How a man on the Spectrum learns to live

Posts tagged ‘mental-health’

Let’s Keep Moving!

"I've Got to Keep on Moving!"-Matthew Wilder

“I’ve Got to Keep on Moving!”-Matthew Wilder

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned how being active has alleviated the worst parts of my Asperger’s Syndrome and helped me eliminate the need for prescription anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs. I’m very happy to say that I’m not only maintaining this lifestyle, but I’ve found new ways to keep myself healthy and vital. It’s a gradual process because I still need to take small steps to change my established routines, but I have a variety of activities that don’t feel like chores at all.

I believe it all starts with perspective. Some people still don’t realize how Aspies can be very sensitive to disruptions in routine. Generally, the lower functioning the person, the more likely they will act out in nonverbal, hard-to-understand ways. Even though I have High-Functioning Autism, I’ve still had my moments of vocal protest.

Can you imagine being so sensitive to disruptions in your surroundings that you become gripped by paralyzing fear and heart-pounding stress? Think of a high-stress, no-relief day with no end in sight and no way to communicate how you feel! This is what can happen to someone living with Autism on a daily basis!

Fortunately, with years of counseling, specialized therapy, and a strong support system, I developed coping skills like using different activities that not only boost my physical health, but also improve my mental health and well-being. I feel like physical fitness starts with improving the body and evolves into strengthening the mind and soul. Everyone including those on the Spectrum can benefit from variety, it just takes time to find out what works best.

Some activities I learned to enjoy with time, and others I took an instant liking to. I’ve written about the different exercise tapes and DVDs that got me started on my fitness journey. Since then, I’ve also utilized my membership at a local gym. One of my favorite activities is playing the Dance Dance Revolution arcade game and the different dancing games for Xbox 360 and Kinect. They give me a fun workout and an adrenaline rush that lifts my spirits to new heights! I’ve talked about this extensively in a previous post entitled “You Should Be Dancing

In the past two years I’ve developed an interest in hiking, which used to be out of character for me, I didn’t really consider myself an outdoor person. There is such a centering, affirming quality to hiking. Looking for different trails and walking a path in the midst of nature is a great way to clear my mind. When I focus on where I plant my feet, I’m reminded of the spiritual strength that comes from walking meditation. I regain a clear perspective on life, and that’s worth feeling tired at the end.

At the gym, I take advantage of the special classes that are offered. I’ve found the most energy, excitement, and sweat equity in cycling and kickboxing. Doing the early classes helps my day to start off in a positive way, and that’s something, considering that I never used to be a morning person!

I participate in several runs for charity each year: perfect opportunities to test my fitness level in the real world. I’ve also discovered farmer’s markets, museums, parks, and outdoor festivals are great not only for walking, but for socializing as well. It may not seem like much, but I enjoy living in the moment.

I’ve come a long way from the boy who was afraid of P.E. and ate junk food to hide his insecurities. I’m more alive and youthful than I was in high school! Now, what kind of activities keep you in motion? How long have you enjoyed them, and do they lift your spirits? Everyone’s at a different place in their journeys, and I’m just glad to be in the place I am today with the ability to keep moving!

Today’s musical inspiration is a fun little ditty from the 1980s by Matthew Wilder: “Break My Stride

The Rest is Still Unwritten

What will your story be?

What will your story be?

Let me ask you this: do you believe that each of us has the ability to write our own stories?  Does everyone deserve a chance to tell that story?  Well, based on my observations, some people have forgotten about this ability, or have never seen it in themselves.  Because I have Asperger’s Syndrome, I was so unsure about who I was or what my purpose was that I used to believe that what other people said about me was my entire story.  It took quite a while for me to learn that I was wrong.  The only person in control of my story is me; to believe that other people have it is to give my power away.

There’s a song that helped me remember this fact. It’s called “Unwritten”, sung by Natasha Bedingfield. I used to like it simply for its uplifting lyrics and melody, but the more I listened to it, the more I could hear a special message about the power of words. The chorus really drives home the meaning for me. “Feel the rain on your skin, no one else can feel it for you, only you can let it in. No one else, no one else can speak the words on your lips. Drench yourself in words unspoken, live your life with arms wide open! Today is where your book begins, the rest is still unwritten“.

