On autistic C-PTSD recovery during pandemic

It’s maybe funny, but while being locked with my partner in an apartment due to epidemiological restrictions, I thought it might be a good time to hit the books, websites, and introspection on mental health again – with a minimum of distractions, there might be energy available to focus.

That is also more or less how I’ve made use of extensive periods of involuntary isolation in the past (old post on when I was stuck alone in the village). At these times, my childhood dream of becoming a wandering monk comes in handy – like two years ago, now again I’m using my imagination to turn this into the 3-month solitary meditation retreat that I wanted to do when I was young. This time again, I’ll take an apartment on the 4th floor overlooking a bunch of trees as a decent substitute for the Himalaya.

So how do you go about deepening your mental health recovery while the world apparently panics? For one, confining myself to reading the factual news-sources of course helps (ideally the ones with statistics and graphs for my data-loving brain to predict and work out strategies; not the ones with images that will emotionally activate and induce nightmares via my photographic memory) – and I heartily recommend that to any readers who aren’t doing that yet. But on another level, at a certain skill level the panic seems to be decent fuel for recovery. Now this is again one of my hardcore kamikaze topics, so I’d say, don’t try this at home unless you already are anyways.

Namely, what has been happening to me (especially at the beginning of this) was that of course my panic response got activated a bunch of times. Reading and discussing news led to an undercurrent of dread in the background of my psyche on some days. I woke up a couple of times from nightmares (though that also definitely happens outside pandemics).

My overall observation was, though, that my mental health didn’t get worse at all from that. It seemed more like my usual level of nervousness, dread and flashbacks, as well as obsessive little habits (like not touching anything public and hand-washing – comes in handy) is kind of still the usual level, but now suddenly it’s like the world morphed to match it. My internal experience and external reality now seem to fit together, going hand-in-hand.

That in itself is a bit of a weird experience. Kind of instructive, perhaps? It does show me that my usual (C-PTSD based) state of alarm has a purpose and matches something – the vigilance, cautiousness and constant focus feels like it’s been moulded in advance, ideally shaped to “catch” events like these – I barely need to adapt, I’m already adapted. For example, I already totally pay attention in extreme detail who I meet, how close they get, who and what I touch (I remember it kinaesthetically for hours); I was already carrying out risk-benefit assessments and ethical judgments about tiny daily actions before this (e.g. assessing emotional benefits of meeting X over the risks of later crashing in a shutdown from sensory overload if I travel to them; assessing the benefits of shopping for food that will make me feel good over the cost of again, sensory overload; etc.). These management aspects can probably be linked mostly to autism, but I was also totally in the habit, before this, of dealing with triggers that throw me into physiological panic, and with ominous background tension. In various ways.

The interesting thing is that it seriously didn’t get worse. It almost feels like it got better, as the dissonance between the inner and outer situation has reduced.

I almost feel like I can relax now – kind of just relax into the nervousness and occasional panic – as the foreboding nebulous threat of an undefined apocalyptic disaster that I had been randomly sensing previously (during “normality”) … can kind of “condense” around a specific collective anxiety (the virus and the economies) like moisture condenses on dust to make snowflakes – something solid and visible, which has a shape.

It’s hard to explain, but it is on some levels a sensation of relief. Perhaps it’s just the relief of now just having the right to be the usual level of nervous and panicky and not having to feel guilty, unusual or puzzled about it?

But the other major learning experience in this, I think, is really seeing that at least in my case, since my reactions match an actual crisis situation well and really help me deal with it Ok – without major or unmanageable upheaval – well, that means that my modus operandi is really a kind of efficient crisis management mode. It’s not a metaphor in psychology books. This way of life (functioning) really is effective in crises.

This does feel like a significant insight, validating on some level (yes, my body knows what it’s doing; and yes, an autistic queer with trauma & without supports “normal” apparently really physiologically more or less equals war zone, as I read somewhere but thought is maybe exaggerated. Probably is, as epidemic lockdown is still very far from war zone luckily).

So, digesting that insight into recovery, it’s basically just more self-acceptance. If I don’t have to particularly adjust mentally for crisis, it means that my mode is a crisis coping mode, and that’s not a metaphor or an euphemism. That still means this mode is totally physiologically and psychologically exhausting, but it also means, on the upside, that my body and mind are intelligent – nature is trying to give me the gifts of survival by creating this mode.

Another upside is that, having been chronically stuck in it for decades, I’ve kind of halfway learnt how not to die from it. That is, I don’t panic anymore at the sensations of panic … or at the sensations of anxiety or depression or grief. By now I’m quite experienced at experiencing all of these without setting off a spiral. What I mean to say is, I can panic and then calm down – and in a way, on a meta level, kind of stay calm and “there” (present) even in the middle of the panic.

In other words, intense emotions and sensations are not a reason to freak out anymore, even though they are still intense (I don’t suppress them). But since the intensity is troubling me less, overall it’s like I experience them on a backdrop of “peace” (I don’t like the word) – it’s more like I can more or less feel, think, and be present, rather than be “omg, here is a strong emotion = blackout & collapse!” as I used to be (most credits go to the folks at Dynamic Emotional Integration, or my summary here).

How that translates into recovery – probably sounds funny, but it just gives me more practice with panic, the real thing: makes these sensations very present, and as I digest them, I also digest the older layers of panic from my younger selves. I basically befriend panic (more) and talk with it about how it has shown up in all the early moments that are still stuck in my body and memory – the current situation is like a super-magnet for fishing out the memories of how I felt when I was small, but my panic and other skills actually allow me to digest them now.

Without skills, basically, this would just be a super-trigger leading to collapse. With (some) skills, I think it’s like an opportunity for speeded-up learning: no distractions, waves of panic easily available (but also tools to not let them become too physiologically exhausting), tools to contain them somewhat available = capacity and opportunity for expanded presence. Opportunity to really deeply settle into all these feelings, such that after this, I really know myself and the human condition better, and have expanded capacities for action (or inaction when appropriate). At least that was the result two years ago, when I sat through a similar “quarantine”, but privately.

At that time I was stuck without a partner, really alone and talking to no one except perhaps the shop assistant for months. I certainly got exasperated and desperate sometimes, but I didn’t get bored – my inner self was never short of intense emotions and images to fling at me, and I had decided to take on the challenge of not running away from them but sharing presence with myself at that time. (I don’t remember why, but it felt like the thing to do then.) It of course hurt, but was overall a good experience – when circumstances finally conspired to take me somewhere else, I think I walked away much freer, and much less scared of my mind, my emotions, sensations, and my inner self: and I realised how helpful that actually is in handling the outer world, too. (Simply because much of what used to scare and paralyse me about it was the emotions it used to activate in me.)

That’s why I think these times of intense introspection (or ‘mindfulness’ or whatever you want to call presence to being without distraction) can be good times.

They can also be excellent tools to handle all the other times.

*

Having just started Pete Walker’s book on Complex PTSD, I also think that of course it’s not recommendable to continuously live in crisis mode. But having a kind of crisis and watching other people respond to it while being present with my own reactions is also a bit like … an opportunity to take something that has been frozen (in time, DEI terminology), kind if in an ice cube in the body, and suddenly have it be vibrant and alive.

Of course, with the same skill level as in the past, this is totally out-freaking and chaos generating; but having made some headway, the sudden liveliness and accompanying mould-a-bility and responsiveness of that previously more cemented inner space feels quite incredible. Fossilised and stuck dinosaurs move, suddenly.

*

This sudden inward turn, as well as finally having started Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” also made me philosophise about the value of inward experience and inner life in terms of meaning. I guess I will share about that in coming days.

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