Top of cliffs at Yesnaby

On the heath before the cliffs you can find the rare primula scotica. This is a tiny little plant and not easy to spot unless you know what you are looking for so it will probably be no surprise for me to tell you that Helen found them and once we had been shown them we were able to find more in that area.

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Primula Scotica at Yesnaby

Kirbuster farm museum is a fascinating place.  Part of the buildings date back to the 16th century and there are recognisable features from the styles of buildings at Skara Brae and the other neolithic sites that have clearly been continued through the ages such as the sleeping alcoves and built in wall niches.  This is also a free museum with very knowledgable and friendly guides – well worth a visit.

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16th Century aspect of Kirbuster Farmhouse

By a narrow margin I think my favourite part of that day was the visit to Happy Valley. This lovely place has very unusual gardens by Orkney standards that were planted by the former owner who was something of a recluse during his life. Luckily the building and gardens are being preserved and cared for by the Friends of Happy Valley group.  It is a beautiful place and has a magical atmosphere to it.  I wish we could have stayed there much longer but my need for certain facilities meant we had to move on as the house was locked up.

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Happy Valley Gardens

I think I will write a separate post about experiences with tombs, cairns and the Rennibister Earth House and bring this section of our Orkney experiences to a close.

All photos copyright Neil Pitchford, Awen photos.

Autism Acceptance and Awareness

So this month – April – is international Autism Awareness month.  there’s  a growing movement to make that Autism Acceptance month instead of awareness.  I was just moved to write the following on Facebook as a public post and have just decided to put it here too.

“How do I get the words right?
To be aware of autism is good, just as it’s good to try and be aware of the challenges faced by transgender people or black communities or the homeless or… I could go on. Do I need to? It’s good to be aware, yes BUT it’s even better to accept.

I accept I will never intimately know the challenges faced by many other people each and every day of their lives. I accept that many people will never intimately know that challenges faced by autistics each and every day. I accept that I am different and that you are different. I want you to accept my differences, I want you to accept your own differences. I want you to treasure our differences! I want us to work together to make life better because of our differences and not just in spite of them.

Awareness is good, Acceptance is better.”

 

I know there are issues I am not very aware of but I try and improve my knowledge and awareness.  I accept that as a white, British, cis-gendered, woman with no visible disability that I live in a world that gives me a level of privilege that I am not fully conscious of.  I hope that even when I am not fully aware of the privileges I have or the challenges you may face that you feel accepted by me. I hope you feel I value you and the differences between us.  I hope you feel accepted, treasured and loved exactly as you are.

Autism and me

I’ve been brooding about writing this post for a while now.  I’ve also rehearsed several different ways of phrasing things for this post in my head.  I’m now finally sitting down and writing which means some of this will be a stream of consciousness.

Last year, around this time actually, I went from wondering if I was autistic to saying out loud that I thought I probably am autistic.  I was off work with stress and anxiety and decided to request referral for an adult autism assessment.  As is pretty normal in the UK I then had to wait for a first appointment. In the meantime I worked on improving my mental health and managed to return to work late May last year (2015).

I had my first autism assessment appointment on 4 September 2015.  I had been sent material in advance that told me that this would be an initial assessment.  At the end of this first appointment I would be told that either I was not autistic or that there was enough evidence from this first session to investigate further.  There was enough evidence to investigate further.

This was a huge relief for me.  At least I now knew that there was something in my behaviour and history that indicated I could be autistic.  I had discussed this with family members who were very supportive and with a couple of female autistic friends who said that in their opinion it would not be a surprise for me to be diagnosed as autistic.  But this was verification of the possibility by experienced professionals.

The process continued with several other meetings. My mum came with me to all but one appointment which was great as I found the process extremely stressful.  The appointments were an hour and a half in length and I didn’t feel very comfortable with the person who led the interviewing process from the start.  The process was completed in mid November and I was told that in their opinion I did not meet diagnostic criteria (for those interested I was assessed against the criteria for ICD 10 F84, Childhood autism and ICD 10 F84.5 Asperger’s Syndrome).  It had become apparent a couple of meetings before that this was likely but they continued the process for me in order to provide me with some level of information about my ongoing difficulties.

I didn’t get the official report from this process until mid December and it’s taken some time to process this result.

I’ll be clear here, I am disappointed with this result and I don’t think they have got it right in my case.  Verbally though in the last appointment they did say that I do present in an autistic way and that they wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of years down the line I got diagnosed via another route.  Right at the start I was told that diagnosing adult women was extremely hard.  At the end they confirmed that there is a level of subjective opinion about the diagnosis too (which having gone through this for both my kids I was already aware is the case).