I never realized how much these words meant to me before. Let me put is this way: I have my own sensory interpretations of the outside world, and they’ve been affected in different ways by my Autism. It took me a long time to accept how sensitive I really am, but because of these abilities, I’ve learned to be more aware of the world around me and I’ve gained more control of my reactions to it. By gaining more awareness and control, I could develop the vocabulary I needed to create the story that only I knew how to write.

I’m learning to embrace the experiences that are positive, negative, and everything in between; whatever words that can be used to describe them will always come at lightning speed. I alone have the power to select the best words to go on the pages of my life story. Every day is a new chance to write a portion of that story; whatever will happen tomorrow, is unwritten. Until then, all I have is this one present moment.

I feel like we all have the power to determine what sort of destiny we’re aiming for in our stories. I am blessed to feel this way because I discovered that Autism is not a destiny, it’s a way of life that has been waiting to be written by someone with both talent and responsibility. I am quite grateful to have developed my talents in regular school, college, and in life, itself; this means that I have a responsibility to use them in a way that brings light to the Autism Community.

So, what kind of story do you want your life to be? Are you just learning to write it down, or is it second nature to you? You know, it doesn’t matter if you’re penmanship is the best (and believe me, as an Aspie, my penmanship leaves a lot to be desired); as long as you’ve got something to write about, you’ll find a way to make it real. All you can write about is now, the future is still unwritten.

Today’s musical inspiration is, of course, Natasha Bedingfield with “Unwritten”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b7k0a5hYnSI

Running For Love

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It’s amazing how one small change can have a lasting effect. I made a conscious choice to participate in a charity run after high school, but I had no idea of the ongoing impact that it would have on my lifestyle. It was the annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. I didn’t really care that I only power walked it, I was still raising money and awareness for breast cancer treatments so that my grandmother could have a better quality of life. It felt good to exercise outside, but I was still learning about how I was going to live with Autism, so the feeling faded. I wouldn’t feel that way again until I turned twenty-one and the trajectory of my well-being took an upward swing.

After my twenty-first birthday, healthy living suddenly made sense to me. I discovered ways to exercise without feeling like it was a chore and strength and coordination that I lacked growing up with Autism. I bought exercise DVDs and learned how to run properly. Over the next few years I could see and feel the extra weight dropping off of me. I was inspired to continue running in the Race for the Cure every year and even became involved in the Breast Cancer 3-Day Walks. Even after my grandmother passed away I still continued to run, walk, and volunteer in memory of her. However, the impact of those decisions was greater than I ever imagined.

Before I knew it, I was signing up for a gym membership and developing my own routines for staying in shape. Several healthy eating choices helped to strengthen my inner transformation. One of the added benefits was the boost to my mental and emotional well-being. I was able to eliminate the need for prescription drugs to manage my anxiety and depression; some of the side effects of living with Autism. There was also a newfound confidence that inspired me to look into different gym classes, which was something I couldn’t have done years ago. I discovered the power of changing up my routines to avoid boredom and lack of motivation. I even became more social and outgoing with the people that I met in classes. Connection is truly a beautiful thing.

Today I’m happy and proud to be in the physical, mental, and emotional shape that I’m in. I’ve discovered the amazing joy of endurance running, boot camp challenges, cycling, kickboxing, swimming, and even dance! I was able to run my first ever marathon back in 2009 and I look forward to doing even more events for Breast Cancer support, Autism Awareness, and other causes that are close to my heart. Although I sometimes wish I could have discovered it sooner, I feel even healthier and more alive than I was in high school.

I’ve learned that it’s never too late to live a healthy lifestyle. What I’ve done may not work for everyone, but my choices have improved my quality of life and lifted me out of the worst parts of living with Autism. I’m blessed to have the wisdom to take charge of my own well-being and I’m happy to just be running for love.

P.S. the 2013 Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk is happening on November 15th through the 17th. I’m signed up with the crew of volunteers. Wish me luck!

This is My Life!

