“What are you feeling?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know.”
“Why are you crying?”
“I have no idea.”
Before I realized that I was on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, I had no idea that sometimes I didn’t know what I was feeling. I had never really paid much attention to it. I had ever even really thought about it. I assumed that I could easily identify my emotions and during those times in which they remained vague and out of reach, I didn’t even really think about it.
Once I discovered that I do indeed have an established space on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, however, that house of emotional cards began to slip.
In my early research nearly a year ago, I did what most of us newly-discovered Aspie/autistic people do: I burned up Google. Like most of us, I searched for traits first. I was trying to discern whether or not I was actually likely to be on the spectrum or not.
I came across a cryptic little term. Well, actually, I came across a bunch of cryptic little terms that I had never heard before, but that’s beside the point; today I’ll only talk about one: alexithymia.
I kept seeing the term come up again and again.
Alexithymia, also known as catalinithymia, is defined as:
“a personality construct characterized by the subclinical (a condition without signs or symptoms that are detectable on a physical exam or lab test; they don’t visibly manifest) inability to identify and describe emotions in the self.”
Apparently, although alexithymia is its own separate phenomenon that’s not exclusive to Asperger’s/autism, there’s a huge overlap .
In plain terms, it means that one can’t always identify or express what they’re feeling. This could be a breakdown in one of several areas: 
- Identifying the emotions in the first place (“what am I feeling?”)
- Distinguishing between feelings and physical sensations that might result from emotions (“goosebumps vs …. what? I discuss this below)
- Describing/expressing emotions (“what’s wrong?” “I don’t know.”)
It’s not that we have no feelings. Of course we have feelings. We experience emotion, just like everybody else. But we may experience it differently, without even knowing we’re feeling anything, and we might have a particularly difficult time articulating it.
That got me thinking…
Could that actually apply to me? Do I fit that term, too?
To the seasoned, experienced (i.e., not-recently-diagnosed) Aspie/autistic person, I might have come across as one of Those People–the ones who say, “is that me, too? Could I be autistic/an Aspie, too?” And I wouldn’t have blamed anyone if they had rolled their eyes at me.
But I really wanted to know. So, alone with my internet-connected mobile and fat data plan, I scoured the blogs for more information–firsthand information, with real-life examples.
I was not disappointed. And I also felt another startling “a-ha!” moment wash over me.
It did apply to me after all. Here I was, all self-aware and all that, and I had never even considered a facet of my personality and life as significant as this! Wow.
And after further pondering, I was struck by a few realizations.
I can usually identify one of the four basic emotions. Usually. I mean, happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted–that’s pretty simple, right?
Well…usually. Most of the time, I get that right. Occasionally, I’ll even get confused trying to sort those out.
Typically, I’ll get happy and angry/disgusted right; those are pretty easy for me to identify. But the other two can be more elusive. For example, I might not know if I’m afraid or not. I live with chronic stress anyway; I’m self-employed in a shaky business environment, and I’ve always had some sort of fear/stress in my life. The difference between now and then is that I’ve traded one type of stress and anxiety in for another. It has become such a part of me that at this time, I can’t recall a time in my life when I haven’t been anxious/under stress.
And as for sadness, well hell, that can really wear a stealthy cloak. It can sneak up behind me weeks before I’m even aware of its presence.
Alternatively, I may experience these basic emotions differently. Consider surprise: that’s paired with “afraid”, but think about when you receive a birthday or Christmas gift–you’re surprised, but are you afraid?
What about eating mashed potatoes? I may be disgusted by the texture, but I’m not mad. Yet, disgust is paired up with anger.
Those examples may not be very good ones, because they point out flaws in the methodology that likely have nothing to do with alexithymia.
So let’s go deeper. I may not even know when I’m angry. It might be rooted more deeply in my subconscious, so far down that I might not even know it’s there. But I’ll come across clues that speak to me, such as fighting with people in my dreams, or writing angry blog posts (oops) 😉
Other emotions may be more complex yet. Take wistful, for example; for me, that could actually be a combination of sadness and happiness.
What about irritability? On the surface, it looks like anger. But actually, it’s just a very defensive-offensive response–often involuntary, like a reflex–to FEAR. So which is it? Both? Fear only?
And then there’s guilt. Guilt might be filed under the Sadness category, but for me, there’s a lot of anxiety, too.
