I gave up alcohol and discovered I’m autistic

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I am writing this from the past.

It’s 22:29 on a Friday evening and that odd bit in my brain is silently wishing I’d started writing this at 22:22 because 22 is my favourite number and when 22 is involved it means good luck.

You see — on the day that you will be reading this I will have finally been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome — a form of high-functioning autism.

As you can probably tell, I like to plan… to prepare myself carefully for all eventualities. Yet this is the only article I feel the need to write.

I am female. I am 33. I live with my partner of 8 years. I have an amazing career. I’m studying a part time Masters degree. I have friends. I do normal things like grocery shopping, laundry and going on holiday. I used to perform stand up comedy. I was in a band. We toured Germany twice and performed at Bestival. I ran a mental health campaign for my homeless brother, spoke on BBC radio and have done various things in my adult life which I previously would not have thought common for an autistic adult to have done — I am getting better and better at life the more time that I spend having one.

At school I was a high achiever. I was quiet, I kept my head down and got on with my work. I was top of my class for most subjects, won awards for academic achievement and performed in school orchestras and a jazz band.

I didn’t think there was anything to suggest autism was a possibility. Yet in reality — I knew nothing about autism. And I certainly didn’t know anything about autism in girls.

I had initially dismissed suggestions that I could be on the spectrum, thinking I was just being made fun of. People were just confirming what I already knew — I was weird. Yeah, I get it — it’s not normal to write lists of funny things your brother did every evening to recite to people at school. It’s not normal to keep a bottle of milk in your room for 9 months while at uni and refuse to get rid of it despite it stinking (the three carrier bags I kept it in helped…sort of), and it’s certainly not normal to draw pictures of your dead naked dad, get them printed onto Christmas cards and present them during a serious job interview, but hey — who said anything about ‘normal’ being the desired outcome of this strange thing we call life?

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My favourite Christmas card design, Jingle Bell Ends.

I’ve always known I was different. I didn’t fit in as a child. And I still don’t now. But autism just didn’t cross my mind.

Gradually though, after years of brushing aside the occasional autism comments — I finally changed my mind.

The reason? Because first — I changed my relationship with alcohol.

I decided I needed to stop drinking for the good of my health — both physical and mental. So I did. It was a gradual process and one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Rewind back to 08 August 2015. The day I realised I needed to remove alcohol from my life. It was what some may call a ‘lightbulb moment’.

I was at home in South London deciding whether to attend my friend’s birthday party or not. My partner was away and the party was on the other side of London. I would most likely have to travel alone, make conversation with old friends and people I’ve never met before and — in addition to those slightly terrifying ‘hurdles’ — somehow get myself home in one piece.

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Me as a child, by me

It was that last one that was proving the most tricky for me. The majority of my pre-party anxiety wasn’t actually down to the fact that I’m socially awkward — it was down to the fact that I couldn’t trust myself to drink responsibly.

I suddenly saw all of the so-called ‘negative’ experiences in my life for what I thought they were — a result of alcohol. My dad’s addiction and later death, my brother’s addictions (which resulted in him living on the streets the following year), the lost purses/phones/keys and even a keyboard at one of my own gigs, the numerous poor decisions, the multiple times I’d been taken advantage of by strange men and men I thought I could trust, the times I’d felt anxious out in public or just at home on a Sunday afternoon — it all seemed to stem from the same inability to know when to put the bottle down; to know when an evening had reached its peak and to just say goodnight. If I felt anxious on a Thursday and hadn’t had a drink since Saturday — I would still blame the alcohol. I couldn’t see any other reason.

Removing alcohol seemed like the simple cure. And at first it was. I took weeks and then months off. I would only drink on ‘special occasions’ or when I was safely with my partner. I started to feel more confident and in control of my life. In case you haven’t tried it — life without hangovers is pretty amazing.

That was — very strangely — until the gaps between drinking became longer.

It was in the weeks and months following sobriety that my autistic symptoms revealed themselves again fully, allowing me to squint at them in the full, bright and overwhelming light of day — no fuzzy merlot-coloured veil to soften the impact, to fool me into thinking I was better at socialising or sitting in a loud busy room than I was.

For the majority of people who quit drinking, time often brings great relief from anxiety and related mental health issues. But for me — it seemed to make these all the more noticeable.

