Tag Archives: metaphor

Talking about horses again

So where I ride, there’s this one horse I want to talk about a bit. His name is Stitch. Stitch is fairly old, fairly creaky and stiff, and does not have a huge amount of energy. He won’t win any races or fly over jumps, and when riding him you can’t push him too far because he just only has so much in him.

And it’s SO WEIRD to write about him that way. Because at my barn, that’s just not how we talk about horses. We don’t bother to spend time talking a lot about what a horse can’t do, because we understand that every horse has something that they *can* do, and that’s what we focus on.

Overall, we do not rely on horses in our society the way we did in the past. We don’t really need horses for our everyday lives. Yet even so, there are still a solid number of tasks out there for horses to do. There are pulling horses, jumping horses, running horses, barrel racing horses, therapy horses, dressage horses, and probably more. Many of those jobs cannot overlap, so a horse that is very good at one job would be terrible at another. We, as horse people, understand that it would be absurd to choose one arbitrary standard by which to judge all horses, so we don’t do that. We don’t even talk about how we should not judge horses that way, because it is a non-issue for us.

So at my barn, when we talk about Stitch, we talk about his strengths. And yes, he does have them. We’ll talk about how he’s sweet and kind and gentle. We’ll praise him for never losing control and being disinclined to spook. We put beginners and brand new riders on him, because he is a wonderful lesson horse, taking things slow and gentle for people who are first learning. He’ll carry disabled riders in his role as a therapy horse. He is very very good at those things.

It just makes practical sense to find each horse’s strength and focus their job around that. To do anything else just be, well, ridiculous.

So why is it so hard for us to do that with people?

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My Anxiety Metaphor

Creative commons image of window by Gary McNair on flickr

Image is of a window, looking out onto countryside.

I can’t remember if I’ve actually spelled out this particular metaphor I use for my anxiety before, but I thought I’d give a post to it. Now, anxiety can be described in a lot of different ways. This metaphor is not designed to cover ALL of it, but is a way for me to conceptualize what it’s like to try to do a thing that is triggering anxiety.

Basically, it’s like I have a wall in front of me, with a window in it. The window has some transparent material in it, but I have no idea what that material is. Nor do I have any way to find out, outside of just running straight at it and flinging myself at it. This is, of course, a risky activity, but for the most part it is the only method I have for doing things which make me nervous.

What happens next can generally be categorized in three different ways.

  1. I find out the window was made of shatter glass. When I fling myself at it I go straight through, with no more than a few little scratches. I can keep on running and do what I wanted to do. YAY! This is a victory! The obstacle was not a big deal, and I was able to run right through it!
  2. The window turns out to be made of regular glass. I still get through it, but I get very damaged in the process. Cuts, lacerations, bleeding, pain, overall badness. In this scenario, I can generally still suck it up at least for a little while to do whatever it was I was going to do, but I require a lot of recovery time and self-care afterwards.
  3. It’s plexiglass. Or transparent aluminum. Or something along those lines. Instead of getting through, I bounce off and get a concussion or broken bones in the process. Lots of damage, lots of care required after to recover, and no ability to keep going. In literal terms, this means I got a panic attack or had a meltdown.

The hard part is that the lead-up to all three of these outcomes feels the same, which is why I cannot predict which outcome I will get. At least, not from the lead-up. Deciding whether or not to fling myself at the window is a matter of weighing possibilities and risks. If I’ve done a thing several times before and it’s window has been consistent, I’ll be able to figure that the window will probably (though not definitely) be the same again. So, for instance, a window in front of me when I’m horseback riding is probably shatter glass and I can just go right through it. A window when I’m about to enter in some form of group socialization has a high probability of being plexiglass.

A lot of times, though, I really don’t know. I have to decide if it’s worth the risk to fling myself at it, and if I decide that it is, go for it. It’s also worth noting – waiting for the wall to go away so that I have an obstacle-free path ahead of me is not an option. The wall will never, ever go away. Choosing to wait until I “feel better” is just the same as choosing to not do the thing. As such, I do not have that particular option – I can either try to do the thing, or not do it at all (and if it is an option for you, then you are very fortunate).