OK, that picks apart the situation by emotion; what about by situation? Because after all, life is a string of situations tied end-to-end.
(Potential Content Advisory, for the next three paragraphs; medical/hysterectomy)
I remember back to the spring and summer of 2012, when I was preparing to have a hysterectomy (sorry for the “girlie stuff”). Always one to stand on the shoulders of giants and learn things the easy way as opposed to the hard way, I jumped online and found a fantastic and supportive hysterectomy discussion board. One day, reading through the discussion threads, I got really emotional and I started to cry.
What was that all about? There was some fear and anxiety in there somewhere, sure. But there was a lot more than that: I was touched. Extremely touched. I thought that that group was the most beautiful thing. Here were all these women of (almost) all ages, backgrounds, socioeconomic statuses, geographic regions, etc, coming together for the sole purpose of helping another “hyster-sister” cross over from the Before into the After. All of the “Befores” were freaking out, as I was, swimming with endless pretzels of frantic questions that kept us up nights. (Many nights.) And the “Afters” were incredibly reassuring and supportive, cheering all of us on, lending their support, even though they’d had their procedures done varying amounts of time ago.
The “touched” tears I felt were happy, for sure. But there might have been a little sadness in there, too? I wasn’t sad to see my deranged organ go. In fact, I welcomed that; it didn’t work anyway, and I was never planning to bear children. I was perfectly OK with that part – so much so that it might have taken my surgeon aback a little while reviewing the Informed Consent. So I’m not sure where the sadness might have come from. Or was it fear? I couldn’t tell. Four and a half years later, I still can’t. I just remember shedding touched tears.
Listening to songs, I feel goosebumps; for a long time, this occurred during music or parts of songs in which other people cried. I had never cried. But the goosebumps were powerful. As an adult, I find that I do cry, and it doesn’t necessarily happen during the same passages that seem to affect “everybody else”. Frequently, I’m “unscathed” or unfazed by certain passages, whereas during others–even those during which nobody else cries–I find the tears spring forth. I don’t know why the tears come. The only word I can think of is power, in reference to the song itself. Maybe the notes, the instrumentation, the chord progression, the sound frequencies, the lyrics, or maybe a combination of factors coming together, can bring tears to my eyes for no identifiable reason. The goosebumps can still spring up, though–whether accompanied by tears or not. The goosebumps remain powerful, shooting down and spreading throughout my body, even into my lower legs. It can even be 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38-39 degrees Celsius) outside; the goosebumps will form strongly anyway. When associated with emotion, goosebumps don’t care about the surrounding temperature.
Sometimes, I’ll feel vulnerable. That can have a base in Sadness, but sometimes there’s immense relief, even contentment, and maybe even elation, mixed in there somewhere. This is particularly true if I’ve had a healing release, such as in a counselor’s office, or even during therapies involving physical touch. As muscles release or acupuncture energy is freed up, so do/are the emotions being stored in those cells and tissues. For me, this can bring on a mild euphoria. I feel cleansed, freer, liberated, lighter. But at the same time, I also have the instinctual feeling that I had better be careful who I choose to be around and what I choose to do/watch/listen to for a while. I might be newly-relieved, but I realize that I’m also fragile. During those times, I simply feel like cocooning and spending time either alone–often with our cats–or with my partner (also usually with our cats).
Probably my best example: frequently, during the healing releases, described above I won’t be able to identify any particular emotion at all, not even a combination. I gently probe myself for information, but nothing comes. Not a single nugget. During these releases, I’ll laugh and cry, sometimes both at the same time, and I’ll have no clue which emotion(s) I’m feeling. Sometimes I can’t pin anything down at all–not a single one. There doesn’t seem to be much difference in how I feel between when I laugh and when I cry. They just appear to be vehicles of release, mechanisms through which my body can let go of stored emotional residual buildup.
And sometimes, my alexithymia just happens from day to day. I might be under the impression that I’m on an even keel, when actually I’m not. I might think I’m perfectly content, when in reality, worry is bubbling under the surface, camouflaged within.
1 – “The Overlap Between Alexithymia and Asperger’s Syndrome” – J Autism Dev Disord, May 2006 (free full-text journal article)
2 – “Emotional Dysfunction: Alexithymia and ASD” – Musings Of An Aspie