8 Years of Autism Awareness – A Reflection

This Sunday will mark my 8th Autism Awareness Day and Month. Originally it was to bring awareness of the very broad spectrum of autism and to push for more services for both autistic children and adults. Previously, autism was thought as a condition that severely affected children and was often confused as an intellectual disability. Now a vast majority of people know that it can be either mild or severe, and that those mild symptoms can still be impairing. Doctors, parents, teachers, siblings and autistic individuals have all taken part to raise awareness. Doctors and scientists have shared their increasing knowledge through research which has helped show autism as a real neurological difference and has explained much of the behaviour through science. Teachers, parents and siblings have shared their experience with taking care of someone with autism, but autistic people have given real insight into their everyday experience.

Every year on Autism Awareness Day I’ve shared my own experiences and through this blog I talk about my day to day life with autism, my struggles with interpersonal relationships and a detailed breakdown of my other symptoms.
I started this blog as a way to explain my experiences to family and friends, as I was not able to tell them these things face to face. Then parents of autistic children told them I helped them better understand what their child goes through, so now it’s become a portal of self-advocacy with a strong emphasis on making neurotypical people understand the autism experience, as well as what it’s like to live with ADHD and mental illness.

Eight years ago I was a very different person to how I am now. People who have only known me for a few years would not even recognize me from back then. I could not have a conversation with anyone. I was not aware that some of my behaviour could have been considered rude and when confronted about it I just thought people were overreacting and if they interrupted my routine I would have lost it at them, and then blamed them for not knowing that’s how I would have reacted. I wouldn’t initiate conversation with anyone. I didn’t really want to. Just prior to my diagnosis I had very severe social anxiety. My mind would freeze up when I sat with a group and though I may wanted to reply my mind was completely blank.

Post-Asperger’s syndrome diagnosis my social anxiety dissipated because I had a reason to why I was so different and I was fine with it. I didn’t worry so much about fitting in and I stopped trying to be like everyone else. I no longer envied them. Even when people made fun of me for being a nerd, I felt good that I didn’t have to go with the flow, what I called ‘collective consciousness.’
It took a couple weeks on Ritalin to make me want to talk to people though. It enhanced my empathetic ability and at the same time an online forum full of people with ADHD were teaching me more about being empathetic. Some of those posts would originally start out really hostile but by the end the more higher functioning members would be able to explain why people reacted like they did and that we need to respect differences of opinion, and always keep in mind how our words might impact others. It’s something I always noted and now it’s my default reaction to any type of news article I read, the inevitable flame war in the comments section and even how I perceive the political opposition (mainly conservatives).

Being on Ritalin made my mind feel so clear and it slowed down the noise in my brain enough that I had time to work on my social skills. I learned everything from physics to advance math and worked on a science fiction novel. The energy and clarity of mind it gave me allowed me to learn something new every day.
But then the side effects came in so I had to stop taking them, and some autistic symptoms once again became hard to manage but the social skills I learned in that time stayed intact.

In the last 5-6 years I’ve made the most progress in my social skills. It was mostly through higher functioning autistics basically revealing to me social customs and social hierarchy, most of which I ignore. I decided to learn and put into practice social skills that were polite but not ego stroking. I skipped over any rule that felt unnecessary to me, particularly the amount of lies you have to tell people to make them feel good about themselves. If I like what you’re wearing I’ll tell you, but I’m not going to congratulate you for dressing yourself like you’re a 3 year old.

My social skills are now advanced enough to have conversations with people in my very jumbled way of talking. My brain often gets stuck so conversations I start do not last long. I don’t really like talking when I hear myself talk. When people go out of their way to prove me wrong and their better conversationalists than me I just feel humiliated and really never want to talk to those people again. I mean what is the point of trying to make a person who can’t even speak one fluent sentence or even organize a sentence in their brain feel bad? I’m not giving all that effort to just be looked down on. Those people are not worth my time or respect. People like that have in the past made me just want to stop talking to people but I know there are some decent folks out there.

I’ve had to go back to reevaluating my social skills lately. I’m finding I’m getting hurt by people when it might not be their fault. Although, people use so little tact these days that they hardly notice when they’ve been rude. At times I wonder why I still bother to perfect my social skills when the rest of the world is losing theirs. But this is about me and becoming the best person I can be, even if people are becoming like the old me. Not because they have a developmental disorder either, but because they live on social media the lack of face to face engagement have lost much of that inborn empathy, not to mention the ADHD symptoms they mimic from being dependent on digital technology.