My anxiety meds have changed the game, but not necessarily in the way I thought they would. I had thought that I wouldn’t get those walls anymore, but I guess my meds can’t fix me THAT much. I still get them. I still have to leap through windows, hoping they won’t hurt me. The major difference is that now, there is an extremely high probability that the window is made of shatter glass. And the more I leap through windows and find myself ok, the easier it is for me to keep leaping through windows. My chest still squeezes, my heart still thumps, my breath still speeds up, but then I’m ok.

Of course, I still hit plexiglass once in a while. I don’t think anything will take that out of my life completely. But for those instances, I have yet another med – a more hardcore anti-anxiety that is only to be used situationally, if I need it. The tricky part is that I gather I should take it before I actually hit the plexiglass, but it is very difficult for me to tell ahead of time what it’s going to be. But there are still some situations (hello, group socializing!) that are likely to have the worst of the obstacles in their way, so I try to remember to use it for that.

And that, dear readers, is what anxiety is like for me.

Do you use a metaphor for your anxiety? Or depression or other thing that impacts your life? I’d love to read about it if you do, please comment and share if you are comfortable doing so!

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I’m not going to fight my own mind

Let’s talk a little about metaphors. Metaphors are pretty cool, and they are pervasive in our society. In fact, neurotypicals have a tendency to not even think about them or sometimes even be aware that they are speaking in metaphors. We are so surrounded and immersed in metaphor it’s like the air – something barely even thought about.

Unless something in the air doesn’t quite fit, or you can’t seem to breathe right. Suddenly the air is very much on your mind (talking about metaphors using a metaphor. yep). When you’re autistic, metaphors don’t flow as smoothly as they do for other people. I know that I tend to be more aware of them than many people around me.

Now, I am here to talk about one particular metaphor. One that is rarely questioned (though it is sometimes, and the questioning is growing) but I think causes many problems. That being – the “battle” or “enemy” metaphor for illness. A friend shared this really great article going over many of the problems with the utterly pervasive battle/fighter/war/enemy metaphor that is used in medicine. Thing is, a metaphor is not simply a word thing, about helping us convey a concept. The metaphors we choose to use actually play a really deep role in how we conceptualize ourselves and the world around us. If you want to read more about that, read the book Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson.

With illness or disease, we push people to view the illness as an enemy to fight. We say the person who is sick is a fighter, and encourage them to view themselves this way. Medicine, doctors, tests, etc all become weapons in this fight. I think we hope that this metaphor will help people in dealing with their disease, but there is growing evidence that this is actually not helping. From the previously linked article:

“1970, Polish physician Zbigniew Lipowski introduced a framework for characterizing the meaning that patients ascribe to their illnesses. These categories include viewing illness as a challenge, value, enemy, or loss, among others. Since then, studies that have interviewed cancer patients around the time of diagnosis and followed them for years after have found that patients who view their disease as an “enemy” tend to have higher levels of depression and anxiety, and poorer quality of life than those who ascribe a more positive meaning. They also tend to report higher pain scores and lower coping scores.

Which basically means – this metaphor is not working.

However, I also want to look at it a bit in terms of the things I deal with – autism, depression, and anxiety. These are all things to do with my mind. Literally – my brain. They are all happening right here in my head. Now, with autism it is obvious. While some people out there still want to “fight” autism, I find it utterly bizarre. You cannot separate autism and me, so there can be no fighting autism without fighting myself. When you tell a child that autism is an enemy, you are telling them that their own brain is their enemy.

For me, this even extends to depression and anxiety. They’re in my brain. I don’t want to fight my brain. They’re part of the chemicals my body makes. I don’t want to fight my body. If I really, REALLY look at them, in the end if they are my enemy then so is my body. I am not interested in making my body my enemy.

On top of that, for me they are chronic conditions. In the war metaphor the best I can hope for is a stalemate. I will never truly win. What a terrible way to view my life. I don’t want to see myself as fighting a war I can never win.

So I’m not going to.

Not that it will be easy. It is SO easy to view my body as my enemy, my problems as my opponents to defeat. My culture is absolutely saturated in this metaphor and there is no getting away from it. This can only work as a conscious and deliberate choice on my part to reject my culture’s dominant metaphor and replace it with my own. It is a choice to accept myself, with all that it entails. It will be hard. It will take work. I believe it will be worth it.

Therefore, depression and anxiety are challenges. They are part of my mountain to climb. They are problems that I can find a solution for.

