A year in the life….

Wow. It’s been nearly a year since I last posted.

But it’s been a good year. The Cipralex continues to do its good work — I only wish I’d known about it sooner. Stuff still happens, but I handle it so much more easily now. It’s a kind of feedback loop: the calmer I am, the better things go, and the better things go, the calmer I am. And so on.

Ballantine books. Just a sample...

Ballantine books. Just a sample…

I’ve also been spending many fun weekends hunting around in antique markets and used bookstores with a childhood friend whom I’ll call “The Falcon” here for his uncanny ability to zero in on the exact books we’re looking for (Ballantine WWII history editions) from 500 paces. It’s really spooky. We take turns driving, and spend the day on our various routes around Southern and Southwestern Ontario. Book dealers and model shops have gotten to know us, as have the staff at our favourite Vietnamese restaurant in Kitchener. Mmm. Noodles.

Many happy returnsss of the day.

Many happy returnsss of the day.

Boyd, my beloved ball python, is nearly three years old now, and almost four feet long. He recently escaped (my fault — I left his cage door open overnight) but was recovered safely the next morning from his hiding spot in my hall closet.
Sophie the cat is now 18 and a half and slowing down considerably. It’s hard having an aging pet, and sometimes the yowling and clingy behaviour get on my nerves, but we have both found solace in a) anti-anxiety medication and b) her little grooming comb. Grooming is calming for both the groomer and the groomee, and this is how we get along.

I did two levels of improv classes at Second City here in Toronto in order to tackle my lifelong stage fright (yup, it works!), filled in on my pub quiz team for a guy who was overseas for six months, saw a lot of good shows at the Art Gallery of Ontario (the David Bowie one was my favourite — I saw it twice), and visited the Butterfly Conservatory in Cambridge.

Her Majesty.

Her Majesty.

I swam a whole lot in my friend Ann’s pool, drank more of her excellent G&Ts, saw some excellent films and some not-so-excellent ones (yes to The Theory of Everything; HELL NO to Boyhood), read lots of good books, got hooked on Game of Thrones, did quite a lot of work for good new clients, and spent much less time dealing with the crappy ones.

This is five minutes from where I live. Seriously.

This is five minutes from where I live. Seriously.

Ate lots of sushi and Ethiopian and Korean food, went for countless long walks on my beloved Don Valley trail, rode my bike a bit, did NOT get sick over Christmas for the first time in years, and just generally had a pretty decent year.

…and that, really, is that.

Life is good. More later. Hopefully not a year later this time.🙂
~ AG

Cipralex: Calming the “wild horse” of Asperger meltdowns

The Aspie nervous system.

The Aspie nervous system.

One of the biggest drawbacks of having Asperger Syndrome is the temper meltdowns that come with it. Life on the autism spectrum means, for all of us, a nervous system that is set on “red alert” 100% of the time: you know that smoke alarm you have outside your kitchen door that goes off every time you make toast? Yeah, that’s us.

Little things that other NT/not-on-the-spectrum people don’t even notice make me crazier than a cat in a bag: the sound of the fan on my computer when a program is installing; sudden noises; someone touching me unexpectedly; the sound of someone whistling, snapping their fingers, or jingling their keys; the sounds of people chewing loudly or licking their fingers or clicking gum; the feel of a label or a seam in my clothing….

DIe, pants, die!

DIe, pants, die!

When I was about 7 I had a massive morning-long screaming battle with my father, who was trying to stuff me into a pair of new denim jeans. Even now, tight clothing, or anything that flutters or dangles or clings at my neck, will make me break out in a cold sweat.

Hell no.

Hell no.

Many of us, myself included, learn to manage this hyper-reactivity simply as a matter of survival in the adult world. My nervous system calmed down somewhat as I grew older, and as I matured and entered university and the working world, I was very motivated to blend in and act more like my colleagues: ripping my shirt off in the newsroom because a label was itching my neck was pretty much out of the question.

In the last year and a half, however, I’ve noticed some alarming “symptom creep”, probably due to hormonal fluctuations related to the fun, fun phase of life called perimenopause. It started with increasing moodiness and irritability, and initially I was able to dial that back with a couple of herbal supplements, Vitex among them.