The report confirms that I have social anxiety issues and recommends some form of talking therapy to address issues related to emotional literacy and self esteem.  They also recommended I do some self help on anxiety management.

My children both knew I was going through this process.  My daughter wanted me to be diagnosed so that we would be more alike.  When I told her (she’s 8 by the way) that I didn’t get the diagnosis she put one hand on my shoulder and said with a serious tone “Never mind mummy, you’ll always be autistic to me”.  My son also said it didn’t matter as I was still weird.  Both of them sympathised with my disappointment while making sure I knew it didn’t really matter to them, I was still part of the club as far as they were concerned.  I’m extremely proud of this, not just because of the sensitivity they both showed but also that they clearly see being autistic as something to be proud of and rightly so!

I’m glad I have gone through this process even though it was difficult, even though I didn’t come out with the diagnosis I had hoped for because it has verified that I do have challenges with social situations.  Whether this is inbuilt or as they have said in the report a belief that I have developed is not so important at this stage.  The reality is that in either case I have social anxieties and these are now recognised by others.

Part of my anxieties is a fear of not being “enough”.  Often that’s not being good enough but it can be not social enough, not autistic enough, not neurotypical enough or all manner of things.  Logically I know this is something I impose on myself, judging myself against a hypothetical standard others almost certainly do not judge me against.  Emotionally though, knowing that is probably the case doesn’t help.  I still feel I am not “enough” to be clearly one thing or another.  I am working on emotionally and spiritually accepting that maybe being in a place between one state and another is where I am meant to be and where I can be most useful.  Maybe having not enough of something, not being good enough at something, will help me be a bridge between one thing and another.

 

Knowing yourself

The vast majority of Pagan paths encourage the individual to take responsibility for their own development, to delve into themselves and explore different aspects of their emotions and personality.  I’ve used various techniques over the years to explore aspects of my past that I felt were blocking me from moving forward. I’ve worked with my emotions and my personal history to cut myself free of things that were holding me back and to develop a greater acceptance of parts of my personality that I’ve had mixed feelings about in the past.

All that somehow pales into insignificance with my current journey of self discovery.

I have realised that I am not the person I thought I was and yet at the same time I’m also more truly myself than I think I have ever been before.  Finally I am hearing the whispers on the breeze, finally I am seeing into the shadows.

And the reason for this is that I am finally understanding that I am autistic.  I don’t know yet where I fit into the spectrum, I’m still undergoing diagnostic investigation but I’ve now had that professional validation that I’m not imagining things.  I’ve had that confirmation that there are enough traits to make it worth while fully investigating.  It’s possible that the end of the process will not give me a formal diagnosis but I think it might.  Even if it doesn’t, I know I’m more autistic than not and that is already helping me make a different sense of my life to this point.  I’m already using this new vision of myself to help me understand how I react to all sorts of things and to develop different, conscious strategies for situations I find challenging.  I’m being more accepting of myself, less critical.

And while I go through this process I find that generally I’m more inclined to turn inwards to close family, my home and hearth, and my gods.  My devotional life has increased in depth and frequency of devotions.  Much of that is personal and solitary but sometimes I am now hearing calls to do more, to be more.

As I said to my mum the other day how can you tell what is an external voice if you don’t really know who you are?

I thought I knew myself pretty well.  I’m learning that I only knew a fraction of myself.  I only knew a me that had unconsciously covered parts of myself with heavy concealing veils.

I’m now getting to know myself unveiled. I wonder what else I will find as I learn more of what lies beneath my veils.

Countryfile, cows and caves!

Advisory notice: Random streams of consciousness follow!

Weird dreams last night following a draining day.  The main difficult part of the day was an absence review meeting at work with a representative of Human Resources (HR) and a  union representative accompanying me.  This took place late morning.  I’ve been off work now for almost six months officially with stress and anxiety and it has been during this time that I have come to fully realise that I am almost certainly on the autistic spectrum.  The meeting was an example of my changing awareness of my ability to cope with certain types of situation.  I knew it was going to be difficult and had taken what steps I could to prepare in advance but ultimately I didn’t really know exactly what might be brought up at the meeting so there was a limit to what I could prepare.

The meeting was an hour long and covered several areas. We talked about how I was now feeling, how I had been recently, whether the counselling I had received had been helpful and that they recommended I see the work based psychological services for further support (I’m ok with that, I don’t think it will hurt and it might be useful).  From there HR asked me what sort of strategies I had now developed to help me and I tried to explain that while some of the strategies were helpful in dealing with anxiety others were less so as I could be affected by environmental conditions and I gave them examples of that.  The discussions then moved onto whether I felt I was fit to return to work and what the options were.  They are not in favour or redeploying me at the current time in spite of the occupational health recommendations but the individual I have developed the biggest anxiety triggers over is currently off work herself and expected to be for some time.  They asked if I’d thought about how I’d like to return – phased returns are the normal for someone who has been off for a long period.

