My earliest memory dates from some time in 1981; at least I like to think that was the year. I remember laying face down on the brown threadbare carpet in our front room; the winter sun streaming silently through floor to ceiling windows and warming my soft blonde hair. I rolled over in my little onesie and watched the dust motes dance through the air above me and knew then, at just a year or two old, in some ancient all-knowing matter-of-fact way that the universe was an amazing, magical, beautiful place.
Fourteen years later, I walked out of a doctor’s office in Parramatta with a shiny new prescription in one hand and the telephone number for LifeLine in the other. The doctor ushered me out with bone-deep exhaustion and the instruction to ‘call these guys if you want to talk to somebody.’ He’d seen it so many times. So many kids, over and over. It’s so damn common these days, he might think to himself. This is 1994! There’s no war, no recession, things are good – what have they got to worry about?
My mum called bullshit on the whole deal. ‘Well, that’s ridiculous,’ she sniffed. ‘You’re just low in Vitamin B,’ she told me after I’d summoned every cell in my body to walk towards her in the kitchen that day and tell her what I’d done. I’d gone and got myself diagnosed with a mental illness.
Right, my mum decided, and marched me off to appointments with her doctors. But the 2nd, 3rd, 4th opinions that she had hoped for were not forthcoming. ‘I’m afraid it’s major depression,’ her own doctor solemnly announced.
So, I’m depressed. Okay.
Mum never really spoke of it again.
The label never sat well with me; I saw too much joy in the world, was too fascinated by beauty, too distracted by clouds, too observant of beetles. Depressed meant sad, low, miserable, grey; didn’t it? Throughout the subsequent fifteen years of my life that I laboured under the banner of depression, I don’t remember my mental state being such that I could not get out of bed, could not go to work, could not eat. I didn’t stop ‘finding enjoyment in things’ – the issue was that I edited and sub-edited myself so many times to try and fit in with what I was supposed to be finding enjoyment in, that my mind simply rebelled.
It knew something was up.
Confused, lost and detached from other people, I threw myself into creating a persona, a mask I could use to deflect questions and ensure my friends and family presumed competence and didn’t ask prying questions. I was joyous, child-like, full of magic inside, but nobody saw the world the way I did. Nobody else could hear electricity. Nobody else could talk to birds. Nobody else could tune in to the rhythms of nature like I could. And conversely, I didn’t know anyone else who felt physical pain from fluorescent lights, suffered extreme anxiety and confusion from noise, or who didn’t like being hugged.
The person I created to hide how my body and my mind experienced the world was a tortured artist, a dark self-harming girl that drank too much, didn’t believe in the concept of love, and who said that being ‘normal’ was fate worse than death. Yes, some of this was teenage angst, but most was not. In my early twenties, I thought anything was preferable to having 2.3 kids and living in the suburbs with a mortgage. I didn’t know then that there was no such thing as being normal, and that my differences and uniqueness would seep out no matter how much I tried to keep them hidden.
Being a writer in my day job, I have often played with the idea of putting my life story on paper. Unfortunately the ten years between age 15 and 25 is a big blank space. Most of these years were spent heavily medicated both by doctors and my own hand. I swung regularly between awe at how wonderful the world is; being full of such energy that my muscles vibrated with the magnificence of simply walking down the street in the sunshine, to slow black days drinking on the couch, alone. I was being treated for anxiety and psychosis with Ativan, depression with Effexor, and drowning my little lost girl inside with alcohol and junk food.
It took me a long while after that to find equilibrium, thanks in part to my then boyfriend / now husband – no matter what I did, I couldn’t push him away with the self-hate that twisted inside and came out as slurs against him. I didn’t know who I was. I had drowned and drugged and cut away the years of my life where people normally work out who they are and become normal functioning adults. I felt the extreme weight and pressure of trying to ‘maintaaaain’ for all the time I had known him, years and years of living together and being in each other’s space and still trying to hide parts of how I felt, how I acted, little things that brought me happiness.
One of the things that didn’t need hiding was that I liked to be awake early in the morning. In 2012 I started taking regular morning walks, and one day late in the year, I saw a group of women exercising at the netball courts near my house. It was 6am, coming into summer, when the air is alive with the promise of long summer evenings and the excitement of Christmas. It was a beautiful warm morning and as the cicadas started up their buzzing, I tentatively thought: ‘maybe I could join those girls.’
It took me another three weeks of walking past before I summoned up the courage to ask about joining in. Amanda, the strong, feisty woman who became my personal trainer for over three years, told me when to come along, and from New Years Eve 2012, when I did my very first boxing session, a seed was planted. I was absolutely stuffed afterwards, beet-red for half the day, with sore fingers for a week, but I went back for more.
Months passed, and as my physical body changed, so did my mind. My confidence grew slowly but there were still plenty of times when I binge ate, wanted to self-harm, wrongly blamed my husband for things and spat horrible words because I still struggled to understand who I was. I had been off medication for years at this point but there were a lot of times I considered going back on pills, just to get a break from the feelings that I experienced in stark relief. My inner world was intense and I longed for some quiet, yet my outer world was standard-issue grey and I longed for rainbows.