I worked harder at modulating my (increasingly awful) moods: I got out my old Cognitive Therapy workbooks and looked at those; I made sure to get exercise and sun and fresh air every day; I did yoga; I avoided annoying people and situations as much as I could. I even got to leaving inspirational notes to myself on mirrors, cupboard doors and so forth.

Everything's great. Thanks for asking.

Everything’s great. Thanks for asking.

But a few weeks ago I realized I was basically living in “crisis management mode”, more or less existing from one meltdown to the next. If I wasn’t having a meltdown, I was either uneasily anticipating the next one or just recovering from one.

So with a heavy heart, I made an appointment to see my family doctor. She prescribed blood tests to make sure my thyroid, B12 and iron levels were all right. She recommended some mindfulness and meditation exercises to calm my nervous system down, and then, since she knows very little about Asperger’s, suggested I go see M., my Asperger specialist, and bring her his recommendations.

Long story short, M. was as alarmed as I was. “The joy seems to have gone out of you,” he said, which made me sad. He, too, recommended mindfulness and meditation exercises, and then to my surprise (and horror…) told me that many people on the autism spectrum are helped by subclinical doses (i.e., much less than normal) of a drug called Cipralex (it’s called Lexapro in the United States). There is ample research, he said, that it helps dial back some of the irritability that is the hallmark of Asperger’s.

I took this recommendation, and his other remarks, back to my family doctor and took my first dose of Cipralex at lunch that day.

Typically, these sorts of drugs (selective serotonin uptake inhibitors, or SSRIs) take several weeks to get fully into your system and do their magic, but I began to feel calmer after just a couple of days. Partly this could be the “placebo effect” (you think it’s helping, so it does); partly it could be the mindfulness reading and practice I’ve been doing; partly it could be just the fact of finally getting help with all of this.

Whoa, Meltdown. Whoa, boy!

Whoa, Meltdown. Whoa, boy!

Whatever the reason, though, it’s like the “mad wild horse” I’ve been living with for months now has finally been quieted. Instead of it plunging around and my trying vainly to grab the reins and calm it down, it’s just… standing there. Quietly. Blowing steam gently out of its nose and munching grass.

It’s the strangest feeling, like something has been almost physically cut out of me. I drop a fork on the floor, say, and there is no urge to scream and swear and rampage around the apartment. The computer gets noisy and I simply shut it off and go do something else. It is the strangest thing ever, like a fever breaking.

The downside, though (and there always is one, when you put chemicals in your body) is a bit of a sedated feeling: today, Day Six, I feel like I have a mild case of the flu. I’m very, very tired and dragging myself around the house a little bit. However, I’m confident that this, too, will pass as my system adjusts to the new regime.

And frankly, this is a really small price to pay for longed-for peace and quiet.

I must add a few caveats here: I am not a big advocate of simply medicating undesirable behaviours out, for any reason. I think of drugs as an absolute last resort, to be used only after lifestyle changes and therapeutic interventions have failed. Also, what works for one person will not necessarily work for another — for whatever reason, Cipralex seems to work for me right now, for my specific symptoms and chemical makeup and body type.

As with all medical decisions, talk to your doctor and/or a specialist first and rule out any other conditions that may be causing a sudden onset or return of symptoms.

I will keep you posted as this experiment goes on.

Yours calmly,



Sanity saver: Don’t have breakfast with your boss

Or, “How not to trash the day before it starts.”

I haven’t always hated mornings.

What he said.

In fact, I remember, back in the day, actually liking them: a nice cup of coffee or tea, listening to CBC Radio, a bit of reading (the newspaper or a book), and then into the shower and on with the day. As long as someone wasn’t getting in my face (e.g., the roommate who used to think 7 a.m. was a great time to have a lively discussion about household finances), I was good to go.

But in the last year or so, I’ve noticed that my love of mornings has moved down the list to slightly below my love of invasive rectal procedures.

