Thinking alone

“Why didn’t you tell me?” — On why anxiety stops us from sharing our struggles.5 min read

For many people with an Autism Spectrum Neurology, anx­iety is a con­stant com­panion.  Confiding in others when our anx­iety com­pounds– espe­cially for a spe­cific problem– can be dif­fi­cult, even with someone we trust.

Thinking alone

For the last couple of years I have been in a rela­tion­ship with a woman who is an excel­lent lis­tener. She is objec­tive, sup­portive, and empa­thetic. I can trust her that I can be open and honest without fear of back­lash. So, you’d think I’d have no trouble opening up and sharing prob­lems with her. And yet I still do.

In March, I was strug­gling with a big deci­sion on whether to con­tinue a uni­ver­sity course I’d just started studying.  I was expe­ri­encing sig­nif­i­cant and debil­i­tating anx­iety over assign­ments.  Writing anx­iety is not a new expe­ri­ence for me.  For example, in 2001, it took me most of the morning to write an email whereas my boss said it would have taken him 10 min­utes.  That’s when I started to realise that I really was wired dif­ferent. 

On this occa­sion, I had spent more than 20 hours across a weekend writing around 800 words for an assign­ment.  That’s less than one word per minute!  Writing some­thing like that can be, for me, like trying to run a marathon with a broken leg. Consequently, I started to ques­tion if I should con­tinue with the course if this writing anx­iety was going to be a con­stant problem.

As fur­ther proof of this struggle with writing, I started this article that same weekend and have worked and reworked it numerous times, and I’m only just fin­ishing it more than seven weeks later. 900 words in seven weeks! And even now, as I’m about to hit the pub­lish button, I dread it may not be right and some bleedingly-obvious mis­take of argu­ment or grammar remains.

So, there I was strug­gling with the deci­sion of whether it was worth con­tin­uing studying for another five years with the high anx­iety of written assign­ments. And yet, I didn’t want to tell my partner, despite her being such an objec­tive and sup­portive lis­tener.  I imag­ined her after­wards asking, “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell me what you were strug­gling with?”

So, I thought about it.  What was blocking me?  Why do I not con­fide and seek help and sup­port from those close to me when I’m strug­gling? And I’m sure I’m not alone in this struggle.

Here are some rea­sons I came up with. 

I don’t know what I want you to say.  

This was the first reason I came up with, which is inter­esting in itself.  I want your sup­port, but I just don’t know with what yet. I don’t know if I want encour­age­ment to con­tinue or stop; for or against.    

I haven’t worked it out enough to start

Following on from that, I might not have worked it out enough in my own head to begin talking about it.  Sure, people will say talking helps with under­standing and clarity.  But…

I don’t know how to start the con­ver­sa­tion.

This is sim­ilar to the pre­vious; how­ever, I might know what I want to say, but just don’t know how to start.  Often, it just doesn’t feel like the right time. Or because it is a big thing, it really is hard to start.

Once I tell you, you’ll want updates.  

I might want to tell you things but in my own time.  If I tell, will you want reg­ular updates?  Will I want to talk about it when you ask for updates?

I didn’t want to upset/disappoint/burden you.

Is this more my ego?  Is it that I didn’t want to look like a failure to you?  I know you had shown admi­ra­tion and encour­age­ment, so if I give up and don’t sound con­vincing enough, will you think a little less of me?

It sounds like BS when I tell other people.

It’s hard enough to con­vince other people I have a problem when I even doubt myself that it really is a problem.  

You might try and talk me into “hanging in there”.

In life we fight through many tough sit­u­a­tions.  Afterwards we wonder how, but we get a buzz for having done so.  But when we’re in the thick of it, it’s common and easy to think and feel there’s no way through, no alter­na­tive than giving up.  When I’m feeling like that, I often don’t want to hear from someone telling me to “stick it out” or “hang in there.” 

Why would I want to do that?  Why would I want more of this anx­iety?!  At those times, it’s really hard to believe in the “light at the end of the tunnel.”  Even if all this struggle with my study will be over in five years, and I will be proud of my achieve­ments and excited about what I’ve learned… why would I keep putting myself through this now

We see all these pro­mo­tions, ads, and self-help memes telling us to speak up, tell someone, and so on, but it’s not that black and white.  We do have rea­sons. Anxiety can and does under­mine best inten­tions.

