Simple non-icky vegetable soup

I used to be a very picky eater. Very. Between the age of 9 and 14 I only ate unsweetened yoghurt with granola (but only if it wasn’t too crunchy), spinach (but only if it was finely chopped and no cream added), toast with a kind of carpaccio (but only very thin slices without obvious rims of fat or sinews), and toast with margarine and semi-sweet chocolate sprinkles. I gradually branched out, but by the time I was an adult, the list of things I simply wouldn’t eat was still a mile long.

Only after I moved out and learned how to cook for myself did I start to appreciate foods that I’d never in a million years thought I’d like.

Example: onions. Horrible slithery things. I could always tell them apart from the rest of the food, even in a stir-fry or a stew. Soup was even worse. They seemed to float to the surface, waiting until I put my spoon in, and then ambushing me so I could never have a spoonful of soup without an onion in it.

When I no longer had someone putting onions in my food and telling me I wasn’t allowed to pick them out, I could relax and start to experiment with onions. First by cutting them in really really really tiny pieces. TINY. Cutting up one small onion easily took me 30 minutes. But that was ok. Nobody was staring at me. Nobody was making me eat it. If I didn’t like it, I could throw it out. The pressure was off.

And I found I actually quite liked onions. When they weren’t slithery.

To honour non-slitheryness, here’s my first recipe. It’s a very simple lightly creamy soup with not too much going on, taste or texture wise.

The main problem here is the beef ragout. This is not ragu, as you can probably tell from the picture. It’s a mixture of beef stock, flour, and gelatine. I have no idea whether it’s available in other countries. The reason I added it is to make the soup a bit thicker and creamier so that the contrast with the texture of the vegetables won’t be as big. So you can also use another thickening agent like cornstarch if you have no idea what beef ragout is.

Ingredients

  • 1.5 litres (6 cups) of normal tap water
  • enough powdered stock for 1.5 litres (6 cups) of stock (in my case, 3 tablets)
  • 400 ml (1.5 cups) of beef ragout OR thickening slurry
  • 0.5 courgette (zucchini)
  • knife
  • whisk
  • 2 litre (2 qt.) soup pan

Preparation

If you are going to use a different thickening agent, prepare this first.

  1. Take the soup pan, add the water, and bring it to a boil.20130731_175851
  2. Dissolve the powdered stock in the boiling water. This takes about 5 minutes.
  3. Turn the heat low and add the ragout or slurry.
  4. Stir a bit. Don’t worry about lumps. Keep it simmering on a low heat.
  5. Cut the courgette in slices (as in the picture above).
  6. Stack a couple of slices and cut them in strips. Repeat until all the slices are cut.
  7. Get the whisk and vigorously beat the soup to get rid of lumps.
    If you’re clumsy like me, you might want to turn off the heat first and let the soup cool down a bit before whisking.
  8. Whisk some more. You really don’t want any lumps.
  9. Add the strips of courgette.
  10. Heat up the soup for 2 more minutes. The courgette should be warm but not cooked.

Serves about 4 people. Nice with toast or bread sticks.

The idea behind this soup is that the courgette stays firm instead of becoming gooey and slithery. Also, the strips are easy to see and don’t ambush your spoon. Courgette doesn’t have a very overwhelming taste and the texture is nice when it’s not cooked. At least in my opinion.

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Paying attention

IMPORTANT. READ THIS FIRST.

In this post, I’m going to be looking at biological stuff. After I finished writing, I realised that this could be easily read as advocating for a “cure” for autism. Nothing could be further from what I want to say. I don’t want to be fixed or cured. “Cure” thinking has done and is still doing so much harm to autistic people, that it almost stopped me from publishing this post.

However, I think the link between depression, ADHD, and autism could still do with some examining. Maybe we’re all part of a really broad spectrum. Maybe we’re all differently wired in a similar way. Maybe we can be who we are without feeling horrible or being made to feel horrible about it.

Maybe we aren’t alone.

© fotovika - Fotolia.com

© fotovika – Fotolia.com

In an earlier post, I wrote about how important it is for me to do things that activate my reward centre. I speculated that the lack of achievement in housekeeping was the reason my reward centre wasn’t lighting up with nice juicy dopamine, and so I didn’t have enough motivation to do any regular housekeeping. This is how recreational drugs work, and sex, and food, and any other pleasurable activity: they increase dopamine levels which in turn activate your reward centre.

The reason why I was thinking about rewards and dopamine is because since about the beginning of June, I have been really struggling in several areas of my life. I started a new job after being unemployed for 10 months, I decided to quit smoking, and I got referred to a mental health clinic for an autism diagnosis. Maybe a bit too much to cope with all at once.

But was that all?

