“Just Be Yourself” – #TaketheMaskOff

Relax, just be yourself!

OMG not like that!

Autistic Science Lady

Neurotypical people say this a lot. I’ve heard it many times, followed by “relax!” like I wasn’t relaxing properly. It is not easy to be yourself in a neurotypical society.This is what neurotypical people don’t realize when they tell autistic people to be themselves.

I want to talk about what happens in an autistic person’s daily life when they don’t mask, because it’s not something neurotypical people likely see. They don’t see us being misinterpreted, talked over, or assumed to be rude. So, these are some of the reasons why we need to mask, why we need to feel safe in a society that isn’t naturally welcoming to us.

People say “oh well we all mask!” like it’s some sort of exhausting thing for neurotypical people too. But the difference is what happens when we do not mask, when we are too exhausted to mask, or when we are actively…

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Masking, Modelling, Compensation; where’s the overlap?

This is a personal perspective on what these terms, all of which could be said to describe how autistic people can adapt to the expectations of allistic (non-autistic) people / society.

I don’t think any of these words is perfect for that job.

  • Masking is generally used in the sense of the autistic person suppressing their natural and spontaneous behaviours, turning down the volume; for example suppressing stims and vocalisations.
  • Compensation on the other hand has a flavour of filling in for deficits, which doesn’t sit well with the idea that Autism is a difference, not a deficit; something to be lived, not cured.
  • I haven’t seen Modelling used that often in the context of Autism, but it is a well-known technique (e.g. in Psychology and Neuro-Linguistic Programming) that can be applied by anyone wanting to adopt the behaviours (and, often, perceived successes) of another person. In essence, modelling is observing how the other person behaves in a variety of contexts, and adopting those behaviours for oneself.

If I look back to before I became aware of my ASD, I have certainly used all of the techniques hinted at above. I’m particularly interested in finding a word that adequately captures Compensation without being seen as a slight on the beauty of Autism from the perspective of anyone who wants to celebrate their Autism (and why not? I certainly want to be accepted lock, stock and barrel without being seen as particularly deficient).

Compensating, for me, describes better than Masking the enormous effort that I was investing to achieve those things that my peers achieve with much less effort; things such as processing words in a group conversation fast enough to be able to pitch my considered reply into a convenient gap in conversation.

Yes, I was masking too, but if that means suppressing, not all that much. The behaviours that I’ve “let out” now wouldn’t cause too much of a stir – but that’s down to the random chance of what those behaviours are for me.

I was also certainly doing an awful lot of modelling, particularly at work where I adopted the behaviours of a succession of my own managers that I saw getting the results that I also wanted. This was partly conscious, and partly subconscious (until I happened to notice that I was doing it).

There is a grey area between Modelling and Compensating that I can’t quite tease out, and to a lesser extent there is too between both of those and Masking.

Despite what I’ve said here, the rest of my blog uses Masking when, perhaps, I mean Compensating. Also, the link I provided in “Taking off the Mask” to describe Masking actually points to an article about Autistic Camouflaging (a fourth term!), which I’m now thinking might actually describe a combination of Masking and Compensation, as I’ve outlined them above, employed together.

If masking means all of the above, then fine; but I don’t think it conveys all of the above to people without a full explanation.

As I said at the top, this is my reflection on my personal experience and how I’ve heard these terms used, so if anyone wants to suggest ways that this post could be improved, I’m all ears.

The Evolution of Nicknames

This is Bella.

She is now called, mainly, ToosieMoose.

Here’s how that happened.

When we were out visiting universities with our youngest daughter, we happened to see a sign pointing the way to something called a “PATOS Brief”. As we mused over what PATOS might be, we decided that it sounded like a childrens’ cartoon character. We imagined a voice-over saying “This is Patos. Patos is sad…….”. We connected this idea with the slightly sad face of our chubby Labrador.

From that point on, Bella was unofficially called Patos. It was a short step from there to Patoose, then ‘toose, and then, because of an unrelated standing joke about “Goosy goosy gander” she became ‘tootsie ‘toosie gander and then ‘toose-a-moose (because it rhymes with goose) and then simply ToosieMoose.

