ASD and Decision Making

One of the many struggles I have in life that I attribute to my undiagnosed Autism is my utter inability to make decisions. I’ve felt like decisions were so much harder for me to make than my peers even as a young child, but I feel it’s only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older and the decisions I’m faced with every day have become more and more serious and important. It’s hard enough for me to decide what to wear or what to make for dinner, let alone if I should take a new job or move.

I used to be more able to make a decision if I felt somewhat forced into it out of discomfort. I’d wait until I reached my breaking point, where the discomfort of not choosing a different path exceeded the discomfort of change. However, that threshold for discomfort has become larger and larger as I become more dependent on and attached to my routines. It feels impossible to make a big decision regardless of how certain I feel it will be good for me, because I know it will inevitably cause turmoil and disrupt my normal patterns and habits for awhile. Despite unhappiness with where I am, it still feels easier to just let things remain how they are. At least I know what to expect, even if it’s nothing good.

I’ve been trying to focus on the positive things I stand to gain from making a change. Part of me does get excited at the idea of beginning a new phase of life for myself. Who knows what wonderful new things might enter my life if I only have the courage to make room for them? However, I am immediately terrified and overwhelmed with the idea of the immediate future that lies before any of those benefits. How on earth can I bear the pivotal moments of action? It seems like an insurmountable task. I wish I was able to press a button, make the decision, and wake up a few weeks later beyond the initial aftermath.

Possibly worst of all is the feelings of guilt, shame, disappointment I feel with myself for not being able to do this. It’s hard to even talk about with other people, because I am so embarrassed. I can’t really ask for advice, because it’s obvious what they’ll tell me I need to do. Part of me is afraid that their certainty will push me into action. No matter how sure I am of something, there is always a small voice in the back of my head pushing me in the opposite direction, warning me that I might regret this. I know that’s not something I can ever avoid for sure. But I already have so many regrets. I’m afraid to trust myself. I’m afraid to be the one that chooses how my future will unfold. I don’t want to blame myself for making the wrong choice someday.

On the other hand, what if I am making the wrong choice by remaining where I am? There may be wonderful opportunities and people passing me by because I haven’t been brave enough to create space for them in my life. I hate feeling like such a coward, like a child, that needs someone else to make all the important decisions for them. I just want to ask for help, but I know that there is no one that can help me to live my own life. Some things we just have to do on our own.

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One Year

How long can you try to force something
before you finally come to forfeit?
it's now been 363 days since my heart broke

Walking home on the first crisp day of January
wiping frost off pale cheeks with red, aching fingers
a year's beginning like a heavy stone thrown into a lake

There is a kind of certainty that feels uncommonly cruel
a conviction to cut into raw nerves
like severing a hand to save the whole

Instead I've let this wound continue to fester
faced with the same decision, only denser
the compounding interest of inner pain

Inertia

I don't know how to say hard things
without swallowing venom
it's more natural to pull away silently
than to try to solve my problems

Removing myself from my relationships
receding from myself inside substances
sitting behind layered walls of disassociation
until connection becomes a foreign concept

Stuck in the strange limbo of knowing
what I need to do and being too afraid to do it
sickening cycle of second guessing certainty
left paralyzed by life's pivotal moments

So much of my time has been spent waiting
for the pain of inertia to overpower
the pain of exerting my will in a decision
about the lesser of two evils

Hiding behind the bullet proof vest of helplessness
because at least then I can cling to the comfort
of feeling sorry for myself if I feel like
this suffering was not my own choice

How much longer can I spend cowering
behind a life I know is not right
for fear of an unknown, greater misery
if I move forward on the wrong path

I've always been too ready to lie down and die
instead of fighting for what I desperately dream about
but have never truly felt
that I deserve

Mercy

I've never mastered the mercy
of letting something die
fear compels me to keep
a cold corpse animated
with artificial light 

Clinging to a casket ensures
I won't ever come to learn
what else life has to offer
but I feel too unworthy
to ask for anything more

There is no energy left inside
for seeking rising suns
settling for a soft hand to hold
as the darkness of night descends
seems all I can manage

Still that hot ember inside remains
more and more often sparking into flame
threatening to devour any illusion
I may choose to cling to for small comfort
whipped up by the wind of all that's ingenuine

Searching for deeper answers beneath
the one that keeps surfacing
unable to decide my own suffering
a life spent floating restlessly down-river
when will the ocean finally come?

