MY DANCING STAIRCASE
I am autistic (Asperger’s Syndrome). And I have generalized anxiety disorder. Most autistics do, if not all. It’s a byproduct of our very active thought processes and ability to often think in pictures, so that everything, in a sense, becomes very much alive and real. My anxiety is seen and felt in pictures. My anxiety can be visualized as separated topics of worry gathered on a staircase. Each separate fret is a unique letter. For example, a worry about finances might be the letter A. In other words, the letters each represent a different subject of my anxiety.
The letters change order of what feels to be the most bothersome; the ones that seem the most important moving to the top. The letters switch places throughout the day. One fret might be perceived as urgent one moment, and another the next. Worries range in category from what is directly in front of me (such as in my immediate environment, e.g. facing a person to speak) and long ago events/memories.
It feels like tiny thought bubbles surround me; dancing clouds that pop in and out of existence based on their degree of importance (determined somewhere within me). To deal with these thought bubbles, (which are the letters from the staircase) I implement best practices from my studies, such as clearing my mind, being in the present, trusting all will be okay, and recognizing the anxiety/fear about how I might handle something is typically more scary than the event itself. Regardless, the bubbles remain. I have learned to live with the letters and the bubbles, and not give them too much attention. It’s harder when there is change or unexpected news though. Then the bubbles take over, somewhat like a snowball fight in my mind.
The clouds remain and the letters remain on the staircase, drifting in and out in every waking moment, and even in my dream state, until one major thought becomes HUGE in my mind and takes the top step of the staircase and GROWS… This week (and for the past weeks) my main anxiety was having to appear in front of a judge for traffic court. This agonizing thought grew and grew and grew!
The main event in my mind grew so big that the staircase crumbled and became a pillar. Now the main topic or subject of worry was seated front and center in my mind. And the rest of the worries, well they were temporarily lost in the rubble.
With the coming of one main subject of anxiety, I experience a strange type of relief. Though I am agonizing over one thing only, and that hurts my brain and interrupts my concentration, for the time being all the other frets are still lost in the rubble, and fading out of existence, turning into stars. My head, though preoccupied with one event, is lighter, freer and focused. I am able to concentrate on how to relieve this one triggering thought. I don’t have to exert any effort to let go of the rest of the anxiety (letters), as they all left on their own. The minimizing of all the other thoughts feels akin to someone turning off a roomful of noisy chattering monkeys.
I go through multiple scenarios, sometimes 100’s a day, of how I might handle the one BIG anxiety and rise above the task at hand; as this main anxiety increases, I also am able to incorporate more logical coping mechanisms, to see the event more realistically, and process the experience more freely (without a bunch of other thoughts at the same time about other frets). I am well-aware when this is all going on in my head. I am conscious of what I am doing. At times I can incorporate strategies, such as allowing myself to think about the event at a specific time of the day or process it through with a close friend. Regardless, the one event/anxiety is center stage, and is experienced as such.
My numerous anxiety thought bubbles from before (that are now crumbled in the staircase debris) are now replaced with thought bubbles about how to handle the current major fret. Each bubble is a feasible scenario: my actions, my words, my approach, timeline, feasible outcomes. I can visualize several potential streams of action all simultaneously, processing multiple scenarios all at the same time. The letters aren’t in my thought bubbles, the multiple frets all dissipated and replaced by PLANS and SOLUTIONS. [In this case what my speech will be in court.]
Again, there is some relief, as the busy-body letters (singular worries) on the staircase are momentarily gone.
As the actual event (that has caused me anxiety) comes closer and closer to being a reality, my anxiety might increase to the point of immobility (autistic inertia). Other moments I might seem extremely agitated, preoccupied, overwhelmed, highly emotional, hyper, and/or easily triggered by small changes in my routine. Or I may retreat into a project where I can pour all my energy and erase some of the building worry; I may enter an isolated space of shutdown, take a nap, or be able to do nothing more than stim (a repeated motion that serves to calm me, e.g. clicking on a website, exiting, clicking on the same website again… repeat, repeat, repeat). When the main event is over, my frowny-fret turns upside down into a smile, for a bit. Usually, however, I have a delayed emotional response, as I do not process my own emotions (or others’) at the same speed as non-autistics. What might take a typical person a minute to process, and in this case to experience relief, for me, I feel numb and confused. It will likely be days until the sense of relief comes.
I still often expect to feel like I am floating on a cloud after a main anxiety-ridden event passes. But more often than not, let’s say 99% of the time, I don’t feel the cloudy-fluffy-happiness. Instead I go into automatic logic-mode, and wonder why I wasted so much thought, time and energy on an event that (usually) wasn’t that big of a deal. I have to then exert energy on not tearing myself down, on self-acceptance, on letting go, and on being okay with how I function in this world. All this, while trying at the same time to recognize, once again, what has happened in my mind.
The hardest part is when I am waiting for the sensation of great relief, but before that can occur, the staircase returns, and I am bombarded with more anxiety thoughts. I then mourn the BIG worry, wishing in a way that it was still there, so the staircase of anxiety, (that is once again occupied with the worries (letters) jumping back and forth from step-to-step), would crumble and fade. Wishing for the monkey-chatter to stop. At this point, with the staircase back again, I am exhausted. I am often a bit scared. And sometimes feel hopeless. I then need to build my reserves to face yet another day with the letters shuffling. And prepare self-reserves for the time the new BIG worry comes. Because it always does, almost like it’s rescuing me from the dancing staircase of letters.