So there you are – how Bella came to be called ToosieMoose.







Chemistry experiments

I had a ball with my chemistry set as a child. I remember being awed by the construction of glass straws, and the fascinating shapes of the equipment, especially thistle funnels. Then the chemicals themselves, with wonderful names like Sodium Thiosulphate, textures like zinc, properties like cobalt chloride, and amazing metals that can be set on fire like magnesium.

Vigorous reactions of course fascinated me, and I would repeat the Sodium Hydrogen Carbonate – Acid reaction (Baking powder plus vinegar was easiest) time and time again to see the foaming bubbles and often popping cork from the top of a test tube that I’d jammed the stopper into!

As a teenager, I escalated this to household bleach and battery acid (my dad was a motor mechanic and we seemed to have lots of spare car batteries that I could simply take the acid from). This reacts to produce chlorine gas, again quite vigorously, and I used to enjoy the strength of the smell and the slight danger of the noxious gas (I wasn’t concerned about the chance of an inadvertent deep breath resulting in hydrochloric acid forming in my lungs; I was a teenager!).

One day, I decided to do the acid + bleach reaction in a chemistry stock bottle that I found in our garage; the type with a ground glass stopper that can be – yep – jammed in just as the reaction gets going.

What happened next was predictable but unpredicted by me. The reaction did indeed get going, and the pressure overcame the resistance of the ground glass seal *and* the pressure that I was stupidly applying with my thumb. The stopper blew out, and a fountain of still-mixing sulphuric acid and bleach  shot up inches from my face (and eyes) and hit the low garage ceiling inches above my head, and dripped back down into my hair.

I had white spots in my hair for weeks afterwards, and I didn’t do the experiment in quite that form again.

Can’t win (or how not to convey interest)

Almost a lifetime ago, when my two stepdaughters were still at school, we used to eat together in the dining room every day. My elder stepdaughter was the most chatty 95% of the time, and usually provided all of the words necessary to accompany the food.

I mostly struggled to keep up with her stories, as a) she talked quite quickly, b) she had that teenage habit of telling stories backwards (we were late because Lily had to go to the toilet with Freya because she was in a right state ‘cos she couldn’t hand in her homework ‘cos Dan’s dog frightened her and she had to go to hospital with Sam………) and c) I found it challenging to be genuinely interested in the lives of all of those people who’s names were just names without faces.

So the pattern set in. I’d listen for a few minutes and then give up, my mind drifting off on to what I was going to do after tea. Which was fine, except for the times when the story started to need some parental input and I would get a verbal jab in the ribs from my wife asking me why I wasn’t helping.

I had just finished training to be a coach at work, and had learned all about active listening, verbal nods, checking understanding, open questioning, reflecting back etc. So I decided to try these skills out to help me stay engaged with the dinner-time stories.

The other teenage daughter habit I forgot to mention is that of having to go back to the beginning of a story if there is an interruption. Can you see where this is going?

Daughter: “We were late because Lily had to go to the toilet with Freya…..”

Me: “Wait, who’s Freya?”

D: “Tall Freya, goes out with Liam?”

M: “Ah ok carry on”

D: “We were late because Lily had to go to the toilet with Freya because she was in a right state ‘cos she couldn’t hand in her homework ‘cos Dan’s dog”

M: “Who’s Dan?”

D: “It doesn’t matter”

M: “I’m just trying to understand”

D: “He’s just a boy at school”

M: “OK”

D: “We were late because Lily had to go to the toilet with Freya because she was in a right state ‘cos she couldn’t hand in her homework ‘cos Dan’s dog frightened her and she had to go to hospital with Sam”

M: “How specifically did Dan’s dog frightening Freya mean that they had to go to hospital with Sam?”

My wife to me: “Why are you being such a twat?”


Social Media

It’s been a love-worry relationship.

Social media, especially Twitter, has provided a great way for me to find social groups and ideas beyond the one that I grew up in as a child and struggled to feel part of. It reminds me of when I went to University having previously struggled with Christianity vs Atheism; going to Uni revealed to me that this wasn’t a yes/no question and that in fact there are myriad ways to engage with the world on a spiritual level. Likewise social media has broadened my mind enormously on topics from politics, sexuality, gender, and simply ways of being as a person. It’s fascinating to see how some people behave in very adult, respectful, facts-based, assertive and self-assured ways: some not so much.