Jealousy

A poisonous worm eats away at my heart
excreting the thick slurry of selfishness
that runs through my veins

Sudden flare of fierce emotion
at the disclosure of others' good fortune
leaving me feeling ashamed

The wretched sensation of anger
that suffocates more appropriate emotions
choking off a chance to celebrate

A friend's success could be shared
by relinquishing comparison and competition
fed with heavy spoonfuls of self-doubt

The fear that another's joy might threaten my own
as if there is only so much happiness to go around
and my chances of winning that lottery are now lessened

What a sad state of affairs
to let the luck of a loved one tear at me
instead of fill me up

What kind of person am I
that my first instinct is to be unkind
to someone that is thriving?

The best I can muster is to remain silent
when I should be smiling and adding
my positivity to their blossoming abundance 

Great Expectations

There is a sense of safety in youth
the assurance that we still have time
a comforting concept that assuages
all fear in the slow crawl forward

As the years pile up, we watch
that comfortable cushion evaporate
and wonder if we've been wasteful
with our share of great potential

Our failures sting more sharply
and stagnation stifles minds
once lauded as brilliant and unique
grasping backwards for lost luster

The first half of life is spent in ascent
I was not prepared for the plateau
peering ahead with hesitant eyes
anxious anticipation for the inevitable fall

Without regular praise from superiors
small stores of artificial self-esteem
shrivel in the severity of the sun
it's time to learn to water ourselves

There is no time limit on success
nothing is wasted in our thwarted attempts
this season of life is not yet over
seeds can still be sown 

Unable to Move Forward

I have the disease of discontent
frantic to change my external circumstances
anxiously envisioning the imperative of upward mobility
while simultaneously shrinking from the idea of change

It's hard to remember that mindset is what matters
while also understanding there are choices I can make
how am I to determine if action is needed or
if it's just an ego's sad attempt to avoid responsibility?

Equally afraid of things being different 
as I am of things staying the same
is there any true escape from this
paralyzing paradox of self reflection?

Should I focus my energies on being happy where I am
or on grasping for new paths in life?
what would be the best use of my time?
or is it all about preference and perspective?

There are so many questions
I know only I can answer
but I'm left spinning in circles
inside my own uncertain mind

I just want someone to take my hand
and lead me confidently onward in any direction
as of now I foresee myself simply starving to death
at the impassible crossroads of doubt

The Unedited Self

First loves, I've learned
can cut to the quick because
we haven't quiet learned yet
how to conceal our worst qualities

There is a certain magnetism in someone
who has seen our deepest flaws
but chooses to love us despite them
there is a humbling awe in such acceptance

Not to insinuate that later lovers
would not be as generous of heart
rather that the older we get
the less chance we give them

After adolescence we get so good
at hiding away all the parts of ourselves
that we aren't proud of
hidden under a heavy layer of secret shame

Only those who've always known me
have seen who I truly am unedited
before I crafted the silk screen of self
I've erected for protection

No opinion of love or hate
can touch me as it once did
there is a certain safety in isolation
but the soul withers without sunlight

Unconditional love is hard to come by
when you won't allow yourself to be known
maybe the world would surprise me
but I fear I'll never let myself find out

Venus Heart

I live for the moments
when my heart bursts open
tiny arms of loving energy
extending toward everything

Shimmering expectations
of receiving returned affection
a few moments of being unafraid
of all the other alternatives

This heart of mine is over-sensitive
the slightest suggestion of disinterest
or the mere perception of rejection
and it slams closed with a violent shudder

The sharp sting of this sudden reversal
sends me spiraling into solitary self-doubt
the glue of fear holds me fast in imagined isolation
and I vow to stay closed, to stay safe, forever

Over time the mere sensation of opening
is tinged with a hesitant terror
pre-emptive recoil from possibilities
that have not yet come to pass

The bravery it takes to stay open
is something I strive to obtain
teach me to invite in even pain and
train my tender heart to be strong

I long to feel the boundless love
I know is harbored somewhere within
the deep knowing and the certainty of oneness
that transcends even fear

Third Level Anxiety: The Paradox of Overthinking

Anxiety and overthinking go hand in hand. It’s a chicken and the egg scenario. Does the anxiety cause the overthinking or does the overthinking cause anxiety? Hard to tell. In the end, I’m not sure if it even matters which comes first. The result is the same, discomfort, distress, and inability to make decisions. The prefrontal cortex shuts down in that all consuming sympathetic nervous system reaction triggered by the amygdala, or the emotional center of our primitive little lizard brain.

