Catastrophising


This post comes with a trigger warning for discussion of self-harm and suicidal ideation.

In case you hadn’t noticed I am incredibly good at catastrophising – most autistic people are.

I think it’s connected to my cognitive rigidity, whereby while your average neurotypical (NT) brain is an off-road car, my brain is a freight train. My intense focus has lots of benefits, but avoiding catastrophising is not one of them. Autistic people are also pattern spotters. We can take a couple of negative experiences and then attempt to apply them generally – even when there is no general rule to be found.

I had a terrible experience with a project once. I was less than perfect – I missed that I should apply some italicisation to some subscripts – and the author, a physicist, sent an angry email to the whole team about my incompetence and laziness. I was, at the time, having a(nother) miscarriage. It was all round awful.

Even though I never worked with that particular team again, I couldn’t work with that client without suffering from severe anxiety and would wake up every night of a project suffering panic attacks. I was forced to ask the client to remove me from their list of accepted freelancers and never work for them again.

When my latest book project started to feel eerily similar I felt like history was repeating itself. Only now it was globalised so that every physicist hates me. (And yes I know that statistically that’s highly unlikely since the vast majority have never met me.) I was already massively anxious about a forthcoming tutorial as my line manager was going to be observing me. If “physicists hate me” surely that meant that this tutorial was going to be harshly graded by my line manager. (My job means I am surrounded by physicists since I’m tutoring a physics module in a university.) I was going to be fired and I was never going to be able find another job.

Now an NT would probably tell me I was being completely unreasonable. But the thing is while this scenario is extremely unlikely, it’s not actually impossible. Lots of people lose a job and are never able to find another. Autistic people are very adept at invoking hatred in others.

The issue of course with a negative downward spiral you cannot pull yourself out of is that it leads to terrible places. I did a similar thing during my master’s degree because my bachelor’s had gone so very badly. Despite evidence to the contrary, I was convinced that university was “not for people like me”, that I was going to fail my master’s degree, that I was going to be stuck being an editor for the rest of my life, working with clients who upset me so much they triggered during-my-sleep panic attacks. There would be no escape. I became very depressed, very quickly, to the point that I started self-harming multiple times a day and I was experimenting with self-harming methods that I hadn’t tried before. When my husband discovered how ill I was, he put me in the car and drove to the GP, where he demanded an emergency appointment. My GP put me on NICE’s suicidal patient protocol – I was on Valium, SSRIs, with weekly GP appointments, and my husband was under strict instructions that I was not safe to be left alone.


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