The Conversation Conundrum

Engaging in conversation comes easy to most because of the way the human brain develops throughout childhood. We have an innate ability to pick up on social behaviour which helps us build up our social skills that by around the age of 10 we have a basic ability to talk to other children about the common things children talk about. However, for some of us this innate ability is missing, especially in those with autism, other neurological disorders or people with delayed social development.

I’m in the latter category. For me personally I never really had the desire to socialise and due to a severe social anxiety disorder known as selective mutism I rarely talked outside the family home. I saw some progress in my teens but I didn’t see much dramatic change until my mid 20s. By this time I was already diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD, and I can’t deny that being prescribed Ritalin not only helped me talk more but have the desire to talk to people at all. I finally had the patience and clear headedness to be able to pick up on social behaviour and put it into practice.

Learning new social skills was a matter of listening to two other people sit beside me and have a conversation and to carefully watch their body language; anything from the length of eye contact made to subtle hand movements. I often got some pretty confused looks from the people I was secretly learning from. I didn’t just pick up social skills from people talking to each other or from my own feeble attempts at having a conversation with someone but from watching actors on TV and in film. I’m a longtime fan of children’s films in the 80s and 90s and I’ve always mimicked the words, mannerisms and even dress sense of those young protagonists.

Some TV shows have been central to my social development or just made me understand confusing neurotypical (someone without a neurological disorder) behaviour. That wasn’t something I wanted to mimic but just be aware of because it was so illogical, things like lying and keeping secrets and the eventual confrontation that surfaced after being caught out. It was mostly science fiction shows that taught me the importance of teamwork and how to think about others. Recently, a TV show on Netflix called Granite Flats showed me how to apologize to people. These sound like very simple things to know but I’m not just taught these things by the characters on a show or film, but the way they say these things helps me actually get the words out at all otherwise it’s very difficult for me to say things such as ‘sorry.’ I don’t just mimic actors but become their characters. I actually sound exactly like the characters, anyone from Data on Star Trek to Captain Malcolm Reynolds from Firefly. I rather enjoy sounding like a space cowboy too. But I can also mimic people I know if I look up to them enough.

I’ve come far in the 5 or so years that I’ve been training up my social skills. I’ve also lost them and had to build them up over again which is what happens to autistic adults when they are under extreme stress. I can even lose these skills if I go a long time without talking to anyone. So, it’s important for me to get out there not just for emotional reasons but so I can retain the skills I’ve learned and continue to build them up. There are differences between what an autistic person wants to get out of a conversation verses an NT. An NT, or non-autistic person doesn’t care so much about what words are said but just the time spent with another person, whereas an autistic person really wants to share information and hopes that the other person will learn something new and remember it. That’s not always the case though. In my experience people don’t remember much of what was said at all.

I do enjoy the time I get to spend with people. I’m trying to focus less on the information I give and more on the time spent, especially when building a new relationship with someone. Talking though is still very hard for me to do. I have the usual problems that anyone with social awkwardness or delayed social skills goes through like not knowing what to say at all or worrying about whether the topic is relevant or socially acceptable, and then I have to work out whether what I say will come across as offensive before even saying it. But the actual act of speaking and making thoughts formed in my mind come out of my mouth in the order that I thought them is often a task I fail at. They don’t come out in the right order. I think this is because I think of two ways to say something and combine the two ways together in one sentence. I also get a blank half way through a sentence that I often spend a lot of time quickly trying to remember what I thought of a few seconds ago and grabbing any bunch of words that come to mind and make my best attempt to form a sentence out of them.

However, my friend Patrick seems to be the complete opposite of that. He’s a musician, a bass player that I’ve recently met after years of taking photos of bands he’s been in. I was in awe of his ability to keep a conversation going but staying relevant to the subject. I wanted to emulate that but at the same time it’s my impulsive mouth that makes me say anything at all. Sure, those words can often embarrass me or unknowingly offend others and often make me feel stupid, but it’s my thing. However, I’ve been noticing that I am holding my tongue more in an attempt to stay relevant. Pat though is a really nice guy and despite my social awkwardness which can lead to a lot of impatience by people or have them making fun of me for stumbling, he remains patient and tries to help me get around my little handicap.

Even though I’m still developing my social skills I’ve learned a lot and have a high amount of empathy for an autistic person and even find myself mentally telling non-autistic people to think about how others feel or will respond to the way they’ve said something. It seems these days with social media being such a huge part of people’s lives that they’ve forgotten the very first thing I learned in my social skills training: not everyone will agree with you or have the same interests. Psychologists call it having a poor theory of mind or mind blindness when you fail to understand this. I remember when I struggled to keep thinking of others as separate individuals from me with their own likes, hates and wants, and their own experiences which help shape their personalities.