I don’t socialise that much these days anyway. When the opportunity arises I’ll take it but I’m not actively looking for it, kind of like when I was a kid. My latest ‘friends’ have just seemed to want to get something out of me and most other people want more of a take and take relationship. I do all the giving but get nothing in return. I don’t stick around those people for long.
I don’t feel connected to a single person on the Earth. I never have. There’s always this invisible wall between me and people. Whatever feeling people get from being with someone else I don’t feel it. A lot of people in the autistic community feel the same way. I’m not really saying that as a downer, more stating a fact.

As for autism awareness, well it’s time we moved on from awareness into acceptance. What that means is autistic people should still get treatment and services but they need to be included more in society and not forced to change so people can be more comfortable around them.  Autistic people have such intense focus on their interests that they can learn expert knowledge about them in a short time, and their logical brains which seem to give them a better understanding of technology is why so many employers encourage them to join I.T. The artistic autistics like me though find it harder to have our skills appreciated. I’ve been able to go pretty far in my photography. I started out as a fan who wanted to take photos of his favourite bands and then I got free access to some big shows and got to hang out with the bands. Now I’m a protest photographer which means I feel less nervous about going to protests (I don’t really have to chant words while working). I’ve been focusing more on story writing and my ADHD and my lifetime love of film has led me toward script writing. So, I can also be of some use even if I need a calculator to do math.

There are other behaviours autistics need to do in order to be able to cope. Stimming is one such thing. It’s anything from hand flapping to pacing to making noises. It may make people feel uncomfortable so parents and teachers may want to discourage the behaviour but it’s actually a good way to calm anxiety. I even do a bit of hand flapping when I start to feel anxious.

Our intense focus on interests should be encouraged too. Many us of have turned our interests into a career. It’s also a good way to ward off feelings of depression and be less focused on the things we struggle with. When I’ve returned home after having a disastrous social experience it’s good to know I can soon forget about it by focusing on something that makes me happy or that I’m actually good at.

So, when you hear about autism awareness in April ignore all the charities talking about how terrible autism is for families just so they can get a few bucks out of you, and instead focus on articles that talk about inclusion of autistic people and accepting them into the wider community. Because we are people just like you.

Spy

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How Playing Destiny Helped Me Build Social Skills

Destiny is a futuristic first person shooter in its third year. It may have had a rough start and disappointing first year, but things are looking up with the addition of extra content in Year 2, Year 3 and promises from game developer Bungie for more.

So what is Destiny about anyway? I’m expecting the audience for this blog being a mix of gamer and non-gamer alike so I will stick with the non-Grimoire* version. What is that? As I expect people will scratch their heads at a number of terms used in this post I will be adding Destiny terminology at the end of it. For now here is the story so far:

In the future humans find a planetoid entity known as The Traveler, who then gives them knowledge which launches them into another Golden Age for technological advancement. But The Traveler has some enemies who have chased it across the galaxies all the way to Earth. The main enemy in this game is known as The Darkness*, made up of different alien races including The Fallen who invade Earth. The Traveler protects the Earth and is crippled in this process, but in its last act of defense it created the Ghosts who contain its Light* and they bring the dead back to life, and give them some of this Light which makes them powerful. They become The Guardians, and that is who you play as. There are three different classes with different abilities; Titan, Warlock and Hunter.

Before I played Destiny I was relatively new to what was known as next gen gaming platforms. I bought an Xbox One because I wanted to be able to play the next Mass Effect game, and I got Forza Horizon 2 free with it. Let’s go back a few years though. As a kid I hated playing against people. I always thought this was because I wasn’t interested in competitive play but I later found out while playing multiplayer in Forza Horizon 2 that I was actually socially anxious.

Social anxiety isn’t something new to me. When I was young I had a severe form of social anxiety called selective mutism, and I’m autistic so social awkwardness and phobias have always followed me around. When my then boyfriend’s brother wanted to play a few Mario games with me I lost badly to him and then on I thought well if I can’t win then why bother?

But after playing Forza Horizon 2 competitive play was something I longed for. When I first heard about Destiny it was advertised as a shared world; other players would literally be there as you played story missions. I felt this would be a good way to introduce me to an online world. In those early days I was still nervous to perform actions in front of people. There’s this part of the game where you have to scan a crashed ship and I waited until another player had done it to do it myself. I would then have people around me to help fight enemies in story missions until I got to The Darkness Zone which is a limited respawn level. Then, I started to miss having them around. Often when I was unaware about what to do I would watch other players and even sometimes I would watch them just to learn how they would strategize their own method of facing powerful enemy AI. I copied that and I learned it and it soon became natural part of my own strategy.

