Beneath the tall blue sky the white-blossomed hawthorns dance. Twisted, gnarled, they are beautiful in their imperfection. They cast no judgement on themselves or others.
People are not like trees with their constrictive norms of body and mind. Look at me from the outside and (aside from the lockdown hair which resembles something between a hedgehog, a mushroom, and a duck’s arse) and you will see a ‘normal’ thirty-eight-year-old woman – able-bodied, physically fit, average-looking. Talk to me at a Pagan or poetry event and I might pass. Get to know me over a few days, a month, a couple of years and you may notice the scars, physical and psychological, catch a glimpse of my hawthorn mind. The twists, the gnarls, the thorns turned out and in.
Since primary school I’ve felt mentally crippled. Highly intelligent but socially inept. Being speccy-four-eyed, pot-bellied in my puppy fat, and lower middle-class with a southern accent at a school on a northern council estate (which was once referred to as ‘the Beirut of Preston’) didn’t help. I was mercilessly bullied.
Eventually I learnt not to talk about the fairies at the bottom of my garden or my imaginary friends. To feign an interest in the other children’s gossip about each other and celebs and to watch the soaps so I could join in (even though I hated them and would much rather have been lost in the imaginal worlds of the Faraway Tree, Narnia, or Krynn).
When I hit my teens I found a crutch. Alcohol. It helped me disguise my social limp, to keep limping along when otherwise I’d have fallen flat on my face in a gormless heap. It quickly became a cure-all. It obliviated, for a while, my feeling of being different. It helped me find words when I had none, to kiss boys when I had no desire to, to find oblivion when I could not sleep, to dance when I wanted to lie down and die.
Between the drink and the drugs and working hard toward my philosophy and English degree I sometimes wondered what was wrong. It wasn’t until my third year when I had a particularly bad meltdown during which, in vision, I was sitting on a rock at the end of the world unable to decide whether to live or die, that I decided to seek help.
I got a standard diagnosis of ‘anxiety and depression’, a packet of anti-depressants, and a referral to a psychiatrist who refused to help me because I wasn’t suicidal at the time, despite having constant panic attacks, suffering from insomnia, and self-harming.
The anti-depressants worked and, perhaps partly because I couldn’t drink on them, I excelled in my final year. I gained a first by getting 80% on my dissertation on the sublime, the writing of which, unknown to my tutors, was my way of understanding the undoing of my own mind by panic brought about by social and/or sensory overwhelm.
After failing to get funding for my PhD, with a career in horses, and to write a fantasy novel, all the while continuing to battle with anxiety and depression and using alcohol again as crutch, I finally met my patron god, Gwyn ap Nudd. He helped me find meaning and purpose in my life as his awenydd, taking me to other worlds, and out of myself to perform poetry. For the first time in my life, in service to him, I did not fail. I wrote three books and the climax was the performance for Gatherer of Souls.
My depression lifted. I found I didn’t hate myself, others, or the world so much any more. When I discovered the possibility of finding paid work that fit with my vocation and hoped wouldn’t be too taxing on my mental health through volunteering with the Lancashire Wildlife Trust I found the strength to kick away the crutch.
Yet the anxiety I had been using alcohol to medicate remained and threatened to be my undoing as my dread of social situations and feeling of being overwhelmed grew. I tried the doctors again and, this time, refusing anti-depressants, was offered counselling.
Three months on, in the midst of lockdown, I’ve started CBT and, during this period, had a revelation that came not from my counsellor but from my mum which explains why I feel so different: she’d always thought I had Asperger’s, but didn’t know how to tell me!
Suddenly everything made sense. My highly focused interests: philosophy, horses, visionary poetry, Brythonic polytheism, my singular devotion to Gwyn. My problems with social communication and human relationships and inability to understand how other people can want to talk about each other and celebrities rather than pursuing ‘that one thing’. That my feelings of panic and overwhelm are symptoms of autistic meltdown.
That this is the reason I have been stuck in a constant cycle of wanting to find paid work and to have a small role in my communities locally and online, but failing because I don’t recognise the limitations brought about by Asperger’s, which lead to me getting anxious, overwhelmed, and burnt out, and giving up, and feeling like a failure.
That it’s likely I have Asperger’s was confirmed when I scored 7/10* in the AQ10 test on the phone with my counsellor a couple of days ago. I’m hoping for a referral to the Lancashire Autism Service (which I understand will take a while particularly at this time).
Looking back a part of me feels bitter. If I’d received a diagnosis as a child perhaps I would have recognised my limitations, wouldn’t have hated myself so much for being different, wouldn’t have got so anxious and depressed, (yet another whispers perhaps I’d have felt worse…).
Another part says I wouldn’t have learnt the lessons I’ve learnt. It’s possible that, living a more sheltered life, ‘the doors of the perception’ to the visionary realms would never have opened, that I’d never have met Gwyn and never become his awenydd.
My gut feeling is that now, during the lockdown, when I’ve got plenty of time to reflect on and process it and work through how it might affect me in the future and plan ahead, is the perfect time to find out. I might have gone to pieces otherwise.
As I walk beside the twisted white-blossomed hawthorns I come to understand my differences. To not only accept but celebrate the twists and gnarls of my hawthorn mind.
*6/10 or above suggests somebody has Asperger’s.