Then there’s the way that different SM platforms get used for different purposes. For me, at least for my demographic, it seems that Facebook is for your inner circle, Twitter is for connecting with people but via ideas and keeping up with the buzz, and the others for less text-based sharing. Even Facebook has circles within circles. Blogging also provides connections, but primarily I use my blog to crystallise my thoughts; if I write knowing that someone who doesn’t know me or my context might read it, this forces me to explain clearly. Having to explain clearly means having to think clearly, and that’s quite a therapeutically helpful process. Blogging is also a great way to avoid having to say the same thing twice – “I wrote about that here”. Finally blogging allows me to link my ideas and stories together, which seems to help me feel whole somehow as time goes on.

Five or ten years ago, Facebook was all that I had. And it was filled with ‘friends’ who were really people whom I had met at work. Over the years I found myself wanting to separate work from the rest of my life, and gradually my facebook friends have shifted in centre of gravity to people I run with, or people I’ve met via social media and share something with, or people whom I don’t now see in real life but simply want to keep in touch with. I abandoned long ago the idea that you should be Facebook friends with every member of your extended family, many of whom I haven’t seen in decades and have nothing in common with.

I’ve always had great difficulty with the “unfriending” process on Facebook, especially if I also know the person in real life. What if they say something next time we meet? But I don’t want to share that much of my life with them. I once deleted my entire facebook account to give me plausible deniability where I really should have gone for the unfriend option. I lost years of memories by doing this and starting a brand new account.

Then there are the multiple personas that we have. The serious Twitter and silly Twitter, the Facebook, the LinkedIn, the Blog, the *anonymous* Blog. Yes, I’ve had an anonymous blog or two, but although it works in respect of providing an outlet and crystallising thoughts, it doesn’t quite scratch the itch of wanting to be known.

I’ve looked with envy at some younger, generally female journalist types, amazed at how they seem perfectly comfortable sharing their thoughts on hugely intimate topics such as sex and sexuality; what if your parents or children or colleagues read this – wouldn’t it make you (and them) shudder?  But then, we are all human, & the vast majority of us have had sex and enjoy it in various ways; why shouldn’t we talk about it? My mum’s answer was that we shouldn’t, and that perhaps we should keep little paper diaries, at most. But those free and unfettered female journalist bloggers have mothers too. And here’s a specific thing that strikes me as odd. If I were to announce that I’m gay, or trans, or bi, that would be pretty cool with most people online and in real life. But would I get the same reaction if I announced what specifically I find sexually attractive in women or what fantasies I’ve had? Yet again, some people do. Some men are perfectly happy to let the world know that they enjoy S&M for example, and still turn up at work on a Monday indistinguishable in dress and composure from anyone else, and seemingly not caring that whilst discussing the strategy for promoting their latest corporate venture, their boss & colleagues might have in their mind a picture of them spread-eagled on a bench in a dungeon.

I’ve read good articles on the difference between authenticity and over-sharing, but I’m still not sure how much I should care. What is life if you can’t be yourself and make your own rules about your own boundaries?

As with everything else in life, this is all part of a journey. I’ll see you all further down the road.


What’s Working at Work: Succeeding with Autism

After my big burnout experience in the Autumn of 2017, I’ve now been back at work for six months, and things are going pretty well. I thought I’d reflect on what’s working.

I must acknowledge up front that I’m very lucky to work in a large corporate organisation that tries really hard to value and support its people; I know that people with similar impairments to mine won’t be able to implement much of this if they work for example in a high pressure retail environment or casual job. Our company is not a paradise, but duty of care to staff is taken seriously, if only for because of the hard-nosed business benefit of having healthy, happy and hence productive staff and recognising the importance of playing the long game where experience gained over decades is valued highly.

There are two key things that have helped me get to where I am in readjusting my life. The first is knowing myself better, and the second is finding the courage to accept my limitations (and my skills) and communicate their implications to my colleagues.