My husband got frustrated, confused, angry, but he didn’t budge, ever. Finally I realised that he wasn’t going anywhere and for the first time I really, really trusted him. Taking steps towards getting fitter had given me my first small experiences of self-confidence, so I took a deep breath and allowed myself to be small and afraid, to let my mask slip and explain how I felt. I told him I had always felt transparent, like a ghost – I take on the personality traits and mannerisms of whoever I’m around, mirroring them in the absence of any ability to express myself in a way deemed socially appropriate. I told him how I couldn’t tell him all the wonderful dreams inside my head as when I’d tentatively tried to in the past, he laughed and made fun of me for living in a magical pixie land.
He didn’t really understand what I was getting at but I could see he appreciated me opening up to him. I felt a little better and stood a little taller the next day.
I kept exercising. And then I discovered running.
I liked going to training, but I liked early morning runs more than anything. The physical sensation of my feet pounding into the footpath, the rhythm of my breathing, feeling like a gazelle in the forest, the cold air on my hot face, being awake before the sun and saying good morning (out loud) to the birds, being alone in the dark in what felt like a cardboard town built just for me, counting my steps in multiples of 8, repeating my mantra – light as a feather, hard as a tree – asking the universe for strength when it got hard and feeling a light breeze at my back in reply, doing something uncomfortable, being good at something, being good at a sport (first time ever!), pushing myself, discovering I am strong, discovering what it meant to set goals (and smash them!) – THIS is where I feel like me.
Through my newfound interest in fitness I came across a food blog by a girl called Jessie Reimers. In her ‘about’ page she wrote a little about how she experienced the world, and linked to another blog by a lady named Sam Craft. On this normal, regular evening at home, flicking around health blogs and trying to learn more about proper running form, I was blindsided by an explanation of my entire life experience.
I discovered I am on the autism spectrum.
I read, open-mouthed at my computer, then sat in the bathroom and cried quietly for a little while. Everything was relatable. Everything I felt was shared by someone else. This was a thing. I am not broken, I am not weird, odd, wrong or a freak. I have a neurological difference, a genetic variance from the norm.
I read further and my whole world opened up. There were lots of people out there like me. Others who felt electricity, found lights painful and bought weighted blankets because they found the feeling of deep bodily pressure warm and comforting.
I was overwhelmed with happiness and joy at this discovery but it took months before I was able to suggest this concept to my husband, and nearly a year before I could tell my mum. I still don’t know how to tell friends that have known me for a long time. Self-acceptance is coming slowly but ‘coming out’ is difficult; Aspergers and autism are largely misunderstood and many people have preconceived ideas about what it means. I don’t know if I am strong enough yet to have those kind of conversations with people who knew / know me as still wearing the mask. I slip little hints in here and there but I’m not sure they are noticed.
Throughout the past couple of years my running, and my commitment to actually seeing myself as a runner, has gone from strength to strength. I love that there is no ‘ceiling’ in running: there is always a longer event, a faster time, a new challenge to conquer. One day I will run a 100km ultra. Then I will run a 100 miler. And then I will run some more.
My marriage is stronger as a result of a deeper understanding about myself, and we are starting to have conversations about what it is like to see, hear and feel things like I do. I explained that not understanding social nuances, inferred ideas and metaphors is like only getting 80% of the information in a conversation. I often miss the most important bits. I talk to my children openly about my sensory experiences, explaining that mummy likes strong hugs, not light tickly ones.
I was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in October 2013 and ran my first half marathon (Blackmores) a year later. In 2015, I entered the Southern Highlands Challenge 25km trail as my big ‘event’ race for the year, and the feeling of running through that chute to the sound of cheers from the awesome trail running community was a high point of my year. In 2016, I ran UTA50, my first ultra, and could not have asked for a more awesomely epic experience. A few months later I ran my first official marathon on a beautiful peaceful trail. I completed another another marathon, and another, and then another ultra, and fell in love with the long stuff.
My beautiful RMA running community was and has always been a massive support, and I think it is the perfect foil to an Aspie like me: relationships are close yet often mostly online, so the stilted awkwardness of face to face communication is rarely a factor. When you do meet face to face, events are not nearly as anxiety-inducing when you have a handful of ready-made friends to meet up with on the day. Communication is easier as you all start with a common interest to talk about. Rambling on ad nauseum about running is not only socially acceptable in this tribe, it’s embraced! RMA is inclusive, providing a nurturing environment for women of all sizes, shapes, ages and personalities, so being the odd one out, or being noticed because you’re a bit quirky, is less likely to occur. You can choose to shout your RMA cred from the rooftops with a shirt or hat so others recognise you, or you can be part of this big warm community but go incognito in a plain singlet, knowing each running mum that you see has many of the same needs, wants, goals and challenges that you do when it comes to running.
Running means the world to me, not just because of how it makes me feel – but because it led me to discover who I am.