"I think music in itself is healing.  It's an explosive expression of humanity.  It's something we are all touched by.  No matter what culture we're from, everyone loves music"- Billy Joel

“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music”
– Billy Joel

Billy Joel has written and performed some of my most favorite songs. One song that resonates with my journey with Autism is his classic rock and roll hit entitled “My Life”. Singing along with it reminds me of my need to stand up to people who make assumptions about me and act like there’s something wrong with me. I know who I am and my conscience is clear: God made no mistake with me and I no longer allow other people to dictate how I should live my daily life. I still take advice, but I listen to my instincts at the same time; I’m at a great place right now and I can only get better.

When I hear the opening piano chords, I know exactly what song it is. The famous chorus is what I sing with conviction and passion. “I don’t need you to worry for me ’cause I’m all right. I don’t want you to tell me ‘it’s time to come home’. I don’t care what you say anymore, this is my life! Go ahead with your own life, leave me alone…I never said you had to offer me a second chance. I never said I was a victim of circumstance. I still belong…don’t get me wrong, you can speak your mind, but not on my time! I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life! Go ahead with your own life, leave me alone!”

When I sing this, I feel like I’m standing up to my critics and naysayers. The truth is that I’m happy where I am right now and worrying about my perceived faults is just a waste of time and energy. I mean, what did I ever do to you to upset your precious sensibilities? To tell me that I need to “come home” because I’ve sinned in the eyes of you and your God is a grievous misuse of whatever moral authority you think you have. I’ve grown tired of being told that something is wrong with me and I’ve accepted everything about me, good, bad, and indifferent. I’ve let go of my ‘woe is me’ attitude and embraced a sense of control and responsibility for my words and actions. I’m part of the human family and will always belong, no matter what anyone says. I’ve got my own life and I’m not wasting time with negativity. You can live your life the way you want to, all I ask is that you respect my wishes when I ask you to leave me in peace.

This song has given me the confidence to embrace my personal truth and live passionately. It expresses a courage that speaks to my heart and soul and reminds me that I’m okay with where I am right now. It took me a long time to find this inner strength, but for someone on the Autism Spectrum, discoveries like this are few and far between. Now that I have it, nothing can ever take it away. Some days will be better than others, but I won’t lose sight of what’s important. My name is Tony, I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and this is my life.

Today’s musical inspiration is, of course, Billy Joel’s “My Life”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPd4Qs4Bzik

I Can See Clearly Now!

You know, it’s more than just a song title; it’s a state of being that I’ve been experiencing for the past few months.  Have you ever felt like something finally made sense long after you learned it? Did you learn a lesson but didn’t give it a second thought until a certain moment opened your eyes?  How amazing was it when it happened, and how did your life change after that?  Well, I can’t really put it into words how my life’s changed unless I use this famous R&B hit by Johnny Nash to help me do so.

The cool, upbeat guitar chords give a springy quality to the song as it begins.  “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.  I can see all obstacles in my way.  Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.  It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright), sun-shiny day“.  I feel like the storm that was pushing against me has abated because I became too strong to hold down.  Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be other problems later on.  Now I can anticipate things that are good, bad, or indifferent and I will find the good in any situation once the initial reaction has passed.  It feels so good to have a clear frame of mind; I don’t know where I’m going, but I know how I’m getting there!

The second verse reminds me of my journey with Autism.  “I think I can make it now, the pain is gone; all of the bad feelings have disappeared.  Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin for!  It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright), sun-shiny day“.  My negative feelings don’t cripple me anymore.  All I have to do is let them run their course and I’ll feel better afterwards.  The bridge is an outburst of joy as Johnny invites people to see the beauty of a world filled with hope.  It certainly fills me with hope!  “Look all around, there’s nothin’ but blue skies!  Look straight ahead, nothin’ but blue skies!“.  The first verse repeats one more time and brings home the positive feeling.  By the end, I can’t help but be in a good mood.  This classic song has taken on new meaning for me in the past few months.

Everything I’ve learned from Autism support groups, self-improvement seminars, family and friends, and life in general has begun making a lot of sense to me.  I have a much clearer feeling of purpose, but more than that, I’m now consistent with my actions.  The more actions I take, the easier it is to work toward a fuller and richer life.  With the steps I’ve taken to start a new family business called San Diego Scan and Share, it’s only a matter of time before my blog and the business are linked to each other.  Stay tuned for updates as our business gets off the ground.  Each experience is unique and a post in and of itself, but this song says exactly what I feel today.  My life has just begun and I really can see clearly now!