Worse, for the very first time in my life, I was lying in bed in the mornings, dreading getting up, dreading the treadmill of “URGENT! ASAP! Do it now!” that awaited me.

And finally, one day last week, as I was yet again stomping from the shower to my closet to my desk and angrily flinging open my laptop to a chorus of juicy expletives, I stopped cold and realized, “Oh my god. I hate mornings so much.”

And that made me sad. It also concerned me greatly, for two reasons.

First, as an Aspie, I work very hard to keep the “Angry Meltdown Monster” at bay, and yet somehow it was now a major part of every morning. What a colossal waste of time, starting every day wanting to punch things. The less the negative aspects of Asperger’s creep into my life, the better.

Second, and related, chronic anger can lead to serious health problems like heart attacks and strokes. As I get older, I am realizing the urgency of keeping this response controlled if I don’t want to end up in the ER — or a hearse.

I vowed to get to the bottom of it, and it didn’t take long: the culprit was my iPad.

Guaranteed to give you an early-morning eye twitch.

Guaranteed to give you an early-morning eye twitch.

I bought it last Christmas as (ironically) a means of relaxing and releasing stress. To that end, I do enjoy many of the online games (quizzes and word games, in particular), and the little chat functions in some of them that help me feel connected to my chums. The news apps are good too, and cheaper than paper subscriptions.

But on the downside, the iPad has an email app, and that, for me, was the rub: even when I  opened the iPad over breakfast to read the news or play my turn at WordFeud, the little email icon would be lit up. “Look at me,” it would taunt. “Look at all the urgent, annoying things that await you!” And invariably, despite my best intentions, I would open the thing.

So in other words, before I had even taken my second sip of coffee, before the work day had even begun, I was inviting all of my project managers and bosses into my living room to clamour for my attention. I had become one of those people who are unable to unplug from work, ever.lumbergh - come in on Saturday

This growing phenomenon (and its attendant mental and physical woes) is largely thanks to the ubiquity of Blackberrys, iPhones, etc., which has led to increased expectations that workers be available 24/7. And of course the reverse is true, turning the whole thing into an infinite loop: having a Blackberry or iPhone or iPad means you actually ARE available 24/7, and if you are available, work will present itself. Managers will call or email or text, and you ignore these at your peril. And around and around it goes.

(Even in the days before “electronics creep,” however, there were people who simply couldn’t leave the office behind; my former father-in-law always had his briefcase open somewhere in the house and spent chunks of every weekend creating the impression that he was indispensable to somebody, somewhere.)

This is a mushrooming global phenomenon, and as such is way beyond the scope of this blog. But the short version is that, for the most part, we are doing this to ourselves. Europeans, for example, generally have a much better work/life balance (ironically, despite enjoying far better and cheaper internet connections and rates for their many e-toys).

Problem, meet solution.

Problem, meet solution.

Anyway, long story short, in a world where so many things are beyond our control, I realized that this, at least, was one tiny thing I actually could change. So two days ago, on Sunday evening, I made myself a new rule: “No opening the iPad before start of business. Period.”

I even put a little sticky note on its cover to remind myself, in case I’m on autopilot in the morning — “For a peaceful morning: Do not open until start of work!”

I turn the sound off (or turn the device off completely) and there it sits, until I’m darn good and ready to open it.

Instead, I eat my breakfast, sit peacefully with the cat and a cup of coffee, and read whatever book I’ve got on the go (right now it’s Hero: The Buzz Beurling Story, by Brian Nolan), listen to CBC Radio, and maybe write in my journal a bit.

The emails will still be waiting there, and all the problems and stresses they contain. But until the work-day has actually begun, they’re simply not my problem.

So far so good. I’ll keep you posted.







“This is Autism” Flash Blog: Autism in my life

** This is my contribution to the “This is Autism” Flash Blog series of posts.  The Flash Blog is a response to a call for submissions from people with autism to write about what autism means to them.

The call is, in turn, a response to an op-ed piece that was published last week by Suzanne Wright, founder of the controversial organization Autism Speaks, about what she called the “problem” of autism.