Over the years, anxiety has a way of building. The pathways between stimulus and response get more and more defined. My anxiety used to be directly related to specific instances. I would get anxious in social situations. Soon that anxiety would begin to bubble up at just the thought of being in said situations. Now it’s transformed into more of a vague fear of the anxiety itself and trying to avoid all situations in which I may start to feel anxious. I’ve reached third level anxiety, fear of the fear of the fear. This stage is practically paralyzing. It can cause you to avoid your life completely just in an effort to avoid anxiety. It can manifest in a covert way, such as the inability to make decisions.

I have to admit it is humorous to realize I’ve always tried to “fix” my anxiety by somehow thinking myself into a sense of ease. But it’s pretty hard to use logic and reason to defuse a completely illogical physical reaction. It’s counterproductive to try to think your way out of overthinking. But what else can you do?

Learning to Cope

One of the reasons I have my doubts about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’s effectiveness when it comes to my mental health specifically and anxiety disorders in general is the focus on the thinking mind. CBT’s primary method is changing the way you think in order to change your behavior. But you can’t solve the problem of too much thinking with more thinking. A lesser known therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy or DBT feels like a better fit. Rather than teach you how to reframe your thinking, this therapy helps you cope with and understand your emotions so that you can feel safe and accept yourself.

Even though in the moment anxiety feels like it’s demanding action or some solution, I’ve learned by now that there really isn’t anything I can do or think that can dispel my anxiety completely. The frantic effort to avoid it only causes more mental suffering. The only real way I can learn to handle this fear is to let myself feel it. More than any catastrophic imagined outcome, I’ve become afraid of the physical sensations themselves. I’m anxious about feeling anxious. However, that quickly dissipates when I face those feelings rather than try to run from them.

How to Face the Feelings

Coincidentally, I’ve found the advice from my previous post about how to help yourself focus and be mindful in a calm, neutral setting works just as well when you’re lying in bed on the edge of a panic attack. This time rather than being unable to focus because of the vague sense of disinterest or boredom at the everyday objects around me, it’s the exact opposite. It’s hard to focus because everything just seems so overwhelming that I don’t know where to begin. But nevertheless, imagining I have to describe what is happening in that moment as if I’m writing a story is tremendously helpful.

The next time you find yourself feeling anxious, overthinking, or distressed by indecision, take a moment to step out of the thinking mind all together. Accept that the solution you’re desperately trying to find with your mind is not in the mind at all. The solution is surrender. It’s accepting that sometimes there is no solution but to sit with the sensations. Try to describe the feelings of anxiety swirling around in your body to someone who has no idea what anxiety even is. Be as detailed and creative as possible. Get curious. What is anxiety? Where does it manifest in the body? What does it physically feel like? How long can it last? Does it ebb and flow? Does it get stuck in your chest, in your throat?

Avoid concentrating on what it is that’s making you anxious. That is irrelevant once you’ve determined that it is irrational. Let it go. Show yourself that you are capable of feeling these difficult feelings. Even if they don’t go away. That’s not the intention. It’s learning that you can handle them. When I slow down and breathe into my anxious feelings, I often realize that the feelings themselves are no where near as bad as my struggle to avoid them. I can befriend these sensations by simply allowing them to exist.

Conclusion

I know all this is easier said than done. It’s hard to do anything with intention and mindfulness when your brain and body are on red alert. However, knowing that this is an option available to you is the first step towards practicing it. You won’t be able to every single time, but the more you notice the opportunity to sit with your difficult feelings instead of trying to fight them, the easier it will become. Give yourself the time and the space and the permission to experience even unpleasant situations with patience, curiosity, and equanimity.