Knowing myself better has been helped enormously by finding online Autism communities. It’s not about a label, but about seeing myself reflected and noticing more features that affect me. Ultimately it’s about the correlation of my experience with the “other things you might experience if you experience X”. The label of Autism is only needed here as a container to put such statements in. Reading other people’s experiences has allowed me to say “Yes, I get that too and it means this for me” as well as “Um, no, I don’t experience that”. So for example, decades ago I was terrified of making and receiving phone calls but didn’t know why. I taught myself to overcome the fear, but didn’t count the mental cost of doing so (masking). On the other hand, I’m fine with fluorescent lights apart from being mildly annoyed if they’re flickering.

Finding the courage to work through the implications and communicate these to my colleagues came about partly through necessity (I knew that if something didn’t change, I would risk never recovering from the burnout and depression that I was suffering and this risked some very bleak outcomes) and partly through working through owning my own psychological boundaries. The key one for me here is that I’ve always been extremely averse to conflict, which is on the flip side of a craving to be loved and valued constantly. What this has meant is that I’ve struggled to find “me” in the interconnections of relationships, and tended to put others first, especially at work. So if someone asked me “what time can you stay to tonight?” I would weigh business needs heavily over my own private life. I would excuse this with “It’s a one-off and it will help me to feel valued”. Realistically, there is rarely a serious consequence that a business can’t work around if the answer is “I’m leaving at 16:00”; businesses cope if you’re off sick, so they can surely cope if you leave early enough to beat the rush hour traffic and walk your dogs in daylight, decompressing to come back fresh tomorrow morning.

Some other specific things I’ve learned:

  • It’s OK to step down and step back, and play to your strengths rather than continually “developing”.
  • Holding progress meetings in the mornings means that you have the rest of the day to process, plan, and decompress so that you’re not doing this in your head on the way home and carrying work home with you.
  • Earplugs and earbuds are acceptable and effective in a noisy office (assuming that you don’t work in a call centre!).
  • Retaining some flexibility is important rather than being absolutist. If making a phone call costs 5 spoons, and sending an email 1, then email is of course the best way forwards. However, if not making that phone call means you then have to send and respond to 50 emails, it might be better to find a time when you have the five necessary spoons and make the call.
  • Don’t assume that other people won’t accommodate your needs. They might well refuse, but deal with their actual response rather than expending mental energy anticipating something that might not happen.
  • If your natural answer is at odds with what you think the reasonable expectation might be, take some time to try to work out why, and see if you can explain what’s driving your conclusion. Often, you might be between a rock and a hard place that others cannot see; describing the rock and the hard place better might move everyone’s understanding forwards and provide progress where previously there was only anxiety and stress.
  • Other people’s lack of planning doesn’t constitute your emergency. It’s OK to allow other people to be anxious, frenetic and in a bit of a flap; you don’t have to join in. You can only do what you can do.
  • Take breaks, especially if any of the above is difficult. Do a different task for a while, get away from your desk for lunch or coffee, talk to a colleague if that’s OK with you and helpful, go for a walk (even to the loo, if that’s all that you can get). It’s only work, and it will wait for you.

The other thing that I’ve done, and again I’m so, so lucky that this is an option, is to reduce my contracted working hours so that I don’t ever work Fridays. This gives me a 4 day week and 3 day weekend. Not only does that have a massive impact on the ratio of working days to non working days, it’s also hugely symbolic of me taking control and underlining the psychological shift of allegiance from work life to home life. Yes, it will potentially reduce my pension slightly; yes, it means some debt for a few years. But my take-home pay has reduced by about 13%, not the 20% you’d think initially, because most of the top of the money went into tax, national insurance and pension and these are all lower contributions now.

This is all about realising that things have to change, and taking steps. Keep doing what you did, and you’ll keep getting what you got. It’s an aphorism for sure, but one worth bearing in mind!

One other sentence that I keep reminding myself of when I look back at the sort of stuff I had been involved in before burnout, is “Not everything that I’m good at is good for me”. Yes, I was and am still capable of getting to an airport, flying to another country, booking in to a hotel and spending time in meetings away from my normal workplace. But I now know that the mental cost of this was much greater that it is for others, and emulating them will only risk repeating the cycle. I miss some of it, but that still doesn’t mean that it would be a good idea to repeat it. That particular slider on The Graphic Equaliser Of Stress needs to stay at the bottom!