It is always a bit of a jolt to my system to think of myself as having “autism.” This is probably because, like Temple Grandin, I grew up with a diagnosis (albeit, not discussed…) of “emotionally disturbed” (which, in my case, meant “fits most of the criteria for autism but boy, does she ever talk”) and was finally diagnosed, in 2009, with Asperger’s Syndrome rather than autism.

The publication of the new DSM-V, which “decommissioned” Asperger’s Syndrome, if you will, and lumped it into the more general “autism” category, is a loaded and complicated topic on any number of levels, and I am not going to even attempt to touch that here. I’m aiming to start writing a book in early 2014 (during the usual lull in my work) and I will likely address it there.


So, for the sake of the Flash Blog, let’s take it as read that I have autism, the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Formerly Known as Asperger’s Syndrome. There we go.🙂

Like many other contributors to today’s event, I’ve written about some of the down-sides of having Asperger’s. And they can be legion, trust  me. (Seriously. As I write this I’ve been jumping up and down from my chair, gnashing my teeth about a piece of cat hair tickling my eye and stomping over to angrily turn off CBC Radio, which seems to be broadcasting not classical music but the sound of a herd of wildebeests on crystal meth rampaging through a high-school music room. Seriously.)

But today is not the day for that. Asperger’s and autism confer both disabilities and gifts on the people they touch, as John Elder Robison has said, and today I’ll tell you about the gifts that having autism has given me.

1. Autism has given me a high IQ and good language skills. I was the archetypical “little professor” as a child. My astonished mother recorded in my baby book that I sang “Happy Birthday to Me!” on my first birthday. When I was two-and-a-half and getting used to having a new baby brother, I asked her where to find “penis” in the dictionary (I had been thinking it was spelled “peanus,” like “peanut”), at which point she realized I could read.

For me as an adult, having a facility with language and a sharp intellect means I am really good at my job as a book editor and writer, and have excelled at past jobs that have included news researcher, sports writer (really…) and web writer. It also means I have a lot of fun at Pub Trivia Quiz nights, and that I love trivia/knowledge-based games and puns and anything involving an intellectual learning curve. I love documentaries, I read like a fiend, and I basically drive my “big brain” like a Porsche on the Autobahn.

1. a) Big brain = big brain plasticity. Having smarts means that I can also learn to do things that don’t come easily to me. In other words, some of the deficits of Asperger’s/autism can, paradoxically, be overcome by the smarts conferred by having Asperger’s/autism. People who meet me now are often astonished to know that I was a very shy, awkward, socially inept young person with no real sense of humour. But I began to learn how to do things differently to make myself a better employee and more socially adept in general, mostly by watching and imitating people who did these things well, and sometimes by reading or consulting a therapist or specialist. I am on-side with Temple Grandin, John Elder Robison, Tony Attwood and legions of other autistic and austistic-friendly people in my unequivocal belief in brain plasticity and the power of human brains (and their owners) to reshape themselves to requirements.

2. Autism has given me a 3D appreciation of music. I am not a musical prodigy (I don’t think my poor mum could have handled that!) but I was able to play the piano pretty well from an early age. I not only hear the music, I “see” and feel it really intensely. I have a condition called synesthesia, which many people with autism have, and it basically means that the input systems for hearing and sight are cross-wired (just as researchers have theorized that the entire autistic brain, in and of itself, is cross wired). Sounds can irritate the living bejeebers out of me (see introduction re. wildebeests) but they can also send me almost into orbit with pleasure at times. I would not give this up for the world.

3. Autism might be why I get along so well with children and animals. For me, having Asperger’s is like being 11. Forever. I can and do moderate my behaviour in public and in the workplace, of course, but outside office hours, I am a kid and animal magnet. I’m the one at any house party or social gathering with all the available rug-rats stuck to me like lint. I like their natural curiosity and enthusiasm, and have lost none of my own, so it’s a good match. I babysat a lot as a teenager, and had to negotiate homework time over the cries of clusters of small ones on the back porch pleading “Can you pleeeeeeeease come out to play??”