Still, most people seem to have adequate enough social skills to think they don’t need any further help and still they look at those who struggle socially with impatience. The best thing you can do for someone who is struggling to speak is be patient, not assume you know what they are going to say or finish their sentences for them. We don’t all have the same social ability and the person struggling is often very frustrated at themselves. It’s not uncommon for the more introverted person to hold something against an extrovert who replies before they’ve even finished talking or repeats their words to other people. To them it’s very rude. As for rudeness, sometimes those with poor social skills can say something that might be interpreted as rude but often they’ve just failed to realize it would come across this way. If you keep this in mind and not respond with anger you can probably avoid confrontation and the person will not become depressed over their mistake. Having poor social skills leads to a lot of anxiety and depression and these two disorders really interfere with developing new social skills.

My mood disorder gets in the way of me developing socially. Sometimes I get too hyper and impulsive and slightly delusional to apply what I learned when I was in a more euthymic state, and my depressed and anxious states lead to a lot of self-doubt and negative social scripting, which is thinking of worse possible outcomes in a social situation. Usually though, I use social scripting to help me come up with subjects to use in a conversation and it actually does work.

I still get surprised when I hit a brick wall in my social skills, which happens when people act in ways that I don’t understand or I realize that despite all the years I’ve put into developing new social skills I’m still not able to steer myself out of difficult situations. Usually, my answer to dealing with a heated dispute between me and a friend is to completely get them out of my life. Not everyone is happy with me using this approach but I’m at a loss to know how to work out a solution. So, much work is still left to do if I want to keep my friends. I applaud my friends for trying to keep our relationship intact, I just hope one day I can return the favour.

Stigma? What Stigma?

Hey peeps! Look who’s back writing another blog post. I told you I would. So, I’ve been following the ABC’s coverage of mental health awareness on TV and on social media and I’ve been impressed with the many forms of awareness they are using. After all, we all experience it differently. They’ve taken a ‘mental illness is an everybody thing’ approach to it, which I do understand – we all like to relate to each other – but for some of us mental illness can be genetic and our type of mental illness does not affect everyone. Some of us – ok me – believe that this type of mental illness is non-recoverable and it’s there for life and we’ve just got to deal with it the best we can. Of course, recovering from any mental illness is a difficult road to go down. I’ve had various forms and severities of social anxiety for most of my life. It took my voice away in childhood. And I still have some non-inherited forms of mental illness to overcome like PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder.

So, what is this inherited form of mental illness, I hear you say? Well, it’s a mood disorder, most likely bipolar 2. It triggered in my early 20s after I took any type of prescription med. I’m not here to criticize the Pharmaceutical industry. The medication worked for what it was designed for, it’s just that it did something else, which doesn’t happen to all people, just people with a family history of mood disorders. So kids: always look at your family medical history before taking drugs, especially the ones your teacher says you should be on.

Bipolar is my newest constant companion, together with autism and ADHD I really don’t know what each day will be like. I can wake up one morning and have little energy and at some part of the day or night be unable to contain my energy. I randomly go on spending sprees, say things to people I forget and commit to things without giving it much thought. Then at some point in an extreme exhausted state I may crash into a deep dark depression. Even writing about it changes my mood state so I’ve got to be careful.

First, negative thoughts seep in after days of over confidence. I go from thinking everything is possible and everyone loves me to doubts about my abilities to questioning who my friends really are. Then comes the pessimism and a cynical view of the world and the cruelest sarcasm towards people you could ever think I was capable of. And then I just keep sliding down, down, down. To the point I become incapable of making myself meals or can even get out of bed. My mind turns on a loop of very vivid thoughts of suicide; the moment before, the act and me gazing down at the world following my suicide. Then after a couple of hours I cycle out of it. I become hypomanic again. It’s an all-round positive mood, energetic and ready to give the world a big giant bear hug.

I know a few people who have actually had their friends commit suicide and it made me feel very uncomfortable and guilty to be around them and hear them going through that mourning process. I never used to empathise with people when thinking suicidal thoughts and people’s poor choice of words to comfort or encourage a deeply depressed person to rethink their decision didn’t help either. I couldn’t see things from the point of view of a suicide survivor and copped a lot of abuse for that. But I’m used to it. My old blog was trolled so much I had to delete it but I’m back and expecting it now so whatevs.

Then, when I became deeply depressed again, despite being on anti-depressants, I started to think about one friend in particular who had lost a friend who I didn’t want to upset again if I did kill myself. And I certainly didn’t want my friends and family to develop a mental illness because of the shock of my own suicide. Before I didn’t think they’d be a shock because I talked about it so much – I even think I wrote a status update that was an equivalent to a suicide note. Luckily, a few friends got behind me and started to encourage me and I felt better.