The Graphic Equaliser Of Stress

Everyone gets stressed. Everyone needs to do something about it.

Sometimes, perhaps more often than not, we reach for the bluntest of blunt instruments to bludgeon our stress out of existence. We select our weapon of choice from an armoury stocked with excessive alcohol, sex, drugs, food, or whatever, compulsive behaviours of all sorts with one thing in common; they overwhelm our system to the point that stress has nowhere to hide, at least for now. By the way I don’t mean to judge here; I’m not talking about recreational behaviours, but compulsive binging that seeks to provide oblivion.

There are many problems here, not least of which are the danger of addiction and the financial and psychological costs involved, but they are also ineffective in the long term precisely because of their bluntness and imprecision.

The analogy that I use is that it’s like listening to music or a radio or TV show and finding one of the instruments or voices too loud, and the only control available to us being the master volume knob. Yes we can turn down the annoyance, but we also turn down the sounds that we were perhaps enjoying. I came up with this analogy when I first started experiencing depression, and realised that I had turned down the master volume to the point where I could no longer hear the music of life at all, and was in danger of giving up and turning off the amp at the mains.

In Autumn 2017 I experienced a giving-up-on-everything experience that seemed to be both depression on steroids and nothing like depression at the same time. After a lot of soul searching I discovered that I have Asperger Syndrome, but that’s not the main point of this story (though see the footnote). The point is that that discovery led to a greater understanding of the things that caused me stress, and at the same time provided a reason that allowed me to give myself permission to do something about each one of them.

This is important, so I’ll say it again:

It led me to things, in the plural, that were causing
me stress, and gave me permission to change my
experience of each of those things.

Not one master volume control to rule them all, but many, individual, volume controls acting independently; a graphic equaliser of stressors. Out of habit I had already turned the master volume down, but now I had a new tool; so I pushed all of the sliders on the graphic equaliser down to the bottom and turned the master volume back up, ready to experiment.

I was able to understand what things I love, and could be pushed back up to max volume, what things I need to treat with caution and can only go to 2 out of 10, some things that I really need to leave at zero, and others that can go up to any volume but only for a short time or not very often.

So for specific examples, I know that listening to music is almost always pure pleasure (if it’s my choice of music!). Talking to people face to face requires energy; it has some payback, but eye contact in particular needs to be limited. Attending meetings needs to be kept close to zero if I’m to keep my stress in the healthy zone. Likewise one-to-one phone calls at work, or worse, receiving cold calls even from trusted colleagues.

But the specifics don’t matter; it’s the principle that’s important. We owe ourselves a duty of care, and we can do much better than bludgeoning our stress to death by reaching for the master volume or off switch.

My graphic equaliser now looks a bit like this, and the music is very soothing!

One of the consequences of having Asperger Syndrome is that the optimum positioning of the sliders on the equaliser might look odd to most people. Instead of a graceful curve the sliders might appear to be up and down at random. This is not wrong, but a consequence of how we experience life differently.

Sensory Overload

I’ve been meaning to write this post about Sensory Overload now for a few weeks. The idea has been floating around my mind after I found myself reflecting on what Lynn said to me once; “If you have such super-sensitive hearing, how come you can never hear the oven timer beeping?”. Good question.

My answer is that it’s not true to say that I have super-sensitive hearing. I have average hearing. What *isn’t* average is what happens to the perception of sound once it’s come in through my ear and the bit of brain that registers it as a sound. It’s the next bit of brain, the part that makes sense of the sound, that is challenged by incoming sounds.

It’s not even true to say that *that* part of my brain, the one that makes *sense* of sound, is super-sensitive, either; it is simply easily overwhelmed. It seems to me that it can only make sense of one coherent input source at a time; if there is more than one, my attention will try to make sense of all inputs simultaneously and this *hurts*. As a short diversion, the  reason I went back and inserted the word “coherent” between “one” and “input” is that my brain *can* easily cope with, for example, the multiple voices of an orchestra – many counterpointed melodies and rhythms – because they make sense as a whole. What my brain *can’t* do is process inputs that are unrelated and hence demand individual attention of the ‘sense making’ apparatus in my brain.