By around level 12 I found myself visiting Bungie’s online community seeking help to make me finish story missions. It was the Grimoire that made me find their site at all. The people in the community were willing to offer help to noobs like me and were patient when they joined me for a mission and helped out when they knew I was too underpowered. Destiny is the type of game where you have to level up your strength and that’s usually by collecting higher Light weapons and gear.

When playing with these people I would be very nervous to talk and I couldn’t stand the sound of my own voice but overtime I began to relax and speak with more confidence. Then when I reached the endgame* I had to team up with people regularly. Now I was doing Nightfall Strikes, raids and harder story missions. I joined an Australian Destiny community and soon became friendly with all the regulars. To this day I still have over 100 people on my friendslist who I can invite to my Fireteam to help me with Nightfall strikes or a raid. Playing co-op in raids and Nightfall helped me learn about the different roles in a team and about how to listen, when to speak and to help others when they are literally (Guardian) down. It is valuable knowledge that I can take into the real world with me.

It’s not just playing Destiny helped me gain social skills and learn the importance of teamwork but I would find on days when I was so overcome with depression that I couldn’t move from my bed and my head was full of many unpleasant thoughts of self-doubt, self-hate and suicide all it took to make those feelings disappear was half an hour of playing Destiny. Perhaps it was because you can play with random people in match-made strikes and sometimes you would find a team that really worked well together, we were old friends. Or I might play co-op and just mess around with friends. And even on those days where just everything goes wrong and I’m extremely stressed and ready to blow – that’s when it’s a good time to run around The Plaguelands and practice shooting Fallen Dreg heads off and maybe pretend they were someone else.

Between year 1 and year 2 I would play Destiny for 9 hours a day. I’d start by collecting bounties* that went toward leveling up with a faction* that would give rewards like new weapons and armor, usually of higher Light. Then it was about completing Nightfall on all 3 classes and then getting raid specific weapons and armor by, yes, completing raids. Then I found my childhood friend was playing Destiny with her husband and I joined a clan that I could really communicate with and have an enjoyable time with.

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Warsat Warriors ready to raid…after we get the rest of the members to join our Fireteam.

Raiding was where my social skills were really put to the test. People had a problem with me being too quiet and not understanding directions, and I had problems with the self-made alpha of the group and just very cruel humor and people chit chatting so I couldn’t hear directions properly. But when I found a patient and understanding raid team we really clicked as a team. When somebody stumbled there would be a bit of giggling but we’d help each other out. Through raiding and the very intense and difficult Nightfall strikes I learned to listen to people and communicate more effectively, and even join in on the banter. And it was always so rewarding completing the raid. What did Bungie used to say about raiding? You’d go in as strangers, come out as brothers.

Unfortunately, after my friends quit Destiny for a while I gave up on raiding. It’s something I would like to try again, because 100%ing Destiny is like overcoming some of life’s hardest challenges for me, but for now it’s something that I avoid. Just trying to complete raids was really putting more stress on me and reminding me of how autistic I am. It put me into a low mood where I was constantly judging myself. On the bright side at least when I go back to raiding there will be something new for me to do in Destiny instead of waiting for Bungie to release more content.

When The Taken King expansion pack was released Bungie introduced a quest system that made all the repetitive play worth it. It’s these quests, especially the record books that keep me coming back to Destiny. At first I was a bit annoyed that in order to complete some quests I would have to spend a great deal in The Crucible, the PVP* multiplayer mode. But then my skills in The Crucible increased and I learned to adjust with the changing meta* by changing the types of weapons I used.

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I enjoy my time in Destiny’s in-game universe too. I love science fiction so when I first heard of this game I was all for it. It’s an online world and I really see that world as an alternate reality. My class is Titan and I take their role as protectors of humanity seriously. When I play or read up about Destiny I put myself into a state of mind where I see that The Fall really did happen and we are at war with four enemy alien races. I choose my factions just as seriously; when I found out New Monarchy attacked the City I changed to Dead Orbit. I like to experience every moment of Destiny as though it’s real. I run through The Tower* like it’s Hogwarts. I used to play the Harry Potter games where I’d just run around and explore the school. I can ride my sparrow* through Old Russia* or Venus or Mars just for the sake of it. I love my fellow Guardians. There’s a real camaraderie between clan mates and regular players I’ve co-op’d with who have become my friends. We can dance at each other for hours or communicate through gestures. They can make me laugh without saying a word. When I’m not playing Destiny I’m missing making those gestures in other games.

