Tinyletter 4: On disobedient energy


My energy goes astray sometimes. I’m rarely in full control of it. Most of the time, it feels like trying to bring an enormous net of balloons under my authority, forever at the risk of floating away.

At best, I’m fidgety. My legs twitch if I try to sit still. I bite my nails, and when I run out of nails, I start on the skin around them. These are the most normal-looking things I do. For some reason, I’m compelled to grab my nose every five minutes or so. I can’t explain it; it just feels like it needs addressing. My ears, too, although less often. And my chin. It’s as if I need to check that my face is still there.

When I’m overstimulated, I talk too fast. I might be stressed, or I might be excited, or there just might be a lot going on in my peripheral vision. Either way, my words rush out so fast that I end up breathless, my voice blown off course into sudden squawks and glitches. I’m usually waving my hands around at the same time. It has nothing to do with wanting to say anything in particular; it’s just a rhythm that my body must find, an energy-releasing pattern. People squint at me and ask me to slow down, or exchange sly glances that they assume I won’t notice. I can’t blame them. It must be like receiving machine-gun fire.

At the worst times –  when I’m exhausted or upset, or my brain has suddenly blanked itself – I feels as though I’ve lost control of my face altogether. The muscles go slack, and I know I’m expressionless. These are the moments that the words go too. I’m nothing, for a little while. I’m on standby. This happened to me yesterday: I was tired, anxious and headachy, and I’d talked to too many people, and I realised that I ought to get myself home and recharge for a while, but I’d left it too late. By the time I set off for my car, I struggled to remember how to walk properly, and I could feel myself performing a robot march, stiff and ungainly, imprecise. All I knew, at the bottom of my brain, was that I needed to make sure nobody saw this. I needed, urgently, to disappear.

Like many women on the autistic spectrum, I have learned to perform my tics and compulsions in private. I have to escape before I shut down. I don’t always pull it off, but mostly I can get away with appearing slightly uncanny rather than downright odd. Alone, I can run my checks at an enhanced speed: nose-ears-chin-nose-ears-chin, sometimes until my face turns red. I can work my fingers into little rolling staircases, over and over, as I have done since I was a child. It’s comforting and necessary; it spends out the energy somehow.

I’m trying to give up on the idea that I have to suppress these things; I’m trying to learn to indulge them. I’m settling into the idea that my physical compulsions are completely normal for people like me, and probably good for me too. ‘Stimming’, as this is called, is just something I need to do and actually, when I do it consciously, I can find more gentle, productive ways to let my stray energy seep out. I can clasp my fingers together and roll my thumbs around and around, savouring the soft, rhythmic whisper of skin against skin until I’m sated. I’m even learning to do it in company, with people watching. They can draw their own conclusions.

I’m beginning to feel lucky to have it, this shortcut to comfort and calm. I wonder what it’s like to be without it, and to live a life whose greatest fear is being different. Sometimes, it’s a privilege to have no choice.

All good wishes,

Subscribe to my tinyletters