As an example, one of the things that frequently gets me agitated is someone in the lounge talking to me whilst there are voices coming from the television; my brain tries to listen to both streams of words at once, and, as I said above, this hurts. It’s a form of pain that is hard to describe, but the best analogy I can find is that uncomfortable feeling that comes if you’re really, really tired and want to sleep, but *have* to stay awake for some reason.

So, thinking about this for the first time whilst writing, this all has something to do with attention, which is part of Executive Function. My attention can be superbly focussed; I can focus on a concept or sounds or something that I’m looking at to the exclusion of all else. When I do this, I enter a world in which only I and the object of attention exist. On the other hand, when there are competing inputs that seem to be roughly equal in the way that they are demanding attention, I can’t turn any of them off. Maybe it’s just verbal inputs that I can’t screen out.

The other thing to say is that there is definitely a ‘bucket’ of some form involved; I can cope with competing inputs for a short while, but there comes a point where the input buffer is full and once that happens I’m out.

The overwhelm is also not always related to the volume of sound. I can cope with any volume of bass and midrange in music; treble sometimes hurts my ears but that *is* a ‘hearing apparatus’ problem and not a sensory processing one. As a teen, I used to lie on the floor with my head between my hifi speakers so that I was wearing them like headphones, with the volume cranked up to the max. But I *do* get agitated if I can hear the bass line of a neighbour’s music drifting over the garden fence, because my brain tries to follow the tune. If I can’t recognise it, my brain is forever trying to ‘synch up’ to the sound, and that takes attention which I find hard to divert away onto something else. It’s the same with whispering; sometimes people whisper when I’m watching TV so as not to annoy me, but I’ve had to explain that this makes it *worse* because my attention makes even more of an effort to synch up to their voice. I also have mild misophonia for the sounds of whispering (especially if they are those horrid saliva-ridden sibilants). Whispering – no!

I seem to do OK with competition between different modalities of sense, so I won’t find a single voice hard to concentrate on due to even quite strong visual stimulus or vice versa, but if there is emotion attached then that’s also a different matter. So I can relate to what many autistic people say about finding it hard to concentrate on someone’s words if you’re forced into eye contact at the same time. I concentrate on the meaning of words best if I have my eyes closed and can get into an inner conceptual space that’s a little like a ‘thinking cave’. This is why I’ve started explaining to people at work that I can give my best in a meeting if I join by teleconference rather than attend in person.

Sensory overload was the thing that finally made the penny drop that I have Asperger Syndrome, and it happened when my bucket started filling one evening in TGI Fridays. Since then I’ve taken to always having my Flare Audio Isolate earplugs with me when we go to a restaurant or cafe. Lynn once said as I put them in “Oh – you won’t be able to hear us now?” to which I replied “I can’t hear you with them *out* in this noise, so I might as well be comfortable”.

Things are starting to make sense.


The Wire

“Wait a minute!”, he said, reaching far under the floorboards, groping past pumice-like nuggets of old, dried mortar and gritting his teeth against the plaster dust riding up his sleeve; “What’s this?”

After some moments he withdrew his arm from the hole left by the lifted boards, and pulled out a brightly-coloured wire. Actually it was more of a cable than a wire, and in the ‘true’ sense of the word that applies to knitting and nautical ropes; a cable of threads and strings twisted around each other. But overall it looked more electrical than nautical; the surface was smooth, like plastic insulation.

As we watched, we saw that it was glowing iridescently despite the dirt and the dust of decades. And the glowing was getting brighter. In some way that I find impossible to describe, it seemed almost as if the cable  were relaxing, and finding the confidence to show its colours.

“Where does it go?”, I asked.

He pulled, cautiously, frowned, and then stuck his head back into the hole and rummaged. “A bloody long way!”, said his voice, muffled by the boards around his head and strained by the pressure of his not inconsiderable body weight that was currently being taken almost entirely by his chest.

