Alexithymia from the inside - Unapologetically Autistic

Alexithymia from the inside

alexithymia

Alexithymia must seem a bleak and miserable affliction to anyone not wired up that way. I've spoken to people at length about it over the years, and the common reaction I get is a mixture of horror and pity.

Well, your pity is misplaced. I neither want it nor need it.

But it's a free country and your emotional energy is yours to squander as you wish.

The truth is, from what I can see of your average neurotypical's constant struggle with an ever-changing tide of apparently uncontrollable emotions, being at the mercy of every last synaptic jolt in your limbic system has little to recommend it.

Still I do get some sensible questions about it, and I can see how it might seem so frankly alien to you (just remember your ways are just as alien to me as mine are to you. The only reason mine are subject to such scrutiny and judgement is I'm in the tiny minority).

Alexithymia in three parts

First, let's be clear about what alexithymia is.

It's my inability to identify and describe emotions experienced by myself or others.

It does not necessarily mean I don't experience those emotions in some way.

What I mean by this is the brain function in the limbic system chugs along within acceptably normal parameters as far as I know. The main difference between me and a non-alexithymic is I'm not able to identify and describe what my body is telling me.

This is something most people do unconsciously; in fact the physiological and psychological sides of our emotional states are so closely entwined, we have one word encompassing both, feeling.

Now, with practice it is possible for an alexithymic to learn to interpret his bodily sensations and translate it to a corresponding emotion. I've learned to do this to a small degree where it's important for my wellbeing (more about this below), but I'm not sufficiently interested to put much effort into it. And even if I did, from what others in my place have told me it's never particularly successful and (this is the crucial bit) it remains a conscious process.

In other words we don't become "in touch" with our feelings so much as we learn to spot what they're doing to us and hang an approximate label on them. 

Some emotions I am (or can be) aware of instinctively, but the critical thing to understand is for me to do that it has to be big.

A case in point was when a spectacular piece of bad driving by a farmer in his tractor almost killed Mrs EBG. Oh, yes... I was angry then and knew it in just the same way you would. I would have beaten the bloke to death had Mrs EBG not been there to bring me down from that peak.

But over your average day or week, my emotional profile is essentially flat. If you ask me how I'm feeling, I'll invariably tell you "fine", and despite what the idiot gurus and armchair-psychologists like to tell you, it means exactly that. You can read all the nonsense you've gleaned from your self-help books you like into it, but sometimes it's just as simple and straightforward as people say it is. There's no hidden angst, suppressed trauma, or inner struggle going on. I. Am. Fine. 

Deal with it.

But if I'm subjected to stress over a long period of time — stress I can't detect easily — then it can give rise to anxiety (the first sign of which in me I've learned is the desire to drink lots of alcohol).

Think of your average neurotypical's emotions as being the surface of the ocean, constantly in motion from one moment to the next, and occasionally rising up into a storm.

Using the same metaphor, an alexithymic's emotions are more like the dark, hidden depths, where little ever changes over the short term but which can be moved great distances by strong ocean currents.

Secondly...

I am a Stoic

I mentioned this in my last post, but it bears repeating. I have a generally stoic nature and a largely stoic upbringing. Because of this, alexithymia aside, I'm typically less inclined to be driven by my emotions than most. 

To add to this I've consciously studied classical Stoicism and put it into practice in my life, so it's fair to say it can be hard for me at times to tell where the autism and alexithymia and and the Stoicism begins.

My point here is being autistic or alexithymic, or even both, is no guarantee of having a stoic attitude or nature. I've come across a lot of decidedly un-stoic autistics and alexithymics in my time. This is perfectly congruent with Stoic philosophy, by way, since it's about controlling one's emotions, not suppressing or ignoring them).

I'd say on the whole my being autistic and alexithymic make it easier for me to practice Stoicism, but it's not a given (the analogy here is your genetic muscular potential — you won't reach it if you don't pump the iron).

And finally...

Other people's ignorance of alexithymia

This knows no bounds.

I even had one bloke once tell me even though he'd never heard of alexithymia before, he "knew" I was wrong and was going to read up on it and almost certainly come to "different conclusions". 

That depth of stupidity is hard to fathom, I know.

One thing I've noticed is a small but significant minority of people seem to want to challenge me on all of this. They essentially take the view I'm either mistaken about my own condition and experience, or even making it all up. As a consequence they seem to want to trip me up or catch me out in some way.

Why?

I can't know for sure, and I don't spend much time thinking about it, but the only rational conclusion I can come to is they feel threatened in some way, as if they know their slavery to their own emotions is a weakness, and they want me to be as weak as they are.

My not knowing in detail what emotions I'm feeling at any given moment doesn't mean you do and you're better able to diving my inner state than I am.

Here's an example of the kind of shenanigans they get up to...

It's no secret to anyone I don't get offended. I don't even know what it might feel like to be offended.

"Aha! But you have alexithymia!", they say, "So you could be offended but not know it?!".

Their aim, it seems is to try to bring me down to their level of emotional helplessness.

My answer is simple, although hard to explain to someone not wired up like me.

As I said up top: alexithymia means I am not able to identify and describe emotions experienced by myself or others

But this wouldn't stop from knowing something was going on every time I was exposed to something causing me offence.

I feel frustration, irritation, and annoyance not because I can identify and describe the emotions but because of the physiological effects they have and many years' observation and logical deduction.

In short, if I got offended by things I'd know it in some way or other.

And I don't.

That's just one example of many.

Another common one is "So you could care about others' opinions but not know it?!".

Nope, and for the same reasons I just gave.

Summary

Being alexithymic does not make me a cold fish in and of itself. I am aware at some level of how some things affect me emotionally at a physical level.

For me to become aware of emotions in the way you understand it, they have to be extreme.

As for happiness?

Yes, I think I know what it is.

I don't experience the emotion you do but I feel it in my body and the fact I'm not ill, broken, depressed, and a basket-case tells me happiness is what it is and what I am.

Autistically,

Jon McCulloch, The Evil Bald Genius

Author, speaker, business owner, and autism advocate

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Jon

I'm Jon. Husband, father, business owner, author, speaker, and outspoken advocate for autism awareness. I struggled my whole life knowing I was different, but not knowing how or why. I was finally diagnosed in 2019, but had informally self-identified as autistic for a couple of years before that. I live on a remote farm in Ireland with my wife and an assortment of cats and dogs.

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