Listen to the song here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FscIgtDJFXg

One Day at a Time

"Every day is a new chance at living."

Every day is a new chance at living.

Have you ever heard the phrase “one day at a time”?  If you have, what does it mean to you?  Is it something you heard in passing from a good friend? Do you remember it from being witness to meetings in a 12-step program?  Well, I’ve noticed that a lot of people have some connection to it.  Generally, the feeling is that life is rarely the same every day: the past is gone and the future is uncertain, so all we have is the one present day that we can do with it as we like.  Of course I can’t speak for other people, but I know in my heart why I appreciate this phrase.  It’s because my life on the Autism Spectrum was also reflected in dealing with my own addictions.

If you didn’t know already, I’ve had to deal with some addictions that further complicated my life.  I was already a TV junkie and an over-eater when I received my Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis at fifteen.  Dealing with these problems as well as anxiety and depression was a real challenge, but I did catch some breaks.  I was fortunate enough to have counselors to guide me and information on Autism that was constantly updating.  I needed to take prescription drugs as well, and they did help, but there were some difficult days ahead as I came into my own.

I was forced to confront the truth that I had some very poor eating habits and very little physical activity to counteract them.  When I began gaining control over those problems, I was able to confront the fact that I was losing sleep to a video game addiction.  As I put away the games and focused on more important parts of my life, I noticed more doors begin to open because I was able to become engaged in life.  A sense of pride that I never knew existed began to grow inside me and I felt like I was really living.

The more I understood myself, the more I understood how people with other addictions even worse than mine were in the midst of the same struggles.  I was coming to terms with the condition that I was born with while at the same time admitting the addictions that I had.  I began to notice that there was a correlation between the addiction healing process and my journey with Asperger’s Syndrome.  Basically, I was learning to deal with life one day at a time!

These similarities brought home the reality that I needed to appreciate the present moment because it’s all the time I have.  It’s important to remember the lessons of the past and be mindful of the future, but there’s always the here and now to be experienced.  Each decision that I made was part of a collection of lessons that I learned daily and used to make each day worth living.  Accepting the fact that I have Asperger’s Syndrome has made it easier to live day-by-day with authenticity.

It hasn’t been easy, of course; just like a true person with addictions, I know that managing the problem is a daily task.  I would be a fool to think that the problems are gone like yesterday’s news.  There’s all kinds of challenges and rewards ahead and I’m in constant preparation to deal with them.  Looking on the bright side, this has encouraged me to lead a more engaged and present life.

I’m grateful for all the life skills I’ve developed over the years.  I have the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change my circumstances and create opportunity, and the wisdom to perceive the differences.  The visions I have are more focused and my purpose in life is much clearer.  Every past day has turned into weeks, months, and years of important lessons that I use to move forward.  It feels amazing to be engaged and present, and I do it by taking my life one day at a time.

Behind the Armor

The life-size Iron Man armors at San Diego Comic-Con 2010. (Photo taken by me.)

The life-size Iron Man armors at San Diego Comic-Con 2010. (Photo taken by me.)

Who knew that pop culture could play a big part in my “Aspie” life?  I remember the first time I saw an iconic character on film; it really stuck with me.  The truth is that I’ve had more than my share of insightful moments in pop culture and I could continue speaking about them unabated, but that would turn most “normal” people off.  My point is that there are fictional characters that I’ve been able to relate to in some way.  One of the most famous in the “geek-centered” world of comic books, video games, and superheroes is one whose humanity made me look at myself in a whole new way.

The character I’m talking about is Anthony Edward Stark, better known as Iron Man.  Of course, the first thing I noticed was that he shared the same first name as me.  Now there may be a tendency for some men to turn into fan-boys when talking about someone as famous and possessing of swagger as Tony Stark, but my admiration for him comes from the way he became more human & less egotistical after the incident that made him into Iron Man.  When I read about his origins in the different permutations written in different decades, I could see the meaning between the lines.  I first learned about Iron Man when I was in high school; as I was embracing my geeky side I looked into his story a bit more.