He righted himself and sat up, adopting that pensive posture that people do when pausing briefly from physical work; one knee up, arm resting on it, hand gesturing.

“And there’s something weird in the distance where it disappears”

I asked him how he could see so far in the darkness of the void between the attic floor and the bedroom ceiling. He struggled to explain it for half a minute and then simply suggested that I should take a look for myself. Genius.

We swapped places in the limited space of the attic room. Cautiously, I put my head into the hole. I was about to ask for his torch when I realised that he hadn’t been using it, and then I saw why; the glow from the cable was lighting up the void clearly. It was breathtakingly beautiful, despite the fact that the light was playing across the detritus and rubble that you’d find under any attic floor.

I’ve never seen electrical cables, lumps of mortar, dust, rough wooden joists and plasterboard look so beautiful. It was as if the Aurora Borealis had visited all of the thunderstorms on the planet, recruited all of the rainbows, and taken them to party in a skip in a builders’ yard.

I followed the cable into the distance, and saw it disappear into a foggy shape. It was like a bubble of fog, in which the end of the cable split out to disappear into a flattened shape like the head of a mushroom. The bubble was floating slightly, as if it were supported within another structure.

I lifted my head out of the hole and looked over to where he was sat, waiting for me to draw the same conclusion that he had drawn only moments before; it’s like it disappears into a fucking placenta! That cable, that thing, is a damned umbilical cord!

I couldn’t form the question in my mind, let alone speak it. We simply sat in silence for what seemed like a few minutes and, at the same time, a fraction of a second.

I began to form the impression that I might be dreaming. I had no memory of why I was in an attic, or who this guy was sitting with me. Things became fuzzy for a minute, and then stitched themselves back together again as if nothing odd had happened and everything felt as if it made sense, despite the fact that it clearly did not.

The attic was gone. Instead, and without a hint of weirdness, I was alone in a space like an art gallery. A single, long, long hall surrounded me and the rainbow cable, which had now attached itself into my stomach and was sending its iridescent rainbow into and under my skin. The cable stretched away from me, just as it had in the attic, but now it floated away along the gallery hall into the far distance.

I looked at the walls, to see if I recognised any artwork. There was nothing famous here, but what there was, I surely did recognise. All along the walls were sculptures and paintings representing key moments from my life.  In the far distance, I could just make out an image of me aged about nine, hunched over electronic components , soldering iron in my hand. I wasn’t smiling, but I knew beyond doubt that I was contented and happy. Closer to me were graduation photos, wedding photos, holidays I’d been on. There were zones that I could hardly make out, as the glow from the cable in these areas was so very dim as to be almost black. Where the cable was dim, it was also very thin; so thin that I feared that it looked so fragile that it might break. In other zones, where there were representations of parties, business trips, conflicts and anxious indecisiveness, the cable bloated up and shone so brightly that I could hardly see what going on in the chaos around it. There was danger here too; the bloated cable looked unnaturally active, and at risk of bursting.

The scene shifted again; now I knew for sure that I was dreaming. I was looking at me, looking at the cable in the gallery. I had been joined by a woman in a white coat, with a stethoscope around her neck. In her right hand, she held one of those arty-looking skulls with zones of the brain drawn on the surface. She stepped closer to me, said something, and put her left hand on my shoulder. I immediately burst into tears; I sobbed in the gallery, tears falling from my eyes like a computer animation lit by the rainbow coloured light from the cable. But again, I knew that I was crying happy tears; unicorn tears.

Those words repeated over and over as the scene faded away; “Unicorn tears” and another phrase “It’s a parasympathetic reaction, Alan; no need to worry!”

The dream stuck with me for months, and came back to me whenever I got stressed or anxious just going about my daily life. Each time, after the stress passed, I sensed that the gallery hall had lengthened, and another piece of artwork had been added. The cable had bulged again, but now, in some indefinable way, I knew that things would be better. The cable wouldn’t burst, and neither would it break. The gallery would keep growing, and the glow of the Aurora Borealis would guide me.

So I turned around in the corridor, and started looking ahead. I can’t tell you what I saw, but I can tell you that it’s beautiful beyond your wildest dreams.