Ok, I actually want to look at that last one a little more closely. The book Metaphors We Live By that I mentioned before had something really interesting to say about the phrase “solution to my problems.” It involved a non-native english speaker hearing the phrase, and seeing an elegant metaphor in it. One that we don’t actually use, but I think is much better than the way we currently use the phrase.

What if by “solution” we meant it in the chemistry sense:

  1. the process by which a gas, liquid, or solid is dispersed homogeneously in a gas, liquid, or solid without chemical change.
  2. such a substance, as dissolved sugar or salt in solution.

So, for example, salt water is a solution. In this metaphor, the “solution” to our problems is the substance in which we can dissolve as many of our problems as possible, while precipitating out as few as possible. I want to dissolve my depression, my anxiety, my sensory problems, etc. Some of this is accomplished with medication, some with certain boundaries on what I do and how I do them, some with care of what I eat, and so on and so forth.

With the metaphor, it is presumed that these problems don’t actually go away. They are simply currently dissolved. It means that if something changes (and anything can cause a change), they might precipitate out of the solution, requiring us to tweak it. It does not mean we’ve done something wrong, it does not mean we lost, it does not mean we have to fight another battle. It’s just something that happens and that’s ok. We simply continue the process of finding the best solution at the time – and the best solution will definitely change over time. That’s life. It’s no big deal.

I like this metaphor much better. I may have enemies to fight, but they will not be my own body.

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“Just Feel”

Time for more on journeys in chemically-induced emotional changes!

Several weeks ago I was talking to my psychiatrist about how it’s actually the negative feelings that I’m having trouble adjusting to. I mean, they’re better. Lots better. Tons better. Holy CRAP better. They are also, however, different, in a fairly fundamental way. I find it throws me a bit for a loop.

My metaphor for my strong emotional states tended to be either a river or a sea. Basically, a raging torrent of water threatening to carry me away or drown me, or both. These emotional states were dangerous to me on a number of levels, and I had to be careful.

So my coping methods were largely about staying above them, or staying grounded, and creating barriers between myself and my depression or my fear so that I could stay sane and at least partially functional.

Letting those barriers down so that I could just feel what I was feeling was always a risky proposition. If things were bad, it meant losing at least a day in overwhelming feels, and simply accepting that until it passed I would not be able to function beyond the very basics of survival, and even those were really difficult. As such, “just feel” was not a thing I did very often. It was very low on my coping method list (probably just one or two items above self injury, actually), and even when I did use it, I usually tried it in mitigated forms first. To extend my metaphor (my emotional metaphor got really quite involved), I did a lot of “riding the wave.” Tread water, keep my head up, wait until it passes but don’t let myself drown.

Now, though, it’s all different. I don’t seem to have that depression river anymore. Now it’s more like a fog, and it’s so different that it’s really quite confusing. The river was dangerous. When it flooded its banks and tried to wash me away, I had to be careful. However, the river also had direction. I knew where it was going and where I would end up if it swallowed me. I also knew that if I could get to high ground and wait it out, things would be really rough but ultimately I’d be ok.

The fog is different. I can’t make a barrier between myself and my feelings anymore. It’s also no longer threatening to wash me away. It’s just sorta… there, and I find myself wondering what the heck to do with it when it shows up. The things that used to be high on my list – barriers, higher ground, cling to something solid, ride the wave – all no longer apply. My psychiatrist reminded me of the “just feel” option, and I was actually a little amused. The option that had always been dangerous and scary and better avoided if possible is suddenly supposed to be at the top of my list. So basically, this is yet another type of change that I totally didn’t anticipate – the nature of some of my emotions have changed, and the basics of how I should deal with them have changed as well.

Here’s hoping I get used to this “just feel” thing being a primary, go-to technique.

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What’s your goal?

To parents and teachers of autistic children;

Or really, to anyone who is working with autistic children, I want to ask you. What’s your goal?

I’m not talking about the various individual goals you may be working on at any given time. I know for myself I can really only choose a small number of things to work on at a time, which means a lot of picking and choosing. I’m talking about the over-arching goal. The long-term goal. The goal that helps you choose what to work on and what to let go.

This has been something that’s been burbling around for a while now, in my head. I lurk in a few different autism spaces (not because I’m trying to be creepy, I’m just really more of a lurker than a participator no matter where I am), and I see parents asking for help or advice about various challenges they are facing with their children. Sometimes those questions are good, and sometimes those questions leave me raising my eyebrows as to why, exactly, a parent is choosing to fight that particular battle. I’m talking about questions like how to stop a child from stimming, or how to force a child to do a thing that obviously hurts them, or how to make them want to socialize when they’d clearly rather read.