Now when deeply depressed, if I can’t avoid falling into it through constant gigging, playing video games, watching comedy and sci-fi, I will just experience it and focus more on the physical pain than emotional. Once I get control over my mind I can push my emotions in any direction. So, I will deny my depressed thoughts and just try to focus on the next mood cycle. I wouldn’t do this if I had unipolar depression but because I’m also a rapid cycler telling myself the feelings are just temporary works for me. So far.

I think in order for people to really grasp what bipolar is about I need to talk about my manic symptoms. First, I’ll explain the differences between hypomania and mania. Hypomania is the milder state but it’s a higher than usual ‘happy’ state to be in. You’re very motivated to do things, you might get a few creative ideas you’d like to try out and you want to be around people more. Together with the motivation and creative ideas you’ve got the energy to get everything done and you don’t even require that much rest or sleep.

Mania is the more serious state. I can only tell I’m manic by the wired-like stimulated state of my brain. I have non-stop racing thoughts, overflowing with 10 to 200 creative ideas I must accomplish NOW! I’m restless and anxious and my skin tingles in discomfort. Sounds are louder, lights are brighter- every sense is turned up way loud. This is the state you become delusional and psychotic in. You have higher ideas. You feel like you are enlightened and that everyone else is intellectually inferior to you. They can’t see what you can see. They’re stuck in this stiff collared world of facts and reason, and not into the Jungian dream-like utopia that you slipped in through the smallest crack in the universe. You have more energy than you’ve ever dreamed of and your legs don’t stop moving for days. You’ll pay for it later. You know depression will come but you tell yourself you’ll be like this forever, although, to be honest, you just want to go back to hypomania.

It’s not always so positive though. Mania and hypomania have an opposite evil twin. It’s sometimes called dysphoria or dark mania – it’s the ugly pessimistic and paranoid face of bipolar. Much of it is mixed with symptoms of anxiety and depression, though I’m still unsure if this is what constitutes a ‘mixed episode.’ You snap and yell and rant at people. At worst you have paranoid delusions about them. You’re impatient, anxious, losing confidence in yourself but still have a flair of arrogance about you. You still have all the energy of mania but all positivity is gone. This is actually the most dangerous state to be in because if feeling suicidal you’re impulsive enough to do it. You’re definitely ‘not in your own mind.’ People can become violent when like this.

Above I said mania was like a drug and indeed it is but no one goes on a constant high for days or months without making some mistakes. Those can be overspending, sharing your delusional ‘enlightened’ ideas with people, just ranting and raving and ending up in places you can’t remember how you got to. There’s a trail of destruction you’ve either got to clear up or run away from. You interact with a lot of people during this time, people who you may have to see again when you return to normal, unless you’re rapid cycling – if that’s the case then you’re probably going to repeat the same mistakes again.

In my first year of taking Ritalin for ADHD every dose made me manic, from at least day two of taking the drug. So I spent a whole year basically manic. Depression never came because I’d just take another dose. Eventually it did hit at the end of the year where I was also experiencing clusters of seizures. I was just waiting to die basically. I’d come up with some wild themes for my science fiction stories and books on Jung or Synchronicity took my mind into a new and exciting realm. It was incredible but it wasn’t real. Some of my delusions were very damaging to my mental health. I became obsessed with people, people I acted like I knew well and was destined to be with. That is one place I do not want to go to again. I thought I would never recover but my medication for anxiety has helped make that world disappear. I finally feel sane again.

The title of this post is kind of confusing but what I mean by that is before I was even aware there was such a stigma around mental illness, well, I sort of always talked about it as though I was talking about a hobby. I find psychology and neuroscience to be fascinating subjects and my underdeveloped social skills could not pick up that I may have been making people feel uncomfortable. I actually had to be told by someone that people might not want to be around me if I kept talking about it. Then after I was trolled severely after writing many manic fueled blog posts before I even realised that I could even be bipolar, I decided maybe I’ll just cut back on posting about mental illness and ADHD and autism. But lately I’ve been thinking censoring myself and giving in to the stigma just makes the stigma of mental illness even stronger and I felt better being open and honest about all my mental health issues and atypical neurological wirings. So, while I still may be aware that I’m making people uncomfortable I can just ignore it and keep on talking, or writing. It’s not like anyone will tell me when I make them feel uncomfortable.

October is even ADHD Awareness Month and because I’ve been unable to write my blog about inattentive ADHD, I’ve just been posting a few things on social media. I will eventually write that post though.

I also find educating myself about my illnesses, neurological disorders and other ailments makes me develop the best coping skills for dealing with them. I’m untreated bipolar only on anti-depressants for my severe anxiety, so the only treatment I can do is problem solving skills. Okay so I may have spent $300 or more in the last week and I’ve been mouthing off/ranting a lot and my upcoming gig list keeps growing because I’ve finally got the opportunity to photograph what bands I want, even the ones I need media access to, and not just photographing bands keeps me sane, but the preparation keeps me looking forward to something. Then there’s my recently reignited video game addiction which I really think helps keep my depression from triggering. I just get exhausted now which is ok. I’d rather have the tiredness and lack of motivation that comes with depression without any of the emotions.