Normally I feel pretty damn good whenever I manage to actually do something, even in my bleakest moments. Look, I did the dishes! The rest of the house is still a mess and I haven’t paid the bills in over two months, but screw that, I did the dishes! I’m awesome! Now, that sense of pride seemed oddly muted. Was this depression? It didn’t seem to be, I was feeling very overloaded with work and smoking and autism but not necessarily sad or down. Overwhelmed, unable to deal with sensory stuff, pretty normal for me in that kind of situation. The muted feeling was new.

And then I made a brain leap. That’s how it felt. My brain jumped up and landed in a different spot. A spot labeled “dopamine”.

You see, I was a very heavy smoker. Think 45-50 cigarettes a day. So when I decided to quit, I asked my GP for varenicline because I’d heard good things about it and figured it would be the support I needed in overcoming my dependency. It worked like a charm, the first day I used it I was down to 23 cigarettes and after 5 days I smoked about 8 a day. Instead of 50. And it didn’t cost me ANY effort. I just didn’t feel the need.

How does this work? Well, nicotine, like other addictive drugs, makes your dopamine levels peak. So there’s an instant reward when your nicotine receptor gets activated. Varenicline prevents this reward by making the nicotine receptor less sensitive, and at the same time mimics a low level of dopamine so you don’t go cold turkey.

So I was weaning myself off my dopamine addiction. And lowering my overall dopamine levels.

And suddenly I didn’t like alcohol as much. I didn’t pay my bills. I couldn’t keep my house clean. I hid in my bedroom. I bought things I normally never eat, like crisps and chocolate and cakes. I had a very low threshold for loud noises and bright light. I nearly broke down at the thought of having to take the train to work. I couldn’t focus on my work as easily as I used to do. I began compulsively refreshing my Facebook feed and email and rapidly switching from one browser tab to the next. I started stimming heavily (whereas I could have sworn I didn’t ever stim. Nope. Not me. Not stimmy at all).

I started thinking that maybe there was a blog post in this. So I looked up dopamine on Wikipedia, googled some stuff. And then I stumbled onto this.

We usually think of dopamine as a chemical messenger that is related to things like reward or drug addiction. But more properly, dopamine signaling has to do with salience, how important something should be to you at any given time. Dopamine spikes are associated with the pleasure of drugs or good food or sex, but they also say “PAY ATTENTION TO THIS”.

This is from an article called The Dopamine Side(s) of Depression and it looks at several behavioral studies done with mice to look at how dopamine works. Go read it. It blew my mind.

Because besides the “Pay attention to this” effect – which I’m starting to think could be part of why sensory processing disorders, for example difficulty to filter out background noise, occur so often in autistic people – the research also looked at the role of dopamine in social defeat stress.

You take a normal mouse, and put him into a cage with a bigger mouse. The bigger mouse “owns” that cage. He’s a retired breeder and very aggressive. He will usually launch himself right at the poor intruder mouse, beat him pretty badly, resulting in a “social defeat”. The mice are usually separated very quickly so the larger mouse doesn’t injure the intruder, but the defeated mouse is partitioned off in the case, where the aggressive resident can still threaten and bully the poor guy.

The mice that were given high level dopamine stimulation showed signs commonly seen in 10 day social defeat (less social interaction with other mice, less inclination to engage in pleasurable activities)… after only 2 days.

Let me repeat that for you. The mice that were bullied and beaten up showed signs of depression MUCH FASTER after giving them high levels of dopamine.

Are we on to something here?

Depression. Hyperfocus or the lack of focus. Unable to filter sensory input. Decision making (assigning priorities). Even motor skills are commonly linked to dopamine.

But social behaviour is a new one for me.

Can autistic people simply be part of the large group of people who are differently dopamine-wired?

Kittens!

Kittens. Kittens kittens kittens.

Kittens!

I love saying that word. Kittens!

I’ve been singing the first line from “My Favorite Things” for days. Except that it comes out as “Lala la lala la lala la KITTENS!”

Besides. They’re FLUFFY.

A healthy mind in a tidy house

Time to come clean.

I can’t.

I’m rubbish at keeping my own house clean. That was an unintentional pun, by the way. Coming clean was intentional. Rubbish wasn’t.

I hide my rubbish. I hide this.

The funny thing is, I took these pictures after I’d already vacuumed and mopped the ground floor. I’ve sort of ordered them by progressive messiness. I hadn’t cleaned the ground floor in over two months. Had to do it now, because my dad is coming over to pick up some stuff this Wednesday. Can’t let him see how bad it is. I’m showing it to the internet. Can’t show it to my dad.

(The picture of the cat hair? My entire living room was like that. Upstairs is still like that.)

Another funny thing is that I’m actually pretty good at the physical act of cleaning. I know what to do and how to do it. I was a professional cleaner for two years. Old ladies with a life’s experience of housekeeping gave me compliments on how well I kept their house clean. I’m good at it. And very thorough.

