The Entanglement of Emotion on the Spectrum4 min read

Myth: Autistics don’t feel emotions.

Bzzzzt. Wrong.

As someone with Asperger’s, I can testify to the fact of that being 100% false. My emotions are often overwhelming. My sensory perceptions are often overwhelming. In both cases, they can be debilitating.

First, let’s look at the positives. Having strong emotional reactions to humanitarian issues makes me a strong advocate, a fighter for those in need of help, an ally to those who are unfairly judged, and a person who feels another’s pain almost as strongly as they do.

I’m considered to be a good friend for my emotional sensitivity in this respect. I also tend to be someone others come to for advice or guidance. My therapist once asked me if I’d ever thought of being a therapist. The irony made me chuckle.

And now the negatives. Often, I am overwhelmed to tears and thrust into a depressive state over things I see on the news. The abuse of people and animals, the senseless tragedies perpetuated by humans, the natural disasters that destroy lives, and almost any story involving someone deeply hurting… all of those things seem to take root in my soul and the pain becomes my own. It’s overwhelming and too much to bear.

I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older to construct walls. They are retractable walls because I don’t want to completely close out things that draw on my emotions. They are flood gates, as I see them in my mind. Since having children, I’ve found that my empathy is most needed for them rather than the stranger on tv.

My children and family now get the majority of my empathy and the rest is still reserved for friends and even the strangers in the news. It’s taken a lot of directed thought to hone in on and begin the construction process of these floodgates– and even more directed thought on learning how to operate them so that I don’t end up in a state of overload, depression, or hopelessness.

Dead inside? Pffft. It’s quite the opposite.

There is an over abundance of activity inside. My whole life has involved me learning how to manage all of these feelings that sometimes try to drown me or whip me into a tornadic state of confusion. I’ve had to learn how to try to identify the feelings that are often unidentifiable. They are a mixture of many feelings and there is no name for them. They are often so deeply and complicatedly intertwined that there is no untangling them.

I do the best I can. Sometimes, I fail, and I have an anxiety or panic attack, or, less commonly, a meltdown. It’s my internal response to being in the middle of the entanglement with no identifiable pathway out. It’s when I can’t find a place to begin untangling the giant rubber band ball of emotions in which I find myself.

An anxiety attack or meltdown is my purging of those emotions. It’s not pretty. It’s not quiet or delicate. It’s anger, frustration, failure, helplessness, fear, and lack of understanding rising up like lava in a volcano. Anxiety or panic attacks are eruptions that spew lava down the sides of the mountain, but they don’t reach the village.

Meltdowns shoot lava hundreds of feet in the air before it runs down the side of the mountain and wipes out all vegetation and ultimately the village. Anxiety or panic attacks take hours to recover from. Meltdowns take days to recover from and affect those around me.

I discovered SSRI medications after having my first child and discovering I had PPD (postpartum depression). I was anti-mental health medication my whole life, until another life was fully dependent on me and my mental health had to be of highest priority. I discovered that SSRI’s calmed the volcano and made eruptions more sporadic. My medication kept the floodgates half open and my emotions at more of an even keel.

There are still times the floodgates go haywire. It’s usually when the operator has been working too much overtime, but those moments are fewer and farther between. I still remember the moment my SSRI medication first kicked in. I was on the floor watching Downton Abbey while my son played next to me. I suddenly felt a calm that I had never felt before. I remember thinking to myself, This is what other people feel like inside.

It made me really happy and also really sad to know that I had been carrying this burden on my back for so long when I didn’t have to.  It was an amazing moment I will never forget.

I tried to experiment going off my SSRI medication last summer. It was a terrible and frightening experience. I was a mess of uncontrollable emotions and was completely drowning. On a positive note, it led me to a behavioral health clinic and a diagnosis of Asperger’s. I also learned that the medication is imperative for me to take at this point in my life.

There may come a day when my kids have left the nest, and I’m retired when I try to experiment with stopping my SSRI medication again. Until then, I will go with what I know works for me.

I’m in my early 40’s and finally feeling content in my life, my identity, my place on the spectrum, and really beginning to understand myself.

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