Note: I wrote this during last summer’s heatwave and never uploaded it. I hope you enjoy it now. As a warning, I do not seem to understand the difference between affect and effect. As I am talking about being affected by things in this post, I will undoubtedly make many mistakes. So, my apologies to any grammar conscious readers.
When talking about mental health it is commonplace to assert that the boundaries between different emotions, pathologies, and experiences are hard to delineate Where does anxiety become depression, where does mania shade into psychosis, when does struggling become not functioning, and so on.
When considering my own collection of mental quirks, assigning one feeling or experience to one cause can be difficult. Are my Asperger’s and my anxiety separate events, or do they mutually cause and reinforce one another? Can I have a sensory overload without an attendant panic attack? Is Asperger’s synonymous with a difficulty processing stimulus or does it encompass other feelings in my body? Some of this collection of rhetorical questions may be unanswerable, but I do think it’s possible to separate these mental health issues in practice, even if they resist clarification on a conceptual level. The best way to make this point is to talk about the weather
In the UK and Ireland, the weather is currently surpassing its normal status as a perennial conversation topic and making front page news. We are experiencing an almost unprecedented heatwave. People are having to cope with the weather, as opposed to merely complaining or commenting on it.
This is my way of saying that everyone is affected by the weather, and not just aspie anxious messes like me. I do think it impacts me in a slightly different way than most folks though. When I was younger, my moods were tied to the weather in a unique manner. Certain emotions were inextricably linked to certain atmospheric phenomena. A humid day in July or August meant the day was essentially a write off; uniquely terrible. A rainy day in winter was also sad, but a rainy day with a light sky in the spring was quite enjoyable.
I must stress that it wasn’t the experience of the weather that caused these emotions but their existence. The patterns being so arranged led inexorably to certain moods regardless of how the rest of the day went. It’s an experience I feel is hard for neurotypical folks to understand as it is removed from conventional emotional life. There is a bizarre but consistent autistic logic underpinning it.
The weather can have a huge impact on my senses and make it easy to overload. Belfast is relatively easy to manage weather wise provided that one is okay with unpredictable rain. It’s only uncommonly common weather pattern, so to speak, is high humidity. The city is a well-disguised marshland and like other marshlands the air grows sticky and moist in the summer. On overcast days the humidity can be very high and very unpleasant. This makes the air close, as the heat seems to stick to your body, and sweating only makes your clothes chafe and have the air press in closer. The sensation is a claustrophobic one and leads to a general air of annoyance among certain groups of people, particularly infants and commuters.
The humidity’s aspie twist is that it can be overwhelm my brain. There is so much stimuli on my skin, with sweat, warm cheeks, wet arms and back, water droplets forming and sticking on bare skin, occasional light drizzles of tepid rain being confused with the anxious sensation of pins and needles; I hope you see why this can quickly become all a bit too much. A day can be made challenging solely by virtue of being warm or humid in the wrong degree.
The aspie response to the weather also evolves over time, and often for the better. For example, I found high temperatures very hard to deal with for most of my life. Warm days, really anything above mid-twenties, were difficult for me. The feeling of being warm all over my body was, similar to the experience of humidity, a sensorily busy one. Cooling down is difficult in Northern Ireland with its well-insulated houses and minimal air conditioning. Warm days felt like they took control of my body away from me and forced me to be in a particular experience. The heat was also tied to some memoires of ill-health; of specific periods of high anxiety that happened during summer, and of the general hot flashes that accompany panic attacks.
Recently though, the heat has stopped feeling oppressive or scary, or at least less so. I was in southern England studying during the first part of the recent heatwave. Oxford was regularly thirty degrees or over, and my accommodation was incredibly warm. It was quite impossible to cool my room down after about midday. This scenario would’ve sounded to unacceptable to me until very recently but I found it relatively easy to deal with. I found it easy to accept temperatures that caused others extreme discomfort and didn’t dread spending time in my bedroom-come-oven. After many years of fidgeting in and fighting against the feeling of extreme warmth, I now find it easy to accept.
This has been possible because I can separate out the emotions and conditions involved in my response to weather. First of all, I ask what the weather reminds me of, what emotional memories is it tied to and therefore likely to provoke in me. I then can assess the impact these stimuli and feelings are having on my body, to check if I’m feeling shivery, clammy, uncomfortable, sleepy or all of the above. Then, I can check to see if these emotions and bodily sensations are causing an anxiety response. Am I getting stomach cramps, am I feeling panicky, do I have a claustrophobic or trapped sensation? Once I am cognizant of all these emotions and understand why they are happening, I can deal with the situation.
This empowerment is possible because I feel I can separate out which mental condition is the source of what feeling. Whether I am making false dichotomies, drawing undue parallels, erroneously putting like objects into unlike categories, I’m not bothered. Even if my self-understanding is intellectually indefensible it is emotionally useful. I am glad I can comfortably come to the very un-aspie conclusion that I am fine with this.