I find the Lore inspires my own need to write science fiction. The way Bungie takes ideas from mythology and turns them into canon in their own made up universe is something that I strive to emulate. People who aren’t bothered to look into the deep lore are missing out.

Destiny is more than just increasing my skills as a gamer and making friends in a gaming world, it’s about making friends in the real world, learning to understand human behaviour and that the good guys outweigh the bad. There are some in the autistic community who give up on making friends because of a few bad experiences. I’ve had some seriously bad experiences in Destiny but I’ve also had great moments to treasure forever. Knowing that is enough to make me want to keep playing Destiny with others, and not reject friendship in the real world too.

I’m taking a break for Destiny while I play other games. I’ll be back when another live update* happens or when I’m over the other games and make an attempt to finally get Thorn* or my exotic sparrow.* Or private SRL matches* or another attempt to raid. Or try my luck and finally get Icebreaker.*  There’s always plenty to do in Destiny and it’s the type of world that I will always be happy to return to. It’s inviting, fun, challenging and extremely rewarding.

I may not play Destiny forever. Indeed, it only has a 10-year lifespan. But I will always remember how much it has helped me.

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Destiny Year 3, Christmastime. I’ve played since Year 1 and I’ve got nothing but hope for what Year 4 will bring.

Destiny/ Videogame terminology

MMO – Massively Multiplayer Online. A game-type where you can play and interact with other players online. Usually you complete quests or raids and can trade items between each other and join guilds or clans.
People would argue that because of Destiny’s lack of verbal communication with all players (you can only talk to your Fireteam) that it rules out Destiny being a complete MMO. Destiny is basically built like an MMO; you level up, upgrade gear and play the game past story completion. It’s played online and has content added to it. However, its lack of trading between players takes some of that MMO feeling away from it.

Grimoire pron: grim-wahcards you can unlock by completing various achievements or collecting dead Ghosts in Destiny. Each card has a piece of Destiny Lore which gives vital insights to the story. Among the most committed players it’s imperative to read your Grimoire cards. The Grimoire is only accessible through Bungie.net or the Destiny app.

The Darkness – Through reading The Book of Sorrows Grimoire you will find out that The Darkness isn’t a being but rather a philosophy that encourages gaining power through destruction and killing. Kind of like capitalism.

Light – Is it magic? It’s a type of supernatural power the Traveler, The Ghosts and Guardians have to wield special abilities. As some types of light are Solar, Arc and Void you may have to look into Hinduism to find your answers. It’s a bit like The Force in Star Wars which is taken from Jungian theory of a life-force.

End Game – In MMOs the End Game are challenges to complete for upgraded weapons and armor or even added on story missions after you complete the main campaign (story missions with the original game).

Bounties – Quests you can complete to level up with your Faction. You collect these bounties from a Frame (AI with limited helping abilities) on Tower grounds.

Factions – The Factions are groups who have differing views of where humanity should go next. They used to be at war with each other but now Guardians can claim allegiance to them by fighting in their name and collecting rewards as they level up.

PVP – Player vs player. Competitive multiplayer.

Meta – Originally meta refers to a type of strategy that transcends the basic rules and uses external factors to affect the outcome of the game. In Destiny weapons are balanced regularly and as a result some weapons become more powerful than others in PVP, i.e “Matador 64 is so OP now.” Following the meta means you’re guaranteed to own modes like The Crucible, but it means to regularly change around your preference of weapon, or weapon loadout.

The Tower – The last safe haven on Earth. The rest of the world has either been destroyed or occupied by The Fallen and Hive.

Sparrow – A guardians only means of terrestrial transport. Literally The Speeder Bike from Star Wars.

Live Update – Free content added to the game that is smaller than DLC (downloaded content). Because of micro transactions (real money purchases made in-game) Bungie can add this free content. Live Updates do come with new quest steps and sometimes new weapons and armor. Most importantly, they come with new emotes; gestures and dancing.

Thorn –  an exotic (super powered) handgun. Can only be obtained through quests. It’s a favourite amongst  Guardians. It’s also hated by many for its poison perk (ability) which made it a killing machine in The Crucible.

Ice-breaker – the God of all sniper rifles. An exotic that used to have self-replenishing ammo every 6 seconds. Currently only able to be obtained through Nightfall strikes.