In my pre­vious rela­tion­ship, I thought it was because that trust was broken that I wasn’t sharing my strug­gles with her. Yes, of course, that was a factor.  But I now see even in a strong and healthy rela­tion­ship with someone I trust, anx­iety– and my man­i­fes­ta­tion of Asperger’s– can still make me with­draw and stop com­mu­ni­cating.

So, if someone doesn’t talk to you about a problem they’re strug­gling with, don’t take it per­son­ally.  Maybe they have the same rea­sons I do. Maybe, and likely, they have other rea­sons, too.

And maybe for Aspies who expe­ri­ence Asperger’s/Autism sim­i­larly to me, who like to resolve things in our heads first, who process inces­santly– which may be con­sid­ered a form of echologia (such as exces­sively replaying argu­ments, sce­narios, or con­ver­sa­tions over and over in our minds)– that’s what works for us.

But most impor­tantly, it’s not per­sonal.

Note: This is the author’s own expe­ri­ence of Asperger’s and should not be inter­preted as defining Autism or Asperger’s. Autism/Asperger’s man­i­fests and presents uniquely in each person.

chrishoward

19 Comments

  1. LOL. This site is full of arti­cles pro­claiming that autis­tics need to think, feel, and behave like NTs in order to be valid humans.

    If you feel anx­iety about opening up to NTs, that is your instinct reminding you that NTs cannot be trusted, and you should heed that warning. NTs don’t see autis­tics as any­thing but defec­tive mon­sters, and they will use any info you give them to sab­o­tage you at every pos­sible oppor­tu­nity.

    Don’t take my word for it; keep trying to “be normal” and fuck around with NTs.
    You’ll see.

    1. Author

      LOL to that last com­ment, BBB! It’s ironic too, isn’t it, that NTs tell us we lack empathy yet often they don’t dis­play empathy for us and our strug­gles, demanding instead we change to fit in with them. Interestingly, my cur­rent partner is almost cer­tainly on the Spectrum… maybe that’s why she is more empa­thetic. 😀

      1. Yes, it’s a con­flict I struggle with con­stantly. Recent example:
        I live in a mental health facility and most of the res­i­dents with pets neglect and abuse them hor­ribly, and staff refuse to take any action about it. When I get pissed and start ordering the res­i­dents to care for their pets, the staff say I am being nar­cis­sistic for telling others what to do, and also that I can’t be autistic because I’m dis­playing “empathy” for the pets by insisting they be cared for prop­erly.
        All I’m thinking is:
        “How much fucking ’empathy’ does it take to know that large dogs living in microa­part­ments need fresh air and exer­cise more than once a week? And more impor­tantly, in a building full of sup­posed Non-autistics and social workers, WHY AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO HAS ENOUGH BALLS OR SENSE OR ‘EMPATHY’ TO DO ANYTHING ABOUT THIS???”

        I am glad you have a spec­trumy partner. I love autistic men but they can’t stand me because twenty years of self-guided mar­i­juana therapy have turned me into the “talky and enthu­si­astic” type of autistic (as opposed to “silent and starey”), and autistic men find that a HUGE turn-off.

        What I really want is to find a ther­a­pist who is on the spec­trum, but when­ever I find one, they get mad at me for “seeing through their mask” that they *thought* they were clev­erly hiding their Sperg under. All I have to do is men­tion my own autism to these hiders and their face instantly gets that scared-rabbit look (“OH MY GOD! Am I hiding it??? CAN SHE SEE ME!?”), and then the mask tries to go back up and they pre­tend they have no idea what I’m talking about, so I’ll go
        “Really? because you show some traits your­self. Maybe you should get tested.”
        Then they know I’m not lying about being autistic, and they also know their con­cealed shame has been exposed, so they pre­tend to “leave town” so they don’t have to take appoint­ments with me.

        I see Autistics who pose as NT as trai­tors. Fuck them.

    2. Sorry you feel so strongly about NTs. There is no way that any of the NTs I know would think that Aspies are ‘defected mon­sters’ or would want to ‘sab­o­tage you at every pos­sible oppor­tu­nity’. It’s rather an out­dated per­spec­tive for anyone to take. But, I assume you have had a very poor per­sonal expe­ri­ence and that is why you are saying those things about NTs. It is very unkind if some­body has wronged you in such a way. Not nice at all.

      1. If you spend your life taking every­thing NTs say at face-value, you will never know what they are really like.
        Which is not nec­es­sarily a bad thing.