Temple Grandin postulates that people with autism often get along well with animals because animals don’t lie or use words to obscure their meanings. Animals are unequivocal in their like or dislike of a given life form or situation, and they like us on our own terms. I find the presence of animals very calming, which in turn makes most animals calm around me. On my visits to Reptilia, a reptile zoo/centre north of Toronto, I’m often buttonholed by the staff to help hold a critter or two while its cage is cleaned. I once taught a skittish horse to calmly nibble the end of a carrot I held between my lips.

4. Autism has given me good organizational skills. Adherence to routine is one of the hallmarks of Asperger’s and autism, for sure, but I’ve learned to use this to my benefit. When I was a kid, it meant my study skills were good. As an adult, it means that I run my business as a pretty tight ship. I don’t miss deadlines, and my files are in order. My house is clean (but not OCD clean) and so is my car. I am rarely late for appointments and my shots are up to date.😀

Well, speaking of deadlines, it’s time for me to wrap this up and get back to work. I hope this has answered some questions, and maybe raised some other important ones. As always, feel free to contact me if you have more.

As I’ve said before in other posts, autism/Asperger’s can be a very hard slog and some days it does feel more like a disability or a curse than a gift — to us, and to those around us. But it is both. To characterize it as a “problem,” as Suzanne Wright has done, does a huge disservice to the dignity and the humanity of those of us, and our friends and our families, who are touched in so many respects by this different way of being on this Earth.

Thank you for reading.

J. Mc. (aka. Asparagus Girl)

Little Garter Man: a tale of Thanksgiving

For many of us, Thanksgiving and other “family holidays” are days just like any other (granted, with a slightly higher chance of having to reach for an antidepressant or a stiff drink), and the less said about that the better.

My friend J., another “Holiday Refugee,” put it most eloquently this morning in her email to me: “If my sister puts up some [Facebook] post about being thankful for her wonderful family, I’ll have to puke.”

baby garter

Little Garter Man in the collecting box.

Anyway, I woke up this morning with no agenda other than getting through the day, getting a bit of work done, and maybe watching The Hobbit again tonight.

And then I got The Text that Changed the Day: my downstairs neighbour, K, had been doing a load of laundry and found a baby snake in the laundry room.

It was too fast for her to catch, or even to see what kind it was, so I gathered my tools (flashlight, stick, collecting box) and headed down to meet her for a second try at rounding up the critter.

She was already there when I opened the door, and wordlessly pointed to a tiny little streak of darkness (maybe 5 inches long, as thick as a well-cooked spaghetti, if that), huddled miserably by the wall under the window.  We crouched carefully on either side of him, ready to nab him, and within seconds I had him safely in my collecting box (which sounds very fancy, but is really just a large Tupperware container with holes poked in the lid).

Finally relaxed enough to explore a bit. “Hey cool! I have a pool!”

Finally relaxed enough to explore a bit. “Hey cool! I have a pool!”

My plan was to make a little home for him (aspen shavings, like my ball python Boyd has, plus a hiding box and a dish of water) and put him somewhere quiet while I called Reptilia (reptile zoo/emporium north of Toronto) to find out what species he was and figure out what to do with him.  We passed a neighbour out in the hall who took a look (and a whiff) and said it was likely a garter snake; they are notoriously stinky when distressed, and this guy, while cute, reeked to high heaven.

Back in my place, I made up a “hotel room” and got my guest settled. Comically, his guest spot was on top of Boyd’s cage — it’s dark and warm and quiet there. Boyd had no idea he had a guest in the penthouse suite. (Many of my friends asked if I’d introduce them, but no: it likely would have been a quick introduction, followed by lunch. Not something I wanted to facilitate!)

I left a message for the Reptilia staff and Googled “baby garter snake,” just to see. Yup, bingo.

“You know that this is for the best, right?” *sniffle*

“You know that this is for the best, right?” *sniffle*

I did a bit of work and had lunch, leaving Little Garter Man well alone to settle down after his stressful morning. After a while, he “unfroze” and began exploring his new digs. First stop was the little water dish, where he had an enormous drink of water. Then he spent a happy couple of hours climbing all over his hide box, stretching out along the edge of the water dish (many snakes love to “soak”), and just trying to figure out how the heck to escape, most likely.