So, this is me. A life of mental illness and unique brain structure. There’s no stigma here. It’s just my life. It’s wild, it’s messy, sometimes boring, other times exciting, scary, frustrating and then something unexpected happens.

An Introduction

Help! They Want Me To Socialise is a perfect coming together of my mental health issues, my extreme dislike of the mainstream and my most relatable feature: just your common socially awkward geek with a love of comic books, science fiction and videogames.

It’s the perfect description for me and tells you all at once everything you need to know about me. I’ve had a lot of blogs over the years but they’ve been about very specific things and I could never deviate from a certain theme. The problem is I constantly think up things to say that I can’t condense into a couple of paragraphs. They come and they go and even though they kept me up all night or entertained me during the day they never get written down. What a waste of a couple of hours of thought!

This blog will mainly cover these topics:

1) Mental health advocacy; autism, ADHD, bipolar and anything else I feel like talking about. I need a place to post my annually autism and ADHD awareness day/week/month posts because my Facebook friendslist is not a big enough audience to reach. I’ll try my best to not make the posts too personal and emotional and I’ll try to use them less as labels. I have so many diagnosis’s and suspected ones that jumping between the labels when they suit me seems kind of ridiculous.

2) The journey of writing my first screenplay, which I should be spending time on now but after four days of failure I started to take a break from worrying about how much of a damn struggle it is to write.

3) Some passing thoughts about video games. I study them while I play because at one time I was doing research for a science fiction novel that never got completed and then I just sort of became addicted to them. I also want to continue my article series titled ‘In Defence of the Videogame’ that responds to criticism about them being mind numbing and creativity stifling to children.

4) Band photography. I‘m most known as a band photographer and despite this depressing three month break I might just go out one night and take some photos of bands. I’ve been taking photos of bands on and off for about 10 years. I’ll share some photos here and might attempt to write a live review. I’m a big supporter and contributor to the live Australian music scene. So, it makes sense that the next two gigs will be headlined by Jimmy Eat World and AFI.

5) Everything else. Any thoughts I need to let loose that I can’t explain in less than three pages.

Now don’t be misguided by the blog’s title – I do like to socialise – but I find it both confusing and frustrating. Saying ‘hello’ isn’t so hard but I have never once in my life followed that with ‘how are you?’ and I keep trying but nothing comes out. Then, I have to try and keep the conversation going when all the answers I end up giving are either ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘I don’t know.’ Then I say things without thinking which isn’t always the worst thing for me. It’s not my ideal way to communicate though because I want to say what I’ve given great thought. The next frustrating part of socialising for me will have to be the fact that I don’t always find a lot of people interested in what I have to say. That’s not a lack of confidence on my part – you’ll find I can be very passionate when talking about my interests and when people dare to mock me for liking something deemed too nerdy to talk about, I’m not embarrassed at this so-called faux pas – I’m enraged.  These topics are my life and how dare people just stand there looking smug as though I should know that they are too unpopular to talk about and be appropriately embarrassed by bringing such a topic up. I disagree with such a notion and wish people would give me a chance to talk about such things and they’ll find out my communication style changes from awkwardness and appearing to not to feel confident about anything I say to self-assurance and with so much confidence it borders on arrogance. OK, I am arrogant at times. I admit it.

In short socialising is tough on me and I hardly ever walk away feeling satisfied. I seem like I’m easy to get along with but I keep my true feelings hidden. Fact is, socialising to me is a waste of time and energy and I really only do it for two reasons: 1) to practice my skills and 2) to make people happy. Perhaps I’ll add a third: to better develop the characters in my stories. I at one time wanted to understand human social behaviour but what I found I didn’t like and I wouldn’t mind being clueless about it again.

I love my friends even though I really only get along with one really well but I just don’t think I get enough out of it. I at times need to be intellectually stimulated and so go to my books and then think over what I’ve learned and then I write about it. Not even watching movies or writing a screenplay is enough stimulation for me.

I don’t really understand what so many people get out of socialising. Whatever it is it’s something I’m missing – as in missing the ‘want’ of whatever this thing is. I’ll do the social thing occasionally but I don’t require it to be happy. In fact, I’m happier when I’m not doing it because when I do socialise I tend to get pissed off with people. Although, I need to socialise enough to not regress those few skills I already have and futilely try to build on.

Maybe I’ll post about this issue more. It certainly would make the blog title more relevant.

So this is me. This is finally a blog that goes over every area of my life. I hope you like what you see here.

Stay tuned.

Shadro