Exotic Sparrow – A quest only once obtainable through buying Redbull is the U.S. Now it’s added to a forever growing questline. The sparrow is supposed to be one of the best, particularly in SRL.

Old Russia – Currently the only place on Earth Guardians can go beside the Dead European Zone, that is under enemy control. Hundreds of years ago humans tried to flee The Fallen invasion and the results of that encounter can still be seen in burnt out rusted cars piled before The Wall and human skeletal remains.

SRL – Sparrow Racing League. A PVP sparrow race that is super fun and just offers something different than the usually shooting modes in Destiny.

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.

Raiding in Destiny is Only For the Most Sociable

raidiconDestiny is a futuristic sci-fi FPS MMO on video game consoles that has taken over my life for almost a year now. It’s a good game to get into if you’re new to online multiplayer. It was an experiment for me to see if I could overcome my social anxiety over playing against another person online. At first it did help me because of matchmaking in strikes and PVP (player vs. player) and the fact that you couldn’t hear what verbal abuse the enemy was hurling at you. It felt like a safe place for this awkward very anxious autistic kid. I’ve always struggled with getting a team together for the non-matchmaking levels, such as Nightfall and raids.

I’m not one to complain about the usual things people complain about in Destiny and if my fellow Destiny players are anything to go by, there’s usually a lot to complain about. I willing to just put up with it, even the new Warlock super that has done quite a number on my epileptic and migraine prone brain. It sucks but if I want to keep playing Destiny and the 1-3 PVP matches a day, I’ve got to get around it. And I do and it’s great. OK. It sucks but I’ve made peace with the fact that I won’t be able to get 20+ kills in PVP again.

But when it comes to Nightfall and the raids you’re talking about some really good rewards, the best the game has to offer. OK. The Nightfall rewards aren’t as good but at least one has to be completed in order to get a really awesome and high attack weapon in one of the quest lines. The raids are also one of the best parts of Destiny and the rewards are literally the best weapons and armor you can get in the game.

Now you can play through the main story and get through it pretty easily and that’s all fine but if you want to keep playing the end game stuff you will find yourself slipping behind the rest if you don’t complete the raid at least once. Even at 297 light I feel way behind someone who is 300 light. This community is a bit elitist about light levels in this game. Light basically makes you stronger and in order to do Nightfall or the raid you need a minimum light level, but some players require a higher level than this.

But I am both Nightfall and raid ready. I was even invited into a Nightfall strike when I was only 278 light, but that was before the quest step came up. I’ve started the raid too but the game was glitchy so we quit it. Since then I haven’t been able to get back in. I’ve watched my small group of friends in my former clan talk about doing the raid twice while they were doing the raid. It’s really disheartening. I thought they’d help their awkward and socially anxious friend out. It’s actually made me really depressed and angry. I do have a mood disorder as well so I’ve got all that to deal with.

That’s the problem with trying to get into a raid. I’ve done bits of the previous raids, all of the second one a few times but only about half of the first raid. Turns out I’ve got a low threshold for jerks and the gaming community is full of them. I’ll forgive the 12 and 14 year olds. They are kind of arrogant and have no manners because, well, they’re still growing up and learning that stuff. It’s kind of the only place they can boss people around too. But I’ve been turned off by racist slurs and really rude jokes. What makes me really rage quit a game is when a person is singled out for causing the team to lose or if people are making too much fun of me. I know I can just mute but most of the time it’s the leader so I’ve either got to put up with it or leave.

Then there’s people who don’t give proper instruction and when they do you know they act like it’s obvious. So, it’s rare for me to find a good Fireteam that has open-minded and decent people who will give me clear instructions. A problem with me being autistic is that I actually require very clear and detailed instructions. I also can’t handle someone telling me to do too much at once, so it has to be broken up. I’m getting better but it’s hard to learn when people don’t give me the chance.

I know the developer Bungie wants people to really communicate and work together as a team but some of us haven’t got those skills and may not ever have them, so we miss out on the best level this game has to offer and those sweet rewards. We get left behind on 297 light and can’t see any way of progressing. If the next lot of expansions are going to be like this, then I’ll just give up on getting the maximum light, the highest attack power and the greatest rewards. I won’t have the best Destiny experience anymore and I’ll just get bored and move onto other games.

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.

The Trials and Tribulations of an Autistic Band Photographer: Part 1: Meeting the Band

Firstly, don’t give me any of that person-first language garbage. If I want to say I’m autistic I’ll say I’m autistic. I actually have autism and you don’t – so leave it.