He used to be the ambitious, brilliant, but self-centered head of Stark Industries, founded by his father.  While visiting a war zone he is the only survivor of an enemy ambush that kills his escort of American soldiers. Tony is taken prisoner by the enemy, who force him to build a deadly weapon with his knowledge.  He discovers, with the help of an imprisoned professor, that the explosion that killed the Americans has left pieces of shrapnel in his chest that threaten to pierce his heart.  The professor helps Tony construct a life-saving device that enables him to finish his creation: the first prototype of the Iron Man armor.  Even though the professor sacrifices himself in the process, his death enables Tony to destroy the enemy and escape back to American-held territory.

From then on Tony becomes an advocate for science that brings health and abundance to the world.  It is then that he discovers that this brave new world has both challenges and rewards.  While battling villains around the world and within his own life, he begins to slide into a state of denial about what he uses to cope with pressure.  For me this was a pivotal moment in his story: he was a textbook alcoholic leaning on liquor, desperately hoping to forget the pressures of his life.  Only the intervention of his closest friends and family enables him to get the help he needs to gain control of his addiction.

It was this story about Tony Stark’s insecurities that made me respect his character even more.  As I grew older I speculated about him having Asperger’s Syndrome.  He has an almost genius level intelligence and a natural skill for electronics and engineering.  These talents cannot disguise his tendency towards addictive behavior and a sharp tongue in social situations.  How he gained his well-deserved reputation as a womanizer is still a puzzle to me, but what really changed my perspective was the story arc of the early 1980s entitled “Demon in a Bottle”.

Several different events would push Tony towards drinking liquor very often.  When he slumps into his desk chair, pouring over scrapbooks and newspapers, the look of bitter reflection over a life that he once held together is a look I’ve seen my own mirror.  Just to know that there are factors in life that cannot be controlled is enough to make someone used to being in charge of their own life feel like caving into pressure.  That feeling can be even more pronounced in people on the Autism Spectrum.  You know the feeling you get when your life is so out of your hands you feel powerless?  That is a constant, nagging problem that can take hold of someone on the Spectrum and last for long time without support.  When the moment came for Tony Stark to be confronted with his alcoholism, it was done in such an honest and personal way that I’ve read it over and over again.

When his girlfriend tells him about how she lost her first husband in a car accident after months of him abusing prescription pills Tony says that he’s sorry for what happened. She rebuffs Tony and tells him that she doesn’t need his pity, she just needs him to listen.  He was going down a dark path; the same one that led to the death of her husband, only Tony’s choice of a slow death was alcohol instead of prescription drugs.  He may have been carrying the weight of the world, but he had forgotten about his closest friends and employees who could help him carry that weight.  All he had to do was to remember that he could lean on the people he loved instead of using liquor as a crutch.  It was a moment that stays with me today: Tony Stark made the decision to put away the alcohol and be vulnerable for once in his life.

Every time I read that story arc, it is a sobering reminder of my own humanity.  When I look at Tony Stark’s face as the pressures of his life and the words of his girlfriend collide in his mind, I can feel the desperation as he holds the half-full glass of liquor in one trembling hand.  Even as setbacks start to jeopardize his journey to sobriety, Tony becomes strong enough to put down the bottle and begin climbing out of the hole that his addiction had dug for him.

Watching the agony and terror overtake him as he stands at a crossroads is reminiscent of the times when I could not seem to find hope in my worst moments.  It’s a sickening feeling when you realize how out-of-control an addiction has made your life.  My own problems with poor diet and video games were definitely addictions; it took a lot of courage and insight to admit that I inherited the gene of addiction that runs in my family.  For someone on the Spectrum, it’s easy to be self-absorbed while not necessarily being self-aware.

Seeing Robert Downey Jr. cast as Tony Stark in the Iron Man and Avengers movies was a well thought-out move.  Using a skilled and versatile actor with his own real-life struggles was a great way of keeping Iron Man relevant and bringing new life to the franchise.  Apart from enjoying the movies, I was impressed at how human Tony was when played by Robert Downey Jr.

The power and humanity of Iron Man has had a significant impact on my own self-awareness.  It’s taken me a long time to open up to my friends and family about my own struggles, but the strength I gained from doing so made the effort worth it.  I feel like “Aspies” such as myself are forced to put on an armor of our own making to protect ourselves from a world that doesn’t understand.  However, it takes real courage and vulnerability to be open and honest so that the world can see the person behind the armor.