Memories of my childhood came flooding back as I started my Masters degree — the overwhelming feeling of sitting in a large noisy class, of not being able to process necessary verbal information while being surrounded by constant confusing and multiple sensory stimuli. The fear of presenting my work to the class, the stomach-flipping feeling of hearing the words ‘now get into a group of 4 and discuss…’ despite the fact that I love my classmates, the disorientating experience of attempting to navigate the intricacies of a new social landscape.

My brain was no longer being sporadically soaked in a dark 13% ABV liquid yet, when in one of those inevitable social settings, after a certain amount of time my head would become full and dizzy, my brain couldn’t filter the sounds I didn’t need to hear, and I would stutter and blink a lot when I needed to speak. I definitely hadn’t been downing shots the night before my journey to work — so why did every overlapping sound on this train feel like it was crawling through into my veins and piercing my eardrums? I knew I hadn’t stayed up till 1am glugging homemade margaritas — so why couldn’t I look anyone in the eye or contribute to a back and forth conversation while at dinner with friends?

I started researching autism in girls. I knew a couple of girls on the spectrum and recognised some similar traits. Autism became my new special interest. I became more obsessed with it than I was about that one specific EastEnders episode that I based my entire GSCE coursework on in 1999. (And I was VERY obsessed with that episode…the one where Steve killed Saskia with an ashtray — remember it?)

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My EastEnders bag I made using cuttings from soap magazines when I was 14. I got an A in Textiles. I used to wear it to nightclubs in 2010.

Piece by piece, the confusing puzzle of my life came together. The childhood that I had temporarily forgotten about, came back to me.

I approached my GP, was referred, months later initially screened by a local mental health group where funding for my assessment was approved, more months passed then I filled out multiple questionnaires, wrote 35 pages of A4 about my childhood through to adulthood, my mum was interviewed by a neurodevelopmental specialist for 2.5 hours, weeks later I was observed at the ADOS-2 assessment by the same specialist where I had to complete odd tasks such as pretending to brush my teeth and making up a story using a bag of random objects, then two weeks later I completed the final assessment with a psychiatrist where I was finally given my Asperger’s diagnosis.

It took 1 year and 5 months from GP to final diagnosis, here in South London. But it was so worth it.

I’ve never been one for labels — I’ve found that these can often be restrictive and can fool us into thinking there are limits to our own magnificence.

But this is a label I can relate to. It explains my childhood, my adolescence and my growing-into-an-adult years.

The word ‘autistic’ is not placing limits on my abilities — it’s giving me the permission to continue to be as different and as creative and as genuine as I can be, knowing that is who I was meant to be in the first place.

Having Asperger’s has given me so many more valuable skills and talents than I could have hoped for.

It’s made me work hard to achieve despite social and sensory difficulties. It’s provided me with an excellent memory for detail, hyper-focus at work and on personal projects, natural forward-planning skills and an overwhelming desire for accuracy and perfection in everything I do.

It’s provided me with talents in art, music and writing; a kindness towards animals, and (yes this sounds super cheesy I know) — a desire to make the world a better place.

Autism has made me stronger every day without me knowing it. And I’d kind of like to say thanks to autism for that. After all — I doubt I would have won the prize for Best at Timekeeping at work without it. (I got a rosette and everything.)

I was 33 when I was diagnosed with autism.

I was 32 when I gave up alcohol. And it was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Removing alcohol from my life may not have been a cure to living an anxiety-free life in my case, it was instead the doorway to relearning who I am and being able to start accepting myself fully — in all my peculiarities.

For any adult reading this who might be considering seeking an autism diagnosis, I’d strongly recommend taking a few weeks/months off alcohol and recreational drugs to see if your experience of life changes.

Take time to meet the real you again — the ‘you’ you were when you were a child. The you you were before you developed potentially unhealthy coping mechanisms and grew more accomplished at masking or pushing your quirks to one side.

It may serve to shine a light on everything you thought you had forgotten, and everything you have the potential to be.

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First and only family portrait of me, mum, dad and my brother, around 1992 / Me and my mother, Dec 2017
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Getting some tips

N.B. I recommend reading Samantha Craft’s Females with Asperger’s Syndrome Unofficial Checklist if you are a female thinking you may be on the spectrum. 94% of it was like reading a summary of my life.

For more official autism-related reading, check out:

National Autistic Society — What is Autism?
National Autistic Society — What is Asperger’s Syndrome?
National Autistic Society — Autism and Alcohol

I make things with words and pictures. http://abigailbalfe.com

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