Now that’s all over with I can continue. I’m not going to describe every autistic symptom that affects me as a band photographer; instead I’ll just focus on my lack of social skills.

It seems like such a small issue but people with autism can become very depressed about not knowing how to speak to people. Some focus a lot of not being able to get a date but for the moment I don’t even want to try that, because I struggle to get along with people at all. I’m not sure if I like anyone that way. I’m so blinded by my own rage at people and myself about getting into arguments or feeling like everyone is trying to manipulate me, that there’s not a whole left to find out I can feel that way for people at all.

One of my major problems is being able to meet and talk to the bands I love the most. I was even told it was such a small nuance and it is but I have to work really hard just to achieve something other fans can just go up and do without even thinking about it. They want to do it so much that they bound up to the band. Then there’s me. Sometimes I’ll ignore the fact that I want to go up and say hi but something is holding me back. Other times I’ll be torn apart by it, usually much later on in the night and after I left the venue.

Ever since I was 18 or 19 and I still hadn’t made any friends of my own there were a few people from bands who I considered my friends. I met the singer from Funeral For a Friend that way. It took years to have a conversation with him but I never gave up and now I know him, and I do not take such a friendship for granted. Then I started to become friends with their fans and didn’t care so much about meeting other bands. Recently I’ve started to feel alone again and have tried to meet bands again. Sometimes it works and sometimes it just feels like the most impossible goal to reach.

I do know some band members and have great times with them but it’s getting so much harder now to meet new people. I’m no longer in a music scene I feel comfortable with. The emo/punk scene was just so familiar that you knew that even if you didn’t know somebody you soon will or that you would probably get along because we all listened to the same bands, and we all dressed like each other. It was the whole all ages thing too. I could rock up to an all ages gig alone and end up talking to about 10 people while waiting in line.

Now I go to a gig alone and I stay alone, unless I know someone from the band. Last time though I did have some middle aged fans taking pity on me but I felt too uncomfortable about the age gap. Sometimes I don’t realise how young I still am and look.

Although I can get really down about this and just feel like it’s an impossible task to accomplish and that maybe the band members don’t even like me enough to want to say hi, I still want to try, to work on it so that one day I can meet them and talk to them. I don’t think anyone without autism or social anxiety can ever understand how lonely and depressing it gets for us who literally don’t know what to say to people, unless we’re impulsive and thus say something embarrassing which we will regret or talk about a special interest which people may find odd or immature, or give us the ‘nerd’ label. The depressive episodes that focus on these facts can be horrendous. I used to want to step into a busy street and quickly end the pain. Now I just play suicidal scenarios over in my head. At least I know now that my thoughts are false and my depression won’t last forever. Then I become manic and act like I already know the people I wish I knew and that I’m always going to be capable of talking to them.

The only time I’ve been able to go up to a band member and talk with ease was when I was taking Ritalin. But the last time I was on Ritalin I felt I was talking too loudly and speedily and was so very intense. I don’t think taking speed should be the answer to my problem, though sometimes I think it’s the only answer. And by ‘speed’ I’m talking about actual speed, not Ritalin.

I could always go on a longer acting dose of Ritalin which means it won’t all go into my bloodstream at once but take its time. I would really love to have my symptoms more under control but with a under medicated mood disorder it just might make me even more depressed.

I am depressed right now. I went from depressed to angry to more euphoric to highly anxious and again to depressed. So I will just have to recover again.

I’m just getting sick of missing opportunities of meeting or talking to band members when I go through so much just to get to a gig. I’m always anxious weeks before I go to a gig. I don’t drink until that night too and drinking can sometimes trigger a depressive episode in me. But when people talk to me I kind of snap out of it. When depressed I end up drinking a lot even though it just makes me worse and something must happen when I start hearing music and taking photos of the bands because I begin to feel better, sometimes even becoming hypomanic. But because of the shifting around of moods and the stress I go through from them when it comes to going up to a band member and having a little chat I can’t do it, and I like to blame it on my moods. I tell myself it’s ok if you don’t because of what you just went through. It’s understandable.

These days my social skills are a lot better than they were before. I can talk to strangers with ease so can talk to other fans if they come up to me. But when I watch them easily go up to the band and talk with them with their hopeful faces about getting something signed I feel jealous. I suddenly remember who I am and what I have. I’m always going to struggle to do that one thing they decide to do on a whim. “Hey, let’s buy some merch and see if we can get it signed!” “Okay, great idea!” I could always go get something signed myself but I don’t tend to do that anymore. I don’t see the point apart from an excuse to meet a band member. Anyway, once those moods hit they will take anyway any confidence I have about going up to the band. Last time I was just under prepared and highly anxious.

