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Home About Us Blog Straight from the Source - Carly N: On Productivity and the Ever-Elusive Self-Care

Straight from the Source - Carly N: On Productivity and the Ever-Elusive Self-Care

Posted on 05/03/19 in Life Skills by Carly N

I have long had a complicated relationship with school breaks. It sometimes amuses me to realize that this anxiety I’m feeling in my stomach as a graduate student is the same one I vividly recall feeling in third grade and have felt every year since. Often, it’s related to lost opportunities. Am I using my break well enough? Am I accomplishing everything I put off until now amidst all the stress from the beginning of the semester? Am I setting myself up for success in the next part of this semester? Am I getting enough rest, but not so much rest that my body adapts to it and my stamina is reduced (is that even a thing that can happen!?)?

I want to be involved in everything. I want to be good at everything. And, above all, I want to succeed in feeling happy and confident as an autistic person in a world that is not set up for autistic people. This last goal is the source of an ongoing tug-of-war my brain plays with itself. I believe that each of us is the only one able to define our “best,” and to define our own abilities. The problem is that amidst the conflicting “should”s of capitalism, academia, self-care, interpersonal relationships, all under an umbrella of context-dependent abilities and shifting needs, I have still never been able to pinpoint exactly what my “best” is. And it has left me vulnerable.

One summer during high school, I attended a leadership camp. I hadn’t even heard of the camp until earlier that school year, but “leadership” is a big buzzword in high school. Colleges are excited about it. Guidance counselors are, somehow, even more excited about it. So I applied for the leadership camp, was accepted and went to it. It was intense and loud in perhaps a way I would have once enjoyed, but I did not enjoy it then. During my morning showers, I sobbed. I ate just enough food to avoid people noticing that I couldn’t really eat. I barely responded when my mom texted to check in. I fantasized about fleeing most rooms I was in while there and going home. And it never occurred to me that I could just leave. I realize now that I could have called my mom and said, “Hi, things aren’t ok. I need to come home.” I could have even faked illness, as I have done at least once since.

I’ve grown up a lot in the seven years since that week. But some themes stay the same. So at the end of this past summer, as I have often done in the midst of great difficulty, I began to search for answers. This search has become easier since recognizing myself as autistic. I’m grateful to have gone from hours of searching, reading, and more searching to a simple post in an online support group for autistic adults. I received a variety of responses, many of which were from people saying they had avoided graduate school for the exact reasons that were making me anxious. They asked me to let them know how it goes. One response was from someone who had completed two years of a PhD program but was not currently enrolled. It was exactly what I needed. It contained the usual advice:

“Meet with disability services.”

“Keep a calendar.”

“Reach out for support.”

But it also contained advice I don’t get as often:

“Take breaks. No like, for real, take breaks. Grad school will try to tell you that any days off from school on the academic calendar mean time to catch up on reading, work on your CV, do community service, work ahead, etc. but nope. You. Need. Breaks. Guard your time, hold your boundaries...Remember why you decided to come to grad school. Focus on the research questions that inspire you, the scholars in your field that bring you joy, etc. It's gonna be hard, but you chose to do it for a reason - hold on to that.”

From early childhood, most people are already experiencing the pressures of keeping pace with a neurotypical, able-bodied timeline. In a data-driven society, milestones, growth charts, and percentiles can feel like a currency. As a number-loving child, then adolescent, then adult, I thrived on these data points in many ways. Still, they have been a point of considerable agony for me. These data points are more concrete than my own limits have ever been, and I often have felt as though I am working against myself in pursuit of the next achievement.

My current life position can really only be described as a murky middle between recognizing my old ways as dangerous and unsustainable and finding a suitable alternative. But I have been holding on to that line: “Remember the research questions that inspire you, the scholars in your field that bring you joy.”

Some of the achievements I’m proudest of, particularly from my undergraduate career, did not come from constant activity. Rather, they came as a result of time spent pondering, exploring, listening, napping, and taking on tasks out of enthusiasm rather than obligation. As I write it, it sounds sustainable. And I think it was. As cliche as it may sound, some of my most productive breaks were time spent letting my brain and body do what they needed to. I hope that knowledge can help to inspire myself (and even others) to do more of the same.

Carly N is a graduate student, a person on the autism spectrum, and the sibling of another person on the spectrum. She is passionate about the need to foster self-advocacy as a pathway for learning, growth, and self-determination.

This article was provided by a guest writer for Milestones Autism Resources. Views and opinions expressed in this article are the writer's own. Milestones strives to create conversation around important topics and to provide members of the community with a platform to share their perspective. In addition, while Milestones' policy is to practice person-first language, we encourage all self-advocates to identify themselves as they wish, so you may see language that does not align with Milestones' internal policy throughout the blog.

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