Which is where the autism comes in, I suppose.

Not only do I have problems with executive function, actually getting to the point where I can start cleaning and not overanalysing all the things I need to do and becoming completely paralysed from all the choices involved, I also have a problem with doing a half-arsed job. I look at a household chore and picture what the end result needs to be. And then I want to make that happen. I focus too much on the end result. And with housekeeping that means I usually end up feeling either overwhelmed or like I haven’t accomplished enough.

Because housekeeping is far more about doing a little bit each day and not worrying about getting it “done”.

And I can’t do that. Once I start, I need to finish it. I need to reach that end goal in order to get my dopamine hit. My happy buzz. My sense of achievement. My reward.

So instead, everything about household chores seems designed to make me feel like even more of a failure than I already feel I am.

And that’s when you get those pictures.

There’s two reasons why I can finally be honest about this. Firstly, I hope this will make someone else on the spectrum feel a bit better about their own mess. You’re not the only one. There are many of us who struggle. When you’re struggling, it’s no good beating yourself up about it: you need to find other ways to cope. I’m still working on it, but I think that admitting to myself that I won’t get that satisfaction from cleaning, that I won’t need to do it perfectly because there’s no reward anyway, will help me in that.

Secondly, this is not the worst it’s ever been. The worst would need a trigger warning for contamination OCDs and probably a hazmat suit.

The title “A healthy mind in a tidy house” is a play on the Latin Mens sana in corpore sano, which means a healthy mind in a healthy body. This is taken to mean that a person is only healthy when he is occupied both intellectually and physically.

Update: I’ve managed to make some progress!

Let’s talk cat

I have a friend. His name is Guido. He likes a lot of the same things I do. He also likes to do things that I think are weird. But that’s ok. He probably thinks the same thing about me.

He is a cat which means his brain is quite small. He doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about abstract concepts. But he is very outspoken about things in the here and now. Like give me food. Or let’s snuggle. Or leave me alone. This makes it easy to know what he wants. I never have to guess or worry that he might say one thing but mean something else.

I like being friends with my cat even though our different abilities mean that sometimes it may seem a slightly inequal friendship. I get food for him, clean his litter box, and open doors when he wants to go out. He gives me headbutts and makes me laugh. But I know that he is here because he wants to be, not because he needs me. If anything, I feel slightly bad for wanting him to need me. After all, a cat can hunt his own food. So me choosing food that he can’t get by himself: that is my preferences making him disabled in that area. The same goes for his litter box. Just because I want him to use the litter box doesn’t mean he is less than me for not being able to clean the litter box that I want him to use. We both understand that.

Sometimes people joke about me being “crazy cat lady” for referring to my cat as a person. Which is silly. Because my cat is not a person and I don’t see him as such. He’s a cat. If I pretended he was a person, I’d be denying the things that make him a cat. So. He’s not a person, he’s not my baby, I’m not his mommy. But he is my friend, because he likes spending time with me. How else would you define friendship?

Awkward pose

While researching the second part of my yoga post, I came across a list of yoga poses that mentions “utkatasana” or Awkward Pose. Awkward. No kidding. That brings me to what happened after I overslept for my first yoga class.

After going through all the trouble of buying sports clothes, I wasn’t going to waste my momentum. So I planned a new appointment in the evening, figuring that would make it harder to oversleep (well, unless I was going to take a nap after work). Again, I was so grateful for not having to call but being able to simply book online. I probably would have had to rehearse the phone call in my head about 5 times before being able to call. If I would have done it at all. I know other people don’t show up for appointments too. But I have this rigid rule in my head that says it’s simply NOT OK and that’s why I need to have an excuse and sleeping late is not a socially acceptable excuse and oh my god ANXIETY. So, it felt good to avoid all that.

Tuesday evening arrives and I make my way down to the yoga studio. When I step in, there’s a big sign saying “no shoes” and an arrow pointing to an area next to the reception desk. There are other shoes sitting there. Good, I like clear instructions and this gives me something to do while I take stock of my surroundings. A white cellar with a round, low ceiling and no windows. This is the sort of location the city is famous for and it definitely has its charms, although in all likelihood it’s going to be very hot on this summer evening.

Example of medieval cellar (photo by Puur* events)

I say to the woman manning the desk that I’ve come for my first lesson, she tells me to go ahead and pick a spot. At the back I notice some people so I walk over there thinking maybe one of them will look like they could be the teacher. No, they are changing into different clothes and putting their bags in lockers, so I copy their behaviour. When I’m done doing that I turn around and notice nearly all the yoga mats are now occupied. I start getting a little bit anxious because I don’t know what is acceptable behaviour in a yoga class. Should I take the nearest mat? Does everyone have a favourite spot? Where is the teacher? What should I do? How can I avoid offending people?