Towards the end of this meeting I started to get upset and felt overwhelmed.  I couldn’t think straight anymore and was not capable of making any decisions about how to progress returning to work or even what to do.  There was so much information and it was a meeting that took place with two people I don’t really know very well which has its own challenges. The meeting finished and my partner picked me up and took me home.  I began to feel better after a mug of tea, some lunch and some time with a good book.

I have now come to the conclusion that my very reactions to the amount of information in that meeting and having to deal with two people I don’t know are part of my autism.  I’ve seen my kids struggle in similar ways when they are in situations that are overloading them.  I’m now recognising that this has drained me more than I had expected.  I’ve often had similar reactions to stressful meetings with school staff over situations involving the kids (not hostile meetings just emotionally laden ones).  It’s another thread in the pattern for me that I am now recognising and this process of identifying patterns is in itself draining.

My evening was not a particularly restful one. It wasn’t dreadful either but my daughter often gts hyper as soon as she walks in the door from school.  She’d not had a great day anyway but as soon as she gets in she’s rushing about one second and launching herself at me for wriggly hugs and sensory impacts the next second.  And later in the evening there was the battle of the homework – spelling work is always the worst.  The issue there is actually writing rather than learning the spelling of the words and even though it can be a bit of a battle to get her to do the work I persevere as I feel she will benefit long term from writing practice. Also if she wins one battle I’m going to have more trouble with the next as she’s wonderfully stubborn.

The rest of our family evening routines continued and eventually all went quiet.  The last thing we usually do before going up to bed ourselves is watch the news and weather.  By that time I’m often struggling to keep my eyes open.  I fell asleep pretty quickly but woke up following some odd dreams that have stayed with me.  And this is where the title of this post comes in.

I was dreaming that I was co-presenting Countryfile (we often watch bits of it on a Sunday evening but we hadn’t watched any of it last weekend).  This particular episode was related to cattle and I was helping move some cows and calves.  For some reason I was then lying down in a field I think with a half grown calf lying across me.  I think the calf had taken a liking to me and for some reason decided to lie on me.  I was feeling rather squashed and trying to get this calf to move off me. I think it was a male calf and for some reason he shifted so he was now lying a bit more on my rib cage and I began to feel as if the breath was being squeezed out of me.  I started to thump the side of this calf and yelled in the dream at it to get off me. I also yelled physically and woke myself up a bit.

I almost immediately drifted off again for a few moments and I was not longer with the cows.  This time I was involved in the aspect of the programme at the end that shows snippets of what’s going to be shown next week. I was both watching these and involved in them and these snippets were of caves. One was like a hole though part of a mountain, it was no wider than maybe a king size bed and open at both ends like a great archway.  The other snippet was of a cave by some coastline.  This one was deeper and darker, it reminds me of King’s Cave on Arran come to think of it. Then I came to again and realised that I had yelled out a few moments before because of bit of dream about the calf lying on me.

Really odd stuff!

Anyway, I’ve now had a chance to properly digest what was discussed at the meeting yesterday and have now emailed work about starting back for the middle of next week.  I’m a bit nervous about it but I think it’s the right thing to do.

Mindfulness?

I’m not sure I get mindfulness. I’ve had this thought a few times before but it crossed my sleepy mind again early this morning when I was woken by the sound of my son turning over in his sleep and lay there for a moment focusing on the sounds coming from his room.  He’d had a bad night earlier with severe indigestion followed by being sick. While he was unwell I was totally focused on supporting him, helping him to try and stay calm in spite of the pain and doing all I could to help him.

So the sleepy thoughts that crossed my mind this morning were wondering if that was mindfulness, being totally focused on those moments in time with my son?  Or is mindfulness more like the time earlier that afternoon where my partner and myself had spent by the side of Carron Valley reservoir beside the shimmering water, listening to the birds and feeling the gentle breeze on our skin?  I wasn’t thinking about mindfulness or being mindful at either of those times though.  Do you need to be actively deciding to be mindful for it to be mindfulness or does it just happen if you are just in that moment?

I still don’t know.  I do know that that time by the reservoir was beautiful, calming and renewing where the time with my son was draining and worrying. Both experiences were one I was very much in the moment. Were they both examples of mindfulness?

Thoughts and opinions much appreciated on this please.

PS my son is fully recovered, he did his usual bounce back after completely emptying his stomach and then sleeping.