        Read the Crime sec­tion of any news site if you want to know what they are really like. I rec­om­mend taking spe­cial note of arti­cles filled with grin­ning Facebook photos of mur­derers and their vic­tims, seeming so “pos­i­tive” and “con­nected”, right up until the moment their true inten­tions became apparent and someone ended up dead.

        And while I appre­ciate the back­handed attempt to make me to blame for my per­cep­tion of NTs by having “bad expe­ri­ences”, one needn’t have had any “bad expe­ri­ences” with NTs in order to see them for what they truly are. One needs only to stop trying to “fit in” with them by par­roting their social pro­pa­ganda long enough to actu­ally detach and observe them hon­estly.

        Fragile people should avoid it.

    3. Your com­ment makes me wonder if you have actu­ally both­ered to read any article here, including this one, CAREFULLY. Because they must cer­tainly are not about what you claim they are.

      1. Many are though, if not inten­tion­ally. Most autis­tics have just inter­nal­ized the need to think, act and behave like NTs so thor­oughly that it’s second-nature, they don’t realize how much effort they expend on it.

        Mask now; sui­cide later.

  2. Yes to all of your points in this article! Very well thought out and great descrip­tions. You’re saying what I’m feeling each time I want to open up to someone. And a great descrip­tion of the effort it takes to write a short passage/article like this, as I’m exactly the same way.

    1. Author

      Thanks, Michael! It’s always nice to hear when other people have a sim­ilar struggle.

      1. Hi Chris, what a very good piece of writing. It helped me under­stand my partner a bit more. Unless AS people tell us NTs then we won’t know what’s going on. 🙂

        1. Author

          Thanks, Michelle. That is def­i­nitely what I was hoping.

  3. Chris, I absolutely relate to every­thing you have written here. It val­i­dates who I know I am. I hope it will also help NT’s learn our ways of being and com­mu­ni­cating too. The more people share how things are, my hope is that con­nec­tions can be made and new under­stand­ings can be reached.

    1. Author

      Thanks! Very hum­bling feed­back. And I totally agree too.

  4. Very inter­esting, thank you. Myself, my 14 year old son and 18 year old daughter are all Autistic it I must say it doesn’t always qualify us to under­stand each other. As we have read a mil­lion times one person with autism is exactly that; one person with autism.
    My son is suf­fering ter­ribly at the moment and it’s heart­breaking. He is very anx­ious and depressed and I really don’t know what to do. As you explained it took him a long time to even find the words to tell me because he didn’t know what out­come he wanted. He still doesn’t and the three of us together are anx­ious and stressed; we all ‘get it’, but fixing it is another matter.




  5. While your expe­ri­ence may be related to autism in that you expe­ri­ence more anx­iety because of it, I do not think that not wanting to open up to others is unique to aspies/autistics. It seems to me that it is a human thing, rather than an aspie/autistic thing. Of course, we prob­ably think about it and ago­nise about it and analyse and reanalyse it more than NTs would on average, but isn’t everyone afraid of sharing our deepest feel­ings with another person, espe­cially someone who is close, for fear that the reac­tion may either inval­i­date or rein­force those feel­ings (fear of the unknown)? After, all, even though you could not open up to the one closest to you, by writing this, you have revealed your feel­ings to the whole world (i.e. a lot of people you don’t care about and who do not par­tic­u­larly care about you), and that is easier than revealing your feel­ings to someone whose reac­tion truly mat­ters to you.

  6. WRITING ANXIETY I did not know that was a thing other people expe­ri­enced!! Even replies to a mes­sage from a close friend can take a few days before I have the energy to attempt, then take any­where from 30 mins to a few hours, (leaving it and coming back to it because I have ME/CFS so very lim­ited con­cen­tra­tion now, but I was just as bad before and would spend solid hours crafting even a 3‑line e‑mail).

    There are times I doubt my sus­pi­cions about being a spec­tru­mite because a lot of anx­iety I’ve man­aged to let go over the past few years, and I’ve learned tech­niques that almost come nat­u­rally to me now — espe­cially for empathising with others, though maybe emo­tion­ally I’ve gone too far the other way and opened flood­gates rather than just allowing appro­priate emo­tional inten­sity. But then things like this that I don’t face everyday (due to being vir­tu­ally house­bound and with no job, no real life because I’m cur­rently so ill) are still mon­u­mental efforts, and to hear that aspies struggle … Well, it makes me doubt my sus­pi­cions a little less.

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