At first I was just going to write about how these are bad questions, but a recent conversation I had in yet another autism space gave me a new way to frame things.

A parent was asking about the ethics of autistic adults to teaching autistic children. I don’t really think they had a solidly coherent argument, but it was mostly apparently about how we have to make autistic children modify their behavior, and autistic adults have the same behavior so can’t teach the modifications. They also brought up the “blind leading the blind” analogy.

I thought that was interesting. I like metaphors, so let’s look at this blind leading the blind thing, shall we? Only lets change that to the blind *teaching* the blind. We live in a society that simply assumes people can see. All sorts of important information about getting around in the world is conveyed visually, and is thus difficult or outright impossible for a blind person to make use of. As a seeing person, I can never understand what it is like to navigate the world while blind. I can read about it, study it, listen to blind people who describe their experiences, but I can never ever really understand. Only another blind person can.

So who is best to teach a young blind person how to navigate the world while blind? Seeing people who cannot understand, or blind people who understand the challenges, make personal use of the tools at their disposal, and have been through the learning process that the child is going through?

Of course, maybe that’s not your goal. Maybe your goal is to make it so that the blind person simply doesn’t look blind. So that anyone who looks at a blind person won’t know that they are doing so and maybe feel uncomfortable. Of course, this goal is frequently incompatible with said blind person actually being able to independently navigate and live in our society. It would involve taking important tools away from them and leaving them dependent on sighted people in a way that shouldn’t be necessary.

It seems painfully obvious to me that the goal should be “learn to navigate the world while blind.” Saying otherwise is simply absurd.

So how come when it comes to autistic children, the goal is so often “don’t look autistic” rather than “learn to live in/navigate the world while autistic”? There will be times when these goals blur together a bit, but there are also plenty of times when they are diametrically opposed. If you have a goal to stop your child from flapping their hands, why is that? What over-arching life-goal does it fit into – being able to navigate the world while autistic, or simply looking not-autistic?

I really hope your goal is to teach autistic children how best to live in the world while autistic. I really hope that you understand what that means – including things like making sure they have the tools to do so, even if it means their autism is visible. It also means including autistic adults – people who know what it’s like, who have experiences in what works and what doesn’t work, people who have been there and done that.

Overall, it’s something I really hope you keep in mind when you work with autistic children. Someday that autistic child is going to be an autistic adult. What’s your goal?

Make it a good one.

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social contact

In brief – socializing is complicated!  That’s about all I really want to say, but I like to write so I’m going to continue.

I tend to liken socialization to a dance.  It has moves and flow and rhythm, but it’s all stuff that you’re supposed to pick up on subconsciously as you grow up.  I occasionally talk about this to an NT friend of mine, and from what I gather, most people aren’t even aware of the dance as they’re doing it.  It all becomes so automatic that they think they aren’t doing much of anything at all.  As an aspie, I know otherwise.  The dance is very complicated, and subtle changes to the rhythm can have huge effects in ways I can’t even begin to describe.

So my social dance is significantly simplified.  I never do parties, because I just can’t seem to learn that dance.  Even if I could, I imagine it would always be stressful and unpleasant.  I also do not socially network.  I do not have a large network of acquaintances and people I know and such.  Hell, I don’t even text.  Ok, I do text sometimes, but it is not a form of social contact for me.  For me, ‘friend’ is synonymous with ‘close friend.’  If a person is not really close to me and vice versa, I do not consider them a friend.  They are an acquaintance or friendly acquaintance.  Relatively recently I have started using the word “buddy” to indicate a person that I enjoy socializing with if I happen to see them, but otherwise do not seek out.  It’s only pretty recently that I’ve learned how to have that level of social contact at all.

For me, keeping connections with people takes energy.  If I’m not getting more back than I am spending to keep the connection alive, then it isn’t worth having.  I gather with most people it’s the other way around – connections to people give them energy, rather than take it.  It’s a very strange thing for me to ponder, but I guess it takes all kinds.

In any case, to me, even my form of social interaction is fairly complicated, even though it’s still much simpler than the dance that most people do.  In conclusion: socializing is complicated!

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