I called Reptilia back and, having ascertained that it was, indeed, a garter, asked whether it would be OK to release him into the wild this late in the season, as he was clearly just a baby. The man on the phone said that would be perfectly fine; many baby garters are born at this time of year and go on to hibernate through to spring.

I confess, it was tempting to keep Little Garter Man. One does get attached. But I already have one snake (the lovely Boyd), and another snake means more expense and more room given over to cages and housing. And, most importantly, garters are native to Ontario (where I live) and are wild animals (whereas Boyd was captive-bred and so knows no other life than one in an enclosure). It would have been wrong to keep him in a cage, plain and simple.

Ready for deployment.

Ready for deployment.

So I knew what I had to do. With a surprisingly heavy heart, I got out a smaller Tupperware, poked a few holes in the lid, and brought Little Garter Man’s bigger box out to the kitchen. I opened the lid and we had a little chat about what was best. He agreed. I transferred him into the carrying box, affixed the lid, and we set out for the valley.

There were a surprising number of people about, and all of them looked at the tiny box I was carrying; I suppose some of them must have thought I was burying a tiny pet or something.

It was a warm, sunny day, so I had no qualms about finding a nice place to release him. I had just the place in mind: a rocky, wooded area close to the river, with lots of stones and leaves and underbrush where garters love to hide.

I chose my spot, set the carrying box down on the leaves, and got out my camera. Then I opened the lid. Little Garter Man immediately poked his head over the edge, and then hung there for quite a while, sniffing the air and having a look-see. After a time, he scooted down and zoomed into the leaves. Garters move amazingly fast; Boyd, on the other hand, is quite leisurely when he travels.

Little Garter Man in the collecting box.

“OMG! The world is so big!”

And then something interesting happened. Little Garter Man stopped and turned right around, rested his little wee head on a stick, and seemed to look at me for a very long time. I leaned in close with the camera and he wasn’t fazed at all. He flicked his tongue at me a few times, and then he turned again and was gone.

I confess I cried when I said goodbye. I have a very, very soft spot for animals (as you may have noticed…), and I really hope this little guy will be OK.

And so ends the tale of Little Garter Man, who, all unknowing, helped turn this Thanksgiving day from “meh” into something much nicer — tears and all.

If you need me, I’ll be over here hugging my cat and cuddling Boyd (yes, he cuddles). And maybe having that stiff drink after all.


Goodbye, my friend.

Goodbye, my friend.

Larger photo gallery, if you’re interested.

Human as a Second Language: “Definitely” means “never”

The other night I was out for dinner with my friends Critter and Varmint (Aspie-positive NT life forms) and we got to talking about the many ways humans have of wiggling out of commitments.

One of these ways is the use of the word “definitely,” which, after some extensive observation, I have concluded actually means “never.”

We should definitely ... never mind.

We should definitely … never mind.

And combined with any or all of the words “should,” “sometime,” “check it out,” and “try,” you can be sure that the get-together you’re discussing (or the hairdresser/book/movie/whatever that you’re recommending) is just not going to happen.

For example, if you’ve met someone in a social situation and get to that point in the exchange where you’re negotiating another get-together, and the person says “Yes, we should definitely try to get together for coffee sometime,” you can rest assured that coffee will not be had and that person will forever remain an acquaintance.

This can be puzzling and downright hurtful, and especially so for Aspies, who, to put it bluntly, live in a world of misunderstandings and frequent rejections. It can be tempting at this point to become angry at the other person, and to take such a blow-off personally — in other words, to condemn the other person and to assume this is a reflection on you personally. To explain why this is not actually a valid or useful response, I will borrow from the teachings of The Big Bang Theory and of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), of which I am a huge fan.

This definitely sucks, but I shall accept it as a social convention.

This definitely sucks, but I shall accept it as a social convention.