As I slowly walk between the mats, trying not to bump into people doing yogaish stuff (meditating?), I notice that even the mat that I’d sort of picked out has a towel lying on it. Oh bugger. Full panic now. And then I do something that I’m still awfully proud of: I walk back to the reception desk and say to the woman: “I’m sorry but I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. I have an autistic spectrum disorder and new situations make me anxious. Could you help me get started?” GO ME! You’ll have to imagine the flat voice, slight stutter and frowny face for yourself. However, she immediately says, “No problem! Come along, I’ll walk with you to the back where you can get your own yoga mat and then we’ll find a spot for you where you’re comfortable and can see what I’m doing.” So I guess she’s the teacher then. GO HER! This is all kinds of awesome.

During the yoga class I have several more moments where I get a bit overwhelmed, especially when the instructions are very verbal (like “stretch your left hand, bend your right knee, twist your body to the right while stretching out your right hand behind you and then twist your head to the left”. OK, I lost you at stretch your left hand. Which side is left again?). During the sun salutation, a classic flow of yoga poses that I used to love doing as a child, the instructions follow each other so rapidly that I freeze completely. But then I remember. This is yoga. It doesn’t matter if I can’t do it perfectly. I’ll get there in my own time. Breathe. Find a pose that works for my body, instead of frantically trying to figure out what everyone else is doing. Breathe. Stretch. Breathe. I wait out the sun salutations and start participating again when the class moves to the next pose.

At the end of the class, I’m very dizzy so I don’t get up when everyone else does. I’ll get there in my own time. I think this is the most valuable lesson yoga can teach me. The muscle control, the workout, and the stretching are just a bonus. And even with my imperfect execution, I already feel like the child I used to be, just enjoying the movement. Now I just need to find a tree to climb.

Update: apparently the best tree for tree-climbing is in Wallington, Northumberland (UK).

Downward-facing dog

When I was young, my next door neighbour taught me how to do yoga. It was so much fun, especially getting into the flow of it, making each movement follow out of the previous one. I felt flexible and limber and not so clumsy anymore. Who cared that I was rubbish at sports like field hockey and volleyball and couldn’t even hit a baseball with a flat training bat? At least I could do yoga, and do it well.

But then something happened. I became an adult. And somewhere along the way, I stopped doing all the things that I thought were fun as a child. Hanging from tree limbs. Collecting stamps. Drawing fictional blueprints. Yoga.

I spent years telling myself that yoga was a perfectly acceptable thing for an adult to do. It was very hip. People were talking about it. All I needed to do was sign up for a class. Errrr… maybe next week. In the meantime, I could reap the benefits of having done yoga in the past. When I’d fallen down the stairs and had to have my spine and hips realigned, my physical therapist commented on my amazing breath control (I was breathing through the pain). I could also get up to all sorts of adventures in the sack (I could put my feet in my neck, ha!).

So now I’m 36, and working on my autistic spectrum diagnosis. It’s a rough road, full of surprises. Most of them are instantly recognisable and acceptable, this is how I am, this makes sense. Some are harder. And somewhere along the way, I came across an article that mentioned yoga and its benefits to people on the spectrum, especially with strengthening muscle control. So yes. I need to start doing yoga again. Never mind that my executive function right now is whimpering and hiding underneath the bed. I look for the nearest studio and they have online reservations (yay! I don’t have to call!), so I sign up for a class in two days. I also mention that I have ASD and that they can give away my spot if I don’t show up because it’s sometimes hard for me to keep appointments (the simplified version for neurotypical people).

The next day I start panicking because I haven’t managed to do the laundry for about a month. Showing up for a yoga class in dirty clothes is probably not ok. I can’t think of whether there’s anything clean in my wardrobe that’s suitable. So I decide to go out and buy myself some yoga clothes. That stops the panicking. I’ll have something to wear without having to do last-minute laundry.

(Which turns into frustration when I get to the sports clothes store and there’s no clear division between the different kinds of clothes. Training jackets and shirts and sweatpants and tennis shorts and tank tops all hang haphazardly next to each other. And there’s nothing that says “men” or “women”. I’m lost. I know exactly what I need, but where do I find it? This store doesn’t make sense. In the end, I spend about 2 hours going up and down the 3 floors trying to locate stuff. And nearly melting down with anger because after 45 minutes trying on different sizes of sports bra, it turns out that my assumption of my regular bra size being too small was wrong. The first bra I tried on was not a 34D like it said on the hanger. It didn’t fit because it was a 30B. That sort of thing drives me nuts.)

Anyway. Despite my executive functioning crisis, I have an appointment for a yoga class, and I have things to wear to yoga class. I’m feeling pretty proud of myself. The class starts at 9:30am the next morning, so I make sure to set my alarm for 7:30am, giving me time to wake up properly and get myself started.

So of course I oversleep.

Read on for Awkward pose – part II of my yoga adventures!