I don’t want people to pity me, I just want to be able to talk to the bands without having to worry about it, like most people can. It takes years and years of effort with several photo galleries under my belt just to have an average conversation with them, in the stuttery and impulsive way I have conversations with people, drunk while on stimulant medication. Or maybe just drunk now.

Such a tiny thing sparks such depressive feelings, even suicidal ones. If I didn’t care about it I wouldn’t try and would be fine, but the fact is that I do care about it and will keep trying until I succeed. I’m well known for my intuitive problem solving skills and the many ways I’ve thought up about just achieving a simple two minute chat with certain band members would make you laugh.

My On/Off Career as a Band Photographer

Lately, my confidence in myself as a band photographer has been diminishing more and more with each passing day. Four months is a long time for me to be out of the game and the last gig I was at was kind of depressing. It was heart breaking to be watching AFI when just a few years ago I was had taken photos of them. I even thought to myself if things don’t pick up I’ll give it up for good. I think it has a lot to do with my friends being very successful photographers who often get to photograph the kinds of bands I can only dream about photographing and posting those photos to my Facebook news feed. On one hand I’m happy that they get that opportunity, on the other, I’m a bit jealous.

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Ho, Davey! From AFI. Taken at The Big Top, Luna Park, Sydney 2010

In my ten years as a band photographer I’ve probably never stuck with it completely for a whole year minus the years 2006 and 2007 when I was really active. I’m sort of active for a few weeks or months and then go and do something else. I think at one point I was more interested in astrophysics than band photography and when I got interviewed by the South Coast Register (my local paper at the time) I just wanted to talk about autism. This time however, I’ve gone a full four months from no choice of my own without photographing a single band. Many times I have thought maybe I’ll just give it up because I’m not going anywhere with it but I at least had the opportunity to take photos of bands.

Things have started to pick up for me though. I’ve got four gigs lined up where I may be able to take photos of the bands. I’ve been invited to go to shows with the hope I will take photos of the bands but the thing is I’m really not interested in taking photos of bands I’ve never heard of and may not like. I can be very elite about the few bands I like and anything outside of it may be instantly rejected by me based on the fact that it’s unknown to me. Taking photos of those bands might be alright but I just feel like I will never get to shoot the bands that I actually listen to the most and I not long ago often got to shoot. Bands like Anberlin, Funeral For a Friend, Brand New, Thursday, AFI, Anti-Flag etc. It just feels like it will never happen again.

So, to put it basically, I can take photos of bands people recommend but I’ll be depressed and longing to take photos of the bands I would actually call myself a hardcore fan of and have missed out time and time again to photograph. I would not be happy.

I can go from shooting alongside Tony Mott in Enmore Theatre or photographing City and Colour in the huge State Theatre, then I can go back to having to struggle to take photos of AFI at The Factory Theatre, which is a much smaller venue. It depends on how quickly I apply to a gig when my editor asks for it, if they choose me to cover that gig for them or if they hear back from the promoter at all.

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Dallas Green doing what he does best with his band City and Colour at Sydney’s State Theatre, 2013.

I’m still excited about the next four gigs coming up. First up is Waits who are made up of the former members of After the Fall. They’re opening up a mostly punk rock bill on The Factory Floor, tomorrow night actually. I’m hoping I can get a photo pass to that gig. I know guitarist Mark from when I took photos of After the Fall in All Phones Arena, which at the time was called Sydney Superdome/ Acer Arena. That was a long time ago. I was still crawling all over the stage when taking photos. Now, I’m more aware of my restrictions and it feels pretty awkward for me to be on the stage. But deep down I really do miss it.

Then it’s Tim Rogers in Bulli. I’ve seen a lot of Tim and You Am I so it’s not as exciting for me. I’m always happy to see Tim but last time I got kind of drunk (among other things) at an after party and I think I may have made him feel uncomfortable. I spent most of the time talking to Simon Carter (The Cops/ Saint Tropez All Day) which restored my faith in being a massive nerd. Still, I’m looking forward to the gig. I might get a chance to test out my new and expensive 16-35mm lens which I haven’t got much confidence in because of not yet having a chance to test it out on a live band. It’s not always a good thing to blow $1600 on something you end up finding pretty useless.