First of all, there is no hard-and-fast rule stating that the other person must get together with you simply because you want this to happen (that’s the CBT rational thought, there). NTs are not as direct as Aspies can be (sometimes this is a good thing and is known as “manners”) and will often find a softer way of saying, albeit obliquely, that for whatever reason, they’re not interested in or able to commit to getting together with you at this point.

Second, the whole “we should definitely get together sometime” thing is actually part of a social convention that a lot of NTs follow. This is something I’ve seen often on The Big Bang Theory: Sheldon (arguably an Aspie) is quite often stopped in his argumentative, insist-y tracks by being told that certain things (e.g., the giving of birthday presents, or attending dull faculty wine-and-cheese parties) are simply non-negotiable social conventions and he needs to suck it up and play nice.

In this instance, the use of the words “definitely,” “should,” etc. is the NT’s way of signalling that your social exchange is coming to an end and it’s time for you both to go find someone else to talk to, or change the subject.

The subject of what constitutes an acceptance is a bit more complicated (OK, a lot…) but briefly, for the sake of comparison here, I would say that the suggestion of a date, time, and place (“OK, how about next Thursday at The Wobbly Duck Cafe? Does 2:30 work for you?”) and the exchange of contact information are signs that the other person is interested in furthering your acquaintance. (Needless to say, you can really overthink this, as Sheldon infamously does on the episode called “The Friendship Algorithm.”)

So, your two lessons are: first, know when you’re being blown off. Your clues are the use of the word “definitely” and the presence of any or all of the words “should,” “sometime,” “check it out,” and “try.” This is your cue to stop asking and move on.

Second, know that encountering the dreaded “We should definitely try to get together sometime” is not something you should take personally or use as a cudgel to beat either yourself or the other person. Rather, you are engaging in a social convention in which another person is trying to let you down gently. Let them. And find someone else to have coffee with.


You can definitely over-think the whole friendship thing. Let's try not to do that.

You can definitely over-think the whole friendship thing. Let’s try not to do that.

Vitex: my ticket off the hormone roller coaster

I believe this is a first for me, but… TMI Alert! In this post I will be talking (tactfully but forthrightly) about Women’s Things, namely periods, hormones, and menopause. I will pause a moment and let any gentlemen and uninterested folks leave the room.

Girl talk -- run away! Run away!

Girl talk — run away! Run away!

<Muzak… doo doo doo… Richard Clayderman… dingle dingle, la la….>

OK, everyone ready? Good.

For the last few months I’ve been riding what can only be described as the Roller Coaster from Hell. Or possibly TO hell. Or maybe a combination of the two, endlessly looping from misery to mania to misery and around again.

I’m not known, in the first place, for being even-tempered — this may be partly due to Asperger’s and partly just my nature — but this was beyond the pale. Everything, and I mean everything, was upsetting me — work, leisure time, pets, chores, TV commercials, get-togethers with friends, traffic jams, scary movies, specks of dirt on the hallway floor. Anything at all would send me into either a towering rage or a prolonged bout of gut-wrenching sobs. Often both.

Welcome aboard the Hormone Express.

Welcome aboard the Hormone Express.

For a while I thought I was just having more meltdowns (“Asperger tantrums”) than usual. But it was the sobbing that finally clued me into the fact that there was something else at play here. I am infamously not a crier, except in rare cases like when I watch the episode of Little House on the Prairie where Laura’s dog goes missing, or when I hear the “Humming Chorus” from Madame Butterfly.

I began to wonder if I was seriously depressed, and was considering making a (rare) doctor’s appointment and asking for a course of antidepressants. But as I see her rarely, I knew she’d do a full history, which always (for us girls) includes “When was your last period?” (Guys who are snickering here: may the Gloved Finger of Probing sober you up in a big hurry!)

And so I had a look at my calendar and, to my horror and dismay, noted that the worst “brain hurricanes” seemed to coincide with the significant bits of my menstrual cycle — the actual period, and mid-cycle, or ovulation.

I also noticed that my once regular periods (my doctor used to joke that I could set my watch by them) have become a bit unpredictable — sometimes every 22 days, sometimes 40.

