As those of you have been reading will know, this past week and a half has been a mess of PTSD for me. Thankfully, I finally seem to be starting to come out of this flare, but I’m not out of the woods yet. However, I’m finally at a place where I can think and process better which has allowed me to get closer to the roots of the emotions I’ve been feeling as well as analyzing my reactions. Something I keep coming back to is the ways that autism and PTSD interact to create a unique experience of trauma.
One of the biggest challenges this past week has been figuring out what I’m even feeling. As a part of my autism, I am alexthymic. In other words, I struggle to identify what I’m feeling at any given time. I can usually tell that what I’m feeling is good or bad, but, beyond that, I’m often at a loss, particularly when more than one emotion comes into play. Over this past week, I’ve had to work hard to identify my emotions in order to deal with them.
For instance, last night, I had a sudden, intense mood swing. I knew what train of thought had caused it, but I couldn’t tell what I was feeling. As such, I started talking things out with Husband as he is usually really good at helping me determine what’s going on. He’s great at asking the right questions to help me figure things out. We started with identifying that this was a bad feeling and that it was very much something not nothing so we were able to eliminate apathy. From there, I took stock of my body to help give me clues. I was very tense and on edge and my heart was beating quickly. This helped me figure out that one of the emotions was anxiety. I also felt like I could cry, but that wasn’t very helpful as I can cry for a lot of different emotions. Husband and I kept talking. He would present possibilities of what I was feeling and thinking which was a huge help for me. Some of his suggestions immediately felt wrong which helped eliminate more possibilities. Finally, after almost an hour, I was able to figure out that the crying feeling was either frustration or anger based on the way my eyes felt.
An hour of talking and processing was what it took for me to get a somewhat clear answer for what I was feeling. Sometimes it doesn’t take that long, yet other times it can take many hours or even a couple days for me to identify what I’m feeling. When dealing with PTSD, this can make things more difficult. It’s challenging to deal with the after effects of trauma when you’re not even sure what you’re feeling at any given time, particularly when many resources and suggestions aimed at people coping with PTSD are very emotion based and require knowledge of what one is feeling.
In a similar vein, along with struggling to know what I’m feeling at any given time, I typically am unaware of my affect. I usually have no idea what my face or voice are doing. This can add an extra layer of difficulty when dealing with the emotional after effects of trauma. Because I am so unaware of the expression my face is making, my face often reveals things to others that I’m not even aware of myself. My face betrays my emotional state, particularly to those who know me well, even when I’m not sure what I’m feeling. This often leads to questions like “Are you ok?” or “What’s wrong?” when I’m not prepared to answer. This can lead to frustration both for myself and for those who care about me who may want to help but are stymied by my inability to provide answers.
However, one of the biggest ways that autism and PTSD intersect for me is in my verbal abilities. Most of the time I am verbal. I have a large vocabulary, speak eloquently, and most people who interact with me would never believe there are times I can’t talk. Yet, when I get too stressed or upset or overwhelmed or tired or too much of anything, I can lose my ability to speak. For me, when this happens, I have a ton of thoughts whirring about in my head in word form and everything but there’s a disconnect between my thoughts and my mouth. No matter how hard I try to make my mouth move, no matter how much I focus on getting words out, my mouth refuses to cooperate. Sometimes, I’ll go what I refer to as partially verbal which is when words still make it out of my mouth but not the words I want or need to say. Usually when I’m in this state, I can answer questions that are asked of me but cannot initiate communication. Even so, when asked questions, the words that come out often do not align with what I’m actually thinking or feeling. I may say yes when I mean no or say I’m fine when that is so far from the truth.
Since I am only nonverbal occasionally, I don’t yet have a good tool kit for dealing with this. I have an app on my phone that I can type into and it will speak for me but the voice sounds strange to me and I worry that I’ll annoy other people so I often don’t use it even when it would be a huge help. Similarly, since this is only an occasional problem for me, many of the people I interact with either don’t know that it happens or don’t know how to tell when it’s happening. I’m a relatively quiet person most of the time. I often sit and listen in group conversations with only minimal participation, so if I go nonverbal, it may just seem like I’m particularly quiet that day even though in my head I’m screaming. The frustration of desperately wanting to be heard but not being able to speak often makes the situation work which makes it take longer for me to regain verbal speech. Most frustrating, however, is when I’m partially verbal and need someone else to initiate conversation in order to be able to speak. It is very overwhelming to desperately want to talk to someone about what is wrong but to need them to ask in order to be able to make words come out.
My nonverbal episodes can make it very difficult to get the help I need in the moment as I’m not able to communicate what I need to those who would help me. This in and of itself is a huge way that my autism affects my experience of trauma and PTSD. However, with this most recent PTSD flare, I’ve had a realization that has frightened me to my very core.
When I’m in a stressful situation, I have the potential to go partially verbal or nonverbal. This makes me very vulnerable. It means that if I find myself in a dangerous situation again, I may not be able to say no or yell for help. If I find myself in another sexual situation that is heading in a direction I’m not comfortable with, I may not be able to say no or my mouth may betray me and say yes before I can process what is going on. That’s what happened with Ludo. My verbal abilities failed me in that moment and allowed a word to escape that did not reflect how I actually felt. That one moment kicked off a chain of long forgotten memories of all the times in the past when my words have failed me. All the times when my mouth said yes despite a no ringing in my head. All the times I was unable to say anything at all despite the words screaming through my mind unable to reach my mouth.
This vulnerability is terrifying. I realize that I’ve always been this vulnerable, but now that I’ve realized the extent of my vulnerability and the ways in which I am an easy target (I’m also physically disabled and would not be able to fight off an attacker in many cases), the terror is set deep within my bones. It’s a fear that has been following me for a week and a half, clouding my thoughts and affecting my experience of the world. My fear of men has intensified again. I fear being out alone at night once more. I fear possibilities that may never come to pass.
Additionally, I fear for all of my autistic brothers and sisters. I already knew that we are victimized at astonishingly high rates compared to the general public, but now that reality has truly hit home. I now have a much greater understanding of why we are targeted. For those who are fully nonverbal, they can’t say no and who will they tell after the fact? For those, like myself, who are partially nonverbal, we may not be able to say no and our social difficulties may prevent us from reporting crimes committed against us. Autistic people also tend to be more trusting which can lead us to miss red flags until we find ourselves in a dangerous situation. We are a very vulnerable group and there are many terrible people out there who take advantage of that vulnerability.
The after effects of trauma and PTSD are very challenging for anyone to deal with. Yet for those of us who are autistic, there are additional challenges and complications that factor in to dealing with trauma. Whether it’s not being able to determine what we’re feeling in order to deal with what has happened or difficulties with verbal communication, trauma as an autistic can be a minefield of extra difficulties. To all of the autistics out there who are dealing with their own trauma (and I know there are many of us), please give yourself time to heal. The additional complications we face in dealing with trauma can mean that it may take longer to heal than it would for someone else. Remember that your healing journey is an individual journey that can’t be compared to others’. You are strong for what you have survived and what you make it through every day. Hold onto that strength a little longer and remember that it’s possible to find happiness again, even if it doesn’t seem like it right now.