Next it’s Tex Perkin’s band The Ape and I’m probably most excited to see them. I have not seen them since last October and have been really anticipating the day where one Sydney show gets announced. The good news is they are playing at Oxford Art factory, a venue where I’m pretty sure you can take a camera in so I don’t need to harass the band for a photo pass. Their choice of stage lighting is any band photographer’s nightmare so it’s a real challenge just to get some decent shots without one side of a band member hidden in shadow and the other side striped with white light. Flash will fix that problem though. I don’t really get a chance to experiment too much. Plus, I kind of want to get a rock move photo of the bassist Pat because I haven’t taken a great shot like that of him since 2007, and he seemed to like it at least.

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This is the photo. Dallas Crane at Annandale Hotel, Dec 29, 2007

Problem is my friends who are hardcore You Am I fans aren’t as into Tex Perkins related projects as I am and I end up going to the shows alone, which I can do but it still gets lonely. I just wouldn’t mind having the same company I have at You Am I gigs. I don’t even know the bad that well – and given my rapid decline of social skills since going off stimulant medication I don’t think I ever will – which can be a plus when I go to these gigs solo.

At least I sort of know Darren Middleton who I’ll see next. The issue here is that it’s at The Rock Lily in Star City and I’ve never been there before, but I think my love for his music will make me push through the anxiety I usually get when I go to these venues. The last gig of his I went to was at The Vanguard and I thought it was located where The Sandringham Hotel used to be, and I ended up walking around lost for half an hour anxious and growing in depression with constant thoughts of walking into the middle of King St. When I eventually decided to take a taxi home I found the venue. I was shaking and tearful and had a ‘let’s just get this over and done with’ attitude but I ended up really enjoying myself. And now one of the photos I took at that gig of Darren is occupying the homepage of his website.

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Here’s the photo. Darren Middleton at The Vanguard, Sydney 2013

I still get a lot of generalised anxiety when preparing to go to gigs and social anxiety when at gigs, which I often counter with a few beers. But I really want to cut my drinking down. It changes my mood cycles around too much not to mention increases the risk of seizures. I also don’t like the drinking culture in this country. I will have a few on a special occasion (which to me is basically when I get a chance to be social) but I won’t do it every weekend.

There are a lot of barriers that get in the way of me doing my live band photography and mental illness and autistic issues (I have a profound fear of change) aside it all ends up depending on rules and restrictions and if I’m given photos access at all. So, when you look at it that way hopefully you can all understand where the lack of confidence comes from.

After the Middleton gig I don’t know what’s next. I’m hoping for some Dallas Crane before July, or after, because I won’t be very happy if they play in Sydney when I’m overseas. I want to see Davey Lane again and try one last time to see The Drones and The Gin Club. Every time they come to town I’m either busy photographing other gigs, or can’t get to the venue because of my anxiety over change. There’s going to eventually be another Anberlin and Brand New tour and I’ll be tearing my hair out trying to get photo access to those gigs, especially seeing how this is Anberlin’s last Australian tour ever and Brand New is just, well, I’ve been listening to them for two days straight. Does that give you a better picture of how much I like them?

If someone was to ask me ‘why do you take photos of bands?’ I really don’t give it much thought. I know I can take photos of band just as good as any professional band photographer so it’s good to exercise that skill. I do it for the opportunity to capture a really memorable moment; a guitarist rock move, jump or an emotional singer. I do it for the opportunity that I discover a new band to listen to and the chance that I can make a new friend. I do it so I get to spend time with my friends, both the fans and the ones in bands whom I have a very narrow window of opportunity to get a chance to talk to. And I do it because I’m a part of the live music culture in Australia and it’s my contribution to that culture. I love the music and the band members look great on stage and I love to look over my photos and relive the memory of the night.

So I guess Lost Through the Lens ain’t dead yet. I could be many things but they take a lot of motivation, focus and discipline. Band photography might take up one day of preparation, one night of taking the photos and half of the next day editing and uploading photos. For someone with moderate ADHD symptoms who is currently not taking any medication it’s a short term goal I can see through til the end, and then it keeps repeating but not so often it begins to get boring. It’s always throwing new challenges at me especially about getting to unknown venues and working with difficult stage lighting.

I suppose it’s something I’m always going to do. I know some people who won’t allow me to give it up and will be at a loss to understand why I would, even after reading this blog post.

You want one last photo? Here’s Geoff Ricky, my God in the early adult years and singer of the now disbanded Thursday, at Soundwave festival in 2008. A print of this photo resides in my kitchen, as a reminder that with persistence I will eventually get my breakthrough. And also because my sister Khara thinks it’s awesome.  

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