I have been blessed my entire life with periods that are no trouble at all — negligible PMS (easily managed by Evening Primrose Oil), no hemorrhaging half to death or migraines or cramps or any of the myriad miseries many women seem to suffer with the arrival of “Aunt Flo.” My hero, Temple Grandin, suffered terribly with the ups and downs of hormones throughout her life, and I know hormonal cycles are often extremely troublesome for other Aspergian women. Thankfully, not for me. Until now.

This has been fun but I've got to scream now!

This has been fun but I’ve got to scream now!

Needless to say, this turn of events was a huge — and unhappy — surprise. I had always hoped to sail unbothered through menopause, which I’d always looked on as being a somewhat “Western” construct cooked up by Big Pharma (marketing opportunity!) and by women with too much time on their hands and a tendency to whinge.

(On the other hand, Temple Grandin, always a pragmatic thinker, says in her most recent book, The Autistic Brain, that she was  relieved to finally hit menopause and say goodbye to “all that nonsense.” I love that.)

But, alas, it seems “sailing through” is not in the forecast for me. I am, after all, creeping up on 50, and it seems I am not to be spared the joys of perimenopause, which is the precursor to actual full-on menopause and the start of the whole shutting-down-of-the-baby-factory process.

(For those of you with a penchant for languages, peri is from the Greek word meaning “around” or “about,” and menopause is from the Greek meaning “I am homicidal and will rip the limbs off anyone who approaches me.”)

Currently my only issue is the mood swings (“only” as in “only a sucking chest wound”) — although I presume that as time ticks along, my body will begin to go through other changes, such as the notorious hot flashes (currently being enjoyed by my friends J and W, who can now almost literally fry eggs on their foreheads).

Perimenopause forecast: scattered storms and a chance of destruction.

Perimenopause forecast: scattered storms and a chance of destruction.

Long story short, I said “Enough, already!” to the yelling and crying, and headed down to my local wholistic dispensary (yep, I live in that kind of neighbourhood) where I pleaded with them to give me something to help me. The nice man smiled knowingly and said the magic word — Vitex — and sold me a bottle of same.

Vitex sounds like a brand name, but it’s actually from the Latin name of the plant, Vitex agnus-castus, otherwise known as Chasteberry. And the word “Chasteberry” refers to its use centuries ago in monasteries to keep the monks’ sexual drives under control. (I am not making this up!)

There is loads of information about Vitex and its uses, side effects (few), and history on the Internet, and I strongly suggest that you Google the heck out of it before ingesting this — or any other herbal supplement  — and talk to your doctor first. Although herbal supplements and naturopathic remedies are only loosely regulated here in Canada (and thus not taken terribly seriously yet), many preparations have very potent and well-known side effects and interactions, and can really mess you up if you take too much or mix them with another drug you’re on.

For Aspergian women who are taking any sort of anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication (even herbal ones like St John’s Wort), or any kind of hormone therapy — even the birth control pill — it is essential that you speak to your doctor first before considering taking Vitex.

The star of our show.

The star of our show.

Anyway, I’ve been taking these little nuggets of Happy for about three weeks now and they do seem to be helping. I’m familiar with the placebo effect and this is definitely not it: try talking yourself out of a murderous rage or 30 minutes of bawling along to an episode of Roseanne and you’ll see what I mean.

For the first time in months and months, I feel “together” enough to do a bit more socializing, and it’s been more than three weeks since I smacked the crap out of my laptop or the vacuum or that cupboard door that won’t stay shut. I can focus on my work again (honestly, at one point I wondered if I’d had a stroke because I couldn’t hold a thought in my foggy, soggy brain for more than … hey, look! a puppy!). I can watch Star Trek TNG (or the news, or a commercial for lawn fertilizer, come to that) without a box of tissues in my lap (seriously…).

Vitex apparently takes about three months (!) to get fully into your system and be truly effective, but (fingers crossed) so far so good.

Stay tuned for the first week in August, when I’ll crack out the Little House on the Prairie DVDs and perform the ultimate in field testing.

~ A.G.

Field testing: Bring out the big guns, baby.

Field testing: Bring out the big guns, baby.